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Month: December 2020

You curves

The Happiness Curve. What could it be? Another way of describing a smile perhaps? That’s what I thought too, and it could be true as well. But the happiness curve is also the name of a book by Jonathan Rauch.

The author describes an important phenomenon related to happiness and age. His findings are quite surprising, and show that happiness declines in the late twenties, bottoms out around the fifties, and then moves up thereafter. This when plotted on a chart, is shaped like a U. And that is our happiness curve.

Why is it this way? Because youngsters tend to have high expectations from their lives. In most cases perhaps a little too high. The shortcut to Partner or MD, or having millions of dollars worth of shares in a billion dollar tech IPO are within the reach of only a few people. The rest? They are probably doing exceedingly well too, but not as much as they would like. So are they happy? Not really.

What happens in the fifties? People interestingly don’t become more dejected or depressed. Instead, their excessive optimism undergoes a systemic shift. They become realistic. And what a difference that makes, with happiness making a steady comeback!

This is wonderful information. Because this study tells us that most people link happiness to career/societal objectives and expectations. It’s good to give our best to our work and keep lofty goals, especially in the service of greater good. However, voluntarily deferring happiness by twenty or thirty years is unnecessary. We can be realistic today itself – not by setting lowly goals, but by realising that despite doing our best, sometimes things may not happen our way, and that we should not lose sleep over it. So we can start with happiness (just a mental toggle switch!), and then go about doing our work. The U curve will then morph into a 45-degree angle straight line to the right, or preferably even just bolt up to the sky at 90-degrees.

The next milestone won’t make us happy. The next purchase won’t make us feel better. The next increment in our paychecks won’t make our lives better. If we don’t appreciate what we already have, nothing we can add onto today will make us happy – sustainably.

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Overcoming a bad boss

Back in a previous job, there was this crazy boss. Towering in stature and demented in his requirements, that he used to torture me (and others in the team as well) at work was an understatement. Everything I did was considered wrong or not good enough. And everything was ‘late’, even if it was well before time. The team as a whole had this toxic culture, where the hours at one’s desk mattered more than the quality of work, and we regularly clocked 18 hour days 7 days a week. Such was the predicament, that I dreaded going to work.

Did I do or say anything at the time? Nope. Because I was scared. Scared of what others might tell me. Scared of whether I might lose my job. Scared of whether it might leave a blot on my résumé.

When I look back today, many years later, I look at the situation differently. Yes, it was perhaps a good learning ground, because such experiences prepare you for life – rudely and decisively snatching you out of the comfort zone that is one’s school or college or home. But what has changed the most now is the need to have a voice. When someone is doing something wrong to me, by keeping quiet, I’m not only suffering today, but also allowing the menace to carry on unchecked.

Contrary to perception, having a voice and speaking up actually helps boost your image, instead of cutting it down. People realize that this person is not a pushover, and hence cannot be taken for granted. If one gets fired for opening his/her mouth, then it speaks volumes not about the speaker, but the organization. Do you want to work for one where doing the right thing or speaking up – leads to a pink slip? Does that align with your values? We need to consider this and choose carefully. Today whenever I’m in a tough spot, I try to ask what future-me from ten years later would do in this same situation.

Jobs will come and go. But careers are made by making the right choices.

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Mind versus Intellect

The human brain is an absolute wonder. We all know this. But Tony Buzan, an expert on the brain, said in his research that we use only 1% of our brains. Anyone thinking that we have now learned “too much”, clearly needs to think again.

While the brain is just one physical organ, Vedanta delineates it into four parts: mind, intellect, memory and ego.

Memory we understand, and Ego we have experienced – especially when speaking to someone who threatens our authority 🙂

The mind and the intellect are more important to decipher, as it helps us understand our weaknesses better. The mind is what helps us think, imagine, ideate. The intellect is what helps us evaluate options. The intellect presents the available paths with rationale, and the (monkey) mind gets to make the ultimate choice.

When not ensnared by attachment or desires, the mind and intellect cooperate and collaborate beautifully, as if they are salsa partners. In times of turmoil, the music stops abruptly.

While these are all understandable for the material world, the mind and intellect are less useful (or practically useless, and actually maybe even deterrents) when it comes to spirituality. The intellect helps with scientific rationality – which only slows spiritual progress. For a deeply spiritual seeker, there is nothing to choose between or think about. It is totally experiential.

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It is unfair…

… that I get to sit at home and type this, while so many front line workers are doing their day/night jobs putting their own lives at risk.

… that a teacher gets paid nothing but many who’ve ‘inherited’ their way to education get paid millions.

