Last evening I was playing a game of Bluff with some friends (Bluff is a card game where the first person to get rid of all his cards by bluffing his or her way through wins). It was so much fun, we were on a roll trying to bluff one another and I was having the time of my life when my co-players could not understand what I was up to. I really enjoyed watching the puzzled expressions on their faces in each consecutive round as they tried hard to figure out whether I was bluffing or not.
This morning I was reminiscing about last nights game and I realized that it was actually so much fun when people could not figure me out. They could not understand me. I compared this with my ‘real life’ where I am constantly struggling to be understood – where I sulk and feel sad when people don’t understand me. In my real life, when people can’t figure me out or they misunderstand me (or something I say or something I do), I feel bad about it and assume that it is a problem that perhaps needs to be corrected. This morning I am wondering if it is really a problem at all? What if I am creating an insistence on being understood when that isn’t a natural requirement in nature at all? What if my need to be understood is just an obsessive extension of my own ego and what if it is perfectly okay to be understood by some, not understood by some some, and misunderstood by some as well?
Let me explain with an example. For years, I have held it to be a problem that my father does not understand me. He does not understand my poetry, my philosophy, my ideas, my emotions…blah blah blah. I have held it against him – creating a separation and problem where perhaps there really is no need for one. I have misidentified ‘love’ and ‘caring’ with ‘understanding’ and assumed that if my father really cared for me he would try harder to understand me. Further since I had made love and understanding analogous to each other I kept trying to express myself over and over again in different ways so that my father would finally understand me and then he would love me. What if that was not needed at all? What if love, caring, and understanding are all independent constructs and one is not needed as a condition for the other. In fact, when I ask this question today, I realize that I have been quite blind to the love and caring that does actually exist between my father and me. My father cares for me immensely and he loves me as well but he does not understand me. He has always been quite unapologetic about this as well – his favorite joke is that he does not understand poetry. And if you know me you would know that I breathe and live in poetry. What if all of that is OK? In fact the more I think about it the more I feel that it is perfectly OK. Rather it is beautiful in it’s own special way. It shows me how beautiful and unconditional my Father’s love and caring for me is.
Think about your own love and caring for your pet or for your baby, or toddler. Do you really understand these crazy magical beings. Do you really understand their thoughts, their emotions, their motives and their intentions? Yet, has this ever contaminated the love and caring that you feel towards them? Are they themselves any less happier because you do not understand them? What if ‘being understood’ is just one of those requirements that we have overrated and made central to our own definitions of love, caring and happiness – when it actually need not be ?
I am reminded of a lovely song I learnt in school, ‘Make me a Channel of Your Peace’ – actually a prayer composed by St Francis of Assisi. I have always loved this song, and have somewhat even followed it like a mantra in my own life. However there were some lines in it that I did not fully understand. In the true spirit of this essay I loved the song and prayer even though I did not ‘understand’ it and so I continued to sing it. One of the lines that I had not understood was, “Oh Master grant that I may never seek……………to be understood, as to understand”. Today finally, that line is speaking to me. Perhaps St Francis of Assisi was urging us to focus more on how we can try to understand situations and others rather than get caught up in the worry of whether others are understanding us correctly or misunderstanding us. What if there is a non-zero probability that each one of us will always be understood by some, not understood by some and misunderstood by some and what if that need not erode our peace of mind?
I want to loop back to the amazing fun I had last night during the game of Bluff and ask if not being understood easily by others can actually be used as a strength rather than a weakness. I had so far assumed that ‘others not understanding me’ was a weakness of mine that I had to ‘correct’ or ‘compensate for’ by polishing my communication skills. I have worked a lot at improving my own communication and yet at the age of forty I realize that no matter how articulate I try to be and no matter how many different forms of communication I use, and how many details I try to include, ‘being understood’ still remains a challenge. From today I will also start asking, ‘What might be the possible benefits of people not understanding me or ‘getting me’?”. I wonder what that might open up?
How about you? Have you made it crucial and critical to your own happiness that you should be understood correctly by others? Have you included ‘being understood’ as a key requirement in ‘being loved’ when it need not really be so? How many people are there in your life who love you dearly and care for you but because they do not really ‘get you’, because they do not understand your emotions, your choices and your behaviour you have decided that they do not love you?
Finally, if you are a parent to teenagers, or have anyone else in your life who complains that you do not understand them, take a leaf of out my journey and make it easier on them. Tell them that you love them dearly and that you care for them even though you might not really understand them as they are seeking to be understood by you. Now they may or may not understand you but what if that’s also OK? At least you tried to ease their angst of not being understood.
Today morning I went to our staff canteen for breakfast and I joined a table where my colleagues were engaged in what appeared to be a very heated discussion on some topic. Since I had joined midway I asked what they were talking about and one of them duly updated me on what was being discussed. He spoke english but to me it made no sense. As I leant keenly towards him and asked, ‘sorry what is that again’, he just threw a couple of names at me, something like ‘oh we are talking about xyz and abc’. The problem was that none of those names struck a chord with me. I then admitted aloud that I didn’t know these people, and I was met with strange looks – looks that seemed to say, ‘how can you not know this?’. However one of my colleagues who knows me a bit well and knows that I don’t read or indulge in news and TV much, told me that they were discussing a case regarding a producer being accused of sexual harassment by an actress. Aha, I said, now this summary made more sense. Why could they not have said it like this earlier, in simple english without assuming that everyone knows everyone else’s story. My relief however, was short lived. Immediately another colleague sitting next to me said oh it’s just like the ‘efg’ case (efg again being some other person’s name). Again I looked at him wide eyed and asked ‘and who is that’ and I was met with a look that said something like, ‘what! You don’t know who efg is’. Turns out ‘efg’ was some corporate guy who had again gotten famous for being involved in a series of sexual harassment cases.
I am forty years old and by now I am used to people responding strangely when they realize that I do not ‘know’ the things they expect everyone else to ‘know’. I am used to people either turning scornful or mocking me for my lack of so called ‘general knowledge’. What amuses me however is that each time they mock me – for me it is yet another instance of marvelling at the widespread assumption many people hold that everyone needs to have the same ‘knowledge structures’ in their heads. I am amazed that anyone might believe that it is important for me to fill my ‘headspace’ with names of hollywood actors and their personal lives, or politicians and their scandals, or corporate leaders and their dramas. What if I want to fill my headspace with some other form of knowledge instead?
I gave a Ted talk three years back about attention (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiJDXqzaWcU), where I diligently made the case that our attention is our own personal resource, one that is extremely valuable and that each one of us has a birthright to direct our attention towards what we want. I also suggested that we might want to do this consciously because otherwise there are enough forces in our environment which can potentially hijack our attention to meet their own agendas. Today, I want to extend the same logic to our personal mindspace. My mindspace is my own personal space and I have a right to choose what kind of knowledge I want to fill it with. If I don’t exercise choice here then others will fill it up with knowledge that they think is important and interesting.
This morning, I was amused at the expectations of my colleagues that I should know the names of hollywood actors and the related gossip. However, I have not always been so comfortable with my own ‘lack of knowledge’ on some topics. Age, a strong determination to be loyal towards my natural curiosity, and realizing that the human brain has not been designed to ‘know it all’, has helped me in reaching my current level of comfort. When I was in seventh grade I failed in a ‘general knowledge’ test. Yes we had a subject called general knowledge and this particular test had been mainly about famous ‘current personalities’. If the ‘general knowledge’ test had instead been about the movement of clouds, rhythms of rain, designs on the wings of butterflies, movements of squirrels, crows and sparrows, or shapes of flowers and trees I might have got an ‘A’ instead. That is ‘general knowledge too – is it not? ’. How can just one category of ‘general knowledge’ be a ‘required curriculum’ for everyone.
I consider myself an obsessive ‘seeker’ of knowledge and my head is filled with all kinds of ‘stuff’ just like anyone else. It is just that the topics I choose to seek out information on and give my attention and mindspace to are different from what some others do. Not knowing about hollywood gossip, political developments or corporate scandals does not make me ignorant of the world around me. It just means that I am choosing to stay informed of some other information in the world around me which is equally ‘real’, present and potentially meaningful to me. I spend loads of time observing the natural environment around me. I like to gaze at the sky and watch the clouds drift by. To me that is real and I challenge anyone to prove that clouds in the sky are less ‘real’ than a hollywood stars breakup. I choose to devote my attention to observing sunlight dance through the leaves and play in shadows on the floor. I challenge anyone to prove to me that this is less enriching than the information conveyed through the black and white ink patterns on a newspaper.
At the end of the day we are all giving our attention and mindspace to what interests and engages us. What if we didn’t have to judge one another on the basis of what we know or don’t know. We all know something that another person might not know, and who is to judge that one form of knowledge is superior to another. What if knowledge too, like other things is just a matter of personal preference?
Please know that there are many time when you are more of a contribution to yourself, to others, and to the planet by ‘being’ something rather than ‘doing’ something. I read this idea for the first time in Eckhart Tolle’s book, ‘A New Earth’ many years ago. Tolle has a section where he talks about ‘frequency holders’ – people who help the planet just by holding the frequencies that it needs at that time (this might be love, compassion, joy, aliveness, creativity – whatever). My life was never the same again after reading this book. I realized that my ‘purpose’ at many times was also to just ‘be’ a frequency holder and suddenly my compelling need to always be doing something to prove to myself that I was a contribution and of use dropped away.
A lovely street doggy named ‘Thoraga’ who has been coming and sitting and meditating with me for the past seven years has reinforced this idea for me even more strongly. When Thoraga and I sit together on my garden bench and hold a certain frequency together I just know that those moments are when I am being the most useful to the entire planet, a gift to my own body, to hers, and also all the other people whom we are each connected to. And all this happens when we sit quietly together and share the joy of being alive. No words exchanged – most times I don’t even touch or cuddle her since my eyes are closed in meditation.
Yesterday, I was chatting with someone very dear to me and she was saying, “I feel like I should be productive all the time when I am well. Only when sick can I rest, read, or watch TV.” I told her that then she was giving her body a subconscious message that if it needed rest (or wanted to just BE), then it had to create an illness to justify it. We went on to discuss about the label of ‘laziness’ and how it might have got created and how the fear of being labelled as ‘lazy’ (even by our own selves) might be leading us to push and push ourselves into action when perhaps what would be a greater gift in that moment (to everyone concerned) is a state of ‘blissful inaction’. This dear person incidentally was my mother.
So ask yourself dear reader, what will be a greater gift in this moment – action or inaction? Being or Doing? – and then choose it! Choose without any guilt or fears of labels like ‘lazy’. Those are just words somebody might have created once to manipulate someone else into action. It might be relevant in some contexts but is it truly relevant to you today?
How many of you might be ‘frequency holders’ for our lovely planet? Perhaps you can gift to it during these days of violence and turmoil by just holding the frequencies of love, peace, joy, kindness, or oneness.
