by Brima Jah
On the morning of New Year’s Eve 2013, I make my regular visit to a local hospital. I arrive and check in at the infusion center, where I receive intravenous drug treatment for Crohn’s disease every eight weeks. At each visit, I’m attached to an IV in one arm, with a blood pressure and heart rate monitor attached to the other arm. I get cozy, wrapped in a generous bundle of machine-warmed blankets, all amidst the sterile yet refreshing scent of rubbing alcohol in the air. I’m surrounded by the sounds of quirky, chatty nurses telling morbid jokes, which include flippant mentions of the death and mortality they witness daily while at work. My fingers peel through the now tethered pages of my copy of Swami Satchidananda’s “The Living Gita,” one of the many transliteration of the “Bhagavad Gita.” I begin reading the second chapter, “Yoga of Wisdom,” where my gaze arrives at sloka (verse) 13 (2:13):
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from childhood to youth to elder hood, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.”
In our “svadhyaya,” or self-study through verses of the Bhagavad Gita, we learn that sloka 2:13, refers to the ever-changing, impermanent quality of our “annamaya kosha,” otherwise known as our physical body. Despite our daily efforts to brush our teeth, bathe, or consume the endless supply of costly youth-preserving remedies. So long as we live, we will always have tooth decay, body odor, and my least favorite, wrinkles. Our bodies literally decompose each time we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. (All of this I mention as I daintily apply eye cream before bed.)
I was an overweight, chubby boy who didn’t outgrow my husky pants until after I began high school varsity sports and slimmed down into adolescence. My “prakriti,” or the form and nature of my body, further slimmed down as I progressed into adulthood. By the time I reached my 23rd birthday, my body was attempting to adapt to the conditions of my then undiagnosed Crohn’s disease. I had become my slimmest at almost 20 pounds lighter than the “healthy” range for my height. Almost 10 years ago at around December-ish 2003, I was officially diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and joined a legion of people living with a diagnosed chronic disease or condition.
Having a chronic disease or condition is, however, temporary as a disease that will be in my body only for this particular lifetime, depending on whether or not one believes in reincarnation. In the two weeks just before I receive routine drug treatment for Crohn’s disease, I experience a range of symptoms including nausea, fatigue, poor digestion, loss of appetite, and painful abdominal cramping. What I think about myself as I notice these symptoms in my body can be as fleeting as the symptoms themselves. Judgements of my Self, range from feeling like a modern day victorious Hanuman (thanks to cross fit) to feeling like the feeble-looking “Apasmara,” the symbolic embodiment of ignorance on whom Shiva does his dance.
I continue peeling through my books pages. Here, another sloka continues the over 700-verse scripture of the Bhagavita Gita, sloka 2:14:
“[…] the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons.”’
With each sloka of the Bhagavad Gita, we learn of Krishna’s imparting wisdom upon Arjuna (who represents us: everyday humans). In sloka 2:14, “Bhagavad,” or the Supreme godhead as embodied by Krishna, mentions our natural attraction to “sukha,” or pleasure, and on the other hand, our natural repulsion from “duhka,” or suffering. The symptoms of Crohn’s disease are as fleeting as how I feel about them—whether in moments when I have a sense of relief from the symptoms after treatment or feel dreadful of not having treatment soon enough.
Speaking of dread, along the banks of the Gange River in Varanasi, India, I’ve witnessed people bathe and wash their clothes in the same water where cremation ceremonies take place. In the West (whether in America or otherwise), we tend to separate the places where we bathe and wash our clothing from where we hold ritual for the death of our friends and family. This separation can contributes, in part, to our general fear of mortality, for which Krishna offers solace in slokas 2:22-23:
“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.”
“The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon, nor can he be burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.”
This blog, the Mac laptop on which I type it, my fingers, and ultimately, the body attached to the fingers will all perish over time. What remains and was has always been, is the “jiva,” or soul. Chronic disease, sickness, body odor and injuries of the body or mind…all of these impermanent conditions of our impermanent body may all serve the function of bringing us along the symbolic “river banks” of life. Even miles away from the Gange River in India, we can still be reminded that we are not ever as it may seem separate from death. In the meanwhile, we continue brushing our teeth, bathing, weight lifting, hair dyeing, moisturizing, moisturizing, boob lifting, moisturizing, body building…[fill in the blank here with your signature “life-saving” strategy].