Keeping Resolutions: How I Quit Smoking

It has been almost a year since I quit smoking. That was my new year’s resolution for 2011. I had been smoking for fifteen years before that and it is still hard to believe that I was able to do it. I wanted to share the circumstances and thought process that made it possible for me to quit smoking. It goes without saying that this successful attempt was preceded by numerous failed ones. Lasting success often has failure as its foundation. My hope is that this will comfort and inspire you in equal parts, comfort in knowing that our struggles are the same and inspiration from the knowledge that we can succeed eventually.

Let me begin with the extent of my habit first. I was definitely not a casual smoker, you know the type, someone who smokes only while drinking and rarely buys their own cigarettes. I smoked whether happy or sad, stressed or relaxed and sometimes just out of sheer boredom. It was a rather integral part of my existence. I tried quitting on multiple occasions and did not succeed. Smoking was like a crutch that I needed and also a little treat that I looked forward to. Thinking about quitting always triggered this feeling of looming tragic loss as if I was about to part company with a dear friend. Pardon me if I appear to romanticize smoking, that is not my intent. On the contrary I merely wish to illustrate how warped our thinking can be. We are almost afraid of giving up something even when we clearly know the said thing to be harmful to us.

This is not helped by the way we think about long-term cost and short-term benefit. This is specially true when we are younger. We perceive an immediate benefit to smoking whereas the health cost is in a distant future. Human brain is particularly adept in these dark arts of rationalization. So naturally the battle has to be won in the mind first. It is fair to point out at this juncture that I was prodded into action by my wife. She was also a smoker and she insisted that we both stop smoking before thinking about kids. I gave a non-committal sort of grunt but she was having none of it and under pressure I suggested an arbitrary quit date, Jan 15th 2011, in this case.

Setting deadlines does not guarantee success however. It was the summer of 2010 when we set our quit date. Deep down I must have known that I would need about 6 months to truly convince myself that I needed to quit. That was probably the biggest difference compared to previously unsuccessful attempts. Everyday I thought just a little bit about the idea of quitting. Slowly it crept into my resistant brain and I started to “buy into” the whole concept. I effectively reprogrammed my brain. I am proud to say that I achieved this without any external aids (Nicorette, Chantix etc). On the face of it you could say that I quit cold turkey. But that is not the case. It is worth remembering that I gave myself plenty of time to come to terms with the reality of the situation. So while on the surface the transition was quite abrupt, in my mind it was smooth and facile.

It had to be that way. I don’t know about you but my brain has a built-in resistance to change. I had to come up with a more “organic” solution so to speak. In this case it involved chipping away at my own resistance in a slow and steady fashion. Once I conquered my mind, the physical struggle was practically non-existent. I am convinced that the same principle can be applied to achieve success in all endeavors of life. I look forward to hearing other people’s experiences on this topic.

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Postcards from the past: Magic of Ramleela

They say that one must fulfil any promises given in writing for the fear of inviting gods’ (this is a plural since we have quite a few back where I come from) wrath. This is not really true and nobody had said it till I wrote it. But it does ring true. So as I promised in my last post, this one is going to be heart warming. I had a remarkably lucid moment the other day and I was inspired enough to come up with an idea for an umbrella series, “postcards from the past”, under which I will be posting vignettes from my time in India (all but last 12 years). I am not sure at this point if I will be able to come up with enough stories to justify calling it a series but I will try anyway. My intent will be to provide folks here with a prism through which to view Indian people and their culture.

Seeing as we are in the middle of the holiday season here in USA I thought I would describe a holiday tradition from my childhood. I have written about the Hindu festival of Diwali previously. Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama to his homeland after a 14 year exile. When I was growing up stage re-enactments of Rama’s story called Ramleela (literal meaning is Rama’s play) were performed throughout India. It was very popular back then but I am not sure how well it has survived to this day. Ramleela is basically a 10 day long public play (think nativity plays around Christmas for an analogy) designed to end on the day of the festival of Vijaydashmi (Vijay means victory and dashmi refers to the fact that the festival is on the tenth day of the lunar month). This festival, which precedes Diwali, celebrates Rama’s slaying of the demon king Ravana during the exile. You can refer to a somewhat humorous version of the story behind Ramleela in my post on Diwali.

