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.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Know the whole story, you moron!

What the human being is best at doing, is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact - Warren Buffet

I initially wanted to title this piece Media segmentation and the confirmation bias. (Yawn! Yeah, I know.)  Glad to have your attention.
Aldous Huxley once famously said that facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. But if that incredible writer were alive today, he might want to reconsider or rewrite that quote. As far as the modern netizen is concerned, most of the content (s)he counters on the internet is to her/his liking. There are simple logical reasons for that:

1) While on FB, your brain constantly seeks posts that appeal to you. Your spend most of the time consuming content linked to these posts. When you come across a post you find disgusting, and if you are a typical FB user, you will SHOUT out a fitting reply and enjoy reading comments similar to yours. Is it any wonder that quotes, opinions and other kinds of memes that make you a 2-minute philosopher are going viral?
2) Your favourite news sites, portals, columnists and writers are your favourites for a reason. They comfort you and tell you the story from your favourite point of view.
3) You follow those handles on Twitter that already cater to your content taste
4) You use a search engine. And search engines love to profile you - slot you into a neat category. In other words, these engines know all or almost all of the following about you: gender, religious beliefs, nationalistic leanings, financial ideology (socialist, capitalist, intensely capitalistic, capital fundamentalist etc), political affiliations, hedonistic indulgences (food, drink, sex etc), leisure preferences (movies, music, travel etc), sexual orientation, literary tastes, ecological ideology and so on. Who knows, maybe in the future, your profile information could be used to create a robotic clone of you. That robot might not look as cool as you, but it will be just as intelligent about some things and just as moronic about others.

I hope I have riled you sufficiently by now. Does it soothe you to know that I catch myself being moronic every single day? Case in point being a disagreement I had with a friend about unconditional love. Within moments, both of us sent each other articles that subscribed to our viewpoint on the subject.

Even more telling is my exploration of what I call "spiritual determinism" - an idea propped up by burgeoning cults. The reigning Goddess of one such cult is Rhonda Byrne, the author of The secret. A book that wants you to believe that we can redesign our thoughts to re-programming their "vibrations", thereby creating spectacular results. In other words, we actually control everything that happens to us. Furthermore, we get exactly what we want. Everything. If that fat man expelled gas while riding up the elevator with you, you were craving for a whiff of methane. If you got blown up by a terrorist bomb, you and those 200 other idiots in the same train compartment wanted exactly that. If you got raped, you were jouncing for rough sex. Well, you get the picture.
As a counselor, I came across two clients who, while experiencing depression, read The secret. This made them feel like scum. They now wondered if they subconsciously wanted misery. Their depression deepened. So... I experienced the impact of this stupid idea with some intensity. Made me furious about these cults who roam around spewing a venomous idea. I scoured the internet, seeking slander against the idea. I found reams of such material. Gave me some solace.
Then one day, I decided to explore the idea from another standpoint. If a person has had a reasonably happy life and is pursuing excellence, how would this book occur to him? If he likes the idea, he might find more motivation to aim higher. He might even achieve a few of his goals. When he fails, he will believe (as the book asks him to) that he subconsciously didn't believe in succeeding. No harm, no foul. And since he now believes that kindness always begets kindness, he might be kinder to people. He will enjoy this idea till he dies or the bubble bursts. Cool.
Despite believing that polar opposite ideas have equal validity in different contexts, my emotions got the better of me on this subject. And my search engine didn't help me find the middle path either.

Never before has the media been more segmented. Never before have media houses been under more pressure to be "sticky" for their target audiences. Never before have those target audiences had such specific, narrow tastes. In fact, media barons and brand consultants are increasingly beginning introspection exercises by asking: who is NOT the client? By a process of elimination, they define their unique positions and identities.
So what can you do to obtain holistic perspectives on any topic, knowing that the very technology you use throws obstacles in your path? How do you plunder the depths of this medium with more than a trillion pages?
My process begins with a simple rule: if I find everything I read about a topic agreeable, I haven't read enough. See if the rest of my process makes sense to you:
1) Beware of "exception" conditions. We love to term facts that don't fit into our worldview as exceptions. Darwin, that most exacting chronicler, was no different. As a countermeasure, he took to quickly jotting down all exceptions and contradictions. He knew that our brain actively "forgets" discomforting evidence. Is it any wonder that he is most accurate scientist of that era?
2) Actively seek the opposite viewpoint. You'll have to routinely clear your browser history, use a browser that you haven't before, use the "Private Session" feature of your browser, or even use somebody else's computer - so that you can come across information that Google would otherwise "protect" you from. Also, use broad unopinionated phrases. Your blood pressure might spike from reading obnoxious beliefs held by those "other" people. On the other hand, you might learn something new.

