Mind is sparkling water
Thoughts rising like bubbles
Some may stick to the glass
And linger longer but
One moment to the next
Mind is a highway
Thoughts rushing like cars
Different colors and makes
Coming from somewhere
And going somewhere
Not here to stay
Even if there is a traffic jam
Or an accident making them
Linger longer, that too will pass
Sparkling water looks still
Rush hour passes
Traffic slows down
Mind gets quieter
Like the highway at night
(In 2007, I had spent two weeks in India touring through the Himalayas. During that time the precursors of several poems were born, including this one. It transformed years later, in 2015, to this form.)
The approaching autumnal Equinox, marking the beginning of a new season, reminds me to practice mindfulness with a beginner’s mind. The imminent change of season will become prominent soon, when days become short and nights long, sun setting earlier and rising later, average temperatures dropping, and leaves changing their colors or falling. I am reminded that change is the only certainty in life, that is occurring all the time whether we notice it or not.
The Autumnal Equinox reminds me to appreciate beauty and joy with gratitude when present, but to let go at the time of passing: the moderate weather, the fall colors, the sighting of a migrating bird, and holidays with family, friends, and community. Equinox’s equal lengths of daytime and nighttime, and the balance of light and darkness, remind me to balance my reactions to the opposites encountered in life such as pleasure and pain, noticing them equally, without clinging to or pushing away either. It reminds me to balance my energy level by noticing and equalizing depleting and nourishing activities, for self-care and care of others.
Tales of resilience are written abundantly in Nature, visible even in our back yard! How trees slow down their growth in autumn and focus on what is most needed to survive through the winter ahead! How leaves die a colorful death for the trees to survive! How squirrels dig and scatter their food in their underground pantry for safekeeping through winter! How birds migrate to safety flying thousands of miles of unimaginable distance using their tiny wings!
September 22, 2021
I was attending an Insight meditation retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado, staying in a cabin without any plumbing, nearest toilet being in a nearby shower house down the hill. At night, the temperature dropped down to 50s and the unpaved uneven unlighted trail to the shower house needed additional alertness. So, not only that I was practicing paying attention to my breath or body all day long, but also, to prevent undesirable consequences, the middle of the night walks to the toilet needed paying attention to many details:
One cannot do all that in the habitual half asleep manner in auto pilot mode, as one is used to doing at home.
One night, as I sat on the toilet seat, almost avoiding an accident, I noticed how the benchmarks used to measure success have slowly changed over time for me. Earlier in the day, managing a walk up and down a steep trail without falling had felt like acing a tough exam in college. And now, just peeing successfully brought the same feeling of achievement. Who and where was that woman once called ‘me’ who continually took on and carried out with a smile more and more tough tasks that now seem impossible even to imagine?
And then, while in complete surrender to the moment on the toilet bowl, it happened! An animal, not in the long list of possible encounters mentioned at the Orientation, came into vision. It was no other than the Cat in the Hat! Even though older than the one in the pages of Dr. Seuss books, that grin was unmistakable. And that eagerness to create a little fun, no matter what the conditions were, was still alive. He began his old song and dance, with a new twist, which went something like this: Look at me, look at me now, see what I can do. I can do less, and even lesser! It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 am and it’s dark or cold! Or if one is old or one's teeth have gold! Look at me now and I can still be bold!
With every twist and turn, with a twinkle in his eye and without a second thought, he proudly let go of one more of those amazing things he was juggling before, until his hands were completely free. Then, he took his hat off and sat down on a cushion with that eternal smile before vanishing into the thin cold air of 2 am at 8000 ft. Fully awake, as I washed my hands, I noticed in the mirror that the Cat in the Hat had left a bit of his grin on my face. As I remembered to gather my key and flashlight and headed back to the cabin, my heart felt lighter and bouncy.
(This article was journaled in summer 2019 on the way back home from an Insight retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado.)
Lying on my back
on the bench by the fish pond
I see a clear blue sky
Not a single cloud
Not even a jet cloud
Or a faint crescent daytime moon
Only dark and grey floaters of my eyes
Dancing across a blue sky
Interesting! I examine their
Sizes, shapes, numbers, density…
Scenes arise from the past
Of the birth or discovery of each
Words arise in the eye-doctor’s voice –
“Floaters … vitreous detachment … part of aging!”
I pause. I breathe. I slow down.
Which way would this thinking go?
Three pathways open up
Like in children’s multiple choice mystery books
Vitreous Detachment Way needs the Internet vehicle
Not available at this retreat
Aging pathway is wide with possibilities,
Some scary and some funny, where
Imagination can run wild
I choose to stay where I am
Watching the floaters of my eyes
Dance across the blue sky.
(This poem was journaled in Fall 2016 shortly after the Mindful Way retreat at Copper Beech Institute in West Hartford, Connecticut.)
As human beings, we are endowed with many natural powers. In a simple way, these powers generally fall into three categories: power to will (iccha shakti in Sanskrit), power to know (jnana shakti in Sanskrit), and power to act (kriya shakti in Sanskrit).
