War and Peace of the Mind

August 27, 2012

Going for the Gold medal in Mediatation

I have a confession. I am an addict. I’m hooked on silence. I get high from sitting with an empty mind and I just can’t get enough of the stuff. One day, anxious for my daily fix, I rushed into my bedroom and slammed the door shut. Just as I closed my eyes, my stupid roommate burst in, “Get the f###! out, can’t you see I’m trying to get a bit of f***ing peace!”

Okay that never happened, well not exactly anyway. But it is a familiar scenario. Laughable when presented this way, but I wouldn’t be the first or last person to “strive” so hard for inner peace that in the process I trampled over whatever little calm there was to begin with. We all have known people who used be fun, happy-go-lucky and never passed judgement on anyone, that is, until they found religion. Now they are irritable, oh-so serious and slowly, imperceptibly, they start looking down their noses at most everyone (ah the vanity of piety). It doesn’t matter  which religion people discover, we find this type of contrary behavior among devotees of all faiths. Why does this happen? It is one of the reasons religion has a bad rap (that and atrocities in the name of god). Isn’t religion supposed to make people joyful, more compassionate? Hey, I am the last one to condemn these individuals, for I have been in their shoes (but not the atrocities part). As ludicrous as it is, it is important to understand how this happens so I can avoid that pitfall.

Much of it, I think, has to do with being overambitious. At the start of any project  you have high hopes, big dreams, grand plans. Plans perhaps not realistic with the resources, talents, time available at your disposal. But that never stops anyone. When we first begin to read about self-awareness, the unassailable essence of our own existence and other such impressive ideas, we are intellectually convinced. But our ability to experience them is, perhaps, lacking. Old habits are deeply ingrained. You feel their force only when you try to resist them. So perhaps is that the answer: more realistic goals? Don’t bite off more than you can chew? Perhaps. I found having smaller manageable goals more satisfying, more fulfilling. And a more fulfilled me is a more peaceful me, which makes reaching inner peace that much more feasible.

There is another problem with trying too hard. I remember being at a meditation retreat once in Northern California. Most of the students were Indo-Americans in jeans and tee-shirts, all except this one geek wearing a kurta, a saffron kurta at that, with large Shiva beads around his neck. Talk about trying too hard! That geek was me. I must have looked like one of those desperadoes usually seen at single’s events, you know the one:  doused in cologne, shirt unbuttoned to his naval, hair greasier than a BP oil spill. You can just hear the women scream in unison, “Just be yourself, man. Don’t try so hard.” The same applies to meditation. It is about being. The act of trying, the fact of making an effort, shatters the experience of your natural being.

That is the golden dilemma: If you don’t strive for inner peace, you will always live with conflict, but the fact of striving will breed its own conflict. So what to do, you ask? There you see, what a reflex it is needing something to do. Don’t do anything, simply undo. Just be!

We are compelled to always do something. We are hard-wired to achieve a specific outcome. We go through our entire lives achieving things (or not, as the case may be), be it a good exam result, a successful job interview, a relationship. There are goals, there is the exuberance of  striving, there is the rush of competing, the thrill of success. All fine and good for the material world. But for the inner world, it spells utter and complete disaster.

So what is the answer. No really, there must be an answer. All schools of mediatation (Vedanta, Zen, Tibetian) say to witness the stream of consciouness, but not to take part. Don’t get caught up in it, and don’t feel disgusted by it. “Effortless effort” is what my guru used to say. Sounded like an oxymoron, a near-impossible skill to master. But for me help has come from an entirely unexpected source: neurobiology. It is a booming science, new discoveries are happening daily. The equipment for looking inside a functioning human brain is getting ever more precise. Neuroscientists now know that it in within the left-hemisphere where focus-oriented tasks trigger neural activity. While the right hemisphere is designed to look out for new experiences, the left wants to relate them to known information.  When I sit for meditation and find myself trying way too hard, you can actually sense the intense energy focussed in the left frontal lobe. Be aware of it and by this awareness alone, this ingrained, primeval habit of ‘doing’ subsides temporarily. I have discovered that by being sensitive to the areas of the brain that are being fired up, I am able to watch what is happening to the mind without condemnation. The brain is a physical organ, functioning exactly as it was designed to do. There is no need for self-blame.

