Drishti - Namaste and welcome to Awakin talks. Good morning. Good evening to all of you who are joining us from across the world. My name is Drishti and I am really delighted to be moderating today's awakin talk. The purpose of these talks is to share stories that nurture our own inner transformation and help plant seeds for a more compassionate society.
We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls, there is an entire team of service-based volunteers whose invisible work allows all of us to hold this kind of space.
Today, our special guest speaker is Preethi Srinivasan. Thank you everyone for joining today's call. To begin our call, let us start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves into this space and the present moment.
Thank you. And welcome back. Before we begin, just a note for everyone that's listening in, the format of this 90 minute conversation will be a moderated conversation with our lovely speaker Preethi for the next one hour. And in the last part of the call, we will invite questions from the audience.
With that, I would like to hand over the stage to our moderator for today Arun Sreekumar to lead us into the conversation with Preethi Srinivasan. Arun is a very dear friend. What I love about him is his passion for inclusion, for persons with disabilities. Arun has been working with SAP for more than 15 years.
And with a big heart that Arun has along with SAP, he is the core team member of Indian Inclusion Summit. I would like to pass over the mic to Arun to lead us into conversation with Preethi. Thank you.
Arun - Fantastic. Thank you for the kind introduction. It's always a pleasure to work with the volunteers from ServiceSpace. And today it's my absolute privilege and honor to introduce our guest, the lovely Preethi Srinivasan. Preethi likes to call herself "a cripple who is whole" and she is an epitome of grit and grace, the apt title for today's talk. She is a national level swimmer, the youngest member of the state-level cricket team and an excellent student. Preethi suffered a spinal cord injury at the age of 18, which left her paralyzed below the neck.
She is the founder of Soulfree, a public charitable trust working to improve the quality of lives of people with disabilities, especially the ones with spinal cord injuries. She is an award winning disability activist, a writer, an inspirational speaker, painter, and a true agent of change. Dear Preethi, welcome to Awakin talks.
Preethi - Thank you so much, Arun. It's truly a pleasure to be here and I'm so grateful to ServiceSpace for giving me this opportunity. I am sure we are going to have a lovely time.
Arun - Absolutely. I have to thank you from the bottom of my heart, because I know that you are not in the pink of your health.
So once again, thank you so much for making time and being here with all of us. I'm sure that the next one and a half hours is going to be truly rewarding for everybody who's going to be listening to us. To start our conversation, I wanted to ask you about your defining moments, the pivotal instances in which your life changes completely. Your journey from being a rising star both in academics and in the sports field to battling against all odds as a quadriplegic and even going beyond oneself providing support and inspiration to the disability community through Soulfree. I'm sure you would have had your share of defining moments. Would you like to share some of them with all of us today?
Preethi - Oh yes, it will be a pleasure to do that. I will narrate it in such a way that you can close your eyes and visualize it like a movie. I feel that in hindsight, one can see the absolutely amazing way the cosmic flow has made things happen and how beautiful it is because I can see it in hindsight now.
So, I would like you to imagine an eight-year-old who has been taught all her life that once she has a bath, she should go into the puja room for a couple of minutes, do whatever she wants to do at that time and then start the day, whether it's going to school, cricket, swimming, whatever it is. Somehow that particular eight-year-old never thought of asking “Oh I have an exam, I better ace it,” or “I must do well or get the gold medal” or never anything like that.
So this girl when she went into the puja room, she was playful, but an image kept repeating itself. I could actually see it, a blackboard type thing with debits and credits and it getting wiped out. Actually, I would physically wipe them out every day. So it was like the dream of the eight-year-old, the only true recurring desire of the being, not of an eight year old, but the being was that I should become a blank slate. All the past samskaras and vasanas of previous lifetimes, the pluses, the play, everything is done and you're left with the same blank slate that started everything. So that was the desire, but then as life happens, the parents would say go to school, do well wherever you go, you get involved in that and the whole life becomes about the external events and achievements and all your time goes into those events and achievements.
My day would start at 5am when I would go off to swim, come back home to go to school from 7:30am-2:30pm and actually my parents would many times come to school with a change of clothes and something to eat so that from school directly, I would go for swimming practice, come back home at around 7:30pm and then do my homework and be in bed, so I didn't have much free time even at that stage in my life. Everything was jam-packed. You can't really think of this blank slate or what that means or going inward or anything like that and it continued like that until I was 18 because things always get more busy, not less, right? I had so much on my plate. We were traveling. We were doing so many things so I don't really believe that my life would have been about the core purpose or the core reason for the beingness had it not been for the accident.
The accident was definitely a moment in my life that made a lot of things different because I lost my sense of identity suddenly. My whole life before that had been about this body and what I was able to achieve with this body. In a split second, everything was gone. All the medals didn't mean anything. Suddenly, people looked at me as if I was something pitiful.
People didn't want to even make eye contact with me. And it was very painful. So from that moment on, going inward into self-inquiry and asking who am I then if I'm not any of those things I have worked so hard to achieve in the first 18 years?
So that was a point and then that whole spiritual journey that brought us to Tiruvannamalai, a couple of life death experiences, my father's passing away, my mother having to go through bypass surgery. So it all came after that. But that whole thing about the shift between what was going on in the external world and the concentration on that, and that being shifted through God's incredible grace to just bestow me with this blessing so that I could actually fulfil the desire of this lifetime, which is to become a blank slate.
So now I'm right on track. I'm exactly where I need to be, doing exactly what I want to be doing, and that's the blessing, isn't it? When you know you're exactly in the right place.
