Focus

Today was the worst day. I walked around searching for my glasses with them on my head. That does it. I need to start a “meditation project.” Everyday. Ten minutes. At least.

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My inability to meditate properly is really stressing me out
Shoba Narayan
July 14, 2014 Updated: July 14, 2014 05:26 PM

In his book, Focus: The Hidden Ingredient of Excellence, author Daniel Goleman talks about the different kinds of attention. The most obvious kind of focus, he says, is concentration where the mind is rooted to a task until a solution is reached. This type of focus is best suited to analytical work.
Creative insights, on the other hand, occur when the mind is loose, open, and aware. There is a reason why psychologists like to put their subjects on the couch. When you are lying down and daydreaming, you reach into your psyche and touch upon aspects that are not normally on the surface. This is the site of insight and intuition.
There are a few ways to trigger the pathways that open intuition, insight and imagination.
The easiest way is to go to sleep. There is a reason why we wake up and discover that the knotty problem that we have been wrestling with has been solved overnight. Another way is to meditate. Meditating, or accepting thoughts as they come and sending them on their way, allows the mind to relax. It expands and opens the brain and primes its receptors to the sort of ideas and insights that leap across boundaries.
I am a failed meditator. I have tried sitting cross-legged and attempted to “watch my thoughts,” as it were. Sadly, they were all over the place. They did not make sense and worst of all they were mundane, tacking the kind of trivia that is traditionally the realm of children and old women: “Should I have acted differently at the party? Did I pay the right amount for those dozen apples or did I overpay?” my mind wandered. “Did I forget to turn the gas off before ducking out of the door?” The idle mind, they say, is a devil’s workshop. My idle mind was a fool’s paradise, focusing on personal issues and unresolved business of the most idiotic nature. Sometimes, I daydreamed of holidays. Mostly, I fell asleep sitting up. Meditation wasn’t helping me with focus. It was helping me combat insomnia.
Meditation is among the hardest things to do, particularly in this world that values action over stillness and doing over being.
I have tried meditating for years and I have failed. I find sitting still terrifying. I feel guilty for not doing anything. It seems like such a waste of time to just sit there.
The problem with such practices is that their benefits are not immediately obvious. You can read the literature. You can fully buy into the Dalai Lama’s assurance that meditation is the path to rewiring your brain. You can listen to Steve jobs talk about opening the channels of intuition and imagination. You can take online courses on mindfulness and focusing attention, all of which are essential for leaders. It still doesn’t make the actual task easy.
I have tried novel approaches. I have pretended to be a Tibetan monk while sitting cross legged and trying to control my thoughts. It made me feel good. It put me in a good mood and gave me a beatific smile. But as for controlling my impulses, the chocolate cravings only grew stronger.
Then I decided that sitting still was not for me. I would do walking meditation – like Steve Jobs who walked while holding meetings because nature triggers positive neural impulses.
The only problem was that nobody wanted to walk with me. I told my husband that I was going to be Joan of Arc and meditate on a horse. His gaze didn’t alter.
In desperation, I have come to you, dear reader.
Here is a challenge: both for you and for me. Let us meditate for 20 minutes every day. Announcing something like this helps sustain action, according to social psychology. So this in a sense, is my last ditch effort to get on the path to mental nirvana. I will keep you posted as to whether it works.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Yoga and Willpower

I restarted yoga lessons. My teacher is very good, but very very busy!!! Hope his timings and mine can work out long term.
Inspired by my lessons…..

yoga1

Can yoga improve your willpower?

