A Whisper At My Doorstep

Aug 29, 2005

"Nipun-ji," I hear a voice. It's the crack of dawn, my room is way out in the boonies, and no one is allowed to utter a single word in this area. Who is calling my name? I shift in my bed and look at the window to notice that it's dark.

Perhaps I'm hearing things. After all, I slept at 2AM the night before, talking to a meditation student having suicidal thoughts.

Ten seconds later, in a crackling, timid voice, "Nipun-ji". Ok, someone really is at my door. How could that be? Only a couple people know where I stay and they would never speak around my room.

I open the door, with my eyes half open. It's Sri, the 34-year-old guy I was counseling just a couple hours ago. Dazed and confused, he says, "Nipun-ji, I couldn't sleep again. Nipun-ji, please help me. Please do something."

I am one of five people signed up to serve 240 meditation students in "Dhamma Hall 2". With 240 students, most of whom have never taken 10-days to look within themselves, you're bound to get some drama. But this is going way above and beyond the call of duty I anticipated.

I scratch my eyes, just in case I'm dreaming. No such luck. It's Sri for sure.

Sri is a young guy taking a 10-day meditation course on the recommendation of another friend. He is happily married with a 2 year old daughter, runs a business with three of his brothers, is heavily involved in the community and even gives regular talks at local clubs on leadership. All in all, a well settled young man. He has no real imposing reason to learn meditation, except to grow himself in a different dimension. Instead of one of those self-reinforcing, confidence boosting seminars, this Vipassana camp ended up being a inside-out overhaul for him.

After four days of silent meditation, Sri just couldn't take it. Yet he's too self conscious to quit. So he goes up to the assistant teacher to ask a question; unfortunately, there's a queue of people waiting to ask questions. Incidentally, I'm standing in watching distance, and I notice Sri shriveling up his questions as other nosy ears try to tune into his problem. Sri abruptly ends his conversation with the teacher.

As he walks out, I follow him and whisper with folded hands, "If you'd like, you can speak with the teacher in private at noon tomorrow." With half-tears in his eyes, he keeps walking, "No, you just don't understand. You just don't understand."

I, uncharacteristically, follow him outside. Again with folded hands, I ask, "Is something wrong?" This time, he breaks down. "I don't know what's wrong. I don't understand anything. I just want to kill myself," he says with clenched fists that mirror anger, frustration and confusion, all at once.

Stunned, I am for almost ten seconds. Volunteers generally don't speak to students but this is clearly a special case. I ask for his room number and assure him that some senior teacher will be in his room within the next half hour. And sure enough, he got a tranquilizing dose of calmness from Jayeshbhai that night.

At 1AM, as I was chatting up Buddha stories with another great meditation teacher, we spot a student in a distance. No student should be out of their room at this hour, and after a closer look, I notice that it's Sri again.

"I can't sleep again. This is the second night in a row. I keep on having the same thoughts. Why is this happening to me? I was fine before and now I'm so scared. Will I get better?" Sri asks in a rapid-fire manner, as if he had twenty seconds left to live. After an hour of counseling and a sleeping pill, he calms down and returns to his room.

Quite honestly, I have never had the occasion to deal with a suicidal mentality, within or without. All of a sudden, I have no choice but to look deeply into it.

Suicide is the second most common cause of injury, after road-accidents. Yes, it comes before all the casualties of war or interpersonal violence. It is, unfortunately, a common phenomenon. But why in the world do people want to kill themselves? I'm no psychologist but my guess is that it's because they want an escape from their experience of intense pain and suffering. People with good lives can't quite fathom such a scenario because they've never experienced such overwhelming pain. But take a moment to think about some of the most tragic situations of constant abuse and violence, and think if you would be able to preach the sermons of peace to yourself? Personally, I'm not so sure I would.

Sri's situation is rather unique, though. Four days back, he had a great life going for himself. Last week, he probably would've lectured others about being in control of the mind but somehow, he has gone astray today. He wants to bail and return to the "normal" life waiting for him at home, but he is now scared if he will ever return back to his original state. And that fear is paralyzing him further. It's like you bite your tongue accidentally, and refuse to release your teeth because it hurts. You are deepening your own misery, but you don't have the wherewithal to see that. From a third person point of view, it's truly sad.

I suppose that's what sages must be feeling all day, looking at the human condition. When Swami Vivekananda spent two years walking India by foot, as a complete hermit, he would cry every night (for a couple months) after witnessing the self-imposed sorrows of mankind. What I feel when I see Sri is probably what the Dalai Lama experiences when he sees me -- "Poor Nipun, he is ignorantly creating his own misery."

