Friday, 12 December 2014

Please don't burn out.

Imagine for a moment that you're put in charge of about ten people temporarily and you really don't like these chaps, they're just horrible to work with. Let's say you decide to mess with them - how would you go about breaking their spirits? Personally, I think the most effective way would be to just relentlessly pile on with near-impossible deadlines, all the while raising expectations by showering them with praise. It'd only be a matter of time till they cracked and broke down crying.

If you think that's f**ked up, then what about the fact that most of us are exactly as cruel on a yearly basis... except that the mistreated employees here are the various bits of you that work to keep you healthy.

Loyal to a Fault

Sometimes I imagine my body like a dangerously loyal friend.
  • Need to stay awake all night to study for that exam tomorrow? No problem!
  • He's hungry and needs a sandwich but you just can't drag yourself away from your laptop? That's okay, he'll wait.
  • You're both really drunk but you need to ride home safely? No worries, he'll take responsibility; he's just always so confident!
But despite this weird selflessness, it's almost become fashionable nowadays to be mean to our bodies; think of the number of workaholics who wear sleep deprivation like a badge of honour! "I'm working so hard, look at me!"

Of course the problem is that nothing comes free. Sure, you can survive with only 5 hours of sleep a night, but you'll be measurably dumber the next day. Technically you could survive without exercise but you'll become progressively unhealthier and more susceptible to mental and physical illness. What we've lost sight of is the difference between mere surviving and actually thriving! Everyone seems to be walking around in this constant mental fog, with all those little aches and pains everywhere and we think it's normal when that's not how it's supposed to be! If you need proof, you find me a healthy child who needs to warm up for 20 minutes before playing for fear of pulling his hamstring.

The straw that broke the camel's back

But then, what happens if you end up pushing too far? In a way, the immense adaptability of the body is also it's biggest weakness. The body doesn't complain proportional to the amount of stress it's taking on. Which is kind of stupid also; if it was a proportional reaction then most of us would make lifestyle corrections waaaayy sooner than we usually do.

So what happens is that your body endures and endures and endures (with the situation deteriorating all the while) until something small finally tips the scale. It's around this stage that you get people in their 30's with heart attacks and the like. For example, cancerous cells occur naturally even in healthy people but are kept from flourishing if the immune system is functioning well. There's already a strong link established between lifestyle factors and cancer, maybe someday we'll be able to prevent cancer altogether with proper lifestyle adjustments.


So what can we do? How are we to reclaim a higher standard of existence where we actually start to flourish! Personally, I think that it might be a good strategy to just start with the basic, simple joys of life... get enough sleep, eat decently (whatever that means to you) and see what happens.

Also, and this is something I struggle with, but find a way to start at soon as possible without worrying about doing it perfectly.

Eventually just start some kind of movement / mindfulness practice - something like yoga that flexes both your body and mind. If you really really want to get into it you can also look into something called the "Quantified Self" movement, which might herald the next stage of human evolution; but that's a subject for another post.

Really though it's just shocking how much of a difference the little things make, like getting a decent amount of sleep; it'd be nice to finally actually wake up for once.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Handling anxiety

There's this illustration I saw online some time ago; something about what it would look like if people talked about say, heart attacks the way we sometimes discuss depression. So there's a scene where the wife is complaining to her friend like "He just collapsed in the morning and then lay around all day, and then I had to run all the errands myself." or something similar.

Then the other day I happened to find out what Trichotillomania is. It's this obsessive disorder where the person compulsively pulls out his/her own hair; usually off the head, eyebrows or eye-lashes.  

(Check out video below, it's the one that introduced me to the condition. I think it shares the first-person feel of it quite brilliantly)

Everyone worries.

Now depression and other mental health issues only get noticed once they get diagnosed but generally speaking I think it wouldn't be a stretch to say that everyone has some amount of shit to deal with. Considering that this sort of pain seems so central to being human, I think we could all use a slightly healthier way to think about dealing with it. Not just a mechanism to help people to cope better, but something to actively aid in recovery.

Now as far as society is concerned, there are always people who will misunderstand so there's not much to be done about them. (And then there are people who do understand and for those you should be truly grateful...) But when you find yourself going through crap, the way in which you choose to think about the experience can make a tremendous difference.

Anxiety is neither created nor destroyed...

What I've been thinking a lot about lately is something that could be called a "Law of Conservation of Anxiety". The laws that conserve energy or momentum have sound mathematical backing but here my proofs are slightly more empirical, if not completely anecdotal. Basically we seem to have a talent for accepting anxiety from situations or other people. Once accepted though, the anxiety doesn't go away until it's deliberately released through some form of expression; through either a creative or destructive impulse.

Now this would all be fine, but the unexpressed anxiety tends to sit around and fester and eventually leak out in other (seemingly unrelated) areas of life and cause mental-health symptoms. It's natural that this happens but the problem is that sometimes these symptoms are the only things that are tangible enough to discuss with anyone. That can then lead to people trying to help fix the symptom since only you (may) know the actual issue.

How nots to thinks


Why this is difficult to discuss meaningfully is because we're not talking about anything tangible here, it's all ultimately just a collection of thoughts. Thoughts in and thoughts out. Sometimes the inward-bound thoughts come accompanied by a situation but the anxiety is almost always a thought about the thing, not the thing itself. Similarly the outbound thought might be accompanied by poetry or art or whatever but... well you get the idea.

