On one such visit, just a few months back, I was rummaging through old books and papers that were slowly turning into dust. They lay in ancient trunks tucked away behind other ancient trunks and cartons under my parents’ bed. I found a large plastic folder, inside which were things that I had put together as a teenager one time when we were moving house. It contained things – mainly documents and pieces of writing - that I thought were important at that point of my life. Over the next few hours, the papers made me smile. For many reasons. I smiled because what seemed important then and what seems important now are at such great variance. I smiled at the illusion of permanence that seems so real at all times. And I smiled as I realized how little mistakes often lead to big things. Here are three little big mistakes that I am learning from and what they mean to me.
Honoring your parents
This sounds obvious, and I will have to get personal in order to put it in perspective. I know that my disclosures are safe with you. If you do choose to dishonor my confidence, I will accept that your need to violate my trust was greater than my conviction.
We live in times when it is not just fashionable to blame all the troubles in your life on your parents, but also terribly convenient. Modern science tells us that almost everything that could possibly go wrong with this complex organism called me can be tracked back to parenting. We have parenting classes, parenting blogs, and self-help groups for those scarred beyond repair by the lives of their parents. I have spent many years of my adult life believing that I would have had a “better shot” at life if only parents had been, for the lack of a better word, more “parently.” I have always been open about this feeling, and that has made life more complicated, since at a conscious level people do not always understand that love and hate are really the same deluded belief.
Of course, we are shaped largely by the actions of our parents. Moreover, it is possible to believe and wish that they could have done better. The truth is that if they could have, they would have. For some time, I justified their not “having done better” by telling myself that they didn’t because they couldn’t and they couldn’t because I was not important enough for them. It was only after I became a parent myself that I saw the fallacy of my thinking. Nobody plays to lose.
(Children of the future, we are sorry. We did not mean to leave you the mess we have. We knew what we were doing, but damn, you lost out to our profits, our petty wars, and our air-conditioning. )
The truth is that all that we are, from our “largest” achievement to our “smallest” doubt, from our gladness for new mornings and our sadness at our own inhumanity, from our ability to see ourselves as a piece of a bigger picture to the ability to read and reflect on what we are reading and reflecting on now, none of it would have been possible were it not for our parents. Our life, our vitality, our faculties, our ability to think, speak and act are all direct, inviolably direct, gifts from our parents. No matter how loudly you crib, you could not have done it without your parents.
Our births are not random biological events. We choose to be born to parents who carry with them the lessons we need to become who we are meant to be. We can spend a lifetime battling our circumstances, resisting and even hating the life that our parents held out to us, but true victory will always be waiting on the other side of acceptance and gratitude.
My parents are nuts. If you know them, you know exactly what I mean. If you don’t, please believe me. However, it is precisely their being nuts that allowed my brother and me to survive. I doubt we would have survived any other set of parents other than ours. Yet, as a younger person, I often looked at my friends and envied their stable, well-planned, well-provided-for, boring homes and lives. This transition from blame to acceptance (if not gratitude) is crucial, since it is the key to being able to honor them. Honoring one’s parents is the foundation of the future. Without this foundation, the future is not one worth talking about.
I realized this mistake of mine during what is known as "the lost years" of my life. Of course, I am mistaken there too, since it really was a most enlightening time. I realized that one gets to know who is there for you only when all your chips are down. My parents (and my wife, but then that is another story altogether, one of lifetimes, discipleship and birthings) stood by me like a rock, even when I was on the verge of losing faith in life and in myself. They held me up and helped me stand when they themselves were in greatest need of succor. As I struggled to stay afloat, they taught me how choices are not always how we see them. The very people I considered cranky, fickle, and undependable, turned out to be the ground beneath my feet.
Have they suddenly stopped being cranky, fickle and undependable? No. Instead, I have realized how cranky, fickle and undependable I am, and guess who is responsible for that!! Just kidding, but in the process of seeing them for what they are to me, these aspects have not only been overshadowed by the immeasurable debt of gratitude, but have also turned into an wickedly enjoyable (and sometimes annoying for sure) delight, a celebration of all the ten worlds we all dwell in at all times.
Failing to honor your parents seems like a small mistake and often not a mistake at all. After all, we all honor our parents, we call them Ummiji or Bapi or whatever. We get them gifts on Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day. Nevertheless, true honor is only when it comes without reservations, without conditions. They are who they are, they did what they did, and I am thankful for all of it. And I love them for all of it. And I am indebted to them for all of it. All of it. Try it. It might take a while, but you will know the freedom only when you get there. The fun of this process lies in going through with it, and then realizing that it was a springboard you were being led on to.
