Friday, October 26, 2012

Left, Right and Centre

“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you. ”  ― Pericles

I do not know much about politics. My interest in it is recent. I don’t have any in depth knowledge on policies, issues and such. I don’t read newspapers. I don’t watch news on TV. I don’t listen to political discourses. The only news I get is on the radio a few minutes each day, on my way to and from work. I spend a few cursory minutes on political articles on a website. I tend to tune out when I hear political mumbo-jumbo, as with most things that need some active grey cells. But my curiosity about the topic has grown ever so slightly in the recent years.

When I was younger, I ignored politics and disliked politicians. I had one opinion of them (mostly through osmosis) - they were all crooks. Some educated, some not, some sophisticated, some not. But crooks all the same. To show interest in them is to stoop to their level. It was a lowly profession that people resorted to when they did not find any other vocation. They were all corrupt.

Growing up, we rarely discussed politics at home. My dad had strong political opinions and his amiability would instantly dissolve whenever he decried a politician he abhorred. He would barrel down my mom’s opposing views with arguments that sounded knowledgeable. I presumed that his opinions about the political landscape were a bit more vetted, for two strong reasons. First - he spent hours buried in the newspaper every day. Second - he was a political science major in college. My mom, on the other hand, though holding a couple of more college degrees (one of them a doctoral degree in history, no less) against her name than my dad, relied much more on the charisma of the political candidate and less on the criticism and analysis she came across in popular magazines. It infuriated my dad no end when his premises in logic for support of a particular party were lost on her.

During election time in India, it seemed that my parents had to pick between the lesser of two evils. The incumbent’s evilness was often a bit more pronounced by the sheer fact that they were in the spotlight in recent years. And so the challenger somehow seemed a better choice (even if by a hair breadth) despite proving to be no better when they had ruled the roost. One of the prevalent views I heard many times over from the voting population was this - ‘the ruling party did nothing in power except to line their own pockets. All things being equal, why not give the opposing party an opportunity? Who knows, they might do a little bit of good even if they do indulge in their greed to fill their coffers’. However dismal their choices seemed, my parents never failed to exercise their right to vote.

Politics is a touchy subject. A taboo topic even among friends. Political affiliations are based on an individual’s values, principles and priorities. So it is personal. When one relates to certain ideologies, it is hard not to get all stirred up when questioned or challenged. To argue and debate over them takes skill and open mindedness. Forget debating, I think it takes a considerable amount of tolerance even to listen to a debate.

The first time I came across this idea of political deliberation among friends was in Golda Meir's autobiography. It’s been well over a decade since I read it, but one of the things I remember most about it is how, when she was young, her friends would often gather around to passionately argue over politics, among other things, for hours on end. It was a revelation! So it is possible to have a healthy conversation about politics without resorting to throwing things at each other or calling each other names. And you don’t have to wait until you are all old and wizened but do so when you are young and opinionated. Of course, it is not for the faint of heart. I have been in a couple of impassioned political arguments myself and I so wished for it to end. To be judged for your political standings takes a little bit of steel and a thicker hide. But it is necessary for those of us who are willing to understand a little more about ourselves and the world around us.

I realize that politics is important. I am convinced that it is even more important to discuss and talk about it. After all, it is what drives our lives in this country. It defines the laws that make up the land. And it marks the privileges we enjoy in this democracy. Including the right to gripe about it. Then why are we more likely to talk about the weather than the government? Maybe because we worry that our relationships cannot weather the storm that political disagreement stirs up in us.

These days, leading up to the election, I find myself bombarded by political canvassing. Contrary to popular view, I don’t find it an annoyance. In fact, this whole process is very exciting.
I do admit that I am somewhat skeptical about political campaigns and the opinion polls. The candidate who finds the most number of malleable truths (not to mention money), has a knack for distorting facts favorably and still seem worthy of the office, gets to win. I am very well aware that it is not one individual contesting against another individual (I was surprised that there are four other candidates in the presidential ballot..what can I say..I am still learning). Rather, it is one institution contesting against another. Though the rhetoric and fencing never ends, periodically, the political process reaches a crescendo with an election.

