Seize the opportunity of life
The whole of life is an opportunity to love, learn, evolve, serve, and grow in manifold ways, says Nandini Sarkar
Life is an opportunity to express joy. “Impossible!” you say. “Life is a terrible nightmare, filled with heartbreak, losses, disease, injustice, and oppression.” You may find yourself saying, “Oh God, you created us for your own fun, but we are having such a miserable time!”
This year, I am going to turn fifty. So, with all the confidence of a person who has hit a half-century and has been through numerous experiences, good and bad, happy and sad, and has observed numerous people, I can share my liberating discovery.
“Life is an opportunity to be joyous and at ease, irrespective of the outward circumstances.”
“That’s only so much empty gyan. How can I actually do this?” you may say. As a starting point, it is always helpful to look for role models, who went through hell to get to heaven.
Arunima Sinha, sportsperson and mountaineer, has turned tragedy into opportunity. At 23, her leg was amputated, and she was disabled for life. Just two years later, at 25, she had climbed Mt Everest with an artificial leg and an injured spine! Today, she is all the rage on social media and is inspiring millions with her fantastic story. At 23, national volleyball player, Arunima Sinha, was thrown out of a moving train by four men, who were trying to snatch her gold chain. She lay in pain the whole night on the railway track, screaming for help and bleeding profusely. Rodents fed on her wound. 49 trains passed over her. The next morning, she was finally discovered and taken to hospital. Her leg was amputated. Her spine was fractured. She spent six months in hospital. She and her family also suffered the indignity of national newspapers describing this as a suicide attempt on her part! Fed up with people’s pity—What will she do with her life now? She’ll never get married—and the demeaning publicity, Arunima decided she must do something impossible to make people realise her true worth. She decided to climb Mt Everest! She did not go home after being released from the hospital.
With the support of her brother-in-law, Bhai Sahib, she went straight to meet Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to have scaled the Everest. With Bachendri’s warm support and encouragement, she trained in mountaineering for two years. She also received a sponsorship of `50 lakhs from the magnanimous corporate, Tata Steel, for her Everest journey.
You don’t need oxygen—get courage!
At 10.55 am on May 21, 2013, Arunima Sinha achieved her goal. After an arduous 52-day climb, she unfurled the Indian flag at the top of Mount Everest. Her excitement knew no bounds. “I felt like throwing my arms in the air and screaming,” she says about her moment on Mount Everest. “I wanted to tell everyone that I’m on top of the world, especially to those people who thought a woman and an amputee couldn’t do it. I took off my mask and screamed, and my Sherpa (guide) just stared at me.”
Arunima faced continuous adversity head-on, firmly believing she had nothing to lose. As a drowning man grasps at any straw, she grasped misfortune with both hands, turning it into a life-changing opportunity. Arunima’s example tells us that what takes us to the end of the world can bounce us back to the top of the world if we can face our fears, be patient, and persevere.
Now, from the top of the world, Arunima sees her future life as a fresh opportunity to train handicapped children in sports. Her project needs `25 crores, and she states she doesn’t even have `25,000! “But this doesn’t deter me,” says Arunima. “I climbed the world’s highest peak when I didn’t have a leg. What, then, is 25 crores?” Arunima is an inspiration on how to live with joy and courage. I don’t remember writing another article where I put in so many exclamations!
Each moment of life is an opportunity for self-growth. And opportunity mostly comes disguised as adversity. While the moment to seize a lucrative opportunity may not come every day, life, without a doubt, is an opportunity to grow and evolve consistently. Only when you have done the required inner and outer work does the life-changing opportunity fall in your grasp. Viewed this way, each moment of your life becomes a precious opportunity to review it, tweak and make amends, and become a better version of yourself. Not only that; opportunities make themselves available to us only when we are grateful for whatever we have in life. If we are arrogant, critical, entitled, and ungrateful, we will soon see the river of opportunity dry up before our eyes. Mostly, our eyes open up at the fag end of our lives when we realise that lost time and opportunity cannot be regained.
Value what you get
It seemed unbelievable when I first read that most people see relationships as the No. 1 major missed opportunity in life.
