each lemon, a lesson

What a year this has been.

As 2016 draws to a close, I can’t help but go into a more reflective mode. 2016 has undoubtedly been one of the best years of my life. =) Probably the best one since I’ve started work because I was able to do a much less stressful posting for work this year than those which I had to undergo previously. But it’s all going to change for the first half of 2017. The past few weeks have been the most stressful of the entire year I think. Boy, was it a real roller coaster of emotions for me. First, receiving news that for the upcoming 6 month posting I would be posted to a department that I not only did not list in my top 6 preferred choices, but one which I had resolved never to go back to because of my lack of interest in the work and that fact that (having been through that department before) it was for me, a form of mental and emotional affliction. When I first heard that there was a chance that I would have to return to that department, it was all that I could do to not break down all the time and let my thoughts get the better of me as I recalled those nights of stress, uncertainty and dread.

Looking back now, I can’t help but be grateful that if this had to happen, at least it happened at the close of 2016, after I’ve spent a large part of the year learning more about Mindfulness and strategies on coping with stress/fear from the inimitable Tara Brach (whose talks/podcasts, I highly recommend), as well as exposing myself to content related to How To Live. It seems like such a common sense thing right? Why spend so much time learning about the best way to live? Why not just…live? Whenever I tell some friends about the so-called ‘self-help’ type books that I’m reading, most people give a dismissive shrug or sneer. They don’t believe in that sort of ‘stuff’. This category of books selects its readers, after all. But I’ve come to realize strongly that too many of us simply live our days and lives without awareness or intention. And before we know it we’re carried along as if on a large wave in the ocean, not realizing where we’re headed till the crest breaks and we land somewhere entirely unexpected or unintended. (I’m reminded of Seneca, who wrote: “Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who … organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day… Nothing can be taken from this life, and you can only add to it as if giving to a man who is already full and satisfied food which he does not want but can hold. So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.“)

I’ve made up my mind that I don’t want to live that way. At the very least, I would like to live mindfully.

But I digress. So amidst the initial chest tightening anxiety and worry about having to go through 6 months of a dreaded rotation, I frantically got into action, contacting people, friends of colleagues, colleagues of colleagues, absolute random strangers – anyone possibly in the same predicament as me, hoping for a change in their upcoming rotation. When in desperation, we really do find some incredible reservoirs of determination and indefatigability. After many days of trying/failing/trying, amazingly, two fellow workers in the same position as me, were willing to swap half of their postings with me. 3 months to one, 3 months to another, and I was willing to do 3 months of either of their posting. Everything was going according to plan and I had just submitted the email request to the Heads of Department when suddenly… everything came crashing down with a simple one liner from the Head of Department of one Department: “we regret to inform you that the department is not agreeable with the 3 month swap.” With no further explanation whatsoever. All I can say is, I’m glad that came at my lunch hour because boy, was I balling my eyes out, probably to the shock of my two colleagues who came into my room about to invite me out to lunch. That was a real devastating blow to me. To think that despite all my best efforts, they would amount to nothing. And I was helpless to change the outcome of my situation.
I think that was something I had to learn to deal with the hard way. And it’s something that is fairly new to me. I’ve been so lucky in many ways ever since I was a child. Things often came to me if I worked hard or at the very least, had the confidence/audacity to try. It had been a while since I hadn’t been able to ‘control’ the outcome of the situation I was in. All I could think about was how this must be what some patients feel like, being given information about a certain illness that they have to go through. They didn’t ask for it nor did they necessarily do anything to result in their situation, but after a period of struggle, there is no other choice but to resign themselves to a period of ‘suffering’ (subjective, I know, but suffering in whatever form or degree is real for whoever faces is) that they have no control over. (In no way do I think that what I have to go through is in any degree comparable to what those who grapple with illness have to go deal with but it was just an analogy that came to mind.) That was a low point for me, as I struggled to come to terms with the fact that I would have to deal with whatever cards were being dealt to me. I would have to suck it up and there’s nothing I hate more than that.

Then miraculously, one of the other workers agreed, 1.5 days before the deadline of any posting swap, to swap the entire 6 month rotation with me. When I received his message in the morning upon waking up, I was beside myself. And after a period of frantic emailing and communicating with the two departments, we were able to get a successful swap, just hours before the deadline.

