Imagine if you were a mouse, and all your life you have lived in a maze. Every day you were given countless tasks to do, and for every task done correctly you were given a piece of cheese.
Half a lifetime later, you decide to escape from the maze, and you realised cheese is bad for your health. You think you will be drunk with the taste of freedom.
But no. Everyday you crave for cheese even though you don’t even like the taste anymore, because your brain has been programmed to only recognise the reward of receiving cheese. You stare into emptiness, because you no longer have endless thankless tasks to do. For the first time in your life, there are no instructions, no deadlines, no pressure, no structure. Nothing.
I think this is where I am at now, if I am allowed to be honest. It is deeply uncomfortable facing a blank canvas, and I have gathered the similar reactions from other people who have gone on sabbaticals. You could find a new drug: write a book, side projects, give yourself new challenges by learning new things. For me my drug of choice were my experiments.
I think I would have carried on being drugged if my health wasn’t so unstable. But the gift that my terrible health has brought to me is the examination of my self when faced with emptiness and stagnation.
Today I started swimming more laps than my usual ten. What I am interested in is not really the fitness it will bring, but the mental discipline it will require. Ten laps are easy for me, anything more I get uncomfortable. Not because I get tired, but I get twitchy to do something else. Move on to the next thing.
My entire life is constructed on moving on to the next things. My success – whatever professional success I have been gifted with – is purely dependent on me being a fast mover. Even my experimental mindset is crafted on the premise that my mind keeps thinking about new ways of doing things.
It is really scary to not have anything to move on to.
I started meditating to calm my nervous system down – but of course, since I’m always waiting to move on to the next thing, why wouldn’t I be anxious?
But an unintended effect was I grew intrigued with how much effort I needed to make myself sit still for five minutes. Wow, I can’t even convince myself to sit for five minutes to do nothing. Out of twenty-four hours, I would not even spend five minutes on calming down my mind.
I am afraid of being still.
Some weeks ago I started running. Nothing too intense, just four hundred metres around my estate. The first time I ran I played my favourite music tracks, just like how I’ve done so when I’d gone to the gym. The second time, I became interested in running without music. I wanted to see if I could run without something to occupy my mind.
I grew used to it. Used to my self, my mind, my insane zigzagging noisy mind.
I did not realise how much I had disliked being with my mind, just the two of us, alone. So the instinct is to always defect to music, books, facebook, twitter, whatever. There’s always something interesting my friends are posting. Of course.
Many times in the past two years I have really felt tempted to return to the maze and eat cheese (I actually did so for a few months). I don’t really know what to do without an external reward or approval system. It is like this desperate need to be measured. Tell me I am doing well, thank you.
Because if nobody tells me how I am doing, I will be destroyed by my inner critic. At least accumulating cheese is easy enough to measure.
Is true internal freedom possible? Will I grow acquainted with the emptiness of leaving the maze, and perhaps one day, develop the capacity to choose my own food? When will the emptiness become a box of treasures waiting for me to open, instead of looking sinisterly like pandora’s box?