Honoring your teachers
When I look back, there are only a few teachers – right from junior school through university – that I had a strong bond with. Even with them, over the years, my connection faded out as I went about building my life. Yet, there are many teachers, not all in academic settings, who contributed to making me who I am. Some of them introduced me to mathematics – the foundation of all expression, while others taught me about the rhythm that underlies all of creation. Some taught me about gravity, while others helped me pronounce and laugh at idee fixe. From some I learned why history was important, and from others I learned to leave the past behind. Most of them taught without teaching – by being examples of what one should be. Some of them taught me by being what one should not be.
While I have received their teaching, at varying levels and at varying times, I realize that it was not always reciprocated with acknowledgment, gratitude or praise. It is more like, heck, I deserved it, or I have paid for it, or on good days, I would have learned it one way or the other. Honoring those who teach you the lessons of life is the culmination of your own learning and opens you up for greater compassion, new insights, and fresh horizons.
Like the wandering minstrel who would turn up once a week at our doorstep, singing praises of the creator, accompanied by his manjeera, his possessions hanging from his shoulder in a hand-sewn cloth bag. All he did was sing about the glory of God. He lived off whatever alms he gathered. When we first moved into the locality several decades back, he was white-haired, wrinkled, and had a smile that spoke of the mysteries of love. This time, a few months back, my brother and I encountered him, and the years had bent him a little, but little else had changed. His eyes still sparkled as he took out his hand-cymbals and broke into song, and his smile still spoke of the mystic wonder of love and devotion. More than the secret meeting with Christ behind a parked truck after school, more than the fever that the writings of Vivekananda left me with, more than the lure of Buddha and Mahaveera to leave it all behind, this old man introduced me to the concepts of commitment, frugality, and deliberate living.
He is just one example. Not all my teachers were the Odessa Collective type. There was the brother of a very powerful man who would take us on tours to see the angels in the architecture of old Kolkata buildings and then tie them in to the history of Rome, Athens and British India. There was the grandaunt who taught me about forbearance and attention and the power of joy, and she did this by making bunnies from her folded sari pallu and by making the most perfect consistency custard in the world. It was only much later that I fully understood the tragic circumstances of her life. To us, to the day she died, she was a source of joy and courage.
Then there have been those who have been unkind or unfair. Those who have been harsh and intolerant. Those who have abused and oppressed. To all, I give thanks today. Would I have minded if some of the lessons were easier on me? Sure not, but well, no guarantees I would have been who I am today without the joy, the wonder, the mystery or the pain that my teachers brought to me.
May I invite you to take a moment to think about the teachers in your life, and find ways to honor them? Nothing you do might truly be enough, but it will be infinitely better than not to have tried at all. Go ahead. Try it. You will be surprised at how this small step will change your life and your outlook on it. Let me know how it works for you.
Honoring life itself
The last 300 years of our history have been about the individual, about progress, and about supremacy. We believe that we are all the things that we proudly call human civilization. We learn to excel at school, to rank at the head of the class, to go to a good college and find a good job. We choose our partners and we start families, earn money and build assets. We pursue and find power and success. Through it all, we are told that we are the ones who did it; we are the ones who have arrived. It is all about us.
The mistake here lies in not seeing our interconnectedness and our roots. We are all nothing but the expression of life wishing to know itself, to intend and manifest, to reach upward, a little higher with each iteration. This reaching higher plays out as per absolute and universal rules. Seeing ourselves in isolation, as the ones who beat the Joneses, is the big lie.
How does one honor life itself? How does one defer to the force of life wishing to know and manifest itself? Strangely, this is one of the simplest mistakes to rectify. In fact, it does not even need rectification. All it needs is for you to let go of the mask. When you see beyond the illusion of self to the reality of being nothing more than an entity of the mystic law of the simultaneity of cause and effect, you not only move on to the realm of happiness, insight and freedom, but you also realize the immense value of your being.
Honoring life means seeing yourself as part of a larger whole, it means seeing all other beings, sentient and nonsentient, as essential parts of that same whole. This understanding immediately ends a million processes in our prized emotional RAM. We learn to appreciate our journey together, we learn to lend and receive a helping hand, and we learn how precious life itself is. This mistake, as I pointed out earlier, is the easiest to rectify, but at the same time, the hardest to let go of entirely. We will be plagued by prejudice, pride, and powerlessness. Yet, as long as we do not completely surrender to the tsunami that life’s desire to know and manifest itself is, we will continue to be deprived of the very things that we fear deprivation of the most.
I must admit here that writing this post itself has been a process of seeing and acknowledging some of the mistakes that I continue to make. I must also admit that if you have read this entire post (which should take an average adult - at 300 words per minute - a little more than 8 minutes, but then who reads a blog post for 8 minutes any more!!), you have not only helped me rectify some of them, but also embarked on a journey of your own, even if you cannot see it now. Like a seed waiting in the summer soil, the need to course-correct has been sown in you, and it will blossom when the time is right. All you have to do it throw the umbrella away and let Dharma rain.