The mindfulness experiments – 1

A few months ago, I decided it was time to incorporate some mindfulness into my day. Now this is a much used (and some say abused!) term today – and a novice like me can add to the woes easily. So let me at the outset define what it means for me – and then go on to share what’s been happening since I gave it a test run.

To me mindfulness equals being “aware”, of “noticing”consciously. Note that I am not trying to “improve” anything – the effort on my side is only to notice. The very act of noticing consistently can perhaps provide insights for change – if and when required – to begin with, its only about taking stock of my state.

So in short, if I could witness myself being angry, being happy, being sad, walking, talking – whatever be my state of being or activity- I could call the experiment  a success. Quite a modest goal you say huh – perhaps it is, it just wasn’t as easy as I thought it to be though – let me explain.

On a given day – we meet many people, we do many things. And through the day, we experience emotions. Plenty of them – with everyone’s talking/feeling/trying change  – and disruptive change at that. And without your even noticing it, all this seeming volatility can get to you – it can affect your mood, it can drain you out, and even leave you unwell. And it was this sense of feeling mentally fatigued, a touch angry and too often (a little unusual for me!) that got me curious about what was happening – and I started maintaining a nightly journal.

Every night before turning in, I would rewind the day as best I could remember and jot down how I felt. Writing stuff down brings in clarity – and the first few days provided enough fodder for me to realise how many moments through the day I wasn’t proud of. There were moments of fleeting negative emotion – some expressed, some withheld – both of them leading to some composure ruffling. And then before you could settle down and let the emotion go, off you were on another jaunt -more emotions coming your way. A few times, you expressed something uncharacteristic – but before you could make amends or clarify further – the next meeting was on. And so I moved from one unresolved emotion and unfinished business to another – and it was all these unclosed events that led primarily to the energy drain.

I felt better immediately post the journaling (and indeed laughed at some of the events) – and where some course correction was warranted (say – apologise/ clarify/ maybe even just spend some more time with the person involved) put it down on my next day’s task list. Very quickly, the “unfinished business” list was coming down. And indeed, I felt awesome.

Miracles come in small packages to your aid when you are trying some positive stuff. Sukumar gifted me a little doll (designed after a Japanese ritual) that had two large eyes. You made a wish, coloured an eye and placed it somewhere you could look at it often.  And every time you caught the doll’s eye, it would remind you of what your wish was – and you would be “nudged” toward your desired effort. in my case, it was to be more mindful – and with the arrival of the doll, twice a day i reviewed my day – a significant improvement from the nightly journal.  And the benefits began to accumulate. The sense of being “overwhelmed or touchy” began to dissipate and more importantly I could now clearly notice what were aspects that touched a nerve. And once you noticed these, without realizing you made adjustments in your life to limit the exposure to the toxic situations, people, tasks – basically stuff that gave you no sense of accomplishment at all, but did have significant emotional overhead. This following wonderful Naval Ravikant  served to be the scale on which I reviewed my day primarily:

“What you choose to work on, and who you choose to work with, are far more important than how hard you work.”

Its important to notice that I wasn’t focussing on the interventions required for improvement here – just noticing how different events made me feel made the difference. Indeed I was not adding – but actually subtracting stuff resulting in gaining me more free time to focus on things I cared about!).

 

A quick summary of the above for all you super busy folks: – If you feel there’s too much going on in your work life (feeling overwhelmed/ touchy etc. etc) – try the following:

a. Start off by journaling in the nighttime (rewind the entire day – you’ll be surprised by how much you remember). If there’s any event you’d like to course correct (say call a colleague who you were a touch upset with for instance and talk it through), put that on your list

b. If the above works for you, try to have a few more “check ins” – just before lunch and before leaving for the day are perfect – to rewind and take stock. You can drop the nightly journal at this point.

