This will also pass… again!

Mindfulness-Meditation

Picture Source: https://listtribe.com

Vipassana means ‘observing as it is’. That is what Gouthama The Buddha, at the age of 35, did on a Chitra pournami night around midnight, under a peepul tree. He sat with an ‘adhittana’ (meaning self-determination) that he would not move until he attains ‘nibbana’ – the ultimate state of realisation. And it is said, within the hour after midnight the whole secret of life was revealed to him. Of course it was not the result of a day’s effort, but the culmination of years of (may be lives of) searching, seeking, practice, and learning from many gurus of his period.

All his earlier practices did take him closer to self-realisation, but none revealed to him the secret behind human suffering. Even though the religious and philosophical thought of those times did mention the reason behind human misery is attachment to objects in the form of raga-dvesha (like-dislike) and therefore propagated that the only way out of this vicious cycle is by developing the state of detachment, none of the systems showed him how. What he discovered on that full moon night was exactly that – the key to mitigating human suffering.

My rudimentary understanding of the chain linking the objects outside of us and the suffering we experience within us, based on the teachings of The Buddha after attending the 10-day Vipassana course for the second time, can be summarised as: when our six senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin and mind) come in contact with an object (any outside stimulus) it is subject to the 4 broad functions of the mind. Initially the sense takes cognition of the object (vijnana); cognition leads to recognition (sanjya); recognition creates a sensation in the body (vedana); which is followed by a reaction (sanskara) by the mind, in the form of craving or aversion. It is this reaction that forms a recording in our mind which has the habit of repeating itself with every similar object being cognised by the senses. These repeated sanskaras are part of a vicious cycle that is the source of misery whenever we do not get what we crave for or when things happen which we have an aversion to and so want to avoid. Therefore, it does not matter if the sensation is pleasant or unpleasant. Both lead to misery if we develop an attachment to it, be it through craving or aversion. Both craving and aversion are the means to developing attachment.

If we want to be out of misery and be in a state of eternal bliss, we have to break this chain at some point. We cannot eliminate all the objects outside in the world; nor can we stop our senses from recongnising them; the very nature of mind-body complex makes sensation inevitable. But the only link over which we have power is to not react with craving or aversion. If we stay ‘equanimous’ to every sensation in the body and not react with craving or aversion, instead simply observe the sensations and let them pass, realising the truth of ‘aniccha’ meaning changing or impermanent, we can sever the cycle of misery. Therefore, the secret of nibbana lies in the two faculty of awareness and equanimity. And that is exactly what Vipassana teaches us to practice.

When we simply observe sensations and develop the sense of detachment we are not creating any new sanskaras. Then our accrued sanskaras from the past (if you believe in rebirth, then this includes from all previous births as well) surface as sensations in the body and pass away, provided we stay equanimous to them irrespective of they being pleasant or unpleasant. I was reminded of how the Johari Window works. We do not know what is there in the ‘unknown’ part of our self. But if we work on the ‘blind’ and ‘hidden’ parts, stuff from the ‘unknown’ surfaces either through the ‘hidden’ or ‘blind’ parts, thus providing opportunities for us to get them to the ‘open’.

Then the question arises – what is the motivation for people to do anything at all in that case? That is where the notion of dharma (or dhamma in Pali, the language in which Buddha taught and in which his teachings were recorded) becomes relevant. All beings are to act according to their nature (dhamma), which is actually postulated by The Buddha’s four fold path namely sila, samadhi, panya and nibbana. Sila is right conduct; samadhi is being equanimous; panya is the wisdom knowing the changing nature of all phenomena; and nibbana the eternal peace or bliss. One leads to the other and builds on the previous step in the path. The path is dhamma.

Some aphorisms from the discourses of Acharya Goenka in the evenings of the Vipassana camp stood out to me and struck a chord in me to understand this path of dhamma.

