Thursday, December 7, 2017

The psychedelic meditative scan

One of the strangest narratives in the Bible belongs to Jonah, the man who spent 3 days inside the belly of a whale. While inside, he prayed to God and repented his decision not to obey Him.
Well, modern day humans don't do so well inside the bellies of whales. But 1 in 20 modern humans have an experience similar to Jonah. They willingly enter an MRI machine and stay still for 25 minutes or more. Praying to God, however, has become optional.

An MRI machine looks like a fancy coffin and feels like a tomb. Claustrophobic folks are better off taking a sedative because the roof of the machine is almost close enough to be licked and there is literally no elbow room in there.
As powerful magnets and radio waves combine to creates images of innards of the human, s/he is entertained with a sound and noise show. The sounds you hear will remind you of:

1) A fast-moving emergency vehicle
2) The alarm that rings when a large crowd has to be evacuated quickly
3) Drumbeats that occur at the beginning of random rock songs
4) A series of amplified rings of bullets exiting a gun fitted with a silencer
5) Bass guitars being tuned before a show
6) Sonorous water pumps operating at a distance

Time inside unfolds like a music album. Many "musical" pieces will be played one after another. There will be a pause between each piece - when the machine prepares for the next audio attack and the human makes micro-movements to try and get more comfortable.
I've heard stoners describe psychedelic experiences, and I'm inclined to think those experiences cannot be any weirder than visiting the belly of an MRI machine. MRI machines in children's wards are lined with happy cartoon artwork to convince children that they are being entertained. Adults get the vanilla design and the discovery that no single posture of the human body is infinitely restful. No matter how carefully you choose the placement of your hands and the angle at which your feet stick out, you will, in a matter of minutes, wish that you could change something, be somewhere else.

Perhaps the MRI machine is the final bastion of boredom left in the world. You cannot seek any distraction whatsoever. You are imprisoned, not just by the machine, but also your thoughts. After the first few minutes - where you will worry about not moving your body - you will find yourself slipping into deep moments of reflection. You will return to your conscious stream of thoughts during the brief silence before the next "musical piece" begins. Studies have shown that boredom is extremely important for creativity and introspection. The MRI machine seems to prove this theory.

So the next time you want to travel far, do yourself a favour and visit the MRI scan centre closest to you.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Curiosity kills the relationship

Curiosity is an incredibly useful emotion, isn't it? As a species, our progress has piggybacked on curiosity. Our prehistoric ancestor who asked, "Can I tame this wild and spontaneous thing called fire?" was exhibiting curiosity. So was Steve Jobs, when he wondered whether the phone can replace all other gadgets.
We are born curious and we die curious - still contemplating the nature of the universe. In between, we utilize curiosity as a fuel for our behaviour.
What we often fail to realize is that curiosity is a double-edged sword. When aimed at ideas, it can lead to glorious discoveries and inventions. When aimed at people, it can lead to all kinds of miseries. True, emotions are non-negotiable and curiosity is a naturally-occurring emotion. So we don't have to question the emotion. Instead, we can question our actions.
When we lived in small tribes, we used curiosity to create a phenomenon called gossip. This allowed information to be passed from ear to ear. Eventually, the tribal elder became aware of the information. By knowing that certain members of the tribe were behaving in ways that threatened the tribe, he could take immediate action. Young furtive lovers could be bound together in marriage, disputing couples could be encouraged to resolve their conflicts, bad parents could be asked to mend their ways and so on. Gossip served an important sociological function. Because small tribes could not afford to create a lot of space for individual free will. The tribe would thrive or perish as a whole. That's how it was. That's not how it is today. Modern living has given rise to individualism and all its concomitant blessings and curses.
It perhaps makes sense to come up with a set of guidelines to understand how to channel this emotion so that it always remains a constructive force in relationships.
Let me offer a few basic questions we can ask ourselves just as curiosity grabs us by the throat:

1) Is my curiosity proportional to the importance of the relationship?
You have every right to know whether your spouse is cheating on you. But should you invest time, energy and emotions in determining whether your neighbour/ex-lover is cheating on their spouse? If you feel compelled to do so, can you ask: WHY?
Using curiosity, you can determine whether your child's recent behaviour is the result of bullying. Or whether picking up a new sport will make you more vigorous in your workplace. In key relationships - including the relationship we have with ourselves - curiosity can lead to innovation, solutions, growth and newness. 
But misplaced and/or disproportionate curiosity is a warning sign. Introspection might be needed here.

