Perfectly Rapt

Sky Temple view - Penang
It’s December again in Penang. The malls are manic with shoppers thronging to eateries, shows, and sales of every conceivable electronic gadget. Strolling in air-conditioned euphoria under mammoth snowflakes that hang precariously from on high, you can catch sight of Santa Claus sailing a Norse longship with a polystyrene chicken and a gingerbread man as First Mate. I prefer a quiet walk beside the sea under casuarinas and coconut palms laced with jewels of light.

Few here know the story of Christmas. Still, most will join the frenzied merriment of buying and receiving presents. The practice of generosity is supposed to turn us away from self-cherishing. How can it when we are raised on a diet of getting what we want from the tooth fairy or our parents for every good grade, birthday, or holiday we celebrate? As long as we are fed by a culture of materialism, what can be the true marrow of our giving?

There are many reasons we give: out of love, sympathy, gratitude, wanting to flatter, impress, appease, pamper, or reciprocate. We also give because it is expected of us, we hope to exact a favour, or want recognition. And there are as many possible outcomes. Whatever our impulse, the results can be destructive – particularly when we endeavour to buy love from each other; or with our own children, use gifts to compete for their affection.

Being honest about our intentions – no matter how self-serving – can steer what, how, to whom, and when we give. A gesture of friendship may be more meaningful than flamboyant expense for the wrong thing. When would you offer it? In public or invisibly? Is it for someone you respect or do you feel obliged? Would you ignore an addict begging on the street? What if it’s your own child?

As a mendicant not handling money, I am caught in the paradox of being unable to buy presents yet wanting to give them. In a monastic calendar packed with ordinations, festivals, retreats, and rituals honouring our teachers, opportunities for exchanging gifts abound. We become adept not only at recycling what we have received but also making something out of nothing.

The cards I create from scraps of fabric, broken pots, shards of glass, shells, wood, feathers, stones, sand, skeleton leaves and dried flower petals become poems and prayers of well-wishing. As I give them away, I have to ask, “Why am I doing this?” What I discover about myself is not always uplifting – sometimes an eagerness tainted by expectation, at other times resistance when I have been coerced into giving.

temple of shellsDuring one of our annual kathina* events, well into the night I painstakingly prepared a special card for an elder with some of my best collectibles. After discreetly propping the finished product against her door, I came away well-pleased, certain that she would be effusive. The next day, her lukewarm response left me understandably crestfallen, and confirmed what I already knew. I’d been fishing for approval – hardly unconditional dāna*.

Despite its obvious spiritual value and the joys associated with it, sometimes giving comes hard. A friend travelling overseas asked if I wanted him to bring a gift on my behalf to a mutual acquaintance – someone I had grown to mistrust over the years. My hesitation was palpable. “Don’t you want to send a card or small gift?” he prodded innocently.

Embarrassed, I felt compelled to produce an offering, at least as camouflage for my faux pas if not out of genuine friendship. Surprisingly, I found myself not only making a card and wrapping it with care but also trying to think positively of someone I had long shunned. By the time the package was ready, it had already become a gift – to me.

Generosity contains the whole path – from precepts to liberating consciousness. But to mature and develop it well, we may have to confront charred memories and perceived injustices that stall and weaken our ability to be magnanimous. Ferreting out our intentions – whatever they are – enables us to see through, and try to forgive, the mind’s covert games or prolonged tantrums. We can then dislodge selfish and caustic attitudes, or entrenched feelings that divide us from others as well as from the riches of our own heart.

As long as we determine not to compromise what is true, we can trust our own goodness. Then, when we do give, it is from an unsullied place that extends beyond self-concern and self-congratulation. Guided by wisdom, at least we try to act from loving-kindness.

One afternoon, reminiscing about times of personal suffering, a brother monk recalled his worst experience of pain following an operation to remove a kidney he had donated anonymously. In time, he met the recipient, a young village mother. He quietly recounted the joy of restoring her life and staying in touch over the years as she raised her children.

Perfect giving is truly selfless and compassionate – and is its own reward. We may not be required to be so heroic but we all can practise kindness in small, ordinary, hidden ways with no thought of return: help carry a package, take in a neighbour’s laundry when it rains, or buy a coffee for someone having a bad day. It need not cost much.

Just letting that person know that you care or being there for them is a joy – perfect in itself – and a gift for all seasons.

