Sunday, April 28, 2019

Understanding self-deception through “Nayantara’s necklace” (Part-2)

In the previous article titled, “Understanding self-deception through Nayantara’s necklace – Part-1” we looked at a cyclic three-stage process of self-deception. The three stages are (1) Feeling “I am imperfect” (2) Identification of object causing imperfection (3) Striving to acquire the object. The process is deceptive because it creates an illusion that I am progressing towards perfection. Many of us may be trapped in the cycle of self-deception most of our life. Of course, one needs to investigate and find out. Does life offer opportunities to step out of this cyclic trap? Yes, all the time. Let’s go back to the short film “Nayantara’s necklace” directed by Jaydeep Sarkar and see how life created opportunities for Alka (Tilottama Shome) to reflect and step out of self-deception at least for a little while.

Questioning absoluteness:

Alka has dinner with her school friend Girish (Gulshan Devaiah) who is now a CEO. During their conversation, Alka projects the image of a “perfect Alka”. She says she travels abroad two-three times a year, loves five-star hotels and they are planning to visit the US the following year etc. In her image of perfection, these travels, five-star hotels, etc. are absolutely essential. Girish, on the other hand, admits that he feels exactly the opposite. He finds the five-star hotel ambience superficial. In fact, what he likes are mundane things like watching TV at home, sitting with kids who are doing homework, etc. Girish’s job demands that he live in five-star hotels and he does that under these circumstances. However, he doesn’t consider this lifestyle absolutely necessary.

Interactions like these where we meet or read about people for whom what we consider absolutely essential is not so important are not uncommon. And they create opportunities for us to reflect on the absoluteness of our necessities.

Questioning perfection:

When Alka returns home from the dinner, she discovers that Nayantara’s (Konkona Sen Sharma) husband has shot his wife, son and himself. They were in huge debt and bank guys were after them. Alka learns that Nayantara, the person whom Alka idolized, was subjected to physical abuse all the time. Seeing all this, Alka’s image of perfection gets shattered and she returns the borrowed necklace back in Nayantara’s car. Nayantara and her family perhaps at one point could afford a lavish lifestyle. Circumstances had changed. However, the necessities didn’t. Perhaps it created conflict resulting in extreme action.

The image of what is perfect is governed by absolute necessities – be it religious rituals, political ideologies, scientific theories or spiritual states. Once we see that there is nothing which is absolutely necessary, everything becomes context dependent. What then is the meaning of perfection? Every moment the context is different. What is meaningful in one moment could be different from what is meaningful in the previous moment. It demands openness every moment.

To summarize, we are saying that self-deception consists of constant striving towards an image of perfection which is a collection of absolute necessities. The illusion of progress is powerful and deceptive. However, the absoluteness of each of the necessity is questionable. And life creates opportunities all the times for us to question the absoluteness of these necessities. It needs openness to listen and observe.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Understanding self-deception through “Nayantara’s necklace” (Part-1)

Mindfulness involves an investigation into self-deception. Hence, learning to recognize self-deception is crucial while experimenting with mindfulness. In this article, we explore the process of self-deception using the short film (20 minutes) available on YouTube titled “Nayantara’s necklace” (2014) directed by Jaydeep Sarkar and co-written by Aparnaa Chaturvedi and Ankur Khanna. It features brilliant performances by Konkona Sen Sharma and Tilottama Shome. Spoiler alert: The article reveals the plot of the film.

Let’s begin by looking at a bit simplistic three-stage cyclic model of self-deception. The three stages are (1) Feeling “I am imperfect”. (2) Identification of the object causing imperfection and; (3) Striving to acquire the object. At the heart of this cyclic process is an image of the self (self-image), which is getting updated all the time. Let’s see how this works through a few scenes in “Nayantara’s Necklace”.

The film presents the anxieties and aspirations of two friends living in the same apartment complex – Nayantara, who is more stylish, has just returned to India from Dubai and Alka who hasn’t been outside the country, hasn’t visited a five-star hotel etc.

1. Feeling “I am imperfect”:

During a conversation, Nayantara tells Alka, “Babes, you’re damn na├»ve!” which is perhaps not new to Alka. She believes that she is not smart and stylish like Nayantara. In all likelihood, such a remark shrinks Alka’s self-image and makes her feel “small”. In fact, Nayantara doesn’t have to say it explicitly. All she needs to do is to flaunt her style and say, “It is natural”. That’s enough.

If we look at Nayantara as a metaphor for society, then we hear such remarks all the time from our family members, friends, teacher, boss, colleagues, etc. “You are stupid”, “You don’t even know this?”, “You are a below average performer” etc. The net effect is a feeling “I am imperfect” and it hurts. The hurt is real i.e. we feel pain similar to how we would feel during a headache. 

2. Identification of the object causing imperfection:

When Alka asks, “You must have travelled the entire world, right?” Nayantara answers, “Usually two-three trips abroad happen every year”. Through this Alka identifies an object that is the cause of imperfection – lack of trips abroad.

An object causing imperfection could be skin colour, weight, social status, position in the company, salary, car model, size of the house, strained relationship, net worth, etc. I guess you get the point. For a scientist, it could be peer recognition and for a spiritual seeker, a scripture such as Bhagavad Gita could say – To be perfect, you have to get rid of ALL desires (verse 2.55) or acquire a state of no-desire.  In short, everyone can find some object as a cause of imperfection.

3. Striving to acquire the object

Once an object is identified as necessary to become perfect, one automatically strives to acquire the object. For Alka, the efforts begin by acquiring the looks and manners required to dine at a five-star hotel. During a dinner with her school friend, she begins to project an image of perfect Alka, the one who spends her life in five-star hotels and travels abroad two-three times a year just like Nayantara.
Where is self-deception in this? One, the conclusion that “I am imperfect” is premature. And two, the cause of the hurt is questionable. The deception lies in perpetuating a story of an "imperfect me", misattributing the cause to an external object and then justifying the striving for a "perfect me".

Here is an alternate hypothesis. The hurt is real. However, the hurt is caused because there is an assumption of absolute necessity neurophysiologically embedded in the brain that says, “It is absolutely necessary to be perfect”. Hence, whenever I hear or imagine anything that damages my perfect image, it hurts. The neural reflexes fire automatically. I misattribute the pain to an object outside.  The real cause is the absoluteness of necessity embedded in my memory. 

What’s wrong with dressing well, five-star dining, trips abroad? Nothing. Question is: Is it absolutely necessary? That’s the question. If one can afford it or if the job demands it, why not? And even if one can't afford it now, one can work towards it. However, when we assume that these things are absolutely necessary no matter what the context is, then it may involve deception. That’s the suggestion.

Unless the absoluteness of these necessities is seen to be meaningless, the feeling of imperfectness will continue to hurt us. And the cyclic process continues. In part-2 we will see how life offers opportunities to learn about the nature of self-deception and how learning might take place.

Nayantara's necklace:

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Could the feeling of everyday monotony involve self-deception?

“How to overcome everyday monotony?” is a question that surfaces in my workshops in different forms and from participants of all age groups and positions. Some of them are just a year or two into their career while some are at leadership positions in their organizations. The question gets expressed differently but the essence is the same. They feel that their everyday life is not creative and it has become monotonous or routine. Could this feeling of monotony involve self-deception? That’s what I would like to explore in this article.

Let’s take an example of an activity which many people hate – long commute. And then let’s see if we can generalize the learning to other monotonous activities. Let’s say I end up spending two hours every day on commute. I may carry a feeling that I don’t have any choice but to endure this boring activity. I start building a story involving I as a victim of the situation and how I am suffering every day. I complain every day about my commute to my family members and friends. And that doesn’t change the situation.

As the complaint gets repeated multiple times, the story gets solidified. And the story prevents me from seeing any other option which might be there that might make the commute more peaceful or at least less boring etc. This is an example of self-deception because it involves misperception of reality and misattribution of cause. It is true that the two-hour commute every day is a fact. However, is it necessary that it should generate a feeling of boredom? In fact, we see so many people listening to music or podcasts, watching movies, reading books, talking to friends during their commute. Thus, we can see that the situation does not necessitate boredom. I am deceiving myself by building this complaint that in this situation feeling bored is inevitable. Thus, it is possible that this boredom could involve self-deception. What needs to happen to come out of this self-deception?

Let’s assume leaving the job and working from home are not options right now. Then the first thing that needs to happen is to accept commute as a fact. i.e. stop resisting it or hating it. Then, I could raise a curiosity question: How do I make my commute more interesting? As I observe other people, talk to them about their commute, I find out that different people use different ways of making their commute interesting. Of course, I need to observe and listen with some openness. Because my complaining voice would try to reinforce itself by saying that what works for them won’t work for me. This may be true, but unless I try, I won’t know.

If you don’t like talking about your problems to other people, you could still find ideas if you observe your own commute over a period, say for a week or two. You may find out that it is not equally boring on all days. Say, the commute on Wednesday was better than the other days. Then you may ask, what was different on Wednesday? And, you may see that you had a friend with you in the car or on the bus. Then you may ask, how do I get to travel with friends more often etc. Slowly, you may discover multiple ways in which your commute can become more interesting.

Now, what was done for boredom associated with commute can be done for other activities you find monotonous. There were two things crucial in addressing commute challenge: (1) Raising the question – How do I make it more interesting? And; (2) Observing bright spots – things that are working for others as well as for me. In fact, I keep two diaries (1) Curiosity diary: A list of questions related to thing I am curious about and (2) Bright spot diary: A list of things that have worked well for me. For example, entry no. 57 in the curiosity diary of 2019 reads, “Is reading overrated?” dated 1st March. And there are 94 entries so far the curiosity diary this year. Similarly, entry no. 15 in the Bright spot diary on 24th February reads, “In-class interview model worked well in design thinking workshop”.  With both the lists, there is plenty to experiment. How can there be boredom?

In short, complaining about the feeling of boredom doesn’t help. Instead, if we are curious about the source of boredom and question its necessity, then something else may happen. Similarly, if we observe and listen to what is going on within my context as well as others’ context, there will always be ideas worth experimenting.