You can’t fast-forward your Life

When you believe you can no longer go on with your Life, when the odds are stacked against you, when you feel you are up against a wall, when you vainly wish you could simply fast-forward such a phase of your Life, choose a quiet place and think deeply. Ask yourself: why is it that you feel you can’t endure your situation anymore? Is the situation forcing you to want to give up or is it your refusal to accept it for what it is? Be objective. Be practical. Be honest. You will quickly realize that the situation is simply, well, a situation. Let’s say the situation you are faced with is a broken marriage or a phase of acute unemployment or a stifling legal quagmire or fourth stage of a rare germ cell cancer or even something as common as a splitting, unbearable headache. Is the situation the problem or are you, and your inability to deal with it, the problem? Pain in reality comes without suffering. Your belief, expectation, desire, wish, whatever, that it must not exist in the first place, as pain, as a situation, is what makes you suffer!

Often thinking deeply about yourself and the way you are receiving and responding to Life helps. But when despite that effort, when your mind slips back into its default self-sympathy mode, it is perhaps a good idea to zoom out and look at Life around you. Almost always, when you stop obsessing with yourself__in sympathy or from grief__you will find how much more blessed your Life is, compared to so, so many peoples’ lives out there!

This morning’s newspapers reported that Anand Jon, the India-born fashion designer, who has been tried for fresh charges of sexual abuse this time in a New York court, had been awarded an additional five years in jail. So, that makes it 64 years in jail in all for Anand, with a Los Angeles court having already awarded him a 59-year sentence. Anand is only 39. If we take into account the years he has spent in jail so far, Anand’s got over 50 years of imprisonment still left. Without going into the merits of his case, because I am not entirely sure he has received a fair trial, I am just contrasting his situation with the one I am faced with. And I can’t help but internalize these two unputdownable lessons from his Life and my own:

  • Even wishing a situation doesn’t exist is a luxury many don’t have. Anand Jon surely doesn’t!  
  • The only way to be free from suffering is to accept pain: Assuming his cases are not immediately reopened through appeal (at the moment, the family does not have the financial wherewithal to support this) in a higher US court, what other way does Anand Jon have than to accept his Life for what it is?

I have no idea how Anand Jon feels about his Life just now. His last recorded sentiment in public is through a November 2010 blogpost. In that he writes: “…I do know that there is a Purpose to all of this and it is beyond my own exoneration. God clearly had bigger plans for me than just influencing the hemlines, and though I can and will win this ordeal, I may not survive it, and this makes me concerned about the pain my loved ones will go through. It is a fascinating concept that I think more about them than myself. My pencil (I only get two per week) is running out of lead, so I also learn patience. Maybe that’s what it’s all about – taming the ego and revealing love…” But, thanks to this reflection this morning, I do have a deeper understanding of how to face the Life that I have been given.

Maybe my sharing here will help you too to face your Life situation with equanimity. Because wishing that a situation didn’t exist is what triggers the suffering. And simply accepting that it does exist, and that you can’t do anything about it, is what makes it endurable. Some see this endurance as the indomitable human spirit. Some see it as raw courage. I believe it is nothing but an awareness of the humbling reality that you can never fast-forward your Life. You have to live through some of Life’s grueling situations __ however long it takes. You can comfort yourself though __ that, like Anand Jon says, along the way, you will grow to become more patient, more humble  and more loving!


When you are fully aware, you need not suffer anyone, anymore


There are some people in whose presence we feel extremely uncomfortable. Something in the way they conduct themselves puts you off. And at another level you do recognize that you are made very differently and there can be no chemistry at all between both of you. So, every time you have to meet this person, you go into a agonizing dilemma. You are thinking of ways and means to avoid the encounter. You make excuses. And when you can’t avoid anymore, you suffer deeply in this person’s presence. Your physical discomfort morphs into awkwardness and eventually into unhappiness.

I have been through such experiences too. And at many times I have had the urge to tell the person, whom I loathed meeting, what I felt deeply about her or him. But social niceties, the intricacies of the relationship between us, would force me to not express myself frankly. Even so, suppressing what your true feelings are always leads you to more unhappiness and grief.

