The struggle with mindfulness

Hold the experience, I’m told. Stay with it, be in it.

I take my agitation in a fierce gaze, in a bid to stare it down. Don’t react. I squeeze my eyes shut tightly. If I don’t see it, I won’t explode. The bile rises. Steam gathers. My cheeks get hot. No, no, no, no, no.

I react.

Exhale. A split second of relief. That’s as long as it lasts.

And then, regret. Waves and waves of it roll forcefully over me. I shouldn’t have said those unkind words, I could have been more generous-spirited, he/she/it deserved compassion. The self-lashes sting, tears fill. I’m better than this. I’m more than that. All that sitting, all that reflection, destroyed in a flash of righteous anger.

Shantideva says, be still as a log. It rings through me. Yes, do nothing. When tempted to respond in condescending contempt. When feeling the itch to respond. When the wrong is so obviously asking to be righted.

Whatever it is, let it be. Fall into it, become it. Then there’s nothing to fight, no thing to wrestle down, no wrong, and no right.

Mindfulness. Leaving aside all that should be for all that is.

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The desire to be liked

For all the assertions of individuality and uniqueness, we humans have a primal desire to be liked. Millennia after we stopped being primates, we still haven’t let go of the instinct to be accepted, adored and worshipped by our peers and communities. It remains our primary survival instinct.

Hence, tentative glances around a group to see if the point we’re making is winning support from listeners. Mindless ‘likes’ on Facebook that aren’t so mindless actually, they’re entry passes into communities because there is safety in numbers. The most fervent rebel will still be beholden to the primal instinct even as he turns back to see who’s become a fan.

It serves a purpose, sure, this desire to be liked. It made sure you could stay with the tribe, partake in the feasts, be protected.

Yet, it is tremendously exhausting as well. It goes up against our countervailing need to stand out, stand superior to the rest so that we get the first right to the kill. After all, survival was guaranteed, during those brutish, untamed days in the threatening environment, for those that were the top dog in the band because they ate the first, the best, the most.

Despite the passage of so many millions of years, the desire to be liked retains its hold on us. In modern times, it means, very simply, stand tall, just not too tall.

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Fresh starts

Fresh starts. We all seek them, especially around new year’s. It’s now July, and some of us, steeling our nerves, will be revisiting those new year’s resolutions we made so fervently and passionately on 1 January. So how’re we doing on them?

If you’re like me, there are a few that we’re doing pretty well on (yay for us, we’re not totally hopeless!). And then the rest, staring back at us from the fresh journal page, intact. Alas, the strong intentions at the dawn of the new year have not translated into actual shape and form, six months later.

I’m convinced, after many, many years of this experience repeating itself that there is a fundamental flaw within the whole endeavor of self-improvement.

We want a Big Bang launch, announcing from the top of the roof to the world our incipient transformation. We wait for an occasion to embark on the project (New Year), bite off grandiose goals (what the heck), and, essentially, give ourselves a lustful high fed by our body’s happy hormones.

But, achieving those lofty goals requires daily effort, with infinitesimally small and unnoticeable gains. No glamour here, no one’s watching and applauding, no trumpets and horns to mark progress. Just me and my lonely self, getting up in the dark and going for a practice run while civilization slumbers in a cozy bed.

It’s inconsistent, this supercharged kick-off and the uninteresting subsequent path. I think that’s why most of us fail. We can’t always be on adrenaline. But coming down from that high is, well, just not as much fun. It’s boring to exercise day in and day out, avoid the fried snacks on every single occasion, write religiously, or meditate diligently. No novelty here, simply perseverance. No spotlights, just sweat, tears, protesting muscles.

It’s a conundrum, and I’m not sure it can be fixed. The only recourse is to recognize it, and maybe try to set smaller goals, fighting the superhuman feeling at the time that we are going to conquer the world so what’s signing up for one marathon (even though we don’t run). And, perhaps, giving more due to the daily task, appreciating it’s tremendous significance in taking us towards our goal. Maybe we need special occasion markers to celebrate mid-way progress, like “2 weeks-under-my-belt-of-no-desserts Party!” Or “I wrote 20 stories, let’s get drunk!” What’s required is to glamourise the slog; it’s such hard work, physically as well as mentally and emotionally, and we need to pat people on the back for the sheer tenacity of spirit that actually goes into just sticking with it.

Yes, that’s it. More credit must be given to those steps between the first one and the last, because without them, we’d only be staring at a page full of nicely scribbled megalomaniac promises. So, if you know someone that wanted to fit into college jeans, become a published author, or transform themselves in some way, take them out for a celebration today, no matter where they are on their goals. They’re somewhere further along than an intention, and that’s worth a few balloons and champagne.

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Stream of consciousness

The other day, I wrote about how only amateurs wait for inspiration to write. The real writers write, no matter what.

But what if I can’t think of what to write? My mind is blank right now even as I’ve got the screen and cursor poised. Despite a clamouring chorus of ideas that jostle for space when I’m in the shower, at this moment, I’m peering into a blank slate.

In a way, this emptiness is to be cherished. Nothing to say. Or at least, nothing that feels urgent to be said. When was the last time you found yourself in this spacious, inert state?

It is delicious. Nowhere to move to, no agenda to pursue, nothing to achieve. A respite, welcome after the frenzied rush of the day with its myriad pressing matters that don’t actually press into anything, they just evaporate once the stressed hour has passed. Muddied waters slowly still the churn. A calm settles.

Meditation. Allowing thoughts to rise and then to fall, without sorrow. Embracing them and letting them go with the same detached fervor. It’s very hard to follow, but simpler than the path of indulging the thoughts, which only generates problems and entanglements. Acceptance, it’s the secret.

