Read, Reflect, Rest – The 3 magical Rs!

It’s been a long while since my last post here. Why is that? I don’t know. I guess there are seasons when you are prolific, and then seasons when you are prolific – but at something else. You read, you reflect and you rest during those periods and the 3rs help you gain much-needed perspective to help you thrive in the busier seasons!

Reading opens out new worlds, introduces some cool friends and adventures, equips one to see the world in a new way. Is this what the ancients meant by the word “darshan”? For the “objective” world may not change, your world can though – when you begin to see the world in a different way.

The seeds of knowledge gained from reading sprout into wisdom when we reflect. Indeed ideas become habits, theories turn into practices only when we reflect a lot. The ancients prescribed meditation and contemplation in tandem – distilling our perceptions and learnings into deep-rooted insights.

The rest – is more of a repose. All of this mental activity needs a stable base to take effect. Rest need not mean just sleep – though sleep also helps as the mind subconsciously works out its magic. A restful walk, yoga, a spot of fishing, cooking – anything that puts the mind to rest is what I mean.

So that’s the thought for today. Prolific writing followed by periods of 3Rs as the seasons follow one another. Neither rushed, neither forced. Just allowing the inner wisdom to work on the inspirations from the world – sometimes internally and sometimes as a material product (an essay, a sculpture, a poem, a theorem, a business plan even maybe). It happens.

Would you agree?

A #BookReview of Originals by Adam Grant

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the WorldOriginals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam M. Grant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a book you will treasure – its like a wise(and witty) companion who walks by your side and points things out. And you begin to see the world in a new light – new understanding, new possibilities arise. Its a “multiple read” book – a book you should read for a bit and then reflect on for a while and then go back and read some more – not one that should be read from start to finish and put away. What i loved about the book in particular was that it courages you to look at data and make decisions – but without losing your human touch – in my view, a most required trait for today.

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Why we need the comfort food of religion and tribes more than ever today

The older one grows – not just by age but by experiences – the more one understands that not everything needs changing. Things are there for a reason, and mostly the reason is intended to assure your well-being.

Take religion for instance. Its fashionable for young people today to embrace atheism or spiritualism. Both are heady endeavours – one is the quest for rational thought as the individual strives to make a personal sense of his world, the other is a quest for experimental fulfilment as the seeker tries to experience reality as it is. Both are laudable pursuits and fulfilling – but terribly lonely. Success is hard to come by, and you are on a quest to reach the mountain with very little support from those around you. And others on the quest can be seen as competition adding to the pressure – and its easy to brand oneself a loser when someone (and there will always be someone!) seems to be progressing better.

Religion on the other hand is more forgiving. The tribe takes centre stage. There’s a God somewhere in the background who is nursing you and your tribe – and she will make sure everything is fine. Rituals buffet you against seismic events like funerals and give you reasons to celebrate wildly at weddings and other functions. Emotions are drawn out in so many ways indeed. Sacred places like temples encourage congregation, where people can converse with each other or vent their feelings to thier all-knowing god without holding back – for after all, we are but humans, we don’t have to hold ourselves to too-lofty-a-standard. The God knows everyone’s troubles already, doesn’t he? The set of shared values encoded into rules and rituals also keep you in touch with the seasons of the world and your growth.

And yes, most religions allow you to outgrow them when you are ready. Saints, Sufis, Monks, Nuns are all folks ready and strong to venture on their own into the unknown – leaving the cosy world of religion and the material behind. They are not escaping religion but rather expanding the frontiers of their religions so the tribe can use them as signposts should they want to.

The mind and the spirit are great quests on their own. The heart however demands company – and its the heart that religion embraces. And I do believe we need religions and the language of shared experiences and heart for the health of our tribes – even more today in an increasingly volatile world. Would you agree?

An ode to the dawn

The morning stillness comforts. Thoughts whittle away. The day’s cares are still a few hours out. For the most part, the phones are silent. The roads are enjoying some peace too.

Indeed the absence of all this noise allows us to perceive the morning’s essence better. The sun is beginning its majestic ascendency into the skies and the first brush of light bestows its grace on all of nature. The flowers raise their lovely faces to the sunlight and the beach sand opens its vaults revealing unlimited treasures. Here lies a simple sea shell, there ambles the magnificent tortoise, the thrifty crab hurries thither and the birds flutter away to glory. Sans the corn-on-the-cob sellers and the crowds, Nature’s bounty is being enjoyed by the natives. The enterprising fishermen are off in their boats with a song on their lips and a hope in their breast.

All of this is why heralding the dawn is so special. It gives one a panoramic view of what it means to be a human, to count our blessings and beautifully exist with no cares for a while. There’s a promise in the air and the comfort of nature’s embrace all around – now really, could one wish for more? Ah, perhaps a strong cup of filter coffee would make it even more perfect!

