Friday, December 24, 2010

Of language and cultural roots

This is going to be a different blog...not on Vipassana meditation which I have been writing all along (though it has some links to it) but something which bothers me from time to time.

Today, when I spoke to my mother in the morning she mentioned that she was listening to a discourse on the "Thiruppavai" played on a TV Channel. After my conversation with her, I looked up the internet for video/audio recordings of the verses and listened and recited the verses.

It took me back to those days when the month of Margazhi ( a month in the Tamil calendar between December 16th to January 16th) was celebrated in my parents home in Hyderabad. Everyday, I would wake up listening to my mother's chanting of the Thiruppavai verses; sometimes she would listen to them played on the local radio channel (those were the days before the TV). There were days when she would make me recite some of them too. I did that with difficulty as I could never get the pronunciations correct.

In the evenings there was a discourse in the nearby school where a learned brahmin would expound on the verses. My parents attended these discourses regularly, and sometimes I accompanied them. And then there was a competition among children of various age groups on the recitation of these verses. My mother was called to judge these competitions and I would accompany her to these as well. I never took part in the competition--I did not know the verses well enough to compete with others, and probably my mother was too busy at work ( she was a teacher in a school & also did a lot of the housework) to teach me. So I grew up picking up bits and pieces of the verses but am not very perfect in them.

Those days it was never very clear to me whether this was a religious exercise, a cultural one or a part of tamil literature. But there was richness in the whole thing. Waking up to the chantings of the verses, my mother's morning prayers, the fragrance of incense and flowers, the ringing of a small puja bell, and finally the aarti.

In school we learned different things--we learned English and my mother was proud that her children went to a convent school. I did not learn my native language, Tamil, in school. The medium of instruction was English and one of the languages that we were also required to learn was Hindi, because it was and is the national language.
Learning Hindi was difficult because nobody spoke that language at home and I struggled with it during tests and examinations. Another strange thing about learning a language in school in India was that the focus was on reading and writing and not much on speaking. It was only years later that I could learn to speak Hindi well---only when I went to live in Mumbai as an adult.

I was never good in my native language, Tamil. I could barely speak fluently. The heavy emphasis given to English in school resulted in using that language to communicate at home as well. My family made fun of the little Tamil I spoke--either the pronunciation was not correct or my vocabulary wasn't large enough to maintain a decent conversation. And there was that fear of being made fun of, which reduced my attempts to speak.

Moving to Madras much later in life helped me pick up the language (Tamil)well. Because I was forced to use the language for my day-to day survival (that is the local language)I slowly became quite fluent in speaking and communicating in it. However, although my mother taught me the Tamil alphabet I could not read and write Tamil as well as English or Hindi. As I read and wrote exams in English and Hindi, I could read and write in them--but not in Tamil as I did not learn it in school.

Strangely, it was my involvement in Vipassana meditation for children that finally forced me to engage more in Tamil. I was asked to conduct meditation courses in Tamil for children and teenagers in Malaysia and so I taught myself the language. I am still not very good at it...but learning and improving slowly.

Listening to the Thiruppavai verses this morning and recalling and reciting them awakened me to the richness of Tamil language and literature.
The following website: helped me understand the meaning of the verses very well and a deep appreciation of my cultural roots.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An evening with AT Mr. Jayesh Soni

On Sunday the 19th December we had Mr. Jayesh Soni for dinner at home. Jayeshji is an Assistant Teacher of Vipassana meditation (Goenkaji's tradition). It was his first visit outside India and was actually on his way to Malaysia after conducting a one day course in Singapore.

It was very interesting to talk to him. Infact it is always interesting to talk to senior meditators of this tradition. They generally discuss the application of Dhamma in everyday life, one's progress on the path and one's grasp of the teaching.

He asked me about the courses I have attended and was impressed that I had been on this path for the past 15 years. He then asked me about my experiences in my long courses--20 day and 30 day.

I told him that I did my 20 day course in New Zealand because I wanted to have a breakthrough in my attachment for Indian food. He then told us a story of a group of monks who once visited a small village. An elderly lady in the village offered them food, and after a meal, the monks dispersed to the nearby forest to meditate. One day, out of curiosity, the lady asked the monks about their practice. Impressed with what they shared, she asked to become the head monk's lay disciple. The monk instructed her on the basic technique of Ananpana and then Vipassana. Practicing diligently in her home she soon reached the highest stages of meditation ---sotapanna (stream enterer), and then anagaami ( once returner). At this stage, she was able to penetrate her own mind as well as the minds of the other monks and find out at which stage they were in.

To her surprise she found that they hadn't yet come to the stage of Sotapanna and wondered why this was so. Being monks, they could give their complete time and energy to the practice and achieve high levels of success. Then why was this was not the case with these monks, she thought to herself. She then found out that the monks were quite worried about their source of food and this preoccupation hampered their progress on the path.

Therefore she decided to offer them food on regular basis, so that they would be free of that concern and could work diligently towards liberation. The point Jayeshji was trying to make was that food and some basic necessities were important in order to meditate otherwise, our preoccupation with it will keep us from working properly. Point noted Jayeshji.

He then asked me about my 30 day course and what changes I saw in myself afterward. Now it was my turn to tell him the story of the skeptic's similar question to the Buddha and the Buddha's reply--that he gained nothing from meditation--he only lost his anger, insecurity and fears.

In addition, I replied that it was a deep and intense course and that I could see that some of my old habit patterns had changed. He asked if I was able to understand the Dhamma at a more deeper level, to which I replied in the affirmative adding that I was now convinced that this was the only way toward liberation.

He was amazed at my confidence and said how was I so sure? How could I say that this was the only way? There are so many ways to enlightenment---what was so special about this path and this teaching....(I knew he was testing me).

After a while of thinking deeply, I said that in my view, other paths focus on avoiding pain and achieving pleasure states. The essence of the Buddha's teaching was that one recognize the transiency of both pleasure and pain and thus move beyond this to experience true liberation. Pleasure was not a desired state as when one observes it deeply, it also causes suffering (as when we get separated from a pleasure object). Pain is always something that we want to avoid, and very often it is not avoidable. However the truth is that these are transient states and therefore reaching a state of balance, unfazed by the good and the bad happening around us is the key to liberation. This is the unique and special teaching of the Buddha, which resonates with me deeply and which convinces me that it is the only way to liberation from suffering.

