When you can’t solve a problem, be patient while living with it.
A gentleman came to us asking for some perspective. He had been out of work for three years now. His only daughter was unmarried and he was getting increasingly worried because she was over 30 years old. His wife, unable to handle all these “setbacks”, had slipped into depression. “I feel very hopeless. I know complaining about Life is a waste but that’s what I am invariably ending up doing,” he confessed. He wanted to know if there was a way to break free from all the negativity in him and around him and be happy.
Acceptance and awareness, I told him, hold the key to inner peace and happiness. Complaining about Life and its upheavals demonstrates a tendency to resist what is happening. That’s why you are steeped in negativity and hopelessness.
Pretty much like what Shirdi Baba taught the world – advocating faith and patience – the Japanese champion two philosophies: ‘gaman’ and ‘shoganai’.
‘Gaman’ means patience, endurance, perseverance. And while ‘shoganai’ literally means ‘nothing can be done’ or ‘it can’t be helped’; it also denotes a calm determination to face, and eventually overcome, what cannot be controlled. The Japanese language and culture testify to how a sense of precariousness__since Japan is located in one of the most seismologically active spots on the planet; remember the tsunami of March 2011?__has shaped a national consciousness. We have a lot to learn from Japanese culture because most of us are forever complaining of what could have been and what we don’t have!
Obviously, when you don’t get what you want or when you get what you don’t want, you will experience pain. But what can be done to avoid or escape that pain? Nothing at all. The pain has to be faced. Which is why embracing the ‘shogonai’ philosophy makes a lot of sense. Then, you will realize that only ‘gaman’ will work for you. What can’t be avoided or undone has to be faced, lived through, patiently. Such is Life.
I invited the gentleman and his family to embrace ‘gaman’ and ‘shoganai’ as simple, practical philosophies to deal with even in everyday Life. You too can benefit a lot from these philosophies. You are in a traffic jam and late for your meeting. ‘Shoganai’. You get a non-reclining seat on the plane. ‘Shoganai’. There is a power outage. ‘Shoganai’. By any stretch of imagination, ‘Shoganai’ does not imply fatalism. Which is why, it must be understood and practiced with ‘gaman’. Both together encourage us to stop complaining about things that are beyond our control; instead they urge us to accept situations that leave us either foxed or clueless or numb and helpless and plod us to persevere to change those things . In the context of acts beyond our control__like a health setback or a natural calamity or the passing away of a dear one__they remind us to accept reality and go through Life patiently.
Either way, this Japanese way of Life, invites us to stop complaining. It is very similar to Shirdi Baba’s tenets of faith – trusting the process of Life – and patience. Both schools of thought converge to remind us that to complain means to live in grief. Surely, grieving over something does not change reality. Neither do acceptance or faith or patience or awareness. But acceptance of any reality at least helps the one facing it to be at peace. When there is inner peace, there is happiness.
When you are ready and willing, you will always be pointed in the direction you must take.
“Do we necessarily need a Guru to initiate us into Self-realization,” asked a reader yesterday. I have myself asked this question before; and I keep getting asked this question often too.
We must first understand the meaning of Guru. Guru really means ‘remover of ignorance’ – ‘Gu’ means ‘darkness of ignorance’ and ‘Ru’ means ‘remover, one who removes’. So, as I have experienced and learnt from Life, anyone or anything, that removes your ignorance, or helps you to become aware, or that which awakens you to a truth, is a Guru. So, a Guru is not necessarily a someone who has matted hair, is ritualistic, has a followership and has an ashram or a retreat. To me, a Guru, is a teacher. And since I am really, continuously, learning from Life’s experiences, I consider Life my constant Guru, my ever-present Teacher!
Now, to the next part of the question. I feel the word and the concept of ‘Self-realization’ is over-rated, and therefore, unnecessarily complicated. ‘Self-realization’ is simply the awareness of the transient nature of Life. I have written on writer Shreekumar Varma’s idea of happiness in my Sunday column, The Happiness Road, for DT Next. While conversing with Shreekumar, who is a scion of the Travancore royal family, he shared what his grandmother, the erstwhile ruler of the state of Travancore, used to say about Life: “I once had a kingdom, then I had a palace, then I had a house and now I have a room.” “This awareness”, pointed out Shreekumar, “is key to leading a simple, happy Life – that nothing and no one is going to be yours or with you permanently.”
