Weekly newsletter #3 – 4 leadership principles to live by

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I am in Maui this week and spent 2 days learning the theory on scuba diving only to discover that I failed and hated it. A blog coming next week about it. Meanwhile, here are the 9 things that I thought were worth sharing this week. Enjoy!

  1. [Leadership|Startup] My article on 4 key principles to become a good leader .
  2. [Life] Enjoy Tony Farhkry’s article about trusting the journey life is taking one on.
  3. [Work Life Balance]  Are you a workaholic?
  4. [Eye Candy]  Maui no words necessary!
  5. [Ear Candy]  Maui sound necessary!
  6. [Inspiration|Leadership] Simon Sinek’s “Start with the why” is seminal work – Ted talk and my book notes here
  7. [Health] Stu runs 1000+ miles without carbs. Read the exec summary from my book notes.
  8. [Picture] A billion caret diamond in Vatnajokull glacier in Iceland – one of mine :-).
  9. [Meditation] How to effortlessly move into meditation or fall asleep ;-).

Thanks for reading this newsletter, if you liked it forward it to a friend or tweet me some love. Past issues here.

Mahalo,
– Harpreet

A simple startup technique for meditations

Just as with the circle of life, every meditation session is bookended by a starting up and a closing phase. Just as with birth where a good nine months with a good delivery will set the baby up for a healthy life versus one with struggle, a good startup phase makes all the difference between a good meditation session or one with struggle.

The starting up phase is important to calm your mind to get it to a place so that you can meditate. Most people will run around the whole day, be incredibly stressed throughout the day and expect that there should be no thoughts passing through their mind, the moment they sit down for meditation. How is that even possible?

The starting up usually lasts between a minute to ten, twenty or more minutes. More stressful your day, the longer your startup phase is a pretty good rule of thumb.

The technique

The credit of the technique is to Avadhoot Baba Shivanand from whom I have learnt most things meditations and perhaps more importantly the philosophy of living. This isn’t a key technique in his teaching and hence I feel comfortable sharing it. The technique itself:

Imagine yourself on a beach, put your face in the sand and breathe in. If you have imagined it right, a lot of sand should have come in your nose and you should have some minor mental annoyance. Now, breathe finer and finer. Your aim is to make your breathing so fine that no sand particles enter your nose. Done!

Conclusion

In about 5 minutes or so, you will find yourself in a very deep state of relaxation and meditation just happens with absolutely no struggle. If you do this lying down, you fill fall asleep in about 10 minutes.

Chasing Turiya – the fourth state of consciousness

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I believe the audience for this blog in the world is a grand total of less than a couple of dozen and fewer who would understand the desire to chase Turiya – I frankly don’t understand it myself :-). Thus, I am documenting this as a reminder to myself for a few years down the line. If you want to know what an advanced state of meditation looks like – read on.

Twenty years ago – pre-internet era, I read a book called “Living with Himalayan Masters” by Swami Rama, a Guru of “Advaita Sri Vidya”. This book had fantastical stories of Yogic masters performing incredible feats. I bought it hook-line and sinker, perhaps, because I had just lost my younger sister and I was looking for a grander explanation to life than “it just the way it is”. Never found a teacher, because Swami Rama had passed away in 1996.

Nevertheless, this was the first time I came across “Turiya – the 4th” and have been on its hunt ever since.

Advaita (non-duality, formless) philosophy posits the universe as one single consciousness or universal consciousness and each human as a manifestation of the universal consciousness. Though, as with anything hinduism, oxymorons abound just as “hai bhi aur nahin bhi” or “it exists and doesn’t exist at the same time”;”Advaita” is achieved through “Dvaita” or duality or in this case the “Goddess and the God” – take your pick – literally – take a pick of what you resonate towards (no God – consciousness, God, Godess). The goal is to experience universal consciousness. The easiest way to think about consciousness in the Advaita world is it is the “force” that is behind everything (Star Wars anyone!). Turiya is the best way to experience it and meditation takes you there.

Thus, meditation (Dvaita) –> leads to –> meditation (Advaita) –> leads to –> Turiya –> makes you experience –> universal consciousness.

So last week, I attended a week of intense practice of “Advaita Sri Vidya” practice with Avdhoot Shivanand and after years of off-and-on practice I finally consistently hit Turiya and hopefully can hit it without being in the presence of the master. Side note: Avdhoot Shivanand is perhaps the only living master who teaches Advaita Sri Vidya today.

