The most intelligent response to Life is to stay stoic despite its upheavals.
“What do you do when you have a problem with accepting this God theory,” asked a young lady, when we were introduced to her (by a mutual friend) as Life Coaches and Happiness Curators, at a café the other day. She went on to say that she debunked the entire God “story” as proposed by Zeno, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, who lived around the 3rd Century BC. Zeno championed the belief that God determined everything for the best and holding on to that view was a virtue sufficient for happiness. Zeno’s followers were called Stoics – some of the more popular followers were Seneca and Epictetus. The lady said that it was impossible for her to accept that God controlled everything and so she felt that she could not accept the God theory as a pre-requisite for happiness. “How do I make peace with myself, when I am not able to accept a majority opinion or belief,” she asked.
I replied: “Simple. Replace the word God with the word Life. Now, consider this statement – Life controls everything and understanding this truth holds the key to happiness.” I then asked her: “Do you have a problem in accepting Life as a more intelligent energy than you?”
The lady replied: “No, I don’t. I surely feel the presence of a Higher Energy. But I don’t like the idea of God.”
“So, just go with what you believe in. Why do you complicate your Life by questioning the belief systems of others,” I asked.
The lady said she got the point.
Many people are like this young lady. They are spending too much time analyzing what needs no analysis. The truth is that there is a Higher Energy – call it Creation, call it God, call it by whatever name – that powers our lives. I have learnt to simply accept this truth and trust the process of Life. I realize that the best way to live Life is to, as Zeno championed, be stoic in the wake of Life’s upheavals. The Roman philosophers who followed Zeno too advocated the calm acceptance of all occurrences as the unavoidable result of divine will or of natural order. The second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita ends with describing the highest state of consciousness a human being can attain. Krishna, replying to Arjuna, says (presenting here only the relevant extract): “…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….” The key operative part is to be “not elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad”.
In our lifetimes, we are seeing stoicism all around us as people deal with publicly visible tragedies – like the Las Vegas shootings or the questionable incarceration of the Talwar couple over the unsolved murder of their child, Aarushi. We also see people deal with their private tragedies stoically – a health challenge, a relationship issue, the passing of a dear one. There is immense pain for those who are caught in these Life situations. Yet we don’t see them beating their chests and wailing. They see no point in grieving and suffering endlessly. Instead, we see them, almost prayerful, moving on with their work, seemingly unaffected by the pain and grief. This is the highest spiritual quality individuals can acquire. In learning from them, we can find a better way to deal with our own, smaller, calamities.
So, God or no God is not the debate really. Seriously, why blame (an imagined) God for the inscrutable nature of Life? The most intelligent response to a Life that you can never make sense of is to accept whatever comes your way and to stay stoic, stay anchored. This is what Zeno told us centuries ago. And if we internalize that Life lesson, we too can be happy with what is!
Focus only on the effort and leave the outcome to Life.
A young reader, who wrote to me on Facebook Messenger after reading my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal, asked me this question: “How do you stay motivated and retain that urge to succeed when you have been dubbed a failure by the whole world?”
That’s a very interesting question.
To be sure, for the longest time I would cringe when people called Vaani or me a failure. A friend, who is also a head hunter, once told me that no company will respect Vaani and me because we are “failed entrepreneurs”. A wealthy businessman has told me on my face that he wouldn’t want to associate with us in public because we have a “negative net worth”! These remarks used to affect me a lot. I would cook within – seething with rage, feeling helpless because all our efforts to fix our business were coming to a naught.
But through consistent reflection, during my daily mouna (silence period) sessions, I realized that success and failure, victory and defeat, win and loss – all these are mere social labels. They are imposters – they will come and they will go; they are not going to stay with us forever.
In reality, all of us have only choices, to act in a given situation or not to act. When we act and the outcomes match our expectations, we call it success. When the outcomes fall below our expectations we call it failure. But the truth is that our choice of action – or inaction, as the case may be – is far more important than the outcome itself. Which is why the Bhagavad Gita invites us to focus on our effort, on the action, and to leave the result, the outcome, to Life.