Not only is there logic in this kind of reasoning, there is a clear path to follow in order to achieve freedom from suffering.

Jayeshji was pleased, and so was I with the discussion.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Changing old habits of thinking

'What we think has consequences for the world around us, for it conditions how we act' writes Eknath Easwaran, explaining the Buddha's teaching.

This reminds us to be mindful of our thoughts. But very often we are not and some thoughts are recurrent, destructive, unproductive and uncontrollable.

Its about 5 months since I returned from my one month course in Vipassana meditation (Igatpuri, India). The experience was intense, transforming certain deep habit patterns of the mind. In these 5 months of my return I have been able to maintain my daily practice fairly regularly and this has helped me retain some of the changes I experienced in the month long course.

One profound impact was the last discourse of the course, where Goenkaji explains in detail the 5 aggregates ( skandhas). Towards the end of the talk he reminds us that we are born alone in this world and we will depart alone from this world. The only thing that will go with us is our karma, the disintegration of the 5 skandhas at the time of death and its reorganization with a new body at the next birth. So he entreats us to be steadfast in our practice so that we bequeath a more evolved mind- set which would continue on the path of enlightenment and become fully liberated.

This was an important learning for me, as whenever I catch myself thinking in unhealthy or negative ways, I ask myself...If I were to die at this moment would I want to pass on this current mind state to the next person--the inheritor of this state? This usually forces me off negative thinking immediately. With continuity of meditative practices, negative thinking has decreased considerably, but however, sometimes they do surface.

Maybe it takes a lot of time and practice to change from deep within. At this stage in my practice, I am still torn between the old ways of thinking and the realization of the futility in engaging in them. When someone harms you, the old way implores you to harm the person in return, while the practice shows you that when you harm in return you only harm yourself. Moreover, indulging in negative, destructive thoughts creates a mental field of negative energy which in turn harms oneself.

It takes us quite a while to understand that a person causing harm is suffering himself/herself. When they are suffering so, its natural that that is what they can give others--pain and suffering. Ignorant of this we preoccupy ourselves with settling scores, harbouring angry, hateful vengeful thoughts. Abandoning this thinking and understanding the transiency of our pain alone can set us free from this vicious circle.

"He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me"---those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.
"He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me"-- those who do not dwell on such thoughts will surely become free from hatred.

For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law. People forget that their lives will end soon. For those who remember, quarrels come to an end."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Minding the Mind.

Some of the initial difficulties while sitting cross-legged and observing my natural respiration were 1. restlessness..I could not sit still for more than 10-15minutes 2. drowsiness and 3. mind on an autopilot..wandering off on its own.

Of these difficulties I could overcome the first two fairly quickly; but mind wandering has always been a challenge. In residential courses this challenge is some what manageable because the silence in the environment facilitates the quietening of the mind. Once back into the outside world, with all its hustle and bustle and noise, quietening the mind becomes quite a task. What I noticed after some courses of meditation, was that the practice seemed to resemble a well-learned skill.

The moment I sat on my cushion, I would start observing my breath and then my sensations and somewhere in this process, a part of my mind would roll off into thoughts, events and sometimes into sleep, and yet there was another part of my mind that seemed to be meditating---going through the body, observing sensations.

This part of my mind rolling off into other thoughts was similar to the experience of driving. In the initial stages of learning to drive I was totally focused on the road, traffic and changing gears, accelerating, braking etc. When the learning was over, and I started mastering the skill of driving, I would frequently find myself thinking of other things apart from driving. I would return to the road and my driving once in a way.

It took me quite a while to understand I was doing the same thing with meditation. A part of my mind was meditating and another part thinking of other things. Gradually and patiently I worked towards getting the entire mind on track--on meditation-and it is an ongoing process.

This is the fascinating part of helps one to become aware of what the mind is up to all the time and guides, corrects and regulates itself. Its like the mind mending itself! or better still, the mind minding the mind.

Minding the mind helps you increase your self-awareness---what am I doing right now? what did I set out to do and am I still on-task or off task? If off-task--how can I get back on task? If I am on task--how long can I keep it on-task?

This increase in self-awareness increases the ability to regulate one's behaviour--mental and physical. One becomes more in control of what is happening in the mind and on the body. This awareness slowly permeates your being, and becomes more and more effortless.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The teaching & practice

The once a week group sitting with two other co-meditators resumed today, at my house. We had a one month break from this routine as I was attending a course on Addiction and my classes were on Tuesday evenings.
Group meditations are always recommended as it helps one to maintain regularity of practice. It felt good today to have such a sitting.

In addition I have been reading some of the Suttas online and they have increased my understanding of the teaching. I subscribe to and I get nuggets of wisdom everyday in my email. These nuggets really help me get on with life especially when the going gets tough. They help me maintain my daily practice as well; because as my teacher Mr. Goenkaji says, if you have lost your daily practice, you have lost all. It's the practice as well as an intellectual understanding that really brings a change in the quality of one's life.

Today, I read the Silabbata Sutta: Precept & Practice . It is a verse wherein, The Buddha asks his assistant, Venerable Ananda : "Ananda, every precept & practice, every life, every holy life that is followed as of essential worth: is every one of them fruitful?"

I thought this was a very interesting question--as I have been asked why some people who take Vipassana courses again and again still remain unchanged.

To this question from The Buddha, Venerable Ananda replies, that when one's "unskillful mental qualities increase, and skillful mental qualities decrease, then that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life that is followed as of essential worth, is fruitless."
However, when one's "unskillful mental qualities decrease and skillful mental qualities increase, then that sort of precept & practice, life, holy life, that is followed as of essential worth is fruitful"

This means one has to be mindful, of the thoughts and actions one is engaging in, every moment of the day. Daily sitting practice helps to stay in the present moment and aids this awareness of one's thoughts and actions. With this awareness, one can choose how to respond to situations during the day, mindful about increasing skillful qualities and decreasing unskillful qualities.

