Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with Professor Ron Howard: Waking Up

by Somik Raha, Oct 17, 2013


 

 

Prof. Ronald Howard directs the Decisions and Ethics Center at Stanford University. He founded the field of Decision Analysis in the 60s, and has been teaching this subject for almost five decades now. In addition, he also teaches classes on voluntary social systems and ethics. His approach to each of these three subjects is often considered life-changing by those who take it.
 
I first met Ron as a Masters student in front of the elevator. I was a nobody, and for some reason, he stopped to say hello. We got chatting, and the next thing I knew, I was telling him my story. It had to do with my past experience as an Agile Software Development coach. He kept asking me questions on test-driven development and refactoring, and occasionally, he’d pick up a recording device around his neck and speak a term into it. Later, he’d look these terms up and be prepared to discuss them the next time we met. As I joined his research group the next year, he not only remembered our discussion but even had me teach a session on Agile Software Development. As I started getting technical very fast, the questions dropped away from everyone, except for Ron, and soon, I was explaining esoteric ideas in object-oriented programming, and still getting good questions from him to go deeper.
 
It would be an understatement to say that I have not met anyone quite like Ron Howard. His approach to learning is not of a curious condescending sort, but a truly present and engaged experience. Over the course of the next six years, whether I was presenting research, entrepreneurial ideas, great stories of service heroes, or ancient Indian philosophy, Ron was always engaged, asking amazing questions. He just was very interested in all that life had to offer. Every interaction with him was an authentic and moving experience for me. His crystal-clear mind would systematically expose unclear thinking so I could come to wisdom on my own. Lecturing isn’t his style. He prefers to join you in conversation and ask really good questions, so that you can find your own answer.
 
Somehow, by the end of my PhD, I was convinced that a person like Ron doesn’t just happen. There’s got to be a deeper story to his life. And that was when I heard the story, in response to a casual question, when Ron said, “Oh, you don’t know what happened to me? It’s a long story.” He told me bits and pieces of that story, and finally, after I was done with my PhD defense, I requested a gift - letting me interview him. In one of two interviews, Ron shared his experience of waking up. I was shocked to hear it, identifying it with stories I’ve grown up with of people who reach a deep awakening in India. We usually send our children and loved ones to such folks for advice and blessings. Yet, Ron faced a very different reality in the west, as you will find out, in a culture that wasn’t used to such experiences.
 
Ron is the only living man I know who has gained a profound sense of freedom using the path of rationality. This sense of freedom is known to those who come from cultures of devotion to God, or cultures of meditation, or cultures of selfless-service. It is extremely rare to see someone using the intellect to transcend the intellect. He was on the path of clear-thinking before he woke up, and he continued on that path after waking up. As he would say to me, “before, only my head was awake. After that experience, my heart also woke up.”

 
Somik Raha:  Prof. Howard, can you share about the time you woke up? 

Ron Howard:  When I woke up, yes, that was a very significant time for me.

Somik:  Which year was this?

