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A journey through the Panchakoshas

There are five sheaths/koshas through which awareness is filtered. The physical body is the outermost sheath, and bliss the innermost layer. We journey inward to find total freedom.

Content warning: This post is about fasting for spiritual reasons. Please read at your own discretion.

This year, I have been observing Paryushan by fasting. Paryushan is the holy week for Jains during which they meditate, fast,  and undertake purification rituals. My ancestry on my mother’s side belongs to the Sthanakvasi Jain community and I grew up observing this week with her in my own child-like way. It has been thirty years since I marked Paryushan in any way.

This year, my call was to do a specific type of fast. The “Ektanu,” or “Ekasanu.” In this type of fasting, we eat one meal between sunrise and sunset. Fasting in Jainism is about selflessness, dissolving one’s ego, and self-centredness. It is not about becoming thinner or pleasing a deity or getting something specific in return. The core of this practice is compassion. People who do eat during this time have a particular set of rules to follow. These rules are not arbitrary but reflect a deep love for all living beings—for instance, the call to NOT eat green leafy vegetables. Usually, Paryushan falls during monsoon when microorganisms proliferate in green leafy vegetables; observers prevent themselves from killing more organisms (than necessary) for survival.

It is beautiful to unpack the rules/norms with the compassion lens, and it was this lens that allowed me to observe this week with the deepest respect for myself and my journey inward. Generally, there are a lot of different recipes or ways of eating that are recommended. I was discouraged initially because I did not have the support needed to keep this sort of commitment. In India, women and children would get together and prepare meals for the whole family because almost everyone would be maintaining the basics during this time. Some others would have a paid Maharaj (cook) to make special meals. Grief enveloped me and I was uncertain if I could do it. But my spiritual self was determined. I gave myself permission to eat in my own way while observing the basics. This included being allowed to do take-out, eat out, and of course eat our delicious South Indian tiffin delivered to our home by Priya, an angel I have never met.

The experience of fasting has been thrilling and frightening like a roller coaster. I explain them here in the context of the koshas.

Source: https://mysoulsanctuary.co/the-three-bodies-and-five-koshas/

When I first began, I was worried that I would be hungry, or that my disordered eating might get triggered. I was concerned that my IBS would flare up or that I would be constipated without my daily dose of salads. I am like Popeye, and am besotted with spinach and was sure I would feel withdrawals on my green leafy hits. I was certain that I would miss animal protein, which I have discovered is essential to maintain my glucose fluctuations.  Today is day 6, and none of these have been remotely true.  There have been no pangs, withdrawals, desires, or emergence of old patterns I have connected deeply with the Annamaya Kosha or my physical body. The union between my spiritual desire for liberation and my body has been encouraging and liberating.

Far from my struggles with chronic pain and disordered eating which led me to see my body as an adversary rather than a companion. There is a distinct knowledge that this body is my friend, and I am not this body.

On Thursday, day 3, I had an important conference. I was on a panel talking about the intersections of dementia care and culture, and I was presenting on mindfulness for the conscientious professional. I was “on” from 1PM to 5PM, standing, performing, engaging. By the end of the day, I felt faint, and I braced myself for hunger pangs. Instead, I enjoyed my 40-minute drive home in the autumn sunshine, not minding the traffic and wildly aware of the subtle sensations of bliss that seemed to take over my being. Stationary in my car in standstill traffic, sunshine streaming onto my face, the words Anandamaya Kosha occurred to me.

Every evening, at around 5PM, I have been having an experience of open awareness and bliss. It struck me that it is usually around this time that Jains usually go for Pratikraman, a six-stage ritual that begins with meditation on equanimity and proceeds to exalt the enlightened ones, and ends with renunciation, which I think is also about recommitting to the ideals each time. While the Jains I know would go for Pratikraman only on Samvatsari, the last day, I have since learned that people who follow the ideals more deeply would go daily. Some might do it daily on the regular too.

As time passed, I have randomly experienced this bliss while walking, playing fetch with my dog, and watching TV. I can also describe it as a high on weed but without it. On day 5, I was out for lunch with my friends, I had not eaten or even had tea for almost 24 hours. Sid and I had a big argument and I left home in a huff to meet my friends for lunch. I was railing on the phone with my friend incredibly hurt and upset. As I sat down with my friends and began eating, I felt calmer and my spirit tapped into the bliss once again. A flush of subtle sensations flooded my experience at that moment.

How different from an eating disorder behaviour! Before, I would get a sense of pride when I abstained from food in my bid to be thin. In recovery, I have had pleasure from eating, but never bliss that encompasses gratitude for life itself. This eating was a spiritual experience that made me recognize my oneness with suffering and liberation at once.

The coexistence of rage, grief, and bliss was unexpected and a great reminder for me that nirvana is not a goal, but the ability to be in the world but not of it.

I have been with my grief of missing my mother and the distinct ache of not having a like-minded community all week. I have mentioned it to anyone who cares to listen. I have been grieving my mother for two decades, but this grief in the last few days felt ancient. I recognized it as Manomaya Kosha - the sheath that pertains to the mind and its concepts, across lifetimes and inherited by culture, intergenerational trousseau of traumas, and wisdom. As a result, I have felt raw and exposed. I have yearned to be loved and cared for by my spouse and that has led to arguments. I felt distance from him - we are from different cultures and the difference has never been more jarring to me. The anger has seethed at both our ends.

The ways of spirituality have never been straightforward for him and me. For us, conflict has always led to expansion. Yesterday too after a day of arguing, we came back to our true union built on the desire to love and be loved - both of which are important. In the afternoon, at the peak of his hurt, expressed as anger, I felt genuine love for him and tapped into my inner bliss. I saw him and me for who we were - little kids, scared and anxious, ensconced in these adult bodies. Within minutes we had calmed down.

I felt my child self still activated, but responding to my calm voice and validation. While saying, “I love you and you are my best friend,” to Sid, my child self heard it too and in our different corners we healed. I had the experience where I was not sure whom I was uttering those words to, perhaps to every person out in the world who needed to hear it. Every person that shared our humanity and experience of deep suffering. The appearance of wisdom and discernment, or Vijananmaya Kosha

I had never imagined being healthy enough to ever be able to fast without activating my eating disorder behaviours. But here I am. The work does pay off. I have always wondered what the journey from victim to survivor to thriver might look like, and today I can accept that I embody this transformation.

I woke up this morning spent, but calm. I feel like I have taken a weed gummy. But all this is is the magic of Ananda. As we near Samvatsari, a euphoric determination engulfs me. I know there won’t be any ceremony, but Sid and I have decided to go to dinner and mark both my lineages - Jainism and Hinduism - as Ganesh Chaturthi falls on the same day. It feels good to have a plan. Even though it is not traditional.

The learning has been that it is the work, the intention, the devotion and commitment that matter, and not conformation to an eating plan or a sociocultural ideal.

This is my recommendation to all who are struggling to connect with their ancestry. Start with what you know. Start where you are. Let the rest be unearthed for you in its own magical way.