I have been thinking a lot during this time we are all experiencing in varied ways, a time that has taken our privilege and our inequalities and the ways in which the world is full of pain and pushed them right up against our noses.
I have, much like many of us I would imagine, spent the past month and a half wandering through a thicket of emotions that I do not even know how to describe or untangle. I have been trying to separate out my thoughts and my feelings and neatly pin them to the examining table, dissect them under a microscope in a desperate attempt to deal with just one at a time, with no luck. I have been unable to pull a single coherent thought from my brain and yet, it is full of them. They swirl around in there at night, a tornado of somethings — of worries, of anxieties, of to-dos and checklists, but they move too fast to see as anything other than a big horrific blur, decimating any hope or possibility of a good night’s sleep. And I have been frustrated, I think, with the constant vague statements of “it will be okay,” or, even worse, the virtue-signaling pats on the head that can be summed up by: “just stay in Cardi Kala [commonly defined and understood as Everlasting Optimism].” I am tired of people jumping to the conclusion of a sabad (Infinite-Wisdom) and not allowing for the journey to take place. And I thought about what sabad I could turn to, to reassure myself, to give me what I needed in this time of such uncertainty. It is a sabad I keep coming back to — in fact, it is the sabad I wrote about in my last blog post on grief.
And I think the reason I have come back to it now is that I think we are collectively experiencing this odd sort of grief. Sometimes, it is a faraway uneasiness. Sometimes, it is very close and very suffocating. Sometimes, I forget that I feel it at all — sometimes I go through a day and I am relatively okay. Other times I cannot sleep or stay asleep. I am full of anxiety and uneasiness, full of dread. There is a lot of grief happening all the time these days, for all of us. It is this thick coating that spreads all over everything — even the small sweet moments we might still be having. We are grieving the deaths that have happened and that will inevitably happen, we are grieving the incompetence of our leadership, we are grieving a loss of financial stability, we are grieving the loss of jobs, we are grieving a loss of normalcy, grieving the loss of physical connection, grieving the events that we are missing. We are grieving the loss of any sort of sense of certainty.
We are sitting under this massive canopy of impending doom, and when we look up, we can’t see how big it is.
We do not even know what all it is that is doomed — not all of it, not yet. We do not know when this will be over. We do not know what life will look like when it is. And so, we grieve. We are grieving in big and small ways all of the time. And so I thought I would return to the sabad that has helped me through grieving, albeit a different kind of grieving than what I feel now, and walk with it.
ਰਾਗੁ ਸੋਰਠਿ ਬਾਣੀ ਭਗਤ ਰਵਿਦਾਸ ਜੀਕੀ
ੴ ਸਤਿਗੁਰ ਪ੍ਰਸਾਦਿ ॥
ਜਬ ਹਮ ਹੋਤੇ ਤਬ ਤੂ ਨਾਹੀ ਅਬ ਤੂਹੀ ਮੈਨਾਹੀ ॥
ਅਨਲ ਅਗਮ ਜੈਸੇ ਲਹਰਿ ਮਇ ਓਦਧਿਜਲ ਕੇਵਲ ਜਲ ਮਾਂਹੀ ॥੧॥
ਮਾਧਵੇ ਕਿਆ ਕਹੀਐ ਭ੍ਰਮੁ ਐਸਾ ॥
ਜੈਸਾ ਮਾਨੀਐ ਹੋਇ ਨ ਤੈਸਾ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ॥
1 Reality realized by Eternal Perfection’s Grace!
When “I” was present, You were not; now only You, no “I.”
Like strong winds raise ocean waves; only water is within water. 1
O’ Master-Illusionist (Madho)! What can I say this doubt is like?
It is not like what [we] think. Reflect
A ruler sleeping on the throne, dreams becoming a beggar.
Kingdom intact, [believes] lost, suffers pain; such is our state. 2
Like rope and snake parables; now some mystery is understood.
Like forgetting seeing numerous bracelets [gold is separated]; now I cannot utter utterance [of separation]. 3
One Owner is in all among many; enjoying in all hearts.
Ravidas says: [Master-Illusionist] is nearer than hands; whatever transpires, transpires naturally. 4
- Guru Granth Sahib 657
Transcreation by Inni Kaur
Note: Sabad is Infinite; we are very finite. We always say that our understanding of a sabad at a moment was different yesterday and may evolve tomorrow, as we deepen our relationship with it.
I think the reason I keep coming back to this one is because of the way it reassures me in my own feelings. I have thought so much about the sort of uncertainty that permeates this sabad, the journey Bhagat Ravidas takes us on through his questioning, his urgent desire to understand the Vastness that is beyond human understanding. This elevated person, whose words are revelations of experience with Divinity, is admitting to feeling that same deeply human uncertainty that I think we all feel. Bhagat Ravidas is being vulnerable in his uncertainty and in his struggle to understand in a way that reassures me in my own uncertainty.
I have thought so much about this idea that though we may see waves as something separate and large and maybe overpowering, chaos in the ocean, unrest in the ocean, it is all just water in water. There is a lot that feels like unrest right now, and it is, on a human level, but to move beyond just being overwhelmed is the ultimate hope — I have been so situated in my small lens, my human eyes and ears and my desire to understand the things that I do not (there are so many) — and I think that takes a sort of zooming out that Bhagat Ravidas really helps facilitate.
I have been thinking about the last line on nearness, that the Divine is nearer to us than our own hands, that whatever happens, happens naturally, and how that seems to me to be a pretty familiar statement on Hukam (Divine Order). But the thing that has always called me back to this sabad is the lack of a clean resolution. Bhagat Ravidas is not asking for the grand mystery to be unveiled. Bhagat Ravidas is asking for the understanding that allows him to sit in that mystery comfortably, to be given the eyes not to see the answer, but to see things differently enough that his anxieties leave him. Bhagat Ravidas is asking for Grace.
And at a time like this, where there are so many people who seem to be jumping to the end of it all, telling us to just live in Cahrdi Kala instead of understanding that these things take time and space and that they are difficult, that last line Bhagat Ravidas concludes with, that understanding of the Vastness becomes even more relevant. This is not a thing that can be said and then understood. It is a feeling that comes after the pain becomes the cure. And I know that has not happened for me yet.
Professor Puran Singh in Spirit Born People says that the Guru has “made us look up into the infinite, look upon the sun and the moon and the stars as our kith and kin, knit us with the universe, weave the design of the Infinite into the texture of our souls” — Bhagat Ravidas says, When “I” was present, You were not; now only You, no “I.”
These days really I only mostly feel small and helpless. I am trying to remember that my smallness is part of the Vastness. That such smallness being a part of something so big is itself part of the mystery, part of the illusion.
I revisit this sabad when I am grieving viscerally, when I am overwhelmed and drowning and so deeply immersed in my suffering that I do not have time to overthink or be self-conscious about seeking connection. But because this grief is something different, I have not been pushed enough into that sort of surrender, that sort of nearness that happens out of utter necessity. This has been entirely different.
This grief is like a low hum, a lull, a single note that plays in the background of everything.
Sometimes it is loud. Sometimes it has been droning on so long the sound fades into almost nothing, and I forget it is even there. This grief sometimes means that I do not even know what I am grieving, at least not the whole picture of it.
It is like I am zoomed in on one thing that I am missing and grieving and then I slowly pan over to something else that was not in the picture before, another thing to realize the loss of and grieve.
