Saturday, June 27, 2020

Why does U G Krishnamurti ask, “Is there such a thing as enlightenment at all?”

U. G. Krishnamurti (1918-2007) was an author and a spiritual teacher. I recently translated one his interviews titled “U. G. Krishnamurti: Mystique of enlightenment – Part-1” by Jeffrey Mishlove to Marathi (available here). What appealed to me most about this interview is the intensity with which UG asks the question, “Is there such a thing as enlightenment at all?” (6:04) The question and the intensity reverberate throughout the interview. In this article, I would like to explore why UG might be questioning enlightenment in the interview. I have put UG’s words in quotes along with timestamps in the interview.

We have tremendous faith in thought as an instrument: “It (thought) is a very powerful instrument. That instrument has helped us achieve whatever we have achieved so far.” (21:50) This is not difficult to see. The scientific and technological progress of the last few centuries is evident. We believe thought can help us solve problems related to machines, medicine, and mind. And we extend our faith in the instrument to achieve a state of mind called bliss or enlightenment. We also have tremendous faith in the teachers who claim to have achieved such a state. UG is asking – Could this faith be misplaced? 

There is no such thing as understanding: UG says that our understanding is a result of the knowledge-experience vicious cycle. “We accept that knowledge is necessary for us to experience and the experience strengthens the knowledge.” (14:30) “So this vicious cycle goes on and on.” (14:20) Using the knowledge we feel we understand the world including the living organism. For example, we measure parameters like body temperature, blood pressure, EEG, MRI, etc. and claim that we understand the body. “So you are trying to use that knowledge and experience what you call a living being.” (11:52). While this understanding may help in certain diagnoses, it could never be complete. Even the experience of enlightenment is "a petty little thought induced experience" (18:50). "Without knowledge, you have no way of experiencing anything at all." (14:00) And hence UG is saying that “There is no such thing as (complete) understanding.” (22:44) And, "there is no such thing as enlightenment at all." (16:39). So, are we trapped in perpetual incomplete understanding? Isn’t there a way out?

There is no way out (14:52):  “We are trapped and the very demand to get out of the trap is really the problem.” (16:13) Thought maybe useful in solving problems related to machines – clocks, cars, and computers. But thought is not helpful in solving the “lack of happiness” kind of problems. Hence, UG says, “I question the very demand to be enlightened.” (16:39) However, he hints at a possibility that the demand to be enlightened may drop off with the insight of this trap. “So when the understanding dawns on you that that (thought) is not the instrument which will help you understand and solve your problems and there is no other instrument, the demand to solve problems ceases instantly.” (22:27)

For me, “Thought is not the instrument and there is no other instrument,” was the key takeaway. It could be different for you. Hope you watch the interview.

image source: youtube.com

Thursday, June 25, 2020

My 3 takeaways from “Experimentation works” by Stefan Thomke

I have been a fan of both systematic experimentation and Prof. Stefan Thomke for over a decade. Hence, it is not surprising that I enjoyed his recent book “Experimentation works: The surprising power of business experiments”. In this book, Thomke makes some of the core concepts from his earlier book “Experimentation matters” more accessible and brings out the increased scope and scale of disciplined business experimentation in the digital era. I have several takeaways from this book. However, for the sake of creating interest, let me highlight three of them.

Bad vs good experiments:  The book brings out characteristics of what makes a good business experiment. When a CEO of a retail chain J.C. Penney implements a bold plan of revamping the retail stores based on what worked in his earlier stint at Apple, the company is demonstrating HiPPO, a bias for Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. That is not even a bad experiment. When you tinker with rewards to see if it increases productivity, it is an example of trial-and-error or an uncontrolled or a bad experiment. Why? This is because you don’t know the counterfactual. i.e. How do you know that productivity would have increased even without the changed reward? Thomke dedicates a chapter “What makes a good business experiment?” to explain this which I found useful. The attributes of a good business experiment include falsifiability of the hypothesis, feasibility, and repeatability of the experiment among others.  

Scale of online experimentation: With the advent of online digital platforms, designing and running randomized control trials became cheap, fast, and scalable. Thomke dedicates three chapters to present various aspects of online, large scale experimentation. One chapter takes a peek into his favorite experimentation organization - Booking.com which runs more than one thousand concurrent tests on its website, servers and apps every single day. When it is designing a “Book” button, it creates two versions one with say, a yellow button, and the other with a blue button, and then it gets tested live with millions of customers. The color that attracts the most bookings gets used. David Vismans, chief product officer, says, “Our customers decide where to take the website, not our managers.” With millions of page hits every day, even a small one percent improvement in conversion can have a big impact on the business. Booking.com is not alone, LinkedIn runs between five hundred and one thousand experiments concurrently through the year. Goole, Amazon, IBM, and even start-ups have been using this approach to experimentation.

