In January of 2014, after reporting a certain “recurring abdominal pain” to my primary care physician, I underwent a series of diagnostic tests that would ultimately lead to an extremely complicated surgery involving the pancreas, gall bladder and small intestine. Imaging tests revealed a large cyst in the head of the pancreas, but even after the cyst had been biopsied, there was no way, short of surgery, to know definitively whether it was benign or malignant. As much as I would have liked to say, “no, thank you” when I was told surgery needed to be done, there was really no other option. In the language of Yoga Science, surgery was the Shreya, (the action that would lead to the highest good), and I was being asked to serve this unwelcome Shreya with my mind, speech and action.
My body had never experienced a surgery before, so I had no frame of reference to draw upon. I learned that the surgery itself would take 8-10 hours; the head of the pancreas would be removed, along with the gall bladder, the bile duct, part of the stomach and part of the small intestine. And then in some miraculous way, the surgeon would reconnect my insides in five different places, stitch up the incision, and if all went well, the body would establish a new “normal” function.
As I listened to all this information, the mind was spinning and full of questions and uncertainties. There was a legitimate desire and need to search for answers outside of myself, to research the procedure, the hospital and the surgeon, to gather as much information as possible so that informed decisions could be made. I desperately wanted to maintain balance and not be consumed with worry and fear for the body. I knew I would need to dig deep and remain vigilant with my meditation practice and all of the tools of Yoga Science.
During the time leading up to and following the surgery, I relied heavily on the counsel of my teacher (Ram Lev), my meditation practice and the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita. I kept a journal, and it’s been interesting to return to those entries and see that although I made no conscious decision to create a “Battle Plan”, the time with my teacher, my use of the tools in the Heart and Science of Yoga “tool bag”, and my relationship with the Gita did, in fact, prepare me for the looming encounter. Throughout the experience I felt a strong kinship with Arjuna (from the Bhagavad Gita) and well understood his desire to run away from his battle and become a monk. And yet, I knew from personal experience with my meditation practice, that there were surely important teachings and great gifts in this karma, if the personality could simply remain open to whatever might come.
Over the course of the past nine years, I had learned that within each of us there exists two opposing forces. In the Gita, they are represented metaphorically by the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The Pandavas, including Arjuna, represent the forces of light, upholding our higher, discriminative tendencies. The forces of darkness, represented by the Kauravas, are our addictions to the impulsive ego and sense tendencies. Before any battle it’s vitally important to survey the troops, just as Arjuna did at Kurukshetra, in order to understand both the strengths and limitations we’re dealing with. Armed with this intelligence, we can then formulate an effective battle plan.
Swami Rama taught that, “it is important for one to be aware of both our strengths and our weaknesses, for without such awareness, success in life remains a mere dream.” He explained as meditators we need to strengthen the faculty of discrimination which enables us to recognize within ourselves the qualities that prepare us to attain our goal, as well as those that create barriers for us and dissipate our will power. Every meditator must learn to examine those two factors.
On the pre-surgery battlefield I observed the Kauravas’ many foot soldiers of fear, massive divisions of self-criticism and laser guided missiles of guilt reminding me of past actions that might have invited this illness. In addition, the mind was aware of many nefarious thoughts of vanity, pride, disappointment and a major attachment to the body. Facing this mighty army of darkness, I could feel the vital energy of prana draining from every cell of the body—much like air slowly leaving a balloon. I found myself in old, familiar territory surrounded by fear, judgment and self-doubt.
But wait. On the other side of the battlefield, the Pandavas were bravely aligned! As the Gita explains, they were not as strong in number as the forces of darkness, but theirs was the voice of Truth. Then suddenly, in the midst of my internal confusion and sorrow, I could hear my mantra, and then the comforting voice of the buddhi (my conscience), telling me which thoughts to give my attention to, which words to verbalize, and which actions to take. I was reminded that all life is sadhana, spiritual practice that helps us skillfully defend our health and well-being while allowing our consciousness to evolve. I was also aware of my dharma (duty) as wife, mother, grandmother, friend, student and teacher. How I responded to this karma would affect the whole; I had a responsibility to serve the Truth to the best of my ability.
Through my yogic study and personal experience in meditation, I had come to trust that nothing would come to me beyond my capacity to handle it. I could hear Ram Lev’s voice saying, “A thought has no real power of its own. All its power comes from the attention you give it. When you withdraw your attention, the thought or emotion will be powerless to compel you to act. Let go of the fear, judgment, guilt and self-doubt. It’s not the truth.”
During my contemplation practice, I was able to withdraw my attention from the forces of darkness. Arjuna, in the form of Mary Helen, continually asked, “Who Am I that is preparing the body for surgery? Who Am I that is aware of fear and judgment, guilt and self-doubt?. Am I merely the body? Who Am I? In a very short time, although I was still aware of fear, that fear was no longer all-consuming.
On numerous occasions, I spent time with my teacher. In those meetings Ram Lev helped me recognize the power in my attachments and emotions. Together, we examined habits of the mind and developed a battle plan to transform the mind’s contractive energy into a more useful and positive form. Sometimes, I would just sit in silence in His office. Merely being in His presence brought me equanimity, strength, courage and optimism. It was a priceless gift.
