How not to agonize over a Life that you don’t want

Don’t waste your time trying to make meaning out of Life. You simply can’t. Any effort in that direction will only frustrate you.
When your Life doesn’t go the way you want it to, your mind will throw up some seemingly relevant questions that also appear to be critical: “What’s the point in me living a Life that I don’t want?”, “Why should I go through experiences that make me suffer?”, “What is the purpose of Life?”. There can be more questions – it depends on how frustrated or disturbed you are with your Life. But none of these questions will be answered by your merely asking them. When you understand what Life is, these questions may not even arise and even if they do, they won’t matter.
The first point to internalize is that you, me, each of us is having a Life that we never asked for. You didn’t ask to be born, did you? So, the argument that you don’t want to live a Life that you don’t want is absurd. You have been created. And you must live as long as your Life lasts. Since you did not have a say in your creation, in your birth, don’t seek to have a say in your death. Let death happen on its own. It is inevitable as it is – so let it come when it must. You or I need not and must not be even thinking of death just because we don’t get some things that we want from Life. Instead invest the time you spend brooding in living. Life has not promised you a painless tenure on this planet. In fact, Life promises you nothing. So when you experience pain, which is natural and likely to happen several times in your lifetime, don’t resist it. Resisting is pointless. It is the resisting that causes suffering. Pain is just pain. Suffering arises when you wish that there is no pain. Drop that wish and bingo, all your suffering vanishes! Instantaneously, just like that! So, at one level, since your birth is choice-less and since you have no control over what happens to you in Life, it may appear that there really is no purpose to your creation. But if you look beyond just yourself, you will see how purposeful your Life can actually be. If you can share what you have with people around you – with those who need your love, your compassion, your understanding, your time, your knowledge, your talent or perhaps your money – you can make a difference to their lives. And that way your Life becomes useful. But even if you don’t want to touch another Life and just want to live all by yourself, Life’s beautiful when you stop imposing conditions on your Life and drop all expectations.
Life is beautiful as it is. The way it is. To see its beauty, to experience Life’s magic, you must let go of your urge to intellectualize it. You cannot make any meaning out of Life by applying reason and logic to it. It is an experience. And an experience is gone through, it is felt, it cannot be explained or understood. Every experience that you go through, whether you want it or not, teaches you something new about Life. And through your learning, consistently and continuously, you appreciate Life better.
In the face of Life’s trials and challenges, don’t think of death as an option. It is not. The important thing to remember is that very often, what you don’t want will arrive in your Life. You can’t get rid of it by wishing it weren’t there. The more you wish that way, the more you will suffer. But you can avoid suffering, if you simply accept Life for what it is. If possible, and if you are up to it, make a difference to another Life. In a choice-less Life, this is the only choice you have. And when you exercise it, not only do you encounter inner peace, you also prevent your mind from imagining absurd, morbid perspectives!

Pause to celebrate the presence of those who make your each day count

Life is an opportunity to love and be loved. That’s what makes living so special!
N.Ramachandran (extreme left) at Sochi
Picture Courtesy: The Hindu/Internet
Yesterday I was at an Awards function. One of the awardees was the newly-elected President of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) N.Ramachandran. He was feted with the Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to Indian sports (other than cricket) including introducing Triathlon events in India, building Squash as a sport in India and helping India regain its official status at the Olympics. Ramachandran’s election as IOA’s President led to the Indian Tricolor being unfurled at the closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics. But it was not Ramachandran, the sports administrator that I admired last evening. It was Ramchandran the man, the father who touched my heart. In his acceptance speech, Ramachandran thanked his family, his wife, his son and his daughter, without whose support, he said, he would not have been able to do all that he did. He said his son and daughter-in-law were not able to make it to the event. Then he called out to his daughter.
“Bubbles, are you there,” he asked.
“Ya….,” came the reply. We all turned in the direction from where the reply had come from. And there she was – a young lady, specially-abled, cheering lustily for her dad. She was truly overjoyed that her father was given the award and equally delighted that she had been called out by him in his speech. It was a poignant moment. An achiever, a busy industrialist, pauses to thank his family and then celebrates the presence of his special child in the audience and thanks her for her support in his Life. I have not known too many people to be able to do that – which is to include members in their family who are special in the mainstream of their social Life.
That moment was a lesson in humility, love and living. We all get so obsessed with the rush of our daily lives that we sometimes don’t consider the contributions of so many people that make each day count for us. As we grow in our careers and, often times, encounter success and fame, we may get carried away that it’s all been caused a lot by our own intentions and efforts. But if we care to pause and reflect, there would be so much support that has come to us from those who have backed us silently – sometimes with just their presence. That presence is love. And recognizing and celebrating that presence is what Life is all about!

