Living in an ashram on the banks of the Ganges, in the foothills of the Himalayas, it sometimes takes me an extra few days or even more to catch up with world events. With no TV, my news is limited to what I see on Google News while drinking a cup of tea in the morning, or to what shows up in my Facebook feed when I open it about once a week.
It has, therefore, taken me too long to see the wave of #metoo rising in the West and slowly but surely causing crucial ripples here in the East. My life of 46 years has bridged not only the Western and Eastern hemispheres geographically, but also Western and Eastern models of understanding and responding to ourselves and our world.
The tragic rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi five years ago tore open the tightly sealed cultural box of sex crimes and sexual harassment in India, and out of it flew a newfound openness to discuss what had previously been taboo. “Yes it happens. And no, we don’t talk about it” was pretty much the modus operandi until Nirbhaya occupied the front page of newspapers and our collective conscience.
More and more organizations are now forming to drag this monster out of the closet of our collective denial and into the daylight of our collective awareness and action. Women’s empowerment training programs in villages and cities are growing to provide not only sewing and handicrafts but also karate.
In fact, this is one of the reasons that our Global Interfaith WASH Alliance is working so ardently for the provision and use of toilets. When millions of girls and women in rural villages don’t have a toilet at home and have to go into fields and forests to heed the call of nature, they are easy prey for not only wild animals but also men who act like wild animals. Toilets in their homes provide safety and security, along with the obvious health and hygiene benefits.
Last week, I had the great honor of being on stage with Nobel laureate, Kailash Satyarthi, to address an auditorium of college students on the wide prevalence of sexual abuse and the necessity of addressing and preventing it. I could barely believe the words were coming out of my mouth in India, in public, in a microphone, with dignitaries on stage and a hall full of people. This is a program that could not and would not have taken place ten years ago, as the issue was not being discussed in public fora. So there is some progress, but much is left to be done.
I could share many #metoo experiences from the first 25 years of my life in America, ranging from those situations where I had the ability, the physical strength and the presence of mind to prevent or stop it, to those where I did not. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this article, that yes, I get it. Fully. Yes, it is rampant. Yes, it is outrageously unacceptable. Yes, action must be taken–legally, legislatively, professionally, academically and culturally. Yes, social norms must be fiercely and courageously examined and, where necessary, rewritten.
While my first twenty-five years were steeped in the land, culture and social norms of the West, including its models and philosophies of psychology and healing, the last twenty-one years of my life have been spent immersed in the East, in a deeply traditional ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas.
You are Not this Pen
Each morning in the universal prayers at five o’clock we chant, “Sansaara ko swapnavat jaano.” The world is but a dream. “Mahalon mein raakhe chaahe jhonpadi mein vasa de. Jaahi vidhi raakhe Raama, taahi vidhi rahiye.” Wherever God puts you, whether it’s a mansion or a shack (literal and metaphoric), recognize that it is all Divine blessings and be grateful for them.
The teaching of Aham Brahmasmi–I am Brahma, I am God, all is God, there is nothing but God–is a fundamental tenet of Vedantic teaching. Om Brahm, Om Brahm, we are taught to chant with each breath and each step: left, right, left, right, Om Brahm, Om Brahm. There is nothing but God. It is all God.
Within my first few weeks at the ashram, my Guru held up a pen in front of me and told me, “You are not this pen.” I laughed in anticipation of a punch-line that surely was coming; as one giggles on the first “knock, knock.” We may not know who’s there yet, but we know it will be funny, and our laugh begins bubbling to the surface even before the punch-line is delivered. Obviously I wasn’t a pen. What else? What was the punch-line?
My Guru did not laugh though. This was not a joke. He looked very deeply at me and said:
Today you laugh because you know you are not a pen. But you still identify as the physical body and mind. You think you are your body, you think you are your emotions, you think you are your history and identity. But you are no more your body than you are this pen. Some day you will laugh the same way when I tell you that you are not your body as you do when I say you are not a pen.
Aham Brahmasmi, Om Brahm. It is all God. There is nothing but God. The rest is an illusion, we are taught.
