Skip to content

From Multitasking to Unitasking

Image Source

This morning I came across an interesting post called Machine-minded man that starts off with a great quote about simplicity:

Where there are machines, there are bound to be machine worries; where there are machine worries, there are bound to be machine hearts. Within a machine heart in your breast, you’ve spoiled what was pure and simple; and without the pure and simple, the life of the spirit knows no rest. (from Zhuangzi, chapter 12, translated by Burton Watson)

Richard goes on to talk about the ways in which many of us have developed myriad bad habits through our use, overuse, and over-reliance on technology.

Although I very much agree with Richard that it is crucial that we maintain  time and space in which to reflect while ‘un-plugged,’ I disagree that technology itself is the source of distraction. A distracted mind will remain a distracted mind no matter what noise, gadgets, or even great teachers occupy the environment. A focused mind can USE the technology rather than be USED by it. Just as we can be distracted by our bodies we can also become masters of our own bodies.

Richard’s post reminded me very much of Swami Tyagananda-ji’s podcast From Multitasking to Unitasking. I am uploading here for anyone who is interested in these themes. Enjoy! You can right click on this link and save the podcast and listen: 01 From Multitasking to Unitasking. If you are interested in checking out other podcasts recorded at the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston, visit the website: http://www.vedantasociety.net/index.asp, where you will find a link for the podcasts. You can also search for the podcasts on iTunes by doing a search for “Swami Tyagananda.” The podcasts are free.

Hari Om Tat Sat

I’d love to hear from you! Please share your ideas in the comment box and talk back to the blog. ;-)

Advertisements

The Method is to Know the Mind

A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya

Oh, is that all there is?

Welcome to Lesson Two where “the method is to know the mind,” as Swami Satyananda so succinctly puts it in his essay The Root Cause of Tension (Topic 7, Lesson 2, p. 58). He continues, ” We have to explore our own mind and come face to face with these subconscious mental impressions. This requires both time and effort.”

And how is that effort undertaken? We must begin with relaxation. The practice of yoga asana and proper breathing help a practitioner to alleviate physical tension, which in turn frees her to address the root of those tensions that invariably originate in the mind.  “The root cause [of tension] lies in the mind. The cause lies with conflicts and fears which are embedded in the subconscious mind and whose nature we are not aware of” (Topic 7, Lesson 2, p. 58). Here’s the catch: When we find ourselves caught in that vicious circle of skimming the turbulent surface of the mind we remain in a fairly high state of stress and tension, we seek a solution, a medicine, a method to alleviate that discomfort but too often we seek outside ourselves and end up ultimately only contributing to the storm. However, without a modicum of relaxation we are not able to delve deeper into the mind in order to address those impressions (samskara) that cause the violence on the surface and so we remain agitated, tense, skimming along the surface. Doggy paddling! Working simply on not drowning rather than enjoying a life (and mindset) that carries on swimmingly.

And so the method is to know the mind. Of course, we must learn first to relax but from early on in the practice it is useful to remind ourselves that if our aim is indeed to cultivate peace of mind and to be the masters of our own minds then from the start we must incorporate reflection, self-inquiry, and observation into our practice. In short, we have the capacity to reprogram our own minds but it requires systematic effort. To this end, Swami Satyananda Saraswati-ji offers ten “codes for mental programming” (Topic 7, Lesson 2, p. 61). Here, I will include a brief description of each. I hope you will find these codes useful in your practice as you work to achieve deeper states of relaxation through which you are enabled to weed out the splinters that cause you suffering and plant seeds for what you choose to manifest; for example, a consistent and sincere practice.

[All text contained in double quotations is excerpted from the Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya (pp. 61-63).]

Code 1: Make a consistent effort to accept others unconditionally and recognize that just like you and me others are operating under the influence of their own mental conditioning.

Code 2: “Accept yourself….Accept your limitations. But at the same time feel the need to clean the mind of its conflicts. It is our inability to accept ourselves that causes so much anguish in life. Amen. Grace? May I have some more please?

Code 3: Observe yourself and make an effort to identify your habit patterns: thinking patterns, emotional patterns, and behavioral patterns. When you feel a sense of dissatisfaction, restlessness, or discontent rather than look outside yourself for a magic-pill, simply look at the feeling and observe it. You might even ask, ‘What is that?’ You will be surprised how much becomes apparent when we simply direct our attention to new places.

Code 4: “View the whole world and everyone in it as being your teacher.” Specifically, learn to recognize your hot-button issues as they typically will point to your deepest attachments and hang-ups.