If I didn't catch myself being moronic, I'd prescribe some more countermeasures for you. But this should suffice to begin to fight back against confirmation biases. If we could do the same against about 200 more well-documented cognitive distortions, we might actually make meaningful and sustainable progress as a species. That could augur well for our great grandchildren.

P.S: I owe a debt of gratitude to Rolf Dobelli, the author of The art of thinking clearly - and not just for informing this post.
P.P.S: Watch House MD to be amazed by a character who refuses to be comforted by platitudes or rationalizations. If somebody has created a character with higher critical thinking powers, I'd love to know about it.
P.P.P.S: Pic credit goes to these folks.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Cricket commentators: your vocab is going to pieces

The language used by cricket commentators is incestuous. Hold on. Let me explain.
These brethren behind the mikes spend weeks on the road with each other and, over matches, meals and beverages, have so many discussions together that they soon start sounding like each other. Almost as if they exhibit their unique personalities and vocabularies at first and then mutely descend into a set of words acceptable to the whole cult.
That's my theory and having given you that, let me offer a few explanations too.
Four years ago, an Australian commentator joined the ESPN Star Sports team (can't remember who that was). He used the word "boundary" in the appropriate way. He termed both a 4 and a 6 "boundaries". Bravo. But the existing crew members were convinced that a boundary was a 4. A 6 was called a 6. And if IPL season was on, it was called a Yes Bank Maximum.
Two matches later, this new commentator had "adapted". He too started making a distinction between a boundary and a 6!

This is just one instance that registered in my brain. Fellow cricket enthusiasts will, I'm sure, have their own observations on how our collective cricket vocabulary is getting homogenous.

And the word that brings this reality home is PIECE. Sample the usage of this word in the following phrases:
Piece of timing
Piece of shot
Piece of batting
Piece of bowling
Piece of swinging
Piece of fielding
Piece of innovation

I can go on. I have a question for our audio stalwarts: what exactly do you mean when you say "that was a great piece of timing"? Seriously. My ignorant mind conjures up the image of a timepiece when I hear that phrase. And why have ALL of you have decided to make the same linguistic errors?
Granted, we live in an era where a rich vocabulary is considered a sign of haughtiness or, worse, the lack of communication skills. I read my share of Salman Rushdie. But I also read Hemmingway and he had as much aversion for adjectives as you do for good grammar. The difference is that he did not create a subculture of idiotic idioms and cliched catch phrases.

We - and here I take the liberty of including millions of cricket fans - are aching for fresh sound bytes in a cricket match. We will celebrate a guy or a gal who actually brings us a fresh set of words, idioms, imageries etc. It will be nice if somebody says "torpedo" or "Kargil bullet" instead of "tracer bullet". We will rejoice if "something's gotta give" is replaced by "are we about to witness a turning point?" The only guy who is attempting freshness is Danny Morrison who spells out OUT and he is as annoying as a kindergarten teacher.
It sure will be awesome if humans continue to speak during a cricket match. Because if the current situation continues, a computer might be asked to interpret the scorecard and offer the standard phrase for the occasion. You will then be out of a job and we will be robbed of your delectable company.
Think about it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Does your struggle define you?

Social media inevitably puts us in touch with what people want us to know about them. Some of them want us to know that they are having fun, have wonderful relationships, have the soundest possible beliefs, are succeeding beyond expectations and/or are overcoming incredible odds. Good for them. If you are able to keep jealousy at bay, you have the opportunity here to get exposed to the real and imagined joys of the world. Nothing wrong with that per se.
But today, I want to focus on those who want us to know them through their struggles. All of us have such friends on FB, Twitter, LinkedIn et al. You and I, too, might belong to this mass of humanity in one context or another. But here, too, we aren't looking at a monolithic segment. Those who struggle are usually victims or crusaders. Sometimes, they are an odd combination of the two.

