Tuesday, December 18, 2012

India, Don't Let This Moment Pass!

We saw it happen. Tunisia overthrowing its incompetent government. The Egyptian revolution ousting its dictator. Ireland's abortion laws coming around. The US considering congressional action on gun control. It's your turn, India. You hold the power! People power! You can do it too. CHANGE! Here's what I'm talking about:

Brutal crimes against women are occurring in India, the land of goddesses, at an unprecedented rate. The reality of rape, acid throwing, forced prostitution, trafficking of girls, female infanticide, honor killing and caste related violence is fast becoming common place. The most recent atrocity took place in December 2012 in India's capital city of New Delhi, where a young medical student was gang-raped and beaten on a public bus, and then dumped from the moving bus! The brave young woman clung on to precious life for as long as she could, and later succumbed to her injuries. The alleged perpetrators (the list includes the bus driver) await their fate, which in the past has meant one of two things: light sentences for the "unlucky" ones, and bribing their way out of an endemically-corrupt criminal system for the "lucky and connected." 

National and international outrage for the incident has poured in through social media channels and blogging outlets. Newspapers and magazines have had livid discussions about instituting tougher laws. In an effort to honor the victim, various women's groups and civil liberty groups have organized protest marches and candlelight vigils. Members of both the upper and lower houses of the Indian Parliament have stepped out and vocalized their fury and concern. The display of anger, outrage and support is legitimate, timely, and a much needed validation for the victim. But does it translate to anything meaningful? Into effective action? Or does it simply fade into the shadows until the next heinous assault and outrage?

Historically and culturally, India is the land of Parvathi, Kali, Saraswathi and Lakshmi -- the cosmic bestowers of fertility, strength, knowledge and spirituality. Mothers, sisters and daughters were worshiped for their life-sustaining attributes. Female power was meant to be revered. Hinduism, the religion practiced by nearly a billion Indians, regards God as half man, half woman or "Ardhanareshwar," which symbolizes the integration of the male and female energies to create a perfect, harmonious balance in the universe. If anything, women are supposed to enjoy equal status. That's how the ancients had structured society -- with equal rights. In the past, many queens like Jhansi Rani Laxmibai and Razia Sultan effectively wielded imperial power. Women poets and saints like Meerabai and Akka Mahadevi contributed significantly towards enriching the cultural landscape. In recent times, India elected a woman prime minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, as its Premier, and appointed a woman president, Mrs. Pratibha Patil. Indian women have made, and continue to make, great strides in education, arts and entertainment, sports and literature. 

Yet, today's India has become an anti-female society that is constantly under siege by a young male population prone to violence. Owing to its ingrained sense of superiority and privilege that is promoted by its own society through preference for the male child, these young men, in extreme cases, feel the need to act out their masculinity. We know that most crimes against women, especially rapes, are not about sex, but rather about a demonstration of control and power. So, how do we put fixes in place? Where do we begin? Especially in light of current events, how can India act so that monstrosities against women are curtailed? Granted, bad elements cannot be wiped from society, but surely fixes can be put in place to discourage such behaviors and mitigate their effects? The freedom to go outside without risking harassment and physical violence is a fundamental human right, and protecting its people is a core government function!

During my childhood years, I have been a victim, numerous times, of groping, eve-teasing, touching, and elbowing in India while using public transportation, and in a few instances, by adult men I knew :( My impressionable mind at the time believed that it was my fault, that there was something wrong with me, that I brought it upon myself!! I remember many of these incidents vividly, like it happened yesterday. The memory of such incidents is very traumatic on the victim, to say the least, and further, a potential double whammy because the victim risks being victimized again by society if she chooses to vocalize it. Luckily for me, I had a very supportive family and was able to emerge from it unscathed. Others don't necessarily have that advantage. Women shouldn't have to continue putting up with such brutalities for eternity. We shouldn't have to surrender our pride, honor, and dignity to satisfy the fantasies of perverted individuals out there. We shouldn't have to continue waging this war alone.Enough Already!

In many ways, the New Delhi incident has pioneered a path for ushering change. In my opinion, it calls for a systemic change, a paradigm shift in the way leaders steer a nation, in the way communities raise awareness of social issues, and in the way families guide their children. I believe the encompassing plan should treat not just the symptoms, but also strike at the heart of the disease.
Change can only take place through combined ACTION. We have to address the issues at all levels -- personal, societal, governmental and global levels -- to find workable solutions. Change should be gradual, holistic, system-wide, sustainable, and ideally should include appropriate checks, balances and upgrades in place at every tier. Else, any change is ineffective.  

Nobody is saying it's going to be easy for India or any nation to change its ways. All great journeys begin with the first step. In this case, a step long overdue. Rise to the occasion, India! The time to act is NOW. It's time to defend and protect your mothers, sisters and daughters. Take care of your women, India, 'cause they are the ones who take care of both your young and old. They are the ones who will fashion your future leaders. Elevate your consciousness above the roar of what corrupt politicians have to say and what archaic beliefs have to offer. India, don't let this moment pass! 

At the very minimum, the following measures should be considered. This proposed list may or may not be viable. I'm hardly a law or national policy expert. To me, being outraged, frustrated or angry isn't enough. Emotions are meaningless if they don't birth anything of value. In my experience, awareness and education play a critical role in the transition from frustration to action, beginning in the home, in schools, at the workplace, everywhere really.

