We Made a Difference... But it Wasn't Enough

17/02/2015 10:59 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Praveenkumar Palanichamy via Getty Images
Indian girl Child in traditional dress looking up. Black and white shot. Window lit.

We belong to the first generation of Indian women born after Independence to have both careers and personal lives that broke with tradition in decisive ways. We've changed the nature of the workplace even if it isn't reflected in our salaries and we've weathered a spate of marital casualties as we rocked an entrenched, patriarchal society -- often with painful consequences.

Our battle scars were soothed by the salve of professional achievement, the support of our peers and the pride of our children in being raised by independent women. We paved the way for a younger generation of women to lead more fulfilling lives, although this remains largely a middle class trend.

And yet, and yet... so many of us find ourselves unexpectedly dissatisfied in our 50s and 60s when we should have been basking in years of accomplishment. Among my college friends and colleagues from across the world, the malaise is striking -- its' all about searching for answers to life's Big Questions. It's as if post-midlife crisis is snowballing into a collective disenchantment with long- accepted ideas of happiness and success.

Sometimes, the disenchantment coincides with the end of active professional service, an illness, a change in family circumstances or the sudden realisation that there are a limited number of productive, working years left in which to find fulfilment. But the question is: what does fulfilment look like today? Living in the most affluent society in history we have begun looking to the ascetic for inspiration. He whose needs are minimal, whose life is a quest for personal growth and who shares his material, spiritual and intellectual wealth freely, presents a path to fulfilment that is at odds in our globalised world. And yet...

Unlike the West where New Age gurus have developed a pop culture that serves as a palliative for modern insecurities, India has a rich -- even if sometimes tainted -- tradition of spiritual practices, inner growth and community living where happiness is not a pursuit but a state of mind attained through disciplined learning. While most of us are far from reaching this enviable state of equanimity, it is a fact that every year global happiness surveys rank Indians near the top of the list.

Partly perhaps because India's large youth demographic -- the biggest in the world with 354 million between the ages of 10-24 years -- is optimistic the future will satisfy their aspirations which have always included a more collective than individual model of success. So, while brands and designers and other status symbols have become increasingly important accoutrements of success, so has a flourishing family life which often includes four generations in many cases.

The Indian tradition of giving -- dana -- is also an essential component of a meaningful life in Hinduism, Sikhism, Sufism and other sub-continental religions and religious/spiritual organizations. Growing up as a Sikh, I saw my grandfather part with one-tenth of his considerable income every month and find employment for second and third cousins, or anyone who came to him in need. Hinduism says the biggest dana is anna dana -- the gift of food. At the Golden temple in Amritsar, some 100,000 people are fed langar (sacred food) every single day and many of my mother's generation celebrate birthdays by feeding the poor.

Mom always said: what good is professional success if the sole beneficiary is you and your family? At least part of the answer to the fulfillment question lies in giving back. When I talk with other seekers we agree that a great way to start bringing this missing dimension -- some call it the third metric -- into our lives is by looking within, giving without strings and devoting our lives to a higher cause.

But putting ideas into practice requires the guidance of a master. As of this writing I am researching NGOs which work for the girl child in India, delving into Buddhism and learning the art of meditation. I'm bemused at stories of material things and emotional resources my friends have acquired through the practice of chanting. Its' tempting to investigate further just as followers of Reiki say the ability to harness the positive energies around us is an important aspect of the practice.

In the days that unfold, I'll be sharing my journey with friends in other cities, some of whom are in the process of making radical changes in their lives too. Unlike some of them, I am in India for a good part of the year and I hope my search for the right path will benefit from the strong spiritual traditions of this land.


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