It is sinful to waste Life by merely “existing”

“You live only once, so please LIVE! Don’t Exist!”
This is what I have learnt from my dear friend Ejji Umamahesh. I got to know Ejji providentially! I used to write a weekly column for The Indian Express (now The New Indian Express) called “Positive Signs”. I shared inspiring stories and perspectives from my experiences through my column. Ejji, as I was to discover, was an avid reader of my column. One day, almost 12 years ago, I received an email from him. He introduced himself as a “retired rat race runner” – and that was it, we became, and have remained, great friends ever since.
Ejji in Varanasi last week on the “Highway to Swades
Ejji started his career as a toilet cleaning supervisor at the once-iconic Safire Theatre, in what was then Madras. In 1970, he set up Ejji Maintenance Contracts, the first building cleaning service company in India. A year later, he founded Ejji Domestic Services which offered on call services of electricians, carpenters, plumbers and such at home, which again was the first of its kind in India. In 1991, Ejji “quit the rat race” because he had wanted to “earn a living” for only 20 years of his Life. Ever since, Ejji has been living his Life, “doing only what he wants and only when he wants to do anything”. Right now, as you read this, at 65, Ejji is driving through India, capturing the “The Idea of India”. He is on the journey, aptly called Highway to Swades, with three other like-minded seekers – which covers 20,000 km, over 55 days, traveling the entire east coast of India, the North-East, the Hindi belt of Bihar and UP, going high up into Himachal, through Jammu & Kashmir, down through Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, coastal Karnataka, Kerala and back to Chennai! Ejji is a collector of vintage cars, loves car racing (he is the Deputy Secretary, Formula 1 Indian Grand Prix), is a theatre enthusiast and has even done a cameo in Mani Ratnam’s ‘Aaytha Ezhuthu’! Ejji, to me, is the quintessential explorer – always experiencing Life by living it to the fullest. However, since 2011, he calls himself a “congenital sybarite” – a sybarite is one who is self-indulgent in their fondness for sensuous luxury!!! That’s Ejji, Unplugged, for you!!! He’s never in one place – peripatetic as they say – having been at Katchal, one of the Nicobar Islands in India on January 1, 2000, to witness the “millennium sunrise” to traveling to most (often lesser known) parts of the world and to currently picking up the sights, sounds, smells and voices of India in this high-voltage election season.
I have often asked Ejji how he manages to do all what he does. And he has always replied: “I have just enjoyed being myself. Most people give up on being themselves only to be conforming to what is considered to be normal. People fear what others may think of them and their actions. So they don’t live their lives the way they want to. Thankfully, I did not care and still don’t care about what others think of me!” Ejji is also quick to add, lest we conclude that he has done what he has at the cost of his “worldly” responsibilities: “My Life has had just one important obsession – my family! There’s nothing that I have done which took precedence over the rightful duties I owe my family. Only after my obligations to my family were met, did I venture into the bohemian lifestyle that became my hallmark.”
I believe the greatest lesson anyone can draw from Ejji’s Life is to live. Not necessarily the way he has lived. But to live Life the way you want to live. Most of us postpone doing what we love doing for social, financial, career or family considerations. You can postpone something if you have a lot of time. But how do you decide or know how much time you have left to live? With each moment that you choose to do what you don’t love doing – because you imagine you have no choice but to do it – you are losing yet another moment to live your Life.
So, postponing living – the way you want to live your Life – is not an intelligent thing to do. Not all of us may succeed in drawing a line saying enough of “earning a living” – now, let me just live! But we can make a beginning – in doing at least a few things each month, each quarter and each year. Living, like existing, is addictive. Once you start enjoying living a full Life, then nothing else will matter. You will then realize how futile and sinful it is to waste a precious gift called Life by merely “existing”!

