Author: Niaz Karim

“All things are born of thought.”

This statement was shared with me some years ago, and I am continuing to discover its depths and layers.

What makes us value one thing over another? Why is it that we have the words “beautiful” and “ugly”? What makes us capable of the possibility or impossibility of a certain task or aspiration? How can we be so cruel to ourselves and those around us in one moment and so uplifting and empowering in another?  I’ve found that these are based on thoughts which we train from a very young age, adapt and reinforce as we go through life. It is our socialization.

Thoughts lead to Feelings.

Feelings lead to Words.

Words lead to Actions.

And Actions lead to Becoming.

Over time, I will develop a series of articles that explore and reflect upon strategies, insights and approaches to thought, within and about our world, and most importantly, within ourselves. What we think about ourselves, how we choose to perceive situations, the way we think about everyone and everything around us, and those thoughts we choose to emanate into the world — have a huge effect on the quality of our lives and our greater whole together.

I’ll share experiences and thoughts around a book called “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives”, the 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”, scientific literature around thought, and lessons drawn from practices including meditation, different art-forms and opportunities we can look into and do, each day and each moment. I’ll also speak about a person who paid a great deal of attention to thought and action, was prescient in what he saw within the hearts and minds of many people in America, and was one of the powerful and passionate articulators of justice and equality in recent times: James Baldwin.

We are bombarded with information. Every day on television and social media we see ignorance and behavior that is not life sustaining.

Yet, in the challenge of thought is also the great opportunity. In the same way that thoughts are trained and learned, they can be re-trained and re-shaped to promote justice, to promote equality, to promote well-being and to create greater opportunities for living, starting with each and every one of us.

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As Plato once said, the eyes are the windows of the soul. “Small talk” — or what some of us might perceive as awkward chatter about the weather, sports and otherwise — can be a valuable gateway into our connection with one another.

Several exemplary articles deal with this opportunity. The purpose of this article is to share a recent experience of small talk and how this unfolded for me.

I am an appreciator of foods from around the world, and ramen is no exception. I do not mean the ramen that many of us are used to getting in packages, but the ramen of time-honored tradition and care. One of the popular spots in Boston, Massachusetts is called “Sapporo Ramen” of Porter Square.

Since Sapporo is in a small foodcourt that is home to numerous Asian-inspired restaurants, I was surprised when I saw a specially cordoned line for its patrons. A party of four at the front was called to be seated and I stood behind another prospective customer. The line soon started moving again.

“Table for two!” shouted the waitress, giving off an ebullient air and a feeling of efficiency and throughput.

The customer in front of me went forward and I could only see the back of his head. I waited a few moments as he took his table. Again, the waitress shouted: “Table for two!” and waved me on over.

“Do you mind sitting with the customer over there?” as she indicated with a smile to the patron who was in front of me.

“Sure,” I said and then added, “if he is also open to it.”

After a few affirmations on both sides, and brief hellos, the waitress offered me a seat.

The first one to two minutes with my new dinner companion were spent intently studying the menu. A perfunctory phone check probably was also in the cards. I waited for a glance upward and asked:

– “So, what do you usually get here?”

– “I usually get the House Ramen but today I am trying the Yasai Ramen (stir fried vegetables with shaved pork).”

– “Cool, I love the broth of ramen and the delicious pieces of pork.”

– “Yes, the pork has to have just the right amount of fat on it and be cooked just right.”

This was our entry into a five-minute exchange on the best ramen places in Boston, our mutual appreciation for New York City ramen, and finally our experience with All-U-Can-Eat sushi in Boston (my favorite spot is Yamato and his is a place called Takusan Sushi).

What evolved next was unexpected. I asked where my dinner companion grew up and he shared that he was born and raised in Burma (also known as Myanmar). I spoke about my familial roots  from Bangladesh, Jamaica and China, which brought up a familiarity from both of us, since Bangladesh and Burma are neighbors.

Our conversation spanned from the enormous refugee crisis transpiring in Myanmar and Bangladesh to the systemic and tactical prejudice that my dining companion experienced growing up, with his ancestral roots coming from China. I did my best to imagine how he felt when a prestigious academic opportunity was pulled from him just because of his ethnic background. I can’t fathom what hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims must feel as they flee persecution and violence, but I do my best to feel what I can.

My dining companion told me about the report that Kofi Annan prepared in collaboration with the State Counsellor of Myanmar Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to provide recommendations regarding the safety and well-being of communities in Rakhine State of Myanmar.  He shared that these recommendations could work if they are followed, but action is not following words. This has been the stage of one of the largest refugee crises in recent history, involving 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh. There has been relatively little coverage of this in the news.

We then moved on to discuss experiences and aspirations in the workplace. When I described the technology I have been commercializing for medicine, which deals with biomechanics (i.e., measuring the stiffness and “mechanical” properties of tissues in the body using light), he shared of his experience at a large biotech company in Boston. He believes there could be opportunities to apply non-contact tissue biomechanics to tumor profiling and identification, an area that I have held in high interest as a means to enhance our knowledge of tumors in unprecedented ways. Moreover, he affirmed that a large technology company in South Korea – where our company has strong connections – is growing its oncology “biosimilars” business by leaps and bounds.

I would not have guessed that our shared table and a discussion that began over ramen would cover the power and value of identity, the worthiness of all life, and new business perspectives.

By opening up our conversation with a few potentially awkward words, we had the opportunity to know of one another, to see ways in which we are related and connected by mutual interest and values that we hold meaningful, and not the least, to have a more enjoyable dinner than eating by ourselves.

I reflected on this during a recent subway ride on the “D” Green Line in Boston. I counted 15 out of 20 people (75 percent!) within my immediate surroundings using their phones. It concerns me that we have such a proclivity (and addiction) to technology that helps us to hide and busy ourselves from the interconnected and inextricable relationship we have with one another. Technology, unless we use it to our benefit, can be a massive, massive crutch – and saboteur.

The wisdom of small talk is real and “when we give without regard to getting”, others tend to share as well. Granted, we had a little help here to encourage our small talk, yet the exercise gave a perfect laboratory for the lesson.

So, be brave. Be bold. And definitely risk being a little awkward. We never know of what kinds of life-affirming surprises are present around the corner.

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My 4-year-old niece Quynh was speaking to her mom and she shared:

“Do you know what peace is? Peace is when you love something. That’s not something you learned in school, huh mommy?”

Childlike wonder and openness has much to teach us. I pay close attention to kids because of their honesty, forthrightness and love. I also believe this is the case with many elderly in our society. There is wisdom that we can learn and apply if we are receptive.

South Korea has been in the midst of much global movement and news this year, and I’ve been in Seoul on business over the past two weeks. As part of my day, I read different publications to stay atuned to events, trends, opportunities and challenges. A few days ago, I opened up the Financial Times to see the following headline:

What a juxtaposition from “Peace is when you love something.”

While in Korea, I have listened to and watched what is around me. I see a country that is incredibly strong and determined. In a span of 50 years, South Korea (a country of 51.25 million people) has produced a deep infrastructure of education, national healthcare and innovation, including global companies and technology leaders such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai. I have seen this in my everyday business meetings, which are centered around an optical engineering company that is bringing new technologies to disease detection and medicine.

Yet what I look for more is what Quynh was speaking about. I looked and found love expressed in many ways. I found it in kind gestures of folks who helped me feel welcome and guided me through my stay, in the laughter of playful teens on the subway, in the warm embrace of a business partner in Daejeon (a city two hours away from Seoul), in the light-hearted and caring way that a group of childhood friends (many of whom just turned 40) were trying to enlighten one individual on how to be a better communicator with his girlfriend.

I also propose that love is time, attention and care for what we are doing. I’ve always felt welcomed  in Korea by someone who I’ve shared very little language with, due to his speaking Korean and my speaking English. With that said, it never fails that we greet one another warmly on the street or I’ll stop by the window of his business to wave hello.

The first time I met Mr. Che was last winter. I had flown to Seoul for meetings and on the morning after arrival, I realized that the heel of my dress shoe was falling off. Embarrassed, I asked the hotel’s front desk manager if she could point me towards a shoe repair store: “I think there’s a shoe place down the street”; Me: “Will I be able to see it?”; “Yes. [Slight hesitation.]  You can’t miss it.”

