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Mindfulness ! What is it?


buddha-lotus-pond

Long long back, I was living in Virginia. It was particularly stressful time in my life. On recommendation of a friend, I joined a mindfulness course.

Right on the first day, when the teacher described the classic paradox of mind, the less you try to be happy, the more you are happy, something resonated with me. It was beginning of a journey.

Often times people ask me what is it about. I give an example. Have you been in a situation when you were frantically running to catch a flight or a train? You were huffing and puffing, running with your luggage in hand, ultimately to reach the gate only to realize that the plane has left. Do you remember the sensation? Do you remember the end of the struggle and the wave of peace that follows?

You missed the flight. There is inconvenience. There is extra cost and wasted time. All that caused you to stress out and struggle is still there. But there is no struggle. You have surrendered to reality. Your flight is gone. And you are at peace. You are free to browse the books on the stalls, may be get a coffee.

Mindfulness is realizing that in life there is going to be some pain, some inconvenience, some loss, and there is going to be death. It is being more open, more accepting, less judgmental in face of reality of life. It is realizing that you have missed the flight of immortality, perfection, perpetual gratification. It is dropping the futile and often counterproductive struggles in life and then suddenly finding yourself free to check out life in this very moment. When you process it intellectually, it may sound depressing. But when you let it sink in your body and soul, it is immensely liberating. You stop wasting your energy and you start living the present moment. There is new found peace and joy.

Mindfulness is accepting that you will never be perfect and neither will be the world around you and still having compassion for yourself and the world. Mindfulness is stopping the self abuse and abuse of others in servitude of the fictions in your mind . Mindfulness is not about achieving anything. Mindfulness is stopping to overreact to life like a pendulum that keeps swinging, and coming back at the center. Mindfulness is learning to embrace even negative thoughts, emotions, negative experiences as openly as positive ones. We all have innate capacity to do that. Mindfulness only makes you realize this capacity.

What do I get from mindfulness? Well, freedom. Till I started practicing mindfulness, I was not really living. I was acting out my conditioning and deeply imbibed behavioral patterns. When I was driving and someone cut me, I thought I always had to be angry.  I had my hardwired reasoning why it was necessary, which I was not conscious of, and which caused sort of compulsion. After practicing mindfulness I realized it was more of a choice to be angry and I had many more choices available to respond to the situation. As the judgmental voice in my head takes a back seat, the range of choices I have in a moment is more. This is freedom. This is empowering.

So, what does stopping struggle really mean? Am I not going to put on my clothes and go to office? Am I not going to put on seatbelt or am I not going to save for retirement? Of course I am going to do all of that. It is again game of mind that is taking the idea and extrapolating it to the stratosphere. Mindfulness is all about finding the balance. The middle way ,as Buddha termed it. It’s doing enough, but not too much.

Ultimately, mindfulness is fully embracing the present moment with all it brings, the good, the bad and everything in between.

Elementary Watson! Trump is Moral Arbitrage for Media.


Long time back my friend in finance explained me the concept of Arbitrage. Apparently there are computers dedicated to searching stock prices on many stock exchanges. And every now and then a computer finds that a particular stock XYZ is being sold on exchange 1 at 99$ and is being bought at exchange 2 at 100$. Then the computer buys in a chunk of that stock from exchange 1 and sells on exchange 2, making small but sure profit. The opportunity may not come that frequently and the sizes of profit can vary. But if such an opportunity is found, then it must be jumped on because profit is guaranteed.

Before I write anything further, I must declare that I do not like Trump as a person. I do not think he should have become president. I did not vote for Trump.

But his rise from a fringe candidate to main candidate to president continued to baffle me. Throughout the primaries and in election and even right now, I continued to get amazed about how much coverage he was getting and he is getting even right now. This is the post about my attempt to understand the obsession of the media, both professional media and social media, with Trump. My AHA moment was thinking about this as arbitrage.

I think Trump as no friends. He only has enemies of enemies. And the continued media coverage helped him make more enemies and thus in a very convoluted way, get more people on his side by ‘enemies of enemies’ rule.

