Can you think of one thing that can really tell if you and a prospective partner have a future together or not? Many would say that the crucial thing would be to see if you have compatible friends, or to meet the prospective in-laws and see how that visit goes, or better still, to get both families to meet each other and see who survives the evening.
All good trials, but to really test a relationship, there is just one true test and that is to travel together for at least four days and three nights. Seven nights would be ideal, but three nights at a minimum. Seven nights, so that questions of laundry and the such come up, and even if one can keep up a facade for a couple of nights, seven will surely test it.
Everything from deciding when to go, how long and where, are great ways to get to know each other. Does one say beaches and other say hills? One says scrimp on travel and splurge on good food, and the other says stay in luxury but go easy on food. What about shopping? And time spent in museums, or heritage sites? How about whether you take that GoPro along or avoid electronics altogether? Are either selfie-obsessed? Or take pictures of every food item consumed for your Instagram feed?
What travel reveals about the person’s tastes and preferences are endless, but even more fascinating is the insights you get when sharing a room together for so many nights. You get to truly know their intimate physical selves, and that’s not talking about sexual aspects - just the every day things. Do they like the right side of the bed? Do they brush before bed? What does their morning face look like? What is their real smell like, devoid of all perfumes and other stuff? Do they snore? Do they hog the bed sheets? How are they to travel with as a companion? Are they pleasant, can they stand complexity – what if a train got cancelled or the hotel bungled up the booking or you made a mistake? What is their personality like at 3am after a 10-hour drive to the hotel and you find that you had mistakenly booked for November instead of October?
Nothing reveals more about a person as much as what you can see of them when travelling together. Best done by yourselves, but a couple of friends might not make it bad. If you can survive a week-long trip, chances are you will survive the other tricky things like planning a home together, meeting families or friends and more.
As written for and published in The New Indian Express
It is October 10th today. Happy World Mental Health Day to everyone!
This year, the theme was to be about young people and mental health in a changing world.
Atleast for India, that changing world is so clearly symbolized today with the #MeToo and #TimesUp momentum, that in reclaiming its voice and in its cathartic wake is turning around things for a young generation so tuned into media. For many months and years now, we have only read about abuse and assault, and for the young now to read about #TimesUp, and see the impact it can have in getting people and institutions to be accountable, to know there is no one (hopefully!) too big to fall - what does it do the mental health of young people?
For generations, young people going through molestation, assault and other humiliations on an everyday basis, society was telling them to shut up about it, to learn to get by, to avoid people or get blamed. We were, at best, told how to protect ourselves but hardly ever to confront or to demand that what made us unsafe change. Children carried pins to poke at the pinchers and grabbers in the bus. Kids learned what walls to avoid walking past, where the flashers might lurk. They learned to be in pairs or groups. They had to. If they risked asserting their own, independent forays into the world - they were blamed for whatever happens.
It is not even so long ago - just the other day the bishop of NYC was basically implying that boys above 7 years old were complicit in their assault by members of his clergy! There are documentaries on how in Haryana, people blame the girls for what happened to them.
For all of us who were the young people growing up under the umbrella of such advice and direction from our adults, it has impacted how we deal with power, with violence. This is part of how we have learned own powerlessness and how we have learned to distract ourselves, to discount our hurt, to compensate, to ignore. All the time, our rage and pain, whimper in sad, scared voices, stunting our growth. So many of us lost years and decades to healing wounds that need not have been in the first place. So many of us walked through in depressive spells, not connecting as fully and as safely to the world.
So much loss that we still grieve.
Does this changing world then where #TimesUp, show a different possibility to the young people of today? With all this conversation around #consent, #toxicmasculinity, #bodypositivity, #NotInMyName, #BlackLivesMatter and so much more, are young people of today more #woke ? Can they claim their lives and their world now as they happen, instead of having to go through all that hurt and work through their adulthood to reclaim their selves?
Do we dare dream that the momentum of the #MeToo campaign, in its cleansing avalanche that is destroying so many monuments to #patriarchy and power structures, will leave a clean and bright new field for our young people today? Can they have better mental health, lesser hurt, more opportunity?
Do we dare say that the future looks better?
Think back to the first tingles of when you really fell in love. The feelings are not always pleasurable. In fact, sometimes they are downright unpleasant and come close to sensations one associate with being ill.
