Friday, December 30, 2011

The year in retrospect

Or what interested me in 2011


This was a fascinating year in many ways. It was certainly the busiest year of my life. I’ve been busy before but only for a few weeks or a month. But this year, the busyness of my schedule was taken to a whole new level. It may sound funny, but I realize now what people mean when they say they “work”. For the first 2 years of my faculty position, I still felt like a graduate student, and as if there were no worries in the world. Work would get done when it had to. This feeling of lightness allowed me to travel repeatedly to Latin America (Mexico, Peru and Bolivia) and write pieces at a pace that I had never managed before. But now that I have my own students – doctoral students who are very committed and work very hard but who understandably require a lot of guidance – the responsibilities are greater.

That’s the main reason I haven’t been able to write much here. But despite all the activities at the university that vied for my energy and attention – the endless emphasis on papers and grants to prove that one is “good” at what one does – this break from writing for the blog did open up time for a free-ranging exploration of many new topics. As always, I am amazed at how much there is that one doesn’t know. More importantly, I am amazed how previously uninteresting clich├ęs and topics suddenly acquire new meaning and relevance because of altered life circumstances.


For reasons difficult to explain, I started thinking seriously about spirituality and religion this year. I was driven to find out what was at the bottom of it all. I was especially interested in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism), because unlike the ritualistic version of Hinduism that I grew up and was dissatisfied with, these traditions prescribed a contemplative and experiential approach that could be applied easily in everyday life.

It became clear to me that understanding how sense perceptions are translated into thought and how thought creates our conscious experience was perhaps the first step in understanding the reality that we face. All philosophical, religious and scientific questions – what is moral and immoral; the nature of suffering and happiness; science’s search for an answer to explain the mysterious workings of the universe – are questions within the realm of human consciousness. Consciousness is the very source that creates these questions and the reality that we experience. But what is this mysterious source and is there a reality that is outside of it? Another, related question that continues to puzzle me is this: What is the "I" in my consciousness that makes me feel as a separate individual -- in other words makes me feel the duality of “I” versus “the rest of the world”?

I became interested in meditation, which seemed like a logical first step in investigating what the mind is all about. I realized through practice that meditation is a fascinating and baffling scientific experiment where you are both the observer and the observed. In other words, it is the “I” in me observing its own behavior – a strange idea, to say the least. Of course, I found no comprehensive answers through meditation – expecting such answers is unrealistic to begin with – but I did begin to understand how thoughts function and how they skew our perception of reality.

I found many benefits from an unstructured form of meditation that I have been practicing for over a year. I arrived at it after experimenting with and rejecting prescribed methods. Unlike what the manuals or the books said, I did not focus my attention on anything but simply let things be and let thoughts wander. I found that to keep one’s attention on a single object is quite unnatural. Our consciousness does not function that way. It is always dynamic, shifting and moving, even when the mind is calm. So my meditation was a simply a session of sitting (15-20 minutes) every night without interfering with the mind’s activities. Somehow, these sittings led to deeply relaxing and still moments. Thoughts slowed down on their own, without any conscious effort on my part. I realized the key role that breathing plays in relaxing the body and why it is emphasized so heavily in the Indian meditation traditions.

I also learned that most thoughts are not created by choice. Thoughts appear and flit across the screen of our consciousness as randomly as clouds in the sky. When there are no thoughts, there is simply an awareness of the body, the breath or sensations within the body, but these too are finer forms of thoughts, or finer perceptions experienced through the veil of thought (the blue of the sky, to stretch the previous analogy). Emotions, whether unpleasant or pleasant, are simply physiological disturbances – a constriction near the chest or stomach, or a pleasant wave of energy – and all emotions, and the thoughts associated with them, are impermanent. That is, they have a temporary life-span within the mind-body system.


The questions about the nature of consciousness lead to other, equally interesting questions in biology and physics. How do other species experience reality? Do they have self-awareness and if so how different is it from what humans have? How do other species deal with suffering and loss? Why do human always feel they are better than all other species, when there is really no objective basis for putting one species above another? And what about the vastness of the universe, the strange fact that time and space are intertwined, and the counterintuitive theories of quantum mechanics?

These lines of enquiry lead me to a number of interesting books – from the essays and speeches of philosopher/mystic Jiddu Krishnamuti; the teachings of Ramana Maharishi; essays by American Buddhists who in my opinion have taken a very practical and very useful approach to Buddhism; and the self-help bestseller, The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle.

On the science side, I read (or sampled) Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and The Magic of Reality; Brian Green’s explanation of Einstein’s theory of relativity in The Elegant Universe; David Linden’s The Compass of Pleasure; F. Baumeister’s Willpower; and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. I also liked Brian Greene’s documentary, The Fabric of the Cosmos, which explored the nature of space and time.

I did not always agree with or understand the abstract ideas discussed in these books -- whether spiritual or scientific – but they were useful, nevertheless, and revealed new perspectives.


