Friday, May 13, 2011

Why spirituality matters…

There are some things that when done repeatedly, will cause their effects to get shown in other areas.
Take chin-ups: You think it’s working the biceps and chest, but it actually works even the abs, more than any other body weight exercise (Source: T-Nation). Take jujutsu rolls – they look cool in the dojo, improve co-ordination and stuff. But the effects show up when you do a jump off a wall a la “le parkour” and you can roll smoothly to absorb the momentum.

Consider life – it’s full of niggling little worries, discomforts – like walking through an anthill, small annoying bites, rarely debilitating though. There’s the weather, dangerously dumb people riding on the streets, mean people all around, shortage of money, power cuts, queues, bureaucracy, and umpteen things.

There are a lot of discomforts that we cannot avoid taking - desk jobs, bus rides and so on … you do it because you need to survive in the system…
A lot we take willingly – Trendy uncomfortable clothes, restricting or impractical shoes, sour relationships… and worst of all, attachments – especially to material objects... Tying yourself to a log that’s floating down river – That’s what it is.

We adapt – that’s the reason we rode the evolution wave so far… Keep repeating some action and it becomes easy, Keep repeating a thought and it’s committed to memory. What the body does not adapt to, eventually the mind does.

Let’s look at the body: What are the hallmarks of an all round fit human? Here is my basic standard from a survival skill perspective..
  • Able to lift ones own weight onto ones shoulders.
  • Able to carry ones own weight up 2 flights of stairs or for a half a mile on level ground.
  • Run a mile without stopping and run 10 miles any which way in less than two hours.
  • Climb a wall that’s as high as oneself.
  • Do a dead hang for a minute and on one hand for 15 seconds.

There are other strength and endurance standards which are not really translatable to real world survival needs, but I think the above is the bare minimum to survive a basic apocalypse scenario…
No doubt about 5.8 billion people in the world as of now will fail the above tests. A few hundred thousand years ago, every living ancestor of ours was capable of more than this, women and children included… We would not be here if they were not. So you may pooh-pooh about the futility of all this, but let’s face the fact that most folks let their bodies degenerate to a pathetic level of weakness, purely due to sloth and some misguided metric of what is really important in life. I, for one, believe that life is the most important thing, the things “in life” come next. Show me someone who is not mentally damaged who claims they would not want to live longer and I’ll show you a white blooded liar. Armchair musings about death and danger are nothing compared to the real threat of imminent doom. Shoot me if any human will not grasp at a rope with the strength of a Charles Atlas and the speed of Bruce Lee, when the bridge underfoot collapses into a chasm.

Now about the mind: What are the hallmarks of a fit and mature mind? Here is the bare minimum from my point of view…
  • Able to function normally and lucidly when there is an emotional blow.
  • Able to control the tongue - both in speech and in taste - To not retaliate to a verbal thrust, to be able to forsake eating something that tastes very good.
  • Able to control sleep - To awaken at the required time with no complaint, when it has been decided or declared.
  • To be able to renounce inessential material possessions - That favourite dress... That "lucky" pen. That cool watch. Would it really affect ones life if it were gone? Or is it because one insists on making life miserable due to loss? This does not mean that you treat everything as valueless, just realize that all possessions are replaceable and they can be replaced if you have enough wealth, which comes from effort. Possessions are only as valuable as the time and effort taken to replace them. There may well exist irreplaceable possessions, but since everything is temporary, one should be prepared for the situation that you can lose anything and never get it again. It applies to places, and times. That shady tree-filled MG road, that traffic free Mekhri circle, The "good old" 80s, the 70s or the 90s,  they're gone and they will keep going. why gripe about the inevitable? One had better realize that change cares not for the sighs of mere mortals. The steamroller of history destroys entire civilizations, what chance do the little streets and corners have? Speaking of "owning" stuff - the sun, the moon, the sea, do these not bring one joy by just their sight? Is it necessary to "own" something to derive joy from it? My (hypothetical) worst enemy's Porsche is still a thing of beauty and joy and it freely gives that indiscriminatingly to all who would glance upon it. Why does a loved one have to be possessed? Why should a child who is genetically linked seem all lovable but other kids merely annoying? (OK in this case there is some evolution hardcoded stuff going on, but still.).  When something is owned or disowned, it does not change, therefore the pleasure of owning an object and the misery of losing it is self inflicted. Totally distinct, from the innate pure joy that it provides by its mere existence.
  • The desire and drive to learn - Let's face it - we're human only because we have a cerebrum. Not doing with it what it's meant to do will make it atrophy, just like any other muscle in the body, and then one is closer to Australopithecus africanus than Homo sapiens.
  • Empathy - Once again this is a natural trait from evolution. If one suppresses this by relentless desensitization and insulation, one becomes less than human.
  • Cheerfulness - For a major portion of history, living up to the age of 40 (and maybe 28 for a woman) and having one surviving child was a major life achievement. That was misery. reason to weep, reason to complain, reason to frown. In our day and age, we live in a luxurious world where most problems are created in our own heads. Smile.
So now - Since there are some arbitrary standards that I have set here, how on earth is one supposed to conform you ask…