… that youngsters that are able to code are paid more than ‘offline’ workers who have done their jobs in sincerity for decades.

… that those who graduate from the best universities during recessions make less than those who may not even graduate, but enter the workforce during economic booms.

… that industries which were seemingly untouchable a few months ago, have all but collapsed, while other unknown sectors have skyrocketed to fame.

… that life is not fair.

But what one calls unfair, another views as opportunity. And that is often enough to make the unfair fair.

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Ear here

What do we listen with? Our ears right? Of course, so obvious.

But that’s what we think. In one of his workshops to students many years ago, my Guru had posed this very question to his audience. They all replied “Yes, with our ears.”

To which he turned around, showed his back to the audience and continued his talk.

Needless to say, the crowd was completely disoriented. When my Guru turned around again, he smiled and said, “We listen with our ears, yes, but mostly with our eyes.”

This is a problem I’ve often encountered. Most people are always distracted, and when I speak, I’m not sure if what I’m saying is registering in their minds. Not because they don’t care. But because they are distracted. How do I know? Because I’m as guilty of this as the next person. When my spouse / child / family member / friend / colleague is speaking to me, the least I can do is to look them directly in the eye, and give them the attention they deserve. We can no doubt draw some boundaries – like letting the kids know that daddy’s going to be busy between 7 and 10 doing office work or such.

But if we aren’t 100% present in the moment, we must ask ourselves – what are we thinking about? The past that we cannot change? The future we have little control over? A social media post that is far less important than family?

Time to listen with the eyes.

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It used to irritate me no end that ‘tech geeks’ would suggest just a one-size-fits-all solution to any of my computer problems. So many times my Windows OS would have hanged. Surely this has happened to you as well. You click on some button one too many times. And you see the message on the title bar on top ‘Not Responding’. Then you try to open the Task Manager and realize one particular program is eating up most of the computer’s resources. And then when nothing worked, going to the aforementioned tech geek would elicit the desultory “Sir just restart your machine and it will be fine.”

The surprising thing though, was that it worked! The user didn’t need to know coding or troubleshooting. Just press the power button, and wait a few minutes, and everything would be normal again.

Our daily troubles are no different. Small niggles here and there. These take up an inordinate amount of our mind space. And we often allow such incidents to remain an overhang, corrupting the rest of our mental hard drives. Not unlike the faded screens where the mouse doesn’t click anymore.

The fastest way out? To do a clean restart. To think of something else. To do some other activity. And to not come back to the pain point, until the mind has calmed down. Bonus point? If the other activity is spiritual in nature, the reset will immediately be more fruitful.

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Hard and smart

When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, what they did was not to make a better phone. This was a point that was missed out by then market leader Nokia. Hence what Nokia did in response, was to try and further strengthen their Symbian OS, and come up with a better phone. But they were still playing the wrong game. The game was not of phones anymore. It was of making in-pocket computers – i.e. devices which incidentally had the capability to make phone calls as well.

When Amazon had just started out selling books online, the then market leader Barnes & Noble was selling more books in a day though their offline bookstores than Amazon would in a year. But Amazon continued to plough on, tail tucked between the legs, unworried about what others were doing. We know what happened next.

There is limited time, money and energy we possess. The resources are finite, whether for a country, a company or a citizen. What we have in abundance though is mind power, available at our beck and call. Of course hard work is important like Amazon proved – with its grit and determination to come up the curve. Equally important is smart work, as Apple proved, while creating a whole new ecosystem. Samsung too soon followed, nicely taking inspiration from Apple, and being agile enough to change, despite not being first movers, and also saddled with their own legacy of dumbphones.

While these giants are all familiar brands today, they each took several years to get to this stage. Some amount of struggle is indeed good and necessary (ref: praise the struggle(r)). But struggling for the sake of it, in the wrong direction, may have us end up like Nokia.

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Getting belted

An interesting dichotomy plays out in India, on the roads. Traffic will suddenly slow down as one nears a place of religious worship like a temple. Why? Because the drivers will attempt to steal a glance at the presiding deity and mutter a quick prayer, in the hope of averting any mishaps on the road. A similar prayer is often told even at the very start of the journey, just as the car is being powered up.

So what is the dichotomy? You will expect that such people would improve their chances of mishaps being averted, and hence wear seatbelts. But nope. You will still see most people not wearing seatbelts. Even if the driver is wearing one, the co-passenger will not wear it. Often you will see a toddler perched up on the co-passenger, also completely unsecured. The same is true for bikers, who just do not wear helmets. A common sight involves these helmets hanging from the handlebars of the bike, as if to protect said bike in the event of a crash.

