Category Archives: Environment

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.

Mother Earth and her inheritors

Samudra vasane devi, parvatha sthana mandale

Vishnu patni namasthubhyam padasparsham kshamasva me

This is what people of my culture chanted on awakening, before their foot touched the ground. It is a hymn and an ode to Mother Earth that is translated thus:

O Mother who wears the oceans as Her garments,

One whose bosoms are the mountain ranges

O divine Mother who is protected by Lord Vishnu himself,

Kindly pardon my touching you with my feet

With that, one respectfully places one’s palm on the ground, reverently touches it to one’s eyes, and then places the foot on the floor. It is a reverence built into the daily routine, an awareness that we are mere inhabitants of our glorious planet that gives us life and provides daily nourishment. It is a way of life filled with awe and gratitude, and aware of our place among other living creatures of this planet.

In the Hindu faith, reverence for every living creature is built in. Lord Ganesha has the mouse has his mount, Lord Shiva has Nandi the bull, Lord Vishnu has Garuda the bald eagle, Goddess Durga the tiger….Shiva even wears the serpent as an ornament, and entire rituals are built around the serpent.

Some trees and plants are regarded sacred, and cutting of a tree was done only when necessary. Before a tree was cut, a person said a prayer apologizing for cutting down a living tree, and ensured that they planted 10 other trees soon after….. Wanton destruction was never part of the psyche. I remember growing up listening to a story about a mango tree that was a boy’s best friend from childhood through the time when he had to cut it down to build his house as an adult. The story always made me sad. I had mentioned in a previous blog about the place the Tulasi plant has in the Indian way of life.

In many states of India there are special areas marked as serpent groves – where vegetation is left to flourish wildly, nourishing flora and fauna. These are called variously as “Nagara havu”, “Sarpa kavu” depending on the language – with some small idols of serpents placed respectfully over there. People are forbidden to alter the vegetation or enter it except at specific worship times, to preserve the silence of the grove and allow the animals there to live undisturbed. Legend has it that if one disturbs a serpent grove, ponds will dry up. Please see article by Mr.Udaylal Pai on such groves: http://udaypai.in/?p=849

In my state, it was said that if the serpent habitat is disturbed, ill luck due to disturbing the serpent (Naga dosham) will befall a person and will affect many generations.

It is easy to dismiss these as mere superstitions, and make fun of such practices. But if you think about it, the worship of various animals as mounts of the Gods, and the preservation of serpent groves speaks of a reverence for Earth and all her living creatures. It bespeaks an attitude that says that every creature has its place in the grand scheme of things, and is deserving of respect and a right to live freely.

Serpent groves were places where entire eco-systems flourished, with predator and prey in balance. Farmers particularly liked these groves as the serpents kept rodent and insect population in control, and emerged during nocturnal hours when the farmers themselves would not be in the fields.

Serpent groves were places where the jungle took over, preventing soil erosion, serving as traps for rainfall, and purifying the air we breathed. What about the ill luck that befalls the one who disturbs the serpent grove and will affect future generations?? Well, if the air is not purified and the ecological balance is disturbed, will it not affect the generations to come? How did cancer rates climb so high if not for such wanton destruction in the name of “progress” and “development”?

*****

In my ancestral home in the village, there was a cowshed in the backyard. Animals were taken to graze for a few hours during the day, and brought back at night. There was always a haystack nearby, to help feed the cows. Many people have seen a cobra glide nearby, going about its business. Perhaps its home was in a nearby field or grove, and it frequented areas where it knew that prey was available in the form of mice that can be usually found where grain is stored (ancestral homes had a granary where harvested rice is kept).

The cobra was left undisturbed, as it never came near humans and kept mice under control. Many people in the villages of Tamil Nadu call such snakes “vaazhum paambu” (thriving snake) and do not disturb or kill them. Man and snake live in harmony in this manner.

Cows in the cowshed lived well unto old age and died of natural causes. They had their pasture hours and resting hours. The shed had a thatched roof and was cleaned a couple of times each day. Cowdung was dried and used as fuel. Cow and calf stayed together until the calf was old enough to be weaned. Vegetable peels were given to the cow, as was the starch from washing the rice each day, along with some peanut or cottonseed cakes. And we got fresh milk everyday.

It was a peaceful eco-friendly way of living.

******

The way of looking at Mother Earth is slowly changing in India, where the western way of seeing Earth is taking root. This foreign, and different way of life looks at Earth and her resources – her flora and fauna – as something that is available for mankind to freely use, abuse and exploit at will. From an attitude that sees us as one of the types of creatures inhabiting the Earth, there has been a shift to an attitude that says Man is superior, and animals are at his mercy.

This attitude dictates that plants and their genes can be mucked with at will, to suit the tastes of man. Factory farms are coming up, to suit the demands of KFC and such places, which dictate that western farming practices be adopted in Indian poultry farms, to “increase productivity”.

Those of us living in the US know about the cruelty of factory farms. Such farming practices include placing hens in battery cages where movement is limited to sitting and standing, and extending neck to partake of the feed. The birds cannot even spread their wings! Hens are debeaked, and male chicks are squashed at birth. The birds’ movement is limited to fatten them up fast. I believe there were even experiments conducted to see if hens can be made to lay eggs in a form more suitable for packaging!!