There are the butterflies in the stomach, a nameless ache, a longing that seems to sap your energy, a moodiness that keeps one from enjoying all that one usually did. In fact, the descriptions of falling in love are the stuff of every other sitcom. One of my early favourites had the lead describing all these feelings to the beloved sidekick who exclaims, “You are not in love. You have got the flu!”
From a different perspective, falling in love has been described as being equivalent to a cocktail of psychotropic drugs.
Something that elevates your mood to dizzy heights, and brings you down crashing again, and puts you through that wringer so many times.
One could describe it all chemically and biologically through hormones and other substances and that we are genetically programmed to react in such a manner to prospective partners, and it is really that age-old game of nature playing over and over again.
One could also turn to romantic literature, or even spirituality to understand the whys and the wherefores of this falling in love. Whatever the origin of this falling in love might be, the one undeniable fact is that the experience of falling in love is quite something else.
The question we are asking is this: Can the sensations of falling in love be addictive? If we are indeed comparing just that falling in love feeling as equivalent to a cocktail of drugs, could it be possible that one gets so addicted to love that one just needs to keep on falling in love, over and over, again and again, with different people each time at different places? Could one be a love chaser?
The short answer is: Yes!
Though not quite a clinical diagnosis by any stretch, one could exhibit quite a bit of addictive behaviour about love. For some people, the chase and the falling in love is where all of it begins and ends. They may be so taken up with those early feelings, that when the rubber hits the road and it is time for love to mean something more and become a relationship, they might just scoot, and go on to chase another love.
The difference between a more ‘real’ love and this kind of addictive love chasing is simply this: Is the passion and the attraction shallow, or it is a deep, profound and life-changing connection? If it is the earlier, then chances are that the charms are superficial, the attention surface-deep, the romance and the wooing more momentary, repetitive, patterned and sensational – and above all, the focus is more on one’s own feelings of being in love, rather than the person one is in love with. So, look at your own love feelings: Are you in love with love, or with your loved one?
As written for published by The New Indian Express
The last few years have seen a major upswing in how many horrific sexual assaults and violence have been getting reported. Just when one thinks this is the worst that could happen, every new month even more such stories emerge, each with unbelievably sickening histories of how, where, how many, for how long and so on and so forth. With social media being so active and so many news channels on the air and in print, there is no shortage of public discussion and outrage. The call for action is palpable in every public arena possible.
A person must literally be living under a rock to now know about all this happening.
While there is so much in the public arena, let’s talk about what might be happening in the more private and intimate spaces of a loving relationship when such news breaks.
Often, there is nothing.
Early in the relationship, many unspoken rules get formed. We make a pact as it were, on what is OK to talk about, and what is not. Sometimes, it is directly spoken about and agreed (“I don’t want to hear about what you discussed with your school friends unless critical,” for example or “I don’t understand your work at all. Please don’t bug me with details about some issue you solved.”) Mostly though, these rules come about based on what we observe. How did your partner react to a movie scene showing the hero forcefully plant a kiss, for example. Or, what did your partner do when you talked about a friend who was molested in the metro, or when there is some more innocuous news on TV, say for example on an inter-community marriage.
One makes decisions pretty early to say how much the relationship can bear, and one edits oneself accordingly – and that’s generally OK.
Thing with news reports such as on sexual assault is that for many people who have gone through sexual violence in the past, these news stories when they break or when they are being analysed and spoken about in detail, it can be triggering. The new reports might bring up old trauma and pain, even after having spent much time and effort in getting some degree of healing. It is at such times that one starts to really feel the need for a safe, loving space to just talk and if there is any kind of spoken or unspoken pact that the relationship is not open for such painful but necessary conversations, then it gets really tough. Sometimes, it can even threaten the relationship itself.
As a loving partner, if you think you need to be the one to be able to support your partner through any such pain, that you want to be the shoulder that gets leaned on, remember that you cannot suddenly become that person overnight. It is a privilege earned through all the small interactions. Watch yourself on how open you are for the small conversations if you want to be there for the big ones.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
If you were going out on a date, would you expect to split the bill or would you think whoever initiated the date should pay for it? Would you look at reciprocating gestures so that there is some kind of balance, or do you believe that there are expected social norms that are to be followed?
It is not just about who pays for the bills. Even if we were just talking about a simple dinner date, there are more than half a dozen questions that come up in as much as etiquette of the date is concerned: Who gets to make the date? Who picks up whom, and how? Who holds the door open? Who enters first? Who sits where at the table? Do you stand up if someone is leaving the table? Who finishes first?
