Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Why meditate

Before launching into my post on why meditate, I want to make it extremely clear that my blog deals with Mindfulness meditation practice. The secular practice that is derived from Theravada Buddhism. I do not have any exposure to any other school, I cannot endorse any other school neither can I argue against it. If I recommend meditation, the only meditation style I recommend is Mindfulness meditation.

* Here is a good article by The Huffington Post Why Meditate

* For those who would like a detailed view of how a meditation practice alters our brain in significant ways I recommend a book: 'Altered Traits' by Daniel Goleman, Richard Davidson. Here is a link to a well written book review. In this book Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson present the historical scientific research done on meditation practice and also describe their own experiments using EEG scanners and fMRI machines on participating Tibetan monks. Monks who according to the authors have transformed the way their minds work, changed how their neural activities happen and restructured their brains!! The fundamental theme underlying their hypothesis (tested among meditators - beginners, advanced and super advanced) is that meditation leads to neural activities that corresponds to altered states of mind. Continuous and sustained practice of meditation causes these states to turn into 'traits'. Traits which are supported by how the brain functions and how the physical brain is structured in terms of neural networks and relative sizes of various components of the brain.

* For those who would like a nuanced psychological and philosophical view of how and why meditation works to improve our lot as human beings, what suffering is in terms of evolutionary psychology and what the alleviation of suffering is in terms of meditative practices I recommend a book: 'Why Buddhism is true' by Robert wright. Here is a link to a balanced book review giving you the positives as well as the negatives of the hypothesis posited by Wright in his book. Wright and his book are a powerful influence on my own take on meditation practice. Wright argues in favor of the principle that evolution has worked to create us - an effective vehicle for propagating genes without bothering to ensure how well we adjust to our environment. Wright speaks about how a meditation practice turns us from being this well designed machine to becoming self aware individuals with a greater say on our own mental and emotional health.

* Here is my take on why its beneficial to practice Mindfulness meditation:

1. It is the most effective way of freeing ourselves from the delusions that bind us. To understand more about what I mean by delusions I encourage you to visit/revisit my blog post on the topic

2. The practice of Samatha, or concentration practice, or focused attention is a very powerful antidote to daily stress, anxiety and tension. As a foundational practice of developing the ability to hold your attention on your chosen object of concentration, this practice gives you the skills required to progress on to other practices within the mindfulness fold. At the same time this practice gives the sense of relief, pleasure and bliss that long term meditators report. One of the benefits of this practice is the relaxation response. The relaxation response is a natural state of mind and body which comes out of the practice of using a fixed object as a focal point of concentration - a mantra, the breath, a candle flame to gaze upon - many such objects can work. The idea is to place your attention on an object and to keep bringing it back to the object when attention moves away to distractions like sounds, memories, future plans, unpaid electricity bills, the laundry, body sensations etc. Doing this simple exercise for a period of time as low as 10 minutes counters the stress related to the flight or fight response, lowers your blood pressure and gives you a sense of physical and mental ease

3. The practice of Metta (or friendliness) leads to a state of mind where you feel warmth and empathy for fellow human beings. This state of mind helps you focus on complicated tasks or further your meditation practice while keeping away unwholesome states of mind like anger, irritation, jealousy.

4. The practice of open awareness or Vipassana establishes and develops a way of experiencing ongoing sensory experiences within meditation sessions (as well as out of them) by giving you concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity.

  • Concentration is the ability to devote 100% attention moment by moment to ongoing activity within your mind - either triggered by the senses or thoughts feelings and emotions generated by the mind itself
  • Sensory clarity is the ability to tease out every single component of your moment by moment experience, you would be able to understand your current thought process, state of mind, feeling tone in terms of cause and effect. A Vipassana practitioner develops the ability to 'see clearly' as to why he is irritated or why he is pleased
  • Equanimity is the ability to become dispassionate towards any particular sensory experience or any particular state of mind on an ongoing basis. It is the ability to 'see clearly' without getting attached to or averse to anything in your sensory experience.

