I’ve lived far from my grown children most of the time during these six years, learning and working at the ashram in India. I’ve missed my daughter’s fall-off-the-chair sense of humor that keeps us rolling for hours, and my second daughter’s infectious laughter, and the visceral sensations that arise when my son towers above and wraps his arms so far around me that I think maybe I’d raised an orangutan!
The time apart would have been debilitating if it weren’t for the lovely ashram family that adopted me when I arrived in 2013, & the calendar thick with celebrations – sometimes several each week…..weddings, births & naming ceremonies, retirement parties, graduations, school inaugurations, bon voyage send offs, & new house warmings. We barely recover from one event before we’re off to another.
When we arrive at a party, we are ushered in by a swarm of Dadi’s (grandmothers) responsible for granting permission to newcomers arriving at any home. Songs and drums show us the way to the front gate. The mothers are chirping traditional folk songs loud and throaty while the children run around us like a swarm of bees storming a marigold patch. The Indians are well known for their close-knit culture. Seeing how they constructed their connections was invaluable.
The first time I returned home to New York in 2014 was like visiting a ghost town. Had it always been so quiet? Had the sidewalks and streets always been deserted? Or was it me who had changed – learning to rely on the sweet nectar of community to bolster my mood? In fact, I had never been so healthy, happy and productive. Realizing this synchrony brought me back to something the physician said during one of my first lessons in the Ayurveda hospital – it is not possible to be healthy and sad at the same time!
In a London TED Talk, author Johann Hari discovered that connection is vital to health through his research into the addiction trends in several countries. Though our instinct is to self-sequester when we’re not feeling well so we don’t infect others, that’s the exact opposite of what the body and mind need for ultimate healing and growth. He discovered that “almost everything we think we know about addiction is wrong.” The chemical hooks in drugs is what we’ve assumed causes addiction. If this were true, anyone who’s had major surgery and taken opioids would be addicted, but most are not.
In the 1970’s Dr. Bruce Alexander proved this theory wrong when he built Rat Park, a cage filled with a group of rat friends and family. Given the choice between pure water, and water laced with heroin, they nearly 100% chose the pure. But rats kept in solitary confinement nearly always chose the heroin laced water. This experiment was repeated ostensibly with the Vietnam war in which 20% of solders were using drugs. When they returned home to family and friends, nearly all of them stopped reliably on elicit substances for their relief.
“Addiction isn’t about the drug”, Johann Hari concluded after years of research, “it’s about the cage.” Humans have a natural inclination to bond with others. But if one can’t or won’t develop real, live connections, one will inevitably reach out for something to bond with that gives a synthetic relief – gambling, porn, shopping, food, smart phone (social media).
In the U.S. we are becoming an increasingly vulnerable society. Scientist Bill McKibber found that the average number of close friends in the U.S. citizen has been declining since the 1950’s, while the square feet of homes has steadily increased, separating people within their own homes.
The ecospiritualist who founded the ashram where I live in India (Jasnath 15 century) advises in one important song that is taught and performed by travelling singers and dancers who visit one village after the next, providing the music for celebrations, “Oh friends, you should meet each other, hug or shake hands. You should walk together with harmony, make something creative all together, work together on a common goal.” This is the foundation of their courtyard homes and perhaps our common open floor plan kitchen – so that families can cook and eat together.
Everything on Earth is medicine: oxygen from trees, water from rivers, heat from the sun, smiles and giggles from children, hugs and food given and shared by precious family and friends. And you are medicine for them! Social connection is the recovery we should seek for so many of our ailments. But start with yourself, with your own home.
Don’t have enough family or friends?
Connect one at a time with real, live people, in networking circles, churches, retirement facilities, soup kitchens. Many groups are meeting near you and can be found at Meetup. com, Eventbrite.com, Facebook.com and other social networks that were designed (originally) to bring people together, not provide a mechanism for keeping them apart. You are not alone. You are loved. You are ready to love another. Happy holiday and happy life!
Shreejan Sita is an Ayurvedic Yoga Therapist specializing in the third phase goddess’s needs. She is just returning from India after a 6-year expatriation for education & work. Contact Shree with your wellness inquiries at: www.sitawellness.com.