Insight of the day

‘If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present’,  Lao Tzu


This is my friend’s five year old.  While I was talking to his dad about future projects, our worries and the state of the world, this young man decided to enjoy his surroundings.  While the grown-ups’ talk was getting darker and depressive, this child found my Venetian mask and said he would put on a ‘funny face’.  As soon as we saw him, we all started to laugh.  The present moment was alive again.  I realised we were having a dinner party and we weren’t actually enjoying it.  We were drawn back to the present, thanks to the intuitive wisdom of a five year old!


Bamboos shoots and talking peace

Amanda Palmer writes in her recent post-In China bamboo farmers plant baby bamboo shoots deep into the ground. And then, for three years, nothing happens. But the farmers will work, diligently watering the shoot, spreading hay and manure, waiting patiently, even though nothing is sprouting up. They simply have faith. And then, one day, the bamboo sprout appear and shoot to thirty feet in a month.

Dialogue is like that.  Talking, discussing, respecting each other’s views- it is a very slow process but it is sure one that makes relationships work.  The Toda Institute of peace has devised a tablet of Ten Commandments for Dialogue that has proved useful in complex situations of conflict. Unlike the other Ten Commandments, this one is subject to negotiation.

  • Honour others and listen to them deeply with all your heart and mind.
  • Focus on the agenda while seeking the common ground for consensus, but avoid groupthink by acknowledging and honoring the diversity of views.
  • Refrain from irrelevant or intemperate intervention.
  • Acknowledge others’ contributions to the discussion before relating your own remarks to theirs.
  • Remember that silence also speaks; speak only when you have a contribution to make by posing a relevant question, presenting a fact, making or clarifying a point, or advancing the discussion to greater specificity or consensus.
    Identify the critical points of difference for further deliberation.
  • Never distort other views in order to advance your own, try to restate others’ positions to their own satisfaction before presenting your own different views
  • Formulate the agreements on any agenda item before moving on to the next.
  • Draw out the implications of an agreement for group policy and action.
  • Thank your colleagues for their contribution.

The power of dialogue, divergence and doing

Modern ethics arose out the philosophical questions of morality, right or wrong and about treatment of other people. In today’s world where we are more exposed to other’s pain and suffering, we are constantly trying to understand and overcome not just other’s pain but our own. Masao Yakuta, says, ‘One of the deepest forms of pain is the pain of separation. (SGI quarterly, April 2002, p 10). So how do we deal with this pain which starts from the time our umbilical cords are cut? To overcome this pain, strangely enough we create behaviours and barriers that we think distance us from this vulnerability such as anger, arrogance and superiority. We tend to emphasise our differences rather than connections. Yet obviously it is only through connection that we can overcome the pain of separation. The way human beings can make an immediate connection to another is through dialogue. Dialogue as tool for engagement and for furthering our understanding has been used for many thousands of years, from the Eastern traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism to the Socratic methods of posing questions.

As an architect, I have worked in many parts of the world where there is conflict and inequality. Conflict and inequality exist not just in poor countries or those with civil unrest but also in rich, democratic and stable countries, as I have described in my book, Architecture for Rapid Change and Scarce Resources (Routledge, 2012). Although we have had two major world wars in the last century, today’s wars may be smaller but equally vicious and more widely spread. The only reason I have been able to work in areas of conflict and unrest is through using the power of dialogue. I am not going to say that it is entirely safe or that one has to be naively trusting but through talking we can make the process of work easier and safer. This technique works equally well in a ‘safe’ office environment. However, talking takes time and understanding another’s position takes even more time. So while it looks like this is a slow process, ultimately this is the direct and best route. After all Gandhi, Mandela and many others have demonstrated the power of dialogue in overcoming impossible situations.

In Nichiren Buddhism, there is a concept called ‘cherry, peach, plum and apricot’ which signifies that we are all different. Our differences give rise to divergent thinking. The purpose of dialogue is not convergent thinking but divergent thinking. Many different mind sets and experiences bring a plethora of opinions and views to the table, and the discussion and debate that follow give rise to new solutions to old problems. There is no ‘one truth’- we have opinions and these opinions must inform us of the best action to take for ourselves and for greater good. However, if we stick to our opinion as if it were the ‘truth’ even in the evidence to the contrary, then we are in deep trouble because sure enough something will happen to make us examine this truth again. We will then need to invent another truth to cover up that failure. So we might as well surrender to the power of our vulnerability, to our pain and find creative solutions from that.

