September 20, 2020
The phoenix is a mythical bird believed to have a lifespan of five hundred years. When it nears the end of its long life, it builds a nest, sits in it, and then self-ignites; enacting what seems like a spontaneous combustion. Both the phoenix and its nest go up in a blaze of glory and are reduced to ashes. From these ashes, a young phoenix is born, to live again for another complete lifespan. The young phoenix embalms the ashes of its old self in an egg and flies with it to the Egyptian city of Heliopolis – the Sun City – where it places it in the temple of the Sun.
The phoenix is considered an emanation of sunlight. It is a symbol of immortality through resurrection.
The end is the beginning.
It was a regular Wednesday. I came home from work, around 7 p.m. My mother walked in a bit later, and put a bag full of incense sticks on the table in my bedroom. She said it was a birthday gift for me from Alan whom she had met at the meditation she just attended.
After a while, I called up The Oberoi Hotel where he was staying to thank him. Strangely, the phone lines just kept ringing and I was unable to get through.
Little did I know that Alan had been shot and lay dead on the floor of the hotel.
This was the second visit that Master Charles Cannon made to India in 2008, to introduce his meditation technology. Master Charles had lived in India for over twelve years in his younger days. He had spent time with Swami Muktananda, a Siddha Yoga master who was in turn the disciple of the renowned Indian sage Bhagavan Nityananda of Ganeshpuri.
The first time Master Charles visited India to introduce his technology was in February of the same year. My publishing team had helped organise the event. It was a success – over two hundred people had attended the programme. This provided ample encouragement to Master Charles and the Synchronicity group, and before we knew it, the next event was scheduled for November 2008. We did mention that it might be a good idea to postpone the event, perhaps to the following year, considering the first one took place at the beginning of the same year. But plans for the second event had gathered a momentum of their own, and November was the month decided upon by Master Charles as he had another engagement to attend in Mumbai at the same time.
This time, he was coming with a group of over twenty meditators who followed the Synchronicity programme. They were converging on Mumbai from different parts of the world. We were asked to help select a hotel for the group. We decided on The President Hotel for their stay while they were in Mumbai, as the hotel offered a good group rate and was close to the venue where the programmes were to be held. However, at virtually the last minute, a representative of The Oberoi Hotel, whom we were also in talks with earlier as it was the preferred choice, called us up and matched the rate, as they were keen to host Master Charles and his group at their hotel. It was a non-issue; The Oberoi was also close to the venue and it offered a splendid view of the Arabian Sea.
Alan, Vice President of Synchronicity, had made a trip to Mumbai on his own, earlier in June to plan the forthcoming event in November. As he was here for over a week, we were able to spend some quality time with him. Being a meditator for over twenty-five years, and having been with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi before meeting Master Charles, he was firmly rooted in spiritual life. Added to this was the fact that he was a practising Vedic astrologer. A font of spiritual wisdom and a marvellous storyteller, Alan would regale us with anecdotes over the meals that we shared.
Alan loved India with all his heart. He enjoyed walking the streets of Mumbai, taking in the sights and sounds, and treating himself to an occasional paan (betel-leaf) by the roadside, or a kulfi (Indian ice cream).
One day he casually said, “Oh, I would love to die in India.”
His wish was fulfilled in just a few months. It reminds me of the saying: ‘Be careful what you ask for; you might just get it’. The only trouble is we can’t choose how we will get it.
It was Alan’s thirteen-year-old daughter Naomi’s first visit to India. She had accompanied him and was having a wonderful time with most of the Synchronicity meditators doting on her, buying her gifts and calling her their little ‘angel’. She always wanted her nose pierced, and she now had her wish fulfilled in India. My mother gifted her silver payals – a set of anklets. She had been wondering whether to give them to Naomi as a parting gift at the end of her trip. For some reason, she had decided not to wait but give them now. Naomi, with her pierced nose, payals and Indian kurtas, thoroughly enjoyed her new avatar.
At the meditation session, before heading back to the hotel, Naomi asked my mother, “Am I spiritual?” To us it seemed that for a thirteen-year-old, born to parents who were living in a spiritual community, it should have perhaps been obvious. But, it was the innocence of a child’s mind that made her ask the question. It reminds me of what my teacher Ramesh would often say: “True humility is not recognised as such by the one who has it.”
This question might have been in the child’s mind for a while. Perhaps she wanted an answer from ‘outside’ her environment, which is why she asked my mother. My mother replied, “Yes, and you’re having a human experience.”
Naomi had her answer. And, she also had the wish of getting her nose pierced fulfilled.
Naomi, the little angel, was quite a special child. She was blessed with a gifted vision – for she could see angelic beings, as well as have visions of masters in other realms. She would describe her vision and when she would be shown a likely picture of the saint or spiritual master, she would be able to identify the personage. For example, she described one such vision and then when she was shown an image of St. Francis of Assisi, she confirmed it was him. At first, she thought everyone could see these ethereal beings. It was only later she realised that just a few could see what she saw.
While she was in India, she was well looked after by the Synchronicity group, but what was truly wonderful to see was the love showered on her by her father. Rarely had I seen such an expressive display of love and affection between father and daughter.
Two weeks before her trip to India, Naomi woke up from a nightmare she had. She went and told her mother that she had a dream in which she was having a meal at a restaurant with her father when gunmen came and shot them down.
Could there have been more obvious evidence to support the fact that the event had already taken place in the future?
In the days between the introductory talk and the main event that was planned for Master Charles, small satsangs used to take place every evening. The Synchronicity group would be present, along with people from Mumbai who were interested in attending them. The evenings included small meditations, listening to meditation music and some chanting.
