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Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

Opening to India

I’ve finally, after a series of mishaps, made it to India. Possibly the setbacks were there to hone my patience and perseverance, to ready me for the trials to come.

India is a pungent teacher of patience and fortitude. Her revolutions move in mysterious convolutions that defy logic. Not unlike the winding alleyway to my hotel that confuses me in it’s curving path that veers in many directions that all ultimately lead to the same place. Being lost. In order to find. India teaches that. To lose yourself – your notions, truths, ideals, beliefs. Just let them all go, at least suspend them while traipsing within her perimeter. Not judging nor expecting, but rather observing, accepting. And feeling how fluently that moves in the psyche as compared to the way biases find places in our minds and bodies to latch onto and cause turmoil.

In some ways, India is like another home. There’s a familiarity of myself here. It’s the rawness of life that resonates with me, in its myriad forms – beautiful, grotesque, otherworldly. The systematic stripping away of distractions and compulsions; attachments that keep us from being fully present.

India wasn’t a lifelong dream for me, or a place that I felt drawn to. But one day in a hospice training, with the question posed – “What would you do with your life if you had one year to live?” – I heard myself answering, “I’d go to India”. I cannot really say where that answer came from; maybe I threw it out there because it sounded so outlandish. And wouldn’t we want do something completely out-of-character and crazy if we knew that we were on our way out? Our one last hurrah that would float us above the pain in the final moments.

Nine months after making that proclamation – long enough for the idea to gestate – I was in India. And totally out of my zones that shield and comfort me. Nearly the moment that I touched ground, ghosts starting coming out of my closet, one-by-one, surrounding and taunting me. Without the safety net of distractions, they made themselves visible and were not easily placated. India does that. Shows us where our suffering lies.

She shows us her suffering as well. I remember the odd looks and inquiries I received from the participants in the hospice training, wanting to know why on earth I’d choose to spend my final days immersed in a place of such great suffering. I still get that – people wanting to know, why India?

The only way I can answer is, in suffering, in our own or being a witness to it, there is an opening that occurs. That opening can consume or liberate us. Or both. Consume, then liberate. And just at the moment that we think we’ve been liberated, the consumption starts again. The suffering doesn’t just end, even when we beg it to. But I have learned that to observe it, allow myself to feel it, hold it, accept it, I can then let go of it. Not completely since our wounds leave scars, but enough to help me out of the fire and into the awareness of the lesson, that will, when I am ready, appear and show me a way through to the other side.

Namaste from India!

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It’s hard to say what made Benares, said to be the oldest of all cities, feel so otherworldly. But I imagine it had something to do with the Ganges River, and the Sadhus who were there after the Kumbh Mela celebration had ended in the neighboring city of Allahabad.

Benares, also called Varanasi, is referred to as the ‘city of death’. Some migrate to the banks of the Ganges as they approach old age so their ashes will become part of the river, hoping to avoid rebirth. It is purported that to have the Ganges as one’s final resting place removes them from the cycle of earthly incarnation. Old, withered widows line the narrow streets of the Ghats, arms outstretched shaking their metal bowl, begging for alms.

As I sat on the bank of the Ganges in a world that I was sure must have been a figment of my elaborate imagination, or perhaps a dream, I wondered, what is this life about. Why are we here? Why was I in this place? The only answer that came, each time that I’d ask, was that I allow myself to fully see and feel the suffering, open my heart to it, and endeavor to help alleviate it, in whatever small way that I can. And though small it may seem, it is important to remember that each of our deeds is like a drop in the Ganges that makes up a mighty river that carries souls to heaven/nirvana.

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It was Ayurveda that first took me to India. I had a certification in Ayurvedic healing, but wanted to learn more about pancha karma, a system of five therapies that help to cleanse and rejuvenate the body by removing impurities that cause disease.

After months of scouring the internet to find someone whom I could apprentice with, I enlisted the assistance of a doctor in Jaipur. Although he had not trained an apprentice before, he was eager to teach me what he knew. My plan was to study with him for three months, to work closely by his side in the clinic everyday.

Initially, I was excited to be a part of the staff. I counseled the English-speaking patients on dietary matters (my doctorate is in nutrition), helped make herbal tablets, and wrote articles for the doctor’s newsletter. I also advised the doctor on ways to improve his practice since I had experience in business management.

There were a couple of problems that thwarted my efforts, however. The first was that only a few of the doctor’s patients came to the clinic for pancha karma. It was a more expensive route, but also one that demanded more diligence on the part of the patient, so most requested medicine instead. Whenever one of the patients received pancha karma, I helped administer the treatment, but I knew I’d need a more comprehensive program to give me the experience to open my own clinic.

The other issue, though not as central, was the language barrier. If the patient and I did not speak one another’s language, I did not participate in their consultation, which meant missing out on learning about maladies and remedies. So, on some days there were several hours with nothing to do but sit in the lobby and study from books.

It was likely during my downtime at the clinic that I had the epiphany that working in the healthcare field no longer appealed to me. It came as a bit of a shock. I had devoted many years to my education towards work that I was passionate about.

It was a combination of things that led me to this awareness, most notably being in a country like India. It was not only the magnitude of suffering that I witnessed, it was the way that India messed with my mind. It forced open my eyes, magnified my myopia, pettified my personal drama. Of course, suffering is a global phenomena. I saw it firsthand in my work in the field of mental illness and addiction. Many of the patients, destitute and homeless, struggle and suffer on a near continual basis. And it wasn’t India, per se, that opened my eyes, but rather being away from home and in a country where I was devoid of my comforts. With nothing to insulate me from the outside world, which was both foreign and at times fragmenting to the point of exhaustion, it allowed an opening to occur.

Another realization I had was that malnourishment, the primary cause of disease, was deeper than the physical body, yet this was the level that I was primarily working with people on in trying to effect change. The realization came to me when counseling patients who were willing to follow the prescribed diet, but only until their symptoms abated. They saw no other reason to eat healthy than to alleviate a health condition. While this thinking was common in patients I had worked with in my practice, seeing it in a different country and culture taught me it is an endemic problem. I saw that the unwillingness or lack of desire to nourish ourselves was a symptom of something deeper.

I was also particularly disturbed by the unwarranted amount of power one of the patients attributed to the advice I had given her. It was the ‘doctors are god’ syndrome that too many patients have; a disempowering stance that keeps people dependent on the idea that the medical system can ‘fix’ them. That bothered me. As did the way the doctor looked – bored and dissatisfied – sitting behind his desk prescribing pills. While the pills were herbal, it was still an allopathic approach to healing that I did not practice, nor one that I was willing to adopt when patients insist on a magic bullet.

One morning I woke up and realized that I was in India! Yet day after day I was sitting in the clinic, not getting the benefit of what I had come to learn. I decided to discontinue my apprenticeship, cut my trip in half, but not before traveling north to the foothills of the Himalayas.

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