Three friends

This is an approximate transcript of a presentation I made at a TCF (The Compassionate Friends) gathering of bereaved parents earlier this month. The topic was “Finding Hope after Catastrophe”. I hope you find it useful in some way.

“Hello. My name is Sangeeta. I am an Anaesthetist by profession and it’s my job to put people to sleep. Thank you TCF, for having me here this evening.

My son is called Saagar Naresh. I could often hear his cackles emanating from his room. I am pretty sure he’s watching cat videos again. He loves to laugh and make other people laugh. He’s as bright as they come, astutely picking up languages, accents and mannerisms of people around him. He would go shopping with his best friend Hugo to Oxford street and they would pretend to be South African tourists all day.

We loved cooking together. It involved chopping of onions. He got tired of his eyes stinging and watering and found a way out – he would wear his swimming goggles whilst chopping onions. It worked brilliantly!

He was an excellent cricketer. A fast bowler to be precise. He also played the drums in a band. He loved to go to the gym. Most of all, he had a heart of gold and even when he was a teenager, he loved cuddles. He spoke French and German fluently and chose to study Arabic from scratch at University as he wanted to challenge himself.

After his second year at Durham University, he came home for the summer holiday and was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. He was unable to go back to pursue his studies as his depression started to deepen. We saw a doctor on the 14th of October 2014. He told us that Saagar would have to wait till his medications kicked in, that he was on the right medicines but they would take time to work. On the 16th of October, Saagar ended his own life.

That was like a bomb going off in our lives. Losing him suddenly, out of the blue was our catastrophe.

Finding hope …

The Oxford dictionary defines Hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen”.

For me, Hope is the belief that it is possible that some of the best days in my life are yet to come.

Soon after Saagar passed away, just getting through the day was an achievement. The time ‘yet to come’ was a huge burden. I had nothing left to offer to the world and the one thing I wanted, the world could not offer me. My own mortality stared me squarely in my face and it was strangely seductive.

What was I left with? My logical mind had been turned into an emotional pulp as there was no logic to this. The more I tried to make sense of it, the more I suffered. It was like banging my head against a brick wall. It did not make any sense. Period. Deal with it.

What was I left with?

  1. This moment, right NOW
  2. Me, mySELF.
  3. Nature.

NOW

How deep rooted was my belief that Saagar would always be around? How much did I take that for granted?

What am I taking for granted right now?

My breath.

My parents.

My partner.

My job.

My health.

Let death be your teacher. ‘Right now’ is all I have left. Like a bird trapped in a cage. The door is open but the bird is unable to fly away. The cage is where he/she belongs. In the ‘now’, I could only sit and watch the door, knowing that it was open. I could breathe in, take a pause, breathe out, pause, breathe in and repeat… I could fully acknowledge and feel the dark hollow that was my chest and hear the echoes of my sobs returning from the black hole within. Connecting fully with the present moment was the only way past it. There was no short-cut. No secret escape route. One moment at a time. Now, I am walking upstairs. Now, I am halving cherry tomatoes. Now, I am watching the steam rise from my cup of tea and so on… My refuge lay in this moment, right here. Right now. The future is a story. The past exists in our thoughts. Yet, our mind is in one or the other. What is real is this moment.

I had a patient once who had a black ‘Gratitude’ tattoo on her left forearm in a big bold decorative font. I asked her the story behind it. She said, ”I work with kids with learning disabilities. By the time I’ve brushed my teeth in the morning, I’ve achieved more than they can. So, I am grateful every moment.”

SELF

I was lucky to have so much support at that impossible time. My mum and brother came over from India to be with me. My friends, Saagar’s friends, their parents, my work colleagues. Everyone stood by me with love and compassion but ultimately it was up to me to live with this utter devastation. I was filled with so many questions, so much guilt and grief that I felt like I was drowning. 

It took 2-3 years but slowly I taught myself to be kind to myself. I am still teaching and reminding myself that our everyday reality is made up of stuff that is unthinkable for most people. We live the life that is other’s worst nightmare. Many can’t even imagine what it’s like to be in our shoes. 

So, we need to honour ourselves for carrying on living with as much grace and dignity as possible after having absorbed the impact of such a huge catastrophe. To know that the harsh inner critic will continue to chatter but we need to witness its mumbling, recognise the pointlessness of it and let it go.

We need to have compassion for ourselves. Compassion being not just a gentle kind feeling but small acts of courage. For instance, I used to love dangly ear-rings ‘before’. I would change them every day, to match my clothes. But for 3 years ‘after’ I didn’t change out of the boring old gold studs. One day I decided to change into one of my favourite pair of ear-rings for no particular reason. It was a small shift. It took courage. I cried. But it was an act of kindness towards myself. I needed my own friendship, my own affection. I needed to once again find ways of being at ease with myself. Lord Buddha has said “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

I am learning that I need to be a ‘compassionate friend’ to myself.

