Tag: Bhagavad Gita
Drop all expectations
Why COVID-19 is a mandatory Masterclass by Life on living with uncertainty
This extraordinary situation, apart from shutting down the whole world, is teaching everyone unputdownable Life lessons.
My young friend Kalyan sent me a voice note over WhatsApp yesterday. The COVID-19 situation had made him all angsty. He’s doing his Master’s in Geology at a grad school in Miami, Florida. And, like everywhere else in the US and the world over, his school too is shuttering down, encouraging students to either defer their programs by a quarter or take their courses online; plus, of course, asking them to vacate dorms and informing them of layoffs from student employment. “Should I come back home to Chennai or should I luck it out here? What if I contract the virus? Will I survive quarantine? The uncertainty is suffocating, everything is suddenly so dark, so hopeless. What do you think I must be doing, AVIS,” he asked.
Surely, everyone, in some form and measure, is dealing with that gnawing feeling from within: of uncertainty, of cluelessness over how Life will be in the aftermath of this COVID-19 pandemic. And this is not just about how the world itself is likely to be affected, but how our own, individual, worlds will change in the next few weeks and over the next several months. From lockdowns and work-from-home advisories to healthcare systems breaking down to tens of thousands of people dying to a global economic recession to entire segments of small businesses being wiped out to bankruptcies to job losses to families crumbling emotionally – everyone, everywhere, has a view on COVID-19’s impact. And all of it is ominous; it portends gloom, is depressive and is fueling uncertainty – naturally, everyone’s worried and very, very fearful.
Interestingly, as I told Kalyan over a call that we subsequently did, there’s only one way to deal with uncertainty. And that is to not fear it. So, don’t resist uncertainty, don’t run away from it, but instead embrace it wholeheartedly!
For my soulmate Vaani and me, this unputdownable learning comes from our own lived experience. Over the last 13 years, we have been living through an excruciating yet fascinating, Life-changing, phase; we are enduring a crippling bankruptcy. To be sure, ever since our small Chennai-based consulting firm went bankrupt in end-2007, we have been repeatedly dealing with prolonged spells of worklessness and, often, pennilessness! Our debt of over a million dollars, owed to 170+ creditors, remains unpaid as we have never quite had enough money in this time to even cover our living expenses month on month. Incredible as it may sound, but despite our best efforts, we have not been able to put our business back on track; so, we have not had a steady, predictable, revenue stream in a long, long time. And when we do get work, and some income, we stretch the penny so we can survive, so we can last longer at the edge of the metaphorical precipice that we find ourselves clinging from. Simply, Vaani and I have been living through uncertainty for over 150 months now. We often survive on grace and grants, dealing incessantly with imponderables, with the financial, legal, social, professional, physical and emotional implications of living with a mountain of debt – and without work and money. In a way, it appears that we have been in quarantine forever!
Yet, these past several years of our Life have been very, very transformational. Undoubtedly, we remain pinned down by material scarcity, but we are soaked in a rare abundance. Even as we continue to grope through the darkness and uncertainty, we are no longer in the throes of fear and anxiety. Because, we have learnt to be non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering. Which is why, while we may well be failed entrepreneurs from how the world sees us, we believe we are the happynesswalas. We are truly happy despite our debilitating circumstances. Our Life’s Purpose now is Inspiring ‘Happyness’ among all those who care to pause and reflect – that’s why I wrote my book Fall Like A Rose Petal and that’s why we curate and host live, thought-provoking, non-commercial Conversations on Happiness in Chennai.
Important, Vaani and I are not just living with uncertainty; we thrive in it, we celebrate it!
Our lived experiences, and the simple Life lessons we have gleaned from them, have shaped us to be this way. I share here some reflections on how it is possible to live fully, being fearless and happy, with what is – no matter what you are dealing with! I hope you find them relevant, relatable and useful to cope with the uncertainty that you may currently be experiencing over COVID-19, in the specific context of your own Life.
