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

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.

The worst type of violence

They speak of humanity. My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty. – Jorge Luis Borges

I can think of two types of violence: the direct kind that usually has a clear causation; the indirect kind that is hidden in the underbelly of society. Poverty is a form of the second type of violence. It is subtle and has become so ingrained into society that we forget to recognize it as violence.

To say that living in Sujan Singh Park, a low-income community in New Delhi, has changed my perspective of poverty is an understatement; it has rocked me to my core. Below are a few things I have learned about poverty:

(1) Poverty is not just a lack of material wealth; it is also an impoverished state of mind. It is the latter that is more debilitating, usually creating poverty-cycles among the poor.

(2) Schooling society, in the conventional sense, is not a panacea for poverty. If anything, government schools are making children inadequate to perform basic functions, such as cooking and cleaning, and are dangerously persuading children to move away from their localized knowledge base to uphold unjustifiable national benchmarks. For instance, farming is not part of the government school curriculum in rural India, where agricultural knowledge is direly needed.

(3) Poverty cannot be measured by GDP. India, for example, has ~8% per annum GDP growth rate, one of the best in the world. Yet, in a 2005 World Bank estimate, over 40% of Indians lived below the poverty line, with increasing income inequality. Tools, such as the Gini coefficient, Global Hunger Index the Inequalities-adjusted Human Development Index are better indicators of poverty.

(4) I think many people have accepted poverty as a natural part of life. This is unacceptable. We need to re-sensitize people to poverty so when they see it they recognize it and do something to fight it.

How to fight poverty? I think the battle needs to occur at three levels: (1) education; (2) job creation; (3) discipline.

The fundamental issue with our current education system is its utilitarian nature: education for getting a job and making money. Our education system needs to also focus on cultivating active citizenship among youth. As a result of active citizenship, educated students may feel a moral responsibility to help those in need.

Jobs play two important parts: they provide funds for acquiring goods; more importantly, they make people feel a sense of worth. To create jobs, we should focus on changing society’s mindset from mass production to production by the masses: the former comes at the peril of thousands of jobs; the latter recognizes the importance of work in human life.

Without discipline, both education and jobs are futile. With discipline comes consistency to carry forth an education and a job even though the immediate benefits may be absent. I would promote discipline by living it. Only once I embody discipline can I convince others to do the same.  As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

The shackles of poverty are overwhelming; the malignant nature of this sort of violence is beyond the books of law, order and justice. However, through cultivating active citizenship among youth, providing stable jobs and instilling discipline, we can empower individuals to break the shackles of poverty. And, transform the valley of shadows in their lives into beacons of light that guide them and others to their full human worth and potential.

Wake up US; Wake up Pakistan; Wake up World

While the US mourns the shooting in Tucson, Az., another similar act of violence occurred on this side of the world: Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous state, was assassinated on Jan. 4th by his bodyguard.

It is impractical to compare the US and Pakistan. However, since the effect in the above incidents is the same—violence against politicians—it may be worthwhile to look at the causes:

(1) In both Pakistan and the US, there is a tremendous gap between politicians and the people. This gap leads to tension between people and politicians. This tension, on its own, is usually not enough to elicit violent behavior from people towards politicians or else we’d be hearing of many more assassinations.

(2) More importantly, in both the US and Pakistan, politics are hyper-polarized. As Krugman rightfully points out, “For the great divide in our [US] politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice.” The polarization is due to difference in belief systems, making it very difficult to find common ground. “In this alternative reality armed response becomes, if not logical, then at least debatable,” as Younge recently commented in the Guardian.

We also see this sort of divide among politicians in Pakistan. Taseer was a liberal politician in an otherwise conservative government. After Taseer’s death, politicians stated that Pakistan’s liberal voice wasn’t silenced. However, “the tired rhetoric masks a less palatable truth: that Taseer had been abandoned by his own leadership.”

Let’s be honest: Did you expect anything different in both countries? Did you believe that the violent rhetoric, the rift between politicians and constituency, and the hyper-polarity in politics would have no consequences? Or, as Krugman wrote, “Were you, at some level, expecting something like this atrocity to happen?” I am with Krugman on this: something like these two acts of violence was bound to occur.

Hyper-polarized politics leads to spiteful and vituperative rhetoric, an acidic political atmosphere and inadequate governments; these not only threaten politicians, but also the moral and social fabric of our society.

Krugman says that the abortion debate epitomizes the rift among politicians: pro choice vs. pro life. But, there is a middle ground that can mediate this debate: no one is pro-abortion. Equally, while polarized politics may be the current trend and while the difference may be in belief systems, politicians need to remember that their purpose as elected officials is to serve the public. Until they convince us and each other that this is what they are elected for, we will continue on this path of violence.

You gotta believe

I apologize for the delay in posting. The past few weeks have been hectic; will write about them soon. Until then, here is a column I wrote recently. Feedback is appreciated! 🙂

Prabhudev Konana, a distinguished professor at the University of Texas, Austin recently wrote: “India is a land of contradictions where wealth is juxtaposed with abject poverty; excellence is embedded within inefficiencies and rampant corruption; and the first world infrastructure of leading firms is closeted within pathetic public infrastructure.” 1

Seventy-seven percent of Indians live on less than Rs. 20 ($ .43) per day. To combat this poverty, the Indian government is executing its 11th 5-year plan. Yet, such governmental ventures—that is, plans 1-10th—are often ill-equipped and mismanaged. The Indian government neither guides nor compels the country, as P.S. Appu, former Chief Secretary of Biahr, argues. 2

In a recent reporting by the International Food Policy Research Institute, India was ranked 67 out of 88 developing countries on the Global Hunger Index. 3

The myriad problems currently plaguing India are expansive and invasive. So, why do anything? What is the point? When you are in the field—the village or the city—and working within the miasma of India’s intractable problems, asking yourself such questions is common. My answer: I believe.

I believe that there is opportunity in India; I believe that India’s youth has endless potential; I believe that the communities that shackle individuals can also empower them; I believe that the same hands that gave rise to the Green Revolution can give rise to the Industrial Revolution; I believe that through hard work—regardless of whether you are a farmer or a chai-wala—you can achieve.

These beliefs are not foolhardy. Thomas Friedman recently commented on India’s entrepreneurial spirit and frugal innovation: “If you thought the rate of change was fast thanks to the garage innovators of Silicon Valley, wait until the garages of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore get fully up to speed.” 4 In a special report by The Economist, the authors’ expand Friedman’s argument by noting India’s young demography and India’s firms becoming global and world-class. 5 Perhaps its these sentiments that persuaded President Obama to state, “For in Asia and around the world, India is not simply emerging; India has emerged.” 6

Volunteering at Manzil (www.manzil.in) and working with youth, I see at the grass-roots level the India that Friedman, The Economist and Obama are talking about. There is opportunity. For instance, last year three of Manzil’s students were selected to study abroad in the US; ten have applied for the same program this year. Six Manzil students are trying to become involved in an entrepreneurship program that provides mentorship and funding; the youngest entrepreneur being only 19 years old. Manzil is sending three students to Kolkata in the coming month for a conference that aggregates youth from across India and provides a venue for discussion.

Some personal stories from Manzil: Neeraj, a guitarist, completes weekly workshops with slum children on self-expression through music. Rahul, a student-teacher at Manzil, goes to school and is aspiring to become a cricketer.  Reshmi, a former hospital nurse, acts in plays that address health literacy in slums. Yash, a student, is fluent in English and Hindi and knows more about computer soft- and hardware than I do. The best part: Yash is only 8 years old!

Now, for every student mentioned above there are others that don’t have the passion to achieve. However, don’t confuse this lack of passion with a lack of potential. Each student has potential. The potential is here and so is the opportunity, as implicit from the above stories. The missing link is that the students gotta believe in the opportunity. And, in-order to get the students to believe, one has to believe in the opportunity themselves. I believe.

In the morning, it’s not thinking of India’s 8% per annum economic growth-rate that gets me going. It’s thinking of Manzil’s students: their vibrancy, their talent, their potential.  I believe in these students and I believe that one day they’ll believe in the opportunity, and because of this, I believe in India.

Work Cited

1. Konana P. The land of opportunity. The Hindu. 05 Nov 2010.

2. Appu PS. Deprivation and disparities. The Hindu. 05 Nov 2010.

3. von Grebmer K, Ruel MT, Menon P, Nestorova B. Global Hunger Index: International Food Policy Research Institute;2010.

4. Friedman T. Do Believe the Hype. The New York Times. 12 Nov 2010.

5. Economist T. A bumpier but freer road. The Economist. 30 Sep 2010.

6. Obama B. Remarks by the President to the Joint Session of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, India. 08 Nov 2010.