Saturday, October 3, 2020

Rebooting with a mass extinction

Pic credit:

Pic credit:

There have been five mass extinction events in Planet Earth's history. The most intense among these was called the Great Dying. No, this wasn't the one that killed all the dinosaurs. The Great Dying occurred approximately 250 million years ago. When atmospheric conditions were quite similar to today and the planet was home to a single super continent that we know as Pangaea.
Before we explore the causes of the Great Dying, let's acknowledge the toll it took over the next 100,000 years. 96% of marine species and almost an equal number of plant species became extinct. This marked the end of the Permian era and the beginning of the Triassic era, which is why this event is called the Permian-Triassic extinction.
Here are the theories proposed to explain the harsh transition between the Permian and the Triassic:

  1. A few super volcanos located in today's Siberia went berserk. Over a period of time, this caused a global warming, with ocean temperatures rising by around 10 deg C. As temperatures rose and the metabolism of marine animals sped up, the warmer waters could not hold enough oxygen for them to survive.The asphyxiating effect was accentuated by the high acidity of the water as well as metal and sulfide poisoning. This is, as of now, the most widely-accepted theory.
  2. An asteroid hit the earth, creating noxious gases, a long-lasting blockage of the sun, a drop in temperature and corrosive acid snow and rain. Even after the clouds cleared, carbon-dioxide from fires and decaying matter led to global warming that lasted for millions of years.
  3. Perhaps the lack of ice caps during the late Permian led to a stagnation of oceanic currents. Without convective currents, anoxic water (anoxia means the lack of oxygen) could have built up. Usually, anoxic water would have remained in the deepest parts of the ocean, but now, it spilled up into shallow water. Even as marine life got smothered, the sea level rose.
    • The lack of oceanic currents might have had another corollary effect. When oceanic bacteria eat organic matter, they expel bicarbonate. Without currents, this collection of bicarbonate grew. Bicarbonate-laden water rose from below, depressurized and dissolved bicarbonate escaped as CO2. The oceans bubbled like a mug of beer.

Each theory is as vivid as it is horrifying. As a complete novice to paleontology, oceanography and evolution, I am proud to parrot the wisdom of scientists operating those realms. And my foray into the past was to attempt to understand our present and make peace with our role in shaping it.

For the first time in Earth's history, it hosts a species that is capable of creating and accelerating chaos. Humans are capable of making materials and products that don't decay, but must be dumped on the planet's surface and oceans. We also have shown remarkable finesse in accelerating the era of global warming, which would have lasted tens of thousands of years, and bringing the planet to the brink of being inhospitable right here, right now. 

If we continue to be foolish and press the nuke button on Mother Nature's forehead, well, we will deserve to perish. But it is heartwarming to know that this planet has seen worse in the past and has recovered without many scars. Perhaps this time around, Nature will evolve species that feed on plastic, concrete and metal alloys just to accelerate the obliteration of our presence. But soon enough - perhaps in a few million years - our devastating presence will become undetectable to the naked eye. Earth will recover. We won't matter. Thank Earth for that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

7 great blessings of the pandemic

It is with reservations that I bring together the words "pandemic" and "blessings" in the title of this piece. I am aware of the great toll it has taken on the most disenfranchised people around the world. It has also claimed many, many lives and robbed us of time. Clearly, if one is to even begin seeing a blessing in the pandemic, one must necessarily look at future impacts of today's events. That's what I will do in this piece.
Let me also clarify that this is not an ode to gratitude. It will not ask you to stop feeling one way and start feeling another way. It would not remind you that happiness comes from within. Instead, it will attempt to collate facts and extrapolate them with objectivity.
Out there, in real space and real time, the world has improved in some ways. Let's see how.

