Thursday, June 10, 2010

Performance Excellence and the Flow State

Let me begin with a story from the Tales of Vikramaditya. The story is about Urvashi.

What does Urvashi have to do with performance excellence and the flow, you might ask. Isn’t she an apsara, a heavenly dancer, or more correctly, a heavenly courtesan? Isn’t her job, according to mythology, titillating male hearts and tempting ascetics with her charms?

The tales of Dattatreya that India has been telling and retelling for ages teach us that wisdom could be found anywhere. One could learn wisdom from a fish, from a crane, from a leaping tiger or from the stillness of a mountain. One could learn lessons from a heavenly courtesan, or her poorest cousin, a street whore too. In fact, Indian culture teaches us several invaluable lessons through tales of prostitutes.

In one of the stories told about her in the Tales of Vikramaditya, Urvashi teaches us the highest lesson in performance excellence.

The story tells us that once there was rivalry between the two best celestial dancers Urvashi and Rambha about who was the better dancer of the two. Now both the apsaras are renowned for their unsurpassed beauty and for their dancing skill. Naturally the gods could not decide who the better dancer of the two was. It is also possible that none of them wanted to take a definite stand on this. For if you declared one the superior, you would displease the other. And you do not want to displease either Urvashi or Rambha! Finding no other way, they decided to leave the matter for arbitration by an outsider, by a human being.

Greek mythology tells us the story of the Judgment of Paris, in which Paris was called upon to judge who is the most beautiful of all the goddesses. What had happened was that all the gods and goddesses were invited for the nuptials of Peleus and Thetis, leaving out Eris, the goddess of discord. The Nuptials are not a celebration to which you want to invite the goddess of discord, but Eris did not like that she was left out and wanted her revenge. What she did was to write the words “For the fairest” on a golden apple and throw it among the guests at the party. Three goddesses claimed the apple: Juno, the queen goddess of Olympus, Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, and Venus, the goddess of beauty. Jupiter was called upon to decide but he did not want to take a decision in the matter – he knew what would happen if he chose whichever one of them. Eventually it was decided that the handsome young shepherd Paris would make the decision. The goddesses immediately approached Paris and tried to bribe him. Juno promised him power and riches if he chose her; Minerva promised him wisdom and fame; and Venus, the most beautiful woman on earth as his wife. Paris declared Venus the most beautiful of the three. The other two goddesses instantly became his enemies. But Venus was pleased and took him to Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman on earth, and Helen’s elopement with Paris, who was already the wife of King Menelaus, led to the legendary Trojan War.

It is characteristic of Greek mythology that practically every time a god or goddess interferes in human affairs or a human being interferes in the affairs of gods and goddesses, it results in tragedy. But in Indian mythology, most of these interferences are benign in their result, though there are exceptions.

Well, coming back to Urvashi and Rambha, the man whom the gods decided to place in the seat of judgment was none other than King Vikramaditya, the king-emperor, legends about whom fill volumes of Indian folklore, the most famous of which are what are popularly known as the Tales of Vikram and Vetal.

Vikram was then ruling from Ujjayini [modern Ujjain in central India], his splendorous capital that rivalled Amaravati, the capital of Indra, the lord of the gods. Invited by Indra, Vikramaditya reached Amaravati and was received with great honour. He was invited to watch the performances of Urvashi and Rambha for a few days and also to participate in the other entertainments of Amaravati. Some two weeks passed this way and then one day Indra asked him the question to answer which he had been brought to the capital of the celestials.

Vikramaditya was very reluctant to do the job he was asked to do, though he felt greatly honoured. Who was he, a mere mortal, to judge the celestials, he asked. When pressed, he remained lost in thought for a while and then, after planning out a strategy in his mind, agreed ro. The following day was set for him to make the decision.

Just before the competition began, Vikramaditya asked for two floral garlands to be brought to him. Unknown to everyone, Vikram hid a scorpion inside each garland. [We must assume here there are plenty of scorpions in heaven!] As the dancers were about to begin, Vikramaditya gave each of them a garland, which they were requested to wear during the dance.

