Strong mind, strong body?

Strong mind, strong body?

When Toronto’s combative Mayor announced his cancer diagnosis, a chorus of sympathy arose from supporters (few) and detractors (many) alike. They sang from the same hymn book, so to speak: “He is a fighter, he will beat this.”  It is a sentiment I hear routinely at the cancer hospital from the families of patients. Once upon a time the mind-body connection was the stuff of fairy tale. Yogis trampled upon by herds of elephants and surviving unscathed. Daredevils chained in underwater cages escaping certain deaths. Mind over matter, we were told to our amazement.

Now, the whole notion of mind-body and healing has come to be accepted as mainstream. (Thank you, Deepak Chopra. Take a bow, Miss Oprah). The problem is, in our haste to be enlightened, have we failed to think things through?

Whenever a terminal diagnosis is given, it is warm and fuzzy to believe that  my loved one (or I) will beat the odds because he is strong-willed, or because she has the faith of a saint. We somehow take is as gospel that there is a kind of jihad going on between the body (which is falling apart) and the mind (which is struggling to keep it together). So the logic goes, think postive thoughts, stay cheerful and determined, and this fatal illness will be defeated. What we conveniently ignore is that the body is born with its own destiny: it is in our DNA. Yes, a happy mind is good for your well-being, but worry does not grow tumors in the brain, hatred does not clog up the arteries of the heart. Were wishes indeed powerful enough to overcome DNA, trust me, I would be six-foot four! And if being “young at heart” were enough, Viagra need never have been invented.

Think of all the thousands of hospitals in the world: almost every patient who enters their double doors have some pretty solid reasons to live (children, youth, or simply the universal urge to survive) yet not every patient will leave the hospital alive. I once heard a patient (a Jehovah’s Witness), say to his roommate, (a Hindu), that if he were to accept Jesus as his saviour his cancer would vanish. (Hey buddy, then how come you are also tethered to a chemotherapy IV?) If we could cure ourselves based upon will, or the power of faith, cemeteries need never exist.

Where the mind does have a gigantic clout however, is in our habits, which have everything to do with healing. A mind trained in self-discipline will effortlessly adhere to a medication regime. A self-controlled mind will exercise the body without fuss, it will not struggle to choose nutritionally beneficial foods, and perhaps most importantly, such a mind will shut off when rest is required. If, on the other hand, say your mind fights obesity and fails, perhaps it is powerless to keep its promises to stop drinking into alcoholic stupors (or crack-laced tirades). Seriously, can such a mind be considered “strong” enough to fight a fatal diagnosis? (Are you listening Toronto?)

I am reminded of my late guru, the great Swami Chinmayanda, who, when I met him, was globetrotting with three-quarters of his heart dead. The last cardiologist who examined him exclaimed: Why is this man even alive?  Those of us lucky enough to have observed him closely knew the reason. His was a very strong mind indeed, his discipline was the opposite of that of Toronto’s mayor. He could catnap at will, he could slow his heart rate to almost nothing, make his breathing almost invisible. I had the opportunity to quiz him about his seemingly miraculous control over his body. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “The body will do what it needs to. Rise above it. Don’t get too concerned.” His words sounded abstract at the time, but strangely personal.

Little did I know then that twenty years later I would be in a coma with the same cardiac condition as his. Many factors helped me but key among them were years of training in disciplining my mind. As long the mind is in conflict with the habits of the body, it will bring pain. His words helped me to accept the outcome of the body, whatever it might be. My mind reached a place of quietude which, ironically, calmed my heart rate enough for the body to recover.

Sadly, I have witnessed patients struggle to the bitter end because their mind was never trained to let go of the body. Any kind of conflict is painful, be it the struggle to adapt habits or the conflict to deny the inevitable. They died in greater agony than was necessary.

There is indeed a body-mind synergy but it exists at the foundation of the conscious mind. With practice anyone can learn to access the common foundation of both the body and the mind through ending conflict. In other words by learning to let go gracefully, the miraculous is possible. Though even this has its limits. Ultimately, Swami Chinmayananda’s body succumbed to its destiny. None is immortal. There is nothing any of us can do except learn to be at peace with this. Now that is strength.






Just as nutritious as mom's?

Just as nutritious as mom’s?

