Kyoto: a balm for the world

Why has no one ever told me about Kyoto? If I had to be reborn, I would ask for it to be here, a million times over.

Kyoto is serenity. (Run, don’t walk, here if you’re craving some calm.)

The legendary politeness of Japanese people is easily witnessed here. The ways of Kyoto citizens transcend mere etiquette, however. These people, from the innkeeper to the salesman to the old lady in the street, are operating¬†at a different level than the rest of the planet. What else can you say when the city’s motto is “This is Kyoto: keep it clean, be graceful”? Graceful? I’d be happy with decent, these days, given the uncouth, selfish, and aggressive, often violent, behavior we’re seeing in practically every corner of the world.

Except Kyoto, it seems, where they are concerned with a higher order, more evolved state of being, grace.

Kyoto is, truly, grace.

I swooned when I saw the first poster exhorting this motto in a shop window. And then I experienced it, over and over. When my optician changed my new glasses without so much as a mutter (because the power felt too strong after the fact), I was convinced grace flows in their blood. They can’t think or act otherwise, it is inconceivable. They seem to be a mutant segment of the human race.

Kyoto is flowing with life the way we all are supposed to be.

The leaves on the trees sit in perfect harmony with their surroundings. The streets are spic and span, not a cigarette butt or wrapper to be seen. Undoubtedly, the work of a mindful sweeper or operator of the machinery that does the sweeping. Earlier in the afternoon, some men were repairing a small road. The way they were doing their job made me stop and watch. Each was absorbed in his particular task while being in sync with the rest of the band. Concentration married with connectedness, it felt. And so, the tarring and smoothening was happening in smooth coherence. It was poetry in motion, even such a banal, noisy, smelly activity as this.

I tore myself away from this fascinating scene and wandered into one of the historical temples that are scattered throughout the city, Higashi Hoganji Temple, which has been around since 750 years.

I don’t think it’s one of the more famous temples of Kyoto. Nevertheless, walking into the spacious grounds of this Buddhist temple felt like this is exactly what is meant to be, right here, in this way. The temple did not feel neglected or suffering from an inferiority complex to its more popular brethren. The main halls sit next to each other in coherent symmetry. The entry gate is massive, and, unlike other historical gates I have seen, non-aggressive. There are no spikes protruding, no ghouls carved into the doorway, no high thresholds to bar outsiders. Instead, it is gently carved with flowers, and only as many as needed to convey a welcoming air.

I am in the land of Zen Buddhism. The ethos is everywhere. Why can’t every place be like this?

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The boring delight of discipline

Yesterday, I wrote about how the secret sauce to success is discipline, not motivation. It’s a surprising insight. After all, we’re schooled to believe that you have to have a crazed fit of inspiration to achieve outstanding, jaw-dropping outcomes.

This is a lie. Motivation can get you started, but it won’t make you go the distance. For that, you need that boring thing called discipline.

It’s a law of the universe that discipline is not sexy, it doesn’t give you a high, and nobody celebrates you for it. But, without it, an idea remains half-baked and dies a premature death. It’s cruel almost – the genius of an idea that is unveiled through the spurt of motivation can become beyond one’s reach if disciplined effort is not put in. In other words, you can see the promised land but the gates are shut to you.

So how do you get disciplined about things? The prevailing wisdom suggests its not easy. I agree. After all, to slog it out day in and day out is tiring, frustrating, and demanding. Persistence and tenacity are not easy friends to claim. Boredom sets in, you lose sight of why you started something in the first place, doubt overtakes you. True to form, motivation for something new will alight just then, distracting you from all the effort invested till then.

The only way to build discipline is by doing it. Without regard for whether you’re enjoying it, getting anything out of it, or making progress, you just have to keep doing it. If you’re learning to play an instrument, keep strumming, through all the off-key notes and the repeated mistakes at the same exact spot. If you’re trying to lose weight, you have to keep showing up at the gym, even when the flab is still rolling as before, you’re still lifting only 10 pounds, and you’re still getting out of breath just minutes on the treadmill. And, if you’re like me, you have to keep writing the stories even when the page takes too long to fill with words, nobody seems to be interested in them when you do manage to write them down, and you doubt if your tales are worthy of an audience.

