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“Finding a purpose to life is man’s primary motivational force.” writes Dr. Victor E Frankl in his book Man’s Search For Meaning. Dr. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist endured years of horror in Nazi death camps, by finding something worthwhile to live for.

This article is about meaning.

What role does it play in our lives? Where does it come from? How do we find it? Does it change over time? Do we define it or does it define us?

I have two choices.

Choice one. Explore these questions from a variety of intellectual perspectives.

Choice two. Explore the lives of few people I know, including myself, to see how these questions on meaning and purpose have unfolded in their lives.

The people whose lives I will explore are real people. I know them. However, the dialogues, settings and names are fictional. The idea is to bring forth the meaningful essence of each person, as I have experienced them, not so much to reproduce accurate data.

Let’s hear what they have to say.

The Corporate Achiever

I met Neeta during a work assignment.

I was conducting interviews to understand the organization by meeting a few employees. It was the last interview of a tiring day. As she walked into the room, I noticed her tight fitting black trouser and plain white corporate shirt.  Hair tied in a bun and eyes tired after a long days work. We shook hands and I explained to her that there was no structure for the interview. She could start by sharing about her background and then about her work, colleagues and future aspirations. She picked the glass of water lying on the table, took a sip, and after a pause started sharing.

“I come from a small town in Gujarat. My father was a school teacher and my mother a housewife. I am the only daughter. I have two brothers, one elder and the other younger. Right since my childhood, I was a go getter. I did well in school and never let anyone take me for granted. It wasn’t easy, since men were always given preferential treatment.

I had a great desire to prove myself. I still do. It is like an aggressive energy driving me forward. For me it meant going to the city, getting a high paying job and being in a senior position of a corporation. Which I did. The first time I came to Mumbai was to study. I joined an Art school, since I was quite creative. However, I was clear that I had to get a corporate job. It is my ambition to be the head of an organization. I took up this job of heading the creative department of a publishing company. I have worked for seven years here, however I realize if I have to grow then I have to be in business development. Selling is at the forefront of any organization and if one has to grow, one needs to be able to get more business. Soon I will move to the sales team.”

“What about your relations with your colleagues and your future plans?” I inquired. “They say I am short tempered. I agree. At times I loose my temper, but then I cannot tolerate mediocrity. If there is a task that needs to be done, then it needs to be done! Sometimes my temper gets me into trouble. I am working on it. However, I do not wish to let go of my aggressive nature. Achieving my goal is essential to who I am. It gives me meaning. Eventually I would like to be the head of an organization. I know I am capable of it. ”

The Musical Banker

I met Naresh during a trek some years back. Our friendship has stood the test of time. We had a lot in common. Both came from urban middle-class families, were qualified chartered accountants and had corporate jobs that did not satisfy us, but were a means for a livelihood.  Naresh is an amiable fellow and makes friends easily. He has a passion for music. Classical music.

We met at a club. He shared that the current financial crisis may cost him his bank job.

“They are laying of people. I do not know what I will do if I lose my job. Probably take a sabbatical for two months. I don’t know if I can afford to do that.” he shared.  “But Naresh, you have been saying that to me for the past three years, and you still have your job.” I interjected, unsure whether I wanted him to lose his job to do something meaningful or retain it for the financial security it gave him.

Yes I do, but you never know. It is just a means to earn a living. I go there do my work and come back. I have been doing more or less similar work for the past seven years. Moving files and shuffling papers.” he says with his trademark humour. “The boss is a pain. But that is how we middle class people make money, pay our EMIs and take care of our families. We do our time over the week so that we can live our lives over the weekends,” he added. “What do you do on weekends?” I questioned.

“I go for my music classes. I have been practising that for the past ten years. My grandmother introduced me to it and I shall always be grateful to her for that. When I sing, I feel closest to God. It is the cornerstone of my life. At times, I attend concerts with my mother. It is a soulful experience.”  “Can’t you do something around music?” the idealist in me inquired.

“Who will pay me for it and what could I do?” he responds “Let us be practical after all the world is maintained by people like us who do 9 to 6 jobs, six days a week. No one is interested in whether you find your job meaningful or not. I do my job and that is the end of it. It is a job after all.”

The Teacher Mother

Lakshmi works as a senior executive in an education company, that has created a successful brand of franchisee schools. She has worked there for the past seventeen years. She started her career in the same company as a pre-school teacher. A chance encounter with the founder, when the company had only begun with a single pre-school.

