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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.

Mindfulness – 30 Seconds of Burning

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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

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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)

“Thoughts Feelings Sensations” meditation

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For a last few days, I am trying something. Can’t say this is anything new. May be I reframed it in my own words and thus it appears new to me.

It’s called thoughts-feelings-sensations meditation.

Our mind is continuously busy categorizing things and putting them in buckets. A mind that is idle goes crazy. Like a bicycle has to keep moving in order to remain upright, the mind has to keep moving in order to exist. Or so it feels.

Meditation, generally the practice of quieting the mind, is difficult for me. I get distracted too much and going from all this noise to no noise seems like a big task.

Thus, I created this very simple task for my mind. Sit quietly and anything that arises, just put it in one of the three buckets. Thoughts, feelings or sensations. This simple task frees up a lot of consciousness that is taken by mind when it’s multitasking, busy remembering things, sorting things out in hundreds of buckets and going in judgmental whirlwinds.

This way seems to work for me. After a while, I begin to feel relaxed. A thought is called out as thought and the pressure to react to that thought assuming it a reality is gone. A feeling is called out as feeling and does not automatically translate into a behavior response, which may be a thought or chain of thoughts.

It’s when I realize how thoughts give rise to thoughts and things can cascade into chain of thoughts, some cascading so unconscious that the beginning and end thought seem to arise randomly. And some behavior responses that seem like autopilot response are often realized as choices that fly under the radar of attention and memory.

So, back to thoughts-feelings-sensations world. Feel of soft keys on my finger. The whirring sound of air conditioner. The wonder of who will read these words.

And that followed by silence.

Quality of Life

I finished reading the book on six sigma quality control and stretched on my bed. Several things were going through my mind at the moment. For some unknown reason I was thinking about an incident that had happened about 10 years back. That day I had forgotten my railway pass and I was caught by a ticket checker. I had to pay the fine. I felt disturbed and I was cursing myself. How could I forget wallet. Why am I not more careful?

And then something flashed in my head. I sat up, took a pen and paper, and started calculating.

I traveled by train for nearly 12 years including my college years. Several times I had to travel by multiple trains or buses on the same day. And of course there were days when I sat home and did not travel. But I worked in a company that followed six days workweek. Also before I started regular train commute, I did a lot of train riding when I was kid, going to relatives, going to special competitions etc. So I traveled on most of the days of those 12 years, say nearly 10 years, that is 365 x 10 = 3650 days. Pretty much each of those travels was two ways, so that means 3650 x 2 = 7300 train rides.

If traveling in a train is a process, and if forgetting the ticket is a defect, then I had 7300 defect opportunities. Out of that I forgot the ticket only for may be two- three times. My defect rate is 2 defects per 7300. Using the calculator on following website


my process yield (successful completion) is about 99.97% and quality of my process is about 5 sigma. This is excellent process quality. Many manufacturing companies would die for achieving 5 sigma process quality.

But still it bothered me when I forgot the pass. Why? I was expecting myself to never forget. I was expecting zero defects. That is infinite sigma quality. The first rule in quality control and improvement is “Do not set unachievable targets”, which is exactly I was violating.

I needed to set my expectations correctly. I needed to keep room for myself to make some mistakes in reasonable limits.

If I extend this principle of “Quality of process” vs “Quality of expectations” in other areas, I get very surprising answers.

Mother does most of the cooking in house. Everyday for last several years she is cooking about 20 chapaties, rise, vegetable and curry. Making chapaties consist of getting right ingredients, mixing them in right proportions, kneading the dough, spreading the chapati using pin, baking it, putting oil on it and storing it properly so that it does not become dry and hard. Each of these steps is a potential defect opportunity. And this is just chapati making.

So overall making four to five food items is a complex process involving more than 50 defect opportunities per day. Make it twice a day and throw in several other defect opportunities for breakfast, tea, snacks and mom is managing a complex process called “feeding the family”, which has about 200 defect opportunities, that is potential to go wrong at about 200 places, every day. If curry has a bit more salt or chapaties are hard and dry, the family members will make a big deal about it and mom will have a bad day.

So, in 30 years of mom’s married life so far, the number of defect oportunities is 200 x 365 x 30 = staggering 2.19 million. Complexity wise, the process mom managed is similar to manufacturing process of a small item , say ball pen. By industry standards, if the ball pen maker achieves about 4 sigma process quality, that is considered excellent. For 2.19 million defect opportunities that amounts to about 15000 defects in pens.

Over the course of 30 years if a family were to allow mom 15000 cooking defects, that comes to about 1.5 defect per day.

So that means mom is allowed to screw up one small item every day.

Hah! can you imagine what would happen if mom made one cooking mistake every day? The family members will raise hell. Rather the expected standard for cooking is …

guess what….

We don’t really allow lot of mistakes to mother. Even if she is cooking flawlessly for 10 years, and if on the 1st day of 11th year the curry is salty, and your dad is really hungry, there will be a hot argument. No matter what overall quality she has delivered for last 10 years, her performance is downed if she makes a mistake when WE ARE HUNGRY. Not fair.

In reality say moms make one mistake a month, then in 30 years she is making 30 x 12 = 360 mistakes. Over 2.19 million defect opportunities, it comes to impressive 5.14 sigma quality achievement. In QA terms that is considered passing with flying colors, A+ grade.

But again quality of our expectation is ?? zero defects per infinite defect opportunities, i.e. infinite Sigma. We ideally want mother to never make mistake.

This is problem with quality of our expectations. We keep the same super lofty expectations from ourselves and others. Instead we need to allow some defects in our everyday life. We need to keep some space for things going wrong. Things will always go wrong at some point. That is the reality. Out of 20 people we meet, one is bound to drive us crazy. Out of 100 things we buy, 2 will always turn out to be not what we expected. Out of 3 years in your life, you are bound to be sick for a week.

Quality should not be measured on the amount of disappointment we feel at the moment. It should be measured based upon the consistency over long term.

If we apply the same logic to trains being late vs. total trains running, or to power outage hours to total power available hours, we will find interesting results.

This reminds me of a story of Buddha. One day one man came to him and read a huge list of problems and complaints, complaint about hood children, nagging wife, lazy brother in law, harassing creditors etc. etc. He counted total problems, they were 83. Then he said to Buddha “please help me with my 83 problems.”

Buddha smiled and told him “I can’t help you with these 83 problems, but I will help you with your 84th problem.”

Bewildered, the man said “But I don’t have 84th problem”.

“You do.” said Buddha.”You are expecting not to have these 83 problems.”

Moral of the story – I must keep space in my life for things to to wrong. And if I think quality of my life is not so good, I need to recheck quality of my expectations.

A Poem By Dalai Lama

A beautiful poem. Got it in email. Claimed to be from Dalai Lama, but could not verify it. The last two lines make me wonder if Dalai Lama would write some lile like “Hit Delete”, which is targeted specifically for email. But nonetheles, a beautiful poem.


In our times,
Height of skyscrapers increased, but did that of humanity decreased?
Rodes widened, but did the viewpoints narrowed?
Expenses increased, but did the savings dwindled?
Expanded homes, but small families.
Pleasures increased, but the fun reduced.
Free time increased, but the fun reduced.
Degrees and diplomas increased, but wisdom went down.
Mountains of information, but noone to point the correctness.
Lot of medicines, but less health.
Ownership increased, values went down?
We talk a lot, love less and hate easily
Standard of life increased, but life became poorer.
We added years in life, but not life to those years.
We visited the moon, but we are not visiting the neighbor.
we are winning outside, but losing within.
We are trying to purify air, but our soul suffocates.
Income increased, but honesty decreased.
This is time of more tall people, but less towering characters.
Tons of profits, but less of relations.
Talks about world peace, but fights in home.
Time at hand, but fun already lost.
Lots of foods, but no taste.
More people earning, but divorces increased.
Houses decorated, but homes devastated.
Lots of showpieces in windows, but rooms empty.
There is technology today,
to make this letter reach to you.
And you still have freedom,
To take a serious look,
If you want to change something, change,
Or just forget it and hit delete.