“I am a bird. And I want to fly.”
When she was barely six, Nandini Nair recalls writing down this aspiration for herself in a school assignment that invited each student in her class to share what or who they wanted to be when they grew up.
Over 25 years later, Nandini recounted this memory, in a Conversation that she had with me in the second Edition of our Happyness Reboot Series on Wednesday, 4th December. Happyness Reboot is a live, reflective, non-commercial Conversation Series curated by Vaani and me that explores human stories and discusses the opportunities, issues, challenges and emotions that truly impact Happiness at the Workplace.
In this Edition of the Series, we explored “Me Time” – a basic necessity and primary responsibility that everyone consistently ignores!
The truth is that almost everyone, at some point in time, feels like they are running on a treadmill, chasing meetings, chores and deadlines endlessly. They often feel they are sleep-deprived. And even as a sense of feeling incomplete and unfulfilled is gnawing at them, they are searching for a quiet place and time. Some people even feel they are heading for a breakdown!
These are a few reasons why we believe you must create time – your own “Me Time”, for your Happiness, to be you, to lose yourself in whatever you love doing!
Nandini is a fine example of someone who has managed to pull off this amazing feat of creating and sustaining her “Me Time” consistently over the past decade. Here’s why I say this. Nandini is a young, dynamic, Indian Revenue Service (IRS) Officer, who is currently a Deputy Commissioner of Income Tax. But despite her high-energy, high-pressure work routine, Nandini finds the time to immerse herself in art and dance. She’s no amateur; she holds shows and performances as any consummate artist would!
How does she do it, I asked Nandini, pointing out that several people in her position may have well discontinued doing what they love doing citing work and family pressures.
Nandini’s reply showcases the understanding she has about what Life is and what she wants out of it:
- “To me, my art, whether it is theatre or dance or painting, is not just another hobby. It offers me a ‘great escape’ from the stresses of everyday Life. While theatre helps me meet new people from diverse backgrounds and enhances my awareness of the power of community, dance – even as a daily practice – is an opportunity to be physically and spiritually expressive. And painting for me is a private, intensely personal, experience; each of my paintings is a ‘rescuer’ that has helped me during my troubled, anguished times…each work of mine has me, my feelings, deeply embedded in them.”
- “Without my art, I would have gone mad!”
- “I don’t have all the time that people imagine I have to do many things. I am not a very systematic person either. I simply create the time when I have to do what I have to do – whether it is my art or whether I am fulfilling my professional responsibilities.”
- “I don’t like stereotypes. I don’t believe that long hours mean greater productivity. As long as you are completing what you are setting out to do, you are doing great.”
- “Which is why I am not just an artist or an IRS officer…I am clear that I am a bird and I want to fly…if this means I will keep trying new experiences that enrich me and allow me to express myself…I surely will find the time, I will find the means, to do all of them.”
This clarity is indeed remarkable. Nandini refuses to allow herself to be boxed in by society’s views of how people must lead their lives. Society imagines that a working woman will not necessarily be able to do multiple things beyond fulfilling her professional and family roles or that everyday living pressures will suck your Life out so much that you won’t have the energy or time to indulge in immersive experiences like art or music or whatever it is that you are deeply passionate about. But Nandini’s I-am-a-bird-and-I-want-to-fly outlook throws social stereotypes out of the window. So she always finds the time, her “Me Time”, to be who she truly is – and to, well, fly!!!
Vaani and I totally relate to Nandini’s outlook. We too have evidently busted stereotypes by being the happynesswalas even though, in a worldly sense, we are failed entrepreneurs! On Wednesday evening, I also shared why we both completely understand and champion the value of “Me Time”.
To be sure, in 2004, when I was 36, my diabetologist had served me a wake-up call – my sugar levels were horribly high, my cholesterol was showing a worrisome spike too, I had a tobacco habit, I was drinking daily and, at 95 kilos, I certainly was over-weight. Shaken up from my stupor, I embraced a meditative practice called mouna – observing silence for an hour daily – which helped me drop anchor in a time of great stress and strife. Mouna transformed me. Physically, it helped me focus on my health; I lost 22 kilos in six months back then! It was mouna too that helped me and Vaani understand the transient nature of Life and helped us learn the art of being non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering. It is through learning this art that we discovered the ability to be happy despite our circumstances.
And it was mouna that brought me back to writing. You see, I am first a writer; I have spent most of the years in the first decade of my career as a journalist. But the lure of worldly success, the challenges of entrepreneurship, the tribulations of trying to save a sinking business – all these had weaned me away from writing for almost 15+ years. But as we descended into our bankruptcy in 2007, when fear and darkness engulfed us, mouna reminded me of what I was missing – writing! I found writing therapeutic and a deeply immersive daily practice. I started with writing this Blog, which I sustained daily for 10 years on the trot, without missing a single day! I still maintain much of that prolificity though I do take reflective pauses. My return to writing led me to publishing my book, Fall Like A Rose Petal, in 2014. And through doing all of this, Vaani and I awoke to our Life’s Purpose – Inspiring ‘Happyness’!