All of this, despite scientific proof that wearing seatbelts and helmets can significantly reduce injuries and save lives.

This reminds me of the gulf between prayer and karma. Just because one prays, it is not enough to ensure bad things wont happen. There are many things the Lord has empowered us with. A seat belt is one such thing, as are other things like our mind (if used well), intellect (to distinguish between right and wrong) etc. Prayer is a supplement, like the icing on the cake. We cannot replace our stupidity or laziness with prayer.

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Praise the struggle(r)

A new Tamil movie released directly-to-home, i.e. bypassing cinema theatres, as many of the latter are still pandemic-shut. The movie titled Soorarai Pottru translates to ‘Praise the Brave’. It loosely chronicles the life and successes of Capt. Gopinath who launched Air Deccan – India’s first affordable airlines for the common man, from back in the early 2000s.

There were a lot of learnings for me from watching the man’s incessant struggles. (Spoiler Alert!) He is driven by just one goal – to enable the common man to fly. While this might seem normal today, flying was only for the elites back then. The protagonist (an Indian Air Force pilot) himself is unable to reach home in time to see his father on his death bed as he is short of funds to buy his plane ticket. He ends up hitching rides of various kinds, reaching his village by road just as the funeral rites commence.

There is the obvious clique of villains, none of whom want competition for their own elite airlines. Despite all kinds of attempts to derail (or should it be deplane!) progress, the Captain never ever gives up. In the worst of times, he goes so far as to part-create a chance meeting with the President of the country resulting in a lifeline for his carrier. The film also showcases the importance of values, family bonding, goal setting and never giving up no matter the adversity.

While some parts of the movie seemed hyperbolic (probably for cinematic effect), there is no doubt Capt. Gopinath struggled his way to success. And as every struggler would attest to, it is the struggle alone that makes the victory sweet. Just ask the butterfly that came out the cocoon, as the struggle alone makes its wings strong enough for flight.

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Spiritual safari

A recent tiger safari to Kabini, Nagarhole got me thinking. There was so much more to it, than just looking for a striped wild cat.

The nature reserve forest is beautiful, yet deadly. Looking for the cat, without the aegis of an able guide and dexterous driver, is a fool’s errand. The guide is ever alert, hearing warning calls from Samba deer and langur that normal ears do not pick up. The driver too is trained to pick up sights as he coasts along – paw prints on the sand or fresh dung, among other things.

Despite all this, there is no guarantee of a tiger sighting. Some make multiple trips and tries, in vain. Some may have missed the sighting just momentarily. Others may see all kinds of other animals and get distracted, but the tiger is special. So much so, that only one thing is certain – that an excruciating amount of patience is needed.

The thing with such safaris is, that we can only undertake the journey. Whether the tiger chooses to present itself in front of us or not, is not in our hands. And when you actually get to see a tiger, it is surreal. Of course we can sit at home and watch a live episode on Nat Geo or Animal Planet, but it is not the same. While many have seen tigers in safaris, they go back again and again, to be one with nature and its killer cat.

It is hard to ignore the similarities here to spirituality. The guide and driver are like the Guru. The tiger the Supreme One. And the safari itself, our sadhana.

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Lending a ear

Back in the 80s when the Internet was first created, people scarcely understood its potential. What is ubiquitous today, wasn’t obvious back then. Why did they think it was doomed to fail? Was it because technology was not ready yet? Not at all. It was because they assumed that creating content would be the work of the large corporations. So a Netscape or a Microsoft would have to create content and put it on the web.

Fast forward to today, and we know who the true content creators are, don’t we? Still unsure? Head over to YouTube, or the billions of blogs on Medium or WordPress, or the millions of webstores on Instagram or Facebook. Not just social media, but ‘social’ itself has become a thing. Stand up comedy has proliferated, as has 360 degree feedback processes. What is it that unites these? All of these are platforms that enable people to have a voice. They are so endearing because there is someone on the other side who is listening.

In the Kural, Thiruvalluvar says that the crown of all wealth a man can have is the art of listening. Despite knowing about the benefits of listening, people rarely listen. Group Discussions in MBA selection rounds are all ‘fishmarkets’ with the loudest prevailing over the rest. Is this the best way to select and groom future leaders? No surprise then that even in office calls today, most people end up cutting others mid-sentence. They also add, as if to sound cool, “Sorry to interrupt you, but here’s what I believe…”, or “Sorry to interject, but my view is…”. Would you like to be interrupted while speaking? Would anyone?

Listening needn’t just be about others. In today’s action-packed stress-laced world, we hardly listen to ourselves, our body and mind’s needs. This is not to say we must indulge ourselves, but we are mostly running after what will make us look good in the eyes of others. Instead, we could stop to listen to our hearts and evaluate what is right for us, rather than for thy neighbour.

