The Milkha Singh Inspiration: Make your Life unputdownable

Yesterday I watched ‘Bhaag Milka Bhaag’, a film inspired by the Life of ace Indian athlete Milkha Singh. Made by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, the film was, as it was intended to be, a personal story of true grit and human spirit. Mehra says that he started developing the story after meeting Milkha Singh at the National Stadium in New Delhi (where Mehra used to swim) a few times. The primary theme that appears to have inspired Mehra was the key takeaway from Milka Singh’s Life between ages 13 and 28 – Zindagi se bhago nahin. Zindagi ke saath bhago!’ meaning “Don’t run away from Life, run with Life!”

This theme is what you come away with after watching the film (Farhan Akhtar’s portrayal of Milkha Singh is absolutely brilliantly!). Afterward, as I researched on Milkha Singh, my awakening was further enhanced. Here is a person who had to face unimgaginable strife as a child, had to overcome temptation to focus, had to deal with a venomous opposition, and yet triumphed only because he refused to get bogged down by anything. Neither by circumstance nor by people. Neither by failure nor by success. He just kept his focus on the one thing that he knew how to do very, very well – his running.

For much of his after-track Life, Singh has been leading a quiet Life, preferring to stay away from the limelight even when it was pointed at him. Even now, as his Wiki Page and the movie’s Wiki Page reveal, Singh is believed to have sold the movie rights of his Life’s story to Mehra for a token Rupee 1. Singh instead has asked for a share of the profits the film is making (and it is raking it in!) for the Milkha Singh Charitable Trust which was set up in 2003 to assist underprivileged and talented sportspersons. Singh believes that if the film could “inspire young Indians to aim for and secure that elusive gold in an individual Olympic track event”, that would be reward enough for him. All of Singh’s medals, won in championships across the world, have been donated to the nation and are on display at the Indian sports museum in Patiala. Although Singh and his wife Nirmal Kaur (a former captain of the Indian women’s volleyball team) have three daughters and a son – the famous star golfer Jeev Milkha Singh, the couple adopted, in 1999, the then 7-year-old son of Havildar Bikram Singh, a soldier who laid down his Life in the Battle of Tiger Hill, during the Kargil War.
Milkha Singh: The Flying Sikh

I am just too moved by Milkha’s Singh’s story. For it is not often that you encounter someone who’s Life is his message! Whatever cinematic liberties Mehra may have taken with his biopic, the fact remains that but for his vision and effort, many of us__you and me included__will not pause in our rat races to draw inspiration from the Life of a man like Milkha Singh!

I am reminded of these immortal lines by the famous Urdu poet Mohammed Allama Iqbal (1877~1938): “Khudi ko kar bulund itna ke har taqdeer ke pehle, Khuda bande se khud pooche, bata teri raza kya hai!” It basically (not literally) means: “Make your Life so unputdownable (through selfless living) that before your next (lifetime) destiny is cast, the Creator pauses to ask you for your wish (intent)”!

Wah! Milkha! Wah!!

Simply blow your whistle if you feel you must

To live a Life of meaning, you must first understand the meaning of Life. And the truth is, in reality, Life has no meaning. Think about it – what kind of a meaning does Life offer when you are born, without choice, empty-handed and you have to die, again empty-handed; even all the experiences that you have during a lifetime and the learnings, they would seem futile because no one knows if there is an afterlife and if you will even remember any of these in that Life!!! So, the whole Life experience is meaningless at one level. But there’s every opportunity to create your own meaning in Life. To do that, though, you must participate in and with Life.

Most people find their lives listless, meaningless, because they are passive. They are lost in earning-a-living, as opposed to living. Earning-a-living is but one aspect of Life. But if you get obsessed with that one single aspect then you lose yourself to its trappings – worry, anxiety, fear, insecurity, sorrow, grief, anger, jealousy, hatred! Then you are not living. You are merely existing.

To participate in Life, be with it in each moment! Whatever Life throws at you, be with it. Don’t be lost in your idea of Life. You will never find it. Because Life conforms to no (one’s) fixed idea. When you say and expect that Life has to be this way only – you have surely consigned your lifetime to misery and suffering. Because Life’s not going to oblige. Instead be open to receiving anything in Life, from Life, in totality, fully. Let your energy flow into Life’s every moment. Something makes you exult, rejoice over it. Something makes you sad, grieve over it. Whatever makes you offer yourself fully to Life, as it is happening to you in a given moment, do it. Don’t stick to one idea of Life, else you will get stuck in a rut!  