I used to have a neighbor who is very, very wealthy. He simply loved to talk about his wealth. He talked about his cars. His yachts. His vacation homes. His businesses and how much profits he had made from recent projects __ giving details brazenly of which politician or bureaucrat he had bribed. And he talked endlessly. He would accost me in the elevator, in the parking lot or even, at times, invite himself over into my living room to launch off into his completely unwelcome self-expositions. There was no way I could escape his tyranny because he simply had no sensitivity. He didn’t bother about another’s time, space or privacy. For several months I suffered. It came to a point when I would dread bumping into this neighbor and so I would be very wary of even stepping out of my apartment. I would rush out or in so that he did not see me. It was a stupid way of living in my own house. But there seemed no other way! I could have perhaps told him off. Or had a showdown with him and put him in his place but then he was a neighbor and nobody wants to spar with a neighbor. So, I simply kept suffering.

That’s when I read this story about Swami Vivekananda. Just before his famous trip to the USA and his iconic speech in Chicago, Vivekananda visited Jaipur on the Maharaja’s invitation. The Maharaja gave Vivekananda a grand reception that was worthy of a king. There was a public procession…flowers, lights and the royal works. In the main court, the durbar, of the King, an elaborate dance performance by the leading courtesan, a devadaasi, of the King was organized. When the performance was about to begin, and Vivekananda came to know that the dancer was a prostitute, he rushed up to his room and locked himself up. He refused to come out. He was afraid the prostitute’s presence would corrupt his moral pledge to be celibate. He was even angry with the King for having the audacity to invite a prostitute in a Swami’s presence. The King came up to the room and profusely apologized. But declined to send the prostitute away because his value systems prevented him from sending anyone away from his court. He said he could not insult or humiliate a guest in his court, even if she was a prostitute. The prostitute, when she heard of what was going on and delaying the start of her performance, was very hurt initially. She had heard a lot about Swami Vivekananda’s brilliance and had considered it her privilege to be dancing in his presence. She then took a momentous decision to begin her performance without either the King or his important guest being in the Court. She sang as she danced. The song is very beautiful. The song goes – “I know that I am not worthy of you, but you could have been a little more compassionate. I am dirt on the road – that I know. But you need not be so antagonistic to me. I am a nobody – ignorant, a sinner. But you are a saint – why are you afraid of me?” As the song wafted through the palace corridors and reached the young Swami Vivekananda’s ears, something happened to him. He confessed later that he was defeated by the prostitute. He came out of his room. And he watched the whole performance in the court. That night, he wrote in his diary: “A new revelation has been given to me by the divine. I was afraid… must have been some lust within me. That’s why I was afraid. But the woman defeated me completely, and I have never seen such a pure soul. Her tears were so innocent and the singing and the dancing were so holy…. Sitting near her, for the first time, I became aware that it is not a question who is there outside, it is a question of what is.” Surely, with that experience Vivekananda transcended to a new level of consciousness. He became fully aware.

Reading this story, I awakened too. I realized that in the context of either my bombastic neighbor or in some other key relationships, where there was a complete absence of chemistry, wherever I was struggling, I needed to look deeper. I needed to look at what isthan who is there outside. What is behind the exterior, behind the packaging is the same beautiful cosmic energy that powers each of the Universe’s creations. The diversity is in the packaging. The shapes, the sizes, the colors, the bells, the whistles, the bows and ribbons, mislead us. We develop a distaste for and suffer people, or even start hating their very presence, without focusing on what is in them. My awakening led me to learn to tell people, like my neighbor, politely that such intrusions and self-expositions were not welcome anymore. I did this with complete equanimity__no agitation, no hesitation, no fear, no pride__and honesty. And ever since I told him that, he stopped behaving in that manner with me. In another relationship, I simply told the person that the chemistry between us doesn’t work. Period. Even so, I have learned to appreciate people just as I appreciate myself. I still struggle sometimes missing ‘what is’ for the packaging, but my awareness does a great job playing the role of a reminder service. It quickly reminds me to go beyond the outside, the exterior, the packaging, every single time. With this awareness there is no more suffering, no more unhappiness, in anybody’s presence!


