Criticism can be debilitating only if you don’t know how to handle it.
I recently found my friend sparring animatedly with his friend over a Facebook post. It was a political stand my friend had taken on a post on his Wall. And his friend was rabid, scathing and unforgiving of my friend’s stance. My friend argued tooth and nail. But soon the conversation turned into a verbal slugfest and ended with my friend unfriending and blocking his ‘friend’ on Facebook.
I am sure the disagreement between the two gentlemen could have been handled differently. But, well, that’s the way it was meant to be!
I wonder why people find it difficult to let others have their opinions. In fact, the key to inner peace is to respect another’s opinion – because it belongs to them and they are entitled to it, just as you are entitled to yours! Important, your desire to correct another’s opinion or to deny them their right to have one can cause you untold suffering!
Vaani and I are often at the receiving end of criticism or unsolicited opinion on how we must be leading our lives. Particularly after they have read my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal or have heard my Talk (of the same name), some people approach us saying they differ with us. They disapprove of the choices we have made. And they are open about what they feel. But both Vaani and I have learnt to receive public opinion with gratitude and detachment.
We recognize that when you go out there and share your Life – or views – in public, you are essentially inviting people to look at you. Now, when you extend such an invitation, chances are people looking at you, listening to you, or hearing your story, will have an opinion about you. And they make their opinion known. When such opinion is in sync with your expectations, you call it praise. You love it then. But the moment an opinion doesn’t fit into your scheme of things, you dub it as criticism and you loathe it. We have learnt not to get carried away with any sentiment – with praise or with critique or with criticism.
We believe that the best way to deal with criticism is to deal with like hot candle wax. First allow it to dry up. It is a lot easier to discard it and get it out of your system when it has become cold and stale. So, don’t respond. Just let the other person express themselves, you remain unresponsive. Just let the opinion be what it is – a mere opinion. Second, appreciate where the person who is critical of your actions is coming from. Even if the person is unjustified, rude, violent or cruel, understand that that person has a right to her or his view, to their opinion. It belongs to that person and does not belong to you __ even if it is about you. Third, understand the message that is being conveyed and see if you can learn from what is being said. Train your mind to respond with an exclamation__from awe, from wonder, from amazement__ that says “Is that so?” instead of responding with anger and violence while asking “How dare you?” Know that when you, even if it is only in your mind, question the other person’s right to opinionate, criticize, it is really your ego which is leading you. So, refuse to follow it; turn your attention away.
Learn to treat the whole experience like a game. Tell yourself: “Hey! Watch out! This situation, this comment, this person is provoking me. And my mind is urging me to fall prey, to succumb. Let me escape!” And each time you win, punch your fist up like a champion will. When you do succumb, when you do get dragged into the situation and when you emerge from it bruised and grieving, remind yourself to not fall prey again. Simple.
Like with all other games you have learned to play in Life, you get better and better at dealing with criticism with practice. Then, over a period of time, you will have mastered the art of being unmoved. All criticism, then, will just fall off you, unstuck, even when it is thrown at you!!
Perceptions can derail you only if you allow them to.
My friend called me from Canada the other day. He shared notes with me on “how perceptions of people around you can pin you down”. He said in the time when he lived in Kerala, and when he owed money to family and friends, he would always be ridiculed for being a mudhalaly, an estate owner, who “lived it up” while claiming to be insolvent. “Even if I wore a shirt that was well laundered and ironed, they would demand that if I had money to “buy a new shirt”, I must find ways to repay my loans. I found social sentiments crippling…they made me very fearful, I was even scared of my shadow. I am still haunted by all those remarks and how I felt back then,” he told me.
I can empathize with my friend’s experience. Given our situation, (read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal), Vaani and I are consistently prone to public perception, scrutiny and judgment. But we don’t fear perceptions. We respect them as sentiments of people that we are answerable to; we remain true to ourselves and these people. Even so, we have realized that if we live in fear of anything, or anyone, we will not live, we will merely exist. So we deal with perceptions as they come along – head on, in the face!
