“The most terrifying thing in the world is to accept oneself completely.” — Carl Jung
I’ve just returned from a stint at an Ayurvedic centre in Kerala. Since an ex-boyfriend introduced me to Ayurveda 20 years ago, I have been haphazardly following this 5,000-year-old comprehensive, holistic Indian health and medical system on my own.
This has mainly taken the form of going to a centre when I need to decompress, like after a film shoot. I book a room for a week, they trot me out for a daily massage or a cleansing treatment, and feed me light vegetarian food. I return rejuvenated in mind, body and spirit. Well, that’s the intention anyway.
I once stayed at a place that was like a noisy, crowded hospital, which was not exactly relaxing. Another time I went to a luxurious one in an old palace; they took away my shoes when I arrived so I couldn’t escape when they fed me ghee (and pretty much only ghee) for the first five days to soften up the insides before cleaning out my pipes. This time I’ve chosen one that is less strict and more resort-y.
The morning starts at 6am with meditation, followed by an hour of yoga. I then have my daily consultation with the doctor. Every Ayurvedic doctor categorises me as Vata-Pitta (amongst other things: fiery, decisive, quick, sharp), but with my weight gain, it means my Kapha (earthy, sweet, plodding – urgh) is in imbalance and needs to be reined in. Every Ayurvedic doctor also becomes concerned by the violent scalp-to-toes eczema I suffered in my childhood and teenage years. It’s been 25 years since I last had eczema, I point it. “But it’s still inside you,” this doctor says, “it’s a part of who you are.”
Then it’s on to the two-hour treatment for the day. This can be a synchronised four-hand massage, oil bath, steam bath, warm oil being poured onto the forehead, drops in the nasal passage to clear it out, or water up the behind to clear that out.
All treatments are standardised (I have had the same ones in Coimbatore, Goa, Chennai, Delhi, Kerala and even London) as well as ritualistic. At the start of each therapy session, incense sticks are lit, and the therapist presses her thumb to my forehead and chants. I don’t understand Sanskrit but in between the sweet-sounding words, she says what sounds like “Eye-yam-meee” three times.
The rest of my day is punctuated only by meals. There are offers of more yoga, cooking classes, cultural talks or tours of the backwaters in the afternoons, but I lie mostly low.
I’ve chosen to do a sort of voluntary silence while I am here. I vow to not read, write, watch films, listen to podcasts or speak, except to the doctors and staff. This is because my abbreviated stint at Vipassana last year had proven ultimately invaluable, and I attribute this to minimising the relentless bombardment of stimuli so part of my daily life.
I can’t get a 4G signal, and the resort has wifi in only two spots across its 18 acres. For the first three days, I keep sneaking over to one of them to check my work email and messages. It’s okay, I tell myself, it’s like how after running a marathon, you’re not supposed to stop abruptly at the finish line but keep jogging for another 15 minutes to avoid blood pooling. It’s a shock to the system to go from a hundred to zero in one swoop.
I reply to seemingly urgent emails even after the three days. I know that because I don’t work in an emergency room or a refugee camp, nothing I do is actually urgent. But it gives me a minor – and no doubt misplaced – sense of pride at being considered somewhat valued and missed, so I continue.
I refuse to get on work calls because I am actually being good about not talking. The other guests – some families, many couples, and several single people – are almost all European (so much so that every piece of literature at the resort is in English and German). They become friendly and chatty with one another. I remain separate, and not apologetic about it either. Relief from small talk, I had learnt at Vipassana, is a big gift to give myself.
It’s so quiet I can hear the waves from my room at the far end of the resort. I hear gull cries and birdsong instead of vehicles or people. The gardens are lush and colourful, with myriad insects roaming freely everywhere with their unfettered right to be there. For all my committed defence of city life, I am drawn into this nature, into this stillness. I sit on my veranda or on the beach, and feel myself exhale.
I have come not just to unwind (daytime office work + night shoots had taken its toll) but with a vague goal to Sort Myself Out. I don’t quite know how to go about it. I have this constant sense of a push-pull going on inside me, though I couldn’t say what is pushing or what is being pulled.
I also, frankly, just feel a bit broken. It’s as if I’m missing some pieces to have the amazing life I sort of kind of know I could have. Yet I can’t say what these missing pieces are or how to fix it. Years ago, I noted that my recurring eye troubles probably had a metaphysical underlying cause. I wondered: what am I not seeing?
