Who’s the beggar, really?

The old man showed up one day on my street, out of the blue. Hunched, a wispy beard reaching down his chin, he carefully laid out his wares on the footpath. A few bottles, a big box, a smaller box, arranged in symmetry to form a neat square around him.

At first, I wasn’t sure what he was doing. Was he selling these random items? There was a tin can as well. Was he a beggar? Nothing about him said that. Yes, he was wearing what seemed like old, hand-me-down clothes. He had a jacket over them, similar to street folks that have to fend against the wind and cold. And he was squatting on the space, in the manner of one who has claimed this as his temporary parking spot, not having anywhere else to go.

Still, I was puzzled. He looked busy, which most homeless people don’t look like. Indeed, he was thoroughly occupied with setting up his space. Rushed office workers and college students walked past him, throwing a lazy glance without slowing down. He didn’t notice any of them. Head down, he went about his business. Things were arranged just so, orderly and tidy.

He didn’t seem like a homeless bum. But then what was he doing on the footpath? I could not make sense. As I passed him, I snuck a look at the tin can and saw that it contained some notes. Okay, so he was a beggar. I walked on, nonchalant on the outside, making a vow to drop some money when I had a chance.

The next morning, I saw him unpacking the things from the previous night to again set up his display for the day. I started to approach him, money in my fist. At that instant, he looked up, right at me. I was startled and slowed a bit. And then he broke into a wide, toothy grin, like he recognized me, like we were old friends and he was so pleased to see me. I couldn’t help but grin back. After all, it is not often that I get such an open, inviting greeting.

He reached out his hand, eagerly, wishing me a good morning, with the greatest delight etched on his wrinkled face. Abashed, I still managed to reach out and we shook hands. I was, again, taken aback; I had not been expecting to shake hands with him. I was only planning to offer some aid, in the form of loose change, keeping a sanitized distance with no physical contact or any other interaction. Instead, here I was, feeling a soft hand clasping mine with friendliness. His face searched mine, lighting up in recognition, of what, I don’t know. When I finally dropped the money in his tin can, he thanked me, with the same beaming smile.

The following day, I gave him a bag carrying a sweatshirt and a woolen hat, since it was starting to get cold. He accepted the bag and patted me on the back by way of saying thanks. He didn’t even look inside, already expressing what felt like a sincere gratitude for whatever I had chosen to give him. That night, he was sleeping when I walked past, on my way home from work. He was wearing the sweatshirt. I felt a tingle of pleasure on seeing this; I was glad it was keeping him warm.

I look forward to seeing this old man every morning. He looks happy, despite his circumstances suggesting he should be anything but. I have seen people with far more things than him with the sourest expressions sitting on their faces and the meanest words coming out of their mouths. On days, I am a grumpy louse, complaining about inconsequential things. We are supposedly the ones that are doing well in life, the achievers, leaders, go-getters. However, I will venture to say that this old man is so far ahead of all of us. I get the feeling that he is content in his present, seeing it for everything that it is and feeling the joy of every ordinary moment. That makes him the richest, most accomplished man on earth.

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Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize for Economics 2017! (and why you should care)

Why do you eat junk food even though you know it’s bad for you?

Why don’t you save money even though it will set you up for a great retirement?

Why do you buy the more expensive wine even though you actually like the taste of the cheap version?

Why do you go to the crowded food stall even though another one is next to it, empty?

Why do you finally click on the article after seeing its fifth post on your feed, even though you didn’t think it was interesting the first time?

Richard Thaler will help you answer all these questions, and all the other ones you’re too embarrassed to admit.  Behavioural economics, the domain over which he is master, scrutinizes the fundamental assumption of economics, that humans are rational beings. It forces economists to admit and accept that people make decisions that are irrational and that’s just the way it is.

Ever felt jealously possessive of a creative piece of work – a drawing, a sculpture, even a powerpoint slide – and refused to give it up even though all the evidence and feedback said it was not good? Behavioural economics revealed that we see greater value in things we create.

