Monday, January 23, 2023

Building innovation stamina: 4 basic workouts

When it comes to building running stamina, workouts may include a combination of stretching, slow runs, sprints, strength training, etc. What kinds of workouts are involved in building innovation stamina? Let’s look at 4 key components of innovation stamina and identify a basic workout for each of them. The 4 components are curiosity stamina, experimentation stamina, communication stamina, and collaboration stamina. Innovation is a team sport and hence innovation stamina is more relevant for a team than an individual. However, let’s focus on an individual in this article.

1.  Curiosity stamina: This stamina depicts one’s ability to remain curious about one challenge area for a long duration.

Daily workout: Listening: Spending time listening to people who may be facing the challenge or have overcome the challenge or carry some expertise related to the challenge area. If you are curious about a technology trend, then the workout may involve listening to / studying what experts/friends have to say on the topic.

Listening may also happen by watching a video, reading a book, research paper, etc. Any serious study would need the discipline of taking notes, keeping recorded interviews, etc.

A typical by-product of this exercise is framing one or more challenges with additional constraints e.g. focusing on specific types of people, using different metaphors or analogies, etc. With input from people, the challenge statement may undergo changes. Keeping a diary of challenge statements along with assumptions and constraints helps.

2.  Experimentation stamina: This stamina represents one’s ability to perform experiments to validate one or more assumptions or hypotheses associated with an idea. 

Daily workout: Prototyping: A prototype can be feels-like such as a before-and-after storyboard, or it may be a looks-like prototype such as app wireframes or it may be works-like such as a simulation model. Building higher fidelity prototypes typically needs more sophisticated tools, specialized skills, and more effort. The key parameters to watch out for are cost and speed of prototyping. You want the cost to be as low as possible and the speed to be as high as possible.

Like how a gym enables workouts, a lab enables prototyping by providing access to tools, platforms, and coaches. Hence, serious stamina builders try to get access to a gym or build a low-cost gym of their own.

3.  Communication stamina: This stamina depicts one’s ability to communicate one’s idea effectively in a short time again and again despite unfavorable responses in the past.

Daily workout: idea pitching: Idea pitching can start with friends and family. And it gets extended to mentors, investors, potential/current customers, partners, etc. A key by-product is a feedback which may be used to improvise the idea, the prototype, and the pitch. Investment is also a by-product, not necessarily in the form of money but it could also be in the form of time from a mentor or an influencer opening a channel to potential customers. 

4.  Collaboration stamina: This stamina represents one’s ability to collaborate with and co-create new products/services with colleagues despite differences in opinions or priorities.

Daily workout:  Brainstorming: It is common to meet over a cup of coffee but not so common to meet with a specific challenge as agenda to be discussed. And it is even more difficult to retain an interest in the challenge for all the parties involved. Collaboration stamina is the toughest and trickiest stamina to build. Who is contributing more? Who should get the credit? Questions like these would pop up sooner or later and need to be resolved amicably.

A typical by-product of collaboration is a joint project. Many challenge campaigns make it mandatory for the submission to be teamwork. Quality of listening and mutual respect play a big role in cultivating collaboration stamina.

To summarize, we looked at 4 components of innovation stamina: curiosity, experimentation, communication, and collaboration, and 4 associated basic workouts to cultivate those components viz. listening, prototyping, idea pitching, and brainstorming.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Nāgārjuna’s śūnyatā through Mūlamadhyamakakārikā verses

“Reality is unknown and unknowable” is one of the hypotheses I explore in my book “Mindfulness: connecting with the real you” (2019). Over the past year, as I began to explore ancient Buddhist texts where a similar notion is expressed, it was inevitable that I encounter Nagarjuna’s sunyata (emptiness). Nagarjuna from the 2nd-3rd century CE is a towering figure among the Buddhist teachers from India. He shed fresh light on one of the core tenets of Buddhism – Pratītyasamutpāda (प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद) commonly translated as dependent origination or dependent arising.

