Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

No correct answer

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

This is the first of two essays on the need for harmony among people. This essay outlines my premise. The next will be on some suggestions. I thought that this theme is appropriate for the Holiday season.

From reading various philosophical texts from the east and the west, it is clear that the fundamental questions we ask about the universe and life are the same. There are only three fundamental questions. They are: How did this universe and our world come about? Who am I and how did I get here? Now that I am here, what should I do with this life? But the answers range a wide spectrum. Obviously, there is no one final correct answer.

There are ten known theories of human nature and human condition. How did we come about? Is there a “creator”? If there is a creator, does He determine everything? Is there something called free-will? Is there something called karma? Why do good people suffer? Why are human beings cruel to each other? There are several different answers to these questions. Again, there is no one final answer.

Joseph Campbell quotes Adolf Bastian, a cultural anthropologist who pointed out how the same images and same themes are constantly appearing in the mythologies and religious systems of various parts of the world. When you read comparative mythology, you find that every culture has its own creation myth? Many have a mythical story about a great flood. Myths about mountains and trees are also common. The names are different; the metaphor is the same.

If you look at religious rituals, all of them will have a place for water, fire, earth, sound and of course, an altar!

Cultural anthropologists tell us that all cultures have to deal with the same set of universal problems in dealing with nature, human nature, family unit, work, and time. There are only a limited number of options to deal with each one of these universal realities. For example, there are three options to deal with nature - learn to live with nature, control nature or live in awe and fear of nature. Similarly, to deal with time, cultures may emphasize the past or the present or the future. There is no “right” or “wrong” option. But, each of the options comes with certain advantages and disadvantages. Of course, each culture has to deal with the advantages and disadvantages of the mode it chooses.

The option that is chosen will vary from one country to another and will change over time. For example, the western culture chooses control over nature, whereas some cultures live “with” nature, not trying to control. The advantage of having “control of nature” as the mind-set is that various technological revolutions such as manipulating the elements, flying into space, conquering cancer become possible. The disadvantage is that nature cannot be always be controlled. For example, death! Therefore, frustrations and associated stress become part of the way of living.

All of this leads me to conclude that all different answers to the same questions, all different interpretations of natural phenomena and all the rituals were developed millennia ago when men lived in isolated communities. They did not even know the existence of other lands and other people. With increasing travels and increasing exchange of information, we are now able to study various cultures and their associated myths, legends, philosophies and practices. When we compare these myths, traditions and philosophies, it becomes clear that all cultures faced the same problems in dealing with nature and human conditions. They came up with different solutions appropriate to their geography and to their value systems prevalent at that time in history. Now that the world is shrinking and we can study each others' practices, we can see the similarities and common elements.

All of these ideas and practices belong to the same family – the family of humans.

It is time to acknowledge that our species has common roots, common aspirations, common fears, common hopes and common questions. Our ancestors came up with different solutions to common problems, but the differences are superficial.

And there is NO ONE Correct answer for our philosophical questions about the universe and about the human condition. Variety is the answer, like a garden in spring. All the flowers, even the so-called weeds, are beautiful. Let us enjoy them.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wandering mind is an Unhappy mind!

Human mind is a wandering mind. Ancient scholars and sages knew this. Indeed, this observation was the basis of meditative practices in both the vedic (Hindu) and Buddhist traditions. It appears that the wandering mind, which jumps from one thought (branch of a tree) to another like a monkey,is also an unhappy mind. Now we have some interesting observations by neuro-scientists.

It appears that the default mode of human brain is “stimulus-independent thought” or mind wandering. Using the most modern iPhone as the tool, Matthew Killingworth and Daniel Gilbert collected a database of “real-time reports of thoughts, feelings and actions of broad range of people as they went about their daily activities”. (A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science 330: 932, 2010) This includes data from 5000 people from 83 different countries, different age groups and different walks of life!

The authors took a sample of 2250 adults from this vast data base to find out how often people’s mind wander, what topics they wander to and most importantly how those wanderings affect their happiness. They found that 1. Mind tends to wander irrespective of what one is doing. 2. People were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not. 3. “What people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than what they were doing”.

The authors concluded by stating that “a human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”. That raises two questions: how do you control your mind from wandering? What is happiness and how can one be happy?

If you want to learn how to reign in the mind and meditate, you may wish to read Patanjali’s Yoga Shastra or one of many books in the Buddhist literature.

I hope you do not need to read a book to know how to be happy. But if you need one, here is a book based on solid clinical research. It is “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky (Penguin books. 2007). I wish to quote one sentence from the introductory portion of this book. It says: “What we believe would make a huge difference in our lives actually, according to scientific research, makes only a small difference, while we overlook the true source of personal happiness and well-being”.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

Our mind is capable of recalling past events and imagining the future. Specific ways we perform and interpret these mental activities contribute to what we call the “self”. These in turn influence how we behave and what we do. But, future is not completely knowable. Therefore, it is essential to develop the following mental attitudes even as we plan our actions:
Open mindedness
Positive attitude with reasonable hope
Faith, based on reason
Faith in something other than material things of the world
Interconnection with others and with the Universe

Friday, October 15, 2010

Humility of Master Teachers

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

I am scheduled to give a seminar to young physicians who plan to make teaching as their career. The topic is “On becoming an effective teacher”. This is why I have been thinking about teaching and wrote about Dattatreya and Buddha in the previous blog.

The more I read and reflect, the more amazed I get at the greatness of the ancient rishis (sages) of India, and their humility. This essay is to support this observation.

For a starter, almost all the Upanishads and puranas (epics, legends) are written as answers to questions by ardent seekers. Bhagvat Gita came into being in answer to a question by Arjuna. In Bhagavata Purana there are sections consisting entirely of questions.

It is humbling to hear the words of Lord Krishna at the end of the Bhagavat Gita in Chapter 18, sloka 63. After expounding the entire essence of the Vedas, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna: "Ithi thay gnanam aakyaatham guhyat guhyataharam mayaa vimrushya ethath ashesheyna yatha icchasi tathaa kuru”. The meaning is: “I have declared to you the secrets of secrets. Reflect on it fully and act as you like”. Lord Krishna did not say: “This is what you should do”.

In the other classic, Yoga Vasishta, the sage Vyasa is teaching young Raama. At the end of Chapter 21, Vasishta says: “shruthva vichaarya cha iva anthah yath yuktham thath samaachara” , which means “Having heard and examined it within yourself, do what is proper”.

An entire Upanishad is called Prasna Upanishad. Prasna means questions! This is the “Questions Upanishad”. Four students , Sukesa, Satyakama, Kausalya and Kabandhi approach the rishi, Pippalada with their questions. Each chapter starts with a question by one of the students followed by the teacher’s answers. It is amazing to read the 2nd sloka which is a statement by the teacher. He says: “Come with faith and mental preparedness and ask your questions. I will explain, whatever I know”. (yadi vignayasyaamah vo vakshyaamyah)

Another famous passage is in Brhadaaranyaka Upanishad, Chapter 4, Section1. This is a dialogue between King Janaka and the sage Yaagnyavalkya. When Janaka asks a question, the sage answers by saying: “ Let me hear what anyone may have told you”. Starting where the student is at his state of knowledge is an extremely important point in teaching.

I have already mentioned Buddha.

One other master teacher I wish to refer to is Adi Sankara. He changed my spiritual directions through his writings. One specific sentence he wrote that attracted me to him is: “na hi prathyakshavirodhey shruthey praamaanyam” meaning that Vedas cannot be an authority as against observable facts! He follows this sentence by saying that even if hundred vedic texts say fire is cold and devoid of light, it is not so. I understand this statement as: “Don’t just swallow whatever is written, however sacred it is; Think”.

The attitude of our ancient sages shows their respect for the students as individuals and their trust in the student’s capacity to grow. This is good psychology of learning and of teaching.

This is the humility that I wish to bring to teaching because as William Cowper ( I think) said: “Knowledge is proud it knows so much; Wisdom is humble it knows so little”.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dattatreya and Buddha – Teachers of Teachers

In Sanskrit, there are several words to denote a teacher. Each has a different verb root and therefore indicates different modes of teaching. Upaadhyaya denotes a teacher who sits next to you and teaches. Acharya is one who teaches by being a model in his actions. Guru is one who removes your doubts and ignorance, just by being there. In this category, Dakshinamoorthy is the guru of gurus. Dattatreya is the acharya of acharyas. That is the reason for the title of this essay.

Dattatreya is a mythical figure. He is said to be the son of the sage Atri and his wife Anusuya. According to the legend, he is the incarnation of the trinity, namely Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. His other name is avadhootha, which means an ascetic who has discarded all worldly attachments. He is mentioned in Uddhava Gita (Chapter II: Sloka 33-34) as one who considered 24 aspects/components of Nature as his Gurus. He points out what he learnt from each of these gurus.