2) Does my curiosity serve anybody other than me?
Whole vocations are founded on curiosity. Sherlock Holmes, the archetypal detective, was curiosity personified. Similarly, we have asked journalists, scientists, novelists, income tax officials and other such professionals to be curious on behalf of society. Their curious noses benefit us.
Of course, we can still be curious for purely selfish reasons. But this question makes us aware that we are pursuing this emotion for our own sake, without attributing altruistic intentions to it. And this brings us to the next question.

3) Does my curiosity serve AT LEAST me?
In the spectrum of emotions, curiosity is labeled as a positive emotion. Logically, it must lead to a positive outcome. But will it always? Human relationships are fragile, prone to damage. That's why curiosity can just as easily imprison you as liberate you.
You might want to know whether your spouse is having an affair. But will you be empowered or disempowered by the answer? At the end of the quest, would you rather have not known the answer? You might experience curiosity when you hold the first cigarette in your hand. But do you want to satiate it? What unforeseen consequences lie in wait?
The worst thing you can do is play a game in which everybody loses, including you.
4) Does my curiosity encroach upon somebody's privacy?
This is perhaps a strange question to ask in an era when people willingly use social media to invite people into their private spaces. However, the keyword here is "willingly." Just because somebody changes their profile picture twice a day, we cannot assume that we can post their picture on social media. 
We often confuse our notion of privacy with the other's. For us, sex might be a private thing. For the other, their religious beliefs might be more private than what they do in the bedroom. So asking them a question about religion might come across as offensive.
It's better not to make assumptions about what the other considers inappropriate. Especially at the beginning of any relationship. When we make a new friend, we are better off assuming we know nothing about their value system.

In conclusion

So how do we keep our curious inner child alive while respecting boundaries and regulating our behaviour? 
As a counselor, I've been trained to ask my client questions of concern instead of questions of curiosity. Both sets of questions have the potential to make a connection with the other person. The former establishes empathy, the latter not so much.
It seems like our therapy models have figured out something important. Like a therapist, we needn't assume that we must know something in order to connect. Instead of treating the client like a puzzle, the therapist constantly sees them as a mystery. Still a puzzle, but an unsolvable one.
There is an advantage to seeing anybody - even our loved ones - as unsolvable puzzles. In this approach, we introduce a sense of mystery to the human being. Isn't that wonderful? When we see the known person as an unknown entity, we reintroduce freshness in the relationship. We wonder about them. We revel in the mystery. And our curiosity stays alive.
Because curiosity can't exist in the known. It always belongs to the beautiful unknown.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The great Indian politician

Pic Credit:
On the 70th anniversary of India's independence, I bow in reverence to the Indian politician.
India might be known for its software professionals, artists, writers, musicians and scientists, but these professionals cannot hold a candle to the astonishing success attained by the nation's politicians.

The biggest sign of success is that the Indian politician, in spite of being a service-provider, has managed to conquer his customer, the Indian citizen. There is evidence to back this statement:

1) Most customers have zero or minimal expectations from him. They don't expect his services to deliver high quality or even adhere to basic benchmarks of functionality.
  • They avoid the educational institutions he provides because they understand the importance of education
  • They shun the healthcare he provides because they understand the importance of breathing
  • If they must use the trains he provides them, they will close their eyes to the filth and inefficiencies that meet their eye
  • They have decided that it is not his job to provide clean drinking water and uninterrupted power supply
  • They would have avoided the roads he gives them, but not all of them can afford to fly here and there. After all, jetpacks are still a decade away from widespread use
2) Most customers are deathly scared of him
He has agents at his disposal who will keep checking whether you've paid him money for the "services" he is providing you
He will make you sweat blood if you do not possess all of the quadrillion documents that prove that you are his willing customer for life

3) Most customers don't expect him to behave professionally. Which means he can plunder, lie, cheat on his partner, go to jail and change his stance faster than a dancer.

4) Most customers vaguely understand that he can treat them as puppets and they are powerless about it. They have unresolved past issues about God, food, language, caste. Like an evil counselor, he will bring these suppressed emotions to the surface. At that point, your violent catharsis will help his cause. Just as you settle back into your docile suppressed avatar, he will call you for another "therapy" session and you won't be able to refuse him. He knows all your buttons.
5) Most customers believe that ignoring him is the biggest sign of being a grown-up. Only childish people whine about the quality of services he is offering you. Come to think of it, he is the disapproving parent who can level you with his eyes. He will look at you over his glass of whiskey and say: maybe it's time you go to a corner and think about what you did.

Yes, our great Indian politician is our God, our parent, our strict teacher and our demanding boss all rolled into one.
With multiple threads of power at his disposal, it is little wonder that he is the most successful professional Independent India has produced. In a duel between him and his customers, his survival is mandatory. And, oh, he acquires approximately 70,000 new customers every day.
We should sing an anthem dedicated to him before every film.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The XYZ of being a trainer

Most would agree upon the ABCs of being a trainer:
A. Keep your body language and mindset positive
B. Prepare for a session as if your life depended on it
C. Execute your plan while allowing room for extemporizing

The D to W of being a trainer has many facets such as humour, storytelling, emoting, involving the audience, grooming, use of training aids etc.
That brings us to what I call the XYZ of being a trainer. These are the biggest attitudinal value adds that a trainer can bring to a classroom.

X: "I'm going to say something in class today that will change somebody's life for the better."

While this may not always happen, a trainer who prepares with such an expectation of oneself goes beyond meagre benchmarks. This trainer is aspiring for a lot more than delivering the lesson effectively.
A classic case of aiming for the stars so as to land on a rarefied cloud.

Y: "Address the topic as if it is only topic worth knowing about."

A trainer taking a class on Rapport Building for counselors can emphasize how everything desirable in counseling becomes possible ONLY due to Rapport Building. When the trainer underlines the significance of the topic, the class experiences greater enthusiasm, leading to a superior learning experience. The next day, the same trainer might address a different classroom and talk about Stress Management as the most important key to living happily.
In short, the trainer is saying, "Learn this ONE thing and watch how your life improves!"

Z: "Nobody else can replicate me."

The internet is replete with content, even full-fledged presentations, pertaining to every known topic. In the Google age, do people really need to attend a class to understand the WHAT and HOW of a topic? No, audiences need to be made aware of what incredibly specific benefits they will derive by learning something and what's stopping them from learning/practising an idea.
This is where the trainer's signature style comes in. Will the trainer come up with an approach/activity/interconnection that is his/her own? Will there be a uniqueness in the content and delivery style (could be in the WHAT and HOW areas too)? If (s)he does, it will make all the difference.

So that's my tuppence. What about you? What, according to you, are the biggest attitudinal value-adds provided by a trainer? And if you agree with the XYZs I've mentioned, do tell how you would enhance the X, the Y and the Z factors.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The seduction of self-growth

Enhancing our self-awareness and using this increased awareness to grow out of our self-imposed constraints is perhaps one of the most important processes we will undertake as human beings. Our positivity stems from this process and I myself am a big fan of self-growth.
However, some of my recent experiences have made me ask this question: has self-growth become an obsession for some of us? And, no, I don't allude only to those who hop from workshop to workshop, collecting nuggets of clarity. I'm talking about a larger mass of people - liberal, kind, empathetic, generous people - who seek to convert every problem into a self-growth problem.

Take for instance an important problem (I think) the world is facing now: how to minimize the damage that's likely to be caused by the Trump Presidency?
I pretty much pressed the panic button in June 2015, when he gave a nauseating speech announcing his candidature. My friends in the US thought I was being ridiculous by thinking he could win. And here we are.
The merchants of self-growth, when they hear me ranting about Trump, have these questions for me:

  • What do you have against him? Were you bullied as a child?
  • We dislike people who are very similar to us. In what ways are you like Trump?
  • You think he will create chaos. Do you have trouble coping with chaos, crises and ambiguities?
  • In what way is your life different because he is the President of the US?

The self-growth merchants are coming from the vantage point that we choose to get affected by things. They have a solid point. After all, it is I who sees a threat in Trump, it is I who gets worked up about him and it is I who can calm myself down.
Self-growth merchants think it is SUFFICIENT to work on oneself whereas I think it is NECESSARY but not sufficient.
It is fallacious to trap a macrocosm in a microcosm. By working on myself, which I have been doing continuously, I can gain acceptance and coping mechanisms. Both acceptance and coping are necessary yet insufficient. Because I also want a CHANGE which can be triggered by self-growth, but is not limited to self-growth.

