Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tips on Sleeping Better

Mostly I have a restful night, but very very rarely, not so much. Over the years, I have formed certain conclusions about what leads to a good night's sleep (and a good morning), and what doesn't. Maybe some can be useful for anybody, while some other suggestions may be only for a few.

Here are some tips and biases and experiential "nuggets" from one who considers sleeping one of life's essential pleasures, and who thinks that a day is to a large measure as good as the night prior:
  • Sleep alone. You may be married, or in a relationship and I don't wish you to be celibate. But consider this carefully. Some people (especially women) may be fond of a "stuffed animal" or a "hugging pillow" while they sleep, but sleeping next to living thing is not without its distractions. In many traditional societies (for example, village joint families), a husband and wife go to their separate rooms (or sections in the home) after enjoying conjugal bliss. I think it may have helped to keep the attraction alive for a longer time. I know the limitations of cramped apartments and nuclear families or large families, so this is only if you can afford it.

  • Sleep on your back (with hands folded on your tummy) or on your left side (with legs bent). Any other posture will either lead to labored breathing, or indigestion and build-up of stomach gases. I was pleased to find at least the left-side posture confirmed by medicinal studies.

  • Do not eat for a few hours before going to bed. If you are having a late dinner, have a light dinner. I don't recommend eating beyond 10pm anyway.

  • Having a glass of hot milk before sleeping has been generally recommended in traditional Indian families (my grandparents used to do this without fail), though it may not suit the lactose intolerant. And of course, do not have caffeine during the night.

  • Always either brush your teeth, or at least enthusiastically rinse your mouth before going to sleep. I also recommend washing your face.

  • If you are tired, having a warm bath before sleeping works wonders.

  • As much as possible, do not have vigorous air circulation where you sleep. That is, unless it is very hot, keep the fan speed to a minimum. It dries the skin and the hair.

  • If you sleep in an air-conditioned area, make sure the draft does not strike you on your face. You may catch a cold. And keep it just cool enough, not cold, as it will get colder as the night progresses.

  • Sleeping under the stars is a great experience but not very easy to have in a city.

  • Have at least some ventilation, unless it is stormy and deathly cold. Just a couple of mm opening in a window is enough.

  • Do not sleep stark naked under the sheets. This may be an accepted practice in rich homes in cold climates with heated interiors and private bedrooms, but in any other climate or culture, it is a bad idea. Unless you want to wash your sheets every day.

  • Always keep a sheet, even if it is warm enough when you go to sleep. It may turn cool during the night.

  • Reading something in the bed is a good aid to sound sleep, and takes your mind off what happened during the day.

  • Either have a soft pillow, or a thin pillow. A thick pillow is not good for your neck, especially if you sleep on your back. Modern desk jobs make people slouch and crane their necks forward, you only worsen it by having a pillow which stretches your neck muscles.

  • Try to go to sleep before midnight. Most people get up at around the same time every morning. The later you sleep, the more sleep-deprived you will feel the next day. I like to go to sleep before 11pm, and I wake up, almost everyday, at 6am.

  • Keep your feet warm in wintertime. Wearing a fresh pair of cotton or wool socks is a good way to do it. It also means you don't accidentally step on the cold floor if you have to get up during the night.

  • Silence your mobiles etc. and keep them away from you.

  • It is good to have a very faint light (almost like moonlight) coming into your room through a white curtain. Do not completely block outside light. In the morning, it is pleasant to have the room get slowly lighter in shade from the outside light. It helps you wake up.

  • Keep a glass of water, a clock, and napkins by the bedside when you go to sleep.

  • Eating in bed (whether at night, or in the morning) is not a good idea. It leads to germs and stains and general sloppiness. Media has portrayed "room-service breakfasts" (having food served to you in bed) to be a luxury. Of course you can't have it at home (you will end up soiling and spoiling the bed linen), but maybe that's the point. To generate two kg of laundry (four towels, bed sheets, pillow cases) every day if you are staying in a hotel is such a luxury. Bah.

