A Day at a Time
Chiming Bell (3 times) and Chanting sound (Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo…3 times slow)
Bhaskar – Meenal Gattu is an Indian immigrant in Jersey City. She chants the syllables of Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo, everyday, as a part of her Buddhist practice. It has helped her to gain courage, to seek her desire of becoming a mother, and navigate her mental health troubles. Meenal is in an exciting phase in her life right now. She is undergoing in-vitro fertilization, the technique couples use to get pregnant when they can’t conceive naturally.
Meenal – Seems like, I am closer to the date of like, embryo transfer, and actually, like, my shot at conceiving. So that’s why I am excited, and also nervous.
Bhaskar – She sounds very happy, but when it began, it felt daunting to her.
Meenal – The first time I signed up for this process, I knew that ah…it was going to involve a lot of medication, like oral medication and injections, so I had to like place an order, over the pharmacy for all the medication and the …the entire package arrived, and I still remember, I took a picture of it. It was like a big, large, moving box-size package, full of mai…mainly injections and a few pills, and…that’s when I think it really hit me, May of last year, like oh my gosh! Like all of this is gonna go into my body. I know on paper I had signed up for the IVF process, but that was like seeing it in real like, this is what I’m gonna be do to my body…I would lie if I said that I didn’t have second thoughts.
Bhaskar – Meenal did not have a clear idea of what IVF process is like when she first signed up for it. But she knew that she wanted to be a mom.
Meenal – I felt like…I think 2…it was 2 years ago, or 1 and a half years ago, that I realized that I really wanted, to have a baby of my own, which was very…ah…which was very different, and I think I surprised myself, because for all the years that I was married, and even growing up, I never really…um…dreamt of being a mom…or having baby, so to me that was a shock…and I don’t know I..I don’t know how it just happened one day, and I…I had this strong urge that I wanted to be a mom, and I felt like I was really ready and I wanted to do it.
Bhaskar- This desire that Meenal suddenly experienced, was born out of her Buddhist practice.
Meenal- One of the concepts or tenets of this practice is that there are monthly meetings, and members get together, and talk about their lives, their goals, and share stories about how they overcame certain challenges through this faith, and through this practice…
I was subconsciously noticing in these meetings, that a lot of women’s division members were attending with their kids, and it was, it just…brought so much joy to me. They seriously talked about like, values like…of peace…and Buddhism and compassion…and, hearing that from kids as young as like 4 and 5, I think really melted my heart, and…and I feel like thinking back…I feel like subconsciously that was something that changed my mind, that…I think I yearned to have that kind of like…a shared value system with…um…my kids, and I think that’s what…kind of started made me think about having a family.
Bhaskar- This magical moment she just described, happened in the spring of 2020. But back in 2018, before the idea of being a mom had ever occurred to her, Meenal was just a happy person, until something suddenly changed in her body…and mind. She started having unpredictable, erratic mood-swings. Fluctuating between a hyperactive state in which she desperately wanted to get things done, and a completely dull and inactive state in which she was unable to function.
MUSIC FADES OUT AND ENDS
When a physician diagnosed her with depression, Meenal actively denied it.
Meenal- I didn’t believe it…and I don’t wanna do it. He prescribed some medication to me, but I didn’t wanna take it because I didn’t…I didn’t accept it…I was like, this is just a phase, maybe, it’s my hormones…you know I’ll get over this…and no big deal.
Bhaskar- But when things began to worsen, there came a moment when her sadness burst and came out. She was in India with her family during a festival, and one day she felt like, she can’t keep what she is experiencing, to herself anymore.
Meenal- I just broke down at the dinner table one day and everybody was shocked…everybody was shocked…and they were like…why am I crying…and…I just couldn’t speak, because I was gagging, I was gasping for air, I was crying so bad, for noo reason, and I still remember the horror on my parent’s face, cuz they were like why are you crying like this…like weeping like a baby, for no reason. So, I described what I felt to them, and…umm…I think my parents understood at that point that I needed to see a psychiatrist.
Bhaskar – When I asked Meenal, if these symptoms affected her practice of Buddhism, her answer surprised me.
Meenal- I stopped practicing! Like I had stopped practicing completely, like those…I think, couple of months, uh…I knew at the back of my mind, that I should, but because it…because I think depression tends to suck the energy out of a person, um…I was just…I was just as a sloth…I would just use to(laugh) be in one corner, either in the couch or in the bed, and did not want to get up, or do anything, cook or clean…or go out…or do something, relax, I didn’t wanna do anything.
Bhaskar- Although Meenal stopped chanting, she says that she never lost her faith, because that’s not how Buddhism works.
Meenal- So everybody is obviously encouraged to chant, as often as they can…as…for as long as they can, but…the important thing is that, for somebody to believe in their heart that they follow Nichiren Buddhism, and it’s important to realize that this is a practice for life, so it’s not like if I don’t do something on a couple of days, because of a certain ..r…reason…I am not going to be like…I am not going to be blessed, or I am not going to be protected…that’s not a thought, because that thought, when I used to have earlier, I used to feel very guilty about it.
Bhaskar- The sect of Buddhism which Meenal is in, is called Nichiren Buddhism. It’s a community-based practice, where members vouch for each other. So, people were noticing that she had suddenly gone inactive. One member decided to pursue her to find out what’s going on and turned up at her home one day. Meenal was honest about herself.