On the evening of the terrorist attacks, a few of the students from my mother’s meditation group also attended the satsang. One of them is gifted in her own special way, and has had some experiences that could be termed ‘paranormal’. After the session, she reached home and called my mother to inform her of something strange she witnessed. She mentioned that during the meditation, she saw the form of Master Charles’ guru Swami Muktananda (1908-1982) standing behind him. She asked him, telepathically, “What are you doing here?” He answered, in Marathi, “I have come because of him” (pointing to Master Charles). She had no clue what this exchange meant.
The answer was provided within the hour.
On this particular day, after the evening meditation, Master Charles was dropped back at the hotel and went up to his room. The rest of the group decided to walk back. They usually took taxis back but that evening a walk seemed in order. While they normally had dinner at the hotel, some of them thought of dining at a nearby restaurant. However, this plan got scuttled and they headed to the Tiffin restaurant in The Oberoi. Because they were at the restaurant later than their usual time, they were there when the terrorists arrived. Had it not been for this change in plan, they would have already finished the meal and been up in their rooms, like the other members of the group.
Who decided that they walk back? Who decided they would get late because they walked back? Who decided that they eat at the Tiffin restaurant and no other restaurant? Who decided that they stay at The Oberoi in the first place? Who decided the dates on which they would be in Mumbai? Were they decisions taken by individuals, or was it a force that had weaved together a series of events in order for them to be in Mumbai, on this date of the year, in this hotel, at this exact time, in this particular restaurant?
They were disappointed that their regular table at the front of the restaurant was taken because they had reached late. They had to settle for a table at the back. If they had been at their usual table, in all probability none would have survived.
When I reached home from work that evening, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bag full of incense sticks lying in my room. I had celebrated my birthday just two days before and this was a birthday gift from Alan. I decided to call the hotel and thank him. Strangely, the numbers just kept ringing. The television in my room was on, with the sound muted. I kept trying but no one was picking up the phone. Then I saw a newsflash on TV that said some gang wars had broken out, and there was firing outside The Oberoi as well as The Taj. I did not connect this piece of information with the fact that the phone simply kept ringing. It was a bit later that the news anchor announced that it was a terrorist attack.
We were up for most of the night watching the TV for any news that we could get. What a surreal night it was. Reality TV, so to speak. Everything was in real time, live on television. In the medieval ages, it would perhaps take a month for this kind of news to reach people. If a castle was attacked in France, it would be weeks before the news would reach England. Now, thanks to technology, everything was happening ‘live’ in our bedrooms. That is why everything seems amplified – we feel we are part of the happening even though we are witnessing it from a distance. When people remark, “Oh, look what the world is coming to… all these wars, terrorism…” – one sometimes wonders: Is the world any worse than what it has been down the ages? What about the Crusades? The World Wars? People being burnt at stakes, flayed alive, their limbs tied to four horses that then run in different directions, or cities being bombed out… how much worse are things, really? The only difference is that events are now being witnessed by us as they are happening in real time. Imagine how ghastly it would be to see people being burnt alive at the stake, on your television, while you are lying in your bed having potato chips!
The Oberoi Hotel is a five-minute walk from my home. I could hear the ‘Boom!’ of the grenades that were being thrown into the lobby of the hotel, while at the same time watching the news anchor reporting from the scene and saying that grenades were exploding.I heard the live boom seconds before the same boom was heard on the TV. ‘Is this for real or what?’ I wondered.
We were finally able to make contact with Master Charles on his mobile phone and kept updating him with the latest news we saw on TV, throughout the night. Neither the TVs in the hotel nor their telephone lines were functioning. They had been disconnected. Therefore, they had no clue about what was going on. The rest of the Synchronicity group were holed up in their rooms and had barricaded their doors. One lone member also heard a key being inserted into the keyhole of her room door. ‘Click- click! Click-click!’ It moved to the left and the right, and then the person moved on. You can imagine what must have gone through her mind – ‘was the hand manipulating the key friendly or hostile?’ She decided to take no chances and did not respond. If she had, then perhaps she would not have lived to tell the tale.
They never knew what the next moment would bring – a barrage of gunfire, bombs going off, someone knocking on their door, smoke seeping in through the gap below the door… what would happen next? There is a saying, ‘If you think things can’t get worse, it’s probably only because you lack sufficient imagination’. Smoke started filling the rooms and it got difficult to breathe. Some members of the Synchronicity group used the brass lamp in their room to break the window glass; others, the ironing board. The air conditioning went off, the electricity went out, the water supply dwindled… no matter how much ‘positive thinking’ you were into, you wouldn’t blame them for imagining things could get worse.
While watching TV, we saw the camera zoom in to a room window on a higher floor where the occupants had succeeded in breaking the glass. To our surprise, we saw that it was Master Charles in the room along with two members from the group. They started waving a white bed sheet to get somebody’s attention in order to help them get out. But, you can imagine our shock when we heard an over-enthusiastic reporter babble in an excited voice that ‘it seems the terrorists are surrendering as they’re waving a white sheet!’ What more proof that everything is always a matter of interpretation?
So much for the comfort of a suite in a five-star hotel overlooking the tranquil Arabian Sea. So much for the comfort zones in our lives. More often than not, events transpire that take us out of our comfort zones. In reality, it’s not that we’re taken out of our comfort zones but the fact that we are where we are – while the zone has changed its relationship to our existence.
I later asked Larry, who was trapped with his wife Bernie in their room, what went through his mind while all this was happening. This is what he wrote:
“… I was stricken with a deep and impactful fear. Upon realising that I could be facing death… there began a process of surrender. First, there was acceptance of the reality of the situation… knowing and fully understanding the gravity of the situation… the only option was to surrender to it. This came very naturally… not to avoid the prospect of losing one’s life (by delving into the distractions of the mind)… in the complete understanding that this was what was happening and to try and avoid it by creating something other than the reality that was happening was useless.”
