The last two months, I’ve been redoing some things I’ve done before. All these things I’m doing are thought out, and stuff that’s beneficial for me.
I have learned a few important things in the process :
– past success in an activity does NOT guarantee you will succeed at it again. Not true for hobbies and habits – everyone can ride a cycle after decades of not doing it after a few attempts. But in stuff where let’s say you compete, any outcome is possible. Remembering this helps keep one humble and pushes one to do the homework
– learn to accept failure and rejection. If we succeeded at everything, would success hold any value? Success is not an entitlement.. It’s a pursuit. Some simple things to do are :
*first, accept that you have failed. That you tried, and it still didn’t happen
*tell yourself what you’ll do different the next time
*write that in a personal electronic journal, and tag it as “failure”
*you can search for it next time you are about to attempt something new, or after a long time.
I am getting back to blogging after 6 months on the unlikeliest of days. A Monday.
So many weeks and months passed, where every Friday, after a week of maddening work at my start-up, I would tell myself I would finally write a blog that weekend. The weekends brought their frolic, and somehow always managed to subdue the thought of sitting and typing my thoughts out here.
Today is the first Monday in a long time I am not working late into Monday night. I thought it was a good idea to use these minutes to come back here and drop a note, for myself to read later.
Work is the same – part fun, part stress, but overall very satisfying. My moment of joy on weekday nights is coming home to the wife and the dog, and spending some time just existing around them. Most days, that seems to be enough. It’s all I want.
Then there are days when dissatisfaction creeps in. With life, or money, or love, or career success, or social standing. All those petty things that tend to nibble away on your happiness. They come, bite sometimes, and leave a sting.
Although as time passes by, I am getting better at getting rid of the sting quickly. The dull moments come, take a toll. But I smile and tell them to move on. And I have found that if I assert myself strongly enough, the stinging feelings leave quickly.
Right now, that is my dominant thought, and the message to my future self. That only we, and we alone, can reason with our demons, and send them away. Other people can come and help, maybe show the way, but in the end it is us who must handle the difficult task of reasoning with ourselves and finding peace in chaos.
We all carry an image of ourselves in our minds. Our own impressions of our virtues and shortcomings dictate how we see the world, and feel about ourselves. So much of our daily happiness is predicated on how we view ourselves.
Some will say it’s a gift – the realization that your happiness depends on your view of yourself, also means that if we can somehow learn to craft an image of ourselves we love mentally, we will be happier.
“I am fat, I am poor, why am I still stuck in the same job.” – Bad self view, sorrow
“I am kind, I have loved ones, I am making a difference.” – Good self view, joy
So, if our mental image of ourselves determines a large part of our joy, and our own mental image is something we can engineer, it begs the question – why is there so much misery?
It is because we are very bad and drowning the noise of the external world, and investing in ourselves to let our mind create that positive self-image.
More specifically, how does an average city dweller “identify” himself? “I am an XYZ at a major international firm ABC. I make so much money in the year, and next year, I’ll be making more. I have 500 FB friends, and my last post of my Goa pic got 100 likes. So, life is good.” In one sentence, this view can be paraphrased as: “I am successfully able to craft an image of success and happiness for the outside world, hence all is good.”
The flaw – how the world sees you is not how you see yourself. And you live with yourself 24 hours a day.
A strong sense of identity cannot be predicated on possessions – job title, paycheck size, things. Because titles go, paychecks fluctuate, things are taken from you. When I moved back from the US, I was in the exact same spot – no job title, no paycheck, no possessions. For a while, I was completely lost. All I had believed myself to be (a Consultant with an elite firm in the Bay) was no longer true. I was a 27-year male who could sit in a park all day, and nobody would call him to check up on what he was upto.
But after a short period of self-doubt, I had the most awesome learning (so far) of my life.
I saw myself for what I truly was – another man with his set of strengths and weaknesses, starting from scratch. Once I realized my own self-image was worth nothing, and that the world owed me nothing, so much weight was lifted off my shoulders. I went around searching for independent assignments, took buses to get around Delhi, and stopped spending money on non-essential things because I did not know when my next paycheck from a short-freelance gig would come. Amidst all this chaos, I ended up doing the best work of my life as a project manager with the United Nations. The assignment took me to villages in Eastern UP, where I was finally able to do something meaningful with my management education – define budgeting framework for social justice programs in the villages, and train some people to become English and Math instructors to teach their fellow villagers.
