Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Common Mistake That Makes Our Prasang Varnan Lifeless

We always love to hear the things our readers have to say, and what better way to show our appreciation by sharing the wealth. A fellow sabha.ologist shared the following wisdom with his yuvak mandal.

Why details often feel like sacrifices

Drilling down on a detail entails sacrifice. It means you won’t get the chance to say everything there is to say about your beloved prasang.

I have seen this many times, that a speaker's prasang is filled with abstractions and generalizations, assuming listeners will mentally fill in the specific from the general.

But the human brain doesn’t work that way.

Imagination trumps logic

Tell me a Zappo’s-style story about an amazing support experience and I’ll conclude that you’ve made a commitment to superior service.

But tell me you have “great customer service,” and I’ll conclude you’re full of it. You expect me to fill in the details about specific ways our service might manifest itself, but I won’t. I don’t have any details to “prove” your point to myself.

The specific can be imagined. It has dramatic power. Generalization just results in easily dismissed, flaccid storytelling, devoid of any emotional power or credibility.

Here’s an example of this same principle at work, as described by Jay Heinrichs (of Figaro Speech fame) in his book, Thank You For Arguing:

"Suppose you wanted me to be angry at my next door neighbor. You could tell me what a jerk he is — that he flirts in front of his wife and watches bad TV. None of this would make me angry at him. You described his personality, not his experience. To make me angry, give me a vivid description of a specific outrage.

You: He called the Boy Scouts a fascist organization.
Me: Well, he’s entitled to his –
You: On Halloween? When my little boy comes to his stoop wearing his older brother’s uniform?
Me: How do you –
You: I was there. When he started to cry, he said, “If you turn out to be gay, you’ll be glad you met me.” Then he looked straight at me and slammed the door.

That would make me angry at the neighbor. You re-created a dramatic scene, making me see it through your eyes. This works much better than name calling."

Tell us a story

See what I’m talking about? You have to be willing to tell one small sliver of your story powerfully, instead of trying to summarize the whole experience in abstract generalizations.

This means you have to do two things:

1. Find the specifics that can represent your larger points
2. Figure out how to breathe life into those specifics through persuasive storytelling

Basically, put my faith in the vivid, dramatic power of specifics.

Have faith in your audience to conclude the general from the specific, rather than the other way around.

Agree or disagree? Feel free to post comments below.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Smoldering Log

This week, as we explore Vachanamrut Gadhada I-28, we may initially have some doubts given its relatively short length. However, it's really a chance to appreciate Shriji Maharaj's skill of packaging profound points into portions attuned to the audience at hand. Let's head to the drawing board to make these points come alive.

Step 1: Synthesizing the simple statement. Below are some ideas taken from the syllabus.
  • Introspection is the tool that strengthens agna and upasana.
  • Satsang is a tool that can lead to our self-improvement.
  • By not seeing our faults, we also fail to see others' virtues.
  • Criticizing others can consume us just like a wildfire.
Step 2: Starting with the shakeup.
  • The Fury of Fire: Accustomed to doing arti, we may not often understand the true power of the flame as it is confined to the divo. However, without these constraints, the true power of fire can be realized much to our own fear and anxiety as this cameraman came to learn. Though it may appear to be a some risk-taking amateur, we may fail to notice a subtle feature at 0:30. Sure, he begins to retreat because the fire's rapid advance lightly burns him. Shriji Maharaj's smoldering log metaphor could not be anymore ingenious, for from an innocuous ember is a fire unleashed - one that has no discretion in consuming all that lies in its path. In the video, it's wildgrass; in our case, it's our fellow satsangis. 

  • The Overachieving Octopus: Humankind is often regarded as "the most intelligent lifeform" on this planet though we may question this conclusion when we see nature firsthand. Animals can provide a great surprise, like the tale of this tool-wielding octopus. Similarly, those who we way often disregard in Satsang can often teach us lessons we may have never thought of before.
  • Sound Guy Neck Crane: Here's an example of something that may have taken route in our normal mandir routine but demonstrates the principle perfectly. Sometimes, it's just better to acknowledge the atheist A/V equipment then to take the abhaav-avgun of our fellow satsangis.
  • Last but not least, any of last week's examples can be used just as easily.
Step 3: Connecting with concrete and credible examples. The syllabus is a source of such examples, but we must take the extra steps to narrate them well and to link them back to our original simple statement. As an example, we chose to go with the fourth statement to better emphasize Shriji Maharaj's metaphor of the smoldering log.
  • Smoldering Log - Shriji Maharaj recognized that while no fire may be manifest, it remains dormant within the log gaining strength by the second. When it gains enough strength, it bursts forth from the log into a flame before it requires another log to thrive. Thus, the flame becomes a fire and gains speed and strength as it continues to consume all that exists around it. When we unfairly criticize others, we too feed this fire until it consumes us and pollutes our perception. It ravages within us to the point that we are reduced to the ashes of our own anger and arrogance. In this state of mind, is it any wonder the seed of Satsang fails to sprout from within?
  • Budho Dhadhal - Here's a perfect example of someone who let the fire consume not just himself but those around him - the venerated Dada Khachar, Muktanand Swami, and even Shriji Maharaj. Once again, a fierce fire makes no distinction between what it consumes. 
  • Painting the Murti - Here the father criticized the son, but why did the relationship not get consumed by the fire of fault-finding? While the father criticized his son, it was for his son's betterment and not to feed the father's ego. In Satsang, we may find criticism unbearable, but we can fight the fire if we receive that criticism as a source for our own self-improvement. After all, those who offer us unfair criticism stand only to be consumed by their own fire. Do we wish to partake in their self-destruction by retaliating against them with more criticism?
As we can see, the metaphors employed by Shriji Maharaj add an extra layer of vivid detail to what we would consider an otherwise colorless concept. Let's resolve to use this wisdom to drench the fire of fault-finding, especially since we only stand to lose from it. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Greater than Zero (Positive)

