Playing Poker for a Living - A Complete Breakdown

The first thing my mother asked when I told her that I've quit my job and plan to play poker for a living was, "That's gambling, right?" Since she is my mom, and trusts me, a simple "No, it's not. It is a skill game," was enough to put her mind at ease. But it takes a lot more than that to convince the skeptics.

This post will try and explain that about poker. It will be a detailed breakdown of why I chose this profession, how the daily life of a poker player looks like and if this is something you should get into. We’ll also talk about money.

There are three aims of this post:

  1. For non-players, to give an inside look into what it entails to play poker for a living.
  2. For amateurs thinking of taking the game seriously, what it takes to make the jump.
  3. For poker professionals, an echo of thoughts, sharing struggles and victories.

Not all sections will be relevant to all the three groups; pick the ones you like. Here’s what follows:

  • What is Poker and Its Legal Status
  • Is Poker Gambling?
  • My Beginnings
  • The Journey Thus Far
  • Skills Needed
  • Let's Talk About Money
  • Good Way To Make A Living?
  • A Usual Day At The Office
  • A Little Bit About Live Poker
  • Where To Play
  • Future Of Poker

For the ones who don’t know about the game, let’s start with a quick introduction.


WHAT IS POKER AND ITS LEGAL STATUS

Poker is a card-based skill game that involves exchange of money. It has many variants and the most popular one is called Texas No-limit Hold'em, which is what I play. When most people say poker, this is what they mean. Other variations include Pot-Limit Omaha, Razz, Open Face Chinese etc.

The poker sites and rooms make money by charging rake. Rake is a percentage of every pot that is taken away - you can imagine it as a commission fees. It is usually anywhere from 2.5% - 5% of the pot with a cap on the total amount.

Most poker variations are played in two formats: Cash Games and Tournaments.

Cash games is where you show up with as much money you want (upto the maximum buy-in), and play with that. The stakes are fixed and are rarely increased as the game goes on.

In tournaments, everyone starts with the same amount of playing chips. As the game progresses, players are eliminated, and at the end a small percentage get the money, while the rest go empty handed. For example, in the last tournament I played, everyone paid Rs. 35k for the entry; there were 294 entries and  top 30 people were paid. The guy who got eliminated at the 30th place got Rs. 61k, and the winner got Rs. 27 lacs.

The legal status of poker varies in different countries. In some places, online poker is banned, while live poker in casinos is allowed. For example, Las Vegas is the mecca of poker players but online poker is banned in the US save for a few states. Then there are places like London, where both live and online poker thrive.

In India, online poker is legal. Live poker is legal in casinos or poker rooms in select few places - Goa, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Gangtok. Indian government treats poker under its gambling laws and a tax of flat 30% is applicable on your winnings.


IS POKER GAMBLING?

I think I may not have told my mom the complete truth.

By definition, to gamble is to play games of chance for money. Technically, this makes poker gambling. But the real answer is neither as straightforward, nor is it binary.

Here's what I'll tell you - Poker is a skill based game with an element of luck. Given a long enough duration (which we poker players call long-term), the better player will win against a worse player. We’ll take an example to understand these concepts a bit more.

Let’s say you decide to flip a coin 100 times against a friend. You bet Rs. 10 on Heads every single time, and your friend bets the same amount on Tails. The betting odds are 1:1. This means that for every flip you win, your friend gives you Rs. 10 above your bet and vice versa.

If the coin is not rigged, you can expect to win exactly Rs. 0 after 100 flips. The probability of Heads on a coin flip is 50%; half the time you'll win 10 bucks per flip and lose 10 per flip the other half.

Your Winnings = (50%*100)*10

Your Losses = (50%*100)*(-10 )

This coin toss is a net break even game. Your expected value (EV) from this game is 0.

But here's the thing: Each coin toss is an individual event. The coin itself doesn't know what it showed last time - Heads or Tails. Each individual outcome is independent of the previous one. So it is also possible that 70 out of 100 flips (or even all 100 of them!) show Tails and you lose.

An unlucky day at the coin flip tournament. Hit by statistical probability.

An unlucky day at the coin flip tournament. Hit by statistical probability.

The coin flip follows the laws of probability and statistics but it is not bound by the sample size. Just like we don’t expect the coin to show one Heads and the other Tails in 2 back to back flips, we shouldn’t expect it to show 50 each out of 100 times.

This is called variance - deviation from the norm, from our expected results.  

In poker, just like a coin flip, each individual hand is different from the other and is independent of the previous outcome. In a coin flip, if we go long-term, by increasing the sample size to say a billion flips, the distribution should be equally weighted between Heads and Tails. Similarly, if two poker players play each other a billion hands, they can expect to get the same cards and situations equally.

Now the question arises: If both the sides can expect to have the best hand or the worst hand equal number of times, wouldn’t this be a break even game? No. This is where poker differs from a coin flip or any other purely probabilistic game.

You'll be dealt winning hands, and losing hands. The aim then is to extract the most value from your winning hands and minimise losses from your losing hands. This is called MinMax. Minimise losses - Maximise winnings.

Sidenote 1: Minimise losses doesn’t just mean losing the least money when you have a worse hand. It might also mean bluffing your opponent off of a better hand - in this case you are making money even when you have the losing hand.

How do we do that? This is what separates good players from bad. And where the skill comes in. So if an amateur wins against a better player 3 days in a row, it is variance. But, if this happens over a year, then our presumptions about who is a better player are wrong.


MY BEGINNINGS

Just like most people I know who play poker, I was introduced to the game in college. As broke college students, we didn't play for a lot of money - 100 bucks at max. The big winner would then take everyone out to the canteen for a treat. When we couldn’t borrow playing chips, we used matchsticks, or another deck of cards as play money. The setup was quite rudimentary.

The games continued when I started working, this time with proper chips. Stakes increased, nothing excessive, but reasonably higher than before. Poker nights became a thing. The biggest game I played was in the casinos in Goa. But it was just a handful of times as an amateur. And that was that.

Then in 2016, I got into it a lot more. I had money and time to spend. There were no obligations (house, car, family, loans) so I could afford an expensive hobby - and that's what it was at the time. I started playing a lot of home games and discovered Adda52.com - a poker site.

Here we'll take a quick leap across time to go back into the past - to a 13-14 year old me:

I was playing a lot of sports at the time and was competent at most. If two captains were choosing a team, I would be one of the early ones to get picked. And I entertained the dream of becoming a professional sportsperson. My father, who used to be a Table Tennis player/coach in his younger days, encouraged me to take up Snooker since I showed an inclination towards it. But, it was an expensive game; the hourly rates were prohibitively high for me. Around the same time, I had a serious injury which rendered me unable to play sports for a few years. So, the dream had to be put aside.

Coming to the recent past, during my college days, I picked up Snooker again (the hourly rates were ridiculously low). But it was just a hobby; a very time-consuming, entertaining and fulfilling hobby. It was too late to think about becoming a professional snooker player. To become world-class at any sport, you have to start young. Ronnie o' Sullivan, my snooker hero, and quite possibly the most talented snooker player in history, started playing at the age of 6. I couldn’t expect to start at 18 and think of becoming a good professional.

The point of these two stories is to tell you that playing a sport professionally would have been a dream come true for me. Cut back to the present and we see that I have discovered poker websites. A bulb lit up. What if I could do this for a living?

This was also at a time when I was thinking of quitting my job and finding a new location-independent income stream. I wrote about this in an earlier post (the one about my relocation to Goa). Playing online poker seemed to fit the bill. So, I decided to give it a shot. And by the time I quit my job in December 2015, I was on my path to make poker my profession.


THE JOURNEY THUS FAR

The first few months of grinding (that's our term for playing poker as a job) were difficult. The most common fallacy among poker players, especially amateurs, is that they believe themselves to be much better than they actually are. I wasn't immune to it either.

When I started, I thought I knew what the game was, I had my moves, and felt that my opponents are doing stupid things and getting lucky. Of course it wasn't true, but in a state of mind clouded by the haze of bad results, it's difficult to recognize it in real time. And I lost a bit of money.

Losing money wasn't the problem. It was in a sense that I had limited savings to experiment this new income stream with. But the real problem was that I didn't know what I was doing wrong.

I had assumed that poker was a simple game. I was wrong. As I wasn’t studying enough, the complexities of the game caught me by surprise. It was the classic case of not knowing what you don’t know.

I started playing at 2/4, 3/6 and 5/10 - at a buy-in of 300, 500 and 750 respectively. The simple fact that I was playing such varied stakes goes to show how bad of a poker professional I was. This is not the way to play. You have to find a stake you are good at, beat that level, and then move to the next one.

After the first few months of losing (mostly online, some live home games for fun), I started spending more time on learning the game. I read articles, watched YouTube lessons, read books and discussed strategy with a friend who was a better player than me at the time.

Gradually, I leveled up to playing 5/10 exclusively (for a maximum buy-in of 1200) and started beating those games. Around the same time, a friend offered to stake me and I began taking shots at 10/20 (for Rs. 2000 buy-in).

Sidenote 2: Staking - Here's how it works: a person gives you money to play poker and you share the winnings with that person. The benefit to the investor is that he gets to make money without expending any effort (with a risk of loss). The player’s benefit is that he gets to take shots at higher stakes with a lower risk exposure. The exact terms of the deal (% winnings and % loss shared) depend upon the two individuals.

In a few months, a combination of studying, running good, and a confidence boost from the arrangement (the fact that someone else trusted my skills gave me a lift) led me to move up to 10/20 permanently.

Sidenote 3: Running good means falling on the positive side of statistical distribution. In our coin flip example, where you lost 70 flips out of 100, you would be said to be running bad, and your opponent would be running good.

By this time I was turning in a regular profit. Hence, with the new found belief that I can make poker my profession, I relocated to Goa.

Current State: I have now graduated up to 25/50 (with a max buy-in of Rs. 6000) playing 4 tables at a time. I prefer cash games over tournaments but if there is a good value tournament, I don’t mind giving it a shot.

PITFALLS ALONG THE JOURNEY

Poker is an emotionally challenging game. Imagine losing 10 coin flips in a row, and having the emotional maturity to be able to convince yourself that it’s OK, in the long term, you’ll end up break even. In poker, there are situations where you are a percentage favorite (say 99%) to win the hand, you made the best play, but the last card comes out to be one of the 1% times when you lose.

The solace that a good poker professional seeks in such situations is in knowing that he made the best play. The opponent got lucky once, but the rest 99 times, you’ll make money. But here's the problem: You cannot expect that the 1% will occur every 99 times. It is a possibility that it happens twice or thrice or any number of times in a row.

Replace The guy on the right with Computer Screen/Wall/Keyboard

Replace The guy on the right with Computer Screen/Wall/Keyboard

At times like these, rationality, logic and analytical thinking goes down the drain. Emotions take over and you start questioning your game play and basically become a wreck. In such situations, having the emotional stability to look beyond the immediate results, is the hallmark of a great poker player. And it takes time to develop. It certainly took me a lot of time to improve at.

I’ve had nights where I lost a lot because of variance. If you are not emotionally detached to the immediate results, this run-bad will cause you to play worse and it becomes a vicious cycle. It pushed me to the verge of quitting a few times.

This leads perfectly to our next section - the skills needed to become a professional poker player.


SKILLS NEEDED

In my experience so far, here is my top 4 list:

1. Focus - It is not uncommon for an online poker session to be 12 hours long. Live poker sessions can even go on for days. My last tournament started at 7 p.m. and ended at 4.30 a.m. and that was just the first day. The ability to focus deeply for an extended period of time thus becomes a critical skill to succeed. If you are easily distracted, this is probably not for you.

2. Discipline - Let's be honest, Poker is a little bit like gambling. It is easy to be running good and perceive yourself as being a great player and take shots at higher stakes. The ability to play within your Bankroll (We'll explore this concept later) and have the discipline to put in regular hours of studying is thus vital.

3. Analytical Mind - A lot of poker players have a background in strategy games like chess or video games. This is not to say that it is a necessity to be a good chess player, but the ability to break things down to basics is a huge plus.

4. Emotional Stability - As we learnt in the pitfalls during my journey, even during a run bad, you should have the emotional stability to look past the trees and see the forest. Decisions in poker are based on the expected value of an action. Even though you might lose in a particular instance, being able to commend yourself for making the right play is a good sign.

A lot of poker players, including myself, work on their mental game extensively. It is a big part of the profession and there are coaches who work with you just for that. To lose money and still be able to have a sound sleep, and function normally in your relationships and daily life is a skill that needs to be developed.


