Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Time To Change!

This post is a distillation of thoughts that have been swimming around in my head for a long time, but I got the motivation to finally put it all down for the Stayfree Time To Change Contest hosted by Indiblogger!

If I could change something around me, what would it be?

If I could change just one thing in the world today, it would be the attitude of people towards children. I would change the way children are parented and educated. I would advocate a radical approach to parenting and education that is modern, validated by the latest research in neuroscience, and yet is 100 years old!

Why? When I look at the world around me, although there are happy stories all around, there are also people killing one another, stealing, raping, committing suicide, doing drugs, abusing alcohol, sex, money, hating each other in the name of religion, politics, race, gender, caste.  The list can go on. Even in places with high socio-economic standards, where good education is paramount, people don’t feel happy or secure.  Why is this? Should education be just about getting a job or should it also be about preparing one for life ahead?  Can the education system alone be blamed for the current mess the world is in? What about parenting approaches to the child?

The foundation of a human being is laid in the first few years of his life-the early childhood years.  It is in these years that he has to be cared for with utmost love and respect and awareness.  It has been proved that most criminals are those who have had miserable childhoods.  Most psychotherapists will delve into the person’s childhood to unravel the mysteries of the present.  Still, when it comes to the early childhood years, most people don’t believe it is significant enough to warrant any particular awareness or training.

Why is it that you need to have a license to drive a car and lots of training to get the said license, but not even one-millionth of that kind of training before you become a parent?  Sure, everyone reads books, get a load of advice from well-meaning parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors-but nothing based on solid scientific observation that has stood the test of time, is there?  Surely, raising a human being is not an endeavor that can be entered into casually, is it? But how many of us have gone into it blindly, putting one foot in front of the other and taking it one step at a time with no idea what we were doing and just trusting that the end result would be a happy human being who the world will be proud of some day?  Feeling guilty one day, proud the next, but always wondering if we’re doing it right?

When it comes to early childhood education, even nursery school teachers are traditionally not perceived as requiring any sort of scientific training before children come into their care.  That kind of training is supposedly reserved for university professors!  This is like saying that when building a house, the foundation does not matter, its the upper floors that have to be lavished with more attention and detail as that is what is most visible to people.  If the foundation is not strong enough to support the house, will it matter how much money or time you spend on the upper floors?  That is the importance that has to be given to the early years of the child-both from the parents and the educators.  That awareness is sadly lacking in society.

It would not be an understatement to say that every major problem that the world faces today stems directly from the patterns woven in early childhood by people who were not aware of what they were doing.  Whether it is terrorism or rape or drug abuse or alcoholism or suicides, every time a human being commits an act that violates the life or dignity of another or his own self, you can be pretty sure that it is the direct result of some of his basic needs and tendencies not being met as a child.  The more people are ignorant of this, the more we will have a population that is just waiting to explode into rage and violence.  On the other hand, if we want a community of peaceful, fulfilled human beings, all we have to do is make sure that whoever becomes a parent or an educator does so with full awareness of these needs and tendencies of the child and ensures they are met-not just material needs, but spiritual and emotional needs as well. As the number of such children increase, we could reach the much talked about ‘critical mass’ that is required to cause a huge transformation in human consciousness-en masse!

So, to put things in practical terms-what kind of awareness do parents and educators need to have? Is there a particular kind of methodology or philosophy of parenting that is proven to succeed? Is there a way of parenting that is based on scientific observation which has proved its worth over the years? Yes, there is.  For me, personally, I have found sense, logic, and soul in the writings based on scientific observations put forward by a person who just so happened to be the first woman in her country, 100 years ago, to become a trained physician; a person who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times; a person who now has a whole educational methodology named after her and which has consistently proved successful in raising confident, independent, and compassionate human beings, from birth to 18 years of age, in almost every country in the world over the past 100 years-the person I am talking about is Dr. Maria Montessori.  The approach I am talking about is the Montessori path.

Why has it worked over the years?  It works because this is a philosophy based on the observations of a well-trained scientific mind which also included the scientific discoveries of other well-known educators of her time.  Her discoveries, incidentally, have now been validated by the latest research in neuroscience.  It works because this method is based on the awareness of some fundamental human needs and tendencies that all human beings have, in every corner of the globe, and which has not changed since prehistoric times and are still very much present in every human being to the present day.  It works because this approach ensures that these needs are met and shows you how to do it.  If these are met at the early childhood level, you can be pretty sure that the adult waiting at the end of the process will be a wonderful person!

To try to encapsulate the whole of the Montessori approach in just a few paragraphs would be blasphemy.  There are some wonderful courses and books and websites that will give you a pretty good idea of what this is all about, if you only care to research or google or wiki it!  However, here I would like to give you a good understanding of the basic concepts in this approach, which should hopefully jumpstart your curiosity about this path of parenting or education.

Dr. Maria Montessori found that the child from birth to six years of age had a special kind of power-the power of the absorbent mind, which is not there at any other stage in human life.  During this stage, children absorb everything in their environment just like a sponge soaks up water.  They acquire effortlessly things that later might require a lot of intellectual effort to assimilate.  For example, children at this age can speak any language they are exposed to, without any effort or teaching required.  Their movements, mannerisms, habits, likes and dislikes, may be mirror images of the people around them.  They imitate the people in their environment unconsciously.  The influences that surround her during this stage are what make up the child’s personality for the rest of her life. You can’t change the child.  The only thing you can change is yourself and the child’s environment. So if you want your child to grow up to be a refined, compassionate, confident, and smart person, just ensure that you surround her with the people and the environment that can reflect these values back to her!   You want her to love classical music? Play such music in your house.  Take her to classical music concerts.  You want her to speak and behave graciously with people? Do the same! You want her to be a linguist? Make sure she is surrounded by at least one person who consistently speaks only one particular language to her.  If you have 5 people speaking 5 different languages, each consistently, you can bet that by the age of 6, this child will speak all 5 languages effortlessly! Also, one common phrase children at this age keep saying is "I want to do it myself". They may say this in different ways, but the meaning is always this-help me to do it by myself! Unfortunately, people, in their misguided love for children, think that love means doing everything for the child, which only leads to the child feeling either entitled or frustrated.  Helping the child do things herself makes her feel happy and confident in her abilities.  This is the first step to independence, so start small-whether it is helping your child dress herself, feed herself, or clean herself up!

