Thursday, February 16, 2017

Children of a lesser humanity

A devastating air strike did not rob Omran Daqneesh of his childhood and his innocence, and almost his fledgling life. What did was shocking indifference and lack of compassion from a world that doesn't care about Syria's humanitarian crisis and its mounting collateral toll, especially its war-ravaged women and children.

The five-year-old boy, who became just another statistically horrific face of the Syrian conflict, outraged people around the world. But to what end?

© Aleppo Media Centre
After rescuers pulled him out from under the rubble of a bombed-out building in Aleppo that was once his home, he was deposited on a chair inside the ambulance (probably for a photo op) — dazed, alone, scared, and gingerly feeling the blood and dust on his cherubic face.

Rescuers said Omran appeared stunned and in trauma, naturally, but he didn't cry. He just sat there, next to two other wounded children, under the stark white light of the ambulance.

Someday Omran will ask—"Why me? What did I do?" He will get no answers.

Hopefully, someone hugged the kid after doctors attended to his injuries and made sure he was okay. That's what he needed, to be held with tenderness and comforted, and assured that everything was going to be all right. Even if it wasn't.

The boy survived and apparently so did his parents and siblings. But will other kids be as lucky?

"No one and nowhere is safe. Shell-fire is constant, with houses, schools and hospitals all in the line of fire. People live in a state of fear. Children have been traumatised. The scale of the suffering is immense. For four years, the people of Aleppo have been devastated by brutal war, and it is only getting worse for them. This is beyond doubt one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times," said Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He described the battle for the Syrian city as "one of the most devastating conflicts in modern times."

Dr Zaher Sahloul, a critical care physician from Chicago who has worked in Aleppo and seen the horrific effects of airstrikes, pricked the world's collective conscience when he told The Guardian, "They are not dolls to cry over and then move on. That is the worst thing, everyone is looking at these pictures, but who will do anything?"

Shedding tears for the wounded and traumatised children of Syria is not enough. "All of us can help by advocating on behalf of the doctors and their patients, refusing to accept their suffering is normal, even if the world can sometimes seem inured to Syria's pain. Every life is precious. Omran has reminded us all of the terrible suffering of the children caught up in this war. Let us not forget them again," Dr Sahloul said.

For the children of Syria, survival and lifelong scars could be a fate worse than death.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Alphabet Quotes: R is for Relationships

"Then clasp my hand with closer hold. True hearts are never unconsoled. They fear not care, nor cloud, nor cold. And smile at growing old."
— Elizabeth Chase Akers Allen, American poet and journalist

"I mean, if the relationship can't survive the long term, why on earth would it be worth my time and energy for the short term?"
— Nicholas Sparks, The Last Song

"Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships...the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world, at peace."
— Franklin D. Roosevelt

"Science may have found a cure for most evils: but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all — the apathy of human beings."
— Helen Keller

"Truth is, I'll never know all there is to know about you just as you will never know all there is to know about me. Humans are by nature too complicated to be understood fully. So, we can choose either to approach our fellow human beings with suspicion or to approach them with an open mind, a dash of optimism and a great deal of candour."
— Tom Hanks

Think carefully, speak wisely

Thinking too much about everything we see, hear and experience often results in our overreaction to problems which are sometimes imaginary. It gets us nowhere and leaves us fretting and fuming for no reason. Overthinking drains our mental and physical capacity to deal with situations and make sound decisions and proper judgements. It tempers our power of reasoning. Just as we look before we leap, we need to think before we speak. When we think too much, we are more likely to say something insignificant or hurtful or say things that should best have been left unsaid.

Renowned spiritual teacher and founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation Eknath Easwaran compares our continuous stream of thoughts to bumper-to-bumper traffic. He says, "We can learn not to let one thought tailgate another. Tailgating thoughts are a danger signal. People who are prone to anger—or to fear, or greed, or hostility—allow no distance between one thought and another, between one emotional reaction and the next. Their anger seems continuous—just one anger car after another, bumping into each other on a fast, crowded highway."

Slowing down in thought and word, as Easwaran advises, helps us say the right thing at the right time, and in a measured tone. When we think less, we speak less, and when we speak less, we become more sensitive and receptive to others. We also learn to listen more. It allows us to channel our thoughts into meaningful words and actions, and build harmonious relations with people we interact with.