As for cattle and hog farms, the poor animals are confined to small crates and live in such inhumane and unhygienic conditions that they develop infections, needing antibiotics. 80% of antibiotics in the US are apparently used in animal farms. Rampant antibiotic use creates superbugs, resistant to antibiotics and making medical treatment difficult for infectious diseases. Had the animals been allowed to live freely, and pastured, they would not have needed antibiotics!

It is one thing to consume meat, or even be part of the meat industry. It is entirely another to make the lives of animals a living hell and prison by confining them to small cramped spaces reeking of their own waste! Such waste collects in pools, polluting ground water and creating an environmental hazard. All in the name of development and increasing productivity!

Another area of exploitation is the growing Beauty industry. Where shampoos and various cosmetics are tested on animals, causing untold agony to these poor creatures! Some of these shampoos are marketed as “derived from plant sources”.

When I was growing up, we used shikakai and soap nut to wash hair, and ground hibiscus leaves as conditioner. Sometimes henna was used. All natural, derived from plant sources, no animal testing. Coconut oil was used to control frizz. None of the spray chemicals that need to be tested first on animals! I look at the array of products I use (admittedly, many from cruelty-free brands) and feel shame that I’ve moved so far away from the way I was raised.

****

This attitude that the Earth is ours to exploit and destroy at will, is also seen in the form of building multiple residences for families that have become smaller and smaller. Previously large homes were there but they supported an extended family where multiple generations lived under one roof, as one big family. Now families have become nuclear, with one family trying to own multiple residences as a way of building wealth. The size of these residences has increased, and each such residence has become a possession to flaunt.

Previously in the US, there used to be a trend of downsizing and moving to a smaller house when the children grew up and had their own families. This was done because the aging couple didn’t want to maintain a large house once it became just the two of them. Those who did not want to downsize simply kept and maintained their home.

Now there is a rising trend of “upsizing” among non-resident Indians in the US, where people move to far larger houses once children are grown. One reason cited is that they are making an investment in such a house, and that investment will appreciate. I have heard of families where the couple bought a 6000 sq foot home. That is 3000 sq foot per person!

Trees were destroyed to build such a spanking new, large home where people needed to communicate through intercoms to talk to each other, and cannot easily find one another if in different parts of the house. Central air and central heat consume more of Earth’s resources in maintaining the lifestyle the family is accustomed to. This is considered an asset that the children will inherit, an asset that appreciates.

The same excuse is given for people buying and keeping homes in multiple places. Some are holiday homes, that are kept idle for most of the year, until the family chooses to vacation there for a couple of months. Some are just bought as assets to buy and sell. This propels the building industry to build more and more, and for investors to speculate, sending prices through the roof.

If we look at India, speculation has pushed home prices well beyond the reach of the common man in most places, with metro cities expanding outward, and non-resident expats wanting the western lifestyle in India building large villa-style homes. More forests are destroyed and the way of life that said all living creatures deserve their place on Earth is giving way to the new way of life that says the Earth and her resources are available for grabs, for the highest bidder who can do what they please, and destroy at will. Farmlands are becoming home-building plots.

Of course, due to lost ecological balance, clean air is hard to come by. We need more and more pesticides to control insects and rodents, whose populations would have naturally been in check through natural predators, had we chosen the path of conservation. Cancer rates go up and up due to all this. So more hospitals are being built, and a previously rural and peaceful area becomes increasingly urbanized, or “developed”.

This “development” through building homes is done ostensibly so that future generations can inherit the assets. Parents feel more secure with such assets…..Do we stop to wonder: with such plundering of the Earth, what are they inheriting? Dirty air, lost biodiversity, genetically modified plants and food, polluted water……and an attitude of further plundering our precious planet, to see if anymore resources in her womb can be exploited and bought and sold? I hear gold is a hot asset and Amazonian forests are being destroyed in search of gold that will then be hoarded as an asset….

Among all living species, humans are the only ones who take more than they need from Earth, and leave a legacy of destruction.

**********

Can we change this attitude, and how?

PETA and animal welfare activists will tell you that the only way to be humane is to adopt a vegan lifestyle. This may not be possible for everyone. Perhaps people can move away from factory farm products, and buy milk, eggs and meat from humane farms with pastured animals? While doing so, also stop patronizing fast food chains that source their meat from cruel factory farms?

Perhaps limit purchasing anything made of silk, leather or wool  (I used to think wool was cruelty-free but my environmentally aware child asked me to read about merino wool and how it is produced. Enough said).

For those who believe in buying real estate for wealth-building: instead of a large 6000 sq foot home, how about buying a tract of land as an “asset”, building a house just enough for one’s needs and some wants to ensure a comfortable lifestyle. And having a yard with a large garden…? Plant some trees, grow some vegetables and fruit….If backyard is large enough, leave some of it to grow wild and attract bees and butterflies. If you are really wealthy that you can buy several acres of land, perhaps preserve an area as a forest?

It will be a start. Our children do not need to inherit anything except a good work ethic and a pristine planet….