Yearly Archives: 2015

Man’s quest for serotonin balance

It is not easy to look at all the faiths, meditation practices, yoga, and various other things from one perspective. Let me suggest one perspective, all of these are quests to keep our serotonin levels balanced.

Whether you are meditating twice a day, praying five times, or visiting a place of worship, all of these are focused on projecting happiness chemicals in our bodies to a balanced level.

Why is serotonin needed in our body?

Serotonin is known as the happiness chemical. It is a neurotransmitter and its twin brother dopamine is also discussed in the same context. Most people learn about serotonin when they or someone they know is suffering from depression. Prescribed Anti-depressant drugs are essentially serotonin inhibitors.

In a society addicted to consumption and over indulgence, it makes sense that more discussions are being brought up about depression over happiness and inspiration. Its analogous to talking about how to get rid of credit card debt vs how to save money.

Let me make an attempt to define the state of being inspired. One way to put it is as equanimous state of mind for the creative. Its not the state of happiness but state of calm. Left brain running at idle mode. Right brain full swing.

Limitations of electronic communication

Modern age makes us believe that technology can solve all the problems. It solves most of the problems except one and that is dealing with humans.

I read a quote somewhere sometime back and it was “If you can meet someone, don’t call. If you can call someone, don’t text or email”. Obviously it is little exaggerated but sends the point across well.

We can think of various reasons for it but first and foremost is that’s it’s very tough to be nasty when you are in front of someone. It’s very easy ( and would say cowardly) to sit behind keyboard and write nasty stuff.

Second as you can guess is body language. Body language plays almost 80% part in communication called non-verbal communication. If you take this part out communication is exactly  20% effective. On telephone you can introduce some body language so it’s definitely better than texting but does not beat in-person meetings.

I am not suggesting that all communication should be done in-person as that would overwhelm everyone but there should be a fine balance and you should err towards more human interaction than less.

I think it’s less of a problem for our generation but for the generation which is in school and colleges, they need to be taught emphatically about the limitations of electronic communication. If we do not do that, we will see many more jobs, relationships and marriages failing.

Electronic communication is a blessing for our times and I am in no way underestimating it’s importance. Mobile communication is another giant leap within that. It helps me stay productive no matter where I am. It’s just that it still does not catch all features of being human yet.

Demystifying Netflix

  • Cruise ship and iceberg

I had brief stay with Netflix many years back so I have a perspective. In a sentence, the whole company philosophy is based on the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins.

First, let me start with discounting the value of culture. There is a lot that has been written and said about company cultures. Most of the time, it’s overrated. I am saying overrated is because it is claimed to be directly related to the success of a company, which is not true.

Culture has a marginal short-term impact and a substantial long-term impact. When a company like Netflix is facing a lot of tail winds, it does not really matter whether they are treating employees royally or have a quarterly ritual of layoffs. When a company like Yahoo is facing a lot of headwind — no matter how hard and how sincerely Marissa Mayer tries to change culture — it will not change the course of the company. I remember reading in an article that while a ship is going to hit an iceberg, you do not spend time arranging deck chairs. I am a big admirer of Marissa and maybe would have done the same thing as she did — since you have to start somewhere — but it becomes challenging when you expect a big short term impact from that.

Coming back to Netflix, the company has an amazing business model. It has faced continuous tail winds since Blockbuster has gone bust. This is what prompts everyone to look for reasons behind company success; and they look inside.

Netflix has an unwritten policy that they will give you complete flexibility and if they think you are abusing it, they’ll let you go. It works great in that the company does not build any deadwood. It fails when you throw a baby out with bathwater (because both stink same) every few months.  It’s easy to measure deadwood as productivity can be measured by various metrics, but it’s impossible to measure the loss of babies who were thrown out with the bathwater. One can also argue that maybe the loss is not much because it’s the business model and momentum which drive growth rather than few rock start employees.

The Netflix model is great when you are an established player and have a lot of money to pay. It’s like when you are young and hot, everyone wants to sleep with you. Companies that are not so lucky need to work on nurturing employees. You need both performance and loyalty. You reward performers for loyalty because they had the choice to go somewhere else but they did not.

Need for Legitimacy

  • Quest for legitimacy

One thing I have observed early on in my childhood is that even the most unruly lads in the neighborhood would come and greet my parents on Diwali and other festivals. They would not show the same respect when they were beating a shopkeeper on the street for not paying weekly dues though.

Why is that so? Everyone including the outlaws strive for legitimacy. Legitimacy is a basic human need. This is what drives Robin Hoods of the world to help the poor. This is what makes military dictators say they are doing what they are doing to help the people, to root out corruption and whatever local flavor works in a given situation. Take, for example, the case of Pakistan, where half of their independent existence has been under military rule and every dictator had his own benevolent reasons to do what he did. Each one could have ruled without seeking any legitimacy but some changed the constitution, some forced courts to approve their take-over of power in the name of “doctrine of necessity” and some held mock referendums to show they have people’s mandate.

You look around and everywhere you will see people act out of their self-interest and associate it with a greater cause to seek legitimacy. Even the most self-serving acts can be defended by associating them with a greater cause and seek legitimacy. If a person sues a big venture capitalist firm by using the legal system as a proxy to settle her score, she would still associate it with gender equality and other similar causes to seek legitimacy. Some socialist can argue that the rich have devised terms like “trickle down effect” to provide legitimacy to their amassing of wealth. Legitimacy is what causes religious leaders to associate their self-serving acts with protecting the faith. Need for legitimacy is what causes terrorist masterminds to associate holy war with self-serving acts of killing innocent people and still expect to meet virgins in the heaven.

Source of creativity 

  • Source of Creativity

There is a lot of talk about Mark Zuckerberg mentioning to Narendra Modi a certain temple he visited in India upon Steve Jobs’ suggestion. If we go by what Mark said, then his month-long visit to this temple got his creative juices flowing and now Facebook is where it is. 

A few weeks back, I wrote about the role of aether in advancement of human civilization. Now, aether is a convenient term to describe a phenomenon. The best way to think of this term is that you learnt it the first time. Aether leads to flow of serotonin like a chemical which is primarily responsible for creativity. 
There are other ways to pump serotonin, like taking mood enhancing drugs, taking focus drugs and last but not the least, marijuana. Remember I said pump serotonin, not generate it. Let me explain the difference: Say, you have $100k in the bank. Generally, you are very conservative about spending it. For anything you want to buy, you look in many places to find the best deal. Now you take a drug which teleports you to vegas and you have fun there all night. The thrill you got by gambling and other things was too good. But what happened to your bank account. Cost of this thrill was, say, $98k. Now you are left with $2k which is not enough to even pay rent in bay area. This is what drugs do. They do not generate serotonin out of thin air but pump out to your blood stream whatever your body has accumulated over a long period of time. 

What if someone takes you to vegas free of cost? Well, nothing is really free, but there are techniques which help generate serotonin like chemicals or at least effects equivalent to that. They are:

  • Meditation
  • Chanting including Om
  • Flame

 Both meditation and chanting are easy to understand. What fascinated me most is the flame. There is a layer of aether (source: Sadhguru) which gets generated around a flame. This aether not only makes you calm and composed but also makes you more creative. 

Cultures and Dominance

  • The historic district of Montmartre in Paris,France

I am writing this blog sitting at a Starbucks in Paris. A few days back, we were in London which was the capital of the world for more than a century with England being the global cop.

Being a citizen of the current global cop helps me develop an interesting perspective. Living in the current capital of the world also adds to it, though new yorkers will hate me saying that. But the proof is in the pudding, no matter where you look. All the way from people carrying iPhones to taking Uber cabs.

Let’s switch gears and take a walk past the memory lane and start with the city I grew up in, i.e. Jaipur. It was the summer of 1790, June 20th, to be exact. Jaipur was a state at that time. Amid scorching heat in the area near Jaipur, which is roughly present day Sikar, there had been an army stand-off for more than two weeks.

One side was Jaipur + Jodhpur and some Mughals under Ismail Beg. The other side were Sindhias + Holkars with army trained by British and French and in fact led by a French officer.

Once the stand off was over, it was a short battle. Jaipur and Jodhpur got defeated. Beg’s army wiped out. Rajputs and Marathas both being fierce fighters, the decisive factor was marginal advantage and that Marathas got by european weaponry. Interestingly, the current chief minister of Rajasthan is Vasundhara Raje Sindhia, one of descendents of Mahadaji Sindhia, though she did not get this seat by winning the battle of Patan. But it would be very tough to convince someone who went to sleep in 1790 and woke up in 2014, that this was not the case. Jaipur itself was not conquered but it was left one step short of it, and after 27 years of challenging times, Jaipur succumbed to becoming a British protectorate in 1817. Ajmer was conquered and came under direct British rules a few decades afterwards.

