Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

Someone once asked me, "I'm such a good person. Why do bad things happen to me?"

Imagine that you're driving in a shiny new car when you unexpectedly hit a patch of slush on the roadside. The next thing you know, your car begins to hydroplane. Your blood freezes in your heart. The splashing mud and dirt creates abstract art all over your car. Your visibility is hindered and you are in imminent danger of losing control.

What are you going to do? Are you going to obsessively worry about your brand new car now dunked in dirt?

No! You first steel yourself with a deep breath, continue keeping your hands steady on the wheel, and when safe, put steady pressure on the pedal to maneuver your car out of the slush.

Then you drive to the car wash.

Let's face it. "Bad" and unexpected, unpleasant, unwanted things happen in real life. I believe that one of the primary reasons bad things happen is so that we can learn from them. Unpleasant incidents and relationships offer invaluable teachable moments. Drawing from the above hydroplaning example, the experience was likely out of the ordinary and scary, but on the positive, you picked up a life-saving skill.

More often than not, bad things happen so that we can take a second look at our lives and innovate ourselves. We see the outside world with our physical eyes, but have we taken a moment to glance in, within ourselves, to uncover our authentic selves? We hear all the outside sounds, but do we also hear our inner voice, our dreams, our passions? Are our inner dreams and passions guiding our external actions and behaviors? Are any old belief systems holding us back from achieving our best?

A bad experience is simply an opportunity to jam the brakes and perform a mental audit to understand what needs to change and how to change it. It's an opportunity to shatter the proverbial "boxed in" thinking so that we can find alternate solutions to problems with which we wrestle.

One of humankind's favorite pastimes is wallowing in self-pity. We allow ourselves, all too frequently, to get caught up in storms of anger, jealousy, greed and fear. The fog of negative thought constantly stirs toxins into circulation, disengaging us from our inner core. A bad experience pushes us to ask hard questions of ourselves: Are negative thoughts, emotions and people holding me hostage? Am I really a victim or am I playing victim to justify my bad behaviors? Am I undermining my strengths? A bad experience is an opportunity to let go of toxic emotions and leap into the orbit of positive thinking.

A bad experience also serves as a gratitude developing tool. It's okay to question if we're being realistic about our expectations of ourselves and of others. It's always a good idea to evaluate if we're taking our surrounds and those in it for granted. Also ask: Am I grateful for what I have? Am I giving back to the world more than I am taking from it? Am I giving at all? Gratitude is a powerful precursor to developing compassion and joy.

Yes, we are good people and sometimes, bad things happen to us. How we perceive bad things is a choice. When bad things happen, we could just get up and walk away as if nothing happened or we could open our mind's door to the possibility of insight and use the insight to create a life of purpose, passion and fulfillment.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

An Ode to Appa

This post is a part of #Soldierforwomen in association with
As a woman surrounded by a sea of formidable men -- my father "Appa," my brother, husband and two sons -- I never have to go too far for reassurance and motivation. 

Where it's a matter of practicality, there's the husband. When getting a job done is the need of the hour, there's the brother. Following a long, hard day of work, there's the comforting embrace of the children. But my go-to person for inspiration is always Appa. Here's why. 

Growing up in impoverished, rural British India, Appa, the second oldest of four siblings, was only four when his biological mother passed away. Unable to care for the children, my grandfather sent Appa to live with his aunt, my grandmother's sister, temporarily. There, Appa suffered from numerous ear infections, which eventually affected his hearing in his right ear. When he returned several years later to live with his father, who had remarried by then, food, among other things, had become scarcer than before and had to be shared between eight siblings. 

Despite the family's economic woes and the physical and emotional hardships he had endured, brave young Appa made a choice to focus on life's positives. He did well in school, studying under the street lights, as there was no electricity at home. He engaged in normal childhood activities, including playing gilli-danda with his friends, climbing trees and riding the bicycle. He helped out at home by milking the family's cows every morning, cleaning the cowshed, and bathing the animals. Comparing that to my own childhood, which was unblemished and unfettered, invokes in me a profound sense of gratitude for all that I have today. 