1.Earth taught him tolerance and patience. Earth also teaches about giving (plants, river etc)
2.Space is wide and limitless like out Atman, the inner self
3.Fire burns both the good and the bad, gives warmth when it is cold outside but burns when touched.
4.Water is nice, cool and clear like our mind should be.
5.Wind carries bad odor and good smell but is unaffected by them
6.Moon seems to diminish but not really so. similarly our inner self is always there although the body diminishes.
7.Sun takes in the water and gives it back as rain. We need to take and give with our hands but do not grasp and hold on to them.
8.Ocean stays at same volume and although it receives all the rivers
9.Boat reminding us of the rafts we need to cross this river/ocean called life
10.Child with its simple mind without pride or prejudice
11.Young girl who removed all the bangles except one from her hand so they do not make noise and thus taught us the importance of solitude and silence
12.Marksman who is focused on the target
13.Elephant very strong and yet will listen to command
14.Dog for its loyalty
15.Deer (any animal) satisfied with what is available to eat, not worrying about tomorrow, caring for its young
16.Python because it eats only when food is available
17.Snake for teaching the philosophy of mistaking rope for a snake due to ignorance
18.Chameleon with its ability to change itself to suit the circumstances
19.Ant for its tireless work ethics
20.Mosquito reminding us of bad people who are always hurting others
21.Bed-bug reminding us of people who do bad things and hide
22.Spider spinning and drawing back its silk just as this universe manifests and disappears
23.Bee …. (I did not understand)
24.Birds with its two wings of knowledge and determination

There is a similar passage in the writings of Buddhism. In this passage, Buddha is teaching his son Rahula. Buddha says: “Rahula, learn from the earth. Whether people spread pure and fragrant flowers….. or discard filthy, foul-smelling material, she receives them all without clinging or aversion. Learn from the Water. When people wash dirty things in it, the water is not sad or disdainful. Learn from fire because it burns all things without discrimination. Learn from the air. It carries all fragrances whether sweet or foul”.

There is also a story of a fisherman explaining why he loves the ocean and how Buddha used this teaching into his Dharma talk. The eight reasons why the fisherman liked the ocean were:
Ocean shores slope gently towards the water, making it easy to drag the boat and net
Ocean stays in the same place
Ocean never holds a corpse, it always pushes it ashore
All rivers enter the ocean and leave their names behind
But the ocean level stays the same
Sea water is always salty
Ocean contains beautiful coral, mother-of-pearl, and precious stones
Ocean gives refuge to thousands of living creatures

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gnana and Vignana

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

This essay is on spiritual Knowledge and Specified Knowledge.

I was reading a remarkable book by Bal Gangadhar Tilak on Gita Rahasya. There he defines gnana as spiritual knowledge and vignana as specified knowledge. He then refers to Bhagvat Gita Chapter 13 Sloka 30 to define these two types of knowledge.

The first line is: yada bhuthapruthakbhavam ekastham anupashyathi. This line refers to the diversity of forms residing in the One. “Realising that there is only one indestructible Parameswara, Who pervades all the perishable things of the world is gnana” says Tilak.

The second line refers to the many forms coming out of that One and says: thatha eva cha visthaaram brahma sampadhyathe sadha thadha. In translating this sentence Tilak says: “Understanding how the various perishable things come into existence out of the one permanent Parameswara is vignana”.

This became a point of reflection for me today during my walking meditation. Based on all of my reading, limited as it is, and all of my reflection, the first sentence says that there has to be an original source for all of this. All of us must have a “part” of this source since the cause is inherent in the effect as pointed out in the Chandogya Upanishad. It is possible to reflect on that Primordial Force and feel It intellectually and emotionally. That is spiritual knowledge (gnana) and is within the grasp of all of us. Mystics say they have experienced It also. This is not easy for the vast majority of us.

The second question asks how the One became many. It is not possible to answer this question definitively. One can only speculate. Many have speculated. This is the vignana. I do not wish to dwell on this issue. We will never know. It is better to be humble and stay innocent and look at the mystery with awe, respect, compassion and humility.

Therefore, I prefer reflecting on the One Source from which all of us came and try to merge with It, if am fortunate enough. I do not wish to be distracted with all the theories on how that One became many.

On a related topic, in common usage, we define vignana as science and gnana as knowledge in general. It is interesting to note the similarity between these Sanskrit words and English words such as ignorance, diagnose, knowledge etc. The root word is “gnocere” in Latin and “gignoskein” in Greek and “gna” in Sanskrit.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Brain’s problems

Brain is an amazing organ.
It is the seat of our mind.
Its main function is information exchange.
It has two components – one that keeps our internal milieu constant so we can live. This is like our thermostat with a servo mechanism. It receives signals and readjusts our chemistries without our knowing.
The other is for receiving signals from the outside world and responding.
It has to receive signals correctly, interpret them correctly, respond on time and with right movements, store the information and the experience and go back to retrieve them when needed.
It can deal with internal changes we are not even aware of, it can respond to external things we become aware of and it can also think of “non-existent” things, like ideas.
It can imagine things.
It uses language to imagine things.
Human brain has language capacity!
That is its boon and a bane!
The mind (brain) loves words.
If it imagines something, it gives it a name.
It is useful and necessary to do so.
Sometimes though, it is a handicap.
It tends to believe in some things just because there is a name for it, even when there is no proof.
It mistakes words for the things.
It likes to have an explanation for everything.
But not necessarily the correct one.
It wants a quick and easy answer most of the time.
Therefore, it accepts plausible explanation.
Once it thinks it has an answer, it stops thinking.
It clings to the first available “easy” answer.
It jumps to conclusion.
What is worse, it tends to justify its conclusions, even if wrong.
It is fickle.
It is always in conflict with itself – between its reason and its emotion.
Many things can go wrong with perception, interpretation and conclusions; indeed they do.
But, this brain is all we have. We need to work within its limitations.
We have to know its limitations.
Even for that, we have to use the same imperfect brain!
But, it is lots of fun! May be, it is not!!
I still think the brain is the most amazing organ of our body.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Life – A personal View

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

Please let me share some thoughts on “life” in general, human life in particular.

What is “life”? It is not easy to define life in a sentence or two. However, we can describe what makes for life. In other words, we can list life’s universal properties, tendencies and realities.

At a very basic level, life is exchange of energy. In most terrestrial forms it manifests as “breathing”. Even in this “breathing”, there is difference between breathing in animals and breathing in plants. Life in water also requires energy exchange, but by a different mechanism. Ultimately, the source of energy for all forms of life in this planet is our Sun. Is it any wonder that oriental systems emphasize control of breathing as an essential step in meditation? Is it any wonder that all early traditions and religions worshiped the Sun God?

Once a “life form” comes into being, what are its inherent biological properties? Science is better equipped to answer this question. The following is an answer given by Daniel Koshland (Science 2002: 295: 2215-2216), a distinguished scientist, who used to be the editor of Science magazine. He identified seven common thermodynamic and kinetic factors by which “life” and living systems operate. He described them in the acronym “PICERAS” and called them the “Seven Pillars of Life”. They are: 1. Program – organized plan describing both the ingredients and the kinetics of interaction between the ingredients. 2. Improvisation – allowing the programs to change if and when the environment changes. 3. Compartmentalization – providing special containers in which concentrations of essential chemical ingredients can be maintained in an ideal state and protected from the outside. 4. Energy – availability of continuous source of energy and ability to exchange energy in an open system. 5. Regeneration – includes regeneration of essential constituents and reproduction. 6. Adaptability – different from improvisation in that this is a behavioral response from within the existing repertoire and not a change in the fundamental program itself. 7.Seclusion – of pathways that “allows thousands of reactions to occur with high efficiency in the tiny volume of a cell, while simultaneously receiving selective signals that ensure an appropriate response to environmental changes.”

What are the inherent tendencies of life? Life just wants to be and wants to be forever. Have we not heard the words “clinging to life”? Bill Bryson summarized it best in his book on A Short History of Nearly Everything (Broadway Books, 2004)@ as follows: “Life wants to be; life does not want to be much; life from time to time goes extinct. To this we may add a fourth: life goes on”. This is a beautiful summary of life from both biological and philosophical point of view.

There is beautiful story in the Mahabharatha in the Anushasana Parvam. The big Kurukshetra war is over. Bhishma is lying on a bed of arrows. Indeed this was his death-bed. Dharma (Yudhistra) asks Bhishma: “ Revered Sir, please tell me what the best among the virtues are? I am told that non-violence is the best. Yet, our scriptures talk about using meat in yagnas. I am confused”. Bhishma gives a discourse on ahimsa (which is non-violence and includes non-killing). This is a long passage and includes the following story of a worm crossing a pathway in a hurry.

“All forms of life want to live forever………. They are afraid of death just like a worm who was crawling on the street at the same time Sage Vyasa was walking along the same path. Vyasa asked the worm why he was moving so fast, faster than he is capable of. The worm replied as follows: “ I am aware of several bullock carts using this road. I am afraid of being crushed. I do not want to die and so I am hurrying”. Sage Vyasa says: “ What happiness do you have? What are you hoping to get done?”. The worm replies as follows: “ Even though I am small and vulnerable, I do have some moments of happiness. What makes me happy is not the same as yours. But there is and I do not wish to die”. What an amazing story written more than 2000 years back!

The other inherent tendency of life is a “built-in” need, an urge to reproduce. We will not be here but for this urge. We need not overemphasize it. But, there is no use denying it either. It is part of life.

Life forms also want to or tend to avoid pain and suffering just like that worm on the road you just read about.

What are the inherent realities of life?

We all know that life is impermanent. Death is inevitable.

As pointed out by Buddha, we are also “inter-beings”. In other words, we are made of elements. Depending on the systems of philosophy these elements may be space, air, fire, water and earth or fire only, or gross and subtle matter etc. Current knowledge tells us that we are made of recycled matter from this earth which came from the sun and the stars. If you break this down, we are made of water and minerals. These in turn are made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus, iron etc! This may sound crude, but it is the reality.

Whatever it is made of, our bodies are bound to alter, decay, disappear and get recycled.

Once again, in the words of Bill Bryson, “To begin with, for you to be here now, trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It is an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will exist only this once …….Why the atoms take this trouble is a bit of puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms do not actually care about you - indeed don’t even know that you are there. They do not even “know” that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive, but all of which had once been you.) Yet, somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you, you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting – fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown, your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble and go off to be other things. And that is it for you”. (From A Short History of Nearly Everything. Broadway Books, 2004)@

The other reality of human life is loneliness. You will notice that it is a lonely struggle, particularly at moments of disease and stress. Death is a personal experience and a lonely journey. No one can take our burden, feel our pain or die for us!

