Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Science of Sabha: Look for the Bright Spots

Find the Bright Spots. That's the first step to fixing everything from boring sabhas to addiction to corporate malaise to malnutrition. A problem may look hopelessly complex. But there's a game plan that can yield movement on even the toughest issues. And it starts with locating a bright spot -- a ray of hope. Let's look at a concrete example from Switch regarding malnutrition.

When Jerry Sternin arrived in Vietnam, the welcome was rather chilly. The government had invited his employer, Save the Children, the international organization that helps kids in need, to open an office in the country in 1990 to fight malnutrition. But the foreign minister let Sternin know that not everyone in the government appreciated his presence. The minister told him, "You have six months to make a difference."

Sternin had traveled to the country with his wife and 10-year-old son. None of them spoke the language. "We were like orphans at the airport when we arrived in Vietnam," he said. "We had no idea what we were going to do." Sternin had minimal staff and meager resources. The conventional wisdom was that malnutrition was the result of an intertwined set of problems: Sanitation was poor. Poverty was nearly universal. Clean water was not readily available. The rural people tended to be ignorant about nutrition. That analysis was, in Sternin's judgment, TBU -- true but useless. "Millions of kids can't wait for those issues to be addressed," he said. If addressing malnutrition required ending poverty and purifying water and building sanitation systems, then it would never happen. Especially in six months, with virtually no money to spend.
When talking about making sabha sticky things can seem complicated. When we analyze a big, complicated problem -- like malnutrition in Vietnam or making a better sabha -- we seek a solution that befits the scale of the problem. If the problem is a round hole with a 24-inch diameter, our brains will go looking for a 24-inch peg to fill it. So, naturally, the experts on malnutrition in Vietnam wanted to talk about poverty and education and sanitation systems. Naturally when we think about sabha quality we start talking about getting better facilities, or better training of karyakars, or having more parent involvement so ideas are reinforced at home. Our focus automatically goes to the problem at hand. What's broken and how do we fix it? This troubleshooting mind-set serves us well -- most of the time. If your mandal is going to do the Hari Jayanti samaiyo and nobody shows up on the day of the samaiyo you should most certainly obsess about it and fix the problem. But in times of change especially when trying to make sabha stick, this mind-set will backfire. If we need to make major changes, then (by definition) we don't have a near-spotless report card. A lot of things are probably wrong. The "report card" for our sabha (and for that matter other things such as niyams, diet, or our marriage, or our business) is full of Cs and Ds and Fs. So if you ask yourself, What's broken and how do I fix it?, you'll simply spin your wheels. You'll spend a lot of time agonizing over issues that are TBU. When it's time to change, we must look for bright spots -- the first signs that things are working, the first precious As and Bs on our report card. We need to ask ourselves a question that sounds simple but is, in fact, deeply unnatural: What's working in our sabha and how can we do more of it?

Ignoring the experts, Sternin traveled to a local village and called together all the village's mothers. He asked for their assistance in finding ways to nourish their kids better, and they agreed to help. As the first step, they went out in teams to weigh and measure every child in the village. Then, they pored over the results together with Sternin.

He asked them, "Did you find any very, very poor kids who are bigger and healthier than the typical child?"

The women, scanning the data, nodded and said, "Có, có, có." (Yes, yes, yes.)

He said, "You mean it's possible today in this village for a very poor family to have a well-nourished child?"

"Có, có, có."

"Then let's go see what they're doing."

Sternin's strategy was to search the community for bright spots. If some kids were healthy despite their disadvantages, then that meant something important: Malnourishment was not inevitable. The mere existence of healthy kids provided hope for a practical, short-term solution. Sternin knew he couldn't fix the thorny root causes. But if a handful of kids were staying healthy against the odds, why couldn't every kid be healthy?

To understand what the bright spots were doing differently, the mothers first had to understand the typical eating behaviors in the community. So they talked to dozens of people -- other mothers, fathers, older brothers and sisters, grandparents -- and discovered that the norms were pretty clear: Kids ate twice a day along with the rest of their families, and they ate food that was deemed appropriate for children -- soft, pure foods like the highest-quality rice.

Armed with that understanding, the mothers then observed the homes of the bright-spot kids, and, alert for any deviations, they noticed some unexpected habits. For one thing, bright-spot moms were feeding their kids four meals a day (using the same amount of food as other moms but spreading it across four servings rather than two). The larger twice-a-day meals eaten by most families turned out to be a mistake for children, because their malnourished stomachs couldn't process that much food at one time.

The style of eating was also different. Most parents believed that their kids understood their own needs and would feed themselves appropriately from a communal bowl. But the healthy kids were fed more actively -- by hand if necessary. The children were even encouraged to eat when they were sick, which was not the norm.

