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Sunday, June 27, 2021

Life’s Lessons – Who taught me what? (1)


Dear friends, it is with great excitement I am starting to write this series of blogs.

I have been fortunate to have had great experiences in my personal and professional lives. I am fortunate to have been born in a family which gave me longevity, open mind, love for learning and great values. I was fortunate to find a partner who taught me many things and gave me “our” (my) family. Many of my teachers were not only knowledgeable in their fields but also were great human beings.  Some of them were upadhyayas (Sanskrit word meaning one who sits next to you and teaches), as in the schools. Some were acharyas (Sanskrit word for one who teaches by doing), particularly in the medical school. A few of them were my gurus (who influences you just by their presence). They were there when I needed and gave me wise counsel.  Many of my gurus were from other walks of life. I have had the pleasure of living and working with great people from whom I learned. In my work, I learned constantly from my young patients and their parents and, also from my students, trainees, and colleagues. Later still, my children taught me many things and introduced me to authors and books I would never have known.  

We can learn a lot of information from reading books. We can do so even better from the Internet. We can learn skills on any subject - from how to cut onions to how to make dangerous weapons - from watching Videos. But we can learn how to think logically, how to make wise judgments, how to develop lasting values, how to work with others, how to listen and how to communicate effectively with sensitivity and compassion ONLY from our interactions with family members, our teachers, our friends, our co-workers, and our children. In other words, we learn life’s most important lessons only by living, observing, and listening.  

That is why Gracian Balthazar (17th century Jesuit priest) said: “Spend the first act with the dead; the second with the living and the third act entirely belongs to you”. What he meant was that we should read as many books as possible (written by authors who are no more) in our early years. During the second part of our lives, we should be learning from people we live and work with. In the final third of life, we should spend time reflecting.

I feel like I have plenty to share with the future generations, which is a common weakness among  elders. What is worse for the younger folks is that we want them to listen to our stories and “wisdom” (bore them, from their point of view). I am no exception.  I will feel like a miser if I do not share what I have learnt over the years. As pointed out by someone wiser than me: “there are two things one cannot take with oneself at the time of death – money and knowledge”.

Life is a lesson by itself. Life is also full of lessons, if only our eyes and ears are open, and we are ready to learn. We must all be life-learning learners. A passage from a book called Subhashita, which is a collection of words of wisdom or an epigram, states:

अनन्तश्च शास्त्रम् बहु विदेतितव्यं स्वल्पश्च कालं बहव­­श्चविघ्नाः     This translates to state that there are so many sciences, there is so much to learn, but the time is short and obstacles are many!

So here I go with a list of several people in my life from whom I learnt and what I think I learnt from them. The list also includes some events and books which influenced my personal philosophy.

            Let me start with two legendary figures. One is Dattatreya and the other is Buddha.  I have written about them in my blog on September 18, 2010 (Time for Thought: Search results for Dattatreya).

Dattatreya is a mythical figure. He is mentioned in Uddhava Gita (Chapter II: Sloka 33-34) as one who considered 24 things of Nature as his gurus. He points out what he learnt from each of these gurus.

1.Earth taught him tolerance and patience. Earth also taught him about giving (plants, river etc.,).
2. Space is wide and limitless like our Atman, the inner self.
3.Fire burns both the good and the bad, gives warmth when it is cold outside, but burns when touched.
4. Water is nice, cool and clear and our mind should be like that.
5. Wind carries bad odor and good smell but is unaffected by them.
6. The moon seems to diminish but not really so. Similarly, our inner self is always there although the body diminishes.
7. The Sun takes in the water and gives it back as rain. We need to take and give with our hands but do not grasp and hold on to them.
8. The Ocean stays at same volume and although it receives all the rivers
9. A boat reminds us of the rafts we need to cross this river/ocean called life
10. A Child has a simple mind without pride or prejudice
11. Young girl removed all her bangles except one so that they do not make noise, teaching the importance of solitude and silence.
12. A Marksman showed how to focus on the target.
13. Elephant is very strong and yet will listen to command.
14. Dog shoed him what  loyalty is.
15. Deer (any animal) taught him how to be satisfied with what is available to eat, not worrying about tomorrow, and how to care for the young.
16. Python became a teacher because it eats only when food is available.
17. He learnt about the philosophy of mistaking rope for a snake due to ignorance, when he observed a snake.
18. He saw Chameleon’s ability to change itself to suit the circumstances.
19. Ant was a teacher because of its tireless work ethics.
20. Mosquito reminded him of bad people who are always hurting others.
21. Bedbug reminded him of people who do bad things and hide.
22. Spider spinning and drawing back its silk reminded him of how this universe manifests from and disappears into Brahman.
23. Bee collects honey from several sources and taught him about learning from several sources.
24.The two wings of birds taught him about the need for knowledge and determination.

Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, is a historical figure whose life has been well-documented. There is an episode in his history about a lesson he gave to Rahula, his son. In the passage, Buddha says: “Rahula, learn from the earth. Whether people spread pure and fragrant flower or discard filthy, foul-smelling material, she receives them all without clinging or aversion. Learn from the Water. When people wash dirty things in it, the water is not sad or disdainful. Learn from fire because it burns all things without discrimination. Learn from the air. It carries all fragrances whether sweet or foul”.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Information - Energy Guzzler

 I have been interested in the topic of Information as a fundamental unit of nature on par with space, time matter and energy, although I am not a physicist. My understanding of Information is at a layperson's level. But my interest is deep from a philosophical point of view. It is also because of my interest in understanding how our mind works.

I just realized that our mind (brain) has been telling us something important about gathering, processing, storing, retrieving , transforming and transmitting information. Mechanistically speaking the brain is a complicated, efficient information-processing machine. The entire operation requires enormous amount of energy! Our brain uses up 20% of our metabolic energy.

This is what scientists working in Information Technology are finding. Scientists are saying that  we  require enormous amount of energy to handle the exponential increase in collection and storage of data and new technologies to analyze and utilize the data such as A I. Generating that amount of energy may even cancel out our current efforts to mitigate the rapid heating of our planet!

Monday, June 21, 2021

Health and Well-being – Everyone’s need


Every life is precious.

Every life is sacred.

All forms of life come from the same source.

All forms of life derive energy from the same source.

Every form of life seeks food and safety.

Everyone – young and old; women and men; rich and the poor – can get sick and wants to get well.

Health and well-being are inherent needs of all human beings, just as the need for food and water are.

Safety from getting sick and opportunity to get well and stay well should be available and accessible to everyone.

It is a moral imperative and not a commodity.

If the current COVID pandemic did not teach this, what else can?

When else will we learn?

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Gautama Club - Topics to Think about (Part 2)


Session 2:  On loving-kindness, love, and compassion

                How many meanings are there for  the word “love” in the English language?

                What are equivalent words in other languages?

                What does “loving-kindness” mean?

                What does the word compassion mean?

                How does one express loving-kindness and compassion?

                What are some pre-requisites for developing compassion?

                How does someone know that you care for him/her, love him/her?

Session 3: Listening skills

                Are you a good listener?

                Do others think so?

                What do you mean when you say: “good listener”?

                How do you feel when someone keeps interrupting?

                How do you feel when you think that the “other person” is not listening?

                What are some good listening habits?

                What are some bad listening habits?

                What are your own “good” and “bad” listening habits?

Session 4: Fundamental questions

                What do you think are the fundamental units of nature and of the universe?

                What do you think Life is?

What do you think are the fundamental features of a living organism?

What is Consciousness?

Was the Universe started or was it always there?

If it was “started”, who or what started it? And why?

Where was He or It when the universe started?

If the current theory of expanding universe (Big Bang) is correct, what is it expanding into?

                 What was there before the Big Bang?


Friday, June 11, 2021

Gautama Club - Topics to think about

 Several years back, I came across a book . It is a small pocket-diary size book, by William Zimmerman. It was a book with just one  question at the top of each page. The rest of that page and the next page were empty. It was meant to record our own thoughts and answers to those questions. “It is a “Journal of Thoughts” as the author intended it to be.

The book had interesting questions such as: “What is your most valuable treasure? And why is it so?”; “Were you ever lost? What happened?”; “What kind of person do you want to be? How, if at all, would you change?”; “What are your hopes in life?”. And so on. I answered all of them somewhere in the 1980’s. Then, a few years later, I revisited them to learn about myself. I added a few newer thoughts.

Later, during my career as a medical educator, I created a set of questions for physicians in training to answer. They were focused on medical career. It included questions such as: "Do you think you are a good listener? Do others think you are a good listener?" and “If a patient does not follow your advice what will you do?”. At least one student wrote to me to say that this was the most helpful “homework” she ever did. 

Fast forward almost 50 years to my post retirement years. I wanted to organize sessions with friends thinking about what I consider to be “important questions in life”, which will help us all grow. I even gave a name to that group – The Gautama Club, after Gautama Buddha. The idea never took off, although I tried more than twice. 

I had prepared a set of questions to discuss in Socratic style and in the style of our ancient Rishis. The idea is for each one to reflect on these questions and to share their thoughts. The idea was not necessarily to convince others of our way of thinking but to learn different ways of thinking about the same issues.

I believe that it is important to reflect on these questions for many other reasons. There is great deal of reliable, evidence-based information on the physical aspects of the universe, on life sciences, heredity, and genetics and on functions of the human brain. There are hundreds of volumes on philosophy, religion, morals, ethics and so on. In fact, we have too much information now. This is the age of Information overload.  