Following high school, Appa enrolled in a three-year course in Mechanical Engineering and earned his diploma. His first job upon graduation was at the local paper mill, where he worked for five years and diligently supported his family with financial assistance. His moment of glory came when he was selected to undergo a specialized training program in the U.S.S.R. in 1958 -- the same year the Russian satellite Sputnik was launched into space. But guess what happened back in his little hometown? Instead of celebrating his success, friends and neighbors ostracized the family, because they considered his traveling to a foreign land as conspiratorial and an abandoning of allegiance to the homeland! 

A year later, Appa returned to India, found a job, got married, and had my brother and me, all the while helping move the family's needle on poverty. He helped his younger brothers secure jobs and used his savings to help pay for his sisters' weddings. When his brother-in-law abandoned a sister, Appa, and my mother, stepped forward and brought her under their care, much to society's chagrin. A fearless warrior, he supported her emotional and financial needs, and even sponsored her enrollment in a teacher training program, ensuring her long-term security and well-being. His sister and other siblings reminisce to this daywith great pride and joy, about his love, generosity and compassion. Appa's ability to break free of archaic societal norms and hold his own is exceptional and a clear illustration of his progressive attitude. 

Appa was a stupendous father -- a rare attribute of a man, even in today's world. From keeping nightly vigils to changing soiled diapers to feeding/bathing my brother and me in a timely manner, he insisted on sharing the burden with my mother. He was a dependable provider, and demonstrated through action professional values such as respect for work, responsibility, commitment and consistency. He spent quality time with the family, taking us to the park, the movies, for shopping, and supported our extra-curricular activities by attending our performances. 

Leading by example, Appa instructed us on being honest and keeping our word, on being thankful, on dealing with setbacks, on sacrificing our comforts for others, on conformance to family, on being affectionate and gentle. I never heard him raise his voice, ever. Rooted in his inner serenity, he showed us how to resolve conflicts in a calm, patient manner, without anger or judgment. One of Appa's greatest qualities is his practice of giving unconditional love. No matter what grades I brought home, he was never harsh or critical of me, but always accepting and happy. Is it surprising then that I admire him so much? 
Appa and my mother went on to buy a little nest of their own and sent both my brother and me to professional colleges, ensuring a bright future for us. Self-made individuals, my parents are now retired, and spend their time by traveling the world around, championing various causes, staying in touch with their siblings, and enjoying each other's company. A penniless kid from a tiny little Indian village, where a good life was not even a dream, much less a possibility, Appa has carved out a memorable niche for himself through education, hard work and a determination to succeed. 

Now that I'm older and have two children of my own, I see Appa in a different dimension -- not just as a father or grandfather, but as a human being, and I'm beginning to understand the magnitude of his humanity. His childhood experiences speak greatly for his inner strength and resilience. Heffortlessly models good behavior, whether it's treating my mother with respect, negotiating a compromise, or practicing self-control. For a person of his generation, his sense of gender equality is astonishing. He always participated in domestic chores and sent both my brother and me to engineering school. In a culture that prescribes different sets of expectations to men and women, Appa's defiance of those rules is very refreshing. 

Appa isn't perfect by any definition, but he always strives for excellence and does things with a sense of passion and humor -- an insight I've borrowed to use as a parenting skill. A role model and mentor, he is always ready to help others but refrains from giving unsolicited advice. A surgery a few years ago for a ruptured disc has left Appa with persistent back pain, but you won't see so much as a squirm on his face. He does flexibility exercises, takes daily walks, manages his back pain using medicated balms and oils, and follows a strict, vegetarian diet. Appa's sense of discipline and proactive self-care is motivating for me and my family to take care of our health and well-being

At age 78, Appa is still the most loving, balanced and adaptable person I know, always curious about learning, always listening, and never taking things personally or for granted. Leadership skills such as determination, persistence, putting others first, a sparkling sense of humor, and cool-headedness make him an absolute hero. Sure, his academic prowess didn't earn him the Nobel prize nor did his sacrifices garner him the presidential medal of honor. He didn't become a business tycoon nor did he rise to fame as an athlete or artist. But what he did earn was his family's love, trust and admiration, and a life of dignity and integrity -- things he would never trade for money, status and recognition. 