All of the above effects together work towards making a mindfulness meditation practitioner calmer, clearer, more focused and wiser in terms of choosing actions or thought processes or behaviors in an ongoing moment by moment way. This calm, this clarity, this focus and this wisdom is key to removing delusions.

Monday, 3 September 2018

The Mind model of self

Unlike computers, which follow programs written to achieve objectives, we sentient human beings have a sense of agency - of free will, a sense of being conscious and a sense that there is a self  housed *inside* our bodies (in our brains) which is conscious and exercises this agency or free will. Our conceptual understanding of this sense of self concerns itself mostly with the physical / material brain. We understand our sense of self better as a 'brain model of self'.

As modern college educated people we are familiar with the brain model of self. Our schooling, informational documentaries, books and articles, science in pop culture - all of these things have explained the brain model to us. To a fair degree, as lay people, we know quite a bit about the brain For those of us with interest, a lot of information regarding the brain and its constituents is available at the click of a button online.

We often tweak brain chemistry through stimulants like tea and coffee for generating alertness and dispelling sleepiness. We use stimulants like cigarettes and depressants like alcohol for entertainment and recreation. Some relatively rare adventurous folks among us use banned and illegal substances like marijuana and cocaine in order to experience things outside of everyday life and mundane perceptions. These are forms of performance enhancements and recreational interventions based on the brain model of self.

Our very human problems like feeling low, being stressed, being unable to focus, when excessively problematic, are often classified by medical science as diseases to be treated, rightfully so in many cases but perhaps not all! These diseases in turn are treated using chemicals that play around with neurotransmitters and often have undesired side effects on other aspects of our biology. This act of direct intervention in brain biology relies on the brain model of self. (Modern psychology, and therefore psychiatry, does take cognizance of the fact that we have minds and tries to get to the root of problems by addressing the contents of our minds. This in my view is essential but still limited. More on this later)

In a nutshell we try to improve the ongoing experience of our lives or to correct for perceived problems by relying solely on the brain model of self.

We know that the brain has many parts, many functions. Its internal working happens through the activity of neurons - the flip flop, logic gate equivalent in biology. The brain activity in turn leads to decision making and actualization of those decisions through our body.

All of this is very very true.

On a self development path, all of this knowledge is also very very irrelevant.

Consider your current direct experience, Can you feel, experience the process of being conscious? Yup! Can you experience the process of various modules of the brain interacting with each other in order to create the experience of being conscious? Nope! Can you experience the actions of neurons firing up and influencing other neurons in the vicinity through the release and absorption of neurotransmitters? Nope! When you solve a complex problem do you have the experience of, and control over, existing neural networks firing up, of memory being fetched and delivered to a processor, of data processing taking place through neural activity, of comparisons being made of the data available with existing algorithms in your brain? Nope, Nope, Nope and Nope!!

The mind model of self

To do anything meaningful in terms of our everyday life and our experience of it, the brain model of self does not help!

An alternative model of self is required so that you could develop an understanding of self and greater self control by direct action. This self control can come in many forms but we concern ourselves with our principle objectives - Self development and Spiritual pursuits.

I propose we understand ourselves using a Mind model of self. A lot has been written about the mind by scientists, contemplatives and mystics. All of this information is available online - go ahead and google it. But for our purposes we simplify and we represent the model as follows.

1. There is a mind
2. It is represented as the continuous stream of consciousness that we experience
3. At its essence it is a cluster of various different faculties working together
4. It has the following broad faculties:

  • Creating intentions for action
  • Of storing and accessing memory
  • Of experiencing inputs coming from the 5 sense doors of touch, taste, smell, vision and hearing
  • Of experiencing thoughts coming from the 6th sense door, that of the mind itself - and responding to them with feelings and emotions
  • Of building on top of thoughts to create abstractions
  • Of holding and bringing into play learnt models - attitudes, habitual thinking patterns and habitual behaviour
  • Of observing and knowing.

The last point of observing and knowing doesn't have to do with the senses but in fact has to do with the holding of sensory inputs in awareness and choosing to pay close attention to one of them at a time. Subsequent to awareness and attention it has to do with pattern recognition and new learning creation (knowing) - which runs on autopilot. The operating point here is that this faculty of observing and knowing does not require other faculties of thinking, feeling and experiencing emotions. They are all closely coupled but are perfectly capable of operating independently.

