Friday, May 27, 2011

GIIS-East Coast Teen-course

It's almost a week since the last course at East Coast. That day was one of the most fulfilling days of my life. Very often it is a challenge to conduct a meditation course for young children and make it meaningful for them. And this group of students at GIIS-East Coast were Grade 9 students around the age group of 13-14years. They were in that developmental age where there would be resistance and in some cases rebellion towards adult-initiated programs. We (the school and me) even considered making it optional for the students to attend. However, the Vice-Principal of the school was firm in her commitment that young people of this age-group are clearly in need of an anchor in life and this program, she was sure, would provide such an anchor.

So we went ahead wondering how many students of the 59 on roll (26 girls and 33 boys) would actually turn up on a Saturday morning at 9am when the rest of the school was enjoying a lovely weekend. Well, they did--not all but a majority of them. There were 37 in total (so more than half turned up) 20 boys and 17 girls. That was good enough!

It is a pleasure to work with children who are motivated to do well and take things that are given to them in a positive and creative way. Right from the start I noticed that they were paying attention to instructions, and processing what was being said, and finding ways to apply it to their day-to-day lives.

In the small group discussions that I had with the youngsters they were very eager to make sure they understood correctly what was being said over the video and audio CD instructions from Goenkaji.

Questions that some of the girls asked me were: "So do you think, I should practice this before I start to study?...for how long?" "Will it help in controlling my anger?" "How?" "Oh I should really try this...I have such a bad temper"
They also wanted to know how to continue with their work when they feel so upset sometimes. I then explained that because of our increased connectivity thanks to the internet, the reactive part of the brain is very very active. We are constantly bombarded with media information and information from friends and relatives. This may give rise to a lot of emotions some of which may be very unpleasant. This constant state of arousal comes in the way of cognitive processes of the frontal-cortex which is responsible for higher order processes such as thinking, reasoning, and problem solving. A practice such as meditation is useful in calming down the reactive, emotional part of the brain (limbic system), allowing the cognitive part of the brain function more effectively.

One girl and her friend said they were taught earlier on, in their childhood, that meditation was "not to think of anything". And now we were teaching them this... to observe their breath--so they were wondering what it is all about--a bit at a loss.
So I asked her: Yes, you were told "don't think of anything"--tell me were you able to do that? Not think of anything?
She said: No it was and is difficult not to think of anything.
I said: So when you are asked to observe your breath coming in, going out are you able to do that?
She said: Yes, I am able to observe my breath
I said: Now, are you thinking of anything when you are observing you natural respiration?
She said: No I am just observing the breath
So I said:---so,what you were told as a child was not incorrect. Meditation is not thinking of anything--but its difficult to start off by not thinking of anything.Observing your respiration helps you get to the stage of cutting out your thoughts. Its a tool to help you get there.

Towards the last session when I asked a small group, how their experience was one girl said: "Amazing!" "I feel so peaceful and calm!"
Needless to say, it was a delight to be with them. They were working at it and actively trying apply it to their lives. Personally, it was one of the most fulfilling & satisfying courses I have ever conducted. And this sentiment was shared by the entire team of volunteers who were there to assist the students.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why this is not a religious practice.

After the children's course in Kuantan, I went to one of the volunteer's house as I had some time before I boarded my bus back to Singapore at 10.30pm.

After resting for a while, when I came down for dinner, I met Mr. H's (the volunteer) aunt, Cannie who lived close by and had come for dinner. When she heard that I had conducted the children's course she asked me a number of questions about it and I truly had one of the most interesting discussions with her.

Cannie had signed up for a 10day course two years ago but was not sure if she could do the course because she was unwell. The teachers conducting the course had asked to see her and she feared she would be rejected by them and abandoned the plan to sit for the course. She was however, very keen to know more information regarding the practice.

One of the questions she asked me ---Is this really a non-religious practice?
I said--Absolutely!
Elaborating further, I said that The Buddha did not teach a religion. He found out the laws pertaining to the body and mind. For instance, Newton discovered the law of gravity. This law is applicable any where and to any one. It does not mean he started a sect of people who say--yes there is a law of gravity, and it would apply to only those who believe in Newton. Nor does it make sense to pray to Newton because he made such a discovery.
Just as scientists discovered the laws of the physical world and made our lives that much more easier, The Buddha discovered the laws that govern the mind and body. And these laws are applicable to anyone living anywhere in this planet and belonging to any sect or religion.

Let's examine what The Buddha taught: The first step in this practice is Sila or the moral code:

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

Now anyone can see that these activities that you are asked to abstain from causes a lot of misery. It causes misery to people irrespective of their religious affiliation or belief systems.
Is Sila then a religion or a part of any religion? or only pertaining to Buddhists?

Just watch what is happening around the world...the most recent news is the trouble that the IMF chief is going through. Why? Because he could not abstain from one of the above activities! Trouble is bound to follow...what has religion to do with it?

