A perfectly imperfect Ideal

December 29, 2012

The expectation of perfection is an interesting burden we carry. As a leader, as a son/daughter, as a friend and as a man/woman, you are raised and expected to act with a bullet-proof vest of high standards, and set an example of perfection for others to emulate. We are trained to aim and strive to be the Perfect or the Ideal Being. Our heroes are perfect paragons of excellence in their fields. One doesn’t remember Alexander for his flaws. We remember his perfection as a warrior and a conqueror. Our Gods are even more perfect. We thus equate our level of perfection with our level of acceptance in our fields of work, play and socialization. No matter which mythology you believe in – Alexander or Ganesha, idealism is a common denominator. Our fascination with this meaning, as I mentioned in the previous post doesn’t spare any signs of imperfection from its penetrating gaze. The slightest insinuation of imperfection is viewed as a sign of weakness. This manifests itself as shame for the person in question, and as an ego fueled judgmental attitude that is seductively satisfying to the person pointing out the imperfection. In our own hearts, we know that we’re vulnerable, that we’re imperfect, that we have a high likelihood to fail. Yet we mask this imperfection. The person on the other end can also see this mask, no matter how real it might appear. This induces a sense of cheating or betrayal in his/her mind. Overall, it creates a sense of disconnect in our interactions and connections.

We pretend to be perfect when we’re not and the other person either frustratingly ignores it, or retaliates. In the person who’s pretending to be perfect, shame is the most important component of this whole phenomena. It is a pain-like signal in our emotional self that attempts to remind us of our imperfections and to tame our ego. Another emotional immune-system component of sorts. Our fear of disconnection (as result of our imperfections being exposed), leads us to numb this shame, and this is where Dr. Brené Brown suggests we enter an even more dangerous phase. She is a research professor of Social Work at the University of Houston. Her topics of study include vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. As I was trying to dig deeper and find some substantiating evidence for the assumptions and conclusions in my previous post, I came across her work. After listening to her lectures, I believe I was able to tie the missing pieces from my previous post together and it brought a much needed clarity in perspective. The thoughts in this post are heavily influenced by my understanding of her work.

Of her multiple lectures, this is the one I found most insightful. Based on her research in this area, she concludes that our attempt to numb our shame and mask our imperfections is a major contributor to our sad state of existence. Addictions of most forms – including drugs, food and alcohol are related to our attempts at numbing this internal shame and simulating a feeling of perfection (albeit in a fantasy land). Come to think of it, letting your guard down after a drinking session is often synonymous with letting go of the shame that you have in your sober state. As a consequence, we also end up numbing happiness she concludes, because it isn’t possible to selectively numb emotions. It’s like the side-effect of a drug. This is the same numbness (or Tamas) that I referred in my previous post. The solution, she suggests is in embracing our imperfections and accepting our vulnerability. Embracing our vulnerability, along with an attitude of empathy towards others and our own imperfections, is the only counter to shame. Imagine your leader, your parent or your mentor starting from a baseline of accepting his/her weaknesses and imperfections before attempting to connect with you. Would you really respect them more or less? Would you connect with them at a higher or lower level? Would trust them more or less?

As much as I tried to search for a similar discussion in the Gita, I couldn’t find any. I believe that is because one of the fundamental tenets of Gita and Vedantic literature is their emphasis on the subjugation of the Ego as a prerequisite to happiness & overall growth. It attempts to take you to the same Ideal Being state, the goal of which is the epicenter of the problem, but first asks you to shed the weight of your ego. Embracing vulnerability is perhaps a subset of that endeavor. Shame is heavily correlated with a lack of confidence, which, as I mentioned earlier has its roots in an elevated Ego as per eastern philosophy and an Out of balance ego as per western philosophy. Our attempts to embrace vulnerability therefore, are a means to an end in lowering or eliminating our Ego (or centering it, depending on which school of thought you follow).

At a high level, intentionally or unintentionally, my readings from the last few months, from the works of data analysts, philosophers, poets, behavioral economists and researchers seem to be following a pattern. They all seem to suggest an unlearning of sorts as being a prerequisite to happiness. Embracing a lack of choice, understanding and enjoying chaos – or an increase in uncertainty, accepting the lack or absence of meaning in things around us, our inability to understand the causality of people’s intentions & actions and now an embracing of vulnerability and imperfections in ourselves. These are ideas, that till last year, I’d have considered as stemming from an attitude of loss and indicative of an attempt to mask ones failures. This analysis that started out as a pastime, has been intensely cathartic and immensely (yet thankfully) disruptive to my personality. As imperfect as it might be, it is most certainly quite satisfying & weirdly uplifting.

A voyage to nowhere, in quest of nothingness

December 23, 2012

As humans, we have this pathological need to find meaning in things wherever possible. We are arguably the most intelligent and yet the most confused species on the planet. Whenever we cannot identify the meaning or purpose behind any phenomena, we feel anxious and insecure. In the midst of that anxiety and insecurity, we grasp the closest explanation of purpose or meaning we can assign to that phenomena – no matter how far from rationality it might be. As Nate Silver would call it – we try and find signal in white-noise, or patterns in pure randomness. It was perhaps this urge to find meaning in things, that led ancient Greeks and Hindus to believe that stars and planets and the sun have some transcendental meaning and created abstractions of Gods to represent these planetary and other natural entities like wind and water. This ‘leap of faith’ helps us explain the Whats and the Whys of things, while comfortably bypassing the Hows. Like when earthquakes or droughts occurred, our religiously evolved ancestors had an explanation for its meaning and purpose (Whats and Whys), albeit not of its nature (Hows). Note that the explanations to Whats and Whys were also inaccurate – yet something that cured their anxiety and satiated their need for meaning. One might think that with the progress we’ve made in science, our ability to find meaning would’ve improved significantly. As The Signal and the Noise points out, that’s actually far from the case. Instead of fooling ourselves with dogma and mythology, we today use data and technology to do the same. Yes, we might have more ‘logical’ explanations to the Whys and Whats, given all the data that they’re substantiated by – but hey, that’s what I believe our Greek and Hindu forefathers must’ve claimed as well, in their times.

