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!!
You may want people around you forever. But Life decides whether you need them or not.
A young reader wrote in that his girlfriend has broken up with him. He has dependent parents – both of them have kidney conditions that require regular dialysis – and the lady “does not want to be saddled with the burden of his parents”. The young man is heart-broken and unable to come to terms with this reality – he is struggling and suffering.
Now, it is perhaps easy to conclude that the lady lacks compassion. But whatever be your view, the truth is she always had a choice and she exercised it. So, the only way forward for the young man is to move on. But moving on is never so easy. Especially when you believe you are attached to someone at a “soul level”. As this reader told me, “My ex was a huge support for me emotionally. I related a lot to her. But now I feel lonely and lost.”
However, not just in the context of a break-up, but generally in Life, if you treat relationships as impermanent, you can cope with your loss better. Some people you love and relate to pass on. Some others move on. This may sound weird, but it is important to practice detachment in a relationship and be ever-prepared for a separation. Yes, one way to look at separations is to say that they are ordained that way or that someone leaving you does not deserve you. But there’s a more evolved, mature, response that’s possible. Which is that one day, sooner or later, a separation, like death, is inevitable.
Let me share with you the story of my friend, who’s in his 50s. I met him recently, many years after he had separated from his wife. His wife actually had dealt with him rather unusually – taking over his property, deserting him and migrating to the US with their child. While she may have had her own reasons for her actions, my friend was devastated. He just could not reconcile, for several months, with what had happened. I remember him telling me then: “I loved her and still love her a lot. She could have just told me that she wanted to break away from me and I would have walked away without a question. That she chose not to trust me with her decision hurts me more than her leaving me. And why deny me access to my own child?”
Over time, my friend immersed himself in his work. And all of us around him felt he had managed his emotional state pretty well. When I met him a few days ago, I asked him how he was coping. What he told me blew me away completely and my admiration for him has swelled. Here’s how the conversation went.
Him: “Life’s beautiful. I married a Kashmiri woman whose husband died of cancer some years ago and adopted her son as my own.”
Me: “That’s wonderful. How old is the boy? And how has he adapted to you?”
Him: “The boy is in his teens. It’s been 7 years. He calls me ‘daddy’ and we are great friends. My wife and I are also great friends. To tell you the truth, I have a special and beautiful friendship with her. After her husband’s death, her in-laws were not supportive. They harassed her and blamed her for their son’s death (he was diagnosed with cancer within a few months of their marriage). She even contemplated suicide as she could not handle them nor get over her loss. She loved her husband a lot and did not see a meaning in her continuing to live. We have a mutual friend who asked me if I could consider marrying her so that she could get out of the tyrannical clutches of her in-laws. When I met her for the first time, she told me openly that she did not want to ever physically consummate our marriage. Because she still feels the presence of her husband in her Life. So, she told me that our own marriage may not work out. I liked her openness. And her concern for me. I told her we could still marry and be great friends. That’s how it all started and all three of us are very, very, very happy!”
Me: “That’s such a great choice and gesture. I respect you. But don’t you miss something: maybe physical intimacy? Maybe your first wife?”
Him: “Life’s not about sex and physical relationships alone. I still love my first wife. But she’s gone. What’s the point in pining for her or holding a grudge against her? I decided to channelize my love for her and my first child, who’s with her, toward my second wife and her son. Their presence in my Life keeps me anchored and their friendship keeps me going.”
The learning I am picking up from my friend’s story is this: no matter what happens to you in Life, no matter who you end up separating with, for whatever reason, you can still make it beautiful.
The key to being detached in relationships is to understand and accept the transient nature of Life. As a child, I learned to play the Hawaiian guitar. And one of the songs I learnt to play on it was “Ek Pyaar Ka Nagma Hai…” from Shor (1972, Manoj Kumar, Jaya Bhaduri, Nanda, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar, Santosh Anand). My favorite line from the song is this: “…Kuch Paakar Khona Hai…Kuch Khokar Paana Hai…Jeevan Ka Matlab Toh, Aana Aur Jaana Hai…” It means, “…(in Life)…you win some, you lose some and Life’s true meaning is to just come and go…”!
And that’s all there is to relationships too. People come and go in your Life basis a grand design that you can never comprehend. They come to play a specific role in your Life. When Life decides that you no longer need them, they move on. Now you may perhaps want them around forever. But Life is willing otherwise. So, if someone has left you heart-broken, get up and move on; accept Life’s verdict and celebrate the times you spent with that person. Ultimately, Life is the biggest Teacher, the Master Planner, and, as I have learnt, the Master Plan has no flaws.
Empathy and compassion are key to heal the world.
The other day I bumped into a friend to whom I owe money. I have kept him in the loop, sending regular updates, on our situation (read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal). But I was meeting him after a few years. I told him that I was very sorry for the continued delay from my end in keeping up my commitment. I thanked him for his patience and understanding. He replied, “How can I hold it against you for what you are going through AVIS? I won’t say I don’t need the money back. But I don’t feel short-changed either – by you or by your situation.”