Holding this model of self to be true there one aspect of it which requires a leap of faith initially (but the faith holds up to experimentation and scrutiny):

"If we desire to improve how we think, how we experience thoughts and subsequently respond with feelings and emotions we can use the faculty of observing and knowing to retrain our habitual thinking patterns and our habitual emotional self regulation".

This model of self is unfamiliar to most of us, but in its essence it puts power back into our hands, into our sense of agency and free will as opposed to cribbing about our past, our upbringing, our scarred memories, our fate, our destiny. It gives us something to work with - attention and awareness.

I propose now, that its only the faculty of observing and knowing, that too the sub faculties of attention and awareness which are completely under our control. We can choose to pay attention and hold in awareness the things we want. A direct and higher degree of control is exercised over attention and awareness sort of cooperates. All other faculties work pretty much on autopilot, we don't have any direct control over them, they just go about their business while loosely cooperating with attention and awareness.

As an example consider how you learnt to play catch as a child. A ball is thrown at you, you are supposed to catch it. How simple. The only sense of agency that you had in this act was the initial creation of intention and the subsequent directing of attention. The trials, the errors they all lead to learning which took place as a result of engaging your attention with the mechanics of the activity and holding your intention in awareness at all times. Everything else just fell into place.

As another example. consider a small exercise and while doing that exercise try to discern what's happening in your mind. In the next 3-4 minutes try and remember the names of ten of your childhood friend's. If you have been watching carefully while doing this you will realize that it began with creating an intention and engaging and reengaging attention on that intention and subsequent mental imagery which followed. You did not have any kind of direct control over the processes involved parsing through your memories and fetching names from those memories, these processes are called by the act of creating an intention and engaging with your attention.

These two examples demonstrate the powerful role that intention, attention (and awareness) play in our day to day functioning. These faculties are key in the path of developing your self and of chasing your spiritual pursuits.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Mindfulness Meditation

If you wish to understand how your mind works then you need to sit down and observe it. If you wish to gain insights into how we experience the world around us and how fundamentally flawed our understanding is then we need to sit down and observe the mind in action. Meditation is a way of doing exactly that. The term meditation is used in a very vague way and different people, different traditions have very different ideas of what it entails. In this blog we will discuss the modern, secular practice of mindfulness meditation - and associated Buddhist practices which do not violate the principles of secularism, empiricism, and good old horse sense.

Mindfulness meditation is a modern secularized take on millennia old Buddhist practices which in turn are major innovations on even more ancient Hindu contemplative practices. The secularization that I speak of is the elimination of debatable religious and cultural concepts like the cycle of birth and rebirth, karma and other similar stuff. This trimming of the understanding of classical Buddhist meditation has also lead to a removal of focus on the mind, exploration of consciousness and examination of self. The baby has been thrown out with the bathwater :). Fortunately once we get a hang of the technique we can always bring the good stuff back. It requires only a change in attitude and not any change in technique. More on this later.

Mindfulness meditation has evolved as a series of techniques whose purpose is to strengthen some aspects of the mind and in that process cause the much welcome benefits of relaxation, relief from insomnia, greater control over the expression of mood disorders like depression and generalized anxiety.  and in our specific interests the practice of these techniques leads to the removal of delusions that bind us.

Though the cognitive positioning of the technique is now different but it continues to retain the original essence of the practice. This means that you may approach this practice from this sanitized secular frame but the practice will still unfold and reveal to you what it has revealed to practitioners over millennia. This fundamental nature of the practice itself remains untouched but I find it very useful to cognitively re-frame the concepts which we use to approach the practice.

A few definitions:

Attention, Peripheral awareness (or just Awareness): 

Using a purely visual analogy, imagine you are standing in a completely dark room in front of a white wall at a distance of about 4 feet. Lets say you have a flashlight with a round beam in your hand, you turn it on and you point it at the wall. You will see a large round area illuminated on the wall. The center of this area is a smaller round shape which is brightly illuminated. As you move towards the periphery the illumination reduces or diminishes. In this over all round illuminated area, the concentrated area around the center is your attention. The periphery of this, where illumination is lower and tapers down further towards the extremes is your peripheral awareness or just awareness (I will use either term interchangeably).

