An emptiness that’s fulfilling – my experience with the isha shoonya program

Over the last four days, I had the opportunity to attend the shoonya intensive programme at the isha ashram in coimbatore.

Intensive is the right word – indeed it’s the first thing that strikes you about the program. Right from the consecrated hall which sends out intense vibes, the format of the program which makes sure that every minute is accounted for effectively, and the very wise teachers (who are also full time volunteers) and the program volunteers who take service to a whole different level altogether, and of course the curated videos of Sadhguru which ensure that concepts become internalised truths in you – intensity is a word that perfectly describes the programme.

The interesting thing though is this – all this intense focus does not translate into long faces and on-edge behaviour. Indeed there’s a sense of relaxation and gentle humour pervading the entire program.

At every moment there’s the sense that a good-natured-laugh and a profound learning is just a minute away.

The teaching is deep – and like all of the best things in life, the practices grow on you over time. I know this from past experience. On my very first isha program, I was surprised when the teacher advised us not to take notes.

“This is not a learning of the mind, but an experience to go through. Just stay with us and you will pick it all up” he said

I have come to appreciate that there is a different way to learn – that of experiential learning. You learn through hearing, seeing, visualisation, doing and repetition. And stuff learned this way stays with you – its a transmission of experience not just a transfer of concepts.

So what I did I learn? I came back with two practices – about an hour’s worth of daily practice – which promise deep restfulness and explosive energy respectively. If these seem contradictory, its another fact I have come to appreciate about spirituality at large – its hard to decode spiritual practices with just the mind. The best approach is to try it for a while and see if it does something to you. When it comes from a true source, it will often flower into something that you cannot explain or predict – its beyond words. The little while is a mandala to start with – about 40 days of uninterrupted practice for the practice to take root in your life. Its something I will be able to do hopefully – and will look to post on any experiences.

But there’s another learning that’s stayed with me.In one of the videos played, Sadhguru mentions that every day he is greeted by tears of joy no matter where he happens to be in the world. And I believe, its these tears of joy and gratitude toward their master and the world that inspire the teachers and the volunteers to share so much and so well – with absolutely no expectations.

Indeed that’s the learning – that there’s an extraordinary way to go about one’s life – being relaxed yet attentive, intensely focused, with a smile on the face, and a joy in the heart. When you work like that, I guess you are a blessing to the world.

Its an inspired way to live and work – and while a long shot, its something that I look to internalise – stay tuned for any progress updates!

Why read the Bhagavadgita Gita?

“Why read the Bhagavadgita Gita” asked a friend recently.

There are scholars and there are gurus who can answer this best – I thought I would share my personal reasons for dipping into this book every now and then.

How do you live a life of fulfilment and joy in a world you don’t understand? With a body that’s subject to entropy and not really under your control? With a mind that’s chattering away incessantly?

The Gita provides a balm and an understanding into each of these. Feeling upset – there’s a chapter that will set you at ease. Feeling disheartened by someone’s behaviour – there’s stuff that will make the ache go away – or at least reduce it. Down with disease – again some understanding and techniques that will help the body rest (the why me question handled!).

So it’s a path to put you at ease. And what’s more over time it gets you to align these various aspects so you don’t have conflict with yourself (eg – when your intellect suggests you don’t gamble while your emotions are screaming to place the bet!) I guess not having internal conflicts is a gift beyond compare. In the brief moments the conflict disappears (during meditation/ asana/ chanting and watching your breath for instance), life seems truly “at ease”.

This to me is why I return to the book time and again. I have read but a few verses from a few chapters and my understanding is no way perfect and yet the Gita doesn’t expect perfection from you – its benediction is limitless and you can gather its wisdom unto yourself to the extent you can – and more importantly focused on what you need at that moment. If you haven’t tried it yet – I’d recommend you give the book a shot. It’s possible the book will touch your life in a miraculous way as well.

Self Awareness – perspectives from a corporate coach and a spiritual teacher

Over the last few weeks,  I have had the opportunity to connect with two very different leaders – a corporate coach and a spiritual teacher. Both of them were expounding on a common topic – how to more “self aware” and in the processes deepening empathy (ability to put oneself in others shoes).

The self they talked was not the same though – the coach equated the self to our personalities – and he was looking to improve my personality (a tough ask!). He was looking for me to learn well – gain deep knowledge, best practices, intellectually intense one-one sessions – and the learning will elevate my personality.

The spiritual teacher was talking about the Self (note the capitalisation here) – the “god” within each of us. This “Self” is your true nature – the only reason you cannot find it is because it is hidden behind all the learning and conditioning over the years (indeed lifetimes!). “Unlearn well and your nature will reveal itself ” he intoned.

So one wanted me to be an expert learner and the other – an expert at unlearning!.

But that wasn’t all.The coach focusses on thought and theory. He wants me to reflect on some of my life experiences, take inventory of my thoughts, judge them (as positive vs negative thoughts) and label them (e.g. differentiating between being skeptical vs cynical). The list that emerges out of this involved intellectual exercise is then representative of my “emotional intelligence quotient” he opines. The more words that I am able to show in your journal (all neatly classified and labelled) – the more I am becoming emotionally intelligent. And I’d do well to read a little (pick daniel goldman’s classic as a first step) and be diligent with my paper exercises (inventory, classification and labelling) – and over time, results will follow. How would I know I am truly more self aware – my DISC or equivalent psychological scorecard, a couple of positioning charts will all help me rate myself against my benchmarks. In his view, self awareness and emotional intelligence are a skill and knowledge that needs to be learned.

The spiritual guru is not interested in thought – he neither likes them or dislikes them – he just dosent care about them. His is not the way of the mind but the heart. He recommends we observe sensations in the body, gently pushing aside thoughts – not quite suppressing them – not celebrating them either. And there is no classification of what is good or bad – observe and over time you yourself will recognise how you are getting along. The recognition comes out of experience and not a intellectual score card. Everyone is on his or her unique journey – and has the necessary native intelligence to recognise what is best for themselves. Awareness for him is more about unlearning rather than learning – you remove layers of conditioning and knowledge – and presto you will begin to see things the way they truly are. And once you get there, you will relate to yourself and to others automatically in a deeper way – for “empathy and authenticity” are the very essence of being human.

They back themselves differently too. The coach considers himself successful using a model similar to that he advocates – professional credentials, monetary wealth, testimonials, impressiveness of his client list. His models and frameworks have worked with over 500 of his customers – and therefore it should work for you as well. If it doesn’t – you are doing something wrong – after all, the model is proven!

The spiritual leader vouches for your divinity on the back of having experienced all of nature as one and his conviction from that experience on the true nature of the human form. Indeed he does not see himself as a doer – he sees himself as an instrument through which existence is playing its lilas – just like you, its just that you aren’t aware of it yet. For him rediscovery is an unique journey – there is no pass or fail here – and once you find your compass, you will do what is right for you – irrespective of whether it aligns to society and corporate success measures.

Two very diametric approaches – and in their own way can contribute to the individual requirements.  The important point though is to become aware first of the two selves (personality and internalised godhead!) and decide which one we want to pursue! Its easy to mistake one for the other – a mistake that can turn out to be costly! Agree? Thanks for reading – do comment/share/like – would love to keep the conversation going!

Better Decision making – The Gita and Proust to our rescue!

Why do we often make the wrong decisions?

I came across an incredible insight from contemplating on a few messages in the Gita recently – it talks about the two powerful approaches we all have for connecting/ making decisions. The first is using discriminatory intelligence (buddhi in sanskrit) where we use our reasoning power to decide the right path forward. The second is the emotive aspect (manas in sanskrit) – where decisions are based on emotional considerations a (and yeah – we often then force fit a “rational” reason to support the decision!). And the awesome insight is that we use the wrong tool for the wrong context – flip it around and we should be ok.

So for instance – if an acquaintance’s relative dies, we use our discriminative facility and tell them exactly how to process this loss. We share quotes on the fragility and the fleetingness of life and provide ideas to help the person deal with the loss. Chances often are that the person is not in the right frame to take this piece of advice – they are too emotionally wrought – and we end up not connecting at all.

Now, when we are faced with a similar disaster, we use emotive reasoning instead of the discriminatory one. We play the scene over and over in our minds and bring up emotions of anger, guilt, denial – we struggle to move on with life for a very, very long time.

Our ancient wisdom seems to say – why not flip this around? In the first case, use some emotional connect – put yourself in the person’s shoes and you’ll know what they feel like. And your response can be based on their nature (some will want to be alone, some would want a listener as they vent their frustration, some would just want a shoulder to cry on). In short, you are bringing in some empathy.

And when dealing with disasters at home, using the buddhi may be more helpful. This requires a complete acceptance of what has happened and how one feels (Sad/ helpless etc) and then permit oneself to “without blame” process the pain/ grieve/ provide any other outlets as much as required. The acceptance of the situation and directly feeling the emotion will bring some peace at the end as we close out unresolved questions.

For such large scenarios, this makes sense. But how then can we decide in the case of smaller everyday decisions – which situation calls for which response? I guess Proust has an answer in his “impartial observer”. Proust recommends that we imagine an impartial observer by our side at all times – and we ask ourselves what will he do? And when we do that, the impartial observer can pick the right response from the above – and that can lead to some progress.

Would you agree with this approach?

Success in a VUCA world – ancient wisdom

It’s a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambigous). How do we survive here?

