Forgetting the Keys

 


Contents

Preface

1. Forgetting the Keys

2. Seeing beyond the Obvious

3. The Journey Begins

WHEEL 1: PERSONAL LIFE

4. Growing through Gratitude

5. Press Pause

6. Why Worry

7. Spiritual Practice

WHEEL 2: RELATIONSHIPS

8. Speaking Sensitively

9. A Virtuous Vision

10. Correcting Cautiously

11. Forgiveness

12. Association Matters

WHEEL 3: WORK LIFE

13. Competition Crossroads

14. Self-Discovery

15. Decoding Spirituality at Work

16. Integrity and Character

WHEEL 4: SOCIAL CONTRIBUTION

17. Selfless Sacrifice

18. Family First

19. The Nation Narrative

20. Service Brings Joy

Author’s Note



Preface

Have you ever experienced the Indian monsoon? It brings one of the fiercest, most thunderous downpours of water from the heavens. If you’re caught in the heavy rain, it’s nearly impossible to stay dry. Similarly, it is hard not to get caught up in the challenges and negative situations of the world. Feeling peaceful, happy and content is not about avoiding challenges in our life, but about how we navigate through these challenges to reach the type of life we want to live.

   Aldous Huxley said, ‘Experience is not what happens to a man, it is what a man does with what happens to him.’ It’s how we respond that makes all the difference. If there is one possession we have that is the most valuable and can truly transform our lives completely, it is our free will. We are the authors of our own life stories. Challenges and difficulties may fall upon us, just as the monsoon rains fall upon our head. We don’t seek them or solicit them. They just come our way. We must choose how to respond.

  Happiness does not come automatically. From a young age we receive methodical education in a variety of areas and fields, but happiness is usually not one of them. To live a happy life, with integrity and with balance, is one of life’s amazing secrets which is revealed within this book. These are simple principles that can be used by anyone to experience a sense of satisfaction.

  Do you ever feel irritable or frustrated? Do you ever feel that life isn’t going your way? Do you ever feel that there is a key part of your life that needs attention? If the answer to any or all of these questions is a yes, it’s a sign that your life is probably out of balance. The secret of life is finding balance: not too much, not too little. Just as a car balances on four wheels, we must balance the four crucial areas of our life: our personal life, our relationships, our work life and our social contribution.

  Balance on an external level is about the alignment of the wheels. It is about adjusting our priorities based on the need of the moment, and focusing on that particular wheel which is out of alignment. At some points in our lives our work life may need more focus than our personal life. Have you ever wanted to spend time with someone who needs to meet a project deadline at work? It’s impossible. They are too busy reaching their target. At other times our personal life may take precedence over everything else. Have you ever asked a couple organizing their wedding to spend more time at work? It’s unreasonable to do so as they are planning one of the most important days of their lives. Dear friends, we must be willing to adjust our priorities to bring those wheels into alignment.

  However, a deeper aspect of balance that resides within us is about our attitudes and values that we have explored in the different sections of this book. That attitude is like the air in the tyres of the car. If the tyres of the car are not at the correct pressure, there can be a puncture, stopping us from getting to our destination. This is why we have to navigate the internal aspects of balance. If the external tenets of balance are adjustment and alignment, then the internal ones are attitude and values.

  As we balance ourselves externally and internally, it is fundamental to our success that we never let go of the steering wheel—our spirituality. If all the wheels are in proper alignment, if the air pressure in the tyres is optimal, but we do not have the steering wheel in our hands, we still will not be able to reach where we want to go. It was the Buddha who said, ‘Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, we cannot live without a spiritual life.’ Spirituality, in whatever genuine form of practice, brings purpose to our life and gives us a destination worth going to. At times we may feel empty or lost or have an existential crisis, when we feel that we do not know where our life is taking us. It is at those times that we must hold the steering wheel of spirituality tightly and press on. The steering wheel comprises four pieces: our spiritual practice (sadhana), the association that we keep ( sanga), our character ( sadachar) and our service to God and to others ( seva). When all these aspects of the steering wheel are adhered to properly, they give us the ability to drive the car of our life towards its destination.

Let’s get there, together.


O N E

Forgetting the Keys


As you become successful, do not forget the keys to happiness.

‘Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul.’

—Democritus


It may have been a mistake to publicly announce that my favourite cuisine comes from the south of India, because the whole year, it was sambar for breakfast, sambar for lunch and sambar for dinner. In fact, sambars followed me everywhere I went. For those of you who do not know, sambar is a lentil-based vegetable stew, which accompanies famous rice-based dishes such as dosa or idli. From the United Kingdom to Australia, everyone who invited me to their home fed me their version of this much-loved lentil soup. Having had so much of it, it was only natural that I became a connoisseur of the dish; I knew where to find the best sambar in any town, let alone my own. And that is where our story begins.

   Although I grew up in Pune, my heart lies in a simple ashram, paradoxically situated amidst the skyline of downtown Mumbai. I have lived there as a monk for twenty-two years, where I have not only been studying ancient eastern wisdom for my enrichment, but also learning how to share its practical application with the world. People who attend my lectures regularly invite me to have lunch at their homes but, to their disappointment, I usually decline. As a monk, I have to be cautious of overindulgence; it is essential to stay regulated in our habits. But after months of pleading, I hesitantly accepted an invitation to go to Mr and Mrs Iyer’s home, a decision which would deepen my understanding of happiness in the long run.