Philosophy often carries the burden of existential questions that pertain to finding meaning and purpose in life. However, even in our pragmatic day to day interactions with people and things, we encounter this quest to find meaning. ‘Why did she do this?’, ‘What was his motive?’ etc. and we again grasp the easiest possible and available explanations. This analysis is often clouded by our own nearsightedness of emotions or desires and misguided by our craving for choice and certainty. We assign labels to people and things. ‘She’s a bitch!‘ ‘He’s a snob‘ Over time we substantiate and feed these labels with our biases (both intellectual and emotional). We also do this as a group – ‘They are terrorists’, ‘They are killers and murderers’ and so on. This clarity of meaning often makes it easier for us to take actions that we otherwise might consider immoral or unethical – Smoke em out!, Wipe them off the face of the earth!. The way the presence of biological weapons in Iraq was used as aide to add meaning to the assault on countless folks, is a great example of the same. Meaning and purpose certainly helps unite people (because of this shared pathological craving we have as humans), by providing justifications and reasons that may be right or wrong. This ability to assign meaning to insignificant things (as insignificant as a collection of used bullets), also inspires some amazing pieces of art, like this beautiful song from Passenger (of ‘Let her go’ fame)

So where does this leave us? Clearly, not searching for reasons or meaning or purpose behind things isn’t a great idea. To a great extent, we owe our progress as humanity to this quest for meaning. What I’m alluding to here, in relation to meaning, is what Nate Silver alludes to about certainty in data analytics. There are cases where we have enough signal in the noise to be able to identify it and claim and understand it with a great deal of certainty. That leads to progress and is in general, good. However, artificially inducing meaning in things, and signal in noise, when none exists is generally a bad idea. In those cases, we blind ourselves with unjustified arguments and unsubstantiated motives. Instead, we should try and cure the root of our malaise – our insecurity and anxiety in the absence of meaning. We must learn to appreciate that there would always be things in this chaotic world, that we either cannot explain (within the limitations of our time and resources) or that don’t require an explanation. We must develop the ability to recognize that people around us are more complex than pictures in an alphabet book to which we can assign adjectives or labels. Meaning, when wrongly attained, can give us a false sense of ethical justification. Only when we begin to be comfortable in the lack of meaning, can we really be truly ethical, by recognizing our limitations instead of taking decisions based on blinded ethics.

So the next time you’re confronted with a Why she did what she did? type of problem or any of it’s corollaries, you have two options. You can either embark on a signal in white-noise type of analytic search, where you try to assign meaning to her actions from your past experiences with her, on the causality of which, even ‘she’ wouldn’t have a clue. And then find purpose and motivation to create unreasonable plans of vindication or vengeance in response. Or, you can convince yourselves using the arguments I’ve laid before you, that it was just another eruption in the volcanic terrain of chaos that is better left unexplored. And that you’d be better suited if you head out on a new voyage instead – a voyage to nowhere, in quest of nothingness. For in that voyage, you’d be lighter and freer from the weight of assigning meaning to every experience and be able to enjoy and cherish any and every moment without the burden of purpose and meaning. Some of the most blissful moments in life are often the most meaningless, whimsical and trivial.

At a meta-level, this view may also perhaps help us come to terms with our existential question of Being. This view suggests that there might be no reason or purpose to our existence after all. We should learn to accept that (or at least our current inability in finding that purpose) and live around it, instead of trying to frame divergent answers, none of which can be proven absolutely and yet for which, we create war and separation and pain in justifying the correctness and supremacy of one over the other. In such a world, our acceptance of this notion of the lack of meaning in certain things, and our ability to live comfortably in the absence of meaning and purpose, may actually be a stronger unifying force than the separatism caused by our search for meaning.

Oh Certainty- you coy, cute, conniving Coquette!

December 17, 2012

Reading Nate Silver‘s Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail but Some Don’t this last week, I’ve been going over a summary of how far we’ve come in our ability to forecast our future. Elections, earthquakes, hurricanes, economic recessions, sports scores etc. can all be forecast today, with varying degrees of accuracy. The book talks about how and why these forecasting models are still not as accurate as we’d like them to be, and details the shortcomings that need to be fixed. It talks for example, about how we’re able to almost accurately predict where hurricanes would land to (only) a hundred mile radius with (only) a seventy-two hour window. As a non-statistician however, this is still a huge improvement over what we could manage a few decades ago. All of this predictability adds so much certainty to our lives. Compared to our ancestors, for whom every moment carried a multitude of different threats from being hit by lightning to becoming dinner for a hungry tiger, our lives are far more certain with far fewer threats.

The signal and the noise

Unlike the book, the theme of this post isn’t why predictions fail. I instead wanted to think about the consequences of this added predictability on our happiness and on life in general. When weather forecasts go wrong we blame the weathermen. We blame economists for being unable to foresee and forewarn us of economic recessions. Inability to predict threats is almost criminal for experts today. There is an expectation of certainty and anything that results in that expectation not being met, results in a post-mortem and a corresponding punishment. Guess who is the expert of our own individual lives? Guess who do we blame when we’re unable to predict our own miserable future?

