It was 3am in Bangalore. 14 March 2020. Coronavirus was sucking the life from India all around me. I was on my own, sleeping in a building abandoned for the night save for a young boy, Suri, and his mother somewhere in a basement apartment below. I hung up the phone, stepped onto the metal fire escape into the warm night, shaking and trying to catch my breath.
Lessons in grace
Akshay’s words hung in my mind, bits of fabric, tangled. “You’ve been searching for your purpose, but…” He paused. “No matter where you go, who you meet, you blow people’s hearts open. That is your purpose.”
I started to cry. He pressed on. “Isn’t that what you learned from Pratik, just tonight? That we need to have our heart blown open for grace to grab us and pull us up out of ourselves. You do that for others.” He took an audible breath… “It was done for you, tonight. Of course you’re scared. You were just grabbed and blown open.”
Before I had called Akshay, my dearest friend home in Nagpur, I couldn’t sleep. Finally, the words stitched themselves together, and I was overcome with awe and terror. “You don’t need to know why, Lisa,” Pratik had said, “It’s not for us to know. We just surrender. Only then does grace…” And the world as I knew it fell apart and came together anew, in an instant.
I settled on the memory of Akshay sitting across from me in Goa. The Arabian Sea off to my right, a beer warming between us on the sticky table. Akshay’s flight to Nagpur was the next day, and the friend who was supposed to meet me canceled.
“What the hell am I supposed to do?” Akshay had asked, again. “I can’t leave you alone. It’s not right.”
With a heart full to bursting I said, “You will go. I’m telling you to go.” And I meant it.
The next day I watched his taxi pull away. It was the last time I saw him.
Decoding Maslow’s Hierarchy
Maslow’s self-actualization project was really about trying to discover the central values that make us most fully human. After years of interviews with healthy subjects, Maslow came to identify self-actualization as the process of further integrating universal human values, the living of which frees the person from ego-driven needs.
I wrote this in my journal at 3:24am on the morning of 14 March: “The energy of the universe made the right words come out of my mouth. I didn’t see my ‘letting him go’ as a choice. There was just a knowing what needed to happen for both our growth. Both our decisions were illogical. I knew the suffering he was heading into. I knew that he was going to see for the first time the lie that sometimes lays dormant in ‘I love you.’ I know that the resulting rage will become compassion one day. What I didn’t know at the time was just how important it was for me to prove to Akshay that to love me he does not have to give himself away. That I was strong enough to stand on my own. And he needed to know he can grow without me.”
When he had left me in Goa 7 days earlier, I had returned to my room and slept. The next day I awoke and wrote: “He left yesterday, and I felt like my heart left my body. This morning, I feel enlivened and deeply at peace.”
That day, I wrote for hours, again and again taking a crack at Maslow’s mysterious code:
Safety & Belonging
“At the lower levels, I learned what’s safe, what promotes or inhibits my growth with the catalyst of others’ love directed for (or against) me. If I am loved to promote my growth, then I am safe. If I am loved conditionally, then I am fragile and dependent.
“Belonging is a deepening of discernment, of choosing an authentic community that scaffolds our growth. The community protects while the self is being re-constructed. This community must be chosen carefully.
“The belonging need shifts from community to one other with whom there is a mirroring. A depth with this other is not possible without unconditional trust because safety must no longer be a motivation, a need to be met. Courage is necessary. Only through the heart is self-actualization possible. ‘Falling’ in love implies a letting go, losing ground.
Self Esteem & Authenticity
“The scaffold of community replaced with the anchor of oneness with another, I can go deeper and wilder knowing that I am anchored. Through this new depth of safety, love and belonging, I have the courage to find my flow, the flow of my being. Now I can begin the work of self-esteem. This is the next stage of authenticity. Who am I? What are my core values? What is not me? To have esteem means to discern a deep integrity within oneself. Esteem is about integrity, integration.
“Love then becomes a catalyst for self-actualization because my connection with a partner combined with a clear discernment of my values become critical anchors during the’ sturm and drang’ that precedes one of the most profound and difficult transformations in the human journey. These new values will be tested in a culture that does not welcome those who cannot be swayed. The values will and must be challenged in order to become fully integrated, to test what we’re made of. We will welcome these challenges because we know they are required for our growth. This work is about your reality alone. Love is no longer about mirroring one other but seeing the values inherent in humanity. This is the beginning of nondual compassion. It’s the desire to alleviate suffering that connects us one to another.
Self-actualization & Transcendence
Self-actualization demands that we engage deeply with universal truths, not constructs, truths that transcend culture and language and time and location. We become so rooted in truth that nothing external can move us: we care nothing for safety because we understand for the first time that safety is within. I have integrated all needs and found that their fulfillment is within. With this knowing, self-actualization becomes an act of service (because I have no choice but to love) and freedom (because I no longer see the world and others as objects to meet my needs).
I told Akshay that early morning on 14 March, “This love…this love is mine. This love has penetrated me and changed me, healed me, allowed me to go into the shadows and see my worth independent of what others think, to have compassion for those who cannot love, to have hope for Love itself. Self-actualization,” I said, “Is just another theory if it is absent of love’s pulse moving through its center. I had missed the heart of it…until today.”
The role of surrender
Suri, the little boy in the building with whom I had become quite close, was staring at me when I awoke, sitting lotus on the mat opposite mine.
Suri smiled. “Come with me,” he said, taking my hand. I followed him to the large plate of glass at the entrance of the building. He pulled a thick paintbrush from a well of water and spelled his name on the glass: Surender. He turned to me with a grin, “And now you know ‘Surender’.”
The last day we were together, I noticed a scar on Akshay’s knee. I touched it. “It’s from the accident that took everything from me,” he said, taking my hand. I realized that day, the only kind of love worth giving is that which sets another free.
Before he hung up the phone on the 14th, he said, “Remember when I recited the musafir poem to you? And I taught you a new word: rangsaaz?” I thought of the bits of colored fabric, scraps without cohesion, I had sewn together for the quilt I gave him. “I was going to teach you another one, but we had to go. So, here it is: Good night, saaki.”
And in filling another’s cup, both are set free.