Thursday, January 19, 2012

Brooke Charter School

Travelled down to Brooke Charter School in downtown Boston today. One of my motivations was to reconnect with a great school institution. To see for real that achievement is possible. To dream that it can be replicated in India as well. Laurence Woo, the Director for External Affairs, was courteous enough to do a tour of the school and answer all our questions meticulously. In many ways, it did not surprise me that having 98% kids from minority backgrounds and 78% kids who qualify for free lunches, the school has managed to get an almost near perfect 100% proficiency on the Massachusetts State Exam in English and Maths.

It has all the DNA of well run charter schools I had visited before like KIPP, North star, Leadership Academy. A visionary principal, dedicated and highly driven teachers with autonomy, continuous and collaborative learning structures, core values underpinning the culture of the school and an air of achievement. Having been a teacher, it is almost a trait you pick up. You know within 5 minutes of being in a school, if it exudes a culture of achievement. Take a look on the faces of the kids, the urgency on every school teacher and official and the strength of the words the walls convey. All i needed was less than that. What followed was an exhibition of many people who woke up and did what they loved for a living performed at their work.

The fundamentals are not difficult to recreate in India if we can figure the financial aspect of supporting schools and our methods of enforcing accountability. Autonomy without accountability invariably leads to creative corruption in India. Accountability without freedom leads to stifled creativity. A great note to end is the core values of Brooke.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Core commitments

Thinking ahead for the semester made me reflect on the two over arching commitments of TFI - Commitment to Education Equity and Commitment to Personal Transformation.

Commitment to Education Equity
In strange ways, Gandhi's cliched mantra of being the change rings a bell here than in the second commitment. For someone who has had a gradual upbringing from a village to metropolitan life, there has been a residual feeling of inferiority. Of not being good enough, of not having had similar opportunities like my well to do friends, for not having mentorship, not having connected family members etc. I realized how this was a defense mechanism I had built up over the years to justify my shortcomings. I had not been serious enough about excellence. I did not burn every moment, strive hard enough to be excellent. I have been lucky to have got through to where I am right now, with less than optimal effort. Maybe it is time I desired excellence, worked assiduously for it and taste it for once. It is also living the value I tried to inculcate in my children over the two years - to be the best that there is in your field in the whole world. Maybe in that achievement I will finally settle my scores with my inner critic and doubting ghost.

Commitment to Personal Transformation
The progress over the last 3 years has been phenomenal. From being anxious, stressed and confused about where life is taking me I have found my balance, purpose and clarity. I have been able to handle some difficult challenges thrown at me with equanimity. Yet, there is a lot of times I did get overwhelmed by my environment. My defences were just not strong enough. I let the cattle graze my sampling. Maybe, it is time I took excellence in thought and action seriously. It is time to live the life of a monk, like Geet Sethi once remarked.

Still with my TFI hat on, let me try and articulate my SMART BIG GOALS for the next semester:

a) I am happy and grateful that I have achieved a 10 at HKS
b) I am happy and grateful that I have established my 5 habits - [4-ME-2D]

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What I learnt from a 5 year old over the weekend

Most people who hear about my sojourn at TFI, ask me the first obvious question, " How was it?". Or, they appreciate the courage to have followed my heart to give. In all fairness, I reply that I took more than I ever gave. I still believe that I learnt more about life and grown wiser about what is essential through my children.

It was a weekend of celebration of Eesha's coming. Eesha is the daughter of my best friend Adi's elder brother Eswar. Having literally grown up in their house for a good part of my secondary school, it was a family reunion at a home away from home in Worcester. It was time to sit back and enjoy the pure joy of a family's celebration. It also gave me an opportunity to revist my teaching genes with Rahul, Adi and Eswar's nephew. While I knew Sushma akka through them, my family being related to Rao anna completed a perfect network of a small world. Rahul for me in many ways was a symbol of the connection between my family and Adi's.

More than the emotional connect, Rahul inspired the teacher and kid within me. He made me reconnect with the wisdom I had gathered over the two years at TFI. He reminded me that it was not time to forget those lessons. I am truly grateful to the little one for reminding me the following:

Sing as if nobody is listening and dance as if nobody is watching - Too often as adults we become over conscious of expressing ourselves. Lest, we will be judged and rejected for our shortcomings. We fear people thinking less of our abilities in places where we aren't complete. Which is why we always remain bathroom singers and closer dancers. Rahul's dance reminded me of when I was 5 myself. I was totally fearless and danced with no fear of the audience. Adolescence seems to have brought surfaced an inner critic which stiffed me up. Which kept telling me that my voice wasn't good enough and keeps telling me that my reflection is not smart enough. It keeps looking for acceptance and fears rejection. A drive to fit in, be within the framework of imaginary norms and delusional ideal of perfection.

