Illusions

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poems / Uncategorized
Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

 

Unbearable stillness fills up the vacuum that is my mind
Hesitant gestures loom for what seems like an eternity
My body, still here
My heart, still beating
Life is what I miss
The life I had, the life I never had

I tried to understand love through the silences
Some loves are different, I thought
I reached down your throat and pulled out your soul
A shriveled carcass is all that I found
Desire going up in smoke
Like the years I don’t remember

Do people mourn the dead or the part of them that dies
Is it the final blow or the culmination of prolonged decay
Through the rubble, can life remain?
Illusions are a funny thing,
It doesn’t spare the dead
Or the living.

The Test

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Short Stories
Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

“How do I trust you? How do I believe everything you’re saying is true? It’s been a year and a half since we’ve been apart,” Ram said, trying to sound convincing, pacing back and forth simultaneously. “It’s not that I don’t, but it’s been a while, and we’re only humans, you know. Things happen. People change,” he added, running his fingers through his hair as he continued to pace.

“It has been fourteen months to be precise”, Sita said looking up, and paused for a moment, “…and three months after that from the time we started seeing each other again”.

“Yes, fourteen months,” he said without lingering on the tiny detail. “But how do I know for certain you didn’t meet anyone when you weren’t with me?” Sita didn’t like the way Ram’s face looked at that moment.

“And you’re only realizing this now? After three months, to be exact? After I told you I’m pregnant?” she asked without getting up from the bed, her voice getting louder with every word that was coming out of her mouth. 

“It’s not about the pregnancy, Sita!” he almost yelled. 

“What is it about then, Ram?” she screamed as if competing with the sudden rise in his voice. “Could you please explain to me what exactly this is about? Because I’ve just lost all of my comprehending abilities just like you seem to have lost your reasoning abilities!” she tossed away the sheets that covered her body while looking for her clothes underneath.

“I just need to know. I need to be sure that we aren’t making a mistake.”

“And you didn’t think about it all this while? It was all very romantic until the consequences of casual sex caught you off-guard, wasn’t it? Because that’s what it looks like to me.” She didn’t seem to be keen on finding her clothes but kept searching hastily, without actually making an effort at locating them. 

“I don’t know…What if you met someone and you’re just not telling me? Don’t get me wrong, that’s not at all what I’m implying, but there’s this voice at the back of my head, and I just can’t shake it,” Ram was now crouching by the bed where she sat. She was still searching for her clothes. “I wish I could read your mind so we could save each other this argument, but I can’t,” he said, reaching for Sita’s hand. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?” he stroked her palm as if trying to soothe her growing anger. 

“Well, you don’t get to know Ram, you’ll never know!” Sita stood up half-naked, trying to get in her dress that she just found. The unzipped piece of clothing fell off her shoulders. “Guess you’ll just have to believe what I say, don’t you?” and shrugged mockingly, as if to enrage him on purpose. “That’s how a relationship works! They’re built on trust and faith!”

“You don’t understand. I love you, you know I do, but the people, the society, I can’t deal with their filthy minds, their contempt.”

“Wasn’t it you who didn’t care about the society or your family when we met after all this time? Or was it the rush of hormones, the heat of the moment?” Sita felt like her heart was beating faster, blood rushing to her face. “Then you didn’t seem to care about the bloody society or this contempt that you’re so obsessed about all of a sudden!” she was screaming now, louder than Ram.

“You’re getting it all wrong, you’ve been so patient with me all this time”, he followed her and tried to help as she struggled to zip up her dress. “Can’t you do this for me one last time? So…so we can be done with it once and for all?”

“No, I can’t. I can’t deal with you anymore because it was YOU who couldn’t make up your mind,” she said jerking his hands away. “Because YOU weren’t sure whether you even wanted me, Ram! Because I don’t have to justify the fact of being pregnant with your child!” 

“Prove it then.” 

“Prove what?” Sita looked at him in equal parts of rage and disbelief.

“Prove that you didn’t meet anyone.”

“You must be out of your mind!”

“No, I’m serious.”

“How the fuck am I going to do that?”

“I want you to do a prenatal DNA paternity test, I’ve done the research. It’s expensive, but it’s safe, it’s non-invasive. It will shut them up.”

“Shut who up? Why are you doing this? You could’ve just walked away. You could’ve just told me you didn’t want to be a part of this, that you weren’t ready,” she sank on the couch, not having control over her body, and covered her face with both her hands, resting her head for a minute from the pounding, unable to face the reality.

“I just need to know. You know, for my peace of mind.”

“And what about my peace of mind, Ram? How is your insecurity my fault? I waited for you to make a decision, wasted all these years so you could finally make up your mind, even after we broke up. And just when I thought you did, you don’t trust me anymore? Isn’t that what you’re saying? Is this some a joke to you?” she wanted to say so much more but struggled to find the right words. 

“No, this is not a joke. And that’s exactly why I want us to do it.”

“It’s not us, WE aren’t doing anything. It’s going to be me. I have to do it. Not you!”

“I’ll have to be involved too you know. I’ll be there with you. They’ll need my samples too.”

“Thank you so much for your kindness and consideration, Ram. But I was referring to the humiliation of having to prove my godforsaken devotion to your highness!”

“Can we not be so dramatic about this?”

“Or what? You’re going to leave me? You’re going to do that anyway, Ram. Whether or not I take this test!” 

“I don’t know. I just need you to do this”, he kept repeating. “Things aren’t going to be the same between us if you don’t, that I’m sure of.”

“What makes you think they are going stay the same now anyway? What makes you think I’ll even consider going through with this?”

“Please, for Ma and Papa, do it for their sake. For both our families, I just want to prove that they are wrong about you.”

“Which archaic era have you emerged from? I don’t care what they think of me! I’m in a relationship with you, not them. Correction. Was. Was in a relationship.”

“But, when we get married, they’re going to be a part of our lives too. It’s not just us who are going to be married. It’s our families too…”

Sita couldn’t hear what Ram was saying anymore. His explanations, his clarifications weren’t making sense. Nothing made sense anymore. She felt hot, extremely hot, and felt her temperature rising. Like she was burning, inside and out. She felt a tingling sensation in her fingers that went up to her arms. Then slowly to her shoulders and down her back. Her ears were ringing, and her legs had started to tremble. She forced her legs to stop the shaking, pulled her hair up, and tied it in a bun. She grabbed her bag lying in the corner, made sure her dress was zipped up, and started walking. She felt as if she was walking on burning embers. The soles of her feet hurt, her ankles hurt. Her knees too, but she kept walking. She didn’t know where she was going but kept walking anyway, away from Ram, away from his mindless chatter. Away from his reasons. His judgment. His opinions. His insecurities.

*

When the test results came in after ten days, confirming Ram’s paternity, Sita mailed them to Ram with a note that said she didn’t want him to be a part of it and that it was over. She asked herself repeatedly why she wasn’t surprised, even slightly, at Ram’s reaction to her pregnancy. He was never sure, and he would never be. She had been fooling herself. She knew that all along. But how could one give up on the sliver of hope? The hope of making the impossible a possibility, the hope of changing the course of destiny, the hope of reversing an irreversible tragedy? That night was a mistake. Their relationship was a mistake. Seeing him after they parted ways was a mistake and her expectation that it would be anything more than it was, was her mistake. She was sure that she didn’t feel any sadness, just indignation towards her stupidity. She knew she would get over it. It was just a matter of time. How much time, she wasn’t very sure.

On her way back from the post–office, walking upstairs to her apartment, Sita met Bhumi. Bhumi had been her neighbor for almost five years now. He had been living in the building from the time she moved in. Bhumi, who kept looking for reasons to talk to her. To knock on her door. To deliver her mails, despite her asking him not to. He checked on her every other week to know if she was doing alright; if she needed anything. She realized how she had never noticed him throughout the years. How she never paid attention to his enthusiasm every time he spoke to her. Or how his face lit up when he looked at her. His smile never seemed to fade when he was around her. She wondered if he was in love with her. Wondered if he had always been in love with her and what it would be like to have been with him. Even if just for a night. Not that she would now anyway, but she needed the distraction. She still had complete control of fantasies, if not her life. She lay on her bed and thought about his perfectly rugged frame. It didn’t look like he worked out a lot though, he wasn’t chiseled like most men were these days. But rough like he was involved in a lot of physical labor. Maybe even construction work. His eyes, however, were that of a poet’s or even a painter’s. Like they had a lot of stories to tell, just waiting to be spilled of the dark secrets he kept locked away safely, in the disguise of his exterior brawniness. She thought about the uneven texture of his skin and the scar on his chin, wondering where he got it from and what it would feel like to run her fingers through that scar without feeling even the faintest shred of remorse or shame. She thought what it would feel like to have his arms around her or to nuzzle his neck. What it would be like when he gently threads his fingers through her hair, slowly tracing downwards from there, across her face, her neck, the rising and falling of her chest, mapping the deep grooves that lead in up to her navel. She imagined what he would look like underneath the grey T-shirt that he always had on. The T-shirt, that sometimes clung to his torso when he was working, glistening in sweat, giving away the hardness of his core. She thought about the night when he stayed at her apartment to keep her company when the power was out. She knew he wouldn’t hold back if only she had approached him. She remembered the way his eyes grazed all over her. Not in lust but in painful longing, a longing that burgeoned with time, only making it insufferable. Maybe she should have approached him, and that would have proved Ram right. She laughed at the thought of his dumbstruck face, but she didn’t want to think about Ram. At that moment, she wanted a whiff of the yearning in Bhumi’s breath. She wanted to taste the aching desire on his lips. She wanted to be consumed by him. Consumed by Bhumi, slowly and then all at once.

