Wednesday, January 02, 2013

4 ways to improve the quality of your mediation

I have been meditating twice a day (mostly) for about 2 years now. Just thought I would share some things that benefited my meditation sessions.

I. Relax into your meditation

Relaxation helps you relieve tensions in your body. But meditation goes deeper.
Conversely, one can first do a relaxation exercise to relax the tense parts of the body. Once that is taken care of, it is easier to focus on calming down or observing the pesky mind. A simple relaxation exercise is to mentally scan the body from head to toe and each time you pass through a body part (say nose or thighs, etc), mentally repeat the word relax. The amazing thing about this is that doing this 2-3 times makes me see tangible differences in my state of relaxation. Another way to ease into meditation is to do some deep abdominal breathing.  A deep breath is associated with a relaxed state of mind. So the benefits of this goes without saying.

II. Let go of expectations

It would be great if this meditation were perfect - Very calm, no chattering, no worries, no rumination. This statement is fine as an intention. You can have an intention and then let it go. But an expectation is to have this statement run as an under-current hindering your meditation. Since meditation is all about letting go, and yet having an expectation makes you hold on. If in the meditation, the thoughts are running high - So be it. If it is smooth as silk, that's great too.

III. Make it a habit

Habits are powerful. Habits make it easy to do an activity, they make it almost subconscious. So just as you brush your teeth everyday, you just meditate everyday. This makes it easy to meditate when going through rough times. That is precisely when you need to meditate the most!

IV. Sleep well

Meditation is not a way to short-cut your sleep. Good sleep leads to good meditation and the converse is also true (that's why I meditate before I sleep). The way I get to know that I need more sleep is when I start falling sleepy a few minutes into my meditation.  Meditation does make you relaxed, but you are also aware. It is a state of relaxed-awareness. Sleep is more like relaxed-unawareness or relaxed semi-awareness.

Hope these pointers help you out - And let me know what helps you with going deeper in meditation.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Going raw-vegan for 3 weeks

So this is a time of change for me - Spiritual, intellectual and also physical.
Let me give you a brief summary before delving into the changes.

Spiritually, I have been meditating more - Been doing mantra based meditations and deep-breathing.
Sometimes, when I go for a walk to get some food or to play Squash, I mentally repeat the mantra.
It helps me quite a bit - Brings me to the present and removes me from the seeming urgency of issues.

Intellectually, I am broadening my research horizons - Doing 3 research projects, one mostly on coding, the other mostly on algorithms, and the third mostly on theory. People say that Phd has to be very focused - You take one topic and work really hard on that and go as far as possible and advance knowledge in that area. This is definitely the ideal. However, I am coming to terms with my Phd not being ideal or perfect. 

Physically, I think I am reasonably fit. I have mostly been playing squash although I was also running until 2 months back. My diet so far has been half-vegan (I have yogurt but avoid dairy otherwise).
I recently got inspired to try 100% raw food by a few articles I read, so I am going to do just that in the next 20 days. Why 20 days? Well, the 21st day I would be at a workshop and I am not sure I would be able to maintain my raw diet with all the cookies and extremely healthy baked foods they would be passing around. Too bad, it takes 21 days to make a habit, so they say :-)

Why I am trying the 100 % raw-vegan diet

First on why I am NOT trying the diet: Not to lose weight. I am at my ideal weight, thank you.
Not for beauty, although it would be good to have a good skin as a side effect.
My main reasons for engaging this diet:
a) For the "rawness" of the experience itself.
b) To see if raw foods really give me any gains in mental clarity and sleep.
c) As a process of deepening my meditations - I am giving my body more easily digestible
and closer to nature healthy foods, so I expect that there would be enough resources that the body can engage to focus on healing and creative activities.

I am not totally new to raw food. I usually have sub-way sandwiches for lunch and have a lot of Naked brand juices. But this is a totally new experience - 100% raw and a significant change in my life.

A lot of change

As I mentioned earlier, the last two weeks I have been working through changes. I have been meditating quite a lot, thinking about my research quite a bit, and also thinking about how I fall into negative thought patterns especially in my interactions with people.
There have been certain people I am interacting with who trigger something in me that makes me lose my calm thinking process. Sure, they have an attitude and can get very bossy - But why can't I be professional in my interactions with them? This is something I have been thinking about - It
made me go back into my past and look into similar issues that have not been resolved in my interactions with people. Oh man, issues do go deep.
Through all of this - I have been trying to set up positive intentions for my life and my path.
Perhaps the raw food experiment is one thing that can help align me with core self  better as I explore my issues through a more active body and energized, peaceful mind.

I recorded my weight before starting out - It's 142 lbs and I am 5'11'' tall.
I hope it stays the same or doesn't drop too much (I am trying to have enough raw food every day to make it a balanced diet). Will report progress in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Conversation with a taxi driver

I often meet interesting cab drivers when I travel around on taxis in Seattle (usually going home from a late night research work). They have interesting perspectives to share - How they got here or what they want to do in life, etc.

Today I had one such experience. The taxi driver was from Somalia.
He said that he was studying architecture at the Seattle University. He had purchased
the cab he was driving with his brother. The cab cost him about 300 grand. He told me that
he could repay the loan in 3 years using his earnings.

What fascinated me was the conversation that followed. I told him that it seemed like a great idea - You  have your own cab, you drive on your own terms and you also get to study the remaining time and also pay for the tuition. Why weren't his friends doing the same? He told me that they were afraid, they thought it was too risky to take a loan. They were comfortable with what they were doing. On the other hand, he wanted to go back to his country and create a positive impact. He wanted to rebuild his country. And that was why he was studying architecture. He encouraged his friends to do the same. They told him that he was acting older and more mature than his age and perhaps he should enjoy his life more. He told me that he was very passionate about his architecture course and I could sense that passion in the conversation.

His family repeatedly told him that he would never graduate from college. That was their belief.
No one in their near ancestry have been to college and so shall it be. Beliefs. How they affect how we behave and act in this world. How wonderful these beliefs can be and how crippling they can be too.
My taxi friend told me that in his case, his family's belief (or disbelief) in him only motivated him further - He would be very passionate and get a college degree and not just stop there - He was going to go home and rebuild his community.

How wonderful was his conviction that he would go back and affect a change. That's the kind of passion I like to see and hear in people. Do things passionately, let fear not cripple you.
Believe fiercely in yourself and your abilities and let not people's opinion cripple you, your dreams and ultimately your work in this world. As my taxi friend says, when you encounter fear, you face it - You look right into its eye and stand tall and you shall have taken a big step in life.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Extremes to Balance: Yet living on the edge

The background

The past five years have seen me go from an extreme living - an unbalanced life to a more balanced living. Let me explain.
Entering grad school in 2006, I had trouble adjusting to my program and doing research I was being asked to do. I was pulling all-nighters left and right, would work very hard for a few days and slack-off big time a few days later.
My eating habits were also on an extreme - I was subsisting on the same meal 3 times a day.
Granted, some of these experiences everyone does undergo in the beginning phase of grad school - However, even my mental states were teetering on extremes - Very happy one day to depressed the next day.
It was a period of high stress and many highs and lows. It was a period that wouldn't have been sustainable had I maintained my extreme schedule and state of mind.

A new beginning 
However, things started to change a couple of years later - I left my program, I started taking courses that were challenging yet I loved them. I found a new advisor and joined a new program. And sometime before these changes actually began, I started meditating on a regular basis.
It was my solace from all the chaos around me, all the uncertainity around me (at this time in 2008, I had no advisor to guide me - I was just following what seemed exciting and intersting).  Meditation gave me stability - It made me realize how volatile my mental state was - A continuous flurry of worries, emotions and fear I observed during my meditation process (I was doing "Observation meditation") - I even felt an extreme fear of going insane during these periods. However, I asked myself a question:
"Would I be ok if for some reason my mind went out of control?" - It was tough, but my answer was yes  - And that was when things started to change.
If I am not afraid of losing control of my mind - Then there is nothing else to be afraid of in life - And nothing much to worry either. "Nothing matters" was my realization and mantra at that time - It made a whole lot of difference to my mental state - My worries about the future gradually went down, I was less tense, and through all of this, I kept my meditation steady and saw that the fog was clearing up - Life was going to become more smoother - All because my perspective and my state of mind were changing for the better. Instead of a "flight or fight" response I had during the high-stress phase, I was starting to tend towards a "deliberate and calm" response.

These changes have occurred in phases and yet there has been a steady progress.
There was a time when I thought, would I every glimpse "inner peace" on a continual basis? And yet that very idea has taken shape. It's an inner flowering to a more peaceful state of mind and meditation has been a constant companion in stimulating and easing through these changes.
To give a concrete example: There used to be a time when I used to get very perturbed by missing a bus. Now, there are times when I miss two buses in a row and I am fine with that. And that's how it should be - What does one gain by making a big fuss of it, getting annoyed, frustrated, etc? Nothing!
What would be more useful is a calm analysis of what just happened. Why am I missing the bus or the boat (this literally happened recently), so to speak? Perhaps because I don't give myself enough time to get to the bus stop - Perhaps its my drive to be more efficient and to make the most of every minute that sometimes gets me into these situations.
Recognizing this and understanding this is a more useful thing to do than getting "annoyed", however natural it may seem. Indeed, it seems natural since it has become ingrained in the neuronal circuitry by repetitive behavior.

Infact I have tried to think of a situation in day-to-day life where it is actually useful to lose one's calm.
Can you think of one?
I can think of none - I think that there are always ways to address tough and adverserial situations "more effectively" by keeping ones calm.

The balancing act

Through my 5 years in grad school, I have realized the import of having a good work-life balance.
Although this might seem intuitive, in practice, balancing has been tough for me.
Don't get me wrong - I love physical activities, I love meditation and ofcourse my research. However to be able to balance these things on a continual basis, one needs to prioritize ones' tasks effectively - Something I am still figuring out.
I have always been a person who gets easily excited about things that come my way, so much so that I lose track of my priorities. A person who sticks to his priorities is more consistent in "the balancing act" than one who is not.
Example: Someone invites me for dinner, I stay up late at their place playing games, having fun and sleep in so that I miss a running race the next day (this has happened to me more than once) - When did my "immediate environment" become more important than my "long-term balance"? It's precisely when I decided to ignore my priorities or became less aware of my priorities.

On the other hand, there are people who are very clear about their priorities - However their priorities are all related to work. So their balance suffers.

What we need is a mix of the two qualities - An understanding of the importance of balance in one's life and the means to execute this in real life through effective prioritization.

Balancing yet Living on the edge
The next paradigm that I would like to explore, now that I have made progress on the basics (more inner peace and stability, more balance) is the idea of living on the cutting edge.
What do I mean by this? I am referring to the idea of being open to the opportunities, both planned and unplanned that come into our lives and seizing them immediately: We often hesitate when life throws an opportunity our way. What we plan for, we are ready to execute. But what of something that's unplanned but sounds great? We should be equally ready to recognize such an opportunity and change plans accordingly. How quickly can we adapt to these changes and re-plan our path - That is the crux of this idea I would like to explore.
As an example: I recently had an opportunity to do a good internship that would have helped my career - However I hesitated in my decision as it was not in my current plan. And a few days later it was gone.

I am also referring to the related idea of converting road-blocks and obstacles that come our way into a play-ground for exploring creative solutions. How awesome it would be to say - "I am stuck at this point in my work and not able to see any obvious solutions. How wonderful! This is an opportunity for me to exercise my creative muscles. Perhaps the solution would be innovative. That's even better!". Now take this idea and extend it from work to every aspect of life. One can even come up with creative ways of dealing with people.
Indeed, some people are natural at this. We call them "good managers".

Summing it up
To sum-up, let me humbly tell you that I have had a great time in grad-school so far and have learnt quite a few lessons, both academic and non-academic. There have been great many ups and downs that I have been through - But more recently I have noticed that I don't get fazed by either the ups or down. I stay more grounded and try to focus on the big picture. Example: Yes, its great to have this paper accepted, but I have quite a bit of work to do before making an impact in my area. Example: It's unfortunate that some-else proved this conjecture, yet I will have more conjectures come my way - so not to worry.
I see more and more, the importance of balance in both the quality of my work and the quality of my life. Balance gives me a win-win in both my research and in my life. I meditate -> So I more calm and can take set-backs more easily -> So I am more persistent in getting solutions to research problems instead of just getting frustrated and doing nothing -> So I am more productive and publish more quality papers. I invest daily time in physical activity -> So I am refreshed in the evening -> I can still get work done later in the night with a fresh mind -> I have more quality time for my research.
There is a certain synergy that happens when I integrate meditation, physical activity and research into my daily life. I love each of these three activities and one helps the other, and I love that synergy too.

Ofcourse, balancing is not easy and effective prioritization is something I am working on for better execution of balance. Finally, I like and am exploring the idea of living on the edge, which is embracing uncertainity and recognizing the opportunities both planned and unplanned, welcome and un-welcome that come our way and seizing them immediately and being creative in over-coming any obstacles for a more fuller, harmonious, exciting, peaceful and enjoyable life!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Involuntary Body Movements: Part II

This can be considered a follow-up post to this one. The previous post was on my experiences of involuntary movements during the start of my meditation journey 3 years back. It was quite intriguing to me, since it was clear to me that I was not causing the involuntary movements (by definition!). I could stop these movements at will, but it was as if a gentle hand would again begin the movements in precise directions and curves!
Fast-forward 3 years later,  I am a busy graduate student moving towards the end of my Phd, wishing for more time to do research every day - But at the same time balancing my life with meditation and physical activity........