There’s this beautiful story of the Hassidic Master Baal Shem. It was a holiday and several of the Master’s faithful followers had gathered for a communion. 

A man had come with his retarded son. He was a little worried about the boy. He was worried that the boy may do something embarrassing. So he was keeping an eye on the boy. When the prayers were said, the boy asked his father, “I have got a whistle – can I play on it?”

The father said, “Absolutely not – where is your whistle?” Because the father was afraid that the boy may not even listen to his “no”. The boy pointed to his trouser pocket, that revealed the bulge of the whistle and the father kept his hand on the son’s pocket to ensure that the boy does not get adventurous.

Soon, Baal Shem led the congregation to ecstatic prayer. Then there was dancing, and the father forgot about his son’s whistle – taking his hand off his son’s trouser pocket – and he also started dancing. Hassids in prayer are dancers, joyous people – the very idea of Judaism is to let go, to be free, to dance as if there’s no tomorrow. When everybody was praying to God and dancing, suddenly the boy could not resist it any more. He pulled out his whistle and blew on it. Everybody was shocked. And the father was embarrassed. But Baal Shem came up to the boy, hugged him and said: “Our prayers are heard. Without this whistle, all was futile – because this was the only spontaneous thing here. All else was ritual.”

There’s a huge learning here for each one of us. Are you living spontaneously like that boy? Or are you trapped in your own rituals – even if you are subconsciously? Do you feel like doing something else – like dancing or singing or blowing a whistle – but restrain yourself because you think you have ‘outgrown’ that stage or think it to be ‘inappropriate’ to do such a thing? Why not abandon all fixed notions and ideas you have of Life and stop searching for meaning in Life? Instead simply let go and create your own meaning of Life! And if that requires you to blow your whistle, whenever you feel like it, you possibly simply MUST!

Your suffering is up to you!

There’s no way you can avoid pain in Life. But you can choose not to suffer.

How Life deals with you is not in your hands at all. Anything can happen in Life. Absolutely anything. This morning’s Hindureported the ghastly story of a man, who’s legitimately owned house in Bengaluru, was razed to the ground and demolished by a group of vandals, even as the police looked on as mute spectators, without intervening, in a case of illegitimate, extra-constitutional action in a property dispute. Obviously the man and his family will be greatly pained by the shocking turn of events. In their case, it was their house that was razed to the ground in a flash. In someone else’s Life, a landslide or a tsunami can cause similar damage. Or someone may lose a bread-winner to death or lose a job and be rendered unemployed for months on end. Life is unpredictable. Just as pain in Life is inevitable.

How we respond to Life determines whether we suffer or not. In Buddhist thought, there’s a teaching that says that when you get hurt, say, by an arrow, that is pain. The arrow hitting your arm, it hurts. Pain. However, there is a second arrow, which is your reaction to the arrow, the getting angry, the planning revenge, or the sorrow, the grief that follows, that is beyond pain, that is suffering. The venerable Buddha said, “Pain in inevitable. Suffering is optional!”

The only antidote to suffering is acceptance. Total, complete acceptance of whatever is happening to you. When you don’t resist Life, the pain does not cripple you. It is there, but it does not limit you. Suffering cripples, limits and halts you. Pain does not cause suffering. Be sure about this. Suffering happens only when you wish, you desire, that the pain not be there. But how is that possible? Life happens per its own inscrutable design – not because you control, wish or will it to be a certain way. And because Life happens on its own, pain also comes to you on its own. To wish that pain does not exist means to wish that your Life does not exist. That you are not alive. And that, you will agree, is a stupid expectation. So, in effect, your suffering is your own creation – born out of a stupid, impractical desire!

You have a headache. That’s a fact. The headache is the element causing you pain. The moment you ask ‘Why is there a headache?’ or ‘Why am I having a headache?’ or wish, vainly, that ‘the headache should not be there’ – the why, the why me, the wish – those are what cause you suffering. So, the headache does not cause suffering. You cause it. On the other hand, if you accepted the headache as a fact, as a current event in your Life, and don’t desire its absence or don’t ask it questions – the headache, the pain, will last a while and go away. This is the way the way Life works – across all phases and facets.

Know this. Understand this. Appreciate this. Then, you will realize that, to suffer or not, in any context, is truly up to you!