S1E01: “What Have You Been Doing Now That You Can’t Do Anything?” – 2/2

Folks, looks like this is going to be the one and only episode from Season 1 of this narrative. But I wanted to close it out with the long-promised second part to this very long-running season/episode.

I’m coming up on a year of detaching myself from society. After much reflection – the short answer to my friend’s question? Nothing. What have I been doing? No. Thing.

Please bear with the cliché: I have been trying to get comfortable with less of doing and more of being.

Stay with me: All our lives, we are trained to do – more and more, to add to our list of achievements. It starts with learning to walk, to hold a pen, to scrawl the alphabet, to recite numbers or tables of seven, to rattle off the periodic table, to get top grades, win those medals and show them off, learn to sing, learn to dance, get into the best university, get a top-paying job…..when does it ever end? No, all of this is just the beginning. And so, we head on to a life of continuing the do-ing. Of achieving. Of using productivity as a measure of success. Even for fun, we like to do as much as possible on vacation so that we can proudly say we’ve done it all.

This past year hasn’t been a great one. World over, that’s true. But the closure of the outside world gave me the space, time and stillness to bring my attention inwards. Since Facebook first asked me, I have described myself as “Spiritual, not religious” but if I’m honest, I would not then have been able to articulate what exactly that meant. This year, I took the time to explore that spiritual side and form a point of view. Reading ‘A New Earth’ by Eckhart Tolle back in June 2020 was eye-opening. My awareness has not been the same since.

I have no intention of listing every motivational self-help book I’ve read over here, as that is not the point of this post. Like many people, I have inwardly tussled with defining my sense of self throughout life – where does it come from? What defines it? At some point in my late twenties, I faced and accepted the uncomfortable but beady-eyed truth: I had been looking to external markers for defining me and my worth. As a school-going child, I unconsciously believed that I was the sum of my grades, my conduct, my appearance, my manners and behaviour. Things that people could see and judge on the outside. Unconsciously, I looked to others to judge what was within. As I got older, this only morphed form. From grades to job profiles. Titles and pay hikes. Career growth in comparison with peers. Interests in comparison with what others were up to. Before I realised it, my self-talk had become painfully negative. My self-worth was so closely tied with my output and how I presented myself, that every mistake turned into a spiral. No one berated me like I did. I took every mistake and unknowingly held it up as a measure of my own worth. “I did something wrong because I am not capable of any better” — eugh, makes me squirm writing it out.

(Because, I couldn’t be further from the truth. But we’re not there yet.)

Ofcourse, I spoke to no one about any of this. I don’t even think I was conscious of the extent of it. It was just a truth I believed in the safest chamber of my heart. An ugly truth that I had fabricated from my life experience. One that coloured everything I did and didn’t do – even if no one else knew.

So now, after leaving a job that had me questioning my motivations, abilities, gifts and worth – I had cut off some of these supposed external markers of self-worth. I knew I had to leave the country I was living in too, so I was no longer tied to a place. Snip, snip – that fell away too. I had to rid myself of most of my belongings to move countries and live out of a suitcase. Snip, snip, snip – can’t define myself with what I own even. So who was I, when I could not be defined by —

  • my role in society (didn’t quite have one defined)
  • my paycheck (didn’t have one)
  • my title (nada)
  • what I owned (they were down to bare necessities)
  • my interests (they were forming and fluid)
  • where I lived (this was changing and would keep changing)

I was still myself, so ofcourse self-hood could not be defined by any of these. So what was left when all of this fell away? What defines us when the external markers are not true indicators after all? This was the raw question, unwritten, unsaid – that guided me through this time. Little happening on the outside, so I went inwards and felt around to learn. I was guided by enlightening books, meditation and uplifting podcasts. And what a painful, wonderful, messy, insightful journey it has been.

I learnt more about the human ego, this idea of a spiritual self vs. the ego self. I learnt to recognise this true Self within me. I learnt how to be with me, how to identify the gifts of mind as well as its naughty tricks. Most of all, I learnt to cultivate an increasing sense of compassion – towards myself as to others. I learnt to be kind, to myself as to others. The biggest challenge of all – I learnt to face myself. Stripped of the excuse of busyness and distractions, I learnt to be able to look at myself for all I was – talents, motivations, values, fears, coping mechanisms..all of it. The truths I knew, the ones I made up and the lies I had told myself over and over.

