19 December, 2014

Mindfulness about second-order emotions

Situations -- both real and hypothetical -- often create an emotional response in our minds, which we express in a variety of ways.

The general belief is that emotional responses are "irrational" and need to be replaced with stoic and dispassionate reasoning.

But emotions are what makes us human and embody the essence of life. Emotions are our naturally endowed physiological responses to stimuli -- it is our "firmware" in computer science parlance. This firmware logic is encoded in our genes and essentially embodies the essence of what our genetic ancestors experienced.

Our emotional reactions are hence an important repository to understand our history -- basically the unwritten and experiential part of our personal history that we won't find in history textbooks.

Emotional turmoil and mental trauma results not from these emotional responses, but from our "second-order" emotional responses.

Next time, observe how you feel about things. But more importantly, observe how you feel about how you feel about things.

It is these "second-order" emotions that are the root cause of most of our emotional turmoil.

Do you enjoy ice-cream? Do you feel guilty about enjoying ice-cream when you should be watching what you eat?

Does something make you frustrated? Are you depressed that that something makes you frustrated?

Does something cause outrage in you? Do you feel helpless about this sense of outrage, knowing at the back of your mind that you cannot control it and it may end up complicating things?

Do you feel indignation when you witness any form of injustice? Do you feel proud that you feel moral indignation in response to injustice? (That's problematic too!)

Emotions are like a child's reaction to something. A second-order emotion is like someone with a child's maturity, managing a child. It is a sure recipe for disaster. If our response to an emotional reaction is another emotional reaction, it is like an ineffective parent who just screams back at their children when they disapprove, or flatters and pampers them when they approve. The children will only learn how to manipulate around these emotional outbursts from the elders.

The stoic and dispassionate reasoning is relevant here. Replace second-order emotions and not your primary emotions with a stoic abstraction, that is built on axioms that are prudent and humane and represents your mature understanding of the situation. Let this stoic mental model interact with your primary emotions like a good parent -- reasoning with it logically, patiently and with empathy, without trivializing the emotions.

See how things change.

05 November, 2014

Ownership as identity

There are some characteristic differences between the (20th century forms of the) West and the East in the basic approach to interacting with the external world.

The Western worldview places emphasis on taking charge and being in control of our lives by suitably modifying the environment around us, if necessary. The ultimate objective of being in charge of life is self-actualization -- or emancipation of our free will, to express itself.

In contrast, the Eastern worldview, places emphasis on harmony between us and the environment. It advocates a "hands-off" approach towards the environment urging us to not meddle or interfere with anything in the environment unless absolutely necessary to do so for restoring a sense of balance and harmony. The ultimate objective here is the collective harmony that results from prudent interactions between free-willed individuals and the environment.

These differences result in some curious disparities about our understanding of certain normative concepts. One such concept is that of "ownership."

The Western concept of ownership, historically referred to absolute privileges to impose our free will over something that is owned. For instance, kings were overlords of their kingdoms and enjoyed paramount privileges over everything in their kingdom.

Later on, such absolute privileges were diluted at different levels and the ownership itself was set inside a larger framework in which it is deemed valid. In more recent times, ownership (like that of software) is increasingly taking the form of "licenses" that provides certain limited privileges over the property, bounded by a contractual framework.

Despite all these changes, ownership is still about privileges. Owning property is considered a virtue because it provides us the platform for our free will to express itself.

In contrast, we who have been brought up to value a sense of harmony with the environment, have developed a slightly different definition of the concept of ownership.

In this worldview, rather than self-actualization, the collective synergy resulting from several free-willed individuals interacting harmoniously with one another and with the environment, is the final objective. Emancipation of one's free will per se, is not the goal. People are expected to restrain their free-will if necessary, for achieving a larger harmony.

This is not as bad as it sounds. By restraining our free will, we are actually in a disharmonious state ourselves, which in turn contributes to overall disharmony. If everyone were to live in a restrained fashion, there will be no collective harmony either. So, even though the culture emphasizes on collective interest, individual and collective interests are not necessarily at loggerheads with one another.

Only in specific cases where they conflict, an individual is expected to think of the collective interest first and of one's own interest next.

In such a system, the concept of ownership (as privileges) is somewhat sloppy -- on purpose.

In fact, conventionally it is considered distasteful and arrogant to assert one's exclusive rights on one's property. In movies as recent as the 1990s, the villains usually were depicted with an extremely calculating and hair-splitting personality, while the heroes were depicted with a magnanimous personality.