The dance began and both Urvashi and Rambha were at their very best. The audience of gods, goddesses and celestial sages watched spellbound as their performance ascended to greater perfection every moment. Both Urvashi and Rambha always danced breathtakingly, but today the whole audience felt no one could ever dance to greater perfection.

And then it happened. Surprising everybody, Rambha made her first mistake. A slight imperfection, an almost imperceptible fault. And then another, and then yet another. Something amazing was happening before the eyes of the gods, goddesses and sages! Instead of giving the best performance of her life, Rambha was giving the worst ever! No one had ever seen Rambha making so many errors in a dance. It was unbelievable. Everyone knew she was a supreme mistress of dance and now she was dancing like an amateur!

The dance came to an end. No one had any doubt about who the winner was. Vikramaditya’s words merely confirmed the conviction in everybody’s heart. Urvashi was officially declared the supreme dancer of the heavens. Rambha fled the scene in shame.

Now the gods and goddesses turned as one person to Vikramaditya. What had he done? How was the miracle achieved? Why had Rambha failed on that day? Why had she made so many obvious mistakes? Why had she danced like a novice?

Vikram explained the test he had designed. The garlands he gave the dancers had a scorpion hidden inside each. So long as the dancers danced to perfection, their rhythms would be so smooth that the scorpions would be unaware of their movements, their steps and movements would lull them into a kind of contented sleep. That is how Indian dances are designed – the movements induce a kind of light trance. But the moment the steps and movements became less than perfect, this trance would be disturbed. The movements would lose have their mellifluousness and become jarring and irregular. This might not be obvious to the audience because the dancers are so supremely talented, but within the garlands the scorpions would become disturbed because they would physically feel the jarred movements. Awakened from the trance, they would sting the wearer. And that is what had happened with Rambha.

But how had Rambha’s movements become less than perfect in the first place?

As a dance progresses, the best of dancers transcend themselves and then it is no more they dancing, but dance happening through them. Dance has the ability to take the dancer beyond herself, beyond her limited self, and it is when this happens that dance achieves its highest quality. It is no more a dancer dancing then, but dance flowing out of the dancer on its own. It then becomes pure dance, without a dancer being present. In the language of the Gita, action then becomes inaction because there is no actor behind the action. Karma becomes akarma because there is no karta behind it. The result is unsurpassed excellence.

When the dancer ceases to be and the dance goes on, then it becomes pure dance. Supreme dance, truly divine dance. Then it is the divine essence in us that is dancing and not the ego.

This had not happened in the case of Rambha. As the dance progressed, a thought came to her mind – “How beautifully I dance!” And that thought created a gap between her and the dance. She was no more one with the dance, but there was a distance between the two, a distance created by her self-consciousness, by the presence of her ego. The moment that thought came to her head, the moment the ego appeared, her dance became less than perfect, her movement lost their perfection, and the resulting jarred movements awakened the scorpion and it stung her.

A single thought in the mind, and Rambha loses the contest.

Urvashi kept dancing in self-forgetfulness. Urvashi kept dancing and became one with her dance. For her it was no more she dancing, but dance happening through her. There was just the dance, she had disappeared.

What had happened to her was self-transcendence. Self-transcendence which is essential for the highest perfection in dance, for the highest perfection in any action.

It was not Urvashi who had defeated Rambha in the dance. Her own ego had defeated Rambha.


Our best moments in personal life as well as in professional life come to us in moments when our ‘self’ [ego] does not exist, is transcended. Modern psychology calls this ‘the flow state’. This is the state of all creativity, problem-solving, and performance excellence.

In all our outstanding performances, whether it is in singing, in painting, in writing, in making a presentation or a speech, in team work, in playing an individual game or a team game, or in making love, there comes a moment when the self as we know it does not exist. Those moments in the bathroom when we get beautiful creative insights – those are moments of self-forgetfulness/self-transcendence. In fact, all creativity, all inventions require this self-transcendence as its basis.

