By Maninder Cheema
A constant search for answers to the mystery of life led Maninder Cheema to some insightful and highly valuable lessons
You’ve been searching, looking for answers, trying to understand life, perhaps the meaning of it, the why of it. Or perhaps the meaning of your particular situation, your challenges. Why did this happen to me? Or why did that not happen to me? The search carries you to temple, church, books, gurus, scriptures, meditation, workshops, seminars, satsang. Does anything change? Do the circumstances ease? Did you get the answers? What changed?
I had this question. I did a lot of the above for many years. So what changed? Did life get easier? Did I get all that I wanted? Was it at all about getting what I wanted? Was it about happiness? What is happiness?
I used to be unhappy about my job. It was comfortable, but not exciting. Almost like a pension. This confused me. How could I be unhappy about a comfortable, secure and reasonably well-paying job? I tried to quit, change. I got a job offer. And then I chickened out at the last minute. I debated whether twice the current income would make me happier. Was it just about money? I gave up the offer. Shortly, the old job became more interesting. I was happy, the work became interesting, even exciting.
I went through this turmoil, this upheaval in my emotions, about my job. The lesson I learned from this cycle of emotions was of patience. It’s an ongoing learning. But another question that confronted me was when does patience turn into passivity and inaction? How to balance between waiting and taking action? Where does the spiritual search help in all this? Have I truly become more patient?
With whatever spiritual practice I have engaged in over the years, I am quicker to anger. It comes up like a wave, I see myself helplessly in its grip and then it just passes and disappears. Sometimes it helps to be in the gym when I am angry. The energy dissipates faster. The good thing is that anger does not simmer below the surface, waiting to explode. It just comes up and within a couple of hours it starts to dissipate. The other good thing is that I am aware that I have been gripped by this emotion. Am I patient when angry? No. Am I patient when it has passed? Yes.
Unexpressed feelings convert to passivity
I work in an organisation of about 700 people. You get to observe people in such a workplace. What strikes me a lot about people at work is passivity. Humans are naturally sensitive. They react to situations and circumstances. They feel elation and frustration in equal measure. But at work, the emotions seem carefully hidden. Emotions are energy. If they arise and are not expressed, they will transform into some other shape. Unexpressed emotions are the most common cause of illness. At work, unexpressed emotions transform into a curious passivity. Large organisations become insensitive. A disconnect happens between emotions and work. The worker, disconnected from his own emotion, cannot connect to the emotion of who he is serving. In government service, it comes across as apathy towards the public. There is numbing of sensitivity, first towards oneself and then towards others.
Numbness was my first challenge as a seeker. I could feel neither joy nor sadness. I was numb. It’s a defence against pain. A lot of work went into defrosting myself. Our culture values numbness. And though self-control is a virtue, numbness is not. The two get mixed up. Self-control happens when you are alive to an emotion and are able to transcend it. Numbness happens when you lose awareness of the emotion, but the emotion is very much present.
The space within
Numbness can generate passivity, cruelty, self-destruction, depression and so on. It is the mask behind which a volcano builds up. As the numbness loosens, passivity reduces. It becomes clearer when to act and when to wait. Whether to act and when to act are questions which have bothered me a lot, considering my tendency to rebel. In my very first job, I felt that my employer was not paying proper attention to his duties. Not having the courage to tell him on his face, I wrote it all down and handed him a letter to read. In my view I was acting to right a wrong. The result was a termination letter on my desk the next day. This was very confusing for me. I did not understand what I did wrong. I swallowed my pride, apologised, and the termination letter was withdrawn. I have faced similar situations since, where I felt something was wrong. It was a slow learning to act rather than react. Action comes from a clear space, reaction from a place of suppressed emotions.
As you lose numbness, as you become free of the smouldering volcano inside, you learn to act rather than react. You come from a peaceful place, a surer space. You are not so caught up in the effect of your action, and are more interested in the action itself. Consequently, the results are better. Results mirror the space from which the action springs. If the action is coming from a violent space, results will reflect the violence. If the action comes from a peaceful place, the results are more positive.
Watch the drama
Life constantly throws situations at you. The first lesson is to act rather than react. The second lesson is a sense of perspective, an ability to stand back and see the drama of it all. The greatest learning has been the ability to appreciate the drama of life. When something dramatic happens with anyone, they often use the expression “It was just like in the movies.”
To be part of a movie-like situation seems to be the highest thrill people enjoy. And people enjoy all types of movies – sad, tragic, horror, action, comedy, romcoms. People enjoy anything which moves them deeply. And life moves us deeply. Life is far more dramatic than any story or movie. If I stand back a little, I notice the drama of life, and the drama of my life. Here I am in the grip of pure jealousy, and there I am feeling compassion. Here I am crestfallen, not knowing what to do next, and there I am hopeful and confident of the next step. It changes day-to-day. The more I see the drama of it, the more it allows me to experience fully whatever I am going through. This is what my search for truth gave me, the understanding that life is about experiencing fully whatever is before me, not resisting it, not fighting it, but surrendering to the drama of the present moment. Our mythology tells us that you cannot experience drama in heaven. There you can experience only bliss and that gets bland after some time. So you come here for the drama of it. Then why run away from the drama? You realise that at some level since you have yourself created all the drama in your life you might as well experience it fully.
Does spiritual pursuit help in other ways? Does it help materially? What is the relationship between spiritual evolution and prayer? I remember asking this question to a learned guru. The answer again is perspective. The ability to see the larger picture, the ability to appreciate the workings of the universe. I might want a particular outcome, but if it is not in my best interest, it may not materialise. Something completely different may happen. Tragedy happens. Someone I know lost a baby. Someone else was implicated falsely in a case. Another person lost a grown son. My mum fell and broke her hip. The guru who I asked this question to said there is protection. Those who align themselves with Truth don’t stop facing tragedy, but there is protection. If you look carefully, you can see how the fall has been softened, how you have found the strength to carry on. Plus you are not so caught up in self-pity. Life happens. You understand the meaning of neither being too happy nor too sad. You understand that ultimately everything passes. It’s only a matter of time. You get lighter, even when it’s heavy. You don’t attach yourself to the pain, you can let it flow away. You can reach your deepest essence, which is untouched by the external world.
We are one
There are two other lessons which are immensely helpful. You never really lose anyone. You can connect with their essence anytime. The physical presence may not be there, but their essence is always reachable. And you can never really hate anyone because each person is a reflection of yourself. Each person is created from the same source and is just playing out a certain role. I try to remember that every person does the best he or she can for himself in a given situation. These two lessons are not easy. I have been upset by as small a thing as my plant dying. Today I found someone had broken a beautiful flourishing plant into two, rent it at the stem. There was an immediate impact on my energy. It felt pulled down, off. But an hour later, I was back to normal. Whoever did it must have had his compulsions. I was able to let it go. Bigger things are more difficult to let go of. But I have found I cannot move on unless I let go. If I hold on to a bad thing, I get stuck with it, in the past. The quicker I accept and let go, the easier life is for me, the lesser I simmer in the pot of anger and resentment, or grief and sadness.
Fulfillment and acceptance
The one thing I find hard to assimilate in my spiritual journey is the use of spiritual teachings to fulfill your desires of fame, wealth, success, family, or progeny. A lot of these desires may be fulfilled in the natural course, but in every human being’s life there is one or the other area where they struggle. Someone cannot have children, someone has an unhappy family life, someone cannot find a partner, someone is not succeeding in business or career. I am reminded of two stories from Sikh tradition that I heard in my youth. There was an old woman who was not able to have children. She was advised to seek from the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. He told her children were not in her destiny. As advised to her by other disciples, she responded by saying, “You are the writer of destinies. Please write it if it’s not in my destiny.” With this she handed him a paper and pen. Moved by her devotion, he took the paper. As he was writing 1, his horse moved and it became a 7. She went on to have seven sons. Her desire was fulfilled by virtue of her devotion.
In the other story, there was a deeply pious man who was said to be enlightened. On the wedding day of his son, he was seen stitching together sheets for people to sit. Someone asked him what he was doing. He responded, “After the wedding, my son is going to die. I am preparing sheets for people to sit for the mourning.” This story always shocks me by the degree of acceptance and surrender depicted and the total absence of desire for a different outcome.
I suppose desire is what makes creation perpetuate itself and humans will continue to be moved by desire. The second story belongs to the rare human who has let go of desire, of the ideal towards which spiritual striving takes us.
About the author : Maninder Cheema is based in Mumbai and works with SEBI. Searching for answers to the puzzle of life is her engaging interest.
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