Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Lessons From My Son, On Perfection

The pursuit of perfection is instilled in us at an early age, perhaps to develop certain qualities that will help us in years to come.  And it does have a place in our lives as do rigour, a commitment to excellence, diligence, analysis, the process of checking, cross-checking, sifting, unearthing...  But there are times when the pursuit of perfection is self defeating and often, the adult world cannot easily see this.  We need other eyes and ears and tiny  new voices to tell us that we should rethink.

Perfection comes into play quite often in times of self expression - when one is creating something new or just trying to express oneself through appropriate channels.  It is important to remember that when we are driven from within to express ourselves, we do not really know the purpose of the expression or what lies ahead for our creation - where it will go and who it will touch.  Even if we try, we cannot repeat ourselves for each situation is different- the moment is different, we are internally at a different state from the previous time and the space and environment we find ourselves in is never the same.  That is the beauty of our individual efforts and what makes it satisfying is not just the shape it takes but the process involved.  And at some moment we need to let it go, drift away and find its goal.  Many times, our concern about our own inner standards prevents us from expressing what at a very deep level we would really like to.  We hesitate, preferring to wait for a better time, and the moment is gone (other moments do come of course).

Long, long ago, I stopped singing (as I could not sing at the pitch desired by my primary school teachers!).  I do hum and whistle and, like many people, some music does move me enough to sing on my own at times.  But not very loudly.  After my son was born, I realized that he much preferred to hear my voice rather than the tapes I would play and nothing could make him sleep better than my own bedtime songs.  So I began to sing, just for the two of us, and now there is so much joy in the process because, at his prompting, we are learning new songs together and singing them loudly and unabashedly.  The first day that he settled into school, I found I was free to shop in the morning and it was only after spending quite some time in the shop that I realized I had been humming away to myself, and no one had raised an eyebrow.  A gift I need to thank my son for.

My thoughts turn also to a friend who derives tremendous satisfaction from perfection.  Photography is one of his interests, and when he visited India, he carried his equipment around, taking pictures everywhere he went.  There were so many photographs and not enough time to edit them so they lay around for a while until he decided to send them to us anyway.  It so happened that they arrived on a day when my little son returned from school in tears.  He had taken his collection of wildlife pictures (cut out from the newspaper) and someone had trashed them saying they were not meant for his school work,  and my son desperately wanted them back.  As I wondered what to do, there appeared on my computer screen, shot after shot of pictures taken at a wildlife sanctuary.  My son and I went through them with great delight.  We thought they were beautiful because they had a spontaneity and because they were just what my son was missing at that moment.  My son was happy to have a new collection (though he said there were not enough monkeys and also cautioned the photographer not to wander about at night taking pictures because a Brazilian wandering spider might dig its fangs into his foot!).  Perhaps these pictures would not make it into a fancy photo gallery in their current form but my son and I could not have asked for anything more perfect at that moment.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Diving Into Stillness -and more

It has been an unusual year.  Uneventful in big ways but overflowing with twists and turns and changes of paths.  I have been unable to write much for my time and energy was tied up so tightly that I could not stop to slip in a stray few words much as I wanted to.  So, readers, thank you once more for still staying around long enough to read what (I assume) is the last blog for this year.  I hope to write more next year.

It has been a year of continuous physical and mental activity as my little son tried to find his footing in the world of schools and 'educators'.  My husband inched forward with his work on flu vaccines.  My father-in-law braved his first year without his wife (whom he still thinks of as soon as he opens his eyes every morning, as he tells me).  Various family members faced challenges of some form.  And I found myself in the cross currents of all these events, trying to steer myself in the right direction.

Life is not linear.  It has a disconcerting (and exhilarating) Lewis Carroll like like flow- quantum leaps and lights that begin to gleam not at the far end but mid way through tunnels and fog.  In this blog, I have decided to do the same- to let my writing leap from place to place, as my mind follows the events of last year.  And to write exactly what I wanted to convey (which required a little leap of faith).

For sharing some of these moments with me, I thank my friends, whose words have helped tremendously.  Their outlook on life (and the fact that they took the time and effort to convey their thoughts to me) helped me feel braver and happier!

Two authors, whose books changed my life this year- Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now) and Julia Cameron (The Artist's Way).

My husband, who has hardly been at home this year but when I have had immense need for him, has somehow managed to materialize and stay to help.

