Monday, December 24, 2018

Confession of a fake guru: A soliloquy from “Tujhe aahe tujpashi”

Any teacher, especially a spiritual teacher needs to be alert about the process of self-deception. Hence, as a facilitator of mindfulness workshops, I find the following confession of a fake guru appealing. It is a soliloquy from the Marathi play “Tujhe aahe tujpashi” (You have your stuff) by P. L. Deshpande.
Beginning of soliloquy-- Who? Who made me a guru? In my youth, I jumped into social service inspired by patriotism. Navigating this stream was tiring. However, it felt as if the entire society was standing at the banks with sticks. And they would push me back in the water the moment I would reach the shore.  They would say, “Guruji, you have to fight for us!” Getting off at the shore became impossible. 
To go from monkhood to family life would have been far worse than becoming a thief! People would have laughed mockingly. A son of a monk could get a buffalo to recite Vedas. However, he had to face the mockery from society. I was scared of that throughout my life. This monk didn’t have the courage to drop the robe to become a common man and face the social stigma. I was giving discourses on the importance of fearlessness. But I was always scared inside. I was giving talks in high pitch so that I don’t hear the sound of my fear. Slowly it became a habit.

I neither got the respect of a monk nor enjoyed the peace of a common man. I also realized people would forget me if I go in the background. Thus began a constant struggle to remind people of my existence through talks, attending conferences, interviews, fasts, propaganda of mind purification tenets etc. This became my life.   

I didn’t win over the desire. On the contrary, I tried to bury it under layers of pompous words. The other day I was reflecting on my life at the banks of the river Kshipra. Kshipra flows peacefully distributing peace. She is able to instill peace in people because of the stillness she carries inside. Whose life have I made happier? Who is genuinely concerned about me in the Ashram? Whenever opportunities for better positions came, my colleagues left the Ashram. I had a strong ego. And they also needed a guru to salute. When they massaged my feet once in a while, both of us felt good.

I carried the ambition of returning the ocean waves with a broom. Buddha, Christ did it, I also got enamored. But each was like a lighthouse. It carries the strength to stand still under a tempest. We are like ships. We should navigate under the guidance of a lighthouse. This poor body began to feel that it is a lighthouse. With every little storm, the ship began to lose its way, got crashed again and again and became a pitiable object. Finally, this guru became a sorry figure. -- end of soliloquy.

Self-deception is relevant not only for spiritual teachers but for any person who carries a position of respect and power. It could be in a family or at work or in society. Fear of falling off from the position is so strong that maintaining the self-image becomes a full-time job. In the process, one loses track of one’s true nature. It is not surprising that the question “Who am I?” carries so much importance in spirituality.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

What to do when boss says “Be more innovative”?

“What do I do?” asked a participant in a one on one conversation during a coffee break in one of my workshops. He felt he had been doing all he could on the innovation front. And yet his boss told him, “Be more innovative”. He was a bit upset. What could he do? Here are a few tips.

Listening: In my opinion, the most effective response is perhaps the most difficult one as well. i.e. to listen. Perhaps the boss has some important point to tell. At the very least, everybody carries a need to be listened to. Boss is no different. It could also be an opportunity to understand what innovativeness might mean to the boss. Sometimes the crux lies in the subtle differences in meanings. And an abstract concept like innovativeness can carry so many shades. Hence, I feel the most important thing to do is to listen and understand what boss means by “more innovative”. Perhaps ask questions so that he can elaborate it with examples.

Communication: Sometimes one is doing a number of things related to innovation – identifying new challenges, generating ideas, involving team members, building prototypes etc. However, one area which is sometimes overlooked is communication. Communicating innovation efforts may involve a short write up, a dashboard, a presentation, a demo or a combination of these. I would at least check if the innovation efforts are communicated regularly to the boss.

Challenge seeking: When boss says, “be more innovative” it could also mean following. Some of the key challenges that are important to him are perhaps not getting adequate attention. Hence, it may be a suggestion to prioritize the challenges that are given attention during the innovation efforts. Hence, it may help to probe and find out what according to him are the key challenges worth addressing. When the challenge comes from the boss, there is a higher chance of getting sponsorship for a promising idea.

