The Unexpected Stranger

The Unexpected Stranger


Today we begin part two of our two part mini series on learning to accept life as it is. In part one, we explored the story of Nachiketas and Yama, the lord of death. We learned how the secrets of death allow us to more fully embrace life. If you haven’t already read that, I encourage you to do so. Today we will focus on a story of Shiva and an old woman, who welcomes a strange guest into her home.

While now we will continue our conversation on how to surrender to life, to accept life as it comes, it will also touch on a topic that, having lived abroad for so many years, I find quite fascinating. And it’s all about hospitality, about how we deal with strangers in our culture. I see meme’s on social media all the time, joking about what people do these days in America when the doorbell rings. Perhaps 20-30 years ago, people would get excited when the doorbell rang. Now, if the doorbell rings with an unexpected guest, people turn off their tv, get silent, and still, and try to pretend they aren’t home until the person leaves.

Even more so than that, look how we treat strangers in our culture. STRANGER DANGER! I’m not even talking about what we tend to tell children in our culture, but how grown adults treat strangers. As a heavily tattooed, oddly dressed man, I can attest to the various ways I get treated in particular cities or states within the United States, when I walk into a restaurant or store, or even when I’m walking down the street.

As a contrast, in countries like India, I get plenty of stares. I get crowds of people following me because of how I look. I’ve been on bus rides for eight plus hours and had people stare at me the entire time. BUT, the hospitality that those same people offer is astronomical. If I needed something, help, an answer to a question, water, food, a place to sleep, I have no doubt that I would be welcomed with open arms into most homes there. In India it seems to be more of a form of curiosity than anything else. There is not a darkness or heaviness to it. There is not a mistrust just because I’m a weird looking stranger.

We have a programmed fear of strangers in our culture. We have a programmed fear of unexpected guests. Who dares actually come to a house and knocks on a door or rings a door bell these days? Everyone calls or texts when they are outside. So when something like that happens, it triggers this weird panic in people!

I really love how so many other cultures emphasize the importance of treating strangers well. Of welcoming them into your home. I remember traveling around the mountains of Peru and how wonderful kind and welcoming everyone was. It’s something that’s missing from much of our modern American culture, especially URBAN culture. Perhaps you find it a bit more in the country sides, but there is still a huge contrast from how we generally treat strangers in the west, and how many parts of the world treat strangers. We’ll see some of this embedded into our story today.

Going back on track now with this idea of learning to accept life as it is, as we learned in Episode 17, once we no longer fear death, we are free to embrace what is. Death, and how we relate to it, what we understand about it, how we feel about it, all of it is critical in our process of how we then learn to accept life.

If you fear death, you will inevitably fear life. You will reject strange things, new things, unfamiliar things, because of that basic primal human fear. So that has to be addressed. And death is a topic that most people don’t really like to discuss.

In many podcasts, we’ve brought up this character of Shiva. In many ways he is representative of both death as well as the stranger. There is a wonderful story, which we will no doubt dive into in a future podcast, about Shiva’s marriage to Sati and how it was rejected by Sati’s father and what happened as a result. Shiva is the strange lookin mountain guy. He’s got ash all of his skin, long dreadlocked hair, he’s walking around in strange clothes, a loin cloth. He’s got snakes wrapped around him. His friends are all sorts of unsavory types: prostitutes, beggars, rascals and so forth. He is the outsider so many of us fear. Just like we fear death. Because it’s strange. It’s something we don’t know, we don’t understand, we are not familiar with.

These stories want to encourage us to dive into those things we fear. To get to know that which we don’t know. To lift the veil and see the truth underneath things. And in that journey, in that process, we learn about life. We learn about ourselves. We learn to accept life as it is.

So, I think this is a good time to start our story…

Now, once upon a time

There was an old woman. She was born of a poor family, never had much. She was poor, at this point she was quite old, had no family, no one to care for her, and she was too frail for hard labor or work. She worked whenever and however she could, but often times she had to beg for money or food, because she simply didn’t have the means otherwise. She had a very small hut just outside the village where she lived. It wasn’t much, but it was a roof over her head. It had a kitchen, a bed, and it kept her warm when it was cold outside. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

This woman spent her life as a devotee of Shiva. The mantra, “AUM Namah Shivaya” was her constant companion.

