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Monday, December 28, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - 13

 How do Buddha’s teachings form the basis for different types of meditation?

Although Buddha himself learnt from the Vedas and practiced the austerities taught at that time in history, he rejected them. He said that one should not be indulging in all the attractions and run after satisfying all kinds of desires in life; but he rejected asceticism also. That is why he called his method “The Middle Way”. His method of approach to life and practice differ.

In Buddhist meditation, the focus is on this life and how to live here and now

Buddhist teachings give you specific steps which are easy to follow. No belief is needed in some energy center, the other world, strict rituals etc.

Buddhist teachings follow normal human psychology and the methods they teach such as calming, deep looking, compassion etc., have now been substantiated as valid by neuro-scientific studies such as functional MRI of the brain.

You can use  meditation to calm the mind and relax the body and stop there. It will still be useful.

But it can also be used for spiritual growth. In fact, any one from any religion can use these methods to concentrate on their prayers.

There are specific meditation lessons such as Forgiveness Meditation, Compassion Meditation and Gratitude Meditation to develop these positive attitudes.

Deep looking meditation can help understand one’s own self better. In this method we first learn to know what our strength is before we work on our problem area such as anxiety or fear. This is unlike the western system where a medical paradigm is used and therefore the focus is on the problem area, on the “mental disease”.

Although meditation techniques are not meant to treat psychiatric disorders, specific kinds of meditations may be useful as adjunct to standard forms of treatment in competent hands.

In simple terms, Buddha diagnosed human suffering just like physicians diagnose physical ailments. He just observed and  made the diagnosis: suffering is part of life and is real. Second, he said that the cause of this suffering can be found. Third, he said that it is possible to stop this suffering and that a treatment is available. Finally, he gave the treatment – in the form of Noble Eightfold Paths. That is why Buddha is called the “Physician of the Mind” in modern mental health literature.

For reducing human suffering and for spiritual and emotional growth, we must first be aware of our current condition and how the mind works. That is only possible if we learn to control the mind from running in different directions and pay attention to the present moment. We have to accept the fact that life is a mixture of happiness and suffering. We have to accept the present condition as is without judgement – not running away from it. Not burying it. We have to train our mind from not living in the past ruminating or living in the future worrying and in anxiety. We have to learn to avoid distractions and learn to focus. In essence, this is what is meant by the concept of “being mindful and living in the present moment”.

Next, we must learn that fundamental causes of suffering are desire, attachment, craving, clinging onto things and concepts, and not learning to let go. We must also learn abut hindrances to our ability to meditate and look at ourselves deeply. These are laziness, anxiety, delusion, doubt and distraction.

Before listing the Eightfold Noble path, Buddha said that suffering can be controlled, minimized or eliminated by retraining our mind. In other words, he suggested the possibility of neuroplasticity almost 2000 years back! Problems will be there, but we can learn to look at it differently through meditation. This is what is called behavioral therapy in modern terminology. These suggestions are found to be true by recent studies that show structural and functional changes in the brain following various meditation techniques. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 12

 Here are some reinforcement ideas to help with daily meditation

Consistent practice is the most important

Same time, same place, and same posture are helpful

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa said:  “If you want to get water in a riverbed, stay at one place and dig deep; do not keep moving after a couple of digs”.

We should not get overly stuck with detailed techniques of sitting and holding the breath etc. They are helpful but distracts you in the beginning

The focus should be on calming the mind. Patanjali starts his book on Yoga sastra with those exact words.

It is not controlling the mind

It is breathing normally and being aware of it

It is just bringing the mind back gently to your own breath every time it wanders

If you find that the mind has wandered, it is not a failure; it means you are mindful

Mindful means being in the present moment with your breath as your anchor and bringing the body and mind in one place

Mindfulness means being in the present and not in the past or in the future

The past is like a tape-recorder which keeps playing the same tune

The future is not knowable anyway; it just causes anxiety.

So be preset here and now with your breath

If the mind runs away, acknowledge it, accept the fact it has wandered and gently bring it back

Only thing is you do not judge yourself. Nor do you chase that thought

You recognize it and get back to the breath

Be a witness to your thoughts. That is what the Upanishads say

A witness is not judging; just recording what happened

The easiest way is to sit with intention to practice for a few minutes (just 2 to 5 minutes) in the beginning but gradually prolonging so you do meditation for at least 20 minutes

Intention and intensity of practice, and consistency are the main requirements

You will be disappointed if you sit for meditation expecting specific results, or expect results soon

Friday, December 18, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion and Nonviolence - Series 11


Let us get started.

Here is a link to guided meditation on Breathing by Rev. Thich Naht Hanh.  Please just follow the instructions. The mind will tend to wander. Please recognize the “mind wandering” and get right back to the breath.

What if you are under stress right now and you are not able to work through the concerns and distractions?  Please try this link. It may help you to get back to breathing.

 Meditationfor Working with Difficulities | UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center -YouTube

Ideally, you should assign a specific time of the day. If you cannot, it should be possible to pause several times a day for just one minute, stop what you are doing, take a breath or two mindfully and bring yourself to the present moment. That is what some physicians learn to do, just before they enter a patient’s room.

Finally, what if you are not able to sit for a few minutes but some sensation such as itching or slight pain in one of part of the body makes it difficult to focus on the breath? Please use that as an opportunity not to respond immediately. In other words, if there is an itch, just observe it for a few seconds at least. Use that opportunity to learn the difference between the sensation itself and the way our habit energy makes us respond to it immediately by scratching. You will be amazed to find, just as I was, that the itching will go away in a few more seconds or in a  minute or two.

That leads to another learning opportunity. Various sensations we experience and various emotions we experience are transient. They come and go, if only we learn how to observe them for what they are and not make them worse. This will also help us learn how to use mindful meditation to relax muscles and deal with physical pain. 

Intention, Attention, Attitude

Neuroscientists who are studying meditation have found three components to mindfulness . They are Intention, Attention and Attitude. These stages are clearly correlated with changes in the brain as demonstrated in several imaging studies. The following two links will open relevant articles on this topic. (Please open the video at the beginning of this article) 

Neuroscientists have noted that there are three stages to the meditation process. They are intention to practice which determines how well you develop a routine and stick with it and how you prepare your body and mind for this practice;  how well you focus your attention on breath (or sound or mantra) and avoid distraction; and how you develop and maintain an attitude conducive to the practice. Amazingly, there are distinct changes in the areas of the brain and their interconnections which get activated during each of these stages. Here are some links to articles and videos.

ShaunaShapiro: Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain - YouTube

Monday, December 14, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion and Nonviolence - Series 10

 Why is it important to learn about physiology when our interest is in learning meditation?

It is because of two basic facts: 1. many studies have shown that meditation, mindfulness meditation in particular,  is helpful in learning skills to deal with stresses in everyday life. 2. Whereas our sympathetic nervous system is set on alert when stressed, we also have a parasympathetic nervous system which has effects opposite to that of the sympathetic nervous system. Activation of this leads to slowing down of breathing, slowing down of the heart rate, and lowering of blood pressure. Just the act of breathing slow and deep has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the scientific basis of  the focus on breathing in all kinds of meditation. Our ancestors did not know physiology as we do now. But they knew that during meditation both breathing rate and heart rate can be slowed.

