Friday, January 29, 2016

“Listening, looking and learning” – 3 ways of “knocking at the open door”

One side effect of having a dad who is a student of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s teaching is that I get to see new JK arrivals whenever I visit my parents in Mumbai. The book I picked up in my last visit was “Knocking at the open door – My years with J. Krishnamurti” by R. E. Mark Lee. Mark Lee was a teacher at Rishi Valley School in India in 60s and the founding director of Oak Grove School in Ojai, California from 1974 till 84. The book is biographical and also contains dialogues between JK and Mark Lee, students, teachers and others that Lee witnessed. The title of the book comes from a remark JK made to Mark Lee after a series of dialogues in Ojai in the spring 1979. Referring to a lady who was sitting on the floor in front during the talk, JK said, “Sir, every year she asks me the same questions. Every year sir. Doesn’t she see that the door is open? Why doesn’t she just come in?” Perhaps we are dealing with a paradoxical situation here and the questions may not go away unless there is a realization that “I am knocking at the open door”. How does that realization happen? Of course, we are dealing with a “pathless land” here and there is no sure-shot way. Nevertheless, JK emphasized 3 things which come out very well in this book – listening, looking and learning. Let’s see how these might help in knocking at the open door.

Listening: In 1966, during a talk to the older students at Rishi Valley, JK asked if they knew how to listen. Then he suggested following experiment, “Close your eyes and listen. Listen to the sounds far away, at the mouth of valley. Now, listen closer and closer. Do you hear the villagers talking on the road? Now, coming closer, listen [to] your own heartbeat. You have to be very still to listen to your heartbeat. Try it, just for the fun of it.”

Note that this experiment can be done anywhere, anytime and may not take more than a couple of minutes. You can do it right now by taking a pause from reading this article. Try it.

Looking: In 1967, while speaking to the whole student body, he suggested another experiment related to looking. He said, “When you walk into a room look straight ahead. Don’t turn your head to the right or to the left – look straight ahead without moving your eyeballs. As you walk into the room don’t look at anything, but see everything. See the colours; see the furniture or shapes of things, and the people in the room. But don’t look at them! See with the back of your eyes. Your seeing is awareness.”

Looking outward is just one aspect of looking. Perhaps even more important is looking inward. When Mark Lee once requested JK to teach him how to meditate, here is what JK said, “Sit comfortably, sit still. Don’t let your hands touch. Breathe without effort. Close your eyes. Don’t move your eyeballs. Now, watch your thoughts, how they move but don’t finish. Don’t think about your thoughts, just let them come and go.”  After doing this for some time, Mark Lee opened his eyes and asked, “Is that all, sir?” Reaching out and shaking his arm JK said, “No, you silly boy, that is just the beginning. But not just sitting, meditate as you walk, as you work, as you talk.”

Looking in this case is more like watching your thoughts come and go. This may work fine most of the time. But sometimes thoughts create disturbance – small disturbance like irritation or big disturbance like feeling deeply hurt. That is what JK advocated as the golden opportunity to learn. He called such opportunities “precious jewels” to be studied carefully. What are you learning here?

Learning: One Sunday morning in March 1983, Mark Lee met JK for breakfast at Pine Cottage in Ojai. As the discussion began, Mark Lee heard the noise of chain saw. Neighbours had begun their work of cutting two huge trees and the noise was intense. Mark Lee got up to close the window. “Why are you doing that?” JK asked. “To cut out the irritating chain-saw noise from the next door,” Mark Lee replied. “You are reacting. Don’t react; just let the noise pass through you. You have a habit of [getting irritated],” JK said.

“How do you overcome a habit?” asked Mark Lee. Then JK gave a three-day formula (more like three-step formula). “Habit is just conditioning. It takes three days. The first day you become aware of it, and you watch it. You listen to it. You get a sense of your habit, whatever it is. The second day you observe it in the others and observe it in yourself as it works. And the third day you watch as it begins to lose its strength and it disappear.”