Stop Complaining. Start Living!

Be eternally grateful for this Life and this experience! Life is a mixed bag. You often will get what you don’t want. And you will also often get what you didn’t expect. Every which way though the best you can do to be anchored in peace is to be grateful for whatever happens to you, for whatever you get!
Zen practitioners advise using this mantra in all contexts: “Thank you for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever!” This may not appeal to most people instantaneously because when you are caught in the throes of your everyday challenges, the last thing on your mind is gratitude. And this Zen practice seems almost escapist – as if you are choosing to deny what is, to deny reality! But if you examine Life closely, you will appreciate that there is no other way to respond to Life than with gratitude. Being thankful is the only way to live peacefully. And if you live without being grateful, for everything that’s given to you in each moment, you will never be in peace.
The human mind always craves for what is not there. And rarely appreciates what is there. Look at you: don’t you bemoan scarcity all the time, rarely celebrating the abundance in your Life? Years of living like this have conditioned you to miss the opportunity in gratitude. To break free from this self-defeating attitude, do a simple exercise. Make a list of all, absolutely ALL, the things that you are grateful for in Life. And make another list of what’s not there, what you miss, in your Life. Now, do a dispassionate assessment asking yourself: Do you really think what you miss outweighs what you have?  What you will discover through this exercise is the power in the Zen mantra we discussed above.
You will then conclude that the best way to live is to simple be thankful for everything that Life’s given you. And you too will stop complaining and start living!  

The only part of Life worth living is … LIVING!

Throw yourself into the game and don’t worry about the outcome. If it is ordained for you, it will happen the way you visualize it. If it is not, you will not get what you want. Either way, immerse yourself in the game of Life and banish all thoughts on what may be, what will be, what would be and what could be.

Almost all the time, all of us miss the joy of living. We have been conditioned to think that an integral part of Life is winning. The truth is the only part of Life worth living is LIVING! Because what happens to or with us__to you, to me__is not in our hands. But what we do when whatever happens to us is surely in our hands.

Why then do we struggle with living?

Simple: because our entire upbringing and our whole education system is focused on winning. Now, when you focus on winning, it is a foregone conclusion that ONLY one person will win. That leaves the rest of the competition whining. There’s no teacher, no school, no system that ensures that the one who tries to compete, the one who plays the game, the one who makes an effort to win, is celebrated. If you take a country like India, our traffic sense will tell you what we are as a nation. Everyone is in the business of getting ahead of the others. There is no decorum on the road, nobody has any sensitivity and at the end of this mindless charade, people, the ones who manage to get ahead, actually feel they have ‘arrived’, while those who have been edged past feel they have been at a game they did not play or did not want to play. So it is with the way we live. Which is why we struggle.

