Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Flexible Eye

For most people, there are moments of happiness, and moments of sorrow, and the rest of the time there is the momentum of the past, or nothing.

The mind that seeks more moments of happiness outwardly (via sex, money, intoxication, distraction) can be said to be neurotic. Most therapists would agree.

The mind that looks for a permanent bliss inwardly (through the various kinds of delusions, meditations, inner awareness, dismantling of one's psyche, and so on) is neurotic in a very different way.

Perhaps the balance between the inner and the outer, being a continued effort of learning and adjusting, is the solution. But it is a dynamic solution, requiring continued effort, not something which can be formulated once and for all, and for everybody.

To have a mind which is interested in things other than itself, which finds joy in others (even things), and at the same time, which is capable of reflection and change, is perhaps most suited to a fulfilling and happy life.

To have both inner and outer goals, to want something both for oneself and for someone else, to have a healthy psyche and a comfortable home, to have love in one's heart and also to have loved ones, to learn from self-observation as well as from what others say, to have an eye which can look both within and without, to have questions as well as answers, to have lips as well as ears, to know, and to know that there is still more to know, to take delight in solitude as well as in others' company, to create as well as to consume, to be a giver as well as to be a recipient, ...

There is no ONE solution to life's problems because life is vast, and any solution which seems to solve everything is an excision, an exclusion, an escape. To live with the knowledge that there will be problems as well as solutions, that there will be suffering and sorrow and joys and regrets and attachments and heartaches and kindness and cruelty and all that, to be with oneself knowing that one is imperfect, to be with others accepting them in their mild imperfections, but to still want to be a little better, to still want others to continue their journeys to be better, while not expecting final perfection...

To understand that perfection is meaningless because one is always in interaction, that one is not an island at all, that because there are myriad hues and colors and touches and feelings and situations that one comes across there is no meaning to being a-priori perfect and thinking that one has achieved one's destiny, that life is dynamic and any label about oneself which is absolute is bound to be torn asunder by time, that an eye which is fixated, either on the inner or the outer, becomes a stone eye and goes blind.

And that sight is worse than blindness which believes it has seen it all.

An alive eye is that which keeps moving. Which turns inward at times, pops out of its sockets at something outward at times, goes asleep at times, tries on different goggles, dilates and gets wet at times, and remembers to wink once in a while...

Spiritualists have traditionally condemned extroversion, and introversion has been pooh-poohed by those who believe there is but one earthly life to live. Perhaps the solution is not a rejection of both, but an embrace of both.

To exclusively focus neither on one's own navel, nor on the belly dancer's. But perhaps, to be interested in both.

Films Seen Recently

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010): A standout performance by Natalie Portman in an otherwise humdrum exploration of "corruption of the soul" (synonymous with growing out of puberty, mostly). The ballet cinematography is interesting, but only the final sequence evokes a "wow", and that too possibly due to the special effects. Some startle moments (with a loud sound, groan) cheapen the film. Long back I read that Movement IV in Vangelis' El Greco is about Corruption and Innocence, but that is a matter of interpretation. Vincent Cassel's surprise joy when he is spontaneously kissed in the end was a little theatrical. Is he supposed to be a hardened libertine or not?

127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010): Stellar cinematography, a pulsing score, a great performance, a tight script, and based on a true story. What more can one ask for? But there is more. Like in Touching the Void (Kevin MacDonald, 2003), the end of the film evokes strong feelings of elevation. It is not nearly the same film as Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007) because this time the protagonist actually knows somethings. And who could guess that this film would end up being a critique of narcissism? "That scene" is done expertly. Nerve-shattering, literally.

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010): The various networks, the class hierarchy, and then the invention of an addiction. I appreciated the technical accuracy of the putting together of FaceMash. "wget -A" in a mainstream film, for crying out loud! Justin Timberlake's performance was a breeze of fresh air, I thought. The protagonist is more a series of fumbling acts than a character. And where are the parents? I didn't want it to end, though.

Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010): It is a vignette of life in a particular region. The story for me was secondary. It was the backdrop, the culture, the mise-en-scene which was far more enjoyable. Of course the main actress is a peach, and I loved the little sister. The story felt made-up though. The ending, too convenient. It was, once again, the small details of the film, which remain etched in my memory. A few examples: the way the little sister wakes up her brother in the beginning; the way the auctioneer speaks (by the way, the ne plus ultra of auction voices is in Herzog's Stroszek); the plopping down on the bed, with the baby in the middle, while visiting her friend. An experience.

Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010): A long take on an exceptional individual and on his relationships, with echoes of The Baader Meinhof Complex (Uli Eidel, 2008). The politicians are crafty, but human. The terrorist is an enigma. Deluded? Driven? Daring? I saw the long, 330 minutes full version.

Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008): Ultimately a lesser film than Winter's Bone, I thought. It is meant to be a thriller, though. With a standout scene when she volunteers to surrender, this film didn't leave much of an imprint. The phone recording sequence was a stroke of genius while the baby episode seemed more like a trick.

The Company Men (John Wells, 2010): The CEOs and execs are people too! America will be great again. I almost expected Michael Bolton's When I'm back on my feet again in the end credits. What an angelic wife Rosemarie Dewitt's character is though. She seems to have read everything by John Gray.

Machete (Robert Rodrigues & Ethan Maniquis, 2010): Now here's a film for all you highbrow folks. The high point of the film: the vehicles groveling at the gates, towards the end. Amazingly bad. So bad it is good. Atrocious B-grade cinema at its best. You must have seen the trailer in the Grindhouse films.

The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010): An also-ran to Heat (Michael Mann, 1995). Ben Affleck acts only with his eyes, it seems. And that too, not too much. Too much botox on the face? One is supposed to empathize with these guys who terrorize others and rob banks because they came from bad neighborhoods. They are tough, see.

Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010): A horror story, in a way. Essential viewing for all budding narcissists. Or for those who isolate themselves and wonder what is wrong with them. Sometimes cuts too close to the bone.

A Solitary Man (Brian Koppelman & David Levien, 2009): A tale of redemption, eh? Even the worst assholes have their reasons, no? If you have seen The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand, 2003), you will know what I mean. But this is in some ways a more nuanced portrait of a man who has certain cynical views about the world. Interesting, in the end.

Wall Street 2 (Oliver Stone, 2010): Meh. Over-acted. Over-directed. Over-researched. Under-whelming.

Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008): Some of the confrontations looked staged and contrived. But Anne Hathaway deserves all the accolades that she got for her acting. The drive back from her mother's place was done in a harrowing and realistic manner. Addiction is a problem, but what one does to one's life while addicted is a greater regret. The multicultural spectacle was well-done, I thought, though it must have confused Americans no end to hear names of Indian dishes spoken as if they are well-known.

Monday, November 08, 2010

A Few Questions

On what do you usually spend your time and your money?

Do you consider that as the best use of your time and your money?

What are your highest values? What makes you "glad"?

Does what you do on most days accord with your highest values?

Do you see a way to live more in tune with your highest values?

Do you want to live your values, but repeatedly fail? Does each failure weaken you from a belief in yourself that you can live a more meaningful life? Is that failure a failure of will-power or of circumstances?

Can you do something, each day, that is an affirmation of what you really believe in and want to do?

Are you living a rationalized life? Where what saddens you has been explained and argued away?

Can you start afresh?

Saturday, November 06, 2010

I am Love by Luca Guadagnino

Starring the exquisitely talented Tilda Swinton, this is a beautiful film about tradition and transgression. Various members of a blue-blooded family are breaking the rules in their own ways, and while one (the son's marriage to a non-elite) is being accepted with good humor, the daughter's orientation is revealed only to those who can be trusted not to lash out at her. But it is the mother's love-affair with a man half her age that is the fulcrum of the film.

Metaphors abound in this film. Water in various forms signifying the freeze or flow of emotions, curtains as banishment, large and small doors as openings to another world, ...

In many traditions, a lustful mother is a reviled character, hated by her progeny for being anything else but a nurturer. In a strange twist later in the film, the cost and consequence of the mother's lust suddenly become larger than life, and it seems that she will not be able to withstand the pressure. Will she, won't she?