Ron:  This would have been 1977, so that's 33 years ago today, and just to be clear, it wasn’t that there was one moment. About several weeks before this particular weekend that I'll be talking about, there were some changes happening in my life. I felt like I was opening in different ways, and in particular, I heard about the Chautauqua. The Chautauqua Series of Talks was a whole system they had over 100 years ago, where people would come and discuss some subject in the community in a way that was open to everybody.
     I said, we ought to do that in my professional field, Decision Analysis, so we organized one where people could bring anyone, their girlfriends, their husbands, anybody who wanted to come, and it was very successful, because it was just a big conversation, not a lecture in some sense. That was the beginning and I said, this is pretty good. So I started looking into how could we expand on it. At the time, my son, David, was reading a book called For A New Liberty, by Murray Rothbard, promoting freedom and lack of coercion. 
     I started reading this book. And some of the things I had thought were true, I began to question. I'd studied economics as an undergraduate; as a matter of fact, I got a degree in economics as well as in electrical engineering. You could get two for the price of one, but you had to take extra courses and exams.
     I had thought economics made sense, but now I had doubts. One of the things discussed in the For A New Liberty book, was the minimum wage. I got to thinking about that, and the question is: if a minimum wage is a good idea, then why don’t we make it really an attractive wage, like $100 an hour. In other words how would you decide what the minimum wage should be?
     You realized that if you make the minimum $100 an hour, then a lot of people are going to be out of work. In other words, as the book pointed out, having a high minimum wage is just a way of making sure that people are unemployed at a higher wage rate, if you think about it. This made a lot of sense to me.
     This was a time when I still did consulting associated with government policies. I and my colleague, Jim Matheson, and a graduate student were making a trip to Washington for such a project. As I was going to the airport and reading this book, I remember having all these thoughts about why don’t we do things differently. Or, why do what we are doing now if it doesn’t make sense?
     What happened was, during this trip to Washington, I had continual experiences that showed the difference between what we were attempting to do and what this book was pointing out to me, and the thinking I'd been doing. This whole episode was about a time when Jimmy Carter was President, and he decided to ban nuclear reprocessing, because of fear that somehow dangerous materials would get into the hands of the wrong people.
     This had a direct effect on a plant that three large companies had built in South Carolina, to do reprocessing. Congress was quite upset about this, in particular a Senator from South Carolina, who got a Bill passed saying that before this shutdown could be done there had to be a governmental study of its implications.
     We got a contract at the Decision Analysis Group of SRI International to assist in this study. There were other people, other organizations involved, too. I remember we'd meet in this giant conference room at the National Science Foundation, and it looked like there were 60 people around the table from all kinds of places.
     One of the things we did was to visit the reprocessing site in South Carolina, which was extremely impressive, a huge investment. It had all kinds of remote equipment because you had to take the nuclear fuel rods, chop them up, and dissolve them in acid to separate the components. They had a giant pool to keep the control rods in - it was the size of several Olympic swimming pools. And there was corridor after corridor of essentially cement structures covered with three-quarters of an inch of stainless steel. You could just see the money that had been spent on this.
     And of course, the whole purpose was that you would get another source of energy by taking the spent fuel from nuclear reactors and separating out plutonium, and other things, and then you could use them again -- that was the notion.  Anyway, after some of the study that we had done, and including this impressive site visit, now it was time to go to Washington to spend a few days there with meetings. That was a very interesting process because I remember some of the meetings were almost … what can I say, almost like some kind of strange comedy.
     We were, at one point, sitting in the State Department waiting for an appointment. Remember, I have all these ideas going on in my head. It was just like I'm living two different worlds. One was a world that I knew could exist based on the reading, and the other one was the one that I was actually participating in.
     In the Department of State reception area where we are waiting for the meeting, and there were magazines to read, and so I'm looking at these, and they are catalogues of weapons for sale; in other words, with advertisements like: "My anti-aircraft gun fires this many shells per minute, and my tank goes this fast". It was unbelievable. I mean, this was where you could shop for weapons. It was a symbol of the huge amount of arms sold by all kinds of countries, and bought by others. And it remains so today.
     This is really amazing. Here we have this part of the government where you can go and look into everything you want to know about weapons, and it was not the military, it was a part of the state department. That was pretty much of a shock.
     Then I remember a meeting we had with someone in the executive branch in the old Executive Office Building, where there are a lot of high-level functionaries. We told him what we were studying and he said, "Well you know, I don’t think we should talk about this; maybe you shouldn’t do this study." I said, "Yes, but you know, Congress has required that this study be done." And his statement was (of course, he worked for the administration), "We don’t give a damn what Congress wants, we’re gonna do this." I felt, that was kind of interesting, not what I'd learned in my civics class.
     We learned this was some kind of charade that we were going to participate in, to look as if a study had been done when it wasn’t being done.
     We were doing a decision analysis, and pretty clearly found that what we ought to do with this plant depended on the chance that you might ever want to use it again. If you're sure you wouldn’t, you might as well use it for scrap. If you’re sure you would, you wouldn’t touch it all. If there was a chance of using it again, you might put it in some kind of mothballs just in case, because, after all, Presidential Declarations don’t last any longer than the President's term in office. This plant, presumably, could be used for decades and another administration might want to use it.
     We did an analysis where we had a probability that it would be used again. How would you change your strategy with a different probability? It looked like some of the problems we do at class; they're pretty simple. We sent this out and then it was reviewed, high up, and they said, "Oh, wait a second. You can't do this, you can't have his probability that it might be used again.” “But why not?"
     "Well, that’s against the Presidential Policy, you can't have anything in a document that’s against Presidential Policy."
     "Oh, so we can't even suggest that it might be used?"
     "Well, you certainly can't have this probability."  
     We tried all kinds of ways around it and called it the parameter, or something. That didn’t work either. We kept seeing everything that made sense edited out of this report, until in spite of the substantial amounts spent on this contract, not one comma of our contribution appeared in the report.
     Now, think about that. It wasn’t because there was something wrong with it, it just wasn’t politically acceptable to the administration even though Congress had said such report had to be done, and we had been hired to participate in it. That was one of the sources of my concern about: is this whole system working if things like this are happening?
     So during this three-day session, we had that discussion about what does Congress want? I remember we had sessions in the Dome of the Capitol, you know, right up there it starts curving, in some of the offices that had the curved sides. And we were in the heart of the Government, State Department, Atomic Energy and all that kind of thing. So, I got my nose rubbed in government for three days while I was having these thoughts about: is this whole thing a good idea? I think that had a big effect on what was going to happen to me later. Anyway, flying home, I just had this huge contradiction in my mind. How can this be? That’s one of the reasons why I then decided never to participate in government projects again.
     Thursday was a regular day of classes; it was a very interesting day for me. First of all, I had read Pirsig's book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which had made some very good points. One was, “You can't be both a judge and a coach." He said, "Therefore, you really couldn’t grade students if you're going to be their coach. If you're going to grade them, you’ve got to be a judge."
     I said, "I know what I want to do, I want to be a coach, and not a judge." I marched into class that day, and said I'm giving up grading. Now, my TA at the time, Steve Derby, and a colleague for a long time, was kind of shocked by this. I said, "Hey, if you want to do that (grading) fine, but I'm out of it." That was the last time I ever graded a subject.
