How do you stay sane in our beloved, insane, Incredible India?
Sonu Nigam’s point about “forced religiousness”, being woken up by azaan (the Islamic call to prayer), had me thinking. I too support the view that in a country like India where we have been secular and plural in our culture for centuries, we cannot be waylaid by hysterical, loud expressions of religion. But this is India. Every street corner has a temple or a mosque or some place of worship. And all year round some festival or tradition gets the high-priests of religion in each neighborhood to champion their God, and more so their clout, to gain mileage for their communities. The loudspeaker on the Indian street is a ubiquitous fixture – it is like stray dogs and cattle or garbage – how can we ever get rid of these? And we certainly can’t expect intelligent discourse on this matter by tweeting to express ourselves. Not with the trolling janta lying in wait to pounce on you and shred you the moment you utter a word or make a point that holds up a mirror to them or that’s inconvenient for them to accept.
And this is not about religion or freedom of expression alone. This is not just about one’s right to peace and privacy either.
It is about the insane Indian culture that declares that hum-toh-aise-hain-bhaiyya, we-are-like-this-only, in the way we conduct ourselves in public. Where there are a million stimuli that assault your senses when you walk the streets. Where every solution in public interest has a thousand problems popping up to prevent or delay its implementation. Where there is scant respect for an individual’s right to privacy and dignity in public spaces. Where sound, fury and mob behavior rule the roost in everything online surely – but hold us hostage on our streets as well. Where we are, as a people, irreverent, insensitive and uncouth about the way we walk, talk to each other or into our mobile phones, park, drive, dispose garbage, relieve ourselves, stand in queues or walk our pets. Where the very way in which we are Indian today demands a review, a critique and repair.
So, how do you stay sane and anchored in our beloved, insane, Incredible India?
The answer is pretty simple – breathe deeply, take it easy, let go and move on. India is not a spiritual country anymore in the sense that it once may have been hundreds of years ago. But India offers you the ability to turn deeply spiritual. If you respond to every provocation that you receive here on our streets, from your neighborhood, from the way you are governed to the way you are transported, you will lose your sanity. And if you try to protest, or if you want to strive to drive change in public behavior and attitude, you will be pounced upon, shredded, trampled on and soon left, battered, beaten, licking your wounds. So, the only way out is to steel yourself.
Practice detached determination. Be clear about what change you want to see around you. Be that change yourself first. But be detached – don’t whine, don’t lament, don’t preach, don’t indulge in activism. Fight the system, legally, constitutionally, if you will, but without expectations. Train yourself to focus only on your efforts and never on the outcomes. Which is why I feel everyday living in India offers you a great spirituality opportunity. To be in this world – and yet be above it! To be shaken, but not stirred!! To be touched perhaps, but not moved!!!
And in case you are not inclined to fight the good fight, if you are not the sort that wants to contribute to saving or changing a system, then just practice plain, good ‘ol detachment. Again, don’t fret or fume, don’t lament or complain, and don’t offer perspective on the rot, any rot, if you are not contributing to fix it yourself.
I am not being defeatist here. I am not even saying India is beyond redemption. A billion+ Sonu Nigams must bloom for change to happen…until then…all I am saying is, here’s an opportunity to train yourself spiritually – to be detached, to be determined in a quiet way, to drop anchor and be peaceful within you first. When you turn peaceful, you conserve energy – that you may well deploy in your fight, in case you plan to take one up. And even if you don’t (want to) fight, when you are at peace, your world immediately ceases to agitate you!
When you are merely activity-driven, you are never present in the moment!
We met a young lady recently who is obese, has hypertension and complained of her inability to stay focused. As we sipped some filter coffee, she tucked into a badushah (a sweet doughnut!). But even before she had finished eating it, she had checked her phone a few times, she had looked around the café and exclaimed that her Life had become monotonous, predictable and dreary. She confessed that she is simply not able to prioritize and manage her time and tasks effectively; she wondered what she must be doing to fix her “poor attention span” problem.
Many people are in this young lady’s situation – grappling with their home and work schedules, unable to find time for themselves, coping with lifestyle-related challenges like diabetes and hypertension and, overall, just going through the paces of Life, never really being able to live it fully! There’s only one way such people can “re-invent” themselves. They have to learn to be mindful. It’s not a method, it’s an art – and it can be mastered with understanding and practice.
