Poetry As Sanctuary – A monthly column where poets from the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley pen their South Asian experiences.
As a community in the Bay Area with strong roots in India, we have been befuddled in our responses to our newfound freedom from the pandemic scenario while holding onto the complexity of the continued struggles of our friends and family back in India.
I could relate to the isolation and suffering of the pandemic from when I dealt with a difficult illness for some years with no break of ‘normalcy’. I decidedly trained myself to accept my new normal, and then the days that felt really hard became just like any ‘normal’ day. It lifted the burden of “Why Me” and made it somewhat more acceptable to live through the ordinary pain of a seemingly extraordinary situation (or vice versa).
It helps to blur the line between ordinary and extraordinary, whichever end we think us to be on. When extraordinary strength is required for long-term challenging situations, it helps to remember that even ‘normal’ life feels the same periodically.
And when we think of ourselves as ordinary and normal, it helps to remember that we hold the potential for the extraordinary. When life is ‘normal’ we take for granted that only some special people have strength. We forget that they are choosing to be strong. All of us have the choice to go a bit beyond our comfort zone. Extraordinary resilience can emerge out of simple shifts in perspectives.
Choice of perspectives Is a gift of universal views Though reality seems tentative Be keen on your objective
As we choose to look at things differently Struggle becomes our responsibility As we refuse to think at things rigidly Change becomes an indisputable possibility When it seems like stuck for infinity That’s when actually life is flowing rapidly Let go and we get unstuck very easily
Choose what you want to change Change what you choose to change Insist to receive from what you perceive Find it within you to realize your view
The perceived may be turbulent When you be present and persistent Look at and let go of being resistant The received is sure to be opulent
Be relentless in pursuing life A glorious one now that you are at it And watch how life becomes relentless In what it has to offer you It is up to you how much you catch it
All things big and small when dropped to the felt sense become our internal experiences. No experience is ordinary or extraordinary, in some ways. Just because it happens to everyone and is normal, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be affected. If our thoughts and emotions are taking over that means our experience is real. It is affecting the quality of our life. Acceptance is being aware of all of that.
When fear grips, it means some perceived and real experiences of the world around us have left us with no control over how we feel and choose. When our system is out of balance the fear might bring up some pain or symptoms in the body. We might feel agitation, worry, or confusion in the mind, we lose the capacity to trust and feel positive. It becomes a struggle even when we have had a taste of divine faith before. We now seem to have lost the ability to be congruent with the core of our original being.
It is helpful at such times to create experiences to influence our system in the direction of balance. This can be done in various ways. A breathing practice that brings the body and mind to a calmer & clearer state of being, time in solitude, or nature with nurturing activities. Reading and music provide that relief for some. Sometimes we just need honest conversations with people who can act as authentic mirrors to us. Either a friend or mentor who reinforces and channels that sense of trust, faith, or divine connection back in our system.
There is tremendous rich value in this process of intentional shifts between imbalance & balance, ordinary & extraordinary, and fear & faith. I am blessed to be a receiver of such reinforcements from friends and teachers that I reach out to. I am also grateful to have opportunities to facilitate such shifts through the yoga classes that I teach in group and private sessions.
Pragalbha Doshi lives with her husband and 2 teenage boys in San Jose, CA. As a yoga teacher, she facilitates therapy & change for people who struggle with chronic symptoms of stress, physical & emotional, and who want a productive & fulfilling life www.yogasaar.com.She is deeply grateful to the community Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley and founder Jyoti Bachani for having a friendly affirmative space to read poetry aloud for a very generous audience during their weekly virtual meetings.
I’ve been revisiting the rich teachings and wisdom of my Vedic heritage as I traverse my golden years. Examining them through the lens of the world around me today, I realize the need to re-interpret Vanaprastha and Sannyasa for myself, for the present day in which I live. Back in those ‘golden-olden’ days, society looked after an individual entering Vanaprastha; he or she did not have to worry about the next meal or a roof overhead. Today, so many of our fellow seniors cannot see beyond a meal for the day. How can they possibly contemplate transitioning from the obligations of a householder? How can they detach from society to enter introspection? How best can the more fortunate among us – those who have enjoyed a decent life, and are now reasonably secure in their circumstances – deal with the ‘emptiness’ of the transition from Grihasta?
Come and walk with me for a while on my quest to be a modern-day Yogi in today’s America, and I’ll tell you.