LET’S TALK ABOUT MONEY

I was talking about playing poker on Reddit, and people asked me a few questions about making money. I’ll answer some here.

Q. How many months in a year can you expect to be in profit?

I don’t think this is the right question to ask because it is irrelevant. You can have more losing months in a year yet still end up net positive for the year and vice versa.

This is especially true for tournament players for whom a big score usually skews the results of one month or sometimes a whole year. But I am a cash game player, and even though a downswing of one month isn't unheard of (and not un-experienced either), I have had more positive months over the last 12 months than negative. Here's a graph of my cummulative results (the numbers aren't there, but the trajectory is true).

As you can see, I've had a few negative months, but the net effect is positive

As you can see, I've had a few negative months, but the net effect is positive

Sidenote 4: Downswing -  A long streak of losses/run bad.

Q. How much can you expect to make?

Simple Answer - Good amount of money. This amount is based on a lot of ‘Ifs’. If you: study enough, select good games, play your A-game a big % of the time, run well and a whole lot of other factors.

Complicated Answer - Winrate in poker is usually calculated on the basis of BB/100 which is Big Blinds per 100 hands. So if you play 1000 hands in a day, 20 days a month, and you make Rs. 50000 playing on 10/20, your winrate would be (50,000*100/20*1000*20) = 12.5 which is great. A winrate of 12.5BB per 100 will put you in the top 1-2% of players. A more realistic winrate could be anywhere from 5-7BB/100. Really good players can reach 10BB/100 and higher.

Q. How much money do you need to start playing poker?

Simple Answer - The games are available at all stakes starting as low as for Rs. 100. If your question was how much you need to be able to make this a living, then the answer would be you need enough to survive the inevitable downswing without punching your monitor.

Complicated Answer - This is the part where most people fail, even some pros: Bankroll Management (BRM). Bankroll is the amount of money you have. As a poker player, you need to have two BRs - life bankroll and poker bankroll.

BRM is a way to manage your poker bankroll in such a way that it minimises the effects of negative variance. If you are a true professional, this is one of the key areas which you would have to master. I have been guilty of misusing my bankroll at times, and it has come back to bite me in the ass. Let me explain.

Let's say you have Rs. 1 lac to play poker. You like two games - one at 10/20 with max buy-in of Rs. 2k and the other at 100/200 with max buy-in of Rs. 20k.

Good BRM would tell you that former is the game to choose. In latter case, you have a 5 buy-in cushion. But, that's not enough to handle the inevitable downswing. What if your 99% hands lose against 1% hands 5 times in a row? You will end up broke.

Personally, I have experienced a downswing of 10-15 buy-ins. I have read stories of people experiencing 40 buy-ins downswings too. And they were not bad players. As a rule of thumb, on a conservative side, I'd recommend a bankroll of 100 buy-ins. I don't always follow this rule, I wish I did, but do as I say, not as I do.

A more practical approach would be to play with a 40-60 buy-in bankroll. But anything below this would be inviting trouble. If you don't have that much money, drop down the stakes, build your bankroll and then move up.

A bad beat doesn't care about the stake you are playing. It doesn't care that you are playing well and have just made good winnings on a lower level and are now taking a shot at a higher level. It cares only about statistics and probability. It might strike you the hardest when you are taking shot at a higher level, or it might also smile on you.

If you are a professional, better not take a chance.

Q. Which is better - Cash Games or Tournaments?

It depends on your goals with poker. These three basic differences should make it clear:

1. Nature of Earnings - If you are a good player, you can expect to have a decent regular income from cash games. It may not be big, but it will be fairly regular. The effects of variance are not pronounced.

On the other hand, tournaments are high-variance in nature. So, even if you are a very good player, you can expect to have long dry spells; or find yourself winning life-changing money in a single day.

2. Fame and Glory - The way you have trophies in other sports, we have Bracelets for esteemed Poker Tournament winners. And it is a matter of great pride to win a bracelet. There is no such tangible reward for a good cash game player.

Here’s a short documentary called 10 for 10 about Martin Jacobson, the winner of 2015 World Series of Poker. It is the most prestigious poker tournament in the world, and awarded $10 million for the winner.

Look at all that money and the big shiny bracelet - Martin Jacobson, 2015 WSOP Main Event Winner

Look at all that money and the big shiny bracelet - Martin Jacobson, 2015 WSOP Main Event Winner

3. Schedule Constraints - Most good tournaments (online) are scheduled over the weekend. So, you need to plan your schedule around that. There is no such constraint with cash games - you choose when you want to play.


GOOD WAY TO MAKE A LIVING?

There's a popular saying about the game: "Poker is a hard way to make easy money." And I couldn't have put it across any better. Let's break it down into Pros and Cons:

PROS:

1. Freedom of time and schedule - I fix my own schedule. I decide how long I want to play, when I want to play. Sometimes, if I am not feeling up to it, I read a book, or watch a movie.

2. BYOB (Be Your Own Boss) - Need I explain further?

3. It is challenging - Just like any competitive sport, it is a challenging game. Even if you start beating the players at your stakes, there will always be a level up or a newer variant of the game for you to master. It keeps the game fresh and invigorating. There is nothing like a good challenge to keep your brain cells young and healthy.

4. Location independence - I have played poker from the mountains of Dharmasala while watching the sun set behind the mountains, to the sound of the flowing river as a furry dog jumped around trying to catch a sparrow. I have played poker in my underwear in my house in Goa. I have played at Cafes and in friends' houses (fully clothed). If location independence is your dream, it’s a great profession.

Not just online, but live as well. Poker tournaments are hosted all over the world in some exotic places. Casinos can be found in a lot of countries. So if you choose to be a live player, the regular travel to tournaments or casinos and meeting new people could be really satisfying.

5. Money - Of course there's money to be made in poker. A lot of money. You won't become a billionaire. A millionaire, yes, if you work hard at it. And having poker as a skill means that you can go in any poker room and expect to make money - so it’s like having your own money fountain.

CONS:

1. Not enough freedom - Remember what I said earlier about freedom of time and money, it's there but it’s not absolute. Here's the thing - unlike a regular job, where you get paid even during a holiday, poker doesn't pay you for a day off. Call it opportunity cost. So, if you choose to spend your free time watching a movie, you will have to ask yourself as to whether that time could be better used studying.

2. BYOB - With most professions where you set your own deadlines, it can be hard to be disciplined.

3. It is challenging - A simple fact of the game of poker is that you make money by playing against players who are worse than you. Unlike a few years ago, today there are a larger % of people who are good at the game. The sheer number of resources - both free and paid makes it dead simple to learn the game quickly and in a better way.

Hence, the game is only getting tougher. And if you are relying on this to make you money, this could be a problem if you aren't learning faster than others are.

4. Emotionally Taxing - You need to have a very clear head to be good at the game. I have punched walls and screamed in frustration after getting unlucky a few times in a row even after making the correct play. All that was earlier in my poker journey and much before I became a better professional.

5. Search for contentment and fulfillment - Before I got into poker, I had an inkling that this will be a problem. Poker is a negative-sum game. For you to make money, not only does the other player have to lose money, but you also have to make more than the amount of rake you are paying the site.

Grinding each day, playing cards, without making an impact in the real world can make people unfulfilled. It is not a spectator sport to an extent that say Tennis is. So whereas Tennis players can rejoice in the fact that they provide entertainment to their fans, and find fulfillment in that; poker players can't. Sure, some events are televised, but it’s much harder for a newbie to be hooked to poker than tennis.

I have read personal stories, spoken to people who have expressed the same sense of emptiness. I had a feeling that I might be prone to it and that is why I have my writing to balance it off - to satisfy my creative urges, to create something for the world.

So, if you are thinking of getting into poker professionally, having something to balance it off would be a good idea to counter fatigue especially if you look at it as a 10-15 year career.


A USUAL DAY AT THE OFFICE

I wake up 10-11ish; do my morning rituals followed by exercise. I make a quick breakfast - most days I eat cereal with milk - helps keep things simple. A little bit of Start with Art and then I get to writing. Writing doesn't happen daily but I try to make it a practice to sit down for sometime and write. A few days, I go to the pool for a swim.

I take a break to make lunch, shower, eating and then some lazing around. I try to get my meditation in between. The evenings are beautiful here in Goa, so I make it a point to spend some time outdoors  - walks, grocery shopping, beach visits, or sitting in the porch and bird-watching (quite literally) or reading.

At dusk, I fire up my poker session. Depending upon the action, and if there are any tournaments scheduled, I squeeze in daily study time. It doesn't always happen but I'd like to take out more time to study. I take a break for dinner and then end the session around midnight. An hour or two of winding down follows and I call it a day.

Some weekends I am busier than usual, because good tournaments are lined up over the weekend. As I am busy most evenings, sometimes I choose to skip meeting friends and avoid social obligations. But, if I want to party, I go out partying. “The games will always be there tomorrow,” is what I tell myself.


A LITTLE BIT ABOUT LIVE POKER

I have played in home games, in poker rooms and in fancy casinos. I have played on beds, on mattresses, on floors, at dining tables, at restaurant tables, and at fancy poker tables. I have played drunk, high, and sometimes both (not recommended).

Playing live poker is a very enjoyable activity. Get a group of 6-7 people, get the banter going, order food, put on some music and it makes for a superb friday evening. Often the games go on till the wee hours of the morning, which is when you go out for a cup of tea at the roadside thela and discuss hands and the action. Just writing about it makes me crave for a good live poker session since I don't play live much anymore.

This is what makes this game great - the social aspect. You'll often find that people make it a regular part of their lives because of its entertainment value. I have made new friends at the poker table and shared laughs with many.

If you want to play live poker professionally, by all means go for it. Even though I like playing live, I can't do it regularly. Usually, the live games start late in the evening and go on till early morning which screws up your sleep cycle. The long hours and the lopsided schedule - I can't do it. Perhaps I am getting old (I am still 28 but the early 20s time feels such a long time ago), but I like a good sleep and a reasonable schedule.


WHERE TO PLAY

Online: I play almost exclusively on Adda52.com. It doesn’t have the best software but it has other positives. First, it has been around the longest. This makes it much safer to play there since you can trust them to handle your money with care (there’ve been cases of fraud by poker sites). Secondly, it has the  most number of active users. This ensures that there are games running at most times of the day.

Other popular sites are Spartan Poker (great tournament structures), PokerBaazi, Poker Ninja, FTR Poker, GoPoker, PokerHigh. I haven't played much on these sites except maybe some tourneys on Spartan. So, I won’t be able to comment on them with authority.

Live: If you want to play live, you can always find home games. Otherwise, there are poker rooms in Bangalore, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Casinos in Goa and Sikkim. A news came in recently today that Indian Poker Association (IPA) is opening up new poker rooms in Radisson Blu, Delhi and a few other 5 star properties. Their plan is to open up more rooms in other cities like Rajkot, Indore, Varanasi, Kochi, Chennai too, which is great news for poker.

The logistics of playing online are simple - You deposit money via usual methods: Credit Card/Debit Card/Netbanking etc. And you can withdraw it directly to your bank account or via cheques. I use direct withdrawals to my bank account and they are smooth - usually happens within 2-3 days of raising a withdrawal request.

Then there are a bunch of international sites you can play on: PokerStars, 888 poker, TonyBet etc. I don't play much over there since deposits and withdrawals have been a hassle. But you’ll find many more active users on these sites, and a lot of different variations of the game.


FUTURE OF POKER

If you read the news recently, you would have found an article about how a computer beat some top poker players. Does it mean that computers can now beat poker players? The answer is No. That computer, called Libratus, beat humans at Heads-Up No Limit Hold'em. It is a subset of Texas No-limit Hold'em and it has much fewer decision trees. The popular variant isn't beaten yet.

This is not to say that I don't see a time that computers would completely be able to beat the game. AI is coming! The online version is seeing a barrage of new tools which help you improve as a poker player and tell you the Game Theory Optimal way of playing.

The edges between the top players are becoming smaller and smaller, which is true for most sports at elite level. But the difference between poker and other sports is that these edges directly relate to money in poker. In other sports, say two top football teams play each other 10 times. Both win 3 times each and draw the rest 4. They will still get paid because of tickets and TV rights. In poker, if the same scenario happens, both the players actually end up losing (because of rake).

Having said this, live poker would always be around. It is a fun, social and entertaining game and I don't see it going away any time sooner.

