When Life becomes prayer…!

Immerse yourself in what you do, lose yourself to Life, then your entire living experience is a prayer!

Later this evening, the eminent dancer Chitra Visveswaran is set to be honored, by The Music Academy, with the title ‘Natya Kala Acharya’. This morning’s Hindu runs a beautiful profile of Chitra akka (as she is fondly called) written by her close friend and art lover Hema Iyer Ramani. The profile is titled, “Journey of Challenges”. I have had the opportunity to observe Chitra akka, from a distance, in the past decade or so. I am aware of some of the challenges she has faced as a person. But I have always admired her resilience. And have often found myself inspired by her ability to be grounded (despite all the adulation she receives), to be calm (despite all the chaos around her) and to always be giving – of her time, her understanding to others at one level, and of herself, to her art form, dance, at another level!

Chitra Visveswaran
I remember an experience – and learning – I had, some years ago, when Visveswaran, Chitra akka’shusband, passed away. Just as in her name, I could never think of Chitra akka in singular. To me, she and Visvesh (who was an accomplished singer apart from being a ‘Santoor’ expert) were a couple, always together – in their music, in their dance, in social dos and in their inspirations. It was unfathomable to think of them as separate. As Hema points out in her profile this morning, “When ‘Santoor’ maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma asked him (Vishvesh) to give up all else to the exclusion of ‘Santoor’, he said he could give up all else except singing for his wife and composing music for her productions!” So, when Visvesh died, at least I expected Chitra akka to be in mourning for a very long time. But within 10 days of Visvesh’s passing, Chitra akka convened an event at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Chennai to “celebrate” Visvesh’s Life. It was a memorial service with a difference. There was no mourning. There were no grief-stricken speeches. Visvesh’s own guru, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma too spoke, oozing joy, as if he was holding a toast to honor his student! And then Chitra akkaherself spoke. She said (I recall vividly), “I only see Visvesh as not being here physically. But his presence will always be with us, with me. He taught me to live this Life as if it were a prayer. As if it were an offering to the Universe. Which is why we both enjoyed each other’s companionship and the work we did together. To me my Life, my work, is not something which has to be ‘gone through’. It is a prayer.” She then performed a dance piece, accompanied by Visvesh’s song recording, that left all of us in the audience in a trance!

I have, ever since, held that learning from Chitra akka close to my heart. I have discovered that when we immerse ourselves in what we enjoy doing then it ceases to be work. It becomes our Life. Then no loss nor any challenge can pin us down for too long. Then our individual energy, the one within us, resonates with the Universe’s energy. In that beautiful communion, an inner peace, a rare joy, takes over. And our entire Life becomes a celebration, a prayer, an offering to this Universe!


Yesterday’s The Hindu carried a story of an atheist teacher in Nashik, Maharashtra, who refused to fold his hands in prayer in the school assembly and so invited the wrath of the government-aided school’s management. He has been denied promotions and increments over the years. He is currently fighting his school management’s actions on a constitutional plane through a case in the Bombay High Court.
I have nothing to opine on constitution rights or on religion. But I do want to share what I think and feel about this word/action called “prayer”.
Prayer is often referred to as a religious expression of a wish, or even as a thanksgiving, to a higher energy – “a” God who ostensibly, as many will have us believe, resides outside of us. I too started my Life on such a premise. But over the years, I have come to realize that Life is the highest energy we can all relate to. Because Life is what keeps us alive. If we didn’t have Life we would be dead, won’t we? So, isn’t being alive, living, that too in human form, the greatest of blessings? Why, you or I, or both of us, could have been created as the swine that gives the flu and not as the human who gets the flu? The fact that we have been created human, that we have been ordained with a set of faculties, that work normally in a large mass of us, is a gift. Further, Life is the biggest teacher. Each moment a test is being placed before us. Every test has a lesson that we discover, infer, after we are through with that test. And each lesson is humbling, making us grow and evolve better, through the experience of living and learning. So, in effect, isn’t Life theAlmighty? And so, shouldn’t we bow, even if we find the concept of a ‘third party God’ hard to digest, to Life – in reverence, in gratitude?
In Sanskrit, and in Indian tradition, we are encouraged to greet each other with the word “Namaste”. It is commonly understood, and even used, as “Welcome” or “Good Bye”. But Namaste really means this: “Namah” = Bow in obeisance and “Te” = To you. The scriptures explain the significance and meaning of “Namaste” thus: “The God within me bows to the God within you!”
My understanding is that Life is the God that is resident in each of us. And any prayer must rightfully be to Life. In reverence for the might and beauty of creation and in gratitude for the opportunity to be human – for this lifetime and this experience!

Immerse yourself in whatever you do to find bliss!

When you do something from your inner core, for yourself, for your joy, you don’t have to work at all! Then work become a prayer, an offering of yourself to the Universe. Then what you do always delivers bliss unto you!

Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan: Abhimaan
Last night I was watching Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1973 classic ‘Abhimaan’ starring Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan. Both play singers and in the early stages of their romance Uma (Jaya) asks Subir (Amitabh) about his singing. He says he sings for a living. She is quite startled with that answer and says: “So, you don’t sing for your own joy? My dad who is also my guru always says true music is created only when it comes from your inner joy!”

(Here’s a brilliant song from the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAb-ru6rjXs! Enjoy!)

So it is. Only what you do for yourself, and that which arises from within you, from your inner core, leads you to bliss.

This is not the same as concentration. When you concentrate you are still employing a thought of getting something done. When you are simply doing, without employing any thought, but are becoming one with the doing, with the action, then work becomes worship and you experience bliss.

One of the Emperors of Japan had gone to see a great Zen Master, Nanin. He asked Nanin, ”What have you learned that makes you a great Master, known all over the country?”

Nanin said, ”Very simple: when I chop wood, I simply chop wood; and when I carry the water from the well, I simply carry the water from the well.”

The Emperor said, ”I had come to listen to something spiritual. What nonsense are you talking? Chopping wood, you simply chop wood? Everybody does it; what is special in it? Carrying water from the well, you carry the water from the well? I have come a long distance, and I am your country’s Emperor. You should at least give me some spiritual advice.”

Nan-in said, ”That was my spiritual advice, and I want to make it clear to you that everybody is not doing that. It took me years to chop wood without any thoughts: to just be there, chopping.” And it is tremendously beautiful: the sound in the valley, the chips of the wood flying all over, the wind blowing through the trees, their song, their music. And I am utterly silent, just chopping wood. Carrying water from the well is the same. ”My whole day is the same. I have given you, in short, my basic approach of Life. Be where you are. Don’t let mind go away.”

This is the key. Not letting the mind to get dragged away in different directions. The human mind, on an average, thinks 60,000 thoughts daily. None of those thoughts often, on most days, pertain to what you are doing. Many of them are focused on the past__on remorse, guilt, anger, grief__and many, many more are steeped in worry, anxiety and fear of a future that is yet to arrive. This happens all the time. When you are drinking your morning coffee, when you are driving to work, when you are in meetings or even when you are talking to someone on the phone. Which is why most days have become dull, drab, monotonous, listless and boring! Which is why bliss seems so unattainable. Why, even happiness plays truant and you imagine you have to pursue it to find it!

Make a simple shift this Sunday. Choose one activity. Maybe it is reading. Maybe it is spring cleaning your home. Or maybe it is gardening. Immerse yourself in it like Nanin says, being silent, and simply doing that one thing. Don’t focus on getting it done. Just do it! Do it for 15 minutes. If you like it, extend it for another 15 minutes. Examine how you feel after this immersion session. That inexplicable feeling of peace, calm and happiness, is called bliss.

Live a blissful Sunday today!


Being prayerful is being mindful!

Being prayerful means being alive to the moment. It is not about rituals, hymns and mantras. It is about being thankful for this lifetime and this experience __ as you are living it__at this precise moment!

A lot of time, resources, effort, spirit, and even money, gets invested in trying to be pious. People simply lose their way, their focus and, at times, even their sanity looking for ways to reach “a” God. The mandarins of religion only complicate matters, confounding already confused souls, by championing the concepts of sin, hell and heaven. So the whole industry of religion works on inducing fear in vulnerable minds. Nothing can be more sinful than making God seem unattainable, unwieldy and distant__that too through, and despite, prayer!

First let me share an interesting Zen story I came across that demystifies and demolishes this whole concept of hell and heaven.

Hakuin, the fiery and intensely dynamic Zen Master, was once visited by a Samurai warrior.
“I want to know about heaven and hell,” said the Samurai. “Do they really exist?” he asked Hakuin.

Hakuin looked at the soldier and asked, “Who are you?”

“I am a Samurai,” announced the proud warrior.

“Ha!,” exclaimed Hakuin. “What makes you think you can understand such insightful things ? You are merely a callous, brutish soldier ! Go away and do not waste my time with your foolish questions,” Hakuin said, waving his hand to drive away the Samurai.

The enraged Samurai couldn’t take Hakuin’s insults. He drew his sword, readied for the kill, when Hakuin calmly retorted, “This is hell.

The soldier was taken aback. His face softened. Humbled by the wisdom of Hakuin, he put away his sword and bowed before the Zen Master.
And this is heaven,” Hakuin stated, just as calmly.

Another Hakuin Zen story
I don’t think any scripture can simplify these concepts to the extent this simple story has. Being humble, humane and bowing to the God ‘within’ others makes us loving, compassionate and awakens us to the ‘God’ within us too! Being vengeful, unforgiving and refusing to respect another Life makes us miserable and causes all our suffering! So, now you know what is causing you a hellish experience and what can heave you up to ‘your’ heaven!

