Tuesday, September 11, 2018

An Obstinate Elegy

Continuing from a slow reading and analysis of Dylan Thomas' And Death Shall Have no Dominion, a dear friend told me about a similar poem by Edna St Vincent Millay.

The poem is titled Dirge Without Music.

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

The Natural Mantra

Chanting a mantra repeatedly has been a well-known practice to calm (clam) the mind and to feel relaxed and focused.  This practice is especially common in Indic religions.

There are many mantras which have stood the test of time.  The effectiveness of a mantra depends on its perceived sacredness, its association with deities, or its mention in important scriptures.

Some of the popular mantras are:

The Gayatri mantra

ॐ भूर्भुवस्व: | तत्सवितुर्वरेण्यम् | भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि | धियो यो न: प्रचोदयात्

The Pavamana mantra

असतोमा सद्गमय । तमसोमा ज्योतिर् गमय । मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय ॥

The Shanti mantras

ॐ पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदम् पूर्णात् पूर्णमुदच्यते |
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ||
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः || 

ॐ सह नाववतु |
सह नौ भुनक्तु |
सह वीर्यं करवावहै |
तेजस्विनावधीतमस्तु मा विद्विषावहै॥
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः॥

The Soka Gakkai mantra

Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō (南無妙法蓮華經)

Mahamrityunjaya Mantra (one of my favorites)

The mool mantra In Sikhism

ੴ ਸਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਕਰਤਾ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਨਿਰਭਉ ਨਿਰਵੈਰੁ ਅਕਾਲ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਅਜੂਨੀ ਸੈਭੰ ਗੁਰ ਪ੍ਰਸਾਦਿ॥
Do you notice anything common between them?

There is a preponderance of the nasal consonants in all of these. The "mmm" and "nnnn" sounds predominate.

Many of these chants begin with "Om".

The "mmm" sound is the most effortless sound while exhaling. These mantras often involve rhythmic breathing and a constant speed of chanting.

I consider the mantra "Aum" or "Om" to be the most natural mantra. It is essentially "mmm" but includes an initial segment when the lips are open. It is linguistically neutral and its various meanings are obvious constructions.

You can try: Inhale through the nostrils, and while exhaling, if you keep your lips open and then closed, and make your exhalation audible (by involving your vocal chord), the sound is: aa ... aa ... mmmm .... mmmm.

I find, for example, the following chant, to be quite effective.

The longer mantras engage the mind a little more by having to remember the sequence of consonants and therefore can be more effective in quickly getting to a state of mental silence. The "mmm" sound reverberates through the skull, and the mild effort involved in repeating a long mantra focuses the mind.  Also the alliteration and repetition of the nasal consonants can be somewhat resonant.

It is similar to the background musicality of a tanpura in Indian classical music.

The mantra is obviously more effective if you give it a religious significance or meaning, which puts the mind in a certain soft emotional state of devoutness or surrender. Silent meditation is harder (to calm the mind), but chanting achieves the same effect much quicker.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

I Am This Body

You must have heard and read many spiritualists and spiritual teachers assert "You are not your body".  Holy scriptures from India claim similarly.  In Bhagwad Gita, Krishna even advises Arjun to not feel bad about murdering someone because he is "only" killing the body, while the soul is eternal.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a spiritualist in which he claimed that he felt a sense of oneness while doing his spiritual practices.  When I asked him what that meant, he kindly elaborated that while in the normal state of affairs, we think of ourselves as having a boundary (usually at the limit of our skin), in his state he did not experience this boundary.  That while in our conversation (for example), I felt that "I" was speaking to "him", such distinctions disappeared in his felt state.  It was illuminating to listen to him.

Then I asked him: But there is a clear way in which we can ascertain this boundary.  You may feel a oneness, but the fact remains that you have the power, and you can will, to move your hand, but not mine.  He said in that state, such analytical considerations did not enter the picture.  Or rather, that he was too blissed out in that state to be asking any questions about it.

Well, that is just too bad.  That confirms my oft-repeated statement that spiritual bliss is a regression to an infantile state.  In that state, the analytical/thinking parts of the brain are undeveloped or in abeyance, and feeling states reign supreme.  The infant develops a sense of "me" and "not me" only at a certain stage of brain development.  And that seems important for survival.  If a predator comes lurching at "you", it would be quite a mistake to not run away to save your "self".

The question "Who am I", despite being a favorite of many spiritualists, is a loaded question.  A more neutral question is "What am I".  An even more neutral question is: "What is this feeling of I-ness" or "What is this sense of being me".

The statement "You are not your body" is equally loaded and misleading.  It assumes a "your body" phrasing which assumes a separate entity.  And spiritualists are very fond of pointing at this loaded-ness of commonly-used phrases "my body", "my mind" as proof (sic) that you are different from them.  A much more neutral, but therefore more easily seen to be flawed, statement is: "You are not the body."