   Mumbai is notoriously humid in mid-May. It’s the type of sticky humidity in which your sweat causes your shirt to stick to your back. But one only felt like that at sea level, not in the cloud-bound apartment of Hariprasad and Lalita Iyer situated in a high-rise in elegant Worli. This area of Mumbai is what Fifth Avenue is to New York, or Park Lane is to London. Indeed, if there were a version of the board game Monopoly for Mumbai, you would be paying a hefty price if you landed on Worli’s distinguished towers: Palais Royale or Omkar 1973. And, here I was, a monk with hardly a rupee to my name, enjoying the cooling breeze from the Arabian Sea on the twenty-eighth-floor home of my gracious hosts. A word of caution: I have changed the names in this story. This adjustment is not only to be sensitive towards the couple whose secrets I am about to share, but also to avoid offending those who have ever fed me sambar that didn’t live up to the standard set by the Iyers.

   The lunch started with me getting confused. I had never eaten sambar solely with a spoon, let alone three. They sat me at the head of their rich oak dining table, which overlooked the sea. A fragile, glittering centrepiece on the table illuminated the room as it shone in the midday sun. The table was set only for me—a weighty gold leaf-shaped plate with a satin napkin folded into a swan on it and cutlery of varying shapes and sizes around the plate—the three spoons lay in front of me, two knives to my right and four forks to my left. Four forks! I wasn’t sure if we had four in our entire ashram as nearly everyone just uses their five fingers. I looked at Mr Iyer slightly uneasily and begged him and his wife to join me for lunch, not only to guide me through the maze of cutlery but to also give me company. It’s no fun eating alone. Mr Iyer wanted to serve me lunch personally, but on my persuasion, he joined in. His wife, however, fought the offer and insisted that she would personally serve us both hot dosas and other preparations created by the army of chefs in their bustling kitchen.

   And so—armed with a dessert knife in one hand and a salad fork in the other —I attempted to cut the dosa. It was clear this was an abnormal situation for me. Hariprasad smiled warmly at me, rolled up his sleeves and started eating with his hands, signalling to me that it was okay to do the same. I was delighted. I have always believed that food tastes better when you eat with your hands. Although he was wealthy, Hariprasad didn’t seem to have an air of arrogance around him.

   ‘How are you so humble around so much prestige?’ I asked him.

   ‘I don’t think I’m humble, but any humility you think I might have is due to my simple South Indian parents who raised me with so much love,’ he replied.

   Although there were many around his plate today, Hariprasad wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. ‘I grew up in a small village outside Chennai . . .’ he began as he dipped his dosa in the sambar. His wife, Lalita, came in with another round of dosas and sat momentarily, listening to her husband with interest. ‘My father worked in a textile factory,’ Hariprasad continued. ‘His wages supported our family, and the factory gave us free cotton clothes that were passed down from my elder brothers and sisters. I’m the youngest, so most of my clothes had my brothers’ names on the label. My father worked very hard for us.’

   ‘But look at your clothes now! You can only afford them because you’re the cleverest out of all your siblings,’ Lalita interjected as she served him another hot dosa. They lovingly smiled at each other. I noticed that he indeed looked like an elegant statesman in his Gucci attire.

   ‘What about your mother?’ I asked.

   ‘My mother stayed at home with us. She picked us up from school, cooked all our meals and was our counsellor when times were hard. Her hair was always tightly tied in a bun, but her arms were always open for a hug. She made our education her top priority because she wanted us to live a better life.’

   ‘Well, it seems like you’re living it now,’ I said.

   Hariprasad took no notice of my comment and continued, ‘I remember the stress of both getting into IIT Bombay and then performing well there. It was worth it though because the Harvard MBA programme accepted me immediately, given that I secured a gold medal at IIT.’

   The sight of mango kulfi, an Indian ice-cream, brought in from the kitchen on a silver tray by Lalita, stalled our conversation momentarily.

   ‘Are you talking about Harvard?’ Lalita asked, while serving me two scoops of kulfi despite my protests. ‘That’s where we first met,’ she told me. ‘I was completing my medical studies there when we ran into each other at the Harvard India Student Group, and it was love at first sight. But I didn’t meet the South Indian Hariprasad then, I met “Harry”, as his American friends called him.’

   ‘Well, I’ll call him Harry from now on!’ I laughed.

   As lunch came to a close, Harry spoke of the work he does as the director of a multinational consulting firm. Harry’s success at Harvard gave him a boost— now at thirty-five, he was already one of the youngest directors in the company’s history and he was responsible for the firm’s Asia operations.

   ‘We both are trying to help as many people as possible before we think about children. We want to empower people to be successful,’ Harry said, holding his wife’s hand.

   I was pleasantly surprised at how cultured and courteous this couple was. Lalita’s world-class sambar also symbolized the warmth and love between them.