What are some avenues to reduce stress?

Each one of us have developed our own method for reducing stress. For example, meditation and music are my favorite methods. You may like walking in the woods or hiking or fishing. Enjoying activities with family and friends is a stress-buster. Behavioral scientists recommend good sleep, moderate physical activity, healthy diet, social interactions and positive outlook on life for mental health and stress-reduction. In studies on physicians who work in high-intensity specialties such as emergency room and neurosurgery, meditation and journal writing (diary) were found to reduce stress and burn-out. I have written about this in my blog on Dealing with Stress.

Here is where mindfulness meditation comes in. In addition to its beneficial effects on the body with stress reduction and muscle relaxation, it helps also with the mind and mental relaxation. Our mind operates (thinks) most of the time in one of two modes: goal seeking and therefore anxious and  avoiding dangers and therefore stressed. Our thoughts are often highjacked by distraction, emotions, imagination and addictions. Some of us tend to ruminate about the past or stay anxious about the future.

Mindfulness training offers an alternative, a healthy alternative. It teaches us to be alert and aware, focus on the present moment, and without an impulse to act on the thoughts reflexively. It teaches us to give time to reflect on the thoughts non-judgmentally, without suppressing them or running away from them.

By giving this time to slow down and reflect, mindfulness training helps us to avoid habitual, reflexive responses. Instead, it helps us to learn to observe the sensations we experience under stress and separate them from the narrative our mind creates, based on memories from the past or anxieties about the future.

For example, when we have pain in the chest, the pain is physical and real, and it causes suffering by itself. It is often made worse by the fear that it may be a heart attack. It may well be a heart attack. But our imagination and anxiety make it worse. The anxiety that we may have to cancel a scheduled conference next week adds to the suffering due to the pain itself. Instead, the mindfulness method teaches us to acknowledge the pain and take care of it without allowing the secondary concerns to make it worse. By looking at the pain mindfully we recognize and take care of the real pain experienced at the present moment by getting the needed medical help. By slowing down and reflecting, we realize that the concerns about next week may not come true and are the creations of the mind. This is change of attitude to the pain. This is behavior modification.

Mindfulness training teaches us also about positive psychology.

Buddhist teaching says that all of us have wholesome tendencies, qualities and thoughts and also unwholesome, negative qualities. Thich Naht Hanh uses an analogy of  "basement and first floor" of a house with basement having several  flowering pots. There are pots, one for each “seed” of positive quality and one each for negative quality. This basement is what he calls the “seed mind”. The plants (qualities) grow depending on which seeds we water most. Whichever one we feed will show up at the first floor. It may be a beautiful flower or a weed, depending on what we feed, how often we feed it and how intensely. The first floor is a metaphor for outward behavior.

The point is that we all have the potential to be good or bad. We are not all angels, or devils. We are a mixture. It depends on which seeds we water that determines whether a flower or a weed will show up.

Put differently, whenever our weakness shows up and overwhelms us, it is best to stop watering the seed for a weed and replace it with the seed for a strength, a good quality. This is positive psychology. Mindfulness meditation teaches us how to do this. Unlike Freudian psychology which works on the weakness (disease) of the people first, the Buddhist psychology says that one should work first on one’s strength. This will make the defeat of the weakness that much easier.

In summary, mindful meditation methods teach us how to be in control of the situation and of our emotions, instead of the situations and emotions controlling our thoughts and actions.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 9

 Stress, better called challenges, is not all bad. These challenges and the body’s stress responses protect us from dangers . They also help us learn from challenges so that we are prepared for future encounters. They strengthen our brain’s memory and learning circuits.

Our autonomic nervous system plays a big part in our response to stress. One part which helps us fight or flee is  called the sympathetic nervous system.  It also has parts which help bonding and socializing as a way of survival. It is the social bonding which helped our ancestors hunt as a group for food and mobilize as a group to defend themselves. This includes the parasympathetic nervous system. Meditation techniques have been shown to influence both these circuits. Meditation training and practice can help reduce unnecessary alert responses and promote empathy, bonding, and compassion.

Acute stress challenges the body to mobilize the resources to “fight or flee”.  Acute Stress response system is our internal 911 code. Let us imagine an unlikely experience, say of coming face to face with a tiger on the loose. There may be a momentary freeze due to the fright. But the automatic alarm system of our body goes into high gear and prepares the body to fight or run. Adrenaline is released by the sympathetic nervous system. The heart rate goes up; blood pressure goes up and muscles get tense. Sugar is mobilized inside the body to supply a quick burst of energy. These are called stress responses.

Once the danger is over, the body resets itself and conditions go back to the baseline.

Although many of us live comfortably in safe environment, a vast majority of people experience stress for other reasons. They are due to socio-economic and psychological factors. Many are real, such as poverty, illness etc. Many are due to fear of catching an infection or losing a job or anxiety about the future such as stock market crash and losing one’s savings. Although they are possibilities, worrying about them is not helpful. The body responds to this kind of anxieties also with the same kind of acute stress responses. The body also maintains the alarm system unnecessarily active for prolonged period and fails to reset to normal conditions.

People with chronic medical conditions and chronic poverty have their autonomic nervous system set on high alert because of symptoms associated with their condition and also because of anxiety about the future and fear of losing the support system.

When the body does not reset, the stress responses become chronic leading to either fatigue of the response system or persistence of the changes such as increased blood pressure and heart rate. Chronic stress in turn aggravates or leads to physical and psychological disorders such as hypertension, obesity, early aging, anxiety disorders, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

If you are interested in learning more about Stress and its effects on the body, you may wish to read a book with the title “Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers” by Robert M. Sapolsky, McArthur Genius researcher and author. Better still you can listen to him in this short video and enjoy learning a tough subject with the least effort and get amused at the same time.

Lately, we are learning about another kind of stress with effects lasting throughout one’s life and even into the next generation. This is called Toxic Stress. This is caused by conditions associated with extreme poverty and persistent violence. What makes this toxic is the additional factors of lack of support systems and any hope for an end to these conditions. Both adults and children may find themselves in toxic life situations. The effects of toxic stress are particularly devastating for children affecting the development of their nervous system and also for pregnant women whose children may show the effects of the toxic stress. (Here is a link to an article on this topic for those who are interested:

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Adi Sankara's analysis of Self


Although I have read several of Adi Sankara’s works, some of them in Sanskrit, I never organized them into topics like Swami Atmananda did several years ago (Sankara’s Teachings in His Own Words) and Keshava Menon has done recently (Adi Sankaracharya). From these sources I learnt that Adi Sankara dealt with the subject of Self from four points of view. They are Knower (keshtragna),  inner organs (antahkarana), ego (aham) and living entity (jivan).

This understanding of Adi Sankara’s ideas triggered some thoughts based on my own reading of other texts and also meditations on this topic.