The idyllic scenes in the mountains reminded of the family outing of Stellet Licht. Civilization is a scaffolding of nature, and nature shown unadorned as plants, trees, insects, birds, and finally humans only serves to focus us on the gilded, crystallized, mannered unnaturalness of the other world.

This is also an interesting film on privilege and class. While a prince charming a humble maid is a fairy tale in almost all cultures, a servant charming the queen is almost always regarded as worthy of the harshest punishment. Without exception, honor killings in primitive societies involve the relationship of a humble man with a woman from a more privileged background.

The "man" is shown as an culinary aesthete, and I could not but help reflect that his almost feminine sensitivity or his refinement as a lover was (by a directorial touch, no doubt) balanced by his masculine disregard for his appearance, and his "truck" and his beard.

There are many moments of revelation and recognition in the film. And I loved the way nothing was said during those moments, but the nuanced facial expressions, the breaths, the self-conscious brushing of the hair, said it all.

This film reminded me of two other European films: The Celebration, and After the Wedding. Other reviewers have mentioned Visconti's The Leopard.

This film confirms my opinion about Tilda Swinton as an actress with an enormous range. Her character in Julia could not have been more different than in this, and both are different than the calculating, corporate woman of Michael Clayton. All three are stand-out performances.

Another slow, picturesque film with European sensibilities that I recently enjoyed was the thriller The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tips on Sleeping Better

Mostly I have a restful night, but very very rarely, not so much. Over the years, I have formed certain conclusions about what leads to a good night's sleep (and a good morning), and what doesn't. Maybe some can be useful for anybody, while some other suggestions may be only for a few.

Here are some tips and biases and experiential "nuggets" from one who considers sleeping one of life's essential pleasures, and who thinks that a day is to a large measure as good as the night prior:
  • Sleep alone. You may be married, or in a relationship and I don't wish you to be celibate. But consider this carefully. Some people (especially women) may be fond of a "stuffed animal" or a "hugging pillow" while they sleep, but sleeping next to living thing is not without its distractions. In many traditional societies (for example, village joint families), a husband and wife go to their separate rooms (or sections in the home) after enjoying conjugal bliss. I think it may have helped to keep the attraction alive for a longer time. I know the limitations of cramped apartments and nuclear families or large families, so this is only if you can afford it.

  • Sleep on your back (with hands folded on your tummy) or on your left side (with legs bent). Any other posture will either lead to labored breathing, or indigestion and build-up of stomach gases. I was pleased to find at least the left-side posture confirmed by medicinal studies.

  • Do not eat for a few hours before going to bed. If you are having a late dinner, have a light dinner. I don't recommend eating beyond 10pm anyway.

  • Having a glass of hot milk before sleeping has been generally recommended in traditional Indian families (my grandparents used to do this without fail), though it may not suit the lactose intolerant. And of course, do not have caffeine during the night.

  • Always either brush your teeth, or at least enthusiastically rinse your mouth before going to sleep. I also recommend washing your face.

  • If you are tired, having a warm bath before sleeping works wonders.

  • As much as possible, do not have vigorous air circulation where you sleep. That is, unless it is very hot, keep the fan speed to a minimum. It dries the skin and the hair.

  • If you sleep in an air-conditioned area, make sure the draft does not strike you on your face. You may catch a cold. And keep it just cool enough, not cold, as it will get colder as the night progresses.

  • Sleeping under the stars is a great experience but not very easy to have in a city.

  • Have at least some ventilation, unless it is stormy and deathly cold. Just a couple of mm opening in a window is enough.

  • Do not sleep stark naked under the sheets. This may be an accepted practice in rich homes in cold climates with heated interiors and private bedrooms, but in any other climate or culture, it is a bad idea. Unless you want to wash your sheets every day.

  • Always keep a sheet, even if it is warm enough when you go to sleep. It may turn cool during the night.

  • Reading something in the bed is a good aid to sound sleep, and takes your mind off what happened during the day.

  • Either have a soft pillow, or a thin pillow. A thick pillow is not good for your neck, especially if you sleep on your back. Modern desk jobs make people slouch and crane their necks forward, you only worsen it by having a pillow which stretches your neck muscles.

  • Try to go to sleep before midnight. Most people get up at around the same time every morning. The later you sleep, the more sleep-deprived you will feel the next day. I like to go to sleep before 11pm, and I wake up, almost everyday, at 6am.

  • Keep your feet warm in wintertime. Wearing a fresh pair of cotton or wool socks is a good way to do it. It also means you don't accidentally step on the cold floor if you have to get up during the night.

  • Silence your mobiles etc. and keep them away from you.

  • It is good to have a very faint light (almost like moonlight) coming into your room through a white curtain. Do not completely block outside light. In the morning, it is pleasant to have the room get slowly lighter in shade from the outside light. It helps you wake up.

  • Keep a glass of water, a clock, and napkins by the bedside when you go to sleep.

  • Eating in bed (whether at night, or in the morning) is not a good idea. It leads to germs and stains and general sloppiness. Media has portrayed "room-service breakfasts" (having food served to you in bed) to be a luxury. Of course you can't have it at home (you will end up soiling and spoiling the bed linen), but maybe that's the point. To generate two kg of laundry (four towels, bed sheets, pillow cases) every day if you are staying in a hotel is such a luxury. Bah.

  • If you are a couple, and if you have to sleep together, let the woman sleep on the left. This is not an esoteric tip. There are reasons for this. A man generally wants to feel protective of his woman, and if he sleeps on the left side of his body, as well as on the right side of the bed, he has his wife in his field of vision. And humans are right handed, and if he is on the left side of the bed, it may be more convenient for mammalian activities (feminists may want to decry both these "reasons"). Anyway, I like to sleep on the left side of the bed, so, there!

  • Keep the bed linen fresh and clean smelling. Make your bed when you get up in the morning.

  • Rinse your mouth the first thing in the morning. Have a glass or two of warm water. (ref this tasteless joke).

  • In the mornings, keep the first hour quiet and calm. Slowly let your body and mind regain their activity; and even if you are fresh and active when you get up, remain contemplative. I am pretty sure it is impossible when there are children in the house (a solitary morning-walk is a good idea if there are many occupants in the home). I have known some people who immediately switch on the television or start banging things in the kitchen or start talking. Some people may also like a bit of prayer, light chanting or instrumental music when the day breaks.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Debate on God

A debate between Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston was filmed ABC Nightline. The title of the debate was "Does God have a Future?".

What I find remarkable in the debate is the hatred and arrogance in Deepak Chopra's body language coexisting with his verbiage of oneness and compassion.

The debate is split into 12 parts (each of about 8-10 minutes) and is available here on YouTube.

Some comments about this debate (apart from those on the YouTube videos themselves) are here and here.

The Stress and The Coping

Psychological stress is the brain's state in a situation where the cost of "taking it easy" is high.

A few examples.

Driving in heavy chaotic traffic is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is accident and death), preparing for an exam is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is professional and social disgrace), taking care of a child in a war-zone is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is to lose a life), keeping one's job in a time of recession is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is bankruptcy), ensuring one's credit report is clean is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is not being able to buy a car or a house in the future), listening to one's resentful spouse is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is escalation of conflict, separation and potentially divorce), living in a crowded metro is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is not being able to get anything done).

Stress is also there when a situation is felt to be out of one's control. One feels less stressed if one feels capable of solving a problem on one's own. A toilet failing (or the non-arrival of the maid/babysitter) in a modern home is a rather stressful situation.

Stress is not just because the individual is fearful, cautious, apprehensive, greedy, ambitious or insecure. The situation may very well deserve a heightened-attention response. Some people are less stressed about the same event. Once again, that may be due to the individual's affective make-up, as well as his preparedness for the worst outcome. For example, a man with a savings worth a few years' salary will be less stressed about losing his job than one who has no savings and is living on credit. And a man who has no family to support may be less stressed about news of corruption in health-care than one who has asthmatic kids and a diabetic wife.

Modern urban and white-collar life is psychologically stressful despite all the comforts and institutional support mechanisms because of the ... comforts and institutional support mechanisms. Let me explain. If you live in a big city, you need to spend a not insignificant amount of money to have decent housing, you need to have more possessions (e.g. a vehicle, telephone) than a villager because you will be otherwise handicapped and require special and discretionary treatment. I have a friend who refuses to learn driving. It is a good thing he is rich and has a driver. Others who are as stubborn might have to sweat it out in the grimy buses and with rude auto-wallahs.

