The Art of Managing Priorities

The Art of Managing Priorities

The art of managing Priorities – Guidance from the Kathopanishad

How often have we faced dilemmas when confronted with conflicting choices? We may choose one thing over another. But later, we wonder if our priorities are appropriate. The Kathopinishad gives us some useful advice in this regard.

Shastras say…

One of the key tenets of the Kathopinashad, is the concept of Shreyas and Preyas, as explained by Lord Yama to the young Nachiketa. This concept helps clarify priorities in life and helps resolve seemingly tough dilemmas of “Should I be doing this or doing that instead.”

All activities can be categorized under dharma (ethically done actions and duties as per nature, circumstances), artha (actions for material well-being), kama (pursuit of desires) and moksha (liberation). Preyas stands for the first 3 kinds of pursuits, namely, dharma, artha, kama. Pursuing these initially seems to bring happiness and yet, a sense of completion remains elusive. The final “jigsaw puzzle piece” continues to go missing.

For example, the pursuit of worldly pleasures and achievements initially bring in an adrenaline-high, later leaving us bewildered or bitter, wondering why happiness seems to be a mirage. It is then that the seeker usually “wakes up” to realize that the pursuit of moksha, namely, shreyas, is the final and most significant part of life’s apparent puzzle.

Conscious choice:

Consciously choosing the path of moksha, i.e. shreyas, means that we acknowledge that the ultimate purpose of human life is moksha. With this clarity, we now proceeds to pick and choose one’s activities in the dharma-artha-kama realm, as per our circumstances, knowing these to be an important part of the bigger picture but limited in their ability in bringing lasting joy. We become fully aware that these duties serve a specific purpose and are integral milestones in one’s journey. However, now, we no longer seek in them what they are inherently incapable of giving. So we no longer whirl in the “mad carousel of life” dashing from activity to activity, or person to person, piling up material wealth (and FaceBook likes!), trying to plug that last little bit of incompletion in our lives. Finally free from the ignorance-driven chase of the mirage, we hunker down to asking, “How do I make my human life useful?” Thus this concept allows us to treat dharma-artha-kama as allies, not masters.

Clarity in priorities:

Actions under dharma, artha and kama appear in our lives like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. A leaf here, a cloud there, a house here, a road there. But without the master picture of awareness, we flounder. We fix a piece here or there, sometimes prioritizing our health, sometimes, wealth, sometimes relationships, sometimes a sense of achievement. Once the pursuit of moksha is consciously chosen, the very same pieces of the jigsaw puzzle begin to make more sense. Guided by the big picture of life, we fit each piece into its rightful slot. Then, the little dilemmas and pains begin to vanish. And we marvel at the wonder of human life and the enormous potential that it brings…

Speaking Tree: The Art of Managing Priorities, September 07, 2015

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Celebrations, Consumerism and Charity

Celebrations, Consumerism and Charity

The season of festivals has begun. Ganesh-ji has been bid adieu and plans for Navratri and Diwali have already begun. An interesting trend has been the diminishing importance given to rituals and the increasing importance given to buying things. Do we really need to dress our bodies or our homes with new possessions in order to celebrate? And when did we give permission for special days to be hijacked by consumerist market forces?

Imagine a mall…
Colour, people, products, choices and chaos. A mall is full of tantalizing promises, made by the thousands of things, that say, “Look at me”, “Pick me up, “Buy me and take me home”. So a pair of earrings tantalizes with the promise of beauty, never mind the price tag or the already-full jewellery box at home. A trendy looking pair of shoes seems like an instant passport into the world of cool. A shirt beckons simply because it is on sale, never mind the wardrobe already has enough shirts to dress a team! “Make your life better with me”, they all claim. To top it all, these products are positioned to match festivals, making the consumer feel morally justified in his or her purchase.
More products = more happiness?

And thus we often end up ignoring a critical truth: it isn’t the product that makes our life better, but what we do with it, how we use it to the most complete extent, in our lives. And this use can happen only when we truly need it. When this is forgotten we buy clothes and then must discard the old ones to save the packed wardrobe. We buy furniture that looks great but is not really necessary in our homes. We replace perfectly working cell phones with whatever is the newest model, happy like a child with a new toy. Many of us even manage to convince ourselves that these are the fruits of monetary success and hence meant to be enjoyed. “What’s the use of earning if I can’t buy things?” we ask. And a festival seems to nudge the mind towards self-indulgence. But if we were to reflect, we might find that bulging bags filled with store-bought goodies might bring a temporary rush of adrenalin but also create a vague sense of restlessness and discontent. Buying things seldom goes hand in hand with joy.
The spirit of celebration:

A better way to celebrate is to share. Call it giving, charity or generosity, the act of sharing what one has, with those who don’t have, brings a deep and profound sense of satisfaction. This is especially true during festivals, when the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in India seems stark. “But I give gifts to friends for Diwali”, we might counter. Tiruvalluvar, the poet-philosopher says: The only giving is to the poor. All else is but exchange.

Ask yourself: Can you help the domestic service providers with more than mere token gifts? Is there an orphanage nearby that might benefit from your thoughtfulness? Is there a local municipal school whose library might be grateful for a set of new books? Or, is there a shelter for elders who might value your time and gain immensely from even a modest monetary contribution?

Swami Vivekananda says:

Do not stand on a high pedestal and take five cents in your hand and say, "Here, my poor man"; but be grateful that the poor man is there, so that by making a gift to him you are able to help yourself. It is not the receiver that is blessed, but it is the giver.
It is our privilege to be allowed to be charitable, for only so can we grow.
This is the gist of all worship--to be pure and to do good to others.
--Collected Works

So make your plans for the upcoming festivals by drawing up a list – not of things to buy for yourself and the kith and kin, but of people whose face you would dress with a smile, and lives you will touch.

Speaking Tree: Celebrations, Consumerism and Charity, October 01, 2015

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The wisdom of the old, the hopes of the new…

The wisdom of the old, the hopes of the new...

As the new year arrives with fresh hopes and dreams, an interesting question could be: If Father Time could give advice to the New Year, what would it be? The following imaginary dialogue has emerged from such contemplation…

New Year (NY): “If you had to advise the world, what would you say?”

Father Time (FT) (Smiling): “Who am I to give advice? Don’t we all eventually figure out how life works?”

NY: People like lists. Would you please list 5 key points of advice?

FT (after some thought): “The first thing is to remember the principle of action-reaction. Since everything we think, speak and do, has a consequence, pay attention to the quality of thoughts, words and deeds. The second thing is to learn the art of forbearance.”

NY (Interrupting): “Isn’t that the same thing as patience?”

FT (smiling): “No, forbearance is a calm, smiling sort of patience, that allows you to graciously go with the flow of things without whining about your destiny. All of us, without fail, will encounter situations in 2016, where we don’t get what we think we deserve, or where we feel overwhelmed by the demands that life makes.

Forbearance allows us to keep working, with hope in our hearts and a smile on the face. There is no sense of helplessness, only a gracious waiting and acceptance.”

NY: “Easy to understand but difficult to practice.”

FT: “Being happy is an art, and the learning doesn’t happen easily.”

FT: “The third advice is about acceptance – of people, of events, of circumstances, of life itself. This gives us the courage to move away from self-defined formulae of “should be” and helps us discover our own, unique solutions to challenges. We often tend to resist the inevitable, create pre-determined pictures of how life ought to work out, and then make ourselves miserable when things don’t fall into place as per our plans. We need to teach ourselves how to find joy in what we have, rather than keep waiting for something to happen before giving ourselves permission to be happy. Besides, acceptance helps us become less judgmental and far more tolerant about people.”

NY: “And the fourth and fifth things?”

FT: “Be willing to adapt to the times. Don’t fear change. Old ways of thinking can seem comfortable but can be less-than-effective while dealing with the passing seasons of life. The fifth and last bit of advice - you will get what you deserve and at the right time too. Just do your part as well as you can and leave the rest to the universe.”