Appa's grounding philosophy, "live simply, expect little, and give much" as well as his life choices encourage me to examine my own life and evaluate my own life choices. Much like he did, I try to fearlessly embrace the unexpected and lean in to my inner strength -- the hallmark traits of a brave soldier. 

While in the fairy tale of my life, my husband is my Prince Charming, my Appa will forever be King! 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Think Smart; Eat Mindfully; Save $ and the Environment!

Growing up in post-colonial India, in an era that prefaced running water, 24/7 electricity, and electronic gadgets and appliances, I quickly learned about food economics. My emerging middle-class family, consisting of my parents, brother and me, had enough to satiate our hunger, sans any frills or excesses. Shopping for seasonal fruits, vegetables and groceries was a daily ritual, picked up on foot from the local markets, in home-sewn cotton bags. My mother – a local school teacher -- miraculously transformed raw foods into delectable works of art on a kerosene-fueled pump stove in a dimly-lit, windowless kitchen that doubled as a dining room. Peelings and spoils were recycled back into mother Earth through compostingDessert and fried foods were rare treats; every crumb was savored and every bead of the used oil was reused. Water was our favorite beverage. "Dine in" meant eat at home; "take out" was yet to be invented. 

My parents excelled at planning and cooking the appropriate amounts of food, regardless of the headcount. Leftover storage was a non-issue as neighborhood volunteers consumed any occasional leftovers: a poor neighbor, a slum dweller who served as a part-time maid, even cows or dogs. Granted, the family’s economic reality dictated our choices; however, the "don't waste" mantra was an inextricable part of our non-materialistic muse, seamlessly woven into life’s facets like yarn in cloth. Overall, a mindful, healthy and happy lifestyle rendered my family’s foodprint minimal. 

Fast forward to 2013. The population has burgeoned. Global food production is up and has taken a big bite out of world hunger and malnutrition. Food technology, pesticides, fertilizers, and state-of-the-art irrigation, harvesting and processing have revolutionized agriculture and related industries. Food packaging, storage and transportation is at its best, prolonging foods’ shelf-life and creating thousands of jobs. Yet, millions still languish in hunger while tons of avoidable food wastes end up in landfills! 

On the global front, food wastes in the entire supply chain -- from farms to supermarkets -- have exhausted resources, destroyed environmental balance, spawned food-price sticker shocks and possibly triggered climate change. On the personal front, food wastes -- a symptom of our over-reliance on modern conveniences coupled with gluttony and physical lassitude -- have detracted us from the sustainable lifestyle the ancients had followed for millennia. 

Looking back on my childhood, three lessons flare into existence: 

1. Awareness: Awareness of thoughts, actions and behaviors can significantly influence our food habits. Plan ahead, buy and cook only what is needed, buy by the pound or the smallest available size, partner with a neighbor or friend to split bulk purchases, especially perishables, and eat mindfully. Such measures can save both the wallet and the environment. 

2. EducationBuying local, emphasizing quality over appearance, and educating ourselves on ways to REDUCE, REUSE & RECYCLE avoidable food wastes are responsible investments. Committing to live a healthy and sustainable lifestyle can be a powerful motivator for our youth to identify and emulate zero-waste practices.  

3. Connectivity: For the ancients, conservation was a way of life, perhaps an economic and religious edict, but definitely one that evoked a deep understanding of the synergy between all living things and the environment. The use of self-control to rise above the roar of hoarding and modern conveniences can help current and future generations reconnect to their obscured, sustainable selves. 

We have one Earth, characterized by an exploding population vying for finite resources. Food equity lies in embracing common-sense practices that reduce wastes, safeguard nature, and inspire wisdom and harmony – not just for ourselves, but for all, for years to come. 

Join the United Nations Environment Programme on June 5 to celebrate World Environment Day and share your efforts to reduce your food wastage footprint or foodprint.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

Toltec Agreement 2: Don't Take Anything Personally

Read Toltec Agreement 1: Be Impeccable with Your Word 

Read Toltec Agreement 3: Don't Make Assumptions

I'd like to tell you a story.