Most of the so-called comforts of city life are almost necessities. Yes, having them means one can go to a multiplex and sleep in a cool room. But not having them in the city is worse than not having them in a village where they are not needed to fulfill the basic needs. I cannot stress this enough.

Similarly, institutional support (roads, traffic, police, ambulances, hospitals, fire brigades) is a necessity in a large city. But institutions mean that you delegate some very crucial aspects of your life to others. You depend on others in a significant way, and hence maintaining the quality of those institutions becomes a stressful concern.

Most of all, however, the institution of money is what I think leads to an unavoidable situation of stress. Money is a contract about future interactions in which the terms of the contract (inflation, purchasing power, interest rates, duties/taxes, bank solvency) are mostly controlled by others. This leads to a peculiar feeling that no amount of money is ever enough. Without money, you can't move an inch in a modern civilization (and exceptions are therefore remarkable). Money is an institution which one can't do without, and which is to a frightening degree out of one's control. Hence, stress.

It is easy to comprehend that to reduce one's commitments and engagements is a way to reduce stress. The less one has to engage with others, the less the things which are dependent on oneself, the less dependent one is on others, and the less one is affected by changes in circumstances.

It is also easy to comprehend that to manage similar levels of stress better (for example, some stock traders sleep better than others) is a useful skill. Some people are able to "handle" stress better and though some of it may be due to their constitution, better responses to stressful situations can certainly be cultivated through various practices.

Stress is a psychological response to a challenging situation. If one is bothered by the mental state in a situation of stress, one either works at the psychological response, or at the situation.

People differ in the mechanisms they can muster to cope with stressful situations. Since these are volatile times of rapid change, some people can choose to drop out (to various extents) from the flux and flow of society. They may want to live in a village, or in a commune, or live as a retired person, etc.

Others can adapt various dissociative techniques, denials, paradigms and psychological postures to inure themselves from feeling stressed. A possible psychological posture may be to say "So What?" to a situation of stress (not that I recommend this posture). Others may find solace in prayer and community.

Given that each person differs in their affective make-up, inclination, intellectual capacities, and in their circumstances, there is no one-size-fits-all coping solution. Some may be more inclined to religion, some to books, some to traveling, some to remaining bachelors or spinsters, some who are highly capable of handling stress may become entrepreneurs, some may take to crime, some may want to effect a "radical mutation in their brain", and so on and so forth.

And the important thing to me seems to be: Unless one's coping mechanism introduces even more stress in others than it reduces in oneself, generally one should be left alone with one's devices.

If a fringe guru/ideologue is advocating some arcane spiritual/social remedy and if people are gathering around him feeling interested, no need to fret. To each his own. It is when they force others to adapt their beloved remedy that things get ugly.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Recipes for Happiness, part one

A thought came to my mind: Why not start a collection of recipes for happiness that other people (whether laymen or experts) have proposed? This can also include lists such as guidelines for a fulfilling life.

The only criterion is that the list should contain clear statements, instead of consisting of general principles or of vague aphorisms (an example of the latter kind is Seven Habits of Highly Effective People). The lists may be serious or lighthearted, all are welcome!

Please contribute in the comments section!

And please, no self-created lists. I am looking to collect only recipes authored by famous people or authors, or the results of extensive surveys.

I make no recommendation for these recipes. In other words: Buyer Beware, Pick and choose, No warranties, etc.

Let me seed the collection with three lists:


Khushwant Singh

First and foremost is good health. If you do not enjoy good health, you can never be happy. Any ailment, however trivial, will deduct something from your happiness.

Second, a healthy bank balance. It need not run into crores, but it should be enough to provide for comforts, and there should be something to spare for recreation—eating out, going to the movies, travel and holidays in the hills or by the sea. Shortage of money can be demoralising. Living on credit or borrowing is demeaning and lowers one in one’s own eyes.

Third, your own home. Rented places can never give you the comfort or security of a home that is yours for keeps. If it has garden space, all the better. Plant your own trees and flowers, see them grow and blossom, and cultivate a sense of kinship with them.

Fourth, an understanding companion, be it your spouse or a friend. If you have too many misunderstandings, it robs you of your peace of mind. It is better to be divorced than to be quarrelling all the time.

Fifth, stop envying those who have done better than you in life—risen higher, made more money, or earned more fame. Envy can be corroding; avoid comparing yourself with others.

Sixth, do not allow people to descend on you for gup-shup. By the time you get rid of them, you will feel exhausted and poisoned by their gossip-mongering.

Seventh, cultivate a hobby or two that will fulfil you—gardening, reading, writing, painting, playing or listening to music. Going to clubs or parties to get free drinks, or to meet celebrities, is a criminal waste of time. It’s important to concentrate on something that keeps you occupied meaningfully. I have family members and friends who spend their entire day caring for stray dogs, giving them food and medicines. There are others who run mobile clinics, treating sick people and animals free of charge.

Eighth, every morning and evening devote 15 minutes to introspection. In the mornings, 10 minutes should be spent in keeping the mind absolutely still, and five listing the things you have to do that day. In the evenings, five minutes should be set aside to keep the mind still and 10 to go over the tasks you had intended to do.

Ninth, don’t lose your temper. Try not to be short-tempered, or vengeful. Even when a friend has been rude, just move on.

Above all, when the time comes to go, one should go like a man without any regret or grievance against anyone. Iqbal said it beautifully in a couplet in Persian: "You ask me about the signs of a man of faith? When death comes to him, he has a smile on his lips."

The SOEP Survey:

1. Having an emotionally stable (non-neurotic) marital partner;
2. Prioritizing altruistic and/or family goals;
3. Attending church; and
4. Making a satisfactory trade-off between work and leisure - both are important, but need to be balanced.

Robert Fulghum (author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten)
  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don't hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don't take things that aren't yours.
  • Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK.

Monday, October 18, 2010

On Intuition

"I don't know how to explain it, but ..."

"My instinct tells me ..."

"It's got a bad vibe."

"It just feels right."

Intuition is unreflected understanding or preference. It doesn't result from cogitation or meditation, but is a rough-and-ready response to a situation.

Infants and animals work predominantly from this sense of intuition. Adults, however, having a cogitating organ, have a choice whether to behave intuitively or whether to take a considered approach.

Women are generally believed to have a stronger sense of intuition.

What is intuition? What is its basis? Is it trustworthy?

If one understands the mental apparatus to be working at various levels, intuition can be usefully considered as subliminal processing of data. There is a vast reservoir of accumulated knowledge in the human brain, which manifests itself as subconscious reactions. This reservoir is formed both genetically (patterns at birth) and culturally (after birth).

Intuition leads to an affective pull or push towards a situation. One can intuitively feel ill at ease, and intuitively feel as if everything "clicks" and that one should go ahead.

The conscious brain and the hidden layers work in tandem to help our survival and propagation. These hidden layers are part of our collective intelligence formed over eons of responding to situations and circumstances. The neo-cortex, on the other hand, is more structured and algorithmic.

Perhaps a useful way to understand our responses is the following ladder of structural thinking, each successive rung more structured than the former:
  • Dreams
  • Moods
  • Feelings
  • Intuition
  • Verbal Thought (Language and Thinking)
  • Written Thought (Planning and Calculating)
And of course, we can consider communication (discussions, interaction, feedback) as a way to involve more than one person in the process, and digitized thought (algorithms and computers) as a way to further formalize written thought.

When one of these rungs is insufficiently informed, we feel unsure of ourselves. But usually, in times of uncertainty and ambiguity, it feels more satisfying to go with the lower rung (e.g. intuition instead of thought, a gut feeling about the market instead of following a trading algorithm), since the lower rung is more affective in nature.

Each of these rungs can lead to erroneous or sub-optimal responses, but it is important to realize that each of these rungs is a part of a spectrum of internal processing, and is based upon a certain body of accumulated knowledge which must have had validity at some point to have become part of our brains.

Intuition can be wrong because it is too diffuse and considers the variables in a fuzzy way, and structured thought can lead to ludicrous conclusions because it could be too discrete and leaves out significant variables.