Sharing this awesome click by my amazingly gifted friend Seema Swami. Many of us think of pigeons as dull grey boring birds – or even pests. This bird came and posed for Seema to show us how beautiful pigeons are! How beautiful we all are!
Coincidentally, this reminds me of what happened to me too. When I first met Seema she introduced herself as a nature photographer. The second time she met me she wanted to take pictures of me. I agreed only because I felt that she was somehow thinking of me as ‘Nature’. The photos she then took changed my life – rather they changed for me the way I saw myself – and this turned out to be a permanent change. Till Seema took my snaps I never thought of myself as beautiful. Now each time I look in the mirror I see beauty. :-). The cover of my first book is also a photo of me that Seema took which captures the spirit of boldly and happily ‘Choosing Life’.
So whoever you are, wherever you are, if you are reading this post, please open your wings wide and pose. So what if nobody so far has called you beautiful or thought that you are beautiful? So what if you yourself never thought you were beautiful? Your beauty is there – just waiting to be seen, captured, and acknowledged. And I hope that someone like Seema will come do it for you. I also hope that you can be for your friends, what Seema was for me – the person who sees beauty and potential even where the person himself or herself does not. Most importantly though, I would also like to believe that each of us can also do it for ourselves! We can choose to Acknowledge, SEE, and KNOW the beauty and gift that we be on the planet, and open our wings boldly to share that beauty and gift with others! Maybe not all at once – but at least one baby step at a time.
When my son saw this picture he said, ‘Really, that means all those pigeons have wings like THAT!”, You should have seen the amazement on his face. I told him, ‘Yes we ALL have WINGS LIKE THAT, and I spread out my hands wide to show him my magical but invisible Wings!’
Share this with your friends to remind them of their magical beautiful wings! Share it with them to let them know how beautiful each one of them is. Invite them to acknowledge their own beauty and to open their wings wide and fly because you also want to share the delight of seeing and acknowledging the gift that they be.
And please consider this my heartfelt invitation to you to open your wings wide open and let the sunshine reveal to us your magical hidden colours. I want to see them! The world wants to see them!!!
(ps: there is a free guided meditation at the end of this post that I created just for this topic)
I don’t know about you, but I have had desires as long as I can remember. As a child I desired my parents attention and approval, I desired ice lollies and dosas, I desired pretty frocks and dolls, and so much more. From then till now, I have grown, and my desires have also been growing with me.
I know that my desires have been the cause and fuel for much of my development, my achievement, and my creations. However my desires have also been the cause and catalyst for suffering and pain that I have landed up inflicting on myself and on other people.
I have spent years being in judgement of my own desires. I have classified them as good and bad, right and wrong, worthy and unworthy, material and spiritual, selfish and unselfish and so much more. From all that judgement I have only learnt that none of these classifications are absolute. Further, being in judgment of my own desires only made them more sticky and salient in my mind.
I have tried many different tactics to try and tame what I believed to be my ‘unworthy’ desires. I have tried to overcome them, to quench them, or even conquer them. Most of these attempts have been futile, and when I have thought I have succeeded I usually discovered that it was a temporary or short-term success. I would think that I have overcome a desire only to discover that it was lying latent somewhere in my field of energy – like a dormant volcano that erupts later.
I have also tried some meditative and visioning practices to try and stoke the fire of what I believed were ‘worthy’ desires. I have worked with vision boards and goals and they have created astounding results for me. Yet sometimes what I have found is that the very goal or desire I stoked (under the assumption that it was something worth achieving), became a problem for me later in life or caused pain and suffering that I had not imagined it would cause.
So what is an approach that we can take with respect to our desires when (a) we can’t even be sure on what desires are helpful and what are not and (b) the very practice of trying to overcome desires often has the counter effect of just making that very desire stronger?
Today, I was intuitively led to do something during my meditation that felt like a graceful, easy and life-affirming way of dealing with desires. I am sure that there are other other practices similar to what I did but I suspect that my practice might have been what some people refer to as ‘surrendering’. However, I am not an expert on terminologies and I could be totally wrong in my interpretation of the word surrender and so I will just leave the word aside and go on to explain what I experienced.
I must confess that I did not sit down to meditate with an explicit agenda of dealing with my desires. It was just a routine practice and I asked for the dissolution of my own ego and barriers of separation from the universe since this was the theme of the poem I had got in my last meditation a few days back (http://sharingmypoems.blogspot.in/…/purple-light-of-dawn.ht…). Somehow today I also spontaneously asked the universe to connect me with the creative centre of the cosmos (I sort of just made up this term). As soon as I asked for this I felt as if I tumbled into what felt like an expansive vibrant core of golden energy. I usually don’t ‘think’ with my cognitive my mind while meditating and I just go with the intuitive experience (without critical examination or questioning). So I allowed myself to tumble into this golden core and then I asked what it would take to live and create from this wonderful place. The answer I got (in feelings) was that it is really very simple, and that actually this is the most natural place to operate from, live from and create from. This is also the easiest and most effective place to do one’s work from. If I were to create and live from this place then I would literally have the force and backing of the entire cosmos in every moment.
I am always looking for ways to make my own life and work more effortless and enjoyable and so I started thinking of some of my projects and I put them one by one into this golden core. The ease and relief I felt while doing this cannot be described in words. The word ‘yajna’ floated somewhere into the background of my mind so maybe what I was doing had something to do with the ancient practice of ‘yajna’. Since I’m not an expert in sanskrit, I can’t know for sure and so I will stick to narrating my own experience. As I put my projects one by one into the golden core, I asked that I be helped in executing them by using the energy of the expansive golden core. Even as I was asking for this I was strongly aware of the fact that my request could be fulfilled only in a way that was in alignment with the natural flow of the core itself. Each time I put in a new project I could sense a certain degree of energetic alignment with the core. I then surrendered that project with full recognition of the condition that only those aspects of the project that were in alignment with the golden core would be energised and activated. I agreed to let go of the other aspects of the project that were not in alignment because it was very clear and obvious that the creative core of the universe would not support those aspects. If I continued to want to ‘fuel’ those other aspects I would have to use my own ‘will’ to power them up, and this seemed like too much effort. It felt like trying to work against the current and movement of the entire cosmos? Why would I even want to do that?
I continued to do this ‘surrendering’ with a few key projects and areas of my life today and then I got a nudge to create something (write this post and the meditation track that will follow it) and so I got up. Even with my limited experience of the five or six projects that I did this for I noticed that the process of ‘letting go’ of non-aligned parts of the project felt easier in some cases than others. The times I felt more resistance was for projects and areas of my life where I was more attached to having things turn out a certain way. However, I must admit that I did not have to use any force or will to make myself do something that I did not feel like. When I was with the energy of the core it just made intuitive sense to let that magnificent energy handle my projects rather than me try to do it my way. I felt so loved and supported that it seemed almost stupid to not work in alignment with this expansive and powerful energy. Why would I not want to enjoy the safety and pampering of feeling backed up by the most powerful and creative force in the universe?
So how is this experience related with desires? What I realized after my meditation was that in handing over my projects to the creative core energy (and by asking it to energize them in alignment with it’s own natural thrust), I was in essence surrendering my own desires to this core energy. I used to think of surrendering as something where I explicitly had to ‘give up’ something – a bit like a sacrifice where I am losing something or giving up something. Today’s experience of surrender felt like there was no ‘loss’ involved – I only gained. It was a most beautiful experience and it happened naturally. In choosing to align my work and projects with the creative core of the cosmos, it was just win-win-win for everyone. Even my analytical mind could see how choosing to do something that was not aligned with the creative core was an ineffective strategy – one that would require way more effort and will on my part and one that had a good chance of exploding in my face sooner or later.
This experience of aligning my desires with the creative core or force of the universe (or whatever you wish to call it) was way more fun than any past method I have used to try and deal with desires. It did not require any willpower or force, there was no need to classify anything cognitively, there was no need for judgment and no battle involved. It was a simple energetic offering of projects and aspects of my life to the core energy and allowing the parts of it that were not in alignment to fall away. I have tried to describe it as well as I can but since nothing can match your own personal experience I have also created a guided recording to facilitate you in experiencing this ease of aligning your desires and projects with the creative core of the cosmos. It is set as a downloadable track so feel free to share it with others as well but do share it along with this write up so that they have a context of what it is about.
I used to believe at one point that the way to happiness was to work hard towards achieving the fulfilment of my desires. I also used to believe at another point that the key to lead a good life was to learn to differentiate between right and wrong desires (suppress the wrong ones and stoke the right ones). At yet another point in my life I used to believe that the journey to nirvana was the journey of getting free from all desires. Maybe there is some ‘truth’ in each of these beliefs but maybe there are more ways than just these of working with our desires. I know that for some of you even talking or thinking about desires might bring up a lot of judgment in your mind. It brings up a lot of judgment in my mind as well. That is totally understandable given the amount of conversation, thinking and preaching we have engaged in on the topic of desires.
I do not want to get into the game of analyzing our ‘collective judgment’ around desires now. It will only stick us further. However, most ‘voices of judgment’ exist primarily in our left brain – in our critical and analytical minds. So in this meditation we will try to rely on our right-brains (our intuitive minds) which works in the present – where judgment cannot really exist. Let’s see what experience you have from that place. Download the meditation here: https://drive.google.com/…/0B9wN26BSkJ-pS0JITXhpYko4T…/view…
I experienced a very interesting (but stark) contrast yesterday. In the evening I played dodgeball with my son and his friends – it was a wonderful game which challenged me since there were older kids as well and the level of the game was just right for me. Soon after we attended a dinner party – which unfortunately paled in comparison. When we came back home, my son and I were sharing our experiences of the day and my son duly concluded, “Mummy that means you have more fun with children rather than adults”. As I went to bed I was wondering if I was hanging around with the ‘wrong’ age-group of people.
I had some ‘telling’ dreams while sleeping and I woke up now with the realization that my contrasting experiences was not so much about age-group preferences. Rather, it was due to the structure of different types of activities and my own experience of ‘flow’ in each of them. In fact what I experienced was not unusual at all when viewed from the psychological framework of flow (the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity). Dinner party conversations are not easy places to experience flow unless we consciously structure the conversations to increase the changes of having deep and meaningful conversations and/or interactions. Sports on the other hand (especially when the level of skill and level of challenge are matched) is an extremely conducive setup to experience flow because of the inherent structure of the activity.
I have been reading, researching, and teaching on the topic of flow for over ten years now. Even more specifically, I have included a book chapter titled, ‘The Risks and Opportunities of Leisure’ in the course binder for a course I teach. The chapter is from a book ‘Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the totally awesome dude who coined the term flow and who also writes like a magician!). Yet, even after years of being steeped in the research on flow, it took me an ‘explanatory dream’ to understand the nuances of my own contrasting experiences today.
