Sunday, May 26, 2019

Back to Basics with Sabrina, vipassana teacher, a barefoot messiah

"Come, do the 30 day course at Dhamma Nagajjuna in April-May" she said with an air of finality that I found difficult to refuse. I have known Sabrina since my very first Vipassana Course in 1995, and she has been my inspiration on this path ever since.

I had registered for a 20 day course at Dhamma Thali, Jaipur in Jan-Feb 2019 and was wondering how I could do another long course so soon. Sabrina had a solution to that. Turn the Jaipur course into service (volunteering to help in the course) and attend the 30 day course.

So there I was in the extremely hot Hyderabad with temperatures soaring to 40-42 degrees Centigrade. The Dhamma hall is very intelligently built with no firm walls on the outside but rather a row of pillars covered on the outside with a mesh so as to prevent mosquitoes from entering the hall. Cross ventilation with a high ceiling ensured a good temperature in the hall even on a hottest day. Fans hanging from the ceiling were never used during the course. We meditated most of the day in the Pagoda cells and they were very hot as well--there are no fans in the cells and we meditate with the door closed.

I went to my teacher complaining about how hot it was and how much I was sweating and that it was difficult to stay still. She looked at me and smiled and said "Be happy that you are getting a steam bath for free" I don't go to steam baths I protested. She said it's good to sweat. Toxins get released from your body. Look at our lifestyles! We never allow the body to get rid of toxins the natural way and that's why we end up with so many illnesses.

When I signed up for the course I requested for a chowki (a low stool) as I wondered if I could sit cross legged on the floor due to my Chronic Venous Insufficiency. She again smiled allowed me for a day on the chowki and asked me to try sitting on the floor on the cushion cross legged, without my compression stockings. I was hesitant but she assured me that sitting cross legged would help in the circulation of blood in my legs. And finally this was the first course I meditated in the cell with the door shut.. bravely facing the fears that came up --the cells are small and dark and I never felt comfortable meditating there earlier times.

Another amazing thing she did was to walk barefoot in the mornings and evenings when it got relatively cooler. Earthing is important she said. Allow your feet to touch the earth and experience what it feels like.

There are no water coolers in the campus. Water is stored in mutkaas ( mud- earthen pots) that give us water at the right temperature to quench our thirst.

Sabrina is a one of a kind teacher--unusual and unique. Persuasive in a gentle way you know she has your welfare in mind. 

I progressed very well following most of her instructions---one major one was correcting my sitting posture--back straight and chin-up.

She urges one to follow a simple life that we have long forgotten and I even started sitting cross legged on the floor during breakfast and lunch.

The tough one was to walk barefoot--that still work in progress. :)

Amazing experience. So its back to basics  now.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

My story : A Journey reflux

I was trying to think when did it all begin? When did these feet/legs of mine that did so much work change beyond recognition? Though not very regular, I used to go for a foot reflexology once in a way. I did yoga occasionally and meditation most regularly. Whatever problems I had with my feet those days, I believed were sankaras that were coming out and I observed them with equanimity. May be I was mistaken. Maybe they were the initial signs of what was to follow.

My earliest memory was in January -February 2016. The previous year I was using the em-tech machine for my arthritis. It is a machine that emits various forms of heat. Em tech Wellness centers are located in many places in Singapore and it is supposed to be very effective in curing or ameliorating many conditions. So impressed I was after trying out at the wellness center for one month that I bought one and started using it at home regularly.

Sometime in the end of January and beginning of February 2016 I noticed a rash on my left foot just below my toes. I went to my Ayurved doctor at Ayush and she gave me a cream and some medicines. Very soon my foot started becoming red and swollen and I suspected the area under my toes to be infected. I went to a skin specialist in Jurong Ketchil and he diagnosed it as Cellulitis and put me on a course of antibiotics. I recovered from it and from then on would regularly moisturize my feet. I stopped using the em-tech machine.

I had some intermittent problems thereafter with the foot which I would respond to with temporary remedies. I remember asking the doctor about the discoloration that had begun and his response was "You should be glad it is not on your face". A very unsympathetic and unprofessional response.  It wasn't until July 2017 that my feet screamed for attention again. I was sitting a 10day course in Dhamma Vipula, on Belapur Road, Mumbai and they were burning a lot making it difficult to sit through the course. Later in August that year I conducted a 10day course in Penang and had problems again.