Vijay Natesan
I met a young mridangam (a percussion instrument we play in south India) artist Vijay Natesan recently. I had seen him play on stage a few times. Last November, I had seen him play with the 80-year-old maestro T V Gopalakrishnan (TVG) at the Music Academy in Chennai. That performance has stayed in my mind because I found that TVG and a posse of mridangam artists were not behaving as if they were performing to a packed auditorium. They were playing their instruments as if they were in a living room and jamming with each other. So, when I met Natesan last week, I asked him how is it that they managed to have so much fun while playing in the professional circuit? He replied: “Sir, we play because we are having fun! We never play to impress. This has been our training.” This, said Natesan, was the first and the biggest learning, his guru, TVG, had imparted in him. “TVG Sir would say, when on stage, simply freak out. Don’t worry. Don’t think. Just play. Enjoy yourself. If you enjoy yourself, you can be assured that the audience is enjoying your performance. If you worry or wonder if the audience is enjoying, you will make a hash of it. So, just play your guts out every time you play.”

Please note the nuance in Natesan’s recollection of his guru’s advice. Play your guts out every time you play. TVG did not use the word ‘perform’. Both times he said ‘play’. This is our key learning.

Are you living or are you making a show of living? If you are making a show of living, you are sure to be disappointed, because you are not living for yourself. You are living for audience approval. And as long as you live for someone else’s approval (big difference from living for others’ – subject of another thought altogether) you will find that it is unlikely you will be able to satisfy everyone in the audience. Someone, somewhere will always be upset with you. And you will spend a lifetime trying to please that someone. Instead, just live your Life. Enjoy the game. Of living. Live fully. Because, unlike in Natesan’s case, you will NOT get a second chance at playing (living) the game!

No experience is ever wasted!

No trial, pain or experience is ever a waste of your time or effort!

As we grow in Life it is our experiences that make us who we are. Many a time we are having to involve ourselves in doing things that seemingly have little or no meaning or relevance then. After all pain happens only when something you don’t want presents itself in your Life! So when we endure pain, we wonder why it had to be happening to us in the first place? We therefore resist that ‘uninvited’ experience. Our resistance plunges us into sorrow and depression. But if you look back at your Life so far, all that you have been through is what has made you who you are. Your real education happened in Life, and continues to happen now too, ONLY through the myriad experiences you have had.

I learnt this lesson the hard way too.

Almost two decades ago, I worked as the Executive Assistant to India’s pioneering telecom entrepreneur. This person prides himself to be the richest Tamilian in the world. I had quit a fairly successful media career to join him as his EA in Singapore. An EA’s role is actually one that involves a lot of planning, strategizing, reporting and number-crunching, while leading projects and, often, crisis management efforts. In the normal course, good EAs, to great Chairmen or organizational leaders, in about a decade, graduate to running those organizations themselves. After all, the EA would have learned so much about leadership and management, at the feet of the leader!

I had such a vision for myself as I took up my position at Singapore. I was barely 27 then.

But I was in for a shock. The man turned out to be brute at work. He paid me well, no doubt. But flogged me to work for 20 hours a day. I had to travel with him around the world. Living out of a suitcase. He was both impulsive and abusive. So, we would have barely landed in a country, a new city and checked into a hotel. But he would want the next morning’s flight out. He was never organized. And I was just the opposite. I liked, and still do, to have a daily list of tasks, maintain schedules and preferred quiet periods where I could sit and work on minutes of meetings, whet contractual documentation and create value for my boss and our organization. We were at that point working on two projects that would__and eventually did__revolutionize India. One was the introduction of cellular telephony and the other was introduction of Direct To Home TV broadcasting __ both through new legislations in India’s Parliament. My boss was a maverick, deal maker. He was not an institution builder. He liked to get businesses off the ground, often corrupting powers that be in the process, and then sell them to larger business houses for a profit.

Initially, I suffered the grueling schedule, the inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies believing it to be a learning experience. Traveling different time zones each week, managing a non-stop 20-hour day, daily, for over 18 months, non-stop, was indeed a learning experience.

