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The Best Leaders Are Those Their People Hardly Know Exist


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“The best leaders are those their people hardly know exist.
The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.
Next comes the one who is feared.
The worst one is the leader that is despised

The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.
When they have accomplished their task,
the people say, “Amazing!
We did it, all by ourselves!”

This is what Tao De Jing, an ancient Chinese book has to say about leadership.

While the lines 2,3,4, are fairly clear, I have often wondered what does the first line mean. The second part builds on the first line and takes it even forward.

Why would the best quality leaders be not recognized at all? Let alone be recognized for their leadership, the poem suggest they might not even get acknowledgment for their existence.

 

Then one day it struck me.

Consider a scenario where a leader is leading a bunch of people through a jungle.

Now Leader A might notice the predator from 100 meters distance and try to steer the course away. By that time the followers also noticed the predator and realize that the leader has noticed the predator and is leading them to safety.

Leader B might notice the predator from 1000 meters distance and will try to steer the course away from the predator. The followers might not notice the predator or the course correction.

In second case, the leader B excels in his or her foresight compared to leader A. Yet his or her followers actually are less likely to notice the qualities of their leader. Those followers will never know that there was any danger at all and thus will never appreciate the steering away as an act of great foresight.

This opens up a classic paradox. Sometimes on face an less-than-ordinary person might look same as extraordinary person. Sometimes signs of great success are same as signs of great failure.

All around us, the world is ripe with potential to give us this cognitive dissonance – situations where we come to wrong conclusion because we lack contextual knowledge, not because we lack analytical ability.

So many times the cognitive impact on our life is drastically different from material impact. We may not even be aware of those who changed or saved our life. On the other hand, we obsess about those who could vanish in thin air and our life will continue with a barely noticeable hiccup.

Nothing write or wrong. Such is human mind.

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The Thought Is Enough


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In my meditation practice, recently I came across a quite stunning, well stunning at least for me, realization. I noticed that the thought is enough to make me believe it. The thought carries with itself a bundle of energy. That energy has emotional justifications, references to selective events corroborating the thought and everything else necessary to make us belief the thought.

A thought “I am useless” carries with it all the memories of your failures, your desire to criticize yourself. The same way the thought “I am invincible” carries with it the memory of your victories and self love or ego massage.

For the most part, the relationship we have with the thoughts is binary.

We are either sitting in this ball of energy, making ourselves believe the thought, setting the stage for the next thought, where again we will sit inside this energy and continue believing thoughts.

Or we are completely unaware of the thought. It has slipped from our consciousness.

In meditation, we have a third relationship with the thought. We are watching this thought energy from outside the thought. We are aware of it, but yet not consumed by it. This is the relationship with thoughts that is goldmine for insights. This is where we see the thought for what it is.

The thought is just a creative expression of the mind. It is not the truth. It has amazing power to selectively blind ourselves and seem like a truth. But it is not the truth.

 

The Joy Of Renunciation


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On one of my walks listening podcasts of Joseph Goldstein, I heard him say “The Joy Of Renunciation”. It caught my attention. Because we think of renunciation, denying something to yourself, controlling your mind, as a painful exercise.

Could there be joy in not having something you want?

As JG says, the renunciation, choice of not pursuing our desires, is not part of our social value any more. We take pride in being the connoisseur, someone who has discerning taste and being someone who is passionate enough to follow through on that desire. We love to stand in line for things we desire. If we have nothing to desire, we love to browse through catalogs to find something. When we say “I have to have it”, we fall in love with ourselves. It’s almost like without desires and pursuits, we feel lost.

But their lies a paradox. Often the cost of pursuit is not worth the fulfillment. The door to this understanding is mindfulness.

In one of my recent mindful success stories, I was craving something sweet. It was somewhat late evening. But I knew of a place that would be open and I could have some sweets.

During mindful moment, I was able to notice subtle changes in my body and mind that happened when I made my decision that I am going to go out and have something sweet. There was slight tension, tightening in my body with the thought that the journey involves me getting out of my house, driving, parking, perhaps standing in line. There was also some discomfort caused by the subliminal thought that every time I give in to the craving, I acknowledge that I am powerless in front of my temptations.