All of this certainty hasn’t come without consequences. As a general pattern, we all create short and long term futures for ourselves that we believe are most achievable based on our abilities and circumstances and would maximize our overall short and long term happiness scores. We assign a high-certainty score to these futures and over time if we find that score reducing, we blame ourselves for a bad forecast. With so much certainty in external variables, we have very little outside of our control that can go wrong – forcing us to agree that it had to be our own flawed model that resulted in the sorry predicament. In India, I could blame the power failure (a fairly common unpredictable threat) on the eve of the exam for my low score; in US I no longer had that luxury. My score is a function: more of my abilities and less of the power-supply or the public transport systems, than it was in India. Just like certainty, the pain & frustration of failure is also exacerbated several times as a result of this purer model. Beyond a certain point, we completely lose track of our original intent and all that remains is our tireless effort to keep that certainty score in chasing that now miserable future, as high as possible.

The other consequence of certainty is the inertia it creates. In developed societies, where stimuli for the mind, body and intellect are easily accessible, it is easy to find people become numb to desire and experience (mostly from an overdose of the same). Shuffling between Ambien and caffeine, they cling on to the last thing separating them from insanity – The certainty in their current state. At the cusp of our physical, intellectual and emotional being, our craving for certainty creates an inertia that prevents, or at least resists any change in our zombied state of existence. This state is what Gita refers to as Tamas.

Tamas is lowest, heaviest, slowest, and most dull (for example, a stone or a lump of earth). It is devoid of the energy of the rajas and the brightness of sattva.

Even if you’re not as damaged as the folks mentioned above, the certainty and clear visibility into future that your current state brings, does create a comfort zone around you. This comfort zone and the lack of certainty in the alternatives, become the biggest barrier to change and to a happier existence. We often hide our desire to retain this comfort zone under the guise of ‘risk-aversion’. Once we’ve made the choice of certainty over uncertainty, our Confirmation bias kicks in to strengthen our belief in this choice, but our misery continues. Over time our attachment to the current state and the fear of losing it creates more stress, frustration and pain.

The solutions to these problems of personal forecasting lie in the same principles of forecasting that Nate highlights in the book. He uses them for forecasting scores and election results. I’ve altered the same to suit personal-life forecasting as discussed in this post:

  • Be probabilistic in your forecasting models: Instead of creating a single future-story for yourself create multiple futures each with it’s own probabilistic score.
  • The forecasting model should change with time: As the circumstances, personal-interests and abilities change, be open to changing the probabilistic scores you assigned initially and to adding more futures to the model.
  • Look for consensus: It is important to seek external validation of your forecasting model and to note how others feel about the probability scores you’ve assigned to the different futures in your model, given how others perceive your abilities and circumstances. Of course, you need to be smart in your choice of these ‘others’.

In essence, this analysis above seems to suggest embracing the chaos in life (albeit in a better & smarter way). We should welcome it instead of being afraid of it. We should be able to find happiness in change, as was suggested in my previous post on choice. In fact, choice and certainty seem quite close to each other. Where choice creates an illusion of power over desires and accentuates our ego and inherent biases, certainty induces attachment towards this illusion and makes us resistant to change that might actually improve our current state. Like a coy, cute, conniving, coquettish temptress she’ll flirt with you and tempt you into getting what she needs from you, and when ultimately, thanks to her, you’ll end up in a state of utter misery, she’ll even seduce you into absolving her and instead blaming yourself for your predicament.

On the notion of correlation, causality, certainty, happiness and prediction Mirza Ghalib again had some amazing insight in this famous ghazal: (here’s a rendition of the same by Jagjit Singh)

उन के देखे से जो आ जाती है रौनक़ मुंह पर
वो समझते हैं कि बीमार का हाल अचछा है (ref.)
-the mere sight of her is enough to light up my face
=and she takes it to imply that my sickness is healed and health is good

देखिये पाते हैं `उशशाक़ बुतों से कया फ़ैज़
इक बरहमन ने कहा है कि ये साल अचछा है (ref.)
-lets see what grace/favor/benefit lovers find from idols
=an idol worshiping oracle has foretold this year is good

from the reference- “…to a lover, the very idea of a year’s being ‘good’ can have only one possible meaning that’s of any interest at all. The lover’s wild myopia, his form of tunnel vision, is funny in itself.”

हम को म`लूम है जननत की हक़ीक़त लेकिन
दिल के खुश रखने को ग़ालिब ये ख़याल अचछा है (ref.)
-and even though i know the reality/truth of heaven/paradise
=yet, to keep the heart happy, Ghalib, this thought is good

Do I make bad choices or do choices make me bad?

December 7, 2012

Imagine a world where as a child pops into the world crying, a book is delivered from the sky next to the child. This book contains all of the child’s future with minute details of every outcome of every situation the child would ever encounter till death. People can choose to open the book or to burn it (& even that is actually documented in the book itself!). Would you prefer such a world to the world you live in? More importantly, would you open the book or burn it? Why would someone want to play a match, or fight a battle knowing that they’d lose or die? Well, the people in this hypothetical world’ve tried to reverse or alter the future, but the universe has it’s way and no one has been able to change it. The book is always right!

If you think such a world would be boring, especially if everyone chooses to read the book, here’s the kicker. The people of this world have over time come to believe that outcomes of all situations are pointless & futile. What really matters is the intent and feeling with which the person lives through the situation or in other words, performs the actions. The goal is to maximize your happiness points earned, while living your life. The key to doing that while being certain of highs and lows, is to always stay happy in the highs AND the lows, regardless of the outcome and regardless of whether you know it or not. Mastering that art, is mastering the art of living.

In the scenario above, there is no choice and no unpredictability for the ones who choose to read their future-book. For the ones who choose not to read it, there is unpredictability but still is no choice (or at least no real choice, given that they know the outcome is predetermined, even though they do not know what it is). This is essentially what the Gita says as well (okay, a sort of distorted version of what the Gita says). The actions that one performs would obviously lead to some outcomes, but there is no value being attached to the outcomes, because the outcomes are just hogwash (Maya). What matters It says, is the quality of action performed to achieve the outcome. The action that maximizes happiness points is action that is self-less, desireless, free from any attachment and performed without any expectation of fruits or results. For such action, Gita can justify any outcome – from killing of your own siblings to robbing a bank. However, reaching the intellectual and spiritual state of being able to perform such action or Nishkam Karma, takes years of practice.

