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).

A life passes away too soon…

The weekend started on a sombre note. A young colleague on a much-awaited road trip, met with an accident and passed away. A promising future and a million dreams aren’t destined to play out here on earth. We do wish and pray that in the heavens of his belief, they flower; and for a sense of peace and solace to comfort his family. Time alone can heal – and not entirely at that.

I reflect upon yesterday – the young man must have been hurriedly working for an “important” meeting on Monday while his mind replayed happy scenes of a weekend retreat. The Monday meet isn’t important now; nor doesn’t the weekend laughter ring as loud – for they will not come. Without the hero, the movie cannot exist.

It’s a powerful wake up call. One may argue that Nature is unkind – she could have taken older people, far sicker people – and yet she favoured one who was in the pink of health and cheers. Its an unhelpful argument – we are but spectators in her grand show, we can see but cannot understand.

We may not understand, but we can take up the baton from this young life that has passed over. Uncertain is life, more solid though are memories and aspirations he shared with us. Let’s pick up a thread and make it come alive. Legacies are created an inspired act at a time – and he certainly deserves one.

Musings on Life’s purpose

The last few weeks have brought on smiles, chuckles, frowns – a rainbow of emotions – an invariable event when the World Cup is on. This blog too tended to stay away from brooding for a few weeks, however a question from a friend got me reflecting back on more heady matters.

The question was one of those really simple yet profound ones that keep popping up unexpectedly, race around the brain for a while and then just disappear.

“What really is driving us – and how do we define success?”

Philosophers – I know – have engaged this question in plenty of detail and come back with detailed explanations. I thought I’d ask a few acquaintances – and here’s what I came up with:

Most live their lives for a future result – in many cases, one they may not live to experience in the flesh in this life. Consider:

1. Many are driven by the legacy they will leave behind:
– Biological genes (As in kids and grandkids who will change the world).

– Ideas (these are the guys who hope to leave behind an invention that will propel mankind further)

– Sagas (People who leave behind stories that will inspire future generations by their deeds)

2. Some are driven by a belief (from religion/ society) –

– Many devout christians live so they are called to the right side of the ledger on judgement day, many hindus live so they earn the right karma for a favourable rebirth and so on..

– Some live propelled by the vision of a better world they can help establish – usually by eradicating some blemish of society. Feminists, Caste(race)-free and Minority-right crusaders all live for a cause they believe in very strongly – though they know they may not live to see it happen in their lifetime

Interestingly, there are some people who don’t live for the future – but live in the present. Consider:

– Sages – they live as witnesses, unaffected by life but fully contributing to it.Think “ramana maharishi” for instance.

– Many scientists and even technocrats live by this credo – where they live not for the success of their experiments but for the joy of participating in the experiment and driven by curiosity more than anything else. This is best of course exemplified by Steve Job’s quote “The journey is the reward”. Or Robert Pirsig’s view that “sometimes its a little better to travel than to arrive”.

The majority of us however seem to live defined by our constraints. If you were to ask such folks what propells them, they’d not be able to define it – they can however very clearly define what constrains their journey (we would have all heard these sometime!):
– financial dependence
– inadequate family support/ need to support family
– not the best childhood/ pedigree..

Some actually define their life in terms of sacrifices made – these are the career “victims”. They always a have a story of how much nature/ world/ family/ Colleagues/ fate always stunted “what could have been”. Many a time, “the what may have been” is vague – leaving life unfulfilled….

I am of course unqualified to say which one of these is the best one – or even if there is a better set that I haven’t been exposed yet to. What I do know is some of this exchanges today’s joys for a belief in what tomorrow would bring – though in many instances, its these belief’s that underpin actions to provide us with a stable society. This is the “mind” winning over the “heart” – conservative, thoughtful, planned.

In sharp contradistinction, the other option brings in joy today – with a neigh a care for what will happen tomorrow. There’s an acceptance of “what will be, will be” – no point worrying about it. Those from this group often have a song in their hearts and their joy inspires our spirits as well. This is the maverick at work – joyous, spontaneous, wild.