-improve safety and security for women, in general, and especially in the workplace
-provide free counseling resources for women
-provide/enhance post-trauma care for women
-organize educational initiatives aimed at weeding out social stigma
-encourage women to carry protective aids such as pepper spray -tighten security on public transportation and in all public areas
-increase police patrolling in public areas
-rightfully implement existing laws
-make the punishment fit the crime
-expedite the criminal investigation process
-increase funding for crime analysis and prosecution
-train the police force appropriately and adequately
-organize awareness campaigns at local schools and colleges as an ongoing strategy
-organize awareness campaigns for taxi drivers, rikshaw drivers, bus drivers, and all public transportation officials. Make it a crime for them to be passive witnesses.
-for those drivers who aid/abet criminals, strip them of their permits/licenses. Also, threaten them with fines and jail time.
-establish emergency hotline services in every school, university, and public area nationwide

Clearly, these measures are not enough. Much more needs to happen on community and cultural levels to transform ideologies stemming from outdated societal practices and the values we teach our young. As more and more women enter the workforce, it's imperative that we educate our sons on the value of equality for all. 

Let's not sit still or waste a moment. Let's rise to the occasion, take a stand, and scream until our voices are heard. Let's go sign a petition for change, organize a rally, launch a campaign, make a personal change, or take a pledge. Let's galvanize supporters through peaceful and positive means. Let's keep up the pressure on our leaders and politicians for common-sense change. I, for one, have signed petitions and taken pledges for issues in which I believe. I have, and continue to, volunteer for causes to which I subscribe. The flames of awareness hiss and flare on my blog. Perhaps, more importantly, I have taken personal responsibility to raise my two young boys -- our future agents of change -- with the appropriate ethics and values so they can march forward as positive, contributing citizens of the world.

I can't say with certainty whether these measures will work. But I'm sure glad to have taken the first step -- a step forward in making this world a little safer for me, my mother, my aunts, my sisters and my daughters.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Toltec Agreement 1: Be Impeccable with Your Word

Read Toltec Agreement 2: Don't Take Anything Personally

Read Toltec Agreement 3: Don't Make Assumptions

"The Four Agreements" by Don Miguel Ruiz, released in 1997, has sold and continues to sell millions of copies worldwide. Derived from the wisdom of the Toltecs -- the ancient, native people of southern Mexico -- the four agreements provide a template for enhancing human behavior, interpersonal communication, and relationships. One reason this captivating little book has traveled so far is that these themes resonate so deeply with people at a personal level. 

Not unlike the venerable Thich Nhat Hahn's Four Mantras for Relationship Success, the Toltec four agreements pack quite a punch in delivering the triumphs of personal empowerment. Here are the four agreements:
1. Be impeccable with your word. 
2. Don't take anything personally.
3. Don't make assumptions.
4. Always do your best.
This post -- the first in a series of four -- is not a book review, but rather an evaluation of the Toltec wisdom within my own emotional and spiritual framework.

Toltec Agreement 1. Be impeccable with Your Word.

Words! Words are everywhere these days -- in books, texting, email, social media, advertising. There's also the original source of words: the human mouth, and it's thunderous as ever! Words have power. They can change lives. Words can be fired off as destructive missiles and words can be swallowed as healing capsules. Words can ignite minds and stifle lives. Words can be both empowering and draining, nourishing and noxious, liberating and entrapping.

In the midst of this word noise, how can we equip ourselves to make the right choices? Where words shape relationships and character, how do we discern between wholesome and unwholesome speech? Especially in the digital era, how can we use words to promote a happier, more emotionally plugged-in society?

Most of us know that speech comprising lying, exaggeration, sarcasm, blame, pretense, denial, defensiveness, abuse, and idle chatter is unskillful, unwholesome, and negative in nature. Yet it doesn't stop us from engaging in trash talk or constantly judging others. Why? Because it's fun. It's easy. It makes us feel in command. Makes us feel better about ourselves. Wanted, perhaps? And, ironically, it helps us feel secure from others' ridicule and judgment. Being social creatures, humans have an inherent need to belong, to feel accepted, even validated. Consequently, we make agreements with ourselves, agreements that manifest as unwholesome words, actions and behaviors on the external plane. Words serve as a perfect veil, the shield that obscures from the outside world our inner mesh of unease, anxiety, deficiencies, dissatisfaction, insecurities, and incompleteness.

No matter how we rationalize it, and whether we're willing to acknowledge it or not, negative speech creates tension in the body, agitation in the mind, and remorse in the heart. Tabloid headliners and biased-media outlets are examples of how negative speech can fan the flames of passion, ignorance, hatred and violence on a large, global level. Using language that thwarts our aesthetic and spiritual sensitivities and disrupts social cohesion is counter-intuitive, a step backwards on the road to personal empowerment, a turning of the community clock back to medieval times. 

Right speech is one that is positive in nature and embodies both present and futuristic qualities. "Right Speech" is an essential part of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha said that wholesome speech creates and promotes warmth, gratitude and harmony, and enhances love, kindness, compassion and empathy. Imagine a world in which we would allow judgment to pause, restrain our sense of impulsiveness, accept personal responsibility, and open up to others' points of view. Imagine, from the home-front to the workplace, the wonders a little empathy and sincerity could do for relationships.

Right speech is about practicing mindfulness, i.e., developing greater awareness of body, mind, emotions and inner guidance. Mindfulness can help us tune in to our inner environment, allowing us to step out of our shadow. Mindfulness can awaken us to the preciousness of words and guide us through the process of choosing the suitable formulation and delivery of words, at the appropriate time and place. Mindfulness can help us contract our ego and align with who we are on the inside. Slowly but surely, as we continue to transcend the worldly egoic conditioning, the emotional walls begin to crumble and the social masks begin to dissolve. When stripped down to the basics, we become better equipped to honor and appreciate human life and relationships for what they are. Nurturing our authentic selves promotes our personal well being, for sure, but also has the power to inspire a widening circle of happiness and contentment in the society at large.

