Yet Untitled 018 - The Incredible Sulk
The battle with my stubborn, pouting inner kid
As a child I was told quite frequently that I sulked a lot. I would argue against this, but one look at that photo above makes me shut up pretty quickly.
There have been various triggers - criticism, hunger, being criticised while hungry, disappointment…but over the years I have learned not conquer but manage my negative response. In more recent times, while I might appear to respond to these triggers in a calm and composed manner, I’m very aware that a part of me pulls that face inside.
It’s something that I want to overcome. I have fought it, I have resolved not stew in my juice, I’ve tried to force other responses, but nix - somewhere, behind the door behind another door behind another door inside my head, seriously sulking Vasant ends up sitting in a corner with his thumb in a pie…wait…eating his curds and whey(?)…screw it: doing whatever the f**k it was that kid was doing in the saidnursery rhyme.
Welcome back dear Yet Untitlers, welcome to YU 018!
Initially I thought I was writing you a newsletter about ‘confidence’. Then it became a newsletter about ‘negative responses to criticism’. By Thursday afternoon it was clear that what I really wanted to address were the stubborn negative tendencies in our lives that seemingly refuse to go away.
One of mine, it seems, is Sulkiness.
While the case may be that you see less and less of my sulkiness on the outside (unless of course you live with me, so - yes, poor Vani sometimes has to bear the brunt of it), that doesn’t mean it’s gone. Little sulky Vasant lives, thrives and - on his active days - colours my days with hues of irritation, self-pity and negativity. Do not be duped by the squishy cheeks.
I must admit, this is touchy, vulnerable territory. Tread softly, because you tread on my uncongenial grimace.
In Buddhism, any recurring tendency in our life may be classified as ‘Karma’ - that loaded, overused and often misunderstood noun. ‘Karma’ is often understood as interchange with ‘destiny’, because - quite often it feels like something you’re going to be stuck with for eternity.
How stubborn can Karma be?
Pan Nalin’s 2001 film Samsara come to mind. For those of you who’ve seen it, I’m not going to talk about the very raunchy love scene that involved a ceiling beam, a tightly wound up sari and a spinning lady. Sorry.
Samsara’s protagonist emerges from a cave after having spent a year in a meditative trance, having pulled though without eating or drinking. It takes his friends a good week to ease him out of this trance, he’s drifted so far from all things worldly. We wonder about the lingering effect of his austerities once he’s back to wakefulness and everyday life. Will they last? Will he be ‘free’ of what he was escaping? Not really! He sees a pretty lady… and all distance from worldliness (read horniness) goes out the window.
Poor monk. Came out of a cave and and straight into a life of mad sex. Could be worse, though. The message I draw is this - it takes more than austerities to change deep rooted life tendencies.
Fun fact - my wonderful friend Karan, whose mom used to run a film festival, watched Samsara - spinning lady and all - sitting next to his grandma at the premiere. Never has a man wanted to be somewhere else in the history of festival openings. The message I draw is this - never go to art-house movie premieres with your grandparents. Unless they are some version of Keith Richards.
How screwed am I?
So, am I stuck with the Incredible Sulk who lives inside me?
Well, if we go with the laws of heredity, this stuff’s in the DNA. See my dear ol’ dad:
…I believe that Karma is mutable. Remember Darth Vader?
No matter how much he may have gone on about Luke’s desssttiiinnyyy to come to the Dark Side, Luke Skywalker never stopped believing his father’s goodness. The other spiritual heavy-hitters of Star Wars - Obi Wan Kenobi and even Yoda - believed that Vader was a lost cause, but on the strength of Luke’s belief, he changed.
But that’s Star Wars, right? Not reality. Come on! There’s a reason why that franchise has survived so long! It resonates with Truth!
Someone needs to believe that we can change. Ideally, it should be us ourselves, but if someone else has irrefutable faith in our ability to transform, Star Wars (and a lot of Buddhist study) tells me that we start seeing things in the same way, taking our own steps towards transformation.
The careless guy who lives next to the sulking kid
There’s been another nagging, recurring tendency in my life - carelessness.
What kind of carelessness? How bad? As bad as arriving at the Delhi airport bound for Mumbai only to realise that I’ve booked a Mumbai-Delhi flight! It got pretty bad at one stage - I kept forgetting credit cards at shop counters, paid extra while refuelling, punched in wrong amounts while doing accounts…all in all it sapped my confidence. I’d always end up asking someone else to do the math when we went dutch on a night out.
One day, I met someone else who had the same problem - a fellow Buddhist practitioner - a leaver of laptops in autorickshaws. She told me with confidence that this is changeable, and told me the story about how she strengthened her conviction in the prime point of Buddhism - that we all posses endless Courage, Compassion and Wisdom innate in our lives - to challenge her tendency for carelessness.
I decided to do the same. I set a challenge when I saw the opportunity: we were headed to Barcelona one winter vacation - Barcelona, the pickpocket capital of the world!
I decided that I would emerge from that holiday without a single loss on account of my carelessness. This determination came down to the level of daily prayer. I’d begin each day with a fresh determination and a renewal of faith in the presence of a careful, vigilant Vasant residing in me as well.
By the end of it, I didn’t lose a thing. No passports left behind, not forgotten credit cards et al. Funnily enough, it was Vani whose sunglasses got swiped, which was a bummer. Next step, vigilance that extends to those around me too!
This experience gave me confidence. I found myself growing more vigilant, increasing my scrutiny over small things in everyday life till a point that it wasn’t a thing anymore. Even when I lose something, or forget something crucial today - it doesn’t feel like it’s a deep-rooted problem.
Here’s a tribute to Vader the Karma chameleon:
Other great sulks
The one sulk I want to change for:
I present Aahana - my older by a minute twin daughter - who mirrors me in many ways - including sulkiness - which she’s managed to rebrand and own magnificently and alarmingly.
Sulkiness seems to be a legacy I potentially carry forward. I don’t want to. It should end with me. I’m inspired by one of my favourite martial arts biopics - “Dragon, the Bruce Lee story” - where the protagonist, Bruce Lee, is haunted by a frightening dream of a demon Samurai hunting him down. It’s a recurring dream in which he’s always defeated, until his recently born son, Brandon appears in his dream, and the demon leaves Bruce and turns to him. Finding strength he never thought he had, Bruce finally defeats this demon and stops this nightmare from passing onto Brandon.
This image of Bruce defeating his Karma for the sake of freeing not himself but his kin moved me long before I studied the idea of defeating our negative tendencies for the sake of everyone in Buddhism.
Dr. Daisaku Ikeda writes:
“How can we break through the closed, hardened shells of people's lives…? And how can we …awaken them on a fundamental level so that they can transform their lives? This is (our) endless challenge... And that is why we ourselves must first of all …continue to work on our own inner transformation.”
This fight is for you, Aahana. I will win.
Criticism as trigger
I have a tendency to get enthusiastic and exuberant quite quickly. But this means that I deflate quite dramatically as well.
Sulkiness is how my deflation manifests.
What did the balloon say to the pin?
I find that criticism is often my pin.
I don’t mean to deflate the case for exuberance and enthusiasm - I believe we need more of that in the world. Tempered exuberance, vigilant exuberance - these allude to a calm, composed and confident optimism for me.
That’s is what I aspire to. That’s what I’m working at.
Going back in to the room
I watched a very strange opening episode of a new episodic series ROAR, on Apple TV plus. It’s called “The Girl who Disappeared” - and it looks at a coloured woman’s ordeal when she finds herself becoming increasingly and literally unseen and unheard in rooms full of well-meaning but obviously biased people (mostly men).
There’a point at which she wants to bail - run away - but then she (spoiler alert) she decides that there’s no running away from it, and goes back into the room, to fight the good fight for however long it takes against a bias that’s hounded her all her life.
The story demonstrated quite clearly that we win when we refused to be defeated. It’s going to stay with me.
By the way, the Nicole Kidman helmed, very Australian episode about an ageing mum and a daughter both struggling to remember when everything they love in their life is disappearing - each in her own way - is fantastic. Even more fantastic is the instrumental rendition of INXS’s ‘Disappear’ in the credit sequence.
What stubborn karma are you determined to beat?
Tell me. I want to know!
And I know you will win.
Sending you support and strength for your fight!
See you next week!