Meditator and music therapist, Nirodh Fortini, talks about life with muscular dystrophy, pain, and the part meditation plays in his hanging in there.
Nirodh hasn’t smiled for over twenty years. But that’s not because there has been no reason to.
After all, the fifty-two-year old is immensely creative. Along with his partner, Ushma, he founded and directs Osho Arihant Meditation and Creative Arts Centre in Varazze, Italy. He is also a music therapist, an ethnomusicologist, and director of the sound and multimedia ‘Nostudio.’
Two years into marriage, at age twenty-eight and with a son under one year old, Nirodh was diagnosed as having muscular dystrophy. A degenerative, genetically based condition (his sister also has it), for which there is no known cure, one of its earliest manifestations was in his face. He cannot grin, laugh, frown, or create any of the many other expressions that are part of most people’s emotional repertoire and communication skills. He can manage short distances by walking; otherwise he moves from A to B with the help of a motorised chair. He also needs some assistance with personal activities.
A meditator for thirty years, Nirodh plans to give seminars to the disabled. The subject: How meditation can turn an increasingly restricted lifestyle into an opportunity for unlimited inner growth. In the following interview Nirodh explains something of his own experience, and offers suggestions to others in a similar situation….
For a person who has a physical handicap, such as paralysis, the vision naturally turns inwards, because dancing and other movements are not possible. So they can become a ‘watcher,’ which is in fact the essence of meditation. Because life forces you to confront the impermanence of the body and its restrictions, this is like compensation – that, quite naturally, you go inside.
What you mean by ‘watching’?
For me, watching is to sit down inside myself, as if I am in front of a very quiet lake, undisturbed…no stone being thrown into it. Then I can see more clearly what is happening in reality. If, on the contrary, you are angry, for example, then the lake is in movement and you can see nothing. And then, because you are not able to watch serenely, the water overwhelms you. Watching happens not in the space of thinking but of no-thought, because if you think, you move. It may be a very subtle movement, but it is a movement; it is a ripple on that inner lake.
How can this be particularly helpful when one is sick?
By helping you realise that the witness is not sick; it is the body that is sick. If we make the mistake of thinking that the witness is sick, we are really sick!
Also we shouldn’t get into thinking that if we can’t do yoga or dance or anything else that we can’t realise ourselves, because self-realisation isn’t so connected to the body. The body isn’t an intrinsic part of inner growth. On the contrary, for everyone at a certain level, we have to be aware of the limitations of the body.
The witness is like the music in the CD, it is not the plastic CD disk. It is the essence.
And for those of us who have a disability but who don’t know about meditation and how to watch…?
Being sick forces you to go inside, but if you don’t take a meditative view, you enter into the mind and its desperation. For example, I see that some disabled people are very angry with life and with all that is connected with life, including other people.
They can also use their sickness in a manipulative way. For instance, whenever there is a discussion, they know they are going to win in the end because they can flourish their trump card, i.e. “I am right because I am sick.” This works when it plays on others’ sense of guilt and embarrassment. It is a form of a power trip. They also might use their disease to punish the other. They make others feel that they are not taking care, that they are not helping them manage their pain, and so on. So, again, they can create guilt in those who care for them. Some people use their illness, and others are in denial of it.
How does slowly giving up your independence affect you, personally?
Being independent isn’t about being an island and feeling you don’t need anything from anybody; it’s about sharing, without co-dependency but with love.
It can be that the disabled can support others. Others can help you with the body but maybe you can help them psychologically. It’s important that it is not one-way traffic.
What is your attitude towards your body? How do you feel, for example, when it will not allow you to do something you want to?
Before I discovered I had the sickness, my life was very intense. Like many artistic minds I was also quite self-destructive. Paradoxically, my sickness made me stop this and forced me to pay attention to my body. That point in my life was a coming down to the earth because I had been following ideas, a vision, full-steam ahead! – and forgetting the body.
The process of a slowly progressive sickness provides a good opportunity to watch the mind – because watching is something you have to learn and be reminded of. It is something all of us – not only the sick – forget, and watching the body can be a good base for watching it and all the other aspects of our system.
Another opening that has come about through the body is having time to use myself not for a very dynamic life, but for a lot of inner expansion – such as creativity.
With your partner, Ushma, you’ve created over 11 CDs on meditation, and around 27 music CDs, all available throughout Italy and in the US, right?
