11 years of togetherness

Today marks completion of 11 years of being married to my husband.

When we got married 11 years ago, it was more a choice by elimination. Taking the path of least resistance. A gamble. At that age, people are more inclined to take risks than later on in life.

I knew him well enough before marriage for plenty of years and had seen enough marriages of so many (all) elders in the family. Honestly there wasn’t much to look forward to, really. I was more excited about the change of job which coincided with the wedding. Honestly, first year after wedding was more about the entrepreneurial roller coaster ride than an year of marital bliss. Well, both work and travel. One thing which my boyfriend promised and then as husband kept was to take me on adventures. Within first year we had done scuba, skydiving, and many exotic travels. It was as if the HR was keeping up with promised bonus. But just for initial few years, until you are offered ESOPs. After 11 years, I would be told to go for scuba dives and skydives on my own. There is too much comfort now which eliminates the need to impress.

Although there is a lot of comfort now, one thing which continues to grow is our mutual admiration. And I believe one reason for that is vipassana.

Funny thing, I felt the need to go to vipassana because of him. Not because he drove me crazy and I needed some peace and quiet, though we do joke about that a lot. On a serious note, it was because, he is one person in the world I know of, who is least judgemental and most kind. Being with him completely shook my definition of success, happiness and life.

I was always told the best way to live is by improving things. Finding faults and fixing defects. That is why being a good product manager comes naturally to me.

For this guy, it’s complete opposite. Finding good in everything and accepting things as they are.

Now you can imagine, what kind of havoc this combination would have created when we formally started working in the same company.

I am truly grateful that by this time I was equipped with the power of vipassana. And with that comes the wisdom to be able to see things as they are. We went through a chaotic period where we eventually accepted that “trust” is the key component of a relationship. How neither of us had it and needed to built it. The funny thing is a lot of time we don’t even trust ourselves. Without trusting ourselves, or while constantly feeling threatened, how can we truly appreciate or love another?!

For me, the biggest challenge has been to learn to be grateful for what I have, to be kind to myself and everyone else. Things which comes naturally to this guy. Which I have been learning since a decade now. And I feel I have made significant process on.

So all in all, while my life goal is to be able to love all beings like I love my family, I am truly grateful for these people in my home who have taught me what it is to be truly happy. And how a smile is the only worthwhile thing to possess.

Ending this blog by the words of my favourite poet.

Beggars, are we?

It’s not as often that we spot beggars in India nowadays. I remember seeing a lot more of them while I was growing up. Or maybe, I used to notice them more than I do now.

In Mumbai, we often come across beggars (who are mostly kids) when we reach the Powai plaza, the most important landmark in Powai. The first few times we came across beggar kids with Naina in the car, it was important to discuss this matter with her. She obviously had questions.

I remember as a kid I was always very much interested in understanding about these kids who were of my size but so different. The unfairness and sadness always crippled me, when I saw beggars as a kid and now when I see them as an adult. I have spent some of my professional time in connecting with organisations who have worked with beggars and street kids. The only positive these societies could bring in kids lives was to teach them about personal hygiene, survival techniques against physical and sexual harm and a little, tiny experience of a different world. There wasn’t much of a miracle to be expected. The whole aspect of begging, the business and politics around it, is not easy to understand. Obviously, rich countries have shelters for homeless, free soup kitchens and so on. But even there you find beggars who may not be part of a nexus and may just choose begging as a profession.

Given my interest and commitment to meditation, begging has a completely different connotation. If you want to seriously go into meditating, at one point, you have to let you go of all earthly possessions, including relationships, and tangible things. You procure food, clothes and shelter by begging. You accept whatever you get with gratitude and are content with it. When you beg, the person who serves you or gives you is also given an opportunity to feel happy. It is a fact, which I am trying to understand at neuroscience level, that when you give, you feel happy. So when you beg, you create an opportunity to other to give, and be happy.

Now coming back to the scene in our car near the signal of Powai plaza. There is a person with no hands and deformations on body, knocking on our window.

Naina: What does this person want?

Parent: He wants us to give him money. But we will not give him because it is a part of business which we don’t appreciate. He could have chosen to earn by some other means like working somewhere, rather than begging. That isn’t a very good thing to do. One can work hard and earn money.