What are skillful mental qualities? In my understanding, it is those qualities that come from compassion, fearlessness and acceptance of the other and/or the situation. It includes those qualities which help one to find a gap between a stimulus and response, consider one's available choices and then act. Unskillful qualities, in my understanding are those which are reactive, immediate and devoid of careful thought and consideration. They are born out of fear, anxiety and perceived threat.

Wonderful teaching--so much depth in understanding of human thinking and behaviour!

Thursday, November 11, 2010


And how does a monk dwell Aware?

Herein a friend dwells contemplating any body as a void frame only;
as a transient, painful and impersonal neither-me-nor-mine appearance,
while alert, ballanced and deliberately aware, thereby overcoming
any mental rejection of reality, arisen from coveting
this world
Exactly so does he dwell with regard to any feeling..
with regard to any mood and mentality..
with regard to any phenomenon..
Only precisely so is a Noble One Acutely Aware!

The words that caught my attention here were: Awareness that helps over come any mental rejection of reality, arisen from coveting this world.

Profound words with such depth in meaning!

It was only in my 20 day course that I realized the constant evaluation I engage in every situation I am in. Whatever happens in the course of my day, I keep telling myself, " I like this, ...." "I don't like that..." -whether it be the events, incidents that occur or what I read about or what I hear being said.

In the recent incident that happened in my life, I noticed that I did the same thing. Although my awareness of this tendency has increased in the past few years, some old habit patterns take more time to change. After all, as my 30 -day meditation teacher Meena Tank said, "Hum ab tak arhant toh nahi bane..." ( We haven't become a fully enlightened person yet). But definitely in the process of learning to get free from the bondages that keep us in this samsara.

mental rejection of reality

Ever so often life presents us with situations that is so difficult to accept. We wonder why is this happening to us? What did I do to deserve this? This is unfair! He/she/they should not do this to me. This is injustice! But the fact is what happens, happens. Rejection of what happens only increases our suffering.

The following is a beautiful zen story that mirrors my thoughts:

Is That So?

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.

This made her parents very angry. She would not confess who the was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger her parents went to the master. "Is that so?" was all he would say.

When the child was born the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. "Is that so?" Haikuin said calmly as he accepted the child.

A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth--that the real father if the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.

Haikuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was : "Is that so?"

What is amazing in this story is that this zen master accepted the reality as it is. There is no point in saying -This is not my child, your daughter is lying. It would only lead to arguments and counter arguments, when everyone one concerned especially the girl and the master know it is a lie.

Accepting it the way it is, going about doing the things that needed to be done, unmindful of the censure he was facing by his village people is so remarkable! Probably, it this acceptance that made the girl confess the truth--albeit after about a year and return to apologize. And here again --all that the master said was "Is that so?" This comes from a total lack of coveting of anything in this world--not even the child who he took care of with love!

It is this coveting this world: our reputation, our belongings, our possessions, our prestige, in short anything that we think is ours, is what prevents us from accepting reality the way it is. If we did this (accept reality), we find things unfold in way that the truth will reveal itself--we just have to allow it to happen with no interference.

How do we overcome coveting? Isn't it ours? Our jobs, our possessions...

They do seem to be ours.. but actually not.. because we weren't born with it, nor are we going to take it with us, when we die. We are going to leave it here when we depart from this world. And when we know that coveting is actually causing us so much misery, why not give it up?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Choosing to walk on this Path

Sukhamala Sutta

Read this beautiful sutta today..Sukhamala Sutta

'Subject to birth, subject to aging, subject to death,

I am often asked by people, what made me take to this path.
Why do I go for Vipassana courses?
I am a Psychologist; my undergraduation, Masters and PhD were in Psychology.
So people assume I should know whatever there is to know about human behaviour.
Hasn't my education trained me in this direction?

This is true, my education did train me to understand human behavior,
but I was not satisfied with it as I could not fully understand myself the way I could in a Vipassana course.
Another question I frequently encounter with people is--
Did I suffer any personal misfortune or tragedy, that forced me on to this path?.
My sister's untimely and sudden, tragic death seem to give some rationale or explanation
for my engagement in Vipassana courses.
But is this really necessary? Does one have to face misfortune or tragedy to take to this path?
What if life has generally been treating you well, and you have a good, pleasant lifestyle,
will you not take to this path?

The Sukhamala Sutta, gave me answers to these questions I was pondering on.
The Buddha, as a bodhisatta, enjoyed all the luxuries a Prince of his time did
--perhaps even more, as his father, was not too happy with the prediction that he would become "The Buddha" ,
and therefore surrounded him with comforts.
Yet, in spite of living in these comforts, he says--if I am repulsed by those who suffer,
that's not befitting of me, because I am also a human being like them,
and therefore can in all likelihood be in similar state as them. In other words, suffer like them.
So why do I find such sights difficult to bear? Why am I repulsed by the sight of their suffering?
And then he says as he noticed this, his intoxication with life, youth and health dropped away.

It is when you are intoxicated with life, youth and health that you engage in various forms misconduct
causing harm to yourself and others.
His intoxication with life ceased and there was no way he could see himself engaging in sensual pleasures
and could renounce them all.
Thus the path towards enlightenment.

Therefore, it is not necessary that you face a misfortune or tragedy in order to walk this path.
Having experienced, pleasure and pleasure alone, can help a person see the emptiness of such a life
and thus disgust towards it.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Life as it is now...

These days are tough. Especially Mondays and Thursdays are packed with heavy teaching schedules. I teach in 2 Universities--University at Buffalo & Uni-SIM. I begin teaching at 12 noon--first Statistics for 2 hours, and then Social Psychology for another 2 hours and on Monday evenings Organizational Psychology for 3 hours. On Thursday evenings it is Developmental Psychology for 3 hours.

Teaching includes hours spent on preparation and marking/grading . So though the other days of the week are non-teaching days they are taken up for preparation & marking.

