These remarks were delivered for a fall seminar series at Harvard Divinity School.
All Things are Subtly Interconnected
I have spent enough time at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) now to know that there are a few general ways of beginning any set of remarks such as this. One way is to take the title of Spirituality and Mental Health Advocacy, the name of today’s meeting, and pick apart each word in order to define and ‘problematize” it. I am not intelligent enough to do that. Another way is to launch into a passionate sermon with fist-raising fervor that leaves you wondering about the words Spirituality, Mental Health, and Advocacy, without ever saying them. I am not eloquent enough to do that. Yet another way, especially common in my field of Hindu Studies, is to dig up a centuries old religious text and through the powers of my linguistic training, show ten possible definitions of a Sanskrit word, one of which would be “mental health”, and then proceed to draw conclusions about centuries of intersection between spirituality and mental health. I am not academic enough to do that. What I am, though, is a person with strong opinions (loosely held) and a storyteller. Allow me then to share three opinions, three stories, and a fact with you as a way of making the connections in my own life between spirituality and mental health advocacy. Before I do that, however, three caveats:
One: a trigger warning. Some of the material I am about to present will deal with themes of schizophrenia, suicide, stigma, and mental illness in general. If you become uncomfortable at any point please do not hesitate to leave and care for yourself as needed. The Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Center is located in the new Smith Center and is open until 6 PM today.
Two: specificity. I am not an expert in any of the topics I will bring up today. I will thus only attempt to speak to my own personal experience of tying advocacy and spirituality, and I will hope that you can apply those specific lessons to the general spiritual lives lived by all of you here today. This exercise of drawing generalizations from incredibly specific circumstances is literally the process of scholarship, so I trust you are all comfortable with it.
Three: If you have taken any classes with Dr. Hallisey before, I apologize if you hear some repetition during the course of my remarks because I will certainly be quoting him. Of all the wonderful experiences I’ve had at the Divinity School, some of my favorite have been the feeling of new avenues, replete with unpaved roads and luminous streetlamps, opening in my mind upon hearing his words.
Now that the long introduction is out of the way, let me begin with one of my three stories, and a quick one.
I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop the other day, typing away at my keyboard towards a short story, when I just happened to look up. Across the length of the pristine white coffee bar, stained by mistakes, was a woman wearing a t-shirt. The t-shirt said, “All things are subtly interconnected.” What do we understand from the use of the word “subtly”? Why not just say, “all things are interconnected”? For me, “subtly” is about the idea that those connections are hard to see and feel. In the same vein that we say a work of modern art is “subtle”, the connections only make sense to the discerning eye. Maybe, then, both spirituality and mental health advocacy are exercises of training ourselves to see these subtle connections. In any case, it’s time for one of my strong opinions, phrased in Hallisey-ian terms.
Opinion 1: We literally do not know what we are talking about when we talk about spirituality.
I am confused about spirituality. As far as I have seen, one person’s definition or understanding of spirituality can directly contradict another’s, and they could both be right. In that way, it is a term similar to the term Hinduism, which I am also confused about, but I embrace it nonetheless because I think Hinduism or spirituality both should give me cause to question and see anew, instead of seek comfort in things that I hope to be true. Spirituality has become such a nebulous term that instead of marking a particular belief it might be more indicative of marking a particular time in history, the one we inhabit, when people define their belief systems in contradiction to what has come before through the demarcation of “spiritual” as opposed to “religious”. In other words, spirituality has to mean something different than religion because it is so desperately trying to mean something different. Mind you, we don’t know what we are talking about when we talk about religion either. To me, it has always seemed that the category of Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) is a bit like the person who refers to himself as Joe because his given name Joseph is not as appealing to him. Joe only exists because Joseph does, and so I think it is with SBNR.
