Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday reflections 15 - Playing the confidence game!

Through law school I found law students and lawyers to be a different breed. They were incredibly, sharp, well read and, often arrogant and abnoxious. I used to be terribly intimidated by them. I may have been as smart as the next person but was still new to Canada and did not understand the cultural context well enough. I was not good at reading cues and never could tell what people thought of me and my skills. The process of constantly guessing kept me in a perpetual state of high anxiety and stress. I could have just asked people but did not have the confidence to, thinking they would perceive me as unsmart. Anyway that was me.

During my articling year, a senior lawyer assigned me a motion to file in court. This was my first one. I was too intimidated to ask her how I would go about doing it and so did my reading of the procedural rules, prepared the papers taking great pains and filed it in court. We had three weeks to the motion date, when she asked me for the file. I meekly handed it to her, unsure of what I had done. I will never forget what happened next. She threw the file at me and went on a rant about how I had filed in the wrong court and had ruined her reputation as a competent lawyer before the Judge, given it was her name on the record. It turned out that there was a minor exception in the procedural rules which I had overlooked. For all I know she could have set me up to fail! Anyway, I broke into tears right there and began to sob uncontrollably, profusely apologizing like a blubbering idiot. I was ready to give up the law, my three plus years of study and all the sacrifices, then and there.

As a trainee lawyer, I had a lawyer mentor Scot, who saw this drama and who asked me into his office. I will never forget his advice and to this day carry it with me. He said, "we all make mistakes. However, you can mitigate its impact on yourself by displaying confidence".
The first rule is to never put yourself at the mercy of the other person in terms of how they make you you feel. Second rule, you take back control by saying - "I am sorry this happened but here is what I am going to do to fix it" because there is never a mistake that cannot be fixed with some effort and time. Third rule, if you are dealing with a reasonable person, they will sense your sincerity and agree and if they are not reasonable, your confidence should not suffer as a result - it is their problem. Needless to say these lessons hold good for all aspects of our lives.

There is a postscript to this story. This lawyer, who had given every one of us students a hard time, actually got very emotional and shed a tear when I went to say goodbye to her at the end of my articles. I am sure from remorse, thinking that she had emotionally scarred me. Thankfully, she had not. But what she had done, inadvertently, was taught me to play the confidence game. I stopped getting down on myself for mistakes I made. I looked for solutions. I also learnt to treat people who reported to me with dignity, to never intimidate, to always be available to support, mentor and coach knowing that the leader in each of us blossoms in the right environment. One, where we can all be happily challenged to perform, thrive and grow.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Outlet mall America

Outlet malls in America depress me. Don't get me wrong. I like a good bargain at the Coach store as much as the next person. I find great deals and usually do my serious annual shopping for essentials such as boots and coats there. The difference in price makes it all worthwhile.

Then why am I hit with melancholy every time I visit one? Well they show me a slice of American life which makes me really sad. A dystopian reality, which would have made for great science fiction a la Wall-E, 50 years ago. This is especially true of north eastern communities bordering Canada.

These malls are usually in the middle of nowhere. They are made up of independent stores and hence lack the artificial cozy fuzziness of a shopping mall where all shoppers co-exist as a community, at least for a time. So you necessarily have to walk outside irrespective of the weather as you enter and exit stores. There sometimes are lineups outside storefronts when incredible sales are on offer. As when you can get a signature handbag originally priced at $400 for $100. And these are legitimate offers for great goods. Having said that, these outlets are for the serious shopper in that you need a sense of purpose unlike in a mall where window shopping makes for an idle pass time within a comfortable cocoon of music, warmth and good cheer. Here shoppers go from store to store lugging huge bags, while making frequent trips to their SUVs to deposit their "steals".