The concept of gun-grahak drashti hails from the Vachanamrut (i.e. Shriji Maharaj's time) throughout our lineage of gurus culminating today in Pramukh Swami Maharaj. Is it any wonder that it resurfaces at such a high frequency in sabha? Let's take a crack at it this week.

Step 1: Crafting the simple statement. Below are some ideas taken from the syllabus.
  • Fixating on the flaws of others creates more flaws within us.
  • In the virtues of others lies our strategies to succeed.
  • Attributing faults to others is really attributing fault to Maharaj & Swami.
Step 2: Starting with the shakeup.
  • Knockoff Sunglasses: Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and the Upside of Irrationality, did an experiment in which individuals were asked to wear either designer sunglasses or the fake versions of them and then asked to describe what they thought of other people. Interestingly enough, those who wore the fake versions were more likely to think other people were being fake around them. We take faults of others, but are these faults truly intrinsic to the individual or rather an illusion of our own imperfection? The video below describes the full experiment though the part mentioned above is explained at 3:40.
  • Odds & Evens: Give everyone 30 seconds to look at the following image and ask them to memorize the odd numbers. Now, hide the picture and ask someone to say out loud all the even numbers (or all the numbers on a blue square). Most people are like these numbers, they have habits and behaviors that we either like or dislike. Our minds tend to focus on what annoys us and in short time we become blind to others good qualities, or the bad qualities start creeping into ourselves.
  • Dealing with Death: Stephen Covey is the well known author of The 7 Habits for Successful People series of books. In his introduction, he gives the following example. He was travelling in a subway when a man got on with his two sons. The children start misbehaving by running every which way and create a nuisance for people on the train. Finally, this bedlam irritates Covey enough to ask the father why he does not do something to control his kids. The father replies, "We just got back from the hospital where their mother died. I don't know how to handle it, and I guess they don't either." Suddenly, we see everything in a different manner - thus the power of gun grahak drashti.
Step 3: Finding the concrete and credible examples. The syllabus is a source of such examples, but we must take the extra steps to narrate them well and to link them back to our original simple statement. As an example, we chose to go with the third statement. 

  • The Mirror of Erised - Just as the mirror enables an individual to visualize their desire, what would we see when we peer into the mirror and perceive flaws/virtues in others? See what the audience has to say. In fact, when we desire to take faults of others, we should expect to see our faces strained with sadness though the mirror may not show it's out of reacting to the injury we caused Maharaj & Swami. On the flip side, when we desire to take the virtues of others, we should expect to see our faces resplendent with joy though the mirror may not show it's out of reacting to the satisfaction expressed by Maharaj & Swami.   
  • The Four Fools - To create curiosity with this story, stop after the part where Akbar tells the king he found the four fools. Ask the audience how this can be true if the only four people in that room were the two fools, Akbar, and the king; after all, would the clever and intelligent Akbar insult his name or even that of the king by failing to produce four fools? Then, reveal Akbar's answer that the four people in the room were indeed the fools. When we take faults of others, we're like Akbar when he was looking for the four fools, but in reality, we're also making a fool of the king (Maharaj & Swami) and Akbar (ourselves). Thus, the hallmark of our high intelligence - the one that Maharaj & Swami imparted in us with human birth - is to note the virtues in others around us. They're the hidden treasures waiting to be discovered by the clever.
  • Oil Tycoons - J.D. Rockefeller was able to look over a loss of $2 million for those glittering gem-like gunas of his fellow executive, but what if he didn't and instead made a list of that individual's faults? Ask the audience what they think Rockefeller would stand to gain/lose from such a perspective. Aside from losing the money, he would have also lost his friendship and ignored all the great things his friends contributed to the company. His ego would be the only thing to gain. That's why Rockefeller acted in the nobler way and reiterated the Swami ni Vaat. Maharaj & Swami equipped us all with a set of virtues to contribute to the world around us - be it company, community, etc.. When we ignore this principle and see only the faults, we express our ignorance and insult their divine methodology. 
In short, gun-grahak drashti is a concept that can seem out-of-touch with our audience, one that might be veiled in idealism. Nevertheless, it's a concept made practical for us by our gurus and haribhakto from the past, so let's prepare and present accordingly - in the positive sense of course!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

LOL - what does it really mean

This weekend many of us will be helping or running Parent Sanchalak Meetings (PSM) for bal/balika mandal. The theme or simple message is excellent: Children who have a strong family bond tend to do better in all aspects of their life.