A few minutes later, I found and entered Mr. Che’s shoe repair store, a shop that you might imagine as a small and modest stand for selling newspapers, but with a sliding glass door. It is probably less than 60 square feet in area, with supplies stacked along each wall and a welcoming bench upon which customers can sit.

The level of focus and care that I saw Mr. Che put into my shoes left a mark on me. During the winter, he has a constantly warming pan of wax to protect shoes and as he added a new heel to my shoe, he cut away the excess rubber with his razor spatula sliding effortless across the shoe’s contour. His attention didn’t flicker and you could feel his full engagement in what he was doing. I tell you, those shoes gave me an invisible spring in my step for the whole trip, because I knew he had worked on them with years of care and mastery. And yes, love.

Video Caption: Mr. Che recently working on a pair of my boots. I am sitting about 4 feet across from him on a bench and wearing slippers that are kept at the ready for clients.

We cannot communicate with a full repertoire of Korean or English language, yet we understand and have mutual respect and friendship.

Love has numerous expressions. We often think of it as interpersonal, but most importantly, it is loving ourselves greater and greater, as we learn to accept ourselves, whole and all. This then radiates in all directions.

On a daily level, I’ve learned that love is doing what we do, whatever we do, with care, attention and focus. It may be in a conversation, it may be a craft, it may be working as part of a company, it may be teaching, it may be washing the dishes after a meal. We can each develop ways to express our attention, love and mastery in moment-to-moment activities. When we can do this, it has a huge effect. Even if we don’t consciously notice it, it is there and we can feel it.

I flash back and forth to some of the global events shaping our world. The Winter Olympics will be held starting on February 9th in Pyeongchang, South Korea (a city about 3 hours east of Seoul by car).

I plan to attend these Games. The gathering of the world’s attention, hopes and dreams on this small part of South Korea, is a timely opportunity for fellowship — and indeed, light — in the midst of turbulence. For me, there is also something about the Olympics in Korea, because of my ongoing experience and because I recall the 1988 Seoul Olympics as my first memory of the Olympic Games (along with the 1988 Calgary Olympics in Calgary, Canada).

I also think about what I can do right now, as an everyday plan, to be peace. This is something each of us can do. It reminds me of what my niece shared, what I see in the actions of people like Mr. Che, what I see in my grandmother and my mentor and in the loving care of so many parents, including my own. It is what I know is possible in each moment – to do whatever we are doing with attention, care and love.

“Peace is when you love something.”

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I was speaking with a family member in his 20s, and one of the topics that came up was “male” and “female” energy.

“I’m all male energy,” he said with gusto and a smile.

With a smile back and as lovingly as possible, I said: “No way”. Each of us has male and female energy, if that is indeed what we’d like to call it.

To inject a more encompassing framework and one less bounded by gender-based nomenclature, let’s allow the ancient wisdom of Yin and Yang to enter into the picture. You don’t have to be an energy guru or yogi to appreciate this concept, which says that Yin and Yang can be used to characterize a world of perceived opposites (duality), in which nothing is ever purely one (Yin) or the other (Yang).

Based on Yin and Yang, certain aspects of our world have a “Yang” characterization, while others have a “Yin” characterization. We have hot and cold, day and night, mobile and static, acting and resting, male and female, etc. There are infinite gradations in between, and as the Yin and Yang image shows, in every Yang there is some Yin, and in every Yin there is some Yang.

In alignment with the wisdom of Yin and Yang, a large imbalance or suppression of either Yin or Yang creates challenge, and in my view, there seems to be a powerful undercurrent of too much Yang energy (male-associated energy) in our world today.

Close observation and circumspection often can reveal “tells”, similar to cards, that allow us to gather information and act upon problems that exist on a personal, local and global level.

Example 1: Vulnerability or the Lack Thereof

An example of embracing all of who we are comes from a recent podcast featuring Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and articles such as “Radical Hope is Our Best Weapon”.