If you really break it down, if suicide is an escape from suffering, aren't we all suicidal? Wouldn't "I'm so tired, I am going to go the movies?" or "I really need a vacation?" qualify as suicidal thoughts? To most of us, that conclusion might sound a little extreme, but that's generally because we are so dense that we need huge buildings to blow up before understanding that there's a problem. In truth, we all have a little bit of Sri in us. Well, I don't know about "we all" but certainly I have always been playing hide and seek with my suffering, so much so that I will subconsciously slap a mosquito to death even in my sleep.

Because I recognize the seed of Sri's condition in myself, I feel a whole lot of compassion for Sri when I open my door to the call of "Nipun-ji, Nipun-ji" and see a face of misery reflecting directly in front of my eyes.

"Sri, what's wrong?" I ask him in a quiet tone so as to not disturb other neighbors in this early morning hour. "I don't know. I couldn't sleep again last night. That's three nights in a row. I keep on thinking about ..." Sri breaks down and throws his face into his palms. Sitting on a ledge, he looks up at me and asks, "Nipun-ji, please help me. Nipun-ji, please do something. I need your help." Of course, I haven't the foggiest idea of what to do.

I grab my umbrella, and without turning back to wash my face or check my hair in the mirror or realize that I am wearing shorts in a no-shorts-meditation zone, I walk out the door with Sri.

"How did you know where I stay?" I ask him, trying to divert the topic. "I woke up the doctor who gave me the sleeping pills last night and he said you were in the J-block, so I went around the block and whispered your name, hoping you could hear me," Sri says. He was in serious pain and desperate.

That whole day, I did double duty: taking care of the hall and Sri. Other teachers came in to speak with him. We spoke with his brothers and wife at home they all unanimously said, "Ask him not to worry. We are all perfectly fine and hoping that we can sit in the meditation camp next." Sri was happy to hear that message, but it was short-term relief. Other fears would take a hold of his mind. I would take him to empty halls, use my broken Hindi to share some parables, and play some inspiring DVDs. At one point, I went to the bathroom and he got on all fours and started banging his head on the floor. I came in and he just started weeping like a little child. He just wanted out from this whole pain. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. Not having slept for three days, he was in bad physical shape too; he couldn't even eat much and was a little disoriented.

That night, Sri insisted that I sleep in his room. I did. Within minutes, he was snoring. And for the first time in my life, I was happy to hear my roommate snore. :)

Sri's struggle is that of addiction. He is addicted to a stream of negative thoughts. Then, he multiplies his misery by creating a myth that he isn't strong enough to drop that addiction. To complicate the matter, he's super-imposed an ideal of what he was in the past, someone "free" from all this negativity. Between the present moment truth, the myth and the ideal, Sri feels like he's sinking in quicksand. Without the myth and the ideal, the present moment problem isn't so bad. But alas, either said than done.

At times like these, one needs a personal answer to life's basic question -- why do good things happens to bad people and bad things to good people? If you haven't created a solid answer that fits your own ontology of life -- karma, God, evolution, whatever -- then you're in real trouble. You might survive fine for a while but when your merits run short, when your conditions become unfavorable, you simply won't have a context to accept the suffering. The why-question will sink your spirit. Of course, ultimately, those mental theories are still superficial band-aids; a deeper solution, in my opinion, comes from the service of others -- first, it forces you to find the needy, then to witness the inter-connectedness of that need in your own self, and finally to experience humility for having no real solutions. Service work, in its purity, simply shows you that you're caught up in the charades of your own ego and that ignorant arrogance incapacitates you from experiencing real love. And in the words of G. I. Joe, "Knowing is half the battle."

During the night when we were roommates, Sri woke up several times in a state of panic. One time, his whole body froze and as he described it later, "I couldn't speak anything or move any part of my body or even open my eyes. But then, I refused to give into this and out of sheer will, I just pushed myself physically to get up. I was fed up. And surprisingly, I got up."

The next morning, Sri is in better condition the next day and is given permission to leave. He feels like a "loser" for quitting: "I haven't quit anything in my life. I don't know why I can't do this, when hundreds of others are able to survive just fine." "Sri, just because someone can survive ten-days doesn't mean anything. Perhaps you were the one who actually meditated and were willing to dig up some of your stored negativity. On this long path of purification, you're bound to fall. That's no problem. You just have to be determined to get up again," I reassure him. He is happy to hear it and I told him that I thought he would be back again someday. With a smile, he says, "Definitely."

Before waving goodbye, he tearfully adds, "No one has ever had to take care of me in my life. But I troubled you so much. And I don't even know you. I will never forget you. Thank you. I will consider myself lucky if I ever have the chance do something for you."

In truth, Sri already did a lot for me. His whisper at my doorstep was loud enough to wake up many sleeping gaints of compassion in my own heart. Sri doesn't have my contact information nor does he know my last name; we will probably never meet again but one last time, I wave goodbye, with a silent wish for his well being for a long time to come.

Sri will be just fine.

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