Category Archives: Metaphors

Two Sides of a Coin?

What if I fall?

Oh, but my darling what if you fly! 

Erin Hanson

Essentially this line spells one thing, that there are two sides to a coin. One is the dark one, the negative and scary side, while the other, is the bright one, the positive one that is so encouraging and reassuring. 

Life throws a million chances and opportunities at us just like this one, where we either fly or end up falling. So what is it that life is trying to teach? Is it sheer luck or is there something more to it? The answer probably lies in the way we try to perceive each incident. Every situation can be seen from two sides – the positive as well as the negative. 

For instance when we experience happiness on winning a game or gaining a promotion do we really think of the flip side of it? Probably not, because we are too immersed in the happy moment. The flip side of a win can be that we may have to double the efforts to make sure that we keep winning the game which means more hard work. The flip side of a promotion can be that we must handle greater responsibility and work more at proving ourselves as a worthy choice. We might fail at these things can’t we. On the other side when we suddenly lose someone dear to us, we fall into a grief so deep that we hardly realise that it is strengthening us from the inside and making us resilient to stand up again even when we are hurt. That is a powerful positive side to a bad incident. 

So in effect, what we must learn and appreciate about each experience is that every time it happens, it teaches us something. What use is anything that happens in life, if we do not rise up higher in our understanding and realisation through the experience? Just like a coin even life has two sides and we must accept each with grace. 

We must always remember that the good times come for a price that must be paid and the bad times come with lessons that must be learnt. 

#nehaismNeha Joshi

One fine day, I explained about the two sides of a coin to Neha and asked her to write about it. While, what she has written above summarizes what I explained to her, she did not think about it deeply and thus missed the essence. The two sides of a coin is an oft-used analogy to help people understand that life is not one-sided. It is used especially to advise people who are habituated to look at life from a single viewpoint or who are caught in a specific life situation. The fact that reminding people of this analogy gives them relief is the proof they need that they were stuck in one sided views.

However, the point that this analogy misses is that a coin does not have two sides (surprised!?). It just appears to have two sides. It actually has more than 2 sides. Consider the thickness at the circumference. That’s the third side. Further, if you observe the coin under a microscope, you will see infinitely more surfaces and sides.

So the point is not to jump to the conclusion that life is colorful and not black and white, which is fine to a certain extent. But what is more difficult to do, and what is needed, is to stop counting the colors or the sides.

Now, one might quickly jump to another conclusion (a conclusion is a kind of a solidified hardened view and most people like to jump to it) that we should take life as it comes. Unfortunately, that too is a view that can be countered by its opposite (two sides of the coin view – take control of your life) or the multi-color view of life (experience everything that life has to offer).

While these views can help us in many ways, ultimately, they are mere views. Is it possible to be free of all views? Because only when you can be free of all views, can you see life in all its pristine beauty and know you are ‘that which views’ and ‘that which is viewed’.

Who Is Responsible For This?

There is an ancient story about a king who once ordered his minister in the middle of the night to fill up the royal swimming pool with milk so that he could swim in it in the morning. The minister was in a quandary on how to fulfill the king’s desire. It would take a long time to milk the cows to get such a large quantity. One of his courtiers suggested that if each person in the city could bring one cup of milk, then it is possible to fill the swimming pool. The minister liked the idea and immediately sent out messengers to all parts of the city with the order that everyone has to bring a cup of milk right away and pour it into the royal swimming pool. 

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Now there was this one person who heard the king’s order and thought to himself, “Everyone is going to bring milk. What if I take a cup of water? One cup of water will not make any difference in the large tank full of milk. And in the night, no one will notice what I am pouring in the tank”. So that’s what he did. He joined the queue of people who had come with their cups of milk and when his turn came, quickly emptied his cup of water into the tank. The next morning, as the sun rose, the minister was terribly shocked to see that there was only water in the swimming pool and no milk.


There are many things that can be learned from this story.

It is apparent that everyone put in a cup of water in to the pool instead of a cup of milk. The reason why everyone did it is not clear because only one person’s thought is expressed. And it is not sure that everyone thought the same. It is possible that some did not have a cup of milk at home and therefore had to bring water because it was compulsory.

