Saturday, December 31, 2016

Sitting Still

Of all things that teach us something about ourselves, sitting still is probably the most revealing. Two simple words, when practiced may bring about profound transformation within ourselves. It is easy to lose oneself in movement. The mind is constantly on the move, and we have become accustomed to the ever changing scenery of thoughts. We see security in the mind, and its movement brings comfort when it is gentle. Life seems ideal when this changing scenery is at just the right pace, too slow and we slip into boredom and lethargy, too fast and it makes us restless and anxious. Motion is a characteristic of everything around us, from the spin of electrons around an atom’s nucleus to that of the galaxies. To this extent, the mind is in harmony with material creation. Thoughts are constantly on the move. At any given moment, our awareness is divided amongst thousands of thought forms moving at different speeds and in various directions. But when we narrow the focus of our awareness consciously or unconsciously, thoughts collapse into certain predictable patterns from which experiences are created. These may be positive or negative. Thoughts may move in one direction and create a sense of ease in the mind. These same thoughts in the opposite direction may create uneasiness in the mind. It all depends on the perspective from which we interact with them. Stillness, not just of the body but also of the mind, frees our awareness to probe deeper realms beyond that of thoughts.

The ego or the sense of self is the reference point from which we relate to thoughts and derive meaning. Ego functions as a glue that binds impressions from past experiences to the present. The present moment is like clear glass, fully transparent and without any superimposed images other than what is seen. Physically, we share every moment. It is the same for everybody regardless of where we are on earth. But mentally we are mostly absent and off in different imaginary worlds. This is because of the overlay of images from events of the past, imagined future or interpretations of them that cloud the experience of the present. The present moment is static just like a screen on which a movie is projected. Images that are superimposed on it are dynamic and in motion. Caught between the two, our awareness gravitates towards what is in motion. When an exciting movie is projected on a screen, the images that flow on the screen are what create feelings and emotions within us not the screen on which the movie is projected. Scenes come and go and none of them permanently stick to the screen. Similarly, even though the present moment is the “screen” on which images from the past are projected onto, it remains untouched, just like a movie screen. Having been fed a rich diet of emotions, both positive and negative, it has become hard to see the present without a tinge of some emotion or another.

Sitting still helps us become aware of this internal process by which the mind operates, and this awareness will in turn slow the rate of projection of thought forms related to the past or the future. Moments in which we maintain awareness without interaction with thoughts are rare. Just like what a rare diamond means to a jeweller, these thought free moments are precious to a meditator. While a celebrated chef may labor for a few hours to create a delicious meal from scratch, it takes us only a moment to experience its taste. That first experience makes us go back for more. Similarly, hours spent in trying to perfect a physical or a mental pose may yield a few seconds of a thoughtless state. Those precious moments will have a universally sweet taste regardless of our background or position in the world as long as we are able to set those conditionings aside.

A thought free state is always there in the background, but we are unaware of it. Like stormy clouds which hide the blue sky high above them, thoughts hide the experience of what it is to live without them. Children are relatively thought free (at least those pertaining to the past or the future), and this is reflected in their innocence and sunny disposition. They go with the flow, they are not rendered inflexible by the burdens of the past or worries of the future. Rarely do their thoughts stretch far into those time periods. They are concerned mostly with the present. These are qualities that are universal to children. However, their world view can change very quickly once they start to learn from and mimic adults. In adults, it is hard to find similar such universally good qualities. Each one seems very different from another, although outwardly the nature and composition of our physical bodies is very similar. Unless we peel away the layers, which have come to define us at various stages of our lives, our true nature will forever be hidden from us. When we learn to interact and stay with the present, dealing with it it can become like “child’s play”, but the same cannot be said of the past or the future which usually involves a lot of work and worry on our part. The past and the future are stored in worry lines on our faces. The present cannot be stored, just as a smile cannot be stored and repeated. It has to be spontaneous.