Another important finding of Dr. Maria Montessori, which was also based on the works of a Dutch scientist called Hugo De Vries, was that children go through what is called ‘sensitive periods’ during the first six years of their lives.  These sensitive periods each have a fixed time frame and their purpose is to guide the child to be attracted to certain aspects and activities in their environment that will help her build up particular faculties or abilities which will help her become a well adjusted member of society later in life.  There are sensitive periods for language development, for coordination of movement, for refinement of senses, for order and social behaviour.  If the environment is prepared in such a way as to provide the child with what she needs during each of these sensitive periods (which run concurrently) then the child effortlessly imbibes that quality from the environment.  Once the sensitive period for a particular task is over, though, then the child has to really work on acquiring a particular faculty.  It is important to provide the opportunities for these sensitivities to develop and remove obstacles to the same as they are windows of opportunity that reflect the proverb ‘strike while the iron is hot’.  That is why a ‘prepared environment’ and a ‘prepared adult’ is very important in the Montessori way of life.

Not knowing about these sensitive periods, people unknowingly hinder the development of the child. This is when the child reacts in anger because she is traumatized.  When the child is sensitive to movement, she needs all the opportunities to move in as many ways as are safe for her. The reason she comes out of the mother's womb itself is because there was no more space in there for her and she needed to stretch.  What happens when she comes out? She is swaddled up in a cocoon and limbs tied up so that she will feel 'safe'! I have seen toddlers in supermarkets, who are perfectly capable of walking and who want to walk, being forced to sit in the shopping trolleys, for the parents' convenience, and throwing a fit that now makes me want to run over and free the child from that trolley! Even babies are put to sleep in cradles and cots that are at a height, which restricts their free movements when they wake up. Give them a floor bed and they will be most happy! When it comes to the sensitive period for language, they are attracted to human language and work really hard to repeat the sounds they hear. What do adults do, instead of talking to them using a rich and varied vocabulary? They talk to them in baby talk! They repeat the sounds exactly as the child says them, thinking its cute and that the child will understand it better, but what the child really craves for is the language that adults speak, which she longs to hear spoken to her so that she can speak it back! Even worse, sometimes a pacifier is stuck in the baby's mouth so she can't even make any sounds! Coming to the sensitive period for refinement of the senses, when children are at their best time to enhance their senses (sharper senses give better sensory input to the brain, which in turn processes that and gives better information to the person) instead of giving them really cultured and diverse and rich experiences, what do we expose them to? Meaningless nursery rhymes, loud colors, cartoon figures, very bland food, only smooth fabrics to touch, etc. How can she refine her senses by this? How can she appreciate or enjoy the world like this? Do you think your child will not enjoy the best music, dance, art, food, that has been produced by the human race? Have you seen a two year old who enjoys classical music and Kathakali? I have. Children will grow to love what they are exposed to and that is our responsibility. When it comes to the sensitive period for social behavior, this is the best time to get children involved in all the activities of daily life-meeting and greeting people, going to festivals, places of worship, etc. Knowing how to behave with whom and when is something that children learn by watching adults. This, again, is something children learn effortlessly during this sensitive period and if exposed to social situations during this time, they will adapt well to society later. If they do not have such exposure now, then there is no point later in complaining about how unruly or impolite they are as teenagers!

Over and beyond all this are Dr. Maria Montessori’s observations of innate human needs and tendencies.  An environment that meets these needs and tendencies ensures that the human being will reflect all that is noble and beautiful in the human psyche.  On the other hand, if the environment does not meet them, it will unfortunately lead to a human being who will forever have a ‘hole in his heart’ so to speak, someone who keeps looking for what he never got in every person and every situation, and still never be satisfied. Invariably such a person will be unhappy and will only cause misery to others as well.  What are these needs that Dr. Maria Montessori talked about and which every parent following the Montessori philosophy and every school following the Montessori method ensures that the child gets?

We are not talking about the material needs here, which as everyone knows are essential-food, water, clothing, shelter, air.  These are as important as the spiritual needs, which are love and security (a feeling of being safe).  What we are talking about are the human tendencies which are as important as these, and are largely overlooked by people when formulating an educational path or a parental approach to children.  If obstructed, they cause great distress in the child and can even be the cause of personality disorders later in life.  Only if these tendencies are met can a human being feel fulfilled and be productive, and this is true not just in children but in adults as well.  These tendencies are seen in every human being, all over the planet, and through time immemorial. 

What are they?
·        Tendency for curiosity, which every parent knows a child has.
Every child exhibits the curiosity to know more about its surroundings.  This curiosity is what drives a child to leave the safety of the crib/bed and move further away. This curiosity is what will later drive the child to leave the safety of its home and explore the world. It is curiosity that drove our ancestors to explore the world, make new discoveries and inventions. This is why children's curiosity should be encouraged.
·         Tendency to explore
The human child has a tendency to explore the environment using all its senses-sound, taste, smell, sight, and touch. This exploration is vital to getting sensory stimuli that builds up the neural networks in the brain. This is why children need to be allowed to explore with all their senses.
·        Tendency for orientation
The tendency for orientation is a way to get back to a place that is familiar to us by using familiar landmarks to mark our position and guide ourselves. The confidence that we can always find our way back to a familiar place gives us more courage to explore newer horizons. This is why the child’s environment should be one where everything has a place and there is a place for everything!
·        Tendency for order
Every human invention, science, and cultural art is based on order.  Nature is based on order.  Human babies thrive on order in the environment and order in the day’s routine. That is why they take a long time to get used to a new routine, new places and new  people. This external order is also crucial to help the child build order in the mind, because he is trying to classify and organize information in the early years.  Chaos and disorder in the environment can throw him into confusion.
·        Tendency for gregariousness
Human beings have a tendency to move in groups, form new groups, seek out familiar groups, and stay in groups. This helps us with a sense of belonging.
·        Tendency for communication
Belonging in a group makes it imperative that we communicate. Communication need not be based on language alone. It can also be through gestures, expressions, or body language. It is verbal and nonverbal. That is why babies should be talked to, sung to, looked at, and touched.
·        Tendency for calculation
We are mentally, knowingly or unknowingly, constantly in a calculative mode all our lives. From the baby who is trying to judge the distance of a spoon from the bowl of food to his mouth, to a person determining how much weight he can carry in a bag, to the cook who speedily calculates how much salt to put in a curry, we are always calculating.  There is no work in this world that does not utilize the tendency for calculation.
·         Tendency for perfection
We are the only species that strive for perfection in ourselves and in our world. Perfection gives us satisfaction. We are always adjusting things to make it more exact, more precise, and absolutely right. Without the tendency for perfection, there would not be any refinement or progress in the world.
·        Tendency to self-judgment
Everyone has the tendency to judge themselves and the work they do. By judging the quality or result of a work you do and determining that you have done it well gives a sense of satisfaction. This is the basis of self esteem that is not dependent on another's opinion of you.
·        Tendency towards work
Doing work that makes a contribution to their family and society brings a deep sense of fulfilment in all human beings. The happiest human beings are those who feel they have made something of their lives and themselves-made a positive difference in the lives of others. Even children are workers, which is a strange thing for people to understand as they think that all children like to do is play. Observe a child with a room full of toys, though, and you will see he gets bored easily and is never satisfied with newer, costlier toys. On the other hand, give him the opportunity to do work that adults do in their every day life-gardening, cooking, cleaning, washing-do you think he will ever get bored? In fact, if you observe children everywhere, you will see that they like to imitate the work that adults do, but unfortunately this has not been understood or else the multinational toy manufacturers would have gone bankrupt a long time ago!
·        Tendency for coordinated movement
The tendency for coordinated movement can be seen in the child who is constantly trying to refine his movements. The human body is capable of amazing grace, flexibility, and strength, as can be seen in dancers, gymnasts, and other athletes. While the average human being may not push his body to go through such rigorous training, every human being is driven to perfect his movements from the day he is born, as can be seen in the kicking of a newborn baby as well as the way toddlers are constantly trying to jump and skip and hop and do it better each time!

