Baby Steps….

The daily newspapers bring nothing but depression to the reader these days and it is difficult to shake off the sense of unhappiness which is the aftermath. So like any good escapist, I do my best to avoid reading the Times of India, flung to the doorstep each morning by the newspaperman.

I pretend that there is nothing wrong with the little urban cocoon that I inhabit.

But on some days, it becomes difficult to continue being an escapist.

The other day,  the newspaper carries a story about a fourteen-year old girl, who was sold into prostitution by her parents, because apparently, they had no other means to subsist. It is reported that she was raped by eight men in a single night, four of whom were students of an unnamed Engineering College. This happened in no godforsaken hinterland of India, but  in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, the Indian city I live in.

It is all the more shocking because Ahmedabad had always been a conservative city; ancient and graceful.

The same edition also carries more “cheerful” news of an old woman being clobbered to death at her home by thieves who then stole her gold ornaments, a refinery fire- carefully edited, I am sure, regarding the number of casualties, a staged suicide of a young woman, the results of a survey which says that  a whopping 41% of Indian women face violence of some sort before they turn eighteen and details of arrests at a con call center, here in Ahmedabad, from where calls were placed to unsuspecting  Americans who had defaulted on their loan paybacks.

All this is too close for comfort. And the International news is yet to be read!

I wonder what has happened to that voice, that small, still inner voice, clearly distinguishing right from wrong, truth from falsehood, which most of us know as our conscience. How has it been silenced on such a grand scale? Has it been so consistently ignored that it has lost heart and has fallen silent?

Most people shrug and go on with their ordinary everyday lives. So did I once; but now, it is becoming more and more impossible to ignore the unhappiness, sorrow and callousness happening all around .

There is not much that one person of no particular significance can do; but there is indeed something- mindfulness and meditation.

I hold all these wounded, wronged people and our Great Mother Earth, the most wounded of all- in my thoughts. And sit on the  olive green mat and breathe. And watch the monkey mind- see it get bored, run from one disjointed thought to the next, replay scenarios, prepare sarcastic come-backs, worry about someone’s silence or someone else’s words…. And then gently bring it back to the breath. And try to stay in Metta- Loving Kindness- radiating it to all in need.

No hermit in the Himalayas this; just an ordinary  householder, mired in Samsara, with all the associated householder worries. Yet, trying with baby steps to practise mindfulness in action, it feels like coming home; it feels like living and not just existing.

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(Image courtesy: Pixabay)

Rolling out rotis on the floured wooden board, a daily and mundane task, I see the board as if for the first time. It is carved from a single block of teak wood, the trunk maybe, and notice the patterns of the wood and watch the slim rolling pin go back and forth, back and forth, in my hands. Washing and chopping vegetables, I observe their form, texture and scent and feel the steel knife cutting them into fine, coarse, large or small pieces, depending on what is being cooked for the day.

I make it into a ritual, holding in my heart, with gratitude, the individuals whose efforts have gone into the preparation of this meal.

Sorting the bitter Fenugreek leaves, picking the leaves from their stalks, I am amazed by their symmetry, nothing short of divine; the pattern in which the leaves grow is identical in each stem. And the same holds good for the fresh Coriander and Mint leaves too, which release their scent  first in the small kitchen and then to the entire house…

It is not easy, the mind has a thousand more interesting things to which it wants to attach itself.

While washing up the vessels piled in the sink. I try to see them individually; the old cast iron, round bottomed wok, one of the  legacies of the trade relations that the Chinese had with my part of the world more than six hundred years ago, [this cast iron wok is an indispensable component of the kitchen of any Kerala woman; manufactured locally, but still known by its ancient name- Cheena- Chatti, (Chinese Vessel). It has two more cousins in our language;  Cheena Bharani (Chinese jar) and Cheena Vala (Chinese fishing net)], the dented, temperamental stainless steel pressure cooker, the Corelle bowls, with bluebells winding endlessly around them…

This exercise, it anchors the mind in the present moment- briefly!

But the monkey mind is quite the expert in giving the slip. Yet, I am glad that some progress has been made.

This is quite open to criticism; that the world is not going to suddenly turn into a better place, just because a few people may pray, practise mindfulness or sit meditating randomly.

But just consider the possibility- all these practices refine the self and transform us into more aware individuals. They make it easier for us to stay in kindness, to understand and stay in integrity, to recognise the Divine in every being and to be honest- both to our own selves as well as others.

Reading the mystic, Eknath Easwaran, I remember being introduced to three questions  which need to be asked to the Self before we speak- Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

Imagine how different a place the world would be if there were to be if a critical mass of people were to practise Metta and mindfulnes? And were kinder to each other? And if that small, still, silent voice was audible again in each human heart?

Thoughts on the Undiscovered Country

Sometimes I wonder about things; not minor ones like what to cook for dinner, whether I need to shop for vegetables today, how to explain algebra to my little son who freezes up when faced with Maths or even about things left undone at work over the weekend and vice versa. But rather about slightly weightier issues, like life and death and if this is really life, what we are experiencing. Sometimes I feel that there is a flimsy veil in front of my eyes and try to see beyond it.

The feeling is that there is a wealth of knowledge- just beyond my reach, if only I could pierce this veil.

Each of us identify with ourselves- we have a concept of the self; but when we realise that we are not really the person who was last year, or five years ago or twenty five years ago, then we are forced to confront the question- Who is this I, ever-changing yet unchanging? What am I doing? Where am I going?

It was a long time later I came face to face with the concept and method of self enquiry introduced by Ramana Maharshi- question the speaker, Who wants to know?

 

It is only in search of answers and the resulting travel into the inner realms that I attempt to understand, however faintly, what I came here to learn. 

 

One of these concepts is that of death- feared, abhorred, evaded. But have not so many sages from many different cultures spoken, in different words, about the same experience? I am but stepping from one room to the other. Like we discard soiled clothes, the soul discards the body and wears a fresh one. To learn whatever is left to learn, to move on. Wordsworth, when he spoke of “our birth is but a sleep and forgetting?”

 

Rather than a topic to be avoided, death is to be welcomed, for it is our gateway into what the spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran calls the Undiscovered Country. While moving houses, I was forced to discard or pack away almost all of the books I owned in those pre-Kindle days. But this slim volume has accompanied me along the Tropic of Cancer from the West to the East of India. Metaphoric, in a way, as in what can we really carry away with us when we die? Not our possessions, not our family; perhaps the self-less love in our hearts? 

 

There is a profound story in the Mahabharata, when Yudhishtira, the eldest Pandava, is posed a series of questions by a crane. The crane, who is none other than the God of Death/Truth in disguise, asks, “What is the most surprising thing in this life?” Without missing a beat, Yudhishtira replies, “That although a man may see people dying everyday, he never thinks that he will die.”

 

And remember what the Buddha said- “Better a single day of life, seeing the reality of arising and passing away, than a hundred years of existence remaining blind to it”.

 

I certainly do not claim to have the answers, nor is this post a nihilistic way of looking at life. But, in these days, when almost all religions teach divisions between us and them, (far away from the teachings of their founders, may I add?) if we could just remain aware that we are all part of the same creation, the same stardust, and that when we leave, as we most certainly would, we would leave with empty hands, then would not things be different? For achieving this, the first port of call would be to search for the truth in our hearts instead of depending on someone else to provide us their version of it!