Some specific strategies that can help inspire right speech:
-Attend a life-transforming vipassana meditation (mindfulness) retreat at www.dhamma.org
-Make this your mantra: Respond; don't react
-Don't take things personally
-Become aware of destructive feelings and emotions as they arise
-Breathe when you feel the urge to lash out
-Laugh when you feel the urge to be right
-Don't sweat the small stuff
-Only speak when it's your turn
-Take a moment to consider the impact of your words
-Refrain from making assumptions
-Don't let the past color your thoughts (and words)
-Listen with compassion, without creating conflict
-Focus on the behavior, not the individual
-Focus on the big picture 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Are You Pro-life? Sign the Pledge

Sign the pledge to educate yourself and your family on being pro-life

Young and vivacious Savita Halappanavar, a dentist by profession, died tragically on Oct 28, 2012 from septicemia, following the denial of a life-saving abortion in Ireland. I don't know why, but this case really struck a chord in me. May be, because, she's a woman, as am I. May be, because, she is Asian Indian, as am I. May be, it highlighted an issue that has forever beleaguered humankind – what constitutes "life" and "living?"

This baby would've been young Savita and her husband's first child, a gift they, undoubtedly, were looking forward to receiving and nurturing. Although Savita laid bleeding, enduring severe pain, the doctors in Ireland allegedly refused to terminate her 17-week pregnancy owing to a fetal heartbeat. Although it was clear she was having a miscarriage, the doctors allegedly cited Catholicism and protection of the unborn child as the higher priority. Mere days later, the unborn baby and the mother were both dead. What caused the fetus to self-destruct, we may never know. What killed the mother, however, was a blind adherence to a radical, archaic definition of "pro-life." Surely, life doesn't just begin at conception and end at birth? What about the entire course of a human life? How can you justify the death of a mother when her baby can't be saved? If flesh eating bacteria impacted a limb, what would you do? Would you sever the limb or wait until the bacteria overwhelmed the entire body? If a tumor grew in your brain, would you zap off the tumor or wait until it metastasized?

To me, the debate isn't about abortion or religion; rather, it transcends the mundane, worldly issues. It's about life and the right to live a quality life -- one that is fully expressed, connected, healthy, embracing, open to learning, compassionate, and vibrant. It's also about being practical and supplanting baseless, bygone practices with common sense approaches.

My own grandmother died during her fifth pregnancy, leaving behind my grief-stricken grandfather to care for the four older children, all under the age of six. But this was decades ago, in rural British India, in a tiny hamlet where the rooster's call broke dawn and the setting sun signaled dusk, where water was drawn manually from wells, where a stove comprised a pile of stones heated by an open wood- or cow-dung-burning fire, where cows were milked every morning in the backyard, where medical care and hospitals were as non-existent as the concept itself. Unlike my grandmother, Savita had the privilege of being in a modern-day medical facility powered by life-saving technology and equipment and surrounded by well-trained medical professionals, in Ireland -- a modern, advanced country by all standards. Yet, Savita's destiny was no different than that of my grandmother's.

Friends, it's time to think change. It's time to re-examine "life" for all that it represents, a time to reprogram our understanding of "life" to include not just conception and birth, but, more importantly, life after birth. Let's begin by kindling the embers of change. Let's engage in meaningful action -- one that nurtures, enhances and protects the sanctity of the ENTIRE SPECTRUM of life. Let's empower ourselves, our families, and our communities with knowledge. Let's make informed decisions. Let's learn to let go of blind faiths, irrational fears, erroneous beliefs, and meaningless rites and rituals. Let's ignite minds, young and old, to take a stand, make a personal change, fight for causes they believe in, or discover new things. Let's embrace the future and move forward together as ONE, with love and compassion for all.

Friends, your pledge matters! It tells Savita, and thousands like her, that her untimely (and unjust) exit made an impact on the world. If alive, who knows what Savita, and thousands like her, could have accomplished. Found a cure for cancer? Brokered peace deals between warring countries? Ensured a lasting supply of fresh, clean water for all? Her dying, unborn child didn't stand a chance, but she did.

Add your name today!

Thank you for your participation.

Sign the pledge today!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

13 Signs You're Experiencing an Awakening

You are experiencing an awakening, an "inner" earthquake, if:
  • You are able to quell past conditioning, focus on the present moment, and wholeheartedly empathize with others' feelings and emotions without judgment
  • You are less self-critical, and more self aware
  • You are beginning to see the far-reaching consequences of your own thoughts, words, actions, and behaviors
  • You are consciously learning to let go of past resentments, irrational fears, erroneous beliefs, blind faiths, and memories that no longer serve you
  • You are understanding your role in the universe and beginning to explore ways to make a meaningful contribution to the world
  • You find yourself appreciating others without any expectations
  • You realize that you can't keep running away from worldly problems and that you must find workable solutions
  • You are able to acknowledge the everyday people, privileges, and freedoms that you take for granted
  • You are able to observe, absorb, and appreciate the small joys of life
  • You are beginning to confront your fears and insecurities, and are looking for ways to take charge of your life
  • You are becoming aware of your self-defeating and self-destructive impulses and exploring ways to control them
  •  You are curious and are opening up to new things
  •  You try not to take things personally

Monday, November 5, 2012

Do You Think You are Your Thoughts?

There's one addiction in the world to which nearly all of humankind has unconsciously surrendered -- thought! Day after day, hour after hour, moment after moment, the mind keeps churning out thoughts, like silicon wafers on an assembly line. Because we don't understand how the mind works, we have simply come to believe that we are our thoughts, causing ourselves untold mental anguish and pain. Self pity, depression, hopelessness, dissatisfaction, anger, resentment, and disconnectedness, among others, masquerade our being by hijacking our authentic self.

