Where There Are Many More Losers, Very Few Winners

Corporate Pyramid by Photo by Meriç Dağlı on Unsplash 180613

The Pyramid Game: Very Few Winners (Photo by Meriç Dağlı on Unsplash)

By Jayant Kalawar

Most of us are driven to act by desires much of the time. And by fears some of the time. Some mix of the two most of the time. Sometimes we act out of habit. We have an inertia about changing how we act. Even when the driving desires and fears are no longer in us. Today I am going to talk about some consequences of acting in situations when desires do not give expected results.

Many of us have the desire to acquire and maintain a certain social status. That social status requires income, assets, acquiring of objects such as houses and cars and jewelry and clothes and college degrees. Many ands can be added. Career is one way of getting social status in the corporate (and remembers it’s only a little over a hundred years old!). The career structure is a pyramid. So people compete fiercely to get to the next level on the pyramid. It’s like playing musical chairs.

When someone else gets ahead in the pyramid, some of us feel that it was unfair. They did not get a fair shake. Those who got ahead were from the ‘in-group’. The others were favored. And so on. Factually it is likely that all that is true. When the desire to get ahead in the pyramid gets doused, many of us feel frustrated. Most of us reach this stage somewhere in their 40s and 50s. After all it is a pyramid. Only a few people can get to the top. We begin to see a few of our class mates and colleagues soar. And you know from way back that you are better than them. The frustration sometimes begins to boil over to resentment.

Getting resentful about not being able to get ahead on the career and social status pyramid sets the stage for some not very sensible actions. Such actions, born out of frustration, have consequences.

These not very sensible actions may show up as objections and snide remarks at meetings. Negative water-cooler talk is another vent. It may show up in a more passive aggressive way – in the form of internal corporate survey responses for example. We may assume those survey responses are indeed confidential and not shared. Most internal corporate surveys may be assumed to be used as barometers of where an individual is in terms of being a team player. So survey responses used for venting may have negative consequences. Perceptions in HR and senior management may turn negative. A venting team member cannot be relied upon as much.

So what can we do? Life is not fair. We learned that in kindergarten. We keep forgetting it. The odds are stacked against us, all of us, as we go up each rung in the pyramid. Those of us who are lucky, and much of it may be just luck, to get to the next rung, begin to think we are really good and better than those who did not make it there. We begin to think life is fair, so we made it there! Then when we cannot make it to the next higher rung, we are suddenly shocked that life is not fair.

So what can we do? The pyramid game is a finite game. There are many many more losers and very few winners in that game. Switch to playing the infinite game. The cosmos is infinite. We live and act in a microcosm of that cosmos. The microcosm has everything that the cosmos has. Remember the first verse of the Isha Upanishad:

Purnam-adah Purnam-idam, PurnAt Purna-mudachyate,

Purnasya Purnam-Adaya, PurnamevA Vashishyate

The switch from playing the finite pyramid game to the infinite game takes a cognitive shift within ourselves. Deconstruction out of the pyramid game to resonating with the cosmos.

So that we may begin hear the birds sing and flowers bloom, and notice the waxing and waning of the Moon.

Live to the rhythms of the universal clock within us, to sync with the cosmic cycles all around us.

And yes, it is very hard work to get there. But some of us may feel it will indeed work to get us there.

Are you one of those few?

(c) 21BanyanTree and Jayant Kalawar

Two Birds on the Tree of Life

Two Birds on the Tree of Life - allan godfrey 180429

Two Birds on the Tree of Life (Photo by Alan Godfrey on Unsplash)

By Jayant Kalawar

Many of you may know about the metaphor used in the Upanishads. Of the two birds on the tree of life.

It is a way of deconstructing ourselves, to become aware of how we function in this world.

We are the two birds. The tree of life is the cosmos we perch on.

One of the birds is the eater bird. The other is the observer bird.

The eater bird has desires and it has fears to match its desires. It desires to eat the fruits it sees on the cosmic tree. It starts by eating what is nearest to it. Then its appetite increases and it hops to other branches. Higher branches, with apparently big juicy fruit. We start by only wanting to eat, be just about warm and to sleep. Then we want to have fun. Then we want to have social status: more food, more house, more car, more degrees, more fashion statements, more show-off. Many of us want to have children. We want them to maintain and increase our social status. We do this every day and night. We are either nibbling or grasping off the cosmic tree or we are plotting and planning how to eat more and more.

