Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Better than this Bad

To be more than this less
To be bigger than this smallness
To shift the power from these crazy nerves to this brain
A little closer to my grain
To create more than these gossamer dreams
Scene after senseless scene
To be calmer than this wild
More knowing than this child
To look away from the mirror to the window
To have something else to behold
To burn a little less in this relentless fire
To have a more sublime desire
To be kinder than this brash
Oh, to be better than this bad.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Saint Frances and the Sow- by Galway Kinnell

Another one of the poems that called me back and revealed its deeper meaning only after the third reading. First the poem, and then its special meaning to me!  

Saint Francis and the Sow
The bud 
stands for all things, 
even for those things that don't flower, 
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing; 
though sometimes it is necessary 
to reteach a thing its loveliness, 
to put a hand on its brow 
of the flower 
and retell it in words and in touch 
it is lovely 
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing; 
as Saint Francis 
put his hand on the creased forehead 
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch 
blessings of earth on the sow, 
and the sow began remembering all down her thick length, 
from the earthen snout all the way 
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail, 
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine 
down through the great broken heart 
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering 
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them: 
the long, perfect loveliness of sow. 

by Galway Kinnell
from New Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell 
published by Houghton Mifflin, 2000

I don't know who reminded me, retold me, retaught me, in words or in touch, but reminded I am, and flowering again from within, self-blessed, every inch of my long perfect loveliness, even the spininess spiked out from the spine down to the great broken heart, forgotten for years in service and self denial, awakening again. You, who put your hand on my brow and retold me, I hear you clearly. And I believe you! 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Silence of Our Friends!

Today, while watching a TEDx talk by Jackson Katz ( about violence and silence, I was suddenly reminded of my struggles with a particular boss I had for about 10 years.

The struggles I faced were unique by any usual standards. You see, I was well paid, openly acknowledged and appreciated, empowered to make critical decisions, and given more opportunities to climb the corporate ladder than anyone else. My job was safe and and I was protected. By all standards, I should have had no struggle at all!

The problem was this. This particular boss, a man, was downright verbally abusive to employees he didn't like. And it didn't take him long, or much, to dislike people.

Though I must say he was quite fair in his dislike dispensation. He would as easily dislike people whom I would hire, as he would those he did. When I was being interviewed, he shared proudly that there were eight nationalities in the company. I soon learned that his dislike knew no barriers of race and nationalities. And there was no gender discrimination either- he had made as many men cry as women.

There were a hundred ways to disappoint him and set off his I-so-fucking-dislike-you meter. You could make a grammatical mistake, or write inelegantly, or have a different way of doing things, or come up short on how much he expected you to accomplish in a day, or be extra-confident of yourself, or be too diffident, or be too narrow-minded, or be too easily distracted, or be callous enough to not remind him of a client meeting, or not be as super creative just as he was, or be too tactical and not strategic enough in your thinking, or be too full of big talk...and so on. With senior staff, the main trigger was standing up against his ever changing priorities or having a different opinion on any business matter than him. In short, there was just no getting away from being disliked by him, sooner or later

And how did he respond to the dislike that you caused him to feel for you? By shouting loudly, spewing enough profanities to make you have nightmares every time you saw the letter F, or being sarcastic and nasty in a voice just loud enough for everyone in the open office to hear. Basically, he ripped you off all dignity at the slightest pretext. With him, there was so redemption, no second chances. You lose once, you were declared a loser forever.

Image from:
Now enough background, let me come to the point of why the TED video triggered this memory. Even though I had seen an example of rudeness and sarcasm even before I had formally joined the company, it took me a few months in the job to figure out that something was seriously wrong with how he was treating people. The reaction of the staff didn't help either. Though there was lunch-time gossip around the topic, it was tinged with a certain acceptance, almost indulgence. No one ever objected to his behavior while he was at it. No one walked away. No one intervened. The less sturdy bystanders shook in their boots during the verbal assault happening to others, while the rest carried on with their work. The victim(s) appeared back at work the next day as if nothing had happened. I never heard a victim shout back, though I am told it happened a couple of times before my time.

I too was one of those who shook in my boots when such hostile exchanges happened. The difference was that I stood up and took action while I was still shaking.

The first time, I stood up for myself when I felt the hate-wave building against me. I asked him to step outside so we could have some privacy and then told him that though I had made a mistake (in a proposal), I did not believe I would ever make the same mistake again because I held myself to very high standards. So, he need not remind me about the mistake I had made or keep looking for similar mistakes in all my work, because that's what I would be doing. I could see the shock in his eyes at my approach. Obviously, no other employee had dealt with the matter in this particular way before.

Nothing special about defending one's own self, though in that toxic passive environment, it was an oddity.

The next time I stood up for a very close friend of mine, whom I had hired because she was exceptionally talented. She triggered his dislike in the very first project they worked on as a team, just three months into her employment with us. I saw what was happening and just told my boss that if I heard another insult hurled at her, not only would she leave, I would too. Doesn't sound like an elegant defense, more like blackmail, but I meant it and it worked.

