To Be Born Anew We Must Die

Dr Usha Sundaram (Dharmakeerti), Bangalore

At the Satyanandashram in Bangalore I spend a few precious hours weekly in learning the art of living. On one such occasion, Swamiji was telling me the story of Milarepa, the Tibetan mystic who went to Marpa to learn the wisdom of the ancients.

Quite contrary to his expectations, Marpa asked his disciple to build him a house with stones hewn from the mountainside. When it was completed the guru looked at it with dissatisfaction and asked Milarepa to break it down and rebuild it. This went on for twelve long years. Every time the disciple built a house it was not good enough. It had to be destroyed and rebuilt.

When Milarepa first went to Marpa he was known for his impatience and ferocious temper. Twelve years later, when he sat with his guru, he had learned an inner quiet that no amount of book learning could give.

Swamiji continued, 'The mind is like a house. When you find that a concept does not stand the test of life, you must have the courage to give it up - break up your house and build again, many times. Do not be attached to your concepts. Holding on to a belief or a lifestyle based on it because you have learned it in the past, irrespective of its appropriateness to a present situation, only leads to suffering.'

A case history

Markandeya sat before me, dry eyed and tormented. He had undertaken a journey only a few hours earlier to his coming to my clinic and had been startled to find himself at the starting point all over again due to the good intentions of a very alert father. He had just had a stomach wash at the casualty room after having swallowed a bottle of rat poison in an attempt to end his life.

'He is a very intelligent boy, doctor,' said his father, looking puzzled. He went on, 'I cannot imagine how such an intelligent and brilliant boy could contemplate suicide.' Markandeya shrank into himself. Perhaps he thought he had let his parents down after their great sacrifice in sending him to school and now college where he was doing his first year BA.

Mirrored in the uncertainty of the father's eyes was the insecurity of many other fathers who had been to see me. All of them had had the anchor of a mental concept jerked from under their feet, a concept they had created for themselves due to a conditioning by society - a belief that formal education is necessarily the beginning to wisdom and mature coping skills. Parents then urge education onto their offspring, with a certainty that the higher the degree, the better the insurance against unhappiness; when later these youngsters take to drugs or resort to violence, whether external or internal, or are frustrated in jobs, then a sheet anchor is lost. A whole lifestyle of trust in their own and their children's abilities crumbles.

Education helps a person earn his livelihood in a specific way. It even provides a certain amount Of material comfort. But happiness or otherwise depends on an inner quality in the person, irrespective of jobs, money, awards and other external phenomena.

'Where did we go wrong?' sobbed the mother, 'Why did this happen to us?' Here was another illusion; much of the so called altruism and many sacrifices in life are really, at their depth, 'sound investments'. But 'sound investments' based on the rules of marketing can incur losses just as often as gains. Often parents educate their children so that they will turn out as a credit to them in society. Occasionally a parent tries to fulfil his own lost dream in his child, as if that child were simply an extension of himself and did not have his own identity. There are millions of reasons. But very few of them are totally unconditional and free of emotional strings.

A son's achievements in life are often seen as rewards or punishments with regard to the parents' expectations for him. Submerged in their own grief, Markandeya's parents did not seek to ask, 'What is happening to this boy?' And so it was that his mother very genuinely wondered where she had gone wrong for this catastrophe to befall their family. Markandeya hung his head in shame. To him the act of attempting suicide was an act of ingratitude to very caring parents. Added to this 'blunder' in trying to flee life he had managed to survive and now had to face the consequences of a family's angry reaction to needless scandal. 'We have given him everything he wanted,' they said.

Had they? Was it possible for anyone to get everything he wanted in life? And why did his parents feel they had to satisfy all his wants anyway?

Accepting oneself is the first step

Did he not have the responsibility to explore his own wants, satisfactions and frustrations? He had been brought up like a hothouse plant, every whim pampered to, and protected from life's suffering even as Siddhartha, the Buddha had been. But the law of nature does not respect parental or filial desires. It is often relentless in its march, sweeping aside rich and poor, small and big. And so it was that one morning when one of Markandeya's close friends suddenly died of a congenital heart problem, the boy who had never learned to experience a loss was left dumbfounded.

He was awed by this sudden happening. Something within him was shaken up. This was not life as he knew it. He was even a little frightened. He could not imagine a life without his friend. One part of him, the one that was attached to his friend, was dead and the rest of him identified with this deadness.

After this it was only a matter of technical details in finding a bottle of rat poison, emptying it and wanting to start on his journey to the void. It was then that his father, noticing the foam on his lips, carried him to the emergency room.