Immediately it became clear that he was discussing meta awareness in kshetragna, which is mental reality and always present, even when we are asleep. This is “me”, the reflexive pronoun, relating to the nominative pronoun “I” and uniquely human.

Antahkarana or the inner organ is the material  "I" made of elements and alive, capable of awareness of objects. A famous poem says

Mano buddhi ahankarah chitthaam Karanam antaram

Samshaya nischaya kurva smaranaa vishaya abhi

Translated into English, this means that Antahkarana is made of mind (manas), intelligence (buddhi), ego (ahankarah) and chitta (memory and reflection). The poet himself equated chitta to memory which is necessary to stitch together one’s life experiences into a coherent self or I. Other scholars also equate chitta to reflection, remembering, and attention.

Aham or ego is just that. It is a mental construct based on the functions of the material antahkarana or inner organ, which relates all experiences into a coherent whole. I is a nominative pronoun. It is the psychological self.

Finally, jivan is individualized life with awareness. It can be called self, but specific to the individual. It is also called the soul in the western systems. In essence jivan  is Atman, only individualized and ignorant of its identity, because of  its immersion in the outer world and its inherent problem of splitting reality into subject and object. This is the ego-centered, ego-centric I.

Adi Sankara says that antahkarana (mind and its functions) is an attribute of Jivan. Looking at the outer world through the senses and the mind it fails to recognize its innermost core which is atman.

Jivan can experience the Atman, says Adi Sankara if it can remove the veil. Atman is the ultimate consciousness which is the basis of all other levels of awareness, including that of jivan. Ramana says that you can get a glimpse of this inner light for a fleeting moment when you wake up from deep sleep. That is when you are just aware that you are awake but without any other perceptions or memories in the mind. He calls it “transient I”.

Atman is not an attribute of consciousness but is the basis of consciousness itself. Without Atman, there can be no jivan. And, according to Badrayana’s and Adi Sankara’s interpretation of the Upanishads, atman is brahman.

Our idea of the outer world is a combination of the subject and the object. In every observation and experience of an object (this includes our own thoughts), a subject is inherent. That is so in the world of phenomenon.

But once we remove the ignorance (avidya) and see the pervasiveness and identity of the Atman in everything, there is Pure Subject. That cannot be logically argued out. It has to be experienced.

What is avidya? (nescience or spiritual ignorance). If knowing the Self (atman) is true knowledge, our knowledge of the world is avidya. It is so because in this empirical knowledge pure, unified, global knowledge is split up into subject, object, and knowledge.

Adi Sankara uses the word maya in relation to the creative power of brahman and avidya in relation to our understanding of atman.

Our understanding of the world is true at one level. It is empirical and therefore practical. This is mithya, true at one level but false at another level.

 We have to jump from this empirical knowledge to another plane at which there is only One, absolute knowledge without separation of knower, known and knowledge. So says Adi Sankara. At that stage, atman is brahman.

Hope I have understood Adi Sankara correctly!

But what is the use of just understanding? 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 8


What is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or MBSR?

We already outlined what mindfulness means. Next, what is Stress and what is Mindfulness Based stress reduction? Let us start with a link to a short video to hear what Dr.Jon Kabat-Zinn, the originator of this concept has to say.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program is a technique developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical center for stress management. Dr.Kabat-Zinn started this program to help relieve pain and suffering of patients with chronic diseases who were not responding to available treatments.   Since then it has been modified to include body awareness, yoga exercises and self inquiry (into one’s patterns of ineffective and harmful thinking). The method has been used to alleviate suffering associated with physical, psychosomatic and psychiatric disorders. It has also been used in conjunction with behavior modification programs.

Although Dr.Zinn started with Mindfulness meditation adapted from Buddhist teachings, he renamed his program “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR), removing the Buddhist framework and placing it in a scientific context. This helped MBSR to enter mainstream clinical practice followed by excellent neurophysiological research which has provided adequate scientific proof for its efficacy.

What is Stress?

As we all know, Stress is a fact of life. For some, every moment of life is a stress. For some, it takes a lot before they feel stressed. In other words, there is a subjective element to it. Stress, which our ancestors experienced in the remote past, when they were hunting or were being hunted, and of animals in the wild, was existential stress. It was acute, short term, had a beginning and an end with death or survival as the only options. It was physical stress. Basic parts of our nervous system are built primarily to respond to this kind of stress.

We do not face those challenges our ancestors experienced under primordial conditions. But we live in a complex society and as the famous saying goes “there is a jungle out there”. At least that is the way our mind reacts to the ups and downs of modern day living, making our lives stressful! That is why there is so much professional burnouts and mental illness such as anxiety disorders and depression. That is why there is so much interest in eastern teachings on calming the mind such as yoga and meditation.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Knowledge and Wisdom


Earlier I wrote about replacing the old idea of pancabhuta of Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space with the  modern idea of Space, Time, Matter, Energy and Information. In a recent post, I suggested that Space, Time, and Information or awareness are continuous, but that matter is not. Matter creates discreteness and energy jumps between states of matter without diminishing.

Now I add the following thought. In trying to understand the individual or particular discrete “me” (or any other thing for that matter) in relation to the whole (the Universal), I think that the self or jivan or atman is trying to do so through energy exchange and information sharing. This is a new way of saying that prana (energy) and chitta (awareness) are the continuous, uninterrupted connections through which the discrete person with a body connects with the whole, the Brahman.

Knowledge of external things such as energy, particles and information is called apara vidya. It is knowing about the parts or units as they occur naturally  or a whole divided by human mind for the sake of understanding. It is limited knowledge since it does not fully account for the whole of which this is part. This can be learnt and reasoned out.

True knowledge is that of the whole in reference to which the parts are known. Knowledge of the  whole is called paravidya. As emphasized by the Upanishads, this cannot be learnt or reasoned out. It has to be experienced or intuited. That is wisdom.

As William Cowper said: “Knowledge is proud it knows so much;  Wisdom is humble it knows so little”                                                              

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 7


What is the initial step in starting Mindfulness Meditation?

  We learn to become mindful of the present moment by concentrating on the breath and  using it as an anchor to come back to every time we recognize that our mind has wandered off. We focus on the breath because breath is our constant companion. That is why all methods of yoga and meditation start with breath. But the difference in mindfulness is that we breath naturally, as we normally do. There is no special technique to master. The main idea is being aware of that breathing while we breathe naturally. By being aware of the breathing, we bring the body and mind to the same place at the same time.

Observe the breath as it occurs naturally. I hope you used the links on aids to counting breaths in my earlier post. 

There are many methods to learn this first step. One is to count 1-2-3 as we take the in-breath and count 1-2-3 as we breath out. By counting the duration of the breath, the mind is more likely to stay with the breath. Another method is to place your hands over the abdomen and feel them as they move in and out during each breath. Yet another method is to feel the cool air entering the nose as the breath goes in and feel the warm air as it comes out.

