Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why are we here?

Based on my talk at the Dattoli Cancer Foundation on June 14, 2011.

There are certain times in our lives when we catch ourselves thinking, “Why are we here?”. This question sounds simple enough, but when we apply it to our life here on earth, it is a difficult one to answer. Having spent over 330,000 hours (and counting) here on earth since I was born, I have come to realize that a large number of those hours have been spent experiencing the happiness and sorrow of mortal existence. Over 110,000 hours of my time has been spent sleeping. I often wonder if using even a small fraction of that time to dwell on the question, “Why am I here?” would lead to a greater understanding of my own self. Certainly thousands of hours focused on the outside world has not shown me much of a clue. The answer must lie within.

When we reflect on our lives, going back to our childhood days, there are certain milestones that we can readily remember. These various events that have taken place in our lives string together a timeline of how we arrived at this point in out lives. It does not, however, answer the question, “Why are we here?”. This question first popped into my head as a child.  I can remember, on one hot summer night, I sat outside in the moonlight and looked up at the night sky in wonder. I was taken aback at how the sky could fill up with countless stars, when not long before, all I saw was a big blue sky holding only the sun.

Of course, as adults, this thought may seem very simple, and many of us don’t think about these things as we did when we were children. We tend to lose this childlike curiosity as we grow up, which is unfortunate. In the history of mankind, innumerable inventions and discoveries have all originated from adult minds that were able to maintain a bit of that childlike curiosity. If we approach the question, “Why are we here?”, with such an attitude, it could reveal little clues that give up secrets of our existence. With a committed and open mind we can see this question as a ticket to an inner journey that may or may not be completed in one’s current lifetime.

However, it is difficult to begin this journey if our minds are distracted with the trials and tribulations of our daily lives. Much of our lives are spent experiencing a certain amount of imbalance within our minds and bodies, and it often manifests itself as unhappiness or physical illness. It is important to understand the source of this imbalance. Once we understand where it comes from, it becomes easier to create your own tools and techniques to correct this inner disharmony.

We are responsible for the happiness and unhappiness we create for ourselves and others through our words and actions. So, why do we often struggle to find happy state of mind? And, once we do find it, why does it evaporate so quickly, only to be replaced by something else that makes us unhappy? It almost seems, at times in day to day to day living, our default mood is feeling unhappy or dissatisfied. Most would agree that takes quite a bit of effort to remain happy all the time. When the going is good, anyone can claim to be happy. When the tide turns even a little, can you maintain that same state of mind?

It is understandable to be sad when odds are stacked against you, and you keep failing despite doing everything in your power to succeed. However, there may be plenty of other times when we find ourselves feeling dejected and having negative thoughts despite having everything one could need or want in life. Whatever situation you find yourself in, you have the choice of looking at the glass being half full or half empty. Happy people tend to see the glass as half full, and are able to take away positives from each situation. Everyday, we encounter numerous instances where we are presented with at least two different perspectives. One, we may be able to see obvious advantages for ourselves and this is easy to identify. The second, and more difficult one to identify, is not just the potential downside and disadvantage it may present us, but what this could potential teach us to better ourselves for the future.

Unhappy people tend to view the glass as half empty. If they focus more on negative aspects, they may lose out on the learning potential of a situation. You can apply this to any situation that may arise in your lives and, based on your average response, you can then set your happiness index. Happiness and unhappiness are a reflection of the balance or imbalance that exists within ourselves. As we develop a greater degree of inner balance, this manifests as a wellspring of happiness. As children we are inherently happy. Unknowingly, we are able to maintain that inner balance as children. As we grow out of childhood and grow into attachments, very quickly we lose that ability to be effortlessly happy. In other words, we have only ourselves to blame for throwing away this precious gift that we bring with us into the world.

We talked about happiness as being a manifestation of a deeper inner balance. What constitutes this balance that is responsible for the happiness that we seek in everything that we do? It is related to two currents that are active in all human beings. One is the life force or the energy that animates our physical bodies and the other is the consciousness that is linked to our mental bodies. These two forces, namely the life force and consciousness are distinct and are interrelated. You need both of these to live. Without the life force aspect, you cannot have life in the body and without the mental aspect you cannot uses the faculties of the body such as the sense organs.

Just like the energy from the sun is essential for life on earth and the gravitational pull of the moon is essential for preventing the earth from spinning out of control, we need both the physical (life energy) aspect and the mental (consciousness) aspect. The other day, a friend of mine (Irwin Wolfson) sent me a quote by Edgar Mitchell, the well-known astronaut and founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). As he returned to earth after a lunar mission on the Apollo 14, he remarked  "How can you choose sides on a round planet?".    

Let us explore how we can apply this statement to ourselves. If you look at the human head, for all practical purposes it appears round just like the earth. As the seat of the mind, consciousness, intelligence, rational thought and the physical brain, our head is our world. Just like our planet earth and life on it depends on the sun and the moon, we depend on our life force and consciousness to be alive physically and mentally. The sides we take in the world outside are in the form of friend and foe and the sides we take internally are in the form of happiness and sorrow.

Just as day and night alternate, we also have an alternating pattern to our breath. We predominately breathe in and out of either the right or the left nostril. In fact, assuming there are no physical barriers such as a blocked nostril or a deviated septum, in a healthy state, we alternately breathe predominantly out of either the right or the left nostril and this pattern alternates every 60 to 90 minutes. This alternating pattern has a far greater significance than just an intellectual curiosity. It holds the key to maintaining the inner balance we are talking out. The power of your own breath is the doorway to a far greater happiness than what anything in the world can offer.

On closer observation, the breath coming out of the right nostril is ever so slightly warmer than the breath coming out of the left nostril. It is akin to the warmth of the sun’s rays and the cool light from the moon. The right nostril is representative of the life force energy and the left nostril is representative of mental energy. Research has shown that when the flow of breath is predominant in the left nostril, the right brain hemisphere is more active and conversely, when the flow of breath is predominant in the right nostril, the left brain hemisphere is more active. Thus, using the breath as a key, you can unlock the potential lurking in the corresponding opposite brain hemisphere.

We know that the left brain is associated with active, analytical, expressive, logical thinking. The right brain is associated with passive, emotional, intuitive, emotional feeling. During the daytime, when the sun is up we are usually active and expressive with our eyes looking straight or downwards while at work. At nighttime, when the moon is up, we are usually passive and reflective with our eyes looking up while we are going to bed. However, during the daytime, combining the rationality of the left brain with the creativity of the right brain makes your work more enjoyable and less monotonous. Some of us do the opposite. When we are at work, instead of working wholeheartedly, we think of shortcuts to escape work. When we are not working, instead of relaxing, the movie reel of work related stress repeats over and over again in our minds.
In order to experience a healthy body and mind, we need to balance the activity in the two brain hemispheres. The breath is related to activity in the opposite brain hemisphere and  it is a constantly occurring phenomenon day and night. It serves as a switch to control what is going on in your head. The right nostril represents the body, the left nostril represents the mind. In order to generate electricity, you need a combination of positive and negative charges.

Combining the energy in the body (positive current) and mind (negative current), an entirely new force is created. With techniques of breath control, one of which I will demonstrate shortly, it is possible to balance the flow of breath in both nostrils. Once this balance is achieved an new pattern of breath emerges and the this breath pattern is associated with higher states of consciousness such as that experienced in meditation. In this meditative state, awareness of the body and mind are transcended by combining and transmuting the life force energy in the body and the energy in the mind and consciousness. A byproduct of this balance is a deep inner happiness.

Breathing exercise:

Please sit comfortably. As far as possible, try to sit up as straight as possible, with your back preferably away from the backrest if possible. Your hands should be resting comfortably on your thighs with no tension in your shoulders and your feet comfortably positioned on the ground.

Now close your eyes and we will practice breath awareness. With your eyes closed, pretend that your are looking straight ahead gazing into a far distance. Think of an inverted triangle. The the three points of this triangle are your two eyes and the tip of your nose. As your gaze out into the distance with your eyes closed, think of this inverted triangle. The base of this inverted triangle is formed by your two eyes and the tip of your nose is the apex of this triangle.

The area inside this triangle formed by your two eyes and the tip of your nose is the meeting room of the outer and inner worlds. Now watch the breath go inside through the apex of this triangle represented by the tip of your nose and watch the breath come out through the apex of this triangle.

As each breath goes inside, think of happy moments that you may have witnessed with your two eyes. Let in that positive energy generated by those happy thoughts with each breath that you take within.

As each breath goes outside, let go of all the accumulated tensions and stresses of today and the days past.

As you keep doing this, the inverted triangle formed by your two eyes and the tip of your nose (nostrils) fills with a large amount of positive energy of happiness that you have just created.

Several minutes of this practice.....

Now as you watch the breath go inside feel your lungs filling up the bottom to the top. As the bottom of your lungs fill up, you may feel your abdomen protrude forwards. Gradually exhale and feel your abdomen moving inwards.

With each inhalation and exhalation, very gradually at your own pace and comfort consciously slow down the rate of inhalation and exhalation. With each inhalation, you are continuing to fill that inverted triangle formed by your two eyes and the tip of your nose with even more positive energy.

Several minutes of this practice....

Now think of an upright triangle that is formed by the right and the left nostrils and a point between your eyebrows. If your have difficulty visualizing this, remember what your nose looks like. It appears triangular in shape. The base of this triangle is formed by the right and left nostrils and the apex by the point between your eyebrows.

Mentally visualize this triangle formed by the right and left nostrils and the point between your eyebrows and keep your attention within. Now as you breathe in feel the air coming in through both nostrils. As you inhale, again think of happy moments in your life and fill this triangle with the positive current of that happiness.

As your breathe in and out, try to observe whether your are inhaling and exhaling through the right or the left nostril or both. The air outside we are all breathing in is the same. We can, however charge it with a current of happiness as we breathe in.

Several minutes of this practice.....

Now continue to watch your breath coming in and out of your nostrils. At this point, continue to consciously decrease the rate and speed of your inhalation and exhalation.

Now think of the two different triangles that you visualized. One is upright and the other is inverted. Superimpose the two triangles and you get a 6-pointed star. You have charged both the triangles with your own positive current of happiness.

The upright triangle is representative of your efforts in ascending to higher and more subtle levels of consciousness within your self. The inverted triangle is representative of your efforts in the realm of more gross worldly consciousness outside of your self.

To be successful in either direction, the inner or the outer worlds, you need to first fill yourself with happiness. The positive current of happiness that your have created and filled this six-pointed star with can be used in either effort, the inner or outer efforts.

Now, forget the breath and just visualize this six pointed star within. In your mind’s eye, keep your attention on it and radiate the positive current of happiness all around you.