December 1986 was indeed a milestone for me. I was fully involved in establishing SVYM and was keen on taking to social work on a full-time basis. Coming from a typical Indian middle class family meant that I had to negotiate family sentiments and financial needs skilfully. My parents and family never discouraged me from taking to social work, but were clearly concerned that I was such a non-conformist. Many of my friends thought that I was an idealistic fool and had their deepest sympathies for me. Many of them felt that I was throwing away a potentially lucrative and glamorous career. Peer pressure can be very stressful and I was beginning to feel jittery and less confident of what I would end up doing.
I decided that I had to take control of the situation and show clarity and certainty in what I would be doing. The final year exams were in January 1987 and this added to the stress and tension. Those were also some of the best days of my life. I would meet Swami Achalanandaji every day and discuss virtually everything I did with him. Each day would bring in very enriching discussions on Indian Philosophy and thought – from the Bhagavad Gita to Shankara’s Viveka Chudamani and Drig Drishya Viveka. Sitting with him, one day I announced that I had enough of all these pressures and that I wanted to drop out of medical school. I told him that I was not confident how society and family would respond to my taking to full-time social work after my graduation. I added that I was concerned that I may have to succumb to these pressures and take to the life that most doctors did. Swami Achalananda did not reply. His silence coupled with his expressions clearly indicated that he did not seem to be convinced. He did not try to dissuade me. On the other hand, he suggested that I move in with him at the Vedanta College (presently the Ramakrishna Institute of Moral & Spiritual Education – RIMSE, Mysore) and spend the next couple of weeks there. I was thrilled with the idea that I could spend full 15 days with my spiritual guru and mentor. Before I could respond, he added that there were a couple of conditions. I had to maintain complete silence during this time and not interact with anyone whomsoever. He also wanted me to not discuss the idea of dropping out of medical school with anyone. All that I was permitted was to think this through on my own. The old man also seemed to have thought this through. As an afterthought, he politely added that society would respond better to a ‘beggar’ with the prefix of ‘Dr’ than to a beggar who was just a college dropout!
The next fifteen days are still etched so clearly in my memory. The first couple of days were hell. I had not imagined that staying silent would actually end up being so noisy. All of a sudden I realised how my mind seemed to function in a constant state of non-stop chatter and useless thoughts. I also realised how difficult it is to watch oneself all the while and have a useful conversation with oneself. This was indeed punishing and demanding. As each day passed, I suddenly saw myself enjoying the silence. It was such a calming feeling to be alone with oneself. And in that silence, a strange feeling of oneness with the rest of the world could be experienced. This silence also suddenly seemed to free the mind from its useless banter and I could find freshness in whatever I thought. Conversations with myself turned so enriching and productive. I could feel a quiet inner glow and my mind seemed not to withdraw from the world, but absorb it completely. It was such a strange and paradoxical feeling – being there and still not being there.
And in this clarity, I realised that there was so much pragmatism in the final words that Swamiji had left me with. And history clearly shows that legitimacy and credibility for my (and SVYM’s) work came easily only because I was Dr.Balasubramaniam and not just Balasubramaniam asking for support and donations. Strange indeed is this world and the way it measures success!
Looking back now, I can see that in many an instance, I had measured my own sense of self-worth by this identity of being a physician or from a title that I held rather than the work I did or from my little contribution to societal good. More importantly, I realised that the uncertainty and confusions were not the product of societal pressures on me, but the projection of my inner state on the society. I was only interpreting this confusion in my own convenient way and avoiding the responsibility of owning up and living with my decisions.