Uncertainty is intrinsic to Life
Uncertainty is not a product of any crisis or, in specific, of the COVID-19 scenario. The very nature of Life is that it is impermanent, so it is uncertain. From the time you are born, to when you die, there’s risk, disease, crisis, tragedy – and of course death – lurking around the corner, every step of the way. In fact, every moment is steeped in uncertainty. Anything, absolutely anything, can happen to you, around you. When you think about it deeply, you will realize that you always knew this truism about Life. But you did not consider it as immediately relevant because social conditioning, education and the idea of using both these to earn money to pay bills have made Life appear predictable. Which is, because you have a home to go back to, you have a family, you are educated and you are earning an income, you have always believed that you are in control of your Life. Besides, human advancements in science and technology, in enterprise and economics, have led us to naively imagine that much of the Universe functions because of us humans. It is only when the inscrutable arrives, challenging logic or defying reason, that you pause to consider how powerful Life is. And that’s when you realize how powerless you – and all humans – really are. For instance, what do you do, what can you do, when you are informed that you are dying of a rare cancer or when you lose a dear one suddenly in a bizarre circumstance or when an MH 370 disappears without trace and cannot be found by all the world’s inventions and intelligence or when a COVID-19 comes along and turns the world, your world, upside down? Well, almost always, that’s when you wake up to the realization that there are some things that you don’t – and can’t – control. The truth, however, is that you were never in control. The truth is, Life happens in spite of us humans, and certainly not because of us! In fact, Life has all along been happening with a mind of its own, at its own pace, in its own time, consistently shocking, surprising, amazing and awing you. Simply, when you have put in the efforts and have got what you wanted, you have thought that you have caused your Life to happen your way. That there was a plan, your plan. And so, you imagined that there was a predictability to your Life. But when Life socks you with an inscrutable situation, then you are numbed by, well, the uncertainty – of not knowing why something’s happening, what you must do and where Life is taking you! What do you do when you don’t know what to do?
Face Life, be fearless
The immediate, natural, human response to uncertainty is fear. Understanding what fear is, and how it works, helps immensely in dealing with it. Fear arises in you only when you are confronted with what you don’t know or when you lack previous experience of handling a given situation. Now, obviously, fear serves no constructive purpose. When you are fearful it certainly does not mitigate any risk or make uncertainty go away. In fact, it makes the unknown assume monstrous proportions, it clouds your thinking and makes the darkness that engulfs you unbearable. Fear debilitates you. Period. But, interestingly, what you fear most will always torment you only as long as you continue to fear it. So, instead of running away in fear, turn around and face the situation. Embrace the uncertainty. Know that fearlessness is not a difficult-to-attain, lofty, abstract, state. It is also not the absence of fear. Fearlessness comes from a choice you exercise to look your fears in the eye, it is what fear delivers to you when you turn around and face whatever is scaring you. It is when you accept your vulnerability, and employ your understanding that uncertainty is in the very fabric of Life, it is when you face a situation, that you turn fearless. Now, when you are fearless, your problems certainly don’t disappear, but your ability to deal with them are enhanced dramatically, exponentially.
Train your mind to learn three key skills
Even so, merely being fearless momentarily is not enough. To sustain fearlessness, you must train your mind to avoid worry, frustration and suffering. These three aspects of Life, given the pulls and pressures of everyday living, are erroneously believed to be unavoidable. And they make uncertainty look menacing. They exasperate you, suffocate you, make you feel miserable and, most often, hopeless. But with a little effort these aspects can be understood and, with some practice, they can be overcome.
Take worrying first. The problems we face always fall into two buckets. Problems we can solve – so, why worry about them; and problems we can’t solve – so, again, what’s the point in worrying about them? Bottomline: worrying about problems doesn’t solve them; so, it is a wasteful, incapacitating, activity. Once you understand the futility of worrying, you will choose to be non-worrying. This doesn’t mean that you will be free from worries. Of course, worries are thoughts; they will keep rising in your mind. But being non-worrying means you will choose not to pick up a worry – thus making it powerless – when it comes along.
Next, consider frustration. To be non-frustrated, understand why frustration arises in the first place. It is only when you don’t get what you want, or when you get what you don’t want, that you feel frustrated. So, your frustrations stem from your desires. The very idea that Life must give you what you want is a figment of human imagination. Because, think about it, you are born without your even asking to be born, so this Life is a gift; besides, it promises you nothing, it gives you no guarantees. Which is why being frustrated with the outcomes, when your efforts don’t bring the results you want, is surely avoidable. Just look around you. There are so many, many stories – including your own – of those who have not got what they perhaps truly deserved although they have talent, integrity and have invested hard work. Clearly, sometimes in Life, no matter how hard you try, or however much you wish, or pray, the results simply don’t add up. So, being non-frustrated is an intelligent response in situations when you can’t make sense of the way Life’s treating you. It is a choice you make to focus only on what you can do in a given context, to make that sincere effort and to drop all expectations of reward, recognition and profit.