An example is Diet Planning. Intuitively, one chooses foods based on taste and freshness (in general). Given that our taste centers evolved to favor fatty and sweet foods, this subconscious preference may not be healthy in modern times. On the other hand, conscious dieting may not consider the importance of taste and variety and may feel like a punishment. A good diet will taste good, and will also be low in calories. It is obviously foolish to advise someone to ignore taste and just "eat to live", and it is equally foolish to recommend someone to "live to eat".

In many other fields, however, our intuitive understanding may be very valid. A woman intuitively knows when a man is interested only in bedding her, and a man intuitively knows when he is being sold something in the garb of polite talk.

To disregard intuition is to handicap oneself and to limit oneself to the use of only conscious, structured thought. It is to assume that one's structured thought has reached such heights of efficiency that one no longer needs the collective intelligence coded into one's brain. That all beliefs, morals, the sense of conscience, the various affective memories, are not needed any more. The perils of this approach can only be imagined. In an extreme case, one may lose the plot completely and not know right from wrong, healthy from unhealthy, or become a social misfit, etc. Since structured thought can, given suitable assumptions, justify any proposition which is not inherently contradictory, a fully rational human being can become dangerously manipulative and self-serving in a way which is immune to being corrected. On what basis can you criticize a person who doesn't believe in anything other humans believe in? He will just say: "Mind your own business". The only sensible response (for a stranger) to such a person is to leave him/her alone, and the worst possible response to such a person is to emotionally invest oneself in him/her. I pity those (e.g. family members) who have no choice but to live with such a person and suffer the callous indifference.

On the other hand, to disregard structured thought is to live as an infant.

The media today is relentlessly demolishing our intuitive feelings of what is right and wrong by presenting the "wrongs" (the things our parents say are not to be done: smoking, promiscuity, drugs, drinking, gambling, driving fast and recklessly, eating unhealthy food) in a confusing way which looks "cool" and pleasurable. No wonder parents are highly stressed to be constantly course-correcting their children from dangerous behavior.

Exacerbated by media presence, it is the disease of modern times to disregard tradition as unequivocally unhealthy and stale, and to only "think for oneself" and be "on one's own". By presenting some outdated traditions as "sick", it is portrayed that to completely reject one's legacy is the only sensible way to live.

The knowledge of history and culture which could supplant intuition and lead to reasoned moral behavior is hard to impart and imbibe, and who has the time and the mental bandwidth? Affective rewards and punishments ("you will go to hell if you have sex before marriage" is an easier device to use).

In this way, the rejection of intuition (which is nothing but culture and conditioning) is related to amorality and narcissism.


Intuition is a very significant part of what makes us human. It is an inner compass which tells us if we are going right or wrong. If this faculty frequently leads to mistakes for a certain person, then perhaps it needs a re-tuning, rather than a rejection. An analogy would be the steering wheel of a car. If it is not working well, it needs to be fixed, rather than to be thrown out.

Intuition is the accumulated and distilled experiences of other human beings working through us. Yes, they could be wrong and we could be in a unique situation. But one would be foolish (not to say arrogant) to always only trust and depend upon oneself.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Misdirected Focus on the Inner

The fundamental mistake that a seeker makes is to seek an inner state of experiencing goodness, felicity or perfection that is unrelated to the outer.

When asked to describe yourself, describe what you do, not what you are, or how you feel.

Yes, intentions matter. But actions matter more. Great intentions are puny when compared to moderately helpful acts.

An act connects your mind to the outside world; intentions, goodness, perfection are solipsistic states. Talk is cheap.

When it is stated that altruism is as good/bad as selfishness because it leads to some form of pleasure for the agent, the mistake is so primal and paradigmatic that it may escape many: The state of the agent is only part of the picture. What is the state of the other? What has happened in the world other than the pleasant feeling in the agent's mind?

It's the primary focus on the inner (and remember, "inner" is ME) that is the hidden narcissism in hard-core spirituality and related disciplines.

When the focus of a self has turned primarily to the quality of inner experiencing without any relation to objective reality, as advised by sages of all ages, then the delusion starts.

This NY Times article is interesting:
Here’s one provocative consequence of this perspective on happiness. If happiness is not a state of mind, if happiness is a kind of tango between your feelings on one hand and events and things in the world around you on the other, then there’s the possibility of error about whether you’re happy. If you believe you’re experiencing pleasure or, perhaps especially, pain, then, presumably, you are. But the view of happiness here allows that “you may think you’re happy, but you’re not.”

One especially apt way of thinking about happiness — a way that’s found already in the thought of Aristotle — is in terms of “flourishing.” Take someone really flourishing in their new career, or really flourishing now that they’re off in college. The sense of the expression is not just that they feel good, but that they’re, for example, accomplishing some things and taking appropriate pleasure in those accomplishments. If they were simply sitting at home playing video games all day, even if this seemed to give them a great deal of pleasure, and even if they were not frustrated, we wouldn’t say they were flourishing. Such a life could not in the long term constitute a happy life. To live a happy life is to flourish.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Facts of Life, part 2


The human being, having an extended period of upbringing and education, is dependent upon its parents and its educators for many years. It is helped by the community to be a productive member of society, to be able to add value to others, so that it is in turn paid money or goods for its own survival.

One is helped to stand up, then one helps the next generation stand up, and so on.


This cycle can only succeed on the basis of something which complements an individual's selfish desire to survive. Namely: Altruism.

One is helped by one's parents in a combination of selfishness and altruism. The parents are selfish because it is their child, carrying their genes, but they are unambiguously altruistic in that their own pleasures take a back-seat to the child's.

Similarly, the community is a combination of selfishness (in that it regards the other communities as threatening) and altruism (in that it is willing to carry its weakest).

This is a precarious balance, and any community or individual which becomes too selfish or too altruistic does not last very long.

This double-standard, one for "one's own" and another for "the rest" is essential for the health and well-being of an individual or community.


The evolution of society, just like genetic evolution, happens when a change/mutation enhances the overall fitness. But unlike genes, social evolution can also be brought about consciously. That is the inevitable complexity of "progress". Society exists to propagate itself, and hence is resistant to change, even beneficial change.

The societies which evolve quickly, and are fitter, are those in which the cost of being different is not fatal. In those societies, ideas have a healthy ground on which to compete with each other, unlike primitive societies, in which difference in opinion is considered a blasphemy, sin or immorality.

However, it is obvious that a disregard or disdain for tradition can too easily become counter-productive. It is nobody's case that all change is good change, or that all tradition is bad. The quandary of modern societies is its desire to let individuals make their own life choices, but its wish for them to make "good" life choices.

An individual is a carrier of genes and traditions, to be passed on to the next carrier. An individual's life is of little consequence, compared to the life of genes and traditions. But that "little" consequence is not nil.

An average human being is important in a limited way, to a very small set of people, and an exceptional individual may, rarely, question a tradition in a way that echoes with others. The impact on a tradition of that questioning therefore depends upon whether the rest of the society is somewhat tired of that tradition as well. And it is worth considering that historically, many people came up with similar ideas at about the same time. The time was ripe.


To come to terms with suffering and mortality is therefore to accept that others, especially the next generation, may be more important than oneself. That one is a small part of a teeming species, a single member of a large community, a single carrier of ideas and genes which exist in others as well.

A narcissist cannot do that, and hence he struggles more than others against what he perceives as "needless" pain. The stress of inter-personal relationships, the depression of growing old and irrelevant, the resentment towards others' expectations, the demands of child-rearing are more acute in a narcissist, and he seeks solutions in which his fulfillment is unrelated to others' states. Where a parent might find some kind of fulfillment in seeing its children happy, or a scientist might find some kind of fulfillment in seeing a medicine save lives, a narcissist regards these fulfillment as conditional on others, and hence unsatisfactory. The only fulfillment worth its name to him is autonomous fulfillment.


Life as a whole may not matter much. But individuals matter even less than that.

In other words, it may all end one day. But you will definitely end sooner than that.

The end of narcissism is to start to live in a way in which your own happiness is not the foremost goal of your life.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On (the absence of) Edification

From an essay review of The Facts of Life (a little known book, probably out of print, containing a chaotic set of notes by R D Laing)
Laing reports that he finds it more and more difficult to write. Anyone who’s read much of his work can understand why. Indeed, one can foresee the day when he will lapse into the silence either of futility or madness. As he himself puts it, “If one thinks about what is the case and what is not the case seriously, intensely and long enough, one seems either to drive oneself insane or to come to the conclusion that almost everyone else is, or that we all are...”