Nagarjuna championed the term sunyata (शून्यता) to express his understanding of dependent arising. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (मूलमध्यमककारिका, MMK) translated as “Fundamental wisdom of the middle path” is Nagarjuna’s main text which is considered one of the foundational texts in Mahayana Buddhist traditions. MMK is a series of 450 verses organized into 27 chapters. I haven’t read the entire MMK yet. However, this is my first attempt to pick a few verses to present my understanding of Nagarjuna’s sunyata. Who knows? It might open new channels of conversations that I enjoy and learn from.

On English translation: I have used the Sanskrit version of MMK from here. I have used this online Sanskrit dictionary and also referred to translations inspired by multiple Buddhist traditions such as Tibetan (Jay Garfield), Japanese Zen (Kenneth Inada), Theravada (David Kalupahana) as well as works by T R V Murti, G C Nayak, and Ananda Mishra. All sources are given at the end. However, I haven’t stuck to any particular translation and sometimes used my own phrases.

How important is sunyata to Nagarjuna?

सर्वं च युज्यते तस्य शून्यता यस्य युज्यते ।

सर्वं न युज्यते तस्य शून्यं यस्य न युज्यते ॥ 24.14 ||

sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate

sarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyaṃ yasya na yujyate

Whoever is in tune with1,2 sunyata is in tune with everything

Everything is out of tune for him who is out of tune with sunyata


Is sunyata the middle path of Buddha?

यः प्रतीत्यसमुत्पादः शून्यतां तां प्रचक्ष्महे ।

सा प्रज्ञप्तिरूपादाय प्रतिपत्सैव मध्यमा ॥ 24.18 ||

yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaḥ śūnyatāṃ tāṃ pracakṣmahe

sā prajñaptirūpādāya pratipatsaiva madhyamā

We see clearly that whatever is dependently arising is sunyata

That is a term for inter-dependence3, is itself the middle way.


यः प्रतीत्यसमुत्पादं पश्यतीदं स पश्यति ।

दुःखं समुदयं चैव निरोधं मार्गमेव च ॥ 24.40 ||

yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaṃ paśyatīdaṃ sa paśyati

duḥkhaṃ samudayaṃ caiva nirodhaṃ mārgameva ca

Whoever sees dependent arising, sees this

Suffering, its arising and its cessation, and the path itself


What is sunyata?

The following two verses are my most favourite as far as sunyata is concerned.

शून्यता सर्वदृष्टीनां प्रोक्ता निःसरणं जिनैः ।

येषां तु शून्यतादृष्टीस्तानसाध्यान् बभाषिरे ॥ 13.8 ||

śūnyatā sarvadṛṣṭīnāṃ proktā niḥsaraṇaṃ jinaiḥ

yeṣāṃ tu śūnyatādṛṣṭīstānasādhyān babhāṣire

Sunyata is the dissipation4 of all views, said the wise,

They spoke, For whomever, sunyata is a view are incorrigible5

My comment: “all views” means all rigid beliefs. Hence, sunyata is a state where all beliefs are tentative.


अस्तीति शाश्वतग्राहो नास्तीत्युच्छेददर्शनं ।

तस्मादस्तित्वनास्तित्वे नाश्रीयेत विचक्षणः ॥ 15.10 ||

astīti śāśvatagrāho nāstītyuccedadarśanaṁ

tasmād astitvanāstitve nāśrīyeta vicakṣaṇaḥ

Saying “it exists” means holding onto permanency, saying “it doesn’t exist” is the nihilistic view

Hence, a wise man doesn’t resort to “exists” or “doesn’t exist”


How does perception of sunyata manifest itself?

अपरप्रत्ययं शान्तं प्रपञ्चैरप्रपञ्चितं ।

निर्विकल्पमनानार्थमेतत्त्वस्य लक्षणं ॥ 18.9 ||

aparapratyayaṃ śāntaṃ prapañcairaprapañcitaṃ

nirvikalpamanānārthametattvasya lakṣaṇaṃ

Not dependent on another, peaceful, unfooled by the conceptual play6

Thoughtless, without multiplicity, these are the characteristics of reality7,8

My comment: When reality perceives its nature to be sunya i.e. dependently arising it manifests itself through these characteristics.