Ethical issues in business experimentation: What if you are testing a differential pricing rather than different colors of the button? Could it be unfair to the customers who pay more? While designing experiments, has care been taken to see safety and emotional impact on customers? In other words, experimenters carry ethical responsibility to test new ideas for integrity before running randomized experiments. Hence, some of the leading experimentation organizations are adding ethical guidelines and case studies as part of their employee training. In one chapter, Thomke looks at seven attributes of experimentation culture such as integrity.

One area which I wish the book covered more is – replication crisis. As of today (June 2020), it is a decade long ongoing methodological crisis in which it has been found that many scientific studies are difficult or impossible to replicate. It mainly affects social sciences and medicine. Since business experimentation is akin to social science experimentation, I feel it is relevant here.

In the epilogue, Thomke imagines future directions of business experimentation. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), could design, execution and analysis of experiments be automated – outsourced to experiment-bots like chat-bots? What if the business decisions themselves are taken automatically without human intervention? Thomke feels, based on the current research, that some of the required ingredients for this to work exist already today.

The book gives a number of pointers for further study which I find very helpful. I strongly recommend this book to managers who care about innovation and experimentation.

image source: amazon.com

Monday, June 8, 2020

Tap view vs map view of controlling one’s thoughts


“How do I control my thoughts?” That’s one of the commonly asked questions in my mindfulness workshop. The question comes from a deep-rooted belief that I should be able to control life situations which include my thoughts. That comes from the tap view – Once I can find the right tap, I can turn off the flow of unwanted thoughts. It is a matter of finding the right tap. And the hope is that mindfulness would help one discover the tap.

The map view is different. When we navigate our car with the help of a map, we are not trying to control either the flow of traffic or the road crossing pedestrians. We are just trying to navigate our way as smoothly as we can with as little delay as possible. The motivation here is not that of control but more of hassle-free navigation in the given situation.

Which metaphor is more useful for navigating through our life, tap view or map view? It depends on the context. If you are trying to control the output of a plant or trying to discover a drug for a disease, tap view may be helpful. Identifying and optimizing the exact control parameters may increase the plant yield and discovering the right molecule may create an effective drug which in turn would arrest the proliferation of disease. However, when it comes to controlling thoughts, tap view is not helpful, at least not yet. I don’t know of any tap that can switch the flow of thoughts off without harmful side effects. This is where the map view comes handy.
Map view suggests that each of us carries a map of the world in our brain. Using this map, the brain predicts the causes of its sensorium and the consequences of its actions. Map view comes with the following implications:

Map is not territory: Map is a representation of the world. But the map is not the world itself. In fact, a cyclist’s map could look very different from a truck driver’s map. The by-lanes which are most suitable for a cyclist are useless for the truck driver. Map is neither true nor false. It is either useful or not useful. It is useful when it helps you navigate the world. When the prediction of a map fails repeatedly, it needs updating.

No map is final: When can we declare that a map is complete? Never. Map needs constant updating based on the changing situation. When a major event like the COVID pandemic happens, a number of things that used to work before don’t work anymore. For example, you can’t shake hands, can’t go to the office or even stand close to another person. This makes it necessary to update the map. Instead, if we say that the world needs to change and go back to what it was, it may not work. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to change the world. It is just that the world may or may not work according to your map.

Re-routing is important:  When you feel you are stuck, you could re-route the journey. This may mean changing the destination, perhaps go back to where you came from or chill in the same area for some time by parking the car.  Or you could find another route to the same destination. Instead, if we keep cursing the traffic jam or driver’s mistakes, it won’t serve any useful purpose. This recognition is sufficient to reduce the flow of wasteful thoughts. This readiness to re-route any moment is an important aspect of mindfulness.

In short, map view is more helpful than tap view when it comes to the flow of thoughts. Rather than trying to control thoughts like a tap, we can learn to update the map or re-routing the journey. We should also learn to recognize the meaninglessness of cursing the situation or past actions or future accidents.

image source: netclipart.com

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Bright spot diary: A source of ideas during challenging times



“Just surviving!” That’s the typical response I got from friends and family during the current ongoing Covid lockdown. Where does one find a source of creativity during such a gloomy period? In this article, I would like to present one such source which I find useful – bright spot diary. I have been maintaining this diary – more like a list in my diary – for over two years now. Let’s see how it helps me.

