Friday, November 01, 2013

The value in reaching for the impossible

Often times, we label something as impossible and refuse to even think about whether we are capable of doing it or not. I'm not talking about going to the moon or speaking whale. I'm talking about smaller things. Like standing upside down in yoga.

My husband and I were running late for a Yin Yoga class. As we tiptoed into the room,  people were already midway through their routine and we quickly got our yoga mats out to join them. After a few rounds of the sun salutation, the instructor got down to demonstrating more complex positions. Like the Bakasana. And as if that wasn't enough, he proceeded to show us the Adho Mukha Vrukshasana! Now this is the dreaded Asana where your hands are on the floor and feet up in the air. The ones you see yogis do effortlessly. As I watched the instructor do it, my mind had already decided that there was no way my body was going to be able to do this. I hadn't done yoga properly in years, and the kind of yoga that I used to practice was simple and comfortable. And since Yin Yoga is some sort of cross between Yoga and Taoist practices, my mind was was already frowning upon it for deviating from yoga in its pure form.

Before I knew it, the instructor was by my side and asked me to lift up my left foot. He held my left foot and asked me to lift up the right, reassuring me that he'd catch me if I fell. I didn't think too much about it and lifted my right foot into the air. Lo and behold, my entire body was upside down for a second!

When I got back down, the instructor said it was a good start for the first day and went on to monitor the others. It has been two days since then, and the shock is yet to recede. This handstand was never on my list of 'impossible' things to do. Hell, it was not even on the waitlist. It was also in the category of 'uninteresting impossible' things to do.  Uninteresting in the sense, I didn't see what I could gain by doing a handstand. But the fact that I did it, albeit with the instructor's help made me see that eventually I could do it all by myself.

The handstand is just a metaphor for several impossible things. Every once in a while its a good idea to do something completely different from your daily routine, things that are in no way related to the main goals of your life. The handstand taught me that there are possibly several more things that my mind labels as 'impossible', therefore I don't even attempt them because I think they are impossible. As Confucius said and Will Smith made popular, "He who thinks he can and he who thinks he cannot, are both usually right".

And with that, I'm off to do more handstands and speak dog :)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Mindfulness and the art of filmmaking

I am trying to develop a more regular writing habit (The goal is to ultimately write everyday) and of late, posts on methods to develop mindfulness have attracted my attention a lot. One can find tons of writing on mindfulness and food, mindfulness while doing daily chores like dishes, laundry etc. But I didn't find a lot on being mindful in your professional work, so I decided to write about that.

I am a filmmaker, finishing up a short film and I was recently reviewing a file that my colorist had sent me. I had gotten into the 'zone' quite fast and when I snapped out of it to take a break, a certain idea that I have been wanting to write about for a while popped up again - how the different stages of film-making can help cultivate mindfulness. A quick primer on the film-making workflow : once the film is shot, it goes through several edits before what is called a 'picture lock' can be achieved, after which it goes on to audio post-production (music and sound). The director has to watch the film through each of these edits, over and over again, as each layer is added to take the film towards completion. And each time she watches it, she cannot tune out of it as though she were watching someone else's film - She has to be alert to spot mistakes. And the more layers that get added, the greater the possibilities of there being mistakes. She has to keep her ears open for sound, eyes open for the images and also her sixth sense open to catch any mistakes that cannot be spotted through logical reasoning. And its not just 'mistake' spotting, being alert also helps her find unexpected connections between what she has in front of her and what her film could become. (creative accidents are the best thing that can happen to an artist). I have been working on this short film for close to a year and must have watched it more than a hundred times (I'm not kidding). I also like to watch it more times than necessary because I like to let it all incubate in my head. The director also represents the cast and crew that she has worked with on the film, so rushing through the process of watching the film over and over is in a sense, a sign of disrespect to your team. 