The truth is that I’ve been wilfully not seeing, not asking, not unmasking. I fear it would be like poking at a sleeping giant monster. Instead, I hold down the lid of a pressure cooker with busyness, hectic working hours, distractions, or that all-too prevalent drug of choice for responsible people: food.
But the pressure cooker is giving its ear-piercing scream. I can’t hold it down for much longer. One wobble from my end and everything will explode. Do it now, I tell myself, do it here. If I have some sort of breakdown, then at least I’ll have ready medical intervention and support. Also, Ayurvedic cleansing treatments by their nature force things to move. Over the years, I’ve found myself getting teary-eyed at these things; I’m told that as old gunk in the body gets unclogged and released, so do memories trapped with them. This is the place where it’s safe to uncover things.
I don’t know how to start. So I simply sit on the beach and gaze at the waves. The weather has been perfect. It rains torrentially at 5am or so, waking me up sometimes, and then it’s a perfectly sunny day thereafter – warm with a light breeze.
A few days go by and… nothing. I am reminded of the time after a shoot, 18 years ago, when the film’s producer sent me and two colleagues off on a holiday courtesy of the production, as we’d only had one day off over four months. We were driven to the Glass House, above Rishikesh, where the Ganges begins. It was beautiful, but I was lovesick and torn over a boy. What’s going to happen? What should I do? My colleague told me to just stay still and the answer would come. I sat for three days facing the river. On the third day, an hour before leaving the place, two thoughts came to me. One was: I don’t want to be the Other Woman. And: I just have to keep my head above the water.
This time, I’m less concerned about the future, which I now believe will take care of itself. Trust the universe, etc etc. But I’m stuck and want to know what I need to do to move forward.
One afternoon, lying on my bed while trying not to doze off, I pull out my notebook from my bag. I decide to tackle this push-pull business head-on. If I’m Push, then Pull is whatever is under the pressure cooker trying to get out. Taking a deep breath, I ask Pull: can she please tell me whatever it is she’s been trying to tell me? I promise to listen.
Pull replies: You want to be perfect, unblemished, unscarred. But I am the pain, the sorrow, the shame you won’t acknowledge because they’re human frailties. And you think being frail makes you tainted, makes you damaged and unlovable. I am your grief, anxiety, loneliness, terror, suffering, embarrassment, insecurity, anger, guilt, humiliation. I am the hurt, and you are the bravado that pretends she doesn’t care. Well, I’m the part of you that cares. I’m the part of you that makes you human. I am not what you fear. I am what makes you lovable. All the imperfect pieces.
There’s no breakdown. The high pitch scream vanishes. The relief, going from zero to a hundred in an instant, makes me weep. The missing, broken parts of me fuse together into a beam of wholeness. I am no longer my own Other Woman, the keeper of shameful secrets. “Eye-yam-meee.” I Am Me.
When we encounter difficult events, we can separate from ourselves in order to handle the trauma. I did it when I was molested as a child by an older cousin. When my brother died. When I lay in bed for a year, unable to move my limbs because of eczema.
And just as my eczema – this part of who I am – responded overzealously to guard me from every real or imaginary harmful allergen, so did dear Pull by catching every shade of frightening emotions, major and minor alike. Like my eczema, Pull didn’t do it to antagonise me, but to protect me. From myself.
But you can gather and store only so much before the burden becomes a terrible load. The weight of sorrow can be immense.
Emotions can’t be ignored. And, despite countless attempts, I can’t think my way out of them. They can’t be intellectually rationalised or negotiated with. They don’t exist in the mind. They live in the body. That’s where they appear – a knot in the stomach, a clutch at the heart, a lump in the throat, a tensing of muscles. That’s where they need to be acknowledged. And felt. And, crucially, released. (Because people can fuel their whole life by holding onto anger, bitterness or hostility with a righteous grip and not letting go.)
It’s not as if my life-long problems disappeared in a flash of clarity. But trust and conviction that I am and will continue to work through them is enough to make me buoyant. Because I can See now, this one insight has led to many more.
Like: so this is why I’ve always felt disconnected from my body, which had always been a sort of appendage to my head, where I really lived. (Not to excuse the powerful and impressionable South Asian cultural norms of applauding academic (i.e. mental) achievement, docility, and a surface-level of prettiness, but body-shaming women all at the same time; we have been raised to please, often without a true sense of ownership of ourselves.)
Like: this is why I’ve always been moving, escaping, searching. Because, as the saying goes, if I were in my body, I’d be home by now.
