Oye Lucky! Unlucky Oye!!
Life couldn’t care if you thought of it as unfair – or as benevolent!
At a dinner that I was invited to recently, I got talking with an acquaintance. We spoke about Life. He said a common pattern he had seen was that the “honest and hardworking folks always struggled more” and that, above all else, “Life is a game of luck”! I politely disagreed with him and said that there are no such patterns to Life. Luck was a matter of human perception and imagination, it never was an intrinsic flavor of Life, I added. The gentleman invited me to substantiate my point of view.
I believe that everyone has their fair share of struggles. Everyone. If we pause to listen to every story around us we will find that people are fighting their own battles. Those who are materially challenged look at the haves and imagine they have no problems. But the truth is that those people may have a different set of issues. They may have money, but they could be dealing with emotional challenges, with health problems or with identity crises. To be sure, there’s no one on the planet who is not dealing with at least one challenge at any given point in time.
Next, on the luck debate, I have to say that it is an avoidable one. I shared with the man a couple of instances from my Life’s story. I talked about how our son Aashirwad graduated from the University of Chicago even as Vaani and I battled our bankruptcy here. (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal) I told him how our daughter graduated from a college here in India and is taking up a Master’s Program overseas, even as we continue to endure our bankruptcy. In both instances, our children’s education has been provided for by the “benevolent Universe” despite our workless, often broke, situation. Our children’s education may have come to the edge of the precipice many a time but Life always bailed them out. Now, which part of our story is true? Is it that we are hardworking, honest people going through a trying, unlucky time? Or is it that despite our hardships, we are lucky enough that our children’s education has not been affected? The point I am making is simple – there is nothing really called luck. Life is just a series of happenings. When these happenings exceed your expectations, you exult and say you are lucky. And when they don’t, you complain that you are unlucky. Such labeling, and such definitions, serve no purpose. Life couldn’t really care if you think of it as benevolent or as unfair. So, by conjuring up and, worse, believing, in a factor called luck, you are quite unnecessarily complicating a simple process – the process of Life; where you only have one option, which is to flow with Life!
In almost 50 years of knowing Life, all I can say is that Life never promised any fair-play to anyone. It is only your expectations that bring you agony. Drop all expectations, suspend all judgments and don’t ever play up the luck theme. Then, you can only be at peace with yourself – no matter what your circumstances are!
There’s no point getting angry with the Life you have
Acceptance of your current reality is different from resigning to your fate.
Yesterday was full of upheavals. A couple of key business opportunities we were hoping would come our way fell through owing to challenges that prospective clients were facing. We are not new to such last-minute setbacks in business. For over a decade now, this has been the pattern we have seen in our business plan and with our cashflow; where we try to fix the economic engine of our business only to find that it will sputter and stop one more time. It can be very draining, having to pick up the threads of your Life and trying to wind them up – only to discover that they have been plucked away from you and discarded mercilessly in a hopeless tangle.
Obviously frustration and worry will follow in such a situation. But acceptance of what is and trusting the process of Life helps immensely.
So, when I began to sense the stress building up within me, I suggested to Vaani that we go out for a walk. During the walk, I did what I have learnt to do very well over the years – I played witness to my own Life. Systematically, we reviewed the impact these upheavals will have on our Life and concluded dispassionately that, yet again, we are now on the brink. With this clarity, interestingly, the frustration, the worry, dissolved as soon as it had arisen. There was a great inner peace as we sat down for dinner. And I slept very well.
People imagine that those on the spiritual path are immune to challenges of everyday Life. This isn’t true. As long as you live, you will be flooded with thoughts – all the time. And debilitating emotions arise in everyone – anger, grief, guilt, worry, anxiety, frustration, depression, insecurity, fear, the works! But the spiritually inclined know that these emotions are like waves. They will rise and ebb away. So, they don’t cling on to these emotions, to these thoughts. That’s really what I did with Vaani last evening – I refused to walk down the depressive spiral with frustration and worry.
Today is Swami Sathya Sai Baba’s birthday. I haven’t met him personally. But Vaani and I have experienced him through a medium, a messenger, a young man in Nungambakkam (in Chennai). It is through intensive and personal coaching from Baba, through his medium, that I learnt the art of mindfulness, of trusting the process of Life. Once, some years ago, we were on the edge of a similar precipice – as we find ourselves now, struggling for cash and work! We went to Baba’s messenger and told him: “We don’t even have money for groceries and telephone bills. Ask Swami what we must we do when even basics get affected?” Pat came Swami’s reply, through the messenger, “Isn’t faith basic?” That day we learnt this unputdownable lesson that trusting the process of Life is integral to intelligent living. Through all our years of experiencing Swami, we have not been asked to chant any mantra or do any bhajan or perform any pooja. We have not even been asked to pray. We have only been, repeatedly, reminded to live in the moment, accepting what is, even when we are working on changing our current reality.