Indeed, you cannot be serious about Life!


A key factor that inhibits progress on the spiritual path is our tendency to take Life too seriously. Everything that we do, it appears, seems to key us up. Every small conquest seems to be a moment to claim superiority and every failure is seen as a numbing, lethal, final blow! So much so, when a hard-earned victory comes our way, we fritter away the moment in showmanship and bury ourselves under a heap of unsolicited critique and free opinion, when we fumble and fall.

So, it was with great interest that I read noted columnist Nirmal Shekar’s views on Indian cricket captain M.S.Dhoni in yesterday’s Hindu. Celebrating Dhoni’s legendary equanimity, Shekar made a case for sportspersons having the ‘right perspective’ to their game. That perspective, wrote Shekar, is to understand that a game is just a game. “…Sport is not really a matter of life and death. Sport is enjoyable only so long as we can get our perspective right and put it in its place, put it where it really belongs in the big picture. If we let it become too important, then what was sought as a pleasurable experience will turn out to be a pain.”

I completely agree with both of Shekar’s views: on Dhoni’s attitude to the game and on the nature of sport itself.

My two-penny worth learning from this lifetime’s experience so far is that Life is no different. In Life too the right perspective is very important. And we must place ourselves, and our perspective, where they belong in the big picture. Else what could well be a pleasurable experience may well turn out to be a pain!!!

The past week, I have been limping around, literally, owing to a nagging, painful condition in my right leg. Even a small step forward, at times, requires a big effort. I felt, at several times, crippled unable to carry out my routine normally __ like a bath, or driving, or going out for my daily walk. However, on my visit to the hospital the other day for a review with the doctor, I found a young lady seated on a wheel-chair. She seemed fine, for all practical purposes, laughing and joking with her family and nurses. So, I even wondered what she was doing seated cross-legged on a wheel-chair. Only when I looked closely did I realize that all her limbs were deformed. She didn’t have legs to speak of! Her lower limbs had shrunk abnormally owing to either a disease or birth deformity. Her hands were not normally formed either and her fingers seemed to be sticking out, without a palm, on both hands. I reflected on her spirit. And on my condition. I felt ashamed about the brouhaha I was creating over it! The right perspective and its place in the big picture fell in place immediately. I laughed to myself, much to the surprise of the nurse attending on me. When she insisted I tell her what the joke was, I said, “This leg, this painful condition, is the biggest joke! I find it absolutely funny!”

So it is with everything in Life! What seems like a grave problem momentarily, over a period of time, surely turns out to be laughing matter!  The key, I believe, is not to get keyed up about Life. The operative word and sentiment here is equanimity. Equanimity is simply the ability to deal with both success and failure, victory and defeat, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, dispassionately. Dhoni has it. You too can. The second chapter of the Bhagavad Gitaends with the highest state of consciousness a human being can attain. Krishna, replying to Arjuna, says: “…He lives in wisdom…Who sees himself in all and all in him…. He is not elated by good fortune…Nor depressed by bad…Such is the seer…!”

Whatever you are going through, take it easy! This Monday resist the temptation to get wound up any further. Invoke the right perspective and place it where it belongs in the big picture. To quote Swami Sathya Sai Baba, “Don’t we sometimes wake up from a dream, ponder over our conquests and defeat in our sleep-state, and shrug it all off thinking ‘it was but a dream’? We need to bring the same approach to Life as well. Because this lifetime is nothing but a dream.” Indeed. Maybe you will not understand, appreciate or accept this perspective just yet. But, may be you will at the end of your journey on this planet. Just maybe. That you really cannot or should not (have ever been) be serious about Life!

Lessons in Equanimity from a waiter!



It is from acceptance that equanimity comes. 