Perhaps most interesting, the healthy kids were eating different kinds of food. The bright-spot mothers were collecting tiny shrimp and crabs from the rice paddies and mixing them in with their kids' rice. (Shrimp and crabs were eaten by adults but they weren't considered appropriate food for kids.) The mothers also tossed in sweet-potato greens, which were considered a low-class food. These dietary improvisations, however strange or "low class," were doing something precious: adding sorely needed protein and vitamins to the children's diet.

As an outsider, Sternin never could have foreseen these insights. He knew nothing about sweet-potato greens. The solution was a native one, emerging from the real-world experience of the villagers, and for that reason, it was inherently realistic as well as sustainable. But knowing the solution wasn't enough. For anything to change, lots of mothers would need to adopt the new cooking habits.

Sternin refused to make a formal announcement. He knew that telling the mothers about nutrition wouldn't change their behavior. "Knowledge does not change behavior," he told us in the spring of 2008 (Sternin passed away in December of that year). "We have all encountered crazy shrinks and obese doctors and divorced marriage counselors." The mothers would have to practice it. They'd have to act differently until the different started to feel normal.

The community designed a program in which 50 malnourished families, in groups of 10, would meet at a hut each day and prepare food together. The families were required to bring shrimp, crabs, and sweet-potato greens. The mothers washed their hands with soap and cooked the meal together. Sternin said that the moms were "acting their way into a new way of thinking." Most important, it was their change, something that arose from the local wisdom of the village. Sternin's role was only to help them see that they could do it, that they could conquer malnutrition on their own.

Dozens of experts had analyzed the situation in Vietnam, agonizing over the problems -- the water supply, the sanitation, the poverty, the ignorance. They'd written position papers and research documents and development plans. But they hadn't changed a thing. Six months after Sternin's visit to the Vietnamese village, 65% of the kids were better nourished -- and they stayed that way. Later, when researchers from Emory University School Public Health came to Vietnam to gather independent data, they found that even children who hadn't been born when Sternin left the village were as healthy as the kids Sternin had reached directly. That provided proof that the changes had stuck. In tough times, we'll see problems everywhere, and "analysis paralysis" will often kick in. That's why, to make progress on a change, we need to provide crystal-clear direction -- show people where to go, how to act, what destination to pursue. And that's why bright spots are so essential: They provide the road map. Sternin's success began to spread. "We took the first 14 villages in different phases of the program and turned them into a social laboratory," he said. "People who wanted to replicate the nutrition model came from different parts of Vietnam. Every day, they would go to this living university, to these villages, touching, smelling, sniffing, watching, listening. They would 'graduate,' go to their villages, and implement the process until they got it right... . The program reached 2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages. Our living university has become a national model for teaching villagers to reduce drastically malnutrition in Vietnam."
Yogi Bapa embodied the idea of looking for bright spots. He was able to do this in any situation since he saw Bhagwan in everyone - thus everyone was great despite their faults. He truly lived the Yogi Gita (hence the name). Now it would be a bit pedantic to say just read the Yogi Gita your sabha will get better, and let's be clear we are not saying that. But what Yogi Bapa was able to do, and what the Heath brothers are alluding to is to refocus our energies from what is not working to what is working. If we can find the one person who is improving (she may not be the best speaker necessarily, but possibly someone who is motivated or who is able to take feedback and implement it) and then understand what clicked with them, we can recreate that. The tools to do this is at our disposal - sabha review and preview.

Through review we can give constructive feedback and see who responds. The idea being simply put one thought or suggestion and see if that gets implemented in the next talk. If previews are being held, it is even better since we can suggest a very concrete idea and see if it gets implemented and then build on that during review. We saw this work with reader man (he kept reading off the paper, laptop, notes, etc.) During preview we chatted and asked what are you going to say. His response (which he read from an outline) was along the lines of: "I am going to say this prasang about Maharaj, and then talk about how that relates to the world cup, etc." We interrupted his outline with the request to actually say the prasang, not simply say what he was going to say. He started reading. We took way the notes. He said the prasang. This worked. We had found a bright spot. He had knowledge, we had knowledge. However we needed this knowledge to propagate. So now if anyone reads during sabha, reader man (or ex-reader man) is the one who will go up and take away the notes.

What are your bright spots?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Science of Sabha: Motivate the Elephant

When doing sabha review or preview we have been struck by how many times we get frustrated. It would seem to us that people really do understand what it takes to make a good presentation (practice and preparation being two of the keys) yet they simply do not do this. Our conclusion was that people are simply lazy - they know what to do just do not want to do it. During review we give explicit, concrete ideas in a friendly way yet those ideas do not stick. Slackers.