The Buddha provided an apt description of the mind process:

The source of thought, "Awareness" is a non-judgmental alertness to the presence of an external stimulus detected through the five portals of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. "Perception" is the interpretation of the stimulus through judgment and labeling as positive or negative. Physical bodily "Sensation" is the outcome of this interpretation, and can be pleasant or unpleasant. Our in-built level of craving or loathing -- love or hate -- for the arising bodily sensation acts as a catalyst that fuels the corresponding "Emotional Reaction."

In other words, when the mind senses an object, it kicks in a default mechanism that begins processing the arising thought by labeling it sweet or tart, pleasant or unpleasant. The labeling evokes a predetermined bodily sensation that manifests itself on the physical plane in the form of sweat, shivers, chills, aches, pain, etc. Keep in mind, all of this processing occurs within a matter of microseconds. The catalysts -- craving and loathing -- aid the conscious but unfocused mind in deciding what degree of grasping to unleash. For example, if we perceive aggression as a strong trait, we hunger for more. If we perceive negotiation as a weak trait, we swiftly deny/discard it. Consequently, we either reject the arising thought with a vengeance or hold on to it for dear life. Either way, the response is a mindless engagement that holds the power to spin us into different emotional states throughout the day.

How do we maintain a positive, sustained emotional state throughout the day? If thought is an ongoing production, how do we slow it down? How do we detach our identity from thought? How do we steer clear of the negative states of being that thoughts and emotions perpetuate? How do we get in touch with our authentic self?

While we can't stem the flow of thoughts, we can cut off its oxygen supply by becoming mindful, by consciously refraining from editing/labeling/questioning/doubting/judging thoughts when they arise. We can further develop balance and equanimity by actually choosing the type of thoughts that we'd like to entertain. Remember the three wise monkeys: see no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil? 

The first step is to become mindful or aware of the flow of thoughts. Vipassana meditation is an effective tool in developing mindfulness and moving beyond thought to create an authentic life. Meditation, the doorway between the outerscape and the innerscape, provides an opportunity to witness the formation of thought and the entire mind process. All we have to do is sit comfortably and bring our attention to the breath. When a thought, sensation, or feeling arises during meditation, and we leave it alone, it generally makes a quick exit. The key is to remain as non-judgmental and non-reactive as possible. When we become 'lost in thought,' and this happens more frequently than not in the beginning, we bring our awareness back to our stream of inhalations and exhalations. We will find ourselves doing this over and over again. The patience and persistence with which we regard what arises in meditation has the power to decelerate the thinking process, hone our ability to distinguish our identity from our thoughts, and helps us gain control of our life, one emotion at a time. It also sets the tone for how we will respond to whatever arises in other areas of our life, including health, career, finances, and relationships. 

Once we have understood the mind process, the next step is to exercise prudence in electing thought choices. I recently saw a 3-monkey graphic that I'd like to share here. This graphic is an extension of the original "three wise monkeys" principle associated with being of good mind, speech and action. The gift we could give to ourselves when we make an effort to transcend, ours and others' limitations, deficiencies and shortcomings, is priceless, and a giant leap in life's onward journey.

Through regular meditation, we can lift ourselves up from the ashes of self-pity to the pinnacle of self empowerment, from masquerading to authentic being, from the shackles of hopelessness and resentment to the freedom of optimism, from a descent into depression to an ascent into sustained joy, from the relentless rush of dissatisfaction to the tranquil lake of contentment, from the depths of disconnectedness to the highest peaks of empathy and compassion. 

When we know who we truly are, we acquire the tools to enrich our lives with simplicity, beauty and meaning.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Goodreads Book Giveaway -- Enter Now!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Inner Pilgrimage by Raji Lukkoor

Inner Pilgrimage

by Raji Lukkoor

Giveaway ends November 16, 2012.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Are You Fulfilling the Highest Expression of Your Self?

In a recent article in the Huffington Post, entitled "Five Guiding Questions for Living Life to the Fullest," writer Karen Talvera answered five questions within the context of her spiritual framework. Karen's answers gave me the shot of inspiration I needed to evaluate these questions within the context of my own life, my passion, goals, vision, and commitments. Here are the original questions and my answers:

1) Imagine this is the end of your life... What would you like to have said to the world?

Just two words...THANK YOU!! 

I've lived a wonderful life, for which I'm sincerely grateful. Yes, there have been peaks and troughs. Elation for things that I could change; anger and frustration for those that I couldn't. Things that I cherished but were fleeting; things that I received but of which I didn't understand the significance. 

But the strong and resilient person that I am today has arisen from the flames of what went wrong yesterday, or what didn't work. Mistakes and setbacks have, paradoxically, enriched my life by bolstering my grit and enhancing my self esteem. In accepting my limitations and shortcomings, I have discovered the true meaning of "self love." I am now kinder to myself and less self-critical. Becoming aware of the positives in life has set the course of not being a victim anymore.

Learning to dial down on expectation and let go of what I cannot change -- the primary negative wedges that stood in the way of manifesting who I am -- have helped me slide out of the noose of my habitual anxious self, release negativity, and enjoy the present moment. Every time I endure a hardship, I only have to glance around, and my iceberg of hardships melts away into a puddle of petty, manageable concerns. The understanding that "it could've been much worse" is motivation enough to move forward in any situation.