Historic path to self-realization
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a collection of around two hundred statements, observations or truths that describe the science of Yoga in its entirety. The Yoga Sutras describe the Raja Yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga – the eight-step practice that enables individuals to attain self-control, discipline, internal clarity, peace and ultimately self-realization or Samadhi – the ecstatic union of the individual with the cosmos. Scholars believe these primary scriptures of Yoga were written around the 2nd century BCE. Through the intervening centuries, philosophers and learned sages have been pulling at the threads of Patanjali’s work, translating and explaining them for our consumption.
Each stage or limb of Ashtanga Yoga builds naturally on those that precede it. The first four limbs are designed to help us gain control over our bodies and become aware of ourselves. When you or I talk about ‘practicing yoga,’ we are referring to Asana, the third limb which follows Yama and Niyama. The postures we practice – often referred to as Hatha Yoga – help us maintain physical health and well-being. In addition, they promote self-discipline, focus and concentration, and prepare us for meditation. Pranayama, which literally means life-force extension, is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga, and consists of breath-control techniques to rejuvenate the body and extend life. It is either practiced on its own, or integrated into Hatha Yoga routines.
The next three stages, Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana are preparation for the last, ultimate stage: Samadhi. They involve a conscious withdrawal from the outside world and an effort to transcend external stimuli to focus increasingly inward. This cultivation of detachment and an increased effort to concentrate and singularly focus inward, while leveraging the training in posture and breath control leads naturally to Dhyana: meditation or contemplation.
Meditation or Mindfulness?
In Eastern philosophy, cultures and tradition – whether it be the scientific path of Yoga or one of the more monastic forms of Buddhism, meditation is a practice that combines inward focus and concentration with controlled breathing, allowing individuals to follow their breath to an inner harmonious state. Harmony, peace, tranquility, and compassion both for self and others should follow.
The prevalence of meditation in other cultures and religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has traditionally been described by scholars as self-administered techniques for inner transformation. Attempts to link meditation and spirituality have created controversy. Western meditation typically involved the reading of religious texts, prayer, and contemplation. Worldwide interest in Eastern forms of meditation and their adoption began in earnest around the middle of the 20th century as travel increased. The same period witnessed a rapid decline of religion, especially Christianity, in the US, Europe, and most of the Western world. This trend, coupled with a marked increase in stress and mental-health issues induced by the unrelenting pace of modern life and work began to drive people to seek other sources for comfort and healing; to the practice of meditation and the health benefits that accrue from it. A growing body of scientific evidence verifies what Patanjali taught centuries ago: regular meditation improves physical and mental health; it reduces blood pressure, helps with digestive disorders, eases the symptoms of anxiety and depression, improves sleep, and promotes physical changes in the brain that promote better overall health.
We often hear the term mindfulness these days; some use it interchangeably with meditation. There are differences, however. Meditation is a practice, while mindfulness is a state or quality.
Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Mindfulness is a cultivated behavior, the process of focusing one’s attention. We can derive a lot of value by making it part of our way of life. Mindfulness and being in the moment are key to building resilience and overcoming adversity and stress. The essence of mindfulness is embedded in the practices of Ashtanga Yoga.
Whether you are on the Ashtanga path towards the ultimate goal of a Yogi, an agnostic, or a disbeliever; whether you practice this or that religion or are an atheist, whether you are on the modern-day treadmill seemingly getting nowhere, or attuned with Mother Nature with days filled with purpose, the regular practice of meditation is good for your body, your mind, and your soul. Regardless of what terminology you use – mindfulness or something else, the ability to focus your attention and be in the present moment with equanimity is worth developing. Attributions to East or West and distinguishing between shades of meaning may be interesting philosophically or may make for a robust debate, but they do not change the individual outcome. Meditation, pranayama, and mindfulness transcend culture, religion, and national or political boundaries. They have intrinsic value. Pranayama and meditation should be part of all stages of our life journey. I’m trying to make them part of mine.
Heading towards Liberation
In Vedic culture, the path of Ashtanga Yoga weaves through the four Ashramas or stages of spiritual life. Beginning with Brahmacharya or student life, the Ashramas set a living framework and define spiritual practices based on the duties and responsibilities required at each stage of life, as the individual progresses on a path towards ultimate self-realization or Samadhi. Brahmacharya sets the foundation, provides learning about family life and community, teaches spiritual practice, and provides yogic training. The second stage of life is spent as a Grihastha or householder – raising and supporting a family, following one’s worldly interests, continuing to drink from the fountain of Jnana, and carrying out the teachings of Bhakti and Karma Yoga. Once these responsibilities are fulfilled, the individual begins to withdraw from the world into the transitional stage of Vanaprastha, counseling the family and community while becoming increasingly more detached, with decreasing attention to the world and surroundings. Attention instead turns inward in preparation for the final stage: Sannyasa or renunciation, working towards the attainment of Samadhi, and ultimately seeking Moksha or salvation.