The mind/body felt well-prepared and well-armed when April 23, 2014 arrived. The surgery took place nearly a year ago and was successful by every measure. The wisdom of the body, a phrase I have often heard in classes, took on a new meaning for me. The wisdom is consciousness or G-O- D. The more I could become centered in that wisdom and simply witness, rather than identify with the mind’s fear-filled color commentary, I could observe consciousness withdrawing from the limited perspective of the senses, ego and habits of a lifetime. In their place appeared a higher priority that needed all my attention and energy (prana). That priority was the urgent need for me to consciously assist in healing my own body by letting go of judgment and expectation, and replacing them with love, compassion and respect.
In part, because I was able to view my recent medical experience as a parallel to Arjuna’s battle at Kurukshetra, I now realize that life is filled with similar kinds of battles in every relationship. And no battle is too big or too small. The same forces of light and darkness, the same habits of this mind, are present in every skirmish. Twentieth century mystic Yogananda puts it this way, “Each person has to fight his or her own battle of Kurukshetra. It’s a war not only worth winning, it’s a war that sooner or later must be fought and won. In the Holy Bhagavad Gita, the quickest attainment of that victory is assured to the devotee who, through undiscourageable practice of the divine science of Yoga Meditation, learns, like Arjuna, to hearken to the inner wisdom-song of Spirit.”
This might sound strange, but I am grateful on many levels for this unexpected surgery. I am grateful for the experience itself because I believe I will have greater compassion and understanding for others in similar situations; for the caregivers who attended to me; for my birth family and my AMI family whose love and support I could feel every moment; but most especially, I am grateful for my meditation practice. I know that without it, there would have been a very different outcome. Every step of the way, there was a tool waiting for me, a practice that was of great comfort to me. I never felt alone. I’ve even gone so far as to think that perhaps one of the reason I was attracted to The American Meditation Institute in 2006 was to prepare for this surgical experience so that we could all learn from it.
Since surgery last April, I am aware of the mind’s life-long habit of indulging in sukhas and dukhas (emotional highs and lows). The day-to- day health of the body, which is still somewhat unpredictable, can dictate my relief or concern, happiness or sadness. In diligently contemplating the habits of my mind, I’ve been able to identify the specific desire or fear that motivates certain unconscious responses. What I’ve realized through this examination is that when the mind drifts into the past, it longs for the health and vitality of the pre-surgery body. When it fast-forwards into the future, it often creates an expectation of when the body should return to its “normal” energy level. As a Yoga Scientist, however, I recognize that this habitual movement between past and future is being orchestrated by the ego. And when the mind is in the past or in the future, it cannot be in the present moment to give one-pointed attention and love to whatever is the relationship at hand. The mind cannot experience equanimity or evenness, and the healing process suffers.
What I know today is that, just like the body I used when I was 3, or 13, or 23, the form of the body that I knew when I entered surgery is no more. Intellectually, I knew there would be a grieving and mourning period associated with the loss of that body, but the experience of it has been much more powerful than the mind’s preconception could have predicted.
In the Gita Krishna tells Arjuna, “Holding pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat to be the same, make ready for battle.” At this time my primary battlefield of action (Kurukshetra), is the mind/body. With full resolve (Sankalpa Shakti), I have learned how to accept and love the body as it is at this moment. That means to compassionately care for the body with sufficient patience, time and selfless service so the whole mind/body can heal to its full potential. Toward that end, I know I need to rely on constant assistance from my loyal partners: mantra and buddhi.
Understanding that the mind/body/sense complex is one holistic organism, I considered what consequences might develop when expectations and judgments were habitually entertained. “Do these thoughts support or obstruct the intelligence of the body?” I asked myself. “How does the mind know where to direct its healing energy (prana)? Could greater compassion, love and acceptance help balance digestive enzymes more easily? Could glucose levels be made more predictable? Could the nausea be lessened or even eliminated?
Motived by my meditation practice, my teacher and the 6,000 year old lineage of women and men who had preceded me on the path of Yoga Science, I decided to seek answers to these questions scientifically. Knowing that every action brings about a consequence, I willingly treated each physical, mental and emotional relationship as a meaningful subject in a yogic experiment. With no expectations or claims to the outcome, I simply began the process of what Buddhists would call, “chopping wood and carrying water.” In other words, I decided to give my best effort in basing my thoughts, words and deeds on my own inner, intuitive wisdom, and then objectively observe the outcome.
And what a bounty of gifts have come as a result of my surgery! I know my willingness to experiment with inner wisdom on this challenging medical field of action is serving a very important purpose in my life and the lives of countless others.
My teacher’s teacher, Swami Rama of the Himalayas taught, “Through the help of profound and systematic spiritual practice (sadhana), a person can go beyond everyday experiences to attain a state of inner peace and well-being.” His words have been substantiated in my own personal laboratory. And because all this has happened for me, I decided to share these thoughts with you.