Sunday, October 30, 2016

Inspiring blog

Posted this on FB and here for the benefit of those who are not on mine. Elizabeth is a good friend who has had us over for Passover dinner. She is a bold, brilliant and beautiful 51 year old Jewish woman originally from Brooklyn. She does everything well and has 2 amazing kids, run and sold businesses, studied forensic pathology as a hobby and the list goes on. We have travelled and written papers together. She practically lived on her bicycle until 4 years ago when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and a benign spinal tumour- she writes a blog and this most recent one is about living with a debilitating condition and rediscovering her Jewish faith. I was so inspired, so I am sharing it with you..

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

What is meditation and why should we meditate

What is meditation?

We all hear about the benefits of meditation. I thought I would share my own lived experience practicing for several years.

Lets start with what the common myths regarding meditation are.

Meditation is concentration
Meditation is thought control
Meditation is to be done in a certain posture and for hours
Meditation running away from problems
Meditation is a religious practice

But is meditation any of the above? Nor really. If not, then what is it, why should we meditate and what are its benefits?

While growing up in India, I had a lot of anxiety and a preoccupation with thoughts about death. It became more intense into my twenties after my daughter was born. I did not have a name for it then. Postpartum depression maybe? Or just the enormity of having responsibility for a baby at 23 years? To cope, I read the few self-help books I could lay my hands on 30 years ago, and they all said “there is no greater fear than fear itself”. I could not understand what this meant then. All I knew was that my fear was a direct result of my thoughts. And this fear was interfering with my ability to be happy. I was always going from one moment of anxiety to another. I could not appreciate anything in my life and enjoy it. I was anxious what the next moment would bring and in that state I had breathlessness and palpitations, I was spiraling downwards and out of control because I was anxious about being anxious. A book, “Why fear?” by the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, offered me the panacea. I read there that I should observe my thoughts. Not try to shut them out. Not try to escape from them. Not try to dull the mind with medication such as anti-depressants or numb it with prayers, mantras and chants. I had been praying desperately and every-time I stopped, the anxiety would return with even greater vengeance. Desperate, I decided to heed his advice and to observe my thoughts. It was very hard to face my fear producing thoughts every minute. My throat became dry and I had unpleasant sensations throughout my body. But I persisted through it with tremendous discipline. It was the instinct to survive that kept me going. The need to keep suicidal thoughts at bay.

Slowly and miraculously over just a year, my anxiety producing thoughts began receding and my reaction to them did not include excruciatingly painful sensations. Not just that. I had mastered a technique and had an experiential understanding that I was not my thoughts. Without even knowing it I had begun to practice mindfulness. Many years later, I found out that this was the very essence of meditation.

As my mind became quieter I grew more interested in yoga and meditation and these became part of my daily routine. I moved to Canada in 1987 and experienced a lot of struggles as a newcomer. My practice helped me cope, and gave me the clarity of mind and confidence to complete law school and to pursue a professional career. But by 2004 I was looking to intensify my practice. That’s when I did my first 10 day meditation course observing noble silence. This had a transformative effect and I will get to that in a moment.

So coming back to mindfulness… If that is what meditation is, then what is it? Meditation is simply being in the present moment and observing everything as it is without interpretation. A recent study done by Harvard University found that on average, a human’s mind wanders 47% of the time. This amounts to half our waking lives. So if we are not present then where are we? We are thinking about the past or about the future. We are not focused on where we are and what we are engaged in at any given time? This means that we are attached to something that has happened or is about to happen. This attachment influences how we react to our present. We do not see the present for what it is and therefore do not react to life’s happenings with an open mind and heart and without judgement.

Let me give you an example. If I was worried about something that happened at work today and my husband asked me a simple question “did you remember to buy milk”? If I am lingering in the past I may snap back with “No I did not. Do you know what a terrible day I had at work? For a change you could have bought it etc”. This would have escalated the issue and resulted in an unwanted argument bringing him and me additional stress. If on the other hand, I was present, I would not be influenced by thoughts about the day’s events or interpret his question as being interrogatory, and would have just responded with a simple — “I did not. I forgot.”

So meditation is about living every moment present to our thoughts and to everyone around us without judgement. With attention to the present, we become intensely aware of our conditioned responses, in the form of our conduct, the changes to our breathing and our bodily sensations, as we encounter life’s situations.

So what are some of meditation’s benefits?