What does it mean practically?

MMK is not written in the spirit of a “step-by-step guide to sunyata” 😊 However, we can infer a few things which may be practical. The first thing to notice is that, at least in these verses, Nagarjuna is not talking about what to do or not do. He is talking about a kind of seeing or perceiving. The phrase in verse 24.40 – यः पश्यति पश्यति, yaḥ paśyati sa paśyati, one who sees, sees – communicates the spirit. In sunyata, it is the perception that matters, not action.

Next, if I pay attention to my mental state and observe that it is anxious or agitated (i.e. not peaceful) then it would imply that I am not perceiving sunyata (last verse 18.9). That means not all beliefs have been dissipated yet (13.8). That is, at least one view (belief) is being held too tightly and the current or an imagined situation has threatened its validity. For example, the belief could be that “I must always have a job” or “I must always be liked by family/friends/colleagues” or “I must be successful” etc. and in the current or in an imagined situation this may not be true. Nagarjuna is indirectly nudging us to ask, “Is there a belief being held too tightly? (15.10)”

Not sure if you noticed, but all the sample beliefs in the para above assume “I am an independent agent”. 😊 Am I? Or is it just another belief held tightly? Am I getting fooled by my thought process? (18.9) Looks tricky? Who says the middle path is not slippery? In fact, Nagarjuna says misperception of sunyata can be as dangerous as a snake held incorrectly (24.11, सर्पो यथा दुर्गृहीतो, sarpo yathā durgṛhīto).

Going back to the hypothesis in my book, is Nagarjuna saying that reality is unknown and unknowable? In verse 15.10 Nagarjuna is suggesting that taking a hard stance on “it is” or “it is not” is dangerous. Once I take a hard stance, I need to defend it, either win or lose arguments, all of this generates suffering sooner or later. Once I see this, I may say “yes” or “no” to any question but tentatively – treating every belief as a hypothesis.

I am sure MMK has much more to offer than what I have presented here. And I am looking forward to exploring it further.  In the meantime, I am happy to hear your comments and I welcome them in the spirit of MMK, all views are tentative 😊 

Update-1: (24-Oct-22) English translation of the second line of verse 24.18 was earlier translated as "That is a term (used) for dependent (arising), is itself the middle way." It has been updated to "That is a term for inter-dependence, is itself the middle way". Thanks to Prof. Ananda Mishra for his comments.


  1. Kenneth Inada translates the Sanskrit term युज्यते (yujyate) as “in correspondence with”. He translates the first line as:Whatever is in correspondence with sunyata all is in correspondence (i.e. possible).” 
  2. Jay Garfield translates this line as: “For him to whom emptiness is clear, everything becomes clear.”
  3. Kenneth Inada translates this line as, "It is a provisional name (i.e. thought construction) for the mutuality (of being) and, indeed, it is the middle path". Garfield translates it as, "That, being a dependent designation, is itself the middle way".
  4. Jay Garfield translates this line as: “The victorious ones have said, that emptiness is the relinquishing of all views."
  5. The Sanskrit word asādhyān (असाध्यान्) has been translated as incorrigible as in Kenneth Inada’s translation. Jay Garfield translates it as “accomplish nothing”. His line: “For whoever emptiness is a view, that one will accomplish nothing.”
  6. The phrase "prapañcaiḥ aprapañcitaṃ" (प्रपञ्चैः अप्रपञ्चितं) has been translated here as “unfooled by the conceptual play”. Inada translates it as: “non-conceptualized by conceptual play” and Garfield translates it as: “Not fabricated by mental fabrication”.
  7. The word tattva (तत्त्व) is also translated as suchness or thusness corresponding to the Sanskrit word tathatā (तथता) as mentioned by G C Nayak pg 20. Garfield also mentions “reality (that-ness)”.
  8. For T R V Murti tattva is “the Real is something in itself, self-evident and self-existent” pg 139 2016 edition. This is the Absolutistic interpretation of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka. Ananda Mishra (additional source 3 below) gives a good overview of nihilistic and absolutistic interpretations and suggests, “The true meaning of sunyata can never be grasped by mere textual exegesis, rhetorics, dialectics or analytics and discursive reasoning. It is something to be realized and felt within.” Dalai Lama also mentions a similar view (see additional source 4 below). 


