In this Podcast I make a case for how you are the happiness you seek.
Listen time: 3:46 minutes
In this Podcast I make a case for how you are the happiness you seek.
Listen time: 3:46 minutes
The hope among Indians is palpable.
For the first time, the generations that were born after Independence, appear to nurture hope that ‘something worthwhile to seriously cleanse India’ is being attempted. That includes people like me who have been critical of Modi and skeptical about his promise of ‘achche din’. I am not rubbishing his leadership and the efforts of his team over the last 30 months. But I did not see anything worthwhile being done by his government. There was a lot of drama, PR and optics over all his utterances and policies, but it seemed nothing would crack open Indian culture, stamp out its crab mentality and build an ethos of co-ownership and pride in building a clean, efficient nation. To be sure, I liked the Modi idea of a Swach Bharat – but I know it will never be an immediate reality because for that to happen, every Indian must transform. And that is asking way for too much from our aam aadmi! But the idea to demonetize the Rs.500 and Rs.1000 notes and strangulate the parallel economy, theoretically, holds out hope. Yesterday, while traveling in Uber cars, at coffee shops, talking to rank strangers on the street and going by the conversations on social media and WhatsApp, I got the sense that India is hopeful of this progressive step helping us cleanse her of corruption! Even if this new system does not sound fool-proof – in that corrupt officials and dishonest citizens, unscrupulous politicians and wily black money hoarders will surely do jugaad to work around and through the system – at least, existing stockpiles of ill-gotten money has been reduced to nothing and the so-called rich, notorious and powerful have been rendered momentarily powerless. So, theoretically, the political and governance aspects of this demonetization move appears worthwhile.
But I also see a human dimension playing out across India over the last 24+ hours. Indeed people are helping each other with methods and means to survive the ‘unsettled’ phase till normalcy in cash-based transactions is achieved. A small-time bangle seller in Hyderabad, reports today’s Hindu, gave away a pair of bangles worth Rs.50/- to a bride-to-be because her family did not have change and had only Rs.500/- to transact. People have been reporting of a new ‘way of living’ where they have the money but not the currency to transact. Friends have been talking of ‘feeling lighter and liberated’. And several people have been reaching out and helping the less educated, daily wage earners, get food and basic supplies till they start re-earning a livelihood. It is heart-warming to see humanity thrive in these apparently cold, material, insensitive times.
Living without money is not new to Vaani and me. Over the last 9+ years, we are only too familiar with this ‘way of Life’. In fact, my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal talks about how we were left with just Rs.2000 on 31st December 2007 and the film Rise In Love shows the last Rs.80 we had in April 2014 that we gave away to an auto-rickshaw driver. After that incident, for 70 days, over four months, we lived penniless in Chennai. In this time most devices and appliances at home also broke down. So we had no money, no washing machine, no TV, no micro-wave, no mixer. Besides, my mobile phone and Vaani’s laptop crashed too. But Vaani and I never let all this material dysfunctionality affect our spirit. We had no work, no money and no car. So spent a lot of time speaking to each other about our Life, our experiences, our learnings, our love for each other….we went on long walks, for 10 kms, often for over 2~3 hours daily….our walking shoes wore out in this time and we didn’t have money to buy new ones! But we kept walking – literally, figuratively. There was a lot of pain, but we don’t remember suffering!
One day, Vaani discovered that she had only one onion at home. No other vegetables were there. There was no money to buy fresh veggies. So she made khichdi and onion raita. It was a beautiful meal. We focused on the joy of being able to eat the meal together and not on what it comprised of. On another occasion, we suddenly realized we had Rs.236 available in a bank account that we were not using anymore. We felt we could do well with that cash. So we walked a long way to that bank’s ATM to try our luck on whether the account was a. functional and b. if it would allow us to withdraw Rs.200. Our effort paid off on both counts. There was so much joy when the ATM spat out two hundred rupee notes. We both observed that while it seemed so bizarre that we had come to such a level of abject penury, we were grateful for the miracle of that Rs.200 in our hands that evening. We celebrated our fortune by treating ourselves to Rs.5 worth of roasted and salted peanuts we bought from a roadside thelawala. It was an unforgettable, magical experience.
