5 Ways In Which Meditation Leads to Radical Beauty

Meditation facilitates radical transformationFor years, I’ve taught meditation to lower stress and to improve health. Thousands of books, blogs and practitioners attest to its many benefits including calmness, focus and creativity. While these are all great reasons to meditate, here we will explore how this practice facilitates the flowering of Radical Beauty.

There are few things as mysterious as the mind. One day when I was ten, I was perched in a guava tree, “listening” to my mind as usual. I noticed that I couldn’t stop thoughts from arising even when I tried hard to stay focused on the clear blue sky, the rustle of the leaves and the smell of the earth.

It was fascinating that the thoughts that were coming up were not always about the sky, tree or earth – the objects of my focus. They were about other things. Astounded, I wondered how come my mind wasn’t in the same place as my body (up in the tree). Suddenly, I realized that all thoughts were referring to something that had already happened in the past (memory) or would happen in the future (imagination). I tried to look for a “present-thought.” There was none. By the time a thought arose about an event, the event was already in the past. I wondered, “So, what is actually here now?” Instantly, I became hyper-aware. The trees, birds, grass, sky and my body were suspended in 3-dimensional clarity and I lost track of time. I was disoriented coming out of the trance. I knew in some way that this was big, but didn’t have a way to explain it or even understand it.

These timeless moments of clarity continued to occur sporadically, particularly when I paid close attention to my mind. As I grew up, thoughts began to seem ephemeral and dream-like, colliding with the solidity of the outer world. I noticed that my moods were the direct result of what I was thinking. Changing how I thought about something changed how I felt about it. However, I couldn’t figure out how to overcome the mind’s powerful hold consistently. This sense of powerlessness caused great inner conflict and periods of melancholy. I felt alone. Nobody else seemed to be interested in this, and it seemed too intimate for casual chit-chat.

Fresh out of medical school, I attended a week-long workshop with a charismatic swami (monk). He talked about the mind and its complexities as the cause of suffering. It felt as though he was talking to me directly by addressing the very issues I’d ruminated on since childhood. I was home at last! He taught meditation as a tool to first become intimate with the mind and then to transcend it. Before I became fully established in the practice however, I got busy with life and work. It was set aside. The inner conflict intensified over the next few years, reaching a fever pitch. After the vivid vision I had at the time, I took up meditation again.

This time, I stuck with it.

Although meditation leads to stress reduction and health improvement, its gifts are far more precious. A stable meditation practice facilitates an irreversible rewiring of the mind leading to radical transformation. This occurs through its ability to cultivate:

  1. Awareness: We tend to live in a state where we aren’t aware of how our minds enslave us with inertia (tamas) or excessive activity (rajas). When we start meditating, we finally become aware of the “monkey mind.” At this point, it can be tempting to conclude that meditation is causing the mind noise and to give it up. In reality however, it just shows us how busy our minds really are!
  2. Single-pointedness: When our attention is split doing multiple things at once, we lose the ability to think creatively or deeply, to solve problems or to delve into existential questions. With a stable meditation practice, we become mindful, paying attention to one thing at a time. We gradually become creative and efficient. Importantly, single-pointedness facilitates self-inquiry (more on this in later posts).
  3. Inner silence: Perhaps the greatest gift of meditation is the quieting of the mind’s constant commentary. This is the familiar and incessant voice that judges and compares everything. It creates likes and dislikes, attraction and aversion, and all other dualistic states that propagate suffering. Mind chatter spills over into dreams, where we act out subconscious fears, pain and anxiety collected during waking hours. Ordinarily, the only rest we get from this voice is in deep sleep. Meditation results in cultivation of inner silence, where the commentator loses steam and quiets down. Inner silence eventually penetrates the dream state as the mind is no longer fueled by chatter. Notably, inner silence catalyzes the rise of the witness, with a shift in perspective.
  4. Perspective: When we are identified with our minds, it is like acting in a play and forgetting that it is a play. We never get out of character, delivering award-winning performances on a daily basis! A stable and long-term meditation practice gives us a 30,000-foot view of life and ourselves. We begin to see the play for what it is and learn to step out of character. We stop taking everything so personally.
  5. Letting go: Suffering is the result of not being able to let go of our ingrained habits, past hurts and emotional attachments. When our perspective changes, we realize that we are not who we thought we were, others are not who we thought they were and life is not what we thought it was. When we stop taking things personally, letting go happens and we arrive at a new level of transformation.

