September 18, 2012

Serving to lead

This title seems like an oxymoron. One could retort to indicate that these are two different categories of behavior. There are the leaders and then there are the followers. It seems only too logical, and in our daily lives we see little to indicate that leaders are servers, rather they seem the served.

My daughter's school has a motto that exhorts "come to learn, leave to serve" which reminds of service being the goal of learning.  And my own school had one that said "look to the end" telling of the need to be focused in life's endeavors -- focus that opens doors to one's wishes. Yes, several of our learning institutions tell us of the value of service to society and being focused in our work. However, unfortunately, many such institutions may not quite adequately follow up with the values that go to build the character need to live such morality. The real world that we come out to, unless we are thoroughly imbued with the virtues of these values by the time we graduate, influences us quite easily to flow with the tide of our materialistic ethic that is sweeping our world.

We are born to be leaders actually - each one of us. We were meant to pursue purpose and be steadfast in our pursuit of physical survival.  And to do so required us to be always on the look-out for innovative ways to survive – to be a leader in taking care of every action in our lives. From birth to independent physical existence, we are nurtured to be so. We plan and implement our lives to survive everyday and week and month and so on. Our alertness is a God-given gift to make us natural leaders by the time we step out of the cave. Overtime however, we have, through our settling into communities and organizations, have given over this function to selected or elected leaders and have spawned our systems of bureaucracy – a chain of authority and power structures that have us mired.  We discover that what we have created to serve us has turned on us to subvert us. Take any organization or nation and we see this picture emerging. We have relinquished our God given power to guide and chart our lives to someone else – in the guise of whatever label. Consequently we have become resigned to others taking decisions for us and dictating our lives and we seem to be even enjoying the fact that we are bestowed with that comfort of not having to take any decisions, do anything by ourselves and be just taken care of. And this expectation has now become a right that we demand of our leaders, but which unfortunately, the deluded minds of most leaders would not easily give into – the result being our unending conflicts with public officials.

Unfortunately too, as our case is now, in our complacency we have even lost the capacity to discern good leaders from the bad. And so in our jaded indolence and selfish greed let those who promise to us the world in their campaign rhetoric have their way and we allow them to be elected. When the proverbial milk is spilt there is little room to cry. We get the leaders we deserve. And unless we become aware of what characterizes good leaders, history will continue to repeat itself. Our God given resilience to search out the good in our lives must be re-invoked and we seek to be leaders ourselves --- not be satisfied in being just followers. In democratic governance particularly, we the people are the leaders and the elected our servants. We must exercise this right of ours with the wisdom of a good leader which is founded on responsibility and accountability. We must be alive to the fact that we have freedom with the caveat of responsibility and not just freedom to do as we like. Ultimately, the true test of good leadership is one’s ability to serve, and the features that define a good leader are:  being established in higher values, able to communicate a vision effectively, be endowed with impeccable character that is above reproach, being dedicated to the welfare of the served, and being one not driven by self-interest.

May Maldives get such leaders! 

September 12, 2012

Be a participant in life!

It is said that true joy in life is derived from being a participant rather than being just a spectator. We were created for participating in the process of life. Working for our living, creating the progress we are charting, growing our food crops, searching out the bounties in our hunting to keep us alive or keep us safe all require creativity that keeps our brain cells bristling. This was what nature intended. We were meant to be participants in the process of life. That which would keep us imbued with the desire to know and search for the meaning and purpose of our lives.

But with modernization, we are losing this inherent creative strength given by Providence and becoming mere spectators. What I mean here is that we are just onlookers without us being involved in the life we create. For example, the expanding proportion of time we spend watching television at home and movies in cinemas, chat on the phone or internet, or drive around in our cars or motor cycles for pleasure, and also including many others we can recount, is time used not in participating in life but in being mere spectators in life. No doubt, given our definition of development in our present moment of civilization, this is what makes sense to us, and the pleasure we derive from these experiences adds to our defined value quotient of our lives. This paradigm of modernization says that it is all about increasing the pleasures in our comfort and ease of living.

However, it’s good to be aware that such pleasure is only short-lived. We soon get tired of each new gadget and yearn for something different – that is the nature of pleasure. While we look forward each season for new gadgets or variations of the gadgets of the last season to sustain our pleasures (without which life would seem flat to us – and the television reminds us so in each of its commercials), the true beneficiaries of sustained joy would be the creators of these devices because they chose to be participants in life and not just spectators. Their engagement in the process of creativity gave them the discovery that was their joy, not the thought of dividends from a patent or royalties from the marketplace.  That is just what I want to convey. Creators don’t have selfishness in their minds, for insightfulness comes to minds that have space for it – those devoid of selfish thoughts. But spectatorship is driven by selfishness, because the objective here is always to derive pleasure from what is served to us – in what we may call a passive process. If we choose to be creators of our destiny, then we too will begin to see the silver linings of joy in our lives.