What Larry meant was the surrender to ‘what is’ and not an imaginary ‘what should be’. This acceptance of ‘what is’, is perhaps what made him come through with whatever equanimity was possible in such a situation. This is what made him go on to say, “and in a strange way… I was honoured to have been able to participate in such a life-changing event… it catapulted my evolution in ways that only such a tragedy could.”
They were locked in their rooms in the middle of a five-star war zone and here we were sitting in the secure comfort of our home not even a block away, giving them live updates from the TV, of an event that they were a part of – here and now. Could it get more absurd than that? “Life is stranger than fiction,” Ramesh was fond of saying.
As events turned out, I wasn’t able to thank Alan in person for his gift. It wasn’t meant to be. In the months that followed, each time I lit an incense stick in front of my altar, I did so in the memory of Alan. I fondly remembered the little time that I shared with him and, in turn, was reminded of the fact of how we take the next breath of ours as well as our loved ones for granted while the incense stick of our lives gets consumed slowly, but steadily. One day, a few months later, I noticed that the incense stick in the holder had burnt only half way. Immediately, the thoughts came up: Why did it extinguish midway? Did someone put it out? Was it a defective stick? And then the thought arose: ‘There goes the mind, searching for a cause-and-effect relationship’. It immediately reminded me of Alan, and how his life was cut short.
While we are conditioned to think that the sticks are supposed to burn right up till the end – sometimes God has other plans. That, strangely enough, reminds me of an anecdote that is but a grim pointer to what the truth really is.
The Life Insurance agent told his potential customer: “Don’t let me frighten you into taking a decision. Sleep on it tonight, and if you wake up in the morning, let me know what you think.”
We were up all night watching TV and giving updates to Master Charles on his mobile. The conversations had to be short because his phone’s battery was running down. He also had to keep calling the mobile phones of other members of the group to keep them updated. Whenever we spoke to him, he sounded composed (to the extent one could possibly be in such a situation) even though, being the head of the group, he was walking on the razor’s edge. He told us that there were six members of the group at the dinner table. What their fate was – he did not know. There were others who were dining at a separate table in the same restaurant and had left minutes before the terrorists arrived.
The phone in my room rang at 4.30 a.m. It was the Vice President of Synchronicity calling from Virginia, USA. She called to ask if we had any update on the six members, but I said we had none. She said that she had received a call from one of the members of the group, saying it was believed that Alan was at the dinner table and ‘went down’ with a bullet to the head. My heart sank. We had no news about Naomi. She said that it was believed the others were perhaps in a nearby hospital – one of them being Bombay Hospital. My family and I left immediately for Bombay Hospital. From here on, we were functioning literally like robots.
That’s the thing about a crisis. In a way it brings you totally in line with what the moment has to offer. There is no time to think. Information is fed in and you react and respond to it. Ramesh referred to this as the ‘working mind’ as distinct from the ‘thinking mind’. The working mind functions in the moment, while the thinking mind functions ‘in the past’, or ‘illusory future’. The working mind deals with ‘what is’; the thinking mind is more concerned with ‘what should be’. In a crisis, the mind – the working mind – is totally engaged in the present. It is only after the crisis is over that one wonders how one actually endured everything and saw the crisis through. The truth is that there was no ‘you’ in the crisis to see it through. There was just pure reaction and response happening, based on one’s nature. Therefore, there is no ‘me’ that sees a crisis through, in the sense of a separate individual being involved in the crisis. The ‘me’ steps in later, and claims ownership of the response or reaction by saying – “‘I’ reacted this way.” And this is when all the rationalising and conceptualising begins – “I should have done this instead of that. If only I had…” and so on and so forth ad nauseum, leading to blame, guilt, regret, condemnation, and everything else that goes with it.
If only we could live our lives ‘in the moment’ without a crisis dangling at the other end of the stick forcing us to. Having said that, the truth is that it is already so with each experience one has. When there is an experience, there is no ‘experiencer’. It is the ‘me’ that steps in later and claims ownership over the experience – ‘my’ experience. Thus the experience gets established in retrospect as ‘mine’. Such is the burden of identification with a separate name and form, a separate ‘me’ – a burden that is the mother lode of all experiences that ‘I’ am supposed to have had in the course of ‘my life’.
On the subject of reaction and response, it is perhaps pertinent to point out a subtle difference. A reaction is, one could say, more unconscious. It is a knee-jerk reaction to what someone says or does. We react based on our past patterns and conditionings. The reaction comes out almost immediately, more so, when someone says something that we do not like.
When the identification with ‘me and my story’ is less strong, then what arises is a response. A response seems more measured as compared to a reaction, but the reason this is so is because the absence of reactivity makes it appear like that. When there is a lesser sense of individuality (me and my story), then one is open to ‘what is’. If someone says something that one does not like, a response to the same will arise as the situation will be seen for what it is, ‘whole’istically, and the appropriate response will be given, or rather, will arise. Some new age teachings point out how one should choose to respond and not react to a situation. This is quite hard for the ‘me’ to do, simply because it is the same ‘me’ that reacts that is now being told to ‘respond’. This means, the ‘me’ has to be on guard before the next reaction comes up, and then when something is said or happens, it needs to watch out that it does not react but responds to the situation. This creates a sort of double-bind, with the ‘me’ having one more additional thing to do in order to respond and not react to a situation. Layer upon layer of ‘doership’ is laid on, as in a multi-tiered cake.