And the third quality that you must imbue in you is being non-suffering. Please understand that you can’t negotiate with pain; it is integral to the process of Life. It always arrives uninvited and without notice. But suffering is optional. You suffer only when you ask why the pain exists in the first place or why you are being made to experience pain. You suffer only when you want your Life to be different from what it is now. So, whether it is the death of someone you love, a pink slip, a terminal illness or a relationship challenge, any painful episode by itself is non-negotiable – you don’t get to choose it, you don’t get to postpone it. Quite simply, it is just another event in your Life! But you suffer from that painful episode only when you ask “Why?” or “Why me?” So, being non-suffering simply means you drop the “Why?” and “Why me?” questions. When you stop asking those questions, you may still be in the throes of severe pain, but you clearly will not suffer. Or, in essence, when you accept your current reality for what it is, the way it is, you are choosing to be non-suffering.
Being non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering are not just choices, they are important Life skills that you can train your mind to learn, usually through a meditative practice. Now, when you are non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering in any enduring, painful, situation, particularly in a crisis, you can only be happy despite your circumstances. Happiness then is the perfect antidote to uncertainty. It helps you drop anchor; it drenches you in equanimity and makes you live your Life, fully, fearlessly, one precious moment at a time. This is how you don’t just survive uncertainty, but how you thrive in it!
Trust the process of Life
A crisis is not necessarily a grand conspiracy by Life to vanquish you. On the other hand, it is essentially Life’s way of slowing you down. You emerge resilient, reflective and resourceful from a crisis every single time; only because, unwittingly, you have begun to appreciate how Life works, you have discovered what matters to you and why. And you have chosen to focus only on those aspects of your Life. Look back at your own journey. Hasn’t every crisis you have been through only made you stronger, wiser and, interestingly, happy?
Similarly, the COVID-19 crisis, and this spell of uncertainty, is likely to be no different. In fact, it is a global, mandatory-for-everyone, Masterclass by Life on ‘How to embrace uncertainty and go with the flow’! So, be sure to glean your own learnings from this phase as the scenario unfolds. Begin by welcoming the lockdown as a slowdown enforced by Life, enjoy quality time with your precious family or discover the magic and beauty of solitude when in isolation.
Simply, instead of fighting Life, flow with it. Know that, no matter what happens, Life will always bring you to where you must arrive. Such is the process of Life. Trust the process. Celebrate its suchness. And the way to do that is to make important choices – to be fearless, to be non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering, to be happy despite the circumstances, to embrace uncertainty and to go with the flow.
Note: AVIS and Vaani are the happynesswalas. They believe their Life’s Purpose is Inspiring ‘Happyness’! They are going through a fascinating, Life-changing experience – a crippling bankruptcy!! If you would like to invite them to inspire your team(s) or explore other opportunities, please look up: http://www.thehappynesswalas.com
You are truly living when you are giving!
The Rs.1k Wedding Invite And The Man Who Gave Away Most Of His Wealth
A pompous friend and the modest billionaire Azim Premji help reinforce a key guiding principle in Vaani and me – that the essence of responsible citizenship lies in trusteeship.
This past week, a friend reached out wanting to visit us to invite us to his daughter’s wedding. We requested him to avoid the formality and support our initiative to save paper. So we asked him to send the Invite over WhatsApp. But the gentleman and his wife insisted on coming home. When they handed over the Invite, printed on hot pink paper with gold letters in a ‘custom-designed’ font, our friend said: “Each invitation card has cost us Rs.1000 and surely WhatsApp would not have done justice to our effort. So, we decided to come personally…that way you can see how elaborately we have planned this wedding…it will be the grandest in our family for a long, long time…!”
Even as he made that statement – both verbally and through physically handing over that expensive invitation card – Vaani and I wondered, if each card cost a whopping Rs.1000, then how big, how fat and how wasteful will the actual wedding itself be?
Although Vaani and I don’t see it that way anymore, I concede that weddings are regarded as a socially relevant and important occasion by most families. But do they really need to be pompous events where everything is about outdoing someone else, showing off how much you have and investing in a vulgar, reckless, display of ego, wealth and status?
Thankfully, some of the younger folks we know are leading a change among their families and peers. A few weddings we have been invited to in the last couple of years have been zero-waste affairs; they were bootstrapped and done tastefully with no pomp, with only very close family and friends in attendance.
We believe weddings, if they must be done at all, must focus on making the experience memorable for everyone present while keeping the event a responsible celebration that emphasizes companionship and Happiness. And when everyone wills it so, weddings can certainly be carefully, meaningfully, curated on lower budgets; the money saved can be put to better use – for the couple to travel and see the world or set up a new home or to support a social cause that is seriously starved of resources.
I know it will be a long way before this view is embraced by the majority. But clearly a Rs.1000-a-piece wedding invitation card is avoidable. Surely, you can create beautiful Invites that can be e-mailed or sent over WhatsApp.