I just finished a busy quarter where I set more goals than I could manage. However, I am getting better in planning and organizing my work to achieve my goals more effectively. No sooner did my quarter end,
I took off for a conference to Spain. I had a wonderful time there after which I spent a wonderful 4 days in Germany (specifically Frankfurt and Tuebingen). I consider this post-conference time a retreat time.
I meditated everyday for about 3-4 hours spread out through the day coupled with lots of rest and good food. Invariably, I would get up at around 3 in the morning most of these days. I was alternating Mantra based meditation (which activates my third-eye chakra) with Mindfulness of Breath meditation. I experienced quite a bit of:
a) Involuntary neck rotations: This seemed like a warm-up for what was to come!
b) Involuntary movements from the torso and above - Mostly circular rotations with center at the base of my spine.
c) Sinusoidal movements of my upper torso - Akin to a Snake standing up and waving about when it encouters something in its path.
d) Backward and Forward bends of my torso - This is amazing to witness. I am accustomed to rotations of the torso. But yesterday night, I felt an involuntary movement of the body where the torso started moving in downward spiral but then there was no rebound - That is I was just going down - This is the position I was finally in at the end of this movement: Yoga Mudra.

Although in the beginning, my focus was on the mantra and breath, as soon as these movements began, I could only observe what was happening - I was a witness to this cleansing process - To this rise of energy in my being. The sensations were usually pleasant. Even now as I type, I feel pressure at the center of my forehead and if I close my eyes, my body gently sways.
Where is all of this leading to? I don't know. However, what amazes me is the physiology of how this happens . In spiritual terms, these involuntary movements are associated with the awakening of Kundalini Energy.
However, what is the source of this energy? How does it act? What are some necessary conditions for this to happen? These are open questions for the scientific community, although the scientific community has a long way to go towards investigating these fundamental questions.
What I do understand from the 'spiritual perspective' is that the Kundalini Energy is inherent in everyone and starts to become awakened when the person has invested sufficient time in personal growth. What is the purpose of this awakening? In spiritual parlance, the awakening symbolizes the move towards a greater evolution of the human consciousness, towards inner peace and world peace, towards joy and greater fulfillment in life and beyond.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Music and meditation

I have experimented with a few different meditations so far: Breath-based mindfulness (Ana-pana-sati), mantra based (chanting a mantra in the mind), visualization based meditation (imagining balls or columns of light). With regard to meditation and music, I have tried meditating to slow devotional music with different degrees of success (in terms of calming the mind).

A personal experience
A couple of days back, there was a meditation group hosted by a bunch of UW undergrads with a good attendance. At one point, one of the people

present in the room started playing the clarinet. We had our eyes closed and just a few seconds before the music began, I started getting a pleasant sensation at the middle of the forehead (corresponding to the eye-brow or ajna chakra). The pleasant sensation stayed on throughout the time he was playing clarinet. I didn't want to come out of the meditation after the music stopped, just being absorbed in that sensation seemed good enough at that moment. Towards the end, the guy was surprised when I mentioned this to him and let me know that he had played the clarinet to the ``Bhupali Raag'' and that it was supposed to help stimulate the eye-brow point. I am not sure if this particular Raag is assoicated with this, but my meditative experience with the music was crisp and clear.

I have dabbled with the Native American Flute in the past and it has always given me a soothing feeling during the meditation. Perhaps I should start playing the flute more regularly.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

On Death

Death is a great leveller. Rich, poor, famous, average Joe - All kinds of people have to face one thing - Their own death.

My uncle, whom I greatly admired for his will power in getting things done and who I had a close relationship with, passed away recently.

I am sad about his death. He was in his 70's and he had helped a lot of my relatives with their personal problems including my own family. He was a man of great will power, was very organized in life and a stickler to his routine. He has helped and inspired a lot of people I know.

I understand that death happens to everyone. I believe in life after death. I believe that death is to the body and not to the soul. My belief in this has recently strengthened due to a few out of body experiences I have had. I believe my uncle has passed on to another realm, another place, another time. My prayers to him, that he be happy and joyful wherever he is.

Death of some one we know reminds us that we have finite time on earth.
Every moment is precious. Let us use every moment towards what we really wish to do in life. Towards our highest idea of what we think is a life worth living. Towards our greatest desires. Towards our greatest love. For there is not a minute to spare and we know not when death can come knocking.
If I were to live as if today was my last, I would have no regrets passing away tomorrow - I would have enjoyed my stay on earth and perhaps it was time for me to move on.

Let us therefore enjoy our stay on earth, devoting our efforts and time towards what we love doing in life whether that be research, music, hiking or one of the gazillion things one can do while on earth.