Mahadaji was not representing the British, by the way. He was representing himself like everyone else was. Even the 1857 uprising was a bunch of folks representing themselves who joined hands. It was not India’s freedom struggle. There was no nation-state by the name India. India was definitely a nation-state candidate with contiguous land and loosely similar culture. But the British railway network was the biggest factor in making it a nation-state besides every other factor you read in the books.

Do you think the outcome would be different if Jaipur had won? Maybe it would have delayed fait accompli by few decades. Maybe Jaipur would have helped the 1857 uprising rather than helping crush it.

European fire power was indefensible until after the Second World War when America took over both military dominance as well as role of global cop.

The peace in present day europe does not at all remind of its bloody past. Maybe one reason they are peaceful is that they no longer have to compete for global dominance. That role is already spoken for.

Coming back to 2015 Paris where I am sitting, it’s amazing to see how much history is associated with the city. Champs-elysses is the road on which armies parade in good times and bad times. Even Hitler chose it for his victory parade in 1940 and allied forces did the same in 1944 after Hitlers all.

The Eiffel tower is an amazing man-made structure and stands with proud next to the river. No wonder french call it Iron Lady.

Another thing worth noticing in Paris is how most of the buildings have retained their old architecture. It gives them a distinctive classy look.

Obviously, Paris is the fashion capital of the world and nothing more needs to be said about it.

Now, I am 300 ft under water in the English Channel going back to London. Having transport under a sea-bed is definitely cool and an amazing accomplishment for mankind.

What amazed me most is the tube network. It’s the oldest metro system in the world, with over 120 stations. It got started in 1861 with steam engines and had 35,000 riders on day  1.

My First Course at Southern California Vipassana Center

Some content in this blog you may find esoteric. My initial plan was to make this blog protected, but I finally decided to make it public. But with this disclaimer. My usual advice to people about esoteric content is that I do not expect you to believe it, but I do expect you to keep your mind open. That being said, the esoteric content has been kept to a minimum and is well within the recommended dosage :).

Last week I got an opportunity to visit the Southern California Vipassana Center. Most of my visits had been limited to the California Vipassana Center in North Fork, CA.

It would be a long drive from Santa Clara, so we deliberated a few times between driving and flying. It was an eight hour drive, so it would not be completely exhausting but though merely stop one step short of it. What broke the tie was the few extra hours I would get on a weekday if I flew.

I was advised by a close friend that Ontario, CA was the closest airport. Now, the question was whether to take a rental car or do ride-share from the airport. Every Vipassana center has active ride-share boards to share rides before every course. Ride-share was a good idea but I chose the rental car option for pure convenience reasons.

It was a two hour drive during L.A. rush hour (I know that folks living in southern California object to it, but for few ignorant folks in the Bay Area everything south of Bakersfield is L.A. 🙂 ). L.A. driving is not the best experience when you’re running late, as the flight was already half an hour late.

By the time I landed and hit the road, it was 5 pm. My first thought was why do we have to go so far when there is a lot of vacant land between Ontario and Twentynine Palms, where the center is located. Obviously this feeling was more driven by me getting stuck in traffic than actual facts. The reality is that a lot of dimensions have to be right for a site to qualify to be a meditation center. So just having a center in an area is a blessing, far or near. As it was, the center was right on Highway 62 (but amazingly quiet).

My ideal estimate was to arrive at 5:30 p.m., and finally I reached it a few minutes before 7:00 p.m. I did inform the management about my delay. Mostly, Vipassana courses do not start before 8:00 p.m. on Day 0, as a lot of students fly from other places and surprises are inevitable (read guaranteed), when an average course has more than 100 students and servers (unpaid volunteers making the whole thing happen).

When I reached the center, I was told I had been assigned a private room. It was music to my ears. The room was spacious and had an attached bathroom. In every meditation center, providing isolated private accommodation to every student is the ideal goal, but it’s amazing to see it happen in practice.

It is a smaller center, so the walk between the residences and meditation hall was but a few minutes, which added some extra convenience. In Dhamma Hall (Meditation Hall), seating is roughly by the number of courses you have taken, and surprisingly, I was assigned the first row. Though I have been practicing Vipassana for almost 18 years, the number of courses I have taken is very low. The only reason I got in the first row was that it was a short course and a lot of senior meditators prefer to go for long courses.

This time, I had a specific reason to go for a course. The reason was technical, which I will get to later in the blog. But first let us continue exploring SCVC.  Dhamma Hall at SCVC is relatively small compared to CVC, with a posted capacity of 83, if I remember correctly. The vibration level was not as intense as CVC, but that is directly proportional to the age of the center, everything else being the same. It was amazingly developed for a center less than 10 years old. I am gifted to be slightly extra sensitive to different vibrations than an average person. Saying anything beyond this would be an overstatement.

