Tag Archives: Existentialism

Dr Shyam K Bhat MD is a
Psychiatrist and Integrative
Medicine specialist.

He is board certified in
Psychiatry, Internal
Medicine, and
Psychosomatic Medicine,
with additional certification
in clinical hypnosis


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The Clearing

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.


In order to change unhealthy behaviour, we have to first acknowledge to ourselves that the behaviour is unhealthy.

We have to say to ourselves, “What I have been doing all along is hurting me, or those around me.” This can be frightening, because to acknowledge that we have been wrong is to see the past as a wasteland of unfulfilled dreams.

Consider Santosh, who has been irritable and impatient all his life. He has alienated many people; his employees, his wife and children live in fear of him. Occasionally, when he pauses long enough to see the fear and discomfort in his family’s eyes, this awareness becomes overwhelming.

If Santosh’s sub-conscious could speak, it would say, “If the past is bad, and I cannot change, then the future will be bad as well. Therefore, if I see my behaviour as bad, then my past and my future will seem like a waste. That is too scary a realisation, and so the only thing I can do is to conclude that my behaviour is not harmful.”

Without knowing it, the frightening awareness of his dysfunctional behaviour was quickly buried under the many layers of his mind.

It may seem like there is no solution to this, but there is a way to cut through this vicious cycle and break through the paralysis of fear: by accepting. Acceptance means that we do not judge ourselves — we stop assigning values of “right” or “wrong” to ourselves, instead we examine our behaviour objectively by remembering, “It is my behaviour that is wrong, not who I am.”

When we see through the clear eyes of acceptance, we can embrace every aspect of our personality and then, without judgement, fear or self-criticism, we can let go of behaviour that is not serving our purpose


Note: As always, cases are composites (using facts from multiple cases, with all names and identifiers changed)

(From my column in Outlook Business)

Difficult Decisions

Sometimes I cannot make a decision, especially when it seems like there’s no good choice. How to make the right decision? Can you please help me improve my decision making ability?




Dear KG,

I am reminded of the time when a therapy client said to me, “The time for inaction is over,” and then added, “I will make my decision tomorrow.”

I knew that he would say the same thing next week, and of course, he knew it too.

Talking about action was enough to ease the anxiety of inaction, and so he continued to hold back from making this important decision that could change his life.

Most of us, during the course of a lifetime, will have to take many life changing decisions.

Of course, it could be argued that all decisions are life changing, especially the ones we don’t consciously make – If you weren’t late by five minutes for that train, you would not have met the person who would become your life partner, and so on.

But there are times in our lives when we know that the decision we have to make will have far reaching consequences.

Should I get married? To this person or to that? Should I move to a new place or stay here? Should I take this job or that? Or, should I join this university or that?
And so on.

If you have a difficult time with such decisions, if you are stuck, then it’s probably because you are thinking too much.

Decisions that force you to choose between ambiguous outcomes are difficult to make – your rational, theoretical brain will not be able to find a solution and will often spin in a closed ended loop.

Decisions can be difficult and complicated for a number of reasons, but often, difficult decisions are those when the 2 alternatives presented seem equally bad, or equally good.

(The first – 2 bad choices – is referred to as Morton’s Fork (more here at Wikipedia) and the other, Buridan’s Ass (here’s the wiki link)

While you struggle with the decision, thinking about it, weighing your options, the “correct” decision eludes you.
That is because your decision will not feel like the “right” one, unless it resonates with the emotional center of your brain.
When you make the “right” decision, you will not question it, you will know it.

Sounds kind of self-evident, but it bears underlining. The right decision – as Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his book, Blink – is often made in an instant.

So in order to make the right decision, you have to trust yourself.

If you are caught between a rock and a hard place, or between a stack of hay and a pail of water, act with conviction.

Trust your instincts, your emotions, your gut, and you will have made the right decision.


Dr Shyam Bhat


Ashwathama is Dead

Speaking the truth is not always easy, and may not always be the right course of action either. The ambiguous nature of the moral order of the universe first became apparent to me when I first heard the famous story of Krishna’s role in the death of Drona.

