Sunday, March 18, 2012

Buddha on willpower and ego

I have been listening to talks given by Buddhist scholars on audiodharma. I particularly like talks by Thannissaro Bhikkhu. He has a way of teaching by using examples from everyday life. He does it with humor too. Although most of these talks are common sense, when you listen to them, you realize that when you are caught in a battle between the different "yous" in your head, this common sense evaporates like ether.

In this talk about Buddha on Willpower.  Thanissaro talks about the 'categorization' of actions Buddha gave us. There are four groups of actions that we do in our everyday life:

1. Actions we like doing and bring us good
2. Actions we don't like doing and bring us bad
3. Actions we like doing BUT bring us bad
4. Actions we don't like doing BUT bring us good

The measure of our knowledge is in how we handle the last two of the above. Most problems that I create for myself are due to bad handling of the last two categories.
Whether it is sticking to my diet, or finishing the tasks I have given myself at work. All of it falls in the last two groups.

In this talk about Buddha on Ego, which is titled 'Wisdom of the Ego', Thanissaro talks about how the West thinks of Buddhism. In the West, people do not see human ego as a necessarily bad entity. In the East, we are brought up believing that ego (ahankar in Sanskrit, which literally translates as 'the sound of me') comes in the way of happiness. Buddhist philosophy talks about Annatta (non-self) which is an essential step towards attaining wisdom, happiness and enlightenment. However, Buddhism does not call for an annihilation of ego in order to be happy.

Then, he compares Freud's functions of ego to Buddha's functions of ego.

According to Freud, ego is essential to human beings because it is able to carry out certain important functions for the well being of the mind.

1. Anticipation (it can anticipate the dangers in the near future and guide us)
2. Suppression (it can help us postpone gratification for our own long term happiness)
3. Sublimation (it can help us divert our attention from desire by engaging in art, sports, creativity)
4. Altruism (stems from the belief that we need to make others happy in order to be happy ourselves)
5. Humor (helps us laugh at ourselves)

Buddhist philosophy also explains all the above functions in it's own way. The concept of non-self is not rejecting oneself. It is about expanding the mind's eye to realize that there is much more to the world than me and my thoughts. Buddhist philosophy accepts the existence of ego, anticipates the damage it could do and evolves strategies to minimize the possibilities of the ego going out of control. Since there is no all-knowing God in Buddhist way, disciplining yourself starts with understanding your own mind. It is a very difficult path but it changes you for your own sake.

There are descriptions of the self (mind/ego) in the Bhagwad Gita too
In the fifth verse of the sixth chapter (Dhyanayoga) Lord Krishna says,

बन्धुरत्मात्मनस्तस्य येनात्मैवात्मना जित: |
अनात्मनस्तु शत्रुत्वे वर्तेतात्मैव शत्रुवत् ||

The self (mind) which is conquered by the self (mind) is a friend. But for someone who has failed to control the self (mind) , the self (mind) harms like an enemy.

What I like about the Buddhist philosophy is the absence of an all knowing, accounting and punishing God. What you do, is for your own self first. Even your generosity stems from helping yourself and not others. So the delusions that could occur as a result ("I did this for you!"), get mitigated by the thought that it is for your own well being ("I am doing this for myself").

Even in letting go, the Buddha says,
"Whatever is not you and not yours, let it go. That would be for your long term happiness"

The life long experiment in controlling one's own mind for one's own sake is one of the most ideal yet most difficult states of being. These talks sound simple because of the meditation that has been devoted to them. It brings back the recurring realization I get -- that most simple things around us are profoundly difficult to achieve. And it also includes simple joy.

Audiodharma is available free to the world on the principles of Buddhist traditions. Their talks and guided meditations are very helpful if you are serious about daily practice. This website is run entirely on donations. So if you find it helpful, please let them know through a small donation.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Happy Post doc

Moving to America has been a powerful change. One strong realization is that there no happy ever after. I think at this point, it is reasonable to accept that a complete clarity of who you really are is beyond reach. Nonetheless, post docing has been a really refreshing change too. I had read this post by FSP long time ago and I had imagined how cool it would be to be in a similar situation. I am very fortunate to say that despite all the hurdles I faced coming from a smaller, not-so-well known group to a bigger, famous group, I completely agree with the her. On most days, I am a Happy Post doc.

The one really happy change I noticed in myself was a remarkable improvement in my ability to plan. As a PhD student, I sometimes assigned myself unreasonable targets, mostly because I failed to see what could go wrong (or was in happy denial). Also, I had a tendency to suppress nagging pop-ups my mind came up with about what the reviewers might point out in an experiment. Most of these doubts turned into reviewer comments and I had to go back to the drawing board. As a post doc, I can sense that I am more rational about doing a thorough study right now than wait for it to be a reviewer comment. I also seem to have a better understanding of what could go wrong (I am the Cassandra for my own experiments!).

Like FSP says in her post, working on different projects and see them shape up separately is one of the exciting bits of this job. My ability to multitask has certainly been a big plus. Managing different experiments and collaborating with different people on each project is really exciting. I think I am more in control of what I am doing now than I was as a PhD student. There is no thesis to worry about. My fear of failing has been diluted to a great extent too. Although I sense that the overall uncertainty is still the same and failure now would mean an overall failure in life, I strangely enjoy being now and here.

Stepping into a new country/city, a new lab, being alone all over again was really daunting in the beginning. But now, a few good friends later, I realize that it is this confidence of being able to start over again that keeps me happy most of the time. The feeling that nothing really clings to you and you don't cling to anything has been a source of great happiness. I have also realized that I work better if I start happy. I think a really good voice for my thoughts would be this Ted talk by Shawn Achor.
Working in the lab has been a source of curiosity, joy and wonderment all over again. I hope this feeling stays *touchwood*. :)

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A single excellent night

"Let not a person revive the past
Or on the future build his hopes;
For the past has been left behind
And the future has not been reached.
Instead with insight let him see
Each presently arisen state;
Let him know that and be sure of it,
Invincibly, unshakably.
Today the effort must be made;
Tomorrow Death may come. who knows?
No bargain with Mortality
Can keep him and his hordes away,
But one who dwells thus ardently,
Relentlessly, by day, by night --
It is he, the Peaceful Sage has said,
Who has had a single excellent night.”

I heard this talk by Andrea Fella. It begins with this poem by Gautama Buddha. I recommend Audio Dharma to all my readers. It is a website hosted by the Insight Meditation Center, Redwood City, California. It is a rich resource of Buddhist philosophy. My most favorite speaker is Gil Fronsdal  . I enjoy his talks as well as his guided meditations

I have started enjoying half an hour of guided meditation every day. One important thing that it has taught me is that you can feel the actual physical existence of your entire body when you meditate. You can hear your heart beat, you can feel the twitching in your muscles, you can sense your breath brushing against your windpipe and then inflating your lungs. You can feel your diaphragm, the relaxation of your stomach with breath and sometimes even your pulse as blood flows through aching muscles or constricted spaces. The only one entity you can never physically pin down is your mind. Yet, it drives, occupies and dominates your physical body to such an extent that most of the times, you are completely oblivious to the fact that you are carrying around this beautiful, intricately designed machine of a body that is helplessly attached to the software of your mind. :)