Who are we?

Who are we? Are we our clothes? Our names? Our thoughts? Our emotions? Feelings in the body? You know it, we are none of that. Because we can shed all of those in one go as a crab can shed its shell or a snake can shed its skin. Are we our bodies?

You know who you are. You always know it. The one that writes honestly in a diary, the one that chooses to wear a certain pair of clothes. The one that secretly likes someone’s personality, but may not be able to express it. The one that has obscure feelings. The one that feels something amazing watching a baby lion and a baby chimp and a baby dog play together. Unfortunately, as time passes, this you gets tied to the shell, all around you. Most of us never really fully shed this shell. As time passes, your consciousness evolves, but the shell around you can remain.

Most of us never get to the point where we can even be aware of the shell. We are so lost in it, that we get in touch with the real us, only at the end of our lives or in moments where we are completely awestruck, and realize the beauty of something that gives us goosebumps. I have good news. It doesn’t have to be that way. But it takes work. You have to first get to the point where you can see the shell. Meditation. Any self awareness practice. Observing things from a place of non-judgement as they are. This will get you 99% of the way. You will see the shell. Not just that, you will have to do this over a period of time to be able to see that the shell is limiting you. And even more time to feel the pain that the shell is causing you. And a little more time to see, that you are sub-consciously holding onto the shell. Those tightening sensations, underneath those emotions, are your cues. When you can be aware of it, and let go of that pull from those invisible little threads in the different parts of your body where you feel it, holding you like a puppet, you can walk out of the shell — fresh and whole. It is like working with muscle memory, when you learn to skii, or learn a new sequence of body movements.

Just like a crab sheds it shell several times, so can you. There is no one all conquering moment. There is just a realization that the real you exists, and you can observe the shell, and shed it when you have reached the point of having outgrown your shell.

Every moment is an opportunity

We can do everything right — set time to feel our emotions, meditate, eat healthy, set time to touch base with practical self-sustaining intentions, and yet we will run into situations that feel uncomfortable, and the effect lingers on.

So for me, it was the haze that has lingered over Seattle and the Pacific NW this week. At first glance, it felt like doomsday, interstellar style unhealthy air. For someone, who has a particular fondness for walking in fresh air,  this can feel like the world flipped upside down. Now from being a mostly optimistic, encouraging human being, I devolved into a complaining, pessimistic one without any conscious being to blame this predicament on. How do I blame it on forest fires? Earth’s history is full of crazy natural events, from mega volcanoes to earthquakes. Staying indoors for long periods of time can be tough. But existence on this life sustaining planet has never always been easy. We have never had control and no matter how much our knowledge and technology grows, we will never have absolute control, even if we wanted to.

But part of being conscious is to do the best we can. And that we do. But I am the sort of person who wants to see things from an optimistic perspective, even if it is only possible in retrospect. That peace of mind keeps me moving well lubricated. Without it, I can only chg along. While I could reason, forest fires are a part of clearing nature’s clutter, it didn’t make me optimistic enough. Just like reasoning that volcanoes are a part of recycling parts of earth’s surface. This can extend to a living being’s death is part of recycling life, but that doesn’t make me optimistic. And then it occurred. What if every moment is an opportunity. Does believing that make me more optimistic?

Now what can make me pessimistic with that belief. We have believed in crazy things. Why not believe something that makes life worth it.

Power of setting Personal Ground Rules

An important lesson I learned interacting with and reading other spiritually enlightened people is the value of setting good, practical intentions. While being open is great, and makes your life fuller, it cannot be sustained without the support of some key personal rules, that you set for yourself.

In the beginning, awareness plays a significant role. You get to observe your patterns of behavior, and get valuable insights. In the process, you end up acquiring a repertoire of go-to personal rules, often implicitly. But there will be times when you get stuck in hamster wheel experiences. Usually when you do not have go-to rules or clear intentions to guide you. Sharing your experiences with other people on a similar journey can help you see what you are missing. But it is up to you to set the right intentions and follow through.