I decided to visit the doctor at the polyclinic this time hoping there would be a better diagnosis and treatment for my aching, burning feet. He was the first doctor who said it might be due to varicose veins and compression stockings could be a possible solution. He gave me medicines for the immediate relief from pain and I looked up Guardian Medicals for over the counter compression socks and started using them. It was only much later that I learned there are many kinds of compression socks and I should have got the medical grade compression socks. Anyway to move on with the story..

I was wearing the compression socks regularly and to my dismay found I had a blister coming up. Problems seemed relentless and no sustained help available. I googled for doctors still under the impression that its probably a skin issue probably due to the use of em-tech machine. I found a doctor at Mt.Elizabeth and she told me I had an ulcer and taught me how to take care of it and nurse it back to normal. It took a long time to heal and meanwhile I was consulting doctor friends and everyone in the know for solutions. One doctor friend in Hyderabad did advise me to consult a vascular surgeon. I had not heard that specialization till then and was wondering how to get to one in Singapore. This was end of December 2017.

The ulcer healed finally and with great enthusiasm I earnestly began to learn swimming. But not for long as I started getting small ulcer type eruptions on my feet and also what I now know to be "atrophe blanche" where in the skin seems to split giving it a ridged appearance one stage before ulcer formation. I applied soframycin, an antibiotic cream I had got from India, along with some organic haldi (turmeric). There was some relief from the blister type of irritation. I decided to re-contact my Mt. E doctor but I got an appointment only for Jun13th 2018. I left for India in May 2018 after my Spring semester and consulted a doctor in Mumbai who re-affirmed that the issue was due to varicose veins. He gave me some ointments, but nothing really helped as very soon I had anothe ulcer coming up.

This ulcer was really painful as I could barely walk properly and was in constant pain. I looked up for a vascular surgeon at SGH as a private patient to get an earlier appointment. The Mt. E skin specialist suggested that I get a biopsy of the skin around the ulcer done at the National Skin Center and my appointment there was for the 8th of August..this was in June 2018. Through strange combination of incidents, I landed in  Ng Teng Fong Hospital, Jurong where I was admitted and suddenly I was taken seriously and all tests conducted swiftly.

Skin Biopsy report as well as Ultrasound Doppler test on my legs confirmed that I had venous insufficiency /venous reflux which meant that the blood that returns to the heart by the veins was not doing its job due to faulty vein valves. Therefore the blood returned to the feet thereby releasing free radicals and other proteins destroying the tissues and causing ulceration.

As the reflux was from both superficial as well as deep veins, surgery was not considered. Surgery is normally done only on the superficial veins and not the deep veins I was told. This surgery involves clipping and sealing off of the refluxing vein. Deep veins carry 95% of the blood back to heart and so it is too dangerous to perfom surgery on them.

 So now the solution was to wear compression bandages which would enable the blood to move upward in the correct direction. Once the ulcers healed I would have to wear compression stockings forever. Ofcourse, I can take them off if I am resting by keeping my feet elevated above the heart level.

Thus I continue getting on with life. One semester came and went and I pretty well got used to life with compression stockings. No more painful ulcers but the skin is dry & scaly and needs to be kept moisturized.

I used to look down on my feet before, now I look up to them more often 🙂

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

When life turns upside down

When life turns upside down, I have learned to start working upside down.

Yes, my current condition is called venous insufficiency / venous reflux which means that blood from the veins is not getting circulated back to the heart due to the malfunctioning of venous valves in the legs. So they flow back to the feet and slowly start damaging the tissues in the feet giving rise to painful ulcers.

The solution is to wear compression bandages till the ulcer heals and then compression stockings to ensure proper circulation and prevent ulcers. Compression bandages have to be changed twice a week at the hospital where trained nurses would dress me  with the bandages. Stockings are better in the sense they are self managed.
Exercise such as walking and flexing of feet,  keeping feet elevated (above the heart level) are other ways to manage this condition.
I am told that people whose jobs require long hours of standing or sitting are likely to suffer from this condition.

Life has certainly changed with this as I am more often lying on my back with legs elevated. The yoga posture.. viparita karani is very helpful. This is the posture where the legs are at 90 degrees to the body and the wall serves as support to the legs.