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Heads up

There is a deep blue pool. There is a person in this pool. He is dog paddling, and swimming toward deeper waters. It all seems fine. He is oblivious to the depth of the water under his feet. Then he starts getting tired. And the water starts to suck him in. The deep end is still quite far away. Even the shallow end is out of reach now.

The pool is filled with nothing but the water of life. We have been drowning in it since the day we were born. Blissfully unaware of its depth, we are flailing in apparent ecstasy, simultaneously burdened by never ending anxieties. Oh how do we free ourselves from these aquatic shackles?

The answer is the rope of adhyatma. A rope of ‘spirituality’, that we can hold on to, as we continue to live our troublesome daily lives. It will allow us to live normally and discharge our duties, while also being aware of the safety line to liberation.

Why it is imperative to embark on the spiritual path at a young age itself – is purely to get a good grip on the rope, else we may have swum too far. Holding on to the rope itself will still need us to be extremely vigilant though.

Another, better solution exists. Instead of a rope, this solution involves a float. Unlike the rope, which we had to hold on to for dear life, the float will hold us instead, keeping our head ever above water. The float is none other than the Guru, to whom we have surrendered.

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Here’s a miracle that happened to me recently.

We took on the 5.5 hour drive from Bangalore to Coorg in a self-drive car. The weather was good. Cold, but not chilling. A kind departure from the incessant heat of elsewhere. All was well, until about 3 hours in. We had just entered a little town seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The roads were narrow, with plenty of oncoming traffic. A few cows and buffaloes had stationed themselves strategically. A big Toyota Innova behind us, was unable to overtake and get ahead – thanks to all this ‘traffic’. Five minutes of several failed attempts and many horns later, his frustration was clear.

And suddenly, a window of opportunity. He quickly overtook us, and as he did, one of his co-passengers was rolling down his window. That person indicated with his hands that something was wrong. I quickly stopped my car on the side, only to find not one, but two flat tires. On the opposite side of the road was a petrol pump, so I went over to see if someone could help. Nope, no tire guys there. He did point me a few shops away though and asked me to check there. A quick U-turn later, that shopkeeper said a few kilometres away I would find a shop. I explained that I could in no way go that far with two flats. Another man present there suggested another shop just fifty meters away. What’s the name – I asked. “Guru steels”, came the reply. I quickly drove ahead, and lo and behold – a tire shop. It was empty though, and a young chap was manning the neighbouring store. I asked if he could help with the puncture – to which he pointed across the road and beckoned. A frail gaunt man was eating watermelon. He crossed over to our side, gave a big smile, and asked if these were tubeless tires. I said “yes”, to which he said, “don’t worry I will fix these for you.”

Sure enough, in 30 minutes, he had checked both tires, taking them off, dunking them in water, plugging the holes/changing the valves, and having us good to go. The 100 kilometres we drove thereafter to reach our destination, had practically no tire change shops. Okay there were a few, but were closed. And the immediate 40 kilometres after the flats? Absolutely barren land. No people even, let alone shops. It would have been such a mess. But right from the Innova to the watermelon-eating tire changer to the name of the shop to them having the required valves – it was all seemingly planned to divine perfection.

How can I ever repay Nature / God / my Guru / the Universe? I can’t, because nothing can ever parallel such miracles. I can only bow my head down in gratitude, and hope that some day I too get the chance to pay it forward.

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Stairway to Heaven

No this is not about Led Zeppelin’s famous song by the same title. Rather it is about a fabled walkway to heaven. In 1997 a religious cult named Heaven’s Gate believed that there were some aliens in a special spaceship. This ship was thought to be traveling behind a comet heading to Earth. The aliens’ mission? To pick up true believers (i.e. the Heaven’s Gater’s) and take them to paradise.

Many cult members pooled their money to buy an advanced telescope. They were desperate to see the spaceship for themselves. To be sure, they located the comet. But unsurprisingly, there was no spaceship behind it. They took the telescope back to the store for a refund. The salesperson asked if the telescope was faulty. They said yes sir, and that the telescope was broken – because the spaceship didn’t show up through it.

Let us pause and think about that. Is this a level of delusion that appears believable?

The entire of the Bhagavad Gita is premised on one thing, and that is to remove Arjuna’s delusion. The delusion that he was not the body, but the soul. That he was actually free, but had tied himself down through various names and forms and situations and people.

What was applicable to Arjuna, more than applies to us. Aren’t we also deluded in one way or another?

