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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems 9: Odds and ends from Book 1

Book 1, Section 172 lists seven streams of water: Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Vithashtha, Sarayu, Gomati and Gandaki. It also states that Ganga is known as Alakananda in the celestial sphere and Vaitarini in the ancestral sphere.

The story of Tapati suggests that the illuminator of the universe is Vivaswat who is also called Surya and Tapana. He has a son called Savitru and a daughter called Tapti. This is interesting because the sun is known by several names which includes Surya, Savitru, Vivaswat and Aditya. The root words savitru stands for "illuminating" and tapana (tap) stands for "heat" or "ardor" (also the root word for tapas).

One statement in the story of Vasishta: “When someone with power to prevent a crime being committed does not prevent it, he is also tainted by that crime”. Another statement in Section 197: “Morality is subtle. We do not know its course”.

There is an interesting discussion about whether a woman is allowed to have five husbands. In the original episode, Arjuna marries Draupadi during his lonely travel. When he comes home and wants to surprise his mother and calls for her, Kunti is busy and says “whatever it is, share with your brothers”! Kunti is surprised when she finds out what the surprise is, but it is too late. Kunti’s words have to be honored even though she said it without knowing the situation. It is interesting that everyone’s opinion was asked on how to resolve this dilemma, except that of Draupadi.

As the story goes, in a previous life, Draupadi had asked Lord Mahadeva to bless her with a husband like the Lord himself. She kept asking again and again, in fact, FIVE times. Therefore, her marriage to five husbands was preordained!

Vyasa’s explanation is that Lord Narayana came down to earth as Balarama and Krishna and Shri Devi was born as Draupadi from the sacrificial altar. She was preordained to marry five Indras’s of previous eons who were incarnate in the Pandavas. The word preordained is repeated in several places.

We learn that Yudhistra thught that it will be impossible to win a war with the Kauravas because of the presence of Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and Karna on their side due to loyalty. That is why he wanted Arjuna to go and get celestial weapons during the period of their vanavasa (stay in the forest). He uses this argument to calm down Bhima and Arjuna (also, moral on timing of actions and preparations).

In the section where Arjuna and Ulupi meet, Arjuna says among other things: “Virtue (dharma) is superior to the body and remains long after the body is gone”. Also, some statements which I interpret to mean: “Keeping a promise and a pledge is a virtue. We encounter several situations in life where our duties and morals come into conflict. Each one has an acceptable solution. Do not be rigid”. Dharma is not a rigid concept in the Vedic tradition unlike western ideas of ethics and morals. It will be difficult to write a law book based on the Vedas! Rigid codification seems to be a product of the western traditions and Greek logicians.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Brother Lawrence

I just read a book on The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (1611-1691). Brother Lawrence’s original name was Nicholas Hermon born into a poor peasant family in Lorraine, France. He was a common man who became a “saint” through the simple practice of Love, Faith and Charity. His words resemble those of Thayumanavar, the Tamil saint. His practice is one of Bhakti (devotiona) which is in essence unconditional love of God, expecting no earthly gains. His constant thinking of God when engaging in activities are exactly what is taught in Mindfulness meditation.

A barren tree of winter made him reflect on the sure hope of bountiful green leaves in the spring. He felt a similar spirituality hidden inside. Although he is barren like the tree, he felt that God was waiting inside to bloom at the proper season. He felt that reading books and listening to sermons did not get him anywhere. He wanted to experience. He started thinking about God at every waking moment. Whenever his mind wandered, he brought it back by refocusing on God within. Is this not the practice of focused attention in Mindfulness practice?

Brother Lawrence speaks of the God with him and in him. He talks of the need for all of us to focus inwards. He also says that for true practice of spirituality we must empty our hearts of all things other than God. (A similar teaching in Buddhism is emptying oneself of oneself, implying that we are made of elements other than ourselves)

He says: “Let us enter into ourselves” and “It is not necessary for being with God to be always at church….”. And also says: “He is within us; seek Him not elsewhere”; “I believe no more; but I see” and “I never prayed for relief; but for strength to suffer with courage, humility and love”. He prayed for others the same way, asking God to give them strength and not relief from pain.

Ancient Vedic teaching of India also says that the Supreme Force (or God, if that is the preferred word) is within each one of us and IT cannot be understood or reached by reason or logic, but can be experienced.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Dealing with Stress - A letter to my grandchildren

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana, Roma and Sai, 

I wish to share several ideas on one aspect of life, namely stress. These ideas are based on personal experiences in dealing with stresses in my life. How did I manage during these periods? What were the sources of my strength? What did I learn? What suggestions do I have for you, grandchildren, if you have to face a crisis?

The most important lesson I learnt is that one does not know when the calamity will strike and therefore, cannot be ready all of a sudden. All of us will have to prepare throughout our lives for potential crisis. I am not a pessimist and am not asking you to live in fear of an impending disaster all the time. That is no way to lead a life. What I am saying is that you will not have time or energy to go for help in the middle of a crisis. You certainly cannot learn meditation in the midst of a crisis. So, what are some of the things you can do now, which may help you if and when there is a crisis?

