TMJ 4: Observing your thoughts

This is the fifth post in The Meditation Journal series. You can read previous posts here.

The last post of TMJ appeared almost 2.5 years ago when I attended Vipassana at Dharamsala. The gap in between gave me a good time to actually practice what I had theorized or read. My understanding also has evolved and I see meditation as not a ten-minute exercise but a way of being. As you advance in your practice, you may not even need to sit in silence, focus on breath etc. – you can just do it seamlessly as you are doing whatever you are doing.

In that sense, the meaning of meditation has evolved from ‘focus‘ to ‘observation‘ for me. And this is a practice that came recommended by Partho and Sameer (both have been previously mentioned on this blog and can be called my mentors/friends). The idea is that we are now going to observe our thoughts. Take yourself out of your body and observe yourself and the thoughts that are entering into your brain. Yes, that sounds weird when you read it the first time. It did to me too, but that is what it boils down to. This detaching yourself from the body and watching from afar is symbolic of recognizing your true ‘self’ which is not equivalent to your body. What is ‘I’? Body, soul, mind, ego? What do you identify yourself with? But that is a far bigger metaphysical question that I am not ready to explore in this post. So, lets get back to the process of ‘observing our mind’ for now.

This is how I was able to start it initially myself-

    • I sit for the breath meditation process as discussed in TMJ3.
    • I close my eyes, literally visualize a room and a glass jar. This jar is my mind. As thoughts occur to me, I visualize a wave trying to enter this jar.
    • As I begin counting breaths, soon a distracting thought will come. It is bound to come soon since we are beginners.

1…2…3…. ‘Oh God, will I be able to observe my thought?

This ‘Oh God, will I be able to observe my thought?‘ itself is an external thought!

  • So, in my visualization, I (who is me, the external watcher now) am holding a wand and shoo’ing this wave away. Squashing it away, like a fly! I am not letting it enter into the jar. As more thoughts come to you, keep doing this. You will feel like Harry Potter or Gandalf or Luke Skywalker – so far so good. Keep observing and discarding them away. This way, we are not letting our mind process these thoughts. We keep returning to our breaths after squashing any thought.

1…2…3…. ‘Oh God, will I be able to observe my thought?’…squash…1…2….3…….4….5….’This is stupid’…..squash….1….2..

Want to try this for 5 mins right now? Great, do it 🙂

Ok, you will observe that this exercise needs immense focus. You will feel drained doing this even for 5 minutes. You will need your full attention to observe every minor thought but you can do it.

To understand it further, observing is what the word suggests – simply observing. This is also meditation because we are freeing ourselves from the cyclical thought processes. You might say that we are not freeing ourselves from those because they are still coming. And my answer is, “not really!”

You see, this act of observing is quite powerful. It defeats the negative impact of these thoughts. Even when a sad thought (e.g. I did not get the job) occurs to you and if you simply observe it – i.e. you are seeing that this sad thought is trying to enter your mind – you are not ‘feeling sad’ i.e. you have actually disabled its potency. Earlier, it would enter your conscious being, parts of your brain will process it, trigger an emotional reaction (I am worthless, feeling of insecurity) through hormones or whatever and you will see the physical reaction (anxiety, nervousness). But observing it this way keeps it at the fact/information stage. You have caught it before it creates this ruckus inside you. You have seen it for what it is – an objective statement – ‘I did not get a job’. Okay!

Notice that only when you process an information (received by your senses), that your brain creates the corresponding emotional and physical reaction. So, ‘I am sad/happy’ is never the information. It is always a reaction/outcome to some information. If we observe the thought at information level, it is caught before creating this reaction. Instead of we using our mind, it is the mind that uses us! It keeps processing information, converting it to counterproductive/unnecessary reactions and keep us juggling those all through our lives. We began the whole meditation exercise because we wanted to get back our control. And this is the first step towards it – to debilitate this act of mind.

This simple process of observation is no less than nirvana 🙂 Why and how – I will discuss it next time. But I will implore that you try to observe yourself for 5 minutes today. See what happens.