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Shock and awe 2

This is a continuation of the Shock and Awe post from a few days ago. The premise is simple. We only learn when we are shocked or surprised by information – either new, or presented in a different manner. Here are some more such outstanding examples from my Guru’s unparalleled Amazing Simple Gita (life-changing free download!).

  1. It is not the CEO that reaches the Lord. Anyone who is unattached to his position, work, reaches.
  2. If your subordinate is promoted, feel good. No need to resign! (Why?, because “be even minded in success and failure. Evenness of mind is only called yoga.”)
  3. A never ending need, curdles into greed – without our knowledge. Hence our misery.
  4. Seek refuge in equipoise of mind. When this is practised, you seek neither fame, nor wealth nor acceptance from others.
  5. If you do not feel lost or dejected, but feel calm, you have become a yogi.

Aren’t these just mind blowing? So practical. What profundity! Now time to put these into action, step by step, as much as possible.

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Hands on

The year was 1984. An elite group had assembled in a club for a Toastmasters dinner. There were CEOs, MDs, Heads of Departments and many other dignitaries in that audience.

My Guru, who was also present, was suddenly asked to give a short speech there. No he was not the CxO of any multi national organization. He was probably retired at the time, already beginning to renounce everything. So titles and statuses made no difference to him.

A normal person would ask, “Then what the heck did you speak about, to such a distinguished audience, Guruji?”

“Simple”, his unassuming reply. “The one common thing that anyone and everyone is interested in, is themselves. So I discussed palmistry 101 with them. The life line, the head line, the heart line, the money line and so on. Do you think there was even one person in that audience who’s eyes were not glued onto their own palms? Whether CEO or King, everyone is truly interested only in themselves.”

The topic itself was not important. But the focus and theme of communication, i.e. ‘people love themselves’, was so effectively made use of – that not a single person wanted the session to end, even after 30 minutes! Question to myself: when I want to capture someone’s interest, should I talk about my life? Or that person’s?

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Praying for

Vedic Astrology is considered a perfect science, even though the astrologers themselves may be far from perfect. My limited experiments in this unbelievably vast field have taught me an important thing.

Whenever I learn a new concept, I try to apply it to my own chart. Why? Because I know my own life history the best – and will be able to figure out whether what I’ve learnt actually works, or whether it needs further tweaking.

What is interesting though, is when it comes to predictions for myself, my report card is abysmal. This despite attempts at birth time rectification, using conditional dashas, various varga chakras and what not. However if I’m doing this to help someone else, without expecting anything in return, purely to alleviate their misery even in some minor way if at all possible, then I’ve realized that often even the exact birth time or other granular details are not required.

Thinking about this more deeply, I realize that it is no different from praying. When I pray for myself, the prayer may or may not work. It’s hard to tell. Maybe it has to do with selfishness. I’m always asking for more and more for myself, without even knowing or caring what might really be good for me, or what the consequences might be, of the things I’m asking for.

But when the prayer is for the benefit of others, for mankind, for all the good kind selfless but suffering souls around me, the prayers seem to get answered much more convincingly. This gives me 110% conviction in my Guru’s idea of always praying for others. This is genius – not just materially, but spiritually too. Because it helps rid us of our ego. Instead of focusing on ourselves alone, we can focus on others. E-go to e-gone.

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Spiritual Fiction. Or reality?

Christopher Nolan is perhaps one of the greatest Hollywood directors of all time. Partly because his films are so awesome, and partly because his ideas and concepts are so complex that most audiences do not understand a thing – yours truly included. I almost feel foolish watching his movies but I still love them. There was some tesseract in Interstellar, which I just could not fathom. The ending of Inception – a spinning top cliff-hanger – again I could not make head or tail of. Memento was just unbelievable, and then an Indian version called Ghajini was made – which just paled in comparison.

Spielberg is a little easier – like his Avatar movie was way more palatable. Titanic of course was not sci-fi.

Spirituality too can have plenty of sci-fi elements. If one were to read books like Yoga Vashishtam, the Aghora series or Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master or even books on Kundalini shakti etc. (all of which are outstanding books), there would be no dearth of apparent science fiction.

While these are great to read, and also lead me to hope that one day I may experience even a fragment of the True Oneness, my Guru is clinical in his advice. He says only 2 things are needed. Give up desires. Give up attachments. These two are the beejas (seeds) for everything else. The only permanent way to exit from our delusionary state is by realizing the futility of all our worldly pursuits. There is no other way.

Nolan himself has the last say in his most recent movie Tenet, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

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The equalizer

Technology has really changed the world. We know this. We each feel this, tangibly on a daily basis. Many of us are just consumers, and have probably not realized its true potential – as a money spinner.

In the olden times, economic success was cornered by those with resources i.e. money, land or labour. Today, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Why? Because of the internet.

Want to build your own e-commerce website? It is literally drag-and-drop. Have a great product to sell? Amazon will do it for you. Want to build your own brand? You can do it from your own home. Have a talent to showcase? You can blog about it. Or create YouTube videos. Or maybe begin a podcast. Get your 10 million followers, and you could become an influencer, just sitting in the comfort of your living room. Not to say that this is easy. But it is certainly within the reach of the common man. Nay, even the common kid! One famous YouTube channel has a small boy reviewing a variety of toys and playthings, so much so that he earned over US$ 20 million in a single year! All the major toy companies fight over themselves to send him their latest toys in the hope of winning his approval.

Why is all this important? Because the economic success and allied happiness we seek has never been easier to attain. One does not need to only become an “engineer/doctor/lawyer” to become rich. The new age gig economy actually enables people to work on what they love doing, and get paid handsomely for it. There is now a real way for passion to be monetized. And a way for age, legacy, background, gender, location, education and many other previously important things, to all be neutralized. Are you taking advantage of the trend yet?

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Boat float

Some people eat out regularly, while others have tummy upsets just peeking at some oily street food.

Some work 120 hour weeks productively, while others are most productive with better work-life balance.

Some love to skydive or bungee, while others prefer feet up on the sofa.

Some spend their weekends watching horror movies, while others wonder how one can relax with that genre.

Some plan trips months in advance, while others are always last-minute.

Some are pro gig-economy preferring to rent, while others take great solace in their ownership.

Some live for status and wealth, while others for purpose and process.

There is no right or wrong. Whatever floats your boat. And brings you peace of mind. Be yourself.

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Up curve down curve

We know from experience that if we are happy, we smile more, and if we are sad we frown more.

But I had no clue that the reverse is true as well – and this was quite a revelation. My wife recently told me about the Facial Feedback Hypothesis. This was a study conducted in Germany, where the researchers found that it was indeed possible to trick the brain into becoming happy. How? Just stick a pen or pencil horizontally between the teeth, such that the mouth mimics a wide smile. That’s it.

The brain is apparently always monitoring external stimuli – i.e. what is happening to muscle tension, posture, heart rate, breathing, facial expressions and so on – in order to judge how one is feeling. It was observed that this simple pencil trick caused subjects to rate cartoons as much funnier than those who held the pen/pencil in between their lips (and not teeth), mimicking a frown.

Can we not use this in our daily lives, especially when we feel dejected about something trivial? Time to come up the curve!

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In any horoscope, the 8th house is always considered bad. As per astrological rules, this house brings uncertainties, sudden falls, unexpected bad events and the like. If a strong benefic planet like Jupiter is in the 8th house, some astrologers condemn the poor native to a life of ill-judgement and dull intellect. Life, as we know it, can rarely be painted with such broad brushes.

The 8th house is bad to an extent, yes, but only materialistically. Then too, it can give rise to extraordinary future growth, if the native decides to look at his predicament as stepping stones – as learnings for the future.

What is often ignored though, is that the periods in life where the 8th house comes into focus tend to be the ones where the most spiritual advancement happens. So materialism and spirituality are naturally conflicting. As an example, if one loses money for whatever reasons (family feud, loss of inheritance, friend borrowed and fled, bonus cancelled), it might seem like the end of the world. But spiritual progress is achieved only when attachments and desires are consciously removed. Money tends to be highest on the long list of attachments we have. If a greedy relative, despite committing a variety of sins, seems to be rewarded with a lot of luxuries, we must not worry. The more one drowns in the quicksand of maya (read more here), the harder it is for them to get out.

If we can look at the loss of money as a good thing (bad is good), and embrace the fact that it doesn’t change our core being, we will inevitably mature spiritually. And where are we going to take all this money anyway? We do not need money – at the grave, only grace.

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An 80 year old couple have been running a food stall since the 1980s. They survive each day on what they make selling their food. The pandemic had caused fear towards eating roadside food, and footfalls to the stall had dwindled to nothing. How were these couple to fend for themselves?

A good samaritan comes along, takes a video of the couple, puts it on social media and requests for help. Soon enough, the video goes viral, a lot of money is donated and the stall owner is beaming, business running brusquely.

Cut to a week later, and the stall owner lodged a police complaint against the good samaritan. Why? Because apparently the YouTuber kept most of the funds to himself. The elderly couple also claimed that in recent days, people were not coming as customers, but only to take photos and selfies. The YouTuber on his part has disclosed all his transactions publicly, claiming no malpractice.

