The Amygdala Hijack!

The Amygdala Hijack!

I am tense. I am racing to meet my report deadline before I can get dinner started… the doorbell rings. Vexed at the interruption, I get up hurriedly. The tea spills. I rescue my papers and start mopping the spill… The bell goes off again. And I… lose it. I shout at the delivery guy, the bag breaks as I grab it, potatoes and tomatoes tumble out. Kicking them aside, I slam the door. Hot and bothered, raging and fuming, I get back to work. I send the report finally. As I get dinner going and lay the table, I am not too happy with myself. I am troubled by the realization that I did not handle the situation well. Why did I get so angry? Why did I shout at the man? Why did I create such a ruckus?

Because I let myself get hijacked by my amygdala.

Amygdala is the lower part of the brain that kicks into action when something evokes intense emotions within us. When I heard the doorbell ring, a wave of emotions coursed through me ~ irritation, annoyance, anxiety, anger, frustration, panic… My amygdala, conditioned since times immemorial to evoke the fight-or-flight response in the face of threat, made me react impulsively and intuitively, without giving me time to weigh all possible options and their consequences. A response which I much regretted later.

***

Quite a few of us get easily bothered. When anything goes any other way than we expect, we fly off the handle. We lash out. Sometimes, we sulk and withdraw. Why? Why do we hop on to the emotional rollercoaster at the smallest of things?

When all we need to do is: PAUSE. Take a deep breath. Count to 10.

When we press the pause button, we get precious milliseconds to take in what is happening and track our feelings and thoughts. Slowing down awakens the pragmatic centers of our brain so that we can thinkingly respond to the provocation rather than unconsciously react to it. As celebrated psychotherapist Victor Frankl says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

When the bell rang, I could have paused and accepted the fact that I had no other option but to attend to it. I could have gotten up quietly, taken the groceries calmly, and gone back to work mindfully without letting the interruption play havoc with my mind. And I would have felt great about completing my work on schedule.

***

I have to admit, I easily tend to ‘lose it’. And every time, it leaves me distressed. And also horrified by the kind of example I am setting for my children. What will they learn from a trigger-happy mom?

Fortunately, my children understand me and my weaknesses and point out when I go overboard in my reactions… Mom, there was no need to shriek at the maid when she came in late or holler at us when we didn’t clear the table or thunder at the telemarketer or burst out when that man jumped the queue…

And I realize that it is entirely up to me. The ball is in my court. I have to change my emotional irrational self into a sensitive thoughtful one. For me, this has become top priority.

So I have defined a protocol for myself. Admitting my weakness to myself has been the first step… But instead of filling my mind with negativity and indulging in self-defeating inner talk, I have made a commitment to myself: that I will be less easily bothered, especially by small things. I have taught myself to recognize the triggers that make me go at the world with a dagger. The moment I begin to make a go for the kill, I pull myself back sharply with a “There I go again!” And once I am able to delay my outburst and give myself time to think, I automatically react sanely. Needless to say, my sense of achievement is huge.

And though I still ‘lose it’ once in a while, I am sure my family has noticed (and appreciate) my progress in the right direction. As for me, I am calm, collected, in control. AND Happier.

Golgappa Goals!

Corona times. Lockdown. Social distancing. Limited outings. No going out for golgappas. And my craving for them intensifies day by day.

In my mind’s eye, I picture the guy behind the counter handing me a donaa (leaf bowl) and stirring the huge pot of cool tangy mint water with a long ladle. He then takes a roundly puffed crisp golgappa, crushes a small hollow in it, stuffs it with the spicy potato mixture, dips it into the pot of freshly stirred mint water, and then, as I extend my hand in happy anticipation, places the delicious dripping golgappa in my donaa!

And I feel the crunchiness of the golgappa combine with the saltiness of the potatoes, sweetness of the tamarind chutney, sourness of the mint water, and sharpness of the spices to explode into a bomb of flavor in my mouth!

***

We Indians love golgappas! Golgappa or paani ke batashe as we call them in the North or phuchka or phuska as they are known in the East or paani puri in the West, they are the most popular street food and fast food and fun food all rolled into one! There is a golgappa stall at every corner, every nook of the country, and we can eat golgappas any time of the day!

