Spiritual Acting

April 26, 2012

There are moments in everyone’s life when one vows to be a better person. By better, I mean more spiritual. And where do we get our ideas about what constitutes a spiritual personality? Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Dalai Lama? Perhaps Audrey Hepburn in A Nun’s Story or Julie Andrews in just about anything? The point is, we see ourselves as one way and we compare that to an ideal. We then try to emulate that ideal. Starting today, I will be more forgiving. I will not get peeved with others. I will do good to strangers. Well it is a start but is this not a kind of pretend? Are we not indulging in spiritual role-playing?

During my time with Chinmaya Mission I came across a variety of monks. Some were stern, some irascible, others were aloof and did not seem to care about other’s pain. A few even shamelessly imitated the mannerisms and speech of the order’s founder, Swami Chinmayananda. However, one swami stood out for me as an ideal  monk. He was soft-spoken, compassionate, humble, and ever-cheerful. He made everyone feel welcome and respected. He represented for me a predetermined spiritual ideal, although I was not conscious of my bias. Unknowingly I tried to emulate him, and the times I succeeded I felt holy. Whenever I failed, I felt guilty and ashamed. In retrospect I can see how it hindered my evolution. What I should have been doing all that time was first examining the characteristics of my own personality, and then disempowering them. This should have included both the traits I was proud of as well the qualities I disapproved of. To exhibit another’s personality on top of one’s own is not growth: that is make-believe. What is needed is to unlearn. After all, don’t all renovations begin with demolitions?

It seems to me that substantial inner rehabilitation happens gradually, almost imperceptibly. It is something like healing after major surgery. It feels like you will never feel well again. But each day you feel slightly better than the previous day. Then a day arrives and the surgical trauma is a memory. I believe true transformative experiences happen that way too. A near death, loss of a beloved, sudden major life changes, meeting a true living saint – all of these can be seeds for transformation. Though they take time.

Not that efforts at being good should be discounted, however. They have a value but realize them for what they are – performances, auditions. Most teenager go through a phase after puberty when they try to ‘act’ more grown-up. Inside they are yearning to let loose and play, but they forcefully will themselves to discard the toys of childhood. It dose not last too long. It cannot. Then a day dawns when adulthood arrives to stay. I now view my spiritual practices as that kind of play acting.  Now, if I lose my temper, or fail to act kindly, I find it easier to forgive myself and move forward. I no longer cling to a rigid ideal of what makes a man a spiritual one.

This is very important because it can be dangerous to take one’s efforts too seriously. Recently I attended a meditation workshop which was filled with both longtime practitioners as well novices. Both had the same complaints though: “I know I am supposed to empty my mind but sometimes it is too chattery”. They did not see it but the mistake they were making was so obvious. They had an ideal of what mediation should be and the ego personality was determined to achieve it and succeed at it. They could not see that the whole point of mediation is to question the validity of this ego personality that always strives and competes, that feels guilty or proud. Mediation is a state where there is no becoming, only being.  It is where the personal ‘I” is absent, hence there is nowhere to go, nothing to achieve. Mediation is an exercise in  observing the selfish and covetous nature of this “I”. In doing so a real transformation is set underway. This change is permanent but happens in increments. It is the erasing of years of habitual selfishness. It is the tearing down of a wall, brick by brick. Pure awareness is pure goodness. It is not something to be created or even gained. It is always there. Only the wall concealing it has to go.

If a seeker persists in ‘trying’ and in ‘achieving’ pure awareness, he is an actor, not a seeker. The ego is acquiring another layer to itself. Be sincere in your pursuit but not serious. I have to go now. There are some lepers at the door in need of delousing.


Taming Anger

April 20, 2012

When something is valuable, we tend to be protective of it. We do not easily part with it. Usually.

Yet whenever there is the slightest irritation, a whiff of change, or an unfavorable condition, why is it that we hand over our peace of mind so easily? Isn’t peace of mind our most valuable possession?

The topic is anger. We all experience it, but do we really understand it?

Spewing up like a red-hot volcano, anger is a primitive, biological response to perceived danger. A lava of adrenalin rumbles the heart rate, heats up the oxygen intake, trembles the muscles to either fight or flight. In addition, there is psychological smoke and dust, which cloud the mind to all our manners, our critical thinking, our wisdom. It allows the mind to fight or flight, which served our ancestors just fine on the plains of the Serengeti, running from a pride of lions. But at the office or on a downtown street, not so much. Without our reasoning and problem solving skills, there are regrettable consequences.

So is there a way out of our genetic destiny? I believe there is. It requires that we investigate and understand the whole mechanics of the psychology that leads to anger outbursts.

The trigger behind each outburst is always an unfulfilled need. The stronger the need the more violent the rage. The more there is at stake, the more fierce the vengeance. For example, if I feel like having strawberry ice cream and the clerk tells me he is sold out of that particular flavor, I may feel peeved, but I won’t say or do anything violent. If, on the other hand, my child has been assaulted by a stranger, I am going to be livid. Then the answer seems simple, find the trigger and solve it or avoid it.

But some triggers are unavoidable, external not under our control (like death and taxes). Some needs are so intertwined with many other needs that untangling the triggers is complicated. Yesterday I had an early morning medical appointment that was important for me to be on time. I had calculated that I needed to catch the 7.45 a.m. bus to make my appointment. That morning my alarm failed and I woke ten minutes later than I had intended. The elevator stopped a few floors down where a woman with three babies and a cellphone held open the door for her tardy husband. I could see the bus from across the street at 7.44. The traffic lights were against me. Just a I reached the bus, it drove off without me. I was angry, but whom to blame? The faulty alarm clock? The slow woman on the elevator? The mistimed traffic lights? The minute-too-early bus driver? And had the driver been familiar, it was tempting to take it personally. If the same thing had happened with the same driver recently, I am certain I would been very angry at him. Independently each trigger is a small annoyance, but by connecting the dots, it can grow into real rage.

Left alone, anger by itself is fragile. Ignore it and the adrenalin will subside, the mind will restore its composure, that is unless we justify the anger. Usually that happens so quickly we do not notice it. We act out of anger, say or do something(perhaps shout or bang our fist) and then we justify our behavior. It is easy to invent blame, to weave political and historical narratives on a personal insult.  This kind of woven rage fuels revenge and retribution, even war.

It is not our fault that we are wired that way. Remember, during anger our wisdom is deprived from us. If we can suppress the anger for a few second before reacting, we may be able to restore the reigns to our wisdom. Strong will-power can help. Though there a couple of qualities about will-power we need to understand. Will-power is a kind of mental muscle. I gets weak when it is tired from overuse. Thus it is unreliable. But like any muscle, it can be trained to have more stamina. Compassion is also a muscle that can be trained. Once bulked-up it can overcome any primitive anger reflex. Best of all, compassion and forgiveness can be trained to respond automatically, without having to think about them.

To effect such a change, one has to cultivate awareness. Awareness of the triggers, awareness of our physical onset of anger. Awareness of our mental warnings before the anger. By the time we have questioned the anger and its motives, it evaporates. It is fragile. If we are mindful as we move through  our daily routine, mindful of both our own responses and those of others, compassion floods through our being like a cold river. It is generous enough to quench the demands of our needs. The lesser our personal needs, the fewer our triggers. Altruistic needs, on the other hand, can lead to righteous anger which can affect social change. Think of Rosa Parks or Mahatma Gandhi. Or even John Walsh who channelled his rage at the murder of his son by heading America’s Most Wanted.

There is no denying this transformation will not happen overnight, and certainly not without effort and vigilance. But it will happen. Be patient. Taming anger is a process. You will fail from time to time, though the frequency and intensity will diminish. Trust me, I speak from experience.

Is Happiness Imaginary?

April 15, 2012

When the payout for an American lottery reached 640 million dollars, there was a buying frenzy for tickets. It is easy to understand why. To even imagine having over half a billion dollars is enough to make anyone smile. That imagined happiness is so real that it has a name in Sanskrit, priya.  The people who stood in line and purchased a ticket experienced a slightly greater joy. They had a chance at winning this lottery, albeit a remote one. That anticipatory joy is still in the mind and it too has a name, moda.  Out of the millions who purchased a ticket, three people had the winning number. They cashed their fat cheques, relished their luck and began to to consume and enjoy with this windfall. That happiness too has name, pramoda. Surprisingly, it too is imagined.

This feels counter-intuitive. If I love my dog because he is cute, loyal, loving, then isn’t the dog which is responsible for bringing me happiness? No. Somewhere over the years you made a decision that you liked cute animals. You have a value for loyalty. Loving the dog was a decision made based upon several interconnected needs and wants. The needs and wants existed within the mind. Hence their satiation could only be within the mind.  Take any other example, ice cream, diamond necklace, a fast car. The happiness of consuming them happens only in the mind.

