Tuesday, December 18, 2012

India, Don't Let This Moment Pass!

We saw it happen. Tunisia overthrowing its incompetent government. The Egyptian revolution ousting its dictator. Ireland's abortion laws coming around. The US considering congressional action on gun control. It's your turn, India. You hold the power! People power! You can do it too. CHANGE! Here's what I'm talking about:

Brutal crimes against women are occurring in India, the land of goddesses, at an unprecedented rate. The reality of rape, acid throwing, forced prostitution, trafficking of girls, female infanticide, honor killing and caste related violence is fast becoming common place. The most recent atrocity took place in December 2012 in India's capital city of New Delhi, where a young medical student was gang-raped and beaten on a public bus, and then dumped from the moving bus! The brave young woman clung on to precious life for as long as she could, and later succumbed to her injuries. The alleged perpetrators (the list includes the bus driver) await their fate, which in the past has meant one of two things: light sentences for the "unlucky" ones, and bribing their way out of an endemically-corrupt criminal system for the "lucky and connected." 

National and international outrage for the incident has poured in through social media channels and blogging outlets. Newspapers and magazines have had livid discussions about instituting tougher laws. In an effort to honor the victim, various women's groups and civil liberty groups have organized protest marches and candlelight vigils. Members of both the upper and lower houses of the Indian Parliament have stepped out and vocalized their fury and concern. The display of anger, outrage and support is legitimate, timely, and a much needed validation for the victim. But does it translate to anything meaningful? Into effective action? Or does it simply fade into the shadows until the next heinous assault and outrage?

Historically and culturally, India is the land of Parvathi, Kali, Saraswathi and Lakshmi -- the cosmic bestowers of fertility, strength, knowledge and spirituality. Mothers, sisters and daughters were worshiped for their life-sustaining attributes. Female power was meant to be revered. Hinduism, the religion practiced by nearly a billion Indians, regards God as half man, half woman or "Ardhanareshwar," which symbolizes the integration of the male and female energies to create a perfect, harmonious balance in the universe. If anything, women are supposed to enjoy equal status. That's how the ancients had structured society -- with equal rights. In the past, many queens like Jhansi Rani Laxmibai and Razia Sultan effectively wielded imperial power. Women poets and saints like Meerabai and Akka Mahadevi contributed significantly towards enriching the cultural landscape. In recent times, India elected a woman prime minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, as its Premier, and appointed a woman president, Mrs. Pratibha Patil. Indian women have made, and continue to make, great strides in education, arts and entertainment, sports and literature. 

Yet, today's India has become an anti-female society that is constantly under siege by a young male population prone to violence. Owing to its ingrained sense of superiority and privilege that is promoted by its own society through preference for the male child, these young men, in extreme cases, feel the need to act out their masculinity. We know that most crimes against women, especially rapes, are not about sex, but rather about a demonstration of control and power. So, how do we put fixes in place? Where do we begin? Especially in light of current events, how can India act so that monstrosities against women are curtailed? Granted, bad elements cannot be wiped from society, but surely fixes can be put in place to discourage such behaviors and mitigate their effects? The freedom to go outside without risking harassment and physical violence is a fundamental human right, and protecting its people is a core government function!

During my childhood years, I have been a victim, numerous times, of groping, eve-teasing, touching, and elbowing in India while using public transportation, and in a few instances, by adult men I knew :( My impressionable mind at the time believed that it was my fault, that there was something wrong with me, that I brought it upon myself!! I remember many of these incidents vividly, like it happened yesterday. The memory of such incidents is very traumatic on the victim, to say the least, and further, a potential double whammy because the victim risks being victimized again by society if she chooses to vocalize it. Luckily for me, I had a very supportive family and was able to emerge from it unscathed. Others don't necessarily have that advantage. Women shouldn't have to continue putting up with such brutalities for eternity. We shouldn't have to surrender our pride, honor, and dignity to satisfy the fantasies of perverted individuals out there. We shouldn't have to continue waging this war alone.Enough Already!

