On Enlightenment (by Cookieman)

I am woken by the sound of screams. Deep, penetrating, shocking screams. I move my body to see where they are coming from. I cannot get up. I can only turn my head. I am strapped to a bed, and, out of the corner of my eye I can see someone watching me through a slit. The screams keep coming, and, it seems like there is no wall between them and I.

I am awake after three blacked out days. I realise I am inside. I have become a ward of the state, and, am in Graylands Public Hospital, a mental asylum in Perth, Western Australia. I was committed by my parents three days ago, but I do not remember it, not my trip in the ambulance here, not my diagnosis with psychosis, not the first three days when I was the waking dead.

I will be kept here for four more days. That is how long it takes for them to realise that I am no threat, not to myself, not to anyone else. In that time, I keep to myself, spend time in the sunshine, walk in the grass courtyard outside, receive guests, meet with doctors, read and write in my room, and speak with other patients. The patients are, without exception, homeless white drug users and old Aboriginal people from remote communities. The workers are migrants from all over. I am alone in my privilege – an Ivy League schooled, upper class, young and fit, Malayali that has travelled the world. By education, wealth, body, ethnicity, and experience, I do not belong here. Perhaps, that is why they let me go. Perhaps, it is also because I was not mad, and never have been, no matter if I had found my way there. This then is a story of what I saw there, of reaching into the pit of oneself to find out what my truth is, of learning how to sift gold from dust in this world, of how to make joy from suffering, to return to ground that is bloody when the sun is shining. This is my story of enlightenment.


My episode was the result of months of hard work – doing yoga and pranayama, reading philosophy, visiting country – but I did not know that Locked Room Ward B was where I would end up. That December day, I woke up before dawn at my family summer home, Redgate, and was unsettled. I was convinced that I had broken the Law. Not an Australian, British, or colonial one, but a deep one, like the Bidirra one my brother-in-law knows, north along the coast. I knew, somewhere in my soul, that I would die if I crossed the Swan River, that I was not allowed to be on this sovereign land, stolen as it was, unwelcome as we were, guests since arrival not that long ago.

My parents did the right thing in taking me to hospital. They knew I was unwell, and, I had to be driven back to the city. That was three hours from Redgate, and, I grew more and more distressed as we came to the bridge. By crossing it, I was sure that I would die, convinced that I would be met by a marban man who knew the law and would tell me where my place was.

We crossed the bridge. I did not die.

And, in that moment, I reached enlightenment. My body became lighter. I felt spirits, my own ancestors, move inside me. I was released from past lives and this immediate suffering. I was high. I was elated. My distress vanished. I was, once again, a person in a car. Now, I was on the other side of a bridge.

At the hospital, they said I had a flat affect. They said I had experienced psychosis. I did not mind what they called it. I was full of relief. I was alive. I could take their punishment, and, their labels, and their treatment. But it has taken me ten years to say that I lived through it. It has taken me that long to make sense of this, to find words for my logic, to know that I am not mad, no matter what other people say.

I learned to sit inside from this. To hold space within myself. To create my body as a sovereign place and an example to others. To liberate my soul from its worldly concerns. That meant finding clarity once again, and, finding language to express what happened. I tried words in Ngarluma – tarruru – to describe this sensation. I tried words from Buddhism – moksha – to describe this experience. But for now, I am nesting in English, in enlightenment. In Malayalam, we say prabud’dhata, or awakened. If being a ward of the state was one experience, being enlightened was another, but they are twins in my life, a miracle and a death, a way of making sense of time itself through paradox. Enlightenment is religious, it is political, it is aesthetic. It is everything. A word so transparent as to be opaque with meaning. For me, it was a true blessing but the way afterwards is littered with blood just like the life before. That is why we cannot forget the people I was inside with.


I could only begin to find language for myself when my child arrived. If enlightenment was a starting point, birth was another one as well, something that many can relate to. These are the moments that matter. And, how I put it into language helped me with my place in the world.

Language matters, but the language beneath the language matters more. This is the sense of the aquifer under the river. We know it through the surface even as it is deeper, coming from the rain through the groundwater, to rest in our bodies as we thirst in drought and flood. It is not that we have nothing but language. It is that language allows us to fail and return, to fall and rise, to become waves in our own lives. Language is not perfect nor kind nor cruel. It is what it is, and, to think in language means thinking that is not English or Sanskrit or even Malayalam. It is to think in and of and for itself. When language fails us and we fail language, we become enlightened. When we reach to articulate, and cannot, we become enlightened. That is possible for everyone in every moment of the day. We can transcend the day to day when we allow ourselves to. To realise what matters to our heart’s content. For me, I work in this language, but you might find your soul belongs to bricks or flour or bodies of other people.