Like: if we are attracted to similar people on an energy level, and by being someone half-covered, then all this time I must have been attracting men who were also hiding themselves, each relieved to not be fully seen by the other. Oh, this makes so much sense.
Like: it’s rather adorable that the sleeping giant monster I didn’t dare wake up all these years for fear of the drama and chaos it would unleash on me turned out to be a kind, caring friend who stayed loyally by my side despite decades of being ignored. We are not our worst enemies, though we are the ones who stand in our own way.
Like: this has given me a warm, fuzzy feeling about the world. Seeing the fear transformed makes me realise: if nothing in my life changes one iota, I’m okay. Everything is perfect exactly as it is right now. I am safe. I have joy. I am love.
With clarity comes the release. And liberation. I have a very bearable lightness of being. The opening up of my soul takes my breath away. The peace feels, at last, real.
To Pull (and to each of my suppressed emotions), I say: I’m sorry, I love you, I thank you.
Julia Stiles: Matt said [to Prince], “So you live in Minnesota? I hear you live in Minnesota.”
Matt Damon: Prince said, “I live inside my own heart, Matt Damon.”
— from “The Encyclopedia of Matt Damon” in GQ.
Of course it takes a village. I no longer think I have to (or can) manage everything on my own. These resources appeared at the right time to help and guide the way, and they overlapped with my retreat, so I consider them all integral to this experience and learning.
I can’t remember when I bought this, or indeed why. Other than the famous quote of hers which for years was incorrectly attributed to Nelson Mandela on the internet, I didn’t know anything about Marianne Williamson, beyond a vague notion that I’d probably find her annoying (so woo-woo!). But a few days before leaving for Kerala, I discovered this on my Kindle, amidst the 51 unread titles I’d purchased over the years, and dug in. Wow-zah. If I had read it even a month earlier, I don’t think I would have been ready for it, nor appreciated it. But the timing was perfect: I was open and curious, and it resonated like crazy with me. It’s about how we’re intrinsically made of love, but covered in ego and fear. Now I see why the author has inspired a gazillion people with this book, Return to Love.
I began seeing holistic therapist and coach Irma Battig a week before the retreat. It had taken me months to book my first appointment because I hadn’t felt ready for the changes she would help make. Working with clients wherever they are in the world, she uses, among others, Neurological Re-patterning, Craniosacral Therapy, Energy Psychology, Neurolinguistic Reprogramming, hypnosis and writing exercises. Moreover, the intent is to get results in a fixed number of sessions over a short period of time (both of us commiserated over how psychotherapy takes decades and then still doesn’t necessary shift much). Irma is helping me enormously. Further details on her Transformational Coaching Programme are available on www.irmabattig.in
I used to love listening to Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach’s podcast. Her thoughtful analysis, combined with amusing anecdotes, helped me better comprehend the human condition. However, her talks are so much about coming out on the other side of pain that I often found myself sobbing, and so stopped listening (being, on the whole, a cheery sort of person). But right after my above revelation I impulsively downloaded a bunch of episodes. I scrolled through, listened to one that gave me exactly what I needed for this time, and then unsubscribed once again. Her podcast can be found on iTunes or other platforms, as well as on her website tarabrach.com.
Below is my part-transcription of her talk that I used – among other tools – for my processing, based on the Hawaiian practice of healing called Ho’oponopono.
From episode Three Gestures of Love (2016-06-08) by Tara Brach:
We can have healing and awakening by responding to the hurt and anger inside us. If instead we blame these on [other people] then we don’t get to go to this place of inner healing. It might be another person doing something, but you can always open to your own experience and in your own experience, say: I’m sorry – to your own experience. I’m sorry for the suffering. You can say to your own experience: I love you. And you can say: thank you – to that loving presence that we start getting in touch with when we bring our attention inwards. A simple but powerful practice of remembering [who we are] is the three gestures of love: I’m sorry. The first one is compassion and sometimes forgiveness [including yourself] … If we don’t un-do the “I’m wrong” feeling, we can’t say “I love you” to ourselves or anybody. When the heart’s at war, tight and closed against ourselves, the love is not there for anyone in the world. The first step relaxes the tendency to turn against ourselves. It’s a way of saying “it’s okay”. I love you. It’s an active gesture inwards that we rarely do. It’s recognising that if we want to love this world, we have to love the life that’s right here, inside of us. Thank you. When we start touching into the love and goodness, there’s a natural devotion or gratitude, which is this sweetness of the whole path. This is so precious, so beautiful, that appreciation for homecoming.