1. The world is literally greener

The Himalayas are now visible from the plains of Uttar Pradesh! As early as April, reports began coming in that Indian rivers are becoming much cleaner, although the situation is not as optimistic as indicated in early reports.I myself witnessed sparrows returning to my neighbourhood in Ulsoor, which is at the heart of Bangalore.
As our industries and vehicles fume less, we are beginning to breathe easy. Last winter, Delhi was barely more habitable than Mars, but during the lockdown, the city's air quality increased by a whopping 79%. And according to a NASA finding (as shown in the image above), the air quality of the entire country stands at a 20-year high.
It is one thing to talk about how we could all strive to create a greener and cleaner world. It is another thing altogether to see this happening in front of us. Surely this is inspiring us to rethink the way we live? Surely we are beginning to see that, without a great deal of sacrifice and effort, we can live in a manner that benefits us as well as our ecosystems?

2. Moving from nation to species

European colonization eventually led to a rise in nationalism all around the world. As indigenous peoples fought for their freedom, they developed distinct nationalistic identities. Nationalism also got promoted by other global events including the two World Wars, countless internecine regional conflicts, and a Cold War that lasted for decades. Over time, we became rather adept at separating ourselves into nation-states. That's why we didn't have a clue about what to do next when faced with a conflict that affected us as a species. Even with its limited mandate, the UN attempted to bring all nations together to discuss the challenge posed by global climate change. The discussion quickly turned into debates that were hijacked and derailed by powerful nations. At one point, the debate was nothing more than a shrill exchange of angst between the developed and developing nations.
Even when we seemed to make progress (like with the Kyoto Protocol), it took an interminable amount of time for us to take the next step - the Paris Accord. And that small gain was summarily dismissed by Trump - a nationalist who, additionally, denies climate change.
Meanwhile, the other powerful idea that promised to bring us together - globalization - merely displaced jobs and prosperity while also increasing the gap between the haves and have-nots. Global trade, as it turned out, made companies richer and nations poorer. It was perhaps inevitable that globalization would eventually lead to an increase in nationalism.
Barring climate change, there seemed to be no issue that could potentially bring us together. And then came the pandemic. A challenge that, like climate change, affected us all. But unlike climate change, materialistic people could deny neither its presence nor its urgency. The pandemic is ideally suited to show us the limitations of the nation-state model of civilization. Viruses and rising oceans have one thing in common - they don't stay confined within borders. They don't care about your flag and anthem.
We are currently not seeing the pandemic create solidarity in the world because nationalists are still holding fort in major power centres. But when they are relegated to the dustbin of history, a new generation of leaders will operate with awareness that we are on this planet together. We will sink or swim together.
Perhaps an era of greater cooperation is just around the corner.

3. If we find the will, we will find a way

Ever since scientists raised their bugles to announce global climate change many decades ago, market fundamentalists have tried to negate the message."What are we supposed to do?" they ask. "Stop consumption, turn the clock, live like peasants? Do you know what will happen to the global economy if all of us limited our lifestyles? Can you imagine the loss of employment and the erosion of the economy?"
Well, in the past many months, hundreds of millions of jobs have been lost. Consumption has been force-cut. People have, willingly or unwillingly, cut back.
We make less, have less, do less. And contrary to predictions, we haven't perished. The idea that what is good for nature will be disastrous for civilization can now be challenged. Granted, we have to find solutions to big problems like employment, healthcare etc. But we can approach those problems while resorting to sustainability. We don't have to choose between Nature and Civilization. We can choose both.
Once the pandemic ends, the markets will take over again and a majority of people, starved of entertainment and freedom, will return to a life of excess. But it is comforting to know that, 15 years from now, when global climate change will become enormously undeniable, we have the ability to hit the brakes and bring down consumption overnight, if that's what it takes. It has been done and it can be done again.

4. A boost to sustainable living

A great majority of us are waiting for the pandemic to end so that we can re-enter a life of excess. Even in this majority, many will reconsider their consumption patterns. They might travel less frequently, make do with fewer material possessions... the extravagant might choose to make do with mere luxury, the luxurious might settle for comfort and so on... One hopes.At the same time, a minority will want to continue living a simple life of few pleasures and many connections.
The overall reduction in consumption might give our species a little more time before we reach the point of irreversible climate change.