The mind will wander, particularly in the beginning. Do not give up. Just stay with it. Do not be too critical of yourself. Do not react to the mind going away and judge yourself. Every time you recognize that the mind has moved away, just recognize that and get back to the breath and counting the breath.

Mindfulness of breathing brings about concentration of the mind. This focused attention helps reduce distraction and helps us focus on the present moment. This means that the mind is not living in and ruminating about the past and it is not  living in the future with fear, anxiety and worries.

Mindfulness is being here and now enjoying the present moment for what it is, with gratitude for this life and for the blessings we have.

To understand all this please see the video by Rev. Thich Naht Hahn. Sounds so simple and so easy. But please stay with it for 17 minutes.  It is deceptively simple, but profound.

(Before you leave this post, please let me have some feedback on the links I have been providing for sites with useful information on mindful living and also guided meditation techniques)

Friday, November 20, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 6


Hope you were able to use the link I provided in the previous post. If you had trouble keeping the focus on the breath, here is a link to the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin where a well-tested breath counting tool is available. It is free but you have to register to get it.

Here is another one

There are several other methods to bring the mind back to breath. For example, we can focus on a sound symbol. In Hinduism, it is the sound “Om”. In Buddhism it is “manipadmoham”. In the Catholic faith it is “maranatha”. The idea is to use this sound to bring the mind back to its focus on breath each time it wanders off.

In Buddhist schools, a gatha is used to get the mind back. It is a short statement to utter within oneself each time the mind is caught wandering off. For example, when breathing in and out, we say “I am breathing in – I am breathing out”. “Breathing in- Breathing out”. Or “When I am breathing in, I know I am breathing in – when I breath out I know I am breathing out”. This gatha helps keep the focus on the breath, brings you to the present moment and also recognizes the body-mind connection.

Speaking of gatha, we can make up our own gatha just as Rev.Thich Naht Hanh suggests while we are washing dishes or driving a car. For example, when walking, he suggests repeating with each step the following gatha: Breathing in, I say “yes” to life; Breathing out, I say “thank you” to life” etc.,

You may wish to use a short prayer from your tradition. That is fine too. The only point is that we should not get stuck with that sound but get back to focus on breathing. In some systems, the teaching is to focus on the silent interval between the gathas or mantras.

We can visualize a sacred image to bring our focus on the breath. This can be one’s favorite deity, or a sacred figure such as Buddha or Jesus or a serene memory of nature. The idea is the same. Whenever the mind wanders, use this image to come back to the present moment and focus on the breath and breathe slow and deep – until it wanders off again, which it does often. That is the nature of the mind. In eastern philosophies the mind is compared to a drunken monkey, jumping from branch to branch.

Another aid to meditation is a rosary, which is commonly used in all faiths. The most important point to remember in pushing the beads is not to get stuck with the ritual. Pushing the beads mindlessly does no good. The essential principle is to focus on the divine figure or the divine sound each time one touches a bead and to focus on the silence or the breath before touching the next bead. Prolonging the silence between the beads and prolonging the attention to the here and now of the breath should be the goal.

Why do you wish to meditate? Before you start meditation practice, ask yourself why you want to do this and what you expect to gain out of it. Is it out of curiosity? Is it because this is the “in thing” these days? Is it because you are looking for special states of bliss and mystic experiences? Is it because your life is full of stress and you need a stress-reduction program? Are you interested in spiritual growth? Are you interested in developing a deeper understanding of this life and of this universe? You must find your own answers.

In addition, it is good to know before you start that this method is not for attaining mystical states, although it is possible to reach such states with decades of training and more rigorous discipline. They are for the monks and nuns. Those states may even be harmful to some. For us, common folks, it is best to start with an open mind, and aim for calming of the mind. “Letting go and let it be” are two of the slogans in learning mindful meditation. It is best not to set too high an expectation.

What are some hindrances to practice?    Doubt and indecision, anxiety and restlessness and laziness are clearly hindrances. Setting too high an expectation or giving up easy are also major hindrances. Just let it be. Do not cling or grasp. Just let go.

What do you have to do to get started?

In practice, we set up an assigned time every day and stick to it. I prefer early morning before anyone, or any event can interrupt the meditation time. We need a calm place, with all lights and phone turned off. We need a comfortable seat to sit on and comfortable clothes which we do not have to keep squirming in. It goes without saying, but we will be better off setting this time before eating or drinking alcohol or coffee. This will not be an issue if we meditate early in the morning immediately on getting up.

Practice, Practice  and Practice.

It is like exercising daily to build the muscles. Consider this as building neural networks in the brain. Daily, informal practice is the most important. You may wish to attend a formal meditation session in your neighborhood, if there is one, once a week or twice a month. In this age of technology, you may be able to join one of the virtual group sessions. If you are serious you may wish to attend a week-end retreat on meditation conducted by reputable teachers and organizations.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Future Generations


“We do not inherit this earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children” is a famous quote. There is controversy about the originator of this statement. But the truth in this statement is becoming clear every day. I believe that the past few generations (that includes mine) have not been responsible stewards of this planet. Blinded by the successes of technology, with emphasis on quick profits and GDP rather than on the value of and respect for all lives, and being carried away by the “affluenza” to buy more and more of bigger things, we have scrapped the earth to its core, dumped wastes into the waters and saturated the air with chemicals. An author whose name I do not recall said that “if we were tenants of this earth, we would have been evicted long ago”.

The young are getting angry and frustrated. Their voices must be heard now and acted on. It is heartening to learn that one nation is doing just that. The Government of Wales, which is part of Great Britain has developed a plan to be implemented by the year 2050, with its focus on the future generations. They have even appointed a Commissioner for Future Generations. It is exciting, encouraging and gives us hope. If only every nation joins this movement!


Thursday, November 12, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 5


What is mindfulness meditation?

Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy defines Mindfulness  as “awareness of present experience, with acceptance”. It is opposite of forgetfulness. It is not a mind "full of the past and the future", but one fully aware of the here and the now.  It is a variety of “analytical meditation” in which we use mindfulness ( as opposed to reason or imagination) as a tool to find our object of meditation and hold on to it. Object of meditation may be an image, a sound, states of mind such as loving kindness and compassion or concepts such as impermanence, inter-being, emptiness etc.,

Right mindfulness or samyak smriti is Step 3 in Buddha’s 8 Noble Truths. Buddha himself elaborated this in his Satipattana Sutta. In the Pali language the word Sati means attention and remembering, akin to the Sanskrit word smriti. Mindfulness meditation is based on this famous Sutta. This has become one of the more popular methods of meditation because of the work of Rev.Thich Naht Hanh and his school of Buddhism. More recently, Dr.Jon Kabat-Zinn adapted this to practical use in the modern world in the form of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program. Others have modified other aspects of this method and use it as part of Mindfulness based Cognitive Therapy programs. In fact, there is a new branch of neuroscience called Contemplative Neuroscience.

Mindfulness meditation is for the modern human living in a complex world, skeptical and stressed out, to bring the body and the mind together. It is to have increased self-awareness, a true acceptance and understanding of one’s self without judgment or grasping, thus leading to self-transformation. It is to help reduce stresses of modern-day life and thus reduce pain and suffering. It is to develop loving kindness and compassion and experience a feeling of oneness with the cosmos.

