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Tuck!

That was what we called the edible items we got from home to boarding school. I do not know how that word came about. What I do know is that it was a word that made my mouth water as a child.

There were all kinds of tuck.

The Sardars from Punjab got basan ke ladoo, panjiri and dodha. All Indian sweets from the North of India. Made in desi ghee, clarified butter, a symbol of good health in rural (and urban) India. The city dwellers got diary milk chocolates, bourbon biscuits and sometimes cans of rasgullas. However the most treasured tuck was that of the students who came from Thailand. Their tuck was exotic. Perhaps it was not exotic, it was foreign. At a time when India functioned under the License Raj and globalization was unheard of, anything “imported” had an exotic look and smell to it.

The Thai students were mostly Sardars, even though most had Thai names. Monto, Narin,Suvit. They all spoke fluent Thai and I never heard them speak in Punjabi.  It never occurred to me to check how they were both Thai and Sardars. Perhaps their parents had settled in Thailand for business. Or maybe there was another story to their Thai-Sardar ethnicity. Anyway for me, as a nine a year old, it did not matter. I was more interested in the contents of their tuck bags.

In the evenings we used to have tuck time, where in students could open their bags and tuck into their tucks. The most premium tuck belonged to a plump student called Akash Gujral. He was from Kuwait. The quantity of tuck he got could easily fill a small general store for a few months. Huge brown leather suitcases filled with Kraft cheese, orange marmelade, chocolate powder, strawberry candy, Kit Kat bars, Coca Cola cans, choco sticks, nestle ketchup, peanut butter… You name it he had it! It was a treasure trove. Every child dreamed of being of Akash Gujaral when he opened his bag in the evening. If not Akash, atleast his friend. Sometimes Akash was kind enough to share some of his treasure with a few of us and I once saw him pass on a Kraft cheese can to Sister Vimla, one of the nuns in charge of our dormitory. I can still see her beaming smile, stretching from one end of her face to the other. I remember wondering if it was within school (or religious) regulations to gift a can of Kraft cheese to a nun!

But there was something I valued more than cheese. More than all the chocolates and colas put together.

It was Mama!

Mama was a Thai brand of noodles. Very much like Maggi noodles. But it had a different taste and came with two small packets inside the larger packet that contained the hardened block of noodles stuck together. One small packet contained the masala, the taste maker and the other small packet contained the pungent smelling shrimp oil, in which it was to be cooked. More often than not we ate it uncooked. By we I mean my Thai friends who got loads of Mama packets as a part of their tuck. They used to crush the packet without even opening it, so that the long hardened noodles would break into tiny pieces. Once that was accomplished, the packet was opened and the masala sprinkled and the mixture shaken so that the masala would flavour the broken noodles with its spicy, tangy, somewhat sweet and definitely addictive taste.

Sometime I was lucky and got to taste Mama, when a Thai friend happened to extend his open packet towards me. I would dip my small fingers and retrieve a small portion of the mixture. As I put it into my mouth and crunched it with great relish, I was always left wanting for more. Like indulging in foreplay, and not being allowed to proceed further.

I had a childhood fantasy.

It was to have our football field filled with Mama, loads and loads of it and I could eat it to my heart’s content. I have heard, that our unfulfilled desires find manifestation in our dreams. Unfortunately, this fantasy did not find fulfillment even in my dreams.

The closest I came to having Mama was when we used have “party” at night. A few us, boys sleeping in the same dormitory, would get up, some minutes, after light were switched off by the matron. In our night-suits, we would stealthily walk in the darkness to the common washing area that had a number of wash basins lined in a row. Each of us would carry something to eat, ranging from biscuits, chocolates or even a fruit that may have been served to us at dinner time. On few occasions someone would get a few packets of Mama. At such times, we would pour some hot water from the boiler into a plastic mug, dip the Mama into it, sprinkle the masala and stir the mixture. It would take less than 2 minutes for the noodles to cook and be ready to eat. We then greedily scooped the noodles with our fingers and stuffed the steaming curly Mama into our tiny mouths. That was my first experience at cooking. Unfortunately I never proceeded further than that in my culinary skills as an adult, even though I do make it a point to avoid using plastic mugs.