Arun: Absolutely! It is a matter of serendipity that I have to tell you this. Two weeks back, I had the pleasure to be at the lake shrine in Los Angeles, which is founded by Sri Paramahansa Yogananda. And I got the chance to meet the highest monk there. And in our conversations, one of my friends was asking, why do you think that there are people who are born with disabilities? Why do you think that there is a kid who is probably 7-8 years old who cannot speak? And, most of the time, our religious construct around this is that, oh, it's from the last birth, it's from the past karma. And one of the things that he told us, which really left me spellbound was that the soul chooses. It is not us, it is the soul which chooses. And remember the amount of karma that the kid who cannot speak will gather in this lifetime. I somehow connected the dots with the clean slate usage that you told and all of a sudden I'm like, wow, you can always look back at instances and these defining moments in your life and the dots will connect, but only in retrospect. So thank you so much.
I wanted to jump into your work and your vision regarding Soulfree. So I know that you founded Soulfree in 2013 and it was always aimed at providing educational, medical, and employment related support for people with disabilities. And I love the fact that you always said that Soulfree is about enabling them to live a life with dignity and purpose. Now, I learned that this year, after eight years, an integrated spinal rehabilitation center is all set to open in Tiruvannamalai. Looking back at that journey, what are your thoughts and what do you see as the future for Soulfree?
Preethi- Wow, that's a great question! From the beginning, I want to say that Soulfree is not mine. Any of the things that come through Soulfree, the divine is working through this body and this body's great blessing is that it's been a chosen instrument. So never once has there been any ambition, any sense of doership involved with Soulfree. And that's the great part about it because the way it happened itself was beyond me. It came out of dire need. I mean, overnight, my father who was 57, had a heart attack one night, and the next afternoon he was not here anymore. My father stopped working soon after my accident. I had my accident in 1998, and in 2000, we shifted to Tiruvannamalai and started living like ascetics, like many people do in Tiruvannamalai.
So our needs were very, very minimal. And we were living on whatever he had earned before and the savings we had. So sometimes, very rarely, I would summon up the courage and say, "Appa what's going on with our finances?" And he would say, "why are you concerned about that? You just be, you be happy. I'm here. I'll take care of everything and I'll be the last one to go."
And this man at 57, he was just gone. He didn't leave a will. He didn't leave any directions about how, or what I should do. And I had basically not been involved in any adult decision-making from my accident, which was when I was 18. So even before that, I had never made any decisions. And then suddenly my father was gone. Four days later, my mother had a heart attack. And from there on, I was the decision maker of the household and I didn't know anything. So I was totally lost, clueless, and afraid. I mean, I was shit scared. Believe me, I didn't know where to begin.
So from there, it was a very, very steep learning curve because my mother had this condition called angina where whenever she would do anything stressful, or be under physical strain, she would get chest pain. And even shifting me from the bed to the wheelchair, everything became so difficult because we didn't know where to start. We didn't have caregivers. We were finding it difficult to even survive through the day. And from there, we reached a stage where my mother would need a quintuple bypass, a seven hour surgery. And at that point, I didn't know how I was going to survive. And those seven hours were some of the most difficult moments of my life, because I was told it would be a five-hour surgery. From five hours onwards, I was dying every second of those extra two hours because I didn't know how to live without her. Even today, although my mother is nearing 70, she has not slept for eight hours continuously because she needs to shift me in bed every few hours so that I don't develop bedsores.
So literally everything from the food I eat to getting dressed, everything happens only because she is there. My parents basically gave up their lives. They sacrificed their lives of comfort, whatever gave them joy, they gave everything up so that I may live with dignity. And that's perhaps the greatest blessing I have received in this life.
This gift they have given me, it never occurred to them that, oh, we can continue with our lifestyle and go on with our lives. And we can put her in some home somewhere. They never even thought like that. They never blamed me for the accident. They never said, look, you've not just destroyed your life you've destroyed ours as well. Never once did I receive that blame, which is one thing I have seen in the people with spinal cord injury, they are blamed for it. They're told that look, you've become a shame and a burden on us, a curse on us. So while my mother went through the surgery, my father's friends came up to me and said, how are you going to live if there comes a time when your family's not around to help you? And that was a million dollar question because I mean, even till today, it scares me. Because I don't know, I don't have any answers. I don't have any security. I don't have any support system in India because there are no long-term rehabilitation facilities for a person in my condition at all.
India is perhaps one fifth of the world's population out of which 43% are women. And should a woman in India become paralyzed due to any reason, become a quadriplegic or or a paraplegic, there's no place to go. So that's where my mother said, you be the change. I have faith in you.
And I said, Ma, what is wrong with you? I am not even able to take care of myself. How am I going to take care of others? And I don't know anything about the law. I don't know anything about running an organization. I don't know anything. The moment my mind sees numbers, it shuts down. In India, it's the people who do things the right way who get into trouble. I am not going to start anything.
And then what happened is, she had her bypass surgery and with the grace of God, she got better fast. We came back to Tiruvannamalai in three months’ time , and I came to know that in those three months, two paraplegic girls I knew had been forced to commit suicide by their own family. They were told you are a shame on us. You're a burden. The entire family is being ostracized. Nobody is willing to marry your brother, because they are too afraid that they may be saddled, burdened with your care if they marry the brother. Poison was left next to them, and they said, enough is enough, you can go. Imagine what family would do that to you. They drank it and they died. I felt I had been slapped in the face because I had been afraid to fail. But now I felt that if I didn't do something, I would be part of the problem, not part of the change. I felt I needed to raise my voice. That people needed to know that this was happening.
And that's where Soulfree was born. I felt, for those of us, whose body doesn't cooperate, at least the soul is always free. It's in that body and it's limited. As long as it's in that body, it is limited to the body. And if every day, you're told you don't deserve to live, something dies in us, every day. So, to set the souls free, to give them a chance to live with dignity, to give them a chance to fulfil their dreams and desires. That is where Soulfree was born.