Just the way financial institutions love ‘financial arbitrage’ the people and media loves ‘moral arbitrage’. Instead of tackling complex issues that do not have good and bad sides clearly marked, they prefer to focus on small, irrelevant issues that have good and bad very clearly defined. So they can take the “good” side and feel good about themselves. This way no one has to face the uncomfortable, inconvenient truths about themselves. No reflection is required. No change to be made within ourselves.

Let’s keep the common people and social media out here. Because portraying the current affairs accurately is not really their job. But what the professional media did is inexcusable. They went after cheap headlines with ‘moral arbitrage’ with far more vigor than after complex issues that really mattered. All they cared about was staying in the positive light. And Trump gave them the perfect opportunity.

If we have to make sure another Trump does not rise in future, someone has to break this frenzied search for moral arbitrage in media. We need media that takes moral risk, handles inconvenient truth and is less judgmental than informative.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People?


Ah, just some random musing today.

The title question has always puzzled me and I am sure to thousands or millions of people before me. Why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. If good and ethical behavior is no insurance against misfortune and pain, then what point is it?

Religions explain this unexplained balance is by introducing the concept of afterlife and almighty.

We cannot explain what we see,  so we conclude there must be something we can explain but cannot see, with the assumption that balance must be preserved. If we cannot explain things in terms of actions of humans and animals around us, then there must be something or someone beyond seen life i.e. God. If we cannot explain the contents of life of humans and animals, then there must be life beyond death, i.e. afterlife.

A while back I posted the Story of Tao. About how your perception is a “catch-up” between your expectations and state of the world. And your expectations can change and the same state of the world is interpreted totally differently by you.

On one of my walks, I stumbled upon an hypothesis. Ethical behavior is not so much about avoiding bad experiences and pain. They simply cannot be avoided. Good and bad is part of life. It will always be there.

But with ethical behavior you will find yourself in cognitive resonance with the universe. You will gain insights and wisdom. That will eventually lead to enlightenment.

If you were to keep an account of material gains, it will be pretty much the same for ethical and unethical behavior in the long run.

If you are unethical, you will find yourself in a state of “cognitive dissonance” with the universe. This will lead to ignorance, clouded vision, muddied intellect and loss of freedom.

Some days back, I had read an article about management styles. How the symptoms of bad management when managers are trying to control too much are ironically same as symptoms of too little control. This is a situation where cognitive dissonance can happen. It’s a level of wisdom that can lead you to discern the right thing from symptoms.

What use is this wisdom if we cannot avoid pain? Tremendous. Answers Buddha. This is where the gem of Mahayana philosophy comes in. There is a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. Pain is a sensation, an experience, an activity of nature. Suffering is an activity of mind. For an enlightened mind which is perfectly at peace, there is no suffering in the gravest pain.

For good and bad people pain remains the same. But for good people, suffering goes on diminishing.

The Charge Of Thoughts


There is something reflective about the fall season that is very contemplative. May be it’s the cool crisp air that reminds you to slow down, or may be it’s the leaves drifting on air that hint at the transitional nature of t his world.

But it’s calming for sure.

So here I was. Trying to be mindful on my train ride. And I had a unique experience. Let me describe it if I can.

There were a bunch of things in my awareness that had potential to start a snowball of thoughts. But as I tried not to resist them and just be mindful, I was able to just rest in the cluster of neural and physical sensations. Each one of them was like a seed for more mind activity. But with mindfulness, they just remained the seed. They did not develop into mind activity. They did not start a thought process. In a moment of mature mindfulness, a sensation just remains that, a sensation.

So there were sensations and there was awareness. And in that moment there was peace.

There was a realization that the events happening in outside world only result in sensations. The events, or the sensations they generate, do not have any charge by themselves. The charge comes from inside the mind. There is a certain projection and certain resistance or affinity. That’s where the charge comes from.

