There was this day when suddenly I felt guilty for reading. It felt like a guilty pleasure: something so idle, so static, like I was not doing anything productive or creative. After spending so many of the recent years reconditioning my self about productivity I still find my mind popping up judgements like popcorn.
The TCM physician I see now tells me my condition is due to years of stress and repressed anger. I respond: how can that be? I have been living like a nun for the recent few years. She tells me I can’t expect to reverse a few decades of damage with just a few years. I guess this applies for the conditioning I carry in my mind as well. Trying to deviate from the lifetime conditioning I had, is a moment-to-moment practice.
The difference with years of such practice: instead of believing my mind and therefore spiralling downwards about not being productive, I quickly corrected myself. I do somewhat subscribe to the concept behind the Internal Family System – even if we don’t believe it literally it is still a useful concept to practice with – that we consist of different parts and they can be in conflict. If you ever find yourself in two minds about something that would be it.
The critical judgmental part of myself used to be really loud and it would drown out all the rest of my voices. Once in a while like a person possessed my delusional, dreamy, imaginative part would take over and propel me to do unrealistic unreasonable things that people would call me crazy for (like flying to SF in 2011 with not much left in my bank). Perhaps upon looking back I could say that those two parts were actually equally dominant, so I suffered mentally because I was always wanting to do something outrageous and yet harshly judging myself for it at the same time. I wanted to do all these things yet I felt so weighed down. Imagine trying to move forward and someone is desperately clutching at your heels while criticising you at the same time. That was me, for almost all of my life.
So the critical voice still pops up every now and then, but after years of practice my other voices grew louder. I told myself that it is precisely because of reading so much, so widely and so deeply that I am the person I am today. Reading alone probably contributes to at least 70% of the writing that exists on this blog.
Maybe some people may wonder: is that important and meaningful? To be able to write weekly? Before I go on to write another essay about meaning I just want to reiterate that it is my personal belief that our lives are ours to lead, for better or for worse. We suffer most of the consequences of our decisions. When we’re alone, frightened, burnt out and sick from working too much there wouldn’t be much sympathy from anybody. In fact we would be so very lucky if there was not judgement about our utility in this world and that we are weak. Being chronically ill and tired is a very lonely, depressing journey because unfortunately in this world we are only valuable if we are useful.
There comes a juncture where we’ll have to make that choice. Rethink the way we think about life, or slowly kill ourselves by continuing the status quo. When I am sick or on my deathbed, will people come to me and thank me for making that beautiful design prototype? Would my ex-bosses be grateful for all those hours I didn’t sleep trying to meet their deadlines and expectations? Would my family finally be proud of me that I consistently worked so hard until I got sick? Would I be proud of myself only then? That I was a very useful person who worked very hard and was quite “successful” in my career till the very second I am about to die?
Maybe there are people who have different answers to these questions. I can respect that. One should definitely decide whether the adulation of the group is more important than the regard of the self. But I realised early on that being recognised as a successful, useful person at the expense of my health and aliveness is not what I would want to spend my life on. I would be reduced to bones, literally and metaphorically. I wrote about having nothing, but what is worse than having nothing is to be reduced so much that there is no spark of life left in me, passively/actively wishing I was dead all the time.
Instead, what I want is to have an enriched self. A self who is stable even with chaos around me. I want to live life, not simply let the inherent insecurity of life threaten me. I want to still have a sense of self when status and things are taken away. To enjoy the company of my self, and be in wonderment when immersed in my inner world.
The things I do on a daily basis may not seem to have a practical purpose, but they enrich me. It is like mediating. How can merely sitting quietly by yourself for ten minutes a day make a difference to our lives? Yet almost mystically, the daily practice of being capable of sitting in silence for that ten minutes will compound to form a profound inner resource.
Our brains are complex neural networks. They take everything we perceive, learn, consume, absorb and it generates feelings, thoughts and ideas from these things. If we don’t learn to manage it well, it haunts us with terrifying thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. Yet even within this mental instability it is capable of generating profound creative beauty (think about all the artists, writers, poets). If we learn to be equal to it, to coexist with it, it can be a limitless reservoir of creative resources, generated by infinite permutations of nodes.
This is the essence within us. Something melded with every self we are and every event we experience. No one’s essence can be identical with another. Something seemingly simple as the way we write is an outcome of all the interactions we’ve had in our life. We can tell a lot about the inner lives of people with what they express: writing, art, photography, projects, buildings, etc. This is what makes living potentially beautiful. We’re able to have a non-stop stream of witnessing what comes out of all these inner lives. This is not something that may be correlated to academic or career success or how much material wealth we have. The journey to enriching our essence is invisible.
What is your essence? Have you gotten to know it intimately? I know mine is expressed on this website. Everyone who visits here will perceive it differently. That’s potentially another beautiful aspect of living – to have unlimited interpretations of our essence. We also take a little bit of each other’s essences and they form ours. Us, human beings, can be a very beautiful network of living art, but. Here we are, living as utilities.
I guess part of the reason why I am writing this apart from merely expressing my thoughts – I think many people don’t take their inner lives and creative impulses seriously enough. Many people believe themselves to be ordinary, that what they think and do can be easily replicated, or their creative output is so unworthy of expression. I have peers who are great writers, but they don’t publish a word. Many friends are intrigued by art, but they don’t bother pursuing anything because they think creative output must be driven by natural talent.
Our lives are ours to lead, for better or for worse. Being creative is simply being human. We can make something that is directly the outcome of our own unique essences. We don’t have to make someone buy it for something to be creative. Whatever we make, can only be made by us. Even if it looks exactly the same as a tutorial we’re following, the thoughts and feelings we have from the making process, the learnings, the mirrored reflections, the increased self-understanding – those are ours and ours only, and will lead to a deeper enrichment. A type of enrichment that will not appear on linkedin, but it may form that part of us that will contribute to how we will feel on our deathbeds.