7 years, 7 lessons

Written by Suraj Shah. Inspired by greatness.

Today marks seven years since mum died. I’ll share with you seven lessons that I have learnt since that time that help me to lead a calmer and more purposeful life.

Currently I write from a small village in the heart of Gujarat in India. I am a third of way into a ten week stay at the Raj Saubhag Ashram and am about to retreat into a week of solitude in silence.

As it is the first anniversary of mum’s death since 2006 where I am without family around me, I write with the understanding that you, my dear readers, my friends, are sitting right here next to me.

The past seven years

Since mum passed away in September 2006, there have been many ups and downs in my life, with a whole array of emotions and occasional moments of clarity.

  • Love: I met a wonderfully compassionate yet feisty woman, fell in love with her and got married. We’ve been through an emotional rollercoaster, just like every other couple, but now we’re closer than ever.

  • Family: As mum got more ill and when she passed away, I found myself increasing the distance with the family. But now I’ve allowed myself to get closer to them and have realised how important family really is. There have been many family events in the past seven years, weddings in particular, where mum has been sorely missed.

  • Work: I’ve been through various types of jobs and temporary roles in the past seven years, from supporting small businesses to go digital, through to sales, to stacking DVDs on shelves and most recently digital training. In all this work, nomatter how outwardly mundane or challenging the task may have been, I’ve learnt some great skills and met some incredibly smart and good natured people along the way. Yes, and equally important, I’ve brought in an income.

  • Spirituality: As mum’s health was quickly declining, I had come across twelve reflections to cultivate detachment, the first of which helped me to tell apart the permanent from the impermanent in life. This led to further exploration and introspection, and I found myself surrounded by an incredibly humble group of friends who understand who they are at their core, yet lead simple pragmatic lives grounded in spiritual values.

I share this so you can see what can happen after a significant loss, and how life takes many twists and turns. But somehow, you find a way through it.

Lesson learnt

While my mum’s health was deteriorating and in the months and years after she died, I started to question why events occur the way they do for us and what the point of it all is.

As I started to ask myself these questions, I navigated towards people who could sincerely help answer them, or help me find out for myself. This is still work in progress, but here’s where I am so far.

From all the ups and downs and changes in all areas of my life over the past seven years, let me share with you lessons I now try to embrace that help me lead a calm and purposeful life.

Lesson 1 – Everything changes

Everything you hold in your hands, everything you can touch, see, hear, taste or smell, will one day change or will go. What was once formed by bringing together various elements will one day fall apart or transform into something else.

Change is inevitable.

Witness the changes. Be an observer and let the change take place as it needs to. Just don’t let it bring you up or pull you down.

People and items will come and go in your life. Make the most of the time with them when they are there, but don’t grip on so tightly that it tears you up when you separate. Because it WILL come apart… and that’s ok.

Lesson 2 – Know the priorities of your relationships

Figure out the key people in your life and focus most of your energy on them. For most people it will be:

1. Your parents: Those who gave birth to you, who nurtured you, who gave you the foundations to lead the life you live now.

2. Your siblings: Those you grew up with and may have fought with, but who you now laugh with, who will be your immediate support and who will need your support during difficult times. This also includes any brother-in-laws or sister-in-laws.

3. Your spouse: The one you share your life with. The first one you say “good morning” to and the last one you say “goodnight” to each day. The one you trust with your heart, share all your secrets with, and hold each other firmly enough through life’s ups and downs.

4. Your children: The ones you brought into this world, who you nurture, who you are there for whenever they need you. The ones who get your love and your guidance and your approval, always.

It sounds obvious, but how many of us truly spend quality time fulfilling our duty towards those who are most important to us and those who depend on us?

When I realised that I was spending far too much time trying to prove myself and make myself look good in front of a large group of casual acquaintances at the expense of serving my closest relationships, I ditched those channels. I got rid of my smartphone, I deactivated my Facebook account, and I jumped off WhatsApp.

I may start to use all these again, but only when I can use them responsibly and can first take care of my responsibilities towards those who are closest to me.

Lesson 3 – Every situation is optimal

“Jeh thaay, ee saara maate thaay chhe (Whatever happens, happens for the best)” – Laxmiben Harakhchand Dodhia (my grandma)

Every single thing you face in life, no matter how demanding it may be, is actually conducive to you leading a calm and purposeful life.