And today, we are supporting more than a thousand families who are living below the line of poverty, who are struggling with paralysis, without any support system. When they leave the hospital, they're basically told, that's it. Nothing can be done for you. And in India, the numbers are much higher than we think. A spinal cord injury is set to happen every 38 minutes, more than 18,000 cases in the US every year, and a quarter million, 250,000 quadriplegics alive in the U S today. In a country, the size of Ireland, which is half the population of Tamil Nadu, more than three injuries occur every week. But in India, we don't even have the luxury of being a statistic, because we don't know how many spinal cord injuries are happening every year. We don't know what happens to them once they leave the hospital.. And many of them, especially the higher-level injuries, where the hand functioning is also impaired, many of them don't last even the first year. So, whatever we are doing through these outreach programs, whether we are providing financial support, whether we are providing mobility aids, like wheelchairs and hospital beds and scooters and stuff, whatever we do, it's not enough, because the basic thing they need is retraining. We need to re-engineer their sense of identity. We need to give them faith that they can continue in this body, because this body is not diseased. Spinal cord injury is not a disease. It's a stable condition. And if you can get retrained into how to live and work in this new body, there's nothing you can't do really. For that the Inspire Centre is coming about.
I've been really blessed because the Government of Tamil Nadu has supported us. And we are now going to be almost ready in the next one month or so. We are ready to launch the Soulfree Inspire Centre, which is possibly India's first integrated, spinal rehabilitation centre. And we are going to be able to transform these lives, to teach them how to live and work in this new body. And I mean it's a miracle because how can this broken body do something like that? It's a huge project and it really can't happen without the love, the support, the care from so many people. And that's what Soulfree is all about. And I feel that we are also hoping to start a Shambala village. We are calling it the Soulfree Shambala Village, where people can come and live there. And at no point will a person with spinal cord injury be forced to commit suicide. That's the bottom line. They can live out their lives and work there and stay there for as long as they are around, without the fear of being abandoned.
Arun: Fantastic, so humbling, Preethi. Your narration already gave me all the visuals. I know that I only seldom see cases where the moderator is struggling to find words to reciprocate because when you feel that energy with so much depth, it really hits you at different levels. You are doing something which is very close to my heart.
One of the main reasons why the inclusion summit was started was to connect to this caretaker’s dilemma. When we started off figuring out, when we started off raising our own awareness, of how the disability community in India is challenged and what are the problems that they face, one of the heart-wrenching instances was where a mother told us that, Ferose and Arun, I want to live one more day than my son. Now in our lives, I don't think there is any pain worse for a mother than seeing their little ones pass away. And here is this mother who is praying that I want to live for one more day than my little one. And that is where we also said, hey, it is not about all the challenges that we have, as you rightly said, it is that a lot of things are missing in the system and there are a lot of things, which we don't have answers for, but let's do what we can do. Let us spread the ripple of kindness. Let us spread the ripple of support, so that people can do what they can. So, congrats on the Integrated Spinal Rehab Centre. I hope it goes well and I love the word Shambhala . It's Buddhist, right? I hope that also happens very soon. But I want to take a step back and probably I was just remembering, the first time we met, if my memory serves right, it was 2014 and we met each other in the sacred space of India Inclusion Summit.
And I fondly remember that your views on inclusion were always broad. It was never limited to inclusion of people with intellectual or physical disability. You went beyond the community of disabled. You wanted to generalize inclusion. I was super curious to understand your thoughts behind that because, most of the time, when we engage with people, on a day-to-day basis, about inclusion and disability, most of the time it is inclusion, which is very clearly connected with the community of disabled. You went beyond that in 2014 itself. Would you like to share, what are your thoughts behind that, let us say, philosophy of inclusion for all?
Preethi: Absolutely. I believe that the only difference between me and a so-called normal person is that their bodies are currently cooperating with them and mine doesn't. I always start many talks saying; do you know how many muscles it takes to move one step forward? It takes around 200 muscles working in unison to take one step forward. So, this amazing machine we have been given. But at any stage, we start off life, being disabled, for the first four years of our lives. We don't even have bowel or bladder control, and we eventually go back to that. And today you are wearing glasses, Arun, do you feel you are disabled?
Arun: Yes, I do, because without glasses, I can’t read much.
Preethi: Exactly. So even 16-year-olds, when I ask them that, they get offended, they're like, what? No, I'm not disabled. And I say, take your glasses off. So everybody is more or less disabled or they're going to be, or they used to be. So what is this whole ego about that I'm normal and you're not? We always speak about Senator Hawkin here. I've been very, very inspired by his story because he once started off by telling me that his younger brother has an auditory impairment. So he was working in a bakery and somebody came up to him and gave him a note saying, “Are you happy working here?”
And he said, “No, I'm bored.” So the person asked, “Do you like working with machines?” And he said, “yes.” So this person took him to a factory where he had all these machines. These machines are so loud that people with normal hearing, as it were, had to wear all these noise cancellation devices and things where they could hardly bear to be there even for an hour, they had to go out and it really takes a toll on you if you can hear because that sound is so loud and overpowering. But this guy, he was so carefree there because he didn't need anything.
He was able to work perfectly well. And so in that particular environment, who is the person with a disability? The person who can hear. So your circumstance, the physical scenario, where you are- many times decides whether the impairment or lack of impairment you have causes a disabling condition or not. So it is not the impairment that is causing disability, it is the social conditions where nothing is accessible to you.
You're not able to go to school. You're not able to go to college. You're not able to go to the swimming pool. You can't watch a movie in the theatre because the environment doesn't suit your impairment. So the problem is that the environment is not universally accessible and not that you have an impairment.
I feel that disability itself is a matter of conjecture. It's a matter of perspective. If suddenly you're not speaking English here now, it becomes a problem because you are not able to understand. So you need somebody who can either translate for you or give you subtitles or something.