What is Turiya?
Typically, we think of three states of consciousness:

Waking
Sleeping
Dreaming
The Upanishads describe Turiya as the fourth state of consciousness that is behind the three states. It is beyond the typical dreaming, sleeping or waking states, on in which, you are completely relaxed, calm, composed and active at the same time. The rate of flow of thoughts flowing through your mind is close to zero. You are aware and in the Here and Now. Timelessness is a fundamental quality of this state.

This state is the one that Yogis achieve to maintain all the time because of supposedly innumerable benefits to mental and physical health. That said, the prime attachment to this state is because you are aware and constantly in touch with universal consciousness.

I liken it to the “flow” state which athletes, musicians get into when they do deep practice. They, unfortunately can maintain this only for a few minutes but a Yogi in meditation can be in it for hours. As an ex-programmer, I experienced this state when in deep coding where I lost track of time.

What was my experience of Turiya
The experience is on so many different levels and hard to explain – there is no existing frame of reference to compare it with so bear with me.

Timelessness
First, I did lose track of time. Everyday, we went into meditation for what seemed like a 15-20 minute session and then when we opened our eyes – it was about 2-3 hours into the meditation. The longest session was about 3.5 hours. Note: I have a back that gives me problems after about 15 minutes in one posture and here we were on one of the more uncomfortable chairs that you see in conference rooms and I was rocking it.

I have been in Buddhist practices, where they take your watch away and make you close your eyes for practice to experience time and unfortunately you are aware of every excruciating minute of that practice. But not Turiya – you walk out of a Turiya session and go “what the hell! I could’ve stayed there for an hour more – lets get back in”!

Physical
As I mentioned, I could sit through long sessions without much discomfort. The desire to move wasn’t there at all. The breathing is very fine and very “deep”. Deep breathing has real benefits on your health and I guess I accrued some :-). Utter and complete relaxation is perhaps a better description of the physical state. This relaxation is a better quality than one where you get up after long sleep. I wasn’t drowsy; I was awake; Here and Now.

Mind
Awake; Here and Now.

Typically, the mind is racing at a few dozen thoughts a minute. In Turiya, thoughts completely disappeared or were coming at a very slow rate.

Why is this important?

Advaita says that thoughts have either a happiness or unhappiness quality to them. You are either in the past or in the future and rarely here either reflecting on an unhappy or a happy past or future. In Turiya, the thoughts that come have neither quality, their quality is observational (my words). You can dispassionately observe them and insights flow in. It is almost like connecting a diagnostic tool to your computer – you just know what needs to happen to fix that problematic pattern you have been carrying around. Often, I was “observing myself” as a third person which is a deeply reflective state and resulted in interesting experiential insights.

That said, absence of thought is more often experienced than presence and analysis of thoughts.

Experiencing universal consciousness
The experience of universal consciousness was truly other wordly. I don’t quite have words to describe it. The gates to universal consciousness start from body consciousness and the meditation session started by making me very aware of my body consciousness (hard to describe) and at some point a metaphorical gate opened and I entered a deeper state and I realised that I was experiencing universal consciousness. How do you know it is universal consciousness – you just know – deep in your bones. Weird!

The closest description is when in the move “The Matrix”, Neo realises that he is the One. He realises that the matrix is running underneath him and the agents and they are the same. That description gets you close enough.

It felt like I was plugged into a battery and getting my charge in. Typically, I don’t realise that I am connected but now I was completely aware that I am being charged and could “see” the source. I use “see” as “see it in the third eye”.

Finally, the “I” disappeared even if it was for a short time and I became part of the universal expression where me and the chair and then neighbour and her chair were all one. Just one part of this fabric called the universe existing together Here and Now. This state is called “Tat tvam asi” or “Thou are that” or “being one with the force but better ;-)”.

Seems like that the entire experience was perhaps less than 5% of what you aspire to.

More practice ahead :-).

Calming an agitated mind

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Having a stressful day at work? If so, use the Aana Paana meditation as your go-to technique to find your calm and centre and deal with your day. It takes about 10 minutes to centre you.

Stressful work day – anyone?

Have you noticed that our modern workday is designed to cause stress?