When our waking consciousness moves in sync with the mind and thought, it gives the appearance of stability and oneness. This false sense of stability and oneness quickly disappears when the movement of thought within the mind is faster than our ability to keep up. The mind then becomes restless and our consciousness begins to reflects this. The body is also dragged along with this movement of the mind, making it virtually impossible sit still. When our conscious awareness reverberates at the same frequency of the mind, we don’t experience its impermanence and evanescent nature, just as we don’t feel the speed of the earth’s rotation as long as we are rotating at the same speed. We cannot reliably slow down or stop the mind with our conscious will. It usually backfires. Just as an elastic band can be stretched, the conscious will pulls the mind in one direction while the mind tries to pull away in another direction. At some point, one or the other (the mind or the will) will have to give in when we try to forcibly subdue the mind.  

Witnessing is a process by which the our point of awareness is uncoupled from the movement of the mind. When this happens, we can then see the incredible speeds at which thoughts travel. Just as a kite flies away effortlessly on a windy day, the mind recedes from our consciousness and becomes an insignificant part of the inner sky when the string that ties our awareness to the mind is cut. Witnessing helps achieve and stabilize this state. It is a form of  active relaxation, as opposed to sleep which is passive relaxation.

When we are overcome with a toxic emotion such as anger, the mental image of the provocation that caused the emotion to rise may not be distinct but the experience of the emotion at a conscious level may become as well defined as an intricate painting. The mind and thoughts appear as one “solid wall” on which the emotion of anger is painted. While in the midst of it, there is neither space nor impetus to move our point of awareness from the emotion which becomes all pervading. But like every other emotion, there is a finite point at which it comes into existence from where it rises to a crescendo, peaks and then subsides. The curves may appear different for various emotions depending on the intensity, level or identification with them and how much of a habit they may have become. While any emotion is rising or subsiding, we can perceive some degree of separation between the emotion and us. But when it hits a peak, there is no space between us and the emotion. We become one with it. If the emotion is positive such as love and gratitude there is not much of a problem as there is a corresponding positive outcome. But when blinded by anger or other negative emotions, the results may be very detrimental. It is better to identify with a positive rather than a negative emotion. Better yet, a step forward is maintaining equipoise, that is neither identification with a positive or a negative emotion. They will come and go just as waves in an ocean do. When swimming in an ocean one gets tossed about, sometimes cresting a wave or other times hitting a trough. But from high above, such as when looking out from a window of an airplane, the surface of the ocean may appear as smooth as a sheet of glass. Similarly our mental distance from emotions determines the level of equipoise one can successfully maintain.

When we are able to sit still and hold awareness firmly in our grasp and the rise and fall of each thought and emotion becomes apparent, then space between thoughts and emotions begin to appear. Images evoked by emotions which were once a “solid wall” rich with texture and and context, start to become pixelated. As images disintegrate and more space is created, that becomes our lifeline to bliss. Although one cannot easily deconstruct and erase all of the images that are stored in the mind through conscious effort, it may be possible to “see through” them by sitting still. When a ceiling fan is rotating at high speed, it is impossible to see the space between the blades of a fan. The rotating blades may in fact appear as a solid object. But when the fan blades slow down or stop rotating, the space between them becomes apparent. Similarly, when our focus of awareness isn’t constantly rotated from one thought to another, empty space appears where thoughts once stood as an impenetrable wall.

The real value of a house lies not in its walls or roof but in the space that is contained within them. Thoughts that stream through the mind may be compared to walls in a house. Walls are generally made as thin as structurally possible. If the walls are thick, they reduce the living space proportionately. Without walls, there would just be open land. Similarly, without thoughts, there would be an emptiness in place of a busy mind. But with thoughts being in endless supply and our engagement with them heavy and constant, they become like thick walls. There is very little space for our awareness to freely move about. The essence of the mind is emptiness, which is rarely, if ever experienced. In place of that is a densely populated world of thoughts. Just as the morning fog lifts as the sun rises in the sky, the imaginary world of thoughts will also lighten and eventually dissipate with persistent practice of stillness. With this, comes the ability to bring them back at will to be at our service, rather than us being enslaved by them. This is freedom experienced at the level of the mind.

