You are not the audience, you are the music.
Yesterday, we had gone to listen to one of our friends who is an established singer in the Madras Music Season circuit. Just the other day, her picture was featured in a leading newspaper’s coverage of the Margazhi season. So, she’s no beginner in the circuit, no novice. Yet, at a prominent sabha yesterday, in an auditorium that can easily seat 500, there were hardly 10 people present to listen to her and her band of musicians. It was a late-afternoon free kutcheri. As we settled into our seats, we whispered to each other that it can be a daunting task for any musician to perform to a near-empty auditorium. But our friend and her co-musicians performed beautifully. The selection of pieces, their range, was eclectic, their performance was uninhibited by the sparse showing in the hall, and the concert lasted its entire 2-hour tenure.
Admirable, I thought! Bravo, in fact!
I know that near-empty halls are par for the course for upcoming musicians in the sabha circuit during the Madras Music Season. But for an established musician, poor audience response, can be very unnerving.
I know, because I am a speaker. I am always addressing audiences – either leading workshops in corporates or delivering my Talks or curating conversations that inspire happiness in public spaces. I know that speakers, dancers, singers, performers – all of us thrive off the energy of our audiences. Yet, to learn to be detached from audience response – either criticism or poor showings – is an art. It is an all-important lesson in dissolving your ego.
Now, it is quite natural that when you begin to develop a craft which has a public appeal, you look for gratification from audiences. Over time, this gratification becomes a necessity. And you start identifying yourself with your audience. This is so totally avoidable. Because, if you are a speaker, or you are musician, you must realize that you are not your audience. You are your thought, your music, your craft. You don’t perform for your audience. You perform for your inner joy. If that joy connects you to audiences, great. If not, great again! Simply preserve, nurture and celebrate your inner joy – through your expression, your performance!
I remember an instance from 2014 when I too performed to a near-empty venue. My Book Fall Like A Rose Petal had just been launched. And we had organized a promotional event at the Odyssey bookstore. But cyclonic weather had crippled normal Life in Chennai. We however decided to soldier on with the Program. Only 20 people showed up at the venue which had a capacity to hold 100. The Odyssey folks confirmed that the average turnout for most of their events was about 70. They too were seeing such a poor showing for the first time! But event curator and host for the evening, Chennai’s famous RJ Mirchi Deva, and I had a beautiful conversation between us. The empty chairs did not matter to us. We were sharing and learning from each other through the story of my Life, through my Book. We talked about happiness, contentment and lessons in dealing with debilitating emotions and living in the moment! When the event got over, a lady, in her late 20s, who was sitting alone in the otherwise empty front row, walked up to me and said that the conversation made a huge difference to her Life. She said she had stepped on to the street that evening to pick up some snacks. The streetside vendor gave her the snacks wrapped in a copy of a newspaper that carried an announcement about my event. She said she didn’t pause to think. The moment she read the announcement, she boarded a bus and came straight to the venue. She said, “It looks like you held this event just for me.”
I was humbled. Indeed it was true. Of the 20 people who were in the audience that evening, a few were from the bookstore’s organizing team, several were our friends who were primarily there to express solidarity with us and she was one among the four real guests who had braved the inclement weather!
That episode reiterated a learning in me. Which is, that as long as we look for gratification from outside of us, we will always be disappointed, the chances of suffering are pretty high. But when you do something only for your inner joy, when you do whatever you do to celebrate yourself, you can never be unhappy. It doesn’t matter who’s listening, who’s in the audience, who’s liking you or whether you are rich or famous, what matters is, are you enjoying the process of expressing yourself! If you are, then none can be happier or more blessed than you are! And almost always, whoever needs to benefit from your expression, from your sharing, will always find their way to you – not because of you, but because they are ordained to be there!
Yesterday, in that near-empty auditorium, watching that band of musicians perform, immersed in their inner joy, with such detachment was, I guess, both a blessing and a learning!
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Vaani and I are incredibly blessed that Mother Teresa touched our lives in the most serendipitous and miraculous manner.
In today’s blogpost, I reproduce an extract from Chapter 10 (‘Follow Your Bliss’) of my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal (Westland). The extract (in purple text below) recounts an anecdote from our Life on how Mother Teresa’s blessing reached us – and how it continues to guide us with our Life’s Purpose.
