Harness the power of stillness

As India goes into a 21-day lockdown, K Annamalai, former IPS officer, suggests a change in focus from despair to introspection
Last Updated 26 March 2020, 14:57 IST

The Covid-19 pandemic is, in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s (@nntaleb) definition, a true Black Swan event. That is the term for an event that can’t be predicted and for which defensive mechanisms can’t be built.

Our lives are disrupted. The world will not be the same after we come out of this lockdown. We will suffer economically, we might lose some loved ones, and we might start distrusting people. But do we dare look at it differently?

1. When was the last time we spent time with our loved ones for an extended period?

2. When was the last time we lost a sense of time?

3. When was the last time we truly forgot ourselves? Till now, life was all about ‘us’ — our careers, our increments and our hard-to-please bosses.

4. When was the last time we actually lost control over our lives? As humans we like to be in control and stay on top, right?

I believe now is the time to disrupt our thinking, which is the sum of our past actions, declutter our minds, and paint a new future.

For me, this happened in 2018, when I was one of the liaison officers (LO) for the Kailash Mansarovar yatra. An LO is a representative of the Ministry of External Affairs, and his job is to shepherd pilgrims from Delhi to Mansarovar and back.

The trip started on time, on July 20, towards Uttarakhand and onwards to Tibet. It was a strenuous journey and a well-planned 23-day trip and we were to be back to Delhi by August 11.

I had planned everything out in perfect detail including my return flight to Bengaluru. What happened from the third day of our trip is truly worth recalling!

The previous batches got delayed as the MI-7 chopper picking up and dropping pilgrims (from Pittorogarh to Gunji, both in Uttarakhand) couldn’t fly because of heavy cloud cover.

Suddenly, with Kerala witnessing floods, some choppers were shifted down south for relief. By the time we reached Gunji, it had taken seven more days and we were already way off our schedule. Once we reached Gunji, the last village on the Indian side before we climbed up over the Lipulekh pass to enter Tibet, our Chinese visas had expired.

Again, a decision was taken to keep the batch at Gunji and I was to take care of the pilgrims while my co-LO flew back to Delhi to have the visas revalidated. The group of yatris in our batch comprised, among others, the biggest diamond merchant in Gujarat, a woman who had never stepped out of her Rajasthan village for 60 years, a man who had begged for money to take up the yatra (as penance), and a poor mechanic from Haryana. Everyone felt uncomfortable.

For some, it was a loss of livelihood, for others it was making children wait at home (four women had children younger than 10). For me, it was being away from my three-year-old son and other official commitments. The mistake all of us were making was that we were still clinging on to our lives and holding on to our past experiences.

By the time the visas came, three batches were stuck at Gunji. At an altitude of 16,000-plus feet, Gunji is not the kind of place where one stays so long. With rationed electricity (two hours) and no phones except a satellite phone, not much can be done there except to sit and look at the skies to see when the clouds will part and allow the choppers to land. Invariably, the yatris’ frustrations were taken out on the LO. Comments were being made that the LOs were cursed by God!

Imagine being like this for 17 days! Finally, we managed to shepherd the batch to Tibet after climbing the treacherous Lipu Lekh pass. There we spent five glorious days around Kailash. I kept asking myself why were we made to wait so long. Why were we made to go through such hardship before we got a glimpse of Kailash? Is it all really worth it? I got the answer on the third day of the parikrama around Kailash.

It was an epiphanic moment. Kailash is not ‘God’ or Lord Shiva in the form we know him. Kailash is stillness and a place free of expectations. It’s a place that is nothingness and everythingness (to paraphrase Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev). This nothingness and the everythingness can be felt only in absolute stillness when the mind is not in the past, present or future. This is a very tough place to venture into.

In Yoga Sutra, Patanjali defines yoga as stillness and as having eight components. These are all progressive stages and each one builds on the other.

What is stillness?

Stillness is possibly that state of mind that is free of expectations and living in the here and now. Not worrying about the past, thinking about the present, and making plans for the future. It is that state when we are truly whole and complete.

The realisation dawned on me that we were all there for the yatra with expectations and plans and more plans. Since there was no stillness, there was no realisation of the inner ‘self’. That was a powerful moment for me — just the realisation that once in a while it is okay to let go of life as we know it. Not controlling it with schedules. To come out of ego and self-importance. Life starts the day we enter stillness and not before that.


Finally, we reached Delhi on September 5, a good 26 days later than scheduled. The lessons learnt are too many to be forgotten in a lifetime. For some, it was the realisation that we are not as important to the world as we imagine ourselves to be. For others, it was how to look at life as a possibility not burdened by the past. For many, it was the awakening to live life in the ‘here’ and ‘now’.

Let us treat these 21 days as a blessing in disguise — a time to get into the power of stillness. Whatever happens during and after the Covid-19 outbreak is not in our control. But we can create a future from the stillness. That is in our hands. To do that, we have to start living in this moment, free of expectations. That’s a great place to be in.

(The writer is a former IPS officer who has worked extensively in Karnataka.)

(Published 26 March 2020, 14:55 IST)

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