Now, as he sat before me, he grieved - not for his friend, but for himself, that he had escaped death and was back again with the business of living. He grieved for his dead self that he could not let go for burial, even as a fond mother holds on to the body of a dead son and weeps over it. This was not the moment for going into details and analyses. It would only reinforce an already helpless situation.

'Do you have any hobbies?' I asked.

'No,' he shook his head mutely. While his father anxiously tried to supply the answer, I motioned to him to allow Markandeya to speak. 'It was his suffering,' I said, 'and he can take responsibility for it only by his own participation.' Only then did Markandeya lift up his head. He had never till then thought he was responsible for himself - his joys and his sufferings.

'Is it wrong to weep for my friend?' he asked. His parents, unable to face his hurt, hastily intervened, 'Will weeping bring back your friend?' Many people try to reason away an emotion with an intellectual platitude. 'It is normal and natural to weep,' I answered him.

The boy looked relieved. Accepting ourselves as we are is the first step towards healthy coping behaviour. But time and again we judge, reject, deny, what we see to be vulnerable and fragile in ourselves as if rejection is a way of wiping them out. It needs courage to accept the 'ugly' aspects of oneself before one tries to change.

Stamp therapy

Markandeya then spoke to me, diffidently, about his friendship with the dead boy, who had on one occasion given him stamps. 'He was not a stamp collector,' he said, 'He just had a few in a packet.'

'Will you show them to me?' I asked. I noticed the surprise on the faces of his parents - why was I not examining Markandeya or prescribing drugs? Why did I want to see his half a dozen stamps?

To me he needed some challenge, some creative outpouring of himself, however small, to balance a deadness that had only culminated with his friend's death. Here was a boy who had never really lived but had just existed - a boy who had never faced the fun of having to solve the problem of a helpless situation, because always before, as soon as he had lost something, he had had it replaced. Now he had been thrown into a situation for which, with all his education and wealth, he was ill equipped.

Over the next month, Markandeya was to see me once a week, dropping in shyly, with his stamp album that he bought for himself, and all we discussed was stamp collecting. Markandeya learned that to remove stamps, one had to cut the paper along with the stamps, immerse it in water and let them peel off slowly. In that way they were undamaged. So it is with our vulnerabilities and mental limitations. If we peel them off roughly we can be hurt. But soaking them in the water of love and acceptance allows them to slip out of the mind gently without leaving scars.

Markandeya learned to love himself first - that he may love others as time went by. He learned to give himself an inner freedom from his own demands and punishments.

Slowly he began collecting stamps with themes. When he collected cars we talked of vehicles. 'If a car did not run, no one would kick it. We would try to find where the defect lay and set it right,' he said. 'So, too, with the human body,' I added.

A few days later we came across 'important people' on some stamps. We then discussed people who had inspired humanity - socially in the lower rungs of life, a carpenter - Christ, a weaver - Kabir, a priest - Ramakrishna. Perhaps the boy felt that in his smallness lay a potential for higher living. We talked of the intense, single minded devotion of great artists to something within themselves that flooded out on canvas. By now his own creativity was surging inside.

Slowly Markandeya picked up bird themes until one day he brought me a soaring eagle and placed it in front of me: 'I am ready now,' he smiled. 'Can I come and help you counsel people who attempt suicide?'

We must die to our limitations

Some part of Markandeya had died with his friend and had been recreated. I am not talking of his physical act of attempting suicide. That was incidental and even needless. But every day we hang on to concepts of being limited, being useless, hopeless, struggling needlessly in the dark. This ranges from concepts like 'I cannot learn the local language, I cannot eat rice, I am used to chapatti', 'I cannot stand the sight of so and so', 'Philosophy is alright but it is not for me - I am only human, so I cannot handle my frustration', 'I cannot give up what I have learned over 40 years even if I know it is self-defeating', etc. There are millions of beliefs about ourselves that bind and limit us. The saddest part is that we think these beliefs are reality and we do not give ourselves a chance. We lose wonderful opportunities for fun in the process, because of our fear of a fantasy of uselessness.

We are a part of the absolute and as such are unlimited in our potential. But to see the wisdom of this, no platitude can help, however profound. We have to allow ourselves the freedom of testing out if our beliefs are reality and in the process die to our limitations. It is only the mind that says 'you cannot'. The spirit is silent in its limitlessness.

'Yes,' I mused as Markandeya left, 'the mind is like a house. When you find that a concept does not stand the test of life you must have the courage to give it up - break up your house and build again, many times.' We must die to each limiting conditioning of the mind to face the fullness of our infinite selves.

We must die many times that we may be born anew.

Courtesy: Bhavan's Journal