What’s a bright spot? It is anything that has (a) worked for me recently, and (b) was unexpected. Let’s look at 2 entries I made in this diary during the Covid period:
1.      Mindfulness webinar – 29 participants – 12-April
2.      Reading small chunks – Laplace approximation – 3-May

Entry no. 1 on 12th April is about the number of people who participated in an open webinar on mindfulness on that day. I didn’t expect so many people would turn up. Entry no. 2 is about a change I made while planning my day. For a while, I was writing in my todo list that I would finish a chapter from a book every day. And every day I would get stuck somewhere and fall short of the target. So one day I decided to allocate only one concept - more like a section – per day. And it worked much better. So I continued that way.

As you may have guessed, bright spots are well suited for asking scaling questions, “Can I do more of it?” Sometimes the answer is “yes”, sometimes “no”. But at least it creates options.

What does it mean for something to have “worked recently”? Well, it could be anything where things are not working out. So if days look boring, a bright spot would mean fun moments *in* the otherwise boring day. If exercise is not happening regularly, then a bright spot would be that situation where you went for a jog or did yoga. In fact, bright spot philosophy says that there is nothing universally dark. In every dark situation, there are bright spots lurking in the darkness.

I first encountered bright spots approach in the book “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. In fact, I wrote my first blog on the topic after reading Switch exactly ten years ago (May 2010). Then I followed the two sources from which Heath brothers borrowed it. One, psychotherapy called Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) and two, Positive Deviance approach championed by Jerry Sternin. So in a way, I have been sharpening my “bright spot” lens much before I began to write the diary.

What triggered the writing of bright spot diary for me?  Two years ago, in one of the guest lectures, a student asked me, “When everybody around you keeps pointing at your shortcomings, how does one get motivated?” and I suggested she write a bright spot diary. And then I asked myself, “Why not write one myself?” And that’s how it began. By then my bright spot lens – i.e. ability to notice bright spots in challenging situations had been honed for a number of years. And that brings us to an important aspect of bright spots.

Unlike the name suggests, bright spots are not necessarily very bright and shining and easily noticeable. In fact, they are oftentimes dim flickers in an overall dark and gloomy background. Somebody mentioned in my introduction in a panel discussion that I am an innovation and strategy expert. Wow! Strategy expert? Am I? Could I be? I noted it as a bright spot. And later asked me, “Could I develop this area further?”

Personal examples are always limiting. People say my life has been quite smooth. I never had major challenges. And that’s true. However, I feel that bright spots are present no matter how challenging the situation is. Apparently, people at the receiving end of the suicide hotline are trained to say, “Is there a part of you that doesn’t want to commit suicide? I would like to talk to that part of you.” There is usually a part that doesn’t want to commit suicide otherwise the person wouldn’t have called the hotline number anyway.

I hope you get to try it out and see if it works for you. Best wishes.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Improving idea velocity: A webinar May 15, 2020



(Watch the video of the webinar - filesize 54MB)

Improving idea velocity is arguably the most important imperative of the current innovation efforts. In a challenging time like Covid-19, the speed of innovation becomes even more pertinent as we respond to create novel and affordable solutions such as vaccines, ventilators, disinfectants, social distancing interventions, etc. In this webinar, we will step back from covid context and explore ways of improving idea velocity, in general. This webinar is meant for practitioners, educators, students, researchers, and whoever is concerned with the speed of innovation. Familiarity with 8-steps to innovation framework is helpful but not required. To register, please send mail to vinay@catalign.com. 

Monday, April 13, 2020

Mindfulness webinar 12th April 2020


Audio of the webinar (MP3, 31MB)

It was a pleasure to facilitate a webinar on mindfulness last Sunday and interact with participants in this corona lockdown period. The topic was "Recognizing wasteful thinking", i.e. chapter 4 of my book "Mindfulness: connecting with the real you." Here are the topics/questions we explored:

00:00:00 Introduction to the webinar
00:01:10 Questions from participants
00:04:35 Wasteful thinking and 3 examples
00:11:39 The clue: observation can stop a movement
00:15:02 Observing the train of thought
00:18:00 Leave it, change it, accept it
00:19:54 Diet of the mind
00:27:24 How to control my thoughts?
00:37:50 Are there stages of maturity?
00:40:15 Is positive thinking helpful?
00:46:22 Would acceptance lead to inaction?
00:54:00 Does closing eyes help?
00:55:15 Is it similar to Karmayoga of Gita?
00:57:19 Relationship to meditation and samadhi state
01:00:31 Teenage interaction - feels challenging
01:07:53 Fear of missing out in corporate world?
01:18:30 3 quick tips

Hope you enjoy it!

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!

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