In a story of change, THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman who saw her life collapse and has now passed through love to trust her heart over logic and create her own reality
It began with the mandalas. “Learn the healing art of mandalas,” urged a What’s On piece in this newspaper (a mandala is an abstract, usually circular design, drawn as a form of guided meditation) which in turn led me to Serena Devi, a woman whose business card describes her as a ‘Creative Alchemist’. Serena oversees the mandala workshops, taking place in her home in Larnaca – but searching online also revealed other facets, a website at serenadevi.com, a blog entitled ‘Diary of a Mystic’, talk of travels and poems and changes. “In 2008,” she writes in her bio at artfinder.com, “after a cycle of changes and loss, I began to wake up and make a return to [my] authentic self”.
This is a story of a life change, and it happened to Serena Devi – though in fact ‘Serena Devi’ is a name she adopted after the change, ‘Serena’ from ‘serenity’ and ‘Devi’ from the Sanskrit word for ‘goddess’ (she doesn’t reveal her birth name). I find her place easily, a second-floor flat on a main road in Larnaca, knock on the door and there she is, a round-faced 51-year-old who beams unselfconsciously as we take a photo. She modelled for a while in her mid-30s, she recalls chattily, and the photographer at the time said she had “a face that loves the camera”; this was in the UK, where she was born and lived much of her life – though she grew up in Iran, where her parents come from, and seems to have ping-ponged between different countries (also including the US and Canada) in the past nine years, ever since she decided to change her life.
That was in 2008, as already mentioned, when she was living in Wimbledon and working as an “executive assistant for a big blue-chip company” in Central London – though we really ought to go back first, to her childhood in Iran in the 70s and 80s. She was 13 at the time of the Islamic Revolution, and didn’t quite realise what the change meant. Did her family welcome the mullahs? “Every family in Iran has a hint of Islam and religion, but there are degrees,” she explains. “We were normal. We weren’t fanatics”. Her parents and brother still live in Tehran (Serena herself just spent a year there, before coming to Cyprus four months ago) so presumably they weren’t too opposed – though in fact the family are relatively Westernised, her dad having gone to boarding school in England which is where he met Serena’s mother. “I think I was very fortunate,” she muses. “I grew up in a very democratic – not the traditional Iranian family”.
That said, it was a rocky girlhood. “As you can experience from my journey, I’m a bit of a rebel,” she tells me (her English is often quite fractured, despite Serena being a British citizen). I get the sense she was always a bit more intense than the norm, and more highly-strung. “I wrote my first poem at seven years old. I rebelled against my parents at 10”. The rebellion in question had to do with the daily prayer, which she suddenly refused to perform; she demanded to know why prayer was necessary, and her parents were unable to tell her – though in fact she was and remains very spiritual, having had “a connection with God since I [can] remember”. Meanwhile, at school, the Islamic government was forcing girls to cover their hair and religion classes were being instituted, which for Serena “turned to argument” as she asked impertinent questions. “At the same time, they put a fear into you,” she recalls, “so if you’re not following certain rules you’re always afraid ‘Are they going to report me?’.” She studied Textile Design at an all-girl college, and “there were two different types of girls over there. The ones covered in a black veil – and us.”
Her relationship with Iran remains turbulent, verging on toxic: “Every time I go visit, when I depart from that airport my heart is pounding with fears – that they may stop me, for God-knows-what reason”. As a girl, she felt alone and misunderstood, taking refuge in poems and pouring out her feelings in a nightly journal. At 15, she attempted to kill herself: she fled to her room after an argument with her mother, found a chemical concoction she’d made in the lab at school, and drank it down. Her parents rushed her to the hospital, where they pumped her stomach – then, “when we got home, nobody talked about this. Nobody asked, nothing”. The silence was almost worse than the arguments, indeed the silence was a big part of why she’d wanted to destroy herself in the first place – that sense of emptiness and disconnection, and no-one there to answer her questions. “OK, I grew up in a nice family, however I’d never been understood,” she points out. “And I don’t think it was ‘a cry for help’, because the desire to kill myself continued till [my] 40s”.
She had one more suicide attempt, when she was living in America years later (she took pills, but was discovered in time by her flatmate) – yet in fact her life was functional, or seemed that way from the outside. She left Iran in her mid-20s, moved to the States for a few years, then London where she got the secretarial job and house in Wimbledon. She made decent money, had a small sideline as a ‘life coach’ and seemed happy enough – though she was also angrier than she is now, especially at work where she’d grumble and lose her temper. Looking back, says Serena, she was like most of us, focused on survival and making ends meet, giving herself small rewards (like the life-coaching business) to disguise the emptiness within. “People try to fix their life. They do part suffering and part, like, going and doing meditation, to calm themselves.”
But what she calls ‘suffering’ are things like work and family, I point out. We can’t do without them.
“Yeah, but we don’t need to suffer. That’s what I believe now, and that’s what I’m saying.”
Back then, she was something of a walking time-bomb. Slowly she’d come to realise “that nothing is working. I’m getting the job, I’m getting the money [but] I’m still unhappy and crying. I couldn’t paint, I couldn’t write… It was completely dried up, because I was very disconnected”. She had a boyfriend, but something was missing. “To be honest with you, I always chose unavailable men because I wasn’t available emotionally, and I didn’t really want it to work,” she explains, looking back. After all, “if you deep inside are not happy, you’re not going to choose a happy partner”. As for her job, she basically hated it: “I was like ‘I’m going to throw myself under the Underground [train]’, that’s how much I hated to go to this work… The last year of my work I had headaches every day, morning to evening”. Yet the money was good, and her life was comfortable; in other words, she felt trapped. “So I was really asking God ‘please save me from this. I cannot leave this job, so create something’.”