     Well another thing happened. This was kind of a magical day because I had an oral exam for a doctoral candidate that I’d seen the week before, and I had some doubts about him. He knew that I had these doubts, so he was pretty worried about this. Now, I'm not going to be a judge anymore.
     So he came to the exam. There were four other professors there including the Chair and his advisors and so forth, and at the beginning of the meeting I said, "By the way, I'm going to vote to pass you."
     This is unheard of. I mean, you tell a student you're going to pass him and he looks at you, saying, "Are you serious?" I said, "Absolutely! I'm stopping the grading thing." Well, they all looked a little uncomfortable, but there's no faculty law saying you can't say what I said. 
     What happened was so interesting because as soon as he lost his fear, he did very well. In other words, the question that had been bothering him, he resolved at that time and we had a great exam, and there was no question that he deserved to pass, even in my old mode. At the end of the exam, he leaves the room, and then they pass little pieces of paper around, and you're supposed to write pass or fail, that’s still the system.
     This became a miracle day now; this was the Thursday after the three days and all kinds of strange things are happening. At that time I was taking Russian from a woman in Menlo Park, who had been a Russian émigré to France after the Revolution. I had started out learning French from her and had begun to learn some Russian too. Every Thursday night I'd go over to her house and we would spend an hour talking Russian.
     Now this Thursday was such an exciting day, I’d had no chance to eat. I had been her student for probably three or four years, and that night, when I arrived, she said, "I've made some pierogi, would you like some?” I mean, she had something cooked for me.
     I said, "This is amazing. This is a miracle." Never happened before, and there was no hint of it; she had never said “some day I will make you Russian food. No, we usually sat down and talked Russian in her living room, but here she is feeding me, which was just what I needed. I had this notion right then that I was okay. In other words, I didn’t have to worry about anything. Whatever I needed was going to be there for me.  
     So that was Thursday, and I was getting pretty high and feeling very good. The next day I'd planned to do consulting in this group at SRI (Stanford Research Institute). I went off that morning and I was telling my wife about this, all these experiences. I remember reflecting on some of the things that I was thinking, and it was very strange. At one point, I actually cried because I felt sorry for Hitler.
     Off I went to the Decision Analysis Group, and we were talking about security clearances, for one thing. I used to have a security clearance, and this was the last time I had a discussion of it.
It was important to keep your old forms, and I remember when I heard this discussion, I wasn’t really into it, but it seemed to me that it was about what would happen to you when you died, whether you would keep your old form or not.
     I was interpreting everything that happened to me that day, and I noticed that everything seemed very real to me. Things I hadn't noticed before became vibrant and colorful, and it was like I was seeing things that I had not been open to seeing. I mean, just the beauty of life, and that was amazing.
     So that night I got home, still feeling very good, but then I began to realize that things were accelerating, everything was happening faster for me. This would have been a Friday night, and I was at home with my wife, and four children, and they knew something was going on with me. I had a little tool room which was like a large closet but with tools all over it and with a tiny television set, and that was a place I really felt comfortable. I felt secure in that tool room. I'd sit there and watch television.
     I noticed, as I watched it, that the rate of what was happening depended on how much I concentrated on it. If I nodded off it would slow down, and if I kept my intent, then it would speed up and be its normal rate. This was my perception at least, that I was somehow controlling what was happening out there. I remember my family seeing this as very strange. They were thinking, "What's going on with Daddy? He's not himself." Yet I could talk to them.
     As a matter of fact, what was interesting about this, is if you had given me any technical problem, you know, differentiate in calculus, I was very clear on all of that. It wasn’t like I was goofy or something. Any factual matter that I knew, any procedure, I could have carried out, but it wasn’t of concern to me anymore. I had this feeling that I was running the universe, and that’s why when I lost my attention things would slow down. This time is very strange to others, but I do not see myself as doing anything strange.
     I was in the tool room. They were in the family room beside the tool room, kind of keeping an eye on me. It got to be pretty late at night, so they decided they're going to sleep in the family room. But I'm wide awake because I'm running the universe, after all, serious business. I remember I had this new rubber hammer I bought, and it was very comforting for me just to hold it, and I'd go walking through the house sometimes carrying it. I think some of them were concerned, because you see, from the outside it looked like maybe I would be doing some bad thing with this hammer. Of course that was not my intent at all, but it might have appeared that way to them.
     This went on Friday night, again this experience of running things, very much accelerated, but I did get to sleep that night. Yet I had this question of, "What happens if I forget to run the universe?” By the way, I knew that I wasn’t the only one who was going to do this, and that other people had done it in the past. My concern was that if I fell asleep, how would I remember when it was my turn again. 
     I thought a lot about that and finally came up with a symbol. I said, "Well, if I wake up and I see the symbol I'll know it's my turn again." And the symbol I chose was the circle, and every time I've told the story to somebody there's been a circle around, lots of circles around, usually. They are very rare in nature. If you were in a forest you wouldn’t see too many circles, except for a drop in a pool or the sun. Anyway I realized that whenever I'm telling someone, I see the circles in their eyes. I was assured that it would be my turn if I met another person.
     On Saturday, a beautiful sunny day, the Mathesons were having a garage sale, and we went over there. At one point I pricked my finger on a rose in the garden, and I had the realization that nothing that would happen to me would ever be any worse than this, which was essentially nothing. I had nothing to fear at this point, and it was very clear there was no reason to be fearful.
     I think I bought some piece of crockery, and when we got home, I purposely let it break. I dropped it, which is very strange for me because I'm very careful about things usually, but it was symbolic for me to have destruction as well, that I can accept this too, instead of being attached to something. That was the only time that happened.
     I'm trying to remember all the episodes that occurred. I've probably forgotten some of them. Sunday morning I had a very significant meeting with my daughter, Kim, who was then, let's see, she was 21, and she was here at Stanford as a graduate student, and she came in … "Hi, Kim." I turned to her and said, "Kim, I'm not going to marry you."
     She said, "What's this? What does this mean?"
     I said, "I love you dearly but I'm not going to marry you."  
     This was amazing, right? "What did I mean by that?" I said, "I just want you to know I love you dearly, but I'm not going to marry you. That’s the way it is, so good luck."
     It was interesting, but two weeks after that she met the guy who is now her husband, and they got on famously. Her husband, Tim, is like a son to me, and he's a great guy. It turned out that he and I shared a connection: his doctoral advisor here at Stanford, an Electrical Engineer, was my officemate when I was a graduate student at MIT. Kim and Tim’s son, Andrew, is now a doctoral student in Electrical Engineering at Stanford.
     I had this notion I could see at the time that somehow she did not want not leave the family. The father-daughter connection was very important to her, and I did love her dearly, and still do, but it wasn’t the right thing for her, and that’s what I meant. I realized when I told her I wasn’t going to marry her (because of course I wasn’t, and she knew that intellectually), that she hadn't internalized it somehow, and saying that freed her to go find her a good husband, which she did. Fascinating.
     If somebody who didn’t understand heard me say that, they would ask, "Is he crazy, he's not going to marry his daughter." But that wasn’t the point. It was: what did it mean to her and what effect did it have on her life.
     That Sunday morning my wife Polly was very concerned because I was saying strange things. While I'm smiling and happy, it's not the way I usually am. So she started to think about getting help. We had both done all kinds of human potential activities: EST, parent effectiveness, active listening, sensitivity training.
     One of the things we had done was go to a past-lives woman; she had gone first and I had then gone. I was told that I was once the right-hand man of Genghis Khan, which gave me a lot I had to worry about in terms of making up for the past. When my awakening period happened, Polly called the past lives guru and asked, "You know about this kind of stuff. What do I do with him?" The woman was really afraid, and in spite of her great mastery of past lives, she wanted no part of anybody who was in the state that I was in.