One other reality is that our actions will have consequences – sooner or later, on ourselves and on others. Whether I believe in future births or not, I still cannot escape the consequences of my actions in this life. Reflexive actions are built in to preserve life. But as human beings, we are obliged to reflect on the consequences of our actions as much as possible.

Here is the central conflict. The life wants to live forever. But, it is impermanent. How can we deal with this conflict?

There are only a limited number of ways we can deal with the reality of death.
We can put up a fight, in vain.
We can accept it gracefully.
We can accept it grudgingly.
We can deny and pretend like we are immortal.
We can build imaginary future abodes.
We can practice rituals to avoid it.
Various cultures have tried all these avenues and more.

My preference is to accept it gracefully and live this ONE LIFE according to the dharma appropriate to my stage in life. I can be prudent and considerate in my actions. I can be aware of interconnectedness of our lives without losing the identity of the personal self. I can be detached without getting disengaged.

I can develop an inner compass to connect with and relate to this Universe and an inner policeman to direct me in this world. I can practice compassion and universal love. I can be humble.

@ Reproduced with permission from Random House Inc.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Meditation Part 4 B

Neurobiology of meditation:
In neurobiological terms, meditation is an altered state of consciousness (ASC), just as sleep is, coma is and one stage of anesthesia is. Mystic state is one such state of altered consciousness. During sleep all sensory inputs are in abeyance, but the person is not aware. During meditation and mystic states, the sensory inputs are under control and the person is aware fully or at a different level of awareness. These experiences are called religious experiences when they include religious symbols or special pantheon of Gods.

Out-of-body experiences described during meditation can also be experienced by those on stimulant drugs and psychedelics. Out of body experience “is an experience in which a person seems to perceive the world from a location outside their physical body”. People with this experience report greater sensitivity of their vision and hearing. Time and space seem to disappear as in mystic experience. Prolonged periods of reduced sensory input and disruption of body image can also result in out-of-body experience. Psychedelic drugs and an anesthetic agent called ketamine can induce some of these experiences.

There are descriptions of the mental state following inhalation of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and chloroform that are similar to the visions of those who practice meditation. Visual hallucinations and feelings of omnipotence which are reported to occur at a certain stage in meditation have been known to be symptoms of mental illnesses also. Obviously, the mind and its base, namely the brain, are capable of attaining these states. Therefore, one has to decide when these experiences are genuine mystic experiences and when they are not.

This is particularly true of “sensed-presence”, which is a feeling that there is one other person besides you, even when you are totally alone in the midst of an ocean or a desert. This "other" person may be one's favorite deity or angel. Recently, a whole book has been written on this subject (The Third Man factor by John Geiger. Penguin, 2009). The intriguing part of this state of altered awareness is that solo sailors, solo pilots (eg. Charles Lindbergh), and high endurance athletes have also experienced such a “sensed-presence”, except that the other “person” was not an angel or God. Therefore, it appears that our brain is capable of such experiences which are felt as part of mystic experience also.

Neuroscientists are trying to explain these phenomena. One such explanation is that when one is in isolation for a long period of time, the right hemisphere of the brain experiences anomalous sensations which are reinterpreted by the left hemisphere. There is support for this view based on work with people whose mid-line structure of the brain was cut for medical reasons.

Other states of altered consciousness are those induced by “street drugs” (hallucinogens such as marijuana), sleeplessness and hypnosis. Similar states can be brought about also by natural plant products as used during religious ceremonies in ancient India (soma juice) and by shamans of the native american tribes (alkaloids).

Religious groups, priests and shamans, have practiced these techniques ever since the dawn of civilization. Putting non-believers under stress, intense fear, and starvation are time- honored methods of conversion. The priests themselves used or smoked hallucinogens and had their visions which in turn made believers out of non-believers. These are well-documented in several books. (Varieties of Religious Experiences by William James, Battle for the Mind by John Sargent, Silence by Susan Maitland and Essentials of Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill).These techniques have been refined and used in more modern times for political purposes, to obtain confession from political prisoners and to control the masses.

In a famous experiment, Doctor Walter Pahnke gave a psychotropic drug to 10 divinity students before the traditional service on a Good Friday and gave a control drug to 10 other students. Eight of the ten who received the psychotropic drug experienced intense religious feelings whereas the control group experienced only mild feelings.

Preparation for meditation requires “purification” according to all schools of meditation. This may be in the form of fasts (starvation), postures, exposure to heat and sun (native American Sweat lodge), self-infliction of injury, handling of objects that induce fear (like snake or sacrifice and blood) or talks of “hell and purgatory”. Intense rhythmic sounds such as the use of drums and chanting are also part of religious ceremonies. All of these have been shown to modify the suggestibility of humans and animals. There is also a mass hypnotic effect when these rituals are practiced as part of a group activity. In such a state, the individual is suggestible and may experience visions of God as in true mystic experience. At this state, it is also easy for the priest to plant his ideas of salvation by following his path.

Buddha starved so much that he was found in semi-conscious state by a milkmaid. Ramana Maharishi talks about how his quest started when he was gripped with intense fear of death.

Such altered mental states can also be induced by prolonged silence, prolonged voluntary or forced isolation and living alone in an island or in the midst of an ocean as documented by Susan Maitland in her book on Silence (Granta, 2008). She studied the diaries of people who had no religious motivation but got stranded in the midst of an ocean or a desert. She herself went into self-imposed isolation for six months. During that time, she kept observing herself and kept detailed notes of the mental states throughout her self-imposed world of isolation and silence. Here are the stages she went through, in her own words: “intensification of physical and physiological sensations, dis-inhibition, a sense of “connection”, auditory hallucinations, boundary confusions, an exhilarating consciousness of being at risk and finally a state of bliss and ineffability”. She points out how these or similar mental states were described by others who were adrift in the sea or in a desert alone. These states are also similar to the states experienced by mystics.

There is an interesting passage in Chandogya Upanishad (VI:7;1). The father (Uddalaka) asks the son to fast for 15 days and come back to him for initiation. The son is allowed to drink, however. The son obeys this order and comes back after 15 days. The father asks the son to recite rk, yajr and Sama Vedas. The son says: “na maa prathibhanthi”. That is to say he is not able to remember. The father asks the son to go eat and come back. The actual statement is “ashaana, atha vignanaasi”, meaning, “eat, then you will understand”. Indoctrination and instilling special concepts when the body is under stress is known to all traditions.

It is clear that the human brain is the “seat” of all these states of mind. It is the connection with religion or a spiritual force that makes it a mystical experience or not. Any ordinary individual may experience part of these phenomena under severe stress or when deprived of sensory stimuli for prolonged periods. How am I to know that these are not the normal expected responses of the brain under stress or suggestion?

For all these reasons, I question the glorification of all these experiences as divinely mediated. I, as a scientist, conclude that the states of ecstasy and visions described by those who practice meditation are within the realm of possibility of the human brain and are not mediated by “divine intervention”, except for an extremely small number of individuals. The same state can be reached or forced upon human mind by various means with or without religious motivation.

Mystic intuition may be certain for the individual and cannot be denied. But it cannot prove that contrary intuitions are not possible or same intuitions may be had through other methods.

That does not mean that I reject the notion of mystic union. I only say that most people who describe visions and ecstasy are not experiencing the spiritual.

I know that for those of you who consider Brahman, Consciousness etc as sacred, this will be blasphemous. Let us face reality. This entire field of consciousness is under the scrutiny of neuroscientists. Consciousness is not a “taboo” subject any more. We may find that what we call consciousness is a property of the neural network, that it is a minute by minute reconstruction of our experiences, feelings and inferences and that the feeling of “I” is a “nested loop”. This is what Buddha said centuries back. This is the direction neuro-scientific studies are pointing to.

Finally I wish to make a comment on various schools of yogas which make complicated rituals out of simple preparatory steps such as seating, breathing etc. These schools teach elaborate complicated body postures to practice. They teach you to focus on special energy fields (chakras and mandalas). During pranayama (special breath control techniques) they teach you to use esoteric channels (ida, pingala etc). I do not know whether there is any basis at all for these ideas. There may be; there may not be.

My main objection is that simple steps such as proper sitting and breathing in preparation for meditation get elaborated into various schools of thought and cloud the goal and the path. Nay, I would say that the teachings of our ancestors get high-jacked. Why focus on esoteric unproven concepts when you can spend your energy to calm the mind and focus on how to merge the Individual Energy (wave) with the Universal energy (ocean)? Just as Buddha pointed out, when the finger points to the moon, what can you gain by looking at the finger?