The opportunity to have been kinder or more useful to people who loved you, the opportunity to have forgiven those who hated you or whom you hated, the opportunity to have interacted more with people and to keep in touch, and the opportunity to have expressed your love and feelings—the list of failed opportunities in relationships is endless.
Recently, while in the Andamans, I became friendly with a highly qualified and sophisticated lady doctor. She was a gynaecologist and oncologist in her sixties. She was single and had never married. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the major regret this lady had was missing the opportunity to get married. She was constantly commenting on the behaviour of honeymooning couples around us. She told me that she envied her sister, who had her husband taking care of everything in her life. Right up to her late thirties, her parents had tried several times to arrange her marriage. Each time, she had found fault with something or the other, which, by the way, had nothing to do with the man. She rejected one man because his family didn’t have proper carpets in their home, another because he took her for a walk to Lodi Gardens rather than the fancy Maurya Sheraton Hotel in Delhi and the third because his English wasn’t good enough. It went on like this. Her snobbishness and concern with the man’s social status rather than his qualities proved to be her nemesis. Finally, marriage didn’t happen. Now, in her sixties, with her parents dead and gone, and siblings settled abroad, she deeply feels the pain of loneliness. She also told me her other major regret was not expressing her love to the man she had fallen for in her house surgeon days.
You are not alone
“Two thoughts come to my mind,” I replied. “First, of course, you had to pay the price for not appreciating people’s qualities and rejecting them for their social status, looks, and other superficial things. The second: each of us must spend at least one lifetime, if not several, all by ourselves. This is part of the journey back home, to understand, that we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience. Whether we like it or not, each one of us will be given opportunities to be alone, then taught to convert loneliness into an experience of divine silence, and in that silence, learn to hear the voice of God and experience Oneness. It is our spiritual destiny to go back to the Oneness and then enjoy life with that spiritual connection. So, the singleness that is bothering you so much today could be bothering me in my next life, where I could find myself single and alone.”
I got a taste of this recently when I had to spend several months with my daughter in Mumbai. I had opted for work from home to be with her when she moved to a new city. I knew no one and no one knew me. The silence in the house was deafening since my daughter was out for work the whole day. Initially, I tried to fill up the silence by doing various chores around the house apart from my work, but nothing was able to fill up my sense of emptiness. Soon, I decided to calm down and see this as my cave in Mumbai, an opportunity for sadhana. I decided to experience the isolated life of the Himalayan yogis and to embrace the silence with joy. I was richly rewarded for my efforts. Not only did I grow in patience and acceptance, but towards the end of my stay, the most majestic parrot I had ever seen, with brilliant colours and the longest tail you can imagine, visited me. It sat on the railing of our 32nd-floor apartment, looking at me through the French windows, as I sat in the adjacent study. I thought it had come for food, so I quickly brought it some green chillies. While it neatly separated the seeds from the skin and ate the chillies, that was apparently not its reason for coming. It spent a good three to four hours with me, joining me and moving around with me when I went into the study for a teleconference. To have a creature from the wild swoop into my balcony and then enter my study and spend hours with me was a mind-blowing experience. It felt like a magical signal from the Universe: you are not alone, so don’t stop in your efforts.
Liberation from fear
Fear of rejection and fear of failure are two great hurdles put before the magnificent world of opportunities. For fortune favours the brave. If you have not overcome your apprehensions, you might fail to cash in on the best chances offered by life. Like any other race, we must train ourselves to cross the hurdles. Man is body, mind, and spirit. So, this training must access all three levels of being. At a spiritual level, it calls for an inquisitiveness to know the meaning of life and to be aware of its true purpose. At an emotional level, it calls for love and service to others and being unselfish. At a physical level, it calls for acquiring the right skills and constantly learning how to do things better.
I was very fortunate to be asking these questions at a very early age: “Who am I? Why am I here? Who made God?” at a very early age. It saved me from the existential crisis I see many youngsters go through today because a lot of things just don’t make sense when seen superficially. My deep desire to know the secrets of the Universe led me to my spiritual Master, at the age of seventeen. His spiritual friendship and wisdom gave me the courage to face fear and to keep going with faith. It takes time and effort to build spiritual muscle but it is so worth it. Master said: if you look fear in the face, it ceases to bother you. I have faced fear many times in my life, especially after co-founding our company, C-Quel. Through C-Quel and the many, many challenges a business must go through, I am learning, first hand, to convert fear into opportunity. It started with making the big leap from a steady job to starting a business. I was so afraid at first. In the initial days, I had severe palpitations and anxiety attacks.
