10/01/2013 05:41 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

How Buying a Mattress Taught Me About Sikhism - And Family Values

I went to buy a mattress the other day. When I walked into the store I was greeted by a handsome young man, well-dressed in a suit and tie. After I made the big decision and was arranging payment and delivery plans I asked Leo, that's his name and I know because I make a point of asking the names of people I meet, about his background.

Leo is Indian. He's lived in Canada about 20 years. He faced a great deal of racism when he was a kid. Lots of scars on his face to prove it. I am always interested in learning more about religion so I asked him if he were a Hindu or Sikh. And from there I had a wonderful lesson on the Hindu/Sikh relationship, the rituals and customs, the symbols. And I learned a lot about Leo and his family.

Sikhism is less than 500 years old and yet there are already 23 million Sikhs world-wide. The founder, Guru Nanak, was born on 1469 and spread a beautiful message: "We are all one, created by the One Creator of all Creation." His vision was of one God and many paths.

The message sounds simple enough but it must be taken in context to realize how revolutionary it was for at that time India was being torn apart by castes, sectarianism, religious factions, and fanaticism. What I find most beautiful is the name of God:Truth; "Sat Nam." How difficult, today, to live up to the expectations of the God named Truth. What is Truth? Is it an absolute or something flexible? How will we know Truth when we hear it or see it? And who will defend Truth?

Hindus say that the Sikh Guru Gobind Singh, the last Guru of the Sikhs in human form, created the Khalsa, a spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood devoted to purity of thought and action. The men were charged with protecting the Hindus from the tyranny of the Mughals.

Many Sikhs wear the kesh, kangha, kara, kachcha and kirpan, outward symbols of internal beliefs:

Kesh -- uncut hair and beard, as given by God, to sustain him or her in higher consciousness; and a turban, the crown of spirituality; Kangha -- a wooden comb to properly groom the hair as a symbol of cleanliness; Katchera -- specially made cotton underwear as a reminder of the commitment to purity; Kara -- a steel circle, worn on the wrist signifying bondage to Truth and freedom from every other entanglement; Kirpan -- the sword, with which the Khalsa is committed to righteously defend the fine line of the Truth.

Leo took the time to share stories with me about his family. He and his brother celebrated their marriages one day apart. Having participated in my children's weddings, I was amazed. Why didn't the two of you marry on the same day? Oh no, my mother insisted that we each have our own wedding day!

Leo's mother had introduced him to his wife. They married two years later. He liked the fact that his mother found his wife for him. He trusts her judgement. He loves the fact that he has an extended family, including his uncles and cousins, to whom he can turn for advice. So not what we in the West practice! And he said that the family helps when there is discord because there is always someone older and wiser, more experienced to shine a light on any problem. He has the greatest respect for his family.

We have lost that here in the West. We yearn to grow up and move away from our family and be independent; disconnected from our extended family. It's rare to call an uncle, an aunt, a parent for advice. Instead we go online and read blogs, written by strangers and for some strange reason we believe their advice is far more sound than those who have known us all our lives.

As I was leaving the store, Leo asked me if I ever watch people on a bus. How they don't talk to each other. I said you mean they are on their hand-held devices? No. They just sit in their own space. They don't talk to each other, different cultures and ethnicities; they just sit there. Silent.

And I realized that when I went to buy a mattress I learned more about our common humanity than about mattresses. We tend to live in our own cocoon. Isolated in the midst of a crowd even though we are social beings, meant to connect. We put up barriers to separate ourselves from others-because they look different. Leo asked why we don't talk to each, engage each other and find out what we have in common. In a country that prides itself on pluralism, that's a great question. We won't discover the common values shared by citizens blessed from birth to be Canadian and those who are blessed with the opportunity to choose to be Canadian if we don't talk to each other.

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