This is how George Leonard in his The Ultimate Athlete describes those moments:

“Michael Spino, a ranking long-distance runner, was training one rainy day along dirt and asphalt roads, and was being paced by a friend in a car. He planned to run six miles at top speed. After the first mile, he realized something extraordinary was happening; he had run the mile in four and a half minutes with no sense of pain or exertion whatever. He ran on, carried by a huge momentum. It was as if the wet roads, the oncoming cars, the honking horns did not exist. Gradually, his body lost all weight and resistance. He began to feel like a skeleton. He became the wind itself. Daydreams and fantasies disappeared. All that remained to remind him of his own existence was “a feeling of guilt for being able to do this.”

“When the run ended, Spino was unable to talk, for he had lost a clear sense of who he was. It was impossible for him to decide if he were Mike Spino or “the one who had been running.” He sat down at the side of the road and wept. He had run the entire six miles on wet and muddy roads at a four-and-a-half-minute pace, close to the national record, and now he could not decide who he was.”

Mike Spino did not understand it, but what had happened to him was an experience of self-transcendence.

Commenting on Spino’s experience, George Leonard says: “Distance running is indeed a powerful instrument for altering human consciousness. Like many of the meditative disciplines, it requires a willingness to bear pain, a propensity for self-denial. The rhythmic, repetitive movements of the body and the steady flow of visual stimuli are well constituted to induce visions and reveal mysteries…”

Apart from being the state of peak performance, self-transcendence is also the state in which visions become possible and mysteries are revealed. Sports, with its constant need to bring out the best in oneself, to ‘outperform oneself’ is one of the easiest ways of achieving self-transcendence.

Here is more from Leonard, wherein he tries to describe the state of self-transcendence, without finding proper vocabulary to explain that state about which the west knows very little.

“Sometimes the highest accomplishments in sports seem to place the performer in a dreamlike state. Enrico Rastelli, who dazzled all of Europe with his juggling, displayed a childlike ease while accomplishing the most spectacular feats. Standing on his hands with a rubber ring spinning around one leg, he could make a ball climb from the crown of his head up his back to the sole of the other foot. He set a world record by juggling twelve balls in the air simultaneously. Rastelli said he felt he was not working but dreaming.

“Other championship performers have described their moments of high performance and unusual perception as being totally different from dreaming. British golfer Tony Jacklin, winner of both the U.S. Open and the British Open, admits to having experienced a state of altered consciousness some ten times in his golfing career:
““It’s not like playing golf in a dream or anything like that. Quite the opposite. When I’m in this state everything is pure, vividly clear. I’m in a cocoon of concentration. And if I can put myself into that cocoon, I’m invincible.”

“Jacklin, quoted in the London Sunday Times, went on to speak of the difficulty of describing his experiences. “They sound stupid. For a start, it is very difficult to explain these feelings to someone who has not experienced them. . . When I’m in this state, this cocoon of concentration, I’m living fully in the present, not moving out of it. I’m absolutely engaged, involved in what I’m doing at that particular moment. That’s the important thing.

Daniel Goleman has been fascinated with peak performance and the state of flow and self-transcendence. Here is what Goleman has to say about self-transcendence and peak performance in his celebrated book Emotional Intelligence:

“A composer describes those moments when his work is at its best: “You yourself are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I’ve experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching in a state of awe and wonderment. And it just flows out by itself.”

”His description is remarkably similar to those of hundreds of diverse men and women – rock climbers, chess champions, surgeons, basketball players, engineers, managers, even filing clerks – when they tell of a time they outdid themselves in some favoured activity. The state they describe is called “flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the University of Chicago psychologist who has collected such accounts of peak performance during two decades of research. Athletes know this state of grace as “the zone,” where excellence becomes effortless, crowd and competitors disappear into a blissful, steady absorption in the moment. Diane Roffe-Steinortter, who captured a gold medal in skiing at the 1994 Winter Olympics, said after she finished her turn at ski racing that she remembered nothing about it but being immersed in relaxation. “I felt like a waterfall.”

