Sunday, February 19, 2017

Searching for One's Own Feet: The Paradox of Spiritual Search

by Sajjeev X. Antony

HAT IS SO PARADOXICAL ABOUT INDIAN philosophy is that it will send you on a complex search for Truth with capital T, only to let you know when you are absolutely exhausted from your search, that there was really nothing to search for. Reason? Tat-twam Asi!  You are It.
(To be fair, in India we constantly hear tat-twam asi, aham Brahmosmi etc. but these phrases are uttered with such great reverence that their down-to-earth quality is always missed.)
      If you are lucky to find the right sort of Hindu guru — I mean a really wise and honest one (a rare breed nowadays) — he may first gently try to convince you, "Oh, you are the truth you seek. Just breathe and keep your eyes and ears open, live your life, and that is all about it." 
        This is how Ramana Maharishi used to dissuade devotees from sitting at his feet. He knew the pointlessness of preaching. Either you knew or you did not. There was no way to  force enlightenment. But still they came, just to sit by the Master, enjoying the bliss of his very presence, looking into those large twinkling eyes, and refusing to accept that he and they were the same. Out of compassion he let them hang around. Once in a while he would say something and the scribes would eagerly jot it down, then squeeze out everything from it except the truth. The Sage would sigh and again go silent.
      J. Krishnamurti had the same frustration. Among the masters of 20th century he had the least to say but he spoke and wrote the most. He was a natural linguist, his prose style admired even by literary masters like Adous Huxlely. Though Krishnamurti kept saying the same thing over and over again for sixty years,  none of his admirers would admit he was repeating himself. Towards the end of his life he grudgingly acknowledged that only four or five people might have been helped by his 60 years of talking. So someone asked him, “Why are you talking then?” and Krishanmurti responded disarmingly, “Why does a flower bloom?” He enjoyed talking and he talked!
COMING BACK TO WHY WE ARE GETTING STUCK LIKE THIS, the trouble seems to be the human drive for improving ourselves, earning "higher" rewards — so we erroneously treat spirituality also as a long term investment, expecting killer returns. We expect the finest spiritual real estate, especially for our life-after-life. That is why Abrahamic religions which promise the best physical afterlife infrastructure get most followers.
        For Hinduism it is somewhat different. What muddies the spiritual waters in Hinduism is its concept of reincarnation. You are here in this world to purify yourself to the extent possible. You may have already lived countless lives in different life forms in different planets (Hinduism had an impressively large concept of the universe). Occasionally even spiritual masters and gods misbehave and take birth at lower levels. It may take thousands of more incarnations for you to become one with Brahman, the ultimate reality.
       I don't really think any Hindu really want to merge with the Brahman, they want to keep their identity and be born better in the next birth. So for most Hindus reincarnation remains just another  promotion or demotion, just as materialistic as Abrahamic beliefs in heaven and hell.

DEVOTEES HECKLE THEIR GURUS with questions like "What were I in my previous births?" (meaning: "How much have I achieved so far?" so that he could create a mental chart of future progress.) But this the sign that the quest is in the wrong direction. The rare honest guru who dares to retort with, "WHO wants to know?" or, "whatever reincarnates, it won't be you!" stands to lose his market value. So most gurus mumble something vaguely encouraging which causes the disciple to misunderstand the entire concept of reincarnation. 
       Fortified by this misunderstanding, the devotee becomes willing to perform tough spiritual practices and penances before he can give himself permission to feel liberated. After all, it is part of his long term investment. Well-meaning gurus might play along with them initially, and suggest several spiritual practices, but hope that he would understand and come out of these and see the simplicity of the truth. (Disturbingly, some of these gurus may actually become corrupted by the unquestioned devotion of their followers, which is why India has become notorious for dubious characters in the garb of spiritual masters. But that is another story.)
       The devotee gets fixated on one of these methodologies, perhaps even become an exponent of one, and find followers of their own. But their search has stopped at a blind-spot there because they were  looking for pleasure, certainty and security, not truth.
      The pleasure principle which prompts our "search for truth" cause us to stop our search the  moment we get some real sustainable pleasure, whether it is from worshiping God or the bliss of meditation or yoga.
VERY RARELY there may be seekers willing and able to walk all the way along the "razor's edge." Such rare beings are likely to find the truth to be so simple and stark  truth, which would shock the average seeker.  They had been walking around the entire earth in search of their own feet. They never need have left! Had they invested in vain?
      Apparently Hindu philosophy also assures us that the search was not in vain. We would not accept the simple reality unless we had gone through the full process of discarding what is unreal. They would not have found their own feet, if they never started seeking in the first place? Probably not. After all, the vast majority of people never bother to seek and never find their feet!
      That is the whole point of Hindu philosophy as it takes you higher and higher, which, paradoxically also takes you lower and lower (and that is how it should be)! It ultimately turns out that what we are searching for is that blessed void of the present moment, unpolluted by thought and conditioning. Period.*