P.S. A good book to read on the related matter is Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

  

I fu** up all the time!

I am a compulsive reader and thinker. I read a ton of books and articles. Self-help is a genre I have been bumping into fairly frequently over last four years. I noticed that all those articles mention how the authors had a terrible life long time ago and now they are all zen. (What’s up with that shapely girl doing yoga on a mountaintop?! ) Yes, some of those articles and books are written so well that you feel like pumping your fist in the air – “Yes, I can do it too!” But after a while, it gets annoying.

Has everyone figured their life out already? Is everyone out there so normal and happy now? Why doesn’t anyone write about the fuck-ups they are making or the struggles they are facing right now?

Then, I looked at my own writings and I figured that I am guilty of the same. I also talk about past hiccups, what I have learned from those and how I am applying it now. So far so good but there is a lot that I don’t talk about – I don’t talk that it is always not hunky dory. There are a lot of moments when I feel confused. Moments when I feel very very down. Till this date.

Notice that I am not even talking about facebook and the posts by your friends that make you think – ‘Yeah sure, that is all you do in life – visiting Bali and eating organic food!’ Sigh, that is what I posted but anyway, you get the point! Has going to Bali made me the zen queen? Haha, far from it.

I fuck things up all the time. I do question what I am doing fairly often.

So, I talked to friends and asked them if they go through the same and guess what – 100% of them go through the same up and downs. They are not feeling like their facebook profile picture all the time. I knew it! And I have interviewed successful entrepreneurs (for another book) and almost everyone told me about their fuck-ups (which makes me wonder if this is what they are ready to confess, then what is the one they are not even telling me about!). These are people revered for their business execution and intelligence and they fucked up many things. Of course, those fuck-ups don’t get posted on the facebook.

src: siliconvalleydebug.org

And I can bet that all the inspiring people, those self-help authors go through these swings as well. Just like our life is comprised of bigger ups and downs (a sine wave instead of a straight line), if we zoom into a specific period, that is also comprised of smaller ups and downs – such that even within a minute, our emotions are constantly fluctuating. Don’t worry, that is all the math for now.

Fuck-ups are a part of life and, I think, very real ones. Everyone has their share of fuck-ups. Ok, maybe not Dalai Lama. While it would be very good for the world if we all lessened our frequency of fuck-ups (I mean electing Trump is more than fuck-up – it is a crime, so don’t get me started on that), let us not go into depression over those fuck-ups. Did you date with a poor sense of judgment? Alright. Did you take up a horrible job? Haha. Did you eat so many candies you need to go to the ER? Jeez. Did you take a gym’s annual membership and never went there? Lazy ass. But then, so what? Get over it! Be mentally ready for the next fuck-up.

While I am all supportive of fuck-ups, the problem happens when they get all cascading. Like one fuck-up leading to another, making you feel so shitty, you do another fuck-up. Let us not do that, ok? Let us keep it reasonable – how about one career fuck-up a year, a relationship fuck-up in 3 years, a Trump fuck-up in a lifetime? If you are doing more, then I have bad news for you – you might have problems. And if any fuck-up makes you feel depressive or suicidal, then quit listening to me and go visit a therapist! Right now.

Feeling down today? Great! The wait for next feeling-up day is half done. You know nothing can last forever – neither your ice cream nor your heartbreak. Either you will run out of money or one day you will pick your lazy ass to the gym. You will be alright. We will all be alright.

So, yes, I am doing my share of fuck-ups and I sincerely hope you are doing yours. Don’t disappoint me. Love.

  

Uttarakhand Solo Journal 2: Communities and Connections

It rained almost the whole of third day. Not wild like a torrent but more musical and drizzling. Water drops all around, ones stringing down the slanted roof, those lining outside and few trickling around the balcony. The forest was washed away of the dust and the smell that arose was more earthy. It was chilly and I sat on the balcony wearing my cardigan. It was hard to take my eyes off of this view, trying to spot the Himalayan peaks behind the clearing haze.

How quickly the weather changes in the mountains, next two days were bright and sunny. I caught up with other folks living in neighboring cottages (there are 4-5 in total around here), most of them are the Doctors associated with Aarohi including Himanshu, a young doctor, dedicating his service to the community. His guitar notes float off in the air in the evening and provide a perfect backdrop to the forest. He is practicing well and the notes are melodious – which is all a music illiterate like me can say. Jamaal lives close by and runs the dairy here. Yes, they have cows and fresh milk. An Iranian couple lives in the big white cottage that I just love looking at. They help the Rama Chandra Mission ashram in Satkhol and their children are adorable. Overall, there are 3 cats, 3 dogs and 2-3 cows. Cats and dogs visit me frequently with Appu (the fatter red cat) often sneaking off to my cane chair in the balcony. The people were kind enough to supply me with missing grocery items, inviting for green tea and asking for my well being.

My stay here makes me muse over the social connections between the people living in villages, and forests in this area of Uttarakhand. After all, human beings need society and companionship. There is as much solitude as you can handle in this place but closer knitted community as well. People help each other with open arms, share their resources and celebrations. How in this remote part of the hill, can someone build a life is a question worth pondering upon. It is a testament to the human will. Looking at the families here, I can say that real communities grown with a common vision and brotherhood can be quite wonderful. It is all about having a sense of belonging and shared purpose. Closer proximity to the nature and such deep human connection can make up for the loss of convenience or facilities that are available in cities. I would say the urban neighbors living next doors might seem more disconnected and lonely in comparison.

Another must-mention couple is Ashish-Deepa who run the more famous HimalayanVillage homestay in Sonapani. Visiting them for lunch one day (a good break to my fried rice, noodles, soup and sandwich meals), I heard their story. They were also tired of fast life in Delhi and wanted to come back closer to their hometowns. That they managed to create such a nice place to stay and run it at their terms has been a fifteen year journey. They looked happy and I did not need to ask how has this transition been. They raised two young kids here (one born here only), so all of us who keep looking for sophisticated international boards for our children and use it as an excuse for our tiring lifestyles, we might have to think of a new excuse next time. And those looking for more reasons, a study pointed out that nature makes you live longer.

Anyway, I don’t think the place changes anyone, it is likely to attract those who anyway wanted to pursue an offbeat track in the first place. So, such hamlets have become a congregation of people treading these alternate lifestyles. They are proving that living like this is sustainable which, if nothing else, is heartening to know 🙂

  

Uttarakhand Solo Journal 1: A Night in Jungle

It was 3 pm at Aarohi office in Satoli, Uttarakhand. It is a NGO office run by Dr. Sushil Kumar. Dhanram picked up my suitcase and I followed suit with a heavy backpack on my shoulders and two grocery bags in my hands. I had booked one week solo stay at Sukoon, a cottage run by Dr. Sushil himself. The idea was to have a quiet place to work on my book and the AirBnB reviews had mentioned ‘go only if you are looking for solitude and wilderness’. I was to soon find out how literally true that was!

I thought it would be a 5-10 minute walk to the cottage but hold on, we had been climbing steep up the hill for 15 minutes and I was huffing and puffing already. ‘Aur kitna dur hai bhaiya?’ ‘Bas thoda aur’. After hearing the same answer everytime, I was now annoyed. The bag was killing me and I could only marvel at the petite but sturdy frame of Dhanram who by the way was also leading a big black furry dog. I decided to sit down for a minute before we started our second leg of the trek. ‘Iska naam kya hai?’ I ask. Dhanram who refuses to let any expression come to his face and is gracefully and superhumanly carrying the luggage replies, ‘Maanshu’. At least that’s what I heard. I frown what kind of a name that is and why would anyone name a dog Himanshu.

We now climb up to a more flatter part of the hill and another fifteen minutes brought us to the first house in sight which looked awesome. Two other dogs came running and I somehow managed to suppress my screams. Then another cottage and then a brown one standing by itself came into view. Dhanram climbed the stairs of this earthy cottage and a fifteen-minute search for the key began. I tried calling Dr. Sushil but the network was weak at his and my end. I settled down on the stone staircase and took out my Kindle. It is better to read than getting irritated over something I cannot control. Dhanram finally managed to find the key and I eagerly entered in the cottage to crash down. I had taken the top room of this cottage and it had a small but cute kitchen and bathroom attached to it. Sukoon is such an apt name for this place.

Lying on the mattress, I saw a small glass opening in the wooden roof. If the trek had made me want to cry, this place gave me a tremendous sense of wonder. I am really in a place that so few people can manage in life (more than financially, due to lack of time and will). I am in middle of the jungle with only trees, birds and insect sounds. After resting, I check out the balcony and god, is it beautiful or what! A chair and folding up table served my purpose perfectly. I settled down with my laptop – the book work needs to begin. With a very tiring internet connection, I crave for coffee now only to find that the gas pipe is broken! Alas, more test for my patience.

In the evening, Dr. Sushil comes since his cottage is next to mine. He fixes up the pipe and graciously lets me pick few vegetables from his fridge. As I am leaving, he asks me, ‘Do you like avocados?’ ‘I love avocados! I never find them in Indore.’ He gives me a ripe one, plucked from his own tree. Yes, this place has avocados trees growing. On my way out, he tells me, ‘this is my dog Doraemon. You will see him around.’ Yes, it is the same black husky dog. I take a deep breath and smile. I make coffee, soup and avocado sandwich for dinner.

I have a week to stay at this place. It is very solitary but made of dreams. The mud wall and stones, wood and forest foliage seem so alien to my urban hands. I can see why Dr. Sushil left behind his urban medical career to settle down here. I don’t know if I can live here forever but there is a pull in these trees and earth. I admit I’m a bit scared but I’m also feeling more alive. One who has seen the starry sky in a pitch dark jungle refuses to believe that possibilities are limited and that suffering be the end of life. We are human beings and not human doings. If we forget how to ‘be’, it would be meaningless to ‘do’.

  

Imperfect guide of spiritual and conscious travels in India

India has, for long, stood the onus of being the spiritual darling of the world. The lost, suffering, restless masses have often sought refuge in the chaos, and hospitable arms of Mother India. The destitute finding a corner in pravachan sabhaas and the affluent a villa in high-end ashrams of Osho, Ravishankar and Sadhguru. But there is more to India, much more when it comes to offering the spiritual experience – not in a secret Sanskrit code but in the very humdrum of life. You do not need a spiritual guru to decipher it, you just need your eyes and an open heart.

This entry is a scrapbook, more like randomly chosen pages from an encyclopedia, rather than a carefully written guide. I am not going to try to give it a fanciful name but these are some places that touched me or made my inner sense of wonder come out more strongly. I hail from a religious brahmin family and had finished my chaar dhaam in early teens. I wish I was old enough to know what any of that was about.

Coming back from USA is when I really started exploring India mythology, spirituality (I hate how cliched this word is becoming, I wish there was a better synonym). Because let’s face it, consciousness does not appeal to you when you are sitting lavishly in a comfortable home with a PS3 and iPad lying around you. Or when you have kids or partners keeping you busy.At that time, it is a leisure read and a thing to show off at your social gatherings. It really seems important when life throws you a curve ball and the shit hits the fan. Then, my friend, consciousness looks very appealing. As they say, “you dont know how strong you are, until being strong is the only option you have.” This ‘being strong’ is a very spiritual characteristic. So, that is the consciousness that came gliding into my life in my late twenties.

Why is Ramayana so touching and purifying? Why is Ram called Purushottam? Why is the character of Krishn so complex? What is the moral basis of Mahabharata? Can there even be a moral basis of historical and mythical things? Why are we here? What happens when we die? Why do we suffer? By the way, if you are feeling sad or hopeless for whatever reason, just read Tulsidas’s Ramacharitmanas – open it anywhere and start reading it with translation. Read it for ten days, I can bet 200% you will feel better. And if you are feeling lost and restless, read Gita (or Seven Conversations :D).

Next phase of my exploration happened over last two years when unknowingly I touched upon some of India’s conscious kernels. So, I am compiling a list of my spiritual places and experiences in India. These are not made to go into LonelyPlanet guide as they are not at all famous but they were significant in my journey. Plus, I felt many people long to experience these understated experiences and don’t know where to start. If you cannot find anything else, my dear reader, please feel free to visit these (of course at your own risk)-

Experiencing Auroville over longer periods of time

A town or colony of 20 sq km near Pondicherry stands obscure from most of the popular tourist itineraries. Relatively less known even to Indians, the place is nothing like anything you will experience elsewhere. A meager population of 2000, less than 10 dusty roads, a handful of buildings, hardly any cars except that of visitors and a throng of white and local population on bicycles and bikes. It is sometimes so futuristic that it seems ancient. a I remember a distinct moment in the Matrimandir amphitheater when I could feel the presence very strongly. Of what? Of something that I cannot verbalize very well – an awareness of the grandness of it all.  Do not make the mistake of doing a day tour of Auroville. You need to stay there at least for a week, roam around, watch the sunset on Thursdays in Matrimandir with the background Savitri music. You need to walk around and hug the banyan tree. You need to visit Savitri bhavan and watch SA’s statue against the moonlight. You need to meet strangers from everywhere and have a filter coffee in the visitor center. You need to see the units run by foreigners and locals. You need to see Sadhana forest. You need to eat the red rice dosa and hibiscus syrup. You need to bike back in pitch dark on the dust road. You need to hear the crickets and watch the world around you falling quiet to zero. You need to just be. It has become my yearly retreat.

Attending Jeevan Vidya

A very unassuming teacher, a very simple setting often chosen in conscious institutes and places, locally sourced organic simple meals and deceptively simple yet profound discussions over 9 days. A free workshop, run by one of the best teachers I have come across – Vinish ji. A man who evokes deep respect and awe, talks about basics of life and casts a surprisingly wide net that covers everything from relationships to food to body to mind. And he famously says, “there is no going back from here”. I wonder if the Matrix scene of ‘choosing the pills’ was inspired from him. The difference is he smiles a wry smile after making u take the pill. He announces – you have been transformed. Welcome to this new thinking and being. Nothing ever will meet your eyes in an uninspired way again.

Vipassana at Dharamsala

Vipassana has become a synonym of cool Buddhist meditation retreats. Vipassana is a well-established meditation practice in more than 150 centers worldwide. I happened to experience it amidst the beautiful center at Dharamkot. With mist, rains, mountain, pine smell and yes, the monkeys! – it was a memorable and transformative experience. It is not about any religion and the recorded evening sermons provide a good mental cleansing after long hours of meditation everyday. I enjoyed the cerebral discourses, they made a lot of sense. They tell you why they are making you follow these weird rules such as no dinners, no fee, no yoga etc during those 10 days. I developed a good respect for S N Goenka and the practice itself. The crux is to realize how impermanent things are. Although I could not assimilate much during one year after the course, I find threads tying up with my other experiences and I am able to do Vipassana meditation more sincerely now (although not too frequently). But this was the place that spurred me on to reading more about meditation, buddhism, mindfulness and I am glad I did. Some of the beautiful books I recommend highly-



Watching Himalayas

Be it Sikkim, Kashmir or Himachal, if there is one thing that can make you realize the vastness of universe and your physical insignificance, it is the Himalayas. And if there is anything that can make you realize that you are the part of the same vastness and hence infinity packed in a small body, that is the Himalayas 🙂 Go, watch them stand there mighty and towering. They have seen more than you will ever see.

The chaos of Vrindavan

It is messy and dirty and yet, there is nothing like it. With history so intertwined with the presence of one of the most fascinating deities, Krishn, Vrindavan reeks of Hindu faith. During the bhakti era, many saints have taken their inspiration in the holy land, including Mirabai, Surdas, and Tulsidas. Immerse yourself in a morning darshan of Baanke Bihari and an evening bhajan at Iskcon. Who knows what you may find? Or what might find you?

 

Please share your favorite spiritual places in India in the comments 🙂