In over 33 years of loving each other and 31 years of living together, Vaani and I have never cooked together. Which is, I have never attempted learning cooking. 😊
Now, with the COVID-19 lockdown situation, for the first time, I found myself hovering around the kitchen and asking Vaani if I could learn to cook from her. It sure was a bit unusual as I asked her that; I couldn’t believe that I was ready and willing, finally, to learn cooking!
But there has to be a first time for everything, right? Plus, apart from being my BFF, my soulmate, Vaani is also a great teacher! So, I told myself, “let’s go do this”!
I made half an adai last evening for dinner – spreading out the maavu on the tawa. And this morning I “understood” how a vegetable korma is made – I chopped the veggies, stirred up the gravy and basically soaked in the entire process. I even ran my understanding through our daughter Aanchal (who herself loves to cook) in Singapore and she signed off in approval!
I am very amused that I am doing this. I have always been the housekeeper at home. I find cleaning a deeply meditative practice where I engage wholesomely with the process of cleaning up, dusting and polishing surfaces, often doing the dishes too. Even so, somehow, I have always postponed the idea of learning cooking. I have learnt to make filter coffee some months ago. But being with Vaani in the kitchen and watching her cook, assisting her and learning from her – well, that happened for the first time today!
And I am lovin’ it!
On a spiritual plane, this “event” reiterates to me that everything happens in its own time and at its own pace.
There’s one more learning on offer here – from the overall COVID-19 situation. If you think about it deeply, it is forcing the whole world to sit down in one place and just be. You see, everyone has been so conditioned to running amok, imagining that if they don’t hurry, if they don’t rush and grab whatever they think they deserve, they are going to miss the bus or that something grave is going to befall them or that they will lose some thing. So, everyone has been on this spree, this crazy race to become. Become more visible, become richer, become more recognized, become more successful…which is everyone has been trying desperately to become someone else, to become better than the other…everyone, in some way or the other, has been on this becoming trip. In the past decade, social media has only fueled and grown this frenzy, this becoming angst. And then COVID-19 comes along and, in less than a quarter, shuts down the whole world and is forcing everyone to be.
Isn’t it amazing? Don’t you see what’s happening? The whole world has surrendered; it has been forced, in fact, to capitulate – to jump off the becoming treadmill, to being home, just being!
It is possible that many find the transition from “becoming to being” a very difficult one to make. But let me tell you this, from our own lived experience, just being is not complex. It is simply being present. It is all about bringing your full attention to whatever you are doing. It is only when you are present, in the moment, in whatever you are doing, that you are non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering. It is only then that you are happy despite your circumstances. Now, just being is an art – you have to train your mind to be that way; this is what Vaani and I have learnt through living with our bankruptcy for 13 years now. This is the quality that has helped us to live fully with what is – not complaining about what we don’t have, but celebrating whatever we have!
And it is this choice to just be, in this COVID-19 lockdown scenario that is expected to last for a long while, that led me to embrace cooking – a space that I have consciously avoided getting into for over three decades now. This gives me one more beautiful reason to be with Vaani and to learn from her. I hope to learn quickly. And I also hope to soon raise a toast to Life and to COVID-19 for giving me a new, immersive experience to thrive on!
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.
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: http://www.thehappynesswalas.com
Life’s upheavals and scars, interestingly, make it beautiful, meaningful.
Last evening, I sat alone with my coffee at Starbucks. And I thought back on the year gone by.
It’s been an interesting one surely.
My dad passed on in April. It has been a new, unique, often reflectively painful, experience living without him. In May, our daughter Aanchal graduated in her Master’s program – thanks to two angels who sponsored her. Even so, she and our son, Aashirwad, have had to deal with their own share of challenges. Watching them deal stoically with these Life-defining experiences definitely made Vaani and me proud. But there were spells of agony too – arising from our inability to help them as parents; at all such times, we took refuge in prayer. Nalli’s Kuppuswami Chetti came forward serendipitously, voluntarily, miraculously, to publish the Tamizh translation of my book Fall Like A Rose Petal – and so, Uthirum Roja Ithazh Pola launched in October. Our 100th non-commercial Conversation, as the happynesswalas – Inspiring ‘Happyness’, happened in April. And the 50th Edition of our popular, longest-running, non-commercial, Conversation Series, #BlissCatchers, was hosted in August.
Although we awoke each day with renewed vigor to reinvest ourselves in the task of turning around our business and repaying our over 170 creditors, we have been pushed back by Life. One more time. Another year has passed without a steady or serious revenue opportunity. The glimmer of hope that came between end-2017 and mid-2018 evaporated this year, plunging us into yet another phase of worklessness; leaving us to survive on grace and grants. So, as we enter 2020, we continue to endure our bankruptcy – and all its material, emotional and legal challenges – into its 13th year now!
