By Suma Varughese
Even the most intransigent of situations can come under control if you ask yourself if it really is such a big deal, says Suma Varughese
I have always been a nervous, anxious kind of person who worried and fretted about everything. It didn’t help that my poor self-esteem filled me with self-distrust and low faith in myself, which made me doubt my ability to cope with the challenges of life, redoubling my angst.
I have been working on these aspects of myself for many a weary year, and yet, these emotions continued to dominate my life. Naturally with so much emotional turbulence flooding my being, my poor body often convulsed into illnesses, for unfortunately it became the container for all the toxicity.
Apart from two major illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, I recently came down with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which has a direct link with one’s emotional state. The ailment vividly threw up my tendency to move into fear and panic mode, because of its difficult nature. No matter how hard I tried, there were periods when it would not respond to treatment, and furthermore, even when I did find a treatment for it, its efficacy would wane in a month’s time, leaving me high and dry.
Quite apart from the therapies, I steadily worked on my mind, using the various insights that came my way to inch closer to equanimity. And I did make progress. Where earlier the failure
of each therapy would leave me flailing in frustration and despair, I gradually began to come to terms with the nature of the illness, and accepted that I would have to find a new therapy each time the old one waned. And yet, my whole being was tense and coiled up; I watched my symptoms like a hawk and became even more tense when they took a turn for the worse. I would hopelessly try and propitiate this monster. Perhaps I should eat only select items? Perhaps only a limited quantity? Perhaps I should skip dinner? I hunted for clues that worked and applied them. When I ate something I should not have, I would flail myself mercilessly, and worry enormously about the consequences. My only relief was when I was in company, for then I would relax and temporarily forget about my ailments. Not surprisingly, the symptoms always abated at those times. Recently, I had a bad bout that was not responding to treatment. I had in the meantime shifted to homoeopathy. The homeopath suggested various measures which did not work. Finally in frustration, she told me that homeopathy would take at least four months to work on me and I had to come to terms with it. She told me to stop troubling about ‘minor’ ups and downs. I asked her if I was supposed to wait for four months in order to get relief from the discomfort I was enduring. In response she told me that there were people who were far worse off than me who were coping patiently with their problem, so why couldn’t I?
Her question was a revelation to me. Could it be that I was over reacting? Could it be that persistent constipation, while uncomfortable, was not the worst fate in the world? Maybe it was not such a big deal, after all? This to me was a unique perspective, since I was so used to making heavy weather out of all my ailments.
And the reason why is because I felt the illness to be bigger than me. I felt myself unable to handle it; I doubted my ability to cope with its discomfort or to take the measures that would help me.
For the first time after the homeopath told me off, I entertained the possibility that perhaps this ailment was really not such a big deal. That even if I had its symptoms for the rest of my life, I would be able to cope with it. For the rest of the evening, I was happy, and for the first time in months I stopped focusing on the ailment. Instead, I told my stomach that it could relax – it did not have to perform as I wanted it to, for I could cope with the outcome.
This is turning out to be a Eureka moment for me, for as is my wont, I am extrapolating my insight into all situations. Perhaps my eating the wrong things is not such a big deal either, nor are their consequences. Maybe none of my ailments are a big deal either? Because once I stopped resisting them, I could instead focus on healing them. It is hard to explain quite why this understanding has made such a difference to me. Perhaps it has come at a time when I am ready to let go of these persistent worries and anxieties. Perhaps it is showing me that finally I have it in me to cope with life. I do feel as if something that looped me in perpetual anxiety is being sealed off, and I am being released to live my life without quite so much hoopla as before.
Ever since I got on to the path and began the process of letting go of my conditioning, shame, guilt and fear have been my constant companions because there was such a gap between where I was and where I wanted to be. This new insight is finally enabling me to let go of these loaded emotions and become softer on myself, and more accepting. Each time I get anxious and tense I whisper the thought to myself that perhaps it is not such a big deal and I find myself begin to relax. When I can’t find the exact word I am looking for while writing an article, the thought makes me relax. When I have forgotten to pay my bills, the thought makes me write out a cheque rather than agonise about my omission. When a friend has done or said something that has irked me, the thought makes it easier for me to come to terms with it.
Of late, I have been battling with the fear of not having enough money in my old age. I am now recognising that the fear is not a big deal. And subsequently, I am led to do something about the situation.
If dialing down situations can help us to come to terms with it, could this be the secret of coping with stress? Sure enough, all counselors advise us to look for ways to make the situation manageable in our minds.
Says Mumbai-based psychotherapist Ameeta Shah, “We become worry warts when we face or have faced some overwhelming situation that we perceive we do not have the resources, internal and external, to cope with.”
When she herself underwent a situation like this, she used several methods like positive self-talk, asking the right questions such as: What’s possible here? What do I really want? What will work for me? recognising what is non-negotiable, and what is not, and taking systematic action on a trial and error basis. She says, “Keeping calm means knowing there is some solution and that most often solutions are in different places than the problems. It means looking at your whole situation/life to know what is also working very well for you and feeling grateful too. Most of all, we realise we don’t need to judge anything but rather to figure how to navigate that situation whether it is our fault or anyone else’s fault.”