The Heath brothers change this question to ask how much of the elephant are we motivating.
When Rider and Elephant disagree about which way to move, you've got a problem. The Rider can get his way temporarily—he can tug on the reins hard enough to get the Elephant to submit. (Anytime you use willpower you're doing exactly that.) But the Rider can't win a tug-of-war with a huge animal for long. He simply gets exhausted.

To see this point more clearly, consider the behavior of some college students who participated in a study about "food perception" (or so they were told). They reported to the lab a bit hungry; they'd been asked not to eat for at least three hours beforehand. They were led to a room that smelled amazing— the researchers had just baked chocolate-chip cookies. On a table in the center of the room were two bowls. One held a sampling of chocolates, along with the warm, fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies they'd smelled. The other bowl held a bunch of radishes.
The researchers had prepped a cover story: We've selected chocolates and radishes because they have highly distinctive tastes. Tomorrow, we'll contact you and ask about your memory of the taste sensations you experienced while eating them.
Half the participants were asked to eat two or three cookies and some chocolate candies, but no radishes. The other half were asked to eat at least two or three radishes, but no cookies. While they ate, the researchers left the room, intending, rather sadistically, to induce temptation: They wanted those poor radish-eaters to sit there, alone, nibbling on rabbit food, glancing enviously at the fresh-baked cookies. (It probably goes without saying that the cookie-eaters experienced no great struggle in resisting the radishes.) Despite the temptation, all participants ate what they were asked to eat, and none of the radish-eaters snuck a cookie. That's willpower at work. At that point, the "taste study" was officially over, and another group of researchers entered with a second, supposedly unrelated study: We're trying to find who's better at solving problems, college students or high school students. This framing was intended to get the college students to puff out their chests and take the forthcoming task seriously.

The college students were presented with a series of puzzles that required them to trace a complicated geometric shape without retracing any lines and without lifting their pencils from the paper. They were given multiple sheets of paper so they could try over and over. In reality, the puzzles were designed to be unsolvable. The researchers wanted to see how long the college students would persist in a difficult, frustrating task before they finally gave up.

The "untempted" students, who had not had to resist eating the chocolate-chip cookies, spent 19 minutes on the task, making 34 well-intentioned attempts to solve the problem.

The radish-eaters were less persistent. They gave up after only 8 minutes—less than half the time spent by the cookie-eaters—and they managed only 19 solution attempts. Why did they quit so easily?

The answer may surprise you: They ran out of self-control. In studies like this one, psychologists have discovered that self-control is an exhaustible resource. It's like doing bench presses at the gym. The first one is easy, when your muscles are fresh. But with each additional repetition, your muscles get more exhausted, until you can't lift the bar again. The radish-eaters had drained their self-control by resisting the cookies. So when their Elephants, inevitably, started complaining about the puzzle task—it's too hard, it's no fun, we're no good at this—their Riders didn't have enough strength to yank on the reins for more than 8 minutes. Meanwhile, the cookie-eaters had a fresh, untaxed Rider, who fought off the Elephant for 19 minutes. Self-control is an exhaustible resource. This is a crucial realization, because when we talk about "self-control," we don't mean the narrow sense of the word, as in the willpower needed to fight vice (smokes, cookies, alcohol). We're talking about a broader kind of self-supervision. Think of the way your mind works when you're giving negative feedback to an employee, or assembling a new bookshelf, or learning a new dance. You are careful and deliberate with your words or movements. It feels like there's a supervisor on duty. That's self-control, too.

Contrast that with all the situations in which your behavior doesn't feel "supervised"—for instance, the sensation while you're driving that you can't remember the last few miles of road, or the easy, unthinking way you take a shower or make your morning coffee. Much of our daily behavior, in fact, is more automatic than supervised, and that's a good thing because the supervised behavior is the hard stuff. It's draining.

Dozens of studies have demonstrated the exhausting nature of self-supervision. For instance, people who were asked to make tricky choices and trade-offs—such as setting up a wedding registry or ordering a new computer—were worse at focusing and solving problems than others who hadn't made the tough choices. In one study, some people were asked to restrain their emotions while watching a sad movie about sick animals. Afterward, they exhibited less physical endurance than others who'd let the tears flow freely. The research shows that we burn up self-control in a wide variety of situations: managing the impression we're making on others; coping with fears; controlling our spending; trying to focus on simple instructions such as "Don't think of a white bear"; and many, many others.

Here's why this matters for change: When people try to change things, they're usually tinkering with behaviors that have become automatic, and changing those behaviors requires careful supervision by the Rider. The bigger the change you're suggesting, the more it will sap people's self-control.

