02 March, 2014

Mindfully connecting with ourselves

Several times in the past, I've written about my traumatic and depressive childhood, stemming primarily from what I consider to be severe philosophical defects in our approach to education and social life in general. Our schooling primarily emphasized on conformance, passive compliance, operational-skill building and performance within strict boundaries. It didn't emphasize on elements like curiosity, insight-building, contemplation, argumentation, empowerment, problem-solving skills, etc.

And the emphasis on conformance was so high that, curiosity to ask questions beyond what is taught, or any form of non-conformance was seen as something immoral. Let me emphasize on the word "immoral" again.. Like for example, in our English-medium school, speaking in Kannada or any of our mother tongues was considered "immoral" enough to be subject to punishments like being humiliated publicly, beatings, being locked up in the bathroom, and such.

I've often compared this kind of schooling with "slave-training," and it indeed stems from what our society has been through over the last several centuries. This form of schooling (and even our approach to governance, law-making and law-enforcing, for example), is still very very rampant all over, even today.

Recently, I heard a statistic -- suicide rates in Bangalore is pretty high and comparable with that of Sweden. Except that in Sweden, suicides are primarily caused by physical reasons (inadequate light in winters), while in Bangalore, suicides are almost wholly due to social reasons. That should put things in perspective!

It is one thing to appreciate the beauty that is latent in a harmonious, obsequious and compliant lifestyle, but it is yet another thing to adopt it as a philosophy of life -- by stifling away curiosity, accepting ideas without judgment, and compromising the search for truth with faith in our beliefs.

Our state of affairs pained me and continues to pain me at such a deep level. It provokes a visceral response whenever I see or are asked to conform to some ritualistic activity or notion, or to go with the herd.

Perhaps naively, several years ago, I had decided that even though I'm pained no end to simply lead a normal life here, I will not run away from here, but instead, do my bit to bring about some change in our society. I'd been inspired by several parables like the following:
A man walking on the beach saw that the tide had turned at the beach and the sea had receded, leaving behind several thousands of fish that were suddenly separated from water and writhing in the sand. There was a boy who was diligently picking up one fish after another and throwing them back in the water. But there were so many of them.. "It is no use," said the man.. "you will never be able to save them all." The boy picked a fish, threw it back into the water, and said, "Well, I saved that one!" and went about his activity.. 
After looking around aimlessly for several years, I thought I'd found my calling -- in doing my bit towards re-educating and re-wiring our society. It was of course a naive belief. Our current ideas are so deeply entrenched and so rampant, it was not before long that I've encountered all kinds of things that has pained and outraged me no end.

Soon, it became clear that I need to be dispassionate, objective and not react emotionally to keep myself sane. And slowly I began to ignore what I felt about things and subdue my emotions in order to keep my judgment engine working.

Every morning, I developed a ritual to tell myself several times over: "How you feel about things, does not matter.."

It worked for a while and helped be become level-headed and dispassionate. How I felt about stuff, indeed didn't matter to the world at large. Only hard-headed argumentation showing and demonstrating flaws in our current beliefs, could send some messages across.

But, how I felt, did indeed matter to me -- to my body. An emotional reaction is a physical response to stimuli. My body was reacting when someone spoke in a patronizing, head-patting tone or made a moral issue over some kind of unfamiliar idea, without applying their minds to it. But I had told myself that my body's response didn't matter and had subdued my emotional responses.

This in turn had started to affect my health in a slow and insidious manner -- affecting everything from general health to overall efficiency in leading a routine life.

Finally, fighting stereotypes and societal stigma against mental health, I went to several psychiatrists. But it only made things worse. The shrinks turned out to be preachers in the guise of doctors, preaching me back into conformance and submission -- and prescribing drugs to keep my emotional response subdued. They worked under the assumption that there was something wrong with me and I need to be "corrected" to fit in back into the society. They were the epitome of the very ideas that I was fighting against!

I realized what I was doing wrong. My emotional response may not matter to the world -- but it is not wrong or immoral to respond emotionally! There is no need for it to be subdued! My emotional responses are innate -- it is nature speaking! My body was protesting against injustice in its own way and by subduing it, I was subjecting it to even more injustice! The problem that I was fighting against, indeed lay outside of me, and here I was, punishing myself for protesting against beliefs that are indeed wrong! Those beliefs preaching unquestioning submission and conformance -- they are what are immoral, not the ones who don't conform to them!

Needless to say, I threw away all those prescription anti-depressants. There is no way I was going to punish my body for a crime that it didn't commit.

Some time ago, I met this person, let me call him P. Ironically, he is a preacher by profession. But he taught me something, which even the psychiatrists could not. He taught me to "mindfully" and amorally (not immorally) connect with my emotional self.

Till now, either my emotional response was coloring my judgment or it was being forcefully subdued by my judgment engine. It was as though they were both at war with one another -- trying to prove who is more powerful. My judgment engine was "unmindfully" engaging with my emotional engine.

Mindfulness is the opposite of this -- it is a means to obtain internal harmony before trying to bring about external harmony. It is a way by which we can allow our emotional self that also controls our physical response, to express what it is feeling, without passing a judgment or without jumping to conclusions based on what it is expressing.

