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The Management Myth


 By MATTHEW STEWART
During the seven years that I worked as a management consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to look older than I was. I became pretty good at furrowing my brow and putting on somber expressions. Those who saw through my disguise assumed I made up for my youth with a fabulous education in management. They were wrong about that. I don’t have an M.B.A. I have a doctoral degree in philosophy—nineteenth-century German philosophy, to be precise. Before I took a job telling managers of large corporations things that they arguably should have known already, my work experience was limited to part-time gigs tutoring surly undergraduates in the ways of Hegel and Nietzsche and to a handful of summer jobs, mostly in the less appetizing ends of the fast-food industry.

The strange thing about my utter lack of education in management was that it didn’t seem to matter. As a principal and founding partner of a consulting firm that eventually grew to 600 employees, I interviewed, hired, and worked alongside hundreds of business-school graduates, and the impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like “out-of-the-box thinking,” “win-win situation,” and “core competencies.” When it came to picking teammates, I generally held out higher hopes for those individuals who had used their university years to learn about something other than business administration.

After I left the consulting business, in a reversal of the usual order of things, I decided to check out the management literature. Partly, I wanted to “process” my own experience and find out what I had missed in skipping business school. Partly, I had a lot of time on my hands. As I plowed through tomes on competitive strategy, business process re-engineering, and the like, not once did I catch myself thinking, Damn! If only I had known this sooner! Instead, I found myself thinking things I never thought I’d think, like, I’d rather be reading Heidegger! It was a disturbing experience. It thickened the mystery around the question that had nagged me from the start of my business career: Why does management education exist?
Management theory came to life in 1899 with a simple question: “How many tons of pig iron bars can a worker load onto a rail car in the course of a working day?” The man behind this question was Frederick Winslow Taylor, the author of The Principles of Scientific Management and, by most accounts, the founding father of the whole management business.

Taylor was forty-three years old and on contract with the Bethlehem Steel Company when the pig iron question hit him. Staring out over an industrial yard that covered several square miles of the Pennsylvania landscape, he watched as laborers loaded ninety-two-pound bars onto rail cars. There were 80,000 tons’ worth of iron bars, which were to be carted off as fast as possible to meet new demand sparked by the Spanish-American War. Taylor narrowed his eyes: there was waste there, he was certain. After hastily reviewing the books at company headquarters, he estimated that the men were currently loading iron at the rate of twelve and a half tons per man per day.

Taylor stormed down to the yard with his assistants (“college men,” he called them) and rounded up a group of top-notch lifters (“first-class men”), who in this case happened to be ten “large, powerful Hungarians.” He offered to double the workers’ wages in exchange for their participation in an experiment. The Hungarians, eager to impress their apparent benefactor, put on a spirited show. Huffing up and down the rail car ramps, they loaded sixteen and a half tons in something under fourteen minutes. Taylor did the math: over a ten-hour day, it worked out to seventy-five tons per day per man. Naturally, he had to allow time for bathroom breaks, lunch, and rest periods, so he adjusted the figure approximately 40 percent downward. Henceforth, each laborer in the yard was assigned to load forty-seven and a half pig tons per day, with bonus pay for reaching the target and penalties for failing.

When the Hungarians realized that they were being asked to quadruple their previous daily workload, they howled and refused to work. So Taylor found a “high-priced man,” a lean Pennsylvania Dutchman whose intelligence he compared to that of an ox. Lured by the promise of a 60 percent increase in wages, from $1.15 to a whopping $1.85 a day, Taylor’s high-priced man loaded forty-five and three-quarters tons over the course of a grueling day—close enough, in Taylor’s mind, to count as the first victory for the methods of modern management.

Taylor went on to tackle the noble science of shoveling and a host of other topics of concern to his industrial clients. He declared that his new and unusual approach to solving business problems amounted to a “complete mental revolution.” Eventually, at the urging of his disciples, he called his method “scientific management.” Thus was born the idea that management is a science—a body of knowledge collected and nurtured by experts according to neutral, objective, and universal standards.

At the same moment was born the notion that management is a distinct function best handled by a distinct group of people—people characterized by a particular kind of education, way of speaking, and fashion sensibility. Taylor, who favored a manly kind of prose, expressed it best in passages like this:

… the science of handling pig iron is so great and amounts to so much that it is impossible for the man who is best suited to this type of work to understand the principles of this science, or even to work in accordance with these principles, without the aid of a man better educated than he is.

From a metaphysical perspective, one could say that Taylor was a “dualist”: there is brain, there is brawn, and the two, he believed, very rarely meet.

Taylor went around the country repeating his pig iron story and other tales from his days in the yard, and these narratives formed something like a set of scriptures for a new and highly motivated cult of management experts. This vanguard ultimately vaulted into the citadel of the Establishment with the creation of business schools. In the spring of 1908, Taylor met with several Harvard professors, and later that year Harvard opened the first graduate school in the country to offer a master’s degree in business. It based its first-year curriculum on Taylor’s scientific management. From 1909 to 1914, Taylor visited Cambridge every winter to deliver a series of lectures—inspirational discourses marred only by the habit he’d picked up on the shop floor of swearing at inappropriate moments.