And when people exhaust their self-control, what they're exhausting are the mental muscles needed to think creatively, to focus, to inhibit their impulses, and to persist in the face of frustration or failure. In other words, they're exhausting precisely the mental muscles needed to make a big change.

So when you hear people say that change is hard because people are lazy or resistant, that's just flat wrong. In fact, the opposite is true: Change is hard because people wear themselves out. And that's the second surprise about change: What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.
Now this is an interesting idea. What if Reader Man simply used all his self control to sit through sabha or get his homework done. No amount clear concise feedback will help, since his rider already knows what to do. So how do you motivate Reader Man's elephant. In our case most of the sabha consisted of high school kids we opted for an incentive program that would get the elephant excited. We initiated a point system. At the end of each quarter the person with the most point got to choose the an event for the entire mandal (paintball, rafting, etc.). They did not have to plan or organize simply say we should do this and the Sanchalaks made it happen. To date this has made the most impact since people are excited about the reward and thus are emotionally linked to do something their rider already knows that they need to do. Any other ideas? Let us know.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Samjan: The Making of Eureka! + Eureka!, a Journey

[The next few weeks we have a guest poster (from the West Coast, thus the Lakers reference) who will be sharing their thoughts and point of view on making sabha stickier. Here is their thoughts on this week's Kishore/Kishori sabha topic of Samajan. This may really help make the MC sticky]

Congratulations, graduates! And congratulations, non-graduates for making it through yet another year! How does it feel to be done? As inviting as summer vacation is, it is not hard to become (just a little) nostalgic and think fondly about all of the good times while cleaning out lockers, signing yearbooks, or walking off campus with that diploma.

Today is a milestone - you have made it. In many ways, life is filled with milestones - your first step, your first day at college, your first internship, your first job, and so on. Milestones are not unlike Archimedes' "Eureka!" moment or the NBA Playoffs where the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics go to a game seven. All eyes are upon you as you start a new endeavor or approach the finish line.

But what about the journey there? More than Archimedes' Eureka! moment, I am interested in how he accomplished becoming a renowned mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer! Like many other successful persons in history, what disciplines and habits did Archimedes put into place in his own life to achieve such interdisciplinary know-how?

More than the Playoffs alone, when Derek Fisher expressed his deep gratitude for the game and his team, I immediately began thinking about the everyday goals (daily exercise, practice, focus, priority, diet, team-building, etc.) that he has remained committed to in order to share this statement:

This moment brings me back to Satsang - specifically to the topic of Samjan, and to the simple, yet highly complex question, Have we had our Eureka! moment yet?

As an analogy, Derek Fisher truly understands (Samjan) that his focus and dedication to playing well will bring his team success (Gnaan) and that success is very important to him (Mahima), and thus he is able to align his goals and actions over the course of a journey in order to achieve success.

In Satsang, when we truly understand (Samjan) Upasana and our spiritual goals (Gnaan), they become a central priority for us (Mahima).

In the same way, True Understanding is the Eureka! moment, but the Eureka! moment also comprises of a journey.

Take it another way. Our Aha! moment of solving a difficult math equation is just as important as the journey - all of those hours that you were trying and all of the years that we studied math.

What, then, guides the accompanying journey? Knowing, understanding, and realizing the importance of a particular goal may not always lend to a milestone, but the milestone is certainly made up of small victories.

Perhaps every instance where we practice Samjan in our daily lives (whether at home, or at work, or within our mandal, or even the basketball court) and live according the wishes of Maharaj and Swami, we achieve small victories - which, over time, add up to Eureka!

Yogi Bapa gives us many practical examples of Samjan throughout the Yogi Gita. Let us look at one:

Khamvu (On Letting Go/Accepting)

"Sadhutana gun shu? Khamvu. 'Tame bahu sara chho...' - Te khamvu em ne? - Naa. 'Tame akkal vagharnaa baardan chho...' Em koi kahe te khamvu, te sadhutana gun.
Motaa kahe 'em' to 'em.' - Em saral prakruti raakhvi. Te mokshmathi na pade. Dhaaryu chhodaave ne khotu laage te ko'k di padi jaay."

Translation: What is a virtue of a Sadhu? To let go/accept. 'You are great...' We should accept when people tell us comments like these right? - No. 'You are an ignorant fool...' When one says such things, we should let go, that is a virtue of a Sadhu. Regardless of what is being asked, one should maintain a straightforward nature of always following the words of an elder. In this way, one cannot fall from the path of moksha. However, when one feels hurt when one has to let go of one's desires, then one may one day fall from this path.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Big Idea

The following talk is only 8 minutes long. However physicist Ben Greene hits every aspect of Made to Stick. He has a simple message - science can be engaging (eye opening) when we convey the Big Ideas. It probably took him the longest time to target this simple message. This is usually the hardest part in any talk, but he does this amazingly well.

He uses stories - including a letter he received from a soldier in Iraq. The stories are personal and back up his simple point, thus they are concrete and credible. Emotion is really the driving factor in this talk, you can hear it in his voice. He is passionate about this and this passion shows.

His unexpected is subtle. He starts with a joke (an inside joke that references the previous talk which must have been really good) which is unexpected. He also looks at the talk from a different point of view. Many times we search hard for an "in your face" unexpected. This can be difficult and over time people will expect that you are going to do this, so it is not so unexpected. (That's the problem with Purple Cows). So Dr. Greene takes another approach he looks at his topic from another point of view. To be sure he must have been given a topic and some speaking points, but by modifying these points he is able to fulfill the simple messages that the topics was meant to cover with something unexpected to wake people up. Some people may think - wait he did not use his speaking points exactly, that must mean he is not that great of a speaker. To that we say - you be the judge. Take note however, this was during the Aspen Festival, many people must have been tired, must have been feeling sleepy - even I was when I watched it. At the end of the talk most eyes must have been awake.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Elephant vs Rider

Maharaj has said in Vachnamrut Sarangpur 1 that there is battle going on in each of our minds - and to prove this point consider Clocky. An alarm clock invented by an MIT student, Gauri Nanda. It's no ordinary alarm clock—it has wheels. You set it at night, and in the morning when the alarm goes off, it rolls off your nightstand and scurries around the room, forcing you to chase it down. Picture the scene: You're crawling around the bedroom in your underwear, stalking and cursing a runaway clock.

Clocky ensures that you won't snooze-button your way to disaster. And apparently that's a common fear, since about 35,000 units were purchased, at $50 each, in Clocky's first two years on the market (despite minimal marketing). The success of this invention reveals a lot about human psychology. What it shows, fundamentally, is that we are schizophrenic. Part of us—our rational side—wants to get up at 5:45 a.m., allowing ourselves plenty of time for a quick jog before we leave for the office. The other part of us—the emotional side— wakes up in the darkness of the early morning, snoozing inside a warm cocoon of sheets and blankets, and wants nothing in the world so much as a few more minutes of sleep. If, like us, your emotional side tends to win these internal debates, then you might be a potential Clocky customer. The beauty of the device is that it allows your rational side to outsmart your emotional side. It's simply impossible to stay cuddled up under the covers when a rogue alarm clock is rolling around your room.

Let's be blunt here: Clocky is not a product for a sane species. If Spock wants to get up at 5:45 a.m., he'll just get up. No drama required.

Our built-in schizophrenia is a deeply weird thing, but we don't think much about it because we're so used to it. When we kick off a new diet, we toss the Cheetos and Oreos out of the pantry, because our rational side knows that when our emotional side gets a craving, there's no hope of self-control. The only option is to remove the temptation altogether. (For the record, some MIT student will make a fortune designing Cheetos that scurry away from people when they're on a diet.)

The unavoidable conclusion is this: Our brain isn't of one mind. There is a battle going on. The Heath Brothers give us the analogy of an elephant and a rider. You need both parts of our battling mind to get on aboard before any change is possible.

The conventional wisdom in psychology, in fact, is that the brain has two independent systems at work at all times. First, there's what we called the emotional side. It's the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure. Second, there's the rational side, also known as the reflective or conscious system. It's the part of you that deliberates and analyzes and looks into the future.

In the past few decades, psychologists have learned a lot about these two systems, but of course mankind has always been aware of the tension. Plato said that in our heads we have a rational charioteer who has to rein in an unruly horse that "barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined." Freud wrote about the selfish id and the conscientious superego (and also about the ego, which mediates between them). More recently, behavioral economists dubbed the two systems the Planner and the Doer.

But, to us, the duo's tension is captured best by an analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider's control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He's completely overmatched.

Most of us are all too familiar with situations in which our Elephant overpowers our Rider. You've experienced this if you've ever slept in, overeaten, dialed up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten angry and said something you regretted, abandoned your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scared, and so on. Good thing no one is keeping score. The weakness of the Elephant, our emotional and instinctive side, is clear: It's lazy and skittish, often looking for the quick payoff (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being thin). When change efforts fail, it's usually the Elephant's fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs. (We cut back on expenses today to yield a better balance sheet next year. We avoid ice cream today for a better body next year.) Changes often fail because the Rider simply can't keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.

The Elephant's hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider's strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment (all those things that your pet can't do). But what may surprise you is that the Elephant also has enormous strengths and that the Rider has crippling weaknesses. The Elephant isn't always the bad guy. Emotion is the Elephant's turf—love and compassion and sympathy and loyalty. That fierce instinct you have to protect your kids against harm—that's the Elephant. That spine-stiffening you feel when you need to stand up for yourself—that's the Elephant.

