This post is inspired by my eighty seven year old Grandfather. We visited him yesterday and found him sitting at his computer with several books open around him (some of them looked like they had his pencilled notes from yester-years) and he was diligently typing on his blog. Age and illnesses have made his body frail and weak but the writer in him is alive and thriving! Thatha, you are a real inspiration – as a person, as a poet, and as a writer and this blog post (my first post in prose) is dedicated to you!
I have always loved travelling, especially to places where nature is relatively undisturbed by human civilisation. However, for some weird masochistic reason (that perhaps only my subconscious knows) I have kept myself from travelling as much as I would like. For a good ten year period in my life I was telling myself that I was supposed to find ways to be happy wherever I was and therefore travel was a superficial requirement of the ego. I turned to meditation instead and I started exploring inner terrains. I have nothing against meditation (and indeed today my meditation practice forms the backbone of my very existence), but somehow the desire to explore outer terrains has not died.
For the last 6 months or so I had been feeling increasingly restless (as you would have guessed I had not travelled). It reached a point where I decided no matter what I would just take off, even if it were for a very short trip, and even if the itinerary of the trip did not seem perfect from my planning point of view. I read about a weekend trip to Castle rock/Dudhsagar, and when a colleague of mine showed enthusiasm about going for it I decided to just go for it with her. Frankly if it were not for her egging on, I would have put this trip also aside like I have done with many others in the past. I would have convinced myself that there were far too many ‘important’ things going on in my life for me to take time out for this trip. I would have taken a spiritually superior stance and chided myself for ‘needing’ material outings and tried to transmute my ‘need for travel’ through meditation. I would have worn the ‘sacrificial hat’ and replayed the ‘good mother’ and ‘good wife’ scripts in my head and suppressed my wish to travel, justifying it by saying that my family needed my presence and care. Fortunately, I did neither of these and I joined my colleague on the trip!
When I got back from the trip my mother asked me, ‘Do you feel recharged’?. My mother knows me better than almost anyone else on the planet (except perhaps my husband), and this was a very apt question. A key effect of such trips is indeed recharging (although this makes me feel a bit like an electronic device that has a particular function and the trip is just an excuse to charge me up with enough power to execute this other function). However, as I thought about this question I realized that the trip has meant much more to me other than just recharging or distressing. I learnt so many things (about myself, about life, and about existence) that the trip was an educational ‘course’ in itself. I feel so much more connected to who I am, to my higher soul, and to my fellow human beings and the planet that the trip was also a ‘spiritual retreat’. The kinaesthetically challenging activity, the interaction with strangers, the alert presence necessitated by new places and natural terrains has allowed me to spend two days outside the usual frames of reference and mental models that drive my thinking. This trip has (in short) been a wonderful vacation from the rants of my repetitive mind!
In the spirit of a management professor I am going to try and capture my three main ‘takeaways’ or learnings from the trip.
1. Freedom from Choices
There was a time during the trek when I was feeling quite physically tired. The sun was beating down hard, my feet were sore and aching, and there was no space on either side of the railway tracks (which we were trekking on) and so we only had to walk on the tracks themselves. There was no shortcut possible and there was no way of pacing my footing in a different way. I had to step on the wooden planks (or so I thought at that time) and they were already placed at specific places. There was no option of stopping because we were behind schedule (we had to catch a specific train at a specific time from a specific place). As I walked on at the only default pace that I could walk in (at that time) I noticed that a part of me was feeling light inside.
I felt unburdened by the lack of choices and options I had. I knew I had to walk, and walk at a particular pace and that was all. Rather than feeling bound or constrained by the constraints of the situation I felt like I was free from having to make choices. Since I had framed the situation as one in which I did not have to make choices my task felt uncomplicated and simple. I felt no burden of making ‘right decisions’ or ‘strategizing to become more efficient in what I was doing’. I just walked, and walked and walked and felt comforted in the knowing that I was doing what I could do best given the very tight constraints of the situation. Later in the trek I would realize that I had more choices than I thought I had but at this point I was blissfully unaware of the choices I had and so I was feeling content and light to be just doing the one thing I thought I could do in the situation.
This experience makes me understand better something that has puzzled me in the context of the choices that working women make and the complex feelings we have about it. I have seen that most women in my grandmothers generation and my great-grandmothers generation did not feel a conflict or unrest about devoting their time and attention solely to their role as a homemaker. They were probably in the space that I described above where in their own heads the choice or option of doing something other than being a homemaker did not exist. This helped them function with a sense of lightness within the apparent constraints of the context they found themselves in. In my mother’s generation however, more and more women started noting that there were choices and options beyond just being a homemaker. Once we know that there are choices to be made then this knowing itself brings with it potential for discontent, frustration, regret and guilt. I truly do not know if I’d rather choose a world of blissful unknowing or one of knowing and discontent. However I do know that knowing and unknowing both come with their blessings and that most of us operate in both these zones in various aspects of our lives.
2. Freedom to Experiment
This point is a natural continuation of the previous one. For the first part of the trek I walked with the assumption that there was only one way for me to walk on the tracks (given my levels of shoe comfort, balance, confidence etc). We walked through tunnels (using torches) and we walked in daylight (walking a total of 14 Km), but I always walked similarly in both places. I kept my eyes on the wooden planks, meticulously focussing on where to place my feet. My pace was slow, measured, and forced even (because the distance between the planks was not aligned with my natural pace of walking.
Once however when we were in the tunnel a co-trekker mentioned to those of us who were walking on the planks that we should try to look up and stop looking our feet. He asked us to trust and believe that our body (and mind) would know where to place our feet. I started protesting – ‘what if I slip?’; ‘what if I place my feet on a sharp or big gravel and stumble?’ etc. However we decided to experiment with this new way of walking (of letting our feet fall wherever they would), but with the added safety of holding hands and forming chains of two or three people walking alongside. Our assumption was that if we were in chains then even if one person fell or stumbled because of placing a foot on an uneven stone or slippery track the other person(s) would be able to stabilize this person.
