I wake at 1:30 am. “On the human body clock, it’s the liver’s time of day,” a friend says. If I can go back to sleep (unlikely) I’ll be up again at 3:30 am when time rolls around to the adrenals. They’re exhausted from a year of illness.
No mind. At any time of the day or night I have something meaningful to do even when sick. Even with positive engagement, though, I have to work on surrendering to what is and as the days wear on, the internal posture of surrender wears on me. I shuffle to the bathroom to freshen up and collapse into an easy chair where I’ll spend the next three hours. I carefully draw up my legs into a lotus yoga pose, cover myself with a throw, and reach for my prayer beads. The simple wealth of the beads always invites me. I slowly pull the first bead of the mala between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand.
Weakened from the effort of rising from bed, I allow my head to rest on the back of the chair, close my eyes to bring my awareness to the self. It’s easy to drop into this meditation. Throughout the day, feeling myself as different and separate from the body predominates my perception, so much so that the body can feel downright awkward being so extraneous to me. Now, I easily feel myself at the heart.
Every day I take the opportunity to turn from the world of matter and knock on the door of consciousness.
I petition my Divine Other, “Please allow me to become present with love.” I push back distracting thoughts and pain and begin to chant in a low, rumble whisper, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna . . .
If I’m blessed today the door will open again. It happens when I least expect it. The door of eternity opens and my attachments to this world melt in shame like the Wicked Witch of the West when Dorothy threw water on her. No experience or relationship holds any attraction when I glimpse reality. The freedom of the self is so alluring that I come back every day — and between “whenever” moments during the day — to knock. To cry. To plead, Hare Hare! O Krishna! Please let me serve you. Please dissolve my wickedness and let me in.
I arrive quickly at this mystical door as soon as I begin my loving petition, Hare Rama, Hare Rama . . .
I’ve meditated so often on the charming, carefree youth who plays enchanting melodies on his flute. He bestows blessings on his loved ones and is superexcellently beautiful on account of his broad, merciful smile. He immediately comes to mind. Rama Rama, Hare Hare. He is always surrounded by joyful friends whose characters are sublimely sweet, gentle, humble, and loving. I wonder, What kind of a Person is he who draws such extraordinary personalities to him?
Though the liver and adrenals persistently woke me I night, I could fall asleep with throbbing kidney pain, but not with the three-week searing head pain that made it nearly impossible to open my eyes or move my head. After more than two weeks with blinding head pain I went back to the doctor. “Between 1 and 10, what level is the pain in the head?” “12,” I said. But the urgent “stat” MRI of the head was scheduled for six weeks out – the earliest appointment available.
All systems began failing after an eleven-month assault of intestinal parasites I got on my visit to Costa Rica. I stopped eating and took to bed. “You have to eat,” my GI specialist insisted, “even if it makes you sick.” “Drinking water makes me nauseated.” But I followed instructions and ate. A half a bowl of soup one day, a half a cup of oatmeal another each making me extremely nauseated. I ate all the days, through three successive kidney infections, a head infection that took away my hearing for two weeks, and a lung infection that required a fourth round of antibiotics. But I could not eat with the head pain and accompanying fevers.
But more prominent are my spiritual practices. At noon I sit again in a yoga pose and begin to silently chant the Gayatri mantra. “Let me understand the truth of who you are. Allow me to be absorbed in the meditative absorption of pure love.” Each mantra draws me closer to the other side, to my inner landscape, where I’m most at home. As I finish the mantra I wake back up to the world and the body.
As the illness bore down on me my attempt to surrender demanded more patience, more prayer, and gave me increasing insights.
My experience is the same that everyone will experience: we all grow ill, old, and die. The more I suffered, the more sincerely I called out to Krishna. Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a nineteenth-century bhakti yogi, said illness is an impetus for spiritual life. This vise grip shows us things we cannot see in health – like the level of our courage and our temperament in distress.
As I lie on the table, Theresa, my acupuncturist said, “It’s the liver. You can’t take the amount of strong herbs and antibiotics that you did for that many months and not burden the liver.” As I counted the 32nd needle being inserted she said, “Sorry. I have to put in more than usual, you have almost no chi left.”
When I figured out it was parasites, I took one month of homeopathic medicine. Then oil of oregano—a whopping twenty sickening drops a day — for two weeks. After that, I turned to Hulda Clark’s famous parasite cleanse. A full thirty days. But the weight loss, diarrhea, nausea, and loss of appetite continued unabated. The critters feasted on what I needed and released neurotoxins everywhere. Surely mega doses of neem would kill them. “After all, neem can control Lyme disease,” my friend who had recovered from the illness swore. But, five weeks later, now nine months into the illness, I was sicker.
