Seeking God

The marital hazards of visualization

My husband and I have started going for yoga classes together, and in one of the classes last week, our instructor took us through a visualization meditation process.

We were supposed to first remember a happy moment from our lives, and then later visualize our fondest desire come true.

In the first part, I remembered my loving moments with my husband — well, he was lying supine on the floor right next to me so he was obviously the first thing that came to mind.

Later, I imagined a rosy future for both of us, living in a wonderful place, writing books, earning enough to live a contented life, our children doing well in their careers.

I left the class with stars in my eyes.

In the car, I asked him excitedly: “So what did you think of when she asked you to evoke a happy memory?”

He looked thoughtfully in the distance. “I remembered this one day on the beach. As a child I had tried to swim across to a small island just off the beach, but I didn’t make it.”

My enthusiasm defused a bit. “What’s happy about that?”

He took out his phone and began going through the notifications that had been turned off during the yoga class. “I was happy because I almost made it, I’d covered a lot of distance. It was a good day.”

My mood now completely turned off, I said, “Okay fine, so what did you visualize when she asked you to imagine your biggest dream coming true?”

His gaze still on his phone, he replied: “I visualized swimming across to the island all the way.”

I gave him a piece of my mind.

“What an opportunity wasted! Why couldn’t you wish for something more worthwhile? Don’t you care for me? Here I am thinking all these wonderful thoughts of you and our future, and there you are thinking of swimming!” I shrieked in utter contempt.

He just shrugged it off, now too distracted by the jokes in his WhatsApp groups to bother about my opinion on what he should have been thinking.

Ignoring me in favour of his phone is a frustrating habit of his, but I have learnt to use his indifference as a useful tool for introspection. As he typed away, I gradually stilled my mind and looked within at what had provoked my outburst.

One word: expectation.

I expected him to think the same thoughts as me, to have the same aspirations as me, and to dream the same dreams. To be me inside his head.

It was completely laughable when I looked at it objectively like that.

I was angry because I expected him to love me in the same way I love him. I was upset because I imagined that he had squandered an opportunity to place a “worthwhile” wish before the universe – “worthwhile” by my standards, not his. I was exasperated because it appeared to me that he didn’t seem as wholly devoted to me as I am to him.

Essentially, he had nothing to do with my anger. I was angry because my expectations were not met.

I self-corrected my thoughts as I drove, and was calm by the time we reached home a few minutes later.

Then he forgot his yoga mat in the car and walked on inside, empty-handed except for the phone in his hands and on his mind, smiling at some private joke, oblivious to the world.

I checked my irritation (reminding myself once again: “expectations”), picked up both our mats from the backseat, and followed him inside.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming about swimming.

(I made him feel very sorry about the yoga mat, nevertheless.)

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Seeking God

Blending into the wallpaper

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There but not quite there

One of the most difficult parts of being a mother and wife (as I am sure my fellow mothers, and my own mother, will agree) is the thanklessness of it all. Much like a copy editor’s job in a magazine isn’t really noticed until it doesn’t get done (been there too), being there for one’s family is something no one really notices until you stop doing it.

There’s food on the table, groceries in the fridge and washed ironed clothes in the cupboard, but it isn’t there by magic. Someone (read: mom) has taken time out of a very interesting life to look after it. But we often forget the contributions of our mothers in the busy landscapes of our lives; we take their presence and work for granted. They’re like wallpaper. There but not quite there. In sight but out of mind.

I fill myself with positive thoughts like ‘I’ve chosen this’, and don’t allow myself to use the words ‘sacrifice’ or ‘duty’. I fill my days with good people, happy work and meaningful activities. Even so, despite such efforts, there are days and phases when I can’t help slipping into frustration and depression at the ‘unfairness’ of it all. Why must I be left holding the bills and the fort and the dog leash when everyone else is out having the time of their lives?

And then I go back to working on myself, my sense of fulfillment and self-worth, counselling myself to make peace with my circumstances. But it is difficult to be a saint. I mull over Thomas Merton’s lines, “Thinking about monastic ideals is not the same as living up to them, but at any rate such thinking has an important place in a monk’s life, because you cannot begin to do anything unless you have some idea what you are trying to do.”

I know what I am trying to do — take care of others while also taking care of myself. But it’s harder than it sounds, especially when one often comes at a cost to the other.

Maybe this very struggle was prescribed to me so that I could find a solution and rise above it all. In my challenge lies my mission. I must believe it, for my own sake.