One day, she took up the small amount of money she had collected and headed into town, to the market, where she hoped she had enough money to purchase enough food for the week.

With her meager means, she’s able to get enough food to make a stew that would likely last the entire week. Thank goodness, because she had spent all of the money she had.

It was getting late in the day, and most of the venders at the market were closing up to head home to their families. The old woman walked by a vendor and saw a wonderfully ripe golden mango. It was her favorite treat, but it wasn’t often that she got them. She knew she didn’t have the money to buy it, but found that she was staring at the mango for quite some time.

The owner of the fruit stand noticed her and asked her if she wanted to buy it. She explained that she didn’t have any money left and couldn’t afford to buy it. The vendor saw how much she clearly wanted it, looked at the state of her clothes and body, and told her, “Ya know what? I’m packing up for the night. If I don’t sell that today, it will likely be overripe tomorrow. Why don’t you just go ahead and take it?”

The old woman lit up, and thanked the man and he handed her the mango. She couldn’t wait to get home to enjoy her treat!

She made the walk from the village back to her small home and started to prepare a stew. It wasn’t much, but she was confident that it would last her the week. The thought of the mango as her desert helped to brighten her mood even more.

After the stew was ready, she poured herself a bowl and sat down at her small table. She said a prayer to Shiva for the food she had to eat, the roof over her head and the life she was living. Each bite of the stew was that much sweeter because she knew that she had the mango waiting for her desert. She didn’t rush though, she continued to take her time eating and appreciating the food she had.

When the stew was finished, she enthusiastically started on the mango. And this mango… it was delicious. The best mango she had ever tasted. It was so good, in fact, that she actually stopped eating about half way through. She wanted to continue to savor it, so she decided to save the rest for the next day, so she could continue to enjoy it tomorrow.

She cleaned up, got ready to go to sleep, and crawled into bed. Basking in the good fortune of her day, she drifted quickly to sleep.

Minutes after she blew out her candles and closed her eyes, a loud knock came to her door. It startled her awake and she quickly got up to answer the door.

When she opened it, she saw an old sickly looking man, with a hunchback and a solid wooden cane. His clothes were dirty and his face noticeably weathered, but he didn’t seem threatening to the woman.

“Can I help you,” the old woman asked?

“Yes, I’m sorry to bother you so late. I’ve been travelling a very long distance, and was hoping to find a safe place to rest for the night.”

She was a little hesitant, but whispered a quiet “AUM Namah Shivaya” under her breath, and invite the man in. He hobbled through the door, and sat down at her table.

“My oh my! It smells so good in here! Could you spare some of whatever it was you were cooking” he asked her?

And remember, this is a women of extremely humble means. The food she had was to last her the whole week… but again, she recited “Aum Namah Shivaya” and offered the man a bowl of her stew.

“Delicious!” he exclaimed! May I have another?

And on it went as he finished bowl after bowl, asking for another. Each time, the old woman felt her resistance. She wanted to say she had nothing left to give, but each time, she whispered “Aum Namah Shivaya” and offered him another bowl… until he eat up the very last of her stew.

In a strange way, she was relieved, but she became horrified by what happened next. The old man spied the remnants of her mango.

“Oh my! Is that a mango? Mango is my absolute favorite! May I have the rest of that mango to eat?”

“Why didn’t I finish the whole mango earlier?” She thought to herself.

She paused for a brief moment. Took in a deep breath, whispered her chant to Shiva again and said, “Of course you may.”

He wolfed down the remaining half of the mango in a single bite!

It took the woman a few seconds to digest the moment. She wanted to cry. Her favorite mango eat, and her food for the week was gone, she felt a certain heaviness in her body. She smiled at that man, and continued to silently repeat her mantra to Shiva. The heaviness felt lifted, but her mind was still rebelling. It was time to sleep however, so she offered the old man her own bed, and settled into a spot on the floor on the opposite side of the room.