For me, golgappas are precious moments of joy stolen from routine. Six golgappas leave me refreshed, energized, ready to take on the world! And the best part is that our children acquire the taste very young. Four year old Tanvi, her tiny mouth stuffed with a golgappa and tears running down her cheeks is a memory I hug close to my heart. Even today, a quick round of golgappas is almost always the unspoken agenda when we are out!

Though I have my favorite golgappa guy in the local market, I am willing to try them out just about anywhere, any street corner, any market, any mall! I can eat them on a shopping trip, when running an errand, waiting for a friend or simply on spotting a golgappa stall! However hurried I may be, I manage to find 10 minutes for golgappas!

***

Google India reports that the search for golgappa recipe went up by 107% during the corona lockdown. No wonder I have seen so many videos of people flaunting their golgappa genius at home!

Making golgappas, though time consuming, is possible. One can fry the shells golden and blend the coriander-mint-ginger-green chilli-lemon-spices perfectly , but assembling them yourself and eating them at home is no fun. No fun at all.

Because the golgappa experience is much more…

Putting golgappas together is an art. And no one can do this better than the golgappa guy. The taste is not only in the constituents, it is in the mix! It is in the style in which the golgappa guy serves the golgappas. It is in the way he makes it a point to serve the golgappas just as each one of us likes it. It is in the manner in which he goes round the semi-circle of people around him serving golgappas at the right speed, giving us just enough time to relish them before becoming impatient for the next one!

And I realize, it is not just the golgappas that I miss. It is the entire golgappa experience.

***

And my goal this year, once we start eating out again, is to finally have a no-limit golgappa-eating contest with my friends, something I have been dying to do for so many years!

Here’s to my golgappa goals!

My favorite scene from the movie Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi ~ the golgappa eating competition

A Ha-Ha-Happy Family!

It was evening by the time we were done with the ceremonies and celebrations of our daughter Tanvi’s wedding. The day had begun early when Garvit (the groom) arrived with his family and friends; breakfast, the formal welcome, jaimala, pheras, and lunch took up most part of the day; and now it was time for the bride and groom to leave for their family home in Jaipur, 200 miles away. Tanvi hurried off to change into her going-away dress, accompanied by her aunt Malini.

I followed a while later to check on them… and found Malini frantically trying to unclasp Tanvi’s silver anklets… Hurriedly, I joined in… the task becoming a Herculean one for two overweight ladies in heavy silk sarees and high heels, our contact lenses making it impossible to focus on the tiny clasps…

Thankfully, Akshay, my son, walked in just then. Akshay got into action immediately. Placing Tanvi’s foot on a large stool, he bent to examine the anklets, resting his knee on the stool while I and Malini, precariously balanced, held up the folds of Tanvi’s lehenga for him to see better… when the stool broke knocking the three of us down to the floor!

In stunned disbelief, we looked at each other, and then! Burst out laughing! We laughed and laughed and laughed giving vent to the hectic busy-ness and excitement of the day! We rolled on the floor laughing our heads off, forgetting, for those few wonderful moments, that everyone was waiting in the hallway to send the bride away! And creating a precious memory to remember and laugh at again. And again.

***

The sound of laughter is the happiest sound for me. And I love to laugh… loudly with all my heart, and often, hysterically till tears roll down my face (much to the embarrassment of my family)!

Scientists say we learned to laugh in groups much before we acquired the ability to speak… no wonder laughing is so natural, so instinctive for us. Infants begin to smile and laugh within months of being born, children find humor in the simplest and smallest of things. Adults, though, in their struggle to cope with daily concerns and hardships, somehow lose this spontaneity… Come to think of it, can you remember the last time you laughed? Really laughed? Whereas it is precisely after a tough day that the need for a good laugh is most urgent…

Because something special happens when we laugh together, doesn’t it? We feel good when we laugh. Sadness, anxiety, anger disappear. Laughter fosters closeness, diffuses conflict, eases frustrations and tensions. Humor helps us cope and deal with disappointments and difficult situations.