In May 1985, a few days before JK’s ninetieth birthday, Mark Lee met JK for breakfast. By then Mark Lee had resigned as the director of Oak Grove School. Perhaps the separation wasn’t amicable. During the conversation at breakfast JK asked Mark Lee, “You are watching yourself. You have had a shock recently and are watching yourself. Right?” And then he asked, “Are you hurt by what happened?” Mark Lee said that there was no hurt but deep disappointment that he had not been able to deal with the situation effectively. JK then said, “Pardon me sir, but that is hurt.” That is when Mark Lee remembered what JK said to the director of Rishi Valley Dr. Balasundaram a decade earlier, “Old boy, if you are hurt, remember, there is something wrong with you.”

Investigating this “irritation” or “hurt” while it is happening is what learning is about. The investigation may lead us to find a “button” i.e. a thought or an image (typically an assumption of necessity) which when pressed, the negative reaction springs up like a reflex. Through this we learn more about the functioning of thought as a system of conditioned reflexes.

In short, I found the book helpful in understanding Krishnanmurti’s teaching in specific contexts.

Related articles:

Check out Mark Lee’s note on listening.
Image source:

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The problem and the paradox of “becoming”

In a few months, our son Kabir will be appearing for one of the most fiercely competed exams in his life – the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) that will decide his fate to enter IITs, India’s premier engineering institutes. Approximately 1.2 million students took it last year and less than 0.1% got an opportunity to choose a discipline of their choice. For many, it may be the turning point in their life, landing lucrative jobs after their graduation, some of them overseas. I have been through this myself close to thirty years ago though the fierceness of the competition was somewhat milder then. Hence, I can understand the anxiety the students go through along with their parents.

After I entered IIT, new goals appeared on the horizon – the most prominent being getting admission in a US graduate school along with a scholarship. Then it was getting a PhD and then getting a job. Somewhere in between was the marriage and that created more goals – things that will help our son become somebody etc. The goals kept shifting and they kept the process of becoming alive. Or perhaps it was the other way round. The process of becoming, like a computer program, kept generating the next goal. And then achieving that goal becomes the next problem to be solved. Sometime along the way, I began to wonder if there is a trap here. That started a different type of investigation journey. Did I ever find out if becoming is a trap? That is what I want to discuss in this article. It was inspired by an essay by David Bohm titled “The problem and the paradox”.

To understand the nature of the problem of becoming, we need to understand the difference between a problem and a paradox. A problem is called a paradox when it contains contradictory assumptions. In school, I remember reading about the perpetual motion machines - a machine that can go on forever without ever stopping and without needing any external source of energy. The picture above is that of one of the earliest documented illustration of a proposed perpetual motion machine known as Bhaskara wheel. In 19th century, scientists discovered the laws of thermodynamics which showed that it is impossible to build a perpetual machine because it assumes zero transfer of energy to the environment which violates the second law of thermodynamics. Thus the problem of building a perpetual machine is a paradox.

Note that a paradox can’t be solved the way we solve other problems such as fixing a car or treating a disease. The only way to resolve a paradox is to recognize it as a paradox. Until one sees the contradictory assumptions embedded in the problem statement, one can go on solving the problem without getting anywhere. That is exactly what many people have done spending years in building perpetual machines. You can see a brief history of perpetual machines here.

Now, let’s turn to the problem of “becoming”. Could the problem of becoming be a paradox? For example, I may define my problem as – “I want to become a leaner person” or “I want to become a wealthier person”. What is paradoxical about it? In fact, all of us would have experienced setting goals of these kinds and achieving at least some of them. In fact, one could question the reverse. How could I achieve anything meaningful unless I set out goals like these?

Let’s take the example of “becoming leaner” which is a difficult problem for many. People try new diets, new fitness programs year after year and yet they fail to sustain them. What’s happening here? To appreciate what’s happening, it helps to imagine thought as a network of reflexes which fire automatically when another related reflex is activated. Knee jerks when the bone gets tapped or foot presses the brake automatically when the car in front slows down. These are reflexes. Similarly, the impulse to overeat may come as a result of a set of reflexes getting fired perhaps when we are under stress (like the Panda in the movie Kung Fu Panda). Now, to reduce the intensity of this impulse or to eliminate this impulse would require a neuro-physiological change perhaps a neuro-surgery that would alter these reflexes. Unfortunately, nobody has figured out how to isolate such reflexes because the information about what belief a reflex stands for (e.g. if under stress, eat more) is embedded deeply in the neural network.

