Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev returns

In April 2013 Emory University, in Atlanta Georgia, hosted a talk by the mystic, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.

He has appeared four times previously on this blog, and the first of those remains my most viewed posting. Barely a day passes without there being several visitors to it. Are they coming to study his speaking skill or listen to his wisdom? I neither know nor care, because I have the same question with regard to myself. I luxuriate in how well he speaks, but mainly listen to what he says about life. He does not have all the answers. If he claimed that I would spurn him. What he has is guidance on how we should seek our own answers.

The reason I am featuring him again, apart from merely indulging myself, is because he displays some fundamental lessons for all speakers.

He likes to begin with that chanting. The one time on this blog that he didn’t was his least successful appearance on it. I am convinced it is a focus device, a form of yoga if you will. It lasts about a minute, so it will also double as a hump-buster. The rest of us would have difficulty in employing it, but we all use what we can to get on a roll.

He looks other-worldly, but doesn’t sound it. This is because he absolutely isn’t. His Isha Foundation is a hugely successful business, for which he makes no apology but instead uses its riches to do much valuable philanthropic work.

He doesn’t take himself seriously. His philosophy, yes, his work, yes, himself no. That is such an important lesson for life as well as for speaking. There’s some lovely, gentle self-mockery. The self-mockery extends to beyond himself. Listen to the way he speaks about India. His love for his country is obviously profound, but that doesn’t stop him ribbing it. All of that will charm any audience.

He has a habit of asking what appear to be rhetorical questions, and then asking for an answer. This keeps the audience slightly on the back foot, but also on its toes. If you are on your toes you pay attention. It’s clever.

He is wonderfully adept at classic rhetorical devices. There is a long and elaborate anaphora series “If you become pleasant …” beginning at 12:35. These things are not only really easy to deliver because of their logical progress, but they are just as easy for an audience to absorb. Win – win.

He needs no script: he needs no notes: he needs no slides. Many people think that this is a magical trick, but they are wrong. It is easy: you merely need to know how to do it. He has structured this whole hour-long talk in a way that has each section following logically from its predecessor. Also he knows his subject. You know your subject, so if you likewise structured your material you would not need script, notes or slides either.

But I think the single most important lesson that he provides for speakers comes from who he is and what he does. This man is supremely comfortable in his skin – do we have any doubt at all about that? His very stock-in-trade is that inner peace that I try to get my trainees to embrace. Thus he spares not a nano-thought to himself, but simply focuses on what this audience needs to hear and how best therefore to tell it to them.

That is the ideal mindset for any speaker. That is why he is so good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to him.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and decorum mismatch

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev has featured several times here, indeed my critique of the speech he delivered at the 2008 India Today Conclave has attracted more views than any other posting on this blog.

He delivered a talk at TED India 2009.

Ted talks, as uploaded online, have a distinct style; and generally it’s a good one. It’s not that they edit out introductions and preambles; it’s not that they are professional and slick enough to have a wandering camera to supplement the fixed front-of-house shots; it’s not just that they dress the stage appropriately to the talks; it’s not that in the video editing they tend to cut away completely to any slides being shown; etc.  It’s more a general feel that comes out in the pace and rhythm of the 18 minute talks. They come across as tight and business-like, which is ideal for nearly all speakers.

I spotted some months ago that Vasudev had delivered a TED talk, and I delayed watching it because I feared a clash of decorum, that TED’s house-style rhythm would be incompatible with Vasudev’s. The latter has a very particular decorum: he habitually begins with some chanting that sets a very slow, almost somnolent and very unTED-like, pace for what follows.

I was right to be anxious. Vasudev is an outstanding speaker, and with outstanding speakers I get picky as hell – that’s my job. Here the tuning of his engine seems constantly to be slightly wrong.

Did he omit his habitual chanting, or did he include it and they edited it out of the video? I shall stick my neck out and suggest the former. Chanting would have established a more Vasudev-style rhythm.

It is uncharacteristic for him to begin with such an aggressively overt gag. Furthermore, as every trainee of mine knows, it is a mistake – I haven’t the space here to explain why. The tittering while the gag is being recounted sounds nervous, and the laugh at the punchline is rather lacklustre. That is all entirely predictable.

The link from the gag to his theme is slightly clunky, as is the rest of the talk, and the decorum throughout is wrong for the content.

The gears are grinding: he is not himself. Watch that speech I mentioned in the first paragraph, or watch this one (wherein he begins at 2:50), and you witness an inner stillness that makes you hang on every word. Not only is he here galloping along too quickly, look how much he is fidgeting: his feet never stop moving. I have no problem with speakers who move, but Vasudev is not a fidget.

Do you hang on every word, or does your mind wander?  Mine wanders, and it is so frustrating! His subject and message fascinate me, but still I have to fight to stay with him. This is entirely because of decorum mismatch.