“That experience is a glorious one: the hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture. Because flow feels so good, it is intrinsically rewarding. It is a state in which people become utterly absorbed in what they are doing, paying undivided attention to the tasks, their awareness merged with their actions. Indeed, it interrupts flow to reflect too much on what is happening – the very thought “I’m doing this wonderfully” can break the feeling of flow. Attention becomes so focused that people are aware only of the narrow range of perception related to the immediate task, losing track of time and space.”

Concluding this discussion of the flow state, Goleman says: “Flow is a state of self-forgetfulness, the opposite of rumination and worry: instead of being lost in nervous preoccupation, people in flow are so absorbed in the task at hand they lose all self-consciousness. And although people perform at their peak while in flow, they are unconcerned with how they are doing, with thoughts of success or failure – the sheer pleasure of the act itself is what motivates them.”


In the story of Urvashi and Rambha, while Urvashi had lost all self-consciousness, even the consciousness that she was dancing wonderfully, Rambha failed to reach that state. The thought came to her that she was dancing wonderfully. She became self-conscious.

It is also possible that Rambha suddenly became preoccupied with the result of the competition. Maybe, while one part of her mind was on the dance, another part became preoccupied with winning, with the result. And that preoccupation threw her out of the flow in which she was dancing until then.

When you are divided within yourself, it becomes impossible for you to reach or remain in flow, to self-transcend. Only a person who is undivided and whole at that moment can achieve self-transcendence. The fragmented individual is barred from entering the state of self-transcendence.

It is for this reason that the Bhagavad Gita says: karmanyeva’dhikaraste, ma phaleshu kadachana; ma karmaphalahetur bhooh...” “Your power is only over your actions and not over their results. Do not be preoccupied with the results of your actions while you perform actions.” When we become preoccupied with the results, part of the mind is tied up with that preoccupation and we are not able to give ourselves entirely to the action in hand. This makes our mind fragmented and that prevents us from achieving self-transcendence.

There is no action through which we cannot attain self-transcendence, no action which cannot be performed in the self-transcended state, provided we are able to give ourselves entirely to the action.

George Leonard, Daniel Goleman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi speak of achievimg self-transcendence through running, painting, writing, singing and numerous other activities. Another person who has studied the phenomenon in depth is Dr Charalempos Mainemelis of London Business School, who has studied the flow state and self-transcendence as well as time transcendence in the context of work in industry and business. According to psychologists who study the flow state, flow could be achieved even while engage in such a routine, monotonous job as that of a filing clerk in an office.

Amaru Shataka is an ancient Indian classic in Sanskrit. One traditional belief says it was written by Adi Shankara, the great mystic-philosopher, though there are many who refuse to accept this. The book is a collection of one hundred erotic verses [many more have been added since and the current extant text has around one hundred and fifty verses], one of which contains a beautiful description of a couple achieving self-transcendence while in the act of lovemaking.


One of the greatest psychological understandings of Indian thought is that no actor can be perfect, only actions can be perfect and actions become perfect only when the actor ceases to be, ceases to exist.

So long as the actor is present in the action, the action is less than perfect.

Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna speaks of the need to eliminate the actor from the action, the performer from the performance, the doer from what is done. One should be an akarta – non-doer – while performing karma, says Krishna. Be just an instrument for the actions to happen through, and never be the doer of actions, he tells Arjuna repeatedly, and through Arjuna, all of us. The secret of action, according to Krishna, is to be like his flute. The flute is empty and because it is empty, Krishna’s music can flow through it.

In Kahlil Gibran’s Jesus: the Son of Man, the author says:

“Jesus the Nazarene was born and reared like ourselves; His mother and father were like our parents, and He was a man.

“But the Christ, the Word, who was in the beginning, the Spirit who would have us live our fuller life, came unto Jesus and was with Him.