Self-growth merchants usually operate on the premise that everybody aspires to be in a constant state of happiness and peace. As if living in this trance-like state is the pinnacle of our personal journeys. But then infants, animals, dementia patients and consumers of narcotics easily attain happiness and peace - they may not use introspective thoughts as a drug, but they get to the same place. So... should we believe that being shrouded in an aura of positive emotions is somehow a sign of wisdom?
Self-growth is seductive. It promises every pleasure known to humankind and under-delivers every single time.

Whether we are talking about Donald Trump or the state of our marriage or our desire to see our loved ones succeed or our relationship with money, we are talking about US and the OTHER. While self-growth helps us work on the US factor, we need the willingness to engage with the OTHER in order to achieve concrete results.

These results cannot be produced by creating a garden of herbs in our balcony, wearing tribal jewellery, consuming organic products or even meditating. Again, you could see these as necessary steps but not sufficient steps.
We are standing at a precipice, looking down at the damage done by global climate change and we need world leaders who will start devising solutions today that will see us through to the 23rd century. Because that garden of herbs will give us little pleasure when a mushroom cloud forms over it. Or when the oceans swallow it and us along with it. Or when the sun scorches it into potpourri.

Future generations will judge us, not by how happy and peaceful we were, but by what ecological legacy we bequeathed to them.
I have a suggestion to make to the crusaders of the self-growth movement: get key stakeholders around the world to subscribe to your worldview. If Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and other leaders of a disgruntled Europe, the Koch brothers, oil company executives, automobile industry leaders and countless other movers and shakers of capitalism are willing to value self-growth more than material growth, then we shall have no problem and I will eat my words and wash them down with a lemongrass smoothie.
If that's not possible, we need engage with the world by expanding our spheres of influence. The conservative thinkers - who often tend to be fundamentalists - are already engaged in politics. It's time for a great number of liberals to engage similarly, to look beyond self-growth. This journey will be dotted with negative emotions. We'll need fear to motivate us, anger to energize us and regret of not having done enough to keep going on when the path is tough.
Not all of us will be enthused by the same collective missions. The context in which I find the desire to do more is Trump. For you, it could be something else. But whatever issue you choose to work on, I request you to remember that you cannot choose to be politically un-involved. Whether we like it or not, we have to grapple with the power monsters we have collectively created. For our sake and the sake of those we love. 
As always, we need to embrace two opposite ideas that have equal merit. As we work on ourselves, we also need to find the resolve to work with the world. When we talk about self-growth, we also need to talk about collective growth.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Shah Rukh, KHKN, time dilation and innocent lies

The year was 1994. I was in my second year of engineering, experiencing a late onset of puberty, combined with a stubborn craving for an idealistic life. Mere chance led me to the Ashish theatre in Chembur, Mumbai, to watch Kundan Shah's new movie, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naan (KHKN). An unknown actor named Shah Rukh Khan - who had already given a couple of hits and was destined to give many more in quick succession - was the hero of this movie set in serene, picturesque Goa.
It was perhaps the seventh time that I had stepped into a movie theatre in my 19 years of existence. Therefore, the fact that I watched the movie again the next day in the same theatre must account for something. I gave up many vada pavs and bus tickets for this unprecedented indulgence. Why did I do that?
The elements that drew me to KHKN are the same elements that prompt me to write this review 23 years later. I fell in love, not with the heroine as one would expect, but with the character played by future superstar Shah Rukh Khan. To me, he still remains Sunil. A goofy lovable loser.

Sunil has been in love with Anna since he was a tadpole. The film begins when Anna returns to Goa. As her train chugs into this paradise, the verdant landscape echoes with Sunil's melodious welcoming tune. Yes, Sunil loves music almost as much as he loves Anna. In fact, he, Anna, future-director Ashutosh Gowarikar, rich-bloke Chris (played by Dipak Tijori) and a few sundries are a part of a music band. They coexist or perish together.
The plot complication arises from the fact that Chris also loves Anna. And unlike Sunil, Chris is Raymond's Complete Man. He is responsible, rich and religiously-compatible. He can offer her a life that Sunil simply can't. Sunil is a happy-go-lucky idiot who doesn't have sufficient brains to graduate, let alone find a job.
All Sunil can do is lie and deceive his way out of reality. In an attempt to sideline Chris, Sunil portrays Anna as a torturer of men, a diva without a heart. Needless to say, his lies soon catch up with him. Indeed, when you put Sunil's lies in perspective, you are reminded of a kindergarten kid who, in spite of having thick smears of chocolate on his face, swears on his mother grave that he hasn't touched chocolate in his entire life!
Sunil's lies are as ineffectual and innocent as he is. He lies without vision. He just wants another dance with the woman of his dreams. He wants her to throw one more smile his way. He cares for nothing more, nothing else. His love is at once manipulative and pure.