What is the truth? I don’t know. But it is indeed amazing how people can find victory in adversity, and soon after, find adversity in victory. Surely I’m culpable too, as I’ve often wanted something to happen, and when that thing happened, the peace of mind that ensued was fickle at best. Something else would come up. And then something else. The cycle is never stalled.

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How to get others to like us

Swami Vivekananda used to say that the allure of a man is predicated on two things. The first is the ability to speak and sway with the spoken word. The second is the inner personality. While we may believe the former to be more important, Swamiji actually gave the latter more importance, saying it contributed over two-thirds to a person’s image.

Irrespective of which is more important, it is clear that we must work on ourselves, rather than expecting the world to accept us. Encouragingly, the acceptance will come unsolicited, if we become the best versions of ourselves.

We can read more, listen to podcasts more, watch more YouTube to pickup new skills or even join classes to increase our overall awareness of various art forms. These are all great, and must be pursued.

But an even better way to improve and completely transform the inner personality, is to serve others selflessly. The service is not rendered for anyone else, but for our own benefit, as it helps keep us grounded in this otherwise age of excesses. We could start simple – by helping someone unasked, once a week. Maybe a friend is going through a tough time and needs someone to listen, or a student needs some math tutoring, or a neighbour is sick and is struggling with cooking and managing their home. Whatever the case may be, anything done for others, with genuine interest in their well being, can surely find us a place in their hearts. This is far more productive and efficient than learning a new skill and attempting to impress someone.

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“Tell Me Something About Yourself”

The ‘TMSAY’ question. It’s the one consistent question across all interviewers and jobs. And the one most interviewees hate! Is that because it is so difficult to talk about ourselves? No surely that cannot be the reason. Everyone loves to talk about the biggest star in their lives (hint: themselves!).

Most answers are similar to “I worked here for x years and studied that for y years.” Instead of achievements, some career counsellors suggest we must focus on our qualities instead. What do I stand for? How many people have I helped along my way here? What inspires me? What are the things that I would do, even if I get paid nothing?

There are no right or wrong answers. But being truthful to ourselves, will guide us to where we want to be. Yes, maybe current circumstances do not permit a change of role, with a hectic schedule. But surely 30 minutes a day or even a couple of hours a week are enough to work on attaining that which is dear to us?

The TMSAY question is an amazing one, requires deep thought, and should be answered by everyone even if there is no interview. Who are we really. What are we doing here (not just the interview, but on this earth itself)? Are we who we really think we are – limited only to this body? Could there be more to all this?

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You are the best/worst

Since the day we were born, we have only been trying to please others. Why? Not necessarily for others’ sakes. But because it makes us feel good. We love the support, acknowledgement and adulation.

If we’d said the words ‘mama’ or ‘papa’ correctly, we would have been rewarded with big smiles and claps. If we built nothing more than a vertical tower of a few blocks of toys one on top of the other, we would have been showered with hugs and kisses “Wow! My baby is a genius!”.

In school and college as well, getting appreciated by our teachers and professors, and even by our friends and peers was a big thing. No great shakes then that this continues into professional life too. We don’t mind working weekends and late nights, so that we get the accolades from our bosses, in the hope we will be promoted this year or the next.

Think of any famous person – whether politician or actor or chef. How many people like them? How many people do not like them? Their fan following is often deeply divided.

So, is expecting praise wrong? Not at all. But we have become so conditioned by praise that the lack of it throws us into reverse gear. And even worse? We do not know how to deal with the other extreme, which is sharp criticism. Sure, we must not hurt or criticise others. But on the receiving end, we have no control over what others think or say. One bad comment can lead to fear of the future and in some cases even severe depression. We can help our cause by reminding ourselves that it is okay to receive flak. What is in our control – and hence what we can focus on – is our willingness and action to better ourselves and do good for society and the world.

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Clean up

In the 1980s, my Guru and his wife visited Washington DC. They were staying at the local Iskcon chapter there, paying the 100$-odd fee. Despite no affiliation to that society, the karma yogis that they both were (and still are), they spent all their time being useful to the people there. Guruji’s wife cooked for over 100 people daily, while he washed utensils and cleaned all the toilets. Did anyone ask them to do it? Not at all. Would I do it if presented with the chance? When was the last time I washed utensils or cleaned toilets or cooked for someone else, when visiting a relative’s or friend’s place? Visiting a third-party establishment and performing selfless service is many steps higher. The then President of Iskcon was so impressed by the selfless couple that he beseeched them to move permanently to Washington. Of course that never happened, and thankfully so, else I may have never got to meet my Guru. Even in this matter I can only be selfish!

All spiritual texts carry the same message. Give up attachments and give up desires. If this is done, then ownership of your body and my body and your house and my house and someone else’s toilets ceases to be. Common sense applies of course, but this sort of mental re-programming would aid in spiritual growth as the ego gets progressively subdued.

How does one break free from attachments and desires? By seeing the futility of it all. By realizing that ‘enough’ is only theoretical. It will also help to carve out a part of our lives in the service of others. This physical and mental clean-up will at least partially allow the egotistic ‘I, me , myself’ to be replaced by altruistic thoughts and actions.

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This happened:
– A kid that is shouting at the top of his voice is not allowing me to concentrate
– The paper boy stopped delivering the newspaper on time
– A colleague took the day off and dumped his workload on me
– A best friend lied to me about where he had gone
– The carpenter came an hour late and messed up my work schedule

I’m fuming. So angry. So very angry. Blinded by rage almost.

Then I got to know:
– That the kid is autistic
– The paper boy’s father passed away
– The colleague’s wife delivered 2 months prematurely
– The best friend was planning a surprise party for me
– The bus had broken down and the carpenter had to walk 7 kilometres

My anger vanished instantly.

Next time, I will try to give the benefit of doubt to the other person. Anger can come later; hopefully never.

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Good to Great, or the reverse

When Hanuman went to Lanka to rescue Sita, he laid eyes on Ravana for the first time. He described Ravana as “shining like a thousand suns”. He also remarked, “When it comes to greatness, Ravana might well be ahead. But when it comes to goodness, there is no match for Rama!”

Are good and great mutually exclusive? Not, but it is very difficult to combine both. These might explain the difficulty expressed by Scott Fitzgerald’s framework when he talks of having “Two opposing ideas but still retaining the ability to function”. Why? Because greatness gets to the head. The ego swells so much, that there is little room to think of others. Empathy and goodness are replaced by selfishness and greed.

Watching the superb Netflix series Scam 1992 depicts the protagonist Harshad Mehta going through the same conflict. Starting off humbly, and wanting to provide the best for his family, he gets sucked into the world of stock trading. Success after success fuels his ego to such an extent that no amount of wealth and fame is enough. Goodness gets thrown out the window, as fraud after fraud is committed in the quest for greatness.

We must strive for good. Whether great comes or not is irrelevant.

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To diversify or not?

In investing, there is a concept called diversification. It means all of one’s money shouldn’t go into just one investment. This is because such concentration increases the risk of loss. If all eggs are in one basket and the basket has a hole, then you are unlikely to get omelette for breakfast the next morning.

Diversification is helpful in life in general as well. It is good to have a good friends circle, and a trove of important relationships – maybe at least one lawyer, doctor, accountant, engineer would help! It is also good to have multiple income streams, rather than just depend on one salary. This has become easier in the digital age, with social media providing plentiful options to supplement one’s primary income.

A few generations ago, couples used to have 8-10 kids in order to diversify. While planning a vacation, it would be better to go to your spouse with 3-4 alternatives, rather than just going with one pre-decided choice, especially if she/he is not in a good mood. Ditto for taking some presentation templates to your boss!

One place where diversification is less useful, is when it pertains to spirituality. The ancients say it is best to have extreme focus. One Guru only. One Lord only. No supermarket shopping for either Gurus, or deities, or scriptures, or religions. All Truths are one and the same. No deviation, no diversion, because there is no need for it.

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Accepting praise

It feels so good when someone lauds us for something we did. It could be a boss praising us for good work, or colleagues for us getting a promotion, family for us clearing an exam or friends for us winning a match.

Praise is good, but more important is how we handle it. Some people handle it beautifully, graciously. Others – for even inconsequential wins – begin to gloat like they just conquered the universe.

Irrespective of external appearance, the best internal way to accept praise is to immediately attribute the success to someone else. There are two outstanding benefits to this approach.

1. Spiritually, one can attribute the praise to the Lord. We can think that without Him it is impossible to achieve anything. We have neither created nor designed anything here. We merely borrowed what is given by Him, and re-purposed it for our temporary requirements. This helps us because it subdues our ego, which is the single biggest hurdle on the path to liberation.

2. Materially, one can attribute the praise to creation/universe/Gurus/partners/parents/teachers/family/others – only because of whom such a conducive environment was made possible. This helps us because it de-stresses us for the future. We do not have to worry about ‘becoming unravelled as a one-trick pony’, or ‘not being able to replicate the success in future’. Why? Because the success was caused by others, we were only instrumental in it, and we have already passed on our heartfelt gratitude to them.

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