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Month: October 2020

What to look for in a partner

Ask some youngsters how they would choose their life partners. “My girlfriend / boyfriend / fiancé / fiancée and I love the same movies / books / TV shows / music / food.” i.e. the answers tend to revolve around interests and hobbies.

Such match making could be disastrous.

Why? Because likes, interests and hobbies (can) change. The songs, movies and books we liked 10 years ago, 5 years ago and 2 years ago are not the same anymore. And 5 years down the line, not only will our tastes change, but our partner’s tastes will change as well.

Instead of trying to match likes and dislikes, what is most critical to match is values and value systems. If I’m soft spoken, value humility and honesty and have a charitable bent of mind, it is very difficult to get along with a spouse who is loud, boastful, cuts corners and is miserly. And liking the same type of action adventure movies is not a panacea for this wide gulf of a difference.

This is where some virtues of arranged marriages (advice from family/elders) and the use of astrology (to identify deep-seated character traits of an individual) can help. Not as tools to force people to marry against their will, as is commonly portrayed. But as a mechanism to ensure the ‘core’ wavelength matches, because the rest is just fluff.

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In or out

“Did you play cricket inside the house again? Did I not tell you never to play cricket inside? Now look what you’ve done – the tubelight is broken and the paint has chipped off the walls.”, scolded the father. “But daddy it wasn’t me. My brother started it, and then the neighbour kid joined in. And I only got here last!”

When we were younger and our parents would scold us for some mischief, the instinctive response would be to drag a sibling or friend into the reproachment.

That instinct doesn’t change for most people, given how protective we tend to be of our own self-images. On the path of spiritual transformation, this attitude is not very helpful. A self-help book is called so, because it is supposed to help us, the readers.

Instead, such a book ends up being an excellent point-and-shoot weapon, which we use not on ourselves, but as a tool to freely and confidently identify the improprieties of those around us. “This book teaches us to not be jealous. I’m going to gift this book to my sister-in-law and hope she gets the message!” Or “The author has so beautifully described how we should not become angry, and almost seems to have kept my husband in mind while writing it!” And so on.

However as we well know, the only transformation that matters – is that which happens within. For which the book-weapon must be pointed only at ourselves.

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Wonderland to wasteland

We’ve seen previously how one of the definitions of Dharma is ‘the stabilization force’ or ‘balancing factor’. This weekend, I watched a documentary featuring none other than Sir David Attenborough, the 93-year-young foremost nature conservancy expert in the world. Freshly released on Netflix, the film is titled A Life on Our Planet. And boy was it an eye opener. The scenes are a mix of joy (unimaginable biodiversity), tragedy (this biodiversity is dying, or rather we humans are killing it), and hope (of restoring this balance).

Here are a few painful and mind numbingly hard-hitting facts recounted in this documentary:

  1. We cut down over 15 billion trees a year.
  2. In all, we have cut 3 trillion trees. This is half of all the trees on the planet.
  3. 90% of all large fish in the sea are gone, due to overfishing.
  4. As a consequence, a significant part of the marine ecosystem is dead.
  5. This has impacted the oceans ability to absorb carbon dioxide, which has led to warmer climates, and erratic seasons.
  6. In each of the past 5 mega extinctions, it took volcanic eruptions 1 million years to increase the temperature. Thanks to our industrialization, we have increased the temperature in under just 200 years.
  7. Of all the mammals on earth, all humans together weigh 56%. The food humans eat (cattle reared for meat etc.) makes up 40%. Just 4% – are all the other mammals put together – from mouse to blue whale.

Mother Earth has given us everything for free. But if we do not know how to receive graciously, She will not hesitate to rebalance the power. We must do our very best – living mindfully, both collectively and individually, in order to save the planet and ourselves. Otherwise, an unmitigated disaster is on hand.

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Why gratitude helps

We are always thinking about ourselves. Always. Maybe about how we move to the next rung in the career ladder. Or how we can diversify our income sources. Maybe how / when to find a partner. Or how to raise kids. Maybe how to make that important presentation at work this week. Or what to cook for today, tomorrow, day after. Maybe what the neighbours might say about what we might say to them. Or what our extended family might comment about our buying a new car. Or where we should plan a trip to in the coming festive season. Maybe about how I’m wasting time thinking about all these things, when I can better spend this time reading a book. But oh which book should I pick? Will this book help me in my work, and can I talk about it in my social circle? There’s also this party this weekend where I’ll be meeting all these people after so long – what should I wear? Have I become fat with so many days cooped up at home? Maybe no one will notice. But what if they do? And on and on and on it goes…

With so many random thoughts going on in our minds at all times, it is no wonder that we are anxious and stressed easily.