The practice of Neti Neti is an ancient meditation technique to attain the experience of the supreme Self, the Supreme Soul. “I am not my clothing,” we begin. Okay, everyone agrees with that. Then, eyes closed, seated in meditation posture, we go deeper and deeper, silently at our own pace, in our own mind. “I am not my skin beneath the clothes. I am not the blood flowing beneath my skin. I am not my organs.” We know this, of course, because when our skin peels, we do not experience any loss of the self. When we donate blood or receive a blood transfusion, we are neither losing nor gaining any aspect of our identity. I could donate an organ to you and, while that would be deeply generous, I would still be here and you would still be there. So ‘I’ does not get transferred in the kidney.
Then, deeper. I am not my cells or the hormones or neurotransmitters released from them. I am not the electrical transmissions along the axons of my neurons. Therefore, I am not my emotions or my thoughts, which are chemical, electrical patterns of energetic transmission in my brain. If I were my thoughts, then I would cease to exist in those rare moments of thoughtlessness or between my thoughts. If I ceased to exist between my thoughts, who would think the next one?
So we practice this, on and on, until there is nothing left to discard. No layers are left of the onion of our self. In that space, which the Buddhists tend to refer to as emptiness (shunya) and the Hindus call everything-ness (purna), I have an experience of the true Self, borderless, formless consciousness.
Sexual Assault and the Brain
My experience of the Self comes to me through my brain. In order to peel the layers back, in order to go deeper and deeper, to extricate myself from the chains of my false identities, I need, ironically, my brain. It is my brain that processes the mantra, my brain that permits me to shut down some parts of it while activating others so I may have the experience of oneness with the world.
Just as our eyes are not the rainbow but are the medium through which we experience the rainbow, just as our ears are not the mantras but are the medium through which we hear the mantras, similarly, our brains are not ‘I’ but are the medium through which we can experience ‘I.’
And our brains are impacted by sexual assault.
A lesion in my optic nerve will not render the rainbow any less beautiful, but it will impact my ability to see and enjoy the rainbow. An infection in my tympanic membrane will not impact the powerful alchemy of mantras being chanted by priests, but it will impact my ability to hear them and therefore my ability to be healed by them. A sexual assault–verbal or physical–does not change the nature of my deepest, highest, most true Self. But it does impact my ability to experience my Self. There is something about being violated in this way that cuts through to the very core of how we experience ourselves, and therefore how we experience our Selves. Something gets forever shifted, a note in the symphony of Self gets forever tweaked.
It is an injury that doesn’t heal like a black eye or broken nose. It is an injury to the very experience of who we are and how we process our existence on Earth.
Changing the Experience of Our Self
In the West we tend to glorify our issues. They become our identity. We have taken the statement required in 12-step meetings into our core consciousness. “I am an alcoholic.” “I am an addict.” “I am bulimic.” “I am a rape survivor.” The list of possible identities is nearly endless, and they are insidiously enticing. Bill W. instituted a practice of verbal admission to cut through the denial preventing us from overcoming addiction. It was not meant to become the very core of our identity.
If our experience happened more than seven or eight years ago, even if it was grossly physical and violated every inch of our bodies, inside and out, there is not one cell left to which it happened. Every cell of the body sloughs and regenerates. The skin is the quickest at it, regenerating every few days. Some organs take seven or eight years. Rarely, though, is it our liver or spleen that was touched, grabbed, groped or penetrated. The parts of our bodies that were, if the inappropriate behavior was physical, have long since sloughed off and been replaced.
Our bodies have healed, but our brains have not. It is in our brains, in the patterns of electrical, chemical and magnetic energy, that we store this pain and the identification with it.
However, we now know that our brains can be changed.
What the rishis, sages, mystics and prophets of the world’s religions have been telling us for thousands of years, scientists are ‘discovering’ today. These patterns of thought and behavior exist in two-way communication with how we think and act. Not only do our brains create/impact/direct what we think and do, but what we think and do creates/impacts/directs the neuronal patterns in our brain. Changing our behavior, changing our breath, changing our thoughts, changing our beliefs; all of these change our brains. Changing our brains changes our experience of the self and the Self.
Meditation by survivors is not the solution to sexual misconduct. But it is, I have found, the bridge between knowing #metoo and living as #metoo.
For me, the pendulum between violated body and untouched soul has been a journey not of either/or, but of yes/and.
Yes, we must join together and do everything we can to hold this in the light of our collective, cultural awareness and insist that laws, rules and norms all change. And, through our spiritual practice, we can live with the experiential awareness that, yes #metoo and yes, the ‘me’ to whom it happened, is not the deepest, highest, truest experience of I.
Yes, #metoo, and yes, Aham Brahmasmi.