Three Learnings From Doing Nothing
Posted by Somik Raha on Jul 22, 2018
As an engineer, I have always wanted to make the world a better place. Usually, and perhaps erroneously, I would assume this meant "doing something." And yet, there are times in one's life when one cannot "do" anything. The three interactions on this trip helped me go deep into doing and being, and the dance between them.
A meal of love
Perhaps as old as I am is a term of endearment my aunt uniquely used for me. Every time I've heard her call me in that way, I have always been connected to her in love. The interregnum between the last time I saw her (three years back) and this time has been punctuated with devastating personal loss. Her older child, a single mom, passed away after fighting multiple organ failure while still in her early forties, leaving behind a 15-year old autistic daughter. Right before this loss, my aunt had a stroke from which one side remains paralyzed. Combined with this is a strange memory loss, where she cannot remember things that are "current." People think she hasn't registered the loss of her daughter, but strangely, from the day her daughter died, she has not uttered her daughter's name even once. My mother, who is her youngest sister, had me make an end of life document explicitly waiving any life extending interventions. Her main reason for doing this was witnessing her elder sister's condition.
It is in this context that I went to visit her. My mother had given a few hints of how hard their situation was. Nothing prepared me for the aggressive way in which her home nurse lifted her off the bed and put her on the chair. To get a visual sense of this, I recommend watching how Queen Victoria is lifted off her bed by her attendants in the film "Victoria and Abdul," only in my aunt's case, it was three times more aggressive and minus the respect. Seeing that made me gasp. My aunt looked shrivelled, a shadow of her former healthy, cheerful self that I fondly remembered. Then, the nurse proceeded to feed her. Actually, feed is the wrong word. The nurse shoved spoons of gruel aggressively into her mouth. That was the second time I gasped, feeling the violence of that action as though it was me at the receiving end.
I had been warned against any kind of conflict. Nurses are part of unions, and there is no guarantee that things would be better if one complained. On the contrary, any retaliation on the part of the union would simply bring their household to a grinding halt. There was nothing I could do to make her life better. The only thing I could do as my act of rebellion was to look at her nurse and say, "I'd like to feed her with my own hands." The nurse was surprised, and retorted, "Oh, you have no idea how long you will take if you feed her. I know how to feed her quickly." I was astonished to hear this, and responded, "I am in no hurry. Is anyone else in this room in a hurry?" My other relatives all nodded that they were not in a hurry either. Thankfully, the nurse backed off and let me pick up the plate and spoon.
Knowing this would be the only meal I would get to feed her, and that it would be back to the aggression right after, each spoon wasn't just a spoon for me -- I saw it as a force of compensation, a force of love. Slowly, gently, with tears in my eyes, I fed her. My uncle asked her, "Do you know who is feeding you?" My aunt, who normally cannot relate to her surroundings anymore, immediately called out the term of endearment that she has used for me since I was born.
In that moment, we were bonded again in love like always. I saw through her physical weakness into her spirit, an ocean of love that just had one objective -- to give. After her feeding, with all her strength, she repeated one sentence to whoever cared to listen, "Feed him." She could not process any acknowledgment that it would be done -- but her soul communicated that intention again and again through the few words she could spare.
I couldn't bear to take a picture of us, but someone else did during her feeding, and every time she is shown that picture, she remembers me by that term of endearment. As I sit writing this now, that single meal of love that she allowed me to feed her seems to fed my soul in ways that words cannot fully express. She taught me that by witnessing her pain, allowing myself to feel the discomfort and not blocking it out, is actually "doing" something. It may not count as conventional doing, but it is a doing that nourishes us beyond where the eye can see. I left saddened by her condition and yet deeply nourished and honored at being a witness to her pain and our love.
Growing up, I remember an uncle and aunty, colleagues of my father, who were very close to our family. There was something different about aunty -- she always treated us kids with respect, as opposed to asking us to scamper off or ignoring us. I remember that in every conversation, she would participate with us as equals, and not as a superior. The last time I was in India, it was my privilege to be able to express to her my gratitude for that respect, and that she was a role model in my life. Three years later, she had passed on rather unexpectedly, and in her passing, I saw another role model in her husband.