Often we see people who have been exceptionally courageous in Life – in just accepting Life for what it is stoically. Karambir Kang, the General Manager of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, who lost his wife and two children to the 26/11 terror attacks at his hotel in 2008, is a case in point. We are quick to conclude that these are people who are extraordinary. Importantly, we overlook that they were and are ordinary folks who just chose to live Life as it came to them. The tag of extraordinariness is what we, the people who see them from the outside, have given them.

I have had a fairly rough morning today. Several things didn’t go to a plan. People were increasingly irritable and driving me up the wall. More than a few times, I lost my cool. 

Then, in a desperate bid to gather myself and find equanimity, I followed Thich Naht Hahn’s three-step process. I smiled. I watched my breathing. And I slowed down my mind that was racing in different, mostly irrelevant, directions.

I looked at my checklist for the day. And I shifted my attention to a piece of paper on my desk. It was the bill of a coffee shop that I frequent. On the rear of the bill were a couple of phone numbers that the waiter there had written last evening. I wanted to enter those numbers in a place I could find them when I needed them.

Calvin Lunmangte: “Will love what I get”
The waiter’s name is Calvin Lunmangte. He is a Manipuri from a village near Imphal. Last evening he came up to me, smiled his characteristic smile, and bid goodbye. He declared that he was leaving the coffee shop and the city forever. He said he was returning to Manipur to take care of his father’s business, a retail garment store.

“I am unhappy but I have accepted it,” said Calvin with a tinge of sadness in his voice..

‘Why are you unhappy?” I asked.

“Well I never wanted to be doing business. I like this job. I love meeting people. I like this city. My child goes to a good playschool here. My wife has a good job in a parlor here. Where I am going back to, in my village, there are no job opportunities. There’s a lot of militant activity there. But I have no choice. I have to take care of my aged parents. My father wants me to come and run his business,” he explained.

“Is there no way in which you can convince your dad?” I asked hopefully.

“He is too attached to Manipur. He won’t relocate. Then I realize that some things in Life will never happen your way. You only have to accept what comes to you. So, I am sad. But my sadness will go away once I go home and immerse myself in what I have to do with the business. If I can’t do what I love doing, I will love what I have to do,” he answered with amazing clarity of perspective. As he said this, I noticed that the sadness in his tone was now replaced with equanimity. He spoke slowly, peacefully.

This morning as I held the bill with his numbers on the rear, I reflected on what I had learned from Calvin. You may not always get what you want – from Life, from people. But you can always want what you get! And, as I have often discovered, this acceptance, wanting what you get, is what happiness is all about!

Over the years that I have known Calvin, I recollected this morning sitting at my desk, I had never found him irritated with Life or complaining. Being in a front-end service role, as a waiter, it was obviously difficult for him to meet all expectations. Many a day I have seen him chasing his tail. Taking orders, fetching stuff from the kitchen, seating guests, settling their checks and often also being at the receiving end of an irate guest or handling a bunch of temperamental teenagers, possibly half his age! He did all this and more without the slightest hesitation and with a smile always. Some days when I was busy, immersed in my writing or reading, he would quietly come up to me, excuse himself and remind me that I had not eaten or drunk anything in hours. When I would say I don’t feel like it just now, he would say, “You must eat, Sir. At least drink a soup. You can’t work when you are hungry.”

Karambir Kang’s grim tragedy or my trivial upheavals of the morning or Calvin’s Life-altering career decision may not be comparable given the varying magnitudes of their contexts. But the principle of equanimity applies to all of them uniformly. And Calvin’s extraordinary attitude is inspiring. Also because he is so very ordinary. He reminds us that there is hope for all of us ordinary folks. There is a certain compassion about him that is genuine. He’s probably half my age but has taught me an important lesson – to go with the flow of Life, to accept what is given gracefully. Truly, that is the secret of equanimity! Important also is the fact that equanimity does not mean you will not feel unhappy. It means you will transcend unhappiness and find peace beyond it. That’s when, as the Buddha said, “Equanimity will make you imperturbable.”