Self Awareness – perspectives from a corporate coach and a spiritual teacher

Over the last few weeks,  I have had the opportunity to connect with two very different leaders – a corporate coach and a spiritual teacher. Both of them were expounding on a common topic – how to more “self aware” and in the processes deepening empathy (ability to put oneself in others shoes).

The self they talked was not the same though – the coach equated the self to our personalities – and he was looking to improve my personality (a tough ask!). He was looking for me to learn well – gain deep knowledge, best practices, intellectually intense one-one sessions – and the learning will elevate my personality.

The spiritual teacher was talking about the Self (note the capitalisation here) – the “god” within each of us. This “Self” is your true nature – the only reason you cannot find it is because it is hidden behind all the learning and conditioning over the years (indeed lifetimes!). “Unlearn well and your nature will reveal itself ” he intoned.

So one wanted me to be an expert learner and the other – an expert at unlearning!.

But that wasn’t all.The coach focusses on thought and theory. He wants me to reflect on some of my life experiences, take inventory of my thoughts, judge them (as positive vs negative thoughts) and label them (e.g. differentiating between being skeptical vs cynical). The list that emerges out of this involved intellectual exercise is then representative of my “emotional intelligence quotient” he opines. The more words that I am able to show in your journal (all neatly classified and labelled) – the more I am becoming emotionally intelligent. And I’d do well to read a little (pick daniel goldman’s classic as a first step) and be diligent with my paper exercises (inventory, classification and labelling) – and over time, results will follow. How would I know I am truly more self aware – my DISC or equivalent psychological scorecard, a couple of positioning charts will all help me rate myself against my benchmarks. In his view, self awareness and emotional intelligence are a skill and knowledge that needs to be learned.

The spiritual guru is not interested in thought – he neither likes them or dislikes them – he just dosent care about them. His is not the way of the mind but the heart. He recommends we observe sensations in the body, gently pushing aside thoughts – not quite suppressing them – not celebrating them either. And there is no classification of what is good or bad – observe and over time you yourself will recognise how you are getting along. The recognition comes out of experience and not a intellectual score card. Everyone is on his or her unique journey – and has the necessary native intelligence to recognise what is best for themselves. Awareness for him is more about unlearning rather than learning – you remove layers of conditioning and knowledge – and presto you will begin to see things the way they truly are. And once you get there, you will relate to yourself and to others automatically in a deeper way – for “empathy and authenticity” are the very essence of being human.

They back themselves differently too. The coach considers himself successful using a model similar to that he advocates – professional credentials, monetary wealth, testimonials, impressiveness of his client list. His models and frameworks have worked with over 500 of his customers – and therefore it should work for you as well. If it doesn’t – you are doing something wrong – after all, the model is proven!

The spiritual leader vouches for your divinity on the back of having experienced all of nature as one and his conviction from that experience on the true nature of the human form. Indeed he does not see himself as a doer – he sees himself as an instrument through which existence is playing its lilas – just like you, its just that you aren’t aware of it yet. For him rediscovery is an unique journey – there is no pass or fail here – and once you find your compass, you will do what is right for you – irrespective of whether it aligns to society and corporate success measures.

Two very diametric approaches – and in their own way can contribute to the individual requirements.  The important point though is to become aware first of the two selves (personality and internalised godhead!) and decide which one we want to pursue! Its easy to mistake one for the other – a mistake that can turn out to be costly! Agree? Thanks for reading – do comment/share/like – would love to keep the conversation going!

Better Decision making – The Gita and Proust to our rescue!

Why do we often make the wrong decisions?

I came across an incredible insight from contemplating on a few messages in the Gita recently – it talks about the two powerful approaches we all have for connecting/ making decisions. The first is using discriminatory intelligence (buddhi in sanskrit) where we use our reasoning power to decide the right path forward. The second is the emotive aspect (manas in sanskrit) – where decisions are based on emotional considerations a (and yeah – we often then force fit a “rational” reason to support the decision!). And the awesome insight is that we use the wrong tool for the wrong context – flip it around and we should be ok.

