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Colonialism – A Societal Abuse


A bit departure today. Into history and politics.

Often times I post on online forums and debates. One recent such debate was about colonialism. The poster was most likely from Britain or one of the other colonizing countries, and was making a point that India and all other colonized nations should not be complaining really because they got a lot out of colonialism. He stopped just short of saying that the colonized countries should in fact be thankful to their colonial masters.

Lots of Indians voiced their disagreement, some in strong words and the argument degenerated. However I had a feeling the real problem was not quite captured. Thus this post.

History is just vast sea of facts. Based on these facts we make our judgments. Why we focus on a particular set of facts and what judgment we derive from them depends on our emotional undercurrents. And sadly, rarely people dig deeper than the superficial facts and judgments.

I have strong negative feelings about British colonization. You know why? Every nation, every society has this ongoing love affair with their past, their history. It is from this love affair that they derive their sense of identity, their pride, their self esteem. It is a form of self worship. Everyone has an altar deep in their mind, and there is an idol of self. There is nothing wrong in self worship as long as you are not sacrificing others at that altar.

The grim reminders everywhere of colonization throw a wrench in this self worship, this love affair with the past. People struggle to feel good about themselves. This struggle for self esteem is very subtle and hard to spot, but very pervasive and thus far more damaging in long term. It creeps into your decision making, it creeps into your relationships, it creeps into your sense of identity. It contributes a lot to create a dysfunctional society.

It’s a trauma. It’s as if part of me wants to forget that trauma because it’s painful. But part of me wants to keep that trauma alive as a reminder, as an insurance that I will be able to avoid such trauma in future. And the conflict tires me out.

In short, I don’t like colonization because it makes me difficult to love myself. And ironically it is difficult for a British person to accept colonization as bad because it makes it difficult for them to love themselves.

For the most part the first world, and especially Anglo Saxon demographics, has been unaware of how a massive societal trauma feels. Some segments of this world, like women experiencing rape or soldiers experiencing PTSD have been exposed to this trauma. But others are blissfully unaware and vastly underestimate the impact such trauma has on your life.

No, 9/11 was still not a national long term trauma. It was painful tragedy, but not long term trauma. Because USA was able to bring people to justice and bring some closure. When you bring closure, you can maintain your self-respect and a sense of control over your surrounding. It hurts a lot more when you are violated but have to live with the trauma and see the perpetrators walk free. We are all aware of dangers in this world. But we live with a certain plausible deniability of “that may not happen to me.” When you suffer trauma, but can’t bring closure, that comfort of plausible deniability is taken away.

Most of the first world nations have this blind spot for trauma. And that sadly reflects in their politics and foreign policy.

Consider the Iraq war. How did it play in Iraqi minds? History reads “America and Britain invaded Iraq and Iraq lost.” No matter what, that reminder of loss and the crisis of self esteem inflicted is going to contribute to the dysfunction of Iraqi society far more than the arrival of democracy is going to fix it. When an American or British person looks and salutes at their flag, do you see the warm glow of pride in their eyes? The Iraqi invasion just made sure that Iraqis won’t feel that glow for the next 100 years.

Was it worth it? I don’t know. I am too small person with too limited resources to decide whether Saddam Hussein was keeping WMDs or not. But I would have liked to see this considered. I would have liked at least one from the trove of political pundits on either side to acknowledge this.

And this is not just a problem with any one nation or any single person. We all underestimate, or completely forget, the need of other person to feel good about themselves. It’s like we have no awareness of ever not feeling that need, so it has become background veil of our thoughts not registering in our consciousness. And we have have no sensation of other person feeling that need, so we discount it while dealing with them.

If we paid attention to this, we would realize that we not only need good things to happen to us, but we need them to happen in such a way that they make us feel good about ourselves.

That realization of abstract, unsurfaced, emotions of other person is compassion. Compassion is not giving a dollar to the beggar. But compassion is realizing that the beggar is as entitled to self-esteem as the queen of England.

And next time when you will get multiple calls in your head, that call of pride or call of virtuousness or call of compassion, I hope you answer the call of compassion. Because that is the golden virtue.

Mindful Exercise – II


In my previous post on mindful exercise, I described how I shifted the goal of my exercise from a number of calories or distance to good feeling in the present moment.

Fast forward one more week. I am still doing it. I am still hitting gym on a regular basis. In fact I look forward to it. However as the time passes and as I can see some improvement in my strength/endurance, I am struggling to stick to the original goal. In a way, the focus of making exercise easier on my body is harder on my mind than I thought.