  1. Sanskrit Devanagari version edited by Douglas Bachman, 2001. (Available from
  2. P. L. Vaidya, “Mādhyamakaśāstra of Nāgārjuna with the commentary Prasannapadā by Candrakīrtī”, Buddhist Sanskrit texts No. 10, The Mithila Institute, 1960. (Available from This is a Sanskrit text in Devanagari which includes MMK commentary by Candrakīrtī (7th century CE). I haven’t read Candrakīrtī’s commentary yet. However, it is not possible to read Nagarjuna without encountering Candrakīrtī.

English translations:

  1. Jay L. Garfield, “The fundamental wisdom of the middle way”, Oxford University Press, 1995.
  2. Kenneth K. Inada, “Nagarjuna: A translation of his Mulamadhyamakakarika”, Sri Satguru Publications, 1993. (Available at
  3. David J. Kalupahana, “Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna: The philosophy of the middle way”, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers, 1999. (Available at

Additional sources referring to the Sanskrit version of MMK (I am sure there are many other books that refer to MMK in Tibetan, Chinese, Korean and Japanese editions):

  1. T R V Murti, “The central philosophy of Buddhism: A study of Mādhyamika system”, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers, 2016. First published in 1955, this book gives a good exposition of Nagarjuna and Madhyamika school and compares it with various other Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain schools and western scholars like Kant and Hegel. TRV interprets Nagarjuna as an Absolutist.
  2. G C Nayak, “Madhyamika sunyata: A reappraisal”, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 2001. (Available on A short (150 pages) and yet very good appraisal of Nagarjuna and his commentator Chandrakirti’s philosophical enterprise. Invokes Wittgenstein quotes a few times to compare it with Nagarjuna.
  3. Ananda Mishra, “Nāgārjuna’s śūnyatā: Beyond being and nothingness”, Journal of East-West thought, Vol. 8 No. 1, 2018.
  4. Dalai Lama, “Nagarjuna’s ‘fundamental wisdom’ – day-1”, This is a 3-hour lecture delivered by Dalai Lama at Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi on March 20, 2015. At the time of the lecture, he was 4 months short of turning 80. He focuses on chapter 24 of MMK. He sometimes speaks in English and other times speaks in Tibetan and there is a translator. However, it is clear that he has studied Nagarjuna deeply and speaks from the heart. He does not translate verse by verse. Roughly, the first 40 minutes is an overview of different Buddhist schools, 41:30 Talks about core tenets like dependent origination, dependent designation, and non-independence of self. 1:17:30 Starts with chapter 24 At 1:39:50 he mentions, “That experience (of having a weak negative emotion) goes for years, decades and then real transformation (happens) in our emotions” and then adds, “These are not just empty words – I myself although not very big experience but (have had) some experiences. Therefore, these days I often talk about emptiness, emptiness like that.”
image source:

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Three enablers of innovation stamina

“We used to be innovative before the pandemic”. It is not uncommon to hear this in the corporate world when I visit clients now working in hybrid mode. That is not surprising if we look at innovativeness as a kind of stamina. It is similar to saying “I used to run 10K comfortably once upon a time”. Building and sustaining stamina is a sweaty process and needs discipline. If you don’t practice, your stamina goes down. Going to the gym helps or having a trainer or a buddy to exercise with help. Analogously, what kind of enablers help build innovation stamina? Let’s look at 3 of them in this article.   