So for instance – if an acquaintance’s relative dies, we use our discriminative facility and tell them exactly how to process this loss. We share quotes on the fragility and the fleetingness of life and provide ideas to help the person deal with the loss. Chances often are that the person is not in the right frame to take this piece of advice – they are too emotionally wrought – and we end up not connecting at all.

Now, when we are faced with a similar disaster, we use emotive reasoning instead of the discriminatory one. We play the scene over and over in our minds and bring up emotions of anger, guilt, denial – we struggle to move on with life for a very, very long time.

Our ancient wisdom seems to say – why not flip this around? In the first case, use some emotional connect – put yourself in the person’s shoes and you’ll know what they feel like. And your response can be based on their nature (some will want to be alone, some would want a listener as they vent their frustration, some would just want a shoulder to cry on). In short, you are bringing in some empathy.

And when dealing with disasters at home, using the buddhi may be more helpful. This requires a complete acceptance of what has happened and how one feels (Sad/ helpless etc) and then permit oneself to “without blame” process the pain/ grieve/ provide any other outlets as much as required. The acceptance of the situation and directly feeling the emotion will bring some peace at the end as we close out unresolved questions.

For such large scenarios, this makes sense. But how then can we decide in the case of smaller everyday decisions – which situation calls for which response? I guess Proust has an answer in his “impartial observer”. Proust recommends that we imagine an impartial observer by our side at all times – and we ask ourselves what will he do? And when we do that, the impartial observer can pick the right response from the above – and that can lead to some progress.

Would you agree with this approach?

Success in a VUCA world – ancient wisdom

It’s a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambigous). How do we survive here?

I guess the best answers will come from other times that were even more VUCA than this. For instance let’s travel back to the times of the “Gita” which is a dialogue occurring in a battlefield with both sides having weapons drawn and ready to fight. Or the times of Marcus A’s “Meditations” which chronicle’s a Roman emperor’s thoughts during a period of extreme uncertainty on all fronts. The answers these tomes which were written to counter a VUCA world and have survived until now surely must have insights for us?

I guess so, lets check them out.

Volatility: The antitode to volatility seems to be in embracing it. Looking into the fear (albeit a watered down version) consciously gets the fear to flee. Seneca advised us to periodically fast so as to be rid of the fear of hunger – indeed to live occasionally a “life of poverty by choice” is liberating! Ignoring volatility until the odds are overwhelming is defintiely fatal – its better to get used to volatility periodically (you actually get stronger – there’s a superb explanation by Taleb on why this is so).

Of course, if you happen to own a lot of bitcoins, the advice is harder…..

Uncertain: The best way to handle uncertainity is to do two things:

a. Create strategies that have limited downside and lots of upside

b. Accept that you will work toward your plans, but in no way can you determine the outcome for sure

This is best encapsulated by a beautiful word “saranagati” – which by the way is not a misspelling for the Sarengeti national park! It can be translated as “thy will be done” – but setting up a situation in such a way that the downside is limited.

For instance, ascetics try to reason like an unwell child who cries for chocolate but is handed over some bitter medicine by their mother instead. It’s impossible for the child to understand the benefits of the medicine at this time – the only thing it can do is trust. So they set themselves up in such a way that they surrender to an higher ideal (god/eternal consciousness etc) and expend all their efforts in a system (yoga/ prayer/ meditation – whatever) they have investigated and trust to take them there. They also give up other desires (limited downside) and any failures related to the experience are but medicine for them – they remain steadfast in their goal.

Or in a more materialistic model, a businessman may invest in a venture and mentally write off the sum. If it succeeds big time – he’s happy (all upside). If it fails, that’s ok (he’s already written it off). The secret is in capping downside.

Complex: A series of rituals that unpack the complex into very many simple activities is the prescription. And in todays world you may want to then automate some of these simple ones as well! Unpacking the complex into many simple ones allows you to feel more in control and also refactoring where required with minimum impact to the whole (yeah unless it’s that butterfly whose wings cause rainfall across continents!)

This I believe is why all ancient wisdom is encapsulated into a series of small rituals that remove the complexity of a situation and build positive muscle memory through successes (its easier to do a simple ritual successfully) over time as well.