I hope it is clear how confused I am about this term. My thinking is yet highly underdeveloped in regards to all that spirituality can or should mean, so I hope those of you with more developed understandings will forgive me. Despite this relative ignorance, I have found it necessary to define a system of spirituality that works for me. Such a system, if represented as a tree, would be deeply rooted in my Hindu upbringing, and its trunk would be the Hindu education and understanding I’ve accumulated separate from my upbringing. Of course, it draws from many other elements as well, namely early Buddhist and Zen thought among many others – these are the branches leading out of the tree trunk, grasping for what else the tree might reach, intertwine with, and ultimately become. Trees, we should remember, are living, growing things that are necessarily affected by the actions taking place around them – actions that are of nature and those that are of human intention (both good and bad). That is to say, my system is subject to changes in the rain that affect the soil, but it is simultaneously subject to being chopped down with a heavy axe.
In the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism that I am born from, people often receive revelations whilst sitting under trees (specifically the pipal tree, or sacred fig). So it is fitting to describe my spiritual system with that metaphor because it is only under its peaceful shadow that I begin to make sense of the world around me and my place in it. Let me not give the impression that I have received anything remotely resembling a revelation, but instead that I am striving to think and question my existence thanks to the nurture and vocabulary offered by my tree. In other words, even if my grasp of spirituality is yet inchoate, I have to start somewhere. Which leads me to my second opinion.
Opinion 2: We are all part of a universal Brahman
The particular strain of Hinduism that I am closest to, for those who know their Hindu philosophy or prefer to categorize things, is Advaita Vedanta. This is otherwise known as non-dualist thinking. Nondualist thinking in this tradition says that the universe in its entirety is comprised of a formless, infinite Brahman (with a capital B, not to be confused with the priestly caste in Hindu society). The corollary is that all of us have an individual soul called an Atman, which is a piece of the overall Brahman. The Atman is a soul that is everlasting and takes bodily form again and again as we reincarnate on Earth, until we’ve reached a state of liberation. At which point, we no longer reincarnate and instead remain as one with Brahman. Of course, we were already all part of Brahman to begin with, so this can be incredibly confusing. I like to think that the sages who came up with this philosophy in the past were debating one day and realized that this opacity could occur. And instead of coming to a final resolution, they decided to let future generations figure something out from this generative tension. I wish more people thought about ancient religious thought in this way – it might save us a lot of arguments in the present.
Still, they did not leave us with a completely blank slate, and there are certain ways of understanding this spirituality that I have held dear over the years. From one of the primary textual collections of this thinking in Hinduism, the Upanisads, let us consider a small example.
A son, eager to learn more about the nature of the world, approaches his father who is spiritually learned. The son asks his father, “what is the nature of Brahman? How can I understand?” The father, instead of answering him directly, tells his son to bring him a glass of water and a chunk of salt. So the son does it, probably thinking his old man is toying with him. The father asks the son to then empty the salt into the water.
The father says, “alright! Come back in a few hours!” So the son goes off to do whatever people did in ancient times – reading, watching the monkeys swing around, etc.
The son comes back, impatient to see where this is going, and asks the father again: “what is the nature of Brahman?”
The father says, “son, can you see the salt in that glass?”
“No,” the son says. It had dissolved of course.
“Okay, taste it from the bottom left part of the glass. What do you taste?”
“Salt!” the son says.
“Hmm, okay, what about the top right part?”
“Salt!” the son says.
“What about right in the center?”
He sticks his tongue in and says, “Salt!”
“Pour out the water and come back in a few hours,” the father says. The son does that and comes back, and the father asks, “do you see anything?”
“I can see the salt,” the son says.
“Such is Brahman, my son, like the salt in the water that is this world. And such are you, as well.”
Now, even though that’s a fun example, it can still be a bit difficult to derive any spiritual feeling from it. Let me offer yet another way to understand this opinion of mine. Consider all of us, sitting here together. Reality presents itself such that we appear as entirely distinct forms with entirely distinct bodies and minds. My body is separate from yours and I can even reach out from within my body and touch your body, thus really knowing that we are two separate things. Yet, what is beneath these bodies? Beneath are organs, and organs made up of molecules. If you want to go deeper you can know that molecules are made up of atoms, atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, electrons. Subatomic particles are made up of quarks, quarks are made up of… and so on and so on until eventually, when you drill all the way down all you get is formless, indistinct energy. So even though reality presents itself as our forms being distinct, we know that the building blocks of these forms are made up of the same material all the way down. A quote from Robert Musil, in The Man Without Qualities, but which I read in Didier Fassin’s Life: A Critical User’s Manual. “Life forms a surface that acts as if it could not be otherwise, but under its skin things are pounding and pulsing.”
