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

Mindfulness

To be obsessed with meditation seems like defeating the purpose. My problem is that I still haven’t conquered this. How to sit “simply” and stare into space aka unfocus your eyes? How didn’t all those rishis that I read about in the Amar Chitra Katha books do it? To the point where anthills grew over them? Crazy stuff.

Reading and loving Haruki Murakami’s “What I think about when I think about Running.” Sejal Gulati, if you see this post, that book is for you.
Reading Sunil Menon’s translation of Mahabharata. Matsyabhangi– now that’s a name.

Mindful wanderers
When we think of meditation, the image that often comes to mind is that of the Buddha, or ministers with their eyes closed in the Lok Sabha. A Western spin on this is to use the word “mindfulness” as a way of approaching this practice. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer says that mindfulness is to make a concerted effort to notice something new in every situation. When you go back home and meet your spouse, she says, try to actually see five new things in them. That is a brave goal. What if you don’t want to see new things in your spouse?
We Indians have a far more laid-back approach. The yoga sutras instruct you to sit with your back straight and allow your mind to focus on one point. The Sanskrit word for this is dharana or concentration, which leads to dhyana or deep meditation. Of late, Western researchers have used meditation techniques to improve the performance of not just monks and mere mortals, but also soldiers and athletes. Take psychologist Amishi Jha of the University of Miami psychology department and director of contemplative neuroscience for the UMindfulness Research and Practice Initiative (yes, you can study these things in American colleges).
Born in Sabarmati to a Hindu family, Jha grew up watching her mother chant and pray. She studies attention, working memory and how to improve resilience in high-stress situations. She has received funding from the US department of defence and the US army to figure out how mindfulness training can help army troops improve their resilience and reactions to high-stress situations; to develop a mental armour as it were.
Her lab gives soldiers training in mindfulness so that they can cultivate discernment; so that they know when to NOT pull the trigger, as Jha calls it, instead of mindlessly turning a machine gun on perceived targets. Mindfulness trains soldiers to be present and take control of the moment so that their actions don’t result in “psychological injury” to themselves or others.
Children could potentially be the last frontier in terms of meditation. On the one hand, it is easy to argue that meditation techniques will help them focus and calm down. Certainly, several schools have tried this, with mixed results. Often, what happens is that a teacher walks around teaching the children to keep their eyes closed and breathe deeply. The minute her back is turned, a child opens his eyes and starts shooting paper rockets at his current arch-enemy.
One exercise, however, is easier on children than others. It is called trataka or trataka yoga kriya. A simple way of saying it is “candle gazing”, although this phrase does not do it justice. Trataka is about focusing your eyes on a particular object. It could be a candle or it could be your shoulder.
There are four types of tratakas. Dakshina jatru trataka is when your head remains straight and your eyes focus on your right shoulder. Try it. The effect is that of a a dancer who looks to the right. Vama jatru trataka is the same practice, except that the eyes are focused on the tip of the left shoulder. Namikagra trataka is when the eyes are focused on the tip of the nose.
Bhrumadhya trataka is when the eyes are focused on the spot between the two eyebrows. Another method is when you sit at arm’s length from a candle that is placed in a spot where the flame does not flicker. The goal is to stare at the tip of the candle without blinking your eyes. What happens typically is that your eyes begin watering after a few minutes. Then you shut your eyes and relax. You bring your closed-eye gaze to the spot between the eyebrows.
Trataka is an especially good practice if you have a young daughter who has not achieved puberty. This practice delays the onset of puberty, according to yoga practitioners. This is because trataka nurtures the pineal gland, which René Descartes called “the seat of the soul”. In yogic philosophy, the pineal gland is located in the ajna chakra or the “third eye”. When the pineal gland weakens, it stimulates the sexual hormones leading to puberty. This is my broad and rather non-expert interpretation. There are many essays on this topic.
Making your daughter do trataka is an easy way of improving her concentration and delaying the onset of puberty. A simple approach is to keep a candle by the bedside. Ask your child to lie on her side and gaze at the candle just before she goes to sleep. This will get her into the habit and knock her out in a few minutes. Even Western medical doctors concede that the endocrine system responds to mind-body practices such as yoga and meditation. Hormones have powerful effects on the body, and they can be managed through ancient techniques such as modulating the breath and focusing the eye. This can also open the seat of the soul, leading to soul-stirring ideas.
Ancient India was known for its approach to spirituality and the self. Today’s India is known for its software companies, analytical skills, and business process outsourcing (BPOs). One way to merge the ancient and the modern is through these yogic practices. The West, particularly the US, has become the seat of innovation.
India can jumpstart its innovation by focusing on creativity and imagination among its workforce—by allowing the mind to wander mindfully; to see the world in a little boy’s open mouth; to activate the third eye; to sit still and follow the mind on all its various tangents and trajectories; to “sniff the winds” like Apple’s Steve Jobs did, and sense what lies ahead.

Shoba Narayan is shooting paper rockets at the pigeons on her balcony while trying to meditate. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Intuition/Imagination

Leap before you think

Before he began Apple, Steve Jobs spent seven months in India, something that is described in his biography by Walter Isaacson. In it, Jobs talks poetically about the difference between intellect and intuition. “The people in the Indian countryside do not use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect in my opinion.”
Jobs was not a fan of India. If he identified intuition as the one Indian thing that he wanted to emulate, that is worth considering. There are a few Sanskrit words for intuition: pratibha being the most common one. Developing intuition, discernment (or viveka) and wisdom (vijnana) have been Indian preoccupations for centuries.
Different cultures are obsessed with different things at different stages in their evolution. Japan, for instance, is obsessed with refinement and perfectionism. Singapore is obsessed with systems. China, with scale. The US, with innovation. Ancient Indians were obsessed with self-cultivation; to figure out “how God thinks”, as Albert Einstein said.
In a quote attributed to Einstein, he said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Notice that this scientist used the word sacred—proving that the rational and the intuitive are not as disconnected as we make them out to be.
Intuition is something that every religion knew about. Jesus, as the story of Lazarus (and the fish which had a four-drachma coin in its mouth) illustrates, was a man of intuition. As was Mohammed the Prophet. In today’s world, we call these intuitive thinkers visionaries. Religion teaches us that the way to develop intuition is through prayer and meditation. As Jobs says: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to comment, it will only make it worse. But over time, it does calm down, and when it does, there is room to hear more subtle things—that is when your intuition starts to blossom.”
Typically, flashes of insight that are the result of intuition occur at dawn. This is the time when the free-flowing, loose, flexible stillness of the mind gives rise to solutions that are fully formed. During the day, the mind is a wandering beast. Typically, when you try to sit still and meditate, the mind wanders to knotty problems that need to be solved: who said what to whom and how to resolve unfinished business. But if you can still your mind and keep it loose, you increase the chances of insight; of the muse sitting on your shoulder and allowing your imagination to flourish.
Focusing on the moment is the gift that prayer and meditation afford. There are many things that civilizations use to centre their mind. Tibetans use bells. In Aldous Huxley’s novel, Island, which recreates a utopian land, parrots fly over people screeching, “Here and now, boys. Here and now.” They were reminding the islanders to focus on the present; to live for the here and now. The anklets that Indian women wear serve a similar purpose. Try it. The rhythmic jingle of these anklets when you walk serves to bring your mind back to the musical sound; to the here and now.
The ability to voluntarily bring back a wandering mind again and again and again is what we call meditation. American psychologist William James said that this ability to focus was the root of judgement, character and will. The wandering mind is also the root of imagination and creativity.
Paradoxically, it is the controlled kind of wondering that elicits the best results. Think of a kite—rooted to the earth and yet bobbing in the sky. That is the kind of mind-wandering that we need to create. In a famous Time magazine cover that appeared decades ago, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg said, “I dream for a living.” Daydreaming creates the kind of associations that lead to blockbuster movies—and companies, I might add. The trick then is to allow the mind to fly and figure out how to rein it in. Indians have numerous tools for this. We have anklets, for example.
Neuroscientists ask people to close their eyes to see how much the mind flits around. When the eyes move behind closed lids, so does the mind. Bharatanatyam has a famous saying that is taught to every new dancer. It is from the Abhinaya Darpana (Mirror Of Gesture), by the redoubtable Nandikeshvara, often spoken of as a rival to Bharata Muni, who composed the Natya Shastra, the foundation of dance and other arts. In Sutra 36-37 of Abhinaya Darpana, the author talks about how to focus the mind and create rasa or emotion. This famous verse goes: “Yatho hastha thatho drishti. Yatho drishti thatho manah. (Where the hands go, there the eyes will follow. Where the eyes go, there the mind will follow)”.
You want to meditate? Hold your hands in a certain position (mudra, according to Buddhists), and focus your eyes on an object.

Shoba Narayan’s favourite mudra is “bhoomi sparsha mudra” or “caressing the earth mudra”. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Beliefnet

I used to be the Hinduism columnist for Beliefnet when it began years ago. When it got acquired, I even got stock options for which. They have a page for me here but most of my articles are archived under the Hinduism banner.
Beliefnet’s Search page which has all my stories.

Here are some of the topics and links.

The Meaning of a Guru

I have to admit that I have trouble with the whole ‘guru’ thing. Guru means teacher in Sanskrit, but it connotes much more than that. A guru is someone who removes your ignorance, without whom you cannot attain the knowledge you are seeking.
Delaying Puberty with Yoga.

Pop Karma: My Name is Earl TV show.

Ritual Initiation: Varalakshmi Puja

Rama: Beloved Avatar

Saying a Traditional Goodbye

Yoga as Middle Path

Loving with no strings attached

The Incomparable M.S. Subbulakshmi

Decoding Destiny with the I-Ching

Incarnations of the Mother Goddess

May Hanuman be with you

Soy: soul food or spiritual sham

Stop Building Hindu Temples

Bah, Humbug!

Confessions of a Closet Vegetarian

Fashionably Devout

Just Say No to Turkey Propaganda: Hindu Thanksgiving Recipes

End to Passive Resistance
Indian or Hindu: One, Both or Neither?

Karma’s a Drag
– Movement Meditation
Shortcut to Spirituality

Stripping the Soul out of Yoga

The Vasthu Vibe

Tuning Out the Teletubbies
Vegetarian Nirvana