Dealing with Difficulties – afraid or ready to take them on? – 26 Oct 15

Your country, your culture and the society around you influence you. That is something that I believe we all can agree on. Last week I spoke about how we all have a different perception, also based on our growing-up and surroundings. As we have a lot of people of different countries here at the Ashram, we often notice a different basic attitude among them. And a basic difference of how people deal with problems. I found especially this aspect quite interesting and saw one decisive reason for differences: did you grow up in a rich country and surrounding or surrounded by financial difficulties?

What do you do when a big difficulty comes your way? There are several possibilities: you can panic and freak out, getting afraid about what could happen to you and practically have a nervous breakdown simply due to ‘what could happen’. You can also square your shoulders, keep a calm mind and find your way through and out of the crisis. Some try to hide and avoid the problem completely by pretending it is not there – but this usually doesn’t work at all.

The basic feeling behind your reaction is one of the two: you are afraid or you are not.

And while I have seen both reactions in many different people, I dare say that most people of countries that have more financial security, which are more developed and part of the first world tend to be rather afraid.

The reason behind this is, although it seems bizarre, quite understandable, too! In these countries, most people grew up with quite a few possessions. It is normal for them to be able to go out and buy what they need. They may not be able to afford the fanciest things in the supermarket shelves but generally, most haven’t been in a situation of real need, nor have the people around them. Really, a lot of people have not ever experienced real loss either.

And that’s how there are a whole lot of “What if’s” in people’s minds. In their mind they run from one horror scenario to the next, thinking about the things that could happen and their whole world crashes down.

Most people from countries in which there is poverty, who have seen people around them struggle, don’t get as scared of difficulties. They don’t like them either but they are more easily able to look at them rationally and most often see that it is not a matter of survival. That it doesn’t mean they will starve. There is a higher readiness to struggle and make it through the difficulty. There is a kind of emotional security which makes them steadier.

Let’s be real: most difficulties don’t mean that your life will stop, your world will break down and you will be close to death. So even though your background teaches you to freak out, resist the urge and see that it will all go on. You can make it through this!

A poor Man with lots of Money – 6 Jul 14

In 2006, I got to know a whole lot of new people and also went to many new places. One more organizer whom I met in that time showed me very clearly a type of person of whom I had already met some and would meet several more in the coming years: someone who is rich on money but whom I would consider poor!

This organizer, who had been to two of my programs before and then decided to offer my and Yashendu’s workshops and sessions at his home, was a single man in his forties. He was divorced but didn’t have children. He didn’t have a relationship at that moment either. All he had was money.

In spite of having had to pay a good amount of money to his ex-wife, he was living in a big house, drove an expensive car and had just enough extra money for all his daily expenses, luxury projects and everything his heart desired. He worked in a high position in management and had additionally inherited a lot as well. When being with him however, I saw that his big amount of money was also a big problem: he just couldn’t enjoy it! He was stingy until a point that it made me question whether he actually understood the sense of money.

This man hesitated in making even the smallest expense. Whenever he was shopping, he stood in front of the shelf of items – be that cooking oil, water or cheese – and chose the cheapest option, regardless the question of quality. Whenever we talked about anything, he first of all thought about any expenses that might occur. Even when he had to go to toilet, he would rather drive longer on a highway than get out at a stop where he had to pay! Everything, every little thing in his day was related to money!

I actually couldn’t see this without wondering and so I asked him about it as well. For him however, it had become such a habit to think in this way that he had difficulty understanding what I wanted to tell him.

I don’t think money makes people rich. You have to have love and lovely feelings to be rich! And unfortunately, if you connect everything to money, it is unlikely that you show and feel a lot of love!

It was actually a poor man. I tried to share some real wealth with him – and I believe he felt it as well!

Living Life with Love or Luxury? Make your Choice! – 16 Jul 13

I have already hinted at the problem which I want to write about today, a choice that needs to be made in life, that occupies especially parents again and again and can even make us wonder about the sense of life: love of luxury. What do you choose?

Well, romantically speaking, the answer is easy: always choose love. Idealistically, too, it is easy: who needs luxury? But everyone needs love! So just forget all luxuries and go with love!

Now, let’s get to the practical part of this question – and there it gets a bit more difficult. You may well say you choose love over luxury but where does luxury start? It may be obvious luxury to have five holidays a year, all to exotic destinations and flying there with chartered planes. Very few people have to consider this level of luxury though. For most people it is the question how much they should work daily and whether they can make one or even two holidays at all. Should you work more to afford more clothes, more high-tech gadgets, better technical equipment and more trips and holidays? Or should you work less so that you can spend more time with family and loved ones?