Seeking God

Fundamental darkness

Gosh, it’s been a long time since I wrote here. Surprisingly, it has also been a time that my spiritual life has been rich and vibrant, with plenty of reading, discussing and assimilating going on. But how difficult it is to apply all that knowledge!

A term that I have been wrestling with, and which comes up every day these days, is ‘fundamental darkness’. It is used in Nichiren Buddhism to represent all those fears, insecurities, and emotional demons that reside inside us and keep pulling us down whenever we try to rise above them.

To fight these demons, I pray, I work and write, I read a lot of spiritual literature, and inspire myself every day to keep my head up. I collect quotes like this one:

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And yet, day after day, morning after morning, despite everything else being so fine in my life, I wake up with a sense of insecurity and dread. On some days I feel like the brave Arjuna in the Mahabharata who demands that Krishna be by his side as he sets out on his life’s mission. On most others, though, I feel like his enemy-cousin Duryodhana, who says:

I know what is right, but I don’t have the strength to do it.
I know what is wrong, but I don’t have the will to resist it.

The spiritual journey is surely a difficult one! Most of the time, it feels like I’m taking one step forward and two steps back. The more aware I become of my mental demons, the more helpless and dejected I feel in their absolute control over me. It’s like a surgeon operating a mole on the skin, only to discover a network of malignant tumours underneath.

The best thing to do — I can say from my layman’s experience — is to just DO. There is no substitute for action taken in the right direction – whether it’s a vibrant round of chanting or a determined long session of writing at the computer or a visit to a friend who needs a shoulder to lean on. Even if I’m at a very low point inside my head, I refuse to let my demons paralyze me and hold me back from taking affirmative action, even if it’s just a little bit at a time. I must keep operating.

The best we can do is to do our best in the present moment.

Seeking God

A little bit of stress

I have a theory. It struck me after a month of leading a relatively stress-free life. I noticed that while I am definitely happier and calmer than earlier – more likely to break off into song or dance when good music plays, for instance – there is a downside to the whole situation.

I react with extreme stress when put in stressful conditions that I would have taken in my stride earlier.

I have been freelancing from home. I write for a couple of magazines at my own pace, I’ve been helping out the kids with their school / college work, and being my husband’s admin and PR assistant since his new book is going to be out soon. It’s a laid-back life, and some may say I am not performing to my top capacity (quick diversion: What defines top capacity? The most amount of money we make? The more hours we fill with paid work?) but I am enjoying it. I like being the mistress of my own time, finally, when I can afford to.

But then a couple of days ago, I suddenly found myself in a stressful situation. I had two article deadlines the next day, and my younger daughter needed my help on graphics and paperwork for a school project. The other daughter had a birthday party to plan. I suddenly felt as if I was overwhelmed with a task list with everything marked URGENT in big red letters.

A few months ago, this sort of situation was a regular part of my work routine. Now, however, it completely disrupted my idyllic, lovely existence and threw my body out of gear. I broke out in acne the next day – pretty much the way I did the past many years while working full-time in an office. I was also more hyper than usual, and my sense of relief the next day after I’d pushed everything out the door was beyond comparison.

I have become unaccustomed to stress and that is not necessarily healthy. I think a little bit of stress on a daily basis is beneficial for us. And apparently, I’m not the only one who is saying this. Researchers at Berkeley came to the same conclusion. “In studies on rats, they found that significant, but brief stressful events caused stem cells in their brains to proliferate into new nerve cells that, when mature two weeks later, improved the rats’ mental performance.”

At the same time, experience also tells me having stress ‘thrust’ on myself is doubly stressful. The ideal thing is to self-moderate your stress levels – give YOURSELF stress, so to speak. A self-regulated deadline or a strict personal target on a daily basis should perhaps do the trick. The idea is not to break out into acne but to keep the brain and body alert and ready to respond at any time.

I can’t believe that I’m actually looking to ‘amp up’ my stress levels. That’s hilarious. While a stress-free life is a good thing, too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing, I guess.

Seeking God

Difficult decisions and self-preservation

There will be times when you have to choose between yourself and the other – and that other could be a child, a spouse, a friend, a parent, anyone – and you will face the dilemma: whose life is more important, theirs or mine?

You will curse your luck and fight with your god for putting you in this fix. You will cry bitter tears and long to be removed from the consequences of your decision whatever it may be. You will wish someone else could make the decision for you, and then you will regret it when that happens.

And at different times in your life, you will choose a different ending. When you are 20 and your parents choose a stranger to be your husband, you give in even if you don’t really like him because, after all, they are your parents and you haven’t known any other centre of authority in your life so far. You choose them over yourself.