In the book (rather in this particular chapter) Csikszentmihalyi makes a brilliant case of differentiating between active and passive leisure. He creates these categories based on empirical data of actual people’s experiences (several thousands of them actually), and also backs it up with compelling logic related to the theory of flow. The central premise is that ‘leisure’ is not something automatically ‘enjoyable’ and that some forms of leisure are more conducive to experiencing flow (and therefore the state of deep and total enjoyment) than others.
The most useful takeaway for me however is that once we understand this science of flow, we can choose to engage in activities that we find more conducive to flow (if of course that is something we want to). Moreover, we can also take steps to ‘consciously’ increase our chances of experiencing flow even during activities that by themselves are not set up for it (like dinner parties), by focussing on trying to have deep and meaningful conversations rather than disjoint and scattered bits of information exchange that might leave us listless (with an underlying dissatisfaction of half hearted engagement).
Here are some quick nuggets / quotes from the book on how ‘social interactions’ can also be avenues to experience flow – “When we have to interact with another person, even stranger, our attention becomes structured by external demands. In more intimate encounters, the level of both challenges and skills can grow very high. Thus, social interactions have many of the characteristics of flow activities, and they certainly require the orderly investment of mental energy. ………………A successful interaction involves finding some compatibility between our goals and those of the other person or persons, and becoming willing to invest attention in the other person’s goals. When these conditions are met, it is possible to experience the flow that comes from optimal interaction…………………….A good conversation is like a jam session in jazz, where one starts with conventional elements and then introduces spontaneous variations that create an exciting new composition”.
Here is a link to a short summary of the book. I would love to write my own summary note on flow someday – till I do that just get Csikszentmihalyi’s original books and read them ;-). Incidentally, reading his books itself (he has multiple books on flow) takes me into the state of flow – but then I’m a nerd :-)! https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199707/finding-flow
Sitting down to write on this topic feels a bit daunting – it is like trying to compress a lifetime’s inquiry into one piece of writing, and yet I am going to do it today. Inquiring into the nature of time itself – why should I make the notion of a ‘lifetime’ more significant than the ‘today’ that I am choosing to write it in? Also learning from my past experience in academic writing (which almost nobody has read and even fewer have connected with), I will write this like I write my blogs – simple storytelling that even my ten year old can understand.
I want you to imagine a triangle with the three vertices representing Work, Time and Money. We are going to explore the sides of this triangle one by one where each side represents the relationship between the two vertices that it connects. My motive in doing this is to invite you see how this triangle is present for you in your own mind and the extent to which it is holding you captive with regard to how, why and what you work on.
1) Work and Money
You have probably at some point in your life worked on some tasks where you did not want money in exchange for them, some tasks in which you would have liked money in exchange but you were too shy to ask for it, some tasks where you were offered money in exchange but you refused to take it, and also some tasks where you had a pre-set amount agreed upon as payment for the task. Some of you might also have experiences where you worked on tasks just because you wanted to and then received payment as a surprise. Some of you might have also paid for an opportunity to work on something that you would not otherwise have got a chance to experience – like paying to go and work in an organic farm over the weekend or paying for an opportunity to spend a holiday working with animals.
Before you continue reading further I want you to think of one example from each category in your own life and reflect on how you felt while doing the tasks. Do you think there might be some connection between how you feel when you are engaged in the task and the money-exchange that is expected, received, or has been agreed upon for the task? What is the nature of this connection? If our goal in life is to ultimately be happy (and through extension of that we also want to experience happiness at work) then might it be useful to pay attention to this connection between work and money and its influence on the way we feel about our work.
When I discuss this topic in my workshops and classes I usually tell a story (not mine) that jolts the participants and gets them to start seriously reflecting on the connection between work and money. Once upon a time there lived a strange looking hunchback who had to cross a particular street everyday on his way to work. It so happened that a gang of street kids found it amusing to chase him, make fun of him and call him names – and they used to do this everyday when he walked through their street. Fed up with being teased every morning the hunchback decided to confront the children. The next morning, he talked to them but instead of asking them to stop he told them that he really enjoyed all the attention they were giving him. He said that because he looked weird most people ignored him and so the attention they were giving him was rare and valuable to him. He told them he was so happy with them that he wanted to reward them by paying them rupees ten each. The children were surprised but delighted to get some extra pocket money and so they took it from the man.
The next day the man crossed their street again, and the children did their act of chasing him through the street and calling him names. At the end of the street he rewarded them each with ten rupees. This continued for a few days and the children started waiting for the man to come each morning so that they could earn their ten rupees for the day. After about a week the man called them together and said that he was very pleased with their efforts and that they were doing a great job. However, he had been inaccurate in his budgeting and he now realized that he could not afford to pay them rupees ten per head anymore. He said that he would be able to pay only rupees five to each child. Some of the children felt betrayed to hear this and they huffed off announcing that five was not good enough for them. The others reasoned that five was better than nothing and they continued to do their act. About a week later the hunchback talked to the children once again. He praised their efforts and assured them that there was nothing wrong in the way they were running behind him and shouting out aloud. He told them that he was really enjoying their act but that he had run into further money problems and could spare only rupees two per head. This time more kids withdrew from the contract – hurt that their efforts were now only fetching rupees two when earlier it was worth rupees ten. After some more days the hunchback confessed to not having any money to be able to pay them and the children stopped their act completely.
Of course this is just a fictional story but when I heard the story for the first time it hit me in a really big way. It made me realize how my own mapping of work-money had shifted over the years. Before joining academia I had a series of ‘failings’ and ‘breakdowns’ in the corporate world. I had tried working in well known banks and IT organizations and none of these ‘work-exchanges’ had worked for me. I had sort of built up a reputation of the girl who runs away from jobs and organizations and so when I started my academic job my parents and friends were watching with curious eyes – is Ramya really going to stick to her job?
About three months into my job, my mother asked me gently if I liked my job and if I was feeling ‘settled’ and was planning to ‘keep’ this job. I told her that I felt like I had won the lottery! Quite literally! All my life I have loved speaking, I have loved being on stage, and I have been immensely curious and devoted to the topics of happiness, productivity, achievement and how all of these come together in work. Indeed I had embarked upon a PhD, leaving all my technical education and expertise behind only to understand the ‘person-work-relationship’ better. Teaching for me was a golden opportunity to combine all of this, especially because IIM Bangalore had given me the liberty to design and offer my own elective course as soon I joined. The money they were paying me was like an add-on bonus, and indeed in my first few months I was not even mentally registering how much was being transferred into my bank account. I was delighted to have found a chance to do something I love, which also (as it appeared) was making a positive contribution in other people’s lives. I jokingly told my mother that I would be willing to pay IIMB if need be to get this chance to do my life’s work in a way that also made me so happy.
During my first year, I got invited to a few different places (local colleges or companies in Bangalore) to come and address their students or staff. Each time, I jumped at the opportunity and the thought did not even come to my mind to ask if there would be any money exchange involved. My work had no connection to money in my mind. Eventually though, over time something changed with respect to the work-money mapping in my own mind and I have reached a place where I am very aware of when I am doing paid work versus pro-bono work.
Now I do not want to make money ‘bad or wrong’ and neither am I saying that asking for money in exchange for one’s work is ‘bad or wrong’. What I am trying to draw our attention to through the hunchback story (as well as my own example) is how the mapping in the brain can subtly shift (as a result of experiencing rewards) without us even being consciously aware of how and when it happens. For the children in the hunchback story, the mapping in the head originally must have been something like ‘We do this because it is fun and how lucky we also get a reward for it’. The hunchback (through his clever design of stepping down of the rewards) changed this mapping to ‘We will only do this activity if we get paid enough to justify our effort and great performance’.
The nature of the activity the children were engaged in – helpful or harmful, whether they should be doing it or not etc. is quite immaterial here. We are just exploring how a mapping in the mind of ‘effort for the fun of it’ subtly changed into ‘effort leads to reward’ and then subtly changed further into ‘effort will only be exerted if the reward is in place’. I think these shifts in mapping are very very important because in the first mapping the individual is free while the last mapping acts like chains. The shift has decreased the number of degrees of freedom that the individual had with respect to his or her action because now the action is dependent on the assurance of commensurate reward.
In my own example the mapping originally was something like, ‘Oh this work is so exhilarating and meaningful that I am grateful I have a chance to do it’. Now it reads something like, ‘I love doing this but I will only do it if I am paid appropriately for it’. Which mapping in the brain do you think gives me more degrees of freedom to engage in work that I like and want to do? The former or latter? In which one am I independent in choosing my work, and in which one have I become dependent?
2) Work and Time
I am going to divide this section into two sub-sections. In the first sub-section I treat time as an ‘external construct’ – something absolute and measurable that exists outside of us and which helps us organize our life and interactions with one another. Indeed this is how most of us think and talk about time and when we do that, time actually shows up for us like an unalterable and fixed reality. In the second sub-section I treat time like an ‘internal and subjective construct’ because I believe that at the heart of our experience, time is just that. My own experience has led me to believe that time is a creation of my mind, mostly sitting snug and unchallenged but once in awhile morphing and melting to reveal glimpses beyond its apparent fixedness.
In this article, I do not want to get into proving anything about time or arguing about which is a better representation of time (external or internal). However, I will explain what I mean by each representation of time so that we can then explore each one’s relationship to work and money separately. In my life I experience and ‘deal with’ time as both external and internal and I do believe we can let the two representations co-exist without driving ourselves crazy. I choose to buy into and play along with the external notion of time because this is what helps me create agreements with external parties (think school buses, scheduling classes, meetings and visits). I am really grateful that we have developed instruments that can help us peg our experiences within the time-space reality to the same touchpoints (like the movement of earth around the sun), and then use that as a reference to converge and meet. I would literally have to live by myself if I did not agree to treat time as an ‘external construct’.
However, if you have ever lost yourself in meditation or experienced the state of ‘flow’ in any task or activity you would have realized how fluid time can be. If your own experience is what you want to peg your understanding of ‘reality’ to then you have to admit that there is also a subjective element associated with your personal experience of time. Your own subjective experience of time can literally expand or contract when viewed in relation to the ‘external time’ and this is what I am referring to as internal time.