Something as simple as going out for dinner is fraught with questions and questionable habituated practices. In most places, the restaurant staff go with a certain protocol on how and to whom they present the bill, for instance. Whenever we bring up these questions into conversations on love, relationship and the such, it gets sideswiped with comments like, “It is just good manners,” or “this shows good breeding.”
Of course, it is just being a nice human being sometimes. One expects these things when there is a person in need around. You give up a seat in the train for anyone who can’t really stand for long. You open the door for someone who asks for assistance.
When these things happen between two perfectly capable people in some sort of a relationship, one wonders if these so-called good manners and chivalry come with a flip side. Are there unstated expectations that cement a power structure? Does having the door held open for you come with the unstated expectation that the keys to that door are in the hands of someone else? Does having someone pay your restaurant bill go alongside an undesirable notion of being judged for what you order, or worse? When someone just lets you go first in the queue, are they doing it to just be nice, or are they saying something to the effect of, “You really shouldn’t be here, so I’ll let you go right ahead so you can get back home where you belong?”
In love, it is nice to have things done for you. As much as it is nice to do something for someone you love. It is great to spend time with each other, sharing thoughts, being thoughtful. However, when things happen only in one direction, or there are very firm rules on what one person can do and what the other person ought to do – is it really an equal relationship? Is it really love?
What do you want in your relationship? Do you want the person you love to treat you as you, or because of a social code that tells them how to treat you, and tells you how to treat them?
First, an old story: Once, at the end of their education, four students who were graduating asked their Guru to give them blessings and wealth with which to start off their lives. Each were given a few pebbles and told to take a long walk, and that where any pebble fell, they would find wealth. Along the way, when the first pebble, they dug and found coal and one person, was thrilled with it, thinking “I can build an empire with this!” and settled right there, while the others kept walking.
After a long time, the second fell, and there was copper, and another happy person settled with that, thinking “This should be surely enough for me for this life.” A third fell on silver much later and a relieved person happily settled, saying “I have spent enough time looking. This is enough.”
The fourth though, kept walking.
After a long, long walk, when the pebble fell and there was some gold, it seemed like after all that trouble they went through, surely gold was not enough, that there should be more if only they strived for more and so the pebble was picked up and onwards the journey continued. Diamonds were similarly discarded, so was platinum, and lots of other precious aspects. Finally, there was nowhere further to go and nothing more to be found. The pebble rose up and fell on the head, crushing it to smithereens.
What’s the point of this story in a column about love?
If you read this story again, and thought of wealth as love, you might then make a connection. At first read, it might look just like a story about settling down and not being too greedy. You might find yourself focussing on the hapless fourth who kept going on and on till at the end of the road, they were crushed by their own greed. That’s fair enough, but a closer read might show you a change of language of how the person finding the wealth changes from being thrilled, to happy, to relieved, to almost desperate. Read it yet again, and you see time passing inexorably.
As a metaphor for finding The One, the story then has similarly interesting questions one poses for oneself.
Do you find potential, work on it and build up your wealth for yourself? Do you wait to find for more obvious wealth, and then enjoy it for what it is? Do you discard the obvious wealth and strive to find the golden dear, so to say? Or, do you strive beyond it, no matter what cost in time and health, looking for that absolutely perfect, everlasting and inexhaustible source running the risk that you never find it and just get crushed in the process?
As all cautionary tales go, this one too only serves to highlight that searching for love is like searching for wealth. You have a choice to make between multiple dimensions of potential, time, perfection and much else.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
When we talk of mental health, we see the focus fall squarely on vulnerable populations. Women, queer people, people with disability, disadvantaged communities and other minority populations are especially vulnerable to mental health issues, with many studies reporting incidences of mental health issues being two to ten times that of men.
Barring organic causes of mental health issues, much of the mental health concerns stem from having to cope with an oppressive society, which is patriarchal and divisive with the dice loaded in favor of the Man. Roles and rewards are very particular, with the Man on top, with far greater control over resources and opportunities, and reaping significantly higher rewards. Working through and often against such a system is tough, and leaves vulnerable populations exhausted, scared, anxious, depressed. This is where mental health issues stem from.
The idea of ‘Man’
The mythical Man in these arguments is cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, educated, and is from a majoritarian community. But even without some of these identities, the idea of the Man as the oppressor is a strong narrative.
Men are not immune to mental health issues, even though the social norms are in their favor. This is because often they are struggling to meet the high expectations of patriarchy, and in that process, cannot be true to their own individuality.
