Fear of fear

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I am worried. I was never like this. Fear was alien to me. But now, I open the pages of my book, and all I can see is disturbing images of rape victims, ISIS terror attacks, and the likes. I worry for myself, I worry for my loved ones. I feel that one day, we will all be victimized. I feel scared of the future. I feel terrified. I feel scared of even stepping out. I feel they are somewhere around, waiting to get us. My thoughts lose their clarity and brew into random thoughts that make no sense.

This was the first time I was actually reading the account of someone who was going through a phobic disorder.

Do you understand the magnitude and seriousness of the problem?“, the letter read. Almost as if the writer were aware that the reader would brush it away as a silly affair. If only it was that simple! If only perceptions and thoughts could be brushed away like the dust that settles on furniture! Perhaps, it was that easy for some people. Perhaps their perceptions and thoughts were just as light as dust particles.

I talked to some people about this. They say it is a neurotic disorder and needs treatment. But how am I to meet a psychologist or psychiatrist? My mother would break down if she knew. Is there somebody who can help me? What do you think? What should I do?

I thought back to the time when I had woken up one night, feeling an inexplicable anxiety. A panic without any reason. I remember how desperate and helpless I had felt. I was left groping in the dark, simply because I did not know the cause for that anxiety.

It was then that I realized that the worst fear one can have is of the unknown and unexplained. If my anxiety had a definite cause, I wouldn’t probably worry much; I would have worried about the cause. But when the cause or trigger was not obvious, it was my own self that I feared. I was terrified of my feelings. This fear of fear. The realization that until I knew where this anxiety was coming from, I had no control over my mind, shattered me.

Also, as the fear took over, the episodes increased and progressed. I was frightened of nights. As night approached, I would panic and that only worsened my predicament. Fear had gained the upper hand and I was now enslaved by that fear. Sometimes, I would be anxious even in the daytime. It was as if an infinite barrier had come between me and the world- I felt an infinite distance between me and the people around. I felt like a child who had been locked up in a house. It was as if I could see passers by from my window, but they couldn’t see me. It was as if I tried screaming for help and sticking out my hand, but nobody appeared to notice. It was as if I had been shut out from their world. I couldn’t think of an immediate remedy, but what I did know was that I dreaded darkness and silence- factors that brought me in contact with my own self, with my insecurities. What those insecurities were, I did not know. So I decided that all I could do was get a change of environment. That was when I booked my tickets to Bangalore.

It was a good decision. For once, the pace of the city, the crowded streets, the 24-hour traffic and the noise were comforting. They probably worked as distractions. My fear of nights reduced. That was important to me because I did not want my mind to associate nights, my house or my room with this panic attack. I wanted to break any such association that it was forming and feeding into memory. My friends and their children also contributed tremendously to the distraction. While in Bangalore, I was completely rid of the episodes. More importantly, by the time I returned home, I felt I was ready to take on the challenge. The will and courage had returned.

Deep inside, I was aware that these episodes had some relationship with all the reading I had done just before they had started. But my fear was preventing me from revisiting that phase of life and confronting the issue. I avoided thinking about it until I was symptom-free. I was relieved when I realized that though I had come back to the same environment that had triggered the episodes, the panic attacks did not resume. There were occasional episodes, but they were so mild that I would wait for them to pass while I practiced some distraction techniques that could engage my mind until they passed. I learned to get comfortable with the episodes. Like how one is terrified of a storm initially, but then learns to wait until it passes.

I gradually trained myself to dwell on the issue. Knowledge and awareness alone can dispel darkness, and it was important for me to trace this strange phenomenon to its roots.

Just before these episodes had started, I had been keen on pursuing a research career. My research area of interest was the human mind and I was to prepare a research proposal. Many questions had been playing in my mind for a long time. The question of prime importance in my mind was the connection between creativity and mental illness. That question seemed to hold the key to the fate of many creative minds- those beautiful minds whose minds deserved to be protected. The only minds worth being protected! However, that question was an ocean in itself.  I shut myself out from the world, and locked myself in this internal world of infinity where all I did was read up articles on the mind and the paths it took-

The journey of an ancient, primitive animal brain through evolution…

Its journey through stress, pace and multitasking…

Its journey through creativity…

Its journey through what we label as mental illness.