So, I would say that we must exercise our choice of action and learn from the experience that leads to the outcome. It is when you are attached to the outcome that you invite ego and suffering. You turn egoistic when the outcomes match or exceed your expectations. You suffer when they don’t. So why go through this up and down cycle? Why not simply be focused on the action and leave the outcomes to happen in their own way? And whatever is the outcome, the way it is, simply accept it – without qualifying it as good, bad or ugly. At the end of the day, nothing is good, nothing is bad, nothing is won, nothing is lost, no one succeeds, no on fails. Life is just a series of experiences that you learn from.
When you tell people ‘look at me’, you must also be prepared to hear what they think of how you look!
A celebrity performer, who is also a close friend, asked me the other day if I had downloaded the Sarahah App and tried it. I told him that I was not interested in the Sarahah experience. (If you are uninitiated, Sarahah is an App through which people can give each other anonymous feedback.) But he quickly added that people are already depressed using Sarahah because they are unable to “digest the feedback” they receive. I told my friend that one reason why people are likely to feel depressed is that while they are asking for feedback, they are actually seeking validation. They are expecting glowing tributes and fan mail and when they are not getting it all the time, they are feeling depressed. I am not against using a tool like Sarahah – but if you are using it, then you must be prepared to receive all the feedback that comes your way. Simply, when you tell people ‘look at me’, you must also be prepared to hear what they think of how you look!
Hearing my perspectives, my celebrity friend confessed that he found Sarahah very “unnerving” He said, “I know public opinion is fleeting. But I am constantly driven by this urge that people must appreciate me. When they don’t offer an opinion, I feel sad and when they criticize my performances, I feel miserable. So, essentially, I am always seeking validation of who I am from someone or the other. I thought Sarahah will help me but it has only made things worse.” He wanted to know how he can let go of his desire for validation.
I told the gentleman that the very fact that he believes he must rid himself of his desire to seek validation is very positive, very progressive. In order to reach a state of total detachment from people’s opinions of you, the futility of seeking validation must be first understood.
So, I asked him: “Do you perform for your inner joy or do you perform for public approval and acclaim?”
He replied: “I love performing. So, I do perform for my inner joy. But I also feel incomplete without public approval and acclaim.”
“When you perform and you seek public approval and acclaim and you get it, you think you deserve it, don’t you?” I asked.
He said he believes that he deserves it.
“Then why do you think you don’t deserve critique or criticism for your performances?” I further asked.
The man thought for a moment. And then he said, excitedly, “I get it. If I like being appreciated, I must be prepared to accept criticism too!”
I commended him on quickly grasping the learning there.
And that really is the point. If you are doing something that is visible to others, and you like hearing good things about what you are doing, then be prepared to receive the brickbats too. You can’t choose and claim to be deserving of one and undeserving of the other. To be detached from both the accolades and the criticism, you must learn to do whatever you do as an offering to the Universe, as a prayer to a Higher Energy. Then you are doing what you are doing only for your inner joy. Then who says what about you, what others think of you, none of this really matters.
I have learnt from Life’s experiences that seeking validation is a zero-sum game. Instead, if someone praises me, I am grateful – for their kindness. If someone ridicules me, I am again grateful – for their honesty, which is, they are being honest about how they feel about me.
Even so, no Sarahah for me please, thank you! I just do what I love doing and take any feedback that comes my way as constructive critique and move on. I have learnt that not seeking validation and choosing to be unmoved by what others think of you is a way to evolve spiritually. It takes time to attain this state of detachment. But once there, you will love the inner peace and equanimity that it offers.
You have to go through what you have to go through.
I addressed young folks at the Under 25 Lit Fest at IIT – M on Sunday. Most of the audience comprised of budding writers. One of them caught up with me after my Talk. He told me that his work had been rejected by 20 publishers over five years now. “I feel defeated. I believe in my work. I know I have something very valuable to share with the world. I don’t mind if I am rejected because my work is bad. But almost everyone has told me that my manuscript is very good. Yet they don’t want to publish my book…I fail to understand what Life is trying to tell me,” he exclaimed. He wanted to know if I had some perspectives to share.
I sure do.