If you want to live in a certain standard, you have to work for a certain amount of time. If it is a higher standard, it generally means you have to work more. If you work more, you have less time for the ones you love. You can spend less time playing, cuddling, laughing and enjoying with your partner and, if you have, with your children.

A whole lot of relationships have broken simply because one partner felt that the other gave too much time to work and less time for love. Even bigger are the conflicts that are created in between parents and children. The main breadwinner, traditionally the father, works so much that he hardly knows his children anymore. There is not much of a connection – but the result is that they have the best of everything you can buy!

If you want to spend more time with your children, you may have to do without certain luxuries. We have decided to do this. If we wanted to earn more and have more money, I could travel more, spend several months abroad, as I have done before, and give workshops and seminars. We could earn more in this way than we earn from here but I decided to spend more time with my daughter instead. We still work, and still work much, but whenever I feel like it, I can stop and just play with Apra. We have found a middle way for us.

The conclusion is that everybody has to find out for himself how much luxury he needs and how much time he can give to his loved ones. Whatever you do however, take care of one thing: never let your need for luxuries get so high that you neglect the ones you love, especially your children. They need your love more than they need a lot of toys, a holiday or expensive clothes. They need you.

Helpful but difficult – Comparisons of Countries and Cultures – 15 Jul 13

In the past week I wrote a lot about parenting and asked people to cut down their ambitions and reconsider how much they really need, so maybe they can spend a bit less time working and a bit more time with their children. When I wrote this, a mother told me about her own situation and said ‘I know that we have a lot compared to a poor family in India…’ This sentence made me think about such comparisons and I would like to share those thoughts with you today.

The main question is: can you compare a developing country like India with western countries at all? Or can you compare the situations of people in these countries with each other?

Of course until a certain point you can and it is often good to do so. It is unavoidable when you live in both countries and I have thus done so many times. How do people live in both countries, what do they think, how much do they earn and own, what is important to them, which worries and which habits do they have?

Seeing poor countries from a western point of view mostly means to get a reality check. You realize that you get mostly worried about issues that are not really very important. You believe you don’t have enough clothes in your cupboard but then you see that others only have one or two sets of clothes. It is not your life that is at stake when business is running a bit low while others don’t have anything to eat if they are too ill to work for a few days. People in other countries fight hunger, they are persecuted due to their religion, race, gender or opinion, they are oppressed and they have to fear for their lives.

Such a comparison thus makes you see your own life in a better light and from a different point of view. You appreciate what you have and maybe reconsider your behavior with the people around you.

While these comparisons are valid and can have a very positive effect, it is very difficult to make direct comparisons when you go deeper because the differences are just so huge! There are so many factors that play a role in your perception of the two sides that you could write an essay of several pages about many of them.

Let me give you an example. You say that poor Indian people have much less than you, living in a developed country. That may be fully right if you speak in financial terms but you cannot conclude that these people have much more worries than you! Their life may be harder when it comes to money but they may be mentally much less stressed than you! You have hundreds of responsibilities and tasks, you want to be perfect, you do everything yourself and you have very little support of relatives.

You may not even be able to imagine the mental peace that many poor people have simply because they know that they don’t have that much to lose. Similarly even people who have a bit more may be much more relaxed than you – because they are less attached to material belongings and have a huge family that gives them emotional support in whatever they do.

You know, I don’t want to tell you how you should see the world. You can decide upon that yourself. I just want to express that for me there is no way to call one or the other country better, that comparisons are sometimes difficult to make and most of all that you need to be with a country’s people for a longer time to be able to even start such a comparison.

How a Difference in Culture changes the Definition of being poor – 14 Jun 13

In the past days I compared the needs that children have in the west, according to a study by UNICEF, with the needs of children in India. There are still a few points left:

12. Two pairs of properly fitting shoes (including at least one pair of all-weather shoes)

This is a very important factor and I believe it should really not be underestimated how much this costs the parents. Children’s feet grow quickly and they regularly need new shoes so that they can walk and jump and run properly.

Fortunately the weather in our area in India is so mild that you can run around without shoes most of the year, too, but with the development of streets and the pollution of the whole town it is not anymore so easy or hygienically advisable as it was when I was a child. We provide the children of our school the black school shoes that go with the school uniform and we often see them using those shoes in their free time, too, as they don’t have any other pair. In summer, they obviously prefer taking them off, though. Then there are light and very cheap flip-flops with which the size is quite flexible – so you will see children in much too big and much too small shoes, too. While I would reduce the number to one pair of shoes, I think it is in India, too, a sign of poverty if you really have no pair of shoes at all.