A day, full of meetings, with scores of action items in each of these meetings. There is, however, no time allocated to reflect on these meetings, let alone allocating a contiguous block of time to follow up on the action items. The underlying sub-text to your consciousness is you are behind and hence not good enough.

How about an email counter that tells us how far we are are behind on emails? “Congratulations! you have only 1002 unread messages”. Unsurprisingly, the underlying sub-text to your consciousness is you are behind and hence not good enough.

Mentally exhausted, most people react by responding to emails instantly and scheduling every minute of the day. Every hour is blocked to produce efficiently but not productively. The few minutes between every lull in the day are spent responding to emails (“I am an email Ninja and my Inbox Zero proves it”). This leads to a vicious cycle of playing catch up on the un-important and feeling overwhelmed because the important gets side-tracked.

We have become high paying email processing machines.

We know that for everything that is getting done something else is being dropped. These micro-stresses add up in our lives. Death by a thousand cuts anyone?

Usually, we are over-whelmed about an hour or two after lunch.

This is the perfect time to do the Aana Paana technique.

This technique is taught as training wheels in the Vipassana meditation practice. The Aana Paana and Vipassana were the first techniques taught by Buddha post-enlightenment. Vipassana is learnt over 10 days in absolute silence. As a context, students practice this technique in a 12-14 hour day for 3 days to get them in a state to do the Vipassana practice. Luckily, we don’t have to go that far :-).

So, let’s steal from the Buddha to make our stressful day better.

Setup

I usually call for a setup phase for every meditation technique that I write about. My favourite setup for this technique is to go for a quick 5-10 minute walk. Changing your physical state is a great way to change your mental state and walking is the best way to change your physiology on a stressful day. This is meditation enough if you like.

The Aana Paana Technique

The technique is really a fancy name to watch your breath come in and go out. There is a twist that makes the technique much better than just watching your in-breath and out-breath and that is to pay attention to the breath in the space between your nostrils and upper lip. This space is called the philtrum (google it to visualise it).

Pause reading this article and try it for 5 breaths.

I know, you didn’t pause. Let me virtual-nudge you. It’s just 5 breaths – nobody will ever know. It is our secret. Pause and notice your breath for 5 breaths. Just go ahead and do it.

How was it? Feeling more receptive to the article than about a minute ago?

Back to the article/practice now.

Watch your breath come in and go. Feel the sensation of the breath on the philtrum.

In the beginning, it is hard to notice the breath touching your skin . The reason is that our mind isn’t sharp enough (yes, sharpening your mind is a thing!) to perceive the signals from our skin. Trust me – after about 3 non-stop days of 12 hours each, this sensation is acutely perceived :-). That said, you don’t have to go 3 days to get the benefits – just try to pay attention to the breath for the next 5-10 minutes.

You are going to lose focus and head elsewhere after about 2-3 breaths. As soon as you notice the loss of focus, bring it back. My experience is that you should declare victory if you consistently get about 3-5 breaths of focus (typically it is 3). Don’t stress if you are out imagining things or thinking about work as long as you came back.

Do the practice for about 5-10 minutes where 10 is better than 5 :-).

Closing the Practice

Bring your attention back to here and now. Notice any changes to your physiology, your state of mind. I suggest, documenting these changes, documenting helps signal to yourself that the practice works and builds confidence in your meditation skills.

Closing thoughts

Mr. Goenka (modern day Vipassana founder) mentions that a practitioner can get untold mental and physical benefits if she only practices the Aana Paana and never graduates to any other meditation technique.

FAQ

What does Aana Paana mean?

The two words (language: Pali, used in Buddha’s time) have roots in Sanskrit (Prana and Apaana) where in this context Prana means in-breath and Apaan meant out-breath.

Why does the technique work?

This technique is another in a class of techniques that get your mind to focus on something external or a form to focus on (form = breath) (as opposed to form-less meditation which is much harder). The focus on form or an object here is intentional as it helps newcomers train themselves easier

Why the health benefits?

A lot of health issues are caused by stress and stress control is tied to the breath. The breath is the biggest lever to managing stress and this technique is the fastest way to activate this lever. The longer you do the technique the more your breath is under your control, the lower your cortisol levels and the better it is for your health.