“And the Spirit was the versed hand of the Lord, and Jesus was the harp.

“The Spirit was the psalm, and Jesus was the turn thereof.

“And Jesus, the Man of Nazareth, was the host and the mouthpiece of the Christ, who walked with us in the sun and who called us His friends.”

The last verse of the Bhagavad Gita makes this beautiful promise to us: yatra yogeshwarah krishnah, yatra partho dhanurdharah, tatra shreer vijayo bhootir dhruva neetir matir mama. “Where there is Krishna, the master of yoga, and where there is Arjuna with his bow in hand, there shall goodness, wealth, prosperity, victory, glory and firm justice be.

Arjuna should be present with his bow in hand. But the arrows should fly as directed by Krishna. Arjuna should be there, ready for action, but he should cease to be the actor, the doer, and allow actions to take place through him, and then there shall be goodness, wealth, prosperity, victory, glory and firm justice.

“Nimittamatram bhava savyasachin” – “O Arjuna, be you no more than an instrument [in the hands of the High].”

It is only egoless action that can touch the heights of perfection and it is only egoless action that can engender goodness, wealth, prosperity, victory, glory and firm justice.

Because the ego is poison. Because the ego contaminates everything, corrupts everything, poisons everything.

One of the ways to transcend the ego is to give ourselves entirely to the action, to lose ourselves in what we are doing, as Urvashi did while dancing.

When we give ourselves entirely over to the action, when we lose ourselves in the action, the actor disappears and actions achieve the highest possible quality.

That is true excellence in action – as declared by the Gita verse yogah karmasu kaushalam.

In the context of leadership, a leader climbs to the highest quality when he lets things happen through him without letting his ego interfere.

This is a secret known to musicians and dancers and singers all over the world. This is a secret known to writers and poets and painters all over the world. This is a secret known to actors and speakers and sportsmen all over the world.

Eliminate the actor to achieve excellence in action.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Human Mind and the Power to Will

"If I had my life to live over again, I would devote it to Psychic Research." – Sigmund Freud

Recently, during one of my lectures on the powers of the mind in a business school, someone from the audience, a young man from Denmark, asked me: “What are the limits of the powers of the mind?” I took a moment before answering and then said, “None.” And then, to support my statement, I quoted the Yoga Vasishtha, that voluminous Indian classic on the human mind, believed to be written by the sage-poet Valmiki in an era when much of the world was not yet civilized.

Indeed, there are no limits to the powers of the mind.

My lecture was more specifically focused on the power of belief and how belief alters our biology itself. Speaking of the power of the mind to alter biology, Dr Herbert Benson, MD, for instance, quotes in his celebrated book Timeless Healing Dr Stewart Wolf’s 1950 study of women who experienced persistent nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.

“These patients,” says Dr Benson, “swallowed small, balloon-tipped tubes that, once positioned in their stomachs, allowed researchers to record the contractions associated with waves of nausea and vomiting. Then the women were given a drug they were told would cure the problem. In fact, they were given the opposite – syrup of ipecac – a substance that causes vomiting.

“Remarkably, the patients’ nausea and vomiting ceased entirely and their stomach contractions, as measured through the balloons, returned to normal. Because they believed they received antinausea medicine, the women reversed the proven action of a powerful drug. Even though many of us stock our medicine cabinets and first aid kits with ipecac to bring about vomiting in case of poisoning, these pregnant women with documented stomach distress thwarted the action of a drug that should have made them even sicker. With belief alone, they cured themselves.”

Belief and will can work miracles.

One of my favourite examples for this is firewalking – particularly the case of firewalking by Chittiravel, a Tamil-speaking Sri Lankan.

It was on 4th July, 1991, while the U.S. was celebrating Independence Day, that Chittiravel was arrested as a suspected LTTE supporter in his hometown and taken away by the Sri Lankan police.