But slowly I began to hate my work. Because it made no sense to be on tenter-hooks at the time. I lived by the edge literally. I had to always be around my boss. Despite all my preparation, I would fail. Because he had this knack of asking for the one thing I had not thought of or prepared for! He had, in addition to my responsibilities as his EA, also loaded me with responsibilities that normally have to be handled by a personal assistant. So, here I was, in one moment sitting in meetings with satellite manufacturers, or equity funds or global telecom players, and at another moment rushing to get his tickets confirmed or buying him coffee or Aspirin. Since he maintained no laptop, or email or papers himself, I had to make sure our documentation was perfect. And where was the time to do any documentation when you spend 20 hours on your feet each day? My boss invested in stocks heavily across the world. So, he slept for one hour spells during the day or night, depending on which stock market he was tracking that day. But never beyond an hour at a time. That hour, I could not sleep. I used that golden hour of peace and quiet to complete documentation, struggle with sending mails (email was so new at that time: Hotmail was not yet born!) and faxes. And I had no help.

I could notice that my efficiency was clearly suffering. I was losing hair and gaining weight. I tried broaching the subject of working in a more organized manner with my boss. But he would only get more abusive. He would shout expletives at me. It was very embarrassing. And it affected my self-esteem gravely. So, I started fearing speaking to him. Soon, I became a robot, just executing orders. Within me, I was grieving though. It was humiliating and frustrating.

One day, I walked into a meeting at Singapore, that I had coordinated, at the Ritz Carton Hotel’s Presidential Suite (where my boss was staying). I lived in the mini suite opposite to his. The meeting was between my boss and the Chairman of one of the largest business houses in India. My boss asked me for a set of papers which were not part of the agenda being discussed. In fact, they were completely unconnected with this business group we were meeting. I explained to him that I had had no time to prepare them and intended to get them ready shortly.

He shouted at me, in front of our visitors: “Punnakku! Thevidiya Payan. You are both stupid and foolish!‘Punnakku’ means ‘cow fodder’ and ‘Thevidiya Payan’ means ‘son of a whore’ in Tamizh. Both the Chairman of the business group visiting us and his CFO, who was part of the meeting too, knew Tamizh very well.

I felt like a worm. I quit that day. And took a flight back home. It took two months of sleeping entire days and much caring by my loving wife to recuperate from that traumatic experience. In the months that followed, even as my boss tried making peace with me and tried wooing me back, I wondered what a horrible waste of time this whole stint had been. I did not see any reason why I should have been paid so highly and treated so poorly. I did not understand why despite my integrity and ethics-based value systems I had to go through what I went through. I grieved struggling to make sense of the whole experience.

To be sure, at that time, I couldn’t understand it at all.

But over the years, with newer experiences coming in my way, I can see how that stint with the man, those 24 months,  had prepared me to deal with Life better.

1.   His temperamental and abusive nature have made me stronger. I have learned to face 
      and deal with any amount of irrational, unreasonable criticism.

2.  The 20-hour work days, not knowing what will hit you from where, have made me prepare meticulously. Sometimes, people around me think I am very paranoid. I am not really paranoid as much as I am usually well prepared.

3. Thegrief and the trauma I went through, when I was socked and beaten up, metaphorically, each day, have made me, despite all my preparation, to accept the bizarre turns Life can take at times. So, nothing really surprises or shocks me anymore!

4.   And being his EA and PA have made me, hopefully, a very adept crisis manager.

5.  Allthat crazy international travel have made me a road warrior. I can survive in any condition, in any airport, anywhere in the world! And I have learned to love travel and make my hotel rooms my home where I find peace and sleep the moment I hit the pillow!

I am claiming all of this with all humility. Because I am still learning each day from each new experience. But, without doubt, without that experience I wouldn’t be half as tough a person that I am today.

I met my former boss, many years later, in the lobby of the Mumbai Taj, at the Gateway of India. I held his hand and thanked him profusely for the experience. I said, “Without you, I wouldn’t be the AVIS I am today.” He was startled, but gave me a hug and invited me to stay in touch!

