Three Little Big Mistakes

Over the last year, Mom and Dad have been winding up their 50-year-old sansar in Kolkata so that they can come and stay with us. It is a big deal for us, since we have wanted this to happen for the last many years. It is not easy to turn your back on the material-social life you build up and it is not easy to say goodbye to the people and places that becomes natural extensions of your being. My brother and I and our families have been trying to make it easier through discussions, holidays together, and by pitching in with the packing and sorting.

On one such visit, just a few months back, I was rummaging through old books and papers that were slowly turning into dust. They lay in ancient trunks tucked away behind other ancient trunks and cartons under my parents’ bed. I found a large plastic folder, inside which were things that I had put together as a teenager one time when we were moving house. It contained things – mainly documents and pieces of writing - that I thought were important at that point of my life. Over the next few hours, the papers made me smile. For many reasons. I smiled because what seemed important then and what seems important now are at such great variance. I smiled at the illusion of permanence that seems so real at all times. And I smiled as I realized how little mistakes often lead to big things. Here are three little big mistakes that I am learning from and what they mean to me.

Honoring your parents

This sounds obvious, and I will have to get personal in order to put it in perspective. I know that my disclosures are safe with you. If you do choose to dishonor my confidence, I will accept that your need to violate my trust was greater than my conviction.

We live in times when it is not just fashionable to blame all the troubles in your life on your parents, but also terribly convenient. Modern science tells us that almost everything that could possibly go wrong with this complex organism called me can be tracked back to parenting. We have parenting classes, parenting blogs, and self-help groups for those scarred beyond repair by the lives of their parents. I have spent many years of my adult life believing that I would have had a “better shot” at life if only parents had been, for the lack of a better word, more “parently.” I have always been open about this feeling, and that has made life more complicated, since at a conscious level people do not always understand that love and hate are really the same deluded belief.

Of course, we are shaped largely by the actions of our parents. Moreover, it is possible to believe and wish that they could have done better. The truth is that if they could have, they would have. For some time, I justified their not “having done better” by telling myself that they didn’t because they couldn’t and they couldn’t because I was not important enough for them. It was only after I became a parent myself that I saw the fallacy of my thinking. Nobody plays to lose.

(Children of the future, we are sorry. We did not mean to leave you the mess we have. We knew what we were doing, but damn, you lost out to our profits, our petty wars, and our air-conditioning. )

The truth is that all that we are, from our “largest” achievement to our “smallest” doubt, from our gladness for new mornings and our sadness at our own inhumanity, from our ability to see ourselves as a piece of a bigger picture to the ability to read and reflect on what we are reading and reflecting on now, none of it would have been possible were it not for our parents. Our life, our vitality, our faculties, our ability to think, speak and act are all direct, inviolably direct, gifts from our parents. No matter how loudly you crib, you could not have done it without your parents.

Our births are not random biological events. We choose to be born to parents who carry with them the lessons we need to become who we are meant to be. We can spend a lifetime battling our circumstances, resisting and even hating the life that our parents held out to us, but true victory will always be waiting on the other side of acceptance and gratitude.

My parents are nuts. If you know them, you know exactly what I mean. If you don’t, please believe me. However, it is precisely their being nuts that allowed my brother and me to survive. I doubt we would have survived any other set of parents other than ours. Yet, as a younger person, I often looked at my friends and envied their stable, well-planned, well-provided-for, boring homes and lives. This transition from blame to acceptance (if not gratitude) is crucial, since it is the key to being able to honor them. Honoring one’s parents is the foundation of the future. Without this foundation, the future is not one worth talking about.

I realized this mistake of mine during what is known as "the lost years" of my life. Of course, I am mistaken there too, since it really was a most enlightening time. I realized that one gets to know who is there for you only when all your chips are down. My parents (and my wife, but then that is another story altogether, one of lifetimes, discipleship and birthings) stood by me like a rock, even when I was on the verge of losing faith in life and in myself. They held me up and helped me stand when they themselves were in greatest need of succor. As I struggled to stay afloat, they taught me how choices are not always how we see them. The very people I considered cranky, fickle, and undependable, turned out to be the ground beneath my feet.

