It was a surreal time in my life.
All the anchors I’d once believed as reliable were being uprooted one by one. My grandfather’s sudden death was followed by my parents’ messy separation. This was a time of great upheaval and turmoil for all involved. I found myself leaving a place I’d learned to call home, leaving friends whom I would never meet again without even a goodbye. I watched my family fall apart. From an eleven year old boy, I turned into an eleven year old man overnight.
In a new city and school things went south quickly. I went from being a grade-A student to an academic delinquent. I got in with the wrong crowd and joined a gang. Other angry and confused souls like me who believed righteous aggression was the path of salvation. We picked fights with other gangs. We armed ourselves with anything we could find: bats, bicycle chains, metal rods, field hockey sticks or just our plain fists. There was so much rage within us, we needed an outlet for it. And the moment right before a gang war, or the moment right after, were the ones we lived for. Most of us weren’t even teenagers yet.
Father Joe Fernandez, the principal of the school, was the only thing keeping me from getting expelled. He had had a rough childhood as well. And he saw something of himself in me.
One afternoon, I was hauled into the principal’s office for breaking a kid’s nose. This boy, a few years senior, and his buddies had thought I’d make an easy target. They’d cornered me and taunted me. When I’d remarked that they were cowards because they outnumbered me, one of them had stepped right up to my face and told me to give it my best shot. So, I head-butted him.
When I walked into Father Joe’s office, I was sullen and stared at the ground, my hands thrust defiantly in my pockets. A table fan whirred in the corner only slightly cooling the room. Summers in Bombay were brutally humid. Father Joe was fiddling with his stereo. He picked a tape and began playing it.
“And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…” a smooth vocal crooned in the background. Father Joe motioned to me to have a seat.
“Know who this is, son?” he asked leaning over.
I shook my head.
“Only one of the greatest singers of all time. Ever heard of the name Frank Sinatra?”
“No,” I replied flatly.
“He was a lot like you. Bright and angry all at the same time…”
One half of my brain was listening to him yet the other half seemed strangely curious about what the singer was singing about. The chorus in particular caught my attention. What was that? “My way”?
Father Joe noticed my interest and he turned off the stereo, took the cassette out and handed it to me.
“Give it a listen. And if you like, you can make a copy and bring this back to me next week.”
The first time I played the tape that evening, I listened to the lyrics intently. Then I played the song again. Then again. And again. Over and over all through the night. Never had a song spoken to me in such a manner. It was a song that was written for me and by me. It described my deepest yearning. A kindred soul, at the end of his journey standing testament to a life lived on his own terms, reaching out to me across space and time and validating my deepest desire with the words:
“I did it my way”.
I had watched the world that others built around me, to support me, collapse. And I knew then that nothing and no one was ever going to be reliable enough to create my reality for me. I wanted to live life on my own terms, to see myself and reality through my own eyes. I wanted to stand on my own feet. But I was afraid. And my rage was a mask for that terrible hopelessness and trembling I felt inside. Under the hardened exterior, I was still a child whose world was crumbling around him.
I was afraid of what being alone meant. Afraid of what would befall me if I took hold of the reins of my own life. Yet, here was this voice – soulful, smooth, honest speaking of a life lived doing exactly that. A life that was far from perfect, yet was priceless just the same. A lifetime in which both the joys and the suffering were equally converted into a wholly positive sense of gratitude and a feeling of self-assurance that the choice to obey one’s own soul never fails.
I had never really allowed myself to cry when the chaos had struck our family. But that night I cried through the whole night as I listened to Ol’ Blue Eyes sing “My Way” to me on repeat.
After that, I stopped fighting at school. I became more approachable, my grades went up. I bought Father Joe a brand new copy of the tape since I had frayed his own by playing it so many times. While the rebelliousness in me never subsided, the rage did. Defiance, which was my natural stance, shifted from an outward show to an inner curiosity and desire to question every single assumption I had ever held about self, society and reality.
Within each and every human being there exists a homing device. It is a sixth sense designed to guide one forward. Even to call it a “sixth sense” is a misnomer. It is far more fundamental than that. It is our “first sense”, the primary sense by which we orient ourselves in the world. The other senses: of sight, hearing, sensation, taste and smell are more like auxiliary senses that one can still learn to function without if one of them were to fail. But, when the primary sense is dormant or dead, then one is sleepwalking through the world. Being led this way and that by powers and influences they can neither see nor understand.
Recent research suggests that birds can actually “see” the lines of the Earth’s magnetic field, not with their physical eyes but with a particular sense that allows them to orient themselves very precisely. This explains why they can migrate over entire continents and arrive for a meal at the very same patch of field that they return to every year. This sounds fascinating to us because our own directional faculties seem woefully inferior in comparison. But this isn’t entirely true.
While we may lack the ability to perceive magnetic fields our powers of intuition are far more capable than we think.
The Polynesian wayfinders, who navigated thousands of miles of the Pacific well before any navigational instruments had been invented, are a testament to that fact. Relying purely on their observations of the stars, the movement of ocean currents and wave patterns, the air and sea interference patterns caused by islands and atolls, the flight of birds, the winds and the weather, they were able to pinpoint tiny islands in the vast and empty ocean: literally the equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack.
Today, we have no need for such wayfinding techniques because we have the technology to achieve the desired result. But what about navigating the uncharted waters of our own minds: our unconscious motivations, our subconscious desires, our shadow identities, our existential thirst?
When it comes to understanding the human soul, we live in primitive times. And like the ancients, we have only crude and unreliable maps drawn by others: patchy, discontinuous and often misleading. They may work as reference material, but they are useless in guiding us forward.
There is a reason every truly influential person in the world: whether in politics, spirituality, business, social service, science or art has had a pioneering mindset. They have always stood in stark contrast with the cultural mores and ideologies of the time. They have defied every expectation society holds of how a human being should think, feel and act. Because, one can only be an agent of transformation when one has become familiar with the process of transformation in one’s own life.
Embracing the unknown and becoming familiar with uncertainty are necessary ingredients of transformation. Change can never happen within the boundaries of the known. Within the known all one can hope to do is maintain the status quo. Change only happens when we reach beyond our comfort zones into uncharted waters and set sail to see what we may encounter. Will there be deadly storms ahead that will submerge our flimsy canoes? Will we drift for weeks and run out of water to drink? Will we be consumed by some terrible aquatic monster? Or will we discover some new haven previously unknown?
These may have been the kinds of questions the wayfinders of Polynesia pondered upon as they looked out into the blue beyond. What compelled them to leave the safety of firm land, the comfort of their families, their children, their communities? What inspires a man or a woman to leave behind every shred of what is familiar and dear to them and set out into vast emptiness that could consume them at a moment’s notice?
It is a calling.
One doesn’t “choose” to do something so irrational. One is pulled towards it.
There is a drive so powerful that it can override every survival instinct and rational thought process that screams to maintain the status quo: “STAY IN THE COMFORT ZONE! The comfort zone is safe!” That is the same pull the migrating crane feels from the Earth’s magnetic field that causes it to leave its familiar home.
There is within this reality an unseen field of intelligence according to which each of us have the capacity to orient ourselves, if only that capacity is not dormant. And the draw of that force is undeniable. It supersedes our own individual wants, drives, proclivities and survival concerns. When one is “plugged in”, all of those become secondary.
Then the dictates of others, the cultural mores, the rules of engagement, the moral codes, the direction of authority figures, the laws of man sound like nothing more than background static. When one feels the “hum of life” every cell reverberates in resonance like a tuning fork. What we call the intellect, that faculty of rational thought, becomes a subservient player. It is relegated to a tactical position, with only logistical matters to concern itself over. All matters of existential significance are freed from its jurisdiction.
Frank Sinatra, Hermann Hesse, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, J.Krishnamurti, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Albert Camus, Alan Watts, D.T. Suzuki, Rudyard Kipling, Matsuo Basho, Alfred Tennyson, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau were some wayfinders who inspired me to calibrate my own inner compass. Not a perfect soul among them. Each limited in their own way. Yet, the pull to ceaselessly explore and chart the open seas of their own existence remained relentless.
Today, if I could speak to my childhood self, who stands at that cusp, with fear and trembling masked as rage, I would reassure him that I did, in fact, do it my way. And it all works out. Not perfectly. But perfectly for me. Every detour, every dead end, every triumph and every loss that occurs is all part of “the way”.
The tao of me.
I would gently whisper into his ear and embolden him. I would hold him by the shoulders and stand him up firm on his own legs. I would place my hand on his chest and draw his heart boldly into the unknown. I would urge him on forwards every time he stumbled, hesitated or turned around to glance at the dry land of safety that he left behind…
Perhaps, that is what has already happened.
My Way (by Frank Sinatra)
And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way
Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all, and I stood tall
And did it my way
I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside
I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that
And may I say, not in a shy way
Oh, no, oh, no, not me
I did it my way
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way
Yes, it was my way