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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.