For the body – There are countless number of cults and systems and schools and techniques, which can make your body have the exact shape, composition and ability that you desire.
Conflicting and diverse systems - Yoga people, Pilates people, Hard martial arts, Soft martial arts, Weight trainers, Elliptical fans, Runners, Swimmers, Body weight and gymnastics fans (yours truly included), Kettle bell people, Malkhamb practisers, Akhada wrestlers, Crossfit, Callinetics, Aerobics, and some crazy stuff like Zumba and Aquacise and what not.

All you have to do is find a scientific method that fits your goal and stick to it consistently. By consistent I mean – today, tomorrow, the day after, next week, next month, next year, the year after that. Not some half hearted attempt that stops with a justification about why the system does not work for you, based on half baked knowledge and meagre experience. All you need is to be truthful to your self… You want something, you won’t stop until you get it - trust me, I’ve been wanting and trying for long enough and the trying never stops if the want is real. As for medical conditions, all I can say is that well, for most cases it simply is another excuse and justification for not trying – I’ve been there, worked through it and I’ve seen other folks in that situation overcome their conditions too.
Besides, don’t get into the debate on which system is best, even Bruce Lee (possibly the fittest man who ever lived in recorded history) stumbled through different paradigms of training and eating, made a lot of mistakes, even damaged his back seriously… If he got where he was, it was because he stuck at it and was dead serious about improving himself.  He had a nice philosophy

Most people who tout one system have never tried any other sincerely, so bias is the name of the game.

For the mind – Now this is more complicated, yet again there are so many schools and systems and cults, illogical practices, unbelievable claims…
Again conflicting and diverse systems – The Deepak Chopra people, The Stephen Covey people, The star-people people, The Landmark people, The Crimson circle people, All the “Indian philosophy” offshoots from Shri Shri Swami Aardvarkananda to His Holiness Zyxwoo Maharaj Avatar Baba, The Zen people, the Tao people, Wiccans, Neo-Vampires, even the Jedi, and they, the fearsome twosome that shall not be named (ask Dawkins).

Most of these systems, similar to most of the physical training systems, have the one common property – The view that one system encompasses all others, or that one system is somehow more “efficient” at bringing about “results”. Some of them -you know who- will go as far as deride every other system as evil heresy.

I propose to dispose with any esoteric mumbo jumbo and simply do “drills” that work at a very simple brain level – simple conditioning – The fact that I derive it from what Adi Shankara said is only by chance.

He says that in order to achieve liberation or nirvana or whatever, one needs the fourfold qualities. I take liberty of saying that for any result that you desire, the same applies.

1)    Discrimination – The ability to decide at every juncture, whether your action leads towards or away from the goal, whether it is for the temporary or for the permanent, whether it’s instant gratification or long term well-being.
2)    Dispassion – The renunciation of indulgences in the present and the projected future – if the original goal is liberation, then everything needs to be renounced, but if we stretch a point and assume “mundane” goals, then we can interpret this as renouncing the peripheral enjoyable distractions – Could be the IPL right now or the T20 next month, it’s all a distraction from what you wish to achieve (even if one is aspiring cricketer).
3)    Desire for the goal – Imagine being held down under water – visualize the motivation and desire one has for air at that horrible situation. Now, reflect if one has the same desire to reach ones claimed goal.
4)  The six fold “wealth” : 
  • Calmness – Silent and unwavering in the mind, quiet in thought.
  • Control – To be a master of ones senses – not the other way around.
  • Unbiasedness – To internalize the dualities of experience – hot or cold, hard or soft, pain or pleasure - Accept every experience without rejecting or coveting it.
  • Forbearance – To be stolid and patient in the face of trouble – hold your stance!
  • Faith – You have to believe in something, only then it works! Believe this one, its simple, works, and I’m not claiming to be a God or taking your money.
  • Composure – To be in a balanced state of mind, with equanimity - like a lake of oil.
If your thoughts after reading this include the words “but” and “I” and “can’t”, go read that motivation poster above of Bruce Lee 20 times.

