Punctuate Life

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The Pull of Power Places – Trip to Arunachala

 

When I was a kid I recall reading about sacred places around the world where miraculous healing occurred and which drew multitudes of people to it. But it was in my early twenties that I actually visited one such power place with spiritual vibes so palpable that the air feels different. It wasn’t very far from my hometown Chennai and I practically stumbled upon this place quite unwittingly. In the small town of Tiruvannamalai stands this majestic hill called Arunachala. Legend has it that the hill is Shiva himself who appeared in the form of an effulgent pillar of light with no beginning or end. Brahma and Vishnu in their arrogance sought the two ends of the pillar, but no matter how deep they dug into the earth or how far into the cosmos they ventured, they could not find it. The two gods realized their folly, begged for forgiveness and prayed that the Lord may be present in a form that could be worshipped. Thousands flock to this ancient town from all corners of the world, to savor the peace that escapes us all in this maddening life.

I was in such a state when we travelled to Tiruvannamalai. Run down by life and its travails, with little or no hope in my heart. I wasn’t even sure the trip would materialize, like everything else before it. But the mere thought of Arunachala has a magnetic pull and draws one to it and everything fell into place miraculously. An outpouring of much needed grace came to our succor.

We packed our bags and our burdens and took off in our small car. Leaving the dusty city behind we drove past lush green paddy fields and sugarcanes swaying in the warm breeze. The open vastness of the blue skies greeted us in every direction. Starting before dawn we caught an unobstructed view of the sunrise over the villages. Along the way we passed the Gingee Fort with steep steps cut into the rocky face of a hill. We stopped for some hitch-hiking monkeys looking for food. They were far too comfortable in human company for their own good.

As we approached Tiruvannamalai, the lone hill of Arunachala stood in the distance, still and firm, above the din and busyness that marks life in a small town. My heart leapt with joy and I instantly felt light and free -like a yoke had been lifted off my neck. We drove to the ashram to get the keys to our room in the guesthouse. The guesthouse was named Achalam, meaning still. Simple, clean accommodations in a quiet, serene neighborhood with overhanging trees, added to the peace that had now replaced the gnawing anxiety that accompanies urban life. After resting for a bit and eating a bit of breakfast, we headed back to the ashram meditation hall, where I got my spiritual batteries charged. A sanctuary for humans and animals alike, the ashram is frequented by dogs, peacocks and monkeys. The Maharshi’s love for animals is honored even today by the caretakers of the ashram. After a delicious and simple South Indian lunch we decided to explore the hill. From the back of the ashram is a path that leads uphill. The kids were excited at the prospect of trekking, but it wasn’t the best time of the day to do it, given that the afternoon sun was beating down on us.

I was however determined to go for it, having missed the opportunity to do so in my last two visits. The path was rocky and before long we reached the summit. From a clearing we could see the temple town below. After resting on some rocks and taking in the view, we trekked uphill for nearly an hour before reaching Skandashram which was built by a devotee single-handedly over a period of ten years. A few rooms with pictures of the Maharshi and a neat garden set against the backdrop of a rocky cliff was all it was. On one side was a spring with water pooled around it and a horde of monkeys gamboling around it. The place had only a handful of visitors and was imbued with quiet and peace.

We then went downhill on a treacherous path to the Virupaksha cave. The walls of the cave were low and we bent down to get in there. It was dark except for the light of a steady oil lamp. The inside of the cave radiated heat and we sat there for a bit taking in the quiet and the stillness.

The thought of climbing back up the hill and then back to ashram seemed daunting. So we asked a little boy and some old ladies if we could continue downhill to reach the town. To our intense relief they said it was just a 10 minute walk downhill to the temple from where we could begin our 14 kilometer walk around the hill. A few minutes into our walk we passed another cave – the mango cave – which was well lit and attended by a priest. We crawled in and prayed, while he told us about the history of the cave. We then proceeded downhill and found our way to the temple. The ancient temple of Shiva, was full of secret places to explore. I was particularly interested in locating the patala linga which was underground. This is where the young Maharshi sat absorbed in a state of bliss while ants and rodents gnawed on him and naughty boys of his age pelted him with stones from the top of the stairs that led to the chamber.