     Then Polly called the police, and they came over. I was sitting in the tool room watching television, as usual on a Sunday morning. The officer entered. If you see a police officer in the peaceful state I was in, it's really an amazing sight, because they’ve got guns; they’ve got a belt full of radios, bullets, handcuffs. This is not your friendly teddy bear. This is a guy with a badge and a gun, and a big stick, a Palo Alto policeman, and very businesslike.
     He talked to me, and didn’t know what to make of the situation, but it was pretty clear I'm not beating up on people or threatening them or anything like that. So after a short discussion, he said, "Well, there's nothing we can do. I mean, he's not threatening anybody. There's not a gun or anything that might hurt people, so what are we supposed to do?"
     They left. I think their advice was, "Call a hospital; maybe they can help you." Well, Polly was getting upset, because she was not getting any help from the people we knew, and so she called the hospital. They said, “If you can get him over here, we'll talk to him." Then she had to figure out how to get me over there, so she said, "Maybe you should have an exam to see if you're okay."
     She talked me into it. I was not really resistant. Okay, if she wants me to go to the hospital, I will. 
     She drove me in our big Chrysler Station Wagon, with the four kids, to the Stanford hospital. And so I talked to the psychiatrist and I told her the whole story. She said, "Just wait a minute." But what she had done, based on what I said, was commit me for 72 hours, which you could do in California, against my will.
     Now, I'm looking around the hospital and hospitals are really not very pleasant places. They are all full of metal, chrome-plated metals. It's not a comfortable place. You wouldn’t want to be in a hospital; it's kind of sterile. I thought, it's really too bad that when you're sick you have to go to a place that’s so unpleasant. I don’t mean it smelled or anything like that, it just wasn’t a place you'd want to spend time if you didn’t have to.
     Anyway at that point, they grabbed me, and restrained me, and put me on a stretcher, and tied me down, carried me out to an ambulance, and off I went. All this time I had been thinking that this was some special process of education that I was going to get. This was like my post-post graduate training or something, because look at the lessons I had learned in the past week: that I should not grade, that I will have whatever I need in terms of food, that much activity of the government is idiotic, and that I have nothing to fear.
I believe I am ready for the next lesson. As I am going south on the freeway in the ambulance, I am lying there and thinking, "Well, finally I'm getting to the reception center where I'll get the next big learning." I was pretty optimistic and I remember running through everything in my life.
     They say when you die your whole life runs before you. I wasn’t dying but I was able to visualize my whole life in a very short time. It was like a super-fast movie, but what I noticed was that instead of it being the superfast movie being proportional to the time each of these things took, it was proportional to how valuable it was to me, so it was expanding the times I’d spent in beautiful places, and doing wonderful things. Everything that was less than that just didn’t appear. It was a wonderful movie of my life, which I enjoyed.
     Then I arrived at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, which was the official place where people like me got locked up. I went from the ambulance to a hospital bed. Here I am in the bed, strapped down, and they say, "Take these pills," and put pills in my mouth. I spit them out. I am ready for the lesson, and I don’t want to strapped down in a hospital bed.
     After I spat them out about three times, they injected me against my will. I know what a woman must feel like when she's raped, because everything in your body is resisting what's going on, you feel so deeply violated. Well, if you're injected against your will, with something you don’t even know, that’s rape, and that’s what they did. Interestingly enough what it was, was thorazine, an antidepressant, but what I found out the next day when I looked at the rules and regulations out in the main lobby was that it is against the law to give a patient anything against his will, even in this lockup, and they denied they did it. Another blow to my faith in government.
     Here's another example of the perfidy of the life we are living, where there could be a law, where doctors violate that law and lie about doing it. But that’s no surprise, when you look at the Nazi T-4 program for killing mentally ill Germans in hospitals, with the connivance of doctors and lying about it, even before they started World War II. Anyway, so there I was, strapped down. Now I'm knocked out, so Sunday night, I'm not there; I'm dead to the world.
I wake up the next morning, and they untie me, I'm back to life again.
     I now realize, especially after my experience of violation, that this is not my next level of education, this is people who don’t understand what I'm going through. I had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which sort of restored my sanity at that point. I could see everything very clearly.
     It was amazing, it was like transparent. My clothes had been taken away, I had a hospital gown, and I said, “Okay, I want to shower," to the attendant. He says, "Okay, you can have a shower." I go down to the shower, he showed me where it is, I'm going to take the shower, and as I'm getting into the shower he hands me a cup of shampoo and says, "Don’t drink the shampoo." I said, "Why would I drink the shampoo?" He says, "I don’t know, but somebody drank it last week. Just telling you." Then I looked at the shampoo, the shampoo was red. I smelled it, and it smelled like cherries. I said to myself, now I understand why someone might drink it. The shampoo smells like fruit. Then I had this realization that that’s what we do with soap. Soap never smells like soap anymore. It smells like lime; it smells like lemon; it smells like cherries. And I said, “Why do we make everything smell like what it's not? Why would you want something that you're going to use to clean your hair smell like a fruit? Fruit should smell like fruit; soap should not smell like fruit.
     Then I thought, even further, you know all that stuff under the sink that’s so harmful you must keep it out of reach of children. Why do we make it smell like fruit. Small wonder that kids drink this stuff.
     So anyway, I had a shower. Then it was breakfast time. I met the other inmates in the breakfast room. Inmates, but they were the most amazing people. They were the most generous I ever met. They would say, "Now would you like some? I'm not going to eat.” “Would you like that? Maybe you'd care for one?" I have never seen such generosity, and these were people of every description; males, females, all different ages, races, just a potpourri of humanity, and all very, very pleasant.
     I remember there was this big, black guy, that I might have run from if I had been in a dark area of a town, and I could see how beautiful he was. I said, "Hi, I'm Ron." We were just one-on-one as people. That was amazing. However, the staff was a different story. They were very much not into we-are-all-one-humanity; they were all into you're the inmates; we are the staff. Just as in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
     Finally came the time, early that morning, to have an interview with the psychiatrist. I'm sitting down with him; we had a brief conversation—what do I do? And all that kind of stuff. Then he said, "Oh, you teach at Stanford?" I said, "Yes, in the Engineering Economic Systems Department." He said, "Do you know so-and-so?" I said, "Yes, he's one of my doctoral students. He just graduated and he's off in New York now." He said, "He’s one of my best friends."
     We go on like that, and we are having this great conversation, and then he suddenly realizes that I'm an inmate and he's the doctor. In other words, we were having a discussion just like we met at a party. We had a common friend, and he got out of role for a moment, which just shows how different things were on that Monday morning from the way they had been previously. Then, he returns to his role and asks. "Well, have you ever thought of killing yourself?"
     I said, "Well, no. It's not something I think a lot about." 
     He said, "Well, if you did how would you kill yourself?"
     I said, "Well, I'd probably ride my motorcycle into a bridge abutment at a very high speed; that would do it." Maybe we had some other pleasantries and so forth, and then it was over. 
     Later that afternoon I went to occupational therapy. In occupational therapy they give people physical activities that get them to talk to each other. At this time the activity was cutting Snoopy-like figures out of plastic foam and painting them. They were destined to be hung on the unit’s Christmas tree, because this was late November and Christmas was coming.
     We are sitting there, six of us around the table, and I get to know some of them. I asked one, "Why are you in here?"
     He said, "Well, you know, I crashed my car into a mail truck, and they think I was trying to kill a federal employee and that’s why I'm here."
     I said to the guy beside me, "Why are you in here?"
     He said, "Well, you know, when it gets too bad, I just take a lighted cigarette …" and he motioned grinding it into his hand. These were people doing things that are unusual in my life. We were making Snoopy ornaments.   