Interestingly, again this past week, we were invited to an event where Azim Premji of Wipro was given the Madras Management Association – Amalgamations Group Business Leadership Award for 2019.
Why does the incredibly simple, modest, Premji even need to be feted with an award? This was the thought uppermost on our mind when we arrived at the event.
But former ICICI Bank Chairman N.Vaghul nailed the reasoning. He said that in a society where values like integrity and trusteeship are almost extinct, where there is a steady decline in responsible conduct of citizenship, the spotlight on Premji’s principled Life can really help showcase the continued relevance of these values. Through telling the story of his Life, of the world-class institutions he has built (in manufacturing, IT and education) and of how much he is giving away (estimated at close to $ 21 billion) to his charity – the Azim Premji Foundation – we are inviting future generations to pause, reflect and, hopefully, embrace his philosophy of trusteeship (which he says is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi).
Vaani and I took away a key learning from Premji’s acceptance speech. He said that there is only so much that a family can consume. The inference clearly is that whatever is available to a family beyond what they require to meet their basic needs may ideally be given away to support someone else’s need to live a dignified Life.
I didn’t miss the irony from the past week as I sat down early this morning to write this Blogpost. The reality of the world – and the times – we live in struck me hard. Surely there are more people around us who believe that making money and showing it all off is the Purpose of Life. They are like our friend who vainly insists that even the invitation card to his daughter’s wedding must announce his wealth and social status. And, sadly, there are fewer people like Premji, who despite all their wealth, remain grounded and are invested in social good. Which is why I agree with Vaghul. Every time a Premji is celebrated, the message of intelligent living, of compassion, of giving, is celebrated. And given the circus of greed and one-upmanship that we see incessantly playing around us, this celebration of responsible citizenship is critical to inspire people; to invite them to consider living fuller, more meaningful, lives.
The idea of responsible citizenship is not about doing charity when you are asked to do it. I am sure most people out there have enough goodness in them to stand up and be counted when they are asked to contribute. So, that’s not the kind of reactive behavior that I am talking about. Responsible citizenship is about trusteeship.
Think of trusteeship like this. You are a trustee of the Life that’s been given to you. And you are a trustee of the planet that you inhabit. So be responsible with how you live and how you use the planet’s resources. Recognize that you need only so much to live and to support your immediate family. Beyond food, clothing, shelter, education, a reasonable healthcare and retirement plan and hi-speed internet connectivity through a smart device, whatever you have, whatever comes your way, give it away. Give, not because you have to give, not because you are asked to give, but give because you want to give. Recognize that just as this human form, this Life, is a gift, every thing, every resource that you acquire in this lifetime, is also given to you. So, be responsible by employing all that you receive for human good, to make the world a better place.
I too will lean on Gandhi to suggest employing a simple principle to make informed, intelligent, decisions when it comes to practising trusteeship (I have tweaked Gandhi’s original thought to make it relatable to our times): “Recall the face of the poorest – economically, emotionally, spiritually – person you have come across and ask yourself if the step you are about to take will benefit this person? Will this person gain from your making this choice? Will it help restore them to a Life of dignity, love and Happiness? If it will, go do what you are planning to do. If it won’t, well, rethink your choice!”
Apply this principle to my friend’s choice to splurge Rs.1000 on that wedding invitation card. Apply it to Premji’s choice to give away $ 21 billion. And apply it to each of your Life choices – from the past, from the present and to those that may come up in the future. And see how beautifully this principle leads you – every single time – to distinguish between want and need; and to do what is right than what appears to be right!
The label of Failure is more burdensome than the act of failing…
Growing up to admiring Ms.YGP!
One afternoon, in September 1979, when I was in my 8th Grade at PSBB – KK Nagar branch – Ms.YGP came into our class. PSBB had this practice in those days to read out progress reports publicly. I had been only an average student in the two years I had been at this school; scoring barely 50 % in most subjects except English. My scores in that quarter/term were pathetic; I shuddered as Ms.YGP pointed out, in her booming voice, that I had scored a paltry 6/100 in Geometry! She demanded that my parents meet her.
Within three weeks, I was changing schools.
My parents were living in Gulbarga (Karnataka) then and I was staying with my paternal grandmother, while studying at PSBB – KK Nagar. As they collectively discussed my academic performance, I recall my class teacher telling my parents that perhaps “I was homesick”. Then my parents were taken into Ms.YGP’s room. They emerged from it looking very disturbed. My mother kept maintaining for the longest time that Ms.YGP had ordered that they take me out of ‘her’ school because I was never going to be ‘brilliant’ at academics. This, my mother felt, was a big let down for her and my dad: you see, we didn’t have a strong story to “cover up my academic inefficiencies in a family that prided itself with brilliance in every academic discipline”! And so, I was treated as the ‘black sheep’ and was ridiculed for bringing disrepute to the family!!