Your parents have wisdom too. Give it a try - Growing old activates not only the amygdala(part of brain which activates fear of rejection) but also a part of the brain which tends to dismiss anything old not fit for the current times. A classic clash of generations, in which the old fear the degeneration of the values and the young fear being stifled by the orthodoxy of age old conventions. I have been having my phases too. Being on the other side of 25, having had come to face with fear of death has managed to tilt my balance. I respect the wisdom behind the way of life(culture) which has been constructed by millions of people over many generations. A careful hand over of not just the extrinsic symbols, mantras, rituals, dressing and food habits. But a more subtle mantle of culture - language and your only linkage to eons of history. In listening and learning carefully to your parents, you might not just pick up your link with the past but also construct a vision for the future by standing boldly on the shoulders which have carried you. Staying true to your ideals at some level means staying true to your DNA. Rising above our multiple identities starts with recognition of the boundaries of such identities. Any reflection on identity starts with the eternal question," Who am I?" To reflect on such a question without the wisdom of parents who had chosen to give you a chance to answer that question seems regressively foolish! 

Thanks Rahul for the reminders!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Vivekananda reflections

In the honor of the liberated soul,whose wisdom has sustained for 100 years and whose words fill you up with power on any given day. Here are a few of his famous quotes which strike a chord with me right now.
  • We want that education by which character is formed, strength of mind is increased, the intellect is expanded, and by which one can stand on one's own feet.
  • To me the very essence of education is concentration of mind, not collecting of facts
  • The more the power of concentration, the more knowledge is acquired, because concentration is the one and only method of acquiring knowledge
  • If you have assimilated five ideas, and made them your life and character, you have more education than anyman who has got by heart a whole library
  • All knowledge depends on the calmness of the mind
  • Do not spend your energy in talking but meditate in silence. Accumulate power in silence and become a dynamo of spirituality
  • The chaste brain has tremendous energy and gigantic will power
  • Purify yourself first. The world is bound to be purified then
  • The purer the mind, the easier it is to control
  • Vedanta does not say give up enjoyment but transcend it
  • There is no progress without corresponding digression
  • There is only one real desire, to know what is true, to be spiritual
  • Love never asks, never begs. Love loves for the sake of love itself
  • Through the heart the Lord speaks and through the intellect you yourself speak
  • The secret of religion lies not in theories but in practice. To be good and do good - that is the whole of religion
  • We shall all die! Bear this in mind always and then the spirit within will wake up. Then all meanness will vanish from you, practicality in work will come, you will get new vigour in mind and body.
  • Take my advice, set yourselves wholly to the service of others, believe me, far greater happiness would then be yours than if you had a whole treasury full of money and other valuables at your command.
  • If in this hell of a world, one can bring a little joy and peace even for a day into the heart of a single person, that much alone is true. All else is mere moonshine.
  • Blessed are those whose bodies get destroyed in the service of others
  • If you really want the good of others, the whole Universe may stand against you and can't hurt you. It must crumble before your power of the Lord himself in you, if you are sincere and really unselfish.
  • Ask nothing, want nothing in return. Give what you have to give, it will come back to you multiplied a thousand fold - but the attention must not be on that
  • Let us be progressive as any nation that ever existed, and at the same time faithful and conservative towards our traditions as Hindus alone know how to be
  • Do not be dragged away out of this Indian life, do not for a moment think that it would be better for India, if all the Indians dressed, ate and behaved like any other race
  • It is only in the homes of educated and pious mothers, that great men are born
  • Character has to be established through a thousand stumbles
  • All the strength and succor you want is within yourselves, therefore make your own future
  • All power is within you, do not believe that you are weak. You can do anything and everything.
  • Anything that makes you weak physically, intellectually and spiritually, reject it as poison
  • Learn everything that is good from others, but bring it in, and in your own way absorb it, do not become others
  • Let the dead past bury its dead. The infinite future is before you
  • What I want is muscles of iron and nerves of steel, inside which dwells a mind of the same material as that of which thunderbolt is made
  • Stand up, be bold, be strong and know that you are the creator of your own destiny
  • All the secret of success is to pay as much attention to the means as to the end
  • One ounce of practice is worth twenty thousand tons of big talk
  • Three men cannot act in concert together in India for five minutes. Each one struggles for power and in the long run, the whole organization comes to grief
  • He is an atheist who does not believe in himself
  • Doing is very good, but that comes from thinking. Fill the brain, therefore, with high thoughts, highest ideals; place them day and night before you; and out of that will come great work.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