Victor Borge, famous comedian-musician, says, “Laughter is the closest distance between two people.” Laughter signals that we are in it together ~ in good times and difficult times and that we accept each other as we are, faults, weaknesses, shortcomings and all. And the happy feeling remains long after the laughter subsides.

When I laugh, I feel myself coming alive with joy and energy and everything around me feels just great. They say laughter is a great work out for every system in the body, and that it lowers sugar levels, improves blood circulation, releases feel-good hormones, boosts immunity, and helps us sleep… what better medicine than laughter? And what better stuff than laughter to bring home?

No wonder healthy homes are filled with sounds of laughter. After all, what would life be without laughter?

***

There is no reason why we should not laugh many times a day. Laughter runs riot in homes where moms, dads and kids jest and jive and joke together; when they rib each other or play pranks; when they revisit funny incidents from the past; when they tease or trick, when they pass witty remarks and ripostes; when they have boisterous pillow fights or roughhouse it; when they act out comic dramas and spoofs; when they share funny videos and memes or when they are simply idiotic!

One person who almost always brings happy laughter into our home is our son Akshay. A keen observer, Akshay has the amazing knack of relating small everyday things in a manner which has us in splits instantly. Even Atul, my husband, who usually takes time to see humor in a situation, can never resist a hearty guffaw at Akshay’s amusing portrayal of life.  

I myself don’t mind being silly or poking fun at myself or giving a crazy response as long as it makes my family laugh… and I am inordinately pleased when exaggerated tales of my foolishness bring unrestrained laughter at the dinner table!

Here’s to bringing joy and delight into our homes!

PS: And in case you are wondering what happened to Tanvi’s anklets, well, we just left them on her feet, and Tanvi went jingling and jangling all the way to Jaipur!

I can do MORE…

“I could have done more.”

No person should ever have this regret at any point in life, especially in the later years. Not one of us should feel pangs of remorse for time lost, things not done, opportunities foregone, chances not taken. While we still could. But didn’t.

I am not a philosopher. Or an enlightened soul. I do not understand why I have come into this world; I do not know what will happen to me after I die. The only thing I know for certain is that I am alive. And that I want to make the most of my time on earth, that I want to lead a life that is meaningful. So that later when I look back, I can truthfully say to myself, “I made the most of my life.”

***

Life is a collection of days. And every single day is important. What we do each day, little by little, shapes our life. And we need to do as Robin Williams famously says as the English teacher in the 1989 American film Dead Poets Society: Carpe diem! Seize the day, boys! Make your lives extraordinary!

Yes. Every day matters. Every moment counts. Because it is only right here, right now, that things get done. The past is long gone, the future is yet to come… Only the present exists. The present is in our hands, the present is all that matters, and soon… the present too shall pass.

The present is like the dewdrop… and will be gone soon, as if it had never been.

***

So then why do we spend so much time of the day lost in our thoughts? When our body works on autopilot? When life passes by in a haze?

For instance, did you note, as you made your way to work today, the freshness in the air after last night’s rain ? The lilies bordering the sidewalk? The trees dappling orange gold in the evening sun? The happy laughter of the kid next door?

This autopilot mode when we go about the day’s work unaware of the present is what Psychology Professor Dr Ellen Langer of Harvard University calls ‘mindless moments,’ moments when one is so trapped in thoughts that we forget to experience, let alone enjoy, what is happening right now. When we become a victim of time and our mind is everywhere but ‘here.’ When our thoughts are on what has been/could have been or what can be/will be. And we become so mindless, Dr Langer explains, we stop paying attention to things around us.

Can one enjoy the weekend if our mind is already thinking about Monday? Or laugh gaily with a friend if we keep remembering how she let us down last year?

Whereas we need to do the opposite. Because only when we are engaged with the external world and its sights, sounds and smells, and pay attention, at the same time, to our innermost thoughts, feelings and sensations, can we enjoy what is happening NOW. Only then can we hope to find happiness in life.

***

A profound concept. But difficult to follow as our monkey mind vaults from thought to thought constantly. And we have to wrench it to remain focussed in the present. So that we can enjoy every moment, relish it, savor it, luxuriate in it, delight in it.

