The Universe is always sending you signs, so…stay tuned!
December 31 has always been special for Vaani and me in the past decade or so.
It was on this day, in 2007, that we were told by our lawyer S.Vijayaraghavan (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal) that we were bankrupt! Realizing that we just had Rs.2,000/- left with us in hand, with our bank accounts running in deficit, all our gold jewelry pledged, no real estate investments, insurance or stock options to fall back on, and Rs.5 crore outstanding to 179 creditors (I call them Angels in my Book!), we had gone to Vijayaraghavan to seek professional, legal counsel. Aashirwad was 17 and getting ready to go to college, Aanchal was barely 13. Our Life, that day seemed so dark, so hopeless, so impossible to salvage. It seemed to the two of us that it was all over! What do you do when you don’t know what to do?
So, in a sense, today marks a unique anniversary in our Life. Of our bankruptcy!!!
There’s an unforgettable throwback to that day. Earlier in April of 2007, Aashirwad and I travelled to Rajasthan on a vacation. We visited the holy dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti (1141~1236 CE), the Garib Nawaz, in Ajmer. I instantly felt connected with the energy of the place. I experienced the same Higher Energy at the dargah that I had felt at the Vatican in 1995 or while visiting our family’s native shrine, the Mangottu Bhagavathi Kaavu, in Athipotha (Palakkad, Kerala). My own views on God and religion have evolved over the years – but I can surely relate to a Higher Energy, which is also why I occasionally visit select shrines – to “repair and recharge”. Following our visit to Ajmer, perhaps because I had left my business card with the person who arranged our visit at the dargah, I kept receiving mailers every month. The mailer always had an appeal to contribute to a scheme to feed the poor at the shrine daily and it had the Garib Nawaz’s scared thread – something that believers tie around their wrists as a talisman. Each time I got the mailer I would ask my office to make a small contribution to the feeding scheme and I would forget about the mailer. This went on, for 6 months, almost mechanically. I never understood why I got those mailers. But on that day, around 5.30 pm, I stopped by at my office, after that fateful meeting with Vijayaraghavan. That was the first time I had heard the word “bankruptcy” with reference to our debt-laden, cashless situation. I was struggling to internalize what he had told us. And my practical, logical instincts told me that “there was no way out for us”! As I rode the elevator up to our office on the third floor, in those 30 seconds, I closed my eyes and meditated on the “Higher Energy” that powers the Universe. I prayed: “Show me a sign that we will make it!” It was, on a logical plane, a wasteful prayer. It was a captain’s valiant effort to see through a dark, stormy night, looking for a passing vessel, when his own ship was almost sunk! The elevator jerked as it reached the third floor. I opened my eyes and stepped out. I walked to my desk and I found a fresh mailer from the Garib Nawaz’s dargah sitting there, on top of a set of papers demanding my immediate attention! My assistant told me it had arrived that afternoon. Was that “the” sign? If you had asked me then, I would have been unsure. But 9 years on, we still are surviving, tethering at the edge at most times, but we are still there – hopeful and sure that we will make it! Was that “the” sign? You bet, it was!
Yet, as you can see, we have not just survived. We are driven now by a Higher Purpose – of Inspiring Happiness! So, we go about sharing, with all those who care to pause and reflect, through the lessons we have learnt from this cathartic phase in our Life, that it is possible to be happy despite the circumstances! So, December 31 has now become an anniversary of an awakening we have had – we have realized that if you let go and trust the process of Life, you will always be looked after!
December 31 was also the day, in 2012, when my wonderful publisher, Westland, made me an offer that I could not refuse – to publish Fall Like A Rose Petal. To me and Vaani, it is not just another Book. It is a spiritual journey. That offer came at a time when we were in a torrid phase in our bankruptcy, of complete worklessness (eventually we went on without an income stream for 30 months from June 2012 to December 2014)! The Book, which was launched only in August 2014, gave us a reason to last one more day each time, it gave meaning to why we were going through what we were.
Last evening, Vaani and I spent some time reflecting on the year gone by and told each other, no matter how tough the coming year would be, we would continue to remain focused, purposeful and dogged in our efforts to turn around the business (so that we could repay all our debt) and to Inspire Happiness among all those we connect with.