*

This story was an assignment to subvert a myth in a modern setting from a creative writing workshop I took a couple of years back. According to the Ramayana (one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India), after being separated from Sita for many years during her capture by Ravana, Ram is unsure of his wife’s fidelity. To prove that she has been faithful, Sita willingly undergoes an ordeal or trial by fire. Prehistorically it was believed that the innocence of an accused criminal could be proven if they survived extreme physical punishment such as burning or drowning. Sita survives the trial and descends into the womb of her mother, the Earth, for release from a cruel world as a testimony of her purity. Bhumi in Hindi means the earth.

Trees in a storm

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Short Stories
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

She felt something brush against her, pushing her, as if getting closer and closer, rubbing on her tiny little frame, engulfing her whole. It wasn’t something. It was someone. Trying to slide their hands underneath her cotton camisole, touching her soft, bare skin, lifting the only piece of clothing she had been wearing on that summer night to cope with the heat. A hand went up against her back as fingers slowly tried reaching the slight bulge on her chest from behind. She remained stiff and pretended to be asleep or dead, whatever would trick the man into getting away from her, but nothing did. She shifted her weight and turned around, this time trying to let him know she could wake up any moment, believing this would probably make him go away, but that didn’t either. She slowly opened her eyes and held on to the wandering hand with all her might that searched violently underneath her camisole. Not knowing what he was looking for, she finally asked, “What are you doing?” One hand now pressed against her mouth, the other wrapped around her waist, squeezing her little body as she gasped for air. “I’m going to scream”, she said frightened, trying to free her mouth from his grip. It was too dark to see, but she knew who it was, “You’re doing no such thing!” the unapologetic voice whispered.

Indira jerked in her sleep and immediately forced her eyes open. Staring at the ceiling, she realized where she was. She sat up straight and wiped a drop of tear that escaped from the corner of her left eye. She got down from the bed, pulled out the curtains, and opened the windows, letting the warm sun rays come in, waiting until she could feel its warmth soak into her flesh. She looked at the boxes that lay all around the bedroom, under her bed, on the floor, carefully packed, taped, and labeled. Boxes that made the entire house look like a conveyer belt with unclaimed baggage, and felt satisfied. Soon this was all going to be over. Soon.

It had been about two years since Indira started working full time for a small NGO called ‘Asha’ in Bangalore. They held workshops, training, and counseling sessions for sexually abused children in remote areas in and around Karnataka. Her therapist had encouraged her to volunteer. She said it would help her come to terms with the reality, accept the past for what it was, and move on. Indira wasn’t too sure though, she didn’t know whether she did it for the kids or herself. But what started as volunteering had turned into a job over barely six months. She sympathized with the kids, of course. But didn’t know if sympathy alone was enough or even right. All she knew was she had to get away from it all. Not the kids. But the city. She had been saving up for years now, about five to be precise, and the loan could cover for rest. She had it all planned out. Cranebrook Academy of Art had accepted her application, and her visa was approved. The only other source of funds that remained was what she inherited from her father. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Her therapist had asked her once if she thought running away was going to help her. She shrugged, saying she didn’t care if it did.

Indira got into the auto-rickshaw and plugged the headphones into her ears. With the music blaring, she could no longer hear the thoughts inside her head. She watched shopkeepers open up shops. School kids getting on their school buses. People sipping on tea as they inhaled smoke from their cigarettes along the sidewalks and began preparing for the day yet to come. Oblivious to its upcoming events, but continuing anyway. She wished she could do that, take each day as it comes, but she thought being prepared was always better than being vulnerable. To anything. Passing by the busy traffic, she got lost in thought, making the same plans over and over as she did in her head. 

“Hey Meera,” Indira greeted her colleague as she walked towards her desk getting into the office.

“Hey Indira, Good morning,” Meera said automatically, stressing on the ‘good’.

“So what do we have today?” she asked and placed her bag on the table.

“You don’t waste a second, do you?” said Meera complacently.

Indira shook her head. “We can’t afford to do that, can we?” and smiled.

“Here you go”, and handed her a folder.

“What’s this?” she asked as she flipped through the neatly filed documents.

“They rescued a nine-year-old. All of the details are in that folder.”

“Who did? A girl I’m assuming?”

“The school teacher. And yes, a little girl,” Meera paused for a minute before speaking again, “She ran away from home and managed to find the class teacher. Prakash I think he said his name was”.

“And?” Indira waited in anticipation.

“She had been raped by the uncle. Multiple times. She ran away because they stopped sending her to school.”

“How did she manage to escape?”

Meera raised her eyebrows and pouted her lips in uncertainty, “You should talk to this guy Prakash. He has been calling non-stop.”

Indira nodded, dialing the number on her phone that she found in the contact sheet within the folder.

“Prakash? This is Indira from Asha,”

“Thank god! I thought you people would never call,” the man sounded like he was in a hurry.

Indira waited until he spoke again, giving him time to catch his breath.

“The girl is with me but, I can’t keep her here very long. Her family is going to come looking for her.”

 “Could you please explain in detail?”

“I can’t explain everything. Not now. We’re wasting too much time. Can someone pick her up? I gave the address to another woman I spoke to earlier.”

“Can you come to Bangalore?” Indira asked instead.

“I don’t own a vehicle. If I go to the bus stand now, people are going to notice. I can’t promise, but I can try. My friend has a car. You have to help her or, this is going to be on your hands,” he begged and accused at the same time.

“Fine, we will wait till the evening. If you can’t make it, I’ll send someone over to Bellary. But you’ll have to bring her to the city.” The line went dead. She assumed he heard what she said.

“What did you find out?” Meera asked from the edge of her seat, noticing when Indira got off the phone.

“He is trying to bring her over. If not, we will have to ask Mohan to pick her up”.

Meera nodded, and Indira took a deep breath. She started going over Childline’s legal guidelines on runaway children, rape victims, and adoption on her computer. All of them applied to this child.

*

“Here take this”, the man handed her a five hundred rupee note. “Now, you can’t utter a single word,” he said, placing a finger on her lip. She looked at the crisp note stuffed in her fist, and before she could say anything, the man walked away. He came again at night, but this time Indira was prepared. She placed her hand carefully under her pillow where she hid the knife, and as he got closer, her grip got firmer. She pushed the bottle on the bed stand hoping, her aunt would hear it fall and wake up. But she didn’t. She drew out the knife from underneath her pillow and pointed it at the man. It almost cut his face. “What have you got there? Are you going to kill me?” She shivered at his smirk. “I’m going to scream. I’m going to tell everyone”, she managed to say. The man got out of her bed and left. She was shaking like a leaf after a storm.

Prakash didn’t make it the previous day, but he reached Bangalore the next morning. Indira noticed the little girl sitting on the bench at the reception, curled up, knees to her chest, arms wrapped around her knees. She had the most beautiful eyes that sat within the deepest hollows Indira had ever seen. Her clothes looked like they hadn’t been washed in years, like the rest of her body.

“Come in please,” she invited them both into one of the cabins. “Please take a seat,” and pointed towards the chairs.

“You have to help her,” he pleaded without caring to sit or wait for her to ask another question. “And I can’t be here too long. They will find out I had something to do with this. It’s not safe for her back in the village.”

“What do you want us to do?” she said hesitantly, looking at the little girl. Gooey mucus nested in the gap between her dirty nose and cracked lips. “We don’t shelter rescued kids, we only…”

“But you could, you could keep her with you,” he said, expectantly, before Indira could finish her sentence.

“I can’t do that. There are going to be legal altercations.”

“Just for some time, maybe a week? I can’t keep her with me, nor can I be found missing from school. I have to go back tonight”.

“I’m not even here this week. I’m moving out of the city. Out of the country, if that matters. But that’s not the question. Anyway, the point is I’m not going to be here to look after her”.

“Please…” he urged, his hands folded like he was on a church bench. 

“Fine, I’ll see what I can do. We will have to figure something out.”

Prakash smiled weakly, his eyes gleaming with hope.

“Thank you!” he said, reaching for Indira’s hands. She pulled away instantly.

“What about her parents, her mother or father, aren’t they going to be worried?”

Prakash shook his head, and Indira concluded she had no one judging by the despair on his face. “I’ll see you soon,” he said, his gaze fixed at the little girl, and walked out the door.

Indira looked at the girl who didn’t have an expression. Just pure hopelessness or, that’s what she assumed. As if she didn’t care what happened next.

“Come here,” she said, extending her hand in invitation.

The girl walked around the table and stood next to Indira, looking away, towards the open window.

“You don’t have to be afraid. We are going to take care of you. Prakash sir is going to make sure you are fine.”

She didn’t seem to believe her.

“Now, are you going to tell me your name?”

“Indu,” she replied. 

This must be a sick joke, Indira thought. 

