Tag Archives: Change

Bhhrrr……

I was in a meeting at my office yesterday. The mood of the discussions was somewhat tense as one of the teams involved was resisting a proposal the other was making. And there were also the usual undercurrents of perceptions playing. It came to a point where I thought the discussion was heading towards an abrupt end.The senior manager of one of the teams opened his mouth to make what seemed a final statement. There was a brief period of silence where we were all literally looking in to his mouth.

Before he could start, the pin drop silence was broken by a sharp ‘gluuup…’ sound.

A girl who was in the meeting had had a hiccup.

It was very odd; it was totally out of place in the midst of such an intense discussion. What added to the oddness was that the girl was very pretty.The helpless girl looked around with an expressionless face, while I could see that everyone what trying hard to pretend as if nothing had happened and conceal their smiles.

The manager paused for a moment to give her a menacing look, before he resumed making his point. The meeting continued and soon I noticed something interesting. The mood had now changed, the tension somewhat eased and the discussion was taking a constructive turn.
I couldn’t help wondering how such a seemingly trivial thing as a hiccup when correctly (or incorrectly to be more precise) placed, could have such an impact on the situation.
This reminded me of a wonderful story that I had read long back. This story was written by a great writer of my language Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. (He was an eccentric, Sufi, traveler, wrestler and a cook apart from being a writer) Most of his writings were based on his personal experience and were characterized by their simplicity and truthfulness.

This short little story was titled ‘Bhhrrr…’.

There was this house that Basheer used to frequent as a child. He was quite at home there and had all the freedom. But there was a problem. There was an extremely pretty girl (slightly elder to him) in that house whom Basheer admired and adored. And Basheer froze whenever he was in front of here. He was speechless. He could freely interact with everyone else except this girl.
Basheer used to sit in front of her, admiring her. She maintained an air of dignity and would also not engage in any conversation with him.
This went on for a long time, until one day the following incident took place. As usual Basheer was sitting silently in front of the girl admiring her and she refusing even to acknowledge his presence. Then all of a sudden she let a fart out. Both of them froze for a moment, completely blown by what just happened. Then Basheer broke in to a violent fit of laughter. It took him a moment to come back to his senses and face the girl with an apologizing look.
Then something unexpected took place. The girl smiled and soon broke in to a laughter; which Basheer immediately joined.
All the tension between them broke on that day and Basheer could interact with her normally from then on.

Though somewhat unacceptable to our cultured minds, it’s these simple statements of truth that makes some writings outstanding. A natural expression of this kind, when comes unexpected, could do more wonders than ‘Seven Habits”, “Emotional intelligence’ , ‘Getting things done, ‘Leadership 101’ all combined.

Positive Affirmations

I was reading an article on Positive Affirmations. Positive Affirmations is a popular (somewhat) technique used to create a strong subconscious (or unconscious) beliefs by repetition. This is touted as a method to create favorable unconscious patterns and also to remove unwanted patterns from the subconscious mind. The method is something like this. If you want to become wealthy, you spend some time everyday repeating something like “I am very wealthy” or something similar. The results are better if combined with visualization. For e.g in this case you also visualize yourself living in a palatial mansion or driving an expensive car or at your dream holiday spot. It’s said that when you create such a positive affirmation in your unconscious mind, it’s bound to happen almost automatically.

 The method had been long used in the ‘mantra’ tradition of the eastern cultures. A ‘mantra’ is a short phrase with or without a meaning and one is required to chant the mantra regularly for a long period. What happens is after a while the conscious mind loses all its interest in the mantra and then it sinks in to your unconscious mind. The unconscious mind understands ‘sound’ and the mantra is typically made of chosen words or syllables which can produce a certain effect. In Hindu tradition, there are mantras for all kind of things: like aquiring intelligence, acquiring money, removing obstacles etc.

 Coming back to the Positive Affirmations. The principle used is the same. When I read it for the first time, it looked pretty logical. But when I thought about it more, I see a catch. What one is trying to do here is to change/create one habit pattern keeping the rest intact. And if this happens, perhaps few other patterns will change unconsciously. It’s something like this. I put an affirmation in to my mind that I want to be wealthy and it becomes my nature. Then I figure out that if I need to be wealthy, it’s going to be at the expense of lot of other things, things that I enjoy doing, time with my family, interests of other people etc. But then I don’t have a choice because the drive to become wealthy is now an unconscious drive in me. Will I have done something good or bad?

