A Speaker Prepares
I was surprised when Sashank called up to say “Will you speak at a TEDx event?” he and Deepti had asked me earlier if I would be interested if an opportunity came up, I had said yes, but I did not believe it would happen. So I took time to say yes to Sashank. A lot of thoughts went through my mind and I was not sure of how to respond. I had to confront two dilemmas before I developed the conviction that I could deliver the talk and that I deserved the invitation. How do I feel excited by the opportunity? And how do I resolve the demons that had been awakened?
How do I mobilise myself when I have few dreams left to pursue?
Many decades ago when I wrote my obituary at the end of a laboratory learning session, I had envisioned myself as a 63 year old on a spiritual path and as a teacher. I am now 66, and I have reached a stage in my life when most of my dreams have been met! My wife Sashi and I building a small meditation centre in the Nilgiris and both of us are excited and content with the idea of mentoring others on their spiritual journeys.
I often coach managers on the threshold of taking up leadership positions. While many of them are competent and capable, they have never envisaged themselves in positions higher than the ones they are occupying. They have reached levels of income and status higher than their close circle of friends and relatives, and their dream has dried up. They face a great difficulty in letting go of the security they have found, the uncomfortable “comfort zone” they have carved out for themselves, and step into the unknown. I found myself in a similar position as these managers. I simply could not vizualize myself speaking at the event.
How do I resolve the storm that has got provoked by the Karna in me?
Thresholds are strange animals, they are inflexion points in ones life, and they evoke both nightmares and dreams simultaneously. The invitation to the TED stage is an inflexion point. In my case, the door that was suddenly thrown open rekindled old nightmares and very few dreams! The Karna in me was awakened, I have often felt like an orphan whose real being has never been owned up. The vestiges of old wounds when I have felt denied, deprived and discriminated against were rekindled. The Karna in me has enjoyed working intimately with dalits and with the down trodden. To accept a TED talk was like accepting the affirmation of the establishment! I have always had great difficulty in accepting the Arjuna in me, a person who is loved and admired (though I had three Krishnas as my Gurus!). I have held affirmation and admiration in deep scepticism either because I often felt that my real inadequacies were not seen by these people, or I doubted their authenticity! Either way I did not have to take full responsibility for valuing my being, and that was a cozy place t be. Once more my deepest anxieties about being in the lime light, and being appreciated came up. I was beset with self doubt. My especial fear was “how will I be received?” not by people whom I don't know well, but by people who were my close to me, friends and relatives. Would I belong if I stepped out and revealed myself? And at the same time there is the yearning to be owned up for who I am.
Looking back at the long road traversed
At the most desperate time of my life, I had the great fortune of meeting great teachers: Jiddu Krishnamurti, Desikachar and his father Yogacharya Krishnamacharya as well as Puiln Krishna Garg. The ten years of learning and discipleship with these masters transformed me from a person on the verge of complete collapse into a viable and vibrant person with a vision for my life. Theatre and an immersion in the Mahabharata have been a constant companion in my onward journey. When I look back now, I can see a long and arduous path I have traversed and the many inflexion points I have crossed successfully. In many ways I have substantive accomplishments to speak about. I have no regrets or dissatisfaction, and no great expectations from myself either. The invitation to talk at a TED event was a delightful and disconcerting new threshold placed before me, one that I had not dreamt off. Therefore I was finding it very difficult to imagine myself giving the talk, being recorded and having the recording go up on U-Tube!
In the Hindu tradition, thresholds are punctuated with rituals that have an interesting design criteria. The convergence of physical maturity and psychological maturity is dramatised through a social event and solemnised through sacred dramaturgy. Any one who has seen the whole of a Hindu marriage ritual will understand this process and the way it is dramatised. Here I was, old enough I guess, being invited to a social event that is an affirmation of ones worth, but wondering if I was inwardly deserving.
I put into practice what I preach. I stepped back, found a quiet spot inside me and let the drama of this double bind play out. I let the Karna in me and the Arjuna in me wrestle with each other, as I watched myself with great curiosity and compassion. I discovered that I was anxious about standing up and stating what stood for and who I am in a way that is irrevocable. I would rather stay with the idea of being a tragic hero than assert my being and let the world decide. I was anxious about reawakening possibilities and dreams and taking steps on my path in case I became visible and felt pulled away from the path Sashi and I are committed to. I have been doing that for very long. Saying “come discover me” to the world allowed me to withdraw at my terms. I was weary of engaging with expectations of myself and others and wanted to stroll around without any compulsions. Could I find a way of staying with the flow of things after the talk? Was I giving the talk more significance than it deserves?
The internal dialogue subsided, the dramatis personae faded and the inner space opened up. I could visualise myself speaking at the event. I decided to receive the appreciation that was implicit in the invitation without resistance.
How do I sing a short tukda when I have only sung classical music?
Then the next question came up: How do I do justice to the work I have been doing all my life in twenty minutes? All my labs and workshops are week long affairs, deep immersions into ones inner life, exploring the dark areas, awakening nightmares and dreams, discovering hidden potentials and healing psychic wounds. They are like an all night classical music concert starting with a slow AlApana, followed by a leisurely savouring of the main composition, improvising and playing with nuances. In the labs I am listening most of the time, I reflect on what I hear, ask questions and occasionally share insights that occur to me as we dialogue. How do I represent this work authentically, in all its seriousness and its vitality in twenty minutes of monologue? I entered the disturbance of this question fully.
Letting go of the old and flowering
I became very taciturn and withdrawn for a few days. The asana and prANAyAma practice as well as long quiet walks in the hills around my home held me gently as I pondered over these questions. Chats with friends like Sridhar (who had given a TED talk a few months ago) helped a great deal. I did the usual research into blogs and articles written on “How to give a TED talk”, how to tell a compelling story and so on. The Karna Arjuna tussle resolved itself as I let the old nightmares wash over me (hopefully never to return). I saw myself giving the talk, the core of the presentation became clear. I wrote it down in one sitting, then all that remained was to polish it. The talk would follow the key steps of the process I had just gone through:
The final touch
I did what some of the blogs suggested: found some arresting pictures to use in my presentation, ensured that each slide had only one message and very few words on the slide and so on. Rehearsed it with my wife Sashi, recorded myself and then started to feel stale! So I let go. Sashi and I drove down to Salem to meet Piyush Manush on the 5th of Jan and that was a delightful and inspiring day. We drove to his farm and the place he has transformed from a dry brush land into a forest. We had a lively conversation that went from the pragmatic to the mundane to the deeply philosophical and back again! It was very energising and grounding to meet a real life Arjuna, a carpenter and a designer a husband and a father; some one in love with life and fiercely committed to equity. The 6th was a quiet day, walks and desultory conversation. On the 7th I was off to Hyderabad to give the talk. In the middle of the flight I thought to myself I was being too relaxed about the whole thing and tried to do a rehearsal in my mind. I became anxious, and the more I tried to remember the more I forgot what I had planned to say. I gave up, did some prANAyAma.
I go on stage
I was very composed when I got to the venue. The first speaker was Dr Mishra, one of the first women in the Police force. I was very impressed with her work, we need more officers like this for our country to evolve and grow. Bhanu Prasad a 17 year old math prodigy went next, he did his race against the calculator and won hands down, a few more impressive feats, and then it was my turn.
As I went on stage, I was given the lapel mike. I was zoning in, and a thought flashed in my mind “am I getting the mike positioned right?”, but before I could test it (and the organizers just said OK) I was on. I looked up, and the flood lights were dazzling. I was in the lime light, and all I could see was a dark space with shadowy outlines of people! I love making light hearted and playful exchanges with the groups I work with (mostly small groups of 25 people or less) and here I was in the spot-light and all around me was darkness. So I spoke into the darkness and slowly my eyes adjusted and I could make out some faces. As I spoke, the rhythm came in, and for one who is used to the Test match format of a five-day game, the twenty-twenty became a delightful challenge. I did feel that I was able to touch some thing authentic in me and connect with the group mind from time to time. It was over in a flash, minor disturbances as I was on stage did not dislocate me (and there were a few). As I came back to my seat, I felt I had done a decent job, I gave myself a 4/5 rating, and enjoyed the rest of the day. Sai.. spoke after me on overcoming disability. A real hero who has accomplished incredible feats that others more fully endowed would feel proud of having just attempted! His lively and humorous talk was like an illustration of what I had just spoken about.
I would like to see the final product that goes on the web, but I a feel a little distant from it. I hope it comes out well though.
Here is the talk I hope you like it!
My work revolves around helping individuals, groups and organizations discover their Dhamma, and become “the best they can be”. This aligns with my own personal saadhana. I have restated this question for my self as follows: “how can I be in touch with the well spring of my love for the world and my love for my self simultaneously”