Monthly Archives: January 2017

Beyond Wrongdoing and Rightdoing

We meet many people  as we go through life – some we instantly click with and remain friends until one of us passes on; some we do not click with at all and hope to never meet again; some who are acquaintances but not real friends, some who are casual friends without any deeper connection.

Saddest are those relationships where there was once a true bond that for some reason has been severed. It could be any number of reasons: one person committed actions or said words in the heat of the moment; one person wished for a certain action to happen from the other but it never did and the person felt let down; or they both said and did things that were not well thought out.

Or it could be that third parties intervened to sever that bond – either by spreading canards about one person to the other to sever the relationship, or it could be a person’s possessive spouse or other relative who came in between two friends or siblings and made it a choice between themselves and the friend/sibling. We often see brother-sister relationships compromised when the brother gets married to an insecure woman. The insecure spouse tries her best to isolate the brother from his sister, and loving bonds of a lifetime are compromised. The brother may continue to love the sister and vice versa but they will never be allowed to bond in the future, because it has become an either/or situation or is presented as one.

Conversely, sometimes birth families get insecure with the entry of the spouse and never allow a spousal relationship to work – they intrude so much into the person’s marital life that such a life becomes impossible to sustain, and is eventually lost (painful is the situation where the couple has a child, who is an innocent caught in such cross-currents). The spouses may feel love for each other but aren’t allowed to bond because one spouse is too attached to their birth family and doesn’t have the strength to stand up to them.

Relationship severance caused by the third party involves two things: an insecure third party who works to break up the relationship, and a person who is not strong enough to balance relationships and draw boundaries on acceptable behavior.

Sometimes things don’t go as far as marriage – a couple in love breaks up before taking that step. The love can be strong and steadfast but there can never be a shared future because of differences that can never be bridged….

No matter what the root cause of an estrangement is, the estrangement happened. And barring a few cases where the erstwhile loved ones are able to reconcile  (or they are able to stand their ground and not allow a third party to come between them), the estrangement can never be undone in this lifetime.

***

What of the love that once was, though? That true bond that caused one to feel instant delight in seeing the other, and eagerly look forward to the next meeting? That bond that has so much shared history, and a connection beyond words? A connection forged out of intuiting the other’s needs and giving freely from the heart, that is now  lost? A bond that felt like a vital part of oneself….

Unless one is a person of extremes who can go from absolute love to absolute hate and steadfastly remain there, the relationship is buried deep in one’s heart in the form of a love and a yearning, as if for a phantom limb. Even if it is a person of extremes, they are probably hiding the pain of their loss in anger, believing that the anger will be their protective shield against being that vulnerable ever again.

Nothing and no one can replace the missing person in life. They played an important role in shaping us to be who we are, and one fine day that role is abruptly finished. Gone. Severed……We are now supposed to pick up and move on as if nothing has happened, as if the person never existed……Many of us go through life mourning some lost relationship(s).

There are days when memories return of the lost loved one and bring a smile to our faces – a bittersweet memory that is painful, yet preserved and cherished – like a crumbly rose within the pages of a book that still retains some of its beauty and fragrance, a rose that one is loath to part with. What does it matter what the relationship used to be? Friend, sibling, a lost love….In this journey we are all kindred spirits!

Many relationships are lost due to ego battles.

Years ago, I remember taking a small child to a museum. Child must have been around three then. The Natural History museum was a multi-storeyed one with many exhibits; one of the floors had a replica of a tropical rainforest with fake trees and animals. This is generally an area that greatly entertains younger children as they get to stop by and examine every animal and tree.

Deciding to take said child to this forest replica, I took child by the hand and boarded the elevator. Then I did a cardinal mistake – I punched the button to go to the appropriate floor, forgetting that this is a role the child in question normally took whenever we boarded elevators. This, coupled with the time being dangerously close to  nap time brought on a meltdown that didn’t abate even after we rode the elevator up and down many times, simply to let said child punch the button to the appropriate floor. The refrain was, “But I didn’t get to punch the elevator button that time!”

Three year olds can be physically carried elsewhere and distracted. Once they get preoccupied with something else, given some food, and some rest, they get back to being themselves again.

A child is able to fight it out in all earnestness, forget about it or apologize the next day, and return to playing with their friend or relative again. They can forget, forgive, seek forgiveness and make amends without any problem. They can also chuck past angry moments behind – there is too much to explore in life to waste it on anger and resentment.

