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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?