Category Archives: Breathing

Smile or Frown?

In the previous post, I wrote about the two qualities of the brain – focusing and expanding, and their role in creativity. Though these are qualities of the mind, they are also qualities of the brain. Anything that influences the brain has a direct impact on these aspects of thinking.

It is now an accepted fact that structural changes of the brain has an impact on the mind; mostly negatively. In fact there incidents keep a whole battalion of brain scientists engaged these days. What makes these cases interesting is also that they cannot be created (at least as of now) though a surgery or something like that. It is also possible to alter the way the brain functions by altering the chemical composition in the brain (what most of the psychiatric medicines do). To some extend the brain can change its own functioning through thinking (“I can win” types).

But if you have noticed carefully, the way our mind functions keeps changing without any such intervention: our thinking may be focus, or the mind devoid of thoughts, balanced or cluttered. Since we do not watch our minds, this goes unnoticed mostly, but we do rarely observe this, especially when we feel down, depleted of energy or there is too much on noise going on in the mind. And typically people try to get over this by indulging in something very distracting or through self-talks.

When I began to practice mindfulness, I saw that there is a correlation between the way the brain (mind) functions and the facial expressions. And this leads to a profound, but simple way to alter the way the mind works at a given point of time. The argument is that the reverse is also true.

We will discuss two facial expressions here and how they alter your thinking:

1)      Frown : When you frown the mind focuses. This is a state of concentration. There is a one pointed focus on something.

2)      Smile : Observe what happens to the mind when you stretch your lips for that beautiful smile? You can observe that the thoughts suddenly reduce, you feel a sense of space. This is a state of expansion. Your logic takes a back seat and this is also a state of creative thinking.

A variation of this is to feel the stretch at the temples (backward). If you hold this stretch gently for some time, you can see that you are in a state of attention.

It is possible to use these expressions to alter the way the mind functions at any point of time (especially if it is not in the state we want at that point of time). The approach will be to smile or frown consciously for a while till the way mind works alters.

Consider this example. You are listening to a presentation and you are supposed to give creative ideas. But those ideas aren’t coming. Then you observe that the mind is cluttered and distracted completely. In this situation, try this. Stretch the sides of the temples backwards and hold the stretch gently for a while. You will observe a dramatic shift in your attention and you will be able to come up with very creative ideas.

While this comes handy in many practical situations in life, I am not really sure the impact of really switching the way the mind works. Experiment it yourselves.

If you practice it carefully, you will also observe the change in breathing during these three expressions. This is another key, we will discuss this later.

In some of the traditions of Buddhism, the only thing they do is to smile (or laugh). That is their meditation, message and life. Mostly, they had figured this out.

Doubt, Negativity and the level of Prana

There are times when our minds become doubtful. All of a sudden, things look different. We start doubting people, situations, and intentions and finally start doubting ourselves (our capabilities, qualities, achievements etc). Sometimes this passes quickly, but at times it gets lodged firmly in the mind, difficult to shake off. When prolonged, this leads to psychosomatic disorders.

But where does all this doubt come from? It’s interesting to see that you were perfectly at peace with some situation till one fine day where you begin to ‘sense’ something wrong. A doubting mind soon develops negative tendencies and the negativity feeds on to doubt back. This could also lead to depression.

Typically we attribute ‘doubting’ to personality traits, thinking problems or even certain situations. But it’s interesting to see the point of view of Yoga. Yoga suggests that mind becomes doubtful when the Prana level goes down. Prana is what’s called the life force (or mental energy) which is alive in everyone. When your prana levels are low, that is when you feel down, disinterested in things, lethargic and develop a negative attitude in life.

So Yoga suggests that to keep doubts and negativity away, all you need to do is to keep your Prana levels high.

How do you do that? According to Yoga, there are four sources of energy: Food, Sleep, Breath and Meditation. Paying attention to them (if not all, at least one or two) will help you keep your energy.

Here is a brief overview of the four:

  • Food – According to Yoga, there are three types of food
    • Sattwik – Whole some food E.g Fresh fruits, vegetables, milk, cereals. They give lot of energy (greener the vegetable, more the prana)
    • Rajasik – This group causes lot of agitation in the mind. E.g Tea/Coffee, Spicy foods
    • Tamasik – That depletes energy and makes you dull and lethargic. E.g Alcohol, mushrooms, non vegetarian food, garlic, fried food, frozen food, refrigerated food etc.

If you are eating Tamasik food regularly, it can make you become very lethargic. Change your diet a bit and go for Satwik food. 

  •  Sleep : It’s important to have sufficient amount to quality uninterrupted sleep. If you have sleeping problems, sort it out. (See the post Tips for a good nights’ sleep )
  • Breath :  Look at your breath. Is it deep or shallow, is it long or short. A bad breathing pattern will fail to reenergize your body and mind as required. If you are badly down, completely devoid of energy, get on to some Pranayama practices. Things will turn around quickly. (Suryanamaskara is also a profound technique) Or try some aerobics. Paying attention to breath also brings some amount of present moment awarensss. 
  •  Meditation: A great source of energy. Needs some practice but can keep you really charged. There are several schools and techniques, choose what you find suitable for you.