How can we change again to be creators? Our ancestors were creators because they had no idle time. They had to be vigilant every moment just to survive the dangers of our elements. Thus, their creativity was kept alive. Today, the story is totally different. While we do not want the primitive life of uncertainty, the certainly of our life cannot be taken for granted either – who knows when a “tsunami” in our lives may strike! We can, while enjoying the pleasures of our modernization, continue to engage the resources of our natural gift to be creative. And move from being indulgent – living for pleasure alone – to do something that will give us a more cogent connection with our being, through doing things that are creative. Learning a new language or attempt learning to play a musical instrument, write stories and poetry, make films, learn to cook local or international cuisine, experiment with trying out the skills of other professions, or begin painting are some of the things, not jut limited to these, we can begin to try. How much richer our society will then be! Even at the spiritual level, we can move to being participants rather than mere spectators. Our prayer, meditation, good thoughts or deeds is the vehicle, but being just a passenger may not be that useful as being the driver who is the true participant who will benefit from the true windfall. We need to move from the ritualizing to realizing. 

These are ways of participating in life. If you care to begin this process of engagement, you may find joy from these that you never thought was possible. Each of us in our childhood must have heard our parents say, “don’t waste your time, do something useful!” This is the calling of Providence for us all to be engaged in being a participant in life. That is where true joy resides. Indulging in just the pleasures will leave you feeling empty, and a fateful day will inevitably dawn on each one of us when we look back and say, what have I done with my life?

September 10, 2012

Health is wealth

 In life we always have a choice. So choosing health or ill health is also our choice. I still remember very clearly that day in May 1979 when the World Health Day’s slogan was “Smoking or Health, the Choice is Your’s!” Several of my friends and I, chose that day to quit. Today, I know that choosing to quit that day was a decision I made also to look at health as wealth. Being in the midst of my job to assist our countries become healthy, and with the racing years that fly by, I realize more and more that this is unquestionably so. Most of us in the modern era think wealth is that golden or “green stuff” that is the basis of our purchasing power. And increasingly we are all caught up in this mirage of a belief that the amassing of these piles of wealth outside of our bodies is our purpose in life. We live to earn rather than earn to live.

Just as important however is the wealth that we build inside of ourselves. Not measured in rufiyaas, dollars, euros, or gold bullions, this wealth is measured in disability-less life years and spiritual wellbeing.  We build this wealth not with borrowings from banks which put us into debt and deficit and keep us eternally jittery in the tantalizing hopes of dividends that is at the mercy of the market, but from the abounding wealth reserve of the universe that is given to us with no collateral, yet with full trust and with the total assuredness of dividends beyond our wildest dreams. Some people call this an investment for wellbeing, or spirituality, rather than indulgence.

Moving towards this spiritual investment requires a drastic change in mindset – an awareness of the transient nature of our being – that we are mortals whose physical structure will indeed degrade as time takes its toll. Try as we may with creams, injectables, visits to the beautician and trichologist, or interventions of the cosmetic surgeon, we cannot keep the effects of this ageing at bay. The inexorable event of our transfer to the other side will finally happen. Being mindful of this fleeting nature of our external beauty, and the eventuality of our life course, can lead us to take care of our bodies with respect that this phenomenal structure deserves -- not because our attractive outside will provide the means to the pleasure of this moment, but because the health of our body will lead to the joy of the hereafter. Our purpose of disability-less life years has to be for investing in the bounty of the hereafter and not for harvesting the hedonism of today, for that will never satiate us – but like a drug, will keep us wanting ever more, and thus be disappointing ultimately.  Behaviors such as the indulgence of modern living bring destruction to our body because the very nature of these excesses is insalubrious. Eating and drinking excessively, and spending stressful days in deals and schemes, and late nights exploits cannot make one healthy. But the environment that engenders material wealth is such, and the pleasures that are the object of this external wealth is found in such settings, and so, seeking pleasures necessitates one to be in the lap of such indulgence.

In contrast, preventive behavior that nurtures our body is the investment that will build our internal wealth that can be used to derive that joy that is the essence of our inner self. In contrast is the wealth we amass outside of our body that fuels the path to the pleasure we seek that is the essence of our ego. 

While pleasure may be expensive to buy, joy is inexpensive, and maybe that is why we do not seek it so single-mindedly as we do pleasure, because we define better by what is more expensive. But, yes, simple (cheap) nutritious food, healthy mental attitude (low cost spiritual reflection and prayer) and regular exercise (cheap interventions such as regular walking or riding the bicycle) can keep the wealth of our body always accumulating. Youth will change to adulthood and then to old age – a universal inevitability. To wait for later would be folly, for by then too much physical degradation has happened. Waking up now to these inevitabilities of the future is urgent.  

September 5, 2012

The path is the teacher

To many of us, the final goal is what we cherish, whether it is called an objective, a destination, an achievement, or even enlightenment itself, is what we look for in life. That is what holds our attention. Our desires seek out what we want from the stimuli around us – from what we perceive with our five senses, and sometimes with a sixth for those who would listen to it close enough. Yet, getting to these will entail effort. Our wishes must be put to action, for otherwise these wishes will remain mere aspirations. Every achievement is the outcome of effort.  And our lives are geared to seeking these final outcomes.