Some twenty years ago I recorded a radio interview with the late English comedy writer, Frank Muir. He recalled a book promotion speaking tour that took him to the USA. Before his first talk the American booking agent urged him to add some zip and pzazz to his delivery. Frank, realizing that zip and pzazz were not to be found in his armoury, delivered as he would have done to an English audience – and stormed them!

You have to be yourself. You are the best, most interesting, most engaging, most compelling you can be when you are being yourself. If your style is incompatible with that of the conference organizer, one of you has to give way. If you are as good as Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev it should definitely not be you.

Eben Alexander met God

In November 2013 Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis presented a talk by Eben Alexander. He called it The Nature of Consciousness. Five years earlier almost to the day Alexander, an eminent neurosurgeon, contracted an intensely vicious variety of meningitis which put him into a coma for a week. His doctors gave him less than 2% chance of surviving, and even if he did survive he was sure to be a helpless invalid. They even gave up on the antibiotics, and at that point he began to pull back.

During that coma he had a Near Death Experience which he later recounted in his book, Proof of Heaven. He is now returned to complete health. As an eager seeker-after-truth, I read the book last year. I also read a review which scornfully dismissed the word ‘proof’. The reviewer was probably a mathematician; he certainly wasn’t a rhetorician. In rhetoric ‘proof’ means merely an offering of evidence. Alexander, as befits a neurosurgeon, offers a great deal of evidence along with a range of scientific arguments and suggested explanations.

If asked whether he convinced me, I would heroically retreat behind the mantra that Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev gives the seeker-after-truth. I do not know. I am sure that he himself is sincerely convinced; and he gave me quite enough food for thought to make me interested to hear him speak.

That still picture is not Eben Alexander but Tim Hart-Anderson who introduced him. Alexander begins at 2:00 and ends at 32:00. The rest is essentially questions. Gold star for precision of timing!

Till I saw this speech I had only the account in his book as evidence for his return to health. Now I can confirm that he looks pretty damn chipper!

For a minute I detect quite severe hump symptoms, so I am pleased when he asks the audience for a show of hands from anyone who has not read his book. Little devices like that are very good hump-busters, and I rather suspect this is there for that and no other reason. He doesn’t appear to do much with the information.

Once into his flow he is good. He is relaxed, fluent, personable, audible, and he shoots almost entirely from the hip. 

Nevertheless, if he consulted me, I should like to do some work on his material. There are some very good bits and a few rather loose bits. The overall message is strong and, I was pleased to find, devoid of airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo; but principally it’s the overall shape that I feel needs pulling about for added coherence.

There’s an excellent hanging thread at 6:00, but a curiously messy section when at 7:55 he refers back to “those three erroneous thoughts…” I had to replay the previous half minute twice before I began to see what he was getting at, and even then had to play it a couple of times more before I could find three distinct thoughts in the jumble of words. It merely needs a tightening up of the words, and perhaps enumerating with fingers, but that section needs something.

He says that he has not time to recount in detail his actual near death experience, but clearly he has to say something about it. At 11:30 he reaches the part where he became “a speck of awareness on a butterfly wing”. Only two paragraphs ago I absolved him of airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo, and now that phrase…? I can only excuse him and me by stressing that it is something in the matter of fact way he recounts it both here and in the book that makes it not seem at the time like airy-fairy mumbo-jumbo. Nevertheless he makes the point very strongly in the book that the experience he had was more real than reality yet so blindingly bizarre that words become inadequate. He met God, though he dislikes using the word. (If you think this is all getting a little crazy, I have to tell you that it seems to make perfect matter-of-fact sense in the book and to a lesser extent in this speech.) For two or three minutes, at any rate, the speech does become less coherent and the remedy would not be easy to find.

Explanations for his experience are absurdly easy to conceive, but as a brain surgeon he is very well placed to counter them. In his book he swats them like mosquitoes, but seems to sense that this audience does not need that. Back to his speech …

It hardens up immeasurably when he quotes two distinguished men of science, Sir James Jeans and more particularly Wilder Penfield. The latter having conducted thousands of neurological experiments over very many years had firmly concluded that –

The mind is not in the brain.

In my opinion that sentence would have made a far stronger title (Face) for the speech than the rather mundane and prosaic The Nature of Consciousness. It is so provocative! It provokes an inevitable and deafening question. Where the […] is it then?

I do not know.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev preserves my doubt

My theme for this Sunday comes from St Mark chapter 9, verse 24.

Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief

Whenever asked about my religion, if I am feeling charitable I describe myself as a devout doubter; if uncharitable I tell them to mind their own business. ‘Devout doubter’ may seem like a smart-arse cop-out, but actually I mean it literally. I am devoted to my doubt: I love my doubt: I cleave to my doubt. Theologians can burst a blood vessel trying to persuade me as to the correct meaning of that quote above, but I choose it to mean that I want help to maintain my doubt. When I stop doubting I’ll stop seeking the truth.