All these tendencies were observed in the child by Dr. Maria Montessori 100 years ago and are still valid today.  They are met in a well prepared Montessori home or classroom. How? Movements are not restricted as in the classroom there are no benches or chairs, but work is done on mats or little tables and chairs that are placed unobtrusively in the room.  In the home, the baby from birth is placed on floor bed, which is safer and also encourages the child to move out on his own without fear of falling.  Communication is free in the Montessori classroom as children can work alone or in groups and the teacher does not lecture or take ‘classes’ the traditional way.  At home, parents are encouraged to constantly talk, sing, and name everyday objects to the child as well as respond to the child with attention and respect.  Gregariousness is given opportunities too, unlike in traditional classrooms, as children are of a mixed-age group (children of three different ages put together).  This encourages socialization, role modelling and helping each other.  There is opportunity to practice the rules of social behaviours-the dos and don'ts. Children know not to disturb or how to interrupt another if needed.  The tendency for calculation is taken care of by the materials that help the child calculate and judge his work as well as correct himself without the help of the teacher-which takes care of the need for perfection as well.  The child from a very early age thus gets the joy of self evaluation and his self esteem is not dependent on another person.  The tendency for work is taken care of too as there is always work to do in the Montessori classroom or home. Children are given opportunities to do the daily every day tasks that adults do. There is an order in the classroom and home as well, with things always kept back at the same place every time and there being a general routine to the day. Above all this is the opportunity to do things for themselves and others, by themselves with guidance from the adults, that build in them a great deal of self confidence and the spirit of independence.

Thus, following the Montessori approach at home or in a school has been working terrifically for millions of children across the world, over the last 100 years-because it takes into account these very basic human needs and tendencies that are universal.  There is enough information out there for anyone to begin the Montessori approach to parenting at home, even if you don’t have a Montessori school in your neighbourhood.  While it may require a major change in your thinking, personality, and home environment, it is well worth the effort when you see the beauty and logic behind this very simple way-and all to raise a happy, confident, compassionate and independent human being who will be a true gift to the world!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Exactly a year since my last post!

Wow...to think it's been exactly one year to the day since I wrote my last post! I feel time flies at the speed of light nowadays. I never thought, at the time of my last posting, that it would take me so long to write a fresh post, and today, it was sheer coincidence that I just got into the mood for blogging and when I checked the date of my last post is when I realized its been exactly a year...synchronicity or what!

Anyway, this past year has been an eventful one for me. Ten days after I wrote my last post, I got engaged and then three months later, got married - In January of this year. Marriage is, as it is, a life-changing event, for anybody, and I'm no exception. I can't say I'm finally writing this as a consequence of getting "settled" (because I don't believe in "settling" and I don't think anyone actually gets "settled" in life, something or the other keeps coming up to unsettle things!). I've also been toying with the idea of starting a whole new, fresh blog, but seem attached to this one too. Guess it's a lot to do with new ideas and priorities, so maybe the whole direction of this blog could change.

Hope I will commit, this time, to writing a post a day, as I really love writing and not writing sometimes sends me into an uncreative black hole of despair...So here's a toast to a fresh new Mystic Altar!

Monday, October 09, 2006

It's been a while!

Due to a relocation of sorts, I didn't have access to the Internet the last 2 months, and hence, the lack of blog posts. Got back online today (phew!) and so finally got the chance to post all the articles that I had been writing and storing for publication all this time (please see the 4 new posts below). It's only now that I realized how much I love being able to publish my writings and get feedback on them (of all kinds). I was also pleasantly surprised and touched that a few people who I have never met actually emailed me to ask why I had not been posting anything for some time. Good to know I have an audience and hope whatever I write can touch someone in some way that makes a positive difference to them!

Who do you work for?

To be God's angels. That's what everyone on earth could be! We can't be his angels with wings, but we sure can be his angels with feet! Our prayer, every morning of every day, before we get out of our houses or start our day, should be "Use me God, just use me. Use me up. Wring me dry so that by the time I die I don't have a drop more in me to give to you". If you pray to God to use you, to use you as a channel, to speak through your words and work through your hands and walk through your feet, you will see an amazing transformation in the quality of your life and the quality of your being. You will be gifted with opportunities to help in ways you never imagined and never thought you could do. You will be given a fresh new lease of life that extends beyond yourself and your family and friends and embraces the world. I call this being on God's payroll, being His (or Her!) employee. To have God as your boss, I tell you, is infinitely far more satisfying than being on even Bill Gates' payroll!! But the problem is, God does not conscript anyone into this workforce, into his army of helpers. He waits for you to come to him. He waits for His call to be heard. There are no ad campaigns, there are no marketing tricks, there is no compulsion. That is why it is even more important for you to go to Him. Because the world is in need of angels, people! God knows this is needed now more than ever. And any help is welcome!