Only when we let go and lose ourselves in the moment, can we enjoy it. See how it relaxes us, how woes and worries melt away, how uncertainties and insecurities disappear, how self-esteem and confidence return, and we can interact with others positively and productively.

***

Life in the moment moves quickly — and I try not to miss it. I try to pay attention to the ordinary things around me. I try to stay focussed on the task at hand. Consciously. With total involvement.

When I wake up, I peep out and take in the dewiness of the morning; as I walk in the park, I direct my attention to the loosening of my back and stretch in my muscles; as I hold my tea, I note the warmth seeping in from the cup; as I cook, I keep my thoughts trained on the cutting, chopping, stirring and serving; when I bite into my sandwich, I feel its texture and savor its flavor; when I write, I block off all external sounds and focus on translating my thoughts into words… When I notice my mind wandering, I repeat to myself, “Now. Now. Now.” And pull myself back.

And I try to carry this mindfulness through the day while watching my daily sitcom or listening to music or discussing plans with others or playing with our golden retriever or shopping or simply relaxing. I go along with the experiences ~ pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad ~ simply because that is what is present, that is all there is, nothing else.

And when I lie down at night, I let go completely. I feel my body sinking into the mattress and appreciate how good it feels. I breathe deeply. And realize that all the happiness is right here, right now, in the present moment. I tell myself: Today was a day well-spent. Tomorrow will be a new day, a day when I can do as much, when I can do MORE.

Into the Wild

Very few films touch a deep chord within us… Into the Wild is one such film. I watched it last weekend and it has been on my mind since. The film has affected me profoundly and I need to share my thoughts…

Into the Wild tells the real life story of a bright young man Chris McCandless from a well-heeled family in Virginia. The film, adapted from Jon Krakauer’s book by the same name and brilliantly directed by Sean Penn, is narrated by Chris’s younger sister Carine aided by notes from his journal.

After graduating from Emory University in 1990 with good grades, Chris severs ties, in one swift move, with the life he has known until then. He donates his savings, destroys all traces of his existence, rechristens himself Alexander Supertramp, and goes hitchhiking across North America.

Inspired by the wilderness tales of Jack London, and the reflections of Henry David Thoreau on living simply in natural surroundings, Chris sets off to find ultimate freedom as a child of Earth. With a firm belief that money and power are an illusion, his eventual aim is to travel to the wilds of Alaska, far from the trappings of modern civilization, where he can kill  ‘the false being within’ and become ‘lost in the wild.’

***

Chris finally makes his way to the rough Alaskan bush in April 1992 and sets up camp in an abandoned bus which he calls ‘The Magic Bus.’

He lives simply. He hunts and forages for food, reads books, maintains a journal of all that he sees and thinks and feels and does. He finds joy in the isolation and beauty of his surroundings, each new experience assuaging his spirit beyond words. At long last, it seems, Chris’s quest for peace and happiness is complete.

***

As the story unfolds, we learn that Chris and his sister Carine have had a troubled childhood marked by their parents’ sordid and abusive relationship. His father’s volcanic, hair-trigger rage frequently erupted into vitriolic verbal outbursts and physical assaults on their mother; Chris too being the recipient of his dad’s derision and disparaging remarks. His parents’ unhappy marriage and the hypocritical life they epitomize, their deceit and lies, their unhappiness and discord with each other leave Chris heartbroken.

Things come to a head when Chris visits distant relatives in California and learns that his father has a son from a previous marriage and that he had still been married to his first wife when he and his sis were born. His father’s infidelity and the inference that both he and his sis are ‘bastard children’ affects him deeply. He feels his family is founded on a web of lies… Soulfully, he paraphrases his idol Henry Thoreau, “Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness… give me truth.”

My heart weeps for young Chris when he says, “Some people feel like they don’t deserve love. They walk away quietly into empty spaces, trying to close the gaps of the past.” And this is what he does… he removes himself from the toxic situation at home and disappears into the wilderness… never to return.

***

But…

Isn’t home that one place on earth where we are (or rather, should be) the happiest? Where one is the most loved, the most cared for, the most comfortable, the most secure?

The shelter that remains constant in life and free from all negativity? The space where we feel the best about ourselves? The umbrella under which children thrive and grow into happy, balanced and confident adults?