This morning as I got ready to go for a meeting at a Starbucks store, I reviewed our money situation. I didn’t have money on me for entertaining my guest, a business associate. My Starbucks loyalty card had just enough cash for one coffee. So, I arrived at the store planning to offer my guest the drink and decided to not have a coffee myself. But I reached the store ahead of my guest. A friend who was already there greeted me. She said she had been planning to reach out to me, to be my Santa – she wanted to load my Starbucks loyalty card with her gift!!! I protested. But she said she had been in touch with Vaani on this but, for some reason, she had not been able to do an online payment into my account. Before I knew it she had taken my Starbucks loyalty card from my hand and had loaded it with Rs.2000/-! I am so overwhelmed; I am still to make sense of her compassion, her generous gesture.
The symbolism of the convergence of Rs.2000/- and December 31 in our Life is not lost on us. This small miracle of a gift on my Starbucks loyalty card is yet another sign from the Universe. It seems to say to me and to Vaani: “Hang in there! If you are alive, it ain’t over yet!”
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There will be times in Life when you can’t solve your problems. This is when you must learn to trust the process of Life!!!
A member of the audience at one of my Talks recently made this observation: “I am very inspired by you and Vaani. Both of you have phenomenal trust in each other and have demonstrated the power of resilience. But how I wish your story had a happy ending, how I wish your story had turned around for all the positivity you both exude. Then your story would have been a lot more inspiring!”
Vaani and I too wish the same outcomes. Not so that our story is inspiring, but so that we end up repaying all our debt and become debt-free. There’s a huge responsibility that we bear in us, every single day, of repaying our 179 Angels (creditors) the USD 1 million dollars that we owe them. There’s a line from a Tamizh classic (I not well versed in Tamizh literature, so I am not sure of the source – if anyone can enlighten me on the source, you are most welcome; will be grateful for the learning!) which goes like this…‘kadan petraar nenjam pola’…translated loosely, it means ‘like the heaviness in a debt-laden person’s heart’. While we have learnt the art of not allowing our spirit to be smothered by the weight of our problems, both professional and legal, and our debt, we still wake up every single day with an awareness of this enormous responsibility. We try to get our business back on track – meetings, proposals, networking, presentations…we keep doing a lot of stuff, a lot of new stuff too…but we remain unfrustrated when our efforts don’t bear the results we seek. To be sure, over the last 9+ years, our efforts have come unstuck more times than they have yielded any profitable outcomes. And, through this catharsis, this has been our big learning. Sometimes in Life, talent, integrity and hard work will not get you what you want. So, this is when you must keep the Faith and learn to be Patient. Faith here is the ability to trust the process of Life – that if you have been created, you will be provided for, you will get all that you need and you will be cared for and looked after. Patience here means the ability to keep the Faith even when there is no evidence to support that you will get the results that you are toiling towards.
Clearly, Faith and Patience are not capable of solving your problems. Your problems will either sort themselves out over time, in their own timeframes – not necessarily within the deadlines you wish or strive for – or your efforts will lead you to solutions over time. Yet, Faith and Patience are great coping devices. They help you and me, anchor within, find inner peace and be happy, even as Life works at its own pace, in its own time. Our learning and experience is also that if you have found inner peace and have learnt to be happy despite your circumstances, you can face anything, absolutely anything, in Life! Which is why we don’t wish for anything, anymore. We simply put in a 100 % every single day, go to sleep happy and content that our efforts have been true and genuine, and wake up the next day to go back to putting in another 100 % effort. We know that someday, we trust Life enough for knowing this, we will eventually get to what we are working toward!
You too can be courageous in a situation – if you choose to face whatever you fear!
A reader of my Book ‘Fall Like A Rose Petal’ (Westland) met me at The Uncommon Leader Event I was curating last evening. He said he found my Book very useful in developing the courage to deal with his own Life: “I was running away from my problems. Your story inspired me to turn around and face Life. Thank you!”
I am grateful to this reader for his feedback. It makes me feel blessed that our experience and learnings are useful for someone, somewhere.
It is only through living with fear, from feeling insecure, desperate and despondent, that I personally woke up to the futility of those emotions. When I was tired of living that way, I decided to turn around and face my situation. And, interestingly, what I feared most stopped haunting me. In fact, my worst fears have never come true and only facing my fears have made me be courageous in dark, apparently, no-go situations!
To be sure, fear spares no one. Even so, interestingly, all of us have the ability to be courageous. Because courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is what fear delivers when you face up to the fear. Only when you face up to something, will you realize that it cannot harm you; only what you run away from chases you, haunts you.
For instance, with a health challenge like cancer, you will feel fearful of death. But as long as you run scared of death, it will torment you. But the moment you discover that death is a non-negotiable eventuality that all of us who are born have to confront, you will no longer fear death. Then you start living. And you begin to feel blessed that at least you reasonably know how much time you have left to live. So, you start investing in the process of living than obsess with the process of dying. Clearly, fear of death has delivered to you the ability, the courage, to live simply because you stopped running away from death.