The question we need to ask ourselves is, of what use are all the religious rituals that we conduct monotonously and mindlessly when we are not mindful of Life’s gifts__the grace, abundance, blessings in our lives__ itself and we continue to still worry, fear and agonize over what the unknown future holds for us?

I am reminded of a conversation that I had with our family priest a few years ago. A self-confessed champion of piety, who called himself a ‘strict Brahmin’, he came to me asking for career advice for his son who was looking to join an IT services company after completing his undergraduate studies in software engineering. He explained that his son had been selected by a leading software company through campus interviews. Yet he claimed he was worried. Our conversation went somewhat like this:

Me: Why are you worried Sir?

Him: I don’t know if IT companies can offer job security the way the government can!

Me: Why would you, a faithful servant of the Lord, for years now, be insecure __ and want to seek security in a government job?

Him: Sir, how can God guarantee job insecurity?

Me: What is God there for then if HE/SHE can’t guarantee you security?

Him: Sir, velayadathengo! Don’t pull my leg, Sir! God can’t come and tell me that my son’s future is assured!

Me: If God can’t tell you that, the one who has direct access to HIM/HER, who else can reach God? Why do you pray then?

Him: Sir, praying to God is my profession. I still need something else to tell me that my Life is on track and that my family and I will be secure!

With due apologies to my family priest, I must confess that this is the problem with praying mindlessly. That ‘something else’ which my priest was looking for__and I hope he found it in his own way subsequently__is ‘mindfulness’. When you are mindful of the present moment, and are grateful for it, that would be prayer enough that would make you realize God!

You will then find God in this blessing__that you have to access facebook and are  able to read a post. You will find God when you feel the air in your lungs. You will find God in the sunrises and sunsets that happen outside your window every single day without fail. You will find God in a child’s smile, in leaves rustling in the night breeze, in a cow mooing and in a dew drop! You will find God in every form of creation that you connect with. You will find God in each moment. And then you will understand and value what being prayerful is all about. You will then realize that such true prayer, of living in the moment, alone can lead you to bliss!

The Universal Prayer to Life

Life is a continuous process of unlearning and learning, repairing and renewing.

Many a time what you think, what you say and what you do may not be in harmony. And that really is the cause for all unhappiness. Or sometimes you may be thinking, saying and doing things in one way but others, often companions, observers, onlookers, will be thinking differently. And they may opinionate differently. This can be another source for unhappiness.

So, in either of these situations, how do you restore the equilibrium? How do you anchor within? How do you come back to being happy?

Some years ago, I would lean on religion for repair and renewal, but while I found such experiences ushering in peace momentarily, the peace at most times didn’t really last. When the experience was over, the hard-won peace was also gone. Besides, I never understood or experienced happiness through religion. Further, through a Life-changing experience that I have been through in recent years, I have lost all interest in religion, as it is preached and practiced today. I find it ritualistic and divisive. In the name of pluralism it alienates us humans from each other. They say spirituality is the flowering of internal awareness. They also say religion is for those who want to go to heaven, and spirituality is for those who have been to hell! I have been to hell and I identify with both these sayings closely. 

I composed this prayer some years ago. It was a fervent plea from me to Life to show me the right way, through the labyrinth of fear, anxiety and uncertainty that tormented me at that time. It has since become a prayer to Life, whom I have come to recognize as the greatest Teacher. That’s why I always spell Life with a capital ‘L’! To me, Life is the Higher Energy that embraces and nurtures all creation. Each day, during my ‘mouna’ (silence periods) session, I pray to Life, reciting this prayer slowly, savoring each word, and relating it to my experiences of the previous day. Since I don’t understand Sanskrit, and since most of Indian Hindu prayers are composed in that language, I have been unable to relate to any of them seriously. English, however, as a medium, helps me internalize each sentiment and embed my daily learnings firmly in my soul!

Teach me, O! Teacher…

Teach me, O! Teacher, each day as I awake and arise, to be humble. To respect another Life and to accept that just as I am entitled to my opinion, others are too. To contribute selflessly and without expectation.

Teach me, O! Teacher, to forgive every act of unkindness and injustice to me. To unlearn and forget what may not be relevant to me as I journey along.

Teach me to conquer anger and to attain that state of ahimsa, when all violence inside me subsides, and true love prevails.

Teach me to avoid hatred and jealousy. To resist ruinous temptations and to employ discretion at such times that I may waver.

Teach me, O! Teacher, to soak in and converse with the silence that engulfs me and for me to discover the real me in it.

Teach me to lead a Life of action, skillfully and selflessly, to live in this world and yet be above it.

Teach me, to remain detached from the fruits of my action and to know that if the motive is pure and the means are correct, in the end it will all be fine if I do my best and leave you the rest.

Teach me, O! Teacher, to be eternally grateful for this Life and this experience!

You too can try it. Learning, unlearning, repair and renewal, on a daily basis, are guaranteed. Peace and joy are both intended and assured outcomes too!