However, the crux of the story revolves around the thought that “No one will notice my lack of contribution because everyone is going to contribute”. And it is true that when all contribute to a task, then one person’s lack of contribution usually goes unnoticed. Take for example, in the game of Tug of War, if one person does not pull to his maximum strength or simply pretends to pull, then whether the team wins or loses, this act will go unnoticed. No one will be able to figure out who did not put his full effort into it.

Similarly in a team project, one person can become a “free rider” – someone who rides on the success brought about by others. A free rider is a person who enjoys a benefit accruing from a collective effort, but contributes little or nothing to the effort. It is sometimes difficult to identify such free riders in a large team because they pretend to contribute yet do nothing in reality.

The real problem happens when many people start becoming free riders because then it starts to affect the results, as in the case of the people who brought water instead of the milk. In the story, even if one or ten people had genuinely brought milk, that would go unnoticed in the whole pool of water. And it would seem that no one brought any milk.

Think from the perspective of the minister. When he sees the pool full of water, he would blow his top and would want to punish all those culprits who put water but that would mean punishing the whole city, which is practically impossible. Let’s assume he was a really evil minister. He would order the flogging of every individual in the city. This would mean even those who brought milk would face the punishment because they would have no way to prove their honesty.

With all this explanation, it is easy to draw parallels between the story and what we see in life around us. Just think of milk as taxes and you will be able to understand a lot. Think of people who evade taxes. Think of people who violate traffic rules. Think of why initiatives like Swacch Bharat do not become successful. If everyone contributed to making Bharat swacch, there would be no Swacch Bharat cess. Many other social evils like corruption can be understood from this angle.

Jesus spoke of being a good Samaritan 2000 years ago and yet we easily convince ourselves to let others be the good Samaritans while we go about our jobs. The story of somebody, anybody, everybody and nobody is important in this context.

Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody

Now there are two more important learnings in this story which are not so obvious. The first is that the whole activity happens anonymously. If the minister had checked each person’s cup before it was poured into the pool, he would have realized what is happening. There is a Hindi proverb – Doodh ka dooth aur pani ka pani ho jata – which is apt for this story.

Wherever there is anonymity, there is a scope for free riders.

Therefore, it is important to bring transparency in transactions. Not only in transactions but also in our own mind and thoughts. Awareness of one’s own thoughts can prevent us from doing wrong and acting in an inappropriate manner. Only when we believe no one is observing us, then we can think of doing wrong or not doing what is asked for.

The other important learning is from the perspective of the king. If the king makes unreasonable requests in the middle of the night, then he has no right to expect the results he wants. Supposing the request was genuine. For example, if the milk was needed for feeding poor children and there was visibility of that activity, many people in the city would have genuinely brought milk for them. However, I guess from this story that the king routinely announced such unreasonable orders to serve his personal luxury and therefore the people, having known this from past experience, acted in the fashion they did, thinking the king did not deserve their honesty. So as a leader, one must learn to make reasonable demands on one’s team in order to expect their full cooperation.

The most sticky situation is that of the minister (manager?). On the one hand, the king is going to be angry on him for not getting the job done and on the other hand, he cannot do anything to correct the situation.

So the question is – who is truly responsible?

 

Is Reality an Illusion?

Is reality merely an illusion? The wise keep saying that. But it is difficult to wrap our heads around this notion. After all, we see, hear, smell, taste and feel things. How can all this be an illusion?

movie hall

Imagine you are in a movie hall engrossed in an exciting movie. As the movie captivates your attention, it begins to influence your emotions and state of mind. Depending on whether the movie is a thriller or a horror movie, you experience the ups and downs of emotions along with the characters in the movie.

So the question is – Is the movie real? Yes it is. It is playing in front of you. But it is not real. The characters are not real. It is an illusion created on the screen in front of you.

I am sure you would have experienced a movie which made you cry, laugh, and once in a while make you jump out of your chair. We think the movie is good, well made, well directed and the actors were superb. However, we forget one very important thing – the fact that we invest reality into the movie. Although it is not done by explicitly thinking “I am going to consider this movie as real” but the overall effect of lights out and loud volume immerses you into the movie and makes it appear as real. Without this serious participation in the movie on our part, we will not enjoy it.