When that man threatens your life and that of your children, you choose your children and yourself over your husband and your parents, and walk out.

When you find a partner you love but your parents and children do not agree with your desires and decision to marry him, you choose him and yourself over them.

When you get a dream job but it’s a very long distance from home and your daughter and husband are at a point when they need you around, you choose your family over yourself because you don’t want to live in conflict with the personal and professional part of your life.

And so on, and so on. You make different choices at different points of your life based on what you think is the best decision at that moment. There are no right decisions. There are no right answers. We all do what we must at any given time.

Even so, I have come to the realization that all decisions are subconsciously motivated by self-preservation. We all have the innate skill of prioritization, and even when we are not aware of it, we are constantly prioritizing one thing over another based on our subconscious telling us what is best for our self-preservation at that point in time.

Sometimes, a woman may stay on in an abusive relationship because of self-preservation, and the same woman may leave – even if she has to live in penury as a single mother – for the same reason. Sometimes, choosing a parent over a husband may be self-preservation, or a spouse over a child. Sometimes, it may be the other way around. Situations may vary, but your gut always knows which way the wind blows and where your future safety and happiness are ensured.

At first, I assumed it was more animal instinct than our intuitive higher self, but now I wonder if it is both. Maybe our instincts are given to us for a reason, maybe self-preservation is not as selfish as it’s made out to be, maybe by choosing ourselves over others we are not being ‘bad’ but ‘good’, laying the path for betterment for everyone in the future.

I don’t know how this connects with larger human decisions – such as war or looting of the environment – in the name of self-preservation or ‘civilization’. But maybe that is greed versus genuine need. Even a carnivore does not attack a second prey once its belly is full. I suspect that the more we are in touch with her inner selves, our personal gods and our humanity, the better tuned we will be to the planet’s own ‘instinct’ and, simultaneously, our own higher intuitive selves.

After years of regretting some of my difficult decisions, I am now finally learning to forgive myself for acting in self-preservation. I may have chosen my own happiness over the other’s, but my happiness is important, and it was the best decision I could have made at that point in my life. Main hi aatma, main hi paratma (The soul am I, the Supreme am I). These were the necessary hills and valleys in my journey.

Seeking God

Kinder than necessary and other Monday tips

I’ve been a lazy girl (old woman) and have been absconding from my blog. My soul sister J reminded me to at the very least put down my Monday tips every week, even if I write nothing else. So here goes. My 5 Monday tips (a ritual I have with my team at work).

  1. Be kinder than necessary: An old saying reminds us not to speak anything unless what we are about to say fulfils these three criteria, “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” I suggest going one step further — be kinder than necessary. Kindness is a spiritual practice in itself. Go out of your way to help someone, not just physically but also with words, and most importantly, with thoughts. Every kind thought goes a long way in generating positive vibes and creating a healthier world.
  2. The biggest success is the one who is willing to try, fail and learn: In an ad for Nike, Michael Jordan once talked about the thousands of times he had failed, and the 26 times he had been entrusted with the game-winning shot and had missed. When asked why he had chosen to focus on his failures rather than his successes, he said that a strong mind and heart were more important that physical strength for winners in life. It doesn’t matter if you try and fail — as long as you get up, dust it off and learn from it. You only fail when you stop trying.
  3. External enemies are nothing when compared with your internal enemies: Every time there is an event, you have a thought about it, and that thought leads to your feelings about it. Station a bouncer in the door of your thoughts. Every time you have a negative thought about an event, let the bouncer throw it out, and only allow in the good ones. For instance, if someone does not pick up the phone when you call, instead of thinking, “They hate me,” shut the door on that thought and let in another positive thought instead: “Maybe they’re busy”. Whenever you have a thought that says something to the tune of, “I’m a loser,” don’t ask yourself whether it’s a rational or irrational thought. Ask whether it serves you. If it doesn’t, call the bouncers in.
  4. Freedom and responsibility: Everyone wants freedom — freedom to work as we please, to live life on our own terms, in our own way — and no one wants responsibility, to be accountable, to have people depend on you, to own up when you’re wrong. Well, the truth is we cannot have one without the other. The only way to have more freedom is by taking on more responsibility, and the only way to reduce responsibility off your own shoulders is to give more freedom to those you are offloading to.
  5. Don’t panic. Prioritize: When we’re bogged down with too much on our plate, when we’re close to hitting peak capacity, there’s only one way to move forward: Prioritize. Learn from the human body and the animal kingdom. Shut down all unnecessary systems and processes, keep away the distractions, be selective about what you expend energy on. Ask for help before you snap, delegate before you break, choose your battles. You can only take home the hero’s trophy if you’re still alive.
Seeking God

Catching myself

I have been caught up in the whirlwind of Maya. Passion for work and overriding attachments to my family have kept me firmly rooted in the rajas guna (ambition, material growth, desires), while a certain sloth has taken over my physical condition — s symptom of the tamas guna (immobility, darkness, pathway to stagnation). I’ve seriously missed a good dose of the sattvic guna (lightness, divinity, spirituality) in my life lately. I am out of balance.

