By Aparna Jacob
A self-contained, self-reliant individual is free from emotional bondage. Know thyself, for within you is all the love, happiness, wisdom and freedom you will ever need.
The summer of 2002 was especially hard for my aunty Sajee. Living apart from her husband and soulmate for the purpose of her children's education, she had let herself go. She grew fat, her nails were chipped and her hair grew dull and straggly. She went around for days looking unkempt and forlorn, moping around the house in her nightie.
When her kids gently admonished her, she'd say: 'Whom do I dress up for? Why should I bother? Who cares?'
Then one day, my aunt decided enough was enough.
She enrolled in a basic computer course. She began taking herself for walks every morning. She got together a prayer group and conducted Bible-reading sessions on weekends. Before long, aunty Sajee was back to being her high-spirited vivacious self.
But it got us all thinking: how hard it seems to keep yourself going when there's seemingly no place to go; when it seems like you are alone, and there's no one to peg your affections on, no one to look forward to, no one to preen and be wanted for. Why is it that we always need someone to pin our happiness and aspirations on, only to have these buffeted each time the person shifts? And why do we constantly forget about one very important person? Ourselves.
'Why give yourself permission to feel wonderful only if another person's involved?' questions Sarah Ban Breathnach in her essensual treatise Romancing the Ordinary, which many a woman must think of as a Bible of self-reliance. 'How thrilling it would be to enjoy your own company? It's like having a numbered account in Switzerland. Something you can always bank on,' she says, goading every woman to indulge herself, keep herself well. To those who think showering attention on oneself is a wasteful enterprise, she says: 'If you can't please yourself when you know better than anyone else how to do it, who else is gonna do it for you?'
This is not self-obsession or self-absorption. Rather it is what English writer Sylvia Ashton calls 'to live in peace with that word: Myself'. Breathnach's theory is simple: How can you love others if you don't love and cherish yourself first? Only when our own cup is brimming over with love, trust and hope can we spill over to others. Her prescription: Do things for yourself, pamper yourself, be fond of yourself. And when you begin to trust and believe in yourself, you glow with it; others are drawn to you because of the energy you emanate. It makes you irresistible.
Self-reliance is nothing but the ability and desire to provide for oneself. It means to accept responsibility for your own happiness and sorrows, your actions and afflictions. Indeed, for your life.
Why does this appear so hard? Why do we look outside of us, to friends, family, neighbors, everywhere but ourselves, for emotional and physical sustenance?
'Because of patterns imbibed in childhood,' explains Vedanta teacher Uday Acharya. 'As children we observe that we need to 'earn' affection, that love is always conditional, that it requires being manipulative. We begin to believe that unconditional love is non-existent or that no matter how hard we try, we are undeserving of it.' These patterns are carried into adulthood and we learn to treat ourselves the same way: we berate ourselves, lose faith in ourselves, mistrust ourselves. We continue as motherless children, wrapped in self-pity and rejection of ourselves.
The need is to heal, become self-contained and capable of taking care of ourselves. 'Affirm to yourself: As a human being I'm deserving of love. I'm a lovable person,' says Acharya. 'Say: I am an adult now, capable of providing for myself everything I need. Whatever I lacked as a child and didn't get from others I can give myself right now.'
So, I can love myself, give myself a pat on my back and root for myself in my loneliest hours. We could all use someone steady and unwavering to depend on. Who better than us?
Count on Yourself
Vandana Gupta had to learn to become these. Twelve years ago Vandana, a housewife, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a form of cancer. It felt like the end of the world. There was chemotherapy, hair loss, mood swings, moments of utter terror. Then in the midst of these, Vandana's mother, whom she looked to for strength, passed away.
'In a way it steeled my resolve to fight the disease,' remembers Vandana. She recalls how she would visit her doctor and make trips to the hospital alone as she did not want to burden her family with the added tension of seeing her suffer. 'I seized control of the situation. During my low phases, it helped to talk to my husband, watch an uplifting play, anything. I drew my strength from all around - from a series on cancer being aired on TV, from the stories of other cancer survivors.' Vandana grit her teeth, and pulled through the treatment.