*dāna: offerings to the Sangha
*kathina: robe-offering ceremony at the end of the Rains Retreat

© Ayyā Medhānandī

[see Red Erring]

Right Speech, Right Silence

What makes us pacify and fawn on those we don’t respect – only to lose respect for ourselves? Or hold our peace when someone insults us or another? Are we too afraid to protest lest we offend? Or are we intimidated into a silence that breaches our principles so as not to draw criticism or anger? In life’s conflicted moments, how do we judge when it’s right to speak out?

There’s nothing golden about a silence that shrugs its shoulders because we’re too scared to say what we feel. We may dodge the vitriol aimed at us or – to our unspoken relief – at someone else, but each time we do so it may be at the cost of our own integrity.

Last year, when my kappiyā* underwent a major operation, the charge nurse visited, checked her charts, and supervised the attending staff with a crisp efficiency – for which we were grateful – and a loud and ostentatious competence. The following day she arrived with an obese young woman in tow, introduced her as the hospital dietician, and pronounced mirthlessly, “She’s so fat, that’s why she’s in charge of the food!” adding an affected chortle.

Her hapless underling winced while my pallid devotee and I looked on – stunned by this odious effrontery. Still we continued to chat amiably as if nothing unusual had happened. I neatly rationalized my passivity, thinking, “Not my ‘place’ to remonstrate” and “Better steer clear”. In truth, I just did not know what to say.

Hard as I tried to absolve my sense of guilt, reflecting on this incident unearthed an even less flattering reason for my silence: I was compromised by my indebtedness to the head nurse for the promise of her help – it simply would not do to upset her. And, besides, confrontation is downright uncomfortable.

So is the feeling in my heart when I recall the pained expression on the face of the overweight nutritionist. How could I pretend there was nothing wrong as the head nurse casually humiliated her colleague? Was my silence a subtle form of complicity? When I allow myself to be intimidated, I reinforce moral weakness – in myself and others – while they continue their abuse through shabby conduct. Can any good could come at such a price?

We have all been the object of different forms of invective. Recently, I was invited for vegetarian dana* at a temple where “Guest is God” and religious volunteers prepare a buffet of fresh curries, rice, and desserts, paid by donation. A favourite for monastics and their hosts alike, we would sit surrounded by statues of Indian deities in the tranquil space that opened onto a garden and its canopy of flowering trees and shrubs.

My restriction to finish eating by noon meant I had to pay close attention to the time. Naturally, the gods would have to be fed first – unless there were human take-away orders. Usually, by 11:30 I could begin walking pindapat* alongside the servery to receive food from my devotee’s hand directly into my bowl.

As it was getting late, we stood ready nearby. The cooks, familiar with this tradition, informed us unapologetically that today’s meal was delayed and we would have to wait. Finally, by the time the food was offered and I had chanted a blessing, there were only minutes left to eat. Unable to finish, I emptied the leftovers onto a plate before washing my bowl.

Suddenly, the brawny head volunteer and one of his lackeys charged towards our table from behind the counter. Unprovoked, he launched into a sermon, berating me publicly for the terrible sin of wasting ‘prasad‘, food made holy under the gaze of their gods. When I tried to explain, his manner turned abusive, fuelled even further by my devotee’s strident retort.

Though all my efforts at conciliation fell flat, I did not give up, repeating why I could not complete my meal and that no insult was intended. I hoped an apology and acceptance of responsibility would appease but the volume of his self-righteous harangue only swelled. Seeing that he would not desist, even as I appealed for compassion, I  hastened to leave.

These demeaning exchanges violate us. But anger is not more powerful than kindness – unless I buckle under it. Expressing indignation may not be appropriate either. Would anyone hear? In the case of our hefty nutritionist, my protest may even have added to her embarrassment. As for the pietistic temple cook, he would neither be placated nor realise how mistreating his guests dishonoured his gods.

Sometimes silence is the harder choice. I bite my tongue and restrain the impulse to express how I feel. Doing so would be foolhardy without the essential wisdom and diplomacy. But even if I uphold core values by saying my piece, must I do so at any price? Can I never be excused from failing to take a stand against poor manners let alone vileness and injustice?

Working from the principle of non-harming, often my hesitation to choose what is ostensibly right comes not for lack of courage but because of the ethical complexities of human dynamics. Intervening might be futile; worse, I could exacerbate an already untenable situation.

Whatever we decide to say or not in the patchwork of human interaction, though guided by our moral code, it provides no precise script. Today’s insight may be a poor fit for tomorrow’s encounter. But the responsibility for restraining abuse belongs first to the one who perpetrates it; next, to those caught in its path. In most cases, we teach others – subconsciously – how they can treat us. Only I can set the bar for myself not to end up a victim or scapegoat.