In an ideal world, stilettos would have massager-inserts in them; French fries would remove the toxins from your body and make your waistline shrink; and everyone would have the willpower to do whatever they wanted to accomplish. But reality, sadly, is a little different. Social psychology points to four characteristics that lead to success: resilience, willpower, focus and imagination. In an outlandish and somewhat brilliant twist, all four of these characteristics can be cultivated by a practice that is at least as ancient as Indian corruption. I speak, of course, of the global juggernaut that we call yoga.
As someone who learnt yoga as a child, I am a little unnerved by the sight of blonde women with long Scandinavian bodies chanting Sanskrit mantras and doing the downward dog with far more flexibility than I ever could. I suppose I should feel proud rather than resentful. After all, it takes a special kind of inventiveness to look at how scorpions, dogs, crows and locusts move and come up with asanas that manage to enlighten or humiliate, depending on what level you’re at.
Like many Indian children, I was sent off to the local playground to learn yoga from a man who looked like a military commander. My teacher made us contort our bodies into bends, stretches and lunges. No theory was given. Raps on the knuckles were a favoured mode of punishment, along with “Stand up on the bench”, except that there was no bench on the field, so it was modified to “Stand up on the branch”, which was equally humiliating because we stood there swaying on a guava branch that was permanently at risk of breaking.
I have remained interested in yoga. I do the asanas or poses every now and then, sometimes consistently and sometimes sporadically. Looking back, it seems like I turned to yoga at transition points in my life. As a newly wed, my husband would walk into the house and find me engaged in a headstand—an unnerving experience for him, particularly after a flaming row. When things got rough in graduate school, I would find myself waking up in the morning and doing the Trikonasana, or the triangle pose, bending down as if I was surrendering to a higher power—or in my case, my thesis adviser. After the birth of my children, my gynaecologist recommended stretches. Although I couldn’t see how more stretching could remove stretch marks, I turned to yoga.
There are many schools of yoga now, and those of us who have learnt yoga since childhood have a view on them. I, for example, don’t subscribe to Bikram Yoga, in which practitioners do the asanas in a room heated to 40 degrees Celsius, with high humidity to boot. It’s like a combination of sauna and steam shower, except that people are not naked and are doing poses. Power yoga was invented in the US as a way of combining fitness with yoga. As someone who is reflexively against fusion—be it in food or anything else—I have trouble with this too. I find the Bihar School of Yoga (BSY) to be authentic; as is Ashtanga, Sivananda and Iyengar yoga.
My current teacher follows these four schools and often, we have discussions. A Sanskrit quote he recently taught me goes like this: “Sthiram sukham asanam”. It comes from the “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”. The literal meaning is “stability comfort is asana”. If you find a pose where you are able to stay still for a long time, it is like doing an asana. Indian mythology supports this. In every mythical story, it seems, there is a saint (or rishi) who sits in Padmasana, or the lotus pose, for centuries in order to obtain immortality, the company of beautiful women, or eternal youth.
Why obtain immortality if you are going to use it to sit still for centuries is beyond me but that was what the stories said. My goals are more modest. I would like to have more willpower so that I can resist any number of things: stop eating potato chips late at night; stop throwing things at the television when a particular news anchor comes on; and stop hankering for increased willpower to engage in all these goals.
Roy F. Baumeister, a psychologist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength, has a few pithy points. He says that willpower is a muscle. It can be developed; at the same time, it gets tired with overuse. So if you want to stop eating chocolates at the end of the day, reduce the number of decisions you make at the beginning of the day.
A simple way to do this is to wear the same suit to work every day. Schools call it uniform. The logic is simple. Choices involve decisions which reduce willpower. One of the activities that Baumeister suggests is to sit still in one position. He says that postural discipline leads to mental discipline.
This then is the way to merge yoga with modern social psychology. To use an asana to develop focus and willpower. Try sitting in one position without moving. It could be in front of the computer or while you are conversing with somebody. The whole point is to find a position where you are able to stay still and do just that: Stay still. According to Baumeister, this stillness increases willpower over time. “Sthiram sukham asanam.”