An acupuncturist, who sent wisdom and beautiful books to me from London.

A worldly wise rug collector and his bubble blowing, egg smashing, story telling wife who my son is incredibly fond of.

A scientist, co-inhabitor of this planet, whose one line mails are more pertinent and helpful than reams of theory from specialists.

A swimmer friend of my son's who shares a common interest in spiders, a writer in real life.

Another friend (of my mother-in-law's originally) who I have just got to know - a talented writer and photographer.

I dwell for a few moments on this last newly found friend of mine.  Particularly relevant in the light of this year's temple fights in Kerala, where masculine forces continue to resist the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 to the Sabarimala temple, a discrimination of the most perplexing kind in the name of God.

This photographer, a stranger in Kerala, has gained the confidence and trust of priests in some of the most sacred temples and has been given access to viewing and recording the ancient, still continuing forms of temple rituals and art forms.  A completely unexpected thing because she is a stranger to their land, a woman and furthermore - a foreigner (who has crossed the seven (or perhaps fewer) seas and approached them.  These reactions and occurrences are glimpses of hope in troubled times.  She occasionally sends me pictures of the temple dances that she is photographing - they are so incredibly powerful.  I am thankful for this sudden new opening in my life to a world unseen but intensely alive.

Descending a little further to murky realms, perhaps not really discussed in company, but- I do want to talk about it briefly- as it comes up in the ridiculous temple fights and many other forms- the menstrual cycle.  Essential, as the world agrees, but let women deal with this embarrassing set of events that seems to unleash the worst in them, and let them stay away from everyone else while doing so (except in progressive countries, where you really have to show them that women can work equivalently and so on..  I do not dwell on that).  I just want to mention my own experiences, which have made me wonder about things, as a scientist and a student of yoga (also because very few books deal with the aspects that I have been thinking about).

My most creative phase is always the one before the onset of this cycle.  Even if I am unable to write, my mind is filled with ideas and where they come from, I do not know (this happens each time, without exception).  I also wonder if men go through a similar cycle- molecules are in some way driving cycles of creativity, perhaps the cycles are not as physically obvious as in women but I feel they must exist.

Following this phase, there is a physical crash of the worst kind, intense pain in the form of a migraine series that necessitates withdrawing from everything except tasks that absolutely cannot be put off.  Why?  Not everyone goes through these intense reactions, and I should not have to.  "Don't bother with them, " says my husband.  "Hormones are powerful molecules, they come and they will go."  But my intense desire to get rid of the physical pain has led me to focus on the role of the mind and energy flows- subtle causes but certainly drivers of pain (and thus, hopefully, also healing).

I find though that respite, when it comes, is driven not through the mind but beyond it- by the spirit (if one wants to give these things a name).  In a state when the mind is switched off, when I go deep into the pain and feel it as energy, without giving it a label.  It takes time but I am beginning to realize that pain is not the rock hard surface it appears to be.  It does give way and if one manages to evade its grasp and dive further down, one comes to a pool of stillness.  What lies in this pool, I have no idea, for I have just about managed to touch the surface.  I have come up spluttering and gasping as the mind kicks back into its usual mind-stuff.  But pain (and all related painful memories) seem to me to be an active force that is trying to stop me from reaching somewhere that is more natural, more creative and that (I sense but do not know) has within in the potential to change my life.

So, next year's resolution is to try and dive deeper, hold away my thoughts for longer and trust myself to this unknown pool of stillness that lies silently within.

The last phase of the periods is the time of visions (as described by Native Americans, whose descriptions closely match my own experiences).  When the body is shutting down and the mind does not want to cope with everyday things, a kind of window opens into the spirit.  This results in shifts of perspective, a deeper understanding of oneself and where one is heading.  I do not believe one has to go through the rigmarole of hormonally induced changes to experience this, the signals are really quite evident for any person to see- when one feels that intense need for solitude,  the need to move away from mind or people-related work to activities like swimming or running or anything where one reconnects to an inner flow, one should try and yield to this yearning.  (In modern terminology, the pay offs are tremendous).

As the year ends, I am glad that though I could not move outwardly in any obvious way, I have moved deeper within,and, for me, this is enough.  My husband has been moving towards trying to streamline demands on him so perhaps the next year (or the following one!) will give him a little time of his own.  My son has taken brave little steps into a changing world and learned to deal with the ups and downs induced by other people, to identify the things he would like to do without giving up on the magic of dreams and laughter, love and innocence and all the good things of childhood.

