When the focus is moved from the self to others, revolutionary change can happen.
THERE have been several important turning points in my life. One took place between 2006 and 2011 when I suffered from a severe mental health issue diagnosed as panic disorder, anxiety disorder and agoraphobia. The first year that I struggled with this crisis almost ended my career as an academic and public intellectual.
In those six years I discovered how to “relearn” myself with help from a psychiatrist, from YouTube videos of others going through the same problem as well as the works of famed spiritualists Eckhart Tolle and Dr Norman Vincent Peale.
The bouts of panic caused so much anguish that I would not wish it on anyone. The heart palpitations, uncontrolled trembling and insomnia made me feel like a zombie disassociated from myself, that I was living in a dream-like state. Waking up in the morning never brought hope, only a dread of the suffering the day would bring. Without the strength and support of my wife, I would have surely succumbed to a psychological vegetative state and stayed locked in a single room of the house that would be both my world and my grave.
With her help, I started seeing a psychiatrist and at one of my sessions he gave me a life-changing challenge: “You have to start wasting your time more.”
Wasting my time, I thought? What on earth did he mean? My life till then had been filled with book manuscripts that I was working on every day. I had decided to publish 20 books within four years and most were scattered over my work table at home – I never liked writing at the university. I was also busy writing media articles and appearing on national TV talk shows and giving public talks.
My dream of becoming a public intellectual and a professor at the early age of 43 had been realised with my books, papers, articles, talks and supervising 20 postgraduate students. I never had time to waste with friends gossiping about university politics or having two-hour lunches or playing cards or carom at the university’s lounge. My friends seemed to respect my choices for they never invited me anyway. I was the golden boy who shot pass all the senior members in promotion even though they never understood my personal KPI of changing society, my profession and politics.
Everything came to a halt when the panic disorder invaded my life and stuck to my numb face like the parasite creature in the movie Alien.
It took me about a year to learn how to “waste” my time.
My first and most important time- wasting effort was to pay complete and undivided attention to my wife, fulfilling her every need and listening to her every word. Previously, I never had time to listen to her talk about her work, friends, family and flowers. If she did not have any suggestions on how to change the family’s financial state, the country’s political state or how to re-educate Muslims, I would turn a deaf ear.
I learned to listen to her in order to stop the anxiety-causing voices in my head as well as quiet the bustle of thoughts on my career objectives. I learned to appreciate the things my wife said and to tend to her joy of shopping and other activities. As she was my number one caregiver, I could not refuse her, of course. I learned to appreciate her patience and her attention to the small things in life that had held no meaning for me before.
The second thing I learned to “waste” my time on was to walk and observe the things around me. Now, I was a person who could finish writing two articles in my head while driving from Johor Baru to Kajang in Selangor. My mind was always full of my own schedules and KPIs that I set for myself. People asked how I could produce three books and 15 papers and articles and make 20 public appearances in a year, and that was the secret.
I would always think ahead and several miles in front. I lived in the future, never in the present. Thus, when the panic disorder hit, my brain would think ahead to all the possible difficulties and catastrophes that I would go through. My mind was on autopilot, careening towards disasters of my own making.
That was when I discovered the work of German spiritual teacher and self-help author Tolle. He taught me through his books and talks to live in the “now” simply because the future is a big fat liar. The biggest liar of all, he said, was our own mind that works on autopilot dictating our thoughts.
Huh? My own mind is a liar and a dictator over me? Yes. Our thoughts have been conditioned by external factors like education, career advancement and social conventions. I learned to suspend the identity of “Tajuddin the professor and public intellectual” and focus on “Tajuddin the nobody”. In Sufi teachings, in fact, being a non-person seems to be the ultimate spiritual height.
The third time “wasting” activity I learned was from Dr Vincent Peale, an American psychologist and a Christian pastor. I read two of his books and saw a passage that astounded me: He said that he would always look at the people around him whenever he sat in train stations and airports or when he was about to give a speech. He would look at each and every one of them and say a silent prayer for them. This selfless act of thinking about others whom we do not know humbled me as I used to pass through life ignoring many of the lives around me. Thus, in quieting the anxiety-inducing voices in my mind, I would say a silent prayer for anyone I knew, whether they were close friends or mere acquaintances.
Thus, finding peace and calm lies in giving time to others and attention to the things we regard as “small”. We are too caught up in our self-identity and listening too much to our minds lying about the future and about our “good” self. It was Hindu philosopher Eaknath Easwaran who said that you can never make yourself happy eternally but you can always make others happy. Again, the key to a higher spirituality lies outside of our selfish self.
Thus, as a nation, if we, the people of this country, put others ahead of ourselves, we could revolutionise change in a heartbeat. No national budget is required nor huge houses of worship for this effort. We must appoint leaders and representatives who are not afraid to step out of their identity and don the spiritual attire of the pauper, the leper and the outcast. We also need to reorient our education that teaches and reinforces total self-identity, self-preservation and self-preoccupation, which are the three most destructive diseases of humanity.
Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.