And even more important if you're contemplating a change, the Elephant is the one who gets things done. To make progress toward a goal, whether it's noble or crass, requires the energy and drive of the Elephant. And this strength is the mirror image of the Rider's great weakness: spinning his wheels. The Rider tends to overanalyze and overthink things. Chances are, you know people with Rider problems: your friend who can agonize for twenty minutes about what to eat for dinner; your colleague who can brainstorm about new ideas for hours but can't ever seem to make a decision.

If you want to change things, you've got to appeal to both. The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy. So if you reach the Riders of your team but not the Elephants, team members will have understanding without motivation. If you reach their Elephants but not their Riders, they'll have passion without direction. In both cases, the flaws can be paralyzing. A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure that nothing changes. But when Elephants and Riders move together, change can come easily.

Anyone care to venture how to sway the elephant and the rider of debate dude, master flaker, and reader man?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Science of Sabha: It's the Situation

First off thanks for all the comments generated by last week's post on change. We can sum up what most of you said in a few words: people resist change. You are right. When it comes to making sabha sticky (or anything sticky) this seems true. However to quote the Heath brothers (verbatim):

But it's not quite that easy. Babies are born every day to parents who, inexplicably, welcome the change. Think about the sheer magnitude of that change! Would anyone agree to work for a boss who'd wake you up twice a night, screaming, for trivial administrative duties? (And what if, every time you wore a new piece of clothing, the boss spit up on it?) Yet people don't resist this massive change—they volunteer for it.

In our lives, we embrace lots of big changes—not only babies, but marriages and new homes and new technologies and new job duties. Meanwhile, other behaviors are maddeningly intractable. Smokers keep smoking and kids grow fatter and your husband can't ever seem to get his dirty shirts into a hamper.

The subtle point here is that there are hard changes and easy changes - what makes one different from the other? In their book Switch, the Dan and Chip argue that successful changes share a pattern. They require the leader to do three things at once. To change someone's behavior, you've got to: change that person's situation, win over their heart, win over their mind.

The problem is this: Often the heart and mind disagree. Fervently. Next week we will look at the battle between heart and mind. Today let's look at situation. To do this we need to think about popcorn.
One Saturday in 2000, some unsuspecting moviegoers showed up at a suburban theater in Chicago to catch a 1:05 p.m. matinee of Mel Gibson's action flick Payback. They were handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn and were asked to stick around after the movie to answer a few questions about the concession stand. These movie fans were unwitting participants in a study of irrational eating behavior.

There was something unusual about the popcorn they received. It was wretched. In fact, it had been carefully engineered to be wretched. It had been popped five days earlier and was so stale that it squeaked when you ate it. One moviegoer later compared it to Styrofoam packing peanuts, and two others, forgetting that they'd received the popcorn for free, demanded their money back.

Some of them got their free popcorn in a medium-size bucket, and others got a large bucket—the sort of huge tub that looks like it might once have been an above-ground swimming pool. Every person got a bucket so there'd be no need to share. The researchers responsible for the study were interested in a simple question: Would the people with bigger buckets eat more?

Both buckets were so big that none of the moviegoers could finish their individual portions. So the actual research question was a bit more specific: Would somebody with a larger inexhaustible supply of popcorn eat more than someone with a smaller inexhaustible supply?

The sneaky researchers weighed the buckets before and after the movie, so they were able to measure precisely how much popcorn each person ate. The results were stunning: People with the large buckets ate 53 percent more popcorn than people with the medium size. That's the equivalent of 173 more calories and approximately 21 extra hand-dips into the bucket.

Brian Wansink, the author of the study, runs the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, and he described the results in his book Mindless Eating: "We've run other popcorn studies, and the results were always the same, however we tweaked the details. It didn't matter if our moviegoers were in Pennsylvania, Illinois, or Iowa, and it didn't matter what kind of movie was showing; all of our popcorn studies led to the same conclusion. People eat more when you give them a bigger container. Period."

No other theory explains the behavior. These people weren't eating for pleasure. (The popcorn was so stale it squeaked!) They weren't driven by a desire to finish their portion. (Both buckets were too big to finish.) It didn't matter whether they were hungry or full. The equation is unyielding: Bigger container = more eating.
Best of all, people refused to believe the results. After the movie, the researchers told the moviegoers about the two bucket sizes and the findings of their past research. The researchers asked, Do you think you ate more because of the larger size? The majority scoffed at the idea, saying, "Things like that don't trick me," or, "I'm pretty good at knowing when I'm full."


