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.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Action, Reaction, or Ego Traction?


One of my favorite television shows is You’re on Candid Camera. This show captures the reactions of ordinary people to extraordinary and even bizarre situations. I love it when people are literally caught being themselves! A show with similar undertones that plays on the ABC network, entitled What Would You Do, employs hidden cameras to capture people’s reactions when they’re thrust in real-life ethical scenarios that call out for action. It is times like these that truly test the firmness of our values and the boundaries of our convictions.

I’m a people observer. Seeing a face blossom with joy, eyes widen with curiosity or crinkle with a smile, or eyebrows arch up with surprise enlivens my senses. But when I watch a face fall with dejection, eyes narrow with disapproval, teeth clench with anger, or shoulders shrug with disbelief, my immediate reaction is to rush for the nearest exit. Emotions—which comprise an extraordinary range of behaviors, expressed feelings, and changes in body language—the reactions they trigger, and the role the ego plays is the subject of this post.

Consider common everyday situations and challenges such as marital tension, emotional betrayal, losing a loved one, experiencing a financial loss, being passed up for a promotion, running late, cheating on a test, not meeting a deadline, family conflict, managing difficult employees or unruly children, and tailgating on the freeway. These types of external triggers can evoke a whole host of unconscious actions, reactions, and behaviors in an individual, with an instinctive knee-jerk reaction usually being the first response.

For example, two people are in disagreement with each other. The elated ego feels pinched! In a show of politeness, some might nod, albeit unwillingly. Exhaling loudly to express disapproval, rolling the eyes to convey irritation, and clearing the throat to break the silence are commonly-practiced reactions. What if one party’s expectation doesn’t meet the other’s? Nostrils flare, jaws clench, and lips purse. The ego clearly is experiencing a threat. Continued conversation might elevate the adrenaline rush, pushing the ego to the battle front. When the ego is sufficiently bruised, many lose patience and react by screaming, cursing, cussing, and being physically violent. Anger can quickly cast a negative emotional net of criticism, sarcasm, suspicion, and blame.

Let's say a person spots someone from the past, with whom they have had an unpleasant experience. An awkward sensation arises in the body and a bitter aftertaste lingers in the mouth. The ego is very unforgiving and can’t let go of old wounds. While techniques such as turning around, leaving the room, walking in the opposite direction, or picking up a conversation with a total stranger might be worth employing in certain situations, others demand a long-term, more responsible response. After all, how many times can you give a person a stink-eye or a cold shoulder, especially if you have to be around them all the time, like a spouse or co-worker?

Take another setting: An individual receives unpleasant news. It’s natural to recoil or scream in fear when you come face to face with a dangerous animal or accidentally brush against a hot griddle. But uninvited, unexpected, and unwanted situations make the heart quicken, the muscles tighten, and the ears ring. Fear invades the mind; tears and jangled nerves raid the body. If left unchecked, fear has the power to assault and conquer the mind, not unlike a corrupt leader who uses his power to overthrow his opponents and emerge victorious. What follows is an avalanche of guilt, worry, anxiety, restlessness, depression, even paranoia.

Consider this scenario: An individual knows they have done something wrong. A sick dread begins to grow in the pit of the stomach. An emotionally-balanced person would admit wrongdoing and express remorse. However, for many, the ego throws a wrench in the argument, triggering one of two distinct reactions: denial and defense. In a vain attempt to protect the ego, many use pathological denial, hoping the problem will go away. Denial can rapidly precipitate to lying, ridicule, and rejection. Ignoring reality, refuting its seriousness, and abjuring responsibility arise from fear, and people clutch to it when faced with facts that are too uncomfortable to accept.

Likewise, when a person is too overwhelmed, natural defense mechanisms kick in that help the individual cope with the situation, and that in itself is not unhealthy. However, a prolonged justification of illogical actions and rationalization of mal-behaviors is an indication of the ego taking refuge from the situation. An appropriate present-day example here would be using the law and law loopholes as a crutch to engage in unethical business.

Whether it’s the compulsive negative thinking, the tone of the voice, the choice of words, the expression of emotions, or the body language employed— it's downright scary for people to acknowledge paralyzing thoughts and feelings, which keeps them locked up in unhealthy patterns. Over time, the repetition of these choreographed behaviors reinforces emotional dysfunction, despair, discontent, and emptiness. Some of these situations are intense enough to cause an individual to lose perspective, quickly sliding into a downward spiral of fear, anger, blame, disappointment, hatred, jealousy, guilt, depression, self-recrimination, or a sense of unworthiness. Is it surprising then that frivolous litigation has exploded, businesses and corporations are increasingly filing for bankruptcy, the divorce rate is at an all time high, and addictions and obsessions are on an upward trend? 

People don’t usually stop to think as reactions happen on an unconscious level. Vipassana meditation can help uncover blind reactions by teaching the individual to become aware of the mind, body, and emotions—a conscious engagement that reduces stresses, helps slow down and anchor in the present, and helps contemplate the consequences of actions. Vipassana helps transition from constantly running in the reaction wheel to responding in a responsible manner.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Three Life Lessons that I Learned

Here are three life lessons that I learned at a vipassana meditation retreat in 2008:

1. All in life is interconnected.
We live in an incredible web of connectedness. Everyone and everything exist in relation to each aspect of their individual life and each tier of collective life:
  • Family and generational
  • Social and community
  • National and global
  • Environment
An imbalance in any one aspect of life has the potential to impact other aspects. One tier has the potential to impact other tiers. Think of it as the ripple effect. The impact of your thoughts, words, actions, and behaviors has far-reaching consequences. The take-away message for me here was: Be aware of your thoughts, words, actions, and behaviors. 

Understanding your role in the Universe and living with that responsibility helps you assess life's choices in regard to its impact on the Universe.

2. Nothing lasts.

Impermanence characterizes life. Every living thing is subject to birth, growth, and prosperity, followed by decay and eventual death. While this might make intellectual sense, it's spiritual essence is missed by many, prompting us to embrace negativities, firmly hold on to beliefs and memories that no longer serve us, and engage in mindless, emotion-triggered reactions. The take-away message for me here was: Practice detachment and learn to let go.

The awareness that arises from consciously letting go of past resentment, limitations, beliefs, and preconceptions helps you fulfill the highest expression of who you are as a human being.

3. We are not alone.

In the Indian culture, the popular "Namaste" salutation -- the coming together of the hands, the closing of the eyes, the bowing of the head, and the uttering of the word namaste -- is actually an affirmation of one another's divinity and humanity. Unfortunately, because humans function primarily on an egoic level, our disparities tend to supplant our commonalities. The result is stress, strife, struggle, and suffering. The take-away message for me here was: The significance of human connectivity is our sameness.

Meditation in general and vipassana meditation in particular is the key to help transcend the ego, lift the habitual veil of blindness, and engender universal love and compassion.