It's the same issue that a person with an auditory impairment may have. I believe that basically there's no such thing called disability because all of us are disabled in that case. That's why Soulfree’s tagline has always been positively abled. And I feel it is a universal tagline because all of us have positive abilities and all of us have weaknesses.
In that case, it becomes a universal label that we can all carry with pride saying I'm positively abled.
ARUN: Brilliant. It is so interesting that there is this very famous interview, which was done with one of the most celebrated disability rights activists here in the U.S. Her name is Judith Trimon. And she was in the Trevor Noah show.
And it's during the conversation, Trevor makes this comment, "with reference to the able-bodied people like us", it's the equivalent of the normal and Judith retorted, which is not historic. She said, “You know what? I don't like the term. Then Trevor asks, “Why?” Judith replies, “You're not able, you're non-disabled. You have a high likelihood of acquiring a disability, temporary, or permanently. And statistically, that is very high.” Now, this is exactly what you told me moments ago, that whether you like it or not, we are all waiting in the queue. And at some point in our lives, we are going to face a situation where we have a face to face encounter with some disability or the other.
So to call yourself abled or normal is probably not the right way to look at it. And again, it's so interesting to see that you already connected that years ago, and you have been really championing the cause for a long, long time. I wanted to actually come back to inner transformation because Awakin calls are all about spreading the message of inner transformation, probably looking inward as well.
And you are in Tiruvannamalai the abode of Bhagwan Raman Maharshi and your spiritual strength has been your true inner light. And in fact, I was amazed by the simplicity with which you coined your four P philosophy, which is about perspective, purpose, present moment awareness, and peace. It sounds super simple, but the depth of what you're trying to narrate is really, really heavy.
Could you please share some light on your learnings? And of course your self-realization from the spiritual dimension.
Preethi: Wow, words sometimes fail to fully capture the process. Because it's been a really long and sometimes very difficult process for me. One of the greatest blessings of my life I feel is that both sides of my family have had very, very strong spiritual lineage.
We've had a guru and we have found how all these gurus are very, very nicely interconnected in each other so we encountered a lot of miracles. And what brought us to Tiruvannamalai itself, Tiruvannamalai being a giant magnet for all the great gurus over a period of time. I feel it's one of the biggest blessings of my life and I don't want to be anywhere else in the world.
So it's a very, very special place. And many times I tell people that this place only pretends to be on the earth. Time travels differently here. It's a parallel realm. And it's something that you can't explain with words you can only experience it's absolute magnificence. I would say. And to be in this space, I feel it's a very big blessing.
When I moved to Tiruvannamalai, I was 20 years old and I was a brat in a sense because I felt a sense of entitlement. I felt that I worked hard in my life and for everything that I achieved with that, it was hard work and it was deserved. And then I was suddenly in a body which couldn't move anything. I couldn't move a little finger. So where did the question of deserving anything come about? So now what? When I was feeling angry at the world, when I was feeling sorry for myself, it was my father who became my guru. He said, “OK, this is not easy, I understand. It's very difficult for you, but it's the body and everybody's body is going to go. So what are you basically grieving about?”
He said, “Why don't you look within and find that within you, that can't be taken away? Why don't you think of this as a blessing, as a gift that you've been given something on a fast-forward mode and at 18 or 20, you can start your inner life.” And at that point I was still angry. When he would read from Ramana Maharshi or Nisargadatta Maharaj, the great saints, I would say, “Why are you reading this to me? Is this going to take my pain away? Is this going to get me up and walking? No. So I don't want this stuff.” But somewhere, somehow those seeds were sown in me, but I still had a lot of fear. I had the fear of abandonment, I always had this fear that if my parents were not around to protect me what would happen.
And being the visual person I am, I told you about how I could visualize becoming a blank slate. My fear was that people would carry me and throw me into the forest and forcibly take my thumbprint. And then what would I do?
Then I had a couple of near-death experiences and I had an out of body experience and I could actually see my body in that forest. And there was no fear. There was peace. There was joy. Because if that happens, that means whatever lesson I've come here for is almost done. And when you can face your deepest fear, the thing that scares you, and you can smile at it and say that, yes, I'm okay with this. I'll go through this. It's not so hard.
When you have gone through this body death process, you realize, hey, it's not so hard. It's just for half a minute or so then the body takes its own course. It won't let you suffer beyond a certain point.
So when you've gone through that, when you come through the other side and you say whatever this life has to throw at me, it's not so hard. Because I have faith that the master is protecting me, that I can surrender in his will and he will take care of me much better than I can take care of myself. Then suddenly you're breathing free.
And in this body becoming a so-called prison, they always say confined to a wheelchair. I don't understand what that means. The wheelchair doesn't confine me. The wheelchair actually sets me free. It makes me mobile. It allows me to go around and be my own person. So when that happens and then you see that being in a wheelchair has actually set me free of my illusions, then you're free.
Then you’re Soulfree.
So that's the spiritual process that has brought me where I am today that I can laugh and be the happiest person in every room I can be in.
Arun: Wow, you made it sound super easy. It's so heavy. That probably the next question that I have should be on a lighter note. I'm sure about this. But thank you. I think only blessed beings get into the instances where the real purpose behind why you're here is mostly shown and then life takes a completely different path. I'm sure that all the Gurus and the masters and all the blessings from your near ones are always protecting you and through you, a lot of people are actually getting touched, which is such a good thing to happen in anyone’s life.