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I was fascinated, to speak the truth. In fact, I was addicted and obsessed. I read avidly, jumping from one article to the next. I read about famous people who were known to suffer from mental illness. I read about the life of Kay Redfield Jamison. And as I read, I was unaware that in those moments, my mind was in truth, walking the paths they walked. For when I read, I do not just read, I experience it all. In a short span of time, I had experienced these people and their minds. I had taken a journey into infinity.

As I reflected on the extraordinary nature of my engagement with these minds that I had read about, I realized the source of my anxiety. The unvoiced anxiety in my mind was from the fear that this journey had created in me. The horrors of their world had seeped into me for my mind could not differentiate between my experiences and theirs. And since these experiences were not mine, I had never imagined that they had anything to do with my anxiety.

That brings me to the concept of ‘empathy‘. I have talked about empathy  in my previous post. Empathy is at the root of both creativity and mental illness. Empaths are unable to differentiate between their experiences and the experience of others, for they have the ability to become the ‘other’ momentarily. Even when they read fiction or watch a movie, the experience is very real in their minds because they have lived through the experience in their minds. An empath therefore has an extraordinary potential for learning and innovation because he is able to bring the environment alive within his mind. In his mind, he carries a universe, with the interconnections intact- interconnections that are often invisible to the ordinary, average individual. In his mind, he carries not just himself, but millions of people he has met or read about (even fictional characters), who have touched him powerfully. They have all integrated into his unconscious as a part of his self. The same empathy also makes him susceptible to social anxiety, panic disorder, phobic disorder, dissociative disorders, and many illnesses that are to do with excessive awareness of one’s perceptions. He is equally susceptible to depression when his perceptive ability does not find adequate opportunity in the world. He is also susceptible to bipolar disorder when pace drives his thoughts ahead of perception.

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It all appears very natural to me now. Let me now go back to the letter I was reading. This letter was sent by an adolescent girl (let me call her S) to her friend (let me call her K) who was a student of mine. S was an only child, and she had lost her father when she was a child. She was raised by a highly protective and defensive mother. But S was in acceptance of her circumstances. She had learned to laugh at tragedy and she believed that life was not to be wasted in mourning and complaining. She had learned to be independent and to make the best of her circumstances. Optimism, passion for life, courage and resilience- these defined her personality. Her mother, on the contrary, was a passive and pessimistic person. In her house, S was the adult and her mother was the child. Her mother had remarried, but that marriage had not worked.

S was pursuing her education in a college in Bangalore, and it was in this setting that she had developed these phobic episodes. She describes her campus life as very restricting. Students have no access to life outside the small campus, and they are literally cut-off from the external world. The campus also does not provide much opportunity for recreation, and for a long time now, S’s mind has been feeling claustrophobic. In this period, she read about the Soumya rape case, the ISIS terror attacks, and other incidents of violence and brutality. Her empathy caused her to integrate these experiences into her own psyche. Against the backdrop of the absence of a protective male member in her family and the negative, claustrophobic environment of her college campus, these experiences took predominance and brewed into deep phobia.

I spoke to her yesterday. I was glad that I could speak from personal experience. Though my panic attacks had incapacitated me at that point in time, they transformed into insightful experiences eventually. It is only from that experience that I could write my book. From that experience, I have been able to connect to numerous suffering people who are incapacitated by the ‘oddity’ and ‘eccentricity’ of their minds.

Tips for the empath:

  • Do not lock yourself up into your room of thoughts. Engage with nature and with the outdoors.
  • Read stories. No matter what else you read, make sure your bank of stories is never empty. Read stories rich with fantasy, hope, optimism and a positive outcome. These will neutralize the impact of the stories/experiences with negative endings on your mind. In particular, read stories that take you on a journey from negative to positive.
  • Talk to people. Both solitude and engagement with people are equally necessary.
  • Write diaries. When you write, write also about your negative experiences. Imagine the ways in which these can end with positive outcomes.
  • After 7 pm, do not engage in any mental activity that requires excessive alertness and keeps you aroused. Engage in light reading or entertainment.
  • Practice mindfulness.
  • Avoid excess of silence, excess of solitude, excess of engagement with people and their problems.

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In the shoes of a writer

What is your advice to aspiring young writers?‘ This is a question writers are often asked.