Have they suddenly stopped being cranky, fickle and undependable? No. Instead, I have realized how cranky, fickle and undependable I am, and guess who is responsible for that!! Just kidding, but in the process of seeing them for what they are to me, these aspects have not only been overshadowed by the immeasurable debt of gratitude, but have also turned into an wickedly enjoyable (and sometimes annoying for sure) delight, a celebration of all the ten worlds we all dwell in at all times.

Failing to honor your parents seems like a small mistake and often not a mistake at all. After all, we all honor our parents, we call them Ummiji or Bapi or whatever. We get them gifts on Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day. Nevertheless, true honor is only when it comes without reservations, without conditions. They are who they are, they did what they did, and I am thankful for all of it. And I love them for all of it. And I am indebted to them for all of it. All of it. Try it. It might take a while, but you will know the freedom only when you get there. The fun of this process lies in going through with it, and then realizing that it was a springboard you were being led on to.

Honoring your teachers

When I look back, there are only a few teachers – right from junior school through university – that I had a strong bond with. Even with them, over the years, my connection faded out as I went about building my life. Yet, there are many teachers, not all in academic settings, who contributed to making me who I am. Some of them introduced me to mathematics – the foundation of all expression, while others taught me about the rhythm that underlies all of creation. Some taught me about gravity, while others helped me pronounce and laugh at idee fixe. From some I learned why history was important, and from others I learned to leave the past behind. Most of them taught without teaching – by being examples of what one should be. Some of them taught me by being what one should not be.

While I have received their teaching, at varying levels and at varying times, I realize that it was not always reciprocated with acknowledgment, gratitude or praise. It is more like, heck, I deserved it, or I have paid for it, or on good days, I would have learned it one way or the other. Honoring those who teach you the lessons of life is the culmination of your own learning and opens you up for greater compassion, new insights, and fresh horizons.

Like the wandering minstrel who would turn up once a week at our doorstep, singing praises of the creator, accompanied by his manjeera, his possessions hanging from his shoulder in a hand-sewn cloth bag. All he did was sing about the glory of God. He lived off whatever alms he gathered. When we first moved into the locality several decades back, he was white-haired, wrinkled, and had a smile that spoke of the mysteries of love. This time, a few months back, my brother and I encountered him, and the years had bent him a little, but little else had changed. His eyes still sparkled as he took out his hand-cymbals and broke into song, and his smile still spoke of the mystic wonder of love and devotion. More than the secret meeting with Christ behind a parked truck after school, more than the fever that the writings of Vivekananda left me with, more than the lure of Buddha and Mahaveera to leave it all behind, this old man introduced me to the concepts of commitment, frugality, and deliberate living.

He is just one example. Not all my teachers were the Odessa Collective type. There was the brother of a very powerful man who would take us on tours to see the angels in the architecture of old Kolkata buildings and then tie them in to the history of Rome, Athens and British India. There was the grandaunt who taught me about forbearance and attention and the power of joy, and she did this by making bunnies from her folded sari pallu and by making the most perfect consistency custard in the world. It was only much later that I fully understood the tragic circumstances of her life. To us, to the day she died, she was a source of joy and courage.

Then there have been those who have been unkind or unfair. Those who have been harsh and intolerant. Those who have abused and oppressed. To all, I give thanks today. Would I have minded if some of the lessons were easier on me? Sure not, but well, no guarantees I would have been who I am today without the joy, the wonder, the mystery or the pain that my teachers brought to me.

May I invite you to take a moment to think about the teachers in your life, and find ways to honor them? Nothing you do might truly be enough, but it will be infinitely better than not to have tried at all. Go ahead. Try it. You will be surprised at how this small step will change your life and your outlook on it. Let me know how it works for you.

Honoring life itself

The last 300 years of our history have been about the individual, about progress, and about supremacy. We believe that we are all the things that we proudly call human civilization. We learn to excel at school, to rank at the head of the class, to go to a good college and find a good job. We choose our partners and we start families, earn money and build assets. We pursue and find power and success. Through it all, we are told that we are the ones who did it; we are the ones who have arrived. It is all about us.

The mistake here lies in not seeing our interconnectedness and our roots. We are all nothing but the expression of life wishing to know itself, to intend and manifest, to reach upward, a little higher with each iteration. This reaching higher plays out as per absolute and universal rules. Seeing ourselves in isolation, as the ones who beat the Joneses, is the big lie.

How does one honor life itself? How does one defer to the force of life wishing to know and manifest itself? Strangely, this is one of the simplest mistakes to rectify. In fact, it does not even need rectification. All it needs is for you to let go of the mask. When you see beyond the illusion of self to the reality of being nothing more than an entity of the mystic law of the simultaneity of cause and effect, you not only move on to the realm of happiness, insight and freedom, but you also realize the immense value of your being.

You might be saying to yourself that this does not apply to you. You might not be able to see how you are not honoring life itself. You are alive and grateful for it, aren’t you? You are thankful for all that life has made possible for you, aren’t you? This mistake manifests in subtle ways like stress, overeating, smoking, unethical business practices, troubled relationships, power games, porn – you get the point. These are all ways in which we resist becoming part of the flow of life. There are schools of thought that say that these behaviors are, of and by themselves, the path to enlightenment, and that is true. However, for most of us, we take it as a validation to continue dishonoring life.

Honoring life means seeing yourself as part of a larger whole, it means seeing all other beings, sentient and nonsentient, as essential parts of that same whole. This understanding immediately ends a million processes in our prized emotional RAM. We learn to appreciate our journey together, we learn to lend and receive a helping hand, and we learn how precious life itself is. This mistake, as I pointed out earlier, is the easiest to rectify, but at the same time, the hardest to let go of entirely. We will be plagued by prejudice, pride, and powerlessness. Yet, as long as we do not completely surrender to the tsunami that life’s desire to know and manifest itself is, we will continue to be deprived of the very things that we fear deprivation of the most.

I must admit here that writing this post itself has been a process of seeing and acknowledging some of the mistakes that I continue to make. I must also admit that if you have read this entire post (which should take an average adult - at 300 words per minute - a little more than 8 minutes, but then who reads a blog post for 8 minutes any more!!), you have not only helped me rectify some of them, but also embarked on a journey of your own, even if you cannot see it now. Like a seed waiting in the summer soil, the need to course-correct has been sown in you, and it will blossom when the time is right. All you have to do it throw the umbrella away and let Dharma rain.


  1. Why do I get this feeling that this "honoring your parents" realization comes at a convenient moment of your life? He he
    Ok. I think acceptance of life or teacher or parents is a constant "I have arrived, oops failed again, there I arrived again, and failed again, and trying still" Honor is not the word I use. It stokes cultural memories of what that should mean. I prefer to spread out to the larger Universe and say simply this--in this large interconnected web, we each have a role and function. We influence others in non-direct, non-linear, and unpredictable ways which finally result in a certain influence in our lives and being. We are also influenced similarly. By all equally. Friends and family, parents and foster parents, teachers and students. No special need to honor only lineage or some speck of time or even this thing called life. Just to step back and accept the magic of this universe and let be.

    1. I would drill it down and say that publishing this realization comes at a convenient, if not purposeful moment. In more ways than you can think. Very valid observation about the binary, culture-specific nature of the concept of arriving/honoring. I have found it useful to use this concept to move towards the kind of understanding you speak of. It takes a lot of travel to see this, and who better to share that insight than you? Thanks, Bhavana, for adding this dimension, one that I wholly subscribe to but am often at a loss of words to describe, to the discussion.

  2. Subho a post that makes one think. Honoring your parents -- I agree. Understanding them and the fact that what they did was to the best of their ability makes one accept oneself and also feel grateful for the people who contributed the most in making you the person you are. I just wrote a post on my father and yes, I did recall all the wonderful things he does and signifies to me. It also means that we accept and understand the not-so-wonderful things that they may have done. But I have seen parents who are lousy human beings. They certainly could have done better. I wonder how does one reconcile to bad parents. Is it okay to honour such people just because they gave birth to you but also helped in screwing up your life? Honoring your teachers and life as a premise are fine with me. But I will not honor or feel grateful for the bad folks in my life. Yes, the experiences with them must have taught me something and for that I am grateful. But not to the people including bad teachers. So, in essence, I am perhaps not as evolved and have a long way to go. I know that accepting and forgiveness are important processes crucial for growth, yet I cannot practice that as a blanket policy.

    1. I loved your post too, and perhaps in some way it triggered my desire to write, and especially how you led us into the post before revealing who you were speaking of. As for lousy parents, M and I were talking about it after she read the post, and we were wondering about abusive, exploitative, damaging parents. I could be wrong here, and maybe the mind sciences have something different to say about it, but I feel that being able to forgive and see the lessons those experiences brought us is a huge, huge step forward. There is the entire question of right and wrong in the case of bad parents and bad teachers, but if we agree that we choose our circumstances, that would explain a few things too.

    2. This. Letting go and forgiving are huge and difficult steps one has to take, but if one can achieve it makes living less difficult and more fulfulling.

  3. It is true that we fail to recognise (sometimes at least) the contributions of our parents, teachers and other elders to what we are. Your remembrance is heart-touching in its own way.

    1. Thanks, Tomichan. I know your thoughts on this, so your comment is very special too.

  4. Subhorup , You got me thinking deep , witin our heart of hearts we do remember the contribution made by these people and honor them in our own my case for years together I keep telling my daughter the stories about my parents and teachers to put her too sleep .

    1. Thank you so much, Alka. Preserving and passing on the values that have held us together as a people for centuries is very important. They are probably the only defense we have against those that are bent on tearing us apart.

  5. Happily soaked in the Dharma rain, resplendent with the fragrance of your gratitude. :)

  6. A thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Love the concluding sentence! My first visit to your blog, and hope to visit here often :)

    1. Welcome to SJD, Beloo, and please do keep coming back.

  7. I can only say that what i am , who i am is all because of of the hard work put up by my parents and my teachers .. who did all they could .. and never shyed away when it came to helping me and doing something that would be good for me ..

    I know during that time I thought they should or could have done better but then now in hindsight I can understand why .. what happened and/or the difficulties they might have had tooo ..

    Its when we go through the same .. like earlier it was why does my father have to be at work all the time , Now I have a job and I spend a lot of time at work I can understand why ..

    sadly it took a bit longer for me as I had to go out in the middle to do something :)
    and you are right who has the time to read these days .. usually its the first line and the last line and then pout comes GOOD ONE.. Nice POST .. etc etc

    so Sir GOOD POST :)


    1. Thanks, Bikram. It is rarely that this blog gets such a detailed comment from you, and I am truly touched that this post was able to do that. I think the time/maturity factor of getting to see the need to honor your parents is an essential karmic lesson. One needs to have extreme good fortune to grow naturally and without conflict into that state of being. But I have no regrets about my years of resenting/misunderstanding. They have strengthened my respect for them over the years, not from any sense of guilt, but more from a "ah! so that is what it was" perspective.

  8. Your post has made my day Subho Da! Honoring Parents is something I can proudly say I have always done. It could be because I lost one of them at a very early stage in my life but what I loved the most was what you wrote about the Life!
    Let go off the mask? How I wish that was easy or should I say how I wish i know how to do so?

    1. Haritha, Thank you so much. We tend to value some things more only after we risk losing them. We often don't see that life is the most precious gift we have, that life is the goal as well as the pursuit. The simplicity of honoring life is that one really doesnt have to do anything. On the contrary, one needs to stop doing all the other things that we do in the name of "having a life." That is when we start seeing what we have been looking at all this time, when we see that the longest journey is the one within, when we see that all this time, we have been where we were trying to get to.

  9. I agree it with you in your first honor..we don't get everything in one package. Including our parents...the sooner we tend to accept their faults, the sooner we arrive at peace. And I have learnt this lesson early in life. :) I still need time to understand your honoring life...

  10. thank you subho for this beautiful and thought provoking post. my blessings and bapi's too. but i am sure we could have done better. Daisaku Ikeda has rightly said somewhere that only when you come to the last few years of life and spend it well that you have been a winner. How true. I never thought that the last phase of our life would be so comfortable,so joyous and both my sons would make me feel so nicely justified.
    all that we have done is to love u from our hearts nothing else matters. we are deeply grateful to you two and your lovely partners as also our granddaughter for loving us unconditionally.
    your post is an eloquent testimony to the fact that FAMILY afterall matters.May God bless my wonderful family.

  11. Subho, this is the most brilliant piece of expression I have read in some time. I agree, before we embark on the lifelong quest of honoring the single most important entity of our lives - ourselves - wouldn't it be so worthwhile to first spare a thought to the bricks and mortar that make us. Your three picks are most apt.
    My best wishes to your parents for their move to a new home full of familiar faces!


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