© Sukhi Barber
I was staggered to find the ants had started to build a circular hill in the middle of the garden. No longer hidden beneath the leaves and branches of a tree or bush, nor camouflaged next to a wall or drain, but right out in the open. Having lived in this spacious and light-filled house in Chennai for three months, I had the feeling that nature was slowly taking over, creeping stealthily to its edges from above and beneath, and would one day simply overwhelm its structure. I'd already realised from mowing the lawn that it was not actually a grass lawn at all; it was in fact a blanket of weeds and ivy and vines. It was a jungle. Any place where there was a peep of earth, like in the small gaps between the flagstones of the driveway, weeds sprouted without warning, and in spite of long stretches of heat and no rain, the trees and plants kept growing at an incredible rate. The weight of their branches dragged down towards and along the ground. The ants and plants were in competition with each other in this jungle. The number of big holes that sunk down into the blackness of the earth was getting scary.
In addition to the jungle in the garden, there were the lizards, the giant spiders, the ‘freshly’ returned clothes from the washerman that smelled of car fumes, plus my worrying hair loss, the heat and the pollution. The tension I felt was a constant backdrop to my daily activities and in the midst of this war, I did not feel at home.
Several recent conversations about meditation with coaching clients brought to mind this experience of our house in India. When we embark on sitting still in meditation, say for 20 minutes, the feeling of ‘tension’ is a constant presence (to a greater or lesser degree). As we continue to sit still and look, and then go deeper to question who we are, the more we begin to see the holes within the stories we've constructed about our lives. It's no wonder that we don't feel at home in our own skin!
A sense of ‘tension,’ however, is part of the nature of spiritual engagement. In meditation, it is crucial to look without judgment, because the more we begin to see the finer details of what has been there all along, a certain ‘distance’ is necessary to be able to determine the tensions (aspects) in our lives that we can let go of, and those which we need to engage with if we are to accept who we are in our totality; the dark and light and all the shades in between.
Most of my life I've thought of myself as an adventurer, a gypsy, who was at ease wandering in different countries and cultures. In hindsight, there were definitely aspects of my Bohemian youth that I did not enjoy; particularly my relationships with men and the lack of communication with my family. I think there was an underlying need for safety and security, wanting somewhere that I could call ‘home.’ Even during the years I lived in Berlin, moving from job to job in several companies and living in different flats for 6 months at a time, I still knew how long I would be there. I'd always planned to return to England to continue my studies. The need for a home is innately human, and no matter where I travelled or how I earned my living, there was always a ‘home’ to go back to at the end of the day.
Living and travelling in India during my sabbatical, in spite of meditating for many years, I was surprised at how tense I felt. Sometimes, when I am meditating, I sense that my body remembers and holds memory (experiences from the past) in ways I do not understand, and I think about how to find an adequate way to engage with the body-mind interrelation that works, so that I can feel truly at home with who I am. I recognise, however, that desiring and insisting on an ‘easy’ engagement is the wrong goal. Because the key ingredient throughout my life, which resulted in my greatest insights, is what modern society calls ‘failure.’ From the numerous relationships, careers and homes that did not work, or failed, I received in fact, my greatest gems of learning. Each time, I realised clearly and without doubt precisely what I did not want and who I did not want to be.
When Michelangelo was asked how he made his sculpture of David, he said,
‘I just chipped away the parts that weren't David.’
In this way, I too was also carving away who I was not, and creating into being, the person I am.
One of the more lucid examples of how simultaneously fluid and erratic my sense of ‘being at home in my skin’ feels is through writing fiction. The fiction I write is initiated by what I know, events from my past and present, and it is a creative endeavour I have conveniently left on the sidelines for much of my life. More recently, I've been willing to acknowledge that at some deep level of my being, writing is my ‘true north,’ and writing while living in India, especially, was fraught with layers of memory and history that I couldn't really protect myself against. Though my characters are fictitious, the very experience of imagining myself ‘in their shoes’ and feeling what they feel, was not so easily shaken off at the end of the day. Usually, a night's sleep helped, but I also experienced days when I found myself ‘acting out’ my characters’ emotional life as part of my life.
It is a fascinating sort of magic to witness the tides of time and human experience leap between decades within my body and mind, and the more I write, the more I see how fallible ‘real’ memories are. Between the truth of history and the artistic imagination, ‘reality’ gets so mixed up that I can no longer be certain of what actually did or didn't happen in my past. Somehow the fiction has become my history and also freed me from history.
This strange expression of a changeable history makes total sense when viewed from the perspective of ‘non-self’ in Buddhism. The idea of being an individual ‘self’ in Buddhism does not exist, because the human phenomenon arises as an amalgam of our relationship to everything and everyone within our environment. Within the context of my life's experiences, my history, memories and character (formed via family, education, relationships, jobs, homes, etc.) is actually a series of attachments that I've appropriated. Furthermore, when I apply the lessons from meditation, it is up to me whether I hold onto or release these attachments, as and when I choose. For example, at the moment I've chosen to appropriate the writer's sentiment, and, I've noticed that one of the consequences of this is how I get rather irritable and tense when I don't write for a few days.
So then, how to apply the lessons of meditation to this particular
It is simply another ‘chip’ that I am carving away, a gem of learning about who I don't want to be.
With distance and time, I've learned from my Indian adventure that India is not my home. It was once my home, a very long time ago when I was a child. Now, it is a hot, dusty, polluted and intolerant society. Even those who are committed to the ‘spiritual’ life are intolerant of fellow practitioners within their own tradition. In Chennai, Denis approached the Sri Lankan Maha Bodhi Society (the only Buddhist temple in the city) to request their help invigilating his final exam for his Buddhism MA. They declined because he had a Tibetan tattoo on his arm. As one often hears the saying about Christ, if Buddha were alive today, he would not be a Buddhist!
India has drawn and enchanted many Westerners for centuries, and yet what I saw was the enchantment of a magician, who puts on his garb to entertain and thrill his audience with an illusive mystery. He takes their money and then he goes home to beat his wife and children. The India of today is harsh and hard, a people who hate and ignore difference, who do not engage in any essential way with their fellow man. They are upfront and unapologetic about their greed for power and money, and I think a foreign visitor would not believe such heathen sentiments exist in today's global world. This is not the home I want, no matter that my ethnicity and blood originated there. It is no longer the environment I choose to be influenced by, as I create my work of art. What I am grateful for is the material it gives me for the writer's pen.