If you want to refresh your memory, the wiki article is here , but the broad details are as follows:

Drona is plundering through the Pandava troops, wreaking havoc, and he needs to be stopped. But he is a formidable warrior and his only weakness seems to be his affection for his son, Ashwathama.

And so, Krishna tells Yudhisthira to lie, to tell Drona that his son, Ashwathama, is dead.

Yudhisthira, who is widely renowned to never tell a lie, of course refuses but Krishna tells him that this is a war that must be won and therefore lying about Ashwathama is the right thing to do in the larger context.

As Yudhisthira ponders this, Bhima kills an elephant, that happens to be named Ashwathama and roars loudly, “Ashwathama is dead!”

Drona comes to Yudhisthira and asks him if this is true, Is Ashwathama dead? he asks.

Yudhisthira replies, “Yes Aswhatama is dead,” he pauses and adds, “I don’t know if it is man or elephant. (“Ashwathama hathaha iti narova kunjarova)”

The last part, he says under his breath and so Drona who knows that Yudhisthira can never tell a lie, believes that his son is dead. He bows his head,full of grief, and then, his head gets chopped off.

As a child, when I first heard the story, I felt strangely betrayed by the good guys, Yudhisthira and Krishna. Like every child I wanted my heroes to be heroes, and the villains to be the villains.

And this was the first time that I sensed that life is not always like that, that what is right and what is wrong is not always obvious, and perhaps not even definable, and that the good and the bad sometimes blur.

But now when I think of the story as an adult, one detail of the story that strikes me as strange, and therefore possibly symbolic, is the elaborate nature of the lie.

Yudhisthira could not lie in a direct manner, and comes across – in this story at least – as an effete, self-righteous, and somewhat sly man; in order to protect his own self-image of being Mr Truthful, an elephant was killed, and an elaborate ruse contrived, all so that he can justify the action to himself.

In making the lie so contrived, this story is making another observation: that people will often use all kinds of ruses to preserve their own self-image.

A psychoanalyst might say that Yudhistra’s superego, his conscience, prevented him from acknowledging his own voluntary participation in a lie, and his mind accomplished this through various psychological defense mechanisms.

The same psychoanalyst would have to say that Krishna at least, is emotionally more evolved.

Krishna at least is direct. From his perspective, the war has to be won. Too many people are dying, and he feels like the moral justification is on his side, and so he sees nothing wrong with lying. The ends, from Krishna’s perspective, justify the means.

So maybe the moral of the story is that untruths and misdeeds are occasionally necessary, if the ends are justified; and Yudhisthira’s role is the addendum to the moral – Lie if you have to, but don’t lie to yourself.

But then you consider this and the story turns around once again – The man who was beheaded, Drona, was a man of principle, a man to be admired. He should have died a noble death if at all.

But wait a minute. Drona is on the side of the bad guys, and so his manner of death is justified. Or is it?

Your Someday is Today

Dream all you want. But put it to action.

Many people die with their dreams still in their heads and hearts. My “someday” never happened, they would tell us.

Why do so many people wait?

What prevents people from acting on their dreams?

Most people cite practical obstacles such as the lack of money or time.

“I am too old now.”
“I am too young, I need experience.”
“I need to save more money.”
“When I retire…”
“When I take a sabbatical.”
“The idea is not good enough.”

But no matter what your reason for inaction, it has its basis in one emotion only – fear.

The fear of the unknown, the fear of failure, the fear of uncertainty. But most of all, the fear that in order for dreams to become a reality, we have to first be willing to kill the dream.

As long as we want the comfort of the dream, its fantasy alive, we will hold on to it and nurture it, play with it in our minds, but never willing to release it into the world, to act on this dream.

Dreams are fragile. It is the nature of your dream to resist the light of day, because it is fragile. It lives a tenuous existence as it is, between the world of fantasy and reality.

But in order to act, you have to first be willing to let your dream go. To see the dream die and be reborn as something tangible, imperfect perhaps, but real.

So harness the fact of your death. The best antidote to inertia is to harness the knowledge of your mortality. Fight the fear that makes you continue living in the safety of shadows, by reminding yourself that you will not live forever.

You do not want to carry your dreams to your grave. Act now. Your someday is today.