Feeling too appalled or confused, can I wait to speak when I have a better chance of being heard? Though I risk losing the opportunity, I must take care to strike a balance, neither undermining my commitment to Right Speech nor mowing down others with sanctimonious zeal; at the same time, refrain from inappropriate apology and retreat that only suppress my own truth.

I speak well not by keeping silent, but by practising speech that is wise, compassionate, and true, protecting and dignifying my relationships with others. And if I have no ‘right’ answer, at least silence can give me pause to reaffirm what is inviolable for me and guard it well.

*kappiyā: attendant
*dana: meal offering
*pindapat: alms round

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Heavenly Blue

My alms bowl, a heavenly blue

On this metal pot my life depends. It demands no ordinary faith but one that enables me to go anywhere trusting that I can survive as long as it is replenished.

This is not the first pot of my monastic career. On my ordination day, I received the traditional glazed ceramic bowl, heavy and easy to break. My relationship to it and the mindfulness I was to practise in handling it define the spirit of our early years of training. We gain expertise not only in the rules governing its use but also – as with our other requisites – learn to take meticulous care whether setting it out at the meal, eating from it, cleaning, carrying, or storing it.

At the end of these five Rains Retreats – the way our monastic years are reckoned – comes that special moment in the life of a nun. Even if she has cracked or broken her alms bowl – the mortification being punishment enough – she still remains eligible to receive the more durable stainless steel one that replaces it. That will be hers to use for the remainder of her life or until she disrobes.

Naturally, I was overjoyed the day I surrendered my ceramic bowl to accept the new metal one made ready for me – wrapped in a cloth harness and perched on its bamboo stand beside my sitting mat. In the hierarchal system of our community, the bestowing of the steel bowl marks a quasi-graduation from junior to intermediate nun – by which time we are considered mature enough to begin teaching. I felt quite ‘grown up’ to be using it – as if now, at last, I had ‘arrived’.

As renunciants, we abstain from luxurious furnishings or possessions. So the shiny stainless bowl would have to be fired to discolour it. But wouldn’t it be great if it were burnished evenly all around, and especially if the inside turned a topaz blue…

Three monks helped me locate a large oil drum that could serve as an oven and collect enough chunks of discarded wood to build a bonfire over it. I cleaned the bowl and set it face down on a grille inside the drum. Some shards of glass placed beneath it, their radiant heat chemically reacting with the bowl’s interior, promised that special blue finish.

By late afternoon, using soil to seal the crack between the ground and the lip of the drum, we doused our woodpile with kerosene and lit it. Once it ignited, we ceremoniously circled the bonfire and chanted blessings. It would burn through the night.

Still too dark in the predawn hours, I waited until after our morning meditation before slipping out to retrieve my bowl. Now copper-coloured on the outside, when I turned it over, my heart leapt to see a heavenly blue sheen.

As I carried it proudly back, the nun occupying an adjoining room – more senior in the robe and an expert at firing alms bowls – examined it. Peering inside she declared, “Very nice. Shame about the smudge.”

Once she mentioned the word ‘smudge’, I could see nothing else. All day my thoughts focussed on the streak defacing the lovely new blue interior. Obsessed with how I could get rid of this odious flaw, I found it difficult to settle my mind, let alone meditate.

Eventually, I concocted a way to refire my bowl on a smaller scale – in my room. Kneeling in front of my shrine with the bowl propped on a thick wad of rags, I decanted a small amount of kerosene into it. No sooner had I dropped the match than flames shot up, forcing me to retreat.

Strange black spots soon appeared on the inside accompanied by the stench of burning fibre. A patch of carpet hidden by the rags was melting! I raced to collect water and rescue it – and my poor bowl!

Once I had tidied whatever I could of the mess, I was confronted with the damage – an unsightly carbon pelage had affixed itself to the bottom of the bowl. Applying various solvents that I scavenged from our workshop, I managed to dissolve the burnt wool but now my bowl was visibly – and permanently – scarred.

Disconsolate and hoping for guidance from that same nun whose remark had propelled me on this course, I confessed the whole story to her. “Too bad,” she chirped, hardly glancing up from her book, “Too attached.”

Her perspicacity stung. At that moment, no amount of reflection or remorse would assuage my sense of humiliation and foolishness. Too embarrassed to join in our communal meal, I lingered at the back of the refectory. One of the novices solicitously asked what had happened. “It’s only a smudge,” she observed.

At last, I saw how I had been needlessly thrashing in the river of my own attachments. To live contented and at peace with the way things are, I have to let go perfection. This means honouring what I am given with unconditional gratitude.

The blemish on my bowl is an enduring – and endearing – reminder not to give so much credence to the opinions of other people. Nor to try to fix things because I can – or think I can. And, not to play with fire.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Noble Warming

Ayyuthaya tree BuddhaHaving navigated for so many years by the maps of my mentors, I now steer my own course – infusing the old with wisdom appropriate to the new issues of our changing times. The ancient monastic code that I honour remains the cornerstone of my life but I will not grow wise adhering to it blindly or literally. Just being able to keep a set of rules is no barometer of spiritual integrity.

Core to my training has been self-inquiry. I must apply rigorous and unremitting introspection, weighing the karma of every choice I make and its effects on others as well as myself. To be morally accountable, I constantly ask, “Am I living with awareness? Gratitude? Commitment? Compassion?”

But these questions now fall short. It is no longer enough to be aware, grateful, committed, and compassionate – sitting under a tree meditating to purify my mind – when the trees, earth, air, and water are endangered. I may have let go worldly aims and values, but I cannot abdicate my individual responsibility to humankind nor ignore the imminent danger of global warming to our planet. Threatened with a tipping point of unprecedented ecological collapse, it is incomprehensible that I should pursue my spiritual goals as if all were well.

Some Buddhists speaking to me about climate change preach impermanence, “We’re all going to die anyway,” – a logic true, but also spurious and unthinking. What it really suggests is that “It’s not my problem.” But it is. Today this is not someone else’s problem. Our moral imperative is not only to be aware of the karma of our personal choices but of our undeniable connection to a shared human predicament. When illness strikes we seek medical help immediately; when our home is on fire, we rush to put it out: we have to engage.

As a nun, I live simply and ethically by rules that prescribe and proscribe every last detail of my life – not just the practice of mendicancy, wearing the robe, and being bald but down to shaving my eyebrows. This contrasts with contemporary society’s vigorous celebration of personal freedom – at great cost: the breakdown of family leading to a constellation of social illnesses as well as soaring material excess and self-indulgence.

Caught as I am in the net of so strict a code, still I have the freedom to choose well – and also, to deal with the repercussions when I fail to do so. Though my Rule separates me from current affairs and politics and bars me from voting, I have a voice. And the power to make changes in my own life, however small – aware that, as much as I am intrinsically part of this problem – I also have an active role in its remedy.

I question choices that until now seemed harmless – like air travel. How do I reconcile flying half way around the world to lead retreats for a few dozen meditators when other teachers are available in the same city? My core precepts have to be the ground for ethical as well as socially responsible decisions. What is not killing, not stealing, and not misusing our senses if in keeping precepts literally I fail to protect life? Not just that of the wretched mosquito whining in my ear – but also the very ecosystems upon which we all depend.

In seemingly insignificant ways, our mere existence encroaches and creates pressure on the environment: driving vehicles, heating or cooling our homes, purchasing over-packaged and disposable goods, even the foods we choose to eat. Already, the bees are disappearing. How will our crops be pollinated and sufficient food grown for a burgeoning population? What changes can I adopt in my own life to counter the momentum of greed, aggression, ignorance, and waste that have led us to this crisis?

We take the first step by realising the need to live more simply. This means not only getting rid of material things but also modifying our own – as well as our children’s – habits and expectations, reining back some of our comforts to reverse the heedless destruction of our habitat.

Can we consume and demand less? Filter our own and give up buying bottled water? Eat local produce in season without importing from every part of the world? Not replace our cars, computers, digital cameras, and mobile phones every year just to sport the latest model? Can we begin to understand the difference between what we want and what we truly need?

Our own health and wellbeing are inextricably linked to the social and ecological health of the world. We can bring healing but not without initiating personal changes that require sacrifice and scrupulous attention to the smallest details of our lives. We start with signs that we care for our community – as simple as fixing a broken window.*

One sustainable project, consistently attended to, declares an honest commitment to repair the world. It restores us to wholeness, to what is noble in our hearts. And offers a palpable example and catalyst for others to do the same – not out of idealism nor just to impress or feel good – but because that is our only hope.

What legacy can we possibly leave our children as we casually continue to exhaust the planet’s resources? We have the freedom to choose well and safeguard our survival – but little time left to do so. It may already be too late to pull ourselves back from the brink. Still we must do all we can – for if not now, when?