The story doesn’t stop there though. Last month, I was gifted 2 more invaluable aids to further the practice. The 1st was a workshop on evolving change happily using “tiny habits” – by Sukumar and Kumaran of tinymagiq. It’s a course that will change you one little habit at a time – and happily at that!  It certainly warrants another follow on post. The second was a wonderful book by Thich That Hanh on the “4 establishments of Mindfulness”. This book breaks down mindfulness itself into 4 parts (and therefore allows you to remember the day a lot, lot better across these areas). as I work  on this ‘mindfulness” journey – I continue to be amazed at how rewarding it is – and at the same time, how much more there is to travel.

The good part though is that the journey is as (if not more) rewarding than the destination (per all the gurus in this space). If you are on a similar journey, would encourage you to adopt any of the above techniques too – and do let me know how they work!

Read, Reflect, Rest – The 3 magical Rs!

It’s been a long while since my last post here. Why is that? I don’t know. I guess there are seasons when you are prolific, and then seasons when you are prolific – but at something else. You read, you reflect and you rest during those periods and the 3rs help you gain much-needed perspective to help you thrive in the busier seasons!

Reading opens out new worlds, introduces some cool friends and adventures, equips one to see the world in a new way. Is this what the ancients meant by the word “darshan”? For the “objective” world may not change, your world can though – when you begin to see the world in a different way.

The seeds of knowledge gained from reading sprout into wisdom when we reflect. Indeed ideas become habits, theories turn into practices only when we reflect a lot. The ancients prescribed meditation and contemplation in tandem – distilling our perceptions and learnings into deep-rooted insights.

The rest – is more of a repose. All of this mental activity needs a stable base to take effect. Rest need not mean just sleep – though sleep also helps as the mind subconsciously works out its magic. A restful walk, yoga, a spot of fishing, cooking – anything that puts the mind to rest is what I mean.

So that’s the thought for today. Prolific writing followed by periods of 3Rs as the seasons follow one another. Neither rushed, neither forced. Just allowing the inner wisdom to work on the inspirations from the world – sometimes internally and sometimes as a material product (an essay, a sculpture, a poem, a theorem, a business plan even maybe). It happens.

Would you agree?

An ode to the dawn

The morning stillness comforts. Thoughts whittle away. The day’s cares are still a few hours out. For the most part, the phones are silent. The roads are enjoying some peace too.

Indeed the absence of all this noise allows us to perceive the morning’s essence better. The sun is beginning its majestic ascendency into the skies and the first brush of light bestows its grace on all of nature. The flowers raise their lovely faces to the sunlight and the beach sand opens its vaults revealing unlimited treasures. Here lies a simple sea shell, there ambles the magnificent tortoise, the thrifty crab hurries thither and the birds flutter away to glory. Sans the corn-on-the-cob sellers and the crowds, Nature’s bounty is being enjoyed by the natives. The enterprising fishermen are off in their boats with a song on their lips and a hope in their breast.

All of this is why heralding the dawn is so special. It gives one a panoramic view of what it means to be a human, to count our blessings and beautifully exist with no cares for a while. There’s a promise in the air and the comfort of nature’s embrace all around – now really, could one wish for more? Ah, perhaps a strong cup of filter coffee would make it even more perfect!

How to stay happy all the time (or at least be less anxious)!

It’s that time of the year, when everyone is actively looking for a “Kabali” ticket. Filing your taxes and watching Kabali – are the only two worthwhile goals for the month! The tribes on Whatsapp are profusely sharing  reviews/ opinions/ experiences on the movie – read them all and you realise an important fact – most of them are comparisons:

  1. Kabali rocks, way too good when compared to his earlier movie Lingaa
  2. The movie’s good, but not quite in the Baasha class….
  3. Thalaivar’s movie appeals globally. Almost like Muthu gathered popularity in japan, this one is likely too everywhere…….

You get the idea – everywhere the movie is judged, appreciated and rejoiced – and the degree of appreciation depends not on the intrinsic quality of the movie itself but on its relative compare with an ideal in the speaker’s mind.