So, every morning, may this be your prayer: Use me. Use my words to speak your truths. Use me as your channel of wisdom, as your messenger, as your angel-on-earth to do your work for you.

And just watch what happens!

To Dwarf a Giant-The "Art" that is Bonsai

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a bonsai? Bonsai is an “art” that originated in China, was popularised by the Japanese, and now has spread worldwide. Bonsai, which means “a plant in a tray”, is the dwarfing of a tree or shrub by confining it to a pot or pruning it. Although it is never denied any nourishment in the form of air, water, or sunlight, and is fed with all the nutrients a plant needs to thrive, I have always found this “art form” very repulsive and even downright inhuman. How sad is it to watch a giant transformed into a dwarf? Can you put yourself in such a situation and feel its pain? Of course, there will be lots of people who would laugh at this.. plants and pain?? I must admit I was one of those people until a few years back, when I began to sense, subtly but surely, that the life force that beats in me beats in everything around me too- in rocks, in animals, in the mountains, in the rivers, in the grass, in the trees. The more I fell in love with nature, the more I appreciated the beauty and majesty of trees, the more I could palpably feel the loneliness and sadness such a tree would feel if it were forced to live out its life in the confines of a tiny little tray, forced to dwarf its grandeur, shrink its spirit, and become truly just a shadow of itself. Do trees have a self? That could be the question. Could trees know the difference? Feel the pain? I really don’t know for sure, on an empirical basis, but one thing I have noticed is that every living thing has an innate urge to grow, to expand, to become more of what it should be. Growing is what nature intended us to do, not shrinking! So even though a “bonsaied” plant may seem aesthetically appealing, it sure seems to be going against everything nature intended! I only wish people who are Bonsai connoisseurs would, even for one moment, see beyond the aesthetics of the plant and into the real spirit that resides in the tree, and feel the pain of a truly magnificent spirit, destined to live a life of grandeur, but now doomed to shrivel and die in a tiny little pot….and all for nothing!

Death of an Angel

This might just be the longest blog post I have ever written. On July 4, this year, there was a death in my family. The death of a soul who came to us in the form of a tiny little puppy, wagging its tail and floundering around on four little cute legs, a soul who I always felt was more human than most humans I ever knew! My little Lulu. This little angel came into my life when she was just over 2 months old and left just as suddenly at the ripe old age of 9 and half years. I must admit it wasn’t love at first sight when I first saw her. Lulu was a Daschund, a breed of bloodhounds originally from Germany, and although a puppy had been on my prayer list for a couple of years, I had always dreamed of a big, furry, Lassie-like dog, so Lulu was kind of like an anti-climax, with her short stubby hair and legs and long sausage-like body! But she sure knew how to wiggle her way into my heart and the hearts of my family. Her biggest conquest was my mom, who was a sworn dog-hater. Over the course of a few months, Lulu managed to take pride of place in my mom’s heart, usurping even my brother and myself!

When she came into our home at first, she was strictly forbidden to even set paw on the family bed and the living room sofas, and given her own little doggie bed and doggie mat, but it was only a matter of time before my parents promoted her to sleeping on their bed, between them, nicely tucked into the blankets! Of course, before this stage happened, there was a succession of weeks in which she would bring the house and the whole neighborhood down with her barks at bedtime, which would progress from outraged barks at the indignity of having to sleep separately on a doggie bed (which was actually an old “divan”), turning to a persistent sad whimpering, and finally become a long resigned sigh, lulling herself to sleep. This would sometimes make my brother and me feel so sad for her that we would go and sleep next to her (yes, on her bed) without our parents knowing, just to keep her company! It wasn’t very long before everyone gave up and she finally won the battle to secure her own place on our beds, sofas, and hearts!

I remember when we used to live in a bungalow on the premises of a rubber estate, my dad used to keep ducks, turkeys, and assorted birds on the farm, as a hobby. We had built a kennel for Lulu (this was before she got promoted), but just a few hours of long drawn out barking was enough for all of our hearts to melt and put her back in the house…the kennel went to the ducks instead! Of course Lulu was very happy at this, as that was a clear sign that she had indeed won another battle. Often, when the ducks were in the kennel, she would make a round of it, looking into the door at them as if to say “here i am with my masters and you lesser creatures in my kennel!” Of course, even though she had a holier than thou attitude towards the birds, she often displayed a maternal side too. When any of these birds were sick. she would pay them a visit in their cages and look at them, but this time that arrogant look would be replaced with one of maternal sympathy...and I’m not imagining things here!

During this time, my brother and I were away at a city about 30 kilometers away from where my parents and Lulu stayed, so we would visit them during the weekends. My parents and our maid were witness to the fact that Lulu somehow knew the days of the week, because, apparently, when the weekend was to start, she would become anxious and start pacing at the door, as if waiting for us. My parents felt she could pick up on telephone conversations between us, so we started talking to her on the phone too and tell her we were coming. Once, when I was coming home during the middle of the week, I decided to experiment with telepathy, just for fun, and told Lulu, only in my mind, that I would be coming home that day. This was entirely a surprise visit, mind you. Imagine my amazement when dad told me that Lulu was waiting that day just as she normally did during weekends! Of course, the welcome that my brother and I got when we got home was something even maharajas and maharanis would never have got! She would be so happy to see us that she would run around the house in a complete circle, as if all the joy was too much to bear and she just had to throw out some of the energy. Of course my parents would receive the same welcome when they came back home from work every day, only she would run around in a smaller circle inside the house. The pleasure she felt on seeing us was the same whether we had been out for a week, a day, an hour, or just a few minutes. She would just wait at the door until we arrive. If it was her naptime, she would give up that too to wait for us. I have often wondered at this trait in dogs, this unalloyed pleasure they express even after years of living with us. Because most human beings don’t express or maybe even feel that kind of joy when they meet their loved ones at the door after they have been out for the day, either out of tiredness or stress or is it plain taken-for-granted? Most people very quickly take the people they love the most for granted. But not dogs, never dogs. However many years they have lived with you, they meet you at the door with the same freshness, the same delight, as they might have had on the very first day they fell in love with you! How nice it would be if we humans too could keep that freshness, that newness alive in our hearts, in all our relationships. I don’t advocate running around in circles when you meet your loved ones, but a warm tight hug and kiss would be nice! Whether it is your wife, husband, child, friend, or parent. What a world of difference it would make to people’s lives and their self esteem!