The question really I guess is – which one of these are we? And is that who we want to be…

Life’s cycles

It’s a Hindu death anniversary today – so shortly after a very popular festival. We sit to honour our grandmother – and other ancestors – with some fire worship. There’s quite some involved rituals involved – offering various prayers, a homa (fire yagna) and a ritualistic banquet to round things off. A set of priests bring in a further sense of solemnity to the occasion as they officiate using age-old customs.

Dad is looking a little tear-eyed, am sure he’s remembering his mom from a few decades ago. Perhaps memories of when he was a kid come flooding back – the joy and the sense of having someone to go to for protection no matter what. You cannot be too old to relive that.. Maybe he remembers the tenacious lady, who undeterred by a lack of education and the early death of her husband – brought up her many wards with care and discipline so they would shine in the world. Maybe, he’s just recapping the joy on her face when she experienced her first flight and wondering fondly what she would think of the life today – a life filled with more luxury than she would have ever imagined in her life time.

Now remember, people from dad’s generation weren’t encouraged to cry, that was for the women folk. They were encouraged to puff out their chest and be good but stern men. They were learnt to respect the priests, the gods and rule the home with an iron but honest hand. They had to grow into a stereotype to be admired by the society.

How things have changed today – we embrace niceties, becoming emotional is no longer sissy stuff. We can talk to our parents openly – and they can talk to us too. Isn’t that progress? It certainly is, provided we don’t use this new found freedom as a wall to hide our insecurities and weaknesses – and become a bit of a phony. If we do that, its hypocrisy – and the world sheds a tear for the irrecoverable loss of a timeless culture.

Which brings us back to the day at hand. Reflecting through the ceremony, the ancients certainly seem to have given it a lot of thought. For two days – they advocate a diet thats satvik – nothing that disturbs the mind – so we can focus on the thoughts for the ever-loved one who is no longer here physically. The ceremony honours ancestors of three generations – allowing us to comprehend that we are but the product of time – and we will continue to be so. Several offerings of elements – sticks in the fire, water, earth (some rice, food) – fill us with gratitude to Mother Nature, the sages of old and our very illustrious fore-fathers and mothers. We are invited to serve the priests to a lunch – which opens out the servitude in us – and they shower us with their blessings. Finally a lunch of nature’s bounty beckons – on fully recyclable banana leaves at that(!) – and the day progresses headily.

Yes, I think the ancients had it right. And the set of officiating people, a wonderfully expressive and poetic language, an appropriate diet and a sense of gratitude – go a long way in making us understand ourselves, Mother Nature and the gifts that we have received from our ancestors and sages. If nothing, it makes us understand that being born is a thing of wonder – and you need so many pieces to be just right for this miracle to occur – and encourages you to pass on this message to the coming generations..

In a sense therefore, the ceremony is as much for ourselves as it is for our ancestors….

Is wisdom a function of doing?

Just as I predicted, the week zoomed past. Meetings, travels, emails, the odd television show – and I am a week older. The question I thought I’d ask this week – am I wiser though?

Thinking about it, it appears to me that wisdom comes knocking when you are smart about “what to leave alone” – even more than what you have done. Take this last week – if I were to list my progress – I’d probably list these:

– facilitated a workshop – and to good response
– a couple of customer meets – again good feedback
– reviewed a few responses which sat well with the customer
– Successfully got a leader to join us
– and so on…

and on the flip side

– attended a couple of meets I wasn’t really prepared enough for/ was more ritualistic
– missed a couple of deadlines – and resolved to be more timely in the future (not that there was any catastrophe)
– just couldn’t keep my working hours to the slim ones I had planned to adhere to, they were all long days!

Now on the whole, its been a very busy week and in terms of progress a good one too. The question though is whether progress has resulted in wisdom – am I likely to bring in a whole new set of perspectives this week that I couldn’t have last week?

On reflection, the answer seems to be mostly in the negative (though some experience has been gained over the week of course..)

So, lets take the other view – what could I have left alone?