Which brings me round to today’s topic – on how to be happy (or at least less anxious), irrespective of the situations we find ourselves in. As always, the ancients had this nailed down perfectly. When something bad/ undesirable happened, in their trademark, pithy way they had this to say (translated form Tamil – and not very well at that!)

“Bad luck that was to have taken your head, just took away your head-dress! Be thankful, persevere!”

In short, their remedy was for you to imagine the greater misfortunes that could have occurred but didn’t – a remedy that instantly calmed your mind. While seeming simple, it’s a remarkable cure. Let me elaborate with an example:

You slam your car against an obstacle and get your car dented (I recently did by the way!) and immediately start fretting over what you could have done better. You playback videos of alternate scenarios (With dent-less cars as the outcome of course!) in you mind – you could have driven slower, taken a better road, looked at the weather and chosen a more clement time to venture out etc. etc. Then the senior-most member in your family consoles you with the above proverb in her typically compassionate way. And you realize that the accident is actually much less severe that you imagine it to be. Consider the worse alternatives to a car dented but no other casualties;

–          The pain, grief and worry if you had hit an animal (or god forbid) a villager instead of the inanimate object

–          What if a drunken driver had hit your car at speed (and god knows in the early hours, there are many around!)

–          What if a tire had burst instead on the highway and you had lost control

The scenarios are endless – and from a pure probability standpoint are just as likely as that freak accident. As this realization dawns on you, you are grateful – thankful that a more disastrous outcome didn’t result and as a bonus you also become lot more mindful (perhaps decreasing the odds of future accidents as well!).

You can also apply it to situations where you are playing “victim” in over-drive mode. For instance, let’s say you have to go and inform a team member that their much awaited promotion is not happening.  You castigate the world and your system for being unfair (they could have accommodated an extra slot for him, the system seems pre-disposed toward another group etc. etc.). In short, the perfect moment to try out our miraculous medicine – the proverb from above. Apply it – and you ask yourself –  isn’t this task (distasteful as it is) so much better than for instance:

  1. The doctor who has to let his non-smoking patient know he has tested positively for cancer of the lungs?
  2. The policeman who has to inform his colleague’s wife of her husband’s death in a random, drive by shooting – being plagued by guilt himself for staying alive and not being able to have helped out.

And so it goes. There’s always a worse thing that could have happened -and therefore always a reason to stay grateful to providence. Further as Rumi quotes:

Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.

Its hard to internalise this though because we tend to compare our performances and abilities with those who appear to be lesser qualified than us and our misfortunes with those who are apparently luckier. Just shifting the comparisons will make life a lot less burdensome.

I try the approach out for a day – it seems to work everywhere. A slow driver who makes you wait for a signal more – check. A random motorcyclist who nicks your car – check. You don’t get tickets for Kabali on the first weekend – check.

You also tend to appreciate all the good things that have happened in your life a lot better. And that truly is the icing on the cake.

A hot cup of coffee on a cold evening – enjoy the heavenly experience (imagine Siberian prison life if you can for a really powerful view of what could have happened had you been born in another time, another place – this is what one of the world’s best ever writers (Dostovesky) went through!). Should you receive an award – cherish it unconditionally (imagine what Marie Curie went through!). if you have a friend to call and crib on demand – you are indeed blessed – most people don’t have this luxury.

Indeed when you practice this for a while, the sense of “entitlement” that pervades our lives gets transmuted into a sense of “humility and awe”. And in itself, that sense of benediction is a miracle of the highest order. Wouldn’t you agree?

A musing on why we visit temples….

Why do we go to a temple?

*To pray of course.

*Everytime?

*YesWell maybe there are other answers too

a. I go for finding a sense of peace. Unadulterated, spacious calm – it soothes me.

b. I go because it’s the right thing to do. The scriptures ordain it. I promised my grandma I’d go!

c. I go because it makes me feel more secure, more alive and – less lonely. I get to see lots of people chatting gaily, children running around, a few elderly people reminiscing on old times and dishing out awesome advice to the populace.

d. I go to be inspired by the people of all ages sitting meditatively, eyes closed and in communion with their best selves. It gives me the confidence that like them, I can get in touch with inner self too.