The bigger question is what is the nature of the entity giving attention to this? Is this type of attention present all the time? Even during sleep? When did it first appear? At birth, or before, Or much, much later? Congratulations, you are now in deep meditation.


Berlin’s once impenetrable”Checkpoint Charlie”.

It’s amazing how self-growth works: within one week I have been called upon to define boundaries not once but thrice within the same week! Sudden, but not so strange when you think  about it. The more a man grows in self-awareness, the more inclined he will be to set boundaries in his relationships. Allow me to illustrate what I mean.

It was my birthday last week, and family and Facebook friends sent me cards, phoned, or wrote short, pleasant wishes on my Facebook wall. All except a niece in a far away city, who chose to use the the occasion to proselytize. She has converted to Christianity. Not mainstream Christianity mind, but one of those American evangelical cults. My Facebook wall was cluttered with a long tirade about her invisible best friend who died for my sins, yada, yada, yada. I was in a dilemma. This was not first time she had done something like this to me, she has been warned by her parents as well other family members. She was clearly in the wrong, but she is still a relative. A relative with mental health issues. Would it be unkind, uncompassionate to block her from Facebook, indeed from my life? Neither her words showed care for me nor her subsequent actions.

What compounded my dilemma was that I am raised to believe that defining strong boundaries was a symptom of selfishness. That it was an assertion of egotism. Enlightened persons have unconditional empathy, it is why they are compassionate. In my naivety I imagined good people are supposed to tolerate abusive behavior with good humor. I believed if I were to cut my niece out of my life, I’d be giving in to my weakness, strengthening stubbornness.

After some deep reflection, I decided that there was an important difference between making walls and setting boundaries. Walls are insurmountable, they are all or nothing. There is no communication possible with walls up. A man who sets up walls (as I once used to) is indeed defining his ego (and his ignorance). Walls are for the ego, it is indeed cutting oneself off from humanity. But boundaries define relationships, not egos. My niece has been warned before not to force her beliefs upon other family members. Yet she persists. There has to be consequences for breaching boundaries, otherwise they are meaningless. If someone is unable or unwilling to respect me, I have a right to make a choice about the extent of our relationship. I do not have to condemn him or her or be unkind. This is not unspiritual. In fact it is a sign of a healthy self-worth.

The very process of renegotiating relationships requires self-awareness, empathy, subtle consideration. And from the way the other party responds one can learn a lot about that person. Allow me illustrate from the past week what else I discovered. The person I live with made a rather disrespectful remark to me in front of company. Later, when I pointed out to him how unacceptable and inappropriate his words had been, he was dismissive of my feelings. Which made me feel worse, even more inconsequential. But then, in the following days, he demonstrated through his actions, gestures, small acts of consideration that he was sorry, though he was unable to ever say those words. I know from his subsequent behavior that he did not mean to disrespect. He is human and sometimes errs (just like I do). While his words did not show caring, his subsequent actions did. 

And it is only through action that a person’s true intent is revealed. For the past six months I have been guest blogging on another website. My hope was to get more  traffic for this blog (never happened). The web hosts on that other site have always been polite and professional in their communication with me, yet I was uncomfortable. I never received feedback of the type I get from WordPress. Here people leave me comments, likes, follows. I have of sense of communication with readers. I also am in control of grammatical and typographical errors. My articles on that other website always had obvious mistakes. No one proofread.  I was expected to churn out an article every two weeks, more often if possible. Reminders would be sent to me if were late in submitting. It all felt, well, exploitive, like they did not care about me, only what they could get out of me. Perhaps they did not intend to be so, perhaps they were just unaware? So I asked them for feedback, less pressure to keep producing articles every fortnight. They replied, very politely, that it was time to end our relationship. Their unwillingness to adjust, or even discuss the reasons why they could not accommodate any of my requests, proved I was being used. While their words were caring, their subsequent actions were not.

I no longer feel guilty when required to define boundaries. Boundaries require openness and listening, and they need to be in constant review. I think boundaries (unlike walls) are necessary for continued growth because help separate those in our lives who care about us and those who only pay lip-service.