The way I reconcile accepting both descriptions of time as meaningful constructs is to think of time itself as having more than one dimension. To explain this more easily I will first use an example of ‘space’ or ‘length’ as experienced in one versus two dimensions. Think of a two dimensional chart paper. Draw two parallel lines on it with a red felt pen about six inches apart. Let the lines stain the edges of the chart paper so the mark is visible from the side as well. Now hold the paper up at the level of your eyes (parallel to the ground) so that you are viewing it from one edge. What you see now is a straight line (corresponding to the length of the chart paper) with two red marks. Now what is the distance (or space) between these two lines? You might say something like six inches. Is that true? Yes it is. Now if I ask you how many marks of 1 cm each you can fit within those two red marks you will come up with a certain number. You will claim that the space between the two red spots is ‘finite’ and will divide that finite space by the length of the smaller mark. However if you suddenly tilt the sheet and see the expanse of it in two dimensions you will see that you actually have far more space between what appeared to be the two red dots. You can suddenly fit in a whole lot more of smaller marks or even designs in the same space. This is how time often behaves in my mind. I cannot say I have mastered the ability to tilt that sheet and create more time for myself at will, but I can definitely say that I have experienced states of sudden expansion of time – similar to what I am describing with the metaphor of tilting the chart paper. I have ‘known’ my personal time to expand and contract in ways that appear unexplainable when viewed only from the edge of the sheet, but which make complete sense if I allow for a multidimensional existence of time.
So now let’s look at the relationship of work and time looking at time first as an ‘external construct’ and then as a ‘subjective reality’.
2a) Work and External Time
Think of the last time when you ‘budgeted’ or set aside a certain amount of time for a particular task and you finished way ahead of time. Now think of a time when you thought you would do it in x hours but it did not get over. The truth is that most of us find it very difficult to estimate how long it will take to do a particular work. This is not because work does not take time but because work output is a complex variable that is the result of several inputs – like motivation, energy, inspiration, mental focus, emotional state, external distractions etc. etc. Time is only one of the variables that determines how much we can create or produce but somehow it has landed up hogging all the attention.
I see it over and over again that people make ‘time’ into the reason why they cannot do something when the actual reason is possibly a combination of other things. I also see people frequently stretching the time that they spend on a task in order to justify externally (to a boss or onlookers) or internally (to themselves) that they have done lots of work. I also see that in many places work is actually evaluated and tracked on the basis of time spent on it rather than the output or effect achieved. One reason for this perhaps is that amidst all the input variables that influence the work-output, time is the easiest to measure. For example, it is almost impossible to measure energy or mental focus. Another possible reason is that time is probably the one thing that we can safely demand of others. It is the one thing that we believe is within people’s capacity to give no matter what. Imagine trying to tell someone that they have to be in a positive emotional state while working, or that they have to be motivated and inspired. Because we believe that time is something that people own, we find it easier to hold them accountable for how they spend it.
If the complex combination of inputs is difficult to measure, why don’t we measure the work-output instead? Indeed some groups and organizations are moving towards directly measuring the quality and quantity of work-output but for many kinds of work, the output cannot be measured tangibly. This is when there is an increased tendency to measure the ‘time spent’ and assume that somehow we are measuring work. The point I am trying to make is that as a society, we have taken time as a close proxy for work because it is easily measurable as well as something that people can be held accountable for. The fact that we do this for organizational ease is one thing but it becomes a deeper problem when we start using the amount of ‘time spent’ as proxy for ‘work’ in our own heads as well.
I will narrate my own example here. I have known right since kindergarten that at least for me ‘time spent’ is mostly uncorrelated with what I learn or create as output. Fortunately for me my parents never tried to enforce timed ‘sit-down-rituals’ to make me study. They left me free to study as and how I wanted to and if playing ‘pretend teacher’ with my dolls was how I preferred to study they encouraged me to do that. They never tried to separate what I did into buckets of work and studies so that they could then measure the time I spent studying.
School and college was a mixed experience but most teachers and coaches stopped measuring ‘effort’ in terms of time put in and started looking at the results instead. As long as I did not create trouble and could show results I was left to choose how I spent my time. So actually, I had not created any strong associations in my head with regard to ‘time spent’ as being equivalent to ‘work done’. This however led to a rude shock in my first job post my MBA. I started work in a very well known job and within days it was made clear to me that unless I came at a certain time, left at a certain time, and sat at my desk for a certain time I was not ‘working’. This regimen was so counterproductive to my style of working that my productivity tanked, my wellbeing tanked, and I landed up feeling trapped and captive. Ironically, even though I would sit at my desk longer I landed up creating lesser output.
I believe that this is not just my story and that a lot of work that could actually get done is not getting done because we unnecessarily map ‘time spent on work’ with the ‘work impact’ or ‘output achieved’. Perhaps the external world will always measure us to some extent using a surrogate of time. However, It is up to make sure that this surrogate that is used by the external world does not mess up our internal world.
Even in my current job teaching productivity is actually measured by my institute according to the number of hours I teach. In fact people also sign up for programs with an assumption that the more time that is spent in a classroom the more one learns. My own experience (both as a student and a teacher) tells me this is not at all true. However, I do understand that most systems cannot measure the more nuanced nature of our work output and will therefore measure ‘time spent’ as ‘work’. The question I want to raise is that if we leave aside how others measure our work but turn inwards to see how we ourselves are measuring or gauging our work what do we see there?
Early in my academic career I would feel guilty if I sat and wrote a poem at my work desk. I would feel guilty if I spent too much time in the coffee lounge. I would feel guilty if I chose to walk or play at five in the evening when other colleagues were in the office instead. In short, unless I was sitting at my computer with files directly related to my ‘work’ open my brain was not counting it as work. One night however I got up in the middle of the night the day before a class and typed furiously only to realize that I had redesigned my entire teaching plan by creating exercises for the next day’s class. This was soon to become a regular feature for me. Increasingly I would get insights for class and course design and answers to the questions sent in by students during my meditations. I would often get my best ideas while walking around campus or when doing some other non work related activities. Without even consciously making a plan to one day I realized that I had started praying and sending blessings to my students during my own ‘sadhana time’.
Most of the examples I use in class come from my ‘non-work’ experience, from interactions with my son, from my ‘non-work’ readings, from my travels, and from my own personal grapplings and reflection. If you have ever been a teacher you will know how critical an apt example or story can be to get a nuanced point across. Time spent in agendaless chatting with a student gave birth to a most stimulating theatre activity I now regularly use in class. I have now finally decided that my life is my work – plain and simple. It is illogical to try and separate the two! I cannot and will not measure my work by time spent on the computer or inside classes or by any specific activity. This decision has freed up my inner world of work immensely.
So my question to you is this – your organization or boss might use ‘time’ as a proxy for your work, but are you doing it as well? Your boss might need to use it to be able to hold you accountable for something but do you need an external system like that to account to yourself? Your boss might need to measure your work by time so he can compare it with some external standard but do you need an external standard or can you set your own standards? If you are assessing your own work, do you not have far more information regarding your effectiveness than your boss (or someone outside) to use as better estimates of your work? Your boss might be afraid that you will lie to him or her but can you actually lie to yourself? Can you trust that you have access to enough subjective cues and indicators to help you gauge your work and aim for improvement and expansion if and when you want to?
Since you have access to better ways of knowing and gauging your own effectiveness at work would you be willing to stop using time as a proxy (at least within the private confines of your own head). Using time as a proxy will only add an extra box of internal accountability based on time when there is no real proof that your effectiveness is measured by the time that you consciously spend on your work. Further if your brain is anything like mine (and several others I know) it often works in secret ways when our bodies (and even some other parts of the brain) are engaged in seemingly unrelated activities. Why then would we undermine our performance by boxing our multifaceted brains into a linear external time schedule? Why also would we add to our own unhappiness by feeling unnecessary guilt when we fail to ‘produce output’ during that particular allocated time?
2b) Work and Internal Time
Can you remember a time when you were so lost in work that in a way external time did not exist for you? Csikszentmihalyi calls this experience ‘Flow’. Some people report experiencing time as passing very slowly (for example if you are engaged in a 100m dash, or some other short activity where a minute can feel like a lifetime) while others report experiencing time pass very quickly (like writers or surgeons performing long surgeries), where they are so immersed in what they are doing that when they come out of the state hours went by without their noticing. Some people also report experiencing a state of timelessness at work. In the context of internal and external time what is happening here is that the internal time (subjective experience of time) is either contracting or expanding in a way that it no longer matches the external time.
Given that the internal time is something that only the individual is privy to, there is usually very less judgement associated with it. Therefore most of us do not judge ourselves or feel guilty that our sense of time either expanded or contracted when we experience the state of flow. Further since flow is also most of the time a state of peak performance, we usually experience a surge in creativity and productivity. So getting immersed in our work can actually alter our subjective experience of time in a way that leaves us performing better and feeling better.
As far as my own experience is concerned I think that our internal time almost always adjusts itself better to accommodate the needs of the work being performed. The only catch is that sometimes when our work has led us to be immersed in the flow state (and we are only aware of our internal time) then we might lose track of tasks or appointments that have been set in external time. To avoid this from happening I find it useful then to set reminders firmly grounded in external time (for example alarm clocks), that can snap me out of the flow state when it is time to attend to another commitment that hinges on external time.
3 Money and Time (external time only)
Money has no existence in our inner worlds and experiences. It is clearly an external construct that comes into significance only when we are interacting with other people. It is something we have created in order to exchange goods and services with other human beings. Money therefore only has a connection with external time since external time is the construct of time that is used when interacting with other people. Our internal time is our own private experience of time, it is something that is not even observable by other people and so it has no meaning for others or our interactions with them, or our exchanges with them – including money.
In the earlier section we saw the relationship between work and external time and discussed why external time is often used in society and organizations as a surrogate for work. When work needs to be ‘rewarded’ or ‘compensated’ it first needs to be measured and when time is used to measure work then we come up with a formula to equate our time with money. Again organizations and bosses might have to do this because they can’t find a better way as of now. My question to you though is to what extent have you internalized this external evaluation (or formula) that is being used to value your time and made that your internal valuation of your own time.
I used to read jokes about lawyers and doctors who would charge their loved ones to go on dates based on their ‘hourly billing rates’. I thought these were jokes and had no significance to my own life until sometime back I caught myself actually telling someone I would not do something because if instead I taught an extra session I would earn an extra ‘xyz’ amount. I made this statement half in jest but I do know that if I said something (even in half jest) then it is there somewhere in my brain. If it is present somewhere in my brain then it is definitely influencing my choices (if not consciously then unconsciously).
I think it is really risky to start valuing our own time at any particular rate. It does not matter whether the rate is hundred rupees an hour or whether it is one lakh an hour. The truth is that our external time (like anything else) is a resource that we can use and we should be free to use it as a resource of choice, moment by moment, based on the activity and options that present themselves to us. That is true freedom, that is true choice. If I have equated my time to a certain ‘valuation’, then no matter what that valuation is I am a prisoner to that valuation in each subsequent moment. When I choose to do paid work there will be a continuous program running in my head checking if I am getting more than my current valuation of time or less. Worse, when I am doing non-paid work or during my leisure hours I will be acutely aware of the opportunity cost of using my time to do ‘something else’. Does this make me more happy or less happy?