I was wondering though, why would a bunch of nine-year old boys, staying in a boarding school who have just had dinner, want to “party” after everyone has gone to sleep?

It occurred to me boarding life is pretty regimented. There is a time for everything.

A time to wake up, a time to get ready, a time to have breakfast, a time to study, a time to have lunch, a time to resume study, a time to play, a time to stop play, a time to get ready for dinner, a time to have dinner, a time to do your homework and a time to sleep. A life where we had no say over how we would want to spend our time. The establishment decided every aspect of our life. Not that it was cruel. It just robbed me of the faculty of making my own choices and being responsible for them. Years later when I had quit the corporate world and started working on my own, I used to feel lost at times how to manage my time, if I did not have someone telling me what to do or checking on what I have done.

I now realize eating Mama after lights were switched off, was my first small step of rebellion against the establishment that ruled my life.

Those tiny fingers holding steaming noodles were trying hard to wrench back the control that adults had established over my life. It was an effort to reclaim what rightfully belonged to me. In the best manner I could. By boiling Mama in a plastic mug and eating it, when I was clearly not supposed to be doing it. In those moments, Mama symbolized my first struggle for freedom.

I do not know what the other boys, who “partied” after lights out are doing in their lives at the moment. I only hope that we have not entirely lost some of the fighting spirit we demonstrated as children. That our taste for freedom has not been totally extinguished by our struggles to find ourselves as adults.

Recently a school friend who was visiting Mumbai from Thailand, happened to ask me what could he get for me. Without a moment’s hesitation I said “Mama!”. So he got me a carton of Mama with fifty packets in the carton. I have had more than half of them, by crushing the packets and adding the taste maker. Even though I still have more than a few packets of Mama left, my craving for it has dissipated considerably. I guess fantasies have a greater power when they remain unfulfilled.

Or perhaps Mama had already fulfilled its role in my life, the first time I boiled it in a plastic mug after lights out.

My first…tentative…tiny…taste of freedom!

***

What do you recollect of your first taste of freedom?

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The head throbbed.

A dull heavy fog enveloped it from inside. Just as a computer hangs by pressing too many keys at the same time, the mind dissolves into a dull grey mist when it begins to see a single situation from multiple perspectives. Nothing is what it seems. Yet everything seems to be a little of what seems. Like a pea pod. On the outside it seems like a singular green piece, simple and easy to make sense of, yet when one peels it open it reveals peas of different shapes and sizes inside. Each pea is real by itself, yet it does not constitute the entire picture. There are other peas exerting their own reality. People are like peas too. Each person living and talking his and her reality.

In the sea of multiple realities, what is real?

It is easy to generalize. Paint life with two colours. Black and white. The preferred colours of the binary mind. “Yes” or “No”. “Good” or “Bad. “Right” or “Wrong”. Yet when one dives deeper generalizations blur. Like pouring water over a beautiful landscape painting. The blue of the river spills into the brown of the mountains and the yellow of the sun dissolves into the green of the trees. One cannot say what is what anymore. The distinct landscape turns into abstract art. While abstract is a good for creative expression, it is not the most ideal state for making decisions or taking actions. The mind seeks black and white. While life offers multiple hues of dynamic subtle colours to choose from.

Can inaction can be action? Can choicelessness be a choice? Allowing life to paint the picture it wants to paint and not interfere in its creative (or destructive) process. Watch the painting happening outside and inside. On the inner walls of the psyche, using colourful brushstrokes of multiple thoughts and varied feelings. Some strokes impressing themselves with great intensity, others soft and gentle. Observing and experiencing each stroke carefully. Its colour, texture, thickness and fragrance. And when life has completed its picture it will let you know. Perhaps it will say “Done for now.” It will set down its paintbrush, lean back and have nothing more to say.

For now.