Since then, I’ve settled (for now) to be part of an awesome start-up. The possessions are coming back. But one thing has changed fundamentally. The next time I need to go back to living without these things, it will not hurt. Because I am not my TV, or my car, or my shoe brand. What I am is a person who can fight, who can love others irrespective of his own circumstances, and who can keep going on. To me, that realization about myself is worth more than everything I ever had.
The challenge, it seems, is to be connected to this world, and yet be disconnected. Maybe this is what Buddha meant from the “middle path.” To be a part of it, but to remember it’s ephemeral. And to remember, that the only one we need to answer to at the end of the day is our own selves.
Every few days, someone posts a meme from “Into the Wild” on Facebook. Here’s one:
I see why. In our minds, Into the Wild depicts freedom in its most absolute: a man roaming freely in nature, free from the shackles of the urban jungle. Bound to our computers, work hours and endless social obligations, we all lust for the carefree life of Christopher McCandless.
But that’s setting a very high bar for freedom. If living alone in Alaska is freedom, most of us will never be free. Moreover, city dwellers value and love at-least some aspects of their rule-bound lives: a salary, company of their loved ones, a Saturday night drink at their favorite local bar. That leads to the conclusion – “if abandoning all safety and predictability is freedom, most of us do not want to be free.” I believe that’s a harsh judgement, because there’s nothing more people want than to be free. All this confuses and muddles the definition of freedom.
So, what is freedom?
Before discussing freedom from a human context, I want you to think of a lion who lives in a jungle. The lion is a free creature, right? He’s the King too. He lives by his schedule, and is the architect of his daily agenda. But a lion gets hungry, which is when he must hunt. A lion should also protect his lioness and kids, because they are constantly in threat from other lions who see the other lion family as competitors. As free as the lion is, he is bound by the laws of nature: everything that is born must fight to live, and perish when its time comes.
Humans are subject to the exact same laws of nature. Just like the jungle lion, we must fight, survive and protect the ones we love. That is our karma. Anything that is born must do its karma, it’s not even a matter of choice. So it begs the final question: if we are bound by karma, do we even have the choice to be free?
In my mind, the answer is a resounding “Yes”. But to be free, a fantastical vision of freedom with no shackles should be abandoned. Setting the bar that high will only set us up for failure, and eventually cause dissastisfaction with our lives.
Just like happiness, freedom must be sought in the small things. Had a hectic week? You’re free to spend your Sunday soaking some Sun. Noisy meetings gave you a headache? Listen to your favorite romantic album when you hit bed. Make the moments count: how we spend the moments is how we live our lives.
In addition, freedom comes from “exercising” your freedom. “Think freely”: disagree with the popular opinion if you believe in yours. “Act freely”: if you believe you’re right, do it regardless of how others will perceive it. And just as you value your freedom and happiness, “value the freedom and happiness of others”. Spend time doing things you love and the people you love, and do not compromise on your strongest passions for anything.
In the end, I think being free is not in our circumstances, but in our outlook. The mind can be free even when the body is held captive in a small room. Similarly, the mind can be hostage even when the body is on a mountaintop. So being free will take a hell lot of practice. And it will be a constant battle to stay free amidst the chaos: freedom is not a destination you reach and can stay at. All pleasurable things in life take practice (playing the guitar, learning a new dance form). It’s only natural being free will also take a hell lot of practice.
Within 4 months of its occurrence, the Delhi Gang Rape has completely disappeared from public discourse. Even The Hindu, which reported the case with maturity and persistence, no longer prints the details of court proceedings on the first page. And this case is supposedly in a “fast track court”. So much is wrong at so many levels: broken judicial system, unaccountable government, and most tragically, apathetic us. Good news is: if we all contribute just a little time, thought and resources to even one cause we truly care about, big collective change can happen. The world has always been tilted more towards wrong than right. Thankfully, we live in a time where a few click on our laptops can help set that balance right.