I continuously find myself wanting to increase the speed, set up a speed or distance target, or simply want to push myself a little more. I find criticizing myself when I see an older person running next to me at 6.0 mph while I am cruising at 2.9 mph. I find myself reaching for heavier dumbbells after looking at a huge muscular guy.

It’s hard to ignore the voice in my head that is constantly clamoring to judge myself based on what others are doing. It’s hard to fight against conventional wisdom in the exercise world that if I am not going faster or higher, then I am not “improving”. As if every thing I do somehow must be set up to make it a conflict, a competition, a race, in which I must come out a winner. And unless I am not, and unless there is no net gain on my self esteem, it’s not worth it.

Years and years of social conditioning at work. Our self image needs regular feed of self esteem, so much so that we are willing to abuse ourselves in the present moment for it.

About the good stuff. Definite and steady positive experiences. My body is happier. It’s happier that I am not abusing it. It’s not scared of exercise and there is no subconscious avoidance or resistance to go to the gym. It does not take any discipline to make me go to the gym. And after an hour of exercise, I come out feeling more refreshed , relaxed and more energetic .

There have been some flashes of interesting insight. One time when doing push ups, and just one short of my intended target, I found myself trying to motivate me.

“Show discipline , stick to the target you decided” says a part of me.

“But the target is mindfulness. If I stick to the target of doing XX pushups, the discipline is in continuing further. But if I stick to the target of being mindful, the discipline is in stopping now because the exercise is not feeling good anymore. ” says the other part.

In that moment I realized very strongly that all the targets, the target to lose XX pounds, the target to run X miles in X mins, or the target to be able to do bench press X pounds are arbitrary. There is no inherent value in the targets. They are important because I made them important with my thinking process.

I stopped push ups one short of my intended target. Let me tell you, it takes a lot of discipline to discard your target in favor of mindfulness.

Here are some lessons I learned.

1. It helps to turn off the distractions like television, or music. That helps me focus on the sensations in my body. It may sound boring at first, but if you think about it, the TV is really helping you distract yourself from the discomfort. If there is no discomfort, or better yet, if there were enjoyable feelings to focus on, do you need the TV?

2. It helps to run the instruments like treadmill on manual setting instead of using one of the canned workouts. On treadmill, play more with inclination than speed. Because I think this exercises big muscles in your leg which I found easier to be mindful.

3. If doing weights, slow and deliberate movements using medium weights work best. Weights just heavy enough for you to feel the exercise, but not enough to cause any discomfort.

4. Be mindful of competitive tendency or peer pressure creeping up.

5. Also be mindful of self criticism for not being mindful, in wanting to be competitive or otherwise. Forgive yourself and avoid self abuse even there.

Mindful Exercise


Some days back, I was reading about cortisol, the stress hormone. The article described the effects of Corisol on body. While reading through the symptoms of elevated cortisol in the body, like tension in muscles, I realized that I may be experiencing some of those symptoms. According to the article, the chronic elevation of cortisol was not good.

I often go the the gym and when I go, I have some set goal, like I am going to run x miles in y minutes. On some days I come out feeling really good and refreshed. On some days I come out feeling more tense and stressed. The article had mentioned that sometimes streneous exercise increases cortisol in the body. I bet that was happening to me.

I decided to set a new goal, not to run a particular distance in particular time, or to life certain weight, or to burn certain number of calories. I was going to target reduction in cortisol. I was going to target that relaxed and energized feeling as a goal itself. Only restriction I would put on myself was that I would stay at the gym for an hour and I had to keep moving even if it meant gentle movement.

First thing I had to do was to be more aware of my body. I had to pay close attention on what feels good in the moment. The moment I noticed the wave of stressed feeling,  I would turn down the speed, or turn down the resistance level, or reduce the amount of weights.

As I focused, indeed I started relishing in that good feeling. There was often a wave of good feeling  when I pushed the weights.  Or liberating feeling when my legs automatically started to run fast at times. I found that making big muscles exercise was often more relaxing.

Result – In last few weeks, there were times I ran/walked only three and half miles in an hour. There were times when I lifted light weights. There were times I spent good amount of time stretching. There were few times when I worked out really hard because I had lot of energy. So all those goals were all over the place.