  • If you are a couple, and if you have to sleep together, let the woman sleep on the left. This is not an esoteric tip. There are reasons for this. A man generally wants to feel protective of his woman, and if he sleeps on the left side of his body, as well as on the right side of the bed, he has his wife in his field of vision. And humans are right handed, and if he is on the left side of the bed, it may be more convenient for mammalian activities (feminists may want to decry both these "reasons"). Anyway, I like to sleep on the left side of the bed, so, there!

  • Keep the bed linen fresh and clean smelling. Make your bed when you get up in the morning.

  • Rinse your mouth the first thing in the morning. Have a glass or two of warm water. (ref this tasteless joke).

  • In the mornings, keep the first hour quiet and calm. Slowly let your body and mind regain their activity; and even if you are fresh and active when you get up, remain contemplative. I am pretty sure it is impossible when there are children in the house (a solitary morning-walk is a good idea if there are many occupants in the home). I have known some people who immediately switch on the television or start banging things in the kitchen or start talking. Some people may also like a bit of prayer, light chanting or instrumental music when the day breaks.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Debate on God

A debate between Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston was filmed ABC Nightline. The title of the debate was "Does God have a Future?".

What I find remarkable in the debate is the hatred and arrogance in Deepak Chopra's body language coexisting with his verbiage of oneness and compassion.

The debate is split into 12 parts (each of about 8-10 minutes) and is available here on YouTube.

Some comments about this debate (apart from those on the YouTube videos themselves) are here and here.

The Stress and The Coping

Psychological stress is the brain's state in a situation where the cost of "taking it easy" is high.

A few examples.

Driving in heavy chaotic traffic is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is accident and death), preparing for an exam is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is professional and social disgrace), taking care of a child in a war-zone is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is to lose a life), keeping one's job in a time of recession is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is bankruptcy), ensuring one's credit report is clean is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is not being able to buy a car or a house in the future), listening to one's resentful spouse is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is escalation of conflict, separation and potentially divorce), living in a crowded metro is stressful (the cost of taking it easy is not being able to get anything done).

Stress is also there when a situation is felt to be out of one's control. One feels less stressed if one feels capable of solving a problem on one's own. A toilet failing (or the non-arrival of the maid/babysitter) in a modern home is a rather stressful situation.

Stress is not just because the individual is fearful, cautious, apprehensive, greedy, ambitious or insecure. The situation may very well deserve a heightened-attention response. Some people are less stressed about the same event. Once again, that may be due to the individual's affective make-up, as well as his preparedness for the worst outcome. For example, a man with a savings worth a few years' salary will be less stressed about losing his job than one who has no savings and is living on credit. And a man who has no family to support may be less stressed about news of corruption in health-care than one who has asthmatic kids and a diabetic wife.

Modern urban and white-collar life is psychologically stressful despite all the comforts and institutional support mechanisms because of the ... comforts and institutional support mechanisms. Let me explain. If you live in a big city, you need to spend a not insignificant amount of money to have decent housing, you need to have more possessions (e.g. a vehicle, telephone) than a villager because you will be otherwise handicapped and require special and discretionary treatment. I have a friend who refuses to learn driving. It is a good thing he is rich and has a driver. Others who are as stubborn might have to sweat it out in the grimy buses and with rude auto-wallahs.

Most of the so-called comforts of city life are almost necessities. Yes, having them means one can go to a multiplex and sleep in a cool room. But not having them in the city is worse than not having them in a village where they are not needed to fulfill the basic needs. I cannot stress this enough.

Similarly, institutional support (roads, traffic, police, ambulances, hospitals, fire brigades) is a necessity in a large city. But institutions mean that you delegate some very crucial aspects of your life to others. You depend on others in a significant way, and hence maintaining the quality of those institutions becomes a stressful concern.

