Some other useful tips

I recently discovered the effectiveness of free form writing on a note pad with pen. It goes like this. You ask a question, whatever is on your mind, just write it down. Then you will answer it. Write it down. Then you will have more questions, Again write it down. Just remember to write it down, there is no need to edit it for a final version. The goal is to express yourself freely.

Writing with a pen is different than typing on a computer. I have found this exercise to be more effective when writing with a pen on a piece of paper.

So an example scenario was. I am not motivated to work. I kept writing questions and answers, ultimately I found a sense of peace when I hit this question “why do you do anything?” Answer “to help someone — myself or another person”.

It was strange as I had never looked at work like that. Simple but drastic shift in the way I look at things.

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.

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.

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.

Flow State

One of the things that I have taken some time to understand is the Flow state. For more on what Flow state can bring to you, you can watch this TED talk. It is this elusive state of mind which sometimes happens, when conditions are right. But what conditions? What should I be doing to get into this state of mind?

Wrong question.

Meditation has this magic effect. The more I try to understand the bits and pieces, and try to break it apart, the more I ruin the chances of getting into a flow. This has been the biggest mistake I have made in my year or so of meditating. Meditation works great. It does what it is supposed to do. Intense focus for sometime in a stretch, in a structured practice can lead to that clear blue Flow state. This can happen at other times. When doing something physically challenging and absorbing. When doing something mentally challenging and absorbing.

So what ruins the chances of flow after meditating? I hate to say this, but it is analysis/paralysis. Knowing how meditation works, does not help you reach the flow state, unless of course you find that interesting. What is worse is if you try to approach life in a particular way, for example try hard to be present beyond the meditation practice. You get in your own way.

Instead after meditating, just go about doing what you were doing. Don’t get in your own way.

Flow happens.

Eckhart Tolle happens

The day before flying to India, I discovered Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. This was just as transformational as the initial spell of mindfulness meditation. Without completely reading the book (until things started getting more spiritual than I was prepared for), Eckhart convinced me that the present moment is always this neutral place where life happens. All our worries and anxieties stem from the past or the future.

This understanding took days/months to dawn and grow on me. But it was deep. This was the foundation of the next big steps in my life. Think of sky diving. You feel scared, you feel those butterflies in your belly until you jump off. But once you are free falling, you are completely in the moment. This is thrill. This is why some people like to live their life on the edge. Life happens in the moment.

Present moment is the only reality. Rest is manifestations of your mind. These manifestations have a place, but when they start getting in the way of you experiencing the present moment, you are living the life in an imaginary world. You are living a life of shoulds, seeking approval, and the real you is hidden underneath the stress and anxiety you are holding on to.

I soon extended this to everything I did. Pay attention to something in the present moment, doesn’t have to be your breath. Stage fright becomes less and less. Spontaneity grows. Conversations become natural. Sex becomes more subtle, food tastes more subtle, you can read people way better.  Compassion becomes more natural as you get out of your head and notice what is really out there.

Seeking approval becomes history, as you become a natural who does things because you instinctively want to do it. The mind still has a place but it is not the center stage.

I come back to Seattle in love with life.  And I discover a whole series of things to do. I meet this girl, who was into MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). She was just as high on “Power of Now” as me. We talk about consciousness. We talk about animals. I discover my fondness for ‘Jaguar’ the big cat. We debate why Jaguar is the way it is. Monk in the cat world?!

And then April and early summer happens. I feel more anxiety. I can’t understand how are people so outgoing in summer. How are they so happy? My body thought of heat and resulting stress as something to be worried about.  Going out becomes harder for me. I become jealous of all those folks who could handle themselves well in the heat.

Waking up

I hear the word mindfulness from my cousin. Google search and I could gather mindfulness is intentionally paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally. I really didn’t understand this. Analytical as I was, I tried to break the sentence into pieces and tried to understand more. How do you pay attention to the present? What is present? How do you do it non-judgmentally? I spent hours thinking about this. Read blogs trying to understand, but there was a shell that wouldn’t crack.

And then I found Mindfulness in plain english by Henepola Gunaratana. There is something about the way monks speak and write that leads to calmness even before you understand what they are saying. Imagine walking into a beautiful, calm monastery. It is easy on you. So quiet that you can hear the drops of water.

Mindfulness and concentration are the two key concepts in meditation, the book said. With concentration you gather all the rays of the sun on a piece of paper, and with mindfulness you notice distractions. Ah. I got fixated on bare awareness. As if saying the word bare awareness in my head would make me more mindful.

When a really cute girl looked at me and blushed and I felt pleasure and ease in my body, I realized I had landed on to something. Interactions with the opposite sex became the highlight of this phase of my journey. I had never before experienced pleasure in the moment without any physical contact. It was as if you do a dance with the person you are attracted to without explicit physical contact. They feel it, you feel it, and you both carry this state of mind to a happy day. My previous experiences with sex were plain mechanical, none of these beautiful sensations and never two individuals doing an instinctive dance together.

There was this sudden joy in existence. It slowly extended to enjoying food more, enjoying physical sensations of running and the runners high afterwards, and I started enjoying listening to people without interrupting them with my story. I planned a trip to Canada and discovered the joys of using Airbnb to find a place to stay. I thought I had found a traveler in me. I wanted to travel. To Iceland next. Spain. This was happiness like never before.

But with all great experiences comes a road block.  Global events. Paris. My sense of positivity soon dissolved into deep anxiety. Instead of looking for new experiences, I wanted to find a place I feel at home. I planned my trip to India to visit my family. This visit to India was amazing. I noticed details, I wouldn’t notice otherwise. I observed how people across the world are fundamentally not that different. If you remove culture, and notice the vibes, and basics of communication, it is the same thing. Regardless of what mind (ego) makes us believe, deep down all we want is to feel connected.

Before it started

I was sitting alone on a hot July afternoon in my apartment. This was 4th of July. I wasn’t sure what to do. It was too hot for comfort inside. I had recently chanced on a blog online about Meditation. There was even a link to a youtube video, where Jon Kabat-Zinn gave a mindfulness talk at Google. I didn’t understand Mindfulness yet. In fact, I was not very interested when watching the video. This is how I was back then.

But I still wanted to meditate. This was a stage in my life where I was lost. Yes, I had a job, and I lived in a comfy apartment, but I was too afraid to take chances. Too little motivation, too many mental obstacles. Social anxiety was all over. In fact, this was a culmination of years of a lifestyle of living shut in, inside my head, shy, dull, no passion. But I was smart. Intelligent. I knew how to analyze.

Anyways, the blog struck me. There were some links to the science of meditation, which I didn’t bother to understand. But the blog said meditation practice helped the writer find intuitive solutions to several problems in life. Find confidence and live an authentic and healthy life. This was too blatant to ignore. Seriously what is out there which helps you in all areas of your life. I could have tackled specific problems in my life one at a time, but I didn’t have patience. This attitude, as I later on learned, is exactly what meditation gets rid of. But I was in need, and meditation without much clarification was the only solution to my life. I didn’t know how, but it didn’t require me to step out of my home. On this hot afternoon, I finally had a passion. Although I was still shut in alone, clueless, I had light.

And bam, I found answers to all problems in life! No, not back then. Patience. Strangely complete hopelessness was not a bad way to get started on this path. When you have nothing, you are open to new things.

And this is how I understood meditation back then. Breathe. Sit still. Something happens. Something magical happens. My back hurt, my legs went numb, and breathing was not easy. I tortured myself to sit in a cross legged position for half an hour, may be 45 minutes. It hurt but felt good. Was it placebo? I didn’t know whether I was doing it right. I didn’t have the social confidence to go out and ask.

One of the things I read in the blog was to relax with every breath, and so I did. It felt good. I felt lighter. I cried. Thoughts about life came, and I felt weak in my knees. I didn’t understand it back then. There was a feeling that this is good, even though I was crying.

Several days went by and my meditation practice was still raw. But I did it everyday. I had no confidence but I had passion.

Before getting started

This is my personal experience stepping out of the routine life of a modern human being to discover what lies beyond. This is a world that doesn’t require you to step out of your home, go anywhere. But it is a whole bigger world than we experience in our modern lives. I am not an expert and this is an honest account of a journey that is still in progress.

While this is my experience, and every person’s experience is unique, there are inspirations and learnings that can be drawn by anyone. I am always looking to hear authentic life experiences from people. You don’t have to have a similar life as me, similar personality type, similar ethnic background, or anything. In fact sit back, relax and enjoy this read.