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!

Multi-tasking to multi-focus

A decade or so ago, multi-tasking was a much revered skill. People would flash it in their resumes, coffee corners would resound with whispers of the star who could do many things at the same time and supervisors would put that up as a skill to acquire proficiency in as you made your way up the corporate ladder.

Over the recent years, the experts have started leaning the other way – multi-tasking is driving you to distraction and driving your productivity down claim recent reports. If you are one of the people who have a chat conversation going on on your laptop, 50 emails screaming for your attention, your mobiles beckoning you for a calender meet or a whatsapp message and a colleague stopping by to drop off a memo for a priority task – you can but agree with the experts. Everywhere, everyone is busy but work doesn’t get done!

An alternate approach seems to be multi-focus – the ability to do many things but one thing at a time. Interestingly, this is exactly what the buddhist meditators have recommended for our wellbeing for thousands of years. There is a story where a disciple asks a monk what meditation is and the monk answers something to the tune of “be mindful. when drinking tea, drink tea. when walking, walk. when eating eat. when working, work”.

This principle seems to be at the heart of all successful work today. Jack Dorsey seems to be able to balance time between “twitter” and “square” – one company at a time. As does Elon Musk. As does AR Rahman with his “school for music”, his various concerts and of course his pilgrimages. Bill Gates brought in legendary focus into Microsoft and now into the Melinda Foundation – one thing (only) at a time. Dr.Abdul Kalam played rocket scientist, president and continues to be a role model – each role is perfect in itself.

There seems to be a lesson here for many of us. If dinner, TV shows and conversations with loved ones compete for attention – at the same time – time to evolve from a multi-tasking individual (where focus stretches thin) to a multi-focus individual (lesser time on each activity but with absolute focus).

You agree?

Sharing our cares

Are we really hardwired to share? Its a question that came up during a random chat with a friend – and I thought it was best to validate the hypothesis against extreme situations. If stuff works in the extremes, it works everywhere.

Lets take the “happiness” extreme first. An executive comes to know he’s won his first big deal, the nurse informs the nervous man at the hospital that the lovely infant she’s holding is his daughter, a chess prodigy wins his first tournament – moments of immense happiness and achievement. For all of the three people, their first impulse on receiving the news would not be to place an order for a ferrari or a jet, but to share their immense joy with those they love. If you are one of the loved ones, you can expect a message from the “happy” folks within minutes. So “sharing” does appear to be the primal impulse for “joyful” stuff.

Let’s look at moments of pain now. A toddler hurts herself badly, a man loses his fortune to an event of destiny, a wife loses her husband to cancer – momentous moments when tragedy seems to take over one’s life. In such moments, after the initial denial and resistance phases, we seem to give over ourselves to a higher power – and hopefully grieve/ suffer in some peace. The toddler runs to her mother for comfort, the man beckons his god for help in reversing his fortunes and the wife probably reaches out to her spiritual guides for lending her strength and understanding during these trying times.

Thus, in moments of pain too, we seem to reach out to share. Of course, while we share our happiness with the intention of having the joy multiply, we offload our worries to those stronger than us hoping to diminish the pain. Either way, the theory that we are hardwired to share seems to hold good.

That said, why do so many of us feel stifled – the sense that we have humongous cares and no one to share them with? That we have the sense of being the unluckiest folks on earth – as evidenced by the numerous long faces, sad shares on facebook (with no responses) and the many long lonely sessions at our overflowing bars?

Perhaps, the issue is more fundamental. Not having a way to share (talking about it, meditating, journalling, dancing, crying, laughing – whatever) seems to be the biggest concern. Drowning sorrows in intoxicants doesn’t seem to be helping.

Even more importantly, not having someone to share our emotions with (a friend, a colleague, a family, a god, a belief system) is a big worry.

The redressals of course are very simple – the implementation and the will to implement it is where we seem to have the challenge. All we need to do is perhaps lighten up a little, stop taking ourselves so seriously. And perhaps perfect the skill of becoming mindful of our world through these new eyes – there are tons of people waiting to be helped and waiting to help as well.