Indeed, possessing something for the sole purpose of imposing one's free will over it, is not called "ownership" at all -- it is called "indulgence." This thinking permeates even today among the young and old alike -- where technology and gadgets are seen not as tools that make us efficient, but as elements of indulgence that promotes laziness and decadence.

There is however, another definition of "ownership" in this worldview that comes with positive connotations. This basically equates ownership to a sense of identity.

If we "own" something, it means that we associate ourselves with it. What we consider as our own, defines who we are.

We "buy" houses but "own" our homes -- because our sense of identity extends beyond us to our homes. Till the time we don't associate our identity with our house, it is just a place where we live, and not a home. In this sense, ownership is not a formal construct, but an emotional construct.

This kind of emotional ownership is evident when we see how celebrities are treated. Often times we see people demanding certain things from celebrities. More than one celebrity have found themselves in the line of fire from their fans, simply because they voiced their opinion on something that was not the popular opinion on the issue. One of them had famously said that in our country, if you are a celebrity, you need to know the "right" answer to every question on every subject, regardless of what you are famous for. Tennis stars should know what is the correct answer when asked about marriage values. Software czars should know what is the right answer to say when asked about a controversy over river water sharing. And so on..

So what makes people make such demands from celebrities whom they actually idolize? In their minds, people actually "own" the celebrities they idolize, because they associate their own sense of identity with the celebrity.

Some time ago, I was seeing this movie where a poor student is supported by a rich joint family who gives him a room to stay and provides him food. As the story proceeds, the family members fight and the family splits. Seeing the grandmother of the family distraught and crying, the student who is staying at the house goes to console her and says, "I've always thought of this as my own home.." and succeeds eventually in pacifying the grandmother.

Of course, the boy does not mean that he was eyeing privileges over the property, which is what it would mean in the legal definition of considering oneself as owning the home.. :)

What he meant was that his sense of identity extended to the family that supported him. Which in turn means that, he would rejoice in their happiness and would feel sad at their sadness. He considers the family's problems as his problems too. Because they are part of his identity, their ups and downs are his own ups and downs too.

20 October, 2014

How ceremonies kept us sane..

The culture in which I was born in, is full of ceremonies. There are ceremonies for everything. Ceremonies begin even before one is born, and continue well after they are dead and gone. In between, there is a ceremony for just about any event -- happy or sad, and for any day.

Ceremonies are rife with symbolic interpretations and these often get into huge complications. Many times in the past, when I had been stressed out by some thing like an exam or a paper deadline and had not participated in a ceremony in the intended fashion, it had usually let to a lot of hurt feelings and complications in social equations.

I've often been vocal about my criticism about such "meaningless symbolism" and such superstition that has kept us locked in a state of fear.

But then, this post is about another side of this story.

I've often wondered how did our society become so ceremonial in the first place. Ordinarily, individuals I encounter around me are immensely smart, talented and kind-hearted. So, why did we develop such levels of collective mediocrity? Why were we not able to translate our individual intelligence into collective intelligence?

A little peek into history tells us a very different story. We did in fact have high levels of collective intelligence several centuries ago. We had one of the first and the largest set of universities in the world. We developed some of the best number systems that made modern mathematics possible. Our astronomical calculations, even though based on a geo-centric model, were quite precise. Our languages reflected principles of "universal grammar" and had developed sophisticated methods of phonetic representation (without a need for spellings and spelling rules). We knew how to build ships and had established huge trade zones. Three of the five major Asian religions were born here. And so on..

There is no dearth of evidence for collective intelligence.

So how and why did our society become ceremonial and superstitious? Here is my theory.

Rather than representing collective mediocrity, ceremonies were pretty much the only thing that preserved our sanity over several centuries.

For the last several centuries much of our society lived in a subjugated fashion. Which meant that there were always limits beyond which our worlds were driven by arbitrariness of someone's whims and fancies. Much of pre-independence codified law for example, was based on the principle of "paramountcy" of the colonial rulers. Which meant that notwithstanding whatever the law said about anything, they could do whatever they want, however they want, without assigning any reasons whatsoever.

At a psychological level, the human mind has a pressing need for a consistent and predictable worldview. Some seminal work on prospect theory by Kahneman and Tversky show several instances where our minds seek closure and consistency in what we experience and observe. Cognitive consistency theory is a related theory on this issue. Without consistency, we stand the risk of falling apart mentally and entering into a sub-human state.

