Deepavali – the Festival that everyone loves

Deepavali elevates goodwill to a whole new level. Deepavali – often called the festival of lights – is very special – it oozes goodwill and gratitude. You share sweets, gifts and greetings with your neighbours, relatives and every one involved in your life (yeah – dont forget the security folks who ensure your life is safe or the local merchants who bring the choicest delicacies to your doorstep!) and perhaps it’s the one day where smiles are truly infinite. You also buy new clothes for the occasion and stuff for your home – society and the traders benefit. Abundance, sharing and love shine forth together in this unique festival.

I love the fact that we honour our ancestors (and gods too) too. We burst fireworks and play with sparklers (yeah green ones these days 🙂 to light up the world so our ancestors can see us (and chuckle at the fun we are having perhaps) and also to illuminate their paths to the higher worlds they are transitioning to. The sarams (the string of crackers tied together) is also believed to help guide laxmi, the goddess of wealth to your home! Fun and gratitude – can there be a better mix?

Earthernware lights and kolams (fantastic designs made of edible stuff that insects and ants can digest) are a brilliant way of bringing out our exuberance and joy and sharing it with the world. Indeed, function and form come together in an amazing synergy lighting up the world on this day – and importantly – all of this is also imbued with a sense of higher purpose and meaning. Can can you think of a better way to honour mother earth?

Importantly, you take care of yourself as well. There’s a ritualistic oil bath and a home-made medicine that ensures your body is able to accommodate the wonderful sweets and savouries that will punctuate your Deepavali at frequent intervals! A prayer to God with gratitude for all the good things in your life sets you perfectly. This is enhanced further by blessings from your elders – at home and those you visit through the day.

This festival has you covered from all aspects – physical, emotional, spiritual – you name it. Kids love it – so creativity is at the heart of it. It gives a chance for everyone – elders, children, adults – to bring out the child in themselves and provide for others in their own ways. It’s also a chance to love and be loved back in return. It is a gift from our ancestors to us – a benediction from a wonderful and multi-faceted Hindu way of life passed on to its descendants and indeed the world. Let us cherish this extraordinary festival of joy and light – happy Deepavali to everyone…

An emptiness that’s fulfilling – my experience with the isha shoonya program

Over the last four days, I had the opportunity to attend the shoonya intensive programme at the isha ashram in coimbatore.

Intensive is the right word – indeed it’s the first thing that strikes you about the program. Right from the consecrated hall which sends out intense vibes, the format of the program which makes sure that every minute is accounted for effectively, and the very wise teachers (who are also full time volunteers) and the program volunteers who take service to a whole different level altogether, and of course the curated videos of Sadhguru which ensure that concepts become internalised truths in you – intensity is a word that perfectly describes the programme.

The interesting thing though is this – all this intense focus does not translate into long faces and on-edge behaviour. Indeed there’s a sense of relaxation and gentle humour pervading the entire program.

At every moment there’s the sense that a good-natured-laugh and a profound learning is just a minute away.

The teaching is deep – and like all of the best things in life, the practices grow on you over time. I know this from past experience. On my very first isha program, I was surprised when the teacher advised us not to take notes.

“This is not a learning of the mind, but an experience to go through. Just stay with us and you will pick it all up” he said

I have come to appreciate that there is a different way to learn – that of experiential learning. You learn through hearing, seeing, visualisation, doing and repetition. And stuff learned this way stays with you – its a transmission of experience not just a transfer of concepts.

So what I did I learn? I came back with two practices – about an hour’s worth of daily practice – which promise deep restfulness and explosive energy respectively. If these seem contradictory, its another fact I have come to appreciate about spirituality at large – its hard to decode spiritual practices with just the mind. The best approach is to try it for a while and see if it does something to you. When it comes from a true source, it will often flower into something that you cannot explain or predict – its beyond words. The little while is a mandala to start with – about 40 days of uninterrupted practice for the practice to take root in your life. Its something I will be able to do hopefully – and will look to post on any experiences.

But there’s another learning that’s stayed with me.In one of the videos played, Sadhguru mentions that every day he is greeted by tears of joy no matter where he happens to be in the world. And I believe, its these tears of joy and gratitude toward their master and the world that inspire the teachers and the volunteers to share so much and so well – with absolutely no expectations.

Indeed that’s the learning – that there’s an extraordinary way to go about one’s life – being relaxed yet attentive, intensely focused, with a smile on the face, and a joy in the heart. When you work like that, I guess you are a blessing to the world.

Its an inspired way to live and work – and while a long shot, its something that I look to internalise – stay tuned for any progress updates!

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?

A musing on why we visit temples….

Why do we go to a temple?

*To pray of course.

*Everytime?

*Yes. Well 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?

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.

Autobiography in Five chapters – a poem

Sogyal Rinpoche illustrates how we keep failing repeatedly by getting into a pattern and finally realize truth and wisdom through this beautiful poem authored by Portia Nelson:

1) I walk down the street
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in
I am lost…I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

2) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

3) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit
My eyes are open
I know where I am
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

4) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I walk around it.

5) I walk down another street.

Taken from his insightful, humane translation ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying…

Of Words and Spaces

It’s kind of interesting when you think about it. The same set of words can achieve two goals. Think about a regular tome or an audio talk – it can be a spiritual tome (like the bhagavad gita or the bible) or a good story book (a PG Wodehouse if you will!) – or anything at all!

  • If you concentrate on the words and the meaning, you understand a grand philosophy or gain a wonderful story. You indeed understand the world around you better.
  • If you dwell in the spaces between the words and the paragraphs – just take a few minutes savouring them in their entirety – you will experience a different welling up of emotions within.