Staging of Ramleela in my village was an annual tradition, which my cousins and I looked forward to with much glee and anticipation, not unlike children here looking forward to Christmas. The open air stage for the performance was set up on the corner of two unnamed dusty streets (most streets in India do not have any names, you find your way solely through landmarks and by asking around). One street was bounded by a big farm and the other by a swamp. It was the perfect setting for the production in a strange way. The stage was at most 3 blocks away from my house. Every evening after dinner we left wrapped up in shawls and blankets (it is a unique spectacle in fall and winter in Indian villages — people walk around covered in blankets!!) to ward off the evening winter chill. There were no seats of course. Most people would sit cross-legged on the street. Some of us would climb on the nearby temple wall crumbling down from neglect in order to get a better view. A guy on the side of the road roasted grains of corn on his cast iron pan (this is before I knew to call it pop-corn). Another vendor selling peanuts and other savory treats  was always around. After making sure that we had enough provisions for the night we would settle down, huddled close together under the open skies to watch the play.

It is important to describe the “ambience” of the play. This was a highly informal setting. We didn’t have to sit in silence. We would chat among ourselves, stretch our legs occasionally and enjoy the treats we had just bought. Some of the villagers would start makeshift fires on the side to warm themselves. The orange glow of the fire mingled with the fog that drifted in on some nights hinted at an unearthly presence.The open air stage was brightly lit and colorfully decorated. For us kids it was a magical occasion. Characters from one of our favorite stories had sprung to life and they were here to entertain us for ten nights straight. The fact that none of the actors were professionals added a charming and whimsical twist to the religious drama. In fact every year one or more of my uncles on my dad’s side had a starring role. My dad’s twin brother always played the lead role of Rama. The oh so dramatic musical fanfare was provided by a tabla player and a harmonium player. Each night between the acts there was an event just for the children. Little ones waited in line with their parents for their turn to be taken on the magic stage where one of the actors would pick them up and sing a soothing lullaby. Something very similar to how kids here go and sit in Santa’s lap and make a wish. Each night’s performance was usually two to three hours long at the end of which we walked back home sleepy and slightly achy but content in the knowledge that the fun will resume the next night.

Looking back at it all what I miss the most is the spirit of a community coming together. As we get ready to celebrate Christmas it is important to remind ourselves to not get wrapped up in wrapping presents so to speak but instead enjoy the coming together of friends and family. Happy holidays everyone.

Anatomy of a blogger

This post is in response to the question that was put to me by several people: why are you annoying us with your writing? The truthful and simplest answer is that I have always wanted to write. It is only now that I have breached the barrier of arrogance where I feel that I have something worthwhile to say. But that’s not really a fun answer, is it? So as I am fond of saying, allow me to illuminate the dark corners of your brain. I have oodles of great thoughts in my head but unless these are out in the open they might as well not exist. You may disagree with the first part of that sentence but you cannot find fault with the rest. Perception specifically other people’s perception of you is your reality whether you like it or not. If you think you are fabulous and the world around you just doesn’t see it, you need to work to align the world’s view with your own instead of moping about it. As a good friend of mine never tires of saying: if a peacock danced in the forest and nobody was there to witness it, did it really happen? This blog is part of my attempt to make the world see my world view as well as see me as I see myself (that was a real tongue twister but let’s assume that it was alliteration). Most human actions share multiple motives at least for those with more than one brain cell, however. As with everything else, my motives are a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly. The ugly bit is driven by pure self-aggrandizement and vanity. Through my writing I am performing my equivalent of the peacock dance i.e I am showing off and saying to the world — look at my bright feathers (or as Tom Haverford says in Parks and Recreation, I am peacocking). The good part is the  sheer joy of writing and the cathartic/therapeutic nature of this creative outlet that I have been blessed enough to discover. It really is a godsend  and could not have happened at a better time in my life.

