I imagine coming back to my apartment and cleaning up, taking all the books, putting them in boxes. Taking the art down. Giving away the furniture. Emptying the place. I feel lighter just thinking about it. I’ll leave. This is my immediate stress-response — to flee.
I’m coming back to the world after spending 10 days in silent meditation. During that time my daily habits, routines, relationships, and thoughts were in a different place. Things were simpler. Now I’m slowly re-integrating.
I went seeking a holy grail of sorts, to reshape my brain through meditation. “We can intentionally shape the direction of plasticity changes in our brain,” shares Neuroscientist Richie Davidson in Mindful. “By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for example, and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneficial. That leads us to the inevitable conclusion that qualities like warm-heartedness and well-being should best be regarded as skills.”
If this is something that can happen gradually meditating each day, what if I just put this on hyperdrive. Meditate for 10 days. I wanted to train my mind in order to better approach my life. I was feeling dissatisfied, and meditation could be a solution.
I see others my age with a bundle of experience below them and I have a few mounds of scattered skills, almost careers, the beginning buds that were stunted. I don’t see the next stages of the path I’m on. I’m not excited by them. I don’t feel a path of learning.
A story replays in my mind. A familiar one, of myself years ago in my twenties building a reputation, growing skills, gradually working on bigger and bigger projects. I’m in front of a stage giving talks, I’m being interviewed. There is validation and opportunity all around. There is a strong narrative. I am productive. I feel a momentum. I feel flow. I am floating. Where did that go?
I recognize these both as oversimplified stories, even as they run through my mind. These are both social comparisons — of myself to others and of myself to a younger me. These comparisons are natural, and devastating. “Measuring the self against others is a modus operandi of the human mind,” writes Rebecca Webber in Psychology Today. “The recognition that your abilities are a notch above someone else’s can deliver a boost to your self-esteem. But comparisons can be harmful when they leave you feeling chronically inferior or depressed.” Being aware of them doesn’t change my despair.
I see others my age with a bundle of experience below them and I have a few mounds of scattered skills, almost careers, the beginning buds that were stunted.
I sit with the feeling a bit. Adrift, aimless, without a purpose. It gradually becomes spacious. I am surrounded by clouds, and it’s comforting. What is this middle ground between where I was at before, and where I’m heading? It’s a strange limbo, and I oscillate between hope knowing things will pick up, and despair knowing things will be meaningless.
When you’re not wrapped up in the next project, or the next chapter of the story, things slow down. There’s a lot of time. You can start to listen. As I became less productive, I began to notice things about myself.
This extra time came with a gentle anguish. There was no more validation based on work and projects. I decided to do the “happy things”. What are all the things you hear about happy people doing? There’s a chorus singing these on Medium. Exercise, check. Eat better, check. Sleep early and for 8 hours, check. Moderate drinking and coffee, check. Go to therapy, check. Meditate, check.
Amidst these habits, I gathered a set of tools. How to check in with myself. How to notice what I’m feeling. How to express what I’m feeling. How to share a need. How to have a difficult conversation. How to take time to bring affection to myself. How to take time to feel things. How to work through all of the demons — the insecurities, narratives, destructive habits, and flawed mental models.
In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan describes how our mental habits confine us: “The efficiencies of the adult mind, useful as they are, blind us to the present moment. We’re constantly jumping ahead to the next thing.” We can overlook crucial aspects about how we make decisions in the world. In making time to be present and observe these mental habits, we can become more choiceful, rather than reactive.
Why hadn’t I learned these things in college? Or even earlier! These all should have come up in elementary school. By the time I finished college I was so focused on getting my career started and finding a place of security, I didn’t have time to put in the work. I had to focus on being productive, and therefore valuable. Inner work doesn’t garner validation, build a resume, and cover rent.
I visit an old friend and his four year old articulates how he is feeling frustrated and he wants more chips and I look on with envy. Look at this child’s ability to so easily describe his feelings and needs. I’m amazed. He’s learning this sort of communication in pre-school.
When you’re not wrapped up in the next project, or the next chapter of the story, things slow down. There’s a lot of time. You can start to listen.
By measures of external validation I am failing. Where is your career? Where is your family? But I am still learning and I’m still growing — connecting more deeply with myself and with my those around me. Validation from work and projects gradually faded. That kind of productivity worked, until it didn’t, and I found myself alone and shook. That’s when the deeper work started.
There’s a thought that brings me a strange comfort. If I ignore this work now, no matter how successful I am, those demons will come back to shatter me. Maybe there’s some that will slip through anyway. I’ll face them, and keep doing the inner work.