But when it is seen that everything is a happening that happens precisely because it is the will of God; when it is seen that everyone – like us – says things based on their patterns and conditionings; when it is seen that it is the same Consciousness that animates all of us, then the ‘what is’ is accepted for what it is (and not what it ‘should be’), and a natural response arises. When this understanding goes deeper, it is seen that a happening is invariably met with a response and not a reaction. The ‘me’ needn’t do anything in order to convert the reaction into a response. For, in doing so, it would turn the reaction into a re-reaction. That is why the wise always seem to respond to situations with equanimity.The fact is it is not a deliberate ‘doing’ on their part. It is simply what happens in their natural state.
Having said that, one cannot ignore the fact that some beings are prone to react in specific ways. In Vedic astrology, it is believed that even traits like anger are in the stars, and can be indicated in a horoscope. Ramesh used to say that in a man of understanding, anger is less likely to arise. However, when it does, as in the case of his guru Nisargadatta Maharaj, the anger will not be stretched in the duration of horizontal time. The next moment if someone were to say something funny, the sage would laugh. He would not stop himself from laughing because he had got angry with the person a minute ago. This is because a sage witnesses anger arise in a ‘body-mind organism’, which happens to be his in this case. The anger takes its course but the sage does not get involved in the anger. He is totally open to what arises in the next moment.
At the end of the day, whether it is a reaction or a response, there is no ‘one’ who reacts or responds to the situation. It is the ‘me’ that steps in later and claims that it reacted or responded.
The first thing we did was to check if we needed to visit the morgue at the Bombay Hospital. Mercifully, there appeared to be no cause for that. We were shown a list of those who were mortally wounded, but Alan and Naomi’s names did not figure on it. If someone had told me the night before that, in a few hours, I would be doing the rounds of the hospital searching for those gunned down and possibly killed by terrorists in a fancy hotel in the neighbourhood, I would have scoffed at such a highly improbable scenario. But, as we all know, life can spring surprises.
We then decided to check on who else had been admitted. The first member of the Synchronicity group we found was Helen. She had been at the dinner table and had escaped with barely a scratch. This was in spite of the gunmen shooting low through the table-tops to get at those who were lying under them. Shortly after the initial burst of firing, a voice from the staff service area near the kitchen shouted, “If anyone can move, come this way!” That’s when those still alive crawled to the door of the service area.
We were as thrilled to see her as she was to see us. It is amazing how a tragic event can bring one so close to someone one did not earlier know well enough. More often than not, it takes tragedies to bring people together. We become more loving, more vulnerable. Why? With a tragedy, we lose our sense of self in relation to something – that which we have lost. To compensate, we try to make up for this loss by deriving our sense of self from something or someone else.
When I was at a dinner with Eckhart Tolle in Pondicherry in 2002, I mentioned to him: “I just lost my grandmother. I sense a vacuum, a kind of hollow feeling – like a vacuum without (the physical absence) and a vacuum within. It is a sense of loss – something that was there and is no longer there now.” When I lost Jeffrey, my lovable daschund, who had been with us for more than seventeen years, the same feeling had arisen. Looking at Eckhart, I wondered aloud what it must be when one loses everyone or everything one loves at the same time, which would effectually mean that this vacuum would be all-pervasive: all around as well as within. He answered, “That is what enlightenment is.” What he meant was the sense of self would no longer be derived from, and depend upon anything – especially something external.
At the same time, tragedies bring people together for a simple yet overlooked reason. We value ‘our lives’. Not our individual lives – not ‘my life’ as opposed to ‘your life’ – but our lives. If you only valued your own life then there would be no need to reach out to others; where would the need be? What good is it to value your life if everyone else around you is dead? But just like when one falls in love one loses one’s self in the other, similarly when we encounter a loss of any kind, our sense of self is diminished with that loss, and therefore, we find it easier to love others and reach out to them. As our sense of a separate self gets diminished, all that separates us also gets diminished. This is why we come together in the face of tragedies. Why do we have silent marches and come together for people who have died whom we don’t even know? Because we value life. And that life is Consciousness.
Helen said that she was at the table and saw Alan take a bullet to his head. She thought that Naomi hadn’t made it either. When Naomi saw that Alan had been hit, she leapt up to hug her father. Alan had seen the gunmen come in and had instructed everyone to get under the table, and to ‘play dead’. Ironically, the bullet that hit him proved fatal. His daughter’s instincts made her leap towards him and she was instantly taken down as well. It was perhaps Alan’s quick response that helped save the lives of the other four at the table.
I told Helen that it was quite incredible that she escaped with hardly a scratch. She said it was perhaps due to the fact that she immediately started chanting “Om Prabhu Shanti” (a protective mantra that literally translates as ‘Peace, Oh Lord!’). At first, I marvelled at her presence of mind in the face of rapid gunfire. Then, I thought that it was perhaps an ‘absence of mind’ that brought this mantra straight forth from her heart – after all, where was the time to think? But the irony of the situation was that in one instant, we had someone killing in the name of God, and in the other, we had someone chanting the name of God for protection. What a supreme drama being enacted by Consciousness, without which – in this living dream of life – none of what transpired could have taken place. Consciousness was the operating factor in both these individuals. If neither were conscious, neither could have taken God’s name.