This is going to be an easy one. My friends would kill to not hear me advocate about Vipassana. They have heard the broken record so many times, in so many tones and in so many different narratives. Since my first experience in 2010, I have derived great joy in getting people motivated to try a course for once. Barring my younger brother, who promises to do a better job the next time around, everyone I know of seems to have had a long lasting transformational effect. I can safely talk about just myself. Let me make an argument progressing from the rational to the mystical.

1. Here and now - Physical
"It is all in the mind", Lance Armstrong said in his bestseller. The power of this practice is how you realize this through your own experience. As you get deeper in the practice you develop your kinesthetic intelligence. A sharp awareness of your own body - it's pain threshold, its subtle reactions and most importantly, it's plasticity which you never knew existed.

2. Patience and Equanimity - Mental
A blog named after whitelotus can do no better than to use the metaphor. As you grow and develop the intuition that your view of the world is how you react to the experiences world offers, you grow objective to pain and pleasure using your own body as an experimental tool. Like the whitelotus which blossoms in wholesome purity in the muck, you develop patience and equanimity to deal with any cards dealt out to you. As you crowd out the trash in your mind and experience the few moments of absolute tranquility, you realize the power of the force within you. You begin to learn to burn every moment to it's fullest. My best lines come from a movie called "Peaceful warrior" which weaves quite a few pearls of wisdom(borrowed from Buddha's teachings) very neatly into the story. My best moment is the climax though. I won't break the story if anyone reading this intends to watch it. In a moment of pin drop silence as the lead character balances himself on the rings, a voice speaks up quietly and answers itself...

"Where are you? " HERE
"What time is it?" NOW
"Who are you?" THE MOMENT

It fills me will goosebumps when I experience such moments during my meditation.

3. Intuition and Wisdom - Mystical/Metaphysical
This is the most difficult part to come across as convincing. Largely because of the nature of experience. It is hard to articulate and describe. It is very personal to every individual. It is what we label as soul or consciousness. Whatever name you give it, or even if you choose to not believe an entity beyond your body, heart and mind, you do have moments which dissolve time and space. In those precious moments, there is an awakening of your conception of life itself. You stop to reflect on the meaning of life - what it means to be human and have this gift of reflection or thinking about thinking. About memories, birth, death, before and after. When that happens, more often than not, it changes your being. Your ethos and value systems. I personally have given more and taken less, grown wiser and more balanced, become more loving and compassionate, acted more productively and conscientiously. I truly recognize the wisdom of Buddha, Gandhiji, Vivekananda and Ramakrishna. Maybe one day I will oscillate at their frequency! Till then, I am happy and grateful for the tune that my heart sings when I meditate.

If you still aren't convinced, try this "Why meditation beats an iPhone?" 

Afterall, who doesn't want to live a life of morality, concentration and wisdom? Who doesn't want to burn every living moment?

On national youth day, no better person to think of than Vivekananda and the power of his words.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wake up Tarun!

Given my habits experiment over the next 2 months, I thought I will intellectually convince myself of my pickings. Intuitively, from my experience they seem to make sense. Going to Harvard, converts you into a crack nut in the head. 'Disciplined mind with scientific temper' is the euphemism for the same. You want to understand the intellectual root of every argument and make sure that it has sound evidence. Let me give waking up early a shot today.

" Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise " - Ben Franklin, famously

" Put no trust in the benefits to accrue from early rising, as set forth by the infatuated Franklin..." Mark Twain

The method has been recommended since antiquity and now many personal development gurus have rekindled the debate. Aristotle remarked, " It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth and wisdom". Benjamin Franklin wrote a book called Early Rising: A Natural, Social and Religious duty. He is also quoted as saying: " The early morning has gold in its mouth." Growing up in a Hindu line of thought, I have for long been stressed on the importance of waking up in the "Brahmamuhurt"(The moment of Brahma). I found 10 practical reasons why waking up early can benefit you(Leo Babauta's reflection on Zen habits blog). 

Instead of regurgitating them, I will outline what motivates me to start off so early from my personal experience.

1. Gets my day off to a slow and mindful start - Given my weakness of being in a rush and getting anxious, early rise gives me time and space to do my complete wake up ritual - lemon honey warm water, Vipassana meditation, Surya namaskar exercise, diary writing and wholesome breakfast in a mindful manner.

