on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

the truth of insubstantiality

I’ve been noticing an uncomfortable energy in my body, like I am unable to be still, a sort of twitchiness. I am not sure if I have always been this way or it has progressively gotten worse. Like everyone else, pre-covid I could always find distractions, but now I am haunted by an insistent buzz.

This year I have read a lot less books compared to previous years, ironically. You would think the opposite would happen with more time and distractions. I have also probably written a lot less. I think writing is something that requires regular input, and a large source of that input comes from the provocation that reading brings.

Also, I can no longer tell if I’m more existentially depressed as part of a linear downward spiral, or if this is because of the virus situation. Sometimes I think I need ways to escape from myself: it is like we have to go out in order to come home, and without the means to go out of my own psyche I am unable to rest into myself.

Both writing and reading requires a form of meditative space. It is a deliberate act of progressively slowing down my mind until I can enter a space slightly below my regular consciousness. Once I am there, the words seem to flow magically. It has been harder for me this year to do so. I have always believed my desire to seek distractions was unhealthy, but now I realised one cannot suddenly go cold turkey – from a wide array of readily available distractions to almost none.

Anxiety breeds anxiety, and I am finding it harder to stop myself from feeling so twitchy, so unsettled. The phone has become a safe but unhealthy haven for me as I scroll endlessly, hoping to find the stimuli and connection I am deprived from in real life. I keep on scrolling, and the twitchiness gets worse. It is the easy way out, and I take it. Like an addict, I am unable to feel centered without reaching for my phone to see if there’s something new to discover.

A while ago I started reading seriously again, prompted by a desire for relief from my twitchiness. I read quite a number of books on modern Buddhism – I guess because the entire religion/philosophy is all about easing that twitchiness. I had thought they would become repetitive after a while, but the repetition is useful because of our brain’s susceptibility to suggestion (which we should totally use to our advantage). It is also interesting to see how different authors interpret the same thing in different ways using the beauty of language. Stephen Batchelor, an author who specialises in writing about secular Buddhism, seems to describe the twitchiness I had felt:

It suggests that we spend a great deal of time stumbling about distracted, veering from one thought to the next, forgetting what we had intended to do as soon as a more diverting possibility presents itself.

Source: After Buddhism by Stephen Batchelor | link

Similarly, another author I particularly enjoy reading Mark Epstein – he writes about Buddhism on top of his psychoanalytic training – interprets that we seek distractions or sensual pleasures because of “the truth of insubstantiality” (source). The first time I came across this phrase: the truth of insubstantiality – it hit me profoundly. There is something about the word insubstantiality. Usually in this context Buddhist writers have a preference of using the word impermanence. Impermanence describes a condition of life where everything doesn’t last; insubstantiality however, evokes this feeling of not being concrete enough. Our moments in life are not just fleeting, they almost don’t seem real, and our selves never seem enough.

I am almost always seem to be floating somehow, as though my existence does not have the weight to anchor itself down, to put a foot down. I am not sure if this feeling I am describing is similar to what Epstein describes as disassociation in the same book – we cannot bear the weight of our feelings, so we disassociate from them.

He explains that there is a cost to this disassociation. When we avoid our feelings, we also lose the capacity to feel positive emotions like joy. More than joy, I desire to feel calmness, but it is a sentiment that feels remote to me.

My friend earlier today shared a post that dogs trained with negative reinforcement still display signs of fear and aggression long after their training. I responded that I still feel scared for no apparent reason everyday. It seemed like a casual remark, but borrowing and twisting Epstein’s words, it is a substantial truth for me.

I am haunted by a pervasive fear, and this fear creeps into every single dimension of my life. It is not something that was conscious and obvious to me until these recent years.

I am scared of myself, of making mistakes, of not being enough, of disappointing people, of disappointing myself, of not being able to do what I wish to do, of people dying, of hurting people, of feeling alienated, of being abandoned…the list goes on.

I guess that is why I was so disturbed by the word Epstein had used. I am scared of being insubstantial in an insubstantial world, living an insubstantial life, treating people and being treated insubstantially. But like Batchelor and Epstein had pointed out, the core lesson that the Buddha was trying to teach was that these anxieties are part of living, and it is possible to thrive in co-existence with them.

Many a time the books I am reading are fascinatingly interconnected. I discover this quote in Epstein’s book which he referenced Batchelor

As Stephen Batchelor has written, “When the stubborn, frozen solidity of necessary selves and things is dissolved in the perspective of emptiness, a contingent world opens up that is fluid and ambiguous, fascinating and terrifying. Not only does this world unfold before us with awesome subtlety, complexity, and majesty, one day it will swallow us up in its tumultuous wake along with everything else we cherish. The infinitely poignant beauty of creation is inseparable from its diabolic destructiveness. How to live in such a turbulent world with wisdom, tolerance, empathy, care, and nonviolence is what saints and philosophers have struggled over the centuries to articulate. What is striking about the Buddhist approach is that rather than positing an immortal or transcendent self that is immune to the vicissitudes of the world, Buddha insisted that salvation lies in discarding such consoling fantasies and embracing instead the very stuff of life that will destroy you.”

Source: The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein | link

Embrace the very stuff of life that will destroy you, they suggest. Apparently it would help by learning how to sit still and breathe. It is intriguing to me how difficult it is to do something that sounds so stupendously simple. I’ve been trying to meditate regularly for years and yet it is a task that I consciously and unconsciously avoid.

Why is it so difficult to be quietly with myself? Can I gradually learn to be less twitchy, or somewhat co-exist with my twitchiness? Can one truly embrace the very stuff of life that will destroy you? I ask, as I hope to continue along this path.

Related resources

book goodreads
After Buddhism
by Stephen Batchelor completed: 06 Dec 2020

One of the core questions that I seek to answer in this book is whether it is still possible to recover the dharma that existed prior to the emergence of Buddhist orthodoxies and then build upon that foundation an adequate ethical, contemplative, and philosophical practice that optimizes human flourishing in a post-credal age. Paradoxically, to imagine what might emerge after Buddhism, we need to go back to the time before Buddhism began.

view meta | in 1 collections | 12 highlights | 0 responses
book goodreads
The Trauma of Everyday Life
by Mark Epstein completed: 11 Dec 2020 view meta | 1 highlights | 0 responses