Now, none of these things happen overnight. It takes time to undo years of conditioning and habit. This work takes patience, courage and honesty. The path to transformation is made up of hills and valleys. Periods of absolute joy are often interspersed with deep despair. Like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, progress is usually gradual and onerous. Yet, like the butterfly, we emerge radically transformed.

Radical Beauty Ritual:

  • Do you want to meditate? Why? Contemplate on this (there are no right or wrong answers). If you take it up just because someone else is doing it, you are unlikely to commit to it. Explore your reasons thoroughly.
  • Do you have a meditation practice? If so, are you committed to it? If not, why not? Write it down.
  • If you feel that you are ready for meditation, contemplate on the following. What are you prepared to do to commit to the practice? How will you rearrange your schedule? Minimally, you will need twenty minutes twice a day. Can you do this?
  • Preparing thoughtfully for the practice is like tilling the soil to plant the seed. It is worth the time and effort. Take this time to be radically honest with yourself. Writing brings clarity to thought and intent.

If you find that you are not really ready for meditation, that is perfectly fine. Keep reading and exploring. There are many paths to Radical Beauty. Meditation is one of them.

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Fuel Desire to Create Destiny in 5 Simple Steps

The wheel of desire and destinyIn the last post, we delved into the need to uncover authentic desire. Whether we know it or not, our deepest desire drives our destiny. The mind can clutter and obscure authentic desire and we end up chasing things that never satisfy us. Not living our authentic desire leads to deep-seated dissatisfaction, causing inner conflict and restlessness. Not aligning with our authentic desire leaves us wanting more, like we haven’t lived to our fullest potential. To live fully, we need to unearth what it is that we really want. The “last-day-of-life meditation” is a powerful tool to unearth this desire. This desire can be used to fuel our actions and create our destiny.

It was exhilarating for me to discover my passion for writing even though it was not exactly a surprise. I’ve geeked out on syntax, grammar, word choice and creativity in language for as long as I remember. Well-written books and articles bring me to tears as much for the style of expression as the content. My love of writing was obscured by “other” desires and goals, like establishing a medical practice and raising a family. However, the authentic desire for expression never went away. It unconsciously drove my career choice where writing scientific papers, reviews and book chapters became facets of my daily work. When I started blogging years ago, I realized that writing nourished my soul. Whether it is a scientific paper, a blog post or a clinic note, the process of writing is deeply satisfying for its own sake. Whether or not a manuscript is accepted at my targeted journal or whether anyone is reading the blog post I painstakingly wrote  is irrelevant.

As important as it is to unearth our authentic desire, it is only the first step. The desire is most useful if it fuels our actions. Like a wheel, desire fuels consistent action. Consistent action opens us to deeper authentic desire and further clarity of purpose. Purposeful action creates our destiny. While this is a process we must traverse in our own unique ways, here are 5 simple steps that might be useful for you:

