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.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Is “design thinking” old wine in a new bottle?

I co-facilitated a 2-day design thinking workshop at IIM Bangalore a week ago. One of the questions that came up from a participant during the session was – “Is design thinking old wine in new bottle?” My short answer is “May be”. This blog is an attempt to elaborate on the short answer.

To check whether design thinking is something that you already know, I suggest looking at three dimensions: empathy, experimentation and experience. Let’s look at them one by one.

Empathy: “We have been in services business for decades. Empathy is ingrained in us.” This was a remark from a senior manager at the opening module of a DT workshop in an IT services firm. Later when the participants went through an empathy exercise involving interviews with new joinees the team discovered that the new joinees had to submit their personal documents three times during the joining process. Moreover, during the induction program they would get a lecture on the core themes of the organization, one of which was ‘Connected world’. New joinees were smart enough to see the irony of the situation. The senior managers who were open enough realized that empathy wasn’t as ingrained in them as they thought earlier. Empathy is a dimension with endless depth. Cognitive illusions may be hindering seeing the others’ perspective. DT creates an opportunity to explore the empathy dimension more deeply than what one would have done so far.

Experimentation: Prototyping is an important element of DT. Many people are familiar with building prototypes or proof-of-concepts. However, when participants are asked build a working prototype in one day, they are typically lost. They are not sure how to identify a small part of the overall idea which they can build in a day. They are not used to thinking in terms of available resources at low-cost to validate assumptions. How do we design low-cost high-speed experiments? How to test some of the critical assumptions early? These are some of the questions DT nudges you to address. DT offers an opportunity to learn to pay attention to cost, speed and sequence while designing experiments. DT urges you to consider the possibility that your core assumptions could be incorrect. This requires a degree of openness which many participants aren’t familiar with.

Experience: This is a picture of a government school from the Udupi district in Karnataka. Principal of the school saved Rs. 3000 every month for a year to get the school painted like a train. This has resulted in attracting more students and ex-students to see the new look of the school. Principal’s efforts are certainly noteworthy. However, when I ask: What could be missing in this innovation? Not many participants are able to see that the outward appearance of a school may be a small part of the overall end-to-end schooling experience of a child. Unless the experience inside the classroom is changed, not much may have changed for students. What the principal did could be a good first step, however unless it is extended inside the classroom, its value may be limited. DT offers an opportunity to look at end-to-end experience of various stakeholders.

If you have explored these dimensions already, DT could very well be old wine in old bottle. However, after the design thinking workshop I facilitate, that is generally not the impression participants carry. Perhaps they discover that there may be one or more dimensions which they haven’t explored at a sufficient depth.

image source:
wine bottle: uidownload.com
school: thehindu.com

Monday, June 25, 2018

Paying attention to the two roles we play: listener and story-teller

The 13-minute film “Listener” (2018, directed by Tarun Dudeja) highlights the two roles we play all the time – listener and story-teller. Both roles have a place in our day-to-day life. Unless we listen, we won’t know what others are saying, and unless we tell, we can’t communicate our views. However, the story-teller role dominates our life most of the time. And that puts us off-balance. That’s what the short film Listener shows. How does one balance between these two roles? Let’s explore in this article.

In “Listener”, the protagonist (Kumud Mishra) gets paid to lend an ear in a restaurant. Hire a “listener for Rs. 1495 per hour” is how one of the entries in the menu card reads. “First time?” asks the listener to the stranger who has hired him to listen for the next hour, “You can speak your heart out, whatever is bothering in your mind. Trust me, you will walk out of here as a much lighter person.” And the other person starts to tell the story.

The listener listens to an old man complain about how nobody at home listens to him, a young lady talks about her successful driving experience through crazy roads, a boy cries over the breakup with his girlfriend and how her status change on the social network got 56 likes. Through this process, we see that the listener is just listening, not judging or commenting. At the end, we see that the listener is also a good storyteller, especially to his daughter.

We have a need to be listened to and in a hyperactive world, listening has become an expensive currency. On the face of it, a large friend circle on Facebook and WhatsApp creates a feeling of connectedness. However, sooner or later we realize how superficial it is. How does one balance between these two roles?

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak” This quote supposed have come from the first-century Stoic philosopher Epictetus. It is suggesting us to follow a 70-30 rule – Listen more than 70% of the time, talk less than 30% of the time. Perhaps that’s a good start. However, there is more to it than just the time spent on listening vs talking.

As one begins to experiment with listening, one realizes that the act of listening itself might involve deception. As we are listening, we might be simultaneously generating a story – a kind of running commentary in the head – on what is being listened to. And the internal storytelling is hampering the quality of listening. Thus storytelling might be a major part of listening itself.