If we are on stage, and the spotlight is on us, can we see anything around us clearly? Not at all. Gratitude helps because it takes the spotlight off of us, and puts it onto someone or something else. It is that simple. And worth it. Next time we feel anxious or worried about something, we just need to thank our stars for what we already have, including our families, friends, employer, opportunities and everything else. We will tangibly notice the anxiety slipping away.

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The secret formula

Singapore is a developed country by any standard of measurement. But this was not always the case. After its separation from Malaysia in 1965, the fledgling nation was struggling with problems including mass unemployment, housing shortages and lack of land and natural resources.

There’s a crisp and wonderful interview by Prof Kishore Mahubani of the Singapore government. Apart from speaking of his very humble beginnings, he also explains the secret behind Singapore’s success.

He says the secret is a formula called MPH. No it’s not miles per hour. It’s meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty. Meritocracy means only the deserving get recognized. Pragmatism means doing what it takes to get the work done, which he wonderfully summarizes as “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”. And last but not the least, honesty.

If these can work for a country of 5 million people, surely the principles will come in handy for us at a personal level as well.

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Brushing it away

Here’s a simple experiment I tried. While brushing my teeth first thing in the morning, I tried to count the number of thoughts I had. Without worrying about what I was thinking about, I just let it all flow. I must have counted some 30 or 40 thoughts easily. Plenty of things about the day ahead, what new work I might get, who I might meet, what my boss might say, what my colleagues might say, how I might respond, how I should respond, whether I’m ‘stuck’ in my career, whether I can ever become a millionaire, a billionaire even, some thoughts about the experiment itself, how many thoughts were flowing through, and on and on.

The one thought I didn’t have? About the brushing itself!

Lord Krishna in the Gita says that the one dearest to Him is one who is always thinking about Him. There are many who fight to get into a temple, after standing in long crowded lines, often starting at 2 am (not unlike an iPhone launch!). There are others who attend many spiritual talks and gatherings and proudly keep count. In the pandemic work-from-home era, online sessions have become a new normal with attendees proffered with the choice of flitting between spiritual satsang sessions as they like.

But what comes out of all this? Mental peace and calm? Hardly. How many times during the day is my focus fully and solely on the Creator? The mind continues to be replete with wavering thoughts and is scarcely transformed. Real change can only come through objective self-evaluation followed by purposeful and conscious implementation of what is learnt, step by step.

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‘Car’pe diem

It comes naturally to people with a finance / accounting background to try and compute an ‘intrinsic value’ for everything.

When I was looking to buy a car a few years ago, I was trying to understand how much of the car value would get struck off right out the showroom. This is why some people only buy used cars. A subsequent survey revealed to me that about 20% of the value of the car would get depreciated at the end of year 1 itself. As I was trying to get my hands around these numbers, I reached out to a very good friend for advice.

“Hey, I’m trying to figure this car purchase out. Seems like a sunk cost this thing. I put in money, and then a fifth gets wiped out in 1 year. This depreciation of the asset seems too high. What should I do?”

My friend said, “Dude, chill, you yourself are a depreciating asset. We all are! Do you realize that? Just do what you want, but enjoy the moment!”

It’s not like we do not know it. But the way he put it – it really opened my eyes. Why was I worrying about depreciating assets, while I myself was/am depreciating? This is not to say one must not be savvy about personal finances. Much the opposite in fact. But trying to save every last penny is likely to result in anxiety that negates the benefit from the savings.

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Why so studious?

What our education teaches us:
Science, Math, History, Geography, Civics, Literature, Accounting
How many of these do we remember?
How many of these do we use on a daily, monthly or even yearly basis?

What our education does not teach us:
Being happy; accepting failure; living peacefully; values and morals; serving others; dealing with others
How many of these do we wish those around us would practise?
How important are these on a daily, monthly, yearly basis, compared to what we are taught?

In formal education, we are taught about making a name for ourselves, achieving our goals and building wealth. These are great. But is this what education is supposed to be about? When everyone cannot be numero uno or win at everything, what does that do to the morale of those who are ‘left behind’?