Here, I have a distinction to make. What aspirations are we talking about? The aspiration to be a writer? Or the aspiration to be published? It has taken me years to understand that the conventional definition of a writer is different from what actually defines a writer.

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A writer…

I wonder how many young people would want to be writers, if they knew what it takes to be a writer and what it is to be a writer.

Being a writer is the realization of a potential. It is a journey, not a destination. A writer is a personality type, and not anybody who writes stories or essays or poems. A writer is one for whom writing is like breathing- it sustains him and keeps him alive. It is immaterial if his work is pronounced good or bad by the world. It is immaterial if he is published or not. It is immaterial if he becomes famous or not. He writes for the integrity of his spirit; writing keeps him together, keeps him whole. But in the process, he often unearths certain truths and deep philosophies of life that connect not just to him, but to all of mankind. His words offer hope, strength and consolation to the numerous souls who are otherwise immersed in a world of struggle and suffering, and they become the medium through which his work reaches out to the world. A true writer gives- to those who are in need of his words. But left to himself, the true writer has no desire for name, fame or publicity. In fact, he often finds himself intimidated by attention and expectation; he is comfortable in his anonymity. It is his work that he loves. It is his engagement with life and with his writing that he loves and desires. It is this that he aspires for- the ability to engage with himself powerfully so as to be able to write.

Throughout the history of literature, various works have been published and written anonymously, often due to their political or controversial nature, or merely for the purposes of the privacy of their authors, among other reasons. 

There are so many good reasons to write: revenge, passion, the purging of grief or despair. The love of beauty, the exposure of villainy. The recording of a life (one’s own, or someone else’s) for preservation. Or one might hope to inform later deliberations about history, as Thucydides did: “[If my work] be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content.” And then there is the matter of fame, in the present or in the future. How many do not write in hopes of attracting the admiration of a distant posterity? With what awe does the ordinary scribbler contemplate the glorious achievements of Chaucer, Cervantes, or Fielding! In silence, in secret, perhaps he dares to imagine himself in their company, in ages yet to come.

One kind of writer, at least, is immune to the lure of fame: the anonymous writer. No name, no literary glory. What would possess someone to go to all the trouble of writing a book and then take no credit for having done so? What compulsion drives this strangest of artists?

Anonymous is more than a pseudonym. It is a stark declaration of intent: a wall explicitly thrown up, not only between writer and reader, but between the writer’s work and his life.

A writer is indeed a personality-type, and deep empathy lies at the core of that personality. Empathy is often a misunderstood term. Though many people understand that empathy is different from sympathy, they perceive empathy as a phenomenon akin to kindness or compassion.

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Empathy is the ability to dissociate from the self and become the ‘other’ momentarily, feeling the vibes and currents of the other, experiencing the other.

The ‘other’ could refer to inanimate bodies too- one can empathize with the river, the wind, the moving cloud, or with any inanimate force in the environment.

It is this empathy that allows writers to perceive life in inanimate bodies- to perceive the spirit of the river, the spirit of a forest, the spirit of a mountain, each different from the other and unique. It is this empathy that enables a writer to perceive the spirit of all living creatures inhabiting this planet. It is this empathy that enables a writer to perceive the wounded, shattered and fragmented mind that often lies beneath the aggression and violence demonstrated by an individual. It is this empathy that enables a writer to read people’s secret thoughts, decipher people’s underlying motivational drives, differentiate between fake/manipulative and authentic statements or acts.

It is this empathy that weaves the writer inseparably into the fabric of the universe so that everything that affects the universe is his own concern. He is pained by the war in another continent, he is pained by the stories of rape and murder, he is pained by the suffering inflicted on the poor by governments and capitalists, he is pained by the human assaults on nature.

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This empathy makes him a ‘feeler’; his perceptive ability is strong- in intensity, range and duration. His perceptions are intense; they encompass a broad range of stimuli, and they last for a long duration, knocking at the doors of his mind, urging him to act and deliver.It is this urge that eventually drives him to writing.

This empathy defines the artist in general- be it a writer, painter, sculptor, scientist or teacher and propels him to rise above the pain and suffering of his world.