So where does my practice (Vipassana meditation) figure in this kind of schedule? Fortunately I have had time for it. Morning practice is regular as usual, but on Mondays and Thursdays as I am out of the house from 11am to 10pm, my evening sitting meditation gets affected. So I usually sit for a few minutes in the staff lounge of SIM just focusing on my breath (natural respiration). Challenges keep coming up during the day, and I am able to meet them calmly, and with equanimity.

Recently, my phone fell in water and stopped working for sometime. I dried it and waited for a day; it started working the next day. When it stopped working, I was a trifle disappointed, because it was my lack of awareness that caused it to fall in water. Then I was reminded of Goenkaji's story he narrates in 10 day courses--about a wrist watch. It goes like this:

I own an expensive wrist watch and due to some negligence on my part, it falls and breaks. I feel very very sad and lament that it was such an expensive watch, I can't get it repaired here in this country as its spare parts are not available here...My wrist wrist watch... such a wonderful watch... how proud I was of this its sad...

However, let's say, that my friend had an expensive wrist watch and again due to some negligence on his/her part it falls and I feel the same way as I did when mine broke? No...on the contrary I am gleeful..and I offer advice, I sermonize to him---Oh you should have been careful---such a watch--you cannot fix it here in this country because you won't get spare parts for such a watch.. ..
I am not sad --in fact happy--such a foolish, careless man/woman--doesn't know how to take care of his expensive watch...he didn't deserve to have that watch!

No body is unhappy over the breaking of a watch..... It is only our attachment towards the watch (especially if it belongs to us) that makes us unhappy. Such deep attachments we have towards our belongings--our watch, our phones, our cars, our possessions......

They are only things after all...they come, they also go..and can be replaced too. The faster we understand this, the less problematic our lives will become. What we have is this present moment and in this moment life gives us so much that we can be grateful for. For me on that day when my phone stopped working, Raja was there to pick me up from SIM and transport me to Singapore Polytechnic where I had my evening class. I was fortunate that my life was made that much easier.. grateful for these moments, grateful for having him there in my life.

Monday, September 20, 2010

20 Days in New Zealand

"Meditation is taking you places" said a colleague and friend when I first went to US to take part in the Mind & Life Summer
Research Institute Conference in 2006. That seemed to become a convincing reality when I decided to go to New Zealand in 2009 for my 20 day course of Vipassana meditation. It was certainly taking me places in more ways than one!

New Zealand wasn't planned intentionally. That was the only center running a 20 day course in the time period convenient to me. I was looking for a breakthrough from my attachment to the Vipassana center in Hyderabad. Barring one 10day course in Chennai, all other courses that I attended were in Hyderabad. 20 day courses are less frequent compared to 10 day courses and the eligibility requirements are more stringent. New Zealand happened also because I wanted to know if I could survive on non-Indian food for 20 days. That year was very well planned in terms of work--I chose to teach only two semesters--Spring and Fall and so kept May to August free for Vipassana courses.

After some minor hurdles at the Quantas check-in desk at Singapore airport which refused to fly me as I did not have an Australian visa ( I had not known that Indian passport holders are required to have transit visa if they stop over anywhere in Austalia) I bought new tickets on SIA direct flight to New Zealand.

Auckland was cold in July, but something which I was prepared for. After checking into a hotel for a day, a van picked a bunch of us from different countries at the city center and we headed for Kaukapakkapa, a lovely valley, little away from Auckland.

We were a total of 16 people taking the course, 10 females and 6 males. All rules were the same as for a 10 day course, but with one major difference. We were given the freedom of choosing where we wanted to meditate--in the Dhamma Hall, or in our meditation rooms. The environment was serene, calm and beautiful in fact a haven! As one co-meditator remarked it was quiet even by western standards! We each had a room to stay in and an additional room for meditation. Normally, established centers have a pagoda with meditation cells in them for solitary practice, but as it is still in its planning stage we got an additional meditation room instead.

What a course it was! I loved the location, I loved my hot-water bag (to beat the chilly weather) I loved the continuous meditation practice, I loved the experience of it all.

7 days of Ananpana meditation (awareness of natural respiration) and 13 days of Vipassana meditation. The first few days my past came to me in torrents---long forgotten childhood memories--which I never knew existed, all came back to me, including painful memories of my sister's accident and death. I spoke to my teacher conducting the course, a kind gentleman, Mr. Ross, who advised me to just let go of the thoughts and get back to focusing on my respiration. With total silence around me, with just the instructions of Goenkaji in my head, I was gradually able to fully focus on my breath and progressed to remarkable stages of inner quiet.

A quiet stillness which was so peaceful, so tranquil and so harmonious descended on me. In this wonderful state, I started the practice of Vipassana. Then slowly trouble began-- first an excruciating pain in my right ankle as I sat in my normal meditation posture. At first, I took this to be a pain like others that come on the body from time to time--but no, this was here to stay for quite sometime. Just as I was learning to accept this as a part of my "dukkha" my old migraine-like headaches started. Now I didn't know which hurt more--my ankle or my head.

Well, after a few days I decided to change my posture so as to ease the pressure on my ankle when I sat cross-legged. It helped a lot and I continued my practice with balance of mind restored. My headaches wouldn't go--they continued unabated--and in this case there was no question of shifting positions! The pain was not as bad as the nausea accompanying it. Finally, I thought I should speak to the teacher and get myself a painkiller perhaps? With this thought and with perfect equanimity towards all that I was experiencing inside, outside, I sat for the 6 o'clock group sitting. Just an hour more and I will go and speak with the teacher and ask for a pain killer, I thought to myself.

The hour was gone, and so was my headache. Just like that...

Many things I learned on that course- An internal quiet and an ability to access that internal sanctuary at will.

"Make an island of yourself,
make yourself your refuge
there is no other refuge
Make truth your island
make truth your refuge
there is no other refuge"

This assumed a meaning and significance so clear, so distinct.

