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'The attack seemed like shade on a sunny day'

Last updated on: November 25, 2009 10:18 IST

'26/11 was like shade on a sunny day'

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Archana Masih
A day after she was rescued from the Trident hotel in Mumbai, Canadian Helen Connolly stood outside the hospital and realised she had lost her closest companions of the India trip in the 26/11 terror attack.

She also had no money, credit cards or identification and her family was far away. It was a transformational moment for the yoga instructor who was in India with the Virginia, US-based meditation group, Synchronicity.

A year later, she remembers the friends that are no more, dwells on the way her life has been reshaped by 26/11 and how gratitude has become a daily companion for the magic and mystery of life.

Read the first part of her conversation with rediff.com's Archana Masih:

A year after the Mumbai tragedy, how has the incident changed your life?

There is a strange feeling of it being so long ago now, but also seeming like yesterday that we were all having such a wonderful time in India. My heart is full. My life is rich. The response to the age-old yogic question of "Who am I?" is a lot clearer for me now.

Finding myself standing in India, with nothing but the clothes on my back, no money, no credit cards, no identification, no reading glasses, family far away and my closest companions of the last 10 days suddenly deceased was a transformational moment.

I felt as vulnerable as a newborn baby and surrendered to life with the same degree of trust. I feel like a different person, better for the experience. I miss my friends, but know they are alive in spirit and liberated from the body. Their work is done on the physical level of experience.

My whole family has been reshaped and refined by the experience. Gratitude is my daily companion for the magic and mystery of life and for the Divine Wisdom who sees with great vision what we need to evolve. A Divine Wisdom who loves us enough to challenge us to be more than we have ever been and who gives us the choice to live from fear or from love. I choose love.

How have you coped with the trauma of what happened -- you are a yoga instructor who draws strength from meditation -- how has this helped you. Would it have been difficult had you not been part of a spiritual commune like Synchronicity?

I feel tremendously grateful for yoga, meditation and my affiliation with spiritual mentors like Master Charles Cannon of Synchronicity and Sai Maa Lakshmi Devi of Humanity in Unity. I trained as an Integral Yoga teacher in 1997 at the Satchidananda Ashram in Yogaville, Virginia, and lessons I had learned there, about the immense power of mantra repetition actually served me very well, and perhaps even saved my life in the Tiffin restaurant that night, as I lay in a child's pose under the table, silently chanting Om Shanti.

Being tested like that really highlighted the benefit of living a holistic, meditative lifestyle. Seeing all as Source, seeing all as the play of consciousness changes one's perspective on daily living. After ten blissful, sunny, Source-filled days of meditation and darshan with the Guru, the attack seemed like shade on a sunny day the dark and light always co-existing, the darkest shade being where the sun is brightest.

Of course, I did my share of grieving. I am human and Alan and Naomi Scherr were very dear friends of mine but the Synchronicity and yoga practices of allowing myself to fully include all experiences of grieving and recovery while maintaining a meditative practice and a bigger picture of surrender to Divine Will, saved me from completely suppressing emotions and arresting the recovery process.


Image: Helen, right, with Naomi Scherr, the teenager who died in the 26/11 terrorist attacks.
Photographs: Courtesy, Helen Connolly
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'Alan said he didn't know how he'd survive without Naomi'

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Do you remember the conversation at dinner that evening -- especially with Naomi and Alan (Father and daughter Alan and Naomi Scherr died in the Trident attack on November 26)?

I remember Naomi had tried a few times to contact Alan to let him know we had decided to go to the Tiffin, but his phone was busy. He eventually found us when he was free and momentarily showed his concern that he didn't know where she was. She extended her arm to him in love to hold his hand.

I asked her if she wanted to switch places with me as I was nearer to him (hoping she'd say 'No' as I was tired from the hot walk back). She said 'Yes' but Alan said it was OK, to stay put.

Then we talked about her new school and that's when Alan said he didn't know how he'd survive without her. Shortly after that the shooting started.

We were planning another day trip for the Thursday, then Master Charles was hosting a special programme that weekend and we were scheduled to return home after that.

Yes. I truly loved the place and the people. The Oberoi hotel was a beautiful oasis of calm, prior to the attack and that is how I remember it. I would love to visit the city again as well as other places in India.

How are the other injured members of the group now? How has their recovery been? Michael Rudder, Rudrani Devi and others? Who were the most greviously injured and had the longest recovery?

I spent time with Linda Ragsdale and Michael Rudder a few weeks ago at Synchronicity and they both seem like bright beacons of light and stillness beautiful souls. Their physical healing is ongoing and their focus is positive. I saw Rudrani Devi at a retreat in June. She seemed to be recovering well and was walking with support.

Michael was the most grievously injured. He was shot four times. Their physical healing is still a process for them.


Image: The Trident under siege.
Photographs: Sanjay Sawant
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'You never know what your last meal is going to be...'

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On her memories of Naomi Scherr.

Sharing a room with Naomi was a pleasure. Being with her reminded me of my own children so I never felt homesick, and she said I reminded her of her mom, so we were an easy match as roommates.

