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.
But along the way life would present little clues that things were not right. Once, while I was visiting from Colorado and we went to see a movie, my mom became severely out of breath on the walk back to the car. The doctor in me was alerted. She is not a smoker, I thought, nor is she overweight, and she exercises regularly. So why is she out of breath? The following winter she visited me in Denver and she seemed so dried up. But the city was cold and dry. So was I. So I put it out of my mind. The summer after I moved back home her breathing problems recurred. Every day she was winded. I gave her chest a listen. There was fluid in her lungs. The breast cancer which had lain dormant so long had metastasized to the lining of her lungs. We went in for weekly drainages where they'd stick a tube between her ribs and sometimes pull out a couple of liters of cloudy discharge. This went on for a couple months. Cancer was also in her bones. So she was put on bone hardener, and chemotherapy was resumed. How relieved she was to learn that she wouldn't lose her hair as she had the first time. The doctor put us at ease when he called her cancer a chronic disease, like asthma or diabetes, which she'd have for the rest of her life, but which likely would not kill her. You'll probably outlive me! he said. Dr. Glasby is older than mom, and out of shape.
Soon her tumor markers began to go down. And they stayed down for some time. But my pathology textbook from medical school told me the prognosis for a patient with fluid in the lungs secondary to breast cancer was five to ten years. And here we are after five. Of course the textbooks came out before all the latest medication, and new ones come out every year, which is about as long as each med lasts.
This past summer she stopped going to the bathroom regularly. A colonoscopy revealed a mass in her large intestine. The changing faces of cancer. The mass is so large they couldn't pass the colonoscope through. And so she gets on new meds. An anti-estrogen, to starve the cancer, which feeds on the female hormone. An injectible chemotherapeutic agent, in addition to another chemotherapy med in pill form. Mom will probably lose more hair. Her oncologist wants her to see a surgeon who may need to operate if the drugs don't shrink the tumor. There is only so long you can go without going number two. Severe constipation occurs after three days without defecating. Mom hasn't had a normal bowel movement in as many months. If the obstruction is not relieved, stool can back up and come out of the mouth as vomit. Or so my medical textbooks say. This is where we are now.
It is stressful for me to go through this with her. It's like cancer has infected me too. And now every conversation we have could be our last. Her mortality is front and center. I lie awake in the morning waiting to hear her rustling beneath the covers. Am I being overly dramatic? Jackie Collins had the same thing as my mom. Breast cancer metastasized to the bones, and she lived for six more years. The best-selling author of women's fiction did a photoshoot for People magazine five days before she died, and she still looked fabulous. Who'd have thought that before the week was up her body would be a lifeless corpse? My mom looks so fabulous. And this is her year number six.
I was in college when my dad gave me a book on the life and teachings of Ramana Maharshi. I had been undergoing the struggles familiar to any nineteen-year-old. Who am I? What should I do with my life? Etc. My dad thought the sage might offer some answers. But the Maharshi was a bit too intense for me. He had spent months meditating in a pit infested by rats, his body ridden with festering sores. Who does this? Of course it didn't seem to bother the man, who had found bliss within. He had given up everything - not just his family, home, creature comforts, friends and familiarity, but even his own body, which he viewed not as himself but as part of a dream that is the universe. I wasn't prepared to leave the comfort of my bedroom, but I did buy a futon. Figured I too could rough it some. And I did take to the notion of the witness. Things just happen, the sage taught. You are not the doer. If you are vigilant, you can detect a subtle awareness watching everything you do, all your thoughts, everything around you. And this, the Maharshi said, is one's true identity. Pure awareness. I had been worrying about a term paper. Would it write itself? I stopped thinking and just sat myself at my desk. The paper got written. I got an A. I gave the book back to dad and went back to living my life. I spent the next 20 years doing a lot of living.
During my twenties and thirties I forgot about the Maharshi, or at least put his teachings on the back-burner of my subconscious. Then I happened to read the novel Razor's Edge. The Maharshi was never famous. He was too simple, soft-spoken and remote for that. Perhaps he was not controversial enough. Nevertheless, just like Eckhart Tolle has Jim Carrey in his corner, Maharshi was not without his celebrity endorsement. The hugely popular British author W. Somerset Maugham, whose masterpiece Of Human Bondage had blazed a trail of fervor through much of Europe and America, visited the ashram and met with the sage, whom he then featured as a character in what would become his best-selling book. Years later The Razor's Edge would be made into two movies, one of which was a huge success, the other starred Bill Murray.