  1. We use one part of the mind to control the other parts of the mind: Most eastern approaches to spirituality and liberation call for ‘killing the ego’, ‘working beyond the mind’, and ‘not becoming the slave of our mind’ and so on. It is easier said than done. But not many tell us how. For good or worse, humans have a mind and we perceive everything through that. So if our mind enslaves us and bring misery then we have no other tool to counter it and bring it under our control. That is exactly what Vipassana does – it gives us a technique to use part of our mind (the one that seeks freedom/liberation) to work with the other part of our mind (the one that is victim of habits and drag us into that realm of sanskaras through craving and aversion).
  2. Unconscious is always conscious: The so called unconscious is never unconscious. It is that part of us which is always conscious. When I heard that it sounded so obvious, even though I never thought that way before. What we call unconscious is that part of the mind which is not available to OUR consciousness. But it is always awake to the world and so it reacts to even the subtlest of sensations which often stem from the deepest recesses of our body and mind in response to the objects we encounter. These sensations are based on our past experiences and habits of the mind and are almost automatic (involuntary) and so cannot be avoided. But what we could do through Vipassana is to let them surface at their own time and will and simply sit and observe them dispassionately with equanimity so that they do not become another added sanskara. I found resonance of this aphorism in the belief in NLP that our unconscious will always act in order to protect our self. I suspect the presupposition here is that the unconscious is always alert and active, even when we are deep asleep.
  3. Sensations are the link between our body and mind: Over the past few centuries, stemming from Descartes’s view of life, the so called divide between the body and mind is ingrained in our collective consciousness. Of late I’m beginning to realise what a farce it is and this Vipassana experience helped me clarify it further and increased my conviction that our body and mind are inseparable whole. We might want to talk of them as separate for convenience, but all our actions are a product of the interplay between the two. I’m increasingly beginning to realise our responses to life incidences are not complete unless they come from the consideration of both our body and mind. Both influence and affect each other seamlessly and continuously and our body sensations are the key link between our body and mind. One way to master our mind is by reacting to these sensations with equanimity.
  4. Liberation is a life-long process: As we sharpen our mind to be more and more sensitive to our body sensations through the practice of Vipassana we would experience the impermanence of sensations at the surface of our body. I have experienced this first hand in the two Vipassana courses I attended. I could experience the transient and ephemeral nature of all sensations, even the most painful ones and definitely the most pleasant ones. On continuous practice, I understand that this experience of transcience on the surface of the body could be experienced deeper into the inner recesses of our body in every bone and tissue. This would eventually help us experience how the seemingly solid matter is nothing but a bag or constellation of wavelets constantly in vibration. Isn’t this what science has arrived at recently? I felt bit spooky when The Buddha had realised and taught about this 25 centuries ago by sheer observation of his core inner self, without any hi-tech gadgets and laboratories. Therefore, letting all our sanskaras pass away would be a life-long process, if not lives-long process, provided we don’t add anymore sanskaras. This leads to the question of why then we should embark on this futile process, if we could not reap its benefits immediately before this life ends. In the immediate and short term the process of sharpening our mind to develop the faculty of awareness and attitude of equanimity by itself could get us lot of relief and bring meaning to our lives by brightening our outlook towards us, our relationships and life itself. Imagine how blissful life could be in the here-and-now when we could respond to rejection and affiliation equanimously. How it could help us to live life fully with joy and poise! These could be the immediate, short term psychological benefits of the practice of Vipassana, while the more ardent ones could travel further towards liberation.

In essence this is what I understood from my second Vipassana course in Tiruvannamalai. What a different experience it was from the first one, two years ago, in Chennai! The first time my mind was preoccupied and excited by the rules of noble silence and the rigours of 4 AM to 9 PM schedule. Following the routine precisely was the focus and successfully accomplishing it by itself was a big feat. So whatever experience I encountered I faced with awe and admiration. This time around I experienced the real turmoil of the mind and understood the purpose and the science behind the whole exercise. The process was real to me and was no more something that I imbibed and blindly followed as instructed by another, which is what I did last time.

Let’s move now from my understanding of the general theory of Vipassana to my experience of the 10 days of Vipassana practice at Dhamma Arunachala, Tiruvannamalai. I have to caution here that no two people will have similar experiences. Not even the same person will have similar experiences over two courses. My experience during the second time was very different from the first one two years ago. May be because I was no more the same. Also may be because the sanskaras that choose to come up this time are very different form the ones that came up last time around. WE are not in control of what will surface, but we are only in control of how we react to them. Even the same person’s experience does not stay similar or predictable through the same day. One day I get up dull and hopeless but by the end of the day I am all cheerful or vice-versa. So please read this as an indicative narration of my personal experience only and not a typical experience of all Vipassana students there may be a broader general pattern of experiences if researched over a large population, but that is beyond scope of this blog.

Day 1: Monkey of a mind: the first 3 days of the practice is called ‘aana-paana’ referring to the breath moving in and out. Observing the breath is the preparatory stage for Vipassana. First 3 days we have to simply observe the breath.

We all know idle mind is devil’s workshop. One has to sit idle for 10 hours a day to experience it in full force. Day 1 we are supposed to simply observe the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. While the new students (who are doing the course for the first time) have the luxury of observing the breath’s movement all over the larger triangle covering the nostrils lined by the upper lip as its base, we the new students (who have done at least one 10 day course) have to focus only in the restricted area above the upper lip and below the rim of the nostrils – the moustache area. While one part of the mind knows that I’m supposed to observe the breath, most part of the mind keeps jumping from one thought to the other, nonstop. Initially I was irritated, then got restless, slowly became impatient, at one point became hopeless. Then I reminded myself that I’m supposed to simply observe and not to attach any value towards whatever is emerging. So by the end of the day felt amused. Overall it was a not so bad beginning. I could keep my attention unwavering continuously at least for a minute. Great accomplishment! If you don’t believe how hard it is, try it.