This is why the revered books of old were aphorisms – short and designed to be ornaments around a garland of silence (and not the other way around). They were intended to be read at random, to encourage random detours – and every visit would bring in new experiences – not from the level of the author – but based on the level of the reader.

Its worth trying both – when we read some stuff and learn – we can watch your confidence grow.You recieve some of the author’s knowledge with every reading.

And when we decide to focus more on the spaces – we discover a new sense of meaning – “often something not even intended by the authors and often something new about ourselves”. Try it!

The Guest House

The master needs no preamble. Let’s partake of Rumi’s illuminating poem “The Guest House”

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be cleaning you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each one has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Rumi

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…

On the brink of something special – an immersive future

A quiet weekend sees me doing nothing in particular but ruminating on how ancient man seems to have been inspired by nature, with some enormously beneficial outcomes:

1. Yoga asanas and martial arts inspired by our animal kingdom to tone the body and keep the mind alert. Cobra pose, monkey style kungfu..you get the idea

2.Incorporating a knowledge of the seasons, the stars, the plan and the animal kingdoms into taking holistic decisions (effect of watching “The Gods must be crazy” I guess!).

3. Meditation gleaned from understanding spontaneity and stillness (yes together!) of nature (think about observing a flower in bloom, a dew drop at dawn or the limitless sky). These have been perceived as doorways into the infinite for aeons…

Man has looked at himself and his relationship with nature to derive meaning.And while it has worked wonderfully well, for the most part the experience is limited to the practitioner.So while the yogic man can experience the bliss of relaxation gleaned from a reading of a cat in repose, and the man who understands the effects of an eclipse on his body and mind is at advantage.

For the unaware, this is of no help at all. You need to participate to reap the benefits for the most part.

On the other hand, Science and society seem to have partnered with a focus on objective outcomes as opposed to participant-centric-holistic outcomes (quite a mouthfull!). So aeroplanes allow people to get from destination a to destination b – which was the end objective – but the bird’s sense of freedom during flight was not important, and therefore not built into the experience. Categorisation was not on ability of a person to experience flight but on ability to pay for the journey and hence we have “business class” but not “athlete class”!

But I guess this is evolving again further. Participation is again becoming a critical component in newer models while keeping objective successes on the anvil as well – fuelled by science’s forays into immersive experiences and technology ubiquity.

A few examples:

A bunch of students recently Built a car that’s powered by likes and shares – a “social” car if there ever was one!

Airlines are speculating options of incentivizing passengers to lose weight.The Nike Fuel band is allowing people to take control of their own life habits. Your performance and not your bank balance will allow you a preferred membership status!

Wii and Kinect are transforming the video gamer from a couch potato into an athlete

Groups like the “slow movement” are teaching people to savour their life better. “Externalities accounting” ensures accountants can no longer take the environment for granted and push down one dollar burgers which cost our environments USD 200 in damage!

All of which makes me think that science and spirituality (for want of a better word) are coming together to make our lives (and our ecosystem) better and sustainable. Now that’s a nice thought?

A book review post

So here it is, first true blog post of 2013 for me. A lots happened over the course of the week, perhaps better to mull over the few books that have come my way this year.

Devdutt pattanaik’s book 7 secrets of Shivais a must read for anyone who is curious about Hindu symbolism. He wades into the symbols and brings alive Shiva, Parvati, their vehicles and children and explains what they mean to us. Myths and symbols interweave in this gem of a book – and the journey leaves you with reverence for these gods and gratitude toward this author. And if you read closely, you also pick up a few priceless tips on life and how to live successfully and be fulfilled at the same time – now, that in itself is worth a read right?

The other book I happened to read was on antifragility. This is a whopper of a book too. Quintessential Taleb, it leverages his deep understanding of probability (and tons of common sense) to peel away the noise around you – and reveals life as it is. You come away with many gems, sample this:

“Absence of evidence cannot be construed as evidence of absence”. If that’s a touch abstract sounding, here’s an example – just because we have found no side effect to a new drug (absence of evidence), we cannot state that there is no side effect at all (evidence of absence) – all it could imply is that we haven’t found any yet.

Anti fragile stuff makes you stronger when stressed – and is therefore the rightful opposite of fragility (which gets weakened by stress). This is a new idea because we generally consider “robustness” (which is ability to bear the stress) as the opposite. If this looks abstract too, think about “fasting” which makes you stronger over time (or for that matter even vaccines) – stuff which makes your body more antifragile while medicines which provide instance relief but harm the body in the long run are fragile.

Add another super insight – some volatility (stressors) actually are good for the system because they make the organism (or system) anti fragile. For example, a taxi driver (who experiences volatility of income on a day-day basis but similar earnings as his brother who is employed in a comfy job with a corporate) is more robust than his brother. The brother lives with a false sense of security (that his financial security is assured for ever) only to find himself in “BIG” trouble if (and when)his job gets terminated without notice. Loss of clients, war or other such stressors on impact the taxi driver way less (and in many cases may even improve his earnings!). Taleb reasons that Nature is antifragile and therefore recommends immense caution (or dire need) before messing with nature’s reactions (so a risky surgery is recommended only in the case of a dying patient, not for those who have a chance to recover through other means).

The book goes on – providing tons of valuable thoughts. It provides you a new set of eyes to see the world in – one that looks at fragility as it really is. Why is this important? Taleb informs us that the world is becoming more prone to “black swans” and it is only such insights that will help us navigate better.

Now I am not Devdutt, nor am I Taleb – and therefore would have embellished their thoughts for sure during the course of this narrative – apologies authors. These are “must reads” though and I would encourage you to pop over to the nearest bookshop (or order them on your kindle) and start reading…