Parent: While that is one perspective, there are many things which we don’t understand Naina. Did this person tried working elsewhere but failed and retorted to begging? Are there opportunities for him to work without hands? Are there some other reasons which led him to begging? We don’t know the whole truth. Nevertheless, standing on a traffic signal in heat (it was quite hot during the time of this discussion), and begging is a damn hard thing to do. On top of that, he doesn’t have a home. He may or may not have worked hard for it, but the result is that he is on streets and it is v difficult that way. And for kids, it is plain unfair since they should not be expected to earn their living in such a small age. So we need to show them compassion and pray for their well being while choosing not to give them any money. We choose them not to give them money because usually they don’t get any of it. Most of it goes to a wealthy person who doesn’t need help from begging.

Parent: Yes, it is a very complex issue and honestly, we don’t know what to do about it.

Parent: This would be one of the good problems to solve when you grow up. If you can help all the street kids in the world, that would be pretty wonderful. But I honestly don’t know where to start or how to guide you.

Today, I felt we all are beggars. Our entire lives, we keep begging for acceptance, recognition, respect, love.

Recently, I feel like I am begging for compassion. I want to be a compassionate, kind person, free of judgements for anyone, and I keep yearning for it. It is one of the hardest things I have had to learn to develop. And it is a crucial ingredient for eternal happiness. So most of time I feel like I am begging myself for it. :-)

Neuroscience of compassion

Is there anyone in the world for whom you have strong negative feelings such as hatred or animosity?

While answering this question, did you feel a moral obligation to say, no there is no such person.

If so, let’s try again.

Imagine you are sitting in a cafe. A parent and child is sitting nearby. Suddenly you hear the parent screaming on the child and then hitting him, while the child sobs and takes in the abuse.

How do you feel about it? Do you not feel empathetic for the poor kid? Do you not feel anger towards the adult? Even though you might not interfere in this event since you don’t have any background context to act upon, you feel like doing something to stop the abuse, to save the child.

Am I right?

Now imagine, seeing this every single day. Say this happens in your neighbourhood. Now you have the context. The parent abuses the child. It is simple.

How would you feel about the parent? Would you call child services? Would you call cops? Would you feel really angry with the parent? Maybe hate him/her?

Now, try and rethink the original question:

Is there anyone you hate or dislike?

Turns out, this question is at the core of compassion.

This question is answered by your body automatically when compassion occurs or does not occur.

Neurobiological process of compassion

An event triggers outside which is witnessed by you through the senses. Say news of an accident. You hear this. This is the event.

The event is perceived by your senses which leads to an emotional response. News of a person dying in an accident leaves you sad and sends signals across your body.

Post this emotional response (which is often called empathy), the cognition starts to work. You get more news, say one of the two kinds.

One, the dead man was a terrorist.

Or, second, the dead man was a doctor.

After first news, your cognition tells you not to feel bad about the news. It is good that a terrorist died.

After second news, you feel worse because a saviour of lives just lost his own.

You continue listening to the news. It says that you can pay your respects to the dead and raise funds for the family. You may do so for the doctor but most likely not for the terrorist. This is compassion. And lack of it.

It is selective. Highly dependent on cognition. Which in turn is driven by many social factors. And by hatred.

Maybe you are thinking why should someone feel compassionate towards a murderer, a terrorist? Compassion should be selective, right?

If that be the case, then everyone would have their own justified reasons to be in-compassionate. Compassion by definition is the desire to reduce or alleviate someone’s pain or suffering. Now if you say I would like to reduce person A’s pain but I don’t care about person B’s pain, then you aren’t a compassionate person. Then you would get the world just as it is right now.

Karva Chauth with a twist

Karva Chauth (KC) is a north Indian festival, celebrated in 4-5 states of North India, primarily by married women of the household, where they would fast for the good health of their husbands. They would not eat (in some cases even not drink water) from sunrise to moonrise. The women would get together and listen to stories and exchange gifts during day time and finally when moon rises, they would pray and break their fast.