The lessons we have learnt from living without money are invaluable. We have learnt to celebrate Life. We have discovered that watching sunrises and sunsets costs nothing. We have felt magic and beauty in hearing the birds chirp and seeing the trees sway in the breeze. We have learnt to value conversations between ourselves, with our children and among our friends. We find the joy of our companionship priceless. There’s bliss in walking together, through treacherous terrain, even when we are penniless, when we are virtually check-mated legally and financially. All the expensive, candle-lit dinners that we have had in the past, in the most exotic locations across the world, pale in significance and comparison! And we have found great inner peace in giving our time and in sharing our Life learnings, with all those who care to pause and reflect. In fact, we have now understood that while money is very important, money is just a resource. It must be used. And we must never get used, or consumed, by it, by clinging on to it. The real opportunity of happiness, being available free, and 24×7, became visible to us only when money ceased to be an object in our Life. For this realization, we will remain ever grateful to our enduring bankruptcy that truly demonetized our Life. Which is why, I see this 24+-hour currency demonetization experience in India as an opportunity for everyone here to learn to live happily ever after!
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A friend has fallen out with his boss. But he’s past 50 and doesn’t want to leave Chennai. So, his career prospects are limited. He wants to find himself a new job, but given his self-imposed limitations and the lack of choices in the market around him, the process is taking longer. He wanted to know if it is possible for him to be happy while working with a boss who dislikes him intensely, and who he dislikes too, and when he’s (our friend) not getting what he wants – a job!
Basically, what our friend is wanting to know is if we can be happy while living with our problems? And the answer is, well, a resounding yes!!!
When you are in a problem situation, facing a challenge or solving something complicated or making sense of what has hit you and what’s going on, unhappiness is the first emotion that you experience. Because the very nature of a problem is that it is a problem only because you don’t want it. Yet because you now have it in your Life, without your wanting it, you plunge into unhappiness. When you are unhappy, dealing with anything becomes laborious, a drudgery! Then you stop living and merely exist. Everything becomes burdensome, every step you have to take is painful and you simply lose interest first, and sooner than later, you lose hope too. But just think – has your being unhappy really solved the problem? Or helped it in any manner? Well, surely, it hasn’t! So, of what use is it to display, or carry within you, an emotion which is completely useless?
The simplest, the most fundamental truth about Life is that happiness has nothing to do with the state in which you are. You can be happy despite your circumstances. Your circumstances __ health, relationship, heart-break, break-up, loss__don’t make you unhappy. It’s your desire, that the circumstances that are don’t exist, that makes you unhappy. In our friend’s case, his boss or his prolonged job search don’t make him unhappy. It is his desiring, that his boss must deal with him with dignity, that he must get a job faster, that makes him unhappy.
Surely, you will feel sad when you don’t get what you want. But you must learn to let go of the sadness. If you don’t and go on clinging to the sadness, you will end up leading an unhappy existence. When you feel unhappy about something, examine not just what or who is causing your unhappiness, but also examine what attitude of yours are you bringing to the situation. When you do that you will realize the futility of being unhappy. That’s how you start learning the art of being happy despite what’s going on with you. Soon, you will also realize that it is your happiness that will always help you deal with the situation much better.
You too can learn the fine art of living happily__despite your circumstances, in spite of your problems. Begin by choosing not to postpone being happy waiting for your problems to recede or go away. Perhaps they may. But know that newer ones will crop up. Because such is Life. So, you can either be alive and happy, while you still have and deal with your problems, or you can be dead while suffering from them.
Over the weekend, a young friend and I were having a drink at a party. The young man said, “AVIS, you shouldn’t mind me saying this, but I think you are very privileged. You don’t have to slum it out despite your grave and often excruciating circumstances.”