I'll jump ahead. After I got out about two weeks later, I realized that a blanket that I had been wrapped in when I went there, had not been returned to me. I called up and the receptionist said, "Well, I don’t have those records."
     I said, "Do you see the Christmas tree?" She says, "Yeah." I said, "Does it have Snoopy ornaments on it?"
     She says, "Yes."
     "Well that’s my ward," she says, "I never saw those Snoopy ornaments before."
     In other words, again, it’s this thing of people not seeing what's in their lives, even though they're right there and have been there.   
     In the afternoon after my arrival, my wife, Polly, came to visit me; she looked pretty worried. After all, her husband is locked up in a loony bin. But I'm okay. She said, "They tell me that you’ve been thinking of killing yourself."
     I said, "Okay, Polly, have you ever thought of killing yourself?"
     She says, "I'm not. No, but…"
     I said, "Well how would you do it if you were going to do it?"
     She said, "Well, I'd probably get in a car and run into a bridge." (Laughs) 
     A couple of years later, on late-night television, Sammy Davis, Jr. was asked that question. He said the same thing. In other words, what I had said, which was now being told to my wife by those guys, "He's thinking of killing himself," was something many people have said, and they're not planning to kill themselves. That was kind of interesting.
     Then I said, "They injected me against my will last night."
     She said, "Oh, they said they didn’t do anything."
     I pointed to my arm where there was this big hole where they put the injection in, and I said, "You know, they don’t let us have any sharp things in here, so I couldn’t have done this to myself." There was the evidence that I'd been injected, and now she could see that what I was saying made a lot of sense. But I'm still locked up for 72 hours, there's nothing she can do about it.  