Then came the mindful moment that the temptation was subsiding, without acting on it. And with that came this moment of lightening. Sort of what the tree must feel when  snow on the branch collapses and the branch springs back from the loaded state to the natural, free, light state.

The lightness came from the realization that I have a choice. I have a choice, either to act on my craving and fulfilling it or being mindful and watching it fade. The choice of being mindful does not involve driving, parking, etc. Also that choice does not make me feel powerless in front of my temptations. Nor does being mindful involve exertion of my willpower, a struggle between desire to indulge and desire to restrain. It’s just like opening the door and realizing “Aha! So this is how it works.”

And thus it brings an soft, not acute, sense of joy. The joy of renunciation.

Buddha had once said “I did not gain anything from the supreme awakening. That’s why it is called supreme awakening.” Paradoxical as it may sound, it is profound truth. Even for the joy of renunciation. One’s sense of self does not gain anything from this joy. That’s why it is far higher quality of joy.

How to be Mindful?


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I have asked this question to others and others have asked it to me. Along this journey, I have some answers.

Mindfulness traditional definition is non judgmental present moment awareness. We understand the meaning of the words on some level. But you understand it whole lot differently when you experience it once.

Do you exercise? If yes, how many of you exercise with a set goal in mind? To lose weight? To gain muscles? To look a certain way, or not to look a certain way? To regain health? To reduce blood pressure or diabetes? Whatever.

For me it was allure of a certain self image. I loved the idea of me looking very buff and muscular. I had that self image of how I was supposed to look. I found a sense of self worth, a sense of emotional security in that self image. I strived towards it without questioning the validity of that self image.

As long as I was working for that self image, I was enjoying exercise in an indirect way. The exercise itself was painful, because I was pushing myself, lifting more weights and running more miles. But I liked the thought that I am making progress towards the revered self image.

Then one day I was mindful of this whole game. I decided to let go of the self image. I had to face the insecurity that came with the thought that “I will not look that way”. But it was far easier to deal with this insecurity than I thought.

I started focusing on immediate reality and my sensations. I started lifting weights just enough that made me feel food. Made my muscles feel stretched and exercised. I ran just fast enough for me to enjoy running. I felt the runner’s high. The flood of good feeling endorphins running through my body. And I loved exercise in that very present moment. There was no goal except to enjoy the very moment.

As I practiced it, I settled into much lighter but enjoyable exercise routine. I started to look forward to going to the gym. My ‘calories burned’ went down, but my attendance to the gym got far more regular. I am nowhere closer to my buff and muscular image. But I am healthy and happy.

We all have this images of happy and secure life. They include a certain type of job, relationship, social status, appearance, possessions. What if we let these images go? And focus on being in this very moment?

Well, “what is a man without ambition?”, you might say.  Would human beings have reached the moon if they did not have ambitions and goals and strived towards it?

The real important question is not whether humans would have reached moon. The real important question is are you at peace right now?

If you are not, and are striving for being happy in a certain point of time in future, there is a good chance that even if you were to reach your goal, you will not be mentally present to enjoy that achievement. You will be working harder to achieve some next future goal. Because you are cultivating a habit of working towards future happiness than finding present happiness.

So you get the picture.

Anyway, here is what you can do to being mindfulness in your life.

  1. Meditate – Cliche. But important. Can’t find time for meditation? That challange will only last for six months. First six months you make time for meditation. For rest of the life, meditation will make time for you. With the increased focus, clarity, you will drop the counterproductive pursuits, unimportant crusades and will find yourself more lighter and free. Download “insight meditation” app on your phone. That will help you get in routine.
  2. Listen – There are plenty of good talks on mindfulness. Search Youtube and podcasts by Joseph Goldstein, John Kabat Zinn. Listen to them while walking ,traveling, relaxing. Read books if you are more into reading. There are plenty of blogs.
  3. Plan for mindful moments – May be set a reminder or two on your phone every day? All you do in that moment come back to your immediate sensations. How does it feel? Is it cold? Hot? Fan or A/c blowing? Are there any sensations of sights, sounds? physical sensations? Try not to judge. Just let them be there.

Mindfulness ! What is it?


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Long long back, I was living in Virginia. It was particularly stressful time in my life. On recommendation of a friend, I joined a mindfulness course.

Right on the first day, when the teacher described the classic paradox of mind, the less you try to be happy, the more you are happy, something resonated with me. It was beginning of a journey.

Often times people ask me what is it about. I give an example. Have you been in a situation when you were frantically running to catch a flight or a train? You were huffing and puffing, running with your luggage in hand, ultimately to reach the gate only to realize that the plane has left. Do you remember the sensation? Do you remember the end of the struggle and the wave of peace that follows?

You missed the flight. There is inconvenience. There is extra cost and wasted time. All that caused you to stress out and struggle is still there. But there is no struggle. You have surrendered to reality. Your flight is gone. And you are at peace. You are free to browse the books on the stalls, may be get a coffee.

Mindfulness is realizing that in life there is going to be some pain, some inconvenience, some loss, and there is going to be death. It is being more open, more accepting, less judgmental in face of reality of life. It is realizing that you have missed the flight of immortality, perfection, perpetual gratification. It is dropping the futile and often counterproductive struggles in life and then suddenly finding yourself free to check out life in this very moment. When you process it intellectually, it may sound depressing. But when you let it sink in your body and soul, it is immensely liberating. You stop wasting your energy and you start living the present moment. There is new found peace and joy.

Mindfulness is accepting that you will never be perfect and neither will be the world around you and still having compassion for yourself and the world. Mindfulness is stopping the self abuse and abuse of others in servitude of the fictions in your mind . Mindfulness is not about achieving anything. Mindfulness is stopping to overreact to life like a pendulum that keeps swinging, and coming back at the center. Mindfulness is learning to embrace even negative thoughts, emotions, negative experiences as openly as positive ones. We all have innate capacity to do that. Mindfulness only makes you realize this capacity.

What do I get from mindfulness? Well, freedom. Till I started practicing mindfulness, I was not really living. I was acting out my conditioning and deeply imbibed behavioral patterns. When I was driving and someone cut me, I thought I always had to be angry.  I had my hardwired reasoning why it was necessary, which I was not conscious of, and which caused sort of compulsion. After practicing mindfulness I realized it was more of a choice to be angry and I had many more choices available to respond to the situation. As the judgmental voice in my head takes a back seat, the range of choices I have in a moment is more. This is freedom. This is empowering.

So, what does stopping struggle really mean? Am I not going to put on my clothes and go to office? Am I not going to put on seatbelt or am I not going to save for retirement? Of course I am going to do all of that. It is again game of mind that is taking the idea and extrapolating it to the stratosphere. Mindfulness is all about finding the balance. The middle way ,as Buddha termed it. It’s doing enough, but not too much.

Ultimately, mindfulness is fully embracing the present moment with all it brings, the good, the bad and everything in between.

Why We Fail To Understand Each Other?


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On two corners of this world, I am watching two divides. India Pakistan divide in Southeast Asia and another Democrat Republican divide in USA. Of course the first divide has lot more sinister dimension of possibility of nuclear war. And that has historical context too. But more on that in next post.

The Democrat Republican divide is interesting because it’s happening even when there is no reason for this divide to be that strong. After all, both parties support capitalism, human rights and more or less agree on constitution.

What makes the public opinion about each other diverge? Why people completely fail to understand each other’s viewpoints.

And then one of my walks, I made a discovery. I am sure people have made this discovery before. But here it is in my words.

When thinking about someone else, people expect them to behave in a rational and ethical way. But when thinking about themselves, people make decisions based on emotions.

It reminds me of an psychological experiment described to me by a friend of mine. Forgive me for not providing a link, but it was just part of a conversation.

People were divided into two groups and asked to make a choice.

A. Select an airplane ticket at certain price for flying on the route where bad weather and heavy turbulence was expected.

B. Or select a ticket on the route for double the price where good weather was expected.

Everything else was supposed to be same about planes. There was no known technical difficulties and both airplanes were statistically supposed to have the same probability of safe journey.

One group had to pick this ticket for an unknown person. They mostly picked the cheap but turbulent route, because that was rational choice, scary but still statistically safe and cheap. The other group had to pick for their own, they mostly picked the calm route with double the price.

After this, both groups were shown a movie narrating horrible turbulence experience. Then they were asked to make a choice again.

Again if they had to pick the ticket for other person, they picked the scary but cheap route with almost the same probability.

But here is the real kick. When they had to pick for themselves, they picked the safe but costly route even in significantly higher numbers. That means they were more inclined to avoid the fearful experience for themselves after watching the movie. But still they thought it’s OK for the other person to face the fear, as long as it was in their rational interest.

It’s not that people hated the unknown passenger. They  underestimated the importance of emotions to the other person.

When thinking about others, people underestimate the erosion to the quality of life by negative emotions like fear  and enhancement to the quality of life by positive emotions like self esteem boost.

But when it comes to them, they overestimate those exact things things. They want to avoid negative emotions and go for positive emotions, even if it means making a choice that seems not rational.

Two primal emotions  – desire to increase self esteem and desire to reduce fear play a huge role. If you leave room for these two emotions, you would understand the response much better.

Take an example. Think of a recent incident when white cop shot black person.

When white person is thinking about the incident of black person being shot by white cop, their first thought is whether the black person followed cop’s instructions? If yes and still shooting happened, then white people are willing to investigate further. If not, then the case closed. The black person should have followed the instructions.

When black  person thinks about the same incident, their first thought is whether the police followed the procedure. No matter the victim followed the instructions or not, the black person would conclude that if the victim did not pose danger to the officer, the shooting was not justified. The situation when cop arrests you is stressful to both ends and may be the victim was too stressed or confused ?

The white people are more likely to identify with police and allow them some emotional slack, like fear and anxiety. The black person is more likely to identify with the victim and allow them emotional slack, like fear and anxiety.

Who is right? I am afraid both are.

(I am generalizing too much. I know. There are plenty of white people that see black angle and vice versa.)

Next time if you don’t understand the choice made by other person, think of two things. Self esteem and fear. Or rather Self-Love and Fear. If the person has to not only make a rational choice, but also make sure it helps them to do self-love and reduce fear, what choice would they make? And you will surely have a lightbulb moment.

 

 

 

I Have A Dream


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Just a spiritual dream inspired by MLK

I have a dream.

I have a dream that some day the content of my character will have compassion for all sentient beings. The voices of judgement will cease and that my mind will be able to what the Zen calls “thundering acceptance” with a golden mantra, “it is what it is”.

I have a dream that I will embrace this life with open arms for all it has to offer, good and bad and everything in between. The struggles will cease and peace  will prevail. I will realize that undesirable experiences are just part of this life and have as much to offer as pleasant ones when it comes to enriching this life. I will remember what Joseph Campbell says “We all are here not to be happy, but to feel alive.”

I have a dream that I will be able to forgive myself and others with ease, for we are all just humans. There will be compassion for me as well as for others. There will be no guilt, no shame, because guilt and shame do not work. There will be no using self abuse as mechanism for self improvement. Willingness to inflict self abuse is the first thing that must be improved.

I have a dream that I will face the truth every waking moment. Because every moment we don’t face the truth, leads us to a wrong worldview. Every error in our worldview eventually leads to a conflict and confusion. Every conflict and confusion leads to a battle within ourselves. A battle within ourselves is a battle we always lose.

My dream is to have a fluid, all encompassing awareness of this world that is free of conflicts, ignorance and full of compassion and wisdom.

I have a dream that I will need very little from the world outside because I will have a rich inner world. My relationship with this world will be that of interdependence and harmony and not of consumerism and greed.

I have a dream that I may conquer fear of death, because as a soul, there is no such thing as birth or death for us, only transitions we remember and transitions we don’t.

I have a dream that my mornings be filled with gratitude , my afternoons with acts of compassion, my evenings with reflection and my nights with silence.

I have a dream that a large number of people on this earth share this dream and we all help each other to realize it.