I know that I lack an ideological stance. I know that my emotional intelligence is hopelessly deficient when it comes to political debate (anyway that is all I am going to fess up for now). But I also know that there is no moral high ground in not voting. In not participating in the process. There are policies and platforms I might not like or even understand completely. I might not even vote for the party and instead vote for the man (and definitely a woman) and for what I believe he or she stands for. Four years ago, for the first time in my life, I cast my vote. I was thrilled to participate then and I am thrilled to do so again. Especially when I know that this right did not come about easily and was
hard fought.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Where are you now?

“Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are

I have always set goals for myself. And they have always been largely unrealized. Nevertheless, I have kept at it. I have made elaborate plans drawn to minutiae to attain these so called goals. Plans that are great in theory and set with the best of intentions invariably fall apart when life happens. But I never relent. Because goals to me, are a form of hope. That whatever it is that I have envisioned for myself, is indeed possible.

Goals are expectations we set for ourselves. To progress intellectually, physically, emotionally, spiritually from where we are to where we want to be. Many a time goals motivate us to act. But for many of us, it is a constant reminder of our inadequacies. They stem from an inherent belief that we are not happy with who we are. That we somehow fall short of who we want to be.

Some time ago, I came across this interesting concept of not setting goals. Initially, it seemed a bit  far fetched. I considered it as something only a perfectly confident (and smug) person could possibly embrace. Never one to dismiss an idea from someone I admire, I stored it away to revisit it some other time. But it kept resurfacing and the more I mulled over it, the more it made sense - to not have goals. To realize that 'This is it'. To be content with where we are right now.

It was radical to think of not setting goals. A wonderful refreshing thought that you can be functional and happy without goals. That is not to say that it is an excuse for inaction. I think my initial reluctance to this shift in thinking was because I was confusing goals with focus. I do understand that it takes patience and practice to focus in the moment without aspiring to a better state in the future, 
but it is a very inviting possibility. Now, where I have I heard this before - ‘act without expecting fruits of your labor’ (Gita anybody?).

How wonderful would it be to completely immerse myself in whatever I am doing, with utmost focus, without being mired in expectations of tomorrows. Say, to enjoy the act of running, not to shed a few pounds, but purely to enjoy the feeling of movement. To practice yoga, not to gain physical prowess, but to be fully aware of the physical movement with breath. To read, not to show off the newly gained knowledge but to gain a better understanding of life, of people, of places and experiences. To write, not to expect praise or fear criticism, but to express creativity and to find clarity. To work, not to reach the pinnacle of a career in the shortest possible time (rhetorically speaking... because due to some inscrutable mental block I have never ever aspired to this) but for it to be something that propels me with meaning and purpose.

It is challenging to 
live life in an unconditional way and to engage without expectations. It takes courage and honesty to take a given moment as it comes and realize one's potential. It takes mindfulness to not compromise the present for some milestone birthday in the future hoping to cross-off items on a ‘to-achieve’ list. So yes, I might be able to hold a headstand now, but to what purpose? Have I learned anything from the accomplishment? Or did I meet the goal merely to gloat? I have to ask these questions because, I find that though I might have worked hard (albeit intermittently), to stand upside down, it is a herculean struggle to continue on. Now that I have arrived at my goal, what next? Handstand perhaps? I can sense a resistance in forming yet another goal. To keep scaling the mountain now seems pointless and excruciating. Inertia sets in and worse still, instead of a forward momentum, I seem to be slipping and sliding all the way to base camp. From this obscure point, it is easier to give into disillusionment. Because now, the summit, aka ‘the current goal’, seems all the more impossible to reach.

For now though, I have found middle ground. To not entirely do away with goals but not to get obsessed with them either. I am learning to use goals as a guide when I realize I have veered off from the path I want to be in. To gain perspective when I realize that the choices I have been making are not congruent with who I truly am. It is when I lose focus that my alarm bells go off.

So, here is to your moment...