My family came to the U.S. in 1974. When we left India, we left a culture steeped in family, traditions and community. In New York City, when we first arrived, my parents sought out Sindhi people like us, and started temple meetings in families’ homes every Sunday as a way to stay connected to their culture.
You might say mindfulness is built into my family, and much of traditional Indian culture. In my family we used mantra-based meditation as part of our spiritual practice. In this technique, a specific word or a string of words are repeated; sometimes chanted or sung. This can help increase focus, calmness, an open mind and a keen sense of awareness. We would practice meditation as a group at our Sunday meetings.
The word and the breath
Moving to such a drastically different culture was a shock to my system. When I was 9 or 10, I used to have a hard time sleeping; I would toss and turn, and eventually wander around our house.
My parents took me to the pediatrician to see if anything could be done about my insomnia, but he did not offer helpful solutions. Next they took me to see their Guru, a Sindhi spiritual teacher. The guru leaned into me and whispered in my ear, "I will tell you a secret, and this secret will help you whenever you are scared, anxious or can’t sleep. Just repeat this secret word I will give you.” Then he demonstrated this use of the word with the breath.
Since that day 36 years ago, that simple word and meditation technique has helped me through school, career, having children and raising them, and the adventures of everyday life.
Body and mind are tested
Two days after my son was born, when I was still in the hospital, I woke up with my heart racing—nearly beating out of my chest. It turned out I was having an arrhythmia attack, which is when your heart is racing at over 180 beats per minute; mine was closer to 250! The entire hospital staff seemed to rush around me. I was given medication, and finally had to have a defibrillator to help regulate my heart. When it seemed that they had it under control I was moved from maternity to cardiology. Then it happened again, and this time I had to be defibrillated again and taken to ICU.
At the age of 30, with a two-day-old son, I felt as If I was fighting for my life. I stayed in the hospital for an extra seven days until they could figure out what was happening and why. They were days and nights when I was terrified—wondering if I would even see my son grow up. My husband, family, friends and the wonderful staff at the hospital truly helped me to get through this time. However, the greatest challenge was calming my mind. For that, it was my mantra and breath—the secret combination that the guru had taught me when I was nine years old—that helped me through those days. I am so grateful for the training and mindfulness that I had been given.
Mindfulness in everyday life
Meditation helps us to be present in everything we do. It is taking time out of our daily life to stop and seek a few minutes of silence and mindfulness. There are many ways to do this, and mantra and breath meditation are just a few ways. The happiness that I feel when I meditate multiplies, as it spreads out to my family and friends that surround me.
Life is not about waiting for that one big miracle, but rather experiencing the little miracles that happen every day.
Alka Kaminer is a meditation and yoga expert living in New York. She is also the co-founder of the website LiveHappyWithin.