The linguistic argument is very flawed, as I have pointed out elsewhere.  In simpler terms, saying "my arm is in pain" or "my mind is whirling" is a linguistic tool to avoid confusion when speaking to someone, lest they be confused which arm or mind is being spoken of.  Saying on the phone, or to someone in another room, "This mind is whirling", or "An arm is in pain" might elicit further queries.  "Whose mind?", "Whose arm?"  Answer: MINE.  "And who are YOU", he may ask?  [The right answer to him is: "your dad".  :-)]

Another favorite spiritualist statement is: "You are identified with your body." This commits the error of being a loaded statement not once but thrice.  The question is then, naturally, "who is identified" and then donations to the guru are not too far into the future.  But better questions to ask when hearing such assertions are:

"What do you mean by identification?"
"Are you assuming that there is a 'me' apart from the body?"
"What is the basis for your assertion?"

In the old days, an investigation into the psyche and feelings of selfhood was undertaken without the benefit of understanding evolution, the social aspects of mammalian behavior, and developmental psychology.  Many of the fields related to studying brain and its emergent phenomena are still in their infancy, but some clear statements can be made.

- There is a continuity to this body.  It is born, it grows up, and gets older, and dies.  There is no confusion about the body being, so to speak, continuing as a cohesive unit through time.  The old parable/paradox of the "Ship of Theseus" was an instructive one at the time, but with our understanding of DNA and cellular science, there are many ways to resolve it now.

- The brain has direct connections to the parts of the body, as compared to, with an outside object.  The brain can will the arm to move in a way that is quite different from a human being able to drive a car.  In the former, the connectivity is, so to speak, organic.  The body forms a cohesive whole with the brain as one of the organs.  There is two-way connectivity between the brain and the limbs.  It is interesting to consider various mechanical prosthetic limbs, or a future implant in a brain being able to control a car just by thinking of it.

- The sense of "I" has many components: memory, patterns of thought and behavior, "linkages" (relations to other entities and objects) and "imprints" (others remember me as "me"), social and legal abstractions (citizenship, credit history, etc.), etc.  It is natural to consider it therefore a mostly brain-related phenomenon.  The sense of "I" probably does not suffer as much at the cutting of a limb as at a severe trauma to the brain leading to loss of memory.

The sense of oneness experienced by my friend is a feeling.  You may feel like you are one with the tree, but, that's just a feeling.  It is likely a temporary shutdown of certain brain functions which are responsible for a sense of "I"ness, and that may be quite pleasurable for various reasons.  Suddenly the whole burden of taking care of "me", my worries and desires and fears and concerns and social perceptions, might disappear.  Leading to an intense feeling of freedom, bliss and euphoria.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Deep Sleep, continued

Earlier article: The Advaita-Vedanta fascination with Deep Sleep

The four states in traditional Vedanta are: Waking, Dreaming, Deep Sleep, and the Fourth state (Turiya).  They are talked about in various Upanishads.

From the Wikipedia entry on Turiya
Turiya is discussed in Verse 7 of the Mandukya Upanishad; however, the idea is found in the oldest Upanishads. For example, Chapters 8.7 through 8.12 of Chandogya Upanishad discuss the "four states of consciousness" as awake, dream-filled sleep, deep sleep, and beyond deep sleep.  Similarly, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, in chapter 5.14 discusses Turiya state, as does Maitri Upanishad in sections 6.19 and 7.11. 
Verse VII of the Mandukya Upanishad describes Turiya:
Not inwardly cognitive, nor outwardly cognitive, not both-wise cognitive,
not a cognition-mass, not cognitive, not non-cognitive,
unseen, with which there can be no dealing, ungraspable, having no distinctive mark,
non-thinkable, that cannot be designated, the essence of assurance,
of which is the state of being one with the Self
the cessation of development, tranquil, benign, without a second,
such they think is the fourth. He is the Self (Atman). He should be discerned.
Not content with asserting the state of Turiya, some minor Upanishads talk about a fifth state, Turiyatita (the state beyond Turiya):
II.4. There are five AvasthA-s (states): jAgrat (waking), svapna (dreaming), suShupti (dreamless sleeping), the turIya (fourth) and turyatita (that beyond the fourth)...
II.5. The Yogin is one that has realised Brahman that is all-full beyond turIya.
(Mandala Brahmana Upanishad, Translated by K. Narayanasvami Aiyar)
Search the texts and the internet, talk to the sages and the gurus, discuss it with Vedantin monks or seekers,  and here is what you will find.

What to talk of the fourth and the state beyond the fourth, only a rare few have so much as experienced some consciousness during deep sleep (though they might tell you about vivid dreaming, and awareness during light sleep, and awareness of when they fall asleep).  The states of Turiya and the even more transcendent state of Turiyatita are seemingly just fanciful concepts, having absolutely no counterpart in human experience.

One has to just read some of the things people say about "awareness during deep sleep" to see what tosh it all is, in their conception of it as a spiritual or mystical phenomenon:
In fact, even the apparent fact that deep sleep lasts for a period of time, say for four hours, is a superimposition in the mind’s own terms onto something called ‘deep sleep,’ in which, by definition, time is not present. Therefore, deep sleep does not last in time.
As scientists continue to study sleep and brain rhythms, there is some initial fringe research which is now questioning whether some form of consciousness can still persist even in what traditionally is dreamless sleep:
The third category is a "selfless" state of sleep. The researchers said that this state not only involves dreamless sleep, but also a certain amount of conscious awareness on the part of the person that he or she is sleeping. This state may be similar to the experiences of Indian and Tibetan meditators, the researchers said. They suggested that people who are skilled at meditation are more likely to experience this third state, but more research is needed before scientists can tell whether or not this is true. 
Calling it "selfless" is disingenuous.  Of course if the person is aware that "he or she is sleeping" that it is not really a disembodied awareness, but one that is firmly rooted in the body.  One might be totally oblivious to sense experiences, but still somewhat aware internally and have a very, very mild and soft-spoken inward dialog.

But more pertinently, there is nothing "spiritual" about this awareness.  Of course the brain is not dead during sleep, so some minor waves might still exist which can, perhaps in a suitably trained individual, make him or her somewhat aware of even dreamless sleep.  What is so mystical about it?  How can someone say that "time is not present".  Just because oneself is not totally aware of what is going on, does not mean that the outside world is no more.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Signs of Inner Growth

As you go through life, it is a fair question to ask yourself if you are becoming any wiser.

Consider a man who is enamored of some sportsman or celebrity in his teens, becomes passionate about a political cause in his twenties, and starts following a self-help practice in his thirties.  As time goes on, he exchanges one self-help practice for another, starts reading Zen Buddhism instead of Stephen Covey and talks of oneness and things "beyond the mind".  A few more years pass, and the man is now disillusioned with the usual self-proclaimed "roshi"s of Zen Buddhism, and becomes more of an adherent of orthodox Buddhism.  After going through a meditation retreat or twenty, the man declares that he has developed discrimination and inner wisdom.

What is a way to test yourself, and to test someone else, for a claim of inner growth and wisdom?  It is an important question.  After all, every day one is bombarded with wisdom by all kinds of wise men.  They claim a superior moral status or insight into the world, and feel entitled to tell you how to live your life.  I need not list some of the popular ones, in India or elsewhere.

Here are ten questions that you can put to yourself, or to such a man:

1. Do you now acknowledge and understand some of your shortcomings and limitations?  What are they?

Do you now know your own desires and fears?

2. Have you become less prone to judging people as good or evil, and more prone to seeing them as complex and contradictory bundles of thoughts and influences?  Do you get less angry at people in your interactions?

If a friend of yours is accused of an embezzlement and dismissed from work, do you blacklist that person from your social circle or do you continue to engage with him, perhaps a bit less than before, and seek to understand him?

3. Do you now have fewer answers to world's problems than before?  While earlier you might have had some quick knee-jerk formulae to solve poverty or crime or corruption, do you now understand the complexity of the problem in a way that makes you hesitant to offer short and simple answers?

Do you engage less in wishful tyranny?  "Can't we just hang all these anti-nationals?"

4. As the years have gone by, have you studied more about the world and about our understanding of it (via interactions, experimentation, scientific journals, history books, reflection)?  Before forming an opinion on a matter, do you now try to study something from various angles?

Are you now more aware of your region's history?  Are you now more informed about a particular lifestyle disease and how to avoid it, not just depending on newspaper columns?

5. Do you now have less or fewer esoteric assumptions about phenomena, and can explain more and more of life and the universe without recourse to faith or mystical notions?

Do you reject, or at least regard as mere useful fictions, notions of heaven and hell, nirvana or reincarnation, divine justice, etc.?

6. Do you have more insight and experience about the various experiences and struggles that humans go through, whether they be feelings of love, or obsession, or joy, or depression, or distress and trauma, or stress, or addiction?  Have you seen both your better angels and your "dark side"?

As an example, have you been through both love and heartbreak?  Have you experienced the terminal illness or death of a loved one?  Have you struggled with a bad habit?

7. Do you now have a better discrimination as to how you make or accept a claim?  Does that better discrimination now result in fewer disappointments at being gullible?

As an example, do you now refuse to believe in levitation or psychic abilities?

8.  Do you now have a better grounding in language, logic, the philosophy of science, the various biases and fallacies?

As an example, do you now understand the notion of "Correlation is not causation."

9. Do you now have less of a desire to argue with everybody to convert them to your point of view, and are you more accepting that people might think differently from you?

10. Can you love and admire people knowing that they are flawed?  And conversely, do you now no longer have a need to consider a particular individual as perfect, god-like, and who can say or do no wrong?