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How to be Mindful?

I have asked this question to others and others have asked it to me. Along this journey, I have some answers.

Mindfulness traditional definition is non judgmental present moment awareness. We understand the meaning of the words on some level. But you understand it whole lot differently when you experience it once.

Do you exercise? If yes, how many of you exercise with a set goal in mind? To lose weight? To gain muscles? To look a certain way, or not to look a certain way? To regain health? To reduce blood pressure or diabetes? Whatever.

For me it was allure of a certain self image. I loved the idea of me looking very buff and muscular. I had that self image of how I was supposed to look. I found a sense of self worth, a sense of emotional security in that self image. I strived towards it without questioning the validity of that self image.

As long as I was working for that self image, I was enjoying exercise in an indirect way. The exercise itself was painful, because I was pushing myself, lifting more weights and running more miles. But I liked the thought that I am making progress towards the revered self image.

Then one day I was mindful of this whole game. I decided to let go of the self image. I had to face the insecurity that came with the thought that “I will not look that way”. But it was far easier to deal with this insecurity than I thought.

I started focusing on immediate reality and my sensations. I started lifting weights just enough that made me feel food. Made my muscles feel stretched and exercised. I ran just fast enough for me to enjoy running. I felt the runner’s high. The flood of good feeling endorphins running through my body. And I loved exercise in that very present moment. There was no goal except to enjoy the very moment.

As I practiced it, I settled into much lighter but enjoyable exercise routine. I started to look forward to going to the gym. My ‘calories burned’ went down, but my attendance to the gym got far more regular. I am nowhere closer to my buff and muscular image. But I am healthy and happy.

We all have this images of happy and secure life. They include a certain type of job, relationship, social status, appearance, possessions. What if we let these images go? And focus on being in this very moment?

Well, “what is a man without ambition?”, you might say.  Would human beings have reached the moon if they did not have ambitions and goals and strived towards it?

The real important question is not whether humans would have reached moon. The real important question is are you at peace right now?

If you are not, and are striving for being happy in a certain point of time in future, there is a good chance that even if you were to reach your goal, you will not be mentally present to enjoy that achievement. You will be working harder to achieve some next future goal. Because you are cultivating a habit of working towards future happiness than finding present happiness.

So you get the picture.

Anyway, here is what you can do to being mindfulness in your life.

  1. Meditate – Cliche. But important. Can’t find time for meditation? That challange will only last for six months. First six months you make time for meditation. For rest of the life, meditation will make time for you. With the increased focus, clarity, you will drop the counterproductive pursuits, unimportant crusades and will find yourself more lighter and free. Download “insight meditation” app on your phone. That will help you get in routine.
  2. Listen – There are plenty of good talks on mindfulness. Search Youtube and podcasts by Joseph Goldstein, John Kabat Zinn. Listen to them while walking ,traveling, relaxing. Read books if you are more into reading. There are plenty of blogs.
  3. Plan for mindful moments – May be set a reminder or two on your phone every day? All you do in that moment come back to your immediate sensations. How does it feel? Is it cold? Hot? Fan or A/c blowing? Are there any sensations of sights, sounds? physical sensations? Try not to judge. Just let them be there.

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.

Anger! An Investigation

A few days back I was in a situation where I vividly experienced a spike of intense anger. I usually don’t even like to harm insects. But in that moment, the only thing that stopped me from inflicting intense pain on the other person was fear of consequences, legal or otherwise. For a brief moment, I had no shred of empathy left within me. The amount of pain I was willing to inflict on the person in that moment was wildly disproportionate to the pain he inflicted on me.

What exactly happened?

At a shop alongside highway, one person was extremely rude to me.

It would have been alright if at this point if the person involved had taken a softening action. But he did not. What he did was perceived as “lack of concern, lack of empathy” in my mind.

The anger started building. I tried to politely point out his mistake. However my comment was dismissed. And without giving me a chance to fully say things I wanted to say, that person exited the situation entirely.

I was left with seething anger. But he was gone. I boiled for a while. Then I calmed down.

After a while, I took a deep breathe and started to pay attention to my response with curiosity. Here is unwinding of my emotional response. Peeling the onion so to speak.

First there was a feeling of victimization  and unfairness, injustice. Something rightfully belonged to me did not come my way.

Second there was a sensation of lack of empathy towards me.

Now a story was building in my mind. The combined feeling of victimization and lack of empathy led to the projection of future. I feared my own self respect decreasing, me judging myself harshly.

But the most compulsive part of my anger, the part that wanted me to dart out and beat the s**t out of him, came out of a thought that this person, if he gets away, will feel encouraged to do the same thing in future. And he will do it again and again. And he will face no consequences again and again. And the cycle might lead to some kind of apocalypse. This is how I am putting in words, but it was more of a flash thinking.

As if the course of future that was entirely dependent on my response in this moment. If I respond, the situation is corrected. If I do not respond, apocalypse.

This idea of totally diverging future paths of the world, entirely dependent on a very narrow range of choices, is what creates strong compulsion.

But sanity prevailed. I waited out the impulse. And then I was hit with a realization that the future does not diverge that rapidly based on my choices. Universe is very fluid and self correcting. And it always presents me a wide range of choices to be happy and find peace. The bad man will meet his corrective punishment somewhere else. I will be able to move on no matter what.

Those Zen Masters were right again.


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.

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)

The Power Of Compliment

A few months back, my mother was getting up from an illness and  I was helping her back on her feet walking. While walking, the step she took with her left foot was nice and steady. But the step she took with her right foot was short and to the side.

A few times I pointed out to her that her right foot is off. She felt irritated and she insisted that she was trying her best.

At one point, I switched the strategy and instead of telling her that her right foot step is off, I told her that her left foot step was perfectly straight. Same observation, but focused on positive instead of negative. I changed the criticism in compliment, sort of, with exact same message.

The change in her response was noticeable. She felt motivated by the fact that she was doing something right. And she was motivated to do more things right. Eventually indeed her right foot step improved.

It was a huge lesson for me in human psychology. When you change, your body goes through a series of states. And just to propel your body through this state transition, your mind goes through its own state transition as well. And the way you need energy to move your body, you need energy to move your mind. That mental energy comes from self-esteem, validation, feeling of appreciation and desire to get even more appreciation.

You may be able to push someone for a short term by creating strong negative energy, like fear of reprisal. But that does not work in the long term. The secret of making a long term change in behavior is to use right amount of right compliments. The person being complimented should not feel that you are faking it or you are trying to manipulate them.

Indeed my mother was using her left foot correctly. It’s just that I had trained my mind to look for the problem so much that I almost forgot that there is an area where there is no problem. It’s just the how human mind is conditioned that it is much easier to spot a problem than to spot something that is going right. Perhaps it is a survival technique. The value of spotting the problem is much more for survival than the value of spotting a good thing. It’s important to spot a dangerous thing in the jungle than to spot a good thing. That dangerous thing could be the tiger lurking behind the bushes.