And it is situated very much, very deeply, I know, in my profound privilege, that I am comfortable and with my family, that I do not have to worry about my job or my health insurance, that I am having these moments of joy, spending time with the people I love, gardening with my mom and my brother, listening to Papa Ji’s stories, singing with my dad and my sister, sitting in the sun. I am trying to find the balance between allowing myself to have these good things, to fully be present in them and happy, while also empathizing and being tuned in with the people I love who are struggling with paying their rent, who are struggling with their grad student funding, with losing their job and their health insurance, with their mental health, with feeding themselves. I cannot and will not allow myself to not think of the people every day who are without a home, who are without safety, who have been failed by the people in power who are meant to be serving them. I cannot allow myself not to pay attention to the reality that those who have the most power and the most money have shown such devastating disregard for the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable. I don’t think any of us can, if we are really trying to honor 1-Ness.
But that means that we must learn how to balance the grand illusion Bhagat Ravidas talks about. That means we must embrace the Vastness, in awe of all of it, the good and the bad. And that is hard to do. It is hard to do all the time, but it is especially hard now. So I thought I would look to Professor Puran Singh for guidance on how to move through all of the things Vastness brings to us, how to be patient with myself as I learn to ride out each positive and negative emotion, how to take in the pain of the collective and not feel full of doom and despair, how to maybe make those stitches he talks about a little bit stronger, and fasten myself to the Vastness a little tighter.
I turned to Spirit Born People, and here is what resonated with me.
Professor Puran Singh says:
Remembrance has an infinite pang which nestles within itself — that this pang is a pang of love and separation, rooted in a justice not of revenge, but forgiveness.
He says that this can look like self-sacrifice in times of peace and war, like “doing without knowing,” like serving just because it is in one’s nature, and it can look like a political revolution against tyranny. He says that the bliss of the disciple is restless with the human pain which moved the Buddha to compassion. That the pang of love and separation is this lifelong sort of pure and noble sadness, this beautiful sorrow. He says that those disciples who move through the world in beautiful sorrow feel deeply, and honor their feelings — they move with the waves of each one, they soak up the pain all around them, they let that churn within them and it transforms them into these revolutionarily compassionate beings. He says that their compassion moves them to action.
So then how do I get to this place where the wounds of all of this being human result in something other than an overwhelming sense of dread?
Professor Puran Singh has some guidance on that too. He says that Guru Nanak Sahib calls us to this kind of open compassion that requires us to be so vulnerable it scares us, to let everything in, and to allow ourselves to be wounded. And he says that when we have those wounds, those deep wounds of life, Simran, or Remembrance, is like a fiber that stitches those wounds together and anchors itself into the soil of our subconscious. And he says that these fibers grow. He says that our wounds and feelings are “nourished under the deep and mysterious shades of Simran,” and that with enough time, where those fibers once were, a tree of life grows. I do not know how to grow a tree yet, but I want to.
And so I have been exploring these principles of Nam and Simran, Identification and Remembrance, thinking back to the 5-year-old version of me who thought the whole thing was kind of silly and boring. And I think that same childish part of me, this kid who does not want to ask for help, who does not want to admit that she needs an anchor right now (who does not want to admit that these things help her) still sort of scoffs at the idea. But I have been listening to Jap Sahib (morning prayer), and it has pulled me from the depths of my anxiety with a firm grip every time. Maybe it is the salutation to all the different virtues of the Infinite that has helped me pull the Vastness close to my little heart.
I have been exploring Nam and Simran and watching what Professor Puran Singh describes as life crystallizing into delightful shapes of beauty. I have seen these small miracles. The creeper clinging to the tree. The bluebirds at my window. The hawk that sits in the tree in our yard. The blooming of our baby dogwood trees. I see these small miracles in the moments I spend with the people I love, in the deep exhale of a long day culminating in all of us together on the couch, in the immense daily (hourly) gratitude that we are all together, that they are safe. Professor Puran Singh calls these things the tendencies of Simran. I would call them the monuments of Simran.