In recent years, the idea of ‘alpha’ men and the others, the 'beta’ men has gained traction, notably after incidents of violent terror attacks. Commentary has centered around how the beta men, feeling invalidated and oppressed by the system that rewards only the alpha, find themselves extraordinarily deprived, especially of sexual partners and opportunities. This frustration, coupled with poor coping skills and access to means of violence, creates spaces where the continued experiences of rejection and ensuing feelings of powerlessness can become a murderous rage. Even for the so-called alpha men, expectations of ongoing perfection, perception of competition and a constant need for appreciation sets them up for their own mental health issues.
There are no winners in patriarchy
While patriarchy does affect the women, queer and others disproportionally, men aren’t spared either. The idea of the Man is quite rigid, and comes with rigorous, unspoken rules, especially when it comes to mental health.
There is hardly any patriarchal society that does not have the following rules, among so many more darker rules:
Bullying is often machismo defending its fragility
This cultivated machismo doesn’t do well under situations of confrontation. Any situation that threatens to break through that sliver of fragile and shallow machismo, and expose the reality of the vulnerable, desiring and needing man, results in explosively violent defence. Bullying of women, transpersons and liberals could all be seen from this lens.
Threats by other representations of masculinity, such as by more gentle men or gay men, are also often met with such violence. A Singaporean study, for example, found that kids told to ‘man up’ were four times as likely to become a bully. This is to portray themselves as being strong, which creates a vicious pyramid of bullies.
Bullying by the uber macho men is often a result of such a threat to their machismo, be it the school ground bully who shakes down the ‘geek’ and the ‘nerd,’ to the homophobic man, who is violent towards trans and gay people.
Should there be spaces and means where people could explore their own fragilities, would bullying to shore up one’s own masculinity happen as much? Would bullying still be as prevalent?
Mental health issues as a weakness
A tragedy arising from this valuing of a rigid patriarchy is the denial of the reality of mental health issues of men, especially those seeking to shroud themselves in the machismo to project their alpha credentials. The idea of masculinity leads men to disconnect from their emotional experience. While others may more freely confront their anxieties, moods and thoughts, men seeking their uber masculinity would see acknowledging it as a weakness, and work hard to mask it, deny or overcome it.
Consequently, more men are violent because only anger is seen as manly.More men kill themselves because failure is not an option, and because they see themselves as solely responsible for their circle of influence. More men live and suffer in their own private mental hell, without ever reaching out for help.
What if we lived in a gender-free world?
With the awareness of the ills of patriarchy, liberal societies around the world are doing a lot more to break down gender stereotypes, invest in social education of gender equality,empathy across identities, values of compassion and understanding. School systems in Europe, Canada and elsewhere in particular, are investing in early education along these lines to dismantle patriarchy from early on, starting with primary education. Legal systems in these countries too have moved towards equality and non-discrimination, with more and more laws becoming gender neutral as well.
Early results do show that among youngsters, the wide gap in mental health issues between genders and communities does reduce, with much less reported bullying and aggression that continue well beyond the time of such interventions.
A more radical approach would be to try and dismantle gender altogether in social circles and identity formation. What if people did not care about gender as much? What if there were no gender coding at all in societies – no pink/blue segregation, no clothing/makeup differences, no hairstyle/footwear mores? What if there were no barriers to communication of feeling or thought or behavior?
Would a society where the idea of gender was utterly fluid and inconsequential to identity formation have far fewer mental health issues? Would there be far fewer social issues such as sexual violence, gang-related issues etc?
In recent times, some societies are experimenting with the idea of taking away the concept of gender as a core aspect of identity formation altogether. In some Scandinavian countries, there is a movement to gender-neutral terminologies, naming and schooling. Whether it would really change how people identify themselves in the gender spectrum, and whether it would really breakdown the gender walls and dismantle systemic issues that directly correlate with mental health issues – that remains to be seen.
Is it another year already?
We almost didn't remember today was an anniversary until Facebook reminded us.
It has been a wonderful year at InnerSight, with our strong focus on #Affirmative #Counselling for All, and our growing #EAP/ #Corporate work including our #Inclusion related work. In 2017-18, worked with over 500 counseling clients with close to 3000 hours of counseling, more than 200 hours of workshops and training sessions, more than a dozen ongoing corporate relationships and we continue to stay affordable, with sliding scales and "pay as you can" options for anyone seeking help, and support community events and action as we can.
We have also been thinking of a "Pay it forward" idea where people can help pay for others' counselling, thanks to a few individuals who started us off in that direction.