And then, soon enough, a certain joy emerges from this practice. The comfort of routine, and it’s not just any old routine: it’s the daily regimen for something you love. Through the regular application of attention, effort and patience, a satisfaction seeps up, of just engaging in the act. I can attest to this from my exercise routine. My body isn’t getting sculpted the way I want, but I still feel happy and good for doing my exercise that day. Some days, the goal becomes secondary and I overlook the roundedness; the source of happiness is merely showing up. The act of discipline becomes a friend.


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Discipline, not motivation

On my Instagram feed, I follow Kayla Itsines, an HIIT fitness guru from Adelaide, Australia. She’s incredible in many ways – she’s in her 20s and already has a global cult following. Women across all ages do her fitness regimen called BBG (Bikini Body Guide). She herself is physically so strong.

She writes her own Instagram posts. This surprised me. On further reflection, however, it feels plausible because the posts have an authentic ring to them. She writes, more often than not, about things besides exercise and fitness: how important her family is to her, having off days, recovering from sickness, and other topics that touch the everyday anxieties that besiege women all over the world.

I want to focus on one thing she said recently: someone asked her how she stays motivated. Her response was that it’s not motivation that keeps her going, it’s discipline.

Think about that for a second. Most of us see the achievers in the world, whether sports, arts, politics, business, or any field practically, and try to find what motivates them to reach such heights. It’s like we’re looking for the secret ingredient that explains their success, and if we discover it, we, too, will be successful like them.

So, it’s revealing to hear a leading fitness icon say she doesn’t rely on motivation to accomplish her dreams. Instead, she does it with discipline.

That rings powerful and true. When I think about the various individuals that I look up to, they all have referred to a regular pattern of industry and perseverance. Benjamin Franklin is probably the most famous for his structured approach to engaging with his day in order to achieve his goals. Robin Sharma talks about the 5am Club, a concept about getting up early to reflect and plan in the quiet of the new day, every day.

Not relying on motivation has a neuroscientific basis too. The hormones that juice our excitement and passion only do this temporarily. It’s why the highs of a new love die away after the initial, lusty buzz. Our bodies are not wired to keep us excited. It would not be healthy.

Discipline is showing up even when you don’t feel like it. Inspiration is flighty, I’ve written about it before in another blogpost that bemoaned my inconsistent pace of writing. It can’t be relied upon. Discipline is reliable. It keeps you moving forward. It takes you through the dark troughs, the prickly challenges, the dispiriting moments when it does not feel worth it, until you emerge onto a glorious, sun-filled peakpoint and are able to look down and comprehend the thousand steps that led to this apex. Without discipline, those steps would not have been taken.

It’s not motivation, it’s discipline. I feel like creating a t-shirt that says that.

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Books, my comfort food

What’s your comfort food? I use that term loosely to mean whatever you go to for comfort.

For me, it’s books. When the outside world feels unclear and incomprehensible, I retreat to an inner world written on defined pages, within known margins, with familiar language. In those leaves, I enter a space of sense and serenity.

The stories themselves may spread far and wide, into unknown terrain, but they are never threatening. Despite the tensions, conflicts and other drama that are invoked among the characters, there is a friendliness to a story, even if it’s a murder mystery. At the end, there is resolution.

Perhaps it is that the events that transpire, the traumas that are inflicted on the protagonist, and the vicissitudes experienced between beginning and end remain at a safe distance. Yes, I get emotionally involved with the hero, but still I know it is not my life. At times of vulnerability in my own life, it is reassuring to follow someone else’s trajectory, to detach from my own for a little while.

The friendliness of a story lies in that, actually – with the distance, a story offers me perspective on my own goings-on. It cajoles me to find ground beneath my feet by walking through a secret garden, transporting myself away from my small and shrinking world into another’s expansive canvas. Inevitably, I find myself relating to one or many characters. This, too, provides solace in that it conveys to me that I am not alone in the great human experiment.