Today, this cancer survivor runs V Care, a support network for cancer patients, providing much-needed emotional support, advice and financial help through their time of distress. It was born of Vandana's own experience, seeing how much hope and encouragement it gave a patient to talk to a cancer survivor and compare experiences.
Vandana testifies: 'I was born with an inner core of strength. I looked within and found a reservoir of determination and amazingly, courage. I realized I could get through this. And this is what I tell other patients as well.'
Calamities that befall us, Vandana realized, hardships and obstacles one encounters on the road, are positive blessings. They knit the muscles more firmly, and teach self-reliance.
Divya Bhandari, now 32 years of age, was born with a severe hearing impairment. But her mother Reena, ex-principal of Helen Keller Institute for the Deaf-blind, recalls the brightness of her spirit as a child: 'It took a lot to get Divya down. Even her deafness couldn't. She was the enthusiastic one, always up for a game of football or cricket with the boys.'
Divya, even today, has no qualms about approaching people with a bright smile and handing them her business card for Divya Soft Toys, her brave foray into self-reliance and economic independence. Being a handicapped youngster in India brought its share of discouragement. Despite half-baked government policies on reservation of seats, scarcity of jobs for disabled individuals, she kept herself occupied doing various short beautician and home science courses, developing her other skills rather than dwelling on her handicap. This has helped her circumvent a lot of heartbreak and self-doubt. Her small enterprise keeps her happily occupied. During the slow months she plans for the busy season or holds exhibitions. Today, she's a driven entrepreneur, learning from her mistakes and keen on improving business.
On your Own
When we accept responsibility for our actions, something beautiful happens. Life is no longer a chore or about passing the buck. Responsibility means we don't want any part in the blame game, duties become apparent, we do what we have to do. We are so in tune with ourselves and our real needs that we only take what is essential. There's no insecurity, therefore no greed and hoarding, either materially or emotionally.
Great minds like Henry David Thoreau were advocates of a simple lifestyle, free of materialism, living with only those things that are truly important. Spiritual adepts bear witness to how such emotional abstinence opens one up for a closer relationship with God and self and indeed a more fulfilling life.
Our greatest shining example of this is Mahatma Gandhi, the very paragon of self-reliance. Gandhiji's concepts of Swaraj and Swadeshi translate as independence/self-governance and self-sufficiency or self-reliance. These are concepts based on individual autonomy, involving self-respect, self-assessment, self-restraint and self-awareness. Swaraj, in its fullest sense, is perfect freedom from all bondage and, for Gandhiji, it could be equated with moksha or the highest liberation. This true freedom, he believed, is not merely the freedom to do what one desires, but also the ability to ensure that what one chooses is the result of a sense of duty (dharma) and self-knowledge.
Swaraj or self-rule is only the expression of the intrinsic truth of the individual. But rather than arrogant individualism, his brand of self-reliance leaves plenty of room for mutual assistance. It does not deny one's interconnectedness with others, but ensures that one can take care of oneself first, then one's family, loved ones, and the rest of the world.
Gandhiji learned how to do most of his work himself, including washing, ironing and cutting his own hair. No work was too big or small. He cleaned toilets, cleaning up after himself and others. He learned and taught how to build homes, run a printing press, publish a newspaper. While in jail in South Africa, he learned how to make leather slippers. On long voyages, he taught himself new languages like Urdu and Tamil to better communicate. Self-help, he always believed, is the best help.
The Master Virtue
Self-reliance, as recommended by Gandhiji, is one of the ways in which several virtues reinforce and support each other. When I am self-reliant, I am a law unto myself, the knowledge of right and wrong springs from me. I rely on myself to administer my own morality. I am discipline, I am trust. I am happiness. I am truth incarnate. I am Satyam.
Satyam, limitless awareness, is what you are, believes Vedanta. That which is enduring, that which all creation springs from. 'Satyam, consciousness, atma, is the ground reality. Jiva, person and personality and the 'I-sense', emerge from this,' explains Uday Acharya. 'As long as my I-sense is enmeshed in jiva, I'll be dependent. But when I shift to atman, I cease to be dependent. I become independent.'