“Well Indu, my name is Indira. You can call me Indu if you like. My mom used to call me that,” she said, wiping her nostrils and wrapped her arms around Indu in an embrace.

She snuffled, then nodded.

“Are you hungry? What do you like to eat?”

“Some milk please.”

“Milk and cookies it is then.”

Indu didn’t seem to understand the second word.

Indira walked towards Meera’s desk, invading her privacy, leaving Indu to eat in the next room. Like her, Indu didn’t seem to like company while she ate.

“Meera, I need you to keep the girl for a week,” she announced. 

Meera looked surprised, “You know I can’t do that, I have my in-laws living with me! You know very well they aren’t going to understand”.

“Well, I can’t keep her either. I have to leave in five days. You knew I was leaving.”

“Then why did you let her stay? You should have sent her back with the teacher guy.”

Indira didn’t have an answer to her question.

“I just couldn’t,” she didn’t bother to explain.

“Postpone your tickets maybe?”

“The fall batch starts in two weeks, and if I don’t make it now, I’ll have to wait until next year to even apply!”

“I don’t have any advice if that’s what you’re hoping to get out of me,” Meera said bluntly.

“No, I understand”.

“There are thousands of kids like her. You can’t expect to save each one of them, Indira.”

“Well, at least I can save this one.”

*

 “You didn’t like the cookies?” Indira asked the little girl, noticing the half-eaten biscuit, just when Mohan, the office boy, walked in to clear the plates. 

“My stomach hurts,” she said in a whisper.

“Does it hurt anywhere else?”

Indu didn’t say a word, but Indira understood her reluctance.

“Show me where it hurts?”

Indu straightened her legs and let them hang loosely from the chair. Her feet couldn’t touch the floor. She looked down without pointing at anything. 

“Mohan, can you please get an auto? We’re going to the hospital,” she said lifting the child.

“Yes, madam,” Mohan left the plates as they were and ran out the door.

Living with Addictive Tendencies

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I had always been an awkward kid. A little nervous and eager to please, I could put on a show just to be liked a little more. I was the first to offer help when somebody needed a favor. I would go out of my way to fit someone else’s schedule. I could never say no – to anything. The temptation of being appreciated for my enthusiasm was far greater than feasibility. I was okay as long as I thought people liked me. It didn’t matter why – it only mattered that they did. Approval meant I wasn’t invisible. Since I wasn’t bold or outgoing enough to make friends and had no siblings, I was glad when accepted into groups. I would change my mold to everyone’s needs and was happy not to have an opinion.

I gave myself extra credit for doing well in school. I thought I was better than others since nobody I knew had to deal with a broken family. My problems were “serious” because I started at a disadvantage. My under-developed brain couldn’t grasp the idea of subjectivity. Where I am from, the concept of divorce was objectionable twenty years back. And if for a moment I were to forget of my familial discord, people’s concern about me reminded me of the distinction – a dysfunctional family was disgraceful sure, but it also inspired pity.

During my late adolescent years, this translated into seeking comfort in relationships – a fix for my emotional vulnerability. A teenager, acting out due to raging hormones, with undertones of a victim mentality. The only way to remedy that was indulging in bad relationships. For several years this continued, and I slowly started to use alcohol to suppress all of the negative emotions I felt. It didn’t help, of course. What I thought would pull me out of my rabbit hole was only pushing me further down. There were times when I woke up with no recollection of the previous night and got into verbally and physically abusive fights. I wasn’t doing very well in school either and graduated two years after my classmates. I worked at a call center to support myself till I earned my bachelor’s degree. Yet, somehow, none of it was enough for me to stop.

I was not an alcoholic, but I wasn’t casually drinking. My otherwise mediocre life didn’t seem so mediocre in bouts of reckless bingeing. With every additional drink, I was louder, friendlier, braver. Reveling in the thrills of acting on impulse. I became this person I liked – uninhibited and bold enough to say things I wouldn’t in a thousand years. I was coolness personified and believed it too. The more the drinks, the longer the night, and my need to keep it going for a little bit longer. I failed to notice how the intensity of this callousness disguised in personal freedom grew with the number of drinks I had for the night. But I couldn’t stop. Because when the alcohol wore off, I was no longer my ideal self.

When you use a substance as a social lubricant to quell your nerves, it backfires. Extreme low moods followed the charade and bravado. The thing about addiction is that it doesn’t just affect one part of your life. It affects all of it. Cascading down to your work, your family, and everything in between. The polarity in my behavior was evident in every aspect. I was pulling all-nighters one day, then cooped up in my room for two or three days straight out of the guilt. My dependency on a substance, a person, or an emotion kept me going. I had learned to drown out my sense of self to be part of the herd. Every day was just like the last, and I leaned to the bottle in a desperate attempt to keep things just a little more interesting. I felt more myself when I was a little tipsy. The conversations I had with people that otherwise felt too shallow to keep me intrigued started to feel genuine. I was evading all responsibility under the pretext of being out of my senses.

I could go on about the adverse effects alcohol had on my anxious personality, but enough has been said about it already. The stories are mostly identical – extreme euphoria and then hitting rock bottom. I was either –

  • Turning to alcohol in happiness, misery, and boredom while I reasoned my lack of self-discipline with procrastination because temporarily, it felt good. It was such a significant part of my life that everything else had started to feel small – every major and minor event enriched with a glass of whiskey. 
  • Living in a bubble of denial, numbing myself to everything – except when the repressed emotions started to show up in my drunken stupors. My issues were only addressable in the absence of sobriety. And I had learned to self-medicate through the shame of the morning-after with even more alcohol.
  • Letting things happen to me than taking charge of my life. My addictive tendencies showed up not just in my relationship with substances but with friends, family, and everything I truly cared about.

Not everybody is in a love-hate relationship with alcohol. Most people I know are perfectly fine with a couple of drinks every other night or even occasional binges. But I’m not one of them. Some are more susceptible than others to fall prey to these cyclical behavioral patterns. Chasing meaning in everything but themselves. If you are genetically predisposed to alcoholism, or even depression, if there is a history in the family, it doesn’t take a lot to give in. I’m not saying that is the only reason. But it’s an element to factor in. My parents didn’t have a strong presence while I was growing up. Maybe that helped aggravate a pre-existing condition. Maybe it didn’t. I’ll never know. I tried to deny it too. Several times. I blamed it on hormones, on my childhood, or some external entity that worked against me, making me act the way I did. But I got sick of that too.

I haven’t given it up yet, but I’m slowing down. I can’t vouch for the positive changes of being alcohol-free because I’m still learning to be a social drinker – hoping I will no longer need to – even in socially awkward situations. I tried drinking just on the weekends, but that doesn’t help if you don’t know when to stop. I now drink with friends. If we’re celebrating and stick to wine mostly. Also, the physical symptoms of a hangover in my 30’s have effectively helped dial it down. So, it’s not all downhill from here. I know moderation is not the answer to addiction but one step at a time.

If there’s anything I have learned in all of these years; is the clarity of thought I have now is unparalleled. I don’t try to soothe my wounds using the bottle as a crutch. I drink at a pace where I am not gulping down a shot and three drinks in an hour. I am learning to enjoy it than seek comfort in it. Not waking up to debilitating hangovers has been life-changing too. Taking a step back hasn’t been exhilarating, but you have to realize you are much more than the effects a substance has on you. If you could relate to anything I have mentioned, ask yourself why you’re reaching for that glass. There are better ways to deal with a crisis than numbing your senses. We have one life – thanks to the spectacle that was 2020 – that phrase is now more relatable than ever. Your past doesn’t define you. A chemical definitely doesn’t define you. If not others, prove it to yourself. Yours is the only opinion that matters.

How you could be sabotaging your progress

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Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

A couple of weeks back after, two months of rejection emails, I finally got three interviews lined up. A technical test followed by three rounds of virtual interviews for two of the openings, and I didn’t make it through the first round for the third. Feeling pretty good about my options, I was almost sure I would land a job. It was only a matter of time. It has now been two weeks; I still haven’t heard back. A week of waiting, followed by another week of self-doubt and thinking in negative loops.

Was there a gap in the hiring manager’s understanding of my job role?

Was it the way I tackled a trick question?

Or was it my salary expectations?

There are a million ways in which things could have gone wrong but, just one reason they probably did. And we aren’t good predictors of that. Not unless someone calls you back to tell you what exactly you did wrong and, it is more likely that you’ll never hear from them. Trying to come up with reasons why I may not have gotten a call back was futile. It only set me back by couple more days as I wallowed in self-pity. I assumed since I had been working pretty hard for the past two months, learning new skills and practicing to be more confident, it would pay off. Or, I wanted it to pay off but, life isn’t fair. It’s just life. When certain situations play out in our favor, we tend to feel responsible for them. When they don’t, we are more likely to blame the other party. We flavor our experiences with what we think is right or isn’t, and that shapes beliefs.

In an ideal world, hard work pays off, but this isn’t necessarily true if there are no opportunities. What we see, or rather, information that is made available to us, are of the successes, not the failures. So we tend to dote on success and idealize it. We often expect results too soon, falsely believing in the potential of our efforts. But what some may call luck or the right place and time, I like to call probability. Maybe someone worked hard to earn a degree but has no luck finding the right fit when it comes to a job. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are any less capable than the next guy/girl who did land a job. Getting hired does not just depend upon skills and expertise. Chance, coupled with other factors like the availability of other candidates, the hiring manager’s assessment of your capabilities, etc., is more consequential than we realize.

