Saturday, September 2, 2017

Poets are not Frogs

My friend Vijay Nambisan is no more. He was a poet. Words mattered to him.

I was his classmate in IIT. We were part of the same "gang". We used to hang out together. One evening, a few of us there were sitting in his room and suddenly Vijay he picked up Maxim Gorky's 'The Mother' and started reciting reading a passage from it. That was typically Vijay. The room had swirled with exhausted smoke was filled with a haze of smoke and the biting scent smell of cheap rum rose from the carelessly scattered bottles everywhere. Suddenly, I exclaimed said, "Maxim Gorky was a pansy". "No way", was his furious reply. "Re-read that passage that you just read", I asked him. He read it all over again, slowly and precisely. "No man would use uses those words to describe another man". He looked at me for a long time and finally nodded his head. Two days later he rushed came up to me. He said excitedly, "Krishna, the translator was a woman". Words mattered to him and he realised words mattered to me.

He showed me his notebooks, stacks of them. Each of them was. crammed with poems he had written. Words carefully crossed out and new ones substituted filled in. Everything had a date next to it. The date he had written the poem, the date he had decided to change a word. I was awed by the effort he put in to find the right word. Words create a tone in my head. So I used to listen to him read his poems and tell him about the tone I heard.

Love for words made us friends. Our discussions made us realise how much we had in common. For both of us, the beaten track - IIT, USA, Money = Success; was something to avoid furiously. We both believed - You do something because you love it and it is the right thing to do. We both succeeded in our own ways.

Whenever we used to meet, our talks were always from the heart, never polite discussions. I used to hear anguish and I never understood it. Till one day, I visited Vijay and Kavery in their house in the Annamalai hills. My wife and kids were enjoying the beautiful house. Vijay and I walked around for hours talking about the world and where it is going. The obsession with money and possessions. Ruining the planet Earth. Hatred and mindless violence.

We are all frogs being boiled in water. The water is gradually getting hotter, we shrug and go on. Vijay, he could not understand us. For him this changing world was unbearable. Everyday was agony. It was beyond empathy. My wife and children laugh at the tears that run down my face during emotional moments in movies, but I feel that pain momentarily. For Vijay, what was happening in our world was a source of constant, impossible to ignore anguish.

That is when I realised, words mattered. But it is more than words. Poets are not Frogs. They feel the world sharply.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Would you steal if you wouldn't get caught?

Vandana reads all my posts. In my previous post Giving up Tennis, the last line went
"Has Vandana stopped playing Tennis. I don't even think of it. If you start wondering and thinking about it, you have started playing Tennis again. I want to give up and that is what I am focusing on."

She said it sounded holier than thou. So let me explain what I meant.

I have a strange quirk. I don't like my socks washed in a washing machine, I like them washed by hand. When Vandana and I were playing Tennis, she told me that if I wanted them washed by hand I would have to wash them myself. I used to do that for a long time. My work involves long hours and travel and sometime I would end up not washing socks for a while. After we started playing the Madison instead of Tennis, Vandana saw me struggling and helped me wash the socks by hand. It took a load of my hands and I felt very happy and grateful for this help.

Over time as I started playing the Madison instead of Tennis, Vandana also changed her behavior and started playing the Madison instead of Tennis. Occasionally both of us backslide :-) . 80% of the time both of us are playing the Madison.

The key point is that I stopped basing my behavior on hers. My behavior was not "conditional". I was focusing on playing the Madison without constantly making comparisons. I was not counting the number of times she did not play the Madison. That is a major change that happened inside my brain.

Behavior has many drivers. Mostly we let circumstance drive our behavior. This is "impulsive" behavior. If circumstances put us in a position where we can steal without getting caught, and we steal, we are being impulsive. When we are able to control our impulses, we let our ingrained values drive our behavior. That is "value" driven behavior. We don't steal because our values don't allow us to do that.

I worked very hard to make playing the Madison part of my ingrained values. So when circumstance come up, I don't give in to impulse and start playing Tennis, I control my impulses and see how I can play the Madison instead, because that is part of my values.