On Saturday, April 11, 2009, I got a call from Philip Sir, a client and dear friend from Kochi, Kerala. Philip Sir had last visited Chennai in January 2008 to look me up when he had come to know of our situation. He had given me ₹1000 ($20) and said, given his own circumstances and priorities, he couldn’t afford to help us more. He requested me to accept the money as his humble Vishu Kani nettam. He is a big man, Philip Sir, about 15 years older than I am and in his kind eyes, I saw a graceful energy drench me with a blessing, as I accepted the money. That money helped us last a week as a family!
He had also given us a Life-saving engagement by paying for my airfare and inviting me to conduct a day-long workshop with his team at a small processed-foods company in Thrissur, Kerala, in February 2008. He said his company could afford only ₹10,000 ($200) as fee to us but agreed to pay it in cash at the end of the session. We were so cashless that I didn’t think. I just grabbed that opportunity. That money, when I brought it back from the trip, helped us buy groceries and last the rest of that month! He was also generous enough to offer me a chauffeur-driven car to visit Guruvayoor and our native family deity in Athipotta in Palakkad district, Kerala, while on that trip. Although I have evolved, thanks to this experience, and do not see great value anymore in pilgrimages and temple-hopping in times of distress or otherwise; at that time, those visits were important: to believe, to know that a Higher Energy would take care of all that it has created! Of course now, I do know that the Higher Energy resides within us.
Within you. Within me.
For those reasons and others, when Philip Sir called that Easter weekend, I was happy. He said he had been, minutes before calling me, in front of Mother Teresa’s tomb, at Mother House, the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, in Kolkata. He had been serving as a volunteer at homes run by the Missionaries of Charity, during Lent that year. That Saturday was his last day in Kolkata. He was returning to Kochi transiting via Chennai. He wondered if he could drop in at home for breakfast on Easter Sunday. I told him that he was most welcome!
I picked up Philip Sir from the airport. At home, we had a sumptuous breakfast of hot idlis, sambar, coconut chutney and molagapodi with yennai. His flight to Kochi was not until later that afternoon. So, we moved into our study. Philip Sir wanted to know how we hoped to fix the business and our lives. I told him that the 14 months since we had met had been a great learning experience. I said my daily practice of mouna gave me clarity and we now knew why we had been created on this planet. We now knew what our Core Purpose was.
Philip Sir smiled and asked what that Core Purpose was.
I got up and went to the white board and wrote the following words in blue marker ink: “To awaken people to the new way of thinking, living, working and winning.”
Even as I explained what the ‘new way’ was, which is spiritual empowerment, serving, right thinking and growing intelligently through Life, Philip Sir rose from his chair. He took a red marker pen from the holder and walked up to the white board. He placed a big huge ‘X’, on the word ‘new’ and wrote the word ‘right’ above it. The statement now read: “To awaken people to the right way of thinking, living, working and winning.”
As Mom and I looked on, obviously perplexed, Philip Sir went on to deliver an impromptu sermon: “When you say ‘new way’, AVIS, you are saying you invented it. Did you? Of course you did not. Spirituality is as old as mankind. Or older. You are merely sharing a way that you found and which has worked for you. AVIS, be humble. No matter what happens in your Life, stay grounded. You or I or Vaani create nothing. We cause nothing. Neither our successes nor our failures. We are merely executors of a cosmic will. You have been put through this experience to learn from it and you want to share this ‘right way’ with others. By all means, do so. You are an amazing speaker. I have heard you. You have the ability to transform how people think. I have experienced it myself. My only wish for you is, no matter how successful you become, never claim any of that success as your own. You are only an instrument.”
So saying, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled up a very small re-sealable zipper storage pouch that had a rose petal in it. The petal had not dried completely and I could see its purple-pink hue as Philip Sir held it up.
He said, “Yesterday, when I said my last prayers at Mother Teresa’s tomb and bowed to take her blessings, I was reminded of you suddenly. I don’t know why. So when I took a petal for my wife and family, I decided to take one for you and Vaani as well. Here it is. I am not sure I understand what I am doing. I am not sure you understand either. Maybe the reason will manifest much later. For now, accept this petal as a blessing from an apostle of service. May you both overcome your problems and may you too serve humanity, touching lives and making a difference.”