Imagine that someone showed you the data from the popcorn-eating study but didn't mention the bucket sizes. On your data summary, you could quickly scan the results and see how much popcorn different people ate—some people ate a little, some ate a lot, and some seemed to be testing the physical limits of the human stomach. Armed with a data set like that, you would find it easy to jump to conclusions. Some people are Reasonable Snackers, and others are Big Gluttons.

A public-health expert, studying that data alongside you, would likely get very worried about the Gluttons. We need to motivate these people to adopt healthier snacking behaviors! Let's find ways to show them the health hazards of eating so much!
But wait a second. If you want people to eat less popcorn, the solution is pretty simple: Give them smaller buckets. You don't have to worry about their knowledge or their attitudes.

You can see how easy it would be to turn an easy change problem (shrinking people's buckets) into a hard change problem (convincing people to think differently). And that's the first surprise about change: What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.
Now this is interesting because many times we have caught ourselves getting frustrated with people when sabha does not go well. In fact this happened so often that after many sabhas we narrowed it down to three distinct groups: the flaker, the reader man, and debate dudes. We are sure you have encountered them as well but by way of introduction here are their bios.

The master flaker has it down to a science when to show up to the Mandir so that they do not have to do their assigned talk (which in many cases they volunteered to do). The tyro flaker will simply not show up at all on Sunday. However as he refines his skills he understands that showing up just as the person (usually sanchalak) who fills in for his absence STARTS to speak - he is safe. It is an art form and no easy task to accomplish this bit of serendipitous timing. The next part is to come up with a creative and convincing excuse as to why he was late, worthy of any Oscar winning screen play.

Next comes reader man. The good thing about reader man is that he shows up. The bad thing about reader man is that he shows up. Reader man as the name implies reads right off the paper - usually not well, getting words wrong in both English and Gujarati. As reader man hones his skill he may bring a laptop and read off of that, he may make note cards and read off of that. He may even start a talk by saying a prasang, giving you hope that change is possible, then start reading again. He is persistent. It is a quality.

Our personal favorite is debate dude. Basically this presenter will make everything a group discussion as follows: read the first paragraph, break the sabha into groups, say discuss this while he wanders off, then wraps up by saying each group pick someone to share their thoughts. Repeat for every talk. Not sticky in the guise of trying to be sticky. Genius really.

Every time we encountered such behaviors we kept thinking - what is wrong with these people!? Now we got to thinking maybe what looks like a people problem is really a situation problem. What is the popcorn bucket?

Honestly for the flaker we could not figure this out. We think we need to tap his elephant and rider (more on that next week). But reader man was a different story - we figure out his popcorn bucket and had the tools to do try and do something about.

Our tools: Sabha review and preview.
Reader Man's Popcorn Bucket: his notes.

In the past during preview we had requested reader man to say a prasang (not read it) and it would work pretty well. However in the stress of the moment he would revert to reading. So this time during preview we went after the popcorn bucket. We asked reader man to give his presentation sans notes. There was a look of panic on his face. But after some talking he agreed. The result. Mixed. He faltered and stammered in some parts, but when he said his prasangs, he said them - no reading. A victory in our books. The second step was sabha review. Many people gave reader man positive feedback about his prasang SAYing abilities. This reinforced his belief in saying and not reading. It is a long process, but reader man is on his way.

Lastly we tried to get debate dude to stop group discussing everything. Since his popcorn bucket was obviously group discussions, during preview we requested he try something else. There was again a look of panic. We assuaged that look by walking through several other "activities" he could do. It seemed like he had a misconception that he could not talk for 20 minutes and needed something to "fill the time." However by adding several prasangs (out side of the syllabus that he had himself read on the baps.org website) the time issue was gone. Again during review several people mentioned that it was a nice change of pace not to have group discussion. Success! Almost.

Two weeks later debate dude had the MC. For manan he decided it would be a great idea to have .... a group discussion. Fear not, we can use the elephant and rider to coax more change- more on that next week.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Upasana: Fly High

"Space: The Final Frontier." We've always been fascinated with the skies, the cosmos, the universe, and our technology has only aided us in our endeavors. Specifically, it was our ability to fly. In our attempts, we experienced both success and failures.

What determines how well they fly ties back to something called aerodynamics, the study of how air flow interacts with moving objects. Now, one principle of this area is the Bernoulli principle. Without getting too complicated, the Bernoulli principle helps us understand why the flight is possible.