And this is where rituals and ceremonies played a central role. Ceremonies created hypothetical logical structures that were consistent and complete to the extent that they were positively elegant (but not necessarily rooted in reality). For an individual, who had to put up with nonsense on a daily basis, the elegance of a ceremonial life was not only a soothing factor, but also perhaps the only recourse to maintain some semblance of sanity.

It is also one of the reasons why people still advocate ceremonial activity in response to discontinuities in one's life, like the loss of a close family member or the breakdown of a marriage. The idea is that the mental dissonance created by the event can be soothed by artificially bringing a semblance of closure and parity by performing symbolic activities. However, this is true only if the discontinuity is creating a sense of semantic dissonance in our minds.

Ceremonies also helped to bring people together in times of adversity. While each one suffered subjugation in different ways, they connected with one another through the common language of ceremonies.

Ceremonies also helped in keeping alive some echoes of past glory and gave some faint ideas into how life must have been in those days.

Therefore, far from collective mediocrity, a ceremonial lifestyle was in fact a manifestation of collective intelligence. It was the "best response" function by the society, given the realities of its subjugated existence and hostility and arbitrariness from the top.

However, in today's changed reality, the ceremonial lifestyle is no longer the best response to our collective challenges. We still approach collective challenges as though they were all manifested by a powerful and hostile adversary. We still attach ourselves emotionally to symbolic interpretations that are not rooted in reality. We have serious problems with conceptual modeling, argumentation and critical thinking.

We know how to build symbolic structures, but we have trouble in appreciating the fact that these symbolic structures have to be rooted in reality, and that that in itself is a very non-trivial problem. As the saying goes: You cannot reach truth by logic -- you can only communicate truth using logic. This is precisely the difference between a ceremonial and a formal activity. A formal activity is structured and grounded in reality, while a ceremonial activity is merely structured (and grounded in hypothetical or symbolic interpretations). Grounding the logic in truth is where much of the pain and complexity lies.

While old problems like arbitrariness and subjugation have reduced tremendously (even though they continue to vaguely persist in some form or the other), we are now faced with new kinds of challenges. We are suddenly faced with a large, young, angry and hungry population who are only exposed to symbolic ceremonialism, and lack required abilities in scientific thinking and problem-solving.

Our "best response" functions from the past will not be enough to address problems of the future. So while we understand and appreciate the ceremonial nature of our past, we still should spare no effort in figuring out what should be our strategic best response to future challenges.

12 September, 2014

Think before you read..

Here is a piece of advice that I often give my research students:

Augment thinking with reading, rather than reading with thinking.. 

The idea here is that research has to be fundamentally driven by meaningful questions that we personally care about and that we are curious about and that we have understood from first principles; rather than something that is induced by what others are saying. As researchers, we should be exploring questions that we can relate to, rather than whatever is "hot" in the marketplace (because by the time we finish the thesis, the hot would have become cold anyway).

I think the above applies equally as a life skill, rather than just a research skill.

Our thinking is fundamentally driven by who we are as a person -- our desires, our hopes, our delusions, our fears, etc. The more we think the more we understand the depths of who we are. Augmenting our thinking with reading helps us relate who we are with the rest of the world. We can apply ourselves passionately to some larger thought shaping the world.

But generally, I see that we are taught to read first and think next. Our thinking is mostly an augmentation to what we read. There are all kinds of intellectual posturing games that people play based on what we read, rather than what we think.

It is strange that we define an "intellectual" as someone who reads a lot. Well, an intellectual is someone who thinks a lot. I've seen intellectual activity like conceptualizing, argument building, strategizing, empathizing, etc. coming from even illiterate people who don't even know how to read. And I've also seen copious dearth of intellectual activity coming from research labs and "think tanks" who revel in just citing stuff or quoting people or in sporting a permanently disinterested expression like, "Oh you won't understand me anyway, why bother arguing with you.." rather than building a sound argument.

When I state the above, I've heard people conclude that I'm advocating not reading at all. Really? Far from it. Rather than advocating against reading, I'm advocating for thinking. It is our thinking that defines who we are and shapes our destiny, and our reading augments and strengthens us in this process.

My advisor used to give an analogy, which I'll paraphrase here. Reading a lot is like putting a lot of zeros in a sequence. If they are augmenting thinking, which is a '1' then they will collectively form a big number -- 1 followed by a lot of zeros. On the other hand, if the thinking follows the reading, then it would just be a lot of zeros followed by 1 -- a much smaller number.