When we look at things from a single perspective, we are only setting ourselves up for failure. It is no surprise that handling rejection is hard. So let us try and be kind to ourselves without baseless assumptions or blaming ourselves for every misfiring. Here are a few cognitive distortions that even the mightiest of us may have suffered from at one point or another. Identifying these errors has helped me recognize the flaws in my thoughts, and hopefully, they will help you see things for what they are:

  • Polarized Thinking: the tendency to think in terms of polar opposites, without accepting the possibilities that lie between extremes. When convinced that we are either destined for success or doomed to failure, that the people in our lives are either angelic or evil, we engage in polarized thinking.
  • Catastrophizing (also Fortune Telling)to exaggerate the negative consequences of events or decisions. Catastrophizing leads us to dread or assume the worst when faced with the unknown. This thinking error quickly escalates ordinary worries.
  • Discounting the Positive: a faulty thinking pattern that can contribute to negativity. Instead of acknowledging that a good outcome is the result of skill, smart choices, or determination, we assume that it must be an accident or some anomaly.
  • Emotional Reasoning: the false belief that our emotions are the truth — that the way we feel about a situation is a reliable indicator of reality.
  • Labeling: a cognitive distortion in which we reduce ourselves or other people to a single — usually negative — characteristic or descriptor, like “drunk” or “failure.”
  • Mental Filtering: paying undue attention to one negative detail instead of seeing the whole picture. Interpreting circumstances using a negative mental filter is not only inaccurate, but it can also worsen anxiety and depression symptoms.
  • Mind Reading: believing we know what others are thinking, failing to consider other, more likely, possibilities, and making no effort to validate our perception.
  • Over-generalization: making a sweeping negative conclusion that goes far beyond the current situation.
  • “Should” and “Must” Statements: having a precise, fixed idea of how we or others should behave and overestimating how bad it is that these expectations aren’t met. These thoughts are often rooted in an internalized family or cultural expectations, which might not be appropriate.
  • Maladaptive Thoughts: Problematic thoughts that do not contain logical thinking errors. These thoughts may be rational. However, dwelling on them makes us more anxious. And may interfere in coping with the challenges and stresses of daily life.

Sources:

We are programmed to think in patterns, see trends even when there are none. We create stories based on our past experiences. Get influenced by the opinions and views of people around us. External factors like our physical environment, the society we live in, our beliefs and biases are crucial in forming these patterns. Almost always, more than our liking. But this process of hypothesizing is not helpful. And especially when we aren’t dealing with concrete facts. A correlation between the rise of job losses and extended lock-downs due to the pandemic may be valid. But not between the efficacy of a vaccine and the return of those jobs. Chances are, companies may adapt to a whole new ballgame when it comes to recruitment and working culture in general. But we wouldn’t know unless that happens and at least for a certain period, considering there isn’t a fourth or fifth wave or a mutation of the virus. Unfounded relationships between unforeseen variables often lead to setting up expectations and disappointment when things don’t turn out the way you wanted them to.

The next time you find yourself caught in a negative thought loop, remember the following:

  • Your judgment of a situation is not always accurate – you cannot read minds
  • Consider your biases about an outcome – you cannot validate the accuracy of your perception
  • Getting demotivated far too often – beating yourself up for everything only slows down any headway you have been making
  • What you consider as slow progress is still progress
  • Waiting for some event that will change your life – it won’t unless you do
  • A false belief that your effort will pay off after a certain amount of time – it may take longer than you think
  • Making comparisons with anybody about anything
  • Results depend on consistency but also probability – so hang in there
  • Focusing on the end goal and not the process will only lead to a distorted view of reality

What we generally believe to be predictors of success are often fallacious. We assume financial stability is directly related to our mental well-being or that our professional status indicates our intelligence or signifies social rank – they don’t. Period. Nobody was given the wild card to success. We work with what we have and try to improvise. If that’s not consistent, we fail to see results. Simple. Do not base your happiness on a single source or the list of your achievements. Enjoy the process, get to know yourself a little better, be present, and let the rest take its course.

Coping with Uncertainty

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Photo by 天成 褚 on Unsplash

It has been over a month since I lost my job. And while hearing about the massive amount of job losses and businesses shutting down all over the world did cause some anxiety, I couldn’t relate. Not until the moment I realized I didn’t know where my next paycheck was coming from. You can empathize, pray that it doesn’t happen to you, or plan if it does but, there’s no way to predict your actions when you find yourself out of a job amid a pandemic. Everything I had swept under the rug to keep functioning as a regular adult is crawling back out. I have all the time to watch my thoughts stray from one vicious circle to another. How I hated my job, how I was unsure about my seven-year-long live-in relationship, or how with every single year, I was turning a little more into my mother. Like mosquitoes buzzing right when you are drifting off to sleep; only now they’re latched to your ear. Add to that the precariousness of landing a job while the rejection letters stack up. If only motivation came as easy as despair.

I have spent half a decade working for a paycheck and, even if it was not the most soul-sucking job like most corporate careers turn out to be, I wasn’t happy. It was a practical choice at the time. I went to college, got a degree in business to land a job in the city that would gradually equate to the amount of investment made in my education – things we do to in the hopes of securing a future. But as I hunt down every open position on the ten different job portals where I have my resume listed, I become more aware of the fact that if not for the money, I wouldn’t be doing this.

I’m one of those people who spend year after year in the daily grind due to the lack of a better opportunity or over-familiarity. People who weren’t brave enough to follow through with whatever it is they were passionate about. I lack ambition in equal proportion to foresight. I’d rather sit in a corner and contemplate the meaning behind it all than to come up with ways to make a sub-optimal process more efficient to gather some professional brownie points from the boss. Like the succulent you keep on your desk because it survives with the least amount of sunlight and water. The only thing that has made me happy in the past couple of months is the satisfaction of finishing a book or a piece of writing that I struggled with for days. And I don’t even consider myself a good writer.

At a time when uncertainty is synonymous with the normal, even a minor setback can feel impossible to overcome. The severity of a job loss or a lurking relationship issue is intensified by the “COVID situation” that under usual circumstances could have been dealt with little to an adequate amount of grace. The questions get louder, bouncing back and forth off the walls of your mind. Do I go back to live with my parents? Do I go back to school? Is it even possible to make a career change at 30? What about the last seven years? All those years of overthinking and procrastination felt amateurish in comparison to the emotional roller-coaster I’m on now.

It’s unbelievably easy to fall into endless cycles of self-loathing followed by even more endless cycles of self-loathing. And it takes a deliberate effort to stay positive. But if you want to get somewhere, anywhere, you have got to get out of thinking in repetitive patterns. Every day I wake up surprised by the increasing level of my anxiety. And I tell myself, it exists because I let it. Keeping your sanity is crucial. If you aren’t vigilant, negativity has a way of creeping in.

First, give yourself time to grieve. I’m not saying you should spend months overthinking every step that may have lead to the situation you’re in now. I did and, it’s no good. But give yourself time to acknowledge the facts. Whether it’s a job loss, financial troubles, a relationship issue, or just a rut, take time to understand where you stand and what you want. Do you want to keep looking for a job while learning a new skill? Is there a way to make money from something you enjoy doing like, writing or photography? (I still haven’t figured this one out but, it doesn’t take more than a couple of hours of online research to weigh your options against your skills) Do you want to invest the time in going back to school? Can you afford it? Do you want to work on your relationship or, are you ready to move on? Obsessing over my problems has slowed things down but, it has also made me very sure about what I want. When we live every day checking off items on a to-do list, sometimes we lose track of their significance.

Journal. We all have our form of journalling. Maybe a list works for you or, perhaps you prefer writing as the thoughts come to you. Whatever you chose to do, what’s important is to grab that pen and notebook (I like the old-fashioned way but, you do you) or maybe your phone or laptop and write down whatever it is that you’re feeling at a particularly anxious moment. Do this daily so you can keep track of any progress or lag in the way you’re feeling. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have done this in the past but making it a daily practice keeps you grounded. You can also practice noting down what you want to do for the day. It helps keep your focus on the present.

Exercise. You know it’s good for you so, stop making excuses and find 30 minutes to get moving. I watch free workout videos by FitnessBlender on YouTube and have been for years. If you haven’t heard of them, then definitely check them out https://www.youtube.com/user/FitnessBlender. They are the reason I still work out after years of having a toxic relationship with the gym. Physical activity of any kind helps de-clutter and organize your thoughts. The difference I noticed on days where I skip my workouts from the days I don’t are drastic. Instead of slopping around the house when I begin my day with as little as 10-15 minutes of stretching, I am a lot more prepared for the rest of it.

Meditate. This is a tricky one. Sometimes it has helped me relax while; at other times, it has made me more anxious. Especially if I was pretty stressed out already. You can either start with 10 minutes of mindfulness mediation where you simply focus on your breath or, you could use a guided meditation app. There are tonnes of them out there (I have tried Calm personally but, I prefer the traditional way). If you cannot keep your thoughts from lingering on your problems, skip meditating and watch a rerun of your favorite comedy sitcom. Anything that keeps you from overthinking helps detach from the ongoing issue. You will look at things more objectively when your brain is not on auto-pilot.