Ashtavakra Gita: 

This paradox is brought out best in  AshtaVakra Gita, a rare down to earth Indian philosophical treatise which does not allow the seeker to escape to future but forces him to stay firmly in the present, and so is frequently misunderstood and generally not discussed in devout spiritual circles.
      This is because AVG is too honest. It takes the reader up, up, to a precipice, strips him of all his armor and drops him down into the abyss. The idea is that if he is truly ready, he would take flight. It has no hidden secrets at all. If you are open minded, it will take you only one or two readings to understand what AVG is saying. If you don't get it, leave it alone. Don’t fall into the mistake of memorizing its verses, or toting up pious commentaries, which are mostly written by people who want sanitize it and make it respectable. 
      So here is AshtaVakra Gita, in simple English. (Ignore those who tell you that you should read the original Sanskrit only.)

Download AshtaVakra Gita here. (PDF)

They same principle is brought out with great beauty in Herman Hesse's Nobel prize winning little novel Siddhartha. So if it happens that you dont understand Ashtavakra Gita, read Siddhartha. At least watch the movie version (though it is nowhere near the book)!


Thursday, June 19, 2014

B. F. Skinner and the relevance of Behaviorism in 21st century.

By Sajjeev X. Antony

S ALL PSYCHOLOGY SCIENTIFIC? Harvard psychologist Professor B. F. Skinner didn’t think so. He was allergic to couch psychologists who he said spun theories that bordered on fantasy. He insisted that only experimentally proven data should be accepted as fact. When Skinner died a a quarter century ago, on August 19, 1990, world lost not only an eminent scientist, but an eminent social reformer. 


Skinner’s most controversial experiments and theories were published around the time the world was in the trauma of World War II, and had started abhorring the erstwhile Fascist “scientific” ideas of human nature. The non-academic world was naturally shocked by his experimental conclusions and writings, because these upset many traditionally assumed foundations of the human psyche. But his experiments were too accurate and reproducible to be disputed seriously. This, coupled with his writing power, enabled him to publish some very unpleasant concepts and still emerge relatively unscathed. 
BORN IN 1904 IN A MIDDLE CLASS AMERICAN FAMILY, Burrhus Frederick (Fred) Skinner had never expected to become a psychologist. His ambition had been to become a writer. In the beginning he was successful, one of his short stories even appreciated by Robert Frost. But after three years of literary efforts he wasn’t making any money. Worse, he found he had dried up and had nothing more to say. 

      To the dejected and confused young man, it was the philosopher Bertrand Russell who inadvertently gave a new direction. Inspired by an article written by Russell, young Skinner realized that his love for literature had its roots in his interest in human behavior. He wanted to investigate the human mind. 

      Skinner joined Harvard University in 1928. He was brilliant and motivated and secured his PhD in psychology three years later. Thereafter he quickly became world renowned as an experimental psychologist. 

      What intrigued Skinner were the striking similarities between animal and human behavior under conditions of reinforcement (reward and punishment). He claimed that the differences between the behaviors of a saint and a sinner were entirely due to the different types of rewards and punishments each had received in his life. There need not be any sinners in a scientifically planned and controlled society. Naturally his radical views were booed and he was nicknamed “rat psychologist” by the mainstream press while scientific community remained skeptical. 

Upset at being misunderstood, Skinner decided to convey his ideas to laymen in fiction. So he wrote an utopian novel, Walden Two (1945). It was meant as a parody of Thoreau’s century-old classic Walden. The theme of Skinner’s novel was how simplicity, creativity and fulfillment were possible for entire societies through scientific conditioning, and differed from the classical utopia creations in that the ideal it represented was possible in the here and now. Critics accused Skinner of corrupting Thoreau’s noble ideals. However, Walden Two has been translated into eight languages and has been an ever fresh debating topic in American universities. 

      Skinner agreed that human beings are indeed much more complex than rats and pigeons, but otherwise not very different from them. It is just that we have a much wider repertoire of response patterns than animals do, giving an illusion of free will. We still run our lives caught in the same rut as they are reward and punishment. In his most controversial book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) he dared to argue that the concepts of free will and personal dignity are not only untrue, but impede human progress by making us pursue mirages.

Video:  B. F.Skinner expounds his hypothesis that human mind has no free will. 