Every religion and culture addresses Moksha –liberation from the state of being human to become one with the cosmos or some higher power – in its own terms, and with its own descriptions and definitions of both the pathway and the ultimate end state. The Bhagavad Gita describes three margas or pathways: Bhakti (devotion), Jnana (knowledge), and Karma (duty or service). You will find proponents and devoted followers of each approach. The descriptions, discussions, and discourse on each alternative, and the relative merits of one versus the other would fill a small library.
While commenting on Adi Sankara’s renowned devotional hymn Bhaja Govindam, the elder statesman and writer C. Rajagopalachari stated “the way of devotion is not different from the way of knowledge or jnana. When intelligence matures and lodges securely in the mind, it becomes wisdom. When wisdom integrates with life and issues out in action, it becomes bhakti. Knowledge when it becomes fully mature is Bhakti. If it does not get transformed into Bhakti, such knowledge is useless tinsel. To believe that knowledge and devotion, jnana and bhakti are different from each other is ignorance.”
Intuitively, and from an objective viewpoint, one could argue – and I do – that ultimately all three paths overlap. I would leave the distinctions to philosophers and debaters.
Re-defining my path
This sets the stage for the central tenet I wish to present. Each of us is formed by our experiences. The older among us were born in India, growing up in an environment with traditional culture and roots, in society and familial environment that formed our values and guided our practices of daily living. We now live – either in India or relocated in our adopted countries – in a modern world that has transformed significantly in the space of a generation. During this transformation, we’ve had to adapt to a new way of life. We’ve changed in many ways and adjusted to different societal norms and thinking. The attitudes and practices of daily living have changed for most of us. I would argue that in either era – then or now, most people would not move all the way up the ladder of Ashtanga Yoga and attain a level of Yogic discipline and practice to be prepared and ready to renounce their way of life and enter Sannyasa in a quest for Samadhi. A few might, but not most. To the rest of us today, I pose the question: can we adapt the guidance of our ancient Yoga Scriptures and build for ourselves the model of a modern-day Yogi?
I posit that we should embrace the conceptual basis of Vanaprastha and Sannyasa spiritually, and adapt them for our modern times. We should treat Vanaprastha not as a time for transition and withdrawal, but as a time for liberation and increased activism. During this stage of life, Bhakti Yoga provides enrichment, courage, and support as we sustain ourselves in the face of the realities of aging. Let’s leverage this support to actively pursue the path of Karma Yoga –selfless service to others – and work for the benefit of our communities, always dipping into the ocean of Jnana to learn how better to serve our fellow man. Continue to find strength and comfort in Bhakti Yoga. By doing so, we will find our Sukham – joy and fulfillment. As we continue our service, we will slowly but surely embed tiny fragments of ourselves in our fellow human beings, and find our own salvation through each of them. We will successfully make our transition to an ecstatic union with the cosmos.
Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents.
Presently our lives are topsy turvy and we are dealing with the reality that the coronavirus will be with us for a long time. The whole world has paused. The new normal is one of uncertainty as our lives have been disrupted. We are unable to meet our friends, vacation, go to work, or school. We wake up hearing more disturbing news of the stock market, unemployment, rising number of cases, and deaths.
Before the pandemic hit us, we took things for granted. We did not value the simple things of life. Being able to walk and breathe without a mask, meeting friends and family, hugs, eating at restaurants, shopping at stores, have become luxuries.
Many of us felt fear for our lives and our loved ones when we heard of the COVID -19 virus, then came a feeling of frustration and irritability which led to the anger of being locked down. Gradually our communities have started to open and some of us step out cautiously with paying attention to social distancing and wearing a mask. Life has changed!
This has been a difficult time for me too, but as time goes by I have realized that I have to make the most of what I have. I nurture my mental physicaland spiritual health. This lockdown has made me aware of my inner strength, resiliency, and compassion.
