Thursday, March 20, 2014


If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” - Michelangelo

Tapas - No, I am not talking about Spanish cuisine here. But the yogic virtue of consistent, focused and diligent work. If you want to be an expert at something, you have to work at it. Of course you can pretend or posit, but to truly be great, you have to put in the 10,000 hours, burn the midnight oil, give your blood, sweat and tears, etc... you get the idea. As much as we wish for it to be so, it doesn’t just descend upon us the minute we decide to pursue a skill. There! Nothing more needs to be said. This post can end right here.

But no, I must go on a little longer as this is for a friend. Probably the only regular reader of this blog. I can’t cheat her of my ramblings now, can I? Also, I have something to tell her that I meant to say a few days ago. It's all the way towards the end of this post. I know, I am very considerate that way. But I promise to keep this post short... well, shorter than usual.

So going back to the topic... It is always very tempting to imagine being bestowed the labels we so often admire in others. We covet those labels and sometimes even project ourselves to be worthy of those tags. But all those endless hours of work that leads to actually owning the label isn’t all that alluring.

We love the character traits and the image a label is associated with. We love all that a label implies - the ability for hard work, the aptitude and the self-discipline that supports the responsibilities that come with it. But when wishing for it and in all our eagerness to pursue it, the hard work and perseverance that is required to get there is grossly underestimated.

Take a job for instance. More often than not, we like a job for the title and the perks it offers and not necessarily for the job per se. For emphasis, I would like to share a handful of labels I aspire for at the moment:

I would like to be a tech-geek. The one who is incessantly curious and creative in building interesting technology. But I wish it could be done without spending countless hours in front of a screen. It is so tiresome.

I would like to have the yogic poise at all times. But I would rather not spend hours, day in and day out, practicing to move mindfully and meditate. I wish I was born with it.

I would like to be a writer but don’t have the self-discipline and imagination to sit down and tap out simple and profound words. I wish it was like breathing.

I would like to be a reader, which to me also entails remembering and assimilating everything I read. Being able to recall and quote lines from a book, is to me the mark of a good reader. So it is a sad fact then that I forget almost everything about even the most engaging and captivating of books. I wish it was easy.

I would like to be a runner. To feel the energy and passion for it, but without the aches and pains, of course. Which I understand is a paradox.

I would like to be a traveller. I don’t have to be the true adventuristic backpacking sort. Just the pick-a-place-and-just-go kind would do. But I so easily get annoyed and upset when things don’t go the way I plan for on a trip. And that is not travelling, in any sense of the word.

I would like to be a good swimmer. But without having to put in hours of practice it takes to be graceful in the water. I can barely survive and let’s just say that grace is not the word one would use for my style of swimming.

So when my friend mentioned to me the other day that everything she does requires a lot of work on her part unlike her son who is naturally talented and excels at everything he does and does so effortlessly, I had a vague sense of what I wanted to say in response to that. But couldn’t find the words at that time - what can I say, it was late and I was in a bit of a stupor after stuffing myself with delicious Mexican food. And it was also well past the time of day when my brain calibrates down to the ‘bare-basics' mode. Anyway, enough with the excuses, here is what I would like to tell her...

I think she has the greatest gift anybody could possess - the innate motivation to work with integrity on whatever she sets her mind to.

Now if only I had half the tenacity she has, I could be...

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sub par

“I make mistakes like the next man. 
In fact, being--forgive me--rather cleverer than most men, 
my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.”

- J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

We all fall short in some way or the other. To someone or the other. Thinking about it, it is impossible not to. Aren’t the odds against us? I mean, there are about 7,212,761,200 people and counting... as I write this, to compare myself to. As absurd as it may sound, that seems to be pretty much what most of us do.

If by some freakish happenstance I look better by comparison, then I ought to scrutinize myself and not snicker at the one I am compared to. Though I must admit, I find it so much easier to just indulge instead in an inflated sense of self. It is decidedly much easier to revel in the praise even if I honestly don’t feel worthy of it. But it is, in fact, a perfect opportunity for a moment of pause - am I the best I can be? Of course not. I never am. Then how about I resolve to die trying.

If I look bad by comparison (which is the norm), even if sometimes it is only in my own eye, press the ‘scrutinize self’ button again. There are million moments of gratitude and million opportunities for grace in my life. I might not be as good as all others in many scales of comparison, then again, am I the best I can be? No, I never am. But I shall try. Rather than giving in to despair, frustration, envy and resentment.

And what about all those missteps and mistakes we make. I, for one, make them all the time. Sadly, I even repeat them, many times over. What can I say, I guess I am a slow learner. Or just slow. But aren’t mistakes bound to happen, even to the best of us? I haven’t met anyone who has this game of life all figured out. Okay maybe a couple of them do. Or at least I think they do.

What troubles me is this aversion we have to mistakes. This general, all encompassing reference to choices we make while living our lives. This prevalent intolerance to slip ups. Aren’t we evolved enough to discern those colossal blunders that are detrimental to ourselves and to others from the ‘merely-perceived-as-mistakes' which are totally blown out of proportion? Or is that the sole source of our fear? A fear that we are incapable of telling them apart so better to avoid them all. 

Why are we forever wary of tripping over our actions and judgments? Why are we paralyzed by this fear of making the wrong turn? Why are we so worried about being frowned upon? By the same token, why are we quick to judge others for their perceived missteps? And why does that, even more quickly, bring out the smugness and self-righteousness in us? Are we so sure of ourselves that we cannot see the shoe on the other foot?

If a mistake is to be defined as something that brings about an undesired outcome, then isn’t it possible that it is not entirely wrong? Only something that is unexpected and possibly misunderstood even? Isn't that what Edison meant when he talked about him finding 10,000 ways that did not work. If that is so, then aren’t we holding ourselves back only because we are shortsighted about our future? And who has 20/20 vision about their future anyway.

Here is an analogy - One morning last week, I was very carefully inching my way forward across a long, slippery path to work (hmm... I guess there is an analogy within an analogy), all the while picturing myself taking a tumble and landing on my face. Lo and behold! I actually took a tumble. It shouldn't have felt incredulous but it did. And all I could say to myself while scrambling back up to my feet was, “Jeez, I fell !!!” (yes, I was that surprised. My words were so loud in my head that I could almost hear it). Immediately followed by, “ I hope nobody saw me”. (Yeah right, in this world of CCTVs I am absolutely sure that I provided comic relief to someone at work). And then belatedly, came the sensible, “I hope I didn’t break a bone”. What was even more surprising was the fact that shaken as I was by the fall, I moved better with a sure foot and a faster pace than I had before the fall. But more importantly, the scene that was looping in my head earlier was switched off. I think I can glean a lesson from that.  

While I embrace this new sport of ‘walking on ice’, here is something for me to wonder about and work on - to cut me some slack and to those that fall short in my judgement. Or better yet, just not judge at all. Now that's a tall order.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Could've, would've, should've

This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
                                                --- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Time. I have had the luxury of time these past few months. Time to sit back and listen to the silence. Time to enjoy long walks. Time to observe nature. Time to study something just for the fun of it. Time to listen, read and watch wonderful creations from amazing minds. Time to reflect. Time to be non-productive... hmmmm... that doesn’t quite sound right, does it?

Just before I took a sabbatical from work, I made a list of things I wanted to do during my time off. I called it the ‘Time Off’ list (yeah, could not come up with anything creative there). It was a list of everything I’d wished I were doing while I felt stuck at work. Things I normally could not find the time for. Everything on my list was something I enjoyed doing and ambitiously hoped to get better at. All I needed was time and that was exactly what I was getting. Loads of it. Wonderful!

For the first couple of weeks, my mind was a mush. The medications made it impossible to have a clear head. All I could do was amble around. But I like ambling, so I ambled often during the course of the day. Which apart from helping the circulation, also helped me mull things over. As mullings go, it was pretty exhausting (and frustrating when the decisions don’t magically appear in one epiphanous moment) but I was desperate to find some answers and time was ticking.

Later, when I could function near normal, I still did not do most of what was on the list. It is very disappointing to look through the list now, at the end of my vacation. I am puzzled at my apparent disengagement to the list. Like I said, everything on it is something I love doing. Why then did I not find the time for it? It looked to me like a pattern. A pattern in my life were chances were not availed upon for some reason or the other, all seemingly rational. My recent choices were a bit of an eye-opener too, a realization of what my true priorities were and not what I thought they were. It was humbling because I was fanatically certain of what my choice would be when given the opportunity. There is a term for it - Cognitive Dissonance. A fancy way of saying I did not do what I thought I would.