Finally, let me try to explain this spiritual concept of Brahman in one more manner, in one line. All things are subtly interconnected.
Now, a last opinion:
Opinion 3: If I believe what I have outlined above, regarding the interconnectedness of things, and I am provided the proper impetus, I have no other moral choice but to become a mental health advocate.
I was given that impetus, even though I wish to this day that it had come earlier, and come in a different way. My second story is next, but before continuing I must share a quote from Dr. Hallisey: “What I know about myself to be true is that I’m a danger to other people.”
When I was 6 years old, I flew from India to Dallas. I don’t remember much from those early days in America, but I remember being lonely. I was an only child, and I didn’t know how I was going to adjust in the new country, new school. Hey, I couldn’t even tie my own shoes yet! Luckily, I met a friend who lived in my apartment complex. His name was Ajay, he was 4 years older than me, and also an only child. Naturally, we became inseparable, and Ajay taught me how to thrive as a nerdy kid in late 90’s America.
It was Ajay who showed me Pokemon for the first time, effectively guaranteeing that my brain would think of nothing else for the next few years. We would find ourselves rushing home from elementary school, making it to his home just in time to see Ash win another battle. It was Ajay who showed me how to roller-skate, to zip through our apartment complex making friends with the other tenants. We did our best to emulate the scenes from our favorite video games, assigning each other secret agent numbers and playing advanced hide-and-seek. We’d go to the temple with our families, and Ajay would teach me the art of passing temple time. You see, temple time passes much slower than any other time you spend waiting for your parents, like Dillard’s time and Home Depot time (just to give a few particularly boring examples). We grew up together in those days, and always closer, despite him being four years older than me in age.
As the years went by and we changed schools and addresses, we always kept in touch. I would look forward to the weekends when I could sleepover at Ajay’s apartment, learning about cool video games, good movies, and bad words. My early taste in Quentin Tarantino movies and Weezer songs both came from Ajay. Of course, our favorite pastime was going to CiCi’s Pizza for any special occasion or excuse that we could think of. I guess you could say we made sure to grow chubby together, just as we grew up together.
Eventually, Ajay moved on to college at UT Austin, the same year that I started high school. And for the first time, we were cities apart. Left on our own, we made new friends and grew busy, but I still looked up to Ajay and hoped to follow in his footsteps to UT.
Until one day in my junior year of high school, Ajay first started showing signs of a condition that would come to consume him. I remember the night too vividly when his parents called my father in agony, dumbfounded by Ajay’s behavior, and desperately asked for his help. According to Ajay’s father, Ajay had come home from college for summer break and acted like a different person altogether. His grades had dropped and he suffered from the guilt and pressure that all Indian children know when it comes to academics. He was yelling at his parents and throwing food at them. I was shocked, my parents were stunned. My father and I jumped in the car to go meet Ajay and his father, and I kept thinking during the car ride that there must be some huge mistake or overreaction. When we reached the parking lot of the Target that Ajay’s father had called us from in panic, when I opened the car door, I realized he wasn’t overreacting. I saw it in Ajay’s eyes: bloodshot, wide open with a look of guilt, like he knew he’d done something wrong but he couldn’t have controlled it. My parents brought him to our house and tried to counsel him.
Eventually, Ajay did pull himself together, and his parents, who had become like a second family to me, thanked us and took him back to Austin. I would eventually join him there and restart our friendship during my freshman year at UT. It was time again to learn from Ajay – this time about the best tofu places on campus, and where to find the free t-shirts.
In my second year, just before winter break, I called Ajay to ask for a ride home for the holidays. He agreed, but fabricated stories about my roommate and caused drama that drove a rift in our friendship. I was angry at him for lying and I drove him away. Our friendship frayed and eventually tore apart, and even when I tried to sow it back together in the future, he was wary of me. When I rode with Ajay to Dallas for that 2010 winter break, it would be one of the last days I spent quality time with him.