I helped the young man understand that his perceptions on both fronts were misplaced. We are neither privileged not have we really escaped slumming it out. At many times, over the past 9+ years, we have been hanging there, at the edge of a precipice, workless, penniless and often with no idea of what more we need to do or of what will happen next. So, if slumming it out means being on the streets and without food, water, clothing or shelter, well, we haven’t yet have had to do that. But if slumming it out means living off a grant at most times, living in a compassionate relative’s apartment, rent-free, receiving material stuff – like gadgets, clothing and money – from friends and sometimes, even rank strangers, well, we have done that. And we continue to survive precisely this way. Occasionally some work will come and give us something to survive till we reach the edge of yet another precipice and then someone, something, will always haul us up.
It is not as if we have not tried for employment or marketed and sold ourselves well. We have. But this is one phase in Life in which our efforts on all fronts, to earn an income, have not produced the results that we must ideally have seen. Yet, miraculously, we have always been given a hand and have been heaved up, or have been given wings, so we can fly; that explains why we have not come crashing down every time we found ourselves in a precarious, impossible, end-of-the-road situation.
This ‘irrational, illogical’ presence in our Life, that has been holding us up, to me, is Grace. I have no other word to describe this experience of getting whatever we need to survive yet another day. So, Vaani, I and our precious family, are soaked in Grace. Undoubtedly. I am not sure though why we are and am not even sure if we deserve so much compassion from people who come and help us every single time. All I can say is that Vaani and I, through this experience, have realized that if you have been created, trust the process of Life; and when you trust, you will always be provided for and cared for, you will receive everything that you need. In fact, I see my God in each of the people who have touched our lives in their own special ways so far. They continue to show how humanity thrives beautifully, in abundance, in a seemingly self-obsessed world. And each time this happens, I feel humbled and small.
Now, to be sure, Grace is not exclusive to us. I believe in Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s (1836~1886) saying thoroughly: “The winds of Grace are blowing all the time; but you must hoist your sails to catch them.” Hoisting your sails, I have learnt, means letting go. When you don’t know what to do, just trust Life. So, Vaani and I don’t question anything, anymore. We simply flow with Life.
Let me share a recent instance. We got a call from a friend who said he wanted to help us by having us lead a series of workshops for his managers. He is a CEO. And if he reached out proactively and offered to use our services, he certainly did that because he valued what we had to offer. He even promised us an advance payment on the fees that we had quoted. When we did not hear from him for several weeks, despite our follow-ups, we stopped calling him. Interestingly, we met him the other day at an event in the city. He was very cordial, very warm, and yet he did not show any signs of wanting to renew the conversation on the business opportunity he had promised us. I sent him a WhatsApp message that evening asking him if he planned to kick-off the proposed engagement. I know he saw the message but he did not respond. Around the same time, an acquaintance, reached out and said he wanted to help us and offered us some money. I took the money gratefully. Now, how do you explain this? Isn’t it bizarre? You don’t get what you think you justly deserve but you get what you need – somehow, from a completely unpredictable, unforeseen quarter!!!
Vaani and I, however, have stopped analyzing. We make our efforts sincerely. But we remain unfrustrated when the results don’t add up. This unfrustrated state, to us, is what hoisting your sails means.
I don’t think it’s a great privilege to be unable to solve your problems yourself. I don’t think having to depend on someone else for your everyday survival is a very easy thing to handle. From experience, I can tell you, either situation is very, very, very, very painful. But it is a blessing to be soaked in Grace. And that blessing comes when you choose to be unfrustrated when things don’t work out the way you want them to. When you are unfrustrated, you are non-suffering. When you are this way, you can only be happy, despite your circumstances. And perhaps Grace always chooses the unfrustrated, non-suffering, happy kind to bless?
