EMBRACE THE CHAOS
How India Taught Me to Stop Overthinking and Start Living
By BOB MIGLANI
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2013 Bob Miglani
All rights reserved.
DRIVING ON INDIAN ROADS
You cannot control the chaos.
You can control you.
Every day we hear about and see uncertainty in everything. We think about all the things we could be doing differently in our lives but we hold back because there are so many paths in front of us and they have no predictable and appealing outcomes. We consider going in one direction but then our minds start overanalyzing and overthinking all the possible problems we may encounter. "Yes, but ..." starts coming out of our mouths almost immediately, restraining our hearts, which want to go forward. Our minds accentuate the negatives without any effort. We get so overwhelmed with all the chaos that lies in front of us that we find ourselves standing still, unable to move forward.
In a word, everything seems to be out of control.
But is that such a bad thing? We can't control other people or how they think or what they'll do. We can't predict what's going to happen with the economy or our jobs. Why create stress for ourselves by worrying about something that might or might not happen? Stop trying to control it. This incessant need to be in control is just a way to stand in the middle of the road while life passes us by.
In a very real sense, this book began during a taxi ride on an Indian road, where I realized how little control we have—and how little that should concern us. Participating in life, despite the chaos that lies ahead in all paths, is our choice and ours alone, and it can be as simple as driving forward in any direction, whatever may come. Because eventually, despite a cow or two blocking the road (as is commonplace throughout India), we will get there just fine.
* * *
During my friend Ben's first visit to India, he joined a small delegation of U.S. businesspeople who were interested in learning about the country and doing business there. An entrepreneur at heart, Ben was excited to learn about how this booming emerging economy of a billion people worked. Because I'm the only Indian American guy he knows, and because I also serve on the board of the United States–India trade group that was taking him on this trip, Ben asked me to join him as his quasilocal guide for a few days. He wanted a friend to guide him so that he wouldn't look like a typical foreigner.
I could sense his trepidation as he and a couple of others gathered around our car, ready to confront a road full of chaos that lay ahead of us in Ahmedabad, a city of roughly six million people. Navigating the city's roads with a local driver was Ben's first experience with uncertainty and shock since he had landed in India. There were no markings on the street and not many traffic lights—and no one paid any attention to the traffic signals anyway. The road was brimming with bicycles, carefree pedestrians, motorcycles, scooters, small trucks, rickshaws, three-wheelers (scooters that serve as small taxicabs), and the occasional cow or buffalo. These were our road companions as our driver weaved through the mess to our destination.
I was worried about making the meetings on time and was anxious because I wasn't sure who was going to show up. I didn't want our trade group to look bad and I felt like I had a lot riding on my shoulders. After all, this was "my" country, which I was trying to show off to Ben and others.
Just then, our car encountered a cow that wouldn't move out of the way, so our driver backed up on a one-way street and found another road. Because, well, that's what you do in India. Relieved that we were progressing toward our destination, I looked back to see the puzzled and amusing reaction of the passengers in the backseat.
The driver was a local, and although he wasn't too knowledgeable about all the roads, he sure knew how to handle moving the car in and out of traffic. I was in front, next to the taxi driver, who sits on the right, and at one point I noticed in the side mirror a motorcycle approaching fast, trying to pass us on our left. Up ahead, also on the left, was a huge tree, and because the Indian custom is to not tear down sacred trees and/or any possible signs of God and so on, the road just sort of went around the right side of the tree.
Our driver started speeding up. This meant that the motorcycle behind and to the left of us was surely going to head right into the tree.
Now, I have built up some immunity over the years of travel in India, but seeing this motorcycle trying to speed up to pass on our left scared me. I thought surely the motorcycle guy was doomed.
I held on tight as we approached the tree. Our car veered slightly to the right and we passed the tree with no problem. I quickly looked behind, expecting the motorcycle to have crashed into the tree. Nothing doing. The motorcycle had simply slowed down and also passed the tree on the right—right behind us.
I looked back at the audience in the rear seat. They had been white before, but they were even whiter now, having lost some color in their faces.
Relieved and somewhat impressed with my new best friend—the driver—I asked in my broken Hindi, "Wasn't that a little close?"
"Not really. What do you mean, sir?" he answered.
I was surprised. "I mean, come on. Didn't you think that guy was going to hit the tree? Weren't you concerned that by speeding up you were risking his chance of getting hurt?"