Most of all, however, the institution of money is what I think leads to an unavoidable situation of stress. Money is a contract about future interactions in which the terms of the contract (inflation, purchasing power, interest rates, duties/taxes, bank solvency) are mostly controlled by others. This leads to a peculiar feeling that no amount of money is ever enough. Without money, you can't move an inch in a modern civilization (and exceptions are therefore remarkable). Money is an institution which one can't do without, and which is to a frightening degree out of one's control. Hence, stress.

It is easy to comprehend that to reduce one's commitments and engagements is a way to reduce stress. The less one has to engage with others, the less the things which are dependent on oneself, the less dependent one is on others, and the less one is affected by changes in circumstances.

It is also easy to comprehend that to manage similar levels of stress better (for example, some stock traders sleep better than others) is a useful skill. Some people are able to "handle" stress better and though some of it may be due to their constitution, better responses to stressful situations can certainly be cultivated through various practices.

Stress is a psychological response to a challenging situation. If one is bothered by the mental state in a situation of stress, one either works at the psychological response, or at the situation.

People differ in the mechanisms they can muster to cope with stressful situations. Since these are volatile times of rapid change, some people can choose to drop out (to various extents) from the flux and flow of society. They may want to live in a village, or in a commune, or live as a retired person, etc.

Others can adapt various dissociative techniques, denials, paradigms and psychological postures to inure themselves from feeling stressed. A possible psychological posture may be to say "So What?" to a situation of stress (not that I recommend this posture). Others may find solace in prayer and community.

Given that each person differs in their affective make-up, inclination, intellectual capacities, and in their circumstances, there is no one-size-fits-all coping solution. Some may be more inclined to religion, some to books, some to traveling, some to remaining bachelors or spinsters, some who are highly capable of handling stress may become entrepreneurs, some may take to crime, some may want to effect a "radical mutation in their brain", and so on and so forth.

And the important thing to me seems to be: Unless one's coping mechanism introduces even more stress in others than it reduces in oneself, generally one should be left alone with one's devices.

If a fringe guru/ideologue is advocating some arcane spiritual/social remedy and if people are gathering around him feeling interested, no need to fret. To each his own. It is when they force others to adapt their beloved remedy that things get ugly.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Recipes for Happiness, part one

A thought came to my mind: Why not start a collection of recipes for happiness that other people (whether laymen or experts) have proposed? This can also include lists such as guidelines for a fulfilling life.

The only criterion is that the list should contain clear statements, instead of consisting of general principles or of vague aphorisms (an example of the latter kind is Seven Habits of Highly Effective People). The lists may be serious or lighthearted, all are welcome!

Please contribute in the comments section!

And please, no self-created lists. I am looking to collect only recipes authored by famous people or authors, or the results of extensive surveys.

I make no recommendation for these recipes. In other words: Buyer Beware, Pick and choose, No warranties, etc.

Let me seed the collection with three lists:


Khushwant Singh

First and foremost is good health. If you do not enjoy good health, you can never be happy. Any ailment, however trivial, will deduct something from your happiness.

Second, a healthy bank balance. It need not run into crores, but it should be enough to provide for comforts, and there should be something to spare for recreation—eating out, going to the movies, travel and holidays in the hills or by the sea. Shortage of money can be demoralising. Living on credit or borrowing is demeaning and lowers one in one’s own eyes.

Third, your own home. Rented places can never give you the comfort or security of a home that is yours for keeps. If it has garden space, all the better. Plant your own trees and flowers, see them grow and blossom, and cultivate a sense of kinship with them.

Fourth, an understanding companion, be it your spouse or a friend. If you have too many misunderstandings, it robs you of your peace of mind. It is better to be divorced than to be quarrelling all the time.

Fifth, stop envying those who have done better than you in life—risen higher, made more money, or earned more fame. Envy can be corroding; avoid comparing yourself with others.

Sixth, do not allow people to descend on you for gup-shup. By the time you get rid of them, you will feel exhausted and poisoned by their gossip-mongering.