Like Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, most of Laing’s books end with conclusions in which nothing is concluded. “If I could tell you, I would let you know,” he says in The Bird of Paradise. “The statement is pointless/The finger is speechless” are the closing words of Knots. On the last page of The Facts of Life, Laing tells us, “This book makes no pretensions to be a guide to the perplexed. I am myself perplexed.” But, as always, in trying to convey the nature of his own perplexity, Laing succeeds in helping us open our eyes to our own.
It echoes how I feel about writing these days.

What to describe, except the inexorability of our condition...

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Facts of Life, part 1


Humans, known taxonomically as Homo sapiens (Latin: "wise man" or "knowing man"), are the only extant species in the Homo genus of bipedal primates in Hominidae, the great ape family.

The human brain is the center of the human nervous system and is a highly complex organ. Enclosed in the cranium, it has the same general structure as the brains of other mammals, but is over three times as large as the brain of a typical mammal with an equivalent body size. Most of the expansion comes from the cerebral cortex, a convoluted layer of neural tissue that covers the surface of the forebrain. Especially expanded are the frontal lobes, which are associated with executive functions such as self-control, planning, reasoning, and abstract thought. The portion of the brain devoted to vision is also greatly enlarged in human beings.

Humans are physiologically at a disadvantage compared to many other species, but use their brains (as a leverage), and the resultant technology, in order to win the war of resources over other species and over other groups of humans. (Inter-specific and Intra-specific competition)

This war for resources is the fundamental war. All other wars and conflicts result from this underlying state of competition. "Resource" can be defined as something which enhances the possibilities of one's genetic survival.


This war for resources has continued since the advent of history. There was no golden period when there was no threat to one's genetic survival.

This war takes various forms: an actual war involving killing, as well as politics, society, law, career, industry, etc.

To be engaged in a war for resources with other species or other humans is a situation of stress. Let up, and you lose. Fight, and you have a chance of winning.

Since mind is the foremost tool of humans, "psychological stress" is the most common side-effect of engaging in this fight. "Psychological stress" can also be called "Suffering". This "suffering" can result from either the very engagement in battle (fear, anxiety, insecurity, etc.), or from having lost (sorrow, discontentment, ego-hurt).


Living in the civilized world leads to a different kind of stress than that of the uncivilized world. While in the uncivilized world, there is threat of physical injury, in the civilized world, there is the apprehension of being a "nobody".

This new problem, the problem of the "self" instead of that of the body, has been created over centuries of creating structures where symbols have become increasingly more central to our life. As one's strength in the competitive arena has become more and more symbolic (status symbols, property rights, bank figures, fashion), achieving success has also become a pursuit of symbols, which in many cases is a misguided pursuit (genetically speaking). For example, getting into debt to buy fashionable clothes or a larger television.

The socioeconomic forces have emphasized symbolic success so much that it has become second-nature for humans to want it, to the exclusion of almost anything else. It is after all a success which is recognized by one's civilized peers, but which may be meaningless in a jungle or in a tribal region.

Instead of genetic survival, something else seems to be driving the most daring of the civilized humans these days. People are racing cars, injecting drugs, jumping from cliffs tied to a bungee, having umpteen affairs with a sheath between their bodies, creating art films, etc.

As soon as technology solves the most pressing problems of biological survival in a population, psychological problems seem to enter the picture.

While it is easy to say that these are "higher" needs (cf Maslow), or "surrogate" needs which fulfill the need for a "power process" in man (cf the Unabomber Manifesto), or an indulgence in memetic reproduction (cf Dawkins), or the result of boredom, the fact is that many civilized humans are in a state of crisis, perverting the pursuit of their own biological/genetic success with dangerous activities. Dangerous to themselves, to their genetic future, to the environment, etc.

Why? And is it possible to reverse this?


There are various "paths" for those who are unwilling to fight it out for status and symbols in the civilized world. Their unwillingness may be due to a genuine seeing of the hollow nature of the symbols and of the perversity of the fight, or due to introversion or due to psychological weakness.

In many cases, they can, for having a purpose in life, completely turn to "inward" goals (which are also surrogate goals which do zilch for one's biological/genetic survival) and which are therefore perverse in their own way.

In most cases, however, inner goals are mechanisms for coping with the stress and frustration in the outer world.

Most people in the civilized world strike a path of compromise: having a few symbols to win the respect of one's peers, living a personal life of genetic/biological propagation (the householder life), having a secondary inward goal (praying everyday, taking a pilgrimage once in a while) so that outer frustrations do not overwhelm oneself, ...

What is a man, who considers this fight as perverse and futile, and considers the very notion of a "compromise" degrading, to do? Living in a village does injustice to his developed brain (where most problems are simply solved with a little bit of technology, and art films are probably not appreciated), and he abhors living in the city because he considers the pursuit of status symbols as absurd. If you live in a city and do not value status symbols, you will inevitably get very severely isolated. The city is a city of symbols.

For the developed brain which has managed to de-condition itself from the influences of culture, the world is a place of empty living, not of fulfilling engagement.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Few Quotations

(Culled from

It will be generally found that those who sneer habitually at human nature and affect to despise it are among its worst and least pleasant examples. (Charles Dickens, "Nicholas Nickleby")

The price of hating other humans is loving oneself less. (Eldridge Cleaver)

It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others. (John Andrew Holmes)

Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon. (Susan Ertz)

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless. (Stephen Weinberg)

When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together. (Isaac Asimov)

[Kepler] preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions, and that is the heart of science. (Carl Sagan, "Cosmos")

The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it. (George Bernard Shaw)

Remember, beneath every cynic there lies a romantic, and probably an injured one. (Glenn Beck)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Utility of Identity, part 2

Ego, as I understand it, is the emotionally invested persona that one feels and expresses in one's interpersonal relationships. Arrogance, humility, pride, self-esteem, insults, affirmation, rejection, etc. pertain to this phenomenon of our psychological world.

Before condemning something, it is generally worthwhile to consider the reasons for its existence. Ego has been condemned most vociferously by spirituality and religion, and to abnegate one's ego, to surrender it to a higher power has been considered a noble virtue.

If a child manages to jump across a manhole, if a man wins an award for a scientific breakthrough, if a professor knows that he understands a particular subject very deeply, they may feel proud and their "chest may swell".

On the other hand, if one is called a fool in public, if one discovers that one's wife is cheating on oneself, if a professor's paper is rejected by a journal, they may feel insulted, let down, and may feel depressed.

It must already be clear to astute readers that, in the evolutionary sense, ego and the feelings related to it are cues for us to gain status and respect of our peers.

Ego is only meaningful in a relationship with other human beings. Imagine a child growing up on a secluded island. It intuitively sounds correct that he will not have stored insults and would not have self-esteem issues.

The formation of the ego is also not very difficult to understand. As soon as one starts interacting with humans other than one's nourishing and caring mother, a challenge-response feedback loop is set up. One may justify a sole claim on one's mother (unfortunately one's father competes for that resource as well), but other resources in life are claimed by numerous competitors.

To thwart the competitors by physical force is one way, to deter them with social force (with the threat of physical force if they don't get the hint) is another.

Ego is the weapon of interpersonal intimidation which provides me with the power to psycho-socially subjugate others.

This weapon can be "rightly" gained in various ways. Through inheritance and association, through achievement, through hard work, through intellectual and artistic recognition, through wealth, through having an asset which is the envy of others, and so on and so forth.

Ego is the psychological marker of my worth and status in my peer group. I feel it, and others feel it.

And needless to say perhaps, a diminishing of one's ego is, simultaneously:

(a) Painful to oneself,
(b) Painful to those who are positively associated with oneself,
(c) Pleasant to those who stand to gain by my demotion,
(d) A trigger for the desire to regain the earlier state (e.g. by revenge)

Now, why do religions and spirituality condemn this phenomenon?

First of all, being egoistic makes one less inclined to defer to others' wishes, so it is a control tactic by the priestly classes, ruling cliques and the various gurus, etc.