Dashboard and review: Smartwatches have made parameters like the number of steps per day easily accessible. A gymgoer may watch a number of push-ups and pull-ups, bench-press weights and repetitions, etc. A dashboard makes a big difference when it comes to stamina building. However, we need to differentiate between a goal of running 10K in under 1 hour and doing 6K runs three times a week. So, a good dashboard should have an outcome goal (e.g. run 10K in under 1 hour) and a process goal (e.g. run 6K 3 times a week). Similarly, it helps to have outcome goals related to innovation stamina such as idea pipeline (no of ideas, ideas per person per year, no of big bets), idea velocity measured through experiments and customer validations, business impact measured through savings, revenue and profit, and participation measured through percentage of team members participating in innovation activity, etc. And it helps to have process goals such as the number of brainstorms, number of challenge campaigns, number of hackathons, etc. I have presented a few examples of dashboard parameters I gathered from annual reports here and also presented process goals here.

A dashboard without a review is of limited use. Hence, organizations need to review the innovation dashboard with rigor and rhythm (e.g. quarterly). This is where tough questions get asked and budget allocation / re-allocation happens. Here is an example of how Jeff Bezos reviews a big bet like Alexa and another one on how innovation reviews happened at P&G under A G Lafley.

Gyms and coaches: As I go out to jog in the morning, I see many people carrying their gym bags and heading for a workout. For many, a gym and perhaps a coach make a difference in bringing discipline to their stamina-building process. For innovation, gyms come mostly in the form of laboratories. There are different types of labs. For example, a tinkerers’ lab may house various tools for wood-cutting, metal-cutting, circuit-building, CAD modeling, 3D printing, etc. under one roof. Alternately, a technology-focused lab may focus on technology like quantum computing, IoT sensors, AR/VR, nano-materials for water purification, etc. A design studio creates space for using various materials and tools for prototype designs.

An innovation sandbox also has high experimentation capacity built through a lab but in addition, it has constraints coming from market use cases, cost, and product performance. For example, when the Lego company decides to create a center focused on creating a bio-plastic for building lego bricks, it is working under various constraints like malleability of the material, ability to hold paint, cost, and perhaps a few more.

A gym is far more effective with coaches and it welcomes newcomers and trains them. Likewise, a lab is more effective when there are coaches/mentors for newcomers.

Events and celebrations: Many runners get motivated when they decide to participate in an event such as a 10K run or a marathon. They form groups and practice together for months for this event. While such events are competitive for many, for most people the cooperative spirit may dominate the practice.

Companies also organize events related to innovation that instill the spirit of competition and cooperation. For example, there are day-long or week-long events showcasing promising ideas or prototypes. There are events like Innovation Day/week, Engineers’ Day, technology conferences, hackathons, challenge campaigns running over a month, etc.

Newsletters socialize these events. They showcase not only the winners but also the participants helping each other. Events generate stories that are discussed over lunch and they may motivate skeptics to participate in the next event.

Events can lose steam if they turn into just social events. The ability to spot good challenges, ideas, and prototypes and convert them into proposals, papers, and formal projects is important.

To summarize, we looked at three enablers of innovation stamina: dashboard and review, gyms and coaches, and events and celebrations.

Related blogs:

4 stamina of an innovator, Aug 27, 2015

Starting an innovation initiative: An ABCD approach, Sep 25, 2015. The enablers mentioned in the above article could be seen as an extension of the ABCD approach with an E for Enablers.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Design Thinking: articles at a glance

In this table, I have tried to organize my blogs according to various topics associated with design thinking. Hope this is helpful.

 Process step



(Listening, observation)



Prototype & test

Idea communication,
Pitching your idea

Fail fast, learn fast

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Wasteful thoughts: From Nash's dieting to Rumi's welcoming

Wasteful thoughts – anxiety, stress, blame, guilt, etc – form a large part of our thinking process. It can consume a significant portion of time and energy in a day. Mindfulness involves recognizing wasteful thoughts while thinking and seeing them drop off, at least sometimes. The character of Nobel Laureate John Nash Jr. as depicted in the movie “A beautiful mind” advocates an approach to wasteful thoughts called “diet of the mind”. Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi poet, suggests welcoming every thought be it “a joy, a depression or a meanness” in his poem “The guest house”. Are these two seemingly different approaches to wasteful thoughts, Nash’s dieting, and Rumi’s welcoming, related? What’s common between them? Could they be complementary? I attempt to explore these questions in this article.  