Mindfulness meditation techniques are easy to practice. Guided meditation practices have been developed over the years to learn to calm one’s mind, to focus on the here and now, to look deeply into one’s own body and mind without judgement, to learn forgiveness, to learn gratitude and to learn how to develop compassion.  Anyone belonging to any faith system can practice these as part of daily life.

Why is mindfulness meditation so popular? 

Of the several kinds of meditation practices, the Mindfulness Meditation based practices have been the best tested using scientific methods. Therefore, these methods have become part of Wellness and Mind-Body programs in Medical Schools, Industries and Educational institutions. For example, in a study of 70 physicians in primary care, many of them felt a sense of general well-being with reduced mood changes, reduced burn-out, and greater focus on patient centered care following 8 weeks of intensive training in mindfulness techniques followed by 10 monthly sessions. In another study of physicians, those who practiced mindful meditation experienced better quality of life, less burn-out and found greater meaning in their work.

In a large well controlled study of middle school children from a center city, children who took part in a 12 week course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program had significantly less depression, negative  affect, somatization and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to these clinical studies, neuroimaging and neurophysiological studies have shown differences in function and connectivity between different areas of the brain of meditators different from those of non-meditators. These studies also show that relevant areas of the brain show structural changes following even few weeks of meditation practice. Long term practitioners show greater changes than short term practitioners. In other words, some of the mental habits emphasized in meditation techniques can be learnt with demonstrable effects on the structure and function of our brain. This is what is called neuroplasticity.

There have been several studies to show that meditation techniques can be used as an adjunct to other forms of therapy in patients with chronic pain. These methods cannot make the pain go away. But will help develop a sense of self-control, reduce the need for addictive painkillers and help lead a more normal life by changing one’s attitude to pain. In fact, many Cognitive  Behavior Therapy programs based on meditation techniques are currently available.   (to continue)

(Here is an  excellent introductory text to help you get started with meditation. This is from the University of Wisconsin. Hopefully you can use these guidelines and start your practice. )

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Continuous and Discontinuous


Space is continuous and vast. Time is continuous and eternal. Consciousness is continuous through different levels of awareness, illuminating everything and itself. Energy is all pervading, fluctuating, non-diminishing.

Consciousness is not thought. It is the illuminator of thought. It is by which we know we are aware of ourselves and of our thoughts. Thought is made of information. Both information and thought are discontinuous. Consciousness is continuous. 

Gross Matter is the only item that is discontinuous. It gets recycled and occupies space, thus creating discreteness. It moves and gets moved by exchanging energy. But it changes, comes into being (form), grows, decays, and disappears (dies?), but only to take another form. It is impermanent in the background of continuous time.

Yet we get attached to the form which changes (discontinuous) and tends to disappear. All our worldly struggles, happiness and sadness come out of this relationship. We break it up into components and study and consider that to be knowledge.

What if we let go of focus on the Matter with its form (that includes our own body form), understanding it for what it is and its nature of discontinuity? What is left will be the cosmos of continuous, eternal reality of space, time, energy, and consciousness. We are inside of that reality. All those continuity factors are in us, made of matter. It is as though without form and its nature of discontinuity we cannot have the bliss of experiencing the continuous and the constants.

It is still a mystery. As the wise ones told us: “mystery is to be experienced”. Mystery is not a problem to be solved.

My mind still wants to know: “How did it all come about? Why? Who or what is behind all this? I prefer to leave it to our rishis who asked the same questions thousands of years ago at the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of the seven sacred rivers. They called the “who or It” as Brahman.

Brahman is the continuous, constant behind the everchanging forms which are discontinuous. Brahman (He/She/It) is a composite of Space, Time, Energy, Consciousness and Matter.

But why all this? Why the cosmos, the stars and the sun, the earth, and the life? Why this human form?

I surrender to that Brahman with infinite gratitude and thanks for this life and the privilege of thinking. Thanks to my family which gave me an ishta devata (personal deity) to cling to and sail this ocean of life, to our ancestral rishis who set the standards for thinking and the tradition which encourages finding our own path to the shore.




Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 4



             What is Meditation? What is Mindfulness meditation?

Before answering the two questions, let us take care of some of the questions and myths about the practice of meditation.

Is meditation a religious practice? The answer is:  Yes and No. It came out of eastern religious traditions. It can be used to deepen religion-oriented meditation. In addition, all religious traditions have a meditation component although not emphasized. You can meditate on your chosen God, if you please. But meditation is not solely a religious practice. It is primarily a spiritual practice.

Is it self-hypnosis? No, it is not. No one can make you convince yourself about something you do not believe in. Meditation helps to learn self-control and focus.

Is meditation for old people? No, it is not. Any one at any age can learn. Now, several schools in the west teach children, even in kindergarten.

Does meditation require a guru and initiation? No, it does not, certainly not in the current methods of meditation. Of course, you need someone who is trained in one of the techniques and has practiced. The idea of guru and initiation is for people who wish to become monks and nuns and in certain schools. For those of us living a busy life and wish to learn meditation to calm the mind and expand the heart, there is no need for initiation. However, there is need for a guide.

Is meditation thought control?  No. You do not control or suppress thoughts, particularly in the Mindful Meditation school. You learn to be aware of your thoughts, to be a witness to your thoughts, without editing and judging and suppressing.

Is meditation practiced by some to avoid problems? I hope not. It is meant to help us face and deal with suffering and to engage with life effectively, not to escape.

Some people think that meditation will allow demonic ideas to enter our psyche. Some religious sects teach that wrong information. They probably have taken the proverb which says “an empty mind is devil’s workshop” literally.  It is not true and  it is unfortunate some people think so.

But it is fair to state that meditation is not for everybody. There are some people who get anxious and agitated when they have to be alone or quiet. Meditation is not suitable for them unless there is some preparation and guidance. It may cause anxiety and agitation in the presence of some mental disorders although psychologists trained in meditation techniques use Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy as part of their treatment options.

One other point worth making here is that meditation is “sold” as panacea for all kinds of  physical, mental and behavior disorders. That is not correct. 

What is meditation? Dictionary definition is that meditation is contemplation and reflection. It is a process of solemn reflection on spiritual matters. It is state of mind which leads to inner calmness and peace. It is also a process and skills needed to practice meditation can be acquired. (Please see the link to an article on meditation in a recent issue of New York Times, at the end of this post)

Why does one meditate? People get into meditation with different goals in mind. You need to know yours before you learn to practice meditation. Patanjali, the ancient Indian sage, who wrote the earliest treatise on this subject with the title Yoga Sastra, states that the goal of meditation is “Controlling the extroverted activities of the mind” (Yogah chitta vritti nirodhah). The word yoga (root word yuj which means to unite) was used because the aim was  to help the Individual unite with the Universal.