Meenal- I told her that I’ve been inactive, because I physically don’t feel like it and…uh…we had a great conversation that day, and…she…there was this specific guidance that she gave me, that really stuck in my head, and she said that, you know…I should aspire to be active, because…I should be able to encourage others who may be going through these problems. That really resonated with me, and I think I needed to hear that, so from that day I started like taking…like baby steps…I started chanting again, for like just a minute a day, or just a couple of minutes a day, and slowly…um…and also in parallel…I started taking medication…to manage my conditions.
Bhaskar- When Meenal’s father took her to a psychiatrist in India, he said within 2 minutes, that it’s depression. This time, Meenal did not resist.
Meenal- At that point I was so tired of everything, of crying, of running away from the diagnosis, I was like…let it just…like whatever it is…let it just come to the forefront, and I’ll just accept it, like I don’t wanna feel like this anymore…even if it means taking medications, I just don’t wanna feel like this anymore, cuz I honestly felt like I was living in somebody else’s body…I didn’t feel like myself…
Bhaskar(N)- Meenal eventually accepted the diagnosis, and started taking medication for depression and anxiety, and was chanting again. In 2019, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, a condition in which internal tissues of the uterus start growing outside the uterus. It turned out to be the cause behind all her suffering- her depression, anxiety, and infertility. But the excitement in Meenal’s voice today, betrays the intensity of her medical and spiritual journey. I wanted to understand how did she get here…as someone so devasted with depression a few years ago that it made her inactive in her faith, to being who she is today, a person who derives joy in living through Buddhism, and desires to have a child.
MUSIC FADES OUT AND ENDS
I asked her husband Mohit to tell me what witnessing her journey had been like for him. He was struggling to express his feelings, but the fear that had lurked in his mind came out eventually.
Mohit- I was not sure what is happening! I was not sure what…what is happening to her…uh…what is happening around us…was really not sure. I was not scared about myself, but I was…terrified, I was…obviously, I mean, if you want to call it ‘scared’…for her! Yes, I was…I mean (slight laugh) who wouldn’t be…
Bhaskar- Mohit does not practice Buddhism. But even when he recalls his fear, his faith in Meenal’s ability to cope, sounds like it withstood the test of time.
Mohit- She’s…so resilient, and can, see through, you know…all the…all the cloud…er…when faced with an adversity. I knew that, she was always(laughing) more optimistic than I ever was. She was more ou…outgoing, and she is…she was more many other things that…that I am probably not.
Bhaskar- From her initial diagnosis till date, Meenal has managed her multiple conditions by popping pills. She is living through the mood-swings that medicines trigger in her body. But her faith, and the hope in her voice, are strong and abundant as ever. I was a little boggled though, by the fact that, she overcame her denial of the initial diagnosis so effectively when a Buddhist member visited and gave her guidance, that no amount of hormonal fluctuation since then has deterred Meenal from her desire of becoming a mom, despite the mental health challenges involved.
MUSIC FADES OUT…
I spoke to this member from the community. (MUSIC STOPS). Her name is Sharmila. She told me that she actually did not know the details of health challenges that Meenal was facing at the time when she had met her. Nor was she aware that Meenal remembers her as the person who led her to come out of denial and make efforts to heal and recover, through both, medicine and faith.
When I asked Sharmila how could such a thing be possible, she hinted that this is what faith-based relationships in Buddhism are like.
Sharmila- If you really have the other person’s…uh…you know, happiness really at the center of your heart, I think that kind of enables you to have, to strike a conversation where…you get to know what you need to know, you know…and you don’t need to know everything. Whenever somebody reaches out, I think that’s…um…you know…a…like our mentor Daisaku Ikeda, how he talks about something called as ‘imaginative empathy’. I think that is, you know, really true, I think, if we can really put ourselves into the other person’s position and to really try and understand what they are going though at that point of time…you know just, just sort of…you know, you don’t need to know everything but just sort of the turmoil that they might be experiencing…and, what you would need at that point of time, I think you can, you can really support a life.
There is a world of knowledge out there, and there is a world of you know, medical studies and…you’re taking the right kind of treatment, I think everybody is, and I think she was, definitely, you know, making every effort…on the medical front, that she needed to, uh…only difference is, ah…you know, whether a treatment works or not, I think greatly depends upon the kind of life-force that a person carries. The kind of resolve or determination, that a person carries.
So, if you can just instill that kind of hope, uh…in their lives, and help them stand up and choose to fight, I think it creates a world of difference in…you know, the whole treatment process.
Meenal Chanting Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo (4 times fast)
Bhaskar- After Sharmila spoke to her, Meenal has been chanting regularly till today. Her medical complications scare her sometimes, but she is nearly approaching the end of her IVF journey now. I am not sure if her pain is always visible, on her face, or in her voice. What seems to matter to her today, is the fact that Buddhism helped her to recover, as much as medicines and treatments did. She is hoping to become a mom soon.
Meenal- This morning I chanted, um…I just finished chanting for a while, and, um…after a long time, I feel a sense of gratitude, I…um…I think I’m gonna be okay(slight laugh)and er…through chanting I have realized that these problems that I am facing, um…I am facing, for a certain reason, and the reason is for me to get stronger as a person and develop my faith, so umm…I feel grateful for that, I feel grateful for that philosophy, and I also feel more optis…optimisitic.
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Credit: All music in this piece, was produced by Jason Shaw on “audionautix.com” (