I wish all my readers a wonderful year ahead and hope they move closer to things that give them peace and satisfaction in their lives!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Meditative Moments

In the last few months, I have been trying to work on areas that I previously neglected, in my yoga practice.  This is the part that deals with the mind- or rather the stilling of it.  How does one disregard the constant chatter of the mind, especially in the absence of a teacher to guide one?

For a while, I thought I would begin by looking for a suitable teacher.  This was hard to do- the last few steps in the classical yoga texts are very briefly defined, seldom do teachers go all the way (and even less do they talk about it).  It's a daunting task for both teacher and student for there is nothing tangible, no easy way to know if you have made any progress.  Or so I thought.

I began by trying to attend a meditation workshop (the only one I could find in Bangalore).  I read the person's book, then one Saturday afternoon, braving a heavy downpour that brought all traffic to a standstill, took a taxi and my google map and somehow found my way to the centre.  Braving further a hideous mosquito attack, an icy cold breeze and the butterflies in my stomach, I rang the bell, only to be greeted by a cacophony of growls and barks.  I looked to see two large dogs, one tied to each end of the gate post, leaving an area of two feet for people to walk through.  An unperturbed voice hailed me and asked me to come in.  Now, I am not afraid of dogs, having grown up with so many.  But the thought of walking through that clearing with two bristling beasts (who were unlikely to break free), was not very reassuring.  The mind plays tricks..

Anyway, it turned out that I had got the time wrong and had reached two hours ahead.  I thought it might be a good opportunity to talk to the teacher.  He did sit down for a few minutes with me, to ask about my background etc.  Then he said there was nothing I could learn from the class.  It was good I had come but I was just being lazy in not practicing on my own at home.

So.. I did attend the meditation session and reached home, seven hours after I had left it (leaving my son alone for that long a period for the first time).  Anyway, all was well- my son was making a dosa in the kitchen with my husband, and I accepted that I would find no teachers in Bangalore.

The next event that happened was the arrival of a book by Evald Flisar (a Slovenian writer) that I had ordered long ago and forgotten about.  Titled 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', it described his experiences as a learner, initially with yoga and then tantra in the Himalayas.  It had some strange parts but was very useful at the time, in clarifying my thoughts on working without a teacher.  Evald, as an apprentice, found he could go only so far along certain paths.  He had to search for alternate options, meanings, interpretations, and try and work his way through to the end.  I believed that I would eventually find my way too.

I did not restart with any fixed aim in mind but I just decided to pick out and read again a relatively recently written book (instead of the classics) that had always appealed to me as it contained a lot of timeless wisdom written from a first hand perspective.  This is called 'The Power Of Now' and is written by Eckhart Tolle (I don't like the title, apt though it is, as it reminds me of one of those Readers Digest articles which attempt to tell you the solution to all your problems).  A subscript adds 'A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment'.  So simple!!!  (Eckhart attained stillness of mind at a moment when extreme anxiety was prompting him towards suicide.  He then spent a long time in meditative states and finally decided to write this book to answer the questions various people had been asking him.  He moves away from pre-conditioned concepts and tries to explain things the way he experienced and perceived them.  I quote a sentence from this book, which is probably the bottomline of his teaching- 'Be the ever-alert guardian of your inner space').

I found the technique I needed written very simply and clearly in this book, the hard part is to make it a part of everyday life!  But for the moment, this is enough.  I have stopped searching and begun practicing, and contrary to what I thought, I can feel the difference in myself already- the increase in equilibrium, the lowering of negativity and consequently, of anxiety and pain.

This is one of the reasons why my blog was unwritten for so long- all my energy was being directed to finding my way forward.  I believe I have taken the first step, and I hope I now have more time (at least once in a while!) for my writing and the other things I like to do.  Time will tell!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Swimming Surprises

It's summertime and swimming is the highlight of our day.  The best way to celebrate 'no school', in my opinion (and probably my son's too).

My own swimming is usually a low key but happy affair of relaxing and watching the water move by, with shafts of sunbeams piercing it.  A place of no thought and effortless gliding.

With my son around, it takes on a completely different hue.  The Bangalore club pool is packed in the summer with other children (being coached), their parents sitting alongside, regular swimmers and, thrice a week, an aqua-aerobics class attended solely by grandmothers.

