By Susan Beal
My husband, David, and I, went to India for two weeks in December. Siddhant, a beloved exchange student we hosted many years ago, was getting married. His family arranged for us to spend a week with them for the wedding festivities. We decided to spend a second week at a spiritual community planned around utopian ideals that we hoped would be restful after the wedding week.
There is little to rival the beauty and splendor of an Indian wedding. It was an overwhelmingly sensual experience – food rich with ghee and spices, henna paste painted in intricate designs onto our hands, trumpets and drums beating out wedding cadences, riotous dancing in the blazing sun, dazzlingly embellished clothing – everything swirling and teeming with colors, sounds, flavors and textures so unlike our quiet life in rural Vermont.
As Sid’s “American parents” we were welcomed as honored guests and treated like family. We participated in pre-wedding rituals we barely understood, were fed more Gujarati wedding food than we could handle, and were loaned traditional clothing so we were properly attired. Everyone wanted to meet us and tell us stories about Siddhant and his family or ask us how we liked India. Despite cultural differences between traditional Indian and American weddings, there were enough similarities to provide context and give us an emotional anchor. Through it all, we felt supported and protected by the warm hospitality of Siddhant’s family. And had we returned home at the end of that week, our trip to India might simply have been a delightful, if at times overstimulating, experience.
But as soon as we left for the Chennai airport and boarded the plane for Pondicherry, we had no one to mediate or interpret the intensity of India for us. I hadn’t realized how much the energy field of Siddhant’s family had buffered us from the psychic and sensory extremes of India. The sheer sensory overload began to catch up to me as soon as we left, not only from the wedding week, but from the scenery that flashed by us in disturbing polarities: ancient temples, ornately carved; gaunt, hard-faced women cooking meals for their children on rubble-strewn sidewalks; waves glittering on the Bay of Bengal; waiflike child beggars tapping on car windows; glossy cows strolling majestically through green fields; mounds of plastic trash tangled in the roots of banyan trees.
I suspect many of the readers of this blog, like me, are very sensitive to energies and environmental influences. I’m particularly sensitive to sound. I’m used to mostly natural sounds in Vermont—wind, birds, the sound of the brook, an occasional passing car. India was teeming with people, colors, noises, and smells unlike anything at home. The racket in India exacerbated the difficulty of taking in so many unfamiliar sights. The cacaphony of two-stroke rickshaw engines, diesel engines, blaring horns, barking dogs, rattling air conditioners, cement drills, and jack hammers made it hard to find my own center.
Despite my sensitivity, David and I are easy-going people. Normally we’d have taken such things in stride as an expected part of adventure in a new place. But we also knew we’d need down time to maintain our equilibrium. We thought we’d arranged for just that—a quiet, contemplative week to digest the wedding experience. Instead, the community we’d hoped would be peaceful and welcoming was opaque and almost impenetrable to casual visitors. We’d envisioned a serene setting, a meditative oasis, but the same scenes of deprivation and suffering were everywhere on the outskirts. Our guest house room, though clean, was stark and ill-lit, and filled with curry fumes from the kitchen exhaust fan below our glassless window. Hot water and electricity were intermittent. To top it off, we’d both picked up parasitic infections in the first week – the infamous Delhi belly. It seemed fitting that my digestive system was roiling along with my emotions.
The morning after we arrived at the community, we came upon a tiny puppy lying, unmoving, in the heat of the sun by the side of the road. The owner of the café nearby said the puppy been hit by a motor bike. He seemed unconcerned, and his apathy was understandable. Why worry about one little dog in the midst of so much other human and animal suffering? The wall my heart had built to cope with the grief and intensity of India started to crack. I wanted to help the puppy. I wanted to walk away and not face the tide of utter helplessness I’d felt since we’d arrived. I didn’t want to drown in that tide I’d held at bay, and I struggled as I stood there, between opening my heart or closing it, trying to help or turning away. I struggled with my American assumptions in the midst of Indian realities. Suddenly it felt like a test, my heart being weighed on a scale.
Hesitantly, I asked the café owner for a bowl of water and a towel. I washed the puppy’s wounds, nestled her in the towel, gave her an energy healing with the help of my inner colleagues, and blessed her. Though I didn’t think she’d survive the night, I resolved to find out if there was an animal shelter, or at least a concerned person who might help. I couldn’t do anything for the begging children, or the women raising families on landfills, or the skeletal cows eating trash, but I could do something for this puppy. I clung to her welfare in the midst of my overwhelm as a tiny act of love I could take to buoy my drowning heart.