It was a bold statement to make in the 1960s. In the last few years neuroscience has amply proved that human conscious mind has no free will. All that philosophers like Daniel Dennet can speculate about is the possibility that free will might exist somewhere below the level of consciousness. 
UT IF THERE IS NO FREE WILL, what about thinking, especially creative thinking? We can’t be mere computers! But as I consider this issue deeper, it seems to me that computers do in fact provide an analogy (not proof) here. At the basics, all computers are surprisingly dumb, unable to distinguish between anything between “1” and “0,” which represent the “on” and “off” positions of a switch (bit). But there are so many such bits in each microchip and electricity travels so fast through them, that their combined effects enable a computer to perform superhuman tasks. Perhaps the human mind too functions similarly, programmed by millions of “bits” of yes and no. 

      Skinner assumed that even the highest forms of human activity — such as creative thought —  are pre-programmed behaviors, which significantly narrows down scope for free will. It was difficult for critics to argue with him as he produced scientific data in support of his claims (though I don’t think he could, for creative thought). So they targeted his social modification theories, and accused him of propagating a robotic society, ridden with habit and prejudice. He retorted that we already have all these problems. Haphazard conditioning has been around for thousands of years, and had resulted in racism, consumerism, greed and crimes. He claimed that scientific conditioning would solve all these problems and make people creative, contented and happy. 

       Skinner, who practiced conditioning techniques on himself, was certainly not a machine man. He was affectionate and jolly, and had most
unscientific hobbies such as music, literature and watching old movies. The most controversial act in his career was designing a “Skinner box” for his two baby daughters. This got him much bad publicity, which is still continuing, so much so that his younger daughter recently wrote a rebuttal of all claims by the press and some psychologists that being in that box had emotionally damaged her and her sister. Here is her article which appeared in the Guardian recently.

On the therapy side, Skinner was totally against the Freudian method of analyzing patients for years together without curing them. He held that concepts like ego-superego-id clashes, identity crisis etc. are just explanatory fiction. All mental problems are due to faulty conditioning.  He advocated behavior therapy, which sought to isolate a single faulty behavior at a time and correct it directly, by scientific application of reinforcements. 

      Imagine every mental patient as trussed by a complicated array of knots. The psychoanalyst laboriously makes the patient aware of how each knot was tied in the first place. After a year or so he might find some loose ends but the patient still remains tied up. Comes the behavioral therapist: without bothering about the nature of the knots, he starts cutting them one by one, eventually setting the patient free. At least that is the theory. Psychoanalysts says this method works only for seemingly simple problems like phobias, but even that could lead to symptom substitution. I guess the truth lies somewhere in between.

Behaviorism and the Buddha's Enlightenment.

Remarkably, the Buddha’s  enlightenment was based on a deep understanding of the stimulus-response nature of the mind. Observing his own behavior, he found that all thoughts arise based on some sensation on the body, and the thoughts in turn cause further sensations. The fresh sensation cause new thought to arise, and so on. The person, under the illusion of acting under his own free will, is merely responding to these uncontrolled thoughts and sensations. He realized that we become automatons by making choices by wanting some sensations to continue and some to extinguish. The mind's tendency to seek specific sensations and reject others is not a sign of free will, but a deeper embedded habit, formed by years of conditioning. He called this long term conditioning  sangara (Samskara in Sanskrit).  So the habit of aversion and desire too are automated.  To this extent Skinner and the Buddha probably agree with each other. 

Where they differ is in the solutions offered. Skinner suggests deconditioning and reconditioning. The Buddha suggested deconditioning only. For Buddha the only thing the afflicted person had to do was to sit somewhere quietly and observe his body or mind in action. As the body and mind are tightly interlinked, observing any one is sufficient. For beginners he suggested the body as it was easier than the mind to observe. The practitioner was supposed to watch the struggle of his mind to react to each sensation, to label it as "wanted" or "unwanted," then seek one and discard another. As the observer keeps on watching what happens, the mind slowly starts to quieten down. The meditator needs to keep observing as the habitual sensation-thought-action-sensation-thought . . . pattern weakens and is ultimately extinguished. This, the Buddhists say, make the mind to be in the present. This, they say, is the nearest to free will we can have.

There is still a problem. The very habit of observing one's own mind can produce its own new patterns of conditioning, thus trapping the mind once again. This was the view of J. Krishnamurti, who claimed that intense long-term meditation can cause mind to become feeble and patterned, rather than free. In other words, there is no real liberation by effort.