  1. Water moves faster over the ball than under it.
  2. When a fluid, like water, moves faster over a surface, it has a lower pressure.
  3. The difference in pressures creates a lift force  
  4. Repeat Steps 1-3 with "air" instead of "water" - voila, flight!
What's even more interesting is that we see this principle in action in Satsang: upasana serves as the wings that enable us to soar through the skies of maya to the gates of Akshardham

Gaining this wings requires us to initially developing understanding of our upasana. Start off my listing the five entities that are integral to our philosophy - jiva, ishwar, maya, Brahm, and Parabrahm. However, this presentation will expound upon Parabrahm - the four main traits of Shriji Maharaj that we should seek to understand.

Why does upasana serve as a turn-off to many? Let's face it, not all of our sabha attendees have a knack for philosophy. Utilizing analogies and metaphors often helps us break up the complexity, so use the scriptural references provided and supplement them with these comparisons.

Sarva Karta
Think batteries. Just as Energizer powers the bunny, Shriji Maharaj powers any and all aspects of the universe - good & bad. 
  • High score on the SAT? Shriji Maharaj gave you the intelligence and confidence along with matching you up with the most favorable version of the exam.
  • Somebody crash your car? Shriji Maharaj also made this accident happen, and while in the short-term we may be shortchanged, it is for the good in the long-term.
Cultivating this idea helps us soar through any of maya's air traps - reference the Swami ni Vaat for emphasis.

Think carbon dioxide. While we may familiar with the gas that we exhale daily, it's solid form is dry ice. Similarly, Shriji Maharaj is not just a booming voice that we may hear; He has form a divine form. Use the scriptural references provided to enhance this idea. 

Think CEO. Just as a CEO presides over all in a business, Shriji Maharaj presides over every entity present in the universe. Recall that there are four additional entities after Parabrahm; they are all subject to the will of Shriji Maharaj. Hence, even the maya that flows over the surfaces of our wings of upasana are subject to the will of Him.

Think math. Math is present everywhere, especially nature (see video below). Similarly, Shriji Maharaj is ever-present on this Earth through his Ekantik Sant. While we will attain Him in Akshardham, His support is ensured here on Earth. From Gunatitanand Swami to Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the scriptures tell us why this is so - to ensure our moksha. 

In summary, our upasana is our ticket to Satsang if we so choose to realize it as such. The greater we understand it, the faster maya will pass over our wings and quicker we will attain Akshardham.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Science of Sabha: Change

My daughter is fond of the following joke.

Knock Knock
Who's There?
Pencil who?
Oh what's the point.

Though it may be the only joke she really knows, it is amazing how many things other than pencil this works for - unicorn, rock, tree, shoe (her's are pointy).

This joke got us thinking - what is the point?

Why do we need to make things sticky? What is the end game anyway?

It seems to us everything we are trying to accomplish revolves around one concept - change.

Satsang is all about changing ourselves - our habits, our way of thinking and aligning it with our Guru. The phrase, "She'll never change," maybe the worst thing you can say to a Satsangi, since that means she'll never go to Akshardham.

If we look at the Vachanamrut, it is all about change.
By cultivating the contact of a God-realised saint, who sincerely observes the five holy injunctions, the force of Bhakti flourishes. (Gadhada I-29)
Change - develop contact with the Satpurush.

One who with purity and love dedicates himself to this satsang will be redeemed of all his sins and will experience Brahmic bliss in this very life. (Sararangpur-9)
Change - dedicate ourselves to satsang.

One who desires to be redeemed should cultivate animosity with his mind. (Vartal-1)
Change - fight our mind.

The actions of God, when in human manifestation, should be totally taken as divine, and no doubt should ever be felt in His divine working. He can then be called a sincere devotee. (Gadhada II-10)
Change - always see divyabhav, never see manushyabhav.

This list goes on and on and it becomes evident everything is about change. In fact making a sabha sticky is a recursive form of change.
  1. First, we have to re-mold everyone's attitude about sabha.
  2. Then, we should strive to tweak (or change) everyone's method of presentation so that it is sticks.
  3. Finally, we should change behavior (really our own) so that the message in sabha that sticks becomes part of our life.
We asked people about this and the overwhelming response was, "Yeah makes sense, but change is HARD."

At first we agreed, but then we thought, "Is it ALWAYS hard?"

Several years ago, nobody was texting. Now, only "nobodies" do not text. Texting happens everytime sabha is not sticky (and sometimes even when it is). We all changed pretty quickly to acquire the skill of texting. It was a change that did not seem very hard. In fact in Japan the sell small USB phone keypads that you can attach to your desktop. It seems that many kids in Japan prefer typing with their thumbs - even when a full size keyboard is available. That is a huge change.

Many people have studied change. In fact in their new book Switch, the Heath brothers explore this topic. The same principles discussed in the book can be applied to the "Science of Sabha." In this next series of Monday posts, we will look at how we can make a change in any aspect we deem we need it.