When these three powers are used in a harmonious way, we consciously carry out an intended action with full awareness of what is being done (or not), how, and for what purpose. There seems to be a sense of freedom in choice and clarity in whether to do or not, and how to proceed. It usually leads to satisfaction of doing the right thing or doing one’s best no matter what the outcome is, which may not be in our control.
However, when these three powers are out of balance, dissatisfaction arises. For example, having the desire without the knowhow or power to act may result in inaction and the unfulfilled desire may give rise to resentment, anger, or sadness. Knowledge without desire may also result in inaction or negligence. Having both the will and the technical knowledge but not having the manpower (funding) needed for the implementation also gets companies or organizations stuck. And we also see how disasters happen when an action is carried out in ignorance, with partial knowledge, or with misinformation. This is the danger of not knowing and thinking that one knows, of an inaccurate knowing that suppresses the desire to learn. Not seeing our own part in the consequence, we may find someone else to blame, acting from self-righteousness.
When these three powers are in balance and are engaged harmoniously with an underlying attitude of non-harming, goodwill, and kindness, usually satisfaction and happiness increase. When these powers are employed with an attitude of fear, hate, greed, anger, jealousy, or some other strong negative attitude, usually suffering increases.
But what is the role of perception in all this? Perception is a neurological process of observation and interpretation. Our perception influences our thoughts and emotions and therefore our desires, actions, inactions, and reactions. If our observation or interpretation of an external event is inaccurate that may influence or distort our powers to will, know, and act, throwing them off balance. We may mistake a rope for a snake. It may get us stuck in habitual reactionary distorted thinking patterns leading to stress.
When we are mindful of what is happening in the present moment, the accuracy of our observation and interpretation improves. We are able to observe things that are happening fast in slow motion. With curiosity and kindness, we allow our power to know to observe the external event as is, without missing anything or reading more into it. We also observe the thoughts and emotions arising in the mind as well as changes in sensations in our bodies, which give us information about our emotional state. We observe and assess the narrative of our interpretation of the external event. We pause and return to the present moment if the narrative shifts to the past or future. We observe our desire to act in a certain way based on our interpretation. We pause. We check if there are other possible interpretations. We see different options to act. We notice the power and freedom to choose. We choose. We observe the three powers working together to do the right thing.
Jan 18, 2019
The second session of the MBSR program focuses on the theme of perception and how mindfulness helps with the accuracy of our perception. During my sitting meditation practice the day before teaching session 2, the Vedantic thoughts of the three powers visited me and I saw them blend with the thought of mindfulness of perception. This essay was born out of that.
This meditation calls for love, intention,
and detailed attention to body sensations,
part by part from toes to the head.
It’s like putting a hundred kids to bed!
Some cannot wait, crying ‘Mama, come here,’
‘I hear you,’ you assure, ‘coming soon, dear.’
Some would hide making you seek
under the sheet until they peek.
Some little angels tuck themselves in
When you get there they greet you with a grin
Some say ‘ouch’ before you touch them.
Some act asleep to say ‘Surprise!’ when you tuck them.
Some tell long tales, yet as you leave,
they beg you to stay holding your sleeve
Some are sulky, stroking their hair
‘It’s ok, I love you,’ you say with care
Some have so many questions that you borrow
a decisive tone, ‘Tomorrow.’
When you are done, a faint sound you hear.
A snooze? A whimper? But it clears.
All quiet finally, only breath rises and falls
in tiny ripples on the abdominal wall.
(This poem was born when I did the very first body scan meditation in an MBSR class in 2014.)
Sitting on a bench by the little lake
I stare at a pair of swans that are fake
floating and twisting, looking real.
I smile and look around for a feel.
Two white birds descend from a flight
Their speedy bodies land with ease and delight
Webbed feet glide on the water to brake
Then stillness! The birds blend with the scene of the lake.
A few feet away, two tiny nostrils show
up for one breath, then down they go.
Under the water, a turtle’s shape appears
for a moment; then disappears.
A distant mist invites the eyes
to catch the dancing fireflies
where the sun shines through the water drops
up on a manmade fountain top
Rises a mysterious slender neck with precision
like a submarine with a secretive mission
disappearing magically without trace
reappearing deliberately at another place
To the fake swans my gaze returns
to watch their illusory twists and turns
Smiling at me they seem to ask
a genuine question, a difficult task
Looking within, have you figured out
what real and fake are about?
As I consider, the eyes spot yet another thing
A cormorant bird sits after a day’s diving,
spreading out its weighty wet wings
inviting the afternoon sun for a drink
Ah! That Submarine Bird! I think.
Mamata Misra, March 2018
(While this experience has taken this poetic expression today, it was felt one afternoon, during the MBSR Practicum in Ft. Lauderdale in Spring 2016.)
The breeze blows
rocking the branches.