It is also easy to detect from one's writing, whether the author puts thinking first or reading first. Someone who puts thinking first would write in an "abstractive" fashion. This means that the writing strives to bring out the essence of some idea that the author wishes to convey.

On the other hand, someone who puts reading before thinking tends to write in a "transcriptive" fashion. Such writing aims to report something from somewhere that the author found interesting. The writing itself would be in the form of a transcription of whatever the author had read, rather than trying to make a point about something. 

30 June, 2014

Development in pairs

A hot topic these days is about "economic development" and its associated strengths and ills.

Unfortunately, much of these debates on social media or mass media degenerates into mudslinging between opposing camps, and at the end of it, an esoteric entity called people's "attitude" is blamed for all our ills.

From the way I see the debates going, we have almost zero understanding of an important element of any kind of economic or social change -- that of "non-linearity." Non-linearity is used in systems theory to indicate phenomena of positive feedback, where the effect of some cause in turn affects the cause itself.

For instance, a large city is likely to have more job opportunities than a small town, which in turn attracts more migrant population to the large city over the small town. Phenomena like rich getting richer, 80-20 rule and such, are all the outcomes of underlying non-linear processes.

Non-linearity is the reason why many aspects of economic and social phenomena are counter-intuitive. If we think linearly, we tend to approach problems with immediate, symptomatic solutions and often end up making the problem worse.

For instance, suppose the problem we are addressing is that of managing depleting oil supply. One common way of approaching this problem is to build more fuel-efficient vehicles so that they burn less fuel for the same usage. But what likely happens is that, now that vehicles give more mileage, people have a rational incentive to buy and use more such vehicles, thus aggravating the fuel shortage.

I am not saying we should not design fuel efficient cars. Not the point at all. The point is about strategizing in "pairs" which I'll come to in a moment.

Another example is the Cobra Effect story from the colonial days, when the ruling British government, who were afraid of cobras, offered a monetary incentive for people to kill cobras. This incentive, even though initially successful, had the opposite effect overall. Sensing a way of making money, people started breeding cobras instead of hunting them. And when the government sensed this and stopped the incentive, people who were breeding cobras released them into the open, thus making the original problem worse!

The thing with social and economic systems is that they are not inanimate physical systems with static characteristics. They are thinking, scheming, rational entities that responds to your input with a "best response" function that maximizes its own benefit, which need not be what we expected as the outcome.

There are two elements to non-linear systems: growth and saturation. Growth is typically visible, while the dynamics of saturation is much harder to measure and understand.

Growth happens when the system responds positively to our inputs resulting in a "honeymoon" phase. In the cobra effect example, when the monetary incentive was introduced, the people responded to it positively, hunting down cobras and depositing them. The positive response in turn gave an incentive to the government to respond promptly with their reward and to spread more awareness of this program. And hence started the initial "growth" phase of this engagement.

But a positively reinforced growth soon starts depleting resources (in this case, the cobras), that is when the strange effects of saturation sets in. Saturation happens when resources deplete globally and the system is unprepared to handle this depletion. And it is extremely hard to predict how a system will end up responding to a state of saturation. In this case, the system resorted to artificially sustaining the growth, because resources (cobras) could be artificially replenished.

All other "breakdown" phenomena like riots, looting, hoarding, etc. can be seen as a form of saturation dynamics. Something has saturated -- some critical resource has depleted and the system is unprepared to handle this, resulting in large-scale breakdown.


One way to manage saturation dynamics is to approach developmental strategy in "pairs" with two positive feedback loops posing as an alternative to one another.
Consider the above figure where two mobile service providers are competing for market share. Market share dynamics are replete with non-linearity. A service provider with a high market share can afford to spend more on advertising and can capitalize on "network effects" by users attracting other users. This results in a positive feedback loop.

However, at some time, the growth starts saturating. The number of users and the amount of use would have gone up so high that the infrastructure starts creaking.

At such times, nothing is more attractive than having an alternative.

So A and B above are competing over the same resource pool (users). Say A wins the game and gets into a positive feedback loop. It is a matter of time before resources saturate in A. At which time B is rationally attractive to users resulting in a migration exodus to B. Soon B may start saturating and a reverse migration begins. This back and forth eventually settles down to an equilibrium.