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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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While running on the treadmill, I noticed a woman, who had newly joined the gym, at the adjoining machine. She was middle aged and perhaps never been to a gym before. As the instructor got her started at a very slow pace, she strongly gripped the metallic handlebars in front of her. Interestingly her daughter who had accompanied her, saw her slow movement. After a while, she encouraged her mother to increase the pace and let go of the handlebars, as she was hardly exerting herself. The woman shook her head, uncertain of herself. It was evident that she felt she would be swept away by the pace of the treadmill if she let go, have a fall and injure herself.

As I watched the drama unfold on the treadmill, it occurred to me as the perfect analogy for how we live our life.

We are born vulnerable in an uncertain world. Whether we are prepared for it or not, life’s treadmill keeps moving. Often the pace is quite overwhelming and frightening. We look for certainty and security by holding on to the handlebars of an educational qualification, a job, a marriage, a family. We make great effort to follow the moral and religious codes prescribed by society. Trying our best to be a good person – son, daughter, husband, wife, father, mother, friend or citizen. Hoping to be in the good books of all concerned. Believing that this will provide enough financial and emotional security against the uncertainty of life. And yet, in spite of so many anchors and endeavors to secure ourselves, life sweeps us of our feet. There is fear of a relationship breaking up, of losing a job, of children leaving home, of old parents dying, of unexpected illnesses – essentially the treadmill of life moving faster than our capacity to run with its pace.  And, the other side of the coin is, if life’s treadmill moves at a slow same pace, we suffer a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness, with nothing to challenge us. Either way we suffer.

What then is the solution?

Probably the solution lies in being solution-less. We want a certain answer, theory or direction of how to live. Hoping that will secure us. Perhaps that is at the core of all the insecurity we experience. We are always looking for answers and anchors outside of us – books, gurus, parents, philosophies, power, position, money, codes of conduct – and yet it does not rid us of our misery and anxiety. On the contrary, it magnifies our suffering. We cannot match up to the ideal society or we ourselves have set for us. Our current reality is far away from the ideal image of ourselves, of how we wish our life to be. There is always a desire to be more successful and achieve more in all areas of our life – material or spiritual. Our lives are ruled by, what “should be”, what “could be” or what “should have been” or “could have been”. There is never an acceptance of What Is.

No, this article is not about living in the moment or harnessing the power of now, recommended in many books as a panacea to overcome human distress. This article is about exploring what stops us from letting go of the handlebars and embracing whatever life brings – pleasure or suffering.

“Suffering is an ingrained part of existence” declared the Buddha 2500 years ago. The sight of an old man, an ailing person, a corpse and an ascetic moved him to find the way out of human suffering. Not that we need a Buddha to validate human suffering. We all have suffered at some point or the other. Loneliness, emptiness and rejection contribute to greater suffering in the contemporary world, than they ever did during Buddha’s times. Just as the Buddha did, we too seek a way out of suffering in our own unique ways. After all, whole of life is a pursuit for happiness and completion. Whether one stays in the thick of things and pursues worldly success or chooses to opt out and seek moksha – an imagined state of eternal bliss. The pursuit remains the same. Fulfillment of a desired goal in the future.

What would happen if we stopped pursuing anything?

Would we become vegetables? Would there be anything to live for? How would we know how to direct our lives? Who will pay the bills? How will we survive? Is it even possible? Isn’t it normal to desire pleasure? Isn’t it natural to avoid suffering?

The whole idea of not wanting is so alien to us, that it immediately brings about much resistance and questions. The idea of “becoming something” and “achieving something” is so culturally ingrained in our system, that we do not know of any other way of living. Perhaps there is something for humans to learn from nature. Nothing in nature is trying to become, it simply moves according to its own unique intrinsic nature. Of course, it can be pointed out, that other than humans no other beings have the freedom of choice, of exerting their will power and the capacity to think.

Choice, will power and thinking are all synonyms of the same activity.

What if I were to tell you, choice is an illusion. As illusionary as the person who thinks he chooses. Neither truly exist.

I wonder what would be the answer to the following questions, if one were to avoid falling back on our conditioning that there is a God, everything happens due to the law of karma or some planetary configuration. If one were to drop for a moment, whatever our special brand of religion, culture or philosophy has taught us. The You that I refer to in these questions is, whatever you think of yourself as a separate independent identity.