I do not know what will work for you. But here are some ideas.

First, Faith in something larger than us and the Universe. It need not be a religious faith. I am in favor of a spiritual path. It is faith in something beyond this world and this universe which we do not fully understand and which gives an inner strength by “connecting” to other lives, to this earth, to this Universe and to the ultimate dimension. In Buddhist terms, I consider myself to be a wave in this vast ocean (water) called the universe. As long as I consider myself to be a wave, I will be lonely and suffer. Once I connect with the ocean, of which I am a part, there will be peace and stability. Why am I looking for water, when I am water myself?

Hopefully your parents gave you faith in yourself and in a primordial force which we are parts of. You have to develop it within yourself, by reflecting.

You cannot alter all situations in life. But you can change your attitude. Indeed, Buddhist psychology talks about how the external experience is like a passing cloud. It will pass. But it is our response to it, the fear or anger it evokes and the way our mind concocts internal stories that cause suffering. This is cognitive psychology.

Buddhist psychology also teaches how to be mindful of what we are doing and how we are feeling at the moment. The idea is to acknowledge the sadness or suffering and not bury it. By reflecting deeply, you can touch its source, realize the causes and conditions that brought this stress about. Hopefully this will show you the way out of the suffering and stress. May be, you have to change your ways. May be, you have to approach the other person with a different attitude. May be, you have to seek external help. May be, this is the way life is going to be and you just have to adjust to it and deal with it.

A famous prayer goes as follows: “Lord, give me the courage to change things I can change; serenity to accept things I cannot change and Wisdom to know the difference”.

Self-pity will lead to frustration and stress. When disaster strikes a common question that comes to our mind is: “why me?”. The best answer was given by Tolstoy in his book on The Death of Ivan Ilyich. There is no answer; there will never be one. Do not dwell on self-pity. But how?

In Buddhist psychology, vitarka is the word for the first time a thought occurs. Vichara is when this thought persists. It is said that there are five stages before vitarka becomes vichara. The idea is to catch the self-pity as soon as you sense it. Then acknowledge it and tell yourself that it will pass too. Also, realize that you have several other strengths inside of you and replace self-pity with one of your strong points. May be, you have a strong support in your mother, father, sister or brother. May be, you have a great sense of humor. Think about those strengths. Build on them. (Incidentally, this technique may help with emotions other than self-pity such as anger).

Trusting relationship with someone will help. This has to be someone whom you respect and in whom you can confide. Talk to him or her. Ask for suggestions.

Meditation every day for the past 40 years helped me deal with crisis better. I am able to completely silence my mind for at least a few minutes a day. I do not know whether it has helped me in the spiritual path. But it has certainly helped me relax and think clearly during periods of stress.

If you do not know meditation, you may wish to attend meditation courses. I am sure one is available in your community. If possible, you may even want to arrange for someone to take care of home or work and go away for a weekend retreat. You will be better off going to meditation camps run by Buddhist teachers. They deal with psychological issues and life’s-problems more effectively.

Writing a journal or a diary is another major stress-reduction device for me. If you do keep one, review periodically to find out how much you have learnt from the past experiences.

Make sure you get adequate sleep. I found that meditation tapes which help you to relax your body are very helpful. I found that 20 minutes of these relaxation exercises were almost like getting 4 to 6 hours of sleep. These relaxation tapes may also “send” you into a meditative state.

Treat yourself to frivolous things periodically. This is just to reward yourself and keep up your cheer. But, watch out if this leads to compulsive eating of junk food or to alcohol or drugs or shopping sprees.

Engage your mind and keep doing things which will keep you occupied with matters other than the crisis. Learn to switch tasks. Read some books you like. Listen to music. Constantly brooding over the situation will not make things any better. It is indeed harmful to your mental health.

If you are one of those who find it easy to go the path of “faith”, you may wish to go to your Church or the synagogue or the temple. You may wish to meet with a priest or a rabbi or a Guru. Religion is a time-honored path for help during periods of stress.

If you are a person who deals with things intellectually, you may wish to go to support groups or take counseling.

If you are action oriented, you may wish to join a support group. Better still you may volunteer for a cause you believe in. I have observed over the years that some of the parents of children with chronic diseases who coped best were those who found time to organize parent support groups and helped others with similar problems. There are research studies to support this observation.

All or some of these ideas are wholesome by themselves, not just to prepare for a crisis. I hope you will start some of these habits NOW. In a recent article in a medical journal, there was a list of things to help prevent burn-out in physicians who take care of seriously ill patients at the end of life, such as those with cancer. The first two items were: “mindfulness meditation and reflective writing”. You can practice these anywhere, any time. Why not start now?

Let me repeat. You may not find time, energy or methods to cope with crisis when you are in the midst of one. Develop helpful habits now.