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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.

Thinking “Thoreau”ly


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“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.

 

 

Quantum Identity


Before some days I read about a quantum experiment. Scientists were able to separate a particle from it’s properties and send the particle via one route and the property via another route till they merged at some point again. The most commonly cited anology was that of a Cheshire cat from the story Alice in wonderland. In that story the cat vanishes but it’s smile remains visible.

Another poor anology was cited at some other places was that of an airline passenger being separated from his luggage. I don’t think that’s appropriate because luggage is not the property of the passenger.

I think the more appropriate example is, let’s say if someone was able to separate your height from you and pack it in a box. Until that box opened, no one would be able to know your height. You travel via some route and the box travels via another route. On the way, no one is able to measure your height until you are separated from the box. But once you reach the destination and the box arrives as well via different route, you open the box and voila! Now suddenly you and everyone around you can know your height.

That sounds bizzare, right? Welcome to the world of quantum mechanics.

Now that makes me think. What if we separate multiple properties of the particle. What if we separate all observable properties of the particle and send all the properties by route A and the particle without properties by route B. What is really traveling by route B? Does the particle have any existence without all it’s properties? What is a particle if it does not have mass, volume, density, speed, etc. etc.?

If I see one particle here and if I see another exactly same particle there, all I know is that they have same observable properties. But what is beyond these properties that is same or different?

Applying the same logic, if I see a friend pass me on my way to work, and if I see exactly the same person pass me again a little further down, I will conclude that the second one cannot be my friend. May be his look alike. Because my friends already passed by me some time back. But if I cannot rely on observable properties to be associated with their owner, what is really same in same things? And what is really different in different things? If a particle’s identity cannot be fixed, how can we fix the identity of things made of such particles?

I pin the external identity to observable properties. I pin the internal identity (which I am only able to experience for myself) on a state of consciousness that contains continuity of memories. Since I can never know anyone elses’ consciousness, what am I left with if I don’t have properties to rely on?

It’s just an identity crisis on a whole new dimension.

May be I understand quantum mechanics. Or may be I don’t. 🙂 🙂

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)

A Sanskrit Hymn


While cleaning closets, I came across a Sanskrit hymn I wrote down in my diary long back, more like 25 years back.

धनानि भूमौ पशवश्च गोष्ठे 

भार्या गृह्द्वारी जन: स्मशाने  !

देहश्चितायां परलोकमार्गे 

कर्मानुगो गच्छति जीव एका: !!

Meaning:

The treasures will remain buried in ground (or vaults). The horses will remain in stable. Beloved ones  will remain in the house, a few till the funeral home. The body is left back at the burning pyre. On the road beyond, the only company the soul will have is Karma.

A Koan called “The Black Swan”


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I remember watching the movie “The black swan”. I remember coming out of the theater, sitting in the car and driving away, And for days I remember remembering the face of Natalie Portman in the end when she declares “Nothing is wrong, Everything is just perfect” as she collapses.

When you read a koan, typically you don’t understand what you don’t understand. Somewhere there is a hidden paradox, that, like a snake eating its own tail, makes any further analytical processing impossible. The moment you see the paradox, you find peace.

That’s why the movie “The black swan” qualifies as a koan. At the core of the movie there is a paradox, which I knew, but just recently I was able to verbalize it.

In the movie, there is a perfectionist ballet dancer selected to portray a fictional character that has two shades of personality. A white side, a positive benevolent side and a black one, a dark unsupressed side. She can identify herself with the white side, but struggles expressing the dark side of the character, Because her motivation to portray the dark side is commanded by her own white side, the perfectionist, goal oriented side of her personality.

This is the paradox. She is portraying an uncontrolled nature by trying her best to control her ability of portraying. So in short, she is trying to control something that is by definition uncontrollable.

Ultimately she figures out the paradox.

That’s why I find the movie enlightening. Because behind every mental struggle, there is an ungrasped paradox.

The Cycle of Religion


The more I think about it, the more I believe that like economy, seasons and tides, even religions and communities go through cycles.

Probably a little more than thousand years back Hindus believed their religion and gods are invincible. Hindus were prosperous, powerful, rich and well known. They believed that would last forever. They believed they are special. They believed that their gods are in charge of the reality and universe.

The wheels of time kept turning. The prosperity, power, fame, left India one by one. The culture and community had hard time adjusting to this new reality. They still believed in their gods to bring all good things back. Part of the community resorted to extreme devotion to the religion believing that not-enough-devotion was the cause of distress. Remaining part of community resorted to hypocrisy, ashamed to admit their greed or fears, yet not strong enough to overcome it.

One by one empire lost. One by one temple kept falling. Nature was not being friendly either. Famines, draughts, epidemics were frequent visitors.

Last half of the twentieth century finally brought some calm and quiet period to India. Freed from all the burden of faith, Hindus started to look at this world with new eyes and again India is starting to see some good days.

Christianity went through dark periods briefly when the Catholic church blessed crusades and jailed Galileo. But the honest dedication of missionaries in all the corners of the world pulled Christianity from the first phase of dark periods rather quickly.

The youngest religion, Islam, at the moment seems to be headed for the dark period. The earlier the moderate Muslims free Islam from the ghosts of the past glory and prepare it to embrace the future, the shorter will be the dark phase.

To me, rise and fall of any religion (or any nation or empire or society for that matter) depends more on strategic resources and alignment with economic interest at that time and less on personal choices the followers of that religion make. Islam and Christianity preached a level of equality, which provided a flat social structure. People were allowed to change their professions at will and new converts to their religions were welcome. This flexibility came in handy in the time of frequent natural calamities, epidemics, and rapid natural changes, which was rather frequent in last 2000 years.

Hinduism has rather strict ordered and hierarchical structure of society. This hierarchy is signature of a well established civilization whose economy prospered by creating specialists of the trade. These professional specializations were certainly flexible at the beginning and the ancient texts contain examples of people changing their castes. Both the celebrated sages Valmiki and Vyas come from actually lower castes, Valmiki born a tribal hunter and Vyas born a son of fisher woman. This flexibility was lost in the time and the caste began to be decided at birth.

Islam went on to be little stricter regarding things like stealing, because Islam flourished in desert and in desert everything is scarce and somebody stealing a can of water can make a difference between life and death for somebody else. Christianity turned to be a rather mellow, forgiving, missionary religion because Europe had lot more natural resources and more important was help people get through bitter harsh cold weather and epidemics.

Both Islam and Christianity demand absolute faith in their own version of God, but welcome anybody who accepts their doctrine. Hindus are much more tolerant about what you should believe, but conversion to Hinduism is more difficult than that to Islam/Christianity. In polytheist Hindu system, if you want to bring in your god, then it is just one more idol in the already crowded temple of Gods.

Islam/Christianity offer one simplified set of morals and values contained in single book. Hinduism offers a rich variety of texts and encourages debate, which is better for a securely established culture that can devote time to the pursuit of knowledge.

Both Islam/Christianity regard human beings as far superior species on the planet and believe that God made the rest of the world for human consumption. Hinduism and other Eastern religions believe humans are part of environment and put stress on respecting all creatures. So if the humanity today is headed to man-made crisis caused by plundering the environment, the Eastern belief systems are better positioned to serve humanity and might see glorious days again.

No religion or holy book transcends reality. No prophet owns reality. Reality plays with people and their beliefs, caresses them for a while and tosses them in a bin to send them in oblivion for centuries. The earlier people realize this, the better it is for their religion.