Additionally, a deep realization on how much energy I give towards likes and dislikes. The mind constantly keeps evaluating in terms of likes and dislikes. This was significant because I noticed that I would frequently get irritated with Raja whenever we had a conversation--this irritation stemmed from the fact that he could not hear/listen to me well ( does that sound a typical wifely complaint?). The course helped me awaken to the reality of the fact that he couldn't hear me--so why can't I accept that? why do I have to resist it?

That brought about a huge transformation in my day-to-day life even after I returned. There was a willingness to accept reality as it manifested itself. The tendency to engage in negative thinking greatly reduced, and has almost become non-existent.

I also became more and more aware in my interactions with people, suffusing it with warmth and genuineness which brought greater peace and harmony.

"Happiness is a function of acceptance of what is" This is no longer a quote to me--it is my reality.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mind Matters Most!

One of the main reasons for my attraction to courses in Vipassana meditation is that the teaching provides me a method, a way, to directly experience the reality of mind and matter. The process of knowing what is happening within is through direct experience, it is not a belief nor do I have to follow a ritual.

The instructions are clear and precise and to the point. The theoretical explanations given during discourses in the evening throw light on one's practice during the day and is very meaningful. In fact Goenkaji is very spot on in his teaching--he has a good comprehension of students' experiences on each day of the course.

Because of the importance given to practice of meditation, the theoretical aspects become easier to comprehend and don't remain just a philosophy. What becomes clear in the course of the practice is that we all have a consciousness and more specifically, this consciousness is linked to our sense organs. Therefore we have an "eye consciousness", "ear consciousness", "touch consciousness", "taste consciousness", "smell consciousness" -- the 5 sense organs. In addition, we have our "mind-consciousness" (example, a thought that arises).

We know we have this consciousness because we are able to perceive the external world through our sense organs. With this important faculty of perception we are able to give meaning to what we see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and think. Giving meaning is possible because of past experience with the external object. Therefore if somebody praises you, your ear-consciousness hears the praise and is able to interpret the words as something good, something wonderful.

The instant we are able to perceive the stimulus in our environment, there is a sensation that is aroused in the body which is in line with our perception. The words of praise that reaches our ears gives us a corresponding sensation of pleasure --such as a tingling feeling, or a sense of pleasantness, a wave of exhilaration. This sensation makes us want more and more of the stimulus that set it off--the words of praise, so we start craving for more words of praise--a reaction.

Described thus far, there seems to be consciousness, perception, sensation and finally reactions. It is because of these four faculties that we experience our world and it is worth while to understand these processes clearly and help ourselves out of the mess we land ourselves in very often.

The fact that we have a consciousness cannot be altered, and as long as our sense organs are working, we will keep becoming aware of the stimuli at various sense doors. We can neither stop ourselves from giving meaning to the objects in our environment so the process of perception goes on, based on our past experiences. However, what is not very apparent to us is that there is a gap between our perception and our reaction to this perception and that is our sensation on our body. The moment we perceive, we evaluate the external object (or an internal phenomenon such as a thought in the mind) as being good or bad, favourable or unfavourable and depending on this we experience a sensation. Reactions are based on the sensations we experience--if it is pleasant we crave for it --if unpleasant we want to avoid it.

When we stop reacting to our sensations, we find that the sensation passes away on its own without us having to do anything about it. This helps us understand their impermanent nature.

Therefore meditation helps us in 2 significant ways:
1. it helps sharpen our minds so that we learn to detect these sensations on our body, and pay attention to them
2. it helps us remain objective (equanimous) about our sensations and understand the truth about their nature-- that they are impermanent.

This is the main and most significant role of meditation. It trains us to become more and more aware of our sensations and helps us to understand their true nature of impermanence and thus helps us become objective about them (equanimity).

Time and again many enlightened people have asserted, that we have no control over the objects in the external world--we only have control over our reactions to them. The process of meditation provides us a method of gaining that control over our reactions. It helps us find the gap between stimulus and our response. It enables us choose our response wisely not out of blind, automatic reaction.

An intellectual understanding alone rarely helps us in life, it can probably inspire us. Turning this into a belief or accepting it as a philosophy doesn't help as well.

It is only with continuous practice that one begins to see the truth of these processes; it is with practice that one is able to comprehend the impermanence of our sensations and develop equanimity towards them. By doing so we put a stop to blind reactions to sensations.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Importance of Daily Practice

After taking the 10 day course it is important to maintain the continuity of practice everyday. What Goenkaji advises is to sit for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. On the face of it this is quite a challenge and many people tend to stop after a few days. The effect of the course (as in any other course) tends to wear off if there is no practice.

If you don't use it, you lose it.

After my first course I found it difficult to maintain my daily practice--I found it difficult to sit even for an hour. I was working (teaching in college)and had two young children and although I had a strong desire to continue on this path, I did not know how to re-organize my life to fit in the hours of practice. So the first year, I was happy if I could get even a few minutes a day to sit and meditate. In these few minutes I tried my best to practice anapana (focusing on the natural respiration). I couldn't really practice Vipassana.

Association with Sabrina really helped in those initial years. She was so dedicated and so inspiring! She would call me to assist her in the children's program--some of which I went for. More importantly, whenever I had a problem or a daily hassle, I could discuss it with her and she would explain the Dhamma to me which helped me stay on the path. She had this ability to apply the teaching to real life. So what I learned in the courses became more and more practically relevant.

After my second 10 day course my one hour of morning meditation became regular. I did put in a lot of effort to make it regular. I would wake up at 4 am mediate for an hour and then get ready for the day--that is, cooking for the family, packing and dropping off my kids in school & getting to work. Life was hectic but I was able to fit in one hour of daily practice. People marveled at my energy, my ability to wake up at 4 am no matter when I went to sleep in the night. But I still feel it was mainly because of my one hour sitting, that I got the energy to carry on with a hectic day.

I had plans to do my course in Satipattana (Establishment of Mindfulness). For this, my practice had to become more regular. Serving at the center in Madras, attending one hour of group meditation on Sundays, involving myself in children's courses, helped me in my daily practice.
As all courses are run on donations by old students, there is a constant need for people serve on the course. Whenever I had time, I would drive to the center and offer my services. This is called Dhamma seva. When you help others on the path, you get helped in turn---it gave me the energy to practice everyday.

By this time, my two daughters had attended the children's course and they could understand my meditation practice at home. When I did my 3 rd course, my husband agreed to come for the course. Although he found the course useful, he lost practice soon after.

There were brief periods of time when my practice was not very regular after my course in Satipattana. When I say "not very regular", I mean the 2 hours of daily meditation. I had, by this time stabilized on one hour of daily practice except on very rare unusually busy days.

It made sense to maintain regular practice. This is because, in the courses you go to deep levels of your mind and change certain unhelpful patterns of behaviour and gain deep insights into your life. If there is no daily practice, these gains are not maintained, and very soon one goes back to original patterns of behavior. With daily practice, one gets the opportunity to learn new things about oneself and remove further obstacles in experiencing life fully, in every course one takes.

One analogy that would help understand this is learning to swim. After a few days of learning to swim, one needs to maintain regular practice to swim well. In fact, the mind itself can be analogous to an ocean, and the first course is like taking the first dip in that huge ocean. Subsequent courses help you to explore the ocean of the mind by diving deeper--but lack of regular daily practice, would only keep you on the surface level of the ocean (mind).

After my fifth course finally I began sitting the second hour fairly regularly, and have tried to maintain that till now--there are a few days when I do not achieve this regularity--but I try my best to do so.

The regular practice also helped me understand the theoretical aspects of Dhamma, the teaching. For instance, I could clearly understand the 4 parts of the mind as explained in the discourses by Goenkaji. Earlier my understanding was very superficial, but regular practice and doing the course seriously, following every rule, every instruction scrupulously, I was able to achieve new levels of understanding and this again helped me change my way of thinking and behavior.

I will be elaborating on this new understanding in my next post.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Connecting with oneself ........A typical 10 day course

As Goenkaji says, right from the time we are are born, we are encouraged to be extroverted. We are taught to speak, respond to people and interact with them. In contrast to this, the 10-day courses helps us learn to connect with ourselves and understand our innate tendencies towards behaving in certain ways.

A typical 10-day course has 3 parts to it : Sila, samadhi and pannya:

Sila or moral code involves taking the following 5 vows (also called precepts):

1. Abstain from stealing
2. Abstain from killing
3. Abstain from speaking lies, harsh words, back biting etc.
4. Abstain from taking intoxicants
5. Abstain from sexual misconduct

These vows are taken because to engage in any one of theses actions creates a lot of negativity or disturbance in the mind. For instance, it is impossible to kill without generating anger and hatred; it is impossible to speak lies without generating greed of some sort or jealousy or similar negative emotion. As the objective is to investigate the mind, these actions are abstained from, in order to set the stage for deep exploration of the mind.

Samadhi--concentration of mind:

Exploration of the mind is quite a difficult task in itself but there is a way out of this. Observing the natural respiration is one way; that is. the breath, as it enters and leaves the nostrils. There are many reasons for choosing the breath to explore the mind, make it an object of meditation.
1. It serves as a link between the mind and body--whenever the mind becomes disturbed--as when we are angry or sad, the breath loses its natural rhythm--we begin to breathe rapidly or very slowly, disrupting the oxygen flow into our body. Focusing on the breath helps to set imbalances at rest, as by doing so we breathe evenly and normally.
2. It is the truth at any given moment. The fact that one is alive, one is breathing--this is truth--it is not an imagination or a visualization, or a belief, it is the truth of the moment.
3. Lastly, it is always there with us--you don't have to remember a mantra or carry an object of meditation.

Focusing on the natural respiration--the breath as it comes through the nostrils and as it goes out sounds very simple but it is in fact quite a challenge. This is because our attention does not remain there, it keeps rolling away in thoughts especially about the past, the future. Whenever one notices his/her attention rolling off into other directions, one patiently brings it back to the entrance of the nostrils. With time and sustained practice, the attention wanders less and less and stays for longer duration at the nostrils. The mind thus becomes more and more focused, and one-pointed as it is also called.

Vipassana--purification of mind:

When the mind is thus reasonable attentive, after 3 days of persistent, continuous practice, one is instructed in the practice of Vipassana. This means getting this concentrated mind to survey the entire body, beginning at the top of the head and slowly and gradually scanning the entire body, to the tips of the toes. While doing so, one learns to develop equanimity towards all sensations experienced. Equanimity is observing the sensations as objectively as possible--not identifying with any of them, but just taking note of them.

Generally speaking there are usually 3 broad classification of sensations--pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations and sensations which are neither pleasant or unpleasant--the so-called neutral sensations. In the initial courses it is the unpleasant sensations that seem to dominate, especially as one sits in the same position for long periods of time. Noting these sensations, without reacting to them is again a huge challenge as the normal instinctual tendency is to shift one's position in the hope that the unpleasantness may decrease. One slowly understands that the only way to deal with the unpleasantness, the pain, is to experience it without judging it as bad, without wishing it would go away. In fact, I even learned to 'experience' the pain by observing it part by part, dividing and dissecting separately noting sense of pressure, solidity, heat etc. This helps to observe the sensation in an objective manner, thus developing the faculty of equanimity.

Gradually one realizes that these sensations which were so intense, change and cease to exist, go away on their own even without having to move one's seating position. This is true not only for painful sensations but whatever kind of sensation that experienced as one scans the body. This is one of the important truths that is experienced and understood--the phenomenon of annicca or impermanence.

This practice goes on up to day 9. Experiences may differ from person to person, but by this day one gets a general idea of the teaching, and some insights into one's dominant behavioral tendencies. The 10th day, is a special day as the meditators are taught to radiate the peace they experience into the outside world along with unconditional love and harmony to all beings. This day is also a day when the silence comes to an end--a relief to many!

While the courses help us explore deep into our minds, training it to be less reactive and impulsive, this can be sustained only with regular daily practice outside of these courses. I will be writing about this in my next post.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Why I sit..."