Mindfulness is the ability to just be, to be in the present moment. Many a time, we keep doing stuff – cooking, cleaning, driving, smoking or eating. We don’t concentrate on what we are doing. Our mind is elsewhere. Our activities then are just chores. Our actions are not mindful, they are really mindless, mechanical. Which is why we are unable to “see” that some of what we could be doing is “ruinous”. We know, for instance, that smoking is ruinous, over-eating is ruinous, not exercising is ruinous, worrying is ruinous. But we go on doing these things. Mindlessly. Which is why observing your own Life, and viewing it dispassionately as a third party, helps. When you observe yourself you will realize how mindlessly you go through your days. You simply are going through hurried motions. You are not present in any of your actions. You are merely activity-driven. You are never in the moment. For instance, you are working overtime to send your kids to school – but never pausing to celebrate and enjoy their innocence. You are rushing to finish your bath – but are never enjoying your body. You are eating in a rush – but are not tasting and relishing your food. You are texting away madly – but are never celebrating how much smaller the world has become thanks to Facebook and WhatsApp. You go on worrying endlessly – without realizing that worrying doesn’t solve any problem and only keeps you away from enjoying whatever you have! It is only by being mindful in each moment that you can really understand what about you needs to change.
Try a simple exercise in mindfulness. Make yourself a cup of green tea. And drink it patiently enjoying every sip. Feel the tea energize you as it enters your body. Don’t let your thoughts wander. Be focused on experiencing the tea travel within you. Examine how you felt while drinking it. This experience of being one with the tea, this feeling, is what mindfulness is all about. This is what is Zen. Practice this in everything that you do. When cooking, focus on the recipe and its preparation, on the aroma, on the taste! When driving focus on the road and the joy of navigation; if the traffic is messy, don’t complain, just soak in all that you observe and be grateful for your ability to see, to drive, to own a vehicle or simply to even be in a vehicle – compared to so many others who don’t have all that you do! When on Facebook, celebrate the opportunity to connect with the world, your world. Every time your mind wanders, to a past event and makes you feel guilty or to a future event and makes you anxious, bring it back to attend on whatever you are doing now. Remember the human mind is like the human body. It will resist any change first. But repeatedly bringing the mind back to focus on the present, you can train it to let go of the past and to not indulge in the future.
Please don’t treat this suggestion of the “green tea experience” as a one-off experiment in Zen. Every once in a while step aside from your Life and observe yourself. As a third party. You will then discover how much you have to change for your Life to change! Conversely, only when you are fully present in each moment, are you alive in it. It is only then that you are living the moment fully. When you live each moment fully, you will realize its value. And through this realization, you will be able to transform yourself – your priorities, your work, your health and your Life!
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Each one is a product of the time and experiences they are going through.
A young lady I know is heart-broken that she is unable to inspire someone who is terminally bed-ridden to see the abundance around him. She feels he is refusing to see the value in being happy, especially when the physical aspect of his circumstances are irreparable. “How do you get across to people who you know need positivity and inspiration but are not inclined to receive them,” she asked me.
The simplest answer to this question is this: to each one their own; when it is their time to awaken, they eventually will. So, it is perfectly normal for someone not wanting to see the abundance around them, or see the value in being happy, and instead choosing to be steeped in scarcity thinking and depression. Sometimes, you have to accept this reality even with your own child, parent, sibling, spouse or companion. Such is Life. Not everyone is going to see Life through the same prism as you are seeing it.
We must realize that each individual’s story, personal journey, is unique. And each one is a product of the time and experiences they go through. While someone may emerge stronger, wiser and happier from a catharsis, others may plunge into despondency and hopelessness. They may, when they realize the futility of their grief, eventually claw out of their crab holes or they may continue to wallow in self-doubt, self-pity, anger, sorrow, guilt and depression. When you try to inspire such people, remember always that motivation is an inside job – I repeat – so, to each one their own. You too must have come out of your depressive spiral only because you awakened from within. Yes, external stimuli – perspectives, events, people, whatever – helped, but you awakened only because you wanted to. Similarly, when you try to inspire someone, remember, they will awaken only when it is their time to awaken and only when they want to awaken.
