Friday, October 25, 2013

Why I left religion

This post is about my history with religion and the reasons why I recently left it. I just want to say that by writing this I am by no means imposing my beliefs onto anyone. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, especially religious beliefs. I'm just sharing thoughts that occurred to me.

Now, about my history with religion.

Growing up as a child in India, my family and I practiced Hinduism. I have vague memories of prayer ceremonies here and there, both to celebrate and to mourn. I can't really say I had a place in it. I never really did anything, I just followed what others told me. And that was pretty much my history with Hinduism.

When I was seven, I moved to Singapore with my mother. At that point in time, my mother picked up Nichiren Buddhism. My mother's practice of this Buddhism was helping her get through a personal crisis. As a seven year old kid I had no idea what this whole thing meant or entailed. My mother never imposed the practice onto me so I just grew up with this Buddhism as a secondary part of my life. All this till I turned 14.

At 14, I began facing some challenges of my own- particularly in school. I had gone beyond all I could do back then and I wanted to find another way to help myself. That's when I spoke to my mother and she introduced me to Nichiren Buddhism. I practiced it for a year and it really helped me. I was able to find solutions to all my problems and I was able to move in a positive direction. But that's pretty much all it did. After 14 all the way till I turned 20, I found little use in religion. Along the way, I tried to use religion to help myself but somehow I never found it useful. I found that many of the problems that had to be solved were associated more with myself than with religion itself.

So this sums up my short history with religion. Though it is short, I derived many lessons that I think justify my decision to leave this whole concept of religion behind. 

Firstly, I came to observe that religion (other than its philosophy) is largely about rituals and proceedings. These rituals and proceedings ultimately define what a religion is. So for example in Nichiren Buddhism, there were certain rituals that defined the religion. These rituals included praying twice a day, reciting the verse 'Nam Myoho Renge Kyo' over and over again, reciting verses of the Lotus Sutra in an Asian dialect and also for some, praying in a kneeling stance. Other religions have such rituals and proceedings too.

So, I asked myself- why these rituals? Why must I conform to such practices and what do these rituals achieve? Are there some supernatural powers associated with such practices? As with all such metaphysical questions, nobody knows the answer. The most reliable answers are those that can be backed up with evidence.

So I sat down one day and started dissecting the rituals that I observed in Nichiren Buddhism. After questioning myself and the countless experiences I had with the religion, I came to certain verifiable answers. My observation- a standard prayer ceremony in Nichiren Buddhism (as with other religious practices) can be broken down into two discrete parts- one being goal setting and the other being meditation.

Goal setting manifests in the form of prayers- when you remember the prayers you want to accomplish in your life, both in the short and long-term. Meditation manifests in the form of chanting or recitation of verses. This is what I concluded from my study of Nichiren Buddhism. From a purely scientific point of view, when I perform a religious practice essentially all I am doing is setting goals and meditating, simultaneously too.

So then I asked myself- how has goal setting and meditation, in the form of a religious ritual, helped me in life?

Goal setting allowed me to understand exactly what I wanted from life. When I was 14 years old, I did not have the maturity to sit down quietly and think to myself about what I wanted from life. Performing a religious ritual forced me to sit down and to think about what I wanted. Perhaps this oriented me towards achieving what I wanted? Maybe, maybe.

Goal setting also allowed me to think of things in the bigger picture. Say one day I had a fight with my friend. When I remembered my life's goals in the form of prayers, I was reminded that one of my life's goals was to be a proponent of world peace. With this larger goal in mind, I could put things in perspective and make peace with my friend instead of pursuing the petty matter.

Meditation in the form of recitation of Buddhist text helped me at times too. It helped to calm my senses, especially when I was experiencing strong emotions like anger or sadness. Through calming me down, it helped me see things in a bigger picture and allowed to re-orientate myself to carry on with life.

With this in light, I then asked myself- is goal setting and meditation necessary in my life now? Also, must I perform a religious ritual in order to facilitate goal setting and meditation?

I concluded that goal setting is certainly very important in my life now and in the future too. I mentioned two evergreen benefits of goal setting above. However I don't think I need an elaborate prayer ceremony to set and remember my life goals. I can simply make it a habit to remember my life's goals every morning and evening. I don't need to go through such an elaborate process to do such a simple job. This is one reason why I feel no need to adopt a religion. Since the essence of religious practice is to remember your goals, I can do so without all the complicated processes involved.

