Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev questions

On 2 January 2017 the Oxford Union posted on YouTube the video of a talk and Q&A by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. He had delivered it on 15 November, but they held up online publication in order to present me with a New Year gift.

I jest, of course, but it was a very special New Year discovery. Since I first critiqued a speech of his on this blog on 5 April 2013, I have featured him several times; but I have sought out videos of his teaching very many more times. I have seen him impart wisdom to questions, and I have seen him deliver big, set-piece speeches. He is particularly comfortable with the former, but can also be very impressive with the latter. Usually I watch him merely to soak up wisdom, but occasionally I don my rhetor hat. Having watched many hours of him I have found what I perceive to be a chink in his formidable speaking armoury.

This is not a set-piece speech. For one thing he is sitting, and for another he habitually precedes set-pieces with a brief chant which I understand is not exactly a prayer but a device for self-focus. Here he merely begins talking.

If I were in his shoes, I should do the same. This is not a conference with a clearly defined theme on which he can hang a message. His teaching is so wide and far-reaching that he could take his pick of scores of messages without knowing whether they would chime with this audience. Far better to deliver a decorum-creating homily, and then address questions. The homily lasts for a smidgeon over 27 minutes.

I mentioned a chink in his armoury. He often asks rhetorical questions, not expecting an answer and not getting one. But suddenly sometimes he does demand an answer. What is strange is that this often happens when the answer is glaringly self-evident. Nearly all questions, even the rhetorical ones are followed by –

…isn’t it – yes or no?

If you have your audience under your spell and they are immersed in deep thought, a question with an obvious answer is likely to be treated by them as rhetorical because they want to stay with their deep thoughts. Why then toss a stone onto the glassy surface of that beautifully still pond and break the spell? Most speakers would give their proverbial right arm to get an audience in that receptive mode. Yet I’ve often seen him break his own spell – including on this occasion.

Were I to confront him on the subject I have no doubt he would give me a string of reasons; but I think it’s a mistake and that he should not pursue unnecessary answers. And even up against a Great Teacher, when on the subject of speaking I am – naturally – always right…

Do yourself a favour and watch the whole thing. You may not agree with all of it. I think I may have issues with his position in relation to the question that begins at 47:20 and intend to apply some serious thought to it. I also believe him to be profoundly misguided with the ending of his preliminary homily: I fear that he is lazily following a fashionable piety. But an opportunity to stop for an hour and fall under that spell is always spiritually refreshing.

And I shall be forever grateful to him for having clarified a personal conundrum with which I struggled till I first heard him in 2013. I stopped struggling and began embracing it. He addresses it again in the final question which begins at 58:30.


Sam Harris does some shredding

In 2011  the University of Notre Dame in Indiana conducted a ‘God Debate’ between Dr William Lane Craig and Dr Sam Harris.

If you’ve a mind to, you can watch the whole thing here. I should probably warn you that it is more than two hours long, but in my opinion it is worth every second. Some years ago I covered here in some depth a series of speeches that made up an Oxford Union God debate. In terms of profundity this at Notre Dame makes that at Oxford look like a squabble in a Sunday School.

As a seeker after truth who cleaves to the mantra that emerged in this blog from the mouth of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, “I do not know”, I find these discussions fascinating. I instinctively recoil from fundamentalism in all its guises, but I find listening to fundamentalists sometimes triggers creative streams of thought. Perhaps that is one reason for me to be such an uncompromising believer in free speech.

I prefer not to try to analyse two hours of deep discussion; but it happens that on YouTube someone has lifted one of Sam Harris’ speeches from the debate, and has posted it under the heading of Sam Harris demolishes Christianity. Shall we see?

Though quietly and soberly uttered, this is a powerful 11 minutes. It gives you some idea of the quality of the arguments that you will meet in the rest of the debate.