I have always seen my mom doing this fast. 4 days post this fast, she would fast again for us children, but that children fast (CF) gets over by evening, after sighting a star. I always preferred the CF over KC. The reason being stories/myths/reasons behind the festival. While the story of KC is full of violence and gory, the story of fasting for children reminds a mother to love all kids equally. I find that story very powerful. I have often asked myself (as a mother), can I love all kids like I love Naina? I believe I can, and I know as of now I don’t. So this is a good place to aspire to. But would a fast help me do that?! I really don’t think so.

Meanwhile, the whole concept of a woman praying for her husband’s health sounds stupid to me. Why should I be praying for just my husband’s health? Why not my brother’s health? Why not my father’s health? Why not health of other women in the family? For that matter, why not health of all the adults in the world? Why would a culture create such a festival and why as a group we would want to celebrate it, without so much as a question?

But nevertheless, the festival is here. I have never fasted. However, in past, my husband and I have used this occasion to achieve some symbolic feats. A few things we have done to acknowledge this day (KC) are

  • Running 10 kms together: It was truly a special occasion for me since it is the only time we both ran such distance together. Although he isn’t a fan of running, he agreed to this feat since in general he is quite an active person and I love running.
  • Swimming together: My husband was advised by doctors to learn to swim and practice regularly to improve his spine health. A deadline such as KC helped him meet the target to learn and swim.
  • Meditate together for 2 hours in one sitting: Although, nowadays, this is more of a norm, we started meditating together on a KC. At that time, this has a great symbolic meaning for us, like a step towards the right path.

All these feats remind of time spent together doing some activity to strengthen our physical and mental health. For that, I am grateful to this occasion.

It’s not that I am not in favour of celebrating the festival in the traditional way. For those who like it, should definitely continue doing the same. However, those women for whom it is a compulsion, I hope they find a way out to celebrate it in a way that is most suitable to their personality and attitude.

Machiavellianism

Since I started meditating, my areas of interest have significantly moved to understanding mental processes, neuroscience, the different brain functions, especially cognitive ones. I have always been fascinated by psychology and have finally found the courage to study it academically.

The books I am devouring these days are, listed in the ascending order of time spent on each in a week:

  • A perfect murder by Ruskin Bond (light read on phone)
  • The Gene: An Intimate history by Siddhartha Mukherjee (audiobook)
  • The Neuroscience of Empathy, Compassion & Self-Compassion, edited by Larry Stevens & C. Chad Woodruff (ebook, paper copy, notes making, referencing, etc)

The last one is more of a research reading project, where I have to make notes, do side research and build a decent level of understanding about this topic. The Gene is a fantastic scientific historical read and goes well with the Neuroscience book. I was happy to aspire to be like George Mendel. However, the part about eugenics has shroud me in horror. It is too painful to accept how the development of scientific knowledge can be used as a reason to extreme cruelty. And while I am shuddering in fear of human capacity to cruelty, I try to understand the “nature” vs “nurture” aspects of the same in the Neuroscience book.

One of the personality traits associated with cruelity is Machiavellianism. Excerpts from the book:

Machiavellianism is defined as manipulating others for one’s own personal gain This behavior is most often seen in a corporate setting, with a person of high authority, such as CEO, taking advantage of others for his or her own personal benefit. It has been observed that Machiavellians are “unsupportive and inconsiderate” leaders, do not care about their partners and focus only on maximizing their own profits, are more likely than other employees to steal from the company, and are less likely to be helpful (Bagozzi et al., 2013).

Before continuing further, you can take this fun test to check your level of Machiavellianism.

https://openpsychometrics.org/tests/MACH-IV/

It is clear the smaller your test score, the lower your tendency/trait of Machiavellianism. These tests are not to be taken too seriously because it is quite easy to hack them. But they are good to understand what the concept is about. Now, in a corporate or political set up, if a leader is selfish and has Machiavellianism personality traits, his/her followers would be mostly doings unpleasant tasks to meet the goals of the leader. It is quite common to hear grievances by employees, especially on the sales side, where they had to manipulate the consumers, to meet the tough targets. Lying to sell is quite common. I don’t want to sound or be cynical but the corporate culture is such that lying and truth has a very thin line and is difficult to distinguish. For instance, Nestle had studies proving how formula is better than breastmilk in 1970ies. Recently, there is a study by NHS UK that painkillers actually kill! A lot which goes in health industry can be associated with “lying”. In fact people actually believe in the lies and hence the fading gap between truth and lies. Does this mean all humans traits are becoming more and more Machiavellianism in nature? Did this curve look different 50 years back when the test first came out? If it did, then there would be strong backing towards the element of “nurturing” impacting Machiavellianism.

