Thoughts running your life? Watch them!

Liberating art of witnessing your thoughts – part II

Does it ever happen to you that you are working on an important assignment and you begin to think about something else….maybe about the upcoming holidays or about some recent argument with someone?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could schedule a time when thoughts are allowed to “disturb” you rather than them distracting you every now and then from your task at hand. It is like setting up an appointment time when these thoughts can come in and you will not try to chase them away!

Such a practice is the art of witnessing your thoughts.

In a prelude article to this, I wrote about the liberating power of witnessing our thoughts. After reading that article, some have asked me if watching thoughts is possible at all. Obviously such questions can only be answered through one’s own subjective experience and more importantly, through self-experiments. So in this article I shall attempt to explain how thoughts interact with us and what is the main challenge in remaining a witness to our thoughts.

Let us consider if someone were to place an apple in front of you.

How would you know that there is an apple in front of you?

The obvious answer would be through your eyes, isn’t it?

Science tells us that our eyes, or any sense organs for that matter, are merely gathering and relaying information. Clearly, this information about the outside world is communicated to the mind through thoughts. We rely on some form of thought to inform us about the perceived object and it is also through thought that we actually relate to our experience as being either good or bad.

For instance once we know our thought (about something), we evaluate if we like it or don’t like it & if we need to act on it. Hundreds of thoughts go on every minute in our minds that seems to need no action at all. But many, if not all of them, leave a trace within our mind that contributes to the everyday roller-coaster effect. We are either riding higher and higher or are being tossed downward — mentally and emotionally. In other words, the objective world is perceived subjectively through the medium of thoughts. And thus thoughts are not just passing on information but also making judgments and evaluations.

This process of thinking — knowing — evaluating is going on at such a rapid pace in our minds that we believe it to be a natural background activity that we have no control over. Although we might be oblivious of its impact, it is obvious that this mental activity colors our experiences and how we interact with the world.

The world of our thoughts colors not only our outer world but is also the very basis of life experiences itself. That what we hear is biased by our selective listening; that what we see is colored by our judgments; that what we taste is predominantly driven by our likes and dislikes….so on. Immersed in these thoughts, which are running amuck in the mind, we are essentially confined to this self-created world and disconnected from reality.

So, we might ponder if it is really possible to be a witness of this thought process without being affected by it? And if yes, what does the role of a detached witnessing accomplish?

In my example above of an apple being placed in front of you, if I were to substitute it with a chocolate or your favorite sweet, you would most likely not find it easy to remain a witness of what happens in your mind (ofcourse even more difficult would it be if it were to substituted it with the presence of your spouse or your boss)

Thus we can conclude two things from this:

  1. Any reaction within our minds — positive or negative — will most certainly draw us away from being a witness of our thoughts.
  2. When we are no longer a witness to our thoughts, then it means that we have become the thought itself and have shaped it with name, color, form and sound, etc., which is nothing but the world we live in.

What is difficult to know however is at which point the thought transforms itself into these forms that we further invest emotions and feelings with?

What is it that adds the dimension of self-reference to an otherwise passing mental blip? In other words, what makes us identify so strongly with the thoughts that it becomes “sticky”?

It is worth taking time to consider these questions as understanding the underlying process of these is what contemplatives from varying traditions have dedicated themselves toward. And with a little effort in this direction, one can glimpse into the great promise that it holds in our lives. Because when we can shift at will from being the thought to being a witness of a thought, it is like watching a bird fly up away at a distance in the sky. You can enjoy it but remain unaffected by it.

This ability of witnessing our thoughts thus has a practical benefit in that it keeps us grounded when the strong winds of everyday life threatens to sweep us away!

(In my next article, I shall go into the “who” or “what” in us enables us to doing the witnessing — an key step in undertaking this practice and how the detaching identifications with world, objects, people, situations can come about, mentally. Do leave your comments below.)




The liberating art of witnessing your thoughts – Part 1

It’s one of those days when hundreds of thoughts course through my mind. Among them self-doubt, worries, past follies, perniciously seek out my mental energy. Feeding on each other and fueling emotions at large, these thoughts spiral on in my mind mostly painting a dark and bleak future.

