on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

the joy and suffering of awareness

I wrote a blurb for our monthly anniversary this month which led me to contemplate about the transience of life. One of the reasons why I wanted to celebrate us monthly instead of yearly is because I have endured enough losses in my life to know that nothing lasts. People change, situations can happen unexpectedly, illnesses occur, etc. It is foolish to believe that everyday will be a repeat of yesterday even if it can seem so for a very long while. Feeling the rug being pulled under me is a constant theme in my life. But I am also only human, so with the chug of daily life sometimes I forget. Our monthly celebrations serve as a reminder: it makes me think about how we’ve met, how I was when we’d met, how much love seemed out of reach for me then, how miraculous it felt for us to be available for each other, to be in the same place at the right time.

Our brains are not set up to experience the same intensity of joy and pleasure every time with a recurring event. This is known as the hedonistic treadmill. We could covet something very much and obtain it some day which could trigger this spurt of intense joy, but inevitably a decline would follow until it plateaus into something that feels mundane. Many long-term relationships are like that: couples start becoming careless and rude with each other without even knowing that the decline is happening.

My partner and I fall into that trap occasionally as we both have mood swings, stressful situations occur, PMS, etc. It is easy to sweep things under a rug once the conflict is over. Love requires constant cultivation, like a garden. Every conflict needs a careful address and resolution in order for it not to become an invisible reservoir of resentment. These are probably things that can only be learnt after multiple failed relationships — it applies to non-romantic ones too. Sometimes being quick to forgive and let go may not necessarily be a good thing, as we may not be aware enough of how much something was actually affecting us until we dig deeply. That’s probably why mild-mannered people tend to have sudden major eruptions. To be able to be in and exit conflicts gracefully is a skill.

As we get older there will also be more reminders of the fragility and mortality of life. Sometimes I go into these moments when I have a sudden awareness of how everything can change in a moment. To be able to savour a good cup of coffee every morning in silence and relative peace seems so ordinary that it feels a permanent mundane fixture of my routine every day for the rest of my life. 

But there have been many moments in my life when even having a cup of coffee in peaceful silence was not possible. Bad bouts of health, stressful situations happening, unpleasant environments, etc. So this morning I looked at my cup of coffee with extra appreciation seeped in this awareness. And that I am also so, so glad to be able to wake up to a space I can call home, after decades of being threatened with the insecurity of being homeless for various reasons.

One can say that it is because I lived with so many gaps in my life, that’s why I can now appreciate having what I did not have. But it is just so common for humans to stop appreciating things after the initial phase. I have found that I had to design “helpers” in my life to be more appreciative. Like writing a journal entry daily, and having the monthly celebrations of love. Slowly, I realised I was having more moments of these sudden awareness even outside of these events. The brain learns with repetition.

It can be a form of suffering to live this way. To be reminded that everything does not last, that the threat of mortality is real. This is the price to pay for being aware, to know that the inherent pain of life can knock on our doors at any moment. I went through periods when I lived with constant fear and anxiety – an over-compensation of this awareness – that something bad is going to happen. Only recently I have found myself to somewhat be more accepting: that shit is going to happen anyway. Shit just happens in life. There is simply no avoiding it. The avoidance itself can become a major source of unhappiness. I am still going to suffer when shit happens, but I will not be suffering more because I was caught unaware and unguarded.

The stoics and some schools of buddhism are known to incorporate a practice of negative visualisation. It seems morbid, but I think it does help in growing an acceptance that will never be complete and painless but it is still an acceptance nonetheless. I dose myself with a bit of grief every now and then so it wouldn’t crush me when it truly arrives, or at least I hope.

Maybe some people would think this is not a healthy way to live. But I would rather carry this painful awareness and have a constant middle-grade suffering than to have a breakdown when shit happens. This awareness is what that makes me savour my experiences now, it makes every detail more vivid and poignant: tender moments with my partner, seemingly mundane gatherings with my family, all the times I am not trapped by my migraines, all the instances I become aware that I am not having shallow breathing because of pervasive stress. My time with people are exceptionally cherished because I know they won’t be around forever. All of these contributes to a bittersweet richness in my life that would not have been possible if I had lived on mindless autopilot like before.

I smile to myself a lot these days, because I am able to know what I actually have. There are still blind spots of course, and I go into periods when I take life for granted like everyone else, but I hope I can be provoked into this awareness frequently enough.

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