Putting attention in these four sources for a few days, you will have a better prana level and even if you have been down for longh, you can see that in few days mind turns around.

H.H Sri Sri Ravishankar says in a talk – Doubt is always about positivity. When someone says “I love you”, you ask “really?”. But when someone says I hate you, you don’t question that. You don’t doubt your anger or depression, but you doubt all the positive qualities in you….

Also see Doubt and conditioning of the mind for the worse

An insight to making firm decisions

All of us make decisions in life. We decide to do something or we decide not to do something or change the way we do something. While we are successful sometimes, there are also quiet many failures. (By success I mean that we are able to stick to the decision and failure the opposite)

Have you ever wondered why we aren’t successful always? Even if we thought about it, we are most likely to attribute it to things like our will power. One reason why we are unable to see a pattern in our own decisions (and the success and failures) is that every time the decisions are different and look unique. It’s very rare we take the same decision over and over again.

 I had the great privilege of being a heavy smoker for many years. I had made numerous attempts to quit, and one important ritual in every attempt was my taking the decision ‘not to smoke ever in my life’. I failed repeatedly. Sometimes it was immediate; sometimes it took few hours, days or weeks before I succumbed to the temptation. Sometimes I was miserable and some other times happy.

When I analyzed these failures, I could see there were two separate aspects. One was the decision making itself and the other sustaining it through maintaining the mindset. If I made a good decision, that helped me have a great start. I could overcome the initial hurdle without serious problems. Similar to a rocket gaining the escape velocity to overcome the earth’s gravitational pull.But if the decision it self was weak, I failed almost immediately. Even when I made a good decision, my failure came from the second aspect – where could not sustain it.

So, when was it that I could take a good decision? I saw two scenarios:

  1. When I had done enough reflection and introspection (why am I doing this, what is it doing for me..etc)
  2. After an emotional outburst.

But still I couldn’t figure out why was my decisions were stronger in the above scenarios.

 Months later, I came across a technique from Yoga for making firm decisions. This is the technique:

Sit in with your eyes closed, spine erect. Take a deep breath and hold the breath inside. Now repeat the decision firmly and continuously in your mind. Keep holding the breath as long as you can. When you can’t hold any longer, breathe out completely. Now hold the breath outside and repeat the decision again in the mind. When you can’t any longer hold it out, breath in and hold and so on. Do this couple of times. And it seems, whatever decision you take like this, you wouldn’t be able to break even if you try to.

This was interesting. Holding breath is a stage in Pranayama called Kumbhaka. And what happens when you do Kumbhaka? – the mind stops (or the thoughts disappear). (Please do not attempt the above technique without guidance or knowledge)

Now the whole thing made sense. I could see a connection. I could see that in both the scenarios above, there was something interesting about the mind. In the first scenario, the deep reflection settled the mind (or the doubts) and the in the second mind just entered in to a void following an outburst. So in essence, I could see that the mind had to get out of the way if we have to take a firm decision. This is verified by the fact that there are times when I take a decision; I almost knew that it will not work. I could see that before even the decision is made, doubts arise in the mind and the decision is doomed even before it starts.

Based on this experience, I have formed a concept for making firm decisions:  If you have to make a firm decision, you need to first get the mind out of the way. Once the thoughts stop (mind doesn’t exist then – I like the analogy of mind and thoughts to forest and trees) take the decision. Allow it to sink deeply in to your self. You will find that the decision is successful, almost effortlessly.

So how to get the mind get out of your way? Here are few suggestions:

  1. Intense Mindfulness. Mindfulness literally kills your mind. When you are mindful, the decision making is good automatically, and you don’t need to do anything extra. But becoming mindful needs some preparation and effort
  2. Intense prayer and surrender – This also settles the mind, especially when there is fear about the decision or you feel helpless
  3. Deep reflection and introspection. In cases where your mind is cluttered about the decision. For e.g smoking, on one side you really want to stop and on the other side you fear that you will miss your friend. Do a deep reflection to get clarity, this will settle the mind and you can take a better decision.
  4. Certain techniques in yoga where you do breath retention (like Moorcha pranayama, Nadi Sodhana Pranayama with prolonged Kumbhaka or simply just holding the breath as mentioned above). They immediately result in a void, and this is the space where you actually take the decision. A void could also result by haphazard breathing for sometime. Techniques 2 or 3 followed by 4 will be your key to making firm decisions.

Sometimes, it is also possible that your mind becomes void or blank without any effort. If you are aware, you should be able to catch it (I have seen this happening ton me when I am physically exhausted)

But remember, taking decision is one of the aspects we need to master. Thoughts on sustaining that in another post.