The bad bit at least from your standpoint is that I suffer from delusions of grandeur (are there any other kind?). I think of myself as a philosopher and a dispenser of worldly wisdom. The word philosophy however induces heebie-jeebies in most people. It conjures visions of modern-day intellectuals sitting in their ivory towers dryly droning on and on about morality of human actions. They automatically assume a moral high ground from which they preach to the rest of us ignorant fools about our follies and foibles. Interestingly these people tend to have very rich and powerful friends and you never hear a judgement come out of their lips on their friends’ “indiscretions”. In essence their world view is warped and divorced from ground reality. I will give only one example (mostly because I am lazy to do more research on the topic): Bernard-Henri Lévy. He is a French public intellectual and recently was alarmed that the New York police manhandled his “friend” Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who you will all remember was accused of sexually assaulting a maid in a New York hotel room. More recently, BHL has expressed his dismay at Gaddafi’s “barbaric” execution. Such are the weighty matters on which the elite intellectuals choose to exercise their self-proclaimed intellect on. OK, so I rambled here a bit but the point I am trying to make is that there is a distinct lack of real life philosophy out there that can help a regular individual deal better with his/her life. I am hoping that I can address some of that gap. You may very well ask what the hell makes me so special? Well, nothing per se but I do have a keen interest in the subject matter. I am always looking at my own life as well as of those around me, assessing the results of various actions and choices made, to come up with a generic framework to guide me through life. I have struggled a lot in trying to discern my place in the world and to establish a sense of belonging. Many times I have felt completely unmoored and unhinged and it’s a rather terrible feeling to experience (I cannot resist making a geeky connection here with particles in Brownian motion). My personal struggles have given me a unique perspective which I hope others will be able to benefit from. And that is the real truth behind the genesis of this blog.

In case you thought that I am letting you off easy here is my first practical advice: cut yourself some slack and develop a sense of humor. This is of course only applicable to the individuals who insist on very strict standards for their own behavior and in turn use that as a self-righteous reason to control the behavior of others around them. Once you allow yourself wiggle room for error it is easier to do the same for other people (charity as they say begins at home). This has the advantage of stopping you from fixating on what everybody else is doing wrong and you can finally look at yourself and make positive changes. Similarly a sense of humor lets you bounce back from tough situations in life. Having a sense of humor does not mean making fun of everybody else, it is the ability to laugh at yourself and not looking at life in its apocalyptic seriousness. A lack of sense of humor will invariably lead you to miss out on small joys of life. And contrary to what you may have heard it really is not about grandiose accomplishments. Fulfilment of your life in the end hinges on your ability to appreciate the small things in life. Peace out.

Diwali Musings

The hindu festival of Diwali this year is today i.e Oct 26th (almost all religious holidays in India are based on the lunar calendar, so the Julian Calendar dates move around each year). NPR did a little segment on Diwali this morning that filled me with nostalgia and a sudden urge to stuff myself with Indian sweets. And I thought why not write about it also while I am at it. Diwali means festival of lights and it is like 4th of July, christmas and thanksgiving rolled into one. The story behind it is immortalized in Ramayana, one of the two great epic hindu mythologies (many religious nuts of course consider these factually accurate), the other one is Mahabharata which is better known of the two outside India. The story centers around Rama, Vishnu’s (Vishnu is one part of the holy trinity of 3 major gods of hinduism: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) incarnation on earth. Rama is sent to exile for 14 years with his dutiful wife Sita (and she is very dutiful) but since he is so fabulous his step brother Laxmana tags along presumably for fun of the jungle. While enjoying their happy idyllic existence in the wilderness they come across the monkey-god Hanuman, who literally puts Rama and Sita on a pedestal. It was all going swimmingly for a while but what story is complete without a dark villain. Now the only people with a darker skin tone than the Indians in that part of the world are the Sri Lankans (wonderful buddhist island nation which I have not had the pleasure of visiting yet). So of course our villain in the story, Ravana, had to be from there. So the swarthy Ravana kidnapped Sita and took her to Sri Lanka with him. He sure did travel a long way to get her, however it’s not quite clear what he was doing so far from home. Anyway, the large monkey army commanded by Hanuman built a bridge on the sea separating India and Sri Lanka. It was named Rama Setu (setu means a bridge). White folk call it Adam’s bridge since Adam is responsible for everything in white christian view of the world. So the bridge gets built, Rama’s army crosses into Sri Lanka and after a long and fiery battle involving fancy chariots and futuristic missiles Ravana is killed. By sheer coincidence, fourteen years are almost up by this time and the exiles are finally eligible to re-enter their hometown. The town folk went wild in anticipation of this homecoming and they lit little clay lamps all over town to welcome their hero.

The celebratory tradition has survived thru the ages and it is one of the most fun holidays anywhere. People usually give their homes a makeover around Diwali. When I was growing up we used to re-paint our house before Diwali. Everybody gets dressed up in their “Diwali best” and multitudes of sweets and treats are exchanged. Every house is lit up like a christmas tree both with electrical lights and with traditional clay lamps and candles. The biggest bang literally is saved for the last when everybody creates their own personal fireworks show and the night ends in a thick cloud of smoke.

