This week we interviewed Norma, who started meditating in her late 30s and is now 87. We felt so privileged to have had this opportunity and to share some aspects of her inspiring practice with you.
Norma began to seek out a spiritual practice because while having a loving, supportive family and fulfilling career as a nurse, she felt an underlying dissatisfaction with life and a desire to “see clearly”. Through friends and personal research, or as she called it “investigations”, Norma discovered Easwaran and passage meditation.
Here she tells us about how practicing Easwaran’s eight-point program has shaped her life. We were especially interested in finding out what it's like to practice in one’s "Setu" years (Setu means "bridge" in Sanskrit and is used here to describe the time in life when we approach the “bridge” from this life to what’s next), so that we as YAs know what we've got ahead of us, and how the practice can help us contribute to our communities and the world.
YA Team: What’s your spiritual/religious background?
Norma: I was raised American Baptist. I had really good parents who were also raised Baptist. We went to church on Wednesday, twice on Sunday. At first, when I left home, I wanted to get away from that, but later I was glad for some of the spiritual training that it gave me. But I was more attracted to Buddhism.
YA Team: What was your impression about seeing Easwaran in-person?
Norma: Yes, well, by that time I’d been around some enlightened people. After reading his books and seeing him, I could recognize that. I felt he was a good man, and a good way of being.
YA Team: How has your practice evolved as you’ve gotten older and moved into setu?
Norma: Setu is a wonderful support in old age. I feel very privileged to go to the retreats and just to know about it. It’s just a wonderful support and gives you something to do and how to be when you can’t get out. It isn’t like you give up and sit and watch TV all day, or even just sit in front of the TV, not even watching it. I see so many old people like that who just give up and go to bed. They’re through and so they just lay in bed all day. Setu gives you a purpose and focus in your life, a way to reach out to other people in some way. It’s just wonderful. I look forward to every setu retreat. There is such a feeling of love and support from the staff and retreatants. It’s very inspirational.
YA Team: Could you tell us about setu practices?
Norma: Well, this morning, I wrote my mantram, I copied some passages out of God Makes the Rivers to Flow, meditated, and you caught me on my exercise bicycle. This is all after a good, healthful breakfast, of course. You experience all this at a Setu retreat. I incorporate anything I don’t already have with what Christine [Easwaran] does. She’s a great inspiration to me. Aging and being balanced. Exercising, eating right, the whole Setu practice, doing for others in whatever way you can. It might just be in prayers, or writing the mantram, that’s a good one. And [the ashram residents and staff] are so kind, everyone in setu retreats feels so loved and supported by them. It’s wonderful, a blessing.
YA Team: What do you do, or what have you done, for spiritual fellowship?
Norma: I have every other Sunday from 1:00-3:00 a satsang here at my house. We just have a couple people but we’ve been going for several years. We watch one of Easwaran’s videos and meditate, write mantrams for 10 minutes. That’s part of it. I’ve also been going to another satsang. And I belong to a meditation group, have for about 20 years, in Eureka. It’s non-sectarian. I’m very fortunate to have some spiritual friends.
YA Team: What were you looking for from meditation when you started, and what are you looking for now?
Norma: When I first started, it was discovered I had high blood pressure and I had read someplace that meditation would lower it, so I took it up originally, partly because of the dissatisfaction thing, but also for the blood pressure. I’ve since read that many people take it up for health reasons. But as I’ve gone on, there’s been a lot more to it than that. It’s definitely been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. It’s changed my life, for sure. As I age, I want to stay balanced, stay in touch with my inner self. It’s kind of different. Improved health is a side effect. It definitely improves health, I think. I know.
YA Team: How has this impacted your career choices?
Norma: I don’t think it had an impact. I would have chosen that work anyway. When I was young, I worked in a hospital and I really liked it. It was during the war and they let high school kids work there. I got to do a lot of stuff and I really liked it. When I worked, it was in the medical field. I think spiritual people are attracted to those fields.
YA Team: How have you dealt with people’s perceptions about meditation?
Norma: I just did it. I remember I would meditate before I went to work in the morning. I remember my son, pretty little at the time, he answered the phone (I meditated in one of our big bathrooms) and he said I couldn’t come to the phone right now because, “she’s in the bathroom, meditating.” I told him you don’t have to be that detailed next time. Ha ha! I think all my children had a spiritual bent and I don’t think it hurt them a bit seeing me do that. I think they were interested. We chanted at the table sometimes and I think they really liked that. Remember, we were in California and things were different, a lot was going on. I don’t think it was a big deal and if people didn’t like it, tough. Ha ha! I think all that is a good influence on children. The seeds might not grow until later in life.
YA Team: What passage are you currently enjoying or which is your favorite? And why?
Norma: I really like “Do Not Look With Fear,” that’s my favorite. 207’s the number [page number in God Makes the Rivers to Flow]. I think that is a compassionate passage, I really like it. It’s helped me through some hard times. It seems to be the consensus of the Setu retreat, too.
YA Team: Which Easwaran book is your favorite?
Norma: Dialogue With Death is my favorite, it’s called Essence of the Upanishads now. It just resonates quite a bit. When I first read it, it was probably answering some need at the time. I love all of them. They’re all wonderful. I give them out, too, to people who seem ready.
YA Team: What are the benefits you’ve gotten from practicing passage meditation for a long time?
Norma: Well, I tell you what, it’s good health, I would say, not perfect, but it has really made me healthier. I was in pretty good shape before, I used to be a runner, but as I get older, I think the health. A lot of it is mental. But physical, too. It’s been a tremendous benefit.
YA Team: What are the benefits you’re getting by practicing in your Setu years?
Norma: It’s just fantastic. It’s a focus for your life, is what it is. I see so many people who appear to just have given up. My sister is one of them. The focus has been lifesaving for me. I mean up to a point, it will be life saving.
YA Team: How are you different because of doing this practice?
Norma: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know how I would be otherwise. But it’s all positive, for sure. I’ve got a lot of faults, like everybody, but I’m working on them. I’m more aware, and I can stop myself if I go overboard on having to be right all the time; that’s kind of a biggie for me. So I’m working on my ego. And it’s good to be working on something up until the last minute.
YA Team: Can you share an example of a time when this practice has been particularly helpful in your life?
Norma: I think what immediately comes to mind is when my husband died. He wasn’t sick, he was on a fishing trip. He was going to be gone for several weeks. He’d been gone a couple weeks and I got a knock on the door. Two cops were there. He died out of state, so they sent the police. I looked out of the window first and thought, “It’s either my son or husband,” because they were together.
There were two of them, the police, one was a woman, I guess there in case I lost it, and the man was sort of hemming and hawing. I knew something terrible had happened. I just sat down and waited for him to spit it out. I said my mantram right then and during that whole time, because there’s a lot of things to do when a spouse dies, but I did them all. I was very clear headed, I cried a lot, but I did it all and did it alone, that’s how I wanted it. I did everything that needed to be done. I would say at that time.
Then my daughter died the next year. That was really bad. But my two children and grandchildren were there. All my spiritual training was very helpful, both times. Life is going to do this to you and it’s very helpful to have a spiritual practice. I don’t see how people who don’t have one do it, who don’t have something like this. Some people, you know, for years they’re having a hard time, and I feel bad for them, but everybody makes their own life.
YA Team: Thank you Norma, we appreciate your time, honesty, and more than anything, your inspiring example. One day we’ll be practicing Setu too, and we’ll be thinking of you and sending you and your family our mantrams.