Both attention and awareness are mechanisms of observation and knowing. Attention permits seeing details and doing analysis and developing both conceptual as well as intuitive understanding. Awareness gives you just that - a general awareness of the stuff around.

Moving away from the visual analogy this applies to absolutely every kind of information that's coming to your senses. Almost everything is held in general awareness but your attention is usually on one thing and it keeps moving.


In a general google search you will find mindfulness defined in various ways. Here's a link that provides you with 20 different definitions from different sources:

Mindfulness definition

You will find that though all of these definitions differ, they all point to the way in which attention is used. The term itself is a loose translation of the Pali word 'sati'. I don't know what was originally meant by that particular word in that language. But here's an alternative definition of mindfulness.

"Mindfulness is the mental process that ensures attention and awareness interact and work together in an optimal way."

In itself the definition does not educate us much so let me elaborate.

When a football player is trying to score a goal, he holds the goal post, the ball, the goal keeper in his attention while his awareness works on the periphery to inform him of incoming members of the opposing team giving him a judgement of which path to take to dodge them and score his goal.

When you are deeply immersed in listening to music you love and lets say there's a fire in your house, your attention will be busy listening to the music while your awareness will pick up the presence of fire, the heat, the smell of smoke and inform you so that you can move your attention towards the fire, analyze next steps and act. While you are acting your awareness is still busy informing you of other stuff that your attention might be missing.

So the ability to be mindful lets you focus on the object of your attention while holding all connected stimuli in awareness so that your attention can be directed in efficient ways.


Any sensate experience which stands independently of other experiences can be called an object in your mind. The sound of a car zooming past, the back ache you cant shrug off, the view of the bottle of water on your work desk, the aroma of the soup you have for lunch, the sweet taste of the dessert you polish off after dinner, these are all perceived as independent objects.

Thought, feelings and emotions are also objects. And at this point you may have a conceptual problem with what I just said. Let me elaborate a bit.

This practice requires us to treat our conscious experience as a sequence of sensate experiences coming in through our sense doors. sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch and mind are all sense doors.
Through the sense door of the mind comes in thoughts, feelings and emotions.

What is mindfulness meditation ( why is the mind a sense door)?

Why consider the mind a sense door?

This practice is about using mindfulness in order to hold 'bare' attention on any particular object in order to understand how it feels to perceive that object, how it changes in our perception and how in our mind it triggers further objects. Bare attention means attention that is devoid of judgment, dialogue and discursive thinking. So just as we can pay bare attention to sound or touch we can also pay bare attention to thoughts feelings and emotions. This cognitive trick of paying 'bare' attention to *everything* that our minds perceive, permit us to get direct experience of how mental objects get created, persist, and then pass away in our minds. When we do this with the faculty of bare attention fully engaged along with mindfulness we develop intuitive (non analytical, non conceptual, non inference based) understanding of how things work in our own mind, we get glimpses of how things really are as perceived by the mind and within this intuitive understanding lies the concept of dispelling delusions that make us suffer !!

The three practices that comprise mindfulness meditation

1. Focused attention: we pick an object and we stabilize our attention on it while treating everything else as a distraction ( thoughts can be big distractions - we don't get lost in thought)

2. Open monitoring: we stay in choice less awareness where we let our attention self direct to the most dominant sensation in our conscious perception, letting it go when something else takes the dominant role. we do this mindfully - fully knowing where our attention is and we don't get lost in thought. (thoughts can also become an object of meditation but in that case we pay attention to the thought in order to perceive it as just another sensate experience - we don't get lost in thought)

3. Metta (Maitri, friendship, loving kindness): This is a directed thought based meditation technique where we try to cultivate the feelings of metta or friendship for the people who comprise our world - including those we dont like!'

More on each of these practices in later posts.

