Sunday, November 19, 2017

Testing a mindfulness hypothesis #1: Why does he always lie to me?


I feel that mindfulness is more of an investigation through the medium of awareness than just a practice. If so, then the question is: investigation into what? This is where mindfulness hypothesis comes to picture. Perhaps there are several versions of hypothesis that can be investigated. In this article, we take one version of the hypothesis and explore how it can be tested. The hypothesis is: Behind every sustained negative emotion, there is a cognitive illusion.

Let’s see if we can understand the terms in the hypothesis first. What’s a negative emotion? Anger, frustration, anxiety, stress, blame, guilt are some of the forms in which a negative emotion manifests. Whenever we carry a negative emotion, it feels heavier. In the absence of negative emotion, we feel lighter, we smile more etc. What’s a cognitive illusion? It
is a sustained gap between perception and reality. We are all familiar with optical illusions e.g. see the picture of Necker cube on the side. It has two ways in which it protrudes out – to the left and to the right. At a time, you can see only one of the two – not both. And whichever way you see, that’s what feels real. This is an example of an optical illusion. Similarly, we may feel one person right and the other person wrong in a situation and it could also be, like Necker cube, an illusion. You feel, one person is right because you see it only one way. A cognitive illusion typically involves misattribution – an incorrect cause-and-effect relationship created by thought process.

Let’s take an example that came up in my workshop. Whenever someone close to me (spouse or a close friend) lies to me – then I get upset. And when the person lies repeatedly, then I get mad. Now, mindfulness hypothesis says that since there is a negative emotion involved here (getting upset and mad), there is a cognitive illusion lurking behind. How would one begin to investigate into this situation? Note that before any such investigation can begin, a doubt should be entertained first, “Could I be wrong?” In the absence of this doubt, there is no beginning.  

Perhaps it would help to see how we learn about a magician’s magic. If you watch a YouTube video of a magician, and see the comments from viewers, many times, you will see people pointing out specific time e.g. 2:29 where the magician is doing some sleight of hand (e.g. see this blog on Penn and Teller Fool Us). Of course, if you watch the video in regular speed, it is difficult to see the trick. But if we run the video in slow motion then it becomes easier to see. Similarly, is there a way we can run the story in slow motion and check the “sleight of hand” of the thought?

One way to do this is to simulate the situation – in this case – spouse or friend lying to me – when I am seated in a cosy environment – say drinking a cup of coffee at home and see if the anger still simmers up. Watch how the tape of how he is doing this on purpose is playing again and again and how that still upsets us. This happens in spite of the fact that it is coming purely from memory. This simulation may help us see that springing up of a negative emotion may be an automatic process – almost mechanical.

Once we see this automaticity (if we see it), then we can ask the next question: Can the thought that led to my friend’s behaviour of lying to me be also an automatic response? How do I know if there was a choice involved? Some of these questions might lead us to observe the compulsions under which all of us are trapped. And we may see the futility of holding him responsible for the behaviour.

Of course, the crux lies in identifying such situations that upset us and carrying out these tests through run-time observation. Just carrying out an intellectual exercise would not help. One needs to pay attention to the train of thought as it moves around in these situations.

Monday, November 13, 2017

3 responses that hinder learning from the book of life


This year I got an opportunity to facilitate a two-day workshop on “Mindfulness on the go” in three different places – Kuppam (Andhra), Bangalore and Mumbai. The workshop follows an approach which is broadly called “learning from the book of life”. This means learning from one’s own life rather than according to a scripture or textbook. Many of the participants are open to this approach or at least curious to know more about it. However, some are not able to digest it easily. Here are three responses I have received from those who find this approach not so palatable.

1.      What about my favourite book of wisdom? Some people believe that the most profound wisdom is captured in some book such as Bhagavad Gita or Upanishads or some such scripture. In fact, some of them know such books by heart and they are able to recite several stanzas. However, when it comes to integrating any of the wisdom in their daily life, not much would have happened. Some have it in their to-do list to study their favourite book of wisdom, but haven’t got around to doing it yet. In any case, since they carry such a strong belief that real wisdom can only come from their favourite book of wisdom, they are not so open to learn from the book of life. There is nothing wrong with learning from a religious scripture. However, that’s different from learning from the book of life. And because of their fixedness on one particular book and its content, they are unable to appreciate learning from the book of life.

2.      Lost in the story in the book: Some people are interested in learning from the book of life. In fact, they are eager to narrate a story from the book e.g. how a close friend or spouse  lied to him consistently and how it is his right to be upset about it etc. Now, when you are learning from a book, before you get into the story, it is important to pay attention to the structure of the book. E.g. the book may be torn and may have lost a few pages, or the book may have loose pages which are jumbled up or the book may be translated and the translation may have errors etc. In fact, in case of book of life, thought process may be playing the role of a translator and a shorthand writer combined into one. And the story about which you are getting upset may be a result of some error in translation. Hence, it is important to pay attention to the process of how the book is being put together and presented to you. Getting upset about a jumbled up story has no meaning.

3.      “Touch me not” pages: Some people are interested in learning from the book of life. And they make a beginning in paying attention to the process and structure of the book. Until, the subject matter turns to something they are very protective about e.g. religious beliefs or political ideology or a relationship that has gone sour or some idea close to their heart. These pages become “touch me not” pages. There is no room for investigation because the story is frozen and the book is believed to be in perfect order in those pages. This limits the learning because perhaps some of the greatest nuggets of wisdom may be hidden in that area of the book.

In short, there are three responses which hinder learning from the book of life: One, a belief that real wisdom lies only in certain scriptures and nowhere else. Two, getting lost in the story (content) of the book and as a result losing track of the errors in the process and structure of the book and three, treating some of the pages as “touch me not” and refusing to investigate that area of the book.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Progress, process and possibility: 3 words and their new meanings


Self-investigation is a process that involves testing some of the long held beliefs. If some of the beliefs are seen to be false then that results into old words acquiring new meanings. In this article, I would like to present three such words: progress, process and possibility – which have acquired new meanings for me through the process of self-investigation.

Progress: Right from school days the word progress carried significance. Initially, it meant gaining height and weight and getting good marks in exams. Later on it meant getting into a good college, getting a good job, getting married, owning stuff like a house, a car etc. Somewhere along the way, I came across books by two spiritual teachers – J. Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi. JK said – root cause of human suffering is the process of becoming. And Ramana said – there is no separate entity there to progress. I don’t know why but I took them seriously – at least treated these as serious hypothesis to be tested. This was twenty years ago. And I haven’t found any evidence to disprove them so far. As a result, the word progress has acquired a new meaning – progress, to me, is a cognitive illusion – a thought created gap between perception and reality. To get a glimpse of how this could possibly be the case, it would help to look at the new meaning of the second word – process.

Process: Be it history or science, it was about understanding the interaction and relationship between various entities. Physics involved large bodies like planets and small particles like atoms and electrons and the forces among them. History involved kingdoms, nations, their leaders and the wars. In either case, objects were primary and their interaction was secondary. How does the earth attract the moon? Did Gandhi help India win freedom from British? In short, objects were primary and the process was secondary. Somewhere along the way, came a doubt: what if the process is primary and everything else secondary? This investigation takes a new turn when you question whether I am primary or the process of perception and meaning making is primary. Here is how I see this currently: All there is – is the Unknown which is a process of meaning getting expressed into matter, thoughts and actions and simultaneously getting compressed back into the Unknown. Every moment there is a perception and meaning making. If perception is with clarity, then the meaning is harmonious and gets expressed accordingly. If there is misperception then the meaning is conflict-ridden and gets expressed accordingly. Every object is only a relatively stable structure in this process flow – similar to a vortex in a river – never separate from it. Desire for progress comes out of misperception when the relatively stable structures (such as this body or the nations) are taken to be independent entities. And the meaning making process tries to make the entity (e.g. this body) more secure making progress (e.g. by getting a better job). How does a conflict-ridden meaning begin to change?

Possibility: Every conflict has a notion of impossibility inherent in it. Every anxiety involves imagining a future – a what-if scenario – say of losing a job or a breaking of a relationship – and also carrying a rigid belief that the imagined scenario should be impossible (must not happen). However, sometimes perception undergoes a shift and clarity emerges in the process. This is called an insight. And through insight there is a perception of the futility of the process of becoming. Then the rigidities which lead to impossibilities dissolve and turn into possibilities. Then every opinion, every meaning is seen as a possibility and nothing as impossible. In the worst case scenario of someone telling, “You are stupid!” may also involve a possibility of learning something new about oneself. Perhaps there is an opportunity to say “Sorry” if one has inadvertently hurt someone. This is when the meaning making process becomes creative. This understanding results in a living where every moment comes with several possibilities and enriches life.

In short, I see currently that progress is a cognitive illusion when meaning making process misperceives reality and begins to treat relatively stable structures as independent entities. Sometimes, through insights, the meanings undergo a shift and that melts its rigidities. Then every moment brings several possibilities and makes life is a continuous learning process. Who knows? The meanings might change tomorrow.

References:

1.      J. Krishnamurti’s reference to process of becoming as the root cause of suffering is in “Ending of time” Chapter 1.

2.      Ramana Maharshi highlighting that there is no separate entity to make progress can be found in multiple discussions in the book – “Talks with Ramana Maharshi”. E.g. talk 380.

3.      Seeing every object as a relatively stable structure like a vortex in a river is a metaphor I came across in David Bohm’s writing and interviews. E.g. “Wholeness and implicate order” Chapter 1.

Monday, October 23, 2017

3 ways a metaphor helps in challenge framing


Around forty years ago, Dr. Venkataswamy asked a question – “Why can’t eye care service be offered with efficiency similar to McDonalds?” People found it an odd analogy. How can you compare a cataract surgery with a hamburger? But the metaphor did help create one of the most efficient eye hospitals in the world, Aravind Eye Care System. Framing the challenge is arguably the most important step in innovation and metaphors play a key role in that process. Here are 3 ways in which metaphors help in challenge framing.

Makes it more concrete: Dr. V could have said, “Let’s build world’s most efficient eye hospital.” Perhaps it might have worked. However, words like efficient and others like innovative, world’s best are abstract. They mean different things to different people. When you say – as efficient as a McDonalds – suddenly it makes the concept more concrete. There is a common image for all the people who are involved in the venture.

Brings out uniqueness: While Aravind took inspiration from McDonalds in building process efficiency, it was significantly different from McDonalds in its business model. Aravind is a not-for-profit organization in which paying customers cross-subsidize the poor patients. This was a case when Aravind was eleven bed hospital and it is the case when the size is several thousand beds. Metaphor can also help in bringing out the uniqueness of the idea. You could say it is different from McDonalds in its business model in the following way.

Generates new questions: Anybody who has been to McDonalds especially in the US would know that it has drive-through. So, one  could ask, “How do we provide a drive-through for Aravind?” Of course, the question may or may not be relevant. However, it may take you in a direction not thought before. In fact, Aravind did end up creating a service where they prepare an prescription eye-glass in thirty minutes. This idea may or may not have been inspired by drive-through. But the point is, metaphors can be generative. i.e. They can help you raise questions not thought before. McDonalds customizes the taste of its products and services to local taste. You could ask, “How do we customize eye care to local culture?” This might lead to new ideas.

While Aravind was partly inspired by McDonald, now Aravind is inspiring other hospitals in India and abroad. I won’t be surprised if Narayan Hrudayalaya was partly inspired by Aravind. It is does to heart-surgery what Aravind is doing for eye care.

In short, metaphors make the challenge concrete, bring out uniqueness of the challenge and generate new questions. Thus metaphors help enrich the challenge.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Adopting Design Thinking in organizations, one step at a time


One question that I often get is, “How do we integrate Design Thinking in our existing processes?” Many organizations have well established processes like Agile, Six Sigma, Business Excellence framework etc. It is both impractical and unwise to establish design thinking as yet another parallel process. Instead, what works better is to take a step or two of design thinking and pilot it within the existing processes. Let’s look at a few options.

There are multiple ways to view DT. One view, as advocated by the Stanford D-school, looks at DT as an iterative process consisting of five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. Let’s see what it might mean to adopt only one of the five steps in an organization at a time.

1.      Empathy: If you were to emphasize empathy in your existing processes, here are a few options.

·        Journey map: This is a tool where customer’s experience is mapped through various stages of the journey. For example, one journey map could be about “Employee’s day-1 experience”. This would map out experiences of various new joinees as to how their day-1 experience was through the stages of – arrival, induction session, lunch, afternoon, exit etc. This might lead to a challenge statement such as, “How do we get a new joinee an employee badge by the end of day-1?”

·        Humble inquiry: Popularize humble inquiry in meetings and discussions. This is a form of inquiry where one requests the other person to elaborate the point. E.g. Please tell me more or please give me an example. Contrast this with the prescriptive enquiry where one asks questions like, “But, why don’t you try like this…?” or “Boss, this kind of stuff will not work in our organization?”

·        Bright spots: We are easy in finding what’s going wrong – the dark spots. However, in any situation, there is something working right in some corner. These are the bright spots. For example, in every situation where an organization faces high attrition, there are some people who have stayed long within the same organization. So exit interviews would give some information about the dark spots, staying interviews would tell more about the bright spots. Researching about bright spots naturally evokes empathy because you are trying to understand why certain things are working well in that context.

2.      Define: You may choose to focus only on define step – which means you will try to establish more clarity on which are the challenges a team is focused on addressing at various levels in the organization. You could check following:

·        Quality of challenges:  Many times organizational challenges are framed in an abstract manner – “We want to become an innovative organization”. Or They are concrete but don’t have hooks for imagination – “We want to be no 1 in our market.” This is a concrete goal but doesn’t contain any direction for exploration. Alternately, we could ask, “How do we organize knowledge in our project so that it can create Quora like experience?”

·        Internal bright spot-based challenges: You could encourage framing of challenges which are based on internal bright spots. For example, you may pick an innovation from last year – say a chat-bot integration into a customer service platform (BotServ) – and ask “How do we develop more innovations like BotServ which can excite customers and leadership alike?”


3.      Ideation: In all likelihood, your organization may not be new to ideation. However, you may want to ask how you can have more ideation sessions with cross-functional teams. Or you may want to check if you can organize co-innovation workshops with customers where you generate ideas together.

4.      Prototyping: In case you would like to build a prototyping culture, here are a few options:

·        Story-boarding: This is one of the least expensive ways of getting people to bring ideas alive. You can encourage people to create before-and-after storyboards and paste them in the corridors / brainstorming rooms. This can invite comments and may inspire other ideas.

·        Wireframes:  In the world of software this typically means drawing screens – either for PC or for a mobile phone. In the world of physical objects, it means drawing a floorplan or making a 3-D model like how an architect does for a house etc.

·        Hackathons: Conduct a full-day or two-day event focused on building rapid prototypes for a given challenge.

5.      Test: In case you would like to emphasize getting ideas tested, here are a few options:

·        Test Fridays: Allocate an hour on one Friday every month in getting prototypes reviewed by senior leaders. 

·        Customer testing: Pass on prototypes with customer facing people – sales, product managers etc. and get feedback.

Someone may argue that emphasizing a step like ideation without empathy or experimentation may be missing the main point of design thinking. And, I feel any step is better than no step. Hope you get to try out something.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Mindfulness on the go: mini-podcast #1 and #2

Thanks to the suggestion from my wife, Gauri, we decided to chat together on mindfulness and experiment with podcast. So far we have created two mini-podcasts – each roughly of 10 minutes duration. The process has been fun for us and that is encouraging. One of the aspects I am exploring is how we can learn mindfulness through metaphors from movies. So expect mini-podcasts in future where we take up a movie and see what kind of mindfulness tips it presents us. If you have any suggestions, please write a comment on this blog.


Introduction by Gauri (0:00)
Vinay's background (0:35)
What is mindfulness? (3:55)



Introduction by Gauri (0:00)
What is "on the go"? (0:25)
If I practice mindfulness, will I become stress-free or peaceful? (3:30)
Is this connected with any God, religion or a guru? (7:00)
Why should we learn mindfulness? (9:07)

Five tips on mindfulness from “A beautiful mind” film

A beautiful mind” is a movie loosely based on the life of the Nobel Laureate John Nash. In an earlier article I have written about how it depicts the journey of a human mind through the three stages of creativity, madness and awakening. In this article, I would like to bring five tips on mindfulness that we can learn from this movie.

1.      You can’t reason your way out of suffering


Nash is arguing with his psychiatrist and asking, "Why can't I reason my out of this (schizophrenia)?" Psychiatrist is quick to point out the paradox, "Because your mind is where the problem is in the first place." Thought is distorting our perception. Hence, we can’t use thought as a tool to investigate the distortion. It is like dressing up the thief as a police in order to investigate the theft. Mindfulness suggests that we use attention or awareness as the tool to investigate what’s going on.

2.      You’ve got to keep feeding them for them to stay alive



Martin, Nash's friend, asks him if the hallucinations are gone. Nash says that they are not gone but he has stopped feeding them and as a result they have given up on him. Mindfulness is about watching how you are feeding your dreams and nightmares for them to stay alive. If the feeding stops, the dreams and nightmares lose their power.

3.      Being suspicious of your perception



Nash is approached by a person outside his class whom he has never met. Nash is suspicious of new people. So he double-checks with one of his students if she is able to see this new person as well. Only when she confirms does Nash proceed to have a chat with the visitor. Mindfulness involves being aware that the current perception may be a distortion of the reality especially in surprising situations. And it remains open for alternate views and opinions.

4.      Are you crazy? Yes, it’s possible!


Nash is sitting with a visitor, Thomas King, who has come to meet him on behalf of Nobel committee. Nash is being considered for the Nobel Prize and King is there to check if Nash is crazy. After all, the reputation of Nobel Prize is at stake. Nash says “It’s possible (that he is crazy.)” He further clarifies that he is still on medication for schizophrenia. Being mindful is about carrying a huge bias for “possible” as against “impossible”. Every belief or idea is tentative and open for validation even if the idea is “I am crazy.”

5.      Like the diet of the mind, choose not to indulge in certain appetite


Nash clarifies the situation to Thomas King. He still sees things that are not there but he chooses not to acknowledge them. Mindfulness is a process where one is alert and attentive all the time. This is similar to what Nash calls – a diet of the mind. If you are on a diet, you are alert all the time as to what you are eating. Similarly, here there is alertness to check if the thought or voice in the head is worth "indulging in".