Thankfully I had a wakeup call yesterday, a self-induced one. I had been mulling over various material preoccupations — who said what, why they said it, are they jealous, what do they mean, how dare they, they need to be put in place, and so on. I acted on impulse once, but then the trigger was repeated. Before I reacted the second time, I decided to pray and look inside me a little.

Grace. I was able to check my impulse. I was able to see that I had been getting caught up in the whirlwind of Maya. I was able to see that it was never about ‘me versus them‘ but about ‘me versus God‘. I was getting caught up in my material roles in this life, I was beginning to take them super-seriously. I was under the illusion that I ‘owned’ them — my job, my family, my loves.

But truth is, I don’t. They are all on loan, all gifts of nature, fleeting, temporal, here-one-day-gone-the-next. The more I identify with them, the more I am trapped. (*takes a deep breath, and releases it with a ‘let go’*)

I love this life, this family, this work, these people. And because I love them, I must learn to detach myself from them, else the love will turn into possessiveness and poison.

It is easy to forgive and put behind those you once hated. It is nearly impossible to detach yourself from your most prized loves. One man did it and he was called the Buddha.

Oh well. One can aspire to aspiration.

Seeking God

The men in the elevator

Every time I travel, some kind of annoyance begins to build up. It is almost always directed at rude men, who push past me in the security line, in the bus to the airplane, in the aisle to the seat. “Forget chivalry,” I mutter to myself, “these men do not even display the basic courtesy of allowing someone in front of them to go first; they must beat her to it.” I curse them in my heart, but I never, EVER, look them in the eye. All the lurid stories of my workdays at my tall office tower with six elevators in the most populated commercial district of Delhi come to mind. Once, 15 people got into a lift with a capacity of 13. The alarm went off. A few female voices floated to me standing outside, “Please get off, somebody.” No one budged. Finally, five women came out, unwilling to be squeezed in with 10 men, who then went on up, womanless and no doubt proud of having stood their ground.

Then another old incident comes awake, of walking in through the metal detectors and having three or four large men jostling into the few inches in front of me — to do what? Save 10 seconds? — and I could not help but admire two younger, spunkier women who completely avoided the queue with a ‘Fuck this’, slipped past the detector and landed up straight at the bag check lady, while I still stood there, waiting for all the men to be done.

Those memories clawed at me when, in a crowded shuttle bus at the airport, none of the men stopped to let me exit my seat until one did — and he was over 70 years old. I insisted he go first, and he did, and a young man behind him quickly went on as well, just in case I had the wrong idea that I could (finally) leave.

Like acidic bubbles, the annoyance burned my chest from within, my anger against my own species threatened to eat me up inside.

—–

Thankfully for me, every time I travel, a great silence also builds up within me. Cut away temporarily from the noise and schedule of my daily life, my heart zooms in to its own eternal home like a compass falling in line with north. In this stillness, I become aware of my thoughts, and I wonder at them.

So today, after a great bout of venting my frustration about my countrymen to my colleagues, I was able to also notice my own irritation with clinical objectivity. ‘Why,’ I thought to myself, ‘must this bother me so? What lesson lies in this for me? Why all this negative emotion? What needs fixing in my soul?’

Pat in reply, a couple of hours later (God is getting better at this, good job, muah), I got this post by Seth Godin:

Empathy doesn’t involve feeling sorry for someone. It is our honest answer to the question, “why did they do what they did?”

The useful answer is rarely, “because they’re stupid.” Or even, “because they’re evil.” In fact, most of the time, people with similar information, similar beliefs and similar apparent choices will choose similar actions. So if you want to know why someone does what they do, start with what they know, what they believe and where they came from.

Dismissing actions we don’t admire merely because we don’t care enough to have empathy is rarely going to help us make the change we seek. It doesn’t help us understand, and it creates a gulf that drives us apart.

I start with what they know (they know that livelihood is everything for them; without their daily bread, their worlds will crash; nothing must come in the way); what they believe (they believe that to make a living, one has to fight several battles to just get to the starting line); and where they come from (a place of lack, shortage, insecurity, fear and repression).