Then again, in the ever-changing landscape of my mental canvas, I become aware that the thoughts I give attention to are the ones that take on an intensity of brightness. Thus I seek to bring in occasional surges of competing positive thoughts that color in hope and enthusiasm into the medley. But like every other mental endeavor, these last — only momentarily. Then they too fall away, just like their predecessors.

In wanting to deal with the disturbance by thoughts of every kind, I take on the traditional approach of quieting the mind through breath control and meditation. A few long deep breaths helps bring in the grosser form of air to manipulate the subtle form of thoughts and emotions. But through experience, I know that the hideous thoughts are merely waiting to pounce again. So through meditation, I decide to go down into the ocean, where the strong waves of thoughts can no longer reach me. There I experience a depth of peace and momentary freedom of the silent mind. However, I find it hard to stay down the ocean and am soon pushed back to the surface. But now, the turbulences of the mind are somewhat manageable and move in slower motion. Yet the waves of thoughts lay simmering and waiting to gather mass and momentum again….

Amid this momentary silence, I become aware of the backdrop of my mental screen against which the movie of my mind is getting projected. By itself, this screen remains blank and thus any attempts to place attention on it for long fails, for there is nothing tangible to focus on.

But the insight into the backdrop screen motivates me to probe further and this time, I seek to understand the nature of the mind that is doing what it does best — thinking, perceiving, feeling, etc.

So instead of going deep into the ocean, I step out of the ocean and watch the waves of thoughts. Riding high and low, these waves of thoughts lash onto the shores of my mind, where I remain a detached observer of them all. The pervasive thoughts amongst these reach out to the shores and attempt to pull me back into the ocean. But with the strength of my inquiring mind, I continue to remain as a silent witness!

Each thought is then, like a wave, reaching out into the shores and receding back into the ocean, harmlessly and impersonally.

Once we become aware of a thought, then it just becomes an object of our attention. Knowing that I am feeling sad is an indicator that “I” am not really sad but that I am merely aware of the feeling of sadness passing through the mind! In other words, being aware of our thoughts and feelings helps us to recognize that, that what we are experiencing is not us. It also helps us to understand that not everything that we experience, needs to be acted upon!

By learning to watch thoughts, we become patient with ourselves and our transient mental states. We no longer react on an auto-pilot mode to every thought. We become receptive to discover our basic essence of happiness and goodness which prevails amid the variety of thoughts.

As we become comfortable with our thoughts moving in and out of our mind, just like the waves on the shores, we find that these thoughts that we give so much importance to, are mostly repetitive and redundant in nature. In unmasking this entire thought processes, we are then competent to turn on and off the screen of our mind — as and when we need it.

The liberating art of watching thoughts takes much practice. But it is a practice worth cultivating.

(Based on the audience interest, I intend to detail out this process and practice in a few more series of articles)

Body-centered vs Mindfulness practices – An interview on attention, awareness & Free Mind

One of my American students, Michael Fogleman, who has trained in Buddhist meditation practices, conducted an interview for his site, Mind-Body-Attention. In this interview, we discussed about body-centered practices and mindfulness. I responded to some of Michael’s precise questions on the practices that cultivate attention versus those that train us in awareness.

Although it’s a rather long interview but for those of who like to reflect on the deeper approaches to mindfulness practices from the non-dual or Buddhist perspective, it might be an interesting read. Do share your thoughts and views about this interview.

Interview with C G Mayya by Michael Fogleman

Is your meditation practice helping you or worsening your negative patterns?

Each kind of meditation has a different effect on the brain. Research studies on the effect of meditation on brain is proving that just “meditating” is not the solution to all our problems. In fact certain meditation practices can actually be worsening our harmful psychological  tendencies even though they may feel good (Not all that glitters is gold) Thus finding the right form of meditation for our present condition and purpose, is the key.

In ancient times, the right meditation teacher or Guru was attuned to the students’ state of mind and needs. In modern times however, finding a Guru who is really committed to leading you toward unconditional freedom is a rarity. Enter the world of softwares and gadgets that converge tracking signals from body and brain into customized systems.

