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The Art of Asking Questions

think stencil art & graffiti cat

think stencil art & graffiti cat (Photo credit: urbanartcore.eu)

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?

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May 8, 2013 Posted by | communication, consciousness, creativity, self expression, talk, Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Long Distance Questions

Varieties of disbelief

Varieties of disbelief (Photo credit: jcbear2)

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)?

March 10, 2013 Posted by | consciousness, freud, jung, psychology, Uncategorized | , , , | 2 Comments

The Life of a Word

Not sure if someone has said this before: “writing to me is like a snake shedding its skin. I move on and the thought is no longer part of me”. This is how I have often felt- at least during my early writing experience. There is a certain kind of re-emergence happening.

There is a difference though. The skin the snake sheds is a lifeless thing. It just lies there. One need not elaborate on the power of the word. All the great literature of the world, all the oratory stand testimony to that.

Isn’t it strange, the power a word has? What is a word after all? A word is just a symbol of an object or a thought. It is a mere carrier, without mass. Except when written, a word doesn’t require space either.

Is it energy or life a word has? Is a word like a knife thrown or a bullet shot? Perhaps. Except, the path of a knife or bullet is fairly predictable. In the hand of a good marksman it finds its target. Else, the path is still a simple curve. Not so with the word. Even the most expert writer or orator cannot chart the course a word takes.

Maybe a word is a living thing. It feeds on emotions and needs. Perhaps it is akin to a virus- once thrown out, it lies dormant and acquires full life only when it finds another live thing. And then it all depends on how the host is wired.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | communication, consciousness, philosophy, self expression, talk, Uncategorized | , , , | 3 Comments