Yes, I feel slightly closer to understanding them. Yes, I believe I will eventually forgive them for their inconsideration and myself for my lack of empathy. Yes, I will be the change that I seek.

Maybe, just maybe, I will finally look them in the eye and wish the men in my elevator a happy Independence Day.

Seeking God

Wisdom tooth

Every now and then, you’ll find that God imposes a full stop in the running sentence you call life. It follows no grammatical norm — it can pop up at any time, even the most inconvenient times. It’s often to do with health, or sometimes a death in the family, or losing a job.

For instance, you’ll be in the middle of a busy work project and are slated to travel the next day but you’ll suddenly get laryngitis and can’t speak, and have to cancel the whole thing. Or you’re all set for a cousin’s wedding and then the groom’s father passes away, and it’s all called off for a year. Or you’re expecting a promotion and, instead, your company shuts down and you don’t have a Plan B.

These enforced full stops, however inconvenient they are at the time, are always huge blessings in retrospect. They force you to pause, listen, learn and reflect. They teach you to be still, humble, receptive. They take you deep within yourself so that when you surface to the hustle-bustle of the material world once again, you are cleansed, quieter in your heart, and more accepting.

I’m going through a full stop right now — the emergence of a wisdom tooth and its accompanying gum and throat infection. It has effectively put an end to both input (of food) and output (of words). I’ve realized that both are karma – food connects us to all other forms of life and the more we consume, the more we owe; and our words are as potent as our actions and thoughts when it comes to creating karma. I was forced to stop creating karma and to listen with my heart.

It reminded me of another lesson I had learnt 15 years ago on the top of a mountain, on a pilgrimage, when a realization had struck me: “It is very difficult to pay for one’s negative karma. Let me not create any more of it.” I had turned vegetarian then.

This week, the lesson took on a more refined, subtler nuance.

1. Let me not create negative karma not just by deeds but also by my thoughts and words.
2. Let me not consume more than I need.
3. Let me not speak unless it is kind, true and necessary.
4. Let me be still more often on a daily basis — so that God doesn’t have to resort to these drastic full stops to alert me.
5. Let me aim for a lighter state of being — lesser input, lesser output.

The pain will ebb. I hope the lesson stays.

Seeking God

Israel, singing and the twins

These are three tips I shared with my colleagues last Monday.

1. I was reading a book called ‘Start-up Nation‘, which takes a look at the social, economic, historical and political culture that makes Israel such a super-achiever in terms of business and technological innovation. Israel, a country of 7.1 million people, has 350% more venture capitalist investment than India, a country of 1.2 billion people. The writers ascribe this success to Israeli ‘informality’ and chutzpah. Junior workers call their bosses by pet names; army juniors can — and sometimes do — get their seniors ousted; failure is socially acceptable as much as success is. I encouraged my colleagues to be confident, insolent and innovative at the workplace and to challenge me as much as possible. (Later, after this talk, we had an earthquake, and on the way down the stairs, I came across the Israel visa office on one of the floors. Perhaps I should plan my next holiday there. I am obsessed with this little nation now.)

2. Sing a song and see what you focus on. Is your attention on your lyrics and exhalation, or are you worried about taking the next breath in? It’s the former (unless you’re a bad singer). When we sing naturally, we don’t concern ourselves with inhalation; we just sing. The intake happens on its own at just the right spots, without any effort on our part. Some breathing meditations and pranayam exercises follow the same pattern: Focus on your breathing-out, not the breathing-in. And so let’s apply the same rule to life; let us focus on what we can GIVE, DO and EXTEND OUT to the world — whether it is our time, money or knowledge — and let us not worry about the intake of resources, energy, or material gains. It will happen at just the right spots, without any effort on our part.

3. Joy and sorrow are twins; they are two sides of the same coin. When we increase one, we also increase our capacity for the other. Sorrow, when it comes, leaves us with a huge hole in our hearts, which then makes our experience of joy all the more meaningful. When we have lived through great sorrow, we are able to appreciate every single nuance of our joys; we do not take them for granted; we are more grateful for the little pleasures life has to offer. If things were always rosy and joyful, we would become jaded; we wouldn’t enjoy them as much. Joy would be our default state (read: boring) and we would, in fact, turn it into a reason for sorrow.

So sorrow is cleansing and uplifting in its own way. Its importance should not be underestimated. Sorrow is required so that we can enjoy joy. But seeking either is unnecessary. Nature knows best when it comes to some things. We encounter our share of both in due time.