Talking specifically about India, this is a time of sharp growth. More number of poker sites are coming up than ever before. The people behind them are doing good to promote the game by conducting events in colleges and catching young players at an early stage. A new league on the lines of IPL called the Poker Sports League (PSL) will have its debut tournament this May. It has been running qualifiers for the past 4-5 months to shortlist the best poker players in the country. The 12 teams participating have reputable business houses as their owners. So the trajectory is looking up. 

As for me, poker has become an indispensable part of my life. Not only does it pay my bills, it also gives me immense joy to compete. If a day goes by without poker, something feels amiss. I have a long way to go, and I looking forward to move ahead and upwards on my poker journey.

Enjoyed the post? Please consider sharing. And let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 

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Notes from Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Here's an exercise: Count the number of times you are interrupted while reading this article. And when I say interruptions, I mean all of these things and more:

  • A colleague coming over for a quick question
  • A ting on your phone
  • New email notification on the corner of your screen
  • The sudden craving for a quick cup of coffee
  • Opening up a new tab and doing internet wandering

These interruptions may seem harmless, but they have a significant impact on the quality of our work, productivity and consequently on our life. The book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport explores this idea extensively using solid research.

Some of the concepts in the book should be intuitive knowledge to us. But I've found that when such knowledge is backed by scientific studies, it becomes much more likely to be adopted in real life. (Like the benefits of meditation and why I started doing it after reading about its very real benefits).

This post covers my notes and highlights from the book. Passages from the book are in italics.


WHAT IS DEEP WORK

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

If we look back in the past, we’ll find that deep work was ubiquitous in influential people. For example:

Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on the property of the Quarry Farm in New York, where he was spending the summer. Twain’s study was so isolated from the main house that his family took to blowing a horn to attract his attention.

This is not an isolated example. The book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey is full of such stories of important historical figures who owe their success to commitment to deep work.

Newport says that our behavior - ‘our’ as in most knowledge workers - is in sharp contrast to this. And he ascribes the reason to network tools and the proliferation of shallow work.

Shallow Work: Non Cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

If we look at our usual work day, a lot of the deep work is replaced by the shallow alternative - like the constant sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction.

Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.

WHY DEEP WORK

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth.

This opportunity will become more apparent in the coming years when the artificial intelligent tools will take over more of our shallow (and some deep) tasks.

The real rewards are reserved not for those who are comfortable using Facebook (a shallow task, easily replicated), but instead for those who are comfortable building the innovative distributed systems that run the service (a decidedly deep task, hard to replicate).

Assuming that you agree with the deep work hypothesis, we'll need two core abilities for thriving in the new economy: 

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. Theability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

And this is where Deep Work will come handy.

 

1. DEEP WORK HELPS YOU QUICKLY LEARN HARD THINGS

To understand this, we'll get into the science of focus. I found it to be the most fascinating part of the book. A few things to learn:

Myelin: It is a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons. It acts like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner.

What are Skills? Skills, intellectual or physical, eventually are a function of our brain circuits. When we focus intensely on a specific skill, we essentially force the relevant circuit to fire repeatedly in isolation.

And this is how the two are connected:

The new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

By focusing intensely on the task at hand (or in other words, by using a specific circuit repeatedly), we trigger cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons—effectively cementing the skill. Instead, if we are distracted, we fire too many circuits simultaneously to be able to isolate the group of neurons we want to strengthen. It follows that - 

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

 

2. DEEP WORK IS RARE

A few examples of why in today’s work culture deep work is rare:

  1. Open floor offices - My last job was in at a very cool company with good perks, flexible vacation policy and an open floor office. But, that last bit was problematic. Ringing phones, laughter, discussions - all these traveled farther in an open layout. I had to find a meeting room just to be able to focus and do some deep work.

  2. IM in offices - ‘Coffee?’ ‘Smoke?’ ‘Yo what’s up?’ Simple questions which take not just your attention but also your time - The office instant messenger problem.

  3. Social Media presence - The effects of the attention sinks that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al are has been well documented. This problem is more pronounced in the case of creators who not only have to do their deep creative work but also engage in the shallow work of keeping their social media updated since they also use it as a channel of promotion.

These cause a problem which you might have heard before:

Attention Residue - When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.
It implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so. But that quick check introduces a new target for your attention. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance.

 

3. DEEP WORK IS MEANINGFUL

Here's something perhaps you can relate to:

It can be hard to define exactly what a given knowledge worker does and how it differs from another: On our worst days, it can seem that all knowledge work boils down to the same exhausting roil of e-mails and PowerPoint, with only the charts used in the slides differentiating one career from another.

At my work, some days would be spent in meetings with little output. Other times I would use my busyness as a proxy for productivity. It brewed dissatisfaction and a lack of purpose.

Newport quotes Winifred Gallagher, a scientific researcher in the field of focus:

There’s a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work. Gallagher’s theory predicts that if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.

By contrast, shallow work begets discontentment.

Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction. Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.
A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.

 

4. DEEP WORK HELPS YOU PRODUCE AT AN ELITE LEVEL

Consider this equation:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Newport gives example of a prolific professor who often isolates himself without distraction on a single research task. During these periods, which can last up to three or four days, he’ll often put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail so correspondents will know not to expect a response.

If you believe this formula, then Grant’s habits make sense: By maximizing his intensity when he works, he maximizes the results he produces per unit of time spent working.

This idea of working smarter, not harder has been explored in multiple other books and articles. And it seems to make a lot of sense.


The second half of the book is used to lay down the Rules and the Techniques by which we can attain deep work in our life. To give you a short summary of those techniques is just not possible because there's too much information to be compressed in a succinct form.

The aim of this post was to introduce you to the concept of Deep Work, to show the solid foundation behind it and how profound of an impact it can have in our lives. I hope it has served its purpose.

I'd highly recommend you to read the book. You'll get a stronger understanding and hopefully you implement some of those rules in your life. I’ll leave you with one last advice from the book, which I feel is the simplest to implement and probably the most powerful.

 

RITUALIZE

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
Without structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.

“Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure.”

-Antonin Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the post, share it with someone who might find it useful. Leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.

If you want to read more on the topic of focus, here's something I wrote: A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus

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How to Understand Art - A Mark Rothko Case Study

The idea of taking your Tinder date to an art gallery sounds good in theory. But going there, looking at the paintings and thinking to yourself, "I don’t get this" isn't fulfilling. 

Or you come across an article on the internet about some abstract painting selling for $20 million dollars and you go, "Wait, whaaaat?"

Or let's say you have developed an interest in the arts. Perhaps that Tinder date went well, and you want to make a grand gesture by gifting a painting. How do you decide which one is good to buy? After all, there is no manual which says that a painting in a certain style is superior than others.

You learn that 'good art' is subjective. Why then are some artists held in higher regard than the others? What is it about Picasso, Dali, Van Gogh and Da Vinci that makes them indisputable geniuses? If you are not an art connoisseur, how do you identify great art from bad? Or even before that, how do you understand what the artwork is about?

This post is my attempt to answer these questions by tackling the work of a painter I admire - Mark Rothko. Also covered are the topics ‘Why to understand Art at all’ and ‘The Business of Art.’


WHO IS MARK ROTHKO?

Rothko (1903-1970) was an American painter of Russian descent. The images below are some of his works:

This style (called 'multiforms' by critics)- large blurred fields of solid color devoid of any figures or symbols - was his signature work. His paintings often feature in the list of most expensive paintings. This one went for $188 million, this for $90.6 million and this for $84 million.

The small images here won't do justice to his work. But I've added them to give you a reference point for everything that follows.


WHY MARK ROTHKO

Falling in romantic love is instinctive rather than calculative. We fall in love with the whole human being and not just with the sum of their individual qualities. This is why we hear things like "I love him for what he is as a person," or "I love how she makes me feel." A piece of art is quite similar.

This is where our first lesson begins.

Mark Rothko in front of one his paintings

Mark Rothko in front of one his paintings

When I first looked at a Rothko, I was instantly captivated. I felt strong overwhelming emotions and a feeling of transcendence that I’ve experienced rarely. There was no rhyme or reason to my attraction towards it; there doesn't need to be any. Sometimes, a painting's job can just be to make a wall look better. Art's primary function is to be admired. It doesn't have to reveal a profound secret message to be worthy of appreciation.

So the simplest way to understand or judge a painting is to answer - Do you like it? And by 'like' I do not mean the technical qualities, but just enquiring whether it looks aesthetically attractive to you.

I chose Rothko because it appealed to me. The minimal language of his work goes well with my philosophy of life. But there is no need for you to feel the same way to understand it. Perhaps you even had a few questions like:

  • Why is it so famous?
  • What am I supposed to understand?
  • What's the meaning of this?
  • Isn't this very easy to make?
  • This was sold for $50 million dollars! Is this real life?

All these are valid questions which deserve an intelligent response. But that is for later. For now, all we need to do is simply answer the ‘Do you like it?’ question. Do you think it looks good? Keep the doubts for later and just observe without any notions about what it may or may not mean.


FORM AND CONTENT

Lesson number two. 

After the initial reaction, it is a good idea to look at the form, the painting itself: The canvas frame, color palette, the subject, shapes, brush strokes, layers. Imagine how it was done, how it could be done.

Rothko used large canvases

In the case of Rothko, you notice the simplicity and the deliberate lack of any symbolic reference. You notice the depth and intensity of colors, how there is a luminous quality to them. Or how the canvas seems much bigger than it is. You imagine that working on this painting would have been physically taxing for the artist. 

You notice the patterns in all his work. Big rectangular boxes filled with deep colors in a flat picture plane -  the boxes which appear to hover in and out of the picture plane.

Slowly the painting unravels a bit more. Numerous layers over layers of paint. The blue slightly visible behind the predominantly burgundy box. Or the green superimposed over the red. You notice these less evident colors at the edges or through the thin layers of the primary paint. This unravelling is like watching the artist’s process of creation in reverse chronological order.

You notice the name of the paintings and are surprised to see that most of them are titled 'Untitled' or 'No. X'  or 'Orange, Red and Blue'. You sense the artist's deliberate attempt to avoid shoving his ideas towards the observer. It is what it is.

You hear someone telling a story of how when a journalist asked Rothko to explain his paintings, he said, "Silence is so accurate." You sneer at this artsy-fartsy statement. But then you have a longer look at the painting. And you realise that what he said might make sense to some. The paintings really don't say anything specific. Silence could be accurate. Your head spins a bit. You move on.

Of course all this is more apparent when you can see it in person. Rothko himself recommended that viewers position themselves as little as eighteen inches away from the canvas to experience "a sense of intimacy, awe, a transcendence of the individual and a sense of the unknown." People recount of experience of being engulfed by the painting or becoming a part of it. The barrier between the art and the audience vanishes.

The lack of frames on his pictures is because of this reason. According to Rothko, framing a painting implies that there exists a different reality in the work. But he did not distinguish between the canvas and the world outside. The intention was to "eliminate all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer." 

"I also hang the largest pictures so that they must be first encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture. This may well give the key to the observer of the ideal relationship between himself and the rest of the pictures." - Rothko

Once you do this observation, you start associating certain qualities to the painting. A little more understanding is achieved merely by looking at it for longer than a few seconds.

Art often serves as a reflection of our times and the artist's personal exploration of her own identity around the zeitgeist. Thus, the next step in our understanding will come from the history and the context. For this, we have to go beyond the canvas.


BEYOND THE CANVAS - THE CONTEXT

Rothko's early work was much different from his later style. Some of his early work:

This was followed by a phase of transition to the multiforms:

This progression tells us a story of an artist who experimented with different styles before finding one which resonated with him. It teaches us one more thing - the debunking of the overnight genius myth. 

Rothko’s final style of multiform wasn't an overnight spur of the moment decision. It wasn't on a whim that he decided to paint something like this. It took him years to perfect a style with which he could express all that he wanted to. It was as if he was learning this new style by trial and error. A method to madness, if you will.

The notions often associated with artists of making something totally random or esoteric or pretentious are thus invalidated in case of Rothko. After all, we have to ask ourselves, what was that thing that drove an artist who was as skilful as he was, to find a style which looks so simple and continue doing it for the rest of his life. What was this conviction in purpose, and where did he find it from?

In Rothko, we had an artist who broke away from the status quo, created a new style which was radically different from everything else at the time, and had the conviction and self-belief to persevere even in the face of doubters and naysayers.

