Friday, January 3, 2014

The promise of the sea

“You find what you love and you learn everything about it. You bet your life on what you know and run from safety, off your mountain into the air, trusting the Principle of Flight to bring you soaring up on lift you cannot see with your eyes.”  
~Richard Bach


During a seaside vacation last month, I ventured beyond the fierce push pull of the breaking waves to swim in the balmy embrace of the sea beyond, where the movement of the waves feels like the gentle rocking of a cradle. After a while I cautiously floated on my back and with increasing confidence consciously refrained from paddling and treading water, letting my limbs go weightless. Letting only the salty buoyancy of the water support me. A sea shavasana.  An infinity of blue sky above me and an infinity of blue sea around me. The temptation was strong in the periphery of the mind to lift my head to make sure I wasn't drifting too far out, or some monster wave wasn't heading my way, but I let myself surrender deeper into the keeping of the sea. It felt like being cradled in the primordial womb of the earth whose water is as warm and salty as our own blood and tears, and the rhythm of the ceaseless wash of the waves akin to the throbbing of our own heart. I was at one with the universe, freefalling into the quiet centre within to touch the harmony underlying all of life.

So it is in life that we're often at a crossroads where the heart urges you to venture into the unknown trusting things unseen, but the mind would have you believe that this is folly, to put your faith instead in the comfortable material certainties of this world. Most of us follow our minds, which is why one of the top five biggest regrets of the dying is, "I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself".

In Baba's ashram, one would wake at the crack of dawn to get ready and wait for hours in serpentine queues and sitting cross legged on the hard stone floor for darshan, which might or might not not be forthcoming depending on whether Baba came out that day or not. His answer? "Love My uncertainty!" A profound spiritual training.

The courage to live a life true to oneself involves an unreserved trust in that deep harmony underlying all life, comfort with not knowing, an acceptance of risk, and a willingness to live with (if not love!) uncertainty. It requires a radical openness to the whole of life, the seeming good and bad, knowing that no matter what the appearance, one is never forsaken.

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes, "The opposite of samsara is when all the walls fall down, when the cocoon completely disappears and we are totally open to whatever happens, with no withdrawing, no centralizing ourselves. This is what we aspire to, the warrior's journey. This is what stirs us: leaping, being thrown out of the nest, going through the initiation rites, growing up, stepping into something that's uncertain and unknown. Tuning in to that groundless feeling is a way of remembering that basically, you do prefer life and warriorship to death."

The sea taught me that when I give up frantically treading water and depending on my own puny efforts to keep myself afloat, the entire might of the sea holds me up. So too in the sea of life, I'm grateful for the experiences that teach me to unclench the mind's white-knuckled need for control and drop into the space of the heart. As I release my grip on the planned, the calculated, and the known, the sea assures me that "underneath are the everlasting arms".

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Trailing clouds of glory

our little sun of existence
whooshing out from the cosmic void
dropped into our lap like a star
here! now! together!
formlessness into form
nowhere to now here
buttery hair twisting into little dreadlocks at the back
like the matted locks of the little sage you are
eyelashes like your dad
sweet vanilla cream baby
the calm in our storm
baby gopala on the banyan leaf
floating on the swelling waters
studying his dimpled hands
in perfect peace

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Reflections on the current birth culture

The outward freedom that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion to the inward freedom to which we may have grown at a given moment. And if this is a correct view of freedom, our chief energy must be concentrated on achieving reform from within.
~ Mahatma Gandhi


Things I learned after the birth of my second child. I hope they help some of you mothers out there hoping for a natural birth in Bangalore.

1) There's nothing more diametrically opposite to natural birth than going to a hospital, to an obstetrician, to have your baby. OBs are trained to find and fix pathology, they are trained to handle high-risk cases and perform life-saving procedures - hence they treat every woman like an emergency waiting to happen. You know the saying that if you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail. The medical model trains doctors to approach any case with a full knowledge of what the hundreds of things are that can go wrong and how to treat each such problem. This is valuable when treating disease. But pregnancy is not a disease. It is a naturally occurring life event. When a natural sacred occurrence is approached from a pathological framework, it becomes a medical event when it is not meant to be one. OBs do not trust birth and they especially mistrust women's bodies - they are convinced that babies cannot be born without the assistance of their drugs and instruments. Fear enters in a big way - fear of the unknown and the desire to control the entire process and make it "safe" and predictable - in the process stripping it bare of all its spiritual, transformative and joyful aspects.

2) Natural birth proponent Michael Odent and legendary midwife Ina May Gaskin constantly stress on the need for a safe, private, dim "cave" for the birthing woman to labour in so that the oxytocin can flow freely and labour proceed smoothly. This is a given for any mammal - even cats seek out cupboards to give birth in. Hospitals are the polar opposite - bright lights, invasive cervical checks by different people on shift, being strapped to the bedside monitor inhibiting movement, being denied food, nurses popping in to check every now and then whether your body is "performing" up to speed or not, the pressure of being "on the clock" with the scalpel hanging over your head. This kind of ambience invariably slows labour and causes the very problems that they then seek to fix with their cascade of interventions.

3) Your OB will only show up after you're fully dilated and pushing, or if you're approaching the 12-hour limit that most hospitals have before the woman is timed out. In the latter scenario, the OB will show up with the intention of ending your labour one way or another - either with Pitocin (manufactured from the pituitary extract of various animals) and/or instrumental delivery (vacuum, forceps), or most commonly a c-section. Most private hospitals have a huge clientele and want their LDR rooms vacated in 12 hours, patients in and out like clockwork, business as usual. This ties in really well with the OBs' agenda and training which is to manage, control, intervene, fix and save lives regardless of whether the lives need saving or not. Hospitals have a time limit and OBs ensure they produce a baby within that time limit. A made for each other relationship.

4) The other side of the equation is the consumer - the "patient". As a society we teach our women to be passive, compliant and to revere the medical model. We teach them not to trust their bodies on every level. We teach them that birth is dangerous though the truth is that birth is as safe as life gets. When many women willingly and ignorantly pass over the responsibility for their births to the system they make it more challenging for those who choose to take responsibility for their births, as the systems are dependent on consumer demand and set up for averages. It's important to be aware of the roles we may play in supporting and perpetuating such systems which have their roots deep in patriarchy, power and profit. Both sides of the coin - the patriarchal hospital system that caters only to its own bottom line, as well as the ignorance and passivity of the consumer - both go to make up the overwhelming juggernaut of a machine that is obstetric care. One woman stands very little chance against that juggernaut.

5) Some sources will have you believe that if you go into the hospital system with a strong birth plan and a midwife/doula in tow, you can achieve the natural birth you want. This is like trying to order idli sambhar at McDonald's. They may humour you for a while but when the time comes to deliver they will serve up what they have always served up - burger and fries. It's like trying to have a homebirth at the hospital. You can perhaps do it if you are lucky enough to have an express train labour and birth under 12 hours in textbook fashion. There are so many variables in labour and birth and every women is different - a 3 hour labour and a 3 day labour are both just variations of normal. However, hospitals do not cater to individuals, they cater only to their own policies. They have ways of using fear, coercion and manipulation so insidiously that by the time your OB walks into the room and plays the ace up their sleeve - the dead baby/dead mom card - you're broken down and ready to capitulate, no matter how strong or well-informed you are. You're extremely vulnerable at the end and they know what buttons to push.

6) I learned that the crux of the whole issue is taking responsibility. We've been deeply conditioned to trust the voices of others over our own inner voice, to look for guidance from outside.

Naomi Aldort writes, "Through schooling and other numbing of the true being, children grow up to become overly dependent on external guidance in all areas including their health, money, clothes, food and relationships. They lose authority over their own lives and turn responsibility of their own experiences over to “experts,” the state and the mythical “others” all of whom swallowed the same pill. Without a separate system of experts people would gain autonomy over their own lives, such as birth, death, care, etc. and would not play the game dictated by the money monopoly."

We ignore our inner guidance at our own peril. A woman may not know the things that a doctor knows, but she is the expert of her own body and the particular babe that is growing within her body. She is the creative process itself and therefore knows on a deep level what is best for herself and baby, how and where to birth. But this truth is undermined by the people around her and the doctors who think they are the experts, that a woman should submit herself to them, and is being foolhardy if she doesn't.

Many of us birth at hospital so that we don't ultimately have to take responsibility. If you give the hospital system the responsibility then you can expect them to take it. Don't be surprised, shocked or upset when you have to comply. A care provider can only provide the illusion of safety - that they will be responsible. They can't. Ultimately only you are responsible because it's only you and your baby that will face the consequences of their actions.

7) Know your birthing options.

These are natural birth centres in India which follow the midwifery model of care - a model of care that is holistic, supportive and nurturing of the birth process:

The Sanctum, Natural Birth Center in Hyderabad led by US-Certified midwives with backup OB/Gyn emergency care in the same building.