Seventh, cultivate a hobby or two that will fulfil you—gardening, reading, writing, painting, playing or listening to music. Going to clubs or parties to get free drinks, or to meet celebrities, is a criminal waste of time. It’s important to concentrate on something that keeps you occupied meaningfully. I have family members and friends who spend their entire day caring for stray dogs, giving them food and medicines. There are others who run mobile clinics, treating sick people and animals free of charge.

Eighth, every morning and evening devote 15 minutes to introspection. In the mornings, 10 minutes should be spent in keeping the mind absolutely still, and five listing the things you have to do that day. In the evenings, five minutes should be set aside to keep the mind still and 10 to go over the tasks you had intended to do.

Ninth, don’t lose your temper. Try not to be short-tempered, or vengeful. Even when a friend has been rude, just move on.

Above all, when the time comes to go, one should go like a man without any regret or grievance against anyone. Iqbal said it beautifully in a couplet in Persian: "You ask me about the signs of a man of faith? When death comes to him, he has a smile on his lips."

The SOEP Survey:

1. Having an emotionally stable (non-neurotic) marital partner;
2. Prioritizing altruistic and/or family goals;
3. Attending church; and
4. Making a satisfactory trade-off between work and leisure - both are important, but need to be balanced.

Robert Fulghum (author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten)
  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don't hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don't take things that aren't yours.
  • Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK.

Monday, October 18, 2010

On Intuition

"I don't know how to explain it, but ..."

"My instinct tells me ..."

"It's got a bad vibe."

"It just feels right."

Intuition is unreflected understanding or preference. It doesn't result from cogitation or meditation, but is a rough-and-ready response to a situation.

Infants and animals work predominantly from this sense of intuition. Adults, however, having a cogitating organ, have a choice whether to behave intuitively or whether to take a considered approach.

Women are generally believed to have a stronger sense of intuition.

What is intuition? What is its basis? Is it trustworthy?

If one understands the mental apparatus to be working at various levels, intuition can be usefully considered as subliminal processing of data. There is a vast reservoir of accumulated knowledge in the human brain, which manifests itself as subconscious reactions. This reservoir is formed both genetically (patterns at birth) and culturally (after birth).

Intuition leads to an affective pull or push towards a situation. One can intuitively feel ill at ease, and intuitively feel as if everything "clicks" and that one should go ahead.

The conscious brain and the hidden layers work in tandem to help our survival and propagation. These hidden layers are part of our collective intelligence formed over eons of responding to situations and circumstances. The neo-cortex, on the other hand, is more structured and algorithmic.

Perhaps a useful way to understand our responses is the following ladder of structural thinking, each successive rung more structured than the former:
  • Dreams
  • Moods
  • Feelings
  • Intuition
  • Verbal Thought (Language and Thinking)
  • Written Thought (Planning and Calculating)
And of course, we can consider communication (discussions, interaction, feedback) as a way to involve more than one person in the process, and digitized thought (algorithms and computers) as a way to further formalize written thought.

When one of these rungs is insufficiently informed, we feel unsure of ourselves. But usually, in times of uncertainty and ambiguity, it feels more satisfying to go with the lower rung (e.g. intuition instead of thought, a gut feeling about the market instead of following a trading algorithm), since the lower rung is more affective in nature.

Each of these rungs can lead to erroneous or sub-optimal responses, but it is important to realize that each of these rungs is a part of a spectrum of internal processing, and is based upon a certain body of accumulated knowledge which must have had validity at some point to have become part of our brains.

Intuition can be wrong because it is too diffuse and considers the variables in a fuzzy way, and structured thought can lead to ludicrous conclusions because it could be too discrete and leaves out significant variables.

An example is Diet Planning. Intuitively, one chooses foods based on taste and freshness (in general). Given that our taste centers evolved to favor fatty and sweet foods, this subconscious preference may not be healthy in modern times. On the other hand, conscious dieting may not consider the importance of taste and variety and may feel like a punishment. A good diet will taste good, and will also be low in calories. It is obviously foolish to advise someone to ignore taste and just "eat to live", and it is equally foolish to recommend someone to "live to eat".