In short, we looked at three things one can do when boss says, “Be more innovative” viz. listening, communication and challenge seeking. Will it always work? No. But carrying a grudge in the mind is not known to work either.

Friday, November 9, 2018

2 reflection moments from Zoya Akhtar’s “Luck by chance”

Movies sometimes create mirrors where there is an opportunity to see oneself and associated self-deception. In this article, I would like to look at two such powerful reflection moments from the film “Luck by chance” (2009) written and directed by Zoya Akhtar. In fact, it was her directorial debut. Spoiler alert! The plot is being revealed. 


Did he thank you? A struggling actor Vikram (Farhan Akhtar) gets a lead role in a big banner film and that launches his career. Earlier the role has been rejected by many leading actors and the director finally decides to cast a new face for the lead role. Vikram gets shortlisted among hundreds of photographs followed by several rounds of interviews. And a lead role with an established director means a defining moment in Vikram’s career.

At a time when Vikram’s picture is being flashed everywhere as part of the film promotion, Vikram attends a party1. Here Vikram meets Zaffar (Hrithik Roshan), the previous lead for the film who left it after he got a better role in another film. After a hi-hello, Zaffar wanders off and meets Karan Zohar. Karan asks him, “Did he thank you?” Zaffar asks, “No, why should he?” “Oh, it is because you rejected the role,” clarifies Karan, “that Vikram got it.”

Behind every success (and failure) there are non-events – events that didn’t happen but could have happened. Vikram got a break because seven other actors rejected the role. Karan explains that many actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan got a break in the film industry because several leading actors at that time had rejected the roles they got. When a new client reaches out to me for work, sometimes it is clarified that they are looking for someone because their current vendor is not available.

I am sitting here writing this blog because there are so many things that could have happened didn’t happen. I could have been sick, could have been out walking, could have been not in a mood to write, could have been knocked-off by a car in the morning while crossing the street. I am doing what I am doing partly because there are zillions of events which could have happened didn’t happen. And I had no control over these events. And hence to say, “I am in control of my life. I am a self-made man.” looks flimsy, doesn’t it?

Mindfulness is awareness of non-events while creating a story in the head2.


No fault of yours: This is one of the last scenes of the movie3. Vikram has become a big star. He has forgotten his friend Sona (Konkona) who supported him during his struggling years and it was she who had given Vikram’s photographs to one of the directors she knew. In the meantime, after struggling for a few years in the film industry, Sona gets a break in TV serials and makes a mark. One day, Vikram feels guilty for how he treated Sona and he visits her, apologizes her for his mistakes and requests her to become an anchor in his life. Finally, he asks her, “You don’t trust me?”

Sona tells him, “I know you are saying the truth because you are really that selfish. I was listening to you carefully. How I was part of your life. How I supported you. How I can be a support for you. This whole thing is about you, Vikram. Where am I in all this?” Finally, she adds, “It’s not your fault. What can you do? That’s who you are.”

When I feel that I love someone, is it a disguised form of selfishness? Is it just a bunch of expectations so that I can get somewhere in my career or life? To recognize that what I call love or care is a disguised form of selfishness needs alertness.

What Sona demonstrates is also a form of heightened awareness. She is not upset with selfish Vikram. She sees that he can’t help being selfish. That’s who he is. Of course, she doesn’t go along with him but she doesn’t carry any bitterness against him. The world around us is largely selfish. The selfishness gets expressed in various forms – love, social service, employment benefits, discrimination, corruption etc. Can we become aware of the compulsions which drive these behaviours? Then there is no hurt. That doesn’t mean corruption shouldn’t be punished. But is there a need for anger or bitterness?

Mindfulness is awareness of compulsions which drive people to do things4.

In short, the two scenes mentioned here create opportunities for us to see the non-events which always exist as possibilities every moment and to see the compulsions which drive people to act, sometimes in crazy ways. When I carry this awareness, why would I take credit for a successful outcome? And, why would I be upset with anyone for a crazy looking act? 

Sources:
  1. The party scene is around 2:04:00 in the movie.
  2. Daniel Kahneman says following about non-events in his best-seller, “Thinking, fast and slow”: Human mind does not deal well with nonevents, (Chapter 19, Illusion of understanding).
  3. “No fault of yours” dialogue is around 2:23:35 in the movie.
  4. Perhaps the word "compulsion" is used in Buddhist literature as sankhara and in Upanishads as samsakara and in Spinoza-David Bohm literature as "absolute necessities".