 The fundamental question is- is it sufficient to change one thing at a time or is the change holistic? There is definitely a difference between the way eastern traditions and western philosophy approach change. In the western approach one tries to create positive habit patterns and remove the negative habit patterns. They lead to success and well-being in the future. But in the eastern tradition, the idea is not to classify patterns in to good and bad, but to step out of them completely. And the well-being that results in now and here.

It’s just the difference between acting and reacting

A change is always tough. Most of us are sure that there are certain things that need to change in our lives. But when we attempt to change, there are all kinds of problems; uneasiness, fear, agony and depression. Even if we are able to change some thing (like a habit), there is a high probability of relapse after a period of uncertainty. I have wondered about it; often triggered by my attempts to stop smoking. When I did quit finally (rather easily), it gave me a new perception about the issue.

I think the problem is fundamentally with the point of change. Here is the theory : The difference between success and failure (or misery and happiness) is a simple choice between acting and reacting. Look at the picture below:

Action and Reaction

Say you are at the point Z and need to take a decision. You have two choices. One is to go by the patterns (or mind) which is usually the reactive path. The moment you align your mind in this way, mind starts further strengthening and reinforcing the point of view. You are then lead in one direction as indicated by the green line (the lines around it indicate the reinforcing mind patterns). There is another choice. That’s not to go by the patterns (mind), but to be aware or listen to your consciousness. This is the path of action, indicated by the red line. Even here, the mind does strengthen and reinforce the thinking.

Every moment in life we are actually at the point Z. If we can be aware and not get carried away by the mind, perhaps we can take right decisions for the future. This is rather simple.

But when it comes to change, the problem is more complex. The decision point is actually somewhere in the past and we have say taken a reactive approach and proceeded in one direction. Assume, it has taken us to Y. Now we want to change. We want to be at X. So we take a decision and convince ourselves to be at X. But this is just temporary. Soon the old patterns become dominant and you are mercilessly dragged to Y. When that happens the reinforcement is further strengthened and you are more convinced that you cannot change.

So where is the problem? You should actually be first moving to Z (and not X). This will demand that you work through the conditioning of the mind slowly and remove them. When you are at the point Z, look at the decision again. With the correct mindset or awareness, you can take the right decision and take the path towards X. Since the conditioning has been taken care of, they don’t trouble you hard and in no time new patterns are formed.

 Let’s understand this with an example. Take smoking. Assume you are a smoker (because at some point in your life, you decided to try it apparently for no reason) and you are trying to quit now. You are at Y, and have lot of stuff built already around it in the mind like – Smoking helps me relax, It reduces my stress, it’s difficult to stop this etc. You also want to escape and you want to be, say at X ,where you are free from the habit.

Action and Reaction eg

Now you project yourself to be at X (whatever method you use – Cold turkey, cutting down etc). For a day or two, you are better off (at X), but soon the patterns become active (and there are things going on in the mind like – perhaps this is not the right time, I should actually cut down etc..)  and you feel miserable. And soon you are pulled back to point Y (you relapse). The more this happens, you are even more convinced that you can never escape, because every failure reinforces your conviction that you cannot quit.

Why this happens? You were at the point Z, several times in your life; say whenever you are smoking or whenever you tried to resist the temptation. And when you decided to smoke, you actually said: This is enjoying and relaxing. This has taken you in one direction and all the conditioning is built around it. Even if you are successful with this approach to quit, you are likely to be depressed and miserable, because the basic decision is in question.

So in order to really escape, you need to go back to the point Z and rephrase the mindset. An example could be : “ This has been a dreadful disease that’s taken control of me, I am now stepping out. It feels so great to be free”.

Now there are three elements. You, Smoking and the act of Quitting (or not doing it). So at the point Z you have to use these three to construct a direction statement. You know what most smokers do? They construct it something like this : “ Though smoking helps me to relax, now because of my bad health, I have to somehow stop it. I am going to try it real hard. I am not sure if I will succeed, I have failed many times before. But I will try it hard this time”. This takes them straight to the path of misery. 

But if you can construct a direction statement like “ I am escaping from this dreadful disease, it is so great. I do not need to do this again”. You take the other direction.

It’s not just a simple affirmation statement in the mind. You need to use awareness (and reflection) to go deeper and deeper till you find the basic decision making point and make the change. And this change will be easy and permanent.

This might rather look simple, but if you understand it, it is the key to change.

Be creative like a child..

