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As I stared at my screen, about 33 funny stories came to mind. That is what I usually do – write about funny stuff. “Not today”, spoke a gentle yet firm voice inside my head. “Today, you will write about your journey over the last few months, and share what you’ve learnt”, it continued. So here I am, penning down thoughts and feelings, as I take off my funny mask and bare my soul.
Through the sojourn of life, people go through many hardships – each different, yet each equally unhappy. Some may worry about not getting the right job, some others about a failed relationship, yet others about an unhappy situation at home, a lot of folks about money and its perpetual insufficiency, a few about not having children, a few others about having them – the list is endless, yet we get sucked into our unhappiness and often, find it very hard to get out of the rut.
I found myself in an unhappy spot a couple of years ago. This was an unfamiliar feeling to me. At the ripe age of 33, I found out I didn’t know how to cope with it. Thus began a journey of experimentation and learning, and I feel I’ve grown tremendously as a human being these last 18 months. I’ve become more compassionate, less judgmental and more giving. Here’s a list that worked for me:
1. The problem doesn’t get smaller; life gets bigger
I’ve been told very often that time heals pain, and that grief that seems insurmountable gets smaller over time. The implicit assumption there is that the size of your problem gets smaller. I tend to disagree. Instead of focusing on making a problem “smaller”, I chose to make my life “bigger”. I volunteered for projects at work; I chose to learn something new; I made new friends. My “problem” continued being the same size, but my life had expanded.
Often times, our minds are used to taking paths it has always taken. If one thinks “I must NOT think like that. I must NOT react like that” the urge to take that path is even greater. Not only do you end up taking the path that you did not want to take, but you also end up feeling terrible about having no self-control. However, when you enlarge your life, you are giving your mind alternate routes to take without meaning to. Over time, the urge to tread on much thought upon routes reduces, simply because you’ve expanded your network of routes.
2. Be selfish
I learnt that I could never be part of a happy relationship unless I was happy myself. The relationship could be with my spouse, my child, my parents, my job or my friends. I chose to do things that made me happy. I chose to take time away from other important activities, to focus on myself. As a mother of a 4 year old, as a wife, as a daughter and as an employee, that seemed to be a selfish thing to do. But being selfish worked.
I signed up for yoga classes 5 days a week. I read book series after book series. I went for walks in the middle of my work day. I watched mindless TV that made me happy. All of these activities were done in isolation. This was my “me time”. As I started getting happier, I brought more happiness to my relationships. The “us time” that suffered over those months suddenly saw a step change. I brought a fuller, happier me into every interaction.
3. Derive energy from the universe
Spirituality is a deeply personal choice. I chose to meditate for 15 minutes each day. On days when practicing vipassana was too hard, I’d just watch my breath. On days when watching my breath was too hard, I turned to lighting a lamp early in the morning and chanting – Hindu prayers, Buddhist verses, even the simple yet all powerful “Om”. On days when chanting was too hard, I went to a temple and soaked in the surroundings. I did this at the beginning of every morning. Sitting for those 15 minutes set the tone for the day.
4. Share and seek help
I was known to be a go-getter and an achiever. What people thought about me mattered a lot. This prevented me from sharing my worries and sadness with friends and family. The first step was recognizing that I cared about other people’s opinion a lot. The second, was to realize that I needed to share my pain with someone. I chose to find a counsellor. I opened up to a complete stranger. She knew more about me than my closest friends did. Family is not determined by whose womb you come out of alone; it is also about people who touch your soul. I opened up my soul to my counsellor and felt my burden lightening.
After a few sessions, I chose a friend that I knew was empathetic and shared some bits of my story with her. Sharing my story made her open up and share stories about herself. Even though I knew this girl for over 2 decades, those 2 conversations brought us closer than the 2 decades ever had. There is a popular saying which goes, “Joy multiples when shared, and grief halves when shared”. That couldn’t have been more true with me.
5. Step out
I mean this one quite literally. On days that I felt terribly sad, I just stepped out of my workplace, into the open. I’d go for walks and feel the breeze. Sometimes I’d feel the warmth of the sun as she kissed my hands. At others, I would hear a little bird chirping from a faraway tree. Many times, I observed cows chewing on their cud, or dogs fighting over some food. There is something about nature that has a calming effect on me. I liked being in the open, and for those few minutes, the vastness and openness of nature brought me immense peace. And just 10 minutes of peace can have an unbelievable ripple effect. It made the rest of my day much better than it was.
6. Breaking an addiction, one step at a time
I recognized the mind was following certain addictive patterns. I looked at the patterns as if a scientist were working on a new discovery. I identified the steps that went into my behavior. If I did 5 things regularly as part of my addictive pattern, I chose one thing that I would stop doing over a period of time. I told myself, “I will not do x for the next 5 days”. I set myself a small, but achievable target. I had tried stopping it all earlier, but was met with no success. But this small goal was easier to fulfill. Hour 1 was the hardest. By day 5, I’d almost forgotten I used to do step 1. I continued not doing x for longer periods of time. The urge to do the other 4 also reduced tremendously as I stopped doing 1. A lot of these smaller steps feed into one another strongly. The hardest task is finding those small patterns and then choosing one small pattern to stop.
7. Being aware of things to be grateful for
I was stuck with a truckload of negative thoughts at one point in time. I started this small exercise of listing out 5 things I was grateful for, every day. The first week, I set an extra challenge of not repeating anything I’d mentioned in the past. It sometimes takes listing out things to bring them from some far corner of your mind up to the forefront. At the end of the week, I was amazed at my list, and that little positive seed sprouted into a little plant that I continue to water everyday
8. Sleep, sleep and more sleepThe sadder I was, the less sleep I got. The less sleep I got, the sadder I became. One fed the other, and I struggled to get out of the vicious cycle. I then chanced upon a great trick. I would tire myself out each day, and would get knocked out cold by the time the clock struck 22:00. The other small habit I changed was not looking at the clock every time I woke up in the middle of the night. There seems to be a mysterious direct correlation between knowing how much more sleep you can get and the amount of sleep you actually get. That small habit of not keeping my phone around helped me get more sleep.
Except for my family and close friends, no one else during the period knew I was going through a hard time. I was at my funniest best, I had never looked better, I had never performed better at work. But I was broken inside. It taught me that no matter what anyone looks like from the outside, you have no idea about the battles that are raging on the inside. A little bit of kindness goes a long way in making the universe a better place.