StressStop Blog

My Fourth And Fifth Days In India: How I Used The Concept Of The Compassionate Witness To Recover My Sense Of Wellbeing

Jim Porter, M.A.L.S., President, StressStop.comMonday, March 18th, 2013

(SOILER ALERT: I apologize in advance, that this blog, as my kids would say, contains TMI (way too much information) of a personal nature.)

When you travel with a group to India, you are undoubtedly going to spend some down- time waiting at dingy gas stations and dreary roadside restaurants for people who get traveler's diarrhea. Four out of eleven people in our group got sick and one of them was me.

You first see the Taj Mahal through an iron gate.
You first see the Taj Mahal through this gate.

One of the problems with traveler's diarrhea is mental. You feel so guilty for slowing down the group but you don't want to miss any sight-seeing, either. Traveler's diarrhea is physically exhausting, too. When it starts, it's so intense you really don't want to do much of anything except to stay within very close proximity of a shiny clean toilet. Unfortunately, these come few and far between while traveling in India.

I knew that something was up (besides me) when I had to go to the bathroom at 3AM, although I tried to convince myself that I was fine. Later that morning we were going to drive from Jaipur to Agra (to see the Taj Mahal) and that trip turned out to be a grueling 5-hour ride for several people on the bus including me. At a certain point in the drive, one of the afflicted people on the bus, said to the tour guide, "We need t stop the bus right NOW!" That's how hard and fast this thing hits you.

When you finally get to the bathroom, despite how poorly you feel, oftentimes the stench of raw sewage and the lack of cleanliness - which is how you find MOST roadside bathrooms in India -literally knocks the urge to go right out of you. In fact, when this other person insisted that we all stop, I took one look at the bathroom and decided I'd rather wait. That turned out to be a big mistake.

Typical roadside toilet in India
A typical "toilet" that you'd find at a roadside stop. You flush by filling the green bucket with water and dumping it in the white basin on the floor. You have to squat over the basin to use it.

Within minutes of leaving, I started to feel a grinding sensation in my belly. Here's where the group mentality starts to work against you. Of course you don't want to admit that you knew you had to go before - but chose not to. And now you don't have any choice in the matter at all. This is a surprisingly agonizing headspace to be in.

At this point, the bus got stuck in traffic and we sat in our own exhaust fumes for ten minutes which were combining with the generally polluted air of India (which smells a bit like sitting downwind from a boy-scout camp fire ALL THE TIME). I could feel myself turning white and pasty. People around me were all saying: "You look white and pasty." As it continued to get stuffier and stuffier in our van I felt a sudden wave of nausea hit me. I didn't know what might happen next, but I knew it wasn't going to be pretty.

I finally admitted to the person next to me how I was feeling and there was this general sense of pandemonium on the bus: "Does anybody have a plastic bag? I heard someone ask.

"Open a window," another person, who could see my complexion, shouted.

"Pull over, pull over!"

I was in a daze and whatever anyone else was saying or doing became less and less clear. My head was spinning. I felt kind of like an astronaut floating away from the mother ship without a tether. Whatever I was going to do, I knew I didn't want to do it on the bus.

As the bus pulled to a stop, I got up from my seat. I staggered down the aisle, past the horrified faces of my fellow passengers, who were probably just worried that they might be the next to go. I practically fell down the stairs to the grass by the side of the road and walked far enough away from the bus to maintain a sense of privacy and dignity and promptly relived myself right there by side of the road. I simply had no other choice.

Now that's India for you.

Jim Looking Sick.
I'm not feeling well in this picture.

By the time we got to the Taj I was feeling a little better. But ten minutes into our tour, I felt the abdominal thunder clouds rolling in again. Needless to say there was another storm brewing. I asked the tour guide where the toilet was, and he pointed to a doorway that was so far away and so tiny that - to use the language of architectural design, it seemed like it was beyond the vanishing point.

It's hard to run when you have the runs. I just barely made it. The toilet was one of those floor models you only find in India that you have to squat over. There was no toilet paper. It was one of the things I didn't know about India but other people did. If India has a dirty little secret, this diabolical toilet, which often comes with no TP, would probably be it!