I will add to his learning that this awareness is what ‘Self-realization’ is. Which is, you are not this body, you are not this human form, you are not the qualifications you have, you are not your position, your title, your bank balance, your relationship, your property, your grief, your worry, your health – you are none of those. In a basic, practical, simplistic context, you are just your breath. Everything and everyone who is around you is with you only because you are alive, you are breathing. Once you die, where does your breath go? It just becomes one with the Universal energy. I wouldn’t even complicate this discourse with the concept of soul, atman, and such – I am just sharing what I understand. To me, everything matters only because of this breath, only because of the fact that I am alive. Life is only jab tak hai jaan! This means, live your Life to the fullest, as long as it lasts. Utilize the opportunity of this lifetime within the lifetime of the opportunity. When you go, you are going to take nothing with you. So, don’t cling on to anything or anyone – practice detachment in every moment. This realization, this awareness is what ‘Self-realization’ really is. As you can see, it is downright simple.
Now, do you need a Guru to awaken you to this truth? The answer is simple. Do you need an alarm to wake up in the mornings or do you wake up on your own? Both possibilities exist. Those who are used to bio-rhythm, will be woken up by their body clocks. Those who need a wake-up call will respond to an alarm. And then, there’s the third category, those who are not sleeping at all, they are pretending to be asleep. They can never be woken up. So, a Guru really steps into your Life when you are ready and willing. As the Buddhist saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And that Guru will not necessarily be a scholar or a religious leader or a God-person. It need not even be a person! A book can be your Guru, a movie can be a Guru, a Life experience can be a Guru. And there can even be a combination of Gurus – different people, things, events coming together to remove your ignorance, to wake you up and to point you in the direction you must take.
A genuine Guru will not advise that you follow him or her, will not insist on any ritual or prayer, will not champion that you fear a God. A true Guru awakens you to understand the impermanence of Life, and therefore invites you to celebrate yourself and to be happy. A Guru is an enabler, who helps you unshackle yourself and sets you free.
I used to regularly visit a hairdresser named Ramalingam at the erstwhile Taj Residency (now Vivanta by Taj) in Bangalore. I was a lot younger then and had a lot of hair. I was also an angry man – aggressive, impatient and quite rabid. One day, when Ramalingam was working on my hair, I received a phone call from my accountant saying a particular client payment, which was overdue by six months, was unlikely to come in for another week. I just took off on my colleague over the phone – I raved, ranted, screamed and literally shredded my colleague verbally. Ramalingam stepped back as I went ballistic. And when I got off the call, I gestured to him brusquely to continue with his work. As he resumed, Ramalingam whispered into my ear: “Sir, losing your cool like this is no good. This is not the sign of a mature leader. You are a very capable man. But you are letting your anger ruin you. Intelligent living doesn’t call for big intelligence. It requires common-sense. If you can learn to be in this world and yet be above it, untouched by its pulls and pressures, then you are a true, evolved leader.” Ramalingam’s words strangely did not anger me or hurt me. In fact, they gripped my conscience and woke me up from my stupor. It has been over 15 years now. I am still a work-in-progress. But my journey of channelizing my anger and my spiritual quest – both – began that day sitting in that salon chair. I was Arjuna that day and Ramalingam was my Krishna. He was my first Guru – he removed a part of the ignorance that I was steeped in and, set me off on glorious path where I have experienced freedom, inner peace and happiness – despite my excruciating material circumstances. (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal)
On this path, whoever I meet now or whatever comes my way, is a Guru. I know I have miles to go, but I know there will always be a Guru to light up the path, every step of the way.
So, why cling on to stuff, why fight over them?
I was amused to note that the Times of India Group has served a legal notice on Arnab Goswami asking him to desist from using his now famous phrase – “the Nation wants to know” – on his TV shows in the future. While the TOI notice made quite a sensation on social media, it left me with several questions. Why do people cling on to stuff? Why do they want to fight over them? Why try to control the actions of other people in contexts that are best left alone?
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not against protecting intellectual property or material wealth or physical property. But a large media group, a behemoth, wanting to restrain a former editor from using a ubiquitous phrase, that had come to be identified with him over the past decade, to me, personally, smacked of a certain lack of spiritual depth.
The truth about our lives is that we came empty-handed and we will leave empty-handed. In this time that we are here, everything that is with us, is given here, is taken from here. And everything that is with us, will be taken away from us. Either when you are alive. Or when you die, it will pass on to someone else. So, spiritual awareness demands that we stop clinging on to stuff. If you are spiritually aware, if you are awakened, you will understand the futility of fighting, of wanting to control, of desiring to possess.
