Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Uncommon Wisdom from J Krishnamurti, Heisenberg, Fritz Schumacher and Indira Gandhi

Fritjof Capra became famous for his bestseller book “Tao of physics” published in 1975. It was one of the first books that tried to show the connection between Modern physics and Eastern Mysticism and succeeded in grabbing peoples’ attention. Who influenced Capra on this journey from a particle physicist to a no man's land? What kind of conversations did he have with these remarkable men? That is the focus of his book “Uncommon wisdom: Conversations with remarkable people”. What appealed to me about these conversations is that the questions that got raised in them are still quite relevant and the wisdom still uncommon. The book contains conversations with a dozen people spread across 8 chapters. Here I am summarising the nuggets from four of these conversations.

First you are a human being (Jiddu Krishnamurti, 1968): When Capra met the spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti in 1968, Capra was on the runway of his career as a physicists and it was about to take off. JK was giving a series of talks at the University of California, Santa Cruz where Capra was a faculty. Capra recalls, “I remember that I was fascinated as well as deeply disturbed by Krishnamurti’s lectures. After each evening talk Jacqueline and I stayed up for several hours more, sitting at our fireplace and discussing what Krishnamurti had said.”

JK had created a major confusion in Capra’s mind. He didn’t know how to marry his career ambition with JK’s advice of going beyond thought. Fortunately, he got an opportunity to meet JK the morning after one of his talks. “How can I be a scientist,” Capra asked JK, “and still follow your advice of stopping thought and attaining freedom from the known?” JK answered immediately. “First, you are a human being,” he said, “then you are a scientist. First, you have to become free, and this freedom cannot be achieved through thought. It is achieved through meditation – the understanding of the totality of life in which every form of fragmentation has ceased.” According to JK, once one has this understanding, he would be able to work as a scientist without any problems. Capra recalls, “Krishnamurti answered my question in ten seconds in a way that completely solved my problem.”

Find pleasure in the process not just the results (Werner Heisenberg, 1972):  Capra met Werner Heisenberg, one of the fathers of Quantum Mechanics and Capra’s hero, at the Max Plank Institute in Munich, Germany. By then Capra had published the first article on the new theme titled “The dance of Shiva: The Hindu view of matter in the light of Modern Physics”. Heisenberg had sent him encouraging response to this article.

During this meeting Heisenberg recalled his India visit in 1929. He stayed as a guest with Rabindranath Tagore and had long conversations with the poet. “After these conversations with Tagore,” Heisenberg said, “Some of the ideas that seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense. That was a great help for me.” In 1972, Heisenberg was 71 years old, way past his prime time as a scientist. Capra asked him what kind of results he was working towards. Heisenberg explained him the goals of the research program and added that he found as much pleasure in the process of research as in achieving those goals. What a profound statement!

Take a small step, wait for the feedback and then proceed (Fritz Schumacher, 1977): When Capra met Fritz Schumacher at his Caterham house near London, Capra had published “Tao of physics” and Schumacher was famous for his book “Small is beautiful”. Unlike Capra, Schumacher, the prophet of sustainability movement, was not very optimistic about Physics creating the new world view. However, unlike Capra, he carried a vision of an alternative future, a sustainable future which was influenced by, among others, Mahatma Gandhi and Buddhist monks in Burma.

How does one work in this alternative world? “Because of smallness and patchiness of our knowledge,” Schumacher said, “We have to go in small steps. We have to leave room for non-knowledge. Take a small step and wait for the feedback and then proceed further. There is wisdom in smallness, you see.” What a humble approach!

How to introduce technology without destroying the culture? (Indira Gandhi, 1982):  Capra met Indira Gandhi at her office in the Parliament House in Delhi. She was back in power after the post-emergency debacle and had experienced untimely death of her younger son. Capra had various images of Indira Gandhi e.g. strong willed, autocratic, tough and arrogant, spiritual person etc. After exchanging the pleasantries, Gandhi asked Capra, “My problem is, how can I introduce new technologies into India without destroying the existing culture? We want to learn as much as we can from the Western countries. But we want to keep our roots. Today, it seems much easier and cheaper to buy plastic than to spend time with these crafts,” she said with a sad smile, “What a pity!”

“The people in India,” she said, “no matter how poor they are, have a special quality of wisdom, an inner strength which comes from our spiritual tradition. I would like them to keep this quality, this special presence, while ridding themselves of poverty." As Capra started giving a few suggestions, Gandhi started taking notes.

Images sources:,,,,

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Pain-multiplier effect: My key insight from a 10-day Vipassana course

Gita says, “Act without expecting returns”, Upanishads say, “This is whole, that is whole”, Buddha says, “Every form is impermanent, don’t cling to it”. As I was growing up in India, I heard these pearls of wisdom at home, in school, in movies & plays and from beggars in the Bombay local trains. The question is: “Was any of that my personal experience?” The answer is, “No”. I like the way Eckhart Tolle puts it: You may know the molecular structure of honey, you may have done a PhD on honey, but have you tasted honey? I got an opportunity to practice “tasting honey” in a 10-day Vipassana meditation course earlier this month held at Dhamma Pafulla on the outskirts of Bangalore. If you want to know what Vipassana is about, there are various Vipassana experience diaries available on the Net (e.g. here is one). In this article, I would like to focus on my key insight, which I call “pain-multiplier effect” and the events that led to it on the 7th day of the retreat. Note that Vipassana doesn’t promise any specific insight and experience & learning of every individual is unique.

During the first three days, we had practiced a type of concentration meditation called Anapana. The objective here is to develop the faculty of awareness to feel subtle sensations. This involved feeling the incoming and outgoing breath at the tip of the nostrils. It also involved feeling any sensation on the nose and seeing it arise and pass away etc. On the fourth day, the primary tool of Vipassana, body scan, was introduced. It involved scanning your body part by part by putting attention on each part separately. While the attention is on a part, say the right shoulder, you need to observe any gross sensation (shirt touching the shoulder), or subtle sensation (vibrations, tingling, pain etc). You need to do this with equanimity i.e. without craving or aversion for any type of sensation. If the faculty of awareness is the left leg of Vipassana, the faculty of equanimity is the right leg.

For me, things went relatively smoothly until the fifth day of the course when Adhitthana (meditation with strong determination) was introduced. We were told that during the three group sittings – 8-9am, 2:30-3:30pm and 6-7pm, you need to sit for one hour without changing the leg and hand postures and without opening the eyes. Halfway through the first Adhitthana session, a pain fight began between legs and upper back. Whoever was winning, say legs, would grab all the attention and the body scan went for a toss. The last fifteen minutes became really painful hence I changed the posture a couple of times.

By the seventh day, I had learnt to zoom into the pain area (primarily upper back) since the hour appeared like several hours long and you had to pass it somehow. So I thought I might as well see what this pain is all about.  The pain had two distinct components – one, the physical pain and two, the mental build up due to the resistance to the pain (“When the hell will this session end?”) On the seventh day, I got tired of resisting and gave up. To my surprise, the overall pain reduced substantially. The physical pain in the upper back still remained. But it was quite insignificant compared to the overall pain I had experienced earlier. From then on the Adhitthana sessions ceased to be a problem. During one of the evening discourses, Goenka-ji referred to this phenomenon as the “multiplier effect”.

Back pains, then the body reacts to this sensation with aversion – I don’t want this pain. That starts a chain reaction which builds a reactive pain which amounts to a large portion, say 90%, of the overall pain. If we are able to reduce or drop the resistance, the pain reduces substantially.

What Goenka-ji mentioned during a discourse is that all types of pains (and pleasures) share this property. It may originate from a physical pain, a remark from the boss, a friend or spouse that hurts or revival of an old painful memory. The multiplier effect is common and it is responsible for the major chunk of the suffering. I had heard of the theory part, but never experienced it with this clarity. Now, I would like to observe this phenomenon in other day-to-day situations. Let’s see how it goes.

Do you have to go through the 10 day course to experience the multiplier effect? I don’t think so. However, the course provides a great laboratory environment for experimentation on self-observation.

PS: My wife Gauri attended the same course in December 2014. She has shared her experience before and after Vipassana.