Take it or leave it.

Monday, November 2, 2015


The sage Ramana Maharshi's life and teachings helped me cope with my mother's cancer diagnosis. As if I should be the one in need of help. After all it is my mom who is ill. But it is common knowledge that personal tragedy can be more difficult for one's loved ones to bear than for oneself. I am not sure why this is.

Ramana was a 20th century Indian ascetic who became enlightened in his early teens. Without alerting his family, he abandoned his home to live on a holy mountain, where he spent years performing austerities in a cave, "immersed in the bliss of the Self." After much cajoling sympathetic bystanders persuaded the emaciated boy to take up lodging beneath the shade of a mango grove, where soon pilgrims flocked to see him. The Maharshi treated everyone with loving tenderness. He communicated with the sweetness of his steady gaze, teaching by silence and the occasional parable. His only possessions were a loin cloth, a begging bowl and a staff.

Years went by and the Maharshi's mother, who had by this time learned of his whereabouts visited the hermitage to entreat him to return home. But the sage would not leave. It was as if, having transcended the ties of conventional relationships, he was no longer his mother's son but a child of God, or more accurately himself a manifestation of the divine. In the twilight of her life the sage's mother once more came to the mountain. This time, having lost her husband and home and with no place to go, she asked to live with her son. The sage agreed. She took on the duties of the household, cooking and cleaning, and Ramana treated his mother like the other women, who he said were all divine mothers in his eyes. If she asked him a question he would answer respectfully and impartially while looking at the others in the room rather than give his mother preferential treatment. Conventional opinion would regard this as disrespectful, but having recognized that we are not child nor parent any of us, but each is pure spirit, the sage was subtly cutting the ties that bind.

I could relate to the life of Ramana. It was an out-of-body experience when he was a boy that convinced the sage-to-be that he was not merely the physical form but the immortal spirit embodying it and giving it life. The science of today would critique his methods (relying on personal experience seems so archaic!) but having had an OBE myself, during which I was hurled out of my body and left to watch from the other side of the room as it lay lifelessly in bed, his experience deeply resonated with me. We were kindred spirits.

In 2009 I returned to my childhood home to live with my mother. I was 36. My younger brother had just moved out of the house; I had been living a few states away and unhappy in my career as a doctor; and my mother, who had lost another son to cancer, and a few years before had separated from my father, would be all alone in my childhood home. Why should we be miserable separately when we could live together in harmony? And I had reason to be concerned with her health. She had been treated for breast cancer in 1994, received chemotherapy and radiation; a lumpectomy followed, with lymph node resection. Doctors had detected cancer in her nodes, but subsequent studies revealed no residual tumor, so she was deemed cancer free and for the next 15 years she remained, or so we thought.


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