It was time for our walk around the hill, we purchased a bottle of water and started asking for directions. A helpful lady materialized out of no where and showed us the way to the first temple along the route. We walked with the hill appearing and disappearing from our sight. We walked as the sun set and the moon rose. We walked in the dark, after a power cut. We walked with weary legs and rested at temples along the way. When we got back to the starting point it was nearly 9.30 p.m. An auto took us back to the ashram and then we drove to our guesthouse. We ate some curd rice and went to bed. We slept soundly and rose early in the morning to visit the Arunachala temple. We took the kids to see the happy temple elephant that gave pats on the head with its trunk in exchange for coins, and swayed as if dancing to music only audible to its ears.

Back at the ashram we ate a simple breakfast and had some coffee with fresh cow’s milk. I would have loved to linger on and soak up the peace till I was immersed in it, but we had to head back home for Ayudha pooja.

In 24 hours I had undergone a complete transformation. My faith was renewed, hope rekindled, the heaviness was gone and so was the utter helplessness and despair. I knew that I would be taken care of and so would my family. It wasn’t up to me to take on the burden of the world.

Miracles awaited us as we returned to Chennai. Bigger upsets also swung by to torment us but that day spent in the shadow of something much larger than myself, gave me the strength to go through it, to have faith and to emerge out of it victorious.

Have you visited any power places? What has been your experience?


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Shining Your Light

This blog post was supposed to be “Challenges in Chennai” thanks to my friend S. Another friend H who looked back at her blog posts from several years ago urged me to do the same. I looked at all the pieces I wrote after arriving in Chennai – one miserable piece after the next. Where was the hope? Where was the inspiration? It was there buried somewhere but you really had to look for it.

So much for being the “enlightened” one, who dabbles in yoga, reiki and all the new age mumbo jumbo and then proceeds to shove it down everyone’s throat. But I discovered that it is so hard to shine your light when everything around you falls apart and there is no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The last four months have seen me move across the globe, sell almost all of our worldly possessions, unemployed, with kids trying hard to adapt to a culture alien to them. Added to that the water problem, maid problem and traffic problem. Every day you wake up in the morning not knowing what problem you will have to confront on that given day.

Before I knew it, I was sucked into a quagmire of problems. The more I struggled, the deeper I sank. It wasn’t before I was neck deep in it that I realized my folly. The problems were getting bigger because I kept focusing on them and complaining about them. I had to find my tiny bit of hope and I had to find it fast. It was my only foothold to stay above the water. I had to tell myself that it was coming and was on its way, even though I had no idea what was coming. That small expectation kept me going, even when there was no change on the outside.

That tiny bit of hope came trickling into my life a few weeks ago. It wasn’t much, just an assurance that some work may come my way after a hiatus of nearly five months. I heartily lapped it up and it grew in me and glowed within. Then things began to change on the outside. We had heavy rains in Chennai. The parched earth quenched her thirst and was replenished. The maid, gone for weeks, now returned. A big burden was lifted off my chest. Things are going to get better. As this transformation happened, an old school song from my school days came to my mind.

Jyothi De Bhagwan (Give me light O Lord).

Mere Dil Mein Jyothi De,

Jag Ko Apni Jyothi De,

Teri Jyothi Se Mein Chaloon,

Jag Ko Apni Jyothi Doon.

 

Give light to my heart,

Give light to the world,

Let me burn in your light,

Let me give your light to the world.

And that is exactly what each of us has to do. Find that little bit of light in our life and spread it. It is not easy, as I have experienced in my life. If you are unemployed, a single parent, chronically ill or in a unhappy relationship, you are consumed by it and it is harder to find the light – forget being the light. Some of us simply drift, barely keeping our head above the water. But survival is not our sole (soul) purpose. Some of us are swallowed by this tidal wave of sorrow and despair. There is no hope. No lighthouse to guide you through the storm. You probably know at least a handful of people who are worse off than you. But one person shining their light can lift hundreds out of their misery. And that person could be you.

Don’t wait for your life to be in order before you start sharing your light and uplifting others. Start now and start right where you are. Open your heart, empathize, help someone today. Your purpose is more than doing a 9 to 5 job, chores, managing kids or a business, social gatherings, college and discos. The world may be full of problems, but you can be the solution. Be the light. Be the love. Be the change we have all been waiting for.


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The End of a Lazy Summer

I am ready to throw a tantrum. Summer is over. Kids are back in school. I’m still home and unemployed. Feels like I just retreated back into my shell. The kids didn’t complain though. They got up at 6.30 instead of 8.30 like it was the most natural thing to do!

But every year I’m miserable when the kids go back to school. I’m antsy, bored and feel like I have too much time on my hands. It’s not like I haven’t looked for work. I have. All summer long. But I haven’t got a single call or an interview.