So many thoughts have been swirling round in my head these past few weeks as I tried to come to terms with what this entire series of events has meant to me. And I suppose, I’ve come to a few conclusions:

  • This is life. We can try as hard as possible to control how we want things to go. To plan our lives out in as detailed a manner as possible to achieve our goals and to live the sort of life we envision in our minds. But all it takes is something to land in our laps, wholly unexpected, unwanted and in a manner that we could not fully control, to wreck all our plans into disarray. This is life.
  • Being prepared, in whatever way possible, is miles better than having no prior preparation at all. I’m incredibly thankful that in the past few months, I was able to build up to a certain degree, a modicum of resilience of the mind through books such as The Path, Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life… through exposure to Mindfulness, mainly in the form of daily guided meditation sessions called Mindfulness Daily (by Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield)… through listening to a number of Tara Brach’s wonderful talks, as well as Tim Ferriss’ podcasts with numerous writers, thinkers (Alain De Botton and Maria Popova come to mind), all of which have made me reflect on two main things – what it means to live well and how we can go about doing so. Without the time from my relatively easy-going posting which I’ve had the fortune of going through for the past year, I would never have been able to learn about these things. So in a way, this challenge couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s almost as if everything that I’ve gone through and read about this past year has been a lead up to this next stage in my life. This challenge that I’m going to be facing is something I’m now far better equipped to handle. If it had come last year, I don’t think I could have handled it the way I did (which was pretty much in a state that left much to be desired, come to think of it). How can I not be grateful for something as simple and as powerful as timing?

To me, this entire experience has been an incredible lesson in life itself. For at its core, it’s about change, impermanence and loss. Dealing with a change that inevitably results in a loss of the current state of things. Every bit of change to our lives represents a gain in one respect and a loss in another. This brings to mind a core tenet of Buddhist philosophy – “Nothing is forever except change”. It’s far easier to deal with change that has been planned or desired. But life will be full of these instances of changes that befall us unintentionally. Learning to deal with it is part of growing, and is a part of learning to live. The simple fact of knowing that I’m about to lose something such as an established routine/way of life, makes whatever I can enjoy now, all that much more precious. Suddenly the thought that I most probably won’t be able to have the public holidays off in the next posting makes this particular 26 December all the more beautiful and precious. Waking up this morning and settling into my bed with breakfast and a book in hand for hours was such a luxury.

That said, when faced with something unexpected in life, how much should we try to change our circumstances vs how much should we learn to accept it? The Serenity Prayer is a most concise piece of wisdom – “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” How do I know when I should stop trying? How can I tell when I’ve reached the point when it makes more sense to devote my energy to making the existing situation better versus devoting my energy to trying to change things? After this recent experience though, my current take is that if it matters to me, I’ll do whatever I can to try to alter the situation such that the outcome is as favorable as possible. And if at the end of everything, things still don’t go as I hope they do, then I’ve got no choice but to learn to accept it and then move forward. But I can’t let it go entirely without a fight.

(I’m currently listening to this podcast by Tara Brach and in it she talks about why so many of us have a problem with letting go. We have trouble letting go, because there is often an unmet need that we are afraid of facing. So when we struggle and grasp on tighter to what we can’t hold on to, what is the unmet need that we have deep down?)

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be”

– Lao Tzu

On the one hand, we always think that things will end up a certain way based on the person we are right now. But when you think about it, we really never know who we might become if we let go of our current construct of ourselves. I’ve come to feel a certain way about how I want to lead my life and the type of person that I thought I was becoming. This challenge at work next year then, will at the very least, reinforce what I know about myself or make me realize the type of person I can become.

For a while I was full of angst, furious at the system for forcing me into 6 months of a life I did not choose and have no means of getting out of (because to quit would result in me having to pay a very hefty sum of money which neither me or any of my colleagues would be able to afford at this point in our career). The prevailing thought in my mind was that man, I did not just spend so much time figuring out the type of life I want to lead, only to have myself tossed back into a system I’ve been trying so hard to get out of. Why do I have to go through the next 6 months stressed, upset with a whacked out schedule, wishing that time would fast forward itself? I don’t want to live a life wishing only that a portion would be over faster. People always say things like ‘6 months will go by in a jiffy! You’ll be alright’. But why should anyone want to live that way? Consoling himself/herself with the thought that, don’t worry, time passes quickly enough so look forward to it being over. A couple more iterations of that and before you know it, there may not be many moments left to pass that way.

Then something in me just arose from that anger. That I shouldn’t do that to myself. Lead the next 6 months just praying it will be over soon so that I can then go back to leading a better life. Since I refuse to live that way, why don’t I try my best to make it the most interesting 6 months ever? Sure, there will be restrictions due to uncertainties with my work schedule but with those restrictions in place, maybe I can still do something to make the best use of my time. It’ll be a challenge. An experiment, even. To see what I can do with my time to make it amazing, no matter what the circumstances. Perhaps it’s all the Tim Ferriss podcasts I’ve been listening to but I’ve definitely been inspired by his attitude towards doing wanting to learn how to do things in as efficient a way as possible, so that it frees up time for more important things in life. He’s the author of The 4-Hour Work Week, The 4-Hour Chef, The 4-Hour Body (see the trend there, obviously) and most recently, Tools of Titans which I’m flipping through at the moment, about the routines and tools of those he’s interviewed for his podcast over the past few years.

So perhaps, this entire thing could be a blessing in disguise. We’ll never know eh? All these lemons that life throws at us. But perspective is everything. And I feel much better thinking about life this way.

“Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” — Rumi


Hope you’ve all had a wonderful X’mas weekend. 🙂 So glad that there’s the long New Year’s weekend coming up too. Here’s to a beautiful week ahead.



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