On Monday evening I was in the day room, which is a big lounge area. It was empty. I sat on a sofa in front of a coffee table. At that time the State of California thought it was okay to smoke, and they provided on the coffee tables at no charge bulk tobacco in pound tins, cigarette papers, and a little machine to make cigarettes. I did not smoke and was surprised by the government’s encouragement of the practice by mental patients.
     A fellow comes in and sits on my sofa. He said, "Oh, look what somebody has made for me," and he reaches down to pick up a cigarette sitting on the machine that had already been made. Then he stopped and said, "No. Maybe whoever made this is coming back. I'd better make my own." He moved the cigarette aside and made a cigarette for himself. Notice, that the cigarettes are free and few would care that the cigarette might have been made by someone planning to use it later. But he cared. He was sensitive enough not to take a cigarette that somebody else might have made for themselves.
     Later I asked him, "Well, why are you here."
     He said, "Oh, I stabbed my daughter again." Now think about that. Here's a person who is sensitive enough not to take someone’s free cigarette, but stabs his daughter again. This was a place that had people who were dealing with major problems. 
     That night, I'm not tied down to the bed anymore. I am in a regular bed and the door is unlocked. I had trouble sleeping, so I got up, walked out of my room, and sat down in the area where visitors would sit, just around the corner. It wasn’t more than 50 feet or so. There was a woman behind the counter, a desk that was the reception for the area. (That’s the station I called about my missing blanket.) After I sat there for about five minutes, she says, "You can't sit there,"
     I said, "Why not? I didn’t know there was some rule against sitting here, and I can't get to sleep and it's just nice to have a change."
     "Sorry, you have to go back and lie down in your bed, even though you can't sleep."
     Now think about that. How many people, when they can't sleep, get up and go sit some place? But you see, it's crazy to do that. It's forbidden behavior in a place like a mental hospital, just think about that.