We know how this story ends. Anna was meant to be with Chris and that's where she will end up. But in the interim, Sunil will come of age. He will be aided in this journey by four men:
  1. His father (played by Anjan Srivastava), a mechanic with grease on his hands and pragmatism in his mind
  2. His biggest fan, incidentally also Goa's biggest don (played by Goga Kapur), who is willing to exterminate Chris if Sunil just gives the nod. Sunil, of course, cannot do that. He is after all the kindergarten kid, not a hormonal lover
  3. A secular padre (played by Naseeruddin Shah) who shows the community that Sunil might be deceitful, but he is not evil
  4. Anna's father (played by Satish Shah), a creator of cakes and, like Sunil, a happy-go-lucky Goan without the pressures of adhering to standards set by the larger world

These men are Goan and Bollywoodian, make no mistake about that. Elsewhere, the father would have been too despondent, the don would have been too cruel, the padre would have been too religious and Anna's father would have been too threatened by Sunil. But in Goa, these men are understanding and placid. Time dilates here. And in dilated time, negative emotions become muffled. Therefore, all these four men find it in their hearts to embrace the kindergarten kid that is Sunil.

In the final reckoning, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa is a love story that wasn't meant to be. It stands out in Bollywood history for many reasons:
  • Kundan Shah was directing a movie after a long gap. His previous movie was the iconic Jaane bhi do yaaron. In between, he had directed Nukkad, Circus and other TV series'
  • The brand of Shah Rukh Khan does not allow him to be such a big loser again - at least till date
  • Renu Saluja's editing. Just have a look at the transitions she creates in the song Deewaana, dil deewana to understand her genius. This incredible woman, who met an untimely death, first married Vidhu Vinod Chopra. She then married Bollywood director Sudhir Mishra and left him a widower. Her involvement in the film feels like a question mark to Kundan Shah: why, for the love of God and the universe, do women have no significant role to play in a movie that seems to revolve around a heroine?
  • Jatin-Lalit were at their peak as music directors
  • Pankaj Advani's screenplay and dialogues, that capture the spirit of Sunil's character by making each scene ridiculously obvious. This wasn't a suspense movie. It was a kindergarten rhyme set to the rhythm of a movie

Clearly, this is a movie unlike any SRK has done since then. In 2007, in the sets of Kaun Banega Crorepati, I again came across SRK.My significant other was in the hot seat. She told SRK that KHKN happens to be my favourite movie of all times. Without blinking an eyelid, he replied:
"He loves you. He loves KHKN. It seems like he has great taste."
That's half truth, half showmanship.

I still love Sunil.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The clarion call of the trumpet

For the past six months, the US media has often revisited the idea that the Republican Party will and must soul-search. This OP-ED piece in the New York Times is one of many that suggested that the party is reaping the thorny harvest of divisive politics. That the US has way too many blacks, Hispanics, Asians, homosexuals, Muslims and youngsters to appeal predominantly to the "too old, too white, too male" votebank. The fact that a black man with a Muslim middle name was elected and then reelected should have tipped the Republican party to think anew. This was conventional wisdom till yesterday.
In the last 24 hours, the onus of soul searching has shifted to the Democratic party. What happened? At first glance, it appears to be an American version of majoritarianism. In India, Modi won due to an unprecedented aggregation of the Hindu vote. In the UK, Brexit was passed by a silent protectionist majority. And in the US, Trump won due to the backing of a white majority, comprised of a vocal throng and a silent fringe. Three of the most important democracies resoundingly rejected "other" people at a time when none of our leaders question globalization anymore.

