By Faraaz Tanveer
How cancer transformed the lives of globetrotting couple Vijay and Nilima Bhat
Sriram Krishnan, one of the participants, says, “The retreat was an eye-opener. After attending the retreat, I tend to appreciate more the good thing that has happened to me after my illness. I am now friendlier with the ‘cancer’ word, and I have the conviction that any illness can be reversed by changing our lifestyle.”
“Over the course of our workshop, I came to understand that my life is purpose-driven, as opposed to a random set of circumstances that occurred to me through a 80-year time span. I came to appreciate these circumstances as “gifts”, wonderfully and uniquely created for me, to move me towards a greater understanding of who I truly am, who I will become, and what I am here to accomplish in this lifetime,” says Juliana Nelson, a participant from USA.
Vijay and Nilima put their experience thus: “The retreat format allowed for some amazing depth of personal awareness and healing to take place on all levels: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. We were humbled by the way the process allowed individuals to open up and come together as such a strong group in support of each other and empowered each to face their own journey with skill and grace.”
“The result was that, as expected, the participants understood cancer and the role of the mind-body relationship in its prevention, genesis and management better,” summed up
Dr Ramesh Bijlani.
‘Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music.’ – Angela Monet
It is always exhilarating to meet anyone who can purposefully stop the trajectory of their well-ordered and comfortable lives, and take off into a wholly uncharted path that enables them to make a unique contribution to the world, drawn from their own rich experiences and insights. Such people move the world forward, and help it to shake off the cobwebs of habit and fear.
Five years ago Vijay and Nilima Bhat were just another yuppie corporate couple enjoying a globetrotting lifestyle. Vijay was employed with the leading advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, where he had worked for 21 years in various leadership positions including serving on Ogilvy’s Asia-Pacific Board as Regional Strategy Director. Nilima had spent 10 years in the media and communications sector, with leading corporations such as ITC/ Sheraton, Philips and ESPN STAR Sports.
What changed them forever was their own burgeoning sense of spirituality and Vijay’s brush with cancer. Today, they are founders of Roots and Wings, a Bangalore-based consultancy which helps individuals and organizations deal with transitions and make them a learning experience.
They have also started a website called Holistic Bangalore ( http://www.holisticbangalore.com ) which provides an exhaustive directory of services and resources supporting a holistic lifestyle. These include alternative energy, books, music, movies, complementary therapies, counselling, reforestation initiatives, eco-friendly products and centres. Bangaloreans can use the unique search feature on the website to locate a practitioner / supplier / holistic centre in the locality of their choice. It is an inspiring and innovative community effort which can act as a model for other Indian cities.
One of their most recent initiatives is a seven-day cancer retreat called From illness to wholeness, oriented to enabling participants recognise the gift within cancer (see box).
Their own journey is a perfect testimony of this. Says Nilima, “As we got into looking at cancer from a holistic perspective, my journey too began alongside his. I can say today that ‘we’ had cancer…it was in his body but the life-changing and life-growing event happened to both of us. I am who I am today because of his cancer. The work we do today is because of his cancer.
We are back in India today because of his cancer. I can touch so many lives today as a holistic healer and life coach because of his cancer. The cancer was our prasad.”
Why Roots and Wings? What does a ‘transitions coach’ do?
Vijay: Having lived and worked in Mumbai, Bangalore, Singapore, London and Hong Kong, and bringing up our children as Indians and global citizens, we have learnt the value of both ‘roots’ and ‘wings’, and the real challenges in balancing these two apparent contradictions. Hence the name.
Nilima: During our work and interactions with people from varied backgrounds we noticed that life-changing events create a lot of turbulence in the lives of individuals and organizations. When faced with such a situation most people tend to withdraw into a shell. Our role as a ‘transitions coach’ is to help them find the inner resources to change their lives within themselves, at a time when they are most vulnerable.
Tell us about the activities taken up by R&W.
Nilima: Our scope of work includes strategic HR consulting, facilitation, training, leadership coaching, and community service in the form of our Holistic Bangalore initiative.
Vijay: Roots & Wings targets a select client set and seeks a deep and long-term engagement with them. Usually, our engagements start with a face-to-face meeting with the CEO and Talent Head to gauge personal and professional chemistry, followed by one-on-one sessions with six to eight selected staff members.
We then develop an ‘approach paper’ for an initial discussion, which is then fleshed out into a detailed proposal with scope of work, who-does-what-by-when, fixed and variable costs, success measures/ monitoring process, etc.
Tell us something about your Holistic Bangalore initiative.
Vijay: It is inspired by Holistic Hong Kong, which was started by a friend of ours. The concept is actually quite simple: to create an online home for all things holistic in our city. We want to help Bangaloreans find local resources, share knowledge and expertise, join communities with similar interests, and participate in onground activities around holistic living. To us, ‘holistic’ has four pillars: development, ecology, spirituality and health (D-E-S-H for short). It is still a nascent initiative, but we are pleased with the results and response so far.
Nilima, tell us something about Sri Shakti. What role does dance play in your inner journey?