Secondly, it can be counterproductive to be too egoistic in a group where one's interests align with others (e.g. in a family or clan). Hence, within certain limits, it may pay to "swallow one's pride" and therefore it may be considered a virtue in those contexts.

Thirdly, it is obviously painful to suffer an ego wound, and spirituality is a balm for those who, once humiliated and suffering from inferiority, have no urge to fight in the social arena and get back their ego status. It is an "inward" solution for those for whom the "outer" solutions are too stressful.

A true spiritualist will therefore not feel passionately inclined to do something which gains him status amongst his human peers. He will not be interested in inventing a new drug, or in winning an award, in building a great bridge or building, in proving a new theorem, etc.

A spiritual seeker may say that he doesn't value "status", but it may very well be that he cannot handle the battle-heat for winning it from his peers. And of course, spiritual leaders must necessarily be supremely egoistic (they are leaders more than they are spiritual). Buddha engaged in tough arguments with Brahmins for intellectual status (he didn't hope to enlighten them, now, did he?). Osho was immensely touchy to any hint of criticism. Krishnamurti's aristocratic air and intimidatory dialectic in conversations is well-known.


And of course, the battle for ego-status (to get it, to regain it, to hurt the other who hurt me) is going to continue as long as humans have a power structure where greater power leads to one being a more valuable member of society and leads to better resources for oneself and one's associates.

Ego and status can be ill-gotten and can be enforced via fear and the threat of physical force (common amongst third-world politicians), it can be ill-gotten by faking one's accomplishments (common amongst university professors), it can be ill-gotten by cunning and deceit (common on Wall Street), but in each of these, it requires ingenuity. One may say that skill in exploiting the loopholes of a social system is eligibility enough for one to gain dominion over others. As the world becomes more democratic, these loopholes are sought be closed by the lowly masses against their oppressive masters. The battle continues.

Now, to give up one's ego is a refusal to participate in the social battle. It is, and there is no other way to say it, an escape. Such people (i.e. the enlightened) will always be a rare minority precisely because it is not an evolutionary-stable-strategy. If a man engages with the rest of society in a truly egoless way, he won't get the prettiest lady or the biggest house, to put it mildly.

In short, such human beings have no genetic future and are therefore should be considered aberrations and not the "perfect humans" which average mortals must seek to emulate. The rest of humanity is engaged in a do-or-die struggle, full with ego, and insults, and hurts, and battles, and such enlightened people are best to just bow to for their blessings for victory in one's personal battle.

If you are hopelessly incapable of fighting it out, egolessness is a viable option. However, interestingly, the arena of egolessness (spirituality) is again full of status anxiety and competition these days.

Hence, true seekers work it out in solitude. To be part of a religious group is not to seek egolessness, but to seek status in a different game.

(to be continued)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Checklist for Narcissism

Do you spend a lot of time thinking about yourself?

Do you spend a lot of time worrying how others perceive you?

Do you wish not to be judged for your actions and thoughts?

Do you look down upon humanity and consider yourself much better than average, even though others think of you as no better, or even worse?

Do you regard others as fully responsible for the hurt or pain they feel in their interactions with you?

Do you have a significantly tangible secret persona whose deeds and thoughts you will never tell anybody?

Do you feel that though in some "socially conditioned", "biological", "tangible" ways you are inferior to others, your inner glory compensates for it all?

Epidemic, contd.

From Berardinelli's review of Eat, Pray, Love:
In many ways, the central philosophy of Eat Pray Love (the movie), which may or may not be governed by the guiding principles spelled out in Elizabeth Gilbert's book, fits well with today's "me-first" attitude. The story focuses on self-gratification, self-fulfillment, and self-discovery. It's all about "self," even though there are times when a little self-abnegation is needed to get to the finish line.
The cues for narcissism are all around us and becoming more insistent.

For just two examples: BeYounique, I am what I am.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Offering

Page 2 of

To be human, a limited, interconnected being, at one's highest, is to offer something to this ephemeral world, knowing that death awaits. And to offer it gratefully, as if the opportunity of creating something wonderful is something which only a few receive.

The furthest reaches of our potential lie not in abhorring our limitations and living in a void away from suffering, but in creating happiness, joy and fulfillment.

Not in pessimism and negation ("I am not", "I will not", "I must not"), but in affirmation and creation ("I am", "I will", "I must").

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


From The Gospel of Mel Gibson
In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an “important person.” Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes.


The narcissistic person is marked by a grandiose self-image, a constant need for admiration, and a general lack of empathy for others. He is the keeper of a sacred flame, which is the flame he holds to celebrate himself.

There used to be theories that deep down narcissists feel unworthy, but recent research doesn’t support this. Instead, it seems, the narcissist’s self-directed passion is deep and sincere.

His self-love is his most precious possession. It is the holy center of all that is sacred and right. He is hypersensitive about anybody who might splatter or disregard his greatness. If someone treats him slightingly, he perceives that as a deliberate and heinous attack. If someone threatens his reputation, he regards this as an act of blasphemy. He feels justified in punishing the attacker for this moral outrage.

And because he plays by different rules, and because so much is at stake, he can be uninhibited in response. Everyone gets angry when they feel their self-worth is threatened, but for the narcissist, revenge is a holy cause and a moral obligation, demanding overwhelming force.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Utility of Identity, part 1

Four words: Identity, Honor, Ego, Being.

Identity is a set of characteristics, a historical pattern of behavior, the way I look at myself and the world, an abbreviation of my traits.

"He is an asshole."

"He is such a jerk."

"He is a nice man."

"She is forgiving."

And from these adjectives, to: "I like/dislike him/her."

In daily life, split-second decisions have to be made about how much to trust the other person. If people behaved whimsically/randomly on their own, it would be impossible to live without violence/force. Nobody would be able to marry, have kids, put their money in the bank, vote, etc.

A conditioned person, however, is not whimsical. He behaves within bounds (most of the time, at least). The less "free" a person is, the more secure/comfortable is associating/relating with such a person, because you have some idea of how he/she is going to be in the future. Of course, spontaneity about superficial matters (not matters of morality, convictions, etc.) can still exist and can add spice to the relationship.

A "free" person who is being true to himself (i.e. to whatever hormonal/chemical combination his mind/body is having at the moment) without any commitment to longer-term consistency can be quite a pain-in-the-ass to live with. "Yesterday he made plans of going out with me, today he just wants to look at the wall." "Last month he liked this city, now he wants to move out."

When we evaluate or identify a person's character or traits, we create an image in our mind about him. When we meet someone for the first time, we don't expect much. We are cautious, our guard is up, we know that it is possible that he may say/do something surprising/shocking. In a relationship, the sense of comfort is derived by our knowledge/familiarity with the other person. We know that he is likely to snore in the early hours, we know that he takes half an hour in the toilet, we know that he is unlikely to want to go to a nude bar, etc.

This image-making, of course, also happens about ourselves. We know the kind of person we are. Even though, sometimes, we may want to project a different image because what we really are may not be regarded that well in society. For example, a man who is lazy knows that this trait is considered objectionable at the workplace, so he will project an image of being industrious at the interview. This goes on in many other spheres too, of course.

This image-making, or categorization, or a feeling for "what kind of a person he/she is" is essential if we are to navigate life. A person who makes bad relationship or business decisions suffers. A person who makes good decisions prospers. And most of the time, the decisions are about human beings. And human beings don't usually change much through the course of their lives. And even if they do, if they blew their chances in the first few interactions, too bad. It's just too much effort to constantly re-evaluate one's counter-parties, in life, for solvency.

So, this is identity. My traits.

My "honor" is a positive valuation of my identity - by myself as well as by others - and an estimate of how steadfast my identity is. An "honorable" person is one whose identity is consistent with social virtues and ideals, and who can be relied upon to hold on to his identity even in the face of grave temptation or provocation.

A man who is not easily given to drunkenness, angry outbursts, or to debauchery, is trusted more than a man who is an addict, spendthrift, and who beats up his wife. The former man may possibly have all the instincts, he also may get aroused at seeing a half-clad woman, but he fights it out, and wins. "Honor", in Freudian terms, is the history of super-ego's battles with the id.

"Identity" and "Honor" are therefore evaluative constructs which provide for better decision making in human societies. The more communal a society, the more are these constructs useful and important (hence the stress of "what will people say?" in such societies). In institutionalized societies, say Manhattan, what matters is not honor but your immigration record, police record, tax filing status, history of driving violations, employment record, credit score, and so on and so forth.