How to successfully kill a bad day

09 Apr 2017

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The Lotus heart meditation calms your nerves, addresses insomnia and helps adjust to jet-lag. Let’s how you can bring this technique in to your life.

I am on a mission to prove to people that meditation is easier than they think it is. Most individuals have an unrealistic definition of meditation and set themselves up for failure. As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, meditation is about following a train of thought and bringing yourself back to that train when you drift away.

The Lotus heart meditation is a very simple technique that calms your nerves after a turbulent, stressful day.

So lets get into it straight away.

Startup phase

Think of your mind as muddy water in a glass. The water is never clear because it is constantly agitated by a stirrer (called life). To separate the mud from the water, you have to let the water settle and let the glass container be. That’s what meditation does. The startup phase can be thought of, as the actions of keeping the glass still and stopping the stirrer.

The startup phase is an explicit stage that conveys to your mind that you are about to shift to a trance state and it should get ready for it.

Let’s use a simple technique here:

Think of a really good thing in your day today. It could be as simple as “I got enough water” or “I was calm most of the day”. Just be grateful for this one victory, thank yourself for achieving it and thank anyone and everyone who was contributed in your victory today.

Side note: Think about this – how often do we thank ourselves? Almost never! Take the opportunity to do that here now.

The practice

Situp straight and bring your attention to your heart. Observe your heart. Feel the heart expanding and contracting – really feel it.

Have you ever thanked your heart for constantly beating? Thank your heart. Really thank your heart for always being there for you – even if you don’t ask it to be.

Stay here for as long as you like. It is easy to stay here if you visualize your heart in color and feel the breath going in and out (It works well if you observe the heart as light pink in color).

Now, visualize a beautiful lotus in your heart. The lotus is pointed towards the heavens (or upwards). Visualize the lotus, see the vibrant color of the lotus, smell the fragrance.

Make it as real as you can.

It is not easy for some people (including myself) to visualize a color. If you find yourself wondering what the color is, agonizing to determine if it is pink or red or purple – this is a sign that your mind is interfering. The stirrer is agitating the water. Good news is that you recognized your mind is interfering.

This is what meditation is all about!!! Congratulate yourself for this victory and bring back your mind to the lotus.

If you are mind continues to babble – just pick your favorite color and visualize the lotus in that color. The color doesn’t matter. If you are debating what your favorite color is (happens to me a lot in meditation), the stirrer is stirring and you have recognized it and this is meditation too. Appreciate the victory and go back to the lotus.

Finally, see the lotus as fully bloomed on an inhale and completely closed on an exhale. Now do this as long as you.

Inhale – fully bloomed. Exhale – completely closed. Inhale – fully bloomed. Exhale – completely closed Rinse and Repeat.

That’s it.

Cure Insomnia and Jet-lag

Well, I did start by saying you can cure insomnia and jet-lag. So let me talk about my experience.

I practice this technique when I have a hard time sleeping. This is often my go to technique in flights and to fix jet-lag. I rarely have to go to drugs like melatonin when I am traveling. This technique is my go to drug of choice.

The reason for the success of the technique is that it induces a very deep state of relaxation. To the point that if you aren’t careful to situp straight you will drift off to sleep. The key is to practice the technique while lying down. Dim-lights etc do help.

One last thing, the more you practice the technique in bed, the faster you will fall asleep. I believe it has to do with the fact that your sub-conscious realizes that you are about to get to this boring place where you are making it do un-necessary work and it quickly shuts down.

I understand that this is a data point of one. So play with technique and see if it works. If it doesn’t use it for meditation – pick what works and don’t get hung-up on someone else’s experience. (That said, I will write about another technique called Yoga Nidra or Sleep Yoga in another blog)

End of the day practice

Make this as your go to technique to calm your nerves in the evening. Remember to sit up and practice. Then somewhere along the way slide into your bed and continue the practice to drift off to sleep.

The gratitude habit – the one thing to make your day productive

15 Mar 2017

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(Photo credit: Tom Woodward)

In the last blog, I gave a very quick lay of the land of meditation. In this blog, I will get you started quickly. So quickly and so easily that you will wonder why you haven’t done meditation in the past! Disclaimer: This blog essentially documents a meditation from Avadhoot Baba Shivanand (check References). I had meditated a good 10 years in various practices before I landed at this meditation and frankly I was blown away.