I did not like calling up people and seeking work. But we did not see quitting as an option either and decided to just hang in there somehow. Over the last 18 years in business, we have been through two major office fires, some betrayals, some lean times, huge amounts of money stuck in the market, and assured large contracts never materialising. But we have gained enormously from market goodwill, seeing C-Quel among India’s top consulting companies, serving lakhs of employees in corporates, contributing to the #MeToo movement in India, making consistent suggestions to the Government of India on labour reforms, getting multiple new work opportunities in different consulting areas, the admiration and respect of Fortune 500 clients…I can go on and on. The initial sweat and tears and fear that we wouldn’t survive another year have slowly but steadily given way to a deep faith: if we work with the pure intention to serve and we do our work with love, opportunities will keep coming.
Love, serve, and leave the rest to God
When starting our company, C-Quel, in 2001, I had written to Daya Mata, the then president of Self-Realization Fellowship. Mataji’s message was to love, serve, and leave the rest to God. This became our company’s motto. This also took off the pressure to be desperate in achieving business success. We have learnt to go with the flow. We have been principled and scrupulous and have not given in to the temptation to make a quick buck. We have learnt to respect the team and our clients and to go the extra mile for people. We have learnt to see business as a privileged opportunity for devoted service and developing compassion for team members and others. We have learnt over the years to hang in there through the lean times and continue to fan the fire in our bellies. Like the famous fire-walk, where you must walk over burning coals as a spiritual cleansing exercise, being in business has been like a fire-walk—dangerous but liberating from fear. In the end, you walk out with your head held high, grateful for the opportunity to have experienced it and learnt so much.
The grace of God
Spirituality gives the best possible perspective of life. It helps us see life for what it is, instead of despairing about its complexities and difficulties. It helps us frame the contexts of unwanted experiences and convert them into opportunities for growth and ascension.
Paramahansa Yogananda repeatedly said, “Life is just a movie, with heroes and villains, with joys and tragedies. If you see through this movie, you won’t be unhappy, knowing it is just a game.”
He said that he had fought with God complaining about the miseries and pains of earthly life. In reply, God had shown him that life is only a movie being projected on the big screen by a divine operator. We must look through the beam and play our roles as actors, like Arunima did. Each soul has guardian angels or Masters, to help it evolve. Helped by these invisible but still tangible forces, we can see every moment, every tragedy, every misfortune, every meeting, every incident as an opportunity to joyfully play our part as actors—the best ones possible.
The Universe teaches us both through hardships and love. No matter how many times we falter, the Divine continues to give us opportunities to change and return to our true selves. Only if we are aware of the sublime gifts of the Divine would we appreciate the opportunity given by God to return to Him after reaching our highest potential on Planet Earth. When you live in surrender, your mind opens up to innumerable opportunities for growth, service, and success.
Recently, I entered the precincts of the Yogoda Satsanga Ashram in Dakshineshwar very guiltily. For one, I was late for the Kriya Yoga Diksha ceremony that I attend each year on 4th January. Second, I had been through a spiritually dry year in 2018, and my spiritual practice had been below par. This, I felt, was great ingratitude on my part for the wonderful teachings I had received over the years. I imagined being banished to some corner of the huge crowd, from where I wouldn’t be able to see anything, sitting through four hours of the ceremony with the chilly Ganga air flowing around me. Imagine my surprise at being warmly greeted, then led to a vantage seat from where I could see the stage perfectly and the cold Ganga air losing its sting in the unexpected warm sunshine. I did not feel cold at all. I felt the Masters had not spurned me despite my spiritual indifference in 2018 but had welcomed me back with love, giving me another opportunity in 2019. This feeling of having my ‘sins’ overlooked and being deeply loved was further driven home the next day, 5th January, Paramahansa Yogananda’s birthday. I was invited to his childhood home at 4 Garpar Road, Kolkata, to meet Paramahamsa Prajnanananda, head of the Kriya Yoga Mission worldwide. To my pleasant surprise, this great man of God greeted my husband and me very affectionately and caressed us in blessing. 4, Garpar Road, Kolkata, is the place where Paramahansa Yogananda attained siddhis (supernatural powers), had visions of Mother Kali and Krishna, and was visited by Mahavatar Babaji.
The house is visited by film stars, VIPs, and people from all over the world, who have read Autobiography of a Yogi. The opportunity to be in that hallowed house, in the company of saints, was a message from the Universe: we need not be guilty about missed opportunities. The Universe will continue to send opportunities our way till our very last breath. Just hang in there, breathe deeply, and believe! The new year also started with a big bang message from Swami Niranjan of the Bihar School of Yoga, forwarded by a friend. He said the new year is an opportunity to look at things from a new perspective. Swami said that instead of saying “I am getting nowhere,” ask yourself, “now, where?” He also said to write on the blackboard of the mind: I am now here (not nowhere), what can I be?
Old age is not a barrier
Those who consider life as a precious opportunity to learn, explore, grow, and contribute, for them advancing age is not a barrier. They wrest life from each and every moment and enjoy the opportunity to be alive. It’s all about courage, conviction, and being open-minded about the purpose of life. Life is like a blank canvas on which you can paint and draw whatever you want.
My attention was arrested by a newspaper headline: Meet 102-year-old Man Kaur, an Indian runner, who is winning gold medals and hearts. Man Kaur recently added another feather to her cap by winning a gold at the World Masters Athletics in the 200m event. This Indian super granny wakes up every morning at 6 am for training. She runs 20 km every day. Man started professional running at the age of 93. Isn’t she a stark contrast to people who stop living fully once they retire? They go in some sort of brown study, just waiting for death to happen.
It’s so liberating to tell yourself that there is no retirement. Till our last breaths, we could be relevant to people around us and to ourselves. When my father, a high-profile bureaucrat, retired and came to Kolkata from a happening Delhi, he continued to be a mover and shaker. He roped in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and Kolkata Police to clean up the iconic Rabindra Sarobar Lake. Every day, he would go personally to the lake to oversee its clean-up. He would also run after people who were defecating in the open, urging them to stop. I would also see him work voluntarily with government agencies on healthcare and pension for the workers of this country. Today, touch wood, at 78, my father has a clear, glowing and wrinkle-free complexion, bright, big, beautiful eyes, and looks much younger than many 60-year olds. He’s super relevant at 78, never missing an opportunity to contribute to the well-being of others! I was very touched to hear my husband say recently that, after retiring from C-Quel, he plans to open a boarding school for kids just outside the city limits. The plan is for kids to spend five days a week in an open, fresh, healthy environment and go back to parents over the weekends. This way, the hard-pressed modern parents can be relieved from worrying about kids at home while they work, and the kids too have an opportunity to enjoy the company of many others in a healthy environment. Inshallah!
YouTube of opportunities
Current times are a day and age of countless opportunities, thanks to the Internet boom. Gone are the days when you needed paid help or an expensive coach to be relevant. YouTube can give you a million ideas free of cost.
I was amazed to see the homely and simple Nisha Madhulika teach cooking on YouTube to 6.3 million loyal subscribers. Nisha started in 2007 when she was about 50 years old. Lok Sabha TV has covered her astounding YouTube success in its programme, Shunya se Shikhar Tak (from zero to the summit).
Speaking about her dream run on YouTube, Nisha says that she started by writing a cooking blog in 2005. She painstakingly wrote about 100 recipes before being persuaded by her subscribers to switch to YouTube because they wanted to see her cooking live. Her husband says the hallmark of her success is persistence. Initially, even when her cooking blog had very few readers, she would still—on a daily basis—cook, take pictures of family meals with a digital camera, and post them. It was her love of cooking and sharing with viewers, not the desire for fame or money, that drove her. This quality of putting love in her efforts eventually catapulted her to astonishing fame and made her YouTube’s undisputed ‘cooking queen.’