Well, on a lighter note, you said that your support system, especially your dad and your mom, they were really, really the biggest blessings that you can have, that you could have ever asked for. And in fact, I had seen one of your interviews where your mother comes and says it's so much of joy, Preethi's condition, never take it as a form of punishment, but it's actually a blessing in disguise. Now, when I heard that coming from a mother, it actually gave me a little bit of insight on who she is as well spiritually or her understanding of life. But I'm sure that there'll be lighter instances or stories between you and your mother. Do you want to give us a small sneak peek into how it is?
Preethi: Absolutely. Just one thing about the four P's, I want to say that I feel this is really my biggest blessing because that ability to change that perspective, to find that present moment because the present moment is all that I have got. I don't know if I've got another second. So that's when I think it's suddenly you're being turned into this instrument. And once that instrument is ready, it's given that greater purpose. It's given that purpose to serve the greater good. And from there, there is only peace and joy is for sure. So when I speak about this so-called adult, or I seem to be somebody who people can look at and be inspired by, my mother will say, “Oh God, I heard your talk and I slept, because again and again I'm hearing the same thing and they should come and see you when you're being a brat.” When she is feeding me and I'm saying, “Oh, you've given me too big a mouthful or a too-small amount, or something, all your complaints, somebody should be here and listen to you, and then they will know that you're still only four years old.” So we keep fighting and we have all these interactions. But the thing is, I don't have to say something since she already knows what I'm thinking. My mother is my goddess. My parents have been the greatest influence in my life. They are my Guru because they showed me, they didn't preach to me, they showed me how to be there. They are karma yogis. My mother, she is a Tamil poet and she's a great artist and she has a great creative spirit and she never complains. So it's from them. I mean, whoever I am today, I'm still not even 10% of my parents.
And I'm really blessed to come out of their union. And maybe this is still not light enough. But how can we deserve being born to these kinds of parents who will do this for you? So whoever I am, and I'm just kind of the dust at their feet and I'm blessed to be that.
Arun: I think whoever is listening to this particular segment, I'm sure they all would be remembering their parents. And I think it is such a humble thing that we all should keep in mind that without them we are no one right. And of course, as you said, it's the same with almost all other mothers. You conquer the world and then say I'm this and that.
And I remember my mom saying that you know people should see you when you're cranky. So I totally relate to what you're saying.
Preethi: And another thing on a lighter note I would like to add is that I'm a total foodie. But for people in my condition, weight is always a concern. So I would also like to say that my mother is one of the best cooks in the world. And the thing is she turns these really healthy things into this delicious food so that's another thing we share.
Arun: I think that's also so important because whenever I go to my mother's place and in a week, I invariably put on two to three kilograms and I think it is important that all mothers should look at turning those tasty recipes into healthy ones as well. So in that way, you are super blessed. Amazing.
I wanted to switch back to the core reason of why Soulfree was born. And it is about society’s attitude towards disability and inclusion. I mean, it is a good thing if you really look at it. Over the years, it has been progressively changing towards the better, but there is still a long, long way to go. Preethi, how do you evaluate the situation? You have seen that for over almost 15 years or so. How do you evaluate that situation and what would be your wish and message to everyone who is going to view this conversation at some point in time?
Preethi: Well, in terms of disability, I feel that India is on the right track. I mean, we are definitely much behind other so-called western countries and we are as a third world country, but I think we are on the right track.
Because when I started in 2002 or so, my father went to various colleges to seek admission for me. I wanted to do psychology. We were basically told there are 15 days of practical classes. There are no lifts, no ramps, don't join. Why do people like you bother to come to study? From that position where we started fighting, I was in the top 2 percentile of the American student population and I'm not able to get into a long distance learning program in India. And why? Just the fact that I'm in a wheelchair? It's atrocious! But I think we've come a long way from there, and in my own story, things have changed to the extent that today I'm able to say that I'm a senior research scholar doing my PhD at IIT Madras, which is one of the world's most reputed institutions.
So things are changing, things will change. And, I feel I can tell you, on a lighter note, that sometimes I feel like a battering ram. I go against something, the barrier is broken, but I hope that the people who are coming behind can come in much more easily and freely. So things are changing, things will change but still on an individual level, it will be a battle. And, maybe that's all right. Maybe it's time we raise our voices. And many times, for many of our beneficiaries, I'll tell you two stories, one very difficult and painful one and one story of victory, because many times I'm very hard on them.
They can't play the self-pity card with me. I'll start with the success story. His name is Poosari. So he's a paraplegic, but a higher level paraplegic. His upper body was very strong. So he came to us for a monthly stipend of a thousand rupees a month. And I said, "well Poosari, what is it you do during the day?" So he said, "I live in a village. At the center of the village, there is a very big tree and all of us sit under that tree and we talk and I come back in the afternoon. I live in a hut. In the afternoon, it becomes cool. So I come and lie down." I said, "Dude, you sit around and you talk, then you lie down, then what do you do for a living? How do you eat?" And he said, "Well, actually my mother goes into the forest and whatever she earns is from where I eat, and I said, "My God, you are sending your elderly mother to work and you're eating from that and that's okay with you?" And he said, "well, I don't know what to do!"
I said, "You've come here seeking help from me. I don't even have my hands. Your hands are fine. Tell me what you can do." He said,"The only thing I can do is farming." I said, "Then do that. We will help you. We will provide the seed funding to help you start."
So he started. The first year we helped him lease one acre of land. And within the first year he had sown more than a hundred sacks of rice and earned more than a lakh of rupees. And today, we have made 1 acre into 3 acres and he is now an employer of around 10 people. So this is what we can do. We can transform their lives from where they are seeking help, where they feel they're disabled and they can't do something to now becoming an employer and becoming financially and otherwise self-reliant, this is the word for Inspire that we want to make people physically, financially, emotionally, and in every way self-reliant so they can get reintegrated into mainstream society and become respected members of society.
So this is the change we can give.
Arun - And the second story?
