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?

Death and the lessons it teaches us..

The week saw a dear colleague suffer a loss – a sibling passed away suddenly. Disbelief, grief, anger – all the reactions that death triggers were on display.

As always, when you meet Death, you have to pause. This is true every single time. And this post arises out of that pause. For Death makes you reflect on life and ponder on larger aspects. It teaches us important things – to be humble for life is so much bigger,to reassess our life’s priorities and successes, it teaches us to appreciate our relationships and not take them for granted. Truly, everything is fleeting – including oneself – and while we live, we can make the choice to celebrate every moment – or live for a tomorrow that is uncertain. Most of us choose the former – atleast until the effect lasts!.

Death can also help put a spotlight on greatness. No matter where it happens, there is always a story or two of humanity and heroism that would not have been known but for the event.

When the person who has just died is an accomplished individual, the world invariably devotes itself to some constructive dialogue on his specialness. Think Prince or Micheal Jackson or Whitney Houston – their untimely death led to active conversations on their achievements and their album sales skyrocketed. We seem to have less time to celebrate the living and hence make up for it on their death.

Sometimes, “death” places a spotlight on a relative or a friend who has been of exceptional support to the deceased. We see the hero in them for the first time – indeed it can be considered the parting gift of the deceased to turn the lights on a person who has helped him/ her enormously during an important part of their life. Hitherto, unremembered acts of kindness and heroism are brought to the forefront.

Our language also becomes a little gentler and we treat the survivors a little more kindly – in a way, death brings home the fact that life is special and yet fragile. That dosen’t mean you despair, it does mean you need to “handle life with care”.

We begin to remember prayers from our childhood and remember others who were once close to us but have gone beyond the veil. Indeed, all encounters with death take you on a memory trip. Often, a smile arises on the lips as we remember fond times from the past and any minor faults of those no longer with us are forgotten. For defects belong on earth; once people cross over they leave behind their blemishes and take after the gods – a reason why they are offered garlands and a place in worship rooms.

Its important to understand that grieving is natural – indeed important. We grieve for the piece of us that disappeared with the death, and the grieving opens out a hollow space within us. Into this alter steps in a sense of peace (or God or understanding – whatever we may call it) if we allow it to. But this needs time and it needs purging of our emotions and grief – a reason why grieving is such an individual, personal pursuit for most.

A lot of reflections these – not quite enough for helping a person cope with the big mystery called death. It’s sting is real and hard, often though, it does offer some benediction and understanding over time – it is this that I wish for all readers who are in need for solace. Shanthi * 3 (peace, peace, peace).

A life passes away too soon…

The weekend started on a sombre note. A young colleague on a much-awaited road trip, met with an accident and passed away. A promising future and a million dreams aren’t destined to play out here on earth. We do wish and pray that in the heavens of his belief, they flower; and for a sense of peace and solace to comfort his family. Time alone can heal – and not entirely at that.

I reflect upon yesterday – the young man must have been hurriedly working for an “important” meeting on Monday while his mind replayed happy scenes of a weekend retreat. The Monday meet isn’t important now; nor doesn’t the weekend laughter ring as loud – for they will not come. Without the hero, the movie cannot exist.

It’s a powerful wake up call. One may argue that Nature is unkind – she could have taken older people, far sicker people – and yet she favoured one who was in the pink of health and cheers. Its an unhelpful argument – we are but spectators in her grand show, we can see but cannot understand.

We may not understand, but we can take up the baton from this young life that has passed over. Uncertain is life, more solid though are memories and aspirations he shared with us. Let’s pick up a thread and make it come alive. Legacies are created an inspired act at a time – and he certainly deserves one.

Life’s cycles

It’s a Hindu death anniversary today – so shortly after a very popular festival. We sit to honour our grandmother – and other ancestors – with some fire worship. There’s quite some involved rituals involved – offering various prayers, a homa (fire yagna) and a ritualistic banquet to round things off. A set of priests bring in a further sense of solemnity to the occasion as they officiate using age-old customs.

Dad is looking a little tear-eyed, am sure he’s remembering his mom from a few decades ago. Perhaps memories of when he was a kid come flooding back – the joy and the sense of having someone to go to for protection no matter what. You cannot be too old to relive that.. Maybe he remembers the tenacious lady, who undeterred by a lack of education and the early death of her husband – brought up her many wards with care and discipline so they would shine in the world. Maybe, he’s just recapping the joy on her face when she experienced her first flight and wondering fondly what she would think of the life today – a life filled with more luxury than she would have ever imagined in her life time.