In the novel, the main character Larry Darrell, an earnest seeker of truth, travels to India where he spends two years in the hermitage of Ramana Maharshi's holy man, whom Maugham calls Shri Ganesha after the Hindu avatar and refers to simply as Yogi. There Darrell spends his days walking, meditating and conversing with the sage when the sage is so inclined, or otherwise just sitting in his presence. Often the sage would simply look at him without speaking, radiating peace. When he did speak, the teachings were simple. We are greater than we know. Wisdom is the means to freedom. There is no need to retire from the world but only to renounce identification with the roles we play. Work done with no selfish interest purifies the mind and allows a person to sink his separate self into the universal Self, source of all. But what impressed Darrell most was the sage himself, whose presence was a "benediction." That sure sounds familiar, I heard myself thinking.
So I went back to the trusty bookshelf and reached for another book on Maharshi's life, one that I hadn't read. I had bought the book, on a trip to India to see the holy man Sai Baba, at my father's request that I gather as much reading material on Ramana as I could find. I only found one slim volume, which treating more of the man's life than his teachings, didn't interest my dad, who wanted aphorisms. But I wanted to know about the man. So did Maugham.
As men, Maugham and the Maharshi could not have been more different. Maugham was a man of the world. A popular and highly paid author, he hobnobbed in high society and traveled extensively, hosting lavish parties at his home in the French Riviera. He trained as a medical doctor and worked as a British spy, and though a homosexual he married a woman (who at the time was married to another man), had a daughter, and later divorced. Maharshi on the other hand was a lifelong celibate who never traveled more than 2 miles from the sacred mountain that was his home. To Maugham's English aristocrat, the Maharshi gave the impression of a "sweet-natured old peasant," as Maugham wrote in an essay on the Maharshi entitled The Saint. Wearing nothing but a loincloth, there nevertheless was something aristocratic about his mien, which Maugham found "neat, very clean, almost dapper." But something united these disparate personalities. Like his novel's protagonist, Maugham himself was an earnest seeker of truth, and in his mind the Maharshi had found it. And so in the winter of 1938, Maugham found himself in the holy man's presence.
When asked if he had anything to say, Maugham, having in the dry Indian heat just suffered a fainting spell, felt too weak to speak. In the Maharshi's words: "Silence is also conversation." And so, for perhaps a half an hour, they sat quietly together, the grand old man of letters with the unlettered mystic. And in that quiet communion, Maugham's novel was born. Like Maugham, I have written books. Like the Maharshi, I am unmarried. As for seeking truth and finding truth, I stand somewhere in between.
Not too long ago I had a conversation with my aunt who expressed disbelief at my not wanting to have children of my own. "Who will take care of you when you're old?" she said. I had never thought about childrearing in such a way. I guess the motivation for some would-be parents is to have a future caretaker. Kids are after all an investment in one's future. This seems rather selfish to me. And I'm rather certain my parents didn't decide to have me with the intention that I administer to them in their dotage. My dad, who had two children from a prior marriage, really didn't want any more kids. But my mother did. Her dream, she says, was to give birth to a Christ child. Instead she got me. And now without a wife and kids I am the one here with my mom, administering to her in her dotage. Not taking care of her per se. Just being on call, the way I used to be during my medical residency. Just being present. It's not always easy. Whatever life I might otherwise have, filled with friends and hobbies, I have forsaken for her. But from what I can tell from the lives of the guys I grew up with, fathering is no walk in the park, so maybe in just being here for my mother I got off easy. Besides I get to swim all I want, and lie in the grass in the same yard I used to crawl around in wearing diapers.
A college friend I'll call Pillar lost her father to colon cancer. We touch base from time to time. I asked her how things are going. "Rough," she said. "It's been three years, six months and 21 days" since she lost him, and it hasn't gotten any easier. I told her about my mother, about how I worry and try not to wear it on my sleeve. Her advice was that I look at old photo albums and talk of old times, which is what she did with her dad. The devil in me wanted to say, "You did those things, and still you struggle. What good has it done you?" But I kept my mouth shut.
I don't want to live in the past, or even relive some of it in the form of fond memories. By doing so don't we die a little more each day, and we are already dying! But writers are encouraged to delve into the human condition, in all its messiness. You'll probably say this essay doesn't have enough of me and my mom in it, that it's not "personal" enough. Your personal is my maudlin.
Perhaps the reader might like to hear how in a poem I gave my mother on her 50th birthday I called her my universe. How when I underwent a recent dental procedure I was overcome with empathy for her travails that it brought me to tears there in the exam room. I just don't want her to suffer! All these doctor visits and phone calls and tests and drugs and procedures, is this really living? Aren't the specialists with their CT scans and the radiation such scans involve just causing the cancerous mutations they're trying to detect? And the toxic drugs that shrink the tumor while also killing the host. And how much she's shrunken over these last half-dozen years. Maybe it's just a function of age. She is 70. Or is all this only managing a recent outbreak of her cancer after which things can go back to the way they were, back to normal. What is "normal"? Can life with cancer ever be that?