First, let’ see what is common between Nash and Rumi’s approaches. In Nash’s dieting approach, it is expected that one watches the thoughts while thinking to check whether they are useful at that moment. “Like a diet of the mind, I choose not to indulge certain appetites,” says Nash in the movie.  In Rumi’s poem, he says, “meet them (thoughts) at the door laughing”. Both these approaches assume a certain degree of attentional freedom such that one is able to watch the ongoing thoughts. Based on my experience, I feel this isn’t as easy as it sounds. And it is especially difficult when there is negative emotion accompanying the thoughts. However, I feel attentional flexibility can be built with practice by learning to hop off the train of thought.

Now, let’s turn to Nash’s approach. The best way to get a feel for this approach is by experimenting with it. Whenever you get a chance, watch the ongoing thoughts. And check if this train of thought is serving any useful purpose at that moment. Sometimes the answer would be “yes”, other times “no”. When we recognize a train of thought to be wasteful at that time, it drops off, at least sometimes. It may be replaced by another train of thought and so on. It is a wonderful experience to see a repetitive thought pattern drop off at least for a while. Like Nash suggests, the “diet of the mind” involves learning not to indulge in certain thought patterns by being alert and watchful.

Nash’s dieting approach may not work all the time. You feel you have recognized the train of thought to be wasteful and yet it persists. One possibility is that this recognition hasn’t touched the source that is fuelling the thought pattern. For example, I may be worrying about the impending recession and I recognize the repetitiveness of this thought pattern to be wasteful. However, deep down I may be carrying an assumption that it is absolutely necessary that I have a job. And this absolute necessity overpowers the thinking process. And this is where Rumi’s approach may be helpful.

Rumi says,

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.


A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.


Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Rumi is challenging us here. Try meeting a dark thought laughing. It is not easy. I find the phrase, “each has been sent as a guide from beyond” very helpful. What is this place from beyond that the thought is coming from? Could it be a clue to a mystery? My suggestion is that this place is where assumptions of absolute necessity reside. And they are the doorways to self-awareness.

As mentioned in the earlier para, I may carry an assumption of absolute necessity that, “I MUST never be out of a job.” These assumptions of absolute necessities are held deep down somewhere. And yet discovering them reveals a lot about oneself. If I clearly see that there is nothing absolute about this assumption and it is quite possible that I might be out of a job. And several people I know have been out of jobs and many of them got back new jobs. And even if one doesn’t get a job, it is not the end of the world. Life is much more immense and mysterious than a job. If one sees all of this clearly then it stops overpowering the thinking process.

To summarize, both Nash’s dieting and Rumi’s welcoming approach assume a certain degree of attentional freedom. If you feel you don’t have it yet, then that is the first step. Once you are able to watch the ongoing train of thought, experiment with Nash’s dieting approach. Just like you watch what you are taking on your plate, watch the thoughts you are indulging in. If you recognize them to be wasteful at the moment, they will drop off. For repetitive thoughts that persist, learn to use them as a guide to explore the mysterious place “from beyond”. You may discover an assumption of absolute necessity hiding there which makes no sense.

And don’t be alarmed if you begin to see that there is no such a thing as an absolute necessity. It is possible that this is the place where Rumi wrote his poems. 


“The guest house” is from “The Essential Rumi” translations by Coleman Barks, HarperOne, 1995.

Nash’s quotes are from the movie “A beautiful mind”.


I explore wasteful thoughts and absolute necessities in my book "Mindfulness: connected with the real you".

Monday, May 16, 2022

Can we empathize through data without face-to-face interaction?

As a facilitator of design thinking workshops, I have held a view that face-to-face observation and listening are essential elements of empathy. Our body language sends powerful ques about our state of being, our approvals, disapprovals, comforts, discomforts, etc. And it is very difficult to capture these through data, graphs, analytics, etc. However, this belief is being shaken up over the past few years. Can we empathize through data alone? In this article, I present a few examples that have made me ambivalent.