Nilima: I have always been a dancer. Dance defined me, my personality, as I grew up. It enhanced my ‘sense of self’. With marriage and kids, I lost touch with it. In Hong Kong, when my journey into this ‘inner work’ truly began, I attended a ‘5 Rhythms’ workshop. It is a body of work by an American dancer, Gabrielle Roth, and is deeply therapeutic. I knew then that dance was to reappear in my life. I also came across Panchabhoota – creation as the dance of the five elements; a theme explored in all Indian classical dance forms as well as yoga. Through an amazing synchronicity, at that time in Hong Kong there was a highly trained Bharatanatyam dancer, Ranjini Menon, an equally talented Kathak dancer, Neesha Jhaveri, and in nearby Beijing, an Odissi dancer, Raka Maitra, and my own neighbour was Priyadarshini Ghosh Shome, a Mohini- attam dancer and well-known contemporary dance choreographer. We also had R P Jairam, a banker by day and gifted music composer by night, right there to create original music scores. Our dance company simply coalesced as if by it self. Sri Shakti was born.
Our first performance was Panchabhoota:Dance of the five elements, then followed Vama-The Feminine and to complete the trilogy we culminated with Tao of the Heart.
When and why did you decide to get into the psycho-spiritual sphere as a full-time vocation? What was the transition phase like?
Vijay: I’m not sure I can call it a ‘sphere’ or even, that it was a conscious, considered decision. It is very natural for us to simply incorporate the spiritual aspect into everything we do, whether it is corporate, individual or educational work. We have come to realise that whatever the ‘field’ (intellectual, social, economic, etc), the ‘ground’ is always spiritual.
The transition was tough, but made bearable by Ogilvy’s support and the kindness of too many people to name here. We had to deal with it at many levels: home, school, work, diet, etc … and the process is ongoing. I took a six-week sabbatical to go to the US and UK to qualify myself in some of the latest tools and approaches to transpersonal psychology: NLP, Enneagram, etc. My annual Vipassana retreats also helped.
Nilima: After spending some years doing deep study of yoga, Vedanta, energy medicine, Chinese medicine and transpersonal psychology to aid my own spiritual journey, as well as to cope with Vijay’s cancer, it was a natural transition to start sharing these learnings with others. It had become clear that this was my calling, my life’s work. Having been a trained communicator helped enormously.
Vijay, when were you diagnosed with cancer? What was your first reaction?
Vijay: It was a cold winter’s day (December 11, 2001) in the UK. I was still coming out of sedation after what was supposed to be a routine endoscopy and the first words the doctor said to me were, “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. You have two tumours in your colon, and I’m pretty sure it is cancer.” It took me a few minutes to clear my groggy head, and to take in that information. I knew there couldn’t be any mistake, since the doctor was so convinced. So all I could think of was to call Nilima, and get her to come over immediately.
… and Nilima, what was your reaction?
Nilima: The first reaction was, of course, shock, and a sense of the ground being pulled from under my feet. But almost immediately, I felt the need to pray. So we held hands and called upon God to come and take charge of this… to give us strength…to show us the way through this.
A very dear friend who is a truly evolved soul, said to me, “The cancer is a prasad. Given in just the right amount, as a blessing.” She was right. Even though he had two tumours in his colon, the cancer had not spread to any other part of the body. Also, even after surgery to remove the colon, he luckily did not need a bag for life. Something that could have been a very real possibility. He was and is blessed. I feel sure of that.
Nilima, how did you support his recovery? How did this process change you as a person?
Nilima: Hard to answer. Like I have in the past with very difficult life-events (my mother’s cancer, my father’s near fatal accident with brain injury), I went into ‘the zone’. A state I can only describe as being very focussed. Fully concentrated to deal with the situation at hand with an intense faith and ‘never-say-die’, ‘do-what-it-takes’ attitude.
How can busy couples bring spirituality into their lives? What has been your experience with each other?
Vijay: For me, spirituality is not some fluffy, ‘new-agey’ concept. It can be tangibly experienced, here and now. My window to it is self-awareness. In fact, my personal experience is that ‘deeper self-awareness leads to awareness of the deeper Self’. Beyond this, I don’t like talking about it, because talk is cheap and inadequate.
Nilima: I have never seen spirituality as something we ‘do on the side’. It is the basis of everything I do. All stems from that and is for that. Deepak Chopra’s line says it best: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
I see Vijay as my soulmate. My marriage has been my greatest sadhana (spiritual practice). I feel that if one can truly learn to love another unconditionally, that is the ultimate achievement.
How do you maintain a balance between a hectic work schedule and a happy family life?
Vijay: My approach is to put quality ahead of quantity. One of my mentors said to me: “If you can add some value to every meeting you’re in, you’ll do better than anyone else.” This has really worked for me in the workplace and I try to bring the same approach even to family life.
Nilima: I work on my own timetable. I make my own appointments, being self-employed, and can pace myself according to my convenience. It seems to be working so far!
Vijay, what would be your message to individuals struggling with cancer?
Vijay: In essence:
• Cancer is a ‘fork’ in life’s road, not a ‘bump’.
• Aim to ‘transcend’ your illness; i.e. ‘honour’ rather than ‘cope’ or ‘fight’ it
• Reclaim your power from whomever you may have handed it to: your doctor, your priest, your family, etc.
• Take a holistic approach (including accessing your inner resources) to support your healing
• Reach out to others in similar situations; helping others heal is part of your own healing.
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