References to read:

Srimad BhagavatGita Rahasya. Bal GangadarTilak. Tilak Bros Publishers. 1935
A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. Counterpoint Publisher. 2009.
Meditation and the Neuroscience of Consciousness. Antoine Lutz, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson [In press in Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness. Edited by P. Zelazo, M. Moscovitch
and E. Thompson.]
The Essentials of Mysticism. Evelyn Underhill EP Dutton Inc New York. 1960
A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan and C.A.Moore. Princeton University Press. 1957
The Sarvadarshana Sangraha of Madhvacharya. Cowell EB, Gough AE. Motilal Banarsidass. 1996.
The Varieties of Religious Experience. William James. Mentor Books. 1958
The Battle for the Mind. William Sargant. Malor Books. 1997
Transformation at the base. Thich Naht Hanh. Parallax Press. 2001
The Heart of Buddhist Teachings. Thich Naht Hanh. Broadway Books. 1998.
Hunting the I - Lucy Carnelssen Sri Ramanashram 2003
What is Meditation? Vimala Thakar. Vimal Prakashan Trust 1998
Meditation Sogyal Rinpoche. Rider Publishers 1994
Ten major Upanishads (Vedanta Press Series)
Consciousness – An Introduction. Susan Blackmore. Oxford University Press 2004
The Life of St.Teresa of Jesus of the order of Our Lady of Caramel. Translated from Spanish by David Lewis. Third Edition. London: Thomas Baker, Benziger Bros New York MCMIV (From The Gutenberg Collection)
I am a strange loop. Douglas Hofstadter. Basic Books 2008.
The Perennial Philosophy. Aldous Huxley. Harper Colophon. 1970.
The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. Antonio Damasio. Mariner Books. 2000
The Six Enneads. Creator: Plotinus. MacKenna, Stephen (Translator),Page, B. S. (Translator). From the Google Books Project

Friday, June 4, 2010

Meditation Part 4 A

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

Before I start this final essay on meditation, let me share with you some other thoughts.

I have quoted many books in these essays for three reasons. First, it is to show that meditation and mysticism are not in the special province of one culture or one tradition. If human mind is capable of it, it will be experienced by anyone interested, from whichever part of the world he comes from, at any point in history. My quotes are in support of that position. The second reason is that I am used to write medical and scientific articles. In science, we have to provide evidence in support of our statements. This has become a habit. Finally, I wish to encourage you to go the original source and check it out for yourself.  You can check me out for accuracy. You may also find a different angle or explanation. You may say that you do not know Sanskrit or Tamizh. May be, this will be a stimulus for you to learn an ancient Indian language.

Now, back to the completion of this series.

How can we recognize a true mystic from the mentally ill?  One can recognize the true mystics by their actions and attitudes to life. As noted earlier, a mystic is full of equanimity, compassion and universal love. He lives a simple life. As pointed out by William James, he lives a life of asceticism (not self- torture) and poverty (minimal needs, not retreating to the caves). He involves himself in necessary worldly activities, but internally he has given up all attachments. He may behave odd sometimes like a freak, but “his action is not a mere restless striving after the discordant objects of a scattered attention, but an ordered movement based on the contemplation of reality”.

The behavior of the mentally ill is obvious most of the time. It is centered on their inner fears and anxieties and altered perceptions. The mentally ill live in response to fantasies and selfish needs. Therefore, their actions are unpredictable. They are oblivious to the consequences of their action on others. Mystic is not selfish. Indeed he is altruistic. Also, the mystic experience lasts for only a brief period. The mentally ill have hallucinations and delusions for prolonged periods.

What are the stages mystics go through before they experience this Unity with the Original Source (mystic union)?

 Vedic Hindu scriptures and Buddhist scriptures described these stages millennia ago. For example, Patanjali says that the dawn of wisdom comes in several stages (Yoga sutra 2:27) starting with detachment from objects of senses, to stage of ideation and finally total absorption in the Infinite.

Other books talk about Savikalpa Samadhi with four stages and Nirvikalpa Samadhi with two stages.
In the Savikalpa stage, the mind is still functioning and there is still duality. It starts with awareness of objects of thought, moves to abstract thoughts (eg: I am Brahman), then on to thoughts of external objects with the realization that objects with name and form are impermanent and finally to awareness of the Subject of the awareness itself, only a stream of self-consciousness.

In Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the mind ceases to be active. There is no duality, no knower and the known. Yoga vasishta says (III:2; 18-19) that when thoughts subside, one’s own natural state remains. In the first stage, the mind is “like a flame in a windless plane, steady, indifferent to sounds and objects”. It is like “an empty pitcher placed in the sky, having nothing inside or outside”. In the final stage, the meditator is in a state of bliss, completely absorbed in the Brahman, completely indifferent to the manifest world (Nirbija Samadhi). He is like “a pitcher placed in the sea, full inside and outside”.

The four big statements (mahavakyas) from the Upanishads indicate the stages of ascent. They are  thath thvam asi (Thou art that) from Chandogya upanishad; ayam atma Brahma meaning this life is Brahman from Maandukya Upanishad; prajnam Brahma (jiva is Isvara; Individual life is Universal life) from Aitreya Upanishad;  and Aham brahmasmi (I am That Brahman) from Brahadaranyaka Upanishad. The ascent is from the dual mode (that thvam asi), to the witness mode (ayam atma brahma), to the undivided mode in pragnam brahma and finally to the undivided essence (aham Brahmasmi).

In Yoga Vasishta, a ladder of seven steps of knowledge is described. It starts with auspicious wish (virtuous), reflection on virtuous conduct and true meaning, non-attachment to objects of senses, entering the  realm of true being, non-union, non-ideation and fixity in one’s on true being. (Yoga Vasishta VII: 60-70)

According to Buddhist writings, there are nine levels of meditative concentrations. They may be divided into two realms. The first four are concentrations in the “form” realm (body, feeling, perception and mental modifications) and the next five belong to the “formless” realm. The fifth level is concentration on limitless space. At the sixth level, the focus is on limitless consciousness. The seventh level is concentration on nothingness (signlessness, interconnectedness, sunyattha).  At the eighth level, there is neither perception non non-perception. Ninth level is that of cessation of ignorance. At this stage, the mind is transformed and internal modifications get purified. In this system, Samadhi actually means concentration and “mindfulness” is the method.

Most Christian mystics describe three stages: purification or purgation, illumination and finally union or communion with God. St. Teresa of Avila lists her ascent as “ladders of perfection”. These are: giving up extroversion and start in search of truth internally; detachment from the fears and pains; seeing the reflection of the Eternal Light; giving up external roles and duties; gradual withering away of all other interests and becoming indifferent to social conventions etc; obtaining some unusual mental powers; and finally a state of bliss.

In addition to the mystic experiences on the way to the state of Divine Bliss, there is a stage at which practitioners may acquire special powers as described in Patanjali’s Yoga sastra in chapter 3. These powers include ability to read the mind of another, knowing about past lives, entering the body of another, becoming invisible, becoming light of weight etc. Patanjali warns against getting stuck at this stage. In his own words samaadhaavupasarga vyutthaane siddhayah (3:38)  meaning that these powers of the worldly state are obstacles to samaadhi.  Interestingly, after describing these powers, Patanjali goes on to say thadvairagyaadhapi dhoshabeejakshaye kaivalyam meaning “detach from these powers and go beyond for freedom”(3: 51).  Some decide not to follow that advice. As noted in an earlier patagraph, St.Teresa of Avila also refers to this stage.

In my view, some cult figures are at this stage. Alternately, they might have had the true mystic experience, but for some reason have decided to “use”  powers acquired during the process for other purposes.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What is Meditation? Part 3

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana:

I planned originally to write my practice of meditation. But, I changed my mind. We can talk about it personally in details at a later time, when we meet.

In this essay, let me summarize what I have learned about mysticism and what some famous mystics say about mystic experience and meditation. I will also review available evidence for the neurobiological basis and neurological correlates of meditation and related states of altered consciousness.

The word meditation means different things to different people. The meaning has changed over the centuries, with translation from Sanskrit or Pali to Chinese and back to Sanskrit. For example, the word dhyan became chin in China and then zen in Japan. When translated to western languages, the meaning has changed even more. The word yoga is used for both wide varieties of practices and also for practices with single focus (physical postures or special breathing technique).

To add to the confusion, the word meditation is often used in conjunction with mysticism. They are related, but not the same. Meditation is an activity. Mystic state is an experience. You can meditate without ever getting into a mystic state. You can meditate for goals other than reaching a mystic state. You can get into a mystic state without meditating. Some of the experiences associated with mystic state such as “out-of-body experience” and “sensed presence” can also be experienced during prolonged isolation, intense fear, and following exposure to many drugs and alkaloids. Indeed, drugs and plant alkaloids were and are often employed, knowingly or unknowingly to get into a mystic state.

Although meditation is an integral part of the vedic religion (Hinduism), it is part of other traditions too. Buddhist writings suggest that their practitioners had a deep understanding of the way human mind works. Indeed when I read Patanjali, I see so many passages which are the same as or similar to what I read in Buddhism. Buddhism received its inspiration from Hinduism and built meditation on a deeper understanding of the way mind works.

Judaism, Islam and Christianity also have a tradition of meditation. However, it is not emphasized in these traditions and mystics have been viewed with suspicion. However, the experience of mystics such as St.Theresa of Avila, in which there is “a methodical elevation of the Soul towards God” is well-known in the theological literature as “orison”. Orison is the equivalent of dhyana. Christian and Islamic mystics have described their meditations and mystic experiences in detail and it is no surprise that they are similar to those described by mystics from India and the far-east.

In ancient India where all of this started, the deep thinkers noted how transient human life is and how happiness acquired by sensory means is also transient. They also noted that what makes you happy now makes you unhappy or brings grief at a later time. Therefore they sought permanent happiness and noted that this is possible by merging the individual life principle (atman) with the original source of our being (Brahman).

They further noted that the cause is in the effect. Taittreya Upanishad (VI: 1) says thath srushtva thadeva anupraavishath, meaning that after creating the other, the Original Source entered it. Therefore all of us have a part of the Original Cause. All the Upanishads tell us that if only we can stop going after the temporary happiness obtained by satisfaction of senses, withdraw the senses from their objects and calm the mind, we can experience that Original Source which is inside each one of us all the time. The path to this yoga, union of the individual soul with the Supreme, includes meditation.