If you have enjoyed reading this far (or hated it) please do comment below and let me know. Interact with me.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Spiritual pursuit - What is spirituality

Spirituality: Definition according to the online Oxford English dictionary:

The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. 

According to Wikipedia:

There is no single, widely agreed upon definition of spirituality. Surveys of the definition of the term, as used in scholarly research, show a broad range of definitions ranging from uni-dimensional definitions such as a personal belief in a supernatural realm to broader concepts such as a quest for an ultimate/sacred meaning, transcending the base/material aspects of life, and/or a sense of awe/wonderment and reverence toward the universe. 

Here's an alternate view on what spirituality is:

We have objectives on multiple levels, the level of material pursuits, the level of self development, the level of spiritual pursuits. At this level of spiritual pursuits we try to gain greater knowledge of what and how we are. 

Are we the brain, are we the body, are we the mind? How do we work, what makes us tick, what influences qualitative experience. This understanding of self goes deeper than the conceptual fields of cognitive or evolutionary psychology, or medical science or biology. Understanding at this level is not about forming mental models or self concepts in the way we usually do but about gaining direct experience with our true nature. This direct experience trumps the knowledge that comes through reading books or blogs (this blog included).

*Moving from this vague description to a more precise definition: The path of exploration of the true self and how it relates to the world is spirituality. Practices which support this exploration are spiritual practices.

Lots of people have their own definition of what constitutes spirituality. I have found this definition of mine helpful to conceptualize and communicate. In the practice of spirituality in the setting up of goals and attaining those goals, any definition which doesn't require any kind of hazy, nebulous religious or pseudo scientific woo woo is good. This definition works and perhaps some other definition would work just as well. For the sake of understanding this blog and what it says, hold this definition as a reference point.

What spirituality is not: It is not blind belief, it is not faith, it is not a moral code or a monastic discipline. It does not require a 'Guru', it does not require a God or gods. It does not require reverence to rituals. It does not require prostrations before a symbol or idol or a direction.

My definition of spirituality requires you to investigate, to test, to try and to adopt or reject any concept about our own nature and how it relates to the world. Any concept that fails the test of direct experience is a ridiculous candidate for the dustbin of dumb ideas.

Do you believe in violence directed to self or to others in the name of God or gods, following silly rituals mindlessly in the magical belief that something good will come to you, do you believe in Xenu and the Thetans, beating shamanic drums, getting high on Ayahuasca while chanting nonsensical incantations .... all for the sake of a mystical experience in this life or liberation in the afterlife of which you have no direct experience? There's a bridge in Brooklyn that I would like to sell you.

Are you offended yet? :)
I don't mean any offense to you, I mean a lot of offense to the dogmatic ritualistic crap that passes off as spirituality.

Are you suffering? Come, I know a way out. Said a wise sage more than 2500 years ago. Much wiser, much kinder, much more accomplished than I or many other folks can ever hope to be. He taught a very specific way to root out suffering. His teachings did not involve any kind of blind belief or any superstition as a precursor to the practices he taught. His path involved healthy skepticism combined with energy, enthusiasm, investigation and a wide open mind willing to try stuff to find out if it works. Well he did himself have and preach some very dubious beliefs to which he did not demand any kind of obeisance. More on this later.

While we are on this topic lets talk about 

The curious case of Ajit Keshakambali and the Charvaks.

Ajit Keshakambali was an ancient Indian philosopher. His ideas were anachronistic and unacceptable at his time. Here's a sample - purportedly from an ancient Buddhist source (I got this from wikipedia):

There is no such thing as alms or sacrifice or offering. There is neither fruit nor result of good or evil deeds...A human being is built up of four elements. When he dies the earthly in him returns and relapses to the earth, the fluid to the water, the heat to the fire, the wind to the air, and his faculties pass into space. The four bearers, on the bier as a fifth, take his dead body away; till they reach the burning ground, men utter forth eulogies, but there his bones are bleached, and his offerings end in ashes. It is a doctrine of fools, this talk of gifts. It is an empty lie, mere idle talk, when men say there is profit herein. Fools and wise alike, on the dissolution of the body, are cut off, annihilated, and after death they are not.