Back to the mindfulness aspect of this post - As the filmmaking cycle comes to an end, there are several things to watch/listen for and if you are not completely rooted in the present moment, chances are that someone in the audience is going to spot an error that could have been easily avoided. Thankfully, one does not have to be 30% mindful at the first cut stage of the film, and then 100% mindful when you are mixing the film (the final stage of filmmaking). Mindfulness is not a gradational state of mind in that sense. If you are mindful, then you are 100% there and that is all that is needed. And that shows in your film. When we were filming this short, there was a certain shot of one of the leads pouring coffee into a cup. It is a tight close up of the coffee falling into the cup. When we shot this, the fifteen person crew was on red alert (we were recording live sound and therefore there had to be complete silence so that the coffee sounds could be picked up). When I played this back while looking at the rushes, I could feel the alert energy of those fifteen people in that shot! 

When I made my first short film, this process of watching the same film over and over again until it was done, drove me nuts. But now, I try to watch it like I'm watching it for the first time.

The non-gradational nature of mindfulness reminds me of a Sloka from the Isha Upanishad and I will end with that : 

"Om Purnamadah Purnamidam
  Purnat Purnamudachyate
  Purnasya Purnamadaya
  Purnameva Vashishyate "

This translates to : 
That is the whole, this is the whole;
From the whole, the whole springs forth;
Taking away the whole from the whole,
The whole still remains whole.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Choosing a belief system.. Or not?

"A belief system is not something you choose.. It chooses you". As much as it sounds like a bumper sticker, I agree with this. There used to be a time when I was aware of different schools of thought, but they were merely textbook knowledge. I was never drawn to them - not to read and definitely not to reflect. Having grown up in Chennai, the hometown of Jiddu Krishnamurti and living a few kilometres away from his foundation, it was hard to not run into one of his lectures here, or another one of his books there. But it made about as much sense to me as would a C++ program to my dog. I 'wanted' to understand him 'cause it was cool, a lot of people who I looked up to read him and would throw around his quotes rather offhandedly in the middle of conversations. Everytime I tried reading him or listening to him, one of two things would happen - I would fall asleep on the book or his long, complex sentences comprising simple words would keep repeating themselves in my head, and made less and less sense, the more I pondered them. (It was his thoughts that seemed complex to me)

Three years later, I now live in the United States and like a lot of Indians, have revisited Hinduism (and the paradoxes that it comes with), and other schools of philosophy that have been influenced by it (like Nihilism). I had completely forgotten about Jiddu and his love for confounding me with his words. Then one day, I chanced upon one of his videos on youtube. And it resonated loud and clear with me!

How did this happen? I'm unable to reduce this to the same as reading a book or watching a movie several times to uncover layers you didn't get the first time. Agreed, in the book/movie example you grow in maturity over each read/watch and are able to see new things. But a belief system?

As Ray Bradbury says - "We're a fabulous mulch of everything that's gone into our heads".  How exactly did the mulch created by the experiences of the last three years draw me to towards the things I believe in, today? If I had to trace it down to a series of links, I suppose I could. After all, given the kind of information we have at our disposal, I suppose I could prove a connection between fractal geometry and the Taliban, if I had to. Just saying.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Bodhi Zendo

 Disclaimer : This post is a bit late but at least its out now, so yay!

Attending a meditation retreat has been on my mind for quite sometime. For several reasons.

1) I used to be an active meditator in 2011 and 2012 had too much going on to maintain a regular practice. I needed something to kick me back into meditating regularly.
2) I'm in India, of course I have to attend a retreat! (No I'm not American/European, its just that its so much cheaper and people don't chant mantras with annoying accents)
3) I needed to get away from the scorching heat of Chennai's agni nakshatram that was threatening to gobble up my vacation.

Plus, I needed something that would end before May 20th. Most meditation retreats are on hills and they have patchy cell phone reception and internet, plus they are all about 'being' and not doing, so I was pleasantly surprised when Bodhi Zendo got back to me in a matter of hours.

So it turns out that Bodhi Zendo is apparently the only Zen Buddhist center in ALL of INDIA. It is located in Perumalmalai, about 12 kms before Kodaikanal. If you're going from Chennai/Pondicherry/Madurai or any major city in Tamilnadu, there are plenty of direct buses to Kodaikanal, and Perumalmalai is a stop on the way. Even if you aren't leaving from a city, you still have those buses - I took a train from Chennai to Dindigul and took a bus to Perumalmalai. Oh the joy of listening to Ilayaraja songs on a mofussil bus, watching paddy fields :) (That will need a post of its own).

Bodhi Zendo is up on an estate, so you'll need a jeep to take you to their premises.

The day you arrive, they'll take you through an orientation session that covers everything you need to know about the premises, rules to follow during the meditation sessions etc.

Their schedule is somewhat like this :

5:30 am : Wake up gong
6-7 am : Formal Zazen (sitting meditation)
7-8 am : Breakfast
8-9:30 am: Samu/Seva
9:30 am : Coffee/Tea
10:30 - 12 noon : Silence
12-12:30 : Free zazen
12:30 - 1:30 pm : Lunch
1:30 - 4 pm: Silence
4 pm : Coffee/Tea
6 - 7 pm : Formal Zazen
7 - 8 pm : Dinner
8-8:30 pm : Free zazen

The formal zazens happen in the meditation room and are mandatory, whereas the free zazens can be done in your room or anywhere, as long as you're silent and maintain the spirit of mindfulness.

5:30 pm to 7 am is silent time everyday and Wednesdays are reserved for full silence. If you're the social butterfly type who can't be quiet for a second, this part's going to be hard. However, I found silence to be hugely refreshing - to be able to hear the sound of every bird chirping, every cricket and frog croaking.

This is their regular shcedule. They also have mini sesshins and full sesshins, three days and six days in length respectively, where one spends longer hours in meditation. (something like 6-8 hours everyday!). Be prepared to have a sore back from hours of sitting still. The sesshins however are absolutely silent. So if you're new to meditation, you might want to check out their daily schedule before committing to a full sesshin. More info here :

Thursdays are free days - people head into Kodaianal to shop, lounge by the lake etc. I decided to Join Meg and Bridgette (An Australian and a Belgian), on a trek to a small waterfall in an unknown village. Despite warnings about wild dogs and lack of local language knowledge, they were ready to march into the wilderness with only a stick for protection! Just as the center's manager Sasi was in the process of dissuading them from going, I joined them and reassured him that we'd all be fine.

It was an 8 km trek and I can't remember the last time I trekked such a distance, but after a few hours we reached a village called 'Anju Veedu' (Five houses). The lady at the potti kadai (Box shop) sent a boy over to guide us to the falls. (He was in the midst of playing an intense cricket match and hated the interruption). We crossed two streams, hopped skipped and jumped over some boulders and 20 minutes later, found the falls. It was not a very big one, but silent and non-touristy. Perfect. After sending the boy off and lounging around, taking photos etc., we made our way back.

Everything was fine and dandy until we heard a strange, angry moo-ing behind us. Turn around and there's a cow charging at us on our trail! We hid behind some trees, hoping and praying it wouldn't butt us. At one point, it indignantly stared Meg in the eye. Those were the most tense two minutes I've had in a long time.

The next day we had an impromptu music session at the tea house in the Japanese garden - an aurovillean on the flute (If you didn't know, that's what people from Auroville call themselves) , me and a couple of others on vocals.

Bodhi Zendo has been a great place to 'do' less, wander about and gaze at nature, chase bees for pictures (I spent a full hour trying to get a good shot of one of them as it hopped from sunflower to sunflower and trust me, that hour went by in the blink of an eye), talk to fellow retreaters (is that even a word?) and write. I enjoyed writing my diary after ages, sitting in my room overlooking the hills. It felt like the silence in nature inspired silence inside of me.

There is enough flora and fauna within Bodhi Zendo to go bird watching or plant watching.

And they have this step cultivation thing going on. (The first thing that struck me when I saw it was 'wow I remember that from fourth grade geography!')


It took me a few days to get into the routine but once I did, I did not want to leave. Bodhi Zendo definitely gives one a seamless 'each day flows into the next' kind of peace.

My last day here happened to be my thirtieth birthday and I remember thinking to myself - "When was the last time I woke up at 6 on my birthday?" It was quite a pleasant change to spend it quietly, without anyone knowing its your birthday. It was just me, the birds, bees, and the mountains. Loved it.

The retreat stilled my mind in ways nothing else has in recent times, so much so that I felt the effects of it even after I returned to hot, sweaty Chennai in the middle of May.  I look forward to going back to Bodhi Zendo and staying longer :)