The next step is Samadhi--concentration of mind which is again universal. Why wouldn't anyone want to focus? We all know that it is the key element for success--again nothing to do with religion.
The final step--Pannya--Wisdom. Don't we revere people who are wise? Who are balanced in their day-to-day activities--not given to extreme emotions of anger, depression, anxiety, who no matter what the situation may be, can think calmly in a way that is beneficial to all. Again is this religion specific? or are only Buddhists capable of this?

The ultimate evidence of the integrity of this person, Gotama The Buddha comes from the fact that when people went to him and asked how to pay respects to him--he answered:

Namo Tassa bhagavatho, arahatho, samma-sambuddhassa

Which means: Homage to the liberated, the all-conquering, the fully self-enlightened

Did he say believe in me? or I will lead you to liberation? Is there any mention of his name even when you pay respects to him?

Sadly, most people fail to recognize this---our minds are so used to thinking in conventional ways. We find it difficult to believe that a person can actually observe the inner world objectively like a scientist observes the external world.

The Buddha said....every action has a consequence... therefore choose your actions wisely. To become wise, you need to train your mind...and this is the way you train your mind.
That is all - in a nutshell.

More conversations with children

In one of the children's courses in GIIS, a boy came up to me and said....this is quite boring! My friends and I were talking during the break and we found the speaker's voice boring and couldn't understand some of the things he said. Why do we have to do this?

This was a tough one to deal with. Looking from the boy's point of view... in a world of "cool" things, techno savvy people, glitz and glamour, listening to an elderly gentleman on a video or audio speaking about some age old practice hardly seems appealing.

However, I am convinced about Goenkaji's teaching, following his instructions have helped me, and I have experienced the truth in his words. For me it is not a blind belief or faith or reverence. Yes, he may not speak like a modern-day motivational leader. But listen to the content of what he says and it makes a lot of sense.

So I said to this boy: I see what you mean....but what I want you to do is to focus on what he has to say. You know, sometimes people may not speak in a way you like or in a "cool" way. But there might be something valuable in what they say. So can you do this exercise? When he speaks just pay attention to what he says--just follow his instructions and if you don't understand come and ask me and I will explain it to that ok with you?
He said ok and went away. I did not have a chance to have this conversation with him again, however he raised his hands to answer a couple of questions I asked when I was conducting the subsequent sessions.

Then, there was this girl who asked: How will this help me when I am studying?
I asked: When you sit down to study...your books are there with you, you are physically present--your body is there with you... but where is your mind?
She smiled a bit sheepishly and said: Oh far away!
I said: And then you hear your mom's/teacher's voice asking you to concentrate?
She said: yes..
I said: And you don't know how to do that?
She said: I try to concentrate but my mind wanders off again!

I said.: When your mind wanders away... where does it wander?
She said: Oh I may be thinking of something that my friend said in school or may be thinking of a game I played or---just thinking of different things... like when will I go to India again.

I said: If you notice what you just told me, your mind goes off into the past or the future.
She nodded her head.

I said: That is the habit pattern of the mind.. it goes off into the past or the future. So now we are training the mind to stay in one place. Tell me, can I ask you "Focus on how you breathed yesterday.. does that make sense to you?"
She said with a little laugh: No..
I said: Can I say "Focus on how you are going to breathe tomorrow?"
more laughter...: No
I said: So you see I can only ask you to observe your breath now... as it enters your nostrils and as it leaves your nostrils. The breath is in the present--that is the truth--you are alive. So focusing on the breath is being with the present moment. So next time you notice your mind wandering away, try focusing on your breath.. the mind will automatically return to the present moment.
She said: Oh! so when I am studying, when my mind wanders away, if I focus on my breath, I come back to the present and I can begin studying again! Oh! I'll do that.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Some Reflections

The past few weeks have gone by so fast! There has been a richness of experience and fulfillment---I feel so grateful for these experiences.

My earlier blog was on the children's courses conducted in GIIS Balestier campus. Last week, I conducted Statistics examination at my University on the 10th of May and in the midst of marking papers, I also conducted 2 more courses, one each on 11th and 12th of May at the GIIS Queenstown campus for Grade 6 children. 13th and 14th were fully devoted to marking and consolidating the final results for the University.

On 14th night (Saturday) I boarded the 10pm bus to Kuantan and reached there at 4 am on the 15th. I was there to co-conduct the Tamil children's course with Mr. Santhana Gopalan. Although he asked me to conduct the course, I chose to play a supportive role instead as I felt that his Tamil was better than mine. While I do speak fluent Tamil, public speaking in Tamil still makes me nervous and I make mistakes or search for appropriate words.

Its been a very rewarding experience so far. Its interesting to interact with children of different backgrounds. It also helps me on my path, I become more clear about what I am teaching and in my expectations of the children.

