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.

 

Some days

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Its as if with each passing year we lose a part of our-self, on a path of being cloned into replicas of people we never wanted to become. Living in only a carcass of ‘normal’ as the present ceases to exist. We live, every day, hoping for the future or lingering in the past.

I have come to realize that I am every other person but, me. Masking myself with colors of the familiar. Scared to be anything but true. Sliding deep inside the throat of a bottomless pit of acceptance. Longing to be looked in the light only I see myself in. In only the ideal. Not because of sheer desire. But for the sake of rationality. Shedding as I age. But instead of becoming anew, I shed a piece of me that doesn’t fit into the riddle. Atrophying from the spirit that now only remains in my memory.

I could be wrong about this and probably am. It is possible that everyone feels differently as they grow. Embracing change like it was second nature while I battle my way through this process of transformation.

To me, it feels more like degeneration. A shift only seems fascinating in foresight. As the lines of distinction between me and the world get blurry.

Knowledge perhaps is everything until it is not. Maybe not knowing sometimes is better. Because as curiosity grows, so does the probability of what could be. Gluttonous as we are, we dig and dig for more. More approval. More success. More happiness. But never the mundane.

We are taught there’s always something to achieve. Some ladder to climb. Some standard to reach because mediocrity is never an option. Even when mediocre is what some of us will ever be. Like it was a curse of anonymity.

With time we come to terms with the fact that self-awareness isn’t as desirable as overachieving is. So we fight. Fight for the tried and true. Fight for the fickle. As the rules of the games change more often than the seasons.

I didn’t mean to sound so morose when I started writing but as I read through, it couldn’t be anything but. Some days simply are, and maybe it is okay to not surround ourselves with reassurance all the time. Because there’s beauty in even the bleakest of days. The beauty of its existence. And for all one knows, the mystery of the next one.

 

The First One

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I didn’t really have a plan in mind when I first thought of starting a blog.

Well, almost didn’t.

For about half a decade I have silently sulked in the clench of unfaltering procrastination, as I let days, months, and years go by soaked up in self-pity. Letting its grip grow stronger around me.

I have rationalized every setback, giving it more meaning than it deserved as I hid behind a shield of indolence and passivity.

The absence of a purpose had started to mess with my head and mock my reality.

Slowly at first, then all at once.

Sometimes we are smart enough to get past the guilt and blame it on life but most times, it catches up with us no matter the pace of our rise and falls from grace. For me, and I know you can tell, it was the fall.

I have lived inside my head for days on an end, believing in all of the thoughts that played hide and seek with my self-esteem.

People I knew looked uglier, meaner, with their self-serving motivations, coming at me with contrived smiles and empty conversations. The world somehow grew nastier even when it had always been the same.

I was convinced something was terribly wrong and I needed professional help because I couldn’t stop these thoughts from resurfacing so I began journaling. I journaled every day to silence the relentless inner monologue while considering other alternatives that could help me get through this self-sabotaging behavior.

Naturally, I failed. Incessantly. At journaling and at ‘not’ living inside my head. In equal proportions. While trying to drink each failed attempt away, deeply buried in shame and ignorance. I grew desperate, ready to try anything, and booked a slot in a silent meditation retreat in the Himalayas. It seemed like a reasonably unconventional idea when a friend had once mentioned it out of context. So I gave myself credit for the effort of experimentation.

Those ten days up in the mountains under extremely wet weather and minimalist living conditions wasn’t bliss but neither was it abhorring. I don’t think I was ever more in touch with myself but neither did it change the person that I am or have become in nearly the three decades of my life.  But more on that later.

The effects that I felt following the retreat gradually faded like colors from an old photograph. Reality sank in once again as I became unable to distinguish between thoughts that were rooted in the present and stories that I carefully created in my head. This time around to keep myself from spiraling even downwards I took up a writing class. Believing, if writing was the only way then I might as well get better at it.

After about eight weeks, the writing too came to a stop and the thoughts crept back in. Regardless of what I did learn in all of my failed endeavors, what I didn’t learn was consistency. Apparently, consistency is all it took. Because unlike me, even the thoughts in my head were consistent.

So here’s another attempt at consistency. Another attempt at a presumable failure. Because if not now, then when?