Day 2: Fear and pain: Day 2 was supposed to be the most difficult day followed by day 6. Day 2 started with a spurt of gripping fear, from an unknown source within me. Slowly one by one event and incidents that triggered fear, big and small, surfaced one after the other. As the day progressed, fear was accompanied by pain in the limbs. Legs would go numb in about 20 minutes and after that start paining like hell. Pain and fear is a deadly combination. I started wondering why I want to do this and if I would want to endure this for 8 more days. The thought to leave surfaced couple of times but never strong enough to take it seriously. I was told in the evening discourse that this was the day many people would like to quit. I endured as I knew from my previous experience that no 2 days would be the same. I knew this ordeal will also pass and it did. The end of day 2 was much calmer that the way it started. I guess all the fears manifested as sensations and the gestalts were closed since I was simply observing them and not trying to push them away or run away from them.

Day 3: Breath to sensation: Today the focus shifted from observing the breath to observing the sensations arising in the triangular area under the nostrils. Sensation includes anything in the wide spectrum from gross pain or touch of the breath or air flowing over the skin to much subtler sensations of tickling, tingling, itching, heat, cold, pulsation, vibration, expansion, contraction, pressure, lightness, heaviness, stress, numbness… whatever it is. Sometimes it could even be no sensation. The trick is to stay equanimous irrespective of what the sensation was. The technique is to sharpen the mind by focusing attention to a small area. Smaller the area the sharper the mind will become. Stream of thoughts never stopped, but there was now some order and much of the thought was about the technique. The monkey stopped jumping on and off and instead now stayed on one branch for a while before jumping to another. By end of the day mind learned the trick of being sensitive to the milder subtle sensations.

Day 4: Vipassana day: This is a significant day since Vipassana was taught on this day after 3 days of aana-paana. By the afternoon on day 4, the attention shifts from observing the sensations of the restricted triangular area to the whole body starting from the crown of the head, moving part by part, piece by piece, throughout the body, though all the parts of the body till we reach the tip of the toes. The idea is to keep moving from part to part as soon as a sensation is sensed and not spend too much time in one place, even if there is no sensation felt. Added to this is yet another condition – adhittana – meaning self-determination – where we resolve to sit for an hour without moving the posture. That’s the pinnacle of this technique. I was able to manage up to 40 minutes beyond that I just could not bear the severity of the pain in the legs and back. Any pain or unpleasant sensation is indication of a negative sanskara coming out while a pleasant sensation is indicative of a positive sanskara revealing itself. Either case we are not supposed to react to them with craving or aversion and that’s the hardest bit. If we develop longing for pleasant sensation or want to get rid of the unpleasant sensation, we are only adding more sanskara which defeats the whole purpose of Vipassana. The secret is in remaining equanimous so that maximum amount of our old sanskaras in stock could be spent away.

Day 5: The ordeal of adhittana continued, while scanning the body for sensation on the surface of the skin goes on. Today we can start scanning head to toe and also in reverse direction – toe to head. We are supposed to sit in adhittana for 3 one hour slots through the day. I could not sit still for more than 35 minutes which gradually increased to 45 minutes on day 8 but not beyond that. Meanwhile the fears almost vanished and brought up sadness and guilt. I realised as days passed deeper repressions that have their roots in early childhood started to surface. The best part was I was able to sit still and observe them as they came up as thoughts and also body sensations without any aversion or the need to push them away. Psychologically it was beneficial to me to identify the major issues still remaining unresolved in my life. I don’t think that is an intended benefit of Vipassana but I found it valuable to identify those issues. Some of them even got resolved by themselves at the end of day 10, but I’m sure some of them still stayed even though with much lesser intensity.

Day 6: Frustration at its peak: I felt frustration at its peak today as I was not able to sit in adhittana beyond 30 or 40 minutes; my back started aching madly; the legs were almost becoming heavy like lead and sharp excruciating pain running though the surface of the legs every now and then. Adding to this deadly concoction was thoughts of experiences that triggered anger and resentment. I realised first hand why Acharya Goenka says day 6 is a crucial day testing the utmost patience of the students. The thought to give up surfaced a few times but thankfully never too seriously. So I got through this day as well.

I asked the teacher what to do since I was not able to sit in adhittana for the whole hour due to excruciating pain. I was told that pain is an indication that I’m practicing the technique in the right way. I found that initially annoying and did not believe it, but slowly it dawned on me that whenever my thoughts are around matters out there I did not experience any pain. The moment I start bringing my mind to the sensations, I start feeling the pain. This means the pain was always there, but by diverting the mind, I was only running away from or denying the existence of the pain and so it wold only get repressed and not resolved.  Once this realisation dawned on me, I was able to sit and observe the pain much more dispassionately than before. I believed then that pain is an indication of the technique being practiced correctly, whereby the sanskaras are surfacing. I was reminded of what a doctor said to a friend of mine after his surgery when he complained of pain – ‘pain is a symptom of healing’. I concluded it is true not only in case of the body but also for the mind.