Self-styled strugglers indulge in an over-identification with their struggle. A gender-bias victim has to balance the gender equation. A sexually-abused victim has to proclaim the intrinsic injustices of the social framework, just as a political crusader has to point out the intrinsic injustices in the political framework. Meanwhile, a lonely person has to talk about the apathy of society. So every tweet and post of theirs will drip with this ideological imbalance. Once the notion of injustice/inequality/imbalance grips our minds, we tend to perceive the world through the prism of the said injustice/inequality/imbalance. Lest I sound belittling, let me do a quick course correction.

Are these struggles difficult? Of course, they are. Are they important? Undoubtedly so. I identify with so many of them. I feel the dire need to correct many imbalances in the system. The only difference is that I don't identify with them beyond a point. The reasons are quite simple:

  1. I existed much before I identified with my struggle(s). So I am not my struggle. Many dimensions of my life exist irrespective of the struggle. For instance, the daily grind cannot rob me of my ability to enjoy an evening out unless I allow it to.
  2. I am aware that somewhere in the world, there exists at least one human being (perhaps millions of them) who has been a victim in the exact opposite manner. For instance:
  • A feminist can learn that men can be victims too, just as a masculist can learn that women can be victims too.
  • A lonely person can learn that too many intimate relationships can threaten free will, just as a housewife with seven kids can learn that a packed life can save one from the burden of too much introspection.
  • A capitalist can learn that communism/socialism has the potential for more compassion, just as a socialist can learn that free enterprise can lead to more innovation.
Acknowledging the opposite immediately gives me a more objective perspective and my emotional investment in my struggle will, therefore, be smaller.

But with our blinkers on, and our arrogant wisdom goading us, we pretend to understand the nature of the universe. We are convinced that we have decoded the secrets therein using our six senses. And with this conviction, we prowl our night skies, wearing a mask and zooming in our glitzy vehicle of (in)justice. All we need is a Christopher Nolan to make us superheroes.
We are our struggles, we tell ourselves, as we allow the darkness to swallow us whole.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The return of the jinx

6-0 stands the record in India's favour in World Cup matches against Pakistan. I will certainly remember the quality and intensity of the contest in the first 65 overs of the match.
My report/analysis on Dawn can be found here.
Hope you enjoy reading it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Grit, grime and glory

That was my suggested title for this mood piece. India and Pakistan shall meet again on Feb 15th during a World Cup match.
Do read the comments trail of this article. People of both nations are equally convinced that the other side will win easily!
It was fun to reminisce about the matches. I realized how much my life was intertwined with this particular passion of mine - watching cricket.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The role of beliefs in the human psyche

Most of us are aware that beliefs (or values, principles, attitudes etc if you please) influence much of our thinking and behaviour.
Beliefs can offer some meaning to actions/events where none may exist. For a meaning making machine/animal like the human being, beliefs therefore end up becoming crucial. Depending on how mature or open one is at the moment, a belief could be extremely narrow or reasonably broad.

A few years ago, I arrived upon the belief that beliefs stem from two opposite emotions: fear and love. For instance, the belief that human life is precious stems from the fear of chaos as well as the compassion one feels for fellow human beings. The proportion of fear and love in such a belief will, of course, be determined by the individual.
And from this small example, we could surmise the obvious: not all beliefs are detrimental. In fact, many of them are essential for a functional society. Seen in that light, the Constitution of a nation is merely a bundle of beliefs put together to reflect the cultural, social and economic state of that nation.

For the rest of this piece, I'm going to focus on the role of beliefs in the development of the individual.
In psychotherapy, the therapist often works with the client to help him redraft beliefs that no longer serve him. For instance, if a client believes that no relationship is sustainable, the therapist - through a series of steps - can help the client arrive at the belief that relationships can be durable and fulfilling. In the new belief, the client acknowledges that some relationships don't last, that relationships require effort and that relationships have the potential to offer meaning and joy. Broadening the belief, thus, offers him hope and solace.