Or, ever made a well thought-through decision in a calm state of mind that went out the window as soon as you got excited? Behavioural economics again, showing how rational decisions get overthrown quite easily if you make minor, seemingly insignificant changes to your surroundings.

What about not quitting smoking/ not losing weight/ not exercising? Behavioural economics can explain this too (it’s too far out in time, that’s why we don’t take the task seriously now).

I studied economics in college and kind of hated it. I wish behavioural economics had been around at that time, I’m pretty sure I would have fallen in love instead and done a PhD.

 

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“Give” ideas for Diwali, Christmas and other festivals

It’s festival season all over the world, with some of the most commercial festivals cropping up soon. I love this season because it encourages us to think of our friends and families; in a world that is increasingly shrinking inwards and become insular, expanding outward to our communities is a welcome act.

Unfortunately, the commercial-ness of some of the festivals is getting in the way of connecting with others. Gifts, in nicely wrapped boxes, used to be a nice way to show we care; they have become abused and mutated into a short cut when we can’t find time and energy. Gifting has also become expensive, with a competition to outdo others and even our own previous record. The act remains, the point is lost.

The importance of giving comes back to the giver too. As I wrote about in a previous blogpost, giving makes us happy because it is an occasion when we are in synch with the world. As we lead more hectic, stressful, burnt out lives, finding joy becomes more critical. Giving, as I show below, can be done in ways that are accessible, don’t get in the way of life (not too much, anyway), and can bestow tremendous joy for the giver as well as the receiver, more than a typical gift will do.

To bring back the true spirit of gifting, which is giving of our time, energy and love to friends, family and wider community, here are a few ideas for this year’s festive season.

Give blood.

It makes a difference, sometimes the difference between life and death for a mother’s son, a daughter’s father, a husband’s wife, a friend’s friend.

Recently, I saw the coverage of the horrible Las Vegas shootout massacre. The day after, local residents were pouring in to donate their blood. Amidst the overwhelming chaos, everyday folks kept coming in and offering their blood to help save strangers. On its own, this gesture might feel small, even insignificant. What can a bag of blood do when the problem is so big?

A lot. Hundreds of people were injured, and the individual bags of blood kept them alive and helped them recover.

We don’t need a massacre attack to give blood. Every day, people are looking for a saviour, in the form of a blood donor. It’s an easy way to be a hero. How much bigger a gift can you give than life to someone?

Spend your time with old people.

When we’re young, we have friends and family around us, a bustling beehive of conversations, fights, make-up sessions, parties and all the fun activities our bodies and our social circle permit. We are in the prime of life, we are the center of attraction for the world.

Old people, however, are the forgotten. They’ve been moved to the sidelines as a newer, shinier generation steps forward. The simple progression of time and aging means they lose their own social network to death, thinning out until they’ve out-survived many of their peers. They literally have no one to talk to. It gets lonely.

There are many that have carved out a new life, a second innings, if you will. In places like Japan, where the aged are everywhere, society has shifted to keep them more in the center than others. However, there are many other old folks who find themselves left behind; they’ve not prepared for this part of life, and now they’re on their own. Whether at an old folks’ home or in their own private homes, they feel lost at sea without any anchor.

Your casual visit to them cheers them up in a way no bow-tied box can. It leaves them with fodder to chew on for days after the visit, the happy smile lingering on the face at recollections of the visit.

Look at them, make them feel seen. Listen to them, so they feel heard. These small acts do a huge service to the elderly – they acknowledge them as worthwhile and interesting human beings.

And they are, if you can show the patience to see and hear them. They’ve got a perspective on the world at a time when you weren’t born – where will you get such firsthand historical accounts? They’ve lived many more ups and downs than you – who else can give you a perspective on how to survive life? They’ve seen you when you were a new-born – who else can tell you what you were like before you were able to see yourself?

Old people are a treasure trove of stories and histories. They’ll give this to you in exchange for a small price, your time and attention. It’s a good deal.

Take kids to a cultural show.

You’ll have an impact on them that will stay for the rest of their lives.