Yet even as Taylor’s idea of management began to catch on, a number of flaws in his approach were evident. The first thing many observers noted about scientific management was that there was almost no science to it. The most significant variable in Taylor’s pig iron calculation was the 40 percent “adjustment” he made in extrapolating from a fourteen-minute sample to a full workday. Why time a bunch of Hungarians down to the second if you’re going to daub the results with such a great blob of fudge? When he was grilled before Congress on the matter, Taylor casually mentioned that in other experiments these “adjustments” ranged from 20 percent to 225 percent. He defended these unsightly “wags” (wild-ass guesses, in M.B.A.-speak) as the product of his “judgment” and “experience”—but, of course, the whole point of scientific management was to eliminate the reliance on such inscrutable variables.

One of the distinguishing features of anything that aspires to the name of science is the reproducibility of experimental results. Yet Taylor never published the data on which his pig iron or other conclusions were based. When Carl Barth, one of his devotees, took over the work at Bethlehem Steel, he found Taylor’s data to be unusable. Another, even more fundamental feature of science—here I invoke the ghost of Karl Popper—is that it must produce falsifiable propositions. Insofar as Taylor limited his concern to prosaic activities such as lifting bars onto rail cars, he did produce propositions that were falsifiable—and, indeed, were often falsified. But whenever he raised his sights to management in general, he seemed capable only of soaring platitudes. At the end of the day his “method” amounted to a set of exhortations: Think harder! Work smarter! Buy a stopwatch!

The trouble with such claims isn’t that they are all wrong. It’s that they are too true. When a congressman asked him if his methods were open to misuse, Taylor replied, No. If management has the right state of mind, his methods will always lead to the correct result. Unfortunately, Taylor was right about that. Taylorism, like much of management theory to come, is at its core a collection of quasi-religious dicta on the virtue of being good at what you do, ensconced in a protective bubble of parables (otherwise known as case studies).

Curiously, Taylor and his college men often appeared to float free from the kind of accountability that they demanded from everybody else. Others might have been asked, for example: Did Bethlehem’s profits increase as a result of their work? Taylor, however, rarely addressed the question head-on. With good reason. Bethlehem fired him in 1901 and threw out his various systems. Yet this evident vacuum of concrete results did not stop Taylor from repeating his parables as he preached the doctrine of efficiency to countless audiences across the country.

In the management literature these days, Taylorism is presented, if at all, as a chapter of ancient history, a weird episode about an odd man with a stopwatch who appeared on the scene sometime after Columbus discovered the New World. Over the past century Taylor’s successors have developed a powerful battery of statistical methods and analytical approaches to business problems. And yet the world of management remains deeply Taylorist in its foundations.

At its best, management theory is part of the democratic promise of America. It aims to replace the despotism of the old bosses with the rule of scientific law. It offers economic power to all who have the talent and energy to attain it. The managerial revolution must be counted as part of the great widening of economic opportunity that has contributed so much to our prosperity. But, insofar as it pretends to a kind of esoteric certitude to which it is not entitled, management theory betrays the ideals on which it was founded.

That Taylorism and its modern variants are often just a way of putting labor in its place need hardly be stated: from the Hungarians’ point of view, the pig iron experiment was an infuriatingly obtuse way of demanding more work for less pay. That management theory represents a covert assault on capital, however, is equally true. (The Soviet five-year planning process took its inspiration directly from one of Taylor’s more ardent followers, the engineer H. L. Gantt.) Much of management theory today is in fact the consecration of class interest—not of the capitalist class, nor of labor, but of a new social group: the management class.

I can confirm on the basis of personal experience that management consulting continues to worship at the shrine of numerology where Taylor made his first offering of blobs of fudge. In many of my own projects, I found myself compelled to pacify recalcitrant data with entirely confected numbers. But I cede the place of honor to a certain colleague, a gruff and street-smart Belgian whose hobby was to amass hunting trophies. The huntsman achieved some celebrity for having invented a new mathematical technique dubbed “the Two-Handed Regression.” When the data on the correlation between two variables revealed only a shapeless cloud—even though we knew damn well there had to be a correlation—he would simply place a pair of meaty hands on the offending bits of the cloud and reveal the straight line hiding from conventional mathematics.

The thing that makes modern management theory so painful to read isn’t usually the dearth of reliable empirical data. It’s that maddening papal infallibility. Oh sure, there are a few pearls of insight, and one or two stories about hero-CEOs that can hook you like bad popcorn. But the rest is just inane. Those who looked for the true meaning of “business process re-engineering,” the most overtly Taylorist of recent management fads, were ultimately rewarded with such gems of vacuity as “BPR is taking a blank sheet of paper to your business!” and “BPR means re-thinking everything, everything!”