One can’t just develop all this overnight (nor six-pack abs in a week). What you need is to be aware of this and reflect upon it. Mindfulness of the mind itself – Monitoring what you are thinking, observing your self – the whole “meta” level.

Many times as I’m walking, I’m thinking of foot pronation, hyperextension of knees, centre of gravity, forefoot strike, anterior hip tilt, lumbar alignment and arch flexion. When I’m riding I’m thinking of fuel mixture, spark strength, ignition advance, peak torque, redlines, shift points, traction limits. Thus, I am aware of what’s going on and I correct the parameters according to what I think is ideal.
The same needs to be done for one’s mind – to be aware of its every detail, every pattern of reaction, to gently correct it and improve it.

OK you say, but what do I do now? Give me tips you say…. Here are some:

Simple exercises for your mind and will:
  • Take a possession of yours with sentimental value, and give it away to some strange person, force yourself to feel OK about it, if not, repeat with another possession.
  • Sit quietly and stare at a “stranger” tree – You can only think about the tree, nothing else – if you think of anything not directly connected with that tree, repeat with a new tree.
  • Next time you are cold or roasting in the heat, picture yourself respectively as 1) in an AC room in the Sahara in June or 2) In a sauna in Reykjavik in January – Realize that you’re are suffering due to your perception of what’s normal, not due to the heat or cold itself. Think of wet, dry, hard, soft, cold, hot, heavy, light as being like colours, no particular good or bad in any way, just colours of experience.
  • If you do happen to wish to improve your body too, then that’s an excellent opportunity to do some introspection – While you’re running or holding that tough stance, or doing that 500th rep count, detach from your body and observe what is happening, understand that the body is simply sending signals about what is going on, it’s your head that is making it into “pain” or “I want to give up”.
  • Stop buying into the meme that it’s un-cool to be nice all the time. Doesn’t hurt to speak gently, calmly. Doesn’t hurt to not swear – I mean think about it… What logic or sanity is there in describing bodily functions or casting aspersions on the mating and breeding habits of world + dog at every exclamation mark? You obviously don’t mean it, so saying it is simply lame. What is proved by that anyway? That one can ape Americanisms to no end while despising America? If you can’t do it like PSmith, you’re doing it wrong.
  • Sarcasm is not wit – it takes little or no imagination to be sarcastic, it’s a feeble attempt to establish superiority by folks with low self esteem. Speech is valuable - use it elegantly, clearly – bring joy with your speech, not sighs and frowns.
  • Avoid strong sensory input – The senses evolved to detect what to do when there was something in front – Feed on it, Flee from it, Fight it or Four-letter it. They were not meant to handle an overdose – super sweet sugar, super spicy biryani, super loud rock, super psychedelic discos, super fragrant perfumes or super pungent sauces. It’s just over driving the parts of your brain. Something gives eventually, both body wise and brain wise. Your muscles get stronger with higher loads, your senses are not like that, and they simply get dulled.
  • Substances – Seriously, moderate them! I am all for exploring alternate states of consciousness, but tying your wellbeing to some random herbs and fluids? Do you lack imagination to such an extent that you need to resort to external chemical triggers to rev up your brain? Is it possible that you’ve never sampled music so deeply that you forgot where you were, or never stayed underwater for so long that you happily forgot to want to breathe? Have you never run so far that you felt disembodied ecstasy? It’s like putting random stuff in the gas tank simply to hear the funny noises coming from the engine. It’s not just the stereotypical alcohol/smokes/weed stuff – anything that you cannot resist – creamy chocolates or that “you can’t eat just one” bag of chips, or that extra teaspoon of sugar, that “free 20% extra” soft drink. Not so much about the negative effect they have on the body (don’t argue this point, it’s science), but about the atrophy of will power, the habit of giving in that causes weakness.

There is nothing “metaphysical” or “paranormal” or “supernatural” about any of these practices… If you run barefoot, the soles get tough. If you do ab work, you can withstand punches, similarly if you condition the mind, it will not reel under the prods, pokes and blows of life.

That’s all!


  1. One of the best posts I have read in a long while. Thank you :)

    Btw, the Bruce Lee-poster link seems to be down. Was hoping to use it as my wallpaper if it was good enough.

  2. And Adi Shankara Bhagatvatpada's Niravana-Shatakam comes to mind. :)

  3. Thanks, glad you enjoyed it....

    The domain may be blocked by your ISP perhaps...

  4. Kaali to bakthe rehta hai, sunne waale kismat waale hain

  5. I needed to read this. Today. Right now. Thank you.

  6. I needed to read this. Today. Right now. Thank you.