Part V (Forgiveness)

Forgiveness...that's what I wrote in my last post (Part IV). People usually have mixed feelings about forgiveness. Some understand that it heals but have difficulty in putting it to practice. Others--quite a number of them, feel that forgiving people who have hurt you, harmed you is a sign of weakness. It is a like condoning and excusing the bad behaviour or actions of the other person. Some feel that their anger towards the person harming/hurting them is justified and therefore there is nothing wrong in "righteous indignation" or righteous anger.

I understand how that feels having gone through such experiences myself. Tales of other's acts of forgiveness of their tormentors evokes mixed feelings of admiration and disbelief and some times makes you want to be able to do likewise, but yet seems an unthinkable path to follow.

"Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned"

said The Buddha, and how true it is! However righteous or justified one might think our anger is, this is so true! So how do we behave with a person who has wronged us? Before we act, we need to understand ourselves first, calm ourselves down and reach a state of balance. It is a choice--and a sane and rational one.

Viktor Frankl said "Between a stimulus and a response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

We need to understand the pointlessness of reacting with anger in the face of an unpleasant situation, take a step back, calm ourselves down and the deal with the situation. This is where I found my meditation practice very useful. It helped me find the gap between the stimulus and response, it made me aware of the choices I had.

When a person says unkind things to me the initial reaction is one of anger and the training in observation of natural respiration helps me focus on my breath till I calm down. Sometimes I do nothing else but just calm down--if it is not an appropriate situation to say something back to the person, I just don't say anything.

I also realized that the person who acts in an unkind and angry manner could be doing so for many reasons. Maybe he has problems himself which I am unaware of ? His outburst of abuse may or may not be directly linked to me who was at the receiving end. If you feel/think you have done something to warrant the other's anger, the best thing would be to apologize for it. If you feel/think you have done nothing to cause his anger, the best thing would be to forgive him, because then his anger is not due to something you did, but something he is not able to handle and therefore is in need of some compassion.

Also, are we not guilty of behaving in a similar manner at some time in life ? Sometimes overcome with our cares and stresses do we not burst out in anger ? Do we not wish to be treated with compassion ourselves at such times, for mistakes we have committed?

Unfortunately, we are so immersed in our own lives and needs that we rarely think that each one is going through their own private hell. What externally appears to be a happy, successful life may not in reality be exactly that all the time. Each one of us need some love, some compassion.

The practice of Vipassana meditation opened up such avenues of thought. The discourses of Goenkaji combined with the practice enabled me to appreciate a different perspective and find value in doing so. Because by learning to forgive, I was only helping myself--I was refusing to engage in negative thoughts of the other and instead cultivating positive thoughts of compassion and unconditional love.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"Why I sit...

Part IV (Satipattana)

Sometimes the gains that I claim I had after the courses may sound exaggerated. Did I suddenly change? Did I become a different person? It may seem dramatic and unbelievable.

Maybe the word "change" is not appropriate--was I not ok before? Was there something undesirable in me that needed change? The answer is no. However, there was that feeling of unsatisfactoriness about life in general which I mentioned earlier. I had a lot of resentment accumulated over the years, a tendency towards depression, and my mood mildly melancholic. Compared to an average person I was less depressed, resentful and melancholic--but personally it was not what I wanted to be. I felt I wasn't living fully, I felt I could do better if I had my anger, sadness, anxiety under control and in better physical health as well.

It was in these directions that I changed gradually, each course providing for some incremental change. There were times when I felt I was becoming worse too. I particularly remember the Satipattana course in the summer of 2000. This is a course one could take after a minimum of 3 ten-day courses.

Satipattana means establishment in awareness, a very important part of The Buddha's teaching. This course is similar to the 10-day course with respect to the time-table and the meditation instructions but different from the chantings in the morning and the discourse in the evenings. Needless to say, it is meant for serious students who have decided that this is the path they want to follow. The morning chantings are from the Maha Satipattana Sutta and the evening discourses are an explanation of the same chantings. We were a few students --about 5-6 females doing the course. I did it with all seriousness but around the middle of the course started feeling very restless--a feeling that I might be called back home for some reason. In fact, when the dhamma sevika came to the hall one morning during our 8 am meditation hour and whispered into the teacher's ear, I was quite sure it was a call for me to get back home. Later, I found out that the unfortunate call was for my roommate, who had to leave the course--I had no means to find out the reason.

The course being done, I left for home on the last day to be greeted by an unusual reception at my parent's place. My husband had taken ill with vertigo during my absence and had to be hospitalised in Chennai. Unfortunately his close relatives chose to view the incident as being due to my negligence towards him and my family and a pre-occupation with my own interests. A lot of unkind and things were said about me and my parents. I was told that my mother was urged to call me back from the course (coincidently on the same day that I felt uneasy and restless during the course) while my father stopped her from doing so and instead decided to ascertain the facts from my husband himself first. I am extremely grateful for his thoughtful decision without which I may not have been able to complete the course.

It's about 10 years since this happened, but I remember it very distinctly because I struggled to learn to forgive the person who said nasty unkind things about me and my parents. I wanted to say a lot of unkind things to this person too--but was stopped by my friend and guide, Sabrina who tried to teach me to forgive. For many months I struggled with this incident unwilling to forgive, to let go. Those were the times when the path seemed very difficult--it was a challenge to practice what I learned in the course. It took me years--4 or 5 until my 5th course in 2005 to let go and learn to forgive.

Yes, forgiving people who have harmed you or said unkind things about you is difficult. But the entire incident helped me understand suffering and the way out of suffering. When I posted on my facebook wall recently, something on forgiveness, one friend said it was better to keep enemies away from you rather than forgive them, befriend them and find that they harm you as a friend. Another person said she agreed that forgiveness heals but it takes a long time to learn to forgive. Quite true. Most things in life which are worth learning takes time, takes patience.

As Viktor Frankl said in his book--Man's Search for Meaning, "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves"

But how does this change come about? What the subsequent intense courses taught me was that when such an incident (like the one above) occurred there was a pattern---the person (in this case the relative) said those words and the incident was over. However, I kept replaying the incident again and again in my mind, re-calling every hurting word and emotion. To this I would create an imagined response I should have given the person or may give if another opportunity arose in future. In short, I was creating a mental drama of an incident and replaying it ever so often in the stage of my mind. The incident was painful the first time it occurred and yet here I was replaying it in my mind hurting myself again and again adding a number of dialogues and counter dialogues.