Mom and I were in tears as we received the petal. We hugged Philip Sir as he bid us goodbye. I dropped him off at the airport and haven’t met him since that Easter Sunday of 2009. The petal still sits on my desk, safe in the tiny re-sealable zipper storage pouch. Both are inside an old plastic film roll can.
What I learnt from him, through him, is now a prayer that I say to myself each time I am leading a workshop: “I am but an instrument. Whatever the audience must learn today from my experiences, let that learning happen. The message is not mine, the stage is not mine. I am a mere microphone. And no microphone can take credit for the message!” That my bliss has the blessings of one of the noblest of all creations in the history of humankind – Mother Teresa; overwhelms and sobers me, each time I am in front of an audience.
Note: My Book is written in the form of letters to my two children Aashirwad and Aanchal; so in this extract, I am actually sharing this anecdote and learnings with them. Mom is Vaani; I call her Mom!
This morning as I read about Mother Teresa’s canonization coming up at the Vatican, my thoughts went back to this anecdote. I cannot but marvel at how the Universe always sends you a message, long, long before something has happened. We received a ‘rose petal’ years before we had even thought of sharing our Life lessons in a Book. And when it eventually came about, my Book, interestingly, is named Fall Like A Rose Petal – the title is inspired by a Sufi story that Osho used to say! Reflecting on all this, I feel humbled, I feel blessed and I feel grateful for the miracle of this lifetime that I have had so far…
What goes around comes around.
We watched an outstanding Kannada movie U-Turn made by the very talented Pawan Kumar (who also made Lucia in 2013) yesterday. U-Turn is an edge-of-the-seat crime thriller. But it also leaves you with a spiritual perspective to ponder over – doesn’t Life always catch up, don’t your actions always come back to haunt you or bless you depending on what you have done? I have experienced this all my Life. I even talk about several instances of ‘what goes around comes around’ in my Book – Fall Like A Rose Petal (Westland). I have come to realize that all retribution and reward happens in this lifetime only. In a sense, as I see it, every moment is judgment day and the more good you do, the more abundance you attract into your Life. And the more you falter as a human being, there’s surely a price you end up paying for your actions. I don’t know if there is an after-Life. I don’t know if the Law of Karma works the way they say it does. But I know for sure that whatever you do comes back to you in equal measure.
I recall an instance from when we were visiting Guruvayur in Kerala several years ago. I had just bought a full loaf of bread so we could feed our son Aashirwad (who was barely a year old then) once we got to our hotel. But as our car backed up, a man, who looked hungry and lost, came up to my window and said: “veshakunnu”. It meant “I am hungry.” I didn’t think. I just handed him the loaf of bread. It was a spontaneous gesture. I just did it. My parents who were with us were shocked at what I had done. Vaani however smiled at me approvingly. As we drove along we stopped at a bakery and bought another loaf of bread.
I didn’t think much of the whole episode after that. In fact, I didn’t even recall it for 17 long years.
In February 2008, when our business problems had snowballed into a full-blown bankruptcy, I had to make a day trip to Hyderabad to meet a prospective customer. I used my Jet Privilege miles to buy my air ticket. We had no money. That day, in fact, the administrator from Aashirwad’s school called to remind me that his last term fees for the academic year had not been paid. It was the last day for fee payment and I was told that without it being paid he would not be allowed to sit for his 12th standard Board exams. I remember calling up our accountant from Hyderabad and asking her to sell a laptop we had in the office to raise the cash and pay the fees. I was exhausted after meeting the client and after dealing with the fee payment crisis. It was well past 2 pm. And I was hungry. In fact, I was famished. I had exactly Rs.900/- with me after paying for a full day’s parking for my car at Chennai airport that morning. Of this Rs.900/- I had to spend Rs.870/- to pay off the Indica cab I had hired for the day. I wanted to retain the Rs.30/- till I reached home – just in case! So, I decided to starve and grab whatever they would serve me on the flight – but that wasn’t going to be until after 8 pm! I told my cabbie to leave the car’s AC on and asked him to go have his lunch.