As we tried this new way of walking we soon discovered that it was quite magical. We could walk with our heads held high, savouring the lovely scenery and without having to focus on the spacing of the tracks. We discovered we could walk much faster (about double the pace), but more importantly we discovered we could walk fearlessly. Even the person who was walking without looking down (but walking solo) and had motivated us to trust our body intuition and walk, realized that the ‘chain strategy’ helped him walk faster. This person incidentally was a stunt biker and he probably had no ‘fear of falling down’ like the rest of us had. However, even for him the chain walking strategy helped him walk faster because of the sheer balancing effect provided by the co-walker. I was ecstatic for the rest of the ‘track-walking’ experience. We literally flew over the tracks and overtook other trekking groups who had set out far before us and I felt like we had truly ‘innovated’ in a space that I thought was bound by constraints.
While the sheer exhilaration of experimentation and innovation is a reward in itself this experiment held another very precious gift for me. This gift is a reframing in the way I look at the institutions of marriage, companionship, and friendship. For a long time I used to jest with my friends that marriage is like a ‘three-legged-race’. I used to joke that one would obviously move more slowly and clumsily when we are bound to another person and we have to coordinate ourselves to walk or run together. I used to compare the pace of a ‘three-legged-race’ to that of a hundred meter sprint and argue that there is no way that we are not compromising on speed and effectiveness when we choose to walk our journey with a companion. This experience of ‘chain-walking’ on railway tracks (you must try it to see know it’s potency) however made me re-look at the frame through which I had seen my earlier metaphor of a three-legged race.
We usually run the three-legged race or 100 meter sprints in a stadium, in a sports ground or some other form of flat terrain. What if the terrains of our lives are more like railway tracks and less like flat open ground? Would that not change things quite a bit? Would the same experience of choosing to be ‘bound to another’ now appear as a blessing and an enabler rather than as a constraint. Have I been missing out in noting that walking with another literally gives me the freedom to stumble, miss a step, miss a stone, and yet know that I will be held and kept in balance because of my connection to my companion. Is this not a ‘bond’ that frees me up to walk faster and to walk with my head held high so I can savour life’s beauties instead of having to minutely concentrate on my steps to make make sure I do not fall.
3. Freedom from Identity
Sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed by my own identity. True, I do not see my identity as something that is fixed or determined from the outside. It is true that I do take time out to ‘craft it consciously’ every now and then. It is also true that most of the time I do not see my identity as an accurate or ultimate representation of who I am. Yet, despite the detachment with which I wear my identity, and despite the playfulness with which I relate to it, it can get overwhelming at times. I know I am far more than the roles I play, the work I do, and the thoughts and emotions I harbour, and yet all of these together can make me start feeling like they collectively determine who I am. So for this trip I decided to take a vacation from my own identity.
I let my colleague in on the plan (in fact the idea itself was triggered by something she had said) and I decided to not divulge anything about my past or my identity (except my first name) to the others in the group we were travelling with. At first they found it strange but when I told them I was on vacation from my identity they seemed to catch the spirit of it. Eventually I did land up disclosing more to the group but this happened only at the end of the first day. Till then I basked in the anonymous space I had created for myself. I interacted with everyone but I found myself being, speaking, and acting from a place that was no longer constrained to stay aligned with specific features of my identity. I did not have to stop and question myself to check if my words and actions were representative of who I believed I was. I could just be and allow whatever it was that was wanting to emerge in each particular moment, emerge spontaneously.
I noticed that this vacation from my identity worked it’s way from my outer world into my inner world as well. It reminds me of the song from the play/movie ‘The king and I’. “Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect, and whistle a happy tune….”. In that song the protagonist actually changes her behaviour and the change in that behaviour lands up changing her inner feelings and stance as well. So, while I did not predict that this would happen, what I noticed was that in taking a vacation from my identity I was able to see and experience the events and occurrences around me with relatively less interference from my own past conditioning. For example I do not usually like long road journeys but since I was not being ‘me’ I felt free to actually see if I could enjoy the road travel – and I did!
This experience has been very powerful for me. While I am not someone who ‘hates who she is’, I totally and thoroughly enjoyed taking a break from the idea and image of ‘who I think I am’. I felt wonderful to not have to introduce myself to people by listing my profession, my previous work experience, my educational degrees (somehow the questions always lead there), my age, my family status, and my mother tongue. I felt liberated to just portray myself as I appeared in that moment and allow the group to draw their own inferences and images about who I was. I felt like I was more than all the ‘images’ in my own head and in the heads of others. I felt free to operate out of an ocean of consciousness and instinct that was undefined and unknown (even to me).
I felt free to relate to other people (co-travellers, strangers we met, and nature) in a way that came spontaneously to me. I felt a lesser need to ‘police’ my thoughts and actions so they would fit in with with an image I had of myself. I felt free to savour experiences that I might otherwise (when operating from my usual efficiency mindset) have dismissed as ‘useless’ or ‘unworthy’. I found myself spontaneously dropping labels of ‘painful’ and ‘beautiful’ (since these labels are also largely driven by my past), and just being present more and more with what was in front of me. Incidentally, I have been working quite hard during through my meditation practices to try and drop labels of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and experiencing things as they are. While Meditation has definitely helped me make gradual progress on this, I was surprised by the spontaneity with which my labelling tendencies dropped when I decided to take a vacation from my own identity.
Note: All photo credits go to Mohit Mansharamani.