What we have learnt is that a perception is always the viewer’s, observer’s, seer’s view of reality. So, it is totally relative to the point of view that someone, who’s looking at a situation or person, is holding. In most cases, perception is not reality. When someone has a perception of you, if they are merely misinformed or misguided by their imagination, they will accept a clarification and change their point of view. Such people are intrinsically honest and worth clarifying to. Others are not just holding a perception of you, but are also judgmental. Such people are best left alone. If you must, clarify, but don’t expect any understanding from them. And then there is the third category – people who are totally unconnected to you, but who will pass judgment in social circles, social media and even write your epithet. Such people and their opinions are best ignored. So, you see, in any of these cases, there is no point in fearing perceptions. Clarify to the best of your ability, and if you fail to convince someone, don’t let that affect you. Just move on.
In any situation, particularly when you are answerable to people circumstantially or emotionally, remember that you cannot prove your integrity to anyone – unless they see it or realize it themselves. In fact, there is no point in trying to prove yourself. Those who trust you will not be led by perceptions of you. And those who don’t trust you – or don’t want to trust you – will not let go of their perceptions of you, no matter what evidence you bring up in your favor. This is the way Life is. No one is to be blamed here. And there’s no need to grieve and sweat over your inability to erase ill-informed perceptions of you. However, always ensure that none of what you do disregards the integrity of your relationship with the stakeholder you are answerable to or are responsible for.
Bottom-line: Perceptions can derail you only if you allow them to. The only person you need to be true to, in the whole world, is you. If you are that, then perceptions won’t matter; they won’t haunt you.
Investing all that time in yourself is a far more meaningful thing to do.
I watch helplessly as the world shreds and probes the Life of acclaimed singer Suchitra Kumar. Her husband, who is an actor and stand-up comedian, is a close friend. Despite his fervent appeal that Suchi be left alone, as she is going through an emotionally challenging phase, the Twitterati and the Page 3 media junta are dissecting the lady’s online activity and behavior. They call it #suchileaks! WhatsApp forwards are simply propagating unfounded information – sheer nonsense, that’s truly avoidable! A few of the couple’s colleagues in the entertainment industry are being uncharitable adding to the media frenzy. Here’s a situation, I believe, that can happen to any of us. Someone’s going through an emotional catharsis. And avoidable content is emerging from her Twitter handle. The family says they are trying to make sense of this. There’s a theory too that her account could have been hacked. Where is the need to rush and pronounce judgment on this? Why engage in frivolous commentary?
When I look at the #suchileaks drama, and society’s response to it, particularly on social media, I can only say that it is sadly reflective of how much our culture has degenerated. Just because we have access to social media platforms, just because we have an opinion on a matter, must we rush to put it out there? Critique is ok. But look at what we are doing, consider how we are behaving. We almost always only criticize, often without any rationale; we chastise, we ridicule, we mock, and what’s most vulgar, we pass judgment ruthlessly. If you sit back and reflect calmly you may perhaps agree with me here. If we invest the amount of time, that we waste on obsessing over the lives of other people, on ourselves, we would not just make progress by being more productive at whatever we work on, we will be happier!
If there ever is anything sinful in Life, it has to be this despicable act of judging others. Unfortunately our society is steeped in this sin, it in fact thrives on it! Most judgment these days happens on social media and almost all the time it is never based on facts or evidence. It is driven by baseless opinion and an angst to prove to the world that you too exist. For instance, if you didn’t post a comment on what you think of Suchi, the moment #suchileaks surfaced, why would anyone even look at your Tweet or post? Or if you didn’t leverage Suchi’s emotional turmoil and give her an ignominious epithet, how can you stay relevant in the dog-eat-dog marketplace?