I sat that evening and replayed his perspective in my mind. It was practical. And at the same time it was deeply spiritual; very simple, yet profound. Most of the time, we look only at our situations, our needs, our wants when we demand or expect something from someone. We rarely consider what their story is, what they are going through. My friend’s attitude reminded me of the value of compassion and empathy in relationships. Even in a complicated one where I owe him the money, where I am answerable to him, he had the compassion to not hold it against me, to not judge me for what he thought of my prolonged situation. I sent him a text message that night: “Thank you for being truly human.”
Talking of this incident reminds me of an experience we have been having with someone eminent. We know this person for the past year. The first time we met we spent a good amount of time chatting with him. We exchanged business cards and promised to stay in touch. But whenever we met him after that first meeting, he behaved as if he didn’t know us. This happened again two days ago when he came to a conversation I was curating and hosting – in response to my invitation! When I walked up to him and said hello, he was dismissive and moved on. I was perplexed. So I asked a common friend if this gentleman had poor social skills. The common friend clarified to me that this person had a problem remembering names and faces – it was form of amnesia! Imagine, if we were to judge this person as someone who had poor social skills or someone who was a snob – how tragic would that have been?
Simply, if we can all reach my friend’s state of being non-judgmental, I believe we will have a more beautiful world to live in. Think about it. It’s doable. Surely!
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!
When what you have to say or offer or ask for is rejected, remember, you are not being rejected!
An interesting conversation with an acquaintance brought up the subject of ‘fear of rejection’. She said that deep within her she was having trouble with reaching out for help or perspective or opportunity because she was never sure how she can handle a ‘no’. Now, she isn’t alone in feeling this way. A lot of the people, a lot of the times, struggle with the ‘fear of rejection’.
I too have feared, and disliked, being rejected.
I have come to understand ‘fear of rejection’ as the sum of two things – ‘fear’ and ‘dislike for rejection’. Clearly fear is a feeling within you. You fear something. Darkness. Uncertainty. Or even a pet – like I feel extremely uncomfortable in the presence of dogs. But fear can be overcome by facing it, by looking it in the eye. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is what fear delivers when you look what scares you, your fear, in the eye. So, in every sense, when you fear something, you do have the power within you to face the fear too. Try this: whatever you fear most in your Life, turn around, instead of running away from it or brushing the issue under the carpet, and face it – and believe me, your fear will dissolve. The situation may not change, but you will not fear it any more. Whether it is breaking off in a relationship or asking for a raise from your boss or whatever. ‘Rejection’, on the other hand, is not in your control. Someone else is rejecting you. What can you do about it? It is their prerogative to accept you or reject you. You only have a choice to influence their decision. You can’t enforce their decision – ever. So, ‘rejection’, to me, is a way to learn to accept Life for what it is. And it is always what it is. Yes, when you are rejected, you do dislike it – who doesn’t? But if you understand that your disliking it is not going to change any reality, you will let the dislike go and instead focus on what more can you do, what can you do next to be accepted.
Among the most difficult things to ask for in Life, according to me, is money. And unfortunately, for almost 5 years of my Life between 2002~2007, and on some occasions in the past decade, I have had to ask people for money. It was extremely humiliating in the beginning and the ‘fear of rejection’ gnawed at me so, so many times. But when I realized that I had to do what I had to in the given situation, of having to survive, and keep our family afloat, I faced my fear and asked people. I was humbled by many who came forth and have supported me and Vaani. But my requests have also been rejected by people. In fact, even as I asked people for money, I gave them the option to say ‘no’ saying that I will never misunderstand if they said they can’t support me or Vaani at that time. This is how I learnt to be non-judgmental about being rejected. To say ‘no’ is anyone’s prerogative – including yours – in a given context. And I learnt that we should never hold it against anyone for choosing to say ‘no’. This experience, humbling and awakening at the same time, has helped me deal with many other contexts with equanimity – rejection when a prospective client either does not award an engagement or does not even respond to emails/messages despite showing a keen interest upfront, rejection by a creditor of the evidence we place before them of our enduring bankrupt situation, rejection by a judicial authority of our pleas for more time to honor our commitments and several other instances. So, over the past 10 years, I have learnt to deal with ‘fear of rejection’ as follows:
- Stop running away from whatever you fear. Face what you fear, look it in the eye!
- When someone rejects you or says ‘no’ or implies that they are not interested, don’t be judgmental. Respect their choice to reject you, your offering or proposition. Remember: they are saying no to your proposition, your idea, your pitch, they are not saying no to you!
- Don’t dislike the situation when you are rejected. Instead ask yourself what you can do to be accepted. Try again. And again. And stay willing to keep trying.
Both ‘fear’ and ‘dislike for rejection’ are debilitating. Don’t let them pin you down. Face what you fear and accept the situation every time your proposition is rejected. You too can then experience equanimity and be happy despite the circumstances!
PS: If you liked this blogpost, please share it to help spread the learning it carries!
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!
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.