I enjoy challenges as they provide opportunities to explore, learn and grow. Volunteering for various causes over the years has sculpted me into someone who understands life more deeply and appreciates more quickly. My everyday prayer is, "Hope I can contribute more today than I did yesterday." When it's late in the day and I'm tired, I sleep well knowing that my efforts have helped make a difference in someone's life. Here's a secret: The only reason I began volunteering nearly 12 years ago was to satisfy my own selfish needs and not necessarily to save the world.

My life experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, have helped turn the graffiti on the walls of my heart into a masterpiece of acceptance and appreciation. I have learned to receive more and resist less. Trying to channel dissatisfaction and anger into something meaningful and productive is an ongoing challenge. The ability to tune in to my inner song has prompted a deep awareness of my own thoughts, words, behaviors and actions, an awareness that helps me make appropriate choices and relevant decisions.

My work is simply an expression of who I am and a reflection of my innermost passions. For that, I will forever owe the Universe a deep debt of gratitude. 

2) What does the world need? 
-Less judgment, more compassion
-Less perfectionism, more excellence 
-Less idealism, more action
-Less distraction, more awareness 
-Less censure, more gratitude
-Less dissatisfaction, more acceptance
-Less blame, more personal responsibility
-Less divisiveness, more collaboration
-Less self-pity, more self development
-Fewer shackles to money, material wealth, ego, and status

3) What are your greatest fears?
 That the fuzz of our egoic needs will entirely supplant our spiritual needs.

4) What do you want more of? 
In keeping with the tradition of beauty queens, I'll say, "World Peace!"

5) What inspires you?
Failure, success, nature, my family, a good book/movie/piece of writing, undulating ocean waves, the eloquence of silence, compassionate people, relationships, science, technology.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Realm and Rewards of Vipassana, Part III

This is the final piece in a 3-part series on this subject.

Read Part I here. Read Part II here.

Part III: The Harmony of Breath and Pain 
When vipassana boot camp ended, I was more than ready to return home and be with my family, and even more ready to plunge into my normal life with my husband, children, friends and family, and I did so with a renewed sense of spirit. One of my chief concerns during the course had tethered on whether I’d make the transition back into talking and how challenging it would be to get back into the rhythm. The thought surfaced in meditation, especially in the beginning, and I remember wondering if there would be any “side effects,” such as hours of speech training and therapy. And then my mind had switched orbits. What if I’m so taken by silence that I decide to embrace monkhood, trading in my home for a monastery? Imagine, Sister Raji! Oh, my poor family! How are they going to manage my loss? Oh, the mind is so rooted in fears and self-importance! Of course, my concern was completely baseless as I neither ended up in a convent nor have I stopped talking since the course concluded.

Vipassana, the blueprint of a new life, has helped me fashion a world in which I’m able live in sync with my heartfelt longings, without the fear of failure or of being judged. I live life with a keen sense of awareness. I understand that I should stop reaching out for sense gratification, and instead, reach in, within myself, to find the authentic me. The Buddha’s teachings have taught me to focus on my myriad strengths, surround myself with positive people, and tailor my attitude to be more accepting of people and their behaviors. I’m less inclined now to fulfill others’ expectations at my emotional expense. Vipassana has also turned down the volume on my “complain” and “demand” notes. Forever I had experienced anger and frustration because I could never win arguments or dominate conversations like some of my friends and colleagues did. Post vipassana, my “deficiency” has transformed into a skill—a skill that allows me to be a better listener and remain open to others’ points of view, one that has added a whole new dimension to all of my relationships. I now understand that dominance and defiance are the hallmark traits of the ego, not of an individual; that traveling in the fast lane and multitasking are recipes not for effectiveness, but rather dissatisfaction. Making peace with what I cannot change or make go away has been, paradoxically, empowering.

Continued practice enables me to operate in a realm in which I’m truly excited to be myself and I’m energized to serve the greater whole. Awareness of the overwhelming impacts of perfectionism and self-recrimination has resulted in my being kinder to me and less self-critical. What is really great about silence is the simplicity it evokes, the opportunity to observe, absorb and appreciate the miracles in seemingly ordinary things, including bees buzzing as they flit from flower to flower transferring pollen, puffy white clouds that drift away to reveal a blue sky, or sunlight glistening through raindrops to erect a rainbow. I’m also learning to integrate flexibility into my life through the art of prioritizing. Each day now is a celebration of life’s bounty—food, shelter, health, friends, and family.

By profession, I’m an environmental engineer. Years ago I had a sweet government job, owned a house in the suburbs, had a wonderful family, and lived a perfect life by all external accounts. Yet I felt restless, powerless, and driven—if not consumed—by an inability to accept my good life. I always wondered why I was among the few that flourished while millions languished in hunger and poverty. I later traded in my career to become a stay-at-home mother, which, unexpectedly, proved to be a turning point. I became involved in volunteering, a new life experience that allowed me to have a meaningful, positive impact on communities worldwide, and eventually helped channel my distress into gratefulness. I have since stayed active by being involved in my children’s lives and in charitable causes. A privilege that I’m truly grateful for is using my thoughts, words, and action to inspire my children.

Before long, the waves of life washed me over to vipassana’s coast. Looking back at my early years, I now realize that I lived like an iceberg, a drifting existence, a mere flick of the potential that lay obscured below the surface of who I am. Vipassana has helped me tap into that potential, giving form and expression to my creativity. I’m sure glad to still have the house in the suburbs and a wonderful circle of family and friends. I’d like to believe that I write more adroitly now. In addition to responding to my family’s needs and fulfilling my various responsibilities, I am beginning to articulate my own needs, voice my opinions, express my preferences, and nurture my passions like never before. As a youngster, I loved to sing. So I enrolled in voice lessons to revive and enjoy the art. I wrote and published a book about my vipassana experience, entitled Inner Pilgrimage: Ten Days to a Mindful Me. Thereafter, I started writing a blog. I maintain my Facebook fan page and a website. I’m now a motivational speaker and deliver talks on topics such as meditation, life lessons, health and wellness at various venues. And to think that public speaking had always buckled my knees! My hope in sharing my story is that it’ll inspire others to begin their own journeys of self-discovery, at their own pace, through vipassana.