Preethi - Oh yeah. Sorry, I forgot. This was a very challenging one for me because it also made us feel really helpless. This fellow's name is Manivale. He has a lower level injury. I tell this story because this guy, if he gets the kind of rehab we want to give through Inspire, he should be completely self-reliant.
He's got a lower level injury that had he been given rehab immediately after he came out of hospital, he should be walking with callipers, but now he's in bed. He was in a position where his mother was not feeling too great. So she made something, they had lunch and then he seemed to have kind of passed out. He gets up in the evening, he finds his mother on the floor, he doesn't know what to do, he takes a photo from his phone and sends it to us saying, “My mother's lying on the floor, I don't know what to do.” There's nobody nearby who's willing to help them. So we call sources in the government and send them medical support.
We find that they had sort of food poisoning because the mother was already unwell and a lizard had fallen into the food she made. So he's in that kind of helpless condition where he's not able to get a drink of water and nobody's there to even empty his urine bag or anything like that because his mother is not conscious. I started crying when I saw his mother lying on the floor and he didn't know what to do, that kind of helplessness. Now we are supporting him. Almost six months later his mother actually passed away and he is in a position where there's nobody to support him.
We're able to support him financially a little bit, get him some help through the government sources. For example, COVID has been extremely difficult, with many of their parents being day labourers and without any income they struggled.
So we started a quarantine monthly stipend and during the quarantine months, we were able to support them. Through the government we were able to send them grains and many of them who had pressure sores and other conditions, complications caused by spinal cord injury, were not permitted to be hospitalized. So many actually did pass away because we couldn't do anything. So that is where we feel for the Inspire center, if the government can actually help us in the rehabilitation process and include rehabilitation under the insurance, it will change so much because rehabilitation for whatever reason is not part of insurance in India.
I've been talking to the government, I went up to the chief minister and said, “Please invest in making us alive instead of stopping us from dying later on” because the government actually, if you need surgery, for spine, for a bedsore and all that, the government will spend on that, but it's not spending on teaching you how not to get a bedsore in the first place.
Lot of things are changing, they will change, they'll get better. But not fast enough or, the numbers are very high in India because everything that happens in India, so many people are involved. So we need much more to happen, especially in the Northeastern countries, places like Jammu & Kashmir, nothing is there and we need to get there. And we hope that things are changing, we'll get there. We just need to get that whole systems, the systems need to come in place. Once that happens, we'll be better off.
Arun - Absolutely! I think that is a common vision. A lot of us who are doing our tiny bits of making this a dream, our entire wish is that the system comes to our aid, to our support so that it is more holistic in nature.
We are towards the end of our time, of course, we will have more questions that's coming from the audience, before that, Preethi, I wanted to ask you if there is one key takeaway, one key message that our audience should keep in mind after listening to our conversation, what would it be?
Preethi- Well, for me, I would say live fearlessly because fear is just a figment of our imagination. For me, the greatest learning I've had is that life is not about all the things I cannot do. There are always obstacles, there are always seeming difficulties, but let's concentrate on what we can do and what we choose to do with what we can do and the impact we can create for the greater good. That's what I would like anybody to take away from this. But there's one more thing that I would like to say because at some point after my accident, I really felt I wasn't worthy of love, that whole thing that somehow you're not good enough anymore. Many of us carry that for various reasons.
And we also are very judgemental on others we feel aren't good enough. So I want to say that let's try, let's really try to understand that we can't love a person because they deserve it. How are we to say who deserves what, so let's love others not because they deserve it, but because we deserve to have love in our hearts.
That was the biggest change for me that I learned to love myself not because I deserve it but because I deserve to have that love in my heart.
Arun - That's really who we all are. It takes different levels of maturity to realize that kind of thing. Such a joy! Preethi, thank you so much! We need more battering rams, like you, like Firoz, like Nipun, tirelessly striving to make a difference in the world. And it's been such an honor, such a pleasure. I think we'll open up for questions now and I'll hand it over to Drishti.
Drishti - Thank you, Arun and Preethi. It's been quite a conversation right from inclusion to your parents, your spiritual journey to your near death experiences and I just feel there's so much more to your life and so much that we can really explore, and I just feel that one hour is a really short time, with a person like you.
And so we will move on to the questions that are coming in from the audience. But before that, I just wanted to request the listeners that if you have any questions for Preethi, then you can submit it via our live stream page. And you can also email it to us. So, Preethi till the time new questions come in, I want to present a few questions from the audience.
There is one question from Vinod, from Bangalore. He's asking, "when did you completely and unquestionably surrender, when did you accept and embrace the change?" And I think you mentioned in your talk, there was this one phrase, "Why me", and you gradually shifted to "Why not me? Everything is a blessing".
So what brought that surrender to you is our first question.
Preethi - Thank you so much, Vinod from Bangalore. Thank you for asking this lovely question. It's a very, very gradual process. So you can't actually pinpoint the moment when you say, at this point I was in “why me” and then I went to “why not me?” but I can tell my second near death experience was really powerful because somehow my lungs, I have this spasticity where my legs kick about uncontrollably and they are very strong because it causes like a 100% contraction in the muscles and that particular day, somehow that contraction went into the lungs. So it became like my lungs were stuck together, like sometimes, they create a vacuum, like when there's a plastic bag and the more you try to blow into it, the more stuck it becomes. So I could actually feel myself dying. The more I tried to breathe, the tighter my lungs were becoming.
So I told my mother "Maa, I am dying" and she was panicking. She was shouting our guru's name and all that. And suddenly everything became very clear for me. And the thing I said was, "I surrender in the will of my master" and then I lost consciousness. I had been actually gone for 8 minutes, my body had turned cold and, scientifically it is said that for more than 30 seconds, if your body doesn't get oxygen, it starts to die and the brain starts to die. So the fact that after eight minutes, it seems that most of my brain's cells are still intact, it's a miracle. And that's the truth. In that moment, I had surrendered to my master and for me, there's no more fear because whatever I go through I know that I'm taken care of.