Sometimes it makes me doubt my faith. If God knows I want something and can hear my prayers why doesn’t he give me what I want? Like a child asking its parent over and over again, I keep beseeching this God in a faraway place. But he keeps me right where I am. Why would a parent deny their child something? Why?

I had to put myself in a parent’s shoes to answer this mindboggling question. As a mom I find myself saying no to my kids several times. If my children want something but I see it as a distraction or a clash of values I end up saying no. Do my kids understand? Do they think I’m being fair? Maybe not. Do they give up on me? Absolutely not! And so it is with God.

We came here to learn, grow and evolve. We made arrangements, chose our environments, our paths, our families and even our obstacles. Of course we fall into deep amnesia once we are born into this world. We bumble around like babies, falling and making mistakes, totally oblivious to our true calling which can be heard in the whispers of our soul. We go down winding paths leading to nowhere. We strive and struggle, pray and fast to achieve something that is not in our destiny. Something we never signed up for. Maybe not getting what we want is God’s way of nudging us closer to what we really want but cannot put into words as we continue living a dream.

When following the course of a religion (or anything for that matter) over many centuries it becomes obvious that good times and bad times come and go in waves. Temples are built and civilizations flourish for many years and then one day everything burns down and something new takes its place. Yet we place so much importance on acquiring transient things like money, property and fame. None of these are lasting. None of them can give us lasting happiness.

I need something to do to keep me occupied. You need money to pay the bills. Somebody else needs a place to call home. But if my entire existence is focused on getting a job and a job that ‘I’ think is good enough for me then it consumes me and I end up miserable. So it is with money or trying to get a bigger or better place to live. I read somewhere that pain is inevitable but suffering we create.

God does not make us suffer by denying us what we ask for. We reject the gifts we have because we think they are not good enough and we need more of this or less of that to be happier. And when we don’t get it we allow our minds to lead us into suffering. Sometimes getting what you want may not be a good thing after all. For instance, I wanted to move to Florida for the weather. To enjoy good weather we gave up our spacious home and lovely neighbors. Good weather with no friends to enjoy it with was no fun at all. Now in Seattle I’m tempted to make the same mistake. The house is too small. The weather is gloomy. I don’t have a job!

But we’re on the ground floor with a playground for the kids. We have good neighbors who will chase the winter blues away! I can always volunteer in my kids’ school. You can’t change what is but you can change your attitude to it. Then every thing becomes a gift. Even the darkest winter becomes bearable. Years become days and life flows effortlessly. God doesn’t give you exactly what you want but he provides the best circumstances for your life to flourish.


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The Great Disconnect

We are fragmented beings at many levels, living in a fragmented world, trying so hard to patch together our fragmented lives. The chinks, the cracks, the scars and the wounds leave us feeling incomplete. This hole we try to fill with things we seek on the outside, failing to realize that they can never make us whole.

Take our bodies for instance. When we fall sick we look for external causes. We perceive our bodies as separate entities over which we have little or no control. We keep treating symptoms by popping pills or by getting someone else to figure out what is wrong with us. And we keep trying to fix things on the outside instead of looking inside for our own natural wisdom. Our bodies are not a mass of unintelligible cells. Each cell has its own innate intelligence and not the kind that humans acquire by poring over books or earning degrees. I’m talking about an intelligence so advanced that it is beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals with our limited thinking and limited vocabulary (confined solely to our experiences as humans). Animals are in touch with and connected to this intelligence. If you have pets you might have seen your dog eat some grass and then throw up when they have tummy troubles. They take charge and know exactly what to do to feel better.

Treating your body as an entity separate from you and separate from the supreme intelligence is the big physical disconnect. Ancient cultures that lived close to the earth possessed this intelligence. They had a vast knowledge of herbs that could heal. Modernization has caused us to disconnect.

Modernization also imposed proper manners and etiquette. Some of these things are good, like expressing gratitude and waiting to take turns. But most of it is pretentious and asks you to deny your true feelings to avoid hurting someone else. All this has led us to stuff down our feelings and force ourselves to act like everything is ok. Think about it. Some of our interactions with people are so fake and superficial. Like robots we have structured responses to every situation. We disconnect from our heart and our own emotions. We let our heads do all the talking, making most of our relationships flimsy and obsequious at its worst. We also refuse to acknowledge our true feelings and are quite content with the charade we call life.

