Failures and setbacks are a common part of life. But what if you do everything by the book, dot the i’s and cross the t’s, and still find yourself lost?
I was in such a situation earlier this year. I had reached a key milestone in an epic odyssey to becoming a human rights lawyer, which began when I was at school in India and came to an end a decade later in England.
I had a sheltered life growing up in a small town in Madhya Pradesh in India, with an abundance of love and nature and blissful ignorance of the world beyond. But as my brother and I grew older, worries about higher education hit us. My parents moved us to the capital city of Delhi. To say that Delhi shocked us as young teenagers would be an understatement. The population, diversity, pollution, poverty, and scale of the city all overwhelmed our senses.
Adjusting and adapting to city life was difficult, particularly in school. All the students spoke English fluently, and it was difficult to fit in without it. It made me think: if I could not fit in, despite being the same ethnicity, age, class, and background, all because I could not speak English or because I was not a city kid, then what was life like for those who were truly different? Those who were impaired, or those who could not afford to go to good schools in the city?
Human Rights – a profession where you can empower those most vulnerable in society by protecting their freedoms and asserting their rights. My mother’s friend was a lawyer; he told me about this career path, which took root in me immediately. Little did I know that it would become a fire that would consume my entire focus and energy for the decade to come.
I worked hard, secured good grades in school, and committed myself to improving my English. I flourished and gained entry into one of the top law schools in India. I worked even harder in my undergraduate university. My goal was simple: to study human rights or international law from a globally-renowned university and secure a good job.
I had tremendous support from my faculty, family, and friends who guided me every step of the way. I was determined to secure an internship early on in my undergraduate studies at the United Nations, and after close to one hundred applications in my first year, I did. My first internship was at the UNDP in Colombo, Sri Lanka. And so I went as a nineteen-year-old to live and work abroad. The experience was transformative, and it strengthened my conviction that this was indeed the path for me.
I knew that to get into a top postgraduate law school, grades alone would not be sufficient. I threw myself into the world of international competitive debating. I traveled to several countries and worked and competed at debate tournaments, took extra electives and more coursework to set myself apart. It was a lot of work, but I also had some amazing experiences along the way and made friends from around the world, whom I am still proud to have in my life. I was accepted into Cambridge University for my Master’s, a surreal feat for someone from my background.
After the amazement at getting into Cambridge subsided, I felt exhausted and completely empty inside. I had barely taken any break during five years of undergraduate studies and the realization came crashing into me. I felt that I could not even move my bones and the emptiness scared me. I confessed to my mother, who with such gentle and knowing eyes said, “I think you should try Heartfulness Meditation.”
I was surprised at her suggestion. My maternal uncle is the one in the family who meditates actively; my parents don’t really meditate and rarely asked me to. But I listened and am so very grateful I did.
Shortly after I moved to Cambridge, I got a message that a Heartfulness trainer had just started working in Cambridge once a week. Every Thursday morning, I would cycle to a local community center and ring the reception for my weekly meditation sessions.
That trainer, who is my trainer still, is a wise and kind-hearted person. As our relationship grew, so did my meditation practice. Things became so much better; although the fire for pursuing a career in human rights had not dimmed, another flame had ignited within me for spirituality. I always remember that year in Cambridge fondly, as I finally found a sense of balance between working hard and enjoying life.
But a career in law demands a pound of flesh. Seemingly, I was nowhere close to having made that payment. When I graduated from Cambridge, I was advised by several faculty members and other mentors to qualify as a solicitor in England, in order to open doors for me in the human rights field. That meant doing two additional postgraduate law degrees and two years of working at a good commercial law firm in London.
I secured a position at one of the top law firms. The next four years were tough, I worked very long hours, weekends and weekdays blurring into each other, and I constantly felt that there was never enough time to rest.
I knew what I had signed up for, but during law school I had a lot of control over my time, whereas saying “no” did not feel like an option in the work culture. In fact, saying no was often interpreted as lacking drive.
My health and well-being suffered. There were upsides; I was paid well and could book holidays for my family and put down a deposit for my first home. But I barely spent time with my family. Although I did qualify as a solicitor, I was not sure that I had landed where I wanted to all those years ago.
Last year, I visited Kanha Shanti Vanam, and spoke to the Heartfulness Guide, Daaji. One of the things he said was that when we think the material reward or achievement is so great we sacrifice ourselves.
The penny dropped. I had not realized that is what I had inadvertently done. I had placed my career at the very top and sacrificed everything else. To chase a dream.
This realization made me so resentful at first, but I felt such a release and relief after that, like I had finally been able to come to the edge of a shore alongside the calming and serene waters of my soul. I realized that even our noble desires can consume us and keep us from experiencing the true tranquility that resides within our hearts, always reminding us of our completeness that is not dependent on external achievements or accolades.
After a long time, I felt truly at peace. I decided I would never give up this peace for anything else in the world. Perhaps I had to go through this journey to realize that. Perhaps, what I lost I will never find again, but that is okay. I am grateful I came to this realization now while most of my life is still ahead of me. Equally, I am grateful for this incredible journey that only a few get to live and experience.
I am figuring out where to go next. I still want to do more human rights work, but this time my heart has the front row seat. Since I qualified, I left the law firm I was working for. I have been doing freelance content writing, teaching yoga, and volunteer human rights work. More importantly, I am allowing myself just to be – to live life, to not have it all figured out, and to not trade the present for the future. The flame I wish to keep alive is the one of a heartful way of life. One that keeps me warm on a cold night and will never burn me.
For anyone who has gone through something similar, who did everything they were told to do and achieved success in a conventional sense, and still felt exhausted at the end of the long mile, do not lose heart. It is okay for it not to be okay. The world owes us nothing, but we owe it to ourselves not to sacrifice body, heart, mind, and soul for something external or fleeting.
Besides, if you are feeling a sense of incompletion with where you are, then as the saying goes: The film is not over yet, my friend.