Drishti - Thank you. I think that's the heart of what you have. And with that, we'll move to the next question. The next question is where do you find your balance between being a warrior and transcending your disability, that is doing great things despite of the disability vs leaning into and being ok with the impermanence, being okay with being insignificant, even if I may not be disabled, I think I, or so many of us often struggle with this within us, of wanting to be extraordinary, either physically or in career or in spirituality at many subtle levels. And of being ok with our own ordinariness and significance. So where do you kind of find that balance between all these things, is our next question.
Preethi - Wow, it's actually a complex question and an interesting one. So normal and disabled and extraordinary and ordinary, I think that's where the question is arising out of.
Nobody has ever called me ordinary, never has my life even had anything to do with being ordinary. So it's always been out there, whether I was starting swimming when I was three or playing for the senior team when I was eight. So ordinary has not been a label that has been attached to me at all. So in fact, I'm quite proud that there's nothing ordinary about my life.
And I don't believe in this concept of disabled because I know a lot of people who get a headache and then the rest of their day, they're not able to be productive. And, a part of me is see, even now I think you can see there is a difference in the color of this part of my body because it's sweating, it's become dark and this side is lighter because that's the natural color. My body is right now in a place where it's just becoming like ice, but I'm perfectly functional. So what is it that disables people? I don't even know. I don't feel I'm disabled. These labels we carry. See the insignificance of a being is that we're all like little specks of sand or little bubbles in an ocean. The bubble comes up. It thinks it's a separate object on its own. And then it goes back to what it has always been. So in that sense, we are insignificant and we are here for a temporary period of time and we are going to go back to that. We're going to awaken from our sleep and this dream is going to be over.
But in that sense, apart from that, we are eternal beings, right? We are, we are not. We are insignificant and we are the most significant that is happening. We are disabled and we are not disabled. We are ordinary, and we're absolutely extraordinary. We are all these things at the same time. So the balance, it happens on its own, right? We don't have to create balance here. It's already in balance. We just have to accept that it is what it is and that we can be, but we are here and now. It's only the labels, the labels are being placed by somebody else. They can balance it out. I don't need to balance anything. I'm already in balance.
Drishti - Interesting. And what's more interesting is that you say that in some ways, we are everything all the time.
Preethi - Yes. These are just labels that are attached to us and we don't have to attach these labels to ourselves. We can be free.
Drishti - So with that, I would like to go to our next question: how has your relationship to joy and gratitude evolved since your childhood when you were so successful, then the tough phases and now today, when there are a lot of challenges at personal and work level, but there is also recognition and respect. How has your relationship with joy and gratitude evolved over time?
Preethi - Yes. It's been an amazing journey. I always tell people in these two decades in this quadriplegic body, I probably have grown more than I could have in 20 lifetimes in a normal body.
Because this is just more challenging every day, every moment. It's just constantly teaching you that you are not the doer. You can't even move your thumb. You can't even move your little finger. So constantly, there is joy. There is gratitude constantly. There is a flow of this blessing that you can see everywhere.
Like I said, for the first 18 years of my life, a lot of good things happened, a lot of success happened. I worked hard for it so I felt I deserved it. Only after the accident happened, I saw Where is the question of deserving anything? It's all a blessing, right? When things happen that you enjoy, then you think of it as a blessing. If it happens in a difficult way and you fail, then you think of it as a punishment. Everything that comes to you comes to you to teach you something, to help you evolve to take you to the next phase of the journey. If we see everything in that way, everything, every lesson, there are so many ways my ego is broken down every day because of the so-called dependence I face.
Right? So every day I'm taught. No, no. If seemingly things are happening well, they're happening well because it's God's grace.
It's not you, you can't do anything. And the less of you there is, many times the better, the better the work gets done. So when we start to be more in alignment with the cosmic flow, then the work happens more effortlessly. So in that sense, the less of I, the less of the ego there is to block the view, the journey becomes more of a 360 degree view and you learn a lot more.
And in that sense, the joy, the blessing, it's continuously there with me.
Drishti - Vinod has written that you are helping us to see and shift from 'disabled' to 'this label.'
Preethi - Fantastic! I was talking to Rohit the other day and he was writing about something and I wrote that all we need to do is generate the 'I sight.' Not ‘eyesight,’ but 'I sight' to look beyond what we can see. So he said that was a cool one.
Drishti - To look beyond your ego. There is one more comment from Swapan. It says that the Buddha taught that with mastery one can achieve his or her own goals. There's a lot to learn from the life of Ms. Preethi.
Preethi - Thank you
Drishti - There is one more question that I wanted to touch upon. There are these sayings "Everyone is good at something. Everyone can do something that is great. Everyone can also be great at giving." How has your journey shifted to giving back to society? And also could you talk about that shift from where initially you thought “why should I be in this position?” to this perspective “I can be the change myself?”
Preethi - So I have always loved Albert Einstein, I think who said that if you judge a fish on how it climbs a tree, it will always be a failure. If we are a fish, we should be a fish. In terms of inclusion, I have always felt that we should celebrate our individuality. Nobody can be a good Drishti other than Drishti, right? We are perfect and we are the best at being ourselves. I don't believe that we should be carbon copies of anybody else. I think it's great parenting when children are being permitted to be themselves because children have their own individuality and they should not be put into certain boxes and say, you can only do this. And many children are being told which careers they should take. They should go after their passion. They should be themselves. You've made this beautiful child now, celebrate them being themselves. I had a father who was like that, who would say that, even if you decide to be a mechanic, I will support you, but just do it with so much passion that you will be the world's best mechanic.
