About ten years ago I met and made a wonderful friend. She worked at the Children’s Aid Society and we were about to bid on a contract with them. I met her for lunch just to understand the inner workings of the organisation making full disclosure of my reason for our meeting. She impressed me with her professionalism and shared with me insights about her work, so I could write a well-rounded proposal. She was scrupulous about not compromising the bid process in any way and yet was flexible enough to meet me so we could give them the best possible solution. We talked about many things including her work as a volunteer Crisis Counsellor with an organisation that supports victims of crime.
When I met her she was fifty and had decided to hang up her shingle and pursue her calling, mental health counselling. She was well qualified. She was a registered social worker and had obtained the credentials to work as a Psychotherapist. But above all she had an abiding curiosity in the human condition. She was widely read and had a profound understanding of various spiritual texts, which in turn had led her to an experiential understanding of mindfulness as an important solution to resolving our existential crises. Her approach to therapy therefore came from a place of deep insight. But what made her unique was her very practical approach to addressing mental health issues. She met her clients were they were in the continuum, did an extensive assessment, developed with them a plan for their treatment and then gave them homework exercises so they could practice the coping strategies that she had helped them develop. On the day we met, she sketched out her approach with a hypothetical example on a napkin. I took it home with me to study the exquisite framework her brilliant mind had developed right there over lunch.
She got very busy after that and signed up with Warren Sheppell an EAP provider which took her on as an Independent Consultant. We met for coffee occasionally and discussed meditation and philosophy. I listened more than talked always mesmerised by her ability to narrate so eloquently, while quoting from various sources. She has a prodigious memory for memorable quotes and an ability to be utterly precise and accurate with details. I find it a rare quality and have encountered few people who possess it. For me it is a testament to her competence and her rigorous discipline doing everything she did.
She chose to be single, looking after her mother, who died three years ago of breast cancer well into her eighties. She exercised, ate well, meditated, went for a massage every month and traveled to a different country every year. She read a lot, always keeping up with advances in her profession and also spiritual texts and biographies. She kept a beautitful house with a perfectly tended lawn, indulged all her nephews and nieces and enjoyed the occassional Scotch! All in all - a well balanced life.
A few months ago, I spoke to her when I was desperate to find help for a friend. She immediately obliged and was her usual gracious self. My friend was thrilled with after just two sessions, telling me she now had techniques to deal with her anxiety and depression. In late April, she wrote to my friend telling her she was taking a leave of absence. I called her up to ask if everything was ok, but I did not hear back. I assumed she was just slowing down. I did not suspect that she was fighting stage 4 cancer. This week on Tuesday I heard she was in hospital and palliative. I rushed to see her. She had told no one other than her sisters. She had not wanted to dampen anyone's spirit. There she lay a shadow of herself, her breath noisy, her mouth open in a comatose state. This was not my friend, but an apparition and I would never have her back. After her mother died we had promised each other to meet over lunch or dinner and had cancelled and rescheduled a few times. I blame myself for not making it happen. I went to look for remnants of her in her website, Linkedin and FB and found nothing there. She had so meticulously planned her exit. A common friend told me she had even told her to fix the deck in her home for the post funeral greeting of people. She had gone through all her stuff and shredded anything that would have been a burden for anyone else. So much clarity and detachment even in those last days, almost as she used to plan her trips to far off lands by herself.
As she lays in hospital with just hours to live, I share what she sent us a few years ago. I believe she did not suffer because of her complete understanding of what it says here:
“I am reading the book “I Am That,” a modern spiritual classic…talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj who is enlightened. On page 5 of the book, Sri Maharaj responds to a questioner who asked, “What do you see?” Maharaj responds:
“I see what you too could see, here and now, but for the wrong focus of your attention. You give no attention to your self. Your mind is all with things, people and ideas, never with your self. Bring your self into focus, become aware of your existence. See how you function, with the motives and the results of your actions. Study the prison you have built around yourself, by inadvertence. By knowing what you are not, you come to know your self.
The way back to your self is through refusal and rejection. One thing is certain: the real is not imaginary; it is not a product of the mind. Even the sense “I am” is not continuous, though it is a useful pointer; it shows where to seek, but not what to seek. Just have a good look at it. Once you are convinced that you cannot say truthfully about your self anything except, “I am”, and that nothing that can be pointed at, can be your real self, the need for “I am” is over—you are no longer intent in verbalizing what you are.
All definitions apply to your body only and to its expressions. Once this obsession with the body goes, you will revert to your natural state, spontaneously and effortlessly. The only difference between us is that I am aware of my natural state, while you are bemused. Just like gold made into ornaments has no advantage over gold dust, except when the mind makes it so, so are we one in being—we differ only in appearance. We discover it by being earnest, by searching, enquiring, questioning daily and hourly, by giving one’s life to this discovery.
Note: “I am” was the mantra given to Maharaj by his guru.”
I leave you with one of her favourite songs influenced by Sufi music, which she loved:
She is a private person and so I have withheld her name, but I think she will appreciate the fact that her life has meant something to me.