So, it is with every Life situation. The more you run away from a problem, the more fearful you will be. When you face it, the problem, even if it doesn’t go away, will at least stop tormenting you. Try this approach on anything that you are dealing with presently – watch your fear dissolve and feel the courage rising in you! Let me assure you, you will feel infinitely stronger, no matter what your circumstances are!
People often imagine that ‘just being’ means inaction. Just the opposite is true – ‘just being’ is a lot of action, for there is a lot to do, simply being present in the moment!
I met a friend the other day who said he was worried that all his efforts at getting business into his company were coming unstuck. He complained that no matter how hard he tried or how many sales calls he made, he was simply not getting orders. I smiled at him and said, “I can empathize with you. I am in the same boat. That makes it two of us!” “That’s my real fear,” he exclaimed in reply, “I worry that my Life too will become another Fall Like A Rose Petal story.”
I laughed. I said there was nothing wrong with the Fall Like A Rose Petal story. Just like everyone’s got a story, I too have one. And I have shared it in my Book (published by Westland) of the same name. My Book’s title is inspired by a story that Osho used to tell his followers…
A Sufi Master used to say to his disciples:
A rose petal, so delicate, but so strong, doesn’t hesitate about where it is falling, where it is going, whether there is any earth to find, to rest, to go to sleep, to die… Simply Trust. Do not the petals flutter down just like that?
So, I explained to my friend, by wishing something away, you can’t prevent Life from happening to you the way it wants to.
My friend said: “I don’t think you are doing enough. I think you have resigned to your fate. I don’t want to be like you. Every man makes his own destiny and you make that by putting your 150 % into a situation every single day! But I must confess that I am getting frustrated when my efforts are not yielding desired results.”
I didn’t want to discuss fate and destiny with him. However, while agreeing with him over making each day count, I made my point that sometimes, in Life, 2+2 will not equal 4. In such times, being in the now, in the present, being mindful is the only way to anchor in peace. Being mindful, living a Fall Like A Rose Petal Life, does not mean inaction at all. I told him that it means two things:
- Accepting the moment for what it is, being in the moment, engaged, mindful. Thoroughly involved. Which is a lot of action.
- Being involved with also doing what is possible, and doing it well, in that moment, and yet being detached from the outcome.
When 1 and 2 are happening simultaneously, where’s the question of passivity or inertia or remaining stuck? You are in flight! You are soaring. Despite the storm, despite the chaos, your sails are filled with grace, energy and momentum!
The reason though why many people see ‘just being’ as inaction is because they have this view that they are in control of their lives. So, they believe, that ‘just being’ will breed inertia and they will vegetate. So, they feel the need to stay busy and feel important that they are doing many things! This state is where almost everyone finds themselves at some point or the other in Life – running on a treadmill, where you are doing a lot of running, but are still in the same place! ‘Staying busy’ is just that – it doesn’t get you anywhere and leaves you drained, frustrated and beaten! Whereas ‘just being’ gets you to enjoy the magic and beauty of Life, while keeping your energy reservoir within you brimming over!
Vietnamese Buddhist guru Thich Nhat Hanh teaches this so well. He calls ‘just being’ non-action, not inaction. “Sometimes if we don’t do anything, we can help more than if we do a lot. We call that non-action. It is like the calm person on a small boat in a storm. That person does not have to do much, than just to be himself, and the situation can change,” he says.
Know that whatever’s happening to you now is part of a larger design that is creating your future. The funny thing about our present, our now, is that it is already happening. Which means we can’t wish it away. The only way to deal with it is to accept it, to live it, to stay engaged with it. Just as we enjoy when what’s happening is what we like, we must learn to appreciate whatever’s happening even if that’s not what we wanted or expected or like! This is mindfulness. This is ‘just being’. This is what Fall Like A Rose Petal is about! It helps you connect with the source of your creation, helps you drop anchor and find inner peace no matter what you are doing, or where you are, or what circumstances you are dealing with!
Vaani and I are incredibly blessed that Mother Teresa touched our lives in the most serendipitous and miraculous manner.
In today’s blogpost, I reproduce an extract from Chapter 10 (‘Follow Your Bliss’) of my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal (Westland). The extract (in purple text below) recounts an anecdote from our Life on how Mother Teresa’s blessing reached us – and how it continues to guide us with our Life’s Purpose.
