Speaking Sensitively

 


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R E L AT I O N S H I P S


E I G H T

Speaking Sensitively


We should deal with each other sensitively; our attitude towards life affects how we act in our relationships.

‘A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.’

—Solomon


‘What do you mean how you treat your wife?’ I asked him, alarmed. I had been to their house and found nothing amiss. Was there something he wasn’t sharing?

  ‘It’s not what it sounds like,’ he said, blushing. ‘It is just that we are constantly fighting and bickering. She always wants to change things about me, and I end up leaving the room when she starts with her suggestions.’

  I was quite taken aback by his comments. How people behave in public can be very different from how they are in their private lives.

  ‘Just a few minutes ago I was experiencing the warmth in the exchanges between you two,’ I said.

  ‘I suppose we act differently depending on whose company we are in.’ He paused for a moment. ‘How can we maintain the “spark” that we once had?

  What you witnessed at my home today was what it was constantly like in America when we were together, but it slowly started to fizzle out. Why does this happen?’

  There was a series of things I wanted to say. I started by comforting him, ‘This happens with all relationships, not just in marriages. If we are not proactive in our relationships, they start to seem dry and become cumbersome. We have to have respect for the other person, which is reflected in how sensitively we treat them.’

I had another anecdote to share:

Harsh Words Fly

  The wheels of the plane screeched as we landed on the tarmac of Heathrow Airport, London. As a crowd gathered in the aisle—with people quick to disobey the fasten-seatbelt sign, which was still on—I closed my eyes still sitting in my seat, planning for what I needed to do at the terminal. It was my ninth time in London. By now I was used to long immigration lines, check-in bags already waltzing around the baggage carousel and my friends waiting to pick me up at the arrivals.

  As the line to exit the plane thinned, I deftly unclipped my seatbelt (this was the only part of the safety demonstration which I had mastered) and stretched lethargically. It had been a ten-hour flight from Mumbai; torrential rains meant our plane was circling the English capital for three-quarters of an hour. A member of the crew brought my bag down from the cabin above, exemplifying their excellent service during the flight. Seeing my saffron robes, I felt they were biased towards me at times, giving me an extra pillow or a larger tomato juice. Although I never felt entitled to this, I thanked them.

  I tend to travel light when I go abroad. The great thing about being a monk is that you don’t have to decide what to wear in the morning (orange every day), you don’t need to worry about grooming your hair (you don’t have any), and your bags are tiny (you own very little). Having fewer possessions frees one of anxiety, giving you more mind-space for the vital things in life.

  ‘Welcome to Heathrow’ a sign read as I entered immigration. It had a picture of a Beefeater on it—I don’t mean a person who eats cows, but ceremonial guardians who would have been responsible for the safeguarding of the Crown Jewels, and looking after prisoners held at the Tower of London in the past.

  Walking down the slope towards the official entry point, a lady came running after me, weaving in between people, shouting ‘Swamiji! Swamiji! Can I help you with your bag?’ I was only carrying a small black laptop bag and to take her help would have been awkward.

  ‘I’m good, thank you very much,’ I responded. People around us were now staring at us.

  ‘I can carry your bag. It’s not a problem,’ she persisted.

  ‘No, no, I’m fine, but why don’t we wait in the immigration line together,’ I responded, intrigued by her persistence. Frequent international travel and social dealings have taught me a valuable lesson, which is to fight the strong urge to judge someone based on an initial interaction with them. Everyone has a fascinating story that we know nothing about.

  This lady seemed to be in her mid-thirties. She was wearing a thick black fleece, which looked ready to face the British spring, and she was carrying a small brown carry-on suitcase with four wheels. The corner of a dark blue passport was popping out of her fleece pocket—she was Indian.

  ‘I’m Manasi. Nice to meet you. Your bright saffron attire caught my eye,’ she said.

  ‘You can’t miss me in these clothes,’ I replied, eliciting a half-smile from her. ‘What do you do?’

  ‘I’m a scuba-diving instructor,’ she announced proudly.

  ‘Incredible. We may need your assistance in this weather,’ I said politely. There had been storms all night and the morning I landed, typical of April on the British Isles.

  ‘Are you a part of ISKCON?’ she asked abruptly, her tone had now slightly changed. Small talk was over, I sensed. Time to talk business. ISKCON is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, founded by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, who was affectionately addressed by his followers as Srila Prabhupada. She was correct; this was the institution of spiritually minded people I was a part of.

  ‘Yes,’ I said hesitatingly, seeing the dissatisfaction on her face. She was quick to respond.

  ‘Well, ISKCON Chowpatty is the worst ISKCON temple I have ever been to!’ she said, not knowing that it was the temple I had been a part of for over half my life.

  ‘Why do you say so? Did you have a bad experience?’ I asked her. We both edged forward in the line.

  ‘Yes, a terrible experience. Growing up, I’ve always been curious to find my spiritual path and wanted to study the Bhagavad Gita. I found a course online on the ISKCON Chowpatty website where I could study the Gita in depth, verse by verse. So I visited the admissions office in the temple, excited to sign up.’

  Then Manasi’s head lowered. I think she didn’t want the others in the queue to overhear but a few heads did turn towards us. ‘I went to the desk, where a gentleman was sitting, busily typing away at his laptop with earphones on,’ she continued. ‘A short while passed before he even realized that I was standing there and then he pulled his left earphone out in frustration. “How can I help you? What would you like?” he snapped. A little thrown aback by his unpleasantness, I replied, “I would like to do your long course on the Bhagavad Gita, please.” “Have you done the Journey of Self-Discovery course?” he snapped again, without acknowledging my polite manners and my request. “Yes I have, at this temple.” He paused and pulled his other earphone out, now looking directly into my eyes, “Do you have a counsellor?” “A counsellor?” I reacted. “Why do I need a counsellor? Everything is fine in my life.” I did not know at that point that ISKCON Chowpatty has a mentorship system to coach spiritual enthusiasts, which they called the counsellor system. I thought he was implying that I needed a psychological counsellor because there was something wrong with me. He told me that unless I had a counsellor, was a regular attendee of the temple programmes, followed this rule and followed that rule, I could not take the course I wanted to take. He told me that the requirements were clearly mentioned on the website, and then putting his earphones back in, returned to his laptop, not waiting for me to respond. The instructions were not on the website, as far as I knew, and I had never heard of the ridiculous rules he was mentioning. I just wanted to study the Bhagavad Gita. He was so rude and unpleasant in his dealing with me that I felt judged and wronged in the very last place I would expect to be—in a temple! I never intend to go back to that temple, if that’s the way people are allowed to behave.’

  I tried to pacify Manasi, as a few people in the queue turned to look at me scornfully, overhearing her complaining. ‘I am very sorry that this happened to you and you had this awful experience. It was irresponsible of him to deal with you in such a way.’ Trying to change the subject to something more positive, I said, ‘So, you did this Journey of Self-Discovery course? Who was your lecturer on that course?’

  ‘I took the course with Gaur Gopal Das,’ she muttered.

  Was my face that forgettable? I laughed inwardly. It was the perfect time for some unbiased feedback, to see how well I was doing. She clearly had not realized that it was me she’d taken the course with. I gulped and said, ‘So, how did you like the course? Was he good? Did you learn a lot in the course?’

  ‘He was fantastic. Spoke with so much clarity and humour!’

  I gave a sigh of relief. A positive review! I cut her short before she could continue further as too much praise can go straight to the head. ‘Madam, I am Gaur Gopal Das!’

  ‘Can’t’ be!’ she yelled in disbelief. The immigration officers looked up from their desks, surprised. But their faces reassumed their usual serious expressions in less than a second. Manasi’s face also changed from brown to red.

  ‘I can show you my passport and documents if you like!’ I joked.

  ‘I am so sorry. Sorry, but did you not wear glasses at that time? You don’t seem to be wearing them any longer,’ she defended herself. ‘I did not mean to say that the whole of ISKCON Chowpatty was a bad place, but I was treated very badly and felt deeply hurt.’

  I empathized with her and apologized on behalf of my ashram. ‘Please come back and visit us. The extended Gita course does have some requirements, but I teach a weekly class that you can come and join,’ I said warmly, wishing her all the best.

  Slightly embarrassed, she walked ahead of me to get her passport scanned and checked.

  I did not see her in the baggage hall after that incident.

  As the stern officer at the counter checked my details, I remember thinking to myself that if we do not deal with others sensitively, we could ruin our relationship with them. Being attentive in our relationships is crucial to our success. How we behave towards others determines the quality of our life. ‘It’s just my personality’ is not an acceptable excuse to be insensitive towards others. My golden rule to know whether or not you are being adequately sensitive to another person is: treat someone better than you would like to be treated. Ask yourself the question, ‘Does my tone of voice, body language and behaviour reflect sensitivity?’

  As soon as I finished Harry asked, ‘So did you see her again? Was she able to forgive the person who spoke harshly to her?’

  ‘Fortunately, she did return and started attending my Gita sessions in the evening—I would say she forgave him!’

  ‘That’s great.’ Harry paused as if thinking of how to shift the subject of our conversation to himself. ‘So . . .’ he started. ‘With my wife, it can be difficult to be sensitive. I work such long hours. When I come back home tired, she can say things that are so infuriating that I cannot control what I say. It’s hard when you live so close to someone at all times.’

  ‘Familiarity breeds contempt,’ I replied. ‘When we are overly familiar with people, we forget how important they are to us and the correct way to behave with them. I live with over 100 other monks and I assure you, it is challenging, no doubt. However, a lesson I learnt over twenty years ago changed how I acted in my relationships from then on.’

Attitude Does Not Discriminate

I am not always flying around the world giving seminars. In Mumbai, I like to be just another monk; one of the many.

  Before I decided to dedicate my life to being a monk, I was a pampered boy growing up in a middle-class family in Pune. Like most children around the world, I feel I had (and have) the best mother. She took care of everything—she would cook only what I wanted to eat and would wash all my clothes. I was never kept waiting for anything. Therefore, you can imagine how shocking and worrisome it was for her when I decided to pursue the life of a monk. Who would cook for me? Who would clean for me? Who would wash my clothes?