Now as far as appetite goes, Lulu had so many of our likes and dislikes in foods, so much so that I’ve often wondered if it was genetic!! For example, there is this type of banana that I like and I basically don’t eat any other type. Lulu was the same. Then there was this snack, called “manda” that only my dad relished, and Lulu shared that too, something that even my brother and I didn’t inherit from him! It was hilarious watching the two of them sit and munch on that after lunch, both of them lost in their worlds! Then of course, Lulu did not gobble down foods like other dogs. She really savored each molecule of it, rolling it around and munching it like a true connoisseur (used to remind me of those wine tasters I saw on a TV program, rolling and twirling the wine around in their mouths). Although she normally ate only two meals a day, lunch and dinner (not including tea time snacks), she made an exception at breakfast time if it was appam and stew on the menu. This is a kerala bread made with rice flour with a soft, delicate, lacy trim on the edges, and she loved it so much that even if she was fast asleep somewhere in a room farthest from the kitchen, she would come wagging her tail and waiting for her share, licking her plate clean. She was very particular to leave aside any curry leaves or spices like cardamom and cloves! Everything else would be wiped clean. The only thing she was allergic to was pills. The expert on this was dad, who would literally push his hand down her throat, deposit the pill there, and close her mouth tight for a few minutes, rubbing her neck to make sure it had gone down. But after all this, what do we see after a few minutes but the same pill, cleverly coming out the side of her mouth when she thought we weren’t looking! I really don’t know how or where she managed to hide it! So we would repeat the above procedure until the pill was finally history! Bathing time was another ordeal. If it was me, she would literally plonk herself on my lap or stand at my shoulder, so that I would, in effect, be giving myself a bath! So later dad would do the honors, as she was better behaved around him.

One thing I noticed about Lulu was that she had a way of winning people’s hearts even without trying too hard. Even people terrified of dogs would be won over by her gentle ways. She had this trademark look in her eyes that was a combination of the most heartwarming looks anyone could ever give you. Many a time, she would just gaze into my eyes with those soulful eyes of hers, and any doubt I had about whether animals could communicate with humans was thrown out the window. When my mom was not keeping well, Lulu would never leave her side, preferring to lie down on the bed beside her and keep her company rather than playing with anyone. If I was upset about something and sobbing my heart out, she would be there by my side in a jiffy, licking the tears off my face until I broke into laughter. Once I was hiding with my head under a pillow but this did not deter her. She burrowed right inside the gap in the pillow and plonked her head by my side and proceeded to lick my face right there! How could I not laugh?

I often used to think that Lulu did not know that she was a dog. She had a regal air about her that was amusing but admirable. When taken out for walks, she would refuse to walk on muddy roads and sometimes even had to be carried over a puddle, rather than walk. Then there was the time when the elevator at our apartment building was under repair, and since we lived on the 6th floor, we had to walk her down the steps and all the way up for her morning and evening walks. She made it very clear she didn’t relish taking the steps and would much rather take the elevator, when once, when the lift was repaired, and we had come down the lift for the walk, I attempted to walk her back up by the stairs rather than the lift (thought it would be good exercise for both of us). But she refused to budge, stubbornly setting her paws firmly on the floor in front of the staircase and not moving an inch and before I could change my mind, pulling me with all her might towards the elevator door! Talk about being exercise-lazy! I think that too runs in the family…

Over the last few years, I had been drawn to study Reiki, which is a form of spiritual healing, discovered by a Japanese college professor-turned-monk. After getting my Reiki level 1 and 2 attunement, I would try it on myself and my family and friends, but I soon got a chance to try it on Lulu, when she developed a non-healing wound on her leg. Concerned, we had called the vet, who prescribed a course of antibiotics, and since we suspected that she might be diabetic (again, runs in the family!) the vet asked to bring her in for testing after the wound healed. But since it was taking a long time, I started treating her with Reiki. After the first couple of sessions, she would soon know when I called her for it and would voluntarily come and lie on her back in front of me, waiting. I realized then that animals somehow were more receptive or sensitive to this energy than humans were. I later read some research papers too confirming my guess. The effect that Reiki had on her had to be seen to believed. Even if she was in a playful mood when I called her for the Reiki session, she would soon fall into a deeply relaxed mood and even fall asleep. Even after the session ended, she would still be on her back, all four paws stretched out, deeply relaxed as if she were hypnotized. I haven’t seen that effect in any person that I have done Reiki for till now. Whether because of the antibiotics or the Reiki, the wound healed much faster and she was soon back to her usual self.