But there is hope. If each of us can make a small beginning. Clearly, what our world urgently needs is global heartwarming. So, each of us must cultivate understanding and compassion and learn to drop the urge to judge others. We can do this if we can pause and ruminate before making online utterances, specifically in contexts concerning others – not just of celebrities, of anyone. We may like to ask ourselves: is it the truth, is my opinion in the matter relevant, isn’t offering the opinion avoidable; when uttered, will my comment be fair to all concerned, is my Life going to be any better because I commented on this subject or person? I have been employing these questions every single time I have a craving to share an opinion. To be sure, I too have opinions, almost on everything – and everyone – around me. But when I chew over my opinion and subject them to these questions, I find my opinion dissolving. It is a beautiful process – an avoidable urge to judge, opinionate or comment arises and then I throw the questions at that urge and the urge simply capitulates and disappears. Try it! It works!!
I believe the biggest value that choosing to be non-judgmental delivers is time. When we stop obsessing over others’ lives, we have a lot more time to reflect on our own. And it is only through continuously investing in yourself that you can live a fuller, meaningful, happier Life!
I don’t know if the world is fake. I am authentic. Period.
A well-meaning friend called up this morning. He advised me and Vaani not to share in public the fact that we had not repaid even a rupee of our debt in 10 years. He was referring to my signature Fall Like A Rose Petal Talk and my curations in public spaces where I share learnings from our Life’s journey. His point: “Your credibility will be affected if people see you as strutting around when you owe so much money to so many people and you have not even started to repay them back.”
I thanked him for his concern. But I clarified to him that we can only be authentic, true, as we are, to ourselves.
The truth is for 10 years now, we have not made enough money to even be able to cover our living expenses. Business has at best been coming in fits and jerks – interspersed with long spells of incomelessness. We live in a rent-free apartment given to us by Vaani’s sister and brother-in-law. Unless we recoup ourselves financially to earn over and above our ability to cover our living expenses, including our rent, we cannot start to repay anyone. Yet, we don’t sit idle; either ruing our fate or succumbing to complacency just because we have a roof over our head. We are periodically communicating with, and available to, all our 179 creditors, humbly seeking time and understanding from them – and in cases where they have proceeded legally against us, we are cooperating with the relevant process. We work hard every day to put our business back on track and remain unfrustrated when we don’t get the results we expect. But, we also work with a Higher Purpose – of Inspiring Happiness – and this is why I wrote my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal, this is why I deliver Talks or why I write this Blog daily and why we curate non-commercial public events. So, if people see us smiling, cheerful and being happy with making others happy, and they want to judge us as lacking credibility, because of what they perceive us to be, well, too bad for us, too bad for them. If the import is that we are strutting around irresponsibly, while trying to Inspire Happiness, or that, as my own mother and siblings believe, we are faking a bankruptcy, well, again, too bad for us, too bad for them. If the question is how is it that our children have grown up to graduate from premium educational institutions, while we continue to struggle for living expenses, well, I don’t know why we deserve so much kindness and compassion from the Universe! The truth simply is that while we are broke, in every material aspect, we are also soaked in grace, perhaps because we have implicit faith that the Universe will take care of us; perhaps because we trust the process of Life.
Bottomline: just as I don’t know why we are being subjected to this enduring bankruptcy, I have no explanation to offer for the miracle called our Life. To be sure, we believe there’s a lot of compassion in the whole world, for all of us! Now, because we are witnessing this abundance in our Life, we have been stepping out and sharing our learnings with all those who care to pause and reflect – we are telling people that if you let go, the Universe will take care, Life will provide all that you need; and that it is indeed possible to be happy despite your circumstances. Being happy is not inaction. Happiness really means being non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering – no matter what you are dealing with. Vaani and I have learnt this art through our catharsis. To share this learning with the world, to Inspire Happiness, this has become our Purpose, of raison d’etre, our ikigai, our reason for being.