I must confess I was never this way. Life’s experiences have changed me.
To be sure, I was pretty much in the Times of India thinking mold. Everything – and everyone – I reasoned, had to be controlled. And just when I thought I had arrived, by clawing my way through Life, by fighting and winning so many battles, everything I had created or acquired to cobble together my little empire, everything was taken away from me!
The bankruptcy hit us in end-2007. (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal) But it was an episode in 2012 April that made me understand and awaken to the transient nature of Life.
We had long closed down all our offices, including the one in Chennai. We had taken up a small two-bedroom apartment, which primarily served as a holding area for all our files and documentation – that were statutorily required to be maintained. The premises also held our personal collection of over 1500 books, all of them dealing with management, self-help and spirituality, collected over 20 years. But soon, we were unable to meet the rental commitment for this space too. So, in April 2012, we worked on vacating the place. All month we sat, Vaani and I, on the ground, each day, sorting and shredding stuff that we couldn’t shift to our home. Among stuff that wasn’t going to make it with us were those books from the private library. We gave away 1300 of them to a friend who runs a training company in Bangalore. He drove down to pick up them up. I also personally shredded the wall-mountable props of the Vision and Mission statements of our erstwhile Firm. It was catharsis. It was as if I was completing the last rites for our dream child, our Firm that we had found 16 years ago with the Vision of being a global consulting Firm.
That night, over a drink, I cried. Literally and figuratively, I was presiding over the ruins of an empire that once was. And now there was nothing. As I soaked in the futility of my grief, I made peace with myself. I understood that Life is not only about dreaming, striving, achieving, owning and controlling. Life is also about losing – what you have owned, what you have created – and about not getting what you want. It was a magical moment of awakening.
Ever since, I have found myself getting better dealing with denials, rejections and loss. So, while I still believe you must take adequate measures, living in a real world as we all do, to protect what is rightfully yours, you must avoid this urge to want to control, to fight and to possess stuff – things, people, opinions – and claim them as your own. Such a struggle will only take you away from living in the moment, from being happy. And, besides, without a shred of doubt it can be said that nothing, absolutely nothing, is going with you!
Awareness holds the key to intelligent living.
A reader wanted to know how to deal with suppressed desires and emotions. He cited his experience of being brought up in a conservative fashion and him not having touched alcohol all his Life. He agreed that he was old enough to be making his choices, but he felt his family would not approve of them. “So how does one deal with an urge to experience something without feeling guilty or fearing about being judged,” he asked.
I am of the view that everything in Life has to be experienced. But you must never let yourself be controlled by anything. You must be aware of what you are doing. So, drinking socially is okay. But being controlled by your drinking or drinking and driving is not okay surely. You must train yourself to make this intelligent distinction, every single time, with everything that you choose to do.
And please don’t suppress any emotions. The more you suppress something, the more it will want to break free and express itself. So, if you have an urge to try out something new – whatever – go do it. But do it being fully aware of the consequences of it controlling you. I practice a simple process of holding on to each debilitating emotion I experience, examining it, and setting it down. Anger, fear, sorrow, guilt, jealousy – whatever comes my way, I look at it closely and then I let it go. This way, nothing controls me. And since there is no resistance, there is no suffering.
Finally, please don’t make decisions wanting to please others. If there is something you want to do, you want to experience, you have to go do it. Or if you choose not to do it, for whatever reasons, don’t think about your choice again. Don’t try to keep flaunting your martyrdom – “Oh! But for my family, I would have been this way or that way!” It is simply not worth it. That way, you will feel depressed and will end up wallowing in self-pity.
That brings me back to the point about awareness. The key to intelligent living is awareness. If you train your mind to be aware, nothing can entice you, nothing will torment you or control you. Awareness makes Life simpler. It liberates you. Nothing is wrong and nothing is right, in a moral sense, in Life. So, do whatever you feel like doing. But do it with complete awareness of what you are doing, why you are doing it and what consequences are likely to follow. As Osho, the Master, says, “There is only one sin and that is unawareness, and only one virtue and that is awareness.”
The truth is we know nothing about Life!