Shivakumar’s  hospitable food arrives cellophane wrapped, the main dish of boiled cauliflower and some kind of brown meat patty is obviously microwaved because it cools quickly and the fibers have that lacerated quality to them. I am embarrassed to serve this food to my elderly Sri Lankan patient. He is accustomed to his wife’s delicately spiced cooking. I have no doubt that were she still alive she would bring him lovingly-prepared tupperware containers of curried prawns and string hopper noodles. I also have no doubt that as a consequence, his recovery would be so much swifter.

One can hardly blame the hospitals for their low-cost approach to feeding patients. They survive on ever-shrinking budgets. Patients’ needs and tastes are so diverse that it would require  the skills of a master chef to keep each patient content for his entire length of stay. Although all meals are vetted by a trained nutritionist, I can’t help but wonder: does food nourish more than body?

Of course, any master chef will tell you that food which is presented aesthetically, with the right color combinations, fresh green garnish, on beautifully crafted ceramics will taste better to the recipient than if the same meal were slopped together on a styrofoam container. They say we taste with our eyes as well as our tongues. Isn’t that because a thoughtfully presented meal signals to the mind that care and attention has been lavished on this meal? Isn’t it this tenderness that tastes so delicious?

Recently I was treated by my sister to a week of meals I had not tasted since my childhood. As we reminisced about our mutual upbringing, I was unaware that she was making notes of the flavors and tastes that I was sub-consciously missing. She continually surprised me by making for me obscure dishes I had forgotten I loved. Nothing elaborate, street foods, perhaps even peasant comfort foods one might say. Yet nothing ever tasted quiet so good to me (and I have dined at some of the best restaurants). Was it the care she put into the meals? The love and attention? Yes, plus one other vital ingredient.

A few years back I eagerly accompanied my friend to a newly-opened restaurant in our neighborhood. We had observed the extensive renovation done to the building and had high hopes for the food. Being vegetarian I am accustomed to having limited choices in menus. The sole vegetarian dish listed was a pasta dish which I verified was carcass-free with my waiter before I ordered it. As soon as I bit into the meal I was assaulted by the crunch and fetid taste of a dead chicken. I summoned the waiter and sent back the meal. He took the plate to the kitchen but returned apologetically, explaining that the chef thought that there was so little meat in that dish he didn’t expect that I should mind it. I was appalled by the blatant disrespect this chef had for me and my choices. To this day I hesitate to dine in that place.

It occurred to me then that we invest too much trust in the persons cooking our meals. It is a well-known food industry trick that should a guest act belligerent, rude or snooty, the cooks and the servers have ways of getting even. Having once worked in the food industry I have personally witnessed cooks spitting into the food, waiters pissing in the soup, then watching as the clueless guests devoured their just desserts. And yet we continue to trust the people working behind those steel doors of restaurant kitchens?

Materialists would argue that food is only about the nutrition in the thing eaten. Five-star gourmet meals comes out the same mess in the toilet bowl as the machine-made TV dinners. Spiritualist say that beyond the aesthetics, food is a reflection of the person who cooks it. They say the moods and emotions of the cook are transferred and digested through the meal. Eat the food cooked by an angry or depressed person and you ingest his hate. Likewise, eat the food of one who is cheerful and loving and that meal will nourish you emotionally as well as physically. I think one reason your mother’s food is always the best is because it is psychologically linked to your first meals from her bosom. It is no small coincidence that the most influential chefs of today have a joyous sensuality about them: Jamie Oliver, Padma Lakshmi, Nigella Lawson.

In Toronto there is a restaurant called O Noir, which serves food in complete darkness. As soon as you enter there is only pitch black, a blind waiter guides you to your table. When the food arrives you can’t see what it looks like. You don’t know if it is exactly as you ordered. You don’t know who served it and who cooked it. You taste it based on, well, blind faith.

hungerWhile the rest of us were tucking into our Christmas feast, Barbara was beginning her fast. No, she is no vain fashionista, simply a woman in hospital with a severe stomach issue. Whenever she swallows there is intolerable pain  from her gastric region and so the doctors have denied her food and water till it clears. Four weeks later she is still not allowed food or water. Barbara shuts the door of her room when the hospital’s lunch trays arrive for neighboring patients because even a whiff of the food drives her insane with jealousy. It may be rehydrated mashed potatoes and microwaved fish but when you are deprived of food for as many days as she has, it still smells like the best gourmet ever.