One of the most impressionable experiences in my life was when I was taken to a broadway show and then the famous jazz club, The Blue Note, in New York City when I was a freshman in college. I had never seen anything like it before, I was blown away. I only got to experience it because the father of a school friend decided to take a bunch of us for a day out in NYC.

I don’t think he realises what he did that day. I saw a world unfold in front of my wide eyes that showed me exciting dimensions to life that I wasn’t even aware of. Incredible heights of song and dance, a community of people where THIS was the natural style of living, and, most importantly, a dedication to the stuff that makes us humans beyond the act of survival and doing the prescribed thing. I saw people interacting with each other freely and openly, something I had not grown up with. The singer at the Blue Note that evening was a lady in her 60s or even 70s who looked spectacular: sequinned long dress, coiffed hair and heavy make-up. She rolled out those songs like smoky wisps of air. In between, she bantered in her husky voice with the audience and the jazz band, laughing throatily before launching into another jazz tune. I loved her. It has been over 20 years since I was there, and I can still see her, the stage lights glistening magnificently on her.

What did this do to me? It showed me that there are different ways of living life, that there are avenues to be discovered, where others have already congregated and you will not be alone. In no small measure, however indirectly, this experience injected confidence in me to follow my own path because I saw others doing it.

Take kids out to stuff like this, you never know what stays with them and shapes their lives.

Cook for your friends.

The act of eating is so primal, it is essential to our survival. Eating well is essential to not just surviving but thriving.

That’s why the act of feeding is so significant. You can nourish the soul, in addition to the body. Our feelings are transferred through food, and when we cook lovingly for people we care about, that love reaches them.

One of my favourite holidays ever is the American Thanksgiving. It is wholly dedicated to bringing family and friends together around a table of food. A turkey sits in the center, and the culture of Thanksgiving exists on stories of turkeys getting burnt, lumpy gravy, and forgotten cranberry sauce, in addition to the chaotic logistics of seating inordinately more people than the dining room was built for and who sits on the kiddies’ table vs the adults table. Person after person rings the doorbell and enters with loud greetings and laughs, with doors getting hastily shut to keep the cold air out.

One Thanksgiving, I had some friends from graduate school over to my flat in Boston. We had American representation but most of the crowd was international. In other words, minimal expertise in cooking Thanksgiving fare. It was a hilarious disaster, with a large turkey that was given enough time to bake and still refused to cooperate. Unsure, my Italian friend G. and I made the executive decision to carve up the turkey and pan fry it to confirm it was cooked. The bird still refused to let go of its pink hue. We were flummoxed, the milling group in the other rooms was getting hungry, and so, in order to avoid a total flop show, we served a scant few pieces of turkey we were convinced were ready for consumption, with loads of side servings (stuffing, cranberries, salad, bread, beans, pumpkin pie) and even more wine. It was the best Thanksgiving ever, and entirely due to the shared act of cooking and eating.

Cooking parties are a guaranteed good time, much better than ordering in food or eating out. It’s more time and effort, which is your gift. The reward is more than commensurate.

Write letters.

We don’t write letters anymore, which makes them all the more unique and capable of delighting. It is a gratifying feeling to receive a letter that shows thoughtfulness – thoughtful of you the recipient, and thoughtful of the sender, who has chosen to make time to consider what to write.

Most important to me, however, is the fact that a letter reflects a writer who is willing to share his or her feelings with you about what is going on in their lives. Not just willing, reaching out to connect with you by opening up. We don’t share so openly anymore; emails, text messages and instant messages consistently get shorter and more functional with each new format. Our emotions are encapsulated in emojis and we don’t need to elaborate on them.

Elaboration is exactly what’s needed, though, as a writer and reader of a letter. As a writer, to have a canvas on which to detail our interpretations, our misgivings, our hopes. It’s what makes us us. As a reader, to have a lens into our dear friend’s world, to receive a map into the field of emotions that has sprung up.

When we write letters, we give our trust to our friend the reader, that what we have shared will be read with care and accepted with sympathy. We give our friend the opportunity to be a friend. It bonds us, across land and sea. Isn’t that what it’s about?