Defining the problem could see us halfway through a solution, but it doesn’t quite take away the frustration it causes. And I suspect that, in some way, this dissonance correlates to the lizard brain. The higher the resistance, the more the dissonance. This is marked by a feeling that sticks to me throughout the day, a feeling that translates as a never ending wish to be doing something other than what I am presently doing. A colossal inability to engage in the present.

On observation, it looks like this urge to disconnect starts from the time I wake up. Actually, it starts right about the time I am supposed to wake up from the cozy confines of bed. Its very first occurrence of the day - a wish to stay cuddled up under warm sheets... and the corresponding resistance to get up in the wee hours of the morning to fit in a workout. If I do oblige my wish to stay comfortable and push the limits of time, then the hour that is lost takes with it the time for my keystone habit. And then I might as well forget all that has to be done through the course of the day. Everything goes hurtling from there. But if by herculean effort I do as I ought to, it’s mostly on autopilot.

Most of what I do is done without full engagement. My mind is constantly trying to rush the minutes, ready to skip to the next activity. One more thing to be crossed off in the day’s checklist of activities. There is always something better I should be doing at the moment. However much I fancy finding the time for, say writing, when I do get a chunk of time for it, I decide to go walking instead. A breath of fresh air will clear my head, give way for creativity maybe? But don’t you think it is better to sit down and show up? Nah... I need to walk outside on slippery sidewalks in subzero weather. I think it will do me good.

Interestingly, what was not on the time-off list was my intention to heal and get healthy again. I did not have to put that down in the list. It was something I knew and felt. I worked out the specifics as I went along and followed the way of the legendary tortoise. I was utterly focused on doing something that was glaringly not on the list. A prime case of dissonance, I would say. A bad habit that has become so ingrained that it is almost a reflexive response to everything I do. But the case maybe that subconsciously, I might have felt that the list was in fact, a distraction. I must have felt that it was imperative to me and those around me to stabilize my keystone habit. A foundation upon which all else rests. So that is exactly what I worked on these past few months, without quite admitting it to myself.

Why so surreptitious? Because it seemed frivolous, to me at least. Why would I want to spend so much time, thought and effort on being so ruthlessly focused on something that should be second nature anyway? Shouldn’t I instead, work feverishly on my blog posts, knock off a book a week from my to-read list, try to write down all those stories spinning in my head, give my time to those who need it, learn French, learn a new technology, work on my meditation, find time to cook a meal for a friend...? But the only hurdle to it all was that I seemed to be thinking of working on them always at the most inopportune moment. Every. Single.Time. 

Anyway, I kept at the process, a very likeable one I must say, of eating well and moving more, while all the time fighting a guilty feeling that I was whiling away precious time. Time that could be better spent on less selfish deeds. And that I understand, is exactly how excuses grow larger and louder. And how the resistance grows stronger - the typical workings of a lizard brain. For some inexplicable reason, this time around, on the matter of my health, I ignored the resistance altogether without actually intending to. Didn’t try to reason with it nor did I try to justify my actions. I simply and stubbornly stuck to the course. If finding ways to spread 10 miles of walking throughout the day and being obsessive about what goes down my gullet seem a tad narcissistic, so be it. This went on for a while. My health improved and I had never in my entire life felt this good. To celebrate my full recovery, I ran a 4-miler. Not to gloat, but for perspective: running was not even an option for another few weeks. And no, it was not stupidity or disregard for medical advice. It was, in my case, taking the advice, then working, persisting and finding out for myself all that is possible.

So when the time came to look back and take stock of the year that’s passed, I realized something. I had, for the first time ever, however fleeting it was, felt consonance in my thought and action. What I had valued and was particularly diligent about was what showed through. Never mind that I did not quite acknowledge it. So at the end of it all, here is my revelation - an action can become second nature when you plow through resistance with unwavering focus on what needs to be done. Oh and, when you immerse yourself in the process, you could care less about how it appears to others.

My time off felt like a roller coaster ride. Roller coaster ride as in... lots of thrilling ups, terrifying downs and head-spinning loops. And also as in... the ride was entirely voluntary. And for the realization that came half way into it - that there was no way out but through. Now that the ride is over, I am all shook up. In a good way. I pretty much am the same as when I started. But very much marked by my experience. And somewhere along the ride, a few excuses fell away. Now, what I remember most about the ride is the exhilaration and the fear. And my utter focus on the ride itself. For that, I am glad I took it.