1. The customer meets and the workshop – maybe I could have given them a miss. There are several folks who can do as good a job (if not better!) saving at least 6 hours
2. Getting a leader to join in – thats important – the meet helped discuss shared values and such – will be invaluable over time
3. The travel – I could have left alone, why not work from home for a few? A back of the napkin calculation indicates I spend 1.5 to 2 working days equivalent travelling every week!
4.The reviews are in the “teaching fishing” as opposed to “gifting fishes” approach. So very worthwhile I’d think. On the other hand, getting some others interested in doing the review would be even more better – its “teaching fishing” at a whole new level!

and so on………. A quick math tells me that at the least 30-50% of stuff could have been left alone. As for the “stuff that didn’t go too well” – again many of those needn’t have been on the list in the first place. And suddenly you find there’s time for stuff you wanted to do always but never had time for – a hobby, exercising, meditation, spending time with family…

So thats the takeaway for the week. “Your time is a function of what you can leave alone and the saved time and effort can be used to help us get wiser – where wisdom can be considered as anything that enhances “you” (read body, mind, soul). You agree?

Eulogy time..

A good collegue, a friend passed away this morning. A gentle man devoured by a ravaging cancer. Over time, the disease took away his appetite,  his mobility, his stamina. It could of course do little about his smile, which continued to shine through – amidst  grimacing pain. It’s this smile, and his gentle habit that I know will inspire his family and friends forever. 

Death forces us to ponder on bigger themes.

On the fickleness of life and the futility of trying to caliberate the effectiveness of our minute lifetimes, foibles and stresses on the grand scale of evolution. What’s a hundred years (or less) matter in an evolutionary history of eons – our mountains fade away into molehills when seen in perspective. And should this insight not destress us as we understand that our life’s events are for the most part insignificant on a world scale?

It also encourages us to acknowledge the ancients wisdom in codifying a religion embracing concepts of immortality. When nature takes away a loved one from the reaches of our eye and touch, it is religion that assures us of the loved ones not being lost forever – only to our five senses. Sometimes we need to augment the scientist’s facts with religion’s truths – the mind needs the solace of the soul so to speak.

As I write this, I know its a normal day for nature – though a devastating day for ones experiencing the loss. Time and prayers will heal some, in the meantime its perhaps best to pack some goodness, a comforting shoulder and a thoughtful mind and offer these to the many who need it…..and maybe saying a hero’s story or two in praise of the departed one would help too.

Love – or war…

The recent past has been witness to the passing away of two very “news worthy” yet very dissimilar individuals – we are of course talking about sathya sai baba and osama bin laden. The story of their lives – and their death – are so far apart that it would take great creativity to stitch a blog together; and yet perhaps, the fact that two such men graced the earth around the same time is a telling example of the paradoxical nature of our times.

Osama we hear was rich but had a troubled childhood. Grown to man’s estate, he lived a life of conspiracy and terror. His destiny was shaped by a belief in retribution, a cause for which he lived a life of exile and hardship and indeed gave up his life for. His call to fame among other incidents was the destruction of two towering beauties – a symbol of pride of the country he loathed. He lived by the sword and died by it too. He travelled the earth often alone, under cover and in secret. When the earth called him into her fold, he was buried at sea by the men he fought against; a burial that was attended to by very few of the populace devoted to his cause. Anger simmered in the hearts of his people.

Sai Baba on the other hand was born poor, indeed impoverished, but to a family of pious folks. His romance with God began at a very tender age, and legends abounded of his “magical moments” and divine encounters. He decided that he’d rather live with his god than with man, and gave up all of man’s riches in his quest for a higher power. Destiny embraced him for her own – and to this man, who shunned her riches, showered on him everything he wanted and more. Sai Baba who by now had offered his life to god in entirety, cared little for himself but somehow cared very much for the teeming thousands and millions who came his way. They in turn somehow transmuted their anger, sloth and pride into a profound love in his presence and the movement grew…and grew. The man who had decided he wouldn’t demand of life, helped fulfill the needs of millions. Hospitals, educational institutes, spiritual centers, aids for the needy – mushroomed all over. At the time of his mahasamadhi, heads of state, sportsmen of repute and icons of the world converged to take his blessings and thank God for sending such a man to their world. Gratitude overflowed.

There are a few interesting parallels. One fought war on the outside, the other waged war and conquered his internal demons. One was alone, but never lonely – the other was often alone amidst millions. Both had their share of followers and indeed leave behind a legacy. Which is ours – identifying with the god within or identifying with a cause without? Inner peace or outer war – a choice we all need make.