But let's be honest. There is nothing exceptional about defending your best friend either.

The next time, and the dozens of times after that, I stood up for anyone and everyone. My point was not that they hadn't made mistakes, but that abuse and violence was unacceptable to me as a decent human being. Those were the years I was learning more about Buddhism and couldn't help but relate the concepts of value and dignity of human life to what was happening around me. Every insult he hurled at people seemed like a slap on my face- my heart would race and my cheeks would tingle until I had had my say.

Each such intervention with my boss was a stressful 4-5 hour session (or longer) that would drain me of all energy. Not only did I have to hear how unfair I was to him, but also what a poor judge of people I was because the people I was defending deserved to be treated like shit. Of course, I was also made to feel I was too weak and soft to be a good manager of people. I can't recount the number of times I heard fucked-up BS like "real leaders have to make tough decisions and not be concerned with being liked etc." Each time, I had to bring him back to the basic issue- that of human dignity and decency and faith in the potential of people. And if someone had really proved that they were useless, then shouldn't they be fired from the job, instead of being insulted?

Most of such sessions would result in some positive changes for the affected person, because I won't let go until it did. Later I realized that once it was over, it wasn't really over. The animosity lasted as long as the employee lasted in the company- it just simmered under the surface. And when people left, he never failed to remind me about my poor judgment in defending people who were basically useless.

Veterans in the company told me that I changed the office atmosphere totally within a couple of years. I am glad they thought that, but I know I was just responsible for changing the expression. The abuse went on, but behind closed doors and away especially from my eyes and ears. People continued to suffer but perhaps had a little more dignity. Despite not being successful in making a fundamental change in the situation, I am happy that at least someone had told the abuser that what he did was wrong. I once read some Australian training material on workplace bullies and forwarded him the description after highlighting keywords, much to his shock and hurt. He actually looked devastated and betrayed because I called him a workplace bully!

I was bold, because I knew I was right. It didn't hurt that I also knew I was indispensable at that time!

As his trusted and star employee, who was never at (or likely to be at) the receiving end of his abuse, I could have kept quiet. But I am glad that my principles and conviction, strengthened by my Buddhist beliefs, pushed me into taking a stand. If I hadn't, my silence would have done more damage than anyone else's.

As Martin Luther King said (quoting Jackson quoting MLK in the TEDx video):

"In the end what will hurt the most is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends!"

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Deeper Thought

I have lost a few weeks in being totally flippant and mindless. I flitted around like a butterfly avoiding all reality even when I know how heavy the load I carry inside me can become. I knew what I was doing was pointless, but I did it anyway and very arrogantly. I know how precious each day of life is but I wasted so many knowingly. I know how transient physical beauty and the joy it gives are, yet I trapped myself in its trappings. I know that the journey is long and arduous and not yet half done, yet I allowed myself to be intoxicated. I am capable of feeling so many emotions, but I chose to be obsessed with just one. I had no compassion for everyone, except for the poor neglected unloved me- sob sob.

I have no clue why I did it. Well, that's not entirely correct...

Perhaps, lack of attention and importance has something to do with it. Perhaps, I just can't deal with being a nobody. Maybe, not being recognized and appreciated is too hard a sacrifice for my ego. Maybe, I want proof that I am special. Maybe, living a simple life is too scary. Maybe, being a better person than who I am is too daunting and too much bloody hard work. Maybe I am too shallow. Maybe, I am lonely and have forgotten how to deal with it gracefully. Maybe, lack of stress, as I used to know it, threw me off balance completely. Maybe, though no excuse, my hormones are dancing to their requiem. 

Whatever it is, I am glad it is over. The unraveling began this morning with a prayer, and I was undone completely before the day was over. I will surely miss the lightness of mindlessness, but at least I am alive to deeper thought. There is hope for me still. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

That Strange Song!

In 1983, when I was 17, I didn't belong to this world. I had a strange song in my heart that came out on paper in the form of disjointed words that meant nothing to anyone but me. I had nothing to say to anyone, not even to myself, because that strange song had taken all my attention inwards and made me speechless. I lived in a different universe. I heard sounds in colors. I saw shapes in sounds. My eyes were unfocused, but I felt everything. I was enchanted by a strange magic that made my world fuzzy and beautiful. I saw no harsh edges. If anyone asked how I felt, I could only move my hands to try to explain the uncontained lightness permeating my whole being. No one understood me and that didn't really bother me. A young man once told me my eyes were like liquid- that was the closest anyone got to the truth. I felt free. I didn't belong to anyone. I didn't own anything. I wasn't aware of my youth or my beauty or my flaws or my strangeness. I was untouched. I flowed without boundaries. I was one with the breeze in my hair.

Today while taking a walk along a quiet path, I stopped with a jolt. I heard the same strange song once again. An uncontained lightness lifted my spirits. The call of a bird suddenly transformed into colors and shapes. I felt free of all memories and unaware of complexities and untouched by pain and one with an incredibly beautiful soft-edged world.

Hello Puja. It's been a long time. You were sorely missed.