Source: https://openpsychometrics.org

This debate of nature (born with) vs nurture (developed) is one I am always living with. I see two kids wrestling in the park and I remember seeing two elephant babies doing the same. It seems like wrestling has a “nature” component to it. But can it be nurture even for elephants? They are doing it because they are encouraged to do the same? No one knows! Why this debate is of extreme interest to me? Because it is directly linked to “education”. Nurture in one sense is education. Secondly, it gives a purpose to human’s existence. If nurture overpowers nature, we can achieve utopia.

Now while, I have kind of spent my entire life searching and defining “utopia”, the recent study of “eugenics” in the Gene cautions me greatly. For those who haven’t heard, here’s the first para from Wiki:

Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population. Historically, eugenicists have attempted to alter human gene pools by excluding people and groups judged to be inferior or promoting those judged to be superior. In recent years, the term has seen a revival in bioethical discussions on the usage of new technologies such as CRISPR and genetic screening, with a heated debate on whether these technologies should be called eugenics or not.

Here is another from dictionary.com

The study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable. Developed largely by Sir Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race, eugenics was increasingly discredited as unscientific and racially biased during the 20th century, especially after the adoption of its doctrines by the Nazis in order to justify their treatment of Jews, disabled people, and other minority groups.

Now, why is this so piss-in-the-pants scary? Because, it all started with “improving quality of human population”. The intentions were to do good. The outcomes were horrifying. One of the main reasons I can attribute this to, based on my study of psychology so far, is the human “natural” instinct to form groups. It has been provided by Dr. Kinzler’s study that as small as infant babies are able to distinguish between strangers who are related to them and who are not. Strangers “related” to us?! Yes, we all do that. We see/hear/meet a stranger and form an opinion about them. It is a simple question which we answer: are they “us” or “them”? Do I trust them or not? Even a 6 months old who hasn’t learnt to speak is able to do that.

As long as there are reasons to be cruel, no matter how good our intentions be, we will continue inflict cruelity. The only way to stop this cycle is to prove that “nurture” can help. And then actually find methods to help. I will continue to write on this topic since it is the core of my existence. And yours too.

Does it matter where you live?

Relocation was a virtue I grew up with. My family had relocated since last two generations. My dad left a town/village to go to metros and state capitals. My brother left the country to go to the first world. Another brother and I also spent decent time in different places. In our family, we esteem traveling as essential learning experience.

Having said all that, I have spent a last few years trying to figure out how much important it is to travel and to find a more suitable place to live/settle. I still haven’t figured it out but this post is musings of what I understand so far.

If you think about it, there is an evolutionary aspect to these wandering traits. All creatures have to move in search of food shelter and safety. I believe humans’ need to travel or relocate is hard wired within us.

However, in today’s age, this need may not have huge consequences on lifestyle, living standards, happiness or anything of substance.

A very interesting study by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kanheman, was one of the most astonishing piece of work I came across when it comes to understanding “experiences”. While best is to wwatch his Ted talk, you can consider answering this question.

Imagine you have planned a vacation. Now you get to know that after returning you would have absolutely no memory, no pictures, no evidence of the vacation. Would you still go on that vacation or would you change it? Like not go at all. Or go somewhere else? or Would you still continue with the same planned vacation?

It’s not surprising that most people chose to not go on the originally planned vacation.

What does this tell us about experiences? And our decision making process? All those who decided to change the original vacation, knew they might not entirely like the actual experience but still wanted to go for “a few good memories”, for “great pictures”. What does that mean? We would rather forsake our present for future. When told there is no future value (memories or pictures), they chose to change the vacation. They were forced to only focus on the experience they have “during” the vacation.

This can be extended to the theory of relocating as well. A lot of our search for “betterment” is driven by needs which might not necessarily give us happiness, peace or mental calmness. There are other needs which fool us and lead us to incorrect decision making (if the outcome is happiness). These needs are driven by ego, self esteem, virtues, goal setting, and pleasure, among others.