  1. Allow. Writing about yoga or the divine feminine has nothing to do with my job. When I first began writing, I worried about what my colleagues would think, and whether it would affect my credibility. The more I dug in to my own purpose, I realized that it didn’t matter. Not allowing this passion to arise and shape my life was stifling. Firstly, acknowledge your authentic desire. Don’t worry about whether it is right or wrong, whether it makes sense or not, and whether it is applicable to your life. Let your passion speak. Say you have a corporate desk job and what really drives you is music. Allow this love and dream of playing music to consume you. Sure, it has nothing to do with your job and you can’t make a career out of it (yet). Let it surface anyway. Allow the natural excitement of your interest to fill you up.
  2. Research. The next step in the desire-t0-destiny process is to research your passion. Become curious. Read up on the genre, the instrument and the musicians. Look up online and social media groups with similar interests. Join in the conversations. The advantage of living in this age of information is that there is no dearth of learning material or inspirational, like-minded folks. Use technology to your advantage. Cultivate enthusiasm for your desire.
  3. Apply. This is the critical next step. When I started blogging, I was periodically overcome with self-doubt and inertia. They arose from feeling that I was wasting time, that I should be doing something else, or that nobody was reading my writing. Again and again, I was pulled into writing despite the mind’s chatter because it was so joyful. It was not enough to research and read up on my favorite authors. I had to actually write. Take your interest and just do it (thanks, Nike!). Commit to 10 minutes initially (nobody can say they don’t have 10 minutes). Take the instrument out of the case. Tune it. Play it, even if it is for 5 minutes. The most important thing is your attitude. Bring your curiosity and enthusiasm from your research and discussions into the process. Make it fun.
  4. Re-evaluate. Check in when you are doing the activity. Does it feel joyful? Even if it is challenging, does it make you feel alive and vibrant? Do you lose yourself in it with no cares of the past or future? Do you love the activity for its own sake without worrying about what you will gain from it? Do you feel you could do this all day every day, given a choice? If the answer to all of the above is a resounding yes, you’ve nailed it. You’ve found your authentic desire. Become accustomed to this inner joy. Favor it every time. Soon, the activity will become a habit if you favor your joy.
  5. Intensify. Once my self-doubt about writing was mitigated, I began to write with abandon, participating in groups and learning from those whose style I love and admire. I enjoy interacting and learning from writing tasks. When the self-doubt arises, it is remedied by allowing the love of writing to take center stage again (Step 1). Once you’ve aligned yourself with the joy of doing, kick it up a notch (or several notches). Increase the time you commit to the activity. Reorganize your schedule. Practice more. Take a lesson. Or learn on your own.

At some point, we may be tempted to ask, “Fine. What then? How is this going to pay my bills? Will I make money off of it?” The answer is maybe. Or maybe not. Making a living is a respectable goal. How we want to live is a different goal. When we allow our heart’s desire to sprout, the two goals may come together in unexpected ways. Keeping an open heart and allowing our inner wisdom to bloom are essential ingredients for magic!

Radical Beauty Ritual:

  • After you’ve applied the five steps for a few weeks, do the last-day-of-life meditation again.
  • What comes up now? Is the passion still the same?
  • If the five steps are in line with your authentic desire, it will come up again with clarity and certainty. As you get to the last moments of your life in meditation, a sense of peace will prevail.
  • If you’ve dabbled in the activity to fulfill superficial desires, you will quickly lose interest in it.
  • Here are some examples of inauthentic or “borrowed” desires that will not inspire you to keep up the commitment:

(a) Trying to live up to an ideal image of yourself.

(b) Trying to please someone else.

(c) Because it might be fun to try it.

(d) Because someone else is doing it.

(This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try something for fun, of course! We are talking about creating destiny here and not casual activities).

Hope this gives you something to ponder about and put in practice. As always, do share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Sharpening the tool of desire

Fire of desireIn the last post, we began to explore the requirements for Radical Beauty. Discovering authentic desire was the first one. If you struggled through the last ritual, take heart! It took me years to figure out what I wanted. It had to be delicately fished  out of the tangled mess of “planted” desires.

Recently, somebody asked me to describe how I came to choose medicine as a career choice. I had to laugh. In the past, I could’ve listed all the “correct” reasons: wanting to serve, love of the science and so on. These reasons are still very applicable, of course. When it comes down to it however, my desire to go to medical school was planted. My family made strong, repeated suggestions early on. It “stuck.” I adopted my family’s desire as my own and went through the rigmarole. Do I like what I do? No. I love what I do. I can’t think of any other way my life could have turned out. That doesn’t change the fact that my desire to be a doctor was not mine.