13. The opportunity, from time to time, to invite friends home to play and eat

This is another point where I can tell you that the big majority of Indian children seem to be less poor than children in the rich countries the study was made for. In India, even the poorest of the poor invite their friends over to their home. The children of our school go to each other’s homes regularly and they also eat there. It might be a question of the Indian hospitality that you would offer from what you have, however little that may be, and share it with the ones who are there. Another aspect could be that the poor western parents may be more ashamed of their poverty than the usual Indian family, simply for the fact that there are a lot of poor people in India.

14. The opportunity to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays, name days, religious events, etc.

I have met a lot of people who were totally shocked when they heard that most children who come to our school don’t know when their birthday is. Their parents don’t know either, because it is simply not important to them. This is partly due to culture but partly because they cannot afford to do anything special on that day.

Religious events however are very important and everybody, no matter how poor, will celebrate Diwali for example. If they even only light an oil lamp in their own home, make a small pooja and pray for some more financial luck in the next year, they will definitely do a celebration.

I am not too sure about the quality of this criterion because such celebrations can range from a cheap and simple home celebration to super expensive with lots of gifts and a big party. Isn’t a celebration what it is because there is a special atmosphere in the air? Or because the family gets together? Couldn’t that be achieved without money, too?

Necessities and Luxuries – Different Standards in India and the West – 13 Jun 13

Yesterday and the day before yesterday, I have been commenting on the different points that UNICEF believes to show child poverty in rich countries. How valid are these points in a country like India? Here I continue:

8. Money to participate in school trips and events

This one gets a short answer: if a family in India can afford to send their child to a private school, buy the books, buy the uniform and pay the fees, there are families who are much poorer that his. Participation in school trips is a standard a bit too high for India’s poor.

It makes us proud however to say that on our school celebrations the poor children of the town get to eat the best food and the best cakes you can find anywhere in the surrounding!

9. A quiet place with enough room and light to do homework

Again, one has to take care of other needs first, before one can arrange a place for a child to do homework. Many families of our children have a rented home of one or two rooms in which four, five or more people live. The rooms are their living room, kitchen, bedroom, office, workshop, children’s room and wardrobe in one. Once we come to a standard where families have a separate room for all of these purposes, we cannot really call them poor here anymore.

10. An Internet connection

I was honestly surprised to see this one on the list but I guess today it is a vital element of staying up to date to what is going on in the world. In the west a lot of homework has to be done with the help of the internet and social life has partly shifted online, too. Anybody without an internet connection is cut off from the world.

In a place where many people don’t have a fridge or even a ceiling fan although it gets up to temperatures of 48 degrees centigrade and more, the lack of an internet connection wouldn’t be one of the items that would show that you are deprived.

11. Some new clothes (i.e. not all second-hand)

People often ask us whether they can bring some clothes for children when they come to the Ashram and we always heartily welcome such support. We collect until we have a big amount and can give out with full hands to our students and their parents. You wouldn’t believe how happy these families are about second-hand-clothes. What is wrong with wearing someone else’s old clothes? They are good, not torn and they keep you warm in winters when it gets cold up to the freezing point.

I understand this point for the west though, where even children of well-off families get teased for not wearing branded clothes. I believe however that the expectations and standards should be slightly reduced there. Stop focusing on the outside and teach children a bit more about inner values!

Comparing Sports and Games of Indian and Western Children – 12 Jun 13

Yesterday I started commenting on the list of items that UNICEF listed as necessary for children in rich countries. Without two or more of them, they are considered as poor. I compare it with the situation in India point by point:

6. Regular leisure activities (swimming, playing an instrument, participating in youth organizations etc.)

This is the first point for which I actually think it might be necessary in European countries but not in India. During many years of travelling in the west, in Europe, Australia and USA, I have again and again seen how children stay in their rooms, sit in front of TV and don’t move the whole day long. While this is obviously not only a problem of poverty, I think it would be good to encourage children to get out and do something else from time to time.

In India however children are out all the time. There may not be that many organized offers like sports clubs and swimming pool areas with guided program, but children don’t need it either. They go out, meet their friends, play on the road and use pretty much whatever they find. When we were small we used to meet so many other children at the river, swimming the whole day. Our Ashram boys just need a ball and maybe a cricket bat and they are busy in their game. There are a lot of games that work with far less equipment, too. A stick, a shoe or nothing at all.

Another factor may be that we just have a lot of children in India. I have seen in Germany how difficult it is for children to find the company of others – and if they cannot pay for the participation in a youth club or something similar, they may feel very left out. India’s population is however so big that you will always find people of all ages out on the road, ready for all different kinds of activities.

7. Indoor games (at least one per child, including educational baby toys, building blocks, board games, computer games etc.)

I had to think about my comment to this one a bit. Not because I didn’t know whether that would apply for India or not but because I want to be sure you understand my answer. It is a complicated question, mainly because UNICEF used the word ‘educational’ in its formulation of examples. What kind of toys and games are we really talking about?

Every family that has in any way the possibility to do so, tries to give their children something appropriate to play with, also in India. In poor families that may be a hand-stitched little doll made from the torn pieces of some old clothes that could really not be fixed anymore. The child would have a toy – but is it educational? And then there is the question of the education of the parents. A doll can teach a child a lot but only if the person moving the doll and speaking for it has something to teach!

Additionally the relation of indoors and outdoors is very different in India’s hot climate than in Germany’s unsteady weather for example. While a German child may need building blocks, an Indian child, the son of a labourer for example, can sit on the construction site and use bricks or stones that are not used anymore for the same purpose.

Depending on the definition I thus believe that such toys would be normal for Indian children, too, but even the poorest have them!

Three Meals a Day – Is that really Luxury for Children? – 11 Jun 13

I yesterday told of a study that UNICEF had done about child poverty in rich countries and with a focus on European countries. There was a list of items or deprivations. If a child missed two or more of this list, it would mean he or she is poor, or poorer than it should be possible in that country. When reading this list, I could not help but think of our children back in India, the boys that live at the Ashram but even more the children who come to our school, who live in poor families nearby. UNICEF clearly made this list for already developed countries but it was interesting comparing their list with the needs of children here and what would or would not be on a list for India. I thought I share my thoughts on the single points with you in my diary, today and the next days.

1. Three meals a day

2. At least one meal a day with meat, chicken or fish (or a vegetarian equivalent)

3. Fresh fruit and vegetables every day

If we look at these first three points, I can tell you that many families in India already struggle with number one, they try their best to accomplish number two – obviously with the vegetarian option – and you can completely skip number three. Fresh fruit and vegetable is expensive. Potatoes are the cheapest and thus more often on the menu. Other ingredients only appear on the plate on special occasions or when a vegetable or fruit is in season and thus cheap.

Nevertheless, every family loves their children and they give their best. It is a fact however that our school is frequented by a lot of students whose parents were mainly interested in the warm lunch that we daily provide. With that they have one worry less, at least the bellies of their children are filled!

4. Books suitable for the child’s age and knowledge level (not including schoolbooks)

The level of education of poor parents is very different from Europe to India. There are hardly any illiterate people all over Europe while in our state for example nearly every second person whom you meet doesn’t know reading or writing! Why would they buy books for their children? Who would read to the children? They are happy if they can afford their schoolbooks – and for many families even that is too much. This is why our school provides all schoolbooks for free, including story books so that the kids can have some fun while reading at school.

5. Outdoor leisure equipment (bicycle, roller-skates, etc.)

Well, with this point we reach the aspect of ‘leisure’ and although every human person needs time to relax, enjoy life and play, the equipment for that is not a basic need. In a country where we are fighting against hunger and child labour, your own bicycle or roller-skates will not be the criteria to decide whether you are poor or not.

On a side-note, I still have to see the first person roller-skating on Indian roads – good luck!

Poor Children of rich Countries – 10 Jun 13

It is already a while ago that Ramona read an article of UNICEF about a study they have done about child poverty in Europe. The results show how many children live below the poverty line with their families and how many children in which European country don’t have those necessities available which a child in a developed country should have. We just found it interesting and I wanted to share their study criteria and findings with you.

They had a list of 14 items that should be present for every child in these countries which are considered rich:

  1. Three meals a day
  2. At least one meal a day with meat, chicken or fish (or a vegetarian equivalent)
  3. Fresh fruit and vegetables every day
  4. Books suitable for the child’s age and knowledge level (not including schoolbooks)
  5. Outdoor leisure equipment (bicycle, roller-skates, etc.)
  6. Regular leisure activities (swimming, playing an instrument, participating in youth organizations etc.)
  7. Indoor games (at least one per child, including educational baby toys, building blocks, board games, computer games etc.)
  8. Money to participate in school trips and events
  9. A quiet place with enough room and light to do homework
  10. An Internet connection
  11. Some new clothes (i.e. not all second-hand)
  12. Two pairs of properly fitting shoes (including at least one pair of all-weather shoes)
  13. The opportunity, from time to time, to invite friends home to play and eat
  14. The opportunity to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays, name days, religious events, etc.

The study found that there are a lot of children in these developed countries that don’t have two or more of the items on this list! In Great Britain for example, it is 5.5 percent of children. As you might expect, the Scandinavian countries like Iceland, Sweden and Norway are on the top, tightly followed by Finland and Denmark which all have less than 3% of all children in this situation. Several states of Eastern Europe like Bulgaria and Romania are at the bottom, with up to 72.6 % of children missing at least two of these items! In Germany it is 8.8%, in France 10.1%!

Isn’t that shocking? That every tenth child in France and nearly as many in Germany may not have two pairs of shoes and three meals a day? That there are so many poor children in these developed countries which don’t have problems like India? I was aware that there is poverty in these countries, too, but these figures give you a better and more detailed idea!

It is terrible to think that there are hungry children in countries like these where they have social security systems, where there is help for the poor! I have always heard and seen the different ways of support that the governments provide to the needy people in their countries and I am outraged that this help obviously does not reach these children.

It is wrong. Children are the future of our universe and we need to give them every possibility to develop their abilities and talents. Especially in these developed countries it is easy to know how many children are where in the country. It should be possible to extend help to them and if it is not through the government, there should be individuals helping those around them. Maybe you realize you don’t really need a second car. Maybe you sell the third TV in your home and donate that money to a charity organization for deprived children. Maybe you decide to help in some other way, offering free outdoor activities or lessons on a music instrument for someone who cannot afford it.

Get up and do something, it is about the children in your country, it is about your future!

A spiritual Wedding for free – but only with expensive Dresses from the Guru’s Shop – 9 Jun 13

I have told you about the Irish woman whom I had met in Dublin in 2005 and who had, after years of searching, finally found a partner. I was happy for her that she had found ‘the one’. Of course her insecurity and his own problems still brought them into problems sometimes. She kept on visiting some gurus when I had refused to be the one taking her responsibility for taking any decision of her life. It was however nice that she stayed in touch and so we could from time to time just have a nice talk among friends. I was very happy of course when she then told me that she and her partner had got married. When I heard about the circumstances of their marriage, though, I had my own thoughts about it.

This woman and her partner had been a few times on and off their relationship. In the time when one of their favourite gurus visited Ireland, though, they were on one of the peaks of their love and they decided that they wanted to be married by this Indian guru.

I am not sure where they had got this idea but maybe one of the devotees had told them about the possibility. It was one of the offers in the many services that this guru did. The guru did not even charge anything for performing this ceremony!

You may rightly ask yourself now why I seem to disapprove of this way of marrying two loving persons in a spiritual ceremony when there is not even money involved. The point is that there is indeed money involved – and not less! The couple did not have to pay the guru to perform the ceremony but all ingredients for the ceremony had to be bought from this guru’s organization and even the wedding dresses of both groom and bride could not be chosen anywhere else but from that shop! All of the merchandise of this shop is already blessed by the guru and there are many items which have even been worn once by the guru just to be sold to people who feel extraordinarily blessed by this.

They thus had their spiritual wedding ceremony performed by that guru in the clothes that they had bought in the shop, spending a, in my eyes, ridiculous amount of money on it. No wait, it was actually not the amount of money itself that I found strange. Wedding dresses tend to be expensive anyway. No, it was the condition that they had to buy from that shop in order to be married by their guru. This was just like paying a fee for the wedding! What was the difference?

I obviously did not voice such thoughts to the happy newly-weds. I just thought that I had seen again how modern gurus in the west keep their followers happy while pretending to be detached of all material and getting richer at the same time. Well, I just hoped that this woman, who had become a friend over the course of time, would be happy with her marriage.

I did mention her insecurity though, right?

Yes, to make it short, this was not enough for the two of them. They had their spiritual wedding but still kept on splitting up and coming back together until, finally, they decided to do it once more – this time a bit more traditional. They had a big traditional Catholic Church wedding, too. This time with all their relatives present, the bride in a white dress, the groom in a tuxedo.

And I would like to end today’s diary, with the fitting words: and they lived happily ever after because all is well that ends well.