Rothko Chapel

Thus, when you are looking at a Rothko, you are also looking at the result of conviction in purpose, thousands of hours of experimentation, rejection, and perseverance. If you want to take anything from his work, that in itself is enough.

The originality of his style is also something to be cherished upon. Most of what we do, the words I write, the person we are - is influenced by something external -the people we meet, the books we read, the places we go to. So when we find true originality, it should be celebrated.

In the book 'The Artist's Way', the author says of writing which I think is true for most art - we are conduits for the art to flow through us onto the canvas/paper. An artist’s job thus becomes that of a passageway rather than that of a glorified creator. In a life filled with mundane activities, this makes it a way of accessing the divine. 

While drawing his pictures, or while imagining them, Rothko experienced this spiritual feeling. And this is what he wants to convey through his pictures. If we look at the pictures and search for a meaning in the shapes or the exact color used, we won't find it. This was abstract art, and abstract by definition means "existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence." or "relating to or denoting art that does not attempt to represent external reality, but rather seeks to achieve its effect using shapes, colours, and textures."

If you are thinking that this is becoming tangential and bordering on the line of some spiritual bullshit, you are forgiven. It is fair to ask what is this 'spiritual feeling' that Rothko wanted to express. How do we understand it? This is where the next part comes, which to me is the most important bit of this whole post.


ART AND AUDIENCE

"The most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees." - Rothko

This section is about you. Not the collective pronoun 'you' who are all the readers. But 'You', the individual reading this post while taking a break from work, or on the Uber ride back to home, or while browsing your Facebook feed in the toilet. 

Art needs audience. And each individual in that audience gives that art a different meaning. Without an audience to ascribe meaning to it, the art would lose its purpose. A great book is nothing but ink on paper if it doesn't inspire or entertain or make someone laugh. 

Let me give you an example.

I am a big fan of Linkin Park and always will be. They might be passe now, but I will always have a fond memory of them. Music has been a great influence in my life. It has played a large role in shaping me the way I am. And Linkin Park was my gateway drug into music. They were probably the first band through which I was introduced to western music. I studied for hours in a dingy, smelly room while preparing for IIT entrance exam - their music kept me awake. I have sang aloud with friends while 'Numb' played in a rental car's shitty audio system while on a trip to Goa. I have played it on repeat on speakers in college until someone came and lent me a different CD or took their CD player away.

The point is that I have associated Linkin Park with my memories. And it is I who created those associations. And these links can be different for others. It might have been a way to deal with teenage angst for a kid growing up, or a guy who met his future wife at a LP concert might associate it with love. 

Great art isn't great just for what it is. It is great for what it does to you, the changes it brings about. It becomes part of the moments of your life. It shapes them. 

The meaning that we seek in life, the purpose and the singular reason for which we do the things we do everyday isn't to be found in a textbook, or on an inscription in a cave wall, or in the careless depths of LSD infused trance. Or even in a Mark Rothko painting. It is to be found within us, and in our understanding of the world around us. That meaning is what we choose to ascribe to things in our life. 

If we decide to accumulate as much money as possible, then that's our meaning of life. If we decide to uplift the poor to a better state of living, then that's our meaning. Great art, like Rothko for me, gives meaning to my existence and the things I do. Or put it another way, it is I who decides what that painting will do to me. It is empowering. 

It is I who decides to find meaning and understanding in this quote by Rothko - 

"Small pictures since the Renaissance are like novels; large pictures are like dramas in which one participates in a direct way."

It is I who chooses to say ‘true that’ to this quote by him - 

"If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point."

Or in this one -

"Shapes have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them, one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms."


WHY TO UNDERSTAND ART AT ALL

There are three reasons for me in the increasing order of complexity.

1. “I think you want to learn about art because you had an experience of some sort - a totally non-redemptive but vaguely exciting experience, like brushing up against a girl with big boobs in the subway."

- David Hickey, Art Critic/Journalist/Writer.

If you ignore the slightly sexist comment, you can see what this guy means here. It is just a way to make you a more rounded person. Learning about why an artist, Picasso for example, is called a genius, never hurt one anyone right? Call it curiosity to understand this facet of life.

2. "The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls."

- Pablo Picasso

For me, art is therapeutic. If I have a bad day, a day filled with art exploration usually recharges me. In fact, I have been struggling with work for the past one week. And today's act of writing this post has already made me feel much better.

Painting is slow art. You cannot look at it for 5 seconds and declare it good or bad. In a way it is very similar to poetry. (If you haven't picked Tagore's Gitanjali and wondered about the meaning of life after reading just a few lines, you are missing an experience). So in a world where the food is fast, news is breaking, and peace is ephemeral, art brings about a good change of pace. 

3. Art is a way to express the inexplicable. Presumably, we’ve all experienced moments of transcendence whether on drugs or meditation or during our travels or in near-death experiences. Art, from what I understand is a way to explain that, to express emotions that words cannot.


THE BUSINESS OF ART

Although it doesn't have a lot to do with understanding Art itself, I want to touch upon this issue briefly because this is something which turns people off away from the art world.

A few years ago, when I had absolutely no idea about what art is, I came cross Joan Miro's “Peinture (Etoile Bleue)” which was sold for 37 million dollars. I scoffed at the price since it was something I thought I could paint. It was natural to assume that the art world is delusional or pretentious or both. But during the course of the research for this post I understood something else.

The art market isn't a reflection of who the best painter is. The highest priced painting doesn't mean the best painting. Buying and selling art is a business. And the prices in a business are driven by many other factors than just the quality of the work. If you can't fathom why a certain painting was sold for multi million dollars, that's fine. But, don't let its price discourage you from appreciating it.

Oscar Wilde said it best:

“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse.”


Conclusion

Abstract art isn't supposed to make you feel a particular way. It is supposed to help you embrace whatever it is that it invokes. 

This 'something' could be different for different people. Great art incites conversations, discussions and conflicts of opinions. Rothko's work inspired me to write this post, so you could say I found inspiration and contemplation in his paintings. Perhaps you could find love, or reflection, or celebration.

If you look at any piece of work and wonder - "I could do that," you are missing the point. Good art is not judged by how difficult it is to make. Or the level of technical skill involved. Or the most skilful execution. And that is why it's subjective. This can be found in other art forms too. Hemingway didn't write the most complicated sentences, but he was a masterful storyteller.

Art may seem unapproachable at times. But if you give it a chance, it can turn out to be deeply personal and enriching.

Thank you for reading. I hope you ascribe positive association to this post in your life. And may that date at the art gallery become an important moment in your story.

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READ NEXT: HOW TO HAVE MORE FUN AT FUN

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I Relocated to Goa - Why, How and Status Report of The First 3 Months

Last year, in the second week of October, I moved to Goa.  This post is a story of why and how that happened. Also, my perspective on the good and the bad of living here.


THE WHY

Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Paul Graham, Elon Musk - these were the names I idolised a few years ago. Then, I built a startup, sold it off and was burnt out in the process. Building and running a startup was by far the most difficult thing I had done in my life and it exhausted me.

While recovering from my burn out, I discovered the joys of slow travel. I found new idols - Tim Ferriss, Levels, Chris Guillebeau, Derek Sivers, Mark Manson. I envied their lifestyles - regular travel, seeing new things, meeting new people, working on the move. I envied all this and what it represented - freedom of time and money, and flexibility of schedule. They pushed boundaries of human productivity and the breadth of their achievements enamored me.

I discovered the term 'Digital Nomad' and was instantly attracted towards it.

By the time I quit my job in December of 2015, I had figured out what I wanted - to be the master of my own schedule and fill my life with things that I consider meaningful - travel, writing and whatever else that might come up later. So, by mid-September, I decided to move out of Gurgaon to experience a new way of living. I do not yet know if it is the perfect lifestyle for me. But without making this move, I would never know.


MAKING THE SWITCH

The first step before moving was to find a location independent income stream. 

Writing seemed like a good option. But the number of people who knew about my work and were willing to pay for it was limited to my network (I had only a single self-published eBook to my name). As with any art form, it would take me time to make writing financially sustainable.

So, I started working on a few other things to make money. Meanwhile, my savings formed a safety net for me to try out this arrangement. It took almost 10 months, and many nights of self-doubt, struggling, and coming back from the brink of quitting, to find a somewhat reliable income stream (more on this in a future post).

During this time, I learnt some basic life skills like cooking, and developed a habit of doing my chores on my own, becoming more self-reliant in the process. People like The Minimalists and Leo Babauta showed me the path of Minimalism which helped reduce my financial and mental energy expense. I also learnt how to procrastinate less, create more and find more time for the fulfilling things in life. 

The next step was to pick a location. The criteria was - clean air, less traffic, nice weather all-year round, small town, culturally active, scenic and good internet. And it had to be cheap to live in. Even though my expenses were low, I didn't want to take any chances. Moving abroad was ruled out for the same reason.

A milieu of options came up - Coorg, Dharamsala, North East, Goa. Some suggested Mysore or Pune. I disregarded the last two because even though they are good cities in their own right, I did not want to move from one city to another, however small it may be. Coorg sounded pleasant but I doubted if I'd find enough things to keep myself engaged; I wanted to move to live a healthy lifestyle and not a monastic one.

North East had seemed charming during my travels but it felt a little isolated and the move seemed difficult to execute. Dharamsala was a place I had been to and enjoyed. It scored well on all the parameters, except one - the winters, when it gets bitterly cold. And, I heard that the internet connection fluctuates a lot when the snow falls.

The choice narrowed down to Goa. It had pretty much everything I wanted. Beaches, parties, good weather for most part of the year, culturally very active. Moreover, three of my friends had made a move to Goa recently and they had said good things about it.

So, I packed my bags, sold off or gave away a lot of my possessions (books - I read exclusively on kindle now, guitars and amps, didgeridoo, snooker cue, tennis racket, old clothes, and other random junk), couriered the rest to my friend's place, booked an AirBnB for a week, and flew to Goa. 

It took me two weeks and multiple visits to see different houses, but I finally found the perfect place in a quiet village in North Goa. It's tucked away in the corner so it allows me privacy and peace, yet it is close enough to the beach and to the nearest town. I've got ample vegetation in the courtyard and trees of all sorts - coconut, mango, chikoo, pineapple. A family of langurs jumps around the tree tops, and the neighbor's dogs come in the evening to collect their treats. Parle-G is their favorite.

Meet two caterpillars from the garden

Meet two caterpillars from the garden

Now, let's get into the specifics of Life in Goa. 


THE GOOD

 

1. Weather - I arrived in Goa at the right time of the year - mid October. This is when the last of the monsoon bids its goodbye. People get ready for the pleasant days in the sun and on the beach. They clean their gardens, weeding out the overgrowth caused by the rains. The days are breezy and sunny and the evenings get cool enough for a thin jacket. It's perfect. 

Goan monsoons, running from June till September, are a delight too.

2. Beach - I once told a friend that if I knew when the last day of my life would be, and I could choose where to spend it at, I’d go to a beach. So, obviously I love beaches. And Goa has the best of them.

Pro tip: South Goa beaches are cleaner and the water is more pleasant to swim in as compared to their North Goa counterparts.

3. Air - The Air quality is much better as compared to the cities. It seems such a stark contrast from Gurgaon where we encountered untimely haze in the sky caused by pollution. The night sky has more visible stars and decipherable constellations.

4. Traffic - Except in the tourist areas, traffic is not a big problem. The roads are lined with coconut trees and old Goan houses along the way, with sparse traffic, so it is pretty cool. There are a few tourist frequented spots where bottlenecks crop up, but other than that, it is just fine.

5. Cost of living - Goa is inexpensive to live in. The electricity rates are low, water bill is reasonable, petrol is cheaper, there are no extra taxes in the restaurants and a pint of beer is 35 bucks. House rentals are not as low as you might imagine for a place like Goa - but they are still much lower as compared to the metros.

6. Parties and Live Music - Another one of those non debatable things about Goa. You can't rival partying on the beach, with the moonlight reflecting off the sea, a fire dancer doing her tricks in front, and some good music behind you. Or Monday Nights Jazz, Reggae Wednesdays, Sitar on Thursdays, Friday Nights at any one of the many sexy clubs and so on. If you are the kind who loves a good party, this is the place to be.

7. People & Susegad - In September 2016, I went to Ziro Festival of Music in the North East. As luck would have it, the guys camping next to us were from Goa. And they were two of the most endearing people I have met. They've often gone out of their way to help me. The locals I met have appeared friendly and easy to strike up a conversation with too.

There is a popular term in Goa called Susegad - which roughly translates to laid back or chilled out. It is often used to describe the kind of life people live here. And it has rubbed off on me. Long breakfasts sitting in my porch, dipping in the sea, and a chilled beer in the evening have become a regular part of my life; Susegad is awesome. 

8. Activities - Art Galleries, Social dancing, Treks, Water Sports, Live Music, Night Markets, Heritage Walks, Casinos, numerous Art & Music Festivals - there's all this and so much more. The variety of options is tremendous and offered at very reasonable prices.

9. Visits - An added benefit of living in a tourist destination like Goa is that it is frequented by friends and acquaintances. I meet more friends now than I did earlier in the city. It’s a good preventive cure for isolation.


THE BAD

1. Weather - A slight downer is the heat of the summer. The humidity is high and at first, you might have to deal with typical tropical climate issues - bad hair, blocked nose and head, etc. However, as time progresses, your body will adjust and you’ll be fine.

2. Tourism and The Precedents - When given the space and the freedom to enjoy in a place with very few prohibitions, not a lot of people are good at doing it responsibly. And this has created a sense of discomfort in the heart of the locals. The bad tourist precedents have created biases, often unfair, against people like me who want to make Goa their new home.

There is a latent tension between the newcomers (I don’t really like the term ‘outsiders’) and the locals which occasionally ends up in confrontation and makes everyone involved very unhappy.

Let me give you an example:

My landlords stay in the house next to mine. Often, my friends come over to stay at my place while they are visiting Goa. Their visit could range from a few hours to a few days. And this is a problem for my landlord. He thought that we are subletting the house and making money off of it. He said that he has heard cases and seen people do that. It disconcerted me because I was being accused of something that I didn't do. But I could see where he is coming from. One of the AirBnBs I stayed at earlier had a similar situation. That dude was subletting his apartment on AirBnB without permission from his landlord. 

This is an example which explains the core issue - one newcomer does something stupid, a local gets affected by it, another local suspects some other newcomer of doing the same shit, and this newcomer in turn feels ostracized and angry at being treated unfairly. This also exists the other way around where the cycle is triggered by a local instead.

I don’t have a solution to it, but all I can give you is a very generic, non-answer: empathy, understanding and respect of each other’s sensibilities would help.

3. Bad Apples and Aggression - Every place has its cons, every herd has a black sheep and every society has its bad apples. We cannot generalise based on these outliers. But I have to address them nevertheless because they have affected me. 

The aggression in some folks is outrageous. I don't know what fuels it, but it's there, and I am wary of this a lot of the time. It often manifests in the form of rash, drunk driving (from cabbies and tourists alike), or a readiness for unprovoked confrontation. I want to think that all of this is caused due to the precedents that we talked about earlier. And I hope that these bad apples appear only during the tourist season which runs for a few months.

4. Public Transport - No Uber. No Ola. Not a lot of Auto-Rickshaws either. They do have private cabs over here which charge exorbitant amounts. Then there are bike taxis - which are fine I believe. The bus service is there, but I haven't used it enough to comment.

5. Connectivity - Depending upon where you live in Goa, Internet and Mobile Network connectivity can be a bit of an issue.

The cell reception is weak inside my house. I have to go outside in the garden to make or receive a call. The Internet has been erratic for the last couple of weeks caused by occasional fiber cuts and inexplicable frequent drops. Reliance Jio, which I bought as a backup, works well only on my roof. 

If instead, you choose to stay in a house which is less remote, you won’t face these problems. There are more ISPs to choose from. And my friend who lives in such a place tested my Reliance Jio and told me he’s getting upto 5 Mbps which is great news.

Update: After lodging a complaint with my ISP, the frequent drop issue seems to have been fixed.

Sidenote: The Internet service providers are private companies which claim speeds of upto 100Mbps. That is a bit of a stretch, but the realistic speed ranges from 30-80 Mbps which is ridiculously good in its own right. And for most part, it works like a dream.


The Future

Before arriving, my plan was to stay for a year and a half, maybe two. I imagined that thereafter I would want to explore some new place. So, would I move to a new place next year? It depends on the accomplishment of my goals this year. It is also possible that Goa keeps growing on me and I end up staying here for many more years to come.

What would I say to people considering Goa to make a similar move? I'd say that the pros of the move far outweigh the cons. Issues like the newcomer-local tension is not unique to Goa and can be found in other major cities too. And even though there are bad apples, it feels a much safer place than where I was earlier. Goa has all the necessary ingredients for a wholesome life, what you make out of it is part luck and part individual.

Would I recommend this place to people looking for a longer term move, say 5-10 years? Honestly, I don't know. Three months is a short time to comment on this but my friends who’ve been here for a year and a half plan to stay here for many years to come.

To sum it up, my quality of life has increased considerably since I’ve arrived. And this move has been enabling in a lot of ways. So, if you want to come and stay here for a year or two to experience a new lifestyle, it's a yes, a definite, resounding Yes!

Enjoyed the post? Please consider sharing. And let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

FURTHER READING

  1. A Primer On Minimalism
  2. If you like a nice party, here's a poem I wrote on one - The Night's Beat
  3. Stories Of 10 Indians Who Left The City Behind For A Quieter Life
  4. How to do what you love and make good money by Derek Sivers
  5. Nomad List - A list of best cities to live and work remotely

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Searching for The Sublime in Mundane - Notes from The Book of Tea

"LET US DREAM OF EVANESCENCE, AND LINGER IN THE BEAUTIFUL FOOLISHNESS OF THINGS."

One of the most important books that I read last year was The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakuro. It talks about much more than just the art of making tea - aesthetics, simplicity and the transcendence found in the seemingly simple rituals of a craft (in this case, tea-making). It is a manual on living a deliberate life, in the depths where the sublime reveals itself to us.

The wisdom in these pages dwarfs the other important aspect of this book - the efficiency of words. At only 160 pages, this short read punches well above its weight. There are no wasted sentences, no time expended in citing shallow stories. It is a study in depth, and living immersed in your craft. I also featured this in my Best books I read in 2016 list.

Here are my notes and highlights from it. Lines from the book are in italics.

 

On the greatness of little things:

Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.

This here seems like the crux of Teaism. Most of our life is spent in doing the mundane- sleeping, eating, cooking, washing clothes, etc. The moments of extreme pleasure - sex, travel, sports, dancing - form a minority of our time every day. So, in order to maximise the happiness from our lives, it makes sense to enjoy the mundane as much as we cherish the bursts of extreme pleasure.

The mundane holds equal importance with the spiritual. In the great relation of things, there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe. 

The whole ideal of Teaism is a result of this Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life.

 

On What makes gooD tea:

The best quality of the leaves must have "creases like the leathern boot of Tartar horsemen, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like fine earth newly swept by rain."

By using such vivid images to describe good leaves, the author has attached a romance to a seemingly simple morning ritual of making tea. This is a constant theme in the book. In fact, I wrote about this in my post A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus.

Lotung, a Tang poet, wrote: "The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup breaks my loneliness, the third cup searches my barren entrail but to find therein some five thousand volumes of odd ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration,--all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup--ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves. Where is Horaisan? Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither."
Wangyucheng eulogised tea as "flooding his soul like a direct appeal, that its delicate bitterness reminded him of the aftertaste of a good counsel."

If we replace drinking tea with any of our daily tasks, say cleaning, and imagine it being described by a great writer, it will transform from a mere chore to a event to experience in all its glory. While we are at cleaning, let's see what the book says about it.

 

On What Cleanliness Means:

One of the first requisites of a tea-master is the knowledge of how to sweep, clean, and wash, for there is an art in cleaning and dusting. A piece of antique metal work must not be attacked with the unscrupulous zeal of the Dutch housewife. Dripping water from a flower vase need not be wiped away, for it may be suggestive of dew and coolness. 

I have no idea why the reference of the Dutch housewife is here. But what attracted my interest was the the attention to small details.

The next quote is about the garden path. It is one of the parts that makes a Tea House.

There is a story of Rikiu which well illustrates the ideas of cleanliness entertained by the tea-masters. Rikiu was watching his son Shoan as he swept and watered the garden path. "Not clean enough," said Rikiu, when Shoan had finished his task, and bade him try again. After a weary hour the son turned to Rikiu: "Father, there is nothing more to be done. The steps have been washed for the third time, the stone lanterns and the trees are well sprinkled with water, moss and lichens are shining with a fresh verdure; not a twig, not a leaf have I left on the ground." "Young fool," chided the tea-master, "that is not the way a garden path should be swept." Saying this, Rikiu stepped into the garden, shook a tree and scattered over the garden gold and crimson leaves, scraps of the brocade of autumn! What Rikiu demanded was not cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural also.

 

ON GREAT ART:

The book explains what great art means by explaining  the metaphor of Vacuum. It claims that only in vacuum lay the truly essential. For example, the reality of a room was in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. Likewise, the usefulness of a water pitcher was the emptiness that it contained, and not in the shape or material of the pitcher. 

In art the importance of the same principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion. In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is there for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.

There is a wonderful story about a harp made from exquisite wood. All the harpists in Japan tried to play their songs on it but no one succeeded. It would not produce good music as everyone had hoped. Finally, the hero of the story Peiwoh, a celebrated harpist comes along and plays songs of the trees, the forests, the river - basically everything that the harp might have seen when it was a tree. 

"Sire," he replied, "others have failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp."

It connects with the concept of vacuum: 

One who could make of himself a vacuum into which others might freely enter would become master of all situations. The whole can always dominate the part.

In the olden times, the Samurais of Japan, much like most of Japan at that time held art in high regard. So, often if the samurais were given a job to do, they often sought art instead of money as a form payment for their efforts.

A single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school.

 

SOME APHORISMS:

We are wicked because we are frightfully self-conscious. We nurse a conscience because we are afraid to tell the truth to others; we take refuge in pride because we are afraid to tell the truth to ourselves. How can one be serious with the world when the world itself is so ridiculous!
Why do men and women like to advertise themselves so much? Is it not but an instinct derived from the days of slavery?
The Sung allegory of the Three Vinegar Tasters explains admirably the trend of the three doctrines. Sakyamuni, Confucius, and Laotse once stood before a jar of vinegar--the emblem of life--and each dipped in his finger to taste the brew. The matter-of-fact Confucius found it sour, the Buddha called it bitter, and Laotse pronounced it sweet.

Taoism accepts the mundane as it is. And unlike the Confucians or the Buddhists, tries to find beauty in our world of woe and worry.


The beauty of words in this book is baffling. I sincerely wish that you get a chance to read it. Teaism had taught many things to the Japanese at that time - about culture, art, and living a meaningful life, most of which is still relevant to us. I hope you find it useful. And if you've read it already, leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Best Books I Read in 2016

Every year, I spend ample time on selecting the books to read. I find my recommendations from a variety of sources - reading lists, Reddit, friends, popular culture, and other books. And this end of year list is something I do to point out the brightest ones from a sea of innumerable beautiful stars. Let's jump right into it.

 

1. The Call Of The Wild - Jack London

I read it in a single bus ride from Dharmashala to Delhi. And every time I am looking for a new book to read, my thoughts go back to reading this book again. It's that good. It is not a complicated story but the writing style and the narrative evoked strong emotions in me. Sometimes, I see myself in Buck, the dog who is the main character. At other times, I see myself in his owners. I don't want to reveal more, go ahead and find it out for yourself. Thank me later.

2. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M. Pirsig

This was my fourth attempt to read this book. While in the first two attempts, I barely managed to move past a few pages, in the third one I read till about 100 pages and then stopped. The blame for not being able to finish it earlier rests solely on the immaturity of my ability to grasp the meaning and perhaps a lack of focus. It has got nothing to do with the quality of the book.

Quality - that is what this book is, and is about. I associate myself very closely to it - the writer's questions are the ones I seek, his fears are what haunt me in tense moments at night. I am a big fan of rational thought process, and thoroughly enjoyed the writer's journey to find the ghost of rationality. If you do decide to read this, take your time, don't rush and let every new concept sink in.

 3. The Book of Tea - Kakuzo Okakura

It is more like a very long essay than a book.  The art of making tea and the philosophy of life derived from it (Teaism) has left me deeply enamored. On its face value, you might assume that the author has written about the ways of making tea, its history, and its effect on Japanese culture. All that is there along with much more. The metaphors used can be applied to our daily life and provide a simple way to live in harmony with the nature that is around and inside of us. This book taught me a lot more about life in subtle ways than any other book could directly.

4. The Silent Cry - Kenzaburo Oe

If you are looking for a simple story to read, don't pick this book. Oe's stories, much like human behaviors are layered and multi-dimensional. They reveal to us the depth of emotions which we may or may not express to each other but harbor inside ourselves. So, in a way, Oe's books are a mirror to our deepest, darkest feelings. This is the second time that Oe's work has featured in my end of year best-of list. And honestly, I feel that it doesn't matter what the specifics of the book are, if it's an Oe, it'll find its way on such lists.

5. Catch-22 - Joseph Heller

There are few books which make me laugh out loud. There are fewer which invoke pathos. And the books which can do both are even rarer. Catch-22 falls in the third kind. Each character brings something different to the story - humor, despair, innocence, vitality, absurdity, lunacy. The sum of all these parts lends a fascinating quality to the whole. As much as this is a great book to read, it is also a brilliant education in how to write a good story.

Currently Reading - When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi. I am half-way through this and I suspect it will find its way into my best of list soon.

I hope you do get around to reading some of these. If you like these recommendations, check out the rest of my reading list here.

Lists from previous years:
Best of 2015
Best of 2014
Best of 2013

The Priming Effect and Making The World A Better Place

A couple of months ago, a friend recommended to me the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate. It’s an intriguing read so far and serves as useful small talk topic. But, I wanted something more from it than just watercooler conversation. So, I’ve used some of the insights from the book and applied them to the cause of improvement of our daily lives.

This is the second post in the series. Words in italics are taken directly from the book. You can read the first post here: Ego-Depletion and Why Having a Job You Like Matters


PRIMING

If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP. The opposite would happen if you had just seen WASH. 

This is a Priming Effect. The idea of EAT primes the idea of SOUP, and WASH primes SOAP.

Priming effect takes many forms. If EAT is on your mind, you will recognize the word SOUP quicker if it is spoken in a whisper or written in a blurry font. You will also be primed for other food-related ideas like hungry, cookies, ice cream. If you ate at a wobbly table, you will be primed for 'wobbly' as well. Like ripples in a pond, priming spreads across a network of associated ideas.

Priming is not restricted to concepts and words. Even your actions and your emotions can be primed by events you are unaware of. In an experiment, young students were asked to assemble a four-word sentence from a set of five words (for example, "find he it yellow instantly"). For one group, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. After this, the students were sent in an office down the hall for the next task. That short walk was the actual experiment. The time it took to cross the hall was measured for each person. The students who had formed a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly slower than the others.

This experiment involves two stages of priming. First, the set of words primes thoughts of old age, even though the word 'old' is never mentioned. Second, these thoughts prime a behavior - walking slowly, which is associated with old age. Afterwards, when the students were questioned, they insisted that nothing they did after the experiment could have been influenced by the words. So, this effect happens without us being aware of it.

This priming phenomenon - the influencing of an action by the idea - is known as The Ideomotor Effect

If after reading the earlier paragraph, you wanted a glass of water, you would have been slightly slower than usual to rise from your chair - unless you dislike the elderly, in which case you might have been slightly faster than usual.

Reverse Ideomotor effect also holds true. If you were walking slowly, you would tend to recognize words like old, wrinkle, or bald faster. So, the age-old advice of smiling in the moments of adversity is quite useful. Just like amusing thoughts make you smile more, smiling more brings amusing thoughts. Acting like you are calm is likely to be rewarded by actual tranquility.

 

PRIMING IN OUR CULTURE

In another experiment, few volunteers were asked to construct a sentence from a selection of money related words ('high a desk salary paying' became a high-paying salary'). Other primes were introduced like a stack of Monopoly money on a table or a computer screen saver with dollar bills floating in the water. The results of this experiment were astounding:

  1. Money primed people became more independent than they would be without the associative trigger. They persevered longer to solve a difficult problem before asking for help, clearly showing increased self-reliance.
  2. Money primed people were also more selfish. They were much less willing to help a fellow participant who was confused about a task. When someone dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, money primed people helped pick fewer pencils. 
  3. They also showed preference for being alone. Money primed people placed their chair farther apart from others than the ones who weren't primed.

These findings present a profound inference:

In a culture where we are constantly reminded of money, it is shaping our attitude and behavior in ways that we are unaware of and of which we may not be proud.

Another common portrayal of this priming effect is in dictatorial societies where the ubiquitous portraits of the national leader not only convey the feeling that 'The Big Brother Is Watching' but also lead to a reduction in spontaneous thought and independent action.

Some other common priming examples:

  1. Reminding people of mortality increases the appeal of authoritarian ideas. 
  2. Uniforms are the anti-prime of creativity.
  3. Thinking of stabbing a co-worker in the back will make you more inclined to buy soap or disinfectant  than juice, candy or batteries (Feeling that one's soul is stained triggers a desire to clean one's body).

You could react to these studies by disbelieving them. After all, we are all rational beings who think logically and are not affected by such trivial manipulations. But, the fact is that the results are authentic; they are not statistical flukes. The conclusions are true, and more importantly, they are true about me and you. If we were exposed to a dollar bills screensaver, we too would pick up fewer pencils to help a clumsy stranger.

 

MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE

I find the effects of priming astonishing. The profundity and width of its implications in our lives makes my head spin.

The simple act of reading the newspaper in the morning can affect the quality of our day. If you look at the majority of the front page news, it is sensational and often depressing. This is probably the worst way to start your day. It primes us to being more pessimistic and drains out energy for positive action. And as we found earlier, this happens without us being conscious of it.

So, does that mean that we should ignore all the negative happenings of the world? No. What it means is that we should ignore the inconsequential negative stuff. For example, do we really need to read about two celebrities bitching about each other. It doesn't add value to our lives, in fact, if were to accept the priming effect, it is going to make us meaner and drive us to the edge.

I remember an incident a few months back. It was late at night and I was checking Twitter about an event that was shaking up the world. I can't recollect what it was, but safe to say, it elicited extreme reactions from people. And, I was aghast  at the negativity surrounding the event. Random people were writing searing comments and I felt angry just by reading them. I took note of my rising heartbeat and promptly closed the app. Was the mass hysteria necessary? I doubt it.

Gossip, sensationalism and negativity like this is Antifragile ( ref. Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb ) - our attacks on them increase their resilience to obscurity. If we instead chose to deny it our acknowledgement, it will die of its own accord. 

So, can we collectively decide to tone down the frequency of discussions around negative incidents? Instead, why not talk about culture bearers, the ones who move our society forward? For example, instead of talking about a sexist comment by some celebrity, let’s talk about stories of women who have done something outstanding by breaking their traditional boundaries. By doing this, we are not ignoring the women who were disrespected in the first incident. But, we are choosing to bring change by showing the good (priming) instead of condemning the bad. 

If our parents read more stories of people taking unconventional paths, they might find it easier to accept your idea of quitting the job and traveling the world. Or, if we are amazed by a cannabis community celebration ( YouTube Link), perhaps it is time to share our own happy weed stories.  

 

END NOTES

Based on everything we read so far, 'Be positive' becomes not just a hippy mumbo-jumbo but a practical motto with real effects on our lives. Surround yourself with settings which would encourage the behavior you want to demonstrate. So, instead of reading news in the morning, I listen to good music and exercise. And then, to prime me for writing well, I read a nice book.

A lot of our decisions are impulsive and driven not by a rational, thought out process but by our whims and fancies influenced by external factors. So, if we want our decisions to make us better human beings, shouldn't we put ourselves in situations that make us the best version of ourselves? And if we all decide to do that, the world might just become a better place.

A final suggestion: Try out the priming effect on your own. Perhaps do a small experiment like not reading the newspaper in the morning for a week. Or, starting the day with upbeat music. See for yourself if it makes your day better. And let me know how it goes.

There is a very recent article on Slate which tells a different story on the priming effect. Here's where you can read it: Sad Face

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Read Next: A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus

Cover Image via Unsplash

Ego Depletion and Why Having a Job You Like Matters

A couple of months ago, a friend recommended to me the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate. It’s an intriguing read so far and serves as useful small talk topic. But, I wanted more from it than just watercooler conversation. So, I’ve used some of the insights from the book and applied them to the cause of improvement of our daily lives.

Thus far, I have read only a quarter of the book. So, I think this could be a series of posts. We'll see about that when we cross that bridge. 

 

Ego-DepletioN

‘An effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. This phenomenon is known as Ego Depletion.’

This means that if you are involved in cognitively challenging tasks, especially the ones which you don't want to do, you would be more susceptible to give in to your urges later. An example from the book: Suppose I ask you to remember a sequence of 7 digits for a couple of minutes. And you are told that this is the number one priority for you. If at the end of two minutes, you were asked to choose between a virtuous fruit salad or a sinful chocolate cake, chances are you would choose the cake. 

In a demonstration of the concept, a group of people were asked to stifle their emotional reactions after watching an emotionally charged movie. This group then performed poorly in a physically draining task immediately after. The emotional effort of the first half of the experiment, reduced their ability to sustain physical pain and they gave in to their urge to quit more quickly.

 

Why having a job you like matters

An important implication of the concept of ego-depletion is that the kind of job you do, and how you feel about it dictates the rest of your day as well. An effort of will or self-control is tiring. So, if you are forced to work at a place you don't like, chances are that after coming back home, you might eat more junk food, watch more senseless TV and indulge lesser in creative interests.

For example, a friend of mine who hates her job enjoys painting. But, she found that after coming back home, she had little drive to do the one thing she loves - paint. She would scroll her Facebook feed endlessly, or watch movies and not feel good about it. Ego-depletion is in part a loss of motivation. The ego-depleting job reduced her desire to engage in creative pursuits (the hard task) and made her give in to the urges (the easy task).

Instinctively, you know that your job is screwing your life (if you hate the job), but now you know exactly why. If I look back at my behavior when I was working at a regular job, the regular drinking and going out was succumbing to my urges as much as it was a deliberate fun activity.

So, if you don’t do anything productive after work and feel guilty about it, cut yourself some slack. It’s biology. Your ego is depleted and you need a change of work or a glass of fresh juice. No, really. Read on.

 

Mental energy is more than a metaphor

The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body. So, the more strenuous your task is, the more glucose is consumed. Blood glucose level drops and the next task becomes more difficult to execute. 

In a demonstration of this concept, a group of volunteers was shown a short film featuring a woman. They were asked to interpret her body language. While they were at their task, a series of words crossed across the screen to distract them. And they were instructed to ignore the words, and refocus their attention on the woman if they found their attention drawn away. This self-control caused ego-depletion. After the end of the task, half of them were given glucose and the other half were not. Then, a second task followed where they needed to overcome their intuitive response to get the correct answer. The ones whose glucose level had increased performed much better than the others. The restoration of available level of sugar in the brain prevented the deterioration of performance.

A more disturbing demonstration of this phenomenon was in a study done on eight parole judges in Israel. Their job was to review applications for parole the whole day. It was found that the number of applications they approved was higher immediately after their food breaks. And, it dropped close to zero as the time since their last meal increased. The inference made from this data was that tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying requests for parole.

 

Glucose For The Win

It seems almost too trivial to even point out - drink a refreshing sugary drink after a challenging task. This isn’t news right? We all know it intuitively. But, knowing the science and how it affects the rest of our day helps. So, I have started keeping a reserve of lemonade with ample sugar in the fridge. When I feel tired, a glass of it restores my glucose level. Also, since I am convinced of the positive effect of glucose, a placebo kicks in and refreshes me even more.

Let me know if it works for you.

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Read Next: After-Office Productivity Hacks

 

The Why and How of a Daily Meditation Habit

Practicing meditation is a new habit that I want to develop and add into my daily schedule. I tried this earlier in a casual whenever-I-find-time kind of a way but it didn't work. Thus, I have decided to create a more formal plan this time. Hopefully, you can use these steps to create a new habit for yourself, whether it be meditation or something else.

 

THE WHY

The first critical step is to answer the question of why do you want to build the habit. At certain times in the habit forming process, you will have weak moments where you would want to give up for various reasons. Your answer to 'The Why' should help you persevere through the struggle against quitting. And the more objective this answer, the more undeniable the benefit of the habit becomes.

A few years ago, I would have scoffed at the idea of daily meditation. This was because I couldn't see a tangible causal relationship between meditation and improvement of life. At worst, I thought of it to be an elaborate scam. And, a placebo at best. This idea changed because of two Whys.

First: To improve my life by 10%. Where did this number come from? It is an arbitrary number which is the bottomline of the book 10% Happier. I don't claim that it is scientific by any measure, but I am willing to believe it to be true if it is backed by something less subjective such as my second why.

Second: All the positive results of the scientific studies conducted on the benefits of mediation. Some highlights of the findings via Headspace:

  • According to Neuroscientists as you continue to meditate your brain physically changes, even though you’re not aware of it re-shaping itself.
  • Research has found meditation to promote ‘divergent thinking’ a type of thinking that allows many new ideas to be generated.
  • Neuroscientists have also found that, after just 11 hours of meditation, practitioners had structural changes in the part of the brain involved in monitoring our focus and self control.

Further Reading on Science behind Meditation: Buffer BlogForbesWikipedia

I got one such test done myself when I was at Auroville. My brain activity chart as compared to a regular meditator looked like a busy intersection of an urban city at office hours. It was messed up. 

Along with this, I read personal experiences of people and spoke to some friends who sing praises of the technique - technique, yes, that is what it is. Once I started thinking of it as a technique to sharpen the mind, along with the scientific studies to back the claim, my rational mind warmed up to the idea.

So, I thought of giving it a shot. And it felt pretty good. Not like out of the world good, but decent. Like my life became 10% better. If something which takes up only 10-15 minutes of my day (which is about 1% of the day) makes my life 10% better, I think it is a good deal to take. So, now that the intention is set, motivation is high, let's find the next step.

 

THE HOW

1. Trigger

If you read my post about creating an exercise and reading habit, you would know what I am talking about. A trigger is an activity which is already present in your daily schedule that is followed by your new habit. For example, my exercise is triggered by brushing my teeth. Or my morning reading is triggered by the end of my exercise. When the trigger goes off, I instinctively know what I have to do next since it is already planned. I save myself the struggle of trying to find ways to fit it into my schedule. 

Meditating at the start of the day makes my morning too rigid and leaves me with a late start to work. So, here's what I plan to do: I will meditate in the evening right after having a shower. It is a perfect time for me since that is when I usually take a break from work and go have a bath. The meditation right after shower will hopefully refresh me enough to take on the second half of my workday with more energy.

The Trigger = Taking a shower

2. Quantity

I'll start small. Not an hour a day, or 30 minutes or even 15. I am going to start with 10 minutes a day. I want to gradually increase it to 15, then 20 and top it off at 30 minutes. 10 minutes isn't actually that small for a start. If you were to do it, I would recommend starting with ridiculously smaller amounts like 1 or 2 minutes. But since I have been doing it infrequently over the last few months, I know that 10 minutes is good for me.

3. Accountability

While building a new habit, it helps to have an accountability partner. It is someone who you feel answerable to if you feel like taking a day off. Even though I am the kind of guy who likes to be self-reliant and likes to do things on his own, I realised the usefulness of this while trying to quit smoking. My girlfriend is my accountability partner there and she keeps reminding me certain things whenever I have the urge. By writing this post and sharing it with you all, you have become my accountability partners. We may not meet or speak frequently, but I would know that I have promised to do something and hopefully it will keep me on track. 

4. Tools

I plan to use an app called Insight Timer to keep time and track my progress. It is a nifty app which shows how many people are meditating at the same time as you. It's a nice touch and helps me stay on track.

There is another useful app for guided meditation called Headspace. Or you can use Coach.me for tracking other daily habits.

5. Technique and Study

From what I read so far, there seem to be multiple techniques of meditating. I am going to start simple by focusing on my breath. As I progress, I plan to learn new techniques and include them in my practice.

The study is optional for a meditation habit. But, I recommend it and it comes from my philosophy that learning about a trade deeply improves the experience. For example, if I enjoy a movie, I tend to go online and read about the stories behind its production and trivia associated with it. I spoke about it in an earlier post called How to Have More Fun at Fun.

 

END NOTES

Much like the rest of our body, the mind needs exercise as well. You could solve puzzles or do brain games & training. Meditation is another such thing to strengthen and train your mind. I would recommend giving it a try and then judge it based on your own experience. I did a meditation session yesterday and it was tough. 10 minutes seemed long. I felt both physically and mentally uncomfortable. But, I'll treat this as the initial pain when the brain muscle is jerked awake from its sleep and I'll persevere. 

Any regular practitioners out there? Would love to hear your experience so far.

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Read Next:  Mindfulness - An Introduction

Bhutan & The Art of Chilling - Stories from The World's Happiest Country

In March of last year, a night of drinking turned interesting when two people in Gurgaon booked flight tickets for five without their consent. I booked mine soon after. And thus, next month, six of us hired motorbikes to venture on a road trip to Bhutan. 


BAGDOGRA/SILIGURI

The first part of the journey was a flight to Bagdogra. It is the nearest airport to Siliguri where we hired the bikes from. As I waited for my friends to pick me up from the airport, I started writing in my notebook.

Sidenote 1: Here's a problem I have with travel writing - the real emotions and details of a noteworthy time can only be expressed if you capture them right then. Otherwise, the perfect words are lost, the true feeling is forgotten. But, if you do write them at that instant or soon after, it impacts your experience of the moment. Thus, I chose to just live the following days and not think about how I want to write those down.

We found our bikes at a tiny garage which was the size of a small tea-stall. As I took one out for a test ride, a massive hailstorm appeared out of nowhere. After much struggle, and in near darkness (the electricity had gone out) I found respite under a shop’s tin roof. Those few moments, I felt like a character out of a Bangla movie - rain dripping off my clothes, cigarette smoke and 20 people huddled together under one tin roof. All that was missing was someone reciting a Tagore poem. 

Eventually, after rounds of adjusting the RPM, brakes and such to our liking, we tied our luggage with the bungee cords on the bikes and proceeded to find a hotel for the night.


RIDE TO Phuentsholing

The next morning, after a heavy breakfast, we loaded our bags on the bikes. This is mention-worthy because we had to tie them carefully otherwise we ran the risk of a wobbly ride.

Ready to roll

First Ngultrum received from an Indian Pan shop

First Ngultrum received from an Indian Pan shop

As we made a move, wide open roads lined with tea estates on either side greeted us. The traffic was sparse and it was bright and sunny. We raced along at a fairly quick speed, albeit with quite a few breaks in between and reached Jaigaon in about 4 hours. The roads were a dream, except for the last half an hour stretch. Scenery changed from tall trees to wide open fields through small villages. The geography is completely flat - no mountains yet.

Jaigaon is the border town of India and shares its boundary with Bhutan’s counterpart, Phuentsholing. We stopped there to withdraw money from the ATM. There, if you need to buy something, people return you change in Bhutanese currency. But if you want to pay in Bhutanese Ngultrum, it costs you 6% extra.

The border


Phuentsholing

 

Two guards stood at a wide gate. It didn’t look anything like a country’s border - you would expect more security at one. We entered Bhutan through this gate, riding on our bikes, making heads turn. As soon as you enter, the roads climb up and mountains appear after the plains of India. It is as if they divided the countries based on where the mountains begin.

Phuentsholing gave us a preview of what to expect in Bhutan. A quiet, slow motion of people, vehicles and life in general. From the cacophony of noises at Jaigaon, we arrived in the clean and noiseless world of Bhutan. It was like entering a cocoon, and the sounds from just across the border, a mere 100 metres behind us, seemed like coming from far away. The picture of their King stared at us from everywhere.

Sidenote 2 : Every household, shop, bar, office, event has a picture of the Royal Couple or The King or both. Today, Bhutan is a democracy which was in fact brought in large parts by an earlier Monarch. The present King is well loved among the masses.

You can enter Phuentsholing without anyone asking for an identity proof. But, if you want to travel further, you need a permit. We had been told that the permit office is closed on Sunday so we went around looking for a hotel. We jumped a signal and a traffic cop immediately came to confront us. And man what a cop he was! Chatty, friendly and apologetically nice. He informed that the permit office was open that day because of high tourist frequency. So, that's where we headed first.

The permit process is painless. You fill a couple of forms, give a proof of your identity (Passport, Voter Id, Driver's License - anything works), get your picture clicked, finger prints are taken and you are done. We noticed a pattern that was to become a constant theme in Bhutan. Everyone we met seemed to have all the time in the world. You became their complete focus of attention. The permit officer chatted with us and told us of stories of the celebrities who came to his office. We exchanged our Indian Rupee for Bhutanese Ngultrum even though most places accept INR too.

View from the hotel

We had still not found a hotel. Guess who helped? The traffic cop. He left his spot and spoke to a couple of hotel owners to find a place for us. Who does that? I mean, really, who does that?

Anyway, we ended up going to a different hotel - Hotel Druk. All this while, we had left our bikes unattended with our luggage on them. And there was never a moment when we were scared of losing our stuff. And I think that's mention-worthy too. Bhutan feels safe and welcoming.

In the evening, we roamed the streets and found a dance bar called Sonam Trophel. Dance bars are a common sight in Bhutan. And lot of them are run by women.

Sidenote 3 : This is where I should point out that Bhutan is primarily a matriarchal society. Most shops, restaurants, hotels, bars that we came across were run by women.

At the bar, we had a few beers and constantly refused to entertain the girls who solicited our money in exchange for a dance. After these shenanigans, we came out, drank and chatted with the funniest locals. 

Sidenote 4 : Let me add one thing which would make the rest of this travelogue easy. Whenever I say 'locals', always add the adjectives funny, friendly, chatty, and helpful to it. 

It was raining and we were hungry. So, we ran in the rain to find a place to eat. Unsuccessful, we returned to our hotel. And that's when something awesome happened.

Beautiful Story 1
One of us was very hungry. Very, very hungry. So, like a bad-ass, he knocked on the next door and asked for something to eat. Anything. A biscuit, even. The man named Jimmy, who was a local (did you add the adjectives?) understood the gravity of the situation. He asked us to wait for a bit. A little later, we looked outside from our windows and saw a woman on the street walking towards our hotel under the shelter of an umbrella. It looked like she was carrying something under her arm. This was past midnight.

Her name was Kay and she was Jimmy's friend. She had brought with her packets of Koka, Bhutanese version of Maggi but much better. The man had a stove and they freaking cooked for us. We spent the night hanging out together. And there we sat, eating Koka, sharing Old Monk with them (which they liked very much, who doesn't?), and appreciating the kindness of this country's beautiful people.

Next morning, we checked out of the hotel to get permits for our bikes. Meanwhile, some of us got local SIM cards and bought some stuff for the rest of the trip (Druk beer, Druk ketchup, Druk chips, Druk everything).

Bike Troubles

Once this was sorted, we headed towards our next destination - Paro. But, as luck would have it, one of the bikes broke down. It was an old Enfield model and we had been skeptical about it from the beginning. So, there we were stranded a few kilometres from Phuentsholing and wondering what to do next. Just then, we saw a mini-truck passing by. One of us made the smallest of gestures, and almost on cue, the truck stopped. The locals then helped us carry the bike down to Jaigaon (where they had no business to go to ) to get them repaired. They refused our offer of money for their troubles.

After this ordeal, we postponed our ride to Paro. We returned to Phuentsholing and found a cheaper, nicer hotel where the receptionist-cum-owner spoke in the dreamiest of voices. We called it an early night to catch up on sleep for an early start the next day.

Food to try: Emma Datshi, is a delicious spicy gravy made of chilli and yak cheese. We tried this and variations of it with Rice. Second and third servings were required.


RIDE TO PARO

 

Except for the first few kilometres, the ride to Paro is bliss. Smooth tarmac, meandering across the mountains, no noise of horns (horns are banned in Bhutan) and few truck drivers posing mortal threat to your life. 

You can click on each picture in the blog to view an enlarged version

A little traffic just after Phuentsholing

Traffic Issues

We crossed a management college high up in the mountains. The students just sat outside chilling, doing nothing, enjoying the fine weather. A local came up to us and started chatting. He told us that 'Yahan padhai nahin hota, bas bang bang hota hai!' What did I tell you about the locals?

It got foggy really soon and all we could do stay on track was follow the taillight in front.

The Management College. people are just chilling outside

Lunch at Karma Hotel. 2nd from left

The policemen like our bikes

The roads were gorgeous

A friendly, curious old man

A friendly, curious old man

Entering Paro Valley

Entering Paro Valley

Just before Paro, there is a small village where we took a short break. A friend of ours was flying into Paro and we enquired some taxi drivers if they had seen her around. The next moment, they thrust their cell phones in our faces to show a porny GIF. #facepalm. They laughed like maniacs. Who are these people man? Why are they so happy, so friendly (over-friendly?), so out there?

We left for the airport to check if our friend was still there waiting for us. It turned out that the Airport had closed for the day. Wow! Where does this happen? We came back to the village and after much banter between the cab drivers and us, we got news that our friend had hiked up to a monastery and would be back soon. So, we spent our time playing football with some kids. Archery is a big thing in Bhutan, so there were some people playing take-aim at a stone with some kind of arrows as well.

They were two cool kids

Our friend arrived and we spent time in the nearby Snooker Parlor. Boy, it was fun. Not in the least because of my love for the game. Beer flowed. Games ensued. Did I mention that you get liquor everywhere in Bhutan? Even the tiniest retail shop would have a table, 4 chairs and a big stock of beers.

At the parlor, we met a Dentist who looked anything but. His job was a 11 to 4 after which he was free to do anything. So, he played Snooker. They all told us of the crazy Wednesday parties in Paro. Yeah, Wednesdays. Bhutan is awesome.

Sidenote 5 : Education upto Grade 10 and Primary Healthcare is free in Bhutan. Even complex procedures are relatively cheap. Couple this with the relaxed work arrangements and you start to understand why people are happy here.

Beautiful Story 2
On the way to Paro, one of us got into a minor accident with another bike which got a little damaged in the process. The fault was completely our own. Now, if this was in India, it would have become a big scene. But, Bhutan being Bhutan, that guy took a chill pill and actually helped us in our search to find a Helmet (which were in short supply there).


PARO

 

In Paro, we went straight to Hotel Sonam Trophel. It is just across the river and has good rooms and great food. The waiter-cum-errands boy also asked us if were going to the Wednesday party, he definitely was. It seemed like the whole town goes to the same party.

The Hotel at Paro

The Hotel at Paro

The stream across the hotel

Next day we trekked to Tiger's Nest Monastery. The monastery hangs on a steep cliff edge at 10,000 ft above the Paro Valley. The trek is about three hours of moderate climb. At the beginning of our climb, we saw a local coming down. We asked him of the route and he suggested that we should take the short-cut he was coming from. This was the gravest mistake we could have made. Seriously, don't ever take the short cut. It is steeper, and harder. At half way, there is a cafe which is exorbitantly priced, even for a bottle of water. So, I'd recommend carrying your own snacks and water.

The monastery is a picture of quiet and peace. A lot of tourists ply on the route. It was almost crowded at some points. But, inside the monastery, it doesn't feel like there are many people. It is noiseless, clean and windy. If you stay still at one spot and just breathe, profound moments emerge aplenty. You might pause and question the validity and importance of the decisions in your life, if not life itself, even if just for a few moments.

We begin the climb to The Small White Thing on top

To this big imposing structure

The route was interesting

The cafe at the midway was a good place to rest

The view was grand

And we made it

It was magnificent

As we came down, we saw locals climbing up, even in the light rain, carrying supplies up. The knick-knack sellers near the base of the trek kept requesting our attention.

This was a Wednesday -  the night of the hyped up party. As some of us got ready, a couple of us went down to the nearest Snooker parlor, played guitar, beat the owners at the game and got ourselves free beers.

More of Paro 1

More of Paro 2

The party was the bomb. It was in the basement of an ordinary building. Inside, it was one big dance floor in the center with some seats on a raised platform around it. We were a little early, arriving there at about 10.30 pm. We got chatting with a couple of girls who told us that they have studied in Bangalore and they miss the slow pace of Paro. As the night progressed, it got more crowded and we found interesting people to talk and dance with. The music, mainly EDM, was good. We came back with some locals who were kind enough to walk us to our hotel. 

Next morning, we left for Thimpu.


THIMPU


It was a brilliant day for riding. Bright sunshine, cool breeze and the road hugging the mountains. We did not rush and drove at a leisurely pace of 50km/hr. The speed limit and speed detectors along the way was a big reason. Also, by now, we had a little bit of Bhutanese chill in our soul. 

Entering Thimpu

Street lined with shops and hotels

A diligent traffic cop. But, where's the traffic?

A great view welcomed us as we entered Thimpu, an organised village, as the locals call it. The Buddha statue high up on the mountain overlooked the city. It felt like we were in a video game - no randomness, everything moved slowly and in incremental steps. All the carslooked robotic, self-driven vehicles moving at a pedestrian speed of 25 km/hr. The roads were clean, and the areas to park bikes and cars were marked clearly. The feeling of having arrived in the Capital of the happiest country in the world was wonderful.

Sidenote 6 : Most of Bhutan till this point had great weather and clean air. Being a proper city, I expected Thimpu to be a more polluted. It wasn't, at least not enough to be bothersome.

The Buddha Statue

The view from the top. That's a nice football ground

After a great lunch, we looked for place to stay. Hotels in Thimpu can be cheap or expensive without being very different from each other in terms of comfort. Being the capital, things were a little pricey. Most hotels had a curfew time of 11 p.m. which we wanted to avoid. We asked a passerby for a hotel recommendation and he stopped doing what he was doing and almost took us to the hotel himself. Finally, we found a nice, cozy place run by women, young girls, a boy and a dog. They were the sweetest people who treated us like gods. The Bhutanese hospitality is amazing.

As the evening set in, we roamed around the streets, drinking soup from the roadside vendors, shopping for Bamboo pickles, Yak cheese, prayer flags and handmade bags. I stopped to get a recharge for my phone and found the girl listening to Honey Singh. Yeah, bollywood is popular in Bhutan. We spent some time watching a SAARC cultural festival. The Indian group told the story of Goddess Kali and her nemesis.

The Indian contingent

We spent that evening in a dance bar which was run by an Indian woman. The girls there soon figured that we were not the kinds to pay for a dance. So, they employed a different tactic. They sat next to us and said they were thirsty, and can we buy them juice? How can you no to that? So we did give them money, no idea if juice was bought and the thirst was quenched. We were the only customers at that time. The matron of the bar invited us to dance on stage and we joined her reluctantly. In all honesty, it felt a little weird though and she sensed that. So as we were leaving, she was kind enough to come out and apologise. People in Bhutan are amazing. Kind and polite.

Next morning, we drove to Dochula pass just before Punakha. We couldn't go all the way to Punakha because our bike troubles ate our days. At the pass, 108 stupas are built in three concentric circles. A cafe stands opposite it where we spent our time relaxing. It was a nice drive and the weather was perfect.

Dochula Pass

As we returned in the evening, we found refuge in a bakery. The girl at the bakery told us that the King likes to meet Indians. She insisted that we must try to meet him. And the fools that we were, we began our mission of meeting the King of Bhutan. We thought he might even invite us for dinner. After all, who doesn't love to break bread with mysterious travelers from an exotic land far away, who have seen a thousand suns and crossed a hundred seas?

The King keeps traveling so we asked people if he was in town. We looked for his palace but instead found the late Royal Grandmother's palace grounds. But, we did not lose hope. We were adventurers of an indefatigable spirit. Next place we looked was a Dzong which served as the administrative centre of Thimpu. A guard threw suspicious glances at us and looked angry when we asked him how we could meet the King. So, we decided to give up on our mission. The guard sensed that, and immediately he came into his avatar of a Bhutanese local with all the adjectives. He was interested in photography and showed us his pictures clicked on a VGA phone. 

The imperious Dzong

In the evening, we visited a pub called Mojo Park. A band was playing good covers and a few originals. The vibe was brilliant. We half-joked that it would be fun if we could play on the stage. So, one of our over-enthusiastic friends, ended up asking the manager if we could play. And he said Yes!

Shruti and I, both were going to play the guitar and sing. I think we were quite poor. There was a lot of passion and little coordination. But, our passion evoked a fire in the hearts of the audience, or so I would like to believe. They all sang along with us every step of the way. After our renditions of Wish You Were Here and BC Sutta,  we heard cries of Encore! Then, Shruti did a solo of Zombie.

Drunk performers. In other words, normal humans

High on adrenaline, we went to a nightclub, danced the night away and roamed the streets drunk in spirit and happiness. It was a magical night. 

It was past 2 a.m. when we returned to the hotel and the door was closed. So we shouted and banged the doors until the boy came down to open the door. That was embarrassing and we felt sorry to have woken up the poor chap in the middle of the night.


RIDE BACK TO INDIA

 

Still in Bhutan

The next morning was our last in Bhutan. We took the bikes to the now routine task of getting them repaired. At the repair shop, we met the King's official rider. He drove a Desert Storm. Apparently the king was fond of bikes. Finally, we left around noon. On the way we met a couple of young boys - perhaps 13-14 years of age cycling their way from Thimpu to Paro, for no reason. We rode at a fairly decent speed trying to catch up on the lost time of our late start.

Yup, still there.

We stopped for food at Karma Hotel - the same place where we had lunch while coming from Paro. The girl at the hotel recognised us and enquired us of our trip. It is nice to make acquaintance with people on a trip and be able to meet them again.

Reluctantly, we bid adieu to Bhutan and entered Jaigaon. Just a week away from India, and the crowd, noise and dirt felt alienating. It was dark already and our bike troubles caught up with us soon. Some kilometres away from Jaigaon, one bike's battery died in the middle of nowhere in complete darkness. We parked our bikes in the compound of a villager's hut/farm. The two men were generous enough to offer us water and leave us in peace. The croaking frogs did not.

Stuck in the middle of nowhere

We called our bike guy, Noel, who was in Siliguri. It took him more than two hours to arrive with spares. It was past 1 am by the time the bike was repaired and we began for what would be the ride of a lifetime.

You see, Noel and his two biker friends were pro bikers. And we were not. They conveniently chose to ignore this fact and rode like the wind. It was completely dark - cloud cover in the sky and no streetlights. They drove at an insane speed and we followed the only thing we could see - their taillights.

Noel rode in front in the center with his halogen headlights switched off at times. The other two flanked him with lights switched on to show the way. The rest of us followed. It was wonderful. In the cold, dark night, 7 bikes went weaving on the roads, overtaking trucks, jumping over rail lines and logs of wood without slowing down a bit. 

Just follow the taillight and do as the guy in front does. Trust the light

We lost our way a bit and found beautiful countryside roads. By this time, the cloud cover had lifted and there was a hint of moonlight shining upon us. The reflectors on the road were hypnotic. The adrenaline was pumping and fueling our exhausted bodies and minds. 

Midway, we stopped to eat something at an all night dhaba and shared stories of our rides with each other. It was super. We got going again and went through an elephant populated area. So, we had to be careful of the ones who had strayed on the roads. Fortunately, we didn't encounter any.

We arrived in Siliguri at 5 in the morning. And after a couple of hours of sleep, we headed to the airport.


DAILY RITUALS

 

Every day, we had a few rituals that made the trip memorable.

  1. Tying/Untying the luggage on the bikes. This took upto 30 minutes daily.
  2. Switching bikes. Some bikes were great, some were not. So, it makes sense to give everyone a chance. We drove CBR 250, Enfield Electra 350, Enfield Thunderbolt 500, Enfield Classic Old model 350, and the humble CBZ 180.
  3. The new overtaking maneuver. Bhutan has smart drivers. If you want someone behind you to overtake, you switch on the left indicator. If instead you want to warn them of incoming traffic, you switch on right indicator. All of us followed it religiously and it made for a wonderful driving experience.
  4. Early morning laziness and screwed up plans. We are lazy people. We spent a lot of time at night discussing and agreeing to waking up early and making a move. It never happened.
  5. Stops for stretching the muscles and banter every hour.
  6. Hotel room chilling. We spent ample time drinking, chatting and goofing off together.

LEARNING THE ART OF CHILLING

 

A few days after returning from Bhutan, its effect had not worn off. We drove slower without honking, smiled more and had more time for everyone we met. We craved to go back often. There are some places which make you feel like you are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Bhutan is the opposite. It helps you appreciate the beauty in life's small details and human interactions.

Bhutan taught us to:

  • chill, to slow down - in some cases, quite literally. It taught us to respect outsiders and treat them with the kindness and love you would expect in return. 
  • be simple-hearted and be without your guards-up all the time. 
  • not rush to go to some place when you are already where you need to be. 
  • leave the place and the heart you enter a little better than you found it.
  • be sincere but not serious.
  • be humble without being servile.
  • enjoy our nights.

We've forgotten most of it. But, every once in a while, whenever a Bhutan memory resurfaces, a smiles finds its way on our faces. I hope you all get a chance to go. It's a wonderful place.

Tada!


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