NATURE

That wretched day in the middle of October was cursed but also resplendent with autumn colours. It was a festival of orange, ochre, red, green, yellow and terracotta. These decorative leaves carpeted our street. I stared out of the window watching these leaves gracefully dance their way to the ground. The trees went from being semi-nude to naked. This was the cycle of life. Nature was reminding me and showing me the devastating beauty of life. Cycles upon cycles of change, millions of times over. The impermanence of everything.

Over the next few months, I sat gazing at the Himalayan mountain range, marvelling at its history and all the changes it has undergone. I sat on a beach in Goa, watching the ocean waves change every second. Over time, I started to allow Nature to teach me what I needed to learn and soothe me when I needed to be soothed. I learnt that we humans can carry the utter tyranny of life in one hand while simultaneously carrying the spectacular beauty of it in the other.

I requested everyone to join me in singing this song by ABBA and was delighted by the upward shift of healing energy in the room as everyone sang together. It was a powerfully uplifting evening.

I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me cope with anything
If you see the wonder of a fairy tale
You can take the future even if you fail
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream

I have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while
Pushing through the darkness still another mile
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream

I have a dream, a song to sing
To help…”

Day 960

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Q: I don’t see how I can be free now. As it happens, I am extremely unhappy with my life at the moment. This is a fact and I would be deluding myself if I tried to convince myself that all is well when it definitely isn’t. To me, the present moment is very unhappy – it is not liberating at all. What keeps me going is the hope or possibility of some improvement in the future.

A: You think that your attention is in the present moment when it’s actually taken up completely by time. You cannot be both unhappy and fully present in the Now.

What you refer to as your ‘life’ should more accurately be called your ‘life situation’. It is psychological time : past and future. Certain things in the past didn’t go the way you wanted them to go. You are still resisting what happened in the past and now you are resisting what is. Hope is what keeps you going, but hope keeps you focussed on the future. This continued focus perpetuates your denial of the Now and therefore your unhappiness.

Q: It is true that my present life situation is the result of things that happened in the past, but it is still my present situation, and being stuck in it what makes me unhappy.

A: Forget about your life situation for a while and pay attention to your life.

Q: What is the difference?

A: Your life situation exists in time.
Your life exists now.
Your life situation is mind-stuff.
Your life is real.

Find the “narrow gate that leads to life.” It is called Now.
Narrow your life down to this moment. Your life situation may be full of problems – most life situations are – but find out if you have any problem at this moment. Not tomorrow or in 10 minutes, but now. Do you have a problem now?
When you are full of problems there is no room for anything new to enter, no room for a solution. So, whenever you can, make some room, create some space, so that you find the life underneath your life situation.

Use your senses fully. Be where you are. Look around. Just look, don’t interpret. See the light, shapes, colours, textures. Be aware of the silent presence of each thing. Be aware of the space that allows everything to be. Listen to the sounds: don’t judge them. Listen to the silence underneath the sounds. Touch something – anything – feel and acknowledge its Being. Observe the rhythm of your breathing : feel the air flowing in and out, feel the life energy in your body. Allow everything to be – within and without. Allow the ‘isness’ of all things. Move deeply into the Now.

-An excerpt from “The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle

Day 730

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Historically, I love autumn. It seems that nature has been saving up all its grandeur all through the year for the month of October. The stunning, warm, earthy colours, the cushion of leaves under the feet, the crisp morning sun and the hypnotising evening light. A time for change.

Big change from the energetic lightness of summer to a calm and reflective time.
A time to be centered.
A time to be quiet.

Last 2 autumns have been cruel. They have thrown not just seasons, but Time out of synch. Things seem to be happening in the wrong order. Time has taken on a strange nebulous quality. Starting and stopping at will. Meandering and then barging ahead with full force.

This is a new autumn. It’s a new opportunity to heal. To learn to let go, like the trees let go of their leaves one by one, completely denuding themselves and bravely exposing themselves to the harsh winter, only to come alive again, fresh and new. To know that ‘acceptance’ and ‘forgiveness’ are processes that take their own time. They cannot be rushed. All we can do is allow time and space for them. Pain is a constant companion, sometime more visible than others. Again, it cannot be shooed away. All I can do is to acknowledge it and honour it and allow space for it to sit with me. Settle down.

“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.”
― Ernest HemingwayA Moveable Feast

Day 724

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First law of Thermodynamics : Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

Within my basic understanding of physics, I think of it as: when breaks are applied to a moving car, the kinetic energy from the movement is converted to thermal energy causing the break-pads to heat up. Similarly the turning blades of a wind turbine transform wind (kinetic) energy into electrical energy.

May be each one of us is a field of energy. May be that is why the interaction between two people changes when a third person brings their energy into the equation. May be that is why we like someone for no reason at all and dislike someone for no reason at all. May be our energy can neither be destroyed nor created. So even after someone’s physical form disappears, their energetic form continues to exist. May be it just changes its expression. May be it flows through the people they knew.

Being with Saagar’s friends is comforting for me as I feel his energy in them. It’s the same for them, being with me.