Although we'll never really know if Bernie Sanders would have trounced Trump, it can be said with some conviction that, in the end, Hillary Clinton proved to be more unpalatable than the misogynistic, racist, hate-mongering, shallow, ignorant, whining egomaniacal billionaire. Just one of those adjectives would have decimated anybody else's campaign. But the more Trump slipped into the morass of his own character, the closer he inched towards the pedestal his supporters had built for him. When the media threw feces (read: evidence of wrongdoing) at Trump, his supporters thought they were breathing in the unfamiliar aroma of authenticity.
Does that make those supporters misogynistic, racist, shallow, hatemongers? Some of them, yes. But most of them share just one trait with Trump: ignorance. They firmly believe that this man will fix a system that has dismissed their grievances for a long time. Whereas every piece of available evidence shows that Trump has never been concerned about anybody else's welfare. That he can't muster an ounce of empathy even if his life depended on it. That evidence was dangled in front of their eyes. Again, all they saw was the sheen of authenticity.

We are talking about a blackout of the senses. Some reality in their lives motivated them to believe and hope without evidence (Michael Moore's film Trumpland gives us a peek into some parts of their reality).
As a species, we need to address a screaming need: how do we train people to demand evidence for their beliefs?
Here is a minuscule sample of what a great number of Americans have believed or continue to believe since the beginning of the millennium:
  • Iraq had a stockpile of WMDs
  • Global climate change is a myth
  • Evolution is just a theory, probably even a conspiracy against religion
  • Trickle down economics works everywhere, all the time
When people do not demand evidence, they become vulnerable to every charlatan, flimflam artist or demagogue that knocks on their doors. Trump's reptilian brain probably understood this better than anybody else. He said all the right things as far as his supporters are concerned. He sold emotions, underplayed the importance of details in his schemes, repeated nonsense till they sounded like facts, became louder when challenged. He embodied the trinity of message, messenger and saviour without having a shred of evidence. That was the last thing he needed to preach his gospel.

The result: at least 4 years of Trump. That's four years of climate change denial. According to scientists, we do not have the luxury of waiting for 4 years before taking concrete action to stem the tide against global climate change. Trump might go to the extent of rescinding the marginal gains made by the Paris Accord. He will be aided in this by the Republican majority in the House and the Senate. It is foolish to hope that a party that sings hymns in praise of quarterly results will safeguard the next century. Capitalism is founded on greed, which is a HERE and NOW emotion.
And this is where one must question those who believe that the system will self-correct. The Trump supporters got one thing right: the system is broken. It has secret keys, hidden passageways and trapdoors. Even if Trump doesn't fulfill the doomsday prophecy of a nuclear nightmare, escalating violence and systemic discrimination, there is reason to worry.
This man loves negotiations and the "art of the deal." His game of chess resets itself after every move. He has never been interested in being consistent and calculating long-term repercussions. He just wants to win the next move at all costs. He and Paul Ryan will soon appear on our television screens, shoulder to shoulder, their grins extending from cheeks to cheeks. He will coerce, bully, cajole or seduce key people as per the needs of the moment.
His supporters might even benefit from the spillover effects of his actions. But that will not be enough. They will just have to believe that it is.

For the human species to have a long-term orientation, we have to train ourselves to FEEL a little less and to THINK a little more. We need to question, analyze, evaluate so that we can create better realities. At this moment, one hopes that we have enough time to do that.
Sigh! At a time when we are betrayed by our collective emotions, all we have to hold on to is an emotion.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Don't be so open-minded that your brain falls out

Yesterday, I got a message on a WhatsApp group I belong to. A person employed by a well-known corporate research firm made the tall claim that NASA itself had rejected global climate change. This comes at a time when Planet Earth has recorded its 11th hottest month in a row. So I messaged the group stating that the man's claims were too ridiculous to be taken seriously and also wondered about the veracity of the research being conducted by his employer.
Having just delivered a class on Being non-judgmental, I've been even more preoccupied with beliefs and the role they play in shaping our thinking and behaviour.
Ever since I became a counselor, I've been extra careful in respecting people's beliefs. That's important in counseling. Most of us seem to possess a subset of beliefs that is bizarre and/or unproven but deeply cherished. Rejecting such a belief is akin to rejecting the human being herself. So while counseling, I ask a golden question: is the belief helping the person or harming the person? If it is helping them, who am I to question it? If it is harming them, it is my job to ask them to reconsider their belief and then let them make an autonomous choice.
So when it comes to individual interactions, to each his own. One person's nectar is another person's poison. If you think that the universe is concerned about your well-being and that belief keeps you positive, by all means believe in it. I will not tell you that you are an inhabitant of a placid suburban planet of the Milky Way galaxy which itself seems to be in a far-flung quiet neighbourhood of the universe.