Each new fad calls attention to one virtue or another—first it’s efficiency, then quality, next it’s customer satisfaction, then supplier satisfaction, then self-satisfaction, and finally, at some point, it’s efficiency all over again. If it’s reminiscent of the kind of toothless wisdom offered in self-help literature, that’s because management theory is mostly a subgenre of self-help. Which isn’t to say it’s completely useless. But just as most people are able to lead fulfilling lives without consulting Deepak Chopra, most managers can probably spare themselves an education in management theory.

The world of management theorists remains exempt from accountability. In my experience, for what it’s worth, consultants monitored the progress of former clients about as diligently as they checked up on ex-spouses (of which there were many). Unless there was some hope of renewing the relationship (or dating a sister company), it was Hasta la vista, baby. And why should they have cared? Consultants’ recommendations have the same semantic properties as campaign promises: it’s almost freakish if they are remembered in the following year.

In one episode, when I got involved in winding up the failed subsidiary of a large European bank, I noticed on the expense ledger that a rival consulting firm had racked up $5 million in fees from the same subsidiary. “They were supposed to save the business,” said one client manager, rolling his eyes. “Actually,” he corrected himself, “they were supposed to keep the illusion going long enough for the boss to find a new job.” Was my competitor held to account for failing to turn around the business and/or violating the rock-solid ethical standards of consulting firms? On the contrary, it was ringing up even higher fees over in another wing of the same organization.

And so was I. In fact, we kind of liked failing businesses: there was usually plenty of money to be made in propping them up before they finally went under. After Enron, true enough, Arthur Andersen sank. But what happened to such stalwarts as McKinsey, which generated millions in fees from Enron and supplied it with its CEO? The Enron story wasn’t just about bad deeds or false accounts; it was about confusing sound business practices with faddish management ideas, celebrated with gusto by the leading lights of the management world all the way to the end of the party.

If you believed our chief of recruiting, the consulting firm I helped to found represented a complete revolution from the Taylorist practices of conventional organizations. Our firm wasn’t about bureaucratic control and robotic efficiency in the pursuit of profit. It was about love.

We were very much of the moment. In the 1990s, the gurus were unanimous in their conviction that the world was about to bring forth an entirely new mode of human cooperation, which they identified variously as the “information-based organization,” the “intellectual holding company,” the “learning organization,” and the “perpetually creative organization.” “R-I-P. Rip, shred, tear, mutilate, destroy that hierarchy,” said über-guru Tom Peters, with characteristic understatement. The “end of bureaucracy” is nigh, wrote Gifford Pinchot of “intrapreneuring” fame. According to all the experts, the enemy of the “new” organization was lurking in every episode of Leave It to Beaver.

Many good things can be said about the “new” organization of the 1990s. And who would want to take a stand against creativity, freedom, empowerment, and—yes, let’s call it by its name—love? One thing that cannot be said of the “new” organization, however, is that it is new.

In 1983, a Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, beat the would-be revolutionaries of the nineties to the punch when she argued that rigid “segmentalist” corporate bureaucracies were in the process of giving way to new “integrative” organizations, which were “informal” and “change-oriented.” But Kanter was just summarizing a view that had currency at least as early as 1961, when Tom Burns and G. M. Stalker published an influential book criticizing the old, “mechanistic” organization and championing the new, “organic” one. In language that eerily anticipated many a dot-com prospectus, they described how innovative firms benefited from “lateral” versus “vertical” information flows, the use of “ad hoc” centers of coordination, and the continuous redefinition of jobs. The “flat” organization was first explicitly celebrated by James C. Worthy, in his study of Sears in the 1940s, and W. B. Given coined the term “bottom-up management” in 1949. And then there was Mary Parker Follett, who in the 1920s attacked “departmentalized” thinking, praised change-oriented and informal structures, and—Rosabeth Moss Kanter fans please take note—advocated the “integrative” organization.

If there was a defining moment in this long and strangely forgetful tradition of “humanist” organization theory—a single case that best explains the meaning of the infinitely repeating whole—it was arguably the work of Professor Elton Mayo of the Harvard Business School in the 1920s. Mayo, an Australian, was everything Taylor was not: sophisticated, educated at the finest institutions, a little distant and effete, and perhaps too familiar with Freudian psychoanalysis for his own good.

A researcher named Homer Hibarger had been testing theories about the effect of workplace illumination on worker productivity. His work, not surprisingly, had been sponsored by a maker of electric lightbulbs. While a group of female workers assembled telephone relays and receiver coils, Homer turned the lights up. Productivity went up. Then he turned the lights down. Productivity still went up! Puzzled, Homer tried a new series of interventions. First, he told the “girls” that they would be entitled to two five-minute breaks every day. Productivity went up. Next it was six breaks a day. Productivity went up again. Then he let them leave an hour early every day. Up again. Free lunches and refreshments. Up! Then Homer cut the breaks, reinstated the old workday, and scrapped the free food. But productivity barely dipped at all.