The Real Value of Art

August 13, 2012

Storytelling and englitenment are not new.

I was appalled when a visitor from Germany expressed contempt that Canada would spend tax money on public art. Where is the value in it? she asked.  Her practical nature could see any utilitarian value. I, as a writer of fiction, felt duty-bound to explain for her the value of art. She remained unconvinced.

Then, the very next day a group of friends met for our monthly Sunday brunch. I look forward to sharing stories with them. They too, of course, have stories they are eager to tell about the highlights of the past month. Unexpectedly joyful events, or imminent disappointments, storytelling, it was obvious to me on that Sunday, is the very bricks of our lives. We are entertained by both true and make-believe stories, either in person or in books or on film. When we connect with other people, be it over the internet or in person, it is through the medium of our mutual life stories. We are characters in each other’s biographies, but the protagonist in our own.

Of course there was a time when spirituality was transmitted by way of stories and art. That said, I wonder, what is the significance of the professional storyteller in this contemporary, secular society? What is the contribution fiction writers(and other types of artists) make to our community? Is that German visitor correct?

In my opinion, the artistic contribution is vastly underestimated. As the world moves ever forward, writers and artists are taking on ever new roles. It seems to me that at times being a writer or artist is a spiritual occupation (or should that be preoccupation?). I mean, the very process of creating itself demands spiritual maturity. Take the example of creating a fictional character. I, as a South Asian male, do not only write characters who are exactly like me. Sometimes I might write from the perspective of a young English girl, or an African muslim perhaps. This requires the ability to set aside my ego and see, hear, feel, taste and touch from the skin of another human. When creating characters, I find it liberating to think of people I have known and then strip away the superficialities of their race, gender, age, styles of clothing, habits, and search for the essence of their humanity. The very process forces a writer to question what exactly is the self, and which is clutter. What is more, if a writer’s work is to communicate with his readers, he requires the virtue of empathy with his invisible audience. To create a sympathetic drama, he must feel compassion for the people who live in that world. To connect with alien cultures, he needs to discover his core unity with the world. If all of that sounds rather spiritual, that’s because it is.

When you think about it, the process of creating is parallel to spiritual practices. Both require solitude. Both ask us to dive deep into our sub-conscious, where, if we are lucky, we discover pearls of wisdom. Both seekers and writers find significance amid the mundane. We uncover order amid seeming chaos. The very act of creating requires a writer to be self-disciplined. He must possess concentration, and clarity of mind. It demands that he be brutally honesty and question objectively all that he takes for granted.  Strange, these are the same skills that my guru tried to teach to me. Make no mistake; writing is a type of meditation. And reading can be a meditation also.

Whenever I go to an art gallery it feels to me as though I am in temple or church. I experience the same awe, the same wonderment. My mind dissolves temporarily. I am removed from the realm of mind and thoughts. I am thrust into awareness. Not all paintings speak to me but some certainly do. There a communion that happens which is really incredible when you think about it. The artist created that painting in another place, in another time; the fact that it communicates illuminates that the awareness which is common to both the artist and me the viewer is beyond time and space. And that awareness is one. Without the common medium of awareness, how could there be a communion through distance and time? I seem to spend hours in a gallery without being conscious of the passage of time. Isn’t that proof that art transports us out of the space-time continuum?

Great fiction, like any good scripture (though one may argue that all scriptures are fiction), has the ability to redeem. I know for me creative writing was a tool if lifting me out of depression. At a recent Descant meeting, we heard about the success of one our programs with young offenders. Whitney French conducts poetry workshops with delinquent youths. We were informed by the people who run that institute that in the last fifteen years this is the only program that has affected a positive change with the young men. By learning to write poetry, these young men also learned to examine their own feelings and inherent goodness. Now if that is not proof of the power of art to rehabilitate, I don’t know what is. Great art can indeed reshape the way we see the world and our place in it.

We live in a time when political conservatives want to portray artists as being irrelevant. More and more funding is being slashed from the arts because they, like the German visitor, see no utilitarian value. They consider what we do as somehow frivolous and our work does not contribute to society in any meaningful way. In this age of atheism, I put it to you that art fulfils the needs that religion used to once. It enlightens, it inspires, it helps make us better people. At least it has for me. Art is indeed the oxygen of my soul.

