Finding God

Driving through life

I drive an average of 90 minutes every day, give or take 20 minutes. I’ve realised that driving in New Delhi is a lot like life:

A stitch in time saves nine: If I get out of the door at 8.45 am, I will be in office by 9.15 including parking and the journey up the lift. Since we do 8-hour shifts, I can then leave at 5.15 in the evening, which ensures I am home well before 6 pm. However, if I leave home even 10 minutes later in the morning, the traffic builds up on the roads both ways, and I reach home at 7 pm or much later that evening, extending my travelling time more than an hour. So being disciplined in the morning leads to a smoother, shorter work day. Isn’t that exactly what financial planning, time management, preventive health and stress management all about? Short-term effort leads to long-term gain.

Every being is important: A glance through a daily newspaper will lead you to believe Delhi roads are all about hit-and-runs and buses mowing over pedestrians. But those are the exceptions that make it to the newspapers. Ninety percent of the time, people stop, give way, make space, adjust, compromise and watch out for one another on the busy, congested, people-stuffed roads of the Indian capital. We even make way stoically for cows, dogs and other animals. I firmly believe in the innate goodness of human beings and perhaps that’s why I see such examples around me every day, revelatory moments that prove time and again that every being is important, no life is too little, and we must all make space for and respect every being out there.

There are no short cuts: Sometimes you get caught in a terrible traffic jam during rush hour on the highway and decide to take a ‘short cut’ down the alleys or smaller roads running alongside. Bad idea. In most cases, it will take you the same amount of time or even longer to reach home, and you will be far more frazzled after negotiating narrower terrain with worse jams. Lesson: Accept what has been given to you by the universe, and go with it. What you resist persists. Sink into the moment, turn on the music, and make the most of it.

Be in the moment: Driving is sometimes like meditation; you often drift into your own thoughts and lose track of vast stretches of miles or minutes you’ve covered. It’s like you go into a trance and let your subconscious do the driving. This can be dangerous. When we live our lives by default, we are prone to real and metaphorical accidents, and we miss hundreds of opportunities. Opportunities to make us better people or simply make us smile. When we are distracted, we aren’t focusing on our life’s purpose. Like meditation, the solution is to gently lead your thoughts back to the moment, on the road, on the car in front of you. Be aware of what’s going on. Pay attention. There is magic in every moment. Don’t miss it.

Driving is necessary, stress is optional: There are some things we just gotta do, driving, working, bring up our kids, making a living. We can either choose to do them stressfully, zipping between lanes, honking away, adding cortisol to our blood streams, trying to get ahead of everyone else, trying to save a few extra minutes at the traffic signal at the cost of our mental peace and health. Or we can do it calmly, sticking to one lane, chilled out, riding over bumps and turns with patience and grace. Guess what path leaves you happier and healthier in the long term?

Finding God

Beloved, hated

“What so great happiness as to be beloved, and to know that we deserve to be beloved? What so great misery as to be hated, and to know that we deserve to be hated?” -Adam Smith

Isn’t it a wonder that we have been, or are, both?

Seeking God

It is the heart that is important

My Monday tips for my team this time were taken from a talk I’d given on one of my recent Buddhist discussion meetings. It was the concept of: ‘It is the heart that is important’. Happiness (the real, everlasting kind) doesn’t work outside-in; it works inside-out. So we need to work on our inner life state and on ‘polishing our hearts’.

To make it easy to remember, I had divided this concept into five parts, each of which corresponds with a letter in HEART. (A lot of this material is directly from Buddhist literature; I have simplified it.)

H stands for Happiness

Why is that, in the same situation, one person responds vibrantly while another grumbles? It is because happiness is an internal condition, something we feel in our hearts. Happiness is not found in ‘stuff’, nor does it matter how rich and famous you are. There are lots of people who do have these things but are still unhappy. And such external circumstances are changeable and impermanent; no one knows how long they will last. So the aim is to have an ‘unshakeable inner state of happiness’, one that nothing can destroy. One that nobody can violate. That’s what we have to work towards.

Our happiness is our own responsibility. There is no knight in shining armour who will come and hand it to us. We have to work on it every day, bit by bit. Do one thing every day that makes you happy. Spend time on yourself. Contribute to making a better world. Joy is in us; we just need to unleash it.

E is for Eternity

Eternity refers to the Buddhist concept of reincarnation. As Indians, we are all pretty familiar with this ancient theory that says our lives do not end with our current experience of it. Our thoughts, words and deeds are our karma all put together, and as we sow, so we reap. The aim to live life with such faith and joy that even at the time of death, one can say with a heartfelt smile: “What a wonderful life that was! Now, where shall I go next?”