Code 5: Where are you now? Most of us, Swami Tyagananda-ji has said, are never in the present moment. We are either fretting over the past or planning for the future. Code 5 calls on us to make every effort to be here now. In the moment. Good luck with that and please wish me luck too.

Code 6: I am not the body, I am not the mind, I am consciousness. That is the truth that Code 6 entreats us to fully inhabit. That is, “most of us identify ourselves completely with our minds and bodies. We ignore the consciousness that lies behind everything we do.” Heck, what’s the point of working over the mind if we should remember that we are not the mind or the body? Simply, think of the Sufi image of polishing the mirror of ones heart in order to better reflect the image of the Divine. The more littered the mind, the more distracted we are from the source. We can begin to dive beneath that choppy surface by cultivating the observer, that is, by recognizing and tuning into our consciousness.

Code 7: “Try to be more open towards other people. Express your true feelings as much as possible.” Swami-ji explains that the more we act and pretend to be something we are not, the more tension we create in ourselves. In essence, the degree to which our words, thoughts, and behaviors are at odds determines our level of tension.

Code 8: EVERYONE has the capacity to achieve higher levels of awareness. EVERYONE. We should try to see this potential in each other at all times, “no matter how difficult it may be.”

Code 9: We typically avoid that which we need most. Have you noticed this about yourself? I’ve noticed that if I don’t follow a very specific asana program, for example, that I will have a tendency to avoid the postures I need most. Therefore, Code 9 asks us NOT to avoid difficult situations but rather to embrace them and ask ‘What is it that you are trying to teach me?’

Code 10: This one is old school and very familiar: Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. That is, rather than reacting to another’s behavior, take the time to remind yourself of Code 1 and remember that we are all (most of us indeed!) operating according to our own mental programming. Remember that what might be commonsense for you could be unheard of to another. Don’t try to enforce your worldview on others. Recognize that your ways are not the only ways.

Well, my friends, good luck. I hope you will find these 10 codes useful in your practice.

I’d love to hear from you! Please share your ideas in the comment box and talk back to the blog. ;-)

The Basics of Meditation

01 The Basics of Meditation

In this podcast, Swami Tyagananda-ji talks about the basics of meditation and reminds us to keep practicing the three ‘P’s: Purity, Patience, and Perseverance. He states that even experienced meditators can benefit from returning to the basics of meditation, specifically, by taking the time to ask yourself: Why am I undertaking this practice? Am I making progress? Why or why not?

Check it out. It’s an inspiring and useful talk.

I’d love to hear from you! Please share your ideas in the comment box and talk back to the blog. 😉

The Source of the Longing

Image Source

This has been written before. It has been previously experienced and teachers have made efforts to teach and pass on this discovery. However, more than anything, this steady, quiet, and powerfully intense truth is ignored, resisted, fruitlessly combated, and mistaken as a source of great suffering. What is that? The source of the longing. The source of the longing is the Source.

It occurred to me about two weeks into lesson one. Each day the momentum of the practice grew stronger, it pulled on me with greater force, and I found that I was fairly easily able to delve deeper day-by-day. After practicing with intention and focus a simple series of postures, I found myself directing the light of my attention with greater precision to the root of my spine. Once there, I was able to tune into the movement of prana and follow it as it slowly spiraled upward. As it did, and as I watched, the spiraling continued upward and concentrated itself in my chest, throat, and the middle of my brain and slowly, steadily, rotated as if it was gradually digging an access route to the very core. What was the result?

My mind is a filthy mess. Horrific. If the mind is like the ocean, choppy and disrupted at its surface but still and steady in its depths, then my mind is like the ocean at peak hurricane season: emotional, turbid, distracted, and violent. In Yoga texts it would be described as a monkey mind, in Zen texts it would be described as a wild bull. In short, it’s no place yet to set a flimsy raft for a peaceful float in the sunlight.

A few weeks into lesson one I woke up with a tangible and nearly intolerable sense of longing. Immediately, I tried to attach a meaning, a cause, a reason. God, I thought to myself, I really miss my husband. What? That can’t be it. He’s only been gone for a few hours and he’ll be back in another few. Again, I focused on the longing (this took three days) and as I did something clicked and the barrier between that choppy surface and the depth beneath it became like mesh. Loads of emotional debris, memories, instances, very specific, very old, and presumed to be lost and forgotten, a veritable parade of samskara (impressions) can marching by as I watched. Some made me flinch, some made me sad, but I made an effort to not strongly identify with any but to merely watch and the longing simply intensified. I held my focus on that longing and observed.