Imagine meeting your younger self from twenty years ago. I once wrote a fanciful piece of fiction lie that. Then, the other day, while searching for something in my notebooks, I stumbled upon a journal entry from 1991. What a gift! A time capsule, a message in a bottle sent across the ocean of time, a photograph of my younger mind. I read it eagerly, along with other older note book entries. I was curious to see how I had evolved. Had these intervening twenty years taught me anything at all?

Journaling for me has been a record of my experiments in living wholly and authentically. In my youth I was introduced to a book by M.K. Gandhi called The Story of My Experiments with Truth. It is his personal record of slow and deliberate evolution from a flawed, awkward child into a saint. He stresses in this book that he was not born good, but rather he earned goodness through experimentation. He read ideas (the Geeta, Tolstoi, Bible), thought about them, then tried them out in his life to see if they worked. The book is a record of these trials, both his successes and his failures. He maintains at the end of the book that anyone can do what he did. He was not born special. I think that is important. Since first reading that book I began to use journaling as a way to record my own experiments with the truth. Though my life may not be of the kind played upon the stage of history, it is as valid for me as Gandhi’s was for him.

I not only write down incidents and events that have excited me or disturbed me and also how I handled them. A review, impartial, non-judgmental of what aspects were handled skillfully, and which could be improved upon. By recording skillful behavior, it becomes concretized. It is like a pat on the back, a substantial reinforcement. Recording the parts which could have been handled better allows reflection on ways and means and motives for such behavior to adhere as a permanent part of my character.

Some events arouse strong emotions, such as fear, anxiety, paranoia which can be debilitating. I find journalling a great way to let go of those strong emotions. Burying strong emotions, or denying them would be harmful to my mental health. By recording them I acknowledge them, but at the same time am able to create an objective distance between me and the negativity. I record them coldly, truthfully, without any editing. The writing will never be seen by anyone. It is for me and me alone. The feelings have a safe outlet. It prevents me from saying those things out loud, and later having to apologize

After my illness, journalling took on a greater significance in my self-experiments. While the medical profession is great at taking care of the physical symptoms, they tend to ignore or deny the emotional effects of maladies. After my heart attack I had to relearn how to live: how to walk, how to eat, even how to breathe. My journal became  my scientific record of  the results of changing the variables. For example, in learning to sleep better, I tried different pillows, different positions, I varied the bedtime routine. I noted what worked and what didn’t (TV before bed did not work to relax me for sleep, reading did). My journal became my confidante as well. In all honesty, no one else really cares about the daily minutiae of your living. But your journal does.

When faced with a dilemma, for me writing down my thoughts is a way of organizing the mental chatter. It clarifies the solution.

I value my dreams. I consider them to be missives from the sub-conscious. While I do not subscribe to symbolic meaning in dreams, they do have a language of their own. I keep a journal at my bedside for whenever such inspiring dreams occur. The act of recording dreams often clarifies their meaning, which are unique for each person. In the same bedside journal I also record contemplative, meditative  thoughts. The beauty and wisdom of them is tempting to own, but I know deep down that they are the property of humanity. The reality is that there are no such thing as original thought. It all belong to the universal mind. We think, feel and discover on the shoulders of those who came before. The very process of thought requires language, which is the property of humanity. Journaling  helps me to unload the burden of false ownership. Writing it down it releasing the thoughts back into the world where they belong (instead of cluttering up my mind).

How strange that we meditators sometimes fight with ‘our’ thoughts. The contents of our awareness become our possessions which we cling to, and then bemoan their presence. “My mind chatters too much.” “I can’t empty my mind,” we complain. But the thoughts are never ours. There is a great freedom to letting go of this wrong notion of possession. I don’t feel responsible for them, hence I do not feel compelled to obey them. Desires lose all potency when they are seen to be the external objects they really are. In watching a film, I can appreciate the needs and motives of a character in the story, but I am under no compulsion to agree, or to suppress, nor act in accordance. Knowing that my thoughts do not belong me similarly frees me from all these obligation.

For this insight, I am grateful to myself for keeping diaries most of my life.

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