Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Storm Before the Calm: the Essential Milestones to Inner Happiness

Reading time = 9 minutes 40 seconds.

I settled down on the meditation mat, eager to get started on the journey to “discover myself.” It was 4.30am on the first day, I was wide awake and chomping at the bit. Shri S.N. Goenka’s recorded voice provided simple and straightforward directions, “Observe your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils.”

I thought to myself, “How hard can this be?”

In the beginning, it was easy enough to observe my breath. I felt the warmth on the area above my upper lip, just below my nostrils. As is my habit, when I feel in control, I put the task on auto pilot. My mind wandered to the past as I wondered why it took me 5 years to sign up for this 10-day meditation course. Then my mind wandered to the future, and I imagined the bragging rights I would have at the end of the course. I would be known as the “master meditator” and my friends would bow to me in awe. I would boast how I had “meditated and levitated” during the course.

I was rudely interrupted by a sharp pain in my left knee. And then my right knee. The pain quickly spread to my ankles and soon my legs were numb. I had not sat on the floor with legs crossed for a few decades, my limbs were rebelling. Very soon, my legs started to cramp.

I gritted my teeth and muttered to myself, “I can do this.” Luckily, I was saved by the gentle voice of Shri S.N. Goenka, signaling the arrival of a break. Every joint in my body screamed as I shakily stood up and lurched outside the meditation hall. To my utter surprise, in a couple of minutes, the pain was gone! I could walk normally! Yes! 

I took stock of the previous session at the start of the next session. The percentage of time spent watching my breath was a single digit. I chided myself, “Pathetic.” I launched into the next session with renewed vigor.

Matters did not improve as quickly as I would have liked, and towards the end of every session, I was convinced that heavy machinery would be required to open up my legs and get me to stand. It was with great relief I crawled into bed at 9.30pm at the end of the first day. I awaited the next day with dread, knowing that the wake up bell would gently sound at 4am.

Every day was Groundhog Day. The physical pain was excruciating and kept increasing. When would I hit rock bottom? I was ready to scream with frustration but the thought of losing face with my family kept me going. My parents had successfully completed a 10-day course, and my younger brother had done it multiple times. I was prepared to die in my first 10-day course rather than admit defeat.

Over the next couple of days, I could not keep my mind calm and my thoughts wandered like monkeys swinging through trees. For unknown reasons, negative thoughts filled my head. My life flashed before my eyes and I reviewed every moment that had caused me grief—the times I had disappointed my parents, did not follow through on my promises, betrayed the trust of my friends, lacked the courage to stand up for myself, caused anguish by being curt and distant with my spouse—my abdication, lack of initiative, and accountability became clear to me. I could see the cause-and-effect relationships between my actions and the negative consequences, and I berated myself for being so stupid and insensitive. As I comprehended my utter lack of compassion, a feeling of guilt overpowered me. The physical pain was now joined by psychological pain.

We all have our cross to bear, and my limitations were a heavy and crushing burden. But facing them was the first essential milestone in my journey.

I broke down in tears several times in the first few days, overwhelmed by remorse, emotion, pain, and the frustration of not being able to observe my breath. Some of my fellow meditators were breaking down as well, but that was irrelevant. I had to deal with my pain, the pain of my fellow meditators did not matter. In this case, the adage, “Misery loves company”, did not hold, because we had to refrain from speaking and not make eye contact with our fellow meditators. I could not compare notes with anyone, it seemed that everyone else was peaceful, while a storm raged within me.

Fortunately, the pain of my guilt was soon washed away with my tears and with a resolution to improve myself when I returned home. I found a way to allevaite my physical pain by rearranging my sitting position silently without disturbing my fellow meditators. I managed to get to the end of each session without screaming for help or cramping beyond hope. I saw light at the end of the tunnel.

And then… towards the middle of the course, we were asked to meditate without moving. I thought to myself, “You must be kidding!” Nope, Shri S.N. Goenka was not kidding. Imagine not being able to scratch an itch, and voluntarily restraining all physical movement. This was self control 101, and I was not ready for it. Recognizing my lack of self control was the second essential milestone in my journey.

Every evening, we heard a recorded one hour discourse from Shri S.N. Goenka. The hard meditation during the day had opened up my body and mind, and I was ready to receive. His words were calm and soothing. More important, they were relevant to my pain and loaded with wisdom. In spite of the self-inflicted purgatory, I could hear and think clearly. No paper and pens were allowed, so I had to commit everything to memory (I learned later his discourses were captured in a book). I listened with rapt attention and I marveled at the simple and direct messaging. After all, he had to get thru to an exhausted group of meditators who had just been physically and mentally tortured from 4.30am. The discourses were the fuel I needed to replenish my energy and return the next morning.