On Saturday, April 11, 2009, I got a call from Philip Sir, a client and dear friend from Kochi, Kerala. Philip Sir had last visited Chennai in January 2008 to look me up when he had come to know of our situation. He had given me ₹1000 ($20) and said, given his own circumstances and priorities, he couldn’t afford to help us more. He requested me to accept the money as his humble Vishu Kani nettam. He is a big man, Philip Sir, about 15 years older than I am and in his kind eyes, I saw a graceful energy drench me with a blessing, as I accepted the money. That money helped us last a week as a family!
He had also given us a Life-saving engagement by paying for my airfare and inviting me to conduct a day-long workshop with his team at a small processed-foods company in Thrissur, Kerala, in February 2008. He said his company could afford only ₹10,000 ($200) as fee to us but agreed to pay it in cash at the end of the session. We were so cashless that I didn’t think. I just grabbed that opportunity. That money, when I brought it back from the trip, helped us buy groceries and last the rest of that month! He was also generous enough to offer me a chauffeur-driven car to visit Guruvayoor and our native family deity in Athipotta in Palakkad district, Kerala, while on that trip. Although I have evolved, thanks to this experience, and do not see great value anymore in pilgrimages and temple-hopping in times of distress or otherwise; at that time, those visits were important: to believe, to know that a Higher Energy would take care of all that it has created! Of course now, I do know that the Higher Energy resides within us.
Within you. Within me.
For those reasons and others, when Philip Sir called that Easter weekend, I was happy. He said he had been, minutes before calling me, in front of Mother Teresa’s tomb, at Mother House, the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, in Kolkata. He had been serving as a volunteer at homes run by the Missionaries of Charity, during Lent that year. That Saturday was his last day in Kolkata. He was returning to Kochi transiting via Chennai. He wondered if he could drop in at home for breakfast on Easter Sunday. I told him that he was most welcome!
I picked up Philip Sir from the airport. At home, we had a sumptuous breakfast of hot idlis, sambar, coconut chutney and molagapodi with yennai. His flight to Kochi was not until later that afternoon. So, we moved into our study. Philip Sir wanted to know how we hoped to fix the business and our lives. I told him that the 14 months since we had met had been a great learning experience. I said my daily practice of mouna gave me clarity and we now knew why we had been created on this planet. We now knew what our Core Purpose was.
Philip Sir smiled and asked what that Core Purpose was.
I got up and went to the white board and wrote the following words in blue marker ink: “To awaken people to the new way of thinking, living, working and winning.”
Even as I explained what the ‘new way’ was, which is spiritual empowerment, serving, right thinking and growing intelligently through Life, Philip Sir rose from his chair. He took a red marker pen from the holder and walked up to the white board. He placed a big huge ‘X’, on the word ‘new’ and wrote the word ‘right’ above it. The statement now read: “To awaken people to the right way of thinking, living, working and winning.”
As Mom and I looked on, obviously perplexed, Philip Sir went on to deliver an impromptu sermon: “When you say ‘new way’, AVIS, you are saying you invented it. Did you? Of course you did not. Spirituality is as old as mankind. Or older. You are merely sharing a way that you found and which has worked for you. AVIS, be humble. No matter what happens in your Life, stay grounded. You or I or Vaani create nothing. We cause nothing. Neither our successes nor our failures. We are merely executors of a cosmic will. You have been put through this experience to learn from it and you want to share this ‘right way’ with others. By all means, do so. You are an amazing speaker. I have heard you. You have the ability to transform how people think. I have experienced it myself. My only wish for you is, no matter how successful you become, never claim any of that success as your own. You are only an instrument.”
So saying, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled up a very small re-sealable zipper storage pouch that had a rose petal in it. The petal had not dried completely and I could see its purple-pink hue as Philip Sir held it up.
He said, “Yesterday, when I said my last prayers at Mother Teresa’s tomb and bowed to take her blessings, I was reminded of you suddenly. I don’t know why. So when I took a petal for my wife and family, I decided to take one for you and Vaani as well. Here it is. I am not sure I understand what I am doing. I am not sure you understand either. Maybe the reason will manifest much later. For now, accept this petal as a blessing from an apostle of service. May you both overcome your problems and may you too serve humanity, touching lives and making a difference.”
Mom and I were in tears as we received the petal. We hugged Philip Sir as he bid us goodbye. I dropped him off at the airport and haven’t met him since that Easter Sunday of 2009. The petal still sits on my desk, safe in the tiny re-sealable zipper storage pouch. Both are inside an old plastic film roll can.
What I learnt from him, through him, is now a prayer that I say to myself each time I am leading a workshop: “I am but an instrument. Whatever the audience must learn today from my experiences, let that learning happen. The message is not mine, the stage is not mine. I am a mere microphone. And no microphone can take credit for the message!” That my bliss has the blessings of one of the noblest of all creations in the history of humankind – Mother Teresa; overwhelms and sobers me, each time I am in front of an audience.
Note: My Book is written in the form of letters to my two children Aashirwad and Aanchal; so in this extract, I am actually sharing this anecdote and learnings with them. Mom is Vaani; I call her Mom!
This morning as I read about Mother Teresa’s canonization coming up at the Vatican, my thoughts went back to this anecdote. I cannot but marvel at how the Universe always sends you a message, long, long before something has happened. We received a ‘rose petal’ years before we had even thought of sharing our Life lessons in a Book. And when it eventually came about, my Book, interestingly, is named Fall Like A Rose Petal – the title is inspired by a Sufi story that Osho used to say! Reflecting on all this, I feel humbled, I feel blessed and I feel grateful for the miracle of this lifetime that I have had so far…
Revisit the past – only if you must; more to see how far you have come and never to brood over what could have been.
Today is special for two reasons – it marks 20 years of entrepreneurship for Vaani and me; and it is also the second anniversary of my Book Fall Like A Rose Petal’s (Westland) launch.
It was on August 1, 1996, that Vaani and I set up imagequity+, Asia’s first Reputation Management Company, in our small apartment on Second Main Road, R.A.Puram, near the Kaliappa Hospitals (now Billroth) in Chennai. We set it up with all our love, passion and vigor – in the 50th year of Indian Independence even as Rahman’s Vande Mataram tugged at our heart strings – to be the consulting Firm from India for the world. We grew fast and grew well in the first 5~7 years of our existence. And then we made mistakes. Strategic ones. That changed the course our Firm – and our lives – took, forever.
It is almost 9 years since that Firm went bankrupt. I remember how, four years ago, I sat on the ground in a makeshift office (where we had moved, unable to sustain operating costs following our business going bust), and personally shredded display boards and signages of the Firm’s Purpose, Vision and Values. In the journey of the last 20 years as an entrepreneur, that was the most numbing moment for me personally. I was literally, and figuratively, presiding over the funeral of a Firm that we had birthed with Purpose, with Vision and with integrity. Even so, despite the catharsis, we feel no bitterness in us. Yes, there is great pain – owing to the physical demands that a bankruptcy places on your Life – cashlessness, worklessness, cluelessness and lightlessness in a dark, seemingly endless, tunnel. But there is no aftertaste – no regret, no heartache, no sense of loss, grief or suffering.
I believe our non-suffering state has been achieved by treating this period of material loss and acute physical strain, as one of awakening and evolving. And this is the spirit of my Book as well. I wrote it through the darkest phase of our Life. I wrote it because I first wanted to share with my children how you journey through Life, how you flow with Life, as it happens. At their insistence I took an edited manuscript to Westland’s Gautam Padmanabhan who put it to review and vote with his editorial board. Karthik Venkatesh, a key member of that board, gave me infinite support and direction as we prepared, over the summer of that year, to release it on August 1, 2014.
Fall Like A Rose Petal, even as I wrote it, and even now, continues to be a spiritual journey. My story has no beginning. And it has no end that I can see. Yes, someday in the future, Vaani and I hope, the physicality of our bankruptcy will end and we will eventually become debt-free. But I don’t think we can ever repay the debt of gratitude that we owe our 179 Angels, our creditors, who came forward and selflessly supported us and to whom we still owe money. So, this journey will continue as a means of continuously evolving, hopefully paying it forward by way of being as compassionate with others in need as the Universe has been with us.
Dates, anniversaries and wishes of what could have been don’t make sense to me anymore. They are but ways of reminding yourself that this is where you are in Life – having traveled from where you once were! At least, that’s how I have learnt to look at Life. I realize that merely clinging on to the start of my entrepreneurial journey, this day, 20 years ago, will keep me chained to the past; a past that is dead. Instead, I am eternally grateful for my past – for, without the experience of being an entrepreneur, without leading, winning and getting whatever I wanted, without making mistakes, without stumbling, falling, going bust and broke, without pennilessless and worklessness, I may have never discovered the power of reflection, resilience and resourcefulness. I may have never written my Book – which has connected me to hundreds of people who have found the lessons I have shared very useful to cope with their own Life situations. Without turning an author, I may have never been delivering Talks and curating events that inspire happiness. I may have never taken to writing this Blog – which to me, is a truly immersive, therapeutic, daily experience! Without the Life I have had, I may not have been the person that I am today – perfectly at peace with myself in my beautiful, bountiful, yet apparently imperfect, world!