Breaking Down The Triangle
Work is something that most of us naturally engage in. In fact if you adopt a broad definition of work (to mean engaged in some form of activity) then it is practically impossible to exist in human form without working. Even a so called beggar does the work of ‘begging’. The choice that we have on this planet is not about whether to work or not but rather how and what to work on? We know that work can be a most enjoyable and uplifting experience and it can also be gruelling and draining. I have myself experienced both ends of this work spectrum, and my guess is that you have too at some point in your life.
Unlike, work which is a natural and inevitable part of human existence, time (external time) and money are more of social constructs. They are constructs that we have created to ease our interaction and exchanges with one another. While our experience of work can have a direct impact on our happiness, both external time and money are at most resources that can then be used in ways that can increase our happiness in life. I do not mean that time (external time) or money are not important, rather I am just making the case that they do not translate automatically into happiness. They can be utilized or leveraged to create circumstances and opportunities that can then lead to happiness.
The central thesis of this article is that our inner experience of work (which is directly linked to our happiness) is dependent on how these three constructs (work, time, and money) are connected in our own minds. Further the number of degrees of freedom that we have in terms of choosing our work (in terms of content and involvement) depends on how closely these constructs are tied together in our own heads. The stronger the link between work and money, the more we will constrain ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) to work in order to get money in exchange. When we don’t get money in exchange for our work we will see that as a loss or sacrifice. The stronger the link between work and time the more likely we will be to measure our own work according to the time we spend on it whether or not that is actually productive and joyful for us. This can get us into an unconscious habit of stretching time spent at work to make ourselves feel that we are being productive when actually we are just boring ourselves to death. It can also prevent us from working in ways that are not easily mapped onto the linear scale of external time – even when working like that can actually be joyful and productive. Finally, the stronger the link between money and time the more likely we will be to use one as a surrogate of the others value and let that influence the way we spend each of these two actually independent resources.
If happiness be the ultimate aim that we want to achieve (be it through doing work, spending time or earning money), then we are actually constraining ourselves in the attainment of this happiness by creating unnecessarily associations between work, time and money in our heads. Out of these three, work is the only one which is directly related to happiness because if you feel happy when you are working you are happy and if you don’t feel happy when you are working you are not happy. Money and external time are only resources and it is best to treat them just as that – simple resources that can be utilized to contribute towards our own happiness. However, if we tie up the notion of work with either time or money then we limit our own freedom in how and where we want to engage in work. Instead of utilizing resources, we have now created mappings in our brain that function like constraints. Also the more we keep the constructs of money and time independent in our heads, the more freedom we have to treat them as separate resources (which they actually are). If we tie them together with a mental formula then we actually make ourselves more prone to the risk of decreasing our own freedom (and happiness) by mixing one with the other even in situations where the two cannot be interchanged.
So my final question to you is, if you could have more freedom and joy in the way you live and work then why would you choose less?
Ps: For the record, I did actually finish writing this article in one day (about seven hours in external time) – and it was a most joyous work! But see how misleading this time count is for I have counted only the time my fingers took to type. The idea came to me during my morning walk and I mulled it over while cooking breakfast. In fact even that is not a fair counting of time for in truth this article is actually the output of several years of inquiry, reflection and research.
A Guide to Tea House Trekking in Nepal – Annapurna Base Camp
I did my first Himalayan trek when I was thirteen years old. I was smitten by the mountains, the streams, the clear starry nights, the coniferous forests, the snow clad peaks, the mountain dogs, and the sheer bliss of doing nothing except walk from dawn to dusk. It was a most wonderful experience but also a very testing one. We stayed in tents, carried our own backpacks, and on some nights we had to sleep in our wet jeans when the interplay of rain, sun, and tent mechanics did not exactly work in our favour. Yet the views were splendid, the air was pristine, and my mental chatter fell away to make space to take in the grandeur of Nature – Who in turn put me back in touch with my own inner essence.
I always wanted to go back and do another long Himalayan trek. However, there was some excuse or the other that would crop up. I went on several shorter treks but the Himalayan trek stayed on my list as the one consistent item that I did not give up on and yet did not also actually jump in and do. For some years I blamed outward circumstances, then I used money as an excuse, then I used lack of time as an excuse, then I used my status of being a mother as an excuse and so on. However, over the years I started getting glimpses of the more ‘real’ reasons that were keeping me away from the trek I so badly wanted to go on. I was afraid. I was afraid of the cold, I was afraid of having to sleep in wet clothes, I was afraid to brush my teeth in icy cold streams, I was afraid I would get too tired to walk, and the list went on. For the next twenty seven years my yearning for the esoteric experience of walking amidst and communing with the mountains tugged at my heart. And for the same twenty seven years my fear of the cold and lack of confidence in my physical stamina kept me spinning excuses. Then I heard about tea-house-trekking in Nepal.
Tea House trekking in Nepal opened up a possibility to trek without having to stay in
tents and risk the tent giving way and wetting me in the middle of the night. I could have closed toilets and basic shelters to stay along the way and also eat hot meals without needing to carry my own supplies and do my own cooking. I could also hire a porter to carry some extra clothing and emergency supplies so that I could walk more easily with a light daypack. Sure, some may call this a ‘smaller’ adventure than doing it all on your own but if like me what you are looking for is more of communing with nature and less of the thrills of adventure then tea house trekking is an amazing opportunity for us.
I have just returned from doing the Annapurna Base Camp (often abbreviated as the ABC trek) and it has been a most exhilarating experience. Sure there were moments when I felt that my physical and mental stamina were truly being tested, and times when I was considering turning around and returning instead of going all the way to till the ABC (which is at 4130 meters). However I did land up completing the entire trek and I loved the experience. The good thing about this particular trek is that it is feasible to turn back at any point you want to (indeed we met people who had done so), and still enjoy the trek because it is extremely scenic and beautiful from day 1 till the last day. Further, because there are tea houses that have been thoughtfully spaced at frequent intervals you can choose to do the trek at your own pace which can range from 6 or 7 days to as many as 16 days (or even more). While trekking can never be completely risk-free the risks are considerably reduced in this trek because of the tea houses (or small lodges) along the way. This makes it less daunting and scary without taking away the chance to trek in serene and pristine mountains and scaling high altitudes.
I wrote this guide for people like me who want to commune with nature and walk amidst mountains but are apprehensive about things like the cold and their own fitness level. If you are an avid trekker and are used to living out of your backpack then this is not for you. However if you are someone who has been dreaming of trekking in the Himalayas, but have been talking yourself out of it then this article is definitely for you. In this, I share with you my own experience of completing the ABC trek so that you will be motivated to try it for yourself. Believe me, if I can do it – pretty much anybody can. I share with you how I trained, what I packed, and the physical and psychological tools I used to complete the trek. I also share with you the lessons I learnt, the things I wish I had known earlier and the notes I have made for myself to do this trek more easily and gracefully if I do it again (which I do think I will).
I am not an adventure seeker and I do not seek thrills. I would never go on a roller
coaster ride in an amusement park unless someone held a gun to my head. However, I do love nature, and while nature is beautiful everywhere she has a very unique essence high up in the mountains. If the snowy peaks and coniferous mountains have been gatecrashing into your dreams I want you to know that romancing them is actually accessible to you with a little bit of careful packing, psychological prepping, and fitness training. My trekking partner on this trek called me a scared kitten at one point, and I am only sharing this with you to let you know that if a scared kitten like me could do it – you too definitely can!
This is a long article but it is long for a reason. I have multiple agendas for writing this article and there is a lot that I want to share with you to do justice to those agendas. If you are someone who has never thought of trekking in the Himalayas, my agenda is to show you how beautiful and amazing it is and invite you to try it as a possibility for your next vacation. If you are someone who has been fantasizing about walking on mountain trails but had written it off as something you should have done in your twenties, I want to show you that it is not too late and that even with a moderate level of fitness you can still do it as a tea-house-trek. If you are someone who is actually planning to do the ABC trek, I want to share my learnings and experience with you so that you have more possibilities to customize it better for your needs and also avoid some of the mistakes I made due to lack of information. At the end of this article is a photo-diary of the trek to give you a pictorial glimpse of the experience although no picture can truly capture the magnificence of the Himalayan Landscape and the experience of being immersed in it.
Planning the Duration and the Itinerary of the trek
If you search on the internet you will find different tour agencies offering customized itineraries to do the ABC trek. Most of them offer 2 variations a short 7 day one with a direct route (which I don’t recommend because it does not allow for acclimatization) and a longer (and scenic) route via Ghorepani involving ten or eleven nights in the trekking zone. Overall, including transfers and stay at Kathmandu and Pokhara this agenda utilizes fourteen days. When I did my research for the trek I assumed that I had to go with the standard itinerary. However, once we started the trek I realized that the itinerary on paper was just a tentative one and there were several different ways to pace ourselves and our night stops to make the trek work better for us.
We met different people along the way (meeting co-travellers and exchanging stories and playing cards in the tea houses at night is one of the high points of this trek incidentally), and each person or group was customizing their itinerary on the go as they went along. We too landed up following an itinerary very different from the one we had printed and carried along. However because our return date was fixed we did have to work within our constraint of eleven nights in the trekking zone (tea houses). However, if I had known how flexible this trek was I would have taken it slower and kept more buffer days for us.
There is literally no downside to keeping a few buffer days. If you find that you are
actually progressing faster than your tentative itinerary you can always use the extra buffer days at the Hot Springs in Jhinu Danda, or even by the lakeside in Pokhara. On the upside, if you run into unexpected rains then you can pace yourself to take an unscheduled break in the closest tea house when it starts pouring. We trekked in mid may and we did not expect it to rain. However, from day 1 of our trek we started having torrential downpours every afternoon. After two days of walking through downpour we revised our schedule to wake up really early and start walking each day to try and reach our destination before the rains started.
The early morning starts helped us to avoiding the rain on some days, but not on all. If we had had some more buffer days we could have taken it at an easier (and dryer) pace. In the end it all depends on you and your reasons for trekking. Some people enjoy the challenge of walking in the rain. I prefer walking when it is dry and clear and the path is not slippery so I can look around instead of putting all my attention into deciding where to place my next foot. Either way, having a few buffer days just expands your options – you can use it for whatever you want. We met a young american girl who had so fallen in love with a particular spot beside a waterfall in Tikhedhunga that she broke her journey there for some days – just to spend more time by the waterfall.
Here is the itinerary we ultimately landed up following. I share it only as an example it is best if you create something similar to start with but customize it after you start trekking.