But we are also carrying outdated information from the past out of respect for traditions, out of habit, or because it is convenient to follow and are afraid of letting go.

We need to merge reason with faith. We need to let go of dogmas and think with an open mind. We need to realign old ideas and beliefs with current knowledge. We need to develop new ideas on dharma (Ethics and virtues) for the 21st century and new ideas on sacredness common to all of humanity. 

Instead of burying the questions I had prepared for these session, I have now decided to put them in these blogs, hoping someone else will find them useful to think about. There are questions for 4 sessions. The following is the first set. If any one is interested in starting such a discussion group,  I will be very glad to help and participate.

Session 1: Four sets of Four  Questions:

                First set:               What is life?  

                                            What is the meaning of life, in general? 

                                            What is the purpose in life, for me specifically?  

                                            Who am I?                                               

                Second set:         Am I sure? 

                                            Am I present here and now? 

                                            Am I just following my “habit energy”?  

                                            Who cares 100 years from now?      (from Rev. Thich Naht Hanh)                                                                                               

               Third set:             What are my nourishments? Are they wholesome, noble, helpful? 

                                            What are the nourishments For the body? What do I eat and drink? 

                                            For the mind? What kind of books do I read, TV and other visual things I                                                  see, music and talks I listen to, and things I think most about? 

                                            For personal aspirations and goals in life: What I do, how I do, what I                                                        support and what I oppose? 

                                            For the community: Am I  working for the common good with a sense of                                                cooperation and compassion?                      

                Fourth set:         If I am reflective, and spend time in meditation and “deep looking” without                                               justifying myself or tying myself into a knot? 

                                         Why am I meditating? 

                                        What is the goal: silence, curiosity, to know myself  better, to know the                                                     world around me better, for peace and harmony, to merge with the ONE?  

                                        What method am I using? Am I on my own? With a “guru” or a guide and a                                            coach? Is this the best for my personality and needs?  

                                        So what? What do you do with the insight?



Friday, June 4, 2021

Life cannot be defined

 Carl Zimmer is a famous science writer. He writes columns for The New York Times, National Geographic and other journals and has published several books. The latest book is Life’s Edge, The Search for what it means to be alive (Dutton. 2021). It is an extremely interesting book exploring humanity’s quest to understand what Life is. Obviously, it is an important question but defining life is an impossible task. In one passage he quotes a scientist – philosopher by the name of Carol Cleland as saying: “ We do not want to know what the word life means to us. We want to know what life is”. She follows that statement by saying: “ we need to give up our search for a definition”.

Reading this book stimulated my thoughts about life. I have written about this topic in my blogs and in my book on “Our Shared Sacred Space”. I am not a scientist or a philosopher. But I believe that all of us should be able to think about this question. We are alive, we want to live forever, we want to look for life in other planets and we are afraid of death. Don’t we want to know what life is?

The earliest awareness of a living creature must have been one of “being” and of “hunger”, which indirectly must have meant to that individual creature “ I am” and “alive” at a non-verbal level. The next awareness must have been “that other one is also alive” or “not alive”. That awareness is required at a primitive level for preservation of its own “life”. Life, awareness, hunger, and fear seem to be the order of evolution of the sense of self.

That means the earliest creatures were capable of “knowing” a living from a non-living “other”. They probably also knew intuitively a living “other” who stopped being “alive”, which means “death” in our language. “Non-living” could have never been a living thing (was always inanimate in our words) or a living thing which ended up not being alive (dead). Even animals and birds seem to have a sense of what death is, by knowing that the dead one was with life, earlier.

Life is manifest in a form limited by time and duration. Humans understand end of life to be inevitable. In a sense, death defines life. Is death the other end of birth, de-limiting the duration of life and part of a cycle or is it the end of life? Cultures differ in their answers to this question.

We cannot define life. But can understand it when it ends with death in an individual by observing the absence of some activities: Not moving even to feed or avoid danger; Not seeking food; Not exchanging energy and not reproducing by itself or by other means. Absence of all of these is not essential to define death. Nor can any one item in isolation define death. A recent report documents the existence of a bacterium which remained dormant under the seabed for millions of years and then came to “life” and reproduced when it was “fed”. (Scientific American June 2021, page 78)

In other words, we cannot define death. And we know life cannot be defined either.

Life is a phenomenon. It requires an individual “body” to manifest when “causes and conditions” are there. Life has an end in an individual. But as a phenomenon, Life was always there; will always be there, here on this planet. Also “life” probably exists in other parts of the universe in different forms with different characteristics.  That is why Astrobiologists are trying to define life so they can recognize it when they find one!

Life is a mystery. It is a gift.  It will remain so even after scientists and philosophers find a suitable definition and list its characteristics.