Punctuate Life

Pause Breathe Relax


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Slow Down, Chennai!

Almost a month has passed since I moved back to Chennai. It hardly feels like the city I grew up in. Madras as I knew it was a laid back metro, unimpressed by the hustle and bustle and night life of Mumbai and other cities. The city went to sleep at 10.00 p.m. like all its residents. No one stressed about traffic and commute and people were quite happy with their filter coffee and idli-sambar.

Over the past decade, fast food and instant coffee has replaced so many iconic landmarks. I remember eating crispy dosa and vanilla ice cream at Dasaprakash and going to Woodlands Drive-in Restaurant. Or browsing at Landmark bookstore, my favorite haunt. All gone without a trace.

The whole city has a different pulse. A hurried pulse if you will. Everybody is in a hurry. On the road, everyone wants to push past you and get to God knows where. They are going to show up late, anyways. So why bother! Three times this week my kids reported that their bus was hit by another vehicle. Every other day we see an accident on the road and know that it could have been prevented. Moms pick up their kids from school, grab a snack from a convenience store and rush them off to tuition classes. Nobody has time for anyone else.

Everyday is a battle to get to work, clock in nine or more hours, rush home, cook, eat, sleep and repeat. Ladies who opt to stay home have their hands full with temperamental maids (who are also in a big rush!), then tackling kids and their mountains of homework and incessant tests. Kids don’t have time to go outside and play.

Recently, while speaking to a recruiter, we complained about the long commute. The recruiter brushed it off saying that it is normal! A study conducted on commuting stress in Quebec says that a commute lasting more than 20 minutes can lead to burnout. Working 14 plus hours is also deemed normal here. Everyone does it, right? The number of youngsters suffering from blood pressure, heart attacks and diabetes is alarming. And yet life goes on. People pop pills and continue abusing their minds and bodies.

If you think I’ve gone soft after staying away from the motherland, think again. I spent 23 years of my life here in Chennai and things were way different then. Some say we don’t have a choice and have to conform to “the way things are”. I want to challenge the status quo and refuse to conform.

So how do we slow down and change the frenetic pace of things? On the road, remember you are not a bull dozer. Slow down, allow people to cross and don’t be in a mad rush to overtake every other vehicle on the road. Don’t cut in front of people waiting in line (if there is no line – form one). Smile and say thank you to people who serve you or hold the door open for you. Work smart so you have time for your family and for relaxation and exercise. Find time to cook simple meals at home. You health and savings account will flourish. Get enough sleep and set aside some time to be by yourself in a quiet space. The noises of the city can drown out that quiet voice of wisdom within you.

When you feel stressed, even if you are at work, go outside for a walk if possible or go to a clean restroom and take deep calming breaths. Stress is something that creeps up on you and builds up till you’re bursting at the seams. It happened to me last week and I found myself yelling at the kids. I had to consciously make a choice to calm down, close my eyes and breathe. This week I’m not waiting for the stress to build up. I am taking time to relax, breathe and center myself. Seems to be working so far. A few days ago the school bus was late but I did not have a panic attack. Life happens and sometimes a good dose of humor helps. Laugh away your cares and move on.

If you want Chennai to slow down, you need to slow down first. Don’t rush through your day. Find time for people and things that matter. You have more than enough time to accomplish everything. So take your time and do the best job you possibly can.

 

 


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The Happiness Prescription

As humans we seem to be constantly seeking something. A better job, a better relationship, better education, a better house and ultimately a better life. But it’s really not the job, relationship etc. that we are yearning for. It’s happiness. We think that the job or relationship will make us happy. And most of our lives it eludes us. Because we seek it from without. When actually it resides in every one of us.

Why do we seek happiness? Because it is our nature. It’s like this alarm system going off every time you do something that causes you grief. You want to quickly get out of that situation and be in a happy situation. It’s like you have a compass in your heart that is always seeking the direction that leads to the greatest joy. A craving for happiness if you will.