Where was the “you” before you were born? Did the “you” choose you to be born? Did the “you” choose where you would be born? Did the “you” choose your genetic coding? Does the “you” regulate your inner body functions? Did the “you” arrange for life giving forces of food, water, and sunlight so that you may survive ? Where does the “you” disappear when you are asleep?

The existential answer to all these questions is a simple unknowing Silence. It is foolish to trivialize life by using borrowed concepts to explain it. Life Simply Is. Existence Is. The only thing that cannot be disputed is that I Am. I Exist.

Yet we choose to overlook this simple fact of our existence and live in an abstract world of theories, philosophies, knowledge, check-lists, plans, images, assumptions, beliefs – passed on to us from the past. Is it possible to drop all of it? Yes, absolutely all of it and live. Simply Live!

Live as though we are already complete, just as we are. Not seeking something to better us. Live as though spontaneous self-expression is our birthright. Not seeking the right conditions to do so. Live as though our feelings are the only authority of our reality in the moment. Not seeking anyone’s permission to feel our natural self – no matter how wild, evil and impure it may seem. Live as though life is made of many colours of love, hate, joy, sadness, lust, care, jealousy, compassion and all these colours belong to us. Not seeking to become white by hiding the black. Living as though life is a river and we are simply flowing with our destiny. Not seeking to live in the illusion of controlling the flow of life. Living with full abandon, sucking the juice of every living moment – be it joy or suffering. Not seeking to make second-hand meaning of our experiences or understand life.

We suffer for self-expression, as much as we suffer for choosing not to express. We suffer being lonely all by ourselves, just as we suffer being lonely in a crowd. We suffer being in a meaningless job or a relationship, as much as breaking away from it. If suffer we must, then why not suffer for something that gives us life. That takes us closer to our natural intrinsic self.

Finally, two sentences that sum up everything.

Let go of the handlebars.

Give life a chance!

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There is a story I wish to tell, except I do not know the story. It could be your story, my story or anyone else’s story. It does not matter. All human stories are essentially the same. The characters and settings differ. The pursuit remains the same. Happiness.

I heard from him and others that he had a humble background. Faced difficult financial conditions in the early part of his life. I really do not know the details. They are not even necessary for the story I have to tell. Yet this part of his life is crucial. For he made up his mind one day he would have enough. Not only for himself, but also for his family. He was particularly close to his younger sister. His father sat him down one day and told him “She is your responsibility. You have to take care of her.” Those words went deep. Very deep. The son became the father.

He started his career in the ranks. He was good at selling. They said he could even sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo. He was hardworking, sincere and led from the front. Over time, he rose in the ranks. His colleagues and juniors always looked up to him. He was someone who could be trusted. He was and would always be there for them. After all, he was the father. Then salesman, boss or friend.

One day his sister gave him an idea. To start a Company. It does not matter for this story what that Company did. Like all companies, it sold some product or service. He liked the idea and left his high paying job. As he had always done in life, he began again from the scratch. Humbly. A small room and five employees. Just as himself, his employees had humble beginnings. He could not afford to employee MBAs. He did all there was to do himself. He not only did it himself, he showed others how to do it. Gradually the Company grew. He was a conservative leader. He painstakingly added one brick at a time. It was a gruelling process for him and others. Yet they did it. They knew there was no other option. They all knew what it was to be humble. The only way out was hard work and sincerity.

As the Company grew, something else happened, which neither of them realised.

He became their father and they his children. After all, he had picked that card of destiny that said one word. Father. All other roles of guide, caretaker, supporter, protector, provider and nurturer were a subset of that primary role. Of course, he did not know any of this consciously. In his own mind, he ran the Company professionally. He adhered to the Company policies just as anyone else.  He led from the front. He could not ever imagine being unprofessional. Little realizing that the heart of professionalism is little about complying with policies and rules set by your own self. Professionalism is an adult state, not a parental state. An adult will set clear roles and responsibilities based on agreed terms and conditions. An adult will allow others to take their own decisions within the boundaries of their role. An adult will hold others accountable for not meeting their targets. An adult will explore options collectively. An adult will make clear choices and communicate these choices clearly, leaving no scope for ambiguity. An adult will hold another adult responsible for his own growth, even though as a leader he may provide the conditions for that growth.