The theme of this post isn’t Nishkam Karma. What I wanted to allude to in the above was the fundamental problem of choice that seems to be at the epicenter of all the sadness in life. I’m not referring to the more practical ‘Paradox of Choice’ type problem with the overabundance of choice that I discussed years ago, but rather with the very nature of choice itself. When we choose, we decide and the biases in our decision making (both intellectual and emotional) come into play. Not only that, our ego kicks in (which as we’ve seen before isn’t a good sign). Based on our desires, this ego sets selfish expectations on the outcomes and assigns a higher value to the choice we finally make, over ones we do not. All of this is a perfect recipe for sadness and far far away from the ‘Pure action’ as described above.

In ‘Life of Pi’ (the movie that somehow triggered this whole fantasy-crusade BTW), Piscine as a teenager loses all passion and interest and what brings it back and gives his life meaning and purpose is Anandi (the love that he chose to pursue). However, he soon looses Anandi and his own family and most of his ability to choose. Circumstances force him to be stuck in a boat in the middle of the Atlantic with a tiger that he initially wanted to drown and later kill. He evolves to love the tiger more than anything else and the tiger alone gives meaning and purpose to his life and that love for the tiger becomes the reason for his survival as a castaway. So even though we may be preprogrammed to lie and force ourselves into loving the one(s) we choose, we also have the ability to find love/meaning/purpose in the most difficult of people/events/situations forced upon us, where we may not have an iota of choice. Some may call it compromising with whatever is available and being unambitious, but for others it may mean finding happiness in satisfaction with whatever is available. For ultimately, it isn’t the outcome that matters but the happiness points you earn While reaching the outcome that does.

A trippy song from my last road trip

December 2, 2012

My last two weekends were spent in beautiful Utah. While the first one in North Utah (Bear Lake & Antelope Island in Salt Lake) was amazing, the Thanksgiving weekend in South Utah was something beyond expectations. Taking off-road trails in Monument Valley, Antelope Canyons and Arches National Park, you can experience a terrain & geography like you’d never find anywhere else. Thanks to the month long travel-vacations I was taken to every year growing up, I’ve travelled through almost all of India and can draw easy parallels between destinations in US to their sister-locales in India – except for this one. I’ve been wanting to write a ten-syllable, ten-stanza song for a long time and the sheer beauty and uniqueness of this place almost wrote it by itself.

Thoughts, Memories, Feelings

There’s a valley in south central Utah
That is as red as the sun ever gets
And in that valley stand huge monuments
Creations of wind and rocks and red sand

They stand in different shapes and sizes
Just like the shapes of your thoughts in my head
Some are tall some are short some are rounded
And each one so different from the rest

Each carries its own little history
Withered with age and shaped by its own past
I’m told love comes slow and goes real fast
But these thoughts, I’m not sure how long they last?

To the west of this valley are canyons
Where a cold river once broke it apart
But now all that remains are its markings
Just like the paintings you etched on my heart

The sunlight plays games with the canyon
Mocking and flirting through its open parts
Forming mosaics with darkness and shadows
Your cruel games with my broken heart

Each line, each curve, each striation on stone
The beauty and magic of something strong
Those close intimate touches bygone
Memories – will they ever fade along?

To north east of this valley are arches
Where frozen water broke boulders apart
Left structures like entrances to churches
As it melted like your pain from my heart

And though holes may leave a rock incomplete
Take away from it what it wants and needs
They open portals to a world more complete
Adding grace like a monk’s prayer beads

And so even though it left me reeling
Writhing in pain with fists clutched and kneeling
I thank you for every single feeling
Playing your part, not offering healing

The valley, the canyons and the arches
Do they tease me and remind me of You?
Or just like a mirror do they show me
The dead terrain of my life without You?

-uber bilahg

I live and love, therefore I lie

November 13, 2012

On a given day, studies show that you may be lied to anywhere from 10 to 200 times. Now granted, many of those are white lies. But in another study, it showed that strangers lied three times within the first 10 minutes of meeting each other. (Laughter) Now when we first hear this data, we recoil. We can’t believe how prevalent lying is. We’re essentially against lying. But if you look more closely, the plot actually thickens. We lie more to strangers than we lie to coworkers. Extroverts lie more than introverts. Men lie eight times more about themselves than they do other people. Women lie more to protect other people. If you’re an average married couple, you’re going to lie to your spouse in one out of every 10 interactions. Now you may think that’s bad. It you’re unmarried, that number drops to three.

This data is a from the transcript of a Ted lecture by Pamela Meyer, author of a famous book – Liespotting. What interests me more than her work on the spotting of lies & liars is the origin and nature of lying itself. She captures that in the first part of her lecture.

It’s starts really, really early. How early? Well babies will fake a cry, pause, wait to see who’s coming and then go right back to crying. One-year-olds learn concealment. (Laughter) Two-year-olds bluff. Five-year-olds lie outright. They manipulate via flattery. Nine-year-olds, masters of the cover up. By the time you enter college, you’re going to lie to your mom in one out of every five interactions. By the time we enter this work world and we’re breadwinners, we enter a world that is just cluttered with spam, fake digital friends, partisan media, ingenious identity thieves, world-class Ponzi schemers, a deception epidemic — in short, what one author calls a post-truth society. It’s been very confusing for a long time now.