But my gym attendance record has phenomenally improved. I am making almost all seven days to the gym, unlike three or four days in the past. Most definitely I burned more calories or made more movements than I would if I were targeting calories or distance. My muscles remember the good feeling and as the evening nears, I look forward to making it to the gym. Exercise has become a great  de-stressing and unwinding activity for me. The restriction of making myself spend one hour there does not feel like a restriction at all.

Looks like paying attention to what the body is telling you pays off.

My Fear Of Death


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I was on one of my long walks. It was quite nice outside. Spring in the air.

Leaves growing on trees. Birds singing. Gentle sunshine. Fresh breeze.

I found myself thinking about  death. Not in a gloomy, dreaded way. But just in a matter of fact, purely objective way. No matter what, it’s an undeniable fact. One day I am going to die. Everything that makes up my body will go back to where it came from, the nature.

And the thought just popped up in my head. What exactly I am afraid of in death? So far I was used to either totally avoid the subject, or it was just a blob of vague fear hanging at distance. But what was it really composed of?

It turns out, my fear of death had four components.

  • Fear of unknown.
  • Fear of pain.
  • Grief over loss of opportunity called life.
  • Worry of how my death will affect my loved ones.

It turns out beyond these four, there is nothing else in death that scares me. Every thought, every concern I have about death can be put in one of these four buckets. These are big ones, but if I could tackle these, there is a possibility that I would have tackled fear of death.

Suddenly that vague blob of fear does not look invincible. I can’t claim I have done it, but conquering the fear of death seems like a doable thing. Some day I will think these things through further, dissect each one of these, figure out what exactly scares me in each one of these, and may find that death is not so scary after all.

When faced with our own mortality, typical human response is one of the three – denial, distraction or despondence. I could have a possible fourth response  - peace and serenity.

Knowing that it’s doable, I can turn my attention to the spring.

Leaves growing on trees. Birds singing. Gentle sunshine. Fresh breeze.

(Image: Courtsey Deviant Art http://www.deviantart.com/)

Mindfulness Meditation – The Car In Neutral


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I am practicing mindfulness meditation for some time now.  I have to say, the single best thing I have done to myself in last several years is to join a mindfulness course. From what I read and practiced, here are a few tips I wanted to share.

1. Mindfulness is like putting your car in neutral. If you find yourself distracted or not mindful, you don’t pressure yourself in beating yourself to be mindful. If mind is like a car, and if getting distracted in thoughts is like getting the car in gear, then trying to beat your mind into being mindful again is like putting the car in reverse gear. You are still giving it momentum, just in opposite direction. That is equally useless.

Instead just be gentle and bring back your mind to mindfulness. That is like putting the car in neutral. Every time you find it is in gear, put it in neutral. Eventually the car of your mind runs out of momentum and simply drifts along with the flow of the world. That is indeed a very peaceful experience.

2. When you realize you have experienced one moment of mindfulness, the immediate desire is to control the mindfulness and to perpetuate it. Right there, you are not being mindful. Any attempt to think yourself to mindfulness is not mindfulness. It cannot be a logic. It cannot be an achievement. It can only be experience in the present moment.

3. While practicing the meditation part, many people overlook a very important aspect of mindfulness. It’s stopping the self abuse. One part of you beating up another part of you for any reason seem like a productive thing in the short term. But it backfires in the long run. Being kind to yourself, allowing you to be human, forgiving yourself for not being the ideal image of yourself in your own mind, is a giant step forward. It’s not about writing yourself a blank check to indulge in unhealthy habits. It’s about realizing that sometimes the attempts to beat yourself to be different, say more healthy, result in a distress. That distress and self criticism creates a need for distraction, which leads you to unhealthy habits.

4. Mindfulness is no tool to unlock some secret treasure chest. You cannot be successful in mindfulness. Because success implies judgement. Judgement implies the dual experience of object being evaluated, i.e. a mental state and the evaluator, something else. In real mindfulness, there is no judgement, and no object and evaluator standing apart of each other. Mindfulness is neither means nor end. It is just a direct experience of reality.

5. Every now and then you will find suddenly your muscles relaxing. Like your jaw or lower back or neck. Your mind will try to frame this experience and to reproduce it next time. When you start meditation the next day, you will find your mind already sitting there in anticipation. “Are the muscles going to relax now? Not yet? How about now? ” That is the time to simply be mindful of this anticipation and feel amused.

6. It’s time to stop reading about mindfulness and start practicing. No amount of literature or discourse will equal to the experience.

(The image is of one of the 2000 year old Buddhist meditation caves near Mumbai, India)

Buddha’s Another Raft – The Pursuit of Desires


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In my previous post, I wrote about the parallelism of insights – the metaphor of raft in Buddhism and  what Malcolm Gladwell describes as the inverse U curve relationship. The experience that some rule, theorem, belief is beneficial or productive to you up to a certain point. After that point actually it’s counter-productive and hurts the purpose it’s meant to serve.

There is another parallel insight in Buddhism that is quite difficult to understand if you are coming from Western world, but still fits the inverse U logic well in the long term.

Buddha talks about Trishna, or thirst, or desire being the root of all suffering. From a Western world viewpoint, this seems hard to imagine. After all, isn’t life good when desires are fullfilled? Isn’t pursuit of happiness one of the main purposes of life? How could desire be the root of suffering, when it’s the very basis of enjoyment?

But this exactly follows the U curve logic. Desires are very good and enriching life up to a certain point. As long as most of them are being fulfilled, life is good. But once fulfilled, they are bound to proliferate. It almost never happens that once the desire is fulfilled, the person sits content and never desires that object again.

So end of the day, you desire more. The quotient of what have vs. what you want is either the same or is decreasing, because you end up wanting more.

Sooner or later you find yourself in the inverse part of U. Your desires increase, but your ability to fulfill them goes down. This is what causes suffering according to Buddha.

So should we not desire?

The answer as given by Mahayana philosophy is desires are there, you shouldn’t try to squash them. Instead just observe them. Let them arise and recede, like a tide. Don’t run to immediately fulfill them. Thus you stop them from proliferating. And you stop getting attached to them. Thus you break their hold on you.

There lies real freedom.

 

Gladwell’s David-Goliath and Buddha’s Raft


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Read this pretty interesting book from Malcolm Galdwell. David and Goliath.

In his very insightful style, Gladwell explains why underdogs are not really underdogs sometimes and how a larger size can become disadvantage at times. I could not help but see the similarities in the 27 year war I wrote about in the previous posts.

What was really striking was Gladwell’s discussion about the inverted U curve. You have to read the book to get the details. But here is the gist. A “three strikes law” was passed in a state in USA. According to that law, criminals were put behind bars for life after committing three crimes. Assumption was that the criminal must be a repeat offender and beyond correction. For a while this lead to decrease in crime, but beyond a certain point the law started proving ineffective and in fact turned counterproductive. It led to increase in crimes. When social scientists studied the details, they noticed that the kids of fathers put in jail for life were much more likely to be criminal themselves when they grew up without fathers- a disadvantage of putting criminals in jail for life that was not foreseen.

Similar observation was made about the salary and happiness relation. Up to a certain point, increase in salary contributes to improvement in quality of life. Beyond a certain point, more money actually erodes the quality of family life and so on.

Conclusion: Every corrective action has a limited scope within which the action produces  benefits. Beyond that, the same action actually hurts the objective.

Reading this remind me of the parable of raft in Mahayana Buddhism texts.

In Mahayana texts or Zen texts, this parable is found frequently. A raft is very helpful for crossing the river, but once you cross the river and insist in keeping the raft with you, it becomes hindrance for your walk on land. According to the texts, any religious doctrine or law or commandment has benefit only within a certain context. Once the context is gone, the rule stops being helpful. Instead it turns into obstacle for further spiritual progress, like a raft on the land.

What is interesting to me is that all over the world, people come across same insights via different roads. Gladwell came across his insight after studying some incidents he mentioned and crunching some numbers. Buddhist monks came across the same insight most likely by means of reflection and contemplation.

What both these insights highlight is the importance of open mind. No measure, no rule, no doctrine is too good to be reexamined every now and then to ensure that it’s still serving the intended purpose.

It really makes me wonder. How is it possible that the same thoughts or same pattern of neural signals fire in the brains of people separated by vast distances in time and space? If exposed to a sufficiently large number of events whether they are events objectively studied about someone else’s life, or subjectively studied about your own life, are we destined to draw same conclusions?

Are these fundamental truths of human life and we just need the prophets that speak our language to tell them to us?

Don’t know. But there is something reassuring. Even if people don’t get it now, or even if these valuable insights are forgotten tomorrow, in time someone else will stumble upon them again. Knowledge will never be lost as long as there are curious people with open mind.

 

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