A vast universe exists in our hearts, in our lives. But most of us invest time and effort only on enriching our current material reality, and just not enough on our spiritual practice. I once read a quote by Neale Donald Walsch that said, “Earthly possessions are not what you came here to gather. Do not worry about your earthly possessions. Place your attention on your heavenly goal–the evolution of your soul–and you will find peace even while on earth.”

A is for Attitude

Faith is not just a matter of praying or meditating a certain number of minutes a day. It is also a matter of our heart, or the attitude with which we live every aspect of our lives. The attitude in the depths of our being determines everything. Whether we are happy or wind up in a state of suffering, everything is the exact result of our attitude. What’s in our heart is communicated to the universe.

When we do something, do we approach it with a negative attitude – grumbling, “Oh, not again! I hate this!” – or a positive attitude, telling ourselves brightly, “All right, here’s a fresh opportunity to grow and learn!”?

This subtle difference in attitude can make a huge difference in our lives. It can change things 180 degrees. A proverb says, “Do not complain that the rosebush has thorns but rejoice that the thornbush has roses.” Our perception changes our reality.

R is for Radiance

‘I have decided to shine bright; it does not matter how dark the room is,’ says the candle. When we light up our hearts, we simultaneously light up our families, our societies and the land that we live in. No one is immune to life’s problems. The storms of karma appear in many unexpected ways – as problems at home, at work, with our children and so on. But every time we overcome a challenge, we change our destiny and that of our loved ones. Precisely when things are tough, that’s the time to encourage those around you with a bright smile. If the situation seems hopeless, create hope. Don’t depend on others. Ignite the flame of hope within your own heart.

When our hearts shine like the sun, everything seems to shine brightly. Rather, we can make everything shine. When we ourselves become the sun, all shadows disappear.

T is for Transformation

Until we do not feel a shift within ourselves, we have not progressed, really. Can we look back at our life and say, “Wow, I’ve come a long way”, or do we feel that we’re stuck where we were decades ago? That’s where the concept of transformation comes in. When our life state changes, the world around us changes. There’s a quote by Daisaku Ikeda that goes: “When the fundamental engine of our ‘one mind’ – our inner attitude or resolve – starts running, the gears of all phenomena of the 3000 realms are set into motion. Everything starts to change. We move in a bright and positive direction.” Like a bud blooming into a flower, a seed into a tree, and a caterpillar into a butterfly, transformation is the essence of progress.

H. E. A. R. T. It is the heart that is important.

Finding God

Joyful insecurity

First, the news this month. 

I traded the financial security and prestige of a corporate life for the freedom and happiness of being there for my family and myself. 

Then, the quote today.

“On this day of your life, Aekta, I believe God wants you to know…    
…that safety is not the thing you should look for in the future. Joy is what you should look for.
Security and joy may not come in the same package.
They can… but they also cannot. There is no guarantee.
If your primary concern is a guarantee of security, you may never experience the truest joys of life.
This is not a suggestion that you become reckless, but it is an invitation to at least become daring.” 
— Neale Donald Walsh
 
Yeah. God talks to me through email. How does it work for you?
Seeking God

A dog’s life

The past few days, I’ve been trying to live like Ronnie and Miyake.

Whenever there’s a little time on my hands (which is a lot now), I take a nap with my limbs sprawled out languorously. They do the same on the floor next to me.

When I get up, I take a nice deep stretch.

When there’s work to be done, I do it playfully, humming a tune — since I don’t have a tail to wag.

The rest of the time, I go about foraging for food (for thought) such as magazines and books that abound in our home, and curl up in a corner with them.

I wake up every morning with a knot of excitement in my tummy, all ready for life, with a great deal of enthusiasm even if I don’t know what I’m so enthusiastic about.

If someone wants to play, I’m game. If someone wants to hug, I’m always up for it. If someone wants me to go fetch or cook something, I’ll go do that too, with a grin.

The most difficult part is sleeping / napping with abandon, like a dog. The abdominal muscles are curled in tension much of the time out of old habits. So I’m practising surrender, like a dog. I’m learning to not worry about where the next meal will come from, to trust the universe to provide it to me, like a dog. I’m learning to not worry about the future, to not dwell in the past, to just be in the moment, like a dog.