I didn’t realize then that Ajay was exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia. He didn’t tell me, his best friend, about what he was going through. He didn’t tell his dad, he didn’t tell his mom, he suffered in silence. For years. He passed away in the fall of 2015, and I can’t help but feel that his life could’ve taken an entirely different path if it weren’t for the stigma that silenced him and kept me ignorant.
I wonder what went through Ajay’s head in the past few years. Maybe he had forgotten our times together, the laughs we shared and all that he had taught me. If that’s what his illness could do, then I hate it. I hate that Ajay had to go through such an internal battle. I hate that he couldn’t be the jovial, brilliant kid I had always known. I hate that he died without being my friend again, without letting me share one more slice of pizza with him or lecturing me on his opinions about the latest internet meme. Because, Ajay was my best friend and he always will be.
Now, a painful fact.
My friend’s story is far from an anomaly. It took a shock like that for me to have the compassion necessary, but in reality, mental health already affects us all. Some statistics can paint a broader picture: the Government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) declared that nearly 20% of American adults suffer from some mental illness. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And according to the Association for Suicide Prevention, there is an average of 123 suicides per day in America.
I bring up the stark numbers of this reality because it shows that any of us could deal with mental health. See, mental health exists on a spectrum, from healthy to severely ill, just like physical health. Being stressed, for example, is an instance of being mentally unwell. But stigma blinds us to this viewpoint: At the turn of the millennium, the U.S. Surgeon General said stigma was the biggest barrier to mental health care. We have been effectively socialized to hold negative attitudes toward mental illness in a vicious circle: First, we do not understand mental illness because we are unaware. Then, we fear what we do not understand. Third, we distance those who we fear, we reject them from our society. Fourth, this social rejection worsens the well-being of those with mental illness – they closet their symptoms and themselves because of stigma, sometimes leading to early mortality, like the case of Ajay. And finally, we continue to not understand as a result!
But this doesn’t merely happen on a personal level – the CDC recently reported that stigma results in a lower prioritization of public resources and worse quality of care. Research has shown that stigma and embarrassment were top reasons why those with mental illness did not engage in medication adherence or help-seeking behaviors.
Mental health has affected, does affect, and will continue to affect – all of us. So if we want to avoid stereotypes and defeat stigma, the first step is to be more aware. There’s no other way. Then we want to move from a state of being aware to a state of care. We want to replace a system of stigma with a system of support. And the thing about stigma is, the simple act of caring can solve the problem!
See, I live a blessed life. Each day, literally every day without fail, I thank the universe/ God for what I have been given. When I lost my friend, it was one of the first times I dealt with a death like that: undeserved, undiscriminating, and cold. Faced with that pain, I had a choice to make between turning it into negative or positive energy, and I chose positive. I wanted to do something so that what happened to my friend did not need to happen to others in my community. I wanted to create within others a view of compassion for those with mental health issues. Crucially, I also wanted to make myself a better person, someone who could understand, empathize with, and support those with mental illness. Because: all things are subtly interconnected.
Time for a last story.
As a result of all I have shared with you, I got together with friends and created an organization called MannMukti, which translates to “mental liberation” in Hindi. Our mission is to encourage healthy, open dialogue of South Asian mental health in an effort to remove stigma, improve awareness, and promote self-care. From our first meeting in July 2016, to launching our website in May 2017, to now, I have experienced incredible ups and downs in my advocacy journey. I have been fortunate enough to speak about Ajay and the need for compassion on a TEDx stage, today on the Harvard campus, and many other locales.
Most importantly, this past April MannMukti had its first annual retreat, where we welcomed members from all over to Austin, TX and spent a weekend together. We clubbed that together with an event hosted by our volunteers called Slam the Stigma, which was an evening of speeches about mental health, followed by an open mic. The stories that people shared at that open mic, still give me chills when I think about them. I saw deep, deep vulnerability and pain. But then when I got back to the retreat house (I had arrived later than most), there was literally a Bollywood dance party going on in the house. These people were actively defying the stereotypes around mental illness that declared how they were supposed to act.