Day 1 – Pokhran to Nayapul (Jeep) + Nayapul to Tikhedhunga (trek)
Day 2 – Tikhedhunga to Ghorepani
Day 3 – Ghorepani to Tadapani
Day 4 – Tadapani to Chomrong
Day 5 – Chomrong to Bamboo
Day 6 – Bamboo to Deurali
Day 7 – Deurali to ABC
Day 8 – ABC to Deurali
Day 9 – Deurali to Upper Sinuwa
Day 10 – Upper Sinuwa to Jhinu Danda
Day 11 – Jhinu Danda to Sewee (trek) + Sewee to Pokhara (Jeep)
Where to Start and End the Trek
Our tour guide started our trek at Nayapul, which was about a two hour drive from Pokhara. However, I met people on the trek some of whom had started walking from Pokhara itself and I also met people who had taken the Jeep almost up to Tikhedhunga (the village where we spent the first night after a day of trekking). If I do the ABC again, I would take the Jeep till the road ends (quite close to Tikhedhunga) and start walking there. That way the first night’s halt can be at Ulleri or even higher and it will help ease out the second day’s walking. This time our second day’s trek was very gruelling (esp the climb to Ulleri) and we walked all day and reached Ghorepani (destination for the second night as per our printed itinerary) only by 6:45 in the evening. After that experience however we started pacing our walking better (since till then we had not realized that it was possible to deviate from the printed itinerary).
With regard to ending the trek, the official ending point on our itinerary was again Nayapul. However the final stretch from Sewee to Nayapul is along a dusty motorable road and almost everyone ends up taking a Jeep from Sewee (which is where the trekking trail turns into a motorable road). I strongly advise taking a Jeep from Sewee and it is better to plan this in advance so that you can work it into your itinerary ahead of time and give yourself that extra time to pace your walking.
In terms of travelling to Pokhara, there are three main options (all via Kathmandu) – Flight, Bus, Private car. We took a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara, and took a private car back on the return. However, the roads around Kathmandu were choked so badly (think of Bangalore traffic in it’s worst avatar), that I am sure I will fly next time. Private car might still work from Kathmandu to Pokhara if you leave early morning and avoid Kathmandu traffic. For the return trip I strongly suggest a flight. Also if you need to spend a night in Kathmandu, pick a hotel close to the airport (there are hotels around Boudhanath temple for example), and skip the city centre altogether.
Planning Brunch, Lunch, and Night Breaks
There are some places that typically make sense to stay the night in (for example Ghorepani, Chomrong, and ABC) since you get wonderful early morning views from there. Because of this you can work your itinerary around choosing these particular locations as some of your night breaks. Other locations can be picked as needed and you can also plan lunch breaks and even brunch breaks so that you typically reach a tea house to get a hot meal. We followed a routine of starting early after a 6 am breakfast, and then stopping once for a second breakfast (typically an omelette and tea) and then once again for lunch. Sometimes we walked a further leg after lunch but on other days we stopped after lunch if the rains were too heavy.
When you plan your itinerary do not go by distance because distances are quite irrelevant while trekking in the mountains. You will find several maps along the way (every tea house has a board map outside) that will show time estimate between various points so that you can plan your day. However these time-distances are very rough estimates (of an average twenty something trekker) and you might find that your own speed is very different. After a day or so you will be able to arrive at a ratio that you can use to calculate your own estimates between two points using the map board estimates. Do note that these ratios can be very different for climbing-up and climbing-down. For example we were taking almost twice the time during climbing-up but our timings were close to the map estimates while climbing-down. Also keep in mind that these estimates are for someone who is walking continuously without taking breaks. If you would like to stop in places to commune with nature, or take photographs or just sit and meditate then you will need to factor that into your time estimates as well.
I suggest not planning too far ahead but plan one day at a time – reach your destination for that day and then depending on your experience, your energy level, and your available buffer time left, plan for the next day. Here is a rough map to give you an idea but don’t worry too much. You will typically carry a more detailed map with you on the trek and each night in the tea house you can study the topography for the next day (and also discuss with other people who are planning their journeys for the next day). Since you will meet people going in both directions you will invariably land up chatting with those coming in the opposite direction about what the terrain holds in store.
Which Season to Trek
The most popular months for the ABC trek are April and October although the trek itself is open all year round. The tea house owners take turns to ensure that at least one tea house is open in each location even in the non peak seasons. The downside of April and October is that it is typically very crowded and sometimes people do not find accommodation for the night because the tea houses are full to capacity. We heard stories of trekkers who had to sleep in the dining hall and stories of having to wait in long lines to use the bathrooms. We trekked in May and we there was no crowd along the way and no lines for bathrooms. However, we had stormy rain showers everyday and we got clear views of the mountain peaks only during the mornings.
Apparently some people trek even during the monsoons, but some of the routes are closed at that time because of the risk of avalanches and one might have to take more circuitous paths. Even in May, we witnessed some landslides and we also saw a snow avalanche but it was far away from where we were. One of the scariest parts of the trek for me was to see that the edges of a glacier that we had walked on to cross a stream had changed shape by the time we came back to it two days later, on our way down. I would definitely not want to be walking on a glacier when it decides to reshape it’s edges.
While October and April are popular for the clear views of the mountain tops, April apparently has the added advantage of having the rhododendron trees in full bloom. In May and we got to see the last few Rhododendron flowers in bloom but only in the higher altitudes. Apparently they bloom at slightly different times depending on the altitude, but you will walk through several rhododendron forests during the ABC trek. I actually find the trees themselves very pretty and the bunches of new rhododendron leaves can easily be mistaken for green flowers because of their elegant shape.
While we are talking about flowers although May was a bit late to see the Rhododendron
display, May is still springtime in the Himalayas and there are lots and lots of other flowers in bloom all along. You will spot tiny flowers all along your path, and in between the stones that have been laid to form steps. You will spot creepers of flowers which look like they have been strung together winding their way over the branches of other trees and climbing up rocks on either side of waterfalls. You will spot flowers atop tall trees that overshadow the leaves completely to make it look like a yellow tree, blue tree or red tree.
Training for the Trek
The more you train for the trek the easier you will find it when you actually start trekking. That said, this particular trek can be paced to suit your own level of fitness. We met a young italian couple who were covering in one day about what we were covering in two or even three days. So the more you train, and the fitter you are the more you can cover in a single day. I will assume however that if you are reading this piece you are someone who wants to take it slow, and trek at a moderate pace taking in the views and communing with nature. I will also assume that you don’t mind stopping and taking breaks to refuel and rest your muscles in between. In that case you just need to be moderately fit. Our tour guide had asked us to train for about three months by walking 5 km a day. I must confess however that I did not actually manage to do this on a regular basis. My fitness training mainly consisted of a 50 min zumba workout about four times a week. Other than that I tried to walk whenever I had a chance.
If I were to do the ABC trek again, I would definitely pay more attention to my fitness
training prior to the trek. Apart from just walking I will actually practice walking in my hiking shoes, and with a small backpack on my back. There are different muscles that get used when you do that. I would also practice climbing up and down steps with a small backpack on my back. Trekking in Nepal involves a lot of climbing up and down and the muscles we use in climbing are different from the ones that we use in walking or during some other fitness routine like zumba or yoga.
That said, do remember that during your trek you will be doing nothing except walk in nature and your mind and brain will be amazingly fresh and will add a lot to your physical stamina. Your body will easily be able to do twice or thrice of what your body can do on a typical workday evening when your body is already tired due to sitting at your computer or commuting through a dusty city.
What to Pack
This is the fun part of living in the 21’st century. I was really amazed at the thoughtfulness and innovative thinking that has gone into creating clothes, backpacks, ponchos, and other trekking accessories and gear. Remember my trek as a 13 year old. We wore denim jeans, bulky gloves and sweaters, heavy hunter boots and flimsy windsheeters. This time I had quick-dry trekking pants and quick-dry t-shirts that wick the sweat off your body and they really do work. I loved my trekking boots and am ever so grateful to them to have kept my feet dry and warm even when I walked in rain and snow. I bought most of my stuff from Decathlon because there is a shop close to my house. Many people buy their trekking gear in Kathmandu or Pokhara and there are lots of shops there with good deals. I wanted to spend time exploring those cities instead of shopping so I did most of my shopping before setting out.
Do not underestimate the number of fresh socks and undergarments you will need since they are small and do not take much space. It is also better to have layers rather than one heavy jacket since you will want to peel them off gradually as you walk and warm up in the mornings. Inner wear is extremely important. Again there are very light but warm inner-wear that are specially designed for trekking and they are quick dry as well. Since they take very less space to pack, I strongly recommend taking two sets along.
A walking stick (or even two) can come very handy. My trekking partner had bought a foldable one and our guide had a foldable one as well. I used wooden sticks that I picked on the trail (I had a romantic notion of wanting to use sticks that were picked straight from nature). My natural sticks worked well for me except on the days when we crossed glaciers. However, since I was walking slow I could manage with the wooden sticks even on the glaciers and in the tricky and dangerous spots where we had to walk on the edges of glaciers my guide waited for me and lent me his stick.
Sun goggles are highly recommended, and I bought some expensive polarized ones that the salesman talked me into. However, I did not find them comfortable while trekking at all. In fact wearing the goggles gave me a headache and so I mostly trekked without them. I would suggest that you practice wearing your sun goggles well before the trek and get used to wearing them. If they give you a headache buy a different pair and test it out.
We had carried a quite a few packets of dry fruits (nuts, raisins, and dates) and these came in very very handy as snacks during the day and also as something to add onto the breakfast at the homestay. Our second most useful item was electrol sachets which we could mix into our water to sip while walking. I had also carried some cereal bars but I did not find them to be useful snacks while trekking. Next time I plan to replace them with plain chocolate bars which I saw many other trekkers munching.
It was also useful to take empty plastic bags along to separate wet, semi-wet, dirty and dry clothes inside the backpack. Wet wipes and dry tissues came in very handy as well and if you are a woman pack some extra sanitary pads since your menstrual rhythm might be different due to the high altitude. I had randomly thrown in a small packet of methi churan in the last minute and that turned out to be a life-saver for me when I felt a bit nauseous at higher altitudes.
Speaking about feeling nauseous, while it is important to pay attention to symptoms of altitude sickness, do not get over stressed by it. If you follow a gradual route (the one via Ghorepani) and take your time to do the climb your body will acclimatize itself. When we were doing the last leg of our climb (MBC to ABC) we passed a group of korean trekkers who were running down and one lady in their group was being carried by a local nepalese guide. We were told that she had altitude sickness and needed to be rushed to lower altitude. This image stayed with me when I was at ABC and kept haunting me.
When at ABC I developed a severe headache (which was most probably caused by my sun goggles which didn’t suit me and the fact that I exposed my eyes to the glare by not using them continuously). Since headache is one of the symptoms of altitude sickness, our guide kept asking me if I was feeling any of the other symptoms like dizziness or nausea. I know that our guide was well meaning but every time he asked me about it I actually felt worse. If you have been pregnant you probably know what I mean. Once you read about symptoms like nausea or dizziness it is easy to imagine that you have them. Eventually I took a paracetamol and I felt better. One of the trekkers who was playing cards with us was a nurse from canada and she told me that a lot of people also just get normal headaches at high altitudes and every headache is not a sign of altitude sickness. So my advice is that do stay informed of the symptoms of altitude sickness but please do not overly psyche yourself about it.