Mindful connections with ourselves requires us to feel fully and wholly our emotional responses to stuff that are stored away in our episodic memory. But this has to be done in a fully conscious manner -- knowing fully well that this is only a physical response -- not a semantic response. These emotions are not to cloud our judgment and our balance in perspectives. They just need to be expressed.

Meditating in a mindful manner is all about the concept of mindfulness. It has got nothing to do with watching our breathing, posture, etc. (which are the stuff of what I was preached about meditation. I could never understand why focusing on our breathing will help us in giving an answer to why do we have such a slave mentality and how to get out of it.)

With the help of P, I've been practicing mindfulness for some time now. It has been a very painful and tumultuous journey so far. So many episodes, right from my childhood came hitting back at me in full force. So many pains re-emerged so much so that my body started paining in all those places that I'd been hurt earlier. I remember once my school principal had pulled me up by pinching my shoulder and had started slapping me. That pain came back in full force! I was even limping for several days after one such mindful connection sessions.

The only difference now was that, the "I" was separate from what was happening inside me. I was a mindful spectator of myself -- watching what was stored in my episodic memory and how it had affected my emotional self. I could see how deeply hurt I was -- at a moral, emotional and spiritual level. Except that this hurt was not controlling my judgment anymore. I could see this hurt in a dispassionate and objective fashion by turning my level-headed judgment engine towards observing myself. I could see how at an emotional level, I could not trust anyone -- including anyone who called themselves a friend -- including P, who had taught me mindfulness. Indeed, I could not trust myself fully to not breakdown and lose my head in the face of some kind of emotional stimuli.

Connecting with myself was so painful, it had literally knocked me down several times. I'd slept for almost entire parts of weekends (when I used to practice this). I was urged not to let myself be knocked down, which makes the experience unmindful, and instead, try and keep myself awake and observant.

After several such sessions, one day I suddenly saw myself as my childhood self, emerging from deep within all these stored up episodic memory. I could literally visualize myself as emerging from under a huge rock face that was all my episodic responses, weighing down under me. I could visualize myself hiding under the bed in my childhood home, in sheer terror -- precisely the way I used to react at the prospect of going to school in kindergarden.

I suddenly realized that my entire life till now has been shaped and built by this terrified boy hiding under the bed. Who I am has been shaped by things that are so deep down, that I had no other strong enough emotions at this level, to balance my understanding of the outside world. My distrustfulness emanates right from those days hiding under the bed as a 3-year old.

I do not want to associate yet another emotion towards this discovery. I state the above observations dispassionately, without judgment towards myself or towards the external world. I state this publicly on this blog, in the hope that it can help others mindfully connect with themselves and discover what's been driving them all along.

All of these only reinforce my judgement that we are deeply messed up as a society. Even at a philosophical level, we are damaging our children by not nurturing their thinking and problem solving skills, and instead stressing on performance, compliance and operational skill building. Creating craftsmen from our children is fine, but it should not come at the expense of not creating thinkers from children who want to become thinkers.

We teach children to respect adults, but never teach adults to respect children. But most importantly, we do not realize that the adults treat children this way, because they themselves were treated like this -- this is a problem that has been imposed on us for several centuries. I do not like to call this "abuse" -- because none of these actions were intentional. Even the principal who terrorized us in school, perhaps genuinely believed that this is the "right" way to discipline children. By calling this "abuse" and harassing the adults, we are in fact as a system, abusing a similar terrified child inside these adults, that is hiding under a bed itself.

The only way we can "fight" this problem is by spreading compassion and genuine respect -- among children and adults alike. We have to build a society where people of any age, gender, ethnicity or whatever, can freely express themselves. At least for a start, we should build safe places or supporting communities, where people can express their emotions without fear of being judged or admonished. The child in us never dies -- who we are as adults is just the persona created by our child within, as defenses to deal with the external world.

Who we really are, is the child within. Unless we can "re-parent" the distrustful child and get our emotional and judgment engines to trust one another, we cannot hope to bring about any major changes outside.


vani murarka said...

So so beautiful Srinath. It is so heartening for me to read this account of yours. There is a tightness I am feeling just now, emanating from sadness, knowing fully well (in my own manner) all that this post contains -
but as you so beautifully conclude -
"Who we really are, is the child within. Unless we can 're-parent' the distrustful child " and each one of us who realizes that, connects with ourselves, heals ourselves, we come step by step closer to each other and form a team ...

Srinath Srinivasa said...

Thanks Vani!

saanchi said...

The concept of "mindfulness" is practised among Buddhists. I got to know about it through a book by "Pema Chodron" . And though I kind of think that you are not into meditation etc. But I like the perspective and thoughts of her related to "mindfulness".

Srinath Srinivasa said...

Thanks, and yes, I have read about mindfulness and there are lots of practices (and rackets) around mindfulness too. What appeals me, more than the "practice" of meditation, is the concept behind what we are doing -- if there is a strong enough mental model explaining how different things are connected, then we can devise our own practices.