‘Be creative like a child” – I have heard people say this at least a dozen times (and the variations too: let’s think like a child, let’s be playful etc etc) during various sessions. This is a popular approach to overcome the logical barrier while Ideating (i.e. when you try to come up with new ideas, the logical mind says ‘shut up, that’s a stupid thing to say’. Children don’t’ seem to suffer from this, because probably they haven’t learnt enough). The moment the facilitator says “C’mon guys, be like a child’, there is definitely a change in the environment. And you see some interesting and sometimes foolish-looking ideas do come up.

But I have always felt that such sessions lacked something; probably some liveliness… Though the ‘children’ symbol seems to help, it was sort of forced and artificial. And I believe this is the reason we do not get quality ideas many times.

A simple incident yesterday showed me what the problem was. You could behave like a child externally, but can you adopt that peace, love and simplicity too? They bring the grace, beauty and creativity to children spontaneously.

Here is the story:

Yesterday, when I was going out, my little daughter wanted me to get her a chocolate, her favorite one.

 When I was back home (of course with the chocolate), she was playing with her friend in the living room. The moment I entered, she ran up to me demanding the chocolate. But because the other girl was not supposed to eat chocolates, I didn’t want to give it. I told her – see I cannot give you the chocolate now. When you have finished playing and your friend goes back, you can have it. Not now. I proceeded to my room for freshening up, ignoring her protests.

I could distinctly hear the two girls talking. Though I couldn’t well hear, I could sense that my daughter was trying to persuade her friend to leave, which she was not willing to. There was silence after a while.

I had just begun to shave; my daughter appeared at the door, and stood leaning on the doorframe. I gave her a questioning look.

She tells: “I know a secret” (trying hard to make it sound interesting)

I smile.

 “But I will tell you only if you give me the chocolate

I give her another smile.

 Few moments pass. She says almost in a whispering tone : “ The secret is about you

She should have been looking at me intently trying to sense if I am ready for the deal.

 I looked at her and gave a ‘don’t try these tricks with me’ grin.

Few more moments pass.

She says: “The secret has something good about you…

At this point, I burst out laughing (If I had not, she might have kept building on the story further to lure me). I gave her the chocolate and had to convince her friend to settle for a candy.

The beauty of the incident touched me deeply and made me feel so light. The creativity was so spantaneous and had a grace and profound simplicity. There was no technique, process, gimmik, frills, just pure creativity. 

This is what was going wrong in ‘becoming creative like a child’. What we do not adopt is the beauty that lies within – the peace, the simplicity, love and purity. In this world, we are just concerned about the ends, not means.

Productivity vs Creativity

          In this world of cut-throat competition (does such a competition really exist in the first place; that’s still a question), every organization is obsessed with several initiatives aimed at improving all sorts of parameters one can think of, whether tangible or intangible. The intangible part is gaining importance now, as companies wants to project themselves not just as mere money making machines, but also as bodies who care for people, surroundings and the environment.

        No one is really sure of what “that magic thing” is, that can take us to the next level or put us ahead of the competition. So they end up trying to improve everything; hoping at least one of them will do the job. One thing that happens in the process is that organizations end up creating contradictions. That is to say they try to improve two (or more sometimes) parameters that in reality cannot really coexist. Any organization that lacks a high level view of things is often left to wonder why things don’t improve.

            One good example I see these days is productivity and creativity. On one side, everyone agrees that people need to do more and more in the given time, do not idle away their time, need to be organized, manage their time effectively and be deadline oriented. This is what we have been advocating and practicing for decades now. We have developed a whole lot of processes, methodologies, trainings etc around this and people have changed their habits, thinking and approach to adapt to this model. But then came the surprise. There was definitely stagnation. Though the efficiency and productivity improved, the organizations did not really get the breakthrough they wanted to. Then came the concept of creativity – people said the stagnation is caused by lack of creativity and that’s what is needed to be successful in today’s world.

            Now the organizations that were so far obsessed with improving the productivity, took up creativity too and said – here is another new parameter we need to show improvement on. C’mon guys, how can we survive without being creative and continuously innovating? Look at Google, Ideo….

            In reality, how well these two can co-exist? I am a firm believer that creativity needs those ‘gaps’ or ‘spaces’ for it to express. The more you pack your schedules, the more you chase deadlines; you are actually doing the reverse – getting rid of those gaps. When organizations push two such contradicting initiatives simultaneously, they neither end up in a creative organizations nor a productive organization. All that will result is individuals (or even groups) that will start exhibiting one of these traits predominantly. And organizations  become an assorted bunch of people who predominantly lean towards one or few of the concepts / parameters.

