The Saturday my husband, died was a perfect fall day. The sky was a clear, deep blue and it was warm enough for just a sweater. After coffee and our morning NPR, Tattwan and I decided to put off the normal weekend house cleaning and chores and instead walked into town, stopping along the way to talk with friends and neighbors. We ended up at our local health food store, where we made some purchases for dinner. When we arrived home, Tattwan helped me load the car with some items we were donating to our local thrift store. He kissed me goodbye and took off on his motorcycle for a short ride in the country. I never saw him again.
Almost from the moment I found him, I lived with the fear that I would lose my husband. That is the nature of attachment. When we first got married, I actually made Tattwan promise that I could die first, knowing the foolishness of that act. It is one thing to talk about detachment and another altogether to be detached about the ones you love. I wasn’t taking any chances. Yet, throughout our marriage, I was plagued by visions of fiery car crashes and other disasters. Tattwan often laughed and said, “I’m only going to die once, but you will have experienced my death a million times.” He was right.
(photo: Swami Satchidananda blesses Joan Shankari & husband Tattwan on wedding day)
Once the initial shock of the death of my husband had passed, I find that my continuing sense of loss and grief live in the space of derailed identities and a misplaced future. It is true that when someone we love dies, a part of us dies with them. I know in my mind that I am not a separate being limited by the story I create. Yet I move through the world collecting the stuff of identity through the roles I play: lover, wife, mother, friend, teacher, super hero wannabe. The “me” that I was able to connect with in the context of my relationship has become harder for me to locate. At this point in life, something’s got to give and flexibility is essential. I am learning daily to cultivate an openness to life on its own terms. This is an unnatural act and requires practice.
Many years ago while doing some bit of work around the ashram under Swami Satchidananda’s watchful eye, he called out to me, “Don’t force it, Shankari.” At the time, I thought that his comment was not related at all to what I was doing. Upon reflection, I realized that this advice related to the very way I choose to move through the world, not in my actions, but in my intentions. Like many of us, I want to force the world to shape itself to my will. I want to make the world safe for my family; I want to make others just and kind; I want what I want, when I want it. I know that force won’t bring me the happiness and contentment I seek. And I know that my actions are the only actions I have any possibility of controlling at this point in my life. As Gandhi said, I must “be the change I want to see in the world.”
I came of age in the ‘60s, and arrived in to New York at the age of 18, seeking whatever there was for me in life. A friend took me to see Swami Satchidananda (Gurudev), and a new way of moving through the world opened up for me. Here was a being who seemed totally aware that much of life was meaningless and that pain was everywhere, yet he moved through it all as a radiant beacon of supreme possibility. I wanted the peace that Gurudev possessed, and I embraced the teachings of Integral Yoga. I gratefully received mantra initiation and began a path of awakening that continues to lead me to my Self.
Later, I took the vows of a pre-sannyasin (pre-monastic) and found myself at Yogaville in 1981. In its beginning stages, Yogaville resembled the wild west of American fantasy. It was as yet unformed and required a great deal of raw energy and commitment to bring shape to Gurudev’s dream of a community founded on yogic principles. It was in this context that I met my soul mate and future husband. Over time, a relationship developed that pulled us more powerfully that the vows we had taken. We both left the monkhood to discover a shared life as householders.
Tattwan and I moved out of the ashram, got jobs, became members of the larger Charlottesville community, raised two daughters and met all the challenges of parenthood and a relationship together in the context of our shared ground of being—the teachings of Swami Satchidananda and Integral Yoga. We were very fortunate—the trials of life that might have shaken the foundations of other relationships forged an even stronger bond for us. Whenever we would visit the ashram and see Gurudev, I would thank him for all his gifts to us, but mostly for his gift of my husband. On one of these occasions, Gurudev looked at me and said, “Just remember to always be grateful.” It is easy to be grateful when we get what we want. It takes courage and commitment to always be grateful for whatever we get.
One of our favorite family stories was that of Indra, the god who wanted to experience life and so took birth in the form of a pig. He married and had a loving wife and baby pigs and was quite happy. The other gods observed Indra blissfully wallowing in the mud and were appalled that he seemed to have forgotten his true identity. In an effort to awaken him, they began removing his attachments, killing the baby pigs one at a time. Indra was beside himself with grief, and ran to his wife for comfort. The gods then killed her, and Indra’s grief multiplied. It was only when the gods finally ripped open the pig body that Indra was inhabiting that he was able to emerge and see that he had falsely identified with the story he was enacting. Whenever life seemed to rip our illusions and attachments from us faster than we could comfortably cope with, Tattwan and I would jokingly remind each other, “there goes another pig!” Indra’s attachment made him a great husband and father and gave meaning to his life. Indra gave up godhood to experience the pleasure that attachment brings. But in the world of opposites, pleasure presupposes pain. The lesson of Indra is learning to let go after the first pig or two.
When we are stopped in our tracks through death (or a less drastic form of change), we have an opportunity to confront the fact that we are making up the story as we go along. We are forced to actively reinvent ourselves. We can choose to be a victim or create a more powerful role. But there is no self I can create that can withstand the ravages of time and the physical universe; that can remain unscathed by life. Thus we seek enlightenment—a removing of the darkness brought about by the sorrow of loss and grief that is the very nature of being alive. “Enlighten” is a verb—it is an act that must be performed not a pre-existing state of being waiting to be discovered or a destination to be arrived at. It must be created, one moment at a time. The mind is a very reliable source for drama or story creation, which is why it is essential to find the Witness. Gurudev compared being the Witness to a spectator watching cars going by on a road. Everything is fine until you begin to flag down the cars, get into them, and drive away. Then you are no longer a Witness, but an active participant, and you lose your detachment.
With consistent work, the mind can be reprogrammed to create an alternate default setting to the drama machine: that of the inquirer or Witness. Access to enlightenment during times of crisis requires a foundation set by a preexisting stable practice. This is when I discovered the payoff for a firm grasp of the teachings and all the preliminary years of wrestling with the mind. My practice gave me a place to stand to pull myself up out of the swirling waters that even now, five years after my husband’s death, sometimes threaten to drown me in loss and grief. I have the capacity to detach, however briefly, from the drama my mind creates around the events of my life.
Yoga has given me the opportunity to choose my life rather than to be a victim of circumstances. I can choose suffering or bliss. Suffering is resisting life as it is. Bliss is warmly embracing what is and being grateful for it, no matter what. And so I am grateful: for the time Tattwan and I had, for the gift of our last day together and for who I have become because of our relationship. I am grateful for my family and friends, and for the opportunity of the life I currently struggle to create. This life is all we have, just as it is, right now. Gratitude is an affirmation of what is, and a decision that it is enough.
About the Author:
Joan Shankari Cichon provides instructional design and educational web development for the University of Virginia’s cardiovascular division. She currently shares a house in Florida with a wolfdog, a visiting beagle, two cats, and a rat, some of whom she inherited from her daughters.