At one of her doctor's visits, when we were still smarting from the rediagnosis, I said to my mother: "You can use this time. This disease. This vague end date it imposes. The hardship. To realize the God within. Isn't that why you and dad took us to India all those times?" I reminded her of the mantras we had learned, starting with the primal sound Om. "Chant this," I told her, "to harmonize the cells. It's the best medicine." And the one my dad used to sing to us on the way to school, which as translated from the Sanskrit goes: "Dear Lord, liberate us from the fear of death, by making us realize that we are never separated from our Immortal Nature."
Mom has always taken care of me. Not too long ago she nursed me back to health after a bike accident, when the girl I had been seeing before the fall suddenly became too busy to come visit me. And all the books I got to read, books she had read around the time of my birth, which gave insight into the thoughts going through her head when my body was being formed, books she read when she still had time to read; that is, before me and my brothers hogged it all up! Books such as P.D. Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous, which when she was living in a Sunset Strip penthouse apartment with my father in the 60s was gifted her by a fellow tenant. In it he introduces the concept of the many selves battling for control of the personality. When her condition worsened and she attributed it to chocolate, she said "I'm not going to eat chocolate any more." "This you says that," I replied, "but another you will appear late at night to raid the pantry." It became our inside joke.
My mother and I never had a one-on-one relationship before I moved back in with her. My brother Justin, who was 16 months younger than I, had been such a handful. And when Justin died my youngest brother GT needed my mother's help to get his business off the ground. She could hardly spare the time to read my short stories. Now I don't need her to read them. Because I no longer write fiction.
I showed her a book on philosophy that I found lying on the bookshelf. It contained summaries of the systems put forth by thinkers including Hume, Berkeley, Plato, and others I have come to admire. Was it hers or my father's? My mother couldn't remember. Until she saw a stamp on the first page from West LA City College, which she had attended just before marrying my dad. "Must have been mine," she said. "You don't recognize the highlights as your own?" I asked. She shook her head. "My mind was elsewhere. This was around the time I started to think about you." And that is how I became the philosopher she would read. She likes to tell me how as a girl she used to dream about spending the whole day reading, and would, if not for so many chores. As an adult incessant action had become her habit. Now she reads vicariously through me. We are all in some sense the fulfillment of our parents' fantasies. We carry on their legacy. I am the reader. The philosopher. (The reluctant astrologer.)
My mother had been pestering me to write my life story. I reminded her that I had written an account of my first 25 years on earth when I was 25. She had read this account and it had put her to sleep. She said she didn't remember, so I gave her the manuscript a second time. This time she took an avid interest. It became for her a real page-turner, and I had to relive all those past events as though I had just written them yesterday rather than 17 years ago, and lived some of them 40 years ago, which was around the time of my first memory, of my falling in the pool and my mother plunging in to scoop me out. It was like looking at an old photo album painted by me with words. I had only written the thing as a 25-year-old to set down the events of my earthly existence up till that point and then to transcend my childhood, becoming like Maharshi a child of God, rather than identify with this name and form and be stuck. Instead there I was reliving all that old stuff. High school parties. College angst. Once when my mother left the room I had the urge to toss that old memoir away then and there, and she was hardly a quarter of the way through! But at least she cares enough to read my work. Not many do.
One day she suggested twice daily hugs, to help her get through the cramps of having cancer in her colon. It lasted maybe two days. I am not much of a hugger. Nor was Ramana. Then the third morning she came in for her daily hug and called me the guru of Bel-Air, a name I told her not to use when referring to me. How pretentious! And did I detect a trace of mockery in her tone? This set her off. I had "ruined" her good mood. Maybe it was best that we not talk at all. I reminded her of Christ's Golden Rule. She calls herself a Christian, wears his cross around her neck. And yet she fails to treat her own son how she'd be treated. Would she like it if I persisted in calling her a name she didn't care for? (Diva, perhaps?)
There are two ways of interacting with my mother. I can come from the lower self (ego-based personality) or the higher Self (pure awareness, the God within). If the former our personalities clash, because we are very different. If the latter I can be accused of not having any relationship with her at all. So many sages were silent. It's like going on the dance floor. You can move with your partner, do the dance, and maybe step on each other's toes or be off beat. Or you can watch while your partner shimmies.