As we live our Life’s Purpose, it doesn’t matter to me or Vaani what people think of us. We are not going to stop being authentic because some people are judging us. The truth is only this – we are enduring a numbing bankruptcy, our material Life is really, perpetually, on the edge of a precipice, but Life miraculously continues to provide for us, and we will only do what gives us joy, which is live by our Higher Purpose of Inspiring Happiness.
Having said all of this in the context of my Life, I invite you to look at your own Life. Perceptions that people carry about us are really the villains in all our stories. So, it is very possible that you too are being judged by people in your circle of influence. It is possible you live inhibited by your sense of insecurity over being judged. It is possible you are not living the Life you want to be living. But instead of living in fear of what people are saying about you and thinking of you, ask yourself, are you really happy? And ask yourself, what will make you happy? The answer invariably will be that you are happy only when you are true to yourself. Authenticity, my dear friends, trumps perception management – any day! That’s what makes the crucial difference between living and existing.
I, for one, clearly refuse to merely exist – as much as I refuse to be anything but authentic!
Avoid judging people and events around you. Take them as they come. For what they are. You simply be.
Last week a student called me from Changanacherry in Kerala. He wanted me to preside over an event at his college. The role involved judging several contestants in a series of competitions. I politely declined the invitation. Somehow, I just can’t accept that anyone can or must judge anyone else.
One of the first lessons we are taught in school is “Don’t judge a book by its cover”! But that’s precisely what we do. We do it all the time. We are always judging someone or something __ events, governments, government policies, sporting teams, movie stars, politicians, children, parents, siblings, companions and partners. For instance, all of India is presently polarized over judging our athletes’ performance at Rio.
Why do we judge? Because judging is free. Nobody is stopping you. So you indulge in pronouncing judgments. It comes easily. It is exciting. It gives you an air of superiority. You may not be seeking or realizing that superior feeling consciously at all. But your subconscious loves it. You feel like an exalted member of the jury, looked up to by your own private circle of courtiers, while pronouncing someone guilty.
And why do we loathe being judged? Because you almost always are being judged for a single act and not for the real person that you are. The simplest way to avoid judging is to put yourself in the shoes of the person being judged and ask if you would have liked to be talked about that way! This is not easy to do. But it is simple. Over time, employing empathy and compassion, you can kill your urge to judge __ yourself and other people!
No one is perfect. No one is complete. No one is a saint. And no one is a born villain. Left to themselves, even the people who commit heinous crimes, who are tried, judged and punished by law, may not have ever wanted to end up that way. Given a choice, they would not have wanted to commit those acts at all or they may well want to undo those acts. Even in such cases, the judgment rarely indicts the person. It merely punishes the act, though the person who committed the act is pronounced guilty of it!
Perhaps there’s a lesson from the legal system here for all of us who indulge in recklessly and wholesomely judging people. Perhaps, it’s also a good idea to fundamentally evaluate whether judging people, including ourselves, is worth it at all? A lifetime is a much bigger, vaster, varied experience. A single act may well mar and scar a person’s reputation __ as we found in the case of Shiney Ahuja or Tiger Woods or Bill Clinton __ but cannot and must not incinerate a lifetime of work. So much time and emotion is wasted in judging. So much so, that sometimes, we end up judging ourselves and plunge into either depression or float in a fake sense of exaggerated self-importance.
This does not mean that we should not step in when we see someone headed in a wrong direction. We sure must. A teacher must judge the performance __ both academically and morally __ of her ward and prevent and prohibit factors that inhibit good performance. Don’t judge does not mean don’t correct. It means don’t condemn. It means don’t dump. It means focus on the act and still respect, love and appreciate the person for who she is. Place the act not in the backdrop of your morality, your virtuousness or your principles alone, but in the context of that person’s circumstances (when the act was committed) and the well-being of the people in his or her circle of influence.
To judge __ others or yourself __ is wasteful, regrettable and avoidable. Instead, a better position to take is to be a witness. A silent observer. No opinions. Just quiet learning. Take what you want to take from that person’s action or experience and discard the rest. Most important, when you are a mere observer, there is no anguish, no pain, no suffering, no victim, no villain…there’s just you, in a state of total inner peace!
