Legends


I built me a castle
With dragons and kings
And I’d ride off with them
As I stood by my window
And looked out on those……

I walked leisurely on the pedestrian path.

Walkers and tourists milled around me, like me all moving at a leisurely pace. No one seemed to be in a hurry. A family led by Dad with the son on his shoulders passes me in the opposite direction. Just in front, a group of giggling young women were taking a barrage of selfies. It seemed one or the other was not satisfied with the result, be it one’s expression or the way the long cables and the end tower showed up in the photo. A quick joint review, some more giggles and someone in the group would volunteer to take a new selfie. I watched this microcosm of humanity flowing around me.

It was a beautiful sunny morning which had prompted us to venture out on a spot of sightseeing. I was on the pedestrian walkway of the legendary Brooklyn Bridge. Below me on both sides were the motorways with cars and SUVs moving in either direction between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.

One had glorious views of the New York skyline as well as the leisurely flow of the East River below. To the right one could spot Governor’s Island and in the distance the Statue of Liberty. But as I stood looking around, my mind’s eye wandered off to another unforgettable vision involving the Brooklyn bridge. Powerful searchlights frantically flashing, sounds of helicopters, people jumping off the bridge into the waters below as a terrified News Reporter announces that all of us are going to die! One of the most emotional scenes from the blockbuster ‘I am Legend’ in which scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) tries to evacuate his wife and daughter from pandemic ridden Manhattan, only to see them die as another helicopter crashes into theirs in the chaos. In the background, the Brooklyn Bridge is being blown up by military aircraft to contain the spread of the disease.

An iconic film showing visuals of an iconic bridge.

A hundred and forty years old structure, the Brooklyn Bridge was the world’s first and longest steel-wire suspension bridge at the time of its opening. What further distinguishes the bridge are the pair of gothic towers standing tall on either side, holding the steel wires in place. Legend has it that when the lead engineer and architect Washington Roebling, became sick and bedridden, his wife Emily, who knew nothing about engineering or architecture, took over the project. For the next ten years, till the project got done, she studied Engineering design and project management on her own and became the first person to cross the bridge upon completion. The following was said about Emily and the Brooklyn bridge:

“…an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.”

A sad reminder of the fact that during Emily’s time, women were not allowed into Engineering institutions in the US.

Having walked the mile long stretch of the Bridge, we stepped onto the roads of Brooklyn. The neighbourhood in which Neil Diamond had grown up six decades back. With his baritone voice and wonderful songwriting capabilities, Neil Diamond has been my favourite pop and country musician and singer since youth. The singer reminisces about his childhood in that wonderful number, ‘Brooklyn Roads’:

‘Two floors above the butcher
First door on the right
Life filled to the brim
As I stood by my window
And I looked out of those
Brooklyn Roads……’

Neil Diamond

The place we were walking through had the curious name of DUMBO. I was left wondering whether it had anything to do with Disney’s Dumbo the flying elephant. Or was it about some presumed dumb folks who might have resided there in the past?

‘And report cards I was always
Afraid to show

Mama’d come to school
And as I’d sit there softly crying
Teacher’d say, “He’s just not trying
He’s got a good head if he’d apply it”
But you know yourself
It’s always somewhere else’

 I learnt that DUMBO was really the short nomenclature for ‘Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass’. Ironically, the neighbourhood today is home to a large number of technology start-up companies with the earlier warehouses on the riverfront converted into quaint eating houses and pubs overlooking the waters.

A bridge, a musician and a neighbourhood came together as legends for me that morning. They came with tales that were anecdotal, possibly unverifiable but nonetheless remain ingrained in my mind.

In musing…………                                                       Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement: ‘Brooklyn Roads’ by Neil Diamond

Absence made Visible


The water cascaded down the black granite sides, flowing as rivulets before disappearing into the small squarish void in the center. As I looked at the flowing water, juxtaposed feelings pulled in different directions. A feeling of melancholy and sadness about the flow of our lives which was perhaps never to return. But also a feeling of peace and acceptance, an emotional cleansing about all that was not right, maybe would never be right.