ZATM by Robert Pirsig – a review

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into ValuesZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are some books that will have you applauding the author for piece of magical work – and also widen your thinking horizons significantly. This is one such book. The deeply philosophical content is layered seamlessly into the story – a long motorcycle ride the author undertakes with his son and a few friends. Lots of “aha” moments in between – why do we love new songs only to have the craving die off after a while, when we say something has quality – what do we really mean, what does caring mean – a lot of things. Its a riveting read and I’d recommend many reads (with some time for reflecting on the concepts before continuing). You will certainly begin to see the world afresh.

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I am Pilgrim – Book review

I Am Pilgrim (Pilgrim, #1)I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Its a tome – 750 pages or so. It’s the author’s debut novel. That said, its a very, very good read. The scope is large too – terrorism, a murder mystery, espionage, action in multiple countries – there’s a lot packed in – and is plotted brilliantly by Terry Hayes. Would recommend it highly for your next flight or weekend reading – its sure to make the trip seem short!

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How to stay happy all the time (or at least be less anxious)!

It’s that time of the year, when everyone is actively looking for a “Kabali” ticket. Filing your taxes and watching Kabali – are the only two worthwhile goals for the month! The tribes on Whatsapp are profusely sharing  reviews/ opinions/ experiences on the movie – read them all and you realise an important fact – most of them are comparisons:

  1. Kabali rocks, way too good when compared to his earlier movie Lingaa
  2. The movie’s good, but not quite in the Baasha class….
  3. Thalaivar’s movie appeals globally. Almost like Muthu gathered popularity in japan, this one is likely too everywhere…….

You get the idea – everywhere the movie is judged, appreciated and rejoiced – and the degree of appreciation depends not on the intrinsic quality of the movie itself but on its relative compare with an ideal in the speaker’s mind.

Which brings me round to today’s topic – on how to be happy (or at least less anxious), irrespective of the situations we find ourselves in. As always, the ancients had this nailed down perfectly. When something bad/ undesirable happened, in their trademark, pithy way they had this to say (translated form Tamil – and not very well at that!)

“Bad luck that was to have taken your head, just took away your head-dress! Be thankful, persevere!”

In short, their remedy was for you to imagine the greater misfortunes that could have occurred but didn’t – a remedy that instantly calmed your mind. While seeming simple, it’s a remarkable cure. Let me elaborate with an example:

You slam your car against an obstacle and get your car dented (I recently did by the way!) and immediately start fretting over what you could have done better. You playback videos of alternate scenarios (With dent-less cars as the outcome of course!) in you mind – you could have driven slower, taken a better road, looked at the weather and chosen a more clement time to venture out etc. etc. Then the senior-most member in your family consoles you with the above proverb in her typically compassionate way. And you realize that the accident is actually much less severe that you imagine it to be. Consider the worse alternatives to a car dented but no other casualties;

–          The pain, grief and worry if you had hit an animal (or god forbid) a villager instead of the inanimate object

–          What if a drunken driver had hit your car at speed (and god knows in the early hours, there are many around!)

–          What if a tire had burst instead on the highway and you had lost control

The scenarios are endless – and from a pure probability standpoint are just as likely as that freak accident. As this realization dawns on you, you are grateful – thankful that a more disastrous outcome didn’t result and as a bonus you also become lot more mindful (perhaps decreasing the odds of future accidents as well!).

You can also apply it to situations where you are playing “victim” in over-drive mode. For instance, let’s say you have to go and inform a team member that their much awaited promotion is not happening.  You castigate the world and your system for being unfair (they could have accommodated an extra slot for him, the system seems pre-disposed toward another group etc. etc.). In short, the perfect moment to try out our miraculous medicine – the proverb from above. Apply it – and you ask yourself –  isn’t this task (distasteful as it is) so much better than for instance:

  1. The doctor who has to let his non-smoking patient know he has tested positively for cancer of the lungs?
  2. The policeman who has to inform his colleague’s wife of her husband’s death in a random, drive by shooting – being plagued by guilt himself for staying alive and not being able to have helped out.

And so it goes. There’s always a worse thing that could have happened -and therefore always a reason to stay grateful to providence. Further as Rumi quotes:

Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.

Its hard to internalise this though because we tend to compare our performances and abilities with those who appear to be lesser qualified than us and our misfortunes with those who are apparently luckier. Just shifting the comparisons will make life a lot less burdensome.

I try the approach out for a day – it seems to work everywhere. A slow driver who makes you wait for a signal more – check. A random motorcyclist who nicks your car – check. You don’t get tickets for Kabali on the first weekend – check.

You also tend to appreciate all the good things that have happened in your life a lot better. And that truly is the icing on the cake.