As I mentioned in the last blog, meditation is focussing on a thought or a train of thought and staying with it as long as possible. It is easiest to start with a train of thought and here we will use gratitude as an engine to drive that train.

Often, you will realise that you have wandered off. The practice part of meditation is to bring yourself back to the original train of thought. People (me as well) get frustrated to realise that they are off somewhere else and think that they cannot meditate. That way of thinking will kick you off the practice faster than a bullet train.

So remember, the key part of a meditation practice is practicing to bring yourself back to your original thought.

Next, it is imperative to bring in emotions and by that I mean positive emotions (gratitude here). This is the USP in the Tantra/Avadhoot Baba Shivanand style of meditation. Emotions are what makes meditations deep and effective. Bringing in emotions is quite different than say buddhist techniques which talk about equanimity which is akin to being a lighthouse in a storm. If you have followed buddhist techniques, keep them aside for now. I cannot stress highly enough about bringing in emotions – it took me about a dozen years of practice before I realised the importance of it.

A key benefit of bringing in emotions is that the meditation will bring in a deep sense of joy. In my humble opinion, joy is what makes meditation worth it.

Enough context setting, lets examine the gratitude meditation technique. The gratitude meditation uses gratitude as the focal point for our concentration – that’s it. So here goes:

Startup Phase:

  • Sit up straight with your spine upright. It is okay to lie down; just know that you are likely to fall asleep. I actually lie down if I want to sleep.
  • If you believe in a diety, invoke it. If you are agnostic, invoke your parents or bring in white/golden light in your heart. Generally, this signals to your mind that you are about to move from a regular state of mind to a new trance state.
  • For the next 2-5 minutes, think of your biggest achievement in life. An achievement that made you happy. Go back to that point in time, bring in the emotions that you felt at that point of time. How happy were you? Were you elated? Did you achieve something you truly well didn’t imagine that you could. How did your friends and family feel? Did you make them proud?
  • A good example of the above is something as simple as the day you finally learnt to ride a bike. Think about it, the task wasn’t easy. You fell; bruised your knees, hurt yourself. But once you achieved, you were elated because success meant freedom – freedom to explore, go fast and have fun. Remember?
  • A bad example would be to think about the 5% salary hike and bonus that you made last year. Just spend 30 seconds right now to compare the emotion of learning to ride a bike vs your last salary hike. Very different – right?

At this point, you should be positively elated. Endorphins should be running through your system. You should be happy. It is okay to drop out of your meditation at this point. You may decide to stay at this level for the next couple of days or weeks or months.

Practice phase

Now, examine each area of our life and be grateful for it.

  • Spouse: Bring up your spouse in your meditation. Think of all the great things that s/he does for you. Bring up all the good times together. Think of all the reasons why you love this person. Now thank him/her for being in your life. Feel the gratitude towards this person. Bring in all the love you can bear for your spouse.
  • Rinse and repeat the above process for your kids, parents, friends and pets (Spock!!)
  • Bring in other areas of your life: ** Body: Thank your body. Thank every limb, every organ for being there for you. Take your time here. As a side note, this is a good way to reset your relation with your body in case you have issues with your body ** Mind: Thank your mind. We think of mind as something negative but remember your mind is what helps you navigate this world successfully. So thank it. That said, know that mind is a servant and not the king ;-). ** Work + Colleagues: Be thankful for everything right in your work. Thank colleagues for all that they do for you.

The above process can take you anywhere from 5-30 minutes and longer if you feel like.

Wind down phase

Notice the endorphins flowing through your system. Notice how much better you feel than where you started. Just enjoy the feeling. That’s it – you are done!

This meditation is absolutely simple and delightful. I have skipped some topics like breathing techniques (pranayama) that can get you in deeply focussed state in a minute or two. I can cover it in the future if there is interest but they are complementary to the practice.

Finally, I highly recommend using the guided meditation in the references section (I don’t get paid for it). If on the other hand, you’d like me to record the above meditation, let me know and I will record one and post it somewhere.

I hope the above meditation starts you successfully on the path to meditation.

References

To start with, I recommend downloading the Nachiketa meditation from Avadhoot Baba Shivanand and listening to it rather than go through the above yourself. He guides you in Hindi and English but often skips to Hindi only but you should be able to follow along for most parts.