In the podcast interview, Diaz shares searing and heart-centered perspectives, experiences and feelings on being black in the United States, the immense challenges his ancestors overcame through radical strength and hope, and the power – yes, power – of vulnerability.

By vulnerability, I mean the ability to really share and listen, and to be open to possibility. Vulnerability is often shunned as a male trait in cultures across the globe, and Diaz shared this as his experience growing up in the Dominican culture. I posit – and I know Junot Diaz would agree – that vulnerability is one of our greatest opportunities and potential salves in our world today.

On both individual and global levels, we are finding it hard to speak and listen with vulnerability, openness, truth, care and empathy. An insight to remember is that when we can have vulnerability combined with trust (and thus, intimacy), we can have heart-felt exchange and thus progress. Without getting naked or being vulnerable, we often can’t get to the core of the issue and we will continue to waste time.

On an individual level, check out how vulnerability, or the lack thereof, affects your closest relationships. If you don’t have vulnerability, your relationship probably isn’t working in some way.

By many of us cutting off our vulnerable side or suppressing “Ying” strengths – the flowing and yielding power of our whole selves – then we are putting ourselves at a great disadvantage. We are living like part-time beings rather than whole and full-time beings.

This doesn’t require us to be a pushover or have a target on our foreheads – but it does require us to listen carefully, empathetically, and have the courage to both share how we are feeling and to honestly recognize what is happening based on fact.

As the martial artist, mystic, and philosopher Bruce Lee once said: “Water can flow and it can crash – be like water my friend.”

Example 2: Look Locally at Workplace Culture

On a local and community level, it is important to check ourselves and our businesses against an overdrive of “Yang” energy, entitlement and exclusion.

Between men and women (and this discussion must also include individuals of color as well as those ostracized or labeled as the “other”), we’ve seen unacceptable pay gaps, differences in representation at executive, middle management and board levels, zero to little chance of breaking into certain industries, and moments of truth that have uncovered egregious and unequal treatment. The most recent experiences and stories come from the tech industry, which is not alone and has both its stand-up leaders and status-quo protectors.

So, what do we do once we identify inequality and imbalance in our workplace? How can we choose to act?

What if, instead of just taking up space, we create and expand the space for those around us so that they can be who they are and have the opportunity to flourish in their potential? How can each of us choose to mentor, to sponsor, to support, to recruit broadly, to be open to hearing and honoring different skill-sets and life experiences, to teach, to nurture opportunities rather than protect “what is ours”, and to pass it on? What can you do in your community sphere that will make things more balanced and supportive of life, supportive of potential?

Imagine the possibilities! Look at how good so many folks are at their jobs while looking over their shoulder and worried about survival? In a basketball analogy, what if you knew you could drive to both sides of the net without being unfairly fouled and penalized? Or as a football player, what if you didn’t have to favor one knee or shoulder over another?

It would be a different game for both you and your team.

Example 3: Mother Nature

As a final note, I include an opening for us to think more about Yin and Yang, and also see how it plays out in our treatment of our environment.

As a global community, environmental abuse and aggression from long-standing corporate and consumer practices, have led us to denigrate “Mother” Nature – counter to her life-sustaining, life-nourishing characteristics.

There are ways for us to look at this without getting overwhelmed and we can also intentionally balance the Yin and Yang of our actions. For example, if we want to counter aggressive, expansive consumption (Yang-like), we can practice restraint and contract in our consumption (Ying-like). As animals in Mother Nature also do, we can eat and use what we require, then leave the rest. Think Globally, Double Down Locally, and Triple Down Inside.

Think Globally – We can recognize and wholly encourage global cooperation such as the Paris Agreement (a pact of more than 170 countries to reduce climate-change emissions) and large macro efforts to bring greater accountability to large global companies. One effort gaining momentum is improved ESG company standards, which includes behaviors and company policies that better align to a spirit of reciprocal care and nurturing of our environment. Large global and institutional investors are beginning to demand ESG in companies in which they invest.