Mayo, who was brought in to make sense of this, was exultant. His theory: the various interventions in workplace routine were as nothing compared with the new interpersonal dynamics generated by the experimental situation itself. “What actually happened,” he wrote, “was that six individuals became a team and the team gave itself wholeheartedly and spontaneously to cooperation … They felt themselves to be participating, freely and without afterthought, and were happy in the knowledge that they were working without coercion.” The lessons Mayo drew from the experiment are in fact indistinguishable from those championed by the gurus of the nineties: vertical hierarchies based on concepts of rationality and control are bad; flat organizations based on freedom, teamwork, and fluid job definitions are good.

On further scrutiny, however, it turned out that two workers who were deemed early on to be “uncooperative” had been replaced with friendlier women. Even more disturbing, these exceptionally cooperative individuals earned significantly higher wages for their participation in the experiment. Later, in response to his critics, Mayo insisted that something so crude as financial incentives could not possibly explain the miracles he witnessed. That didn’t make his method any more “scientific.”

Mayo’s work sheds light on the dark side of the “humanist” tradition in management theory. There is something undeniably creepy about a clipboard-bearing man hovering around a group of factory women, flicking the lights on and off and dishing out candy bars. All of that humanity—as anyone in my old firm could have told you—was just a more subtle form of bureaucratic control. It was a way of harnessing the workers’ sense of identity and well-being to the goals of the organization, an effort to get each worker to participate in an ever more refined form of her own enslavement.

So why is Mayo’s message constantly recycled and presented as something radically new and liberating? Why does every new management theorist seem to want to outdo Chairman Mao in calling for perpetual havoc on the old order? Very simply, because all economic organizations involve at least some degree of power, and power always pisses people off. That is the human condition. At the end of the day, it isn’t a new world order that the management theorists are after; it’s the sensation of the revolutionary moment. They long for that exhilarating instant when they’re fighting the good fight and imagining a future utopia. What happens after the revolution—civil war and Stalinism being good bets—could not be of less concern.

Between them, Taylor and Mayo carved up the world of management theory. According to my scientific sampling, you can save yourself from reading about 99 percent of all the management literature once you master this dialectic between rationalists and humanists. The Taylorite rationalist says: Be efficient! The Mayo-ist humanist replies: Hey, these are people we’re talking about! And the debate goes on. Ultimately, it’s just another installment in the ongoing saga of reason and passion, of the individual and the group.

The tragedy, for those who value their reading time, is that Rousseau and Shakespeare said it all much, much better. In the 5,200 years since the Sumerians first etched their pictograms on clay tablets, come to think of it, human beings have produced an astonishing wealth of creative expression on the topics of reason, passion, and living with other people. In books, poems, plays, music, works of art, and plain old graffiti, they have explored what it means to struggle against adversity, to apply their extraordinary faculty of reason to the world, and to confront the naked truth about what motivates their fellow human animals. These works are every bit as relevant to the dilemmas faced by managers in their quest to make the world a more productive place as any of the management literature.

In the case of my old firm, incidentally, the endgame was civil war. Those who talked loudest about the ideals of the “new” organization, as it turned out, had the least love in their hearts. By a strange twist of fate, I owe the long- evity of my own consulting career to this circumstance. When I first announced my intention to withdraw from the firm in order to pursue my vocation as an unpublishable philosopher at large, my partners let me know that they would gladly regard my investment in the firm as a selfless contribution to their financial well-being. By the time I managed to extricate myself from their loving embrace, nearly three years later, the partnership had for other reasons descended into the kind of Hobbesian war of all against all from which only the lawyers emerge smiling. The firm was temporarily rescued by a dot-com company, but within a year both the savior and the saved collapsed in a richly deserved bankruptcy. Of course, your experience in a “new” organization may be different.

My colleagues usually spoke fondly of their years at business school. Most made great friends there, and quite a few found love. All were certain that their degree was useful in advancing their careers. But what does an M.B.A. do for you that a doctorate in philosophy can’t do better?

The first point to note is that management education confers some benefits that have little to do with either management or education. Like an elaborate tattoo on an aboriginal warrior, an M.B.A. is a way of signaling just how deeply and irrevocably committed you are to a career in management. The degree also provides a tidy hoard of what sociologists call “social capital”—or what the rest of us, notwithstanding the invention of the PalmPilot, call a “Rolodex.”

For companies, M.B.A. programs can be a way to outsource recruiting. Marvin Bower, McKinsey’s managing director from 1950 to 1967, was the first to understand this fact, and he built a legendary company around it. Through careful cultivation of the deans and judicious philanthropy, Bower secured a quasi-monopoly on Baker Scholars (the handful of top students at the Harvard Business School). Bower was not so foolish as to imagine that these scholars were of interest on account of the education they received. Rather, they were valuable because they were among the smartest, most ambitious, and best-connected individuals of their generation. Harvard had done him the favor of scouring the landscape, attracting and screening vast numbers of applicants, further testing those who matriculated, and then serving up the best and the brightest for Bower’s delectation.

