I draw in a long breath and let my tired eyes fall shut.
Blades of grass brush the bottoms of my feet and the August sun beams bright on my forehead. A gentle breeze moves beneath my silk dhoti, cooling my folded legs. A chorus of birdsong carries from the trees. When I lift my head, my grandfather is in front of me. I see a simple white thread draped over his right shoulder, and he whispers a sacred utterance and leans forward to bring a small silver spoon of water to his lips. The summer light catches him. He exudes the air of something divine.
I open my eyes. Through the darkness, I stare up at a corrugated ceiling while the noise of the city howls outside. Dee, our instructor, walks between the rows of mats and sounds a wind chime. Like the sand in a lakebed kicked up by unsuspecting feet, we are summoned from the place of calm where we had settled.
I became a physician to tend to the broken. Little did I expect to become broken myself. With each wave of the virus, I fell apart. In the relative calm that followed, and before the next surge, I gathered the pieces, rebuilding myself with just enough resolve to get by. There were moments — beyond bearing witness to the pain and suffering of my patients and colleagues — that made the process of rebounding more difficult, like the sudden loss of a close family member and the end of a loving but fraught relationship. I looked for help in those who were kind enough to offer it. But confiding in close friends and family, even speaking to a wonderfully attentive therapist with industrial-strength empathy, did little to excise the sadness that was spreading through my soul.
That is when I remembered the practice I had been introduced to in my youth. Almost 20 years ago, when I was 13 or 14, my grandfather introduced me to the art of meditation. My upanayanam, a ceremony similar to a bar mitzvah, symbolized leaving my boyhood. As is the tradition, I was given a white thread made up of three cotton strands. Each represented an omniscient Hindu goddess: Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati. As one grows older, one is given an additional strand for having a son, another for a grandson. If your father is still alive, you wear it over your left shoulder, as I did.
While I didn’t embrace the Hindu rituals that had ushered me into adulthood, at the request of my mother I did join my grandfather every morning that summer to perform the sandhyavandanam, or “salutation during the time of twilight,” in this case in the morning. The sun salutations were an essential step leading to my upanayanam. My grandfather once performed them on the banks of the Varaha River, off the Bay of Bengal. For me, the daily practice meant traipsing to his suburban Toronto backyard at daybreak, so that he could lead me through a mindful reflection on the Vedas: a set of scriptures as old as time itself.
My grandfather emphasized finding balance by restraining the senses, staying rooted in the moment, and carefully moving one’s breath around one’s body. I scoffed. My mind wandered. My attention pinballed through matters I deemed more urgent — video games, soccer practice, the angst of unrequited teenage love.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I would come to discover the many well-known benefits of meditation. It blunts levels of stress and anxiety and hones an ability to focus. There are measurable changes to the cortex — regions of our brain associated with functions such as self-awareness and memory — even after a few weeks.
So earlier this year, I paid $89.99 for an introductory membership at a yoga studio in Toronto, where I live. I can’t say exactly why I did. Perhaps, in trudging home after many dreary, sleepless nights at the hospital, the sight of rested faces filtering out of a serene yoga studio held the promise of long-neglected personal wellness.
I chose a class in which I spend the majority of the hour lying on my back. There are no sun salutations, no downward-facing dogs, no warriors (one, two, or three). I wondered if Patanjali, the Indian sage who had laid out this supine, restful version of yoga in his seminal text “Yoga Sutras,” would have envisioned it being so faithfully taught in the West 2,000 years later.
Dee cuts the lights and directs us through a cycle of breathing techniques that put me in a deep, dreamlike trance.
My limbs grow heavy and my body sinks into the floor. Releasing the tension sets something free. It occurs to me that I have spent so much time over the course of the pandemic disoriented — in my thoughts, my worries, my contemplations, my ruminations. For a moment, it seems as if I’ve forced these all away.
But the salve is short-lived. I become acutely aware of my swirling anxieties. What’s different, however, is that they don’t overwhelm me as they normally do. It’s as if they are neatly laid out, like spines on a bookshelf. I can browse through them, scrutinize each closely. And instead of spiraling, I think: Why do I feel this way? Who did I hurt? Who must I forgive?
I pick up my grief for my late relative and place it alongside my happiness for a dear friend who is expecting his first child and soon to be married. I find I can do this much in the way that I can move from one patient whose young body is besieged by a terrible and incurable cancer to another who has lived a long and full life, whose children and grandchildren, pressing their palms into mine, are thankful.
In the Vedas, my grandfather explained, there exist four states of consciousness. The highest, atman, reaches the lofty awareness of a stopped world, a time outside time, a self within oneself. My many conflicting feelings, I realize, exist not in opposition to each other or even to me. They exist with me, in a messy, beautiful, and often contradictory harmony.
When I land in the tender memory of my grandfather’s backyard, it’s just as I left it: the rolling lawn, the high sun, the rosebushes in thorny bloom. I wonder what draws me there. Then it dawns on me. I’ve gone back not in search of a simpler time, one without war or virus, but of one bearing messages that I am at last ready to receive.
Dr. Arjun V.K. Sharma is a writer and resident physician at the University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @ArjunVKSharmaMD.