Takeaway: A mind in overdrive is an accident waiting to happen.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Take the demon out of demonetisation

“I haven’t wooed a woman with such unconcealed affection as I’m courting ATMs.”

On the evening of November 8, I was watching television when an acquaintance informed me, “Did you know that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes are being withdrawn from the market?”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Everyone’s talking about it,” he said.

My antenna went up immediately. I switched over to the news channels, and sure enough, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was announcing the scrapping of the high-value currency effective midnight, and their gradual replacement with new redesigned Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes. The unprecedented move, shrouded in secrecy, was being taken ostensibly to crack down on black money, terrorism financing, corruption—and improve our lives. Days later, the government added cashless economy to its demonetisation narrative.

The sudden withdrawal of banknotes we’d got used to created shock and awe across communities and geographies. That same evening, people rushed out of their homes to queue up at the nearest ATMs and withdraw as many hundred rupee notes as they could.

Nearly a month later, people everywhere are still lining up outside banks and ATMs to draw the new currency from their own piffling accounts. And it hasn’t been easy for anyone, not ordinary citizens, poor farmers and villagers, daily wage labourers, traders and shopkeepers, institutions, and not even bank employees who have been at the receiving end of public ire.

The physical and mental strain caused by this unexpected social change is palpable. The loss of manpower and productivity has been incalculable. Many people have died waiting in queues. Others are having sleeping nights. Will I be able to withdraw from my account? Will the ATM dry up before my turn comes? Is my hard-earned money really safe in the bank? And this all-important question—what next? The anxiety and uncertainty is understandable, especially when none other than Finance Minister Arun Jaitley warned that monetary hardships
could last one or two quarters.

“I’m beginning to experience withdrawal symptoms if I don’t wait in ATM queues. I think I’ll sign up for ATMs Anonymous.”

For these and other reasons, here are ways to deal with the stress of demonetisation and the fear that though you have enough cash in the bank, you may not have enough in hand.

Switch off and switch over: Yes, stop reading about new developments on demonetisation in newspapers, on your smartphone and office desktop, and definitely stay off news channels. There’s a lot of fascinating and more pleasant stuff to read and watch. Don’t worry, even if you don’t read about demonetisation, you’ll still hear about it. The less you obsess over it, the less stressed you’ll be.

Swami Kriyananda, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda and founder of Ananda, a worldwide movement of spiritual intentional communities, has rightly said: “You go through enough decades of this, and you see that it’s all just nothing. I never watch television, read newspapers, or listen to the radio anymore. People ask me, ‘How do you keep up with news?’ I answer them, ‘If there’s anything of importance that happens, people will tell me.’ I just don’t find it interesting because it all seems like gossip.”

Although he said this in another context, his advice is relevant in any situation where a public event causes individual and collective mental or physical stress, including depression, and affects work and family life. The shock election of Donald Trump is a case in point because nobody expected the racist, sexist, and neo-isolationist Republican candidate to win.

Get back to your normal routine: Remember the Mumbai terror attacks? In less than 48 hours, people were back on their feet and going about their personal and professional lives, even as commandos were flushing out terrorists from the Taj Mahal Hotel and Oberoi Trident. The key is to get back to your routine, even if it means you have to wait in the bank or ATM line. However frustrating, and I know just how frustrating it can be, don’t let it ruin your day. After all, we’re used to standing in all sorts of queues. And this one isn’t going to last very long. Very soon there will be sufficient cash going around.

Don’t be swayed by rumours: The pro- and anti-demonetisation lobbies are fuelling all kinds of stories while politicians of all stripes are adding their two-bits—rousing public opinion and anger, and often pitting one against the other. Both sides have vested interests in keeping the narrative alive. Through all this, the only sufferers are ordinary and law-abiding citizens who have enough troubles already.

For example, the rumour that the government would go after our gold next got people so worked up that many rushed to their banks and withdrew inherited and legally-owned jewellery from their lockers. The government’s clarification that it had no plans to impose restrictions on gold holding failed to convince people who invest in the yellow metal. So think before you act. Don't let your paranoia get the better of you.