Similarly it is with other things in life. Take for example sports. We have to invest seriousness into something which is fundamentally non-serious. Scoring a goal or taking a wicket is nothing in itself without us making a serious business of it.

Therefore, the wise say that life is merely the game of God – Lila.

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players… (Shakespeare)

So it takes a slight turning around of our view, although happening in an unaware state, to consider an illusory thing as real. Similarly, it takes a reversal of that turning around in our view, by doing it consciously, to come back to normal perspective on things.

As a child, I cried when Amitabh died in Sholay. My parents told me it is only a movie and that he did not die in reality. Many people are upset when their team loses a match. But it only takes a minor realization that it is only a game in order to get over the sadness.

Getting Stuck

The problem is not that we consider as serious business what is not serious but it is staying for long in that specific state. When we continuously invest seriousness into everything in life, we experience stress. Even a small one minute delay will raise our blood pressure. We become cranky, demanding and pushy if we take everything as real.

However, staying too much on the other extreme is also equally problematic. If we assume the position that nothing in life is serious, then we will not be able to act appropriately in life. We will become casual, non committal when we take everything as illusion.

Those are the two extremes. The true path is in the middle. Discard both views that life is real or illusion and take life as it is. Do not ask how!

Everything is real and is not real. Both real and not real. Neither real nor not real. This is Lord Buddha’s teaching. (Mulamadhyamakakarika – Root verses of the Middle Way by Nagarjuna)

Just notice and be aware and be conscious whenever you invest seriousness (when you act as if it was real and it mattered) or non-seriousness (when you act as it it did not matter at all) into any situation in life.

So life is not serious but let us not take it casually or life is serious but let us not take it seriously!

 

The Three Monkeys

The 3 monkeys are popularly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. However, their origins are probably hidden in ancient times.

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Each of the three monkeys have a different posture. The first one is covering his eyes signifying – See No Evil. The second one is covering his ears signifying – Hear No Evil. And the third one is covering his mouth signifying – Speak No Evil. In some cases, there is a fourth monkey also who is shown crossing his arms signifying – Do No Evil.

Whether 3 monkeys or 4 monkeys, I am not concerned with that. What I wish to point out is that the 3 monkeys are not serving their purpose. If their purpose is to remind people to speak no evil, hear no evil and see no evil, then I really doubt whether anyone is reminded of that in daily life. The 3 monkeys then just become a good show piece at home.

Think of it – If the advice was meant for human beings, then why show monkeys giving the advice to humans? Will humans ever listen to monkeys? Obviously not. So is there a deeper message in the sense that humans only look like humans but deep down they are only monkeys?

There is a good possibility that the monkeys refer to the ‘monkey mind’ of the humans as a metaphor for the restless nature of the mind that keeps jumping from one thing to another. And for such a mind, it is important not to get involved in anything evil. So fundamentally, the intention of the 3 monkeys is to warn humans about evil and to keep them away from it.

However, there are some problems in this if someone tries to take the monkeys seriously. People anyways do not take them seriously but that is not because they have tried to in the first place. Most people are not bothered. They simply assume the advice is for monkeys and not for them.

Say, for example, you decide not to see any evil. So, when you come across any evil, you will close your eyes. Maybe you see one person hurting another and you realize that is evil, so you will close your eyes and not look at it. Maybe you see someone cheating or someone killing or someone behaving badly, then you will close your eyes because you are advised not to see evil.

The same applies to hearing no evil. Suppose you decide not to hear any evil. So when you find one person shouting at another or passing lewd comments about some woman, then that is evil. So you will cover your ears and not hear it.

In both the above cases, you actually turn away from what is happening. Is that an outcome we wish to have? Do we really want people to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to all the evil in the world? If one does it, will it safeguard the person from evil?

Please note that before deciding to close one’s eyes or cover one’s ears, one must identify that the thing one is seeing or hearing is evil. This means that the definition of evil and the database of all evil things must be in the mind in the first place for someone to decide what one is seeing or hearing is evil, in order to take the action of closing one’s eyes or ears.

