Light In The ShadowsEK ONG KAAR KAUR
Back in November, I pulled up into the Shell gas station in town and got out of the car. Espanola, New Mexico, USA is not the most moneyed town in the world. Sometimes at the gas station, someone who is down on his luck or looking for a fix will ask for a few dollars.
Over the years, in my cocoon of white privilege, I had developed a number of emotional and psychological defense mechanisms to protect myself from the intrusions.
But today was different. I was different. So when I saw a man passed out next to the door of the gas station, crumbled in a stupor, something inside said, "Do not look away."
* * * * *
It was only a couple weeks prior that a friend of mine helped me admit myself to the Behavioral Health wing of St. Vincent's hospital. During the summer and fall of 2016, something had gone terribly wrong. An intense shock in my personal life had set off a cascade biochemical reaction that I had no power to stop. Months of sleepless nights, a run-away depression that got progressively worse with each passing week, my relationships with family and friends becoming more and more strained as I lost my grip on reality.
It was a nightmare that no amount of therapy or self-help groups could wake me from. I became increasingly non-functional during the day and spent my nights fighting the darkest emotional demons. A break down in the brain so intense that, in time, I lost the will to live. And when there was just no other choice, at the urging of friends who had watched me deteriorate over months, I finally allowed myself to seek serious medical help.
* * * * *
There, at the gas station, the man passed out by the door had no visible face. He wore a jacket with a hood pulled up, and his head lolled helplessly on his chest. The limbs of his body did not look comfortable. Rather, with his crumpled, dirty clothes, he looked almost like a rag doll that had been carelessly tossed to the side.
I didn't feel afraid of this man. Afraid that he might ask me for money or covet the bejeweled rings on my fingers. For the first time in my life, he was not the "other." He was me. I was him. I looked at him and recognized myself.
* * * * *
The weekend that I was in the hospital being treated for depression, I had been scheduled to teach in a Kundalini Yoga Teacher Training course in another state. I couldn't understand what had happened to me.
Only a year prior, through the grace of the Guru, I had completed an eight-year process of translating Guru Arjan's Sukhmani Sahib and self-published the translation.
How could this be my condition a year later?
It left me feeling devastated. For 25 years, I had invested in myself to become a deep practitioner and teacher of Kundalini Yoga. For 17 years, through the Guru's grace, I had the blessing to meditate upon and translate Gurbani. I was "known," for good or for ill, by these qualities. People I had never met would email me for advice.
WHAT HAPPENED TO ME?
Over the course of six months, I had, week by week, deteriorated badly. In the hospital, I was hardly able to get out of bed. I listened to counsellors teach about coping skills and I shared meals with other folks who also struggled with depression - some of whom lived homeless on the streets of Santa Fe.
I became a caricature of my former self. Trying to explain to the psychiatrists the spiritual/psychological conflict that had precipitated the break-down. Having a Catholic priest offer me comfort by talking about St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul. Offering to teach a little yoga to the other patients in the wing. Still hoping to be of benefit to others where I could hardly take care of myself anymore. Every day, the darkness got stronger and stronger pulling me deeper and deeper, until I lost all hope that I would ever have a normal life again.
* * * * *
The man passed out by the doorway of the gas station was me. I could have ended up like him. I still could one day end up like him. Practically speaking, there was no difference between us.
I understood on a visceral level how mental illness was not a choice. How the disease of addiction was not a choice. No amount of will power, of good intentions, of trying to "save face" could over-ride the "thing-that-went-wrong-in-my-brain."
If I could have pushed a button and made it stop, I would have. If I could have flipped a switch to fix the wiring in my nervous system, I would have. Looking at the man, passed out and crumpled up, I know he would have, too. Nobody truly wants to be sick and imbalanced. Sometimes, you just don't have a choice.
* * * * *
Guru Sahib is funny. Even in the darkest, most difficult circumstances, His Light still shines. His Will can still make Itself known.
For safety reasons, the scarf I used to cover my head when doing my nitnem banis was kept in a locked closet. Once a day, I would ask for the scarf and sit and read whatever banis I could. Some people became curious about what I was reading. So I talked a little bit about Sikhi and the Gurmukhi language, and showed them the Nitnem.
One young man in particular expressed a deep curiosity about the Sikh way of life. He confided in me that he had always been curious to learn about the Sikhs, having seen the western Sikh community In New Mexico for years. He asked if I would talk to him about it.
For a brief time, the space opened up and the Light came in. Listening to this young man talk about his life, I sensed the story that would potentially impact him the most. So I began to talk about how, when Guru Nanak was a young man, his father pressured him to learn a trade. And how, under that pressure, Nanak’s father gave him money to go to a nearby fair and purchase spices. His father instructed him to buy spices with the money, then come back to the village and sell the spices for more than what he had bought them for.
“Take this money and make a good trade,” his father instructed him.
Young Nanak left with a servant from the house to go to the fair. Along the way, they encountered a group of naked yogis sitting by the side of the road. The young Nanak loved to sit and talk with those who had spiritual knowledge and insight, so he approached the yogis, who, in turn, expressed they had no clothes and had not eaten for a while.
Nanak offered to take the money he had and buy the yogis food and clothing, which he did, and afterwards they sat together and talked.
“What better trade is there to make than this?” the young Nanak asked.
The servant of the house tried to warn Nanak that his father would become angry with Nanak’s decision to use the money this way. But Nanak didn’t care. He spent the money serving the yogis, and sat and talked with them at great length.
Word reached Nanak’s father of what had happened and his father was furious. So furious that, when Nanak returned to the village, he did not even go home. But instead meditated under a tree. When Nanak’s father found him, he slapped his son and insulted him in public.
There, in the Behavioral Health wing of the hospital, sharing this story with the young man who was so clearly intelligent and talented, but who was also homeless, I felt a blush of happiness. I felt a joy in telling the story when it had been months since I had felt any joy at all.
Later in the week, when I bemoaned my situation – of being in the hospital rather than teaching in the training course at which I had been invited to teach, the young man looked at me, slightly annoyed and said, “Well, I’m glad you’re here and not there. These stories you’re telling me are saving my life.”
* * * * *
At the gas station, all of these memories flooded through me in those few moments that I looked at the man passed out and crumpled by the door. He was me. I was him.
And then, my sight changed. And (if I may be so bold to say) I saw this man through Guru Nanak’s eyes. I saw a beautiful soul, an aspect of the Divine Light, caught and suffering. Suffering in a human body that was sick and broken. Suffering with a mind that was deluded, delusional and unable to function properly.
Simultaneously, I could see the Light and the Shadow. The Divinity and the Darkness. And something inside me clicked. This was why Guru Nanak traveled on foot for 15 years. Because God lives inside of everyone. And our human birth is a precious opportunity to experience that.
Every single being deserves a chance to come out of their suffering and see the Pure Light inside of themselves. But most important – this life is brief; temporary. And if we can’t help someone now – then when? If we can’t relate to the soul of a being at the moment we behold them – then what? Is this the delusion then? When we react to others rather than seeing the God inside of them?
It took 25 years of practice, 17 years of translating gurbani, lifetimes of preparation and a spiritual, mental and emotional breakdown to be able to see through Guru Nanak’s eyes for one moment.
And that moment crystallized something for me.
What would Guru Naanak do if he were here, at this gas station, now – seeing the condition of this man?
And the answer came. He would feed him.
I paid for the gas in my car, but also bought a couple of pre-packaged sandwiches. It wasn’t much but it was something. On the way out the door, I gently placed the food by the man’s side. He was passed out in a stupor. Did not see or hear or react to anything that I did. But my hope was that when he woke up at least he would have something to eat.
* * * * *
In the months since leaving the hospital, I have started down a new road. For years, I could meditate for hours. But my body and brain cannot hold what it used to hold. Maybe one day that capacity will return and it will be Guru’s grace when it does.
For now, I am taking medication, working with therapists, and fighting to get my life back. I can work, but it is harder to concentrate. I needed sleeping pills for a while to help me sleep at night but have finally made the transition to sleeping on my own again. Still, I feel myself on the cliff edge. Every day, I move an inch further from the abyss. But I sometimes worry that a strong wind might come along at any moment and push me over the edge.
When I think about the man at the gas station and myself, there is only one real difference I can see. I have been blessed to be part of a community which did not let me fall. They took me to the hospital and they continued to support me at work, despite my reduced capacity.
I had no power to save myself. Only love and my sangat have seen me through.
The quality of my life has changed a lot these last months. No longer do I think, plan or dream much about the future. The future has become a slightly frightening place because I do not know what it will take for my brain chemistry to rebalance itself again. I can’t picture or envision how much capacity will return or how much energy I might have. Truly, I can only live in the moment now and be grateful for the blessings that exist while I work and pray that this depression can one day heal.
But one positive change that has happened is that I feel myself paying attention to people more than ever. Seeing them. Listening to them. Being present with them. Being willing to make the deepest, most authentic connection that I can make in the moment. Knowing how ephemeral life is … knowing that I may never cross paths with these souls again.
Is there some way ,in this moment, that I can be of service to that Light of Divinity within them?
Perhaps for the first time in my life, the true spirit of seva is awakening.
One Sunday after I got out of the hospital I sat in the gurdwara doing simran and I felt Guru Nanak in the space saying, in a rather pointed way, “Don’t you know I traveled to the underworld?”
The shadow realms. The demons. The darkness. All of that is very real.
Thank God the Guru’s Light still shines through.
February 22, 2017
Conversation about this article
1: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, USA), February 22, 2017, 10:24 AM.
Thank you, Ek Ong Kaar ji, for having the courage to talk about yourself in such stark terms. By sharing your experience, you are writing for all of us. Whether we want to admit or not this existential angst grips us all: we are just afraid to admit that we are scared (even terrified, perhaps), vulnerable and maybe lost. I hope that this will give others (me included) the strength to confront our demons. Thank you for being on Khoj Gurbani with us - your presence and insight is most valuable.
2: Sangeeta Kaur Khalsa (Yuba City, California, USA), February 22, 2017, 12:24 PM.
I too have suffered a breakdown, unable to work, sleep, even take care of myself. Through Guru's Grace my breakdown became a breakthrough. Thank you for your courage to share!
3: Cairn Catherine Morrison (Abiquiu, New Mexico, USA), February 22, 2017, 12:58 PM.
Thank you, Ek Ong Kaar Kaur, for your precise description of this devastating phenomenon. I too have been to the brink of the abyss and experience existential angst all too regularly ... in my case, precipitated by traumatic brain injury, a gunshot to the head, then too many subsequent concussions. That you have articulated the issue so perfectly will be an incredible help to many who have the experience but who cannot get heads and words around it. Again, my thanks.
4: Linda Spanos (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), February 22, 2017, 6:10 PM.
Dear Lady, thank you so very much for sharing your journey. It makes me feel so less alone. My last painful depression was about two years ago. I remember rocking myself and saying, I am a part of God, and God is good. No idea where this thought came from (at the time). It was of comfort to me, so I repeated it over and over. My biggest fear is to be that homeless addicted person lying in the street. I have been sober for six and a half years working a 12 step program. There is always that fear of not coming out of the depression and going back into that despair. Thank you very much for sharing your experience, strength and hope.
5: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), February 22, 2017, 8:27 PM.
sikhchic.com really is one of its kind. It covers an extraordinary variety of topics, some of which come as a surprise that keeps readers and contributors hooked. Thanks to Sher Singh ji’s meticulous editorship. His team makes sikhchic.com compelling and eclectic, otherwise we would have missed Ek Ong Kaar ji’s heartfelt piece soaked in love and Guru Nanak holding her hand. Any further comment would desperately fall short.
6: Shalu Mata (Melbourne, Australia), February 22, 2017, 9:30 PM.
Dearest Ek Ong Kaar, you are being held in the palm of Guru Sahib with great love and tenderness. He knows the darkness you are in because He is in it with you. I am in the middle of a spiritual challenge myself and your article made me weep as I could feel the pain you are in. My prayer to Guru Sahib is that in this darkness may our grip on His hand never loosen its hold. You are in my prayers.
7: Satinder Pal Singh (Canada), February 22, 2017, 11:18 PM.
Please accept my utmost gratitude, Ek Ong Kaar ji. As a practicing psychiatrist, I have immensely enjoyed and been humbled by your apt description of this potentially devastating entity.
8: Sada Anand Singh Khalsa (Ikoma, japan), February 23, 2017, 6:21 AM.
Very nice story and clear sharing of your experience. Today I saw a guy who looked like his head had been cut off and I looked away, walked on, hesitated, then heard that voice you seem to be talking about and went back to see if he was OK. He was. And so was I. God bless you. Sat Naam!
9: Jasraj Kaur Angela Webb (Sarasota, Florida, USA), February 24, 2017, 8:59 AM.
Thank you for sharing your story. I too have suffered from depression and still have problems with anxiety. It can be debilitating. I have back problems and was put on opiates for the pain. Then I decided not to take them any more and started under doctor's care to wean myself off. That week I got shingles! Put on different medications and within four days had the biggest meltdown in my life. I was screaming and yelling and I became this horrid person I did not recognize. My husband thought I had gone over the edge. I had gone to the dark side and it was awful. You curl up in a ball to protect yourself. It seems like no one understands. I am fighting everyday to get free. I still have the shingles and in pain plus the pain from the back. I will be starting to practice my yoga again. We read the Guru Granth Sahib every evening and I get solace from it. I never had a breakdown brought on by pain before. New experience I have to go through. Only the Guru knows. He is always with us and I am happy for you because Bhai Harbhajan Singh ji Yogi said, "Be the Light, and YOU are the LIGHT!" I will be praying for you and all the others like us and those not like us ... you have given me the true meaning of seva and why we are here and what our path is. Thank you my friend. Sat Naam!
10: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), February 24, 2017, 12:47 PM.
"O Mind, you are a manifestation of God!" [GGS:441]. Ek Ong Kaar ji, you are constantly receiving the light of Waheguru and there is nothing you are not competent to acheive. By writing this piece, you are applying your mental and physical efforts to get rid of this devastating condition engulfing you. You are now entering into the domain of spirit which will provide you with a wand to transformation to your destiny. May Waheguru bless you.
11: S Kaur (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), February 25, 2017, 7:55 PM.
Ek Ong Kaar Kaur ji, Thank you for sharing your experience. I recently went through a similar phase. I'm a hardworking professional who was very successful but had a breakdown and my mind too went into such dark places that I was frightened of everything all the time and at times I felt completely incapable of doing anything. My condition was terrifying, to say the least. As I turned to Guru Granth Sahib, I too felt myself opening up and feeling more compassion and kindness for anyone struggling or needing any kind of help. At first this surprised me, it was not what I expected but I believe this is God's way of helping us become the human beings we ought be.