I write one of these every year. I read last year’s and was slightly amused how serious I sounded. But this is typical of me, I oscillate between thinking I take myself too seriously and not taking myself seriously enough.
Perhaps it is the consequence of reading too many psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and zen books — in recent times I have found myself observing myself in a third-party observer mode. Maybe it is the start of developing true empathy and compassion for myself. It is not the self-pity and outrage I am accustomed to, but a sort of sadness and acceptance in noticing my behavioural patterns and understanding why they are the way they are. At times there is confusion because I have become aware I was expressing an unhealthy pattern, but I still remained helpless to its unfolding. I feel like I’m watching a movie play out on the screen, knowing what is to come, and yet unable to change the script.
In therapy and zen they say true self-acceptance is the precursor to transforming ourselves. I have found that self-acceptance is not a linear journey, like most parts of life. Maybe it is more like a repetitive commitment akin to physical exercise, some days we get ourselves to do it, other days we sit there unable to move out of a stationary impasse.
I am a self-quantifier, for years I have believed that with enough data and well designed habits we can make healthy changes to our selves. It is still true to an extent, but it is not the complete picture. I think we as a human race are so obsessed with improvements that we fail to see that failures, mistakes and helplessness is very much part of being human and the human experience.
I like the taoist belief of yin and yang: that everything must co-exist in a healthy balance. Too much of anything is not healthy, even improvements. It is like the Buddhist idea that being attached to anything is not desirable, even grasping for goodness is still seen is a desire.
I now see that one of my major themes in life is demanding too much of everything, including myself. Even in learning to be less of a workaholic I demanded myself to be better at doing nothing. There is very little compassion for myself, that I needed time and practice to shift behavioural states, especially chronic patterns that have existed for most of my life. I have also realised compassion for ourselves in directly tied to true compassion for the other. All of us need space, time and practice, but the current reality doesn’t allow most of us that space.
If we study neuroscience just a little, even on a very superficial level, there is a mix of bad and good news. The bad news is that it is really, really hard to change fundamental human behaviour because a lot of it is hard wired into our brains. Some people believe our brains are simply designed that way so that we can survive (I guess traditionally it is easy to believe we have to kill our competitors so that we ourselves can live, which is depressing because it means genetically nature favours violence, so in a way we can never get rid of that predisposition since it is the thing that allows the human species to perpetuate), but there is a minority (myself included) who believes that we are a young species and hence our brain is still evolving.
The good news is we have recently discovered that our brains are actually plastic, with the right interventions the brain seems capable of learning a whole lot of previously unimaginable things. It is not impossible like we thought, but it is not that easy, and yet it is not that difficult.
But again, most of it requires time and practice. Most people don’t have time. I have more time than most people, but the practice is hard.
But above time and practice, there is a question of priority. We as a society don’t believe personal transformation is important, so we have designed society in the opposite direction: a society that oppresses everything based on competition. We are so competitive that we don’t see that we are slowly making ourselves go extinct while trying to compete each other to our deaths.
So why am I ruminating about society’s ills in my birthday post? Because there is an intrinsic relationship between my society and me. I am a consequence of the society I am raised in. To believe otherwise is hubris. From the moment we are capable of thought we are raised to believe we must be better than other people, we must constantly strive upwards, we must acquire power so we don’t suffer.
I have believed the opposite since I was capable of basic reasoning, but still I was not spared the unconscious conditioning. People judged me constantly, I judged myself constantly, I imagine people judging me constantly. I don’t know a single human being who doesn’t judge themselves based on some societal-defined value. The more obvious judgments are based on material wealth and status, the subtler and perhaps more insidious judgment is based on morals. Am I a good enough person?
Too much of anything is not healthy. Look what we have subjected people to because of our own moral beliefs. Believing in a different God is wrong. Not believing in God is also wrong. Being suicidal is wrong. Believing in the right to die is wrong. Believing in the right to terminate our own pregnancy is wrong. Being depressed is wrong. Being gay is wrong. Being an artist is wrong. Not earning enough money is wrong. Mot wanting to be a 9-5 slave is wrong. Not being interested in capitalism is wrong. Believing in social welfare is wrong. In some places, being raped is also wrong.