Often, personal trauma plays an important role in a writer’s self-discovery. The writer is in a state of constant inability to fit in and to conform to the ways of the world around him. This creates persistent conflict in his mind, and the drive therefore, to resolve this conflict. The writer discovers that he is unable to express his personality freely in the world because convention and reality impose restrictions on him. The world therefore suppresses the writer. Often, there is a suppressed world within a writer- a beautiful world that he is constantly trying to retrieve. The writer is sensitive to the sharp contrast between two emotional worlds- the bitterness of his experiences and the rich possibility of a fantasy. It is this contrast that contributes to the beauty of the world in his mind.

Initially, the writer finds his escape in reading, and in other sources of aesthetic engagement. He connects to words that resonate with the suppressed world within him. As the writer reads extensively, the words find their way into his unconscious. The deep empathy enables the writer to experience the words as his own. The barrier between the words and his emotions is broken down progressively. It is then that he learns to translate his own emotions into words. The writer is often self-conscious. He may stammer and stutter when spoken to. But left to his spontaneity, his perceptions knock powerfully on the doors of his mind and he creates magic with his words. As the writer matures, his empathy causes him to expand the horizons of his mind to embrace a larger segment of the world. He awakens to the vast expanse of human conditions- poverty, illness, loss of a loved one, natural calamities and man-made disasters, death, oppression, and much more. It is then quite natural that his mind is never quiet, for it feels the torments of a universe.

So, coming back to the question that I was trying to answer here- ‘What is your advice to young aspiring writers?’. I would say the question loses its significance in this context. However, my advice to society would be to create opportunities for children- opportunities to engage with their environment, with stories and books, with their own perceptions. The true writer would automatically discover himself in the process. It is when such opportunities are absent (as is the case with our current education system) that children never discover their potential- a scenario that breeds mental unrest and mental illness.

To the writer (the writer personality), my advice would be- preserve your anonymity. With the advent of blogging, self-publishing and numerous platforms to ‘advertise’ , ‘promote’ and ‘market’ one’s writing, the writer often gets distracted from his path.

I remember reading somewhere that psychologically, one must be a nobody. To the world, we may be many things. But to ourselves, we must be a nobody. That is when we write best- when we uncover some truth of significance to the world, for we do not shield us from ourselves. All other writing is only our means of appeasing our bruised ego. I think that is also why failures contribute more to ‘growth’ than do achievements. Failures provide us an opportunity to be a nobody and be comfortable with it.

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Technology: My gateway to the past

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I must have watched about forty episodes of Buniyaad by now. I have lived the life of the resilient Lajo– from her youth to her old age. The orphan Lajo, who has learnt to take life in its stride, and has learned to laugh at her miseries. “Gaiety becomes ingrained in the character of one whose life is filled with misery“, remarks her uncle when Lajo responds to Master Haveli Ram‘s practised discipline with laughter and gaiety.

Buniyaad digs into the foundation of relationships. Buniyaad essentially explores the factors that shape the human spirit- the factors that nurture the human spirit and awaken man’s humanity, and also the factors that erode the human spirit and take man away from his humanity and from his own self . Buniyaad takes us through the lives and minds of people in relation to their circumstances.

The relationship between Lajo and Haveli Ram forms the core of this story. It is the strength of this relationship that forms a pillar and holds disintegrating family structures together, preserving and protecting humanity against all odds- the partition of India, the homelessness, the economic crisis, the differing motivational drives of the youth of the family, and much more.

The story therefore dwells generously on that phase where Lajo meets Master Haveli Ram, capturing those intricate moments that bind the two into a deep rooted relationship.

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The gentle, somewhat shy and hesitant Haveli Ram, a man of principles, and the high-spirited, playful and mischievous Lajo. Their personalities contrast, and yet complement each other.

Ramesh Sippy creates magic in these moments:

The laid back evenings when Haveli Ram tutors Lajo. The innumerable memories created in that hour that form the foundation of their subsequent relationship. Those tiny moments that may appear insignificant to a trespasser, but that weave the invisible threads of a deep-rooted relationship between the two. The grandfather clock ticks in the backdrop, as if marking these priceless moments in their lives. ‘Vichhovali’- Lajo’s uncles’s house in Lahore, transforms in these moments into a house that harbours the couple’s most precious memories. A house that is eventually orphaned at the time of partition when the family is forced to move out, reminiscent of millions of houses that stood as mute witnesses to the journey of human life- to the unfolding of the human spirit- its throbbings, its pangs, its woes. Houses that witnessed the woes of partition. Houses that witnessed the demolition of the human spirit as the ‘individual’ assumed importance and family structures disintegrated,  and money and power replaced human values.