            Is that bad? May be not really, in the sense that something is better than nothing. But this is no way near to making an organizational identity or culture. The solution sometimes is to drop one of those parameters. For e.g a company in the creative space like advertising, might actually not much focus on productivity, but just on creativity. But this is not the only solution. It could be possible to correlate them. For e.g an IT company for whom productivity is of prime concern, can look at creative ways to improve it. But in that case, this is quiet different from having them as two separate parameters for improvement.

            Why does it happen ? I think primarily because we understand both as ‘concepts’. We know ‘productivity’ as a concept and also know all that’s needed to improve it. Now we know “creativity” also as a concept and there are all these tools and workshops which teach you how to become creative. When we understand anything at the concept level (mind level), we cannot see the underlying inter connection. So it doesn’t occur to the organizations that they need to drop something to embrace something new.

            I think at the root of this is the basic human problem of wanting more and more (of anything) to make the life more meaningful.

            This is actually an extension of our personal life; where in also we create such contradictions. Take for example: We want to be paid well as well as we want to do a job that we love. This creates a contradiction. And mostly we make a compromise. But the compromise comes from the logical mind and soon it stops making sense. Say you decide that money is important for you right now and you don’t really care what trash you do.Fine. For few months, you are happy. But then the deep dissatisfaction starts emerging and you feel miserable. In rare cases (if it is strong enough), miracles can happen. People can drop everything and start some thing they love and still be successful. But normally such contradictions makes life miserable and you start feeling that there is no progress.

            The same contradiction of productivity vs creativity exists in our personal lives too. When you are too busy chasing deadlines one after another with packed schedules and always a short term goal to achieve, there is hardly any creative space. The conditioning in the mind is so strong that if you don’t do anything in office on a particular day, you feel guilty. You have wasted time; that’s a crime.

Because of all that noise that gets created in the mind, you never get to experience those moments of stillness where creativity blossoms.

Also read The ‘void’ for creativity in Organizations

Balancing the change – The improving and worsening parameters

There is a technique in TRIZ for conflict problem solving. The essence of the technique is that when we try to improve a parameter of a system, there is another parameter that is worsened.  Typically a compromise is arrived at balancing both the parameters. An example would be the power and fuel efficiency of the car, when you try to improve one, the other suffers. And this is the gap where innovation finds its scope – is there a way we can have a more powerful car with the same fuel efficiency? This would mean that we will need to create a new engine or is there a way to boost up the power output by external means…and so on.

The crux of the theory is that, every system is balanced in some way and when we change any of it’s parameters, that creates an imbalance.

This applies to our life too, when we try to change. Whatever is our personality or habits, at any given point of time; we are balanced (at least in our own view). Now when we are making a change (like you drop a habit like smoking) this leads to an imbalance. While the imbalance gets corrected over a period of time automatically, there is always a tendency to come back to the last balanced state automatically. I think this makes the changes difficult. Mind (or some external triggers) will try to trick us to go back to the ‘old balanced state’ and mostly we give in after some initial struggle. People who have been smokers will tell how miserable it is when they try to stop.

I think it’s essential to know how to retain the balance when we make a change. One reason why this is difficult is that while the improvement parameter is rather ‘physical’ the worsening one is ‘virtual’ (by physical what I mean is those we can feel as an entity in space, time or as an object or activity. Virtual ones are subtle, often in the mind which we cannot really feel or predict or measure). While we plan to change the physical parameter, typically we ignore the virtual one. For e.g, you take a decision that you are not going to smoke again. You list out all the reasons not to smoke again and take your plunge. But you ignore the ‘virtual’ part, which is the deprivation, misery and depression. You either decide to take them on as they come or hope they will not come. The moment you stop smoking, an imbalance is created. The mind will use all the virtual parameters as excuses to force you to go back to the old balanced state of a ‘smoker’.

So how do we tackle this? We shouldn’t take just one decision, but take two – one for the improving parameter and the other for the worsening parameter. So in this case it would be like this: (1) I will not smoke again and (2) I will be so happy about it. Provided you stick to both the decisions equally, a new balanced state will be created without much struggle.

In some cases where both the parameters are physical, this balancing happens rather automatically. For e.g you decide to wake up early from now on, you will naturally know that you need to go to bed earlier than usual. But in some cases, the worsening parameter lies hidden. For e.g you want to bring more focus to your work and you decide to spend more time in office. You know, this means you will spend less time with your family. But the real ‘worsening parameter’ here is that your family is not going to be happy about this change and at some point of time, the issue surfaces and may be an argument breaks out and you have your good excuse to go back to your old habits. So what could be the solution here – you also take a decision that you will well compensate for your reduced time with family with increased quality. This will create the balance for the change the family will undergo.