Generally girls are able to sit still better than boys, though a few boys grasp the technique very well. In GIIS the children were more responsive and asked for a proper explanation on why they were asked to meditate. In Kuantan, children were in comparison more compliant, though a few of them could not sit well and were restless.

In the small group interaction in GIIS, one girl asked me---do you really think this works? Why should we be asked to meditate? What has observing the breath got to do with anything?
I asked her: Has it ever happened that your mom asked you to run an errand for her and you forgot what she said? Or you misplace somethings? She said : Yes---I always keep forgetting a lot of things.. Then I asked: What do you think happens on those occasions? She said: mind goes off somewhere else or my friend calls me out and I am busy talking to her and I forget what my mom told me.
I said: Yes, precisely, your mind goes off somewhere else and then you remember it very late and then..?
She said: I get scolded by my mom and she says I am always so forgetful!
I said: So you see what we do here in meditation, is to train your mind to stay in one place by focusing it on the breath... Ofcourse the mind wanders away sometimes, so we patiently bring it back to the breath. This constant practice helps to keep the mind more often in one place. The mind becomes more concentrated and less distracted by what others say when you are running an errand for your mom.
She said later: Oh now I get what you makes sense to me now. Thank you!

Some children do find it difficult to sit, some take time to sit well. I found that explaining to them what was happening helped them to sit better. For instance, I would explain that all our lives we are slaves to our bodies--the mind listens only to the body---the body likes/dislikes something--the mind follows it by taking an appropriate action. So now--who do you think is the master? The body! Now we are changing the habit pattern of the mind. When the body becomes restless--we ask the mind to continue watching the breath and not abandon this to listen to what the body says. So now who is in control? The mind!

This way we start strengthening the mind and since this is changing the old habit pattern it is difficult to do so at first. With practice alone, the mind becomes the master---then you begin to engage in actions that are beneficial to oneself as well as others.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Children's course in GIIS-Balestier campus

I conducted children's meditation courses in an Indian International school, Singapore on the 3rd and 4th of May. Children's courses require a number of people --volunteers to help conduct the course. While the main instructions for meditation come from our teacher Goenkaji, whose audio and video CDs are played, I monitor the process by interacting with the children to ensure they understand the instructions that are given to them.

The volunteers help register the students for the course, giving out name tags and pasting the name tags on the mats where they sit. The students are divided into groups each group with a volunteer who is called a "group leader" to lead the students in games and activities conducted in between meditation sessions.

The actual course begins with an introduction to Anapana sati ( awareness of incoming and outgoing breath around the nostrils). Before introducing them to the technique of Anapana meditation, Goenkaji instructs them on the correct posture to sit in and also the 5 precepts. Soon after this session, the children go for a break of half-an-hour.

The next session (which is the first session of the real practice of meditation)focuses on reasons why breath is chosen as an object of meditation. One very obvious reason is that because it is always there with us its easy to carry it around. Unlike a mantra or an idol, the breath is much simpler and uncomplicated object of meditation. Second reason is that it has a strong connection with the mind. It is difficult to watch the mind itself, however, if one observes the breath one gets a clue to whats going on in the mind. For instance, when one is upset, the breath loses its natural rhythm. Observing the breath restores its normal rhythm and calms the mind as well. The third reason is that it is the truth--it is not an imagination or visualization but a real phenomenon.

After the session I interact with the students asking them the reasons why the breath is chosen as an object of meditation. I also make sure they understand the correct posture to sit in (back and neck straight).

The second session of meditation deals with the difficulties experienced during meditation. Sitting for a long time in a cross-legged posture is sure to lead to difficulties of pain and restlessness. Apart from this, just observing the breath, the mind quickly wanders off into various thoughts, one after the other. Other difficulties in focusing is drowsiness and falling asleep.
The children are taught how to overcome these difficulties as they practice. An interesting explanation for restlessness is that we tend to accumulate negativities in our normal day to day lives, which lie dormant within us. When we focus on our respiration the mind for those brief moments suspends generation of negativities. These "pure" moments of focus cause disturbance in the negativities accumulated within and make us very restless. When we stay focused, the disturbance gradually subsides just as when one pours water over a raging fire to extinguish it.

Understanding the reasons for these difficulties helps us deal with them as they arise and helps to stay focused on respiration. This in turn, helps in developing moment to moment awareness of reality as it is.

The third session of meditation focuses on the importance of making right effort in order to get the results we are looking for. This includes changing some old habit patterns of the mind to roll in thoughts, by quickly correcting oneself and bringing it on course ( bringing the mind to focus on the respiration and not roll in thoughts). In short, right effort helps us focus on what has to be done in a given moment rather than engaging in automatic, wasteful ways of thinking and behaving.

In the final session, Goenkaji explains how one can continue the practice in daily life, ending the program with instructions on sending best wishes and thoughts to everyone in our lives--metta meditation. With this the program comes to an end.