An interview with Maneesha featured in Mumbai’s paper, ‘The Metropolis,’ about working with a client with a terminal prognosis.
The Metropolis on Saturday, Bombay India
Oct 14-15 1995
Most of us meet death unwilling and unprepared. But Maneesha believes that it is but an extension of life, an event to be celebrated. Which is why she helps the terminally ill prepare themselves for the inevitable, she tells Saaz Aggarwal.
She woke up one morning to find Death standing at her bed. It was not a person, nor the kind of symbolic version one might encounter in literature or the theatre. Death was just death … a grim and intimidating presence.
Maneesha encouraged her to talk with it. She had her stand by the bed, taking the role of Death, and talk right back to herself. In the process, she said some radical and truly revealing things. As Death she said, among other things, “I am Death. I am misunderstood by everybody. I am a friend of life. I am darkness; I am a vast, empty space; I am everywhere. If only people were aware of my presence, they would live much more meaningful lives.”
Thelma, to dispense with the pronoun – though we never actually mentioned her name – had ovarian cancer. She had arrived in Denmark with Maneesha one year to the day that the doctors had issued her a prognosis – anything from two months to three years more, they said.
Maneesha stayed with her, helping her cope with issues of her mortality, such as chemotherapy and fear, and problems of relating with her adolescent daughter, to whom she was a single parent.
The staying arrangement was temporary and had been made through word of mouth, through the sannyasin network. Thelma didn’t know about Maneesha’s work with the dying (“supporting, encouraging, facilitating, being there with love and humor); Maneesha didn’t know about the cancer.
Doctors and nurses, healers, priests – many work with the dying, but Maneesha’s methods are unique. She does not, for instance, tell you what to do, or offer hope for a cure, for that would focus on the future rather than the present. Neither does she prepare and train you for an afterlife, preferring instead to ensure that there is indeed life before death. And she encourages you to take an active part in a process of healing, of integrating mind, and body and spirit, and of living each moment with awareness and gratitude.
Maneesha also goes beyond attitude, to an experiential understanding –for instance, even if you believe that death is not an enemy (as Thelma said she did) Maneesha will take you through the primal fears of an actual face-to-face encounter. Thelma was transformed after hers, as would anyone who experienced these powerful observations.
But this wasn’t all. Maneesha’s being a multi-disciplinary approach that combines the practical, physical, medical, psychological, and spiritual, they discussed various options for treatment. When Thelma decided on three preliminary chemotherapy sessions, Maneesha prepared her with “chemomeditation.” She induced a light trance to give Thelma’s subconscious the suggestion that the chemotherapy was going to give maximum benefits and minimum side effects.
They spent an hour and a half meditating together every day. Because, as Maneesha puts it, “Meditation is like a voluntary dying – consciously. You go inwards to a very deeply relaxed inner space. You enter darkness, vastness. Death is a mystery, but meditation can afford you a conscious entry into it.” The idea is to live consciously, meditatively, with awareness – right through to death. And beyond.
They spent time talking, clarifying perspectives, emotions and Thelma’s mental state, how accepting she was, and talking about her feeling that, “I’ve got so much more life to live!”
Maneesha not only has psychiatric experience, but some in general nursing and midwifery too. And points out that women prepare for birth, try and find out all they can about the process, attend ante-natal classes, take care of their bodies and enter into it with full consciousness. These women will opt against anaesthesia, and want to participate joyfully in the process. Why can’t we prepare for dying in the same way?
Now, how did Maneesha, who grew up in suburban Australia, end up travelling around the planet with her esoteric mission? How did one with a “normally Anglican family background” and no concept whatever about this whole master-disciple thing, come to dedicate her life to Osho’s vision, adopting the name he gave her? It happened thus.
Maneesha was a seeker from the start. As an idealistic young girl out of school, her mission was to become a nurse and serve the needy (her best friend was to become a nun) and what more needy location than Calcutta to base their noble operation?
