Flash from the past – LivingTree Tech30 Interview from TechSparks 2014
By all measures, 2017 could be said as the year of algorithms. Even the most non technological of us came to know about AI and the potential influence of AI algorithms in our lives, especially in the future, if the trends are to play out. Algorithms are nothing but a formula or a procedure to solve a problem. Algorithms are used in computer software to determine the steps that can be followed to solve a problem – for example, ‘How do I go from Boston to New York’, or ‘Call a Uber’. Recently a class of algorithms called learning algorithms have been getting a lot of attention, primarily driven by the attention to things like self-driving cars, recommendations that we get in Amazon, the price that we pay for things online like airline tickets, etc.
But we humans are not robots: our thoughts, actions and choices guide our life, and from the automatons driven by our past impressions unwinding, to a proactive conscious life powered an inner beacon. So is there an algorithm that guides our being?
During the past two decades, I have been a technology professional and a spiritual aspirant, and have found from my experience that there are 3 expanding states of being that base our thoughts, actions, inner conditioning, and hence our lives – Reactive, Mindful & Heartful.
The Reactive State
Most of the time, especially in today’s attention deprived information age, we are in a reactive state. We get pummeled by our external environment, ranging from the news to twitter feeds, and our duties and obligations, which all require quick choices, and hence quick reactions. In a recent study it was found that the attention span of humans is shorter than that of a goldfish. It was revealed by that study that our attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds after the smartphone revolution, whereas Goldfish are going great with a 9 second attention span! This attention span renders us unable to look at any situation in depth, and the resultant behavior could range from reactions (driven by the collective cognitive bias) to potentially being pushed over the edge causing destruction to the self or others.
Our lives are an expression of impressions, as that genius Ram Chandra, or Babuji remarked. We form numerous subtle layers of coverings through our thoughts and actions, and over a period of time these become hardened tendencies that dictate how we react to a situation, or simply how we see life – much like the windshield of a car that accumulates coverings from the journey, and make visibility hard, or like a filtered glass that hides the real nature.
In the reactive state, there is no sense of control or even awareness. If we observe our own thoughts, say sitting in the airport or waiting in a doctor’s lounge, we will find that we are constantly judging those that are around us – from the way someone looks or dresses, to their gait and manner. We instantly conclude who someone is even though we hardly know them. While some of these reactions have their roots in the autonomous physiological responses embedded in our brains with evolutionary origins, most are simply thoughts arising from the multitude of impressions that we perceive as they cross the field separating our subconscious with the conscious. When we ‘act’ on these thoughts they become ‘reactions’ and these reactions form further impressions and so on.
The Mindful State
If we are lucky, at some point in our lives, we become aware of this automatic life we lead, and embark on a journey of discovery. This could be as simple as starting a new hobby, becoming more conscious of our eating, practicing random acts of kindness, or starting to meditate. This is probably the first ‘shift’ that we experience in our consciousness and we start to become more aware of our thoughts and actions. While practicing and living in a mindful state, we become observers, and in a non-judgmental way attempt to be ‘in the moment’. It is a conscious act of awareness, and willfully being ‘present’, without direction from the past or expectations of the future. In this state, we open up to being sensitive for the first time. Often a practice of meditation opens us to this new state of being.
In this state, we find that this often becomes a means to do more fully what we are already doing, meaning working, eating, exercising, parenting or even spending mindfully. As professionals, we often talk about being ‘in the zone’, when we are free from distractions and the actor and the action become one, with the underlying forces of creation as the foundation. But what transforms this from being just a ‘technique’ that can be practiced as effectively by a software engineer to write better code and a sniper becoming a force of unimaginable destruction for his target through this single minded focus and attention, to a state of being that has the compass of uplifting values of kindness, compassion and above all Love, which could result in overall individual and communal well-being?
This link is the Heart.
The Heartful State
Oh! joy for he who has escaped from this world of perfumes and color! For beyond these colors and these perfumes, these are other colors in the heart and the soul.
What you think of, so you become, reminds the old adage. So it is but natural that a practice that attempts to raise our consciousness from the mundane and mechanical to the divine and loving, have the heart as the focus.
So, what does this heartful state feel like?
“It is all about shifting consciousness to a state of poise and stillness that is responsive from the heart rather than reactive from the mind. Also to move from selfishness to selflessness, from aggression to acceptance, from fear to courage, from being to non-being, transcending religion, transcending spirituality, and going beyond bliss and everything. It is about connecting ourselves with the Source, where there is no worry about me and mine.” – Daaji
The transformations that take place in this journey from impression-reactive to heart-responsive are subtle but very meaningful and have the capacity to alter a life’s course. Impulses are real. We can never be in control of our situations. But the response is up to us, and often are the difference between a life of fulfilment and joy vs otherwise.
Anger -to- reflective action
It is but natural to be angry, but when it is not controlled, often is destructive; Attachment leads to desire; unfulfilled desires lead to anger (The Gita, Ch.2). At the root of almost every burst of uncontrolled anger is the inability to be in control of a situation. With training, it is possible to develop the ability to be aware of ones own reactions and learn to transcend the moment before it gets out of control. The practice of remaining in attentive to disturbing thoughts during meditation, or learning to let go without judgement during cleaning help us develop these very abilities. And when we are able to transform anger into reflective action, often we find that the results are fantastic. The same cause that led to weakness and regret now becomes our confidence and strength.
Greed, Ambition and Competition -to- Aspirations and Fulfilling a calling
There is this beautiful character in Chariots of Fire, the movie about the 1924 Olympics, where Eric Liddell says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.” It is a common experience that whenever one achieves a material goal, or raises at any cost, there is almost always a void, the heaviness of selfishness weighing down on the being. Whereas whenever we are on an aspirational path, getting past a milestone opens up further dimensions and is a liberating, uplifting experience. Developing the inner compass, and aligning our actions with that inner compass, by training to live consciously, helps us to develop living an aspirational life. This is possible when we train ourselves through practice to pay attention to that feeble voice inside our hearts – again a heart centered meditation practice goes a long way in helping with this.
Survival -to- meaning
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”, Victor Frankel says in that classic, Man’s Search for Meaning. Life has to mean more than just getting though the day. Only a transcendental purpose, and identification with that purpose at all levels, in an ever-expanding realm of existence, can provide for that. But how do perceive that love? Is it just the physical or emotional love that we experience in relationships, is it the passion for a purpose that often embodies missionaries, is it that state of being where the artist and the creation become one? Again the secret seems to be in being able to connect with the heart internally, and develop the ability to allow it to anchor one’s life. Then the magic happens, where we go from falling in love to rising in love with every breath, thought and action.
These are but a few examples of the types of changes one sees in this path. The path is infinite, experiential and is often the destination in itself.
Ever since I first ran into this Polynesian saying, it has conjured a powerful image that has stuck with me in my mind’s eye – challenging, prodding, encouraging, teasing me. Mythology and the science of the expanse is filled with metaphors that are meant to evoke that very response within the conscious beings that we are supposed to be!
This particular adage, while being a simple statement about realizing one’s full potential, poses several questions: “Why are we filling our lives with seemingly external trivial, trite pursuits; while there is an infinite treasure that we carry within us all the time? And what can we do about it? ‘We‘ here refers to the individual, to organizations, to countries, to economies.., and what on earth is full potential? It reminds me of a funny but ironic incident when a teacher in my college said to me “Sai, it’s only upwards for you in life..” – while I was rejoicing that moment which I perceived to be praiseworthy, he added “you have reached rock bottom :)”. Is there an equivalent opposite of ‘rock bottom’ that represents the pinnacle?
Our lives are mostly an expression of our impressions – almost like the continuum of winding and unwinding of a mechanical toy. While some of this is an automatic phenomenon of our physiological construction, one can’t but wonder if Nature expected more from us as conscious beings endowed with Choice and Will? And we have seen and continue to see examples of this in the course of our annals – political leadership from Lincoln during emancipation, Gandhi organizing a mass contrarian non-violent freedom movement, Mother Teresa’s seemingly infinite compassion, that genius scientific mind of Albert Einstein, the soul-stirring poetry of Subramania Bharati, and the Buddha’s courage to get to the bottom of it all!
Who amongst us has not longed for that pure, untainted wonder that we see in a child’s eye? As we go through life, we form subtle impressions that harden and condition us and as we get older, these end up controlling our thoughts and actions and life itself. “You have to unlearn what you have learned”, says Yoda. The human mind is a drunken monkey pricked by a needle, mocks that giant of the human spirit, Swami Vivekandanda. And we see this ourselves whenever we try to quiet our mind, only to feel that uncontrollable urge to pick up the phone and respond to the latest cat meme.
There is a beautiful word in Sanskrit – “Sankalpa” which means thought+will. This should be the definition of endeavoring to achieve. To get there however, requires practice and training, as Luc Skywalker realized.
I wonder what we could achieve as individuals and organizations if there was a Basis of Purpose, the Will to execute with clarity, and the understanding that value creation needs to be holistic and inclusive – some of the same level-5 leadership espoused by Jim Collins and the organizations and leaders that exemplified this.
I was fortunate that I had some of these crazy thoughts early enough in my life (and that I did watch that Star Wars episode), and found a daily discipline that encompasses training in regulation of thinking, letting go of inbuilt tendencies through the application of will and a state of inner awareness of one’s place in the Universe. This helps me remember every day, that while I may not quite yet visualize what that pinnacle means to me, the search for it gives meaning and purpose to existence, and anchors a conscious life – one where there’s harmony between the heart, the mind and the body.
To this I salute.
 Subramania Bharati, I urge you to read his Tamil poetry – “Nalladhor veenai seidhe, adhai nalam keda puzhithiyil erivandhundo” – Does anyone build a magnificent Veena only to throw it in the sewer to be destroyed? The ultimate challenge to realizing one’s potential, and a jeer at the erosion of value that we often see in corporations and individual scouts .
[Originally written on 6-Nov-2016]
I am in Chennai, India for a wedding, and took the opportunity to spend a few hours visiting a place that has been close to my heart for several years. I first visited that place as a shy, unsure, very confused young man nearly 25 years ago, not really knowing what I wanted in life, or even know how to go about finding it. Today, being a Sunday evening, the place was quiet, not many people visiting, and the air was silent, in contrast to a typical weekday evening when the energy of folks returning from work, battling the traffic, and needing to go back homes for some rest – with a sense of restlessness in the environment that is usually very palpable.
I walked in, removed my footwear, and entered the space specially created for one to go deep inside. I was the only one there, in a space that can typically have more than a thousand people. I took a deep breath, allowing a few seconds to take in the atmosphere, gently closed my eyes, brought my mind’s attention to my heart and let it stay there gently. I sat there in that state for the next hour, my consciousness occasionally coming back to the surface attending to some noise, or an awareness of my physical self, but for the most part there was an overpowering silence and a sense of being merged in an incredible lightness. It was as if I went in just under the surface of a body of water, with the noise at the surface and total silence just a few feet underneath. During those moments of total silence in between the awareness of the self, time stood still in an eternal continuum.
It was during those first visits many years ago – I experienced two things that changed my perspective on life. The first was when I experienced that stillness inside – and experiences that inner state – Weapons cannot cut It, nor can fire burn It; water cannot wet It, nor can wind dry It., says the Gita. What this did was gave birth to a great sense of inner confidence, not just in my abilities or who I am in this world, but a subconscious feeling that what I am inside is immutable and eternal – beyond destruction or construction, never born, never perishing, infinitesimal and infinite – the indeterminate absolute! This transcendental feeling of connectedness has stayed with me since the first time I experienced it.
The second and more important was that these visits introduced me to a person, whose association and guidance has served me as a beacon throughout my life. He taught me how to breathe when the air was meager, to allow to be moved to tears when touched in the heart, and to stand with courage when the trodden path was not so easy – both personally and professionally. To label this as spiritual guidance, or life-coaching, or mentoring would all be limiting.
I have been a student of science and technology, and have been fortunate to work with a lot of amazing people, and fascinating minds, and through varying levels of material success through these ventures, the least I got from anything was to have learnt a lot! And that is a tremendous bargain. When we approach life as a lesson, our internal being becomes a learning organization!
I have learnt that when all your being comes together in an endeavor, that is akin to creation itself, not very different from a bee soaking in the nectar, or the spurt of energy that a marathoner feels in the last mile. Building teams, solving a problem, creating value through productizing a new technology, all partake of that fragrance of the creative impulse of Nature. The times I have produced my best work have been when I have felt unburdened by my past, or the fear of future, that same inner feeling I experienced when I went deep within myself in today’s humid Chennai evening.
I learnt that true integrity is being fully present in the moment, that courage is using the heart to overcome the fleeting fear, that manner is more important than matter, and approaches that are universal always stand the test of time! All of these and many more such lessons have guided me everyday through my professional career and my approach to life itself.
When I woke up, I took a few deep breaths, and soaked in that atmosphere again, brooding over my condition at that time. There was an immense sense of gratitude for all that I have received over the years. I see a bird flying, albeit a bit late in the evening hurrying home, I feel that I am already home, for the Home is in my Heart!
The author has practiced daily meditation for several years and lives heartfully in Bangalore, India.
 Ashram of Shri Ram Chandra Mission, World Headquarters, Chennai, http://www.srcm.org/
 Heartfulness, http://en.heartfulness.org/