We all take care of our body, our clothes, our hair, our appearance. And yet we do not care enough for that part of us that helps us do everything. Our mind helps us learn, express emotions and manage every aspect of our lives. Every day we allow our mind to be bombarded with thoughts. Our cluttered mind inhibits us from thinking clearly and from solving problems in an open and honest way. Why? Thoughts give expression to our insecurities and selfish desires. These in turn trigger emotions that cloud our judgement and prevent us from seeing the impact of our behaviour on others, which in turn triggers their reaction to our conduct and so on. We are entangled in a vicious cycle.

When we meditate as a practice, besides living each moment mindfully, as in setting aside a few minutes to practice silence and observation we allow the agitation to settle so the mind is still and clear. We allow it to find some peace and quiet. Soon something miraculous begins to happen. We start breaking free of our conscious and unconscious habit patterns. Slowly, we respond to all experiences with equanimity. Since we no longer crave pleasure and avoid pain, we are much more spontaneous. Our decisions are more enlightened without the barrier and fog of our habit patterns dictated by our insecurities and desires. We have greater control over our mind and emotions. All this comes about because we recognize that we are not our egos and that our desires are temporal and will pass.

Meditation helps us cope with stress. However, that makes it sound like a cure for stress. But let us look at this another way? What would happen if we meditated for just 15 minutes every day? Take it from me, our experience of stress will be much less. With fewer thoughts we will not feel rushed. We will not feel a loss of control. We will have all the time to respond in a way that is not reactive. So meditation actually prevents stress. A daily yoga practice that is done mindfully will do the same. Ultimately though, meditation and its benefits are best experienced than explained.


Lastly, about twelve years ago I began to practice Vipassana. I was searching for a structured practice that would commit me to a routine and would offer me opportunities to reinvigorate myself every year. Briefly, Vipassana is meditation as practised by the Buddha that involves observing the breath and bodily sensations in complete silence. I had to go to a 10 day silent retreat to be initiated to it. Its impact on me has been dramatic. Following are three significant changes I have noticed in me.

First change, I react less

Reaction is when we respond without thinking — usually with emotion. When someone says something that is critical of us, we tend to take it personally and say something that is hurtful. For eg, when my daughter says “mom stop telling me how to live my life” I experience a sharp emotional pain which usually manifests as a physical reaction in the body. With Vipassana, I find that I am able to see the source of the pain as not being her, but as being my own reaction. The more I see that the more I am able to have an open and honest relationship with my daughter. So rather than act defensive and say “I am not” or “I am your mother I have every right”, I find myself staying curious and asking “Why do you think/say that? What would you have me do differently?”

Second change, I embrace change more easily

I do find change painful. But as I observe, without judgement, the painful sensations that any prospect of change produces, I also notice that it passes and that everything in life is in a constant state of flux. This makes me bounce back from painful sensations brought on by change much faster. I am more creative and welcoming of new opportunities. When I resist change, wanting to control how things turn out, I am limited, unimaginative, repeating habit patterns and causing myself and others pain.

Third change, I am authentic

We all create an image of who we are for the world and constantly try to live up to it. When I started to be present to my sensations through my practice, it became really important to remain true and authentic. So I stopped trying to do things just because they made me look good and instead began to do things because they were truthful, right and selfless rather than selfish.

When I gave a talk on the above topic at a temple, an eminent Sanskrit scholar who has translated several Upanishads (ancient Hindu teachings) and the Yogasutras asked me to ponder over who I had referred to as “I” throughout the talk. So to close the loop, all of the above changes are coming about with less and less identification of myself as the body, mind and ego and more as the witness that observes. This is a shift from a notion of doer-ship to one of recognizing my body as the instrument through which consciousness manifests and life happens. With my yoga and meditation practice, I have just scratched the surface and have already seen great changes in my life. All of you who meditate must have similar experiences. Please feel free to share them.

To find out more about Vipassana, please go to

Saturday, October 8, 2016

"Wise words"

A young person in my life said she was experiencing a lot of stress at work. So I asked her the reason for this. "Well I cannot really explain it. But I feel out of my element and am not in a great head space.' I countered "I cannot even pretend to understand your stresses, I have never been in such a demanding position but I could help." "Well actually, I am right where the crosshairs are with bullets being aimed at me from different directions. I have bosses to please and my reports will not listen to me and my direct boss is just not able to help. Everyone has a different set of expectations and I am left feeling debilitated and ineffectual. My job appears to be hanging in the balance. I have to present to the CEO and feel like it is going to be do or die."

"Wow" I thought, what a lot of interpretation and noise, but did not voice it. When you have so much clutter in the mind, how can you carry on with the task at hand, I wondered. Instead, and in a very calm and nonjudgemental way, I asked a question. "Is it actually possible to please everyone in your sphere of reference?' She said "No". "Heck, is it possible to please one?" She said "maybe, but not entirely." "Why do you think that is?" To which she said "I don't know, maybe because I am not good enough?" "That's possible, but not probable since you have more information than most, have been working in this field for a while and have told me yourself on several occasions how surprised you are when you go to conferences and find out how much you know, to ask all the right questions". "Yes.." she hesitated. "Well", I said, "an alternative narrative that serves you better could simply be, that you are barking up the wrong tree. That this is a field of new and emerging technology, where everyone is unsure and insecure and as a woman in a nontraditional field there is distrust in your ability to meet expectations. And when they see you reacting to that with insecurity then that is exactly what they want. They act to reinforce the feelings of insecurity that you are manifesting. You ask why they would do this? Well, because they act to serve their own self-interest. They want to get ahead and look good while doing this. Making you look bad may make them feel better about themselves. But more importantly anything you do they will be critical of or indifferent to unless it serves their self interest. And if this is the case, you can never do things that make others happy and obtain their approval all the time. Instead you could tell yourself this. I am going to put my head down and put out my best based on all the information that I have, that serves the interest of the project as a whole as I see it. I have the courage of conviction and confidence to stand up and defend it. If it means not meeting the expectations of a few people, then I can strive to understand why without immediately jumping to the conclusion that I failed. Knowing it is not about me, but about the project, I can have conversations with them to re-set and or understand their expectations to serve the truth. But I must never hastily conclude that I am incompetent and not up to the task." In addition I pointed out - " you are smart, hardworking, disciplined, clear thinking and truthful, if they do not value that then they will soon wake up to the fact that there are few millenials who have the patience to put up as you do. "Thanks ...those are wise words. I feel better now", said the young person.

A wonderful short video from Eckhart Tolle

Monday, October 3, 2016

Memory and the world as we know it

Sometimes I do crazy things. Today I spent two precious hours of my evening looking for a country music song. I just remembered that I had liked it but could not remember name of song or singer. I did not know where to begin. So I browsed country singers by name- no name rang a bill. I had a vague recollection that it was a song from a movie with a country music theme. And again nothing. Then I looked through all Faith Hill songs, recalling she had sung it once. Again no dice. I went on a detour and listened to other country songs and videos hoping something would trigger. I knew the name was not common and the last name was German sounding with a "und" in it - so I typed Lund and there was a country music singer by that name - but not the one I was looking for. Then I typed Lelund with a prefix to the "Lund" and there it was voila .. Hedlund. Garrett Hedlund. Feeling childishly triumphant I quickly went into YouTube and found his song.

So then I was listening to the "Ideas" program about "biocentrism". I have not stopped thinking about it ever since. Dr. Lanza who has coined the phrase has beautifully articulated what our ancient sages have always said. That the source of all life as we know it is consciousness and that there was no big bang or other seminal moment that gave birth to life. It's fascinating on so many levels because it turns causal connection between the world and life on its head. Actually it says there is no world without our heads. That the brain which is an instrument of ourselves quite like a calculator helps the mind create algorithmic connections with particles in super positions to create the illusion of space and time. So particles that we see out there are, are actually the result of our own perception and that they are not "out there" and do not act and behave the way we perceive them. We got a glimpse that this is true when Heisenberg tried to measure the velocity of the electron and found that he could not because if he located it then he could not measure its velocity at the same time (aka Heisenberg's uncertainty principle). In simple terms the observer creates the observed. Thus the past, present and future and our notion of a period in history are the result of such algorithmic connections. What does this all mean for us? We have some inkling of this from our three dimensional dream state which appears so real when we are in it Well, it blows my mind to even think this, but it actually means that there can co-exist other universes and the paradigm of space and time can be changed so we can "go back" in time or into the future. We can be in different places in an instant - yes it is actually possible with the manipulation of the observer's mind, which is responsible for reality as we know it, that we can radically alter our experience of the world. How cool is that? You may counter, are we not already doing that with virtual reality experiments? Well what's different is the understanding that all reality is virtual and what we experience as real is just one dimension while multiple dimensions co-exist. So I could actually bring myself to that moment when I first heard the Garrett Hedlund song the name of which was confounding me all this while?

Here is the sizzlingly sexy Garrett Hedlund's "Give in to me".

And the wonderful ideas program that has me all excited