In the midst of this, we come, splashing in- the grandmothers turn to give beaming smiles to my son and chat with me about their lives.  I exchange smiles with the parents (they are quieter on the whole than the grandmothers), get to know the children by sight and by name.

The swimming coach comes over to share a few moments of conversation and swimming tips with my son.  I am one of the few, possibly the only parent, to enter the pool solely in order to teach my son.  And he is learning, in his own determined, chaotic way - refusing teachers and floats, bobbing up and down in the water until he is able to move a little at a time, by himself.  Hands and feet move in an unstructured but determined fashion while he breathes out bubbles and endures the chlorine of the water (glasses are too tight, he says, and so are swimming caps).  A happy, bubbly, truly free style swim.

After this, we sit out with his toy trains and eat our snack (which has gradually increased in size over the last few weeks, the number of trains has also swelled).  We watch the swimmers and my son strolls over to say a word or two to his neighbours.  Sometimes, they talk to me as well.

And what wondrous things result from these conversations!  Grandmothers' tips on places to buy swimsuits, a European lady telling me that my son would certainly learn swimming - based on her swimming experiences with Polish coaches, and most recently a very precious gift of an old winding train set from England, placed carefully in a hand painted biscuit tin, given by one of the swimmers to my son - it is the set he used as a child.

My son beamed on receiving this and said he would have fun with it forever and ever.  I hope he does- and I hope he has fun with his swimming forever and ever too, just as I do, with mine.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Holidaying At Home

My son's first summer vacation - and we are spending it at home!  It's blazing hot in most parts of the country and so we decided just to sit back and do all the fun things that we had planned but never got down to.  No summer camps, no retreats and no road trips.  Just waking up when the sun pours in, eating summer fruit and home made bread and cheese and heading out to greet the day.

Swimming every morning is a must - and we go to Bangalore club, meet all the old regulars, say hallo to the swimming coaches and splash about for an hour, thoroughly refreshed at the end of it.

Then it's time for our snack, and we open our tiffin box with great gusto.  I sit back and relax and my son splashes in swimming pool puddles, urges the swimmers to jump in (and make more puddles!) and walks around looking for fallen baby coconuts.

Occasionally we shop, trying to avoid the big malls (my son trying to steer me to toy shops).

We get back home in time to water the garden (with more splashing) and eat a light, cool lunch.  Then it's time to crash and wake up for an evening walk to a neighbouring pond.  We keep some time aside to hear music, paint or build trucks and cook a special dinner after which we read our favourite books.

In the midst of all this, we try and meet all the friends we couldn't during school time- this is truly enjoyable and enriching.  As the world shrinks, it seems our lives do too unless we make an effort to stay in touch with people.  So we have spent our time inviting and cooking for family and friends, making mango tarts for my husband's lab, meeting people in Bangalore club and elsewhere for a meal or just a chat, and visiting a few homes.

We have returned with freshly churned white butter for our breakfast, hollow papaya straws (to blow soapy bubbles), fresh green papaya (to convert into meat tenderiser for biryani), freshly picked Coorg oranges and lemons for marmalade, a bottle of splendid champagne and most of all- happy memories that will stay with us forever.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Election Action

State elections are round the corner and the usual busy-ness is going on at every nook and corner.  People are complaining that ATMs have run out of large notes, presumably they are being used elsewhere.  The Election Commission is cracking down on goings on, at least in the capital city of Bangalore.  Alcohol is absolutely frowned upon, and for the first time Kingfisher beer has vanished from the shelves in liquor shops.

But bribes take new forms- apparently last week a tempo (no way to explain the concept of Indian tempos- they are like small vans piled high with people or goods) was caught carrying vast amounts of biryani and laptops for mass consumption- providing plenty of bytes, as a friend said.

In the midst of this mayhem, we decided to make use of our 'one night free stay' coupon at the Sheraton hotel, mainly for our son who has summer vacation right now.  With a busy four year old in tow, we decided to make full use of this opportunity and invited some friends over for dinner and planned to finish our pending shopping at the neighbouring mall the next morning.  We carried with us a bottle of wine for our friends, and laptops to keep my husband and son suitably occupied.