She has a twenty three year old son Tapan, who is pursuing his graduation studies in Australia.

One pleasant morning, during one of our occasional morning walks, I ask her “What has been most meaningful in your life?” She looks at me, a little surprised at the question, unsure what to say. “I am writing an article on what different people find meaningful in their lives,” I add, hoping to elicit a response. It does.

“My most meaningful experience is of being a mother.” she responds in a voice laced with emotion.

“My son is the most precious to me. Nothing in the world is more valuable to me, than him. When he left for Australia three years back, my world came crashing down. My entire world revolved around him. Suddenly there was this huge emptiness. I could not eat for days. I spiraled into a depression. Thankfully, my friends stood by me. It was the most difficult experience of my life. Letting go of my son. It left me detached and wondering at the play of life. It gives and then it takes away. I just could not make meaning of it. My desire to find some explanation made me join astrology classes. Now I can see things from a larger perspective. Every person has his own destiny. There is not much in our hands beyond a point. That realization brings balance into my life.”

We walk silently for the next few steps.

“What about your work?” I probe further.

“When I began I was extremely passionate about what I did. I taught toddlers in pre-school. Since the organization was just beginning I did all kinds of work – clerical, marketing, training, curriculum development, even being a school principal. There is no department I have not worked in. I did not mind working late. As the company grew, we began to corporatize systems. I was moved to central office as an executive. My interaction with schools was restricted in my new role. That killed my passion. All that was meaningful for me, was taken away by my new role. The irony was that I had a better designation and a bigger salary, yet the fulfilment I got from my work diminished. It became a job. It is funny when I look back, the organization that gave me meaning, also took it away when we became successful.”

“What keeps you going then?” I ask

“I still like my work, but the passion of those initial years is missing. Once I am able to fulfill my financial responsibilities, I would like to work with underprivileged children in a non-profit organization. Not for money, just for the joy of it. That would give me new meaning.”

The Urban Seeker

This is about my journey of finding meaning and purpose in life.

Different things have been important to me at different times of my life. Yet if there is one thread that ran through all my past experiences, it was to find my calling. To be able to do work that would quench my thirst for self-expression. Interestingly that journey began after my education, when I started working.

“I have met many people who are doing things that they are not meant to be doing, yet I haven’t  come across anyone who is as divorced from his natural self and the work one does, as you are” said a friend to me once.  At that time I was working as management accountant, in the finance department of a multinational company.  She was right. I did not like my work one bit. I have no interest or aptitude for numbers, which people find hard to believe considering I qualified as a chartered accountant. I attribute it to a cocktail of poor awareness, fear of being a failure and desire for social recognition. I could further attribute it to a poor education system that rewards learning by rote, parenting that defines success by social parameters or my destiny. Having said that, yet if I were to look at it from a larger perspective, everything had its place, time and reason. What did not make sense earlier, made sense later. The fact remains all that I have learnt is from unlearning all that I had learnt, like peeling layer after layer to uncover my natural self.  Perhaps it is essential to lose yourself, before you can find yourself.

It was not an easy process though. I remember the time when I quit my high paying job, with the hope of becoming a corporate trainer. I thought then, if I had to work with people that was the only way to go about it. I remember the vulnerability of not having a job for a few months. I remember going back again to the security of a job, out of the fear of not being able to support myself. I remember the immense boredom of it, yet not knowing or having the guts to try again, after having failed once. I remember moving from finance to human resources, something unheard of. I remember the dissatisfaction and failure at being a trainer, simply because I did not believe in it and could not modulate my voice to engage my audience. And, I remember clearly sitting one day with my head in my hands, with every cell in my body crying out for self-expression, yet not knowing what it was, that I was meant to do.

The work I do now is not only an expression of who I am, it is a culmination of a long journey in finding meaning. There is no path I can point to and say it got me here. Yet one thing stands out. All that I did, that was not organic to me, dropped off one after another. Borrowed causes I call them. Every  new turn, even though scary at that instance, got me closer to what I was meant to do. What finally remained was truly mine.

There are various labels to what I do now. Organization development consultant, management consultant, human resource trainer, facilitator, coach or change catalyst. Yet the truth is all I am doing is being myself. Just as writing this article does not make me a writer. It is simply a means of self-expression. In hindsight, the journey was not of finding my calling; the journey was of finding my-self.

It feels like coming home.

***

I am unsure how these stories answer the questions on meaning and purpose in your life.