After the bulk of my negative thoughts had been unloaded, my thoughts turned to the pleasant thoughts and experiences from my life. I looked back at all the good things that happened to me over the years, the praise I had received, the gentle smile from my wife, the hugs from my kids. I viewed the images over and over in my mind. Every few minutes, I would realize that I needed to meditate, and I would angrily bring myself back to watching my breath. I soon figured out that forcing myself was not the answer and that relaxing my body and mind worked much better. I craved the pleasant thoughts, many of them too shockingly private to share. I was horrified to realize how addicted I was to them. I was appalled at my lack of self esteem and the need for validation from others. This realization was the third essential milestone in my journey.

Towards the middle of the course, we learned a second meditation technique, the “body scan”. I observed the sensations on my body, starting from the top of my head all the way down to my toes. I learned to observe the pleasant and unpleasant sensations with equanimity, and the wisdom of not “reacting” dawned upon me. We had to sit absolutely still and not move for the duration of each session. I found the discipline and determination to get thru each session with minimal movement.

In the second half of the course, I experienced this brief moment of stillness, where there was no pain, no numbness, no pleasant feeling, no thought, just a feeling of, well, stillness. Words cannot describe how I felt at that time. It was a moment where I faced myself and accepted the good, the bad, and the ugly in me, and I forgave myself for the evil in me. It was a feeling that can be described as “standing next to God.” I wondered if this is why the religious teachers say there is God in all of us. This was a turning point in my life. I experienced the meaning of the word “spirituality” without needing to explain it. This realization was the fourth essential milestone in my journey.

Somehow I willed myself to the end of the 10-day meditation course. While there was a lot of work to be done to execute on my new found wisdom, I was stunned by how transformational the meditation course was to me. All this without speaking a word for 9 of the 10 days! I soon made significant changes to my approach to my job, my family, and my life.

It took me a few years and multiple 10-day courses to be able to meditate without the distraction of physical or psychological pain. I shed the physical pain with practice, and I shed my psychological pain by carefully watching my words and actions. Hard work became easy. I had fewer reasons to feel guilty and my good deeds began to outnumber the not-so-good deeds. Action is at the heart of change, this realization was the fifth essential milestone in my journey.

Now I was ready to remove all negativity from my thoughts, words, and actions. When my outlook is positive, it is easy for me to be compassionate, and help others find happiness. I used to find the ups and downs, and the vicissitudes of life unnerving and frustrating. I learned to “let go” of my fixations and “be in the moment” to improve my flexibility and adaptability. This automatically made me more “open” and that led me to develop “courage.” When there is nothing to hide, what is there to be afraid of? It suddenly became easier to smile at strangers and to give a fair hearing to ideas that conflicted with mine.

I had stumbled upon the secret to inner peace and happiness.

My first instinct after finding inner peace and happiness was to share it with others. Shri S.N. Goenka warned us not to become “salespeople” and to only share with an audience that is ready to receive. This advice lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. I raised my ability to listen and assess my audience’s readiness to receive. I stopped taking responsibility for another person’s happiness, and as a nice bonus—I stopped worrying about perfection.

The meditation course validated that the best way to develop self-esteem is via accomplishments. Sitting silently through physical and psychological pain is not a trivial matter. Soldiers who survive wars without PTSD, athletes who survive a tough competition, parents who raise children, mountain climbers, all share a confidence and satisfaction that is earned the hard way. Reward or punishment is irrelevant, surviving the effort becomes a badge of honor in itself.

The secret to inner happiness is available to anyone and everyone. There is absolutely no reason for anyone to be unhappy. The path is not easy to find or walk upon once it is found, but it is there. The path cannot be bought or borrowed or given, it has to be found and taken. Everyone has to walk their path for themselves.

The next frontier for humankind is to understand why some people persist in pursuing unhappiness while they yearn for happiness. The inner motivations that drive us and our fellow humans will perhaps remain a mystery for ever. One thing is clear, if the drive does not come from within, and if a person is not ready for the secret to happiness, there will be no action towards happiness. 

There are self-help books and management tomes on how to motivate self and others, and research on which techniques work better than others, but no one has found a method that universally sticks and scales. The secret to happiness for each one of us lies within each one of us. Some of us will look for the answer and almost everyone who looks for the answer will find it.

Coming up: what is the key foundation to happiness in the workplace?