Handling “What If” Existential Questions / Traversing Spiritual Confusion

Some of us wonder ‘what if’ our life had been different, would we have been happier? But I know some (myself included) have wondered, ‘what if’ our life had been different, would our life have been sadder?

Being cursed causes longing for a better life, and makes you miserable in the present. But feeling blessed (too much of it) can cause an overdose of gratitude, and guilt.

An overdose of sadness creates unhappiness, resentment and frustration. An overdose of happiness creates guilt, shame at being happy when others are not, and fear of your (happy) life being taken away by circumstances outside your control.

Therefore, while it is good to be grateful to everyone and the world for what you have, it is also good to recognize that you don’t have everything. If you are too ‘complete’, you suffer from ‘happiness pain’ – in the form of (1) guilt for having what you have and (2) fear of losing what you have.

If you are too undernourished by life (incomplete), you suffer from ‘sadness pain’, in the form of (1) frustration at what you have, and (2) anger and resentment at what you don’t have.

True bliss is not just elimination of sadness, it also requires us to give up happiness. This is true surrender – you need to surrender your sadness to God (or the universe), and you need to surrender your happiness too.

Then, if you surrender both happiness and sadness, what DO you have left? Just awareness of your thoughts, without judgment. All emotions arise because we judge our actions as good (‘happiness pain’) or bad (‘sadness pain’). When you are in pain, you will never be in a position to understand the pain of another human being or creature, and help them when required. When we break our leg, our own pain consumes us, leaving us blind and deaf to both, the beauty of the world and the pain of others.

The only way to be able to appreciate the beauty and understand the suffering of the universe is to first free yourself of all suffering and pain. Therefore, as they say in the scriptures, you tread a ‘golden mean’, you walk the ‘razor’s edge’ between hope and fear, between happiness and sadness. Only when you are walking on a bridge can you see both sides of a river.

People who don’t handle the ‘what if’ question well get misdiagnosed as having anxiety issues due to crippling fear or shame. Half of our psychological issues today are spiritual conundrums. It takes courage to walk through the mists of our confusion and come out clean and enlightened on the other side. Confusion is good – it indicates you have begun solving a problem. There are only two kinds of people who don’t ask questions – those who don’t care or are not aware enough to question, and those who have already asked the question and found answers on the other side.

Ignorance and enlightenment are two sides of a river, but the river in the middle is raging and flooded, with strong currents, and can easily sweep you away if you are not careful. As we swim through the river, we should make sure we are moving in the right direction. If you get too caught up in the river, you can be swept away into ‘insanity’ due to over-analysis. Some of us swim back to the original shore out of fear, preferring to live in ignorance and fear, rather than cross the river of wisdom.

The river of wisdom asks us to trust it, not worry about the way it is flowing but to merely cross it. Walk on the water, but don’t bathe in it. Swim, but don’t look back. If you do look back, focus on what you are gaining on the other side, than what you are losing on this side. If you must fear something, fear ignorance. But in the end, give up that fear too. An enlightened person comes to realize, understand and accept his/ her own ignorance, and therefore no longer fears it.

In the end, you realize that if you had been ignorant, you would never have asked ‘what if’. And when you are enlightened, you no longer ask ‘what if’. Because the answer to the question is simple – you can’t do everything, you can’t be everything. As long as you live, you have to make choices. As long as you make choices to do or be something, you are also simultaneously choosing NOT to do something else. Consequently, your life will always be incomplete.

When we cannot accept this incompleteness, we ask ‘what if’. When we accept this incompleteness, we no longer need to ask the question. We achieve contentment and peace.

Averaging it out as a Generalist

Finding your path when are (reasonably) good at many things

Images by David Mark, Chuk Yong, Alexandra ❤️A life without animals is not worth living❤️ from Pixabay

I see myself as a generalist, working as a specialist. I find many subjects and ideas interesting but find it challenging to master more than 60–70% of any given area. Can I do better? Sure. Do I want to? Not really, there are other interesting things to pursue.

My social media feed offers me a lot of literature (by educational institutes) on how you need to specialize in one area to survive the next decade. While this is great marketing strategy to attract students for a course or program, it is not the best life practice. If you are good in just one area, say French literature, you may be great at stringing sentences together — but communication needs knowledge and experience to have depth. If you are great at math, you might be able to formulate models and differentiate in your sleep — but if you can’t connect your skill to applications in physics, biology or even sociology, you might be replaced someday by an AI-driven scientific calculator.

The T-shaped skill structure is much touted, but many people are more of Ms or Gs or Zs than Ts. People are not Legos — their building blocks are not the same, and not arranged in the same way. Our approach to learning may need a refresh:

Learning should help us understand our own mind

Our education is centered on providing us knowledge as ‘facts’, be it regarding science, math, sociology, anthropology or sports. We are taught, either in the classroom or the playground, a set of rules that define the subject (or the game). We are then measured on how well we play within those rules (or constraints) to manipulate the world around us. We also have a scorecard that defines a ‘best outcome’. People whose minds and talents are aligned to achieving that outcome are considered at the top of their game, while those whose minds see things differently are graded average or low.

