“Tipping point: The crisis stage in a process, when a significant change takes place.”

We tend to think of “tipping points” in scientific terms, ie. the tipping point for a chemical reaction, the tipping point for climate change. But I think there are emotional tipping points as well – those times when your life reaches a boiling point and change is inevitable. I arrived at my own tipping point in 1988, when I decided to leave Tokyo (where I’d been working at a publishing company) and head home in pursuit of a “career.” The tension had been building up in my mind for some months at this point – Do I really want to be proofreading other people’s articles all my? Or teaching English to bored businessmen? It was time for a change, and thus I pointed myself in the direction of my hometown, San Francisco – the loooong way home, via Asia and Europe. Little did I know that there are sub-tipping points within tipping points. There I am in Bangkok, about 4 months into my trip, contemplating my next move. Do I fly directly back to California and start the next stage of my life? Do I continue my trip in Europe? OR, do I do what I’m most afraid of … go to India? And if India and the subcontinent is my path, where do I start?

As it turns out, I DO opt for India (at age 25, no less!), beginning in one of the most in-your-face cities on the planet. Arriving in Kolkata (once named Calcutta) – in the dead of night — is a bizarre experience. There are people everywhere! The second I walk out the airport door, taxi drivers besiege me. As my eventual cab nears the airport exit, the driver tries to let two of his friends into the vehicle, I assume in a gutsy gambit to charge me for two extra passengers! The nerve! As we head into town, hundreds of pedestrians seem to be wandering along the roadway aimlessly, holding their saris up to their mouths to protect themselves from the ever-present grit and dust. “Welcome to India,” I’m thinking. “What’s next?” Beggars? Lepers? Elephantiasis? What have I gotten myself into?

In spite of the somewhat rude initial greeting, I end up loving Calcutta. I love the crumbly, old Raj-era British architecture. I love the Bengali food. And I particularly love the street life, which is more pronounced in Kolkata than anywhere else I visited in India. Here you can have sandals made from pieces of car tire. You can get a haircut and a shave while sitting on a sidewalk mat. You can procure a delicious fruit salad the color of a rainbow. You can even have your ears cleaned! Although a basically brave person who wants to experience everything, I decide to pass on the ear cleaning. I like my hearing the way it is, thank you very much. I DO, however, get a $5 haircut AND a shave, which is a hair-raising experience – literally! When my barber brings out that big old straight blade, I can’t help thinking, “Is this where it all ends?” But that’s what tipping points are all about: living on the “edge.” A significant change did happen that day – I got my beard shaved off!

(I’ve heard tipping points described another way. I believe it was Hegel who suggested that moments of transformation are like coming upon a cliff. Behind you, the ground is crumbling. Ahead of you is a chasm, with a corresponding cliff on the other side of the gap. You can stand where you are and hope to ride out the quake. OR, you can take a running leap and either plunge to your death OR reach a new land, a new kingdom (a new insight). What has been your biggest tipping point so far? What was the crisis? And how did your life change, for better or for worse, after making the leap?)