This is more clear in the case of speaking no evil. It presumes that if one gets the impulse to swear at someone, or speak a lie or bitch about someone, which I think can all be classified as being evil, then one is supposed not to speak it because the monkey tells – speak no evil. So one is asked to control one’s tongue. But all the while, the evil thoughts are going on in the mind uncontrolled.

So if evil and what is evil is already in the mind, then just not seeing, not speaking or not hearing does not serve any purpose. If we understand the 3 monkeys at this superficial level, then it does not make any sense.

In fact, Osho gave an interesting twist to the 3 monkeys. He said that the first monkey stands for – Don’t listen to the truth because it will disturb all your consoling lies. The second monkey stands for – Don’t look at the truth; otherwise your God will be dead and your heaven and hell will disappear. The third monkey stands for – Don’t speak the truth, otherwise you will be condemned, crucified, poisoned, tortured by the whole crowd, the unconscious people. You will be condemned, don’t speak the truth! The fourth monkey stands for – Keep your pleasures, your joys, hidden. Don’t let anybody know that you are a cheerful man, a blissful man, an ecstatic man, because that will destroy your very life. It is dangerous.

While Osho gave his own interpretation to the 3 monkeys, it does not solve the original puzzle of the meaning of see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.

I would like to propose that we understand the monkeys from the perspective of intention. When you see or hear anything, accept it the way it is. Do not find fault with it. Do not observe its negative aspects. Do not pay attention to its positive aspects. Do not differentiate between good and evil at all. Accept everything as it is. And when you speak, you speak about things as they are, not with any intention of doing good or evil, not with any intention of harming someone or benefiting oneself.

When one is able to do this, I believe the 3 monkeys’ true purpose is being served. I would rather be a monkey who lives up to this standard than a human being who thinks himself to be superior to monkeys.

 

The Blindness Metaphor

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Enlightenment is a sometimes equated to a blind man being able to see. Let us understand what this means.

We see many things with our eyes. We can see the tree across the road, we can see the bird flying in the sky and we can see people around us. What is it that we cannot see? Does enlightenment seeing something more than what normal people are able to see?

There are two perspectives from which we can understand blindness. First is inability to see the big picture. We usually consider everything we see as separate from us. We do not perceive the unity of everything. We – plants, trees, animals, humans – are all immersed in the earth’s atmosphere. We all breathe the same air and it is one whole single system. If all the trees disappeared one day, we will not have oxygen to breathe. If one species disappears, it leads to the disappearance of other connected species. Because we do not see this interconnectedness, we are blind to that extent. We do not understand the consequences of our actions and continue to take actions which harm us, even if that is not our intention.

The second perspective is inability to see the small picture. We think all the things around us are static. They do change but only gradually over a long time. But that is not the case in reality. Everything is changing very very rapidly all the time. We simply cannot perceive it. The growth of a flower, the decay of our brain, the movement of clouds, everything is happening, changing at every moment. We think we meet the same person everyday but that is not the case. So when the person behaves differently, we get a shock. We are not prepared for the change because we do not see that change happening in front of us.

Both these limitations of our perspectives makes us blind even if we are able to see everything. When our mind accepts that things are changing all the time and everything is connected to everything else, it is alert in every situation. It begins to see what it could not see earlier.

The Waking Up Metaphor

milkyway

The experience of enlightenment is many times compared to waking up from sleep. There are some similarities but it is not wholly so. But the metaphor is very good for understanding.

When we are sleeping, we see dreams and in the dreams what we see is experienced as quite real. Sometimes, we are running from some danger, sometimes we see snakes, sometimes we are riding a horse, sometimes we see our friends, sometimes have sex, sometimes eat food and it is experienced as real. We can wake up perspiring from a dream. We can even have conversations with people in our dreams. It all seems so real at the moment and we are immersed in it.

But the moment we wake up, the dream is gone. We cannot deny our experience. The dream was definitely real. It really happened whether it was because of the jiggling of our brain cells or some nerves doing a dance, whatever it was, it did happen. Yet, from the perspective of our waking life, it did not happen. You fell down from a cliff in your dream but you woke up in your bed. So you did not fall down and hurt yourself.

This is a similar to what happens in enlightenment but not entirely. When enlightenment strikes you, you feel like you have woken up from a dream. Whatever is your story in life – where you were born, where you studied, whom you married, and what jobs you did all seem like a dream. They did happen for sure. You can still see your wife or the window and the cars on the road. Yet there is a definite sense in which they are not wife, window, road and cars. They are definitely not that.

The whole story of your life suddenly seems like a dream. Were you really born, did you study, did you get married, did you just come back from office? You can see the evidence surely but question the story, the interpretation.

From the perspective of enlightenment, you can see colors, hear sounds, feel objects but you are not bothered whether people call it a green color or say it is the sound of a plane or say the cushion is soft. It is as it is. It could not be otherwise.

Therefore enlightenment is called waking up. To this extent it is fine. But the difference is in the fact that you are still talking to people, walking around your home, driving your car, drinking coffee and watching TV. People speak to you and you speak to them. So the dream is still on, you are in it yet you realize it is as it is. You don’t get caught in the dream and take it seriously. You see other people sleep walking, sleep talking, living in their dreams and therefore a natural compassion develops towards them.

How to wake up? Watch yourself and see how you are going about in your life – the way you talk, the way you do things, the way your work, your habits, your internal justifications, your thoughts, your reactions to people and things, your likes and dislikes. These are all in your dream. If you are able to see yourself dream-living like this, you will surely wake up.

Half Full or Half Empty

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The example of the glass which is half full or half empty is often used to show how people view the same situation differently.

​However, instead of giving equal importance to both the views, we tend to prefer the view that the glass is half full. Those who see the glass as half empty are advised to be more optimistic and see the glass as half full. Nonetheless, the statement that the glass is half empty is equally true.

The half full glass has no more space while the half empty glass has scope to take up more liquid. From this perspective, the half empty view seems to be more positive and optimistic than the half full view.

Yet again, the half full glass of water has the capacity to dissolve salt so it definitely has space within and we cannot say that the space is occupied fully by water. And similarly, the half empty glass is already filled with air so it was never empty, right from the beginning.

Now lets say, we pour out the water and suck out the air from the glass. What is remaining is called vacuum, which is supposed to be empty, really empty. But scientists say that even a vacuum is not empty – it consists of micro particles which are in some sort of flux.

So what does this tell us. That in this universe, there is nothing really empty. The notion of emptiness must always be qualified – empty of what? Like in the case of the half full glass, we can rightly say that it is half empty of water.

Similarly in the Buddhist concept of emptiness, the emptiness is the absence of an enduring self. However, that does not negate phenomena and therefore, emptiness is only in relation to fullness and in itself, it cannot be. Therefore, this is also known as the emptiness of emptiness.

Looking at Life as a Story

 

story

How do you describe yourself? Don’t you say something like the following:

​My name is Y. I was born in N city on DD-MM-YYYY. I attended this school and that school. I studied graduation from a reputed college and post graduation from an even reputed college. I work as a manager in some renowned company. Previously, I have worked in many companies like M, F and C. I am married and my wife’s name is B and I have two kids A and A. My parents stay in N. I like to read books. I like new age and fusion music. I also like watching movies.

That is my story. I can add more details and elaborate on it. But doesn’t everyone have a story? What is your story? You have a name. You were born somewhere. You did this and did that. You went here and went there. You like this and you dislike that. And many more things like this. Then you have your goals. “I want to do this in life. I am working on a great project. I want to earn a million dollars. I want to drive a BMW and live in a penthouse.”

Observe this carefully. Is there anything apart from the story? I say there is just the story and nothing else. Our mental life is made up of nothing but the story. The obvious question you might raise is then what is all that we see and feel. “The hand that I see is not the story; it is apart from the story. The sky, the tree, the road, the bus, other people and so on.. they are not simply stories. They are real.”

What all those things are cannot be said in words. All words and descriptions are again stories. Whether it is the story of the big bang, or how the earth was formed, or how Alexander conquered countries, how a bud becomes a flower and how a child grows into a man, all these are stories – descriptions made out of concepts invented by us. You read stories in novels, you read stories in newspapers, you listen to stories on television and radio..

Reality is not compelled to follow these stories. Reality cannot be understood with these stories. You will see what is real only when you empty your mind of all stories. You must not attach importance to these stories but know them simply as yarn woven out of thin air.