This is the charge that develops that sensation into the thought. Like a pinball machine, that charge propels the sensation on a different trajectory with great speed. Thus a thought is born.

Why We Fail To Understand Each Other?


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On two corners of this world, I am watching two divides. India Pakistan divide in Southeast Asia and another Democrat Republican divide in USA. Of course the first divide has lot more sinister dimension of possibility of nuclear war. And that has historical context too. But more on that in next post.

The Democrat Republican divide is interesting because it’s happening even when there is no reason for this divide to be that strong. After all, both parties support capitalism, human rights and more or less agree on constitution.

What makes the public opinion about each other diverge? Why people completely fail to understand each other’s viewpoints.

And then one of my walks, I made a discovery. I am sure people have made this discovery before. But here it is in my words.

When thinking about someone else, people expect them to behave in a rational and ethical way. But when thinking about themselves, people make decisions based on emotions.

It reminds me of an psychological experiment described to me by a friend of mine. Forgive me for not providing a link, but it was just part of a conversation.

People were divided into two groups and asked to make a choice.

A. Select an airplane ticket at certain price for flying on the route where bad weather and heavy turbulence was expected.

B. Or select a ticket on the route for double the price where good weather was expected.

Everything else was supposed to be same about planes. There was no known technical difficulties and both airplanes were statistically supposed to have the same probability of safe journey.

One group had to pick this ticket for an unknown person. They mostly picked the cheap but turbulent route, because that was rational choice, scary but still statistically safe and cheap. The other group had to pick for their own, they mostly picked the calm route with double the price.

After this, both groups were shown a movie narrating horrible turbulence experience. Then they were asked to make a choice again.

Again if they had to pick the ticket for other person, they picked the scary but cheap route with almost the same probability.

But here is the real kick. When they had to pick for themselves, they picked the safe but costly route even in significantly higher numbers. That means they were more inclined to avoid the fearful experience for themselves after watching the movie. But still they thought it’s OK for the other person to face the fear, as long as it was in their rational interest.

It’s not that people hated the unknown passenger. They  underestimated the importance of emotions to the other person.

When thinking about others, people underestimate the erosion to the quality of life by negative emotions like fear  and enhancement to the quality of life by positive emotions like self esteem boost.

But when it comes to them, they overestimate those exact things things. They want to avoid negative emotions and go for positive emotions, even if it means making a choice that seems not rational.

Two primal emotions  – desire to increase self esteem and desire to reduce fear play a huge role. If you leave room for these two emotions, you would understand the response much better.

Take an example. Think of a recent incident when white cop shot black person.

When white person is thinking about the incident of black person being shot by white cop, their first thought is whether the black person followed cop’s instructions? If yes and still shooting happened, then white people are willing to investigate further. If not, then the case closed. The black person should have followed the instructions.

When black  person thinks about the same incident, their first thought is whether the police followed the procedure. No matter the victim followed the instructions or not, the black person would conclude that if the victim did not pose danger to the officer, the shooting was not justified. The situation when cop arrests you is stressful to both ends and may be the victim was too stressed or confused ?

The white people are more likely to identify with police and allow them some emotional slack, like fear and anxiety. The black person is more likely to identify with the victim and allow them emotional slack, like fear and anxiety.

Who is right? I am afraid both are.

(I am generalizing too much. I know. There are plenty of white people that see black angle and vice versa.)

Next time if you don’t understand the choice made by other person, think of two things. Self esteem and fear. Or rather Self-Love and Fear. If the person has to not only make a rational choice, but also make sure it helps them to do self-love and reduce fear, what choice would they make? And you will surely have a lightbulb moment.

 

 

 

Thinking “Thoreau”ly


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“Perfect disease is as good as perfect health, where mind continuously confirms to your body.”- Henry David Thoreau

The quote strikes me for the tremendous wisdom wrapped in simplicity. No heavy words, no abstract terms, no fancy metaphors, no overly long convoluted sentence. In 15 words Thoreau puts forward a theory equivalent to theory of relativity for philosophy. Peace and joy can be found not only when the world confirms to your expectation, but also when your expectations confirm to the world.

