Monday, November 16, 2015

My, how time flies...

A typical view of time goes like this.
Few of us who are old enough, can remain detached when we see a photograph of ourselves 20 years ago. We have aged. We have less hair, perhaps less teeth, and certainly more wrinkles. Maybe we didn't or couldn't do all the things we had planned to do. Time has passed and has exacted its toll on us. So what is this mysterious thing that threads days, months and years together so inexorably? We can't see it, hear it, smell it, taste it or touch it. Time has changed us - our physical appearance and inner experience, yet we have been unable to change it.
We say that it flies or drags by, but in fact it just rolls along with the same constancy as ever. We don't want to waste it. We are always coming up with new technologies that supposedly help us "save" it. We invent new vehicles so that we can get from one place to the other in less time. But we forget that time is also life.
We see time's cycles. The earth revolves on its axis and we call it a day. It makes a complete turn around the sun, and we call it a year. We can measure it, but it's deeper secrets elude us.
There is a story about a rich tourist visiting a fishing village in the Amazon. He tried to convince a fisherman to hire more people to help him.
The conversation went like this:
- Why would I want to do that?                           
- So that you can catch more fish.
- Why would I want to do that?
- So you could earn more money to invest in your operation, maybe buy a few more boats.
- Why would I want to do that?
- With more money you can have some time off to relax.
- But I'm already relaxed. Why would I want some more time?
- Then you could do what I do. For one month every year I just come fishing and leave all my troubles behind.
- But I'm already fishing...
You can see where the story is going.
The mystery of time has haunted us throughout the ages, so much so that we have an ambiguous relationship with it. We want to save as much time as we can, but when we have it available, do we really know how to make the best use of it? We plough through the day thinking about the time that we will have for relaxing in the evening. We struggle through the week to enjoy our weekend. We work so hard during the year for our annual vacation, so that we can have time for our well earned rest. The years roll by and we start to plan for our retirement, which passes sooner than most of us want. Old age brings sickness and finally the death of the body has to happen. We then think that our time is up.

Understanding time from the perspective of being an eternal soul, playing a role on this huge world stage, moves us to a different level of perception, in which time becomes just as important as our consciousness. Life is a happy mixture of both.

Excerpt from my upcoming book:
The Carousel of Time

Friday, November 6, 2015

The hidden cost of conflict

There are all sorts of conflict between human beings. At this time of panic and confusion because of the financial crisis, they have become more exacerbated than ever. If conflict can be defined by the friction that occurs when two or more people or groups try to occupy the same 'space' at the same time, the possibility that this happens in this current moment of chaos, is great.

This 'space' can be physical, in the case of two people hurrying to catch the last taxi on the rank. It can be emotional when the parties involved want to occupy the same historical territories. It may be a fight due to psychological incompatibility of positions, assessments, interpretations or ideologies. And they are usually expensive.

With all that is going on, the short fuses are abundant and lead to dysfunctions in our organizations. Contacts between people become more stressful and rules of coexistence less clear. Relationships, production, plans, customers and consumers and finally society and the environment - all suffer.

Because of the fact that conflict has been a central part of human society since the beginning of recorded history at least, we could hardly find someone who had never suffered personal loss due to it. The problem is not the conflict itself but how we perceive it and deal with it. Well understood and worked on, conflicts are drivers of positive and necessary change. Otherwise, they may cause major losses and delay our best plans despite noble intentions. Often it is not the best idea that prevails, but the strongest or better supported ego.

In the context of companies, the list of victims of conflict is great - lost business opportunities, breakdown of partnership, demotivation, high turnover of people, bad customer service and even sabotage, litigation, harassment and serious aggression. They say that people do not leave companies when they resign. They leave unpalatable bosses or colleagues.

In the breakneck speed of change and the gap between what we really do and what we have to do, we run out of the time needed to understand and manage the day-to-day conflicts. The lack of time also leads us to a superficial and symptomatic treatment of them without comprehending their true causes. This leads most to just pretending they did not happen, they either try to run away from them or smother them with false positivity. The situations that unsolved conflicts produce, sustain and grow as become organizational cancer.

Generally we only try to solve them when they are too difficult or too expensive to solve. As the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "We learn geology the morning after the earthquake." The only problem is that the earthquake has already done its damage.

