Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mindfulness on the go: My first workshop experience

Last month I got an opportunity to facilitate a half-day workshop titled “Mindfulness on the go: Meditation in the cycle stealing mode”. It was a first of its kind for me. The workshop happened as a response to a suggestion made by my friend Zunder Lekshmanan. The participants were Zunder’s team members / colleagues mostly in their 30s and 40s. The objective was to explore practices that may enable accessing stillness, a place from which creative potential may flourish. We were particularly interested in looking at ways which don’t demand dedicated time and space e.g. meditation 30 minutes in the morning in the corner of your bedroom. Most of the executives found dedicating such a time/space impractical. Instead, we focused on those few minutes which we can steal while we are waiting for the elevator etc. The presentation summarizes what we explored.

Saying ‘hello’ in the primary language of the land: Every terrain has a primary language. In Karnataka, it is Kannada. For some people it is a sign language and for software engineers, it is a programming language like C or Python. The primary language for the terrain which we explored is stillness and is found in the gaps between two consecutive thoughts. Hence, we began our workshop with a short exercise by getting familiar with these gaps.

The key challenge - thought: Upfront, we decided to confront the chief villain in our story – our thinking. The root cause of all of our suffering – worry, anxiety, anger, lack of creativity, relationship problems – is our thinking. What is wrong with thinking? Well, it creates & sustains powerful illusions – gaps between perception & reality. For example: (1) illusion of control: I can control my destiny or my organization’s destiny by taking certain actions. The action could be studying hard, following a moral code of conduct, going to temple, executing a strategy to defeat my opponent etc. (2) illusion of experience: We believe we know our experience. However, in reality, what we know are peak and end memories of our experience. And we routinely substitute the average of peak-and-end experiences as the whole experience.

Leprosy of mind: When I visited Anandwan last year, I witnessed a daily ritual at the leprosy hospital. At 6 o’clock in the morning there is a long queue of lepers to get their foot wounds dressed. The neural feedback mechanism that tells most of us how much pressure we are putting on our feet is damaged for lepers. Hence, a leper ends up putting too much pressure and damages his feet realizing it much later. Thought also creates & sustains a gap between perception and reality similar to a leper. Hence, sometimes our situation is called leprosy of mind.

Two states and three practices: All of us keep transitioning between two states of mind – relatively undisturbed state and disturbed state. Disturbed state is emotionally charged – due to emotions like anxiety, fear, worry, anger, guilt, blame etc. Relatively undisturbed state also contains thoughts but they don’t absorb us as much as the disturbed state. We explored the three practices: attention, alertness and acceptance that are useful in Relatively undisturbed state, during the transition from undisturbed to disturbed state, and in the disturbed state respectively.

Using metaphors: We used metaphors to get a feel of the practices. For shifting attention out of a stream of thinking, we used the metaphor of train and platform. It is like hopping off the train (of thought) on the platform and watching the trains come and pass by. Popular anchors which act like a platform are the movement of breath, abdomen, tingling sensations in fingers, surrounding sounds etc.

For alertness, we used the metaphor of “buttons”. Each of us has a few buttons, which when pressed, triggers a surge of emotions and transitions us to the disturbed state. A button could be a situation (lane cutting ahead of us), an accusation (“You don’t care about me”), an image (an accident), a thought (“I am a failure”) etc. Can we identify these buttons, become alert and catch ourselves transitioning from undisturbed to disturbed state? We called it playing a “catch me if you can” game with ourselves.

Acceptance feels like releasing your foot from the acceleration pedal. It is as if we stop feeding the fuel to the drama that is at the centre of our attention. The drama doesn’t vanish instantaneously. But it dies its own natural death just like the car slows down and comes to a half after you release the pedal. Note that releasing the pedal is more like going from effort to non-effort. Hence, acceptance feels more like non-action than action.

None of the content was original. It was borrowed from the teachings of various spiritual teachers like David Bohm, Ramana Maharshi, Eckhart Tolle, Mooji etc. The cognitive illusion related part was borrowed from Daniel Kahneman’s classic “Thinking fast & slow”. I stuck to only those practices which work for me. For relevant sources, please refer to the links given in the presentation above.

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