The Road to the Life I Always Desired
by Tia Pleiman
My journey to Auroville began in the winter of 2006. It was my second trip to India that same year. The first was planned, and it was in the North. The second trip, specifically to Auroville, was literally a “sending”… meaning I felt I was sent.
At that time, I was living in the Rocky Mountain state of Colorado in the southwest of the United States, near the beautiful Sangre de Cristo peaks.
And there I owned and operated a Community Art Center and a creativity-based pre-school called the Creative Playhouse. Among the regularly scheduled activities was a weekly knitting group I led called “Stitch and Bitch”.
One of the participants was a good friend and the parent of one of the children in my Pre-school. One day, while we were talking about my upcoming trip to India, she announced directly to me:
“My sister-in- law, Bhavana, lives in an international, spiritual community on the beach in South India, and you belong there” … and there it went!
So directly after my first trip to India up North in the Spring of 2006, I booked my second for December 2006 – to Auroville. It would be a shorter one for I was running a school and a business and the trip needed to be confined to our holiday break.
The trip went seamlessly – my taxi was there waiting for me at the airport and it took me directly to Center Guest House. I arrived at 3 am and I awoke just a very few short hours after, if that, to blaring Temple music. Breakfast in the dining room was filled with a United Nations of guests. To this day, I still have friends from this very first visit and the Center Guest House.
Well the trip went almost seamlessly since my suitcase didn’t arrive with me, and only a week later it was delivered! But that was OK because I went to the Visitors Center and shopped for some fabulous clothing, shampoo, etc to hold me over. (Anyway it wasn’t a big deal, since in India and Auroville I could easily do without many of the Western items I had packed).
And also that same first day, I met a guest, a long-term, long-time returning guest, Shirley. Shirley did volunteer teaching at Isai Abalam school, and when she found out that I was an art therapist/educator, she invited me come along. This was one of my main desires and intentions – to work with village kids.
And by the second or third day in Auroville, I was doing art with village kids in an Auroville outreach school!!
During that first week I also took a multi-day bicycle tour with Ross and Lola. I am the happiest on a bicycle so I was in cycle-path heaven. This was the clincher. I was blown away and I had fallen in love … with Auroville!
But I had so many questions, and Auroville literally did not make sense to me … the economy, the hows and how-tos, how did people live, work? did they go back and forth to their mother country? How was this all created and who created it? So many questions!
Also I couldn’t pronounce Matrimandir, and I didn’t understand what it was and why it was so big and gold. I was in love with Auroville, the dream, the concept, the multi-culturalism, but I had not any idea of how it worked. Still I just KNEW, this was the place I had been looking for my entire life.
At this very early stage of my first visit, I still hadn’t been introduced to The Mother and Sri Aurobindo (not literally, but contextually). I didn’t get to go inside the Matrimandir, but I did for the Petals … where I was immersed in color. Being an artist and art therapist, this was beyond anything I ever had experienced. Each color had a “quality” and there was a symbol for each.
The “12 Qualities Symbol” and the colors and their significance, was my introduction to The Mother and it developed from there. I had visited the local bookstores and came across the book “The Spiritual Significance of Flowers” based on the meanings given by The Mother.
This was all too much – the colors and their spiritual significance, the flowers and their spiritual significance, my two dearest passions…. this was my connection, my introduction to the Mother. What a deeply personal and significant connection it was for me! It reinforced the belief that I belonged here.
My introduction to Sri Aurobindo was equally significant but initially just on a professional level. I was an educator as well as an art therapist and my view of education and how to educate children was so incredibly different from the usual American public school experience. Personally, I had never done well in standard schools, never flourished, and was invisible and under-performing. But in high school there was an alternative program and I had even threatened to drop out of school if I couldn’t attend it. So attend it I did.
Within the Alternative School L.I.F.E. Project that I then in fact attended (Learning in a Free Environment) instruction was individualized, varied, and creative with intellectual teaching and learning, a multi-modality and child-led approach. The teachers were both teachers and mentors and I was allowed and encouraged to be a unique individual. My love of learning was encouraged, and I flourished – all this for the first time in all my years in the standardized public school experience – and this when I was almost ready to start university! The LIFE Project was well-named because it really changed my life.
So when I read about Integral Education and the Psychic Being I was, yet again, blown away by Auroville for this community not only provided the creative, spiritual, multicultural, and environmental qualities of the life I desired, but it now encapsulated through Sri Aurobindo, the educational framework I felt was essential for raising and educating children.
Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Education was one of the vehicles that expanded and transformed me and my Art therapy practice into my next evolutionary phase, personally, professionally and philosophically.
During my two and a half week initial visit and love-fest in Auroville, I visited schools within Auroville and outreach ones as well, community programs and projects, the Play of Painting Studios (which I later became trained in), and also began volunteering, facilitating integral art at New Colors, an after-school program in Edyanchavady. I also went regularly to Repos Beach (which no longer exists due to climate-change erosion) and I visited Pondicherry.
When I left, I was already pining for my return. I was so inspired! and my visit to Auroville reinforced the feelings I had concerning how small my life was in the US, and how much my spiritual, creative, inter-personal, community, cultural and multi-cultural needs were not being met.