Like emotional and intellectual biases, lying too has evolutionary roots. Why we lie in the modern day world, can probably explain its origin and growth in our species. Dr. Dan Ariely (Yes, I’m becoming a devotee of his writings, I agree), has done some research and written a book on the reasons behind our dishonesty. There are various selfish motives for external lying. The author starts with an example of people buying fake Prada bags, in order to portray a false signal of superiority. Similarly, we lie to ‘get things done’, which is somewhat obvious from our own experiences.

The more interesting part is the whys and hows of self-deception (lying to ourselves). Now, if I go by Dr. Ariely’s theory, in lying to ourselves, we somehow deceive ourselves into believing things that aren’t factually accurate. We do it to create a better self-image, that adds to our confidence and enables us to perform all tasks (from drinking ales to mating with females). These signals are quite similar to how a peacock opens up his feathers to gain confidence in itself by portraying itself as better than other males and crabs wave their claws in the air and stand on hind legs to get a similar sense of self-confidence by external signaling.

There’s another benefit of self-deception. When the future is certain to be painful and sad, our self-deception (of the false hope of a better future) helps us to assuage the ill-effects of fear that would otherwise have made our life miserable. e.g. this is how people are able to withstand the news of a terminal illness, or to the upcoming loss of a loved one to the same, or even fight a battle knowing that the odds aren’t on ones favor. Living in a ‘fool’s paradise’ or ‘false-hope’ isn’t always foolish, especially when you know that the future is bleak & uncertain.

Nature gave us biases to program and obfuscate our rationality in specific ways for some known sets of scenarios & stimuli. And then it probably realized, that it had to give us a generic catch-all too. Because as an evolving species, not everything can be predicted and fit into existing patterns. We keep evolving new patterns in life, when nature (for it’s own sake) requires us to turn the rationality switch off. For those as-yet-unknown patterns, the ability to self-deceive acts like a silver-bullet.

So why do I talk about love in this post? Well honestly I wasn’t going to, but I saw this strange comment on love on someone’s Facebook timeline today, that added some interesting perspective to my thoughts and so I decided to change my post to accommodate that perspective. This was the comment that triggered it:

Unless its mad, passionate, extraordinary love, it’s a waste of your time. There are too many mediocre things in life. Love shouldn’t be one of them!

And here is where love comes into picture. Nothing illustrates this self deception better than the phenomena of love, especially romantic love or cupid’s love as I called it in my old & naive analysis. In her Ted lecture, Anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has done extensive research on romantic love explains the effects of this self-deception beautifully:

George Bernard Shaw said it a little differently. He said, “Love consists of overestimating the differences between one woman and another.” And indeed, that’s what we do. (Laughter) And then you just focus on this person. You can list what you don’t like about them, but then you sweep that aside and focus on what you do. As Chaucer said, “Love is blind.”

…It’s a little bit like when you are madly in love with somebody and you walk into a parking lot — their car is different from every other car in the parking lot. Their wine glass at dinner is different from every other wine glass at the dinner party…

…not only does this person take on special meaning, you focus your attention on them. You aggrandize them. But you have intense energy. As one Polynesian said, he said, “I felt like jumping in the sky.” You’re up all night. You’re walking till dawn. You feel intense elation when things are going well; mood swings into horrible despair when things are going poorly. Real dependence on this person. As one businessman in New York said to me, he said, “Anything she liked, I liked.” Simple. Romantic love is very simple…

She goes on to explain love as a combination of 3 components that are progressively more focused – Sex drive, followed by romantic love and culminating in attachment, toleration, acceptance or ‘getting used to’ spending life with that person:

the sex drive evolved to get you out there, looking for a whole range of partners. You know, you can feel it when you’re just driving along in your car. It can be focused on nobody. I think romantic love evolved to enable you to focus your mating energy on just one individual at a time, thereby conserving mating time and energy. And I think that attachment, the third brain system, evolved to enable you to tolerate this human being — (Laughter) — at least long enough to raise a child together as a team.

So isn’t love by nature dependent on the most potent and dangerous form of lying i.e. Self-Deception? Would you ever be able to aggrandize a human to the stature of God, be willing to kill and to die for that person and find them own every waking and sleeping thought of yours – all without the support of some powerful lie that had somehow been magically sold to your intellect? Or a lie that empowers your emotional self to an extent that it can completely shutdown your rationality – thereby screwing up your ability to compare, analyze and evaluate with any level of objectivity. Hence, coming back to the Facebook comment, are we by expecting our love to be “mad, passionate” & “extraordinary”, not hoping and craving for that lie to be as potent and powerful as it can be? Alternatively, and perhaps more interestingly, Gita says that the world as we see it internally, and its existence externally, are both an illusion (Maya). Thus nature itself tends to cheat us and lie to us. In that case, instead of being lied to by a thousand different material entities every waking and sleeping moment, is it instead wiser to just let yourself flow in a singular blissful lie? Note that you’d still be dependent on the subject as discussed in my earlier post on subject-less love, yet the point here being that it is perhaps better to be completely enslaved by one subject, instead of being partially enslaved by a thousand all-powerful ones.

My analysis of lying cannot be complete without mentioning my favorite lines on lying from a famous ghazal by Mirza Ghalib. (Here’s a rendition of the same.) The context behind these lines is equally relevant – Ghalib was in love with a courtesan who had politely refused his proposal for reasons she did not reveal, but promised to reciprocate sometime in the future. To which he later wrote:

yih nah thii hamaarii qismat, kih visaal-e-yaar hotaa
agar aur jeetay rehatey, yahii intizaar hotaa

//it wasn’t in my fate, to have a meeting with my beloved
//had i continued to live, I’d have endured the same long wait

terey vaade par jiye ham, to yih jaan jhouth jaanaa
kih khvushii se mar nah jaatey, agar aaitibaar hotaa

//and if you think I lived thus far on your promise, then know this lie – O love of my life
//would I not have died of elation, had I believed Your promise to be true

Really, Mr. Spider Man? Really?