At the end of my Fall Like Rose Petal Talk recently, someone in the audience, a business leader heading a large corporation, observed that Vaani and I were very lucky to be surviving this ‘treacherous’ time in our Life. He said, “I just can’t wrap my head around this. But hearing your story makes me believe that miracles do happen. I can clearly see that, every time you are both at the edge of a precipice, something, call it grace, someone, perhaps God, has come and bailed you both out financially. You both are incredibly lucky!” Interestingly, a reader of my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal (Westland) wrote to me yesterday sharing this link on how a Cornell professor has researched the connection between luck and money.
Now, I have nothing against or in favor of luck. Just as I have nothing against or in favor of money. But why aren’t we celebrating that we are human, that we are alive? Why do we need to examine luck at all, and why give it undue importance, especially from a material perspective? For instance, we consider someone ‘lucky’ if they win gold in a slogan-writing contest, but those others who competed – who could think creatively and express themselves – were ‘unlucky’ because they didn’t win!
The problem lies with the relationship we have with money. I believe we humans don’t see money as a resource that must be deployed for living Life fully. We don’t see it as a means, we instead see it as the end. Does it matter that you don’t have money or things when you have good health, you have a loving family and caring friends, when you have a home that you can come back to and when you can still sleep like a baby when you hit the pillow? This tendency to focus on what we don’t have – and if it is money in question, then no one can ever have enough of it – is causing us to remain unhappy, to suffer.
Life has to be lived celebrating what is. Not analyzing why what is the way it is. And definitely not lived by moaning about what is not. Yesterday, we were at one of the finest hotels in Chennai, talking to a couple of senior managers about our work and our Life. Neither of them were influenced by our impoverished financial status. They treated us with so much warmth, so much dignity. They heard us out and considered the value we can create for their teams, instead of evaluating our net worth. This is the kind of celebration that I am talking about – this blessing of being human, being compassionate!
And let me tell you, if you remove material reference points from your Life, if you don’t consider money to be an object, all of us are, uniformly, without doubt, incredibly, incredibly lucky to be born human. Think about it. You have been created without your asking to be born. Isn’t it possible, employing the same theory of probability that you use in other contexts, that you could have been created as something else – a swine, a reptile, a tree, a rock…whatever? The very fact that you are human, that you have a smartphone, that you can read this blogpost and internalize its point of view, in your own unique way, that, to me, is evidence of how lucky you are.
Personally, I have evolved beyond considering the luck factor in my Life. I remain overwhelmed and humbled by all the grace and abundance that’s raining in my Life – non-stop, 24×7. I believe being human, being alive, is a miracle. So, I simply experience Life for what it is, without questioning, without analyzing, anything. And in each moment, I offer a simple prayer to Life – “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
As I set out on my evening walk with Vaani on Sunday, a couple of physical conditions, a blister on my right foot and a fresh episode of my rheumatoid arthritis of my back, were nagging me. There were stabs of pain for several minutes. But in a while, I lost myself to my walk. The chatter of the birds as they got together at dusk, the warm evening breeze, the half-moon up in the sky and the prayer bells tolling at the large bungalow that lay on our walking route – all these elements fascinatingly conspired to push my pain away. How I was feeling was now entirely connected to the joy I was deriving from my walk. Important, I was not drawing from my physical condition; it was only about how I was feeling, how I was being!
When I reflect on Sunday’s walk and think of how my pain dissolved I can only relate to what I have learnt reading and listening to Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s always championed mindfulness. Initially I used to think that mindfulness is difficult. I have now come to believe that mindfulness is living. If you are not mindful, you are not living, you are merely existing.
Mindfulness is the ability to soak in every aspect of Life that you are experiencing. And, surely, our experiences are beyond what we think is important. Our experiences include whatever is happening to us, around us. Take my Sunday experience. Yes, I was in physical pain. But I had also made a choice to step out on a walk. And the walk offered me a therapeutic opportunity to heal – through soaking in the magic and beauty of the evening. Because I immersed myself in whatever else the evening was offering, and did not just cling on to my pain, the pain dissolved. It was there. But it receded into the background. Each moment of my walk held me in a rapturous state. This is what mindfulness does to you. It makes you live each moment fully.
