Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mental Wellness

As several of us enter the dark days of winter and SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lurks – I thought I would share some thoughts.
I am obsessed with mental health and wellness, especially combating depression, and therefore am a great proponent of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). In most societies people have to act like they have had the happy pill. We need to give ourselves permission to be sad. However, we also need to recognise that depression is not just sadness. It is despondency. If you have never walked in the shoes of someone with depression (and I have, early on in life) then you cannot know the feelings of anxiety, negativity, pessimism, lack of self- worth and hopelessness that comes over one. MBCT was something that I stumbled upon quite serendipitously when I suffered 30 years ago. It came to me through a most obscure source and I did not even know it was called that until several years later. I interpreted J.Krishnamurthy’s teachings (and if you have read them you wil know why I call them obscure!) which I absorbed through his books and in-person lectures, to mean just that. The phrase that stuck with great resonance was this, “the thought is not the thing described”. And just like that light bulbs went off in my head and I was able to separate perception from reality.

However, mere words can do nothing. Two derivative practices have endured for me. One, a discipline of noticing the filters through which I observe my actions, thoughts and feelings, clouded as they are by past experiences, learnt stereotypes and fear of the unknown. Two, facing all thoughts, feelings and sensations without trying to shut out those which evoke unpleasant bodily reactions – a churning in the pit of the stomach, tremor, racing pulse or dry mouth. I suffered through it all. Those initial years were tough. I needed the strength of my own conviction that this was the only way to live and I had to soldier on, one excruciating minute at a time. Thankfully today MBCT is a credible field gaining every day.

Simply defined MBCT “involves observing thoughts and emotions from moment to moment without judging or becoming caught up in them. During a practice session, when the mind wanders, the meditator ideally takes note of where it goes, and calmly returns to the moment at hand, perhaps focusing on breath, bodily sensations or a simple yoga move” (

I have had several people speak to me about symptoms which could amount to depression. While I am not one for labelling anything, I think it can be liberating for an individual to know that their “sadness” is not a character flaw but possibly a physiological condition made worse by an unconducive environment (represented by life’s stressors). They can be proactive. We don’t still know what MBCT does to the structure of the brain and physiology but it does dramatically and pleasantly alter how we react to our experiences.

No reason - I just felt compelled to share these thoughts today. There are number of youtube videos on MBCT which can give you more information. However, feel free to ping me if you want suggestions. Keep well!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Eulogy for a dear friend

On that awful day in Oct 2014 when I got the news of Latha’s diagnosis, I knew several lives would no longer be the same, mine included. What I did not know was how much I would learn from my dear friend during those 10 months that followed. I saw someone who never for a moment drew attention to her condition or got emotional, but who continued along, business as usual, in the most practical and inspiring way. Who continued to joke and laugh over how she did not have time for all the potions she was being prescribed, who said “breast is best no?” (meaning a diagnosis of breast cancer would have been so much better) and who actually indulged others’ minor distresses – ie my sciatic pain or someone else’s headache. When I asked her once if she was not afraid– she returned “where is the time man? All I think about in this moment is if I should have green tea or dandelion tea”. One day on a more serious note she said to me “when I wake up at night and find myself wallowing in self-pity, I remember my dad telling me that it would do me no good and I stop”. Even as the disease progressed and her pain got worse, her humour and presence of mind never abated. One morning in July I asked her how she was feeling and here is her response verbatim “with the onslaught of the nuclear missiles of modern medicines like oxycodone and aleve I must say I am comparatively peachy. I even made curry yesterday. I am seriously considering becoming a drug addict. Forget the blessed tiger balm and what not. Whatcha doing?”

Latha did everything well. She was artistic, organised, incredibly clever and engaging, an amazing gardener, a fantastic cook, a great and loyal friend and above all a wonderful wife and mother. She was elegant, bubbly and expressive infusing any atmosphere with her exaggerated and funny facial and verbal expressions and her mirthful infectious laugh. But, she was by no means frivolous. She was very disciplined, ran a beautiful and well kept home, celebrated all festivals with gusto and reverence and raised her kids Neeraja and Prashant to speak Tamil, be kind, loving, affectionate, respectful and practical just like her. She was a wonderful companion and a pillar of strength to Sunder.

With her friends, she epitomised fierce loyalty. She had a wide circle through her personal and professional circles and also endeared herself to people easily, inviting newcomers to Canada, and people she had just met into her larger fold. She is the only one I know who had boundless capacity to maintain friendships over decades even with friends who have moved away.

Ask any one and they will tell you that she was their go to person for all kinds of information. When she sick in the hospital, I asked Sunder where I could get something and he turned to Latha and said “I don’t know but she does.” Alas she was unable to respond and selfishly I thought about how much I had taken her presence in our lives for granted.

Some things in life are incomprehensible. Why would such an amazing person who took such good care of her mind, body and spirit fall sick? Someone who ate right, practised yoga, exercised and always kept good cheer? Who had so much left to live for? Well we can only take comfort in her own words to me one morning in July “Baba says work off your karma and I will help you. Why carry over your karmas when you can finish it off in this birth. Be patient and I will help you.” It was probably not a coincidence that she died on Baba’s birthday and after all that she had faced so valiantly, she definitely had more wisdom than most.