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.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The seduction of self-growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Shah Rukh, KHKN, time dilation and innocent lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still love Sunil.