I see Life as the greatest teacher. Everything that is happening in our Life is only making us stronger, wiser and, interestingly, happier. So, Life is coaching us through each experience – constantly giving us the test first and the lesson later. In our academic education system the lesson is taught first and then we are tested whether we have learnt it well. But Life doesn’t operate that way. In Life, every step you take is a test and every moment lived carries a lesson. Which is why, unable to transition from our academic conditioning to Life’s free-flowing nature, we struggle with Life. But over time you get better and better at dealing with Life’s ways. Surely, you are never going to be perfect at cracking all of Life’s situations. But yes, you will no longer be shaken, shocked or depressed when a new challenge arrives. This is what I mean when I say that over time Life makes you stronger, wiser and happier.
I asked the young man how was he able to handle rejections now compared to when he was rejected the first few times. “Oh! I just chuckle to myself and say, ‘So, what’s new?’” he replied.
I pointed out to him that he was doing just great dealing with Life. That indeed must be the spirit. I am not well-versed with the scriptures nor have I read all the 18 chapters of the Bhagavad Gita. But from what I have learnt of the Gita’s message, I realize no matter what we wish or how we want things to be, we only are entitled to our efforts, to our actions. We cannot ever claim to control the outcomes. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we may not get what we want. And at other times, without much effort we may be extraordinarily rewarded by Life. So, a string of rejections is just Life’s way of teaching you, of reminding you, that you are not in control. Life is telling you that there’s a higher intelligence, a Higher Energy, which is in control. Even a “brilliant stroke of luck” reiterates precisely the same point.
The young man then asked me one more question: “While I can understand that Life’s upheavals make you stronger and wiser, I am not sure they make you happier. Do they, really?”
I like that question. To understand the answer to that question, let’s first understand here what makes us unhappy. We are unhappy when we don’t get what we want. Simple. So, through surviving Life’s upheavals, if we learn to be accepting of the Life we have, than pine for the Life that we want, won’t we be happier? In the young man’s case, he’s learnt, unwittingly perhaps, to be detached from the outcome of his efforts; he has learnt to drop all his expectations. Whenever you have no expectation from Life, you will only be happy.
What I have also understood about Life is that everything happens at its own pace, in its own time. Just as you cannot argue with Life, you cannot rewind or fast forward time. You have to go through what you have to go through. There is no escape. And so, the best way to live peacefully, happily, is to put in your best efforts each time and leave the results to Life. This means, don’t fight, don’t resist Life. Just accept what comes your way and keep moving on!
You are wasting each moment that you don’t celebrate!
“I am not able to enjoy my happiness. I have everything that I have wanted in Life. But I am forever fearful of losing all of it. How do I get rid of that sinking feeling in me,” asked a close friend. We were having tea. And I took another sip of the wonderful Darjeeling brew I was having before responding to the question.
First, it is important that we understand Life. Everything that we have with us, our material wealth, our relationships, our Life itself, will be taken away some day. Everything will be gone. Even you will be gone. So the fear of losing something or someone is a wasteful emotion. It serves no purpose thinking that way. Don’t expect that fear not to arise though. The human mind is such that it will spew out such thoughts from time to time. Just don’t given them attention. If you don’t feed that fear, it will go away.
Second, realize that every moment that you don’t celebrate what you have, what is, you are wasting. Living either in the past or imagining a future which has not yet arrived are of no use. Please recognize that the only Life you have is in the present moment.
So, if he has every reason to be happy because he has “everything” he wants in his Life, my friend must celebrate every moment. He must not squander his happiness thinking about the inevitable. Life is like good music. It must be enjoyed fully. When you are listening to music, if you start intellectualizing the moment and say that you are listening to music, then you lose the magic and beauty of the music. So, don’t intellectualize Life. Don’t ask what if. Don’t analyze. Just live the Life you have. Simply be. That is what happiness is.
A friend asks me why, despite having talent, integrity and goodness, people have to face difficult times. I tell him that talent and integrity do not necessarily offer a smooth passage through Life. So, drop all analyses, I advise him. Just anchor in patience and flow with Life choosing to be non-frustrated and happy, despite the circumstances. This Vlog captures the perspective I shared with him.
View time: 4:31 minutes