Perhaps there are no absolute answers. Each individual has to find his own answers. And his own meaning. Often the questions and meanings keep changing. What used to be the answers once, get converted into questions later.

Dr. Frankl would sometimes ask his patients. “Why do you not commit suicide?” From their answers he could find a guide line for their therapy: in one’s life there is love for one’s children to tie to; in another life, a talent to be used; in a third perhaps only lingering memories worth preserving. These slender threads weaved meaning into people’s lives and gave them a reason to live. What gave them meaning, gave them life.

As Nietzsche, the German philosopher says “He who has a why to live can bear with any how.”

***

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a facilitator’s journey

Mumbai, March 2011

“You can consider them for PR” wrote Aditya Natraj, founder of Kaivalya Education Foundation (KEF) in a mail to his colleague Tripti Vyas, marking us a copy on it. “PR?” I thought. Public Relations. We don’t do PR?! Yet I was keen to work with Kaivalya in any capacity. I had read the blog posts of a few Gandhi Fellows – the term used for the youngsters undergoing a two-year full time, residential leadership programme called the Gandhi Fellowship. The authenticity of their sharing and the earthiness of their challenges engaged me.

The Fellowship recruits graduates and postgraduates from colleges across the country and puts them through an intense experiential learning process. They work at the grass roots, as assistants to headmasters in ailing government schools. During this journey the Fellows go through a variety of self-transformative processes of personal reflection, slum or village immersion (staying with slum dwellers or villagers for four weeks as one of them), learning journeys (attending a vipassana camp, group visits to development organizations, articulation of their private dreams). It is a rigorous experience and a social experiment of sorts, that brings together youngsters from a variety of geographies, classes, cultures and ideologies. As the KEF website states, “The Fellowship is a nursery that raises youngsters’ aspirations and inspires them to become the change they want to see in the world.”

Having got a taste of the Fellowship world reading their experiences, I was eager to work with these youngsters, desirous of real change – inside and outside. It was also a first of its kind long-term residential programme that I had ever come across, whose primary focus is on self-awareness and personal growth. It was a welcome change from working with corporates, where inspite of repeated clarion calls for human change, the primary focus continues to be target achievement and wealth creation.

We met Tripti Vyas, Head of the Gandhi Fellowship programme, at our office one lazy afternoon. Having taught English literature for twelve years I noticed her articulation was word-perfect. She also enlightened us what PR meant. Personal Reflection. We heaved a collective sigh of relief. This seemed closer to what we did. The fellows underwent three PR processes over a period of two years. Each process is spread over five days, with the primary objective of creating awareness towards relating with self and others.  As the discussions proceeded over the next few days, Kaivalya grew confident of our facilitation skills and we drew reassurance from their values that resonated with ours. Soon we were contracted for the PR process of forty Gandhi Fellows at Ahmedabad.

Ahmedabad, May 2011

The first thing that hit me at Ahmedabad in May was the searing heat. The second was forty youngsters singing Chetana Geet at full lung capacity. There were youngsters in all shapes and sizes. A whirlpool of colourful headgear, long beards, trendy T-shirts, short kurtas, lengthy bermudas. This truly was a social churning pot!

We divided the youngsters randomly into three groups for separate PR sessions with different facilitators. We had kept the design simple. Ask one person at a time to choose any question that is most relevant to his life at the moment and explore that question deeply from multiple perspectives. The other participants would assist in his exploration with their own questions. After the exploration was over the person would be requested to share his feelings and insights if any. The organizational focus was on facilitating each person to find his private dream and helping him to articulate it. Our focus was on getting the person to touch a chord within himself that reverberated deeply and gave an insight into his question. Somewhere in the process we hoped to bridge feeling with purpose.

I began kayaking (facilitating) the river of self-exploration with the fellows.

It started with easy paddling into the waters of introduction.  As the first person volunteered for exploration, the water flowed faster.  Post that I came across a few small rapids. “Is this all there is to the design?” “What is our concrete take away or action points?” The kayak shook slightly. I peddled saying “Yes this is all there is to the design. Why not be patient and give it a try? As regards action points, is not our surreal inner world made of ever changing thoughts and feelings. Yet we want bulleted action points to make us feel that we have learnt something new about ourselves. Does it result in any real transformation?” I manoeuvred the first rapid.

I would not do it the same way now, based on what I have learnt over time of kayaking. Taking responsibility for someone else’s learning and giving them explanations for my design and approach, is not the best kayaking move. It puts me in a parental mode and the other person in a child mode. We stop relating as equal adults.