Having said that, I still experience low days. “Inner” conflicts still hold their grip. Despair, dread, and doubt continue to clutch at me. Anger and frustration over what I can’t change, like when my neighbor overwaters their lawn, still burns my insides. But the equanimity derived from vipassana has made it easier to release irrational fears and negative emotions. Vipassana meditation is helping me reconfigure my life, one fear fragment at a time. To say that these changes happened overnight would be a gross exaggeration. Finding the authentic me is—and will be—a lifelong journey of exploration, trial, and acceptance.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Realm and Rewards of Vipassana, Part II

Read Part I here.

II: The Anguish of Pain 

The three-day rigorous practice of watching my breath prepared me—mind and body—to enter the realm of vipassana. The technique itself is not complicated; it consists of observing the sensations the breath creates. Sensations represent pre-conditioned, mental patterns of the mind. They are a basic form of experience and existence that precede the thought processes, i.e., they exist before the litany of commenting, editing, labeling, qualifying, and judging begins. Per the Buddha, sensations are “karmic” in nature, in that an individual inherits the previous life’s “sensation load” at birth—a congenital disorder of sorts! This defilement “reservoir’s” extent is directly proportional to the past lives’ karma buildup. In the present life, sensory contact with the outside world through the portals of sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and thought can activate dormant sensations and/or fashion new ones.

Sensations are also described as “defilements” or the very specific emotions, memories, fears, attitudes, expectations, beliefs, pain, likes, dislikes, and stories that appear repeatedly in our consciousness. When summoned through a mental practice such as vipassana, the sensations manifest on the physical body in a variety of forms: pricking, pinching, itching, goose bumps, tingling, tickling, burning, pulling, tugging, pressure, tightness, heaviness, numbness, dryness, creepy-crawly sensations, pins-and-needles type sensations, pain, heat, chill, and/or sweat. And while these sensations are present at all times throughout the body, the conscious mind can’t detect them because of its lack of focus.

With each breath, as my attention moved throughout my body, from my scalp to my toes, the sensations slowly began to emerge from within. Continued meditation intensified my attention and accelerated my awareness of the arising sensations, which consisted mainly of pain, pressure, heaviness, numbness, pricking, and a few pleasant sensations. Whatever their nature, the sensations arose and passed away. As I learned to observe them, new sensations surfaced and bounced off of the physical landscape of my body. Ongoing mindfulness showed that no single sensation lingered for longer than a few moments. Per the instructions, I directed my attention to what was happening from moment to moment without holding on to what felt good or pushing away what felt bad. The directive was to survey the sensations with perfect calm and objectivity. Thus when sensations surface, and the meditator remains nonreactive or nonjudgmental to their emergence, the sensations can make a permanent exit from the meditator’s system. Through consistent practice, this “shedding” of sensations “lightens” an individual’s load of defilements, helping change unhealthy attitudes, perceptions, and habits at the deepest, unconscious level.

Goenka’s nightly lectures provided the doctoral dissertation for observing the sensations. It is striking how external, sense perceptions—what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—veer towards, but ultimately elude, a sustained experience of joy and contentment. The human focus rests primarily on externally oriented functions and results in a good part of our lives used up in planning, researching, analyzing, implementing, and decision making on the external plane. The Buddha advocated going past the external plane, beyond the physical form and paying attention to the reality of human life: what can’t be seen by the naked eye, but stimulates the brain; what can’t be touched, but tightens the muscles; what can’t be sniffed, but burns the lungs; what can’t be heard, but throbs in the ears; or what can’t be tasted, but produces a sick dread in the pit of the stomach.

The human resistance, owing to bias, ego gratification or error, to look inward and acknowledge paralyzing thoughts and feelings is self-defeating, and keeps individuals locked up in unhealthy patterns. Sex, alcohol, drugs, food, power, fame, money, work—the list is exhaustive, really. People take refuge in material pursuits, falsely believing that these pursuits will lead to Nirvana. Life becomes a contrived cat-and-mouse game as individuals mindlessly fasten themselves to sights, sounds, tastes, words, motions, or electronic stimuli, chasing after the next job, the next house, or the next spouse/partner, until fatigue or death triumphs. Reacting to situations in the outer environment, the Buddha said, affects the inner environment, spawning two types of sensations: (1) “Craving” sensations generated from reacting to anything that satisfies pleasure. (2) “Loathing” or aversion sensations generated from reacting to pain, both physical and emotional. The human predisposition to react with craving and loathing sets up a vicious cycle of reactions and sensations. The reactions eventually dissipate, but leave behind a residue that reinforces an existing sensation or begets a new one. Either way, the outcome is “suffering”—a life that reinforces addictions, compulsions and emotional dysfunction, and is filled with dissatisfaction, emptiness, stress, anxiety, anger, fear, and other negativities.

A question emerges: how is the Buddha’s ancient, psycho-spiritual doctrine relevant in the digital age? The first revelation that jumps out for a vipassana practitioner is the impermanent nature of the arising bodily sensations. When an individual observes change at the experiential level and sees firsthand how things arise and pass away, they soon begin to associate impermanence on a more conscious plane, in life situations and challenges, an ocean wave-like activity—they come and go. Some of life’s challenges arrive unannounced like earthquakes and tornadoes, and unleash unspeakable horror. Job loss, financial loss, divorce, emotional betrayal, and illness are a few examples. Others, like hurricanes, leave behind a trail of destruction but are more predictable and can be planned for. Ongoing family and marital conflicts are examples. The regular practice of vipassana builds up equanimity, an opportunity to harness pain into something positive, more workable, usable, and sustainable. Loss and change are facts of life, but reactions, negativities, impulsive behaviors, and self-destructive habits don’t have to be. They don’t have to define who we are or how we live life.