Now remember, people from dad’s generation weren’t encouraged to cry, that was for the women folk. They were encouraged to puff out their chest and be good but stern men. They were learnt to respect the priests, the gods and rule the home with an iron but honest hand. They had to grow into a stereotype to be admired by the society.

How things have changed today – we embrace niceties, becoming emotional is no longer sissy stuff. We can talk to our parents openly – and they can talk to us too. Isn’t that progress? It certainly is, provided we don’t use this new found freedom as a wall to hide our insecurities and weaknesses – and become a bit of a phony. If we do that, its hypocrisy – and the world sheds a tear for the irrecoverable loss of a timeless culture.

Which brings us back to the day at hand. Reflecting through the ceremony, the ancients certainly seem to have given it a lot of thought. For two days – they advocate a diet thats satvik – nothing that disturbs the mind – so we can focus on the thoughts for the ever-loved one who is no longer here physically. The ceremony honours ancestors of three generations – allowing us to comprehend that we are but the product of time – and we will continue to be so. Several offerings of elements – sticks in the fire, water, earth (some rice, food) – fill us with gratitude to Mother Nature, the sages of old and our very illustrious fore-fathers and mothers. We are invited to serve the priests to a lunch – which opens out the servitude in us – and they shower us with their blessings. Finally a lunch of nature’s bounty beckons – on fully recyclable banana leaves at that(!) – and the day progresses headily.

Yes, I think the ancients had it right. And the set of officiating people, a wonderfully expressive and poetic language, an appropriate diet and a sense of gratitude – go a long way in making us understand ourselves, Mother Nature and the gifts that we have received from our ancestors and sages. If nothing, it makes us understand that being born is a thing of wonder – and you need so many pieces to be just right for this miracle to occur – and encourages you to pass on this message to the coming generations..

In a sense therefore, the ceremony is as much for ourselves as it is for our ancestors….

Eulogy time..

A good collegue, a friend passed away this morning. A gentle man devoured by a ravaging cancer. Over time, the disease took away his appetite,  his mobility, his stamina. It could of course do little about his smile, which continued to shine through – amidst  grimacing pain. It’s this smile, and his gentle habit that I know will inspire his family and friends forever. 

Death forces us to ponder on bigger themes.

On the fickleness of life and the futility of trying to caliberate the effectiveness of our minute lifetimes, foibles and stresses on the grand scale of evolution. What’s a hundred years (or less) matter in an evolutionary history of eons – our mountains fade away into molehills when seen in perspective. And should this insight not destress us as we understand that our life’s events are for the most part insignificant on a world scale?

It also encourages us to acknowledge the ancients wisdom in codifying a religion embracing concepts of immortality. When nature takes away a loved one from the reaches of our eye and touch, it is religion that assures us of the loved ones not being lost forever – only to our five senses. Sometimes we need to augment the scientist’s facts with religion’s truths – the mind needs the solace of the soul so to speak.

As I write this, I know its a normal day for nature – though a devastating day for ones experiencing the loss. Time and prayers will heal some, in the meantime its perhaps best to pack some goodness, a comforting shoulder and a thoughtful mind and offer these to the many who need it…..and maybe saying a hero’s story or two in praise of the departed one would help too.

A meditation on Life’s tragedies

The last month hasn’t been one fraught with good news. Come to think of it, the news these days seldom is – but a lot of it is sensationalist stuff, so doesn’t really get you emotionally worked up most of the time.

Truth be told, statistics don’t reveal any significant peaks in the number of tragedies in the month past. The numbers were much the same – and infact India has just had a polio-free year  – so the numbers should be marginally better. Bad news however always affects you by the quality of the event and never the quantity – so the death of a loved one can affect you more than the 300 deaths due to a large scale aircraft crash. It’s not that we are insensitive to the latter, it’s just that we are a lot more sensitive to the former. And the past month saw tragedy played at several “personal” levels (tragedies to a near one and dear one, at the local neighborhood and the death of a star we looked up to), so perhaps the musing is a little more.

I recall our scriptures proclaiming that at our very root, we are most concerned about ourselves (essentially things that have to so something with “me” or things that are “mine”). The self takes on multiple identities – we identify ourselves with our body, our society, our nations, our tribes and our beliefs. This is why when any of these are hurt, we get hurt – we perceive it as an affront to our personal self (extended self maybe, but self neverthless). Eckart Tolle explains this at great length in the his new best seller (The New Earth) – and this is a great framework for seeing what hurts you and why.

Now, a look at the tragedies. The first was the news of death of an infant child of a dear one (actually another friend had also gone through a similar tragedy a couple of years earlier). A couple who are good and true had just had a loss they couldn’t account for. If you believed in a benevolent god, would he give you something precious only to request the favor back so early? And yet, if the event wasn’t attributed to a cosmic someone or something, where could we find solace and an entity to drown our sorrows in? The law of karma would state that it was the infant’s choice, that it was a very advanced “soul” in a little body and therefore had very little karma to work out and hence moved on -and with a lot of gratitude toward its family at that….. even if this true and a satisfying evolutionary explanation, would the parents not feel piqued that the God of justice had triumphed over one of compassion? Ramana Maharishi or some such elevated souls may have reacted differently to such events, for most of us it’s a hard cross to bear.

Closer to home (geographical proximity meaning an “extended physical self”?), we had a gang who specialized in bank heists shot dead. It was far enough (at least a couple of miles) for us to not have heard the so called “encounter” shooting, however the sheer thought that just a few miles away there had played out a strange drama of a heist and a few deaths, leaves a knot in the stomach and an uneasiness in the air. Such tragedy inspires fear and implicit acknowledgement that our neighborhoods are not so safe any more.

The third tragedy was the premature death of a singer – one I had never met – but whose songs have enthralled me for a long, long time. Whitney Houston succumbed to the usual “celebrity” story – excessive substance and alcohol abuse and a very turbulent life. With her death (and Michael Jackson’s in the not too distant past), a small chapter from my childhood somehow to have lost its reality – a cherished scene of the family talking away listening to these legends crooning their hits on radio and tv (specially during the grammy’s) has faded away…

So what next – for my friend and his family, I can and will provide a shoulder to lean on. And I have memories of togetherness that can be cherished. In the second case, there is no real “personal” loss – except that we will bolt the doors a little earlier (!) and advise kids against the twilight talks most of us used to enjoy on the very same streets. And Whitney’s and Michael’s records survive them (actually the only way I knew these legends in the first place) to entertain us.

The sadness therefore is not just from the loss itself, but in the understanding that there is a bit of us that has evaporated with these tragic incidents. We grieve for the part of us that shared a special moment with the person, place or event who suffered the loss – and is now lost as well. It is also an object lesson for us that life does not stand still – she “flows” and does not stop for anyone or anyplace. Let’s take a moment to stop, take a breath and whisper our gratitude to all the great souls who have come our way and appreciate all the events and places we are and have been fortunate to experience. This will make a difference – not perhaps to reality and it’s tragedies – but to our reaction to them and the memories that we are left with when a treasured phase passes us by. To know life is fleeting makes us all more present and caring. Prayers.

Love – or war…

The recent past has been witness to the passing away of two very “news worthy” yet very dissimilar individuals – we are of course talking about sathya sai baba and osama bin laden. The story of their lives – and their death – are so far apart that it would take great creativity to stitch a blog together; and yet perhaps, the fact that two such men graced the earth around the same time is a telling example of the paradoxical nature of our times.

Osama we hear was rich but had a troubled childhood. Grown to man’s estate, he lived a life of conspiracy and terror. His destiny was shaped by a belief in retribution, a cause for which he lived a life of exile and hardship and indeed gave up his life for. His call to fame among other incidents was the destruction of two towering beauties – a symbol of pride of the country he loathed. He lived by the sword and died by it too. He travelled the earth often alone, under cover and in secret. When the earth called him into her fold, he was buried at sea by the men he fought against; a burial that was attended to by very few of the populace devoted to his cause. Anger simmered in the hearts of his people.

Sai Baba on the other hand was born poor, indeed impoverished, but to a family of pious folks. His romance with God began at a very tender age, and legends abounded of his “magical moments” and divine encounters. He decided that he’d rather live with his god than with man, and gave up all of man’s riches in his quest for a higher power. Destiny embraced him for her own – and to this man, who shunned her riches, showered on him everything he wanted and more. Sai Baba who by now had offered his life to god in entirety, cared little for himself but somehow cared very much for the teeming thousands and millions who came his way. They in turn somehow transmuted their anger, sloth and pride into a profound love in his presence and the movement grew…and grew. The man who had decided he wouldn’t demand of life, helped fulfill the needs of millions. Hospitals, educational institutes, spiritual centers, aids for the needy – mushroomed all over. At the time of his mahasamadhi, heads of state, sportsmen of repute and icons of the world converged to take his blessings and thank God for sending such a man to their world. Gratitude overflowed.

There are a few interesting parallels. One fought war on the outside, the other waged war and conquered his internal demons. One was alone, but never lonely – the other was often alone amidst millions. Both had their share of followers and indeed leave behind a legacy. Which is ours – identifying with the god within or identifying with a cause without? Inner peace or outer war – a choice we all need make.