When we see this, we realize life and its joys and sorrows are only part of creation. This knowledge has a profoundly liberating effect. All life and relations then, we realise, are role-play. Assured that you the atman, the satyam, is the one constant, you gain confidence in yourself and make peace with the transience of all else. We learn to make concessions for others, become more accommodating of their flaws and less judgmental. We become less insecure, more tolerant. We give of ourselves more generously.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who never tired of contemplating upon 'the infinitude of the private man', says in his essay, Self-reliance: 'Self-reliance, the height and perfection of man, is reliance on God.' Faith in a higher power and communion with it frees us from dependence on mortals.
Russel Pinto, a cocaine addict, was on his way home after procuring his 'stuff' from his supplier on Shuklajee Street in Mumbai. It was the 1970s when drug addiction was still a remote American affliction. The cab broke down in front of Mt Carmel church in Bandra. Russel wandered in and sat awhile listening to an Irish priest deliver a sermon on repentance. It was Lent. The sermon urged everyone to repent for the sufferings they were causing loved ones and themselves.
When Russel walked out of the church, he took the long road to self-recovery home. It took him two years to give up his dependence on drugs. While on the path he found succour in the Bible and teachings of Swami Vivekananda. Then in 1982, he set up Sevadhan, a pioneering rehab centre for substance abusers in Mumbai.
Two years later, Russell died in a freak drowning accident in Baga, Goa. He left behind a young wife Clema and two small children, eight-year-old Carla and three-year-old Christian. 'Never did I feel alone,' Clema says today. 'I surrendered myself to the situation. And was amazed at the faith, hope, love and resilience I found within myself.' The family moved from strength to strength. The children were provided for. Clema, instead of succumbing to gloom, studied rehabilitation, researching various modes and methods to start shelters and homes to help those who rely on drugs and alcohol rather than themselves.
Clema went on to set up Nav Nirman, a rehab centre in rural Thane and later Sahara, a half-way house for alcohol and substance abusers. Here, members are guided by meditation and devotion to reconnect with themselves, to resolve residual feelings of anger, rejection, guilt, shame, and frustration. From her work with addicts, Clema has observed that even a glimmer of belief in themselves can spur their movement towards self-worth and self-awareness.
Believe in Yourself
Know yourself, Emerson says, and you will be able to do the work for which you were made. Self-reliance demands a measure of gumption. Genuine liberty always demands courage of its votaries . But with increasing self-awareness, we maximize our own potential; therefore, what need do we have for fear? When we know ourselves, we know our goals; infirmity of will and doubts perish in the face of such certainty. We aren't even afraid to forge ahead alone. The human need to conform is only a fear of being left out, the diametric opposite of self-reliance.
Sushila Tikmany was certainly no conformist. Illiterate and married into a traditional Marwari family in Calcutta, she was recently presented the FICCI award for being an enterprising woman entrepreneur and providing employment and self-reliance opportunities for rural women.
'All she had was a fiery determination to be independent,' recalls daughter Abha Goenka, who is cut from the same boldly patterned cloth as her mother. 'The community was aghast. Good Marwari girls stay home behind heavy drapes and do not sell saris. My mother boldly stood up to them; never buckled to these orthodox forces.'
And this was half a century ago. Sushila Devi on her morning walks would see hordes of idle Bangladeshi refugees lining the streets. She invited them home and employed them as embroiderers. That was the beginning of Pitambari, the saree and jewelery shop with branches in several states today.
'My mother taught me that being a woman didn't have to deter me. If you have skills, employ them and nothing can stop you from getting ahead,' says Abha. Continuing the matriarchal tradition, Abha runs a boutique in Andheri, while her other sisters are all accomplished businesswomen in their own right. The Marwari community now regards them with great respect and admiration for their fierce independence.
Being a trailblazer is never easy. It calls for vast reserves of self-belief, faith in oneself and one's skills. 'If I do the right thing, there's no way I can go wrong,' Abha says. 'I trust in God, my guru and myself. I spend my mornings in contemplation, meditation, tuning into my inner stream of strength. It helps me brave the highs and lows of business. I have confidence in the universe and myself, enough to know that everything happens for the best. And my faith only grows with each passing day.'
'We believe in ourselves,' Emerson says, 'as we do not believe in others.' Our infinite creative self, which is rooted in absolute nature, supplants all relative existence, surpasses all worldly swaddling. It is when we make contact with this, our greater, higher self, that we will finally be home.
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