Since that time inside, I have written on poetry of this continent, found my place after the fall of the nation state, and, by being a suburbanist, an identity that is a lifestyle. Now, it the question is how to become a teacher, if not an Old Master, perhaps a God. This was possible by going backwards like a lobster. It meant returning to the ground of my ancestors, not in search of hungry ghosts, but for people we can relate to, who help welcome us home. For in that home, where the body disappears, and with it the tongue and voicebox, we come to dwell in silence where there is language itself. We come to rest, to lay our heads, to sleep with dreams, and, when we wake, we find a way, to talk, to go on, to help bring someone home. We find welcoming. It is a relief, an easy understanding, where the stars light the way and the water laps at our feet and the coconut trees sway in the breeze. We sit, we stand, we dance in front of the police. We remember what it is to die and be resurrected. We become young again.

Country is what keeps us alive.

I know where my death is, and, that is to the south of my birth country, which is across the ocean from my ancestral home. Redgate is where I saw a vision of the figure that will come to release me from this suffering, a vision that returns for me when I visit sometimes, alone. That is Wardandi country. I know too, that my birth is a place that allows one to live again – Perth, a city where I came into this plane, a place belonging to Whadjuk custodians. And then, in deep time, a place to come ashore when the floods arrive, a place that will go under if the water rises once more, Puthucurichy, that place where the people who are my people allow me to be a Malayali. Layers. Sediments. Organs that allow one to find language, to locate oneself in the cosmos, waiting for the ocean, and a reason to find the dead.


What does enlightenment mean then? What does it mean in this place that denies its spiritual reality? It is what leads to being disciplined by the state, being medicalised, and held in confines. It is to suffer according to the rules of others. And yet, the world is a place that contains multitudes, and, if anything at all, being enlightened means having true knowledge, and, a knowledge of truth. It is to see that the river has always been here and to work to make sure it always will, to know that it is a mark of country, that it is made by its borders, that one can cross it and survive. To go back to the otherside and come back with tales. To descend into hell where there were massacres and shadows and punishment, and find what hope means. It is to go on, and, it is to acknowledge the wrongs. That means, of course, that truth is a process and a practice and that it helps us to progress, to work for justice, to keep unfolding and becoming no matter if it does not make sense. It is to rationalise to the point of irrationality, to make logic mystical once again, to turn on the light-bulb that is the moon that is the fire in the heart, to light up and awaken the world itself.

Enlightenment is a moment that lasts a lifetime.

I will always have some memory of that day. I can recall it clearly if I want to. I can find language for it. But, making silence from it is what might matter more. It is a way to create space for others, to open up and into what they have to say, to be a way that they can communicate. By sharing what suffering is, by making a path for your own enlightenment, then we come to a truth. That truth is what matters in the world. It is simple. It is simplicity – to be generous, to be kind, to be open, to work, to be kind. It is a way to think about our place, to become a light for others that know what it is to go on. It might be therapeutic. It might simply be what it is, unable to be expressed, a shorthand just like ‘enlightenment’. It might be to make space what is mad so that we can know ourselves, so we can live a good life, so we can change the world.

About the Author: Robert Denish Wood is interested in language, dream, place, meaning, and nature. His pen name is COOKIEMAN. He is the Creative Director for the Centre for Stories in Perth, Australia, and, the author of three books. Robert was a Benjamin Franklin Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and an Endeavour Research Fellow at Columbia University. He has been an Emerging Critic with the Sydney Review of Books, and, has edited for Cordite Poetry Review, Overland, and Peril. His work has been published widely, and, translated from English into Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Spanish, and Mandarin. Currently, he has a monthly interview series with Los Angeles Review of Books, which has included Ranjit Hoskote, Emily Wilson, and Ben Okri, amongst others. See more at: www.robertdwood.net
In terms of publications: I have 250 pieces of literary journalism to my credit, and, three books - History and the Poet: essays on Australian Poetry; Suburbanism: Poetics; and Concerning A Farm. I am also the editor of Wave After Wave: writers from the Indian Ocean

1 comment :

  1. This is wonderful and a great experience to share. Rob


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