Monday, October 29, 2018

A sketch of Spinoza, the secular saint from “The courtier and the heretic” by Matthew Stewart

I have a fascination for secular saints, spiritual teachers who stand outside the religious boundaries and practice what they preach. Seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza is one of them. I got a chance to read Matthew Stewart’s book, “The courtier and the heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the fate of God in the modern world”. As the name suggests the book is as much about Leibniz, the German polymath as it is about Spinoza and their interaction. However, in this article, I would like to restrict myself to the brief sketch of life, times and work of Spinoza that I could create from this book.

Life: Born in a Jewish family emigrated from Portugal, Spinoza lived in the Netherlands from 1632 to 1677. He lived a life of double exile – his family was exiled from their native country and then he was excommunicated from the Jewish community because of his heretical views when he was twenty-three. After the death of his father and elder brothers, Spinoza and his younger brother managed the trading business for a few years before getting excommunicated.

During the day, Spinoza ground lenses for microscopes and telescopes. And at night, he polished his system of metaphysics. He lived a peaceful and solitary life of contemplation. However, he always had a few friends with whom he discussed his views and corresponded extensively with philosophers, scientists, and theologians across Europe. When he died, the inventory he left behind included two pairs of pants, seven shirts, and five handkerchiefs. His only luxury was a large bed with red curtains which he had inherited from parents.

Times: Spinoza grew up in Amsterdam during the Dutch golden age – times when Amsterdam was the center of world trade, tolerant of the incoming settlers and visiting traders, and most important it was a place where freedom of its citizens was valued. It was home to philosophers (Descartes), scientists (Huygens, Leeuwenhoek), painters, merchants and more. It was also a time when a new scientific order was beginning to rise on the backdrop of an established theocratic order. 

Work: Key philosophical contributions of Spinoza are presented in two books: Theological-Political Treatise (1670) and Ethics (published posthumously in 1677). Here are a few sentences from the “The courtier and the heretic” that I found useful in understanding Spinoza’s ideas:
  • God (or Nature or Substance) is the essence of the world (or universe). p. 158.
  • This one Substance has infinite attributes. p. 159.
  • Everything in this world is merely a “mode” of an attribute of this Substance. All creatures are nothing but modes. p. 160.
  • Everything that happens, happens necessarily. p. 160.
  • Things could not have been produced by God in any manner or any order different from that which exists. p. 160.
  • Two of the infinite attributes of Substance are Thought and Extension. Under Thought, the Substance manifests as minds, ideas, and decisions. Under Extension, the Substance manifests as physical bodies. p. 168.
  • Human beings have no free will in an absolute sense. Our experience of freedom consists only in this: that we are conscious of our desires but ignorant of the causes that determine them. p. 171.
  • Happiness or freedom comes only from the knowledge of the union that the mind has with the whole of Nature (or God). p. 57.
  • Freedom follows when we “realize ourselves” as it were. p. 174.


In short, I found the book quite helpful in understanding the life, times and philosophy of Spinoza. As a freelancer, a spiritual teacher, someone who enjoys solitude, frugal living and feels no sense of belonging to any religion, it isn’t surprising that I resonate with Spinoza.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

3 types of reflections and 3 leading questions

“Hi, How are you?” This common greeting is potentially an invitation to reflect. However, we mostly respond with a mechanical “I am fine, thank you” and move on. What would it mean to actually reflect? This is what we explore in this article. Let’s look at 3 leading questions that result in 3 types of reflections.

How did it go? This is perhaps the most common type of reflection. It is like rewind and replay of a chain of events with a critical lens. The time span could be past few days, weeks, months or years of our life.  Or it could be a start to the end of a project we just completed. The primary objective of this reflection is to learn from the past and incorporate the learning in future actions. Three common sub-questions during this reflection are: What went well? What went wrong? And how do we do it better? In my case, I write a note after every workshop where these points are captured.