Of course, management education does involve the transfer of weighty bodies of technical knowledge that have accumulated since Taylor first put the management-industrial complex in motion—accounting, statistical analysis, decision modeling, and so forth—and these can prove quite useful to students, depending on their career trajectories. But the “value-add” here is far more limited than Mom or Dad tend to think. In most managerial jobs, almost everything you need to know to succeed must be learned on the job; for the rest, you should consider whether it might have been acquired with less time and at less expense.

The best business schools will tell you that management education is mainly about building skills—one of the most important of which is the ability to think (or what the M.B.A.s call “problem solving”). But do they manage to teach such skills?

I once sat through a presentation in which a consultant, a Harvard M.B.A., showed a client, the manager of a large financial institution in a developing country, how the client company’s “competitive advantage” could be analyzed in terms of “the five forces.” He even used a graphic borrowed directly from guru-of-the-moment Michael Porter’s best- selling work on “competitive strategy.” Not for the first time, I was embarrassed to call myself a consultant. As it happens, the client, too, had a Harvard M.B.A. “No,” he said, shaking his head with feigned chagrin. “There are only three forces in this case. And two of them are in the Finance Ministry.”

What they don’t seem to teach you in business school is that “the five forces” and “the seven Cs” and every other generic framework for problem solving are heuristics: they can lead you to solutions, but they cannot make you think. Case studies may provide an effective way to think business problems through, but the point is rather lost if students come away imagining that you can go home once you’ve put all of your eggs into a two-by-two growth-share matrix.

Next to analysis, communication skills must count among the most important for future masters of the universe. To their credit, business schools do stress these skills, and force their students to engage in make-believe presentations to one another. On the whole, however, management education has been less than a boon for those who value free and meaningful speech. M.B.A.s have taken obfuscatory jargon—otherwise known as bullshit—to a level that would have made even the Scholastics blanch. As students of philosophy know, Descartes dismantled the edifice of medieval thought by writing clearly and showing that knowledge, by its nature, is intelligible, not obscure.

Beyond building skills, business training must be about values. As I write this, I know that my M.B.A. friends are squirming in their seats. They’ve all been forced to sit through an “ethics” course, in which they learned to toss around yet more fancy phrases like “the categorical imperative” and discuss borderline criminal behavior, such as what’s a legitimate hotel bill and what’s just plain stealing from the expense account, how to tell the difference between a pat on the shoulder and sexual harassment, and so on. But, as anyone who has studied Aristotle will know, “values” aren’t something you bump into from time to time during the course of a business career. All of business is about values, all of the time. Notwithstanding the ostentatious use of stopwatches, Taylor’s pig iron case was not a description of some aspect of physical reality—how many tons can a worker lift? It was a prescription—how many tons should a worker lift? The real issue at stake in Mayo’s telephone factory was not factual—how can we best establish a sense of teamwork? It was moral—how much of a worker’s sense of identity and well-being does a business have a right to harness for its purposes?

The recognition that management theory is a sadly neglected subdiscipline of philosophy began with an experience of déjà vu. As I plowed through my shelfload of bad management books, I beheld a discipline that consists mainly of unverifiable propositions and cryptic anecdotes, is rarely if ever held accountable, and produces an inordinate number of catastrophically bad writers. It was all too familiar. There are, however, at least two crucial differences between philosophers and their wayward cousins. The first and most important is that philosophers are much better at knowing what they don’t know. The second is money. In a sense, management theory is what happens to philosophers when you pay them too much.

The idea that philosophy is an inherently academic pursuit is a recent and diabolical invention. Epicurus, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, and most of the other great philosophers of history were not professors of philosophy. If any were to come to life and witness what has happened to their discipline, I think they’d run for the hills. Still, you go to war with the philosophers you have, as they say, not the ones in the hills. And since I’m counting on them to seize the commanding heights of the global economy, let me indulge in some management advice for today’s academic philosophers:

■Expand the domain of your analysis! Why so many studies of Wittgenstein and none of Taylor, the man who invented the social class that now rules the world?

■Hire people with greater diversity of experience! And no, that does not mean taking someone from the University of Hawaii. You are building a network—a team of like-minded individuals who together can change the world.

■Remember the three Cs: Communication, Communication, Communication!Philosophers (other than those who have succumbed to the Heideggerian virus) start with a substantial competitive advantage over the PowerPoint crowd. But that’s no reason to slack off. Remember Plato: it’s all about dialogue!

With this simple three-point program (or was it four?) philosophers will soon reclaim their rightful place as the educators of management. Of course, I will be charging for implementation.

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101. Buddha’s Zen

Buddha said:
‘I consider the positions of kings and rulers as that of dust motes.
I observe treasure of gold and gems as so many bricks and pebbles.
I look upon the finest silken robes as tattered rags. I see myriad worlds of the universe as small seeds of fruit, and the greatest lake in India as a drop of oil on my foot. I perceive the teachings of the world to be the illusion of, magicians.