Some of us think in images, some in sound. Some of us think in numbers, others in words. Education should help us understand what our (unique) minds can do and how we can harness our power, not revere the power someone else has displayed. Education requires testing, outcomes and measurement — but this should be balanced by encouraging self-discovery.

Same ingredients, different proportions

Imagine a dish with (for example) 12 ingredients. There are now 12X12 ways of preparing the dish. Each of these successful outcomes is a different mix of the same ingredients- monetary capacity, artistic creativity, logical ability, physical prowess and the like. When you see learning and personal potential as a creative dish to be prepared, you attain the power to maximize potential by creating your own recipe. Every cook may use the same ingredients but in different proportions. There can be no right recipe for learning, just different flavors — as long as what you eventually create is edible by the people you are cooking for.

Expertise helps you stand out, average helps you connect

We seem to have developed a penchant for experts. People with emotional intelligence are not valued unless they are psychologists. People with reasonable sports ability are not valued unless they are coaches or athletes. The issue is life is fluid — it requires us to utilize multiple disciplines everyday. You brush your teeth using toothpaste (chemistry), you select your food at the supermarket (guided by nutrition facts as an amateur nutritionist), negotiate at work (mediation skills), lead teams (management), write persuasive reports (writing skills) and drive home at the end of the day (driving).

Does this mean that you can’t talk to a truck driver about his job since you are not an ‘expert’ on driving? Does it mean you can’t have an opinion on nutrition since you are not a nutritionist? Having opinions is not wrong (and necessary) as it impacts your body and life. We are all generalists — it is sub-productive if we value ourselves for only one of our many skills.

When we rely too much on panels of experts, it can be akin to a group of 10 people standing on 10 towers shouting at each other and unable to hear anything. Any expert needs to be average in someone else’s area of expertise to understand and communicate with them. For that matter, men and women have a bit of both genders inside them — if not, men or women would never be able to communicate with each other.

Average is the fluid that links one expert to another. We are all good in some , average is many and bad in some things. When we get too attached to the good and ignore the average in us, our education, potential and inner power becomes lopsided and crippled. By valuing the good and average within us, we can achieve the sense of balance we need.

Quick to Wit, Slow to Wisdom

I was talking to a friend the other day, and mentioned that I was a slow thinker. And she said she was too. Considering that both of us were working quite ‘fast’ in usual terms, it made me wonder- what was slow about us? And what exactly is defined as fast?

Photo by Amelie & Niklas Ohlrogge on Unsplash

Astrology buffs may know Mercury as representing intelligence, but it in fact represents thinking speed, which is not the same as intelligence (ref: Liz Greene). And that is what society in many spheres has come to value. Thinking speed over accuracy, wit over intellect. Walk into a gathering and we seek the ‘life of the party’. Walk into a family setting and you wonder at the smart child with all the answers. They grow up to be rising stars, the fuel in the engine, and in general happy. Let me call these people “Witty Wonders (WW)”.

And there is the other extreme. You see this as you meander through boardrooms puddled in strategic thought. You notice this in the quiet child who opens his books every evening and is lost in thought. You find here the quiet intellectual, the sophisticated thinker, the behind-the-throne strategist. Answers take time, but startle you in their richness. These people grow up to be the ‘slow thinkers’, the ‘late bloomers’ but often quite contented. I shall call these people the “Venerable Wise (VW)”.

Which brings me to my theme- a very subjective viewpoint. Society values wit over wisdom, and often mistakes quickness for intelligence.

Here are a few (sardonic) observations that I have made over the years:

1. If you are WW, you might end up thinking you have all the answers. And if you are a VW, you might mistakenly think you have none

2. If you are a WW, you might end up living life to the fullest, until the road runs out. If you are a VW, you might save your best life for later, until your life runs out.

3. If you are a WW, you might make friends fast, and lose them equally fast. As a VW, you might find friends too boring to keep, yet too hard to find.

4. If you are a WW, you might love telling stories. As a VW, you might find yourself writing them.

5. If you are a WW, you might be popular. As a VW, you might be respected.

It might be tempting to classify VW and WW as merely introverts or extroverts but you find both categories equally well filled with intros and extros. Introversion or extroversion is about energy, the VW/WW paradigm is about using the energy you have. WWs develop their ideas like fast food- a quick flash-in-the-pan, a bit of juggling the ladle, a smile and a show…and then a good looking (perhaps even healthy) pizza is right there in front of you. VWs, on the other hand, cook their ideas on a slow flame, there’s a lot of waiting….the lid is often closed, many might think the fire’s gone out…but when cooked, their aromas seduce the neighborhood.

Which type are you? I strongly suspect both. We are a spectrum. Some of us are VWs in childhood, WWs in middle age, a bit of both when our hair turns grey. It feels nice to analyze our behavior and classify ourselves into neat buckets. It makes living easy. It makes relationships mathematical — you know who to chase, who to hang out with and who to flee from. But in the process of evaluating others, we lose our ability to do exactly that…evaluate. When we rely on buckets to define others, we are forced to place ourselves in a bucket too (to find our matching bucket).

It is important to have the ability to judge other people. Yes… it is. But when we allow society’s buckets to form our opinions for us, we lose our ability to judge. It is then that we become judgmental.