(*ESG = Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance)

Another insight and tenet that I remind myself of is that while something may be happening far away, we not only live in an interconnected system, we live in an interdependent system. This unified perspective is one of Yin and Yang, given that there is no separation. Thus, what has an effect somewhere else, does have an effect wherever I am. When we see parts of the world affected by weather crises and environmental disasters, it is within the realm of our capability to stay tuned, to be empathetic, and to do what we can to be of service, whether this is with money, time, or shared awareness. Even sending good wishes and keeping people who are struggling on your mind and in your heart will change your view and behavior. This might be the most important and impactful thing we can do at times.

Double Down Locally – Tell your story and what you are doing for the environment to family members, friends and colleagues. Never underestimate the power of telling your story. I often end up sharing a smile with the cash register at my local grocery store: “No bag and no receipt” (as I put a banana in my pocket and carry a glass milk jug in one hand and a cereal box in the other). I explain my decisions and reasoning to children whenever I can. I am an advocate and investor in companies that take ESG into account.

Triple Down Inside – What can I choose to buy on a daily basis?  For me, I am avoiding all single-use plastic, such as plastic water bottles, plastic coffee lids and iced-coffee cups. (Challenge: Try going to the supermarket and buying nothing with plastic.) It is within your power to think carefully about what you buy, and just as importantly, what you don’t buy. How can we take that aphoristic reminder – “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” – and really make it true, especially, Reduce? I am definitely reducing my clothing wardrobe (interestingly, it was already a bit stark!)

I find it powerful to think about why we as children called nature “Mother Nature”. At the time and for many years as an adult, I didn’t know why.

Yet, in the context of Yin and Yang, it is perfectly clear: “Mother” Nature is called mother because she is nourishing, creating, sustaining – and she provides what we as humans require, what animals require, what plants require, along with so much more. Yet at the same time, “Mother Nature” is also balanced through Yang energy and in the concept of Yin-Yang balance – as Bruce Lee said, “water can flow and it can crash. Be like water my friend.”

Be (like) Mother Nature, my friend. 

Be balanced. Use Yin and Yang as a tool to see and act in the world. “Flow” and “crash”, as required and in the service of doing what is good and great.

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Animals in our world have an incredible brilliance, intuition, and they are who they are. This is why many of us love our dogs, feel the connection with our horses, or say “Ah” in the presence of great animals and nature.

Animals take what they need and leave the rest. The smallest fish can go to the deepest depths of the ocean without being harmed by body-crushing pressures. I believe that there are limitless amounts of information and wisdom that we can learn from animals.

This experience is about a mouse and it began one night during a dream.

In the first part of my dream, I was in California at a grand and festive party being held by a technology company. I remember enjoying myself – the lights, the sounds, the food – and socializing with folks around the bar. But in the next moment, there was a shift in my dream and I remember hearing and feeling the presence of a mouse.

After waking up, I didn’t give much thought to this experience. I brushed my teeth and did my morning routine. However when I opened the front door of my apartment, there she was:

A mouse wrenching painfully on the kind of sticky paper used to catch animals. Her legs were contorted, her feet raw and stretched, and parts of her fur were stripped away. I could hear her struggle and feel her immense pain.

I didn’t think of any questions at the time: like, how she got in front of my door or the timing of this with my dream. But I did go into overdrive, sprinting as fast as I could down the hall and taking her outside to the safety and comfort of the apartment’s garden. I don’t think I’ve run like that since elementary school and I could feel the wind by my side, as I carefully balanced and held her in front of me.

As I sprinted back and forth, I took different items from the apartment so that I could try to free her off of the trap. One was a spoon to gently separate her from the sticky paper. Another was a pair of scissors that I used to cut around the paper to be closer. But no dice; the glue was just too strong.

As I looked at the knife I brought as a last option, I sprinted back to my apartment one more time.

I opened up my computer and did a search on Google. I saw that cooking oil, massaged judiciously on and around her fur and limbs, could help to break down the sticky chemicals of the glue.

With hope and a warm cloth on her head to calm her, I started using my fingers to massage vegetable oil around her raw and stretched hind leg, and around her back stuck to the paper. She was calm and I felt the rhythm of her movement as she turned to the massage of my hand. She was helping me and we were moving in unison.