At brunch the next morning, sitting outside on a patio that overlooked Lake Austin, we started to debrief about the previous night’s event. Every time someone said they wished that such a safe space/ event existed when they were in college, a profound doubt swelled up inside me: Could this have prevented Ajay from passing away? Was he proud of what we were doing down here? People went on to share how much MannMukti had meant to them. It had given someone cause to control their suicidal thoughts. Given another reason to keep going when times were tough. Given another the hope that people are out there who really will support them. Needless to say, the floodgates in our eyes had opened by this point. Against the serene backdrop of sandstone hills and trees sloping down to Lake Austin, the hot Texas sun beating down on our skin, there was a torrent of emotion inside each of us. I felt that I had enough tears to fill the lake. Long after others had left the table, I remained there crying unstoppably. Reflecting back on that experience gave me cause to write the first and only poem I’ve written:
Tears not from our eyes, taps
Direct connect to project
Hurt, with so much history
From the soul out to the sun
Rivers flow – words waiting for release
If we could only make this stigma cease
We swim through the tears
To meet with our fears
Know that on this day we are
We simply are
No designations of disorders
Nor shame from judgmental orders
When I was born, my eyes
They looked like this
It curved like this
That pounded like
Know me for these or know me not at all
Either way, I just
I can confidently say that creating this organization and keeping even one life from feeling alone or uncared for, from ending too early, is the best thing I have ever done with this life.
I was chatting with a friend of mine, Ibrahim Kamal, who graduated from here last year. Because we are Divinity School students and have nothing better to discuss, we were talking about what kind of impact we want to have on the world. Ibrahim phrased it in a way that has stuck with me: “I want to change the world by changing how people see the world.” I am on that same spiritual journey.
Still, I have limitations. As much as I want to save everyone, I cannot. Just weeks ago, someone who I’ve never met bared their life experiences to me over Facebook messenger. I offered what support I could and directed them to MannMukti’s resources, but they kept chatting me with increasingly worrisome messages. Eventually, they confided in me that they’d had a suicide attempt. I’m not a medical professional and my abilities, MannMukti’s abilities, cease at that juncture. All I can do at that point is tell them to check themselves into a hospital or call the police on their behalf so they’ll be taken to a hospital.
I’ll never know whether the existence of MannMukti could’ve kept my friend alive for longer. But I can hope that my advocacy will change the course of events of even one person’s life so they don’t experience what Ajay did. And even after knowing that my advocacy has helped people, I have to question myself, under the shade of my spiritual tree. Am I now compassionate enough? Am I a different person from everything that came before?
Compassion and awareness have no magic switches. Each day I must commit to understanding someone else’s story, I have to commit to listening, caring, and supporting. All of you listening to this today, I hope you take a step with me towards a stigma-free world. Then take a thousand more steps with me. I’ll try to support you if ever your foot falters. I’ll hug you when it seems too cold to go on. Because a friend of mine taught me how to care. Because my tree taught me to become better. Because all things are subtly interconnected.
I’d like to conclude with a poem titled November 3rd, by Kenji Miyazawa, found folded and tucked away in his pocket when he passed from this world, as if he were reading and reminding himself of it every day. It is a poem that occupies a prominent place on my wall and one that I only know, of course, through Dr. Hallisey:
Neither yielding to rain
nor yielding to wind
yielding neither to
snow nor to summer heat
with a stout body
never getting angry
always smiling quietly
eating one and a half pints of brown rice
and bean paste and a bit of
vegetables a day
not taking oneself
looking listening understanding well
and not forgetting
living in the shadow of pine trees in a field
in a small
hut thatched with miscanthus
if in the east there’s a
going and nursing
if in the west there is a tired mother
going and carrying for her
bundles of rice
if in the south
you don’t have to be
if in the north
there’s a quarrel
or a lawsuit
saying it’s not worth it
in a drought
in a cold summer
pacing back and forth lost
nor thought a pain
is what I want