She grabs several cooking magazines from my trolley and says mischievously, “Food porn.” She dreams about food and she says whenever she closes her eyes the only images in her mind’s eye are, well,… you know.

I saw Barbara again this week. “Still not eating?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “but I don’t think about it anymore. It is her experience, as well as mine, that after a length of time without food, you cease to get hungry. It is as though the stomach has given up and put away all its usual tricks to get you to eat. I wonder, is hunger just another kind of addiction?

It seems to follow the same pattern as any other addiction. There is a dependency. You get cranky and irritable when deprived. Denied too long, you experience withdrawal symptoms. But persist and you reach a state of freedom. You no longer crave, you no longer feel the urge to kill to get your fix.

The idea is not new. Religions have been promoting fasting as good for the soul for centuries. We used to hear myths about yogis who lived for decades without food and water. They survived purely on the energy derived from the Cosmos (much in the same way as fashion models survive without eating purely on the energy derived from attention). Perhaps fasting’s value lies in demonstrating that we don’t need to eat as regularly as we believe?

Mahatma Gandhi famously survived twenty-eight days without food. During the 1981 Hunger Strikes by Irish prisoners (also against the British) ten of the protesters survived without eating for between forty-six and seventy-three days. And then there’s me, getting cranky if I happen to miss a meal.

I am one of those people who has no store of body fat. Denied a meal, my blood sugars dip to a point where a migraine is imminent. I notice that when I do not eat, the stress response kicks in almost immediately. I am unable to concentrate, on edge with elevated adrenalin and neurotoxins floating within my body. So I never fast for recreation, though for medical treatments I have had to endure both short and long periods of fasting.

What is interesting about fasting is how we crave certain foods more than others. The hidden desires entangled within biological hunger reveal themselves. We see that our hunger has morphed from a simple survival mechanism to this monstrous hydra-like creature with multitude tentacles of needs and wants. The marketing industry has exploited these needs throughly in getting people addicted to salty and fatty foods. There is a reason fresh fruits and vegetables are always located near the entrance of the supermarket. Once a shopper has satisfied his need to buy nourishing foods, he is much more inclined to indulge his addictions for ice cream pies and deep-fried pizza.

Then there is this whole cultural preference around food. When I was at an ashram in India, there was a boy from Mexico studying with me. During his first week I caught him in the cafeteria rolling the Indian rotis into burritos around the curried vegetables. I had to laugh. Burritos are what his mother taught him to recognize as food, not this strange Indian meal. I personally love International cuisines, but as a vegetarian whenever I travel I am as suspicious of local cuisines as any befuddled tourist.

Few things are as unique about a person as his specific taste in food: the type of spicing he prefers, the vegetables he prefers, the obsession for meats (either indulging or abstaining). Psychologically also, some eat for comfort, some eat as a social activity, others find it impossible to eat without reading or watching the TV at the same time.

Eat we must but I believe the benefit of fasting lies in its ability to free us from insistence upon specific foods as well as specific conditions. It can make us more adaptable, more flexible to changing situations around us. It can help us to grab control over our meanest emotions.

And oh yes, it can help us empathize with people such as Barbara.

whomeTom is a life-long smoker and has no intentions of quitting just because he has emphemsyma. He has never exercised in his life, loves his fried foods and lots of it. The more we chat the less respectful he is about my self-care lifestyle. “What, you are trying to live forever?”

No, I say, but before I can finish my sentence he is in the midst of a violent coughing fit and I have to fetch his nurse. In a way he answered his own question, though I doubt if he will understand that. I do not expect to live forever. I do not even expect a normal lifespan given my condition. What I would like though would be to go gracefully and without too much fuss. To that end I take great care of my nutrition, I exercise, I try to sleep well and I meditate. I do everything within my power to ensure quality of death.

Yes, I said quality of death. We are in such denial over death that we prefer to use the term quality of life instead of what we really mean. After all, isn’t quality of life what Tom has been pursuing all his life? He has done precisely whatever made him happy, damn the consequences. “Divine decadence,” as Sally Bowles famously called it. In that iconic song of hers, Life is a cabaret, she speaks of her friend Elsie who lived fast and died young but was the happiest corpse she had ever seen.

All fine and dandy in fiction but statistical research says otherwise. People with a history of alcohol abuse, drug usage, obesity not only die sooner but worse, they have a prolonged and agonized descent into death. Then I meet Angela. As I troll the cancer wards, I see that life is never as simple as that.