We are caught up in our busy schedules and many of us are unaware of who we are. During the pandemic, things have slowed down and we have time to tune in to our thoughts and feelings. Use this as a time of self-discovery, to dive deeper into understanding who you are. This time of self-isolation is to search for answers to get to know your true self.
Many of us are naturally anxious or unhappy at this time and find it difficult to move towards balance and peace, but it is possible. Consider making one or more of these methods an integral part of your life. They may help you with your own self-discovery.
Meditation: The practice of mindfulness, a practice for mental health and clarity. Self-discovery meditation could be done in a simple manner. It is a way to calm the mind and body with relaxation and to get in tune with your inner self. By regularly meditating you will be able to live a more thoughtful and introspective life.
Find a quiet place with no distractions. Do switch off your electronics.
Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
Breathe naturally, in and out.
In your relaxed yet alert state, ask yourself a few questions to stay focused.
Questions you can ask yourself could be, “ I would like to know my strengths; I would like to know my weaknesses; who am I: how do I achieve my goal, etc.
Or you can use one word or mantra such as discovery, belief, knowledge, etc to help you focus.
Focus your attention on the mantra and drop into the depths of your inquiry where the answers arise. if unable to do that then bring yourself back to your breath.
Feel the sensations in your body of each inhalation and exhalation and let it flow.
After 10 to 15 minutes open your eyes and sit still. Try and recall if you felt anything that helped you understand yourself just a little bit more.
This requires daily practice, time, and patience to move towards the path of self-discovery. As you move towards this goal, meditation will help calm your mind.
Journaling:During this unprecedented time, try to pay attention to your mental health. Journaling is a very effective and simple manner of tracking yourself over a period of time. You just need a pen and paper or you can journal on your phone.
Journaling helps you look back and see your progress, patterns, emotional triggers, and what you have overcome. If you see yourself feeling negative often then journaling will help you identify this pattern. You can train yourself to write positive affirmations and think with a more hopeful attitude. It can help you identify your aspirations and overcome your fears.
I have found journaling to be like self-counseling which has put me on the path of self- discovery and getting to know the authentic me.
Walking: An exercise for our physical well-being and also for our mental health. Walking in nature, absorb what is around you through your senses Do not have any distractions with headphones or any electronics. Get more introspective and let your thoughts wander. If your thoughts continuously move to the negative then try and bring it back to the one thing which made you smile.
For example, you are irritated with something happening at work and it keeps expressing itself repeatedly. What do you do? While walking, observe your breath and focus on it, till you are calm. Then start appreciating where you are and enjoy that moment. When your mind goes back to the irritability bring it back to the breath and the beauty around you. It takes practice but soon you will find that you are in the present moment while walking.
Gratitude: As life has changed for us, it is not easy to feel gratitude.
Try and have compassion for yourself at this time and when you are able to do this, you will feel that you are able to express gratitude for yourself and others. Gratitude is a positive emotion and can help let go of the negative emotions which we feel during this time.
I have a gratitude jar in which I write the simplest of things I am grateful for. After a week I look at them and feel that I am fortunate in so many ways and this helps me move forward.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is when you take notice of what is happening right now and when your mind wanders, then you bring it back to the moment. I urge all of you to engage in mindfulness throughout the day. Be in the moment of what you are doing and observe it and your feelings but do this non-judgmentally.
Some of us don’t realize the strong emotions of sadness, fear, and anxiety which the pandemic has brought on. With the practice of mindfulness, we can reduce these triggers slowly and move towards feeling more balanced.
Get in touch with your soul. Keep searching for answers, look within, and find your courage, passions, dreams, and happiness. Keep introspectively exploring till you find your true self. Go on, raise your consciousness, and be a higher version of yourself.
Some sixty people gathered at the Yale University Art Gallery on a summer afternoon to mindfully gaze at a single painting. It was the only one in the vast space. They stared andstared at a James Turrell print – the white, rectangular coffin-like box at the center of the frame was engulfed by varying shades of grey and black. It was bleak, and I wasn’t connecting with the artist.
But then, standing by were Anne Dutton, teacher of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course at the Yale Stress Center, and Danielle Casioppo, a Health Educator for Being Well at Yale. Turrell’s ‘Shanta’ is the culmination of a five-week, drop-in session of mindfulness in art.
Extensive research has established a strong link between meditation and neuroplasticity – the ability of our brain to change in response to something that we do and experience. In a 2008 paper titled Buddha Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation, authors Richard J. Davidson and Antoine Lutz point to several studies, including one which registered a stronger activation in regions of the brain of expert meditators – with an average of 19,000 hours of practice – compared to beginners.