Now on to the unexpected. How can we get the idea across that creating a family bond is essential without coming off as preachy or non-practical. Here is an idea. Adam Gopnik gave a wonderful, heartfelt talk about his son and the acronym LOL from the Moth story-telling event. (NB we love The Moth and listen to it whenever we can, so we hope you do as well).

The audio clip is long but thoroughly enjoyable; give it a listen to sport a smile. Now, we want our parents in this meeting to smile the same way. We may not be able to play the entire clip or even part of the clip given the duration and the audience at hand, but we can certainly paraphrase from it and use it as an unexpected way to start. We can also start by empathizing. If we have kids of our own, we can say what Gopnik says that we know we should not do it, but as parents we cannot help ourselves in asking, "What did you do at school today?" If we are presenting this and do not have kids, we can still use this to create a connection with the audience, "My parents used to ask me this everyday, I understand why, but like this boy I never answered." Not only is this unexpected, it is putting everyone at ease that this will not be a lecture on how you should raise your kids but rather a conversation about best practices and Bapa's wishes.

Some other concrete examples can be found through just rummage through this blog. Here are a few for starters.

His father was with him in success and failure. But also after failure. After he got hurt his father stayed and supported Redmond's quest to play basketball and ruby. In the same way things like Ghar Sabha and Bal Sabha are tools to engender this kind of relationship.

Kids with impulse control do better in life. Although the quote about SAT scores is circumstantial, impulse control or executive function is key. How do we engender these qualities? 50% is genetics, what Maharaj has given us, while the rest can be influenced by parents.

Let us know what example you are planning to use.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Story of Shastriji Maharaj

Free from the clutches of the January,we enter the short-lived month of February with a presentation on Shastriji Maharaj's life. It proves quite opportune for those of us taking the Pravesh exam in about a month or perhaps a red flag to start cracking down on the reading. Here are a few ways of tackling Sunday's presentation in kishore/kishori sabha.

Step 1: Let's start with the simple statement. Here are a few to get our thoughts going.
  • Shastriji Maharaj's childhood reflects the genuine and sincere nature of his later efforts.
  • Shastriji Maharaj's inner strength shone through his struggles but not from under the spotlight.
  • The value of "respect" propelled Shastriji Maharaj to the pinnacle of the Swaminarayan Sampraday.

Step 2: What will be our unexpected opening?
  • Santa Fight Club: This story from a previous episode of This American Life (20:30-48:16) really made our jaws dropped as we heard how two real-bearded old men duked it out for the power to lead a national organization of Santas. What makes this story fascinating is that Santa Clause is culturally revered as a symbol for compassion and kindness, and an overactive ego defiled an otherwise noble character into a nasty one. It was the same case for Shastriji Maharaj, for while spreading Satsang was noble, it turned nasty when some failed to tolerate his rise.
  • Famous Failures: No successful individual made it without suffering some setback. While the video below showcases a few individuals, another way of presenting this idea is to play fortune teller with the sabha. Read out the failures and then give the audience a few choices - one of which is the truth - while the others are what we would otherwise choose given the negative information. Do not reveal the truths immediately to build anticipation.
  • Red Bull's Flugtag: In an earlier post, the second picture featured the Flugtag competition hosted by Red Bull. According to the site, the competition "challenges teams of everyday people to build homemade, human-powered flying machines and pilot them off a 30-foot high deck in hopes of achieving flight! Flugtag may mean 'flying day' in German, but all these crafts ultimately splash into the waters below. They are judged not only on their flight's distance, but creativity and showmanship as well." Aircrafts that actually work harness the simple concept known as Bernoulli's principle (also featured in that earlier post). Just as this mere principle makes or breaks an endeavor, respect made Shastriji Maharaj's endeavor that much greater. While the aircraft entered in Flugtag are not expected to soar to new heights and are thus judged for creativity and showmanship, Shastriji Maharaj did not care for the spread of his name (distance), his ingenuity in putting forth a new interpretation (creativity), and his reputation as the founder of a new sanstha (showmanship). All he card about was respect, and thus his endeavor naturally soared to new heights.

Step 3: Pick out the prasangs.
  • Though we are provided prasangs in the syllabus, putting some thought behind them will help us make them memorable. In other words, they should reflect our simple statement, so working out the link beforehand will certainly help us present the prasang.
Sure, we may think we've heard the story of Shastriji Maharaj time and time again, but it is one of the most powerful and passion-invoking stories that history of Satsang has to offer. It draws upon many lessons worthy of imbibing in our lives, a few of which are included here, so let's make a point to respect our guru's life by sharing one with our sabha this Sunday.