I’ve been traveling in India for the last two weeks. I feel at home here and it’s been
great, but I’ve also seen how nervous new situations can make me.
In India, there are serious things to freak out about: Malaria, lack of sanitation and
clean drinking water, germs that can’t stand up against hand sanitizer. When I first
arrived I was uncomfortable not because New York City is less dirty, but because I
control my environment in the states – places without mosquitos, filtered water,
dust-free surfaces. These things aren’t easy to find in India, so NYC provides a
level of automatic control over my environment that I don’t have here. And
apparently I like control because when I don’t have it, I see how uncomfortable I get.
I’m fairly adaptable to new situations (humans can get used to a lot) but I see how
even small inconveniences get big when you’re used to a particular lifestyle like
I am in New York.
Of course, India has it’s own conveniences that make for a great life- driver, cook,
and cleaner per family – even if you’re lower-middle class. Everything delivered to
your doorstep – groceries, massages, airline tickets. A service-based economy where
you’re treated like royalty if you can afford it. But the point isn’t the difference between
what is and isn’t available, the difference is what you’re used to. And there’s a lot I’m
not used to here.
So because I don’t want to drive myself crazy, I’m bucking up.
I’m strengthening my mental fibers and noticing what does matter (disease) and
what doesn’t (how dust reappears the moment you wipe it away.) I’ve stopped
worrying about what doesn’t matter and if a thought enters, I get annoyed but don’t
let it linger. “It is what it is” is my mantra and life has become much easier because
of it. You become all “bring it on” and realize you can handle a lot more than you
think. Even as I write this I’m sitting by a space heater in a small dining room with
three people milling about in the back. This took two days to get used to but now
I’m happy here with my cup of tea; very different from writing at my desk in NYC in
the morning with only my thoughts and the page. But I’m used to the shower shoes,
the shawls to keep me warm, showing up late to everything, everywhere. I have no
qualms about these things now. Once I saw that brushing my teeth with bottled
water was my only option, I started looking for more bottles, not more ways to avoid
brushing my teeth. There’s a huge difference.
Practicing mental toughness when you’re uncomfortable is important because
without asking, life will throw something your way that you can’t control and you’ll
have to deal with it. Here’s what helps me be more resilient and if you practice
these techniques, you’ll see how tough you really are.
1. Ignore sensations.
We’re so used to responding to our environment that it’s hard to take discomfort even
for a few minutes; It doesn’t even have to be uncomfortable, it can simply be what
you’re not used to and instantly you want to change the situation. We inextricably link
our environments to our bodies so we design them to meet our comfort levels – If we
can’t do it, we get angry. If we’re uncomfortable, we want to stop feeling it. But this is
exactly what perpetuates discomfort – wanting something to be different than what it is.
If you can’t change your situation, you must do one of the following: ignore it, focus on
something else, get used to it, or think about people worse off than you. Wishing it were
different will make it worse. Being flexible with sensations, with time, with how plans
unfold in unfamiliar territory is a golden rule for staying calm. I learned this quickly in
India when things weren’t as efficient as I’m used to.
2. Panic about only what you need to.
Like Malaria. Or getting stuck in an elevator with no one around. And even then panic
won’t help you out. There are few reasons to freak out in life and even those where it’s
warranted, you’re better off being in control of what you can and leaving the rest. If you’ve
taken your anti-Malaria medication, worn long socks, and slathered on repellent, do not
worry about Malaria. Though they’re annoying and it’s actually very difficult to do, don’t let
mosquitos ruin an experience. I’ve done that too many times and now I’ve learned to hold
out my arms so at least they don’t bite my face. Realize that you will never be able to control
everything, and that’s a good thing – there’s less to worry about. As they say in India, “Don’t
take tension, man.”
3. Positive Mental Attitude.
Believe wholeheartedly that things will work out. Because there’s no reason they shouldn’t.
This has helped me tremendously in staying happy and solution-oriented even when things
point to a shitty situation. Like being lost at night in India. Yes, you should have a healthy fear
of being lost, but do not start thinking “I’ll be caught by hoodlums, kidnapped and never found
again,” just calmly analyze your options. I once read in a book, “Do something calmly, do
something quickly, but do something. Do not sit idle in the face of danger.” No matter what,
your safety depends on your ability to be aware and calm. Know deep down that you will be
okay, and that will give you enough energy to act even if you’re scared. Oh, and believing in
God helps me a lot in scary situations. Say what you will, but for me it works wonders.
4. Make it light.
Few things are as heavy as we make them, including situations we think are very
uncomfortable. If it’s not life or death, stop acting like it.
5. Only listen to positive people.
Before I boarded my flight to India people gave me tons of opinions: “Make sure you take
your Malaria pills otherwise you’re sure to contract it” “Eitihad Airlines is the worst – no tv’s,
no food, prepare yourself.” “India will be freezing!” I received so much advice about my
travels that I was pretty anxious heading to the airport. What happened before I caught my
flight? A man who had flown the same airline on the same route started talking to me on the
bus. I told him the opinions I received and he said, “Nah, you’ll be just fine. You’ll be able to
handle it, piece of cake.” I loved him in that moment. What relief he brought. He didn’t say it
was a better flight or that India wouldn’t be freezing, what he did do was give me an
enormous amount of strength in myself to handle whatever came my way. Only talk to people
like that. This goes for travel and regular life. People who focus on life’s little worries and
don’t strengthen you should be cast out of your life to make room for guys like the one on
You’ve already handled a lot of discomfort in your life. And you can handle more. Know that
your mental fibers are constantly being tested and it’s your job and no one else’s to meet the
challenges of life with the courage of a hero and the smile of a conqueror. Next time you feel
uncomfortable, angry, whatever, sit with it and use it to strengthen yourself.