On one of my walks, I wondered if this quote can be further extended. Perfect misfortune is as good as perfect fortune, because in face of overwhelming misfortune, you will let go of your struggle. Result? You will be left with less desires. Ergo, more fulfillment. I have seen proof. I used to volunteer at hospice facility and some of the patients who have end stage cancer indeed look peaceful. Yes, they have episodes of pain. But apart from that they have plenty of peaceful moments. Because there is no burden of struggle of survival. No conflict. No uncertainty. Only one thing to deal with – pain.

I remember a time when I was going to catch a flight. The time was getting close and I was rushing like crazy. Rushing, rushing, rushing and when I reach the airport, I realize that I am at the wrong terminal. The reality that I have missed the flight hit me and what followed was a sense of peace. My mind had just confirmed to the state of this world.

This way of thinking is hard to digest in the world we live in, which values pursuit above peace. Till that time, people like Thoreau who are way ahead of their times will be considered foolish. Because a perfect genius is often like a perfect fool, because both fail to do conventional thinking.

 

 

What Makes Something ‘A Medicine’?


I have been planing to write this post for a long time.

I belong to several Whatsapp groups of friends and families. Many messages get forwarded on Whatsapp. There is a specific type of messages that get a lot of momentum. Messages that claim something is a herbal, Ayurvedic medicine.

So far I have received messages claiming medicinal properties in several fruits, vegetables, herbs, tree leaves, roots, barks, seeds, some common, some exotic. I have been told that anything from lemon to clove oil can cure cancer.

But I can tell you that when my father had cancer, nothing helped him other than established medicine. We tried many things, we really did. And some things did more harm than good. But the only thing that made any difference was Chemotherapy.

And that’s what prompted me to write this article.

There is a widely accepted theory that there is a big giant cartel of Pharma companies and doctors that is out to rip patients. And there may be some truth in that, but on a large scale, there are more good people than bad. There are plenty of companies and scientists working hard to find medicines for diseases. There is a very structured drug development process.

Before I begin to tell you the process let me tell you one thing. Have you heard of a sentence “You can fool others but you cannot fool yourself?” That’s a lie. You can fool yourself. People do that all the time. Your mind can play tricks on you. Psychologists have done plenty of research on that. These tricks are called cognitive biases. Here are a couple important ones.

Confirmation bias – where people like to look for information that proves what they already believe and ignore the information that disproves their belief. This is why Republicans read only news supporting Republican views and so do Democrats. Or to put in Indian context, BJP supporters read only news that makes BJP look good and Congress supporters do the same for Congress. This can lead them away from a balanced view. Sometimes there is a necessary correction that happens when you read other person’s viewpoint, but when you read biased news, that correction does not happen.

Availability bias – people tend to overestimate the probability of events that have recently occurred. This is why a large number of people buy earthquake insurance just after earthquake. Ironically a second major earthquake is much less likely after one has already happened, but people believe it is more likely because they have just experienced it.

If you want to read about cognitive biases, which I recommend you should do because it is fascinating, the Wikipedia article is here. It will make you aware of your own biases and will improve your decision making ability.

Coming back to the medicine world. There are some mental traps that are super common to the medicine development.

One very common mental trap observed in the field of medicine is placebo effect. People just feel better with the thought that they have taken medicine. Often times the relief in symptoms such as headache, nausea, dizziness is very significant and pronounced. This effect can even be seen when false medicine given to the person. Because what is helping them is the thought, not the medicine.

Second mental trap is confounders. E.g. one time doctors observed that a group of people drinking a particular type of wine were living longer. But upon more analysis they found that it was just a costly wine and those who could afford it were rich and could afford better healthcare. So it was not the wine that was helping health, but it was the money, which happened to be the reason why people could afford that wine.

Over the years scientists have developed a very mature and thorough process of deciding whether something is medicine that has checks and guards for most of the mental traps, or cognitive biases.