Although she is one-third of Tom’s age, Angela is also undergoing the same excruciating  regime of chemo as him. Her skin is a yellow-green, her bald head is wrapped in a scarf. She asks, “Why me?” It is oh so tempting to dismiss Angela as suffering from an overdose of self-pity. After all, isn’t the unspoken half of why me?: “Why not someone else?” But not so fast. Angela is a self-confessed health-nut, a semi-vegetarian, a dance teacher and so she exercises for a living, a non-smoker, a social drinker and has never used even so much as an Asprin, never mind street drugs. When Angela asks, “Why me?”,  I truly have no answer.

Perhaps it is bad genes. Perhaps Angela is plain unlucky, whatever that means. I even had one young woman say to me that she believed her cancer and imminent death were the result of a curse put upon her by someone who hated her. All I can do is shrug my shoulders. Much of death, as well of life, is random, mysterious, follows no logic or reason. Oh, yes, we can weave whatever narrative we feel comfortable with but there are always far too many exceptions to ever explain away everything.

As I walk home I question why is it exactly that I do all the many things I do for my long-term good when realistically, my long-term is not going to be that long? Is it because it makes me feel pious and somehow better than others? Am I as selfish as the people who never move past “Why me?” Perhaps. I also know that my self-care increases my stamina and pain tolerance. People who practice self-care are better able to withstand extreme trauma such as bone marrow transplants or severe heart attacks.

I think at every step of life we have to make a choice: pleasure now or avoid pain later. It is  rarely a clear-cut choice and often I make the wrong one, but overall I opt for the greater good because that is my nature. There is no right or wrong in that. I am no better or worse than Sally Bowles or Tom or Angela. I don’t discount there are statistical probabilities for sickness and death, but ultimately both are random. So instead of asking, Why me?, I prefer to ask, Why not me?

The Quest For Sound Sleep

January 28, 2013


Drifting Off. John Everett Millais’ Ophelia

Oh to sleep like a teenager again! How I miss the capacity to fall asleep on cue, and more importantly, stay asleep until, well, lunch. If only my bladder would co-operate. It demands (and I mean a collection agent demand) that I empty it at 3.00 a.m. sharp. Then there is the problem of noise. Teenage me once slept in a Manhattan nightclub with my head against the speaker. Now any passing garbage (and garbage truck) is enough to break the ironically named sound sleep.

I wish there were a magic bullet. A simple one-size-fits-all solution. But alas, the reasons for poor quality sleep are as countless as the sheep.  What I did discover is a process whereby anyone can help himself.

I begin with the most urgent. When one or more of the body’s physiology is in disharmony, the first symptom is poor sleep. It is the body’s alarm for danger. Consult a reliable physician for any underlying health issues. But, good luck with that. I have found most physicians to be shamelessly dismissive about sleep apnea, pre-diabetes and other ill harbingers. (Perhaps because as interns they worked for months without any sleep). I had to train myself as my own GP (I even purchased a white lab coat). I researched. I quizzed family members (we have enough professionals to open our own hospital). I surfed the net. I read a book or two (okay, two dozen).

Next, I beautified my environment. It may seem like stating the obvious that a clean, tidy bedroom is conducive to good sleep, but in my experience (don’t ask me how I know) for some people the bedroom is the messiest room in the house. The other day I saw a homeless man fast asleep in the island of a highway, in the middle of morning rush hour yet! For about two seconds it made me question whether environment is at all important. I realized he was passed out from intoxication. For the rest of us, proper furniture placement, high end bedding, ambient lighting, pleasant scents and soothing sounds all contribute their little bit. More subtlety, it suggests to the mind that sleep is a luxurious pleasure to be enjoyed. Though I am thrifty in other ways, I do invest in high-thread count sheets and orthopedic pillows.

Thirdly, find yourself a nice temporary bed companion. The least expensive, and definitely the least clingy, is a diary. I used to keep mine on my bedside stand and each morning I recorded the quality and quantity of sleep. I stopped only once it improved significantly. In it I also used to note the main points of previous day. It is a basic but neglected fact that the quality of your sleep is a reflection of your waking hours. Try this simple test: spend the day at a rock concert, indulge in wild orgies, eat a dozen varieties of jalapeno, then observe the quality of your sleep. You get the idea. Sleep is so holistic that it is affected by every other aspect of your waking life, from your stress levels to your nutrition and leisure activities. In disciplining one’s sleep, one ends up disciplining every other aspect of one’s life. People seem to forget that waking and sleep are two sides of the same coin.