In order to tackle saturation this way, two things are necessary. First, A and B should be sufficiently distinct in order to pose as an alternative to one another. And second, the cost of shifting between A and B should not be so high that it would make rational sense to suffer the effects of saturation, than look for alternatives.

Consider another example of growth of cities, like say Bangalore. Recently, Bangalore grew from a mid-sized town of less than 3 million to a burgeoning metropolis of more than 10 million in a matter of 15 years. This growth was largely spurred by the IT revolution that attracted tech talent, which in turn attracted more companies, which in turn attracted more talent, and so on.

We are now seeing several signs of saturation in Bangalore. Not least of which is water supply. Bangalore does not lie on the banks of on any large river or lake. In fact, it is situated on almost 3000 feet of dry granite rock. A large portion of water needs of Bangalore are met from the Cauvery river, which is more than 100 kilometres away and almost 600 feet below in altitude. It is an extremely expensive proposition to pump tons of water up 600 feet to a distance of more than 100 kilometres. And yet, the socio-economic forces that are spurring growth in Bangalore, hardly factor this saturation constraint.

It is very hard to predict how the city will respond to saturation, and I am very scared to speculate. Being a native of this city, I know in whatever way saturation dynamics will get played out, those of us who have long roots in the city will in some sense, bear the brunt of saturation.

Several efforts to decongest the city have met with little or no success. For example, satellite towns like Kengeri and Yelahanka that were once meant to decongest Bangalore are now part of Bangalore.

One of the reasons why decongestion efforts have failed is that there is no alternative attractor for growth. If Bangalore is the A loop above, there is no B loop that can pose a serious alternative to A, and which is easy to reach from A.

One possibility could have been to have a city like Mysore act as the alternative. And facilitate easy movement between the two cities with the international airport somewhere in between Bangalore and Mysore; and with high speed rail and road connections between the two cities. Now that is not possible because the airport is built at the other end serving no other major alternative growth centre that can compete with Bangalore. In fact, the ideal would have been a multi-transfer hub somewhere between Bangalore and Mysore, where people can fly in, and hop into a high speed train or a bus to either Bangalore or Mysore.

We should be thinking in pairs for every major developmental effort. Because, development is a non-linear process and the very success of a developmental effort could be the cause of its eventual failure due to saturation.

You know the folk wisdom that married people are "settled down" to a more stable life than singles? You know the definition of a "couple" in physics? Two forces that are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction? It is the same thing. :-)


So what happens if the A-B pair itself saturates?

This can be addressed at the next level by pairing two A-B pairs together. For instance, let's say we have a well connected Bangalore-Mysore pair each attracting growth to itself, and (say) a well connected Hubli/Dharwad-Belgaum pair up north in the state, contending with each other. We can now pair these two pairs by connecting the B-M hub with the H/D-B hub with sufficient air, train and road links. Other such pairs in the state could be similarly connected to form hubs at different levels. Now anyone from any part of the state will find it easy to travel to any other part of the state by first going to the nearest paired hub, from where they will find several connections to all other hubs, from where they will find connections to their town of interest.

The same pattern can be replicated in other states and the respective paired hubs tightly connected.

This kind of pattern results in a characteristic property of complex networks that are efficient in daily operations and robust against random (routine) failures. (But not necessarily robust against targeted attacks, which is a different matter.) But let me not go into the mathematical details here.

06 May, 2014

The flagpole of entitlements and obligations

Since the last few years, I've been interested in how the web is affecting our lives and changing the way we think. While trying to understand this, I came across the question of how our sense of "entitlement" and "obligation" affect the way we think.

The reason I came across this dilemma itself is a different question. It had to do with the wide disparities I observed in the emphasis placed on different aspects of online privacy and security, by different people.

Nevertheless, this post is not about online privacy and security, but on our sense of entitlement and obligation. Here is a theory that I've developed:

The Flagpole Model

Imagine that inside each of us is a tall flagpole. A flagpole has some element of it over the ground and some element of it buried underground.

The part of the flagpole that is overground is our sense of entitlement. It is what we think the external world owes us.

The part of the flagpole that is underground is our sense of obligation. It is what we feel we owe to the external world.

The flagpole deeply affects our strategic disposition with which we approach the world. When we are predisposed with a sense of entitlement, we tend to be aggressive, obdurate, righteous, judgmental and assertive. When we are predisposed with a sense of obligation, we tend to be empathetic, compassionate, cooperative and accommodating.

