The question that the brave new world must encounter is whether we are ready and willing to challenge ourselves, our assumptions on the goal of life, the meaning of our work, the purpose of business and the sustainability of the world at large.
“All the world is a play of energy,” said Sri Aurobindo, probably the most profound and comprehensive seer-philosopher of modern India. The primal Mother Energy that reveals in creation, sustenance and dissolution finds endless and myriad expressions in life and the world. We find her in the stillness of the deep blue ocean. Sometimes she is aflame in the sacrificial fire at the altar of the worshipper. Then again she unveils herself softly in the sublime and humble lamplight in the courtyard of the village woman under the tulsi tree.
What is “turbulence”? Turbulence is a certain phase of fiery, stormy and volcanic expression of that energy defying any make-believe order, shattering plebian expectations and challenging all possible predictions. In the current global reality, turbulence is apparently a state of a severe economic meltdown that has resulted in the psychological collapse of the security-seeking millions in both hemispheres of our world. At a deeper level of understanding and consideration, turbulence is not essentially a stockmarket debacle or a negative buoyancy of vibrant forces of life unto the depth and darkness of abyss. In fact, it can be perceived as a revolt to shake off the torpor and inertia of the essentially omnipotent and ever-evolving human mind and spirit gasping for breath, life and light in an otherwise compelling ambience that encourages monochromatic, linear and comfortable living.
The need of the hour is to enhance the courage and firm resolve to break the fetters of our self-created secure yet comfort zones for the flavour and fragrance of life eternal and verdant with all its diverse efflorescence including the tragic yet magic charm of failures, mistakes and adversity!
The question that the brave new world must encounter is whether we are ready and willing to challenge ourselves, our assumptions on the goal of life, the meaning of our work, the purpose of business and the sustainability of the world at large. The mind of the strategist is inordinately baffled when roaring waves of high energy pushes the electron of life to a higher and new order of reality that has a beauty of her own in spite of ruptures and violence but a beauty very different from the conventional one! The energy of life moves on and takes a different turn but the mind is fossilized and the spirit chained like a golden bird in a golden cage and that is the tragic human predicament for most of us. The smile of Mona Lisa is appealing from a distance but how many will dare embrace that irresistible enigma defying all misplaced apprehension of annihilation under the spell of the subtle and diffused femme fatale?
Leadership maestros today will be surprised to know that her creator Leonardo da Vinci, the luminary of the European Renaissance, had left for us a few principles of learning and creativity centuries back, living far ahead of time, from his brilliant and beautiful mind. No wonder one of his key principles was “sfumato”, the ability to embrace uncertainty, ambiguity and paradoxes!
We still strive to learn from the smart, handsome and the successful, albeit essentially mediocre in life, mind and spirit. When shall we begin to learn from the apostles and citadels of greatness? And in spite of sparks and spells of brilliance where is the effulgence of the intrinsic beauty of mind around amidst turbulence? The classical Indian theology and cosmogony preserve a prominent place for destruction nay dissolution.
We find our appeasing and self-congratulating comfort zones in our offering of “bilwa patra” (loosely translated as leaves of the wood apple) on the symbolic icon (lingam) of the Lord followed by the usual chanting. With all due respect to rituals and ceremonies, the question still remains: when shall we learn to dance to rhythm of Shiva in resonance with his ecstasy amidst violence to the tune of his aboriginal percussion, the damaru? Rabindranath Tagore had eagerly waited for the breaking of the doors of perception on a turbulent, stormy night—“Je raate mor duar guli bhanglo jhore (The night the storm broke my doors down).” We sing the song time and again but how many of us dare keep our doors open?
As the second decade of the 21st century draws to a close, leaders of thought, action and organizations worldwide in business or otherwise are increasingly finding themselves struggling to grapple with turbulence and paradoxes. As all calculations and predictions for a happy and prosperous economic future go haywire, the time has come to seriously question some of our fundamental principles and assumptions on dominantly accepted notions such as progress, development, success, aim of life, goal of business and role of leadership in social and environmental sustainability. Timely enough, the theme of the Annual Meet of Academy of Management 2008 in Anaheim, Caligornia was The Questions We Ask. Are we bold enough like T.S. Eliot to ignite our minds on sleepless nights with such burning questions:
“Where is life we have lost in living?/ Where is wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/ Where is knowledge we have lost in information?”