The final report into the investigation of the American guards’ behavior at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, described following aspects that allows a particular group to feel superior over the other-

  • ‘Deindividuation’: the anonymity, suggestibility, and contagion provided in a crowd that allows individuals to participate in behavior marked by temporary suspension of customary rules and inhibitions.
  • ‘Groupthink’ is characterized by two main kinds of illusions-
    first of invulnerability, i.e. group members believe that the group is special and morally superior; therefore its decisions are sound; and secondly that of unanimity which members assume all are in concurrence and pressure is brought on to those who might dissent.
  • Dehumanization: Individuals and groups are viewed as less than fully human
  • Moral exclusion: one group views the other as fundamentally different, therefore prevailing moral rules and practices apply to one group but not the other.

Although we are not working in these extreme conditions, we are constantly being exposed to similar situations in everyday life, perhaps even in our homes and offices. These situations are opportunities for us to examine our own behaviours and correct them. After all the prison guards in Abu Ghraib prison were also people just like us, yet by considering themselves separate and superior to others, they went down to the level of inhuman behaviours. By dialogue and consideration of diverse views, we can overcome common problems. So I am not disappointed when I see photos of Aung San Suu Kyi talking to the generals who imprisoned her, as many people were.

Finally by actually working in these conditions, one can really describe the reality. Armchair activists have many opinions but are those informed by experience? I have deep respect for those who have actually ‘walked the talk’. Working in areas of conflict is not the easiest thing to do-even the smallest project or pieces of agreement that are reached, conclude through months and years of dialogue. The UN’s work is thus a long affair but they and many NGOs are the only organisations that one can rely on to do ‘peace-keeping’ and working in conflict zones. Whether the dialogue is across the table or across a trench, peace in many parts of the world, including the Middle-east, is dependent upon dialogue and doing. If we stop talking, it is then that we need to feel afraid. By not speaking we separate and by keeping talking, no matter how hurtful it may be to our ego, we connect. As Joan Anderson says, ‘In fact dialogue is the only legitimate weapon for realising peace’. (ibid)

Amazing Grace

Since the few days, I have been thinking about ‘grace’, being ‘gracious’ and being ‘graceful’.  It is quality which is not talked about much, except in reference to movement or dancing.  I am talking about grace as a way of life.  Grace is about being polite, about being accepting of others and of being kind.  I have been thinking about how to bring grace into my life and these are the things I thought of-

1. Time and space– one needs to have time and space, gaps in schedule, peace and reflection to have grace.  People who are always rushing, bustling off or are abrupt are not graceful.  Therefore always keep a little space in your life in order to be graceful.

2. Be expansive– Think big, even magnanimously of others, even if they have done you wrong.  Do not go into their level, forgive and let go.  Imagine yourself as a big hearted person, not grasping, not wanting approval from anyone but yourself.

3. Be generous– Take time to listen to someone without telling them all about yourself at the same time.  Give generously, even if that person may have been mean to you.  Imagine the universe as a benevolent entity, always kind, always giving.  Even if you  give and do not receive back from that person, you will get a gift from someone else.  If you can’t give or buy presents, give your precious gift of time or your creativity, draw or write something for someone.

4. Do not boast– Your qualities and achievements will come to light without your needing to shout about it.  It is much more effective and powerful when another person comes to know of them through other means than you- it is very powerful! No one likes boasters.

5. Finally, always be polite, even if you are provoked- I find this quite difficult sometimes.  Just the other day, someone wrote a very rude email to me and my first reaction was to answer them back rudely. I am glad I didn’t and I continued to be expansive and generous in my thoughts about them. I have just received very good news about a piece of writing I did some years ago.  This news was totally unexpected.  I have risen above this person’s demeaning email through the good recommendation I have had about my work.

Everything is as it should be

Everyone is where they want to be- knowing this brings about great peace and acceptance.

If they are uncomfortable being where they are, then it is time to get out! No one and nothing can stop them, except themselves.  This is my poem about where we find ourselves is where we want or need to be at that moment-

Life is meaningless,

Until you make a meaning of it.

All is as it should be.

People are where they want to be.

All is well,

In the grand scheme of the Universe.