November 5, 2012

Feeding the mind with a cornucopia of readings on consciousness, instincts, psychology, poetry and rationality often leads to some weird serendipitous moments of amusement. For several years this has been one of my favorite urdu ghazals penned by the late Seemab Akbarabadi and sung in this rendition by the late Jagjit Singh. In the true  Divine Love (ishq-e-haqiqi) fashion of ghazal poetry, the poet talks about the beauty in dying at the feet of the beloved and describes the scene in great detail. The first four lines with translation are as follows:

tere kadmon pe sar hoga, kaza sar pe khadi hogi
fir us sajde ka kya kehna, anokhi bandagi hogi

//my head lying at your feet, death looming on my head
//oh what can be said of that salutation, that unique love & devotion

nashime subah gulashan mein, gulon se khelati hogi
kisiki aakhari hichaki, kisiki dillagi hogi

//the gentle breeze of morning, flirting in the garden with flowers
//someone’s last hiccup (old indian myth. – someone’s thought of you, is the source of your hiccup),  a source of amusement  for someone else
//(the last hiccup from her thought, kills me and she’s amused by it)

Now, any sane person would obviously classify it as poetic hyperbole. No rational minded human would sacrifice his/her head at the feet of their lover just as an act of reverence or devotion. More interestingly, it is hard to imagine our instincts guiding us down that path. Even my crazy mind that often has the weirdest instincts (at the weirdest of times), hasn’t ever felt like performing this psychotic act of elation or reverence. And yet, there are people who gladly sacrifice themselves for their cause (from freedom fighters, to army soldiers to militant extremists) and literally stand in face of death and disaster with a smile on their faces, by choice and often under no obligation to self-sacrifice. Dan Ariely claims in his latest book on the same topic, that it’s based on a flaw (or something by design) in our rationality – that people are able to convince themselves to do things (by using biased rational arguments to justify that it’s the ‘Right’ thing to do), and also alter their own perception of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (and right or wrong) they are. Even the Gita suggests that the world is just a Projection of the external within your mind. Hence, more important than the nature of the external, is the nature of that projection. That seems to indicate our rationality as the cause of our predicament.

But even outside rationality, in the realm of instincts, there are insects that sacrifice themselves, by literally placing their bodies under the fangs of their mates, in a phenomena described as Male Self Sacrifice in Sexual Cannibalism. e.g. the redback spider. Notice the eerie similarity between the words of the poet above and the acts of this instinct driven insect.

The redback spider is one of only two animals to date where the male has been found to actively assist the female in sexual cannibalism. In the process of mating, the much smaller male somersaults to place his abdomen over the female’s mouthparts. In about two of three cases, the female fully consumes the male while mating continues. Males which are not eaten die of their injuries soon after mating.
Sacrifice during mating is thought to confer two advantages to the males. The first is the eating process allows for a longer period of copulation and thus fertilization of more eggs. The second is females which have eaten a male are more likely to reject subsequent males. Although this prohibits the possibility of future mating for the males, this is not a serious disadvantage, because the spiders are sufficiently sparse that only 20% of males ever find a potential mate during their lifetimes.

So what explains these outlier actions that we – yearn for in our poetry, believe and hope that we’ll never perform in reality, yet are able to convince ourselves to do happily in some cases, and not just us – even our insect brethren are seemingly not immune from? Is it a flaw in our rationality or some evolutionary emotional bias baggage or yet another clusterfuck of nature? Either ways, it’s oddly amusing. Isn’t it?

How do you rate on my spillometer?

November 4, 2012

Imagine you’re out walking in downtown San Francisco with your date, after a really interesting Friday evening of stand-up comedy. Its late in the night and you enter a nice diner where after a few minutes of waiting, you’re escorted to a cramped two-seater table (space is a scarce and expensive luxury in SF). Two tall glasses of water, a large dinner menu, a drinks menu and a crazy tea light occupy that small table, making it seem more occupied than a port-a-potty outside a busy trailer park. As both of you are reading menus to decide on some appetizers, you turn the page. The top of edge of your plastic covered menu hits the top of your tall glass – tilts and drops it, pouring all the water directly in the valley formed between the pages of the plastic covered menu that your date is reading, completely oblivious of your antics. The perfection in chaos lies in the angle of the glass’s spill, the size of the menu in that diner, the angle between the pages of the menu, and how the menu is being read such that it’s leading directly to your date’s crotch. All of this saves everything on the table yet completely drenches your date’s expensive dress, crotch and ass with ice-cold water (with no-ice BTW – in true desi fashion).

Now luckily, I was not out on a date last night. The stand-up was a Joe Rogan show after all! I was with my old friend of five years and the spilling of water was an honest mistake that resulted in his quiet discomfort for the dinner and the rest of the night. Something that I apologized about and was genuinely sorry for, yet something that we made jokes and laughed off for the rest of the evening and later.

But isn’t this the perfect psychological first-date-experiment that we were aiming for in the last post, something a cognitive or behavioral psychologist would use to literally break the ice (ah, figuratively for non-desis – yes) and the “Bad equilibrium” that behavioral economists like Dan Ariely talk about e.g. in his post:

When going on a first date, we try to achieve a delicate balance between expressing ourselves, learning about the other person, but also not offending anyone — favoring friendly over controversial – even at the risk of sounding dull.

This is what economists call a bad equilibrium – it is a strategy that all the players in the game can adopt and converge on – but it is not a desirable outcome for anyone.

With a single “honest mistake”, you’d have broken that delicate balance, jolted your partner out of their comfort zone, tested their impulses, their cognitive control over impulses and their overall response to the stressful stimuli of public embarrassment. Be prepared for some rapid eruption of pent-up resentment against yourself BTW!