A visit to Madame Tussauds, a wax museum may be turned into an exercise in trying to understand our underlying true nature. Just as the wax statues look back at us with vacant apathetic stares, we can look at thoughts with a similar sentiment when they try to impose themselves upon us. They should be considered as visitors, but we have given them full rights of ownership over our consciousness. Wax is also a good metaphor for impermanence of the physical body. The light from a candle can be thought of as the life principle that keeps us alive. Melting and evaporation of wax can be thought of as time that turns a young and healthy body into an old and infirm one. As time burns, the body goes through various stages from infancy to old age and ultimately decays and disintegrates, inevitable changes that come in the wake of bodily death. This is an uncomfortable truth that no one wants to hold in their mind. It is easier to dwell on the mundane than the existential. The former is evanescent yet we hold in our mind as being permanent. The latter is a certainty we discard as an “unwholesome” thought. But for those who do dwell on that thought dispassionately, thinking of the body as a slowly melting piece of wax, the realization of the importance of time quickly dawns. Only when time is afforded the respect it commands, can one be consistently productive. Procrastination is like the spoilt child of time that we heavily indulge.

Death is an individual problem that none can escape. As long as our consciousness is tied to the experience of life through the five bodily senses, fear of it will be prominent in the mind. However, life and death pertain to the physical body only, there is no death in a universal sense. Regardless of how many countless living entities have come and gone on planet earth, the qualitative aspect of life carries on in one form or another. “Life” cannot be divided just like we cannot slice and carve out air. Every human being alive today is an expression of the one same life principle. When as a race we have fully understood that life is universal, wars and killing of other humans will naturally abate. Happiness comes not from impeding expression of life, but by promoting and nurturing it. The sun’s rays, though fierce at times has a nurturing quality when it comes to life on earth. That quality of the sun makes us happy whenever it is a sunny day. A relative phenomenon like the rising and setting of the sun is taken as real unless one has the knowledge of how the solar system works. One need not travel in a spaceship to see this first hand to understand it, and it may not be possible to do so. The senses are like that imaginary spaceship. It will always remain a fantasy to understand life and death through the agency of the senses. No one has been successful in getting to answers to deeper questions through the help of the senses. Why not learn from that and not repeat that fruitless exercise? Only inner reflection with awareness has any hope of showing us the way.

The senses don’t come back “home” on their own accord, unless we withdraw our attention from them. With practice, one may be able to sit still as if there were no life in the body, yet maintaining full awareness that is not linked to any particular thought or thoughts. When this is possible, the senses will withdraw themselves from the business of transacting with the world, just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs and head back into its shell when danger is perceived. Maintaining awareness that is not yoked to the senses may be the closest we can come to experiencing the life principle that animates our bodies. The danger that the senses present with respect to our inner journey will be apparent when the experience bliss that comes with increasing inner awareness is lost.

A very lifelike wax statue is not given the same importance as a living person, even though a wax statue may be preserved indefinitely unlike our physical bodies. The value of a living being stems from the life principle that animates a lump of flesh hanging on a bony scaffold. Without that life principle, our bodies will decay within a matter of hours. This life principle is a great wonder. It is there in every living being we encounter, yet we cannot see it or capture it. Just as we cannot see the sun at night time but we can infer its presence by the warmth which be felt, we can infer the presence of life without seeing it.

When we interact with the world, the mind acts as a mirror. The experiences may be reflected in the mind, but the actual experiencer isn’t in the mind. For example, when we stand in front of a mirror, we can see our reflection, but the eyes in the reflection cannot see us, even though they appear identical to our eyes. Furthermore, if we are stand in front of a mirror and combing our hair, our attention may be on the reflection in the mirror but the hair in the reflection is not what is actually parted and combed. It just reflects what is happening outside of the mirror. If one is looking at a turbulent lake, the reflection becomes fragmented and distorted. Such a reflection would not be a true representation of our external appearance, which would be seen more accurately when surface of the lake is very still. Like a lake’s surface, the mind reflects the ever changing world. These changing experiences create movement (via thoughts) which makes the mind turbulent. In this state, the mind becomes a very poor reflector and any hope of seeing a reflection of our inner self is lost. What we instead see in the mind are “undecipherable fragments” that are overshadowed by thoughts that bring a variety of experiences into clear focus, the clarity of which makes us believe they are real.