Yes. Also, for fifteen years I researched the subject of sound and the mind, simultaneously working at Lake Como on this theme: it was at a government institute for psychotic people. I found, from studying the waveforms of the apparently nonsensical sentences that disturbed people made, that there is, in fact, a pattern, a rhythm and a meaning in what they express. This discovery was used as the basis of a published paper.
Do all disabled people have the potential for being so creative?
Yes, but before they explore their creativity they have to become aware of the restrictions of their disease and of the freedom that they do have. If they fall into the traps of the mind – complaining and being miserable – they miss an opportunity, because, regardless of what they do or don’t do, they have to live!
What methods are helpful when you have very restricted movement?
There is not a standard set-up for meditation; everyone can start from where they are. All the techniques that need the body’s participation can be used in a limited way, so everyone should be aware of the limitations of their body and move what they can. If you can only move the neck, for example, in your imagination you can visualise that you are dancing very freely. Imagining that you can move freely can bring quite a bit of happiness.
Gibberish [speaking nonsense sounds] is a good technique to help the mind become clearer because it discharges what is needed to be released, naturally. I consider Gibberish a very courageous technique because in the voice there is a lot of personality, and when you start using the voice you start being an individual.
If a disabled person does this with others it brings him out of his loneliness and into sharing.
What about dealing with pain?
When there is intense pain you should use medicine because you probably can’t resolve it with the mind or emotions; it’s a disturbance. The physical body is calling you. Of course it’s important to prevent it in the first place if you can, for example, by not making movements that you know will provoke pain. There is a meditation Osho has described – to enter the pain. The pain begins to melt, expanding from one, concentrated point, so the intensity is less.
Don’t try to escape from the pain but listen more deeply to it; talk to it. Then you can see how much of your pain is of the mind and how much is actually physical. The idea that the mind has about the pain can make it worse. Usually the mind starts to make a drama of the pain; this means one’s energy is leaked and so the pain increases.
How do you respond when people meet you for the first time and are surprised or even shocked, and maybe embarrassed?
If you are a miserable type, you give out that energy, and people pick it up. If you can laugh at yourself and be joyful…. It is not that the other feels my pain – the pain is my problem – but they can see that I am happy as I am. This doesn’t mean that I like being sick; it is not good to be sick. But it is good to be happy because you have discovered in this condition something to be enjoyed.
People talk to me about their psychological pains. Maybe that is because they feel from me some centering – that I am a person who has to overcome a big challenge. They might think that if I can be happy with this, perhaps their situation is not so dramatic.
My suggestion to the handicapped is: don’t let your whole life revolve around your sickness. Use your situation to expand yourself. People monopolise the situation with their sickness, and that’s another power strategy. There is more to life! There is essence, meditation, the watcher….
Yes, the body will disappear at 80 years or so, so yes, it is important – but it is not the whole life. Otherwise your life is just a description of disaster.
I don’t like to be bad news.
There is no sense of resentment about being handicapped?
It is significant to be able to forgive the mother or father who gave you the sickness, to forgive society and yourself. Also, not to make anyone guilty, because everyone is doing the best they can, but instead to use your situation to jump into love and awareness.
It is uncomfortable to confront society because it makes you feel that you are not normal. Of course you can’t change society. You see people doing things that you cannot. That’s very strong. That is part of the forgiveness you have to give to yourself. Ultimately we have to be responsible for what we are – we have to accept this. If we have a problem we don’t need to make it a double problem!
You can be connected with existence anywhere; the energy is not in one place more than another. If we can feel this, everything has a personality and you can have a relationship with everything – for example, a potted plant. It is alive; it needs attention, and every day you see that it changes. Any form, even stones, if you watch with these eyes, tells you about existence. And you can be creative with your room. You can decide to paint it a new colour, to install a hi-fi system, use some fragrant oil, or to make it more comfortable in some other way.
It is not necessary to look for the right outer place, because you can forget yourself anywhere! That’s true for everyone, especially for those who can only move slowly and who need to be with others.
Normally functioning people don’t pay any attention to what they do because their everyday activities are so natural to them, but such activities are important to the disabled. Little events or activities can be a Himalayan problem for them.
Sometimes there is what seems to be a bad room, but inside is a good room that not everyone can enter. Those who use a conventional door that promises happiness might find that actually it doesn’t deliver. It depends on us – how we use situations. A sense of fulfilment and happiness are not readymade.