So over the next several years, I continued to make regular short visits and volunteered, facilitating Integral Art at Aikiyam school, an Auroville Outreach school in Kuilappalayam, and continued the same at New Colors. I was in tune with Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Education philosophy, which I combined with Art Therapy, and I referred to what I was implementing with children as “Integral Art”.
At Aikiyam, there was another art teacher, who taught “traditional” art, so very different from my creative facilitation. Happily, Shankar, the principal, embraced our different styles and philosophies.
Upon my next return back, he provided me with a separate art room, and the students enjoyed two types of art, the “traditional” with Ramalingam and Integral Art with me.
In 2010, I made the big move to Auroville. I lived in Protection at the Aikiyam teacher housing, and worked in Kuilappalayam. I loved the school, the school community and Kuilappalayam itself. Shortly after this return, I began my training with several Play of Painting facilitators and eventually opened a Play of Painting studio right next to Aikiyam at the New Creation school.
I began to inquire about the joining-Auroville process. Until then I was on a tourist visa as a volunteer, had my volunteer card and housing and all was fine. But for the long term, everyone made it sound like “becoming Aurovillian “, was the only route.
I attended a Newcomer orientation group which lasted several days and took place at the Tibetan Pavilion among different places, getting to meet different people in Auroville. It was fascinating, and provided me with a more in-depth understanding of how Auroville works. I still have friends from that group as well, some completing the process and becoming Aurovillians, and others choosing to remain as volunteers staying long term and going out every 6 months for their visa, or coming yearly for a several months. Auroville continues to be a place to meet a wide variety of people who stay long term or just for visiting.
My life in Auroville was exactly what I had desired – I was facilitating creative development, personal self-expression, social/emotional learning and creative literacy of village children of all ages, in my own art room at Aikiyam School and doing art in the keet hut at New Colors, and eventually, within Auroville at Deepanam School with Auroville kids.
I swam at La Piscine, went to the beach, attended an ongoing menu of cultural events, took Tamil lessons, and visited sites around Tamil Nadu such as Mahabalipuram, and Tiruvannamalai, and other places in India. I loved the seasonal festivals and celebrations, and above all, village life.
I went back to the US during American summertimes to run art camps and make money to bring back to India. That was always a concern for almost everyone in Auroville and was a curiosity that I’d had from the beginning. How did people survive financially? The maintenance was sufficient (almost) for Auroville, but not to enable any form of travel or anything outside of the essentials for living. It turns out that lots and lots of people leave regularly to work, or have created working units through which they have some income.
My life went on with regularity and tremendous joy – although with some periods of darkness thrown in – until 2015.
I had not yet become an Aurovillian although I had fulfilled the entire checklist. Housing was a big hurdle and at that time, which no longer is the case, you had to “buy” a place or put down several lakhs towards a place. On the good side, I had been gifted the amount by a very generous friend … but at the same time, over a period of years I had been subjected to severe bullying, even terrorized, by one Aurovillian (thankfully no longer there), and had had enough.
And just at that time, someone from the Delhi Sri Aurobindo Ashram offered me the opportunity to go up north to Madhuban, their Retreat Center in the Himalayas, to work with village children in a series of schools. I visited it – it was absolutely beautiful, and the Ashram, the children, and the school were friendly and welcoming. I shifted from Auroville to Madhuban in the Spring of 2015 where I stayed a year.
I then returned to the US to pursue a clinical mental health counseling degree I had always wanted in order to expand my therapy services, and to get experience in community mental health. After completing my degree and gaining valuable experience in community mental health, I decided to return to Auroville in 2020, five years after leaving. I missed it, everything about it. Then COVID and lockdown happened. After a too-long COVID delay, I returned to Auroville in February 2022. I approached Entry and they welcomed my return and re-entry into the Newcomer process with open arms.
I must say, this second time around becoming a Newcomer is 100% different in every way … friendlier, more welcoming, and the process is more streamlined. Housing options are more varied, and you don’t need to “buy” – you can house share, rent, stay at guest houses, etc., as long they are in Auroville with Aurovilians.
In spite of the current turbulent atmosphere (I stay far away from any toxic politics), the Newcomer and re-entry process has been nothing but positive and re-affirming, that this is where I want to be … and in spite of the current crisis period that Auroville is now facing, the Auroville I fell in love with over the years, is still the Auroville I love.
I felt as if, the new and improved me, took off where I had left off, but bigger, better, stronger, clearer. I found long-term housing, began providing Integral art with village kids at Kuilai Creative Center in Kuilappalayam.and was invited to join the mental health team, Maatram. I also began work at AuroOrchard Organic Farm for my own mental health.
I am back in the village that I love, Kuilappalayam, including with an art therapy and counseling studio in Aurelec!
The Mother named Sunflowers (botanical name “Helianthus) “Consciousness Turned Towards the Light” and explained “It thirsts for Light and cannot live without it.” I consider it my Soul Flower.
And so on my front door I’ve painted one and it welcomes all who come!
Auroville, November 2022