I had almost forgotten, meanwhile, about literary fiction and its ability to capture the interplay of thought, memory and time, and detail the inner life of a person as no other form can. I had not read fiction for more than a year. It was by chance that I stumbled upon Ivan Turgenev’s A House of Gentlefolk this November. I had bought the slim book a long time ago and it had stayed, untouched, on my bookshelf for years.

It turned out to as good as the other, more famous Turgenev book, Fathers and Sons. Turgenev’s deft characterizations, the fast moving story, the poignant moments when the characters reflect on the crises of their lives, took me back to the time, about ten years ago, when I believed unequivocally that literary fiction was the highest form of writing. That impression has faded a bit in recent years or as I came to rely more and more on non-fiction.

A House of Gentlefolk reminded me of how good fiction is at touching some of the incomprehensible aspects of life – those emotional aspects that cannot be described or quantified easily but are simply felt subjectively. I finished the book within a week, and, like a man in search of an old treasure he himself has buried but has forgotten where, I started looking closely at my shelves for other works of fiction. After starting and abandoning Salman Rushdie’s Shame, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, I finally settled on Thornton Wilder’s ingeniously simple yet profound play, Our Town, which took only a few hours to finish. Through simple characters and the almost naive, small town setting (in New Hampshire), Wilder was able to demonstrate with great power the meaning of death and changes in perspective that it brings.

But my most dramatic discovery of the year came just a few weeks ago, when in a bookstore in Northampton (not far from Amherst, where I live), I found Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Back in 2007, my friend, the novelist and writer Chandrahas Choudhury, had recommended their translation of The Brothers Karamazov. I took his advice then and had the most sublime few months reading Dostoevsky’s classic work.

I bought the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina, but I thought it would be impossible to read an 800-page novel, with the end of the semester approaching. Luckily, I had to make two trips to New York City on back to back weekends, and the long train journeys (Amtrak trains) allowed me to get well into Anna Karenina. But it was not hard at all – in fact, the novel flowed so easily, so seamlessly from one character to another, from one scene to the next, and so clear and concise was the psychological detailing that it never felt like anything was being overdone. In three weeks, I was more than halfway through the book. This amazed me since I am an incredibly slow reader, generally incapable of reading more than 30 pages a day.

Anna Karenina has a very simple storyline. It is most a novel about families and marriage – marriage more than anything else. It is set in the decade following the emancipation of the serfs (the 1860s or the 1870s). Darwin’s ideas of the “animal origin of man” had just reached Russia. Electricity had arrived but was not yet common, travel in trains was common and telegrams had made communication quick and easy. Christianity in Russia was changing too – there were more rapturous, evangelical versions but also many more unbelievers and nihilists who used scientific materialism to reject the structures of religion.

The characters in Anna Karenina are ordinary. By that I mean they aren’t people with special talents, just people with both good and bad in them. At one level, the story is a simple tale of gossip – what is after all so new about an extra marital affair, which is at the heart of the novel? Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov had gruesome murders at their core – and it always felt that there was something serious at stake; the plots were intricate and thrilling.

But the genius of Tolstoy is in providing intimate portraits of the married relationships and affairs of intertwined families, interspersing these personal lives with the social and religious questions of the era.

I couldn’t help feeling that Anna Karenina has tremendous relevance even today. And as often happens while reading a great book, every single observation of mine, about the world and people, is colored by Tolstoy's view. In a year that I began to think seriously about how thoughts create both our expectations and disappointments, Anna Karenina, more than any other non-fiction book I read, was able to accurately portray, through its many characters, the unreliable and constantly changing nature of the individual self – now experiencing moments of transcendence, the next moment in deep grief, disoriented and puzzled, then finding from nowhere the strength to recover and feel happiness.


And finally, a note on the one other thing that inspired me to no end this year. Even as a child I had always been drawn to animals and nature. It is an instinctive feeling that most of us share. But my interest then had been only in specific wildlife settings – such as wildebeest migrations in the plains of the Serengeti – and not much else. Birds or insects or beavers or trees or the complex interactions in nature which make life tick never interested me much.

That changed this year. Perhaps the biologist Edward Wilson’s remarkable experiments and study of the social behavior of ants, seeded my curiosity about nature as a whole. Further, it seemed almost impossible not to think of nature when dealing with spiritual and religious questions. I often find it puzzling that many organized religions, so engrossed in their own dogmas and rituals, pay very little attention to nature. Miraculous things already happen in nature, yet we remain interested only in unverifiable myths and legends.