Present and future

Now, in the second decade of 21st century, the battles of various systems of psychology seem to be largely over. The psychology community has settled down mixing and matching various interventions — counseling, behavior modification, cognitive therapy, meditation etc. —  according to clients’ requirements and the therapists’ skills. We have in addition, new findings from neuroscience which promises newer methods of behavior modification such as invasive and non-invasive stimulation of brain and nervous system. Considering that neuroscience is the fastest growing scientific discipline in the world today, it is possible that one day neuroscience may trump all other interventions and become the preferred mode of behavior modification.


As I close, let me get back to Skinner. In his urge to dissect and quantify human behavior, ignoring the inner processes of the mind, as well as the genetic limitations, did he miss the wood for the trees? On the contrary, it seems that the scientific bent he gave psychology has saved the discipline from extinction. Skinner’s methods are now being used widely in various forms of therapy, while the erstwhile popular psychoanalysis has become sparsely used. Skinner’s real legacy, though, lies in his successful efforts to bring psychology close to being an exact science. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Western Classical Music and Indian Audience

ATTENDING WESTERN CLASSICAL CONCERTS has become a status symbol for Indian socialites, especially in metropolises like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. But too many Indian listeners tend to behave the same way as they do in Indian classical concerts  audible rhythm-tapping, misplaced applause, and other sundry disturbances, especially during crescendos and fast cadenzas, and worst of all, between movements. Attending a formal concert in India can be a source of anxiety to the purist due to the ever present danger of spontaneous expressions of delight from the audience!

      Annoying, yes, but one can’t really blame the audience. The reason, I believe, is due to the vastly different nature of Indian classical music. Both Indian and western systems demand totally different types of participation from the audience. Western classical music expects absolute silence from the audience, especially between movements;  Indian music demands feedback from the audience.
      This demonstrates that music is really not an international language  at higher levels. Indian and western systems differ so widely from each other that a listener nurtured exclusively in one system can find the other completely alien. For example, western harmony comprises combinations forbidden by Indian musical tenets (apa-swaram).

Structure versus creativity.

The deeply melodic nature of Indian music prevents any possibility of harmony. It always consists of a single line of music (melody) at any given time — that too, dictated by the main performer. The accompanists follow his lead at first and then individual musicians enter into rapturous dialogues, and subsequently each explores the taala or raga according to virtuosity. This enables the performer to make the melody as complex as he wants so that it freely swings within the framework of his chosen raga and taala. The advantage of this is that each musician in an Indian classical performance gets ample scope for instant creativity through improvisation.
      Instant creativity also calls for instant appreciation from the audience. Each Indian classical performance is unique and can never be repeated. A performance’s intricacies cannot be recorded as notations  because notes cannot replicate the rapture of the “here and now.”  Applauses and verbal exclamations of appreciation seldom distract an Indian musician. On the contrary, feedback from a musically erudite audience is expected and can guide the rendering to suit the collective consciousness of the assembly and help formation of a bond between the performer and his listeners, and between the listeners themselves.
      Such an active participation never works for western classical music. Here is the listener is supposed to listen quietly. Certain structural factors are responsible for this difference. 


Complex Harmony versus complex melody.

A more important factor — albeit an indirect one — is the harmony-oriented nature of western music. Melody, the main line, tends to be simple and is merely the main thread of a carefully constructed harmonic structure. In a symphony orchestra there can be a hundred musicians, divided into groups, each group playing its own melodic line, precisely interwoven into those of the others. Several musicians having to play differently but exact coordination, puts limitations. They cannot let loose their instant creativity the way an Indian performer can. A highly developed system of musical notation ensures that even the tiniest tremor is specified beforehand with precision. Very little is left to the freedom of the performer.
       With the split second accuracy that a symphony  — or even a duet — demands, it is obvious how extreme discipline is mandatory if an orchestra or choir is to produce meaningful music. So everything is standardized, right from the “concert pitch” to the manner of holding and playing each instrument. Violin bows and trombone barrels rise and fall uniformly and at the same angle.
       This is where the participation — rather, the non-participation — of the audience becomes relevant. A musically erudite western listener is trained to keep a disciplined silence during the entire performance, however exciting it may be, applauding only at the end of each piece. Indian listeners have been trained to participate!
        In addition, finding the end of a symphony is always a problem for Indian listeners!  Unlike the Indian music, which is played at the same amplitude throughout, the western music is played at dramatically varying loudness — from deafeningly loud to whisper soft. The most dangerous phase is the gap between movements. Such moments of near and total silence are among the most poignant parts of the piece and have the effect of highlighting by contrast, the music played just before, and lull the listener into a contemplative reverie. Applause at this juncture is blasphemy. In some of the concerts I have listened in Delhi, the conductor learned his lessons only after the first few gaps and panicked and carried on without giving the gap so that the listeners won’t applaud. At first the musicians did not get the cue and looked confused at the maestro’s actions, then smiled and continued.