The four surviving members of the group at the dinner table had been taken to Bombay Hospital. They had been shot but were out of danger. But for the others stuck in the hotel, this drama played on for almost two full days. We knew that most of the group were staying put in their rooms and were safe for the moment, but anything could happen next. It is believed that the terrorists had even started going from door to door, in order to take hostages or kill more people. During the 26/11 trial, a security officer who helped the National Security Guard in their operation deposed before the court. He said that they had started to open the doors of the rooms on the 18th floor with a master key. They did not know which room the terrorists were holed up in, so it was a tedious task as they had to check each and every room, floor by floor. When they opened the door of room 1856, terrorist fire came their way. The commandos took shelter. One terrorist called out and said: “Himmat hai to bahar aao, chhup chhup ke kyon maar rahe ho?” (If you have the courage, come out of hiding and fight). To this, the NSG officer replied, “Hum to bahar hi hai, tum andar ho!” (It is we who are outside, you are the ones who are inside behind closed doors).*
Isn’t life always a matter of perspective? Which side of the door of life are you standing on? Are you looking at the door opening or the door closing? Who’s on the other side – a friend or a foe? One never knows, for sometimes friends become foes as well. But one thing is for sure; it is Consciousness operating through all those we consider either friends or foes.
Meanwhile, we saw on the TV how desperately the terrorists were trying to blow up the dome of the Taj Mahal Hotel, which was also under attack. It is a miracle how the dome withstood all that bombing. Fire and smoke billowed out from all sides and one would have thought it would collapse any moment. The visual of the dome collapsing would have been a symbolic visual victory, but it was denied to them. It was just not supposed to collapse in spite of all their efforts, in addition to the RDX that was put in to blow it up. Some things are just not meant to happen no matter what efforts we humans put in.
During these two days, we took turns visiting the perimeter of The Oberoi Hotel. Of course, the hotel was cordoned off but one could still get pretty close to it. We were anxious to know if there was any news filtering out. I met some friends outside – college friends, health club friends, school friends. What an out-of-context social gathering this turned out to be! They had their loved ones dining at the hotel. They were all hopeful that everything was okay. It was then that I realised that perhaps there were very few who knew, at that time, the actual extent of the carnage inside. We did, for we knew there were six at the table and the four who escaped had seen what had taken place. Besides, we were in regular touch with those in the rooms. I said a silent prayer for them, but knew that the gravity of the situation did not offer much hope.
Finally, we got a call from Master Charles. He said it seemed that the danger was over, and the soldiers were going door-to-door, knocking on doors, and rescuing those inside. A bus was arranged to take the group to a hotel in central Mumbai.
We were shown a place to stand where we could meet the group as they walked out to the bus. But the next thing I knew, we had to defend our positions. The media was all over, lining up and ready to jostle for ‘sound bytes’. In one such frenzy, I was jostled and found myself pushing back in the direction the push came from else I would be out of the designated area and standing with the commandos. The next thing I knew, a hand came out and clawed at my face. The lady from the media was angry as she had not succeeded in displacing me for ‘pole position’. My sister Shibani told me that there was a cut on my cheek that had the hint of a bleed. In the diminished elbow room available, I pulled out my ’kerchief and dabbed randomly at my cheek. In the very next instant, a commando came over, took my ’kerchief, and gently started dabbing at my miniscule battle wound. It was cute and comical at the same time.
Because the crowds and media were all over the place, me and my sister were allowed to get inside the bus and wait for the group. We waited inside. They came and hurriedly got into the bus. As Master Charles got in, we hugged. No words were spoken. I sat by his side on the journey, holding his hand for a while. He said the hardest thing he had to do thus far in life was identify the bodies of Alan and Naomi on his way out from the hotel. It was a war zone; everything was gutted and burnt – the restaurant was a bloody mess.
All said and done, their ordeal was finally over.
For the others waiting outside, seeing that their loved ones were not coming out, yet another ordeal had just begun.
A movie multiplex is situated just across the road from The Oberoi. A few months after the incident, I went to see a movie there called What Just Happened. As I walked past the hotel, I thought to myself: What an irony! Ramesh used to keep saying that everything is a happening. On 26.11.2008, there was a most tragic happening just across the road. Now, we were going to watch a Hollywood movie playing there called, What Just Happened. Both were happenings, nonetheless. Everything just happens, and then we react to the happening… event after event, isn’t life just a series of happenings? Some happenings bring pleasure and some bring pain. I remember, at one of Ramesh’s talks, a visitor asked him, “But what is a happening?” I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.He just could not follow what Ramesh meant when he said, “Everything is a happening.” He asked Ramesh again, “What is a happening?” Ramesh, in all seriousness, replied, “A happening is something, which happens.” I thought that reply took the cake. What a strange question, and the answer was even funnier. It only struck me later that perhaps the visitor was so identified with his reaction to events that he could not fathom that there was actually something that was ‘a happening’ to which ‘he’ was reacting. Could any other answer be given?
What registers in our consciousness – and gets deeply embedded – are happenings that give us maximum pleasure or maximum pain. The happening could be an event, or simply what someone says, or even a thought. Simple happenings like having a cup of tea do not have as much of an impact. Maximum pleasure makes the ego feel ‘good’, and maximum pain causes suffering and makes the ego feel ‘bad’. The memory gets logged in our consciousness and then the ego craves for that which makes it feel good, and does its best to avoid that which makes it feel bad. Thus, there is a vested interest in the happening – the ego gets more and more involved and, therefore, entangled in this web that gets spun around itself, wanting some things to occur and others not to.
Meanwhile, the sage witnesses the happening as a happening, to which a response arises. He does not get involved in the response or, to put it more accurately, involvement in the response does not arise. The response is witnessed just as the happening is witnessed – without judgement. The sage would savour each sip from his tea cup for he is ‘present’ in the moment, while he is sipping his tea. He is not fastening seat belts on to his thoughts, or making roller coasters of unrestrained thinking go through his mind, to the extent that sipping the tea has become a secondary mechanical process and a mundane chore while his mind is surfing more important matters elsewhere.