Consider your own context now. What aspects of your Life are you focused on? If you are obsessing over some form of physical or emotional pain, step back a little bit. Zoom out. Feel what else is available in you, around you, to celebrate Life. Don’t say there’s nothing to celebrate! Each breath you take is a cause for celebration because it confirms that you are alive! So you can focus on your breathing. Or on a flower. Or you can look at your child’s face, perhaps at the picture in your wallet, and smile. This is called living. This is what mindfulness brings to you – the opportunity to live in each moment, ecstatically, without wasting it.
Most of us however are squandering – with alarming consistency – this opportunity to live fully! Because we are like ostriches – our heads are buried deep in our problems. That’s why most of the time, we are merely existing. That’s also why, almost always, we are searching for happiness, instead of being happy!
A friend sent me a media story on an interesting venture that’s being set up at the IIT – Kharagpur. Supported by its alumnus Satinder Rekhi , the Rekhi Centre for Science of Happiness hopes to ‘research and help develop an ecosystem of happy people’. Although the story I read talked about the Centre actually being a ‘lab’ that attempts to ‘crack the code for happiness’, I don’t want to go by what the media says. I have no first hand knowledge of how the proposed Rekhi Centre plans to operate and what projects it initially will seed and develop. But I do know two things: 1. As a concept it is hugely relevant to help nurture an ecosystem of happy people 2. There is no code or formula or method or mantra for happiness – so if the people behind the Rekhi Centre really plan to go after these, then, sadly, they may well end up barking up the wrong tree.
In order to understand happiness, let us first know that it is like the breath we take; it is available 24×7 and free. So why then, for most of us, is happiness an elusive pursuit? It appears elusive because we are searching for something that is already there. What if something was available to you and you were searching for it? Like raising your spectacles over your forehead and searching for them all over the house. You will never find it unless you look at yourself and discover that it was all along on you. Similarly, you will never be happy unless you look within yourself. You are the happiness you seek. And this happiness is invisible to you because you have buried it under layers of wasteful emotions – fear, anxiety, worry, anger, hatred, jealousy and many, many more. Or simply, to be happy, you need to remove all those factors that exist around you, in you, that make you unhappy.
Learning to do this is possible. But you need to approach happiness with an open mind, with humility. You can’t just want to be happy. You must be ready and willing to be happy. Staying happy is a full-time job. It is really what living is all about.
So, I don’t know how the idea of a formula or a code can help anyone here. If you look at the body of work, research from the past, available over the centuries, almost everyone talks about happiness as just being. It is the ability to live with, love and celebrate whatever is, whatever is available in the present, in the now.
This morning I am dealing with a grave crisis. It requires several practical steps to mitigate – a resolution itself will take months. And all the steps to be taken immediately require money. This is a resource that I don’t have. Yet, I have made my efforts, and continue to make them, seeking work and income, but in the absence of any tangible evidence of my efforts bearing fruit, I have still decided to continue to write my daily blogpost. I am not complaining. I am not angry. I am not fearful. I am not anxious or worried. I wrote this blogpost just as the way you are reading it now – by engaging with each word, sentence and idea. After posting this, I will go on to have lunch. Vaani’s made some methi parathas – my favorite – and I will relish each morsel of what I eat. And I will eat while being grateful to Vaani for making them and serving them with so much love, I will be grateful to whatever energy is making such a wonderful meal possible even in such inscrutable and painful times. To me, this ability to be immersed in the present – whatever be the circumstance – is happiness. So, how can any formula help here? Or which mantra? Where is the code? What method can be uniformly, universally adapted and championed?
