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How to be Mindful?


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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.
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Mindfulness ! What is it?


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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 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.

 

 

 

I Have A Dream


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Just a spiritual dream inspired by MLK

I have a dream.

I have a dream that some day the content of my character will have compassion for all sentient beings. The voices of judgement will cease and that my mind will be able to what the Zen calls “thundering acceptance” with a golden mantra, “it is what it is”.

I have a dream that I will embrace this life with open arms for all it has to offer, good and bad and everything in between. The struggles will cease and peace  will prevail. I will realize that undesirable experiences are just part of this life and have as much to offer as pleasant ones when it comes to enriching this life. I will remember what Joseph Campbell says “We all are here not to be happy, but to feel alive.”

I have a dream that I will be able to forgive myself and others with ease, for we are all just humans. There will be compassion for me as well as for others. There will be no guilt, no shame, because guilt and shame do not work. There will be no using self abuse as mechanism for self improvement. Willingness to inflict self abuse is the first thing that must be improved.

I have a dream that I will face the truth every waking moment. Because every moment we don’t face the truth, leads us to a wrong worldview. Every error in our worldview eventually leads to a conflict and confusion. Every conflict and confusion leads to a battle within ourselves. A battle within ourselves is a battle we always lose.

My dream is to have a fluid, all encompassing awareness of this world that is free of conflicts, ignorance and full of compassion and wisdom.

I have a dream that I will need very little from the world outside because I will have a rich inner world. My relationship with this world will be that of interdependence and harmony and not of consumerism and greed.

I have a dream that I may conquer fear of death, because as a soul, there is no such thing as birth or death for us, only transitions we remember and transitions we don’t.

I have a dream that my mornings be filled with gratitude , my afternoons with acts of compassion, my evenings with reflection and my nights with silence.

I have a dream that a large number of people on this earth share this dream and we all help each other to realize it.

 

Anger! An Investigation


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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


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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.

A Zen Story – “No One Has Ever Been Enlightened”


A zen student who has been studying zen for long time, goes to a master in far away village for more instruction. The master refuses to let the student in his hut. But the student just sits outside in meditation. He continues to serve the master and bring fruits and water to him.

One day the master comes out and asks the student. “Why are you doing all this work?”
“I want to get instruction from you” replies the student.
“What will you do with more instruction?”
“I want to attain enlightenment.”
“Stop trying to get instruction to attain enlightenment. No one has ever been enlightened.” quips the master.
And at that moment the student gets enlightened.

On face this looks like a dialogue that borders nonsense. But that’s the thing about zen stories. There is always an outright nonsensical component. If you keep focusing on that, you never get the story.

What you need to do is neither think about it, not toss it with ridicule. You need to just let the story be with you. Develop an intimacy with it.

Then one day it hits you.

This is how the story above hit me.

We live in the world of thoughts and emotions and habits, and most importantly, the owner of all of these, a mental structure called ego. Often the passion we use to carry out the worldly pursuits is brought over to carry out the spiritual pursuits as well. The ego wants one more feather in its cap, or one more armor to protect itself against the insecurities.

However all these are mind games and enlightenment is end of these mind games. Just like a ball of butter does not remain a ball of butter when brought close to the fire, an ego, or an identity does not remain an identity when it meets the state of enlightenment. When you are enlightened, you are no one.

This is what the master meant when he said “no one has ever been enlightenment.”