A hot cup of coffee on a cold evening – enjoy the heavenly experience (imagine Siberian prison life if you can for a really powerful view of what could have happened had you been born in another time, another place – this is what one of the world’s best ever writers (Dostovesky) went through!). Should you receive an award – cherish it unconditionally (imagine what Marie Curie went through!). if you have a friend to call and crib on demand – you are indeed blessed – most people don’t have this luxury.

Indeed when you practice this for a while, the sense of “entitlement” that pervades our lives gets transmuted into a sense of “humility and awe”. And in itself, that sense of benediction is a miracle of the highest order. Wouldn’t you agree?

A musing on why we visit temples….

Why do we go to a temple?

*To pray of course.

*Everytime?

*YesWell maybe there are other answers too

a. I go for finding a sense of peace. Unadulterated, spacious calm – it soothes me.

b. I go because it’s the right thing to do. The scriptures ordain it. I promised my grandma I’d go!

c. I go because it makes me feel more secure, more alive and – less lonely. I get to see lots of people chatting gaily, children running around, a few elderly people reminiscing on old times and dishing out awesome advice to the populace.

d. I go to be inspired by the people of all ages sitting meditatively, eyes closed and in communion with their best selves. It gives me the confidence that like them, I can get in touch with inner self too.

And so it goes. I am yet to hear of a consistent answer to this question. And in a way, I think this is what makes the temples so very special (and popular) – they are non-judgemental, vibrant places – and its upto the devotees to take what they want and for that matter – as much as they can. Truly temple’s a boundless ocean of goodness, you choose the vessel to draw from it – or if you wish – to swim in it (an extraordinary state where you don’t own anything, but enjoy everything).

Yes, I think that’s what makes temples special. The sense of them being a playground, a school and a mirror – all at the same time. And all of this without any scores or compares against anyone else. Even more importantly, there’s no pressure. There’s no ego either – you can speak (or cry/ vent) your heart out and the temple will soak it in without adding to the emotions; silently listening without judgement. And as we become sensitive to the listening, our souls will invariably provide us the answer we seek.

I guess it all comes down to just one thing. The temples are wiser than us. They have watched many generations of people live and have been petitioned for more asks than we can imagine. They have also seen the evolution of normal people into saints and what’s more intriguing witnessed the saintly traits residing in every human being.

Thus, they are witness not only to the gods within their hallowed shrines but to the gods in every human being. And they possess that supreme secret of not just divining the sacred, but of transmitting to anyone who seeks it.

Now isn’t this alchemy the thing we need most today?

3 magic words for your success!

Every generation has a favourite question. Ours seems to be this:

How do we find professional fulfilment and depth in a world of distraction?

On reading Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” last week, I discovered he had a very elegant and simple answer addressing this universal problem. The hero of the story (a monk who applies to a merchant for a job he has no prior experience on) exudes confidence because he has internalised the formula for all success. In three words, here it is:

Think. Fast. Wait.

Are these three words really such a big deal? Let’s dig into them a little deeper, shall we?

Think: Its important we recognise that what Siddhartha is talking about here is contemplation on a worthwhile challenge – not distracted, destructive thoughts. In our modern language, it’s best described as “staying and playing” with “worthwhile” problems.

The best way of course is to ask enough whys (5 to be precise!) to get to the core of the issue. And a playful approach to the “why’s” will yield better results than using a boss’s stick or an object of envy to prod us toward the truth!

Solitude makes a difference too. Reading and contemplation in solitude often uncovers “solutions that are not on the same level as the problem” (to touch up on an Einstein quote!).

Incidentally, Bill Gates takes a couple of “think weeks” every year – just to think and read, Warren Buffet estimates he spends 80% of his time doing just that. Indian sages often spent months (if not years) on wintry, himalayan heights actively searching for the Big Truths. They all can’t be wrong now, can they?

So best to pack your bags (or close your rooms up and no TV allowed!) and get busy involved in contemplation, discover a great idea to work on and subsequently get immersed in deep work! (do read Cal Newport’s lovely book for lots of insights on this).

Fast: Fasting implies limiting the sensory inputs and thereby conserving or even enhancing our personal energies. This energy can then be deployed to focus on the idea from your “thinking”.

The Gita beautifully explains how a tortoise best exemplifies the method of fasting – on seeing an enemy, it simply pulls itself into its shell. In the same way, Siddhartha recommends that we isolate ourselves from anything distracting us from our goal or leaving us fatigued – the wrong food, sensational news, 24*7 digital media, mass emails, violent movies – whatever. And once the noise dies down around you, the signal will be easier to behold.

Wait: This is to me the most important and yet the hardest thing in today’s times. You’ve discovered the area you want to focus on and knocked off the distractions too – but the work hasn’t borne fruit yet. You are impatient! Its worth remembering that all great work is akin to planting a seed. To grow into a tree, it takes time. You have to water it, pull out weeds, add fertiliser and maybe even sing it lullabies! You can never for certain say when it will flower – it depends on the soil, the environment and maybe pure genetics. But you’ve got to wait and you’ve got to keep helping it grow.

