Sometimes, a conversation with a friend is comforting, enlightening and entertaining in equal measure.
The decision is made. Instead of taking a rickshaw or the car, we’ll walk. Rohi will lead the way to Shreyas restaurant (http://www.hotelshreyas.in/restaurant.php) that serves a Maharashtrian Thali. Although it is January, the mid-morning sun warms my back as we walk along Prabhat Road in Pune, India. As we amble along, cars, scooters, cycles and pedestrians race past. Perhaps, ‘race’ isn’t the right word. At most, they’re all going at 15 km per hour because the road is congested and choking with people, noise and smells.
There are squeals of laughter from children nearby. One man is selling vegetables by the roadside. A young girl on a scooter wraps one end of her dupatta around her head then expertly covers her nose and mouth. Once she puts on her sunglasses, there’s nothing of her face that’s visible and she’s completely protected from the pollution.
Since I’m meeting Rohi for the first time since my father’s death, it is natural this topic comes up during our conversation. He asks what my views are about death. I struggle to answer him because I’ve been so busy living that I haven’t thought much about dying. At least not about my own mortality. I tell him that what I have done for a long while now is to put systems in place to ensure that living is more manageable. I refer to a book I worked on, Yap Ming Hui’s ‘Set Yourself Free’ (http://howtotellagreatstory.com/2012/10/set-yourself-free-by-yap-ming-hui/) and we discuss this in some detail.
We arrive at the cross-roads and Rohi suggests we take the left lane. A while later, he takes a deep breath and responds to what I said.
“[M]ost people don’t want to face death,” he says. “They don’t want to talk about it or deal with its reality even though it’s inevitable. They even consider talking about death to be bad luck or inauspicious. For example, in my family, my father who is 80, not only does not talk about his death (or will) but changes the subject, when we talk about it. My mother, on the other hand, is much more open and wants to make a will. She also doesn’t want any rituals after her death.”
This is a side of Rohi that I don’t know even though we’ve known each other for a long time. He’s been a columnist for my newsletter for many years. I take my time to gather my thoughts. I look up at some of the buildings we’re walking past. I’ve been told that this is ‘the place to be’ in Pune. It’s the older part of the city and property prices have skyrocketed in the past few years. Some of the older houses have a grand and opulent architecture. They’re the kind of houses that make you sigh for the secrets and stories they hold within their walls. Then there are those few painful houses – the newer, somewhat garish structures where the land was sold to developers who did what developers the world over often to do – destroy the old and build new to make money.
Ready to speak, I tell Rohi that on the whole, I’m feeling ‘lost’, as though I am just ‘there’. I’m doing so many wrong things when all I want is to ‘be’. I’ve given up on achieving anything as nothing seems to be going my way. In fact, the more I try, the more of a mess things become. For example, in December, I was invited out for an evening with the promise of much fun and music. Through no fault of mine, the evening disintegrated into one of unnecessary drama. This made me wonder if it is enough to ‘be’ or is it necessary to take metaphorical steps backwards. Is there, in fact, a difference?
Rohi is quick to answer. “According to Eckhart Tolle and others,” he says, “the biggest reason for our suffering is unconscious thinking. We consider our thoughts to be “I” and “mine” and to be true. For example, if you have the thought, “I’m depressed.” you assume it’s true because it has arisen in your mind.”
Presenting it as an equation, he explains it in the following manner:
[Negative thoughts] lead to a downward spiral = like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Negative thoughts lead to negative emotions.
Emotion is thought + its impact on your body.
To illustrate this, he says that when you become a witness, you observe the thoughts arising in your mind without getting affected by it. You detach yourself from the unconscious thoughts that arise from the constant judgment and blind reaction not only to external events and internal thoughts.
“That’s what the Buddha said,” he adds. “[T]hat the well-trained mind is your biggest asset and an ill-trained mind is your biggest foe.”
So I ask him, does being a witness mean being aware and mindful without judgment or blind reaction? His answer is yes.
While I digest this message, Rohi, asks someone for directions to our restaurant. We seem to have taken a wrong turn. In that moment, I don’t mind being lost. We’ve been walking under a canopy of tall trees and it’s been pleasant throughout. Had this been Kuala Lumpur, where more and more trees are being felled for various reasons – some logical and some not – unless I use an umbrella, walking from my flat to the train station can be torture with the unrelenting tropical sun. In Pune, I’m told, one often needs permission from the local council to fell these trees. Architects have to plan their designs around these lovely, tall trees.
When Rohi returns and says we need to backtrack as we’ve missed the entrance to the restaurant, another thought occurs to me. How does he reconcile all this, which I would imagine is regarded as being most unscientific, with all that he’s learnt in medical school?
There is a sparkle in his eyes when he says, “What I said above has been validated by science and modern technology such as functional MRI and brain mapping. None of it is unscientific. As Mr S.N. Goenka said at the UN, the Buddha was a super-scientist.”
Much later, I look this up and find an article that has published the transcript of this speech: (http://www.vipassana.co/discourses/Buddha-The-Super-Scientist-of-Peace). Excerpts of what Mr. Goenka said is as follows:
‘He [the Buddha] said, “I have experienced this law of nature, the Law of Dependent Origination, within myself; and having experienced and understood it I declare it, teach it, clarify it, establish it and show it to others. Only after having seen it for myself, I declare it.”
This is the bold declaration of a supreme scientist. Just as whether there is a Newton or no Newton, the law of gravity remains true. Newton discovered it and explained it to the world. Similarly, Galileo or no Galileo, the fact that the earth revolves around the sun remains true.
The feeling of sensation is the crucial junction from where one can take two paths going in opposite directions. If one keeps on reacting blindly to pleasant and unpleasant sensations, one multiplies one’s misery. If one learns to maintain equanimity in the face of pleasant and unpleasant sensations, one starts changing the habit pattern at the deepest level and starts coming out of misery…
Thus, this super-scientist discovered that to become fully liberated from mental defilements, one has to work at the root of the mind.’
Back in Pune, though, I have to smile thinking of all the medically-trained people I know who will be offended by these suggestions. When I share my thoughts with Rohi, he says “You can check it out for yourself – no need to believe me or anyone else.”
With that, Rohi brings our discussion to a close and, with a wave of his hand, invites me to walk ahead of him. We’ve arrived at the restaurant and I’m hungry.
(11 May 2017)