Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Technological Monk

Today, I'm going to elaborate on something I've discussed before: why it's important to take time to slow down.

I am a technological monk, a modern monk. I meditate, though not nearly as frequently as I want (or need) to. Truth be told, we have to make time for the things we enjoy, and one of these days I'll get around to working it into a routine or schedule. Until then, however, I make do by slowing down. I adapt the older techniques to a more modern way of life.

The fundamentals of Eastern meditation can be found from the Upanishads down to Patanjali (Deva: पतञ्जलि, pata~njali), who compiled the yoga sutras. Actually, the first line of the yoga sutras is as follows:

अथ योगानुशासनम् ||१||
atha yogaanushaasanam ..1..
Here (अथ) is the continuation (denoted by prefix अनु-) of the teachings (शासनम्) of yoga. This indirectly (though not merely implicitly) shows that the study of yoga had been going on for some time before Patanjali's formal compilation of sutras. While I'm on the subject, here are the next few lines:

योगश्चित्तवृत्ति निरोधः ||२||
तदा द्रष्टुः स्वरूपेऽवस्थानम् ||३||
वृत्तिसारूप्यमितरत्र ||४||

yogashcittavRtti nirodhaH ..2..
tadaa draSTuH svaruupe.vasthaanam ..3..
vRttisaaruupyam itaratra ..4..

"Yoga is the cessation (nirodhaH) of the turnings (vRtti) of the mind (citta).
Then (tadaa), the seer (draSTuH) resides (avasthaanam) in its own true form (svaruupe).
In other cases (elsewise, etc. ; itaratra), the true self (saaruupyam) [identifies with, "is"] the turnings (vRtti)."

What this essentially means is that:
  1. The process of "yoga" is when the mind (in actuality, citta is the amalgamation of three components of sense-related consciousness) stops turning or revolving. It stops creating movement.
  2. This is a very bold statement. Most people have never experienced this in a waking state, and so the third sutra serves to allay any fears of death.
  3. The "seer" (a metaphor for the true inner consciousness) resides in the knowledge of itself.
  4. In other cases, this inner consciousness identifies with movements in the mind. This identification is fallacious.
The idea here is that we have consciousness. It cannot be turned off while we are alive. This consciousness is usually focused "outwards," through the mind and its movements, through sensory perception, and out to the world. However, through careful and sustained practice, prayer, and/or raw discipline, one can turn off perception to these "outward" things, including to one's thoughts. Since consciousness cannot be turned off, it insteads reflects back on itself, and this "self-awareness" is the basis for yoga. Mystics find their liberation from the world through this, and despite being a horrid cliché that I hate, I will buckle and say that a Westerner can think of this as "enlightenment."

(Breakdown here is courtesy of my amazing former professor, Dr. Edwin Bryant, and his amazing Yoga Sutras topical study of religion. My explanation and interpretation exists because of what I learned in his classes.)

Relax, I'm getting to the point.

Nowadays, we're brought up to multitask. Multitasking is great, and useful, and is a great skill. But, overdeveloping that ability backfires. We learn to focus first, before we learn to split our attention amongst other things. When we learn to multitask, most of us continue to develop that without fully developing the ability to truly focus on one or two things. We don't have balanced attention.

Meditation works entirely on focus, especially with only one object. I'm not saying that multitasking has absolutely no place in meditation, but unless you're advanced, have another motive, or are a special case, it primarily hinders progress. That's why I don't buy the excuse that absolutely EVERYONE gives: "I just can't focus." Guess what? NO ONE can! It's nothing that doesn't affect everyone else. "Stopping" thought is not easy. You have to work at it, over a long period of time, and with discipline. Really, that statement is pretty much just a poor excuse; either they don't really care about it or don't realize that they have to invest a significant amount of time. Instant gratification really doesn't apply, especially for things considered "ascetic" arts.

At any rate, the fact of the matter is that we're stuck with a better multitasking ability and we're left wanting in terms of singular focus. My good friend Adam pointed out to me recently that an average pack/day smoker gets to have anywhere from forty to an hour and forty minutes of time that could be considered mild meditation. Adam, being ever the resourceful one, takes whatever opportunity he can to do what he refers to as "bullshit meditations." What a great idea! I, myself, do a lot of these b.s. meditations in my daily routines.

As I've said before, taking time to slow down can really have magical effects for some people. Taking time to focus on doing something in the not-so-efficient or not-so-resourceful way can serve a great deal of purposes, including building character-defining traits, forming idiosyncracies that can enrich your life (for yourself), and de-stressing! These habits give you a chance to concentrate your focus on one or two things, which lets you regroup. Many people think that by constantly checking on problems or worrying (essentially bringing things to the forefront of your mind from time to time) "in the background" that they're doing something good. Actually, it's a lot like flicking Alt+Tab; you're flipping through open programs, but just because you're not seeing some of the programs for more than five seconds at a time doesn't mean that they're magically "in the background." You have to let them sit, until they're tossed into the swap partition. This frees up your RAM to do something else, and when you do finally switch back to your other thoughts, they really are "refreshed." From personal experience, I can tell you this is really conducive to the Eureka Effect.

Understandably, modern life differs from ancient life. We can't all just up and leave our jobs and become ascetics or monks; devoting our lives to a method to free ourselves from life doesn't seem to fit the contemporary mood. On the whole, we don't care, and most of us haven't even thought about our own mortality in a truly life-altering way (aside from the fifteen minutes after somebody close to us passes away). However, why should that stop us from utilizing meditation as a quick tool to boost the quality of our lives? It can boost productivity, balance our moods, give us some greater perspective beyond the immediate here & now of our individual lives, and perhaps give us some spiritual insight in the process.

And why shouldn't we recruit the use of technology for this? As a personal example of how I sharpen my focus, I recently started learning the Linux command-line. I've been learning some scripting so that I could do some batch video conversions for my iPod. While in the future I can convert video really easily and without much thought, I spent two to three hours last night trying to get the script to work just right. That was good, solid focus. No multitasking; I wasn't checking torrents, downloading guides, writing this blog post. I was taking things one step at a time and trying to get exactly one thing working. This is just one example of how I take time to work on laser- or flashlight-like focus, instead of a lantern or lightbulb-like focus (a modern take on a very old metaphor). Slowly but surely I am learning some discipline. Actually, I've read numerous articles on the web that highlight research in education techniques. Doing things for shorter periods of time with a more intense focus and doing them daily is generally much more effective than "brute-forcing" something into your head irregularly and for prolonged periods of time. From my varied sources, this is true of meditation. The misconception is that when you sit down to meditate, you sit down for hours at a time until you get it. Beginners hear this and it really turns them away for the idea after trying it. Actually, it is much more effective to try and meditate for maybe a half hour a day for a few weeks, and as it gets more comfortable/familiar/easier, to increase that time. Very similar to many doctors' recommendations for exercise...

This is another junction where we can identify some of our issues by taking a look at our technological practices, and how some of our technological solutions can trickle back into other aspects of our everyday lives. As if I haven't said it enough already, there's no reason we can't still find ancient wisdom in our cutting-edge laptop or bleeding-edge software release. Similar ideas are at play now that were in effect thousands of years ago. And, at least for some things, that's not such a bad idea.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Portability; a cue from technology.

Portability. Either hardware or software, it applies.

Software portability, as you may or may not know, refers to the design of a program and how able it is to reuse existing code when in a new environment. This relies on an abstraction layer, which serves to negotiate between the system interface and the application. Essentially, when you want to make software that works on different systems without having to rewrite much (or any) of the code, you're focusing on portability. This reduces cost and effort in development while allowing a greater base from which to draw profit.

Physical portability is also an important concept. Nowadays, we have PDA-phones which make calls, get the internet, track our global position, and even test blood! Whether you're diabetic and testing your blood-sugar, lost and need to find directions, comparing prices, or talking to your mother - or all four! - you can look to a single handheld device to do this kind of stuff for you, no matter where you are. Even if you're using your phone to test blood for disease, portability makes everything easier.

The key to our highly active and mobile lifestyle can also be a source for spiritual inspiration.

In the wake of this amazing article about a preacher whose religious exclusivity was shattered by a five-year-old girl's giggle, I've been thinking about how our beliefs influence much of what we do, but how we can find ourselves backed in a corner when put in an environment that seems alien to us. As a Hindu who grew up in a largely Christian environment, I quickly learned to develop my beliefs and identify with my culture without having to constantly re-evaluate all of life when someone mentioned some holiday, hymn, or Biblical parable that I didn't know about. In retrospect, the surprising thing was that this made me more interested in the traditions of others.

It's a three-fold benefit, really. First and foremost, you find some suitable foundation upon which to base your beliefs. This keeps your belief-system stable. Secondly, you remain open to forming bonds with others based on your beliefs, while simutaneously not feeling pressured when you're among people whose beliefs differ vastly from your own. You learn that beliefs belong to individuals, not large, generic groups of people. This way, you can still believe what you want without condemning others for their beliefs. This gives you a great foundation for diverse friendships.

Lastly, and most importantly, you get to learn about others' beliefs phenomenologically (i.e. from within the tradition itself, instead of as an outsider). You learn more accurately about what others believe, instead of taking it one piece at a time. You don't analyze each individual piece as to whether or not it fits in your own belief system, then take a stance, and judge the next piece. You take it as a whole, and understand how it comes together, and then, you can choose to take your personal stance on its parts or its whole as you see fit. This is really important because now, even if you don't agree with someone's perspective, you can still understand and respect theirs. It really enables you to connect with a much larger set of people than just the ones in your immediate, shared-belief community.

This has a few important side-effects as well. With a strong, portable spiritual foundation, you don't feel as though you're constantly pushed to convert to a different religious structure. When you're not under pressure, you're more open to new ideas. With a better understanding of those ideas, you're more likely to not throw the bucket out with the water, should you find some aspect appealing but not others. You better understand the ramifications of a line of thought, as it applies to someone else, before you take it on. And, if you find that you don't agree, you don't feel animosity toward others, as so many people somehow do. You don't take it personally, and you are also more careful to make sure others don't take it personally as well.

So what does this mean in the long-run? You get less cataclysmic change and more gradual change in your spiritual perspective! This serves to make you less liable for what some people consider "huge pitfalls" on your path. Of course, there are no pitfalls, just more redirects, but if you can avoid being in that position in the first place, why not? Then, when you do have cataclysmic re-evaluations, you can also rearrange your belief structure more neatly and easily. When you find that you have to change your beliefs to accept more, it becomes easier to integrate that belief in your daily life. There's less time spent thinking, "But, if I believe this, then what does that mean about my other beliefs?" and more time actually acting and living. That sounds like some real low-cost development to me.

It looks like I haven't been able to make time and make up posts. At any rate, I'm posting, which is something.

Also, I'll be switching a few things around on the site, but since I haven't already plugged, here's my other blog: A Modern Hindu's Perspective. It's more geared towards actual religious and philosophical thoughts, and does use some technical terminology, but it's just as much fair game as this blog is. Enjoy, and thanks for reading!