If you can’t relate to someone, you can surely excuse yourself from the relationship.
My brother and I spoke to each other after several years this morning. He called me over phone to invite me for a lunch to celebrate a milestone in his family. I wished him well. So did he. I thanked him for his invitation. But I told him that I would like to be excused because I certainly did not feel like visiting him or the rest of the family. I clarified additionally that there was no rancor, no anger, no grief – just that I didn’t feel like being there. He said he appreciated my stand. And we hung up wishing each other well.
Over the years, a lot of water has flown under the bridge as far as my family is concerned. And some part of it has been stirred, owing to my lack of evolution then perhaps, by me too. I wish I had been as clear and resolute in my thinking even then when I was provoked by both people and circumstance. In a way, I believe this morning’s conversation is progressive though, at least I could say what I felt and I got the sense that I was respected – and not judged – for what I said. Even if it wasn’t the way I thought it was, I am glad I spoke my mind.
This learning though has come by the hard way. I have understood that people, especially the ones who you deem are the closest to you, often judge you. Or they are influenced by the judgements and pronouncements of others around you. Either way, if anyone exercises the right to say what they feel about you to you, it is only human that you want to retort, to defend, to clarify and to insist that they understand you. But what if they don’t understand you or don’t want – for their own reasons – to understand you? When such a thing happens, the relating between people goes out of the relationship. But in our craving to be understood, we cling on to the relationship which is not just strained, it is actually dead. This is how we end up suffering people and meaningless relationships. How can there be a relationship when there is no relating? I have now learnt to let such people and relationships just be. Nobody is right or wrong when two people cannot relate to each other. Lack of chemistry is just that – a lack of compatibility, a lack of shared perspective and a lack of empathy between each other. Trying to accommodate someone in your Life when you don’t relate to that person anymore causes unnecessary stress in your Life and theirs! You often adjust and accommodate in such situations because you don’t want to be seen as unforgiving, unrelenting or unfamilial – especially when it involves immediate blood relations. But I have learnt that how you feel is more important than what others expect you to do.
Of course, you may choose to disagree with me. You may say that it is just one Life, that we must drop the ego, bury hatchets, build bridges and move on. I don’t disagree either. Except that when you have stopped relating to some people in your Life, you just prefer to drop the ego, bury all the hatchets, forgive yourself and them, but build bridges to newer folks, newer places and move on. Whatever you do, never compromise on your inner peace. For that’s really the only thing that you have that’s within your control and which you can call your own!
A Chinese philosopher teaches us the value of being a nobody.
Chuang Tzu, a.k.a Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher who lived in the 4th Century BC, has written a poem called ‘The Empty Boat’. Here are relevant excerpts from that poem:
If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty.
He would not be shouting, and not angry.
If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.
Who can free himself from achievement
And from fame, descend and be lost
Amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen,
He will go about like Life itself
With no name and no home.
Simple is he, without distinction.
To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power.
He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
Since he judges no one
No one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.
The moral of the poem applies in all situations to all of us in Life. Most of the time we are reacting to imaginary perceptions we have of people. We feel slighted or hurt when people say something. We feel such people have motives. We conclude that everyone does something good to you, or to anyone, only if they see a gain for themselves in it. If someone is very nice to you, you begin to wonder why they are that way. We analyze people and situations in a zillion different ways to see if there isn’t any catch or any fine print that we are missing in any transaction or relationship. All this hyper activity in our mind makes us all very edgy, suspicious and causes us to suffer!
So, one way to rid us of all this wasted energy is to see ourselves as nobodys – as empty boats. And treat others also the same way – as empty boats! If you can empty your boat, if you can lose all your cravings and trappings of power, respect, recognition and ego, you too can be free and sail through Life – experiencing its beauty and magic – with no grief or suffering! No one can react from an empty boat nor can anyone react to an empty boat! Period.