Almost always, the biggest losers of major conflicts between economic interests, governments and religious traditions are the society and the environment. Millions of ordinary people are ground up by wars and poverty caused by the intransigence of relatively few so-called leaders. Species and forests continue to disappear, the sky becomes darker and weather warmer - often by the clashes and infighting of these 'leaders' who are not willing or able to reach deals for a sustainable world.

The benefits derived from understanding how to prevent and deal with conflicts in a systematic way are huge. The good thing is that conflicts expose the problems that need to be resolved and often point to the people who need to enter, leave or change their positions in  organization.
Imagine a kind of 'egometre' in your company able to measure the cost of exacerbated egos and their effect on the monthly numbers. Conflicts definitely impact on the balance sheet. The problem is that they are difficult to measure and therefore ignored in the name of rationality.

We should always seek to understand the hidden complementarities and the apparent incompatibility. There is a story of the fear that a king of the current state of Gujarat (west coast of India) had when large numbers of 'Parsis' started to migrate from the current Iran. They were practitioners of Zoroastrianism who had been expelled by the Muslims.

To show that there was no room to share with so many people, the king sent a large glass of milk full to the brim. The Parsi leader's response was to return the glass with a little sugar added with the message: 'We can live together like milk and sugar'. So it has been to this day. It's not such a bad idea.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Navigating well in the sea of relationships (2)

In a previous post I wrote about the emotional commerce that happens in close relationships. We measure each other by what we give and take. One of the aspects that makes a genuine exchange of mutual good feelings difficult is the almost omnipresent tendency to see defects. Three people are talking and one of them moves away. Who do the two that remain immediately talk about? Generally, about the one who just left them, and not always in a complimentary fashion.
Once a woman came to me after a public talk in Sao Paulo to ask about how to resolve the problem she was having with her husband. Our conversation went along these lines:
- I really don't know what to do with my husband. He's just going to the dogs. He gets angry for no reason. He is very difficult to talk to. He just cuts me off. He is...  (here she started to rattle off a list of his defects.)
- Have you tried to talk to him? 
- Hundreds of times! He just doesn't listen. I am really worried. He's liable to have a heart attack any time. Sometimes I think he's already got one foot in the grave. 
- He sounds terrible. Does he have any virtues at all? 
(Here she became silent before replying, as if to show that it was something she was not used to doing.) Let me think. I have been with him thirty years. He used to be quite generous and loving, but I haven't seen signs of this for ages. 
- Have you really talked to him about this hundreds of times? 
- Not exactly. To tell the truth, just five or six. 
- Do you think that by focusing on his defects you are helping him to change? 
- Probably not. 
- Let's say that he is making effort to change his terribleness. Imagine that he has enrolled in a meditation course.  Would he tell you about it? 
- Probably not. 
(Here I gave her an image that she would not forget.) You say he has one foot in the grave. Picture him lying in a coffin trying to get out. Do you know where your attitude of only seeing his defects puts you? Sitting on top of the lid! 
She gave a little jump and said:
- Oh dear! What do I do to help him then? 
- It doesn't mean that you won't be aware of his defects. Just try to see his virtues behind all of them - like seeing rough diamonds among the stones. 
We chatted on for a bit longer and she left determined to change her attitude. 
This is probably the foremost aspect of being able to live and work with others. If I want them to improve, the very last thing I should be doing is making a rosary of their defects and repeating them to myself and others. I should focus on what their specialties are. 
The famous rhyme comes to mind:
Where attention goes, energy flows. 
Where energy goes, life grows. 
If I give attention to others' defects, I help them grow them not only in the people around me but in myself. 

Once I was walking around Budapest and it struck me that though I could read the signs and billboards I didn't know what they meant. (Hungarian is one of the hundred or so languages that uses Roman letters.) 
In the same way, I can only identify and think about the meaning of defects if I also 'speak their language'. The challenge is to be able to focus on their virtues in spite of being aware of their defects. This helps them and helps me. After all, in the depths of the soul, I also speak the language of virtues.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Navigating well in the sea of relationships

Connection and communication

I have a new notebook that only has a micro HDMI connection for video presentation. The projector I had available for a recent retreat on the theme of this post, was an old one with only a VGA connector. I had an adapter, but I just couldn't get it to work. A problem of connection and communication. Coincidence? How we interact and how and what we communicate are exactly the two fields that define the quality of any relationship.
Though most people had come to the retreat to understand how to mend or strengthen the relationship with their partners, the theme was actually much broader.
There are four basic relationships:
  • With myself
  • With others
  • With the world around
  • With God

Me with myself

In a way they are all connected and they all start with me. How I understand my inner self and appreciate who and what I really am, determines everything else. If I am not able to create a sense of worth that remains relatively constant no matter what happens,  this will affect the way I relate to others, the world and God. In simple terms, if I don't love myself I can't love others, the world or even God. 