Each of us are born with a certain ratio of the flagpole above ground and the rest underground. Our innate sense of entitlement versus obligation is visible approximately when we are two years old. Take a set of two year old kids and we will probably see that the distribution of pole-lengths above ground is a Gaussian bell curve. That is, there are a small number of kids who would have an innately high sense of entitlement, and a small number of kids who would have an innately high sense of obligation. Most of the kids would be somewhere in the middle, with an almost equal sense of entitlement and obligation. They are more or less, as selfish as they are friendly.

As we grow up, our culture and system of education gently adjusts our flagpole over the years.

In some cultures, the flagpole is pulled up as people are reminded about their rights and entitlements by their culture that celebrates gumption. In some other cultures that celebrates compliance, the flagpole is pushed in and people are reminded more about their duties and obligations, rather than rights and entitlements.

Stability of a system of flagpoles

Given a society where everybody has a flagpole inside themselves, there is often a clash of entitlements. This beings us to a concept of "stability" of the society.

A society is said to be stable if a sense of entitlement by someone can be matched with a sense of obligation or duty on the part of others. In other words, the total amount of flagpole lengths that is above ground should match the total amount of flagpole lengths that is underground, for the society to be stable.

If we see a society where some folks seem to have inordinately high levels of entitlement, and the society still seems to be stable without any upheavals, it means that their high sense of entitlement is matched by several others in the society living with an inordinately high sense of duty or obligation.

If a society comprises of all people with a high sense of entitlement, it will result in conflict and clashes, till a point when some of the flagpoles are forcibly pushed underground.

Alternatively, what happens to a society where everyone lives with a high sense of obligation? On the face of it, such a society will appear to be stable too, since a sense of obligation will not seek anything from others. But such a society is not evolutionarily stable in game theoretic parlance. It means that a small set of incumbent actors with a high sense of entitlement can easily overwhelm the society. In addition, such a society is prone to a variant of the tragedy of the commons that is also well known in game theory. Since everyone in the society has a high sense of duty, selflessness and service, there is a temptation for everyone to slowly increase their own sense of entitlement over time, as it can be easily matched by a sense of obligation on the part of someone or the other. A society with an inordinate sense of obligation is also not in Nash equilibrium. As long as everybody else remains in a state of heightened sense of duty, there is a rational incentive for any given actor to give up this state and adopt a heightened sense of entitlement instead. That is one of the sources of my skepticism about the widespread practices of "bhakti" and "devotion." A society comprising of all "bhakts" may be very peaceful and empathetic, but such a society is not likely to exist for long.

Phase transitions

The sense of entitlement and the sense of obligation are like Yin and Yang. If we try to increase one of them without limit, we end up with the other. As the saying goes: "If you go too far into the East, you end up in the West." Or the Andy Grove quote: "Every successful organization contains the seeds of its own downfall."

If as a society we emphasize too much on one of the above senses, there appears a point at which there is a "phase transition" and the flagpole goes in the opposite direction of the emphasis.

If our environment emphasizes too much on a sense of duty then there comes a point when our sense of entitlement becomes close to zero. A sense of entitlement is very important for survival. Once it becomes zero, there is no mechanism for our body to convince itself to even live. But then, nature does not allow us to reach a zero sense of entitlement, without putting up a good fight. When our sense of entitlement becomes too low, our primal survival instincts surface and starts a desperate push of the flagpole upwards, resulting in rebellion, defiance and revolt.

When our sense of entitlement becomes too much, there comes a point when we start feeling hollow from within. A sense of obligation is very important for our notion of self worth. Our sense of self worth is based on how much we are needed by others. When we have lived all our lives pursuing only our self interest, there comes a point when we start feeling "soulless" and superficial living only for ourselves. This starts a desperate push of the flagpole downwards, explaining why some very wealthy people suddenly turn spiritual or go off into depression and abdication.

The entire history of the world can be seen from the lens of how this flagpole has been manipulated within ourselves and over others. Much of leadership, governance and persuasion has been about fiddling with our and others' flagpoles. 

02 March, 2014

Mindfully connecting with ourselves

Several times in the past, I've written about my traumatic and depressive childhood, stemming primarily from what I consider to be severe philosophical defects in our approach to education and social life in general. Our schooling primarily emphasized on conformance, passive compliance, operational-skill building and performance within strict boundaries. It didn't emphasize on elements like curiosity, insight-building, contemplation, argumentation, empowerment, problem-solving skills, etc.