2. Playing to my strengths - Waking up early makes use of my dominant themes(Discover your strengths psychometric test) of being a learner, achiever, competitor, relator and responsibility. While Vipassana improves my learning of my body, mind and matter interaction diary writing provides the nourishment to my intellect. Practicing Metta at the end of Vipassana meditation enables me to be grateful for all the people who have made me and meditate on my responsibility for the day, week and times ahead. For someone who believes that he has sporting intelligence, starting early gives me a feeling of having a head start against the rest of the world. Lastly, accomplishing my early morning routine gives me a sense of achievement to kick start  a positive day.

I will end by referencing a moving eulogy of Eswar kaka by Nipun Mehta - Art of Living exemplified .

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Howard Gardner 1.0 - MI and LFU

I had the privilege of listening in to Howard Gardner today. Any person who has been remotely connected with education will know influential his work on Multiple Intelligence(MI) has been. His today's lecture was a second one is a series of three, in which he spoke about Multidisciplinary education and learning for understanding(LFU).

Some of the sticky comments he made during the talk which excited me -

1. "MI theory is just a means to a publicly stated goal"

Too often policy makers, educators and other social scientists focused on education use performance on a standardized test as the publicly stated goal. However, standardized tests do not test for interdisciplinary(ID) ability or MI. 

Therefore, It is essential to articulate the public goal of education which incorporates MI and ID ability.

2. "The scholarly disciplines are important but not intuitive, often counter to common sense"

Sciences, mathematics, social studies unlike arts are counter intuitive. For e.g. we would have to learn why  the earth is spherical against our intuitive understanding of flat structure around us. We would have to understand the biology behind theory of evolution to demystify creationism we intuitively respond to. One of the goals of education is to develop the ability is to train to use these disciplines appropriately and flexibily. 

In short, wisdom is about knowing when and how to use the knowledge. We need to train and test for it.

3. "The unschooled mind endures in us all..."

The objective of schooling is to train one's mind to be disciplined, i.e to distill the important theories of a discipline, uncover them using MI if not single intelligence and develop an ability to perform/synthesize that understanding about our worlds. An unschooled mind is filled with powerful, but often flawed theories about the world. A narrowly disciplined mind in sciences, mathematics and humanities is also prone to traps like misconceptions, rigidly applied algorithms and scripts/stereotypes. The objective of schooling is therefore to answer fundamental questions about the world using our MI and ID ability.

What is important --> How to uncover it --> reconstruct a wise understanding of the world

Finally, the talk prompted thought on how to school in digitalized world with a complex set of problems. The quotes of the day however had to be the following which are equally applicable to India in some sense:

" US education reforms is like rearranging chairs on the deck of Titanic"

"It takes 15-20 years to bring about education reforms. How do you achieve that in country which runs on quarterly profits and biannual elections?" - Singapore Education Minister on US education reforms 

Silence is the music of voice within

I did not realize how time and events overwhelmed my ability to reflect and write over the last 5 months. My inability to make diary writing regular for a long time now gets me thinking about habits formation. Why do I choose to be silent in circular thoughts instead of crystallizing them and moving ahead? It raises questions about the relationship between conscious practice and automaticity. Recent research has interesting insights on the topic. 

"When the researchers examined the different habits, many of the participants showed a curved relationship between practice and automaticity of the form depicted below (solid line). On average a plateau in automaticity was reached after 66 days. In other words it had become as much of a habit as it was ever going to become."


The graph also shows that early practice was rewarded with greater increases in automaticity and gains tailed off as participants reached their maximum automaticity for their behavior. Although the average was 66 days, it took anywhere between 18 to 254 days for habits examined in this study to be formed. In short, the much believed 21 day myth is a gross underestimation of actual neural ability to reshape itself.

Starting today, I decide to put this theory to test with my own personal growth experiment. I will commit to a few habits which I have been meaning to reach automaticity over the last few years. Allowing for a single day exceptions, I will register the number of days it takes before it becomes natural for me to follow such a routine.

Habit 1: Write a diary entry and update the blog journal every day
Habit 2: Surya Namaskara(Sun salutations Yoga) exercise everyday
Habit 3: 4:00am wake up everyday
Habit 4: Vipassana meditation for atleast 2 hrs everyday
Habit 5: No meal after sunset

On that wise note, let us wait and see if my 5 fold path will lead me up or to the grave :-)