Shoba Narayan can definitely stay still for at least 3 hours—as long as
there is an action-packed Jackie Chan movie on TV. Write to her at thegoodlife@ livemint.com

Adam Grant

I read Adam Grant’s essay in the New York Times last week. I had this knee-jerk reaction that was largely negative. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to find the studies that countered Prof Grant’s thesis. But I found that I just couldn’t let it go. Some of my closest friends graduated from the Wharton School And so I know what it means to say that Prof Grant is the youngest tenured and the most popular professor. I admire him but I think he is wrong. Here is an essay that I wrote about his essay.

The National Conversation

tereotypical view of women’s influence helps nobody
Shoba Narayan
Jul 31, 2013

Last week, Professor Adam Grant of the Wharton School of Business wrote an essay in The New York Times, titled Why Men Need Women.
The essay posits that having women around makes men more empathetic, compassionate and philanthropic. As a woman and a feminist, I read the piece with both great interest and dismay.
Professor Grant is the author of the book, Give and Take. He is also the youngest-tenured and the most highly-rated professor in the Wharton School of Business’s MBA programme. His credentials, in other words, are impeccable.
Using a range of carefully-chosen studies, Professor Grant contends that male CEOs become more generous after the birth of their daughters (not sons). He argues that business titans such as Bill Gates became philanthropists because of the influence of mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Having sons, he says, does not make a man more generous.
As a feminist and a woman, I should have felt happy to read about women being portrayed in such a positive way.
But I didn’t. I felt that the premise of Professor Grant’s essay was both wrong and patronising.
The CEOs he cites are all men who benefited from the influence of their wives and daughters. What about women CEOs such as Indra Nooyi and Sheryl Sandberg and the influences that their husbands and sons had on them? Or are there too few women CEOs to merit a control group in such a study?
Women may help a man donate more money, but these women, I would argue, belong to the upper echelons of society. Among the middle class and the poorer sections, it is often the opposite.
Women are often the stingier of the two sexes, the more conservative when it comes to spending, the keepers of the purse and the ones who resist making donations.
They want to make sure the household has enough. Put it down to nesting instinct. Put it down to old-fashioned maternal caution.
Men, on the other hand, are often more inclined to largesse, perhaps because they have been earning for longer periods of time – both individually and as a species.
Poor women save instead of spending. Not only that, they prevent their husbands – and quite rightly so – from spending.
It is ridiculous to suggest that because Melinda and Mama Gates influenced Bill Gates into giving away his wealth, therefore all women will influence their husbands to be more philanthropic.
According to the studies that Professor Grant cites, sisters make a man share more. I would argue that this is the case with having siblings in general.
Brothers help women lighten up and not take the world so seriously. They help make women less sensitive to hurt and prepare them for the toughness of the business world.
Studies too can be manipulated to suit a thesis. Professor Grant cites studies in which women donate more “evenly” while men go to “extremes”.
In fact, psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan suggest the opposite: that men are more inclined to the “justice” perspective while women are more inclined to the “care” perspective.
Women do soften a man; but not all women do that. Some women make a man bitter; some beat down his confidence; and some egg him on to do things that he does not want to do.
In literature and in our own lives, we have seen mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters play roles – both positive and negative – in a relationship. Not all women exude the milk of human kindness and make their men touchy-feely.
And in the end this is the trouble I have with Professor Grant’s essay. It portrays women positively – indeed, as saints – but it is a one-sided portrayal and a stereotypical one.
To suggest that women – sisters, mothers, wives and daughters – make men more compassionate and philanthropic does both sexes a disservice.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Deepavali feasting (or fasting)

Pulchritudinous? Seriously? Is that a compliment-worthy word? Read on

In The National

Before a feast goes to your hips, reach for the thesaurus

Nov 12, 2012
Nowadays, over lunch and dinner, I make my husband repeat a litany of compliments.
“You look beautiful, my darling,” he tells me as I fork in some rice and vegetables. “The broccoli in particular makes your skin glow like the surface of the moon.”  
And then he loses interest and says, more in character, “Yada yada yada … you know what I mean.”
This isn’t some new form of torture that I have invented and implemented on my husband. By showering me with compliments he is, in fact, playing the role of supportive spouse. He is helping his wife steer through some clear and present danger. 
I speak now, of course, of Deepavali (that’s the correct Sanskrit spelling, unlike the anglicised “Diwali”), India’s largest holiday, which occurs tomorrow.
Deepavali represents the sum of all my fears, because it – like every other holiday or festival – involves prayer, community, family and, above all, feasting – on highly calorific, ghee-laden sweets.
Every year, just before the holiday season starts, I go into a minor panic about how to control my intake of food.
I make wild, grandiose resolutions – stop eating dinner, eat only raw food, drink two spoonfuls of virgin coconut oil in the morning – all in the hope of controlling my weight, even losing some.  
These resolutions don’t last for more than a day.  
Finally, I decided to go to the root cause of it all: my discipline or lack thereof.
 Thanks to my Dad, I have been blessed with a high metabolism. Growing up in India, I was one of those super-skinny girls everyone pitied. “Oh, poor thing, she looks like a scarecrow,” my aunts would say. “Give her raw eggs beaten with some milk every morning. That will round her out a bit,” they would advise my mother, who would faithfully follow all their recipes.  
Have you ever drunk raw eggs with milk for days on end? If so, you’ll know my pain.  
Of course, my mother needn’t have worried. Age caught up with me. These days, it has rounded me out like my aunts wanted. Nowadays, I have the same problem that everyone does: how to lose weight.
 But this year, unlike every other year, I have a plan, which came after I read a book called Willpower. In it, authors Roy Baumeister and John Tierney describe how “ego depletion”, or feeling bad about yourself, can cause you to lose your willpower and thereby indulge in a frenzy of chocolates at midnight or pastries by the dining table. Physical tiredness can do the same thing, the book says.  
Late in the evening, after an exhausting day, it is harder to resist the clarion call of a triple scoop of ice cream. To resist temptation, you have to be fit and energetic, to feel good about yourself.  
I decided to tackle the second component first. Since I am a rather shallow person who depends on the external world for validation, I decided to nab the nearest sucker to conduct this experiment. Ergo, the continual compliments from my spouse.  
Since the mate in question is of the strong, silent ilk, I typed out a four-page list of compliments that he merely needed to memorise and spit out.
 “I cannot believe how much discipline you have,” is one. Variations of “you look beautiful” comprised the bulk of the first page. To write this page, I merely looked in the thesaurus for synonyms of the word beautiful: appealing, ravishing, gorgeous, cute, pretty, resplendent, foxy and, my personal favourite, pulchritudinous. “Honey, you look pulchritudinous.”
 After four days of listening to my husband’s mantras, I can tell you that I feel good. Yeah, I feel good.  
Really. 
That’s not a chocolate in my hand – at midnight. That’s a date shaped to look like a chocolate.  
Yes, there’s a whole box of them. I picked them up at Dubai Duty Free if you must know.  I’ve built up so much self confidence that I decided I deserve them.
 
Shoba Narayan is the author to Return to India: a memoir
 

New Book: Return to India

I am working on Book Number 2, which will hopefully be out later this summer.  It is a memoir called, “Return to India.”  It will be published by Rain Tree (how I love that name), which Rupa calls “its new premium hardcover imprint” here

You can view my title in the Raintree catalogue here

The reason I put up this post was a note from a friend– okay, my husband– this morning that said, “Good timing of the book.”  He was responding to an article in the New York Times about immigrants.

I can say it here because hardly anyone sees this site.  My grand ambition with this book is to open the floodgates of reverse migration.  People write books for the same reason they start companies or join politics: to effect change.  I may not effect change on any grand scale, but I can dream, can’t I? My blousy dream, the reason I wrote ‘Return to India,’ is to cause million of Indians who are currently living abroad to return to India and become contributing residents.  There, I’ve said it and blown it into the wind.  A fluttering butterfly’s wing causing a tsunami millions of miles away.

The book will hopefully be published in August.  Rupa has rights for the Indian subcontinent only.