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Last Updated : Nov 21, 2020 09:59 AM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

The Aligned Mind | Bibek Debroy's uncertainty principle

Love uncertainty and embrace risk, but don’t apply that principle indiscriminately, says economist Bibek Debroy.

Note to readers: They hold the economy together but what holds them together? The Aligned Mind delves into the mental health and spiritual well-being of India's finest business minds. How they confront their challenges. What disciplines and practices keep them intellectually and emotionally agile. How they attain the mind-body-spirit integrity that keeps their organisations finely balanced on that cutting edge.

As chairman of the Prime Minister's Economic Council, one might argue, economist Bibek Debroy has a bit more of a bird's eye view over the vicissitudes of change that have hit us as a society and an economy over the last couple of years. Yet, it is from the texts he has grappled with as a translator and author, that his understanding of how uncertainty works have come.

Studying the texts, Debroy says, "changes you as a person". It is a lifelong influence and training, one that far predates a specific set of circumstances, and that is the kind that kicks in whether one is in the trough or peak of a wave.

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Debroy, a master of texts, could recite a Bhagavad Gita shloka to make his point but the range of influence upon him is vaster and the principle finds wider resonance across texts. The essence being non-reaction. "It is a reminder that all things are transient. The bad can be transient but the good can also be transient. It only works if you don’t react to the bad but you don’t react to the good either."

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Debroy is not a fan of the word ‘detachment’ because it is an overused trope that implies a prior attachment existed. He prefers to practice a : "non-attachment"; a sense of belonging that never came into being.

"All the texts including the Bhagavad Gita need you to become non-attached. ‘This too shall pass’, come and go."

This insight becomes a tapasya as such in itself and while he does turn to physical activity practices such as walking or yoga for a basic body engagement, this practice of the mind is the key to his sense of balance.

"Whether it is yoga, the Bhagavad Gita or any form of dhyana, or the Buddhist texts all of them have the same message: whatever you are reacting to or overreacting to is fleeting. When you overreact to the good it is unreasonable to expect that you will not overreact to the bad."

And as a society we have become chronic overreactors to the good as well. We love our upturns, revel in good fortune and expect the peaks to keep getting peakier. Does philosophy help us navigate a world where we’re constantly swinging between the highs and lows and have more brick and mortar concerns about everyday living?

What is the middle ground? Debroy holds close a memory of a lesson from his father, who also worked in government service in his time. He was 12 when he asked him, "how much money do you have in your bank account?"

His father told him, and it seemed to Debroy to be a small amount. To which his father advised him, "if you have enough in your bank account to tide you over three months, you should be happy."

Whether it's a pragmatic proportion of course depends on individual circumstances, but it's a message that stayed with Debroy as a compass of what indicates a sense of personal stability in a lifetime of upheaval.

Contrary to the conventionally accepted notion of what constitutes stability, Debroy has changed jobs and relocated many times, sometimes out of ennui, often without planning, or the security of the next job in hand. Personal experience has inadvertently or advertently affirmed the principle that ties it all together: to love the uncertainty, and the risk.

Debroy is careful to point out that his is a personal insight that stems from lived experience, and does not apply broadly. In a Covid-smacked world, it is necessary to recognise that classes like unskilled migrant workers and unorganised labour have been the hardest hit, with job loss, no savings let alone enough for three months, and reduced pay where jobs are available.

It is necessary therefore to also apply these philosophies sensitively and where applicable. It's not a blanket solution for all. Just as it can be ill applied to a lower income class, the principle is ill applied to those who seemingly have it all and are reckless with that privilege.

"There is a tendency to love uncertainty and risk without realising the consequences". Risky job jumping for exorbitant salaries and enjoying the uncertainty when times are good also needs to translate to the same love of risk and uncertainty when times are bed. The problem arises when the outflow is exponentially higher during the good times, the consumption-driven patterns of high EMIs, investing in accessories that offer diminishing returns instead of assets.

This correspondingly inflates the amount one requires to tide over the bad time. As opposed to the old fashioned values of save for a rainy day that came out of a recognition that uncertainty is inevitable. If one is profligate in the upswing but startled and offended by the down swing, one hasn’t learned to ride the wave or comprehended the nature of the wave.

"Post the onset of Covid there was an intense period of job losses that has passed although the job market is adjusting itself. If I was to make a broad brush analysis the employment market has revived, except I’m not going to get the salaries I used to get earlier," Debroy notes.

Some of the inability to accept the cut is built in by the  cultivated profligacy that has now been curtailed. When we look at uncertainty, its highs and lows, we tend to measure normalcy by a past definition of normal, when the requirement of the hour is to look forward to a new normal as it is defined by the emerging present moment. A lot of the misery comes from expecting a known and secured past to return in the belief that it was permanent.

This holding on to the idea of an unchanging past impacts our ability to be dynamic instruments of the future, potent in the present. This insight into uncertainty is what allows us to adapt and correct our sails to the winds of change.

However, and here's the pinch of the process Debroy notes: "all change brings pain and pain cannot be borne by government." In riding the crest of the uncertainty wave in good times is implicit the need to ride its trough through the bad times, and embracing both as part of the journey. When you gain the benefits, you also gain the loss, and the secret is to see both as gains.

The skills to take on uncertainty are not an exercise that can kick in suddenly in the downturn. It isn't a tool or a skill set that works on demand. It is cultivated through a lifelong practice of non-attachment to its cyclic nature that inures one to the vicissitudes.

As we witness the cyclic nature of these evolutions, we arrive at an insight into abundance as energy. Much like positivity, in terms of the behaviours, actions, and energy we put out into the world, we contribute to an atmosphere of creating, producing, and driving growth.

"We loosely use the term 'good vibes' because we react to people who radiate negativity and positivity, not merely on social media, but throughout life. And my experience shows me that those who radiate positivity find it comes back to them. Those who radiate negativity also finds it comes back to them."

Not necessarily reciprocally and transactionally, Debroy notes, but in terms of the energy coming around. There are no mantras or mottos that offer a one for all solution to those seeking to navigate these times of transformation that can work for us beyond what we are each drawn to organically. We build the energy that we create out of our response to evolving times, which is why, neither elated nor pulled down, non-reactive and non-attached, is the best way to pass through it.

(Gayatri Jayaraman is a mind body spirit counsellor and the author of Sit Your Self Down.)
First Published on Nov 21, 2020 09:59 am
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