The year was 2003 and the place Bangalore. We had moved into our newly bought apartment just a few months back. The street in front of our building had many of stray dogs and among them were two new- born pups. One was the desi type but looked healthy and had a shinier than usual coat. The other was slightly bigger and shaggy. I used to feed both and play with them to keep my daughter company. The shaggier one slowly started accumulating dirt on his coat and our interest in playing shifted to the cleaner looking one. Nevertheless I continued feeding and playing with both. As is our custom we found funny, apt names for both in local lingo- the cleaner, golden brown pup was called Ponnappa and the shabbier one was called Mannappa. Ponnappa disappeared from our street in a few more weeks; Mannappa remained and within months grew up to be the leader of the dogs in the street, a most ferocious one too when it came to strangers. By this time he had developed an intense liking for me. Whenever I came out of the building or was walking to our building, he would come running and jump all over me. He was now quite shabby and I started feeling a sense of revulsion, though I was still friendly and continued to give him food. I was also quite scared of his ferocious expression of affection, worrying his claws would hurt, but it never once happened. Many a time I had a good mind to give him a bath but with the hectic life I had and having no prior experience of owning a dog it never materialized.
Yesterday , I was brainstorming about finding an interesting game to be shared with a friend and it dawned on me that we could do it by asking each other questions that take thought and daring. Then it so happened that during the course of the day I sent a friend request to a celebrity Facebook member. Unlike most other celebrities who accept friend requests without asking much- taking it for granted that the person is just another fan- he dived straight into asking a lot of questions- who, where, and the like. Some of the questions sounded pretty harsh to start with, but then it smoothed into a comfortable flow, coming from a genuine desire to know and understand. Eventually I decided to shelve my game for the time being, but a significant part of my thoughts went probing into the art of asking questions.
Suddenly I realized that there’s a lot more at stake in the transaction. Strictly speaking this isn’t the first time the topic has come up-I have had an adult life’s share of experience with uncomfortable questions and smartass answers. However this time I was thinking of deliberately introducing difficult questions and why they are important. My google search yielded some insightful stuff, like this Harvard Business Review blog post by Ron Ashkenas, bearing the same title. However, here and elsewhere I got to, the discussion revolved around the structured worlds of business, education and coaching. Things have to be much trickier and murkier in the realm of inner and of interpersonal spaces.
Children are known to throw around uncomfortable, undiplomatic questions. As adolescents we are still at a loss how to frame what we want to know and convey. By this time however we can sense the awkwardness that follow some of the exchanges. Most can steer clear of too much of unpleasantness as they reach the adult status.
The progress varies greatly from here. The sensitive kinds become too scared to ask questions, aside from the most basic and inane ones. Some of us develop the impression that the sophisticated thing is to not appear too obvious and resort to indirect methods. In both cases, conclusions are mostly based on presumptions and assumptions and no open conversation happens. We are equally scared to probe deep into what goes on inside of our heads. Understandably, we grow very little as people, and our relationships lack depth and intimacy.
It is yet another question how to create interpersonal spaces where people feel welcome to ask questions including “pain questions” and validated in their frank responses. This is in a way an exercise in building trust, demanding thought, courage, sensitivity and commitment from all involved.
And then there are answers and solutions we seek in our field of work/engagement; and also the BIG Questions. (We might think that the BIG questions are the worry of the Big Brains sitting at universities and institutes. In my experience, anyone with an active curiosity can’t help getting into these tricky affairs. Moreover, the questions didn’t become big because they were formed by the Big Brains, did they? )And the questions we need to formulate are getting trickier by the day. They are not only more interdisciplinary, leaving us with no firm foothold from where to throw the net for that elusive fish of an answer; oftentimes we end up changing our mind about what it is that we are seeking.
So what is your style of asking questions?
A stimulating debate brought me to read again a book- something I rarely do- I had picked up a decade back. The book in question is Yoga and Psychotherapy- The Evolution of Consciousness, authored by Rudolph Ballentine and Swami Ajaya under Swami Rama’s (of the Himalayan Institute) direction.
It was a delightful read the first time twelve years back. For one, it is the most rational explanation I have come across about the concept behind yoga and its practice. Second, or maybe this is the primary reason I took to the book, it corroborated a tentative idea I had while doing my postgraduation. As I came across psychoanalytical concepts pioneered by Freud and Jung, I thought there were some parallels to the levels of consciousness yoga theory proposes. I had even written a one-page note on it and then left it to rot for lack of resources to expand on the sketch. It pleased me immensely to see my passing thought expanded and substantiated by guys who had respectable academic credentials and years of research experience.