Now, you might say, “Well, we have friends who have become leaner, wealthier and so on. What about them?” The question is, “Has their becoming stopped after they became leaner?” Perhaps they have a new goal now – to run a marathon or to run a marathon within 4 hours. What if there is a program (or a set of reflexes) deeply embedded in the brain whose only job is to say, “You are still incomplete. Look at this guy, he is leaner. Look at her, she is more beautiful. Look at him, he is wealthier”? Then no matter what you become, this program is making sure that you feel a sense of incompleteness and a new goal is created in order to become more complete. So when you set out to solve the problem of becoming leaner, you still don’t address the core set of reflexes (the program) that is generating “you are incomplete” sense.  Thus there are two contradictory assumptions in action here: One, eat less to become leaner and the other one, perhaps a subconscious reflex, “eat more when you feel incomplete”. Thus the problem of “becoming” is a paradox. If “becoming” is really a paradox, what can be done?

Here is the bad news. The knowledge that “becoming” is a paradox does nothing to you. Unless you see it as a paradox in action yourself in your day-to-day living i.e. to see it contains contradictory assumptions as you try to become, you will be on a path similar to the perpetual machine builders. You need to see how as soon as the urge to become one thing subsides, something else pops up automatically. As Bohm says, it needs sustained attention on this process of becoming while it is in action.

The process of becoming is so deeply embedded in our culture that it is difficult to sustain the attention in the investigation. However, in case you are interested in investigating this further, the first step is skepticism. You need to ask the question, “Could this ‘becoming’ be a paradox?” You need to allow this question to take root in the mind like a virus.

What happens if you see the process of becoming as a paradox? Does it mean you stop taking exams like the JEE or stop enrolling in a new fitness program or stop making money? Not really. What changes is the “in order to” attitude. You stop doing things such as writing JEE exam “in order to” become somebody. You write an exam because that makes sense at that moment. Activity ceases to be a means to an end.

Image of Bhaskara wheel is from
If you are interested reading more about this topic, I would recommend David Bohm’s article – The problem and the paradox.
My first recollection of reading about the process of becoming is from the book “The ending of time” which is a dialog between Jiddu Krishnamurti and David Bohm.
Knowing about the existence of the cognitive illusions does nothing to you is articulated by Daniel Kahneman in his lecture titled “The science of decision” delivered at Pentagon (quote at 25:56)
“Thought as a reflex” is articulated in the book “Thought as a system” by David Bohm.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Baseline test: in music and in life

“Baba, can you hear the baseline?” I remember Kabir, our son, asking me this question for the first time 4-5 years ago. There was a rock song being played in our living room. I was able to recognize the vocals, a guitar and the drums. Apparently none of these was the baseline. And I couldn’t hear one even after Kabir tried his best to point to it. Over the past few years not only did I begin to appreciate the baseline in music but also in life. What is this baseline? And, could this baseline-test be useful to you? Let’s explore in this article.

When Kabir was in 7th or 8th grade (now he is in 12th) he got interested in base guitar. Until then I didn’t know what it meant (I knew acoustic guitar). So we got him one and I slowly came to know what a baseline sounds like. I learnt that it is an important link between the melody and the rhythm. And sometimes composers start by laying out the baseline as a foundation track. Over the years, he got an opportunity to play as a bassist in an amateur band and we would try to recognize the baseline in the show – sometimes with success and sometimes without. When Kabir practiced some solo pieces, we recognized it sounded similar to the interludes in the TV show “Seinfeld”.

Then I looked at the music I am more familiar with – Indian classical music. And I realized that the drone (Tanpura) which mostly plays two notes (base note and the fifth note) acts as a baseline or a reference line for the music. Looks like baseline is there in most music forms whether it is Jazz, Western classical or even Bollywood numbers. Then why do I find it hard to hear it? Because my ears are trained to follow the melody, drums etc. – essentially things which are in the foreground. Baseline is mostly in the background. And so much of our attention is grabbed by the foreground that very little is left for the background. However, once we start paying attention to the background, we begin to hear it.

Now, let’s extend this baseline test to life in general. As I type this article on my laptop, I can hear a few kids playing outside, birds chirping, honking of cars and our apartment’s Genset making a Grrrrrr sound (Power outage is a routine stuff in Bangalore). Most of these sounds are part of the background and I am not aware of them when the attention is completely hijacked by the thought process.

When I sit in the dining area, there are two sounds which I can hear only when things are quiet – both in the room and inside my head. One is the humming of the refrigerator. And two, the ticking of a small clock. What is the ultimate baseline test? To check whether you can hear your own breathing. It is very soft. But sometimes, perhaps at night when I am lying down in the bed, I can hear it.

Why is the baseline test useful? Because it indicates whether the attention is completely taken up by thought process or not. And that leftover attention holds the key to bringing sanity in life. It has the potential to see the irrationality or wastefulness of the thought process.

When do you apply the baseline test? Well, whenever you can steal a moment. For example, when you are about to start your meal, you can take a moment to see what you can hear. When you are about to start a meeting in the office or about start your car or scooty or when you are taking a walk etc.  Perhaps you will figure out your own moments of taking baseline-test.

From time to time, ask yourself, “Can I hear the baseline?”

Monday, January 4, 2016

Catch yourself getting LOST in wasteful thinking

Typical human condition is described as being “lost in thought”. Majority of these thoughts are wasteful. i.e. they don’t serve any useful purpose. Is there a way to know if your current thought is wasteful? Perhaps there is no exact formula. However, I found the checklist characterized by L-O-S-T (L – Label, O – Ownership, S – Story, T – Time) useful. It doesn’t mean that every thought involving a label or a story is wasteful. However, it is a good candidate for a quick check - “Is this thought serving a useful purpose?” This article presents this checklist using illustrations from famous movies.

L (Label): Be it a movie or our life, we are in the habit of labelling people and situations. “Good-bad” and “Right-wrong” are the two most commonly used labels. When we label someone or a situation as bad, perhaps we are pointing to some characteristics or behaviour which may be inappropriate. For example, Nobel Laureate John Nash discovered that calling names to Government serves no useful purpose. And he stopped feeding those thoughts.

Social psychology tells us that most of our behaviour is influenced by the context and the culture. “Context is king” as they say. The responses to a contextual situation, such as “someone shouting at us” is almost always automatic and reflexive – deeply embedded in the neural synapses. When labelling becomes an obsession – i.e. you derive your sense of self-worth by labelling someone repetitively, say “wrong” – it serves no useful purpose. Check it out for yourself.

O (Ownership): In this famous dialogue in the Bollywood film Deewar, Shashi Kapoor is telling Amitabh Bachchan “Mere paas Maa hai” meaning – “I have mother”. “You may have a big house and a car but I am richer than you”. The popularity of this dialogue points to a deeply held belief in the culture that relationships are more precious that material stuff. Perhaps it is true, but the habit of doing account balance of what I own and comparing it with what you own doesn’t serve any useful purpose whether it is a relationship or a car. Test it. (image:

S (Story):  We all love stories. When it is a rags-to-riches story like “Slumdog millionaire”, nothing like it. In fact, we are all spinning stories in our head all the time. Many times the story has a general theme of “complaining” – and it also has a victim that is – yourself. The story is telling how the world or a specific person is unfair to you and you are asking, “How can he say or do something like that to me?” etc. Sometimes the story is about “justification”. It is telling how I did the right thing in that situation even though some people may feel otherwise. Sometimes the story has a general theme of “worrying”. The mind is spinning out several future scenarios where something is going wrong. If used judiciously, it points to useful actions. But then the spinning wheel takes over and action is left far behind. It is good to check if the current thought pattern is spinning a story without any action. (image:

T (Time): How we wish we could go back in time Like Marty McFly in “Back to the future” and change something we did in the past. Unfortunately, we haven’t figured out a way to do it so far. That doesn’t mean we live mostly in the present. In fact, we end up time traveling all the time. When we are worrying, we travel to a future moment. When we are in the guilt mode, we go back in time.  Sometimes we are leaning-forward, i.e. we are only a few seconds ahead, for example, when we are opening a door, we are already in the next room. Opening the door is just a means to an end. Sometimes, we are years ahead, visualizing the good times after graduation, or after retirement etc.  Whenever the current thought is about past or future, it is a good candidate to test for usefulness. (image:

In short, L-O-S-T (Label, Ownership, Story, Time) provide a quick checklist to test whether your current thought is useful or wasteful. Hope you find checklist useful.

The checklist is derived from Eckhart Tolle’s “9 ways of losing oneself in egoic thought patterns”, Nov 8, 2014