Lastly we disconnect from Spirit /God/ Almighty and this causes the most suffering. It is like a hole you can never fill. Like everything else we project to the outside world, we continue to seek God on the outside as something separate from us. We view ourselves as different from this being. Nothing can be further than the truth. We seek love on the outside from people as fragmented as us. That kind of love just keeps us hostage and wanting more but never really fulfills us. It is like uprooting a plant from the earth and then trying very hard to keep it alive by pouring water on it, keeping it in sunlight and spraying plant food on it. The plant needs the earth to complete its life cycle. We need to connect to our source of life to become whole. Connecting with the divine spark within us will heal us of emotional and physical issues. This is when miracles become every day occurrences. So we can walk tall with our mind, body and spirit in perfect unison all working for our highest good.

Once we make this connection we become aware of another disconnect. The nature disconnect. God is not only within us but also within every blade of grass, every drop of the ocean and every animal. When we disconnect from nature we pollute, destroy and deplete resources and drive animals to extinction.

Disconnecting is like making  Horcruxes (please excuse the Harry Potter analogy) and we walk around with our souls in several pieces totally and utterly unaware of the horrific consequences. While Horcruxes cannot be undone, we can piece back our souls by simply looking within and acknowledging our own divinity and the divinity of others.

I turned to God (up in heaven kind of God) to help me heal emotionally. Again as a healer I relied on healing from a Divine source (outside of me). They say God is omnipotent and omnipresent. As a kid I imagined several images of God all over the room, all over the world and all over the Universe (invisible of course!) Now I understand those words quite differently. God is within each one of us, has been and always will be. No matter where we are, we are with God at any given moment. Also every person we meet is divine. Yes, that includes you as well!

It is not easy to accept this idea of being one with others, nature and God all at once. So start slowly by looking for answers within. By connecting with that deep wisdom, healing, love and oneness every day. Slowly the connection will become stronger until you no longer need to consciously seek it. It will always be on!

So let me conclude by saying Namaste – the light within me bows down and honors the light within you. For we all have inbuilt flood lights we just need to remember to turn them on!


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Happiness, Trust and Uncertainty

I don’t want the fleeting happiness that comes from acquiring beautiful things. Nor the shallow mirth that comes from people who please you, praise you and bring you gifts. But I crave the satisfaction of one who need not try so hard to prove one self in a cruel world. One who without seeking has all the treasures of the world at one’s feet for the taking.

I no longer know what I want. After much striving and finally arriving at the place I wanted to be, I reveled in my success for a while before I realized all that I had strived for were worthy goals but in itself could not sustain my happiness. Husband – check. Kids – check. Home – check. Job – check. Sense of purpose – check.

Why can’t I enjoy the journey instead of fretting about the final destination? Especially since I have learnt many times over that there is no such thing as a final destination (even for a soul’s journey). Life does not stand still and idle. It seeks to go further and further to unseen lands.

The grey clouds outside reflect the gloom that has descended over me. A shroud of uncertainty that keeps the hopeful sun from lighting up my face. How many times will I falter and fumble knowing fully well that I am not in control. I never was. Led by an invisible hand to realms I had never dreamed of and experiences I never wished for. And yet all of it was necessary. All of it was beautiful. Even the cruel, dark places had their purpose. Uncertainty is not such a bad thing after all but it brings out the worst in us. The what-if questioning mind with its apocalyptic scenarios. But when I look back I see the paths that this hand led me down – sunny, shady, dark and gloomy. And I always emerged unscathed and stronger. So why can’t I trust that this hand will lead me down the best path yet. Down winding sun lit meadows and fragrant orchards. Up hillsides soaked in dew to mountain tops kissed by the clouds.

Trust is like plunging headlong into deep murky waters and suddenly bolting to the surface on invisible life vests. It is like falling backwards off the edge of a cliff placidly and getting caught in a safety net that happened to be there.

Why can’t I be like a child walking into the ocean holding its mother’s hand, trusting that when a big wave comes threatening to engulf him, she would clasp her arms around his little body and lift him up before the ocean could swallow him whole.

When you place your trust in something bigger than you then you can be certain that the right path will open up. When you trust, you give up anxiety about the future and are filled with peace and a deep inner knowing that it will turn out ok in the end. But to trust when you are in the eye of a storm and unraveling is the biggest challenge of all. After facing enough storms and upheavals I can assure you that those invisible arms held me tight and never let go – not once (although it felt like I was alone when it was all happening.)

So surrender and be at peace. Let the drama play out in your life and in the world and be no part of it. Know that it will all be over soon and you will be exactly where you are supposed to be.