If we can perceive reality dispassionately, we will participate compassionately. No two ways about that.

Mindfulness – we aren’t talking about mind’s fullness!

You can watch the future pass you by, if you live in the past.

Watch the future unfold through you as you live in the present.

“Living” today is better than the “dreams” of yesterday…

Mindfulness requires an empty mind (not a mind full of thoughts and dreams!)

– a blog that wrote itself post a very inspiring browsing session…. Two sites you may want to check out with some great stuff on mindfulness:

Five reflections : some awesome haikus to get you reflecting on life in general

OnlyhereOnlynow – Also runs the “Present MOment Book Project”. Need we say more…

Fidelity vs. Volume……..

Bigger! Faster! Better! The focus on amplification seems to be ingrained in us these days. Everywhere we go, we see an effort to increase throughput and voice the thought aloud; recently, linear increases are considered inadequate, we want exponential increases! Look around you – and chances are you’ll stare in the face a company touting itself as earning the most revenue, having the largest workforce, manufacturing the widest range of products, equipped with the most features….and recently even the most “quantified quality” is much talked about (now how does that work?)!

The bug seems to have caught the individuals’ fancy (not just the corporates’) as well – how often do we find ourselves talking about the number of certifications we own, the volume of experience we bring in, the cash we saved for our clients…..

Nothing wrong in all of this of course – but we do have to turn up the volume more and more in order to make ourselves heard. You need differentiators, purple cows and audacious stunts to be noticed – and often sensationalism and hyperbole are business as usual.

Volume

A thought – isn’t all the above only a means to an end and not the end in itself? We made the most cars because we wanted the biggest money bag right? And we didn’t make the most cars to satisfy any one customer, we wanted to satisfy our target segment. When we work toward a larger goal and are serving a statistic (and not a person!), turning up the volume is indeed the way to go.

Fidelity

Think of a rose garden now. When you step in from the main street and the huge noise therein, you suddenly are greeted with a scene of green and the scent of rose – nice on the eyes but kinda boring. And then slowly, as the inner noise within you subsides, you start noticing the stillness outside and the placid landscape metamorphoses into a throbbing eco-system – nature comes alive. You begin to notice the different hues of the roses & leaves and the squirrel squirreling away in a corner. The grass beneath your feet demands attention and a worm worms itself away oblivious to everything around it. On closer look, the blades reveal intricacies – in colour, age, thickness and height – that have you in raptures and you are enthralled by their dancing response to the cool breeze. The birds are on song and their feathers and plummuge are pigmented with exotic colors. Sounds, scenes, nature – everything moves you profoundly. This is the “fidelity” option. When we are entranced in our work, in a book that has us riveted or when we are in tune with nature, our quality of attention is intensified and the world seems a pretty happy place.

So which should we choose – to turn up the volume or to tune into an experience? And how do they effect us?

In the volume game, we are always competing against the man with the loudest speaker, in the fidelity experience – there is no competition – just a wonderful experience.

In the volume game, we are always aiming toward a better tomorrow ( i’ll sell the most cars, get a whole lotta cash, retire to the Bahamas and then be happy). Today just doesn’t matter – it serves to help us reach the tomorrow of our dreams. In the fidelity game, there is no tomorrow – only the present. The focus is not on some futuristic goal but on happiness now. We move therefore from a desired goal to a inspired state right now…

So have the big goals and create the noise and capture the eyeballs. It brings home the bread (at least for now!). But also take a few moments everyday (or week) doing what you like – a transactionless activity done just because it makes you happy and leaves you inspired. Body, mind and intellect will all react positively with lowered stress, a serene mind and a clearer intellect. Better still capture the eyeballs with a different attitude, work will turn out to be a painting you’d leave an indelible signature on (remember Gibran’s definition of work – work is love made visible).

Are there preconditions for adopting a high fidelity approach? Stillness is a perquisite – so you should either get out of the loud environment or be able to tune out the noise and tune in into a delightful
experience (enjoy the pristine stroke play in a cricket game attended by 30000 other boisterous folks). Come to think of it, maybe you could even tune into the noise without reaching for the loudspeaker – wouldn’t that be like the lotus flower blooming unaffected amidst a sludge?

Cherish the friend with the alarm clock

I remember hearing this story:

A zen master had a neighbour who always critiqued everything the master did. While this got on the disciples’ nerves, the master himself smiled on hearing the criticism, contemplated it awhile and went on his way. One day, the neighbour died and much to their surprise, the master began crying. ”who will criticize me and make me look for improvement areas?” lamented he..

Why this story now?

Earlier in the week, a very close buddy (and colleague to boot) sent me a quick message. ”beware, I think you are getting into the fast culture too!”.

This was received when I was ”busy” making some plans for the future growth, analysing some of our losses and typically acting out the successful IT exec role.

This message though – it was a wake up call. Let me explain.

I have always thought ”crazy” (or if you are a Puritan ”big”). Switched roles that were considered relatively low on spotlight value, adapted practices from other industries and another time, learnt to pick up greatness tips from giants all over the world. But you’ll notice, he wasn’t talking about this. He was talking about ”fast”. ”Crazy” was ok – actually fun, ”fast” was a no-no.

Fast as in – rushing to work, rushing work, rushing life itself and then impatiently waiting for the harvest – usually some vague, large USD figure and a label of being a winner. And when the harvest came (if it did) you couldn’t enjoy it because you were ”busy” playing ”fast” somewhere else. This fast I had always abhorred – or so I thought, until my friend’s message arrived. I thought and thought some more – and he had been right – that had been a pretty ”fast” day:
– I had rushed from home, hadn’t said too many endearing byes,
– hadn’t enjoyed watching our very entertaining traffic on the drive to work, had actually got a bit frustrated
– the number of smiles that day was way below average, the number of frowns and raised brows was up
– most of my discussions ranged around those business numbers – why had they not resulted or why they had. Essentially was trying to put a logic around uncontrollables!
– not a single call to a friend with no objective but to crack a few jokes and make his or her day….
– very few appreciation emails sent
– transactional dealings and raised voices
– pulling a title (thank god, I drew the line here!)

Which led me to think about the ladder of fallso eloquently called out in lord Krishna’s opus ”the Bhagavad gita”. The idea is broadly this( a touch embellished, hey but I am not a scholar!):
– first we get a desire – either our own or one we acquire from seeing others (eg. Colleague got a 40% hike – so should work to get that too!)
– the desire makes us undertake actions and think thoughts that we wouldn’t have done otherwise (get angry on the team, eat into somebody’s else’s share, pull management strings!)
– if we don’t get the result we want, delusion sets in (man, this life sucks, are the bars open yet?!)
– delusion leads to anger – expressed (shoot the boss down man!) or repressed (so where did you say those beers were – got a load on my head!)
– these give rise to more negative emotions and over time make us forget the person we are and do something truly bizarre, stuff we’ll wish we hadn’t done (and i dont mean counting how much you can drink when really, really angry!).

The interesting thing is that over time bizarre becomes the new normal. If you don’t believe me, take a look at how the truly painful characters at work are at home. Don’t be surprised if they are very nice people indeed – when not at work. The thing is – the mad rush is on, and everybody at work is running at 500 miles an hour, so you can’t stop to smell the flowers.

We tell folks we’d run a while and then rest – but at 500 miles, you can’t stop and even if you do, you are too exhausted to bother about the flowers.

The buddha therefore advocated ”mindfulness” so you could catch yourself before fast became normal and go back to the land of ”cool” before it was too late. But most of us are not buddha’s (we are more like buddhus which is the opposite of the buddha nature!). And therefore you need a friend who plays alarm clock when you are going out of tune. And you can play the same thing for her too. But you need to be open to them, for they are few in the world and will pass you by if you are not attentive.

So does this mean, we shouldn’t set aggressive goals? How could krishna, a very successful king (and a damn good friend) not espouse greatness? Truth be told, he does. He makes a clear distinction between being fast (called desire-motivated-action by that Puritan again!) and being great at what you do – and maybe we should park that discussion for another day…