The Privilege of Living: A Conversation with Viral Mehta, by Pavithra Mehta
August 1, 2016
In mid-August 2015, Viral Mehta, a co-founder of ServiceSpace.org, was diagnosed with an acute form of bone marrow suppression. In the passages below, written half a year into the diagnosishis wife, Pavithra. “Pavi” Mehta, offers an update on Viral’s condition and speaks with him about his challenges and recovery.
-The Editors (Parabola magazine)
Viral’s recovery is continuing slowly, at its own secret pace. Things are stable overall, though there have been fluctuations with his blood counts…. But the fact that his energy level has been great and that he is showing none of the earlier symptoms is encouraging. These are good signs, and indicative perhaps of resilience in the body at subtler levels than blood tests can measure at this stage. The overall sense from his doctors is that we should continue with the various natural treatments and wait and watch.
It has now been just over six months since we started down this path. Summer has trailed into Autumn, faded into Winter, and is now burgeoning into Spring. We watched the leaves on our young plum tree brown, wither, and fall, and the bare branches stand tall through the Winter. We saw the spring green buds appear almost overnight, and then one magical morning found a misty white veil of plum blossoms waiting for us.
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer.” At nineteen, the poet Dylan Thomas penned these vivid lines. Nineteen! Such a young age to recognize the twin forces of creation and dissolution at play within, and to see them mirrored in the world without. The ancient cycle has never felt quite this fantastically beautiful or fleeting.
The days have been touched with slow wonder. On our daily walks we point out to each other the citrus trees slung heavy with oranges, and rejoice in the magnolia blossoms raised on leafless branches like hundreds of goblets toasting the sun. We notice the hummingbird who visits our window and dazzles us with his aerial antics. The robins who flutter like so many rust-and-gray handkerchiefs into our berry trees. The hilarious squirrels who go through agonies of deliberation, trying to decide which of our flowerpots to dig up. Families of deer with their shy, attentive faces, who come and go on such slender ankles. In the midst of a vast yet strangely intimate tapestry, I feel more vulnerable and more trusting than I have ever felt before. Life is fragile. Nature’s design awe-inspiring. Change is in each moment.
None of this is new information. But the lived experience of it is fresh, keen, and bittersweet. As I told a new friend, it has softened my gaze. Opened doors of compassion for the world, that I didn’t even know were closed. How kindred you and I and all of us are in this thin wrapper of mortality! How casually I have wielded it all these years—this double-edged sword of being human—and all its extraordinary potentials for hurt and healing.
So much depends on perspective.
I remember the morning after our first night back home from the hospital, I woke up and felt like my whole mind and being were enveloped in a deep blanket of peace. The last two days have been a hot blur. A whirling surreality. Now it is just the two of us, here in our shaded room. The quiet air, and the strength of our long-time love between us. And a certainty blooming inside me like a flower in the desert: Everything is going to be fine. My husband opens his eyes. I lean over and repeat these words. Everything is going to be fine. He smiles, and his eyes crinkle at the corners. “Everything is going to be fine. And everything IS fine,” he says in a voice fuzzy with sleep. And after the space of a heartbeat adds gently, “You have to expand the definition of fine.”
Six months later I can honestly say my definition of fine has greatly expanded. I know this because a couple of nights ago, drifting off to sleep, I had a thought that danced between insight and incoherence. And it went something like this: “Life is good. Practice knowing this, Pavi. Practice when life seems good. Practice when life seems uncertain. Practice when life seems anything but.” Far from being a cultivation of denial or passivity, I’m learning how much it is really about a vigorously, vigilantly engaged perception. A way of being and acting in the world that stems increasingly more from love. And less from fear….