Ambiguous: Its tough to even see if we are winning sometimes. Your portfolio goes up and up and up and it seems like it will forever. And just as you are preparing your winner’s speech, it disappears out of sight. The antidote for ambiguity is a very simple definition of what you are after (good) and what you are not (bad).

Ancient wisdom has this too. Good/ truth is what does not change (permanent through time). Bad/ untruth is what can change rightaway. And it also adds a third component (mithya) which stands for stuff that is relatively stable (say a man’s life – for 100 years he’s alive). So just looking at these three – give you a view and a metric of how you are doing. In the portfolio example – transient movements shouldn’t be your metric of success – you have established criteria irrespective of other factors that decide your actions.

So that’s one lens on looking at a VUCA world. Do you agree?

A walk around a mountain

When we meet a vastness that we cannot fathom, we are drawn into a different space. This space is inclusive – and we realise – indeed feel – ourselves to be part of something that is larger than us. This is why I believe sitting by the beach and watching the sun set or gazing at the open sky at night make for “larger than life” experiences.

All of this came to me when I had the chance to walk around the much revered “Arunachala” hill at Tiruvanamali, the very, very popular Indian temple town. The hill is believed to be one of the earliest outcrops of earth – so you are looking at a very, very ancient earth form. And the popular mode of worship is to walk around the hill (with the hill always to the right of you) stopping at shrines on the pathway – a distance of around 14 kms.

Now, I didn’t know if I could walk 14 kms, so I thought I would take it an hour at a time. Anytime, I felt fatigued, I could call one of the local autorickshaws and have them ply me back to my resort. And so I started at dusk on a momentous experience.

As you walk on the much shaded pavement on lingam avenue with the the immense mountain on your right, you realise that you are in the presence of a multi-dimensional vastness. For one thing – its ancient – incredibly so. The mountain has indeed perhaps witnessed the very evolutionary process from amoeba to the monkey to our own human sapiens. And you realise you are but a speck of the immense life forms that the mountain has been benevolently watching over 1/2 a million years or so.

And then, there’s the time of day. The recommendation is for one to undertake this holy walk at nighttime – preferably during the full moon (I walked a day after the full moon – the moon had just begun to wane.). If you look to the skies on such a night, you see a rounded, bright moon and the vast, wondrous skies. You get an idea of the immensity of space and the worlds (think milky way!) and you realise you are but a speck in this very wide space.

And then there’s the dimension of size – as you walk alongside the mountain, you realise how big it really is – or rather how small we are in comparison with it.

And finally, there’s this idea of spirituality. The mountain even in the recent past has been home to some incredible sages – starting with Ramana Maharishi, Seshadri swami and many, many more. On the left are centres of wisdom that have cropped up inspired by them (I counted at least 7 spiritual centres and numerous places of worship) – and it gives you goosebumps to realise that you are treading ground that these very special children of god treaded. Indeed, legend has it that perfected beings circumbulate the hill even today. As you walk, you observe numerous modern day sanyasis in their ochre robes, devotees on their path of discovery, tea vendors, 3 wheeler (auto) drivers, and people engaged in all aspects of commerce. Each person is on their own journey and the mountain is exercising its spell and doing its work silently on each and everyone. There’s really no question of who among these is a more spiritual person – the mountain is teaching us to be non-judgemental – and appreciate that everyone is on his or her journey.

At first all these comparisons to immensity look like a negative thing. It certainly does some ego bashing! However, you realise soon that its medicinal – it allows you to drop all pretence of greatness and let you be yourself. When you realise that you are one of a billion people and will be spending a minute fraction of a million years that the World has witnessed – somehow, there’s a sense of lightness. You feel you can allow yourself to be unencumbered by society’s pressures – at least for the duration of the walk. And have some fun – the mountain will anyway do its work!

