Friday, December 31, 2010

A Moment of Poise

It is always great to be able to blog on a New Year's eve. It's an opportunity to reflect on the year that's coming to a close, and to look forward to the coming one.

Life has been quiet for me these past few years. 2010 has been a year where I sought to find right balance--between work and leisure, spirituality and materialism, art and science, indoors and outdoors, the mental and the physical.

I've mentioned elsewhere before that balance is the key to everything life. Wisdom can be defined as the ability to find the optimal balance between the polarities. The Buddhist state of mind called Equanimity is also a state of balance where one maintains one's composure in the face of life's ups and downs. Balance is everthing. The constant striving for balance is the essence of life.

On the eve of a new year, one is consciously aware that one is poised between past and future. We sit down to reflect on what has passed and we make resolve to do better in the coming year. But the fact is that every moment of our existence is a moment of poise between past and future. If we can consciously remain 'poised' all the time, we will be living in the present. We are never leaning over unnecessarily to the future nor being weighed down by the burden of the past.

Being present in the moment means doing the things that need to be down now, with focus and attention. There's a right action at every moment in time, and executing that action brings us into harmony with the forces of the universe.

This is what I strive to do everyday. To allow every moment to come to its fruition through right action. One moment at a time. One action at a time. One can't do any more than that. And along the way, we'll enjoy the fruits of our past actions; they always come at the right moment--with wisdom in its bitterness and humility in its sweetness.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Minding the Mind

Meditation and mindfulness practices, popular among Eastern religions, are increasingly being adopted by moden pscyhotherapy as a legitimate technique for treating a wide variety of mental disorders. Noted therapist Dr Dan Siegel writes about it eloquently in his books, Mindsight and The Mindful Therapist.

While meditation is a general term to refer to a wide variety of mental cultivation practices from many cultures and religions, mindfulness, as it is normally used in Buddhist literature refers to to the practice of being aware of one's thoughts, feelings and sensations and this need not necessarily be done in a sitting position. The ability to intentionally pay attention to the thoughts and processes in our minds is a valuable skill that allows us to observe and modify our behaviour and even physiology to prevent 'dis-ease'.

Restlessness, reactivity and agitation are natural tendencies of our minds. Pyschologists also tell us that, 80 percent of the time we operate using our unconscious minds (example, when we are driving our car), so our reactions to sense stimulus are usually automatic. The unconscious brain is a more powerful computer compared to the conscious one. Nature designed it in such a way because of a very good reason: if we are to process every sensory input conscously, we'll be completely overwhelmed--we will not be able to do the things that come to us naturally such as walking and talking.

If our unconscious mind runs the show most of the time, are we simply not replaying back responses we've consciously or unconsciously programmed into our minds? We have been programmed since we were young by our experiences of pain and pleasure. Efficient though the unconscious mind is, sometimes it traps us into habitual patterns of behaviour that could be harmful to us. The world around us changes rapidly, but we are mentally not capable of dealing with rapid change. Our minds continue to run old programs. And when old programs are not able to process new inputs, then stress and anxiety sets in.

A person suffering from anxiety disorder is often trapped in a downward spiral of negative thoughts and emotions. The person is not able to snap out of this state because he or she does not have the ability to disassociate the mind from its processes. Mindfulness practices help us to strengthen our mental muscles; we are not trashed about by the stormy seas of thoughts and emotions. In most miindfulness practices, we learn to observe the arisal of thoughts and gently label them; worry, hesitant, anxious, longing...

These random thoughts are the background noise that comes to the forefront whenever we sit down quietly to meditate. The meditator takes note of them, labels them if necessary, and allow them to come and go. No force is necessary. We do not fight nor resist them. They will come and go like waves lapping on the shore. When this is done often enough, we carry this mindful habit into our daily lives, and it helps us keep an inner island of calm amidst the chaos of everyday activity.

I would say, mindfulness is the most important skill that any healthy individual would need in today's world, where we are constantly assaulted by an overload of sensory input and information. Dr Siegel calls it 'brain hygiene'--a necessary skill to ensure the healthy functioning or the brain, as one of the most important organs in our body. The mind does not have total control of its output, because out of biological necessity we do most of our things unconsciously. But using the practice of mindfulness, we deliberately observe our mental output, and this very act itself generates a modifying input that is fed back into the brain. Only in this way, mental stability and control can be achieved.