Books are my steady soldiers, always there for me whenever I need them.

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Thank you, Starbucks

“Ni hao!”¬†The barista called out, as I stepped into a Starbucks cafe in downtown Shanghai.

“Ni hao!” He said again. I looked up and realised he was talking to me. A 20-something chap with a cherubic face and trendy eyeglasses beamed at me, waiting for me to say hello back.

“Ni hao,” I said, weakly, still finding it strange to roll these words around my mouth. I had only been in Shanghai a day and was still finding my bearings.

“What can I get you?” he asked, politely. I broke into a relieved smile: he spoke English. My immediate thought was that I would not have to point at things, mime or load up Google Translate. One of us spoke a language that worked for both of us.

As a stranger in a strange land, Starbucks has become like home: comfortable and comforting. I know my way around a Starbucks cafe so I don’t feel as untethered and lost as I do just outside the doors.

Recognizable food and drinks relieve the stress of ordering. Bar stools with tables on which to place my laptop and plush chairs to read in give me a defined place in which I can situate myself. This, even as I know I will soon explore the new cuisines in my new land, even as I know I will leave the familiar corner for new spaces and great, unknown adventures. The green mermaid on my cup smiles impishly at me, almost winking at me, I am sure. You’ve got this, she seems to say, it’s not scary out there and you’ll be fine. I feel myself relax and grin back.

At Starbucks, I feel a sense of acceptance, which has a heightened urgency and value to it at a time when the rest of the city is still checking me out and deciding if we fit. Inside Starbucks, I’m not weird for not speaking the language, for not having a digital wallet, for not having lighter skin, smaller eyes, less pronounced features.

That’s why it’s like home. At home, I have a place for me, always. I have a family that accepts me for all my warts and imperfections. I have a resting pad to gather my spirit and resolve before I launch into the big, wide world.

And that’s the other reason Starbucks is like home: I will leave it to venture out, to taste new things, make new friends, experience new adventures. And I will come back, from time to time, to reconnect, recover, and replenish. It is an umbilical cord that extends as far as I want to go and still tells me there is always a home back home.

So thank you, Starbucks, for being my home and family.

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Why don’t we share anymore?

A butterfly greedily sucks nectar from bright, pink flowers on a shrub in front of me. First one, then another, then yet another. For their part, the flowers are in full bloom and wait patiently for their turn.

Why do we have so much trouble sharing our love? We don’t behave generously like the butterfly or the flowers. Instead, we choose who is worthy of receiving our love. You, yes. You, no, go away, you’re not wanted.

Most recently, this was expressed in the most brutal way at Charlottesville, USA. Some people decided they did not want some other people around because they did not like their skin colour, sex, religion and culture. This is not just happening in Charlottesville. Across the world, we are seeing carbon copies of the same syndrome. One tribe of people wants to be the only butterflies around. And they only want one type of flower too.

Why this greed? Why this destructiveness? Why this urge to claim a monopoly? I think it’s about fear. Ironically, the ones seeking to dominate, usurp, and hoard are afraid they don’t have a place in the world, that other people don’t want them, that nobody loves them. So, they must assert a false aggression, forcing others to accept and love them.

There’s no need for this. There are enough flowers around, waiting with openness. There are many butterflies to drink the nectar and spread the pollen into a welcoming world. Life is big, with a place for everyone. The only onus on us is to recognize this, so we can go about life with sureness and joy. Like the butterfly and the flower, humming in tandem.

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How to survive chaos

The world is seething these days,
tumbling in all directions
in a hot, angry spill.

I wonder how to cope some days. I scroll over a few news nuggets and am sickened in my stomach.

And then I chance upon the equivalents of a deep, cleansing breath. A dog that wags his tail as our eyes meet. He shuffles up to me for an unabashed rub. Carnations, pink, white and red, which sit contentedly in a long bucket on the side of the road, keeping the flower-seller company. The diary of a girl called Anne Frank.

It is not all evil. There is good. I repeat this to myself as I remember Maya Angelou’s words. Still I rise.

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