So, simply, “Me Time” has changed the game for us. It introduced mouna to us, it is our anchor, it inspires us to Happiness, it sustains my daily writing and it has truly aided and abetted our survival through this enduring, tumultuous, 12-year phase of our bankruptcy. It has helped us stand in the midst of the everyday battle of Life, in the whirl and madness of the chaos that surrounds us, and has taught us the ability to be unmoved.
Which is why, I concluded Wednesday’s Conversation by sharing a key learning from our own lived experience. I said that intelligent living simply means recognizing the perishable nature of Life and choosing not to postpone Happiness. It means focusing only on what matters most to you, on what you love doing. A simple beginning can be made by investing in your “Me Time”, in one hour on yourself daily – start with your health and with what you are deeply passionate about, what makes you come alive! When you do create that one hour for yourself, you will, magically, see how you gain control of the remaining 23 hours of the day!
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.
Non-worrying is an intelligent choice you can make.
If you are on an Indigo flight the next time, pause as you board and glance at the cockpit door. A little blue sticker advises the crew to leave their worries out of their work: “Flying is a serious profession, do not carry your worries beyond this point.” Even as I shot a picture, our flight attendant and Leading Lady Vaishali said, “I follow this advice all the time, Sir!”
That’s an intelligent choice Vaishali makes. But the sticker’s message is not applicable only to the flying profession. The way I see it is like this: “Living is a serious business. And we must not let our worries come in the way of living our Life to the fullest!”
Worry is a human invention; it is not a part of Creation. We worry only because we are not in control of our mind. The human mind thinks 60,000 thoughts a day. Now, you can’t get rid of thoughts. They will keep arising in your mind just the way waves arise in the ocean. And the nature of the mind is such that, in its untrained state, it thrives in the dead past spewing thoughts of anger, grief and guilt or it races to the unborn future painting dark, worrisome, fearful scenarios that cause you to be steeped in anxiety, insecurity and stress. When you train your mind to anchor only in the present moment, it becomes powerless. In its powerless state, the mind learns to live fully in the present moment. In the now, the past and the future are both irrelevant. This understanding, and a disciplined practice of any form of meditation to train your mind, are what can lead you to be non-worrying.
Simply, there are only two kinds of problems in Life. One kind are those problems that you can solve. So, why worry? Another kind are those problems that you cannot solve. Again, why worry? Either way, worrying is a completely futile activity. Worrying has solved no problem – ever!
Yet, to be sure, you cannot get rid of worries. But you can choose not to pick up a worrisome thought when it arises in you. Only when you attend to a worry, only when you pick it up, does it control you. Non-worrying is when you choose to ignore a worry. So, worrylessness cannot be attained; but you can surely learn to be non-worrying.
To me, the little blue sticker on the Indigo cockpit door is the simplest primer available for Life. It reminds us that Life is a one-time, limited-period, offer. And encourages us not to squander our Life either by worrying or being held hostage by negative, debilitating thoughts.
Be eternally grateful for what you have.
Someone I met yesterday asked me this question: “What is the simplest way to be in peace?”
And the simplest answer is this: be eternally grateful for what you have.
But an elaborate answer requires that we examine why we are not able to practice gratitude daily, consistently. The fundamental problem is that our minds are not nurtured by us. We almost continuously keep hurting ourselves by thinking negative thoughts, by pining for what isn’t there, by worrying. We are all badly bruised, battered in fact, within us. When you are injured within, you must first heal yourself for you to see the value in being grateful.
See, it is like this. When we injure ourselves physically, say with a nick while shaving or a cut while chopping vegetables, the body heals itself. If there is a deeper injury, with some care, we are back on the road. The truth is when the body is affected, it receives attention. The truth also is we injure our minds all the time but we don’t give it the care it needs to heal. Every angry thought, every remorseful thought, in fact every thought that is not centered around love, peace and gratitude, is injurious. Now, ask yourself, how many such thoughts on love, peace and gratitude, do you think out of the 60,000 thoughts that occur to you each day? Unlikely that we even think loving, peaceful, grateful thoughts for weeks on end!! Consider therefore how battered the mind must be and how much healing needs to happen for it to be ‘normal’ again. Unless we heal from within we cannot feel grateful.
‘Mouna’, the practice of silence periods daily, is the best way to heal our minds, to help it anchor in faith and patience. The 13th Century Persian poet Rumi couldn’t have said it better: “In silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.”
Stop weaving here means to stop worrying, to stop wanting to control your Life, to stop the continuous chatter in your head; it means to pause and reflect. When you are this way, you can only be grateful, you can only be peaceful. So, to be peaceful, stop battering your mind; heal it by anchoring in silence, love and gratitude!
Is it even possible – this intelligent living business?
A young man walked up to me after one of my workshops recently and asked, “Is spirituality the key to living intelligently?” He confessed that he did certainly see value in embracing the spiritual path but felt that he was unable to stay on it. “How does one motivate oneself to stay focused – consistently,” he enquired.
Let’s understand spirituality first. It is not to be confused with religion. Spirituality is the flowering of inner awareness. It is an awakening, a realization that everything is transient, impermanent, including your Life. When you realize that Life is a limited-period offer, you are gripped by this sense of urgency to want to live a full Life, instead of squandering it in merely existing. Embracing the spiritual path is intelligent living.
