Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Thought(full) of Analysis

More frequent than the physical activity of breathing, Thought, a mental activity, consumes most of us throughout the day. On an average, a person at rest takes about 12 – 18 breaths per minute. Medical science calls it the respiratory rate which amounts to 17,280 to 25,920 breaths within 24 hours. Supposedly, an internet meme, we have anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day. Leaving the exact number, duration and definition of a thought to the scientific skeptics, most of us can personally vouch for accommodating multiple thoughts, at times, within the same breath. By any count, that is a lot of thought on how many Thoughts we have!

Science and Vedanta use different words to describe the mechanism of thought. Scientifically, the physical organ that allows for the thoughts to occur is our brain. The Upanishads have defined a flow of thoughts as the mind. From the biography of a thought, the essence of life is linked to a thought.

To understand thought is to understand the secret of this entire creation, and even that which lies beyond all manifestations. To understand thought is to understand our self – because our present identity is nothing but a product of our minds – a mere thought, and so is this big creation too. It is also a product of our minds – like the dream world, but with some slight difference. Creation is available for experience only when mind is and fades away into oblivion when the mind goes into unmanifest state. It will thus not be an understatement to say that to understand thought is to understand life.

As a beginner in my spiritual journey, I, at times, get lucky enough to sit with a steady mind for barely a few seconds during meditation. However, many times during the day, thoughts race at a frantic speed - sometimes, even causing palpable change to heart beat, and the emotional state of mind. I began to wonder - How to control thoughts during the day and retain a balanced state of mind. The moment I framed it as a problem statement - the consultant in me took over.

Categorization of Thoughts

First, I wanted to categorize the various thoughts I have during the day. And then, assess which of these thoughts were to be entertained and which to be discarded. Most thoughts are either about an event that has already happened or an event that is about to happen. I started monitoring it for a few hours and most of it fell in this simple bucket of past events vs. future scenarios. The mind was either playing the same tape over and over from the past, leaving me to analyze or ruminate over this thought. Or, it would indulge in the various possibilities or scenarios that are likely to happen. It appeared I had my first variable to categorize – a time attribute of the thought.

Impact of Thoughts

Now, how would I decide the usefulness of a thought? I started pondering on the impact a thought causes. It occurred that the evolutionary mechanism in us may have already provided us with an answer. Most thoughts leave us with either a pleasant or an unpleasant feeling. Our inner voice/gut instinct within us probably judges the true value of this thought and leaves us with a feeling. In the language of Vedanta, Swami Chinmayananda explains in his Geeta in Prose, that while a mind is the doubting factor, intellect is the discriminating capacity. After the fluctuating mind settles down, the intellect in us takes over leaving a firm decision. It appeared that during this transition between the doubting mind and the discriminating intellect, we are left with a feeling of pleasantness or not. That seemed to be a good second variable to categorize the thoughts by – Feeling attribute of the thought.

In psychology and philosophy, the topics of emotion and feeling have gone through a severe analysis over the years. Quite a lot of thought has gone into the categorization of emotions too. It appears, there are various ways to categorize.  I used Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions to describe the feelings my thoughts caused.

Analysis of Thought

In a typical MECE (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive) framework, there are four possibilities to look at each of our thoughts.
  1. Future scenarios that leave us with a positive feeling – Events that we are looking forward to leave us very excited and cause a lot of anticipation.
  2. Past events that leave us with a positive feeling – These past events cause a feeling of joy and an element of surprise. 
  3.  Past events that leave us with a negative feeling – When the mind plays these tapes back and forth about a past event, most likely, we are resenting this event. In the process, it causes anger, disgust or sadness and we become critical of the people that were part of these events.
  4. Future scenarios that leave us with a negative feeling – Events that are yet to unfold, go through quite a few scenarios and Monte Carlo simulations. None of these are real. Those that we don’t want to face cause a feeling of fear.
Graphically, it started to come together as below.
If our goal is neither to brood over the past nor build castles in the air - how do we live in the present, and keep the mind out of agitation?  Most spiritual practices talk about control of breath and deep breathing to slow down the thought process. That definitely works. However, that doesn't necessarily put an end to that thought reincarnating at a different time in a different form. In other words, how do we bring a thought to a formal closure ? That is when the pieces of the puzzle started to come together. In his book, Meditation and Life, Swami Chinmayananda writes about the practice of Introspection.

Practice introspection at the close of each day. Order a parade of the day’s incidents, thoughts, words, actions, emotions and reactions for your impartial review.

A couple of hours before going to bed daily, I practice the method described above. 
1) The first phase consists of reviewing current day events, doing a self-critical feedback on thoughts and emotions, and identifying opportunities for improvement.
2) The second phase consists of planning and prioritizing your next day. Armed with feedback from first phase, the second phase allows you to plan a productive day ahead.

I also tend to think of this method as downloading thoughts end of each day to put a formal closure to them. An analysis of thoughts and feelings probably brings the rational left and the emotional right to the same party each night for a closure.

Though it is hard to actively not think about a specific thought at will, it seemed a little easier to guide the thought to wait for its turn.  Once this practice starts, it is easier for the mind, at the time of agitation (about either a past event or a future scenario) to relax - knowing that it will be addressed at the end of day Introspection. 

Swami Ishwarananda in his book, Conscious Living, talks about moving from many thoughts to a single thought first before attaining the state of thoughtlessness during meditation. This conscious decision of delaying those multiple thoughts - at any time of the day (knowing that it will be addressed later in the day during introspection) allows us to gently move to one thought so we can be mindful of the present moment.

We have always heard of striving to live in the present. However, the mind takes control of us by engaging in the thoughts of past and future . By following this process, and having a placeholder to address them - it was increasingly becoming easier to separate past and future thoughts from present like separating chaff from grain and start living in the present.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Journey of Life series

From Las Vegas yesterday..

71 year old Honduras man, starting his day at 3 in the morning, currently a cab driver, was a sailor in the marines and traveled through Europe for many years and held many other jobs, whose 60 year old wife is a recent cancer-survivor, who lost one of his sons a few months ago, has 21 grand kids, 11 great-grand kids, takes pride in being a very honest driver in the sin city....says NY and Las Vegas are the two cities where there are always jobs for any one ready to do hard work...

One of those visibly happy people.. says the secret is .. Any time some one asks.. How are you doing ?

His Reply.. Doing Good and "Getting Better". Say the Getting better part every time and there are no problems in life..