In March, with the snow still covering most of the woods and the ponds still frozen, I started walking the trails that surround Amherst. I began to observe birds, beavers, raccoons, foxes, chipmunks, skunks, ants on the pavement, struggling spiders in my bathtub, and much else. When you do this on a regular basis, the human-centered or self-centered view that dominates our lives begins to break down momentarily. It never goes away completely – the ego is much too strong – but a different perspective begins to open up. Humans tend to be incredibly self-congratulatory: all our religious and scientific institutions always stress how special humans are, how evolved we are compared to other species and so on. But the fact is that humans, whatever our abilities, are no more or no less important than any other species on earth.

In parallel, I watched many documentaries on PBS Nature (PBS refers to American public television). These documentaries are available free online. I was interested most in the difficulties of surviving in the wild, and how animals cope with physical pain, suffering and loss. A recurring example was the high mortality of offspring in the early days or months, when they are most vulnerable and unable to fend for themselves. The mother puts an enormous effort and is yet, in many cases, unable to save her offspring. In some species – elephants, lemurs, hawks – the pain of the loss lasted visibly for days.

I was moved by these stories. The arbitrariness of life was now an inescapable fact for me. Yet the same arbitrariness also implied that one could approach life in an open ended, less burdensome way, with fewer illusions.

The best of all the documentaries I watched was My Life as a Turkey, which premiered in November this year. It is a reenactment of Florida farmer Joe Hutto’s attempt at imprinting – in plain terms, the attempt be a mother, despite being of a different species, to wild turkey chicks (wild turkey are different from the turkeys that are consumed as food). Hutto begins by incubating eggs and mimicking sounds that a mother Turkey might take. The pivotal moment is when the chicks emerge and see him before they see anything else. Some sort of bond is formed and the wild turkeys follow Joe Hutto for the next year or so. Hutto is totally responsible for their welfare and makes a full time commitment. This means he will live in the forest, cut off from other humans, for as long as it takes to raise the chicks.

The premise of the documentary – based on Hutto's book Illumination in the Flatwoods – may not sound exciting, but I invite you to give it a try. It is superbly edited, well narrated and has stunning visuals of the forests of Florida. My Life as a Turkey is interesting both as a scientific experiment and for its philosophical content. Joe Hutto’s sentences from the book, which are used in the reenactment, are thoughtful. The curiosity of the growing turkeys; the intelligence they are born with about the natural world (“humans do not have a privileged access to reality”); their ability to live in the moment which we can only envy – all of this made it one of the best documentaries that I have ever watched.

A very happy new year to everyone!

Saturday, December 03, 2011

A buttferfly's 2000 mile journey

Every summer, the North American Monarch butterfly embarks on a remarkable journey that begins in Canada or the northeastern United States. In two months, millions of these butterflies congregate in a high forest in Mexico. Each day, the butterfly travels fifty miles and the total journey is around two thousand miles.

Birds of course can fly even longer distances. But then birds also travel in groups: there are older members in the group who have covered these distances before and are therefore in a position to guide others. The Monarch butterfly makes the journey alone and it does so only once. When a Monarch butterfly starts from Canada, it has never flown before. No one is there to guide it to Mexico.

And yet, this delicate creature, with wings less than four inches wide, crosses the Great Lakes – imagine crossing these massive bodies of water, where there are few opportunities for nectar and rest – then Midwestern towns, the Great Plains, the deserts of Texas, the Sierra Madre range in Mexico, and makes its final approach to forests in Michoacan, 100 km northwest of Mexico City.

Some unknown compass – either the earth’s magnetic field or the sun – seems to tell it exactly where to go. Even when these butterflies are tagged for study are taken off course by scientists (say far to the east or west), they still recover and know exactly how to adjust their path.

Nature always throws up these inexplicable and mysterious examples. Why should we believe in the unverifiable miracles advertised by organized religion – that the Buddha was enlightened, that Krishna lifted a mountain, or that Jesus walked on water – why even think of them when the miracles of nature are much more tangible, more varied and can be observed every day?

The butterflies start from very different regions in the northern US and Canada, thousands of miles apart, but as they approach Mexico, they start to cluster together and can be seen in their hundreds of thousands in Texas as they narrow in on their destination. In the forests of Michoacan, they congregate in the millions, covering the skies, the forest floor, the trees, the twigs – just about everything. What started as a lone journey now culminates in the collective blanketing of a destination they were drawn to.

As they hang from the branches of trees, they look like leaves themselves -- see picture to the left.

The Monarchs rest in Michoacan until spring, and then begin the journey back. But no butterfly ever makes it back to Canada. About a third of their way back – around Texas – they mate and die. The few hundred eggs that each female lays then transform into butterflies and continue the journey. But this generation too does not make it all the way back. About halfway or three quarters of the way back is another mating cycle and the third generation continues the reverse migration. In the end, what we have is an incredible intergenerational relay spanning four generations. As they move northward, the butterflies begin to disperse geographically, eventually reaching original regions where the epic southward migration began.

For some reason, no single butterfly ever completes the cycle, but the generation that is born in Canada and reaches Mexico is the one that lives the longest.