Read. One thing I’m thankful for with the pandemic and all is the TIME. Instead of spending long hours commuting to and from work, I have all that extra time to read. I’ve crossed my yearly target in less than six months, thanks to the book store that lets me exchange used books so; I don’t have to spend a fortune buying new ones now when money is tight. Reading opens up your mind and broadens your perspective. To me, it’s like meditating. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, reading even ten pages every day gives you a break from the routine at the comfort of your couch.

Have Goals. Make a plan and stick with it. It doesn’t matter whether your goals are big or small, short, or long term. It can be something as simple as choosing an apple over a bag of potato chips or something with clearly defined steps like working on your blog, a portfolio, or learning a new skill. The only thing that matters is showing up and doing it over and over again until it becomes second nature to you.

Play with your pets or take a walk. I was very lucky to find two adorable kitties from the local shelter. Even watching them just be kitties calms me down. Let your inner child out while productivity and efficiency take the back seat. If you don’t have pets, go out and take a walk. We have been indoors for close to a year now. Over time, that gets to you. Make sure to breathe in some fresh air every day, of course, with your masks on.

Get disciplined. It takes work, but it’s doable. Keep the promises you make to yourself. Every day. If you have decided to send out 10-job applications every day for 3-months, do it. If you would like to spend an hour learning every day a new skill, take out the time. It’s that simple. Here is one of my favorite quotes by Dostoevsky from Crime and Punishment, “Man gets used to everything, the scoundrel.” And you will too.

And finally, remember to take every day as it comes. This has always been difficult, even if I’m aware I control nothing. We are wired to make up stories in our heads when we look back; and when we look forward. If living in the moment were easy, there would be fewer cases of heart attacks in the world. I miss the financial freedom. I miss hiding behind the veil of my “fulfilling career” whenever my dad throws the “30 and single” card at me. But if I hadn’t lost the job, I wouldn’t have time to learn anything new, let alone write. There would be no plan B. I just finished another online course on a data management tool that is bound to become obsolete in a year or two. But, but, but… the next time an employer asks me whether I have used the latest version of some new visualization tool that’s hip at the moment, I can blatantly overstate the significance of my work and say I did. We are mere mortals and have no salvage value so let’s accept our very flawed, very imperfect selves and get cracking.

Recognizing a downward spiral

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We are in an age where nothing is relevant unless it is socially acknowledged. Exhibiting is the new norm. Those of us who find it hard to express or even keep up, fall into the trap of seeking validation. Social approval can inflate one’s self-image, but it can also distort reality. People who are never too sure about themselves, to begin with, perhaps suffer the most. Overthinkers. Perfectionists. People prone to depression. There are a lot of us out there. While seeking validation may be necessary for progress, it can do more harm than good if it turns into mania. When lines of self-esteem start to get blurry, finding a way out of the negative self-talk loop can feel endless. Fixating and overemphasizing the bad while turning a blind eye to the good is only too easy. The need for validation overpowers any opportunity for self-improvement. And a sense of guilt over not having done the work because you were too busy honing your inner critiquing skills becomes a downward spiral.

There’s also the assumption that if x happened you would be happier. Let’s call it the future of an alternate past. The many roads that you ought to have taken but didn’t. Things you could have done differently. Regrets, remorse, the whole package – I pick this as my poison. I thrive in knowing my failures are repercussions of my ignorance. Stir this in with a little bit of self-doubt and hurrah! You have the recipe for disaster. 

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Photo: @tinymosquito at Unsplash

Depression and anxiety stem from a myriad of things, in several degrees. The world definitely doesn’t fall short of the nuances of human tragedy. Disease, destitution, childhood trauma, unemployment, or a failed marriage among others. But while you can’t control the uncontrollable, you can adjust the lens you see it through. As cliched as it may sound, the grass can look greener on your side if you let go of your definition of hues.

We want more success, more meaning, maybe a little more appreciation couldn’t hurt either. Humans are programmed for dissatisfaction. Otherwise, how do you define progress? But can you really base an outcome on fantasy alone? I say this because a lot of us tend to dote on a rosy view of the end result. We set unrealistic expectations but don’t do the work. We envy the people who made it or shun them based on our insecurities. We fail to admit that our judgments about others are only a projection of what we lack internally. 

When a child is neglected repeatedly, they start to identify it with love. Some may even seek comfort in it. Likewise, when you feed your mind with nothing but backtalk, you train it to adapt to a defeatist mentality. Believing the only thing it knows. Our brains are not wired for chronic stress. Every time we are in a stressful situation, we activate what is known as the “fight or flight mode” – our body’s response to imminent danger. Now, imagine activating this stress response for something like a credit payment or your fears of starting out on your own, rather than a life-threatening event. Do you see what you’re doing? Putting your body through a constant state of worry – what good can come out of that?

Professional counseling along with drug therapy may be what some of us need but I’ve also found, slowly but surely, a deliberate shift in perspective helps. Now, every time a negative thought starts to take shape, I acknowledge it and try to reason why. An exercise cognitive behavioral therapy involves. Identifying triggers and altering your response. Instead of giving in to the inner monologue, try questioning it. It takes practice and can be hard to keep your mind from drifting towards a certain repetitive pattern; but not impossible. Conscious repetition helps in forming new habits and thought processes while unconscious or compulsive repetition has a crippling effect.

You may read all of the self-help books or watch every motivational talk there is on YouTube. But unless you deal with the bigger issue of figuring out the root of your anxious thoughts, all your efforts will prove to be futile. Unresolved trauma and unexpressed emotions are dangerous if repressed. In one way or another, they show up. Masking themselves in the colors of anger and resentment. Sometimes it can even manifest itself in physical pain. 

If you notice certain thoughts resurfacing, again and again, address them. Dig deeper into whatever it is that keeps trying to break free.

Every time I try to write, I expect words to come pouring in. Like water gushing from a broken pipe – unrestrained and free. They don’t. So I sit there, staring at the blank page for however long it takes. Hours, days, months, it doesn’t matter. When I type in that first sentence, I am one step closer. Wishes, when locked away in some corner of your room full of excuses, start to rust. Then decay, with little or no chances of restoration. Time doesn’t give you the liberty of second-chances for the millionth time. Coupled with shame, time will only bear bad news. But you already know that. 

I’ve learned acceptance deserves more recognition than it gets. True acceptance can pull you out of the need to please. Approval from others has its temporary highs but until you accept yourself with all your strange quirks, there’s no getting out of this shipwreck. You need to be okay with who you are, who you were. You need to be okay with momentary lapses of judgment. You need to be okay with what the future may hold – whether or not it’s in your favor. The goal should be to live in the moment so fully that the consequences don’t make a difference. If we stopped trying after one or the hundredth failed attempt we would be denying our basic instinct – survival. You owe yourself the benefit of the doubt. You owe yourself honesty.

Thoughts are transitory. And life goes on faster than ever. Make it a good one. Make it count. You steer your mind, not the other way around. 

 

In a day

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You wake up at the sound of the alarm. It may have been ringing for a while now. You reach for your phone, hit the snooze button and bury your head underneath the pillow. Five more minutes. You think. It rings again. The damn thing. May have forgotten to turn off the snooze settings. You throw the pillow out of your face. Open your eyes. I’m not going to get any sleep now. You’re awake. Really awake now. You sit up and lean against the headboard of your bed. Rub your eyes and reach for your phone once again. The Facebook app says you have 15  notifications. Probably just random updates about a friend vacationing or some such. You log in anyway. You click the notification button. You were right. Nothing unusual. Nothing interesting. You scroll through anyway. You log out fifteen minutes later. Time to get out of bed. You see the Instagram icon this time. So you tap. The feeds pour in. Same updates. Same pictures. That friend got married. Another had a kid. You’ve seen this earlier when scrolling through Facebook. Facebook’s algorithm update was definitely for the worse. It’s just irrelevant now. There are new memes on Instagram. Everything is funny. From the accounts that aren’t on Facebook. Some are repetitive. But still funny. You post a picture of the trip you took last weekend. There’s a red dot under the heart sign at the bottom right of your screen. Someone lost weight. Oh, wait. There’s an app for yoga. There’s another that lets you work out at home. There’s an app for a diet plan too. You need to shed some pounds. You sign up. For the curated diet plans. The Keto diet worked the last time but subscribing is pretty cheap too. Just like all the other apps that you have subscribed to. There’s one for music. One for the news. One for podcasts. One for guided meditation. There’s one for everything. Who keeps count anymore. You swipe out of Instagram and think. Now I really have to get out of bed. You do. Brush your teeth, wash your face and notice the pimple sprouting under the surface of your skin. You poke at it for some time. Then ignore it and get out.

