A Lesson In Letting Go From My Mother

As a teen, there were many days where I hovered across the kitchen counter, watching my mom make fresh roti (Indian bread), ready to grab one as soon as it fluffed on the open flame. Of course, she would snatch it right back to spread a little butter on top before giving it back. Like a half-starved child, I would plunge right into the soft bread like no one had fed me for days. There's nothing like your mom’s cooking. And my favorite was the round hot rotis with sabji (curried veggies), and thick Punjabi dal (lentils).

Traditional chakla to roll rotis on
Within minutes of me stepping in the door, there would be the inevitable question of “roti banawa?” Should I make roti? The sabji and the dal were ever-ready in our house but the rotis were usually made fresh each meal. Like all Indian moms of that generation, she had her process. She would carefully break a small part of the kneaded dough, roll it into a small round ball between her palms, spread it into a disk-shape with her hands; Then using a wooden rolling pin, methodically roll it into a perfect circle on a chakla (usually wooden but in her case, a round carved white marble). She would then carefully place it onto the round griddle on the stove, followed by the open flame to fluff it. With the next one already rolled out, this was the time for catching up about the day. The one thing that was unique about her process was that she never rushed -- she made them slowly, gently caring for each one as if everything in life rested on that one roti. Mom would sometimes even rest her left hand on her hip like she had all the time in the world, and hold a rolled roti in the other -- and chat with me while at the same time keeping an eye on the roti on the stove.
My Brother, Hubster, Mom, and Sister (circa 2004)

About seven-eight years ago, we were hosting a get-together at my parents home, and like most Punjabis (actually I think all :), she has a second stove set-up in the garage. I wish I'd kept to myself that day but I was trying to be of some help to her. We were running a bit behind schedule and she was just about finished with everything else, so now we just needed to make the rotis before the guests started arriving. I tried to work quickly, knowing that I was probably rushing her. As I was hurriedly moving everything closer to the table next to the stove, something happened that I wish I had the power to undo. The marble chakla that I've always seen her use -- slipped out of my hand and fell hard on the concrete garage floor. It made a loud sound as soon as it hit the surface, and broke into several pieces.

It was obvious right away that there was no way of salvaging it. I was shocked at my absent-mindedness and felt horrible as my mom looked over her shoulder to see what had happened. All I could muster was, “Oh mom I’m so sorry, I don’t know what happened.” She was quiet for a second and then just said “koi ghal nahi,” her version of “it’s okay.” She then walked over quietly, picked up the broken pieces and put them in the trash can in the garage. Quickly grabbing a smooth cutting board, she started rolling the rotis.
We continued with the rest of the evening and she didn’t say anything else about the matter.

Mom always looks innocent and
michievious at the same time
A few days later, as we sat down for tea, I still felt bad and wondered if I could find a replacement. I brought it up again but she said don’t worry about it, what’s done is done. When asked how long she had it, she casually mentioned that she had it for a while. Her grandmother had taught her how to make rotis on it. I felt so bad and I’ll never forget the look in her eyes when she gently confided: “It belonged to my mother.” Her mother! Who she rarely talks about because she doesn’t have any memories of her. Her mother who had passed away when mom was an infant, and she was raised by her grandmother and stepmom.

My older sister later told me that the marble chakla was given to her mother by her parents when she got married, and it was the last thing that my mom had left that belonged to her mom (and her entire lineage). She brought it with her from India to the US when our family migrated here. 

As my mom and I sipped tea that day, she shared none of this. Focused on making me feel better, with the wave of her hand, she just said, jaan de” (let it go), as she poured me more tea and asked about my day. Even now when I think about this, tears well up. If I was in her place, there’s no way I would’ve not said anything. There would have at least been a lecture or two about being more mindful, there would've been anger, or guilt for a little while about something so precious now gone forever.

As I recall this now, I feel like her reaction to this so aptly sums up who she is. Someone who goes through the ups and downs in life with resilience, selflessness, always focusing on what’s good, and what’s happening right instead of what went wrong. Someone who clearly knows that what is done cannot be undone, but instead of looking at the broken pieces of the past, you put them in their place, and just keep on moving forward with all the grace that you can muster.


To Receive the Truth, Be Empty

In the “Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master,” the author, Sri M, shares an encounter he witnessed between his spiritual teacher and an old man. There lived a very holy man in the holy city of Rishikesh, at the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Rumors had it that the holy man had left his position as the head Abbot of a very famous monastery to seek a higher “Truth”. As a genuine seeker, he spent his entire life studying sacred texts, and yet he had not found what he was searching for. Wary of all the fake gurus in the Himalayas, he did not want to seek anyone’s help. Instead, he spent his days by the river Ganges in meditation and nights sleeping in the courtyard of a temple nearby. He ate only when someone brought him food, and had no possessions except for one blanket that he used to meditate on, and as a cover from the cold at night. 

When Sri M came across him, he insisted that the Holy man should meet his teacher, Babaji -- who would certainly be able to help him. When they finally met, Babaji recognized the sincerity of the Holy man. He told him that it is great that he left his “crown” at the monastery but he is far away from the Truth that he seeks because he still carries the burden of knowledge. That burden acts as a barrier to understanding the reality. You have to be empty to receive the Truth.

He went on to share, “Now, Truth cannot be something in the past. It is the eternal present, and therefore, cannot be stored in the memory, which is a thing of the past, the dead past. Truth, on the other hand, is in the present the now, eternally flowing, pulsating with life, and therefore, cannot be touched by knowledge.” The Holy man mentioned that he always wondered about a phrase in the Upanishads (central book of philosophy for Hinduism) -- “He who worships knowledge enters into greater darkness.” The conventional explanation given to him was that it meant “non-essential” knowledge, which never fully made sense to him. He also confessed that he only felt great stillness once or twice in his life, “while doing nothing in particular, just watching the river or looking up at the clear sky.” 

This story made me wonder about the role that knowledge and intellect play on our spiritual path. In our modern world, we have unlimited amount of access to information and we can easily fill our minds with knowledge. How can we truly think about creating room for that “emptiness” that Babaji talks about while living in the most information overloaded era the world has yet seen? 

Perhaps even more dangerous than knowledge is partial knowledge, a fragmentary understanding of something. Confidently assuming that by understanding a small part, we now have an understanding of the whole. Knowledge can't be substituted for the lived wisdom that comes from our own experience. It can only inform us, and then we have to allow it to simmer in our own being, so it becomes actual wisdom that guides us. Confucious tells us that, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." That's a very humbling thought and I think he makes a very important point here. When we realize that we don't know what we don't know, it puts us in the student chair. And that is where we are continually open to learning and being a disciple of our experiences. 

What happened to our Holy man that started this conversation? After Babaji and Sri M. spoke with him, they left to visit another town. As they were traveling, they learned that four days after they talked, the seventy-year-old holy man happen to pass away.

The Holy man was sitting on his favorite rock, simply watching the river, and smiling in ecstasy when his soul left his body. He had finally found what he was searching for his entire life.


A Case for Solitary Spaces

We are born into this world alone. Surely there are others around to help midwife us from the solitary wombs of our mothers, where we are closely held for nearly a year. But no one can entirely relate to what we’re experiencing at that moment and the days ahead. It is mostly a solo journey of exploration and finding our place in the world around us.

From time to time I think we are called to return to that solitary space like the womb, to allow ourselves to simply be. Perhaps to take a close look at who we have become, without the voices of others encouraging or judging us. To reflect deeply on what’s guiding our actions and to remember (from the Latin "re-memorari," which literally means to be “mind-ful of”) our original intention. To empty ourselves of all that is not true. To nudge ourselves gently back onto the path, where we think we should be.

The word solitude might conjure up images of loneliness for many, but for introverts, it is what breathes life into us. It is not a privilege to retreat from time to time but an essential need.

My opportunity for solitude came earlier this month. A friend of mine was traveling to India, so I decided to take advantage of her studio cottage that lay empty for another week. It wasn’t the most ideal of times in terms of work, but I managed to press the brakes for a couple of days, and tried to wrap-up all urgent work, unsure of when I would get this chance again. Packed a few pairs of clothes, some groceries, and got dropped off at her place.

It didn’t take very long to settle into her small studio with just the basics. The wet and chilly winter weather made it feel like the perfect time to be indoors. I’m accustomed to silent 10-day meditation retreats with a rigorous schedule (which I wouldn’t trade for anything), but I wanted this one to be different -- to be completely agendaless. Something I haven’t done before. To allow space for things to happen organically. The only guideline was to be alone. Turn off all the distracting gadgets. Practice silence (inner and outer).

There’s nothing that allows you to see the nature of your own mind, like simply sitting down quietly. Meditation ended up becoming an integral part of it. I've been practicing vipassana for some years now, so that naturally became an anchor for the days. Mindful living, cooking, eating, and mindful cleaning became the norm. I noticed the places in my body where I was holding tension, even while doing the simplest of tasks, like washing an oatmeal encrusted pot or making tea. I found myself rushing to clean up after a meal, although there was no reason to hurry. Habits can run quite deep.

On the second night as I lay down to sleep, the body naturally fell into meditation. Surprisingly, I felt a heavy feeling right in the middle of my chest. Like a small disc lodged itself right in the center of it, blocking my energies. A stark reminder that the body is registering everything, even when our response on the surface is fine. The next day, meditation took on a more intense form.

The perspective shifts so quickly, when you're in solitude. Just a day ago, it was hard to justify to myself taking a couple of days off, the events of the world seemed so paramount. And now this seemed to be the most important thing that I could be doing with my time. Although my time was coming to an end, I was simply just not ready to leave yet, so texted N to see if he would be okay if I spent another four days away, and could he cancel all my appointments and take care the urgent responsibilities. He enthusiastically wrote back and encouraged me to continue the retreat, excited that I was taking the time off.

Over the next few days, there was a shedding of many layers. The thoughts that were offensively loud when I arrived were simply just no longer relevant. The small petty questions and worries turned into big ultimate questions. Who am I -- without my current identity, my relationships, my fears, my joys? The mental filters through which I’ve now become accustomed to seeing the world started to fall away, ever so gradually. The ego has such a funny way of creating its own world and its own illusions, then fully abiding in them. The only way to counteract it is, to at least become aware that we’re largely products of our own thoughts. And continue to observe the mind like a jury watching a witness on a trial, attentive but detached from the situation. With a deep understanding that in our own narratives, we’re usually the prosecutor and the judge, so the defense has zero chance.

Solitude has a way of cleansing us of the inessential in our lives. The debris of the actions of others around us gets swept away. We are safely returned to our own authentic imperfect selves, knowing that we can truly only just work on ourselves. (It is a stupendous enough of a task for a lifetime, that there’s no room to criticize the rest of the world.) The loud voices are replaced with a quiet contentment. The weakest parts find themselves strengthened. And I find myself once again ready to take on the world. Even some of the dreams while sleeping point to the larger purpose, the higher-self working its way through I am sure.

When the mind starts to take a backseat, our whole being seems to expand far beyond our perceived limitations. We are capable of a great amount of expansion and yet, without deep reflection, our egos can just as easily contract into themselves. This is perhaps why reflective time alone becomes so significant. To not consider life worthy of quiet deliberation would mean that we may be voluntarily handing it over to the inevitable contraction.

In some ways, it truly was returning to the womb for me, and allowing it to nurture me back to my original self. Martin Buber, a Jewish Israeli scholar said it best when he said, “solitude is the place of purification.”


A Time for Reflection and Renewal

The hands of time keep ticking forward without the slightest bit of assistance from us. Still we can’t help but use the passing of days and years as markers, the important moments, and milestones in our lives. Starting with the day that we arrived in this world, to when we started school to the multiple graduations. The day we got our driver’s license and wreaked havoc on unassuming drivers, or said “I do” to someone for the rest of our life. To the usual birthdays and anniversaries. Then there are the special occasions, the holidays, Christmas, New Year’s Eve -- when the whole world is aware of the specialness of the day.

I once tried to figure out how old my grandfather was, he told me he was born during the “harvest season”. Very quickly realizing that I was not going to get an exact day/month/year, I inquired, “but which year?” He excitedly tried to explain that he was born before his sister but after his brother and calculated roughly how far apart they were in age. But still no exact year and he sort of waved it off with his hand. It just didn’t seem important during the time that he was born. There were no birthday parties, no presents, no college admission, no annual health check-ups. All the kids worked on the acres of land owned by the family, grew their own food, made their own clothes, built the family home, slept under the stars, woke up to the sound of the rooster and the first rays of the sun. It was a different time. And a different place. As long as he lived, I don’t believe he ever celebrated his birthday. Life just went on -- without markers. I'm guessing he was somewhere between 78-90. :-)

Though I appreciate the celebratory nature of the holidays, I find something deeply spiritual in days being dictated by seasons instead of mass consumerism. I think many people put too much pressure on holidays and that being the time of the year to spend with family and friends (as oppose to the entire rest of the year). It’s perhaps not surprising to know that there’s a forty-percent increase in suicide attempts immediately after Christmas. It can be easy to lose sight of what is actually being celebrated (in a historical sense).

Winter season brings so many gifts, it can be a beautiful time for growth and renewal. As the nights grow longer, and days shorter, it feels natural to ease into rest and reflection. The past few months I’ve found myself drawn to a ritual that my grandfather would do with my cousins and I when he visited. Every day, right after sunset, as soon as it turned dark -- we would gather together in a room and light a candle and offer a small prayer. It was a marker between the running-around of the day and resting into the coming stillness of the night. We never had to remember to do it. The sun setting would serve as the reminder and send us running home from wherever we were playing. Although I have to admit that at the time we were mostly motivated by the prasad (a sweet sugar-candy and nuts) we would receive at the end of the prayer. 

Once we’d washed up and gathered in one room, I recall being amazed that the small flickering flame would light up all the little faces. It is a beautifully symbolic act that reminds me that when it becomes dark outside, it’s important to keep a candle burning inside.