Aside from the material joys, this is also an occasion for spiritual renewal. I will not bore you with philosophy on this occassion other than to say that this year’s Diwali has an extra significance for me since I was finally able to conquer my demons and start my own renewal process. I wish the same for everyone else.

Happy Diwali!!

Man who wasn’t there: Back from the brink

There’s this gem of a movie by Coen brothers shot entirely in black and white: The Man Who Wasn’t There. I remember experiencing an extra resonance with Billy Bob’s character Ed Crane, who’s a barber in the movie and feels invisible to the rest of the world: “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber”. Now I am obviously not a barber, but I have spent the last few years feeling like a ghost. I was watching myself from afar in the movie of my life going thru the motions. And all this while a storm raged inside my mind. I was questioning my whole belief system, values, hopes, dreams, aspirations and all that jazz. I didn’t mean to start this new journey on such a dark note but it is necessary to state what went before and then one can truly look forward to the future.  So here’s a very abridged version of what happened before: A boy was born. Boy grew up in a sleepy little village. All the boy wanted to do was just play outside but had to move to the big city to pursue bigger and better things. Then without any real thought boy followed others like a sheep and came to a foreign land. Now this foreign land was very different from boy’s own experiences but he had brought some friends with him and that kept him sheltered from the world for a little longer, thereby delaying the inevitable. Then reality took over and boy had to move from the middle of the foreign land to the western shores for the sole expedient of making a living. And that’s when it all got very interesting. Boy resented having to work a regular, regular meaning getting up everyday in the morning, job to make money. Boy used to frequent local watering holes after his work and was trying to sort out a few things in his mind when out of the blue boy met a girl at one of these establishments. The chemistry was instantaneous, sparks flew and angels sang in the heavens. But spontaneous chemistry is a dangerous thing if not managed well. And for a long time it was mis-managed in a spectacular fashion. Boy and girl stayed together through the chemical storm and got hitched. What was supposed to be a new and fresh beginning did not turn out to be so. Boy had been grappling with multi-headed demons in his mind and he started resenting everybody who he thought was happier than he was. One can only imagine the effect it had on the girl. The situation grew from bad to worse and now the boy was positively seething with anger till one day he could not hold it all inside anymore and quite literally exploded, causing a lot of emotional damage in the process. In the aftermath, the boy was shameful and the girl was able to make the boy realize that he was angry and unhappy. And that realization started the beginning of the end of the man who wasn’t there. Boy sought professional help, found it and was able to break free from the prison of his mind with the girl’s support. And that’s how the boy came back from the brink.

Why did it happen the way it did? I believe I experienced a very acute form of culture shock. Going from one extreme of an emotionally sheltered existence, one in which most decisions in life were practically made for me, to the opposite spectrum of consciously choosing to marry a woman from a diametrically opposite culture. I was a product of a very traditional culture that valued (and still does) conformity over individual thought and expression. No surprise then that I always felt restricted and was yearning to be free without quite knowing how to go about it. My wife on the other hand embodies the spirit of individual better than anybody else I know. I harbored a secret hope that I will be able to access my own spirit through her. But I had not taken into account the emotional turmoil one must necessarily go through to force such a drastic change in one’s mindset. So I struggled to be free, failed for a long time, was disappointed and that led to resentment and anger. My anger was the more acute since I was in close proximity with a person who was already at a stage in her life where I longed to be and was failing in my efforts quite dramatically. This would not have been quite so difficult if I could only have told somebody how I really felt. But I was not raised in a society that indulged in this sort of tomfoolery. It kills me to think that a lot of the issues I had could have been resolved so easily, by the mere act of expression. But I suppose it had to happen the way it did. You really have to pass through fire to become solid gold.

Epilogue:

 A slumbering giant has been awakened from a deep sleep. I feel more alive than I have in a very very long time and unfortunately for you all, I have a lot to say. I am going to talk your ear off digitally speaking of course and you would probably regret the misfortune of having made my acquaintance. But you would be ignoring my proclamations at the pain of endangering your soul. I know of a very wise old soul and I will be quoting him a lot on this blog (In case you didn’t get it, I was just tooting my own horn).