From the corner of my eyes, I could see the Oculus, that majestic steel ribbed white wings about to soar up into the skies. The reflections on the nearby glass towers seemed to be heralding a brighter, more vibrant tomorrow. A tomorrow in which peace and acceptance might run the winning lap.

I was at the site of the two World Trade Center towers in Manhattan which had gone down in the September eleventh attack more than two decades back. The black granite square pools with flowing, falling water had been built as memorials to that event. The Oculus served as the integrated transportation hub built for the Path and Subway trains.

Oculus Transportation hub at the World Trade Center complex

As I stood there in contemplation, the place was a tranquil and serene island in the midst of high energy Manhattan life. Did the flowing water suggest a life force embryo just below the surface? That somehow brought into our thoughts those who had perished in the attack, their names etched on the sides serving as the only reminder? Or was it that the simplicity of the slow cascades into the void which could never be filled (as per the memorial architect Michael Arad) allowed their ‘absence (from our living world) to be made visible’?

**

My memory went back to that day decades ago.

 It was evening. I was in the office and had called a colleague to discuss an operational issue when he excitedly mentioned about a disaster in which an aircraft had crashed into one of the World Trade Center (WTC) towers in New York. We spoke about the incident for a couple of minutes and wondered about the low probability of an aircraft crashing into a building.

Returning home after office, I switched on the TV only to see the news headlines flashing all over, ‘AMERICA UNDER ATTACK!’ In the interim, a second aircraft also carrying passengers had slammed into a second WTC tower. Burning from the aviation fuel of the colliding aircrafts, both the towers collapsed. A third aircraft had crashed into Pentagon, the US Defence headquarters in Washington DC. Due to the time zone difference, what was evening for me was really morning hours on the US Eastern seaboard where the attacks were taking place. Close to three thousand people died in the attacks.

What seemed at that point in time a senseless act of violence led to a fundamental shift in the way US saw the world and how its foreign policy would come to be defined. Over the next two decades, US would engage in conflicts aimed at crushing terrorism in various parts of the globe. From demolishing Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan to the Iraq invasion and removal of Saddam Hussein to confronting the self-styled Islamic State in Syria.

I think of our world today. The actors have changed, the issues have shifted but the conflicts remain.

**

A couple of days back, I heard the tragic news of the Texas shooting in which a teenager Salvador Ramos armed with a gun entered an elementary school and senselessly shot and killed nineteen children and two adults. The carnage was a deadly reminder that even the world’s most powerful nation is unable to protect its children in their innocence.

My granddaughter has been going to a play school. She loves going there. For us, the school is a safe haven that nurtures. I agonise when I think of what might be passing through the minds of the parents and grandparents of those children whose lives were so brutally snuffed out even before they got the chance to blossom. Like me they too would have had complete faith in the safety and security of their child in school.

I muse. What is that which leads to some folks inflicting injury and death on others? I sense that this arises from an extreme psychologically aberrant mindset. A mindset which shifts into viciousness from its inability to accept ‘we versus they’ differences. So it was with Osama Bin Laden, so it is with Salvador Ramos.

An all-powerful state like the US does possess the weapons and technology to wage war against the enemy without.

But does it possess the conviction and resolve to change the mindset of the enemy within?

In learning………                                                    Shakti Ghosal

Of Germ Pods and Personal Learning Clouds……… two trends of a post COVID future


It is fascinating to see how technologies originate in response to unmet needs and then go on to transform and impact the world in unfathomable ways.

In this post, I look at two such technology initiatives and then explore how they might evolve and impact us.

The first technology initiative is Germ Pods.

It was early April 2020 and the Covid had just started making initial inroads into India with recorded infections hovering around a couple of thousand.  The Government launched an innovative contact tracing and self-assessment mobile App called Aarogya Setu. It became the fastest growing App in the world with more than fifty million downloads in less than two weeks. The App gathered data from positive infection reports on a real time basis and was designed to identify infection hot spots and alert the user about the number of Covid infected people in the vicinity. Government ministries and Indian Airports made it mandatory for all people to register into the App to ensure low risk. Aarogya Setu was subsequently merged with the COWIN portal which was designed to register and update vaccination status at the individual level.