5. Millennials and delayed gratification

"They have been fed everything on a golden spoon. The spoon was there, at the right place, when they needed it. They don't feel grateful and they can't delay the pleasures for which they will remain ungrateful."
Millennials have had to endure this unflattering generalization made by older generations. It is not their fault that they were born in an era of enormous social change and technological overhaul. They never had to wait a week to watch the next episode of their favourite television programs. How, pray, did we expect them to embody the stoicism of older generations?
But now, once the pandemic claimed their innumerable outdoor pleasures (leaving them with the solace of only online streaming platforms), millennials are showing us that they are not as fragile as we accused them of being. Many of them have led lonely lives, with few meaningful connections in the real world. But these connections are being fully harnessed and there is a greater acceptance of our shared evolving reality. I have seen this as a counselor and I have heard from my colleagues and friends how they have been pleasantly surprised by millennials.
We rely on millennials to solve our most pressing problems. They have less of the scarcity mindset and they are less obsessed with thoughts of their own families. They actually want to think in broader terms - about community, society, the world... therefore, their resilience is crucial.

6. Relationship arc accelerated

Relationship expert Esther Perel, known for her insightful TED talks, has noticed that the pandemic has created an excess of (or the complete absence of) alone time. These extremes are compounded by thoughts of mortality. All relationships are, therefore, fast-tracked to where they would be a few years down the line. We are witnessing more pregnancies, breakups, separations and divorces.
Those in relationships with strong foundations are using the situation to empathise, adapt and come closer. Those in relationships that never got a solid footing are being splintered in quick time.
Perel reminds us that we, citizens of the modern world, expect meaning, belonging and community from our most important relationships. Those who find these precious elements in relationships are able to stay grounded and optimistic.
Her talk with Trevor Noah helps get a gist of what is happening around the world. As a counselor sitting in a small cove in Bangalore, I have myself counseled 7 couples in the past two months. And I endorse Perel's assessment that all relationships are being accelerated to their futures.

7. Self development & health

Dusty violin cases have been removed from attics. The forgotten Kindle has returned to the bedside table. Flabby tummies are bouncing in waves in badminton courts and lakeside trails. The mid-morning twitter of birds is now enriched by middle-aged vocal chords finding a new lease of life. Yoga videos on YouTube are now as popular as Taylor Swift's new album.
Those of us who are not spiraling into debt or depression are finding new lungs for old passions. We have always complained of not having enough time or energy to cultivate ourselves. Now, all we have to do is convert our commute time to self-development time (that's 3 hours for the average Bangalorean). On cue, the training industry is offering workshops and programs at huge discounted prices.
There has also been a drop in the number of smokers. Smoking, like any addiction, retains its patrons due to the fact that its perils are in the unforeseeable future while its pleasures are right here, right now. But people forced to face their mortality in Covid times are more likely to pay attention to the perils. This is what the Smoker and the Gun thought experiment says.
Keep a gun on a smoker's temple and tell him that he will be shot if he takes another puff. If he is convinced that the bullet will be fired, the smoker will not dare take that puff. The pandemic has become the virtual gun on the temple.
Hopefully, those who have kicked this (and other) addictions will not revert to them.

A final word

50 years from now, those of us who will be alive will look at the pandemic as one of the greatest challenges in their lives. Will they also see it as the moment in history where humankind took a U-turn to live a saner, more holistic and sustainable life?

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Toxic Binary

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As a counselor, I am noticing a huge increase in black-and-white thinking, also called Polarized/Dichotomous thinking.
This is a cognitive distortion in which a person feels they have only two options to choose from. For example, with a mushrooming of polarizing political leaders, a lot of us feel like we must either love this leader or hate him. We cannot see a third choice.
Sample this: a wife feels de-stressed when she goes on a walk by herself. But her husband has begun insisting on joining her. She has told him she wants to go by herself, and that has not worked. She begins to think: I can either go by myself and be selfish. Or I can allow him to accompany me and be sacrificing.
Can you see that there is no victory in either choice? She wants to be neither selfish nor sacrificing. But her mind is not presenting her a third choice. This is the Toxic Binary.
Can you think of win-win solutions for this woman?