A Wharton MBA session had just commenced. The professor asked all those who had ever stood first in their undergrad degrees or 12th grade exams to stand up. Over 95% of the class got onto their feet. Shocker – everyone there had been a topper! What happens then? Suddenly the slate has been wiped clean, and competition, stress and depression follow. No wonder then that a course offered by Yale University, that ‘teaches’ happiness (called The Happiness Lab) is by far the most opted-for course out of all the hundreds on offer. None of their classrooms could accommodate all the students so they had to conduct it in their orchestra theatre 🙂

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Can we see God?

If we ask a cat how God would look, he would say God would be the most majestic cat ever, with the most amazing stripes, silken whiskers and soft paws par excellence.

An octopus would disagree. Because her version of God would be the octopus with the most bulbous head, strong flexible tentacles, and the camouflage capabilities that would put a chameleon to shame.

Likewise an elephant would say a grand majestic granite-grey twin-tusker elephant would be God, whilst an ant would say God is the most beautiful Queen of all Queen ants.

When everyone has their own version of God, it is no surprise that the Lord Himself in the Gita says very clearly, that no one isolated entity is God. Instead, every nook and cranny of all Creation is a reflection of God, if not God Itself.

Let’s say we wish to buy a specific type of car, a Tesla perhaps. For the next few days, weeks and months, we will suddenly begin to spot so many Teslas on the road. If one has just been blessed with a baby, they will suddenly spot only babies everywhere. Not that there were any fewer Teslas or babies before, but just that the seeker’s focus has become sharper and pointed. Looking for God is no different. He is everywhere. If we look at everything as a Divine Creation, we will see Him everywhere, because truth be told, there is nothing else.

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Had a rough day today?

Had a rough day today?

Somewhere, a barnacle goose gosling is laughing it’s tiny head off.

Chronicled beautifully in BBC Earth’s Life Story, the little fellow epitomizes the resilience of life. He also teaches us about the abundance in our own lives, and how little we appreciate this.

Barnacle geese found often in Greenland and Siberia, lay their eggs high in Arctic cliffs, 100s of metres above land. They do this to safeguard their chicks from predators. Once hatched though, the chicks need to feed on grass, found only on the land below. The goslings can’t fly yet, being just one day old. Hence they have no choice but to jump off the cliffs, and hope to land in one piece at the bottom. Their trips down are dramatic – to say the least. Their minuscule heads and bodies dash against the cliff face, bouncing from one rock to the next as gravity causes them to plunge down at breakneck speed. The survivors (not all make it) hit the ground and must keep moving to reunite with their parent geese. No looking back, no licking their wounds, no time to brood or gain sympathy.

You can watch the 5 minute video here. Totally worth it!

So, had a rough day today?

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Kid vs Wild

Bear Grylls (from Man vs Wild, the amazing TV show) recently did a special episode with Indian actor Akshay Kumar. It was probably not as wild as his other episodes, but he did make AK drink fresh elephant-dung-tea. So full points for that.

The heart to heart conversations between the two were nice. AK spoke of his humble beginnings – serving as a waiter in Thailand, and simultaneously learning martial arts, and then getting a break in modelling and thereafter in acting. He also stressed upon the need to be good parents. To never build in his children a sense of entitlement, them having been born with a silver spoon.

This is an important point. Most parents today pamper their kids no end. It is not uncommon to witness 5 year olds in posh neighbourhoods throw tantrums while getting picked up from school by the household’s second car (Hyundai) because it is not as good as their first car (Mercedes). Parents too think “Oh my sweet little baby. Let him/her have all the best luxuries in life, because I struggled so much to become successful.” And then when the kids grow up and don’t listen to their parents or talk back, the parents are distraught. What else were they expecting? Success doesn’t come easy. If it does, then it is highly unlikely to be valued, and hence sustain.

The ancient Indian advice on raising kids is amazing. “From their birth to age 4, treat your kids like Gods. From 5 to 15, treat them like servants. From 16 onwards, treat them like your best friends.” The word ‘servant’ is one some may take offence to. But the world is a harsh place, and doesn’t care what one’s upbringing has been like. Getting kids to work their backsides off ensures they not only understand the importance of working hard, but are also physically attuned to putting in their blood, sweat and tears whenever required. Kids must be readied for survival, otherwise they are only being plumped up for sacrifice.

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Ma is ‘not’, and ya is ‘that which is’. Put together Maya refers to ‘that which is not’. The divine men and women call Maya as an illusion, and nothing more than a cloak of unreality. They refer to the world around us as unreal, or made of Maya.

It is said that Maya springs from attachment to worldly objects. This attachment is what gives Maya its innate strength. We all know what is right, but are still pulled towards doing the wrong things.

When a spiritual text refers to the world as unreal, it is easy to dismiss this as hogwash. “I can touch and feel everything around me, how can this world be unreal?” The word unreal here must be read as impermanent. That we (somehow incredibly) expect everlasting joy from objects whose lives themselves are finite – is a demonstration of the true power of Maya.

How do we get out of this? The trick is to not get caught up in the current mood. An example is that of economic forecasters. Studies have shown that they almost never get their predictions right. When oil is at 30$, they become super pessimistic, and when oil is at 120$ they become super optimistic. When countries are at their peak performance, they upgrade GDP growth estimates, and when economies hit rock bottom, they slash growth forecasts. In life, we too get caught up in the moment, and that leads us to take things to extremes instead of practising moderation.

The Buddha’s entire teachings revolved around breaking out of the clutches of Maya. His core message was that attachment is the root of all suffering. Interestingly, Maya in reverse is Yama, who is the God of death. Can’t help but wonder if there is a connection.

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This is all you need for pink health

My Ayurveda doctor says I need to consistently follow just 4 rules if I never want to take another medicine again.

  1. Sleep by 9.30 pm.
  2. Eat only when extremely hungry and not a minute before.
  3. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
  4. Do not consume milk, even in tea or coffee.

That’s it!

Is this too easy to follow? Or too difficult?

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Cul de sac

A cul de sac is a French expression, but is often used in English as well. It refers to a road that is only open on one side, aka – a dead end.

Life itself is a dead end, quite literally. One can have all sorts of aspirations and ambitions, but when life is done, those materialistic dreams are of no value to the dreamer as the dreamer is no more.

Although we may consider our own achievements very personal, nothing has been or can be done without external support. As Thiruvalluvar says in one of his Kurals, even an unmarried student and an austere hermit can carry on their duties only because others like the ‘regular’ householders are fulfilling their own duties.

So how should we live? Should we just be fatalistic and not do anything? All the wise men tell us the exact opposite. Instead of living for ourselves, they suggest we live for others. We can live not as doormats, but as stepping stones, helping others achieve their dreams.

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Lion king sting

There is a big debate between idealism and spirituality. When a God has said that this is right and this is wrong, why do people not follow it? Why do I not have the freedom to do as I please? Why do people still commit mistakes? Why is the government not stopping these people from doing their (barbaric) acts?

There are staunch feminists who say “I will wear whatever I want. My choice. My freedom.” And that is indeed correct. But the same logic then applies to perpetrators of crimes as well, and they too do whatever they want. We should ideally have a fool-proof legal and judicial system that doesn’t let even a single crime go scot free. But our life experiences tells us that this is far from the truth.

This is not about being feminist or anti-feminist. This is about being practical. If we want to live in a lion’s den, we must prepare well, or else we will become lion food. Yes this is unfair, but that is (unfortunately) the world we are living in. We deal with lions (or worse) day in and day out, and in all walks of life. Some lions also do not look like lions, so it is hard to know what/who they really are. We may also not be spiritually advanced enough to throw our hands in the air and say “Oh Lord you take care of me” as a menacing lion approaches. We may have read and imbibed our scriptures, but the lion has not! Survival first, spirituality (and other things) next.

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Sorry I don’t have time

“Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you dear! Happy birthday to you!” And everyone is so happy and celebrative. Right from childhood to adulthood to ‘old’hood, that one day of every year makes us feel truly special. But what are we celebrating? Or rather, why are we celebrating? We are only getting older, not younger, and in many cases not even wiser.

We yearn uncontrollably for money and status. But if there is one thing we must yearn for, it is time. It is the biggest treasure of all, and also the scarcest. The only plausible way to ‘buy time’ if at all is through better health, diet and exercise. Even so, phrases like “I don’t have time” crop up multiple times a day as part of our conversations.

It is worth thinking about “I don’t have time.” It rarely means what is said. It only suggests, “This is not a priority for me.” There are certain draining, money-sucking pursuits and people (like agents calling us take on new loans we don’t need) that we can certainly push back on. But lack of time can never be an excuse for not getting physical exercise. Or meditation. Or a better diet plan. If we are saying no to these things for lack of time, then we have our priorities all mixed (messed) up.

One way to help stay on track, is to take up a challenge publicly (not necessarily via social media, but even committing to family members helps!). This makes it harder to give up midway, because we now have a public image to maintain.

Quitting is easy, prioritization is hard. As they say, “Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.”

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Making room

Blaise Pascal, a famous scientist and philosopher, wrote in 1654, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

This is worth pondering, as it links to why our search for happiness always ends in failure.

As toddlers, we had no cares in the world. Yes we needed food and the occasional cleaning. But our lives were not driven second-by-second in the pursuit of some big goal. The goal itself is not the cause of anxiety, as much as our expectation that when we achieve the goal, the world will take notice and offer us something in return. This by definition is a fool’s errand, because it is impossible to change the world. All we can change is ourselves.

In several spiritual camps in India, it is a requirement that one spend a day or two in complete solitude. A room with no electronics, no books, no outlet and no one else. A plate of food will be slid under the door from time to time. The exercise helps build inner strength, although many participants quit well before halfway.

Happiness comes from being content with who we are. Material success on the other hand springs from dissatisfaction. While these are separate things for the realized masters, it is hard to distinguish for normal people like me. That is why I need to keep reminding myself at every step, “I’m driven to achieve my goal. But no matter the outcome, I’m already enjoying every step of the process.”

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Have you heard of the FK score, as it pertains to writing? Called the Flesch-Kincaid score, it is available on all Microsoft Word programs on Windows and Macs. I only came across this recently.

The FK score is pretty cool. It takes any written material, like a bunch of paragraphs, and grades it. A grade of 8 for instance, would mean that the average 8th grader American student would be able to fully understand the writing. A grade of 33 (it’s possible!) would mean the student would have to be in the 33rd grade to fully grasp the content.

Ideally there should be an FK score in life too. We are all too easily swayed by the complex. There’s a name for it too – complexity bias. A 300-page book is preferred over a 30-page one, even if the latter has much better content. An all-organic shampoo that boasts of aloe vera, ylang-ylang and lavender is immediately preferred to a more effective homemade mixture. A doctor that prescribes 1 tablet for each day of the week is considered more knowledgeable than one that asks you to exercise and eat healthy. An investor would prefer to throw his hard-earned cash at a start-up with no proven business model but spewing complicated jargon like AI, ML and Big Data compared to a well-established business.

One thing is for sure. Complexity sells. But buyer beware. The challenge with complexity is that it is unsustainable. And when that becomes the case, we feel drained and worn out. As Confucius said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” Let us return to simplifying our lives, in whatever little way we can.

And just in case you were wondering, this blog post has an FK grade of 6.5. Not bad 🙂

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How to think clearly

When are our minds crystal clear for decision making? When we are making decisions for others!

Think about it. Your best friend is in deep trouble in his relationship. Your advice comes pat, “Leave her, she’s not the one for you. She does not share your core values.” Or the new neighbour who has been struggling to gel with the others in the society. “Hey, why don’t you invite them over for lunch this weekend? They will get to know you better, and it will cement your place in our group.” There are also the slightly obese ones to whom we are able to easily say, “Boss, your eating habits are terrible. You need to stop drinking 3 cans of coke a day, start including some salad in your meals, and go for a run.” If someone comes to us for business / job advice, our minds are quickly able to put together relevant and useful solutions. “My suggestion is, you write directly to the HR head. Reach out via Linkedin, not via email. Mention your years of experience upfront. Also speak to this guy I know from before – he will definitely connect you.”

Haven’t we all experienced this? Unimaginable clarity, when it comes to helping others.

Then why do we struggle to help ourselves the same way, when we are each so capable? Because of our desires and attachments to the end goals we think we deserve. These delude us, and prevent us from taking the right decisions. What is the way out? To remove the ego, and be honest to ourselves and those around us. Not honest from a ‘speaking the truth’ point of view. But honest from the view that ‘we must see the reality for what it is’.

It would also help to surround ourselves with people who will call a spade a spade. Because just like we so easily help others, others too will find it easy to help us. Win-win!

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Here is the solution

What is your problem?

This is the question I keep asking myself. Why do I become sad? Why do I get moody? What am I lacking?

When I dig deeper, the problems surface. But the solutions surface alongside too.

I don’t have time. Ok so wake up early!
I still don’t have time. Ok so plan well and prioritize even better!
I don’t have money. Ok so save more, invest more, spend less!
I don’t have strength. Ok so exercise more!
I don’t look good. Ok so workout more, eat healthy!
I don’t have any friends. Ok so go out there and build relationships!
I’m not good at extra-curriculars. Ok keep practising and trying out new hobbies!
I don’t have a good job. Ok then prep well and hustle for your next interview!
I don’t know enough. Ok so read more books and listen to more podcasts!

We know where the problems are. More importantly, we know where all the solutions lie!

(Hint, not outside) 🙂

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