Years ago I had a job I thought I had loved. But it came to a point in time when circumstances made it untenable for me to stay – it was only then when I realised how much my identity was tied to work and the company I worked for. Then one day I didn’t want to be a designer anymore. Slowly, layer by layer, the “I” I knew myself as unpeeled. Part of it was exacerbated by my ill health. If I could no longer do what I used to be good at doing, what is left?
After a ton of reading and self-contemplation I realised that a lot of what I wanted and who I thought I was, was simply conditioning and a response to my environment. I wanted to be seen a certain way. I wanted to prove all those naysayers wrong. But that is a sad life to lead, because first of I’m spending a lot of time and energy to prove myself to people who didn’t accept me for who I was in the first place, secondly it is crushing to realise that decisions I thought I have made out of my own agency were motivated by external forces I was not conscious of.
On hindsight I am grateful that this process happened so unexpectedly when I am still relatively young and have half a life ahead of me. I wouldn’t want to wait till I’m 60 before realising my entire life has been a lie.
There are a lot of questions I’ve been asking myself since. Many of them remain unanswered, and a lot of my behaviour remain conditioned habitual responses. I think what makes us slightly different from animals, is that apart from basic survival instincts, we’re primally wired for connection. A lot of that effort that goes into making an image for ourselves has really to do with how much we desire to be accepted by our peers, even at the expense of living a lie. But that is the outcome of being born in and bred into a capitalistic society, a world that teaches us to value people more on what they do versus who they are. Kind people are nice, warm and fuzzy, but who do we really admire? Who does society reward? Why spend our lives being kind, giving and sharing when we see billionaires and politicians having all the power to decide how the rest of us should live?
A lot of my self-judgment is internalised from all the external judgment I have received throughout my life. I cannot be simply alive or just a simple human being. I have to be a thriving, contributing one. My contribution has to be measurable or visible. I stop myself from doing a lot of things because I perceive them to be frivolous, and I make myself do a lot of things because they feel like an obligation. My life was not mine, I was simply living out someone else’s story, it is a story woven together by all the expectations I have had from other people. The expectations have become mine.
Who am I truly? I am still trying to find that out. How would I live if I truly no longer cared what people think of me and if I let go of who I thought I should become? What would I be doing if nobody saw what I did?
I read a book on Tibetan buddhism last week, and the teacher was trying to explain the state of shunyata(emptiness). What struck me was that he said that hopelessness from knowing that everything is empty is the beginning of true hope:
“In that sense, that something is not seen is the beginning of seeing. For instance, if you are studying music, the starting point is to realise how unartistic you are. That’s a hopeful situation. That you have the intelligence to see how unartistic or how unmusical you are is the starting point. Hopelessness is the starting point. That is extremely powerful actually, and the most positive thought that you could have. It is an extraordinarily positive thing to discover how bad things are.” – Chongyam Trungpa, Glimpses of the Profound
I related a lot to what he said. Removing layers of my self was painful and extremely insecurity-inducing. But after all of that bit by bit I feel lighter. It is liberating to discover that slowly I am beginning to have a firmer grasp of who I really am, what I really want and therefore I become a little bit less self-conscious of how people perceive me. Previously, my existence felt like a house of cards. Quitting a job felt like a major crisis, because I had depended on that job and everything that came with it – reputation, income, brand – to give me my sense of self, solidity and security. It was intoxicating and yet disturbing how people responded to me when I revealed where I worked. It was horrifying to know that even as I consciously tried to be as authentic and as unmaterialistic as possible, I could not escape trying to spin a narrative around myself.
I wonder if my suicidal tendencies are tied to having an existence that was not real and unsustainable. I am not sure, till today I feel like I still have a long way to go before reaching an empty state, if that is even possible.
I found out a couple of buddhism books I had loved (including the one I quoted above) were written by people embroiled in sex scandals. I struggled to reconcile the wisdom they were capable of expressing and the people they were in reality. It reminds me of my disbelief when I found out Orson Scott Card is a bigot because a major theme of his books are about learning to know and empathise with beings that are radically different from us. It disturbed me for a long while, before I realised I am too, capable of that sort of contradiction. Having values and living them out are two different things. I guess even Buddhist teachers (or any religion, really) can become blind to the image they have created for themselves and unconscious of their shadows.
In Jungian psychology the concept of shadows (basically our unsavoury selves) is very fascinating. The gist is that if we don’t face our shadows and learn how to integrate them, they will cause us to act out unconsciously and unexpectedly. This is a topic worth expanding upon in another post.
In line with trying to unpeel myself I have been trying to be more of myself in my writing and also on social media. I started posting on Instagram Stories to see if I can really be spontaneous – the answer is no, once I started seeing heads bobbing out on my viewer count. But I appreciated the opportunities to compose haikus on the go and seeing what kind of art I can make in this ephemeral format.
Yesterday I updated a profile picture which I wouldn’t post previously even if you paid me. My hair was unstyled, I was wearing very casual clothes, and clutching soft toys. But I just want to break out of my vanity, you know?
In between posts of extreme hope and despair I am a mundane person, unlike people who believe that only quality should exist online, I personally believe that a whole picture – the truthful reality with all its mundaneness and messiness, should exist.
We cherrypick too much out of life, and mislead ourselves to believe that life is all about the highs, and without them we are reduced to nothing.