The thoughts that arise as you read this are a happening. When the thoughts lead to thinking in the duration of time, that is the involvement of the ego in the thoughts. No wonder we say to someone, “What were you thinking?” We don’t say, “What was your thought?” Throughout the course of our lives, one thought after another keeps popping up. Just like waves, thoughts arise, collapse, and then, new thoughts take shape. Like the phoenix, they take birth, get burnt to ashes when it is time, and new ones are born. But what would it take for all of our habitual thinking to be burnt in the fires of Awareness? The answer is clear: a happening!
The terrorist attacks brought collective grief to the citizens of Mumbai. The paradigm had shifted. To have terrorists from another country in your city undertake a shooting frenzy, and then have the drama go on for two days was something no one could have envisaged. Now, it has become a reality. This incident has been etched into the memory of its citizens and the scar will remain for a long time.
On the subject of movies, it’s small wonder that everyone roots for the ‘good’ guys. It’s not that those whom you consider ‘bad’ are rooting for the bad guys, while you and your gang of do-gooders are rooting for the good guys. Why? Simply because everyone thinks of themselves as the ‘good guys’, while the ‘others’ are the bad guys, the oppressors, the ones who have done wrong. Is it any wonder then that most movies have a happy ending, with the good guys winning battles against the bad? In The Lord of the Rings, the riders of Rohan are the universal good guys, the underdogs, outnumbered in their battle against the mighty Orc army of monstrous creatures. Who would want the bad guys in this case to win? And so what happens is that when the good guys win, we all win. Everyone is happy. Especially the producers of the movie when it scores at the box office!
Almost a year-and-a-half after the terrorist attack, The Oberoi reopened. It had to be completely renovated because of the devastation it had undergone. One Saturday, I was to meet my dear friend Xavier for lunch, and mentioned that it would perhaps be nice to eat at the newly reopened hotel. I thought of Alan and Naomi, and felt that it would be nice to eat in the same restaurant where they had their last meal – in their memory.
I wondered what emotions would arise when I entered the place. Would there be sadness and grief? Would there be trepidation knowing so many had lost their lives in that space? What would the mood be? As we walked in, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the entire floor of the lobby that used to be a pitch black was now stark white. It was a pure, spotless white that completely changed the atmosphere of the hotel interior. There was a blood-red grand piano right in the middle of the vast lobby; I thought the visual impact was quite symbolic – the music of life that was but a speck in the vast ocean of Consciousness. I am reminded of the words of Robert Frost: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” Of course, he didn’t mean his life; that was bound to come to an end sooner or later. He meant the One Life, and that life is Consciousness.
We entered the renovated restaurant and took a table on the side. We were initially silent. I could see the mind wander: Where exactly did the terrorists approach from? Could they be seen through this window we were sitting against? Where exactly were Alan and the group sitting? I could feel a tear welling up as the thought arose of Naomi leaping across to her father. The stream of thoughts was snapped when the waiter came with the menu. We placed our orders. I looked around. Everything appeared like it was business as usual. If the entire memory of what transpired was wiped out, one would not have a clue about what had happened here some time ago. ‘What just happened’ was relegated to history – it existed here and now only as a memory.
Our drinks arrived. We raised a toast to the memory of Alan and Naomi. A feeling of elation overcame me as I thought of them. A smile escaped my lips. Thoughts are a funny thing – one thought brings a tear, another, a smile. Next to us was a couple with two young children. The children, being children, were creating a ruckus while the parents were busy trying to calm them down. ‘Life goes on’ indeed. Events happen, forms disappear, new forms appear, but the One Life that is Consciousness goes on. The Phoenix – a symbol of immortality, of resurrection, of the end being the beginning – rises again and again, as it did that afternoon at ‘Fenix’.
The new name of the restaurant couldn’t have been more apt. To have spelt it ‘Phoenix’ might have been too obvious a reminder of the happening. This way, the phonetics were the same and yet, it was a silent tribute to the lives lost.
All in all, we had an enjoyable meal at Fenix. As we left the restaurant and walked across the lobby, past the red piano to the elevators, we could see the Arabian Sea in the distance through the large windows. Bright light streamed in, courtesy of the afternoon sun, and reflected off the stark white floor. I recently read an article on how scientists have invented a solar cell that destroys itself and reassembles perfectly. They were inspired by the plant kingdom. One problem with harvesting sunlight is that the sun’s rays are destructive to many materials and they cause degradation of systems developed to harness it. But plants have a strategy to prevent this – they constantly break down their light capturing molecules and reassemble them from scratch so that the structures that capture the sun’s energy are, in effect, always brand new. Meanwhile, the real reason I read the article was its caption, which caught my eye when I turned to the page. It said, in bold letters, Phoenix Power**. No wonder the legendary Phoenix does what it does. To harvest sunlight, to itself be an emanation of sunlight, it destroys itself and emerges anew, leaving the ashes of its former self at the Sun city. It has now been reborn to see the dawn of a new day. “The old order changeth, yielding place to new,” Tennyson in The Passing of Arthur – a retelling of the famous La Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory.
We waited for the elevator. The red arrow down button lit up. We stepped in, the doors closed. The elevator headed to the lower lobby one level below. And the doors opened… to the next happening.
An event like this almost always brings forth the issue of forgiveness. Can the terrorists be forgiven for this heinous act? Of course they cannot, but the reason is not what one thinks it is.
The world that we live in is one of duality with everything having its opposite – good and bad, male and female, beautiful and ugly, and so on. Duality is the framework of daily living. Duality is really not the problem, but dualism is. In daily living, we live as a ‘me’ separate from the ‘other’. We treat the ‘other’ as an object and ourselves as the subject. What is overlooked is that fact that we in turn are the object of the ‘other’, who then acts as our subject. We usurp the subjectivity of the Source, God, and pronounce judgement after judgement on the object, based on what we consider right and wrong. And the ‘other’ does exactly the same thing. Rarely do we consider that we are instruments, through whom the same Source functions – the Source that is the Ultimate Subject. This is what is meant to be conveyed by the often-related analogy of the wave and the ocean in spiritual teachings. Each wave considers itself as separate from the other waves, forgetting that the content of all waves is water.