You go to the kitchen and brew a cup of black coffee. Milk makes you bloat. Black coffee helps shed those pounds too. You heard someone say that one time. You sit on your chair and reach for your laptop this time. Log in to your email and open your inbox. There are more than a hundred unread emails. You only read the subject and delete the ones that ask you to buy something. Or tell you there’s a discount about something you absolutely do not need. You save the newsletters from the science journal you subscribed to. Nautilus. Interesting stuff. Every time. You don’t open them. When I have some time. You think. You had a lot of time in school. In college too. Now you have the past. You log in to Outlook to see if anything came up at work after you left. Nothing that needs your undivided attention. Nothing that can’t be managed until you get to work. You shut down your laptop. Finish your coffee and get into the shower. The warm water feels good against your skin. You stand under it for a minute and do nothing. There are no thoughts, just you and the water and how it feels when it touches your skin. You get out and put on your clothes in a rush. No breakfast. You will grab another cup of coffee on the way or maybe when you get to work. That will do just fine till lunch. There’s a lot of rush. It always takes you more than an hour. Taking an Uber to work every day is unreasonably expensive. Maybe you should get a car. You snap out of it.

You walk into the office. Say hi to your colleagues who made it before you. How could anyone get anywhere in such horrid traffic? You don’t say it out loud. You open your laptop once again. And take a seat. You’ve already read the emails earlier this morning. You have a report that’s due today. You need to work on it or be ready for the satire that awaits. It has taken the shape of a human. That’s your boss. It’s a love-hate relationship. Love for the money. Hate for everything that leads to it. Maybe that came out too strong. Life isn’t that bad. You can’t complain. And monotony isn’t a real problem. Just a point of view. A state of mind that you snap in and out of now and then. You live for the weekends. What else is there. It’s Monday. Let’s get some work done.

You get home. Tired from the day. Sometimes you get tired without a reason. That happens often. You try to look busy. Get through the day. Kill time. It’s tiring. You freshen up and order in dinner. You are in no mood to cook. Not after that shitty traffic. Maybe you’ll get some reading done before bed. Maybe try to write. You don’t. You watch something random. Something that doesn’t need too much attention. Something that doesn’t make your head hurt. Doesn’t make you think. The office. You start dozing off before finishing an episode. You turn off your laptop. Set the alarm on your phone. Keep it on your bedside table. You look at the person sleeping next to you. You don’t wake them. It’s too late to talk. Talking is exhausting. Tomorrow is another day. You think. Tomorrow.

Inside anxiety – My first experiences with meditation

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Looking out the cab on the steep ride uphill, I let my gaze wander through the lush, uneven terrain. The dense canopy of Cedar, Himalayan Oak, and Rhododendron trees blocked out the sun, if any, was kind enough to pass through. September was one of the wettest months of the season and we were at an altitude of 1888 m in the foothills of the Himalayas. It almost never stopped raining.

The driver’s complaints about the large groups of foreigners and people from other parts of India who came here to take up week-long Buddhism courses and the high amount of garbage dumped around the area was muffled by the sweet smell of wet tree barks and a sense of calm energy that the place evoked. There were more monks here than I’d ever seen. Dharamshala had been home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetian government-in-exile since the 1960s, which explained why almost half the city looked like it was painted in maroon.

We arrived at our destination within a span of fifteen minutes and it occurred to me later, that we may have been going around in circles. I was certain I had seen our hotel at least once on the way but didn’t mention it out of a lack of certainty. McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala, was a small town. It wouldn’t take one more than a couple of days to get familiarized with the locals or the town center.

Once we paid our dues to the driver, the security guard opened the gate and let us into the earthen way towards the main facility. Tushita, the meditation Centre I was visiting, nestled amongst a thicket of Deodar trees, above McLeod Ganj on a forested mountain slope of the Dhauladhar range. It was as scenic as it could get.

The pillars of the gate were decorated in elaborate, traditional Thangka paintings. And colorful prayer flags dangled from its roof. White, blue, yellow, green and red pieces of cloth covered in Tibetan scriptures were hung up everywhere. There was a Vipassana Centre opposite to it that almost did not exist if not for its signboards. Apart from the view, monkeys were a top tourist attraction here.

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One of the Stupas at Tushita, Dharamshala

I walked ahead clumsily, trying to balance the weight of my oversized backpack and an aimless wandering mind. Traveling light was a concept beyond me and a realization that hit when there wasn’t much I could do about it. My boyfriend and I had been caught off guard by the heavy rains in Delhi while on our way to Himachal. In the absence of sunlight, our backpacks and everything inside it hadn’t had a chance to dry up since. Everything was twice as heavier.

When I found my way to the group assembled for the introductory talk, I felt their gazes pierce through me. I was late, and it wasn’t funny. Leaving my bags in the dining area like everyone else, I managed to find a corner where I felt invisible to the rest of them. To add up to my horror, in about five minutes a couple of men carried a bench for me to sit on.

Welcome to the land of good genes and amazing bone structure!

This by far, is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done!

Gulping the voices down like you do with bad-tasting medicine, I tried my best to follow what the woman with a heavy German accent was saying. I saw one of the facilitators break up a couple in the middle of a kiss and realized that I hadn’t had the chance for a proper goodbye either. My boyfriend was gone and I wasn’t going to see, hear or write to him for the next ten days. I quickly typed a short text and switched off my phone.

What the hell were you even thinking?

Gathering my straying thoughts, I tried to focus. This time, not on the self-sabotaging inner monologue but on the woman, who was explaining everything we were to do for the next ten days. The first thing I noticed, however, was how the maroon robe she wore complimented her milky skin tone. My deeply rooted insecurities and poor self-image were taking a roller coaster ride as she talked about the living arrangements and the daily activities that would take place for the length of our stay. She listed out the rules of engagement which were none. And stressed on how we were to not feed the monkeys that roamed about within the bounds of the campus. Doing our own laundry was not an option unless we wanted our unmentionables stolen by the unfriendly primates or turned into a science project given the damp weather. There was a basic laundry service at a minimal cost that could take care of that situation. A good thing considering we did not have the otherwise luxuries of a typical vacation.

Following the talk, we were called based on the sequence of registrations received on Tushita’s website. I had signed up three months in advance, just to be sure I got a slot. The seniors picked out their rooms first, and then I heard someone call out my name. There was an enormous number of people who hadn’t registered and were still waiting in queue to find out if there was any room left. Some were asked to come back and check later since a lot of people couldn’t deal with the seclusion and quit the retreat the very next day.

There were four tables placed adjacently in the dining area where we each had to go in succession. The first table was meant for selecting the type of room we’d like to stay in, then we had the option of additional blankets if we needed them, followed by handing over our phones, wallets, camera, and finally the assignment of daily jobs. All payments were to be made upfront since we weren’t allowed to carry any money except for the library deposit. We were to remain within the campus for all ten days and there were no shops inside. Anything we needed had to be brought on arrival or before the course began the same evening. Medicines and toilet paper were the only things available at the admin office.

As I walked towards table number one, I noticed a couple of Indian faces and felt relieved. I was surprised to notice an innate reaction – identifying with only a group while every single person was practically a stranger was everything I preached against. Although at that moment, I cut myself some slack and took comfort in the fact that it was instinct and not just me.

We were given an option of dormitories, shared rooms, and single rooms. I chose a single room without so much as a thought. The restrooms were common for men and women alike, apart from a couple of them that were attached to the double rooms but were limited in number. I skipped the blanket table and moved on to the next, where we were assigned our ‘Karma Yoga’ jobs. These were basic chores everyone had to do in groups of five, to help the housekeeping staff during our stay.

By the time it was my turn to choose, the only tasks that remained unclaimed were toilet cleaning and dish-washing. Being painfully aware of the awkward silence that lingered and a similar hesitation among my fellow mates on being asked to volunteer for toilet cleaning, we glanced at each other’s faces. Saved by the virtue of people who did eventually volunteer to do the deed, I silently thanked my good fortune at being assigned to dish-washing.

There were several blocks within the campus – two women’s dormitories, two men’s dormitories, cottages for guests who preferred complete solitude, two meditation halls, two dining areas, three stupas, and residential quarters of the in-house staff, monks, and nuns. It was about four acres of land on a ridge beneath the snow-capped peaks amid Pine, Oak and Rhododendron forests. We had about an hour and a half to settle down or look around before dinner and the first meditation session.

One of the caretakers pointed out to the block where my room was, on a slope, a flight of stairs away from the dining area. There was a patio with tables and benches that looked like a perfect spot to get some sun, if at all. I took the stairs, unlatched the door, took a deep breath locking the door behind me, and burst into tears. I didn’t know if it was the pressure of being in uncharted territory, in confinement, for ten days or the realization that I was the one who brought it on myself. I sat on the edge of the bed, opened my blank journal and marked ‘Day 1’, finger counting the nine remaining days over and over like it would speed up the process. It was the first day at school all over again and I was standing naked in the hallway.

The room was small and damp just like everything else. The walls were cold and an unusually earthy, sweet, woody smell lingered everywhere that was unique to this place. It had just enough space to fit a single bed, a wobbling wooden table, and a plastic chair. I unpacked my bags, arranging the things I thought I’d need, on the built-in concrete shelves attached to the walls. Moisturizers, toothpaste, shampoo, and a tiny mirror. The floor was so numbingly cold that you couldn’t stand on your feet if you didn’t have any socks on. I hated wearing socks but decided against it. I hung up my raincoat and wet clothes on the nails hammered to the wall hoping some of it will dry up. I had been wrong. Feeling slightly better after organizing helped calm down my nerves, I decided to get out and take a walk. Tidying up can do wonders for anxiety and it has always helped distract me from the never-ending, self-deprecating soliloquy. I lit up an incense stick placed in one of the shelves, next to a picture of the Buddha out of respect and shut the door.