Meanwhile, we continue in this oddly sweet retreat-mode, with weekly visits from immediate family, and limited 1:1s with colleagues and friends. Viral has begun to increase his remote engagement on the work front. Between that and the requirements of his treatment regimen, we continue our work with various ServiceSpace projects, we carve out time for stillness, for yoga, for reading and more. Life is full. And life is good. The flow of good-wishes and blessings…continues to refresh and sustain us in special ways. It is no small task to pay forward all that we’ve received. But we intend to keep trying.
Thank you for walking with us.
Pavithra Mehta: Very early on in this experience with serious illness you referred to it as a privilege. Can you expand on what you mean by that?
Viral Mehta: I think our core happiness is determined more by the ways in which we respond internally to the situations we find ourselves in, than by the situations themselves. As Viktor Frankl put it, “No one can take away man’s last freedom. The freedom to choose his or her own attitude given any set of circumstances.” So if you understand your own mind that way—as an agent in your well-being—then regardless of the situation you can look at the consequent state of mind that you’re experiencing as a choice. Much of the time we don’t actively choose our state of mind—our habitual thought patterns and tendencies choose it for us. In that sense our state of mind can be a kind of window into some of our unarticulated patterns, our unconscious beliefs and sense of identity. Basically our experience contains both the conscious and the unconscious mind. It holds both explicit and implicit beliefs and tendencies. When you start to pay close attention to what the mind is doing, then you gradually start to understand which tendencies are helpful and which are not. And you increase your freedom to choose the most skillful response, both internally and externally.
So any experience, and especially intensive ones, give you a window into your own subconscious mind and its blindspots—i.e., it can uncover where there is a hidden tendency of mind. For instance at a rational level you may know you’re going to die, that you’re likely to go through illness, and that these things are inevitable, and you may think that you’re well adjusted to these realities and yet, the lived experience of coming face-to-face with that—with your own mortality… you start to see that you actually have a lot of subconscious and unconscious tendencies. So in a way the privilege is really the privilege to, in short, purify the mind.
PM: Can you clarify what you mean by “purify the mind”?
VM: To make it—no actually, let me rephrase that—to experience it becoming more harmonized and less self-undermining. Our tendencies of mind aren’t always in our best interest. And so, the more that we can become aware of and support those tendencies in dissolving, the more we can actually act from a place of freedom and from a place that is cognizant of what is real in this moment, and the less dis-ease we experience.
PM: What do you mean by “a place of what is real in this moment”?
VM: Experiencing reality more in alignment with how it actually is, in an unfiltered way. Or filtered consciously, without distortion from your own strong patterns of perception, interpretation, and reaction.
It’s hard to project anything on anybody else, not knowing their lived experience. But speaking from my own experience, I’ve tried to hold that space within myself in structured ways over the years through meditation, and I see a direct relationship between that and a progression on this path of a more fluid immersion into reality.
PM: What has that process been for you?
VM: I practice Vipassana. And the process for me, in a way, has been to endeavor to simplify, or come to a more root level of experience within the dimensions of being. The thoughts that you have, the emotions that you feel, the sensations that you experience, etc., all of this is operating simultaneously—in a massively parallel, highly unconsciously generated and propagated manner. We live in the midst of the swirl of what it means to be alive. So coming to the root level for me in my experience has been being at a place where I am actually increasingly aware of all of these things, but in particular remaining rooted in the experience of literal feeling in the body.
The body is a very sensitive instrument, both in our perception of reality but also in our grounding of reality. The body always exists in the present moment. You can feel the body and its sensations only in the present moment, whereas thought and emotion can very easily sweep you away from your present reality. The bodily feeling—even within that there’s an entire spectrum. You can touch your hand and that’s one level of feeling. But in fact at a subtler level the body is in constant contact with the mind at all times, and so the greater your perception of the subtle things happening in the body, the greater your direct perception of the impact of the mind from moment to moment.
So at a more concrete level we know that there are all these hormones and electromagnetic impulses that are constantly being triggered and regulated throughout our system. Whether it’s the connection between the release of dopamine and the surge of happiness that we might feel, or at an experiential level, the pit in your stomach when you’re anxious or nervous, there’s no questioning a deep, rapid, and continuous, iterative connection between the body and the mind. Iterative in the sense that it goes in both ways—it’s not just that the mind is affecting the body, but that how you experience that feeling in the body, is in turn then affecting the mind again—which in turn connects to the body and so on, on a very minute and rapid basis.
One part of the process or exercise is actually to feel at increasingly subtle levels. And the other part is not to generate the type of reactivity to what you’re feeling, which would just keep the propagation going.
PM: This “not generating”—is it a clamping down?
VM: I think the subtler thing that’s happening is that you’re just seeing the cause and effect of your reactions and so in that sense you are really basically putting yourself in a position where deep, root-level learning can occur.
I was talking to my friend “J” and she was talking about how as a very young child she was just puzzled by why people ever got angry, because anger just felt so bad. Anger was concomitant with feeling terrible. And why would we ever choose that for ourselves? Why do we choose that for ourselves? So somehow for her that deep learning had taken place for her at a very early age, and even to this day, she just doesn’t really get angry. But going back to that question of how do we not react, we also have to realize that it is a very iterative thing. We might hear the example of J, but in reality effective learning doesn’t happen at an intellectual level, you actually have to keep learning internally and iteratively until the habitual neuron firing pattern that we’ve built up over time gets, over time, de-programmed. So when we talk about learning it’s not an intellectual learning, it’s really a deep neuronal level learning—and actually it’s also more about un-learning at that level.
PM: How is this different from passivity?
VM: It’s actually a greater, more refined kind of aliveness in the sense that you’re more alive to so many different dimensions of your experience instead of being limited by and herded along unskillful corridors of reactivity. You can actually and do actually start to make active choices. So it’s not about avoiding action, but about choosing action consciously and in wisdom and consistent with your actual greater self-interest.
Viral and Pavi Metha
PM: Your recovery path has its own pace and unpredictability. How are you feeling about it all?
VM: Right now I’m feeling more clear about feeling unclear. Meaning that, when uncertainties of this sort surface, it’s a reminder to remain rooted in the unknown. And in actuality, life is fundamentally that way, in the sense that no one can definitively say what is going to happen—it’s all emergent, including at the level of one’s own literal life. Anyway, with this most recent turn, it’s a great signal that here’s still some work to be done to really make that notion the basis of this whole period. This newer uncertainty that has come back up again with the dip in the counts—there’s something to learn from this. You can get lulled into thinking you are past something, or through with something, when that isn’t the actual reality.
Every situation gives you an opportunity to work in a particular dimension. And right now what’s surfaced is this sense of “Let’s not Assume.” And a renewed conviction that our sense of stability or security needs to come from a deeper place than a set of favorable external conditions. And this period of uncertainty is a great opportunity to continue deepening in that practice. That said, I actually feel good at all levels, physically, mentally, etc. I don’t think we fully understand the underlying patterns of what’s happening here. But it’s spurring us to patiently trust the natural emergence and not look too deeply into the numbers. Intuitively things feel like they are in process towards balancing. But psychologically the emphasis is on engaging with this state of “not knowing” and finding a truer stability in that.
It’s a good life. ♦
Update from the author: It's been almost three years since the above interview. Viral's recovery, as well as his internal practice, have continued and he has been stable enough to back at work full-time for over two years now As his immunity counts are still much lower than is considered normal we have maintained certain restrictions and elements of the "retreat-mode" lifestyle that we adopted at the start of this journey. There continue to be rich learnings and more blessings than can be named along the way. It's a good life.
This article originally appeared in Parabola, which is a not-for-profit organization. Four times a year for over thirty-five years it has gathered the wisdom of the world's spiritual traditions to illuminate the central questions of life. Author Pavithra Mehta is a writer and filmmaker, and coauthor of the book Infinite Vision, She is a volunteer with ServiceSpace, and co-editor of Daily Good.