Therefore, when we forgive someone we act as if we are the Ultimate Subject – God, and bestow our forgiveness for the deed that has been done, whether or not the ‘other’ has asked for our forgiveness. Ramesh was not fond of the word forgiveness. He used to say, “If everything is a happening that had to happen according to the will of God, then who is to forgive whom and for what?” If we are all instruments through whom the same energy functions (in other words, we are all ‘objects’), then how can one object forgive another object?
It is said that the first step of healing is to forgive others. Forgiving others is surely better than making one’s body-mind a breeding ground for the scorpions of hatred, malice and resentment with which we end up stinging ourselves. One might say that it is better than not forgiving someone (not forgiving being at the bottom rung of the conceptual ladder of forgiveness). But, while one might say that one forgives somebody for what they have done, deep down does one actually feel so? How deep down does saying “I forgive…” really go?
What is then considered the next step in forgiveness is forgiving oneself for what one did, or felt, and so on. Or, we are sometimes told that we should first forgive ourselves and then, forgive others.
Could it be that the whole perspective on forgiveness is misconceived? Could it be that the only way to totally forgive someone is when the thought of forgiveness itself does not arise, not because one can’t forgive the ‘other’, but… who is there to forgive?
When it is fully realised that nobody truly ‘does’ anything, but we are all instruments through whom the same energy functions, then where is the question of forgiveness? When there is total acceptance of what has happened, forgiveness becomes a non-issue. Total acceptance of what has happened is true forgiveness, with no ‘one’ to forgive another.
We may not like what has happened, and may take the actions we feel necessary in response, but we don’t resist the happening itself simply because… it happened. Regarding the event, we cannot second-guess the will of the Creator when tragedies like this happen, just as we cannot know why God creates handicapped children. Ramesh would say, “What harm have they done and to whom? The only answer is that God created handicapped children because God created healthy children…”
A few days after the terrorist attacks, a friend mentioned to me that she felt like ‘killing’ the lone surviving terrorist. It goes without saying that it is a tempting thought. Though I am timid by nature and always tend not to engage in conflicts, I wondered if that is what I would do if I actually had a gun in my hand and the lone terrorist facing me. After one of Ramesh’s talks, I went into his room and told him exactly this. I said, “I wonder what I would do in such a situation! I know what someone who has lost a loved one would most likely feel like doing, but I truly wonder what I would actually do – especially if the thought of the young thirteen-year-old girl being killed came to mind in that instant.” He said, “That’s precisely it – you have no idea what will happen – what the next moment will bring, what thought the next moment will bring. And even if you pull the trigger, then what is it? Anger in the moment – that’s all. If the thought arose of all the innocent lives that had been lost in such a gruesome way, then that’s just what might happen, even in someone who is timid by nature. But the honest truth is that one truly doesn’t know what one would do in a given situation.”
A few months before he passed away, Ramesh handed me some of his random jottings. One stuck in my memory, and it was on forgiveness. It said, “True forgiveness is forgiving yourself for wanting to forgive someone else for something he is supposed to have done.” In other words, true forgiveness is the total acceptance of God’s will. No question arises of a ‘me’ forgiving a ‘you’.
This is perfectly reflected in what Jesus said. One of the first things Jesus is supposed to have said on the cross is, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He did not say, “I forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What humility, what compassion… to be cruelly and brutally nailed to a cross, yet have such words pouring forth!
It’s around 8 p.m. on a weekday. I’m sitting on my bed with the TV switched on. A suicide bomber has blown himself up in Baghdad, taking seventeen people with him. Invariably, the news these days has the same flavour: someone else blowing themselves up in a mosque in Pakistan, Naxals ambushing and killing cops in India, something or the other happening in Kashmir, a bomb going off in Russia, a gunman going on a shooting spree in the USA… such an explosion of hatred everywhere. It’s horrifying to see the grief, anguish, despair and shock on the faces of those who have lost a loved one in such a tragedy. The thought arose – there must be so many people by now who have lost a loved one in a terrorist attack, and the numbers must be climbing.
Only when a loved one has been killed in such a senseless way can one know what that pain really is. Yet for some viewing such images, empathy arises when these pictures flash across the screen. That’s when ‘their’ pain is felt as ‘your pain’. For others, it’s just ‘Breaking News’ on the TV. Indeed, sympathy does arise – seeing these horrific acts makes one sympathise. But, sympathy operates in the domain of the dualism of the ‘me’ as separate from the ‘other’. In other words, with sympathy, there is still a distance between ‘me’ and the ‘other’. Empathy is when the veil of separation between ‘me and the other’ is thinner. It is a felt experience of oneness.
I read an account of a person who had lost his son in the terrorist attacks. He said, “Whatever little faith we had in God, we lost even that.” That’s the burden of the faith that we carry: faith that everything will work out for the best for ‘me and my loved ones, and my life story’. When something disturbs that, or is not in accordance with what we think is in our best interest, we lose our faith in God. On the other hand, our life’s experience is that everything does not go our way all the time. We’ve all faced challenges and difficulties that we’d rather not. Yet, we keep building expectations from God and negotiating with him through prayers, rituals and good deeds, so that all ‘good’ comes our way. And expectations lead to frustrations when they are not met. Could it be true faith if it is a faith that gets shaken because of all that goes wrong in our lives? I lost my father when I was fourteen. Most certainly, I lost faith in God at the time and can therefore fully understand the emotion of ‘losing faith in God’. But my life’s experience in the years that followed taught me one thing: as long as the faith was dependent on something happening to ‘me’, it was a wavering faith. When something ‘good’ happened, faith increased; when something ‘bad’ happened, faith decreased. Where is the faith that would be unwavering, built on a solid foundation, built on a large immovable rock?