Last year I read Brad Stones’ “Amazon unbound: Jeff Bezos and the invention of a global empire”. It is a story of Amazon’s transformation from a powerful force into the Giant over the past decade. The book highlights the data obsession at Amazon led by Jeff Bezos and percolated throughout the company. Decisions about whether to launch a new product such as Alexa, which private label products to launch and the locations of the warehouses were all based on data. Stones sometimes calls this “cold, hard data”. Given the size of Amazon’s customer base and its nature of ecommerce business where except delivery everything else happens online, it is understandable that Amazon doesn’t need face-to-face observation of customers. It is possible that the ecommerce business focuses on the 3 core customer needs, low prices, vast selection and fast delivery which don’t change much. Perhaps all other customer insights come through data without any face-to-face observation.

I thought the situation may be different for Alexa, the AI-enabled conversational device as well as a technology platform Amazon sells because building empathy is an important goal. It turns out the kind of effort that is being put in making Alexa socially relevant in a conversation, involves gathering a large amount of customer conversations with Alexa. This seems to be more of device-to-face interaction rather than face-to-face interaction. Customers who are helping Amazon evaluate newer ways of conversing with customers as part of Alexa Prize competition are interacting with the device and giving a rating on how likely they would be to converse with this “friend” again. No face-to-face interaction.

One would expect that face-to-face interaction is necessary in emergency psychiatry. However, Karl Deisseroth, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Stanford, tells in the book “Connections: the new science of emotion”, how his belief has changed over the years and got further validated during Covid pandemic. He says, “Emergency psychiatry, I saw again and again, though it somehow surprised me each time, can be carried out with precision even over phone, through that lonely single line.” He feels, “Psychiatry and medicine broadly – though still constructed around interpersonal communication – can survive and operate well with much less social information than the traditional face-to-face interview provides.”

Earlier this year, I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Klara and the sun”. The protagonist of this story is an artificial friend, Klara. And one of the reviewers has aptly called this book “an absolute master class in empathy.” Ishiguro in his subtle and slow-moving style creates various scenes in which Klara, the robot, learns about human anxieties and aspirations through observation and conversation. If this fiction work is any indication of what could become a reality, then perhaps outsourcing empathizing to a robot is not too farfetched.

A few months ago, I joined a team of senior managers at an offsite in the outskirts of Bangalore. The team members have been working with each other for years and were meeting online throughout the pandemic. However, they were very happy with the face-to-face interaction and it came up multiple times during the conversations.  Video calls were dry and to the point. The physical presence, jokes, fun cooking activity, eating together in a relaxed atmosphere was no match to innumerable video calls.

Now you get some idea about my ambivalence. Can we empathize through data without face-to-face interaction? The answer seems to be a ‘yes’ at least in some contexts. But, can we eliminate face-to-face interaction in most contexts? I am doubtful but now open to the possibility.


For Alexa related discussion, check out

Laura Stevens, “Alexa, can you be empathetic, all-knowing and funny?”, Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2019

“Rohit Prasad: Amazon, Alexa and Conversational AI”, interview of Rohit Prasad, Head Scientist, Alexa by Lex Fridman, Dec 14, 2019.

Friday, April 29, 2022

What does Ramana Maharshi mean by “All sciences end in the Self”?

Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi” has been my reflection companion for over two decades. It contains conversations with Ramana Maharshi (RM) (1879-1950), a spiritual teacher known for his emphasis on self-inquiry. The conversations in this book took place between 1935 and 1939 in RM’s ashram in Tiruvannamalai in South India and were recorded by one of the then residents of the ashram, Munagala Venkataramiah.

In one of the conversations with a visitor in 1937 (Talk 380), RM said, “All sciences end in the Self”.  What did RM mean by this? Science continues to unravel so many mysteries including the mystery surrounding the concept of self. Isn’t it an important path towards understanding reality and one’s own nature? Did RM underestimate the power of science? This is an attempt to explore these questions.