In a starker example, a middle-aged man is feeling suicidal. He is ashamed about a particular behaviour he has exhibited in the past. Now, he feels he has only two choices: he could either continue to live and force his family to share his shame. Or he could die and spare them the agony of feeling that shame. 

It stands to reason that the hold of Toxic Binary thinking over our minds is the greatest when our emotions are at their peak of intensity. We will not be able to see a third choice and that makes us despair. At this juncture, we need somebody who can help us differentiate between fact and perception.

When I feel this and other cognitive distortions, I reach out to a list of people who can help me. Whom do you reach out to when your mind becomes your enemy?

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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Shall we invade now?

Sitting in front of his thought-driven console, Captain Zeen was getting impatient.
"Where's Arrgh? I must know the truth about these life forms in this suburban blue-green planet. Ah, there you are."
"Hail Captain!" said Arrgh. "My report is ready. I apologize it took so long. But these life forms are indecipherable."
"That's an understatement, isn't it? Look at them. They have millions of vessels that can fly, yet so few of them are up in the air. They have a billion vessels that crawl fast, and most of these are kept stationary next to their homes. They have pathways that can take them from one end of the continent to another, but the life forms stay indoors, as if they don't care. I am reminded of our ancient Emperor who created a kingdom of gold, but spent his lifetime on the balcony of the palace, wondering about the sun and the moon. Our folklore tells us that the Emperor was a fool. Can the same be said about these life forms?"
"I cannot say for sure," replied Arrgh.
"You are my expert analyst of alien civilizations," snapped Zeen. "Say something useful."
"I don't know if you consider this useful, Captain, but I have three possible explanations for what we see."
"Let's hear them."
"The first explanation is that these life forms believe in the supremacy of inner exploration. They perceive that to be more important than exploring their world. They reached a threshold point in their civilization where they realized that no amount of success and wealth can make them happy. So they have created a culture of finding happiness within themselves. They venture out only to carry food back to their homes. They probably consume very little."
"I remember conquering one such civilization in the seventh galaxy from home," said Zeen. "But they were spartan life forms. The surface of that planet showed no signs of ambition. These life forms, on the other hand... our scanners detected high-grade chemical weapons. Why are they armed to the teeth if they are all about inner exploration?"
"That is a great question. I confess to not knowing the answer. Would you like to hear the second possible explanation?"
"Only if it is better than the first."
"Well, our scanners show that these life forms harvested, manufactured and burnt chemicals in stella-tons till very recently. They polluted their water bodies, made their air toxic and bathed the food they ate with chemicals. They seem to have organized themselves into nations of varying sizes and when one nation didn't like another, they hurled chemicals at each other. At some recent point in their civilization, they must have realized that they were doing nothing more than killing each other while killing themselves. So they decided to mend their ways and honour their water, their air and their earth."
"This is even more of a ridiculous idea than the first," said Zeen. "Didn't we conquer a poisoned planet one stella-year ago? Was it in the ninth or tenth galaxy we visited? Ninth, I think. Those life forms knew that they were poisoning their precious water, air and earth. Did they stop? NO. When the water could no longer be drunk, they drank blood straight from each other's freshly-cleaved chests. After a point, life forms opt to become savages, not saints. Water, air and earth get poisoned in a thousand stella-years. Life forms except for us cannot think beyond a couple of stella-years. That's why we have been such successful conquerors."
"I agree," said Arrgh. "The third explanation is the most possible. Sometime in the recent past, these life forms faced a new enemy. An enemy that even our scanners cannot detect. So they were forced to abandon their glorious vessels and their glorious paths and take sanctuary in their own homes. This enemy has united them. Look, this small peninsula here is called North Korea. It seems to be the land of megalomaniacs. But the behaviour of life forms here is no different from the behaviour of life forms in this other nation here... Denmark. Something drastic must have happened for this warring planet to become so homogeneous and resort to a life of quiet reflection and severe caution."
"You make sense finally, Arrgh. If what you say is true, our visit is well-timed. We can stamp our authority on them when they are weak. They will surrender to our will in no time."
"I wouldn't be so sure, Captain Zeen. If what I say is true, then these life forms must have been disorganized from the beginning of time. And now they are united in the way they live and the way they acknowledge their interconnectedness with each other. They are weakened, but they are not weak. Let me remind you of the high-grade chemical weapons. Unlike in other planets, we will have to fight all of them together in order to win. Do you fancy our chances?"
Captain Zeen fell into deep thought, clicking his three forefingers together in enviable synchronicity. Finally, he said:
"Do you think they will stay united? Should we wait?"

