• Recommended Posts

  • Browse By Category

  • Browse By Timeline

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.

Thinking “Thoreau”ly


site_throeau_cabin_loc

“Perfect disease is as good as perfect health, where mind continuously confirms to your body.”- Henry David Thoreau

The quote strikes me for the tremendous wisdom wrapped in simplicity. No heavy words, no abstract terms, no fancy metaphors, no overly long convoluted sentence. In 15 words Thoreau puts forward a theory equivalent to theory of relativity for philosophy. Peace and joy can be found not only when the world confirms to your expectation, but also when your expectations confirm to the world.

On one of my walks, I wondered if this quote can be further extended. Perfect misfortune is as good as perfect fortune, because in face of overwhelming misfortune, you will let go of your struggle. Result? You will be left with less desires. Ergo, more fulfillment. I have seen proof. I used to volunteer at hospice facility and some of the patients who have end stage cancer indeed look peaceful. Yes, they have episodes of pain. But apart from that they have plenty of peaceful moments. Because there is no burden of struggle of survival. No conflict. No uncertainty. Only one thing to deal with – pain.

I remember a time when I was going to catch a flight. The time was getting close and I was rushing like crazy. Rushing, rushing, rushing and when I reach the airport, I realize that I am at the wrong terminal. The reality that I have missed the flight hit me and what followed was a sense of peace. My mind had just confirmed to the state of this world.

This way of thinking is hard to digest in the world we live in, which values pursuit above peace. Till that time, people like Thoreau who are way ahead of their times will be considered foolish. Because a perfect genius is often like a perfect fool, because both fail to do conventional thinking.

 

 

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.

 

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)

“Thoughts Feelings Sensations” meditation


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.

Mindfulness Meditation – The Car In Neutral


IMG_0918

 

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)

Compassion and Cruelty – Two Sides of the Same Coin?


I was watching a movie. A thriller that involved serial killer. In the end the serial killer gets killed in gruesome way. As I watched the bad guy in pain, somewhere in my brain, it felt good. Not only the pains of the serial killer justified, they were welcome. He was a bad guy and he deserved to suffer.

After the movie was over, I wondered about my experience.  I am a compassionate, sensitive person. I have neurological explanation of my compassion. Apparently some people are born with a hyperactive sympathetic nervous system. If the sight of pain of other people triggers strong pain signals in your brain, you may be of this type of person. Your compassion comes from being able to feel what others feel, literally.

I didn’t like the neurological explanation when I read it. Because suddenly it made my virtue just another aspect of my personality. There was nothing special about compassion. From that article’s viewpoint, mother Teresa was just an neurological anomaly, likely a person with too active sympathetic nervous system response.

But indeed that explanation and several things that followed made sense.

That’s why I was confused at my response. It seems my compassion was conditional, not absolute. If I have overactive sympathetic nervous system, it was not only capable of triggering pain from other peoples’ pain, but it was also capable of invoking pleasure from other peoples’ pain under certain conditions.

I came from a well loving family that took good care of me. I generally did not suffer any hardship. I was not discriminated, persecuted or suffered major injustice. I believed this world was good to me and was made of good people. Thus other peoples’ pain triggered pain in my brain.

If I believed this world was an unjust place, if I had suffered in this world, the wiring in my brain could be switched such that other peoples’ pain would have triggered pleasure in my brain instead of pain. I would still be person with overactive sympathetic nervous system. But I would not be compassionate. I would be a cruel person. So what made me compassionate in one circumstances was itself capable of making me cruel in another one. It sounds very ironic, but that small flick of switch in brain is what separates kind and compassionate people.