Intimidating data like this can leave many of us staring with longing and trepidation at the summit from base camp. But here’s some astoundingly good news: Harvard researchers in 2011 discovered a staggering link between short-term mindfulness practice and a change in brain physiology. The researchers took magnetic resonance images of 16 newbies before and after they enrolled in an eight-week MBSR program. The result? An increase in grey matter within the left hippocampus, compared to the control group of 17 individuals. After just eight weeks of practice, the brains of MBSR participants underwent a positive change in regions involved with learning and memory, the regulation of emotion, and perspective taking.
Here I was, staring at a Turrell.
“My work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, although it is a product of my seeing. I’m also interested in the sense of presence of space; that is space where you feel a presence, almost an entity — that physical feeling and power that space can give,” Turrell states on his website.
Are there techniques to help broaden one’s perception? I was about to find out.
The group’s goal was to apply mindfulness methods to heighten awareness, to pay attention in a particular way, and to be undistracted by all other stimuli.
To achieve this, we began with a body scan led by Danielle. From the toes to the head, you direct your awareness to specific parts of your body to identify tightness or discomfort. You mentally relax the area and somewhere along the way, you start to relax. Anne then had everyone focus on the breath – the sensation of the in-breath and out-breath.
At the end of this exercise, we were ready to view the art again. Some reactions from the participants:
The box looked less like a coffin.
The art itself had gained awareness – it was reaching out to the viewer from the frame.
The participants reflected in the glass had become a part of the work.
After meditation there is a feeling of being unconfined. The little white box was now quite lovely.
There are so many ways of looking at art. At experiences. At life. At each other. At ourselves.
“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are,” Anais Nin reportedly said.
My afternoon at Yale culminated with my seeing the box not solely as a coffin, but as a drawer jutting out from the grey wall. A space opening up for me to fill with color – possibly kites, possibly scarves, injecting joy to the image.
Both formal and informal mindfulness practice have three components, Anne told me.
Attitude – acceptance of an experience. You don’t have to like the experience – resisting it creates stress. It’s a bit like me becoming more open to the Turrell piece.
I then asked Danielle if she could give you a simple, daily mindfulness practice that will fit into your busy life. She came up with this – but first, she offers some guidelines.
Do one task and one task only. For example, listen to the sound of water as you pour yourself some tea. Feel the warm cup in your hands. Be aware of these simple sounds and sensations. That means no texting while drinking tea, for instance. Don’t put your mind on autopilot all the time.
Be aware of what you are thinking. “You don’t have to believe everything you think. You don’t have to act on everything you think if you don’t want to,” she says.
And now, the practice.
Start with one minute of observing your breath, once a day. In-breath. Out-breath. You can do this sitting or lying down. When the mind wanders, “gently, kindly, bring it back to the breath,” Danielle advises.
After a week, increase your practice to two times a day, one minute each in the morning and before bedtime.
During the third week, you could do two minutes two times a day, or three minutes once a day.
“You are giving yourself permission to pause and just be with your breath, your body, your cup of tea, your spouse, your child, your friend, nature – be fully present with that other entity. Allow the time to mono-task. Doing that is so good for our brains, our emotional self,” Danielle says. “That’s how we get so much more out of life.”
Today’s toast comes hot off the stove
Sujata Srinivasan is an award-winning Connecticut-based journalist with the nonprofit Connecticut Health Investigative Team. Web: www.sujatasrinivasan.com. Twitter @SujataSrini
On average, 46.9% of our waking time is spent in thinking and letting our minds wander. When we spend close to half of our waking moments in this manner we better have some monitoring in place unless we want to live caged by our thoughts.
Back in my college days, my friends and I decided to visit Dharamshala, one of the famous tourist attractions in the state of Himachal Pradesh, best-known for its magnificently breath-taking snow-covered Dhaula Dhar mountains. During the trip, I visited a Buddhist monastery located in McLeodganj, a suburb of Dharamshala. As soon as I entered the monastery, a sense of calm came upon me. I felt a connectedness to everything around and within myself. I had never experienced anything like this before.
The sight of meditating monks, the sounds of gongs at prayer time, the spinning wheels around the sidewalks and the vibe of that monastery stayed with me for a long time. The effect was so profound that I decided I would visit the place again.
Two years later I did visit the monastery again with my family. Both times, it was not just the memory of the beautiful and astonishing monastery surrounded by the splendid Himalayas that lingered on, but the feelings associated with the experience, the revelation of something surreal, pleasant and peaceful.
It was many years later that I had the opportunity to investigate those feelings.
I was introduced to the concept of meditation three years ago when in a very casual conversation with my friend she mentioned Ageless Body, Timeless Mindby Deepak Chopra.
I had never read any of Deepak Chopra’s books nor was I planning to. With a little baby and a toddler and a full time job, my plate was already full. Severely sleep-deprived, reading was the last thing I wanted to do. But I was intrigued by its title.
As I began reading, what really caught my attention was the emphasis on meditation. I didn’t quite understand the quantum physics application to healing and I attribute it to my ignorance of quantum physics in general, but the concept of meditation got the bells ringing in my head.
Being a skeptic, it was not easy for me to embrace the idea of meditation right away. This book was just a pointer to look in a direction that I had not considered before. With my newfound interest and curiosity on the subject, I dived into the subject of meditation and mindfulness and gradually things started registering.
Making Friends With Yourself
Meditation (dhyana in Sanskrit) is the practice of concentrated focus upon a sound, object, image, breath, movement, or attention itself in order to increase awareness of the present moment, gradually relaxing the mind to enhance personal and spiritual growth. Meditation is a way of becoming so familiar with your thoughts, feelings, behavior patterns and attitudes that it becomes a way to get to know yourself intimately. It’s a process of making friends with yourself.
Instead of turning your attention outward, to other people or the external world, you turn it inward back on yourself. As a result, it could change the way you relate to the world.
The practice of meditation is believed to have its roots in the ancient Vedic traditions of India. It is speculated that it originated more than 5,000 years ago and served as a means to understand and get closer to the true nature of God (Brahman) by Hindus.
And almost 2,500 years ago, meditation evolved when one of the best-known figures in the history of meditation, Siddhartha Gautama, attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree and became Buddha. He practiced meditation to achieve his personal awakening to truth and reality.
Meditation became an essential part of Buddhism in this era and spread to Tibet, China, Japan, and the rest of Asia. The essential difference in the ancient Vedic meditation technique and the one used by Buddhist followers is that the former serves as a means of getting closer to an understanding of a higher being, the latter serves as a means of realizing one’s interconnectedness with all things.
Some forms of meditation were introduced in the United States in the early 1900s, but gained momentum in the mid-twentieth century when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian spiritual teacher introduced the Transcendental Meditation technique (the one based on ancient Vedic tradition of enlightenment) to the Western world.
In Transcendental Meditation (TM), the meditator sits with closed eyes and concentrates on a single syllable or word (mantra) for 20 minutes at a time. During TM, ordinary waking mental activity is said to settle down, until the thinking mind is transcended and a self-referential state of pure wakefulness or awareness is experienced.
Not a Religious Practice
In the 1960s and 1970s meditation caught the attention of many researchers and professors and became the subject of academic research. Until then, meditation was not adopted in healthcare as it was considered to be a religious practice.
Dr. Herbert Benson did pioneering research at Harvard University that showed that meditation acts as an antidote to stress and can be effectively used to promote general well-being and relaxation. After studying the physiology of meditation, he developed an approach very similar to TM called “Relaxation Response,” where he taught patients to focus upon the repetition of a word, sound, or phrase for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. The phrase for repetition does not have to be in Sanskrit. This strips meditation of its association with religion.
Better Things To Do In Life vs Doing Things Much Better In Life
Twelve years ago my cousin started a Buddhist mantra chanting group. She suggested I should do the same if I wanted my wishes to come true. She wrote the mantra on a piece of paper which I accepted politely.
But the rebel in my head said, “You are only 25 and you have better things to do in life than letting this bunch of superstitious people convert you to Buddhism. Just disappear.”
I am glad I did the disappearing act then. I am not critical of what she was doing, but the reasoning she gave me was enough to steer me against it. The transformation (though pretty ironical) from someone who thinks that I have better things to do in life to someone who wants to do things much better with meditation didn’t happen overnight. It was a gradual process, which involved wrapping my head around the concepts, realizing that I can be wise and sane in the middle of chaos. The realization that I could feel a little less miserable during challenging times; That I can tame my monkey mind that grasps and holds onto trivial things; That I can face my worries, fears, insecurities bang on; That I can accept the impermanence of every thought, emotion and feeling, and above all have some control over the constant chatter going on in my head.