Monday, July 23, 2018

How many second chances do we get?

At this very moment, within a hundred miles of you, a persistent waterfall is gushing down towards your taps. It isn't particularly keen to satisfy your thirst, but it will do so.
At this very moment, on the outskirts of your polluted city, a vegetable is fattening up by robbing nutrients from the elements. It isn't keen to provide nourishment to you and your loved ones, but it will do so.
At this very moment, somewhere in your vicinity, so close that you can almost smell it, a flower is pushing up against the soil, aspiring for sunshine and colour. It isn't keen on adding beauty to your world, but it will do so.

The cow doesn't give us milk. We take it from her, Nature does not exist for our pleasure or gain, but we derive both from her. We have more in common with nature and less in common with money. So when we choose money over nature, are we siding with our neighbours over our family? Is that the true meaning of the phrase Love Thy Neighbour?

Here are a few shocking facts of today:
1) Food aggregators are more important than food producers. The farmer sells to the wholesaler who sells to the retailer who sells to the chef who sells to the food aggregator (Swiggy, Zomato, what have you). We value the player closest to us and damn the one farthest from us. Guess who we can do without? And even when we do value the roots of the supply chain, we infuse the "organic sustainable locally-grown" food with an aura of awe. This was supposed to be natural, not special.

2) When I searched for "natural beauty" on Google, I got a bevy of ads for skincare products and procedures. I had to revise my search string to "beauty of nature." We have usurped the meaning of "natural."

3) The most successful political leaders of today are those who can point out to "us" who the "other" is. They have successfully divided us. Nature binds us together. From the equator to the poles, from Greenwich Meridian to Greenwich Meridian, we are connected together by an intricate network of winds, mountains, water bodies, deserts, forests and glaciers. Again, just to be clear, this equilibrium isn't keen to make our life on the planet pleasant. It just developed thus and it might continue being so if we don't tip it into the abyss of anarchy.

4) We have given up on any economic framework other than capitalism. You could be as spellbound as a citizen of Communistic China or as spellbound as a citizen of Consumeristic California... you have the illusion of political choice, but you no longer have a fig leaf of economic choice. Greed has been declared the most important human emotion and ambition without an economic dimension is now the biggest sign of lunacy. If you want to become a CEO, you can read books that help you. If you want to propagate a sustainable way of living, they will make a documentary on you.

Today, a news article declared how the Arabian Sea spat back tonnes of garbage onto the shores of Mumbai. Those fond of metaphors see a sign of intelligent nature here. Nature is neither intelligent nor dumb. It is merely beautiful and wholesome. Nature doesn't care whether we live or die. If we choose the path of self-aggrandizement and myopia, we will perish. Nature will live on. It will find a new equilibrium, albeit a less inspiring one. But then, intelligent life may not be around to be inspired.

Before we conquer the stars, we must bow down to the earth. Do we have the humility to do so? Or do we need a few million more second chances to acknowledge the humility of choice?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

5 ways in which capitalism is like addiction

Pic Credit: StethNews

At first glance, capitalism seems to be the opposite of addiction. The capitalist is supposed to be enriching himself whereas the addict is clearly robbing himself of vitality. Yet, the two exhibit startling similarities.
It takes all kinds of people to make the world. Neither the addict nor the capitalist is a monolith. Having acknowledged that, let us try and explore the comparison by taking the typical, pure addict and the typical, pure capitalist.

1) Both claim that their behaviour is crucial for their survival

Let us remember that addiction comes in various flavours - one can be addicted to substances, emotions, relationships and activities. It's perhaps reasonably accurate to state that all of us are addicts in one way or another. And we claim to find raison d'ĂȘtre - meaning, purpose, joy and whatnot via our addictions. Nowhere is this more obvious than in work addiction.
Similarly, the capitalist believes that it is this economic model alone makes existence not just viable but also pleasurable. As an added bonus, the capitalist will point to the animal kingdom and misquote Charles Darwin. Survival of the fittest. Civilization cannot deviate from the natural order of things, s/he would say, oblivious of the irony.

2) Short-term matters more than long-term

An addict jouncing for a fix does not care whether s/he will suffer serious health implications. All that matters is the next shot of dopamine. A modern business enterprise is similarly interested only in the next quarterly results, totally mindless of the impact of rampant consumerism on the planet's ecology.
The capitalist and addict are like Nero fiddling on the roof, like the rats following their distinct Pied Pipers to their doom.

3) In a crises, both behave

When the addiction lands the addict in hospital, fear overpowers desire. The addict will follow the doctor's orders, keep a check on cravings and make a sincere attempt to turn over a new leaf. This healthy attitude can quickly dissipate when the danger has passed and the hazard retreats into the horizon.
Exactly the same thing happens when a mammoth business enterprise that has gorged on dollars finds itself in a financial crises. At that time, the capitalist will willingly stop believing that markets must self-regulate. For a brief period, the enterprise will even listen to the government bailing it out. And once the crisis becomes history, so does the changed behaviour.
Perhaps both the capitalist and the addict know deep in their hearts that their transformation is only for the audience.

4) Both tend to inherit behaviour

Neither money nor addiction is inevitable for the next generation. But there is a fair chance that both will be inherited. A second-generation addict becomes numb to the artificial nature of addiction even before experiencing their first fix. Similarly, the second-generation capitalist has grown up believing that there is only this one healthy way to look at the creation of wealth, never mind how artificial the notion of wealth has become in mainstream society.

5) Both rationalize their behaviour

We've already covered this, but let us get into some specific dope, pun intended. The addict will point to people who have not been killed by their addiction, just as the capitalist will point to victors of the model. Both will stoically ignore fatalities. The difference is that there are fewer victims of second-hand addiction than of second-hand capitalism. Disempowered children of addicts die in fewer numbers than disempowered people who lose their resources and livelihood to the march of capitalism.

I leave you with a question. Does addiction create capitalists? Is our dependence on substances, emotions, relationships and activities creating our dependence on money?
Does addiction subsume the capitalistic model? Or does the consumeristic mindset of capitalism foster addictions?
The only thing we can be certain about is that together, addiction and capitalism create one potent monster.

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 attitude shifts 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 conducting a class on, say, Improving Peer Relationships, can emphasize how leadership, empathy and the ability to belong to high-performance teams can come about by SOLELY focusing on peer relationships. 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 age of knowledge, do people really need to attend a class to understand the WHAT and HOW of a topic? No. Audiences need to know WHY. Why this topic is important and WHY they are unable to learn and practice its concepts. The greatest responsibility of a trainer is to remove obstacles of learning from the minds of participants. Instead of teaching them how wings work, help them to fall in love with the sky.
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)? Offering this freshness and energy will make all the difference.

If you agree with the XYZs I've mentioned, do tell how you enhance the X, the Y and the Z factors.
And if you want to talk about some other huge attitude shifts provided by a trainer, I'm all ears.