When he was first taken to the camp, he was forced to enter a large water tank, in which he was questioned and repeatedly dunked under water throughout the night. Finally he was stabbed in the thigh and removed from the tank. Then his torturers packed the large knife wound with salt and chilli powder and tied his thigh tightly. He was hung from a beam during continuing interrogation while his torturers burned the skin of his legs in many places with cigarettes. They had been drinking and repeatedly demanded, ‘You tell the names of the Tigers.’ Later, while his legs and arms were chained, one of the men knocked out four upper front teeth with a single blow of his fist. He also sustained a large wound on the left side of his skull.

Chittiravel’s woes do not end here, but only begin with these. His “thumbs were then tied together behind his back and he was hoisted high off the floor, hanging from the rafters. While suspended, he was severely beaten with a large akappai [a wooden utensil for stirring large pots of rice]. As the beatings continued for a long time, the rope frayed and he fell to the floor.

Chittiravel suffered bilateral hip fractures. In the course of continuing years of detention, scarring of the fractured hip joints, which never healed properly, resulted in a chronically frozen pelvic girdle. After six months, Chittiravel was transferred several times, and in the third year of incarceration, he was released from a fifth place of imprisonment.”

Years ago, like many other devotees of Veeramma Kali [Mother Kali in the heroic form], the presiding deity of his hometown, he had taken a vow to walk on burning coals every year, firewalk being a fairly common vow that devotees of the Mother Goddess took wherever Tamil people are to be found. He had done it several years successively before his arrest. However, the bilateral fractures of both hips he had suffered as a result of the tortures in the detention camps had resulted in a permanently frozen pelvic girdle, crippling him for life. Chittiravel could not walk now – he could only move sideways, stretching out one leg at a time, and that too with great pain and discomfort. But this did not stop him from keeping up with his vow and performing a feat the very thought of which scares most of us.

Remember when we are talking of firewalking, we are not talking of a man quickly running over a tiny bed of dying or dead embers, his feet and legs wet, actually stepping over the coals once or twice – though even this is not something most of us would dare to do. Firewalkers actually walk at normal speed through a long bed of burning embers to fulfil their vows.

The firebed on which they walk barefoot is often more than five meters long, more than a metre wide and a full metre deep, as in the famous Uduppawa firewalking festival. The embers are prepared from tamarind wood, which burns slowly, producing fierce heat. A huge amount of tamarind wood is cut down and gathered in advance, and for hours fire builders heave logs into the massive fire built up, making flames leap to the skies. By evening even approaching the firebed becomes a daunting task, so hot is the whole place where the massive bonfire has been burning for hours. The bed of embers is, of course, pure fire, pulsing red, looking like a crouching vengeful fire dragon, as someone put it. Each piece of coal in the metre-thick bed of live coals is the size of a large potato. The bed smoulders furiously, every now and then sending up sparks and flames leaping out. It is over this that people serenely walk, to the accompaniment of fiercely beaten drums and loud, intoxicated chanting of mantras. The walker often balances a ritually sanctified pot on his head.

Like hundreds of other men, women and children, Chittiravel continues to walk over this scorching trench every year, to keep his vow to Veeramma Kali. The deformed man, bent from the waist, his legs not fully in his control, steps onto the fire with one foot, pulls his other leg near the first one, then stretches out the first leg as far as it would go sideways, pulls up the second leg near it, moves again the first leg, thus slowly moving across the entire length of the five meter-long, one metre-thick inferno as the entire population of his village shouts the name of the goddess in intoxicated ecstasy.

Chittiravel, like other firewalkers in his village, emerges from his firewalking completely unscathed by the fire.

He believes Mother Kali guards him through the firewalk and he is guarded.


What we find here is the amazing power of belief and the miraculous things the human will can achieve.

A man from the western world who demonstrated repeatedly the amazing power of the human will is Wolf Messing. His life exemplifies the power of the human will as few other modern examples do.