So does it matter where we live? Of course! Can there be a doubt about it?! But the real question is, how much does it matter in shaping us as individuals who we would like to become?

Are there other things more important than the place where you live in shaping you who you are? I believe there are.

I hope to do a study one day to prove or disprove my hypothesis. Amen to that!

Fixed mindset, how can I rid of you?

If you don’t know about growth and fixed mindsets, please first read about it here:

https://www.mindsethealth.com/matter/growth-vs-fixed-mindset

Credits: Taken from above link

Now, the thing is I have spent last 15 years of my life in the space of education. Actually more than those if you include volunteering years in college and first job.

As an educator, you can imagine, learner with a fixed mindset is as bad as banging your head on the wall. In fact as an educator I feel the most important job is to change the fixed mindset to growth mindset. If you achieve that, everything else will follow automatically.

The only thing I liked being an entrepreneur was the need to have a growth mindset.

https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/growth-mindset-vs-fixed-mindset

Since it is a must requirement in a small team setup, you are surrounded by people who all have growth mindset. Even after 11 years, I have managed to maintained (or blessed with) team who have high growth mindset.

But a downside to it is, I am unable to imagine life without such mindset. To me having a learning attitude towards life is similar to using oxygen to transport blood into cells. It’s just the way life exists and I am becoming intolerant towards those with fixed mindset.

I have spent a majority of my life asking the question why am I alive? I genuinely wanted to know. Being the third child in the family, clearly I wasn’t there to help someone experience parenthood. My brothers combined achieved all there was to it. Literally, there wasn’t much value add I could bring in such a crowded populated world. So I believe the question was very genuine. Though I did also spent much time regretting it. (Oh you rich girl, can’t even appreciate the gift of life!)

Thankfully the question was not only answered, it was answered perfectly. And the answer is related to having a growth mindset. Hence for me, the very existence depends on having such an attitude towards life.

So, then when I see those who simply sigh, and say, oh this and that happened to me in the past; or these are the reasons why I choose not to grow; or worst, I am not lucky or blessed like you which is why I am the way I am. I am unable to be empathetic towards them. I am unable to respect them. I am unable to connect with them.

And I am not okay with such behaviour from myself. Every human is at different stage in what I would like to call a journey. Truly blessed are those with growth mindset because it is the reality. Not said by wise men or scriptures. But proven by science. we are hard-wired to learn. It happens all the time. And so, having a fixed mindset is a lie which society forces upon many so that status-quo is maintained. So that institutions keep running. So that we don’t fall into chaos.

Where actually, if we could encourage growth mindset, the institutions will change, the world will be a friendlier, happier, inclusive place.

Kuch meetha ho jaye (let’s have some sweets)

Festival season is here. Starting with Rakhi, Independence Day, Janmashtami, Ganpati, there will be a new festival every week for the rest of the year!

And how do you celebrate a festival?

Obviously by eating sweet!!

Before I proceed with this post, let me add a disclaimer loud and clear. I love baking and I love cooking new and old recipes. But I am a conscious cook and a conscious eater. I really appreciate 1-2 laddoos once in a while, a slice of whole wheat cake to quench that craving, and love making cookie dough with my daughter and her friends. It’s our favourite activity.

However, I am seriously concerned about all the meetha (sweet) that would be forced upon me (us) in the coming few weeks. and hence this post.

When did we as human race (or a certain North Indian community) became so attached to meetha? If not traditional sweets, chocolates. If not chocolates, cookies, cakes. It’s like a sin if you don’t eat or appreciate someone offering you these items, which have absolutely no nutritional value and very little taste when eaten a lot!

Why as a group we don’t instead gift each other fruits and nuts and offer the same in festivals? Why does a sister offer her brother a chocolate bar and not an apple? Does sister not want to keep the doctor away for her brother?

Okay, let’s say, we eat apple everyday and chocolate makes it a special day. That’s why we offer chocolate instead of apple to our loved ones.

That would have been truly wonderful.

But it is also a lie.

Yesterday in a 2-3 hours long birthday party, 11 adults and 11 kids couldn’t finish one apple and one cucumber, while we almost wiped out 1 kg chocolate cake.