The material nature of existence has impermanence written all over it. The senses are ill equipped to provide us clarity regarding the processes of creation, preservation and destruction taking place in every animate and inanimate object. Each entity, living or nonliving goes through this process at a different pace. The Himalayan mountains may appear as a permanent fixture in relation to the lifecycle of a housefly. But on the time scale of the universe, even those imposing mountains are a transient occurrence. They were nonexistent at some point in the past and may cease to exist in their present state in the future. However, in this ever changing universe, the one constant is energy. Assuming our universe is a closed system, the first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. In other words, everything including our physical entities are a expressions of energy transmuted from one form to another.

A portion of the sun’s energy that reaches the earth gets transmuted into food. That is our lifeline. Although food when left out without means of preservation such as refrigeration decays quickly, it is preserved in our bodies as a biological force. This is reflected in the lustre and health of the body. Respecting the universal law of matter which implies change, our physical body which may be considered as a "food body" will change, age and eventually decay in time. The "food body" may be compared to candle wax and life within it to the flame of a lit candle. As long as the flame stays lit there is warmth that emanates from the candle. Similarly, the warmth associated with life remains as long as there is “wax to burn” in the form of of a healthy body.  A question worth pondering is where was the light before a candle is lit and where did it go after the wax melted and disappeared? One may pose similar questions of the life principle in one’s body. It is impossible to maintain an individual identity engendered by the ego and study the mysteries of the life principle which is agnostic to individual identity. Keeping the body and the mind still provides a good foundation for the contemplating on “what stays and what leaves and where to” after death. We all know that the body eventually turns to dust. But what happens of the mind and the individual’s experience of the life principle is unknown. Therein lies the mystery which is worth pursuing. Not everyone can be an inventor or be able to discover something new as done by explorers in the middle ages. But everyone can be an explorer within. Childlike curiosity, coupled with indomitable will and courage to brave the pull of the mind and the senses are some of the basic provisions needed for a successful journey. In this world of immense variety we live in, we are lucky that there is at least something novel and unknown left to be discovered.

It should be considered to be a matter of great fortune that we are able to experience life through our bodies. No doubt the body cannot last forever, but while it is still operational it can serve as a vehicle for deliverance- of ideas big and small that could positively impact the world. There is innate intelligence the cells of the body and they function just the way our DNA is programmed, regardless of whether one’s mind is restless or still. There is however a spillover of the state of one’s mind, whether relaxed or tense, into the body. This may have a long term impact the health of the body. It may be favorable if the mind is relaxed more often than not and it may be detrimental to bodily health if the mind is in a constant state of tension. Sitting still is virtually impossible if there is even the slightest tension in the mind. Thoughts create that tension and hence the “rope” that binds us to the body.

Just as when a candle is lit, it is the light from the flame that helps us see in the dark and not the candle wax, we can only probe the depths of our being if our attention is linked with the life principle pervading all beings; and not the instruments of expression of that life principle which are the mind, body and the senses. Through habit our attention is invariably on the physical frame but not on the life principle that enlivens it. Just as fire has the same quality no matter where it is burning, similarly, life is the same regardless of the state of mind or the health of the body. Awareness helps us achieve oneness with the life principle. Awareness has a unique property. It can be just as completely decoupled from the body as it can be merged with it. Movement, especially within the mind catches our attention and hence our awareness. The nature of the mind is to be in a state of motion. The body cannot be kept motionless for very long when the mind is full of thoughts. The longer the mind can be kept in a “thoughtless” state the easier it becomes to keep the body still. By remaining in a thoughtless state, awareness is freed up to travel deeper within.

Sitting still in the real sense is allowing the mind to remain perfectly still and become a reflector just as a highly polished mirror would be. The mind then becomes like an empty space just as that between the earth and the sky. When an airplane streaks across the sky, it may leave leave a vapor trail for a while but it does not permanently stain the sky. Similarly, when the mind is perfectly still, our awareness of the emptiness in the mind can be maintained without being trapped by it. Free and unhinged inner awareness is the end goal of meditation. With the body and mind perfectly still, movement of that inner awareness towards our true inner self leaves a byproduct of bliss in its wake, which makes the journey that much more comfortable.