The way I learnt to trust the process of Life, through experiencing Swami Sathya Sai Baba, may sound incredible. But this is how it happened to me. They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears. In my case, the teacher came through this young man, a medium for Swami.
Now, when dealing with debilitating thoughts, you have to be aware, mindful, all the time. If you drop your awareness, they will creep up quickly and take you hostage! Anger, frustration, self-doubt, self-pity and depression – all these are by-products of an expectation that if you are hard-working, sincere and ethical, nothing should go wrong with your plans or that every effort of yours should yield the result or outcome that you truly deserve and expect. There’s nothing wrong with this logical expectation. In reality though, Life doesn’t conform to any logic. Fortune or tragedy, success or failure, opportunity or rejection – none of these choose those that they strike! They simply happen. And because Life itself happens over time, each of us, whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, whether we believe it or not, is a product of the time we are going through. So, you can be the most talented, most respected person in your chosen field and you can be out of work. You can appear to be the fittest person around but you could be having a grave health challenge. You can be the most understanding, caring and compassionate spouse, and yet your partner could be in another relationship. Simply, there’s no point getting angry with the Life you have. Because your anger or depression can’t change your reality.
This doesn’t mean that you should resign to your fate. Acceptance is different from resignation. In resignation, there’s a certain frustration and depression that is simmering within. In acceptance, there’s peace and equanimity. In acceptance, there’s an opportunity for further action. In resignation, your frustration will numb you and hold you hostage. It will keep pushing you down a negative spiral. When you accept your current reality, you will realize that the best thing to do when things are not working out as planned, is to simply make your daily efforts and choose not to get frustrated and depressed when the results don’t come as expected.
This is a simple, real world, practical point of view. It comes from experience and from knowing that when you don’t get what you want, it doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you. It simply means it is not time yet for you to get what you want!
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Keep trying, but stop pining and lamenting
Wanting to control Life is like trying to hold on to water in your fist. You never can.
I met a friend who said he was perhaps facing a mid-Life crisis. He had started off on his own some years back. Then, when that venture didn’t do well, he took up employment again. He had changed a few jobs in the last five years, he wasn’t earning enough money, his kids were growing up and he was clearly insecure about his future. He lamented, “I have this feeling that I am being led. I am no longer in control of my career and Life. I don’t think I will be able to put my kids through college at this rate.”
I explained to him that there is nothing called a mid-Life crisis. “You feel crisis-ridden because there’s a turmoil within you. Your wants are in conflict with your reality,” I said. My friend wants a more challenging and well-paying job. He wants to save money for his kids’ higher education. And the reality is that he is having a mediocre job, that pays him just so much that he can make ends meet. Which means the reality is that he is unable to save any money. His insecurity, his gripped-by-crisis-like feeling comes from his wants. His reality is perfect as it is. His wants are what are disturbing him. I said that the only way he could change his reality was to work on it instead of worrying about it.
This is so true for each of us in our own Life situations. Your current reality hardly troubles you. It is perfect as it is. Your wanting your reality to be different from what it is disturbs your inner peace. It is what causes your misery.
Actually, your upbringing and education make you believe that you are in control of your Life. To a large extent it just appears to be so. You study hard, you graduate, you get an employment, you start earning and saving. When this pattern of progression is uninterrupted, it soon becomes predictable and also makes you believe that you have caused and controlled your Life and career. But ask those who have seen a series of interruptions early on in their lives and they will tell you a different story. Someone’s been dyslexic or someone’s been orphaned or someone’s had an accident leading to a disruption in academics or someone’s just not found a job despite good grades! Ask these folks and they will tell you that nothing is really in our control – that we are merely being led by Life. So, there’s really no crisis and definitely no such thing as early-Life or mid-Life or late-Life crisis. There’s just Life happening in its own unique way for you – all the while. Whatever’s happening is your current reality. Period. As long as you are focused on that reality and acting from that point of view, you will be fine. The moment desire steps in, the moment you start wanting the reality to be different or start thinking of a future reality, misery will set it. You could feel anything – from anxiety to suffering – and all of them will be debilitating.
Accepting reality, accepting your Life for what is, does not mean inaction at all. I am not advising my friend to live with his mediocre, low-paying job forever. All I am telling him is this – please look for a better opportunity, but don’t pine for it. Keep trying, but please stop lamenting. Keep the focus on what you must do, just don’t concentrate on what you don’t have. Accept the Life that you have rather than trying to control it.