To me his most obvious weakness, and it seems always to occur in discussions of this nature, is in conflating religions with spirituality. They are not, despite what all religions claim, the same. The former are manmade attempts to codify the latter, and that process necessarily limits it by binding it into a particular shape. They each claim that theirs was a divinely inspired manmade shape, but then they would.

Harris does indeed here make a very effective job of shredding Christianity as it is taught – as the video claims – but he is attacking merely that manmade shape. To my mind he lays not a scratch on spirituality in general.

For instance let’s look at a small section that begins at the 50 second mark. This is the same tired argument that Stephen Fry offered here. Imagine a loving father standing at a kerb, holding the hand of his three-year-old toddler. On the other side of the road is an ice-cream kiosk, and the toddler wants ice-cream. The father will not allow it, perhaps because the road is too busy to cross safely, perhaps because the toddler has some sort of medical disorder causing an ice-cream intolerance. We can imagine very many legitimate reasons for the father to withhold this desired treat, but the 3-year-old cannot. At that moment, as far as the toddler is concerned, the father is behaving unkindly. The toddler is not in possession of the bigger picture.

If there were any spiritual entity, of whatever description, being the cause and the root of all existence – let’s, for the sake of argument, call it God though in truth it could be very different from any God that any religion has described – then it’s safe to assume that it would possess a picture bigger than ours. Now Harris’ argument in this small section, and Stephen Fry in that interview, sound like that toddler in ignorance throwing a tantrum. Yes, I am conscious that deprivation of ice-cream doesn’t have an obvious equivalence to thousands of deaths from a tsunami, but the abstract principle still holds. Now we see through a glass darkly.

This speech is a good appetiser for the whole debate, which I found deeply absorbing. Does it go anywhere towards crystallising my ill-, perhaps I should say un-, defined spirituality? No, but the seeking after truth is what matters. Like André Gide I mistrust any who claim to have found it.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is not worrying

Every so often, finding myself in need of reflection and spiritual refreshment of a different kind, I like to examine talks concerning Eastern Wisdom. So it was that I found myself watching Sri Sri Ravi Shankar talking about Karma. This is not his first visit to these pages.

I thought Karma was simply a spiritual judgmental philosophy: behave yourself or else! How wrong I apparently was.

Mr rhetor hat is never far away. My passion for my work is such that though intending merely to soak up what he is saying I can’t help but register how he is saying it. Look at the way he lays out his stall so clearly in the first minute and a half. And look at how it leads like silk into the next section where he makes the distinction between good Karma and bad Karma, how the one can be used to drive out the other, but how even the good Karma must then be rinsed away.

“Rinsed.”  I had to use that verb – he made me. He weaves a vey clever parallel, beginning at 5:55, to explain why even good Karma must be evicted from your mind for you to be completely at rest.

His pace seems almost glacially slow, made slower by huge pauses, yet he explains more in twenty quiet minutes than I have often seen imparted in twice as many frenetic ones.

I love his final message. Having led us through a labyrinth of what Karma is, is not, and how best to cope with it, he finishes by saying, “Don’t worry about it.”

It is a little like my training. I very often say to my trainees that when you boil it all down this is just talking. And so it is. Don’t worry about it.

Oliver Robinson in speech mode

At Imperial College in London on 1 November 2014, Dr Oliver Robinson gave a talk on ‘Science and Spirituality’. He is an author, lecturing in psychology at Greenwich University. The subject matter here is for him a personal interest and sideline. I know this because I know him. He is my nephew.

You may think that our relationship would guarantee that he is a trainee of mine. Not so. He has never asked me for help in this field and I have always assumed that this was because he didn’t wish to bother me, or he felt that he was at least as good as, and probably better than, most people (which he is), or along the lines of that excellent rule – don’t try to teach your wife to drive. I was very eager to watch this talk.

He doesn’t bother with an opening beyond the standard “Tell them what you’re going to tell them”; and with only ten minutes for the talk I think he’s right. He also slips a minuscule piece of throw-away humour into the first few seconds, and correctly throws it away. This is good, though the opening goes on a little too long. Devices like that ‘hanging thread’ of the book that he will later tell us about really only work with longer speeches than this.