I see our compassion grow. I see us being creative. I see us going out of our way to deepen our understanding of the human condition. I see us wanting to make the world a better place. I see us taking small steps. I see us all constantly loving Saagar and carrying his beautiful energy within us.

 

Day 716

Today I was a tourist in Lagos, Portugal.

This is our second visit here. Aside from having friends here, what brought us back is its pace and ease of life. It is an ancient seaside town, loaded with natural beauty and a few tourists.

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The Saturday Market, a short bike ride away from home was the highlight of this morning. With baskets hanging off the handles of our bikes, pretending to be two of the locals, we feigned annoyance at the ‘tourists’ getting in our way. Once in the market, the truth about us came spilling out. Out came our cameras and a huge appreciation for the ability to buy produce from the farmers directly. Friendly, relaxed faces manning tiny stalls sold locally grown seasonal produce – figs, chillies, grapes, olives, almonds, rosemary honey, tomatos, greens, homemade breads, sweetmeats, fresh and dried herbs, flowers, plants and other everyday little things. Saagar would have loved the real peri-peri.

The market reminded me of my childhood in India, buying real food from real people, sharing with them the value of their land and labour. It reminded me of sweeter, simpler times. Times when we had a feel for the land and a connection with each other through the food that it produced.

Simplicity is indeed a virtue, be it a town or a person.
The simple joy of breathing clean air, priceless.
So many simple things are now lost in many parts of the world!

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Leonardo da Vinci

Day 713

“Thank you Gas-lady” said the surgeon at the end of our working day as he picked up his bag to leave the operating theatre. I acknowledged it with a smile and a nod. That’s sweet. At that moment it didn’t register but later I realised that he does not know my name. We have worked in the same theatre complex one day per week for the past 4 years and he does not know my name. That’s interesting. I wondered how many people I see on a regular basis and don’t know the names of.

How did that make me feel? Not exactly insulted but definitely unimportant. I found myself making excuses for him – may be he finds my name difficult to remember. It is a foreign name after all. But this is London and many people here have foreign names. May be it is a reflection of a basic power imbalance – every one knows his name but he doesn’t have to know everyone’s name.

Knowing a name is a small thing, but it makes the difference between making someone feel that they matter or they don’t. When our name is known, we are more likely to have a sense of belonging to a person or a group. It also means that who we are is central to the interactions we have.

“Could someone get the defibrillator please?”
“James, could you please bring in the defibrillator?”

Which one of these two statements is likely to produce a quick and effective result? Knowing names can make it easier to get a job done.

Patients are not diabetics, schizophrenics, bed 10, ‘last on the list’, so on and so forth. They have their names and unique identities. Of course, it is not always easy to remember names. It does take some effort. It is easier to put in that effort if we know how much of a difference it can make not only to others but also to us. I find myself paying more attention to names now. Even if I get it wrong, I like to think I tried.
It is definitely worth the effort.

( Saagar was really good at remembering names. In fact, the more unusual the name, the more fun he had with it. Well, there’s a name I’ll never forget – Saagar.)

Day 712

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I long suspected that doing nothing was under-rated. I could do ‘doing nothing’ for hours, given a chance. Psychologists now believe that ‘doing nothing’ is in fact a positively restful activity. Day-dreaming is good for us and letting one’s mind wander is healthy.

Rest and doing nothing –same thing?
Rest and relaxation – same thing?
Rest and laziness – same thing?
Rest and ‘not at work’ – same thing?
Rest and lying in bed –same thing?

The Rest Test is a survey taken by the ‘old people’s ‘ radio – BBC Radio 4 to look into various aspects of rest. In the fast paced lives of today where each one of our free moments can potentially be invaded and claimed by phone calls, e-mails, face-book, texts and tweets, this survey is well timed.

It is the largest of its kind with 18,000 people from 134 countries participating in it.

What did it find?

More than 70% believe they need more rest than they get.
(http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5GF8npkXxpp4z0KBqGx2pl7/the-ten-most-restful-activities)

The most restful activities are: reading, being with nature, being on your own, listening to music, doing nothing, having a bath or shower, walking or exercising, day-dreaming, watching TV and meditating or practicing mindfulness.

All of the above are true for me but breathing consciously tops the list. Being with my breath keeps me connected to ‘right here right now’, to my ‘self’ and my sanity. The breath is a free resource. About 10 years ago I learnt to use it as a source of energy and calm at the same time. (http://www.artofliving.org/us-en/research-sudarshan-kriya) I experience deep rest through breathing exercises and meditation. 

Rest is often the unwritten part of a doctor’s prescription for various stress-related disorders. It is vital for our well-being.

Here’s a poem from the programme:

I expect you might at some point tonight
Beneath the sheets before sleep
Still reeling from the flaming lights
Want or more likely seek

Rest.

There’s no manifesto in this
No snake like lists of things to do
There’s no tomorrow either
There’s poetry as ever and YOU.