What is the source of the longing? What I’ve realized—empirically—is that the source of the longing is the Source. It is not my intention to pass on some hyper-abstract quasi-maxim that turns on itself like a Zen koan to twist you out of habit…well, of course, any twisting out habit can be quite useful. Nonetheless, in this case, I mean precisely what I’ve written: The source of the longing is the Source. Here is goes.

Embodied, we are filled with distractions: pleasure, pain, mental impressions, ignorance, a constant onslaught of information brought to us via our senses. Understandably, we lose sight of the Divine spark that puts life in us because the body and its senses pull our attention continuously to that choppy violent surface. With our focus there, distracted from the depths, we experience that longing as restlessness, dissatisfaction, or some unidentifiable existential dilemma. In effort to salve that restlessness we grasp at various methods: food, eat more food; chemicals, imbibe more chemicals; entertainment, don’t leave me to my own mind; blame, surely there is someone else responsible for my dissatisfaction; fate, of course it has dealt ME a shitty hand; and and and [fill in the blank with your own brand of effort to alleviate the restlessness]. Choppy choppy surface won’t you ever just calm down? Perhaps; but only after we begin to delve deeper.

That sense of distraction is indeed a deep longing to reconnect with the Source. It reminds me so much of Sufi songs of longing and drunkenness—drunk with the intensity of the union with God.

Here, I am trying my best to convey something to you. Something, indeed, that I am still very much working out. This is what I can tell you for now: It is EASY to get thrown off that longing and back into the choppy surface. The systematic and sincere practice of channeling and exploring that longing (and for me asana, proper breathing, listening to Swami-ji, reflecting, failing, getting up after failing despite the humiliation and the pain and persevering) is the most reliable method for not getting thrown off so much or as violently. This is what I have taken from lesson one.

Hari Om Tat Sat

I’d love to hear from you! Please share your ideas in the comment box and talk back to the blog. 😉

Making Connections

My Photo

You might enjoy reading Santhanam Krishnamachari’s poems, short stories, and reflection pieces on his blog Soul Talk.

In his most recent post, Santhanam writes:

“Once the great master was standing by a river in the company of His disciples. As they stood there, the master pointed out to a boat that was advancing upstream. The boatman was shouting out to another boat that was moving down stream in the opposite direction to avoid collision. When the boat in the opposite direction rushed closer, the boatman realised that it was an empty boat with no one to monitor its movements. Hence he just changed his course of movement and avoided the danger.

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa then explained to the devotees that the boat man neither tried to change the course of the other boat nor did he continue to yell. All that he did was to steer around the on rushing boat. Ramakrishna compared, the boat without a boatman to a person who is angry. Hence when one is confronted with the anger of another person it is wise to move away like the boatman who avoided the onrushing boat. He taught not to indulge in flinging abusive words in return. When when retorts back in anger, his case is also like that of a boat without a steerer.”

To read the post in its entirety, check out Santhanam’s blog at: http://yeskay-santhanam.blogspot.com/.

Hari Om Tat Sat.

I’d love to hear from you! Please share your ideas in the comment box and talk back to the blog. 😉

The Slow Challenge

“It’s easy to go fast” said Koh, “because when you go fast you can skip over parts.” Koh is a rolfer and a healer, who has the skill to direct prana intelligently and to gently dislodge emotional and physical crud. I’ve met with him for the first three sessions of the standard ten series and at each meeting he says something powerful and true that sinks into my mind and muscles and slowly reveals degrees of revelation. “It’s easy to go fast,” and so I asked myself, “then what does it mean to go slow?”

It is in this context that I embarked upon my ‘starting from scratch’ initiative and now, only four days into this practice, the power of slowness is becoming more and more apparent. What does it mean to “skip over parts”? Koh was referring to our reliance on speed (and the lack of or disconnected awareness that typically accompanies that rate of movement) as a means to avoid and ignore imbalance. But when we slow down and mind (as my grandmother would say—mind as a verb) each sensation–whether it be emotional, physical, mental, or otherwise–that arises in movement, we are better able to identify weaknesses, imbalance, strengths, and balance. It is equally important to sit in imbalance as it is to sit in balance. How else will we understand the difference? When we find imbalance and focus there, we begin to understand its source and this allows one to uncover the mental splinters (samskara) authoring that dis-ease. Find it, pluck it, and let it dissolve. You will find that it is really that simple. Don’t trust me, try it for yourself.

Once we deepen our awareness of movement, we simultaneously deepen our level of conscious engagement with that movement, that is, we can deliberately rectify errors. In my experience, correcting these imbalances and dissolving their surrounding tensions sends waves of energy through the entire system that cleanse and purge various physical and emotional toxins—those habits of doing, thinking, and feeling that supported the imbalance are washed out and let go. Hallelujah.