I discern the highest conception of emancipation as golden brocade in a dream, and view the holy path of the illuminated one as flowers appearing in one’s eyes.

I see meditation as a pillar of a mountain, Nirvana as a nightmare of daytime. I look upon the judgment of right and wrong as the serpentine dance of a dragon, and the rise and fall of beliefs as but traces left by the four seasons.’

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98. Non-Attachment

Kitano Gempo, abbot of Eihei temple was ninety-two years old when he passed away in the year 1933. He endeavored his whole life not to be attached to anything.

As a wandering mendicant when he was twenty he happened to meet a traveler who smoked tobacco. As they walked together down a mountain road they stopped under a tree to rest. The traveler offered Kitano a smoke, which he accepted, as he was very hungry at the time.

‘How pleasant this smoking is,’ he commented. The other gave him an extra pipe and tobacco and they parted. Kitano felt: ‘Such pleasant things may disturb meditation. Before this goes too far, I will stop now.’ So he threw the smoking outfit away.

When he was twenty-three years old he studied I-King, the profoundest doctrine of the universe. It was winter at the time and he needed some heavy clothes. He wrote to his teacher, who lived a hundred miles away, telling him of his need, and gave the letter to a traveler to deliver. Almost the whole winter passed and neither answer nor clothes arrived.

So Kitano resorted to the prescience of I-King, which also teaches the art of divination, to determine whether or not his letter had miscarried. He found that this had been the case. A letter afterwards from his teacher made no mention of clothes.

‘If I perform such accurate determinative work with I-King, I may neglect my meditation,’ felt Kitano. So he gave up this marvelous teaching and never resorted to its powers again.

When he was twenty-eight he studied Chinese calligraphy and poetry. He grew so skilful in these arts that his teacher praised him. Kitano mused: ‘If I don’t stop now, I’ll be a poet not a Zen teacher.’ So he never wrote another poem.


I don’t understand what they want to say.

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Today is a full moon day and is also called Raksha Bandhan. What we call these days as the friendship day, people tie friendship bands, this is a new trend, but this is actually an old version changed into a new thing. Tying this Raksha Bandhan has been there for ages. Today the sisters tie to the brothers what is called as Rakhi on their hand saying,’ I will protect you and you protect me’. The last full moon was Guru Poornima and this full moon is Raksha Bandhan. Like that every full moon is dedicated to some celebration. Main thing is you should celebrate life. That is important and in India there are so many celebrations. You finish one, you have to prepare for the other. And see these are the rainy days. In ancient time, people didn’t have much to do at home. In rainy days there is no harvest, nothing. When rain comes you are just sitting at home. Celebrate, make different types of food and sing and greet each other, wish each other good. It is a wonderful wonderful practice.

Q: Dearest Guruji, how to balance personal life and professional life?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Do you know how to ride a bicycle? How do you balance? Exactly! Don’t neglect your profession and don’t neglect taking time for yourself. See, you say the world does not change. Have you noticed if you are changing or you are not changing? You are changing, right? Just imagine the teachers who taught you the basic course. Suppose if they think,’ In the world nobody is changing why should I teach?’ If they had not taught anything to you, no pranayama, no meditation, no Sudarshan Kriya, what would have happened? Can you look back and see, before you took the basic course what was the state of your mind and where you are today? Do you notice that? How many of you find a change? See, so many of you changed because somebody did something, isn’t it? Someone took the time off for six days, two hours each day sat with you, took all your questions, taught you something, corrected you, so there is a shift. Change is happening in the world constantly. If you become a catalyst to that, that’s your good luck because being a catalyst for change brings happiness within you.

Q: How to tackle a person who has double standards?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: With compassion. You know, double standards are because they don’t know the wealth that they are carrying in themselves. Each one of us is a treasure house of wealth. Deep inside, you have the Divinity, the light, the peace, the joy, the love that you are seeking. And when you are not in touch with that you are trying to grab this little bit here, grab something from there, for what? Because you don’t realize that there is a great power deep within us. So, with such people you simply have to have compassion. By having double standards they are creating harm for themselves.

Q: Guruji, Viveka is the realization that everything has impermanent nature. Then why is it so wrong to let go your commitment?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: See, if your commitment is going to create problem and bring sorrow to many, then you should drop the commitment. Like a youth told me once, ‘ I have promised the commander of Lashkar that I will give my life to this organization, I will bring the word of God to anybody and do anything possible to spread this principle’. But when he became peaceful he realized that this is not the correct commitment he gave or he took. ‘I don’t want to be involved in violence anymore. But what to do? I have promised on this holy book. What do you do?’ I said,’ No, let go of the commitment because you took the commitment in ignorance. So there is no point in honoring that commitment which you took in ignorance to engage in violence. Yes, If there is some other commitment you took being so foolish, which doesn’t create such harm to anybody, then you keep it. You weigh the pros and cons and then you follow. Another person says,’ yes, I am committed in a marriage and now I have children, but that is an old commitment, I don’t want to do anything now’. You have two kids and now you say,’ I don’t want any commitment, I want to get out of it’, then there is no way. Your commitment now is to take care of the children. You can’t run away from that.