Both Vaani and I are over 50 now. So, understandably, some persistent health issues certainly raised alarms all through 2019. They pointed to what could be potentially debilitating conditions, but without the means to immediately deal with them, we have left them where they are – for Life to heal, to take care!
As I thought deeply, I felt 2019 offered itself for review on two counts.
- This was yet another tumultuous year, one that was often punishing. Given that we have already been faced with a grave challenge for over a decade now, on whether we deserved a year like 2019, we could possibly label it as bad or as ugly. Well, it certainly was not a good one on that scale!!!
- A constant theme for Vaani and me, that was evident all through 2019, is Happiness! Clearly, Happiness has held us together and helped us endure and survive. Our ability to be non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering – which is, essentially, being happy despite our circumstances – shone through the year, through one more year!
I quickly dropped the first count. And as I embraced the second one, I smiled to myself – in gratitude, in prayer, in surrender. I thanked Life for reiterating a lesson that we have learnt and known only too well over this past decade. Which is, no year is good or bad. It’s just a happy one!
You see, a year is, at one level, a simple measure of time that we humans invented. It denotes approximately 365.256 Earth cycles around the Sun. Good, bad, ugly – well, these are human labels, again human inventions! Something happens that meets or exceeds your expectations – you label it as good. Something that you don’t want happens to you and you call it bad. And if that something causes you acute trauma, makes Life unbearable, you call it ugly. Such is the human response to Life events. And a year gets labeled based on how you, as a human, have chosen to evaluate the events that occurred in your Life, based on your expectations! But although their actions deliver this unit of time called a year, the Sun and the Earth are not bothered about how – and what – we mortals think. Hafez, the 14th Century Persian poet, says this so beautifully: “Even after all this time, the Sun never says to the Earth, ‘You owe me’. Look what happens with a love like that, it lights up the whole sky.” Now, this is how Nature operates: without any concept of time or of profit or loss. The Sun simply, unconditionally, without judgment, lights up Life on the planet – it lights up our lives – even as the Earth keeps going around the Sun! There’s love, there’s abundance, there’s a selfless giving in both these acts. Therefore, there is no worry, there is no frustration, there is no suffering in how Nature works. There’s a pure, unadulterated, sense of just being – a.k.a Happiness!
Which is why a year can really, truly, be filled with Happiness! No matter what you are faced with, if you don’t complicate your Life with human ideas – if you don’t bring up your expectations, if you don’t analyze what you want and what you deserve and instead humbly accept what you are given – you will be happy!
Yes, as is with the process of Life, at every step, you will face upheavals. Just as you will be blessed with grace.
…~ You may find and follow your Bliss. People you know will die or leave you. There may be times when you will deal with material loss or there will be others when you have to cope with heartbreaks. You may not get what you want – someone else may get it though; and you will feel frustrated and suffer when you compare yourself with them! Your Life’s Purpose may find you. Some of the challenges you are dealing with may leave you numb. You may want answers to your questions or seek logic and reason that can explain whatever’s happening but you may end up being more frustrated with Life’s inscrutability. You may find love. A child may arrive in the family. The government you voted for with so much hope may let you down – horribly! You may win a jackpot. Or a dreaded health condition may not be what you have. Towards the end of the year, you may realize that your resolution to lose weight may have dissolved long, long ago, because the pangs of earning-a-living held you in their vice-like grip.~…
So, all these, and other, scenarios may well play out through the year. And such is the process of Life! To be happy you must simply trust this process. You must celebrate the suchness of Life. You must go with its flow.
In Japanese culture, there is this ancient art called kintsugi. It is the art of fixing broken pottery with golden lacquer. As a philosophy, kintsugi invites us to celebrate imperfections. It reminds us that what happens to an object, including its breakage and repair, is an integral part of its history. Which is so true of your journey through Life too. Every experience that you go through is part of the process of the unfolding of your myth. If you sit back and reflect on your own 2019, on how Life dealt with you this year, you will see how every upheaval, every scar in your Life, is precious in its own way. You will realize how you have emerged stronger and wiser from each experience you have been through. You will be amazed at how you have learnt to cope, how you have moved on this year too, just as you have done, all your Life.
This is why it is pointless to label a year as good or bad (or ugly). A set of events simply happened to you this past year. And another set will happen in the year coming up. Instead of over-analyzing and labeling the year gone by, embrace what is, and train your mind to be non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering. This holds the key to your Happiness. This is the way a “Happy New Year” stays true to its meaning and you stay happy through those 365.256 times that the Earth circles the Sun!
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!! Look them up here: www.avisviswanathan.in and www.avinitiatives.co.in.