And so it goes. I am yet to hear of a consistent answer to this question. And in a way, I think this is what makes the temples so very special (and popular) – they are non-judgemental, vibrant places – and its upto the devotees to take what they want and for that matter – as much as they can. Truly temple’s a boundless ocean of goodness, you choose the vessel to draw from it – or if you wish – to swim in it (an extraordinary state where you don’t own anything, but enjoy everything).

Yes, I think that’s what makes temples special. The sense of them being a playground, a school and a mirror – all at the same time. And all of this without any scores or compares against anyone else. Even more importantly, there’s no pressure. There’s no ego either – you can speak (or cry/ vent) your heart out and the temple will soak it in without adding to the emotions; silently listening without judgement. And as we become sensitive to the listening, our souls will invariably provide us the answer we seek.

I guess it all comes down to just one thing. The temples are wiser than us. They have watched many generations of people live and have been petitioned for more asks than we can imagine. They have also seen the evolution of normal people into saints and what’s more intriguing witnessed the saintly traits residing in every human being.

Thus, they are witness not only to the gods within their hallowed shrines but to the gods in every human being. And they possess that supreme secret of not just divining the sacred, but of transmitting to anyone who seeks it.

Now isn’t this alchemy the thing we need most today?

Musings on a rainy day….

The sky has opened and the rains patter against the window inviting me to leave the workplace and its gadgets and celebrate nature’s bounty. Beauty is just a window pane away.

A gentle breeze accompanies the rain, playing a soulful melody. The melody is nature’s; the stories it sets off in people’s minds are their own. This gentleman here remembers a carefree youth and an enchanted evening dancing in the rain, the lady there – she remembers a homecoming and the bitter-sweet memory of a dinner with her parents for the last time. Me, I remember blissful evenings on an open balcony armed with a cup of coffee and a good book in my hand. The book provides the stories, the cuppa provides the warmth and nature sets the ambience. A perfect world this – halfway between a man-made heaven and nature’s abundance – a dream to cherish forever.

But the workplace has its needs – and its charms too. Your office on the 10th floor allows provides a breathtaking view of nature at play – albeit as a spectator. The coffee is there and a hot buttered croissant too. There’s an ambitious “to-do” list peeking from the table that you can’t wait to get started on. A friend on the communicator is asking you how the day was. A twitter feed describing a mesmerizing, far-away world precisely in 140 characters hovers perched on some distant cloud. A loved project is just going live. If work is love made visible as Kahlil Gibran said, this is it!

Which brings us to the moment. Rains are special. But more so is our relationship with the rains. A thunderstorm can be frightening; or it can be mesmerising – a lot depends on our views (and the efficiency of the lightning conductors of course!). A task can be daunting or inspiring depending on the perceiver. So it’s in our hands.

But not entirely. The rains come of their accord, not to a timetable. If you miss them tonight, there’s no telling when a repeat performance is up next for you to participate. A task or a meeting – can be manoeuvred with greater flexibility – mostly! Nature presents her gifts majestically but for fleeting moments; Man-made tasks are mostly there for longer terms, yet are less in splendor.

Miss a moment of magic, and its gone forever. Consistently miss out on a work task, and success (in society’s terms) is elusive.

How do we achieve the right balance? I guess the answer is not in what we do, but what we choose not to do. Knock off enough things (but not the most important ones), and there’s always time to fit in Nature’s songs in your life. And doing so will get your soul to sing; and what could be a precious thing for man? 

Autobiography in Five chapters – a poem

Sogyal Rinpoche illustrates how we keep failing repeatedly by getting into a pattern and finally realize truth and wisdom through this beautiful poem authored by Portia Nelson:

1) I walk down the street
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in
I am lost…I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

2) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

3) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit
My eyes are open
I know where I am
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

4) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I walk around it.

5) I walk down another street.

Taken from his insightful, humane translation ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying…