Meaning Meaningless

“What’s happening?” Have you ever had anyone ask you that?

As a beginner in meditation, I’ve often struggled with both sides of the question. At times, I’ve felt that my practice has resulted in a whole lot. From deep insight to even the occasional hallucination. At other times, its nothing at all. Perhaps reality is somewhere in between? You are just sitting down, watching the mind. And then again, there might just be something happening. Like a glacier scraping down a mountain side, its fingerprints are everywhere and its easy to miss recognizing what’s changing the landscape.

Three years down the road, I’m only now getting to a stage where I can occasionally turn my attention to the physiological state of the body to sense how far along I’ve come in a meditation session. In the beginning, the mind is stormy, tumultuous and ragged. Twenty minutes in, I discover the body is at peace, stable, quiet. Needless to say the mind follows.

And then there’s the pace of technology.

When I first saw the Muse headset at Le Web, I was blown away as it had the potential to marry metrics (a favorite subject) with the mind (another favorite subject).

I wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. The team of Mindfulness Inc. saw that too and have recently shared their invention with the Kickstarter Community. I learned about it through a friend who tweeted it out. A lotus that blossoms with changes in you brain waves. Wow?! Talk about great design. That was way better than I’d imagined it.

The Lotus is a great idea for someone starting out like me. This is what meditation actually does and you can see it happen better this way than any other inorganic method. Meditating with the Lotus can realistically improve your chances of staying on the wagon. Although I do wish it were to come with a warning. If you’ve come so far as to start a practice in a search for answers, I’d share that getting past that mindset instantly is exactly what this is all about. The earlier you deal with this question, that much better for your practice.

As a Zen master once referred to the mystery of meaning,

“If we are looking at something, it can vanish from our sight, but if we do not try to see it, that something cannot vanish. Because you are watching it, it can disappear, but if no one is watching, how is it possible for anything to disappear? If someone is watching you, you can escape from him, but if no one is watching, you cannot escape from yourself.”

- Shunryu Suzuki.


Beyond Giving Up

What you do after giving in is a true window into character. If you think you’re going to get back on track, here’s a few thoughts from different books I’ve read over the past year that will help you on your way.

Do you know why you’re giving in? The key is to know the difference between a temporary setback from one that’s permanent. Often this clarity is elusive when unexpectedly overwhelmed.

Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” describes an experiment where researchers gave guests puzzles to solve while measuring the dilation of pupils, heart rate. As the challenge level rose, they’d watch the pupils dilate as much as 50% and the heart rate go up by as much as 7 beats per minute. These physiological indicators were reliable enough to tell when the guest has given up,

During a mental multiplication, the pupil normally dilated to a large size within a few seconds and stayed large as long as the individual kept working on the problem; it contracted immediately when she found a solution or gave up. As we watched from the corridor, we would sometimes surprise both the owner of the pupil and our guests by asking, “Why did you stop working just now?” The answer from inside the lab was often, “How did you know?” to which we would reply, “We have a window to your soul.”

- Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow (Get the Kindle edition on Amazon).

Did you get the challenge-level right? If it is a temporary setback and you’re keen on getting back on – revisit the challenge level. Think about what might make it easier for you to get into the flow of things.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on happiness describes a spontaneous process of immersion in  work that can only be achieved if you’re able to balance the challenge and skill level. Too great a challenge and your likely to be disillusioned. Too little and you’ll be bored.

flow model

Flow Model, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

- from Mihaly’s talk and book “Flow”, (Kindle Edition on Amazon).

Slow things down. One way to reduce the challenge level without compromising on the opportunity to learn and fix is to slow things down. Deliberately practice your steps so that you can do them correctly. With the help of repetition and stress on smaller steps you’re more likely to figure out what you need to do correctly.

In “Talent Code”, Daniel Coyle refers to deliberate practice as ‘deep practice’, breaking down a complex skill in order to learn it. He relates how students in various talent hotbeds first watch the skill in action as a coherent entity; slowing your own practice down to break down the moves into its component steps and imitating each one correctly over and over again.

At Spartak it’s called imitatsiya—rallying in slow motion with an imaginary ball. All Spartak’s players do it, from the five-year-olds to the pros. Their coach, a twinkly, weathered seventy-seven-year-old woman named Larisa Preobrazhenskaya, roamed the court like a garage mechanic tuning an oversize engine. She grasped arms and piloted small limbs slowly through the stroke. When they finally hit balls—one by one, in a line (there are no private lessons at Spartak), Preobrazhenskaya frequently stopped them in their tracks and had them go through the motion again slowly, then once more. And again. And perhaps one more time.

Daniel Coyle. The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown (Get the Kindle Edition on Amazon).

The questions these excerpts will raise ought to be valuable for anyone who’s experienced the frustration of giving up on any objective. Fail and fail smart!


What is Water?

goldfish

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

- David Foster Wallace in ‘This is Water

This isn’t the first time the question “What is Water?” is used in a way to point to our beliefs. The central idea is that we all possess beliefs which may or may not be founded in true experience. For individuals, this is the same as living an aquatic life not knowing what water is. We don’t know of the existence of these beliefs. And yet we act on the basis of them. These beliefs are the source of our identity.

What do you do to learn what water is for you?


My Stay at the Ananda Yoga Retreat

In 2012, I committed to myself a three-day retreat to work on my meditation practice and myself. Its a great way to simply pause routine and bring focus on the tiny habits that creep in to practice and attitude.

My search triggered after a friend classified the Osho Ashram in Pune as more a resort than a retreat. Ever since, I’d been looking for a destination that offers both solitude and at the same time isn’t too expensive to get to. On one hand are destinations such as the Bodhi retreat in Kodaikanal. Getting there for me isn’t trivial. I was looking to keep the cost of my travel, stay as low as would be possible.

The Ananda Yoga Retreat is an ideal solution. The retreat is a great place to go if you’ve got a practice in mind. All the acharyas, residents at the ashram support each other in their practice. At the same time they’re agnostic to the specific path you’re following. They do dedicate the ashram to the teachings of Swami Kriyananda and Swami Yogananda Paramhansa. I guess this is as clear as it can be.

The ashram is a little before Lavasa in the valley that also houses Camp Temgarh. Travel time from Pune is a little over an hour by car. In the summers it can be bare and hot, we were fortunate to get a day’s rain that helped cool down the environment and radically transformed the valley.

Its important to let them know you’re going to be there a couple of days in advance so that they can prepare for your stay. They’ve got a range of options to choose from and also offer the option to work in the ashram if you’d like to do that.

On day one, I spoke at length to Shamini who helped me get settled into a quiet, one-room cottage on one end of the ashram. I was given a badge saying that I was in silence and that it would be respected by the other residents in the ashram.

Life on the ashram is simple. My stay included breakfast, lunch, dinner and nimbu paani (lemonade) in the evenings. There’s no room service, you’re expected to wash your own dishes and not lock your doors when you leave. The food served is vegetarian and low on spice. Often devotees will bring food with them to share and experiment with western food. The cottage comes with a convenient small stove, drinking water and a refrigerator. It’s a good idea to bring tea bags, coffee and anything else you want to cook in your room.

I found my room to be homely, about ten minutes of uphill walking from the dining area. The room stayed fairly cool in the surrounding tree shade. Apart from a noticeable brackish taste in the drinking water, it was an uneventful and comfortable stay. A healthy time to focus on my practice. I took regular breaks to step outside and walk around the huge multi-acre premises. Cleanliness across the ashram is well-kept and you may even wash soiled clothes in the ashram machine if you choose to do so.

It was difficult to stay in silence as the other residents were incredibly friendly and inviting. Dining was a cheerful event with lively interaction between everyone present. Except for breakfast, which is done in complete silence. I was eager to break silence on my final day and be introduced to the others. All are welcome to join in on the Ashram events (includes, meditation, yoga, satsang, prayers and so on) – it ought to be said that you don’t have to do so if you don’t want to.

At all day times Narayani and Shurjo, Ashram Managers are available if you need to have a chat or share your thoughts.

Their website, stay details, camps and rates are online. Hope my review helps!


What’s Luck Got to Do With Breakout Success

I enjoy putting together a once-a-year panel of successful entrepreneurs for the Pune OpenCoffee Club. This year’s panel was posed an interesting question. Someone from the audience asked “What role do you think luck has had to play in your success?” There are two extreme perspectives that one might take. These were relatively young entrepreneurs, each one having distinctive achievements early on in their lives. On one hand, was the surprise breakout success each one had had. On the other hand, each one’s struggle was undeniably real. While each one of them listed the ingredients of their success, none of them mentioned luck. The audience on the other hand didn’t immediately believe that the panelists weren’t favored in any way.

Tom Preston-Werner, Cofounder at GitHub has one way of looking at luck (from his talk at Startup School 2010 “Optimizing for Happiness“). As an entrepreneur’s wits get sharper with time (or hungrier, if you must) the way he looks at luck is both what he can control and what he can’t control. It’s both you and this constant we can’t change. He might not be able to control if someone will invest in him, but he can control if he will choose to invest in himself.

Tom’s journey began with that choice. He relates that he asked himself “Should I seek permission to build GitHub from an Investor? Or build it anyway?” He’s shared other choices in a similar fashion, including picking a big idea, moving to San Francisco, bootstrapping his company, giving Gravatar away to WordPress, choosing his cofounders, giving autonomy to his employees, deciding on an office space and so on.

In hindsight, I do agree with Tom that luck does have a role to play whether good things will happen to you or not. Before luck swings your way you cannot know for certain when it will strike. With that in mind it’d be foolish to assume that you can cease stacking the odds. Pick the objectives that you believe are right (or as Tom says, optimize on happiness) and keep at it. Learn to get better at recognizing what needs to be in your favor and its role in your eventual success. Interacting with a peer-circle of successful and experienced entrepreneurs is one way to stay sharp.

As Tom recommends, stop waiting on Luck and start acting on key decisions proactively. Then you have a real choice from day zero and a better chance of picking up on favorable winds.


A Conversation with the Infinite

What does it take to have a great first conversation? While I can only guess as to what that is, I’m going to put my money on not having made any presumptions at all, not only for yourself but for those your speaking to as well.

This is way harder than it sounds. Most business-people will tell you that no conversation can be had without an objective at the outset. On the other hand, those interested in efficiency will say that a conversation where you rediscover the obvious is boring. For me personally, I tend to jump to intellectually-driven responses that can weigh the conversation down.

Occasionally I might get to point out some thing about or to the other person that will surprise them, not necessarily in always a good way or bad way. Perhaps its the discovery of a blind spot, or something valuable, not necessarily rationalized, but true. As in any magic trick you need your partner to make an emotional investment before this is even possible. Its the act of prioritizing our choices that prepares the context for a surprise. This is possible in the form of a question, or even an observation.

Conversations are still a very human act at their center. Practice always.


Pick the Right Candidate

Our General Election is underway and I’m scheduled to cast my vote on the 17th with others from my city. The media is practically running out of confrontational verbs, “Rahul Slams Modi”, “Pawar Criticises Election Commission” and so on. The mind is exhausted by the narrow focus of the information it’s being fed and is starved for the truth.

How do you pick out the right candidate?

I think that’s the important question. If we overestimate the impact of our individual vote, in the process we might be led to believe we’re helping a party win over the candidate. Rather the opposite is true. The candidate I pick represents me in parliament, if he wins. I learned that lesson the hard way in our last general election.

However, your vote does eventually decide who will lead our nation.

Last night, I watched Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ramadan debate if Islam is a religion of Peace. Tariq’s opening argument, struck a deep chord with me. He interprets Islam as a means of self-education for the individual to help realize the road to peace irrespective of whether the times you live in are violent or peaceful.

This post is not about the religion, or any other religion but about our co-existence and continued prosperity.

Pick the party that can show all of us the way to work together in a way that does not compromise the fundamentals rights that we’ve been granted through our constitution. The one that respects the universal need for peace.

While we leave civic education to schools, our schools can reach only a fraction of our population. The other portion, including our educated adults, people like me still grasp at straws when making this important choice.


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