A few years ago I was watching a program on television that had an interview of a sociologist who had studied different funeral rites in European countries. Explaining how our way of honoring those who have passed is directly linked to our concept of death, he then turned to ask the journalist, “What is the opposite of death, according to you?”
“Life!” answered the journalist without hesitation, as if it were completely obvious. The same answer had occurred to me, although doubt had begun to take root.
“That is the habitual response one receives from people in our western culture,” pursued the sociologist, "but if you ask an Asian the same question — Indian, Chinese or Japanese, for example — they would answer 'birth'."
When I was a young boy, I loved to swim in the ocean in a place called Jones Beach. Happy to be out of the suburbs for the day, I'd run into the water, make my way out to the biggest waves and body surf as far as possible into shore. Again and again and again. I wasn't a great body surfer, but good enough to have a lot of fun.
Of course, there were always those moments, standing out there in the shifting sands beneath my feet, when a monster wave would appear, gathering force like some kind of outtake from a 1950s Japanese disaster movie.
It didn't take a whole lot of smarts to realize that those waves were way too big for me to ride — forces of nature not only over my head, but entirely out of my league.
I had only one choice: duck.
“I have good news for you,” Maharaji often says. “You are alive.” I sometimes feel that the essence of his message can be expressed in one short sentence: Life itself is the greatest gift. But do I really experience my life that way? And what does gift really mean?
When I was a child, my father came home from work every day at 5:15 p.m., and the family had dinner together at 5:30. Occasionally, perhaps two or three times a year, my father had to make a short business trip.
His absence, even for just a few days, was so different from the daily routine that it was a very noticeable change.
As many fathers probably do, he got into the habit of bringing back little gifts for the children. And as many children probably do, my younger brother and I started anticipating and focusing on these gifts more than on our father. We knew it wasn’t very nice, but we were little kids and we were caught up in the exciting possibility of receiving a new toy. It was hard to hide that jumping up and down, impatient, “wadja bring me” feeling.
In the south of Brazil, close to the border of Argentina, we have a custom of drinking maté or chimarrão in a type of calabash gourd known as a cuia. It's customary to drink this strong and bitter infusion — a mix of yerba maté leaves and hot water — through a metal straw.
The gaúchos, inhabitants of the lowlands known as the pampas, drink it all day long. They form a circle and pass the cuia from one person to another. Everyone drinks in turn, and it’s a very convivial moment.
I spent a lot of time, in my youth, in Rio de Janeiro. It was there that a met a gaúcha who became a friend. She invited me to visit her at her home in Bagé, in the state of Rio Grande du Sul. It was there that I tasted my first chimarrão and there, also, that I was first invited to a meeting to hear about a message. I had thought, after discovering this beverage with a bitter taste, that there were perhaps some sweeter things to be discovered in this region of the south.
Sometimes it takes almost a lifetime to truly understand some of the things Maharaji teaches. It might seem true when you hear it, but you don't know it because you have not lived it. Recently I lived through an experience that I would like to share.
As a young child abandoned by his mother, my dad was sent away to boarding school at the age of eight. From there he went straight to the navy at the time of World War II. He grew up fast and quickly learnt that emotions, in those environments, were a sign of weakness. Growing up as he did, he could not in any way relate to children.
Fast-forward many years and along comes child number three, me… the queen of emotions. He believed that children should not be seen or heard and I was determined to be seen, heard and everything in between. Over the years it is safe to say we pretty much disagreed about everything. If he said go left I would immediately go right. He would sneak chicken bones into my vegetarian soup because it was an absurd idea not to eat meat. He thought I should stay in England to try my hand at modeling and I headed off to the Caribbean to be a mother instead. On and on it went. What we did have in common, though, was an extreme unwillingness to see things from a different perspective. That was just who we were — or should I say who I thought we were.