NY: “Thank you! Let’s hope the citizens of the world keep these in mind for a joyous, fulfilling and very happy 2016!”

Speaking Tree: The wisdom of the old, the hopes of the new..., December 11, 2015

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Ask and You Shall Receive

Ask and You Shall Receive

When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds. Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction and you find yourself in a new, great, wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive and you discover yourself to be a greater person than you ever dreamed yourself to be.
---Patanjali

As a child in school, I was taught that the Bible says, "Ask and you shall receive". It was only much later, that the wisdom of these words reached my mind and heart. New-age gurus like Dr Deepak Chopra and Rhonda Byrne speak of the “believe-receive-gratitude- model and the law of attraction. What they all say is this: when we think-breathe-speak-act-dream an idea, it becomes a part of our being and it cannot but reach fruition. How do we then go about jump-starting our lives from the humdrum to the inspired? And are there any pitfalls to watch out for? Read on…

From Theory to Practice:

  1. Make sure your dream is bigger than you are. In other words, go beyond the “my home, my workplace, my family” thinking. How can you use your skills, your work to make the world a better place? When you shine at your work and generate value for all, your immediate concerns will automatically be taken care of.

  2. Thinking big does not mean ignoring “what-if” scenarios. It simply means that we stay focused, positive and determined. We will also take care of any contingencies, in the course of action.

  3. Age, memory, past education, state of physical health and background are not limitations if the mind is free and unfettered. If you find yourself shunning new technology with “At my age, I don’t understand these things” or, giving up on activities citing a poor memory as a reason, then remember the old adage: use it or lose it! There are NO boundaries but only illusions of boundaries that we create with our own minds. Shed those and grow!

  4. Want to do something big but worried how you will ever get the resources and support that you need? The wise ones tell us that when we hold a good thought and plunge wholeheartedly into action, the right resources appear, as if by magic. The universe lends its support to the idea whose time has come. So what do you have to lose? Get started with your dream!

  5. Two little caveats:

    1. Make sure your dream is of a positive, helpful and useful nature. History also has examples of powerful people who used the tool of visualization and imagination for destruction, coming to a sad end themselves.

    2. There is a fine line between being focused and being obsessed. While a person with the latter approach may have a higher chance of being successful, remember that there is a price to pay. So tread the fine line between the two.

  6. Send an e-card or a simple message to dear ones who are facing tough times, to convey your good wishes.

Make a list of all the adjectives that you think describe yourself. Now, create a fresh list of words you would LIKE to apply to yourself. Stick this up, along with a sentence of your dream, on your desk or somewhere you can see it. Read it before you begin work each day. And one day you will be giving thanks to the Divine, for the dream fulfilled! Indeed, ask and you shall receive!

Speaking Tree: Ask and You Shall Receive, January 25, 2016

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Lend a Helping Hand to Find your Own Happiness

Lend a Helping Hand to Find your Own Happiness

"An old song from a Hindi movie, sung by the late Manna Dey, went as follows: Tum besahara ho to kisi ka sahara bano", meaning, if you are in a helpless situation or condition, become the helping-hand for someone else.
Illogical? Or wise?

On the face of it, such advice seems counter-intuitive. How can one help another person when one is feeling sad or helpless? Yet, a little analysis reveals its wisdom. When one decides to lend a helping hand to another, two things happen. First, one is able to see that pain is universal. There is an immediate sense of empathy and inter-connectedness with others and this leads to a better perspective on one's own unhappiness in life. Second, helping others allows the person to come out of self-pity and hopelessness, and feel one is useful. Whether or not the act is actually useful is secondary - the perception it creates in the doer's mind is significant.

Why helping others is good for you:
Studies at Yale University, among other places, shows that helping others leads to lower feelings of stress in the minds of the helpers.

So doing good to others actually is good for the doer of the good deed! Good deeds have been linked to a calmer mind, lower levels of stress-hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, and a feeling of well-being. Over time, one’s self-image and emotional resilience improve.

The list:
Helping others need not necessarily mean going out of one’s way to do great things. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, “We all can’t do great things, but we can all do little things with great love.” Some of the easy-to-do deeds are:

  • Call a friend who is grieving, worried or lonely; listen with empathy. Resist the urge to offer immediate solutions.

  • Cook a dish for an elderly neighbor who lives alone.

  • Offer to step in for a task for a super-busy colleague, at work.

  • Volunteer your time and help, one day a month, at a local orphanage, old-age home, or similar such place.

  • When visiting the supermarket, think of any items that could be picked up for a house-bound or elderly or busy relative, friend or neighbor, to save them from making a trip.

  • Send an e-card or a simple message to dear ones who are facing tough times, to convey your good wishes.

  • Keep a packet of biscuits, some candy, or a fruit to offer the underprivileged children found on the streets of the city.

  • Pray for the well-being of others.

Don’t wait for the perfect moment:
All too often, one avoids good deeds by focusing on one’s own troubles. The above thoughts indicate that one need not wait for life to be perfect before reaching out to help someone. Further, doing so, causes one’s own pain to appear easier to deal with. So ask yourself: In what way can I bring a smile to someone’s face today?

Speaking Tree: Lend a Helping Hand to Find your Own Happiness, February 23, 2016

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Defining the Boundaries of Duty

Defining the Boundaries of Duty

Defining the Boundaries of Duty

The spiritual seeker is sometimes assailed by questions about what exactly is duty - duty towards others, to the self and to society. These questions could be: What are the boundaries of my duty? What should I be doing for others? What about myself – am I being selfish if I want to put my interests first? How do I distinguish duty from obsession? How much is enough and when am I doing more than necessary or desirable?

Indian wisdom says – It’s all about the right knowledge + the right attitude:

Indian wisdom offers some useful pointers, in terms of the above dilemmas and questions.

  1. Align your pursuits with your Swadharma (true nature), to give value to society and find fulfillment.

  2. Duties and priorities vary as per the stage of life. Learn to adapt.

  3. Understand that there is the transactional, outer world, perceived through our senses, and a richer, far more important inner world, to be understood and experienced. Choose your duties to nourish both - the latter gives clarity to the former.

  4. With increasing wisdom, one finds that there are little or no conflicts between duties towards oneself and those towards others. So the aspect of selfishness becomes redundant. Working for others gets dovetailed into nurturing oneself - each makes the other more meaningful.

  5. It’s not an action, per se, which can be classified as “duty” or “obsession”. It’s the mindset with which the action is done that determines the same. So the same action can be either “duty”, or “unhealthy obsession”. Do I work, thinking it to be a necessary means to an end, and therefore give it my best shot, without worrying too much about getting a certain type of result? Then I am doing my duty. Or, am I hyper-vigilant and extremely attached towards reaching a certain result only, and I base my joys and sorrows based on that? Do I see the action as an end in itself, and expect my happiness to emerge from its success? This would be dangerously close to “obsession”.

  6. Work with a greater sense of purpose, beyond immediate results. “What do I want my life to be?” is a tough but question to answer, allowing us to develop a healthy perspective and sense of balance. The concept of duty towards our different stakeholders then becomes increasingly clear.

Neither too selfish, nor a martyr be:

  1. Do I have a nagging feeling of not considering others’ needs?

  2. Am I adept at finding reasons to avoid doing what I find boring or tiresome?

  3. Do I do the minimum required of me, and say, “Why do more? Others are doing only this much.”

  4. Am I clear about my priorities – people, situations, and events?

  5. Do I push myself beyond my existing physical, mental and emotional capacities, while pursuing a certain objective?

  6. Do I lose sleep thinking over tasks that are yet to be completed?

  7. Do my family members and colleagues ask me to “Just relax”?

Answering these might give us useful pointers on which part of the spectrum we stand and whether we need to re-calibrate our sense of duty.

Of course, with time and training, one would move beyond dry duty, to sweet service, where love and joy permeate the very act of doing. In the meantime, let us work with self-awareness, towards a world where duty is joyful!

Speaking Tree: Defining the Boundaries of Duty, April 19, 2016

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