What sets CVC apart from SCVC and perhaps every other center in the U.S. is the pagoda. “Pagoda” is a distorted version of the Sanskrit word dhatu-garbha. The pagoda, in its most modern form, provides concentric circles in which meditators sit in isolated cells, all facing a common center (think of center as long and cylinder, as the CVC pagoda is multi-floor). It maximizes isolation without losing out on convenience. To put it bluntly, you get the isolation of being in a forest with no fear of wild animals and no fear of the weather.

Now let’s get to the point: the reason for this course. It is slightly technical in Vipassana terminology, so if you have not taken a 10-day course, you probably should not read it further.

Parimukh Area – The Holy Grail of Challenges

The word parimukh is used by Buddha to explain the area to focus on while focusing on breath. One shallow approach can be to just focus on breath and maybe the volume of air which is flowing in and out. This can be a good approach for someone with a gross mind. but to make progress, you need to focus on the smaller part. Buddha called this smaller part parimukh, and it refers to the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip.

As someone practices Anapana more and more, this area becomes more and more sensitive. In fact, this area for some people gets so sensitive that Goenkaji compared the area to a car’s starter (you have to be old enough to remember that cars used to have starters!).

The challenge I was facing for more than the last five years was that this area was so sensitive I was not able to focus on my breath at all. I did try to focus on the sensations throughout the rest of the body, but this did not help as it was akin to ignoring the elephant in the room.

This challenge was something I thought I would be able to address in the aforementioned course. Daily meditation is good to retain practice and to be very effective in addressing life challenges. But is not enough to address specific meditation challenges. You need a dedicated window of time to solve them, and a meditation course is the only place you get that.

When I narrowed my focus on the area of body above the upper lips to around one square mm for many hours, I realized a pattern. The pattern was that sensations being felt by this part were quantized. One quantum was the sensation I felt when I was breathing in, and the second was the sensation I felt when I was breathing out. There were also a few milliseconds of time gap between the two, but that was not of much significance. What was worth noticing was that there was a huge difference between intensity of the two sensations. The sensation associated with incoming breath was smooth like slowing the lifting a lid. The sensation associated with outgoing breath was sudden like the lid falling with the force of gravity.

This simple observation now connected breath and sensations I felt on the parimukh area. In fact, even now, if I ignore breath and focus on this pattern of sensations, it would not matter as it exactly represents breath pattern.

The frequency and amplitude of sensation was directly proportional to the frequency and shallowness/depth of breath as you can easily guess.

I hope this observation helps someone who is struggling like me. Everyone on the path of meditation charts his/her own course, and the challenges they face can be very different. This is the reason a lot of specific cases have not been covered in texts. In fact, I tried hard to find some exposition of this aspect in commentaries, but could not find any.

 

 

 

Power of Vocabulary

  • literary agility

“Vocabulary enables us to interpret and to express. If you have a limited vocabulary, you will also
have a limited vision and a limited future.” — Jim Rohn

If you notice so-called unsophisticated folks, they use the “F” word or “S” word in every sentence, and preferably multiple times. This is not limited to America. Every country and culture has its own slang.

A long time ago, in India, I got a chance to observe this closely. What I realized was that if you use slang it makes communication easier and you have to think less about what to say. When I thought slightly deeper about it, I realized that it handicaps your ability to express complex ideas. In other words, it erodes the precision of ideas and emotions you would like to express.

Take a look at the following examples:

I feel f***** up today.

I feel shitty today.

I feel depressed today.

I feel emotionally drained today.

I feel hangry.

The first two sentences do not carry much meaning except maybe about the social class you belong to. The third and fourth sentences are expressive in a simple way, though the precision can still be improved.

Hangry is a kind of slang, but I would call it anti-slang as it carries even more meaning than a single word. It means you are angry because you are hungry. Who knows, this portmanteau may become part of standard English one day.

Selling Ice To An Eskimo!

  • People Buy From People They Trust Reminder Message

I get at least 100 emails every day. Most of them try to hard-sell me things which I do not want or need. The only thing it does is serve to annoy me. As I have stated sometimes in the past, my email often seems like a roll of toilet paper. Anyone can come and spin and spam it. Same thing is often true for my office phone, though most of the calls are picked up and handled by my team rather than me.