We have an ‘idea’ of happiness. A list of things that if acquired in this lifetime will make us happy. After years of studying we get a well-paying job that can buy us things that make us feel good. We accumulate a lot of things and then realize that the job and the things are no longer enough. We want someone to share it with. The quest for a perfect relationship begins. When we find that we’re happy for a while but then we want to add to our happiness by having kids. Then we go about getting the best school,  a bigger house, best activities for our kids so they grow up perfectly. We save up for their education and then we save up for our retirement. Then before we know it we are saving up for our funeral expenses! It’s never enough and we never really get to that pinnacle of happiness and stay there. We find something missing and hanker after more things in the hope that it will fill that gaping hole in our soul. That it will fill our cup of joy.

But happiness just is. It cannot be added to or taken away. Things cannot increase your happiness or decrease it for that matter. More things do not equal more happiness. More money does not equal more happiness. Then the rich and successful would be very very happy. The poor and impoverished would be very very unhappy. And you know that ain’t true!

The nature of the world is ephemeral. Things come and go. Beings are born, they grow and they die. Money comes, accumulates and then in a second it’s gone. So isn’t it foolish to seek happiness from fleeting things? Happiness can only come from things that never die or never leave you. Joy and bliss can only come from the deep recesses of your soul – the part of you that never dies and is connected to the source of all happiness.

I for one have struggled to find happiness all my life. I had everything on my ‘happy list’ and still was unhappy. Life has dealt me a lot of blows and I’ve had a lot of struggles. But one fine day it dawned on me that ‘I’ was in charge of my happiness. Not my family, not my friends, not my job or the lack of it. That is when I stopped blaming everything and everyone (including the government!) for my unhappiness.

When you let things and people be in charge of your happiness you end up powerless and at the mercy of the world. Constantly swayed by everything that is thrown at you. Bruised, battered and unable to carry on. It’s not like happy people do not have any problems or struggles. The difference is in their attitude and how they perceive problems. Your attitude can most definitely determine how happy you are.

Joy and breath is the very essence of life. It pulses through our veins. Often it is covered by layers of perception. Distracted by the constant stimulus of the outside world, we fail to see this joyful place within us. We are not always aware of our breath but when we slow down and move our attention to it – we find it’s there – it has always been there. Same with happiness. I don’t care how many horrible things have happened to you, I don’t care how broken you are, if you are alive and breathing, you have a well of happiness deep inside of you. You just might have to try harder than everyone else to find it.

Once you see the world for what it is and take time out to unwind and disconnect from it you reach that place of constant bliss, peace and love. When you connect with your inner joy on a regular basis, you slowly disconnect from the world and its false promises. Your idea of happiness is no longer the same. You seek happiness from only one person – YOU. And you seek happiness from within not without.

 


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Taming Your Mind, the Monkey

I did not go out seeking mind control. But was forced to do it after a severe bout of depression. I simply had to control the negative feelings that kept rising up every now and then. So powerful that they almost smothered me. I was afraid that if my predominantly negatively charged brain was given control that I would plunge back into the Black Hole. The Balck Hole that I swore never to return to.

So the first step to controlling your thoughts is to be AWARE of them. If you go through your day doing things and not paying attention to your mental chatter then you have no control. But then again it’s hard to pay attention to your thoughts when you have a million things to do and your mind is jumping from one task to the next. My suggestion? Take a few minutes every day to just sit down and listen to your thoughts. Write them down if you want. Now check to see if they are predominantly positive thoughts or negative thoughts. Are they thoughts that will set you free or keep you victimized? Will they help you in your life’s purpose or will they keep you stuck? Or are you just replaying the bad events of your life over and over?

