This summer I was gifted with time. I chose to use that gift to practice stillness: sitting in mindful presence with nothing but the quiet lap of the ocean, the occasional otter sliding back to its watery home and the whisper of the wind in the Arbutus keeping me company. It was precious time and I coveted it, allowing it to spread its gentle fingers throughout my day till even the bus seat, on infrequent trips to town, bore the quiet imprint of these moments.
It was made more precious with the innate knowledge I was on borrowed time – that it was not to last despite my desires. Life is not a collage of quiet moments such as these but rather the opposite. "Life,” as Pietro Abela, a teacher of mine, states, "is meant to challenge us.” So, within months, almost to prove this point, I was transported across the ocean, half way around the world, as companion to a friend seeking orthopedic surgery. I landed in Chennai, India, the absolute antithesis to my idyllic summer repose.
Chennai, the fourth largest city in India, is an incredibly busy metropolis of pedestrians, motorbikes, scooters, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, water buffalos, open air buses teeming with commuters, single occupancy SUVs, tea houses, street side vendors, luxury car dealerships, sari draped women scrubbing laundry on the roadside, homeless begging for their next meal, colourful Hindu shrines, barefoot children walking to school, sidewalks broken and littered with debris and animal waste, high end Adidas retail stores and glossy office buildings shimmering like beacons in the thick, humid and smoggy air coating your skin like a layer of insect repellant. And then there is sound. Chennai knows no quiet lap of water, only the constant din of two stroke Rickshaws revving their engines, four stroke Ambassadors backfiring and horns honking. Every one honks: they honk when they are behind you, beside you, even in front of you. They honk to let you know they are there, when they are not there and for the sheer pleasure of it. One Chennai vendor proudly stated that it was what Madras (the city’s previous name) was famous for. Into this proud, boisterous, loud, progressive yet conservative and traditional town I landed and proceeded to learn a lesson in what it means to be truly present.
The first and foremost lesson I learned is that presence is more complicated than a mindful meditation at the beach. Sure I can be present to life when all is still and calm, safe and beautiful but what happens when one, let alone all of these elements are withdrawn? In Chennai I walked on the main road with other pedestrians, traffic weaving in and out of our space, horns blaring, tail pipes bellowing noxious fumes, knowing I had to be constantly aware of not only where I was stepping but in what direction. A misstep meant certain death or, at least, an excrement soaked foot. The couple of times I fell to daydreaming found near misses with motorbikes that left me stomping down on erupting panic. I forced myself to be vigilant. Over time, I got used to the traffic, could feel its rhythm while numbing out the noise and waded in with the stream of pedestrians, flowing in and around the obstacles that arose. But I wasn’t truly present. I was instead, hyper-alert with a gnawing emptiness inside; I was just surviving. Surviving, lesson number two, is not presence.
My companion suffered medical complications leading me to irrationally fear for her life. I sat with her many an hour, trying to maintain grounding, find my centre and stay present. It was exceedingly difficult and humbling. At times all I wanted was to sink into the romance novel that lay calling by my bedside. I read three books during that period. Other times, I feigned sleep, day dreamed or did energy work with the goal of helping, healing … fixing. Some times, however, I was present. Sometimes I was there, feeling what I was experiencing inside, yet aware of what was happening around me. Feeling my connection with both earth and universe, sensing a oneness that needed no help and no fix. In this, I learned lesson number three: presence is not about perfect form or doing the right thing. Presence is about showing up – stepping up to the plate and saying, "yes, I am more than just a part of this, I am this.”
As I write this, I realize that I did experience presence once while crossing the streets of Chennai. There were about fifteen of us pedestrians crammed on a two foot wide meridian. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes streamed behind and before us. We waited, those in front curling our toes so oncoming traffic wouldn’t run over them and me praying that no one behind felt the need to push or suffer a seizure, when I saw a massive air conditioned bus go by with comfortably seated white tourists. I suddenly felt alive. Despite the heat, humidity, smog and crash of people, I was joyful. I was not only on the ground but was grounded. There I was, surrounded by humanity and all its consequences and blessings, gifts and fears and I was truly there – accepting; being – present to life.
Jo-Ann Svensson is an ARC Bodywork Therapist who practices open-hearted listening and creating deeper intimacy.