In his best-seller, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and it’s all small stuff, the author Richard Carlson explains how he came by the title of his book. Apparently the well-known author, Dr Wayne Dyer had written an endorsement for a book Carlson had written. His publishers asked him to try getting another endorsement from Dyer for a foreign edition of another book he had written. When he did not hear from Dyer, he gave up the idea and was appalled to find that the publishers had published the old endorsement in the new book! When he sent a letter of apology to Dyer, the latter wrote back: “Richard. There are two rules for living in harmony. 1. Don’t sweat the small stuff. 2. It’s all small stuff. Let the quote stand.”
Wayne could have made a fuss about the publisher’s unethical action, but he decided to ride the wave instead, thereby saving him and everyone else involved in the situation much anxiety.
Carlson’s subsequent book has 100 suggestions on how we can learn to lead happier and calmer lives instead of allowing life to tie us up in a knot (see box).
Chitra Jha, a popular writer and facilitator, shares her own journey, “I have always been an intense sort of person, who takes everything rather seriously. I am also an idealist and a perfectionist, so every role I play must be played to perfection. With such an intense personality, worry is a default programme. Questions such as ‘Am I being right? Have I done it well? Could I do it better next time? What kind of impression have I created?’ used to assail me.”
What changed things was her understanding that no man is an island. “Nothing in my life is only about me. I am a product of current time, space, and energies. Whatever work I do is done through me by the Universe; hence, it is not my business. Today, I remain calm. I do my work in complete surrender and with total conviction that God knows his business. Life has become smoother now.”
Mumbai-based writer Maitri Nair, is currently caring for her husband, Manish, diagnosed with lung cancer. In the throes of what legitimately qualifies as a life crisis, Maitri’s young daughter Geeta (22) is teaching her the same lesson I have learnt, that nothing is a big deal.
Says Maitri, “Geeta has made me realise that this is something we can cope with. We are taking each day as it comes. And instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we are deeply grateful. Things could have been so much worse. When you go to a hospital and see children and babies suffering, your own suffering slips into perspective.”
Strong stable people naturally know this. One rarely finds them perturbed or stressed out because they know that they will cope, or things will resolve or
get better. Fear does not lock them into a doom-ridden future and because of that, they lead healthy and happy lives.
We can cope with life’s stressors in two ways. Either we grow beyond the stature of the problem and are therefore in a capacity to master it. This is the spiritual way. We work on ourselves, we give ourselves love, we heal ourselves of past conditioning, we meditate, do deep breathing, inner child work and so on. In the process, we expand and soon what had seemed insurmountable becomes relatively easy. Rachel Remen, author of the beautiful books, Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings, gives an example of this way. Incidentally, she herself suffered from the age of 15 from a serious problem of the intestines called Crohn’s Disease. She had to undergo several surgeries and even had to move around with a colostomy bag (that collected her waste) and yet, she led an extremely active and useful life as both a doctor and later, a counselor for the seriously ill. As a counselor she once had a young patient recently diagnosed with the same disease as hers, come to her. When asked to depict his state of mind pictorially, he drew a Buddha with a dagger driven deep into his middle. He felt gutted, as if the very centre of his life had been assaulted. Many months later after working with him she asked him for yet another pictorial representation of his state of mind and this time, the dagger was still there in the Buddha but the Buddha was so much bigger that it was miniscule in comparison.
The other, and that is perhaps the way of mind-related techniques, is to reduce the problem so that we seem bigger in contrast. There is an NLP technique where you go back to the stressors that affected your past adversely and you are asked to see yourself as bigger than it, or to see yourself as having the tools you needed to master it. You are then asked to replay the situation and see it as it would be if you had the tools you presently have. Such replays according to the facilitators, help you overcome your past traumas as well as present situations.
Perhaps what happens when we see that the problem is not a big deal is that we are then freed to look beyond it, to seeing the possibilities that glimmer beyond, to see things in perspective, and even find space for gratitude.
I am learning to be deeply grateful for the gifts that my ailment has brought for me. I had long known that IBS had the potential to springclean my emotions and enable me to live in equanimity. I am awed to discover that this may actually be happening. I am also recognising that true positivity will dawn only when this inner strength unfolds. Yes, I have been positive about ultimate outcomes, about the nature of the human and the universe, but about my own personal short term, my own nature often stopped me from being so. Now I sense that at the deepest level, my nature is going to change. There is going to be more genuine relaxation, more strength, more stability. Perhaps from vata, my prakriti itself will shift to the more stable kapha.
Now that the thought that things are not a big deal are actually mowing down all the doom-ridden structures of my life, does anything escape being razed down? Actually, yes. Life, in all its aspects, and even in the tiniest proportion, is a big deal. We need to truly value it.
When I was once in my lowest phase with my IBS, Vijaya Venkat, the founder of The Health Awareness Centre, took me to task and told me that I had no reason to complain as long as I had breath in my body. At that time, I had hardly been able to eat for a few days, was extremely weak, and I thought her remark thoroughly insensitive. Now, I am veering around to her point of view. As long as the breath continues, is anything a big deal?
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