© Ayyā Medhānandī

*See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fixing_Broken_Windows

Kindly Wait

Retreat sunset at Galilee, Arnprior, OntarioOn a recent teaching trip, I had to stop at Hong Kong International Airport for several hours between flights. Waiting at air terminals, my life is suspended between the place I’ve left and my final destination – however near or far. These points are connected not by city names flashing on an electronic screen, but intimately within me, in the tones and dialectic of my passage between time zones and travellers.

A stranger here with no local identity or reference, I walk the polished floors through steel and glass-framed concourses with endless streams of passengers, alternately disgorged from and reboarding their flights. Inside this shiny concrete behemoth, I could be anywhere – east or west – hustling across miles of homogenous space. With no sense of community, shared culture, etiquette, or convention, our sole and common purpose is to wait and navigate the honeycomb of the airport so that we can leave as effortlessly as we came.

Disparate and endless, these throngs move through the terminal buildings with a passivity only natural to such transience. Zigzagging immigration and security queues, I watch the restless shuffling back and forth that punctuates our waiting. Still, an occasional member of the cleaning staff or friendly airline employee is receptive to a greeting. I am happy to catch a smile and chat briefly with them on my way to the nexus of connecting flights.

After seventeen hours of travel, hankering for the comfort of a hot drink, I entered a café. In keeping with my Rule that prohibits me from handling money, water is the only thing I may ask for. A young woman waiting on a customer poured her a cup of coffee while they exchanged pleasantries. Then it was my turn.

We were both in uniforms, she in her starched black apron and grey and white polyester suit, and I in my brown robes, not an unfamiliar sight in this part of the world.

“Please may I have a cup of hot water?” I asked.
“Two dollars”, she pronounced flatly.
“I’m sorry, but I have no money,” I explained.

She spent not a second more with me, turning away to stack cups behind the counter. I composed myself and left silently. Snubbed so comprehensively for something as basic as water – and having no recourse – stung. I wandered directionless for a few moments, pondering and digesting my intrinsic worth being devalued to less than two dollars.

I had never before been refused water – her abruptness made even more insupportable by the profligate wealth around us. Who would believe that a request so simple and undemanding could be spurned in the presence of so much material abundance?

From corner to corner, everything seemed new, efficient, ultramodern, and glossy – travellers watching video screens, talking on cell phones, filing through cafés, or shopping in kiosks stuffed with the latest fashions, high tech goods, and otiose trinkets. Yet even steeped in such affluence, a waitress lacked the generosity to pour a cup of water for a thirsty soul who had no means to pay. It would have cost her nothing. Had she lost her heart along with her humanity?

As one already so dependent, how demeaning to be denied a basic right of every living creature. I realised that observing my Rule required a gradient of surrender that would always leave me open to such treatment.

Of course I could drink from one of the many water fountains. But feeling tired and cold from the air-conditioning, and to dispel the aftertaste of that encounter, I made my way to the airport restaurant area – trusting that someone would be kind.

And he was. At the very first sandwich bar, I asked the busy waiter if he would give me just a cup of hot water – adding that I was unable to pay. He was quick to assure me, “Yes, I can do that.” And from a hot water dispenser identical to the one in the café where I had been refused, he pushed a button to fill a welcome cup, proffering it steaming hot with saucer and napkin. Such kindness continues to hold together the fabric of my life.

After my return, on a scorching day downtown with a devotee, we walked several blocks in search of a bus stop. Waiting on a busy dual carriageway, suddenly, a battered blue heap claiming to be a bus appeared at the end of a stream of cars and rattled towards us – on the opposite side of the road. With the heavy moving traffic, we would not manage to cross in time.

Undeterred, I eagerly motioned for the driver to stop. Seeing our predicament, he slowed down noticeably and appeared to be considering what to do. But where would a car, let alone a bus, be able to stop in that crush of steel? He had no choice but to keep going. Acknowledging his kind intention, I smiled and waved forgivingly.

After turning at the next corner, unbelievably, the bus juddered to a halt. What good would it do to hurry across now? Surely he could not wait long enough for us there – with all his passengers and a surge of traffic on his tail. But wait he did.

We must do what is right in the immediacy of the moment or risk living content with mediocrity and a sterile heart. It is so easy to remain oblivious or indifferent to each other, desensitized and distracted by our own needs, or tempted by a flippant chance to flex muscles and display power over someone – anyone – and so fail to do what is great.