And it is this sort of stitching, of myself to the Vastness, of my wounds together with the fibers of Simran, that allows me to feel my feelings, yes, and churn them within me so that every day I become a more compassionate tiny part of this 1-Ness. People keep saying this is a universal thing that we are all walking through together, and in a way, that is true. In a way, maybe it has broken down the ways we separate ourselves from one another, made us more conscious of the experiences of our global community, more compassionate towards people we do not know. But it has also emphasized the dangerous effects of the ways we have separated ourselves for so long, of the systemic inequalities that exist as a result, making our class and caste differences starker, as our most vulnerable are hit the hardest. In many ways, what Guru Nanak Sahib warns us about in Pauri 4 of Asa Ki Var (Verse 4 of the Ballad of Hope) is playing out right in front of us: the theatrics of the political and social elites, distractions, and hypocrisies, all while the masses suffer. We must not look away.
People are dying and losing their jobs and their healthcare in the U.S. because we have not acknowledged that healthcare is a human right and instead have tied it to employment. People are being denied care because they are uninsured. Individuals who do not have a home are being made to sleep on the ground in crowded gyms and parking lots while hotels sit empty. Healthcare workers are not receiving the equipment they need to safely do their jobs. Big companies like Walmart, WholeFoods, Amazon, Target, and Costco are spending millions on virtue-signaling feel-good PR campaigns while they refuse to pay their employees a living wage and refuse to offer paid sick leave. Incarcerated people are dying in jail without proper protection. Undocumented people are dying in detention without proper protection. Black and brown people are being treated like criminals both for wearing masks and not wearing masks. Police around the world are using this time to further abuse their power and brutalize civilians. In India, people are dying of starvation. We have watched leaders around the world severely fail to respond. We have watched the wealthy hide away in their gated communities and vacation homes. In India, migrant workers, hungry and poor, were driven out of big cities — walking hundreds of miles only to be brutalized and turned away at the borders of states that had been shut down, unable to return to their families. We must not look away.
This pandemic has revealed to those who did not see it before that our systems do not work, that the things our countries have placed emphasis on, poured money into, are useless now. It has shown us what human beings deserve: dignity, care, and compassion that translates to long-lasting systemic changes. There are people who keep saying that they cannot wait to get back to normal. I will echo Arundhati Roy and say that this would be us foolishly trying to “stitch our future to our past and ignore the rupture.”
Professor Puran Singh says that Guru Nanak Sahib called us to our true instinctive goodness, and asked, what use is that progress of a humanity which does not make us siblings to humans and nature? That does not make us infinitely sensitive and imbue us with divine sympathy?
Puran Singh says that all our existing systems of ethics and religions and societies tend to make stones of us — they tend to make us cold and unfeeling to one another.
And we see it. We see it in the hoarding of toilet paper, in the selfishness of ignoring the advice of medical professionals, in the treatment of those for whom this time is not just “a time to slow down and reexamine what is important,” but a time where they are urgently trying to survive. But we also see the ways that people have not fallen into that darkness, the ways people have connected with each other in their small communities, looked out for each other, helped each other with groceries and masks, provided meals, donated their money and time, banded together to support one another in ways that the government has refused to.
I am trying not to look away. I am trying to allow myself to take in all of these wounds. I am trying to allow all of this pain to make me Become. I am going to churn it within me until I transform into a revolutionarily compassionate part of this 1-Ness — until my compassion spills out into action. I think a lot of people are feeling these wounds churn within them, and it is because of this that I believe things will be okay, but only if we learn from this — if we do what we are being called to do (what we have always been called to do). If we allow for Divine-Identification and Remembrance to pervade our lives, if we cultivate our trees from our wounds and the wounds of the collective.
Arundhati Roy called this time a portal, that we can step through into a newly imagined future (if we so choose) — either dragging our dead ideas behind us, our broken systems, and our fallen myths — or starting anew, building a newly imagined future resting on the foundations of fundamental changes to our systems and ideas. And so I will keep churning, I will try to grow my tree, and I will remember that we must fight for each other and the world to come, the world we imagine, on the other side of this big thing we are walking through together.