Saturday, March 28, 2020

The short film “Being 97”: A humbler version of Katha Upanishad

Katha Upanishad is one of the important Indian scriptures where a boy Nachiketa has a dialogue with death.  The short film “Being 97” also presents a dialogue with death except that the protagonist here is a ninety-seven-year-old former professor of Philosophy, Herbert Fingarette. Unlike Nachiketa, Herbert is not at the doorstep of death such that he can return to life after the dialogue. He is about to step in. Moreover, the dialogue in the short film is humbler in its stance as compared to Katha Upanishad in trying to probe the terrain which lies beyond death. “Being 97” is made by Andrew Hasse, Herbert’s grandson and I am really impressed by the gentleness of his approach in dealing with this delicate subject. Here are my 3 takeaways from the film:

The illusion of understanding: Herbert had been a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Santa Barbara for close to forty years. He had written several books including one on death. I have written a couple of books myself, one as a single author and another as a co-author. I know how effortful the book writing process is. Moreover, you can’t write a book unless you really believe that you understand the topic of your book. Herbert believed that anxiety about death is not rational. And yet, he admits in the film that he was wrong. Whether rational or not he feels anxious about his death. This is not to suggest that Herbert was a poor or phony researcher. On the contrary, it demonstrates how powerful the illusion of understanding is. I look at it as a warning signal to all so-called experts including myself to be a little humble about one’s claims. At ninety-seven, Herbert is able to answer the question, “What’s the point of it all?” with, “I wish I knew”. I really admire his honesty.

Importance of acceptance: One thing the film brings out is the difficulty Herbert faces in doing simple everyday tasks. For example, it shows his inability to wear a shirt himself. There is a caregiver who assists him with his chores. He had been an independent person all his life and it must have been hard to accept that you can’t do these tasks yourself. And yet, that is what Herbert has been learning. To accept the situation as it is, without inner resistance. It is such a powerful lesson. The word “acceptance” is many times misunderstood as akin to doing “silent or passive observation”. I feel the real meaning of acceptance is “inner non-resistance”. It is seeing the futility of the inner voice that says, “This shouldn’t be happening to me. I have been independent all my life. I will fight it out.” This inner voice is typically accompanied by a sustained feeling of frustration and anger. Acceptance is associated with actions in harmony with the situation.

A clue on prototyping death: Problem of death “is not just a theoretical question for me,” says Herbert, “It’s the one thing central to my existence.” If one were to understand death actually, not just theoretically, where would one begin? I feel Herbert gives us a clue, without perhaps being aware of it, when he says, “Half of me is gone and her absence has been a presence.” He is referring to his wife’s death several years earlier and its continued effect. “We were very close. We were married for probably around 70 years,” he says and it feels as though he is half-dead. If it is seen from this perspective, death can be looked upon as dying to things you really consider part of you. These could be – family, friends, possessions – both material and knowledge, status, things you feel you belong to like country, religion, political party, etc.  One’s existence is a continuation of all these things. Sometimes these are collectively referred to as self-image. Now, I can ask simple questions like – Can I die to TV for a day? Or Can I die to my phone for a day? Or can I die to the office for a day? Or can I die to the family by going to a silent retreat alone? These are not theoretical questions. You can actually experiment and test which part of the self-image is really permanent – unshakable. The boundary of the self-image can get pushed when you experiment with something like a religion which one has inherited from generations and carried for several decades. I found these experiments useful and insightful. Perhaps you may find them useful too.

Herbert passed away shortly after the film was made in late 2018. And what a beautiful piece of art the grandfather-grandson duo created! Kudos to Herbert and Andrew!


Thursday, March 26, 2020

Ajanh Chamras on learnings from monkhood, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Taoism

Ajahn Chamras interview (19 minutes, 10MB, MP3)

Recently, I got an opportunity to meet Ajanh Chamras at Chestnut Hill Eco Resort near Hat Yai, a beautiful place tucked in the hills in Southern Thailand. He had been associated with the former avatar of the resort called Stream Garden Retreat for close to two decades. We could see his love for the place as he volunteered to show us around. Ajanh Chamras taught psychology at Siam Technology College for several years before becoming a forest monk. After six years in the forest, he became an instructor and facilitator at the Stream Garden Retreat which was a study center based on Jiddu Krishnamurti's teachings. He translated over ten of JK's books into the Thai language. Currently, he is writing a book on the "Taoist approach to health". In this audio interview (19 minutes) Ajanh talks about his learnings from monkhood, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Taoism.

