Tag Archives: Stress

Mind and uncertainty

Over lunch today, my friend Dileep narrated to me an interesting incident.
Yesterday, he had been to a Cake Exhibition in Bangalore with his family. While he was standing in the queue for purchasing tickets, a board that said ‘Tender exact change’ caught his attention. The ticket was priced at 49 Rupees. He had two 1000 Rupee notes and one 500 Rupee note in his purse. He needed to buy 4 tickets, which would cost him 4X49 = 196 rupees. He would naturally would have given the 500 Rupee note for purchasing the tickets, which meant he had to get 304 Rupees back.

The board made irritated a bit when he thought of the 4 rupees. Was it something logical to expect everyone to carry exact change? Wasn’t the authorities responsible to keep enough change with them? Then he wondered whether they would give him the 4 rupees back or round the amount to 200 rupees. That would be very likely, but quite unfair. What was he supposed to do? Demand four rupees back? Will he look silly making a scene for just 4 rupees? He should make it clear that it was an issue of professional dealings and nothing to do with that insignificant amount…..

In no time his mind was caught up these thoughts going back and forth. The uncertainity was unbearable. Once at the ticket counter, he gave the 500 Rupee note and purchased 4 tickets. Unable to hold back any more, he asked the lady at the counter –‘Aren’t you going to give me the change’. ‘Yes’ she said and gave him four rupees back.

What a relief, the uncertainty that had gripped the mind for few long minutes suddenly ended.

It was only the today morning, when he checked his purse, did he realize that he had forgotten to collect the remaining 300 rupees at the counter yesterday. He was so caught up with the 4 rupees that everything else did not seem to matter.

Not that it was a goody story (at least for him), but I liked it immensely for the deep meaning. This is a snapshot of what keeps happening in our lives. The mind does not like uncertainity.The objective of all that thinking, planning, aggression, action and logic is to make life as certain as possible in the future. Therefore even the slightest uncertainity poses a threat that the mind need to fight with all its might. It pushes everything to the background and takes possession of thinking, however trivial the uncertainity is. No wonder we never hear the birds sing, feel the breeze, sees the sun splashing the evening sky with magnificient colours. They are all not important; will the next meeting, next task, next investment go as anticipated. That all that matters.

The famous philospoher Jiddu Krishnamurthy was asked, just before his death, what was the secret of his happiness. While the audience waited with a bated breath to hear that great secret from Jiddu, he simply said ‘ I don’t mind what happens’.

Tips for handling Sleep problems

There is nothing like a sound sleep to keep one fresh and going. With me it’s much more; I sort of have a dependency on it. My mind almost refuses to function if I have not had a real sound sleep. So naturally, sleep has been an area of interest to me. Recently, I have had several discussions around sleeping problems with many people. It looks like quite a few have one or the other issues. Therefore I thought it makes sense to write a post on it. And as it looks, it turnt out to be an unusually long one.

Typically there are three problems: Getting in to sleep, maintaining the sleep and lastly not feeling fresh even after 8 hrs of sleep. When one or more of this happens regularly, that’s a sure sign that something is not really right

Most common and simplest of the problems is getting in to sleep. This is an indication that the mind and or the body is very active. First get the basics right: avoid exercises/ coffee/ smoke for 2-3 hrs prior to the sleep. Also avoid stimulating mental activities. A gap of 2 hrs between your meals and sleep is recommended and it is also advised not to drink plenty of water before getting to sleep.

 Contrary to the general perception, alcohol does not induce a good sleep. The quality of the sleep is severely impacted by alcohol and in higher quantities, it interferes with the memory. The process of storing temporary memory to permanent memory happens at night through a process called ‘memory consolidation’ and alcohol has a direct influence with it.

 Most of the restlessness in the body and the mind comes through an imbalance between the energies in the body and mind. If by nature your body energy is very high and mind energy low, you will have a lot of restlessness in the body. On the other hand, if your mind energy is very high and body energy low, you will have a lot of issues with obsessive thinking. In the first case, you need to include some relaxing activities in your daily schedule (like meditation) and in the second case you need to take up some solid exercising. Most issues with restlessness will be taken care of.

 Getting in to sleep becomes a problem when the mind is under stress, caught up with some compulsive thinking, brooding over a conflict/problem or is excessively obsessed with some planning. More compulsive the thinking is, more the effort to break it and get to sleep. In the case of stress, it is very common that people wake up in the middle of night (~2-3AM) and even before they know get sucked in to thinking and unable to resume sleep. In such cases, it’s a good idea to break the thought train and that will let you sleep peacefully.