Thoughts and feelings are bosom buddies in that, where one goes the other will follow. If your thoughts are blue, guess what?  You will be feeling blue. When I felt sad I would try very hard not to dwell on those thoughts that were making me sad. By not paying attention to them. By doing something to keep myself busy or by distracting myself. Little did I know then that I could totally shift the way I was feeling by simply force -feeding my mind some positive thoughts. So for many years I lived in this limbo of unhappiness, slipping in and out of near depression. Mind you a negatively charged brain will refuse to go on a positive thought diet. It will throw up, gag, retch and find myriad ways to let you know that it dislikes change! Over time and with practice I have made my mind a cheery little creature that speaks encouraging words, eggs me on and boosts my confidence. You can do it too – everytime you pay attention to your thoughts. If they are positive, good for you! If not, stop, drop the negative thought and keep the positive ones rolling.

Here is the danger with not replacing the negative with the positive. Like attracts like. So one negative thought leads to another, then another and then another. And before you know it you are wallowing in it, in your nightgown at 11.00 in the morning! So remember the fire drill. Stop! Drop! Roll!

After a point I needed more than just positive thinking to keep me centered no matter what. I was looking for peace, a serenity that enveloped me and everyone I came in contact with. For that I turned to meditation. I was always drawn to it but it took me years to find the right fit for my kind of mind. I started off with Reiki Chakra meditation. Then SOHAM meditation. None of them lasted for more than a few months. If you prefer a guided meditation tape or CD then you could try these. In my case it was during guided meditation that I lost all feeling from my body and felt blissful. That one experience egged me on to find the perfect meditation. There was this chant that I heard at a musical that I really liked. It was like a trance and it made me feel at peace. So I used to chant it a few times and then just enjoy the peace that came with it.

For someone who has never meditated before I would suggest sitting still for a few minutes and following the breath. Take deep breaths and focus on your breathing. If you mind is too active then you need to focus it on one thing. Try saying a mantra. Choose something meaningful to you and not something random. ‘Om’ is a good mantra but if you feel it’s too ‘Hindu’ for you go with ‘Aaaah’. Take a deep breath and say Ooooooooooooommmmmmm or Aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh on the exhale. Say it slowly and remember to stay with the ending sound as well  – the mmmm hum or the hhhhh hum after your lips close. Feel the vibration, feel the mantra course through your body. Feel the rhythm. Say it as many times as you need to and then just sit still and listen to or feel the chant in your mind or body.

Eckhart Tolle describes another method in his book “A New Earth”. This is a must read for anyone searching for meaning amidst the chaos of the world. He says that the breath or prana or life force or spirit is the doorway to your soul and the peace and bliss that comes with it. I’ve heard of this concept before and I had tried to control my breath in order to control my mind. If you hold you breath your mind will be quiet. I just ended up breathless! Tolle however asks us to watch our breath. As in, breathe consciously as opposed to unconsciously. That will stop the mental chatter because you can only be fully aware of one thing at a time. I practised this type of meditation for a while and then I saw Deepak Chopra’s meditation on the Doctor Oz show. He asked the audience to feel their heartbeat without placing their hands over the heart. And then progressively feel various parts of your body by sending your attention or concentrating on that part. Start with bigger areas like your hands or your feet. Then try feeling your nose, ears and scalp. As you concentrate you will feel the life force as a pulsating sensation, fully alive. As you do this, your attention which is usually in your mind will begin to shift and you are no longer a prisoner of your mind.

Yoga again is meditation in motion, if done properly. You have to breathe into the pose, feel the stretch or in other words your awareness should be within your body, totally present, totally focused.  Shavasana (corpse pose) is a wonderful relaxation pose and when the body is relaxed, the mind relaxes too. Then if you just follow your breath, you go deeper into relaxation and deeper into meditation.

One last type of meditation that might work for some of you, especially if you have an analytical mind is the Self- Enquiry method or the Who am I meditation. I have not had much success with it possibly because I’m not very analytical! So you sit still and ask the question – Who am I? Your mind will give you a thousand answers. Negate all those answers. Ask the question, be quiet and plunge deeper. In the end after you realize that you are not the body, the thoughts or the mind or the roles you play, you will only hear the ‘I’- ‘I’ beating of your soul.

It’s important that you use the same room/chair/place for your practice. After a while just entering the room or sitting on the chair will take you to that deep, sacred and peaceful place, almost instantly! If you try the last type of meditation and meet with success, please share your experience so others like me may learn and follow.