This can mark a transition from our obsession with techno-economic imperatives towards an expanding and inclusive perspective of our work or business, considering multiple constituencies in a much broader and diverse global setting. At a micro level, we need to transcend the limited notion of our self to a deeper understanding of our emotional aspirations, our passions and the ever soaring surge of our spirit so that we may perceive and feel ourselves organically connected with others, distant as well as absent, in space and time. We must learn to live with uneasy questions that challenge conventional mentality and models and stereotypes and embark upon an adventurous odyssey. A search for deeper answers are the characteristics of this unsettling transition.
We should feel compelled to take a fresh look at ourselves and the world at large in a spirit of welcoming creative tension and irresistible discontent. The beginning of this journey in search of light and hope from new horizons will herald the hour of transformation from a mad yet not so bad “brave new world” of speed, information, numbers as in finance and economy, and appearances impressive yet superficial, and moving towards a sustainable earth with a concern for quality, harmony in relationships, a quest for enduring values, and an earnest seeking of pure joy and freedom.
This will challenge us to open ourselves to a whole repertoire of alternative as well as non-conventional sources and methods of learning beyond books and classroom lectures. Let us hear from Wordsworth in The Tables Turned:
“Books! ‘Tis a dull and endless strife,/ Come, hear the woodland linnet,/ How sweet his music! On my life,/ There’s more of wisdom in it…./..Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your Teacher.”
The time has come when we need to strike a dynamic balance between skills and values, intellect and emotion, knowledge and wisdom, work and life, quantity and quality, growth and sustainability. This can happen only if we are open and receptive enough to explore such diverse and unorthodox sources of learning like endearment of Nature, immersion in silence and contemplation, absorption in enlightening conversations and dialogues, and storytelling with a purpose. This will also unleash our innate energy towards evolving our mind towards fullness as in poorna. One finds a certain discomfort with boisterous and confident advocates of “changing the mindset” all around. After all, the new or changed mindset is again a state of a set mind whereas our everflowing mind, by design and nature, intrinsically abhors any stagnation in a particular “set” pattern, however glorious! Learning must culminate in expansion of our “mind-space” with focus on here and now but spread infinite. As William Blake puts it so succinctly in Auguries of Innocence:
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower /Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour.”
But where is the mind that chooses willingly to face turbulence, navigate through transition and embrace the quantum transformation? It cannot be a mind merely confined to limits of calculations around worldly affairs. “Let not earthly prudence whisper too closely into thy ears for this is the hour of the unexpected…” remarked Sri Aurobindo while heralding The Hour of God. But how would the notion of God appeal to a rational, technical and skeptical 21st century mind? So where do we find God? The best answer comes from Sri Aurobindo himself:
“What is God after all—an eternal child playing and eternal game in an eternal garden?”
The child within us may have the magic mantra of this transformation but it has hardly been tended for long years. Even great masters like Mozart or the Swami Vivekananda were childlike in disposition. But we have sacrificed her beyond redemption at the altar of education. Tagore was sensitive enough to quit schooling in childhood so that that the child in him with a vibrant and beautiful mind could ever flow in abundance like The Awakening of the Waterfall (Nirjhorer Swapnobhongo):
“I shall run from one mountain peak to the other,/ And roll from a bed of earth to the other,/ Laughing aloud, singing amused/ Clapping with every rhythm of life.” (Translation mine)
Yet the child groans and moans under pressure from home, work and the world and, of course, under the adult, the worldly-wise and prudent, responsible self of one’s own! Are we willing to welcome her by offering her joy and freedom after breaking the old order like Beethoven breaking movement after movement to unfold enlightenment in his last and historic Choral or the 9th symphony? Mother Earth pines for her to appear with a beautiful mind and a blissful, enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa or the ever childlike Divine Lord of India playing the flute and dancing in ecstasy on the hood of the poisonous serpent for deliverance from turbulence. “Sweet my child, I live for Thee!” wrote Tennyson. She beckons ust with whispers, in silence and in tears.
The author is a Faculty of Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility at IIM Shillong. He has been invited to speak at several prestigious forums—the Aspen Institute, the Oxford Roundtable, the Global Ethics Forum (Geneva), and International Wisdom Conference at CEIBS, Shanghai, among many others. At IIM Shillong, he is the Chairperson of the Annual International Conference on Sustainability.