Naomi was a wise and beautiful soul, while also being a typical teen in many ways. She was interested in boys and music. She loved food and was a very good cook as was her father.

The television in our room was a treat for her. We amicably worked out an arrangement for television viewing (she loved cartoons) that we could both live with she'd watch it with the volume pretty low and closed captioning turned on and I'd put my headphones on and read, when we didn't want to watch it together.

We compared notes on favourite movies, and she wanted to know what my kids were listening to now in terms of entertainment and music. We shared beauty secrets and shawls and food, and also prasad from our temple visits.

She was brilliant, having just scored almost perfect results on school tests, ensuring her placement and scholarship at the school of her choice for the following year. She was very excited about it. She loved Harry Potter and said her new school reminded her of Hogwarts.

She was making notes for an essay she was going to write for the new school about her adventures in India. She was also sketching in a notebook and bought beautiful papers in a store to draw on.

She was really excited about the prospect of getting her nose pierced in India yet she remained totally calm when the appointment got deferred day after day. I was imagining how impatient most kids might be in the same circumstance and asked her if she ever got frustrated about such things. She replied, "No. I never feel mad. But sometimes I pretend to be just for the fun of it."

When she finally did get her nose pierced in our bedroom she was so happy she paced the room and sighed to accommodate the overflow of happiness.

Everyone in the group loved her and she was never short of company or things to do.

One night Master Charles (the Synchronicity guru) finished our meditation with "May you continue to be showered with countless blessings." The next day, after an outing to the Oberoi shopping arcade with some members of the group, she came back to show me her treasures. So many store owners had given her gifts and people had bought her treats.

She said, "It's just like MC said. I have been showered with countless blessings!" She was so happy.

She shared a very close and loving relationship with her parents. Spending so much time with her and Alan, her father, on this trip, I saw clearly how loving and mutually respectful they were of each other. It was a joy to watch the two of them together.

That evening Naomi ordered asparagus sushi and I ordered a bowl of soup. I had celery soup with one ravioli in the bottom of the bowl. I mention this only because the idea of the last supper is another surreal moment for me. You never know what your last meal is going to be...


Image: Naomi Scherr, 13, during the India trip.

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'Naomi's mother is grieving but she is also shining'

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Do you get a chance to meet her mother. How is she now?

Yes. I've met her mother, Kia, several times since the attack. Her whole life, as she knew it has changed. She is grieving, but she is also shining. Her heart has been blown wide open and she is including the whole world within it.

She has founded an organisation called One Life Alliance with Master Charles, whose official opening is on the anniversary of the attack this year. This is to help people to experience the One Life that unites us all behind all the illusory and superficial differences.

She talks of love not hatred and keeps a positive focus while allowing herself to mourn the loss of her daughter and husband and previous way of life, and surrendering herself to the unknown that lies in each moment.

Can you share your memories of Alan Scherr?

Alan Scherr was a wonderful, wise and funny human being who dedicated his life to wholeness. He was a multi-talented genius, with a common touch who put everyone at ease. He was my teacher and my friend and was full of life and passion for living.

He had taught Transcendental Meditation for decades before meeting Master Charles. He moved his family to Synchronicity so they could serve and evolve at the feet of the Master. He was Master Charles's right hand man, so to speak.

He taught the Synchronicity Teacher Training Programme when I studied there. He visited my home on two occasions to either lead programmes or assist Master Charles in leading a programme.

I will always remember his humour, his breadth of wisdom and fount of knowledge and the positive state of being that vibrated from him. He had such an inclusive nature.


Image: Alan Scherr with Helen Connolly.

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'It remains to be seen whether any flashbacks will surface on the anniversary'

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Does the horror of the time when you were trapped in the Oberoi's Tiffin restaurant still come back to you? Is it a recurrent nightmare?

Initially I was in a very expanded meditative state, flowing peace and love. A month or so after the attack I started to experience some flashbacks and sudden loud noises startled me.

Dr Rudolf Kaufmann at Synchronicity used a process called EFT (emotional freedom technique) which took only a few minutes, to cure me of the startled response.

I still don't care to watch violent movies and television shows, but then I never did like to watch those. The grief for the people who died under the table with me, not only Naomi and Alan, but also an Indian couple who had dived under our table for shelter, would hit me at unexpected moments and I would find myself in tears.

I have returned to Synchronicity for retreats several times in the past year and through the enlightening presences of Master Charles and Sai Maa I feel very complete with what occurred, and as I said, grateful for the opportunity to evolve my state of awareness.

It remains to be seen whether any flashbacks will surface on the anniversary. Certainly, all the renewed interest by the media is dredging up old memories, but I feel balanced, a little sad sometimes, and my love of India returns with very happy memories of that trip. No. I do not have recurrent nightmares.

Is Synchrocity having a memorial service to remember the two members it lost and those injured on November 26?

Yes. They are having a retreat at Thanksgiving with a yagna and will also have the official launch of One Life Alliance at that time. Their Web site www.onelifealliance.org is already in place.


Image: Helen Connolly.

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