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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.

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.

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.

Mind Shapes Words and Words Shape Mind


While walking in the park and trying to be mindful, I stumbled into the thoughtless, wordless state of mind. The engine that spewed out words just slowed down and stopped. At that point, the whole world around me remained just an endless stream of sensations. Breeze brushing against my skin, the sound of birds, the sight of trees and clouds, the road under my feet, all  were just there.

At that point I realized something. Not only the sensations shape the experience, but also the words we choose to describe the experience shape our experience . Calling weather “freezing” indeed makes it feel like a tad more cold than it is. When we utter or think of a word, all the previous memories of using that word are present and standing in the shadow of that word. We are so used to the endless  monologue going on in our mind that we don’t realize it’s power to shape our perception.

I had heard several spiritual speakers talking about this fact. But it’s always different when you experience it. I played with this while driving back. At the read light simply saying to myself “Oh, my luck is always so bad. I never get straight green lights.” indeed puts my mind in the victim mode. Or otherwise saying “I am not in a hurry anyway.” makes it not that big a deal.

Just like quantum particles exist as probabilities and collapse to concrete state at the moment of observation, the experience seems to be a set of probabilities collapsing into a structure, a narrative, the moment we use words to describe it.

According to Heisenberg uncertainty principle,  you can accurately determine either position of the particle or it’s velocity, but not both. The same way, we can either attend the sensations in the experience or attempt the capture in words. We can’t do both. It’s like at a tourist spot,  we can either look at  the beautiful mountains or try to get a good pictures so we can record it.

Just one more way our mind may possess quantum nature. It’s a mystery for sure.

 

Mindfulness – 30 Seconds of Burning


I was istening to Gangaji’s podcast. She is a new age guru whose message strogly resembles that of mindfulness. Her voice is pretty soothing. Her words are down to earth and insightful.

She says something that catches my ear. “If you practice desire, you suffer.” That message bears remarkable resemblence to Buddha’s preaching that “Trishna, or desire, is the root cause of all suffering.” Buddhist school of thoughts defines suffering as anything when your feelings take a course other than the natural course. Extreme joy or extreme pain is both consiered suffering. We may be surprised to find extreme joy put in the same basket of extreme pain, but the sensation of extreme joy will eventually run out and to the human mind conditioned to repeat the pleasurable sensation, lack of repetition of that sensation will feel like pain. That’s how I understand it.

Many a Zen Masters between Gangaji and Buddha have uttered similar words. “Feel desire passing through your mind, like wind passes through the tree leaves.” Another master declares. “Feel your body shaking like the tree does. And after the desire has passed, feel the stillness that follows.”

I decided to launch an experiment to understand the anotomy of desire. I decided that when an impulse occurs, I will let myself burn in that impulse for 30 seconds. For 30 seconds, I will not act on impulse, but will try to “feel the desire” fully as it passes through my body, like the wind passes through the tree. This thirty seconds was measured on watch at first. But pretty soon I got a god idea of how long is 30 seconds a I started going by the gut feeling. That way I wasn’t busy looking at the watch and I was free to focus on the impulse/desire.

First opportunity appeared when the desire to eat came knocking. I sat still for 30 seconds. Trying to focus on my body and mind. I found my mind racing through the possible food choices. There was increased salivation. There was a sensation of hunger in stomach. There was a slight feeling of tiredness. The thirty seconds passed and I went to eat.

Then I remembered my 30 seconds resolution when an impulse to play video game showed up. There was tightening of hand muscles as if I was preparing for a battle, there was slight increase in heart beat. My mind revisited the lessons I learned while playing the same game last time, just so that I will score higher.

With each impulse, there were some physiological changes, some psychological changes. Some impulses had triggers, like when I wanted to avoid thinking about unwanted or stressful subjects, I went and searched Internet for positive news or funny videos.

After witnessing several impulses, and allowing myself to burn in the impulse for 30 seconds, I am understanding that there is a pattern. In case of impulses, there is a sudden build up where there is a strong urge to crave to the impulse. Then there is a platau, less intense than the peak of impulse, where I still desire, but I can be ok doing letting go. Then sometimes there is a moment when the impulse starts receding. Or I go and seek the object of craving.

I realize that I am not so much interested in the object of the desire. All I want is to go from the point of wanting something to the point of not wanting it. The foregone conclusion is that only way to make that transition happen is to have that thing. The 30 second burning allowed me to question that assumption. I realized that about 20% of my impulses run out of steam if I stay with them for full 30 seconds. I get to the point of not wanting things without having them.

And there is stillness that follows 30 seconds of burning. A stillness more still than the stillness after fulfillment. A stillness that does not carry the seeds of turbulence within itself.

Don’t Think Of A Pink Elephant


I have often wondered why explicit efforts to control our mind sometimes backfire. I am not talking about monk like control of mind. Even though the same question applies there. I am just talking more about simple things, like trying not to think about pink elephant.