Suddenly, the Almighty obliged. In the space of a few short months, Serena was made redundant, broke up with her partner and also found herself declared bankrupt, having amassed debts through the life-coaching business. “My life collapsed,” she says simply – and, unexpectedly, she decided to roll with it. “I said ‘I’m not going to look for another job’. So I went to a couple of ‘psychics’” – she adds the quotation marks herself – “and they told me the universe is about to change your life, and surrender to this change”.
She didn’t try to look for another job. Instead she sold what she could of her belongings, gave away much of the rest, packed two suitcases and flew to San Francisco. Why there? Because there was one final piece in the puzzle: an “encounter” with a man whom she’d met through a dating website and felt, on the basis of a few exchanged emails, to be her soulmate: “I believed I met the person who is my true, true love, even before I met him”. She’d always been “very happy loving”, as she puts it, but this was the first time she felt herself falling in love. She and the man finally met, “and I told him what happened in my life, and we both connected very deeply. It was so deep that he ran away,” she adds surprisingly, then shrugs: “Yeah, I think he came for something else…”
“I think you meet someone, if you’re very lucky, that he mirrors back yourself,” she explains carefully, “and what happens is you’re not really falling in love with the person, you’re falling in love with your essence – which is God. But the process is so confusing, [because] he’s a man and you like him, and he likes you… But for our case, I think, the divine brought me and him together for [just] a glance. We didn’t have anything intimate, it was just a conversation”. They met one more time, on the day Serena left San Francisco; he said he’d keep in touch, but didn’t really. Weirdly enough – or not so weirdly – it didn’t matter: he’d awakened something inside her, “and my heart opened up… At one point he finished for me as a man” and became something greater: a symbol, a god.
Rumi the Persian poet talks of “mystical love”, says Serena; Rumi himself had Shams Tabrizi, his intimate friend and spiritual teacher. This man was something like her own Shams, though he probably still doesn’t know it. She started writing poems for him – a great outpouring of poems, over 600 in just two years, all the creative energy she’d been repressing during the years in London. “When this fire starts in many of us, either you embrace it and you change with it, or you deny it and you let go.” The man himself seems to have denied it; Serena embraced it – “and from that moment to this, I trust my heart over any logic”. She shows me a book called Eternal Love, filled with the passionate poems that raised the curtain on her new life. It opens with a dedication, to her nameless and reluctant benefactor: “For Snooky, without whom I would never have entered my own heart”.
This is a story of a life change, and it happened to Serena Devi. The past nine years have been interesting, free and fulfilling yet also difficult. Many of her loved ones have refused to accept her new life; she’s encountered “a lot of judgment”. Some might say she’s made bad decisions, then again “we all look at this world with our own glasses”.
How does she even live? Well, she shrugs, she’ll occasionally sell a book or a painting. She’ll do classes, like the aforementioned mandalas or chakra dancing; she plans to hold women’s gatherings, “for empowering femininity”. Back in Brighton, where she lived for a couple of years, she and her then-boyfriend organised retreats, presumably for other artists. She lived for a while in a Buddhist centre, but didn’t enjoy it. She also performs, either reading poetry or “mystical dancing”: she’s been dancing since she was a child, and “even though I might be a bit chubby now, I move very free”.
It should also be noted that she gets some financial support from her family in Iran, albeit always with strings attached. Then again, I suspect she wouldn’t go back to her old life, even if the money ran out. “At one point I slept in the street,” laughs Serena, “at one point I slept in people’s homes. And people help you, they serve the purpose – or I serve them, because sometimes it works both ways. I met a girl in Canada and I was in a very difficult situation, someone I trusted put me there… and this girl, strange girl, we connected. She was at a point where my talking could help her, I was at a point that I needed shelter. So we came [together] for three or four nights, and then something else happened… Like, God sent me a credit card from somewhere, and I can live with that”. How did she suddenly get a credit card? “I’m not telling you the story of that!” she replies, and laughs again. “But these are miracles of trust and faith, and knowing that you’re fine.”
And now, in Cyprus? Is she even going to stay here? She’s not sure, replies Serena, after all she no longer gets “attached” to places. Right now she doesn’t know anyone here, mostly she just makes plans and gazes out at the sea every day, “just being thankful” – but she does know one thing, which is that she wants to help others. “This is the bringing of the gifts,” she declares, citing Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero (or heroine) who goes on a journey then returns, bearing gifts for his fellows.
Some may doubt that she has any gifts to share, or that her life offers lessons for others – and of course that’s their right. “I met a lady, she’s a lovely lady, I met her in Limassol,” muses Serena Devi. “And she’s doing a job she hates, she’s having a boss from hell – these are her words – and she wants to spend the rest of her life painting. And I said: ‘Just do it!’. And then her husband said: ‘We are not like you, and we cannot do this’. Do you think I knew what I was going to do? Do you think I knew I could actually survive? I still don’t know”. She shakes her head: “We have to stop being afraid of living our dreams… I truly, with my whole being, believe you create your own reality”. Creative alchemy, indeed.