The eater bird starts triggering its fears as soon as it starts desiring. What if I do not get to the fruit. What if some other eater bird grabs the fruit before I can eat it all. What if there is no more fruit on the branch I am on. What if I cannot jump to the higher branches. What if other eater birds knock me off this branch. What if they do not let me get on to another branch. What if. What if.

Those are the fears we carry with us all the time. Free floating anxieties. Many times those fears come true. It is an uncertain world out there. We, as eater birds, have very little control. We may deceive ourselves to believe that we are in control of some part of some fruit. We know we are not in control. And it reinforces our anxieties.

Many of us hear inner voices sagely telling us to stick to what we know. In our comfort zones. Those voices are our fears talking to us. They are telling us how to manage our fears down and make the most of the fruits in hand. We give it fancy names. Managing risks down. Maximizing returns. We feel good that we are sophisticated and modern. We are eater birds on the cosmic tree. Eating fruit we do not own. On which we have very little control on.

And then hopping along with the eater bird part is the observer bird. Always there, besides us. If only we were to look. It is that part of us which has an understanding of the nature of the cosmos and our part in it. When we connect and immerse ourselves in the observer bird part of us, we may be able to calm down our desires. As our desires become minimal, so do our fears. When our fears become minimal, we can sleep better. We are more energized with less.

There are primal desires that never go away. We manifest in this physical body. It comes with the desire to survive. And the other desire most of us come with is the one to procreate. So while we may be able to minimize material and social desires at a personal level, these primal desires of the eater bird need a culture that helps manage these primal desires to a minimal level, without being violent with each other. That is where the personal become social.

The cultural fabric seems to be collapsing in slow motion around us, as science and technology of the material becomes our master, ruling how we live and connect with each other under the guise of Reason. We seem to be slowly but surely becoming even more disconnected from the observer bird part of us.

The challenge is not just at a personal level. It is even more so at a social level. And it is global. Start with a contemplation: what will the world be like to really act out that we desire minimally and flourish as observers of the cosmos. Step back, from time to time, from being an eater bird, and be the part that is naturally you: the quiet observer.

Have a great week.

© 21BanyanTree.com and Jayant Kalawar

Parenting Your Child in the Age of STEM

Coping Strategy in Age of STEM

Parents who connect with me under the 21BanyanTree often come for advice on how to manage the challenges of raising children these days. One common theme revolves around the intense competition in schools and growing anxiety about academics and helping their child navigate digital social interactions.  Mothers and fathers express feeling helpless and this sense of helplessness creates an anxiety spiral in the family.

The starting point of the anxiety spiral begins with worry about test scores, especially in STEM-related coursework, and the need for the child to excel in this area for future success.  The other concern, given the increase in online bullying, is how children might be interacting with each other on social media. Even the most educated, professional and well-meaning parent finds control slipping away as the child enters high school.

Why has this feeling of parental helplessness become pervasive and what can we do to get out of the anxiety spiral?

Self-help books suggest breathing and problem-solving techniques, and to focus on the positives, to influence and reduce your child’s anxiety.  These techniques work for some and not everyone.  The 21BanyanTree Coaching practice takes a different tack.  Our technique focusses on helping identify specific patterns of desires and fears, common to most parents, and the triggers that kick-start the individual anxiety spiral. Only when these are patterns of desires and fears are identified, through the self-discovery process, can you learn to control and influence the triggers of anxiety.  There are no cookie-cutter solutions.

For simplicity, let’s consider one area of desire and fear that is common among many parents right now: specifically, the desire to maintain a particular level of social status, and the fear that their child may not have the earning power to match the desired social status.

The Desire for Social Status: Modern consumer societies encourage the individual to attain and maintain a level of physical and social ‘well-being’ signaled by what we own and consume, our educational qualification and profession, and so on. For some, a bank balance and stock value (aka net worth) is integral to the social status portfolio, for others origin-country and skin color or even accents signal social status. In many ways, we are habituated to monitor status signals, and any loss in our personal social status portfolio becomes a cause for anxiety.