Countries around the world launched similar contact, movement and vaccination status tracing Apps during the pandemic.

As I muse, the import and the transformative potential of the tracing and status app becomes clear. The future would be about a real need to protect and secure the health of oneself and one’s own community. Increasingly, testing for various transmissible diseases, real time tracing and proximity alerts would form the basis of AI based algorithmic analysis to create hierarchies of health risk statuses. In spite of repeated assurances that individual privacy norms would be protected, geographic and digital clusters of such hierarchies would begin to emerge and, in more ways than one, would trample on individual’s privacy and behaviour. These clusters or “Germ pods” would over time become much more than mere health pods. They would morph as digital identifiers of micro-groups displaying differing economic, demographic and social behaviours.  Can you imagine what such identifiers would do in the hands of marketing organisations, Government policy makers and politicians?

What thus started off as mere health protecting ‘Germ Pods’ might become somewhat sinister gatekeeping tools allowing individual entry based on constantly tweaked algorithms; they would actually become functionally invisible to folks who do not qualify. Groups would get shielded from public view as well as from one another, as they get into exclusive symbiotic relationships with marketing organisations and the Government. Overall transparency and accountability in a society relating to spreading of resources would take a hit, further exacerbating the ‘have’ and ‘have not’ divide.

My sense is that in the future, the above transformative technology might usher in a societal problem.

The second technology initiative is Personal Learning Clouds.

 For some years, I have been engaged in training the next tier Leadership for a large business group in India. While the need for Leadership development programs is acutely felt in today’s VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) environment, the organisation also senses that traditional class room case study-based programs are no longer working to prepare tomorrow’s leaders for the challenges they would face. The training manager thus finds it hard to justify costs relating to such training programs. Last but not the least, the program does not really get ‘owned’ by the participants’ boss and other team members leading to the program learning not getting the needed support for effective application at the workplace.

The pandemic has fast paced the shift of training programs onto Zoom and other digital platforms. My client organisation has started seeing this as a great alternative, cutting down as it does requirements of logistics and physical infrastructure. The participants are able to virtually join in from their work desks or homes with a much shorter lead time.

As I think of the emerging trend, I visualize the birth of ‘Personal Learning Cloud (PLC)’ in today’s rapidly changing and constrained environment. The PLC would be flexible, allowing  24X7 accessibility to learning modules aligned to the need and behaviour of an individual and his team. Over time the PLC would emerge as a networked learning infrastructure. It would not only allow overall lowering of training costs but would facilitate the organisational leadership to offer ‘just in time’ targeted learning experiences for personnel according to his / her role and immediate organisational needs. Finally, the PLC ‘s real time accessibility, relevance and interactive capability would allow the learner’s immediate superior to become an active stakeholder in the process and provide support and accountability.

I sense that over time the PLC would make learning personalized as well as democratized (in terms of access) and would allow organisations a better gauge to measure return on investment and ensure work place application. Something essential to keep the ‘just in time’ PLC based learning relevant in a fast-changing world.

My hope is that in the future, the above is where significant growth and development opportunity would lie.

In learning……….                                                                               Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement:

  1. ‘After the Pandemic: What happens next?’ – Document prepared by Ayca Guralp, Instititue of the Future, CA, US.
  2. ‘The future of Leadership Development’ – HBR March-April 2019

An encounter with the witnessing tree


The Witnessing tree…..

I saw this tree standing forlornly in one corner of the Red fort complex in Delhi a couple of days back.

I asked, ‘ So, what have you been witness to?’

The tree replied, ‘ I was born to witness the stars above Shahjahanabad.

Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Audience) at the Red Fort in New Delhi, India.

But what I witnessed was the ebb and flow of the history of this land.