I teach a form of meditation called Yoga Nidra, which means yogic sleep. It’s deeply restful and restorative, but one of the most powerful practices within it is called playing with opposites. First you focus awareness on, say, an emotion like fear, noticing how it feels in the body. Then you focus on the opposite emotion—perhaps safety. Then you move back and forth, noticing differences in how the body responds. And then you hold both opposites in awareness simultaneously— hard to do intellectually, but revelatory when you surrender to it as a felt sense in the body.
We tend to think of opposites as, well, opposite; but in practicing yoga nidra, I’ve discovered that sometimes they’re the same energy in the body, just interpreted differently by the mind or psyche. For instance, joy and grief feel strangely similar – a strong sensation of energy in the heart, although, given my different associations with them, they moved differently in my body. Grief feels stuck and lumpy; joy shines and flows. Yet when merged, they melt into each other and become a radiance in my heart center.
No matter how much we might try, we can’t escape our cultural and individual biases and the way they influence our perception. In these times of increasing sensitivity to the flashpoints of prejudice and privilege, all I can claim about my experience of India is that it was mine, and it was up to me to integrate its extremes within the context of my own life. One day, while leaving the elegant courtyard of our inn, I almost stumbled on an old man lying in a heap of rags on the sidewalk. I looked at him and then around the street. People – Indians and white tourists alike, were streaming past. I steeled myself, and walked past, but my heart tore apart. It took the little puppy to help me find a way to back to my center. Tending to her helped begin to reconcile the opposites of India in my heart. All the love and kindness I’d experienced during the wedding, all the horror and helplessness I’d felt in the face of so much deprivation and suffering, narrowed down to a single point when I decided to try to help that little puppy.
She made a seemingly miraculous recovery by the next morning. She was up and about and wagged her tail when she saw me. Even the café owner seemed surprised and happy by such a turnaround. But alas, we didn’t save that puppy. We had gotten the name of a member of the Auroville community who worked at the animal sanctuary and promised to search for her. He never found her, although he found several others while searching and brought them to the safety of the sanctuary.
Our bodies can make sense of what to our minds may seem like irreconcilable differences. But because our intellects often resist what our bodies understand, the body often reconciles such extremes through illness or injury. I was nauseous and utterly without appetite for over two months after returning from India. I lost 15 pounds and felt anxious and haunted. I cocooned in my safe, quiet bedroom for days on end, grateful for silence and stillness in which to slowly decompress and integrate. The whole trip to India—the joy, the pathos, the beauty, the horror—seemed to pivot on the moment I decided to help that puppy. All I could do was surrender to my body’s slow and steady healing, and wait for my appetite and energy to return.
What I’ve learned from the practice of playing with opposites in yoga nidra is that wholeness springs, in part, from the willingness to embrace it. Wholeness is implicate and ever present, waiting for us to recognize it, but our resistance to bridging differences and our love of neat categories can make us blind to it. It’s a common belief that beauty and joy are fragile, and even obscene in the face of suffering and degradation. We in the West seem to need dichotomies to make sense of the world. Our legal system is built on duality, as are our political and religious systems that define right and wrong for us. But the funny thing is, when you hold space for seeming opposites, when you really feel them in the body and the heart, the mind quiets down and paradoxes collapse. It’s not unlike eating food, in which something that is entirely separate from us, through digestion, becomes part of us.
One morning in India, while stopped in traffic in our taxi, I saw a toddler in the meridian, tied by her ankle with a strip of plastic to a shrub. Trucks, cars and auto-rickshaws whizzed past her on all sides while she poured water from a plastic bottle into the dirt and patted the mud onto her bare legs. She looked happy, utterly absorbed in play. A woman I assumed was her mother was knocking on car windows ahead of us. Just beyond the woman, a young boy and girl dressed in tatters were trying to cross the busy highway. Arms linked, they skipped and danced between cars, advancing and retreating across lane after lane of chaotic traffic. They were laughing as if it was the best fun in the world to make it safely to the other side.
I cannot know what lies ahead for that mother and her children. It’s difficult not to judge their lives from the standpoint of my own, and I feel many varieties of guilt and confusion. But the obvious joy of those children is what stays with me the most. It is there, in that innocent union of joy and suffering, where wholeness lies, and our divided hearts heal.
Views from the Lorian Community publishes essays from a team of volunteer writers expressing individual experiences of a long term, committed practice of Incarnational Spirituality (and the general principles shaping such a practice.) Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the sentiments or thoughts of any other person in Lorian or of Lorian as a whole. If you would like to subscribe, please visit our website and click on Follow Our Blog Via Email. Or email the editor:firstname.lastname@example.org.