By that time, a strange phenomenon I noticed was that the dreams while sleeping at night were crazy. People, places and incidences that I have never dreamt before came up. Some were pleasant while others were mainly ghory and repulsive. I think these are also ways in which old sanskaras find expression and resolution. Best part was in spite of all these dreams I could sleep peacefully every night – from 9 at night to 4 in the morning. Even though there is no physical labour, end of the day when I hit the bed it feels like a full hard day and I sleep off within few minutes, which is very unusual of me. Normally I take longer to sleep. Doing nothing is the most tiring job! The paradox is it is also the most rejuvenating task. I invariably woke up fresh and without any grogginess at 4 every morning.

Days 7-9: Rhythmic flow: Once the rhythm set in on day 6, the next 3 days passed on effortlessly, even though the mind kept chatting all the time whenever it found a recess. Interestingly much of the thought generated creative solutions to some of the long pending unresolved issues I was holding on to. I suppose these are unintentional by products of the process. A bonus I liked.

By now I found myself getting comfortable with sitting long hours and also realised I developed a clearer understanding of how the technique works. That was not the case during the first time. I also developed a sense of conviction over the technique and resolved to practice as often as possible even after going home.

Another interesting stream of thought that went through me was about The Buddha’s take on God (isvara) and soul (atma). Contrary to popular belief he did not shun the notions of God or soul but he just kept them aside as he did not feel the need for them in order to be released from the cycle of misery. He emphasised the need to focus inwards and the only true object of life – the breath. He also emphasised how each one is solely responsible for his or her own emancipation and nobody else, not even any god or God could do that. I found this approach highly revolutionary, secular and scientific for his times, which transcends all forms of social differences and embraces all of humanity and makes salvation universally available and accessible.

Day 10: Balm and buffer: Being the last day, it is kept for the participants to gradually return to the ‘normal’ life. It acts as a cushion to the noise and speed of life out there offering a buffer period to slowly transit from the monk like living to the life of ‘samsara’. We are also taught a different meditation called ‘metta’ meaning compassionate love or loving kindness. While Vipassana is inward-focused and for the benefit of oneself, ‘metta’ is meant for all beings out outside of us. Its noble purpose to share the fruits of Vipassana practice with all beings. For the first time in 10 days we are allowed to shift our focus of themind outside of ourselves and reach out to all whom we know and also all those whom we don’t know. In fact it is to reach out to all of creation with the intention of kindness, compassion and love. We first fill ourselves with peace, harmony, freedom, liberation, fruits of dhamma, merits (punya) and ‘metta’. Then we share these with all. It also acts as a soothing balm after the 9 days of rigorous and often painful Vipassana experience.

Observing the noble silence was effortless this time as I understood clearly the rationale behind it. Last time I followed it as a precept or a rule to be followed blindly. But this time I realised its purpose is to protect us from falling prey to the temptation of lying. If we speak we tend to lie intentionally or unintentionally. Not lying is one of the core necessary discipline to practice Vipassana. Knowing this made the observation of noble silence a pleasant and liberating experience.

After the morning group sitting on day 10 the noble silence comes to an end. That means we can talk. God, people talked as if they were told to compulsorily talk nonstop. For the first time I heard the adventures of my roommate a young lad from Surat who was on a road trip. Each student had his own story whether they were from India or Germany or Sweden. It was amazing to see how people from such diverse cultures are brought together by the thirst for self-realisation. Still we were off using our phones. After the last group sitting that night, at 8.30 pm our phones were returned. Then started another round of chit chat, but this time each one by themselves over their phone.

On reflection I felt amazed how I went through 10 days of such rigorous ordeal for the second time. Part of me revolted that I would not do this again. Then I realised that’s exactly what I said to myself two years back when I did Vipassana in Chennai. So wondering when the next calling would come. A corner in me says it will definitely come and it’s only a matter of time. A that brought a smile on my face J

This is also the day when we can donate any amount we want to, if we want to. The whole Vipassana is offered as ‘dana’ (charity) by those who have already gone through it. One of the precepts of the life of a monk is to live on the charity of others. This helps to keep our ego under check. So we are not charged for the programme. At the end, after receiving the dhamma of Vipassana, we can offer whatever we wish as ‘dana’ so that others can also benefit from receiving dhamma. I found that a noble act. Big or small all contribution is accepted wholeheartedly. Again giving need to be from a space of sharing our selves so that others receive dhamma and not as a compensation for what we received. After all what we receive from the practice of Vipassana is not measurable.

Day 11: After breakfast we were released from the high security prison into the wild and noisy world. Life returned back to normalcy but I experienced a general sense of calm and balance in the way I look at life around. I experienced some tangible change in my way of responding to adversaries. Occasions when I would normally react with disdain or irritation reduced and sometime eliminated.