The Birthing Sanctuary, in Goa.

BirthVillage, in Cochin, Kerala.

If you'd like to locate a homebirth midwife, or a doula, post a query in the BBN yahoogroup  or the Birthindia yahoogroup.

May a truly joyous birth be yours!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Be happy

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

- Walt Whitman


You know those if-I-had-my-life-to-live-over kinds of emails with a lot of homespun widom which make the rounds on the internet that you nod ruefully over and delete and promptly forget? I had my own purple hat moment the other day as I was organizing stacks of old photographs ranging all the way back a decade into albums. As I went through the photos I was struck by how much blessings and abundance life had graced us with - opportunities, travel, experiences, friends, family, places, homes - so much beauty. And I was haunted by the thought - had I been happy enough? Of course I was happy overall, but did I ever dare let myself be truly deeply thoroughly happy? Did I ever give myself over to the experience of happiness the way a three year old in a puddle does? I think not. I was cautious, I held back - I had my load of fears, judgements, worries the same as anyone else. Yet now I see how extraneous they all were. Like Mark Twain said, "I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."

I'm starting to realize the profundity of Baba's injunction, "Be Always Happy". He's always exhorting us to "be happy, be happy, be happy". What does it really mean? Being happy is to choose love over fear, to stop and pause and consciously choose it over and over again until it becomes second nature. To make the present moment into your best friend. To want what you have, and dwell by the perennial springs of gladness and contentment. To love well and give fully.

The awareness of being alive is exquisite joy enough. All the rest is cherry on top.

Henceforth may we have the grace to Be Always Happy.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Childhood's nest of gladness

The little warrior has done it again. Caused a little storm in our little teacup of existence, and when things settled down I found myself with changed perceptions and an altered world-view, soaring fearless and free from the shackles of convention.

I'd always had misgivings about turning him over to the tender mercies of the mainstream education system, but the Inner Compliant Student in me fondly hoped that things had changed now from when my generation went to school, and it mightn't be so bad after all. After changing three schools I was forced to conclude that nothing has changed - if anything, the accelerated pace of today's world might have made it worse. As John Taylor Gatto pungently remarks, "The old system where every child was locked away and set into nonstop, daily cut throat competition with every other child for silly prizes called grades is broken beyond repair. If it could be fixed it could have been fixed by now. Good riddance."

Things seemed to be going well at his latest school until they decided that he was ready to learn to write when he turned four. In the beginning, writing was a novelty - it was exciting to have homework just like the older kids. But it quickly turned into a regimental drilling of being made to practice pages and pages of cursive alphabets and numbers - complete with coercion, punishment and scolding if he didn't co-operate or do his homework. This certainly didn't go down well with the little warrior, spirited as he is, and he fought them every step of the way. He came home with clouded brow and sad eyes and threw tantrums out of the blue to release the stress. He who had considered the whole world and all the people in it his own started to look cowed and shied away when people he didn't know addressed him. He no longer had perfect confidence in his world.

Was I sending him to school to have his love for learning snuffed out and his whole creative being reduced to producing mechanistic output according to adult agendas? Could any true learning happen without a foundation of love and respect? The other parents seemed to think this par for the course and a necessary part of early schooling to prepare them for the "real world". Well, not this mama!

The need for movement, interaction with other children, free play, curiosity and experimentation are developmental nature-driven imperatives for which the child is routinely penalized in school. He is made to sit in one place, forbidden to talk or interact with other children, allowed only structured monitored "play" in the form of songs with actions and other adult-driven activities, subjected to a strict disciplinary atmosphere where scolding and shaming are common AND a manic cramming of reading and writing and math down his throat as fast and furious as possible. What a sacrilege on early childhood!

Joseph Chilton Pearce notes, "From all standpoints we find that this period, from ages four to seven, is designed for that one purpose to which the child is compulsively driven - play. Over the past fifty years, however, this is the age at which we have insisted on putting the child into a school desk, restricting his movement (and we know learning takes place only through movement at this age), and forcing that dreamer into into abstract pursuits suitable to pre-adolescence at best. Combined with the effects of hospital delivery, daycare, television, the collapse of family, and so on, the collapse of childhood itself has been accelarating."

He says further, "Children are driven by millions of years of genetic encoding to follow intuitively their only road to survival and intelligence - which is play." The discoveries of modern neuroscience are just starting to bear up this truth.

My vague memories of early childhood seem to recall that period as a state of homogenous grace. Innocent precious beingness. Dreamy wonder.

"Without, the frost, the binding snow,
The storm-wind's moody madness -
Within, the firelight's ruddy glow
And childhood's nest of gladness."
(Lewis Carroll)

"Childhood's nest of gladness" - a phrase so perfectly evocative of that time! Why rob that nest of its gladness by forcing abstract academic knowledge and adult notions too soon? Why this rabid urgency to hurry the child into learning faster and younger? Why this kolavari di?

I met the director of the school to tell her that I was moving my boy to an alternative play-based Waldorf school where academics would only be introduced in first standard.
"Of course children like that sort of thing - but what about your son's future?" she demanded. "What if he grows up and wants to be an artist or worse...a - a...photographer? (the horror!) How will he support himself? These alternative education options may seem romantic and appealing, but ultimately reality has to be faced!"
And there it is. It all comes down to fear. Fear that keeps us imprisoned in status quo in environments that don't serve our children in any way. Do we really want our kids to sell their lives to the highest bidder and enslave themselves to big corporations for the rest of their lives? "The spirit of Life that is always speaking to our souls" would have us do better.

The little warrior comes home from school now with the sparkle in his eyes undimmed. He is perfectly equal to addressing a stranger, a bee, a grown-up, a flower, a baby or an old person with his old confidence. The whole world is his own once again.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The sweetest days we'll know

Summer and monsoon is giving place to autumn with its falling leaves and misty mornings as I watch the little warrior shedding the last vestiges of littleness before my very eyes. He is a big boy of four now, with his own friends who call him out to play with a well-directed shout from below our balcony. He sometimes brings home a page of homework from his Montessori preschool, just like his big cousins, in his own school bag. He has definite ideas about how things should be done and has plenty to say for himself. He is plumbing new and wondrous ways of expressing his feelings: "Amma, your face is so nice. You are such a nice mother! If a cow comes and bites you, I'm going to be so sad."

But there are still those last traces of babyhood that my hungry eyes search for and covet - the roundness of his cheeks, the dimples on his hands: fast disappearing but still there for now, the high voice and childish pronounciation that is rapidly being improved out of existence as we speak, the intent long-lashed eyes that widen ever so slightly when they encounter a new phenomenon, the little body that is barely little enough for me to scoop up quickly into my arms when we need to cross a troublesome street. He can still perch on my hip, though I can't walk effortlessly when he does that anymore. In a year or so, I know he'll be too big for any more scooping or perching, so I gather him up into my arms often these days just because I still can.

You realize the preciousness and evanescence of life more after having a child - then you know pregnancy goes by in a heartbeat, babyhood is gone in a blink of an eye, toddlerhood in a flash - everything rushes by, though it feels like it's going to last forever when you're experiencing it. So I try to reverently hold and cherish in my attention each moment, good or bad, even as I'm achingly aware of the truth of impermanence.

It reminds me of that last scene from American Beauty: "Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life..."

It reminds me to give of myself willingly to the demands of this stage - the incessant questions, the mess as he turns the house into his playtime wonderland, the frequent demands for a story, for participating in the imaginary sequences of his play-acting, for this that or the other - with a keener realization of "this too shall pass".

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tree Of Life movie

Been hearing rumbles of this particular movie's surreality and brilliance, and took the first opportunity to watch it.

The movie is surreal, yet grounded in the exquisiteness of everyday moments - inspires awe of the sublime power that moves the cosmos, as also awe of the ordinary miracles of daily living that we take for granted - viscerally showing the freedom and wonder of childhood, yet also the helplessness of a child having his world shaped by powers beyond his control - impressionistic scenes portraying the rebellion and blind search for meaning of adolescence - the joy of life's blessings, as well as the sorrow of life's losses - the agony of grief, and the redemption of grace.

One review made this spot-on observation:
"Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life's experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer "to" anyone or anything, but prayer "about" everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine. It functions to pull us back from the distractions of the moment, and focus us on mystery and gratitude."

It is not an entertainer. It is a deep profound courageous look at our existence and the age old questions arising from the depths of suffering - "Lord, why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?"

When you walk out of a movie hall, you retain a flavour of the world projected by the screen for a few minutes. But this movie does not draw you into its story world, it draws you deep into yourself, and you walk out of the movie hall wrapped in a strange solitude of being, not wanting to say anything for a long time afterwards.

Some defining lines from the movie (spoiler warning!) -

"The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.

Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end."

For those in Bangalore, the movie is currently running at PVR Koramangala (in Forum Mall).