This I find is the hardest part for all of us today. In an always-on world, some guy (maybe you or a manager or someone!) is constantly out there with a measuring tape trying to figure how much the plant has grown. If it does not grow for 3 days, we sack the gardener or change the fertiliser – but ironically keep the accountant! The plant isn’t happy, the gardener isn’t and the accountant is hoping for a miracle. It’s a loser’s choice. And for all you know the height of the plant may have no correlation with the quality and quantity of output it produces – who said short, twisted plants can’t bear the best fruits or flowers!

The art of “waiting” that Siddhartha suggests we imbibe describes a state where the “journey is the reward” – and in this state of flow, we saunter to work. The “Joy of working” is the reward – not an arbitrary centimetre’s growth – and interestingly when this approach is taken, the environment gets diffused with joy and effortless work ensues……

Joyful work and anticipation often lead to a “happy state” and happiness leads to better work. This wonderful video explains how happiness leads to success (and not the other way around!).

A few realtime applications to validate this works everywhere:

  1. Feeling anxious, edgy through the day? SOLUTION: FAST. Switch off the news, email, social media (TV and phone!) ahead of dinner – to give you 3 hours of so of family time/ a wholesome read. Watch the edginess melt away of its own!
  2. Feeling angry because a prodigy/ team member made a mistake? SOLUTION: WAIT. Give him time and also provide him with a stimulating, vibrant environment. He will learn from his mistakes and maybe make better decisions than you over time!
  3. Worried about your relevance in the market today? SOLUTION: THINK. Take a week (or a weekend/ an hour a day – whatever works for you) off – read books, watch TED videos, attend workshops, meet with the gurus of fields that excite you – listen to what the best folks are thinking about the future. Pick the area that most appeals to you and specialise further. Take some time out and try out a prototype. You’ll likely find something good or branch out until you find a calling!

And so on. So to wrap up – here is Siddhartha’s simple and yet profound truth for great work.

Think. Fast. Wait.

Wouldn’t you agree?

 

Death and the lessons it teaches us..

The week saw a dear colleague suffer a loss – a sibling passed away suddenly. Disbelief, grief, anger – all the reactions that death triggers were on display.

As always, when you meet Death, you have to pause. This is true every single time. And this post arises out of that pause. For Death makes you reflect on life and ponder on larger aspects. It teaches us important things – to be humble for life is so much bigger,to reassess our life’s priorities and successes, it teaches us to appreciate our relationships and not take them for granted. Truly, everything is fleeting – including oneself – and while we live, we can make the choice to celebrate every moment – or live for a tomorrow that is uncertain. Most of us choose the former – atleast until the effect lasts!.

Death can also help put a spotlight on greatness. No matter where it happens, there is always a story or two of humanity and heroism that would not have been known but for the event.

When the person who has just died is an accomplished individual, the world invariably devotes itself to some constructive dialogue on his specialness. Think Prince or Micheal Jackson or Whitney Houston – their untimely death led to active conversations on their achievements and their album sales skyrocketed. We seem to have less time to celebrate the living and hence make up for it on their death.

Sometimes, “death” places a spotlight on a relative or a friend who has been of exceptional support to the deceased. We see the hero in them for the first time – indeed it can be considered the parting gift of the deceased to turn the lights on a person who has helped him/ her enormously during an important part of their life. Hitherto, unremembered acts of kindness and heroism are brought to the forefront.

Our language also becomes a little gentler and we treat the survivors a little more kindly – in a way, death brings home the fact that life is special and yet fragile. That dosen’t mean you despair, it does mean you need to “handle life with care”.

We begin to remember prayers from our childhood and remember others who were once close to us but have gone beyond the veil. Indeed, all encounters with death take you on a memory trip. Often, a smile arises on the lips as we remember fond times from the past and any minor faults of those no longer with us are forgotten. For defects belong on earth; once people cross over they leave behind their blemishes and take after the gods – a reason why they are offered garlands and a place in worship rooms.

Its important to understand that grieving is natural – indeed important. We grieve for the piece of us that disappeared with the death, and the grieving opens out a hollow space within us. Into this alter steps in a sense of peace (or God or understanding – whatever we may call it) if we allow it to. But this needs time and it needs purging of our emotions and grief – a reason why grieving is such an individual, personal pursuit for most.

A lot of reflections these – not quite enough for helping a person cope with the big mystery called death. It’s sting is real and hard, often though, it does offer some benediction and understanding over time – it is this that I wish for all readers who are in need for solace. Shanthi * 3 (peace, peace, peace).