Recently, I have been involved with Med Lab at Pyramid Valley, Bangalore, a retreat and meditation center. Based on my previous involvement at Universities in Boston where tests were conducted on my brain, in meditation and non- meditation modes, I am in awe of these approaches. Furthermore, as a Mindfulness Instructor and Coach, I see the value of harnessing technology in helping people find the right forms of practices that bring about change and personal transformation.

In one of the demos that I was asked to participate in, I started the test of my pulse right after a talk and registered a Heart Rate Variability (HRV ) of low coherence, indicating an excited state of mind. But as I began to meditate, HRV changed significantly toward High level coherence just within 2 mins, thus indicating a sharp decrease in stress (as can be seen in this video).

Not every kind of meditation however has the same effect. Infact there are some forms of concentration and focus practices where the brain waves register a stressful and tensed state of mind because the meditator is seeking to control the mind into quietude. Similarly, if there is decreased activity in Thalamus region, it has been pointed out that transcendental forms of meditation could potentially worsen that condition in the brain and nervous system.

So how exactly can we use technology to find the right meditation? And can it replace the effectiveness of personal guidance which is subject to the factor of human error.

While its true that technology can help reveal inside our brain in a graphical form than can be understood viscerally, it is also obvious that software alone is not the answer. Interpreting the data from researches, not just scientifically, but also from the perspective of meditation is very important. For example, one of the applications I tried with the sensors in my head pointed out that I was in a meditative state when all I was doing was to rest consciously. It registered the same effect when I lied down with the sensors wrapped around my head.

In summary, I think there is a great potential for use of technology in finding the right meditative methods. However, there need to be more domain experts behind such technology who can interpret the raw data intelligently. Just like how you need a doctor to prescribe the right medication, technology has to work hand in hand with experts for designing and guiding this process for individuals.

Our next step in this research process is to incorporate these tests before, during and after a Mindfulness session spanning few weeks. Comments, suggestions, questions?

Mindful Way to Overcome Depression

At a recent talk given for the WHO Mental Health Day, I gave a talk on rise of Depression in urban cities and how to deal with Depression using Mindfulness (talk given at Ashmayu Yoga, Bengaluru.) It is estimated that about 6 crore of Indian population are suffering from depression. Then there are those who have to live or associate with those who are struggling with depression and who are themselves affected by it.

True Mindfulness

What is true mindfulness? And why do I refer to it as being different from modern mindfulness?

In this audio interview with Jennifer Howd, I began to discuss this, although it was only after the interview that I realized the best word to convey what I was trying to express is True Mindfulness or True nature of Mindfulness! In my book, Discover Your Free Mind, I had emphasized the need to train not just in Attention, as most Western Mindfulness Schools teach, but also to directly train in Awareness. Although many modern mindfulness proponents argue that it is all one and the same, I have seen again and again that a majority of them fail to understand the real nature of Mindfulness and remain content in its outer transformative effect in their lives. But such transformation is not sustainable.

It takes a different set of lenses and a different perspective to understand and train in Awareness as a complement to the training in Attention, or for that matter concentration.

I am however glad that there are a few modern mindfulness champions, such as Jennifer Howd, who are actively interested in exploring this. This interview is thus my attempt to put into words the true transformative nature of Mindfulness through training in Awareness or what I commonly refer to as, discovering the nature of  Free Mind.

Devotion as a Mindful Practice?

It is not a topic that is generally discussed within Secular and Mindful communities. But Michael Fogleman, who practiced under my guidance at Center for Mindful Learning, Vermont, expressed an interested to interview me on this topic. So, over several email exchanges, we explored this from theistic, atheistic and agnostic perspective. My hope was that we could bring a fresh perspective to the topic of Devotion, a heart quality that has so much to its credit, and perhaps also much to its discredit. Nevertheless, I feel Devotion as a Mindful Practice, or rather an attitude of Devotion to all our practices, can transform us and our relationship to our practices.

Here’s the full interview in PDF. You can also see it on Michael’s website.