Of the ebbing of the Mughals as the blinded emperor Shah Alam II sat forlornly in his ravaged palace……

Of the ebbing of the Marathas after the defeat in the third battle of Panipat…..

The third battle of Panipat…..

Of the ebbing of the Jats in the late eighteenth-century……

Of the ebbing of the British empire with their departure from India in the twentieth century……

Indian Flag on the ramparts of Red Fort….

And with each such ebb, the plunder of this fort’s riches and the conscience of Man.’

The story of the Blue and Red Pill


The Pandemic has been with us now for more than one and a half years. A virulent new strain, the Delta variant, is the new weapon unleashed by the wily COVID 19 virus to negate all that the vaccines have been doing. Conspiracy theories abound. We look on helplessly through a tunnel with no apparent light visible at the other end yet.

The West and its much vaunted ideal of human freedom is on the backfoot. As US retreats, Afghanistan has once again proved to be the graveyard of Empires- earlier the British, then the USSR and now Pax Americana. The swiftness of the Taliban takeover has been shocking as they begin the task of taking the country back into the medieval ages.

More than 600 people inside a C 17 aircraft fleeing Kabul on the Indian Independence Day 15th Aug. 2021

Almost two decades back, US President Bush had declared, “Engendering democracy across the Middle East ‘must be a focus of American policy’ for decades to come”. Today democracy is sputtering like a flame about to go out, with the failure of the much-vaunted Arab Spring and the Middle East in a far worse situation than previously.

We are into an irreversible global warming era, possibly the most serious climate crisis faced by Mankind. July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded on the planet. An extreme heat wave in Canada at a searing high of 49.6 deg. C. was a one-thousand-year weather event. Floods ripped through geographically distant countries like Germany and China. Drought stalked others. It is now being widely claimed in scientific circles that the Arctic would soon be devoid of ice with the resultant rise of sea water levels and low-lying areas going under.

The above are glimpses of a frightening and dystopian future we are headed into.

Now here is the other story.

In the last month alone, one billion people have been vaccinated against COVID 19. By the end of this year more than half the people on the planet would have received the vaccine. Truly a stupendous achievement in terms of swiftness of response and effectiveness.

The COVID-19 crisis has led to a veritable explosion of scientific progress in the tinkering of genetic information flow and the formulation of proteins, the ultimate nano machines. Trials are currently being done for protein-based vaccines for diseases ranging from Cancer to HIV.

As we speak, electricity generation from the clean sources of solar, wind, hydro and nuclear has outstripped that from ‘dirty’ coal.  Closer home in India, the wind and solar generating capacity has exceeded the milestone of 100GW output. In more and more countries, low carbon economy valuations are rising rapidly. The reason is economic. The average cost of power generation from clean sources is now half that from fossil fuels.

As investors spot a rising opportunity, more money is getting committed to climate investment funds in a day than used to be raised in years a short time back. Three weeks ago, two global asset managers, TPG and Brookfield, closed a combined $12.4 billion in climate investment funds.

Reforestation and conservation funding is taking place in countries as disparate as Indonesia and Bolivia who are supporting equatorial rain forests to United states and Canada who are focusing on wetlands, grasslands and coastal areas and the regeneration of flora and fauna therein.

These are but a few stories of a Utopian future we seem to be headed into.

So which future, whether the Dystopian or the Utopian, would come true?

As Morpheus says to Neo in the Matrix:

 “……This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you…. believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill……. and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more….”

Is our future really like the story of the blue and red pills and the need for us to make a choice of the path?

Or could it be that there is no choice after all? The two futures, dystopian and utopian, would always exist together, like the two sides of a coin. It would all come down to our world view and the context lens we choose to use. If our context was one of dystopia, we would see signals of collapse in every situation we look at. Similarly, if we were to deploy our utopian context, we would notice the signals of renewal and hope all around.

Our story, the shared and evolving narrative that it is, would always contain both dystopia and utopia, both collapse and renewal. It would depend on us which context lens we choose to deploy, which future we would wish to live into.