The Charvak's were a school of philosophers of which Ajit Keshakambali was the flag bearer. They propounded theories describing existence which for their time and place were absolutely mind blowing. For example (and I am liberally paraphrasing):

  • What we can perceive through direct experience is what we can believe
  • What we arrive at through inference from observations are just conceptual conclusions - may or may not be true, we can't know since we arrive at them through inference rather than direct perception
  • There is no life after death, there is no life before birth - we don't have direct experience of either, this is the only one life we get. Our very existence starts with birth and ends with death
  • The law of karma is stupid - Good or Bad, whatever happens to you is independent of what you have done in the past. The only reason to behave yourself and not do bad shit, like steal money or murder, is because we need society in order to live and thrive. Breaking the laws of society will lead to expulsion, so don't break any laws

As you can imagine 2500 years in India this kind of teaching would not find many buyers. In fact so unpopular was Ajit Keshakambali that nobody bothered to record his teachings. The only record of the fact that he existed and he taught these unpopular things is in Buddhist and Jain literature where his ideas are explained in order to take them down!

On your spiritual journey you do not need to believe in Ajit Keshakambali's teachings. Arrive at your own conclusions through your own direct experience - consider any and every kind of teaching as concepts that you need to test for yourself. 

Be like Keshakambali !!

Monday, 27 August 2018

The purpose of life

Lets just get something out of the way. Life has no purpose.

We were not born for a reason. We were not born as part of a grand master plan with a beginning a middle and an endgame. We are an accident. Plain and simple.

Now here comes a dichotomy. Life does have a purpose!! The purpose of life is to live a life of purpose. I know - this particular statement is either vapid and irritating or its deeply philosophical and its difficult to decide which it is! But both these statements together are central to gaining skill and dexterity with life and I suggest that you consider them, weigh them and if found worthy, useful, and skillful go ahead and adopt them as part of your own mental model of life and what you are supposed to do with it.

Contradictory as they may sound, these two underlined statements are quite deep and deserve to be considered thoughtfully - many times if required .... accept them (hopefully) as axioms and then never examine them again, unless compelling evidence emerges from within your direct experience which may require you to revisit these axioms.

So if the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose, what form can this purpose take? I suggest the following layered structure which has 3 levels. one on top of the other.

  • Level 1: Act in a deliberate conscious manner in order to remove delusions that blinker us and continue to live a life free of delusions - Spiritual Pursuit
  • Level 2: Develop a skillful way of being in order to navigate our life - events, situations, twists and turns and relationships - Self development
  • Level 3: Choose to pursue the kind of life, profession, recreation, relationships, career, wealth accumulation which suits your personality and ambitions - Material pursuit

The first two levels in this schema are unchanging. They have a specific meaning and need to be addressed in specific ways. They are non-negotiable. The third level is supposed to be like an amoeba. frequently changing shape and form to suit the environment.

As normal regular human beings we are deeply in love with the goals in level 3, the level of material pursuits, and we hardly pay attention to levels 1 and 2. We believe that the kind of life we make in terms of our education, profession, relationships is what defines us. But that level is in fact the most subject to change and environmental pressures. Attainments in that level are often a product of mere chance mostly and very little preparation or conscious decision. We derive an excessive amount of pride, identification and sense of purpose from the choices we make in our material pursuits and every time life throws us a curve ball we cant hit, we feel as if a little part of us died.

The pain of unrequited love in young adulthood, the school and college that we couldn't go to, the one job that we really wanted and did not get, the hopes and aspirations in our career that get dashed, the expectations we have from family and friends that do not get met, the recognition and validation we seek from the world which eludes us. All of these things are events that concern themselves with the goals of material pursuit. All of them lie out of our direct control. All negative events in level 3 cause us pain when they happen and none of the positive events creates any kind of lasting satisfaction. Level 3 is a hotbed of craving and aversion. You either want something desperately or you hate something that has happened. Note that not meeting your goals causes a sense of loss and attainment of goals does not lead to lasting satisfaction. This is the hallmark of suffering.