Once I got the last part of her body off the sticky paper, she scurried off with a burst of energy and took shelter under a loose rock and some mulch.

I ran back to the apartment and got some water and the best thing that I knew a mouse would eat: cheese (All I had was brie… I guess we all remember some things from being kids). As she continued to breathe heavily, heaving and collecting herself, I watched her and then went back to my apartment to figure what else I could do.

When I came back after some minutes, she was gone.

I wasn’t sure what to think after this experience, but I felt thankful, happy and alive.

As a blessing, I experienced this mouse’s strength and willpower to live. She fought for the opportunity of life and she had the chance to continue in her experience, to continue in her story.

As a reminder, I felt my connection and kinship with this mouse and we experienced perfect communication, both in rhythm and in unison. It is love and the feeling of being connected with everyone and all things. We can tap into this feeling and knowing anytime, and bask in the knowledge that it never runs out.

As an affirmation, I realize that  I can use my skills to be of contribution. I realize that if we see something, we can use our abilities and awareness to truly do something. We can do whatever we can – within our bounds, safety and values – to help make it right.

Mouse, mouse, bless our house!

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U1 is about our potential.

You’ve won the opportunity to be who you are and I have too. This website is about finding ways to help us shine the light inwards and about how technology and our lives can intertwine in positive ways.

U1 has been my life over the past year, and in fact, it was the number of my first apartment in New York City. This 200-square-foot studio, nestled between the laundry room and garbage chute, was the greatest penthouse imaginable to me. I took the “Q” subway into Manhattan and through the train window could see the Statue of Liberty and many of the city’s famous skyscrapers, a reminder of the immense challenge and opportunity, turbulence and inequality, that abounds in our world and that I was discovering day-by-day.

When a neighbor named Angela asked me where I lived, I responded that I lived in apartment “U1”. She said with a smile and joy: “You won!”

Some of the walls in my apartment have different charts pinned up, describing findings and discoveries. For example, some are helpful messages, like this one from my mentor Rich:

Other charts remind me that we are living in unprecedented and turbulent times. There are massive divides in wealth; racism abounds in ugly, ugly ways; and there are tectonic shifts based on technology. Not being able to provide for yourself or your family is a terrible feeling. I have felt it. You don’t have to go far. Look locally. Count the number of people you find on the subway or on the street asking for your help. Go to your city’s bus station at midnight and look at ‘Photos of the Day’ from around the world. Pictures do tell a thousand words. Children and youth of the world are a particular barometer for me, and in the words of the timeless and soulful song: “These are Tryin’ Times”.

I am optimistic. I’ve learned that there is one common denominator and massive x-factor in play; and that is each one of us. Nobody else has your fingerprint (or mine), nobody has the exact experiences you’ve had, nobody has the same potential to do precisely what you can do.

But we gotta get to work and shine the light inside.

A question that I’ve discovered as a powerful one is:

“What is it about the unease inside of me that contributes to the unease (and dis-ease) of our world outside?”

If we each asked ourselves this question and worked towards understanding and dissipating whatever may create unease inside, I believe that many of our problems would melt away. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” and as I’ve been taught, we often see and treat the world as we see and treat ourselves.

Along the journey, I believe we find helpful connections with those around us and see how we are truly alike. Also we see how our creation of the “other” is our greatest detractor. I hope that U1 – in discovering our true identity, getting in touch with our hearts (and not our heads), and using ubiquitous technologies in life-affirming ways – can help us to make these connections and learn what makes each of us great, unique and of equal potential. I also hope that U1 can help to remind us, like I sometimes remind myself, that every moment is a new moment for practice and learning. Every moment, no matter how “bad” or “good” the previous one was, is a new opportunity.

In times of turbulence, when everyone is looking around and when head-fakes may abound, there is an opportunity to Think Globally, to Double Down Locally and to Triple Down Inside. Regardless of who you are, where you live, what you do, or what you have – you have won the opportunity to discover and develop your unique tools, radiating locally and radiating globally. I believe this is how we can solve some of our day-to-day challenges and how we will solve some of our world’s seemingly most intractable problems.

Take care, be well, and become who you were always meant to be.