Golden flowers shower on
the earth that receives
and holds them gently
until the breeze sweeps them away.
They gather one by one
where the grass meets the curved sidewalk
weaving a golden garland
reminding me of this life,
a long curvy garland,
each moment, each breath,
a golden flower,
Composed at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida during the MBSR Practicum, Spring 2016
I was in India, staying with a relative, in a house with multiple floors and an elevator that can fit four people. One day, a cousin and I got stuck in this tiny elevator. When we reached the destination and expected the doors to open, they stayed closed and then the lights went out.
Playing the scene back from memory now in slow motion, I see –
My heart beating fast and loud! My fingers pushing several buttons, hoping one would do the trick and let us out, to no avail. Noticing that the inner doors had an opening of about 12 inches and the outer doors were shut with a gap of 2mm between them. Feeling grateful for these gaps. My voice announcing, “We have air! We have plenty of air! We are okay!” Remembering that elevators have fans, finding and pressing the fan button, hearing the fan sound, and my voice saying, “We also have circulation!” Guessing at which floor we were and knowing that chances were good that someone would hear us. Saying out loud, “Now we need to let someone know that we are stuck here.”
Reaching through the opening in the inner doors toward the outer doors and banging loudly on the outer doors. Getting my husband’s attention. Explaining the situation to him and asking him to get a technician. His concerned voice saying that he will be back with help. Feeling somewhat relieved, and starting a conversation with my elevator companion that went something like this --
“We have done our part and now help will be on the way. It's just a matter of time… How are you? Are you okay?”
“Not really. But it helped when you said ‘We have air!’
“We do! Also help is on the way! What are you feeling?
“Not Good! But I am glad you are with me.”
“How does 'not good' feel? Where are you feeling it in your body?
“I am afraid. I usually avoid elevators.”
“It’s okay to be afraid. Where and how in your body are you feeling this fear?
“My heart is pounding really hard! I don't know why this happens to me!”
“It happens to most people when they are scared. My heart was pounding too!”
“Really? But you seemed so calm!”
“Fear and stress make hearts beat faster, because our brain has evolved to help us run away from dangers of our caveman days, like tigers! It is giving a signal to the heart to pump more blood to our muscles to help us run away from the tiger! But we know that there is no tiger and we can’t run away. We just need to relax and wait until help comes. We are okay!
“But knowing this isn't helping! My heart is still pounding!”
“It will calm down eventually after some time. Let's not expect any quick fix. We have nothing to do and nowhere to go. Why not spend the time being mindful? It may help. What else are you feeling in the body?
“I feel something, a tightness, in my stomach area.”
“Okay! What is the shape of this tightness?”
“This sensation that you feel occupies some space in your body. What is the shape of that space? What else do you notice about it? What is its size? Is it deep or shallow? Is it painful?”
“Kind of irregular shape. Not painful but an uncomfortable pressure.
“Good! Can you breathe normally and naturally and feel your breath reaching there?
“Okay. I'll try… I am breathing and imagining that it is reaching there.”
“Don't try too hard. Just keep breathing normally and naturally, keeping a gentle attention on the area, knowing that your breath is reaching there as it reaches all parts of the body.”
(After a couple of minutes) “How does the tightness feel now? Is its shape the same or different?”
“It has diffused a little. It is still there but it feels different.”
“These sensations shift and change like fluid, don't they? But we mistakenly take them to be fixed, solid and permanent, especially when we are anxious.”
“I would have fainted by now if you were not here with me.”
“It is scary to be alone and fainting thoughts may show up. Mind is quick to carry us to the past and the future. But the body is in the present and is telling you what fear feels like, if you listen to it. You can keep coming back to the present moment experience in the body whenever you realize that thoughts have taken you for a ride. You can use the breath as your anchor, anytime, anywhere, even when it is stressful, like now. Keep breathing normally with a gentle attention on that tightness.”
A small crowd assembles outside the elevator. The 2mm gap widens at the bottom, through which fingers and tows appear. We hear concerned voices asking if we are okay. We assure them that we are fine. Someone has placed a fan outside and blowing air through the widened gap. Someone offers us water through a pipe in case we are thirsty. A stick is pushed in through the widened gap and someone struggles to slide it up the gap. The doors remain stubbornly shut. We wonder if they know what they are doing and if any of them is a technician. My husband assures us that they know what they are doing. Apparently, we can’t claim to be the first ones to be stuck in that elevator!
I check with my cousin. The distraction is helping her, she reports. We are asked by the crowd to press a button with a bell icon on it. Recalling where I had seen the bell icon, before darkness hid it, I press a button. A loud siren startles us. The siren magically transports the right technician to the scene within a few minutes.
Trusting our rescuers, we return to continue the mindfulness practice and lesson. How often does one get such an opportunity to practice mindfulness while stuck inside an elevator! How lucky is that!
Light comes back and eventually, after about 30 minutes or so, the doors open and we step out and join the cheering crowd.
January 11, 2018