Wednesday, July 8, 2015

An interesting personal conversation - the alchemy of de-addiction

An interesting personal conversation...
Martin is studying to be a psychologist - specializing in addiction. A young man: tall, handsome, with light blue eyes and well maintained physique; I keep bumping into him oftentimes in the Sauna. He normally comes in with his friends for a vigorous workout, and then walks into the hot room alone for a fitting finale to a tiring regime of weights and exercises. Our acquaintance gradually has grown from mere greetings to a slightly more firm ground; and today both of us were alone in the sauna at 7.30 P.M, and we started talking. Soon enough, we realized that we were ravenously hungry; and after a quick shower headed to a nearby café for dinner. Night was setting in, and the intense heat and humidity of the day was now giving way to a faint cool breeze. It was heavenly after a tiring workout to feel the cool air on one's skin. We ordered dinner, and Martin started this conversation:
“Hey Bala, Don’t mind me asking you this. I remember months ago, you mentioning to someone that you had an alcohol addiction problem; and now you are were out of it completely. If it is not personal and troubling, could you talk to me a little about your experience and how you got out of this? I am recovering alcoholic myself. It’s been a year now. My father was a big time drug abuser, and I guess we had a family history of neurotic and obsessive behavior. One of the reasons, I picked “addiction” as my specialization is that I am fascinated by it, and also I am trying to get to grips with my own problem. So…”
Frankly, I have no qualms talking about it at all. Though in all these years, I have never spoken or written about it. Martins’ question did not disturb me in the least. But what I had to say to him may not be what he expected as an answer from me. Here is my reply paraphrased:
“Martin, to say that I have gotten over alcohol addiction may not be the right way to put it. It would be more appropriate to say that I was made free of it by miraculous grace. When I was in the hospital years ago, recovering from alcohol, I still remember a distinct moment in the middle of a night when it stuck with penetrating clarity, an existential fact – so to speak - that this is simply not working for me. And in that insightful moment when this realization hit me with full force, like a fire burning my skin - I felt as though something deep and ingrained in my psyche wrenched itself from its seat and disappear. There was tremendous feeling of lightness internally. It was not that I was repulsed by the idea of what I had made myself to be, and feeling guilty or bad about it… No!! But what happened in that moment was paradigm shift in the way I looked at myself and the world around me, and there was indescribable happiness in my frail body. If you want to call it a spiritual experience, then so be it; but to me it was just a catastrophic (in the right sense of the word) event. And since then, everything changed: I can walk into a bar, be at a place where everyone around is drinking, I can pour drinks, talk intelligently about various aspects of liquor with an eye of a connoisseur – but it does not touch my inner core even peripherally. And in a strange way Martin, coming out this “addiction” has transformed my life. Perhaps, have been so very close to boundary between life and death; and then returned – has given me a perspective that not many can see. In one of the finest spiritual messages that has come out of Indian soil -“Bhagavad gita”, there is a verse that describes a happy, peaceful man as one who lives like a “lotus in water” (padma-patram ivambhasa). I think Martin - that should be touch stone for any de-addiction program. What it means is that “be in the world, but internally be a little out of it”. Any de-tox program that believes in repressing addictive tendencies, or staying away from distracting influences will not work in long run. The reason we have so many relapses is because we don’t address the root. And the root lies in the “experience” or “realization” - (these words are clichéd and really don’t convey what I mean by them) that none of these props are required to live a fulfilling life. And that can be truly liberating.
“Having said all this, I must add that my immediate family, especially my Mother played a very crucial role in my recovery. I was a physical wreck, and if not for her unconditional love, care and trust (as only a mother can give), I am not sure if my realization would have found any fruition. So Martin that’s another important element in an effective de-addiction program - support from few key people”
Throughout this monologue Martin did not utter a word. He was listening intently to what I was saying.., When I finished “Extraordinary Bala, What you said makes sense. As an intern, I observe the biggest challenge in addiction is to make an individual realize existentially, not intellectually through reasoning - that their life choice is not helping them achieve their life potential in any way. And you are right, there is an element of grace, luck or miracle in all of this. That’s why some come out of it, some don’t… In fact, what I am beginning to understand is that pure clinical science may only get us that far, beyond it an appeal should be made to life forces beyond our comprehension. I am an atheist Bala, but even at my age I am seeing what you have been trying to suggest… Thanks Buddy…
It was dark, silent and roads were almost empty. Martin offered to drop me back at home. I preferred to walk though. Nothing like a solitary walk alone with starry skies above…
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Fiction vs. Non fiction - a personal rumination