Ajahn Chamras interview (19 minutes, 10MB, MP3)

Highlights from the interview:

  • 00:00 Introduction
  • 01:58 What did it mean to be a forest monk? Made friends with nature, listening to melodious song of the stream, birds, mind became captivated b the surroundings
  • 03:41 Did you have a teacher during this time? Yes, Laung Phor Tien, an awareness meditation teacher, he used movement and taught walking meditation, get alms from a nearby village,
  • 04:30 What could be your key learnings from this period? My senses became awakened - not just at the superficial level but also at a subtle level, felt a sense of cleansing by living in nature especially related to my accumulations in my career, being alone with occasional visitors, sense of the depth of peace
  • 05:45 How did you get interested in J. Krishnamurti? Was reading and then started to translate his works
  • 06:10 What aspect of the teaching did you find so interesting? His teaching is about self-awareness, Long Phor Tien teaching was limited because he is not educated, He discovered it through his own practice, It was very simple, folks language, Long Phor Tien would say, "Feel the feet touching the ground, feel the wind, don't let your mind wander, be in the moment". 
  • 07:35 What did Krishnamurti add to this teaching? Took me on the path of psychological investigation
  • 07:44 Can you give an example of it might mean to do a psychological investigation? You question the nature of thought, nature of mind
  • 08:58 What aspect of the nature of the mind is crucial to look at? the thought enters into everything in our mind and creates something artificial and imitate real life, 
  • 10:25 Where would somebody begin to investigate how thought is fooling us? I would start from Long Phor Tien, To be aware, being watchful to the operation of the mind, A phrase from Long Phor Tien is "don't believe in your thought process." 
  • 11:37 How would I find out that it is actually fooling me? Majority of the thought is not coinciding with the actuality, not go along with the actuality, thought affects our health also
  • 12:23 Can you give an example? I get stressed, get tension, from the tension I get a headache and it prevents me from going to sleep, I see the negative aspect of thought. mind uses us and we become a slave to it, we don't think there is another dimension of life and we think that is all to life.
  • 14:15 How did you get interested in Taoism? Taoism works with nature, let nature work its own way, one aspect of Taoism is health that's why my book is "Taoism: an approach to health".
  • 15:01 What's Taoism approach to health? They talk about food, they talk about looking after the energy in our body, practice of movement which accumulates Chi which works its way through the blockage
  • 17:17 Currently what do you do? I teach this to visitors, sometimes we have health seminar.

If you have any questions to Ajanh Chamras, you can reach out to him at 

Hope you enjoyed the background music of cicadas and especially the rhythmic singing of big frogs. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Dr. Radhika Herzberger on teaching students to slow down their thinking

I got an opportunity to meet Dr. Radhika Herzberger on the beautiful Rishi Valley School campus last month. Radhika is a writer, educationist, and Indologist. She is a former Director of Rishi Valley Education Centre. She has been teaching culture and history for several years. Radhika is concerned about the anxiety that dominates students’ mind especially due to exam pressure and is currently exploring ways of teaching students to slow down their thinking. In this short conversation, she presents her thoughts on this theme.

You can listen to the interview here (13:30 minutes, MP3 file, 5MB)

  • 00:00 Introduction
  • 00:40 What do you mean by slowing down the thinking process? Awareness of “Mind’s eye”, Attention, veiled by conditioning
  • 03:38 Why do you think this is relevant for students?10th class while facing exam and struggling
  • 04:35 Don’t students need a fast mind to solve problems in a shorter time?  The quickness of perception doesn’t have a bearing on the fast mind, In fact, you can see better with a slow mind. That’s why it is called a mind’s eye. Empty drum sounds best.
  • 06:00 Where can interested students start this exercise of mind’s eye? Start by writing down their thoughts for 20 minutes without censoring. Raises awareness of your preoccupations – typically self-condemnation or fantasy. Let the pen write, and you discover about yourself through it. I follow this up with a short film by Prof. Robert Sapolsky called “The best and the worst in you”. Self is not a unified whole. Then students write about people they don’t like.
  • 11:38 Could this exercise be relevant for anybody? Yes.
If you have any questions on this, please feel free to write to Radhika at

Thursday, February 27, 2020

4 attributes of strategic thinking

Strategic thinking has been a side topic for the past decade whenever I taught innovation. However, last year I got an opportunity to study it more during my course at IIM Bangalore on “Strategic Management of Technology and Innovation”. In this article, I would like to present my current view of the 4 attributes of strategic thinking. It’s my way of delayering strategic thinking. To illustrate the attributes I plan to refer to Andrew Grove’s book “Only the paranoid survive”. I found it useful not only because Grove presents many examples where these attributes are exhibited but also because he was vocal about the slippery areas associated with some of these attributes.

The four attributes of strategic thinking I would like to present are challenge clarity, bright spot awareness, metaphoric thinking and hypothesis thinking. Let me try to articulate each one with an example or two.

Challenge clarity: This is arguably the most important attribute of strategic thinking. Here is an example from “Only the paranoid survive” which illustrates what challenge clarity is. By then Intel had been losing money on memories, its core business, for a long time. Andrew Grove writes, “I remember a time in the middle of 1985 when I was in my office with Intel’s chairman and CEO, Gordon Moore, and we were discussing our quandary. I asked, ‘If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?’ Gordon answered without hesitation, ‘He would get us out of memories.’ I stared at him, numb, and said, ‘Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?’”1

I have been facilitating the exercise of identifying the topmost challenge with many executives for over a decade. And I feel many of them felt uncomfortable or lost during this exercise. We are comfortable articulating a plateful of challenges. But to say one is the most critical needs clarity. And without that clarity strategic decision making is difficult.

Bright spot awareness: By the time Intel management took the decision of exiting its core business of memories, a viable alternative was already present within the company – microprocessors. It was a profitable business and growing but it was not considered of any strategic importance. In this case, “microprocessor business” is referred to as a bright spot – something working in the same context where many other things like memories business are not working.

We have a huge bias for dark spots (things that are not working) and we spend disproportionate energy in removing the dark spots. For example, companies spend a lot of time on exit interviews – to understand why employees are leaving. And in contrast, spend little time doing staying interviews – why employees are staying long years (bright spots). 

In the 1770s Britain lost a jewel in its empire leading to the formation of the United States of America. During this crisis period Britain decided to shift its attention to a bright spot in its empire – a series of victories by a private corporate armed force led by Robert Clive in Bengal, India. It paid handsomely over the next century. Bright spot awareness is counter-intuitive and yet extremely important.

Metaphoric thinking: It is not sufficient to know a challenge and a response. Things need to be sufficiently concrete to give direction to oneself and especially a team. This is where metaphors become important. Andrew Grove tells the story about an executive staff meeting where they were discussing Intel’s new direction as a “microcomputer company”. Their Chairman, Gordon Moore, said, “You know, if we’re really serious about this, half our executive staff had better become software types in five years’ time.” Becoming “software types” was a good metaphor for a company where almost everybody is concerned with hardware.2

Dr. Venkataswamy who founded Aravind Eye Care asked, “How do we deliver eye care with the same efficiency as McDonald's?” And Dr. Kiran Bedi asked, “How do we transform a jail into an Ashram?” Metaphoric thinking plays a crucial role in establishing direction clarity.

Hypothesis thinking: This is perhaps the toughest of the four attributes to master. Andy Grove narrates a story of an exit interview during a podcast discussion. During this exit interview, Steve, a young employee said, “Andy, if I were you, I would take microprocessors seriously. We should learn how to use microprocessors and become an expert.” Andy said, “Sure” and never paid any further attention. In fact, Andy mentions that it was inconceivable to believe Steve. Hypothesis thinking is about treating the input as a hypothesis and not rejecting it outright like Andy. 

In the book “Only the paranoid survive” Andy calls people like Steve Cassandras3. Cassandra was a princess of Troy who foretold the fall of Troy. He mentions that there are Cassandras all around us giving us useful hints about the big changes happening around us. Hypothesis thinking requires a certain quality of listening. It requires being sensitive to receiving inputs contrary to one’s belief. It requires cultivating mindfulness.

Once you begin to treat every suggestion as a hypothesis then the natural next step is experimentation. Andy Grove mentions in the book, “Resolution of strategic dissonance doesn’t come about in the form of figurative light bulb going on. It comes through experimentation.”4

In short the four attributes of strategic thinking we looked at are challenge clarity, bright spot awareness, metaphoric thinking and hypothesis thinking.

References from: Andrew Grove, “Only the paranoid survive”, Currency Doubleday, 1999.
  1. Page 89 (Dialogue with Gordon Moore)
  2. Page 143 (Gordon Moore’s metaphor of ‘software types’)
  3. Page 108-109 (Listening to Cassandras)
  4. Page 129-131 (Experimentation for resolving strategic dissonance)

Friday, January 17, 2020

My 3 takeaways from Karl Friston's "active inference" framework

Seeing ‘What is real?’ is the central aspect of mindfulness and perceptual clarity is an important dimension of it. Hence, it is not surprising that I got attracted to Karl Friston’s “active inference” framework which sheds a fresh light on perceptual processing. Karl Friston, currently at University College London, is one of the world’s leading neuroscientists. This body of work – championed by Friston known with various names such as active inference, free energy principle, predictive processing, Bayesian brain hypothesis – has turned the dominant neuroscience view upside down. It proposes, to borrow Andy Clark’s words, that “We are not cognitive couch potatoes idly awaiting the next ‘input’, so much as proactive predictavores – nature’s own guessing machines forever trying to stay one step ahead by surfing the incoming waves of sensory stimulation.”1

I must admit that I haven’t looked at the mathematical formulation of “active inference” in detail yet. And I hope to do so in the future. However, there are sufficient non-mathematical articles by Friston & others available for us to get a gist of the concept. Please see the endnotes for further reading.

Here are my 3 takeaways from the “active inference” framework.

1. Perception is primarily a prediction: According to active-inference framework, the brain infers the causes of the sensory input. This predictive information flows top-down and meets the sensory data coming from bottom-up. What flows up are prediction errors. Based on the perceived reliability of the prediction errors, the prediction gets refined and/or the prediction errors get suppressed. In short, perceptual processing involves precision weighted prediction error minimization. Friston says, “Our percepts are ‘fantasies’ generated by the brain to explain our sensations. Quite literally, the brain is a ‘fantastic’ organ.”2

2. Perception-action is a unitary process: Is my action, say to lift my foot while walking, a response to the incoming sensory data? No, says Active-inference framework. It says, brain’s top level goal of walking is translated into predicting the position where my foot needs to be to touch the ground. My action of putting the foot forward is a way of testing this prediction. Thus action is just another way of minimizing prediction errors. Friston says, “Action and perception are facets of the same underlying imperative – namely, to minimize hierarchical prediction errors through selective sampling of our sensor inputs.”3 Another way Friston puts it is, “Perception is enslaved by action”.4

3. There is no “one” home: Is there an independent entity or agent or self, doing the thinking, making decisions and taking actions? No, says the active-inference framework. According to Friston, each individual is a model or a hypothesis of what might ‘work’ in its ecological niche.5 The model is unique in that ‘You can only see your own red’6 and is constantly being updated to adapt to the changing environment. However, the model is not independent of its environment. It is engaged in minimizing the surprise by increasing the accuracy of its prediction by selective sampling through appropriate action and also by reducing complexity by simplifying its model.

Then what about the sense of self I carry? According to Friston, self-consciousness is an emergent statistical property just like temperature and pressure.7 Friston calls this view – dual-aspect monism as opposed to Cartesian dualism. Consciousness is an inference process with material properties like mass, position, speed and emergent statistical properties like beliefs and self.8

Friston brings out the essence of active-inference through the following interesting example. He says, “In one sense, these ideas are also your ideas (however latent), because you have to know what you are going to see next before you can confirm it by reading these words – this is the essence of active inference  and how we sample the world to minimize surprise.”9

1.      Andy Clark, “Surfing uncertainty: Prediction, action and the embodied self”, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 52.
3.      Same as above (Picard and Friston, Neurology 2014).
7.      Same as above (Hobson and Friston, 2014).
8.      Same as above (Hobson and Friston, 2014).
9.      Same as above (Hobson and Friston, 2014).
Image source:

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

An interview with Swami Chidananda on aspects of J. Krishnamuti’s teachings that informed his journey of self-inquiry

I got an opportunity to catch up with Swami Chidananda at the KFI Study Centre in Valley School, Bangalore last Sunday. The topic was – Aspects of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s teachings that informed my journey of self-inquiry. In the 45 minute interview, Chidananda-ji articulated three phases of his journey of self-inquiry, influence of spiritual teachers like Swami Chinmayananda and Ramana Maharshi before he began to appreciate JK’s teachings, 3 aspects of JK’s teachings (1) throwing light on the structure of self (2) power of seeing and (3) importance of being oneself, how he integrates it into daily life, and finally a few areas where he found JK less precise.

Here are notes from the interview:

00:00 Introduction
01:50 Q: Give us a brief sketch of your journey of self-inquiry
2:05 Drawn to Swami Chinmayananda
6:00 Phase-1: Charmed by Vedanta concepts and Sanskrit Shlokas (verses), joined Chinmay Mission Ashram in 1984,
7:18 Phase-2: Study of Ramana Maharshi’s teachings especially “Teachings of Ramana Maharshi in his own words”, hunt the ego, “Who am I?” inquiry
8:24 Ramana Maharshi as an important bridge between classical Vedanta and JK.
13:50 Phase-3: San Jose – Chinmay Mission Ashram, exposure to JK’s audio/videos/books, Visit Ojai centre.
17:55 Tell us a few aspects of JK’s teachings that influenced you
18:10 Aspect #1: How he threw light onto the structure of self
25:10 Aspect #2: Power of seeing – flame of attention
30:00 Aspect #3: Importance of being oneself – outer lifestyle doesn’t matter - what position you hold, married-not married etc. don’t have any bearing, man’s sorrow is in wanting to become
35:21 How did you integrate it in daily life?
37:20 Two minutes going deep into the structure of thought
38:38 Seated meditation vs observing oneself at unexpected times
40:40 Aspects of JK’s teachings which didn’t appeal as much: statements like faith necessarily breeds violence, all gurus are exploiters which appear exaggerated.