Needless to say, having "honor" capital, whether institutional or social, is very valuable in human societies. In traditional societies, "honor" is also determined by one's family background, caste or clan, and can also include superstitious markers such as one's "horoscope" or one's physical traits. To have a highly valued identity, i.e. an honorable identity, opens a world of opportunity which a lesser identity can only dream about.

Valid decision making about honor and identity is obviously linked to the amount of experience one has had in life. If an 18-year old daughter of a landlord wants to marry the milkman because she thinks his physical traits are so cute, perhaps her father would want to intervene, as they generally do (and very violently, at times). Her father would justifiably consider her choice of the milk-man as a long term partner as deeply flawed. He knows the tricks men pull, and he is enraged that the milk-man is trying to derive an unfair and undeserved advantage in society by seducing his ignorant daughter. The ignorant daughter is not coolly evaluating the identity of the milk-man, but is lost in the dreams and feelings of affection and love.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Start of Delusion

Here is an exemplary text on starting to seek something Beyond the mundane:
Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It's a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range--at least three clusters of feelings at once:

* the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it's normally lived; (emphasis mine)

* a chastening sense of one's own complacency and foolishness in having let oneself live so blindly; (emphasis mine)

* and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. (emphasis mine)
Well, once an intellect is developed enough to see the meaninglessness of life as it is normally lived, there were a few centuries when it could proceed to live abnormally, but meaningfully (hint: spiritually).

That age, my friends, is passe. That comfort is no longer available to advanced brains. God was the only permanence for a while, and it has unfortunately disappeared, leaving perhaps a steady state universe in its wake.

The writer goes on:
...a cup of tea, a walk in the woods, social activism, easing another person's pain ... Never mind that these forms of happiness would still be cut short by aging, illness, and death, he would be told. ... Someone might give him a book by Thoreau or Muir, but their writings would offer him no satisfactory analysis of aging, illness, and death, and no recommendations for how to go beyond them.
Talk about an "absolute" form of happiness that man should strive after, inwardly of course, and you give him a nice, self-serving narcissistic job for a lifetime.
...and open onto Deathlessness...
The awareness of impermanence, when taken to an extreme, does lead to a rather horrid sense of meaninglessness. And no wonder advanced souls retreat into their own bliss after witnessing this horror.

Any seeker who is trying to find some pleasure in fleeting time, gets a kick in the butt. Osho allowed such seekers an amused smile, but that was a difference of strategy, not of the end-goal.
In fact, early Buddhism is not only confident that it can handle feelings of samvega but it's one of the few religions that actively cultivates them to a radical extent.
Not only Buddhism, every religion or spirituality or radical ideologue worth his name has to condemn the normal pleasures of life in order to play the role of pied piper to the la-la land.

Instead of encouraging a reassessment of one's ambitions, they are known to have said, "It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society." (Jiddu Krishnamurti)

How can a normal human wanting to live a better life fit into society when society, and life, and its normal pursuits are so cursed and decried and condemned by these wise men?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Dowry and Alimony, two sides of the same coin

No self-respecting educated urbane woman would want to enter a relationship which involves a demand for dowry in exchange for getting married to a man.

But almost all of them not only acquiesce to, but insist upon, alimony when separating from their husbands. Rare is the woman who considers the breakdown of a relationship as a mutual tragedy and does not seek to wreak financial or other vengeance upon her husband.

In India, dowry is considered reprehensible because it demeans a woman by considering her as a liability, but by demanding alimony, women are themselves reinforcing the belief that they are unable to live on their own and need the financial support of a man.

Female infanticide is pervasive because a woman is considered a problematic citizen, in various ways. It behooves a modern woman to be less of a problem for her parents and in-laws by not burdening them with her demands of gifts at the time of matrimony, by not discomforting them with her demands of an expensive and consumerist and hedonist lifestyle during marriage, and by not insisting upon a ghastly amount of alimony when separating. The more women try to treat others' hard-earned money as their right, the more will men hate them and the more will society consider them inauspicious.

In a recent conference in India about the dowry menace, a well-respected elderly lady professor wisely commented that though generally it is the wife's in-laws who are believed to be greedy, nobody considers that many daughters, when they get married, themselves demand a lot of things from their own parents.

The culture of consumerism, easy and disposable money, living for oneself, is perhaps excusable if one is working to sustain one's lifestyle. But if an adult woman, despite being an earning member of society, demands crippling financial favors from her parents at the time of marriage, and demands a huge alimony from her husband when she wants to leave him, I consider that to be a greed licensed by society.

Women are generally believed to be weak, oppressed, victimized. But that is becoming less and less true as they acquire advanced educational degrees, get married to a man of their choosing, have better opportunities in the job market, are career-oriented, contribute to household finances, and participate in how the household should be run. In a modern city, parents educate their daughters so that they may become financially self-sufficient and will not need to play a subordinate role once they are married.

But what happens to such women when their marriage turns sour? They insult their education, their parents, and their status as earning, privileged, urban women when they start indulging in extortionist litigation and legal terrorism against their husbands and in-laws. Such women are no better than those men who demand huge dowry and beat up their wives if their demands are not fulfilled. In fact these women are worse, because they rope in the heavily biased machinery of state to terrorize their husbands and in-laws.

If a man or his family is demanding dowry and if a woman is not comfortable with that, she can choose to leave him and start living separately. No such option exists for a man from whom a vengeful wife is demanding alimony. He will be hounded by the corrupt police force, he will be directed to present himself and his entire family at innumerable court dates, and he will probably lose his home, job and more.

Demanding dowry is a crime. Is demanding alimony also considered a crime? It should be, for a financially self-sufficient woman. If a self-sufficient woman abuses the process of law to blackmail her husband just because their marriage did not work out, she should be deterred. Instead, it is all over the place in urban India these days. Read the papers, visit family courts, visit marital counseling and mediation centers, read the annals of matrimonial litigation. A common theme across them is the demand of huge alimony once a marriage has broken down.

Maintenance is understandable when children are involved, but even in those cases, women fight tooth and nail to deny custody and visitation to the father, from whom they have no compunction in taking money for bringing up their common progeny. If democracies all over the world follow the maxim "No taxation without representation", the fathers' rights movement justly demands "No maintenance without visitation." Instead estranged wives alienate the common children from their father, fill their minds with bitter and hateful thoughts about a man whom they could not get along with, and thus scar the children for life by presenting a warped and devious view of humankind.

A leading professor of a US university was abused no-end by his feminist colleagues when he hinted that a father should also have a say in the birth of a child, because he is legally constrained to maintain that child for a very long time. Women want it their way, and want men to pay for it.

Have these women no shame or dignity left? On one hand they decry mankind as full of pigs and chauvinists and patriarchs, and consider their own gender as much more humane and empathetic. But don't listen to their words, observe their acts. When marriages break down, women leave no stone unturned to paint their former lovers and husbands as demonic, vile, utter blackguards who ostensibly do not deserve any leniency and who should be hanged until death, if such women had their way.

All over India, harassed husbands and fathers and their families are uniting in their fight against these unscrupulous women who call themselves modern and liberated, but who abuse the laws made for dispossessed, destitute, victimized, poor women. Laws for maintenance, laws against domestic violence, laws against dowry harassment, laws against cruelty are being misused day-in and day-out by urbane women from whom no dowry was ever demanded, whose husbands never as much as laid a finger on them, whose husbands treated them as equals.

Even the Supreme Court of India calls this unfortunate trend "Legal Terrorism" but claims helplessness in checking it.

The voices of the real victims are being drowned out by the cacophony of these witches. Too many shepherds are falsely crying wolf too many times for anyone to pay attention when an actual wolf is on the scene.

Such women cannot have it both ways. They cannot condemn men, and in the same breath, demand their help. It is one of the bitterest pills for a husband to swallow when he is ordered to pay his hard-earned money to nourish and support a selfish and greedy wife who has nothing but hate and venom for him. If such women had any self-respect left, they would support themselves with the fruits of their own labour, and not become vengeful parasites.