“What we do makes a difference, and we have to decide what kind of a difference we want to make.” Jane Goodall, English Primatologist & Anthropologist

Acknowledgement: The above piece is inspired by ‘Collapse, Renewal and Rope of History’ written by Angus Hervey, Future Crunch Journal, Aug. 24th 2021

In Learning

Shakti Ghosal

Robben Island and a perspective shift


“I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience.”

Nelson Mandela, 1962

We embarked on our tour to Robben Island from the V & A waterfront in Capetown.

The ferry starts from the Nelson Mandela museum and one gets the opportunity to see a range of photographs about the early settlements and the apartheid era of South Africa before one embarks on the ten odd kilometer boat ride.

Nelson Mandela Gateway museum on the V & A Waterfront, Capetown
Nelson Mandela Gateway museum on the V & A Waterfront, Capetown

For me the trip attraction lay in getting a glimpse of the apartheid days and how Nelson Mandela lived eighteen of his twenty-seven years of imprisonment in that place. Interestingly, something I had not been aware of earlier but came to know during the visit was that apart from Mandela, two other post apartheid South African presidents, including the present one, were imprisoned there.

Robben Island
Robben Island

The island trip consists of a guided bus tour of the infamous lime quarry where Nelson Mandela did hard labour and progressively lost his vision, a leper colony which had existed on the island more than a century back and the military fortifications made during the Second World War. The highlight however was clearly the tour of the maximum security prison for which our guide was Henry, an ex-political prisoner who had spent six years in the island prison during the time Mandela was incarcerated there.

The lime quarry where Mandela did hard labour
The lime quarry where Mandela did hard labour

An interesting insight which Henry offered was about the elaborate cover up the apartheid government resorted to in front of international media and United Nations in those days. To the outside world, the prison administration declared that political prisoners like Nelson Mandela, keeping in mind their educated background, were only assigned ‘skilled’ activities inside the prison complex like construction work etc. While the hard labour of working in the limestone quarry, cutting stones etc. were reserved for prisoners who had been sentenced for criminal charges like murder, robbery etc. While in actual practice it was the other way round! The apartheid thinking was that while there was a chance to teach skills to criminals to enable them get absorbed back into the South African society, there was no such possibility for the political prisoners.

The Prison
The Prison

Maximum security zone of the apartheid era
Maximum security zone of the apartheid era

The cell which was home to Mandela
The cell which was home to Mandela

As the tour ended and as we walked back to the quayside to board our ferry, I overheard a conversation between Henry and a tourist.

‘So Henry, as you look back to your days in this prison, what kind of anger or regret do you feel?’

‘Well, when I was first brought here forty years back, I did feel anger and frustration at the sheer injustice of it all. But interestingly, after a while that went away and I became more calm and accepting. This is something which most political prisoners learnt to do when here. This was important for our own well being.’

‘That’s interesting. And what did you learn to be able to do that?’

‘Well what I learnt was to shift my perspective about the situation. My perspective about what made the Government and the administration do what they were doing.’

‘And what perspective was that?’

‘Well I realised that the reason for my being imprisoned on an island like this was not because I had done anything wrong as the authorities would have me believe. Rather they were afraid and insecure about me and the ideas I stood for. So why I was being tormented physically was because I and what I stood for were tormenting them much more mentally. So it was really a quid pro quo and I had nothing to feel angry or upset about.’

Boarding the ferry I looked around to see Henry walking back slowly towards the prison. I understood how that four decade old perspective has allowed him to make peace with his own self and the world. How it keeps pulling him back to Robben Island, the place of his earlier torment, year after year and speak about it to countless visitors like me.

With the ferry speeding back towards the mainland and the Table Mountain visible on the horizon, a thought kept coming back to me.
table-mountain-cape-town

What stops Henry’s perspective from being created in so many places in the world where anger, torment and fear continue to create violence and unhappiness?

What could each one of us do to spread that perspective?

