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!

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?

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?

A life passes away too soon…

The weekend started on a sombre note. A young colleague on a much-awaited road trip, met with an accident and passed away. A promising future and a million dreams aren’t destined to play out here on earth. We do wish and pray that in the heavens of his belief, they flower; and for a sense of peace and solace to comfort his family. Time alone can heal – and not entirely at that.

I reflect upon yesterday – the young man must have been hurriedly working for an “important” meeting on Monday while his mind replayed happy scenes of a weekend retreat. The Monday meet isn’t important now; nor doesn’t the weekend laughter ring as loud – for they will not come. Without the hero, the movie cannot exist.

It’s a powerful wake up call. One may argue that Nature is unkind – she could have taken older people, far sicker people – and yet she favoured one who was in the pink of health and cheers. Its an unhelpful argument – we are but spectators in her grand show, we can see but cannot understand.

We may not understand, but we can take up the baton from this young life that has passed over. Uncertain is life, more solid though are memories and aspirations he shared with us. Let’s pick up a thread and make it come alive. Legacies are created an inspired act at a time – and he certainly deserves one.

A quick review of an unique book

So my good friend and colleague Dhivakar gifted me a wonderful book the other day – “Search Inside Yourself” by Meng. And knowing Dhivakar, am sure he would want me to share the gift of a review with everyone – so here I go!

The book’s author is a senior googler (google employee number 107 for all of you detail-loving chaps) and deals not with technology but surprise of surprises – – with “mindfulness and meditation”.

Now why would a googler (And a senior one at that) want to write a book on something like this? A few minutes into the book is all it takes to realise that this author is as a different as they come. His official title (self affixed I suspect) is:

The jolly good fellow of google
which nobody will deny

Intrigued you turn the pages and find that that he piloted this program at Google after consulting with multiple-giants like Daniel Goleman (yes we are talking about the EQ guru) and to his delight the googlers just lapped it up. Quite a few very inspiring testimonials from the participants dot the book and such run-a-away success at google has led him to aim for something a little bigger – namely world peace (yeah I know- a little bigger!)) – and this book is an effort by him to help folks such as ourselves who aren’t from the google family access the program and reap benefits. And he gets to enjoy the royalty too for the book. So a win-win really!

OK, let’s get this straight – isn’t this what you are thinking right now – Geek boy, meditation, world peace – that combo’s got to be boring!

Well, let me confirm its patently anything but boring. For one thing the author has a wonderfully self-depreciating sense of humour that ensures you leave every page sporting a grin on your face. To top it he has plenty of cartoons distributed throughout – these poke gentle fun at concepts in his own book – while enlightening you on the side. I did say its a fun read, right?

To round up this post, here are a couple of super takeaways for me – that can you get started right off the bat.

1. He starts off on the premise that “self awareness” is the goods for success. Self awareness is really the art of knowing yourself well – and he calls out some very simple methods to get up and running. “So why is this important again?” you ask.  Because it allows you to catch yourself before doing something unwarranted – if you can catch yourself before bursting out with anger at a colleague (and therefore save all that repentance and guilt that would follow the anger like a shadow!) – it makes life that much better no? Mindfulness meditations are his tools for developing self awareness – these are meditations in which you do simple stuff like experiencing how your body reacts to emotions (so when your fist closes and your somatic clenches – you know you are getting angry – and can quickly step out of the scene before an ugly episode!!) and watching your breath. The exercises take 10 minutes or less at a time – and the value is priceless (yep, just like visa!)

2. The second is the biggie – its his experience that the more “self aware” you become, the more empathy you develop for others (colleagues, families, friends, strangers – everybody). So its a case of buy 1, get one free! And what can empathy do – it can help you win friends, nurture relationships and all-in-all make you the most popular guy or girl on earth. And the more you understand another person, the better you will become as well – a bit of a virtuous circle if you will….

3. Finally, as your meditation deepens- a sense of clarity, tremendous productivity and perpetual inner joy become yours for the experiencing. So as he states in his quaint way – you can have your cake and your promotion too!

If you are one of those who want to try the miracle of meditation but don’t know where to begin, some of these exercises are a great startup point(each taking but a few minutes) and soaking in the abundant-data anecdotes may also convince you of meditation’s value in your everyday life – or at least to give it a try. For the experienced meditators out there, you guys (and girls) may get bigger insights into the why’s behind a few of the practices – and of course gain some good anecdotes to share with your skeptic colleagues (with a “I told you so right – now google agrees!”). Most importantly – novice or guru – you’ll enjoy the read. gentle, wise, fun reads are hard to come by – and this one ticks all the boxes. Convinced already? Why not give it a try and blog your experiences for all of us?