His answer resonated and has stayed with me. He said, "Sir, in this crazy road, which is my daily life, I have learned that I cannot count on anyone else or anything else to be predictable. Because each road has a surprise. Either a cow comes out of nowhere, another car races to pass, a child's ball enters the road, a scooter or a rickshaw comes out of nowhere, with a total surprise. The only thing I can do is be prepared and think of only my car and the passengers in my car. So the person driving next to me has to take precaution as he needs to, and I should do the same for myself and my passengers only. I can only control my own driving."
Being a passenger in that car made me realize that he was absolutely right. We don't control what we encounter on the road. We only control how we steer our way forward.
SEARCHING FOR GOD AT FIVE THOUSAND FEET
Let go of plans gone wrong. Things have a way of working out in the end.
No matter how hard we try to control our plans, things can go wrong. As a result, we may find ourselves in a state of confusion, worrying about everything. We look around for something to blame, and sometimes we blame ourselves for not planning better, as if we have perfect foresight. Other times we focus on the imperfections of everything around us. We blame the chaos itself, feeling as though we are the only one it touches. We may wonder, Why me?
This tension ultimately gives way to anxiety, crippling any action, which we feel would be futile. We find seemingly endless logical reasons not to try anything because, in that mind-set, it feels like it will all end so badly. "What's the point?" we ask, giving up all hope.
But life has a way of constantly shuffling things around, shaking our understanding of what's possible and what's not. And somehow, in some cosmically unpredictable way, life unfolds and things work out—never as expected, but sometimes even better.
* * *
Many years ago, when I was about to graduate college, my parents took my sisters and me to visit Vaishno Devi, a mountaintop holy site where the god Mata Rani is known to reside. Eight million Hindu pilgrims visit the deity each year, walking about 7.5 miles from the main city of Katra, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and climbing to an altitude of 5,300 feet.
My two sisters and I were not too keen on going on this journey, but we felt obligated because we had made a commitment to support our mom in her strong religious beliefs. In Hindu culture, it is said that if the thought of going to visit Mata on this mountaintop comes into your head just once, then you must do it to ease the mind. And my mom's mind was zoned in on making the journey. Plus, we wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Was God really up there on this mountain? What really is up there? Deep inside all of us was a hidden spiritual curiosity, and we couldn't give up this chance to satisfy it.
Being the type A person that I am, I took charge of all the preparations—and boy, was I prepared. I had booked the flight from New Delhi into Jammu's only airport. Ascertained the temperature to ensure we all had proper clothing. Figured out how many mountain guides we were going to hire and the prevailing wages so that I could negotiate properly. The backpack was all set with extra scarves, extra socks in case ours got wet, a towel, and a Swiss Army knife—in case, as my sisters joked, we were stranded up there and I had to go hunt for food.
As we were about to leave for the airport in New Delhi, my aunt mentioned that we shouldn't take any belts or wallets made of leather because, being made of animal hide, they wouldn't be allowed inside the holy site. As we rushed out the door, we dropped our wallets and purses with my aunt.
When we got to the airport to check in, it seemed as if every other person cut in front of me at the counter.
"How come there are no lines?" I screamed in frustration at the clerk. "How come there's no order in this place?"
"Sir, please give me your ticket now and I'll check you in," the clerk said, without apologizing for taking the four people who had cut right in front of me.
Landing at Jammu's airport, in the mountains of Kashmir, was truly breathtaking. From the perspective of the metropolitan cities, you tend to forget the true beauty of India. After negotiating with a local taxi driver to take us to the base of the mountain to begin our trek, we felt great—confident, enthusiastic, and happy to begin the journey, prepared to meet God herself.
The narrow, slightly paved path up the mountain was filled with other worshippers, some making the journey up and others on their way down. Many were barefoot. My mom was ahead of the pack and, along with other worshippers, started chanting, "Jai Mata di," which means "in praise of Mata." This chant is often used to bring forth shakti, a force or spirit by which one can better shape one's destiny.
The chanting was a little odd to my sisters and me in the beginning, but we started getting into it as the hours passed and we needed some encouragement to keep us moving up the mountain. My dad was not as comfortable. His bad knee prevented him from walking up with us and, as a lot of older worshippers do, he was taking a horse up the mountain, led by the horse's owner.