Now, I’m by no means suggesting that you go about spilling glasses of ice-cold water on your first dates (and definitely not coffee or tea as my friend from the last post seemed to suggest when I told him about this). All that I’m saying is that we live in a great world of instant noodles, 140 character tweets, speed dating and one-night stands. Yet to know and understand someone better, we rely on a process that rests its foundations on the antiquated medium of conversation, combined with observation while “spending time together” which takes months to yield good results. I’d love to spend my life working in a lab doing research on something like a “Behavior, Temperament & Personality Scanner”, that’d save the world from all this wasteful investment of time, money, energy and heartbreak – which could otherwise be well spent curing aids and cancer (we’ll technically a lack of heartache could prevent heart-attacks too). There should and must be a better and more accurate way to do this I believe, and the suggested experiment is just a possible illustrative example.

And if you’d like to get started on how it’s unethical, immoral or voyeuristic to spy on someone’s mind, let me tell you – all of this is for the good of both parties and the world, and is for the benefit of our obligatory duty of Procreation, around which all of our evolutionary biases (both emotional and intellectual) seem to be based. For a cause like this (or Dharma as it’s referred to in the Gita), Krishna was able to convince Arjuna to fight a war, even if it involved killing his own kith and kin and thousands of innocent others. Heck, I’m just talking about spilling water on a few folks.

So as the Saturday evening falls upon and I head out for the night, let’s hope it’s a spill free one!

A Philosop(hic!)al take on Dating Conversations

November 1, 2012

“I wish I had a spreadsheet for that!”
“For what?”
“Those three girls that my mom set me up with. I need to date them in the next three months and close on one.”
“Perfect! Good for you! So what’d the spreadsheet do (you’re talking excel spreadsheet right ;))”
“Huh. Funny! Something like a comparative analysis sheet. With product questionnaires, valuation models and rating parameters.”
“Sure. Great idea Mr. Stock Analyst!”
“Yeah, you have a better one? You read philosophy… How would a philosopher go about this problem? What questions would your philosophers ask?”
“Hmmm… I don’t know… I’ll have to read up on that! You know, now that I think about it, philosophers don’t really mention dating that often. :?”
“Quite Surprising!”
“Yeah…. I guess the ones who have that aptitude, end up becoming poets or writers!”

It was probably the craziness of the Halloween weekend or something else (in my glass), but it actually got me thinking. What questions would philosophers like Aristotle and Plato or even our modern psychologists like Minsky and Daniel Gilbert ask when faced with this seemingly strange predicament of my friend. The kind of questions I’m referring to here are not the standard conversation-starter type first date questions that you can easily find using a simple search. And, nothing cracks me up more than the desi version of this search (did you see the 22 step wikihow link). BTW, both of these search queries are on Google’s auto-complete list, indicating how popular they are! This is something even Behavioral economists find quite interesting. e.g. Dan Ariely’s thoughts on dating (especially this one on dating questions and this story on dating biases).

Nonetheless, by the end of that Halloween weekend night, sitting in that downtown watering hole, we came up with the most hilariously amazing and insightful list of questions possible with that level of sobriety. In the true spirit of philosophy, the right answers to these would vary depending on who’s asking (and answering :P):

  • Assuming you were the last woman on earth in a desolate island, which one man would you prefer to have with you:
    1. A really good looking yet dumb actor
    2. A really smart, yet below average looking philosopher
    3. An ugly native of that island
    4. You’d rather kill yourself!
  • Assuming I gave you $10,000, what would you do with it:
    1. Spend it on stocks, double it, and return me $10,000
    2. Spend it on your looks, beauty makeup (ten grand get a lot of jobs done ;))
    3. Spend it on gifts for me – electronics, furniture etc.
    4. Other (please specify)
  • Assuming your house was burning, and you could save only one of these, which would it be:
    1. Your makeup kit and your favorite shoes and dresses
    2. Your memories – my gifts, our framed photos, mix-tapes, journals etc.
    3. Your documents – insurance, financial, SSN card etc.
    4. Other (please specify)
  • Assuming you were blessed with an infinite life , and God gave you one bonus gift, which of these would you pick:
    1. Eternal happiness
    2. Infinite life for me as well
    3. Infinite supply of money
    4. The sexiest body on the planet till eternity
  • Assuming you were NOT blessed with an infinite life, which of these would you pick:
    1. Absolute Wisdom
    2. Absolute Beauty
    3. Ten million dollars
    4. None. I’m happiest the way I am
  • Assuming you could take one last thirty day vacation in your life, starting tomorrow, where would you choose to spend it:
    1. Antarctica
    2. Paris
    3. At home – in the comfort of your couch and bed
    4. A monastery in Tibet
  • Assuming the Know it allentity (God or Whatever) allowed to pick one question, that It’d answer for you with it’s infinite wisdom, which of these would you choose:
    1. Who am I? (The ‘I’ here being you – just clarifying!)
    2. What is happiness?
    3. What is the purpose of my life?
    4. Not interested in knowing – Ignorance is bliss!
    5. Other – please specify

This one isn’t my joke, but something that is befitting as the last one on this post:


A boy is about to go on his first date, and is nervous about what to talk about. He asks his father for advice. The father replies: “My son, there are three subjects that always work. These are food, family, and philosophy.”

The boy picks up his date and they go to a soda fountain. Ice cream sodas in front of them, they stare at each other for a long time, as the boy’s nervousness builds. He remembers his father’s advice, and chooses the first topic. He asks the girl: “Do you like potato pancakes?” She says “No,” and the silence returns.

After a few more uncomfortable minutes, the boy thinks of his father’s suggestion and turns to the second item on the list. He asks, “Do you have a brother?” Again, the girl says “No” and there is silence once again.