Current practices, which derive from this and other ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts, are intended primarily to help  unite Body, Mind and Spirit. It is unfortunate that not much emphasis is given to meditation as a tool for spiritual development, self-inquiry and self transformation. 

My preference is to consider meditation as a practice to calm the mind and expand the “heart”. This goal is more suited for those of us living in this busy world, torn in different directions, losing touch with nature and feeling less connected. It is a form of mental training. Once we can calm the mind and think deeply and clearly, we can work on self-transformation.

I have read somewhere that there are at least 23 major schools of meditation. That includes Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese, Greco-Roman, Christian, Sufi and Jewish traditions. There are several sub-sets within each of these schools.

Why then is the focus on Mindful Meditation? And what is Mindful Meditation? (to be continued)

Addendum: Since I wrote this piece, I came across Adi Sankara’s idea on meditation. He says: “meditation means establishing a continuous flow of similar modification of the mind in relation to some object presented by the scriptures and uninterrupted by any foreign idea”. This will be called dhyana in Patanjali’s eight steps process.

In Patanjali’s system, the step preceding dhyana is dharana. When translated to English, dharana means concentration. This is an important distinction as pointed out by another scholar. He says that as long as your mind is fighting distraction, you are still in the dharana mode (concentration) and not in dhayana, in which the mind is fully with the object of meditation – be it sound, form or formless.

Chandogya Upanishad calls this stage as upasana. At this stage, the mind is still aware of duality. It is aware of the subject (the meditator) and the object of meditation. The final stage of samadhi of Patanjali is when that duality disappears.

That is the theory. That is the goal of meditation. But how many of us can get there? 

Friday, October 30, 2020

What we know, what we do not know: Science, anti-science


A well-educated person commented recently that we do not know anything about this corona virus which is causing so much havoc. I said: “No, no, we do know lot about this virus; but we also do not know many aspects about how it affects human body, why some get it and some do not and what it will do in the future. That does not mean we do not know anything.”  She said:  “they make too much of this virus”. It was obvious that this was getting to be a political view of the matter and so I did not pursue.

It is amazing that educated people develop their views on the basis of what they hear repeatedly on the channel they watch on TV or the social media “bubble” they are part of. Ever since the cigarette companies started making “doubt” a central piece of their advertising strategy, several groups have taken up that approach to challenge anything they do not like or want to cast a doubt on.  With the advent of social media, it has become easy to spread false claims and alternate theories. Wordsmiths and persuasive psychologists use visual and audio aides to spread these false and unsupported claims. What is worse, these false claims and rumors demand equal attention – attention equal to what is given to facts and properly obtained evidence.

It is generally wise to act on the basis of what we know and not on what we do not know. It is more likely to be beneficial. As long as human knowledge was limited in its understanding of virus infections such as smallpox and polio, millions of lives were lost. Millions suffered life-ling disabilities. Both these diseases are part of history, thanks to science. Civilization took several millennia to reach that stage.

Within a few months of recognizing this novel corona virus, its genome sequence was identified, and several vaccines are getting ready, thanks to scientific methods and other advances. How can anyone say that we do not know anything about this virus? How can anyone say that this is all exaggeration after we have lost so many million lives to this virus?

I am amazed that a country which built enormous intellectual stature by following scientific methods and gave so many advances to mankind has fallen to such low level. Sometimes I wonder what the next decade is going to look like, particularly if the anti-intellectuals, non-believers, and conspiracy theorists win the information war. That is not a baseless worry. I read that 12 states in the US are discussing anti-science education in their legislatures!

I wish everyone, particularly political leaders and policy makers read two classic papers which set the tone for all the advances we have seen in the US over the past several decades.

The first is a report to President Harry Truman by Mr. Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1945. This report  ( was in response to a set of questions President Roosevelt asked. One question was “What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?” The report, entitled Science: The Endless Frontier includes the following statement: “ Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world”. 

The other is a small monograph entitled The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. This book is important at this time when the push is for immediate practical application at the expense of fundamental, basic research. This was written by the famous Prof. Abraham Flexner, who reorganized the entire medical education and practice in this country with his now famous Flexner Report. He also founded the Institute for Advanced Study at the Princeton University. This monograph is available now in a new version with an introduction by Robbert Dijkgraaf. (Princeton University Press, 2017).

Monday, October 26, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 3


 Hope you used the link and  tried the practice. That guided meditation was one of the fundamentals I learnt from Rev. Thich Nath Hanh (affectionately call Thay) and his disciples during the retreats I attended with him. I have also been practicing them regularly since.

Sitting quiet is not easy. In Tamil language, an advice made famous by Thaymanavar, a saint from the 16th century is “Summa iru” meaning “stay quiet and/or silent”. Here is his full poem:  

சும்மா இருப்பதுவே சுட்டற்ற பூர்ணமென்று எம்மால் அறிதற்கு எளிதோ பராபரமே   

There is a beautiful poem on Keeping Quiet  by Pablo Neruda, the famous poet from Chile. Here is a link to that poem.

He starts with “Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still for once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language” and ends by saying :”perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death. Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go”. 

It is possible with strong intention and determination to sit quiet for a few minutes and practice daily. How else can you focus and meditate if you cannot even sit for a few minutes? There are a few among us who just cannot sit still. The best method for them is to learn walking meditation. Yes, Buddhist system  teaches us how to walk mindfully. In Mindful Meditation, you learn to me mindful doing whatever you are doing.

One more point before I start the next session. This is about physiology. Focus on breathing is part of all systems of meditation. It is now well-established that slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system of our body. Just breathing slow and even has been shown to be associated with slower heart rate, lowering of blood pressure and muscle relaxation. Conversely, you will experience slowing down of your parade of thoughts when the respiration slows down. In Mindful Meditation, normal breathing is the anchor. There is no special way of breathing. It can be practiced anywhere, any time. These are the reasons I am so much in favor of this method of meditation.

Now, you may wish to practice breathing mindfully using the following link before we meet again:

Mindful Breathing Meditation with Thich Nhat Hanh

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Non-Violence - Series 2


A simplified Mindful Meditation*



It is to silence the “mind” and to expand the “heart”.

Several masters tell us that meditation is not for bliss after death or for immortality, but to experience the immortal in us here and now with compassion and humility. It is to open the heart and the mind and experience the parts in the whole and the whole in the parts.


Find a location you are not likely to be disturbed

Sit in a comfortable position on the floor or a chair

Better to keep eyes closed to reduce distractions

Focus on the breath

Just observe the in-breath and the out-breath

Let it be just natural, except you are noticing it. You will be using breath as an anchor to come back to every time the mind wanders away

Every time you realize that the mind has wandered off, gently bring it back to the breath

Bring the mind to basic awareness of just being here and now,

Start with a short meditation – just 5 minutes, for example

Just the fact you devoted this time is great. Congratulate yourself for the effort

We will go into greater details, and for longer periods as we progress.


NOTHING, no goals to accomplish, no expectations, no grasping.

This sounds contradictory to what we said earlier. Is it not?

In the long run, we wish to reach a state of calmness of the mind and openness of the heart. For this session, for each session, it is best to go with small steps and an open, accepting mind. 

