I had an experience in India recently. Well, maybe it’s been a year and a half now, so I guess not so recently, but the experience was so vivid it lives with me today. One of those moments that’s so existentially potent that it’s as extraordinary as it is…
I had taken a day-trip from Varanasi—India’s holiest city—on the Ganges by auto-rickshaw to Sarnath, 30 minutes away, where the Buddha gave his first sermon at Deer Park about 2,500 years ago.
There was lots to see, lots to experience, lots to feel. My driver waited for me patiently while I did my thing. I was paying him well and he was used to Westerners snooping about the Buddhist ruins.
After I had visited various sites commemorating the Buddha’s ancient presence, it was my cabbie’s turn. I would now wait for him. On the way back to Varanasi, he stopped at a chai stand along the road and chatted with some friends. I waited in the back of the rickshaw, which fortunately and unfortunately didn’t have windows because it was still pretty hot, even for January in India.
And that’s when it happened. And if you’ve been to India, this has happened to you… Probably several times. You’re in a tight, inescapable place, usually it’s a traffic stop, and a woman walks up to you with a baby on her hip. She’s dressed in a sari. The baby looks malnourished and miserable. The lady usually looks the same.
She looks you dead in the eyes, speaks Hindi (or the local dialect) and gestures with her hand that she needs food for her and her baby. The gesture is universal, it probably arises in every culture on Earth: the tips of the fingers meet the tip of the thumb and the hand goes to the lips. Over and over, repeatedly, hypnotically.
I turned away. I was trapped and didn’t like it. She kept saying, “10 rupees, 10 rupees, 10 rupees, 10 rupees” while looking back and forth between me and her child, trying to lead my eyes with her eyes to her baby’s eyes… This was very painful for me to see.
But even more painful was my turning away. Because it’s not like me. Or it didn’t agree with the image I had of myself at that time, only a year and a half ago. “This is not who I am”, I thought… And I knew I was right.
But I was also vehement, angry even. How dare you objectify me? I’m not your ATM just because I’m a Westerner! Just because I’m comparatively wealthy! This doesn’t mean you get to treat me like a bank! I’m a human being, for chrissake!! I’m trapped and you’re probably tricking me!
And so on…
All the postmodern cant about being objectified, all the silliness about how it’s not my responsibility to take care of the poor when it’s a systemic and structural problem created by corrupt politicians, how she’ll just take this money and give it to her poverty pimp who’s exploiting her and her baby for the majority cut of her day begging in the streets of a major tourist destination. And perhaps most insidious of me: That baby on her hip, it probably isn’t even hers. She’s using rent-a-baby-for-a-rupee.
I’m sure I thought about 12 other things too, stewing there in my fury and the Indian heat trapped in that tiny cubicle of a rickshaw.
This mental rhetoric was supposed to protect me, of course, from the Reality at Hand, which was in fact really, really Brutalizing my Heart. It was also supposed to justify my Turning Away.
If I could disqualify this woman and her poverty with my intellect, I’d be safe. I’d be okay to turn away.
I could intellectually legitimize protecting my heart from the poverty at hand.
But my self-image was stronger. I knew that I wasn’t the type to Turn Away from…Anything. This is who I knew myself to be in my heart of hearts.
Because to protect my Heart with my heart is in fact a contradiction. The Heart doesn’t protect itself. It doesn’t actually do this. Never. Not even once. Because that’s not what the Heart is. If the Heart is said to have a definition, this is definitely not it.
It’s the mind that does this.
The mind protects the heart. Because the mind wants to protect us.
And if our mind is loaded with anti-poverty rhetoric, that’s what it will use to protect our heart. Because the heart’s primary function, if the heart is said to have a function at all, is to be vulnerable, to always, always, always be vulnerable.
To never be closed.
To feel everything.
Every last drop of existence.
Anything less is a Lie… And I knew this.
So I turned toward the woman. Made eye-contact. Kept eye-contact. Didn’t turn away. Refused to turn away. And all my intellectual justifications, my exquisite rationalizations and objections, postmodern and otherwise, just dissolved in the light of her fierce urgency. They didn’t stand a chance. Not even close. She needed money or she wouldn’t be asking for it. She wouldn’t have been there otherwise. 10 rupees for her is 20 cents for me.
I kept eye-contact until my Heart couldn’t say no. Then I gave her the 10 rupees. It didn’t take long, maybe seven intense, relentless seconds of eye-to-eye before all my intellectual resistance dissolved. I wouldn’t turn away until what was supposed to happen did happen. Of course, I knew what would happen. My Heart would yield. As it always does. I would be stripped naked of all my mind’s defenses.
And that’s all it was, Intellectual Resistance to the suffering of another human being, because I was afraid. Afraid of being objectified, afraid of being exploited, afraid of being tricked.
I was afraid of losing 20 cents.
But something won that day.
We had won, together. Because my mind lost to my heart and this beautiful woman would have 10 rupees that day for herself and for her baby.
What a battle for something so trivial that it means the whole world.
Author: Mark Binet
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Mark Hillary