How do you go about making something an ingrained value. Hmm, that is definitely another post.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Giving up Tennis

In my previous post I was discussed how most people treat their marriage as a Tennis game.

In Relationship Tennis you are trying to dominate your spouse and get them to behave as per your concept of the perfect spouse. If you are uncomfortable or unhappy in your relationship with your spouse, the first and most important step is to stop playing Relationship Tennis. Not easy. This post is about how you can stop playing Relationship Tennis.

As I discussed in depth in my post Accepting your Wife in Marriage I decided that I want to improve my relationship with Vandana. When I talked to her about it, she thought it was one more strategy I was using in my Relationship Tennis. When I asked her what would convince her that I was serious, she threw me a challenge. The challenge was very simple, she said, "You never make the bed, for the next one year make the bed everyday and I might be willing to believe you." So the first step on the journey was that for one year I made the bed everyday.

"Learning has not happened till behavior has changed" - Pikes Fourth Law. This is the critical point to remember, if you want to prove to your spouse that you have learnt something or believe in something. Stop talking to them about it, change your behavior, it is the most convincing argument possible. By making the bed everyday for one year - (and I continue to make the bed :-) ), I convinced Vandana I wanted to change.

What are the behaviors you have to change to stop playing relationship Tennis? Silence and Violence - The forehand and backhand of relationship Tennis.
Silence - a sulky and angry silence with furrowed brow, avoiding eye contact.
Violence - Physical, mental or emotional. Putting down ideas and goals, by treating them as childish or silly. Trying to hurt the ego.

Whenever you find yourself doing either of these, you are back to playing relationship Tennis. It is very difficult to put the racket down and refuse to hit the ball when the other person keeps serving the ball and screaming "Ace". But you need to focus on your goal of not playing Relationship Tennis.

Vandana decided that she would improve her spiritual knowledge by attending religious discourses. When I was still playing Tennis I used to sneer at this. Argue fiercely about how this was stupid and foolish. When I started playing the Madison instead of Tennis, I simply accept it as one of the goals and see how to help her achieve it.

Vandana wanted to take ten days off and go along with her parents to Haridwar to listen to some discourses. She is the primary care-giver for my parents who live with us. Instead of looking for reasons why it was impossible for her to go, I worked with her to see how she could go.

Relationship Tennis is bit like smoking. It is very hard to give up. I have managed to give up both. Occassionally I backslide in both :-)

Has Vandana stopped playing Tennis. I don't even think of it. If you start wondering and thinking about it, you have started playing Tennis again. I want to give up and that is what I am focusing on.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Madison Marriage

There is this strange Olympic event called a Madison. It is a grueling cycling event of 200 laps (50 kms). The rules are complicated. It is a relay race with two people and either one of them has to be in the race at all times. They hand over to each other by touching or slingshotting the other person. You gain points by winning sprints that occur at various fixed laps in the race.

Compare that to a tennis match. You are trying to put the ball back in your opponents court.

For most couples, marriage is a tennis match. You try to dominate the other person and make them conform to your idea of the perfect spouse. I want my marriage to be a Madison Marriage where Vandana and I are helping each other reach our goals.

When and where did I get this ambition? One day it struck me that I wanted to enjoy coming home, not come back to snide remarks and cutting silences, regardless of whose fault it was.

Most of us take our work so seriously and spend a lot of time and energy at becoming better. I decided to put in as much effort in being a better spouse. An Effective Spouse.

Most days my marriage does feel like a Madison Marriage. I remind myself it is a journey not a destination.

Did you watch the race from the 2008 Olympics. (Unfortunately the Madison was not part of the the 2012 Olympics.) What I find astonishing is that the champions are a pair whose ages are 43 and 33. An Olympic race of endurance, strength and speed and the winner is 43 years old.