My family and I went on a 5-day cruise to the Bahamas last year. A dream vacation I'll never forget, the excursion was a tremendous experience, from picturesque Miami and the spectacular Florida Keys to the pristine waterscapes of the Bahamian islands. The room on board was comfortable, the activities fantastic, the staff attentive, and the food options satisfied my vegetarian needs. On the fourth evening, as the liner's propellers ripped through the waters westward from Nassau -- heralding our return journey -- my family and I gathered in the Dining Hall for our last meal on board. With each sway of the wave crest, we excitedly sailed through our activities and experiences of the day. The waiter appeared and after exchanging pleasantries, we ordered our food and beverage choices. The waiter returned with our beverages and appetizers. Amid snorts and laughs, we took ravenous bites of the bread and large swallows of our drinks, as if we were breaking a fast. 

When dinner arrived, I plunged my fork into my plate and extracted a piece of food that looked like a cauliflower floret. Its chewy texture and unfamiliar taste, however, was an instant red alert. Chicken! My forehead creased up, my eyes widened, and my mouth fell open. I could feel horror rising in me. Lowering my head, I rose slightly and pushed back my chair. I suppose this was the opportune moment for me to have yelled out in anger, flung a few undesirable words in the waiter's direction, perhaps even engaged in dramatic behavior to express my outrage, such as splashing a glass of water on the waiter's face. It's the generalized, conditioned reaction one would expect to see. Instead, I grabbed myself and made a mad dash to the bathroom to rinse off my mouth. 

With my heart rate dampening and adrenaline normalizing, I re-joined my bewildered family, quickly appraised them of the situation, and then signaled the waiter. I proceeded, as calmly as I could, to describe to him what had happened and requested a replacement meal. He apologized profusely, then ran back in and returned in an instant with the correct entree and his manager. This marked the beginning of a better evening. Very somberly, he explained how he had mistakenly picked up the bowl of chicken curry instead of the paneer curry, which, incidentally, is set in an adjacent tray on the same counter. His explanation sounded plausible and he appeared to be genuinely sorry for the oversight. My shock began to wear off. His manager apologized and assured me that the waiters are well-trained and this was a legitimate slip, which occurs rather infrequently. I guzzled down an entire 8oz. of water and took several deep breaths. The manager's manager stepped out and apologized. Nearly everyone, but the captain, came forward and expressed regret. I have to admit that I appreciated their candor and truly welcomed their customer-oriented service. 

As for my own lack of what generally would be perceived as a "normal reaction" following the discovery of chicken on my vegetarian tongue, I had a choice: I could have taken it personally and made it all about me, or I could have exercised restraint, taken command of the situation and then responded in an appropriate, responsible and mature manner, regardless of my emotional state -- which is what I chose. There's no question that I was feeling violated and betrayed beyond words. To a lifelong vegetarian, experiencing meat can be rather traumatic. To me, being vegetarian is a discipline; I have nothing against my meat-eating brethren. Generally speaking, I prepare my own meals as it affords greater control over what goes on my plate. When we eat out, I talk to the waiter and/or chef and weigh them down with questions until my culinary doubts are satisfied. Thus, in this instance, had I chosen to act out my feelings, I still would have been justified -- in a manner of speaking -- given that I didn't have control over plating my food.

I knew there had to be an explanation for the way in which things had unfolded that evening. It's a well-known fact that cruise ship employees work under rigorous physical, mental and emotional strain. Most of the staff stays on board for 9-10 months at a time, away from family and friends, and works nonstop from daybreak to late night, everyday. When someone works under extreme circumstances, like cruise ship employees do, you can't help but empathize with their situation. Sure, the waiter served me meat, but he didn't do it to spite me or diss me. It was a valid gaffe and he took responsibility for it. At the end of it all, I had to realize that he is a human being, as I am, and embodies deficiencies and imperfections, as I do. With the humanity in me willing to let go of the trauma of the incident, I was able to power forward with pleasant memories of the cruise rather than have recurring nightmares of the incident.