Guide and Porter
You can do the ABC trek either with a guide and porter, with just a porter, or by yourself. The routes are easy and it is almost impossible to get lost. We used the services of both a guide and a porter mainly because this was our first time in Nepal. If I go a second time I might probably only use the service of a porter (unless of course I trek during the peak seasons of April or October). During peak seasons a guide is supposed to be extra helpful because he can use his relationship with tea house owners to find accommodation even when it is crowded.
Some people use a guide-cum-porter but that is not a very good idea. This is because when a porter is carrying a lot of weight he is most comfortable to walk at his own pace. Thus is works well to let the porter walk ahead and reach the next destination and wait for you there. A guide will typically walk with you at your pace and so it is better not to give him extra weight to carry.
Many people advocate using a guide and a porter to help support the local economy and I think there is merit to that argument. There is an ecosystem built around trekking in Nepal and being a guide or a porter is mostly the primary occupation for those who be it.
Short Photo Diary of My trek – May 2017
Stunning views of the Mountain from Ghorepani and the views continue and only get grander as the trek continues – Dont miss the mountains that rise up from similar looking snowy clouds!
We walk through several forests, pass uncountable streams, cross pretty bridges, and dainty village meadows
Yesterday, my son and I were having a discussion on the amount of time that he was spending with his ipad (it is summer vacation after all), and I gave in to his point of view – as often happens with us. However, I was feeling very uncomfortable with ‘our’ decision and so I decided to inquire into my own discomfort. Among the many fears, beliefs and agendas that had influenced this decision, one particularly caught my attention yesterday. I realized that somewhere deep inside of me I did not want my son to dislike me (and through logical extension of that, dislike anything I said or did).
This realization struck me like a bolt of lightning and since one my favourite hobby these days is to clear my head of limiting beliefs I got to work on this one. In working with beliefs picking on one, often brings out a whole conglomerate of associated beliefs. So even though I started out by working on a simple ‘fear of being disliked’, what came up eventually was much more. The process of inquiry took me back into my childhood where I had at some point concluded that I needed to be liked by my parents and all the other people around me. I realized that I had associated ‘being liked’ with ‘being safe’ (and probably there was some truth to that as a child). I also had learnt to interpret other’s liking as a sign of approval that what I was being or doing was indeed right. This way I had landed up making other’s liking very significant in my life – perhaps to an extent that in many situations it started subconsciously overruling other criteria and often even overpowered what intuitively felt ‘true’ or ‘best’ for me. From the cascade of insights related to ‘the need to be liked’ that tumbled into my awareness yesterday – here are three that brought me the greatest relief.
Being disliked is not necessarily a bad thing
Even though I had philosophically come to terms with the idea that not everyone will like everything, somewhere inside I was still holding on to the premise that being disliked was a ‘bad’ thing. It was just one of the things we had to get used to since we cannot please everyone. When I started playing around more and more with the ‘fear of being disliked’ I started to wonder if ‘being disliked’ was necessarily a bad thing? I thought of vegetables like Bitter Gourd and Brinjal that my son does not like. In fact I know many people who do not like these vegetables but that does not make these vegetables bad. To challenge the assumption even further, I pushed myself to think how being disliked might sometimes be a ‘lucky’ thing. I looked at my garden which has no fences and noted to my amusement that the flowers that were least likely to be picked by passersby were the ones that people did not particularly ‘like’.
2. My need to be liked can handicap me from living my truth
This point is evident in my opening example but I realized that this is true in so many other aspects of life as well. I have felt this pinch the most when it comes to giving people feedback on their work. It is easy for me to tell what is right in their work, but far more challenging to tell them where they have gone wrong, or share what I might not have liked in their work. I also often find myself in trouble because the need to be liked makes me overcommit to things. I have landed up saying yes to assignments and invitations where I would have actually wanted to say no, only because I feared that saying no would mean the other person would dislike me. I have sometimes even chosen to be unkind to myself and stress myself out just so that the other person or party concerned will continue to like me. In some drastic situations I have even withheld my own truth because I have feared that somebody will dislike me if I tell the truth.
3. By insisting that my loved ones should like me I deny them their freedom
This last point was my greatest ‘aha’ moment yesterday. While wading through the awareness of beliefs and assumptions that had been holding me captive I could clearly sense how challenging some of them would bring me greater freedom and peace. What I did not realize was that challenging these assumptions would also set my loved ones free. It hit me quite strongly when I first saw that I had been holding my friends and family members captive through my insistence that if they loved me they had to always like me. Limiting my own choices is one thing but holding these other people captive because of my own need to be liked is quite another. What if it is okay for them to not like some things I might do or say, and on some days perhaps dislike me itself. Could we still be friends, colleagues, siblings, and parents and have tender and special space for one another in our lives. A space that allows the other to be there with us with no conditions attached – including that of liking us? A space that allows both them and us to be and relate without fear?
Most children Intuitively play with Energy – in fact they don’t even realize that they are doing it till at some point they learn to mentally identify the fabric of their playground and toys as ‘energy’. I was no different as a child. As my ‘understanding’ grew however, and with it my vocabulary, I realized that there were some things that did not have enough counterparts in the world of words to process express. Such things could then only be processed privately in a way that my own thinking was also excluded from the process – because you see my thinking was made up of words most of the time. I could ‘feel’ it sometimes but it could not become a shared feeling for lack of ways to express it. Sometimes in art I used to find a middle ground – a possibility to share rich and varied mixes of energies which some others could then pick up and experience. I enjoyed such energetic communions immensely with my mother and she and I would share exquisite moments of transcendence with each other. We shared through flower arrangements, dance, art and craft – experiences that words and touch were not rich enough as mediums to convey.
I remained a dreamer in what I called my ‘other world’ which could never be shared, and a sharp intellectual thinker in school and other forums. I was driven by logic when I used my intellect, and by intuition when I played in my ‘other world’. As a child who had a great need for acceptance and someone who greatly valued the approval of others it worked for me to keep these worlds apart.
I was intuitively led to natural forms of meditation like, chanting, flame gazing, sun basking, communion with the moon, and sitting still with nature. I used to dissolve naturally into a trance and I found this to be an awesome ‘way of being’, but I told myself this is was my private experience which I could enjoy only in secret while I also had to go and live in the ‘real world’.
When I was seventeen, I did my first course in Reiki (a Japanese energy healing technique). My thinking had been hardened by then – trained and entrained by rigorous scientific and mathematical ‘thinking’. But ‘Reiki’ was Reiki! Pure Life Force Energy in flow, and it found ways to flow through and amidst all that hardened intellect. I am hugely grateful for the energetic attunements by my Reiki teacher at that point – because that was the beginning of my two separated worlds coming back to dance in oneness. However, most of the time during my Reiki class, I was part of the sceptic group (in public). I had a few school friends doing the class with me and we would talk and analyze and critique the teacher. I remember going into the attunement sessions wondering if it was some superstitious pagan ritual meant to make the teacher appear more powerful than us. I had a thousand intellectual doubts, and I was also very afraid of being cheated, controlled, or manipulated. Yet, the Reiki flowed – independent of my apprehensions and misgivings, independent of my judgements of the teacher, independent of my judgements of Reiki even – for Reiki was Reiki! Pure Life Force Energy in Motion.
I was introduced to the ‘Reiki’ Modality as a healing modality, and like a ‘good student’ I used it only as a healing modality for the next several years – that too sparingly. I now giggle and wonder at my own naivety – why did I confine my ‘Reiki’ tools as something that would be pulled out only when there was a physical ache or pain to be addressed. I could have used the Reiki tools for so much more. I could have experimented so much more. But hey, our brains work by creating ‘models’ of everything and then processing experiences and capabilities and resources in the context of those models. So for me Reiki had been introduced as a ‘Method of Healing’, and as a seventeen year old I thought that only the physical body needed healing and so I used ‘Reiki’ for just that.
The second point that might have limited my usage of the Reiki tools was that I was harbouring a lot of fears and apprehensions about Reiki at that time – some my own, and some those of people around me. I was living in a small town of Jamshedpur (where if you picked any two people at random they could quickly identify a third person that they knew in common). Our town had gone through a huge ‘shock’ a few years earlier because of a fire accident that had claimed many lives and injured and scarred several others, – including me and my sister. The Reiki modality came to Jamshedpur at a time when the city was still recovering from this brutal experience. My Reiki teacher himself was someone who had lost his own wife and child tragically during the fire accident. As more people started attending reiki classes and experimenting with the techniques, stories started circulating around about seemingly miraculous healings and recoveries. As the stories of the miracles got more and more attention, the related conversations of scepticism and judgment also grew in number and intensity. The colony I was living in almost seemed to be divided into three camps. The believers, the non-believers, and those who believed in energy healing but had views and judgments on the way it was being taught and propagated. I was in all three camps, changing my views and stance depending on who I was interacting with.
After Reiki, I went on to learn and experiment with several mind-body-energy practices – some of which are parts of established schools with large followings, and others which are lesser known but taught by individual teachers. Some of the well known practices I experimented with and learnt from include Patanjali Yoga, Self Hypnosis, Astral Projection, Sudarshan Kriya, Guided Visualizations, Chakra Meditation, Homeopathy, Bach Flower Remedies, Tonal Healing, Angel Therapy, Vipassana, Mindfulness, Past Life Regression, EFT, Pranic Healing, and Access Consciousness (the last of which is the modality I am playing with most at present). Now you might want to ask me, why on earth would I want to try out such a large number of modalities? A short answer to that question will follow later in the post, but it also merits a longer answer that will probably form the content of a future essay.
I do not claim to be any sort of expert on energy practices. However, over twenty years of non-sheddable fascination and relentless experimentation have led to a few personal takeaways for me. This post is about those takeaways and please do read them as my personal takeaways – not generic statements. Each of our learnings and experiences is unique to ourselves, and I am only sharing my own learnings here.
1) Learning and Experience go Hand in Hand
Physics was always one of my most favourite subjects. Possibly the one subject of study that could take me into a flow state even while engaging with with and through the intellect. I remember my initial excitement on reading about the rectilinear propagation of light and then experimenting with every source of light and object I could find for the next several days and nights to actually actually test that light (unlike us and other things that move) does mostly move in absolutely straight lines. Later lessons in reflection, refraction, and diffraction were to only take me into even higher echelons of awe and wonder. I guess one of the things I loved about physics was that it was very ‘here and now’ for me. Be it sound, light, floatation, gravity, wind, steam, flowing water or movement of wheels – these were all the engagements and fascinations of everyday life. Every new bit of learning from my physics lessons would sharpen my understanding and appreciation of these everyday subjects and empower me to play and engage with them with heightened awareness.
Physics was awesome fun but when I came to quantum physics I had my first real fight with my physics textbooks. “What are you trying to tell me here?”, I would scream in frustration and make faces at the uncooperative formulae that refused to let me in on their game. Eventually, I gave up and in the interest of passing my exams I decided to just agree with the textbooks that light could be both particle and wave at the same time. I cast my vote in blind support of string theory, and the idea of E=M*C^2, not because I agreed but because there was only one ruling party to vote for. I made a secret pact with Heisenberg that I would memorize his theory verbatim but at some point in my life he would have to come in my dreams and make me understand how an observer can influence the observed.
I don’t know if Heisenberg actually orchestrated my future experiences with energy, or if I myself did it but I have finally come to a place where my learning and experiences are dancing in sync once again. When I sit and meditate in sunlight I am able to simultaneously perceive light as (1) particles of sunlight that enter the spaces between the molecules of my body, and (2) a transmission of wave frequencies that are picked up by receivers built into my cells. I know from personal experience how the observer does indeed influence the observed, and more often than not I experience nature and life as an ongoing and dynamic exchange between matter and energy. In fact, in the world of energy quantum superpositions actually are more of a reality than the Schrodinger’s cat is likely to have us believe.
2) Understanding Something need not mean you are using it Effectively
This is almost a corollary of the previous point which is that learning by itself is not very useful unless it is translated consciously into experience. I am going to use a very simple analogy here. Most of us understand a bit about nutrition and that different foods have different qualities and this impacts our well being. For example, most nutritionists would agree that spinach has iron and vitamins and enzymes that most bodies can benefit from. Yet, just having this knowledge does not mean that everybody who knows it is making use of Spinach in the same way and allowing it to contribute to their health and bodies as much as spinach has the potential to. Spinach is just one example here, you can substitute anything else like sleep, water, rest etc. where you cognitively understand that something can help you but don’t necessarily use it in a way that it really helps you as much as it can.
My own experience with the energy practices has been similar. Even though I was learning various healing modalities and testing and experimenting with them the benefit I received from them and the healing I experienced at each stage has been limited by (a) my ability to trust the tools and put them to use (b) my willingness to actually receive the change or healing that is possible with each tool.
This might seem like a trivial point I am making but I really think that it is a very important point. I have met many people who are skeptical about the potency of energy healing modalities and they ask questions like, ‘If one can shift physical conditions by shifting energy then why does xyz still have this problem, or why do you still have problems?’. While energy shifts are usually much faster than changes in solid matter (and so energy healing might appear to be a miracle) it is in actuality just a conscious and intended energy pattern change being set in motion by the healer. Because of this, just like any other modality of change, energy practices also need time and repeated effort (depending on the stickiness of the old pattern that one is trying to change), and willingness on the part of the patient to co-create that change. Further, there are a whole lot of other variables in play that might not be under control of the healer (or might not be something that is even capable of being addressed through that particular modality). However, the presence of other uncontrollable factors is not by itself (in my opinion) a good enough reason to not use energy practices for healing. Even in more conventional healing (allopathy for example), change and recovery is not ever guaranteed. All healing at the end of the day is only about facilitating the body (or mind) to heal itself (if the person concerned wants to and is willing to heal that particular condition).
3) No Absolute Rights and Wrongs – Even in Healing
This is possibly my greatest learning so far but it is also going to be the most difficult to express. Even as I am typing this there is a voice in my head that is saying, “Why even bother to explain something as nuanced as this. Just delete this point an
d move on the the next one.” Yet, I am going to try. I know each person reading this will interpret this in their own way, and it is possible that some of those interpretations might not be what I intend to communicate and yet I am going to write this point.
When I first learnt Reiki, I was very unwilling to use the tools on anyone else. Even with myself I was timid and restrained in how much I was willing to ask and allow the energy flow through me and create change in my body. My greatest fear was, ‘what if I do something wrong’? I carried this half baked reluctance and fear into other modalities as well in the years to come – I was afraid that I would mess things up for me or for others. Because of this my own experience with healing incidents mostly belonged to a particular category. They were times when there was an emergency, or a crisis, and somehow I would leave my thoughts behind and just surrender with a helping intention. At these times I could heal both myself and others and I have experienced some amazing turnarounds in front of my very eyes. At most other times I have been more worried of doing something wrong, rather than trusting that I could do some good. Therefore I have mostly chosen to just let things be – leaving it to nature (as I would rationalize in my mind), and in doing so sometimes even separate myself and my own free will from nature itself.
There was a time in my life when I had chosen to not practice any energy modality and I chose to rely on prayer alone – so convinced was I that I would only mess things up further if I intervened in any condition. Adding to the fear that I might worsen someone’s condition instead of helping them was my own experience that healing often happens in layers and that catharsis is often a part of recovery. This is something I was willing to put myself through (and sometimes did), but I did not want to do it with anyone else. During the stage of catharsis and letting-go it can often seem like the condition is worsening. I could not decide if this temporary (but often worse off) condition was something I would want to put others through. Secretly, I was also very very afraid of being blamed for an apparent worsening of somebody’s condition.
Sandwiched between my fears and my philosophy I almost never practiced any healing modality on anyone other than myself. Exceptions to this have been first aid treatments during treks and other emergencies when there is no access to conventional medical help. Some other exceptions have been my son, my mother, and close family members (that too once in a while) – and at these times what I have done has mostly been done only to create immediate relief. Once the condition is bearable I leave them to themselves.
Even today, I do not have a firm stance with regard to one person ‘healing’ or facilitating ‘healing’ for another. Given my lack of firm stance, coupled with my strong leaning towards ‘free-will’, and my super strong belief in an absolutely benevolent universe I am more prone to letting things be unless I feel a strong inner urge to intervene somewhere.
4) ‘Magic’ is actually Just Another Label
When I was a kid, the word ‘Magic’ used to turn me on like nothing else. The frameworks of this reality were far too rudimentary for me to make sense of my own experiences and so whenever I heard the word Magic I used to gravitate towards that possibility. It felt like everything that could not be explained by the words that this reality was using had just been lumped under the umbrella term ‘magic’. I still like the word ‘magic’ and I use it often. To me it represents everything which we have not yet created theories to test scientifically and language to express coherently.
Last week however, I had a wake-up moment with regard to the word magic. While chatting with my nine year old son I realized that the way he had understood the word ‘Magic’ was as perception tricks that entertainers on stage use to impress and amuse their audience. Indeed he does have an amateur ‘magic trick set’, and he has done a couple of magic shows for friends and family. The wakeup moment for me came when he looked at me with his quizzical eyes and said, “But mummy, magic is not real”. My son is very logical and in most of our conversations his logical prowess usually beats mine. I realized in moment that indeed, Magic could not also be Real. ‘Magic’ and ‘Real’ are both words that we have coined as a society and usually we use the word Magic to denote something that is not Real! So what is the Magic that I have been believing in all these years?
The first time I could consciously direct the flow of Reiki energy it felt like magic. Now it feels like a way of living. The first time I felt particularities in another person’s aura and had another person in my pranic healing class validate that independently, it felt like magic. In the advanced pranic healing classes, this is taken for granted. The first time I healed my mother’s knee pain and she walked back in ease to the car it felt like magic to her. Now she does her own energy healings. The first time I did a past life regression for a particular issue and got clarity on it, it felt like magic. Now it just feels like insights from a handbook of my own personal history. So what is Magic?
The truth is that because energy is mostly invisible, non-audible, and non-feelable unless one practices feeling it, it often gets labelled as magic. If energy healing is magic, then so is electricity, and so is radiation, and so are the musical notes that weave their way to our homes through radio transmissions. Also since energy moves very fast, changing an energetic pattern can often be much faster than changing the physical form associated with that pattern. Just because of it’s speed of influence energy modalities sometimes feel like non-real and therefore we call it Magic.
My most recent learning therefore is that Magic, is also just a label and at the end of the day just a word. As a word, it turns some people on – it makes them dream, hope, light, buoyant and playful. As a word, it turns some people off – it makes them sceptical and judgemental and closes their minds and bodies from experiencing anything further. If you have read about or known witches and healers being burnt at the stakes the word Magic might also make you fearful and put your defence barriers up. Why not look beyond the word then, and see how you can directly engage with energy without any labels of it being ‘real’ or it being ‘magic’?
5) Not Following any particular path can also be ‘The Path’ for some people
This last takeaway is also the one closest to my heart because if it were not for this takeaway, I would not even had had the courage to write a post like this. For years together my default stance used to be that there was ‘something wrong with me’. So deeply was this belief rooted that it was the basic lens through which I made sense of most of my learnings and experiences. I was always on the lookout for how I could fix my own wrongness, and then when I could not fix it I would make myself wrong again. Not only would I make myself wrong, but I would also make wrong my own search, the very desire to search, the experiments, the classes, the learnings and my lack of being able to find an answer to correct that ‘wrongness’. Endless loop right?
I also had someone very close in my life who continuously made fun of my search and constant experimentation and he used to mock me for moving from one modality to another. I was called shallow, restless, impatient, fickle, and dissatisfied. I was blamed for not being diligent enough to stick to any one path and devote myself to it.
In all earnestness, I did try to stick to one path – and usually I followed one path at a time – until I heard about another modality and that would arouse my curiosity further. I also joined some spiritual groups along the way and in each group I tried to completely surrender to the Guru in charge. Sometimes I even felt like I had surrendered to a Guru, but then life would come dancing along in her varied hues and colours and my chosen path would feel like a one dimensional highway in a rich and multidimensional field. Enchanted I would leave the highway and wander into the grass-fields to experience and discover more.
These days I am playing with the tools of a modality called access consciousness. One of the basic tenets in access is to break free of all kinds of judgement and instead ask questions. One of the questions that created a huge shift for me was to ask ‘What’s right about me that I’m not getting’. I cannot explain the huge energetic relief I felt when an access facilitator first asked me another powerful question, “What if what you think is your wrongness is actually your strongness?”
Maybe because I have not stuck to any one path I am not yet enlightened or I am not a professional healer – but I am what I am. By the sheer number of hours spent in experimenting with energy and due to the sheer number of modalities I have learnt, tried and practiced, what I have become by default is a researcher in the space of Energy Modalities. And that’s been quite a fun journey for me.
If you are also someone who has been playing with energy then I would love to hear back from you about your own experiences. If you have not consciously experimented with energy so far consider this an invitation to explore life through more dimensions than you have programmed your mind to accept and process. You most probably were doing it as a kid before you started conditioning your mind to think through things. Jump into it without any fear and judgment (like you did as a child) and you will find that rather than being like an alien experience it feels more like actually coming home.