How about meditation? Is there a need for it in my life? Personally, I would think no. Perhaps when I was younger and had less control over myself, meditation helped to calm me down. But at this age I find it much easier to control my senses and to bring myself to a rational state of mind. Simply sitting down and penning down my worries helps me to calm my senses. I don't need to adopt occult meditative practices to achieve the same result. This is another reason why I feel no need to adopt a religion.

There are other important reasons why I feel I should not adopt a religion.

For one, I feel that religious practices have made me inefficient. When I was practicing Nichiren Buddhism, I used to believe (as I was taught) that I couldn't tackle problems without praying for them. I could only solve them when I prayed for them and also acted towards solving them. Because of this, I always had to rely on prayer to solve my problems. This made me highly inefficient and partly confused too. In fact it would be so much faster if I solved my problems by simply acting on them instead of going through the whole process of praying and acting.

I also feel that religious practices have, at times, impeded with my understanding of cause and effect. Sometimes my religious practices made me think that by praying some 'magic' would occur to make my prayers come true. An example would be me at one point in time when I wanted to find a girlfriend. By my understanding of Buddhism at that point in time, I knew I had to pray for it to happen and that I also had to act upon it. But by praying for it I subconsciously assumed that my prayers had some 'magical' powers and that a girlfriend would come to me rather than me actually looking for one. I was (through my own doing) deluded that some mystic form of cause and effect existed and that it would make all my prayers come true. I actually forgot that the most important thing was for me to find a girlfriend. If I had trusted the most basic form of cause and effect which is basic human action, then I would have just done the most logical thing which is to actually find a girlfriend. This would have yielded a better chance of success rather than simply praying and hoping for things to happen.

When I came to terms with this delusion that religion was imposing on me, I knew I had to leave it. I had to face the harsh reality of life- which is that my actions determine where my life is going. Prayers and all aside, it is my actions that decide my fate. It was hard for me to face this. In fact, all along it was easy for me to hide behind religion and to submit my fate to some higher authority. It was easy to pray and hope that a higher authority will help me. It's a lot harder to accept that I am alone and that my problems are of my own doing. It's a lot harder to accept that only I can help myself.

I do realize that by stating all that I have, I have essentially torn up the concept of religion. But please allow me to say a few words to bring back what I said into perspective. 

As with all metaphysical questions and arguments about religion, there are no absolute answers as yet. There are only empirically verifiable answers, but do note these are just logical answers and may not necessarily be absolute. So for all I know, a higher authority may just exist and I may have just committed the biggest sacrilege by defaming this authority's doings. But I can live with that. 

As with all I said earlier, please also allow me to put myself down and give religion due credit for it has stood firm in the test of time. 

Religion, despite all I said, should be recognized for its numerous ties to culture and its development. Many of the the cultures adopted by races and ethnic groups revolve around the religion they practice. In fact many of our personal values are guided by the religion we practice too. Some of the values propagated- like honesty, integrity and compassion- are admirable and religion should be given due credit for it. 

So as this argument comes to a (forced) close, you may ask this- without religion how do we choose our values? Without religion, what basis do we have to decide our personal values? I believe (and observe) that all of us are born with this innate moral compass commonly known as a conscience. I believe that religious values arose because the pioneers of religion listened to their personal conscience and developed religious doctrine through experimentation with their own conscience. Therefore, I believe that if each and every one of us listens to our conscience, we will be able to decide on our personal values and these values should not be too far off from person to person. 

Perhaps this brings up another benefit of religion- in that personal values are decided for us by religion and through this our consciences become tuned to roughly the same direction. Without religion this parallelism of conscience would be a lot harder to achieve. 

Anyways, I shall let things rest and leave the argument here. Thanks for reading this.

Appreciate the comments!

Picture source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jacktaylorbleasdale/5767043179/

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Art of listening

There are so many amongst us who don't know what it means to listen. To listen is to go beyond yourself. To listen is to truly be humble.

This is something that I picked up in my recent days in the army. I have come across too many who talk freely but refuse to listen. Like there was this one chap. He and I entered my unit at the same time and back then he had many problems to deal with. Whenever he had any issues he came to me and told me about them. All I ever did was listen... and listen. Of course in my mind I had objections and disagreements. But to soothe the soul in pain I agreed with his erroneous views just to make him feel better. Thus all I did was listen. I never judged him nor did I hurt him. All I did was listen.