Whenever our marketing team suggests to me to start an email blast campaign, I shoot it down. I am sure it works for a lot of people, but I do not want potential customers to have to experience the same email spam annoyance I experience. Nor experience it from my company InfoObjects.

This brings up the question of companies spending millions of dollars on sales strategies which translate to trying to sell ice to an Eskimo. We have spent years trying to build sales teams and have failed miserably every time. Business did continue to grow but that was not because we were trying to sell something. But because our customers and their referrals had and have a need. When someone needed an IT service and asked around, one of our customers who was happy with our service (which is true with all of our customers!) would tell them about InfoObjects and connect us with them.

Looking at our past experience, this year we decided to have a “no sales strategy” as our sales strategy. At the same time, we doubled our marketing budget. Marketing is just making people aware about your presence in the market. So if an Eskimo needs to buy a heater, he or she thinks of the heater company he/she has mostly heard about. Eskimos cannot dream of your company’s existence if they had never even heard of it while awake!

I cannot suggest that all marketing is good. In fact, I think that a lot of online ad spending is of no good use and but serves to deplete a company’s marketing budget. But well-targeted marketing to make customers aware of your offerings so that you come up well in a Google search and are only a phone call away, is a good investment and worth spending money upon.

Procrastination

  • Pomodoro technique

Let me make a confession here. I am suffering from a disease, and that disease is called procrastination. I have known about it since my early childhood or as far back as I can remember. For the last 17 years, I have been actively trying to fight it and I have achieved some considerable success. That being said, there is a long way to go. For it catches you by surprise when you are not paying attention.  The reason I am writing this blog is that while I am going through a minor episode of procrastination, this is one way of confronting and overcoming it. I thought also of taking it by the horns and see what different tricks procrastination uses against you and which tricks I can employ to beat it.

So let us look at what different things have worked so far for me to beat procrastination.

  • Dividing tasks into small parts
  • Employing a sense of urgency

Eat the Elephant One Bite at a Time

This is my favorite line which I use at least once every day. The idea is that a project looks big when you look at it as one huge, whole enchilada. If you divide it into smaller pieces, however, it becomes easier to deal with and digest.

Sense of Urgency

One of the tricks procrastination uses is to make you believe that things can wait. But if you pull out weapons like a sense of urgency this trick by Mr. Procrastination loses its power. So a sense of urgency should be made part of anything and everything you do in life.

Let us now look at what causes it and how symptoms show up.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.             –Charles Dickens

The Internet age has introduced the best of times and worst of times at the same time. While it helps productive people become more productive, it makes unproductive people remain unproductive.

Twenty years back, if you wanted to waste time, there was a cost to it. For me, it was a ordeal just to go and watch a movie at a movie theater. Plus, there were very few sources available for leisure reading, and it did not take long to exhaust them.

I remember in India the virtually unlimited source of leisure reading was the newspaper. Everyone would read a newspaper in the morning as a ritual. Folks who did not have something better to do would spend hours and hours together munching on every appetizing section. It did have a silver lining, though. In India, if you go to a remote village and ask where America is or who Obama is, they will tell you. They track international events including foreign affairs on a daily basis.

I was surprised at the lack of general knowledge when I came to America 15 years ago. Here, drinking beer and watching football has been a favorite pastime of the lazy for a long while, as opposed to reading newspapers.

What the Internet has done is it has given many more options to folks who seek to waste their time consciously or unconsciously. While the most unproductive class of people may be spending most of their time playing games, the most productive class may be spending hours surfing Wikipedia pages while important projects are sitting on their desk awaiting their needful attention.

Everyone having an Internet connection in their office made it even worse. Then smart phones with unlimited data came along and put a death knell to any hope of getting productivity out of employees. Add instant messaging to the mix and its addition is worse than drug addiction, not to mention it is so much more widespread. Heck, it’s an epidemic.

There is a bright side to the Internet era obviously, though. I run a high-tech company and know it inside and out. I use both the smartphone and Internet to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of every minute I have in a day. Even while driving I listen to tech videos which are helpful for the topic I am working on. I also clean out my mailbox while waiting in line at the supermarket or bank and while waiting for take-out food at a restaurant.

So, for me, after so many years of fighting with procrastination, it has lost its momentum, although it certainly has not given up. Now it shows up during those times when I am overworked. It disguises itself as disinterest. That disguise, however, does not last for long, as I do very interesting and exciting work for a living.

I am sure I am not alone in this fight against procrastination. It is a cancer which needs a long treatment and a lot of patience before a permanent cure arrives. And I’m looking forward to its arrival. The cure, that is!