Messing was a Polish Jew who lived in Germany and later fled Germany to escape persecution there under Hitler. As a child, Messing was enrolled in a religious school but ran away from there. He travelled by train to Berlin and since he did not have a ticket, he hid under the seat when he heard the ticket examiner approaching. But the ticket examiner saw him and demanded his ticket. What Wolf did was to pick up a piece of paper that was lying on the floor and give it to the man and, looking deeply into the man’s eyes, will with all his power that he should take it for the ticket. And that is precisely what happened. The man looked at the piece of paper and handed it back to the child, nodding okay. And then he asked, “Why do you hide under the seat when you have a genuine ticket?”

Wolf Messing had for the first time in his young life realized the enormous powers of his mind.

He sought work in Berlin and found one. But so poor was the pay he received that he did not have enough to eat. Once he fainted from hunger and was taken to a morgue, since people thought he was dead. Here however, his future benefactor and teacher found him – Professor Abel, who was both a psychologist and a neurologist. Professor Abel rescued him from the morgue and then, realizing the special powers the boy had, began training him.

Professor Abel realized the boy had unbelievable control over his body. He could become cataleptic at will, for instance, and enter a trancelike state. In this trancelike state, Messing could receive mental commands from the professor and execute them precisely. If Messing could read his mind in his trance, deduced Abel, then he should be able to read other people’s minds too. The professor sent him out to the market and asked him to read the minds of the vendors there. And Messing was a complete success in this.

Messing also learned to turn off feelings of physical pain and gave displays of this in order to make money for himself and for his family in Poland. He now began his tour across Germany, displaying his many remarkable powers to earn a livelihood. During his exhibitions, Messing asked members of the audience to give him mental orders to do things and he did these. He could also tell total strangers details of their past and also find things the audience had hidden.

Wolf Messing was now sixteen years old.

Hearing of the boy’s powers, Albert Einstein invited him to his home. On that visit, he met another celebrity there: Sigmund Freud, the greatest psychologist of the twentieth century. To prove Wolf Messing’s powers to receive mental orders, Freud ordered the boy to go get a pair of tweezers and with them, pull out three whiskers from Einstein’s celebrated moustache. The young man was a little embarrassed at the playfully irreverent command, but executed it all the same.

The Soviet Dictator Stalin now learnt of Messing, and he was taken to the leader. Stalin set up a test to prove Messing’s will power. The young man should go to a bank, hand over a blank piece of paper to the clerk at the counter and ask for ten thousand roubles. If the clerk took the blank paper for a check for ten thousand roubles and gave him the money, that would prove Messing’s power to influence others through his will.

Accompanied by two guards, Messing went to the bank and did exactly what he was told to do. And the clerk counted ten thousand roubles and gave it to him. Messing took the money and went out where the guards counted the money and satisfied themselves. He then came back a few minutes later and returned the money to the clerk, explaining the clerk’s mistake. Such was the shock of the clerk that he fell down in a dead faint on the spot. [Later Messing was relieved to learn that the man did not die, but survived.]

Stalin was impressed, but not convinced yet. He set up another test. This time what Messing had to do was break Stalin’s own heavy security and enter his office. He left instructions to his guards to be on the alert – Messing might try to fool them. The guards were on the alert, but a few minutes later Messing stood before Stalin in his office. Asked how he managed the feat, Messing told the Soviet dictator that he had sent out a powerful thought all around: that he was Lavrenti Beria, the feared head of Soviet secret police. When he entered Stalin’s place, it was Beria that the guards saw entering and not Messing. They saluted the police chief and stood at attention, allowing him to go into Stalin’s office.

Before allowing himself to be fully convinced, the dictator wanted him to do a third thing: leave the Kremlin without a pass, something impossible. Messing got up and walked out of Stalin’s room without a word, and a secretary followed him, to keep an eye on him. In a few minutes Messing was waving to Stalin from the streets. Questioned, the guards swore that it was Stalin himself who had walked out of the building, followed by a secretary!