It was soon after this wound, that Lulu began to lose weight and began her downward spiral. We brought 2 vets to meet her but both of them brushed aside our fears of her weight loss, saying instead that she was an obese dog and needed to lose weight! All this time, her appetite was at an all time high and she made the kitchen her favorite haunt, so much so we had to drag her out of it sometimes, something she never used to do before. It was all of a sudden that she became lethargic and refused to eat or drink anything. We tried all of her favorite foods, and I even started giving her wheat grass infusions (which I had been growing for my mom actually). At this time, dad had just joined a new place of work and only my mom and myself were at home. When we told dad, he immediately took leave and came down and we took her to the veterinary hospital, where an abdominal scan showed that she had inflammation of the uterus and had to be operated upon. But because she had become very weak after not eating for 2 days, the doctor recommended waiting until she got better. We gave her an IV and injections and brought her home. By now, it had been 4 days since she had stopped eating, and my mother was very very upset, and so was dad, although I know he tried to put on a brave face for us. My brother, who was working in Delhi, would call every day to find out how she was. All our friends and family members who knew also would message or call to know about her health. At this time, I called a family friend of ours in Trivandrum, who was a veterinary surgeon, but as I soon as I told him about the symptoms, he knew the prognosis was not good. Although he tried to sugarcoat it, I just knew what he meant was that these were her last days and to be prepared for it. I just could not bring myself to tell dad and mum, and after keeping the phone down, I remember just sitting there and crying my heart out. Never have I felt so lost, so desolate, so so very sad, in my entire life. I had forgotten then that Lulu was lying down on the divan in that same room, just a few feet away from where I was sitting. This was the fifth day and she was very very weak and had not walked anywhere and basically had to be carried outside. What she did next I will never forget and remains one of the most heartwarming gifts Lulu has given me. Through my tears, I heard the soft fall of paws on the floor and saw that Lulu had jumped down from the divan where she had been lying down and was slowly walking towards me. She came near me and put her paws up on my knees, asking me to carry her up, as I usually do. So I lifted her up in my arms and then she just started licking my tears, one by one, each and every one of them. I stared at her and just broke down crying all the more, and the more she just kept licking my face until my tears were almost gone. I told her through my tears that I would miss her, that I knew she had to go, and so did she. Because at that moment when she came up to me and started licking my face, I had the feeling that she knew what was going to happen and was trying to comfort me, tell me its okay. I told her over and over how much I loved her, what she meant to me, and also asked her to forgive me for all those times when I was too busy with my work or other things to pay attention to her, all those times when she wanted me to play with her and I said “later”, all those times when I was too lazy to take her out on her favorite walks, all those times when I was late in giving her food…Oh! So many times we take for granted so many things which mean the world to us. So many times we think there will be a tomorrow, we can do or say what we need to tomorrow, not knowing that such a tomorrow may never come! If I could take back every moment when I could have been with Lulu but chose to be somewhere else, I would, but obviously that isn’t possible. I then realized that Lulu never kept count of all the things I didn’t do for her. All that mattered to her was my love and she knew that. Everything else was forgiven. That night would be her last night. Mum was just too distraught and was in tears most of the time. Recuperating from a surgery, we did not want to stress her out more. So dad and I spend that last night with Lulu on my bed, tucked in between the two of us. Since she was throwing up the whole time, we would have to wake up almost every half hour to clean up after she threw up or take her out on the terrace to pee. We were still giving her infusions of rice water and egg water. That day of all days, when the vet said to give her egg white in boiled water, there was no egg in the house! Not a single one. At 10 o’clock in the night, dad was frantically getting dressed to go out and buy some eggs, when I said I would try to get one from the other families living in the building. Since it was after 10, most were asleep and the one family that did open their doors had only egg yolks, not the whole eggs. Desperate and praying, I knocked on one last door, and the lady luckily had eggs which I so gratefully took and sprinted up back home. This was something I would never forget, that night, because it made me realize that at the most crucial times in life, sometimes the most simple things which we take for granted become the most important, and at times of emergency, we really don’t know from where help comes from. That night Lulu took a turn for the worse and by morning had begun to have breathing troubles. She would slip in and out of consciousness and was so desperate for air, that she would grab at us just to breathe. She couldn’t walk and couldn’t open her eyes sometimes. It was the most painful sight in my life. Before that day, I used to think I would do whatever I could in my power to make her well, but on that morning, I realized I loved her so much that I could even let her go, if it meant she would not suffer more. I think it was then I realized what love really is. I have never loved like that before and never thought myself capable of it. But now I really knew. I knew my strength and I knew my weakness and it was then that for the first time in my life, I fully felt what it meant to be human. I realized you don’t become fully human until you have loved like this, even for one moment. For one moment out of an entire human lifetime, if you can love with all your heart, then and only then do you become a human being.

We took Lulu to the hospital again, mummy kissing her goodbye after we had taken her to our prayer room and prayed and put Sai Baba’s vibhuthi (sacred ash) on her forehead. Daddy carried her in his arms all the way down the steps to the car. After that, I had her in my arms, wrapped in a blanket, all the time with her gasping for air and eyes opening and closing and pawing the air frantically for breath. At the hospital, the decision was taken to not put her through any more pain. Before that, dad went and brought a tranquilizer so that she would not feel the lethal drug go through her little body. With her lying on the hospital bed, and dad and me by her side, the doctor slowly did what he had to do. Dad was all the time stroking her and calling her, as he usually did, his “little daughter”, kept saying it over and over again. I have never seen my dad so emotional, so tearful, and my heart went out to him. I didn’t know what to do, whether it was daddy I had to be with or Lulu. I was trying to give her Reiki at the last minute, as I knew how much it calmed her and at the same time, I wanted so much to comfort my father. When Lulu’s eyes finally closed, within just a few minutes, and her little body had breathed it last, it seemed that an eternity had passed. An angel had swept into our lives, changed it and us, and swished back away, back to where she came from. Dad then said the most evocative words anyone can say about her, just a few simple words, but words that so beautifully express what she was, more than I ever could with all my thousands of words put together. He said simply. “She was more than a dog”.

We laid her to rest at my dad’s brother’s house. I will be forever thankful to my uncle for allowing us to bury Lulu there, as it was after all, in the family itself and she knew that home very well, having stayed there for a few days once. Whenever we visit that site, we always take some flowers and sweets, and somehow or other, I’ve noticed that when we happen to go there, we always had some flowers or vibhuthi from the Sai Baba temple, unintentionally. Having read Sai Baba’s biography, I know how much he loved dogs, and so I choose to believe that Lulu is now safe and happy in Sai Baba’s arms!

To plunge or not to plunge...

This post is a distillation of some thoughts that have been whirling around in my head for many, many years.

I was wondering….Does a woman need a man as her “lawfully wedded husband” only because she feels insecure about her place in the world and her ability to look after herself? In an ideal world, where women are sure of themselves and their capability to look after themselves economically, emotionally, and physically, would marriage-on-paper be a necessity? Wouldn’t it be a thing of the past? There would be no need for a paper or a ring or a chain around the neck to announce to the world that you are with someone or that somebody is yours. In an ideal world, that is. Because you would be so sure of yourself, both the man and the woman, that you would live together in total trust and security. The security that comes from within, not the security that society provides.