So what's wrong with any of this? Nothing really - except it speaks of a lifestyle where big corporations warehouse stuff in the middle of nowhere and people buy things not necessarily because they need them but to live the impossible dream of beautiful people that inhabit the tabloids in supermarket isles. Or to kill boredom or to honour the ritual of buying gifts for Christmas or chocolates for Valentines or costumes for Halloween or to just plain buy. Do all these people really need all the stuff that is peddled in the malls? Probably not.

But I am most upset when I see the people who shop there and the young sales clerks who attend to them. They are all incredibly unfit and big. I don't really know the social communities they inhabit. But I can only imagine that travelling anywhere out of a hundred mile radius would cost money and take courage for those who never have ventured forth. Some of the sales clerks we met admitted not knowing anything about exchange rates, not having travelled anywhere. In the small communities that surround these malls there are few pass-times except the great outdoors and most people it would appear, do not get off their couch to experience it. I see them trapped in a world defined by the internet, sports TV, hamburger joints and these malls. Wonder what the future holds for them? Do the corporations really care? They only do care that they have people to keep in minimum wage jobs and people to buy their goods. They would rather not have these folks get off the couch, travel far, engage in active pursuits and learn to think critically? The State does not appear to care either given its interest in preserving the capitalist ideal at all costs. It is wilfully blind to the fact that trickle-down economics does not pay the huge college fees that may elevate the lives and social statuses of some of these folks. It should care given that taxes go into state funded medicine. It should also know that state funded education for the young would create a more stable and secure society than money spent on weapons of mass destruction. Well, I hear politicians talk about abortion rights and gay marriage, politically charged topics, but none really has articulated the problem of America's young and the dreadful future that awaits them. When no one seems to care – why do I care so much? I am having a serious rethink about shopping at these malls!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Our annual pilgrimage to Pittsburgh

Every year we make the trip to the SV Temple in Pittsburgh, PA. Usually in November. There are over a hundred temples in Toronto and yet we undertake the 5 hour drive to Monroeville as an annual ritual. We set out on Saturday a.m. with a packed picnic. We stop mid-way in Angola, New Year, for our refreshment and health break and then proceed through the familiar route to arrive in the afternoon. The drive is usually pleasant on roads that are wide open and tree lined. At this time no leaves remain and their starkness is a brilliant contrast against the varied colours of the sun which paints the sky in beautiful hues of pink. There is something incredibly gorgeous about the northern sky in clear winter weather. Yesterday we had some light snow and then brilliant sun which lulled me into a nice nap as the husband drove. Our drive is usually quite meditative, spent listening to Carnatic music. I also centre myself and focus on the present and sensations as they arise and pass. This calming of the mind makes for great peace throughout the weekend and especially at the tail-end spent at the Grove City outlet mall, where I only pick up what I absolutely need!

Monroeville is a nice little part of Pittsburgh, bustling with stores, restaurants and, as locale of the impressive University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre and the SV Temple, draws crowds from far and wide.
We always stay at the Holiday Inn which is comfortable and familiar

What is this temple's lure? It's North America's answer to Tirupathi, perched as it is on a hillock, the path to it dipping and rising. They follow the same traditions in their chanting of the Sahasranamam in Sanskrit and of verses of the Divya Prabandham in Tamil. I love the Tamil chants rendered by the priest in his beautiful singing voice. I am just transported to another place and time. I can remain there for hours. When Carnatic musician T.V. Sankaranarayanan stayed with us during several of his North American tours, each time he would sit in front of our altar and sing virruttams in chaste Tamil from the Divya Prabandham. All my associations with this form of prayer are quite wonderful.

The other attraction at the temple is their prasadam. They have piping hot sambar rice or pongal varieties at the end of each puja. The portions are generous and the food quite delicious. In the basement cafeteria they sell puliyodharai, curd rice, pongal and uppuma really cheap and everyone makes a beeline for it to pack a picnic for the return trip.