For instance, a lot of people pleasing behaviors are because you are missing an intention to have a healthy sense of self. Indulging in self sabotaging, needy or hurtful behaviors comes from not coming from a place of love for yourself and others. Most emotional struggles are due to not being willing to accept things the way they are. Not feeling sure about yourself is because you don’t want to ground yourself. Incorporating these and a few other personal ground rules can help you find better version of yourself in many real world situations.

You can remind yourself of these intentions as a daily practice – in the shower, before going to sleep, as part of your meditation routine, when taking a bathroom break, when writing a journal or another time that feels right to you. You will notice a change in your behavior. The important thing is to have some regular well defined times of the day when you touch base with these intentions. Doing this has helped me a lot in finding necessary balance in my daily life.

Feeling emotions

This is the secret to opening up. And that my friend is the entirety of this blog.

Ok, I will write more. Just to have a conversation. But that thing above was all I had to say. So you want a story. Well look at every story you can imagine. The climax is always feeling emotions.

So what happens when you don’t feel emotions. You close. It can show up first as tightening of the different parts of your body. Then, rationalizing. Creating judgments. Adding more layers as you don’t want to feel even more emotions. You can go years like this. And during this period, there are parts of your life that are closed, off limits to you. And yes, parts of your body are also closed. And that my friend is how you shut out life.

How do you feel emotions again? When you notice yourself ruminating, trying to run away from something (and survival is not at stake), feeling persistent anger, fear, jealousy, low self esteem, over confidence, urge to criticize, that is your cue. Stop, and notice what is going on. Notice your breath. And when the momentum has calmed down, allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling. You will have a tendency to believe this is not right. Just remember that this is your muscle memory at work. This is how you have rationalized not feeling so many emotions. There is no danger/risk anywhere. It is just emotions and they pass through.

As you open up more to them, you will literally feel your entire senses being pervaded by the feel of that emotion. That is a great thing. Just stay there. 10 minutes, half an hour, you will notice changes. Perhaps more emotions you have been resisting. The process goes on. If you stick with it, sometime set aside everyday, you will feel lighter. You will get a realization that emotions are temporary. They pass through. Most negative behaviors are a result of an impulsive attempt to not feel that unwanted emotion.

Eventually you will feel more present. More constructive. Connect with people better. You will feel life. And nothing comes close to it.

Finding balance – Continued

I am starting to appreciate the significance of finding balance from my recent experiences.

A sudden change in diet caught me off balance.  Sleep problems. Lack of centeredness. The important lesson I learned was to be gradual when making a big change in diet. First change it a little, and see how it works.

Another important lesson I learned was maintaining healthy, respectful boundaries. While being compassionate to people is great, it shouldn’t be at the cost of compassion to yourself. In fact, you actually help people find their own balance, and their own self compassion, by maintaining healthy, respectful boundaries. This is something I am still working on. The key is to be able to say no. Come from the perspective that in the end the no is a win for all.

Personal development doesn’t have to be done alone. Do not hesitate to share your experiences with others on a similar path. While not everything they say will help you immediately, you might get valuable insights that you are missing in your solo journey. If possible seek out a mentor. Again this is a healthy, respectful relationship.

I can’t overstate the significance of balance. This is what keeps you running long. This is what keeps you creative for long periods of time. This is what helps you sleep at night. This is what helps you be available to the people who need you.  This is what helps you be more present. This is what helps you share beautiful moments of life with openness.

Finding balance

More than 50 percent, if not more, of the stars are born in a binary system. It is quite common for stars to be born in clusters with one or more companions. If there is one thing that nature is quite clear about, balance is a necessity.

If we are looking for something, we are looking for balance. When we can’t find it, we become unstable. We may not know it consciously, but we instinctively seek it. The only reason why we are not feeling equanimity is because we haven’t found the balance for whatever shook us from equanimity.

Whatever shakes us from equanimity is not always in our control. We are often caught off guard. While it is possible to learn from one experience and minimize the chances of it happening again, there are nearly infinite ways in which we can be caught off guard, and hence it is silly to think that we will be unshakeable.

The key is to understand the need for balance. When we are not aware of it, we might unknowingly be making things worse. Just notice yourself in moments when you feel unsettled.  Even if it is something psychological, which is more often the case for us. Your body and mind are trying to find balance. Just recognizing this can be a calming first step.