What next? When we ask, “How to do it better?” we assume, we will continue to do the same or similar thing in future, hopefully, more effectively. “What next?” question suggests that you don’t have to do the same thing as you did in the past. If you have been working in a particular area, “What next?” may prompt you to consider doing something else. In contrast, for someone who is not working, “What next?” may prompt him to consider working. It may involve looking within and asking, “What do I really enjoy?” and then checking how more of it can be done. It may also come from feedback from the environment where a good opportunity is spotted. In my case, I tend to do this reflection every few months. Sometimes there is a course-correction, sometimes not.

What’s going on here? The previous two types of reflections involve looking at the past and into the future. The third type of reflection involves paying attention to what’s going on in the present moment. In that sense, it is a run-time reflection. Present moment may be pleasurable or painful or perhaps neither. The idea is to watch whatever sensation arises and passes. Perhaps there is a story running in the head of how I or someone else did something and that caused something else etc. The reflection involves watching the train of thought. If there is alertness one may even witness hurts and pride getting registered in memory. For me, this is going on almost all the time. It is intensified when the situation is challenging.

For people who are busy in their job, it is considered a luxury to do even the first type (How did it go?) of reflection. However, the most powerful reflection is the third type of reflection (What’s going on here?) The first and second type reflection may happen when you are unwinding say over a weekend or while on a vacation. In contrast, the third type of reflection may catch the unnecessary winding itself, thus eliminating the need for unwinding.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Why did Prof. George Sudarshan say, “I am quite good at deceiving myself”?

Prof. George Sudarshan was an eminent scientist known for his contributions in theoretical physics. He passed away a few months ago. He was 86. Sudarshan attended a seminar of scientists at Brockwood Park Educational Centre in Southern English countryside between October 14 and 19, 1974. Brockwood Park was founded by the spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti who was also a participant in this seminar. During this seminar, Sudarshan said, “Like everybody else, I am quite good at deceiving myself.” Why would an eminent scientist say such a thing? What did he actually mean? Does it mean all of us are also deceiving ourselves?  Or was Sudarshan wrong in generalizing it to everybody? These are the questions I am hoping to explore in this article.

Let’s begin by understanding the context in which Sudarshan made the statement. The week-long seminar was facilitated by Krishnamurti’s friend David Bohm. The theme of the seminar was the question, “What is the role of knowledge in the transformation of man and society?” The participating scientists were specialists in various areas such as physics, biology, psychiatry, neuroscience, philosophy etc1. The audio recording of the seminar is available on YouTube in the form of 12 videos. The format of the seminar included each scientist giving a short talk on the theme and it was followed by a discussion.

Sudarshan’s talk and subsequent discussion are captured in session 5. It contains the following dialogue2: Sudarshan: There are times when there are tensions. And I say, “I don’t want to read Dr. Shainberg’s paper because he was not nice to me. And I am not really interested in him and I am reading his paper. But I can’t read his paper without thinking of the person. And I say, I have better ideas than he has, so why should I read his paper?” To which JK commented, “To sustain (the state free of anxiety and tension), I am just asking, you have to have a great deal of self-knowledge, a great deal of understanding of your own nature, your tricks, your fancies, your deceptions and so on?” Sudarshan responded, “I wouldn’t want to put it that way because I don’t have that much knowledge about my ability to deceive myself. Like everybody else, I am quite good at deceiving myself.”

To illustrate further what he means Sudarshan gives following example3.  He says, "A few days ago in an American supermarket, I saw a book about God by von Daniken. The book says that the transport of people from other planets and other civilizations is now not only possible but feasible. And it says that physicists are talking about the possibility of propagation faster than the speed of light. I don’t think Daniken is a particularly good critique of physics. But I found that a person who is referred to there as having initiated this hypothesis (of transport of people) was a man who simply plagiarized my work six years after it was published in an American journal. Now, I don’t really expect that somebody is going to disapprove of me if this (reference to my name) is not there. But it took all the pleasure out of me. I had spent $1.25 to buy this book. And I didn’t read the book further. I hope to read it when I have more strength. May be after this conference."

Now, Sudarshan would have come up with a good excuse to not read the book further. Perhaps he would have said, “Oh, this is not a good book, anyway.” But he is indirectly admitting that the real reason for abandoning the book is not because of the content of the book but because it referred to an idea he published first and it didn’t give him any credit. And this is self-deception.