It's a great time for us all in all in that it's a nice road trip, a time away from our weekend routine when we calmly discuss important matters that impact our lives and surrender our insecurities as we turn our minds to experiencing something beyond our immediate comprehension - this call to our own divinity.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Taking a page from Keynes

In the news today we saw China flexing its military arm showing off its fighter aircraft while Obama is on a visit there. CNN carried the story to allege that the Chinese manufacturers had copied US design. Then the reporter tangentially ventured into talk about cyber warfare and how the Chinese had hacked into US weather systems recently. China is now gaining on the US to establish its supremacy globally.

Given how we are all so interdependent, such news is troubling. The end result is millions spent on an arms race and on cyber security. Tax dollars which should be educating our youth, feeding our poor, heck, stimulating our economy and providing jobs with infra structure spending are being poured into endeavours that assuage our fears. Is this the world we want. Why have we visioned our world based on these power structures and hierarchies? Could there not be a rethink? After all, we need each other. I sound like a naive bleeding heart oversimplifying our complex world but I think not. We need a groundswell of opinion for a world of open exchange. What would this look like?

I can illustrate with a small example, taking a page from Keynes whose economic theories are all the vogue right now because of his prescience. In 1944 close to his death, at age 62, Keynes proposed an International Clearing Union that would keep trade and investment in rough balance. Debtor countries would have to repay loans of course but creditor countries would have a role to play in that they would give their debtors breathing space by buying more of their products and services. So if this were to exist today, the Germans would be holidaying in Greece and Portugal and buying their wine from them. The Germans need wine and holidays so does it not make sense for them to help their debtor nation than to get it elsewhere? Sadly Keynes' idea lost out and instead we got the IMF providing aid to nations to meet balance payments and the World Bank to provide aid for development. We do not have the financial infrastructure to restore balance to global trade and investment, one that is based on sound international cooperation which identifies our obligations to each other for our collective good.

Keynes could have been talking about everything in our present world when he wrote in the 1930s "we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time- perhaps a long time."

Monday, November 10, 2014

The zen art of listenting

My daughter who is distraught over the results of the election, as most whom I know are, said to me,"mom I feel devastated. Brexit and now this? I am frightened as I go over scenarios in my mind of what's yet to unfold". Normal reaction. I said to her "you have to stop thinking like an MBA and be present without interpretation. You will then act when needed, and in the most unselfish ways". I harked back to a time when I had an opinion about everything and wanted above all to be heard. Slowly I realized that most people were like me just talking at each other. It was a contest of who had the most clever things to say. No one was actually listening or processing since we were all thinking about what to say next and how to outsmart the next person. The election campaign we saw is a case in point. The contestants are not wholly to blame. We have come to respect rhetoric and sound bytes, fuelled by our media's quest for ratings. We do not value authenticity. We want posturing, pretence and power talk.

A few years ago, I read somewhere about the zen art of listening and decided to practice it. Every time I had an impulse I stopped and gave myself the cue to listen instead. Wow what a difference it made. The ego had been quietened. The speaker had my attention. I waited to offer my thoughts if they added value or were solicited. Miraculously I felt heard and found that I was effective. I realize now that represents a microcosm of how the wise among us live. They do not want to grasp or possess anything. They have no fear of losing anything - as life flows through them. Note this does not mean they don't change things. Their very presence in a non ego state does. But they wait for life to unfold, always attentive and observant. They wait for the right moment, to express a thought, write a piece, argue a point. They do not react violently from a place of judgement but listen attentively and remain curiously engaged without self interest. This sounds like an easy thing to do - but is actually excruciating for the uninitiated and unpractised. Especially under present circumstances. I find myself reacting from deep conditioning and habit patterns. I am fuelling my hate with assumptions and judgement that my limited faculties conjure up. I have to stop reacting and respond from a place of silence and intuition, while not letting the behaviour of others destroy my inner peace (Dalai Lama). It is time for a shift change. Mind you this does not mean remaining complacent and passive. But it also does not mean being aggressive and opinionated. It means being still and acting with grace towards higher goals in unselfish ways. That is my advise to my daughter as well!