Interestingly, spirituality demands nothing from you. It just invites you to be – living with what is, living with the way your Life is, living being happy despite your circumstances. So, at a conceptual level, everyone appreciates the spiritual path. But they struggle with everyday living issues. How can you break-free when worry holds you hostage? How can you overcome fear, insecurity, anxiety and stress? What do you do when Life socks you, numbs you with a crisis? How do you stay calm in the face of a storm? Is it even possible – this intelligent living business?
This is where training the mind comes in. The human mind thinks up 60,000 thoughts a day. And it behaves pretty much like a dog. If it is trained, it obeys the master – which is you. If it is untrained, it runs amuck, it pulls at the leash and it leads the master. You can train your mind by practicing meditation. I employ a simple ritual – mouna – which involves being silent for spells of time daily. With mouna I have been able to organize and direct my 60,000 thoughts daily. I no longer allow my mind to lead me astray or hold me to ransom with debilitating emotions. My 60,000 thoughts are invested in staying immersed in the moment. To be sure, like you, I too have a zillion problems that I am dealing with. (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal) But in the throes of my challenging Life situation, I am calm. As they say, in the center of a storm, there is always calm. I have found my center – I have learnt to be non-worrying, non-frustrated and non-suffering. So, I now am truly happy despite my circumstances.
As I told the young man at my workshop, you too can learn this art. You can stay on the path too. You just have to learn to train and tame your mind. It requires effort, diligence and discipline. Most people are unable to embrace spirituality – and intelligent living – because they don’t want to invest in this process of training the mind.
The spiritual path is free. It is not complicated. It is not rocket science. And it is available to all. There are no tolls to be paid on this path. You just have to make an important choice – which is to stop being enslaved by your mind, and instead be the master yourself. Herein lies the secret to intelligent living, to happiness and inner peace.
It helps you to be unmoved when the wheel of Life inevitably turns.
The other day we bumped into a close friend of our family, Swami Suddhananda. We were meeting him after over a decade. So, I gave him a quick overview of our Life situation and presented him with a copy of my Book, Fall Like A Rose Petal. Suddhananda held my Book in his hand and said, “Isn’t it beautiful how Life works? Without your bankruptcy, there will be no learning, no evolution, and without that, there would be no Book. So, everything in Life, every experience, is a way of making you better and better!”
Indeed. Through the experience of our bankruptcy and from being penniless in Life, I have learnt the value of finding my own center. I realized that I am not my bankruptcy; I just happen to be in a bankrupt state. This does not mean that I am poor just because I have no money. I reasoned that I am rich with my experience, with my expertise and with my learnings from Life. It just so happens, that for an extended period of time now, we have not had money. This clarity emerged in my mind when I understood the value of finding my center. I found my center thanks to a quote I read that is attributed to Swami Vivekananda (1863~1902): “Live in the midst of the battle of Life. Anyone can keep calm in a cave or when asleep. Stand in the whirl and madness of action and reach the center. If you have found the center, you cannot be moved.” Until I read this quote, I would be consumed by anxiety and worry, I would snap at every provocation and break down for the smallest of reasons. But Vivekananda inspired me. I took to the practice of mouna (observing daily silence periods). And through that practice, over a few months, I found my center.
In medieval culture, there’s the metaphor of the wheel of fortune, rota fortunae, which explains how as people, as a race, we have all been conditioned to cling to the periphery of Life, holding on to the material aspects of our lives – power, wealth and assets; and so when the wheel of Life turns, as it surely will, you are pushed down if you are on top and you are pushed up if you are down. Per ancient Roman philosophy, the Goddess Fortuna, rotates the wheel which has the picture of a king on top and a picture of the same man as pauper at the bottom. This basically means that as long as you are on the periphery of Life you will have to deal with the ups and downs, with the highs and lows, with gain and loss, with success and with defeat. But if you move inward, to the center of the wheel, you could be unmoved by all that happens to you in Life. That center is also the focal point of faith, where you understand the value of trusting the process of Life, of its roller-coaster nature. Then you go beyond the ephemeral and the peripheral – money, power, position, relationships – and are drawn to understand what matters most and why.
If you are at the periphery of the wheel you will continuously be changing position. But if you choose to move to the center and learn be detached, if you choose to let go or reach the state of willingness to let go, you will be unmoved by everything and anything that happens to you. Whether you are up or down, whether you are gaining or losing, whether you are on a high or a low, nothing will matter. Because at the center, you are untouched, and, therefore, are unmoved.
Vaani and I still live in the throes of our very challenging financial condition. But I must report that we have learnt to be at the center of our Life’s wheel. And, let me add, it’s a blessing to be at the center. Living at the periphery always has this feeling of inherent insecurity – what if you are blown away? But living at the center means you know you will be provided for, taken care of, and will be given all that you need. Being at the center also means, therefore, keeping the faith.
So, if you are struggling with an imponderable – a health, money, career or relationship situation – try finding and moving to your center. That’s the only way you can soldier on in peace!