Contrasting attitudes on technique and tone

Western classical music demands absolute silence and careful attention from the audience for yet another reason: the importance it gives to details and pure technique. Incidentally, high degrees of technical perfection is easier for a western performer because his job is rather like that of a news reader, who, with the text in front of him, can afford to devote attention to frills like accent and poise. Meanwhile and Indian musician is like an extempore speaker, who has to rely on spontaneity. The Indian is more concerned with getting the idea out, and may be excused if he seems sloppy.
       I don’t mean that a western musician is a robot automatically reproducing whatever the composer originally wrote. Each composition has a theme. The composer tries to express and emotion, paint a scene, re-live an event, sometimes all the three. The musician, especially the conductor, has to internalize this theme and recreate with his own interpretation.
       In large orchestra, this job is mainly left to the conductor. Great conductors like the late Leonard Bernstein are superb leaders and teachers too, and have the ability to draw out of their musicians exactly the way they want. It is the conductor’s prerogative to “arrange” a composition albeit to a limited extent. He may overstress the strings, for example, and downplay the brasses. Or he may add or delete a line here and there. This way he interprets and adapts the composer’s original intent to suit himself.

Western musical note and Indian shruti are different.

Western chromatic scale consists of 12 notes in an octave, while Indian octave crams in 22 (called shruti), I still do not know exactly how. You can move from shruti to shruti very fast, and “slide” between shrutis (nadas), but you cannot stop in between. This means vibrato is a no no! Regarding Indian scales, or ragas, they are different from western scales, and are based on a complex Vedic philosophy. The video below demonstrates a strange new harmonium with 22 shrutis in an octave.

Note on the video:
I wonder why the inventor created a manual harmonium for this.
An electronic keyboard could have been easily programmed even more accurately.

Rhythm and  taala are not the same

The extreme simplicity of the western rhythms frees the listener from having to count beats to keep track of the rhythm.  Experiments with slightly more complex rhythms like 7/8 never really caught on. One major advantage of this simplicity was that western classical music could avoid the crassness of drums too obvious in modern popular music.  Indian taalas, however, can be exceedingly complex (with difficult cycles of 17, 19 etc. subdivided even more inscrutably) that it is impossible to keep time without a percussion accompaniment. In addition, each beat has it own The intricacies of taala will be clear from this exposition written for western readers by the American tabla exponent and philosopher, David R. Courtney. 

A delightful compromise: the alchemy of Bollywood

It was Indian film industry, alias "Bollywood," which managed to capture and use the versatility of western classical music. Evolving for the past 80 years or so, it has resulted in a new genre of music where ragas and taalas beautifully merge with western orchestra. Bollywood also settled for a big compromise by allowing vibrato in raga based compositions. Here’s an example of how a western orchestra (Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in this case) can capably support Indian light music despite their incompatible roots.

Note on this video:
The orchestral score here is true to the 1960's original, though there is more emphasis on the strings and less on the rhythm. The one main difference is that Indian rhythm instruments (table or dholak) are conspicuously absent in this rendering, probably because “Indian singing drums”, with sliding tones of their own, are not quite compatible with a full orchestra. Indian composers were aware of this so even in the original scores of Hindi film music, string “bits” were rarely accompanied by percussion.

t seems to me that as India’s economic might grows, there will be more western takers for Indian classical music and it is good to have a basic introduction. While Mozart sounds pleasant to even babies and cows, this is not true of Indian classical music. It is very much an acquired taste, even for us Indians. But once you get it, it grows on you and can move you beyond what any western performance can. Indian music has a spiritual depth to it, as attested by none other than the late maestro Yehudi Menuhin. In this short excerpt from his series Music of Man, Menuhin introduces to us the basics of Indian music and finally plays an delightful duet with Ravi Shankar, accompanied by Alla Rakha on tabla

Sunday, May 25, 2014

My Internet Discussions

This is a list of topics, each hyperlinked to its original discussion in LinkedIn or Google+. Personally I have learned a lot from these debates. 


23 May 2014

20 May 2014

20 May 2014

16 May 2014

08 May 2014

02 May 2014

18 April 2014

08 April 2014

07 April 2014

04 April 2014

29 March 2014

28 March 2014

17 March 2014

13 March 2014

06 March 2014

05 March 2014

23 February 2014

22 February 2014

21 February 2014

19 February 2014

19 February 2014

17 February 2014

09 February 2014

06 February 2014

06 February 2014

04 February 2014

03 February 2014

01 February 2014

27 January 2014

26 January 2014

26 January 2014

18 January 2014

18 December 2013

02 December 2013