And then there is the experience of being alone with oneself for the duration of the walk. It’s something thats a bit of a luxury these days – to be by yourself with no distractions for 3-4 hours and just walking on. The mind slows down by itself. The scriptures recommended you walk barefoot so you can sense the earth beneath you (something i should try as well). With the feel of the earth beneath you, swaying trees and an immense hill on your right and a full-moon adorned sky above – its hard not to fall into a wonderfully meditative state walking. Its not a race, so you can let your body do the speed control – take your time to stop, breathe, think. Ideas crop up, solutions to pressing problems flash through your mind, there are periods of no thought. And underlying it all is a sense of gratitude for just being there. Its an incredible feeling. And as you push through your perceived limitations and cover a distance you didn’t believe was possible – there’s a sense of accomplishment too.

I’d like to get into this walking thing more – not for exercise, not for a purpose. Walking for the sake of walking and with the elements in tune, now that’s something to revel in. Would you agree?

The mindfulness experiments – 1

A few months ago, I decided it was time to incorporate some mindfulness into my day. Now this is a much used (and some say abused!) term today – and a novice like me can add to the woes easily. So let me at the outset define what it means for me – and then go on to share what’s been happening since I gave it a test run.

To me mindfulness equals being “aware”, of “noticing”consciously. Note that I am not trying to “improve” anything – the effort on my side is only to notice. The very act of noticing consistently can perhaps provide insights for change – if and when required – to begin with, its only about taking stock of my state.

So in short, if I could witness myself being angry, being happy, being sad, walking, talking – whatever be my state of being or activity- I could call the experiment  a success. Quite a modest goal you say huh – perhaps it is, it just wasn’t as easy as I thought it to be though – let me explain.

On a given day – we meet many people, we do many things. And through the day, we experience emotions. Plenty of them – with everyone’s talking/feeling/trying change  – and disruptive change at that. And without your even noticing it, all this seeming volatility can get to you – it can affect your mood, it can drain you out, and even leave you unwell. And it was this sense of feeling mentally fatigued, a touch angry and too often (a little unusual for me!) that got me curious about what was happening – and I started maintaining a nightly journal.

Every night before turning in, I would rewind the day as best I could remember and jot down how I felt. Writing stuff down brings in clarity – and the first few days provided enough fodder for me to realise how many moments through the day I wasn’t proud of. There were moments of fleeting negative emotion – some expressed, some withheld – both of them leading to some composure ruffling. And then before you could settle down and let the emotion go, off you were on another jaunt -more emotions coming your way. A few times, you expressed something uncharacteristic – but before you could make amends or clarify further – the next meeting was on. And so I moved from one unresolved emotion and unfinished business to another – and it was all these unclosed events that led primarily to the energy drain.

I felt better immediately post the journaling (and indeed laughed at some of the events) – and where some course correction was warranted (say – apologise/ clarify/ maybe even just spend some more time with the person involved) put it down on my next day’s task list. Very quickly, the “unfinished business” list was coming down. And indeed, I felt awesome.

Miracles come in small packages to your aid when you are trying some positive stuff. Sukumar gifted me a little doll (designed after a Japanese ritual) that had two large eyes. You made a wish, coloured an eye and placed it somewhere you could look at it often.  And every time you caught the doll’s eye, it would remind you of what your wish was – and you would be “nudged” toward your desired effort. in my case, it was to be more mindful – and with the arrival of the doll, twice a day i reviewed my day – a significant improvement from the nightly journal.  And the benefits began to accumulate. The sense of being “overwhelmed or touchy” began to dissipate and more importantly I could now clearly notice what were aspects that touched a nerve. And once you noticed these, without realizing you made adjustments in your life to limit the exposure to the toxic situations, people, tasks – basically stuff that gave you no sense of accomplishment at all, but did have significant emotional overhead. This following wonderful Naval Ravikant  served to be the scale on which I reviewed my day primarily:

“What you choose to work on, and who you choose to work with, are far more important than how hard you work.”

Its important to notice that I wasn’t focussing on the interventions required for improvement here – just noticing how different events made me feel made the difference. Indeed I was not adding – but actually subtracting stuff resulting in gaining me more free time to focus on things I cared about!).

 

A quick summary of the above for all you super busy folks: – If you feel there’s too much going on in your work life (feeling overwhelmed/ touchy etc. etc) – try the following:

a. Start off by journaling in the nighttime (rewind the entire day – you’ll be surprised by how much you remember). If there’s any event you’d like to course correct (say call a colleague who you were a touch upset with for instance and talk it through), put that on your list

b. If the above works for you, try to have a few more “check ins” – just before lunch and before leaving for the day are perfect – to rewind and take stock. You can drop the nightly journal at this point.

The story doesn’t stop there though. Last month, I was gifted 2 more invaluable aids to further the practice. The 1st was a workshop on evolving change happily using “tiny habits” – by Sukumar and Kumaran of tinymagiq. It’s a course that will change you one little habit at a time – and happily at that!  It certainly warrants another follow on post. The second was a wonderful book by Thich That Hanh on the “4 establishments of Mindfulness”. This book breaks down mindfulness itself into 4 parts (and therefore allows you to remember the day a lot, lot better across these areas). as I work  on this ‘mindfulness” journey – I continue to be amazed at how rewarding it is – and at the same time, how much more there is to travel.

The good part though is that the journey is as (if not more) rewarding than the destination (per all the gurus in this space). If you are on a similar journey, would encourage you to adopt any of the above techniques too – and do let me know how they work!

‘True’ and ‘true for me’ – two different things…

A friend came back disillusioned after having tried a meditation technique for a few weeks.

“The organization had statistics to prove how beneficial the course was. I even had friends who took the course and now swear by it. Why does it just not work for me – I swear I followed the instructions to a T?” he exclaimed.

This is becoming a common complaint. We do some research, pick an activity or a situation which we are sure will help us get to where we want to go – only to find that the glove doesn’t fit so well. And when this happens, we throw out the baby – in this case – my friend was unlikely to give meditation (even a very different school) another go in the future. What is happening here?

I have come to believe the answer is the difference between something being “true” and something being “true for me”. For instance – when someone talks about the speed of light being constant everywhere, we believe it – we may not have personally experienced it in all its shades, but its been verified repeatedly by many, many intelligent folks. Or when your car mechanic (a competent one) tells you your clutch is worn out, you take his advice without question – and the car is better post the fix. Fixes for clutches and scientific truths remain the same irrespective of who is inquiring into it.

When you consider ayurveda or meditation however, you need something more personal – attuned to your body type and your mental makeup. your “super analytic friend” may need to read up some of the logic-based scriptures and related techniques (say ramana maharishi’s advice of tracing “who am i?” to its source). A friend who has just experienced a major personal setback would need a totally different method – something to calm the mind like a mantra recitation or witnessing the breath perhaps. And there are further layers too within each type. For the upanishads are many and yet their goal is one – to help each of us discover our truths for ourselves. And our experience with the methods and approaches will let us know if its working.

So in short, these streams place the human being at the centre and encourage her to try out a particular path and keep tailoring it based on her experience. There is no “right or wrong” – there is only “right or wrong” for a person and/or for a circumstance. The field of validating facts has moved from an impersonal laboratory to yourself – your own body, your own mind, your own spiritual needs. 

I think this is a very liberating concept. And very interesting too. When a meditation technique doesn’t seem to work for you – you don’t have to blame yourself for not succeeding, nor do you need to judge the technique. You just need to understand its not the right one for you – at this time, it could be later on – and move on. Its also interesting – because to make the best choices, you need to understand yourself best – how else can you choose what’s most appropriate for you? This is what I told my friend – informing him of my own experiences – some which helped, some not so much. He seemed to agree – and has found another approach that seems to connect better.

What do you feel about this?

Read, Reflect, Rest – The 3 magical Rs!

It’s been a long while since my last post here. Why is that? I don’t know. I guess there are seasons when you are prolific, and then seasons when you are prolific – but at something else. You read, you reflect and you rest during those periods and the 3rs help you gain much-needed perspective to help you thrive in the busier seasons!

Reading opens out new worlds, introduces some cool friends and adventures, equips one to see the world in a new way. Is this what the ancients meant by the word “darshan”? For the “objective” world may not change, your world can though – when you begin to see the world in a different way.

The seeds of knowledge gained from reading sprout into wisdom when we reflect. Indeed ideas become habits, theories turn into practices only when we reflect a lot. The ancients prescribed meditation and contemplation in tandem – distilling our perceptions and learnings into deep-rooted insights.

The rest – is more of a repose. All of this mental activity needs a stable base to take effect. Rest need not mean just sleep – though sleep also helps as the mind subconsciously works out its magic. A restful walk, yoga, a spot of fishing, cooking – anything that puts the mind to rest is what I mean.

So that’s the thought for today. Prolific writing followed by periods of 3Rs as the seasons follow one another. Neither rushed, neither forced. Just allowing the inner wisdom to work on the inspirations from the world – sometimes internally and sometimes as a material product (an essay, a sculpture, a poem, a theorem, a business plan even maybe). It happens.

Would you agree?

A #BookReview of Originals by Adam Grant

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the WorldOriginals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam M. Grant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a book you will treasure – its like a wise(and witty) companion who walks by your side and points things out. And you begin to see the world in a new light – new understanding, new possibilities arise. Its a “multiple read” book – a book you should read for a bit and then reflect on for a while and then go back and read some more – not one that should be read from start to finish and put away. What i loved about the book in particular was that it courages you to look at data and make decisions – but without losing your human touch – in my view, a most required trait for today.

View all my reviews

Why we need the comfort food of religion and tribes more than ever today

The older one grows – not just by age but by experiences – the more one understands that not everything needs changing. Things are there for a reason, and mostly the reason is intended to assure your well-being.

Take religion for instance. Its fashionable for young people today to embrace atheism or spiritualism. Both are heady endeavours – one is the quest for rational thought as the individual strives to make a personal sense of his world, the other is a quest for experimental fulfilment as the seeker tries to experience reality as it is. Both are laudable pursuits and fulfilling – but terribly lonely. Success is hard to come by, and you are on a quest to reach the mountain with very little support from those around you. And others on the quest can be seen as competition adding to the pressure – and its easy to brand oneself a loser when someone (and there will always be someone!) seems to be progressing better.

Religion on the other hand is more forgiving. The tribe takes centre stage. There’s a God somewhere in the background who is nursing you and your tribe – and she will make sure everything is fine. Rituals buffet you against seismic events like funerals and give you reasons to celebrate wildly at weddings and other functions. Emotions are drawn out in so many ways indeed. Sacred places like temples encourage congregation, where people can converse with each other or vent their feelings to thier all-knowing god without holding back – for after all, we are but humans, we don’t have to hold ourselves to too-lofty-a-standard. The God knows everyone’s troubles already, doesn’t he? The set of shared values encoded into rules and rituals also keep you in touch with the seasons of the world and your growth.

And yes, most religions allow you to outgrow them when you are ready. Saints, Sufis, Monks, Nuns are all folks ready and strong to venture on their own into the unknown – leaving the cosy world of religion and the material behind. They are not escaping religion but rather expanding the frontiers of their religions so the tribe can use them as signposts should they want to.

The mind and the spirit are great quests on their own. The heart however demands company – and its the heart that religion embraces. And I do believe we need religions and the language of shared experiences and heart for the health of our tribes – even more today in an increasingly volatile world. Would you agree?

An ode to the dawn

The morning stillness comforts. Thoughts whittle away. The day’s cares are still a few hours out. For the most part, the phones are silent. The roads are enjoying some peace too.

Indeed the absence of all this noise allows us to perceive the morning’s essence better. The sun is beginning its majestic ascendency into the skies and the first brush of light bestows its grace on all of nature. The flowers raise their lovely faces to the sunlight and the beach sand opens its vaults revealing unlimited treasures. Here lies a simple sea shell, there ambles the magnificent tortoise, the thrifty crab hurries thither and the birds flutter away to glory. Sans the corn-on-the-cob sellers and the crowds, Nature’s bounty is being enjoyed by the natives. The enterprising fishermen are off in their boats with a song on their lips and a hope in their breast.

All of this is why heralding the dawn is so special. It gives one a panoramic view of what it means to be a human, to count our blessings and beautifully exist with no cares for a while. There’s a promise in the air and the comfort of nature’s embrace all around – now really, could one wish for more? Ah, perhaps a strong cup of filter coffee would make it even more perfect!