On Tuesday morning I had been there 48 hours of my 72 hour commitment. They told me, "We are going to transfer you to the Belmont Hills Psychiatric Center." This was not a locked facility,
and was the next step up now that I was behaving myself. I was taken in a van from down South, near San Jose, to Belmont Hills, and the Center was very attractive, like the Stanford campus. It really looked like a country club.
     So, I am being checked in there, and the first thing they ask me is about 10 minutes worth of numbers in my life. Here I am supposed to be a crazy person, but I have to know my Social Security number, my home phone number—all the numbers in my life. Happily I did know them, but I said, “It's crazy asking a person who is supposed to be mentally unbalanced all these numbers.”
     Anyway I get in there, and they had planned activities. One activity was a lecture based on a then current book called, I'm Okay, You're Okay, about human relationships. The guy is giving
the lecture, and there are maybe 10 of us in the room. It’s clear he’s not too happy to be giving this lecture, a little worried himself. I mean who wants to lecture to crazy people. But what he's talking about is how important it is to make contact with others, and he's
modeling exactly the opposite. It's as if they got someone who didn’t understand this book to give a lecture on it, although the message in the book was just fine.
     Then came my favorite time at the Belmont Hills Psychiatric Center, which was occupational therapy. They had different choices and one was to make things with leather. I chose to make a little purse out of leather. The pieces were cut, but I had to put any decoration I wanted on it by stamping it and then sew it together. I chose to use a frog stamp, for there was a frog on the cover of a book that I'd written. I was going to make a very nice purse for myself, which I did. But there was a problem because this was a three-dimensional object, and when you're sewing it it's not clear how it's going to fit when you put it all together. The guy who was teaching this was kind of --how can I put it? Condescending, I guess is the word.
     I said, okay, how am I going to do this? I want to line it up, it turns out they had little safety pins, nothing that you could do any damage with, so I said, okay, I'm going to use the pins to hold the pieces so that I'll have it all perfectly in lined up. Then when I start sewing I know it will come out right.
     He comes over and he says, "Oh isn't that nice, you’ve figured out how to do that."
     Then I was reminded of the joke that I heard a long time ago. It's about a guy, who was driving along on the road, and he has a flat tire. So he pulls over to the side, and it turns out he's right in front of this mental hospital, which has a fence around it. As he gets out of the car, he notices this guy hanging onto the bars in the fence, looking at him. He feels a little uncomfortable, but you know, the guy can't get out.
     So, he's hurrying to do this, and he jacks up the car, and he takes off the hubcap and gets his wrench, takes off the hub nuts and puts them all in the hubcap. Then takes the wheel off, but he's hurrying now, and as he's doing this he steps on the hubcap and all the nuts go down into a sewer, where he can't get to them. Oh, shit, now what's he going to do? He's got the spare tire, he's got the jack; he's got everything, and the wrench, but…
     The guy looking through the fence says, "Psst, hey, buddy?"
     The motorist yells back, "Yeah, what do you want?"
     A little concerned, the inmate says, "Look, all you’ve got to do is take one nut off each of the other wheels and use it to put this wheel on."
     And the guy says, "Yeah, that’s great, I can do that; that will be fine. What are you doing in there?"
     The inmate says, "I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid."    
     Anyway, the occupational therapy instructor comes over to me and says, "Oh, that’s really clever using little pins there."
     I said, "Hey, I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid." I had been waiting to use that line all my life, and I finally got a chance to use it. 
     Then we had a patient get together. If there had been liquor it would have been a social gathering. Here you get to meet the other patients, maybe 20 people. What I can see is that these people are playing at being crazy. In other words, they're saying, "Are you on Lithium?" And they were sort of enjoying the process of being special. Of course they don’t think they're crazy, they're just all getting mental treatment.
     There was a great contrast between them and the people I had met in the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, most of whom really needed help. Here they were kind of playing at it. I remember this guy and I were talking, and I said, "Oh, what do you do?"
     He said he worked at Stanford; he was in the administration someplace.
     I said, "Oh, yeah, well I teach there." Now he doesn’t want to talk anymore. Now he's a little concerned that somehow it might get back that he's in the booby hatch.  
     Anyway, I found this a kind of a charade. These were people who probably had some mental issues, but they were enjoying the process, and of course I was not, I wanted to get out of there. So, the next morning, now that I had been confined for the specified 72 hours, I said, "Okay, I want to go home."
     The nurse says, "You do? Well, you'll have to talk to the doctor." They make me wait another couple of hours, and then I talk to the doctor for the interview, and he says, "Okay, you want to go home." He says, "We don’t advise that." 
     I say, "No surprise; you're making money by my being here."
     He said, "But why do you really want to go home?"
     I said, "Well, why do you want to go home at night? Do you enjoy it here all day? Why don’t you just stay here instead of going home to your family?"
     He got the message and said, "Okay, you can go home."   
     I found it interesting because they were going to make more money if I stayed, so no wonder they would like me to stay another couple of weeks. After all, those people in the lounge were so nice, and I'm enjoying my craft work. But I wanted out of there, and so they had to let me go. Then I called my wife, and she came with the kids. She's looking a little concerned: how's it going to be? But since she had visited me, she knew it was going to be okay.
    Then my life began again, my usual life. The first thing I had to do was figure out why this happened to me. I can't be the only one who went through this. Oh, by the way, when I was there in Santa Clara they kept thinking I had some drug overdose. They gave me all kind of blood tests, and as I knew, they couldn’t find anything I had ingested that had caused this whole episode.
      So my task, for the next month or so, was to understand what had happened to me. I read all kinds of books, I really just loaded up on them, and I used the Christmas break to further my understanding. I read stories about people waking up in other places, like India. That’s what I considered it: waking up. Some guy might be a shoemaker in the village, and all of a sudden he sees himself in a different way. This was not unexpected. They would put him in a safe place, take care of him and after a few days, he'd come back a different person, and continue his life as a shoemaker.
      In other words you didn’t have to go wandering off in the countryside when you had one of these experiences. It was seen as a positive thing. Speaking of a positive thing, at this time my wife was still saying, why couldn’t I get help for this? I mean, after all, this must happen to other people. So, she found out about something called the Mental Health Hotline, which you can call and get help. Here's the irony of it, it's only opened from 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday. You have to go crazy during regular business hours. I mean, of course, right. Why are you going to provide services at inconvenient times?
     That's really crazy, having a Mental Health Hotline that only works during regular business hours. Does that make sense? It probably made sense to somebody. I don’t know what the story is today.
     So I read these books and the one that made the greatest impression on me, was The Religions of Man by Huston Smith.  To be politically correct, the title has been changed to “The World's Religions.” This book discusses the major religions of the world. As you read each chapter, you think, “this is a great religion.” In other words, each one was presented in the most positive way, which I thought was important; this wasn’t “mine’s better than yours.” I went through them all, and I had two criteria. First of all, there had to be humor in the religion. If there's no humor, forget it.
     I went through Christianity, great religion, no humor. Judaism, no humor; I don’t mean no humor in Jews. Lots of humor in Jews, but the Old Testament, I couldn’t find a single joke, and I couldn’t find a single joke in the New Testament. If anybody can find one for me, I'd like to see it, but there was nothing to laugh about in either of those.
      Then I thought of Islam, and that was very attractive too, presented very well, and there was a sub-group called the Sufis that had humor in them, and I thought, that’s a possibility; that might work.
     The other criteria was it had to be possible to wake up in this religion. In other words to have the experience that I had. And I was having trouble in all of these, in seeing that. Except maybe for the Founder of the religion, he woke up in my terms, but not ordinary people, and I didn’t consider myself as someone who was about ready to found a religion; the son of God or getting inspiration directly from God.
     So as I read it, I finally got to the chapter on Buddhism, and the sub-title was The Man Who Woke Up. I said, "Ah, now I'm onto something." As I read through this I saw, yes, it's not really a religion, in a sense. It's more of a philosophy. You didn’t have to worship anybody, and it had humor. There were lots of examples of the humor. I said, "Gee, this could be the one that is the best fit for me.”
 