Mansi loves animals. In Berkeley, she spent a lot of her time working with the Berkeley Animal Care Services. She would attend to dogs and cats, take them for walks and help out in their care. My only contribution to this task in all the months she did it, was to drive her to the care shelter and pick her back up. In spite of multiple opportunities to accompany her to the shelter, I never did. I wasn’t too much of an animal enthusiast. It’s just something I had never paid attention to: whether I loved animals was a question I had never asked myself.
On our evening walks, we would usually find ourselves sitting in a park, watching people playing with their dogs. Berkeley is dog country: well, dog and cyclist country. To think of it, all world should be dog and cyclist country: people and vehicles have not proven to be very successful alternatives. Anyways I digress. Watching these dogs play, I started paying more attention to their behavior. What struck me first was dogs have very unique personalities: I could spot a playful one, a mischievous one, a bored old one, an unfriendly one that really didn’t want to hang out with other dogs. Some of these dogs would get bored of fellow dogs, and stray our way. When some dogs surround you and start acting cute, you have little choice but to pat them. So, over these evening walks, I started observing and even liking dogs.
The evening walks continued after moving back to Delhi. Like always, Mansi would pay attention to dogs, only this time they were everywhere and not in a park. She would stop often to either pet a stray, or buy a packet of biscuit and feed him. I often stood at arm’s distance and shouted cautions such as “don’t touch him – he’s probably infected!” Sometimes, I would make ridiculous statements like “you don’t have to feed them you know, they are strays and are experts at finding food. Your feeding them affect their scavenging skills.” I think what’s more ridiculous than that statement, is that I believed in it.
In some ways, Delhi is more of a dog country than Berkeley. For all the comforts and rights dogs enjoy in the West, a lot of animals with declining health and no owners are euthanized there. In Delhi, stray dogs thrive because they are not “put away”. They survive on what we throw away, sleep under cars, play and fight with each other, and die when it’s time. Bottom line: Delhi is a good place for an animal lover who wants to help. On one of her evening walks, Mansi spotted an old bearded man carrying a big bag of biscuits feeding every stray in the neighborhood. He was being followed by an army of dogs, all vying for his affection and some biscuits. She came home and told me of the Pied Piper of dogs she had spotted. I knew what she was talking about: I had seen him feed stray dogs ever since I was a child. I was happy to know he was still alive, and still at it.
Few days later, Mansi came back from a walk and told me she had spotted that uncle, and struck conversation. His name is AK Goyal. He told her that feeding strays was his way of experiencing pure, selfless love, and that he felt the affection he received from these animals far outweighed the petty price of feeding them. Mansi asked if we could help him (I was auto-signed up for the activity by her). He said that in the park right in front of our house lived two dogs, and he could used help in feeding them since his old dog Manu who always accompanied him refused to go that far (our apartment is some distance from his).
Mansi was very happy to be given this responsibility. The next evening, we bought a large bag of rusks, and left for the park with some of it. Dogs are good at hiding themselves when they want to, so we had to look around for dogs that fit his description: one old, white male and a smaller, brown female. We spotted them, threw some “come hither” gestures their way and waved the bag of biscuits. Reluctantly they approached us. The female was shaking and terrified of what we may do, but couldn’t help herself getting drawn towards food. We made two piles of rusks, and left.
The next day, we returned in the evening. They recognized us: the male came running but the female was still scared, and approached slowly. We fed them, and were on our way again. Over the next few weeks, they understood we were harmless (makes me think of how many people would’ve just kicked them around for the fun of it, they seemed scared of people in general). They would be joyous when we approached them, run around in circles, wag their tales furiously and escort us to the park gate when we left. All this affection rubs off on you; it did on me. I lost my reservation against strays, started patting them, and now usually come back home with their licks on my hands and sometimes even on my face.
