Around the same time, last year, I discovered my first grey hair. I was in the hills of Ejeirong, in Manipur, in a newly-built guest house that put up visitors who visited the private school run by three Naga gentlemen from the village. It was the third morning when I stood in front of the mirror, unravelling my hair from its knots and dishevels, when the light from the overhead lamp reflected on the single white hair. Not wasting a moment in stillness, I hurried to isolate this single thread and reach its root. When I did, I found that it was a full-grey hair, from the root to the tip. It was only after this confirmation that I stopped, in disbelief, and looked at my reflection falling on the mirror. I was frantic – half-happy and half-worried – I was only 27.
Until I found my first grey hair, I didn’t really notice that my body was secretly ageing. I knew that my body had been maturing – my menstrual cycle had changed, I had more frequent visits to my gynaecologist and my general physician, and I was tired after work. Some of these changes, I had attributed to an underactive thyroid and as long as I was taking care of it, I believed I would be fine. In my younger years, I had dedicated myself to my body’s fitness – eating brown bread when others were still eating white, doing heavy exercise for one hour, running in the morning and evening, learning martial arts, and even doing yoga in the last few years. With such a decent report card, I believed I would be let off from feeling too bad about my body, for a few years, if not more. I was not entirely correct.
Soon after that metamorphic discovery, I descended from the fog-covered hills to the dusty plains of Delhi to begin my life as a 28-year-old woman. The first evening after I came back, I went to the park, wearing my best running shoes, to set the record straight and to prove that I needed to only find my will back. I was, after all, I said to myself, a woman of will. I was wrong again. Before I could finish the first 500 meters, I saw that the next 500 metres would be the last attempt. When I stopped, my lungs were burning (perhaps with disbelief) and the forming lactic acid was already hurting my sides. I went back home, defeated and perplexed, but not before walking a few more rounds.
In the following months, I trained myself to see the signs of my body ageing. It started, as in most cases, with the face, eventually moving down to the neck, the breasts, the torso, and the thighs. Age had slowly, but surely accumulated itself, in all these parts, with a certain commonality that could be seen in women and men, but there was haggardness too. Fine lines had developed on my face and my neck, and I had gained a slight paunch, along with some irresistible cellulite. I was at my heaviest too, but I discounted that as a sign of good health, having been underweight for most of my life. I also saw that I had developed ailments, apart from hypothyroidism, which reeked of growing worse with the years – sciatica, a hunch starting at the neck, headaches that repeated themselves each month, thinning hair, a lowered immunity, and worse, a varying menstrual cycle.
Perhaps, because of the enormity of what I could see – that there was very little I could do, except maybe, manage the symptoms – I believed that I was ageing, and earlier. The understanding of what this will have on my prospects of finding a partner and if I wanted a family, had already set in. About my girlfriends, I didn’t worry, I knew I would be able to have fun and still be wild and young. However, deep inside there was still fear and somewhere closer, anger, mostly at the utter lack of power to do anything about this. I felt that I had been doled out subsidies of the wrong variety and that my body being the only potent entity that would allow me to experience this world, caused me nightmares and more frequent illnesses. I had had my initiation into the Timeless, through Eckhart Tolle, but until now, it was a concept – that the body was a form meant to dissolve. I was simply not ready for reality.
In The End of Your World, the spiritual teacher Adyashanti says that whenever we discount reality, life itself holds up a mirror for our awakening. In the days before he became a teacher, Adyashanti was, what he calls, a physically dominant person. As a competitive cyclist, he trained hard to be physically fit and had tremendous stamina as an athlete. He writes,
“A big part of my identity in the previous fifteen years had been built around being an athlete and being physically fit – more physically fit than 99 percent of the people I knew… It was about being more physically fit than one’s peers, and I had a tremendous amount of identity built around this kind of dominance.”
It was not too difficult to find my story written in those pages. I was not a competitive cyclist, but I had spent a long time, training myself to be in a physically good shape. That I had attributed this ability with my image of self – as different from anyone else I knew. As life goes, I did fall ill for a prolonged period, recovering and then taking to the bed not long after. That period was the beginning of the fear, which perhaps propelled the strong clinging onto the image of the body. Adyashanti puts it in better words,
“I had begun to shift, subtly, into a training regimen, as if I were a competitive cyclist again. I wasn’t a competitive cyclist anymore; I had retired a few years back. Still, I found myself training as if I were preparing for competition. I was conscious of the process as it was happening. I would actually say to myself, ‘I know that the only reason I’m training is so I can put my egoic personality structure back together.’ I was conscious of what was happening, but not conscious enough to let it go. I was not yet ready to give up reconstructing myself… And a year later I was sick again, back in bed for another six months, with another crushing illness.”
It was true. I was not yet ready to give up being a physically fit person that I once was but, I was still not able to muster the courage to complete one run, without exerting my body to its last reserves. More frequently than ever before, I developed aches, tics, and physical exhaustion that would remain even if I would rest well. Increasingly, I started feeling ugly because of the way I looked and felt inside. I tried my best to avoid going out, cancelling meetings, whenever I could, so much as to stop going to the neighbourhood park, keeping myself away from social media, and avoiding phone calls from acquaintances. I would cover my body and stay in bed, reading a book under the night lamp. This strategy didn’t work for long.
One night in July, feeling particularly awful and ugly, I came across a status that mocked “ugly girls”. This was from a person I knew and at that time, also had feelings for, which was perhaps why I felt that that message was about me and mocking me. I was shattered beyond retaliation and egoic defence and in my vulnerability, I started crying – deep sobs that went against my nature. Never before had I felt such deep conviction as that night, about the unfairness of this world, and about taking my life, to end the pain that rested in my being then. The thought settled inside me and I was ready, for the first time, to act upon it. Instead, I started writing. I wrote a note, scribbling with divine power and ink blotting my fingers, a long note on the reason why I wanted to die, the people that I loved, the people that I owed money and the amount, and the fact that I was living in depression. When I finally stopped – I had written for two hours, without stopping, without trying to wipe my tears (they eventually stopped), and without not knowing what to write – I no longer wanted to die.
Adyashanti writes that life offers us two kinds of grace – the beautiful grace and the fierce grace. The fierce grace takes the ominous form of our greatest pains, our greatest difficulties, and it pushes us beyond a limitation that seemed insurmountable until that time. I believe that something fundamental shifted within me that night, at least, concerning the state of my body. People who have lived with depression would know how significant such a night is to them. I have felt that stillness after that night as well, but on that night of stillness, it spoke clearly – I didn’t want to die. This was fierce grace.
I have resumed going to the neighbourhood park, walking at a slow pace for about forty minutes, on evenings, except when something urgent comes up. I have found that forty minutes are enough and that each time I walk past an hour, I hurt my knees and my hips. I have found reason to celebrate when I wake up in the morning without the sciatica pain. I have found that even though I would want to be physically fit, like before, I needed to take care of my body as it was today. I have found that we have to let go of the illusion of control, because nothing really is in our control.
From the genes that I have inherited, I might have another forty or fifty years to live. My great grandfather lived well into his nineties and died naturally and my great grandmother lives and is complaining still. Some of these future years might be spent in managing pain but some, I presume, would be spent in loving someone dearly and unconditionally, creating something with reverence, frolicking with children (maybe mine, may not be mine), and walking under the Indian lilacs, in the scent of the night jasmine during summers. That is beautiful grace.