So my life turns upside down literally. Having been upright (pun intended) most of my life I now lie almost upside down. While initially it was inconvenient as I wondered how to get my work such as marking papers or reading or art, I have now learned to do all this in this new posture.
I even meditate in this new posture.
Meditation has helped me a lot. I live moment to moment sinking into the pain and discomfort, observing it with equanimity.
As awareness increases there is less and less tendency to complain.
Ofcourse I am not saintly all the time. My family has seen me lose my cool a number of times as I snap at them or scream at them.

But on the whole its been a journey towards greater wisdom, developing gratitude for whatever good I have been given.

Time to give the legs the rest they deserve. When life turns upside down, I learn to work upside down.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Being calm in a crisis

I happened to speak to a friend today who is a regular meditator. She greeted me warmly, her voice and tone not betraying even the slightest trace of unease. I asked her if it was a good time to speak to her and she answered that she was on her way to the hospital to visit her husband who had a heart attack the previous evening. I wished her well and said the reason I called her for could wait and I could understand her current state of mind very well and hung up.

This is not the first time I have encountered a person so totally normal and calm even at a time of grave crisis. Another meditator friend in Australia was once dealing with a person who was mentally disturbed on the phone and when she hung up and I asked her something inconsequential, she answered with total calm which did not give a slightest hint that she was dealing with a crisis (the mentally disturbed person was a student on a course and the course manager called on the intercom for him to talk to my friend).

I thought of it then and those thoughts returned to me today---was it important to be peaceful and calm at all times even when one was facing a crisis? Many would say yes, we all want to be calm & peaceful but I was thinking of the merits of actually sounding alarmed when one was infact alarmed! It helps your co-workers to know that there is something serious you are dealing with and perhaps you can be spared of some inconsequential chatter. Maybe it would signal for help if someone can provide help.

But yet, my friends are serious, long term meditators. They are always very calm and peaceful--or atleast I have never seen them lose their cool in any situation. Does it become a habit, a part of one's life? Is it that they really don't mind people chattering away about unimportant stuff when they were dealing with something really serious? Do they really completely live in the present moment, that every moment is a  new situation unencumbered by past judgments and evaluations. Incredible!

Personally it made me aware how sensitive and attuned we should be to the person we are speaking to. If I hadn't asked my friend this morning if it was a good time to speak to her, she would not have told me the situation she was in. If I hadn't asked my Australian friend what the phone call was about (soon after my unimportant question) and if I could do something to help, she wouldn't have told me anything. To me this was an important lesson. To listen deeply when someone is speaking to you. To give them your undivided attention and connect with their inner world. Because a person who is calm may actually be dealing with a crisis and may need your help---sometimes just a listening presence.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

My hands

My fingers are swollen
My wrists are swollen
And so are my hands
I find it difficult to hold a plate in my hand

Opening bottles are job that
I have to ask for help
And sometimes even for getting dressed.

Are these hands really mine?
Are these the ones that cooked and cleaned,
washed and ironed clothes without a stop?
Are these the ones that reared two children,
and held their hands when they needed support?

Are these the ones that marked papers,
and wrote on the white board?
Are these the ones that drew pictures, painted, quilled
and made flowers of pista shells?

For 50 long years they worked
and now need a break, rest and some care

As long as the person has grit and determination,
this is only a pause, a time for reflection,
a time to be grateful,
for all one has received in abundance

Monday, July 28, 2014

One day Vipassana Meditation Course Singapore

One day Vipassana meditation courses are for those who have completed atleast one 10 day course. It is to help meditators maintain their practice, as often times, due to pressures of daily living, one gives up on regular practice. The course serves as a great refresher and is very rejuvenating for a meditator.

In Singapore, which is yet to have its own center, the courses are eagerly looked forward to, and require quite a lot of planning and coordination. For the past couple of years the venue has been SWAMI Home at Sembawang, which has a big auditorium to conduct one day courses. A dedicated team of volunteers, arrange the logistics---the transportation of meditation cushions, audio equipment and planning a mid-day meal for the participants.