I rejoined the group feeling a little better but basically wiped out (pun intended). I quickly looked inside the grand white marble mausoleum built by Shah Jahan for his third wife nearly 400 years ago. There are some cool things about the Taj that you never hear until you go to Agra. The minarets - the four towers that surround it, are all built at a slight angle away from the Taj, so in the event of a major earthquake, they would fall away from the main building. The inlaid marble writing that goes up the front sides of the building is just a bit larger at the top than at the bottom so the eye sees it going up straight. (This brilliantly offsets the vanishing point illusion.)

Directly across the river, the foundation was laid, for an identical 2nd Taj, to be done in black marble for Shah Jahan himself. But the Shah was put under house arrest near the end of his life by his own son. His 20 year Taj project that had employed 20,000 people the entire time, had pretty much bankrupted the entire kingdom. No one but visiting monarchs and dignitaries were ever allowed to see the Taj until the British took over in the mid 1800's. Just prior to that the monument had been allowed to fall into disrepair and trees grew up all around it, as the rulers of that era literally didn't care for it.

Here I am, exhausted on the steps of the Taj.
Here I am, exhausted on the steps of the Taj.

Having taken in all the information I could possibly absorb in ten minutes, and given my advanced state of fatigue, I removed myself from the group and walked back through the entrance and laid down on the front steps and promptly fell asleep. Anything goes in India so nobody disturbed me or tried to get me to move. When the guards found me they weren't the least bit annoyed or pushy. They simply offered to help me up and offered to find medical assistance if I needed it. They were very nice.

If you're smart you go to India prepared to get diarrhea. I was somewhat prepared with my prescription for Cipro (an antibiotic) but other people in our group were more prepared having also brought, Imodium, toilet tissue, and the wipes that you use on babies. Those wipes feel like heaven when you have a bad case of diarrhea.

I really try to avoid taking medicine if possible, and always try to tough it out, but when we got back to our hotel, I downed my first Cipro like it was candy. Unfortunately, I vomited it back up about 15 minutes later. One of the women on the tour, who caught the same bug, which we started jokingly calling: Shah Jahan's Revenge, was threatening to take the next plane back to the US. I was feeling pretty much the same way, too.

It's easy to be overwhelmed when you are so far away from home and feeling sick. You get more down than you normally would without your family or your doctor there to support you. You start seeing the whole world through the filter of your illness. In fact, no matter what our state of health is, we always see the world through a filter.

It's an important philosophical concept in yoga: we can NEVER see the world as it is, we can only see it through this filter or lens. This filter or lens represents the sum-total of everything we've ever experienced up to the present moment including our upbringing, our parents' likes and dislikes, our education, our moods, and of course our current state of health.

Still, we always fool ourselves into thinking that we are being objective ALL THE TIME, no matter what our state of health or mood might be.

So with the filter of traveler's diarrhea in place, throwing in the towel on a fourteen day trip, seems like it was an objective thought. Our objectivity changes from moment to moment and over the years based on which filters are predominating at any given moment. This makes it pretty much impossible to be objective about anything. Ask a republican how he feels about a democratic president or vice versa. You practically know what they are going to say before they open their mouth! These are how our filters work.

We can't even be objective about the things we see in nature: Why should crab-grass annoy us and regular grass please us? It's the sum total of everything we've learned over the course of our entire life. We make the mistake of thinking that perception takes place in the senses where it is objective when, in point of fact, it takes place in the mind where it is very subjective. The new science of the mind (see Nobel Prize winner, Eric Kandel's book on the same topic) is only just beginning to fully understand this. And yet yoga philosophy has understood this for over 2000 years!

Here I am feeling better
I quickly learned that my illness came in waves. This is a mindfulness/yoga concept, built around the idea of impermanence. Nothing is permanent, certainly not pleasure, but not pain, either. So when things were bad in terms of my illness, I'd reassure myself that this was temporary.

So I'm trying to ride another wave of peristalsis that feels like a belt, placed around my belly, which is being periodically yanked by evil Gods, solely for their entertainment. My goal is to simply make it through the 3 day sickness (on average, traveler's diarrhea usually lasts 2-3 days) without getting too caught up in the story: Oh why does this always happen to me? Why now? This is terrible. My doctor is ten thousand miles away, etc. That "story" is coloring my perception of what is. It's the "stuff" (the pre-existing synaptic wiring) that's already in my brain when the signals from my senses arrive there.

You can learn to become aware of the differences between what's happening around you and the story your mind is making up about what's happening but it takes practice. You have to nurture a level of awareness below the level of thinking. In yoga philosophy this is called "cultivating the compassionate witness." Cultivating the compassionate witness allows you to detach yourself from your thinking mind and just watch it. (In the Buddhist tradition this is called mindfulness.) It's the difference between who YOU are and who you THINK you are.

Who YOU are is the watcher, or witness. Who you THINK you are is the thinking mind. This duality can be easily observed when we say things to ourselves, like: "I hate myself." When you say this: who is the I and who is the person you refer to as myself? You have two people here. (Author, Dr. Albert Ellis often said: "Man is the only animal that can think about his thinking.")

This phenomenon - this duality if you will - which we will talk about MUCH more in future blogs, is the central source of our unhappiness and gurus and swamis and monks and contemplatives in India have known this for THOUSANDS OF YEARS! You can cultivate an awareness, below the level of thinking, through meditation and yoga. Over time, you can train yourself to turn OFF the thinking mind. The reason this state is often described as blissful is that the thinking mind is often our harshest critic.

It's the voice in your head* that derides you for not keeping up with the Joneses and it's the voice in your head that tells you how stupid you are for making a simple mistake and it's the voice in your head that's called "rumination" by psychiatrists seeking to blame depression on something they have no way of treating directly other than with prescription drugs. *(It's also the voice in your head that plans, and dreams and can create beautiful edifices like the TAJ. But unfortunately, that voice in our head, spends much LESS time doing this kind of productive work, and much MORE time doing the kind of destructive things I'm talking about here.)

If you are like most people, you have probably confused who YOU are with your thinking mind, your entire adolescent and adult life. But you didn't do this when you were a young child. As a young child you saw the world directly which is why you cried when you were hurting and you NEVER thought things like I SHOULDN'T CRY. That voice in the head developes later.

As a very young child you don't have all that mental baggage in your head to trip you up. There are no stories to alter how you see the world. You don't interpret it, you live it. Life is experienced first-hand. There's a term for this in Buddhist philosophy called "beginner's mind." When we cultivate beginner's mind we learn to see the world without all that mental baggage. And by so doing we cultivate the awareness below the level of thought (and, more specifically, without so much interpretation).

This unfiltered awareness has a much better handle on detecting the difference between what's real and what your mind makes up about what it perceives. So my mind was making up a very compelling story about my illness. It was saying that life is not fair. Here I was at the Taj Mahal, something I'd dreamed of seeing my entire life - #1 on my bucket list - and now I was sick and couldn't really enjoy it. It was saying that I would never get better and the whole rest of the trip was going to be tinged by this bout of diarrhea.

Here's where the compassionate witness goes to work. It sees that you're hurting and is sympathetic to your plight. It sees that your thinking mind is exaggerating the potential consequences of your illness. It knows that there's always a seed of truth that triggers your worry, and helps you evaluate this risk realistically. It gives you permission to take a break, when the thinking mind is trying to get you to soldier on.

Now on the fifth day of my trip, I'm just staying at the hotel and resting. I really had to wrestle with my thinking mind to allow myself to miss out on a day of touring Delhi. But I burrowed down and tried to quiet my thinking mind long enough to see clearly that I needed to take a break, and I officially gave myself permission to do it.

Jim's hotel room.
The hotel was so nice, so why not just enjoy it.

During my day off I hung out at the spa in the hotel, did a little yoga, got a 2000 rupee (roughly$40 dollar) one-hour massage and went up to my room and took a nap. Suddenly, my view of the world was a whole lot brighter. Was this a more objective view? Perhaps, but only because it allowed me to see that in the bigger picture, three days of pain, doesn't ruin the whole 14-day trip.

When my friend on the trip, who was feeling like I did, returned at the end of the day, she told me that I had made the right choice to stay at the hotel. Apparently the group had spent a lot of time caught in traffic, and didn't get to see as much of Delhi as they had hoped. When I told her about my day, she wished that she had done the same thing. "You were smart to take the day off," she confided, "I just couldn't get myself to do it."

She and I were just listening to different voices. I was listening to a voice inside my head, so much quieter than the usual noisy, head-strong, rambunctious one, which so often commands center stage. What I was listening to is often referred to as "the still, small voice." It was the voice of the compassionate witness.

(I want to thank Ila Vidyarthi, the organizer of this trip, for teaching me about the compassionate witness.)

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