A very experienced business leader we know demanded that I tell him what plans I have to turn our business around. I gave him an outline. He then asked if I had a Plan B. I replied, “Sir, over the last 10 years, we have tried many plans. By some count this should be Plan ZA surely!” Which is true. We have been putting forth strategy after strategy, several new business plans – one after each other; so much so that we should be frustrated with our efforts because they have not yet yielded results! But we have chosen not to get bitter with the experience. In fact, we feel that trusting Life’s Master Plan, the process of Life, and choosing to remain unfrustrated with the outcome of our efforts, is a plan in itself.
But the business leader was insistent that we must have a more definitive plan of action: “You must know when all this will end. You must have the ability to forecast, to say that in such and such time, you will turn zero-debt.” Of course, none can be keener than Vaani and I to know when our crisis will end. But the truth is, we don’t know.
And this is not so much about our inscrutable situation alone. All Life is this way – impossible to predict, impossible to fit into one framework.
I rely a lot on a Zen allegory – of the apple. A man who claimed he knew everything was asked by a Zen Master how many seeds were there in an apple. The man sliced the apple, counted the seeds and reported his findings to the Master. The Master took one seed and placed it on the man’s hand and asked him how many apples there were in that seed. The man fell at the Master’s feet and sought forgiveness for his arrogance.
Such is Life. Just because we have Google, the fountainhead of all knowledge, on our fingertips, we think we know everything about everything. The truth is we know nothing about Life. We must realize that there is a huge difference between knowledge and awareness. Knowledge helps us to earn a living. Awareness helps us to live meaningfully. We can’t hope to through Life by arguing with it logically – expecting to apply our acquired intelligence to it. Even so, Life can – and must – be lived only intelligently. Living intelligently means knowing that Life cannot be deciphered, it cannot be defined, it cannot be predicted with certainty – yet it must be lived fully, without worrying, without getting frustrated when your efforts don’t add up to results and without suffering (by resisting) whatever’s happening to you!
15 years ago if you had met me, I would have told you that I have everything planned out and I knew exactly how my Life would be over time. Now, I have different take – I only know what efforts I am making, I have no idea of what results they will deliver or when. Even so, I am a lot happier and peaceful now than I ever was!
On the path, the journey is the reward…
A young man asks me this question: “While I find great conceptual clarity with regard to intelligent living as a key to happiness, I am somehow, never able to practice any of what I learn. I am always unsure of where to begin. It is not about the why or how, it is about where and when to begin. Can you suggest a method that can be easily mastered and practiced?”
A large part of the young man’s question is in order. He loses the plot towards the end though. He seeks a “method” and one that is “easy to master”!
The most fundamental truth is that there are no mantras, no methods to live Life. Intelligent living comes from awareness, from your inner awakening; it cannot be boxed into a standard operating procedure! And nothing that requires mastery is easy. Simple. Period. If you must master something, you must keep at it again and again and again; no matter how good you are, each time you start, you start as a novice!
Now, let me answer the young man’s question. My answer is most likely relevant to many others who ask similar questions or who are confronted with similar predicaments. The reason why many have a “starting problem” is because they think too much, they analyze too much. A true seeker dives deep, unquestioningly, once they gain conceptual clarity. They don’t need any analysis. They don’t demand guarantees. They believe in the process, they trust the source, the teacher, and they dive deep. Once on the path, there is no looking back. And the non-starters remain where they once were – debating, analyzing, arguing.
I lean heavily on my understanding of The Four Noble Truths that Gautama Buddha taught:
- Life in our world is full of misery
- All our misery comes from our attachments and expectations
- We can let go of – or overcome – our attachments and expectations
- There is a path – others who have been on it have found peace and happiness; so, if we really want to, we too can embrace that path!
This understanding helps me keep it simple. When I started seeking, I didn’t question or analyze for too long. When I realized how futile any analysis of Life is, I simply looked to the evidence that lay in front of me. There had been, obviously, seekers ahead of me who have embraced the path that Gautama Buddha talked about. If they can, why can’t I – this logic is all that I needed to get going.
Now, having been on the path, for almost a decade now, I can tell you that it is beautiful. Here the journey is the reward. Because there is no attachment to where you started or to what you left behind nor any expectation of any destination to arrive at nor of anything to be attained or acquired! I am reminded of Vaali’s beautiful lyrics from a great song that features in the forgettable Tamil film “Azhagiya Tamizh Magan” (2007, Bharathan, A.R.Rahman, Vijay): “Nee Nadhipole Odikondu Iru.” It means, “You keep flowing like a river…!” And that’s really all we need to do to live intelligently! Not analyzing too much and getting bogged down, but to simply keep flowing!