Life has been going on, is going on and will go on – no matter what! This is the truth. When you awaken to, and understand, this reality, you too will learn to be peaceful and to go with the flow of Life!
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Fight if you must, but never at the cost of your inner peace
You must fight the good fight if the process of fighting makes you peaceful. But if your inner peace is lost, then the cause, the raison d’etre – to fight – itself is lost.
I am often asked by readers or audiences on how we can differentiate between a good fight, a fight worth fighting for, and one that isn’t? This question often arises when I recommend a principle that I stand by – that the best way to win any battle is to not fight at all – or when I tell people to forgive and move on – even if they can’t forget – than cling on and suffer. Let me share my understanding here though, let me quickly clarify, choosing to fight an individual, situation or system is an intensely personal choice.
First, why do we fight anyone or anything? The idea of a fight arises only when you disagree with what’s happening to you – either with the way you are being treated by a person, by an establishment (a community, organization, society or even by a government or legal system) or by Life itself. So, essentially, you fight every time you see a lack of fairplay in an interaction, relationship or context. But just think about it – when did Life promise any fairplay? Life itself appears so grossly unfair when you weigh your intent, integrity and values against situations that you have to end up facing. So, when Life doesn’t guarantee any fairplay, where is the question of expecting it from humans, and from human-made contexts, systems and situations?
Even so, this doesn’t mean you must not raise your voice against acts that are inhuman or are against social interests. This doesn’t mean you must not want to or try to correct an action or system that urgently needs correction or fixing. Surely you must. But do whatever you must do, do whatever it takes, without agonizing, without suffering, without losing your inner peace. This is where the choice becomes very personal.
My close friend got into a litigious separation process with his wife some years ago. She is 16 years younger to him. They married after a breezy romance. But within a year, she separated from him and sued him for dowry harassment, impotency and domestic abuse. All this, because my friend confronted her with evidence of an affair she was having with a colleague at work. Given the women-friendly anti-dowry laws in India, the lady’s strategy was clear – harass my friend so that he grants her a divorce immediately and compensates her with a huge alimony that included a red Pajero! We advised our friend not to take the legal route. I encouraged him to settle out of court: “Just forgive her, don’t ruin your peace of mind, buy her the car and get out of this mess.” But my friend decided to fight her. In court. The process took over 8 years and it was hell – repeated impotency tests, dowry harassment charges against him and his aged parents having to be defended at every level from police stations to courtrooms, huge legal expenses and his inability to keep a job because the matter required 24×7 attention all through the years. Ultimately my friend won the case at the Delhi High Court. He was exonerated of all charges. And the lady apologized to him in court in return for being granted divorce. Now, all through the fight, through all this drama and humiliation, my friend remained stoic. He was always deadpan, unruffled. I never found him beaten or defeated. He anchored very, very well. Now, if you can deal with a fight with such clarity, such equanimity, then, it is perhaps worth it. But if you are going to suffer fighting, then you might as well not fight at all.
I too have the option to fight many fights. But I have chosen not to. For instance, there is so much corruption around us. Just take the state of the Chennai Airport. The contractors and the Airports Authority of India have a lot of explanation to do over its pathetic condition – falling glass panes, leaking ceiling, unsafe carousels and escalators. It has been rated as the worst airport in the world. Yet, no one has fixed any of these things in the last five years. Worse, no one has been held accountable for this shoddy piece of critical public infrastructure. I do feel like filing a public interest litigation demanding a court direction to the authorities to hold the people concerned liable. But between dealing with my existential crisis and public interest, I prefer preserving my inner peace for investing in resolving my own problem first. Or let me take another instance, of my need to be exonerated by my own family – I have been branded “a cheat” by them despite there being no evidence of my having frauded them at all. Now, this is a fight that I will never fight. Because I believe that if members of a family cannot trust one of their own, what is the point in making them realize their mistake? I have decided to let them live with their theory, and I have learnt to be accepting of my reality that I will never have their understanding all my Life. Important, I have forgiven them – even though I can’t forget the way in which I was treated – and I am at peace with myself and with them.
This is how I choose not to fight each time I am provoked – I go simply by wanting to preserve my inner peace. Because the only reward worth cherishing in Life is your inner peace! It doesn’t ever matter whatever else you have, or gain, if you have lost your inner peace!
So, to fight, to forgive, to move on is an intensely personal decision. The only way you can take that decision is to ask yourself what will make you peaceful. And go do what gives you peace. The key is to be at peace, to be happy with whatever is, even as you are making a sincere effort to change your current reality!