As regular folks living a regular materialistic life, we cannot ignore level 3. That level of purpose is what puts food on the table, is what helps us create a family and hopefully a legacy that outlasts us. But to peg our sense of self worth, our identity with material pursuits only is a recipe for suffering. Some experience this suffering as full blown depression, anxiety, panic others experience this suffering as dissatisfaction, a mid-life (quarter-life?) crisis, a major case of continuous bummers. But this is suffering born of delusion and can be removed by removing that delusion. It is born of unskillful self and interpersonal behavior, inability to manage ourselves and how we relate to the world. But this lack of skill can be trained. This removal of delusion and development of skills happen in pursuing attainments in the other two levels - self development and spiritual pursuit.

Though we cannot and should not ignore material pursuits, we can start by becoming conscious of the imperatives of the other two levels. We can understand that our time and our energy and our sense of identity, duty and responsibility towards ourselves need to be redistributed between these three levels of purpose. From this enterprise, of operating in all three levels with a greater degree of emphasis on self development and spiritual pursuit, arises strength of character and greater calm and equanimity to face the vicissitudes of life which are inevitable in the level of material pursuits.

This blog concerns itself mostly with attainments on level 1: spiritual pursuits
It addresses to a certain extent goals on level 2 : self development

This blog assumes that you are already skillful in level 3: material pursuits and does not bother giving you platitudes and bromides which you already know! It does point out harmful, unskillful behavior in material pursuits which might interfere with your skillfulness on the other two levels.

To address the elephant in the room. For atheists, pragmatics, grounded people concerned with the here and now, I will treat spirituality and spiritual pursuits in a way that might delight you. Read on!
For the religious faithful, deeply 'spiritual' people your sense of what you understand spirituality is will be attacked sometimes ruthlessly with a grave degree of disrespect to what you might believe are your core ideologies. But if you can take a few knocks ..... read on!

Friday, 24 August 2018

Hard wired delusion

Here is an interesting article for you to read. Go ahead, read it and then continue with this post.

The interesting story of the Australian Jewel Beetle

In the above article we learn about the male Australian Jewel beetle and its tryst with a beer bottle. Long story short, a particular kind of beer bottle - brightly brown colored, short and stubby, with dimples, is mistaken by male Australian Jewel beetles as an attractive female. So attractive in fact that males attempt to have sex with these bottles for hours while ignoring perfectly healthy and fertile females. The phenomenon has an adverse effect on the beetle population. So much so that the Australian beer company had to replace its bottle design with one having a smooth surface rather than dimples.

The above example is from a very different species than us humans. Beetles are not as smart, as complex and as analytically capable as us humans. But it illustrates a very important aspect of the way evolution works. The theory of evolution proposes that physical, behavioral and mental designs that are more suited to furthering the genetic code of the species as a whole will get an advantage in the game of survival. The aspect of observation and knowing which is part of an animal's intelligence so to speak is also a design element subject to the same evolutionary pressures. If the ability to find and recognize a potential mate evolves for an animal through visual means dominating other inputs like smell, taste etc. then the animal will evolve being heavily dependent on visual models for recognition. Evolution of such a recognition ability will factor in all kinds of  visual inputs available in the environment during the process of evolution. But what if the environment suddenly changes and other visual inputs mimic the animal's visual models more effectively than how potential mates look ?

For umpteen number of generations male Jewel beetles have been very efficient at finding and engaging with a potential mate using the visual models that they had evolved and thus were probably hard coded in their brains. Along came man, industry, beer companies and along came the beer bottle upsetting eons of evolutionary design efficiency in one fell swoop !!

So what does this mean for us? ..... I will come to that in a while. Meanwhile please read the following.

The fight or flight response

In a nutshell whenever our safety is threatened our bodies release a bunch of key hormones which activate the physical body, the brain and the mind in order to either fight or flee! Let me make a small correction *whenever we perceive that our safety is threatened*. The emphasis here is on perception. For our ancestors - human as well as apes, a tiger (or any other predator) trying to hunt them and eat them was a very real every day threat. This was an extreme situation requiring an extreme yet appropriate response. It is in this context that evolutionary forces led to the design of some of our perceptions and our responses.