Dowry is considered an evil because a woman is a human being, and an exchange of money for keeping her alive and healthy is uncivilized. But how civilized is her own demand of post-marital dowry (called alimony) from her husband? Is she suddenly in need of being financially supported by men? If it is considered reprehensible for a woman's father to pay her husband or herself for her sustenance at the time of marriage, is it not reprehensible for a woman's husband to pay her (and for the woman to demand so, public fora) for her continued sustenance once he is no longer married to her?

I consider the demand of alimony from working women a crime and a form of extortion. If husbands refuse to agree to a demand for alimony, I have seen women go to any extent of fabricated allegations of dowry harassment, domestic violence, marital rape, cruelty, and so on. The courts are filled to the brim with civil, quasi-civil and criminal cases filed by these legal terrorists.

But the tide is turning against these women. There is a growing awareness of their greed and extortionist tendencies, and nobody believes their stories anymore. The courts and the police are being repeatedly told not to take their allegations at face value. Of course that also means that genuine complaints also languish. These criminal-minded women have done a grave disservice to their oppressed and genuinely needy gender-folk.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

At the Top of the World

"What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matthew xvi. 26.)

This is the most depressing thing I have seen in a while.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Samuel Huntington, Hindutva and Fabindia

I finally became curious enough about Huntington's essay The Clash of Civilizaions? that I downloaded it and read it in one sitting. It is quite provocative, and contains a few paragraphs which are jarring for their insight:
In the past, the elites of non-Western societies were usually the people who were most involved with the West, had been educated at Oxford, the Sorbonne or Sandhurst, and had absorbed Western attitudes and values. At the same time, the populace in non-Western countries often remained deeply imbued with the indigenous culture. Now, however, these relationships are being reversed. A de-Westernization and indigenization of elites is occurring in many non-Western countries at the same time that Western, usually American, cultures, styles and habits become more popular among the mass of the people
Now if Nike and Levis is for the masses, then who all is Fabindia for?
The West, they allege, was using a double standard. A world of clashing civilizations, however, is inevitably a world of double standards: people apply one standard to their kin-countries and a different standard to others.
I continue to consider immigration barriers (and conversely, visa-free travel for certain nationalities) as the clearest example of cultural and economic bias, globalization notwithstanding.
In an interview on "Good Morning America," Dec. 21, 1990, British Prime Minister John Major referred to the actions "the West" was taking against Saddam Hussein. He quickly corrected himself and subsequently referred to "the world community." He was, however, right when he erred.

... While the elite of Turkey has defined Turkey as a Western society, the elite of the West refuses to accept Turkey and such. Turkey will not become a member of the European Community, and the real reason, as President Ozal said, "is that we are Muslim and they are Christian and they don't say that."

...the processes of economic modernization and social change throughout the world are separating people from longstanding local identities. They also weaken the nation state as a source of identity. In much of the world religion has moved in to fill this gap, often in the form of movements that are labeled "fundamentalist." Such movements are found in Western Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as in Islam. In most countries and most religions the people active in fundamentalist movements are young, college-educated, middle-class technicians, professionals and business persons.


In class and ideological conflicts, the key question was "Which side are you on?" and people could and did choose sides and change sides. In conflicts between civilizations, the question is "What are you?" That is a given that cannot be changed. And as we know, from Bosnia to the Caucasus to the Sudan, the wrong answer to that question can mean a bullet in the head.

Gossip, etc.

So I came across this rather fantastic news item in The Tribune. Seemingly, a 17-year old had been offered a job at NASA which would pay more than $3000 per day. This is ostensibly in recognition of his path-breaking research to increase human lifespan. I urge you to read the news report in its full glory. By the fifth paragraph, my jaw dropped a mile.

As I consider to be one of the best things on the internet, and given my generally not-naive, not-gullible attitude these days, I came to the conclusion that this was an elaborate fraud.

In a group of people, I am quite the last one to get convinced when it comes to new information which seemingly unseats a solid piece of conventional wisdom. It is not inertia really, but a kind of "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs" mentality.

On a digression, one of my uncles once, with good intentions no doubt, advised me that the "1" in a triangle at the bottom of a mineral water bottle was meant to convey that the bottle should not be re-used (e.g. for storing water in a fridge). Now this went against a lot of conventional usage of a plastic bottle, and though I surmised that the plastic bottle may leach chemicals if left in the hot interiors of a car, or in the sun, I was hard-pressed to find a reason why it would be dangerous for storing water in general since it was doing that only ever since it left the factory.

This is the age of Wikipedia, so I quickly found out that the number with a triangle is the Resin identification number for classifying material for recycling. My uncle was quite miffed when I gave him the "bad news". It is never pleasant to be exposed for one's gullibility. So much for the search for truth.

Back to the Tribune story.

The claim itself is laughable. And having lived in the US for a while, I know that chartered flights and immediate job offers are not how a reputed government agency works, not to talk of a million dollar pay packet for a 17-year old. I also searched the Guinness Book for any mention of the record that he seems to be holding. No luck there.

I dismissed the claim as fake, but wondered about the rationale. The NASA and Guinness Book claim is probably a bit hard (no pun intended) to investigate (but it still doesn't excuse the woeful journalist who should probably go back to school), the state educational competition claims would be very hard to fake.

I wondered, if the boy was playing a recognition game, or whether his parents were exaggerating his achievements in order to, um, show down the neighbors who probably had a Merc.

Then I wondered about the various mommy-kissing-top-ranking-son pictures which regularly appear in the results-season in India (it is rarely daddy-kissing-top-ranking-daughter, for obvious, ahem, electral, reasons). Parental pride is quite natural, I think, and if it leads to some harmless exaggeration, what goes of my father, as they say?

But today, I came across this. Poor guy. What a fall.


The second thing I want to touch upon is the David Davidar "scandal". Some interesting stuff here, here and here.

Briefly, David, a well-known personality in the publishing business, currently stands accused of workplace sexual harassment and was asked to leave his post of President and CEO of Penguin International.

It is all interesting reading. Gossip is quite a pleasant activity, and those who decry it probably are being too moral for their own good. Not only does it lead to having an advantage in the social one-up-man-ship game, but it is educational (just like watching a street fight). One learns what humans do in their bedrooms and in their nightgowns, without having to watch Blue Velvet.

Ashok Banker's posts especially, are anything but simply informative. They are quite prejudicial, quite opposite to what he claims. I don't know whether it is a reaction to having been envious in the past, etc.

After going through the case files (metaphorically speaking), I have a few questions for anyone kind enough to respond:
  1. Why did Ms Rundle (it is an "l" not an "i", you desi morons) allow a man who was obviously dressed to kill to enter her hotel room. Door chains are there for a reason, you know. Perhaps she didn't use the chain for fear of offending Mr Davidar, perhaps.

  2. This is far harder to respond to. How can a man "force his tongue" into an unwilling mouth? Try me sometime, Mr Davidar. Is it so hard to keep one's lips pinched shut when someone is trying to forcibly french-kiss you? I would be convinced if Ms Rundle had simply accused him of "attempting to force his tongue" into her mouth. But sorry, if his tongue is in your mouth, Ms Rundle, you also are not quite as innocent as you claim.

    Inquisitive readers may be interested in reading this news report, which contains the delightful nugget:
    The 1999 ruling overturned the conviction of a 45-year-old driving instructor from Potenza who was accused of raping an 18-year-old client. The view of the appeal court judges that the victim must have collaborated because her jeans were too tight caused uproar among Italian feminists. Women deputies — led by Alessandra Mussolini, the far-right politician and granddaughter of the Italian Fascist dictator, and Stefania Prestigiacomo, now the Environment Minister in the centre-right Government of Silvio Berlusconi — wore jeans to parliament as a protest.

    Yesterday Ms Mussolini said that she was pleased with the latest verdict...
    Yes, Ms Mussolini, indeed.

  3. In a quite revealing comment on this blog, one Raphael says, "Monica, normal workplace behaviour NEVER EVER results in an old creepy guy ramming his tongue down your throat against your will."

    I am forced to ask in this context if it is ok for a young cute guy to ram his tongue down your throat? If not, why even mention the "old creepy guy"?

The subject of "affirmative legal action" (presumption of guilt in sexual harassment or rape or dowry cases, etc.) in the war of sexes is a complex and important one, and I have a few things to say about it. Another time, perhaps.