Gibberish meditation is a simple but very handy technique to switch off this stream of thinking, even for those who do not have prior experience with mediation. I have written a separate post on it and advise you to read it. If your mind is too busy and does not let you sleep, practice it just before going to bed. You will sleep like a baby.

 For some people the problem is with scattered thoughts and off it goes from one thought to another. Such people will find it beneficial to do some ‘focusing’ just before going to bed. There is a great technique called ‘candle flame gazing’ that can help you (In yoga, this is called Trataka, in case you want to Google). Here is how you practice this. Place a glowing candle at arm’s length at the eye level. Sit relaxed and look at the flame of the candle. The flame should not flicker. After a while, when the eyes get tired gently close them and focus on the after image of the flame in the dark space before your eyes. When the image begins to fade/ move away, try to hold it steadily. When you can no longer hold the image, gently open the eyes and repeat the practice. Do it 4 or 5 times.

Practice notes:

  1. Instead of the candle flame, you can use a dot (.) on a wall
  2. People who suffer from any eye aliments should not practice Trataka
  3. People who suffer from epilepsy should not practice Trataka on a candle flame, instead should practice on the dot.
  4. It’s not recommended to practice Trataka for a prolonged period of time, as it might leave a permanent impression on your retina. Once a certain level of focus has been achieved, use some alternative techniques to maintain it
  5. When you practice Trataka, lot of suppressed impressions and emotions will surface. Sometimes they may surface too quickly and can make you down. If that happens, do not practice this technique.

 For people who have a strong unconscious mind (generally the emotional type of people), the problem is to do with the day’s events and other information need to be processed. Even when you are asleep, the unconscious mind keeps analyzing the events and tries to make sense. If you are a person who dream a lot, that’s an indication of this problem. This results in two issues. Firstly, you have no idea what the unconscious mind is doing with the information. Secondly, this consumes a lot of energy, so that you don’t feel fresh in the morning even after an 8 hour sleep. Here is a brilliant technique to handle this:

                Let’s call it the ‘rewind technique’. Just before you sleep lie on your back, close your eyes , relax your body and start re-playing the entire day’s events backwards from the moment you closed your eyes. Just watch as you watch a film. Don’t start thinking about it. Try to go in to as much detail as possible, like what you felt, what thoughts were going on in your mind at that time, the sense perceptions etc. Should you get distracted in between (very likely), gently bring your mind back and continue. Thought it may sound very simple, this is a profound technique and if you can practice it on a daily basis, not only that you will sleep like a baby, you will also be freed from the unconscious mental processing that makes your life miserable.

                 Stress is another common problem that causes sleeping problems. Stress affects both the ability to get in to sleep and maintain sleep. The root cause behind stress is that you have too much identified with your thoughts. If you generally have a lot of emotional burden, practicing some witnessing technique will help. The essence of this is to make a bit of distance with your mind, by watching it. But it’s not going to happen in one day. You will have to cultivate it gradually. Here is how you can practice it:

Before you go to bed, sit with your spine erect and watch the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. Thoughts will distract you; gently watch them and come back. You might alternatively observe the rise and fall of your abdomen as you breathe in and out. The most important thing here is not to strain. Be as relaxed as possible and watch it with a sense of detachment. About 20 minutes would generally suffice.

 If you have too much stress accumulated on your body (which is indicated by stiffness, tightening of muscles in more acute cases aches and pains), you can also watch your body from inside. Take your attention in to the body and watch your body from inside. Relax every muscle as you do this. The stress accumulating in the body is a common problem these days because of sedentary life styles and bad postures. Exercises and massages will also help to remove stress from your body. The exercises should involve stretching and relaxing of the muscles.

                 The sleeping posture bears an important correlation with the quality of sleep. There is a direct relationship between your thoughts and body movements. That’s when a specific kind of thought occurs in the mind, it creates specific body movement. The converse is also true. A stress on any muscle in the body  in turn triggers a particular thought pattern in the mind. If you sleep with your body tightened in any way, it’s time to change it. This is more the case with those who sleep on their tummy and hands tucked below the neck. Lying on your back or side is a definitely a more relaxed posture.

                 The time just before going to sleep and just after you wake up is very significant. This is when the conscious mind is still not very active, but the unconscious mind is active. Normally this is the time you kind of hallucinate. People with very strong unconscious mind, this is the time very deep impressions are created and reinforced. These impressions have a deep impact on your personality, mood etc. Two things will help. One is that you sleep when you are really sleepy; try reading something before you sleep or try one of the exercises described above. Secondly, leave the bed as soon as you are awake. This is very important especially for those who feel down in the mornings.