Just as what happens with most family run organizations, the company became a family. He was the father and they the children.

They were efficient employees. Hardworking and sincere. They did exactly what they were told. Rarely questioning, rarely disagreeing, rarely thinking for themselves. They had lost touch with their own capacity as individuals to think and feel, independent of him. Hence, the question of expressing their own true selves never arose. Whenever they tried to make some feeble attempt, he convinced them why his thoughts made more sense. His explanations were comprehensive.

Sometimes he lost his temper and shouted. When costly mistakes were made. Perhaps that scared them further, to voice themselves. They called him Sir. Out of respect. After all, they owed him everything. They had learnt from him. Earned from the Company that he had created. Had gradually risen from their humble backgrounds from their earnings in the Company.

They also craved for his attention and approval. Like children wanting the only parent available to take notice of them. They did all they could to get his approval and to be close to him. Sometimes even fighting amongst themselves. It lead to jealousies. Allegations of favouritism were made against each other. Of course all this, was not voiced. This was the undercurrent of the Company. On the surface, they were one big family. Which they were. The father and the children.

As the family grew, things were beginning to get unmanageable. He could not be everywhere and manage everything, like he had done earlier. He designated some of his close employees to take charge of operations. They had grown with him. With the company. He wanted them now to manage and lead, so that he could look at things more strategically. Yet the most essential quality of a leader is to think independently. To constantly be in touch with his feelings. To communicate as an adult. How could they? They had never done any of this. They had always been children. He simply could not fathom what was blocking them. Little realizing his own role in their story. The father creates the children. It is never the other way round.

By now, he was at his wit’s end. The Company had grown in capacity and in people and there was no other leader, other than him, to manage them. What was he to do? He did not believe in getting new people in senior positions. He believed in grooming people who had stood the test of time with him. Who had given their sweat, blood and tears for the Company. Yet they lacked the capacity to lead independently. He hoped to groom them in time. Not realizing that the need was not of grooming, but of allowing children to make their own choices. Reap the benefit or pay the consequences for their choices. For themselves and for the Company.

This is where I enter the story.

Nothing in life is a coincidence. Yet life is made up of coincidences. I met him through a friend. It was for a project she wanted to do and requested me to help her. We interviewed few employees across his organization and presented the information to him. Everyone loved him. They disliked the managers who came between him and them. After all, it was a patriarchal set up. And everyone wanted be close to the Head of the family. To be like him. And to be liked by him.

He decided to employ me as a consultant. My work partner and I decided to interview his leadership team and create a safe space for them to have real conversation for two days. They spoke about looking up to him, their optimism to lead, their jealousies and how people at large were not being managed well. A few employees spoke hesitatingly that they wished he were open to more perspectives. It was the first voice of a child wanting to be an adult with the father’s permission. Unfortunately, nature does not allow that. The child can only become an adult when he leaves home. To experience and explore himself in new circumstances. Allowing his own uniqueness to flower. Making his own choices.

Unfortunately, they did not have that luxury. They had to become adults without leaving home.

The two days began with us sharing what we had heard from them about each other. For the first time they saw themselves in others mirrors. He continued being the father. Encouraging, guiding, telling others what to do for their own betterment and the Company. This was what he had done since the time he had laid the first brick of the Company. It was what he did. Be a father.

Yet when I told him that he was not being professional, more a father, he denied it. With the force of all the explanations available with him. He repeated his explanations. And when he could not take the charge of being unprofessional anymore, he walked out of the room.

I wondered how this story would turn out.

Just as in most stories, a character mysteriously appears in the end and turns the tide, just when you thought that the ship would sink. It happened here too. His sister, who was never meant to be part of the dialoguing process initially, was included last minute, since she was the co-founder of the Company. She convinced him to come back to the process, no matter how difficult. He did.