As I sat in the car and distracted myself by reading the morning’s newspapers for the nth time, my phone rang. It was a friend who I had SMSed in the morning asking if he would be free for a quick coffee as I was in his town! Now, this gentleman had not responded to my SMS. So, I did not even know if he was free, available or willing to meet when he called. The first thing he enquired was if I had had lunch. And when I told him I had not, he insisted that I show up a restaurant near his office in Secunderabad. I tried protesting feebly. But he shut me up. I went to the restaurant and we had a sumptuous meal from a buffet spread. When the check arrived, I told him how embarrassed I was that I could not afford to pay. He reached out, held my hand and said: “Listen, you have always paid whenever you have visited me. Let me do it this time. I was thinking I may not be able to see you today. But a scheduled meeting got postponed, just a few minutes before I called you, giving me this window to do lunch with you.”
I had no words to thank him. I don’t know if he saw me tearing up. When I got on the plane later that evening, I closed my eyes and reflected on the entire episode. And I wondered how we were managing as a family in this ghastly, nightmarish, cashless time. And yet we were miraculously surviving each day – soaked in abundance and blessed with the compassion of people around us, like this friend in Hyderabad. Did we deserve so much goodness in our Life, I asked myself? That’s when the hungry man’s face in Guruvayur flashed in front of my eyes. And I quietly thanked him, even as tears welled up in my eyes, for giving me that opportunity to serve him that day.
It’s been over 8 years since that awakening moment on the flight from Hyderabad. Our crisis endures. But Vaani and I continue to plough on – only because we are helped by the kindness and love of the Universe and its beautiful people. I really don’t know if Karma works. But I know compassion sure does!
There will be times in your Life when you can’t force its pace. The best thing to do then is to simply watch Life ooze by beautifully – drop by drop, moment by moment…
It’s surprisingly raining steadily in Chennai today. We are experiencing an unseasonal heavy thunderstorm in the middle of peak summer. There are several things that we are waiting for, pregnant with hope. At a macro level, we await the results of the Assembly elections for several states, including our own, Tamil Nadu. Some business opportunities that we are pursuing remain, yet again, painfully unclear at the moment. And both our children await professional breakthroughs. So, in the midst of all these great expectations – of results, opportunities and outcomes – just standing by and watching the rain fall can be both a magical and a torturous experience.
Yet, that’s the way Life sometimes is. Each day will be slow, dreary and hard to live through. You simply have to hang in there as nothing you do will work for you. All you can do in such a time is to believe that Life is teaching you to keep the faith and develop patience.
Nobody loves a problem situation or one that’s filled with uncertainty. So, really, no one wants a challenging phase in Life to prolong – joblessness, a business slowdown, a critical health condition or a messy relationship drama. But what can you do in the face of Life’s onslaught? As they say in cricket, when the bowling is intense and difficult to play, simply let the ball go past you. Don’t stick your bat out, don’t play a rash shot in desperation or you will lose your wicket! So it is with Life too – when it becomes uncertain and painful, you can avoid the suffering by simply accepting that your Life, for now, is playing out in slow motion. Actually, why must Life always be fast paced? Why do we need to be running from meeting to meeting, chore to chore, commute to commute all the time? Why must everything be an agenda item or on a To Do List? And why must everything be crystal clear?
A good metaphor to hold is that of a clock that’s ticking away even in a thunderstorm. Un-fluttered. Unmoved. A strong mind is like the clock. It remains untouched by the vagaries of Life. Neither exulting vainly in success nor tormented in failure. Neither running amuck nor sulking. It just is…it goes on ticking, as long as it can, no matter what the circumstances are.
I have learned that faith is not about a God or religion. Faith is knowing that everything happens for a reason. And since the reason will not always be immediately evident, you must have patience to last a trying phase! And eventually the reason does show up! Always!!
Life is not a 100-meter race. If you rush through it too fast or keep brooding its slow pace you will surely miss the scenery! And since you can’t ever go back in time or Life, the most intelligent thing you can do is to live fully every moment of the Life that’s playing out for you, enjoying its inscrutable beauty and counting your blessings!!
As for me, I am simply watching the rain fall and listening to its inspiring rhythm! And I am thinking what a great blessing it is to be spared two days of scorching heat this summer!!