And…

Isn’t it the parents’ responsibility to create such a haven for their children? To invest time and energy into their marriage, interact with mutual affection, appreciation and admiration, and resolve their conflicts prudently so that their children see their togetherness and grow up to raise happy families of their own?

The volatile relationship of Chris’s parents could hardly have created a loving and caring atmosphere for the McCandless children. Throughout the film, we see snippets of his dad ridiculing Chris over small things, discouraging him from trying new things, and criticizing him for the smallest mistakes. And we can only imagine its harsh impact on Chris’s self-image and self-esteem.

Any wonder that once Chris graduates, he escapes the harm within his home and sets out to seek happiness in the empty spaces of Alaska? He sees himself not as homeless, but as a man freed from home.

***

Chris spends almost four months ~ 113 days to be exact ~ in his ‘magic bus.’ Soon after his arrival, spring arrives. However, finding game or edible roots and berries becomes increasingly difficult… Chris grows leaner and weaker day by day…

He realizes that nature can be harsh and uncaring too, and after a couple of months, tries to go back to civilization only to find his route blocked by the swollen, raging river…

Back in the bus, Chris resigns to his fate… As his strength ebbs, he records: Happiness is only real when shared… a realization which runs contrary to his earlier conviction that joy of life does not necessarily come from human relationships. Finally he realizes that life has meaning only when we can share it with someone… something he finds out far too late.

As death looms near, Chris finally acknowledges his true identity ‘Christopher Jonathan McCandless’ in his farewell note. Lying in the bus such that he can look up at the open sky, he sees himself home again, happy and smiling, running up to his parents and embracing them.

At long last, he ceases to hate them, forgives them, and in doing so, finds peace… and as he breathes his last, the sun breaks through the clouds and shines on him.

***

Long after seeing this spell-binding film, I am filled with deep regret. Grief at the futility of it all. Anguish for all that could have been.

As a mother, my heart bleeds for young Chris aching for truth and love and understanding. If only he could have had a home which was truly ‘sweet.’

If only.

Ready… Steady… Let Go!

Ready… Steady… Let Go!

Early morning every day, Richard, our golden retriever, and I set off on a mission. To reach the park before anyone else does. Even if that means leaving at 5 am! So that Richard can run… unchained, uncurbed, unchecked.

Richard loves every minute of it. The moment the leash is off, he takes off at breakneck speed, tearing down the track while I walk at a more sedate pace… chasing squirrels at lightning speed, hounding mynahs looking for insects in the grass, tracking cats that sometimes stray into the park. And when tired, simply rolling in the grass or lapping water from the birdie’s basin or nibbling a jamun from the huge tree in the centre, all the while watching me from the corner of his eye!

This ‘letting loose’ is the most joyful part of Richard’s morning walk. The only time of the day when he is a free spirit. And this makes me think: Don’t we all yearn for our own letting loose moments in life?

When there is not a care in the world? No schedule to adhere, no rings to attend, no emails to revert, no reports to file, no work to do, no timeline to meet, no meals to cook, no stuff to clean? When we can eat, sleep, drink and do whatever we want? No role to fit in, no rules to follow, no compulsion to be nice, no comments to tolerate, no judgments to suffer. No worries, no reminders, no restraints?

When we are away from the mundaneness of routine. When we can stop taking life so seriously. When we can pardon our self for not doing anything.

When we are answerable to no one. When we don’t expect anything of our own self. When we can just be our self. When we can think about our self.

When we can simply live in the moment. When we can be our true Self. When we can stop looking for happiness and just be happy.

***

Each one of us deserves such precious moments of freedom, of free will, of free choice. On a regular basis.

A husband needs this time away from his wife, the wife from her husband. Children from their parents, parents from their children. Staff from their bosses, bosses from their staff. We all need some time, some place, away… far away from everyone and everything. We all need to simply let go!

We need to set ourselves free.  We need to set our loved ones free. For an hour, a day, a week, a month… for as long as it takes. Alone or with family or friends. At home or far away.

So that when we come back, reassembled, repaired and renewed, we are ready to meet life as it comes.