I have been dreading writing this post for over two months now. It has felt like I am trying to lift a weight way above my weight class. I am not a psychologist, philosopher, or even a poet. What makes me think I can give justice to the intricacies of mental health or human consciousness itself?
But I reminded myself of the basic yet often easily overlooked fact that I am a human with a unique human experience. That has to hold some degree of value. At least, I have convinced myself that it does. And yet, I still find myself laughing at my own audacity.
I am diving in anyway.
The idea for this post is analogous to a brewing storm. There has been just the right amount of pressure, temperature, variables, and constants for it to produce the rain and the storm. The phrase from the title keeps echoing in various places repeatedly provoking my thoughts. Firstly, some of the recent events in my life have instigated me to think about and question the effects of trauma in our lives, asking some deeper questions about the dichotomy of happiness and endless ambition and wondering if it's our circumstances that determine our inner state or our perspective. So it's become a conscious and subconscious quest to unravel some answers to these hefty themes.
The seeking has led me to many destinations. One of which is the life-changing speech by David Foster Wallace called "This is Water". Since the first time I heard it, it has fundamentally shifted my worldview. I firmly believe that every human should listen to this at least once in their lives. It has been so life-changing in fact, I am going to insert it right here. That is the least I can do to honor his sheer brilliance and insights into the human condition.
The biggest thing I have been realizing in pursuit of these answers is that we have an ongoing non-stop storytelling narrative machine at the center of our heads. It is so pervasive, most of the time we do not even notice it is there. But this mechanism seems to be the root cause of all the effects that are our behavior. So it is really worth paying attention to what is going on in there and examining what stories we currently believe in. Some of the tools to examine this machine has been around for a long time. Some of them are meditation and journaling.
Meditation helps us take a step back from living inside of the story to simply observe it from a distance. The phrase "You are not your thoughts" beautifully fits this narrative. Journaling on the other hand is a wonderful tool to figure out what is even going on inside of us. It is a step to build the basic awareness of knowing what the story running our lives even is. Dr. Paul Conti, a world-renowned psychiatrist and trauma specialist talks about it in his book "Trauma: the invisible epidemic". I especially loved his point about how writing and talking to people about how we feel is incredibly important. This is because merely thinking does not have an error-correcting mechanism. Our thoughts are influenced by countless different places and they just enter our minds with no filtration system. But writing or speaking does have a filter of error recognition. When we say something out loud or write it down, it is vastly easier to detect if we are believing in something substantive or some utter bullshit.
Within this arena is also where I have understood the importance of having a strict information diet. Just as a food diet helps us restrict food that is not good for us, an information diet restricts information that is not good for us. An example of this is restricting the consumption of a large quantity of bad news. Media in today's world has made everyone's issues our personal issues. Don't get me wrong though, being aware of current affairs is necessary to some important extent but I believe it is also vital to be aware of the fact that it is the input to our aforementioned machine and brings about output that is less than desirable. The output is how we feel about ourselves and our day-to-day behavior. This is everything, this is our lives.
Another important meta-realization I have had is from the speech I have embedded above. I had watched and listened to the speech several times before but now I feel as though I really am starting to understand what he is trying to say. Wallace talks about how our default state is one of absolute self-importance. We are all at the center of our own universe, contained within a very small skull of course. The storytelling machine's default state he says is that we are the most real, the most important, and the most vivid entity there is. However, he brilliantly points out that, that is not in fact the truth. The truth is that life unfolds beyond our personal spheres. It is not to say that we are not important at all but that we are not the most important.
This realization in today's world is a scary one when all of us are told we are special and unique. Jagriti from a year ago would have been terrified at the realization of her own insignificance in the grand scheme of things. However, I now am surprisingly relieved by it. The realization that not all of the burden of the world is on me. It has been a beautiful exercise of letting go of absolute control. Paradoxically, it has also renewed a sense of confidence in myself. I am even more confident now because I am not that special or important not because I am special or important. It has given me the strength to go after even more audacious goals and aspirations. I have come to truly understand that ultimately, it is not about me, my problems, my self-importance, or my anything. I also love that Wallace does not describe this tendency as a virtue but as the capital-T Truth.
If you made it this far in the blog, I want to request you again to listen to his speech because my interpretation of it is nowhere near how well he articulates it in his speech.
Happiness expert and Harvard professor Dr. Arthur C. Brooks also talks about this when explaining to people the complex orchestration and anatomy of happiness. He says the most happy people are not so totally consumed by their own self-importance. They have a view of the world that is greater than themselves along with the three pillars: enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose.
Thinking about and questioning the effects of trauma in our lives, asking some deeper questions about the dichotomy of happiness and ambition, and wondering if it's our circumstances that determine our inner state or our perspective has been a wonderful journey so far. And it will continue to be a lifelong journey. But the seeking of the answer has led me to the first step. Awareness about this machine is at the center of my very existence.
The biggest lesson I have learned about this non-stop storytelling narrative machine is that we do not have to be a slave to it. We can have control. We do have a choice. The choice of what to think about, Wallace argues is the real importance of a good and solid education. To firstly have the awareness about the machine and then the choice about how it should be run. It is incredibly difficult to do this, to be conscious in the day-to-day existence and trenches of adult life. To not just know but internalize that I do not have to believe everything I think. I have a choice. I have a choice.
And you have a choice.
You have a choice.
So, don't believe everything you think.
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