You may not see the good in it yet, and it may not go the way you want, but the situation that has arisen is perfect for your ultimate happiness. You just have to respond to it appropriately.

Be optimistic and stay positive, nomatter what life throws at you.

Further reading: Lead an optimal way of life

Lesson 4 – Seek out eveyone’s qualities

When your loved one dies, it may crush your heart to think that you’ll never be able to see them again, to hold them, to hear them laugh or to wipe their tears. You may have keepsakes – perhaps an item of clothing or a book or a gift you received from them or gave to them – but it’s never the same. These all fall apart and eventually leave you with emptiness.

But there is something that you can always keep hold of firmly in your heart – something that can never leave you, nomatter the outside forces.

It’s their qualities. These shine through, long after they’ve gone. These you can hold up in the air and be proud of. Qualities are everlasting.

In a similar way, with all those people you come into contact with in your day-to-day life, seek out their qualities and imbibe them in your presence.

When you focus on the qualities of those you admire, you become that yourself. It grows within you and you may not even realise it.

It may be that your view of how someone should be may not align with how they’re behaving. So accept them for who they are, notice what is wonderful about them, and appreciate that. Just accept, notice and appreciate.

Be grateful for the greatness that makes up your world.

Lesson 5 – Speak up, but remain calm

For the longest time I would be passive in the way I engaged with the world. If something didn’t go the way I expected, I would just sit to the side and not want to rock the boat. But within me was a different story. I would be quietly frustrated, at times furious, and let this bubble up within me. Then I would be horrible to the people who love me. I believe the psychologists call this “passive-aggressive”.

Now I’ve learnt to speak up where appropriate. It doesn’t mean make a big drama over every little thing, but it does mean observing how the people in your life are behaving towards you and then speaking with them about it if required.

But most importantly, remain calm, or don’t say a word. Anything said with frustration or anger will bite you a hundred times in return.

Lesson 6 – Log your inner gremlins

Yes, we all have them. Our inner gremlins make us horrible people at times, but with awareness we can overcome them.

These gremlins are grouped into four main categories:

  • anger: Anytime something doesn’t go our way, we become angry, or mildly frustrated. This hurts those we love and it hurts us.
  • greed: Anytime we are not content with what we have, we become greedy for more. This greed builds on itself and before long it destroys everything we hold dear in our lives.

  • ego: Anytime we think we have done something great, our ego inflates and we become smug and annoying to others. Anytime we are criticised and can’t calmly learn from it, our ego deflates, we get upset and we hurt the ones we love.

  • deceit: We lie when we want something and the truthful approach takes more work. Lies hurt those we love and lying hurts us.

Every evening, before going to bed, take a little time out to log these gremlins in your notebook. Think about (i) the situation that caused it, (ii) how you reacted to the situation, (iii) how you felt about that and (iv) what you resolve to do next time.

Over time, you’ll notice these gremlins start to reduce in intensity and lighten the load you carry. With awareness comes lightness.

Lesson 7 – Life is unpredictable

We typically take life for granted, but none of us know how long we each have to live. We may live another 60 years, or we may take our last breath this very evening.

Life can be short and extremely unpredictable. You probably know that better than anyone else.

Ask yourself what this life is all about, for you. What’s the purpose with which you wish to lead your life?

Further reading: Last day living

Moving forward

My experiences over the past seven years and the people who have been a part of my life have shaped how I now see the world and how best to live within it.

These lessons are ones I’m trying to apply to my life every day – I have yet to master them fully, but it’s work in progress with the view that they’ll make me a better man.

I hope some of these may be useful in your life as you navigate your way forward following the loss of a loved one.

Death at birth

Written by Suraj Shah. Inspired by greatness.

When someone dies at the age of 90 having lived a long and full life, it may be difficult to lose them, but not so hard to accept.

When someone dies in their 50s following a long-term struggle with cancer, it is certainly hard to see them go, but still kind of makes sense. It’s almost expected.

But for a child to die at birth – how do you reconcile that?

A friend recently shared about one lady she knows whose baby died during childbirth. Nine months of carrying a precious child inside her. Months of joy, of anticipation, of anxiety and of preparation. Weeks and weeks of talk about the ‘bump’ and plans for the child’s future.

And for what? To lose this delicate young person before he’s even had the chance to have a go at life. To make something of himself in this big badass world. To soak up the love of all those around him and in return contibute to the well-being of his community.

How could he be taken away within moments of making his grand entrance into this world? Before his personality could be etched into the hearts of those around him. Before he even had the chance to shine his first smile.

This is a sad story, one with a reminder, that our life could be over at any point in time. That any one of us could be here one moment and gone the next. That this precious human life is so delicate, that every second counts.

That child lived for a mere thirty seconds. You and I sharing these words right now, have lived a considerable amount of time longer. But that time too is running out.

Figure out what’s important to you to make this precious life worthwhile. Figure it out before that choice is no longer yours.

No-one is anyone’s

Suraj and Sawan, when they were kids

Written by Suraj Shah. Inspired by greatness.

As I spend more and more time as a bereavement support visitor, helping those who have lost a loved one to get through their suffering, I would have thought that I’d be pretty good at loosening my own emotional grip on the people I care about.

Yet, as time goes on, I seem to feel more and more heartache at the thought that those closest to me will inevitably one day be no more – in particular, my kid bro.

Sometimes I envision how I might receive the news about his death, or react to finding out about him being hurt in some serious way.

I imagine myself frozen in time, initially standing like a stone cold statue, riddled with shock, and then the next moment collapsing to the floor overcome with the pain of my insides being crushed by the grip of my very own hands.

The grip of my attachement. The pain of my loss.

Nobody is for anybody

In the timeless Jain tradition, there is a reflection titled “anyatva bhavana” which (in Gujarati) states:

“Aa sansaar ma koi koinu nathi.”

This roughly translates to:

“In this worldly life, no-one is anyone’s.”

So why do we feel such strong attachments to our younger siblings, and how can the “anyatva bhavana” reflection help us reduce the torment we relentlessly place on ourselves?

This perplexing attachment toward our siblings

The feeling we have towards our younger siblings, particularly when we grow up after all those initial years of teasing and squabbling, is of care and concern for them, blended with pride of what they have achieved in life so far.

When I look at my brother (he turned thirty this week), I see a confident caring man who has the company of a loving wife, a stable roof over his head, doing work he is committed to and the loyalty of friendships he has been growing and strengthening since childhood.

However, beneath his confident and joyful exterior, I notice his fears and his concerns. Somehow, I can feel his deepest pains that he appears to cover up. The same pains and doubts and fears that we all have – each and every one of us.

The daily discomforts of our body. The financial constraints of hectic western life. The busy-ness and habits of a time-poor society gradually creeping in.

So yes, I notice his incredible strengths, and I notice the depths of his hurt caused by the strain on a typically fractured worldly life.

It makes me want to hold him high above my head and boast about him to the world, while embracing him with a tight grip, to let him know that everything will be ok.

This is my attachment to my kid bro. The very same attachment you may also be having to those you adore.

Understanding that nobody is for anybody

In this world we realise that nomatter how much we try to help take away someone’s suffering or ask others to reduce our pain, we are ultimately truly alone.

If I am deep in debt and someone hands me a bundle of cash, that may temporarily alleviate my financial problems, but it will not cure me of the greed that led me to that state.

That greed is my own that I need to work on and resolve, so that it need not trouble me forever more.

Whatever we currently experience is a result of our past actions. All the trouble, torment and harm we have caused to others in our past has resulted in troublesome situations for us right here, right now.

Someone may run a red light and crash into the back of the car, or your house may get burned down, or business become bankrupt, or get kicked out of your job, or racially abused or anything else under the sun that causes pain, suffering, disease, despair.

But it needn’t cause pain, suffering, disease or despair.

No-one, nomatter how much they may love and care for us, can truly take that situation away from us. We have to endure it ourselves, witness it, and calmly let it pass.

If we don’t stay calm and let it pass, then what will happen? We get consumed by it, wishing that we didn’t have to deal with it, fighting to shift it from our lives, indulging in anger and causing more harm. This inevitably leads to more trouble for us in the future.

What you do now massively impacts the situations that arise for you at a later point in time.

Guaranteed.

So we must understand that everything happening to us right now is completely our own doing, our fault, our responsibility.

It doesn’t mean sit back and do nothing – we need to deal with the situation appropriately.

But while dealing with it, remain calm and let the matter gradually pass.

No-one can truly take away our pain, nor can we truly alleviate anyone’s suffering.

However, our compassionate hearts give us an opportunity to reach out to another.

When you see someone suffering, you can help them out practically and emotionally, all the while knowing that in all honesty, the only true beneficiary… is you.

(picture: Suraj with his younger brother Sawan when they were kids)