THE VIRTUOUS LIFE

Last January I made a New Year’s Resolution that each week I would dedicate myself to the study of a specific virtue and attempt to incorporate it into my life.  I thought that trying to live more virtuously could be of some benefit.  So I learned about Discernment from the Quakers, Love from the Jesuits, Confidence from the psychologist Albert Bandura and Detachment from the Jains. 

About the time I reached Creativity, a giant flow detour occurred.  Creativity, it seems, is linked to happiness.  Noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “flow” to describe this link.  The flow condition is uniquely realized by each of us as a result of our culture, upbringing, and brain chemistry.  It happens when there is an alignment of interest, ability, challenge, and reward in our lives.  Flow experiences are characterized by a high degree of focus, purpose, energy, and success.  I was so fascinated by his book, Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, that I never returned to the original New Year’s quest.  Trying to understanding Csikszentmihalyi’s message and how to make use of it occupied the better part of the year. 

Flowing With the Night

As one might expect, traveling is a major flow experience: it is a live-in-the-moment activity, challenging one’s purpose, perceptions, and abilities to adapt.  Just over two months ago my husband and I arrived at the New Delhi airport in the wee hours of the morning.  Our preparations for this trip took 6 months and for the past 36 hours we had been warping the passage of time as we sped to the other side of the world. 

India is notorious for many odors.  The one that told me we had arrived was that of moth balls emanating from a suitcase in the upper storage bin of our Boeing 747.  If you have ever visited India before, you would understand.  As we step onto the jet way the pungent night air reminds me of previous trips:  the smell of burning vegetation mixed with plastic.  Soon the crush of masses in immigration is another reminder that we are now far from home.  Two sweaty hours later we are released onto new but ancient soil.  Our first few tasks: locate the currency exchange and manhandle the now (slightly more) tattered suitcases from the rotating baggage dispenser. 

At 3 am we are in a taxi passing through airport checkpoints.  In our groggy yet excited state, the rifle-toting soldiers are a bit disquieting.  But we travel quickly through the streets of New Delhi where there are surprisingly few cars.  We see many wild city dogs: the rulers of the night.  The orange half-moon skims along the horizon as we pass industrial works, the airport runway, and residential areas.  I have the distinct impression that this moon is upside down.  Strings of bright lights hang vertically from the hotel roofs, luring weary travelers, and a small outdoor ceremony (wedding?) flashes by the car window.  We are bound for Vandana’s Bed and Breakfast at “Block 4/124, Safdarjung Enclave.”

Angels Watching Over Us

The Safdarjung Enclave in New Delhi is a series of “Blocks” numbered 1-8, arranged in what is best described as a random spiral formation.  In the final hour of the journey, we find ourselves in a maze of narrow, dark, unmarked streets, made narrower by cars parked 2 deep in front of “No Parking” signs.  The numerous dead end alleys require our driver to engage in carefully maneuvered turnarounds.  He is definitely lost.  Inquiries at local guard shacks result in an asymptotic approach to our destination. 

Finally, what we would call “civilization” begins to re-emerge at the guarded gate leading to Block 4.  Behind the gate the neighborhood seems almost familiar.  Apartments and homes surround a small park with a playground.  We pass a car decorated with a “Child on Board” sign.  Suddenly we are stopped at a dark, unmarked, unnumbered building on an unnamed street.  With no more formalities, we are tumbled out of the car.  Another man appears from the shadows.  He silently hoists our 50-pound suitcases onto his back and then disappears into an unlit hallway.  We follow as he and the driver carry our baggage up five flights of stairs to the rooftop.  In front of us: a clean, softly-lit bedroom is waiting for our weary bodies.  Without a word the two men disappear.  We are not completely sure this is the right establishment.  But with a flick of the deadbolt lock, it is not long before we are deeply asleep.  It becomes clear that angels are watching over us.

A Hearty “Yes!” to 2011

And that is how after a short five weeks, my 2010 New Year’s Resolution ended.  But perhaps I should say it transformed itself into a flow experience.  Here we are now on the opposite side of the world from our home.  We are still not sure where this journey is taking us.  But to quote Joseph Campbell, “The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”

With the New Year upon us, I find myself drawn back to the virtuous journey I embarked upon last year.  The virtue of Trust is the topic of the week.  We, of course, often find ourselves in positions where we must trust those who could easily take advantage of us.  In those times we have only one choice: to live unafraid and trust in the destiny that is uniquely ours. 

New Years Eve finds us on our rooftop watching 2011 unfold.  We stand in the darkness watching, feeling, and smelling the fireworks that are exploding in all directions.  Suddenly we are not alone: one of the hotel staff has appeared to wish us a Happy New Year.  While behind him a Muslim family, guests of the hotel, quietly files past to watch the display.  In the midst of the celebration, I feel the big divide that exists in our world today.  We all want the same thing: to raise our families in a healthy environment and to have the freedom to find meaning and purpose in life.   But for some reason we lack the trust to make it work out. 

In the Aravali Mountain range of northwestern India a community of Hindus and Muslims live peacefully together, as they have for centuries.  Their lives are not easy: only 40 percent of the community members are literate.  Without literacy, jobs are hard to get and 70 percent of the people live below the poverty line.  But they have found mutual meaning in each other’s rituals, even as the modern world attempts to create divisiveness. Their secret?  Trust.  They accept that the matters of faith are left to individuals, following and respecting the practices that their ancestors have handed down to them for generations. 

Little Voices of the Future

Rebuilding trust at any level is difficult to do, and it seems like building trust on a global level is now imperative.  We rely on the machinations of global governments to keep us safe but do we really trust them to do so?  As individuals we must release our fears and be open to taking risks.  When this happens, living unafraid becomes one’s own spiritual journey. 

This is the challenge, then, for 2011: to act in ways that transcend politics and rhetoric so that tomorrow’s world is better than today’s.  Mahatma Gandhi, in his pursuit of Truth often felt he was standing alone on his journey.  His words, seem like a fitting end for this blog: “Trust the little voice residing within your heart,” for “the most practical, the most dignified way of going on in the world is to take people at their word, when you have no positive reason to the contrary.”

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One Comment

  1. karin demorest
    Posted January 3, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    I am an old friend of your brother Dave whom I met when I lived in Tucson years ago. I now live in Paris where I have been for the past eleven years. Leaving Tucson opened up my horizons, and increased my “travel flow”. India has become a big part of that flow. I have been going every February for the past five years, and have explored a good portion of the subcontinent, with the exception of the north. Reading the account of your arrival in Delhi plunged me back into my past and my own arrival in Delhi in 2005 (although Delhi has undergone a sea change since then). I was surprised to read that you saw few cars. I’m sure you’ve changed your mind about that after your good night’s sleep in the B&B…Delhi has become a car nightmare with its attendant pollution. When I was there last year I thought I would die from the car fumes. Incredible India is always lying deep in my soul, and comes right back up to the surface when I read texts such as yours. I hope your stay there will be rich and enlightening, although I cannot imagine it being otherwise.

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