How does one curtail the internal storytelling? Perhaps there is no formula. However, a good place to start could be to start paying attention to the story in our head. And ask, “Is this serving any useful purpose right now?” Perhaps one may realize that the continuous judgments may not serve any useful purpose. And the recognition itself may subside the commentary.

Try and see if it works for you.

Note: There is a twist at the end of the film "Listener". I feel that the twist is not relevant to the essence of this article. However, happy to hear your views.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Electromagnetism: My favourite metaphor from Salman Rushdie’s “The golden house”

I decided to read Salman Rushdie’s “The golden house” (2017) after reading one of his interviews. He was asked to explain what he meant by the line in the novel – dirt is freedom. That sentence jumped out at me and I added the novel to the to-read list last year.

In “The golden house” the story is being narrated by Rene’ who is attempting to write a movie script based on the life of a family staying in the neighbouring house called the “Golden House” in Lower Manhattan. The family – father and three sons – have migrated to the US from Mumbai after 26/11 terror attacks and they are behaving as though they didn’t have a past. The novel is choke-full of metaphors, a large portion of them from Greek mythology. Here I would like to focus on the metaphor which appealed to me the most: Electromagnetism. I felt that this metaphor runs through all the major characters of the novel including the narrator.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, electricity and magnetism were two totally unrelated concepts. Later, Faraday, Maxwell, and others showed that it is one thing, not two different things – electromagnetism. “Can a man be a good man when he is a bad man?” Nero Golden, the father of the neighbouring family asks the narrator. He is saying that he is goodandbad – similar to electromagnetism.

Petronius alias Petya, the eldest son of Nero is on the extreme side in the autism spectrum. He is making millions of dollars from the computer games he builds. He has agoraphobia which results in him carrying a fear of outdoors, manic depression, inability to socialize and heavy drinking. In short, Petya is saneandinsane.

Lucius Apuleius (Apu) is the middle son. He is a successful artist holding solo exhibitions. In contrast to his elder brother Petya who lives in the virtual world of computer games sitting in his room, Apu mingles with ease in the real world of undergrounds, clubs, prisons, subcultures, gamblers, dying factories, dancing queens. He has a vision problem on the left eye and he sees everything distorted and deformed. In fact, Apu sees ghosts. Thus Apu lives in a world that is realandimaginary.

Dionysus (D) Golden, the youngest son, is androgynous. He is “miserable in men’s clothes and too scared to go public in a dress, painted mouth, and pink hat”. Thus D is manandwoman.

When Nero Golden asks Rene’ the goodandbad question, he further adds, “If you believe Spinoza and agree that everything is determined by necessity, can the necessities that drive a man drive him to wrongdoing as well as right? What is a good man in this deterministic world? Does the adjective mean anything?”  

Today, we don’t differentiate between electricity and magnetism. We call it electromagnetism. Can something similar happen to the polarities of good-bad, san-insane, man-woman, real-imaginary? Is this the core question Rushdie is asking? And when we begin to see the logic of necessity behind every action, goodandbad, isn’t it also called – empathy?

Perhaps dirtandpurity belongs to the same category. In explaining his love of dirt, Rushdie mentions in the interview: “The moment people start talking about purity, other people start dying, you know? The moment Nazi Germany started talking about racial purity there followed a great massacre.” Hence to see that dirt is, in fact, dirtandpurity is freedom.

image source: goodreads.com

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

3 expressions of clarity


Last week I wrote about my favourite mindfulness principle: clarity is action. In this article, I would like to present 3 things I experienced which, in all likelihood, are the expressions of growing clarity. I am sure there are many more things than just three because clarity pervades everything in our life. However, let me start with these three.

1.      Universal empathy: Every day we encounter people whose behaviour appears crazy to us. These folks could be living with us or they could be random people we come across on the street or these could be people we read about in the newspapers. Some of these behaviours have the power to upset us. Why can’t she just listen to me? Why did he have to cut me on the road? How could this mining baron be a leader of this political party? How can they perform such a heinous act? With clear perception, we begin to see automaticity of thinking and actions. It becomes clear that this seemingly crazy behaviour is almost like a program working – mechanical stuff with little intelligence. Then the anger, frustration doesn’t arise. It becomes obvious that their behaviour is an expression of necessity. It couldn’t be otherwise. This is an empathic understanding extended universally to everybody.