Tiruvannamalai: I cannot close this piece without writing about the venue itself. I chose to do it in Dhamma Arunachala as I felt it was a privilege to spend 10 days on the land where the holy hill stands supreme. The hill was visible at a distance from the campus and that was a rewarding experience to watch it every day whenever we were out. The lush green paddy fields around and the cool weather made it much more pleasant. The stunning view of the sunrise and sunset every day was surreal. I realised how much we miss these natural luxuries in our daily city lives.

The facility itself was satisfactory providing for all the basic requirements with care and precision. The volunteers served with utmost humility and generosity. The food was wholesome and tasty. The architecture was eco-friendly with open bricks made from the clay soil available in the campus itself. I look forward to going back there whenever I feel the calling from within again!

Postscript:  The effectiveness of sustaining the benefits of these 10 days practice depends on the consistency of regular practice. The ideal recommendation is one hour every morning and evening. But given other preoccupations, I decided to sit for at least one hour every day.

Bhavatu sarva mangalam! May all beings be happy!

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Ready, 1, 2, 3, FO…..

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Can one learn a new habit in their late 40’s? That too something one has never attempted before in their life? My answer is an emphatic YES. I started running for fun during the mid-2014, just about 15 months back, and I was 45 then.

I was so euphoric after my first half marathon at the Coimbatore Marathon 2014 that I wanted to write a blog of my experience of running… just 3 months old. I did not do it then partly due to writer’s block and mainly because I wanted to give myself time to see if the euphoria sustains. So I decided then that I will write after a year if I could continue my interest in running long distance. Now with 5 half marathons under my belt and preparing for my first full marathon next month, I am convinced of my resolute on this and hence the birth of this blog.

This is NOT a runner’s guide for dummies. Nor is it an expert treatise on running and its benefits. It’s purely the ramblings of an overly enthusiastic middle aged man, about his new-found love – running!

As I noted down my lessons from my running experience I noticed an interesting pattern emerging. So I decided to list them in the same order.

  1. One at a time: There are several ones that helped me to keep the interest alive and kicking.
    1. One step at a time: ‘Journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step.’ To my amazement I realised how the whole thousand mile journey is only made of single steps. We run with our body, but running is principally a mind game through our body. Whatever the distance I run, it helps to keep up the energy and motivation high throughout the run if I focus on the next step.
    2. One goal at a time: It helped me to get up from the bed early morning and put on my gears when I fixed a milestone, which was a marathon in the calendar. Once I have committed myself to the goal, it acted as a pusher-puller every day.
    3. One thank you: I’m lucky to have a body that cooperates with me so beautifully. Even at times when I did not have time to practice sufficiently I was able to run a 25km at the Bangalore Ultra 2014 without any difficulty. I ran the Ajmera Thump Half marathon 2015 in Bangalore with just 3 days of practice the week before since I was grounded for over a month due to a toe surgery. That’s when I realised how blessed I am to have a body that is so understanding and kind. I realised the need to respect it and not take it for granted. I also realised how everyone’s body is unique and so what works for one need not work for the other. That made me more respectful and appreciative of the individual differences as well.
  1. Two to tango: Running is an individual task, but it need not be lonely. Having company, even if it is one other person, helps to keep the spirits high and get me on my feet every morning. There were so many days even today when I just don’t want to get up in spite of the alarm ringing incessantly. But the very thought that my friend will be waiting there for me keeps me going. Even on days when I go to run, I run longer when I have company compared to days when I run alone.

We run with our body. But the mind plays a much more crucial role in running. Both the body and mind need to dance together to have a successful run. Often I’ve found that the body is ready and willing to go the extra mile, but the mind plays tricks and applies the brakes. On the contrary there are days where the mind knows I have to run a specified distance to be in shape for the next marathon, but if I don’t respect the body, I end up grounded for days and even weeks together. Running has increased my respect to listen to not only my mind, but also what my body says. We need both and mind to tango for a successful run.

  1. Three part run: Running is a three part act, just like any drama. It has a beginning, middle and the end. Warm up – running – cool down. Initially I just ran, totally mindless of the importance of warming up and cooling down properly. But it took me some time to realise the significance of the opening and closing parts of running as well. When I do not warm up properly I find the tiredness after the run and soreness on parts of the body used to be bad. Luckily I have not experienced any cramps or other injuries so far. But I realised how I cannot take for granted my body. One way of respecting it is to warm up properly with some basic stretches and pulls that work for me. I do not follow a strict routine, but anything that comes up that day. If I do not cool down properly, I end up with the same heaviness of the body. I do the same warm up routine for cooling down as well. Worse, when I take a bath without sufficient cooling down I end up with a nagging headache throughout the day.
  1. Four check points: Listening to my body, I have found how to know how far to push and when to stop myself. My four check points make it easy to take that call. They are: feet, knees, back and breath.
    1. Feet: A pair of good shoes and soft and absorbent socks to protect the feet is a basic requirement for a happy run. If the foot gets a blister or chaffed, that’s end of game. Taking time to explore options and invest in some good foot gear is a must. It is not about the most expensive or famous brands. What matters is what suits my feet; what feels firm and soft on my feet; what gives me a good comfortable landing position. That is the gear that suits me.
    2. Knees: Listening to the knees is crucial. Running on a proper surface is good on the knees. Even though mud or firm sandy topped surface is my favourite, most of the time I run on tarred city roads, for obvious reasons, living in concrete jungles. Till the knees can be protected by developing the right landing position. Initially I used to land on my heels with a thud and that caused a pain in my knees and ankles due to which I wore a knee grip during my first half marathon. After that I learned to land on the ball of my feet or flat on my feet, which has been a great relief to my knees and my feet. Voila, I discovered another secret about running! Now a friend of mine said I’m landing quite heavy on my feet. Now I have to learn how to land softly. I’m sure I will. If the knee starts to ache, I wear a knee grip. Surprisingly when I shed some flab and learnt the right posture and landing I’m not wearing the grip anymore. My knees feel good. If the knee continues to ache, then best to rest till it recovers and if needed consult a doctor.
    3. Back: Maintaining a straight and upright back posture helps me not have any form of back problem. I have noticed that if I run too slowly or if I slouch leaning forward while running it hurts my back. Running with right shoes and on the right surface is good for the back as well. If the back aches, it’s not advisable to keep running.
    4. Breath: I’m lucky to have learned very early in my running how to know the right pace for long distance running. I used to run fast and then slow down or walk till I recover myself. Thanks to Prasad, my first running partner and whom I consider my fitness guru, taught me how breath is the key to a steady pace. Now I run at a constant and steady pace throughout the run. My compass is my breath… the right pace is the pace at which I could have a normal conversation, where I do not have to gasp for breath to speak. That was a eureka moment for me!
  1. Five benefits: There are plenty of benefits in running regularly. I found these five the most important for me.
    1. Fit body and sound mind: Obviously running helps me maintain a sound mind in a fit body. It does not need any additional facilities… all it needs is a pair of shoes and a ready mind!
    2. Energised day: There is a marked difference in my energy level on days I run and those I do not. On the days I run I feel alert and energised almost throughout the day.
    3. Discipline: Prepping to run helps me to develop a discipline of doing something regularly on a sustained basis. It helps me to structure and manage my time effectively and beneficially.
    4. Networking: Running has gotten me in touch with people whom I would not have come across otherwise, from varied backgrounds. It gives the much needed social group (for real and not virtual) with whom I can share my doubts, successes and failures.
    5. Awesome: if not anything else, running gives me that sense of awe every time I complete a run, be it 2.5 km or 25 km – a sense of accomplishment and often achievement too!

Running, or for that matter any physical game or sport was not a major part in my life script. The only period I was engaged in some sports was during my6th to 8th standards in school. Before that, I kept off the ground due to ill health and after that studies took over. As I got older, I found creative reasons for not taking up anything physical. Oft repeated one was that was it not in my script. Thankfully, the universe has conspired to bring me to a point of rewriting my script in this aspect and I did start running. All excuses which I gave to myself earlier seem silly when I look back at them now. In my TA sessions and consultancy work I tell my clients there is no age bar to change. One can change at any age, provided one feels the need to change. If we are not changing even after knowing that we need to, either the current situation is not painful enough or we are not sincere about the need to change. It is the same in physical task like running too. One can start at any age, if and only if one feels the need strong enough within oneself. The other day a friend called me and laughed aloud uncontrollably saying, ‘Suriya, I could not believe you are running marathons!’ In fact I myself would not have believed if anybody told me 2 years back that I would.

For those who find excuses for not running, of which I was also one couple of years back, I am reminded of a post in FB, ‘It’s not that diabetes runs in your family, it’s that nobody runs in your family!’ Even though fear of getting sick could be a motivator to start running, I think to sustain it we need to start enjoying it. How long I will run is anybody’s guess. I will as long as the urge is on or till I find another interest. But for now, I’m not bothered about that. I’m just beginning to appreciate what an art running is, even though there is loads of science behind it. I’m enjoying it right now and that’s all that matters!

Disclaimer: If anybody told you running helps you lose weight, don’t believe that. If your purpose of running is to shed weight, there are other ways to do that more effectively, as running alone does not cut my flab. I have realised to shed weight along with running I need to manage my stress and diet too. Without regulating my food intake, running alone does not take off the extra fat. So what are my lessons about diet from my experiments with food? That’s for another blog, another day 😉

 

Best of Luck!

Wishing people ‘best of luck’ is a very common practice. I too used to do it as a routine for a long time. One fine morning when awareness dawned on me that we are responsible for our actions I started questioning the purpose of wishing best of ‘luck’. Then it implied to me that I was ascribing the outcome of my actions to an invisible factor called ‘luck.’ In Tamil it is called adhirshtam. I thought then that when I wish ‘best of luck’ I was implying ‘I’m not sure if you will do well, so anyway I wish you achieve what you want through a stroke of many chance factors coming together.’ How silly of me! I thought it was very superstitious and disempowering. Therefore I stopped wishing best of ‘luck’ and instead just wished ‘all the best’ – a very impersonal wish. Now after years I’m back to wishing people ‘best of luck’. What happened to bring this change of mind?Image

While I was reading the Bhagavad Gita I came across the concept karma phala which literally means the fruit of an action. On detailed study I understood there were two types of karma phaladrishta phala and adhrishta phala. The former meaning fruits that are visible and the latter meaning the fruits that are invisible. The real meaning is not ‘visible’ in the sensory sense but in the sense that the fruits that can be ascribed to factors that are known to us are called drishta phala while those factors that are not detectable to our conscious sensory mind are called adrishta phala. Then I got the meaning of adhirshtam in Tamil which is a colloquial adaptation of the Sanskrit a-drishta meaning in-visible which in English is referred as ‘luck’.

The story did not end there. Still luck was some vague ‘chance’ factor which was beyond our actions and not in our realm of ‘control’. So in effect it did not change my attitude towards the notion of luck, beyond helping me understand what a Tamil word for luck meant and what its source was. On further studying the Gita, I think in the second chapter, I tumbled upon the concept called daiva and that explained it all. Things started to fall in place which changed totally my perspective towards ‘luck’.

The Gita says, every karma has a phala. The nature of the phala is determined by two factors – those which are within the person’s control and those beyond the person’s control. Those factors beyond our control that determine the outcome/fruit of our actions are called daiva meaning the ‘invisible hand of God’. Even if one does not believe in the notion of God, we cannot deny the fact that there are umpteen numbers of uncontrollable factors that determine the outcome of our efforts. I believe a huge part of these uncontrollable factors is the effect of our own myriad of past actions. These uncontrollable factors are referred as daiva or adrishta or ‘luck’.

How apt then it is to wish someone ‘best of luck’ as anyway the person knows what they are going to do, but it is the grace of the daiva factor that needs to be wished for. Therefore I started again to wish people best of ‘luck’ without having to feel disempowering. So, now when I wish ‘best of luck’ I mean ‘I know you will do your best. I wish the golden hand of God be with you to deliver the best results for you.’

Best of LUCK!

This will also pass…

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For a few moments on the 6th day of my first 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat I got a glimpse of what it is to be the Buddha. I think that is what Samadhi is… it was an exhilarating experience and I said to myself, ‘this works and that is it!’ It was almost like having found the key to life!

This is my first blog and I can’t think of a better experience to write about! I had been wanting to do the Vipassana retreat for many years now. In fact I had registered and made all travel plans twice and had to cancel in the last minute due to personal exigencies. But this time I resolved that come what may I will make it and I did! The most intriguing part for me from the time I heard of Vipassana was that one has to be silent for 10 days. Whoever heard of that said, how is it possible… it’s very difficult. But at the end of the retreat I realised that being silent was the easiest part of the whole process.

As I entered Dhamma Setu, Chennai, on the 19th of December 2012 I had no clue what I was setting myself upto. The registration process went off smoothly and I went to my quarter. I was happy I did not have to share the room with another student. But that joy was shortlived as another student walked in within a few minutes. However, he was so understanding and nonintrusive, I had no problem sharing the quarter with him. The best part was he did not snore! Unfortunately he left on the 5th day due to health reasons and so I had the quarter all to myself the rest of the programme. At the end I realised it did not make much difference though! It’s all in the mind!

The course involved sitting in meditation for 10 ½ hours a day. First three and half days was ‘ana-pana’, which literally means ‘breath in-breath out’, where all that we had to do was to sit and just observe our breath flowing in and out. On day two were asked to observe not just the breath but also the sensations caused in and around the nostrils. On day three the focus was just in the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip. Imagine doing just that for full 10 ½ hours a day!! My first thought to run away came on day two. And it was not the last… throughout the course the thought kept coming, ‘why am I subjecting myself to this ordeal?’ I told myself one must be real crazy to voluntarily torture oneself like this. But I resolved to stay put and i got the answer on the 6th day.

On the afternoon of day four Vipassana was taught. The process was simple, the rationale behind it was simple, yet as we all know the simplest are the toughest. Vipassana involved observing the sensations that constantly arise on each part of the body from a position of equanimity. That means not being carried away or wanting more of the pleasant sensations or wanting to run away or get rid of the painful sensations. ‘Awareness’ and ‘equanimity’ are the two cardinal principles or goals of Vipassana, as I understood it. It is akin to ‘sakshi bhava’ and ‘smatva bhava’ as propounded by the Gita. While the Gita extols the significance of and the need for these, Vipassana gives a practical technique to practice them.

The first three days watching the breath and sensation on that small triangular area below the nostrils and above the upper lip was to sharpen the mind to be able to focus on each and every small part of our body so that we could be aware of the minutest sensations, gross and subtle, mild and intense. On day four I was glad at last I was able to know what Vipassana was, that gave me a sense of certainty and clear direction and felt at ease. But then I did not know the toughest part was yet to come.

On day five we were told to follow ‘strong determination’ called ‘adhittana’ hence forth. It meant sitting without moving or changing our posture for one hour three times a day during the group sessions. That was the toughest of the whole process. I just could not do it on day five. On day 6 second session of ‘adhittana’ I told myself I am going to just hold steadfast and see what my limits of tolerance are. I sat with crossed legs and ‘started again’ the Vipassana. Very soon, as usual, my legs went to sleep, quickly went numb, became heavy by the minute and after a while the excruciating pain started all over the legs and my back. I sat with gritted teeth focusing on the sensations telling myself ‘let me see what worst that could happen’. That is when the crazy magic happened all of a sudden. As I was sitting there fully immersed in and aware of the intense pain I was at the same time not feeling that pain at a different plane. I started wondering if it was some sort of trick played by the teachers or something else… it was so uncanny that I started giggling within myself. It felt so unreal that here was my body feeling that terrible pain with my legs and back so heavy like lead yet I was not in pain. While I was sitting there wondering this was not real, something crazier happened – the pain just vanished!! I just could not stop giggling and telling myself ‘this cannot be real’…. that is when it occurred to me what ‘sakshi bhava’ and ‘samatva bhava’ was. Knowing them conceptually was different and experiencing them in our flesh and bones was totally different. That is ‘believing’. That moment I was a Buddha! That was the point I started believing in Vipassana.

Of course that halo around my head did not last for ever… am not sure how long it lasted, but it did last for a while sufficient enough for me get these insights so vividly and when the mind started making all these connections and started craving for this to last, all of a sudden the equanimity was lost and I started experiencing the pains again. I knew it was not going to happen again as long as I wanted to have that experience. But that one experience was enough to deepen and strengthen my resolve to practice Vipassana. It is a blessing to have that experience! It gives me first hand evidence that whatever our scriptures preach, like karma yoga with detached attachment, is possible. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

Rest of the course went off well… with no respite from the pain though, but the big difference was I was able to sit in ‘adhittana’ on three more occasions before day 10. It is a testimony to the fact how much I underestimate the capacity of my mind and body. If there is a resolve and the environment is conducive, we can do it!

The evening discourses by Sri Goenka were quite refreshing and throwing light on the theory behind the practice. On the fifth day I had started to realise how what was going on was just a mega reframing process, as we do in NLP. It was also a technique to close all unfinished businesses as we do in Gestalt. The process was so scientific. Sri Goenka’s discourses reinforced that. He said how Buddha emphasised on the importance of body sensations as it was the immediate starting point available for us to work with all our samskaras, from past and present lives. Even if one does not believe in rebirth and past lives, it is still true that most of our experiences, specially the preverbal and deep fixations are stored in our body and under similar circumstances they surface as sensations. If only one is aware of these sensations and is able to see them from a point of equanimity, they do not create any more fixations, or samskaras, and the gestalt is closed. More and more we just sit and observe the sensations that arise (not knowing what they mean), be they pleasant or painful and let them pass by with equanimity without craving for the pleasant or aversion towards the painful, they all pass over and more from the deep unconscious surface to be processed. Thus it is a lifelong cleansing process where we do not add more samskaras which helps the old accumulated ones to surface and be resolved. Reminding ourselves that be it pain or pleasure both have the same common quality that is to arise and pass away – aniccha – and hence both are equally source of misery in life helped me to develop the sense of awareness and equanimity.

Emphasis on ‘right conduct’ (shila), ‘right practice’ (samadhi) and ‘right wisdom’ (panna) and how the three are interconnected and is essential for the success of this technique to work brings a moral and value base to the whole process. People may have differences with the specifics of the theory. For example I do not agree with the notion that one’s goal has to be to burn out all samskaras so that one need not be born again. I think it’s such a beautiful process to be born again even when one attains samadhi so that the whole of humanity could evolve to a higher state of consciousness. But none could have qualms with the relevance of the practice. It is so personal and puts us in charge of our destiny!

What a wonderful scientific process it is…. my biggest wonder is one man found this secret of life enhancement 25 centuries ago without access to any tool or lab or any other resources. He was the researcher and his body and mind were his tools and he came up with this amazing fact of life… a very realistic and practical technique for all, totally egalitarian and absolutely nondogmatic and non-sectarian. Hats off to him… and maybe that’s why he was called the Buddha – the enlightened one. The beauty is he made this universal and did not patent it or cry for copyright. The very fact it stayed intact in its pristine pure form over the centuries stand testimony to its relevance for even the modern times.

I cherish those few moments of Samadhi still and hoping one day I will experience it again, of course without any craving for it… let me see what is in store for me…. who knows! After all this will also pass. Aniccha… aniccha… aniccha…