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When the Omens Spell Doom…

No, I’m not talking about apocalypses. Not even World War III. I’m just exploring a question that came up during a conversation with a friend. She really didn’t believe in signs and was joking around about the ‘Universe’ sending her a really rotten sign. Me in all my self-righteous glory, got all defensive and declared – The Universe only sends positive signs!  After I hung up I wondered – Does it?

Let’s roll back to the year 2009. January 2009 to be precise. We were to travel to India to celebrate my grandmother’s 80th birthday. It is one trip I’ll never forget. It started off with a blizzard as we made our way to Logan International. Our flight to New York was cancelled and subsequently, all flights to New York were cancelled. The JFK airport was shutdown due to heavy snowfall. We couldn’t drive down in such bad weather so we tried to get a flight for the next morning. We were told that the next available flight was for Thursday of the following week. A day after my grandmother’s 80th birthday! I was almost in tears but instead of going back home we pleaded with every airline to put us on the earliest available flight.

Finally, we got a flight for next morning. When we arrived at JFK airport, the flight to India was overbooked. Several passengers from all over the North East had missed their flights due to the snowstorm and now the airlines were scrambling to get them to their destinations. We had to wait until 11.00 p.m. for our flight into Dubai. We wandered aimlessly all over JFK airport and met other aimless world travelers. Soon we had ourselves a group. Something that distracted us from a grueling day, dealing with airlines and spending countless hours at airport terminals. By 11.00 p.m. we couldn’t wait to board our 13-hour flight to Dubai. But the flight was delayed due to technical difficulties. The fact that we would miss our connection flight to Chennai loomed large. But we were powerless and totally at the mercy of the airlines. On the flight my ‘Om’ pendant which I was very attached to, got snagged on my daughter’s sweater. I undid it and then tightened the clasp (or I thought I did). I lost my pendant and my black-bead necklace which my parents got me for my wedding somewhere on the flight or in the airport.

Of course when we got to Dubai we had missed our connection flight. Again we had to run from pillar to post begging the airlines to rebook us. The next available flight was a whole 14 hours later! By this time we were all tired, hungry and slightly smelly from not having showered in a long time. We couldn’t conceive spending another 14 hours holed up in some lounge. Each airline blamed the other and refused to take on our motley group of bedraggled, malodorous and time-warped travelers. After several hours of haggling, a kindred spirit offered us visas to exit the endless loops of airport terminals we were stuck in.

A shuttle took us to a hotel, where we showered and wore the same clothes (I swore to pack an extra set of clothes for all of us in the future!) We ate some food that was not served in aluminum trays. My kids and husband took a nap. I was too scared we’d oversleep so I sat with my legs propped up on a stool. We made it on time for our final flight of the week.

Our parents were happy to see us, four days after our initial departure from Boston. If you think the story ends here you are wrong. I haven’t reached the worst part yet! I called my grandmother from the airport and her nurse picked up the phone. She said – granny is not well. At which point my grandma snatched the phone from her. She didn’t sound very well and was totally incoherent. I asked my mother if I should go see her right away. My mom assured me that she would be all right.

When we got home, we opened up the suitcases one by one. TSA had opened up every one of them. The specially engraved “Grandma” globe was shattered and all its contents spilt all over the suitcase. That’s when I got a really bad feeling. When we visited my grandma the next day she looked frail and sickly. No one except the nurse could understand what she was saying. Everyone said that now with me by her side she would get better and we could celebrate her birthday which was two days away. That was not to be. Her pulse started dropping in the afternoon and her breathing became labored. She stopped eating all together. The end came a day before her 80th birthday. I was shattered. We had planned to attend a celebration and now we had to arrange for a funeral. I wished I had been there earlier. I wished I had never gone away. All those years away from her – I couldn’t ever buy back that time. The tears wouldn’t stop falling and my heart wouldn’t stop hurting.

All those bad things that happened were in a way preparing me for this. I didn’t see the blessing in this situation. But then everyone who came to the funeral uttered these words to me – She was waiting for you. You are lucky you got to be here with her. What if I had simply given up and returned home when our first flight was cancelled? I wouldn’t have ever seen her alive and God knows if I would have made it in time for her funeral. Some mysterious force got me to fight my way through every delay and every obstacle. They say every soul gets to decide when it leaves the body and also who gets to be with them when they transition. That my grandma wanted me (who lived half-way across the globe) to be there with her is such a blessing to me.

So to answer the question – does the Universe send us bad omens or signs? Absolutely! Just to prepare us for what is to come. But not every sign is a sign from the Universe. Some can be simply a figment of our imagination or ego.