2.      Ease of saying “No”: Many times we engage in projects without being clear why we are doing it. Then we end up putting half-hearted effort. With clarity, saying “No” becomes easy. This could be a response to an invite to a meeting or a request for a proposal or even business partnership proposal. Money is one of the major considerations in these decisions. When there is clarity about how much money I really need, then it is easy to say “no” to projects just to make more money. Another reason for saying “yes” to a request is to keep one’s image, perhaps as a friend, intact. “What will he say if I don’t join?” we think. Once this image maintenance business is clearly seen, decisions become easier. Lack of clarity can also create confusing notions of what it means to help someone especially poor. Sometimes underneath the urge to help may reside a desire to look socially responsible. Once the selfish fa├žade is seen for what it is, that clarity acts with ease.

3.      Comfort with “what is”: Most of the moments in an average day are ordinary. They may involve commuting, brushing, reading a newspaper, watering plants, eating, small chit-chat, cooking, doing dishes, reading/writing emails etc. If we carry a deep desire to reach somewhere financially, career-wise, spiritually, then many of these moments may be categorized as “waste of time”. They seem to be just delaying us in reaching the ultimate goal. That creates a nagging feeling of “I would rather be doing something else”. This results in a perpetual unfriendly relationship with “what is”. Once the process of becoming is clearly seen for what it is, then that clarity makes us comfortable with “what is”.

Image source: clipart.com

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Clarity is action: My favorite mindfulness principle

"What should I do now?" is a question that pops up every now and then as we navigate this complex world. Many times we find ourselves in tricky situations with respect to relationships, parenting, career choices, investment decisions etc. In this article, I would like to explore one of my favorite principles on mindfulness “Clarity is action” which might shed some light on this dilemma. It is counterintuitive and quite different from what we experience every day. Let’s begin with a visual example.

Imagine you are walking through the woods where the path is paved with dried leaves. And suddenly you sense slight movement a few steps ahead of you. Most likely, you are going to stop walking and watch the path in front more carefully. To get an idea, please check the image by enlarging it and try to spot a snake. In case you spot a snake while walking, you are likely to alter your path. Even if you are a herpetologist who studies snakes, you might slow down and trade your path slowly in order to study the snake. When you don’t even hear any rustle, however, you would continue to walk the same way.

The clarity about the presence of a snake in your path instantaneously results in a different action. This is what the principle “clarity is action” is trying to point at. When the meaning associated with the current situation changes, the new meaning expresses itself in a different action. In this walk-in-the-wood example, the new action may mean stopping to walk and looking around for something fishy. The action may involve new movements inside the body e.g. increasing the heartbeat, secretion of some hormones etc.

Now, let’s look at what the hypothesis is not saying. One, it doesn’t say, “Clarity follows action”. i.e. it doesn’t say that a certain action leads to clarity. For example, it says that in the image of the woods above, if you don’t spot the snake at first, there is no specific action which can guarantee you see the snake. Of course, certain annotations in the picture may help one see the snake. But that is not guaranteed. That is true of all the optical illusions. A shift of perception happens, you can’t make it happen. Second, it doesn’t say, “Action follows clarity” i.e. It doesn’t say that first, you should have clarity and then you should ask a question, “What do I do next?” Once there is clarity, action has already begun.

Now, let’s extend the snake example to the no-snake situation. Let’s say we spot a couple of snakes on our way and now we are paranoid about seeing a snake every now and then. In fact, we might start seeing a snake where there is no snake. But if we are constantly thinking, “What if there is a snake here?” Then that would make the walk very difficult. It might paralyze us. The alertness while walking is useful but the panic that every small sound creates is dysfunctional.

Well, whenever we worry about a situation, say about faring poorly in an exam, then our situation could be similar to the no-snake paranoia situation. The worry is ultimately associated with the damage to the self-image in case of a poor performance – what will my parents say? What will society say? etc. The imagined presence of a snake is similar to the impending damage to the self-image. Unless there is clarity about what this self-image really is, our action may continue to be dysfunctional.

Hence, mindfulness is a process of learning to see what is real and what is not. There is no formula for learning. Every “snake” that generates fear in our mind is an excellent opportunity to learn and see clearly. And once the self-image is seen clearly for what it really is, then nothing further is needed to be done. Because that clarity expresses itself through appropriate action. So one way to resolve the question "What should I do now?" is to go to the source of the anxiety which underlies the question and look for the "snake". 

Notes:
1.      Image source: Snake hiding in the jungle was sourced from huffingtonpost.com.au. The article attributes the photo to Twitter / @SSSNAKEYSCI / Jerry Davis.

2.      I encountered the phrase “clarity is action” in the book “Commentaries on living” by Jiddu Krishnamurti, volume 1, Chapter 71 titled “Clarity in action”. Another phrase similar to this phrase is “Meaning is being” used by David Bohm in the article “Meaning and information”. It is also explored by David Bohm's interview by Renee Weber titled "A change of meaning is a change of being".