 Age and maturity help in a Madison.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Memory is not a rewind button

In my previous post I talked about how we suffocate our spouses by making every request and rejection, an emotional moment. You give space with "Ask lightly, Answer lightly, Accept lightly." Let us understand this a little better.

Unless you are extra-ordinary and have a photographic memory, you don't remember anything that happened more than 5 minutes back - perfectly. Your memory is not like a video tape that you rewind and replay.

Kim's Game is a very simple game. Ask somebody to place twenty random objects on a tray and cover it with a cloth. Make them uncover the items in front of you for 15 seconds. See how many objects you can recollect. Few people are able to remember more than 5 or 6 items.

So what exactly do we remember. Our brain tends to remember moments when we are feeling strong emotions. Moments when we were afraid, angry, guilty happy. (Our brain tends to remember "negative" emotions more easily). It remembers the emotions not what was actually said. Think back about an incident when you were very angry with your spouse. You probably remember the emotions sharply, but will not remember the actual words used during the discussion.

This is the way our brain works. When we are first married or early in the relationship we agree with our spouse. We tend to feel and remember positive emotions. As I discussed in Accepting your wife in Marriage, no two people are alike. This means that sooner or later, we try to get our spouse to behave the way we think is "right". And if our spouse refuses to accept or agree, we feel angry. If our spouse asks us to do something we agree angrily or refuse guiltily. Refusals makes our blood boil. So pretty soon the only things we remember about our spouse are negative emotions.

If you make a request and if a refusal will upset you, you are constraining the other person. Make your request with an open mind willing to accept an honest answer. You will create space for the other person.

When the other person makes a request, reply honestly. Sometimes we suppress our genuine feeling and make a reply that we hope will make our spouse happy. However, we feel constrained and unhappy. This unhappiness is what we will remember. If we express our innermost feelings and encourage our spouse to express their honest opinions we give each other freedom.

Accept the answer lightly, a "no" is not a betrayal. If the matter is important for you, share the reasons. If you feel angry about the no, you are simply creating a pile of unhappy memories about your spouse.

Read and Re-Read the Nambudiri Funda, it has many important lessons.

Does this mean that we behave as if we are not married. No, but that is a discussion for another post.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Nambudiri Funda

One of my favourite stories is the Nambudiri Funda. What does that title mean?!!? Funda is short for "Fundamental", that means it is a fundamental truth. Nambudiri are Brahmin priests from Kerala in South India.

A Nambudiri was walking along the riverbank when he saw a Mahout giving his elephant a bath. He went up to the Mahout and said "I have always wanted an elephant, can you give me yours." The Mahout said "Nambudiri, the elephant is my only source of income and I use the income to feed my wife and many children, I am sorry but I cannot give you this elephant". The Nambudiri patiently listened to the Mahout and calmly proceeded along the river.

A man was walking behind the Nambudiri and observed the whole incident, he came up to the Nambudiri and asked him "Nambudiri, How can you just ask for an elephant, did you really expect the Mahout to agree." The Nambudiri smiled and said "I did not own an elephant and the Mahout said No, so I still don't own an elephant. But if he had said Yes, I would own an elephant."

This story has many important lessons.

1. If you don't ask, you don't get.
2. Don't let the fear of rejection stop you from asking for what you want.
3. Reject without anger.
4. Accept rejection calmly.

My friend Rajesh told me this story and since then it helped me to achieve something important - giving Vandana space.

In Accepting your wife in marriage, I mentioned the importance of giving your spouse "space". When families were larger you could find yourself space, but it is very hard in today's nuclear family.

Here are some variations on the story to see how things could have proceeded.

First some positive variations

The Mahout says "In fact I have too many elephants and was wondering how to feed them, I will be overjoyed if you accept this elephant as a gift"

When the Mahout says no, the Nambudiri says, "I am conducting an important ritual for the next 30 days, and the ritual needs an elephant." The Mahout says, "Nambudiri, I am unable to gift you the elephant but willingly loan you the elephant for 30 days."