In an interview I had the other day with that friend of yours from CharityFocus (Nipun Mehta), he said that was his criteria, too. Humor is such a part of the human experience. We can even begin to see it in other life forms. So how could you possibly have the explanation for your existence, and the meaning of your existence without humor in it? So that was very helpful. Then I began to think about all the changes in my life that I would make as a result of this—of course, the no-grading system had already been instituted. But then I got interested in spreading the word on the kind of experience I'd had in terms of the government and coercion, and the minimum wage, and so forth. So I started a course on that called Voluntary Social Systems. And then, because of the ethical implications, another course called The Ethical Analyst.
     Before that I'd done only my professional teaching in decision analysis, which was going very well, but now this was an opportunity to extend it. I became concerned about students using the powerful methods they had learned in ways that might not be appropriate. I wanted them to realize their responsibility.
     I remember one example. Suppose you are a civil engineer responsible for building a road between two cities. You have to design the road. You want to minimize the amount of material you have to move. You're filling valleys, cutting passes, and so forth, and you’ve got giant computer programs and optimizations, and you say, "Okay, this is the best route for the road, and we did an excellent, professional job.”
      Now you're there when the road is about ready to be built. You see an elderly woman on the porch of a house. Police and a sheriff surround the house. You stop and ask, "What's going on?"
     She's crying, and says, "Don’t take my home. I've lived here my whole life. I just want to live here until I die." 
     The officials say, "Yes, but your house has been condemned by eminent domain. The people at Stanford have figured out this is the best route for the road. The government’s taking it, and they are going to give you some money for it.”
     She says, "I don’t want the money, just leave me alone." 
     Well, how do you feel, if you had planned the road to go there? Do you know the system into which your work is being incorporated and the consequences of your work?
     So that was the kind of message we wanted to get out. There are probably many other things we could talk about, but this is a start.
          
 

About the Author

Somik Raha works on software and processes that bring dignity to the work of business development. His experiments and interests are around designing for our deepest values. He holds a PhD in Decision Analysis from Stanford University, with a dissertation on aligning our decisions with our core values. You can reach him at somik dot raha at gmail.com.

 

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