Parents who desire a social status portfolio for their children may pressure them to take coursework [for e.g., several APs] to get into top-tier or near top-tier schools. Regardless of their interest or passion, children are encouraged to become doctors, engineers, investment bankers or tech entrepreneurs – professions and businesses that are viewed as providing the earning power to maintain the desired social status. Any indication of a decrease in the future social status portfolio, like lower grades that jeopardizes getting into the Honors or AP track, sends parental anxiety into a tail-spin.  To get the child ‘on track’, parents react with intense tutoring and restricted hours of play and down-time to control the environment.

The fear, corresponding to this desire, is that the child who cannot make it onto the STEM ramp will become a misfit, unable to succeed and make a living in a society that is rapidly becoming powered by AI.

To be fair, not all parents strongly desire or are compelled to motivate their child to acquire social status portfolios. Yet, even here, we’ve observed children become anxious and influenced by signals in schools [ranking by STEM education; eliminating or reducing coursework like art, or educing recess and play time, in favor of STEM classes], and peers on digital social media.

The problem underlying this current dynamic is driven by political, social and cultural considerations and cannot be solved individually in the short-term. What can parents do at the personal level, in addition to providing all the resources required to get onto the STEM ramp, to help themselves and their child in this environment?

Self-discovery:  Everyone has deeply embedded patterns of desires and fears, many we are not aware of and that we continually act upon.  Each pattern of desires and fears arises from our social, economic and cultural background.  The process of self-discovery begins with recognizing and acknowledging our social, economic and cultural selves.

One way is to visualize that we are all living in a dense socio-economic-cultural city of karmas that we’ve built on our collective sentient desires and fears accumulated over time.  In this city are hubs of karmas: the positive hubs shower us with peace, joy and calm, the negative hubs are painful, while others neutral.

To navigate this city of karmas, we first need to become aware of who we are and how we got here – that is how the city got built – before we can understand how our karmas affect us.

Self-discovery begins with the discovery of stories embedded in the three layers- biological, socio-economic and cultural, and personal –  that make up our individual configuration of desires and fears from birth.  When we become aware of our nature, of who we are in the karmic city, can we begin to manage our fears and desires.

There are many options available to managing anxieties arising around raising your child at this particular time. Medications are one and talk therapy is another.

The third option is guided self-discovery with a focus on uncovering the patterns of desires and fears that have most of us in the grip of the anxiety spiral.

At 21BanyanTree we focus on your unique story to help you discover your strengths and competencies as parents, and as individuals to disentangle yourself from the anxiety spiral.  We help you become the parent who can help your child navigate this apparently increasingly uncertain and ambiguous world.

Navigating Ambiguity and Uncertainty in 2018 and Beyond


Devi in Meditation (c) Anuva Kalawar December 2018

Coming as I do from a deep and strong tradition of connecting with the Devi through contemplation, chanting and meditation, I use the lens of the ‘pre-modern’ to view the rational modern social and economic world I inhabit. This enables me to come up with different ways to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty than what can be found in the box of modernity.

The conceit of modernity dates to the publishing of The Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes in the mid- 1600s. Modern man or woman began to see him/herself as rational and, thus, more mature. Structured, deductive thinking was given higher value and became the core of what is known as the European Enlightenment. One of the central tenets of this philosophical framework is that nature is dead, inert, and lacking of any spirit and, therefore, the Modern man and woman can dominate and exploit it without regard to consequences.  The consequence of this philosophy is the modernity paradigm that has produced the capital intensive carbon-based economy we now live in.

The academic and scientific establishment arising out of the European Enlightenment framework have further broadened and deepened the social construct of Hobbes to reach every nook and cranny of our lives. One organic outcome of this framework is the assembly line processes of education with its increasingly singular focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). It has also influenced the approach to health care based on the view that our bodies are part of nature, hence inert. Emotions and intellect are to be seen as arising out of the organic cellular interactions. Increasingly nature of human agency came to be suspect: it was seen as an extension of the material.

The modern individual in the 21st century is programmed to see themselves and the world around them in a particular rational manner: to look for cause-effect processes, and wait for confirmation from academics and scientists to tell them what those are.   Individuals acting on any memes without the blessings of science and academia are considered pre-modern and superstitious – even child-like and dangerous

Reliance on academia or science has made us less and less equipped to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty.  Our individual agency has gradually been eroded and outsourced to a scientific establishment that has often been found to be hand-in-glove with big business.

Modern rationality structures time and space through contracts. It teaches us that everything has to be a time and cost bound contract, whether it is written or verbal. These ubiquitous social contracts began with the one that Hobbes proposed in mid-17th century, as the basis for the modern national legal framework. The expected outcomes of these social contracts have become our portfolio of desires and fears.

Social contracts drive our actions, and when they fail our expectations of these outcomes fail.  Desires related to the expectations from the social contract collapse and fears take over as we increasingly find ourselves face to face with uncertainty and ambiguity. We are less and less equipped to deal with areas of life that have less obvious rational structure.  And as the fragile framework of modern rationality buckles under us, both adults and youth are left traumatized.

For adults, such break down of social contracts may arise from loss of spouse, children, jobs, homes, cars are outcomes of events where major social contracts have collapsed at our personal level. These are the big traumas many adults face, as they wander into uncertainty and ambiguity, as the fragile framework of modern rationality buckles under them.

Besides major social contracts, we engage in the myriad daily mini-social contracts. One of these unending contracts is STEM education which allows for tracing of performance on a daily basis and provides outcomes in grades. Failures are inbuilt into the processes which implement such contractual system. The individual student who is at the receiving end of outcomes of STEM contracts is (irrationally) blamed for the failed outcomes by the rationally constructed structures. Because the rational STEM educational process itself is too narrowly programmed, just like old-fashioned computer code. It does not have a way to deal with the inbuilt failure points in its delivery system. The result is many students in the modern educational students may end up seeing themselves as failures.

How did this state of affairs arise in a framework that promises individual liberty and pursuit of happiness?

Techno-Optimism to the Rescue

The ‘software will eat the world’ meme expressed by Marc Andreessen (designer – maker of the first user friendly web interface – Netscape – in the early 1990s and now a prominent Silicon Valley VC), and published in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, was peak of techno-optimism.

Post 2008 financial crisis and the great recession, techno-optimism became the savior paradigm. Software would eat the world: it would deliver goods and services to people much effectively and efficiently than people could. The consequence would be:

  • Labor would play increasingly smaller roles in creating and maintaining the social world.
  • There would be a move to universal basic income to ensure people do not starve and have basic minimum needs met.

STEM became the gospel to spread the good news of techno-optimism to the schools. Oracles were handed down from Silicon Valley.

In one fell swoop post 2008, funding for STEM streamed into public schools from the Federal and State governments. Testing schemes were put in place and educators ‘adapted’ to the new paradigm. Stories of student and teacher burn out began trickling out [in some schools teachers tried to bend the rules to help students pass tests.]

Eight years on, in 2016, social and economic ambiguity and uncertainty were still high: only a few young people were getting the high paying jobs in Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Most were floundering. Parents had adult children back at home after an expensive college experience. And software had not yet eaten the most dysfunctional sector of the economy: healthcare. The apparently massive systems solution put in place to support affordable health care ended up with confusion and higher costs for many, if not most, families.

The ‘software will eat the world’ meme has had its time on the national stage.

The new meme

We are now, in 2018, embedded in the make-America-great-again meme floated to take care of the social and economic ambiguity and uncertainty that we face. During the techno-optimism phase, stocks of companies such as Apple, Google (Alphabet) and Facebook rocketed up. Now, in very early 2018, all American company stocks are up with the make-America-great-again meme, making all who own stocks winners.

For the many who don’t own stocks or enough stocks, the ambiguity and uncertainty in the social and economic world we inhabit is likely to continue and increase. The trend towards automation is not going away. Global warming trends are not going away. And new geo-political realities of having more than one great power may not emerge without conflict.

Many of us carry this angst within us and it impacts our mental and physical well-being.  How can we cope with this angst and heal ourselves, regardless of what new major meme is played out in the rational modern world?

Come, sit with us under the BanayanTree

At 21BanyanTree you begin to explore how to live and thrive amidst the cacophony of confusion and deceit that seem to surround us. There are no guarantees. Nothing may change outside of us. What we will work together is on cognitive shifts inside of us. And to energize ourselves.

We use ‘pre-modern’ approaches and views of ourselves, the memes that modernity has shunned in the last 400 years. We do not throw the baby out with the bathwater but retain a carefully curated set of modern processes, technologies and solutions that integrate into our goals of a more harmonious and joyful life, even as we work hard to change our perspectives.

Our goal is to help manage desires and fears, using techniques that create more agency for ourselves at the individual and group level.

To explore this further, you can reach me at jayantkalawar@gmail.com.