So how do I connect with my deeper self? 

Buried beneath the swirling confusion of thoughts, feelings, memories and apprehensions that generally make up our conscious state, is what can be called the foundation of the self. It is made up of some basic qualities such as love, peace, happiness, truth and purity. If I remove all the associations that spring from my physical identity - age, gender, culture, religion, social background and education - I still exist as a spiritual being with the above qualities.
Because I am not aware of this deep secret, or I don't have the power to express these qualities constantly, I seek them in others and the world. This is the dilemma. I want and expect from others and the world the peace, love and happiness that I already have in myself, but for some reason, I can't access. No matter what they do, the bottom line is that someone or something else can't compensate for the love, peace and happiness I have been unable to give myself. When any relationship is motivated by this lack of inner fulfillment, it can never really work long-term.


Take a typical relationship of co-dependency between two people. The unspoken agreement is: 'I will love you, if you love me. You boost my ego, I'll boost yours. If not, watch out'. Each side thinks that the other needs to be a sort of constant source of love, peace and happiness, when neither really is. The basis of a solid, long-term relationship is giving and not taking or trying to take. Even so, it's not just a question of giving. It is giving without counting what I give. "I have given at least ten examples of how much I love you in the last six months. You have not even shown one. It isn't fair!"

It is not just episodes of love and respect that we keep a tally of. All sorts of actions come under the scrutiny of both sides.
Another typical conversation between two co-dependents:
How many times have I told you not to interrupt me when I'm speaking to others?
But you do exactly the same thing with me. I can't count the times that you have done it.
But I hate it when you try to control me.
But isn't that what you do with me all the time?
etc. etc.
This type of comment or thought permeates co-dependent relationships. Instead of genuine, unconditional love it becomes a sort of emotional commerce. The lover and the beloved become accountants of each other's actions. Understanding and compassion become hostages of the win or lose game of the ego.

One foot in the grave

After a talk in Sao Paulo once, a woman came up to me to complain about husband - that he was no good, that he had been showing some strange behavior for the previous six months, that she had talked to him "hundreds" of times without result, that the way he was going, he would probably die and so on. I asked her if he, by chance, had any virtues. She hesitated far too long to give an answer. That silence probably meant that she had not thought about his virtues for months or even years. I asked her if her constant vision of her husband's defects helped or hindered him. She replied that course probably wouldn't help him. So I left her thinking with a very powerful metaphor: "Just imagine that your husband is making an incredible effort to improve. It is as if he were lying in a coffin trying to get out. And there you are sitting on the lid!" She gave a little jolt when she heard this. When this image sunk in, she actually thanked me for having reminded how our vision can help others to change or can condemn them to never changing.
It is not easy to navigate in the sea of relationships, especially with other people occupying the same "sea lanes". But my thinking can make it easier or more difficult to live and work with others.

(to be continued)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Don't kill the ego, clean it up (Part 3)

There is a popular song in Brazil called 'Modinha para Gabriela' by Dorival Caymmi and sung by Gal Costa:

I was born like this, I grew up like this, I am really like this

I will always be like this, Gabriela, always Gabriela

In my last post about not killing the ego, I shared about the limitations of looking at the world through a keyhole. With apologies to anyone who is called Gabriela, I will use the example of this song. By the words, it is clear that she is stuck in her identity as Gabriela, which probably includes her body, her roles and most definitely,her story. She is so caught up in the idea of Gabriela that she does not believe that she can change.

Sometimes we get so self-absorbed, that we can't see beyond our own limitations. I remember once I was preparing for a presentation and while setting up the projector, a woman participating in the course, asked me if we could have a chat about something personal. I told her that I was busy but I would be very glad to sit with her during the break. Apparently, she didn't hear me and started to tell me her story. After some time I again interrupted her and told her that I was not listening because I had to finish what I was doing and again I said that I would meet her during the break. She continued to speak for another five minutes and I went on with what I was doing. Finally, she thanked me for giving her time and she went away. I had no idea what she was talking about. When I met her at the break, I asked if she wanted to speak to me now. She said it was okay since we had spoken earlier in the morning. Then it occurred to me, how much we can get absorbed in our stories to the point that we don't realise what is going on around us. After all she spoke to me for tem minutes withou realising I wasn't paying attention.

When we build ourselves into an identity, characterised by the song above, the Gabriela-like ego filters everything.

If there is offense, Gabriela is offended. Because of insecurity, Gabriela is lost in a game of comparing herself with others, of comparing her present with her past, of comparing her present with a host of possible fantasised futures. She tends to see others' defects in the light of her own virtues and others' virtues in the light of her lack of them. She needs to be right as often as she can so as to satisfy her own sense of being Gabriela.

The diagram shows what we need to do in order to change constant self referencing to our own Gabriela-like egos.

There are three elements that we need to introduce into our self conversations:

  1. I am the spiritual being, conscious energy or soul and I have a body. It is my instrument for expressing what is in me, and experiencing the result of that expression. This consciousness opens the door to be able to see others as souls, and even to perceive dimensions beyond this physical one. After all, if I am a spiritual energy, and not my material form, there are other questions to consider. If I'm not matter, then I did not come from matter. The place we try to reach one we meditate or pray and is remembered in all religious traditions - heaven or nirvana - is a dimension of light, the home of souls.
  2. I am the actor and I have many roles variously connected with my family, profession, social interactions and even culture, religion and nationality. I am one and the roles are many. If I have this consciousness, I can administer them better. When I'm with family, I play my family roles. At work, I put those particular hats on and do what I have to do. Coming from one solid identity, I can control my thoughts and feelings related to each role better. I can see that every single human being is an actor in this play of life. I cannot control anyone else's roles. I have to pay attention to my own roles, to see how to harmonise with those of others. 
  3.  I am not my story. I am the protagonist of it. At a particular point in my mother's pregnancy. I came into the womb, and started giving life to my tiny body. At another moment in the future, I will leave it. In this way, I can understand that I have been around before this life, and after it also, I, the soul, will continue a bigger story. The story of this life is just one chapter of a book. When I use this perspective, I can start to use my untapped potential to make changes in the course of this life.

Using these three powerful forms of consciousness, I can really change the way I interact in this world, through the coordinates of the limited ego - body, roles and story. In this way, I do not need to kill the ego (which would in fact mean killing those three things). I have to learn to operate better through them without denying their importance.    

Monday, June 29, 2015

Don't kill the ego, clean it up (Part 2)

As I commented in the previous post, the ego is not the enemy of spiritual endeavor. It's how we use it.
The popular notion of seeing the world through tinted glasses is only part of the story. Many factors contribute to the color and shape of the lens. They reduce, exaggerate or even change completely the way we see things. Our emotions, experiences, preferences and habits pool together in what we call the limited ego and make us believe that what we see and remember actually exists as such.
There was a guy named Tony who used to come to our meditation center. Though his enthusiasm and progress was high, his wife was somehow jealously opposed to this. He tried to come at times when it would not upset her. Finally, he convinced her to meet him at the center after work and explain exactly what he was doing. While waiting for him to show up, she overheard a conversation between two women in the next room. They were talking about the sweets they had prepared the day before.
They said: Did you see how much people liked the toli yesterday? (Toli is sweets in Hindi.)

What the wife heard: Did you see how much people liked Tony yesterday?
As soon as Tony arrived she practically jumped on him:
- Didn't you say you had to visit neighboring cities yesterday? I just found out that you were here entertaining people.
- What do you mean? I couldn't have come here. I spent the whole day visiting clients.
- Don't lie to me. Let's get out of here.
We didn't see either of them again. After about three months he called and we asked him what had happened. He explained that he had cleared up the misunderstanding of one word. We asked him if he wanted to recommence his meditation practice. He declined saying that they were too embarrassed for him to take it up again. This shows how the limited ego in the form of jealousy distorts and even changes the course of events.
The ego, spinning around in its own interests and associations, colors, shapes and even positions the lens of perception according to its whims. When it is limited it's like looking at reality through a very tiny keyhole. This is shown in the above diagram:

The first reducers of our perspective are the physical senses. We perceive only about 3 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum. We can't see anything before red and after violet. Dogs can hear and smell better the we can. Bats guide themselves around using sonar. Many insects and birds navigate around due to a map like spatial memory, better than many human beings. Imagine if, for example , we could "see" people's vibrations. The advantages of that would be tremendous. In essence, the world that we see, hear and touch is not the whole world that exists.

