Power of silence: Reflection on The Paradox of Our Age

Our lives have become unimaginably complex and paradoxical. We do more, but get less done. We know more, but lack insight. We seek purpose, but lose meaning. The complexity in our external lives had made us morally and spiritually shallow: Our criticality has replaced our curiosity, our rationality trumps our compassion.

Was life always so complex? So paradoxical? I look at my nephews (ages 8 and 3) and think not. Is this complexity just a part of growing up? Maybe, but shouldn’t it be that the older we get, the wiser we become to exercise judgement in realizing the faults of our self-made complexity? Is this complexity the inevitable result of living in our society? Perhaps, but it shouldn’t be the case that our lifestyles stagnate our inner development. It should be the other way around, in fact.

Our complexities make us “sophisticated,” which comes with “sophisticated tastes,” and so we seize to enjoy everyday life and crave things more “sophisticated.” Our complexities consume our lives, leaving us with no space for higher pursuits, such as love, service and self-awareness. We have to do this, do that, and we continuing doing. And in craving and doing, we lose what came so easy to us in childhood:  a state of being.

So what to do about all this complexity? I think we must first realize the things that make our lives so complex, to specifically identify those things which consume our mental and physical space. Is it your phone? The internet? Your professional work? Friends? Is it a particular thought or feeling?

I think the next step is practicing silence. Once you’ve identified your complexities, exercise putting them aside for an hour daily and maintaining silence. Silence is not just the absence of speech; it is the presence of an inner stillness.  So during your hour of silence, work on being still internally by calming your thoughts. One way to do the latter is to focus on your breath.

This may seem tough, but the very act of silence will help us reflect, and to some degree, simplify those complexities which make our lives so complex and paradoxical. Shedding the layers of complexity will lead to a better understanding of self and will help us maintain inner stillness in this fast-paced world. As Pancho says, “Sometimes the most radical thing to do in a polluted violence-based system, is to be still. The mud settles to the bottom and we then have a clearer vision about our next steps.”

For more on silence, watch this video on being alone, read this article on the importance of solitude in leadership, and watch this video on the man who stayed silent for 17 years!

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The Paradox of Our Age

We have bigger houses but smaller families;
more conveniences, but less time;
We have more degrees, but less sense;
more knowledge, but less judgement;
more experts, but more problems;
more medicines, but less healthiness;
We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,
but have trouble crossing the street to meet
the new neighbor.

We build more computers to hold more
information to produce more copies then ever,
but have less communication;
We have become long on quantity,
but short on quality.
These are times of fast foods
but slow digestion;
Tall men but short character;
Steep profits but shallow relationships.
It’s a time when there is much in the window,
but nothing in the room.

-The 14th Dalai Lama

9 essential skills we should learn or re-learn

I recently read an article that discusses the need for children to learn nine essential skills: asking questions, solving problems, tackling projects, finding passion, independence, being happy on their own, compassion, tolerance and dealing with change.

I think these skills, or however you’d like to refer to them as, are thorough and invaluable to any parent raising children.

I’d like to add two things to this article:

1. I think the 10th skill should be “Connecting with self, community and nature.” Through such connections, we can exercise skills 1-9 to deepen our introspection, to serve our communities in humility and to live harmoniously within nature.

2. I personally don’t think I’ve mastered the above skills. I often take situations at face-value without being inquisitive.  When we accept a situation at face-value, we adapt to it, and by so doing, we forget that a situation is open to transformation. I also expect situations to turn out the way I’ve planned in my head, and by so doing, I forsake spontaneity. It seems to me that the older we get, the more we think we know the world and the less curious we become. There have been times when I’ve been dependent, lacked compassion, been intolerant, and lived as if life was changeless. I therefore think the above skills should be learned or re-learned not just by children, but by us all.

Are there any skills you’d like to add to this list?

What I’m reading: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“A revolutionary leadership must practice co-intentional education. Teacher and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality, are both Subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge. As they attain this knowledge of reality through common reflection and action, they discover themselves as its permanent re-creators. In this way, the presence of the oppressed in the struggle for their liberation will be what it should be: not pseudo-participating, but committed involvement.” – Paulo Freire

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is complex and requires a thorough, patient read. I’d highly recommend it to educators, community organizers, community leaders, those dissatisfied with the current state of things, those questioning self and society and to those interested in any form of public service.