                If you are feeling tired even after 8 hours of ‘good sleep’, check out one of these possibilities. If the room is not ventilated, you may not get enough of oxygen at night and that could make you dull in the morning. For some people, it could be that your natural way of breathing is very shallow and it becomes more shallow at night. For such people, either a deep breathing technique (like Pranayams) or engaging in some aerobic activities would help.

                 There is a medical condition called sleep apnea, which obstructs the breathing during sleep. But it is hard to detect. If you have anytime woken up choked at night, perhaps this is one possibility. You will need to get medical help to sort this out.    

                Another reason why you feel tired in the morning is that the unconscious mind is very active during the night. The techniques described above (especially the ‘rewind technique’) will surely help. This is important for those who have a lot of emotional stress and confused patterns.

                 Some people who feel tired in the morning, despite a regular fixed sleeping pattern, might need to try increasing / decreasing the duration of the sleep by say 30 mts. The mind goes through different stages during sleep and when you wake up in some of those stages, you feel fresh and in some other stages you feel down , irrespective of the duration of the sleep. Sometime it so happens that you have a fixed schedule and you always get to wake up exactly during the phase where you feel down. If nothing else works, try to change the duration and see.

 You will need to experiment with some of these techniques for a few days to see what works for you.

Gibberish

 Long ago there lived a Sufi mystic, called Jabbar. He never spoke anything meaningful, but always talked gibberish. When people asked him something, he would just make some sound that didn’t make any sense. Initially people took him to be insane. But slowly they figured out that there was a great sense of peace in his presence and he had a very large following. And throughout his life, he never spoke anything that made sense…

We all have a compulsive need to keep talking – to make sense, to convey, to be right etc. What happens if we drop all these and just start talking whatever came to our mind? This is a form of meditation and is called the Gibberish meditation (This was popularized by the Indian philosopher, Osho). This is how the meditation is done.

Just start talking loud. There are two conditions. One is not to talk in any language that you know already and the other is to keep talking continuously without pauses. You could even make noises if that’s convenient to you. But just be spontaneous and keep making the noises without any gaps. After a while, just lie down and relax. You will be completely at peace. You will experience the state called ‘no mind’.

Many a times in our lives, we get caught up in compulsive thinking. When we get stuck with some serious problems, the mind clings to it so hard that it’s almost impossible to stop thinking. This is very prominent when people become stressed. Not only that it prevents you from getting to sleep, but many a times it happens that you wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking. Gibberish meditation is extremely handy to free your mind from this compulsive thinking. Just before you go to bed, practice it for some time and then go to bed. You will have a very sound sleep.

Perhaps, the more you don’t try to make sense of anything, the more peaceful you are. As they say, ignorance may be bliss.

Sleep like a baby

One of our coffee time conversations last week was about sleep. My colleague told me that she was having disturbed sleep these days that makes her drowsy during the day. I suggested her some techniques to for getting a sound sleep. Then it occurred to me that there could be many who would actually benefit from this and hence this post. A sound sleep for me is very important, without which my cognitive abilities do not function properly. A good sleep is also important for a good memory because the data transfer from the temporary memory to the permanent memory is done during sleep (this is called memory consolidation and that’s the reason why people under the influence of alcohol do not remember what happened on the previous night. An alcohol induced sleep is of poor quality and hence the memory transfer does not take place).

Here is a brilliant technique that I have come across for getting a sound sleep. This is practiced by the ancient sages in India and suits people who lead a very stressful existence.

When you retire to bed, lie on your back, relax you body and close your eyes. Now trace all the events of the day backwards from the point of closing your eyes. Just watch yourself going through the activities in the reverse order. Recollect as much of detail as you can including what was going on in your mind. Continue this till the point of waking up in the morning (most of us won’t make it past the evening, we would already be asleep)

Try this. You will sleep like a baby.

This is not a technique to get a good sleep alone. The real purpose is to remove the subconscious impressions in the mind that are caused by the days activities. After few days of practicing this, you will find your mind very lighter. So if you have lots of emotional stress in your life, you know what to do.

Patterns and mental commentaries

Driving in Indian cities is tough. Ever since I started driving in Bangalore, it had been an extremely stressful thing to do. I would get irritated when people overtake from left, honk unnecessarily, drive rash etc. In an earlier job, I used to drive about 15 kilometers during peak hours and would reach office almost out of my mind. I remember, it used to take me at least half an hour to be back to my senses. My strategy at that time was to avoid the traffic by changing my timings.

