They say your mind is your worst enemy or your best friend. If things go well and you achieve your goals, you feel driven and focused and the future seems bright- it is indeed your best friend. It amplifies your mood further leading you into a cycle of positive growth- you achieve small goals, feel happy and proud of yourself, you get the bit of dopamine which comes with achievement and want to do more. The more productive you become, the more dopamine you get, the better your mood and the more you grow in life resulting in success- whether that’s in academics or work or otherwise.
But I want to say something about its dark side because I have seen it more than I wish to admit.
One of the worst things I have ever experienced is being stuck in an endless thought cycle of anxiety, procrastination, and depression. This has happened for days on end multiple times during my life– it is the perfect psychological loop of paralysis and it sucks you deeper and deeper into a pit of hopelessness which soon becomes impossible to climb out of.
The scariest part is not that the nature of the experience but the fact that it can be triggered by the most of trivial of things- a missed deadline, an argument, a bad day. A missed deadline can turn into two, increasing your guilt and stifling your self-respect. As your overall energy deteriorates your sleep cycle and diet becomes erratic and before you know it weeks pass by. It’s almost as if there is no control over this relentless downward spiral at all and all one can do is hope it never comes back. But it always does…
For years my only strategy against the dark side was to deny its existence and wish it away. I figured each downward spiral would be the last and as I matured the frequency would reduce enough for me not to have to bother about it. After all I always managed to beat it and remained outwardly ‘successful’ overall.
Instead of looking away I started to look more closely at the dark abyss of the mind and as I did, I started to notice a pattern.
Here are the traits of the dark cycle-
1. It starts with something small.
2. It starts with you knowing about something you know you should not have done OR should have done but didn’t.
3. Usually, it starts when an honest mistake and unrealistic expectations combine.
4. Its main emotional ammunition is guilt.
5. It becomes tough to break because it is self-perpetuating.
6. It grows stronger when it is denied.
As I started to visualize the dark cycle, I realized its mechanics work like an anchor. Imagine that you are adrift in the ocean, shipwrecked- on to a thin wooden plank which keeps you afloat from sinking into the depths. Now imagine that there is rope tied to your waist which is tethered to a fish. Mostly you don’t notice its existence as it swims silently below you.
Imagine that this fish feeds on your emotions instead of other fish- it grows heavier and bigger if you make a mistake, feel guilty or negative. The more negative emotions you feel, the heavier and stronger it gets. The heavier it gets, the more it can pull you in its desired direction. If It reaches a critical mass, it can gather enough momentum to control your movement and dive straight down pulling you into the depths of the ocean of despair. It is then that you become tethered to IT rather it to you. With the right ammunition, it can control you and it can take you to places you don’t want to visit – like the endless cycles of the dark side of your mind.
One might argue that the solution is to simply stop feeding the fish. But this would not be good advice because negative emotions are not something we can simply wish away. They exist for evolutionary reasons. The feeling of fear is a warning sign which readies the body for flight or flight. The reason we worry and feel disappointed is because we are descendants of the humans who worried more because it kept them vigilant enough to detect a threat- a snake in the grass or a predator in the bushes. Out in nature where it is red in tooth and claw, worrying is a survival necessity. Vigilance kept the hunter gatherer alive, and stress was the price to be paid for existence.
We no longer need fear the snake or the predator in modern times, but we still walk around with the same ancient brain which is programmed by evolution to prioritize survival over happiness. We still feel the worry, the vigilance, the stress from a missed deadline as if it represents an existential threat.
So how to break the spell? What do you need to do to make sure that the fish remains forever small enough to be inconsequential? What is required to ensure that you control the movement of your drift rather than the arbitrary whims of a creature that will not hesitate to sink you at the slightest opportunity?
If you are not caught in the dark cycle but fear that you might be vulnerable, use the Preventive Spell-
1. Stop feeding it negative emotions as much as possible.
2. This is only possible when you recognize negative emotions as they arise.
3. To recognize negative emotions as they arise, become more mindful.
4. To become more mindful, you must train the mind.
5. The best way to train the mind for awareness is through meditation.
If you are caught in the dark cycle, use the Curative spell-
1. Accept- Note that you are caught in it.
2. Love- Love yourself WITHOUT feeling more guilty.
3. Practice compassion- Do something very nice for someone expecting NOTHING in return.
4. Sleep- fix your sleep cycle immediately.
5. Exercise- Sweat, run, move for 20-30 min.
6. Gratitude- Count your blessing and practice gratitude.
Any one of the above may be enough to break the dark cycle but you may need to cycle between the preventive and curative spells as the need arises.
As we navigate a world full of challenges, keeping our proverbial head above the water is more than we can manage at times. Having high expectations from ourselves does not help the existential anxiety either but such is the nature of the world. The best thing to do is, it seems is to view ourselves in perspective – to see ourselves as vulnerable but brave little creatures always trying to fight the infinite chaos of a cold, indifferent universe.
Does such a creature not deserve your respect and empathy? If yes, then the most authentic way to communicate it is through the language of love. “Spread the love” is not cliched feel-good hippie-talk- love is medicinal. If you have ever felt truly safe in the company of loved ones, you know this to be true.
So, if you know anyone- including yourself who is battling the dark side- through some light their way. Don’t ignore the darkness- accept it, face it and exorcize it with deliberate and sustained love.
Start today with yourself.
Ravi Kapoor IRS