The brain is an amazing piece of equipment, isn’t it? I have a particularly overactive one and I am always being told that I think too much. Well, I do. And most times I am perfectly fine with that. So do most of us, whether it is about work or about what to cook for dinner is immaterial. We use our brains constantly and very few of us know how to give this particular organ some rest. Nor do we use it to its full potential.
This was brought home to me recently by someone I met, who described in an incredibly funny way his complete failure to meditate, despite several attempts. I could so relate to that. The first time ever I tried to meditate was when I visited my to-be in-laws in Macau on my way to start grad school in Texas A&M University. My to-be mother-in-law used to teach yoga and I attended her class. At the precise moment that she urged us to blank our mind and focus on our breath, I recall by brain taking off into the wildest journeys, crowding up with visual images and reminders for tasks undone (she is my mother-in-law now and still urges me to meditate). Over several feeble attempts over several years, I reached some sort of understanding of what I was aiming for, but never really got there.
Last year sometime though, when I was learning yoga from a really patient teacher, I discovered a fresh way to blank my brain. Perhaps I was at that stage in life when I recognized the value of destressing, but I really wanted to overcome this meditation challenge. I felt it was getting in the way of learning yoga better. So I used the power of visualization to create abstract forms that I could focus on. So I would start like that and in some time, initially thirty second and then sooner, the forms would give way to a sort of colored blankness before my shut eyes and I could stay like that for a few minutes. Did it really calm me down, make me a more focused person? I don’t know. Perhaps.
For various reasons, I fell out of that yoga routine this summer. Last week, I attended my first class of Pilates, which I have been wanting to try for a very long time. I discovered that Pilates uses the power of visualization too, to very good effect. Terms like ‘tuck your ribs into your back pocket’ and ‘tuck your tailbone into your nose’ help you achieve the right posture that is necessary for your body to benefit from the exercises and strengthen your core.
Essentially, all of this is about the mind-body connection and visualization can be a great tool to get your mind to push your body to do new things. For me, exploring this connection has become a very interesting project. In dance, in music, in whatever I do, I am experimenting with using the power of visualization to achieve my goals. When I cannot get a particular note during my riyaaz, I visualize it in as a point in space (in relation to other notes that I have been able to get right) that I have to travel to directly, speedily and with precision, and I find it is easier to get it right. In kathak, which is a far more directly visual form, I have the mirrors as an aid and a guru whose demonstrations are so good that it is much easier to reach for perfection. It’s an exciting experiment and will really be successful when I learn to understand what sort of visualization can turn a negative thought to a positive one, or chase away a bad feeling.
We all have to work this stuff out for ourselves, I know. Would be great to get some feedback on how all of you have overcome physical and mental challenges! I am sure if we can share these tips, it would make it easier to deal with the increasingly stressful and crowded lives we lead (and even crave for).
If your mind is receptive, there is so much around us that can inspire us to love life. This morning, I woke up with an urgency to experience the world around me and inside me. This may sound very abstract, but most mornings I have a to-do list inside my head and the day is driven by activities dictated by it while my heart yearns for gratification on an entirely different plane. Does this happen to you? Several days like that strung together make me feel stressed and wondering what’s wrong; and fill me with a yearning to break out of a life that isn’t pulling together or making the sense I want it to.
So I decided to seize the opportunity this morning and resisted urge to be distracted by the newspaper and sundry household chores. Instead, I plugged in my electronic tanpura and sat down for my riyaaz, essential for my music but not something that I have formed a habit for despite many years of learning music off and on. Twenty minutes of practicing only the sargam– first the lower octave notes below the sa, then the middle octave notes between the lower and upper sa, and then the higher octave- had me feeling warmed up, but also seriously worrying about how much voice training I need to really be able to hit the notes right. Then I opened the music book my guruji had given me back in Lucknow and zeroed in on Raag Bilawal.
A raag using all the pure (shuddh) notes, Bilawal is sung in the morning time and evokes the emotion of love/longing (shringar ras). The words of the composition I sang ask little Krishna to wake up and come out to play, since all his friends, the cowherds, children and maidens, are eager to meet him and pining for his company. An hour of music completely rejuvenated me and set a positive, energized tone for my day, despite the fact that I was struggling to remember and reproduce the composition correctly.
For me, the arts (music, dance, painting, theatre, etc) are the perfect compliment to the hectic pace of the urban life most of us lead. In fact, in the first half of the 20th century, as royal patronage to the arts declined, leading musicians moved from the capitals of princely states to industrial hubs like Mumbai, where their new patrons, the industrialists and businesspersons (seths), resided. Urban Indians were exposed to the best of performers, especially musicians, though one could argue that this opportunity was perhaps available only to the elite.
As Indian cities have grown and taken center-stage in the nation’s development, however, I feel that the arts no longer have that status. The population growth in cities has been so immense and the focus so much on individual progress and development, that the emphasis on the arts has died away; even schools offer minimal exposure, the elite are seen attending parties and brand openings while the front rows of many worthy performances remain vacant. Who will be the new patrons of our classical arts?
There is a need to go beyond patronage as spectators and encourage individuals, especially children, to learn classical art forms, not with the objective of making them professional performers, but in order to grant each child a bond with art so special that it becomes a form of meditation for life, a way to look into yourself, escape into an alternate world, even a channel to the divine…something that centers you and grounds you and offers a point of focus even in the midst of life’s numerous crises.