But having studied nursing and general medicine, she found her focus turning to certain basic issues such as, why is happiness not in direct proportion to ‘having everything’?” In case the answer lay in the mind, she took up the study of psychiatric nursing – this was at the Maudsley hospital in London – where she discovered happier resonance with some of the “disturbed” patients than the “normal” staff, and resentment at the system of fitting people into a social norm.
This was the early ‘70’s and the humanistic growth movement was just about taking off in the US and the UK. So she did the round of primal groups and encounter groups, getting rid of blocks, working on relationships with parents, and so on, thereby coming closer to the answer, but not much, and concluding that emotions are fun but limited and surely there was more to life than a mere outpouring of emotions.
Followed retreats at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat in Scotland; a Sufi Farm in Oxfordshire; Gurdjieff groups in Haverstock Hill, capping the cultural anomalies with a stopover, en route to Australia after a gap of three years in India for some trekking in the Himalayas and to look in on a certain little-known gentleman by the name of Rajneesh.
“I met Osho on October 7th 1974, at night, and in one glance was fate was sealed! My six-week stopover stretched to seven years.” Trekking plans shifted base from the Himalayas to the inner space.
She used to sit by Osho’s side every evening for six years as official recorder of his dialogues during darshan – simultaneously absorbing the process of how a mystic works with people of diverse ages, cultures, and problems, and also acquired for herself the title of “Okay Maneesha,” which is how Osho ended the sessions every day.
Looking back, Maneesha interprets submission to a Master as a context to surrender the ego. We surrender in love, she points out, and in the presence of great beauty ego disappears; we retain a feeling of being touched by a larger reality; by the mystery of existence. In death, as well, surrender is the key.
For Maneesha, an experienced nurse, death and dying were not strangers, but the concept of surrender was something new. Yet another vista opened up when a sannyasin died of a brain tumor in 1976, and Osho explained that she had merely left her body. He talked about celebration. “ ‘I know your hearts are sad and heavy,’ he said, she said, “ ‘ that’s natural. Use these moments to go beyond the natural. At moments like these our energy can take a dip right down – or it can really soar up. It’s up to you how you use that energy.”
Maneesha began to realize that death didn’t have to be a weeping, disastrous calamity, but could be transformed and celebrated, just as we do so many other occasions and milestones in life.
This involves an expression of gratitude to existence for whatever it brings, no matter how confusing or difficult to understand. Easier said than done, surely? But no… Listen to this.
Two weeks ago, Maneesha discovered that she was into menopause. She felt her energy collapse; she felt sad that one phase of life was over, bringing to a close that stage of her life as an attractive, sexually active woman (hmmm, I mean, well, she looked okay to me, but that’s what she said). Feeling her energy levels receding, she decided to revive them by throwing a party. There was rasmalai, and chocolate cake, and each guest bought along a song or poem about the event, and thus did Maneesha enter a new phase of her life with joy and celebration. Osho would have approved.
Conscious entry into death is one of the most potentially transformative experience life offers us, Maneesha explains. After all, isn’t death just an extension of life? When, for instance, a leaf falls from a tree, you may call it dead, but it floats to the ground and merges with the earth around the tree, and over a period of time is transformed and ultimately absorbed right back into it…where, for that matter, does the light from a candle go when you blow it out? Nothing disappears, nothing dies; it is simply changing one form for another.
Today Maneesha’s work with the dying is her business, and it has taken her to the United States, Europe, Japan and, of course, India, working not just with the terminally ill but also holding groups and training courses for medical and nursing staff, and for non professionals who are either simply interested in the subject, or would like to know how they can help their parents and other loved ones when the time comes. The packages are catered according to requirements and fees according to ability, and Maneesha is informal enough to have offered to spend time with me on my own problems with death, when she is in the country next, to which I look forward.
Last week Thelma faxed her a message that the cancer was gone. Maneesha was happy but for her, this was incidental. Because what is life but a terminal illness from which we all suffer?