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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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Forever young

The perception of age causes ageing. And our perception is shaped by our mind. It is our inner world that has to be conquered.

My friend recently told me about his uncle who, at age 60, has begun a regular regimen of facials. Apparently, his aunt was in tears because her husband had spent more than Rs 15,000 on facial creams in a single day. The uncle is fighting a battle that will never been won, swimming upstream against the inexorable force of ageing, forgetting that nobody is exempt, not even the beautician who tends to his face.

People have always made attempts to slow down the signs of ageing. Some have been more creative than others. Cleopatra bathed in milk and honey, the Greek physician Archigenes of Apamea described the dyeing of hair, and family albums are replete with artful combovers of generations past. But ageing seems to be particularly difficult in contemporary India, where our culture is going through hypersonic change and the old are feeling more marginalised than ever before. Previously, the old were venerated – or maybe the respect was institutionalised and, therefore, mandatory.

But in today’s world, the democratisation of knowledge by the internet has trivialised the wisdom of the old. The material success of the young (money being seen as a virtue in itself), has devalued the achievements of the older generation. And because much of popular media is run by the young for the young, the old have little influence on social discourse and norms.

The psychiatrist George Vaillant called those who were middle-aged and older, ‘the keepers of meaning’. According to Vaillant, the older generation is charged with an important task – to pass on the traditions of the past to the future.

The situation is different in India: in a society where change is the only constant, the old are no longer the keepers of meaning. In our country, social norms are rapidly and parallely created and destroyed by the young, with little remaining to be preserved by way of tradition by the old. The balance of creation, destruction and preservation has become a vortex of creation and destruction.

But there is hope. In a now famously quoted research study, a group of 70-year-olds stayed in houses that were reminiscent of the environment of their younger selves. The furniture, the kind of food they ate, the newspapers they read, the music they listened to – all from 40 years in the past. To their astonishment, the researchers found that the subjects actually seemed to experience a reversal of age. They looked younger, felt younger and the objective measures of ageing – heart rate, blood pressure and so on – improved. The perception of age causes ageing. And our perception is shaped by our mind.

Attempts to slow down the external changes caused by ageing might be healthy – it can only help our bodies to eat in moderation and to get adequate physical exercise – but taken to extremes, these attempts will only deplete and demoralise us. Ultimately, it is our inner world that has to be conquered.

So, the uncle would do well to remember that the external battle is ultimately a losing battle. His desperate attempts to look young are imprisoning him, taking away from the freedom of living.

Instead of constantly assessing how old he is perceived to be, if he can merge with existence, he will be free of the anguish of ageing. His body might be old but he will know that his spirit is forever young.

Don’t be driven. Be the driver

Are you being pushed towards success by a force that is not entirely under your control?

You are probably the sort of high achiever who has little time for frivolous nonsense. Sure, you might party hard on weekends, perhaps play a round of golf or two, spend some ‘quality time’ with the family, but for the most part, you are oriented towards tangible results. You are constantly aware of the ticking clock and are propelled onwards in your life by a need to excel. You are competitive. You often compare yourself with others, and with yourself – with your past achievements, with as yet unrealised goals. You cannot help but feel a twinge of jealousy if a peer gets a promotion before you do, and occasionally, you might look at your boss and think, “I could do a better job. When will my time come?” All the while, you are aware of your juniors, who are even now nipping at your heels, increasing your sense of urgency. This is your inner world, one of restless desire, of relentless striving. People probably refer to you as being ‘driven’, a high compliment in our contemporary corporate culture.

But since you are taking a few minutes to read this article, and this is your space for reflection, let me ask you this: If you are driven, what drives you?