One thing that I have learned in life is lashing out in anger wastes time for sure, but it also holds us back from transitioning into the loving, balanced beings that we truly are under the cloak of our ego. Reacting with anger, denial or defensiveness only serves to fortify the cloak's protection, making it impossible to favor values such as compassion, forgiveness, gratitude and equanimity. Try channeling anger into action, and watch as your obscured, true self begins to reveal itself. With continued efforts, egoic wants such as resistance, judgment, and the habitual negative thinking slowly begin to diminish, while pressing needs such as love, sensitivity and empathy gradually begin to amplify. 

Of course, merely nodding in agreement to and applauding the beauty of philosophical concepts cannot bring about true and lasting change. To actualize change, you must give yourself permission to change, and hold the intent. You must experience the reality of existence in the raw and in the now. Meditation is a tool that allows you to make that conscious contact with your inner self and regain the power of intention. When you get busy rearranging your brain cells, you will have no time left to engage in negative behaviors, make needless assumptions or take anything personally!  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Toltec Agreement 3: Don't Make Assumptions

Read Toltec Agreement 2: Don't Take Anything Personally

Assumptions have their place in the universe, especially in math and science. For instance, when confronted with a math word problem, a few assumptions in the calculations are in order. Else, the question might be too complex to solve. Without standard assumptions, there'd be no mathematical functions, mapping and operations. Mathematical assumptions allow us to identify patterns that help us better understand our world. For example, the cyclical nature of warm ocean currents, the monthly phases of the moon, the waxing and waning of wildlife populations, the rise and fall of groundwater levels, the bear- and bull-market trading on Wall Street, the real estate bubble. Basic scientific assumptions have put humans on the moon, launched satellites, allowed the proliferation of global communication networks, enriched medical science and human health, enhanced exploration of the deep oceans, and helped develop weather and climate sciences. 

When it comes to life and living, however, assumptions take on a whole different meaning. Think of the many assumptions we make in relationships -- about ourselves, about family, peers, subordinates and higher-ups -- as well as those we make about perspectives and life situations. Why do we make assumptions? Because it is the nature of the mind to internalize and personalize the sensory input it receives through the five portals of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. It's a way for the mind to evaluate an experience, validate its significance, and stash it into the appropriate memory pile. 

Constructive assumptions such as love, patience, trust and mutual respect must preface our efforts to innovate and communicate, establish norms and boundaries, manage and resolve conflict, clarify and understand issues, and negotiate solutions. On a more practical plane, assumptions are necessary to get through the day. Imagine wanting to know the meaning of and the intent behind every single word that comes hurtling towards us. We'd lose our minds, for sure, and we'd never get anything done! 

Most times, however, the assumptions we make don't necessarily reflect reality. Remember when you were young and made assumptions about life, people or situations, and realized their hollowness only as you got older? When I was 8 or 9 and growing up in India, I remember looking at a picture postcard of downtown New York City and being mesmerized by its skyline. This inspired a juvenile assumption that the entire US looked like New York. The assumption hung in my consciousness like a sacred object until years later, I actually traveled to the US, and as the plane began its descent at Los Angeles airport, I lurched forward toward the window, fully expecting the New York-like landscape to flare into existence. To say that I was disappointed is a libelous understatement! (LA, you're all right, but you're no New York. Sorry!) 

Assumptions set expectations, and expectations set up an individual for disappointment, failure, even loss. It's one thing to show up for an exam with the assumption it'll be easy. If it isn't, well, you could take it again. How about when there's a burglary in the neighborhood, a shooting in the mall, your relative's house burns down, your child's friend is abducted, or you know a super storm is about to roll in and you ignore the evacuation orders? Other examples include identity theft, credit card fraud, addictions, stock market losses, and job loss. The common assumption here is, "It'll never happen to me." Seriously? Think again. Life-altering situations highlight the wisdom of safety, security, planning and preparation, providing us with opportunities to step out of the shadow of deep-seated denial patterns. The freedom to choose their way of life, however, rests with the individual.

Most conflicts and drama in relationships originate in assumptions. Especially for those deficient in self-worth, assumptions are their emotional crutch. Choosing to assume things about others' feelings and behaviors spawns stories in our heads, stories that have little to do with the truth and a whole lot to do with our EGO and our systems of evaluation and interpretation. Such assumptions often set the stage for blame, with the outcome spanning the gamut from disagreements and emotional outbursts to verbal/physical attacks, estrangement, even break-ups and divorce. Remaining present and paying greater attention to the facts strengthens the possibility of a calmer, more equitable outcome. The exercising of choice is thus a personal right that points to one of two things: a smooth arc of increasing self-awareness and organization, or a wiggly curve of increasing fogginess and disorder. 
Consider the assumptions we make about ourselves. Believing he is super talented, an individual shows up at a singing audition, only to realize that he has no talent at all. Convinced she has cancer, a person charges to her doctor's office, only to be told she's suffering from the common cold. Oh, those assumptions are so rooted in self-importance and cockiness!

Assumptions are very limiting and can incite irrational behaviors. A deterrent to growth, assumptions keep us from validating others' points of view. For example, when we like something, the natural assumption is that others will also like it. We inundate everyone with our sense of likes, dislikes and preferences. We swamp their phones with text messages and flood their Facebook page with photo images. Like that isn't enough, we incessantly talk about it at every opportunity, paying little attention to our overbearing behaviors that push people away. The wake-up call sounds when we suddenly find ourselves amid a shrinking pool of friends and well wishers, at which point some of us will likely accept responsibility for the behavior and pledge to be more mindful. For others, it could bring on pre-conditioned reactivity, namely judgment and criticism -- the upshot of unmet expectation brought on by assumptions. Colored by the experience, these individuals accessorize their minds with even more futile assumptions. This circular nature of assumptions holds people back from effective learning and stymies social interactions. Clearly, the choices we make will determine the consequences we will suffer.

Assumptions can engender erroneous mindsets by promoting bias. Racial remarks, sexual remarks and gender remarks are some of the biggest stereotypes today, and stem from ignorance and fear. Stereotypes such as Chinese are bad drivers, men are better at math than women, all smart people are geeks, all African American are good at sports, all Latin American women are sexual vixens, all Muslims are terrorists, all teenagers are rebels, and all politicians are corrupt are not only hurtful, they are fundamentally wrong. It's one of the primary factors that causes people to live in fear. Their concern about being boxed into a category that could potentially set them up for harassment and discrimination is legitimate. The sad truth is that we always choose to see others as different from us. Why not choose to focus on our similarities instead? With a new mindset, lofty ideals -- such as unity, harmony and world peace -- that have long eluded humanity, might be well within reach. 

Individuals who habitually assume, often, are intransigent, very unpersuasive to change. "It's his fault" or "It's her responsibility" is the assumed rhetoric. Throw inaction and passivity into the mix, and the result is a reflexive retardant that inhibits change altogether. Why does it always have to be someone or something else's fault or responsibility? How much longer are we going to continue to think the same old thoughts, which will lead to the same old disagreeable habits and behaviors, which in turn will lead to the same old undesirable results? How much longer are we going to duck behind the shield of our assumptions? Why not jam the brakes and reflect. Is it my fault? Am I to blame? How did I contribute to the problem? Perhaps, most importantly, How can I be part of the solution? Within the realm of our own existence, we each have an obligation to be fully present and participate in life's affairs, to examine and prioritize what works, what doesn't, what can stay, what needs to go, and then incorporate sustainable, affordable and common-sense fixes and upgrades that would work for us and those around us. The bottom line? Embracing the winds of change and being receptive to the waves of compromise are key to enhancing the quality of life and living.  

Awaken to the freedom of choice. You can bullet-proof your mind of assumptions by choosing your attitudes, thereby choosing your ways. You can reject the tyranny of assumptions by choosing to identify and terminate past patterns. You can aid the transition from inaction to participation by choosing to be present and mindful. Commit to cultivating awareness. With continued practice, awareness of the present moment inspires deeper levels of calm and clarity and a keener alertness of choice -- a gift that you get to keep, forever.