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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


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



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


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


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.


Perfectionism – II : Finding words

As I sit on the train, I see a perfectionist. Nowadays I can make a good guess.

As the passengers share personal space, there is a “situation” where the perfectionist needs to say something to the fellow passenger. But he won’t. I can see the struggle on his face. The conflict, the torment. Attempts to make eye contact, nervous smile. Then attempts to distract himself, hoping that the other passenger realizes the “situation” and it goes away.

Perfectionists struggle with communication. I know I do. They struggle with saying what they want to say. And when they can’t say it, which is far more often than not, they additionally struggle with the frustration that comes with it.

Why? Why put yourself through self-torment then?

One reason is risk. Every communication involves releasing control. Once you say something, it’s done. You can’t take it back. You have no control over the words that are said. You have no control over the consequences. By nature many perfectionists are control freaks and letting the control over something go just scares the hell out of them. There is be a range of possible consequences after communication and  predicting all of them and preparing for all of them seems like a daunting task.

Also there is implicit belief that you are in control of the words you haven’s said yet. Are you really? Because when you don’t say things out, they eat you inside. Because you are a perfectionist and the perfect thing to do is to say something.

Here is why saying something is likely to be a winning strategy for reducing your self torment. Because if you don’t say something, you will 100% struggle with the thought that you need to say something. But if you say something, there is 50% chance that the change that the communication brings will be a positive one and you won’t have to struggle.

Second reason people go the self-torment way is the uncertainty associated with thoughts and feelings. Most of the times when you say something your thoughts and feelings change. If you are angry at someone, and when you say something, often times it dulls the sharp edges of your anger. You may even be hit with the remorse after a major decision, just like buyer’s remorse. This frustrates the perfectionist. Because they intend to do perfect communication and realizing that what they are feeling or thinking is different from what they just said is a hard place to be for a perfectionist. Because perfectionists tend to think that entire credibility of their life is at stake every time they are saying something.

The more abstract the thoughts and feelings are, the harder this second issue gets. It’s easy to say “The temperature is 25 degree Celsius.” when the temperature is indeed 25 deg. cel. Because it’s very clear what the temperature is and it’s very easy to be objective and perfect about it. But it’s much harder to say “I am feeling sad and angry at your for doing this and I wish you hadn’t done it.”


It’s been a while I wrote anything. Why? A Writer’s block? Don’t know.

I still have thoughts. I still have ideas. But I am too afraid to say it. Because in my mind, there is this solidified image of a certain impact i want my blog posts to have. I daydream about how much people will like it. I daydream about how much I will like myself when I write better than perfect post. The perfect flow, perfect choice of words, perfect argument.

And when I actually write, I am not sure if I am there yet. There seems to be a real chance that not many people will read it or they will read it but won’t like it as much. There is a real chance that I will write it and look at it with disdain thinking how could I write something so stupid. That means it fell short of my goal. It means lost opportunity of self-validation.

That kind of thinking goes on only till I start. Once I start, I enjoy writing. I can spend hours and not realize that so much time has gone by.

Also there is a control issue. I believe I have control over every thought I have not expressed. I believe I have control over every word I have not said. Because once I say it, I cannot unsay it. It’s expressed I have no control over it. But there is a sense of unfinished business about the thoughts that I want to express but haven’t expressed. That bothers me. Perhaps I don’t control the words I haven’t said. They control me.

So here is to breaking the habit of perfectionism. Here is to trying something and enjoying the try.


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