Trying to make an imperfect world perfect

One reason why I twitch at the thought of writing my opinions and sharing it online is because I don’t know what is perfect. Yet there is something inside me that starts crying as annoyingly as the most pissed off toddler you can imagine if it sees that what I did was not perfect. Of course, 2 years ago, I would have a hard time, and this inner toddler would wreck my confidence. Now I know a way or two to make this toddler quiet.

This toddler has a hunger for perfection and takes control of me whenever it can, using the classic fight and fight response patterns  — yeah yeah, breathing shortens, belly takes a dive into a black hole, eyes stress, voice suffers and yes opinions come out like diarrhea. No news, I hate this side of me. Everyone has it and hates it when they realize it. But the toddler is inside, and you can’t get rid of it. The more you try to fight it, the stronger it comes back. Solution, live with it, like a mother lives with her annoying toddler. Of course this toddler can serve you good. It will save you when you are faced with a real tiger. But other times, you need a way to calm this thing down. Breathing is one way.  When we take some time to take deeper breaths, hold it in for a while and exhale as long as we can, a few repetitions triggers the Autonomous Nervous System to shift a gear to rest and relax. And now we are able to see things more clearly. The fact that we had time to do this exercise was evidence that there was no real tiger, hence the toddler’s diarrhea of opinions were not useful at this point. This new state of mind, let us call it the wise old man or woman. It knows things from a wider perspective and lets just say for most situations other than survival, it makes more sense than the toddler.

Anyways, coming back to trying to make an imperfect world perfect. Politics is a prime example. The deeper we get, the more diarrhea we get. We don’t realize it but politics is an indirect world. There are several degrees of separation. It is like spending a lot of time on Twitter or Facebook, instead of meeting with people for real. Politics is like trying to solve real world problems without really being able to do anything about the problems directly. Hence it feels like a tiger, we feel helpless, and we have a diarrhea of opinions.  There is nothing wrong with these opinions. The world is imperfect.

Another way of looking at the world, which I subscribe to more, is it is all about awareness. You bring change through awareness. Those who are receptive to your information see the world the same way as you do. Those who are not don’t. So this is not perfect either. But this scales better. It is easier to bring change when people feel the need for it from inside. For example, I learned meditation because I felt a need for it from inside. I felt like nothing external would give me real confidence to live in an uncertain world. So no wonder most people who meditate have suffered in some ways, and chanced upon this magic tool.

When things don’t work, it is just an experience. The only wise thing to do is accept it. With meditation, I can dis-entangle myself from the toddler mind. You get hurt not because something didn’t work out but because your breath is shallower, your heart rate is up, and this remains for extended periods of time. There is nothing wrong with this toddler either. But since you don’t have a tiger next to you, the toddler is not helping you.

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.

Say adios to the story

One constant in all cultures is stories. We watch movies, we read news stories, we read biographies, we write diaries. I write blogs.  This is a paradox.

Cultures spin stories. Most of what we experience in our daily lives is filtered by these stories. Feel good stories. Emulating some other person’s life.

Let me tell you my own story. What started me on this path of self awareness. 14 months ago, I was lost. Like everyone else I saw the world through the filters of stories. In my case it was a crazy mix of worlds — millennials living in Seattle, my family in India, my friends here and there. I did not belong anywhere. And I had crazy mix of stories running in my head. I’m single, I need a girlfriend. Before my conservative family in India starts making life hell for me. I need to care about my parents. I need to be cool. I need to be in good shape. I need cool friends. I need to start a company. So much neediness, so much anxiety. No groundedness. There was even a story about how to not be single. Go out every night. Try to fit in.

Today, I am still single. I don’t have a company. I still have a family in India. But I am much more comfortable. I only do things I want to do, or if someone’s gonna die because I am not going to do it :). I have already beaten my drums about how good people interactions have become for me, and how I know what I want to do in life. It only keeps getting better. But I don’t have a story. Life is beautiful as it is.

What will happen if everyone took a moment to realize they are living a complex mix of stories that were handed down to them by just about everyone else. People will be happier. People will be more present. They will see more opportunities. There will be less hate and more we are on a similar journey of life. More compassion. Less seeking approval and more hey I love this thing, I want to do more of it.

People will live and let others live. People with alternative approaches to life will become mainstream. There will be more creativity. Sorry Shakespeare.

What about crime. What about crazy people. Hang in there, I just said compassion will increase. There will be less hate and more we are on a similar journey of life.