Is it possible that you have always been driven by fear? The fear of insignificance, of annihilation, of mediocrity, ceaselessly pushing you, ever onward, not allowing you to breathe. Yes, you are successful – fear often propels people to success, especially when combined with talent and discipline, but like an engine that is feeding off the wrong kind of fuel, fear ultimately clogs up the system. Sooner or later, the soul begins to hurt. “What is the point of all this?” the soul whispers to you in the quiet of the night. Victories bring momentary respite but the need for success is a bottomless pit, swallowing everything you feed it, reducing it all to meaninglessness. Like a drug, the fear that drives success is difficult to give up. As one senior executive I saw in therapy put it, “If I let it go, then I might just sit around and do nothing.”

Ironically, at the root of all fear is the fear of giving up fear – “Without this driving force, will I be complacent and ineffectual at work?” And so, the cycle goes on.

But consider the artist who creates art for the sake of art itself, consider that he or she wakes up in the morning enthused not by the results but by the process, the joy of putting paint on canvas. The truly inspired artist is a pure expression of the energy of creation, creating art for art’s own sake, although success, the kind of meaningful authentic success you really crave, has a curious way of arriving at the door of a person who is not seeking it.

So don’t be driven. Focus instead on the doing, on the process, on the joy of creation and of being alive. You will be inspired, you will be even more of an inspiration to those around you. Of course, people won’t understand your newfound energy and might say, “You seem so driven.” Upon which, you might want to tell them, “I am not driven. I am the driver.”

Don’t Fear, Celebrate Life



He has been anxious all his life. He is afraid of fl ying, of heights, of women, of spiders, of water, and sometimes even of himself if he catches sight of his face in the mirror. His is a terrible suff ering, and it seems that all the therapy and medications in the world will not deliver him from this anguish.

One day, he is diagnosed with cancer of his colon. Fortunately for him, the condition is diagnosed in time. He undergoes an operation, endures chemotherapy, and is pronounced cured. Unfortunately, the man is traumatised by his skirmish with death, by the realisation of his mortality. Death now seems to stalk his every move, fanning the fl ames of his anxiety and in a few weeks, his fear of death has grown to such proportions that he begins to entertain thoughts of suicide.

If this is not tragically ironic enough, he dies a few months later, still cancer free, from a massive heart attack – the fear of death has killed him.


A similar story of lifelong fears, every day a torturous experience, anxiety racking his body, eating him alive with restlessness and fear, as if he has live ants instead of nerves. Then, he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in an inoperable stage.

“I have a few months to live,” he says, and proceeds to have the best four months of his life. He works with more purpose, he travels, he dances, he gets into planes, he even goes skydiving. He begins to learn a new language, he makes new friends and when he dies, he has long expunged his anxiety. His fears dissolve and his anxiety dies in the presence of his own impending death.

One person is destroyed by the awareness of mortality. The other is rejuvenated. I juxtapose these two cases because there are lessons to be learned in doing so, in the consideration of just how diff erently these two reacted to a similar situation.

These stories allow me to feel anew the truth behind the clichés: Do not fear. Life is short while off ering infi nite possibility. And, don’t wait until the end to start celebrating life



Subjective nature of truth

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 is apparent in the famous story of Krishna’s role in the death of Drona.

You probably know the story well: Drona is plundering through the Pandava troops and he needs to be stopped. But he is a formidable warrior and his only weakness is his a% ection for his son, Ashwatthama. And so, Krishna instructs Yudhisthira to tell Drona that his son, Ashwatthama, is dead. But Yudhisthira, widely renowned for his truthfulness, is reluctant to do so.

Then Bhima kills an elephant named Ashwatthama and roars loudly, “Ashwatthama is dead!” Drona comes to Yudhisthira and asks him if this is true. “Is Ashwatthama dead?” He asks.

Yudhisthira replies, “Yes he is dead.” He pauses and adds, “But I don’t know if it’s Ashwatthama the man or the elephant (“Ashwatthama 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 in grief and his head gets chopped off.

One detail that strikes me as strange, and therefore probably symbolic, is the elaborate nature of the lie. Yudhisthira did not lie in a direct manner; 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 could justify the action to himself. 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 defence mechanisms.

The same psychoanalyst would have to say that Krishna, at least, is emotionally more evolved. From his perspective, the war has to be won.

So, may be 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