I guess the best answers will come from other times that were even more VUCA than this. For instance let’s travel back to the times of the “Gita” which is a dialogue occurring in a battlefield with both sides having weapons drawn and ready to fight. Or the times of Marcus A’s “Meditations” which chronicle’s a Roman emperor’s thoughts during a period of extreme uncertainty on all fronts. The answers these tomes which were written to counter a VUCA world and have survived until now surely must have insights for us?

I guess so, lets check them out.

Volatility: The antitode to volatility seems to be in embracing it. Looking into the fear (albeit a watered down version) consciously gets the fear to flee. Seneca advised us to periodically fast so as to be rid of the fear of hunger – indeed to live occasionally a “life of poverty by choice” is liberating! Ignoring volatility until the odds are overwhelming is defintiely fatal – its better to get used to volatility periodically (you actually get stronger – there’s a superb explanation by Taleb on why this is so).

Of course, if you happen to own a lot of bitcoins, the advice is harder…..

Uncertain: The best way to handle uncertainity is to do two things:

a. Create strategies that have limited downside and lots of upside

b. Accept that you will work toward your plans, but in no way can you determine the outcome for sure

This is best encapsulated by a beautiful word “saranagati” – which by the way is not a misspelling for the Sarengeti national park! It can be translated as “thy will be done” – but setting up a situation in such a way that the downside is limited.

For instance, ascetics try to reason like an unwell child who cries for chocolate but is handed over some bitter medicine by their mother instead. It’s impossible for the child to understand the benefits of the medicine at this time – the only thing it can do is trust. So they set themselves up in such a way that they surrender to an higher ideal (god/eternal consciousness etc) and expend all their efforts in a system (yoga/ prayer/ meditation – whatever) they have investigated and trust to take them there. They also give up other desires (limited downside) and any failures related to the experience are but medicine for them – they remain steadfast in their goal.

Or in a more materialistic model, a businessman may invest in a venture and mentally write off the sum. If it succeeds big time – he’s happy (all upside). If it fails, that’s ok (he’s already written it off). The secret is in capping downside.

Complex: A series of rituals that unpack the complex into very many simple activities is the prescription. And in todays world you may want to then automate some of these simple ones as well! Unpacking the complex into many simple ones allows you to feel more in control and also refactoring where required with minimum impact to the whole (yeah unless it’s that butterfly whose wings cause rainfall across continents!)

This I believe is why all ancient wisdom is encapsulated into a series of small rituals that remove the complexity of a situation and build positive muscle memory through successes (its easier to do a simple ritual successfully) over time as well.

Ambiguous: Its tough to even see if we are winning sometimes. Your portfolio goes up and up and up and it seems like it will forever. And just as you are preparing your winner’s speech, it disappears out of sight. The antidote for ambiguity is a very simple definition of what you are after (good) and what you are not (bad).

Ancient wisdom has this too. Good/ truth is what does not change (permanent through time). Bad/ untruth is what can change rightaway. And it also adds a third component (mithya) which stands for stuff that is relatively stable (say a man’s life – for 100 years he’s alive). So just looking at these three – give you a view and a metric of how you are doing. In the portfolio example – transient movements shouldn’t be your metric of success – you have established criteria irrespective of other factors that decide your actions.

So that’s one lens on looking at a VUCA world. Do you agree?

A walk around a mountain

When we meet a vastness that we cannot fathom, we are drawn into a different space. This space is inclusive – and we realise – indeed feel – ourselves to be part of something that is larger than us. This is why I believe sitting by the beach and watching the sun set or gazing at the open sky at night make for “larger than life” experiences.

All of this came to me when I had the chance to walk around the much revered “Arunachala” hill at Tiruvanamali, the very, very popular Indian temple town. The hill is believed to be one of the earliest outcrops of earth – so you are looking at a very, very ancient earth form. And the popular mode of worship is to walk around the hill (with the hill always to the right of you) stopping at shrines on the pathway – a distance of around 14 kms.

Now, I didn’t know if I could walk 14 kms, so I thought I would take it an hour at a time. Anytime, I felt fatigued, I could call one of the local autorickshaws and have them ply me back to my resort. And so I started at dusk on a momentous experience.

As you walk on the much shaded pavement on lingam avenue with the the immense mountain on your right, you realise that you are in the presence of a multi-dimensional vastness. For one thing – its ancient – incredibly so. The mountain has indeed perhaps witnessed the very evolutionary process from amoeba to the monkey to our own human sapiens. And you realise you are but a speck of the immense life forms that the mountain has been benevolently watching over 1/2 a million years or so.

And then, there’s the time of day. The recommendation is for one to undertake this holy walk at nighttime – preferably during the full moon (I walked a day after the full moon – the moon had just begun to wane.). If you look to the skies on such a night, you see a rounded, bright moon and the vast, wondrous skies. You get an idea of the immensity of space and the worlds (think milky way!) and you realise you are but a speck in this very wide space.

And then there’s the dimension of size – as you walk alongside the mountain, you realise how big it really is – or rather how small we are in comparison with it.

And finally, there’s this idea of spirituality. The mountain even in the recent past has been home to some incredible sages – starting with Ramana Maharishi, Seshadri swami and many, many more. On the left are centres of wisdom that have cropped up inspired by them (I counted at least 7 spiritual centres and numerous places of worship) – and it gives you goosebumps to realise that you are treading ground that these very special children of god treaded. Indeed, legend has it that perfected beings circumbulate the hill even today. As you walk, you observe numerous modern day sanyasis in their ochre robes, devotees on their path of discovery, tea vendors, 3 wheeler (auto) drivers, and people engaged in all aspects of commerce. Each person is on their own journey and the mountain is exercising its spell and doing its work silently on each and everyone. There’s really no question of who among these is a more spiritual person – the mountain is teaching us to be non-judgemental – and appreciate that everyone is on his or her journey.

At first all these comparisons to immensity look like a negative thing. It certainly does some ego bashing! However, you realise soon that its medicinal – it allows you to drop all pretence of greatness and let you be yourself. When you realise that you are one of a billion people and will be spending a minute fraction of a million years that the World has witnessed – somehow, there’s a sense of lightness. You feel you can allow yourself to be unencumbered by society’s pressures – at least for the duration of the walk. And have some fun – the mountain will anyway do its work!

And then there is the experience of being alone with oneself for the duration of the walk. It’s something thats a bit of a luxury these days – to be by yourself with no distractions for 3-4 hours and just walking on. The mind slows down by itself. The scriptures recommended you walk barefoot so you can sense the earth beneath you (something i should try as well). With the feel of the earth beneath you, swaying trees and an immense hill on your right and a full-moon adorned sky above – its hard not to fall into a wonderfully meditative state walking. Its not a race, so you can let your body do the speed control – take your time to stop, breathe, think. Ideas crop up, solutions to pressing problems flash through your mind, there are periods of no thought. And underlying it all is a sense of gratitude for just being there. Its an incredible feeling. And as you push through your perceived limitations and cover a distance you didn’t believe was possible – there’s a sense of accomplishment too.

I’d like to get into this walking thing more – not for exercise, not for a purpose. Walking for the sake of walking and with the elements in tune, now that’s something to revel in. Would you agree?

‘True’ and ‘true for me’ – two different things…

A friend came back disillusioned after having tried a meditation technique for a few weeks.

“The organization had statistics to prove how beneficial the course was. I even had friends who took the course and now swear by it. Why does it just not work for me – I swear I followed the instructions to a T?” he exclaimed.

This is becoming a common complaint. We do some research, pick an activity or a situation which we are sure will help us get to where we want to go – only to find that the glove doesn’t fit so well. And when this happens, we throw out the baby – in this case – my friend was unlikely to give meditation (even a very different school) another go in the future. What is happening here?

I have come to believe the answer is the difference between something being “true” and something being “true for me”. For instance – when someone talks about the speed of light being constant everywhere, we believe it – we may not have personally experienced it in all its shades, but its been verified repeatedly by many, many intelligent folks. Or when your car mechanic (a competent one) tells you your clutch is worn out, you take his advice without question – and the car is better post the fix. Fixes for clutches and scientific truths remain the same irrespective of who is inquiring into it.

When you consider ayurveda or meditation however, you need something more personal – attuned to your body type and your mental makeup. your “super analytic friend” may need to read up some of the logic-based scriptures and related techniques (say ramana maharishi’s advice of tracing “who am i?” to its source). A friend who has just experienced a major personal setback would need a totally different method – something to calm the mind like a mantra recitation or witnessing the breath perhaps. And there are further layers too within each type. For the upanishads are many and yet their goal is one – to help each of us discover our truths for ourselves. And our experience with the methods and approaches will let us know if its working.

So in short, these streams place the human being at the centre and encourage her to try out a particular path and keep tailoring it based on her experience. There is no “right or wrong” – there is only “right or wrong” for a person and/or for a circumstance. The field of validating facts has moved from an impersonal laboratory to yourself – your own body, your own mind, your own spiritual needs. 

I think this is a very liberating concept. And very interesting too. When a meditation technique doesn’t seem to work for you – you don’t have to blame yourself for not succeeding, nor do you need to judge the technique. You just need to understand its not the right one for you – at this time, it could be later on – and move on. Its also interesting – because to make the best choices, you need to understand yourself best – how else can you choose what’s most appropriate for you? This is what I told my friend – informing him of my own experiences – some which helped, some not so much. He seemed to agree – and has found another approach that seems to connect better.

What do you feel about this?