Humans are creatures of habit. We hold on to our past, because we think we can go back and fix it. We’re also emotional beings and cling to our fears and insecurities because we are afraid of change. Looking inward helps determine what enslaves us. Learning to let go and moving with the flow of life—disaster and all—is a wonderful shift as it helps break free of the limitations that have held us back, encouraging us to grow, to live meaningful lives. As the veil of inner blindness lifts and we learn to accept the present, cravings transform into love and fears dissolve into faith, ultimately fostering a healthy, balanced, connected life. After all, humans are social creatures. It is binding on us that we maximize that connection and learn to live harmoniously with peace and equanimity. And where we find peace, balance and composure, therein, we find Nirvana

to be continued... 

Read Part III here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Realm and Rewards of Vipassana, Part I

I: The Agony of the Breath

I dread committing gaffes. There—I said it! Until a few years ago, I wasn’t even aware of my fears or of the simmering, underlying dissatisfaction that fueled their existence. A surge of awareness has since developed, helping me become increasingly mindful. Today, I acknowledge and accept failures and limitations as a gallant step toward positive mental health. This is just one example of the many gifts vipassana meditation has given me.

To understand how an ancient meditation technique correlates to an individual’s acceptance of their fears, and in doing so, of transcending dissatisfaction, let’s first understand what vipassana is. Vipassana, a mindfulness technique the Buddha practiced nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, is the process of examining one’s mind through silence, breath, and body awareness. The Buddha advocated the three marks of existence: dukkha, or that dissatisfaction is inherent to life and causes suffering; anicca, or that life’s sufferings are impermanent; and annata, or that releasing attachment to worldly pleasures and the ego can help an individual release suffering. Vipassana in the ancient Indian language Pali means “to see things as they are.”

In the summer of 2008, I was among a group of nearly 120 people that attended a ten-day, instructor-led vipassana meditation course offered by Spiritual Master S. N. Goenka. The setting couldn’t have been more picturesque: a quaint retreat center in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. At the time, I lacked even the faintest understanding of just how swiftly this experience would transpire change. The retreat consisted of ten days of breath awareness and meditation, at the rate of ten hours each day. Grueling? You bet! Actually, it was downright brutal. For ten days I spied the vast cosmos of my mind, searching for inner peace and clues to unravel the mind’s myriad mysteries. For ten days I lived like a monk, shunning all luxuries and self-indulgences. Imagine a benign, insipid world of no computers or cell phones, and no texting, reading, writing, praying, listening to music, or watching television. Here’s the granddaddy of all forfeitures—no talking! The only highlights were the food and Goenka’s nightly video sermons.

Notwithstanding the sacrifices, my meditation got off to a roaring start. Just waking up at the crack of dawn was energizing. Experiencing nature amid all of its beauty enthralled my senses. Taking a break from my normal life seemed rejuvenating. Goenka introduced retreatants to a technique called anapana, which consists of observing one’s own respiration. Per the instructions, I watched my breath as it traveled in and out of my nose. Outside, all was quiet but for the minor distractions stemming from fellow meditators’ digestive track faux pas, or the air conditioner’s intermittent drone, or the occasional straggler’s muffled strides. The governing diversion was “inner” commotion. At every meditation sitting, my conditioned mind became readily absorbed in thought, reaction, analysis, drama, and fantasy. At this stage, a meditator has two goals: become aware of a spiraling thought, and restore the mind’s focus to the breath. Simple, right? Not really! The primary hurdle is the ability to recognize a wandering mind. Many minutes would drift by before I would realize that the movie playing on my mental monitor, starring me, was headed to Nowhereville! I would shudder back to the present and return to my breath. Then Mental Films would roll out its next production. Again, the minutes would elapse until the next realization and refocus. Needless to say, this happened over and over. The first day in meditation turned out to be more of a game involving constant pursuit, near-captures, and repeated escapes.

In addition, other sources of external distraction, such as physical aches and pains caused by long hours of sitting, the struggle to acclimatize to a new place, the anger and irritation that arose from people’s insensitive behaviors such as checking out early from meditation so they could make a beeline for meals or trading a sit for sleep also took up a good portion of my attention. My conditioned mind judged their conduct with a roll of the eyes, or a bobbing of the head in disbelief, and even an occasional snort and snicker. It took me many hours to let go of the memory of the woman in the dining hall who sneered upon seeing a grimy plate on the buffet table. All she had to do was pick it up and put it for wash. She didn’t; I did. It took even longer to forgive the woman in the neighboring bed whose constant squirting of a nauseating mist interrupted my sleep.

My awareness and my capacity to observe my mind strengthened on Day 2, enabling me to follow my breath for longer durations. But it had been two days since I had left home. I missed my family. The lack of social interaction sprouted boredom and restlessness inside of me, which was ironic as I was continually amidst people. The lull of the exterior offered a clear contrast to my mind’s chaos; both drove me crazy. That night, the swell of stimulation I had experienced upon arriving at the retreat deflated to a mere ripple, and I felt physically, mentally, and emotionally fatigued.