The fact is most of us (youngsters) don’t eat healthy, consciously. We don’t eat apple everyday. We don’t eat chocolate occasionally.

And most of all, our meaning of celebration is very unhealthy. It is either eating oily and sweet stuff, which does super harm to our body. Or it is drinking quite unhealthy stuff which again is not much help to our liver.

How can something which harms our body be a way of celebration??!

Today on Rakhi, I told my brother the only meetha you get from me is apple, orange and any other fruit of your liking. I will not offer you any piece of sugar loader crap which gives you 5 mins of taste pleasure and 5 months of bad body gain.

I seriously wish, we as a community redefine the definition of meetha. Let’s all agree fruits and dates can be very delicious too. And please LETS STOP falling for marketing gimmicks of replacing sugar with jaggery, coconut sugar and any such item. SUGAR IS SUGAR. There is plenty of it in fruits. So don’t have too many of those too!!

Be healthy, be conscious.

Spread true happiness. Not the one they project on television!

5 years

Naina turns 5 today.

As a parent, I experience a bouquet of feelings.

I am mostly grateful to so so so many people who have helped her grow into this beautiful person.

Apart from the two of us parents, I think the most substantial impact has been of caretakers, teachers at home and at daycares and schools; friends and family.

I believe parenting is a task of rediscovering and then reinventing yourself. I always thought I don’t have traits to be a good parent.

That’s why most of all, I am grateful to Vipassana. For letting me get over such negative thoughts. For helping me build positivity and develop patience and practice compassion.

Like they said, a healthy mom raises a healthy child.

I often recall the instructions they give you on airplane. Safely secure your mark before putting on the mask of your child. It’s a lesson for all times in life.

She is now officially allowed to air travel without us. She already is super independent. In a matter of years (or days?!) she should need much less and less of me.

Sometimes this though scares me. Will my process of reinventing stop? Will I go back to my old self? Hope not.

I really don’t understand why scriptures and texts say that we should respect our elders and parents.

Honestly in this 5 years as a parent, I have learnt that, we should respect EVERYTHING. It doesn’t matter if the person can’t clean his poop, or can’t eat himself or can’t speak clearly, or walk or stand or even is not a person. It is still very much capable of helping us become better versions of ourselves.

That’s what this child has done to me and I should always be grateful to her for that.

Safe and danger zones of money

Like there are two faces of a coin, there are two faces of money. 

Fear and Greed 
Either you are afraid of running out of it and living in poverty. 
Or, you are caught up in the frenzy/anxious state of getting and saving more and more and more and more of it. 
Unlike the coin, both faces of money can show up together. 
In the current state of morality in the world, where nothing is dangerous or to be wary of, money is widely misunderstood. 
We all feel having a lot of money will make us happy. We have read enough books, articles, watched movies etc to know that money can’t make you happy. It can buy you experiences. Which give you momentarily illusion of happiness. 
So, let me be v honest here. I do like having money. To be able to take a last minute flight to meet my family. To be able to donate wherever I want to. To be able to take a beach vacation and snorkel with sharks. To be able to buy a new Lego toy for my girl. And so on. 
I understand the importance of money. 
Infact, earning is my job. My responsibility. My duty. 
There is a thin line between earning/having/using money and accumulating/being attached to money. 
A simply way to find out whether you are in dangerous zone when it comes to your feelings regarding money is by asking yourself these questions. 
Say, for some reason, you lose minimum 80% of your wealth. Can you still live happily? 
Say, you couldn’t work anymore or earn anymore, would it be okay for you to ask for money/help? 
If the answers to the questions above is yes, you are in the safe zone. 
When you give money to someone in need, do you feel superior to that person? Do you feel that person is now answerable to you? 
Do you fear losing your current lifestyle? 
If the answer is yes, you are in the danger zone.
While you are in safe zone, you would bring others to that zone too. There would be less miserable people in the world suffering due to fear of losing money or due to greed of wanting more money. 
While you are in the dangerous zone, you would bring others to that zone too. You would your share your fear and greed with your family, kids and so on. 
Wishing you a life in safe zone when it comes to money. Where money can be your biggest resource, it can also become your biggest hindrance, if you are in the danger zone.
Whatever happens to you, have consequences on others too! 
Choose wisely!