Like Goyal uncle had said, as I got regular in feeding them, I realized they really were about pure selfless love. Feed a dog once, and he’s all yours. One small act of kindness is enough to convince him that you’re worthy of his love. And dogs always seem to have a lot of love to give away. We’ve been feeding them for four months now, pretty much without fail. It’s a routine: Mansi or I go to the park alone or together, they come running to us, insist we pat them, and only after we’ve played with them for some time do they graduate to eating their food. A lot of times, they accompany us all the way back to our apartment gate.
We bumped into Goyal uncle one of these days, and told him we had been feeding the dogs regularly. He smiled and told us he had given the two names (he has named every stray dog in the neighborhood, and some smart ones even respond to their names). He called the older male Buddhu, and the petite female Chhoti. Good names, I thought. Buddhu really is a little dumb, and Chhoti is pretty small for stray standards.
Everyday, I look forward to the 10 minutes I spend feeding Buddhu and Chhoti. To connect with another creature: not through words, or actions, but just through touch, makes me believe love can connect different species. Under this skin, maybe all of us living beings are the same: hungry for love, compassion, and some patting.
Here are some life lessons I am reflecting on this Saturday afternoon. Now, I pass you my wisdom:
1. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction. You just need to find the people who live that strange truth, which is a fraction of the large human population. Surrounding yourself with the right or wrong people can make all the difference. If your truth is strange for the people you’re with, the problem isn’t the strangeness of your life as much as it is the dullness of theirs.
2. Humans are simply animals in clothes. They live in a concrete jungle, minimize risk in their daily lives, and will abandon all morals when their survival is at stake. So really, humans are simply animals in clothes. Once this truth is internalized, it’s easy to lose fear of people and also forgive them for their more-often-than-not evil ways.
3. Learning to engineer the mind is tougher than mastering any external force. It is also more rewarding than any external victory. It is a controlled mind that can create joy in misery. An uncontrolled mind can find misery in heaven.
4. Everything around us is an impediment to controlling the mind. From the people eager to learn everything about us to social media sites that force us to paint a picture of a happy life, everything forces us to look outwards. In all this relationship-balancing, success-painting and errand-running, the only person ignored is our own selves. How do you feel every time you log off Facebook? Do you feel “Aah, that was the best 10 minutes I spent today.” Or do you feel “Really? Did I just spend my time liking pictures of what people ate for lunch this Saturday? Won’t it all just mean crap (literally) within the next day?”
5. So really, the sum of 1,2,3 and 4 is this: don’t stress about what you see and project outwards. There’s too much chaos. There’s chaos in our homes, on the streets, in the Parliament, and in the galaxy. And one human lifetime is very short to fix all this chaos. There’s a sea inside of us though, waiting to be discovered. Diving inwards may make people – weird, reclusive, whimsical. But it just may make you happier. So, don’t care, and do your thing.
A lot has been written about the tragic incident that occurred on a Delhi bus the night of December 16th, 2012. An innocent, regular girl, wanting no more than to live a regular life, had to undergo heartbreaking suffering. On December 29th, she departed, leaving us all to continue living in a cruel, insane world.
She is gone. The aftermath has consisted of a national outrage against sexual harassment of women in India, many protests, and a dead government waking up to its people’s demands. An atmosphere of conflict and rage still persists all over India, especially in Delhi where I live.
On a personal and spiritual level, I have felt a number of things in the last many days. Thought of jotting them down here.
Karma does not explain suffering. How does one explain the suffering that girl went through, on that bus, at the hands of those deranged men? The simplistic explanation offered by Karma, that we pay in this life for actions in our past life, seems perverse in this case.
Life truly is unpredictable. Our plans are made of dust, and we are constantly fooling ourselves into believing they are concrete.
I have always believed that the litmus test of fairness is: how do you treat and co-exist with those less powerful than you. Humans have always failed this test. Rich countries exploit poor countries, men exploit women, humans exploit the helpless animal kingdom. As a species, we are morally bankrupt. Other animals never take from nature more than they want. When they fight, it is for the existential need of food and reproduction, never for greed.
I believe in smiling at life’s absurdities, and moving on. However, the suffering of the girl haunts my mind. I can simply pray that her family finds peace someday, and that we can do better as a society in providing a safer country for everyone, especially women and children.