In the first stage of medicine development, mostly a mechanism is identified. How a particular drug has some effect on particular molecules. If an experiment can be repeated, an hypothesis is built.

In second stage, trials are done in petri dish. Or on animals. If satisfactory results are obtained, then human trials are planned.

In third stage, a small dose escalation trial is conducted. Few people take the medicine and the dose is taken up to see how much dose can be tolerated. If people tolerate the dose well, then the next step.

In fourth step, a larger group of people is selected. IT is made sure that the selection is as diverse as possible for gender, race, age, etc. Typically the experiments at this and next stages are “double blind placebo controlled randomized “. Placebo controlled means a some people get something that looks like medicine, but is really a harmless substance. Some people get the real medicine. If the number of people showing benefit from placebo group is almost same as number of people from medicine group, then you know it’s not the medicine effect but placebo effect at play. Also neither the people themselves, nor the scientists observing the people know who is getting what. This is to avoid their own mental bias. Because if they know who is getting medicine, they might suffer from confirmation bias. I.e. they will tend to focus more on improvements in people who took medicine and report that more prominently. The word randomized means it is decided randomly who gets medicine and who gets placebo. Otherwise if only men get medicine and women get placebo, and men were to respond to medicine better, that would give us a skewed result of how effective the medicine really is.

In fifth step, even a large group, perhaps hundreds or sometimes thousands is selected and same, double blind placebo controlled randomized study is performed. Details records are kept. Approvals are filed.

If everything looks good, at this stage the drug becomes a medicine. But it does not end here. The doctors keep a keen eye on patients taking new drugs and report their findings. That includes side effects, improvements, everything. Sometimes if there are too many serious side effects, drugs are recalled and banned.

At each and every step, the reports of experiments are published in leading scientific journals and other scientists rip it apart to find faults in the theory, the experiment method etc. If the faults are serious, they are improved and experiments are repeated.

After such a long and arduous journey, something becomes a drug.

And when a drug goes through such a long process, we can trust it. That’s why Aspirin or Paracetamol works like clockwork for us. That’s why we know whether a drug is good for babies, or for pregnant women, or for old people. We know what are the most common side effects. We know what is the right dosage.

Now compare this to whatsapp message you received. Do you really think it has gone that much scrutiny? Just because it’s part of our folklore and tradition, should we let it escape all this scrutiny?

Believe me, I am not against herbal medicines. I personally have experience of one medicine that helps me when I have cough – Harad, or (Terminalia Chebula). However I think we should study them scientifically. I am not arguing against the type of medicine. I am arguing against the process by which we declare something a medicine. We have to perfect the process and rely on it. Not rely on personal opinions. Because? Persons have cognitive biases.

We should not just accept them because it’s mentioned in our old books. If it’s the truth, it will stand the scrutiny. If it’s not, we accept someone made a mistake in writing those books.

Often times I think people have cultural lines drawn in their mind. They think accepting superiority of Western medicine is accepting superiority of Western culture. Our culture has been wronged by Western culture, by colonialism specifically. And I get that. But nothing wrong or shameful in taking what’s right in the culture we have problems with. After all, we speak their language and wear their style of clothes.

Actually this type of rigorous examining, critical thinking was far too common in ancient India. They have entire field devoted to that called “Nyayashastra”.  It’s we who departed from our rich tradition of critical thought process  and logic.  We have given way to emotional reasoning. If it makes us feel bad, then it must be wrong. And this habit of reasoning is hurting us more than healing.

These messages and medicinal tips are always shared with good intentions. “May be it will help someone” is what we think. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Too many disasters caused in this world by good intentions that lack wisdom. Having too many medicinal suggestions but not knowing which one to put your confidence in, not knowing which one you can trust when your health is in delicate state, is not really helpful.

What’s most important is the truth. It’s the truth we need to make higher priority.And if we are not sure what is truth, then we must hold our good intentions in check till we find out what is the truth.

Next time if someone forward you a bunch of message describing something has medicinal properties, please forward them this article. Let’s educate ourselves and spread the truth.