Because if I act at the level of the lower self, I can hardly relate. To my mother's penchant for putting mirrors on every wall, as if to glorify the body or root one's awareness in the body. And for that matter to clutter up every inch of space with some trinket. To her work at Geary's selling finery at exorbitant prices to people who've made their money not providing a service to society but gaming the system. And the emphasis on appearances. And seeing others merely as their astrological signs, while I dismiss much of what astrology says it knows about an individual personality. Except the part in my chart that says (referring the the Moon in Cancer): "Many males with the Moon so placed do not marry until after the mother's death." And the part, indicated by my Moon square my mother's which likely manifests in "petty bickering or trifling irritations and annoyances, which may occur frequently but leave no lasting scars to destroy your relationship" giving the opportunity to "experience the stimulus of minor disagreements and energizing discussions," followed by "making up with apologies and bear hugs." And my Moon square her Mars, producing "strong emotional reaction, and serious personality conflicts." And "back-and-forth accusations of nagging, rudeness, abruptness, and refusals to talk things over calmly." But thankfully there is Uranus trine Venus, indicating unusual generosity with each other, similar spiritual beliefs; and the Sun sextile the Moon, which represents the strongest of all harmonies between two people, to quote one popular astrologer, representing a "cosmic insurance policy" against an acrimonious destruction, leading to a relationship that despite what other aspects indicate is basically harmonious. If you go in for that sort of thing.
And then there's her penchant for viewing herself (and me, as her son) as "the chosen ones" (a phrase reminiscent of Calvin's "Elect," or was it Augustine?). To her tendency to dispense advice, all of it unsolicited. "If I were you, I'd..." write about yourself, run for President, become a sperm donor, look up old girlfriends online etc. She has already managed to slip in a suggestion for where to live after she's dead. Mom if you ever read this: I can live my own life.
Now that it is just mom and me, it's as if I'm living with a stranger. I find I don't really know her all that well, or relate to her the way I imagine a relative would. Many times she has told me one of her motivations in becoming a mother was to give birth to someone she could have long talks with. That she always felt like an alien around her mom and sisters. I too have felt that she is an alien. I have also felt this about myself. But I think we are aliens from different planets who don't speak the same language. She can be crass, materialistic, opinionated, and inexact, and then . . . then I am reminded of Christ's words (John 3:17): "For God sent not his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world through him might be saved." And so I try not to judge. And to be the Christ child she dreamed of. She is also generous, honest and cheerful.
When I left medicine and moved home I shed a symbolic skin. I sold my car, gave away most of my possessions. I became the sannyasi, the renunciate, like Ramana Maharshi. I wonder if my reclusive life of a hermit is a natural outgrowth of my present circumstances or would it have happened independently? I know that I could never go anywhere during this time of my mother's illness, even if it goes on for decades. I need to be here for her. It is my duty. And I am comfortable with her in my childhood home. Life is good. But if my mother were healthy, and my parents still together, would I be living here with her? Probably not. Maybe I'd be married with kids of my own. And maybe divorced. Maybe I'd check out of that life and become the hermit once again. Maybe it's my destiny. I do know that no choice is independent of the circumstances in which it is made. I have no desire to go anywhere or do anything other than to live a simple life of the spirit and keep my mother company. This is my reality. It all just goes together. Is my life on hold? Less doing, more being has become my motto. Where else would I prefer to be? How else to pass the time? I wouldn't trade places with anyone.
Relating to my parents in my adult life, as they age and battle disease, is like dancing on uneven terrain. If we disagree, a frequent refrain of theirs is "Let's be grateful for whatever time we have left together." How's that to make me feel? It's like someone pointing a gun to your head and commanding you to have a good time.
Spirit is spirit. Let's let pure consciousness commune, I want to say, rather than remain stuck in the stuffy roles of parent and child. And why not? It's not uncommon for a film actor to discuss the character she plays. She'll refer to her character in the third person (Mandy likes this, suffers that), and talk about the character's motivations. Is it too much a stretch to discuss the role you happen to be playing in life in such a way? Said Shakespeare (and Elvis): The world is a stage and we all are actors playing parts. Is not middle-aged son living at home and sometimes clashing with the mother who has stage 4 cancer merely one of my many roles? Am I being escapist or seeing life in a clear light?
Time magazine put out a story on breast cancer. More and more women with a certain type of tumor are opting to do nothing about it. No surgery, no radiation or chemotherapy. Just "watchful waiting" in the medical jargon. My mother doesn't have the cancer mentioned in the article. But one woman who does explained her decision not to undergo every available treatment option by saying: "I think we really hurt ourselves by trying just not to be dead."
My mother is a fighter. This cancer in her colon will not get the best of her, she says. She will beat it. I said under my breath that even so, death will claim her in the end. When you may win a battle or two, but ultimately lose the war, is the cavalier approach really heroic? My grandfather had the same mindset when in his late 70s he was hospitalized for heart failure. He had to undergo open heart surgery, which left him languishing in the ICU. "I will beat this," he told my mother. "I will get out of the hospital. And then I want you to throw me a big party." He did. She did. And on his way home from the party he was hit by a car and died on the way back to the hospital. Is this a success story? To avoid one tragic ending only to be involved in another? I'm not saying I want my mother to go, but if it's not cancer in her colon, it may be cancer somewhere else, or a heart attack in her sleep (news flash: women are seven times more likely to die of heart disease than cancer). What about Wayne Dyer, whom mom loved ever since she read his breakthrough best-seller, Your Erroneous Zones. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 2009 and in 2015 died of heart failure, according to his publicist. He was quoted as saying, "I am not afraid of death." Isn't this acceptance more becoming of a true champion than fighting a war you cannot possibly win? I didn't say this much to her at the time. Which is probably why I'm writing it.