Secondly, we are limited due to the consciousness of the roles that we have to play. This becomes natural due to habit. A mother sees her children as the mother. A boss sees the team as the boss. In other words, the tasks and responsibilities pressure the roles so that we perceive things from that perspective. We put on the hat of our habitual identity and often can't see beyond that. This extends to cultural aspects as well - race, nationality, religion, and so on. As spiritual beings we are playing roles through the coordinates of our physical identity. We are not our roles, we are the actors.

The third limiting factor is our own story. We carry the memory of everything we have gone through in childhood, adolescence, youth and other age groups. All the events and the experiences that we took from them crowds into a small window of perception. Objectivity becomes impossible as we take most of our experiences personally. Many of us become just human CVs or resumés interacting with other CVs and resumés.

For all the above reasons, it is by chance that we can perceive the same thing in the same way as someone else. Again, the problem is not the lens of the ego, that how open it is to see reality. When there is an unlimited sense of self, the whole door is open. We can see things as they really are.

(More about opening the door in the next post).

Monday, May 25, 2015

Don't kill the ego, clean it up (Part 1)

(This is the 1st post of 3)
They say that an arrogant person drowns in a rainstorm because his nose fills up with water. Arrogance is not the ego, but it can be. Let me explain.
"Ego is the enemy of spiritual growth."
For many years, I believed this. For me and various others, I thought that one of the main aims of spiritual practice was to overcome it. In spite of concerted effort, I didn't seem to get anywhere. It was like whipping water to make butter. Then one fine day, I had one of those life-changing insights. I didn't have to annul it. I had to work out how to elevate it's function.
At its best, the ego is just a set of coordinates that help us navigate through life. Imagine if we had to recreate our names, forms, addresses, genders, ages, relationships and professions every day. These parameters within which the ego operates, are essential to everyday living. With understanding and spiritual power, the ego can be a great agent between our deeper selves and the reality that forms around us.
At its worst of course, the ego creates another story. Inflated or deflated by a distorted sense of importance or lack thereof, it can do a lot of damage to the self and others. When the consciousness "I am so-and-so" takes over and tries to call attention, other egos shuffle, grumble or mumble, reacting either actively or passively as they go about their own stuff.
If we pursue an egotistical objective, we may wonder why other egos don't cooperate with us. The answer is obvious. Each limited ego can only see as far as it projects itself. Selfishness is just the limited ego looking after its own little world, where no one else lives, only visits. Life becomes mostly egos visiting other egos - a constant flow of exchange between each one's little worlds and understandings. We populate our heads with others without realizing that our version of everyone else and probably ourselves, only exist as perceived by our own ego filters.
In Greek, the word ego just means I. It was probably Freud who bestowed on the ego it's wider connotations, in his structural model of the psyche. He described it as the mediator between the deep unorganized drives of the self (the id)  and the even deeper moralizing force he called the super-ego. There lies the rub. In its role of interfacing with reality, it often acts as a wolf in charge of the chickens. That's why it has become a synonym for arrogance.
If it knew its job and worked for the long-term benefit of the self and connected others, it would be praised by all. Guided by the influence of our innate spiritual qualities and wisdom, this sense of self would serve the whole instead of itself. Unfortunately it has been misunderstood and even vilified by purists and moralists alike. This was my big discovery. I didn't have to kill the ego. I had to break its limitations and 'purify' its function. For this I needed a more accurate sense of identity. Would the real 'me' stand up?
Through my study and practice of Raja Yoga I have experienced that there are basically two 'poles' in which we live and operate. One centers around the permanent spiritual entity called soul and the other around the temporary physical identity - our bodies, roles and individual 'stories'. 
The contrast between what we can call soul-consciousness and body-consciousness is shown in the following diagram:

Spiritual development means clean the filters of the sense of self we call ego. In doing so, we see the world and others as they really are and leave behind our distorted versions. This is the freedom we have been seeking. I am still working on it.