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Mindfulness ! What is it?


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.

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.


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.

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.

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)