The book continued to delight the second time as well. It is still the most rational and unbiased study I know of, and the guy who got me reading it again thought so too. This time round, however, it has led me into asking rather uncomfortable questions.
The first question wasn’t in fact born from the book per se. It is about the nature of spiritual experience itself, and pertains to all the literature I have read on the subject. Indian spiritual thought, specifically Advaita, holds that, when one learns to trancend the everyday experience of duality, the absolute truth of non-duality reveals itself. The seer, that which is seen and the experience of sight all merge into one and this experience is not just beyond the realm of words, it is plain incommunicable.
Now, how do I know if what I have experienced is the absolute truth? If an experience is incommunicable, how does one verify its universality? People do everything from drugs to trance-inducing rituals and meditation to arrive at altered states of consciousness-do they all lead to the same experience? If the answer is yes, it follows that this experience is the outcome of some neurochemical changes. Is that all there is to it? It is a different thing, but what makes us think it is The Thing?
The second question is more troublesome, and it is the direct outcome of reading the book. While the authors offer a rational explanation that connects psychoanalytical theory with the philosophy of yoga and draw parallels, the whole edifice stands on the basic premise that man is capable of experiencing the absolute truth. Evolutionary scientists would tell us otherwise- that man, like every other organism, has to be still work in progress. If every man is born with the infrastructure that gives him the potential to experience the Truth, a good number of them must have developed this capacity sometime during the evolutionary process; historically only a handful have claims to the feat. And worst, to say that man is capable of experiencing the Truth, sounds uncomfortably like God made man in his image. It smacks of an indolence that has made humans indiscriminately use the earth.
All this is despite the deep influence Advaita and the philosophy of yoga have on me- I so wish this to be true. And this is the most rational, experimentally backed volume of research I have come across. Being the non-academic that I am with no chance of getting formal education on the subject, I have little hopes of finding the answers in my lifetime. All the same I just can’t help hurtling down the perilous path of questions. Samshayatma vinashyati (The doubter is doomed)?
There won’t be many people who don’t extol the virtues of reading- whether they read or otherwise. I don’t know where I stand compared to people who could be called voracious readers; but I do know that I have read some of the greatest literature. If you rate by quality, I know I would score well. Despite all that I also know I don’t like to always read. No, it is not laziness; nor is it that I believe quality is hard to come by, and if one were to read all the time one would have to read second rate stuff as well. There’s so much of great literature that even the most voracious of readers can hope to read only a fraction of it.
This picture of a lady holding a suckling child, in conversation with Venezuelan Prez Hugo Chavez has been doing the rounds in Facebook recently. The narrative along with the photo invariably goes like this: see how natural they are- imagine this happening in Kerala/India. I must admit it set off a train of thoughts the very first time. I kept it to myself the second time I saw it, but I promised myself I’m going to shoot the next time it appeared before my eyes. It did and here goes:
Is this all as simple as that? Why make comparisons with India/Kerala?
1. As recent as the first half of the last century women with bare torsos were a common sight in Kerala, and a little earlier all over India. Think back to where this sense of shame associated with the body came from. Going by classical Indian art, it was not part of our early makings. It wasn’t there in early Europe (all those Greek sculptures) either. This idea of hiding the body, especially the female body, looks to me to have originated from the Semitic cultures and it prevails everywhere the Semitic culture has had its influence. Then why blame only Kerala/India?
2. As stated earlier women used to go about with bare torsos just like men, at least in Kerala. Even if they wore a cloth to cover the upper parts of the body, they had to remove it, just like men, whenever they came face to face with a man holding a position of authority- say a high priest, the elder of the family or the king. Back then it was all about power-equations and the women fought for their right to cover their torsos. Now you want them to have a right to- what, exposure or comfort?
3. Nobody bothers much about a bare head or arm do they- what is usually hidden makes people want to peep. Now why go far- just look carefully at the picture. There’s more than the guy peeping from behind the Prez’s back. Another guy is looking away-embarrassment? And not only is the Prez’s hand on the lady’s shoulder-there’s another hand on her other shoulder- looks to me a bit like groping. And to me the only people who look comfortable in the picture are the lady and the child. Now maybe this is my naughty mind at work- but looking at the frown on the President’s face I’m getting the impression that he is trying hard to concentrate on the lady’s face.
‘Natural’ is the word we often use in situations like these. But then we’d do well to qualify the word- what’s natural for birds and bees and other mammals couldn’t be possibly applied as is for the human animal- he has moved far from his primate past. The animal is still lurking behind the surface but in their quest for a better, securer life humans have acquired a multitude of complex social rules. To make things more complicated these rules are not interpreted in the same way everywhere and by everyone. It is easy enough to see that the civilized thing is to let a person choose what to wear or not wear based on comfort. That said it’d do us a whole lot of good to accept that the collective consciousness of any society at a given point in time is the outcome of decades and sometimes centuries of conditioning and adaptation. Let the Zeitgeist work, but progress is bound to be slow.
Tailpiece: The picture got me intrigued enough. I even had a suspicion that it couldn’t be real- the lady and a whole lot of people in the picture are too good-looking, nay even glamorous. So I did some googling to check on the source. I couldn’t identify the source, but I did find the picture on a couple of websites. There wasn’t any clue to who the lady was or where it was taken or first published, but I learnt that this picture was originally banned on several websites as some deemed it to be indecent exposure. Among those websites where it was banned is Facebook, with its origins in one of the most so-called liberal of societies!
“But you’re laughing”
(Dude when I call and leave a message you seldom call back. And now when I hadn’t really called you call out of the blue. How am I expected to react?)
I didn’t say that.
“Here I was so bored I was hoping to find at least a cat to talk to”
Don’t know what he found so amusing in it. The next day he presented himself with a big grin “Here’s a cat you can talk to”
The last letter
Written on paper
Was an act of faith
A fragile oath
Words of love or hate
Torn to random shreds
Perchance it just took
A careless cigarette stub
Tucked under closed doors
By an indifferent hand,
To be stolen by the wind,
Read by monsoon’s tears
Or trampled under shoes
Rushing to meet goals
The last sent letter
Those complicated times
Opened to weary eyes
On a closed face
Or did it reach out late
For a heart long since stopped to beat?
What happens when one has too many thoughts and feelings that do not find their way out?
A common thought, especially in my parts of the world, is that they all build up to volcanic release at some inconvenient moment. A poet friend recently wrote of ‘the storm within’.
I somehow find this to be untrue. A lot of loving letters, ideas that captured my imagination at the moment of inception, died down just because I could not put them down in paper. Now I have only a vague memory of what I wanted to do with them.
Sure there is a gestation period. But once the time has come, the word has to be out. Else, it just dies, much like the baby that’s trapped in the womb.
There’s a difference though-unlike the baby, the idea doesn’t leave much to look at.
- Anne Naylor: Igniting an Unspoken Conversation (huffingtonpost.com)
Thought let me post a few two-line paraboles that occured at various points in the last few years.
Has anyone heard of this invention called two-line paraboles? I’m pretty sure I can apply for patent. Any contenders, revert at the earliest.
Definition: Two-line paraboles are the female equivalent of one-liners, which is a male thing.Anatomy prevents women from hitting the mark as sharp as men.
An epitaph for myself: Here lies a woman who stopped two inches short of being the bitch. She didn’t have the strength of character to go the remaining distance.
Fools rush in and have a blast. Angels hesitate forever.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. From there the danger increases exponentially with the level of knowledge.
I know these sound like dark thoughts. I hope to come up with upbeat stuff in subsequent posts.
The brain has weird ways- out of nowhere a song or image appears and it goes on playing for hours, sometimes days on end. That’s what happened today- of all things a rhyme from school days pops in and I’m stuck with it.
Twenty froggies went to school,
Down beside a rushy pool
Twenty little coats of green
Twenty vests all white and clean
SO ON AND SO FORTH N NUMBER OF TIMES…
But then came along a couple of observations:
One, the froggies don’t seem to resent that they have to attend the classes. Not one seems to be bunking. It’s not that learning is all fun for them. The master bullfrog is all grave and stern, and they have to study before playtime.
Two, there are no dropouts or failures. All twenty froggies came out polished to a high degree as each froggie ought to be. Not one was a dunce.
That’s it. This may sound like a prim n propah victorian picture but it’s so true. Not only froggies- doggies, kitten and all other beings except humans seem to learn what they need to. There are no dunces, no dropouts, no failures- only smart ones, smarter ones and smartest ones. What’s with us humans?
- Mr. Dwimbles, The Psychadelic Froggie from Elthos RPG (elthosrpg.blogspot.com)
- Expansion by Contraction?: (brothersjuddblog.com)