And then there was my boss. Whenever he had his discussions and all, all I ever did was listen. Occasionally I would clarify and question but all I ever did was listen. And whenever he felt strongly about something, I would agree despite my personal sense of disagreement. I wouldn't oppose. All this just to leave him with his pride and authority. Thus all I did was listen. 

And for me, there was nobody to listen to me. 

When I shared my problems with the chap, my colleague, all he did was to judge. He shot down every one of my problems as misjudgments from my side. He was brutal with his comments. To him, I was a test paper sodden with problems, awaiting his candid solutions. And all I did was listen.

And then my boss. Whenever I had requests (more like disagreements), none were heard. Words would be heard as sounds waves registered. But my intent was never understood. 'No' was a common answer. "To hell with all this listening", I sometimes thought. In the end, all I did was listen.

Listening is truly an art. It stems from a deep-rooted sense of humility. To listen is to doubt yourself enough to hear another. To listen is to doubt your personal principles enough to adjust them from others' experiences. I'm not saying don't give others advice. I'm just saying we (generally) need to listen when people need us to listen. And when they're ready for advice then we should give them advice. 

Thus, the art of listening.

I hope you were listening.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Middle Way of things

Of all men
Stand out two traits

The sanctimonious
Who judge the world without a trial

And the amoral
Who try the world without a judgement.

In my journey experimenting (subconsciously) with these traits, I have come to a conclusion on the middle way of things.

A man of truth is not one who is sanctimonious. He is not one who sits in his temple and preaches his impervious principles.

He is one who steps out and dares to experiment with things, even if those things are wrong. He may even be the one doing something wrong, except that he'll be fully aware of the wrongness of his actions- but he'll still do it, you see.

He redesigns his principles based on experiments.

He doesn't judge without a trial.
And if he can't undertake a trial he doesn't judge.

Just my thoughts on the middle way of things.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Enjoyment

If I saw a field
Wispy grass swaying with the breeze
I'd think of life in its entirety
And enjoy it for its complexity

But if I couldn't see the entirety
Or comprehend the complexity
Then I would see the colours
And enjoy them for their wonders

And if I couldn't see the colours
Or sense their wonders
Then I would feel the breeze
And enjoy it for its ease

And if I couldn't feel the breeze
Or enjoy its ease
Then I would feel my presence
And enjoy it in its essence

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Look back at none

For all our friends
And all our foes
The Peaceful One
Waits for none

For all our sins
And all our trials
The Neutral One
Considers none

For all our disappointments
And all our flaws
The Perfect One
Judges none

For all our bereavements
And all our funks
The Mystic One
Looks back at none

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Inquiry

Most of us practice some form of instruction in daily life. For the teachers, instruction comprises the bulk of work. For the rest of us, instructing people is common and it is necessary to co-ordinate actions between working parties.

Coming from the viewpoint of an instructor, we expect our instructions to be heard diligently and to be delivered effectively. I don’t know about you, but I think most of us dislike being questioned during or after the period of instruction. I guess it feels like the person questioning you is disrespecting you. Though this may seem true on the surface, I've come to realize something quite to the contrary. Sometimes being questioned is a good thing.

When we listen to someone's instructions, we construct a general idea of what the person is saying. Even if the person gives us elaborate instructions, our minds can only catch hold of that much information at once and thus, we only form a general idea of what is being said. So for example if a person is telling us how he wants some excel sheet done, we will get the general idea of it but we'll tend to miss out on the minor details like maybe how big he wants certain columns or what information he needs the most from the file. These details, though minor, actually matter the most.

And this is where inquiry comes into play. Inquiry bridges the gaps within the general idea conceived from instruction. It helps make the instruction given that much more complete. For the person mentioned above, only when we ask about the minor details of the sheet will we be able to fully understand what he wants. 

So when a person inquires or questions you, it's not really a bad thing! It actually shows that the person is trying to understand what you're saying. If anything it's a good thing.

With this in mind, I would actually be quite worried if the people I'm instructing have nothing to say at the end!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

On being a man of your word

Throughout my time in the army, I’ve faced many experiences where my superiors never lived up to their words. I'll explain through examples.

Back when I was in OCS, I had requested one of my superiors to give me information on how to apply for local citizenship. He told me that it would not be a problem and that he'll get back to me. I thought he had done something about it, but at the end of OCS I realized nothing was done. I wasted nine months waiting.

Similarly, back in OCS I had some questions regarding the weapons we were being taught to use. I had asked another superior the definitions of terms like ‘maximum effective range’ and he told me he’d get back to me. He never did.

I’ve noticed through my encounters that many of my superiors gave me their word on issues but never lived up to it. And of course I can understand why. These guys had more important tasks to worry about. How important can it be getting back to a subordinate on some unimportant issue, right?

Rational... yes, but I’ve always felt this is wrong. It is wrong to give someone your word and not live up to it. Ever since I became an officer I told myself I would never commit this mistake. If I give someone my word on an issue, I will remember to get back to that person, even if the issue is a minor one in the grand scheme of things. I made this my work ethic since I assumed duties as a platoon commander.

I just want to share how I manage all the promises I make to my men.

Basically if any of my men raise any issue up to me that I cannot solve right away, I note it down in my Blackberry immediately. I just make a short rough note under the memo section. This helps me remember things that pop up during the day. I also have a detailed to-do list in my Blackberry with different tasks and dates and timings for them to be done by. Usually when I’m free, I translate the rough notes into detailed tasks in my to-do list, along with the day and time for them to be done. By putting in this effort, I pay attention to the most minor of details that make up the most major of contributions.  

An example would be a couple of weeks back when some of my guys raised up discrepancies in their salaries. They raised this issue over a casual conversation- something like "SAF doesn't pay me well, they cut my salary"- and didn't even intend to pursue the matter. I however saw this as an important detail that needed to be looked at and told them I’d get back to them on it. Of course, I could have just said that to show concern and forgotten about it later. On top of that, I really did have other important things to do. But nonetheless I noted it down immediately and got back to them the week after with instructions to help fix the issue. With the help of technology, I was able to keep my word and maintain the trust of my subordinates.

I'm really learning a lot through my experience as an army officer. It's quite brilliant. More to come!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Effective Subordination

I’m sure most of us youngsters have been told that we should live our lives by noble values like courage, humility and integrity- that the leaders of tomorrow must be grounded in these values. Society tends to do that. I’m not going to say this is a wrong view. If anything, it is perfectly correct and I can verify that having gone through an intense year of leadership training. A leader simply cannot be effective unless he is grounded by these strong values.

But society forgets to teach us an integral trait about being a leader- which is how to be an effective subordinate. Having gone through leadership training, I have come to realize that it is as important to be an effective subordinate as it is to be an effective leader. And the skill of effective subordination is in a way much more subtle than the skill of effective leadership.

Being an effective leader requires a combination of many values and factors. Some examples are very much what society advocates- courage, humility and confidence. From my own experience, a bit of arrogance and stubbornness is required too- to put down irrational people who doubt you without proper reasoning. But that’s it really. My point is- to be a good leader the skills needed are obvious. There is nothing really unknown or subtle about it. Note: I’m not saying it’s easy to be an effective leader, I’m just saying it’s easy to know what is required of an effective leader.

But this is not true when we talk of being an effective subordinate. I mean how many of us know outright what is required of an effective subordinate? It’s not exactly common knowledge like the values jargon that comes along with effective leadership.

So anyways, here’s the gist of what I’m trying to say. The subtle skill that an effective subordinate possesses is empathy. To me, an effective subordinate is one who can place himself in his superior’s shoes and understand what makes or breaks him. Based on this understanding, he engages his superior.

When I was still in OCS, there were so many times when my subordinates (by role only, we were all still cadets) came to me with their problems (some exaggerated). They complained and complained about their problems but never found a solution for themselves and expected me to find one for them. They didn’t put themselves in my shoes- I was facing problems of greater magnitude and not being able to solve even my own, couldn't possibly solve theirs.

This is mostly the case with subordinates. They come to superiors with problems but with no solutions. Though this is instinctive- almost like when a child runs to his mother for protection- it is not right. A subordinate-superior relationship is not the same as a mother-child relationship as the subordinate and superior are after all partners in the larger organization and must work productively and progressively instead of complaining and coming to dead-ends.

A superior in my current unit once told me- “An average subordinate goes to his boss with a problem but no solution. A good subordinate goes to his boss with problems x, y and z and possible solutions a, b and c. The best subordinate goes to his boss with problems x, y and z, solutions a, b and c and his personal recommendations, based on pros and cons, of which solution is best.”

To sum it all up, an effective subordinate is empathetic and realizes that his superior is also a working individual like him. Therefore, when he encounters problems he goes to his superior with solutions in mind and not with the intent of complaining to him and wasting time. Thus the art of effective subordination is in behaving in a way that you would want your own subordinates to behave. It's all about empathy.

Picture from: http://www.therapeuticinterventionsk-12.blogspot.sg/2012/01/building-empathy.html

Sunday, January 20, 2013

My mother

For most of 2012, I've trained in hot, humid, muddy jungles as part of my national service in the army. Times then were challenging. Whenever training became unbearable, I found solace in thinking about my family, especially my mother. I thought about how much my mother cared for my sister and me. I thought about how well she raised me and how well she's now raising my sister. I then thought about my mother's life and came to realize that it has in no way been ordinary. As a matter of fact, my mother's life has been extraordinary- marked by the worst of tragedies, but yet the best of victories. I want people to know what my mother went through and how she became the person she is now. I want to take this chance to share my mother's incredible life story. 

My mother was born in New Delhi, India, in 1965. Her childhood and teenage years were tough, particularly because she had severe asthma. The asthma attacks made normal living and normal activities very difficult. She was forced to take strong steroids to suppress the attacks. Sadly, the steroids showed bad side-effects later on in her life.

Despite the asthma, my mother performed outstandingly in school. She loved her studies and was recognized by her teachers as a highly intelligent and capable student. At the age of 18, she enrolled in college, studying Physics. There, she met my father and within a short time of seeing each other, they got married. My mother was only 18 then! Managing her studies and marriage was a challenging task.

After graduating from college, my mother did her post-grad studies in IIT New Delhi, studying electronic engineering. When she was 26, she gave birth to me. She was in a critical condition when she had me. It's scary to think that my birth nearly cost my mother her life. On top of that, I was no easy child. Legend has it that I slept during the day and cried throughout the night! My mother and grandmother had to take shifts to care for me!

The turning point in my mother's life came when I was seven. After more than 10 years of marriage, my father wanted a divorce. Apparently, he was involved in a relationship with some other woman. This hit my mother really hard. Though I was only seven then, I knew something was deeply wrong.

Just before the divorce got finalized, my mother received a job opportunity from NIIT Singapore. She asked my father whether he was willing to move there and start a new life and he agreed. Upon moving to Singapore in 2000, my father changed his mind and insisted again on getting a divorce. My mother had no choice but to agree. She was now all alone in Singapore; with no family or friends, forced to start a life in a place completely foreign to her.

Life then became really difficult. My mother was struggling with asthma, financial problems and depression from the divorce. To add on, she did not like her job at all. She had to fight hard to change things.

In 2001, she took up a new job in a small E-learning firm called Knowledge Platform (KP). Around then, she also took up faith in Nichiren Buddhism- a form of Japanese Mahayana Buddhism. With hard work, determination and lots of prayer, my mother overcame her lifelong asthma in 2003 by finding a doctor who gave her effective medication. In 2006, she climbed the corporate ladder and became KP's CEO. On top of that, in 2007 she adopted my sister Aloka after being rejected for five years by agencies that only gave children to couples. She adopted Aloka because she wanted to do something good for the world by giving an unwanted child a good life.

Despite being occupied by all her challenges, my mother continued to raise me really well. She spent a lot of time with me and ensured that the sadness she was experiencing never spread to me. Because of that, I had a happy childhood. She also gave me a lot of freedom. This allowed me to learn things about myself and to make independent decisions. 

To think that my mother did all of this alone without the support of a husband! This is an example to all women- that they can be as good as or even better than men. It dispels the age-old convention that a woman needs a man to get somewhere.

Of course in recent times things have changed. My mother left her job at KP and is now moving back to India with the rest of my family. I will stay on in Singapore to complete my service to Singapore. But despite these changes, my mother is still as strong and is constantly overcoming challenges. She is still on the pursuit of happiness.

It inspires me to know I am the son of such a mother.