Be vary of social media: In my opinion, social media is the biggest cause of anxiety, stress, and burnout. Like the relentless beat of the drums, the 24/7 updates, tweets and messages play on our minds, attack our beliefs, and cause a disconnect with reality. As a result, our overdependence on this porous medium is proving to be more disruptive and less informative and entertaining. And when it comes to politically sensitive and controversial issues, such as demonetisation, for instance, social media can be ruthless in pulling you down—in what often seems like a reenactment of George W. Bush’s famous remark, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” It can all be very upsetting.

Moral: Get off social media every now and then. It’s a lot of hot air and posturing, and doesn’t do any good to anyone. If you must use the medium, use it for constructive and meaningful purposes. That way you keep your peace and connectivity.

Today, it is demonetisation. Tomorrow, it could be something else—manmade or natural. Whatever the hardship or calamity, it’s important to stay calm and focused, and keep moving forward. And, more importantly, don’t overreact; instead, try and get a grip on the situation. It'll help you put things into perspective. Things are usually much better than we think.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

'There's no point in talking to you'

Sometimes, life teaches you a valuable lesson in unexpected ways.

A few months after I took up my first newspaper job, in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1986, I was asked if I'd like to interview a famous artist. Naturally, I was elated. I was young and eager to prove myself. I said yes without giving the matter a second thought. I went to Jehangir Art Gallery, where my subject was holding an exhibition, and introduced myself. He wore a white bushshirt and stood with his hands behind his back. But before I could start, he asked me, rather curtly, "What do you know about art?" 

Well, my mother's side, they're all professional artists, you know. I used to sketch and paint myself. And I once appeared for the state Elementary Drawing Exam and failed. Of course, I didn't tell him that. Instead, I said, "Not much." 

To which he replied, even more curtly, "Then there's no point in talking to you" and walked away. 

I smarted under his unintended insult. Lucky for him I picked up the pen instead of the brush. I could've showed him a stroke or two and beat him at his own canvas!

Since that day, however, I never wrote more than I knew. But I'd learnt my first lesson as a reporter—stick to your brief. In today's world, it's called domain knowledge. Of course, thanks to the internet and social media, people seem to have an opinion on everything, and then again, nothing.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Just saying

More is not always better. Sometimes less is enough to improve our spiritual wellbeing and therefore our happiness.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Alphabet Quotes: Q is for Questioning

"You can question somebody's views and their judgment without questioning their motives or patriotism."
— Barack Obama

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity."
— Albert Einstein

"For true success ask yourself these four questions: Why? Why not? Why not me? Why not now?"
— James Allen

"Animals are such agreeable friends — they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms."
— George Eliot

"When asked, 'How do you write?' I invariably answer, "one word at a time."
— Stephen King

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Ode on Solitude by Alexander Pope

The English poet (1688-1744) was best known for his satirical verse and translation of Homer as well as for his Essay on Criticism, The Rape of the Lock, and The Dunciad.

© Wikimedia Commons
Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest, who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day.

Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixt; sweet recreation:
And innocence, which most does please
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown,
Thus unlamented let me die,
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

Interpretation: This is how I felt in the spiritual retreat where I spent many a childhood and growing up years. At the time, of course, I didn't know the true value of that experience. Now as I grow old and complicate the hell out of my life, I yearn for the simple and carefree joys of youth, when neither worry nor sorry meant anything. Nothing is lost, though, for Alexander Pope is telling us how we can regain paradise, and with it, a bit of our past innocence. Mystics have been showing a similar path to lasting peace and happiness.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Alphabet Quotes: P is for Parenting

“All of us have moments in our lives that test our courage. Taking children into a house with a white carpet is one of them.”
— Erma Bombeck

“Everyone should have kids. They are the greatest joy in the world. But they are also terrorists. You’ll realise this as soon as they’re born, and they start using sleep deprivation to break you.”
— Ray Romano

“If you have never been hated by your child, you have never been a parent. ”
— Bette Davis

“Our children need your presence more than your presents. ”
– Jesse Jackson

“When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

— Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Here's the thing about being positive and happy

A few years ago, I had joined a yoga class to get over a particularly stressful period of my life. One evening after class, the yoga teacher drew me aside and said, “Drink plenty of water, at least 10 to 12 glasses a day.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked her. We were sitting on the verandah of a building overlooking a maidan where groups of boys were playing cricket in the mud. The skies were overcast and rain was imminent.