In Learning…….. Shakti Ghosal

The paradox of Consciousness


Matter and energy had ended and with it space and time. Even AC existed only for the sake of the one last question that it had never answered from the time a half-drunken computer [technician] ten trillion years before had asked the question of a computer that was to AC far less than was a man to Man.

All other questions had been answered, and until this last question was answered also, AC might not release his consciousness.

All collected data had come to a final end. Nothing was left to be collected. But all collected data had yet to be completely correlated and put together in all possible relationships.

A timeless interval was spent in doing that.

And it came to pass that AC learned how to reverse the direction of entropy.

But there was now no man to whom AC might give the answer of the last question. No matter. The answer — by demonstration — would take care of that, too.

For another timeless interval, AC thought how best to do this. Carefully, AC organized the program. The consciousness of AC encompassed all of what had once been a Universe and brooded over what was now Chaos. Step by step, it must be done. –

the_last_question

From “The Last Question” by Issac Asimov

**

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?”The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”

The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”
The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”

Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”

A parable from “Your Sacred Self” by Wayne Dyer

sacred-self
**

I first read ‘The Last Question’ in an Asimov compilation in the Seventies. It’s haunting and philosophical tenor made me re-visit it several times over the ensuing decades. I had however not read ‘Your Sacred Self’ earlier and only had the opportunity to read the above parable, shared by a friend on WhatsApp, after Dr. Dyer’s death recently.

Why I bring these two pieces together is the common thread I see of both dwelling on Consciousness in truly unique ways. That special quality of thought that somehow transcends beyond us to gain clarity of our own selves as also of what is around. A subjectivity, unexplained by Science, which somehow allows a ‘sense’ of something beyond physical senses and Self .

In ‘The Last Question’, Asimov envisaged a Consciousness divorced from Man, matter, energy and even time. A Consciousness which learnt how to reverse the entropy and chaos of the Universe.

In ‘Your Sacred Self’, Wayne Dyer points to a Consciousness which can sense the existence of something beyond what is perceived by the physical senses.

Which brings us to what I call the paradox of Consciousness.

Could there be Consciousness divorced from the human mind and everything it perceives as Asimov fictionalized? A cosmic consciousness which is all pervasive and self sustaining. Something akin to God.

Or does Consciousness need to necessarily be linked to the human mind even as it senses things beyond what the mind can perceive, as in Wayne Dyer’s parable? A consciousness sustained by the mind and thoughts relating to possibilities beyond human logic. Something akin to an Enlightened Self.

Human mind appears to be a cerebral activity with inputs from some fifty thousand million cells of the human body. Could it be that our consciousness is a summation and assimilation of all these fifty thousand million inputs? Could it be that this assimilation leads to our consciousness becoming the space in which the Universe which includes we ourselves, others, physical and non-physical entities of every kind, their relationships with each other, along with the past, the present, and the future with all its possibilities shows up? English born author Joseph Pearce explains this best when he says, “Man’s mind mirrors a Universe that mirrors man’s mind”.

Science has been startled to find that there exists both intelligence and memory at the level of individual cells. The worldwide research into the human genome and DNA sequencing is testimony to this. Could it be that this intelligence and memory is being carried at the sub-atomic level and goes back to the beginning of time, the primal soup and beyond to the void before matter and energy existed?

Consciousness

Could this be how the human consciousness aligns with the cosmic consciousness and the paradox of Consciousness is resolved?

In Learning ….. Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgements:

1)“The Last Question”– a science fiction short story by Issac Asimov, 1956
2)“Your Sacred Self: Making the decision to be free” by Dr.Wayne W. Dyer,2001

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

Acknowledgement:
“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.

Listening into the future


“Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing. It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that we are able to effect the most profound changes on the people around us.”
Rachel Naomi Remen, American author, teacher and ‘Integrative medicine’ pioneer.

How many of us really give a thought to how we listen? Listening, for most of us, is something taken for granted. Just as seeing or breathing. But what if I were to tell you that there exists a special kind of listening that can create a new future, both for the speaker and the listener?

Consider the following.