Now think of the binary companions to the activities you do in your day. Sitting and eating a delicious meal can pair with a nice little walk outdoors. A nice little walk outdoors can pair with writing/reflecting/blogging. Writing can pair with some yoga poses and movements. Those yoga poses and movements can pair with meditation or breathing exercises. Meditation or breathing exercises can pair with some social time. Some social time can pair with doing something in a group. Doing something in a group can pair with relaxing together and eating a meal. Of course this sounds too easy and probably not realistic. We have to earn a living. We have to earn food. We have to find people to be with. So these worries can pair with the corresponding actions. Search for a job, or search for food, or search for people to be with. The search can pair with success or disappointment. Disappointment can pair with some exercise or meditation or finding support with a loved one. And these can pair with a contemplative walk. You get the gist. Life goes on.

Giving and receiving

We expect other human beings and other living species to be a source of some value to us every time we interact with them. This is the default way we have existed. This is how our minds usually work. Even when we are not aware of it.

Now think of a time when your mind was not working like this. Lets say you just recovered from an illness. Just came back from tough, painful moments to appreciate what is. You feel different, tearful happiness looking at people and animals. It is as if it is all a gift.

Now think of being at the other end of this person. Some times you come across such people, and you feel deep appreciation and openness towards them, almost sub-consciously. You feel awe. This person by-passed most other beliefs you had about the kind of person you want to interact with. You come totally in the moment. This is the interaction you were always looking for. In fact, you open up, the typical story of giving and receiving disappears for a moment.

Now consider for a moment the story of giving and receiving. You value receiving. Our minds work in interesting ways. One minor story title that you have held on to can write an entire story of behaviors and experiences. When you find yourself stuck in this story, and realize it is a confusing mess that does no good to anyone in the long run, you are already almost more than half awake. Soon like a balloon leaves the hand, the story leaves you. It happens. But awareness is a key step. Without it, you would be so deeply ingrained inside the story that it seems to be your universe.

So imagine that the story of giving and receiving lifts off your hand. Suddenly the world opens up. When you receive you will be grateful, and when you give you will feel like you are sharing. It becomes a world of sharing, not giving and receiving.

Lessons learned from Overtraining

I struggled with sleep recently. It was a slow learning process. I had to first let go of the desire to find out why and get comfortable with reality. That takes a bit of time, in this case a week or even more.

Now that sleep has been better, I have more clarity. I noticed I was exercising a lot. When I wouldn’t sleep well, I would take that as a reason to exercise in the morning, thinking early morning exercise would help me feel tired and sleep. I was missing the rest and recovery part. After exercise, I would relax through yoga and moments of meditation, but then I would continue stimulation overload rest of the day. Work. Unreal social expectations. Even getting lunch was a task. This was nearly an every other day routine.

I happened to read about overtraining, not for the first time, but this time my reality made me listen to it. I decided to skip exercise, and dial down goals of all kinds for a week, and try to just be and relax. In just a couple of days, I felt sleep was easier. I also realized I did not understand meditation at an intuitive level until now. I had heard people say it is non-doing, just being. But I always thought of it as a task. Again like overtraining, this realization came from within for the first time. I simplified my meditation technique. Sit down comfortably on a chair, and just gently notice breath going in and out of the tip of the nose. I had learned this from the description of Vipassana meditation. There is something about this that made me switch to being rather than doing. Tip of the nose and noticing was calming. I could do this for hours. Several days into the week, I felt rejuvenated.

This is still early days. But I am beginning to appreciate non-doing, relaxing, and letting go. Doesn’t mean I will not exercise again. May be when I have more clarity around how to exercise with proper recovery. Another interesting observation in this week was this happiness I felt in just being with people, as if this is all life is about.

Why things usually just work out

As I was getting deep into personal development, and becoming more and more conscious about little things in my daily life, I was often a little confounded by the spectrum of my beliefs.  On one end, there was “how you feel inside shapes your experiences” and “you should enjoy good social connections”, “you should sleep well”, and on the other end was “be open to your present experience”.