In many ways, the New Delhi incident has pioneered a path for ushering change. In my opinion, it calls for a systemic change, a paradigm shift in the way leaders steer a nation, in the way communities raise awareness of social issues, and in the way families guide their children. I believe the encompassing plan should treat not just the symptoms, but also strike at the heart of the disease.
Change can only take place through combined ACTION. We have to address the issues at all levels -- personal, societal, governmental and global levels -- to find workable solutions. Change should be gradual, holistic, system-wide, sustainable, and ideally should include appropriate checks, balances and upgrades in place at every tier. Else, any change is ineffective.  

Nobody is saying it's going to be easy for India or any nation to change its ways. All great journeys begin with the first step. In this case, a step long overdue. Rise to the occasion, India! The time to act is NOW. It's time to defend and protect your mothers, sisters and daughters. Take care of your women, India, 'cause they are the ones who take care of both your young and old. They are the ones who will fashion your future leaders. Elevate your consciousness above the roar of what corrupt politicians have to say and what archaic beliefs have to offer. India, don't let this moment pass! 

At the very minimum, the following measures should be considered. This proposed list may or may not be viable. I'm hardly a law or national policy expert. To me, being outraged, frustrated or angry isn't enough. Emotions are meaningless if they don't birth anything of value. In my experience, awareness and education play a critical role in the transition from frustration to action, beginning in the home, in schools, at the workplace, everywhere really.

-improve safety and security for women, in general, and especially in the workplace
-provide free counseling resources for women
-provide/enhance post-trauma care for women
-organize educational initiatives aimed at weeding out social stigma
-encourage women to carry protective aids such as pepper spray -tighten security on public transportation and in all public areas
-increase police patrolling in public areas
-rightfully implement existing laws
-make the punishment fit the crime
-expedite the criminal investigation process
-increase funding for crime analysis and prosecution
-train the police force appropriately and adequately
-organize awareness campaigns at local schools and colleges as an ongoing strategy
-organize awareness campaigns for taxi drivers, rikshaw drivers, bus drivers, and all public transportation officials. Make it a crime for them to be passive witnesses.
-for those drivers who aid/abet criminals, strip them of their permits/licenses. Also, threaten them with fines and jail time.
-establish emergency hotline services in every school, university, and public area nationwide

Clearly, these measures are not enough. Much more needs to happen on community and cultural levels to transform ideologies stemming from outdated societal practices and the values we teach our young. As more and more women enter the workforce, it's imperative that we educate our sons on the value of equality for all. 

Let's not sit still or waste a moment. Let's rise to the occasion, take a stand, and scream until our voices are heard. Let's go sign a petition for change, organize a rally, launch a campaign, make a personal change, or take a pledge. Let's galvanize supporters through peaceful and positive means. Let's keep up the pressure on our leaders and politicians for common-sense change. I, for one, have signed petitions and taken pledges for issues in which I believe. I have, and continue to, volunteer for causes to which I subscribe. The flames of awareness hiss and flare on my blog. Perhaps, more importantly, I have taken personal responsibility to raise my two young boys -- our future agents of change -- with the appropriate ethics and values so they can march forward as positive, contributing citizens of the world.

I can't say with certainty whether these measures will work. But I'm sure glad to have taken the first step -- a step forward in making this world a little safer for me, my mother, my aunts, my sisters and my daughters.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Toltec Agreement 1: Be Impeccable with Your Word

Read Toltec Agreement 2: Don't Take Anything Personally

Read Toltec Agreement 3: Don't Make Assumptions

"The Four Agreements" by Don Miguel Ruiz, released in 1997, has sold and continues to sell millions of copies worldwide. Derived from the wisdom of the Toltecs -- the ancient, native people of southern Mexico -- the four agreements provide a template for enhancing human behavior, interpersonal communication, and relationships. One reason this captivating little book has traveled so far is that these themes resonate so deeply with people at a personal level. 

Not unlike the venerable Thich Nhat Hahn's Four Mantras for Relationship Success, the Toltec four agreements pack quite a punch in delivering the triumphs of personal empowerment. Here are the four agreements:
1. Be impeccable with your word. 
2. Don't take anything personally.
3. Don't make assumptions.
4. Always do your best.
This post -- the first in a series of four -- is not a book review, but rather an evaluation of the Toltec wisdom within my own emotional and spiritual framework.

Toltec Agreement 1. Be impeccable with Your Word.

Words! Words are everywhere these days -- in books, texting, email, social media, advertising. There's also the original source of words: the human mouth, and it's thunderous as ever! Words have power. They can change lives. Words can be fired off as destructive missiles and words can be swallowed as healing capsules. Words can ignite minds and stifle lives. Words can be both empowering and draining, nourishing and noxious, liberating and entrapping.

In the midst of this word noise, how can we equip ourselves to make the right choices? Where words shape relationships and character, how do we discern between wholesome and unwholesome speech? Especially in the digital era, how can we use words to promote a happier, more emotionally plugged-in society?

Most of us know that speech comprising lying, exaggeration, sarcasm, blame, pretense, denial, defensiveness, abuse, and idle chatter is unskillful, unwholesome, and negative in nature. Yet it doesn't stop us from engaging in trash talk or constantly judging others. Why? Because it's fun. It's easy. It makes us feel in command. Makes us feel better about ourselves. Wanted, perhaps? And, ironically, it helps us feel secure from others' ridicule and judgment. Being social creatures, humans have an inherent need to belong, to feel accepted, even validated. Consequently, we make agreements with ourselves, agreements that manifest as unwholesome words, actions and behaviors on the external plane. Words serve as a perfect veil, the shield that obscures from the outside world our inner mesh of unease, anxiety, deficiencies, dissatisfaction, insecurities, and incompleteness.

No matter how we rationalize it, and whether we're willing to acknowledge it or not, negative speech creates tension in the body, agitation in the mind, and remorse in the heart. Tabloid headliners and biased-media outlets are examples of how negative speech can fan the flames of passion, ignorance, hatred and violence on a large, global level. Using language that thwarts our aesthetic and spiritual sensitivities and disrupts social cohesion is counter-intuitive, a step backwards on the road to personal empowerment, a turning of the community clock back to medieval times. 

Right speech is one that is positive in nature and embodies both present and futuristic qualities. "Right Speech" is an essential part of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha said that wholesome speech creates and promotes warmth, gratitude and harmony, and enhances love, kindness, compassion and empathy. Imagine a world in which we would allow judgment to pause, restrain our sense of impulsiveness, accept personal responsibility, and open up to others' points of view. Imagine, from the home-front to the workplace, the wonders a little empathy and sincerity could do for relationships.

Right speech is about practicing mindfulness, i.e., developing greater awareness of body, mind, emotions and inner guidance. Mindfulness can help us tune in to our inner environment, allowing us to step out of our shadow. Mindfulness can awaken us to the preciousness of words and guide us through the process of choosing the suitable formulation and delivery of words, at the appropriate time and place. Mindfulness can help us contract our ego and align with who we are on the inside. Slowly but surely, as we continue to transcend the worldly egoic conditioning, the emotional walls begin to crumble and the social masks begin to dissolve. When stripped down to the basics, we become better equipped to honor and appreciate human life and relationships for what they are. Nurturing our authentic selves promotes our personal well being, for sure, but also has the power to inspire a widening circle of happiness and contentment in the society at large.

Some specific strategies that can help inspire right speech:
-Attend a life-transforming vipassana meditation (mindfulness) retreat at www.dhamma.org
-Make this your mantra: Respond; don't react
-Don't take things personally
-Become aware of destructive feelings and emotions as they arise
-Breathe when you feel the urge to lash out
-Laugh when you feel the urge to be right
-Don't sweat the small stuff
-Only speak when it's your turn
-Take a moment to consider the impact of your words
-Refrain from making assumptions
-Don't let the past color your thoughts (and words)
-Listen with compassion, without creating conflict
-Focus on the behavior, not the individual
-Focus on the big picture