They fell quietly to sleep, as the noises of the jungle outside offered a nighttime melody. The old woman’s sleep was disturbed in the middle of the night by the man shaking her and proclaiming, “Wake up! Wake up!”

Startled awake, she asked the man what was wrong. When her eyes finally focused, she realized the features of the man had changed. He was no longer old, hunched over his cane. He towered over her with enormous body, and she recognized him immediately as Shiva himself!

She collapsed to the floor and bowed at his feet.

“Bow to no one, my dear. You are coming with me. Your devotion and your willingness to offer up all that you have, proves your readiness to finally make the journey home. You have reached the end of your physical journey, but your spiritual life is about to truly begin.”

Shiva took the old woman’s hand, as she stood up, and the two went off together, united as one.

I love this story for so many reasons. It points to things I know I struggle a lot with in life. With feelings of scarcity, of not having enough, of selfishness. No matter how hard I try to organize life, to set things up in a predictable way, life always comes in with different plans. Usually, that change is met with resistance. Sometimes that resistance boils over to full break down.

The old woman doesn’t have much. She had planned out her meals for the week, with little room for error. She had just a bit of her favorite thing.  And life was barely hanging on… I feel like this all the time. Working hard to get to a place where I feel like I just barely have enough. Without getting to that place, there is an anxiety, a worry that I won’t have enough, and if I don’t have enough I won’t be able to be happy. So I work my butt off, and feel like, ok. I can relax, I’ve done it. I’m at least safe for right now. And them BOOM, life comes in and mixes everything up. A new expense comes into my life, an accident, a broken computer, a big medical bill, whatever, and it throws me for a look. I lose my center.

At multiple times in this story, the old woman could break down. She could lose it. Or she could withdraw and say no to life. No, you can’t have anymore stew. I mean… it would be understandable to most, right? It’s easy to say, “I only have just enough to last me for the week. If I give you this, I could go hungry.” It’s easy to reject life as it comes and attempt to protect oneself. But the moment we close the doors to life, we close the doors of possibility and shut out the divine.

It’s not easy to say yes to what’s happening in life. It’s a lot easier to say no. But watch where that leads. To the suffering it actually causes.

The culprit here is the mind. The mind that tells you that you don’t have enough, you won’t have enough. That you need this or that. And so you are either anxious to get that, or anxious to hold on to what you have, and that anxiety not only makes you suffer, but stops the flow of life. Life dries out. What the mind fears, it actually creates.

So what does the woman do to help her with this tendency of the mind to lead her astray?

She chants. AUM Namah Shivaya, AUM Namah Shivaya. The mantra sooths her mind and fills her spirit. It’s a reminder to all of us. Maybe you chant to Shiva, maybe you say Hail Mary’s, whatever it is. Mantra as a practice helps to quiet the worries of the mind and allow us to receive life as it comes.

There are other tools, other practices that can help with this, so we’re not trying to say that mantra is the only way. But it IS a tool for opening us up to life. To getting us out of our heads and into our hearts.

The heart knows oneness. It knows its connection to all things. The mind attempts to divine and separate. It’s the nature of the heart and mind. The mind could easily rationalize and separate herself and the old man that came to her door.

He’s a stranger, don’t let him in.

You don’t have enough food to give to him, save some for yourself.

You already gave him food, save your favorite mango for yourself.

He’s already had enough, you don’t need to give him your own bed, you can offer HIM the floor.

The mind no doubt tries this. And every time she responds with a mantra to call her back to her heart. To knowing how to respond from her heart. From that sense of oneness.

That’s what these practices MUST do. Whether it’s mantra or asana, or meditation or whatever. If they are not getting us out of our head and into our heart, then it might serve us to find other practices.

I know a really good sign for myself that I need to utilize my practice more is when I’m getting caught up in my head, and disconnected from my heart…

What do you do to connect to your heart? What practices get you out of your head and help open you to the flow of life?

Listen to the story here: