Saturday, June 16, 2018

Electromagnetism: My favourite metaphor from Salman Rushdie’s “The golden house”

I decided to read Salman Rushdie’s “The golden house” (2017) after reading one of his interviews. He was asked to explain what he meant by the line in the novel – dirt is freedom. That sentence jumped out at me and I added the novel to the to-read list last year.

In “The golden house” the story is being narrated by Rene’ who is attempting to write a movie script based on the life of a family staying in the neighbouring house called the “Golden House” in Lower Manhattan. The family – father and three sons – have migrated to the US from Mumbai after 26/11 terror attacks and they are behaving as though they didn’t have a past. The novel is choke-full of metaphors, a large portion of them from Greek mythology. Here I would like to focus on the metaphor which appealed to me the most: Electromagnetism. I felt that this metaphor runs through all the major characters of the novel including the narrator.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, electricity and magnetism were two totally unrelated concepts. Later, Faraday, Maxwell, and others showed that it is one thing, not two different things – electromagnetism. “Can a man be a good man when he is a bad man?” Nero Golden, the father of the neighbouring family asks the narrator. He is saying that he is goodandbad – similar to electromagnetism.

Petronius alias Petya, the eldest son of Nero is on the extreme side in the autism spectrum. He is making millions of dollars from the computer games he builds. He has agoraphobia which results in him carrying a fear of outdoors, manic depression, inability to socialize and heavy drinking. In short, Petya is saneandinsane.

Lucius Apuleius (Apu) is the middle son. He is a successful artist holding solo exhibitions. In contrast to his elder brother Petya who lives in the virtual world of computer games sitting in his room, Apu mingles with ease in the real world of undergrounds, clubs, prisons, subcultures, gamblers, dying factories, dancing queens. He has a vision problem on the left eye and he sees everything distorted and deformed. In fact, Apu sees ghosts. Thus Apu lives in a world that is realandimaginary.

Dionysus (D) Golden, the youngest son, is androgynous. He is “miserable in men’s clothes and too scared to go public in a dress, painted mouth, and pink hat”. Thus D is manandwoman.

When Nero Golden asks Rene’ the goodandbad question, he further adds, “If you believe Spinoza and agree that everything is determined by necessity, can the necessities that drive a man drive him to wrongdoing as well as right? What is a good man in this deterministic world? Does the adjective mean anything?”  

Today, we don’t differentiate between electricity and magnetism. We call it electromagnetism. Can something similar happen to the polarities of good-bad, san-insane, man-woman, real-imaginary? Is this the core question Rushdie is asking? And when we begin to see the logic of necessity behind every action, goodandbad, isn’t it also called – empathy?

Perhaps dirtandpurity belongs to the same category. In explaining his love of dirt, Rushdie mentions in the interview: “The moment people start talking about purity, other people start dying, you know? The moment Nazi Germany started talking about racial purity there followed a great massacre.” Hence to see that dirt is, in fact, dirtandpurity is freedom.

image source: goodreads.com

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

3 expressions of clarity


Last week I wrote about my favourite mindfulness principle: clarity is action. In this article, I would like to present 3 things I experienced which, in all likelihood, are the expressions of growing clarity. I am sure there are many more things than just three because clarity pervades everything in our life. However, let me start with these three.

1.      Universal empathy: Every day we encounter people whose behaviour appears crazy to us. These folks could be living with us or they could be random people we come across on the street or these could be people we read about in the newspapers. Some of these behaviours have the power to upset us. Why can’t she just listen to me? Why did he have to cut me on the road? How could this mining baron be a leader of this political party? How can they perform such a heinous act? With clear perception, we begin to see automaticity of thinking and actions. It becomes clear that this seemingly crazy behaviour is almost like a program working – mechanical stuff with little intelligence. Then the anger, frustration doesn’t arise. It becomes obvious that their behaviour is an expression of necessity. It couldn’t be otherwise. This is an empathic understanding extended universally to everybody.

2.      Ease of saying “No”: Many times we engage in projects without being clear why we are doing it. Then we end up putting half-hearted effort. With clarity, saying “No” becomes easy. This could be a response to an invite to a meeting or a request for a proposal or even business partnership proposal. Money is one of the major considerations in these decisions. When there is clarity about how much money I really need, then it is easy to say “no” to projects just to make more money. Another reason for saying “yes” to a request is to keep one’s image, perhaps as a friend, intact. “What will he say if I don’t join?” we think. Once this image maintenance business is clearly seen, decisions become easier. Lack of clarity can also create confusing notions of what it means to help someone especially poor. Sometimes underneath the urge to help may reside a desire to look socially responsible. Once the selfish fa├žade is seen for what it is, that clarity acts with ease.

3.      Comfort with “what is”: Most of the moments in an average day are ordinary. They may involve commuting, brushing, reading a newspaper, watering plants, eating, small chit-chat, cooking, doing dishes, reading/writing emails etc. If we carry a deep desire to reach somewhere financially, career-wise, spiritually, then many of these moments may be categorized as “waste of time”. They seem to be just delaying us in reaching the ultimate goal. That creates a nagging feeling of “I would rather be doing something else”. This results in a perpetual unfriendly relationship with “what is”. Once the process of becoming is clearly seen for what it is, then that clarity makes us comfortable with “what is”.

Image source: clipart.com

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Clarity is action: My favorite mindfulness principle

"What should I do now?" is a question that pops up every now and then as we navigate this complex world. Many times we find ourselves in tricky situations with respect to relationships, parenting, career choices, investment decisions etc. In this article, I would like to explore one of my favorite principles on mindfulness “Clarity is action” which might shed some light on this dilemma. It is counterintuitive and quite different from what we experience every day. Let’s begin with a visual example.

Imagine you are walking through the woods where the path is paved with dried leaves. And suddenly you sense slight movement a few steps ahead of you. Most likely, you are going to stop walking and watch the path in front more carefully. To get an idea, please check the image by enlarging it and try to spot a snake. In case you spot a snake while walking, you are likely to alter your path. Even if you are a herpetologist who studies snakes, you might slow down and trade your path slowly in order to study the snake. When you don’t even hear any rustle, however, you would continue to walk the same way.

The clarity about the presence of a snake in your path instantaneously results in a different action. This is what the principle “clarity is action” is trying to point at. When the meaning associated with the current situation changes, the new meaning expresses itself in a different action. In this walk-in-the-wood example, the new action may mean stopping to walk and looking around for something fishy. The action may involve new movements inside the body e.g. increasing the heartbeat, secretion of some hormones etc.

Now, let’s look at what the hypothesis is not saying. One, it doesn’t say, “Clarity follows action”. i.e. it doesn’t say that a certain action leads to clarity. For example, it says that in the image of the woods above, if you don’t spot the snake at first, there is no specific action which can guarantee you see the snake. Of course, certain annotations in the picture may help one see the snake. But that is not guaranteed. That is true of all the optical illusions. A shift of perception happens, you can’t make it happen. Second, it doesn’t say, “Action follows clarity” i.e. It doesn’t say that first, you should have clarity and then you should ask a question, “What do I do next?” Once there is clarity, action has already begun.

Now, let’s extend the snake example to the no-snake situation. Let’s say we spot a couple of snakes on our way and now we are paranoid about seeing a snake every now and then. In fact, we might start seeing a snake where there is no snake. But if we are constantly thinking, “What if there is a snake here?” Then that would make the walk very difficult. It might paralyze us. The alertness while walking is useful but the panic that every small sound creates is dysfunctional.

Well, whenever we worry about a situation, say about faring poorly in an exam, then our situation could be similar to the no-snake paranoia situation. The worry is ultimately associated with the damage to the self-image in case of a poor performance – what will my parents say? What will society say? etc. The imagined presence of a snake is similar to the impending damage to the self-image. Unless there is clarity about what this self-image really is, our action may continue to be dysfunctional.

Hence, mindfulness is a process of learning to see what is real and what is not. There is no formula for learning. Every “snake” that generates fear in our mind is an excellent opportunity to learn and see clearly. And once the self-image is seen clearly for what it really is, then nothing further is needed to be done. Because that clarity expresses itself through appropriate action. So one way to resolve the question "What should I do now?" is to go to the source of the anxiety which underlies the question and look for the "snake". 

Notes:
1.      Image source: Snake hiding in the jungle was sourced from huffingtonpost.com.au. The article attributes the photo to Twitter / @SSSNAKEYSCI / Jerry Davis.

2.      I encountered the phrase “clarity is action” in the book “Commentaries on living” by Jiddu Krishnamurti, volume 1, Chapter 71 titled “Clarity in action”. Another phrase similar to this phrase is “Meaning is being” used by David Bohm in the article “Meaning and information”. It is also explored by David Bohm's interview by Renee Weber titled "A change of meaning is a change of being".

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Reading, fast and slow

I read books regularly, but I don’t consider myself a voracious reader. This year (2018), I have read two books so far. That means reading one book in two months.  That’s not a lot. However, when I teach a class or facilitate a workshop, it creates an impression that I read a lot. Sometimes after my session, some participants ask me for book suggestions. Occasionally, I get a question, “Can you give some tips on how to increase the speed of reading?” This has triggered following question: Is it really important to read fast? This is what we explore here.

I first realized the difference in reading speeds when I started using in-class reading material. Most of my workshop participants are working professionals with 10+ years of experience. They find it difficult to read a 20-page case study as a pre-reading.  Moreover, my teaching style does not require recreating the market context so I create two-three page caselets which participants read in the class. When some participants finish reading the case, a few others would not have finished even half. There could easily be a difference of 2 to 3x in fastest and slowest reader in every class. So, in some sense, reading speed matters. But how much?

When I look at my reading style, I see two modes of reading, fast and slow. When I read Easterine Kire’s “When the river sleeps” last month, it was read in the fast mode. However, when I read Isaac Newton’s biography last year, it was read in the slow mode. What exactly is the difference between these two modes?

Actually, the difference isn’t much while reading. Since I read both these books on Kindle, the slow mode involves highlighting and adding notes, a feature kindle provides. But what happens after I finish reading makes a bigger difference. For some books, I re-read part of the book; I write notes in a notebook and sometimes create mind maps. I check out the interviews of the author especially in the context of the book. I read what other reviewers are saying especially to see which part of the book appealed to them. I typically try to pen down anything that surprised me.

In the past few years, the two books which resulted in “slowest reads” are Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, fast and slow” and David Bohm’s “Thought as a system”. I read Bohm’s book four times in a span of one year. For both these books, I created detailed mind maps. Bohm’s book is a transcript of a weekend seminar and the audio recording of most of the seminar is available on the Internet. I listened to the 4 or more hours of audio 3-4 times. I have been listening to Kahneman’s talks / interviews since 2008 i.e. three years before “Thinking, fast and slow” was published. I have listened to Kahneman’s talk at UC Berkeley “Explorations of the mind” published on YouTube 10 years ago at least a dozen times in the past ten years.

In short, the slow reading involves a fairly deep reflection on what the author is trying to say. It usually means creating a few hypotheses that are contrary to the beliefs I have held so far. It further involves creating experiments to test and re-test these hypotheses. Slowly some of this gets added as teaching material in the workshop. I also end up writing multiple blogs when I am reading slow.

The boundary between fast and slow reading is not always that stark. The novel that I read sometimes puts me in a reflective mode without being aware of it. When the story doesn’t go out of my mind, I usually end up writing something about it.

Have you read any book in the slow mode lately?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Why do we have more exit interviews than stay interviews?


Most of us are familiar with exit interviews. But how many of us recall a stay interview? It is an interview in which someone is curious about why you have been staying with the company for so long. Why do we have more exit interviews than stay interviews? Could it because we have an inherent bias for dark spots (areas where things are not working) as compared to the bright spots (areas where things are working)? If so, are we losing out on a valuable source of ideas? That is what we will explore in this article.

I have owned a data card ever since I started my independent consulting practice more than a decade ago. Initially, it came in the form of a flat card that I used to insert in the PCMCI slot on my laptop. After a few years, it changed its form and became a dongle to be inserted into the USB port. I stayed with the same telecom operator for over a decade and the only time I got a call from someone was when I switched my operator a few months back. The person on the other end was curious why I was leaving. I had already bought a wifi hotspot from their competitor and had no interest spending time in explaining things. All I was looking for was a hassle-free exit. What use was the exit interview?

Of course, not everybody may be like me. I am sure some exit interviews do yield valuable information. However, stay interviews could also be at least as valuable if not more. This bias for exit interviews could be a manifestation of a more general bias most of us have towards dark spots – problem areas. Bright spot principle is powerful and yet counter-intuitive. It says that there is likely to be a seed of the solution in the same area where there is a problem. It would mean following:
  • If customer attrition is a problem, then paying attention to staying customers may give a clue.
  • If lack of individual student attention is a problem, then there are some classes or some teachers who are within the same environment and paying more individual attention. How? That may give a clue.
  • If you don’t like your job (a problem) then those moments in your office which give you a joy (bright spots) may give you a clue where you may want to focus.

Here is an exercise with science degree college teachers where they explored solutions to the problem “How to give individual attention in the class?” The class size was large – 70 to 100 students. Some teachers felt strongly that in a class of such size it is not possible to give individual attention. However, when they were asked to list bright spot – things they are already doing at least in some classes, at least on a few occasions, a number of ideas came up. One can see the ideas in the picture below. Teachers realized that there is so much to learn from each other.



Some of the ideas that are listed here are:
  • Asking questions to students
  • Walking around in the class
  • Taking suggestions from students in making the class interesting
  • Listening to individual students about their previous class

To summarize, following a bright spot is a powerful principle which nudges us to pay attention to what is working already. It brings attention to what is possible and moves attention away from a feeling that it is not possible. Who knows? Perhaps all that matters in moving from inaction to action is this “possibility”.

Notes:

1.      Bright spot principle is at the heart of the psychotherapy “Solution focused brief therapy” and also the community intervention approach “Positive deviance”. It is also highlighted in the book “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. You may want to watch this Dan Heath’s YouTube video (3:35 minutes) titled “How to find bright spots?

2.      “How to get individual attention in class?” problem was one of the challenges identified by science degree teachers of Government colleges at a design thinking workshop I facilitated in Agastya International Foundation’s Kuppam campus earlier this year.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A journey from resistance to acceptance of “what is” in the short film “Afterglow”

Many times we are resisting the current situation. Perhaps something has changed; we have lost something we are fond of. Or thought has imagined a scenario where we are likely to lose something and we don’t like this imagined scenario. Or someone said something to us which has hurt us etc. This resistance to “what is” manifests itself in different forms – sadness, anxiety, fear, blame, guilt etc. This continues for a while until the resistance drops off. Perhaps the changed or imagined situation is no longer that threatening. This is also referred to as acceptance.

The award-winning short film “Afterglow” directed by Kaushal Oza beautifully depicts this journey from resistance to acceptance. The story involves a widow coping with the death of her loving husband. It uses two symbols through which this transition from resistance to acceptance unfolds – paaghri (groom’s headgear) and the lamp which is welcoming the departed soul.

Sometimes a question gets raised, “Does acceptance mean inaction?” That’s not how I understand it. Acceptance involves dropping off of inner resistance. In Afterglow, there was an inner resistance to letting go of the paaghri. And then at one point, it drops off and that results in an act of giving the paaghri away to someone who would find it useful.

There are a few YouTube comments on this video where they ask, “Did she die at the end?” That is not my understanding. She didn’t physically die. However, it is a different kind of dying. She died to the idea that her husband or his soul must always be with her. This dying is accompanied by inner peace.