But to get to these there is always a path one must take. The path is the action. It is this path that will take us to our destination and of course there are many paths we can take just as there are many vehicles to hop onto. From Male to Eydafushi I can decide to take a fast ferry, a mechanized mas-dhoni, a sail-boat, a speed launch, a seaplane, or even, if I am brave enough or skilled enough, attempt to swim the strip of ocean that separates these islands. It will be the depth of my pocket, environmental exigencies, my urgency, my resilience or my sanity that will dictate the choice of my option, and there is only one option for me each time I decide to make that visit.

For a deeper understanding of our life’s journey, this metaphor of a path in our physical terrain can help to understand our life’s path too. From the time we were born, to this moment in our lives, we have traversed a path to get to where we are. We had only one choice in each of the moments we were at any cross-roads in our lives. That was the only one of so many we could have taken, and we took it. There is no amount of regret that can put us back on the past junctions of our lives again. We have to go on. These stretches of paths are supposed to teach us the stuff of our life. Some people on this journey are more perceptive than others, and glean more lessons along these trails than others and that is what make us what we are. Wisdom, awareness, sensibility, tolerance, love and sharing all come from being aware and imbued with the knowledge that our paths have to offer us. This awareness is what helps us in being happy or sad in this life, for we should know from experience what works and what does not. Happiness and joy are experienced from what we do to ourselves and not what the road does to us. There is a spiritual saying that “success is not a destination, but a journey.” This truth is inherent in what we just discussed. We must learn to enjoy the journey and not wait for the destination. I know that many parents amongst us will have experienced our little ones often complaining while on a long journey, “Mamma, Bappa, are we there yet?” Just goes to show that human nature is hard wired towards the outcome rather than the process. But it is from the process that we learn and become better human beings. We can teach our children to enjoy the journey. Those who are not mindful enough to observe the lessons of the path, will be left behind in ignorance and struggle. That is the basis of our misery and suffering in our life.

September 3, 2012

What we sow is what we reap

Some of my friends tease me incessantly about my persistence on talking about social harmony in Maldives. I know their jibes are not to be unkind or to hurt, but just to keep up our banter. In one instance, it was about me being in utopia – in a dream-world so to say. That was when I wrote an earlier blog “You may say I’m a dreamer”. 

But you see, this issue of social harmony is what we all are here in this world for. Not to create disharmony, but to discover the harmony that is our very being -- that all-pervasive oneness that our Islam reminds time and time again in our good Book and through the behavior of our beloved Prophet. Incidentally, for the youth of today who may not be familiar with that ubiquitous Maldivian phrase “Gotheh fotheh nethun”, let me indicate is this lack of living by the wisdom of the Quraan (foiy) or the Prophet’s ways (sunah -- goiy). Without social harmony there cannot be peace. And isn’t peace the goal of our lives? The awareness of this truth is not far from reach for anyone of us, but for the absence of some reflection on our part. And self-reflection or introspection can only happen with a quiet mind and that through meditation and prayer. It’s just that we don’t seem to have time for it, or even when we do, our minds are racing on the happenings of the world outside rather than a focus on the prayer or meditation that we are engaged in. And as long as our excuses keep us from this reflection, we can never see this truth. It’s like the unending traffic that just does not allow us to cross the street to the other side.

Reflection helps us to understand our selves better. We spend most of our life understanding our outer self and adorning it -- in beauty parlors, perfumeries and fashion boutiques, but we do very little to understand and adorn our inner selves. And mind you, when we negotiate that side of our being, our ego – that external aspect of our self we so lovingly nurtured all these years of our lives – charms us in to believing that harmony is not good for us. That our independence and selfishness are what will give us the limelight and the fame that we need in this world. Most of us cannot get past these, for we have come to listen to this thing called ego for so long in our lives and have taken it to be our friend and confidante, while in the recesses of our being lies that pure self that is the true us. And we can only revive it through love and sharing – those indispensable ingredients for creating social harmony.     
Our ego’s pushing is easily evident in our daily lives. Our yearning to always speak about ourselves and our iron-clad hold onto our opinions, every parent's talk about how wonderful their children are, the exotic nature of our great escapades and our expensive adventures to interesting destinations with not a moment to stop and listen to the other person’s point of view, are all prodding of our ego.  It wants to hog the limelight and not let anyone else to take away even a hint of attention from its presence. So we go on harping about ourselves ad-nauseam. Friends patiently “listen” to this litany just long enough to their tolerance and soon begin themselves their tirade in return. Yet others may not be that tolerant. Those who cannot tolerate such narrative may tell us off. Strangely, such exchanges don’t satisfy us but leave us empty, yet not being aware that we are our own problems. But, we persist -- in our ignorance or our arrogance as the case may be.

You will notice that our egotistic lives are full of this story, and not unexpectedly, our kids learn to be just like us too, and soon, we have a society full of bloated egos that are crying for attention. Sadly so, this is the perfect recipe for the divided society that we inherit where conflict reigns. Sober and harmonious societies have learned to appreciate the other person’s point of view and have decided to take discussion into a cycle of constructive virtue rather than into a destructive vortex. Gradually, we learn  -- and sometimes too late -- that happiness and joy also reside in this social harmony. And that what we sow is indeed what we will reap.