Lets take the simple example of sleeping well. It seemed pretty straightforward. Do all the right things to help sleep better. Try to go to bed at a predetermined time everyday, so that your body develops a habit of sleeping at a certain time. Try to figure how to minimize noise in your sleep environment. Exercise early in the day. Eat light dinner, and at least 2 hours before your bed time. Avoid drinking too much water close to bed time. Make sure your sleep environment is cool. The list kept going on, and you can see it is not trivial to ensure all the requirements. While building a habit of going to bed at a predetermined time is doable over a stretch of time, minimizing noise and maintaining a cool environment is not that easy to control. While it is possible to eat smaller portions for dinner and preferably 2 hours before bed time, but depending on how the rest of the day went, this can be easily missed.

I struggled to keep this simple goal of sleeping well. In fact, sleeping became harder the more conscious I became of my struggle with sleep, and how I would miss the requirements. I was only able to regain my sleep composure by realizing that being open to the present experience was the best thing I could do. If I don’t sleep well, be open to it. It is life. Everyday is different. At least this way, I was not adding undue stress.

This made me look back at every little thing I would call a success in my life. Did I anticipate it? Usually not. Sometimes yes, but a lot of times no. Did I work for it? Yes. Was I lucky? Yes. What was the biggest hurdle to success? Was it not working for it? Sometimes. Was it thinking about the result? Sometimes. Was it just bad fortune? May be a few times. When did I have most success? When I worked hard, but also tempered expectations. When did I work hard and also tempered expectations? When I was open to the present experience.

Being open to the present experience is actually a pretty smart way to live life. In fact what other option do we have. What is here is here. If we don’t accept it, we will spend a lot of time in our head ruminating, complaining about the present experience over and above our original worries. If we accept it, we are lighter. We keep moving, and we actually become more in sync with life as a journey, enjoying the subtle flavors and getting aha moments every now and then and less obsessed with imaginary goals. And yes, with the load unloaded, it is easier to be happy. Are we being a negligent by accepting the present moment? The opposite. We are accepting what is already here, how is that negligent? What about goals? What about them? Well if we value them enough and they mean enough, we would have values that steer us in the direction of the goals, given our present reality. It doesn’t have to come by ignoring or running away from our present experience. Definitely not by adding whole layers of undue stress.

And in hindsight, things usually just work out this way, whether we want it to or not. Look back at your life. You were never 100% in control. Not for long periods of time at least, or not without a lot of undue stress that ruined your health later on.

Keep expanding your horizons

Only thing limiting us are the barriers in our minds. Our minds can be like prisons holding us captive.

But these words are easier said. How do we expand our horizons? If we have been used to living constrained, letting go of those barriers is not going to come easy. The thing is, these barriers have helped us in some ways in the past. Longer we have had these barriers, the stronger the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ is. As a meditation instructor once said “you have held these beliefs for decades, it will take sometime to change them”.

It was only after over an year of meditation, that I was finally able to see a magical new way. Now after almost 2 years, I am settling into this way. Before, my ability to function normally under certain emotional states was limited. Anxiety, anger, fear would be too much to risk getting into. A fully functional human being goes through a range of emotions. That is the natural flow of life. But many of us try to run away from certain emotions. It can become so deeply rooted inside, that we don’t even realize it. Result, as we grow older, we become less and less open, and our life becomes tougher. We hate more things than we love. We become cynics instead of optimists.

We never got to understand how our bodies and minds work together. We were so stuck trying to live life externally, we forget the one sense we have. The sense of perceiving what is going on inside. Over many years, it happens so fast, in a snap, that in the beginning we don’t even realize how our mind and body went from A-Z.

The magic is not a one day magic. It requires some perseverance in the beginning. We did not learn to ride a bicycle immediately. It takes some practice. Similarly, meditation requires an initial breaking into. It is building strength in this one sense that we have mostly ignored. Sense of perceiving our state of being.

When we are beginning to learn to ride a bike, it feels great just to be able to balance. But after a while, it is not about just being able to ride a bike. The bike is now a way of experiencing more things. With meditation, you learn to find balance in your mind, which is quite powerful, if you think of it.  We experience everything through our minds. With that balance comes new experiences, not just now, several years into the future.