As I moved further down the river, I came across another rapid. Something someone did affected me adversely. I chose to overlook it. Not only did I choose to overlook it, I overlooked it more than once. Now from what I have learnt about kayaking, this is a criminal thing to do. It is akin to your kayak hitting a rock and developing a hole in it. A little water is beginning to seep in. I let it be, saying it is not much bother. It is just a teeny-weeny hole. Another rock another hole. Very soon, the boat will have enough water to capsize. That is precisely what happened with me. Not expressing my anger as it occurred, at the specific person, for the specific situation, bottled up feelings inside me and made me feel vulnerable later. It came out as a general volatile expression to the entire group.  It left the group confused and alienated from me. The kayak was beginning to topple over. No amount of skillful paddling would help. Neither, did I have any skill or energy to paddle in such gushing waters. I did the only thing I could. Let go. I got in touch with my feelings in the moment and responded from that space, without any attachment to outcome. This is the best kayaking move that one can ever master. Just flow with the force of the river. Don’t try to master it. Submit to it. Unfortunately surrendering can never be learnt through effort, it happens when all effort comes to naught.

Even though the kayak fell down a huge waterfall, it survived. The natural flow of the river brought it back to course. I was totally drenched and exhausted, yet in one piece. As we continued on our journey, the rapids were less lethal. Perhaps we had encountered our worst fall and survived it together. As the journey came to an end after five days, I was shaky and scattered. I needed some quality “looking at the ceiling time”. As Tripti mentioned in one of our funnier moments, it is that time when you are hit so hard by life, that all you can do is lie down on your bed and stare at the ceiling. I did my time and learnt a few lessons. The primary lesson being,a feeling of humility that comes from experiencing your vulnerability.

Mumbai, June 2011

I have realized two distinct organizational behaviours about Kaivalya over time. Their legendary planning and their proficient use of acronyms. Both of which we have learnt to be comfortable with over time. Tripti mentioned to us in our post PR meeting at a Mumbai coffee shop “We have planned the PR1 for GF4 will from 17th to 21st October”.  PR meant Personal Reflection. GF meant Gandhi Fellows. Some other acronyms used are. PM for Programme Manager. PL for Programme Leader. VI for Village Immersion. SI for Slum Immersion. LJ for Learning Journeys.  LQ for Learning Quality. People are mostly addressed by their initials. I often joke that they should come up with a Kaivalya acronym dictionary. “It will be 100 fellows this time. We have decided to scale up the fourth batch” she added. I gulped my green tea anticipating what that would be like. I had forgotten Kaivalya’s third behaviour. Scalability!

As October approached, we were told that the PR would happen in Rajasthan at Jhunjhunu. Each batch would have about 15 to 18 fellows and the time would be approximately four days. This was a bigger challenge, a faster river. More people, less time. We came up with another simple boat design, to traverse this rapid. Each person at a time, chooses any one person in the group who he wants to relate to and starts relating. Once he is done, everyone in the group gives him feedback about how they experienced him and what in their view could have made the relating better.

Jhunjhunu, October 2011

This was my first trip to Rajasthan. The first thing I noticed on our way from Jaipur to Jhunjhunu was my skin felt stretched and dry. The second thing I noticed was that my work partner Payal kept asking, “How is the weather in Rajasthan?”  I raised my eyebrows. Were we not already in Rajasthan! It later came to light that for some inexplicable reason she equated Rajasthan with the desert. This became our standing joke throughout the trip, apart from my bag being the heaviest for a five-day trip! After a heavy oily highway meal, with the best buttermilk I have ever tasted we reached Jhunjhunu late evening.

The next day mid-morning we met all the hundred fellows in the hall. This time I felt more confident. It was like starting on another adventurous journey, after having learnt some lessons from the previous one. I began by reading a quote tattooed on one young man’s arm in Hebrew “If I am not there for myself, then who is? If I am not there for another, then who am I? If not now, then when?” I felt the meaning of that quote would experientially unfold for us in the next few days to come.

We had made a long list of all that we would say for context setting. Like an instructor narrating the security instructions before the kayak hits the water, we began telling what the passengers of this kayaking experience could expect, what would help them to get there, what approach we would take and what our expectations were from them. The core message was, what we meant by self-awareness. Not reflection. Not analysis. Not introspection. It was being aware of what was happening to me right now! I snapped my finger for effect. Right now! After we were done with the context setting, we got a lot of resistance. “The Buddha says there is no such thing as the now.” “Is it not necessary to be selfish?”  “Do you mean to say we should stop using our intellect?” “How can I trust you when I have been betrayed earlier?” The kayaking had begun. I was surprised and glad to come across this collective rapid at the start of our journey. It gave us a chance to emphasize that the PR process was not mandatory. Each individual could exercise his choice whether he wished to be a part of it or not. Just as we could choose who to work with or not. There was full freedom for all concerned.  Of course with full freedom also comes full responsibility. Having said that I felt absolved of being a parental figure to them and sensed that they were now ready to take responsibility for their learning and making their own choices. It was an important equalizing process, of relating adult to adult. A mandatory requirement for kayaking.

I was allocated the Udaipurwati group. As we settled into the room, I started the kayaking expedition with introductions and meanings of each name. It amazes me at times how much one can learn about a person simply by what his name means and how he relates to it. They wanted to know more about me. I shared my journey with them. I shared the design of the boat that we would travel in the next four days. One person took the initiative and selected a person to relate. The first movements were very formal and stiff. Almost like seeking information from another, with no reciprocation, self-disclosure, curiosity or experiencing of self or another.  The next few interactions continued like that, with little spontaneity and greater self-consciousness. As we moved onto day two one person broke the spontaneity barrier and chatted heart-to-heart, clearing old misunderstanding and blocks. Then another did it. Then they started getting a hang of it. And then…boredom set in. Someone said if this was all there was to the design then she felt bored and she was speaking for some others in the group. I thought about what she said, and tried to get them to move to a space of here and now relating, where one explores relating as and when a feeling happens, be it anything – anger or affection. I tried various ways to get them to understand what I meant, through experimentation and role-plays; to no avail. Then came the turning point in our expedition. Someone mentioned “I am confused tell me what to do?” That made me angry.  I was not a parental figure to take care of her confusion; neither was she a child to seek my help whenever vulnerable. I was struggling in this learning journey as much as she was. Yet this incident gave me a ray of hope, to explore my anger with her, then and there. And then, the group began to get what it means to relate with feelings that are alive right now, irrespective of whether the incident happened five years back, six months back, yesterday or just now! The sooner we explored our feelings in relation to someone the better it is. It avoids judgements and unnecessary baggage. It could result in either greater trust or clear choices. The kayak had manoeuvred this difficult turn in the river successfully.

From then on the group moved seamlessly into relating about clearing past misunderstandings or expressing what they felt about something or someone there and then! Some members were so taken up by the idea of relating in the “here and now” that any discussion of past events was considered a waste of time, even though some authentic sharing was happening.  It seemed that their “conceptual idea” of here and now stopped them from being in touch with others and their own feeling in the moment.

As we cruised the river of relating, a radical thought started germinating in me. “How would this boat travel if I as the principal boatman did nothing!? Would the passengers be able to paddle and manage this boat on their own? Or would it capsize? I had never tried something like this in any of my previous expeditions. I took the chance. First, I stopped telling them what to do, then I walked out of the room, telling them that they were doing fine and that I would return in sometime. I walked down. Poured myself a cup of tea. Took a long walk. Went to my room. Rested for a while. I returned to the boat after two hours. As I sat down, I heard that they had designed a new boat for us to travel in. A process by which each person would get a feedback from another.  They requested me to also participate in the process. At that moment, something magical happened. The best thing that can happen to a kayak boatman.

The kayak had turned into a long canoe with all of us sitting divided on either side of the boat paddling together. Just like the snake boat used during the Kerala boat festival. It was miraculous! The kayak instead of capsizing had become a bigger boat that could accommodate all of us, with each one of us taking responsibility for our own paddling! Even though I had strongly resisted being a parental figure, I felt just as a proud parent would, on seeing his children become independent. The journey perhaps was not of the kayak, traversing the river. The journey was of transforming the kayak into a canoe. The ultimate accomplishment for any facilitator of human processes.

Mumbai, November 2011

“It was a powerful design” said Tripti, sipping her coffee at our regular meeting place. “What is better is that it is scalable. We are looking at around 250 Gandhi Fellows in the next batch.” I wondered what that would be like?

We would need many more boats to take so many people on river expeditions. The need was now to train more boatmen to launch many more kayaking expeditions. As I shared this, I saw the seed of a social change revolution begin to sprout.

It felt good watering this plant.

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