Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Chinese in Me

It's that noisy time of the year again: Chinese Lunar New Year. I don't usually care much about such festivities but this year's celebration is a much welcome break from a hectic year of work. Last year's CNY holidays was a very productive time for me, as I managed to take the opportunity to rush off a lot of outstanding work.

There's no need for me to do the same this year. But of course, out of (bad) habit, I'll still do my usual routine of making sure that every piece of software is running as it should, batch processes are executed on schedule and no extraordinary events are detected--basically making sure that "God's in his Heaven...all's right with the world!".

The good thing about public holidays is that, other people are not working; so I can be sure that I won't be troubled by urgent phonecalls and e-mails. This allows me to do my "real work" in peace.

Everytime such yearly festivals approaches, people lament how fast time flies. Of course, time flies. But time is also our ally. Our purpose in life is to make sure that time does not fly aimlessly. If it seems to fly fast, and as long as it is flying in the right direction, it also means our hardwork is bearing fruits rapidly too!

The CNY celebrations is all about reaffirming good thoughts. There's much that we can learn from the Chinese ethos. It is a culture of positive-mindedness, prudence, hardwork and success. The Chinese are always forward-looking. During CNY, we wish each other great wealth, prosperity and good fortune.

Ah, but you also see the Ugly Chinese: the kiasuism, the greed, the over-eagerness to hit it big ("the Chinese are incorrigible gamblers -- Lee Kuan Yew") and the culture of crass materialism.

When anything--even good values--is pursued to the extreme, you'll see ugliness. That is why most of the victims of Ah Longs (loan sharks) are Chinese. Of course, the loan sharks themselves are also Chinese.

Am I then the typical hardworking Chinese, driven by dreams of social and material success?

How I wish I am!

A person exercising in the gym is not "hardworking". He's sweating and puffing because he wants to shed off extra fat and also to keep himself fit. Being physically fit is a great feeling.

That is what drives me to work hard: The desire to be mentally and spiritually fit. The world is my moral gymnasium (to use Vivekananda's words). That is the true reward of work. The rest is just bonus.

Happy Chinese New Year! Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sea of Samskaras

Samkaras is a Sanskrit word, usually translated as "past impressions", commonly found in Yoga and Hindu texts. Of course, "past impressions" or samkaras for these spiritual practices include all tendencies and experiences generated from the sum total of one's past lives.

OK, before I dwell deeper into this subject, I'm aware of the fact that some people do not believe in reincarnation and any talk about past lives smells like superstition. Well, it doesn't really matter: we don't have to believe in reincarnation or past lives to discuss about samskaras. Samskaras to me is a natural phenomenon which obeys natural physical laws.

In an earlier blog entry, I mentioned that the same external experience will not be perceived in the same way by different individuals. We interpret sensory input based on past experience (which need not necessarily have to be from a previous life) and the natural tendencies of the mind--which are shaped partly by nature (genetics) and partly by nurture (culture, upbringing, education and life experiences).

Even when a baby is born, he or she, already has certain inherent mental characteristics. A baby has not much experience and education yet, but still each newborn child behaves quite differently from one another. Why is that so? Genes? To an extent, yes.

Even when the foetus is in the amniotic sac, it already senses the world--the heartbeat of the mother, sounds and vibration from the external world. A continuous pattern of action and reaction has already been set off, which does not cease until he or she dies.

Everytime an external stimulus is fed into our minds, we react in a certain specific way. Because our starting conditions--the "boundary conditions"--are different, each one of us has a unique sequence of action and reaction, beginning from the very moment that we came alive in our mother's womb until now. Reactions can come in a passive (thoughts and emotions) or active form (spoken words or actions).

Our samskaras are coded in our hardware (genes), firmware (subconscious mind) and operating system/application (culture and education). How we react to external events continuously shapes and reshapes our samskaras.

Whenever there's no external stimuli, or whenever you attempt to limit the range of external stimuli (like in meditation), you'll be able to perceive your samskaras. Why do certain thoughts seem arise spontaneously? Why do your thoughts have a tendency to veer towards certain directions? If you observe carefully, samskaras are behind your entire personality.

Like it or not, the "background noise" of samskaras is always there. There will always be this tendency in the mind to react in its own peculiar way to every situation in life. And this is due to the influence of samskaras. If that is so, how do we deal with it?

If you have an awareness of your samskaras, then you'll be able to redirect your focus and energy to or away from certain mental impulses. The control of one's breath is the starting point of this ability. The breath is the lever of the mind. That is why most spiritual traditions have some form of breathing exercise or meditation.

Samskaras can be disolved in the light of understanding. The many virtues that religion preaches--love, compassion, forgiveness--have great transmutation powers over one's samskaras. These virtuous actions redistributes energy in the most harmonious way and irons out all kinks. When we act with understanding, love and compassion, the pattern of action and reaction--one's karma--are immediately dissolved. No fresh karma is generated, resulting in the store of samskaras being reduced.

When we have mastered what Buddhists call "Right Action", every action of ours will be like the movement of a fish in water. We swim ever so gracefully and efficiently through life, which is this endless Sea of Samskaras.