And the emphasis on conformance was so high that, curiosity to ask questions beyond what is taught, or any form of non-conformance was seen as something immoral. Let me emphasize on the word "immoral" again.. Like for example, in our English-medium school, speaking in Kannada or any of our mother tongues was considered "immoral" enough to be subject to punishments like being humiliated publicly, beatings, being locked up in the bathroom, and such.

I've often compared this kind of schooling with "slave-training," and it indeed stems from what our society has been through over the last several centuries. This form of schooling (and even our approach to governance, law-making and law-enforcing, for example), is still very very rampant all over, even today.

Recently, I heard a statistic -- suicide rates in Bangalore is pretty high and comparable with that of Sweden. Except that in Sweden, suicides are primarily caused by physical reasons (inadequate light in winters), while in Bangalore, suicides are almost wholly due to social reasons. That should put things in perspective!

It is one thing to appreciate the beauty that is latent in a harmonious, obsequious and compliant lifestyle, but it is yet another thing to adopt it as a philosophy of life -- by stifling away curiosity, accepting ideas without judgment, and compromising the search for truth with faith in our beliefs.

Our state of affairs pained me and continues to pain me at such a deep level. It provokes a visceral response whenever I see or are asked to conform to some ritualistic activity or notion, or to go with the herd.

Perhaps naively, several years ago, I had decided that even though I'm pained no end to simply lead a normal life here, I will not run away from here, but instead, do my bit to bring about some change in our society. I'd been inspired by several parables like the following:
A man walking on the beach saw that the tide had turned at the beach and the sea had receded, leaving behind several thousands of fish that were suddenly separated from water and writhing in the sand. There was a boy who was diligently picking up one fish after another and throwing them back in the water. But there were so many of them.. "It is no use," said the man.. "you will never be able to save them all." The boy picked a fish, threw it back into the water, and said, "Well, I saved that one!" and went about his activity.. 
After looking around aimlessly for several years, I thought I'd found my calling -- in doing my bit towards re-educating and re-wiring our society. It was of course a naive belief. Our current ideas are so deeply entrenched and so rampant, it was not before long that I've encountered all kinds of things that has pained and outraged me no end.

Soon, it became clear that I need to be dispassionate, objective and not react emotionally to keep myself sane. And slowly I began to ignore what I felt about things and subdue my emotions in order to keep my judgment engine working.

Every morning, I developed a ritual to tell myself several times over: "How you feel about things, does not matter.."

It worked for a while and helped be become level-headed and dispassionate. How I felt about stuff, indeed didn't matter to the world at large. Only hard-headed argumentation showing and demonstrating flaws in our current beliefs, could send some messages across.

But, how I felt, did indeed matter to me -- to my body. An emotional reaction is a physical response to stimuli. My body was reacting when someone spoke in a patronizing, head-patting tone or made a moral issue over some kind of unfamiliar idea, without applying their minds to it. But I had told myself that my body's response didn't matter and had subdued my emotional responses.

This in turn had started to affect my health in a slow and insidious manner -- affecting everything from general health to overall efficiency in leading a routine life.

Finally, fighting stereotypes and societal stigma against mental health, I went to several psychiatrists. But it only made things worse. The shrinks turned out to be preachers in the guise of doctors, preaching me back into conformance and submission -- and prescribing drugs to keep my emotional response subdued. They worked under the assumption that there was something wrong with me and I need to be "corrected" to fit in back into the society. They were the epitome of the very ideas that I was fighting against!

I realized what I was doing wrong. My emotional response may not matter to the world -- but it is not wrong or immoral to respond emotionally! There is no need for it to be subdued! My emotional responses are innate -- it is nature speaking! My body was protesting against injustice in its own way and by subduing it, I was subjecting it to even more injustice! The problem that I was fighting against, indeed lay outside of me, and here I was, punishing myself for protesting against beliefs that are indeed wrong! Those beliefs preaching unquestioning submission and conformance -- they are what are immoral, not the ones who don't conform to them!

Needless to say, I threw away all those prescription anti-depressants. There is no way I was going to punish my body for a crime that it didn't commit.

Some time ago, I met this person, let me call him P. Ironically, he is a preacher by profession. But he taught me something, which even the psychiatrists could not. He taught me to "mindfully" and amorally (not immorally) connect with my emotional self.

Till now, either my emotional response was coloring my judgment or it was being forcefully subdued by my judgment engine. It was as though they were both at war with one another -- trying to prove who is more powerful. My judgment engine was "unmindfully" engaging with my emotional engine.

Mindfulness is the opposite of this -- it is a means to obtain internal harmony before trying to bring about external harmony. It is a way by which we can allow our emotional self that also controls our physical response, to express what it is feeling, without passing a judgment or without jumping to conclusions based on what it is expressing.

Mindful connections with ourselves requires us to feel fully and wholly our emotional responses to stuff that are stored away in our episodic memory. But this has to be done in a fully conscious manner -- knowing fully well that this is only a physical response -- not a semantic response. These emotions are not to cloud our judgment and our balance in perspectives. They just need to be expressed.

Meditating in a mindful manner is all about the concept of mindfulness. It has got nothing to do with watching our breathing, posture, etc. (which are the stuff of what I was preached about meditation. I could never understand why focusing on our breathing will help us in giving an answer to why do we have such a slave mentality and how to get out of it.)

With the help of P, I've been practicing mindfulness for some time now. It has been a very painful and tumultuous journey so far. So many episodes, right from my childhood came hitting back at me in full force. So many pains re-emerged so much so that my body started paining in all those places that I'd been hurt earlier. I remember once my school principal had pulled me up by pinching my shoulder and had started slapping me. That pain came back in full force! I was even limping for several days after one such mindful connection sessions.

The only difference now was that, the "I" was separate from what was happening inside me. I was a mindful spectator of myself -- watching what was stored in my episodic memory and how it had affected my emotional self. I could see how deeply hurt I was -- at a moral, emotional and spiritual level. Except that this hurt was not controlling my judgment anymore. I could see this hurt in a dispassionate and objective fashion by turning my level-headed judgment engine towards observing myself. I could see how at an emotional level, I could not trust anyone -- including anyone who called themselves a friend -- including P, who had taught me mindfulness. Indeed, I could not trust myself fully to not breakdown and lose my head in the face of some kind of emotional stimuli.

Connecting with myself was so painful, it had literally knocked me down several times. I'd slept for almost entire parts of weekends (when I used to practice this). I was urged not to let myself be knocked down, which makes the experience unmindful, and instead, try and keep myself awake and observant.

After several such sessions, one day I suddenly saw myself as my childhood self, emerging from deep within all these stored up episodic memory. I could literally visualize myself as emerging from under a huge rock face that was all my episodic responses, weighing down under me. I could visualize myself hiding under the bed in my childhood home, in sheer terror -- precisely the way I used to react at the prospect of going to school in kindergarden.

I suddenly realized that my entire life till now has been shaped and built by this terrified boy hiding under the bed. Who I am has been shaped by things that are so deep down, that I had no other strong enough emotions at this level, to balance my understanding of the outside world. My distrustfulness emanates right from those days hiding under the bed as a 3-year old.

I do not want to associate yet another emotion towards this discovery. I state the above observations dispassionately, without judgment towards myself or towards the external world. I state this publicly on this blog, in the hope that it can help others mindfully connect with themselves and discover what's been driving them all along.

All of these only reinforce my judgement that we are deeply messed up as a society. Even at a philosophical level, we are damaging our children by not nurturing their thinking and problem solving skills, and instead stressing on performance, compliance and operational skill building. Creating craftsmen from our children is fine, but it should not come at the expense of not creating thinkers from children who want to become thinkers.

We teach children to respect adults, but never teach adults to respect children. But most importantly, we do not realize that the adults treat children this way, because they themselves were treated like this -- this is a problem that has been imposed on us for several centuries. I do not like to call this "abuse" -- because none of these actions were intentional. Even the principal who terrorized us in school, perhaps genuinely believed that this is the "right" way to discipline children. By calling this "abuse" and harassing the adults, we are in fact as a system, abusing a similar terrified child inside these adults, that is hiding under a bed itself.

The only way we can "fight" this problem is by spreading compassion and genuine respect -- among children and adults alike. We have to build a society where people of any age, gender, ethnicity or whatever, can freely express themselves. At least for a start, we should build safe places or supporting communities, where people can express their emotions without fear of being judged or admonished. The child in us never dies -- who we are as adults is just the persona created by our child within, as defenses to deal with the external world.

Who we really are, is the child within. Unless we can "re-parent" the distrustful child and get our emotional and judgment engines to trust one another, we cannot hope to bring about any major changes outside.