Buddhism - The Anatomy of Loss
by Geeta Rao
In meditation, letting go is the first practice. Letting go of attachment, desire, concepts, and memories. When you sit, you surrender to whatever may come up in the enclosed space of your mind and let it go. In real life letting go manifests itself in our ability to cope with loss - letting go is not an act, it is an acceptance. Loss takes many forms and proportions - the loss of a pen, a diamond earring, a plum job, a beloved parent, a meaningful relationship, loss of pride, of identity, of country and so on.
Last year I wrote in this column with great confidence about being a dharma bum, of traveling the dhamma path and of making choices that would keep me in a meditative state - my perfect dhamma script. Hanging on to that concept by itself was the attachment, my own inability to accept that things, however perfect, change. Letting go of that 'perfect' dhamma script was the first acceptance that Mother Nature thrust upon me. Three months after I wrote the piece, the Mumbai floods entered my parents' house in a dramatic fashion and washed everything away. Ironically, I had moved out of home a month earlier but had left all my 'valuable stuff' - important documents, expensive clothes and an accumulation of memories... certificates of success, writings, and photographs of important events, people, and times. I was a great documenter of life and in one fell swoop I saw everything gone.
It was simultaneity of loss - of material possessions and of the sentiments we attached to them and loss of all the things that orchestrated social identity - passports, ration cards, tax papers, driving licenses. As the shock wore off we could rationalize that perhaps it was for the best, we had gotten rid of our clutter and we could begin again. I remembered author Pico Iyer writing of his loss when a California forest fire reduced his house and personal possessions, and his writings, to ashes. In Mumbai, the collective loss was so huge that ours paled - there was always a story that was worse. And there was always one that was better.
But my own grappling with loss was not done. Within two months my father had a heart attack. After five days of battling in the ICU, he stabilized and we brought him home. It was a near loss and we were happy that we were home. The day after we brought him home, my mother had a massive cardiac arrest. My mother passed away in 24 hours. Perhaps she had not been able to accept the loss of all she had built, or my father's sudden emergency. I had to take her body to the mortuary before I could break the news to my father since the doctor did not think his condition was stable.
At the Manikarna ghat in Varanasi, I had viewed bodies tossed casually onto funeral pyres, but they are not the bodies of our loved ones, so we can view them unsentimentally or with less attachment. During the Satipathana course at Igatpuri, we spend hours on the Buddha's cremation ground meditations - concluding intellectually that bodies are only bodies. In Thailand at Wat Nana Chat, a Buddhist monastery I stayed in briefly, the quarters were in front of a cremation ground and we often saw bodies being brought in. But to see the body of a parent in the mortuary brings the meditation home and takes on a different hue altogether. It was on the face of it, a shocking, surreal turn of events.
And yet it was real. This was the event. We never complain or go into shock when happy events come into our lives one after the other, do we? The acceptance of unpredictability underlines every confrontation of loss. The script is not of our choosing. Even if we had the choice, perhaps we would not be able to script loss because our attachments are so strong. But the acceptance of loss is helped by the recognition that there is a conjoining in collective loss. Everyone has seen someone special go, or seen loss seemingly disproportionate to one's state of preparedness. To acknowledge loss is true acceptance. To deny it as it rises is to repress it and find it deep down in some sankhara or reaction, that catches us unawares later.
But to let oneself be swayed and bereft and consumed by it, is to fall into the trap of being attached to the concept of loss. To dwell upon it too long is to let ourselves be caught by the memory rather than the reality. On a lighter note, a granduncle of my mother's was so attached to his windfall blue chip shares which were in physical papers, that even as he lay on his death bed, all he asked for was that his shares be spread on his chest so he could die holding on to them.
It is important to realise that 'suffering' is not necessarily ennobling, even though the romantic notion is that it should be. Before that, loss brings with it residual anger, bitterness, resentment, passivity or acute over-reaction, as in my great granduncle's case.
When I lost all my important documents in the floods, I was angry. Angry with myself for not planning better, angry with my parents for not anticipating what the rising waters would do, angry at the world. But then freak floods don't come into your scheme of things when you choose which drawer to lock your papers in. The world's safest banks and hi-tech companies lost their data and lockers in the nine/eleven fallout. Did anyone anticipate airplane bombs?
Then came the realisation that this was the manifestation of a larger need to control things, even the ones I could not control. Letting go of that need is an ongoing battle. The loss of my passport created a surprisingly emotional upheaval in my life, making me ruefully acknowledge that I was no different in my attachment from my great granduncle and his shares. I liked being the busy world traveler and the loss helped me examine why I did not want to be still. Ramana Maharishi spent his entire life, over 70 years, within a two-kilometer radius of Arunachala the mountain. For 70 years the world came to him across continents. We are not all destined to be Ramana guru, but to be the still point in our frenzied world is to open up the world to us.
In facing my mother's death, I had to come to terms with a great deal of residual guilt. Being strong personalities, we often had fiery encounters - she thought I was wasting my life in following the Vipassana path. I thought she was limiting her life by not exploring the path. These were rarely calm Buddhist encounters and the guilt was difficult to handle because it was too late to make amends. "Remember," said my teacher, "you are not an arahant. You came with your own parmis, accumulated good deeds, she came with hers." Again, it is about the ability to accept what one had no control over. Loss of control brings residual fears. How we handle it is entirely up to us. Often, loss lets us pause and look closer at ourselves. As I write this I realize how the last six months have put my meditation practice right where it belongs - in everyday living and awareness.
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