We must remember that these proofs were given in communist Russia which philosophically could not accept that a thought could exist outside the human brain because Marxism-Leninism did not support such ideas. What he was doing was against communist ideologies and their materialistic beliefs. The Institute of Philosophy of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, for instance, refused to accept Messing’s powers for what they were – psychic powers – and sought materialistic explanations for them. They made public announcements that Messing’s powers were based on his power of observation – he could just read the thoughts of others from their involuntary muscle movements. To them, telepathy did not exist. And yet they failed every time in stopping Messing from succeeding in what he did.

One last example of Messing’s amazing powers of will. Messing was a Jew now working with the Soviet Union and Hitler had declared him an enemy of the state and put a reward of 200,000 Reichsmarks on him. There were pamphlets everywhere with his photographs and the promise of the reward. And it so happened that one day Messing wandered carelessly into Nazi-occupied Warsaw. He was caught and taken into custody and beaten mercilessly. When the guards went away, he decided to use his mind powers to save himself – the other options were either death or joining Hitler. Wolf Messing willed the guards to open his cell and to come to him. They walked into the cell in a trancelike state. Messing locked them in the cell and escaped. In an adventure that reminds us of the hunchback Quasimodo of Victor Hugo, he left Warsaw walking through the sewers. Later he travelled hiding in a hay cart and eventually reached the Soviet Union travelling only at night and hiding during the days.


In India we have known this amazing power of the mind for ages, and we called this iccha-shakti, literally, will power. We had not only known this power, but developed a scientific method to cultivate it. This method is known as tapas and tapas is one of the foundations of Indian culture. We find tapas mentioned throughout ancient Indian literature, be it the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Epics, the Puranas or any other branch of ancient Indian literature. One of the most beautiful descriptions ever of tapas is found in Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava where he thrillingly describes Uma’s fierce tapas to win Shiva as her husband after her beauty failed to win him over. Eventually Shiva appears before her in a scene that Kalidasa describes in rapturous poetry of unsurpassed beauty, and the timeless lovers are united once again for all eternity. The Mahabharata mentions Krishna performing tapas for twelve years in the Himalayas.

All our ancient sages are great tapasvins – practitioners of tapas – and had developed enormous powers through it. Such was their power cultivated through tapas that what they willed, and what they uttered, happened, good or bad.

Thus we have the story of the sage Vasishtha – to quote just one from maybe ten thousand such stories – cursing the arrogant Ikshwaku king Kalmashapada and changing him into a rakshasa surviving on human flesh. Helplessly Kalmashapada becomes a rakshasa while still retaining his memory and falls into a life he hates. When Kalmashapada loses his arrogance and apologises, the sage converts him back into the noble king he was. There are innumerable stories of the impossible becoming possible under the blessing of a sage. In fact, the power of a tapasvin to bless and curse is a living belief in India even today.

Such was the power acquired through tapas by Sage Vishwamitra that he created an alternate universe from his mind.

Even if we do not go to such extremes, will power is something everyone of needs and can easily cultivate by taking simple decisions and then sticking to them in spite of difficulties. A simple once a month or once a fortnight fasting is an example for an exercise meant to cultivate will power.

While ascetics in ancient India practiced their own numerous forms of tapas – Uma’s tapas involved such extreme steps as living only on leaves that had fallen from trees, standing in neck-deep water in winter, and remaining seated beneath the burning sun, surrounded by fires on all four sides – grishastas, family men and women, had their own forms of tapas. One of the most famous of such forms of tapas is the chandrayana vrata, in which one ate a full meal on the full moon day, reduced it by one-fifteenth the next day, by two-fifteenth the next day, and so on, until one reached a full fast on the new moon day. Asidhara vrata was a form of tapas based on sexual control. In its simplest form, a young man and a young woman slept with a sharp sword placed between them.

In our world today, driven by market forces and advertising, where men and women are easy prey to so many temptations, an exercise that develops will power through some simple form of tapas could be of immense value to everyone. And of course, for those who want to go on the exploration of the inner world, the greatest adventure man has ever undertaken, tapas offers an exciting challenge.