Know where your horse is taking you

Whatever you do, do it with total awareness. When you are aware, when you are mindful of what’s going on, you live more intelligently – and peacefully!
I read a Zen story that the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hahn (a.k.a Thay) shares in a discourse. A man is riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. Another man, his friend, standing by the roadside, yells at him: “Hey you, where are you going in such a hurry?” The man shouts in reply, without looking back, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.” Thay says this is the situation most of us are in – especially those who are running crazy, from one meeting to another, chasing their tails and deadlines, in today’s rushed world. Some of us are even riding more than one horse at the same time. Our lives have become so busy, we don’t know where the horses we ride are going. Worse, we don’t even have time to think, to understand, why we are on those horses or where we may end up going.  
I can relate to Thay’s metaphor of the horse and rushing away not knowing where it is taking you. There was a time, when I ran a reasonably spread out organization. We had operations in six cities in India. And I had 40 people reporting to me. We had institutionalized, what we believed was a best practice, a process of my direct reports writing to me each weekend sharing their experiences, learnings and concerns from the past week. I spent Sundays poring over these reports at length. Even when my children, who were at that time young and needed my time the most, asked for me to take them out to a restaurant or to the beach, I carried these CEO reports with me. Some of these reports had bad news in them – a client was unhappy or a team member accused another of politicking or someone wanted to put in her papers. I was always a man in a hurry. So, when I finished reading these reports, I would be impatient for the weekend to get over. Come Monday and I was keen to address and resolve each of those issues that were escalated to me over the weekend. I don’t think having team members share with you weekly is a bad idea. But the way I followed that process was naïve. I ruined each of my weekends – resultantly, I was always on the edge, irritable and unhappy with things in my Firm and my Life! I simply did not have any time for the family – I don’t remember any meals I had with them or goofing off with my kids. I made no effort myself and whatever time I spent with them was only when my wife insisted or pleaded with me. So, for almost a decade of my Life, the only memory I have of weekends is of dealing with those CEO reports and fighting crisis after crisis during the week. I was just on this horse called work and I did not even know where it was taking me then.
My wake-up call came when my son, then 18, took off to study at the University of Chicago in Fall 2008. When we saw him off at the Chennai airport at midnight, I remember coming home and being unable to catch sleep. My wife and daughter were exhausted but I decided to wait for a text message from my son confirming that he had boarded. I fixed myself a drink and was walking aimlessly around the house. I stopped by a picture of his on one of the shelves and broke into tears. I recall asking his picture: “When did you grow up son? And so fast? I wish I had spent more time with you!”
Thay says each day, each moment gives us the opportunity to live intelligently. That opportunity can be seized only by being totally aware of what we are doing. If we look at our lives, a lot of it, our lifestyles, our way of consuming things, everything is steeped in mindlessness. We are just being driven crazy by the horses we have chosen to ride.

Only with total awareness can you understand the consequences of each of your choices and actions! Monday is a good day, as any, to take a deep breath and, even if you can’t get off a horse immediately, at least know where it’s taking you – and, if required and if you can, rein it in!

This Lifetime is the treasure that you hunt for

It is incredibly tragic. You__and I__have been brought up to always focus on a better tomorrow and never to celebrate a great today! From infancy to childhood to teenage to young adulthood to middle-age to senior citizenship __ it is one endless pursuit of growing knowledgeable (all the academic education that is thrust upon us), growing secure (a stable income, a marriage, a family) and growing financially (acquiring assets and saving for a comfortable retirement). Nowhere are we told or taught__unless we stumble upon it or seek for ourselves__to grow up, grow wiser, grow aware and grow into bliss!

It is indeed sad.

Let’s look at ourselves. We are continuously running, from one job to another, one achievement to another, one crisis to another, hoping to find a pot of gold, somewhere, somehow, so that we can stop running. We hate all this running. But we simply keep on running!

Yesterday I watched a lesser-known movie called ‘Chodo Kal Ki Baatein’ (2012 – directed by Pramod Joshi – starring Anupam Kher and Sachin Khedekar). It is the story of workaholic who discovers who he really is, and what is truly capable of, through a series of bizarre happenings in his Life.