I started meditating on my own with the help of guided meditations available online. Meditation does sound simple at first as all you have to do is to sit and watch your breath and do nothing. But our mind has never learnt to do nothing.
My mind kept slipping to its default mode and my attention kept wandering to everything other than my breath. Out of the five minutes, I was spacing out for more than 4 minutes and 30 seconds. Nevertheless, I continued my practice. It felt like going to the gym and dealing with sore muscles.
Initially, the mind does offer a lot of inertia to your practice, but slowly the attention muscles start developing and I began to experience that relaxation that all the studies have claimed. I noticed improvements in my sleep patterns within a few days. Not only was I falling asleep faster, with less tossing and turning, I was able to remain asleep for longer hours.
Another form of meditation which became the subject of research and gained some traction in recent years. Also known as Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, Mindfulness is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist meditation. Among all the different forms of meditation, mindfulness is unique as it is not directed to take us someplace other than where we are. It teaches us to be more present to everything that is, fully aware, without judgment or analysis. Mindfulness means paying complete attention to a particular experience.
For example, drinking tea or coffee can be a mindful exercise if you choose to pay attention to every sensation in your body as you drink the beverage. How does it feel as it’s going down your throat? Is it warm or hot? How is the taste? Sweet or strong? Stay with the experience of drinking without looking at your phone or TV and also without telling yourself a story like: “I wish it tasted more like the one I drank yesterday,” or “It would have been better if I bought it from a coffee shop instead of making it myself.” It is the idea of consciously remaining unattached yet observant.
In the words of Dr. Swati Desai, founder of 2meditate, and a long-term mindfulness teacher, “The power of Mindfulness lies in this: it is Secular and yet Sacred, Simple yet Serious, Ancient yet backed by Modern Science, and it gets you out of “me and mine” by paying attention to “me and mine.”
The practice of Mindfulness Meditation involves sitting in a comfortable position (either on a chair or a cushion) with your spine straight and allowing your posture to be upright. Take a few deep breaths in and out, exhaling and inhaling fully. As breathing becomes simple and natural, direct your attention to the natural rhythm of your breath, noticing the sensations as you breathe in and out. If your attention wanders, gently bring it back to your breath. When thoughts arise, acknowledge them without getting caught in the story, gently returning to the breath. By stepping outside the story we can begin to non-identify. Developing this moment by moment awareness of any experience without pushing it away or holding on to it is mindfulness.
In Mindfulness we don’t label an experience as good or bad. Whether it’s painful or pleasant we treat it the same way. This is called the emotionally non-reactive state or equanimity (stillness and balance of mind). If left to itself, the mind keeps ruminating about the past or imagining the future and has trouble remaining in the “NOW.”
We are slaves to our deeply ingrained mental habits and patterns and Mindfulness changes that relationship by purposefully directing our attention to the object of our focus.
There are five primary benefits of mindfulness, according to Dr. Desai. She summarizes them in an easy to remember acronym CREST. C is for Concentration, R is for Relaxation (reducing stress and anxiety), E is for Equanimity (evenness of mind which helps in dealing with ups and downs of life better), S is Self-Awareness and T is for Taming self-sabotaging habits. Some of the secondary benefits may include a better immune system, lower inflammation, decreased pain, better cognitive capabilities, more empathy and compassion, more resilience, and a better ability to relate to people.
The essential difference in the ancient Vedic meditation technique and the one used by Buddhist followers is that the former serves as a means of getting closer to an understanding of a higher being, the latter serves as a means of realizing one’s interconnectedness with all things.
The Science Behind It
One of the most compelling studies on mindfulness was done by Sara Lazar at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Participants (who never meditated before) meditated for eight weeks every day for 30 minutes and MRI brain scans were taken before starting the practice and after its completion. The results showed that 8 weeks of practice can change the gray matter in the areas associated with learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking. Most particularly, there was a decrease in the gray matter in the amygdala (the area associated with the flight and fight response) which resulted in reduction in stress and anxiety.
One of the studies that came out of the University of Toronto shows that long term meditators are better in keeping two neuronal circuits of the brains disengaged compared to non-meditators.
One circuit is called the default circuit which is active when we are daydreaming, ruminating, or planning for the future. This is also called the narrative circuit of the brain, which is active for most of the waking period and doesn’t take much effort to operate. The other circuit is called the direct experience circuit that gets activated when you are experiencing the information coming to you in real time. It enables more sensory information to be perceived, which allows you to get closer to the reality of any event. The ability to switch between the circuits is more developed in meditators where as non-meditators are more likely to automatically take the narrative path. That explains the better cognitive and decision-making capabilities in meditators.
Neuroscientist David Richardson carried out brain imaging tests on Tibetan monks who are long term meditators and also on novice meditators. The results show that monks have greater gamma wave activity in their brains compared to the other group. Gamma wave activity is associated with higher mental processes like increased sensory perception, cognition and memory formation and recall.
All these studies eventually prove the ability of the brain to continuously evolve structurally and functionally. On average, 46.9% of our waking time is spent in thinking and letting our minds wander. When we spend close to half of our time in this manner we better have some monitoring in place unless we want to live caged by our thoughts.
I continued to focus on my breath for 10 to 15 minutes more and as the plane got up to speed on the runway to take off, my small dose of meditation was fueling my brain by clearing the fog of anxiety and gearing me towards the take-off on my own mental runway.
My “Aha!” Moment
It happened when I boarded a flight to India and had a panic attack before the flight took off. I knew I was anxious but didn’t realize that my travel anxiety had grown big enough to throw me into a full-fledged panic attack. My heart started racing and I was shivering, hyperventilating, and gasping for breath. It was very embarrassing to be surrounded by the flight crew trying to help and assure me that flying was not that hard. When one of the flight attendants told us that they can’t let us fly in this condition, my husband whispered in my ears—“tickets are non-refundable, you better pull yourself together, and I know you can do it.”
I went to my seat, closed my eyes, and focused on my breath. A few minutes later my breathing returned to normal. My heart stopped racing and my nerves stopped acting out. I continued to focus on my breath for 10 to 15 minutes more and as the plane picked up speed on the runway, my small dose of meditation was fueling my brain by clearing the fog of anxiety and gearing me towards the take-off on my own mental runway.
That day I gained a valuable insight into how my compulsively obsessive fear of travel overpowered me putting me in a situation where I was caught off-guard, vulnerable and weak.
Here is a definition of meditation which aptly describes what happened to me: “A practice to rediscover our hidden neuroses and our hidden sanity at the same time.”
Mindfulness is heavily influenced by Eastern culture but what makes it attractive to the modern world is the science behind it.
Big companies like Google, Ford, Target, General Mills, and Aetna have started offering mindfulness practices to their employees. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques—MBSR (launched by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979) have been widely used by psychologists in treating stress, anxiety and depression in their patients. Models similar to MBSR are also getting adopted in schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans’ centers, and beyond.
A program called Quiet Time was launched at San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley Middle School in 2007. The students at the school were reportedly stressed and agitated due to gang violence and drugs in the community. Just a month after meditation began, teachers reported that bullying went down, kids were happier, less stressed, paying more attention, working harder and results improved considerably.
Responding instead of Reacting
But is this the reason I want to adopt this practice?
Will I be able to remain truthful to the practice if my reasons are based on some external validations beyond my control? The answer is, of course, no.
I realized that by incorporating meditation into my daily life I was not learning anything new, but unlearning everything that I had learnt so far (not that it’s causing any amnesia or memory loss). Unlearning habitual patterns of thinking and reacting, which is a result of years of conditioning either by society, family, friends, school, peers or environment on the whole that we grew up in. When layers of conditioning are sliced one by one, we are able to see ourselves unadulterated, complete, and absolute.
Equipped with this new lens to view every situation and circumstance, we start responding instead of reacting. Instead of dwelling inside our thoughts we start dwelling in the awareness behind those thoughts.
For anyone who wants to take a plunge in this practice, my advice would be to not adopt it for the sake of being part of some trend which appears cool. You might get the benefits but sticking to it and gaining discipline will be a challenge.
Try to understand what it is and why you want to do it. Is it to ease stress and feel more relaxed, or deal with anger or difficult emotions or develop more compassion and resilience?
Figure which part of you is getting nourished by it. Ask the right questions and choose mindfulness mindfully. This way you will be more open and receptive to its benefits.
And remember—don’t try too hard. There will be days when your mind wanders more, just acknowledge that too.
Thanks to Dr. Swati Desai, founder of 2Meditate (www.2meditatetogether.com) for her valuable insights into Mindfulness
A software engineer by profession, Tamanna Raisinghani intends to add more meaning to life by pursuing interests in mind body relationship and meditation.