I think marriage was more of a safety measure for women and for the kids they would have in the future (more so for children), a safety measure that was invented and maintained by a society that had only their welfare at heart, at a time when women were economically dependent on the man and would not have been able to fend for herself and the kids without a man to protect her. So in today’s world, when more and more women are coming out of the shadows of their households and holding jobs and building up their self confidence and their capability to look after themselves has increased multifold, is marriage still relevant? In such a scenario, if it is not relevant, what if the man you’ve lived with and had children with suddenly left you for another woman or for any other reason (even for another man?!!). Of course, the reverse could also happen. The woman could be the one to leave, for her own reasons. Then what happens to the children? So you see, when you break it down, it finally comes down to the welfare of the child. The whole institution of marriage revolves around the welfare of children, who are the future backbone of society, the future generation. So, does marriage mean that children have it good from then on? That they will be looked after by both the parents lifelong? No, as we can see. Even with marriage, in the cases of divorce or with the death of a spouse, the children are left with just one parent. So what if the parents were not married in the first place? The same thing would happen. Either one parent would take up the child’s responsibility. So if the whole point of marriage was to safeguard the interests of the future unborn children, would a couple who have no interest in having children need to get married? Of course not. But they still do. We see so many couples, the so-called DINK couples-Double Income No Kids, getting married. Why do they get married to each other then? Is it the age old, primeval attraction that humans have for rituals? The beauty, the mystery, the magic of rituals that somehow has still managed to survive intact even in this age of sophistication and technology?

I feel, marriage or no marriage, what has to happen is that women (and men) have to choose to stay together and start a life together for the right reasons, and if they choose to start it off with the ritual of marriage rites, then its their choice (and that’s something I personally find meaningful and beautiful), but they should not have to do it compulsorily. As for the right reasons for getting married, I mean a reason that has nothing to do with loneliness or insecurity or emotional neediness or economic insufficiency or status or even societal or parental pressures. To get married instead from a standpoint of inner strength and because you have a lot of love to give and a beautiful life to share.

You have to understand that you don’t need anyone to survive. That you have every resource within you, God given, to survive in this world, and survive with style, and to have a companion on the journey that is life should be an added bonus, not a prerequisite. What I mean is to mould yourself and your life in such a way that it would be a joy to share with someone else, someone who would be undoubtedly blessed to have a companion like you and who is equally strong and independent and wonderful to have around, so that you feel blessed too! The right reasons may or may not include the kind of love that makes your heart beat faster and your knees go weaker because such emotions do not stand the test of time anyway (can you imagine going about your life in a state of permanent tachycardia and weak knees? Not only is it a biological impossibility but also detrimental to long-term health!). Rather, a strong sense of peace, empowerment, understanding, and companionship, and passion, a feeling that you’ve found a kindred spirit, that would be much more likely to last in the long run. Are common interests and hobbies also important? To a lesser degree, yes. After all, if you decide to have children, will you have the time to indulge in reading poetry to each other or traveling across the world or playing the guitar when the kids are young? And even when the kids are older and have left home, or if you don’t have any, isn’t it wonderful to have a partner who can broaden your mind and knowledge with their different interests and passions and vice versa than having a carbon copy of yourself? For this reason, I think having common values is more important as that would help to build a foundation for a future which is stronger than most.

Why do I put self-reliance and self-development high on the list? Because a person who mistakes need for love is going to have a tough time keeping that love. The majority of people make this mistake and get into relationships or marriages. “I need you” seems to be a very romantic thing to say and hear, but I beg to disagree. This kind of neediness is what gives rise to possessiveness, jealousy, and insecurities, ultimately suffocating love and snuffing the life out of relationships. I think real love is one that does not need, one that just gives and expects nothing in return because its only reason for being is to give and that is in itself a pure joy, and if any love is given in return, that’s a bonus. But this kind of love is really out of the capability for most of us, because most human beings are so used to having their basic needs for love met from other people even when they are adults (its okay as long as you are a child). How is it possible for a needy person to love? And how is it possible for anyone to live up to the responsibility of being needed or loved by such a person? Because, ultimately, humans are not perfect, so if you build up your whole life to revolve around a single human being or a couple of human beings (as parents do around their kids) you are bound to be disappointed one day, and this disappointment leads to devastating pain that someone they lived for could let them down, for whatever reason. Keep in mind that the more the expectation and dependency, the greater the possibility that even the smallest mistake leads to disappointment! Plus of course, being needed and “loved” like that only makes the beloved (whether friend, spouse, parent, or child) feel trapped rather than empowered.

So, what’s the solution? Before you get into a relationship, spend time alone with yourself. Find out what’s important to you, your own values, your passions, your life goals. Separate them from what’s been imposed on you by others. Get to know the real you. Befriend yourself. Be your own best friend. Love yourself, no matter what the world says. Spend time strengthening yourself, empowering yourself. Become confident and be compassionate. Only a person who loves and respects herself can give the same love and respect to others. Take steps to make yourself economically strong too. And yes, definitely spend time nurturing your connection to the Divine, by whatever name you call it. Deepening your awareness of this energy field around you is the surefire way to ending loneliness forever, weeding out any dependent, needy tendencies from the roots! Once your heart and your senses are open to the real world around you, the real energies at play, to the world of the spiritual or the supernatural (whichever way you look at it), it becomes impossible to feel you are a stranger, even among strangers. Wherever you go, there’s only a feeling of deep belonging. It’s impossible to feel insecure, inadequate, or feel that you need someone to complete you (the classic supposedly romantic line comes from this feeling-“You complete me”-or “I am empty without you”!). Once your primary source of energy is God, and not human relationships, then there is an incredible freedom in your being that sets you free to live and love without fear, without binding, without the ego. And that is when the greatest love can come to you, unasked. For who can resist such a lover! And then, if you still want to, you can take the plunge into marriage, as two complete human beings, and not as two jigsaw puzzle pieces desperately looking for wholeness!

Ultimately, the test of true love is if you can love someone with all your heart and yet be capable of living without them, as a complete human being.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Guru

In this day and age, we have so many people claiming to be spiritual masters and so many more following them, that its very difficult to discern who is real and who isn’t. But then again, I’ve asked myself, have I grown enough spiritually to be able to discern the wheat from the chaff? The answer is a very simple “No”.  I don’t have any answers, only a lot of questions.  Ultimately, I think each Guru has a “something” that resonates with certain people but may not resonate with certain others. So, to each his own. Just because you don’t believe or do not vibe with a certain “Guru” is not sufficient reason to conclude that he or she is fake.  He/she just may not be right for you, that’s all. On the other hand, there are certain others who do take advantage of unsuspecting, innocent followers in ways that would put even a criminal to shame! At all times, with all people, in all situations, I think the golden rule is to quiet your mind, be still, and reach within to your own inner voice, your own inner “guru”, as all the answers are already within. Then why, you may ask, do you need an outer guru? Maybe just to awaken the guru within!!