Gopi Krishna in a comment to a posting I did on a speech by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev supplied a link to the following NDTV programme.

I find the entire discussion riveting. The quality of the beautifully chaired debate is outstanding. All the speakers have something worth saying, and they say it well.

It includes the following quote from Vasudev –

Belief will give you solace: belief will not give you solutions

As a mantra for a devout doubter, that takes some beating.

Ancient Wisdom in seven guises

At the Davos Economic Forum in 2006 there was a meeting whereat seven of the world’s spiritual leaders each spoke for between 5 and 10 minutes.

I am bound to say that I am not a fan of the Economic Forum. No doubt it was founded with the best of intentions, but it has always looked to me like a gathering of self-regarding busybodies who, persuaded that they are wiser than everyone else, discuss how to impose their views on the world. It is true that Jaw-Jaw is better than War-War and the exchange of thoughts and ideas is welcome. But it is ‘top-down’ imposition of those ideas, rather than the fostering of their natural organic spread, that has consistently caused so many problems in the world.

Nevertheless a group of spiritual leaders in discussion might be a source of wisdom, so let’s eavesdrop. They are Lord Carey, Matthieu Ricard, Diarmuid Martin, David Rosen, Feisal Abdul Rauf, Bartholomew, and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. The last is becoming a regular on this blog and, though he speaks for barely 10% of the time, some arbitrary electronic decision has placed a still image of him (below) to represent them all.

The meeting is fairly pleasingly punctuated by song, though I have been unable definitively to identify the singer.

Lord Carey tops and tails the meeting. He greets from 5:55 to 10:10, setting the scene. He seeks to define wisdom, citing T.S.Eliot’s making the distinction between information. knowledge and wisdom. He introduces the speakers, and also points out that the audience contains several spiritual leaders also.  At this stage I spot an inevitability about all the offerings from these speakers. Coming from a range of different faiths, they are not there to promote their own faith but to promote the oneness of humanity. Doing that without resorting to a stream of cliché platitudes is a challenge that I would not want to tackle..

Matthieu Ricard speaks from 10:12 to 16:27. People are beautiful: people are good, however much they might quarrel. Ricard quotes Gandhi, and the quote leads him into a call for compassion and forgiveness. He quotes Martin Luther King and The Dalai Lama and these lead him towards a call for Gross Domestic Happiness.

Diarmuid Martin speaks from 18:35 to 24:36. He uses the parable of The Good Samaritan as his theme, pointing out that though we know no more about the Samaritan than his nationality, we know even less about the traveller. He is every man, and one in distress. Martin goes on to examine the nature of care, and becomes quite compelling in the process.

David Rosen speaks from 26:28 to 33:03. He draws on the Midrash to define wisdom and one conclusion that he reaches is that wisdom is the capacity to be aware of, and appreciate, the divine in everything and everyone. I have one quibble, not with what he says but how he says it. There were two places that he could have stopped earlier than he did, and either would have been slightly stronger than his eventual finish.

Feisal Abdul Rauf speaks from 35:18 to 43:53. “Religion […] is the repository of human wisdom”. That is his opening shot, and an uncompromising one to those whose spiritual thought harbours doubts about religion. But this is only the first element in an anaphora which culminates in acknowledging that religion can be a harmful tool in the hands of unscrupulous men. He goes on to reinforce the distinction between those for whom the word of God inspires love, and those in whom it foments hatred.

Bartholomew speaks from 46:15 to 55:57. He raises a word that had been niggling at me – ‘succession’. I had been marvelling at the wealth of apostolic succession represented on that stage. He lists, and explores, essential values: dignity, silence, beauty and ascesis. He dwells longest on silence, with a four-element anaphora – “if we stand silent…”

Jaggi Vasudev speaks from 58:22 to 1:06:12. Remembering that central to his teaching are the words, “I do not know”, I am curious as to how well this talk will sit with the others. He translates the word, “Yoga”. It means “Union”. He goes on to expand on the nature of the union, reaching the necessity of all of us to be at one with each other and our surroundings. That needs clarity of perception. Finally he says that modern questions require modern answers, and he illustrates that with a funny story. It gets more of a laugh from the floor than from the stage.

Lord Carey concludes from 1:08:18. He addresses the challenge of being passionate about one’s own religion without diminishing the divine in others. He recalls an orchestra that had entertained them the previous evening, all the musicians and the variety of instruments all combining towards a single message. He likewise concludes with a story, this time about the distinction between a church service and worship.

The quality of the speaking at this gathering was predictably very high. All of them lead through teaching, and their communication skill is manifest. It would be frankly impertinent and otiose for me to offer any conclusion beyond what these people said. And anyway, I do not know.