Those who have learnt the art of intelligent living – of serving, loving and being happy – are often impatient. Understandably. They have realized that all Life is ephemeral, that it is all Maya, an illusion, which will soon dissolve, evaporate, disappear with time. So, they can’t quite understand why other people try to complicate their lives – and those of others around them – so much. They wonder: why can’t people appreciate that being happy and being human alone matters? Such hunger to change the world is great but messiahship is avoidable. When you start perceiving of yourself as a messiah, you put yourself on a pedestal and insist that you have the powers to influence everyone. This is not true at all. You can only inspire others to action; to be inspired and to act on what their inner voice is goading them to do is entirely up to them. So, be a shepherd instead of wanting to be a messiah. A shepherd never tires of taking the flock to graze irrespective of whether they really graze each time or not!
Which is why, when you are leading change in any context or environment, first be the change. And live that change no matter how harsh the circumstances are or how many people believe in what you have to share. This is the only way for you to protect your inner peace and be happy. Conversely, if you are not happy with who you are and what you are doing, you can never be the change that you want to see in the world.
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Gandhi taught us the power and value of living intelligently!
A friend’s Facebook post caught my attention yesterday and set me thinking! My friend announced that he would unfriend anyone who made racist or unqualified remarks about Gandhi. And sure enough he did what he promised – he promptly unfriended those who shared unfounded sentiments about the great man! I liked my friend’s in-the-face approach. Over the past couple of decades, I have been noticing a disturbing trend. People seem to revel in Mahatma-bashing. From calling him names to questioning his ideology to even doubting his relevance, it almost seems like it is fashionable to shred Gandhi.
I have obviously not met Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. But I have studied him – not the Mahatma, not the Father of the Nation, not the political master strategist, but Gandhi, The Man.
My study of Gandhi almost never happened. Way back in 2007, there used to be a bookstore called Connexions opposite my office in R A Puram, Chennai. This was basically a gift store, with a collection of books that the owner personally curated. One afternoon, while browsing through the store, I found Eknath Easwaran’s Gandhi, The Man, staring at me. I liked the way the book defined its purpose – ‘to tell the story of how one man changed himself to change the world’. Around that time I was embracing mouna, the practice of observing silence for an hour daily. I had begun an inner journey, to understand my Self better even as I was asking several existential questions of me, of Life. While the book interested me, I did not pick it up. I had not heard of Eknath Easwaran then. And I didn’t think then that there was anything new a book could tell me about Gandhi, that I didn’t already know!
But just the next day, I read a newspaper interview in which Rajnikanth, yes – the Tamil film Super Star, named two books that changed his Life. One was Living with the Himalayan Masters by Swami Rama and the other was Eknath Easwaran’s Gandhi, The Man. I had known of Rajnikanth’s spiritual side, but didn’t quite imagine he would read books. Nor did I ever expect that he would name a rather unheard of book, that I had just stumbled upon the previous day. I rushed back to the bookstore and found Easwaran’s book still there. I bought it!
The book changed my Life.
I had for long been dealing with anger. People on my team called me chiefscreamer – punning on my title, chiefdreamer! That’s how lousy my reputation was. Reading Gandhi, The Man, helped me realize that anger was energy, which when channeled, could be deployed very constructively. I also learned from the book how beautifully Gandhi separated the issue from the people connected with it. He famously said, “I don’t hate the English, but I hate the way the English rule my country.” In a way, he practiced ahimsa, not just as non-violent action, as is popularly perceived, but as non-violent thought. But all of this, I realized, Gandhi ingrained in him thanks to his meditations of the Bhagavad Gita. The second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita ends with unveiling the highest state of consciousness a human being can attain. Krishna, replying to Arjuna, says (presenting here only the relevant extract that Easwaran too shares in Gandhi, The Man):
“…He lives in wisdom, who sees himself in all and all in him,
Whose love for the Lord of Love has consumed
Every selfish desire and sense-craving
Tormenting the heart.
Not agitated by grief,
Nor hanker after pleasure,
He lives free from lust and fear and anger.
Fettered no more by selfish attachments
He is not elated by good fortune,
nor depressed by bad.
Such is the seer….”
Gandhi, according to Easwaran, meditated on this verse for 50 years every morning and night and devoted all his life to translating it into his daily action. This was the key to his self-transformation.