On a broken seat at the back of the bus, I felt a rush of gratitude for this sweet driver. Dressed simply, creased and shrunken with age, his huge heart steered the wheel of that ramshackle bus with commanding magnanimity. His kindness stopped everyone.

It may have been a small thing. But the place from which he acted was not small. For that I thanked him, not because he rescued me from discomfort or inconvenience, but for the heroic compassion with which he had reached out – so unexpectedly – to help, and with such natural grace. Unknowingly, he restored my faith in that inexhaustible goodness on which this world truly revolves.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

To See or Not To Be

Ayya Medhanandi meditating at Vulture's Peak
I have walked and lived in mountain ranges the world over – the Himalayas, the Andes, the Alps, the Picos de Europa, mountains in the Azores, South Asia, and North America. But not until I stayed in a condominium for a few months did I notice a visceral discomfort with heights.

Then how was I able to roam those steep summits enjoying the view? I was aware of it though I concealed my phobia well. When I needed to ground myself, I would keep my eyes on my feet or straight ahead on the path. I would also direct my gaze to the scene around me or look at the horizon to avoid the sight of sheer cliff faces or dizzying vistas.

Unwittingly, I relied on a natural tendency that is also consonant with my way of life as a Buddhist nun. I focus on my spiritual work, concentrating on where I am and what I am doing rather than on the past or future. Just as I avert my eyes from external views that might throw me off balance, distract, or unnerve me, I distance myself from troubling thoughts or feelings: a painful memory, the face of someone threatening, or a loved one whose loss still haunts.

But eventually, this turning away from – while still being aware of – what disturbs me no longer serves. It is all very well for tramping through the wilderness but on the spiritual path I have to descend to face what I fear – to see life as it is from exactly where I am.

More vital to wisdom and understanding than being cushioned by exhilarating panoramas or placated by moments of calm is an ability to see Truth and live it. To grow in stature and be able to accept what is real – no matter the terrain of feelings we have to traverse – tortuous or peaceful, rocky or smooth: this is our life’s work.

Though I have trekked over lofty passes, fear has been the most punishing mountain to scale – especially on my own as an alms mendicant. For years, to survive in a western hamlet and dependent on a scattering of locals for my daily meal, I was forced to adapt. Too frightened to mention when food I received caused digestive disorder, I compromised my health to preserve the status quo – and not jeopardize my food source. Taking my lead, why wouldn’t my supporters, too, believe all was well?

Not wanting to see, I had chosen to suppress, deny, and blind myself to what had been brewing. I had an unrealistic idea of how a nun should be: to want nothing and be content with and grateful for all that was given to me. So I clung to this flawed dynamic of seeing myself and being perceived through rose-coloured glasses.

Only by letting that go could I free myself to enter authentic relationship with my supporters. They began to regard me as a person with legitimate needs, and in doing so, honour their wish to look after me properly. And being more honest about my needs, I could take better care of myself while respecting their goodwill.

Ironically, I had fallen into this predicament by flexing the old muscle that had helped me cope so well with heights. As long as I could ignore the altitude, I would not have to feel what I was feeling – in this case, hunger and distress. But this deception, moulded by stifling compassion for myself, had only made me ill. It was a foolish and unsustainable sacrifice. And in time, I would be brought down to earth with a bump – literally.

During this same period, while on my own in a house that had been offered for my retreat, I was asked to water the plants. To reach one of them, I would have to climb on a folding chair. Without properly judging the stability of the chair or my own ability to balance, barely poised on top, water jug in hand, it collapsed. Everything came crashing down, water, jug, plant, and myself – knocked unconscious and one leg maimed.

When help arrived, I refused to see a doctor so as not to inconvenience anyone. True to form, my mantra of ‘good enough’ rolled off my tongue: “I’m fine. Everything is okay.” But I had already managed to undermine myself three times: reaching beyond my capacity – to my own detriment, discounting that same detriment, and even after it dawned on me that I had been seriously hurt, continuing as if nothing had happened!

That injury is a daily reminder of the lesson I learnt. The heights we aspire to are not measured in physical parameters nor in pretence and performance, but in the dimensions of coming down to earth and being true, exactly as we are. It is not enough only to open our eyes, we must also see clearly. Ascending too high or impatiently, unaware or blind to our limits, we can fall hard. Instead, bowing low and knowing our real strength, we truly ascend.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

[see The Mantra of ‘Good Enough’]