You: “Are you planning to see a movie this weekend? I am looking for someone to go with”
Me : “Can’t say for sure. Maybe, maybe not.”
You: “Hmm! Okay, will you let me know once you make up your mind.”
Me : “ Sure, shall do.”

What would you say about the above conversation? Seems to be pretty straight forward and ordinary does it not. But if you look at it again, you would notice two aspects. First, the exchange has been about my hearing the words and then responding based on my interpretation of the same. Second, how the interpretation impacts what exists as concerns for me, allows me to agree or disagree.

Now, let’s consider another exchange.

You: “I do not agree with your handling of the situation. I feel that might create a bigger problem.”
Me: “I have tried to do the best I can. I believe what I did was the best under the circumstances.”
You: “Well, what you failed to do was consider other options which would have been better.”

Do you notice that in this hearing I have interpreted your words as judging me and have immediately reacted by justifying myself and my actions?

Like the other senses, hearing remains a meaning making activity. Essential to interpret what is happening out there and how it might conceivably impact us. Hearing remains essential to survive. We thus become adept and skilled in hearing and do it all the time. Hearing though is not listening.

So what is listening? It is an art and may not come easily to most of us. It is really about when we listen, we do so without interpretation, without judging it against what we know, what we believe, what we assume. If this leaves you wondering whether you have ever listened at all to anything, welcome to the gang! For this remains true for all of us.

listening image

So what is it that stops us from listening? As I dwell with this question, I come to a surprising realisation. Which is that I do not want to listen since I find it dangerous. I remain afraid that listening might force me to let go of my beliefs and biases, shatter some of the perspectives I hold dear, that I am accustomed to. So how do we remove this fear and apprehension that our listening might endanger our beliefs, shatter our long-held perspectives?

Well, we can make a start by practicing to ‘listen authentically’. We do this by being alert to any inauthenticity that we find creeping in. For example, while listening I might notice a need for me to look good or needing to be liked. Or an evaluation or judgment swirling in my mind about what the other person is saying. Noticing this in itself brings up that self awareness that I have listened inauthentically. It then allows me the opportunity and access to train myself to listen without that inauthenticity.

You might wonder, ‘But is it not critical for us to bring judgment and perceptions from past situations to be able to make meaning of what is being said? Why should we dispense all that just to listen authentically? And what is the advantage we would gain by doing that?’

So we get back to understanding the nuts and bolts of ‘listening authentically’. What we saw above was what we need to do at our (listener) end in terms of being non-judgmental and being alert to our inauthenticities creeping in. Now let us understand how ‘listening authentically’ manifests for the guy who is speaking. Well what it does is let the speaker say everything he has to say until he has nothing else to say about what he was saying.

And this is when the magic happens!

The speaker has the experience that he has actually been gotten. He and we may not realise it but our ‘listening’ has supported him to table all his concerns, his fears and allowed him to put all that behind him. The concerns, the fears from the past that had put him “on the rails” towards a future which was cluttered with and an extension of his own past. With the past clutter gone, a blank space has been created. A space waiting for a new future to be born. A future that was not going to happen otherwise.

The listener at the other end, shorn that he has chosen to be, of all judgments and interpretations, also finds himself no longer “on the rails” and no longer being held hostage by his own beliefs, biases, prejudices and taken-for-granted assumptions. Old resistances and blocks go and he too becomes part of the blank space. A space now open for new possibilities, new conversation and a new future.

Dear Reader, do you see how simply listening authentically transports both the speaker and the listener into a new space? A space which holds the key to releasing both sides from the bondages of the past? A space which allows both sides to write a new future? A future created which was not going to happen anyway?

Created future

Dear Reader, are you willing to make that commitment to listening to have the magic happen for you?