So be mindful, lest your own thoughts might lead you astray!

Friday, December 03, 2010

Fire and Wire

I try to go for a run and a light workout at the neighbourhood park everyday. Just 30 minutes of exercise makes me feel energized and feeling great for the rest of the day.  Even when I do not have enough sleep the night before, a morning workout session always drives away all vestiges of sleepiness and clears my mind for productive work.

If one must end up being an addict of some sort, one might as well be addicted to exercise.  There are lots of research that indicates that exercise aids neurogenesis--or the creation of new neurons in the brain. It used to be thought the brain does not grow new neurons and whatever amount of grey matter we have are fixed and start dying away as we age. Research in recent years have proven this to be false. The brain can and does improve with age!

You often hear people say, 'Oh, I've already forgotten what I've learned in the university'. True, we might have forgotten certain facts of details which we cramped for our exams but I believe that we never lose the analytical skills that we learned. Personally, I feel that my brainpower has actually improved over the years. When I browse through some of my old mathematics textbooks, I realized how much better I am able to understand all the concepts written there, when during my students days I had found them mostly dry and incomprehensible. 

One thing I've noticed, most people, as they grow older, become more lazy to think.  You see them a lot in large corporations: people are very 'hardworking' when it comes to attending meetings; but when it comes to sitting down to analyze facts and writing concepts down on paper, everyone tries to avoid doing it.

The brain gets better the more you use it. When one stops using it, degeneration sets in. So never try to avoid difficult intellectual work. Like the body, the brain too needs regular exercise. The more your neurons fire, the more the wire together. The more complex your neural wiring, the 'smarter' you become!

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Thought Gardener

When I was blogging on a daily basis, I was driven mostly by a desire to learn. I wanted to learn about myself--how my thoughts stand on their own, bare and naked on a public blog. It wasn't important that I had many readers; just the possibility there could be someone reading my entries imposes a certain form of discipline to my writing.

That was what I strove for. I wanted to use the discipline of blogging to not only record my thoughts on my varied fields of interests, but also to hone my writing skills.

This is different from writing in a personal journal; there you don't need to worry about an audience. Blogging requires a bit more care, but yet remain casual enough for one to experiment and let go. A blog is a good practice ground for a writer. It is like an artist's sketchbook, where raw ideas emerge in bold strokes of the pen.

During those years of blogging, I realized that I wrote most naturally when I was writing on spirituality. Spirituality and religion are subjects that I returned to again and again. These are areas which I had spent an entire life contemplating about. And I still have a lot of thoughts that I want to explore and share.

These past few years have been busy ones for me work-wise. I am still striving for balance between the material and the spiritual side of my existence. I try to infuse spirituality into whatever task that I am doing. I am mindful of every impulse that stirs in my mind. I observe them and follow their perambulations; I trace the roots of their lineage and track their lifetimes.

Some thoughts are seeds that bear fruits. Some thoughts are like cancer that can only destroy the body. The fruit-bearing thoughts, I nurture them with tender loving care; the cancerous ones, I kill them mercilessly.

Here in this blog, I hope to plant some of these fruit-bearing thoughts, May they flourish in time.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

River Pebbles

Pebbles at the bottom of the river are smooth and round. Years and decades of being eroded by the currents have made them so. They are at one with the river. They have no more ego. They are at peace.

When we are born, we are all rocks with sharp edges. We have a personality, ego, likes and dislikes. We go out into the world, seeking to impose our will onto the world. Occasionally we get things to go our way. We are momentarily happy. But we then realize that these momentary happiness come with a heavy emotional price. We can get them all, because our time and energy are limited.

Then we learn go after things that are important. Our ego tells us: "This is important. I must have this and that. I must do this to show the world what I am capable of". And we go after them with all the energy that we have, only to realize that what the ego thinks important is false. It takes you a lot of time and energy to realize that, all seeking and wanting, that is the nature of the ego, comes with a price on the soul. It turns sharp rocks into smooth pebbles.

A smooth pebble knows how to blend into the flow of the river--the Soul of the World. It has relinquished its ego. It can choose to harness the power of the currents instead of imposing itself and impede their flow.

River pebbles have great wisdom. Watch how the currents embrace them, churning out a smooth gurgling sound. Listen to it carefully: these murmurings are the pebbles' words of wisdom.