The third day unraveled a surprise: my mind’s clamor began to fade into a calmness that I never knew existed. I found myself eating meals slowly, mindfully, pausing between spoonfuls of food, and then chewing and swallowing it with a sense of gratitude. Thoughts still dominated during meditation, but my tranquil mind’s focus had shifted from engaging in melodrama to merely observing thought. It hadn’t come easy, but my mind had finally learned how to disentangle itself from thought’s nomadic ways and ease into the oasis of the present moment. During breaks I found myself contemplating on the art of “being with oneself,” emitting compassionate vibes in response to others’ disruptive behaviors, and making a mental list of potential candidates for this course, among other things. I wasn’t just living like a monk; I was beginning to feel like one too! Although I didn’t grasp it at the time, this exercise in honing patience and concentration helped ground me in the reality that is the now, and would remain as an anchor to help endure all future emotional upheavals. 

to be continued... 

Read Part II here. Read Part III here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What Will You Gain if You Lose?

Who doesn’t derive pleasure from spectacular sights, fragrant aromas, lip-smacking tastes, harmonious sounds, and tantalizing body contacts? The five senses originating from visual, olfactory, gustatory, auditory, and tactual stimuli provide the foundation for the human mind and body to function. Senses afford us freedoms: freedoms that deepen life experiences, allow us options, and broaden our perspective -- freedoms most humans with fully functional senses take for granted.
Visually speaking, we enjoy viewing landscapes, reading, watching movies/TV, and appreciating art, among other things. Could you imagine what the lack of visual perception could do to you?

Ray Charles could…but he didn't let blindness get in the way of his ascent as one of America’s “genius” musicians. Born into extreme poverty in Georgia in 1930, his only childhood companions were trauma and a growing musical interest. As a young boy of four, he witnessed his sibling drown in the laundry pool. Glaucoma struck Ray when he was five, and by age seven he went completely blind. Then his parents enrolled him in the state-supported boarding school for the deaf and blind, where he learned to harness his hearing and sense of touch to make up for his sight loss. He became adept at reading, writing and arranging music in Braille, listening to the radio, scoring for big bands, and playing a variety of instruments. The cruel winds of fate blew his way again in 1945 with his father’s passing, followed by his mother. (Source)
So there he was—blind, poor, African American, orphaned, and looking to build a musical future in the deeply segregated South where opportunities for someone like him were bleak, if not non-existent. However, Ray’s superior musical talent transcended racial and physical boundaries, and before long he was signing recording contracts with the greatest record labels of the time, such as Atlantic Records. In a music career that spanned nearly five decades, Ray won numerous Grammys and other accolades, released songs in various genres, produced albums with fellow musicians of the time, started his own record label, opened a studio, acted in films and TV shows, and even appeared in commercials.

Though he endured several sucker punches at a tender age, Ray Charles emerged a winner—an individual who embraced the thorny experiences of his life and created an art form that would inspire musicians for generations to come.

Let's consider our sense of taste, perhaps the most challenging sense to contain. Few are receptive to the idea of portion control or eating in moderation. We like our food customized—with the appropriate amounts of fat, salt, sugar, spices, lemon, and herbs—to our taste. We are willing to drive to the end of town to check out a new restaurant. The U.S. has about 925,000 restaurants, and at least 8,000 are added each year (Source). For food, we are willing to forsake, negotiate, threaten, even kill. Food is central to all occasions, pleasant and unpleasant, in nearly every world culture. We arrange parties and celebrations on a whim.

What if we suddenly lost our gustatory ability?

Ask American chef Grant Achatz. At age 32, a rising star who’s restaurant Alinea in Chicago had won awards and was rated among the best in the nation, Grant Achatz, in an incredible twist of fate, lost his ability to taste after being diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer! He immediately launched an aggressive campaign of chemotherapy and radiation, which surely saved his life, but it also seared his tongue and destroyed his taste buds. His cancer went into remission and his taste buds gradually returned one flavor at a time. Ironically, Grant (Source) found the whole cancer experience rewarding and educational as it allowed him to gain a deeper understanding of each flavor, its origins, the chemistry of flavor interactions, and the synergy involved in creating a dish. This radical new self-awareness helped him redefine culinary standards at his restaurants that have now expanded to three in number, and subsequently earn numerous new awards and accolades.
Ahh… the sound of sweet music! What if our ability to hear vanished one day?

Hellen Keller, the great American author, lost both her hearing and sight, when she was about two years old. What followed was a childhood fraught with challenges, until Anne Sullivan walked into her life and taught her the word for “water” by thrusting her palm under running water. Helen’s radical new aptitude had far-reaching consequences. She quickly began learning the names of other familiar objects in her world. It gave her a sense of determination. She became proficient at using Braille and reading sign language. She began communicating with her family. She attended several schools for the deaf and blind for her initial education. At age 24, she graduated from Radcliff College (now incorporated under the Harvard University umbrella and called Radcliff Institute for Advanced Study with a Bachelor of Arts degree—the first deaf blind person to do so. Helen went on to become an author, publishing 12 books and several articles, a lecturer, speaker, and political activist! Helen Keller is a national treasure and continues to inspire people everywhere. The world is undoubtedly a richer place because of her brief interlude.
The point is that we take so much for granted -- senses, things, people, situations. Especially with our senses, we neither grasp nor appreciate the freedoms they afford. We eat until our stomachs hurt. We neglect to attend to our bodily needs in a timely manner. Our emotions supplant our sense of humor at family gatherings. We frequently take our freedom of speech for granted. We make nasty comments, criticize others, and view everyone with judgmental lenses. While we can't go back and erase the unpleasant parts of our lives, we can move forward with a deeper sense of self-awareness and gratitude that will serve to ground us in the present moment, help savor every nugget of experience, and help brighten the lamp of compassion.