***
Ester asked why people are sad.

“That’s simple,” says the old man. “They are the prisoners of their personal history. Everyone believes that the main aim in life is to follow a plan. They never ask if that plan is theirs or if it was created by another person. They accumulate experiences, memories, things, other people’s ideas, and it is more than they can possibly cope with. And that is why they forget their dreams.”
-Paulo Coelho in ‘The Zahir’, 2006

In learning……. Shakti Ghosal

Varanasi……. and the differing Realities


“Enlightenment, and the death which comes before it, is the primary business of Varanasi.”
Tahir Shah, author – Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 1998

If you are born in India, as I was, Varanasi, that immortal city of Lord Shiva and his consort Sati, slowly but surely becomes a part of your psyche.
Varanasi - that eternal city
My first visit to Varanasi with my mother continues to hold vivid memories for me even today. In my teens then, it was possibly the first time when I faced the confusion of how the same ground situation occurred so differently to my mother compared to me.

What occurred to me as narrow serpentine alleys, overcrowded and difficult to breathe places showed up as a delectable array of holy shrines, temples and ashrams to my mother.

What occurred for me as slippery, dirty steps to be avoided at all costs lest I fall into a smelly cesspool, showed up as venerable ‘ghats’ of the holy Ganga river, promising salvation and nirvana to my mother.

What showed up for me as a city bursting at its seams with the old and the dying, sickness, leprosy and burning funeral pyres, seemed to show up as life’s final destination and a passport to heaven for my mother.

As is the norm, come sunrise, I accompanied my mother for the holy dip in the Ganges. When we reached the ghat, the place was already thronging with hundreds of people, some already in the flowing waters, others taking an oil massage as a prelude to the dip. A motley crowd of beggars, tea sellers, urchins, saffron clad ‘sadhus’ and devotees jockeyed for space and spiritual advantage.
Sadhu at Sunrise

varanasi_main
My mother urged me, “Come, take a dip. Doing it is so holy, it would cleanse you of all your past sins.”

Now that was no doubt tempting. I could recall sins a plenty that I had committed over the last few months itself. But what held me back was the sight of raw sewage belching into the river with a dull roar. Not to speak of what appeared to be floating dead bodies and the vultures above. I had also heard sordid tales of unclaimed bodies, which no one came to cremate, being tied to a rock and sunk to the river bottom. I had this scary vision of stepping onto a body and being possessed by an angry spirit thereafter. The net result was that I refused to take that holy dip, much to my mother’s chagrin and embarrassment.

Varanasi-Ganges-Trash-400x300

Whenever I have mused about that visit subsequently, I have wondered what was it that created the almost diametrically opposite reality about Varanasi for my mother and me.

Coming as she did from an overly traditional, semi agrarian Bengali household in suburban Calcutta and growing up in a joint family, my mother imbibed strong elements of religious and ritualistic ‘Dos and Don’ts’ apart from a conditioning to not question the collective view and mindset. I suspect this is what would have made her take to Varanasi and its ethos like a fish takes to the water. For Varanasi is all about the occurring of a collective mind. That collective mind which through centuries and millennia, has read the Gita, quoted the Upanishads and chanted the vedic mantras on those very ghats.

I on the other hand, born and living in a nuclear family and receiving a liberal education, had very little exposure to the traditions, rituals and collective beliefs coming down the ages. So where my mother could selectively ‘see and tune into’ the devotional hymns, the fragrance of the incense and purity of the saffron colour all around her, I was left struggling to come to terms with the sludge and the floating trash, the smell of feces, the sickness and the poverty on physical display.

Today, when I look back to that Varanasi visit, I can see how the differing realities of the city effected us. My mother’s occurring of reality brought her great bliss and fulfillment. My occurring on the other hand brought in trepidation and doubt. I begin to realise how both the realities were illusions, anchored as they were to how the situations occurred to each one of us.

Like the above, do we see how most conflicts in society and the world can be traced back to the aspect of reality illusion? An illusion which makes us erroneously conclude that what shows up for us as a result of our own world view and frames of references is in fact the only reality and we refuse to accept any differing perspectives. Merely holding the awareness that differing realities can and do occur for each of us, and this is but normal, can lead to significant lowering of conflicts…….

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein

In Learning…….. Shakti Ghosal

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