Patanjali Yoga sastra says that meditation is “ for removing the obstructions that cause pain and reach union with the Self (II;2) (samaadhi bhavanaarthah, kleshathanukaranaarthah cha). It also says that it consists of “blocking the extroversion of the mind”, going after sense objects and restraining the mind. (1:2) When you control the mind and the thoughts subside, what remains is one’s own natural state (Yoga vasishta III:2.18-19). With practice and effort, this state will take you to the source, so you can experience It.

This state cannot be reached by reading or listening or discussing. So say the mystics and the scriptures. In the words of Kathopanishad (I:ii; 23) this is stated as follows “ na ayam atma pravachanena labhyo na medhaya na bahuna sruthena”. In Chandogya Upanishad, Narada says “mantravit asmi, na atmavid” meaning I know the words; but I have not experienced It”. The aim therefore of an aspirant of enlightenment is the experience of mystic union with the Original Source so that he/she can say “sprushto anuvitho mayaiva”, which means “I have touched It and experienced It myself”.

What has neuroscience learned about meditation? From the neurosciences point of view the term meditation is used too freely to denote an extremely wide range of practices from pranayam and yogic practices of the vedic hindu religion, Tai chi of China, to the orison of the Christians, zikr of the Sufi’s and the mindfulness of zen Buddhism. Recent advances in cognitive and affective neurosciences and neuro-imaging have made it possible to study meditation. But, contemplative practices also are varied and include visualization of a deity, recitation of a mantra, visualization of “energy” flowing in the body, focusing of attention on the breath, , and various forms of objectless meditations.This makes a scientific study difficult since for a mental state to be studied, it has to be defined first. You cannot study a subject or an activity with many variables. Controlling the variable is one of the foundations of any scientific study.

Neuroscientists focus on Buddhist monks who practice meditation  in which contemplation is emphasized. This gives a homogeneous group of subjects to be studied. Both novice with very little experience and masters with several years of experience have been studied. During meditation they show physiologic changes such as those in the autonomic functions, brain waves and blood flow to the brain. These include slowing of the heart and respiration and lowering of the blood pressure. Some have been able to increase the temperature of toes and fingers. Some behavioral and attitudinal changes have also seen.

Changes in EEG (brain waves)have been documented. There are several kinds of these waves, some related to normal alert state (beta), some when your mind is following several channels of thought (alpha), some during the twilight state just before falling asleep (theta). During meditative state there is a combination of alpha and theta waves. Recitation of mantra in deep absorption produces a brain pattern suggestive of decreased processing of sensory or motor information. Meditation with emphasis on focused attention caused increases in specific forms of EEG waves. Interestingly, these waves were similar to those seen during drowsiness. There are also differences in the wave patterns of novices and long-term practitioners suggesting that mental training can alter the brain-waves.

Neuro-imaging studies have shown activation of specific areas of the brain  during the expression of maternal and romantic love. Positive and negative emotions elicit responses in the right half of the brain different from the left half. Pain in oneself, observing another person who is experiencing pain and self-generated emotional states have all been studied using neuro-imaging studies. Based on this data, when practitioners of “compassion meditation” of Buddhism were studied, they showed activation of brain regions associated with one’s state of feeling positive emotions and maternal love. These changes also showed correlation with the practitioner’s stage in training.

The most important points are: human consciousness is composed of several units such as awareness, attention, and emotional response to events outside. These internal states are associated with compassion, happiness etc which form the 51 items in the Buddhist list of mental formations. These states have physical correlates in the brain in the form of localization (which part of the brain lights up during specific emotions etc), activation of neural circuitry and electrical and metabolic responses. All of these are now accessible to objective study and documentation.

It is no wonder then that the neuroscientists have started studying meditation since it is defined as altered state of consciousness. Buddhist monks have started collaborating with these studies. Both the Dalai Lama and Thich Naht Hanh have sponsored conferences on the neuroscience of meditation. As pointed out earlier, some of the observed changes in the electrical activity of the brain and activation of neural circuitry during meditation show similarities to these activities during natural expression of love, sleepiness and calming down etc.

This should encourage widespread practice of secular meditation since there are documented beneficial effects on physical and emotional health. A few may and will get deep into meditation in a formal way with a Guru and initiation for spiritual purposes. What is most intriguing (based on the differences in brain activity between novices and experienced practitioners of meditation) is that attention, awareness, compassion, love etc are traits that can be acquired by training. This is what our ancestors said. That is also the basis of modern cognitive psychology.

How do you recognize those select few mystics who have truly experienced that union with the Source? 

They can be recognized by their outward behavior and their actions. Yoga vasishta describes the characteristics of the Siddha, the enlightened (III: 3) as follows. Such a person is indifferent to pleasure and pain. He is free of anger and fear. He is engaged in action as and when needed, but is pure within.  His intellect is not tainted with ego when engaged in action. He is not afraid of the world and the world is not afraid of him. His thoughts are not limited. He is calm and contended. His possessions are minimal and even that he uses as if they belong to others.

Jacopone da Todi, asks a mystic "What have you gained from this vision?"The mystic answers “An ordered life in every state”. He has a clue by which to live, a practical realization of the proportions of life and hence responds in tune with the need.

In another place, Yoga Vasishta says (V:X: 5, 69) that a realized soul is samaa (full of equanimity), samarasa (of good disposition), sowmya (gentle), and sathatham satvrittayah (always virtuous). In yet another place, it says (XXXI: 1:22) that he acts wholeheartedly on whatever he has to do, but internally he has given up all attachments.

There are similar descriptions in other texts. William James describes the “composite photograph of universal saintliness “common to all religions as follows. These saints live a life wider than one focused on self-interest. They act with a conviction of a force larger than all of us to which they have surrendered their self-interest. They are in a special mood of elation and bliss. They have no ego and have loving harmonious relationship with others and with the world. They are pure at heart and full of charity.

You do not have to meditate or be a mystic to acquire these qualities. There have been several great human beings full of compassion and love but did not meditate or were not mystics. Some of them may even have even been atheists. Indeed, Buddha's teaching is called an atheistic by some. These humane qualities, high moral values and compassion can be acquired without meditation or religious inspirations. Modern-day humanists will attest to that.

What is a mystic experience? How do the mystics describe their experience? How is it different from the hallucinations and delusions of the mentally ill? 

Evelyn Underhill who studied the recorded experiences of the western mystics such as St.Teresa of Avila and Plotinus thinks that the essence of mysticism is the clear conviction of the mystic that his/her personal self is living in unity with God. This is true of mystics from all traditions.

William James suggested four characteristics as marks of mystic experience. First, the mystics do not have words to explain their personal experience of merging with the Absolute. It is a state of feeling and not of intellect. It is not something that can be explained in words, they will say. It has to be experienced. When words are used, the descriptions full of paradoxes and negative statements, in all cultures and all languages.

Kenopanishad (I;3)says: Na thathra chakshur gatchathi no vak no manah Na vidmo na vijanimo yath ethath anushisyath meaning that eyes cannot go there, nor can speech, nor mind. The rishi (the mystic) goes on to say” I do not know Brahman; how can I instruct you?” In another sloka (Kenopanishad II:3) it says: yasya amatham thasya matham, matham yasya na veda sah which means: “It is known to him to whom It is unknown; he does not know to whom It is known”.

Isa Upanishad (5) says: Thadejathi thannaijathi thad dhooray thadh anthikeh meaning “It moves; It does not move. It is far off; It is also near. It is outside; It is inside”.

Yoga Vasishta (III:2:20) says Words return back powerless on its encounter with this experience.
Brahadaranyaka Upanishad says: nethi, nethi na hi ethasmat, anyat param naasthi (2:3, 6) meaning, “not this, not this, It is neither this nor that”.

St.Teresa of Avila describes her orison, as follows: “ the soul is fully awake as regards God, but wholly asleep as regards things of this world………. During the short time the union lasts, she is as it were deprived of every feeling…….. When He raises a soul to union with Himself, suspend the natural action of all her faculties”. ….”… the truth that God’s mode of being in everything must be either by presence, by power or by essence………But how, can one have such certainty in respect to one he cannot see? This question, I am powerless to answer”. Also, “How this, which we call union, is effected and what it is, I cannot tell”.

In another passage she says “…. for if a person like myself should speak of a matter of this kind, and give any explanation at all of that for the description of which no words can ever possibly be found….”

Dionysius, the Areopagite says: “The cause of all things is neither soul nor intellect; nor has it imagination, opinion, or reason, or intelligence; nor is it spoken or thought. It is neither number, nor order, nor magnitude, nor littleness, nor equality, nor ineaquality, nor similarity nor dissimilarity. It neither stands, nor moves, nor rests…. It is neither essence, nor eternity, nor time….not one, nor unity…”

Meister Eckhart :”How then am I to love the Godhead? Thou shalt love Him as is: not as God, not as Spirit, not as a Person, not as an image, but as a sheer pure One. And in this One we are to sink from nothing to nothing…”

William James’ second mark of a mystic experience is that it is beyond sensory experiences and beyond ordinary knowledge. It is actually another state of knowledge, a deeper knowledge of the Unity of life arising out of insight and illumination.

Plotinus says “ He changes, he ceases to be himself, preserves nothing of himself. Absorbed in God, he makes but one with Him, like a center of a circle coinciding with another center”.

Another Western mystic describes his experience as follows: “ It consisted in gradual, but swiftly progressive obliteration of space, time, sensation and the multitudinal factors of experience which seem to qualify what we are pleased to call our Self. In proportion as these conditions of ordinary consciousness were subtracted , the sense of underlying or essential consciousness acquired intensity. At last, nothing remained but a pure, absolute , abstract Self. The universe became without form and void of content.”

Vivekananda says: “……there is another work which is above consciousness….. There is no feeling of I, and yet the mind works, desireless, free from restlessness, objectless and bodiless. Then the Truth shines in its full effulgence….”