Giving is far better than gifting. The more commercial our festivals become, the more important it is to defy the easy way of material gifts and invest in the reason we want to give gifts in the first place, to make others feel appreciated, thought of, and cared for.  In the act, it gives to the giver as well, emitting essential joy into our existence.

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Giving, not gifting

These days I am reading “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki. It’s considered a classic. I can believe it, even though I’m probably understanding only a minuscule fraction of it.

Still, what we understand is a good place to start from. I read a passage that struck me as gold because it explained why I like giving. When we give, it said, we are in sync with the flow of life, that’s why we feel joy.

That’s a nice way to put it.

Being in sync with the world – oneness – feels intuitively like a source of happiness. No divisions, no separation, no friction. Much of my day goes in confronting situations, from the minor to the major. There are days when everything feels like a major threat, and then there are others, where irritations wash ashore like irrepressible little, prickly waves, unendingly. It is a dualistic scene: me vs [fill in the blank], over and over. A day conquered is a day hard-won.

Except when I give. The tension disappears when I’m giving something. Offering my seat on the subway to someone who looks tired but hasn’t asked. Sharing my lunch with a colleague. Sending a funny meme to a friend who’s been down.

I don’t give things, mostly; and it’s not important, I’ve discovered. It’s more about giving what’s wanted, which, usually, is experience-based stuff. These days, my time and attention seem to be the prized commodities. There’s something more intimate and committed about giving of yourself, through the attention paid or the caring shown. Things are a poor substitute for these feelings.

The festive season is getting started in many parts of the world, like India (Diwali coming up) and then Christmas and New Year. Gifting is a big part of festivals. What if, this year, it was about giving?

 

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With love from Japan: Five things you didn’t know you needed

After my visit to Japan, I have been spoiled. There, I discovered things that I did not know I needed. Here’s the top 5:

Heated toilet seats.

I had heard about the toilets in Japan before, especially about the heated toilet seats. I had summarily dismissed all of this as unnecessary innovation.

That was before I experienced it for myself.

Bliss, it is the only way to describe what it feels like to sit on a heated seat. The first time, it felt like a tender embrace. After the assault on the senses of the outside world, when I rushed in with a certain urgency, this inner chamber invited me to slow down, open up and be vulnerable. Gently warm, it asked me to let go. I felt myself melt.

I wonder what the science is behind this. There must be a health benefit, besides the utter mental rejuvenation it bestows.

Ever since, I am hooked on the heated toilet seats. Every morning ablution now is dreary, a disappointment of how joyful it can be and yet is not.

Why haven’t heated seats caught on in the rest of the world? We would all be a bit saner, happier, and nicer to each other, I’m convinced.

Soup and salad at breakfast.

At first, I found it a bit strange to be chewing on a green salad at 730 in the morning along with a hot bowl of miso soup. I couldn’t figure out how they fit with the rest of my standard breakfast, where I knew the rhythm of eggs, toast and coffee.

But, in the spirit of “when in Rome, do as the Romans”, I persisted. Very soon, I found myself enjoying the freshness of the salad. Every bite of shredded cabbage and carrot, drizzled with tangy dressing, exuded an awakening, a salute to the new day. The miso soup was a soft wake-up call, soothingly reviving my sleeping soul to greet the blush of the morning.

I’ll admit, I hadn’t found the order in which to consume them with the rest of the conventional items, but it didn’t matter much. The sensations they invoked felt so right. It’s something I’d like to continue for a long time.

Zen gardens.

Everyone has seen the calendars of zen gardens – I’ve received them as Christmas gifts in the past, as I’m sure many of you have. Photographs of zen gardens, with deep sayings on them, keep popping up every so often. Not surprisingly then, they were a bit cliched to me and I did not expect to be moved too much when I visited them.

Oh, how wrong I was.

To be in a zen garden is nothing like seeing the picture of one. The tranquility is all-encompassing: rocks sit, seemingly in random order, amidst a sea of white, gray and black pebbles that have a movement of their own. Overhead, Japanese maple tree boughs, mixed with pine, Japanese cedar, willow, and the famed cherry trees, swaying gently whenever the wind blows through.