At the same time, I'm disturbed to witness bizarre, convenient beliefs take centrestage in discussions that affect humankind. Nowhere is this more evident than the issue of human-influenced global climate change. In the US, the Republican party has successfully created the impression that there are two sides to this story. They claim that scientists are divided on the issue (as per the NASA website, 97% of the scientists are in agreement and the findings of the 3% have been widely debunked). However, a great number of Americans believe that we must research more before we conclude that we are destroying the ecology of earth. Apparently, breathing toxic air and drinking filthy water is not proof enough.
In reality, this debate is between a fact and a belief. It is a fact that we need to find a more sustainable economic model. It is a belief that we don't. This unequal juxtaposition has been made possible by elevating the belief to the status of a fact and by pulling down the fact to the level of a belief.
If this were happening in Nicaragua or Moldova or some such small country, we needn't be so concerned. But since the US is the largest carbon emitter in the world, this discussion affects all of us. If the US doesn't lead us out of a fossil fuel-based economy, and soon, we might well get to the brink of extinction or beyond.

Meanwhile, many other beliefs continue to threaten our collective well-being. Believing that a herbal juice will miraculously cure cancer, that self-proclaimed gurus can offer a panacea for our problems, that vaccines cause autism, that homeopathy is a true science, that capitalism is the only viable economic system... the list is endless, really.
For a long time now, I have been way too respectful of beliefs that dilute the quality of debates happening in society. It's time for me to evolve. I don't have to treat your belief as equal to everybody's fact. Yes, facts belong to everybody. Even to those who don't agree with them. Gravity is a fact. You don't start floating off into space when you refuse to believe in gravity!
What's the difference between a fact and a belief, you ask? Facts need to be established. Beliefs only need to be articulated.

I remain a willing learner. I am not shy of stating, "I don't know," when confronted with a deep question. I will continue to embrace the mysteries of life and the universe. I will forever strive to seek broader understandings of reality.
But, to paraphrase a famous quote: if I am any more open-minded than that, my brain will fall out!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Excellence over perfection

“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order” – Anne Wilson Schaef

Should the pursuit of perfection be attempted? Is it even desirable? Well, I'd rather pursue excellence. And I'll tell you why.

Perfection is three demons masquerading as one angel. Underneath the sublime radiance of perfection lurks the fear of inadequacy, fear of criticism and fear of rejection. Underneath excellence lies the far kinder fear of mediocrity.
There may be some perfectionists out there who are always in action mode. Heck, some of them might not even suffer from acidity, cardiovascular problems, migraine etc. But they are few in number. For the most part, perfectionists are either stuck in neutral gear or revving ahead in fifth gear. Because perfection is a destination. And unless the perfectionist can see it, have a map leading up to it and has clear blue skies to take him there, he isn't budging.
Perfection is like an airplane journey. It takes off from Point Zero and reaches Point Perfection with no stops in between. The trouble with airplane journeys is that it requires a smooth and long runway (bundles of energy), white petrol (inspiration) and ticket cost (the luxury of time so that inspiration can strike and clarity can emerge).

Excellence, on the other hand, is a land-hugging journey (not a destination). It's a bumpy ride, involves taking wrong turns and making an ass of oneself. Excellence is a series of incremental hops from Point Zero to Point Oh-Wow. Excellence constantly acknowledges its current position (which could be "pathetic", "mediocre", "getting there", "getting good" etc). In other words, it celebrates imperfections at all times. Excellence is not stopped by the current point, because it runs on the belief that things get better with effort.

So you want to kick the demon triplets (inadequacy, criticism, rejection) out of your lives, then I suggest that you drop perfectionism and embrace excellence. You may not be able to see the landscape of your idea from 10,000 feet above the ground, but your feet will be firmly planted on the ground and you will be able to put together the Big Picture soon enough.
So know that you are good enough. And start soon enough.

P.S: While this post serves anybody interested, I wrote it specifically for the writers participating in the second batch of my Write Now! program.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Write Now! - my workshop is back


Last year, my writing workshop titled Write Now! was extremely well-received, as is evident in this video testimonial. It was but natural for me to undertake this journey again, this time with new fellow travelers.
So if you are an aspiring writer, closet writer, doubtful writer, optimistic writer... in short, if you have a desire to write and are based in Bangalore, do check out my workshop.
I love writing and I love teaching and this workshop brings those twin loves together.