The “borrowing” of desire from family, peers and popular culture pervaded every area of my life. Eventually, borrowed desires became burdensome. As soon as one was fulfilled, there was another goal to be achieved. Nothing was overt. Nobody forced me to do anything. It was more like a TV commercial. You know the ones that send subliminal messages that you need the particular product in order to not be a loser? I was sucked in. I absorbed and internalized the American dream (and a few others) as the thing to want. I began to sag when I saw that this chain of desire was never going to end.

One morning nearly twelve years ago, I woke up early as usual. As the coffee brewed, I began to put away clean dishes from the night before. Opening the utensil drawer, my eyes fell upon the block of kitchen knives. I casually wondered what it would be like to die. I wasn’t suicidal or even depressed. The thought was one of genuine curiosity. As the thought faded, a vibrant vision arose. It was the trajectory of my life on the path of habitual seeking. I saw myself as an externally successful but deeply weary and unfulfilled middle-aged woman. As my awareness returned to the kitchen, I noticed that several minutes had passed and my hand was frozen in midair, still clutching a utensil. I sat down, shaking with gratitude. Now I knew! What I was really seeking was the end of seeking. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with gathering, achieving or acquiring. My spiritual path had begun.

My dear friend Tanya is a fifth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and owns a martial arts school. She states quite simply that in order to succeed, you need both devotion and dedication. It’s true. A magical thing happens when we become aligned with our authentic desire. As soon as it is uncovered, this desire begins to command the heart and the head. It expresses as devotion through the heart and as dedication through the head. Devotion + dedication ignite the fire of vision. Secondary and borrowed desires that don’t serve the vision are cast in the fire and burn away. For some of us, this might mean a total overhaul of life, work and relationships. For the rest of us, nothing may appear different externally. In every case however, authentic vision will utilize everything it can to manifest as meaningful action. Tanya exemplifies living a life aligned with authentic desire and vision.

Radical Beauty Ritual:

  • Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed for about 30 minutes. Keep your journal close by.
  • Take a few deep breaths and close your eyes. Fast forward to the end of your life. It is your last day here. Feel into this. How have you lived your life? Whose dream have you lived? Does it feel like you have fulfilled your unique destiny? Open your eyes and write it down.
  • Close your eyes again. Take another deep breath. Return to your last day of life. Is there still a longing? Zoom in on it. What is the longing for? What are you wishing you had done? Open your eyes and write it down.
  • Close your eyes again. Take another deep breath. Now it is your final hour. Are you fulfilled? Have your deepest longings been fulfilled? Are you at peace? Are you fearless about what awaits you? Do you feel that you have unfinished business? What is it? Open your eyes and write it down.
  • Close your eyes again. Bring your awareness to your body and the room. Lie down and rest for as long as you need.
  • Sit back up and read your notes. Look at what you longed for on the last day of your life. Does it resonate?
  • Spend the next week reflecting on what you learned about yourself. Have you identified your authentic desire?
  • Write down what your life would look like if your longing was fulfilled. Now you have your vision. Clarify and refine the vision. Take your time with this.

Notes:

  • Take at least ten minutes for each step. Do not hurry through this ritual. Relax and allow things to bubble up naturally. Be open, receptive, patient and humble in your attitude to the process.
  • This profound meditation can be highly disorienting. If you have an anxiety disorder, severe depression or other psychological issues, please don’t do it. If this ritual brings up uncontrollable fear or anxiety, abandon it and rest. Instead of returning to this, continue a daily practice of sitting still and journaling your thoughts as in the last ritual. There will be other suitable rituals down the road.
  • If you are unable to gain insights the first time, it is perfectly fine. Practice again (only if you’re not affected emotionally by the ritual) when you feel like it and as many times as you need to.

Most of all, enjoy the process! Become curious about what you will find. Delight in the progress you make! If you do try it, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Tools for Inner Archaeology

The right tools make all the difference!So you’re ready for this digging expedition. Let’s get started! For success in any endeavor, we need to be adequately and thoughtfully prepared. If you’re like me, you’re probably familiar with the “blindly jumping in” syndrome. It has taken me years to slow down and take time to prepare for the journey, particularly those into mystical realms. Gathering the right tools for inner archaeology makes all the difference in how deep we can dig and what we will find.

The primary tools for unearthing Radical Beauty are Radical Commitment, Radical Honesty and Radical Willingness. “Radical” is an essential qualifier for each tool. Half-hearted honesty or willingness will get us nowhere. We know now that we cannot expect different results with the same old tools, which only result in rearranging the debris. If we want to transform, we will have to upgrade our tools.

In my travels, I’m astounded by the hardships that archaeologists face in their desire to dig up past treasures. It is backbreaking, methodical and delicate work that few are cut out for. Their commitment to working through challenges is worth emulating. In fact, steady and dogged commitment to a goal is the secret of success in any field. The form of Shakti known as Tripura Bhairavi symbolizes Radical Commitment.

Why is it so hard to commit to effort? The answer is simple. We can only commit to what we really want. Thus, the basis for commitment is desire, which leads to vision. My beloved yoga guru, Yogani incisively distills down achievement to be the result of desire + vision + action. This is true for whether we want to get through college, make a marriage work, or rise to the top of an organization. It is most definitely true for the path of inner exploration. If you don’t want it, you will not be committed. If you are not committed, you will not act. If you don’t act, you will not achieve. Simple. Radical Commitment translates desire and vision into consistent action.

Desire is a loaded word and concept. Many schools of spirituality shun desire as an evil trait that needs to be gotten rid of. I used to believe that too! It is common for spiritual aspirants to try to give up desire. However, trying to rid oneself of desire is a fruitless endeavor. The desire to give up desire binds us in a circular, nonserving argument. It is much more useful to hone down desire into a a sharp focus. When we become crystal clear about what we want, Bhairavi comes to our aid and cuts through everything that doesn’t serve that singular focus. She moves the whole universe to fulfill that desire. Bhairavi’s light leads to progressive refining of desire, which then explodes into love and beauty.

The tricky part of this is to know what we actually desire. We have been fed with ideas and concepts about what we should desire. This is particularly true for women. For example, we may have been indoctrinated into thinking that if we don’t desire a mate, children or stability, there is something wrong with us. Or that our place is at home, or some variation of “good girls don’t do xyz.” In the cacophony of voices that scream in our heads telling us what to want, the unique purpose for which we were created becomes thwarted. In the conflict between innate and fed desires, we can live unfulfilled lives, never discovering our unique gifts and abilities.

In order to sharpen the tool of Radical Commitment that will lead to consistent action toward self-discovery, we will need to tune into our heart’s desire and vision. That is the purpose of this next Beauty ritual.

Radical Beauty Ritual:

To embark on this expedition, I recommend that you acquire a good quality journal. This will become your best friend as you begin your inner explorations.

  • Make time to sit still for a few minutes daily. Set a timer so that you can be free of chores during this time. Take a few slow deep breaths and settle down into the chair. This exercise works best if you are in a relaxed state, like daydreaming. Become curious about what you will find. Gently ask: “I wonder what I really want.” Don’t expect an immediate answer! Explore what comes up. If it is something like, “I want a romantic partner,” sit with that. Turn it over in your mind. Wonder why you want it. When the timer goes off, take a few more deep slow breaths before you get up and go about your day.
  • Pay attention to how you feel about the different tasks you do on a daily basis. Write down the thoughts you have about the roles you play and the tasks you do. It is tempting to be cavalier and say you’d rather be sunning on the beach. Dig deeper. Beach bumming can become boring if that is all you did!
  • Write down the following. What do you really want now? This year? Over the next five years?

Onward!

*Do share your thoughts in the comments below. What did you find? Have you discovered your heart’s desire? Are you Radically Committed?

 

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What is a Radical Beauty Ritual?

Shakti, the epitome of Radical BeautyIn the previous post, we examined the predicament of resolutions and the way to love and joy. Let’s explore what “Radical Beauty” means and what its rituals entail.

Some time ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on the many forms of Shakti, the divine feminine. Those writings were deeply meditative and resulted in profound insights, leading to great inner freedom and sweetness. The all-pervading nature of Shakti is useful to understand as we embark on the inner journey to freedom.

Who is Shakti and why should we care?

Shakti is not limited to the female body. As the energy that holds the cosmos together, she is the movement of the galaxies that creates new stars and black holes. As the digestive fire, she is agni that transforms food into the nutrients and strength. As the waking state, she appears as every thought, emotion and action. As the dream state, she is the play of the subconscious mind as it lives and acts out its fears and fantasies. As the deep sleep state, she is the absorption of consciousness into rest. As the evolutionary force of the planet, she is the movement of the tectonic plates that creates continents and oceans. As the great change, she is the earthquake, the tsunami and the volcano. Simply stated, there is nothing in existence that is not her.

Centuries ago, tantric sages gave names and forms to ten of the most significant facets of creation, calling them Dasha Mahavidya (dasha = ten, mahavidya = great wisdom). They are goddesses of profound transformation. They are called ‘maha’ (great) because they represent quantum aspects such as time and space.

On an individual level, Shakti represents both the shadows and the light within us. These opposing aspects are universal and occur in men and women. Shadows are destructive qualities that enhance ignorance and suffering. They are the debris we must wade through to find the light, which is Radical Beauty.

Kali, the first of the Mahavidyas represents renegade transformation. She symbolizes time, which is synonymous with evolution and change. Her shadow is one of aggression and violence. When we excavate through our tendencies for aggression, we find the light of non-violence. The process of transformation begins with Kali. The word “Radical” pays homage to her.

Our inner expedition takes us finally to Kamalatmika, the last of the Mahavidyas. She represents absolute delight, which saturates ordinary experiences and makes them extraordinary. When we dig through her shadow of inner conflict, we arrive at her light – contentment. The word “Beauty” is in her honor. Radical Beauty thus represents this sacred journey that traverses the path from Kali to Kamala, exploring every crevice in our psyche and washing it clean.

Ritualize it!

A ritual is a series of actions performed in a particular order. I find rituals deeply healing and use them to start the day, get ready, drive, see patients, write notes or manuscripts, cook, and so on. Rituals help bring focus and clarity to things we tend to do on auto-pilot mode. They help us slow down and savor small things.

Rituals can be as simple as stepping back briefly to breathe in the abundance of the moment, give heartfelt thanks, gain a wider perspective, recall our life’s purpose or inquire into experience. In these actions, we open to the possibility that life is much more than the details of our day-to-day existence.

A Radical Beauty Ritual is meant to bring the wisdom of the great goddesses into our lives in practical ways. In every post, you will find recommended practices and inquiries. Set time aside to delve into them. Note that these beauty rituals take time to ripen and provide results.  Be patient. Keep at it. Archaeology is not for the faint of heart. It is diligent, deliberate and delicate work!

Notes:

  • Please use your discretion about practicing a certain ritual. Many of these are profound and have the potential to bring up hidden or suppressed trauma, emotions and life situations. If you don’t feel comfortable with it, please don’t do it.
  • If you are you are under therapy or treatment (or have a past history of) for significant trauma, anxiety, depression or other psychological conditions, please consult with your personal physician before taking on these practices.
  • This is a journey of self-discovery. The rituals are suggestions based on my experience. Each of us is responsible for our own journey. If you do take up these exercises, you are solely responsible for its effects.

Further reading:

  • The Ten Great Cosmic Powers Paperback by S. Shankaranarayanan (Samata Books; Second edition, August 19, 2013)
  • Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga by Sally Kempton (Sounds True; 1 edition, February 1, 2013)

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