How do you say adios to the story. You can’t say goodbye to it. You let it be in your head. Like thoughts. Human beings have this more advanced sense called awareness. You are not your thoughts. First step is recognizing that you are having this thought. That will automatically start a domino end of that story, and you will see colors more vividly, sounds more clearly, and be 10% happier doing anything.

Next Big Thing

I am not entirely comfortable writing this. As you know, I like to be in the present moment. Conflict of interests. When I interact with people who are into meditation, yoga, and other self awareness practices, one question that comes out is why don’t most people do this? Self awareness and inner happiness wouldn’t most people want that?

Often the answer is self awareness is a very self initiated phenomenon. Most people are ok with the way the things are. Advertising is not second nature to self awareness. Every person is entitled to their own journey and figuring out what works best for them.

Meditation has been around for thousand of years. Ever since Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and recognized the impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless nature of existence, people have known about meditation and self awareness. There has been an entire religion (or may be more than one) based on this. Entire blogs have been written around this. Leo BabautaDavid CainLori Deschene …

But my reckless mind is tempted to think that meditation can be the next big thing. Think about computers in 1970s. Big, clunky, meant for industrial, scientific purposes. Some people took a leap of faith and directed the industry towards personal computers. Mass adoption. In 40 years, landscape has changed. Internet. Information is much more accessible. There is more room for connection and DIY than ever. I personally haven’t quite figured out how to use social media. There are no physical sensations and vibes to strengthen and base connections on. I don’t want to spend too much time in my head. But I like reading. Learning. And now I am trying to find ways to produce content.

For me personally, meditation has been a big thing. Nothing before has had the same effect on me. I am the odd one out on this journey. Most people on this journey started late in their life (40s). If they started young, they grew up in a very health conscious family in a very progressive part of the world. Or they were a Buddhist monk.

Because I went through a change of personality, and I experienced the effects in all areas of my life first hand, I have a unique perspective. I see possibility for change. I see need for more awareness.

As David Cain puts it in his blog, there is room for change. Corporations have manipulated people into buying more than what they need to, for most of this and the past century (in the west). People want connection and happiness. They don’t know how to find it. They are bombarded with advertisements, and competitive pressure from peers. What is easy is not always the answer.

Internet is a powerful thing, and some people figured out how to make it accessible to the masses. Self awareness is a powerful thing too. We are investing so much in Artificial Intelligence. We need to direct our attention towards human intelligence.

Self awareness is an art

Like anything creative, self awareness is a very personal experience. Before I go further down this argument, I’ll say almost anything great we are capable of doing is an art. If not, we would not enjoy it. There won’t be any character to it. This includes writing good extensible code. Writing blogs. Holding good conversations. Sex. Falling in love and living with it or moving on.

Self awareness is complex. We are all self aware to some extent. We can recognize our reflection. We know our strengths (or at least we think we do, lets pretend we do), we know our quirks.  We can sense the position of our fingers without looking at it (with some practice we can visualize the finger positions on frets on a guitar, without looking down much). We can sense the quality of breath, is it deep, is it shallow? We can sense how we are feeling — calm, happy, excited, nervous, angry, hung over, sick, rejuvenated, relieved, turned on, repulsed, awed, depressed. So where is the art in this?

Like I said self awareness is complex. We are complex. Deep down we are a result of some crazy chemicals firing in our brain and the nervous system. Sensory perception is quite personal. Some of us are color blind. But even after ignoring any physical differences, our sensory perception is quite personal. Our memories affect the way we perceive things. Our state of mind affects the way we perceive too. Read this blog early morning when your mind hasn’t been super activated yet. Read it when you are dead tired. Read it when you have doubts about me. Read it when you remember something you like about me. All of that would affect how you will perceive this blog entry.

Like any other artistic pursuit, self awareness requires exploration, imagination, learning, feedback, and acceptance. When you first start meditation, you will have doubts. Doubts about whether you are doing it right. It is no different than the doubts you have about whether you are playing the guitar correctly. Doesn’t that sound a little off? How do you play a guitar correctly?  Well you record yourself and play it back. You talk to experts. You read information online. You get feedback from your friends. There are some basic best practices, of course. But after that it is a subjective experience. I say this while I am still playing the guitar as badly as you can imagine.

Basic best practices. So for playing chords on a guitar, you want to keep your fingers arched reasonably above the fret, so as to not hit adjacent strings. You want to press firmly. You want to keep your body relaxed. You want to be breathing normally. For meditation, best practices would be to find a calm place, where you can sit (even lie down) in a relaxed position. Set aside some time, where you won’t be interrupted. Use the restroom before you sit down. Do some yoga poses (or stretching exercises beforehand) to enhance your body awareness. Start with deep breaths, to help slow down and relax (switch to rest and digest mode). Notice things in the present moment. When you are distracted by a pressing thought or pain, come back to the present moment (sensations in the body), without being hard on yourself (it is ok to get distracted). Be curious.

But beyond these basics, there is a lot more you can do depending on your personal taste and level of comfort. For example, I notice the physical sensations in my body as waves. They are fluid. Relaxing for me means letting these waves be waves. Let them flow and take their natural course. Let go of resistance.  You can imagine you are breathing to different parts of your body and let go any tightness and tension on the out breath.

Self awareness goes beyond meditation. Meditation is just a practice. Real life is the playground. When I am feeling nervous or anxious or angry about something, I go back to the physical sensations and imagine it is a wave and let it relax and flow, instead of directing this state of mind on another person. It is subjective. Whatever works best for you. Some people might take deep breaths. You might have your own ways of handling these situations.

But here’s the fun part. Self awareness is interlaced with all other artistic pursuits. You and your partner can have much better sex by being more self aware. And so can I improve my guitar skills. The world can be a much better place if more people were more self aware. Little things add up. Great mistakes are a result of several tiny ones. Great things are a result of several little good ones.

Body and mind connection

Happy mind resides in a happy body. I had never taken this seriously. Meditation made me more sensual, also more sensitive.

I meet Paz and this is the first time I discuss my meditation journey with another person who is just as into it. Paz has been on a spiritual journey for over a decade. She has travelled to India, Japan, and several other countries discovering spirituality. Normally Tantra would raise my BS alarm, but Paz confirmed that what I was experiencing by being in the present moment is exactly what Tantra is about. Tantra uses energy to talk about this.

When I was getting started on Mindfulness, I read about “impermanence” as one of the core concepts in Buddhism. Nothing lasts forever. Similarly Tantra (and Vipassana meditation) talk about how the state of energy in our body (think of it as the state of your mind, and the associated physical sensations) is ever-changing. Some of us get stuck in certain states of mind (and certain associated sensations in the body). This is when we resist. Think of anger, frustration, rumination. We get caught in the story. We want to solve the problem but mentally. Our body, no one taught us when growing up, how to interpret the body. We spent a lot of time in school learning analytical skills. This is why we have the jobs we have.

If I ask you to think of a situation where you were dead tired after work and fuming on that driver who cut you off on the way home, if you are the kind who gets stuck in thought loops, you would be angry right now. How is that emotion that should have disappeared by now still in you? This could be why you always feel a certain way with certain triggers. You have held onto some strong emotions. Neural connections. We are human beings but this is unconscious behavior. We are no different than a scared cat, when it looks at itself in the mirror, when we are stuck with these strong emotions. And there is no embarrassment or shame as this is how we evolved to be. This protects us from danger.

But most of what we experience in modern urban life does not qualify as danger. Being socially shunned in a tribe thousands of years ago would have meant difficult life ahead, probably even death. But today, you can always find another group of people to hang out with. Some parts of our brain haven’t evolved fast enough. The emotional brain. Most of us don’t know how to handle it. We can handle it by running away, fighting, numbing ourselves, and suffering years later.

Anyways let me cut to the chase. If we set aside some time, half an hour, a day, to let go of all our goals (temporarily), and imagine that you are in a nice peaceful place, sit down and all you have to do is observe the physical sensations in your body or anything in the present moment (contacts of your body), and rest yourself in it. There will be thoughts. Come back to the physical sensations. There will be pain. Observe it. If there is pain in certain muscles of your body, go fully into it. Explore it. Notice the resistance. You are resisting something. Let it go, and observe it. In sometime, the sensations clear, as if there is a clear blue sky. This learning helps you realize that experiences are temporary. By being in the present moment, you can move on, move on to new experiences.

So began my infatuation with the body-mind connection. This is still a journey in progress. I am experimenting with semen retention. 49 days of no ejaculation. I have picked up a guitar and Iike strumming chords in random sequences. My voice is more confident and compassionate than ever before. I changed teams at work to work on helping the company grow internationally. There is fun in working with people from multiple countries. I am still discovering life.

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.