When and How to Solve Problems
Pooja has a problem. She lives in a bungalow as part of a large joint family. She is sitting in her little corner trying to prepare for her upcoming exams — but is close to losing her mind because of the noise around her. Joint families are noisy as a rule with conversations and discussions and arguments. To add to that, there has been the continuous racket of construction from the house to their left for six months now. The house on the right has not been less noisy.
The neighbours are dumping their construction waste right in front of her home, which is leading to open confrontation between the families and heated arguments. To make things even worse, within her family as well, there are ongoing disputes over division of ancestral property.
The colony itself is part of the old city and really clangorous. It has a huge population, is dirty and smelly, and always noisy with religious celebrations, calls for prayer from the mosque, parties, and music from speakers that go on well past midnight.
Worst of all, no one in Pooja’s house seems to notice all the noise or the effect it is having on Pooja’s studies. In fact, they seem to think that the environment has nothing to do with academic success. They point to the chaiwallah’s daughter, who completed her IAS exams under most adverse conditions.
Here’s Pooja’s problem: what should she do? She is not a genius or specially gifted in any way. She has a clear vision of wanting to join the IAS — and she knows that she won’t get there unless works hard. Very hard. And yet, her environment overwhelms her, coming between her and her Vision and dreams. What advice would be the best for her?
Pooja is not alone. In fact, there is no human being in history or now alive who has not dealt with problems, big and small, trivial and consequential, every day of his or her life. Problems seem to be embedded in the fabric of our daily life. As much as problems are a part of your life, so too are victories, happiness and pleasures. You may dream of a perfect life free of problems and filled only with pleasures, but deep down you know that problems do not go away. They wait for you to do something about them.
The road to success is full of obstacles, some trivial and annoying, like the noise around Pooja, but some more daunting — like a disabling road accident that leaves you in physiotherapy for 8 months, or the care of seriously ill parents. Just when everything seems to be going perfectly according to plan, something unexpected comes along to stop you in your tracks.
The Source Code To Success is an irrepressibly optimistic book and energetically advocates taking charge of your life and making it go according to your plan. However, unlike most self-help books in the market, I do not want to mislead you into believing that they are magic bullets and special buttons that will make everything happen exactly as you planned it. The most consistent quality of life is it unpredictability — unprotected opportunities come as often as unforeseen challenges and pitfalls. This chapter helps you take a clear, hard check of your realities and go forward with your eyes wide open and your expectations grounded firmly in reality. Life is seldom a fairy tale.
As someone said once, “Plan A is what you make. Plan B is what actually happens.”
What the Buddha said
One of the most famous of the Buddha’s teaching is enshrined in the Parable of the Mustard Seed. One day, a woman named Kisa Gotami came to him in deep grief, bearing the dead body of her only son. She had carried him door to door in her community, begged for medicine to bring him back to life, when a neighbor told her to go to Buddha. The Enlightened One instructed her to go back to her village and gather mustard seeds from the households of those who have never been touched by death. From those mustard seeds, he promised, he would create a medicine to bring her son back to life.
Relieved, Kisa went back to her village and began asking her neighbors for mustard seeds. All her neighbors were willing to give her mustard seeds except that their families had been touched by death. And thus, gradually, Kisa came to realize that death is a part of life. With this new understanding, her grief was calmed.
Paraphrasing this story, I would like you to first realize that problems are a part of life. But let us go one step further — what you are calling a problem is actually an event happening in the world, such as a party in Pooja’s neighborhood. That event is certainly not a problem for the party-goers. However, in Pooka’s head, it has become a giant problem. This is an important observation: a problem exists inside your head not in the world outside. For example, it may be pouring rain outside. For the children of the streets, it is a joyous time and they all go out dancing naked in the rain. However, you are annoyed because the rain will make you late for your meeting with a friend. So you see, the rain is not the problem!
Dealing with problems: three insights
The first insight that will help you deal with problems is: not all problems can be solved. For example, let us say it is Navaratri and you are finding it difficult to study with the constant drum-beating and noise. Here is a problem you can do nothing about; festivals will be celebrated by the community, whether you approve it or not. Sometimes, all you have to do is acknowledge this, shrug your shoulders and move forward.
The second insight is this: some problems can not be solved by you. For example, if there is a noisy property dispute every day within Pooja’s joint family, she cannot make it go away. Only a skilled arbitrator or a lawyer can bring about some measure of justice. Again, her best solution would be to shrug and get on with life.
The third insight is this: if you can’t change the problem, change yourself. Sometimes, the solution may be as simple as making a change in yourself. For example, all Pooja has to do is to buy herself a pair of noise-cancelling ear plugs and — presto! All the noise disappears into a whisper which she can barely hear.
Here are four practical bits of advice for dealing with life’s problem, big and small.
1. Make a list. The simple act of writing down the problem takes it out of your head and onto a piece of paper. Suddenly, it won’t seem so daunting, and you will find it easier to think objectively about each of them.
2. Cross out problems that cannot be solved. This includes problems that can be solved but not by you. Since there is nothing to be done, strike out these problems and move forward.
3. Circle problems that will delay your progress to your Vision. By doing this, you are bringing the focus back to the problems that are actually worth solving and leaving out those that will merely waste your time.
4. Tick problems whose solution speed your progress. For example, solving a health-related problem will allow you to get cracking towards your goal once more with renewed energy. It should receive your focussed attention.
By this systematic process, you can not only shorten your list of perceived problems and focus on the ones most worth solving. In Pooja’s case, the construction racket in the neighboring house can not be stopped or reduced; the locality cannot be made any quieter. Trying to solve the family’s property dispute would only take Pooja away from her studies. Eventually, she realizes that a pair of ear plugs is all she needs. Instead of changing the problem, she has changed herself.
More tips for dealing with problems
Learn to say no! Walk away from activities or events that do not contribute to your Vision and Mission. For example, Pooja could decide to leave her locality and temporarily take a room in a quieter area. If her parents protest, she should give her reasons calmly, be firm, listen politely and be open to alternatives, as long as they solve her problem.
Don’t be a superhero. Ask yourself, What needs to be done to solve this? How much of it can I do? Is the deadline realistic? What adjustments can I make? Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.
Delegate. If it feels like an important problem to solve, but you’d rather not be distracted from your main focus, find someone — a colleague, friend or subordinate — and request them to take care of it for you. Perhaps a cheque has to be deposited in a bank before closing time — find someone who doesn’t mind a short walk to the bank as a favor to you.
Meditate. Just 10 to 20 minutes of quiet mindfulness meditation can calm you, take the edge off your irritation — and thus make it easier to deal with your problem or environment.
Share your feelings. Talk to someone close and trusted about your problems, not because they will solve them for you but because expressing your frustration will calm you. Ask friends how they dealt with a situation similar to the one that is “stressing you out.”
Be flexible. If you’re meeting constant opposition in your attempts to fix the problems hindering you, rethink your actions or strategy rather than arguing. Make allowances for others’ opinions and stand ready to compromise.
One step at a time
If the list of problems seems overwhelming and long, tackle one problem at a time. Make a list of things you need to get done and get started. Once that is done, move on to the next one. It can be very satisfying to tick off tasks and give you a feeling of really tackling your problems head on. If you’ve ever seen the brilliant movie, The Martian, starring Matt Damon, you’ll know exactly what this means. In the movie, the Matt Damon character is one a mission sent to colonize Mars. However, after landing and setting up their tents, there is a storm and they are forced to take off again and head back to earth. However, in the chaos, they leave Matt Damon behind on. He is now the loneliest man in the universe, stranded on a strange planet. He knows another mission will be sent to extract him — but how will he survive on that inhospitable surface? What will he eat? What will happen when he runs out of oxygen? But instead of curling up and dying, he decides that he is going to “science the hell out of this”. He has no intention of dying on Mars.
I won’t spoil the movie for you by telling you what he does, but he does find a way to solve all his problems, and he survives. After he is safely back on earth months later, he is talking to a classroom of university students, and this is what he says:
I guarantee you that at some point, everything’s gonna go south on you. And you’re gonna say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now you can either accept that… or you can get to work.
You just do the math and solve the problem.
And then onto the next problem and solve that problem.
And solve the next problem too.
And if you solve enough problems, you get to go home.
Buddhism and the Parable of the Mustard seed http://christicenter.org/2012/11/buddhism-parable-mustard-seed/
Stress: Coping with everyday problems http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/stress-coping-everyday-problems
How do I get rid of problems? Buddha’s advice https://kadampalife.org/2014/10/12/how-do-i-get-rid-of-problems-buddhas-advice/