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: www.avisviswanathan.in and www.avinitiatives.co.in.
Celebrating 100 ‘Fall Like A Rose Petal’ Talks!!!
A gentleman comes to me “cowering in fear” over what he imagines is an impending job loss and a divorce. He wants to know if he can stop being fearful. In this Vlog, I share what I told him; I share how I overcame my fear through facing a Life-threatening experience!
View time: 5:04 minutes
Certainty is an illusion. It doesn’t exist.
“What if you have a heart attack and die suddenly? What if both of you die? Are you not scared of your impending death? Doesn’t it worry you when you have so many responsibility and commitments – especially your debt to repay,” asked a member in the audience at my Fall Like A Rose Petal Talk recently.
I don’t grudge that question. I have thought about it to myself on several occasions. But I have also learnt that fearing uncertainty is the surest way to invite suffering into your Life. So, I always take the Kamaraj approach of “Agattum Parkalam” – “Let it happen, we will see!”
Certainty is a man-made illusion. Before you were born, where was the certainty that you would be? When you were an infant, where was the certainty that you would be provided for, fed on time, cared and loved? As you grew older you were tricked into this illusion of certainty __ you are sure to have a home, you usually have both parents with you, siblings, education is guaranteed, and you are bound to get a job, earn wages and raise a family! How much more simpler Life would be if only it were to progress in this certain, assured, linear fashion__one thing leading to another with such predictability and precision?
Just to demolish this illusion, and wake up to reality, if you live in any part of urban India, go to a busy traffic intersection closest to you. And after getting over the shock of seeing so many homeless, destitute children begging there, strike up a conversation with any or some of them. You will soon discover how uncertain their lives have been. And continue to be. Maybe some were abandoned by their parents. Maybe some were kidnapped by organized racketeers in the begging syndicate. They live on and off the streets. Abused by people like us who despise their presence and by heartless cops who extort their meager earnings from them. When you understand their Life’s design, you will awaken to the inscrutable, uncertain ways of Life. And when you think about it, you will just be grateful that you were born to your parents and not to theirs __ and there was no way ever you could have been certain of this realization until this moment!
It is also when you are faced with uncertainty for the first time, that you will stop taking Life for granted. A first layoff, a first health crisis, a first relationship break-down, a first financial crisis – that’s really when you begin to realize that perhaps you had read Life differently. That maybe, just maybe, you cannot really be certain about some things in Life.
The truth however is that you can be certain about nothing in Life. The way to deal with uncertainty is to welcome it. Don’t try to wish it away. Because it ain’t going anywhere. It is always here with you. For instance, if you have a good job, enough savings and investments to take care of your retirement, where’s the certainty that your health will be all fine or that your companion still loves you? Of if you have a health complication and have the best doctors treating you, where’s the certainty that you will still survive? Where is the certainty that your family members will live long enough to be with you till your very end? So, don’t try to crave for a Life without uncertainty. If you accept Life as being uncertain, you will find joy in each moment.
So, approach Life with a ‘what is’ than with a ‘what if’. ‘What is’ is a celebration of the moment you are in now and there’s nothing uncertain about that moment. It is happening. So, there can be no fear of it. ‘What if’ is fear-inducing and amplifies what is not yet. It is imaginary; it breeds fear and suffering. Literally, as in that iconic dialogue from Sholay, ‘Jo Darr Gaya, Samjho Marr Gaya’! In the end, it is so very simple: when you embrace uncertainty you will find immense joy and beauty in this totally unpredictable, inscrutable experience called Life!
You have greater inner strength than you imagine you have.
A CEO we know survived fourth stage colon cancer and is now leading a global corporation. When addressing his team recently he advised them to look within, not outside, for strength: “When the doctors first told me that I have only 3 months to live, I looked at my daughters who were in high school then, and told myself that I must stay on till they were young adults. So I meditated on my resolve to fight my disease. Of course I had the best of treatment and my family’s love and support. But I kept reminding myself to go on. It’s been 12 years since I was told I had only 3 months…”
This quality to demonstrate great inner strength is called Resilience. I am intentionally spelling it with a capital ‘R’ for emphasis. Each of us is endowed with this quality. We just need to activate it. Many people ask me and Vaani how we manage to survive this bizarre, prolonged phase of intense pain (Read more in my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal ) that we are going through. And I always say, never in jest though, that we have activated our Resilience mode. To Vaani and me, Resilience is like the Bluetooth feature on our smartphones – it must be activated to be used, to be deployed!
Being resilient means to know that no matter what the circumstances are, you must face Life. It means that you don’t have the choice to cop out or run away from a challenging situation. It is your lack of awareness that makes you imagine that you are not resilient. All of us are equally strong – that’s the way we are created and engineered. To let your resilience – your inner strength – surface, you need to be more aware of your true Self.
What we have learnt from experience is that our circumstances can constrain us physically but nothing – except our attitude to Life – can cripple our spirit. Think about a wild adult elephant. This elephant can easily uproot trees that have been standing for years and that weigh tons. That’s how much strength an elephant is ordained with. Yet a temple elephant, through its conditioning from the time it is a calf, thinks it is incapable of breaking free from the iron shackles that a mahout has imposed on it. So it is with us humans. We are all hostages of our own perceived limitations. We are who we think we are. If we think our circumstances are so challenging that they are insurmountable, we will forever suffer from them. But if we decide to face our challenges and rise above them, whatever be the context, a way will emerge, a solution will be born.
So, when you are faced with a crisis for the first time, and you think you can’t survive it, just turn on your Resilience mode. If we can do it, you too can! Surely, your problems will not vanish, but your ability to deal with them will be enhanced substantially!
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