He was ex-military, a strong man with strong views. His integrity was tremendous, and he had zero tolerance for corruption and corrupt leaders. Conversations with him were boisterous, and I always saw his passion come through. Nothing, however, prepared me for his complete breakdown at the loss of his wife. Not a day goes by when he is not in tears, feeling that loss and grieving. Almost a year has passed now, and I called him up to talk. He told me, "People say that deep wounds like this heal over time. My finding is that it only gets worse. I miss my wife even more."
This was another situation where the engineer me could do absolutely nothing. I visited him and witnessed his tears. He told me that there was nothing for him to "do" -- the wave of love he was in was guiding all his actions. He wasn't trying to be emotional or strong. In fact, his thoughts had gotten out of the way and he was being himself with no other way to be. I had no inclination to utter any words of advice. Telling him to be strong just seemed deeply inauthentic. Instead, I found myself growing in admiration and sharing with him, "Thank you for teaching our generation that it is alright for men to dissolve themselves in love through their tears, and that love is worthy of expression." We grieved together, and I wanted him to know that I loved him. Somehow, inspite of me "doing nothing," he shared as we left, "this was very comforting." I left like the last time, saddened and deeply nourished and honored again.
The "Om" of Love
During my undergrad days, I had two professors who literally watched over me and nourished me like family. One of these mentors had the gift of the gab. It was such a pleasure to hang out with him, be thoroughly entertained by his ready wit and touched by his deep empathy. He had spent decades establishing a Yoga university while also being a professor of mechanical engineering. Every time I visited his city, we would always meet up and spend hours talking about values, ethics and science. In the three years since I last hung out with him, a life-altering event happened. My mentor had a brain aneurysm, causing emergency surgery that ended up damaging his speech center in the left brain.
Physically one side is paralyzed, but cognitively, he can process everything one says. It's just that he cannot produce an output in words. When I met him this time, I was saddened to see him in his wheelchair, unable to contribute as he does so expertly with his words. The sadness slowly gave way to wonder, as I started noticing that his family could understand his utterances that all sounded exactly the same, "Auuuhh Auuuhh." Then I noticed that there were differences in intonation. Coupled with context, and with back-and-forth questioning, I realized he was fully participating in our conversations. Even more amazing is that he was undergoing music therapy. It turns out that while the speech center is in the left brain, the music center is in the right brain, which was intact for him. He could chant a perfect and deeply musical "Om," but could not speak any words. His therapy is now around triggering a form of communication through musical intonation.
In our conversation, as I started telling him excitedly about my work on values like I would have normally, he nodded vigorously and even invited other members of his family to listen. As we got deeper into the importance of being in the work of values, he started intoning an "Om" to communicate his resonance. Somehow, I started understanding the context and asking him questions, "Did you mean that the goal of all work should be spiritual?" He nodded vigorously.
And then, I felt an overwhelming wave of love from him, which was followed by instructions in his new language to his family that they easily interpreted as, "Oh, you want us to feed him?" He nodded vigorously. I enjoyed a delicious meal in his presence, and he made sure I had seconds. I left knowing that while he might develop new ways of expressing himself, he would never get back his original ability of speech. There was nothing I could do about it. And yet, there was such a grandness in the way he welcomed me into his home and life, allowed me to witness his present moment exactly as it is, fed me and blessed me as a dear teacher would bless a dear student.
I felt it would be a dishonor to his spirit to feel bad for him. Like the other two experiences, I felt deep respect for his being.
These three experiences reminded me of an experience with Swami Vedananda of the Vedanta Society. I had once accompanied him to visit a dying monk at a hospice. As we waited to see the monk, we saw people in various states of decline. One man looked at me and mistook me for someone else and wanted to converse about something. I looked to Swami Vedananda to process all of this, and he spoke slowly and gently, "We are all in the queue for this. Soon it will be our turn."
Living in a relentless world of doing, which by the way, is a world of our own making, it is easy to live as though we will never die. Our inescapable mortality, whether we acknowledge it or not, creates authentic learning moments for ourselves and others on what is truly important. For me, those learning moments come alive when my mind has given up and allowed me to be, and there is nothing as powerful as a so-called helpless moment to get my mind to give up.