   ‘Thank you for a wonderful lunch!’ I said to them, signalling that I had to leave. ‘I would love to stay longer, but we have meetings at the ashram in an hour. Can you call me a cab?’ I requested.

   ‘A cab!’ Harry exclaimed as if offended. ‘Please let me drop you back. The ashram is only thirty minutes away.’

   I remembered Harry owned a Mercedes. What a quick journey home it would be in that! I thanked Lalita for the delicious meal. She thanked me back with a smile, but I noticed that she was holding her stomach as though she was not feeling well.

   I thought nothing of it and neither did Harry. We rushed to the elevator, which transported us from the clouds into the underground garage in moments.

   Harry frisked himself in a panic as the elevator doors opened. It was the same expression one has when they cannot feel their phone in their pocket. ‘I’ve forgotten my keys,’ he said, as he vigorously pressed the button for the elevator to take him back to the twenty-eighth floor. ‘I’ll be right back.’ He left me in what seemed like a deserted parking garage.

   As I walked deeper into the car park, automatic lights came on to reveal a young boy’s paradise—a festival of the most expensive cars imaginable. I walked around the garage, remembering how fascinated I was with cars in my childhood. I chuckled as I saw my reflection in the window of a Ferrari that was the same shade of orange as my robes. But I couldn’t see Harry’s Mercedes in the parking lot. The doors of the elevator sprung open, and soon an out-of-breath Harry jumped out jingling his keys.

   ‘Where’s your Mercedes?’ I asked curiously.

   ‘I had to sell it, unfortunately. The chassis was too low for the streets of Mumbai. I bought a Lexus instead. I heard having one is the mark of a true gentleman.’

   ‘I suppose that’s a good problem to have, whether to sell your Mercedes and  buy a Lexus!’

  We both laughed like old friends. As we hurried to his gleaming Lexus, I expressed how deeply impressed I was that a couple of their stature, their wealth and influence was reconnecting with their spiritual roots again.

   ‘Can I tell you a story that I think you’ll appreciate?’

  Harry nodded as we both settled in for our short journey across town. He turned on the passenger light and gazed at me intently as I began speaking.

  ‘Going on a holiday with your friends is one of the best experiences you can have. Before I became a monk, three of my close friends from university in Pune and I decided to take a trip to New Delhi together. We had booked a hotel but little did we realize that our room was on the eighteenth floor of a high-rise building,’ I said, watching Harry reverse the car from his parking spot. ‘After we dropped our bags off, we decided to explore the city by autorickshaw. We started at Red Fort, ate lunch at Chandni Chowk, meditated at the Lotus Temple and then rested on the lawns around India Gate. It had been a good day. Tired and slightly hungry, we decided to return to our hotel and order room service. We arrived at the hotel just after sunset, to the news that the elevator had broken down.’

   Harry gasped. ‘What did you do?’ 

   ‘We were young, so we decided to walk up all the way to our room.’

   ‘That’s insane. I would cancel my gym membership if I had to walk up to my apartment. I would probably have to carry Lalita on my back!’ he joked.

  ‘We were exhausted by the end of it, but as the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun. Speaking and laughing with friends makes everything easier.’

   ‘I agree,’ he said, nodding. ‘What did you all talk about?’

   ‘Well, we told jokes and stories, made each other laugh, mocked each other. We moved from floor to floor with no complaints whatsoever. On the fifteenth floor, we realized that one of our slightly chubby friends wasn’t saying much. “Are you okay?” I asked. “I’m fine,” he said bluntly. We all have that one friend who is terrible at telling funny stories. He was that guy.’

   ‘All my friends are funny!’ Harry exclaimed.

   ‘Well, you’re probably the unfunny one then,’ I teased. ‘So after a few minutes of persuasion, we convinced this friend of ours to tell us a story. He stuttered at first, but then blurted out, “My funny story is that I’ve forgotten the keys to our room in the rickshaw.” Our faces dropped. We had just learnt about the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, at the Lotus Temple, but in that situation, ahimsa was impossible to practise! Using all our power of restraint, we started our silent journey back down to the reception, praying that the hotel had some spare keys.’

   Harry burst out laughing. ‘I can imagine the anguish on your face when you found out he didn’t have the key.’

   I nodded. ‘However, only years later did I understand the lesson behind this story. I thought of it again today when you forgot your car keys. Harry, you have made incredible progress in life. People only dream of the kind of success you have achieved. From studying at prestigious institutions around the world to having a loving partner, living on the top floor of a skyscraper, having a seven-figure salary and a professional reputation years ahead of your age, you have come a long way. However, I am so glad that you haven’t forgotten the keys to your happiness as you have moved up on the ladder of success. As a society, it’s all too easy to focus on our external achievements and forget to assess whether we are happy with the state of our life. I’m relieved that you haven’t neglected that aspect of your life.’

   ‘I suppose so . . .’ Harry remarked uneasily. He wasn’t smiling any more. I sensed the change of tone in his voice. An awkward silence fell upon us as we left the underground parking. Immediately bystanders started taking notice of the car and began gawking at it.

   There was something he wanted to say, but I didn’t know what.



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