So that is what I feel that we are perfect in being ourselves. So why can't we just be ourselves. So we can be the best at who we are and that's good enough.
And in terms of giving, the one thing I have learned is that in seemingly doing things for others, it gives me more than it gives anybody else anything. I don't believe that I'm generous or I'm selfless or any bullshit like that. By realizing how much we are able to give in the world that we realize we have any value.
I feel that way. I feel I do more for myself when I do things for others. And it's actually not selfless or anything. It's the way I find to grow. It's the way I fulfil my own sense of who I am. In a lot of forums, I tell people to be self-centered. When we are centered in the self, then it's beautiful. It's all a celebration. If you are happy, then it's hard that you're grinning and everybody else is frowning. Only if I'm smiling, everybody's smiling with me. So it's the best that way.
Arun - And if I may add that the construction behind this idea of giving is heavily centered on money, but think about it. You do everything that you have to do to amass money and after you're 60 or 65, and when you know that, okay we know life has nothing much to offer afterwards, I start giving back. I want to turn the construction of the narration in a different way.
Giving is not just money, giving is time. I personally know how much time the volunteers from ServiceSpace put in to program the show. Isn't that giving?
Giving can be intellect. When somebody comes to you and says that I am in a particular situation, what would you want me to do? You are giving your intellect when you're trying to solve their problem.
Giving is touch. When you see somebody and give a kind hug, that's also giving. And if there is anybody who wants to be a giver, there are no shortcuts to it. And there is no one way to give. It has to be a daily affair. It has to be a way of life and practice small things. Be kind to the person who you meet in the store or standing in the line.
I still remember there was this instance where I met Nipun, which was in Berkeley and he said, “Oh Arun, I'll get you an ice cream.” Of course there was one more person with us. And I was like, “Okay.” And then we went to the ice cream shop and there was this lady who was standing before us and she's in the queue and she was buying some ice cream.
And when she was about to pay , Nipun goes and says, “Please allow me to do that.” Now imagine, Preethi, for you, visualize this happening and all of a sudden you might think, oh my God, which country am I in? What is happening? Is this guy trying to do something else because we are so far away from receiving kindness without an intent tied to it. And then she said, “No, please let me pay.”
And then Nipun says, “Please let me pay.” I have to say that he is very cutely persistent. And then she says, “Why do you want to do that?” And he says, with a big smile, “I want to do it because I met my friend after a long time.” Isn't that giving?
So please understand that if you choose to be a giver, there are so many venues every day you will encounter. Maybe you can give your talent, give your time, you can give your touch. And of course, if you have money, please share it with others as well. Thank you.
Drishti - Yeah, it's what Martin Luther King, Jr says, “Everyone can be great at giving because everyone can do something.” I just wanted to present one last comment, Preethi.
Jaya says, you are so inspiring Preethi. I am so glad I got to listen to this Awakin talk of yours. God bless you. So with that Preethi, I just wanted to invite you if you have any final closing thoughts before we actually close our call. We would really love to listen to that.
Preethi - Well, I just want to thank all of you, all the volunteers who've been part of this. Rohit. I want to thank Venkatramaniah Uncle who actually connected with Nipun and made this happen and Nishaji and Arun and Drishti, and all of you for giving me this wonderful opportunity. Nipunji, the next time you're in Thiruvannamalai please give me the blessing of being your host. I would love to be in your presence for a while, so I just want to thank everybody who's been listening to us. This is time travel for me because this discussion has been how long, but it feels like three minutes to me. So this is love. This is a blessing. And I'm really thankful for being in this. This is satsang, right? So in this sanctified space and time, I'm really thankful.
And if any of you would like to support Soulfree in any of its activities, please log on to our website. It's https://soulfree.org. And whenever you find yourself in the south of India, please think of making Thiruvannamalai one of your places to be, and you can come and spend time with our residents, just making eye contact with them, playing a game of chess, singing or doing anything with them. We will find ourselves really blessed to be in your presence. So, thank you. Thank you for everything.
Drishti - Thank you Preethi and just one last thing. How can ServiceSpace support your vision is what we would like to know.
Preethi - Oh, well why don't you bring as many volunteers as possible to come to Soulfree so that we can have some talks from here as well. So from Thiruvannamalai, we can be your base here in south India. And from here, we can take it on and we can see how we can bring together the talents of all our beneficiaries and see what we can do with that. It will be really great.
Drishti - Thank you Preethi. Thank you Arun. Thank you for this amazing call. There were so many gems that you shared, Preethi and maybe you have lived 15-20 lifetimes but for each one of us, it’s going to take so many more lifetimes to do so much of inner work that you have already been doing. And thank you for saying a big YES. Thank you to all the listeners. Before we close the call as a closing comment there is one comment from Neelam from California:
What an amazing experience of life being a blank, clean slate, Preethi. Listening and envisioning your journey is so humbling. I am moved. Shambhala is such a good step forward. Disability is a perspective. You are such a champion. Your spiritual journey has so much learning. Thiruvannamalai is the place. Being in a wheelchair has set me free, this is so amazing.
All the blessings from Ramana Maharshi, thank you for all the takeaways. Let's concentrate on what we can do. Let's love because we deserve to love ourselves. Fully an honor being with you Preethi. I surrender to the will of my master, totally a miracle. Surrender to the masters. Thank you for your experience.
So yes, this is how all of us feel right now. Thank you so much for all these gems and thank you for everything. With this, I just invite all of you and all of our listeners so that we can close the call with a minute of silence in gratitude of who Preethi is and her journey. And sending a lot of prayers and love to Soulfree and everyone.
And maybe everyone on this journey, I hope we all can set our souls free one day. So thank you. Thank you everyone. We'll close with a minute of silence.