As we grow older, the ego grows…..and in direct proportion grows one’s vulnerability. Some are more easily hurt than others, and tend to brood on grievances. They aren’t able to let go of past hurts, and use anger as their shield to protect themselves from future hurts. Unlike the child who can let go and give room for love, as we grow older we close our hearts and shut out our natural generosity to forgive and seek forgiveness. We become guarded and come to expect the worst, waiting for the other shoe to fall, and shielding ourselves from that fall by repeatedly recalling that one mistake….that one press of the elevator button that was missed!

In this I am not including those that deliberately manipulate and hurt a person – those who wear different masks for different occasions, and whose (simulated) feelings are motivated by expediency. We are better off guarding ourselves from the pathological users, chameleons, and opportunists. They are the politicians of our daily lives who appear every so often when they need something…..In Tamil there is a saying that loosely translates to “when they need something, they fall at your feet; when the need is done with, they go for your throat”. Best to keep such people at a distance.

I’m talking about the average bumbling person X who makes mistakes and hurts unintentionally. The injured person Y may assume that the hurt was intentional and then retaliate, wounding X. Now X becomes angry and says or does more stupid things. Soon things get out of hand and relations break.

In an alternate scenario, X may make an inadvertent mistake, wounding Y. Y brings this up to X and the latter, instead of apologizing and making amends, sees it as a slight to their ego: “You pointed out my mistake!”. X then uses anger to cover up their mistake, because they cannot come down from their lofty peak to apologize – the act of apologizing is seen as something putting them in a one-down position. They don’t even want to make amends, because this would mean admitting the mistake even to themselves, which is also wounding to the ego. It takes a secure person to apologize and those with fragile egos are insecure, and apologizing feels like compromising their standing. So they use smokescreens and gaslighting.

Techniques such as reversing cause and effect are used. Y may have done something in retaliation for what X did. But X says Y did the (retaliatory) action and that is why X acted in the (original) wounding manner – this is nothing but gaslighting.

Another technique used is victim-shaming:  “You deserve what I said or did because…..”. When the injured party protests, X replies in a more grievous way, compounding their mistake. Things go downhill from there. When push comes to shove, some ego-driven Xs are insincere apologizers who apologize in a way that is not an apology at all. It could be a breezy “sorry!”, or the classic phrase “I am sorry but….” with a clause that completely nullifies the apology and attacks the person they are apologizing to.  President Clinton’s televised apology to the nation at Lewinskygate comes to mind.  Ego is the death of many relationships.

It is also tough to apologize to someone who holds onto grudges and can never let go. One can never be sorry enough, apologetic enough, make up enough. They have elephantine memories of every slight, perceived or real. The relationship can never be mended because of a desire to punish the apologizer that is lurking in their minds.

Sometimes the  only way to get out of a tough situation is through it. When X wounds Y and either realizes it or is made to realize it, the sooner amends are made, the better. The apology needs to be said sincerely and directly, and amends need to be made. If the wounded party is not in a spirit of reconciliation, it doesn’t matter. We can only make the effort……the results are not up to us. The apology frees us from negative feelings, and if the aggrieved party realizes it one day and makes up to us, our door is open. If the aggrieved party is vengeful, then we try to distance ourselves while still keeping the door open (tough to do!).

What if we are the aggrieved party? What if our heart and soul have been so wounded that we fear we will be wounded in the same manner once again, and won’t have the strength to withstand it….? This is a tough one. The thought process goes like this: it took a while to get up and get going, and took all our strength to bring us to our new normal…..What if we are pushed down again?  It is our choice whether to trust again, to forgive, and to let go……or not. To evaluate whether the cost of losing the relationship forever is worth it or not.

Perhaps if we are the aggrieved party, we could move forward by accepting the apology, and guardedly allowing the person back into our lives, assuming the apology is heartfelt. Or if that is too much, we can accept the apology but honestly state that things can never  be the same again. Because some wounds are too deep and in time may heal with some self-care – or never fully heal. A cloth once torn can be stitched but will never be whole again…..

Wish we all had the mind of a child in this regard – to forgive and move on because life is too short to hold onto resentments. But as adults, the stakes are higher, and wounds are deeper….And our mind loses the elasticity to forgive, forget and move on.

Those who come with the courage to seek forgiveness when such forgiveness is necessary, and to have the generous heart to give forgiveness when such is sincerely sought, are able to move on and re-establish relationships. For this, both parties should be game. If egos are strong, or if anger continues to be used as a shield, there can be no reconciliation.

***

But the love remains – as a truth in one’s heart……. and the hurt of the severed relationship remains buried deep within the soul. As years pass, one may forget who was right and who was wrong, and realize perhaps that they were both wrong. But by this time, too much water has flowed under the bridge and the chasm is too wide.

In the end, when we cease to exist or are close to that point, rights and wrongs become meaningless. All that matters is love…and love is the only constant. Shorn of the trappings of this world, we will perhaps meet somewhere as pure spirits, kindred spirits….and it will be a moment filled with pure love and light.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense”

– Maulana Jelaluddin Rumi

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The Empath’s Refuge

One of my favorite songs is “Listen with your heart” from the film Pocahontas. Years after  I watched the film, the imagery is still stuck in my mind – of a young and confused Pocahontas fleeing to the woods, rowing her boat deeper and deeper into the waters of a river to seek refuge in a tree that she calls Grandmother Willow. The tree with its soft sighing breezes, offers comfort in the form of this song.

Sometimes that is all it takes. Whether it is handling an intransigent child, a student who may not be opening up to their difficulty in a subject, whether it is facing challenging circumstances – if we can find that wood, that clear water, and preferably have a Grandmother Willow waiting with infinite patience and wisdom – there can be a small personal oasis of peace, far from the madding crowd.

Those of us who are Empaths need that solace. I seek mine in long hikes – just thinking of a walk in the woods energizes me. Today as I waited in a doctor’s office with a family member who was ill, I chanced upon a hiking magazine. Was so engrossed reading it that I finally asked the front desk if they will let me take it – seeing as it was at least a 3 month old edition. They let me, and I walked out with a smile, feeling like I had won a prize.

***

The Empaths among us are the classic rescuers, who can sense distress and pain in others, and immediately reach out to help. The distress is sensed without having to speak a word.

People are good at different things – some naturally good with their hands, who can build structures without even thinking….these are the people who can solve a complex 1000-piece puzzle with relative ease leaving the rest of us in the dust; some are artists with a photographic memory who can translate their mental images to canvas deftly and beautifully; some have exceptional athletic abilities that defy the laws of Physics. Sensing trouble and reaching out to help is the Empath’s special gift.

Regardless of whether they are good with speech, Empaths are oriented towards healing and bringing comfort to others. They feel like natural harbors to people in an uncertain world, and elicit confessions from people that they would normally not share with anyone else. Some even attract troubled or sick animals and give comfort. Their intuition is so finely tuned that they are able to help those who cannot express themselves in words. Someone I know has a special connection with children with mental and cognitive problems and a way to calm them down – she had this ability even as a very young child! Those around the Empath see them as someone to lean on, and come to them when they need solace from the problems of the world.

The Empaths  immediately jump in to take on the role of Grandmother Willow, but without her wisdom and without the ability to stay rooted to the spot, observing the changing currents in the river, gently bending to the harsh winds and bowing to the breezes but staying essentially unchanged even if slightly ruffled. Grandmother Willow is a true gnani … A lot can be learned by observation and detachment, but alas! such is not the way of most humans.

The currents push the Empath into a river of constant action and they lose themselves in it. They get into a problem-solving mode, drawing from the strength of their intuition that has helped them through the years, and try to tackle whatever problem there is to the best of their ability. Their focus is on finding a solution and all else blurs into the background. They own the feelings of the person they are trying to help, and help navigate them through these turbulent feelings. They become shock-absorbers and do all they can to protect those they are trying to help and do not stop until they find a solution. Once the problem is resolved, and the person with the problem goes away happy, the Empath’s job is done and they feel a sense of accomplishment. Now they can sit back with a happy smile and take a deep breath. Solving a problem is a win for both the Empath and those they choose to help. It serves their natural purpose in the world.

In time, more problems come their way and they drop everything and try to solve them again, forgetting their own needs. The last bit is the Empath’s undoing – because these healers and comforters rarely pause to find healing and comfort for themselves. They are absolutely terrible about asking for help, fearing that needing or asking for help will unnecessarily put others through trouble – which is the last thing they want to do! They hate to cause the slightest inconvenience to others while taking a lot of pummeling themselves. The reality is that, they need time and space to recharge before they go into problem-solving mode.

If this re-energizing happens on a regular basis, then they function quite well as they can find their intuition rather easily and they can navigate through some very involved situations. But if this doesn’t happen, more and more energy gets depleted, and the once smiling-face starts to snap at people. The sincerity of action and the desire to help is still there, but there is no more joy in it. There is also guilt associated with the irritability they have been feeling in their depleted state, and the anger turns inward; stress builds to unbearable levels and it starts to result in breathlessness, anxiety, fatigue and some odd aches and pains.  Extreme Empaths who also repress negative feelings to present a cool front and protect others, get afflicted by stress-induced illnesses including high blood pressure, heart issues, and even cancer.

The Empaths being the carers of others ironically often do not get care from others….the worse irony is that these creatures of feeling and intuition, who can pick up others’ needs and feelings wordlessly – get treated as if they were robots who have no feelings, needs or desires of their own! Those who function as boats for others to navigate some very choppy waters can get left behind with nary a look after one is done with the navigation. The world can be a very insensitive place indeed.

So, what is the way forward for an Empath? Tough to answer… Perhaps it is not just listening with their heart, it maybe listening to their heart and tending to themselves any way they could. Sometimes, it can be pretending ignorance of something: for, capability comes with a price…..people think you are capable, so you can handle it. They throw you more, you handle more. They throw you still more, and you try to fit it all in. At one point all of this swallows one whole and one has to find a way to burrow out of this pile and find oneself. Perhaps feigning ignorance is a way to prevent oneself from getting drained by users! But a true Empath cannot stay in this mode for long. Sooner or later, their desire to rescue will get in the way.

Another solution maybe to seek out other Empaths and get some self-care that way…. Having a steady and rock-solid network of friends who can serve as sounding boards to bounce off ideas and to keep one’s sanity. A kind word here, some appreciation there – with one taking the role of Grandmother Willow while the other talks, and then switching roles after a while.

I have been told that Pranayama and Yoga help a lot in restoring one’s balance. I have tried this, and it helps for a while – but my spirit is too restless for it. What helps is surrounding oneself with nature, and silence. Hiking in the woods on uneven terrain, focusing only on the next step one has to take so that one can – literally – keep one’s balance, allowing the gentle breezes to caress one’s body and soothe the mind feels like meditation to me. A single hike can give comfort for an entire week.

I have read that even spending a few hours in nature can spur one’s creativity, as the mind stills. Truly, there is very little a human being needs. Rishis knew something the average human doesn’t: that peace can be found in silence, and in the woods. In silence, the mind rests and recovers.

Perhaps Grandmother Willow was once a seedling that drifted along a river, being dashed against rocks and bouncing along the waves before finding firm ground to anchor herself in. To grow and branch out….and in time, flourish into an old growth tree sheltering several forms of life, providing respite and refuge to all who seek such, while standing firm in the face of wind, hail, and rain. Minimizing one’s wants, having the Earth fulfill all one’s needs, bending and swaying gently to the changing winds yet staying grounded and observing everything.

Is this even possible? The thought does feel comforting however, that such a state can be aimed for…..perhaps a start in this journey is to listen with your heart, and to your heart.

The Unsung Heroes of our Lives

When someone asks a person who their role model is, many talk about public figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., or Dr.Kalam. Some will mention their parents, grandparents, or a certain teacher who brought out the best in them. Yet others will talk about a celebrity, a sports person or filmstar that they have admired over the years.

I’ve often heard that it takes a village to raise a child (I’m not counting some legal adults in this category who continue to be immature long after childhood is over – to bring those unwilling souls kicking and screaming into adulthood, I don’t know – maybe an army is required?). But the elders in this figurative village are rarely feted for the crucial role in one’s development into a functioning and productive adult. The role maybe small in the span of years and experiences, but the timely influence and effect is long-lasting.

I want to mention here someone who is often in my thoughts, though I haven’t communicated with her in years (and the fault is entirely mine!). This is a petite lady who is perhaps 5 feet tall, no college education – yet a wisdom, strength and inner grace that would put many in my generation to shame.

***

Kamakshi Maami (Maami in Tamil means ‘aunt’) came into my life when I must have been a year old. She was my aunt’s tenant in an old traditional home in Coimbatore – I don’t exactly know how she is related to us. She lived in that little two or three room rental home with her husband and three children, two of whom were special-needs children.

I apparently used to play with her middle child, a daughter, as a baby. She tended to her home, husband and children with a smile, and had a smile and a kind word for everyone. No sugar-coating truths from her, though: she will call a spade a spade and you will not see any fear or hesitation in her while doing so!

Those were times before television – not much electronic entertainment outside the radio. Times when homes were small and bonds were strong. So despite the changes in lives such as moves, job changes of my father, and my aunt selling her home and moving to Chennai, Maami remained in our lives. Maami and her husband (whom we called Maama, for uncle in Tamil) bought a home in Coimbatore and moved there. They did not have a telephone, but somehow our families kept in touch. Ironic, considering how many means of communications we have in this day and age, and yet how even immediate family members become distant and uncommunicative, lost in their own worlds! We have the means to connect now, and yet this is an age of lost connections! But I digress.

When I got a seat in an engineering college in Coimbatore, the first person my father reached out to was Kamakshi Maami. We visited them after visiting the college, and she became my guardian at my father’s request. By this time, Maami had lost both of her special needs children, and her older son had moved to work in a different city.

She cheerfully took on my guardianship, giving me a place to stay in the first week of college, and letting me transition to hostel life at my own pace. I helped her out in the kitchen, and at night, Maami and I shared a room while Maama slept in another room. We slept on mats on the floor, and in the morning the mats would be rolled up and the room re-purposed into a sitting room. There were foldable chairs, and a bench. Traditional Indian families made efficient use of even small homes and didn’t clutter up space with bulky beds – often people had mats or mattresses, that would be laid out on the floor at bedtimes, and rolled up afterwards. No wasting space!  Maami, despite becoming a home-owner, still maintained a simple lifestyle and had leased out a portion of her home to another family. Maama had retired by then. She still lived in three rooms.

Maami was an excellent cook, and a tireless person in general. She would walk to the market around 2 kms each way, and bargain with the vegetable vendors. This was a new ritual for me, who had grown accustomed to going everywhere in a car that my father’s company provided for our use. Never before had I walked any distance over a half kilometer.

Maami  would rise early, bathe and cook wonderful meals, all the while praying to her gods. She would feed her husband first along with me and a distant cousin who stayed with her (who was in the same college but in the men’s hostel). I once asked how my cousin was related to her; she mentioned that he was the son of her second or third cousin from her native village. I asked how she kept track of all her relatives, and her simple answer was: “In my generation, we don’t measure distances in relationships”.  What a profound statement that is, thinking about it now. These days when families became nuclear, there is so much talk about me and mine, and near relations becoming distant or incommunicado, the statement of a wise woman from my yesteryear gives me goosebumps!

I remember accompanying Maami to a temple in RS Puram, the deity being the Goddess Kamakshi. I asked her once what she prayed for so fervently and she said she never asks the Goddess for anything, as the Goddess knows when and how to provide. The answer remains with me to this day.

Maami had some magical potions for everyday illnesses. When I found myself with any kind of respiratory ailment, I would walk to her house and tell her my ailment. She would let me sleep at her house, and make me a Kashayam in the morning, to be drunk first thing on an empty stomach. She put some herbs and spices to it: tulasi, pepper, coriander seeds, jaggery – I forget what else, and in what proportion. But whatever the ailment was, it would be greatly reduced in a couple of hours, and totally gone in a couple of days!

I lived in the college hostel for the most part, but at the first sign of homesickness, I would be at her doorstep, and she would take me in. She was my surrogate mother in those years, even though I did not realize it then. The thought of her tender loving care in the years that I sorely needed it, and did not know I needed it, fills me with gratitude.

Today in my middle age, having faced ups and downs in life I look back and wonder at her serenity. How did she maintain her balance, after raising two special needs children who were so cruelly taken away from her? How did she find such a deep well of love and how did she keep it nourished, making statements about not measuring distances in relationships? How did she live with such equanimity and maintain the same lifestyle, while living in a small rental home and after becoming a homeowner? I wonder at her energy in maintaining her connections and helping everyone, no matter what her challenges were in life. Her generosity of spirit, and her taking people like me and my cousin under her wing, and correcting the youngsters when we needed that correction, with a sternness and concern that can only come from a genuine heart.

Some days I feel shame that I let the course of life take over my time and energy so much that I did not make the effort to connect with her. I met her once or twice in all these years, and not more than a few minutes on each occasion. Besides exchanging greetings, I did not have words to express my gratitude. I have procrastinated about calling her because I have no words to explain why I did not call her all these years. I think of her often, even though I never had words to say what was on my mind.

But today I found the words, however ineffective and insufficient. “Thank you, dear Maami for being in my life. Your presence greatly enriched it, and I have a lot to thank you for. Your habits shaped my life, and some of my passions. To this day I don’t hesitate to walk long distances, or live simply because I have observed you during those formative years. Hiking is one of my passions now, because those walking days gave me courage to try longer distances. Thanks to you, I don’t hesitate to reach out to children who may need my help – you did it through sheltering me, and I am doing this by mentoring children who need a mentor. And please forgive me, Maami, for being so inept at keeping in touch. You are and will always be in my heart no matter where I am”.