I hope the formula-seeking aspect of the Rekhi Centre venture is just exaggeration – an outcome of the media’s, predictable, overindulgence. I wish Team IIT-Kharagpur/Rekhi Centre for Science of Happiness all the best. We definitely need the ecosystem they envision. We need champions like them. And I am willing to contribute to their endeavor by way of leading workshops and Talks to inspire people to be happy despite their circumstances; I will try and connect with them soon. But my humble prayer to everyone is let us not intellectualize happiness. Instead, let us employ commonsense and learn to just be. For when you simply are, you are happy!
You – and only you – are responsible for your happiness.
A recent discussion, of which I was a silent spectator, on what makes people happy or unhappy, depending on how you see it, caught my attention! One school of thought was that social media has become a necessary evil and that spending too much time on Facebook makes people depressed and unhappy. Another view was that because happiness is a ‘much marketed’ industry, more people are unhappy because they are unable to be happy despite their best efforts. A third perspective shared was that people who tend to be positive about Life, no matter how challenging their Life situations are, are normally those who are keeping “stuff bottled up within them” and that their “depression and suppressed negativity will soon explode”.
I found all three points of view absurd.
Let’s start with the third. Vaani and I are folks who are not just positive, we are enthusiastic about our Life despite whatever we are faced with. And we don’t have any bottled up feelings that are waiting to explode. There is no simmering anger, grief or guilt within us. As I write this, I honestly don’t know how we are going to survive – in a purely bill-paying sense – the month of June, but we are not pinned down by insecurity. Apart from our enduring financial crisis, we are also confronted with some serious health and professional challenges. But we are not moping over our fate. To be sure, we are also not the only ones who are upbeat about our Life. We know thousands of others like us, around us, just in the city of Chennai, who have learnt the art of being happy despite their circumstances. Someone is dealing with a child’s autism, someone’s lost her husband, someone’s teenaged son committed suicide, someone’s efforts to find love and companionship have failed more than three times, someone’s wife deserted him because they had a child that has cerebral palsy; so the man is a single parent even as he has a career as a master chef, someone’s walked out of a 28-year-old marriage and given up on her business career – both at the same time – and does not know how she will survive both in an economic and emotional sense…! Now, all these stories have one thing in common: all these people are, we know, immensely happy! And since Vaani and I know them personally, we can vouch for them; they are not putting up a “happy face”. The truth is you cannot fake happiness. You can put on a brave face, but never a happy one!
Now, let’s go to the second perspective. People may be marketing happiness. The peddlers of happiness as a concept may be profiting from selling the idea. But if you buy the happiness theory because someone hard-sold it you, then, seriously, honestly, you have lost the plot. Happiness is who you really are. And you will realize who you are only when you awaken to your real Self. That can happen through a friend or a family member holding up a mirror to you. That cannot happen because you were ‘sold the idea of happiness’. So, merely attending a retreat or a program, or reading a book or watching a movie, on happiness, cannot make you happier. Only you can and must help yourself to happiness. Nobody else can. And if they claim they can, then be sure it’s just a sales pitch. You may buy into it but you won’t benefit from it! Because you can and will never be happy waiting for someone or something to make you happy!!
And finally the first point. Think of your social media platforms as your living room. If you allow all kinds of people into your home, into your living room, be sure that they are going to ruin your inner peace. Who would you entertain or host at home? Only those whose company you enjoy, right? Only those whose value systems match yours, right? Only those who make you come alive, who inspire you, who complement your energies, right? So, why do you allow all kinds of people onto your timeline – on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and such platforms? And having allowed them, by your own choice and volition, why blame the medium and the platforms? Try weeding out all those whose presence you don’t enjoy from your social media connections and then see how you feel. I bet you will be a lot happier than you are presently!
Happiness is a personal choice, an individual responsibility. It is available 24×7 and is free. To be happy, you must simply be. Don’t complicate your Life by trying to understand how to be happy in today’s times. Spend that time and energy simply being. You will be happy!