When the body collapses, it becomes piercingly evident that I’m not independent.
No matter what I do, no matter whether I have money to pay for the best treatments, I remain held in the grip of the illness. I’m not the controller.
Simple acceptance of what is powerfully mitigates the suffering. But . . .
I only find enduring solace when I’m directly connected to my Divine Friend. And I find my relationship with him most immediate when I’m chanting. So I happily pick up my mala and chant.
“In The 12 Stages of Healing, Donny Epstein calls that suffering,” a friend counseled. “No matter what you do, what you try, there is no relief. It’s a time when you just have to be with the suffering.”
Someone else said, “You know, I’m sensitive to people’s energy. So it’s kind of hard to be around you.” I stared back at him blankly. Sure, it’s not fun to be around someone who doesn’t talk much, has a serious expression on their face, and shuffles around the house.
Another well-wishing friend wrote, “Whatever you’re meant to learn, let it become clear so you can learn and get over this.”
Whenever I spoke on the phone, which was seldom, I got the same response, “I can barely hear you. Can you speak up?” No, I thought, I can’t. Turn up your volume or let’s hang up. “What’s wrong with your voice, it’s so raspy?” some would ask. “I’m sick.”
My heart started to ache, too.
Not because conversations with even close friends and family ended, but because I had to sit with my own ugliness. “Why do you judge what others do and how they do it? It would be just as easy to see the good in each person.” Sssssh, I tell myself as I move my beads, Focus on the names. “Why did you waste so much time in life?” The speed at which the world flings itself forward appears like madness now. I recall how I passionately worked. In retrospect, much of my effort seems so very foolish. Sssssh. Focus on the names. “Why can’t you fully surrender without an expectation of health or spiritual reward?” Ssssh. Chant the holy names.
As the weeks and months pushed on with no signs of recourse or release, I summoned patience and became more withdrawn as a foreigner in a world that moved at a very different pace, driven by different concerns.
In sickness I more clearly see what I’m holding back because life comes to a near standstill and there is no escaping from myself. There’s no way to just get busy to hide. I stop chanting to take a sip of water. As I drink, I decide to spend a few minutes contemplating the assessments I was making of my character. By honestly examining my shortcomings, I can make new resolves and commitments. So I squirm and reflect and own up to my faults. They are more sickening than the nausea of the illness. Why do I hesitate to surrender completely? I will completely resign my very self to my Supreme Friend.
Friends and family insisted I seek further medical attention.
I knew what I needed to do. When I had Typhoid in 2009, I had taken Flagyl for a concurrent parasite infection. The medication caused a relapse of the Typhoid. I came very close to dying. It’s the reason I was so reluctant to take Flagyl for this infection. Once, a friend had to take Flagyl for thirty days in order to save her eyesight. The day before she completed the course of medication her lung collapsed. Setting this fear aside, I did it. I went back to my primary care physician, “Give me Flagyl.” She did, the recommended ten-day course. But it didn’t work. “Give me more.” Seventeen days in, I was in the ER. After eight hours I saw a doctor, “Take this booster dose of Erythromycin and go home.”
After the ER sent me home, head pain and fevers started.
“There is no other way,” I said to myself, “submit yourself completely. The only hindrance to fully surrendering is your mind.” Stop criticizing yourself. I thought. It’s significant you continue your practice no matter what your shortcomings are. Focus on that and be peaceful.
As I tried to pacify myself and ease gently, gratefully into acceptance, a vision of the Princess Draupadi came to mind. She was a central figure in the great epic, the Mahabharata – the longest poem ever written, ten times the length of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined. A powerful warrior had tried to disrobe her in public. At first she tightly held onto her cloth with one hand and raised her other arm in petition, O Govinda! Save me. Very quickly she understood the folly of trying to protect herself. She threw up both arms in complete self resignation. In response, Govinda sent unlimited cloth and foiled the attempt of the mighty prince.
The holy name is a reliable, dear friend who has accompanied me for decades, through close calls with death, through happiness, through distress, through normal days and extraordinary ones, the mantra of the names has remained. When friends died or relationships dissolved or the body was incapacitated, my Supreme Friend, the Holy Name – my sacred mantra – has loyally remained with me.
I’ll throw up both arms like Draupadi, I thought. But, where will I find the patience? How long will this go on? After a few tears, I re-enter my inner world with the holy names. As my fingers pass to the head bead of the mala I notice I’m smiling, consumed in meditation on my flute-playing Friend.
This is good, Pranada, I think as I slowly return to the external world.
This is more real than the fallible mind and body. Continue your meditation, lean into surrender. What you meditate on, you become.