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Channeling Margaret Mead

On one of my favorite anthropologists, Margaret Mead

“Neither a stuffy Germanic professor nor a shy spinster, Mead was a vigorous, attractive, adventurous, and courageous young woman. The ‘girl in the neighborhood’ whom most might have expected to work at the corner store, be a teacher or perhaps attempt to break into the movies, had dared to travel alone to a far corner of the world…Over the next decade, Mead continued to follow the trajectory that had been launched with her study of Samoa. She made a series of trips to the South Pacific, where she conducted fieldwork among the Manus, the Arapesh, the Mundugumor and the Balinese. Her genius lay in exquisitely careful observations and in lively writing, rather than in theoretically sophisticated diquisitions…”

Year 2015

neil de grasse tyson

Towards the end of last year, I was exhausted. I was teaching a couple of university classes, trying to turn my PhD dissertation into a book, and working 60% percent time for an international nonprofit, while also serving as a Board member for another nonprofit with which I have been involved since 2004.

Although I enjoyed my work, I was relieved when it was time to take a break. I spent time with family, read books for fun (yes, what a novel idea!), and traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Capetown, South Africa for pleasure and for work.

Since then, 2015 has been relentlessly speeding ahead.

My plate continues to be full. I’ve decided that I need to incorporate more yoga in my life and continue my journey of spiritual and self-help exploration. I thought to myself, what have I been rather passionate about for most of my life and how can I use this passion to provide a service to others?

I’ve always been a kind of junkie for self-improvement and spiritual articles/books. Perhaps due to my training in practical/applied research, I’ve also been a strong proponent of applying theory to everyday life. I want to see if theories in the abstract hold up in concrete settings. In what ways can knowledge make our lives better?

More than ever, as my life gets busier, and my work continues to be meaningful, I crave a deeper knowledge of what makes others tick, what it means to be “vulnerable” a la Brene Brown, and how to make our lives more meaningful a la Viktor Frankl and reflective.

That’s why I want to make 2015 the year in which I explore this topic using this blog by examining, condensing, cogitating (how I love that word!), and applying some of the profound ideas to our modern and fast-paced lives.

Here’s to new beginnings and the understanding of knowledge as they apply to our lives.



Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman — Some Insights


I read parts of this book on the plane today and found it useful to think of all the ways in which humans make bad decisions.

Kahneman discusses the process of decisionmaking as the product of two Systems at work. System 1 relies on intuitive thinking and is more prone to errors, irrationality and laziness. System 2 is slow thinking that is deliberate and controlled.

To be more specific, Kahneman writes explains: “System 1 detect simply relations (“they are all alike”…) and excels at integrating information about one thing, but it does not deal with multiple distinct topics at once, nor is it adept at using purely statistical information.”

In contrast, the functions of “System 2 is to monitor and control thoughts and actions ‘suggested’ by System 1, allowing some to be expressed directly in behavior and suppressing or modifying others.” Self-criticism is also one of the main functions of System 2.

The point is that we have a tendency as humans to make irrational choices and judgements by lazily relying on System 1. High intelligence does not make us immune to biases. Intelligence, he defines, is the ability to reason and the ability to “find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.” Memory function is a part of System 1, but slow and deliberate fact checking is part of System 2.

Now, it appears that neither System is inferior to the other. In fact, our intuitive areas in System 1 can be just a strong and accurate, given the right conditions — for example, he mentions that being happy loosen the mood on intuitive performance and this had the effect of doubling accuracy. It doesn’t mean that we cannot trust intuition in System 1, but we should be critical. Intuition can be trusted when the answer comes from an environment that is predictable and one has the opportunity to learn those regularities through prolonged practice.

On the other hand, too much exertion on System 2, for example, burdening it with exhaustive, detailed fact-checking may lead to “ego depletion” and lead to irrational choices.

The key to disciplined reasoning is to:

“1) anchor our judgment of the probability of an outcome on a plausible base rate

2) question the diagnosticity of our evidence.”

Whenever possible, in hiring practices or other situations, it is often best to use mathematical formulas and rely on statistical evidence to make human judgments. As a social scientist trained to be skeptical of nearly everything I read or hear about, I agree with the suggestions for more disciplined reasoning.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

It has been a dream of mine to visit Ethiopia. I once taught an African anthropology course, in which three countries were used as case studies to examine the history, politics, cultures and changing landscapes of the continent and Ethiopia, with its rich diversity and ancient recorded history, was one of the countries I used in this course. South Africa was the second country, and Rwanda, the third.

Now, I can say I’ve been to two out of the three countries, and hope to visit Rwanda for the wedding of one of my colleagues later this year.

Ethiopia is one of the two African countries considered to never have been colonized. It was briefly occupied by the Italians in the 1930s, but that was short lived. Italy attempted to invade in the 1890s, but was defeated by the Ethiopians only to attempt a second invasion under the command of Mussolini in the 1930s. The occupation was brief, lasting about five years, and the fact that Ethiopia has always had strong armed forces to fight off foreign invaders is a source of pride for many Ethiopians.