When a man is clinically depressed, he finds no happiness in anything he previously enjoyed. That is the symptom of depression. When you and I are fast asleep, if people were to present you  with gold and riches (as long as they did so quietly) we would not derive any pleasure from owning these objects. Why? Because the mind is not available to enjoy them.

And speaking of sleep, is there anything as blissful as good night’s sleep? Where are your loved ones in sleep? Where is the car, the house, the career? Clearly, happiness is intrisnic. This begs the question, are external objects really necessary to make me happy?

I have tried this experiment. I sat alone in a quiet room and imagined myself happy. Unreasonably happy. Without any cause or justification. Just blind, abstract happy. And you know what? It is as good as the real thing. Because it is the real thing. Then it occurred to me, so why not be happy all of the time?

It did not take long to discover why I was not able to stay happy all of the time. Needs and wants stood in the way. The neighbors should not be making so much noise. My friend should not be suffering from cancer. Something ought to be done about cleaning the house. And on and on. It became evident to me that desires were not the vehicles of happiness, but rather they were bandits. They hold us for ransom, demanding that all their conditions be met before they release happiness: that house with the swimming pool be purchased, that you marry this type of spouse, that you sit in that spot by the window. The only reason we go to lengths to satisfy desires is because they are inherently uncomfortable. By satisfying a desire – it goes away. At least temporarily. But it soon rears its head, just a little stronger each time.

Needs and desires create a sense that you are in control. That by deliberately acting on situations and people you can affect the outcome in predictable ways. Then we get frustrated when it does not happen. And no matter how often we are disappointed, we still harbor this illusion. I now consciously try to be mindful that I do not have control. I simply do the best that I can. I accept life for what it is, or isn’t. This is as much control as I actually have.

Then is there a another way to quieten desires? Yes. Desires do not withstand scrutiny. When the whole process is examined critically, it disintegrates. It takes work initially and many times you cannot muster the  patience or will-power.  But over time, this habit of questioning becomes routine, effortless.  Sure, I still fail sometimes. Though more and more, I feel happy without any reason.
Just imagine a day when nothing or no one gets in the way of happiness. Unreasonable, effortless, happiness 24/7. Now that would be like winning billions of dollars.

“Sorry.” The word trips off our tongues mechanically. We utter it so routinely that we don’t even bother framing a complete sentence. Who is sorry, and for what?  No wonder are apologies are rarely accepted. What then makes for a heartfelt apology?

I believe we can learn as much from an insincere apology as from a sincere one. Here are some familiar examples.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.” This is so weak it barely qualifies as an apology. It lacks the fundamental  quality of an apology – ownership. If you regret what you said or did, then own up to it. Be specific about what your error was. Taking responsibility indicates to the listener that you understand the hurt you have caused.

“I don’t know what came over me.” Then, how about you do some self-reflection? The person you are asking for forgiveness from is not your therapist. I once had someone who misbehaved in my home call me afterwards to help her understand why she sometimes acts out of control. I was is no position to help because was I too busy cleaning up after her.

“The Devil made me do it.” Or the modern equivalent of devil could be society/alcohol/bad parenting. Don’t blame others for your errors. Calling it a ‘misunderstanding’ is also an excuse. No one buys  excuses. People don’t forgive on the strength of your extenuating circumstances. They forgive because they sense your remorse. “I made a stupid mistake, I am sorry,” has an authenticity about it because it signals to the listener a willingness to change.

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.” After a culprit is cornered, almost any apology he offers will be motivated by self-interest. The apology should be spontaneous. Express your remorse as soon as you realize your mistake. If you wait till you are caught, then you are merely sorry you got caught.

“Well, I guess we were both to blame.” An apology is not the U.N. There is no room for negotiation. While it takes two to argue, you are sorry for only your part in the argument, nothing more. If your apology is well received, the other party will ‘fess up to his own role in the skirmish. It is not your place to point out his faults.

“It won’t happen again.” If the listener is to believe this he needs to know what corrective steps you plan on making. The more concrete the steps, the more believable your apology. This requires some contemplation. It requires awareness of your actions and its consequences. “I’m sorry for the effects my drinking has caused you. I have now joined AA,” is specific and there is a concrete plan of corrective action.

“How long are you going keep this up?” I come from a family and a culture where emotions are worn on the sleeves. We fight large, we hug larger. I happen to live with someone who is from a family and culture that withdraws. It has taken me a while to understand this. Give the other person as much as space as he or she needs.

“It’s tiger blood.” Humility is everything in an apology. An arrogant tone of voice exasperates the hurt. A calm, measured tone of voice implies contrition, and careful choice of words informs the listener there is  intelligence behind the apology. I once had a houseguest who’s habits and routine apologies made it clear the man was a complete fool. When he said to me on his final day, “It won’t happen the next time.” I agreed. There should not be a next time. Forgiveness does not mean knowingly putting yourself in harm’s way, that is stupidity.

“What can I do to make it up to you?” A willingness to make amends is sign of sincerity. “I’ll do your laundry this week.” “Let me buy you dinner.”  Though be sure to see through any reasonable offer you make.

Actions speak louder than words. In intimate relationships, sometimes the things you do afterwards negate the need for a verbal apology. Caring gestures can demonstrate the depth of your true feelings far more eloquently than words. Your partner may not like you at this moment, but you can show to him or her that you still care.

“Where’s your messiah now?” Okay, this is no apology but I had to include it. As someone who is known to purse a spiritual way of life, forgiveness is expected from me, and so sometimes people don’t bother to say the words. While I do work at compassion, and will probably think up a dozen excuses to forgive you, it does make the whole processes faster for me to hear those words. Remember, when and if the injured party forgives is up to him. You may ask for forgiveness, but please take it for granted.

I hope you enjoyed this article. If not, yea well, whatever.

Can Worry Be Creative?

April 3, 2012

Since my cardiac arrest and declining health, I habitually worry about the increasing difficulty of looking after myself as my health declines. People tell me, “Cheer up, it may never happen.” Bad advice. This is no small or unrealistic concern. What they should be telling me is to worry creatively.

When the American swimmer Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal  during the Beijing Olympics people started to pay attention to his training. In addition to rigorous physical training, he made use of creative visualizing. By that I don’t mean he simply imagined himself on the winner’s podium. During the Eighties I too did a course  on that kind of escapist daydreaming. We sat in a group, closed our eyes while soothing acoustics played in the background. A sweet-voiced leader guided us through some very pleasant scenarios, we imagined warm sandy beaches, cool Himalayan mountains, and so on.  Then we were asked to visualize ourselves in that scene achieving whatever it was we wanted in life. This type of creative dreaming has now become standard for Oprah devotees. Dieters visualize themselves all slim in a bikini, some even keep a dream scrapbook of what they want out of life. I gave this up early on because it felt hokey, but now I have realized they are on the right track, except they are missing one key step.

What Michael Phelps did differently is that he backed up his physical training with a kind of virtual training, using the mind he anticipated every conceivable problem. This is beyond planning both in the level of detail and regularity. He created new habits through visualization which included an emotional response. He was even prepared if his googles flooded with water, which actually did happen during the race for the eighth gold medal. He was prepared because he had rehearsed solving this difficulty in his mind.  This is where the power of constructive visualization lies. We can bolster actual efforts by rehearsing solutions mentally.

Think about it. Aren’t we all masters of anticipation? Only we call it worrying. We imagine the future and all the things that could possibly go wrong. But then we stop there because we get disturbed. We miss the most crucial step – figuring out and then rehearsing feasible solutions. By repeatedly solving them in our heads, we can train ourselves to become dexterous at tackling those obstacles.

 In my case I am anxious about the future. Probably I will be all alone in my later years, unable to care for myself. I fear I will end up as one of those statistics, a man who collapses in his messy apartment, the body decaying for over a week before someone finds it. I have had sleepless nights over this scenario. I have written about it in my fiction, it is now so ingrained that there is a real danger it might come true. But here is the good news, habits are not destiny. Any habit, include the habit of worrying, powerful though it may be, is fragile. It is entirely malleable under the right circumstances and all I need to reshape it is my imagination.

When the worry begins, I now welcome it as an opportunity to train myself. I picture myself alone and weaker than I am now. I am older but my mind is still alert because I have dedicated efforts to this goal. I am able to do the shopping, to cook for myself, to keep a clean apartment.  I picture each daily activity in minute detail and myself successfully negotiating the tasks.  I see myself as content and at peace, accepting the inevitable wearing out of my body. All this is backed up by the habits I have cultivated of exercise, nutrition, self-care and awareness. My reward for imagining a happy outcome is peace of mind, which itself increases the likelihood of it coming true. This goes beyond planning. This takes the emotional responses into account as well.

This has worked so well that I did not stop there. I use it any time I am faced with a potentially anxious situation. By making a habit of this, the very fabric of our character changes. Habits maybe subconscious but being mindful about them, and them actively redirecting them reshapes who we are. There is no denying this takes work, motivation, will-power. But then what choice do any of us have?

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