Then some negative variations

The Mahout starts shouting and abusing the  Nambudiri. The  Nambudiri starts a ritual fire to set a curse on the Mahout. The Mahout gets frightened and makes the elephant throw the Nambudiri into the river.

The Mahout is frightened that the Nambudiri will curse him and as soon as he asks for the elephant agrees to gift it to him, even though it means that his entire family will starve to death.

The Nambudiri says, "That is a beautiful elephant, How much space do you need to keep such an elephant." The Mahout says,"You need at least half an acre of open space." The Nambudiri says, "Oh there is an half acre just behind my house which is going waste." The Mahout does not say anything. The Nambudiri is upset the Mahout did not understand his hints and later in the night places a curse on the Mahout.

In a marriage, we suffocate our spouse by making each request an emotional dead-weight. We make it worse by burdening ourselves with emotional baggage if there is a no.

Ask lightly, Answer lightly, Accept lightly.

Suddenly life together becomes a joy.

This is simplistic and just the starting point. It does becomes easier if you have sensitized your mind with positive perceptions about your spouse.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Creating Positive Perceptions

In the last two posts I discussed  how The Fundamental Attribution Error and Confirmation Bias form a dangerous pair, creating a negative image of your spouse in your mind. This pair affects all 'ongoing' relationships, including your relationship with your colleagues.

I chanced upon a wonderful book called Miller's Bolt by Thomas Stirr. It is about a process for improving relationships with colleagues. But it is very general and can be used in all circumstances.

Some key insights from the book.

In Patiala in India some years back the police tattooed 'jeb katri' or 'pickpocket' on the foreheads of a few women. Imagine you are chatting with somebody who has pickpocket tattooed on their forehead. Will it affect your behavior? In most cases - yes.

We put a negative label on our spouses, affecting our behavior with them, and they do the same. It is a vicious cycle. The ONLY way to break out of this vicious cycle is you take a decision to change your attitudes and behavior. It cannot be 'conditional'. You have to commit to changing without worrying about whether the other person will change.

No relationship is static. It is either in a vicious cycle and becoming worse over time or it is in a virtuous cycle and becoming better over time.

The process given in the book is simple but you have to follow it exactly.

Take a piece of paper.
Write down all the words that come to your mind when you try to describe your spouse.
On the other side of the paper write down the words that describe your interactions with each other.

Look at the words and pick the words that have a negative connotation and replace them with words which have a positive or neutral connotation.

Here is an example of this with a few words

Stubborn (Persistent)
Pessimistic (Realistic)
Picky (Detail Oriented)
Insensitive (Straight Forward)
Careless (Absent minded)

Spend a few minutes every morning meditating or deep-breathing. Replay or Anticipate some incidents in your mind and visualize yourself responding positively to that behavior, using an affirmation.

The book gives a useful acronym to create the affirmation.
WIPE out your old behavior

Want (What you want to happen)
I (Make it personal)
Present Tense (Use the present tense)
Emotion (Use a positive emotion)

So this is a hypothetical example of how I used it. The actual situations are a little personal :-)

Assume your spouse has been after you for the last 3 months to do something that you don't want to. You have been thinking stubborn b***** and behaving in either of these ways

a. Pretending to be hard of hearing
b. Snapping angrily - Dont bug me
c. Agreeing to do it and not doing it

The affirmation could be
I appreciate his / her persistence. I speak calmly and find out what is motivating him / her.

So every morning, meditate or do some deep breathing and use a few positive affirmations.

As we have seen in the Confirmation bias post, your brain only 'notices' what is has been sensitized to notice. This process of deep breathing and making positive affirmations will change the sensitization of your brain.

Another key lesson in that book is that this is an ongoing process. You have to meditate and make positive affirmations everyday for the rest of your life. Do I still do it, yes I do. I am blessed with a long commute, I spend the commute with my eyes closed, meditating.

Miller's Bolt was a gateway book for me. After reading that book, I have learned so much more but the simple process given in the book is certain to make a difference.

I will share more options and thoughts on how to change a negative relationship to a positive one in my future posts.