I’m not all there yet, of course. But today I caught myself in the mirror, my hair dishevelled, my face devoid of makeup. No I’m not looking like a dog (what on earth were you thinking?). I’m merely looking much younger, and happy. 

There you go. It’s a revolutionary new anti-ageing therapy. I should patent it. 

Seeking God

On happiness duty

“It’s your duty to be happy,” I coaxed my best friend after she shared that she’d tried to commit suicide, the last resort and cry for attention in a doomed marriage. (Thankfully, the thought of her baby kept her from going all the way.)

That’s been a refrain for me in the past many years: “We owe it to ourselves, to our world and to our God to be happy. Only when we’re happy can we make others happy.”

All that.

But as I typed out this message yet another time on Whatsapp to her, my own life flashed before my eyes. It hit me that, yes, happiness is our duty, but, oh, how difficult it is to be happy, how limited it is, and how little it lasts.

We think we’ll be happy when we have lots of money. But once we have lots of money we realise rich people are people too, with their own sets of unhappinesses, insecurities and existential holes.

We think we’ll be happy when we win adulation and approval. But that is just a shadow we’re perpetually chasing, further away, forever out of reach, following us only when we turn away in indifference.

We think we’ll be happy when we are beautiful, when we can look at ourselves with pride. But beauty is a mirage that changes shape – what is pretty one day is ugly the next – so we’re constantly running, in the malls, on the treadmill, seeking to pin down a cloud that cannot be pinned. It is in its nature to change.

We think we’ll be happy when we get married, but marriage is a dance with a mirror; we only receive the expression we make, we only swirl in the direction we move ourselves, we only reap what we sow into our own souls, whether it is disdain, disappointment, disrespect or devotion.

We think we’ll be happy when we have children; when our children hit all the right benchmarks; when they outdo us in achievements; when their children bring us name and fame. But we soon learn that in dreaming for them, we belittle their own destinies; in our expectations of them, we stifle them; and in pushing them to accomplish social benchmarks, we erase all the divinity they bring into our lives. So who are the parents – them or us?

We think we’ll be happy when we give to others, when we share pieces of ourselves with those with less. But each act of altruism only reminds us of our own selfishness in giving, in our addiction to the sense of worth that giving gives us.

We think we’ll be happy when we land on the shores of success; when we get that plum assignment or that perfect job. But when it happens we realise we’re still hollow, there’s still something we crave, and no matter how far we’ll go in our careers, we’ll always be a dazzling step away from the Bill Gateses of our dreams. Because our dreams only show us what is written in black and white in the newspaper, not what is written in the subtlest letters on our hearts.

We think we’ll be happy when we have perfect relationships, when our families are smiling, when our friends are peachy, when our colleagues are kind, and when the neighbours don’t mind our dogs any more. But, in a flash, words spark a flame and there’s a fire in your chest, and you see the foolhardiness of having your peace dependent on such a volatile, unreliable optical illusion. Can you tie a bow on a rainbow?

Then we think we can maybe change our very definition of happiness, and learn to revel in all that we reviled before. So when we fight with our teen, we rejoice we have a child in the first place. When our nail paint chips off, we marvel we have fingers in the first place. When our computer mouse goes missing at work, we give thanks we have an office to come to, we have a fancy computer to work on, we have resources to produce new mouses (mice?) when we need it.

And yet, those gratitudes too are short-lived. The more you study happiness, the more you recognise that it vanishes the moment the next thing comes along and so we have to ‘practice’ happiness over and over again.

But all that cannot be said on Whatsapp to a woman wrecked on the rocky shores of a crumbling marriage.

Yes, it’s our duty to be happy. And yes, the definition of happiness changes every day. And yes, you’ll always be chasing an elusive, fleeting and fickle lover. It’s great to have but it’s difficult to hold. So perhaps we have to just let happiness go where it must and turn our attention to something else worth doing, receiving and living.

Love.

The other day, I was stepping into my car, smiling at a stray dog that went by, and it struck me: “Love is the most authentic glimpse we have of God.” Those big or brief moments of pure, straightforward love and sense of oneness with the other or the universe are hints to what heaven must feel like. Love gives meaning and beauty to existence; it outlives us. As Aristotle wrote, “Remember that time slurs over everything, lets all deeds fade, blurs all writings and kills all memories. Exempt are only those which dig into the hearts of men by love.”

So, from today, I shall change my preacher’s refrain, “It’s our duty to be happy,” and turn it into: “How much have we loved?” Because, my jaan, happiness comes and goes. But love? Of all the things precious to man and God, it is love that goes on.

