Arjuna and the Fish Eye: the fallacy of being over-informed, hyper-busy and multi-tasking

Focusing on what matters, The Redwoods, 2006

Focusing on what matters, The Redwoods, 2006

Does any of you recall the story from the Mahabharata, about the renowned archery master Dronacharya training the Pandava brothers in the art and skill of archery? Once, when the five Pandava brothers and Karna were assembled for an archery instruction session with Guru Drona, he tied a wooden fish high on a tree above a pool of water, and asked each student, one by one, to take the archer’s stance. He instructed them to aim their bow and arrow at the fish’s eye, while looking only at its reflection in the water below. As each student came along and took his turn, Guru Drona made them pause in the stance and asked, “Son, what all do you see?” The oldest, Yudhisthira, answered, “The sky, the tree, the …,” and before he could finish, Drona stopped him and replaced him with the next boy. Bhima answered, “The branch of the tree, the fish, the…,” and met the same fate. Even Karna was asked to step aside. When Arjuna, the ace-archer, was asked the same question, he stated without hesitation, “I see the eye of the fish.” And Guru Drona exclaimed with delight, “Shoot!” and Arjuna’s arrow unwaveringly pierced right through the eye of the fish.

One of the biggest obstacles to being fully present and allowing a higher Consciousness to lead the path, is our cultural, mass-scale obsession with what I’d call “more and instant.” More stuff, more food, more information, more news, more Facebook friends – all just now. Have you noticed how we are frequently awed by people who are very informed, hyper-busy, have little time, and multi-task constantly? Wow, we think to ourselves – she must be important! And with globalization and forever evolving technology, we are now essentially overcome with having and knowing more, and having it easily, instantaneously, simultaneously and incessantly. We are so busy that there is no time for doing things that really matter. We’re so informed that we don’t know what’s truly relevant. We’re so over-stimulated that we cannot fully feel. And we’re doing so many things at once that we’re not doing anything at all. (Sometimes I wonder if this is why we’re in recession – so we can stop and simply reflect.)

Just this morning, I came across a reminder of this phenomenon in a post by Howard Mann, who is a speaker, entrepreneur and the author of Your Business Brickyard. Here is an excerpt:

 “… I’m continually amazed by the number of people on Twitter and on blogs, and the growth of people (and brands) on Facebook. But I’m also amazed by how so many of us are spending our time. The echo chamber we’re building is getting larger and louder. More megaphones don’t equal a better dialogue. We’ve become slaves to our mobile devices and the glow of our screens … We walk the streets with our heads down staring into 3-inch screens while the world whisks by doing the same. And yet we’re convinced we are more connected to each other than ever before. Multi-tasking has become a badge of honor. I want to know why…”

As an architect, Mies van der Rohe’s timeless reminder that “Less is More” has molded and shaped my design sensibilities from an early stage. But what about my attitude and conduct in everyday life?  One particular repetitive experience when working in a large, global design firm proved insightful in this regard. As an expert in human-centered design research, I was focused on the client and their world with considerable breadth and depth. So, quickly, I became a strategic contributor in marketing – in interviewing and winning work for the firm. As in any industry, preparing for a job interview in order to land a big contract was always a highly strategic, competitive and high-pressure affair. The primary team sat with a host of advisors and experts in a closed room for hours on end, sometimes over 3-5 days, brainstorming, pinning up ideas on index cards, and shaping, honing and rehearsing a message. A senior managing partner, Scott, was almost always found as a coach in the room (if he wasn’t already part of the interviewing team itself). Scott was a quick study, a brilliant strategist, and an utterly charming salesperson. He taught us to be thorough in our research – to inquire into every single aspect of the client and their enterprise. He showed the team how to hone a precise message and build confidence in “asking for the job.” “Why should they hire you?” he asked with a fiery energy, making us answer the question repeatedly till we got it right. “Think in terms of benefits, not features!” he often reprimanded us. Unlike some others, I thoroughly enjoyed and looked forward to these sessions with Scott, as I did to taking my lessons to the client interview.

One of the activities Scott emphasized was to learn everything you could about the competition in the fray. Who are they? What are their strengths? What do we offer that they don’t, on account of which we might outshine them? In my early years learning to strategize and win projects, and as an ardent fan of Scott’s, I followed his guidance to the letter. But after my awakening to a higher Consciousness, I began to see the fallacy of information, something I had so enjoyed all my life. I saw that there was a point at which you could become over-informed and thereby, de-focused and distracted from that which is really important and relevant. At the level of driving outcomes, I observed that by focusing on details such as competitors’ qualifications and shortcomings, we were not leading with the purity of what we loved and were good at doing. This often resulted in crafting “winning” sales messages which scored us work, but most of it only a reasonable if not poor fit with the team’s real passion and skills. Being stuck with unloved or half-loved projects for 3-7 years was like winning battles but losing the war! Like information, strategy – a talent for which I was known all over the firm – was also overrated. Maybe all we needed to do is to do what we love, with love.

It was at this juncture that I remembered the little story of Arjuna and the Fish Eye, which I had learned as a young girl. The insight I drew from this ancient story was fresh and powerful, even though I had known it all along. I began to train myself to look only at the eye of the fish, each time, every time. I noticed how tempting it was to study the sky, the tree and the birds. I noticed how we collectively, more often than not, looked everywhere but there, convincing ourselves that we were working hard, learning more, doing better … when all we did was foster an illusion that we were gainfully busy. On one of these pursuits for the Los Angeles International Airport’s expansion, I dared to digress from the high-pressure preparation at hand, and took the time to relate Arjuna’s story to two very senior gentlemen on the project, one of whom was Japanese. I recall the look in his eyes – it was as if a lesson from one ancient culture had struck a deeply resonant chord with a person from another ancient culture. He came by my desk at lunchtime to thank me for the simple wisdom I had shared, letting me know that I had turned into a strong mentor for interview teams!

While our higher Consciousness is at peace with uncertainty (and a deeper, more innate knowing), our minds always want to know more, mainly so that they can predict, shape and control outcomes. This focus on outcomes (also an important subject in the Bhagvad Gita of the Mahabharata) may be why it has been said that information is power. But the real impact of excessive information is the creation of a tremendous amount of noise, on which our minds love to feast and obsess. As a result, two important and related illusions are propagated:

The first illusion is that we are faced with an acute shortage of time.  

The related illusion is that an important life is terribly, inordinately busy.

Our minds, obsessed with information, buy into the fallacies of less time and more busyness. They become crippled with the limitations they perceive, multi-tasking their way into “success.” And when they win, they win for the wrong reasons, winning the battle but ultimately, losing the war. Focusing on the eye of the fish allows us to edit irrelevant information and harness the timeless moment – what some have called the Eternal Now. It allows us to be present. Time expands to allow the needful to happen; many athletes jumping to great heights or people in a life-and-death situation will tell you how “time stood still” when they took their one and only shot at life. Our Consciousness is always naturally tuned into these constraint-free, timeless moments; we simply have to get out of its way.

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta



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