Self-deception typically involves two things. First, it involves feeling a pain in some form – we may feel anxious, sad, stressed, irritated, angry, guilty etc.  And two, it involves misattributing the pain to some entity – a person or an object or a situation. In this case, Sudarshan was pained because the book he was reading didn’t give him credit he felt he deserved. And then perhaps he attributed the pain to the quality of the book and made a decision of not reading it further.

Both Krishnamurti and Sudarshan are suggesting that this self-deception is going on with all of us. And it is happening in a subtle way and fooling us. Sudarshan seems to have done a good job in observing the process of self-deception post-facto. That doesn’t seem to prevent self-deception from happening again. What JK is suggesting is that there is a need for an alertness to catch oneself red-handed while deceiving oneself.

Is it possible to catch oneself red-handed during self-deception? How would you know unless you experiment?  Next time, when you are upset and holding someone responsible, ask yourself, “Could I be deceiving myself?”

Notes:

1.      JK’s personal assistant Mary Zimbalist gives an account of this seminar in her memoirs here. http://inthepresenceofk.org/issues/issue-33/
3.      Sudarshan’s example related to the book he purchased in a supermarket is at: Audio | J. Krishnamurti & Scientists – Brockwood 1974, Seminars – 5: Transformation, feeling responsible, being attached at 42:37.
4.      Source of Sudarshan’s image: By Tabish q at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47701717

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Revisiting an obsession checklist after a decade

By August 2008 (a decade ago), my independent consulting practice was less than two years old. And the economic downturn was in the air. Perhaps the worry related to questions like, “What would happen to my business? Will I have to shut the shop?” was visible on my face. It was pointed out by my wife and friends. This is when I reflected upon the signals that might indicate that my passion has turned into an obsession. Obsession and anxiety are two sides of the same coin. Hence, I thought of making a checklist that might help me observe my own anxiety. I wrote the article “Thin line between passion and obsession” (Aug 24, 2008) in which I published an obsession checklist. I thought a decade is a good time to revisit the checklist and look at its usefulness.

If I answer the checklist today, what do I see?

1.  Did I jog in the last week? (Yes, this morning)
2.  Did I go for a walk / watch movie / play / concert with my wife? (Yes, went for a walk with her last evening, watched a play – “Photograph 51” with her a couple of weeks ago)
3.  Did I listen to Hindustani classical music in the past 2 weeks? (Yes, listened to my flute teacher play raga Durga last Saturday after my class).
4.  Did I practice flute in the last 2 weeks? (Yes, today and went for a flute class last Saturday)
5.  Did I go cycling with my son in the last 2-3 weeks? (Yes, our son doesn’t live with us anymore. But I went cycling last week alone. We visited our son in Pune last week and went for a walk with him on lush green Panchwati hills).
6.  Did I get out of the city in the last 2-3 months? (Yes, returned from a visit to Mumbai-Pune a few days back and visited Coimbatore 2 weeks ago).
7. Did I read any fiction, especially a Marathi book in the past 2-3 months? (Yes, read the play Atmakatha (Autobiography) by Mahesh Elkunchwar a few days ago).

So, looks like I am doing ok as far as the checklist is concerned. Question is: is the checklist still relevant today?

To answer this question, let’s first ask, “What does this checklist represent?” If I understand correctly, this checklist represents little joys as I saw them a decade ago. It so happens that all these activities continue to give me joy even today. But the list of little joys has grown significantly in the last decade. What does it contain now?

Well, a number of small things seem to give joy – cutting vegetables, making tea, watering plants, making home compost, juggling, playing cricket in the corridor with a 5-year-old neighbor etc. But perhaps the most significant addition to the list is – doing nothing. I could be sitting in my house or in a bus or at an airport or in a reception area and just watching the movements – sounds, thoughts, people, breath etc. and just enjoy being there.

What about the original anxiety of not getting any customer and not making any money? Well, in the last twelve years, there were some years in which I made less money. And? Nothing happened. In fact, I don’t remember anything special of those years. I am sure, all the basic needs – food, shelter, clothing even travel weren’t affected. And that’s where the main point may be. That is, over the years, my needs have shrunk significantly. There is no goal to be achieved. Journey seems to be primary and destination secondary.

In short, the obsession checklist isn’t obsolete. However, there is no dearth of small joys every day.