How many of use have known the stress induced by a surprise exam in our childhood, or that induced by an altercation at work with an angry boss. Did you notice your face flushing, temperature rising, heart pumping, emotions changing from calmness to anger or despair? If you did then congratulations you just experienced a completely inappropriate triggering of the flight or fight response. An angry boss does not equate to a hungry predator chasing you under the forest canopy !! And we intuitively know this! You didn't need me to tell you! But still, we cant help it can we? we perceive everyday mundane situations which should cause us amusement as threats, our misled perceptions then go on to trigger the only tool we have in our tool box - a hammer where a screwdriver might have been more helpful - the flight or fight response. We may experience this to varying degrees, not necessarily extreme all the time. Nonetheless its my proposal to you that our evolution driven perception and our hard coded responses (all of them ... not just the one we discussed) are deluded. They evolved for a particular time and place and have stayed with us even though they are rarely ever appropriate.

Delusion, what I suggest, is a feature of our mental make up, our sense of perception, our identity. It is not a bug! It is a feature! And it makes us miserable. It makes us suffer.

What is wrong with us?

What's wrong with us ??

A one word answer to this question is - Delusion! Let me explain.

We human beings have evolved physical attributes and mental capabilities that have allowed us to dominate as a species. We are able to protect ourselves and our loved ones, feed our families and our societies, and in general be very very good at ensuring survival of our genetic code.

Some might argue in favor of the virus or the bacteria that trumps us in the game of being the apex predator. There is some truth there but not really .... :)

In the process of becoming extremely good at surviving we have evolved highly effective mechanisms of processing information and taking decisions and ultimately influencing our environments. Since thousands of years our science and our technology have freed us from the daily, hourly, minutely battle for survival and as a species we are now 'mostly' free .... of dangers of the wild, hunger, sickness, uncertainty of day to day survival. This freedom is invaluable but it comes with its own challenges. We have been increasingly looking inwards and outwards trying to understand nature, our nature, life and our place within it, and the biggest puzzle of all - 'The Meaning of Life'.

We all suffer - some less, some more. When I say we suffer, I don't restrict myself to grossly obvious things like disease, death, poverty etc. I mean to include all the aspects of our modern life which come along with their own brand of dissatisfaction. This is suffering at an existential level.

Some experience the depths of depression and despair and others experience relatively milder dissatisfaction and anxiety over their ongoing human experience .... but we all do suffer! At the root of this suffering lies key common assumptions of how we relate  to ourselves, the people we are close to and the world in general.

1. I must feel happy / Succeed / Do well ..... etc
2. I must get love and respect from people close to me
3. I am fair to the world and so the world must be fair to me

Reference: Rational Emotive Behavioral Theory (Albert Ellis).

Albert Ellis calls these assumptions - 'musturbations' - *note the use of the word 'must' in all of the above statements*. These musturbations are delusional in nature, and they cause us great pain when things happen contrary to them.

On my blog I address these musturbations and discuss ways of identifying how they manifest in ourselves and how to work them out of our system.

But these delusions, though powerful in influencing our quality of life, are yet superficial. These are concepts or constructs that we have built over our lives in order to navigate relationships. They get created based on a deeper blue print which is our understanding of how 'we' are and how the 'stuff' around us is. What exactly is this conscious self and how exactly does it relate to the environment that it finds itself in? We believe that we are an independent entity that navigates the world around it. Our purpose for ourselves boils down ultimately to two things: To run after things that give us pleasure and run away from things that give us pain. We believe that our sense of self worth needs to be tied to how well we do these two things

Reality, I propose to you, is far removed from our deluded understanding. Reality is represented better by the 'Three Marks of Existence' as emanating from the teachings of the prince Siddharth Gautam .... better known as The Buddha  who lived about 2500 years ago!

1. Every thing is impermanent
2. Every thing is unsatisfactory
3. There is no self (at least not in the way we understand it)

In short our understanding of the true nature of our existence is deluded and is better represented by the three marks of existence in Buddhism.

On my blog I address these delusions about the nature of our existence and discuss ways of working them out of our system and replacing them with a better more helpful understanding.