In many other fields, however, our intuitive understanding may be very valid. A woman intuitively knows when a man is interested only in bedding her, and a man intuitively knows when he is being sold something in the garb of polite talk.

To disregard intuition is to handicap oneself and to limit oneself to the use of only conscious, structured thought. It is to assume that one's structured thought has reached such heights of efficiency that one no longer needs the collective intelligence coded into one's brain. That all beliefs, morals, the sense of conscience, the various affective memories, are not needed any more. The perils of this approach can only be imagined. In an extreme case, one may lose the plot completely and not know right from wrong, healthy from unhealthy, or become a social misfit, etc. Since structured thought can, given suitable assumptions, justify any proposition which is not inherently contradictory, a fully rational human being can become dangerously manipulative and self-serving in a way which is immune to being corrected. On what basis can you criticize a person who doesn't believe in anything other humans believe in? He will just say: "Mind your own business". The only sensible response (for a stranger) to such a person is to leave him/her alone, and the worst possible response to such a person is to emotionally invest oneself in him/her. I pity those (e.g. family members) who have no choice but to live with such a person and suffer the callous indifference.

On the other hand, to disregard structured thought is to live as an infant.

The media today is relentlessly demolishing our intuitive feelings of what is right and wrong by presenting the "wrongs" (the things our parents say are not to be done: smoking, promiscuity, drugs, drinking, gambling, driving fast and recklessly, eating unhealthy food) in a confusing way which looks "cool" and pleasurable. No wonder parents are highly stressed to be constantly course-correcting their children from dangerous behavior.

Exacerbated by media presence, it is the disease of modern times to disregard tradition as unequivocally unhealthy and stale, and to only "think for oneself" and be "on one's own". By presenting some outdated traditions as "sick", it is portrayed that to completely reject one's legacy is the only sensible way to live.

The knowledge of history and culture which could supplant intuition and lead to reasoned moral behavior is hard to impart and imbibe, and who has the time and the mental bandwidth? Affective rewards and punishments ("you will go to hell if you have sex before marriage" is an easier device to use).

In this way, the rejection of intuition (which is nothing but culture and conditioning) is related to amorality and narcissism.


Intuition is a very significant part of what makes us human. It is an inner compass which tells us if we are going right or wrong. If this faculty frequently leads to mistakes for a certain person, then perhaps it needs a re-tuning, rather than a rejection. An analogy would be the steering wheel of a car. If it is not working well, it needs to be fixed, rather than to be thrown out.

Intuition is the accumulated and distilled experiences of other human beings working through us. Yes, they could be wrong and we could be in a unique situation. But one would be foolish (not to say arrogant) to always only trust and depend upon oneself.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Misdirected Focus on the Inner

The fundamental mistake that a seeker makes is to seek an inner state of experiencing goodness, felicity or perfection that is unrelated to the outer.

When asked to describe yourself, describe what you do, not what you are, or how you feel.

Yes, intentions matter. But actions matter more. Great intentions are puny when compared to moderately helpful acts.

An act connects your mind to the outside world; intentions, goodness, perfection are solipsistic states. Talk is cheap.

When it is stated that altruism is as good/bad as selfishness because it leads to some form of pleasure for the agent, the mistake is so primal and paradigmatic that it may escape many: The state of the agent is only part of the picture. What is the state of the other? What has happened in the world other than the pleasant feeling in the agent's mind?

It's the primary focus on the inner (and remember, "inner" is ME) that is the hidden narcissism in hard-core spirituality and related disciplines.

When the focus of a self has turned primarily to the quality of inner experiencing without any relation to objective reality, as advised by sages of all ages, then the delusion starts.

This NY Times article is interesting:
Here’s one provocative consequence of this perspective on happiness. If happiness is not a state of mind, if happiness is a kind of tango between your feelings on one hand and events and things in the world around you on the other, then there’s the possibility of error about whether you’re happy. If you believe you’re experiencing pleasure or, perhaps especially, pain, then, presumably, you are. But the view of happiness here allows that “you may think you’re happy, but you’re not.”

One especially apt way of thinking about happiness — a way that’s found already in the thought of Aristotle — is in terms of “flourishing.” Take someone really flourishing in their new career, or really flourishing now that they’re off in college. The sense of the expression is not just that they feel good, but that they’re, for example, accomplishing some things and taking appropriate pleasure in those accomplishments. If they were simply sitting at home playing video games all day, even if this seemed to give them a great deal of pleasure, and even if they were not frustrated, we wouldn’t say they were flourishing. Such a life could not in the long term constitute a happy life. To live a happy life is to flourish.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Facts of Life, part 2


The human being, having an extended period of upbringing and education, is dependent upon its parents and its educators for many years. It is helped by the community to be a productive member of society, to be able to add value to others, so that it is in turn paid money or goods for its own survival.

One is helped to stand up, then one helps the next generation stand up, and so on.


This cycle can only succeed on the basis of something which complements an individual's selfish desire to survive. Namely: Altruism.

One is helped by one's parents in a combination of selfishness and altruism. The parents are selfish because it is their child, carrying their genes, but they are unambiguously altruistic in that their own pleasures take a back-seat to the child's.

Similarly, the community is a combination of selfishness (in that it regards the other communities as threatening) and altruism (in that it is willing to carry its weakest).

This is a precarious balance, and any community or individual which becomes too selfish or too altruistic does not last very long.

This double-standard, one for "one's own" and another for "the rest" is essential for the health and well-being of an individual or community.


The evolution of society, just like genetic evolution, happens when a change/mutation enhances the overall fitness. But unlike genes, social evolution can also be brought about consciously. That is the inevitable complexity of "progress". Society exists to propagate itself, and hence is resistant to change, even beneficial change.

The societies which evolve quickly, and are fitter, are those in which the cost of being different is not fatal. In those societies, ideas have a healthy ground on which to compete with each other, unlike primitive societies, in which difference in opinion is considered a blasphemy, sin or immorality.

However, it is obvious that a disregard or disdain for tradition can too easily become counter-productive. It is nobody's case that all change is good change, or that all tradition is bad. The quandary of modern societies is its desire to let individuals make their own life choices, but its wish for them to make "good" life choices.

An individual is a carrier of genes and traditions, to be passed on to the next carrier. An individual's life is of little consequence, compared to the life of genes and traditions. But that "little" consequence is not nil.

An average human being is important in a limited way, to a very small set of people, and an exceptional individual may, rarely, question a tradition in a way that echoes with others. The impact on a tradition of that questioning therefore depends upon whether the rest of the society is somewhat tired of that tradition as well. And it is worth considering that historically, many people came up with similar ideas at about the same time. The time was ripe.


To come to terms with suffering and mortality is therefore to accept that others, especially the next generation, may be more important than oneself. That one is a small part of a teeming species, a single member of a large community, a single carrier of ideas and genes which exist in others as well.

A narcissist cannot do that, and hence he struggles more than others against what he perceives as "needless" pain. The stress of inter-personal relationships, the depression of growing old and irrelevant, the resentment towards others' expectations, the demands of child-rearing are more acute in a narcissist, and he seeks solutions in which his fulfillment is unrelated to others' states. Where a parent might find some kind of fulfillment in seeing its children happy, or a scientist might find some kind of fulfillment in seeing a medicine save lives, a narcissist regards these fulfillment as conditional on others, and hence unsatisfactory. The only fulfillment worth its name to him is autonomous fulfillment.


Life as a whole may not matter much. But individuals matter even less than that.

In other words, it may all end one day. But you will definitely end sooner than that.

The end of narcissism is to start to live in a way in which your own happiness is not the foremost goal of your life.