Fiction vs. Non fiction - a personal rumination
I have heard this view from a lot many friends:... “Bala, I have stopped reading fiction, I only read Non-fiction” or “Fiction is waste of time, I am better off reading a book that increases my knowledge...”, or with a look of condescension in their eyes, they tell me “You still read fiction, what do you gain by it…” These are representative comments that I have gotten from many educated friends. Frankly, I don’t respond to these, only because I regard these individuals in high esteem, and would not want to offend them in any manner. They are entitled to their opinions and I respect them for it. But the purpose of this essay is to present a case for fiction, not because it really needs one, but merely as a plea to not get into a trap of snobbism, and start deriding the ancient art of storytelling as a distraction in an otherwise “purpose driven” human life. Good fiction is perhaps the earliest form of human communication. It is fiction that has been passed over millennia to shape thoughts and ideas of Mankind; and it is fiction that we deal with each day of our lives. Every time we speak, some amount of it is fictionalized. Only a machine can be completely factual and objective; if something is living and talking - then rest assured - a story is being told. So let us not be weary of fiction.
Well, let me begin by saying that majority of my reading is Non-fiction. Out of ten books that I read, at least half of it belongs to that category. Some of these are part of my research and study, and others to satisfy my sheer fascination for arcane tidbits, and, of course expansion of intellectual horizons. But I would definitely not give up my time spent on reading good fiction for anything else in this world, no matter what. Here are my reasons for it, and for a change I am listing them as distinct points (a writing style that I normally don’t use)
a. What do I mean by good “fiction”? By it, I mean the art of storytelling in a manner that uses language, context, characterization to paint a world that is removed from an individual’s daily reality, and more importantly possessing the ability to drag the reader consciously into its web of carefully crafted story by sheer power, beauty and depth of its narrative texture, metaphors and descriptions; compelling them to participate in the flow of the tale with vivid empathy and interest, teasing them to bask in the rich nuances of unfolding drama - and above all, leaving the participant existentially enriched after the book is closed. The reader is transposed to a world that he may never encounter in reality, but would come out of this reading experience with a feeling of having lived every moment in the impeccable grip of the story that the author had conjured in his mind. This kind of story telling is what, my dear readers, we call literary fiction. And I distinguish this from another kind of writing called pulp fiction - which is essentially mindless, mechanical and mainly written for distraction when you have nothing else to do or what in popular parlance is classified as “killing time”. The Question is: how do we know which one is what? Now, that’s an answer that can only come from an individual. Agreed, there is a certain degree of trial and error there. But the best way to begin is by reading acknowledged classics, books that have stood the test of time; books that are recommended by critics, friends and avid readers; or sometimes a book mysteriously draws us towards it in a way that cannot be reasoned. The beauty though is that once we start reading in this manner, we become more capable of making better judgments of what kind of fiction appeals to us and we develop an instinct to pick up right kinds of books. The problem with readers who swear by non-fiction is that they have not found time to savor fiction well enough, or have been consistently reading books that are really not engaging them deep enough at an emotional level. Hence the disillusionment (probably). As I write this piece, I know that only a couple of days ago El James, third installment of “Shades of grey” has hit the market, and thousands are queuing up outside bookshops to buy this inane piece of work that should strictly be categorized as pornography, but by some strange of destiny has taken the decent appellation of a novel. If this kind of fiction is what we wish to eschew from our lives, then I am with all of you.
b. Also, what I have realized when I talk to people who don’t care for fiction is that many of them haven’t read enough to even make a preliminary judgment, let alone an educated evaluation. I know of several youngsters who have told me that fiction is ”crap”, “non-productive” and such like sentiments. It has almost become a fashion to take a stand that “I read only non-fiction”. It gives them a sense of intellectual superiority, I guess. I once, had an opportunity to hear an acquaintance of mine tell me that reading Dickens is wasting precious time and that he would be better of reading a book on Al-Qaeda. It is more topical and relevant. Well, I remained silent. How can I ever convey to him the indescribable joy of curling on a sofa, with a reading light on top, after a tiring day’s work, to read few chapters from David Copperfield, Great expectations or hundreds of other masterpieces, and lose myself in the era, language and setting that these stories evoke?
c. Have we not grown up with tales? How many of us have had a childhood that does not resonate with a story that was and is dear to our hearts. Our cultural continuity as a human race lies in the stories we heard and that the ones we tell. Even today, we would sit wide eyed, if someone can fabricate a good tale. Anthropologically, language grew out of myths and stories our hunting ancestors told themselves sitting around night time fire. How can we then relinquish this heritage?
d. One of the compelling reasons given for not reading fiction is that it does not “improve” ones knowledge. And this is the tragedy of modern era. We have begun to live more and more in the head and let go of the heart. Fiction, however bad it is, touches the heart; and for most of us that has become dispensable activity. Historically, whenever there has been progress in knowledge, we also witness dramas, novels and poetry flourish as well. Prime example being 16th century renaissance. It was an age which transformed our world view scientifically, and it was also an age when some of the greatest pieces of literature and art were produced. This balance is required in cultured civilization.
When I started writing this piece in the afternoon, it was more of an attempt to justify literature as blessed pursuit. Over the years, fiction has nourished me in many ways than one. Language, expression, perspectives, and opinions - so many different threads of learning have found its confluence in this art form. And yes, I have read my fair share of books that could be deemed as waste of time; but I always look upon such books only as an aberration and never the norm. In the three hundred odd essays that I have penned (most of them “non-fiction”), none of them are free from the influence of fiction. Both Fiction and Nonfiction are the yin and yang of literature. One without the other is incomplete…
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala