Air to the bird, water to the fish……

‘The three great mysteries: Air to a bird, water to a fish, Man to himself.’
– A Hindu proverb

What are the kind of situations which bring out the worst of reactive thoughts in us? I offer a few personal examples here.


I am driving back from office. Mind laden with the ‘To do’ stuff for tomorrow, interspersed with unrelated thoughts from the past. I get yanked back to the ‘now and here’ by a black SUV suddenly crossing the lane from the wrong side. Slamming the brakes, I curse.
Drivers Beware!


In a hurry to get back home, I rush into the Al Fair supermarket to pick up a few items which my wife had asked me to. Though the place seems fairly crowded with folks like me trying to squeeze in some grocery shopping, my check-out queue moves briskly till I reach second spot. It is then that the guy in front of me gets into a long drawn discussion with the counter lady on the intricacies of some redeemable voucher. Impatiently standing there, I see rage and anger building up inside me.
Supermarket queue

I notice an office colleague not complying with my instructions. When asked, he voices disagreement. I see this as trying to undermine me, or worse, an attempt to derail what I propose to do. I react by knit picking on the guy, by micro-managing at the activity level and in my anxiety to enforce, I end up hurting and demeaning. In all this, both of us have lost the big picture of what we had set out to achieve.
Office disagreement

Now these are my examples but I can wager you would have seen one or more of these playing out in your own lives. So what is it really that brings up these reactions in us?

As I ponder over this question, I start seeing aspects of my own self-centeredness. A ‘Self centering’ that I am at the center of the world for myself and somehow my immediate needs and feelings should determine how things should operate in the world. A ‘Self centering’ which then becomes a slew of learned reactive thoughts and behaviours to make that happen. Reactive thoughts and behaviours which have got hard-wired within to the extent that it is now a default setting, a who I am wound up being.

So the guy who I am wound up being is now conditioned to curse when someone drives wrongly on the road. Or to get into a rage when someone delays completing some work. Or to hurt and demean when the other guy does not do things ‘my way’.

Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and a Thought Leader at Monitor Group, after four decades of studying individuals and organisations, concluded that, ‘… people consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting and the way they really act.’

In real life, we might be completely aware of the right and wrong way of speaking, dealing with people and behaving. But come a situation or someone else’s behaviour that triggers our inner hard wiring, our reactive self takes over, ready to protect our turf at any cost. The interesting thing is that post the event, we remain hardly aware of how our reactive behaviour and actions were so much in variance to what we generally believe our actions and behaviour to be. A veritable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde manifestation within us!

Have you ever wondered what makes it so hard for us to stop that reactive “Dr. Jekyll” self from taking over? This is because we mistake ‘Who we have wound up being’ as ‘Who we are’. This prevents us from seeing, as Chris Argyris surmised, the gap between the way we think we are acting and the way we really act. What is undistinguished begins to control us. Just like Air to the bird and Water to the fish!

So how could we start seeing the air and the water? What could we do to distinguish and remove all that acquired fluff of how we have wound up being to get down to the essence of who we are?

I believe we can make a start by holding the consciousness that we have a choice when confronted with a reaction generating situation or person. For example, what if I chose to think that the guy in that SUV who crossed the lane wrongly was rushing to the hospital where his wife was critically ill? What if I chose to believe that the guy trying to redeem those Al Fair vouchers was doing it to buy provisions for an orphanage? What if I chose to believe that the office colleague is as dedicated as me to achieve the overall objective?

The next step is to distinguish those aspects which have become part of ‘Who we have wound up being’. Read the language constructs below:

“ I Am….”

I am intelligent and smart.
I am disciplined and orderly.
I am competitive.
I am impatient with others.
I am a perfectionist and do not suffer fools.

“The way I wound up being….”

The way I wound up being is believing I am intelligent and smart.
The way I wound up being is disciplined and orderly.
The way I wound up being is competitive.
The way I wound up being is being impatient with others.
The way I wound up being is a perfectionist and who does not suffer fools.

What do you notice?

Do you notice that as the language construct shifts away from “I Am……” you gain the ability to distinguish the several traits you have acquired from who you intrinsically are?

Do you see that unlike the birds and the fishes, you are now able to discern the air and water around you?

Do you realise that you now have a choice?


There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says,” Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes,” What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace in ‘This is Water’, commencement speech, 2005

“Being A Leader And The Effective Exercise Of Leadership: An Ontological / Phenomenological Model” by Werner Erhard, Independent & Michael Jensen, Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, Harvard Business School.

Author: Shakti Ghosal

* A PCC Credentialed Executive Coach mentor and trainer for leaders & performance. * A qualified engineer and a PGDM (Faculty Gold medalist) from IIM Bangalore. * Four decades of industry experience spanning Engineering, Maintenance, Projects, Consumer durables, Supply Chains, Aviation and Tourism. * Top level management positions to drive business development, strategy, alliances all around the globe. * A visiting faculty at the IIMs. *A passion to envision trends & disseminate Leadership incubation globally. , * . +91 - 9051787576

21 thoughts on “Air to the bird, water to the fish……”

  1. Great post. I could muse of the power of choice all day long. Any way that we can become the observer of ourselves raises awareness of our autonomy and our power to choose. I often do the mental exercise of reframing my point of view and attitude instead of reacting to them. The proverb at the end was great. I’ll remember that one.


    1. I need to acknowledge you for being able to do ‘the mental exercise of re-framing my point of view and attitude instead of reacting to them.’ This is possibly the toughest exercise over which one can hope to gain mastery. But once we are able to do it, it does open vistas of new possibilities which our usual reactive nature prevents us from otherwise seeing.

      Thank you for taking the time to visit and comment.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Shakti …

    Your observations about our inconsistences between thought and action are spot on.

    On the contradiction of thought and actions, I often think of the baptism scene in the movie, “The Godfather,” where Michael Corleone (Al Pucino) renounces evil during the ceremony as the head of five crime families are being killed elsewhere on his orders.

    Yes, I have often felt at odds with my own contradictory thoughts and actions. Still a work in progress. Aiming to make better choices.

    Thank you.

    Judy Berman


    1. Hi Judy,

      That is a great example you have brought in from ‘The Godfather’! As I read your comment, I could recall it.

      Indeed,becoming more aware of the contradictions between our thoughts and actions is a work in progress through life. There is no mountain-top here and so we need to start loving the climb!

      Thanks for the comment.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Shakti what I take away from this fabulous post is that we all have a choice. When things don’t go to plan we can choose the way in which we deal with it. I am learning as I age that some things you cannot change but you sure can change your attitude. Thanks for a great message to start my day.


    1. You are so right. The main take away from the post is indeed holding the awareness that we have the ability to ‘choose’ and thereby change how the situation occurs for us.And yes, this remains a lifelong journey of practise and shift from being reactive to responsive.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Shakti Ghosal

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Age seems to take care of many of those issues. I no longer worry about being delayed. I experience it rather than tolerate it. As do I disagreement with my ideas. That makes me ask questions–what are they seeing I don’t. This sort of attitude often angers others at me because it’s not what they expect. Sigh.


  5. It is hard indeed to see that our thoughts are conditioned, believing erroneously as we do in the sovereignty of conscious free will. That myth was largely debunked by Benjamin Libet back in the seventies, and much further work has been conducted which builds upon Libet’s findings. Leaving aside the neuroscience, then the practice of Vipassana meditation is a wonderful way of removing the ‘I am’ presumptions of which you write Shakti, or will at least provide pause for thought in the matter – the antidote to impatience of course. With gratitude, Hariod.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Hariod,

      A very astute comment indeed.

      What you say is indeed the essence. And the ‘hard to see’ aspect you speak of is what I have termed as ‘Air for the bird, water for the fish…’ Yes, neuroscience has been increasingly revealing that there is no such thing as a sovereign free will even though we remain conditioned to believe in it. We believe since the belief gives us the comfort of perceived freedom. But, as we step into the court to play our game, and as the ball comes whizzing at us so to speak, we always end showing up as the person we have wound of being. In our thoughts, our reactions, our behaviour and our language.

      The only way to be able to “see” the air and the water is through practise. Vipassana which you allude to is possibly one such way.

      Thank you for your visit!


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Years of sustained introspection/meditation and mind training can mitigate it to some extent. Vipassana is an excellent tool to sharpen the mind and train it. Awareness increases and adverse reactions can be controlled by an equanimous mind.


      2. Hi Bishop,

        Great to see you here. Yes, I suppose it all comes down to training of the mind. Though I personally have not participated in Vipassana, I am told it does facilitate such training. But the other way of doing it is to hold the awareness of our reactive selves, the “way we have wound up being”.The language construct I have used in my post is one such way.

        Thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate.



  6. Hi Shakti,

    The above reminders with a subtle message to behave more responsibly and patiently make an outstanding case for introspection, which is a far-fetched dream especially at a young age…the age of self-righteousness, of selfish pursuits and success. The young fish, oblivious of all realities symbolise and illustrate this so well!

    Human development slowly makes us learn all that you have highlighted and rightly so. Thanks for sharing such a profoundly prudent post. Self-analysis is the answer!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Balroop,

      Great thought!

      Yes, I suppose age does allow us the time and the freedom to introspect and self-analyse. But, I do believe that human development need not necessarily be correlated with age. Practicing to separate aspects of “Who we have wound up being” in the manner I have talked of in my post can surely support.



      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes Shakti, you are right but very few choose to follow that path. Self-help may have the most enticing word in itself but it is usually ignored. Outside factors seem more attractive and we are good at playing the blame game!


  7. The last part of the proverb, consigning man to himself, says it all, Shakti, as going within, to fully exercise our self, is the choice we have, to tide over all situations in life. Unfortunately, human being ends up operating with mind, the mental constructs of who he thinks he is, triggering ego-centric reactions. Dismantling the false construct, and seeing things in the larger perspective of life is certainly the desirable option…best wishes.. Raj.


    1. Hi Rajagopal,

      You have indeed caught the essence!Yes, the last part of the proverb says it all, and in fact, is the genesis of the entire post.

      You are so right. The mental construct of who we think we are is the the guy’we have wound up being’.And so to get to the essence of who we are, we need to dismantle that false construct. Trying to do so can never be easy, can be challenging and threatening, but possible.One way to do it is by using the language construct I have written about in the post.

      Thank you Rajagopal for bringing this thought here. I truly appreciate.



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