Cancer is a strange thing. It's been around almost as long as humans. Only now with public health improvements in sanitation and hygiene, and with advancements in medicine, people are living longer, and the chances they'll get cancer gets higher as they age. As it is, 1 person in 2 will be afflicted with the disease at some point in life. Recent advancements have prolonged the lives of many cancer sufferers. What this has done is allow the tumor itself to go on living with its host, to mutate and metastasize and reveal complex stages and different phases of itself. So that the breast cancer of today is very different from the breast cancer in ancient civilizations. Back then people would get murdered or killed or die of starvation or freeze to death before cancer took them, and certainly long before it spread to the lungs and bone and colon. Whereas now the primary tumor is resected and chemotherapy and radiation slow its progression, so it's easy for 20 years to go by, as in my mother's case. And with medication comes adaptation, so the tumor in order to develop resistance to the chemotherapy becomes different, more resilient, more resistant.
I don't think as a society we are equipped to deal with this new face of death, one for which we have no frame of reference. In the past a person would live a long healthy life and then some disease would take her out in days or even overnight. This is still the case in primitive cultures today. But in modern civilized society, treatment is keeping patients alive, often prolonging suffering, for the patient and her family, and for an indefinite period of time. My mother could have as many years as it has been since her diagnosis, or she could die in as many days. Or anything in between. Which leaves me to listen each morning for her to rustle beneath the sheets, and to wait for the day she lies still. And to cherish every moment in between.
But it's almost like closing your eyes and holding your breath in preparation to be pushed into a cold swimming pool (death is such an unknown, it's like diving in) and doing this at noon and not getting the plunge until evening. Most people die at night. And the wait is what is most grueling. I just don't know how much time my mother has left. Nor I. But I am not the type to require a lot of quality time with my mother, to spend hours in heartfelt discussions, or pouring over old pictures, like Pillar suggests. Should I alter my behavior just because her days are numbered? What if she has decades remaining? Should we live each day like we're dying, as the song suggests? Hell, I found out my cholesterol and blood sugar are elevated. She could outlive me! Maybe I should take it easy. Relax about this cancer thing. We're good. But if I just continue to be me, to go days without much more than a good morning and good night, and then she's gone, would I be wracked with regret? Should I be? After all, I lived at home through college, and for most of my twenties. And when most guys my age (35 plus) have a wife and kids and hardly ring their folks let alone visit them, it's pretty much been just mom and I. Ah the uncertainty! The role of sentimental son doesn't suit me. But what role does?
As my mother's condition progressed, I began to wonder, What would Ramana do?
Maharshi was 36 at the time his earthly mother began residing with him. Thereafter she became ill with typhoid fever. The hermit attended his mother with exemplary patience and diligence, in the words of one biographer, "proving by his actions that the maintenance of an aged and helpless loved one is a duty devolving even on one who has renounced all worldly ties." With his kind but impersonal treatment of the woman who gave his body life, Maharshi was "removing worldly delusions from his mother and educating her in impartiality, detachment, in spirituality." Nevertheless, her condition progressed - for the last two or three years Maharshi nursed her, sometimes remaining awake by her side through the night - until when he was 42 his mother passed away. Though only possessing the rudiments of religion, during her six years with her son she picked up the important truths imparted to his disciples to prepare them for salvation and began to see things in a new light.
Ramana lived so abstemiously that he preferred not to listen to music or even to touch others. Yet when his mother died, her son's hand was on her head, stroking her brow soothingly as he repeated the name of the Lord. On the day of her death he fasted, but seemed to feel no pain on her passing. If we are to trust eyewitness accounts, his feeling seemed to be one of relief. He had little care for his own personal comfort, yet the suffering of others affected him greatly, and his mother's care took its toll on the both of them. As she departed perhaps he felt more free, since she was free of the bonds of fleshly life. But who are we to pry into another man's mind? And what is death but a change of form? As for one's substance, the spirit, isn't that eternal?
A memorial service was held which Ramana stoicly attended. No tantrums, no wailings, no oversentimentality. That's the way it should be done, I heard myself saying. His mother's body was buried, the ground consecrated and a shrine erected, where pilgrims have visited on a daily basis ever since. The sage's mother is now regarded as a saint.
I once had a dream of the sage. I was in the room listening to him speak. He didn't look at me, I thought because he didn't know I was there. But perhaps there was no me. Maybe we weren't two separate individuals, but one and the same, the inseparable Oneness that is reality. Or maybe I was him in a former life. But I don't believe in reincarnation. For that matter, neither did he.
The Maharshi gave many discourses on the roles we play in life. Once a disciple visits him asking for liberation. Ramana replies that the man is already liberated. This startles him. "I have a temper," says the man. But the Maharshi leads him to see that the anger he feels towards his employees arises from his identification with the role of their employer. If he wasn't their employer, would he be frustrated with their incompetence? No, he says. Anger is a thought, or caused by a thought, as are all emotions. Anything you do is playing a role, says the Maharshi. The role of doer is one that we all adopt in our daily lives, but behind the doer is the one who has a choice whether to do a particular thing or not, so even our roles are not truly us. Including the role of son to a mother. I imagine what a dialogue between me and the Maharshi would be like.
Me: I am sad that my mother is sick.
Maharshi: Would you be sad about this if you had never been born?
Maharshi: Why not?
Me: Because in that scenario she would not be my mother. Someone else would be sad in my place. And if I didn't have a mind--
Maharshi (politely interrupting): We will get to the mind. First, would you be sad about your mother's illness if you were an infant incapable of understanding language or concepts such as sickness?
Me: I guess ignorance is bliss.
Maharshi: Awareness is bliss. Know that you as her adult son are sad because that is appropriate to the role you are playing. But the true you, pure awareness, is not bound by the body, does not have these relationships of mother and son. Who you really are is as sad about your mother as would be a stranger.
Me: But the fact that she is sick. It pains me to see her suffer.
Maharshi: Who your mother truly is, pure consciousness, can never suffer. Nor can you. Suffering exists in the mind. What were you going to say before I interrupted you before.
Me (politely interrupting): Without a mind I wouldn't know sadness.
Me: Do you think this is rationalizing or intellectualizing my pain away?
Maharshi: What do you think?
Me: Well, I know I am not sad about my mother in my sleep, because the sadness subsides with the temporary disappearance of my mind. Only when the mind awakens does the thought of sadness return.
Maharshi: It is possible to live life in the serenity of sleep.
I agree with the Maharshi. He once said that someone living as a human, swayed to and fro by emotions that seem out of her control, is like the laborer who toils all day in the hot sun when she could come under the shade. The God-realized individual who has awakened to her divine nature, which is bliss, spends life in the shade of the Self. The choice is ours to make. How do you wish to spend your days? Being sad for another doesn't make that person better. If it did there would be a use for it. It is best not to let sadness get the best of one, like my dear friend Pillar, who seems to have made a pet of her sorrow. Or my friend Patrick, whose father recently died of a blood cancer; he didn't do everything possible at the end to prolong his life, and in Pat's eyes had let his son down. Like Pillar, Pat has been grieving for years.
The Maharshi in me says sorrow should be experienced, even enjoyed as part of, in my mother's words, "the tapestry of life" - the way we submit to scary rides at the amusement park, though we'd hate to live all our lives on the edge of our seats. Provided you control your emotions rather than be controlled by them. For death and life are different aspects of what essentially is the same thing, and that is change. And if life brings with it a perception of difference or plurality, and prevents the perception of the one Real, then when one casts away such difference in death, death itself dies and the Real is realized.
Still, a loved one's illness can seem like a bad dream. And in a nightmare, often the dreamer has the urge to wake up. Sometimes the urge is so strong that the dreamer does wake up. Self-realization, which the Maharshi experienced and which is said to be the purpose of life, is like the dream character trying to locate the dreamer in whose mind the dream takes place. Wherever he searches in the dream world, he will never find what he is looking for. For in order to reach the dreamer, in order to enter the awareness in which the dream takes place, the dream character needs to awaken from the dream. But then, the dream is over and the dream character ceases to exist. Until it is our time to awaken from this dream of life, to die, maybe what is most crucial is to realize we are dreaming. And sorrow can help with that. All my time with Ramana seems to have helped.
The Maharshi often told followers: "Be still and know that I am." The passage is from the Biblical Old Testament (Psalm 46:10) which reads "Be still, and know that I am God." The sage left off the God part at the end as being redundant. After all God himself, when Moses asked for his name, said (Exodus 3:14), "I AM WHO I AM," and to tell the people "I AM has sent me to you." Therefore God and I am are synonymous. It might seem strange for an Indian man raised in the school of vedanta to borrow a Biblical saying, but when you consider that vedanta is regarded as a universal religion that sees the thread uniting all major creeds, it is not strange at all. And many of his disciples were Christians. To Maharshi, God is existence, consciousness and bliss, and what is that but a description one word longer than the terse Biblical verse, I am.
Ramana would urge disciples in their meditations to always come back to the I thought. To constantly ask, "Who am I?" and to let that thought destroy all other thoughts, so that the practitioner is left experiencing his own existence unimpeded by mind. This is being in the presence of God. But referring to God as I can get confusing, since this I is what the individual uses to refer to himself. People can mistake it as an excuse to be egotistical, to glorify the lower self, that false self that the Hindu would urge us to transcend. But this is a fault of semantics. Brahman is the impersonal God. Atma is the God dwelling in the individual. The translation for Atma is Self, with a capital S. I. The subject. The jiva or individual, is the self. Lower case s. The me. The object. Semantics can lead to an awful lot of confusion.
Growing up I was exposed to religions of both the East and the West. I served Mass as an altar boy each Sunday before going to Sunday School where my family and I sang devotional songs to Hindu deities. It made for a busy and eventful adolescence, and gave rise to my tendency, true to vedantism, to see the unity behind all religions. And when you strip away the differences in semantics, the teachings of Ramana Maharshi are very much the same as those espoused by Catholic mystics. Take Brother Lawrence, a lay brother living in a Catholic monastery in 17th century Paris, whose relationship with the divine is not unlike the Maharshi's, despite their being separated by 250 years and nearly 5000 miles. His awakening took place when at the age of eighteen he saw a dry and leafless tree in midwinter, which stirred reflections respecting the change the coming spring would bring, when the leaves would be renewed and the flowers and fruit reappear. He viewed the grand spectacle of nature as evidence of the "Providence and Power of God." From that time he endeavored to constantly walk with God, "as in His presence."
Brother Lawrence's instructions, in the forms of correspondence published after his death under the title The Practice of the Presence of God, are that we establish ourselves in God's presence, in an ongoing conversation. He writes: "I make it my business only to persevere in His holy presence, wherein I keep myself by simple attention." Doing so he felt his individuality lift itself up and fix itself in God, "as in its center and place of rest." This is vedanta's merging of the lower ego-based self with the Self, source of all that is. The jiva becoming the Atma, in the parlance of the Hindu.
Brother Lawrence established himself in God's presence the way Ramana Maharshi sunk his mind into the self, and both urged followers to steady the mind, to control its wandering thoughts. "Useless thoughts spoil all," Lawrence believed. He spent every minute of the day, even those assiduously occupied in his work as a cook at the monastery, driving away from his mind "everything that was capable of interrupting my thought of God." The way the Maharshi abided in the sense I am (God), saying: "Giving one’s self up to God means remaining constantly in the Self without giving room for the rise of any thoughts other than that of the Self. Whatever burdens are thrown on God, He bears them."
For Brother Lawrence, as with the Maharshi, God was not some outside entity. God was with him, even in him. You cannot fault the man for refraining from referring to God as I am, or simply I. As a Christian he was acquainted with the fate of the first Christian, Christ himself, who stated, "I and the Father are one" and was crucified for it.
But what struck me the most was the counsel Brother Lawrence gives to an ailing friend, since it applies to my mother and to me who suffers with her.
"I do not pray that you may be delivered from your pains," he writes, "but I pray God earnestly that He would give you strength and patience to bear them as long as He pleases." For: "Those who consider sickness as coming from the hand of God, as the effect of His mercy, and the means which He employs for their salvation - such commonly find in it great sweetness and sensible consolation." Indeed: "God is often (in some sense) nearer to us, and more effectually present with us, in sickness than in health," often sending "diseases of the body to cure those of the soul."
Like Maharshi, who upheld the Hindu "neti, neti" (God is not this particular thing, nor that, but beyond the objects of the senses and yet including them), Lawrence sought to go beyond mind so as to know God not as a concept but to experience divinity as infinite and incomprehensible, as God is in Himself, and not as He can be conceived by human ideas. For: "He is within us: seek him not elsewhere."
In his novel, Maugham (speaking as Darrell) argues that when the Aryans first came down into India, they saw that the universe is a manifestation of the unseen Reality, and they welcomed it as gracious and beautiful. But after centuries of conquest and debilitating climate, their vitality sapped, these founders of religion saw only a cruel world and craved for release. And so they turned away from the harsh realm of the senses to the tranquility of the inner life of the spirit.
One wonders at the relevance of these ancient philosophies in the modern age. Most people in today's world are not like our maharshi and our mystic. Few seek to transcend the harsh realm of the senses through meditation. First because for many, life is not so harsh. And instead of meditation we binge watch TV or take prescriptive medication. Rediscovering Ramana has been either the best thing that has ever happened to me or else it is the worst. Is Ramana enabling my escapism from my mother's affliction or are his teachings better equipping me to cope with this and all life's challenges through transcendence? Is greeting life's tragedies with the peace of deep sleep akin to sleep-walking through life, to self-medicating? Or is it truly practicing Lawrence's presence of God? It all depends on one's perspective.
The philosopher William James recognized that "there are moments of discouragement in us all, when we are sick of self and tired of vainly striving. Our own life breaks down, and we fall into the attitude of the prodigal son. We mistrust the chances of things. We want a universe where we can just give up, fall on our father's neck, and be absorbed into the absolute life as a drop of water melts into the river or the sea.
"The peace and rest," he says, "the security desiderated at such moments is security against the bewildering accidents of so much finite experience. Nirvana means safety from this everlasting round of adventures of which the world of sense consists. The [Hindu] and the Buddhist, for this is essentially their attitude, are simply afraid, afraid of more experience, afraid of life."
James himself suffered from mental illness throughout his career. He called it a soul-sickness. Perhaps he cultivated his ailment with too much questioning. Perhaps "falling on the father's neck" as he cautioned against, or in Maharshi's words, "giving himself up to the Self that is God, and feeling at ease," was the remedy James denied himself, so that he could with his suffering and striving feed a career based on such feelings. Maugham too. After visiting Ramana he kept attending his parties, perhaps because he needed fuel for his literary output. But it is telling that near the end of Razor's Edge, when the novel's narrator asks Darrell what he gained from his experience with Ramana Maharshi's Sri Ganesha, his response is, "Peace."
As the days progress, and my mother is able to relieve her swollen bowels less and less, the prospect of surgery becomes more and more likely. We have known three people to undergo such a procedure (colonic resection). My Uncle Mike had a portion of his intestine removed as treatment for diverticulitis. He continues to have vague pain throughout his abdomen. My Aunt Hope underwent a similar procedure to remove suspicious polyps from her rectum. She tells my mother that the recovery has been a nightmare. After her surgery, my Aunt Stella had to tote a colostomy bag to collect stool. Having thereafter met a gentleman suitor, she scheduled a follow-up procedure to reattach her colon. She wanted to have sex. The day before the procedure, while running to answer the phone, she fell and hit her head. Her body was found the following day. Considering the vast spectrum of possibilities doesn't give me much peace of mind. I blame my wandering thoughts.
When I was born a psychic told my mother, "The world has been waiting for your son, Mrs. Dave." I always took this to mean that I'd be a huge success in the material sense. Big job. Name and fame. Maybe help a lot of people. Instead, it's been over four decades and I find myself making my mother juice that she can digest, and the occasional meal when she's not too nauseous. Talking about old times. Keeping her company as we die. If it is true what I wrote, that she is my whole universe, then this is exactly where I'm supposed to be.
Over lunch yesterday, my mother started having these really bad cramps. Her face contorted in an expression of intense pain. It reminded me of the face my brother Justin used to make, when cancer brought him to his knees. I watched her get up. How withered she has become! She said she needed to go lie down. I asked her if there was anything I could do for her. "Just be kind to me," were her words.
We wait for the medication to shrink the mass. It doesn't. The bloat gets so bad my mother calls in sick for work. We visit her oncologist, who sends us to the ER. I have not been to the ER since the year before when I fell off my bike. Then the roles were reversed and my mother sat by my bed as the doctors revealed their plan. The surgeons descend on her. They say she looks too good to be so sick. The good news is that the tumor is operable. The bad news is that, like her aunt, she'll need a colostomy bag for the rest of her life.
"It's okay," she says. "I remember one famous actress was rumored to wear such a bag. That is why she was only photographed in a one-piece bathing suit. She wore it with style. I can pull it off." My mother, always the optimist.
Another doctor comes in. Maybe she doesn't need surgery after all. They may try to place a stent. This is really great news. And it gets better. They'll have to put her on a low fiber diet to include cheese, bread, pasta and other foods she raised me on; this, rather than the brussels sprouts and collard greens I've been forcing down her throat, is her true comfort food. So you see, every cloud has its cheese-crust lining.
Sitting in the garden with her just the other day, she points out a stargazer lily tree. She had brought it back from Hawaii shortly after my brother Justin passed, she tells me. Now it fills the corner of the yard. I remind her that she also brought back Justin from Hawaii, where she conceived him on a trip with my father to Maui just after I was born. The cycle of life continues. And pointing to another tree, this one a palm: "Years ago the gardeners wanted to chop it down. They said it was dying. I told them just to remove the tip. And they did, and decades later it is as healthy as can be."
I hope my mother is like that palm tree. That after her procedure she'll live at least another 20 years, and pain free. Or better, that she has, as Brother Lawrence urged his friend, the strength and patience to bear the pain as long as it is God's will. But that is not up to me.
One thing is certain, however: If we treated each other as though we all were dying of cancer, the world would be a much kinder and gentler place.