Beginners guide to meditation

12 Mar 2017

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Recently, a couple of my closest friends have been recommended to start meditation from their physician as a means for improving their general well-being. My friends asked me a few questions about it and the line of questioning leads me to believe that it is highly likely that they are going to struggle. A few other friends have also asked me on how best to get started so I figured I will use this opportunity to write about beginning meditation.

I have been on a long arc of meditation for 18-20 years now. The journey is like a sine curve, some good stretches followed by troughs. I have gone through numerous meditation practices before settling in on my current practice. When I started, I hunted books to find practices. Hunting for the right teacher was much much harder. Nowadays, you have a few dozen apps on the App Store (I have thought about writing one too), a million practices on youtube and a Guru is a click way. This compounds the problem for beginners. Paralysis by Analysis – anyone?

This blog is meant for my friends but more so something that I wished I had when I started out so that I could’ve shaved a half-a-dozen years of searching for the right practice. So here goes:

Figure out your reasons for meditation. Drop them!

Before starting, figure out why you would like to start. Is it stress management? Happiness? Equanimity under all conditions? Enlightenment? Doctor recommendations? Or a friend who is passionate about it ;-)?

Take a few moments and write them down on a piece of paper. Now dump the paper and all your expectations. When you have expectation, every session is run against a barometer of your expectations and no matter how great that session is, it never matches the expectations.

Take it from my experience, the expectations suck out a few years from actually meditating!

Replace the expectations with something simple – I recommend “I am going to spend about 15 minutes a day being quiet and with myself”.

What is meditation?

Simplest definition – Meditation is an extended attention to a particular thought or train of thought. In meditation, the mind should be a like a tranquil lake – clear, relaxed (it is an indescribable experience when you achieve this state). We will use the Indian word “Dhyan” for meditation to get away from pre-conceived definitions. Wikipedia defines Dhyan (or Dhyana) as contemplation, reflection or profound, abstract meditation. It further states that Dhyan is a sustained attention and application of mind to a chosen point of concentration. This definition breaks from the rigidity of “blank your mind” and frees us to dive deeper into meditation.

The closest word in english is focus and this word is good enough to last multiple years actually.

What meditation isn’t?

Ask 10 people and you will get 10 different definitions of what meditation is. However, most commonly used explanation is to blank your mind and prevent thoughts from coming in. The problem with this definition is that it is a very difficult (if not the most difficult) way to practice meditation. In Indian meditation theories, mind is often compared to as a drunken monkey and the drunken monkey will keep jumping from thought to thought – blanking your mind as a meditative practice for beginners is a not a recipe for failure but a recipe for disaster. I believe, only advanced Gurus (and I don’t mean it in the definition of “American Guru” but real masters achieve this state).

I really want to emphasise this: if you aim to completely blank your mind you are going to fail. If it helps, in my practice, my mind runs away on an average of 3 – 6 breaths and it comes back after running behind about 3-6 thoughts.

Benefits of meditation

I asked you to drop any pre-conceived notion on what meditation is and I am going to flip around and talk about few of very tangible benefits that I have seen over the years.

Some immediate benefits are:

  • Great take off to the day: If I start my day with a 10-15 minute meditation, I find that I am really calm, composed and ready to deal with anything that the day throws my way. This calmness carries through the day.
  • Great end to the day: If I end the day with a short practice (usually ends up being a long one), I find that all the stress of the day dissipates. Not to mention the benefit of just drifting off to sleep 😃
  • Stress dissipator: The biggest benefit is really the ability to handle stress. If I find myself getting angry or detect a huge build up of stress, I realise that I have fallen off the meditation wagon for a few days. Two sessions (morning and evening) and I am back. For me, meditation is a couple of orders in magnitude better at busting stress than exercise.
  • Building Visualisation/Imagination: My meditation practice ends up with visualisation exercises. There is enough literature out there on the benefits of visualisation. Visualizing what I want to do and where I want to go is tremendous fun.

Longer term benefits include:

  • Calmness in adversity I used to be someone who got angry fairly quickly, looked at things half-empty – no longer. It is fairly hard to get me angry and I look at things half-full. These two changes have been worth all the time that I have invested.
  • Happiness I am just happier – it is wonderful to be in this state and know very well that I can move to this state if I am away from being in the happy state.

In summary, a lot of things to look upto. In my next blog, I will cover the fastest way to start a meditation practice.