Accepting whatever comes at the sitting without being harsh on yourself, without judging.

Just Let it be

Grasping and reaching are the opposites of what meditation masters teach.

This is the simplest, but not so simple. In the next essay, I will give steps to go from observing the breath to observing sensations in the body associated with breath and to awareness of being alive and awake.

You can start your practice by using the link here and listening to the voice of Rev.Thich Nath Hanh.

 ·         A disclaimer: If anyone is looking for meditation techniques that will lead to “bliss” or “nirvana” or some special states of physical feats, they will be disappointed with these blogs.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Sutra (aphorism) and Twitter

    The second part of the series on Mindfulness, Compassion and Non-violence is ready. But, I plan to share thoughts on other topics also, in between those posts. Thank you.  

I was thinking about the fact that the rishis who “saw” the Vedas, put them down for posterity before there was writing. How did they do it? One of the methods they used was to express their ideas in a condensed form, called sutra.

Common meaning of the word sutra is a thread. It also stands for a tightly woven thread. In English, an equivalent word is aphorism. By definition, a Sutra or an aphorism has to be a condensed cryptic statement. Obviously, these were philosophical statements which will, by nature, require explanation, elaboration.

It is easier to remember a few words in a cryptic sentence such as “satyameva jayate” (Truth alone wins) than a paragraph on what satya is. The sages wanted to express concepts in as few words as possible so that the concepts are easy to remember, recite and pass on to students and future generations.

One definition (?Vayu Purana) in Sanskrit says: Sutra is one which is made of minimum letters, precise, unambiguous, presenting the gist of many thoughts, and faultless that makes sense. In Tamil language it is “சுருங்க சொல்லல் விளங்கவைத்தல்” which means “to explain with the least possible words”.

When thinking about this, it occurred to me that Twitter is a modern version of sutra. But there is a huge difference. Twitter is used for sending messages with emotionally charged words which stimulate the lower parts of our brain and evoke unhealthy emotions. Sutra (an aphorism) was used to express profound thoughts and stimulate the upper parts of our brain and make us think.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence Series - 1

 Friends, today I am starting a separate series on Mindfulness, Compassion and Non-violence. I have been thinking in the past few years about starting a physical or a virtual center to focus on these topics. I even had chosen a name for it – Gautama Center for Ahimsa, Karuna and Pragna.  Initially I considered the possibility of making it a center on a social media platform. Later I decided to stay with this blog site which I have maintained for more than 10 years and  is easier to maintain. Hope you like this series. More important, hope you find these mini-essays helpful.

Meditation as an English word has several levels of meaning. It stands both for the process and for a state of being, a mental state. Patanjali who wrote the earliest treatise on this subject says that meditation is to control the modifications of the mind (second sloka of his treatise on Yoga shastra). At the end of the treatise he says that it is for reaching a state at which one becomes merged into the supreme cause. But what is the supreme cause? What is meant by merging into it?

Patanjali also gives the necessary steps including control of the body, purification of the mind etc. Several schools of meditation have sprung over the millennia based on this original writing. But many of them, including the tantric schools have caused confusion, with each school emphasizing different aspects of Patanjali’s ideas and developing its own special interpretation. In the process, they have conflated the process with the goal. Most individuals seem stuck with the process such as “how do I sit?”, “do I keep my eyes shut or closed or semi-open?” and “do I breath with the right nostril or left nostril?” etc. As I have mentioned elsewhere, during meditation symbols do not matter, substance does; duration does not matter, intensity and regularity do; rituals do not matter, inner feeling and intentions (bhavana) do.

My view is that the only system which has given simple, practical steps on meditation comes from Buddha’s teachings and is now supported by modern neuroscience. It is not surprising since Buddha focused on how to live this life well and deal with the ups and downs of our lives. These methods utilize what we all know (breath) and experience (agitated distracted mind) and teach us how to focus and look deep inside ourselves. Of course, the roots are in earlier Vedic insights. But the practical methods focus on the known and not on esoteric concepts which may or may not be true.

There are several schools within the Buddhist tradition also. My focus will primarily be on Mindfulness as taught by Rev. Thich Naht Hahn and developed further by neuroscientists into Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.

Buddhist metaphysics and psychology acknowledge that all of us are capable of experiencing several states of mind (51 by their count), some of them wholesome and helpful (compassion, gratitude) and others not helpful (anxiety, laziness) and some clearly harmful (anger). It acknowledges that all of us are capable of developing our wholesome traits with practice. The methods focus on developing the strengths in every one of us such as attention, awareness and compassion. What is remarkable is that modern day neurosciences give support to the psychology on which Buddhist meditation practices are based.

I plan to write several essays bringing the essence of mindfulness meditation to the digital generation growing up in the age of science, technology and social media. I have been writing about these  topics in these blogs and elsewhere over the past several years. Now, I plan to consolidate and update them.

The reason for starting this series now is my concern for the future. Human civilization is experiencing several stresses all at once with cumulative effects. As I wrote in my essay on Competition, Cooperation, and Collective values on June 29, 2020, humanity has reaped the benefits of science and technology coming out of the empirical approach of western philosophies. Humanity is facing the negative side of those developments. Now is the correct time for humanity to learn from the wisdom of the east which emphasizes inner dimensions and interconnections.

Although these ideas on meditation come primarily from Hinduism and Buddhism, other traditions also had elements of these practices. But Western traditions de-emphasized meditation for various reasons.  Many people in the west considered it as a religious practice. In fact, meditation is a spiritual practice open to all of humanity. It is to do with mind-body-spirit connection.

There is now more openness to meditation all over the world. Meditation is taught in schools, colleges and workplaces as part of holistic health and wellness programs. Most of them are based on mindful meditation concepts popularized by Rev Thich Nath Hahn, Dr. Kabat-Zinn, H.H.Dalai Lama and others.

I am focusing on Buddhist methods, particularly mindfulness, because they do not ask you to suspend rationality. They do not orient towards any religion or personal gods. In fact, Buddhism is classified as atheism in Indian philosophical texts. The practices are in line with objectivity and rationality and supported by neurosciences, particularly  neuroplasticity and neural states of the mind. Any one from any faith can practice mindfulness meditation as part of daily life. The new branch of contemplative neuroscience has developed tools (example: healthyminds innovations) which any one can use.

I plan to write about meditation practices and theories behind them. I also plan to write about compassion and non-violence because I believe in them as the only sure methods for peace on earth. And as Rev. William Sloane Coffin said: “The world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love”.

I start with a suggestion for what we can hope to accomplish with meditation. In other words: “why should one meditate?”    

My preference is: Meditation is to calm the mind and to expand the heart. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Angels, Devils, Devas and Asuras

 Angels, devils and genies are extraterrestrial creatures common in the western literature and myths. In India, there are the devas, asuras, rakshasas, gandharvas and so on. What if one of them arrives on earth and we humans encounter them in real life? This is a great theme for fiction writing and I have read a few of them. I am not counting fables and children stories, but good modern short stories or novels.