Although I knew why she was telling me to drink more water, I wanted to hear it from her. I wanted to feel assured that this most basic of all remedies would help solve my problem.

She said, “Drinking water boosts serotonin levels in our brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for our sleep, mood swings, depression, and even memory. Water helps maintain the balance of this chemical which in turn makes us feel positive and happy.”

Later, I read about serotonin on the internet and found that drinking more water, regular exercise and meditation, and lowering intake of caffeine and sugar increased production of the chemical and had the exact same effect as swallowing antidepressant drugs, minus the side effects. It also helped to cut down on alcohol, quit smoking, and eat more veggies and greens.

I also learnt something else—serotonin was the hormone that regulated moods and made people happy, and that’s probably why it’s called the happiness hormone.

Now that’s a hormone we can never have enough of.

Besides adequate hydration, there are other ways in which we can try and stay positive and happy at least most of the time, if not all the time.

Take clothing, for instance. The clothes we wear to the office or to a party makes all the difference between our self-confidence and self-doubt. Personally, white and blue shirts work best for me—they boost my mood and morale and make me look good and feel great.

Turns out I’m not the only one who thinks that way.

Some years ago, researchers from University of Queensland, Australia, found that people, and especially women, “use clothes to improve or mask emotion.”

As lead researcher Dr Alastair Tombs told Australia’s, “We demand many things from clothing. Quite a few people talked about using clothes to change their mood. If they get up and aren't feeling great, they would put on something that would brighten them up.”

When our day doesn’t go too well, or if we feel less confident than usual, we tend to blame the clothes we wear. Dr Tombs termed this attitude as making a scapegoat out of clothes, which the health, happiness and wellbeing site labelled as “scapegoat fashion.”

Our comfort clothing does more than increase our confidence and lift our spirits. It also reflects in our posture, the way we move and sit, our enthusiasm for the day's work, talk to our colleagues, shake hands with a firm grip, make that crucial presentation to clients, and convince the boss.

Thought substitution is another important lesson in positive thinking. In my opinion, it’s the most challenging one. Renowned spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran, who founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in California in 1961, was a great advocate of substituting a negative thought with a positive one without a moment's hesitation. He said, “All we are is the result of what we have thought. By changing our mode of thinking, we can remake ourselves completely.”

Of course, thought change is not easy. It requires a great deal of practice and perseverance, and it doesn’t work in every situation. For example, people who have just had an anxiety or panic attack would be in fear or flight mode to even contemplate a thought reboot. At that moment they would likely be hyperventilating and their minds would be in overdrive, as they desperately seek to calm their nerves, remove the sense of foreboding they cannot fathom and ease the physical symptoms convulsing their bodies.

At such times mystics like Easwaran tell us to be constantly mindful of our thoughts when we are physically healthy and in a better frame of mind—so that we’re well prepared whenever dark clouds threaten to break over our heads.

Finally, this or any article on positivity would be incomplete without mention of the most valuable aid to a positive outlook on life—sleep. Not just sleep for the sake of it, but a minimum of seven to eight hours of quality sleep. Daytime sleep can never compensate for night sleep.

There is scientific evidence to prove a direct correlation between proper and undisturbed sleep on one hand and a sense of optimism and purpose, and overall wellbeing, on the other. Conversely, lack of sleep has the opposite effect.

A good night’s sleep not only helps us look younger, feel healthier and live longer, it also has a positive impact on our performance at work and by extension on our prospects and success in our careers, not to mention in our personal relationships.

Ernest Hemingway is believed to have said, “I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake.” Even if he said it in jest and in a different context, it still underscores the fact that if we don’t get enough sleep our lives actually run the risk of falling apart.

There is a growing list of steps we can take to entertain positive thoughts, experience positive energy, and be positively happy. I wrote about these four in particular because they work well for me, though I'm still my own student. You can draw up your own tailored list of things to do that will make you feel positive and happy. While no one size fits all, the underlying principle is the same—the practice of positive thought at all times of our lives.