As a lecturer he has become expert at disguising his hump, but it’s still there (it is with everyone). The symptoms are tiny but unmistakable, and even quite late in this talk there are nerve symptoms. It is a pity that his conscientiousness is generating anxiety which in turn is throwing up a mask that hides his full personality. I call it Speech Mode, and its elimination is one of my first targets with my trainees. But let’s get to specifics concerning this talk.

He suffers from the almost universal malady of over-use of PowerPoint.

  • Slide 1 is the title of the talk – ok
  • Slide 2 is worse than redundant: if a slide bears the words that you’ve spoken or are speaking it doesn’t help. it is in direct competition with you. Lose it.
  • Slide 3  – ditto. It’s actually an extension of Slide 2.
  • Slide 4 – ditto, ditto.
  • Slide 5 is his re-seizing of that hanging thread, adding the image of the book to the rogue slide that has been extending all this while. That image is important: it should have a slide of its own and be Slide 2.
  • Slide 6 is a bookfest image. He shows four pairs of books which represent the remainder of his talk that essentially now becomes a bibliography.

With these books, all of which he commends, he shows that since the seventeenth century each of the books on science has a spiritual counterpart, and thus the two movements have progressed in parallel. It’s an interesting principle and suitably provocative in that it makes us keen to read all the books to sample the theory. I’ve a feeling we need to, because in just ten minutes Oliver is not really able to establish much, if any, linkage. Parallel, yes – but parallel lines never converge. To suggest complementarity we need convergence or linkage of some sort.

That said, his normal University work probably involves perhaps as much research guidance as actual teaching, so pointing audiences at books to read, and whetting their appetite to do so, would then be an essential skill.

But let’s get back to Oliver’s actual speaking skill. The two most important ingredients are there. He is very articulate and he has good command of the subject. A couple of things are getting in the way of his doing full justice to himself. He needs to be rid of that bloody paper. The script or notes in front of him are a constant impediment. He needs to learn how to structure a sufficiently secure mind-map that enables him safely to shoot the speech from the hip. He could do it easily. He has a shortage of fundamental inner confidence. He may tell me I’m wrong, and he certainly synthesizes confidence pretty effectively, but he is behind a speech-mode mask which is hiding much of the huge personality I know him to have. Sort out those two things and he’d fly. The natural ability is there: look at the excellence of timing that harvests from his audience a fine and deserved laugh at 10:00.

Could I make him fly? Yes, of course – easily. Would I if he asked? Yes, of course: he’s my Godson.

N.T.Wright – about as good as can be.

Tom Wright was Bishop of Durham from 2003 to 2010. When he retired that See (succeeded, incidentally, by someone called Justin Welby) he went into academia and authorship under the name of Professor N.T.Wright. It is in the latter guise that we find him in November 2014 delivering a lecture to Duke Divinity School. The lecture is entitled Why and How Paul Invented Christian Theology.

After a very brief introduction by (I believe) Richard Hays, Dean of the School, he begins at 1:15, and ends at 45:55. The rest is questions.

My word, but this man is good!  He does pretty-well everything right, or at least he does everything as I teach it should be done – which of course is the same thing.

In his introduction we have been told that he is on a very tight schedule, and will be whisked away immediately after this lecture to his next engagement. Before walking to the lectern he has already looked and seen that there is not a clock visible. I know this because before the applause has died enough for him to start speaking, he has already removed his wristwatch and placed it on the lectern. This is such a small thing that it presses my excitement button. If he takes such care of the micro details I know he will be well on top of the macro ones.

Readers of this blog know that I prefer speakers not to use a script. Readers of The Face & Tripod also know that I concede that there are occasions when a script becomes necessary: I even have a section of rights-and-wrongs concerning the physical layout of a script. I make the point that those who have learnt to speak without paper invariably handle paper better, because the script is merely a tool not a master, still less a comfort-blanket. Wright is a copy-book example of all of the above. We have been told that he is rushing from engagement to engagement, and I think we can assume these all to be speaking engagements. He will certainly have tailored each speech to each audience, so scripts are necessary. Nevertheless he gives the audience the full benefit of his eyes, just glancing down from time to time.  The sheets of paper have writing on only one side (makes page turning less messy). They are not fastened together (ditto). He is doing everything right. And he is so much in command of himself that a couple of times he produces a pen and annotates the script – or possibly even edits it – on the hoof without breaking stride.

His enunciation is as good as it gets. Readers of Every Word Heard will know that I am allergic to ‘consonantitis’, that self-conscious, staccato, over-delivery of every consonant, making the speaker sound like a prat. I also hate over-enunciation that makes each word sound as if it came individually wrapped. Wright goes nowhere near either of these errors yet not a single syllable goes AWOL. His intonation is wonderfully expressive, but some expressive speakers add emphasis to certain syllables by stealing it from others. Examples are here and here. Wright does not make that mistake. (Nit-pick alert: listen closely to his first two sentences and you will hear him kick-start his platform-enunciation with a tiny bit of deliberate consonantitis before settling into his normal stride. It’s a professional trick.)

He conforms to W.B.Yeats’ urging to “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people”. Some streetwise colloquialisms are used to make points more eloquently – even occasionally rubbing shoulders with Latin in the same sentence. Perhaps he is also conforming to a Kiplingesque walking with kings nor losing the common touch.

If I were to move into serious nit-picking, I would address a tiny detail concerning his gestures. They are beautifully, unconsciously expressive, so no problem there; but I would urge him to adopt the habit of ‘mirroring’. When, for instance, his hands indicate a progression of some sort he moves them from left to right – his left to his right. If he did that the other way around, the progression would go from our left to our right.

He tells us that his lecture is based upon his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Whether you are promoting a book to potential readers or presenting a big report to your company’s Board of Directors, the classic error is to attempt to precis it when you should be trailing it. You want your audience to read it: you don’t want to preempt their need to do so. Wright trails it. He picks a section from it, and then tells you just enough both to teach and to tantalize you. It’s very skillful.

At least I think that’s what he does; but to be honest I am so smitten that my rhetor hat has stayed firmly on my head. I’ve been sitting and luxuriating in the magisterial magnificence of the performance at the expense of my actually paying much attention to what he is telling me. I shall now watch the whole thing over again. It will be a pleasure: I could listen to him all day.

I know even less about the admin of the Church of England than I do about theology, but I wonder how big a blow to the church his retirement from the episcopacy was. It was undoubtedly a huge boon to his students and indeed the rest of the world. I find myself pondering on whether he made the ecclesiastic equivalent of moving to the back-benches in order to broadcast more freely his particular piece of apostolic succession. I shall look out more of his pronouncements.

Danah Zohar leaves us wanting more

Danah Zohar spoke at the India Today Conclave 2008. If you have happened upon this post of mine concerning Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, and if you clicked the link to the second half of the speech in question, you might have seen that following him was the speech that we are going to examine today. Zohar begins at 15:50.

Danah Zohar is a very skilled speaker. She structures her material very clearly: she shoots principally from the hip and speaks with passion. She adeptly deploys a range of rhetorical figures of speech, in particular anaphora, thus giving her delivery an elegance that is almost poetic. By any standards this is good speaking.

Why then do shots of the audience show us too many people fidgeting, and obviously not absorbed? Could it be that the assertion she quotes at 16:05 – “in India we love controversy” is mere wishful thinking?

I don’t think so. This is not controversial. It could be: it should be, but it comes out as frankly rather banal. Having given you, in one paragraph, my rhetor’s summary of the quality of her actual speaking I shall now doff my rhetor hat and look at her message from the standpoint of a seeker after truth – me. Her message is muddled and unconvincing.