Each time I recalled the incident there was a fresh wave of unpleasantness. Examining this thread bare in each of my courses, closely observing my sensations each time these thoughts came to my mind, with the understanding of impermanence (annicca) as taught by my teacher, I was able to comprehend what I was doing to myself and the way to let go, to forgive. Every thought that arises in the mind is linked to a sensation in the body. These sensations are impermanent by nature--they arise and pass away. During meditation we train ourselves to observe this reality that happens within the framework of our body. In our ignorance of the impermanent nature of the sensations we keep blindly reacting to them in everyday life, just as I was doing earlier with that painful incident. With practice I learned to observe the sensation that came up along with the thought, learned to be equanimous with the painful sensation it brought along with it and then could free myself from the negative emotions associated with it.

This requires training. Therefore sitting on the cushion motionless for about an hour was not just a test in physical endurance but in fact a training of the mind. Training to understand that what arises in the mind ( or any other part of the body) is linked to sensations experienced on the body. Additionally, learning to develop equanimity towards the sensation with the understanding of its impermanent nature-I gradually learned that all sensations I experienced were characterized by impermanence.

Ignorance of this truth of sensations causes our suffering. This realization I started applying in my day to day life. It became easier to forgive some people. When I was able to do that, it increased my confidence in interacting with people--because afterall it is the fear of hurt which becomes a barrier at times in our interactions with people.

By the time I completed my 5th 10day course in end December 2005, there was a huge leap in my understanding of what was going on within me in various situations I faced in life--particularly in my interactions with people. I was able to now regulate my emotions in a better manner, understand myself better and become more content.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Why I sit...

Part III (Progress in the 2nd and 3rd courses)

My sister's death, painful as it was, was still only part of the reason for my taking this path of Vipassana meditation. There was always a sense of disquiet within me... a yearning to make sense of this world, this life. There was a sense of unsatisfactoriness, a kind of emptiness. There were moments of great joy as well. And to many, I was leading a normal, happy life--I had a good husband and lovely daughters.

But as Thoreau said..."Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.." women too! Another gem of his echoes the sentiments I experienced at that time.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Yes, I wanted to live deliberately, to confront my inner self and what was going on in there....and learn if I could whatever lessons it offered.

Meditation was something I had come across when I read J. Krishnamurthy. However, he did not believe in teaching meditation and believed it to be an individual's personal journey. That didn't help much though his teachings in general did.

Then I briefly attended a class in Transcendental meditation but was disappointed with the instructors lack of seriousness of teaching it.

It was in Mumbai sometime in 1984 that I first heard of Vipassana Meditation. Raja, my husband brought home a sheet of paper on which was given the time-table of the 10 day course and the address of the center in Nashik. One look at the time-table and I felt like attending the course. Raja laughed at me and said I cannot stay silent for 10 minutes--leave alone 10 days! And in my immaturity I took offence at this and abandoned the idea.

Anyway, as I have described in Part I of this series of posts, I did my first course in October 1995. The immediate benefits of the course was reduced anger in my interactions with my family--I had greater patience dealing with my young children and discovered the magic of the breath. Whenever I was upset, bringing my awareness to my natural respiration helped me calm down. That was a very significant change in my life.

I tried to practice everyday.. but was not very successful and even when I did sit down occasionally, found it very difficult to do so for more than half-an-hour. I did not consider going back to do another course.. it was with great difficulty that I did the first one. However, I kept in constant touch with Sabrina, who was my mentor, guide and friend. She was and has always been a source of inspiration to me on this path.

It was not until we moved to Chennai from Hyderabad and I decided to enroll for my PhD program in Madras University, that the possibility of doing a second 10 day course came up. So impressed with the teaching I was, that I toyed with the idea of making Vipassana meditation, the subject of my research.

An invitation to assist in a Teenager's course at Chennai's Santhome School for Boys, became a subject of a research paper. It was a study on the role of meditation in the emotions ( anger and anxiety) of adolescent boys. It was after this publication that I went on to attend my second 10 day retreat.

In many ways it was a significant 10 day course...My parents weren't so angry this time--may be they decided there was just no point in it--in fact after I returned from the course and described it to them, they were pretty much inclined to try it themselves!--or so they said.

During the course I had a painful headache which lasted 2 days. I was forced to observe it --"observing" pain - and there were pains everywhere-- not only in my head. I struggled with it initially and then realized that the only way out was to accept it and experience it without resisting it. I experienced first hand that whenever we encounter something we do not like, our mind immediately shuts off, resists it or tries an escape route. Anything to avoid pain and experience pleasure! Here I was forced to face up to pain, experience it without reacting with aversion towards it.

It was also the first course where I could sit in addhitan ( sitting still without moving for one hour 3 times a day from the 4th day onwards). It was also the first course when I experienced a my body dissolve into wavelets.. albeit for a just about a minute--after which the experience never came back.

As I went through these significant experiences, the real test of any change I might have gone through, was to be observed only outside of the retreat. And sure enough there were many changes. First major change that I noticed was that I experienced greater comfort conversing with people. Prior to this I felt uncomfortable with strangers and could not really connect with many of my acquaintances. I could get along only with very few close friends. This course helped me knock out layers and layers of fear and people discomfort. This change helped me immensely in my interpersonal relationships. I felt a genuine warmth and liking for people and found it being reciprocated as well.

Another significant realization was that I could survive a headache without taking a headache-tablet. Although this did not sustain outside the course--I suffered unbearable, mild migraine type of headaches frequently-- first time I realized that I could overcome a headache without taking a pill. This helped me strengthen my resolve to stay on this path.

In addition there was a deeper and clearer understanding of anicca ( impermanence), which helped in dealing with my anger and other negative emotions.

Most importantly, I realized that this was the path for me... and all I had to do was to keep walking on it!

I will be elaborating these significant changes in my next post.