The boy then plays his last card. He thinks of his father’s advice and asks the girl the following question: “If you had a brother, would he like potato pancakes?”


Eternal Blissfulness of the Subject-less love

October 25, 2012

Yesterday, a friend of mine, who’s a follower of Sri-Sri Ravi Shankar, posted a quote from the Guru’s lecture on his Facebook timeline –

‘Agyaat se Prem(devotion for the unknown)’ ko shraddha kehte hain – Sri Sri

It translates to – Love (Prem) and Devotion for the unknown is called ‘Shraddha’. Now, there is no real translation for Shraddha in english, but roughly it equates to a combination of dedication, faith and love. But this seemingly innocuous quote somehow triggered a whirlwind of thoughts in my crazy head. On the face of it, it seems absurd to be able to love & trust an unknown entity. Even in the very naive model of love (although of a specific type), that I analyzed years ago, the fundamental assumption was the presence of a subject – The one that is loved. Also, even if you consider love to be an emotion manifested by certain chemical processes in the brain, it is still dependent on a trigger (subject) to start those chemical processes.

Hypothetically, if such a notion was true and we were to imagine a world where all inhabitants have this superpower of being able to experience love without a subject – the world would be an amazing place. Most of us have experienced pure love at some point in our lives – not just towards somebody but towards some idea, some vision or something. Imagine if that feeling was to be independent of the subject and you could be in a state of perpetual love, as and when required. We’ve previously seen how our minds are chained by supernormal-stimuli triggering desire-infested emotions and our intellect by in-born biases. If there is one overpowering emotion that can free us all of this misery, it would probably be love. However, love often, and based on my experience, tragically so, ends in pain. We usually lose love because we somehow lose the subject, or our abstraction of the subject falls apart. If there is no subject, then there is no possibility of loss and hence no possibility of heartbreak. This would thereby result in perpetually free (from pain or loss) love. Wouldn’t perpetual love be a shortcut to perpetual bliss? Looking at it another way, this would take the phrase ‘Love has no boundaries‘ to a whole new level. Not only would love have no boundaries of race, color, age, caste, creed, sex etc. but it’d also not have a boundary of existence or nonexistence of the subject. That’s where you probably being to think I’m too high on weed on a weekday!

Vedantic literature is full of verses explaining how the end goal of spiritual practice is to be able to eliminate the ego, and thereby experiencing the common unifying underlying spirit. Sufi mystics and poets like Rumi and Kabir also speak of the same. When you are in a truly ego-less, desire-less state, there is nothing left, but to love and trust every single manifestation of that spirit around you (because you understand the futility and worthlessness of everything outside the (real)ity of spirit). Now, all that sounds lovey-dovey, but in a practical sense, I don’t see people being able to reach that level of selfless, desire-less, ego-ridden love even in 1-on-1 relationships. Not only is love enslaved by the existence and actions of the subject, it is also enslaved by our expectations on the abstractions of the subject that our minds create. (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, illustrates this point with great finesse). If those abstractions begin to crack, our love begins to crumble. And all of this, with just one subject, and in spite of all the support that it gets from our in-born attraction, infatuation, attachment etc. towards that subject. If we aren’t capable of experiencing love within subjective boundaries, can we really be capable of transcending those boundaries of existence and experiencing it perpetually?

That is perhaps where the conceptualization of God (and Bhakti) comes from. With God, we create an abstraction that is somewhere between Gyaat (known) and Agyaat (unknown). The abstraction is seemingly impossible to break, given that the Subject itself is not really seen or unseen – it is imaginary, and is like an implanted seed in our minds (an image, an idol or a story). Yet it is not really unknown (Agyaat). We create an illusion in our mind of knowing God, by our imagination. After taking that leap of faith, Bhakti, gives us a glimpse of the same elevated happiness or bliss that I’ve talked about above. At the same time it is independent of the actions of any ‘living’ subject (since the subject is an unreal imaginary abstraction), and so has almost the same insurance from heartbreak and disappointment as subject-less love. And yet, some (arguably most) people manage to break even this seemingly unbreakable abstraction by loading it with expectations and desires, which when unmet, result in loss of dedication, faith & love (Shraddha).

From this, it also seems that being able to love without the crutches of existential dependence might in-fact be the ultimate preassigned goal of the human form. If I revisit the paths that the Gita shows – it asks us to create some abstractions (as a cure for our inability to love the unknown), that can be used as crutches to attain that goal. Note that none of these paths take a dependence on any abstraction of a living form or on something that might change, based on its own material nature. The 3 paths can be thought of as follows:

  • Karma Yoga – As the path of falling in love with the abstraction of action and work
  • Bhakti Yoga – As the path of falling in love with the abstraction of God (as described above)
  • Gyana Yoga - As the path of falling in love with the abstraction of knowledge. The science of understanding the path to absolution.

Theoretically speaking, if I fall in love, with an abstraction of You, by just having seen You, without ever having met You or spoken to You or known You, my love for You would in fact be more blissful and better-insured against heartbreak, than falling in love with the ‘real’ you. That abstraction of You, would be an abstraction conceptualized almost entirely in my mind – just like God’s. Like God, You’d still be between the known and the unknown, but unlike God, I would not need to take leaps of faith to see or imagine You. You’d also not carry the burden of perfection or expectations or desire fulfillment that God’s abstraction does, or the abstraction of Your material self might. Thus, loving You, would be closer to the elusive ‘Loving the Unknown’ path, than loving God. And I understand it isn’t an easy spiritual journey, but if I can, loving that abstraction of You would be easier and get me closer to my existential goal of perpetual happiness, than any other real path that I can think of. And yet, in spite of all this, ironically, the world would call it Unreal. And even more ironically, I’d agree with the world – Un’real’ indeed!


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