We made it up the mountain in eight hours, stopping for a bit here and there to go to the bathroom and to drink tea purchased from some of the many makeshift tea, food, and souvenir stands that dotted the mountain path.
It was about 2 a.m. when we arrived at our destination. We stood in front of a tiny passageway carved through the mountain by eons of fresh mountain water from the melting snow. Cold, tired, and a bit hungry, we made our way to the point where we were supposed to deposit all shoes and baggage. After ensuring that we were carrying no leather or other animal materials, the pandits (holy men) showed us toward the washing area, where we used the freezing mountain water to wash our hands, faces, and feet. The idea is to purify yourself before visiting Mata. This is as close to God as you're going to get and you can't be dirty.
My mom rushed to the front of the line, an eager, sincere devotee of Mata. I could sense the humility in her slow, precise washing with the freezing water.
"There's a line here but not in the airports," I remarked snidely.
"I didn't know we were supposed to be going through this tiny little space in a cave," my scared younger sister said to me. She was fearful of small spaces and terrified of going through a cave, worried that it might collapse on her. "I'm not going in there."
My mom went first, followed by my middle sister and then me, holding my younger sister's hand. My dad went last. It was a vertical crevice, only fit for slim people, with little light except for the moonlight on the other side of the cave. Freezing mountain water running down one side was a constant reminder that we were actually inside a real mountain.
I shifted my shoulders toward the side of the cave that had been smoothed by years of running water. Barefoot, I made my way through the cave toward what appeared to be an opening. I could see candles in front of a small shrine representing the semi-exact point where God herself resides. I say "semi-exact" because nothing is ever exact in India.
In an area large enough to hold only two or three people, including the pandits, I stopped and prayed. I looked around to find something that gave some indication of a supernatural force. I'm more spiritual than religious, but I wanted so much to believe. I was genuinely trying to pray, hard, to feel the divine presence. What did I have to lose? Even so, it was dark and I couldn't really make out anything remarkable. All I could think of was how cold the water was beneath my feet.
"Keep moving," said one of the pandits as I started to get into deep thoughts about the existence of God.
Like my sister, I'm not a fan of closed spaces, so I was relieved to get out of the cave. I gave a little smile to my mom, who seemed to be experiencing her own moment of bliss as she took in the darshan (visit of God). She was in heaven.
After gathering our belongings, we took in the dark mountain scenery as well as we could at 3 a.m. and then began our journey down the mountain. With sore muscles, hurting backs, and empty bellies, my sisters and I were a little cranky. I gathered everyone around and suggested that we join my dad in taking horses the rest of the way down the mountain. In order to make our flight back to New Delhi and then our flight to the United States the next day, we would need to hurry, and walking wasn't going to cut it.
My sisters leaped at the suggestion but my mom wouldn't have any of it. She preferred to sacrifice in the name of God and to finish the way she had started, on foot. Something about suffering as a way to reach God.
I took charge and negotiated with a couple of horse guys, and the rest of us went galloping down the mountain. OK, it was more like a slow pony ride.
When we reached the base of the mountain, we felt exhausted and really sleepy. "We can all have a nice rest on the plane back to Delhi," I said as I rushed us into the taxi for the airport, trying to keep us all on schedule.
As I gave the woman at the check-in counter our U.S. passports and tickets back to New Delhi, she said casually, "The flight is not operating today, sir."
"I'm sorry. I didn't catch that."
"No flights to Delhi today."
"Sorry, I don't understand. Today is Tuesday and it says here on our ticket that there is a flight to Delhi today."
"So, you mean it's canceled?"
"No flight today, sir. Fog. Maybe later. Maybe tomorrow."
"I don't understand. Is the flight canceled or is it not?" I asked in a loud and definitive way, signaling the need for certainty on the subject.
I wasn't going to get any certainty. Only later did I learn that, for most Indians, there is no certainty. They'll never tell you a flight is canceled. They'll say that it's not operating today—I guess because "canceled" is very definitive and nothing in India is ever definitive.
Angry, hungry, exhausted, and utterly confused at the lack of any civility, I threw up my hands and walked away, joining my family standing nearby. They had already learned that our flight was "not operating today."
"How are we going to get back to Delhi in time to make our flight home to New York?" My sister asked the obvious question and everyone else turned to me, looking for an answer.
I had no idea. No one else did either.
Excerpted from EMBRACE THE CHAOS by BOB MIGLANI. Copyright © 2013 Bob Miglani. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
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