Richard Bucke, a Canadian Psychiatrist who has had mystic experiences coined the term “Cosmic consciousness” and defined it as “a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the Universe”, together with a sense of immortality in the present moment.

Plotinus finds it hard to use words to describe.  "Its definition, in fact, could be only "the indefinable"..... what is not a thing is not some definite thing. We are in agony for a true expression; we are talking of the untellable; we name, only to indicate for our own use as best we may. And this name, The One, contains really no more than the negation of plurality: under the same pressure the Pythagoreans found their indication in the symbol "Apollo" [a= not; pollon= of many] with its repudiation of the multiple".

Sufi mystic says: “ I never saw anything without seeing God therein”. Kabir said: “ …. In Thatness I have seen beyond Thatness, in company I have seen the Comrade Himself”.

Third, these experiences are usually transient. You might have seen photographs of Ramakrishna frozen in such a state. The mystics are not in the mystic state all the time, unlike the mentally ill. But, their attitude to life has changed. They live with detachment and universal love.

Finally, these states cannot be willed into one’s experience. It is a passive process.  Kathopanishad points out that It takes over one’s will and “reveals itself” ( vivrunuthe thanum svam) That is why both the eastern and western mystics talk about surrender as the only means for this experience.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What is Meditation? Part 2

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

In the previous essay, we defined meditation, looked at the goal of meditation and the steps leading up to the goal, obstacles to meditation and the only available way to control the mind. Now, we are ready for the next step of letting go of the mind, after controlling it and bringing it to a focus.

How do you let go of the mind? What are the steps? First, you have to withdraw your senses from the sense objects. In Uddhava Gita, (XXI 22) Lord Krishna says: Vishayendriya samyogaath manah kshubyathi naanyattha meaning that the mind is agitated by the contact of sense with its objects. It is obvious because adhrushtaath ashruthaath abhavaath na bhaava upajaayathe meaning a mental wave is never produced by anything that has not been seen or heard! What an insight!

What do you have to do to withdraw the mind from sense objects? You have to focus on something, something noble, something higher. The focus could be on an object outside, or it could be inwards.

But, how do you focus? Well, in order to focus, you have to first calm the mind.

Hmm…… How do you calm the mind? To calm the mind, you have to relax the body, first.

This is exactly where different methods of preparation of the body and mind come. And with them come the associated yogic schools.

Patanjali lists eight steps in preparation of an individual for meditation. In the exact words of the sage, Patanjali himself, it is yama niyama aasana praanaayama prathyahaara dhaarana dhyana samaadhayo ashtaavangaani. Therefore, Yoga Sastra is also called Ashtaanga yoga (ashta is eight, in Sanskrit). The first five are for controlling the body; the final three are for the control of the mind.

The first five steps of Ashtanga yoga are: yama (self control consisting of non-injury, truth-telling, non-stealing, celibacy, and non-possession), niyama (observances or practices consisting of purity, contentment, austerity, study and devotion), aasana (postures) , praanaayama (control of breath), and pratyaahara (withdrawal of senses).

Please note that aasana (postures) and praanaayama (breath control) are steps 3 and 4 respectively of this preparation of the body. As you can see, they help control the physical aspects of the initiate. These two steps set the stage for step 5, withdrawal of senses. The last three are dhaarana, dhyana and samaadhi. They are meant for preparation of the mind. We defined them earlier.

Aasanas and praanaayama are practiced to develop mental, physical and spiritual strength. This is where the various schools of meditation and yoga come in. They all concentrate on one or more of these steps and build elaborate systems of practice. Unfortunately, the meaning of the word Yoga itself has changed and is applied to the practice of physical postures. Each one of them becomes a school or tradition. You have heard about the Kundalini School, Iyengar School, etc.

This is true also of various schools which emphasize breath control or praanaayama. 'Praana' means the life-force and Ayama means to regulate. Praanaayama is the method by which you learn to control and regulate the breath. There are several schools based on this focus. Art of Living is one such school. Hatha yoga emphasizes praanaayama. Though the beginner's Praanaayama is relatively harmless, safely progressing to more advanced complicated practices requires the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher. One can get into trouble holding the breath or breathing fast for more than a few seconds.

In the far east and in the Buddhist system, there are other methods of preparation. For example, Tai chi is to help bring harmony between the body and the mind. Samatha School emphasizes several methods for slowing (samatha) the mind. Vipassana school focuses on deep looking or concentration. Then there is the Vignaanapti school of Zen Buddhism with focus on being in the present moment. There are several other schools such as those which emphasize compassion as the focus of meditation.

What next? You have relaxed the body and the mind. What methods can you use to steady the mind? Initially, the mind will wander; thoughts will appear. You just observe them, without judgment and without chasing them. As soon as you realize that the mind has wandered off, gently bring it back home.

Sogyal Rinpoche says how meditation is nothing but turning your mind inward and bringing the mind back to its natural home! Do not grasp at thoughts. Let them come and go. Just observe as they subside naturally, without fighting them.

In the Buddhist literature, the initial appearance of a thought is called vitarka. When that thought continues to occupy the mind, it is called vichara. (Interestingly one meaning of the word vichara is worry) The idea is to stop thoughts at the moment of vitarka and not let it go to the next stage of sustained attention.

Once the mind settles down, and is able to keep one image or thought or mantra for any length of time, try to become a witness. You are not the judge. You are not the jury. You are not the lawyer. Just a witness! That means, you do not chase the idea or make judgments. You stay neutral as the mind keeps flirting and finally settles down. It will.

As I mentioned earlier, discipline and consistent practice are the most important requirements. You have to set up a routine and stick to it.

Ideally, early morning hours, before telephones start ringing, is the best time. You have to spend at least 20 minutes. Even that is not adequate most of the time.

A comfortable sitting posture is necessary. To my mind, special aasana positions are not necessary. It is even acceptable for older folks to sit on a chair or use thin cushion. Ideally, you want the body erect with a straight spine. You do not want a position in which it is easy to fall asleep. If you do fall asleep, that is OK too! You want a posture in which the chest wall and the abdominal wall can move freely to their maximum during each breath.

Most systems teach you to close the eyes. Some schools ask you to keep the eyes open. Some ask you to keep them half-open.

As I learnt from experience, relaxing the body will slow the breathing down. I also noticed that when your breathing slows down, your thoughts will slow down and vice versa. This was known to our ancestors.

I prefer less emphasis on rigorous methods of body-control and breath-control. They tend to distract from the main focus. Any simple relaxation exercises (including Tai chi) will do. There are several audio tapes available to guide you through relaxation. Indeed, there are some physicians specializing in sleep disorders who have produced sound tracks to help with relaxation. I found one left on my pillow in one of the motels!

Once the body is relaxed using one of several simple methods, the next step is slow and rhythmic breathing. Thich Naht Hanh’s mindfulness meditation teaches simple, natural breathing. Sogyal Rinpoche also favors this simple natural breathing technique. It is easy to learn and to use. In this simple method, you breathe normally, but become more aware of it. You focus on your breath going in and going out. As you are breathing in, you can say to yourself “Breathing in, I am aware of breathing in” or you can visualize breathing in strength, courage and all the positive things. While breathing out, you can say to yourself “I am aware of breathing out” or visualize getting rid of your negative energies. Keep this focus for as long as possible at every sitting. It may take several weeks to months to stay focus on the present moment and the breath.

Slowly eliminate the words (even the thoughts of the words) and focus on breathing only. You will notice the mind slowing down.

You have to spend at least 20 minutes at a time for you to keep the mind still for a few seconds! Eventually, the mind will slow down and you will be visualizing or chanting your chosen image or mantra most of the time during meditation.

As stated several times, the aim is to silence the mind and reach a state of thoughtlessness. After relaxing the body and focusing on the breath, you may be able to observe the mind calming down. You then reach a state of being a witness to yourself. If this not possible, and if thoughts keep running like a tape-recorder in your brain, you can slowly tame the mind.

For some of us, thoughts will not go away, particularly in the beginning. They will keep coming back. When this happens, accord those thoughts a “polite indifference of a gentleman” as suggested by a Buddhist monk. This may not work always. If this happens, you will have to reflect on those thoughts with mindfulness and see why they are persistent (deep looking and mindfulness meditation). You may need help. You may wish to attend a meditation camp where you can get appropriate help. But, most of the time, the mind will settle down.

If not, this is the time to focus on something or some thought so that the mind will be fixed on one object. This can be a sound, an image, a body part or breath. For example, concentrate on a divine symbol (Om or the Cross or the Crescent Moon) or a form (Lord Ganesha, Jesus Christ or St Francis of Assissi or the Prophet). Another is to repeat a Mantra with or without a rosary. Or you can focus on your in-breath and out-breath. The other method is concentrating on energy centers of the body as suggested in the tantric systems. The idea is to focus on the breathing or keep visualizing the chosen form or repeat the chosen mantra in a continuous, unbroken stream. Whenever the mind wanders away, you just acknowledge it without anger or judgment and bring it back gently to the visualized image or the mantra sound or the breath.

The next step is to bring silence between one moment of chanting or visualization and the next. If you are using your own normal breath for this concentration, you can focus on the interval between one breath and the next and keep it silent, without allowing any thought. Eventually, you can focus on the silence and not on the breath or the mantra or the beads of the rosary.

Remember, if you are telling yourself that you do not want any thought, it is also a thought. You are looking for total silence!

Once you can notice this silent interval between two breaths or between two thoughts or between repetitions of the mantra, try and stretch that period of silence. This state is compared to deep sleep, except in deep sleep you are not aware and all sensory inputs are in abeyance. In this meditative state, you are fully aware. You are at a “supra conscious” level. All sensory modalities are intense, according to those who have reached this stage.