(Please never skip savasana—this is the most powerful posture for integration.)

So, although it may look impressive to rush through sixty asana in a one-hour class, to find yourself drenched in sweat and to feel “worked-out,” I challenge you to go through six very simple asana in one hour in your room, by yourself. By going slowly, we can more completely and honestly connect our consciousness to the ankle, the big toe, the rib-cage, the pulse and so on. As we slowly explore one part at a time we move deeper into our locations of ease and those places of dis-ease, which in turn empowers us to roll up our sleeves and get to the real work: plucking those mental splinters that chop up our inherent wholeness and which keep us running in circles of feeling and thinking that are based in disruption and ignorance. Pull the splinter and heal the wound. Take it slow and remember to rest.

If we base this practice in ahimsa (non-harming) and satya (commitment to the truth) we will find an even greater capacity to achieve much through slowness. Hari Om Tat Sat.

I’d love to hear from you! Please share your ideas in the comment box and talk back to the blog. 😉

Just Being

01 Just Being by Swami Tyagananda

“In the kind of culture that we all live in, doing is always more valued than being. We are continually being judged by what we do, the achievements we can show, rather than who we are as human beings.” (Swami-ji, lecture above)

Please take some time to listen to this inspiring lecture given by Swami Tyagananda at the Vedanta Society in Massachusetts in December, 2006. If you are interested in learning more about the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society or Swami Tyagananda’s presentation of Ramakrishna’s teachings, visit the website.

Finding My Feet

The doctors induced me the day before I was due to be born. A few years later, my aunt exposed me to her version of swimming lessons: Toss the kid into the pool and let her fight. We didn’t learn how to swim; we learned how to not drown. These two events made deep impressions on my brain and for much of my life, I now realize, I have been desperately trying to prepare and rarely allowing myself to just swim.

All that flailing about eventually led me to gradually creep up into my brain and out of the rest of my body. This is a problem! A disconnected head—no matter how clever—isn’t much good at all. Several weeks ago it became clear to me that it was necessary for me to start from scratch because I was using my practice as a means to bolster my weaknesses and bad habits rather than as a vehicle for “patient problem solving” (from Dan Meyer on mathematical reasoning), that is, systematically preparing the body and mind for the deeper practices of Yoga. It is no longer useful to simply jump in and flail about. Yes, I will get wet but what am I missing?

It’s been a while now that I’ve been taking walks while listening to Swami Tyagananda-ji’s lectures on Vedanta Yoga. One of swami-ji’s recurring themes is: No matter what your practice or religion is you must ask yourself, have I become a better person? Is this religion helping me to become a kinder person, a more productive, and compassionate person or is it simply a distraction, a show, or entertainment. Years ago I learned that most of us avoid the practices we need most, yet somehow I fell into this trap myself. And so, I decided, to start from the beginning.

What is the beginning? I opted to go with Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s idea of the beginning and to follow his course, to the letter, (I started this morning), for the next two or so years (however long it takes). The course itself is outlined in his book A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya. It’s a Bihar publication that I picked up on my last trip to India but have never followed from beginning to end, until now. It would be a tremendous honor, and I would be so grateful, to be joined by other Yogis, and if you are interested in joining the practice please get yourself a copy of the text and feel welcome to share your experiences here. That tendency to avoid the practices we need most is difficult to out-maneuver; it is useful to have peers to practice with and mirror.

The book is divided into thirty-six lessons; each lesson contains a practice to be followed for a certain number of weeks. The first lesson is focused on very basic joint opening exercises that many may snore at upon first glance, but I tell you my practice this morning was the most powerful I’ve had in a long time.

This is a practice in finding my feet, learning to swim, and bringing my sadhana into every moment. This is a practice to combine all the ‘yogas’ in effort to achieve Yoga. It is a beautiful experience to sit in meditation and feel the prana pulsing through my body. It should be more beautiful still to ‘sit’ comfortably in every moment in work, in marriage, in friendship, in being, and feel the prana pulsing through my hands, my feet, my words, my thoughts. It is no longer sufficient to DO Yoga, I am making the commitment (finally) to BE Yoga. As Patanjali recounted in his Yoga Sutras, “The practice of the perfect discipline is achieved in stages.” One practice at a time. I’ll keep you posted. Hari Om Tat Sat.

Mind Yoga and Mind Brain Education Theory

At its core, mind-brain-education theory supports a collaborative relationship among the various sub-disciplines of neuroscience and education. Specifically, mind-brain-education refers to the practice of building curriculum and teaching and learning strategies that capitalize on our understanding of the biological bases of learning and behavior. More often than not, those biological bases are found in the nervous system and a more sophisticated understanding of that system from the level of axons and dendrites to gross regions of the brain can inform the ways in which we teach and learn. Yoga practitioners and teachers–as well as others–should find this research useful and inspiring.

Personally, two findings in neuroscience research should be kept in constant focus by educators, parents, and students. My favorite gift from neuroscience research: the discovery of neural plasticity and plasticity at the gross level! Ample evidence has shown that our brains do not simply begin to atrophy at a certain age but rather new cells, new connections, and new configurations are made throughout the day, day-by-day, and over long periods. You use it, you don’t lose it. Although few teachers will ever find themselves teaching a student who has had a hemispherectomy, all teachers will find themselves teaching students who have been programmed to perceive the world in accordance with learned patterns favored by their familial, cultural, and socio-economic context. Some students will have had the exposure and support to develop strong and complex connections in their language centers, whereas others will have had the opportunity to cultivate whole brain creative and metaphorical thinking but what plasticity tells us is this: the state of your brain is not a fait accompli. It is a dynamic, organic, plastic, and phenomenal network of protoplasm that has boundless potential.

More often than not, we train our brains to be contained and rigid. Too often, we confuse rigidity with discipline and we conflate flexibility with irreverence and chaos. Plasticity is perhaps the most democratic scientific discovery yet because it puts each learner in the driver seat and tells him or her: Go ahead and shape your brain. This is tremendous and requires an enormous amount of personal accountability; knowing that the environments we expose ourselves to and the activities we engage in shape our very brains, presents each of us with the challenge to determine what we choose to do with that plasticity. What shape do we want our brains to take?

A study carried out with London cab drivers is an excellent reference that shows that the above argument is not an overstatement of the potential of plasticity. That study, which is found in many introductory psychology texts, took images of trainee drivers’ brains at the beginning of their two-year program. Specifically, the shape and size of the trainees’ hippocampii were recorded (the back of the hippocampus is the region of the brain responsible for spatial memory). Because London cab drivers are rigorously trained and tested before being licensed, their spatial memories are consistently exercised and challenged throughout the program. In order to pass, a driver must be capable of charting the most efficient course from any one point in the city to any other point. Researchers found that at the end of this two-year program the back portion of the trainees’ hippocampii had undergone significant growth.  Exposure matters, practice matters, and conscientious and deliberate teaching indeed matters.

The second discovery—this is one in which researchers are continuing to explore and amass evidence of—is the relationship between chronic stress and the executive function. Briefly, several studies have documented that animals exposed to chronic stress experience atrophy in the neural connections that link the frontal lobe—which is home to the executive function—and the more primitive parts of the brain, such as the cerebellum, that instigate behavior. It has been found that populations that are under chronic stress lose the capacity to evaluate the outcomes of their behavior and simply continuously revert to habit, no matter how self-serving or self-destructive those habits of thinking or behaving may be. Such disconnect is clearly not beneficial to any animal—human or non-human. Educators at all levels should keep this in mind when planning curricula, shaping the culture of an educational institution, and allocating funding. Is it really such a great idea to create an environment in which students are under such tremendous pressure that they are forced to revert to habit? Again, I do not think that this is an overstatement. Think, for example, of children living in warzones and warzone-like environments; how much executive function development is likely taking place there? Too, decisions to cut physical education first might be reconsidered in light of research that shows that not only does physical activity reduce stress, it also (cardiovascular exercise) generates new brain cells. With these points in mind, I would argue that generally speaking, US educational institutions in general are not creating the best environments for learning.

Plasticity and the danger of chronic stress which threatens to trap us into patterned and habitual thinking with no interference from the executive function both relate to globalization and educational change because they deal with a core issue found in many conflicts between peoples from disparate cultures: rigid thinking and unchecked habits of thinking and behaving. If we are going to learn to understand those who view the world differently, it is essential that we recognize that learning is not something that takes place during one’s years in formal schooling but is an ongoing process that changes us. We must understand that thoughts, ideas, and patterns of thinking and behaving shape us and shape others but they do not necessarily create an unbridgeable divide. Recognition alone of the above discovery has the power to transform learning in a profound way. Learning is possible only because the brain is plastic! It is crucial to support a conscious shaping of one’s learning by maintaining a supportive, low stress (as much as possible) environment that honors inquiry, analysis, and a healthy dose of irreverence.

So, how will you shape your brain?

If you enjoyed this article please subscribe to Particular Notes on a Practice via the subscription link on the right column. Please also join the Virtual Ashram group on Facebook by clicking on the image on the right column.

Making Great Strides

%d bloggers like this: