(Because of the opening content, I will say at the beginning of this post, instead of at the end, that I originally published this article in the September 1998 volume of The New Times newspaper. The first experience I describe in the article happened in the fall of 1997.)
As I sit here, only days away from undergoing surgery to remove an ovarian tumor, I find myself in a very reflective mood. I read yesterday that the Chinese word for “crisis” is a combination of “danger” and “opportunity.” I can certainly see the potential for both in my current situation. Since I do not yet know whether the tumor is benign or malignant, I am uncertain if I will simply experience a variation in the color of my day for a few weeks, or if this heralds the beginning of a major life change. The danger is obvious. So is opportunity, as lessons already abound.
The tumor was detected days before I was to leave for my annual visit to Amma’s ashram in South India. This trip has been a major part of my life for the last eight years [Note: Remember this event occurred in 1997. I can now say I have been going to India for 26 years!] The discovery of the tumor and the abrupt change in plans has provided me with the opportunity to face my fears of pain, disability and death, as well as providing lessons in letting go of expectations, letting go of desires, and trusting Amma to guide me. I am also getting practice in maintaining the attitude that all lessons I am given are for my own good.
I have to laugh when I remember that this is occurring as I am planning a workshop focused on staying in the present moment. I continue to chuckle as I recall that I am also in the midst of writing an article about how God can teach a multitude of lessons through a single event. This is so much the way Amma tends to teach me, i.e. through experience rather than words.
In a guru-disciple relationship the guru sets up a variety of experiences so that the disciple can see weaknesses that need to be addressed or lessons that need to be learned. I have no way of knowing how many of the lessons Amma consciously sends my way. Some might say that God, Spirit or the universe sends the lesson. Generally, I find it helpful to simply attribute lessons to Amma.
The first time I became aware of how many lessons can be learned from a single event was in 1995. I had decided to create a workshop entitled “Lessons on Lessons.” This workshop would give me the opportunity to teach much of what I had learned about the process of receiving, recognizing, and working through universal lessons. I planned to develop the workshop during that year’s pilgrimage to India. It didn’t occur to me that going to India with an intention like that was like holding up a sign saying, “Amma, please send me lots of extra lessons.”
Within minutes of my arrival at the ashram that year, two devotees enthusiastically said, “I can’t wait until you hear the new song.” One added, “Actually, some of us are concerned that when you hear it, you will leave your body and not come back.” (Often when I hear bhajans, i.e., devotional songs, I experience ecstatic bliss. Sometimes I feel like only my body is in the room, while the rest of me is in some unknown, unseen, wonderful place.) Leaving my body and not coming back seemed totally out of the question, however, so I was not at all worried. I was intrigued, though, and eager to hear the song. Some time was to pass before I would have that opportunity, since the senior disciple who wrote the song, was in Mumbai (Bombay).
Several weeks later, I traveled to Kozhikode (Calicut), a city in North Kerala, where Amma was conducting a seven-day temple re-dedication. I was assigned to stay on the roof of the temple. There were several places on the roof where mounds of rough concrete rose awkwardly two to three inches above the surface. Numerous times, when I passed a particular mound, my inner voice said, “Be careful, that concrete is dangerous.” My response was, “I see it. I AM being careful.” I would then continue blithely on my way. One day, as I was walking across the roof-top to my sleeping mat, not paying a bit of conscious attention to what I was doing, I tripped over the mound of concrete and tore a big piece of flesh from the top of my toe.
The injury was very painful but that was the least of my concerns. Having an open foot wound in India seemed very dangerous. Most of the time I go barefoot and the ground was undoubtedly filled with untold numbers and varieties of bacteria. My nursing background told me that the extreme heat and humidity created a perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
I cleaned the wound as best I could and went on with my life. I found I needed to stay very conscious of my surroundings because any time I would lose concentration, I would hit my toe on something, sending waves of pain coursing through my body.
That same day the swami who wrote the song my friends were so eager for me to hear arrived in Kozhikode. He sang it that very night. My friends were right, the song profoundly affected me. Massive amounts of energy soared through my body and with it came waves of deep grief. As I cried and cried, another part of me noted that my experience was somewhat muted due to the pain I was experiencing in my toe. I thought, “Well, Amma, THAT was an interesting way to keep me in my body!”
I was aware that this incident had already served three functions. It reminded me of the importance of paying attention to the instructions given by my inner voice and showed me that I could trust Amma to help me during altered-state experiences, i.e. the pain had kept me from going “too far” out during the song. I also recognized that the injury had provided me with practice in mindfulness in that I needed to stay very conscious of my environment so that I didn’t hit my injured foot, not to mention that if I had been mindful, I would not have injured my foot in the first place. During the next few days, I discovered other learning opportunities.
First, I stayed focused on the re-dedication program. A number of devotees had decided to explore the city. The fact that my foot hurt when I walked made it easy to say “No” to diversions and to stay focused on my spiritual goals.
Before I left the U.S., I had attended a workshop led by Steven Levine, who is considered by many to be a master teacher in the realm of living and dying consciously. He commented that if we want to pursue a spiritual path, we have to be willing to feel fear. I was certainly having the opportunity to face my fear of infection and pain.
A minister once taught me that you have to use the faith you have before you will be given more. I was being given the opportunity to trust that I would be taken care of and, at the same time, trust that whatever happens is for my own good.
My toe healed at an amazing speed. I would not have expected it to heal so quickly even in the United States where cooler temperatures and a cleaner environment would have made it easier to protect and take care of the injury. The speed of the healing tremendously increased my faith in the power of the spiritual energy flowing through me.
I recognized that I had learned at least seven lessons from this one incident. I wondered how many more I had learned at an unconscious level. In addition, the friends that were supporting me had the opportunity to learn many of the same lessons by watching and participating in my experience. Also, I had a new segment for my workshop, i.e., I could teach that by staying conscious one can learn many things from a single event.
As I bring my mind back to my current health problems, I am thankful for all I have learned in the past. I am very aware that those lessons prepared me for what I am experiencing now. I know there is much to be gained from this unexpected turn of events. While I grieve not being able to go to India, I also feel a sense of adventure as I anticipate what is to come. I thank God for the adventure that is Life.
(Note: The ovarian tumor turned out to be benign. I recovered rapidly from my 1997 surgical experience and a month later traveled to India for a short visit.)