Many people, after being married, after having kids, then they regret, oh I should have been single. I took a wrong commitment. You have no way now, you have to continue. But if you have taken a commitment I will be single and suddenly you change your mind, you want to get married, it is okay because dropping that commitment of yours, you are not harming anybody. So you have to think on those things. Weigh the pros and cons of a commitment.

Q: Dearest Guruji, despite God telling Adam and Eve not to have the forbidden fruit, they ate it. Is it because of that the world is suffering, please explain.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: That too, it was the fruit of knowledge or wisdom, something like that. That was the wisdom fruit that they did not listen to. You know, suffering is because we don’t honor wisdom. Suffering in the world is because of lack of wisdom. If there is wisdom, there is no suffering. Life is bliss. Don’t put this sankalp, this intention in your mind that life is all suffering. As you sow, so shall you reap. If you sow, you think life is all suffering, then that’s what you are going to get back. We should understand the science of our consciousness, of our mind. Unfortunately, many people did not know this and they started putting this sort of principle into the mind that everything is suffering and I need suffering.
You have to suffer in order to get salvation but this is not the correct understanding of reality. That is why there are so many different opinions. Though there is one Jesus Christ, today there are 72 different sects of Christianity – each claiming they are the real one. You know why? Because of wrong interpretation, nothing matched. We say God is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and then you say Satan. If God is everywhere, omnipotent, all powerful, how could Satan be there? Do you see what I am saying? The theologians are struggling to find an answer for this. They want to put Satan somewhere but they can’t, and if you put him, then you have to denounce the omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience of God. If god knew everything before, why wouldn’t he prevent it? These are the questions for which theologians have been hunting answers for a long time and the answers can be found in the Vedanta. That is why the Catholic Priest who came to India, he studied the Vedanta and he said, ‘Now I can understand the whole thing better.’ He was struggling and struggling to put together the pieces of the puzzles, it didn’t make any sense. So many scholars came and they practiced yoga, meditation, learned Vedanta and then understood that this is a different understanding, different insight into truth and reality.

Q: Dear Guruji, to teach the new generation youth awareness about farming what can I do? What is my role?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Yes, there are YLTP programs happening and you join the team and start educating people. Education, educating people about farming, this is seva also.

Q: Dearest Guruji, In the past lots of people have done seva but the world has not changed. Why should I waste time doing seva?Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Seva is something that is needed by other people. Suppose you are carrying a weight, heavy luggage, and you cannot carry anymore, then you look here and there, you want someone to help you, don’t you? See, we are all interdependent; everybody needs some help from somebody and doing that help without expecting anything in return is seva. Without seva nothing can happen on this planet, isn’t it? By seva don’t think you are changing the world. Seva you do, because you can’t but do it. It’s in your nature. If you are good, if you are loving, if you are happy, you can’t but do seva. And when you are unhappy, if you do seva, you become happy.

Q: Dearest Guruji, if the universe is a play and display of consciousness, why we should not have fun instead of spiritual practices like sadhana, seva and satsang?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: This is all fun, isn’t it? When you follow knowledge, fun follows you. If you follow fun, misery follows you.

Q: Dearest Guruji, you said let go of your concepts. How do you do this, please explain?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: You want an answer for this question? I am not going to answer. Someone asked me how do I improve my patience, I told them I will tell you five years later.

Q: Guruji I get panic attacks and my mind chatters while I meditate even though I observe my breath, how to get over this?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Ujjayi breath and relax.

Q: I do not follow Hinduism so I cannot understand and appreciate the rituals. Can I still grow in AOL?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Definitely! You know, some of the rituals are very ancient. On Monday all the ashrams do the pooja, you simply sit with your eyes closed in deep meditation. You feel the vibrations of the sound – that is all that needs to be done.

                Actually Hinduism is not a religion at all; it is just a way of life, the ancient way of life. Like Yoga is part of it, pranayama is part of it, meditation, chanting – these are all to enhance the life-force, life-energy and it is universal in its spirit. So you can follow your religion, no problem. You can be a Christian, you can be a Muslim, you can be Jewish or Parsi. Doesn’t matter whatever religion you follow.
            Religion is the rituals that are associated with your birth, your wedding, your cremation or that which people do after you are gone. But the spiritual practices are different, they are there to enliven the consciousness. That is so vital. It is important that people of the world, everywhere, become spiritual and grow spiritually and honor all the religions. You honor Christianity, honor Islam, honor Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Hindisum, honor everyone. And take good things, if there are good practices anywhere, that we should take into our life.

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(Below is the transcript of Satsang with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.You can watch the Live webcast of future satsangs)
Q: (A member of the audience asked a question and it was inaudible)

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: You know whatever situation you have you can make that situation as a step for your growth. Pleasant situations you can definitely make use of it for growth. Unpleasant situations also you can make use of it as your next step for growth.

