50 Life Lessons is former editor-in-chief of Life Positive Suma Varughese’s newly published book. Its rich store of wisdom and insights will help you lead a happy, successful, and vibrant life, says Rajeshwari Prakash.
I confess to feeling some trepidation when asked to interview Suma Varughese, former editor of Life Positive and Society magazines, about her new book, 50 Life Lessons: A Practical Guide on How to Maximise Happiness. Suma had been my boss, soon became a wise friend I could turn to, and more recently, my writing mentor. I picked up her book with great joy as her writing has always touched a chord in me.
Suma’s personalised set of lessons is a combination of personal incidents and stories that allowed me to see the bigger picture. As I turned the pages, it seemed like Suma was talking to me over the phone—warm and non-judgemental, urging me to go ahead and create a glorious life for myself.
Suma begins by saying that she follows the dictates of her inner guide and, at retirement, felt ready to step into the new path and dream that was unfolding. Her awakening at age 33 had filled her with a deep understanding of life and how to lead it. From then on, she worked hard to grow beyond being a fearful, limited, and unconfident person to becoming the person she was meant to be. Drawing on these tough experiences in order to recommend complementary life lessons, the book’s explanations of ideas like ‘It is the other person’s happiness that counts’ and ‘Failure can also, if we are not careful, emerge out of success,’ are written with a warm vulnerability.
My favourite lesson? Lesson #22. Yet I know that the pages of this book are ones I will visit time and again. And my favourite lessons will change as I go about trying to live life vulnerably.
In this interview, Suma explains how to cultivate the wisdom we need to unlock the puzzle of life and maximise our happiness.
Suma, would you say that the 50 lessons you have shared in your book would help anyone navigate life?
Thanks to my spiritual awakening, Raji, and all the insights that flooded me, I felt I knew how to live. The woman sage Gargi asks the great Yajnavalka a question in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: “What is it, knowing which you know everything?” And Yajnavalka responds that it is Brahman. I also felt that knowing the design of life gave me a perspective I could use for everything in life. I do feel that post the awakening, I have lived my life congruently. I have overcome all the challenges life threw at me. I have succeeded in the duties entrusted to me. I have increased my stores of energy, joy, enthusiasm, vitality, and life. So why not pass these on to others?
These life lessons that I have shared with readers are a combination of sound spiritual principles and practical tips on managing situations. The book will benefit any reader as long as they are willing to use its wisdom. I have shared my own life and experiences liberally because the reader should know that these lessons are lived every day of my life. I know that life is a profound enigma to most of us and that we often flounder in our decision-making and leading life wisely. I hope this book will enable the reader to negotiate life more thoughtfully and that it will help them maximise their happiness and minimise pain.
Every page of your book is full and rich, filled with snippets about happiness. And you say you managed to put together the jigsaw puzzle of life some 30-odd years ago. Tell us more.
The primary insight that my awakening gave me was that true happiness was attained through focussing on the other’s happiness. I noticed that the more I prioritised the happiness of the other, the happier I was getting. When I was no longer pursuing my personal happiness, it came home to roost. That made me realise that we were never meant to chase happiness. We were meant to get it only by making those around us happy.
This seminal experience unfolded many insights. For one thing, I understood that if we are meant to get our happiness by focussing on the other and not ourselves, then it meant we were connected and not separate as science told us we were. This aligned me with the teachings of Vedanta.
My second insight was a thrilling one. If there was a design to life then obviously there was a designer—ergo, God. And that enabled me to finally return to God, who I had rejected at the age of 14.
The third insight revolved around the purpose of life. It became clear to me that we took incarnation on Planet Earth to grow. Prioritising the happiness of the other was hard work. It demanded excruciating strength from me, and each time I did so, I found I had grown a bit. I understood then that the real purpose of living was to grow and to secure this absolute sense of happiness. All the other goals like money, fame, and power were simply trivial in comparison.
Although the capacity to transcend my ego left me in a year’s time, the great truths I discovered have been the cornerstone of my understanding of life and they have helped me lead a happy and successful life.
Many of us resist the flow of life. And you have shared your own felt experience of that state. Why do you think we do this?
It is the nature of the human condition itself, Raji. We are programmed to crave the pleasant and shy away from the unpleasant. That being so, we judge and evaluate every moment, and when we find something which triggers our fear, anger, frustration, guilt, or shame, we resist it with all our might. So much of it is unconscious. We are not even aware of how much tension and stress we carry in the body or how taut our nerves are until something causes us to relax. And then we find what a burden we have been carrying!
The primary cause for the resistance is our ego-self. Our sense of separation from the Source is the sole reason for the insecurity, loneliness, and conflict that we experience on the Earth plane. Well, that’s the game—the Lila that the Creator designed for us humans. And our job is to make our way back to union with the Divine by dissolving the ego. Most definitely the hardest thing we can ever do.
Fortunately, we are programmed for this as well. Science tells us that there is a God spot in our brain that makes us amenable to spiritual experiences. And we also have the kundalini, a potent source of energy curled in our tailbone. This energy only awakens when our time has come, and its job is to give us the strength we need to transcend the ego and arrive at enlightenment.
Would you say that once one has a glimpse of the true nature of the Self then one can more easily shift away from the ego and embark on a journey to dismantle the latter?
Oh, yes. Most definitely. For one thing, once you have tasted the bliss of the enlightened state, you will stop at nothing to make this your permanent state. As far as I was concerned, I was determined that I would die in the process but I would never stop pursuing enlightenment.
Secondly, knowing the state of enlightenment directly clarifies everything for you. For instance, I no longer believe in God. I know God. I no longer believe in interconnection. I know that it is the reality. One moves away from mere beliefs and operates directly from knowledge. So your understanding is much more potent.
Moreover, you are no longer just drifting along, looking for something indefinable. You know the goal, and if you are lucky, you also know the path to the goal. In my case, I was extremely fortunate that my sadhguru, or inner guide, was awakened and always guided me. I always knew what the next step was.
Finally, when you have an experience like this one, you feel sure that you are going to achieve that goal in this lifetime itself. This gives you a certainty that enables you to keep going no matter how often you stumble and fall—and I have done a lot of that. So yes, I may be speaking too soon, but I am very sure I am destined for enlightenment in this lifetime itself.
Oneness is something you touch upon repeatedly in your book. Does Oneness transcend faith and religion? Are we looking at something truly inclusive?
Absolutely, Raji. Oneness is the most beautiful concept ever. It is the highest and most inclusive understanding of life. There can be nothing higher, deeper, or broader than that. It includes everything, even the pesky mosquito, the clod of soil in a distant field, and cobwebs in a deserted house. Everything is part of the One. And therefore, we are all on an equal plane. No one is better or worse than the other.
Although this truth has been the essence of many religions, and their founders lived it, subsequently, it has been obscured over time by the egoistic ignorance of clergy who used religion to control and oppress the believers or to assume a posture of superiority and exclusivity over others. Oneness is above all this. It opens up its arms to all and sundry. The welcome sign over its head never dims in radiance. And I venerate our Indian scriptures, particularly the Upanishads, for reiterating it time and time again. Almost nowhere else is the truth of Oneness written with as much clarity as in these scriptures. The great Mahavakyas speak this truth vividly: “Tat tvam asi (I am that)”; “Aham Brahmasmi (I am God).”
So not only are we connected on the basis of being part of the One, but we are also divine. The Creator and created are one! Can you imagine this? What a revelation! Just imagine how we would live if all of us experienced this as the truth and operated from it. I am convinced that the Spiritual Age that we are moving towards will have its basis in Oneness and that all its systems too will operate from that perspective.
How exactly would we live if we knew we were One?
Well, firstly, all exploitation, destruction, conquest, and control games would cease. How can I destroy the environment if I am One with it? How can I dominate or conquer my fellow human beings if I am One with them? How can I look for loopholes in the system if the system and I are One? Because if I am One with all that is, then anything I do to the other, I am doing to myself only.
When we will live in the vision of Oneness, we will actively strive to secure the welfare of others. In all that we do, we will keep our sights on the larger good—because that is where our good lies too. We will do work that benefits the world and not only ourselves. We will invent products and services that benefit everyone and harm no one, unlike the products of today which are the result of a fractured and separatist worldview and, therefore, always have a side effect. When all of us will work for the larger good, it follows that we will live in and create an environment of peace, love, joy, and harmony. People will no longer try to get their highs from egoistic pleasures or materialistic goods, because they will have access to the real joy of life, which emerges from serving; loving; giving; enjoying nature, arts, and crafts; and fellowship with one’s family and friends. I honestly do not know if I will see this reality, but I will never stop working for it as long as I live.
Is it possible—because true nature is present here and now, though covered over—that this can show up unexpectedly even though we have not gone through the same extensive training as the great masters we admire?
Of course, Raji. For one thing, collective consciousness is becoming more and more evolved which makes it so much easier for us to progress spiritually. If you read some of the old spiritual texts, you will come across aspirants who stood on one leg for 100 years and then on the other leg for another 100 years. How much easier is our path in comparison! Moreover, everyone has a unique awakening, and even some who had seemed completely set for a regular materialistic life will find themselves chosen and set on the path, whether they like it or not.
This happened to Nan Umrigar, who was a member of high society and whose life revolved around the racetrack. However, when her son Karl, a champion jockey, died suddenly during a race, she was heartbroken. In her eagerness to contact Karl, she learnt automatic writing and imbibed the secrets of spirituality from him. Or look at Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of Now. All it took for him to be established in enlightenment was one powerful spiritual experience! Of course, none of this is ever a coincidence. Such people would have worked very hard in an earlier lifetime.
There is a wealth of material out there about happiness, attaining a state of peace, and winning our inner battles. Is there a shortcut to happiness?
Ha ha. You are asking someone who has been walking the path for more than 30 years! So I can truly say that if there is a shortcut to happiness, I have not discovered it. It has taken me so long, and I honestly feel that I could not have done it sooner. There was so much conflict within me and so many contradictions. I was half sattvic and half tamasic with hardly a trace of rajas, and to reconcile the two has taken me so much time. The sages do say that in Kalyug, the swiftest path is that of bhakti—love. So try that!
Suma, you have written books, articles, given talks, and are always eager to share your ideology. What is your long-term objective with your writing? Do you hope to see a change in society?
My long-term objective, Raji, is to help pave the way for the Spiritual Age or Golden Age or whatever you would like to call it. I feel sure that it is only a matter of time before this age will dawn, and for the last 30 years, everything I have done has that as my objective. Do I hope to see a change in society? I sure do. At the same time, I know that this change is not in my hands. As the Bhagavad Gita wisely puts it, we have no right over the fruit of our work. We only have a right over our work. So I am just doing my best to broadcast the message everywhere I can.
There is a lovely saying I just read: “We cannot force someone to hear a message they are not ready to receive. But we must never underestimate the power of planting a seed.” That is what I do. Planting seeds everywhere I can, even through my writing workshops, where the focus is on going within and writing from an authentic space. However, the most powerful thing I am doing is to change myself. Ultimately, that is all we can do to create change in society. Be the change. So I have been working on myself steadfastly and have made sufficient progress to feel that my time on Earth is not in vain.
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