What's particularly tricky is if the thing causing worry and the area of life experiencing symptoms are externally connected because then it feeds back on itself. So for example, let's say you worry about your health. In fact you worry so much that you end up worsening your health. So then you worry that you're worried too much about your health. Which then leads to you worrying that you really shouldn't be worrying about your worry, you should be trying to worry less. Then eventually you're just worrying that you're worried that you're worried that you're... yea.

One helpful short-term thing might be to just arbitrarily limit your meta-worrying... (Bro, it's like Inception bro... wooaahhh) But basically at some point you have to just stop thinking or else, as Alan Watts said, you "won't have anything to think about but thoughts..."

How to thinks


So yea, all of this gets a little complicated but I don't think it necessarily has to be. Also, I don't think we need to re-invent the wheel in terms of how to think about non-physical pain. 

As such, we've all gotten cuts and bruises and various kinds of physical injury and we have an excellent and extensive vocabulary to deal with these situations. By and large if you fall down and scrape your knee all you have to do is clean it off, attend to it and then let it heal. The initial pain is an extremely useful thing in this scenario because it lets you know that you're hurt to begin with; without the pain you might just carry on what you were doing and not giving the injury whatever attention is necessary.

The big shift in thinking is really just realizing that emotional wounds are really not so different from physical wounds. That initial emotional pain doesn't mean that something's wrong with you - it's what's supposed to happen! Do whatever you can to tend to the wound and then just leave it alone, definitely don't spend any more time poking at it and worrying about it. Worrying that you might not be healing, or that you might not be healing fast enough is pretty pointless; sometimes things just need a certain amount of time to happen.

So yea, that was just my two cents on the subject. I'll leave you to extend the metaphor in whatever direction you find helpful. Depending on how badly you feel you've been hurt, it might totally make sense to just go get a professional to help you with the it.

Be well everyone. :)

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Don't worry if you couldn't vote this year...

For the past few days my Feed has been inundated with photos of people's inked thumbs. Like all Big Events, the Lok Sabha 2014 elections caused all manner of sharing across the various media, and it's always a sight to see. But amidst all the hopeful, proud photos of people there was a saddened set of people. A fair number wanted to vote but weren't able to for some reason. Either they were traveling or they weren't registered or their names were not to be found or whatever.

To be fair, I can't even begin to imagine the sheer logistical nightmare it must be to organize an election across more than a billion people! But still it kinda sucks when these things happen. But there's hope yet, assuming that the you really wanted to "make a difference". 

Just do something. 

Do anything for that matter, anything at all!

Educate yourself about nationally important topics, read up on a little economic theory, make a video about an issue or a charity that's important to you, volunteer at your old school, mentor someone who you think you might have something to teach, volunteer on a local clean-up drive, help out at an NGO, check out your company's CSR division, do anything! If you're really into it you might even build the next social enterprise that ends up bringing clean drinking water to a whole bunch of people.

And yes, of course these things are hard. Of course these actions take time. Even to donate money to someone like a requires more time than it takes to walk to the polling station and vote. But then again, whoever said that all it took to be a good citizen was to press a little blue button once every five years. The truth is that while voting is quite important, it's really only the least you can do as a good citizen.

The truth is...


The truth is that you are so much more capable than you've been led to believe. 

Think of all the skills that you've acquired over all these years. Think of how much difference it would make if even one of those skills was something that could bring joy to someone else. And don't worry about "Changing the World" and all that nonsense, just tend to your little corner of the universe as best as you can.

Think of what would happen if your efforts were to start accumulating. What if others started following suit, tending to their own little corners as best as they can. 55% voter turnout in Bangalore is low? Nonsense, think of what even 55% of that 55% could do if they all started looking outward a little bit.

The truth is that you are so. much. more. capable than you've been led to believe. Some quick pointers though:
  1. Don't try to do it all at once.
  2. Don't assume that you always know what's best for everyone, and
  3. Don't worry that your efforts aren't big enough.

Don't try to do it all at once

I think the biggest hurdle is always the first step, which is to get out of the chair and actually do something. Then last year I watched this interview with a very young entrepreneur who had her own social enterprise helping underpriveleged children, and she said something that was a real kick in the pants for me.
I think... something that they do a lot is they want their NGO's to be really large immediately, which is not going to happen... But if they start small and are practical, then it's really not that hard.
I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea. You should really check out the rest of the interview if you can, it's quite cool.

Don't assume that you always know what's best

This should be self explanatory. Generally just try and have a good handle on all the assumptions you're making about a particular problem and then keep your eyes and ears open to see if those assumptions pan out in the real world.

Don't be self-absorbed about your service to the the public, that's just the worst.

Don't worry that your efforts aren't big enough

Lastly, and this is a tough one, don't worry that the issues are just too large to make any kind of dent. You'd be surprised at the number of movements that have started from just a small dedicated team of like two or three people. 

Hey and if it's really getting you down, just think of the lesson of the 'Dancing Guy'.

Closing Thoughts

There was a version of this poem in our school diaries. Must've read this thing about a million times without really getting it, but I've gotten a new perspective on it over time:
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.

I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.

When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn't change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.

Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.

Edit (20/04/2013) : 
  • I should clarify that the elections as such are still on-going, it's just the Karnataka phase got done very recently.
  • Also, I added some more links to some projects I'm aware of. There are doubtless many more that're as deserving. 
  • Minor other changes.