Q: Jai Gurudev, this world, the creation, the karma, the suffering whatever it is. It is said that it is all God’s play. Don’t you think God is playing a very dangerous, never ending action sort of game to pass his time?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: You are talking like a villager, who 40 to 50 years back who sit in the cinema house and if their hero is losing he will throw eggs and tomatoes on the screen. Do you know? Have you heard about that? If Rajkumar were to lose the battle in the screen or MGR would lose the battle. What they would do in the villages some 30 to 40 years ago, you may not even know. People would throw stones and tear the curtain, tear the screen because their hero was losing the ground. But see from the eyes of the director, what would he say? One is the player, another is the spectator and the third is the director. From the director’s eyes it is very different.

Q: Guruji, sometimes I feel connected with you but sometimes there is link failure. How it happens and why it happens? My son got blessings from you and has become mad about you. And my wife says you are taking him on the same path on which you are going, it will ruin our family. What is the result for it?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: No, we never take anybody or tell anyone not to listen to their parents. Our main thing is listening to your parents. Don’t worry about it, he won’t run away from the home. (Q: What about link failure?) – Charge your batteries! You know for a cell phone to work there should be charge in the cell and then a sim card and it should be within the range. Range is already there but if your battery has lost its charge, you have to plug in and charge your battery again, that is all you need to do.

Q: Guruji, I want to learn how to make friends and how to sustain them because I really find it difficult.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Okay! You are in the right place okay, it will happen automatically, don’t worry.

Q: Guruji, I come from Morocco from Sufism. In the spiritual stories of Islamism there are a lot of examples of openness like the Indian Guru. The experience was very beautiful but today it is more closed. What is your advice for opening more to Sufism?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Yes, that openness is necessary now. That is the only way to go forward. You should have an open mind.

Q: Guruji, we all have learnt in our path of knowledge that we are connected to you like the hair of your head. My only doubt is that somewhere in-between suppose we miss our Sudarshan Kriya or we deviate, will you disconnect us?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: No, no, nothing like that. Doesn’t matter even if you miss one or two days never mind. We are all anyways connected; the whole world is all connected.

Q: Jai Gurudev! I have a typical question which majority of the people experience. Basically when I start doing meditation, even if I sit half an hour, still I am functioning and thinking of different things. Even if I concentrate on my breath in and out, still I am not able to get that 30 seconds or 1 minute of a controlled mind?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Have you done Sudarshan Kriya? (Ans – ‘No yet’) That is where Sudarshan Kriya helps. It quickly takes you deep in meditation.
                     Q: To be a successful entrepreneur what principle one should follow?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Yes, first is confidence that ‘Yes I can do it!’ Second is ethics; you should not move from ethics. Your entrepreneurship should not move away from ethics, otherwise you will find a quick rise but you will fall that fast, as fast as you rise. Got it!

Q: What is the difference between Guru and Sadguru?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Just that ‘Sadh’ is prefixed to Guru. It makes no difference. It is just a name and both are one and the same.

Q: Guruji, I have come to the ashram for the very first time, and love it. I feel as though you have brought me here. In our day-to-day life we come across good and bad things and sometimes tend to deviate from the path. I meditate, and perform yogic practices daily. When I am in solitude, I find it easy to stay centered and maintain saatvik (purity) qualities. My question on behalf of everyone is, how do we maintain this purity in the face of the positive and negative influences we are exposed to in the world?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: The awareness of this will bring it about. Keep meditating, do Sudarshan Kriya, attend satsangs and stay in the company of good people; it will happen.

Q: In The Bhagwad it is written that there are 4 steps in the practice of Dharma: Truth (Satya), Discipline (Tapah), Purity, Compassion. As a supervisor in-charge in the Department of Agriculture I often find myself unable to practice compassion towards my subordinates as I am pressured from above to improve efficiency and productivity.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: One can feel compassion towards one who is miserable, not one who is arrogant, or commits wrong-doings. Such a person is dealt with strictness without compromising one’s integrity. Of the four qualities: friendliness, compassion, mudita (happiness), indifference: all one can do is to practice indifference towards one’s higher-ups.

Q: There are so many Sadhgurus but why is the experience with you so unique?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: I have no idea!
Q: Guruji, I have done YES plus course. I am visiting the ashram after two years and have been here for the last couple of days and do not feel like leaving ever. How do I strike a balance between my responsibilities at home and my desire to remain here?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Do both, you have to take care of your domestic responsibilities and your commitment here.

Q: Jai Gurudev, today a lot of inter-cast marriages and marriages between religions are happening. It has become a way of life. Are we moving towards a universal religion? What is your opinion?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: You have answered your own question; actually it is just a remark. Yes it is happening, inter-religions, inter-caste marriages are happening. As long as there is harmony and there is respect for religion and people don’t force one to convert to another religion there is no problem. But if they are forcing someone to convert then there is a problem.

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1. A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912) received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in saved tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’

‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said. ‘You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup? ‘

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