The other night I was at dinner party where we were eating till 11.00 p.m. It was a rich, starchy supper, topped off with coffee and a sugary dessert (the host threatened us with espresso). Needless to say sleep was difficult that night. I generally avoid nighttime snacking and also suppers such as pasta, rice and potatoes, which turn liquid a few hours after digestion. Breads on the other hand absorb liquids and are an aide in sleeping through the night. The nocturnal digestion of starch activates insulin, causing blood sugar levels to dip, which then prompts the adrenaline to fire up. Presto, you are wide awake at 4.00 a.m. for no good reason.

It is infuriating. The more annoyed I get, the harder it is to fall back asleep. Now I play a trick on my own mind. I discovered 3.00 a.m. is the perfect solitude for mediation. It beats being angry at the interruption of sleep. This change in attitude has helped me fall back asleep much more quickly. Failing that, it has led to some deep, deep meditative states. Win-win I say.

Not surprising really because sleep and meditation are not dissimilar. Sleep is also an altered state of consciousness. The same skills, the same dedication and the same vigilance cultivated in meditation come in handy in attaining better sleep.

And so I observe my bedtime rituals rather earnestly. It works because the human mind is highly habitual. I avoid violent TV just before bed, specially the news. I find reading before bed a better option, though never fiction. Fiction is designed to put images in your head. I prefer philosophical writings that blow my mind wonderfully out of day’s cares.

If that sounds suspiciously like an endorsement for a life of awareness, that’s because it is. Of course the quest for good sleep (just like the quest for love or happiness) is never-ending. It has to be fine tuned daily according to life’s changing demands.

Sweet dreams.

Nutrition Myths

June 4, 2012

The news media love to pepper their pages with the latest discoveries in the field of nutrition and health. And who can blame them. Amid all the economic gloom and crime reportage, a story about a startling new finding on the merits of tumeric or olive oil is a breath of fresh air. Or is it? For those of us  interested in self-care, there is a confusing amount of information about just which foods are good for your body. In this post, I have decided to critically examine some common myths.

Broccoli is a superfood: While it is true that broccoli does have cholesterol-reducing properties as well vitamins and fiber, so do other cruciferous vegetables. A researcher might conduct a study to prove the benefits of a food group and he chooses a member of that class of vegetables to experiment with. But the media confuses the sample for the finding.  If broccoli or blueberries were used as a sample in the study, the media announces that broccoli or blueberries is the superfood. Totally missing the point of the research, and confusing the public. The truth is, a good serving of a variety of fruits and vegetables in  your diet will have steady, long term benefits. That is all the researchers ever try to illustrate.

Fresh is better than frozen or canned. Instinctively that makes sense but that is not the case. So much of our fresh food is imported, and as such is picked unripe to increase its shelf life during transportation. By contrast, sometimes canning happens at the farms themselves, or the produce is frozen before canning, hence retaining its full nutritional properties. Of course, buying the seasonal fruits and vegetables from your local farmer’s market is the best tasting option, nutritionally the canned variety is usually the same.

Supplements are good for you. Some of us have a plethora of vitamins on our shelves – every letter of the alphabet. Yet there is no medical evidence to suggest that popping vitamin pills has health benefits. That does not mean they don’t do any good either. It may just be that people who consume supplements are  concerned about their well-being and as such do other things such as exercise to maintain good health. Hence the supplements alone do not give them better health but we can’t isolate that they don’t either. Generally, there is no substitute for a well-balanced diet. Supplements are useful for short-term deficiencies detected in your blood work (such as iron or calcium), but they should not be relied upon as a permanent and exclusive solution.

Fish Oil is good for the brain and heart. Omega-3 is, and fish oil does contain rich amounts of it. But then, so do walnuts, flax seeds and kiwi. If you have an ethical issue with consuming mangled up fish bodies (as I do) then many alternatives are available that are equally as good. Though you would never guess it from the media coverage fish oil gets.

