Saturday, September 25, 2004

Thoughts on Wisdom

Thoughts on Wisdom

The so-called thinking man is often deluded into believing that the intellect is everything. We spend all our lives acquiring an education which teaches us how to debate, argue and defend our point of view. So much so that we often mistake these mental gymnastics as wisdom.

The intellect is the biggest trap for many "educated" people because we think that having an education puts us in an unassailable position. We will not take it kindly if someone calls us stupid; at the same time we will not hesitate to label other people "stupid" if we think that they do not measure up to our standards. Have we asked ourselves why we are always so keen to prove that we are smarter than other people?

An education helps us to nurture the mind and trains us how to think--well, at least to a certain extent. When the mind has acquired a certain level of confidence in solving problems and analyzing situations, it starts developing a life and identity of its own--an ego. It is the ego that takes pleasure in acknowledging itself as being "smart". This intellectual ego is one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual progress because it is a mental illusion; and mental illustions are very difficult to dispel because they are part of the mind, which is also our very instrument for salvation.

We are often so sure of our learning that we acquire the habit of putting everything that we see and hear into mental boxes very efficiently--we classify, categorize, label and stereotype. Once these mental boxes have been created, they are extremely difficult to discard. They then acquire a life of their own and become our representation of the world. The thinking process immediately becomes an act of manipulation involving these static mental boxes--boxes that are continuously being nested into further boxes.

When we find that this mental habit has become a bit limiting, we say, "let's think out-of-the-box". But the moment we say that, we are again thinking within a box; albeit a slightly larger one. The mind is trapped by its own thoughts.

The greatest problem with so-called educated people is that they think they have wisdom. But wisdom is beyond thinking. It is knowing. This knowing is perceived directly. If a person is spiritually developed, intuition is the gateway into this realm of knowing.

Sometimes women exhibit more wisdom than men because they possess better intuition and can sense the truth directly. The wife senses what's in her husband's mind; the mother knows what's bothering her child. This is wisdom that transcends the mind. The only obstacle for women is that they have a more sensitive emotional body which can sometimes cloud their perception of the truth. The emotional body is what makes us feel lonely, sad or happy and tends to fluctuate like the weather. But on those occassions when the emotional skies are clear, wisdom shines forth in great brilliance.

Men are by nature creatures of the mind. We believe what we think more than what we sense with our intuition. What we think could well turn out to be the truth but unfortunately our thinking process is often distorted by the noise of ego--such as pride, fear, arrogance and greed. It makes us fail to see what's right in front of our eyes because we prefer to satiate our egoes--feeding them with what they want to believe. Bloody wars have been fought over ideologies because we believe in the infallability of the mind and its ideas.

Thinking is the first and a necessary step towards wisdom. Unfortunately we often stop there.To acquire wisdom, we need to overcome the obstacles projected by the ego. Eliminating the ego, is the ultimate goal of many spiritual practices. Only by doing so can Truth reveal itself in crystal clarity.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Business Communications, Indonesian Style

Business Communications, Indonesian Style

Foreigners doing business in Indonesia for the first times could be irritated by how slow things seem to be able to move here: scheduled meetings are often cancelled at the very last minute; deadlines are very flexible and meetings are never conclusive. You have to learn not to rush things because they will unfold at their natural rhythm.

With the Javanese, things are also never expressed directly. A "no" is never said right in your face--you have to be able to read the signals: the project is postponed, budget is awaiting approval or the manager who makes the decision is overseas.

Meetings here are full of courtesy and politeness. Voices are never raised. Sometimes I feel a little bit bad conversing in English because even my most politely chosen words seem a little bit jarring compared to the natural grace of the Indonesian tongue.

In my line of work, I do a lot of interviews with my clients. Even though I don't feel very comfortable using Bahasa Indonesia fully in business situations, I often start my conversation with them in their native language to make them feel at ease first. I'd begin by apologizing for my Bahasa--which is "nggak begitu lancar". Most of them would also assume I'm Singaporean, so by introducing myself as a Malaysian, it also helps to break the ice as we are "satu rumpun".

Because it can be so difficult to schedule meetings, especially with the government type, the trick is to just show up at their office on the pretext of meeting someone else. A simple but polite "maaf menganggu Pak" works wonders. Most of my Indonesian clients speak reasonably good English but by showing them respect and making the effort to make them feel comfortable you'll get more out of your session with them.

After so many years of attempting to converse in Indonesian Malay, I still face difficulty especially when I have to articulate technical concepts--words would automatically come out in English. When I attempt to say it in Bahasa Indonesia, it will first pop out from my mind in Bahasa Malaysia, which I then have to mentally translate on-the-fly into Betawi-style Indonesian. The end result is often an embarassing mix of something that is neither this nor that.

But whatever language you choose to use in Indonesia, the important thing that needs to come across is respect and politeness. That is the universal language that matters. Only then will the message have a chance to get through.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Land of Opportunities?

The Land of Opportunities?

Some of my Indonesian friends are hoping that when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (popularly known by his initials, "SBY") becomes th next president, he'll deal with the terrorists more "decisively" (read ruthlessly). There is bitter anger against this bigoted group of people whose misguided actions have only hurt ordinary Indonesians going about their daily lives.

My friend Ibu Titi doesn't share the same opinion though. She is hoping that Ibu Megawati would win because she does not believe in having ex-military men like SBY running the country. Enough of the military's ruthless ways after almost three decades of General Suharto's rule, she said.

With SBY likely to become the next President of Indonesia, it is interesting to see what kind of changes he would bring to the country. Indonesia is not an easy country to run--the sheer diversity and size of the country boggles the mind. Things like corruption and poverty cannot be wiped out overnight. Jobs need to be created. To do that you need foreign investments; and that can only happen if there's peace and stability.

The worst time for Indonesia in recent times was the Asian Financial Crisis culminating in the riots of May 1998. During that time it felt like all business came to standstill. It took a while before things started moving again. But move it did. Kota--the Chinatown of Jakarta--is a bustling place these days with health spas, supermarkets and restaurants sprouting up every other month. Trendy yuppie bars and up-market designer malls are also crowded with people on weekends.

Sometimes I feel that there's nothing stopping Indonesia from achieving prosperity as long as the leaders can achieve the basic things--namely peace and stability. The economy will inevitability grow because people are keen to invest in the country. The size of the market and the availability of cheap labour are great pull factors.

An Indonesian Chinese friend of mine who had his entire primary and tertiary education in Singapore (common among many of the wealthy Chinese here) chose to come back to his homeland to make a living. I asked him why.

"I see a lot of opportunities here."

I couldn't agree more.

Monday, September 20, 2004

The Body and the Soul

The Body and the Soul

I flew in to Jakarta from Singapore last night through Valuair. It was my first time travelling on this airline and was quite happy with their service. Even though the ticket price is almost the same as those offered by AirAsia, Valuair provides assigned seats for passengers and a meal is included.

It was also the first time that I arrived in Jakarta at night. Being Sunday night, I had expected massive queues at the immigration but was pleasantly surprised when ours were they only flight arriving at that time. I had also taken the trouble to book a taxi beforehand but realised that I didn't have to--there were hardly anyone waiting at the taxi stands.

Today is a holiday in Indonesia--the second round of the presidential election. Most of the shops and malls were closed for half-a-day this morning to allow their workers to vote. I didn't plan my trip to coincide with this important event but for some reason everytime I'm here the country is having elections. Don't really mind the public holiday though cause it gives me a day to get back into the rhythm of Jakarta life before plunging into work.

I had spent almost a month back home in KL and coming back to Jakarta always feel like a relief. I had lunch at my favourite canteen which sells East Javanese food opposite the Paragon Hotel. The soto Madura was very satisfying. I also couldn't resist having my usual kopi tubruk and Indomie rebus at the warung outside my hotel in Tanah Abang.

I enjoy living in this city because life here is simple. Even though Jakarta is a very crowded and polluted place, I feel at peace here. I could gather my thoughts easily and see things with greater clarity. I suppose that's one of the good things about travel, you get a change of perspective and it forces you to see things in a new light.

When you are away from home, your old life feels very distant and small. It's probably like one of those near-death out-of-body experience. People who had this kind of experience before always describe it as one that's very peaceful. Having left the limiting frame of my mortal body in in KL, my soul now hovers happily over Jakarta.

And sometimes the soul thinks of discarding the body altogether.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Purifying Power of Pain

The Purifying Power of Pain

Pain purifies. The practice of self-mortification to gain salvation has been known to ascetics for ages. Some of their practices can be extremely morbid and self-destructive; which is why the Buddha advocates the Middle Way. The mind and body are instruments of salvation; if the vehicle itself is destroyed, then it defeats the purpose of the practice itself.

Self-mortification is also not exclusive to Eastern asceticism alone; medieval Christian monks practice self-whipping to punish themselves for the temptations of the flesh. Even today, certain "corporal mortification" practices are accepted by Catholic organizations such as Opus Dei. Even acts of penance themselves can also be seen as a mild form of self-mortification.

For some reason, there's a link between pain and divine salvation. The ultimate pain is death itself: to Christians, it is Christ's painful death by crucifixion that redeems the soul of all sinners.

Pain is certainly not a pleasant state of being. But why should there be a link between pain and spiritual salvation?

When we are in pain, we do not see anything else--it seizes us completely. There comes a point when the pain becomes so unbearably intense that the only avenue left for us to alleviate our suffering is to disengage from it. Doctors prescribe pain-killer drugs to disengage our minds from the source of physical pain. Ascetics train themselves to do this mentally. In doing so, they are using pain as an object of meditation to transcend the bondage of the body.

All suffering is due to the fact that we identify ourselves with the vehicle of pain itself--the mind and the body. But we are not of the mind or body; we are pure soul. The soul does not feel pain--its natural state is bliss, joy and love.

We identify with our minds and bodies because we have developed this thing called ego. The ego is nothing but a mental entity--an illusion--created by our need for selfish possession. It is this ego that binds us to our physical self and the material world. Because the ego is bound to the material world, it is always trying to control things that are beyond its control.

For instance, we care what other people think about us. We worry whether our new car will be scratched by vandals. We feel envious when other people get recognized for their achievements. All these are pains caused by attachment to things or outcomes that are beyond our control. If we are willing to let go of these, the pain would go too.

Pain is there to help us realise the futility of our attachments to the glorified images of ourselves and our material possessions. The soul is beyond all these things. When a person suffers from pain, he is made to realise his own imperfections. He begins to understand their root causes, which are nothing more than mental positions held by the ego-mind. He realises, that by holding on to these false positions, he has to suffer enormous pain for it. He slowly dissolves his ego and the pain dissolves along with it. Eventually, the pure light of his soul would shine through--a soul whose very essence is bliss, joy and love.