I could sit in a zen garden forever. I ended up spending a lot of time there, in fact, as a result of which my sight-seeing productivity plummeted. It is the most calming influence and I think the most appropriate for the hectic, stressed out world we live in. Over and over, I found myself wishing I lived in Kyoto, so that I could find respite in any one of the innumerable zen gardens in the city whenever I had a bad day or felt confused by life.

Squeaky clean streets, stations and stops.

The cleanliness of Japan is another famed story I was aware of before I landed, but it still did not prepare me for seeing it with my own eyes.

The streets have no litter, anywhere. Same is the case for the railway stations and the bus stops.

This spotlessness engenders a peace of mind, a calming sense of order. Things feel less chaotic, more coherent. I felt relief, strangely, to cast my eyes every so often in the direction of a canal and to find the water transparent and pure. Even a canal was maintained with the same standard. When this dedication to doing the right thing is so apparent everywhere, it made me feel a sense of community, to uphold my part in the upkeep of this beautiful city. Everyone did, I think, because I didn’t see a single tourist go errant and carelessly drop an empty chips packet on the side or put out a cigarette butt in the open.

It would make a big difference if we cleaned up our surroundings to the point of squeakily spotless. We’d all feel more vested in making the rest of our world work better as well. The cleanliness has a resonating influence on spheres beyond the immediate. It’s not about the streets, stations and stops, but it certainly starts there.

Old men in fedora hats.

People in Japan still follow a dressing decorum. I’m talking about the old people. The younger folks have a terrific fashion sense, but as is the case with modern fashion, anything goes.

The older people dress true to their generation, I was surprised to note. Old men in tailored suits, customized fedora hats, and gold-rimmed spectacles were to be found all around me. They were dignified and hearkened to a different era. I was glad that they had not lost this part in keeping up with changing times.

There was a romance to that time in history, which I miss in today’s world. Although that period had its share of problems, there was something nice about how respectfully people addressed each other, cared enough to groom and clothe themselves with style, and conducted themselves in a manner to uphold their self-respect and dignity. If some of this were to come back to our times, it would not be such a bad thing.

So there you have it, five things that Japan has given me that I did not expect or ever felt I needed. Life is better with them, I think.

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Reality, through a pinhole

That’s what my zen meditation teacher, Reverend Takafumi Kawakami, said today.

“We think we know reality, but the fact is, we know our reality, which is very limited. We think we are seeing everything, but our view is all that can be seen through a pinhole.”

A pinhole. That’s not much.

And yet, we’re so quick to jump to judgment, as if we’ve seen the whole picture and we know what’s what. He is a jerk, she is not nice, it’s too hot, it’s too cold, my life sucks. We seem to have an opinion on everything, and we pronounce it so definitively, as if it’s fact.

It’s not fact. It’s your version of a canvas that is so wide and you’re only seeing a corner of it. When I tell you my version, it’s also not fact. I’m describing what I can see through my pinhole. We’re all looking through pinholes and trying to convince each other that we know best.

That’s a pretty funny image, if you think about it. And it sounds silly, the conviction with which we try to impose our tiny, tiny perception of the grandness of life. Wouldn’t it be better if we just listened to each other’s stories (because that’s what they are) and tried to find enjoyment in them?

The Reverend was a wonderful zen priest. He talked philosophy while wearing an Apple watch. When I asked him what his typical day is like, he described the most ordinary set of events – he reads, does email, picks up his daughter from school, rakes the garden, and meditates. I’ll admit I had some preconceived notion that he must spend many hours in meditation, floating above the rest of the ordinary folk. What’s best, he described it in the most down-to-earth, nonchalant way, like this is how it is, even for a zen buddhist priest, nothing special.

The zen meditation was my first time in a group and I loved it. I have been doing zazen (sitting) for a few years now, always on my own. It was a different experience altogether to do it with others, even though I was still sitting and following my own breath. I’m not sure what transforms this experience, but it’s enjoyable.