Another source of pride for many Ethiopians is the documented history stemming from 4th century BC. This is evidenced by the sophisticated architecture of ancient kingdoms in the northern part of Ethiopia and the origin story of the ruling elites. The story was that the royalty of Ethiopia descended from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon from the Old Testament. There are even villages in the Northern areas that are comprised of the descendants of the early Israelites, now most notably called the Ethiopian Jews.

It seems many Ethiopians I talked to saw themselves as quite similar to Muslims and Jews. The Ethiopian Orthodox religion follows the Old Testament closely, even to the point of segregating the sexes when entering the rock churches for service. Men proceed on one side, and women on the other. Ethiopians follow the Grigorian calendar and use a different time system that starts over at dawn and dusk. Another surprise was the architecture of the churches, which seemed to mirror the shape of mosques. Even the chanting in early mornings at the break of dawn in preparation for Ethiopian Christmas in early January reminded me of the Islamic influences of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania.

Addis Ababa is a bustling, vibrant city with a strong arts, jazz and religious scene. I attended a jazz concert on New Years’ Eve and toured art galleries in the city center. The city is also under heavy construction, including a large light rail built by the Chinese and set to open in 2016, as well as many large buildings throughout the city. This seemed to be welcomed by all the Ethiopians I spoke to, since construction was synonymous with investment and growth for their country.

Unlike in Zambia, where many of my friends who lived in the socialist times under Kaunda expressed a sense of nostalgia for an era of the past, most everyone I spoke to in Ethiopia expressed disdain for the Mengistu communist regime. It was clearly a fascist regime, and many Ethiopians also referred to it as the “socialist” regime – a dark period which stood in contrast to the much-happier, and liberating, capitalist period of modern times. One woman I spoke to said that living in the 70s and 80s was full of suffering; just surviving was a miracle. There were no shops or bitiks now sprinkled throughout the city. Addis was a dry, drab and dark place. Now, she said, she can make her dreams a reality and sees much promise in the future of Addis in the next 20 years.

Having traveled to many African countries, I think what makes Ethiopia unique is the pervasive optimism of the people. Perhaps it is because they emerged from a violent and oppressive period after the deposition of Emperor Halie Salessie and during the Mengistu regime until the early 1990s that any situation pales in comparison to the suffering of that time. Or perhaps their spirituality contributes to a sense of optimism for the future.

Regardless of the reason, they have every reason to be optimistic. After all, they have witnessed tremendous growth in terms of shops opening up for business in Addis, new roads and forms of transport being built, rising prices of flats and houses in the city that remain relatively affordable, and increased investments in businesses by foreigners and the powerful and rich Ethiopian diaspora. The changes they have witnessed have been drastic and quite positive. Although there is still poverty, many of the Ethiopians I befriended emphasized the attainability of their dreams. Especially for the youth, the future seems bright, despite the challenges of unemployment and rising costs in the city.

That’s why many Ethiopians I spoke to were optimistic about the future for themselves and for posterity. I immensely enjoyed visiting Addis, making friends there, and learning so much about the history, the Amharic language, the Orthodox religion, the food, the cultures, the division between the North and South, the UNESCO heritage sites, and so many facets and layers of the country. There is much to learn from Ethiopia and her dignified, refined and generous people.









A testament to the achievements of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the Hagia Sofia is simply breathtaking and majestic. I stopped in Istanbul and took a quick trip around the Old City. Although it was drizzling, families were strolling around the fountain in the Blue Mosque area. Istanbul combined historical architecture with a modern day feel and a fusion of religious and secular cultures, with some of the friendliest and hospitable people with old world charm.





Walter Evans-Wentz nomad-anthropologist

I’ve been reading about Walter Evans-Wentz, an American anthropologist who was the first to publish an early translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927.

He was called a “gypsy-scholar” by his professors at Oxford, not without some truth, since he spent an enormous amount of time in Mexico, Europe and the Far East. This predates contemporary pioneers of Western Buddhism such as Bob Thurman, Uma Thurman’s father and Leonard van der Kujp with whom I had the pleasure of taking Tibetan Buddhism back in my Boston days. We are talking about the year 1919 when Evans-Wentz arrived at Darjeeling and began translating the text.

He was a practicing Buddhist and a yogi. Like some anthropologist who “go native,” Evans-Wentz wanted to permanently stay in India, but was compelled to return to the US during World War II.

According to Harry Oldmeadow in Journeys East, he was a “puritanical and isolated man,” who spent the last 25 years of his life in a motel in Sam Diego, following a strict vegetarian diet, and becoming rather involved with Yogananda’s Self Realization Fellowship in California. Oldmeadow writes: “He spurned public life and never took on the role of spiritual teacher…of his life he wrote…he had ‘striven to love all mankind of all nations and races and faiths…dwelt in the solitude of the deserts, of the jungles, of the mountaintops….” The underpinnings of his theosophical views are evident in his description of himself.

In the Foreword to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, it is stated that Evans-Wentz was more of a practitioner of Hindu yoga than Tibetan Buddhism. He never did learn Tibetan, but did claim that he was the recognized disciple of a Tibetan lama, maybe even the first Western one.

It is also noted that the Tibetan Book of the Dead was read at his funeral in the way that it was originally intended to be read.