Lesson 22: Engage Less and Observe More

Every morning, starting before sunrise at about 5:30 am, in Luang Prabang, Laos, the Buddhist monks go around the neighbourhoods asking for donations. People, many of them seated on their knees, line up the streets patiently on the road. The monks quietly walk by as the locals give rice and offerings to the monks. This ritual is called the Tak Bat. Everyone is silent. There is a sense of calm as the daily processions continue. And within an hour or so, the routine is completed.

When I observed this daily ritual, I immediately transported myself to a period of stillness and tranquillity. I was quite happy observing the monks and the locals go about this daily practice. There is value in being quiet, being still and being observant.

As someone who struggled with intrusive thoughts, my mind was always ruminating and racing. It had resulted in periods of intense insomnia, which led to exhaustion over days and sometimes weeks. During periods of extreme anxiety, I felt my mind melt, and I dissociated from the world. It, eventually, led to significant bouts of low moods and depression.

In late 2019, I started Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, doing online sessions as I travelled. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, a modality within psychotherapy, helps address dysfunctional behaviour. The premise is that thoughts, indicative of a core negative belief system and feelings, representing negative emotions stemming from cognitive distortions, are linked to behaviour, seen as action or inaction.

The aim is to understand these cognitive distortions and then replace them with helpful thoughts and feelings. The result is much-improved behaviour leading to better functioning in society. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is effective (proven by evidence-based research) in treating Depression, Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and many more mental health issues.

Every day, I worked on questioning my thoughts, my belief system and my cognitive distortions. I put in a lot of work to replace unhelpful thoughts with optimal thoughts leading to better behaviour. During periods of anxiety and intrusive thoughts, my mind went into an overdrive of ruminations. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy helped me be more aware of my cognitions and effectively challenge my thoughts and beliefs.

I supplemented Cognitive Behaviour Therapy with Stoicism and Buddhism. The philosophy of both Stoicism and Buddhism are quite similar.

Stoicism was born in Ancient Greece, and ancient philosophers such as Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Socrates were keen teachers and philosophers of this philosophy. The mind’s capacity to reason forms the foundation of this philosophy. The mind retains the capacity for rational thought and reason under any circumstance. The aim of existence is to be wholly detached from emotions and ultimately in sync with virtue.

Buddhism too influenced millions of South and East Asians in the ancient world. In the last few decades, Buddhism’s principles, especially in its philosophy of mindfulness, have been well accepted worldwide. The Buddha sought enlightenment for the world with his teachings of the four noble truths

1 Life is about suffering, which comes in many forms. We are subject to desires and cravings, small or big, and we want to satisfy these desires. Pleasure is fleeting, and we can’t stop to enjoy more. When we cannot meet these cravings, we suffer.

2. The root of suffering is a desire which has three causes: greed, ignorance and hatred

3. To be happy, you need to stop suffering. The way to stop suffering is to stop the cravings by liberating oneself from attachment.

4. The eightfold path, the middle way, can help one liberate from suffering.

The wisdom of the ancient world: Stoicism and Buddhism and the science of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy resonated deeply within me. In all three forms, the critical underlying practice was observation and detachment, carried out using mindfulness. The idea was to observe thoughts without engagement. It is tough to do so, but I got better with practice. Today, after months of questioning my belief system, cognitive distortions and observing my thoughts and emotions, I have reached a better place in my life. Sometimes, I engage my thoughts and fail to be mindful. At other times, I let the thoughts flow without any judgement or reaction. The process is slow, but it has helped. I can observe and be calm, and I did as the monks went by in Laos.

For decades, the desire for tranquillity and peace was immense. For years, I couldn’t just ‘observe’. I had to engage with my thoughts and beliefs. Today, I am a lot more confident in observing more.

The same applies to the broader context of exploration and life. There is, sometimes, a need to engage, to judge, to participate. I am quite guilty of being too keen on the judgement of the broader world at times. I have seen this time and time again, and as mentioned in earlier chapters, how many in the world are quick to react and judge others.

The monks have taught me that, sometimes, it is better to be calm and just observe and let people, communities and societies be as they are. We don’t need to prove a point all the time. We don’t need to be the most engaged, the most popular and the most vocal all the time. We can be at a distance, while being entirely in the flow with everything going on around us, within us and outside us in the broader world. It starts by being like an observer, just like at Tak Bat.

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