So yes, I did nothing. Some days my ego wins, and puts up an inward fight at this summary. It usually starts with “But that’s not true, I did do…” before I check it. What can I say, still very human. But most days, for at least a moment, my gentler, fuller Self reigns..I recognise her, and then I feel that all is exactly the way it should be.

Cheers, and so much love. ~M xx

A Reluctant Admission

I know I said I would write more frequently than once a month. I remember laughing to myself in September at the thought of taking a whole month to post again. After all, I love writing. I would never post-pone doing more of it again.

And yet I did just that, again. I have been having this squirmy feeling in my belly this whole time, this discomfort that rises up into my chest. Because I know I have been putting off doing what I love. And until recently, I felt too much guilt to even look this avoidance in the eye.

I feel like I’ve been standing on a diving board. Looking down at the rippling blue water. Knees bent, all wound up like a coiled spring but not ready to jump. Not ready to jump. Holding that pose. Mind dashing back and forth between intent to act, and the comfort of waiting – because the jump cannot be taken back. It’s the same feeling I had when I was learning to swim at age seven – my swim instructor wanted me to jump into the deep end. And I just couldn’t. It was as if my feet were glued onto the wet edge of the pool. I could not get my feet off. I could not get myself to plop into the murky green pool. Why? Because I couldn’t imagine what that jump would feel like. I could only imagine jumping in and not being able to feel the surety of sturdy ground under my feet, I could imagine flailing and drowning. I couldn’t be sure that I would be able to surface and swim. I could only anticipate that primal fear, and was too scared to lean into the grey area between fear and knowing.

Today, two decades on, I am trying to (over)analyse a similar reluctance to commit to something that I love doing. It’s not obviously terrifying like a deep, opaque swimming pool would be to a child who can barely swim. However, it is terrifying in a deeper, more subtle way: writing has been the dream to me, full of potential, beyond that fear of plunging in. I’ve always told myself, in quiet whispers (lest they be overheard), that I think I can write expressively, engagingly. (Ugh, my ears are warm just from writing that sentence) That thought, rarely tried or tested, has been like a warm blanket to me, comforting me after a long day’s work, after a long season’s work, every time I’ve felt weary of my day job, my nondescript life. There’s been this naïve, hopeful thought – that in an alternate version of life, I could be a writer who can connect to the hearts of people through her words. That I could help another soul feel more seen, less alone on their journey. Not trying, not testing that theory – because what if it isn’t true?

What if I jump in only to prove myself wrong, and lose this mental safety blanket? This secret hope that was a salve when my less-exciting “real life” dealt blunt blows to the spirit? I can’t take the jump back. And I’d potentially be left with a void where this reassuring, blind dream used to be. Reluctantly, shamefully, I admit – I am unwittingly choosing to be comfortable not knowing. < pauses to feel pretty shit >

< takes a deep breath >

On that wet afternoon, aged seven, I didn’t jump. I kept crouching, wound up to jump, feet glued to the edge of the pool..until my instructor shoved me in anyway. I was terrified, but I surfaced. I swam. The salty pool-water mixed with the salty tears on my face, but I swam. And things turned out okay. Except that I was too terrified to go back to that swim class. That was my last swimming lesson for the next five years. It was probably also the beginning of my tendency to stop, to quit, at fear.

The last seven months have been a wonderful, painful, quiet, subtle journey to stop resisting fear and walk towards it. That has been an overarching goal of this time away from Real Life. Every single time I have leaned into the discomfort – be it big or small, visible or invisible – I have come out glad for it. So this time should not be any different. I have been blessed with one life as me, might as well live the most colourful version of it. Even disappointment, helplessness, disillusionment adds brush-strokes of colour – deep and bold – to the canvas of life.

So this time, this girl vouches to jump – even if it takes some time hanging out, all wound up, toes curled, on the edge of a metaphorical diving board. I can’t take this jump back, but I’ll see it through.