The course attracts people who may have done courses somewhere outside of Singapore, and are probably here due to work commitments or passing through Singapore temporarily. In the recent course on 27th July, (attended by 54 participants)there was a gentleman, who despite a bad back, attended the course for the first half. Rejuvenated, no doubt but unable to continue sitting he had to leave, but not before he thanked us for giving him the opportunity to put him back on the practice. For the rest of the participants from all walks of lives, all nationalities, all ages ( 21 upward) the day was invaluable in strengthening our practice and clarifying doubts in some cases.

The one day course is special in many ways. Apart from helping one maintain the continuity of practice, the discourse at the end of the session is truly inspirational and makes me feel truly thankful for being on this path. The following are some of the main points touched on in the discourse:

1. Just as you need food twice a day to stay physically healthy, you need to meditate twice a day to keep your mind healthy
2. Understand the purpose of the practice...not for a pleasant sensation/experience but to understand the impermanence of both pleasant and unpleasant sensation
3. Protect the dhamma within and dhamma will protect you in turn. In the ebb and flow of life when you maintain your equanimity, you protect the dhamma within and in turn it gives you peace and tranquility.
Dhammo have rakkhati  dhamma chaarin
4. Keep the practice non-sectarian and suffering is universal and the practice teaches you to come out of suffering.
5.Attha hi atthano naato, attha hi atthano gati. The practice makes you the master of the present moment. And by this you become the master of your future.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Serving in a new role

It was when I completed my second long course (30 days) that I was invited to serve Dhamma as an Assistant Teacher. The invitation did come as a surprise as I had just finished narrating to my Area teachers the difficulties I had during my recent course. 'Difficulties will be there, its the way you face them'.. they said. Yet I wasn't sure if I had it in me to sit on a Dhamma seat and actually conduct the proceedings of the course.

It took me a year to finally accept the new role, a realization of the fact that it wasn't really me conducting the course, but Goenkaji, and it would be the best way to repay the gratitude I had for him by fulfilling his vision of spreading the teaching to people. This was followed by about a year of rigorous training, where I learned some aspects of theory involved in the practice. The role of Assistant Teacher involved conducting the proceedings of the course and clarify any doubts about the technique of meditation that may arise among students. I was a representative of our teacher and therefore would have to be very conversant with his teaching.

After the 3 stage training I was appointed Assistant Teacher in May 2013. I did have my doubts about actually conducting a 10-day course as it would mean additional days to take off from family and work commitments. However, the teachers seemed to have much faith in me, and I started off conducting a good number of 1-day courses.

Then came the opportunity to serve the awesome 3-day course at St. John's island. This course is restricted to those who have completed at least one 10-day course. It is really awesome as the evening discourses cover many aspects of day to day living, and how the practice can help one face up to daily challenges. It helps one to see his/her life from the 'dhamma' angle.

Finally it was June 11-22, 2014 that I got to co-conduct a 10day course, along with James, the male teacher. The experience was really lovely. There were 54 women taking the course of ages ranging from 19 years to 65 years. It was really interesting, as all I had to do was to be fully present and fully alive in a calm and peaceful sort of way.

As I sat on the Dhamma seat, I could really tune in to the wisdom of all teachers on the path who seemed to aid and guide me in my new role. The whole process of guiding students became smooth as I found myself being guided along. It was like being one with all beings, in peace and calmness. I was not there to teach or instruct or fix....just gently guide and remind people of the instructions they heard from Goenkaji.

I was ably assisted by a cheerful course manager who helped me take care of students who fell sick and at times wanted to leave the course. One student left the course on the 2nd day, and though I did try my best to convince her to stay, she left and I could accept that without disappointment. I could really experience the impermanence of whatever little upheavals we had in those 10days, and that was mainly because the mind was calm and tranquil.

Even the one major area that would potentially cause some disturbance...the kitchen--went smoothly with no conflicts or personality clashes. It was a lovely, peaceful experience. A tough fulfilling course for students as they began their voyage of self-discovery.

Many years ago, I had wanted to help people understand themselves and lead a useful productive life. Consequently I chose to pursue Psychology at the University as part of my Graduate studies and later PhD. But it is really this new role as Assistant Teacher of Vipassana meditation that is really meaningful and satisfying in every way. This is what I really wanted for myself. Very fortunate to have found this path and fortunate to be helping others walk on this path.