I don’t know. Maybe if you were told your entire existence is wrong you would also be suicidal like me.
I am reading a book based on a twitter friend’s recommendation. In that book there is a monastery, and there is a belief that out of the monastery the food they eat raises the level of something in their blood that takes their true feelings away, keeping people happy and placated. The monastics don’t eat the same food, and hence they have to cope with a lot more mental and emotional disturbances. Some of them kill themselves, unable to cope with truth. But there is a promise that true happiness awaits.
Many times in my life I have wished for myself to be more “normal”. Why couldn’t I just be like other people (well, apart from being gay. I like being gay). There is this deep-rooted struggle within me: wanting to be authentically who I am versus what society expects out of me. I wish I can say that I love being myself and who cares about what people think, but that is not true. Most of my life I feel like I have no choice but to be myself and yet I hate myself for not being “normal”. There is this complex pride that I still chose to be myself regardless and also this deep shame.
But I think the thing with ageing is that if we are lucky enough, we start to find out that it is all a ruse. The things they say are important didn’t make our lives feel much better if not worse; that at some point, we really start to truly feel that people’s opinions matter less, and we start to think of what is the life we truly want to lead?
Turning 38 today, I write this with awareness that I am constantly evolving, that my views change. That is why it is interesting for me to do this as a ritual, to witness my own becoming. I also think it is funny to laugh at my old selves for being so serious. But this is where I am now: I don’t believe true happiness awaits nor do I believe it should be the goal of life. In fact I don’t think there should be goals of life except the act of living itself. I think what is important is to figure out what works for ourselves — that everyone is different so don’t make the mistake of making someone else’s life our own. I mean, what sort of universe this is if every one is the same? So I believe there are people who love life and thrive on it, there are some who are okay going through life like everyone else, and then there are grinches like me who often wonder if non-existence is a preferred mode of existence.
I am not like the people in the book who can be happy and placated eating their food (or soma in Brave New World). It is not like I didn’t try. Something inevitably rebels in me and feeling intensely suicidal is the response to trying to live like everyone else.
So I hope with time and practice, with enough self-compassion along the way, I can rise above my internal conditioning and live life as it is, not as some dysfunctional narrative repeating itself in my head. It is hard for me because I get upset with myself very easily and I go into spirals, but I want to be okay with that too, because I am human.
They say suffering is the disconnect between reality and what is expected. Perhaps to secret to living life is a combination of acceptance yet having the capacity to harbour hope, coupled with the empowerment to take small steps towards wherever we hope to be, or the courage to stay if that is what we want. The demand for too much is a form of violence and it creates violence. I can only hope to remember this as I grow older, to be a little less serious, to become a person capable of treating myself like I would treat a child when she stumbles: a bit of amusement, a dose of empathy, a pat on the back, the willingness to pick myself back up, and to be brave enough to stumble again. And to be okay if all I want to do is to sit there and cry for a bit.
I feel like I am also more accepting of myself being a not-so-good person. That I can be self-centered, greedy and unkind. I think believing myself to be a good person has caused a lot of suffering in me, because I end up doing things I am not capable of doing and end up building resentment for them, in addition to all the guilt-tripping and admonishing to myself in the head.
I am who I am because of where I am. Personal growth is not a pretense, not simply an acting out of a narrative I want to believe in. I am okay with being not-so-good, because I am starting to meet myself where I am, so I can walk along with this person, instead of trying to make her bridge an unrealistic gap and then being upset at something that she was never set up to do in the first place.
Our relationship with ourselves is often a microcosm of our relationship with the world. When I recognised everyone is stumbling in their own ways, everyone is responding to their conditioning, what arose out of me isn’t disappointment or judgement, but a sense of compassion and relatedness. That’s where a true relationship can start.
I don’t embody this thought every minute of the day, half the time if not more I am angry with both the world and myself, but it is never easy to start learning to love something authentically. Not just loving the idea or the best parts of it, but the wholeness and complexity of it all.