The movie’s lead character Aditya reminded me of myself. There was a time, not so long ago, when I was running the rat race too. I would skip the annual days and sports days of my kids’ at school, and sometimes even their birthdays, because building a global Firm, winning marquee customers and leading a world-class team were far more important than family. Business and income always came first, family and enjoyment always came last. Stupidly enough, I would imagine that I was doing all this, working 24 x 7, all year through, only to secure my family financially. Whereas,  unknown to me (or perhaps it was evident but I refused to pay heed to it – call it hubris!), I was driving myself, my Firm and, worse, my family in exactly the opposite direction. To a financial apocalypse!

Then the inevitable happened. The Firm I led collapsed. And suddenly, in the ghastliness of a business defeat, I made a shameful personal discovery. I realized my kids had grown up and I had really not watched them grow up! The night my son took a flight out of Chennai for the US, to do an undergraduate program there, I remember coming back home from the airport, hugging his picture and crying like a baby. In yesterday’s movie, Aditya misses his daughter’s debut Bharatanatyam performance, her arangetram. And he doesn’t even realize it. When I missed my kids’ growing years, I too didn’t realize it. In the few years that have passed, I have realized, through tragedy, crises and painful ‘eureka’ moments, that Life’s treasures don’t lie in what we achieve. They lie in the moments that we live.

In the film, Aditya is asked by the blind mystic (Anupam Kher), who he (Aditya) is?

Aditya replies: “Aditya Pradhan”.

Blind Mystic: “That’s a name that your parents gave you…it is almost like a luggage tag, so that you don’t get lost in the crowd. What’s your true identity?”

Aditya: “I am a software engineer, the Vice Chairman of my company, successful business leader….”

Blind Mystic: “Is that really you? Are you really happy doing those things? Have you ever felt happy in this long, illustrious career that you speak of?”

Aditya, after much thinking, enlists a series of achievements……

Blind Mystic: “You can’t ever think about when you were happy. It means you are applying your intellect. Happiness cannot be thought of. It is felt. And it is what you feel from your soul.”

This was like The-Monk-Who-Sold-His-Ferrari-moment in the movie. I wish I had had a mystic or a monk to hold me a mirror early on in Life. Then probably, I may not have lost as many years in Life!

The learnings, from my story, and Aditya’s, are simple:

  • Life is happening now. Are you present?
  • You have lost the game of Life if you think of happiness. Happiness is what you feel, from the soul! You either feel happy or you don’t!
  • Life is not a treasure hunt. Because what you hunt for is already available to you, right here, right now!
  • What matters most is – how are you LIVING TODAY? The key words are, livingand today!

So, if you really want to live a more fulfilling Life, take time to say your good-byes, shut out your intrusive mobiles at family meal times, tuck your kids’ into bed and kiss them good night daily, make time for their silly moments and their school projects, for their music classes and their popcorn nights, make sure you get more done in five days of the week so that your family time is not intruded upon by your demanding work Life, and make time, at least weekly, for doing what truly makes you feel happy! You have heard this before. So it may well sound clichéd. Yet, this is the only way we must live __ because we live only once! This is not to say that we must not pursue successful careers. Or that we must not aim to create more wealth and be prosperous. This is simply a reminder service that if you are doing all those things, at the cost of living today, you are headed the wrong way. Working hard is certainly not working smart. Workaholicism is a disease. It is often an escape from reality. It may not often be a reality the workaholic lives in but may be about a haunting past, about an insecurity, and the workaholic keeps working so that the reality does not torment, does not bother anymore. Our society demands that we work to earn. But won’t it be better if we simply lived and earned on the side, in the bargain, without compromising on “living”? Think about it. Does any other creation of nature work the way man works? Do the trees, the rivers, the mountains, the crops in the farms, the fruits, the bees and the butterflies work __ meaninglessly, running a rat race__the way we do?

Mankind is guilty of creating two preposterous myths:

  • That an achieving mind is far more significant and powerful than a living soul!
  • That Life is a treasure hunt!

 Nothing can be farther from the truth! When you awaken from this stupor, imposed on you by centuries of conditioning, you will realize, like Aditya, like me, that if your soul is alive to the moment, to today, then it will recognize this lifetime as THE treasure!