Ramana gives you another idea. Have you experienced the body stir from deep sleep when you wake up in the morning? Have you experienced a vague sense of being alive and going under the spell of sleep at night? At these moments you will feel that you are alive, without any other details. You may not even know who you are or where you are. Ramana calls it the transient “I”. Grab hold of that feeling of the “transient I” and hold on to it throughout the day or as long as it is possible.

It is possible for some of us to silence the mind and reach a peaceful state. For some, this may not be possible. Do not force it. In fact, Carl Rogers mentions a stage in his clients growth from being at a stage of denial of his/her own feelings to a stage of being in touch with the feelings. This is similar to the stages of meditation in the Buddhist traditions in which one becomes aware of one's feelings, perceptions and mental formations and own them before trying to change.

What is even more interesting is the description of this process by Carl Rogers: "The self at this moment IS the feeling. This is a being in the moment, with little self-conscious awareness, but with primarily a reflexive awareness". Being in the moment is exactly the words used in Buddhist literature. Self-conscious awareness and  reflexive awareness are akin to the big "I" and the "transient I" of Ramana.

Some will probably find this silence very frightening. If you are in this group, silence is not for you, at least for now.

Some may get strange visions. Some may acquire or claim to possess unusual powers and out-of-body experiences. This is the biggest danger to spiritual aspirants. More about these intermediate, incomplete mystic stages in the next essay.

The ultimate state is an experience of cosmic consciousness, a state of oneness with the Absolute, the Godhead, the Brahman. A select few are fortunate to experience the cosmic consciousness. They are the mystics. They came from all traditions all through the ages. Some of the mystics have documented their experience. However, all the documentations from the east and the west, describe this state in a negative language! Words cannot describe this experience, they say.

These experiences changed the life of historic figures such as Buddha, St.Francis of Assissi, Meher Baba, St.Thomas Aquinas, St. Paul and Ramana. How can you recognize these mystics and saints? How do you differentiate them from the mentally ill and the cult figures? You can identify them by the fact that they were transformed in their relationship to the world around them and by their behavior. Universal love, simplicity in life, non-attachment to worldly possessions, equanimity, and unselfish service to others characterize these saints. That is why I believe the words of these saints and accept mystic experience as a possibility for those who look inwards with intensity.

Finally, why do people take up meditation? Actually this should be the first question. Are you just curious? Or is it because, it is the fashionable thing to do? Is it because someone else you love and respect influenced you? Is it for religious reasons such as special merit, going to heaven, gaining a special position in rebirth etc? Are you seeking a mystic experience? Or are you just interested in gaining insight and deeper understanding of life and of this universe? Or do you wish to use meditation to reduce stress? Are you sure you are not falling into a cult or mixing up bodily postures for meditation? You have to answer these questions for yourself.

I will describe what I do during meditation in the next essay.

In the fourth essay on meditation, I will tell you some surprising things about meditation as an altered state of consciousness, which it is.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What is Meditation? Part 1

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana:

After teasing you for several months, I am ready to share with you what I know of meditation. Hopefully, you will get interested and start the practice. If you do, I can assure you that it will relax you physically and mentally. It will help calm your mind and therefore think deeply. It will help change your attitude to life’s stresses. Although the roots of meditation are related to spiritual growth,I am not qualified to speak or teach spirituality through meditation. I am still exploring the meaning of spirituality.

First, let me remove some of the myths about meditation. Meditation is not a religious practice. Anyone from any tradition can do it. You do not need initiation either, at least for the kind of meditation I am talking about. Do not believe those who tell you that you need a guru and that you have to practice some rituals before starting meditation. Although it may be true for those who want to renounce this world and become monks, it is not true for us, the novice practitioners. Also, those who emphasize elaborate breathing techniques, special physical postures and special mantras are over-emphasizing the methods, at the expense of the goals.

During meditation, Symbols do not matter; Substance does. Duration does not matter; intensity does. Rituals and postures do not matter; inner feeling (bhavana) does.

As someone who has practiced meditation for almost 40 years, and as one who has read the original texts on meditation in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions and as one who is also interested in the neurobiology of meditation, I believe that the four important requirements for meditation are: motivation, attitude, discipline and practice. This does not mean that the various rituals, positions and visualization techniques emphasized by several schools of meditation are all useless. They may be of help and indeed are of help to some people. However, it is important to remember that they are only preliminary steps to help you get ready for meditation.

What is meditation? Meditation is defined in an English dictionary as “thinking over, contemplation, mental reflection”. “Solemn reflection on sacred matters as a devotional act” is another definition. This last definition comes closest to what meditation is, as is commonly understood.

When you look at a Sanskrit dictionary, the closest word is dhyana which is defined as “meditation, reflection, thought and religious meditation”. When you go to the most original of all texts on meditation, namely Patanjali’s Yoga Sastra, the word dhyana is applied to one step in the process of meditation. Yoga is not dhyana. It is a component of yoga.

The book itself is called Yoga Sastra and not Dhyana sastra! That is because the verb root of the word yoga is yuj, to unite. (Please note the similarity to the English word, yoke). Since the goal of yoga is to unite the individual with the Divine, the book is called Yoga sastra. When you translate the word yoga to mean meditation, you are using the word for both the method and the goal.

Patanjali’s book starts with the following two statements: “1. Atha yogaanusaasanam – Now we begin the instruction of yoga. 2. Yogah chitthavritthinirodhaha – “Yoga is for blocking the extroverted activities of the mind”.

Line 2 defines the purpose of meditation namely, to control the mind. The book goes on to explain how to control the mind, make it focus and “abide in one’s own inner self”, which is the ultimate goal. Several passages later, Patanjali uses the terms dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (immersion) as the steps leading towards total silence of the mind and “abiding in the self”.

However, in modern usage, meditation is used as synonymous with yoga (union with the Absolute) and the word yoga is used mainly to refer to physical postures and breathing techniques which according to Patanjali’s writings are preliminary steps towards controlling the mind. More about these later.

In neurobiological terms, meditation is, rather meditation leads to an altered state of consciousness (ASC).

Steps in the ladder of meditation. The first step is Dhaarana and is defined by Patanjali as: deshaabandhachitthasya dhaarana (3:1) meaning “dharana is focusing of the mind on a given object”. As we shall see later, this can be on a sound (mantra), on an image (of your favorite God or Saint), on a body part (most often the middle of the eyebrow which is called aagna chakra and is supposed to be the location of a center of energy) or on one’s breath.

Dhyana is the next step and is defined as: Thathra pratyaya ekathaanatha dhyaanam (3:2) which means that dhyana is the steady, deepening abidance on one object (concentration on the object that was chosen to focus on). In strict translation, dhyana is meditation.

Samadhi, the final step, is defined as thadhevsartthamaathranirbhasam svaroopashunyamiva samadhih (3:3) meaning that samadhi is abidance in (merging with) Pure Consciousness which is beyond name and form. It is the merging of the individual soul (Atman) with the Universal Absolue (Brahman).

What is the goal of meditation? “When the five senses together with the mind come to rest, and the intellect also does not deal with its objects (thoughts), that is the highest state” of meditation says Kathopanishad (II:iii; 10 and 11)

Ribhu Gita (Chapter 28: Slokas 11 – 15) says that you are to go beyond memories and thoughts and reach a state of silence. Then you “leave the “state of silence” and the world imagined by the mind“, and become a witness to the thought. Finally, you meditate on “Aham brahmasmi” ( I am Brahman) and become one with the Essence.

Patanjali lists the final stages to be reached through the practice of Yoga (meditation, as we use the word) as follows: first, savikalpa Samadhi, a stage at which you are merged with the chosen object of meditation but still aware of duality, your separateness. Then comes Nirvikalpa Samadhi in which the duality disappears. This stage is also called rutambhara gnana, which transcends all other forms of knowledge and characterized by an intuitive experience and understanding of oneness with the Ultimate Reality, the Ground of all beings, the Godhead within man, The Absolute, the Supreme Being. Christian mystics such as St.Thomas Aquinas called it the “beatific vision”.

A stage higher than this is also possible for the true saints like Ramana and Ramakrishna. That is called the Nirbija Samadhi, the “seedless” state of Union with the One Reality. At this stage “you are no longer yourself. You are one with Brahman”. Very few of us can reach this stage.

In other words, the way I understand the Upanishad and Patanjali, the goal of meditation is to control one’s thoughts and attain a state in which we are aware of only the Unity of the Individual with the Universal. A higher state of meditation (yoga) is when you go beyond this stage, are not aware of duality and experience oneness with the Godhead, Paramapurusha. This state of tranquility, oneness with the Primary Force or Cosmic Consciousness, the state of ecstasy (root word ex stare, meaning to stand outside of oneself)is well-documented by mystics from all traditions – east and west, Christianity and Islam, Hindu and Buddhists. We will discuss these in the next essay.

I do have a word of caution, however. It is better not to get into those special ecstatic states without guidance because one can get into trouble with confused mental states. The Vedic teaching cautions us about this danger and says that if your goal is spiritual enlightenment, you should not get stuck at this stage.

What are the obstacles to meditation? We all know how our mind runs like crazy. As I have mentioned in my essays on Symbols and Substance, the disc (chakra, Sudharsana) in Vishnu’s hand represents the human mind in constant motion.In the Buddhist literature, there is a parable of a man riding on a horse which is running fast. A passerby asks: “Hi, where are you going?” The rider replies: “I do not know; ask the horse”. That is the state of the mind, most of the time!

References to the fast moving nature of the mind can be seen in the writings of all cultures and traditions. The mind is compared to a monkey jumping from one tree to another. Some passages I have read are:
mano bhavathi bhuthathma tharanga iva vaariney (Yoga vasishta 3:1;7) meaning that the mind is tossed about like waves in the ocean.
Also, “ithasthathascha suvyagram oyartthameva abhidhavathi” meaning that the mind keeps jumping from one place to another for no purpose (Yoga Vasishta 1:2; 35).

If the restlessness of the mind is the problem which interferes with focusing on the Divine, how can one control the mind?

In the Bhagavat Gita, Arjuna asks exactly that question: chanchalam hi manah Krishna thasyaaham nigraham naye?” – “the mind is confused; how do I control it?”. Lord Krishna replies: “ abhyaasena kaunteya vairagyena cha gruyathe” meaning “get hold of your mind by determination and practice”. Gita also says: Uddhareth aathmanam aathmanah which means “pull yourself by yourself”. That about says it all!

One famous passage in Yoga vasishta says: manascheva mans cchindhi which means “control the mind with the mind”! Is there any other way?

In another area, Vasishta says: Yena thyajasi thath thyaja, which means “let go of the mind by which you are trying to let go”. In other words, let go of the mind.

Yoga vasisthta says ahambhaavamayi cchitva meaning “let go of the idea of I”. Ramana asks us to reflect on this “I”. Who or what is this I? “Keep tracking that thought to its root. It will take you to the Source” says Ramana.

To be continued…….

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Naasadiya Suktam

What is cosmos? How did this cosmos come about? Naasadiya Sukta, a passage from the Rg Veda tries to answer this question the best. The sentiments expressed in this sukta are honest and humble.

I have mentioned this passage from the Rg Veda in some of my earlier essays. Although this sukta is mentioned in several of our texts, it is not that well-known. Scholars from other cultures and traditions seem to appreciate it more. For example, Professor Frank Close, Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford, starts his book with the intriguing title of “Nothing – A very short Introduction”, with a passage from this Sukta and ends the book with another quote.

It is the 129th hymn, in Chapter 10 of the Rg veda. It is called Naasadiya because it starts with the words: naasat aasit no sad aasit which means “in the beginning there was no asat (opposite of sat, un-manifest, no-being), nor was there any sat, being”.

Here is my own translation of the Sukta with one word of caution. I am no scholar in either Sanskrit or in the vedas.

“In the beginning there was no asat (opposite of sat, un-manifest, no-being), nor was there any sat, being. Then, there was no earth, no sky. In that state, who (what) was covering what? And for what purpose? Was there deep water? (Sloka/Stanza1)

There was no death; no immortality either; There was no means for finding out the difference between day and night. Not moved by any wind, it was breathing by its own power. There was nothing else. (Sloka/Stanza 2)

Some say that there was darkness or there was water enveloped in darkness. But, that all powerful Brahman covered by Maaya came into manifestation by austerity and transformation from that one Brahman. (Sloka/Stanza 3)

The seed of the mind of this, which first came into existence, became desire (kaama) (to create the world). Great minds have seen that this is the initial relation between the manifest and the unmanifest. (Sloka/Stanza 4)

A ray fell transversely between them. If you say It was below, It was also above. Some of these grew bigger pervading on one side by Its own prowess and pervading everything on the other side. (Sloka/Stanza5)

Who is there who can explain how the manifest developed and from whom? Who knows for sure? Even the gods came only after the sat came into being? Then, who is to know from where it came? (Sloka/Stanza 6)

The adhyaksha (the Primordial One) may know how the development of the manifest came about or did not come about. Perhaps, even He may not know that!(Sloka/Stanza 7)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Compassion and Wisdom

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

I want you to learn meditation. It may be of help to you at a practical level, if not at a spiritual level. While preparing to write an essay on meditation for you, I came across an essay in the weekend edition of a newspaper. In that essay on meditation, there were two words which triggered my reflection. They were Wisdom and Compassion. These words occupied my reflections for several days. This essay is based on these reflections.

Why do people want to meditate? On the spiritual side, two possible motivations are to obtain Moksha (Sanskrit word meaning “liberation”) and to seek enlightenment. There may be others, such as physical and mental relaxation and relief from stress. But, let us explore the words “liberation” and “enlightenment” and what they stand for.

First, moksha or liberation. Liberation from what? It may be liberation from samsara (cycles of birth and death, according to Hindu and Buddhist philosophies); it may stand for liberation from agnana (spiritual ignorance); or it may mean liberation from the imperfect life in this world to reach another more perfect “world” (heaven?). Personally, I do not believe in the idea of “my” being born again. Nisargadatta Maharaj does not believe in it either. I suspend judgment on the assertion that there is a more perfect world somewhere out there. I do not find any need for the comfort that these ideas may bring me.

However, the idea of enlightenment as opposed to spiritual ignorance is appealing. If meditation is for enlightenment on how to lead a life of wisdom and compassion during this life, it is a more appealing concept for me. It is a practical goal. This should be possible for everyone irrespective of one’s religious tradition and one’s view on after-life.

How will I know that enlightenment has been attained? I will know because enlightenment should lead me to inner peace and to an attitude of a more harmonious relationship with the outer world.

Enlightenment requires enlightenment of one’s mind (reason) and one’s heart (emotion). The mind enlightened with reason should lead us towards wisdom (pragna). The heart enlightened by reflecting on one’s feelings and emotions should take it from there and lead us to compassion (karuna) in our actions. What do I mean?

Reason tells me that everything and every life we see in this world should have come from one source. As pointed out in the Nasadiya Sukta of Rg Veda, I will never know how it happened or why. Just backward reasoning leads me there. Where did that one come from? How did that one become many? Although several ideas have been put forth, no one really knows.

When those initial “forms” came into “being”, it could have happened only in a space-time continuum. This is because objects take up space, however minute they are. One cannot become many without space and time, since the simple physical law is that no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time.

Once forms appear and occupy discrete spaces, “separateness” starts.

Once these forms acquire life, an awareness of separateness starts and it becomes increasingly stronger for the following reasons. Each form gets its identity and a name. By repeatedly connecting life’s experiences with our “self” (in reality with our body) we focus on our needs, wants and comforts. The natural tendencies of all live forms include built-in, "hard-wired" needs for survival and for reproduction. These needs lead directly to competition for resources. This competition leads to greater separation between individuals. The mind, particularly the human mind with its ability to use language and a tendency to categorize and name all forms, contributes greatly to the separateness. Just observing nature should convince you of these observations.

We go further and further away from the original common source and forget that the original “causes and conditions” are in all of us. The common source of the materials we are made of and of the life force that animated us are inherent in each of us, but have become invisible because of the increasing sense of separateness.

The other natural law of "individualized" life is “loneliness” as pointed out by the elders of the Native American traditions. However much others may help, we are all alone during stress, disease and death. In essence, this life in this world is a private journey. If we have any motive for co-operation left in us, it is only to combat this loneliness. We are prepared to live with others, share resources and adapt only to the extent it allows us to satisfy the other two basic needs, survival and reproduction. Push a little, these two needs will dominate and lead to cruelty to “others”.

In order to move from this wisdom that came out of reasoning to the next level, I have to acknowledge that
1. All of us come from one common source.
2. We are “impermanent inter-beings” made of star-dust. To be more precise, we are made of recycled matter which came from the sun.
3. The energy that lit our “life” is the same energy that started other lives.
4. Not only do we all have the same seeds; all lives have the same needs, namely the need to survive and the need to reproduce.
5. This leads to a sense of separation.
5. Which becomes reinforced by the nature of our living and our use of language.
6. Which in turn leads to further separation and loneliness.
7. The inherent tendency for loneliness in individual life leads to personal suffering and a tendency for cruelty to others.
8. Using this logic, it is easy for me to see how I have forgotten that I am an impermanent “wave” in this space-time continuum of the “ocean” of cosmos.
9. The cure for all of this is simple. I have to reconnect to the common condition of all other lives through compassion.
10. But, how?
This acknowledgment is my first step.

So far, we dealt with the wisdom, based on reason and logic. This logic based on reason leads me to face cold and cruel realities of needs, wants, competition for resources, conflicts and pain. This is sterile wisdom and is useless. The emotions they generate in my heart are frustration, dejection and anger! What is the use of wisdom with such negative emotions? I want the wisdom of the real nature of cosmos and of life to lead me to compassion. Can it?

Yes, it can. It is easy. I just have to concede that just as my “life” wants to survive, reproduce, avoid pain and feels lonely, so does yours. That is compassion.

That is compassion coming out of reflecting on my emotions arising out of my needs, wants and loneliness. That is compassion coming out of reason and wisdom. That compassion leads me to better relationship with the outside world and to a sense of interconnectedness. I can do that because I have understood and acknowledged and conceded that all of us are dealing with the same loneliness because of our insistence on “individuality” and increasing separateness. I concede your need for survival and for the resources of the cosmos. Therefore I wish to share the resources and not compete for the resources. I promise to send you a message of love during your moments of loneliness.

I send you a message of love based on understanding and compassion. Thus I touch our common source by these acknowledgments. And these acknowledgments are my daily meditations and prayers.

Thus have I seen logic and emotions lead me to wisdom (pragna) and compassion (karuna). Wisdom and compassion coming out of these reflections on knowledge and emotion, should lead me to inner peace and outer harmony, to equanimity and to detachment without disengagement. That is Moksha. That is nirvana. That is Heaven. Moksha, Nirvana and Heaven are not to be found at some other world after death. I can reach them NOW, in this one life I am fairly sure of and at this moment which I am absolutely sure of.

With love, to all the grandchildren of the world.

Thatha (grandfather, in Tamizh language)