 

 

 

 


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Prayer 101

I imagined myself to be a very spiritual person even when I was a child. I lit the lamp everyday after my bath and prayed to all the deities my Dad prayed to. I read spiritual books and did yoga and meditation in college. And by then I had an obnoxiously swollen spiritual ego. Like I was above it all. Better than everyone else. Never did I realize that all this was just at the surface level. That you have to delve deeper into the spirit realm to know God.

It’s easy to do all the stuff I did in the name of spirituality, when life is peachy and you have rose petals strewn over your life path. Little did I know that yonder lay thorns, cliffs, deep ravines, white waters and steep waterfalls.

I had left Chennai and was in Pondicherry University to do my Masters. It was the first time that pampered little me had left the comforts of my home and family. And how did I deal with it? Horribly. I went home every chance I could, every weekend, every holiday. I didn’t like the course, or the food they served in the mess or the weather. And before I knew it I had quit and come back home. I felt awful for doing that. Now I had nothing to do. I had to wait another 6 months to get into any college. All my friends were studying or working and I felt all alone. Feelings of worthlessness and sadness engulfed me and I asked why. What did I do wrong? Why won’t you help me? You who I prayed to every single day.

In those dark moments I spent with me and woe-is-me thoughts, I got no answer. The desperation grew and I never saw myself coming out of it. I felt like I was going crazy. Turning into a nut job. Pretty soon I’d be shut away in an asylum and I felt even more sorry for myself. Nobody will miss me. Nobody wants this sad person in their life. Nobody needs me. They are better off without me. I’m a blot on their otherwise perfect life.

Of course, I had abandoned God and religion and everyone and everything by then. I hit rockbottom and that’s when my family knew I needed help and they intervened. I received the help and I got out of the hole I had put myself into. But something shifted in me. I couldn’t express it in words then, but looking back it was like being given a second chance, being born again. I felt enormous gratitude. Even though I had given up God, She/He hadn’t given up on me. I had to go through my struggles to emerge with a deeper understanding of God. God is not in the idols, not in the rituals, not in all the stuff in the outer level. God is a presence. A quiet presence. God doesn’t beat drums to announce his presence or say – Behold! Here I am. He works quietly and inscrutable are his ways. Inscrutable to the human mind. You can only feel that presence in your heart.

It’s not to say that I took all that suffering in my stride. I was resentful about it for numerous years. Very few people know about that part of my life. Now, years later I see it for what it is. A push towards higher consciousness. The understanding that God was with me then as he is with me now, carrying me through the pain even without my knowing it. I have learnt and grown through it and have the courage to share it with you in the hopes that you will find strength in these words.

So what is prayer? Constant communion with God. Reciting passages of holy books. Chanting mantras. It can be a lot of things to a lot of people. But this is the definition that I really like. Because there are two parts to a conversation. The talking and the listening. Prayer and meditation. Prayer is you tallking to God and meditation is listening to Her/Him. Most of us say our prayers but forget to sit still, quiet our minds and listen to God or inner guidance which comes from a much higher plane of consciousness if you will.

If the word meditation scares you or you think it is only for sages in the Himalayas or yogis in Indian jungles, think again! Just sit still for 5 minutes everyday and focus on your breath. This in itself is a powerful meditation. Try it now. Close your eyes (maybe after you read this entire paragraph!). Take a deep breath. Breathe in. Feel the air entering your nostrils and filling you up. Feel your diaphragm pushing downwards. Feel your stomach pushing outwards to allow more air into your body. Now exhale and focus on the air coming out of your nostrils. Your diaphragm moving up and your stomach squeezing in, emptying your lungs. Repeat and repeat. Now open your eyes. You didn’t have to go to the Himalayas to do that! You can do this everyday in the comfort of you home, in your car, in your cubicle. Sit still and follow your breath and all the inspiration you need will come to you. All the peace you always wanted will emerge from within you. And you will feel that presence as it whispers – I am here. Right here. Within you all the time…