*

After giving it a lot of thought over a period of two years, I decided to take up a beginner’s meditation course at Tushita. Over ten days, we would be taught about the basic concepts of Buddhism and how to practice meditation. Throughout the course, we weren’t allowed to use our phones, cameras or any other form of a media device. The treacherous objects went straight into the safety deposit box – a basic steel trunk flimsily secured by a basic steel lock at registration. There was no meat, no alcohol, no smoking of cigarettes or any other herb, no drugs, and no sex. There was no swatting of mosquitoes nor the killing of insects. We could shift directions of the occasional slugs to get them out of our way with a leaf or a twig but strictly no killing. In its entirety, we weren’t allowed any distractions, not even as much as talking to the next person. It was a silent meditation retreat up in the mountains among the conniving monkeys who stole your food at the first opportunity they could get.

What convinced me to take up the course despite the long list of “Dont’s” was the detachment. My anxiety had been spiraling upward without any comedowns. I wasn’t expecting a miracle. But I did hope to gain some form of mental clarity considering the silence and the prolonged period of phoneless-ness but also doubted the longevity of its effects. I wanted synchrony between the thoughts in my head and the reality so that everything didn’t have to feel so chaotic all the time. Being a complete nobody to the practice and rewards of mindfulness, I opted for this course instead of something as rigorous as Vipassana. I wasn’t sure if I could make it through ten or more hours of meditation a day, in silence, without even making eye contact with the opposite sex at the first try. While my friends encouraged the widely accepted appeal of ‘meeting new people’ and ‘exposure to diverse cultures’, I remained the skeptic that I was. I decided to do it for the sake of my mental health. I would prefer meeting people on a holiday where you could actually talk to them.

*

At dinner, we queued in the rain while I avoided all eye contact. It was necessary that we had a raincoat or an umbrella at all times. And mine was hanging up in my room. I found myself a table at the open dining area away from the chatter and the compulsion of obligatory introductions. I sat alone, ate quietly while water splattered on my face and dripped in my pumpkin soup. It was the first time I was trying it and didn’t understand how could someone turn one of my favorite vegetables into something so barely palatable. I saved the apple we got for dessert in case of late-night hunger pangs because I knew a piece of bread and pumpkin soup was not going to do it. It was only 6 pm.

After dinner, we were asked to gather at the Gompa. It was a large hall where the meditation sessions and teachings would take place over the next few days. Architecturally like every place of worship, it had a central prayer hall containing a Murti (an image, statue or idol of a deity or person in Indian culture), an idol of the Buddha that was about 10 ft tall, several thangkas (a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala), and meditation benches and cushions for the monks, nuns, and participants to engage in prayer or meditation. The walls and ceilings were covered in intricate paintings depicting the wheel of life that apparently took days and numerous artists to finish.

After all the people I exchanged awkward glances with, I met Peter. Peter was an elderly Belgian pharmacist and reflexologist with a passion for astrology who had done several other retreats prior to this one. He offered to check the pressure points in my feet and told me I had problems in my diaphragm and should consider yoga. There was Jeje from China who I didn’t know much about apart from that she knew her way around India judging by the personalized ‘Coorg wildlife society’ flask she carried. Then there was the only Hawaiian man with colorful Koi fish tattoos all over his arms, whose name at this point I simply cannot seem to remember. And another French guy who didn’t speak much let alone English. We were allowed to get acquainted with the people sitting beside us before it all began. It lasted ten minutes and I did the listening for the most part.

Later, we were introduced to our Buddhist philosophy teacher and our meditation leader and reminded several times about the importance of keeping the silence that would begin after dinner. We also had the time to briefly discuss the hippie movement of the ’60s and how it played a big role in the spread of Buddhism. In totality, there were a hundred and twenty-six of us and as per the authorities, this was the highest number of applicants they had ever received.

A large chunk of the group were Israelites, maybe sixteen people of Indian descent and the rest were either from Europe or the States. There was just enough room to accommodate all of us in the Gompa. And as per my beliefs, I was the only one who didn’t know a damn thing about meditation. A significant number of people were already in what seemed like a trance-like state, deeply engaged in meditation without being distracted or even the slightest of movement while I struggled to sit in the lotus position for barely ten minutes.

I didn’t get much sleep the first night. I was anxious and jittery. Not being able to scroll through my phone, listen to music, binge-watch shows on Netflix, being devoid of any kind of stimulation, was finally getting to me. I was crying one moment and journaling the next. I must have written ten times more than I had been able to in months. We weren’t allowed to read apart from the books in the library that were predominantly on Buddhism and mindfulness. I couldn’t have been more relieved that we could journal. In a Vipassana retreat, which was among the top two choices on my list, you weren’t even allowed to read or write. I considered going to the authorities in the morning to tell them I was not going to make it. I was off work only for two weeks and spending ten days out of fourteen in a nightmare. I told myself I was going back to the hotel and heading to Manali with my boyfriend. Then, I fell asleep.

It was the gong at 3 am that woke me up. It wasn’t the gong at Tushita but the Vipassana center next door. They had told us earlier this would happen and we could go back to sleep for two more hours. I couldn’t. So I waited for another hour and went for a shower ahead of the crowd. Hot water was only available around 5 am but I thought cold water was just fine. It wasn’t. I faced the repercussions four days later in clutches of the common flu.

Following the first guided meditation session, I ate greedily. Provided we were served only three vegetarian meals a day – breakfast, lunch, and dinner with no snacks in between, we had to make the most of it. My concentration during the meditation session suffered from the anticipation of food. There was freshly baked homemade bread, raw honey, peanut butter that was made from scratch, porridge and fruits. Nothing had ever tasted better and I had never been less guilty of what I was eating. I had seen a few people cheat by saving up on it for later, maybe even smelled smoke coming from one of the rooms earlier, but I was going to do it right. I was not going to cheat on myself. It was a cliche.

It hit me and my back the next day that I was to spend most part of my day meditating and sitting upright. Not talking, only listening, to what the teacher had to say. We did get about fifteen minutes at the end of each session where we could ask questions, but fifteen minutes is barely enough time to handle thought-provoking, mind-bending questions of a hundred and twenty-six people. Heated discussions on one’s beliefs weren’t welcome nor encouraged, unlike the people who were, from any and every walk of life.

Our days started early, and everything took place at least three hours ahead of my regular schedule. We would wake up by 5 am or earlier if you pleased, then meditate. Eat breakfast, then meditate. Learn about a few concepts on Buddhist philosophy, then meditate. Eat lunch, do our Karma Yoga jobs and after only just managing to take in a proud moment feeling worthy of our accomplishments for the day, we had the discussion groups. The discussion groups were on the concepts we were taught earlier. Ranging anywhere from our views on suffering, compassion, and attachment, to our beliefs on reincarnation. Before we could even get to the point we were trying to put across (discussion groups only lasted about an hour), the silence ensued. There was a tea break before another philosophy session, then meditation. Dinner, then meditation. You get the pattern.

Our teacher was an American woman who was an ordained nun for over fourteen years and also a psychologist. She explained how Buddhism was based on four noble truths – our clinginess to impermanent states and things, this clinginess resulting in the endless cycle of rebirth, the only way out of the cycle being liberation, and this state of liberation eventually leading to Nirvana or nothingness. Apart from these concepts and philosophies, she didn’t deviate from the course of action. Carefully dodging questions when they got controversial in nature, she blamed it on the scarcity of time.

I think it was the third day when the back pain went away. Like they told us it would. If we could only get to the part where we stopped noticing it was even there. I was amazed there was no pain despite extended periods of sitting upright, without slouching. We could stretch our legs for a bit but no more than a minute. That moment was no short of a miracle and maybe the most pivotal point of my slow transformation.

The next couple of days I started to feel better, in love with where I was and who I was with. I wrote unstoppably that I would wake up in the middle of the night only to note down how great I was feeling and how delightful everyone was. I was more attentive at each upcoming session and started to believe. Heck, I would possibly even consider taking up monasticism if only they nudged me a little. That was the level of stimulation my senses were receiving. And all without the addictive, debilitating habit of internet everything. The people, the place, the routine, I think it all added up to it. I wasn’t a fan of the guided meditation sessions which were more beginner-friendly, and our leader’s ceaseless narration threw me off every time, but you take what you get. The inner monologue carried on, but somehow it was getting easier to choose whether I was willing to pay attention to it. I was completely aware of my thoughts and my ability to steer them in any direction I wanted. There was so much going on, all my senses working in tandem without the distraction of a constantly buzzing phone or the city, its people and their honking cars.

At night, I noticed how thin the mattress was and yet how peacefully I slept. I noticed the same wobbling table and how easily it could be fixed by sticking a piece of folded paper underneath the short leg. I noticed the very dim almost unusable table lamb that heated up way too fast, but that was enough to get any reading or writing done after lights out, as long as you didn’t accidentally touch the lampshade. Instead of music, I listened to the chirping birds throughout the night and how a concoction of the damp smell of wet grass, tree barks and the 3 am Gong at the Vipassana center woke me up every morning. After the freezing shower, in washrooms that were no more than public toilets, battling my way through the tribe of monkeys who were always lurking around, with a flashlight for a weapon, I started to feel present. Even doing dishes of a hundred and twenty-six people couldn’t bring me down because everyone was willing to help, and warming my hands holding a cup of tea after was pure bliss.

