The Circle [Preface: The nunnery in which I live in northern India, Thosamling, hosts residents, visitors and volunteers from around the world. India is a haven for spiritual aspirants, and spiritual work here is rarely easy, elegant or expedient. But this haven can deepen one’s connection to Divinity in even the most undignified of times when one is willing to accept it on its own terms.]
When all my dignity is gone, this child is still there, trusting.
At 10:30 Monday morning I was carried out from the nunnery on a stretcher. An Indian gardener, a French pastry chef and a French osteopath carried me ten minutes down a narrow rocky path as a Dutch carpenter walked ahead and an Indian yoga teacher walked behind.
When they laid me down on the dirt road to wait for the car to arrive, the pastry chef knelt beside me and took my hand. He began slowly tracing circles around my palm with his finger. In a quiet voice he said, “There is nothing else happening in your body right now except this circle. Just focus on this circle, okay?”
I couldn’t open my eyes to look at him but tried to give all my attention to the circle. It was at once soothing and consoling.
The Dutch abbess of the nunnery pulled up in the Thosamling van. The carpenter helped me into the back bench seat where I could lie down, and the osteopath and yoga teacher slid into the middle bench seat.
As the abbess pulled away, the osteopath turned around, leaned over the seat back, and gently took my hand. She began tracing circles around my palm with her finger, and never let go of me until we arrived at the hospital thirty minutes later.
Fourteen hours earlier a German Tibetan-language translator had heard me yell HELP from my room. I had been yelling periodically for forty minutes after sudden weakness and fever had come up and rapidly increased. Everyone was away from their rooms at that time attending prayers and a talk; during this same time I had also texted four people asking for help but everyone had left their phones in their rooms.
The translator arrived to find me flushed and with pain in my mid-back and stomach, so she went to fetch an Austrian nun who is a former nurse. In the meantime one of the people I had texted, a German nun, arrived. The nuns took my temperature while the translator went to get cold juice and ice. The nuns removed the thermometer before it beeped because it seemed to be taking too long; the reading at that point was 39.9C, or 103.9F.
The abbess soon arrived in my room, followed by the osteopath. The Austrian nun left and came back with aspirin. The Germans put ice on my head and wet towels around my legs, and helped me sip cold orange juice. The abbess called the doctor.
The aspirin and cold applications gradually began to reduce my fever, and the abbess and German nun took shifts checking on me throughout the night. I took aspirin promptly every four hours trying to keep the fever down.
Diarrhea that had slowly started hours earlier became urgent by midnight. I woke up four times in the night shitting on myself. My mid-back and stomach grew more painful.
By morning the fever started to escalate again. Someone placed the stretcher outside my door, and minutes later the transport stage of the event was underway.
The hospital lobby was extremely full; throngs of Indian families were standing or walking around either checking in, paying or waiting. Within seconds of being helped through the door a young Indian attendant appeared in front of me with a wheelchair and whisked me to a room where I could lay down on an examination table.
In less than one minute an Indian urologist with kind paternal eyes appeared beside me, asking me questions while pressing on my stomach and kidney areas. He instructed the attendant to take me directly to the emergency care ward.
My body was in hypotensive shock so my blood pressure and pulse were very low. It took the apologetic Nepalese nurse three tries to get the IV needle in and two tries to get blood to flow into tubes. IV fluids. IV antibiotics. Pain med injections. Ultrasound.
Just after 3pm two Indian attendants, one of whom had a pronounced limp, wheeled me up six long, crumbling concrete ramps to room 419.
The abbess paid all the bills in advance on my behalf — medicines, tests, doctors fees and room charges. Before she left she knelt beside my bed, put her hand on my arm, and looked at me tenderly with her brilliant blue eyes. “It’s going to be okay, yes?” she said, patting my arm twice firmly. “I will be back in the morning and maybe take you home, or just check on you.”
The osteopath slept that night on the bench eighteen inches opposite my bed. The yoga teacher slept on a narrow stretch of the floor at the end of the bench. Eight times in as many hours the osteopath leapt up to help me to the bathroom as the urgency of diarrhea hit. Two of those times I again shit on myself before I could make it to the toilet.
When the attending Indian gastroenterologist came to see me around at 10:30am he had already prescribed six more bottles of fluids and three more bottles of antibiotics. This, following ten bags of fluids and three bottles of antibiotics I had already received.
“I want to go home,” I told the doctor.
He frowned disapprovingly and shook his head. “I cannot advise that. You are still very sick.”
“But my fever is gone and I can take the fluids and medications orally now. And I can rest in my own bed.”
He laughed lightly. “But you are still very sick and it is much better and faster to take these things by fluids and we can monitor you.”
I looked at him with every bit of persuasive strength I could muster. “I know. But to be honest I’m just really worried about the money.”
Compassion immediately sparked across his face. This is India, after all; they know all about the balancing act between money and self care. The doctor bobbled his head and thought for a moment. Finally he said, “Okay, it is not good, but I understand. I will talk with the other doctors and we will see.”
Three hours later I walked gingerly through the gates of Thosamling. I was immediately greeted by a Polish student, an American student, a Scottish nanny, and a Russian massage therapist, all of whom I had been taking on morning hikes. The Polish student said, “We were just writing notes to you!” Everyone hugged me and walked me to my room; one held me by my arm, another carried a saucer of rice and bread, another carried my bag of medicines and reports, and another carried my small backpack. On my windowsill was an apple left by an American nun and a fresh sprig of jasmine left by an Israeli volunteer.
Throughout the day a parade of people came bearing fruit, juice, water and hugs. That night a British social worker took turns with the German translator checking on me every three hours.
Wednesday morning as I lie in my bed looking out my window the pastry chef passed by and happened to glance my way; he immediately smiled brightly. He gave me two thumbs up as he raised his eyebrows, silently asking, “Better, yes?” I smiled weakly and nodded, and he walked away cheerfully.
That’s when the tears finally hit.
In my body, which by now I had learned was housing more than a dozen repulsive, large parasites, I could suddenly feel something other than the swell of pain and the saturation of medicine and the staunch rebellion of alien life. In this moment I could feel an immense web of compassion coursing through a circular field, intersecting from all directions through one central hub: my body.
My body, while in the extremely undignified state of being shit on, blazed, pricked, and grotesquely invaded, had become a common circulation point for compassion shared instinctively and generously by a German translator, an Austrian nun, a Dutch abbess, a French osteopath, a German nun, an Indian gardener, a French pastry chef, an Indian yoga teacher, a Dutch carpenter, three Indian attendants, an Indian urologist, a Nepalese nurse, an Indian gastroenterologist, a Polish student, an American student, a Scottish nanny, a Russian massage therapist, an Israeli volunteer, an American nun, and a British social worker.
Many vessels, one enormously bountiful circle of compassion.
As I lie here in my bed now still recovering, I think about the pastry chef smiling brightly with his two thumbs up, and I consider his words: “There is nothing else happening in your body except this circle. Just focus on this circle, okay?”
Yes. Yes, I will do just that, Pierre. Because the swirling, sweet, multicultural circle of compassion circulating all around and within me is a tremendously healing salve. It is Love’s elegant response to a foul moment of vulnerability in a body that is constantly seeking to radiate God’s presence in a world that believes it is separate from God. I see The Circle radiating God back to me, and I have no trouble at all focusing on that. For that is all that is happening in my body.