At 16:30 as part of her opening she says –

“I don’t accept the division between the spiritual and the physical, and much of my words will be about how to use the dynamic interaction between the spiritual and the physical …”

I wonder whether she – or anyone else – can explain how there can be a “dynamic interaction” between two things which, not being divided, are therefore one.

Watching it, I mentally brushed this question aside, as I wanted to learn what she had to say; and at first I was thirstily soaking up the theory. I felt that here was a great deal upon which to ponder. I still think there is a great deal upon which to ponder, but that somewhere along the line she has partially lost her own plot – or at least she had on this day in 2008. I found myself developing an impression that the purity of her message had become contaminated by her need to develop a brand for the corporate speaking market.

As she worked her way down twelve essential principles, and as muddles and self-contradictions continued to appear all over the place, I began eagerly to hope that before the end she would draw threads together to explain. But midway through principle 8 – independence of thought – the video ran out in the middle of a sentence.

There is a well-established showbiz principle that I never tire of quoting to my trainees: “Always leave them wanting more”. Nevertheless I’ll bet you anything you like tha

Ian Percy is good with chickens.

In my travels I have periodically heard about Ian Percy. Trainees and also readers of this blog have mentioned him to me. I have been told that he is a ‘certified speaking professional’ (certified by whom?). He has been inducted into both the Canadian and U.S. Speaking Halls of Fame. He has been described as “one of the top 21 speakers for the 21st century”.

That’s some billing! Shall we see if he lives up to it? Here he is, speaking at the Center for Spiritual Living, Capistrano Valley, California, in January last year. His talk is entitled “Free the chickens”.

He is introduced by Rev. Dr. Heather Dawn Clark, and my senses suggest that Percy wrote his own introduction. (If he didn’t, he should have done: it saves so much trouble for everyone. At any rate, whoever wrote it, I like the alliterative triad in it.) I don’t know what makes Dr Clark laugh as we join her, but it adds warmth and charm to the proceedings. Dr Clark makes just one mistake. Leading or joining the applause when standing at the lectern feels so right but it looks and sounds wrong. Ian Percy begins at 1:20.

You may notice a sort of bell-like singing sound, impinging on your consciousness from time to time. It started during Dr Clark’s introduction and it doesn’t stop when Percy begins. This is from automatic microphone adjustment (AMA). I cannot be certain whether the live audience heard it or whether it is interference in the interface between the Center’s sound system and the camera’s microphone. The Center’s sound system is so good in every other respect that I suspect it is the latter and just one of those unfortunate things that happen.

Percy needs AMA. He uses such a huge range of tone colour with his voice that without it there’d either be passages that were inaudible or others severely distorted.

His inconsequential opening chit-chat shows tiny signs of hump, but you have to look pretty hard for it. This guy’s reputation is well earned. So good indeed is he that I instinctively reach for my nit-picking tweezers.

The camera operator, later in the speech, pans across to the screen to show us Percy’s visuals; but with the early slides we just have to guess what is there. The guess is easy so why the slides? Without them he would not be periodically looking around at the screen and surrendering his claim on the audience’s focus. If I were advising him I would tell him to ditch the slides – all of them. They add virtually nothing to what he is saying and he is quite compelling enough to not need those things as a crutch.

He has cue-cards of some description above his eye-level behind the audience/camera, but he uses them only for when he needs to quote precise figures. The rest of the time he is shooting from the hip and doing it well. If advising him I would recommend having those details on a card in his hand. Being seen to refer to hard copy when quoting statistics strengthens verisimilitude. I have trainees like Finance Directors whose lives are so absorbed in the figures they quote at presentations that they could quote them to the penny in their sleep; but they look at a card when they quote them so that their audiences are not tempted to suspect that these figures are ball-park. Sometimes the cards are blank…

And really those are the only nits I’m going to pick.

It’s an absorbing presentation, engagingly delivered, and though the message may be less than ground-breaking it is thought-provoking and I certainly do not think of the half hour it took to watch as being time wasted. This guy is good.