If you are in Kyoto, I highly recommend doing this zen meditation at the Shunko-in Temple, which is a sub-temple within the Myoshin-ji Temple complex. There’s a 10 minute talk by the Reverend, followed by 20 minutes of meditation, and then a tour of the temple and its wonderful zen gardens. Finishing it off is a cup of matcha green tea and light rice crackers.

Afterwards, I wandered through the large Myoshin-ji Temple, peeking into other sub-temples (which are not open to the public). The setting is impossibly tranquil. Blue sky above, grey and white pebbles underneath my feet, and the company of twittering birds. There are long lanes throughout the complex, and the act of walking up to the temple at the end is calming in itself. Western-style apartment complexes totally have it wrong, with their short entries into the building and the flats.

Zen buddhist temples are among my favourite places in the world, I’ve decided.

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Grace in a breakfast

In the ryokan (traditional Kyoto inn) where I’m staying, grace comes through even in breakfast.

Consider the kind of breakfast you have typically when traveling. There is a large and noisy dining hall, usually the hotel cafe, with an array of square tables for four or six, some tables for two. You enter the room, unsure where to sit; some heads look up to check you out, blankly, and then return to their feeding, uninterested by what they saw. You awkwardly make your way to a spot that lets you blend in unobtrusively. Food is laid out on long tables along the wall, multiple piping hot varieties competing with cold options, screaming like hungry babies for your attention. You take more food than you can finish and your plate is an incoherent mess for your stomach to grapple with. Waiters bustle busily, interrupting to refill water and bringing your coffee or tea long after you most desired it. The sole purpose is functional, to feed the body’s need for energy, which you do amidst anxious, clamorous chaos.

In my quiet ryokan, there is no dining room. There is a space for eating that is part of a larger room, separated by a bamboo and paper divider. Behind it, there is a small bamboo and plant grove, peacefully existing in the background. Energy flows in an unbroken way throughout the space.

In the breakfast ‘room’, there is seating for eight, along a long table in the middle of the space. It is a communal table, inviting everyone to join everyone else. No awkward, uncomfortable standing at the doorway to feel welcomed. The chairs are made of bamboo, which has a soothing quality to it. Lighting is soft, there is only one little white vase for decoration, holding a simple yet exquisite flower arrangement.

An old and spry Japanese lady entered through cloth curtains with a tray that she first placed on her side of the table, and then proceeded to carefully lay out my breakfast, one bowl at a time. Measured yet quick, she soon had five or six bowls of varying sizes in front of me. Most of them looked new to me, I could not identify them, and still they did not look uninviting.

On the left of my tray was a bowl of pink pickled Japanese mountain plums, julienned and sprinkled with black sesame seeds. They were crispy, like radish, only sweeter. Another had calmly steamed baby spinach and straw mushrooms, vibrant dark green against light and dark browns. Steaming miso soup sat on the side, careful not to burn me. Along with it came a bowl of delightful soft tofu, in a light brown, inoffensive miso-flavored broth and with a small dollop of horseradish for taste. A delicate, fluffy omelette roll, accompanied by delicate wisps of pickled ginger, waited on the side. A fresh bowl of rice completed the family picture.

I asked the lady if there was a sequence to eating, often a source of doubt for me with foreign cuisines. She cackled, “no order, any order!” Then she left through the thin cotton curtains.

I began to taste the different bowls. Gradually, I became aware of the layers of contrast that rested on my tray. Crispy radish balanced the silky tofu. Cool spinach gave a neutral respite from taste. Hot miso soup awakened my senses and even my cells, it felt like. Warm green tea refreshed the palate from time to time, creating the space for other flavours to emerge.

As I put my chopsticks down for the last time, feeling gently full, I realized the magic I had just experienced. Temperatures and textures sat in balanced harmony on that breakfast tray. No competition with each other; rather, a collaborative co-existence for the greater good. No harsh flavours, no incoherence, no breakage in the flow of nourishment that was going on in that early hour. Calmly, with grace, I had been roused for my day ahead.

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