I have internalized the essence of this verse too. And I have seen myself transform from being stressed out, angry, worried and insecure, to being centered, anchored and at peace with myself and my Life. I am happy with what is. I work daily on continuing to remain unmoved and unfrustrated about all that which happens to me, around me. I owe this transformation in me to Gandhi for leading the way and to Easwaran for telling me, through his book, how Gandhi changed himself first before attempting to share his way of Life with the world. Just for this one reason alone, though there surely are several other reasons, I feel none of us must ever question Gandhi. We don’t have the right to do that unless we have achieved what he had in his lifetime – which is, to be the change that we wish to see around us!
Any home or family that alienates its women is regressive.
I was shocked to read a friend’s post on Facebook yesterday. She was attending a wedding in the family. And she was disallowed by a family elder, ironically a lady, from participating in the ‘mehendi’ ceremony, because she (my friend) had lost her husband a couple of years ago. In another episode, a friend who is pregnant and is due to deliver in a month, said her family wants her to postpone her ‘maike’ visit (to her maternal home) because a distant relative had passed away on her husband’s side – so until the period of mourning was over, she could not ‘carry the stigma/shadow of grief and death’ into her own home. In another horror story we have heard, a woman was disallowed from inviting her divorced sister home, by her mother-in-law, because a young, divorced woman was “capable of corrupting the minds of the men” in the house.
For heaven’s sake, we are in 2016! Well into the 21st century! And we still have such cruel, crude, primitive, biased thinking that is prevalent?
I believe we have an urgent need in each family to examine how our women are treated. I think more than in workplaces, we need a policy in our homes to ensure that women are not harassed in the name of God, religion, rituals, tradition and culture. And as in the case of all three women, whose stories I have shared here, it is often, unfortunately, women who either directly try to alienate other women or partner in such alienation. When I was much younger, I rabidly fought a lot of this discrimination against Vaani (and her family) by my own mother – but I lost out every single time. This is one of the principal reasons why I choose to remain detached and distant from my side of the family – to protect our own inner peace and sanity. I wish I had been stronger then. But at least over the past decade or so, I have been championing this thought that any home or family that does not give equal opportunity and respect to its women has to be condemned unequivocally.
Last year when my father-in-law Venks passed on, and we were readying his body for cremation, the priest asked me if any of Venks’ grandsons were around. This, as I understood it, was to light the source fire from which, notionally, the funeral pyre would be lit. I told the priest that two of Venks’ grandsons were on their way from different Indian cities and they planned to reach the crematorium directly. Since the source fire (in an earthern pot) had to be lit at home, I suggested that my daughter, Venks’ granddaughter, be allowed to light it. But the priest would just not agree. We got into a dignified but vocal debate on gender equality that lasted several minutes. Finally, I backed off, because I didn’t want to hold up the proceedings that were being led by the priest in partnership with Venks’ son, my brother-in-law. However, when it came to bid the body goodbye, all of us were asked to notionally ‘feed the body’ (vai-ikku arisi). I invited my daughter too to do it. The elders in the family and the priest didn’t quite appreciate this. For, per them, unmarried girls must neither feed the body nor see it off. Not only did Aanchal take my cue and ‘feed Venks’ body’, she and Vaani accompanied the cortege to the crematorium and literally saw Venks off. I am very proud of the choices my wife and my daughter made. After all they were close to Venks too.
I must confess here that although social norms, banal traditions and dogmatic rituals are all stacked up always to favor men, it is the women who are more resilient that us men. I say this from my own experience of fighting our crisis – without Vaani on my side, I would never have made it this far. And in almost every story around us, whenever I have met sensible, sensitive, compassionate men, I have always found them acknowledging this truth. The other day I was chatting with Gregory Jacob from Dubai (his family’s story of surviving a traumatic phase of bankruptcy is now a famous motion picture in Malayalam – Jacobinte Swargarajyam – in which Nivin Pauly plays Gregory’s role). And Jacob had this to say: “Amma is the backbone of our family, she is the warrior queen, she has been the pillar of strength for all of us. I guess we men aren’t really fireproof after all!” I can’t agree with him more.
I don’t want to preach. I just want to make a plea. Let’s be the change we want see around us. Let’s get rid of any thought, practice, ritual, tradition or custom that alienates a woman. And let’s start from our own homes!