The year ahead looks very promising, with a bit more focus on group work, more support and training. And we are very excited, humbled and grateful to be able to continue in this vocation.
Thank you to all our clients, affiliates, partners, families, friends and well-wishers. We seek your support going forward as well.
Happy anniversary to all of us at InnerSight!
Imagine the worst fight you have had with the love of your life. You may have been screaming at each other, maybe came close to being violent – hopefully, stopped well short of it, and you may have continued on and on for hours if not days. Maybe you made up, maybe you decided the fight wasn’t worth it. Maybe you just let time heal and let other things become important enough so that the fight no longer mattered.
The point is this: How do you know a fight has ended?
The challenge for many couples is that when they stop fighting, one party might believe the fight is over, while the other might just believe they have taken a pause in the fight – an interval in a long movie, just to attend to some other things, and the fight has been marked as “To Be Continued.” If it is the latter, then on another day and time, it might join yet another fight to snowball into a much bigger deal than either fights by themselves. Of course, it becomes a really big, ugly deal if both parties to the fight are in the “To Be Continued” mode – then, the interval could be really short, and each break becomes shorter than the previous one.
As more “To Be Continued” fights pile up like a bed-side library full of books that one has never completed, it is more than likely one day to topple over and crush you. As the pile increases, there is less and less faith that anything will ever get resolved. Soon, there is either a giving up and an uncaring attitude, or there is an active rage that throws out everything, or it becomes an irritation in itself and there are fights about fights. And then fights about that.
To continue with that image of a pile of unread books, what would it be like if couples could pick up a book now and then to see if they want to really finish it now, or do they want to clear the clutter? Imagine yourself doing it quite literally for all the incomplete things in your life, be it books, or those shows that are left at 40% seen on NetFlix, or those half done craft projects in your closet. If you really took stock, how much of the clutter would you keep? How much would you clear away?
My bet would be that you would probably find that there are a lot that you simply grew out of and that you just don’t want any more. Maybe a few that you want to keep for later, and maybe one or two that you really cared about and find that you want to attend to right away.
So, what would happen if you actually kept an active roster of open issues? A journal exclusively for all these “To Be Continued” fights that you are having with your loved one? Could it help you let go, and yet hold on to what is really important?
As written for and published in the New Indian Express
Ever noticed that everyone acts as if there is a league game going on as far as dating and relationships go? It is quite a complex league structure as well, with the leagues being decided on so many factors including looks, age, fashion sense, economic class, education, job prospects and so many other things – half of which we may not even be able to crystallize. Still, every now and then, a friend might pull you back from approaching someone you feel attracted to with the comment, “Chill! Way out of your league! Don’t go hurting yourself!”
Are there really such clear-cut leagues in society? Are we destined to be a layered, beleaguered society? Are we constantly looking to trade up in this league game?
In matters of love stories, often times the celebrated legends are the ones that break through the barriers, where the leagues don’t matter. There are gods who fall in love with humans, royalty that falls in love with a theatre person (Hey – that story is repeating just now as well!), the rich person and the poor artisan, and hundreds of such stories of people breaking barriers in the name of love. Those are the stories we celebrate and tell generation after generation – not the story of how one industrialist married another, or other general relationships though sometimes they are fun as well.
So, when every other story is about breaking barriers and love succeeding in uniting people across levels, why is it that people stay within their leagues? Why do we get warned about what is within our league and what is not?
The real story could possibly be about the degree of risk involved, and whether one has the appetite for the risk. Each of us gets quite accustomed to our own ways of life, and while there is always room to adapt and change, drastic changes are a lot to handle especially if there are expectations of permanently adjusting to a new lifestyle right away. It is not easy to adjust to a lot more than what is one used to, or a lot less either. The notion that the lovers find it within themselves to make do and be happy is often belied in reality by bitter struggles for resources and support. Sometimes, the romanticisation such as in the musical Sound of Music, glosses over the difficulties the family goes through with their relationship that breaks through barriers of age, class, parenthood. The book is a lot more honest on that account, but in both, they do survive and manage to thrive all the same.
Professing love and courting love is anyway fraught with risk. There are no guarantees that your love will be reciprocated in whatsoever manner. You might get rejected for any number of reasons, and yet one seeks it all the same. So, why let questions of who is in or out of whose league matter, if you are up for the risk?
If you don’t mind dusting yourself off and moving on with whatever else life brings up, then go on – break a league.
As written for published in The New Indian Express
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.