I have three suggestions for those of you who are interested. They were written by some of the best writers.

1.      Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis. This is an imaginary conversation between a “devil” in training and his teacher who happens to be his uncle. The elder devil teaches the novice how to play on the weaknesses of the human beings.

2.       The Wonderful Visit – On the Night of the Strange Bird by H. G. Wells. In this mini-novel, H G Wells describes an angel who (which) gets shot by a Vicar. That is because the Vicar mistakes the angel for a strange bird. It is an amazing imagination and hilarious description of  how the so-called “angelic” behaviors and values clash with those of the earthlings.

3.       Kadavulum and Kandasamy Pillaiyum ( கடவுளும் கந்தசாமி பிள்ளையும்)  by Pudumaipithan. Obviously, you have to know Tamizh language to read this. It is based on a wild imagination of God landing in Chennai, India and meeting up with a common man at a Bus Stop. What happens when God wants Kandasamy Pillai to take Him to his home?  


Friday, October 2, 2020

Reading Ancient Texts

  In my book on Our Shared Sacred Space I devoted a chapter on how to read sacred texts. Some of those points are relevant to reading any ancient text. If we read with an open mind, we can learn many things about the history, geography, language, customs and so much more. This is true particularly to Indian literature. It is only through these texts that most of Indian History has been reconstructed, since our ancestors did not leave many monuments behind. Even what they left were ravaged by the weather and the invaders. Even the bodies were cremated and there are not many funerary relics either.

I re-learnt this lesson when I studied Silappadikaram, a literary Tamil classic written sometimes before the 6th century CE. The text suggests that it was influenced by writers from earlier generations and the grammar. Obviously, the south had already felt the influence of the north particularly the four Vedas, Samkhya philosophy and of the language, Sanskrit. Jainism and Buddhism came from the north.

The first fact I discovered, re-discovered was, that the Tamil language was very advanced. It had a vast amount of literature already. Its grammar was as advanced as that in Sanskrit. Music and dance were very advanced with their own grammar and structure. The port city of Poompuhar was a major center for foreign trade. The culture of the people of Poompuhar was probably so advanced that they were the envy of other city-states. 

Indeed, there was a settlement of foreigners – the name used was yavana, referring to people of Roman and Greek origin. It is a term suggesting the origin of these people near the Ionian Sea. Some of you may know that there is an archeological site near Puducherry called Arikamedu where there was a Roman settlement in the 1st century of CE.

I re-learnt the classic description of Tamil land as consisting of seashore (neydal, நெய்தல்), countryside (marudam,மருதம்), forest and pastoral land (mullai,முல்லை), mountain (kurinci,குறிஞ்சி) and arid land (paalai, பாலை). From the descriptions of these lands I learnt about the trees, flowers , birds and animals common in those lands. Some of them are familiar and some seem to have become extinct. Various deities specific to each of these five lands are given. It appears that early temples were already existent at that time because temples of Tiruppati and Srirangam are mentioned.

We know that the Goddess of the waste land was named Korravai, who may be the forerunner of Durga and Kali in our days. It also appears that those who worshipped her lived in waste lands and lived essentially by robbing travelers and that they probably practiced human sacrifice. 

I was amazed at the depth of knowledge the author (Ilango, a prince turned Jain monk) had of music and dance. Indeed, he must have been a scholar and teacher. I learnt that many of the ragams (melodic scale) we hear now and the taalams (rhythmic structure) that are used now had their forerunners at that time in history. It could not have been imported idea because the ragas and taalams had their own unique Tamil names with no hint of phonemic similarity. He also knew how the music instruments were constructed and how the strings were attached.

Finally, there are names of several food items (அப்பம், பிட்டு, எள்ளுருண்டை for example), various ornaments women dancers wore in the arms, legs, waist, and hair. 

Some new words in Tamil I learnt are:  கங்குல் (night, darkness), யாக்கை (body), வெகுளி (anger), குரவன்           (one worthy of respect, could be a parent), கடம் (path, specifically a path in an arid land) and              வாரணம் ( may mean elephant, a rooster or a pig). And many more words, some of them we still use.

Finally, even though I do not have any knowledge of ancient classic Tamizh, I still could enjoy the beauty of this classic. 

I also learnt that Tamizh is the oldest continuously used language in the world. (

Friday, September 25, 2020

Even deeper understanding of meditation

While preparing for a talk on evolution of concepts in the Vedic period, something struck me as odd. We have adequate historical evidences for what went on before the Vedic period in the Indus Valley civilization. But we have no artifacts, buildings or human and animal remains from the Vedic period. We only have words and fire sacrifices to reconstruct the era of the rishis.

Who are these rishis? Did rishis create the devas or is it the other way around? Their writing suggests that mind preceded sat, that something came out of asat which means nothing. It had desire to create something. A desire before there was a body and a mind to occupy the mind?

Then there was the consciousness as an aspect of the mind. Nothing in physical nature suggests the presence or a need for a mind. How did this mind come about? And, Consciousness needs nothing but itself! It knows and everything we know is possible because of it. As suggested in Kena Upanishad (1:6), “That which does not think with mind but through whose power the mind thinks”.

And what does the mind do? It is in the interphase between the external and internal worlds. Looking outward, it revolves in the famous Samsara. It is driven to or away from external objects out of desire, fear, and curiosity. It lives in the realm of objects of senses, sense organs, mind, intelligence, ego, awareness and rarely into the awareness of awareness itself.

To “look” outwards, it needs light. Light that shines and that illuminates things. (tameva bhantam anubhati sarvam, says the rishi)

To get to that awareness of awareness, the mind must look inwards. It has to work through distractions, ignorance, laziness and mental traps. It has to recognize the common mode that underlies wakeful state, dream state and the deep sleep state. In deep state, there is life and calmness. But one is not aware of life itself or of the awareness. One must reach a state underlying the other three states. Rishis call it the turya state. At that level, consciousness is aware and is aware of its awareness.

Just like light, consciousness illuminates and is itself illumination.

That is why rishis are always comparing light and knowledge. They move from seeing to knowing seamlessly with words and metaphors which are confusing to a casual reader. They also tell us that whatever is thought of or imagined by the mind gets accomplished. (Varaha Upanishad: मनसा चिऩता कार्याम़ मनसा ऐव सिध़यते).

All the meditation methods use one or other of these stages as a focus and teach how to go from one layer to the other. In the process they may ask us to use images such as a deva or a chakra or a sound or combinations. My concern is that many of us get stuck on the way, overinvolved with the steps. The teachers themselves are so carried away by their method, they let go of the mark. Everyone is looking at the finger pointing to the moon and not at the moon.

Looking outward, meditation asks us to see the ground of all that is, the unity in multiplicity, the Brahman. That is the order out of chaos.

Looking inward, meditation asks us to visualize the knower of all that is known at all levels of consciousness, the ultimate subject without object. We are asked to do so first with forms and sound and finally as formless. The rishi says “let go of that by which you are trying to let go”. (येन त़यजसि तत़ त़यज)