Seeking God

Lessons in domesticity 1

A significant phase of my life is coming to a close, a phase that has given me the silence and space to look at my priorities, evaluate my goals and focus on my intimate relationships. I am left deeply affected and indelibly changed. As I look back for the meaning in the madness, I find these lessons:

1. Happiness doesn’t come from external circumstances; it comes from within you.

Days of emotional flux took a toll at one point, and I was fed up with all the teary-eyed drama and uncertainty. One evening, I realised with dread that even if my immediate material desire were to come true, I’d still be miserable. In complete humility, I asked God, “Tell me, what was the lesson in all this? What was I meant to learn?”

The answer came the next morning when I was putting detergent in the washing machine: “Happiness doesn’t come from external circumstances; it comes from within you.” And it all fell in place, somehow. No matter what was going on in my external life, happiness was a state of my own mind. If I couldn’t find happiness within, even the biggest gifts from the universe would ring hollow. Life is all about flux and change; I have to find the stillness and peace within — I have to find the balance of being and becoming, as Krishna says.

2. You’re raw at home.

When working outside the home for eight hours a day, you develop shields, reflexes and defence mechanisms over the years. When someone says something nasty, you are able to (with practice) brush it off and not let it affect you emotionally. But at home, you’re vulnerable. These are the people closest to you, people with whom there are no defence mechanisms in place. If they say something mean or hurtful (“I hate you, leave me alone!”, “You cooked today? Can we order out?”, “Short skirts are not a big deal, why are you so paranoid?”, “You don’t understand anything!”, “You’ve ruined my life!”), you’re bruised left, right and centre, and there’s no shield to lessen the impact.

The lesson of course isn’t to run away. The lesson is to understand and value your own vulnerabilities and sore spots. If you can find it in your heart to withstand even this — this most cutting of knives, this most brutal of assaults — even when it has you sobbing or screaming in frustration; if you can find a way to deal even with this; if you can find a mechanism to still give love back in return for anger or hatred, then (as Rudyard Kipling didn’t say), you’ll be a woman, my girl.

I’ve braved barbs at my most rawest of spots, and still come out alive and lovin’. I’m invincible!

3. Be the change.

I’ve been living in a perpetual state of worry, anxiety and fear for several weeks, and if I share the reasons, you’d probably laugh — they’re to do with domestic helps, laundry, dogs and dishes. (But to me, they are just as scary — and real — as the monster in the cupboard to a three-year-old.) A few days ago, however, I noticed I could change my life by changing my attitude. It was the end of a day I’d spent cribbing about my workload and my family had borne the brunt. Suddenly, while watching a few funny videos via friends on Facebook, I decided, “I’m going to be happy. Now.”

And so I got the kids ready and we all went for a movie and had a great time. Now, whenever I feel miserable, I look back to this evening and am inspired by how I was able to change my morose mood simply by deciding to change it. And I feel empowered. My happiness is in my own hands.

(As I write this, I realise there’s a lot more lessons coming, so I’ll just break this post into two.)

Finding God

Believing is receiving

A couple of days ago, my elder daughter M, age 16, borrowed a formal churidaar-kurta ensemble from me to wear to a Diwali party with other teens. After trying it on, she busied herself with hair and makeup, until it was almost time to leave. Then, she asked me, “Where’s the dupatta? I had it just a minute ago.”

I smiled and replied, “This kurta doesn’t have a dupatta. I never got one made. I wear it just like that.”

She refused to believe me. “But I tried it on just a minute ago, it’s the same colour and it goes perfectly.” She kept rummaging in my cupboard and peeking about her room. My rational argument fell on deaf ears. She completely, irrevocably believed this kurta had a dupatta. She just hadn’t found it yet.

A Maheshwari dupatta (courtesy http://www.indianroots.com)

Suddenly, sitting on my bed, I recalled another ensemble of mine that had a dupatta in these colours. I dug it out from the corner of my cupboard, where it lay packed in plastic, the dry-cleaner’s tag still on. I interrupted her search and offered it to her: It was a perfect match. “See, I told you this kurta had a dupatta,” she said breezily as we left for her party. My explanations about where it had come from were irrelevant for her.

After dropping the kids, I was driving back alone, smiling about the whole event when a deep realization dawned on me. It didn’t matter where the dupatta eventually came from; in her reality, she simply got what she utterly believed in. There was not a trace of doubt in her heart that this kurta had a dupatta in its exact colours. And no matter how it came — no matter that someone’s memory in extracting another dupatta from the back of a cupboard had a role to play — she got what she expected and what she believed in.

It was enough cue for me to do some expecting and believing of my own. So I spoke aloud a couple of statements three times, and then to seal the deal, turned the volume of the radio really high. It was Adele belting out the original version of Skyfall. And to her stupendous vocals, I added the refrain: “So be it, so be it, so be it.” It was all very dramatic and goose-bump-inducing.

This Diwali, I wish my readers and everyone else in the world the fulfilment of their most impossible dreams, the attainment of the most complete joy, and the power to create their own destinies. Happy receiving!

Finding God

Scrubbed clean

Dear God,

I see what You’re doing. 

I see how You’ve scrubbed away, layer by layer, years of grime and stress. How You’ve gradually helped me unlearn the frenetic lessons of the past few years. How You’ve taken me back in time to an earlier, more sordid remembrance of who I used to be, and then, when I shook in my veins with trepidation, taken me to peace and understanding beyond that…

I see how You’ve removed, day by day, the compulsions, motivations, frustrations, needs, wants, desires, ambitions, dreams, monkey thoughts, distractions, tensions, worries, doubts, fears, insecurities of what my life had become. How you’ve taken me beyond my greatest successes and my worst failures…

I see how You’ve transported me back in time, hour by hour, to a 10-year-old’s passions, when I used to read all day long, even during my meals, deriving such intense joy that I could not perceive doing anything else, EVER. How You’ve removed all certainties and fixed plans, so that I must make peace with living from day to day, the only constant being the people I love…

I see how You’ve then taken me beyond even them, so that I must love myself most of all, and be sure of only who I am, and then taken me beyond that too, so that I cannot be sure of who I am and what I want, and life seems like a fortune-cookie quote that says with an indifferent compassion, “Anything is possible”…

I see how You’re teaching me slowness and freedom and smelling the roses and the dogs, and rolling about on an undone bed in the middle of the day, and taking quiet walks long into the night, and observing my varied thoughts with detachment and awe, and honouring the demands of my body and the seasons, and feeling each feeling to its fullest, and then taking me beyond them too…

I see how You’ve scrubbed me clean and left me with an open slate of an existence, so that there’s no ‘should’ or ‘must’ any more, there is no doing, only being. How You’ve left me empty and whole so that I may in fact do nothing else but what You want me to do, and I may think of nothing else but how wondrous You are and how stunning this life is…

I see what You’re up to…

You attention-seeker, You. 

Seeking God

Wanting what is

A large pile of unexpressed fears got buried under a typhoon of ‘busy’-ness all of the past fortnight. So occupied was I, that I no longer invested in my own daily oases of happiness or in stuff that I normally love doing, like writing on this blog.

When a turn of events turned the moth-balled carpet of suppressed anxieties on its head last night, and when a pain in my neck had begun to spread its threatening tentacles, I finally took the bull by the horns and decided to do something about it. The first step was to reach out to a bunch of girlfriends on a group chat for a laugh.

In the course of the lighthearted gossip, one said she wanted the work week to end. I suddenly realised I didn’t know what I wanted. I dug inside myself for an answer.

“I want to be happy,” finally said a small little voice at the back of my brain.

“What would make me happy right now?” I asked, and looked around the room, outside the window, inside my heart.

The yoga mat beckoned. Though I have given up on my yoga practice since December for the very silly reason that I can’t stand doing it on the dog-hair-strewn floor, I do meditate on that mat from time to time. So I brushed away the black and golden strands of hair off the floor, shooed the dogs away, spread out my mat and sat in half-lotus pose. In 15 minutes, despite the fact that the mind had whirred madly all through, I felt lighter and better. The neck stopped hurting.

But I wanted still more treats. I requested the man to put off the computer, turn his phone off, and give me undivided attention while the help (who thankfully turned up on time today) cooked us radish-stuffed rotis. We proceeded to have a long, satisfying discussion over breakfast about our dreams, ambitions and feelings. By the time the tea mugs were drained, I felt just wonderful – all talked out and happily empty.

Later, I asked myself again, “What do I want?”

A barrage of larger-than-life dreams flooded my brain, those secret goals one is too embarrassed to ever talk about. But overshadowing them all with love came another response: “Life is beautiful as it is. I couldn’t have asked for more.”

I watched with gratitude as the unspoken dreams smiled – awaiting gleefully, patiently for their fruition – while the Moment had its moment in the sun.