It was my first experience with the Big ‘F’ word-label – Failure – being stuck on me.
For the next few years, I carried that trauma within me. Of being expelled from school for poor grades, of being shamed by my own parents for not being ‘good enough’…but interestingly, as I got out of my teens, this trauma turned into anger, ambition and raw aggression. A lot of what I achieved all the way till my late-30s was because of the anger in me over this one event from September 1979 – somehow, everything that followed by way of how I was looked at by my parents had its genesis in this one event!
Resultantly, I worked very hard at whatever I did. I wanted to prove to the world, particularly, to my parents, that I wasn’t a Failure. And, in more ways than one, I did prove myself – at least to me!
But that’s the thing with Success. When you get to that point – “your own peak or summit” – that you have lusted for, toiled for, you feel so shallow, so vain. So, by the time I was 37, my spiritual quest had led me to the practice of observing daily silence periods – mouna. In my early morning reflective, meditative, mouna sessions, I began to realize that had it not been for that expulsion from school in 8th Grade, I would never have been so ‘successful’ – despite my poor academic qualifications. I would not have traveled so widely across the world; I would not have experienced so many people, places or things; I would not have learnt and unlearnt so much! Soon, as I discovered much to my amazement, the anger in me gave way to a deep sense of gratitude for that event of my expulsion, for that label of “Failure” that had been stuck on me.
In 2006, when I was 38+, I read a report in The Hindu that Ms.YGP had turned 80 (in Nov 2005) and that Lakshmi Devnath had written a book on her – ‘A Class Apart’. I bought that book. I read it. And I had my secretary call and fix an appointment with Ms.YGP.
I met Ms.YGP at her home in T.Nagar. It was a beautiful, hour-long conversation we both had.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal that night: “She was so full of Life, cheerful, and exuding positive energy. Radiant, in fact. I wish I had taken a picture of her and me! But am bad at these things. She recognized me when I introduced myself. She had a sharp memory. Knew that CS was my class teacher. Knew that she did not see me pass out in 12th. I didn’t want to remind her that she was partly instrumental for that. Instead, I placed my head at her feet (literally) and sought her forgiveness for carrying so much hatred in me for her for so many years. She placed her hand on my head and blessed me. She said, the work I am doing with Vaani (she had enquired and so I had elaborated) would help a lot of people, all over the world.”
I am not so much into scriptures or religion or shlokas. But one particular verse from the Brahadaranyaka Upanishad always resonates with me:
asato ma sadgamaya
tamaso ma jyotirgamaya
mrtyorma amritam gamaya
om shanti shanti shanti…
I learnt that verse at PSBB – without knowing the meaning then. Today, I have grown up to know its meaning and its relevance. And, thanks to our enduring bankruptcy, (Read more here – Fall Like A Rose Petal – and here) there are times when I do reflect on this verse to instill a sense of surrender and prayer in me. At such times, I often do picture Ms.YGP leading the school assembly on some days…inviting us to recite this verse!
Over the past decade, since my meeting in 2006 at her residence, Vaani and I have met Ms.YGP several times at cultural events in the city. Even when we have not stopped to talk to her, we have always admired her sagacity, her sharp intellect and her zest for Life from a distance.
She surely touched my Life in more ways than one: I learnt the relevance of Failure and Success in Life, and learnt, quickly, of their irrelevance and impermanence too; I learnt of the essence of Life through that verse from the Brahadaranyaka Upanishad; I learnt the value of staying youthful and relevant even when you are old and, important, every time I saw her she reminded me of this unquenchable thirst to stay alive!
When faced with enduring seemingly unsolvable situations…
Car-less to Car-less – the journey to “Happyness”!
Sometime in April of 1988, soon after Vaani and I had decided to start a Life together, we visited Muttukadu, on ECR, in Chennai. We saw an open top Maruti Gypsy parked near the bridge there. I had barely started working as a sub-Editor, on a salary of Rs.782 per month, at The (New) Indian Express. But I was ambitious. And I loved the way the Gypsy looked. So, I stood next to it, pointed to the car and told Vaani, “Someday, we will buy this car for ourselves!” And she instinctively captured this picture on a Hot Shot (remember that magic device?) camera – perhaps for me to pause and reflect on Life lesson this morning…!
Life is a continuous process of dealing with new normals