Here’s something I read recently, that made a lot of sense (there’s just one point I disagree with, the one on transference of power). The writer is “anonymous”, so I can’t give credit where it’s due.

Characteristics of a “Master”

* A Master never directs attention to himself. He is egoless.
* A Master’s very presence radiates power.
* Unconditional love is a basic quality of a Master. A Master never judges, is always impersonal, detached and yet compassionate.
* A Master, though possessing some or all spiritual and psychic powers renounces their use except for emergencies and urgencies. He, therefore will hardly ever reveal to anyone that he has them.
* A Master never commands he simply suggests, he never instills fear but awakens courage. He never makes you feel bad about yourself; on the contrary, he helps you build self-esteem.
* As a rule, a Master never predicts a person’s future and he never flatters the human ego.
* A Master is universal and non-sectarian in his attitudes. He sees all men as an expression of the Supreme, regardless of their religious leanings, their color, race, sex, etc.
* A true Master is creatively original. Being enlightened by his own divine essence a Master would teach or even write books directly from his heart and own experience. He would never plagiarize the work of another or teach things that are outmoded.
* Masters do not argue. They know that no amount of argument would convince the skeptic, and to those who are true seekers no argument would be necessary.
* A true Master does not hasten a student’s psychic growth prematurely by any “transference” of power. He always predominately concentrates upon raising the consciousness, improving character, spirituality, and increasing the wisdom and the understanding of his students.
* Perhaps one of the most outstanding and admirable characteristics of Spiritual Masters is that they do not consider themselves Masters. This is their humility. They know that they still have a considerable amount of things to master and learn. They are so aware that they are still undergoing the learning process that they are embarrassed to call themselves “Masters” or have anyone else call them that. In performing their divine and spiritual duties Spiritual Masters declare: “It is not I that works, but the ‘God’ within me.”    

Monday, July 17, 2006

Peaceful Change?

“Be the change you wish to see in the world”-Gandhi

This is a quote that really speaks to me, especially in today’s world where we see so many people complaining about other people, complaining about the government, talking about things they wish to change in others, in society, in the world. I myself was one of them until I read this quote. I realized there was no point getting angry or irritated with others on account of various things that, from my point of view, felt wrong. When I get irritated with somebody about certain habits of theirs, like say, impatience or laziness or anger, I realize that I myself am being impatient and angry with them. This quote made me question myself: What kind of a role model am I? Do I walk my talk? When I complain about the roads being so dirty and worry about environmental pollution and corruption and whatnot, do I make sure that I don’t litter the roads when I go out? Do I take care to reduce or even stop using plastics or save water or save fuel? Am I honest in my dealings with others? This quote made me stop and take a real good look at myself, at the judgments I pass on others. Because of this, I feel that today I save a lot of my energy. Instead of wasting it on trying to change others way of thinking and being, I just focus that energy on myself. I figured that if I be the change I want to see in the world, then maybe people around me will be forced to think and change just by looking at me and being around me. One thing that is very important to me, in the light of all the conflict that I see and hear around me, is peace. So I figured if I want to spread peace, the solution may not lie in an aggressive approach by fighting and arguing for peace, but rather in being peaceful myself, so that at least my little corner of the world, my home, my family, will be a haven of peace. So even if cannot change the world, at least I would have made it a better place for those around me!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Da Vinci Code-To Ban or Not to Ban!

In light of the growing protests in India by Christian groups against the release of the movie The Da Vinci Code and the ever-increasing possibility that the government will bow down to the pressure and ban it, I’m left feeling a mixture of outrage and amusement at the mere pettiness of it all! The way these protests are going on, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Church indeed has something to hide! Does the Church and its priests/archbishops/other officials think that the Christian faith and religion is so fragile that it can be knocked down by a mere movie? Don't they know that millions of Christians have already read the book which has been on the bestseller list now for more than a year? So if the government bans the movie because it hurts the sentiments of a certain section of society, what about my right to watch the movie? And others like me? Instead of banning the movie, they could call for a boycott instead or even a disclaimer for the movie (which the book has anyway!). Thanks to these protests, they have given enough publicity to the movie and even those who have not read the book now know about the "Jesus Christ Married Mary Magdalene and Had Kids” Theory!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Animal welfare versus Human welfare

Did you know that in China, wild bears are captured and tortured to help in the making of certain traditional Chinese medicines? No? Then read on. Although traditional chinese medicine (TCM) has a rich heritage and has a knowledge base that equals that of India’s own traditional medicine systems, it seems there are certain medicines that require the bile of a bear as an important component. Although there are medicines that can substitute for this, these particular bear-bile requiring medicines are still manufactured in China, and the means they use to acquire the bile is nothing short of cruel and inhuman! After the bears are captured from the wild, they are put in tiny cages, where a permanent stomach wound is inflicted in them, from which the bile pours out in a steady stream throughout….yes, these poor bears are kept alive in this condition for as many as 10 years, thrashing about in their cages in agony, pain, without proper food or even disposal of their wastes. When the lifespan of such bears in the wild is about 25 years, it seems not only such a waste of an innocent animal’s life and freedom, but also keeping it alive for up to 10 years in such a condition seems to me an utterly unforgivable act of cruelty. I don’t know what I can do to help prevent this and so did the only thing that comes naturally to me: Write. Write in the humble hope that anybody who reads this post who may be in a position to do something about it would do it. Or it could be as simple as making inquiries about such medicines before buying them, if you are a user, and making the choice to substitute it with something else that’s equally effective.

Now, the problem is that not only are animal components being used to make drugs (sometimes lifesaving, to give credit where its due) but that they are also used in totally inane, dispensable things like cosmetics and certain foods, that we could very well live without. For those who might see this particular “bear example” as something that may happen only in “traditional” medicine, it could be debated that the fate and condition of animals used in high-tech laboratories for the purposes of “modern” medicine is not much better either. So what’s the alternative? Although animal testing has proved to be a boon in many cases and has helped save countless human lives, it’s high time we discovered an alternative to this. Looking at it from the metaphysical point of view, maybe countless lives are saved by a process such as this, but what about the ultimate price we pay in terms of our conscience? May be we get longer healthier lives, but can we live with ourselves in the long run if this continues?