The intensity of the problem gradually reduced as years went by, probably because I was becoming more aware. But still the problem existed. Driving was stressful. I would get tensed up at the slightest wrong doing or provocation on the road (they are plenty in India).

But why is this such a problem? The answer came accidentally sometime last year. I developed this habit of listening to audio books / tapes when I drive. I used to listen to them intently. Then I observed that whenever something went wrong during driving (which I did not approve), I missed a brief part of the talk  I was listening. It was not much, may be one or two sentences,  but it was as if I closed my ears for a while.

I began to further analyze this. I found that during those small intervals, there was a quick brief dialogue going on deep in the mind. It was so quick that it was hard to see what it is. But over sometime, it became clearer.

This is what was happening. Whenever there was something unacceptable happening, there is a short mental commentary going on in the sub conscious mind. The commentary is something like “it is his fault”, “why is he driving like this”, “can’t you see the red signal” etc. But they were not clear like a thought, but were like a fast-forwarded tape, almost imperceptible.

Then the question was, what were these commentaries doing?

They were subconsciously feeding and strengthening my perception about driving. They were feeding the resistance and also in way feeding my belief that I was right. But since it happened so subtly and over a period of time, it was almost impossible to see such a thing happened unconsciously.

Like all other subconscious patterns, the moment I caught it and started to watch it, it lost its grip and slowly began to fade away.

This is what happens in the case of any subconscious patterns in our mind. Every time people smoke, there is a subtle commentary feeding in to the subconscious mind and over a period of time, the habit becomes so strong to break. The same thing happens with the ego. When ever one says “I have done it” or “I don’t like it” or “it is mine” etc, there is an unconscious strengthening of the sense of “I”. This is built gradually over years and it hard to break it.

The key is always to catch it and watch it without resisting. The mental patterns will soon disintegrate and then there is no more need for the commentaries.

There is an old saying – what comes in the way is the way

Responding to a trigger – what happens in the mind

Continuing from the previous post, let’s look at what happens in the mind when you respond to an external trigger (an object or an event for e.g). Whether we acknowledge or not, in fact there is a subtle choice that we make with every trigger – Accept or Resist. Depending upon the trigger, we could accept/resist an event either in the past or the future. See the below representation of how a normal mind responds to an external trigger (For simplicity, I taking a very general case here to illustrate my point)

The path on the left side depicts normal thinking, where in every event or object is compared against a mental image (either of the past or of the future). Then one either accepts or resists the event(the categorization of the event as good/bad, right /wrong also happens here) Accepting strengthens the ‘sense of self’ and resisting creates a ‘threat to the self’. This resisting leads to compulsive thinking that is the root cause for most of the psychosomatic diseases.

So, is there a solution? Or an alterative? This is what is called ‘witnessing’ which is the essence of ‘mindfulness’(see the path on to the right in the picture). Here there is neither acceptance nor resistance. You see things as they are.

Typically we try to solve most of our issues at the lower layers (lower as in the picture). For e.g say I do not like apples. I could either avoid apples in my life or could substitute with some other fruit or convince myself to eat it. This is typically how we approach most of the problems. But in fact the real problem is not apple but  ‘my nature of disliking’ something. A fundamental transformation can happen only when the basic nature changes.

If we can make changes at the basic level (marked A in the diagram), the problems will simply vanish themselves. This is what many a spiritual traditions try to achieve and also the key to creative thinking.

But is that easy? We will continue the discussion in the coming posts…

Leave your bed as soon as you are awake

Ever wondered where all that negativity gets reinforced deep in the mind? I think here is one to watch out for.

Say there is a compulsive thought that you are trying to shake off. You do some reflection in the evening or try some distractions to free your mind. As you go to bed, it looks like you are successful and calm. The next morning, you are awake (at least partially) but you still remain in your bed. As you lie tossing between sleep and waking state, all that suppressed thoughts take over. You are not really awake, so you watch helplessly as the mind start playing those ‘video clips’. By the time you are really awake and decide to step out of the bed, all that negative thoughts would have reinforced in the mind.

Some time back, a friend of mine mentioned to me that he has all the negative thinking in the morning. I didn’t have this answer for him, then. But now from my own experience, I think this is true.

People who have undergone severe stress in life would tell you that they find themselves awake in the middle of the night to find those compulsive thoughts taking over the mind. You would also have noticed that when you have spent lot of time in bed in the morning (say on a holiday), you are much less cheerful and positive.

So, the solution? Leave your bed the moment you are awake in the morning. Not very easy, try it. Your mind will not let you. It will tempt you with ‘that extra bit of wonderful sleep’. But if you can resist that, you are more likely to start the day with a positive note.

Try it.