The Mediterranean Diet is Best. This makes for good press, but what does it really mean? Italian food is often high in starch and is very salty, very different from a couscous salad. The essence of the Mediterranean diet is that it is low in red meats, and high in fresh fruits and vegetables. The cuisine of any part of the world that is balanced and consumed with an awareness of these facts is just as good. I have often heard it said that Indian food is bad for you because it is oily. My mother always cooked everything from scratch. She never used processed foods. Oil was used sparringly, we rarely ate fried foods. It is also now known that spices such as tumeric and cumin contain healing curcumin, an effective anti-inflammatory.

My mother also taught me to splurge on the best quality of fresh food I could afford. While cutting corners with other luxuries makes sense, cutting corners with nutrition does not. One of the great things about living in a global world is the availability of varieties of cuisines at your doorsteps. It is foolish to restrict yourself to just one type of foods. Nutrition seems complicated if we rely on headlines, but the research is all pointing to the same few things. Eat well-balanced, variety of foods in moderation. Simple.

Being Vegan

March 26, 2012

When a living plant is attacked, hacked or eaten, it emits the chemical equivalent of a scream. Who knew? A startling new study from the Plank Institute in Germany has scientifically proven the existence of chemicals known as Green Leaf Volatiles, or GLVs. We know the scent better as the perfume of freshly mowed grass. I found this study fascinating because years ago I owned a house with a generous backyard and a front garden. I used to hate mowing the lawn and weeding because afterwords there a palpable sadness about the garden. I would feel guilty, and pained, it really felt like the yard was weeping. I now wonder if subconsciously I might have been reading their signal. I have always been a deeply sensitive empath (the opposite of a sociopath) who has intuited a living connection  with the world around him. This is why the idea of eating meat is so abhorrent to me. I mean, if plants give out a chemical scream, then what to speak of the animal world. When I look at roadkill, still bloody and recognizable, a stab of pain shudders through me, more acute than the scent of freshly mowed grass. I find it agonizing to walk past the butcher’s aisle at the supermarket and worse is seeing the dead carcasses of skinned animals strung up  outside the windows of Chinatown or Kensington Market. I do not see any of these as food, I only feel the violence and death. The feeling of pain permeates every fiber of my being.

Science is only proving what mystics have said for centuries, that the whole cosmos is a living whole. The more my practice of meditation deepens, the less tolerance I have for the look or smell of dead flesh. When shopping for shoes, I get the same pained sensation when I smell leather or suede. Though it is very difficult to find footwear in Canada that is not made from animal products, I shop and shop till I find it. If the scent of the violence the animal felt when it was slaughtered still lingers, then how much more of it is there in the meat product itself? However one may dress up the labels (Veal, mutton, bacon, steak), let us not forget what you are consuming – the rotting corpse of a slaughtered creature.   This includes the hormones of despair it released at the moment of its death. Is it any wonder then the following headlines are appearing with greater frequency? Reports that red meat can shorten the average span.  Mad Cow Disease, Listeria, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, HIV, are the the result of humans eating animal corpses. Then there are the countless tainted meat recalls .

There is a popular saying that goes something like this: You are what you eat. I disagree. I think it is more like: You eat what you are. Don’t we all eat according to our mood of the moment? Typically, breakfasts around the world are about grains and cereals, fruits, milk, breads. Very little meat, if any at all. This is because we are at our most serene after a good night’s sleep. I generally love spicy food, though never at breakfast. Now think of the guys who love their steak rare, perhaps with the blood still wet.  Are they the gentle, contemplative types, or the aggressive, rugby player types?  This may be a generalization, I know, but please observe the truth behind it for yourselves. It is hard to image compassionate persons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa devouring a fresh kill. We see that people who are serene, compassionate in nature have a taste for  fresh fruit, nuts, vegetables. And we can all agree that to eat human flesh is savage and primitive. Perhaps we are repelled by cultures who eat animals whom we consider as pets: dogs, horses, cats. Societies where locusts and cockroaches are a delicacy feel strange and backward to us. Now you understand something of how I feel about eating cows, pigs, chickens.

I am grateful to my mother for many things, but the chief among them is that she did not force me to eat meat when I was not old enough to make an informed choice. Thanks to her wisdom, whatever mistakes I have made in my life, one thing I am proud of is that no animal has ever died to feed me.

Centenarian Fauja Singh completed the Toronto Marathon.

Exercise and I have had an on-off relationship. Back in the Eighties I too was caught up in the workout-for-vanity craze of that era. This time round however, the push came from my cardiologist. My ejection fraction, the amount of blood the heart pumps out with each beat, was so low that he thought of installing a defibrillator into my chest cavity. I didn’t much care for having an electronic device surgically attached to my heart. Reluctantly I began to use the treadmill in my building five times a week. That was three years ago. Now I only ever miss a session if I am sick, or out of town. I keep going back because I have discovered that exercise has a few other benefits rarely talked about.

Sleep:– I used to have very erratic sleep, often waking in the night, unable to return to sleep. Since I began regular exercise my sleep patterns have stabilized. It is not only the quantity of sleep that has improved but the quality. My dreams are less wild, I feel more rested now when I awake. Which has also improved the rhythms of my…

Appetite:  I now actually feel hungry. Eating is a pleasure  and not just something I have to do for the good of my health. In particular, I am drawn to fresh fruits and vegetables. I enjoy making my own meals because I trust the healthy ingredients I put into them. I believe both the sleep and the eating rhythms are tied to….

Breathing: Cardio improves the respiratory system as well. To maximize this effect,  while I run on the treadmill I deliberately breathe deeply. In yoga, breathing and movement are closely synchronized, but people seem to forget about that in other activity.  By focussing on the breath, the heart, and the lungs I get the full benefit of the half-hour. I see so many people on the treadmill with their i-Pods or their magazines. I prefer to be aware of what is happening within my body during movement. The spill over of that attention is that I am more mindful when walking down the street. When walking along the street, or doing mundane physical work, my attention returns to deep, rhythmic breathing. Even sitting on the subway, or in a movie I habitually focus on my breathing and that helps with …

Moods: Regular exercise normalizes the hormones of the body, the serotonin and Dopamine and other feel-good body chemicals. I find I can handle stress much better than before. I have more mental stamina to think about deeper things, read more meaningful books. The world feels less scary now that I exercise, as though I have taken back some control. This means there has been an improvement in my…

Relationships: Having that half-hour to myself daily has afforded me the luxury of self-reflection. I find my mind spontaneously reviews the previous day’s activity and my behavior in it. Regret is not always a bad thing. If it is combined with compassion, it can lead to remorse and an improvement in how one relates with others.  Plus I have met some great people in the exercise room, which has led to more….

Friendships: There are some great people in my building who lead interesting lives, are caring and compassionate people. Some are fighting off aging issues such as imbalance, painful joints, or cardiac problems. Being around good company brings with it greater peace of mind, which helps with…

Awareness: Meditations are deeper, more insightful and rewarding. They seem to carry over effortlessly into daily activity. All of which feeds into improving the above aspects of life. A kind of virtuous circle is set up. As far as I know regular, moderate exercise is only panacea there is for a balanced, healthy life.

These benefits accrue over time. Moderate but regular exercise is the key here, which of course helps develop patience. Oh, and by the way, my ejection fraction improved significantly. My cardiologists decided I did not need a defibrillator at this time.

Marie Antionette’s attempt at good rest.

Millions of people purchase lottery tickets in the hopes of striking it rich. We dream of all the new possibilities open to us should we beat the odds. We expect our problems with financial insecurity, debt, unhappiness to just melt away should we win. But have we ever thought about the opposite? What in my life will remain unchanged if I were to  win $10 million?

Health: The expensive pleasures of life cannot be enjoyed without good health. Travel etc. can be made more comfortable with money but it cannot end physical pain, a bad heart, laboured breathing or a tumor. Money may buy better medical care but it is a poor substitute for good health.

Sleep: A good night’s sleep is not more restful with money in the bank. If one has financial worries, one may have difficulty falling into sleep. We see that people who are content with their behavior during the day are able to drop everything and get a good night’s rest. Both rich and poor who behave badly are haunted by their unskilful behavior and thus cannot sleep. And the state of dreamless sleep, once achieved,  is the same for all,the rich and the poor.

Connectivity: We have a deep-rooted need to belong, to connect meaningfully with others. A lottery win will not diminish this need. You may attract more friends if you have more money but are they real friends? Long-term true friendships, unconditional lovers, nurturing families, all require a lifetime’s work to build and maintain. If you do not have the skills to relate to people before your win, you will not have after.

Problem Solving: The ability to deal with life’s challenges appropriately and effectively is a learned skill. Money may help you avoid some challenges (such as having to wait at the check out of the grocery store) but it brings with it a new set of challenges (physical  safety, for example). If you had a tendency to over react or under react before, this will not change with money.