We had a wonderful stay and packed our bags the next afternoon, with an additional bottle of champagne (which our friends had gifted us) and a new laptop that my husband had bought.  Driving down sedately in our little yellow car on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, we were quite surprised to be flagged down by the police.

They were on election duty and wanted to search our car so we opened our bags and out popped the champagne!  It looked very suspicious but the policeman couldn't figure out what it was, it did not seem to be anything on his list.  He called the other two officers and each one did a search in turn.  The first policeman, tired of asking my husband for a receipt (hearing over and over again "It was a gift, we have no receipt," turned to me.  "Madam..." he began but I was running out of patience, trying to keep my son from leaping out of the car and running off.  "Please keep whatever you want, we have to move," I muttered irritatedly and the policeman finally gave up on us and began a conversation with my son about swimming.

Of course our swimming bag was opened and out came the armbands.  These kept the police quite occupied; they were trying to figure out if anything was stored inside.  This was fortunate because they missed the half opened bottle of wine that reclined behind the swimsuits and all our numerous laptops.  On the whole, the officers were quite cordial especially when my husband showed them his identity card.  Many things change but people here still seem to have a kind of respect for teachers.  They advised us earnestly not to go around with unreceipted liquor, said we could be hauled off to the police station the next time.

Finally, we were on the road again, discussing how if we had been in the U.S., things would never have functioned in this manner.  There would have been sirens and loudspeakers and we would all have had to exit the car with our hands above our heads, or some such thing.

In general, my brushes with the law in India have been fairly gentle, with many officers being stern but kind hearted, almost avuncular in nature.  I know that I have been fortunate.  Certainly not so in the U.S.  - I remember my last encounter, six years ago at the airport in Boston.

As we went bleary eyed through Immigration, the officer asked my husband how long we were planning to stay.  "I am going to New Hampshire for a meeting for a week, my wife will remain in Boston, and then we will leave," my husband said.

Somehow this was too many words, it seemed.  The officer was not happy.  "Is that an answer?" he snapped.

Under these circumstances, reactions vary.  I prefer to put on my dumbest expression (the kind I use when Americans start talking to me in slow mo).  My husband remains unperturbed and unwavering. What is better?  One never knows.

"Yes," my husband (naturally) said.

"That's like saying,'The sky is blue but we'll paint it purple today," said the officer.

He let my husband go but kept my passport and waved me aside to a corner.  There I was herded along with a bunch of Russian men to the basement where everyone addressed me as 'Vladimir' without making eye contact!  It was fairly surreal.  I waited until finally somebody decided that I could enter the country and handed my passport back to me.

That was before the last U.S. election and all its repercussions, and looking back now, I think perhaps I got away rather lightly.

So, here's to dizzying blue skies and champagne, to drown election action woes!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Baul's Song

It's Christmas time in Calcutta, everyone is on holiday and making the most of it.  Even the non-resident Bengalis come home to visit old haunts.  Shops and restaurants are packed, loudspeakers are blaring, streets are filled with cars and pedestrians.

In the midst of all this, I feel truly blessed to have our local Baul visit every Sunday morning.  He walks down the street, playing his simple string instrument and singing his soulful songs.  Hardly anyone listens but he always stops in front of our family house, where he knows someone or the other will emerge.  And if I am there, I always do.  I love listening to these down to earth songs with mystic roots.  Songs which remind us that God must be searched for (and discovered) within our own hearts, by ourselves.

Bauls- the wandering mystic minstrels of Bengal used to travel from village to village, bringing these messages and their wonderful music to the common man.  Each village would provide them with food and shelter and take care of their needs.  Now things have changed, the Bauls have to fend for themselves and their travel is restricted.  They are hardly seen in urban settings, except for a few high profile ones, who perform periodically in concerts.  These performances are quite powerful but they often lack the spontaneity and simplicity found in a more natural setting.

This time I was fortunate enough to have my cell phone with me while rushing down to hear the Baul.  And so I made my first recording of one of his songs, the link is given below.  There was plenty of neighbourhood action at the time of the recording (and my hand finally shook when my little son made a beeline for the road).  People were coming and going, the driver was revving the car, the dhobi arrived with his bundle of freshly ironed clothes, an irate crow was demanding his biscuit breakfast and so on.  But the Baul was lost in his music and in his world - which is as it should be - and it reminded me to search for what gives my life meaning and pursue it without distraction (or at least attempt to)!

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