Try not to think about a pink elephant, sure enough within a minute, your mind will conjure up an image of pink elephant. Why does this happen? In millions of years of evolution, why did not our minds build this ability of self control? As always I think about finding an explanation from evolutionary psychology point of view. Is there any survival advantage in mind that cannot control itself? I can’t find one.

But it seems like an intriguiging question that keeps bothering me. Why does this happen at all?

On one of my walks, I stumbled across the answer. When I try to tell my mind not to think about a pink elephant, every now and then my mind has to test whethere it has successfully avoided thinking about pink elephants. The only way to confirm this is to bring in a pink elephant in the picture and make sure none of my thoughts have anything resembling that within them. And boom. Precisely that’s where it fails. When it brings in a thought of pink elephant to test and compare other thoughts to confirm there is no pink elephant, it has brought in a pink elephant.

In our mind, there is a constant dance of creative and judgmental voices. Kind of like yin and yang. It’s that dance that many times defeats the control mechanisms of the mind. If you try to suppress an impulse because you judge that it’s not good impuslse, the impulse gets repressed. Today, you as an ego based identity, are identifying with the judgmental voice within you. But tomorrow your ego will identify with the creative voice. You will want to be the bad boy (or bad girl) that you didn’t “be” yesterday. And the repressed impulse will find it’s way out through that creative voice. This switch of identification with different part of your personality trips the self control attempt.

And if your creative voice wants you to experiment with mind, such as an attempt to stop thinking about pink elephant, then your judgmental voice will being in an elephant image, just to judge whether the creative voice is being creative correctly, and that’s where it will defeat the purpose.

This is not to say mind control is never possible. I think it possible not through suppression, but through reflection. When you reflect on your thoughts, impulses and emotions, and you see their transitory nature, that’s when mind stops being pulled in the direction of the impulse. Because you stop identifying with the creative or judgmental voices, and you identify yourself with the awareness. Or as one Zen master says “You are neither happy one, nor sad one. You are the one that goes from happiness to sadness” (or vice versa)

Mindfulness – Where the Judge Is Guilty


Often times the people who have no introduction with Zen or Upnishadic philosophy struggle to grasp concepts like mindfulness. Often times the discussions revolve around practice and techniques that are very superficial.

Mindfulness and the self inquiry that mostly follows is a radical departure from how you normally use your mind. Normally there is a judge, an ego or an identity. And there is a defendant – the experience of present moment. If the experience is pleasant, the judge acquits the defendant and may even reward it. If the experience is stressful, conflicted, the judge is inquires about the crime and orders appropriate corrective measures.

In mindfulness, the roles are reversed. The experience is validated, is not guilty. The present moment is without blame. No matter whether you are having a stressful experience, negative emotions. No matter if there is a guilt or fear or shame. No matter if it feels like you cannot look at yourself in the mirror.

All is OK. You are allowed to experience it all. You are not required to struggle with it. You are not required to take corrective measures to ensure that the pleasant experience returns as soon as possible.

“I just failed in exam. Should I not take corrective actions?” Someone might ask.

I am not talking about taking corrective actions in physical world. I am taking about taking corrective action to make yourself feel guilty or stressful to motivate yourself to take corrective action in physical world. A part of you beating other part of you will never work right.

This is mindfulness. You can stop here. Or if you want, you can wander into self inquiry.

This beating part, this judge that is brought under lens in mindfulness based self inquiry. ” What laws you are applying? Are those valid?  And by the way, Who are you?”

When this happens, we find something very interesting. Often times the hardest part of the experience is the struggle to fix it, the punishment that was handed to the experience. We operate under the assumption that the struggle is inherent to the experience.

But it doesn’t have to be.

You can feel pain and not struggle with it. And not having to do the struggle gives you a lot of space and lot of spare strength. If you count this in, we all have enough strength to deal with the stuff life throws at us.

But then why do we make a habit of this struggle? A psychology experiment I read comes to mind.

Researchers placed three rats in three boxes. In each box there was a lever to pull and a hole to drop a piece of cheese in.

In the first box, every time when a rat pulled the lever, the researcher dropped the cheese. Very soon rat knew that it can get cheese any time just by pulling the lever.

In second box, no matter what rat did, cheese was never dropped. Very soon the rat realized that nothing happens when they pull the lever. So it stopped pulling the lever.

In the third box, when the rat pulled the lever, the cheese was dropped randomly. The rat couldn’t quite figure out when the cheese drop happens and when it doesn’t. Result? The rat kept pulling the lever even when the researcher did not drop cheese for long time, almost till it fainted.

Intermittent reinforcement. This is how obsessions are formed.

Every now and then the judge and the judgement works in our mind. Every now and then the mental strategies of ego, like fear and guilt produce the desired outcome. That gives a false illusion of control and we keep on perpetually pulling the lever. Perpetually running the lawsuit. Perpetually suing the experience.