Communication Skills: Communication is about how you express yourself as well as what you put out. In the old days of computers the phrase used was “garbage in, garbage out”. Many rich people bungle through life saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time.

Emotional Well-Being: Many of us feel emotionally scarred by life’s unfair treatment. Having pots of money will do nothing to heal this hurt. Deep and honest inquiry is the only cure for emotion pain.

Being Comfortable in Your Skin: I would say the majority of people are made to feel that they were cheated in the genetic lottery. Those with huge disposable incomes sometimes attempt to correct this by paying for expensive cosmetic surgery. But does injecting your body with silicone, Botox and breaking cartilage or sewing up loose skin really make a person comfortable in his skin? We see that such people repeatedly find faults with their bodies and have more and more surgeries. If anything they are more uncomfortable in their skins. If you don’t like being short, dark or old, $10 million will not change that.

Self Worth: Another basic human need is being recognized and feeling appreciated for some quality, some unique talent. A sense of self-worth is never measured by dollars. It is a personal feeling that comes from having added value to the lives of others. Sure, Bill Gates may give in generously in charity but I suspect his sense of self worth comes from being recognized for his contribution to the spread of the internet. Being able to generate wealth itself is a talent that will contribute to self worth, but a lottery windfall will not.

Fear of Death: Will having lots of cash erase your fear of death? Of course it cannot. And the fear of death is the root of many other fears in life. Fear of old age, being alone and neglected are seen in the very rich also. Some super-rich, like Howard Hughes,  turn recluse because they fear the world itself. Fear is a great impediment to happiness and money only solves the fear of immediate financial disaster.

All of these things add up to a significant chunk of what constitutes a happy life. They say the odds of winning the lottery are astronomical. However, the odds of being happy because of the win are even worse.

Lucid Dreaming

December 13, 2011

   About a year ago I  discovered that sleep can be a spiritual exercise. Who knew! Most things that are good for me generally require that I make time   in my day, and establish a new habit. However all that Dream Yoga requires is that I approach differently the act of sleep and dreaming. By making some adjustments, I try to make my sleep mindful and aware. When I first heard this idea it sounded like an anomaly to me. Sleep by definition is a state  of non-awareness. In deep, dreamless sleep, one does not know anything. Upon waking there is a sense of missing time and an after taste of bliss. Dreams feel real while dreaming, have their own time frame  and one is unaware of the physical body or the physical world. If I were to remain aware during sleep and dreaming, wouldn’t I be just awake all night?

I discovered the answer to that is no.

Let’s talk about the dream state first. Everyone dreams but most people believe that the dream world they have created is real until they awake. The emotions experienced in dreams are so real that our heartbeats and breathing reflect the emotional experience being lived in the dream. People have been known to weep, to scream and kick during particularly vivid dreams. Psychologists tell us that dreams are the communication of our sub-conscious mind. Buried feelings and unresolved issues ignored in the waking state present themselves as dreams. By learning to be aware while dreaming one experiences lucid dreams. I make a decision to continue with the dream but I know that the dream is of my own creation and that it is a message from the depths of my mind. The next step is to realize that I have the power to effect the outcome of this dream scenario. I used to experience vivid recurring dreams where the outcome was always fearful. In one particular dream I would enter my home and find it to be a watery, damaged mess. I would usually grieve, sometimes weep helplessly. After months of practicing lucid dreaming, I occurred to me that the mess was really within my own psyche, my real home. Once I realized this I would allow the dream to continue but create a different conclusion. I would give myself a mop in my right hand and begin to clean up the water from the floors and furniture until the apartment was tidy again. When I awoke I felt clear, well and with a tidy presence of mind. Although this example is general and simple, we can work of specific and complex issues at a very fundamental level during dreaming. The mental shift can be profound.

To be aware while in deep, dreamless sleep takes far more practice, but the experience is worth the efforts. There is a level of bliss far beyond any pleasure we ever experience in the waking state.

It is said by the Buddhists that the act of falling asleep is a daily rehearsal for death, the Big Sleep. Each night we withdraw from our bodies, we detach from all five sense, and finally we let go of even our thoughts. We leave behind all that we hold dear, our family, our spouse, our homes and careers. And we feel happy for having abandoned them all. In the next blog, I would like to explore this topic  further.


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