I think when we are able to move from one balanced state to another while making a change, changes will be effortless. Identifying the right improving and worsening parameters will be the key to this.

An insight to making firm decisions

All of us make decisions in life. We decide to do something or we decide not to do something or change the way we do something. While we are successful sometimes, there are also quiet many failures. (By success I mean that we are able to stick to the decision and failure the opposite)

Have you ever wondered why we aren’t successful always? Even if we thought about it, we are most likely to attribute it to things like our will power. One reason why we are unable to see a pattern in our own decisions (and the success and failures) is that every time the decisions are different and look unique. It’s very rare we take the same decision over and over again.

 I had the great privilege of being a heavy smoker for many years. I had made numerous attempts to quit, and one important ritual in every attempt was my taking the decision ‘not to smoke ever in my life’. I failed repeatedly. Sometimes it was immediate; sometimes it took few hours, days or weeks before I succumbed to the temptation. Sometimes I was miserable and some other times happy.

When I analyzed these failures, I could see there were two separate aspects. One was the decision making itself and the other sustaining it through maintaining the mindset. If I made a good decision, that helped me have a great start. I could overcome the initial hurdle without serious problems. Similar to a rocket gaining the escape velocity to overcome the earth’s gravitational pull.But if the decision it self was weak, I failed almost immediately. Even when I made a good decision, my failure came from the second aspect – where could not sustain it.

So, when was it that I could take a good decision? I saw two scenarios:

  1. When I had done enough reflection and introspection (why am I doing this, what is it doing for me..etc)
  2. After an emotional outburst.

But still I couldn’t figure out why was my decisions were stronger in the above scenarios.

 Months later, I came across a technique from Yoga for making firm decisions. This is the technique:

Sit in with your eyes closed, spine erect. Take a deep breath and hold the breath inside. Now repeat the decision firmly and continuously in your mind. Keep holding the breath as long as you can. When you can’t hold any longer, breathe out completely. Now hold the breath outside and repeat the decision again in the mind. When you can’t any longer hold it out, breath in and hold and so on. Do this couple of times. And it seems, whatever decision you take like this, you wouldn’t be able to break even if you try to.

This was interesting. Holding breath is a stage in Pranayama called Kumbhaka. And what happens when you do Kumbhaka? – the mind stops (or the thoughts disappear). (Please do not attempt the above technique without guidance or knowledge)

Now the whole thing made sense. I could see a connection. I could see that in both the scenarios above, there was something interesting about the mind. In the first scenario, the deep reflection settled the mind (or the doubts) and the in the second mind just entered in to a void following an outburst. So in essence, I could see that the mind had to get out of the way if we have to take a firm decision. This is verified by the fact that there are times when I take a decision; I almost knew that it will not work. I could see that before even the decision is made, doubts arise in the mind and the decision is doomed even before it starts.

Based on this experience, I have formed a concept for making firm decisions:  If you have to make a firm decision, you need to first get the mind out of the way. Once the thoughts stop (mind doesn’t exist then – I like the analogy of mind and thoughts to forest and trees) take the decision. Allow it to sink deeply in to your self. You will find that the decision is successful, almost effortlessly.

So how to get the mind get out of your way? Here are few suggestions:

  1. Intense Mindfulness. Mindfulness literally kills your mind. When you are mindful, the decision making is good automatically, and you don’t need to do anything extra. But becoming mindful needs some preparation and effort
  2. Intense prayer and surrender – This also settles the mind, especially when there is fear about the decision or you feel helpless
  3. Deep reflection and introspection. In cases where your mind is cluttered about the decision. For e.g smoking, on one side you really want to stop and on the other side you fear that you will miss your friend. Do a deep reflection to get clarity, this will settle the mind and you can take a better decision.
  4. Certain techniques in yoga where you do breath retention (like Moorcha pranayama, Nadi Sodhana Pranayama with prolonged Kumbhaka or simply just holding the breath as mentioned above). They immediately result in a void, and this is the space where you actually take the decision. A void could also result by haphazard breathing for sometime. Techniques 2 or 3 followed by 4 will be your key to making firm decisions.

Sometimes, it is also possible that your mind becomes void or blank without any effort. If you are aware, you should be able to catch it (I have seen this happening ton me when I am physically exhausted)

But remember, taking decision is one of the aspects we need to master. Thoughts on sustaining that in another post.