  The answers to those questions were: cooking was done communally, but for everything else, you were on your own. It was a steep learning curve. Washing my clothes for the first time was an ordeal. We did not have a washing machine; it was just two buckets and a handful of soap. This was the old-school method of washing your clothes: let your garments soak for thirty minutes in detergent and water and then rinse them in another bucket of clean water. No need for a gym membership, this style of washing made for sufficient exercise. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at my biceps getting bigger simply from squeezing the excess water from my clothes!

  One day, I went to wash my clothes that had already been soaking for forty minutes in the soapy water. I was in a rush; I had to deliver a talk in Borivali, on the other side of the city. I now had to face the tribulation of rinsing my clothes. I opened the tap, water gurgled through the steel pipes and straight on to the floor of the bathroom. Reacting swiftly, I kicked a bucket under the tap.

  ‘What were you doing?’ a grave voice asked from behind me. It was one of the older monks.

  ‘Just washing my clothes,’ I replied respectfully.

  ‘Yes, I can see that. But what were you doing?’ he asked again.

  ‘Just . . . washing my clothes,’ I repeated. His eyes rolled and he frowned.

  ‘Yes, I can see that. But what were you doing?’ he said enunciating each word slowly.

  ‘Just washing my clothes!’ I retorted, losing my patience. ‘What’s the problem?’ I was going to be late for an important talk I was meant to deliver.

  ‘Why did you kick the bucket?’ he asked.

  ‘It’s just a bucket; I had to get it under the tap quickly. It’s no big deal.’

  ‘No big deal?’ he questioned. ‘It is a big deal. Gaur Gopal, I want to share with you what I have learnt about relationships. When we treat inanimate objects, like buckets or our possessions, with disrespect or insensitivity, we will end up treating people the same. At one point in my life, I seemed to be losing a lot of my friends and I heard this advice from one of my guides. Insensitivity becomes part of our general attitude, and our instinct does not discriminate between things and people. Hence, when we treat our things badly, we might notice that insensitivity gradually creeping into our relationships with the people around us.’

  Then he patted me on my back, smiling, and walked away singing an Indian bhajan. I folded my hands in reverence and turned off the tap to reflect on what had happened. This whole universe is connected, as are the parts of our life. When we treat things with disrespect, we may start doing the same with the people we love. All aspects of our life are integrated.

  In modern culture, it is common to use things once and throw them away. For example, plastic cups. In 2016, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported at the World Economic Forum that we will have more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050 if we continue producing the substance at this rate. If we can have this mentality with our things, we may end up introducing disposability in our relationships as well.

  The memory of my mother, who is a voracious reader, reading the classic books of Indian literature to me is still vivid in my mind. She would be telling me (on the verge of acting out) exhilarating stories of gods and demons fighting over Mother Earth and of Mother Ganges flowing towards the sea, sustaining all forms of life through this journey. She would also tell me about Mother Cow who is considered sacred in our tradition. The Earth and the river Ganges are inanimate and the cow is but an animal. But in the mystical culture of the East, we are taught to treat them just like we would our own mother. With that level of respect for things, it’s easy to see why people who practise genuine spirituality are typically known to have strong interpersonal bonds.

  ‘I’ve never heard it explained like that before. But you know something? Ronaldo and Messi would get the shock of their lives if they heard this story. Their whole life is based on kicking a football and scoring goals,’ Harry chuckled.

  ‘It’s not about kicking or not kicking,’ I said. ‘Everything has its utility and must be used in that particular way. Would you ever use a ruler to measure the temperature? I hope not. We should use things for the purpose they have been designed for but should treat them with the utmost dignity, value and respect.’

  ‘Hmmm. But I tend to compartmentalize my life,’ Harry said. ‘I don’t see every aspect of my life as fully connected. I am used to putting things in boxes like, this is my work, these are my relationships and this is my spirituality,’ he said, using his hands to illustrate his point.

  ‘There are two sides to that. For practical purposes, we will often benefit from putting things into compartments but we should know that the way we act in one area of our life can have dire consequences in another.’

  ‘I suppose so. In conflicts with my wife, maybe I have a role to play. Maybe I am being insensitive to her. It takes two hands to clap—maybe she is just mirroring my reaction in the way she responds to me,’ he said.

  ‘Yes, at times, we incite the response that people give us. When we look at them while keeping in mind that we also need to improve things about ourselves, it is easier to assess how we should behave with others,’ I replied. ‘Let’s talk about how we can see the positive in our relationships.’

Summary:

  • We must be sensitive with our words and actions. Being sensitive means to think about how the other person may feel before we say or do something. For example, Manasi’s negative experience at the ashram that I reside in affected her outlook on the whole community.
  • How do we practise being sensitive? We must treat even inanimate objects with consideration and respect. If we do not, then the mentality of insensitivity may become a part of our general attitude.
  • One’s instinct or general attitude does not discriminate between things and people. Treating things badly can affect our attitude negatively, which may percolate into our relationships.




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