The guided meditation sessions were focused on one concept at a time. We had sessions on compassion, on suffering, on love, on attachment and death. We meditated on how all of it existed only in our minds. Emotions were fleeting in nature just like everything else. All things were transient but the present. And the goal was, to be present. We reflected on past experiences that could possibly enable us to come in terms with unresolved issues. The only way – was acceptance. In order to be rid of pain, you must also be rid of pleasure. Something along those lines, easier to preach than practice. I’m not sure if it worked. But towards the end, when we chanted on mantras together, it felt as if I was being lifted as if I was one with everything, with everyone. A feeling, probably only a psychedelic drug could induce, or at least in my experience.

It was around day five when we had the chance to have a Q & A session with another monk who was visiting. This replaced our regular discussion group about which not everyone in my group was excited for anyway. Being the good listener that I was, I attended only to listen to what he had to say. I wanted a fresh perspective after being repetitively exposed to the concept of reincarnation and prescribed definitions of good and bad karma.

A very young woman probably in her early 20’s and very evidently vegan posed a question on how it was acceptable for the Dalai Lama to be eating meat despite rooting against the slaughter of any conscious being. The explanation of this predicament was that he did so for health reasons and that even animals would consider themselves fortunate to be of service to the Dalai Lama. The woman’s furious rebuttal was countered by turning her futile anger against her. And for the first time, I wanted to run away. Things had started to feel lopsided at this end of the spectrum when the monk answered another woman’s question on whether it was good or bad karma for a butcher to be killing animals if he only did so to earn a living. What followed was not an answer but the dissection of the butcher’s actions and how parts of it fit in good karma and others in the bad, no middle grounds. I’m in no state nor will I ever be, to make judgments but come on!

At that time, it was blatantly clear that any form of organized or unorganized religion was not for me. But I also understood why it was for some. The idea of reincarnation, of a second chance, brings hope. Even if life may not have turned out quite exactly as planned. The idea of amending something bad with good acts as a reason to be better again. And maybe that’s why it works so goddamn well. Belonging to something or having a purpose was all that counted. People don’t like to be on their own and neither do they like knowing there is no way to right a wrong. That is if they only accept they were wrong in the first place. I don’t have a problem with a certain ideology, just people’s interpretation of it. Religion is not religion as much as it is the people who prescribe it. But nothing really changes based on what I do or do not think. Hence, moving on.

I skipped a few sessions the next couple of days, went to the library and picked up a book on regular philosophy instead. My flu didn’t let me take long breaths without coughing every five minutes so I saved others the distraction and the viruses. Peter, Jeje, and my nameless Hawaiian friend were kind enough to offer medicines and cough drops every time they saw me. I had never met kinder people. It was all too good to be true and probably was.

On days 8 and 9, we watched a movie and went for a short trek instead of discussion groups. The documentary was about a nun who spent twelve years living in a remote cave in the Himalayas, and three of those years in strict meditation retreat. We were not exactly thrilled but the projection screen felt like home. We also had the chance to do some yoga when the sun was out – a break from all the sitting felt normal. There was a lighting ceremony at the end of day 9, where we chanted prayers and lit candles around the Stupas. The lights and our singing may have agitated the monkeys to some extent, there was a lot of jumping and shaking of tree branches.

A picnic was arranged on the last day. We had pizza for lunch outside the Gompa. For some weird reason, I only craved for the bland steamed vegetables and lentils we had been eating for the past nine days. We could talk without being concerned about anyone ringing the gong, asking us to keep the silence. And got our phones back after lunch. Everyone’s excitement was evident in their toothy grins. I don’t know what I felt. I wasn’t glad it was over but I don’t think I could or would stay any longer. I knew I would miss the peace and quiet, the freedom I felt from judgments, from opinions, from everyday life to just be. But I was ready to go back. Couples reunited and people made plans to meet up as soon as we got out while I had a bus to catch the same night leaving for Manali. I got in a taxi and headed for the bus station in McLeod Ganj.

This was taken on the last day before we left

I met a tremendous amount of people. People from cultures so diverse than my own that it was hard to even fathom we were all there together in the same place and time. They were young, and they were old. Some with the spirit of a child in mature bodies, some in-between, perhaps still figuring out this mess we’re all in. People so open to new experiences that made me ashamed of the shallow waters I swam in. Everyone had a story or at least they had a story in my head. The nuns and the monks, the staff and housekeeping, were all there, doing exactly what they were supposed to be, for one reason or another and that made perfect sense.

I continued with the meditation for about a month and just like everything else, I lost touch. I haven’t been able to make time ever since. I plan to start soon. For real. And although I can’t vouch for its benefits, I can definitely say it helps immensely to declutter your mind. I’ve had war veterans tell me it helped them feel a hug once again.

Disconnecting was good. And I plan on doing it on purpose this time without needing to go to a retreat. I try to stay home instead of going out every weekend. A lot of socializing always leaves me muddled for days. So I try and write instead.

Would I do it again?

Maybe.

I’ll take the leap and try Vipassana this time. In a few more years.

Should you do it?

Definitely.

This is an experience no one but you can be a better judge of. So go ahead and take the leap. At worst, you will only learn something you didn’t know today.

Things I tell myself

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I have tried several approaches to writing. Most of it replicating someone else’s and the rest focusing on my failures. I don’t think it worked, don’t think it was supposed to anyway. How would it when I couldn’t even get past the idea of simply writing? 

The struggle to keep up with my own perception of things gets scarily difficult as I sway from one thought to another. Without awareness. Without meaning. Which leaves me wondering how someone can be so far removed from reality that there comes a point when reality doesn’t even matter anymore? Because the world inside their head is better. Easier, perhaps?  

Easier than having to deal with judgments; even if assuming those judgments must have been a task in itself.

Easier than realizing one’s priorities and acting on them.

Easier than accepting defeat for the millionth time and yet, moving on.

Most of the time, most of it all is just what lives in our mind. Our fears and anxieties, our success and failures, our opportunities and shortcomings, almost everything, is what it fabricates. Connecting the dots out of one hell of a puzzle, trying to make sense of the randomness. And just like stories, convinces us into believing it to be our reality. We are in control of the choices we make and the actions we take following that choice. We always have been. Well, at least more often than we realize.

I’ve been living in a narrative that sprouted out of my own convictions. To the point of driving myself near insanity. And yet I try every day, from scratch, to unbelieve it all. These ridiculous stories that only bring me down. That has only brought me down. One way or another. Every step of this life that I claimed to have lived, but not even slightly.

When you get out of a bad situation you’re almost convinced that nothing else can get any worse. You’re convinced that the world has an obligation towards your happiness. A little bit of empathy carefully mixed with a lot of acknowledgment of the horrid things you’ve been through. And then you realize you’re wrong, once again.

Nobody has an obligation to understand you. Nobody should feel entitled just because they’ve been through shitty things. The universe doesn’t care and neither should it. Each of us is just a tiny speck of dust. Let me put it more eloquently, just a tiny speck of stardust. 

The easiest thing to do is not to do anything. We get caught up in life and forget about all the things we thought we would like to do someday at some point in time when everything else falls into place. The fact, however, as we all know it, is that things never really fall into place. At least not as per our liking. And those things that we thought we would like to do at some point, get pushed back in some corner of our very busy, very demanding lifestyle. Until that moment where doing nothing isn’t really what we want to be doing anymore. Because doing nothing leads to well, nothing.

We give in so much to sensory pleasures, to instant gratification, to a temporary state of fulfillment while losing grasp of the bigger picture. It’s not about making a lot of money or envying the people who make a lot of money. It’s not about traveling to as many countries as you can because everyone else is doing it. And it isn’t about doting on a dream job while you give yourself up to self-loathing and inertia as you whine about the things that you could and would never have, or how that’s completely unfair. It’s about how you make the most of what you have, of the possibilities that could be and would be despite everything else. If you let it.

You can’t hold your liquor because the anticipation of a greater high is always more appealing.

You can never quit smoking while giving in to your temporary cravings that will gradually subside only if you could wait long enough.

Because you want to reach the peak of all sensory pleasures. Because sometimes you enjoy the fall too. The switch between extremes. Because you don’t know moderation. You don’t do moderation. So you forever remain in the shackles of your own mind, in the bounds of your imagination. Because your imagination is better, better than the harsh actualities, better than the fact that your existence just like everyone else’s, doesn’t make much of a difference. And when I say you, I obviously mean me. 

True change only takes place when we get out of the refuge. When we’re adamant about the things we want. When minor sensory pleasures can’t get in our way. When we stop trying to convince ourselves that procrastination is okay.

We have to do the hard work to reap the benefits no matter how daunting it may seem. Whether it’s simply taking charge of our health or taking the leap to start our own personal project. We are never going to get anywhere if we’re looking for excuses to blame our misfortunes on. We will only sink deeper down the hole that we have been digging for ourselves. Because eventually, we are the ones who make up the stories and the ones who believe in them too.