There is something very Indian about this serial. One falls in love with the traditional Indian spirit, and understands the true meaning of love, respect, mutual regard, relationships, patriotism, womanhood, patience, kindness, compassion and other human values that today, are merely on paper. I think stories of those times dug deep into the cultural essence of our country. Today, the authenticity has been replaced either by blind conservatism or by rebellion and denial.

Take Indian women, for instance. There are women who believe that in their submissiveness to patriarchal systems, they are ‘upholding’ traditional Indian values. Such women are oblivious to the big gap between traditional values and conservatism. Conservatism is only an emblem; an emblem that is to be worn for the world to see, an emblem that conceals the darkness of their spirits. And then we have women who wear the emblem of individuality. Women who do not wish to be looked upon as submissive, and who wish to break free from the chains of tradition. Sadly, many end up denying their feminine qualities in the process. For many young women, abandoning the traditional lifestyle and embracing a western lifestyle, defines individuality. Most find their identity in their lifestyle.

Where are the Indian women who taught us that womanhood was a far superior quality for beauty lay in the feminine? Where are those Indian women who taught us that individuality was about the freedom of mind, and that the mind could find its freedom even beneath traditional garbs? Where are those Indian women who taught us that courage was not about the liberalism with which one dressed, but about confronting the horrors and tragedies of life, surviving them and outliving them? Where are those women who taught us that courage was not about sitting in the company of men and smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol , but about sitting in the company of men, and being able to talk intelligently about the subjects that concern human life on this planet… from politics to astronomy!The women who taught us the difference between rebellion and revolution?

One is mesmerized by Lajo and Veeravali, as they discuss the political scenario of the nation. ‘Somehow, my heart lies more in revolution than in these textbooks of literature and Mathematics!‘, says Lajo when Master Haveli Ram tutors her.

They are all unique in their own ways- Lajo, Veeravali, Mangala, Nivedita. And yet, there is something common to them- that traditional Indian spirit that gleams in their eyes, like a raw, uncut diamond. They are vulnerable and easily wounded. But within them is a spirit that enables them to outlive their personal tragedies. It is this resilience that makes them attractive- their refusal to be victimized by the tragedies in their lives…their ability to be wounded, and yet gather themselves up and walk again.

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Somehow, Buniyaad transformed my world. In this numbness that surrounds me, I always look for emotions. The opportunity to feel. To feel without having to think. To cry, to rejoice. And with the characters in Buniyaad, that is what I have been doing. I cry with them, I rejoice with them. And I find that I am suddenly able to do the same in my life. They teach me to pause in the course of my life, just so that I allow myself to feel…so that I can rejoice, and I can cry. They teach me that its is okay to be wounded…it is okay to cry. Just that you must be able to get up and walk again.

Technology is a boon. For many, it is a gateway to the future. To unknown possibilities. For me, it is a gateway to my past- to the emotional world that characterized my past-

It is a gateway to the forgotten essence of a rich tradition and culture that we somehow left behind.It is a gateway to the forgotten alleys where an ancient Indian spirit lies, trampled by the horses of globalization. It is a gateway to the humanity that once thrived on this planet.

I had never imagined that some day, I would be watching all the TV shows and cartoons that I watched as a child, recreating the magic of my childhood.

I have now moved on to the classic cartoons. I realize that even cartoon characters in those days were inspired by life. As I watch the adorable Pluto who is carried away by his impulses, but is moved to tears by the suffering of fellow creatures, I feel that perhaps these stories that made up my childhood, have played a huge role in shaping my perspective of the world. I strongly suspect that these stories that sowed the seeds of humanity in me and have expanded the horizons of my mind to embrace all living creatures as deserving kindness, empathy and compassion.

The past will never return, but I know that I will always belong to the past. Every step that I take into the future, will always have its foundation resting in the past- a beautiful and fragrant past. A past that has immortalized itself in my soul and that shall accompany my soul in its journey from this world. This beauty and fragrance is all that I shall carry from this world to the next…