Let’s begin with an excerpt from Talk 380 where this quote appears. The visitor had come from Europe and most likely there would have been a translator.

V: I want confirmation of the Self.

RM: You seek the confirmation from others. Each one though addressed as ‘you’, styles himself ‘I’. The confirmation is only from ‘I’. There is no ‘you’ at all. All are comprised in ‘I’. The other can be known only when the Self is posited. The others do not exist without the subject.

V: Again, this is nothing new. When I was with Sir C. V. Raman he told me that the theory of smell could be explained from his theory of light. Smell need no longer be explained in terms of chemistry. Now, there is something new; it is progress. That is what I mean, when I say that there is nothing new in all the statements I hear now.

RM: ‘I’ is never new. It is eternally the same.

V: Do you mean to say that there is no progress?

RM: Progress is perceived by the outgoing mind. Everything is still when the mind is introverted and the Self is sought.

V: The Sciences - what becomes of them?

RM: They all end in the Self. The Self is their finality

Let’s note that “the Self” is a translation of the Sanskrit word Swarupa which could also be translated as “one’s nature” or essence. 

How ignorant was RM about sciences? In the same book where the above-mentioned conversation happens, there are a couple of places where RM refers to science. “Even the material sciences trace the origin of the universe to some one primordial matter - subtle, exceedingly subtle.” (Talk 199) And, another one, “There is no difference between matter and spirit. Modern science admits that all matter is energy.” (Talk 268) This implies that RM had probably heard of the implications of the special theory of relativity and the brand-new branch of quantum mechanics. Looks like he was not totally ignorant.

Then where does this confidence of “All sciences end in the Self” come from? Let’s look at one more elaboration of RM on this topic (Talk 388):

“There are no objects without the subject, i.e., the objects do not come and tell you that they are, but it is you who says that there are the objects. The objects are therefore what the seer makes of them. They have no existence independent of the subject. Find out what you are and then you understand what the world is.”

Empirical evidence is an important aspect of the scientific method. Scientific theories predict future observations for a given context. This implies the separation of observer and observed. Is observer independent of observed? What if the observer is the observed? It could be like one hand observing the other hand – having some relative independence but ultimately part of one whole. Perhaps what RM is trying to say is that science has relevance when the subject considers itself to be independent of the object and loses its relevance when the sense of separateness vanishes.   

And even if a branch of science (e.g. quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, neuroscience) is telling that observer and observed are not independent, RM feels that having the mere knowledge is not the same as internalizing that knowledge. A scientist may champion a monistic theory and yet feel frustrated or get depressed because fellow scientists are not paying attention to his theory. RM brings it out in the following Q&A from Talk 27.

Q: Is the study of science, psychology, physiology, philosophy, etc. helpful for (1) this art of yoga-liberation. (2) the intuitive grasp of the unity of the Real?

RM: Very little. Some knowledge is needed for yoga and it may be found in books. But practical application is the thing needed, and personal example, personal touch and personal instructions are the most helpful aids. As for the other, a person may laboriously convince himself of the truth to be intuited, i.e., its function and nature, but the actual intuition is akin to feeling and requires practice and personal contact. Mere book learning is not of any great use. After realisation all intellectual loads are useless burdens and are thrown overboard as jetsam. Jettisoning the ego is necessary and natural.

This is like the difference between cycling and cycology. One may know the theory behind how a cycle works and how a cyclist balances his weight and yet may not know cycling. Cycling is a full-body knowledge also called embodied cognition and it is mostly implicit. Similarly, knowing that the self is not independent of and intimately connected with the outside world is not enough. It needs to be embodied and internalized to be effective.  

One implication of what RM is saying is that reading this blog itself is of very little use. Turning attention inwards, watching the movement of thought, and exploring the origin of I-thought is more important. RM says, “Change your outlook. Look within. Find the Self. Who is the substratum of the subject and the object? Find it and all problems are solved.” (Talk 331)

Related blog:

Ramana Maharshi’s self-inquiry through Upadesa Saram verses, Dec 2021.

Image source: