I hear a faint bell at 4 am that signals that the day is on. I walk out in the dawn that is yet to come, clutch the blanket tightly around me and climb few stairs up to the Meditation Hall. In my assigned seat, I sit down cross legged on the meditation cushion, back straight and eyes closed. A day of Vipassana begins in that dark hall as my breathing goes slow and slower. My body rebels and so does my brain. They want to be in control as they have always been. They threaten me with aches and distraction but I know even the wildest bull can be tamed. So, I continue breathing, watching my body and observing the sensations.
10 hours of this exercise every day for 10 days – days that you spend in quiet, contemplation and a journey inward. You do not speak or communicate, you partake of a simple vegetarian meal once a day, you do not keep your phone, book or diary. You just be and observe. Perhaps, it is the first time when you really see yourself for who you are. And, this is what Vipassana is all about.
[Vishesh (special) + pashya (to see) = to observe things as they are]
It is an excruciating journey that has cured drug and cigarette addicts on one hand and scared the weak-willed away on the other. You get what you put in. At the end of 10 days at Dharamkot, Vipassana course, I came out although not with a halo but a subtle glow of self-realization. This is what I learned.
1. Experience is everything in the realms of spirituality
While we can learn how to make fire from someone else’s experience, reading about meditation can never make you an expert at it. Gautam Buddha’s achieving enlightenment does nothing to my spiritual growth. The people who have demystified the causes of human suffering can only give us a path to follow but unless I walk that path, I cannot eliminate my suffering. So, practice is the only way. While I had been reading about meditation and consciousness for some time, sitting 8-10 hours per day meditating for 10 days hammered down the concept in my mind in a way that intellectual discussions cannot.
No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.Gautama Buddha, Sayings Of Buddha
I had tried Meditation previously as well. But except for sitting with a quiet mouth, this was hardly an achievement. I tried to follow random advice including focusing on a physical object or focusing on a mental vision but it simply did not work for me.
In Auroville, Partho said something interesting. He brought every point back to ‘living in the moment‘. What did it mean really?
When we say that we cannot concentrate, we are simply referring to how occupied our mind is with our past and future. But if we can bring ourselves to focus only on present moment, there would be less running around for the mind to do. The former is known as the kshipta (scatter brained) state of mind and the latter is ekagra (one-pointed). After all, through meditation, we are trying to cultivate a calm/ekagra (one-pointed) mind so that we can think in a sahaj bhaav and then move on to niruddha mind (fully arrested in concentration). The very meaning of meditating is to engage in thought or contemplation. The first step is to prepare a mental environment conducive for such an act. This is also the step where most of us fail and drop out.
Having failed at my previous attempts at meditating, I decided to follow a proven meditation technique after coming back from Auroville. I read about the breath counting technique (src: David Michie’s Buddhism for busy people) and it seemed to be a good starting point. To put it simply, you sit in a comfortable posture and try counting your breaths – as many as you can. Of course, it is hardly as easy as it sounds. The trick is to focus on the breath and count it. This is the precise procedure-
Sit in a comfortable posture (on ground cross legged, not necessarily padmasana, or even chair)
Close your eyes
Inhale and while exhaling, count your breath focusing on the tip of your nose
Every time you exhale air through your nostril, you increase your count
The moment you realize your thoughts have drifted away, you reset your count to zero
Do this counting for two minutes or as long as you can. The goal is to count at least 10 breaths in a go
The essence of this technique is to engage your mind in the process of counting so that it is not chasing other thoughts. But after counting 3 or 4 breaths, I started thinking of my work. ‘I have to pay the phone bill’, ‘I should call my CA’, ‘I haven’t yet booked my ticket’ etc etc. ‘Oh, I was supposed to count breaths, lets start again’. You get the picture. It is hard to even count 10 breaths sincerely in the beginning. What you can do is to make the process of counting even more engaging. So like we are counting on exhaling, start saying ‘and’ as you inhale. Thus, we have given our mind something to do both on inhaling and exhaling. Good. Remember, our mind is like an energetic pet Spaniel constantly looking for a new ball to fetch. Keep it occupied so that in the next step, we can start stilling it.
My first week was hard. I barely reached 6-7 breaths at a stretch. But then, it improved. This is how my next couple of weeks were like – I would sit for a minimum of 10 minutes and be able to count breaths till 10-15 at one time.
The main challenge is to not give up. You will have a troubled time counting breaths and you seem to be getting no where. It is easy to think of discontinuing this futile exercise. I had made up my mind to sit and meditate everyday whether I reach the desired goal or not. I began with a strong will and kept at it. Don’t look for results, just show up for your practice.
It reminds me of another beautiful quote Partho told us –
The thing about habit – if you take out ‘h’, ‘a bit’ remains. If you take out ‘a’, ‘bit’ remains; if you take out ‘b’, ‘it’ still remains.
So, make it your habit. Also, I did not fuss too much over the timing or rules. I decided that I will find my way of stilling my mind. I am not a morning person and I meditate around 1:30-2 pm. Who cares? Sit at night or spend five minutes in your office chair trying to do this. Seriously, who cares? The important thing is to keep doing it instead of trying to get it right. Buddha himself has said that he doesn’t intend that people take his word on the face value. He wanted them to try the process of awakening for themselves. Meditation is an intimate experience that cannot be learned through books or blogs. And what worked for me may not work for you.
At this point, it may still not be clear what we are achieving from this. Let it be. Keep a journal of your experience. How is this little practice of meditating impacting rest of your day? It’s ok even if we are not seeing any changes. How are you feeling? Just keep a note of it. You may not realize it but you have already started the process of transformation. Keep going.
Many might think that Meditation is a fad, a new status symbol or God knows what. I mean what’s up with all those Buddha paintings and ‘zen’ talk? Why is everyone rushing to meditate these days? What do they do sitting there? For a long time, I had tried to meditate with little success. I felt a major change in my attitude towards meditation when I read actually what it is supposed to do. And, I got an answer to ‘Why should I meditate?’
I am summarizing few points from various books by David Michie on the subject of Buddhism and Meditation. So, following are not my original ideas but I can vouch for some of these after practicing Meditation over last couple of months now.
This is how Meditation helps you physically-
Practices around meditation identify body and mind to be a holistic system rather than separate entities. This helps you understand how controlling one’s mind (because that is what meditation is in simplistic terms) in turn, impacts the physical aspects of your body. Meditation causes breathing to slow down which decreases your blood pressure and in turn helps you relax. Do not confuse this with resting (sitting idle does not decrease the rate of your metabolism as meditation does).
When we meditate the lactate concentration in our blood also decreases by up to a third. Blood lactate level is associated with tension and high blood pressure, and the infusion of lactate in the blood produces symptoms of anxiety.
Meditation increases the production of endorphins on our body (same hormone released when we consume chocolate, indulge in sex etc). It causes a feel-good emotion and creates positive mind-body states.
Dr. Herbert Benson from Harvard Medical School said, ‘repeated activation of the relaxation response can reverse sustained problems in the body and mend the internal wear and tear brought on by stress’.
Reducing the risk of heart diseases
One clinical trial took 103 patients suffering from coronary heart disease, and over a sixteen-week period showed that the group which practised meditation did much better than a control sample who simply received education about their condition.
Their blood pressure had reduced by 3.4 mmHg (systolic) at the end of the trial compared with an increase of 2.8 mmHg for the health education (control) group.
Meditation also made the heart patients physically more robust and increased their exercise tolerance. Thus, the interplay between body and mind is clearly proven otherwise how can one explain such physical improvements by a practice which is considered sedentary.
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is another powerful hormone that has been shown to increase with regular meditation (it helps in improving our immune system). Regular meditators are known to be less affected (in some cases, also got past) by allergies, flu etc.
This is my favorite and the one which I hope many people can know about.
Melatonin, produced by the pineal gland in the brain, as well as other parts of the body,has also been shown in lab studies to stimulate cells called osteoblasts that promote bone growth. Lower levels of melatonin stimulate the growth of certain types of cancer cells, while adding melatonin inhibits their growth. While we have no definitive evidence right now that meditation helps prevent breast and prostate cancer, we do know two things: that meditation boosts melatonin production, and that people with breast and prostate cancer have lower melatonin levels. Until such time as further clinical work is completed, we can’t formally join the dots—but the dots are there.
Some personal experiences by cancer patients have been reported where in regular meditation helped in combating the side effects of chemotherapy to the extent that the patients showed no hairloss etc.
Lowering the rate of ageing
DHEA also has another bearing with age factor. It decreases as we age. As DHEA levels plunge, ageing related problems come to the fore more strongly. DHEA has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation is known to play a critical role in the development of many diseases of ageing, including heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, atherosclerosis, osteoporosis and certain cancers. It prevents atrophy, dementia, depression and many other age correlated problems.
The longer we maintain higher DHEA levels, the longer we put off the many problems that accompany old age. And the practice of meditation achieves exactly this.
A study by Dr Robert Keith Wallace showed that those who had been practising Transcendental Meditation for over five years had a biological age twelve years younger than their chronological age.
This is how Meditation helps you psychologically-
Use of fMRI shows that brain’s circuits in the right prefrontal cortex are the most active when a person is angry, agitated or depressed. Whereas, when people are happy, energised or up-beat, activity shifts to the left prefrontal cortex.
A neuroscientist Dr Richard Davidson ran the test on an experienced Tibetan lama and his activity showed to be positioned on the most extreme left of the happiness spectrum. Meditation also helps keep your mind at an even keel and preventing mood swings.
Meditation is closely linked to Mindfulness which means paying attention on the present moment. By doing this, we prevent our mind from living in past or future, pain or anxiety and thereby spending unnecessary energies on these. This is an extremely difficult thing to practice but can be miraculous in long run. Practicing mindfulness and consciousness also leads to reduction of negative thoughts and depression.
You do not choose to read
or understand poetry; it chooses
whether you deserve it or not
It finds its cradle and coffin
It finds the heart that bleeds
And when it finds a home, it tears
open all the doors and windows;
try shutting down you might
but it enters from the crevices
like a whiff of lady of the night
I cannot help but wonder how unpredictable life is. When I graduated from University of Illinois, I envisioned myself working in hi-tech fields. But things changed and I found myself needing a business education which led me to NYU to pursue full-time MBA. Within one year, I had hustled my way into New York’s buzzing entrepreneurial scene and I dropped out of the MBA that thousands of students dream of. With more twists in life, I was back in India ready to build tech products and run a tech startup. Along with building 2-3 great products, I found myself publishing a spiritual fiction novel! I mean I was not spiritual or religious 4 years ago. To write it, publish it and then finding people loving it is something I could never ever have imagined. If this is not a testament to our higher consciousness that we don’t bother to harness and karmic cycle, then I don’t know what is.
This is an on-going process of self discovery for me. Interestingly, I am featured on Femina’s May edition to talk about this very journey. What I love about this article is its organic origin. It is not a PR piece. It is written by Kavita who loved Seven Conversations and that is why this holds a special place in my heart. Hope you will like it.