As I said earlier, there are no coincidences.

As we resumed he continued being the father. Whenever we gave him feedback, he resisted. His body became stiff. His answers short and crisp. “I disagree. Yet I will look at it later.” Unfortunately, in human transformation there is no later. There is only the Now. The alive pulsating Now. Life happens in the Now, not later. If he did not allow the feedback to penetrate his heart Now, it was of no value later. Mind the trickster, fools us into thinking that it can transform itself, by analysing itself later. The problem is the mind. No solution of human transformation can come from the problem trying to solve the problem. Like a dog trying to catch its own tail. It was not his problem. It is a human condition.

By the end of day two, we were beginning to tire of giving him feedback. It was like hitting yourself on a brick wall. We decided to stop giving him any more feedback. It was beginning to hurt us. We thought this would not happen now. It will happen in the Now, but many nows later.

The last feedback session was his. Where we would read what others had to say about him. We read what they had to say. In the midst of great admiration and gratitude, were small hesitating voices. “We wished he listened others perspectives, we wish he was not stubborn at times, we wish we are not scared of his temper, we wish he did not say somethings personal at times.”

We asked him how he felt. He said, he felt that “why did they not tell him all this earlier”. He felt that “the show must go on”. He felt that “he could not afford to let this come in the way”. He felt “as a leader he could not allow this to impact him”. He felt after all “he was responsible for steering this ship and all who were on board it”. He felt that “if he let it affect him he would fail others”. He felt “he would fail himself, if he failed others”.

We pointed to him these were not feelings. These were thoughts. “What do you feel?” we asked once again.

Slowly he said one word “Disappointed.” Ah! We saw the first glimmer of hope. Like a small spark of light far away, when you are in a deep dark tunnel. We probed more. How strong was his disappointment? He said 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. That was strong enough. The spark became a small glow. We probed further. What part of his body felt the disappointment? He said the head. Ah! The glow became bigger. What was his head saying now…

We went deeper and deeper. The light of the Now becoming bigger and bigger with every step of the psychic excavation. Until, we came across two sides of him.

The Head.

The Heart.

We heard each one talk.

The Heart said, “I am love. In its myriad forms. In this heart I reside as the father

The Head said, “I am what society has made me. Conditioned by experiences. In this head I reside in the belief, “I cannot allow my vulnerability to show or break me. If I do how will, I fulfill my role as the father. The meaning to my existence.”

He did not say these exact words. This is how I heard them.

By now, the light had grown large enough and pervaded every corner of the room. An empty silence descended on those who were present there. There was no more to say. No more to hear. The silence completed everything. Erased all roles. Consumed everything. It was the Now, in its sparkling brilliance. The creative space from which all life springs forth. The fertile soil from which the first tender green sapling emerges, to greet the first rays of the morning Sun.

I would end this story here, for every story ends, when a new story is about to begin. Yet I cannot. For I witnessed a miracle. Which is why I got inspired to tell this story in the first. It touched me beyond measure. Like a small colourful butterfly perching itself on the palm of your hand in your darkest hour.

Towards the end, we requested each person to share their feelings on the two days of real conversations. Each one had extraordinary moments to share of deep insights and transformation. Miraculous as they were, they are not the miracle I am talking about. The miracle happened when we asked him to share at the very end.

I can see it happening even now, even as I write. In slow motion.

He said, “I will share with my eyes closed.”

And then…he closed his eyes.

He got in touch with his heart and spoke. His voice was soft. Searching. Looking for the right words to express his feelings, as best as he could. Slow and tentative.

And That was the miracle!

It gave me goose bumps. He had resisted us all through. As the father he had given advice to others all through. For the first time I saw the small innocent child in him speak. Softly and searchingly just as innocent children do. From pure feeling. Feeling lost when they have to use words to describe that purity to others.

In that moment the roles of father and son merged into pure feeling of The Child. Free of roles. Only pure feeling of the Now.

It did not matter what words he used. It did not matter what he said.

The miracle touched me.

The universal light of the Now permeated my being.

 ***

 

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