This is a bit strange, to elaborate on a vacant state of mind even as I formulate sentences that show up on the screen. Can the two coexist?

I think yes, I suspect this is what those great geniuses meant when they talked about flow.

P.s. I wonder how this piece will be received by my wonderful community of followers as well as the larger world. I am committed to my recent vow to write, write, write. It’s an experiment in style.

Dear reader: if you care to, will you let me know how this style worked for you? I’m trying on different voices. Thanks, in advance.

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Is “woman” an adjective?

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Freakonomics, today, which featured the Harvard University president, Drew Gilpin Faust (what an awesome name). She talked about how, soon after she was appointed, someone asked her how she felt to be Harvard’s woman president. She said, “I shot back, ‘I’m not Harvard’s woman president, I’m Harvard’s president.'”

That was powerful. She was right. She needed to be seen as the leader, without a qualifier. Her accomplishments were as fine as any, which is why the Harvard Corporation chose her. Not out of tokenism, simply based on merit.

And then, she said, she realized that it was indeed important to note she was a woman president because it sent out the message to young girls everywhere that they could be anything, including president of one of the world’s most esteemed universities.

Being a woman is not just a noun, it’s also an adjective. Woman soldier, woman lawyer, woman CEO, woman president.

In our world today, even in the 21st century, it is still a notable feat for a woman to be anything that goes outside of mother, wife and homemaker. There are so few of us in the great diversity of roles that society offers, even fewer in positions of power. It’s making a statement if you occupy one of these spaces that are a birthright to men but must be hard won by women.

I used to feel the same way as Ms. Faust. Why is my gender made into an issue? I have talents and abilities in the same way that my brother does. And yet, I have been recognized for my achievements with wonder sometimes.

I used to chafe against this wonder, scorning the underlying pathetic attitude that “even a woman can do this”. Now, I embrace it with fierce pride: it’s right that you’re awestruck to see me here, I fought both seen and unseen foes to rise to it. It is awe-inspiring.

This is still the world we live in. I guess, somewhere, that’s part of the reason I want to write. I want girls and women everywhere to know our voice matters, and I want boys and men everywhere to get comfortable hearing it. One day, it will no longer be a source of wonder that a woman writer penned her innermost thoughts to change the conversation. It will be simply that a writer penned her innermost thoughts and changed the conversation.

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On writing

“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get going.” – unknown

I’m a new writer, by which I mean that I’ve just in the past few years mustered the courage to write my thoughts and put them out in the world. This blog is an example. Short stories that I’m penning are another.

Being a new writer also means I’m fairly indisciplined about writing. For the longest time, I subscribed to the first part of the quote, seeking inspiration to descend on me, and only after this would I feel authentic in what flowed onto paper.

How silly I was. Writing is work, and requires the same doggedness and steady attendance as an actual job or fitness regimen. That’s what countless famous writers have said, it’s what a writer-friend also told me without mincing any words. “Archana,” he said, “it’s foolish to depend on inspiration. You just have to show up and write regularly. It’s a job.”

I struggle with this. Like people trying to stick to a weight loss diet, I fight to stay on track. I am easily swayed by the “I don’t feel like it, no words are coming, I’ll write tomorrow” argument. It is supposed to be fun and fulfilling, after all, not a slog.

I’m slowly realizing that maybe the slog is essential to the whole endeavor. It may just serve the purpose of burning all the junk that’s posing as writing, so the good, real stuff can start flowing out. I listened to a writer, on one of the NPR podcasts, who said he wrote a short story a day for 100 days, and only after that did the good stuff emerge. 100 stories in about 3 months – that floored me. What amazing discipline, how strong his writing muscles must have become, how clear his mind and heart. He talked about clearing out the garbage.

Therefore, I’m going to try to write every day. If only a sentence, let it be so. It will still be one more sentence closer to the real voice that wants to speak out. Along the way, I hope this blog will be interesting for you, dear reader, as you see me emerge from my cocoon. You will bear witness to a writer taking shape.

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You lost the weight, congratulations. Now, how do you keep it off?

Over and over, I see folks around me taking drastic steps to lose weight. Fruits only! Meat only! The high-fat diet, stuff yourself silly with bacon, cheese, butter. Change that, kill the fat totally.

The urge to transform is so powerful, the frustration so intense, that only an extreme step will do. It’s a fervent vow that this time you’ll do it, you’ll shed the kilos, and therefore, scrap everything, EVERYTHING.

Some folks manage to do it. They hit their goal. The clothes shrink, the confidence soars, the smile is bright.

And then, before you’ve broken in the new pair of jeans, the weight bounces back up.

Disappointment. Despair. Why, why, why? Such sacrifices were made. Gritting of teeth, killing the hunger pangs, suffering through mood swings – these are all not to be minimized. They were the stuff of big leaps.

And therein lies the problem. Because they were giant changes, they don’t last. It’s like sprinting, just all the time. Exhausting, and unsustainable.

Marathon runners don’t sprint, they take small steps, following a steady pace. It’s the only way to run the long distance. The body doesn’t feel overly taxed in one go. It feels normal.

To keep the weight off, it’s got to feel normal to lose it in the first place. Not drastic, not extreme, not unnatural. Small food items are foregone, not entire food groups or meals.

I read this in a wonderful little book, the Spirit of Kaizen. Trick your brain by making such tiny little changes that it doesn’t even notice what’s gone. One bite, one set of stairs.

And when it’s not noticed, it’s not going to be missed. And when it’s not missed, it’s not coming back.

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