I suspect that this book will weave itself into my reflections to come.

The 100-mile diet

How many of the resources we consume come from our local communities? Not many. Take food, for instance. The average ingredient travels 1,500 miles to our dinner plates.

Eating food grown in a different locale than our own has detrimental effects on our health and on the health of the environment. Consider the environmental impact of producing, packaging, preserving and transporting food.

 

Consuming local resources, albeit sustainably, is an immediate way to improve our health and reduce our ecological footprint. So how can we do this? Well, one great way to consume locally is to try the 100-mile diet, i.e., only consuming food harvested within a 100-mile radius of where we live. This means thinking about our eating habits, reading food labels carefully (especially the ones that say “Made in USA”), reaching out to local farmers, and if we’re daring, growing our own food.

By prescribing to the 100-mile diet, we’ll become conscious eaters, improve our health and invest in the wellbeing of our local communities, so be sure to check it out.

The idea has been extended to the 100-mile house, i.e., only building with materials available within a 100-mile radius of the house.

Conversation on poverty and character building

I’m fortunate to have good friends who push me to consider new ideas, deepen my introspection and strengthen my stern self-examination. With permission, I’m sharing some conversations that I’ve had with these friends in hope that they motivate you, the reader, to have such conversations with your friends.

A friend wrote to me and said the following about India, “I know there are big changes needed in our country but it won’t happen over night nor will it happen if the people themselves don’t change the thinking: especially when they give up thinking that they were born poor and die poor and don’t have any power. Anna’s situation is a great example of what unity of poor people can do.”

I wrote the following in response:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. What you’ve described is mental poverty, which is more invasive than material poverty and is often linked to a fearful, undisciplined and unloving character. This is why, in my opinion, character building naturally leads to nation building, and not the other way around. Character building requires tremendous effort, even more so than building the economy. I contend, however, that the social fabric of our nation must be woven with the moral thread of our people. It’s only then can we strive forward to adhere the laws of society to the laws of humanity.

Conversation on vision, insight, organizations and individual responsibility

I’m fortunate to have good friends who push me to consider new ideas, deepen my introspection and strengthen my stern self-examination. With permission, I’m sharing some conversations I’ve had with these friends in hope that they motivate you, the reader, to have such conversations with your friends.
Friend: The medical industry has so much complexity.
me: I wonder why, if the basis of medicine is to help patients, is the industry so complex and beyond the reach of the average patient? This makes me suspect the basis on which the medical industry stands.
Friend: Well, I can tell you not everyone is in it for the patients – and I am pretty sure that is why every system that is messed up gets messed up – cause some of the stakeholders prioritize something other than the original reason for the system.
me: Why do you think that is?
Friend: I think it starts with people having different priorities than overall visions but then it turns into organizational issues – like pleasing shareholders who invest because of returns not because of the underlying reason for providing the service.
me: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Thinking about them has made me aware of my shortcomings, and thus humbled me and given me some things to work on. I want to expand on what you said, and I hope you won’t take this as a rebuttal. On the contrary, I couldn’t agree with you more. I am sharing my thoughts to help me write down what I am thinking 🙂
Could having a vision be the problem? Does having a vision lock us into a narrow mindset so that we become like horses with blinders? I think a vision, in itself, is not the problem; it’s the blind adherence to vision and vision disconnected from insight that are the problems. Blindly following a vision hinders exploration, blocks creativity and robs us of our journey. A vision disconnected from insight (of self) is without foundation and morality. It’s why a clash between personal priorities and vision arises.
Is the shift in priorities due to organizational issues or due to something deeply internal, e.g. doing what is right vs. what is expected or doing what is best for the individual vs. what is best for the group (in the long-term). I wonder if people is such positions rationalize their behavior by blaming organizations without finding the culprit within. I have a feeling we all do this.
Friend: Love the shared thoughts. I agree that we can’t blindly follow a vision, and we often do so without much insight into ourselves or without understanding how to connect vision to every moment’s actions. I know it was something I struggled with in India. How is it that insight into ourselves has become one of our largest challenges? You would think knowing yourself (or being honest with yourself) would be one of the easier challenges of the world.
Making organizations the culprit is easier than taking hard steps to make individual level decisions that may go against the traditional system or expectations. It is like that diffusion of responsibility article we read at one of the workshops. We say it is the organization’s fault so, we don’t have to do anything because no one else is.