Nisha says that when she quit her job and decided to do something from home, she wanted to do something that would be of service to many. This beautiful thought really seems to have resonated with her 6.3 million subscribers, with at least one lakh subscribers watching her YouTube videos every day! Wow! how many film stars or sports stars can say that one lakh fans watch them every day! Nisha also speaks about integrity. She says that viewers are shown the food exactly as it’s cooked, without any editing. So, hard work, a sense of service, integrity, willingness to try new ideas, and loving what she does has transformed a 60-year old Nisha Madhulika to a YouTube sensation loved by millions.
My life has been a happy and healthy one. At every step, I have received divine and human inspiration as well as support and guidance to take the next step. I have been forgiven repeatedly for my many errors, often repetitive, and always given another opportunity. My own experience shows me that opportunity doesn’t come only once. It comes repeatedly, if we have, as Sai Baba said, shraddha and shaburi (faith and patience). Here is my own list of things that can attract opportunities and make a difference to our quality of life:
• Chant and be happy: Without being connected to your spiritual heart, you can never be happy or healthy. It’s limiting and one-dimensional to rely only on the body or only on mental prowess. Pick any spiritual chant or mantra that appeals to your heart. Chant with music on your mobile. It uplifts you, gives you a crazy energy that attracts opportunities your way, and blesses your house and those around you. It’s very scientific too. Today, medical science is using ultrasound to treat cancer and tumours! So, sound is medically big, and chanting is the key. The serotonin levels in your body will improve, you will feel happy, and you will attract positive circumstances.
• Breathe: Simple, isn’t it? Wrong. Most of us are breathing shallowly and have respiratory issues. We feel tired and listless. Given the pollution and the decreased oxygen levels in the air, we must do pranayama (yogic breathing) daily to generate extra oxygen for our bodies. Over the years, I have found four pranayamas to work wonders. I do them daily after waking up, right on my bed, and it doesn’t even take me four minutes.
• Anulom Vilom Pranayama or alternate-nostril breathing to open the nostrils
• Ujjayi Pranayama at the throat to expand it
• Bhastrika Pranayama at the chest to pump air into the lungs
• Kapalbhati Pranayama at the abdomen to improve blood circulation and metabolism
I teach this to youngsters in my office who have developed asthma, thyroid, and other lifestyle diseases, and they have all reported great results through consistent practice. Opportunity needs a healthy body, mind, and spirit to flourish.
• Kriya Yoga: This is a simple technique of spinal breathing. It diverts the prana (life force) from the five sense organs to the spine and brain, thus rejuvenating these vital centres and giving us happiness all round. Paramahansa Yogananda said that Kriya is the airplane route to success, and I can vouch for this after having done Kriya from the time I was eighteen. I also credit the various material successes and joys I have experienced as a gift of the Masters, for my faithful Kriya practice.
• Serve: There’s no getting away from it. A life that is not useful to others and that does not contribute to the well-being of others is not going to bring happiness. Serving develops the natural love of the heart and kills the ego. We start by serving our immediate families, then look for opportunities to enlarge our network. Today, our company, C-Quel, is serving the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment of women in Bollywood, through IFTDA, the largest association of producers and directors. We are rendering free services and training people, with the hope that thousands of young women in the film industry will be protected from sexual predators.
• Acquire skills: Do what it takes to be skilled. Practice, practice, and more practice. There is no quick fix. We must love to learn and pick up new skills. For me, the sheer joy of learning can never be substituted by anything else. YouTube and Google are universal blessings in disguise, freely available to all.
• Calmly active, actively calm: So, there’s a tsunami raging in your life: your finances are in bad shape, your health is not good, and everything that could go wrong, has. Don’t be discouraged. Accept what is, and see the big picture. It’s the wheel of life, and no matter how rich or powerful someone is, we all go through it. Just pick yourself up calmly and be actively calm in seeking the next opportunity to turn things around. This needs effort, patience, and research, but so what? Be up for it. Soon, all the bad things that ever happened to you will seem like a distant dream.
Dear reader, it’s time to rethink and reinvent our life script. It’s never too late. There is always going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Let’s move towards it with enthusiasm and seize it with both hands! Joy to you!
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