As time ticks along, a regressive person seems to embrace narrower beliefs while a progressive person seems to broaden his. Which led me to a question: do beliefs only get broader for a progressive person? Is it always a question of replacing the narrow with the broad? Or is it possible for the belief be dropped altogether?
Take religion for instance. Let's say a person initially believes that "my religion is the only one worth embracing and every other religion is fake." But then, the person has a series of positive experiences that makes them alter their belief in the hypothetical sequence below:
Phase I: My religion is the best, but a few other religions have a few good people as well.
Phase II: While my religion remains the best, there is good in many religions.
Phase III: Many religions aspire to be as good as mine, which explains the positive energy in the world.
Phase IV: Religions like mine can be powerful catalysts for desirable human behaviour.
Phase V: The positive behaviour of human beings can stem from religious wisdom, although positive behaviour can exist independent of religion.
Phase VI: I choose to evaluate human beings - me included - by their nature instead of their religion.

Assuming that the person continues down the same path, they might become less interested in religion and more interested in goodness. And while I'm not sure that atheism or agnosticism is a broader idea, this hypothetical person might consider those options. Alas, even if the person becomes neutral about religion, the belief becomes "I am neutral about religion."
But can this belief evaporate, leaving nothing behind, not even the necessity to express what one feels about religion?
Is this what happens to those who apparently attained the highest levels of consciousness? Say, the Buddha? If one theoretically attains a state of mind wherein only the Here and Now matter, and every spoken thought is but a weak representation of a lesser idea... if that happens, has the belief evaporated? And is it possible for humanity to attain this state in droves? And if it does, how would that society be? Will it be sustainable or even desirable?

And then a thought occurred to me which made the idea go topsy-turvy.
Consider an infant - not having been fed even a dose of religion, the infant has truly no beliefs in this regard (just like our theoretical being who has the highest level of consciousness). This infant is truly free from a belief in this area.
Extrapolating, the same applies to an abuser of powerful psychotropic substances. A cocaine addict, for instance, has only one overarching belief: "I must have cocaine at all costs." Every other belief pales into insignificance.
Consider, too, a patient in an advanced stage of dementia. She has misplaced the notion of religion in the annals of her mind and is now free from whatever belief she carried in this realm.
And, finally, consider other animals who prescribe to but a few beliefs that help them to stay alive.

So what am I saying? Perhaps this: what seems to be theoretically possible in the highest realms of consciousness is empirically evident in the lowest realms of consciousness. Does this mean that lightening the load of beliefs is undesirable or counterproductive? Don't know about that.
But it seems that conditioning, along with a desire to distil wisdom out of knowledge seems to give birth to beliefs. In the absence of either conditioning or this desire, the belief cannot exist. This will be true for children raised in a "bubble" where the notion of religion does not exist. The children within this "bubble" will form beliefs only around those ideas that actually exist in their world.

I'm sure psychologists will explain this phenomenon by describing the "Stages of Ego Development". Which will only bring us back to the starting point - wanting to make everything mean something.

Perhaps one day I'd like to explore a theme related to the idea mentioned above - the role of randomness in life.

I, for one, would love to discover the answer to one question for myself: can a belief be vaporized instead of replaced?
What about you?

Monday, December 1, 2014

The counselor is a strange creature

While structuring a class I was taking on Qualities and emotions of a counselor, I got the opportunity to better appreciate the strangeness (unreality?) of this creature called the counselor.
What makes the counselor strange is not just the potpourri of skills that counseling requires, but also the seeming incompatibilities between these skills. The counselor must be aware of the many fine lines he must not cross and make his peace with the paradoxes that define his scientific art form.
Here are a few paradoxical mantras that the counselor chants:
  • Read between the lines, but do not judge
  • Understand, but do not extrapolate
  • Feel, but do not be affected
  • Don’t rescue, but be proactive in potentially harm-causing situations
  • Nurture, but do not get attached
  • Be assertive (don’t let them take you for granted), but be humble (not overconfident)
  • Make every attempt to know the person, but also know that the person will always remain a mystery
  • Don't pretend to know the answer, but believe that you can help the other find it
  • Hold up the mirror, and retain reflections from your own life for a deferred introspection

The last mantra suggests that the counselor is both the mirror and the reflection.
If you are a counselor and have discovered some other paradoxical mantras, do let me know. Maybe we can compile a complete list!

P.S: A hat tip to people who contributed to my list. So far, they are Iffat Agboatwala and Poornima Sadananda.