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April 01, 2005

A matter of Choice.

On the surface, it looked like what we were talking about last week and this week were about innovation, controlling emotion, finding one�s passion and commitment. Throughout the dialogues, regardless of what was at focus at any point, everyone seemed to be asking the same question: what is the first step I can take (to innovate, to control emotion etc) and how can I take it.

For a while, this looked like a very practical question to ask. I thought we are at least not intellectually engaged but do want to find some actionable answers. Yet, we were going in circles as if we are tip-toeing around something concrete and real that we could commit to. While no one said it, everyone seemed to be looking for more clarity, some �aha� insight, some well defined door that they could open to get started. We recognized that we were facing �starting trouble�. I saw this in me as much as I saw this in others.

Whether we admit or not, I think we are usually very attached to the expected results and afraid of possible failure. So, we want to be sure. We want to hold on to something that will help us take that first step. We think our primary state is one of �no-choice�. And keep looking for that one thing that might finally give us a choice to do something right about our passion or concerns.

Hence the question, �Why am I not taking actions even if I am aware of what I need to improve or control or explore?�

Perhaps the first step one needs to take need not be a significant step towards the goal. Any step that helps us get �unstuck� from where we are would suffice.

We went on to discuss some things that might help us get unstuck.

The filter that keeps us stuck:

We generally look the world through our own unique filter that we have created with the help of our family, culture, social conditions etc. The more we use our filter, we tend to interpret everyone else�s actions through our filter and come to believe that everyone else too is using the same filter. In other words, we corner ourselves to think that there is only one way to look at the world � a state of no-choice. As long as we live within the state of no-choice, every single thing we need to do becomes a matter of great concern: we cannot afford to make a mistake! Our time, effort, resources � all of them become precious and we do not want to use them unless we can be sure in some way that the action we take, to the best of our knowledge, is the right thing or the proven thing.

The more aware we are of our filter, the more choices will open up for us.

For example, Prasad shared a story from Mahabarata:

Once Dhronacharya makes a statement. He says, �Our attitude determines what we find and not find, what we do and don�t do.�

Intrigued by this statement, the students ask him prove it. He agrees and calls Duriyodana and Yudishtra. He asks them to go around the city of Hastinapura and find out what is the most prevalent behavior of people in how they relate to each other.

Duriyodana comes back and reports, �Master, everywhere I went, I saw that people are very selfish. Everything they say and do is towards their own benefit.�

Then Yudishtra comes back and reports, �Master, everywhere I went, I saw people are good intentioned and want to use every opportunity to help each other even under very difficult situations.�

Dronacharya shows a mocking surprise in his voice and asks, �Did you two go to the same city?�

As the story illustrates, the filter we wear greatly influences how we look at the world. Without an acute awareness of their filter, Duriyodana and Yudishtra are likely to view everyone as selfish or helpful respectively and hence any action they take would be limited to what their specific filter allows them to do � a state of few or no-choice.

The �felts� that keep us stuck:

David Bohm, the physicist-philosopher made the observation that similar to �thinking and thoughts� we have �feeling and felts�. He said that most of the time when we experience an emotion, it is not a genuine feeling that arises in the �now� in response to the current situation. Whereas, he said, it is a recollection of a stored emotion (a �felt�) that got triggered by the current situation.

Felts come in the way of experiencing fresh and genuine feeling in the present. To the extent the emotions we experience come from our memories, we limit ourselves from feeling anything new, and hence, limit our choices in finding new ways to make ourselves better.

Needs that keep us stuck:

Everything I do, I realize that comes from one or more needs that I have consciously or unconsciously. As long as I operate from my need, I shut down all other inputs, external and internal, that do not have an immediate relevance to that need. For example, sitting in a circle discussing about Innovation, Pain, Choice etc, I open my mouth to say something only if I am convinced within myself that what I am about to say is meaningful or is adding value or at the least, is funny. All of these are needs that decide what I conceive in my mind to share. They also decide what I will choose to listen to. So, if I feel that something said by another person does not have enough meaning, I am likely to discard it instantly. So, my need to look for meaning, value or humor, however good they are, limit by ability to listen and respond in a way that is natural, spontaneous, authentic and mindful of the present.

I wonder what would happen if, at all times, I am aware of the need that is motivating me to think or do an action. I think it would suddenly open a choice for me to look at my thoughts, actions and the situation I am in from outside my need. My perspective then, would become larger and might allow me to still act upon my need, but in such a way that the result of my action satisfies more than my need � perhaps would create lesser side effects or benefit more people.

Let me finish this post with three examples shared by the participants that show how we limit our choices:

Internet? The Mainframe has it.

Dinesh shared the story of how many efforts by people who were giving birth to the Internet in the early 60�s were stymied by people who believed that everything that needs to be done in computing is already there in the Mainframe. For their life, Dinesh said, the Mainframe folks could not conceive what we now consider to be the most natural way to look at the integration of computing and communication: The Interent � a distributed network of many computers talking to each other. So, what was once a great invention, the Mainframe computer, became a thick filter that did not allow people who worked on it to frame computing and communication differently.

How the death of a friend solved a centuries-old, oft-fatal mystery.

Prasad shared the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, who, in the 1860�s fought to bring about a simple change in the way doctors treated pregnant women: He wanted them to wash their hands. The suggestion from Semmelweis and other doctors like Thomas Watson and Wendell Holmes that doctors should wash their hands before treating pregnant women was ridiculed. Charles Meigs, a well known obstetrician, was incensed at the suggestion he may himself be transmitting disease. Doctors, he said, are gentlemen, and gentlemen�s hands are clean.

Read the full story here: http://www.mja.com.au/public/issues/177_11_021202/dec10354_fm.pdf

The story reveals that most doctors were so close-minded that they refused to consider the possibility that the centuries old disease puerperal sepsis or childbed fever as it was known could be caused by unclean hands in spite of ample evidence that made the connection. One of the main reason was , at that time, the existence of bacteria was not yet discovered. In the absence of �scientifically acceptable� evidence, most doctors continued to ignore enormous amount of experiential evidence at the cost of thousands of deaths of babies and mothers.

What the spastic kids taught.

Once I heard a story from a person, I think her name is Sangeeta, who worked with spastic children. She told me about a woman who could not handle breakable objects since childhood. Everyone knew that that woman is not to be trusted with glasses and china cups because she is sure to drop them. And it was true; she did drop them most of the time. Then Sangeeta said she invited that woman to the school to do a little experiment. She asked the woman to serve tea to a hundred spastic kids who cannot keep their hands steady and lack hand-eye coordination.

The woman was scared to death. But with enough encouragement, she served tea to a hundred kids and helped them drink it without breaking a single cup!

Sangeeta said, �When her attention shifted from the fear of dropping the cup to helping someone else hold it steadily, her past pattern got broken. She had new eyes to look at the task.�

When I shared this story with the group, I thought of something else that is intriguing: What if that woman was dropping cups not because she did not know how to hold them but because she has �learnt� to drop them? We normally think of our inadequacies as things we have not learnt. But chances are, if we are not able to do something well; we might have learnt not to do it well.

Prasad often talks about how we need to unlearn in order to bring about significant changes in our lives. The term unlearning indicates that one can unlearn only what is already present in us. So whenever we think we �lack� something to do a task well, we may want to re-look at it and ask ourselves, �Is there something present that is blocking my ability to do the task well?�


Next time you are about to do something important, ask yourself whether that is the only choice you have. If the answer is yes, ask yourself what could be keeping you stuck to that choice.

Posted by Ragu at April 1, 2005 02:51 AM

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