So, don’t resist what you are going through. Everything happens for a reason. If we knew the reason before hand, we would end up intellectualizing the experience. Like the way we intellectualize our academic syllabi through school or college. Life is a hard teacher, as someone said. Because she always gives the test first and the lesson later. Simply, accept and love whatever you are going through. Because it is preparing you for what you will have to live through! With each new experience, you can only get better with living this Life better!

True Happiness lies in immersing yourself in what you Love doing!

To be truly happy, just immerse yourself in what you love doing! Then, and only then, will your work become your play and your prayer!

We are both responsible and accountable for our happiness in Life! We have too often lived our lives the way others wanted us to live them. Over the years, conditioned by societal norms and family expectations, we have just grown biologically. For the same reasons, to be fair, we have worked towards professional and financial security. And have raised families because it was the logical thing to do once we got out of academic pursuits and became employed!  Yet, how many of us are doing what we love doing?

Have the personal courage to ask yourself these all-important questions:

     Are you happy doing what you are doing for a living now?

     Are you living or are you earning a living?

     If you had someone pay all your bills, and if you didn’t have to earn a living,  
      what would you have liked to be living for?

These answers you give yourself, honestly, are the only ones that can change your Life! Because when you know, and you accept, what can make you truly happy__that’s half the battle won. Happiness cannot be pursued. It has to be found. And you will find it, here and now, if you remove all the conditions in your Life that are making you unhappy. When those conditions disappear, happiness appears. It is as simple as that!

But how do you leave a lucrative job, that comforts you with security, gives you a societal edge and take up something you love, no doubt, but is hardly likely to reward you financially, in the beginning at least? This is where intelligent living comes in. You start a journey of a thousand miles, by taking the first step.

And that first step is to invest just 5 minutes a day doing what you love doing. One of the principal reasons people don’t switch to doing what they love doing is because they are too caught up doing things all day that they loathe doing! But 5 minutes is not a bad deal. However busy you are running your rat race, you can take a 5-minute-break and that shouldn’t hurt anyone, least of all you. In those 5 minutes, do what you love doing __ reading, writing, painting, composing music, researching, cooking, whatever! You will discover a rare peace in you in those 5 precious minutes. You will want those 5 minutes to never end. So, extend the tenure of that daily activity by 5 more minutes. Keep feeling joyful and keep extending the tenure as you graduate through this experience and exercise! Soon, in about a quarter, you will have created a daily window of your own ‘Happy Hour’!

Imagine from being frustrated with your Life, bemoaning the lack of joy in what you were doing, you have a full ‘Happy Hour’ daily to do what you love doing! And that’s 30 ‘Happy Hours’ in a month. If you are an artist, you could complete a masterpiece in that time. And if you are a writer you could perhaps complete a chapter of your book in that time!

If you are smart, as all people usually are, you may look at how many ‘Happy Hours’, over how many years, will you need to make that career switch from being a high-paid unhappy professional to being a well-earning, happy individual. And once you know your math, you simply go after the opportunity!

Even as I was thinking about this important link between what we do and happiness, I chanced upon these simple, yet enlightening, perspectives.

1.     One is from the latest issue of Harvard Business Review. HBR asks David McCullough, two time Pulitzer Prize Winner and author of biographies on two US Presidents, Truman and John Adams, what he thinks about retiring. McCullough, now 79, replies: “I’ve just started writing a book on Paris and the birth of aviation, and I can’t wait to get out of bed every morning. When the founders (of the US of A) wrote about Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they didn’t mean longer vacations and more comfortable hammocks. They meant the pursuit of learning. The pursuit of improvement and learning. In hard work is happiness.

2.     The other is from the latest issue of TIME. TIME asks Hollywood star and former California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, now 66, his views on his retirement. And he replies: “You would never see me retire because I have a great time doing what I’m doing. Why would I all of a sudden stop? It doesn’t sound normal.

Think about it. If you are not having a great time doing what you are doing, take the 5 minute daily plunge and move toward creating your own ‘Happy Hours’. Because only you are responsible__and accountable__for your happiness! The truth also is that nobody else can ever be happy for you!