True faith in God is the faith of knowing with certainty that whatever happens is the will of God. Faith in God is the total acceptance that it is God’s will that prevails at all times. Salvador Dali said, “And what is heaven? Where is it to be found? Heaven is to be found neither above nor below, neither to the right nor to the left, heaven is to be found in the centre of the bosom of the man who has faith.”
Heaven is to be found in the heart of the man who has total faith that whatever happens is God’s will: ‘Thy will be done’. Then, tragedies like this don’t get extended into tsunamis of hatred, condemnation, guilt, and so on, which tend to gnaw away at our insides over vast stretches of time, in addition to the grief in the moment that arises. All thoughts of ‘Why me? Why did this have to happen to me? What did I do wrong? What did those who died do wrong?’ and so on and so forth don’t arise when there is a total understanding that God’s will prevails at all times. Then, one is totally there – totally present – with the grief when it arises. Full-on. In fact, there is only grief in the moment, without a ‘me’ getting involved in that grief and layering all sorts of conceptual thinking on top of it.
At a press conference, Master Charles was asked whether he felt guilty for leading the ill-fated trip that cost lives. Perhaps the questioner assumed that Master Charles, being a spiritual guide, was ‘more informed’ than others. Parts of his reply mirrored the highest teaching of Advaita. He said it would be as absurd to feel guilty about leading the pilgrimage, as it would be to judge the terrorists. “Our understanding of life is that reality is relative. There will be consistently the oscillation of relative polarities, whether you call them positive/negative, love/fear, subjective/objective… through oscillation of relative reality we evolve our balance and wholeness. All experience is valid and we can’t really sit in judgement upon it and say this is right and that is wrong.” And these are the words of someone who lost his right-hand man and his daughter in the incident.
Of course, this does not mean ‘condoning’ the terrorists. We will all respond exactly the way we think and feel we should. Apparently, some citizens who lost their loved ones have come together and sued governments; others have sued the hotels for lack of security; while, yet others have been overburdened with the grief and do not want to have anything more to do with the event, in any way. Master Charles was just giving a pointer to how his approach impacted one’s individual suffering and subsequent attitude in relation to the traumatic event.
Over the last month, I saw two photographs in the newspapers that were quite moving. One was of a young Afghan boy, all of five years, with an AK56 gun in his hand and wearing what looked like camouflage gear, being trained for war. It was a shocking sight. The child was being conditioned from such an early age to play this role. How would he distinguish between right and wrong when his whole worldview was being shaped like this by those around him in his formative years? More importantly, what must it take to give rise to such hatred that people think it is justified to train young children to take up arms?
The other picture I saw presented a completely opposite view point. It appeared on the day after janmashtami – the festival celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna – a Hindu god. It showed a burqa clad Muslim woman walking on a street in Mumbai and holding her son, who was dressed up as the young boy-Krishna, in her arms. His skin was painted blue, he held a flute in his hand and had a peacock feather strapped around his head. The photo caption said that she was taking him to a school function on the occasion of Janmashtami. ‘Why doesn’t this image go around the globe?’ I wondered. Perhaps it’s not sensational enough. I remembered what Eckhart Tolle said at his talk in Mumbai in 2002. He told the audience, “Spiritual gatherings like this don’t make the news.”
When I saw the picture of the Muslim mother with the boy Krishna in her arms, what arose was hope. Hope, which is different from expectation. It is perhaps a form of expectation, but it is expectation without the burden of wanting. When spiritual seekers would come to meet Ramesh, he would tell them not to despair. He would say, “When God has brought you this far, why should you think he will drop you here? Consider your glass half-full and not half-empty.” That is hope. In this case, it is a hope for Peace, which perhaps is the most realistic of all hopes, simply because peace is our true nature. Why else would we fight for it? Take heart. In the words of Nisargadatta Maharaj: “Insanity is universal. Sanity is rare. Yet there is hope, because the moment we perceive our insanity, we are on the way to sanity.”
Gautam’s account of his experience of 26/11 shows the value of the non-dual perspective based on direct experience. His reflections demonstrate a holistic understanding of life.
A powerful example of how liberating this understanding is, is when he had lunch in the same restaurant where Alan, my husband, and my daughter Naomi had been killed by the terrorists. Every new moment brings the possibility of a new experience if we open to it. Gautam opened to the experience of the present moment, not the past moment that was gone forever. This is being fully human – to include all experiences in the continuum of life is to honour the sacredness of life.
His reflections in this essay inspired me to go to the Fenix restaurant on New Year’s Day 2011 and sit at the same place where Alan and Naomi had sat for dinner that fateful night. What better way to honour the lives of my husband and daughter than to celebrate a new year by embracing a new moment that is fully alive in the here and now. As my spiritual teacher, Master Charles Cannon, said, “Death follows birth. Life is eternal.” And so I broke through the barrier of the painful past memory to celebrate the eternality of life on the first day of 2011 – to invite new life into my life, to experience the love of Alan and Naomi that lives on in my heart, rather than their death in a time that is gone forever.
Mumbai, January 2011
* The Times of India, Mumbai Mirror, Sept. 25, 2009.
** The Times of India, Mumbai Mirror, Sept. 3, 2010.
This essay is from the book Explosion of Love, by Gautam Sachdeva
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