During our most recent class meeting, we touched on the idea of self awareness. The general consensus seemed to be that the concept of “self awareness” actually covered two separate ideas. There was 1) being aware of the impact you have on the spaces around you and how the world sees that impact and 2) being aware of yourself and your own mental space.
I am uncomfortable with drawing the distinction. I tried to articulate this in class, but am putting it in writing to clarify (for myself, mainly) what exactly is unsettling me. I agree that self awareness encompasses being cognizant of both one’s own inward state as well his/her on the outward environment. Initially, I was upset by the concept of cleaving self-awareness in half because I didn’t think it was possible. But upon examination, I realized I wasn’t disturbed by the impossibility of the two types of self awareness, but by its reality.
For the sake of argument, let us imagine two people who are only self aware in one of the two “categories” of self awareness.
She is conscious of the impact her existence has on the world around her. More concretely, she is acutely aware of what impact her words and actions make. But her own internal landscape is shrouded in a black box, her own decisions, emotions, and words seems to bubble out of her without rhyme or reason. She is a captive observer, watching herself do things, feel things, that she has no control over. Making matters worse, she sees the world react to the uncontrollable behavior.
He is hyper aware of his own wants and needs. He knows why he thinks what he does, why he wants what he does, and how to shape his own desires. However, he often feels like he’s acting out a play, but was given a different script than the other actors. Things rarely ever go how he expects them to and the explanations he tells himself never hold up against scrutiny. This confusion is only made worse by his awareness of his own wants, for as Donne said, “No man is an island.” and his wants are connected to the outside world.
While they are both caricatures, I know people who are similar to both. They are hobbled by their own actions and inability to understand either where those behaviors came from or the impact that they had.
In conclusion, while I set out to disprove the existence of two types of self-awareness, I only caution against disproportionately training one without the other. Much as a weight-lifter that works only his legs, caring only about one type of self awareness and not the other will lead to emotional injury.
One of my best friends once turned to me and said, “Kat, you have a Jurassic Park problem. You spend so much time thinking about whether or not you can do a thing that you never think about whether or not you should.” It was said with equal parts humor and kindness, so I wasn’t offended. Plus it was true, and I try to never be offended by the truth.
I’m intensely goal-oriented. When I want something, I go for it. I never really understood the fear of failure. The consequences of failure are scary sometimes, but the fear of not succeeding doesn’t seem to be in my wiring. It often seems to me that many of my peers have not learned how to succeed, but instead how to fail the least often. Meanwhile, I often just optimize to get what I want.
For a while, I’ve struggled with examining why I do what I do, trying to avoid what my friend called the Jurassic Park problem. I am getting better, but I’d be lying if I said that I had fixed it completely. Instead, as I become more aware of my goal making process and trying to keep it in balance, I am finding that I have to confront everything from my own morals to my assumptions about myself and the people around me. In short, I am having to confront myself.
Joi said something in class along the lines of, “you can control what you want, but you can’t always control what you want to want.” I’ve been controlling what I want, often with extreme precision, pushing towards broader academic, career, and personal goals. However, as I’ve started to examine the roots of those goals, I’m occasionally at a loss for where they came from, or worse, actively upset about where they came from.
I’ve wanted to write both these entries for a long time (the first one, a week, the second, for over two weeks), but couldn’t get anything substantial on paper. However, I’ve finally gotten the emotional space I needed to write them, so here they are.
The practice I chose was Theravada Buddhist walking meditation. Physically you walk a 20-foot path over and over during the session, while mentally you try to become present in the sensation of walking. My best thinking is done while I’m in motion, so I assumed that I’d find walking mediation easier, or at least more fruitful than the silent mediation I’ve tried from time to time. I was wrong.
Still mediation has been difficult for me when I’ve tried it, but certainly not impossible. I’d notice my mind wander and take a moments of watching my breaths to rein them in and let stillness take over. That still works, but there are so many more distractions when in motion. Here is a list of just some of the things that have made walking mediation way more difficult for me than just sitting:
Surroundings are distracting (making myself keep my eyes half open but not perceiving things other than just where to step next is hard, plus every once in a while, someone will come down to where I’ve been walking and I feel self-conscious)
If I don’t wear the right shoes, the really slow walking will aggravate my hip injury. Normally I could just ignore it, but being deliberately aware of steps means I often get distracted by the pain.
Going from being aware of my surroundings to being aware of being aware. This is actually something I want to explore more deeply (when I’m not mediating). My hyper awareness of my own experiences is never just me being like “yay, I’m being aware” or even “wow look what this feels like,” instead, it just jumps to how I would explain how it feels to other people.1
I find myself compulsively planning about whatever I’m stressed about, whether it’s my weekend plans or work for the Formula SAE team or sorority obligations or problem sets. This is common for me, but for once I don’t find it productive. This, along with the hyper awareness of the experience, have been the hardest habits to kick.
It’s also not super relaxing. I feel rejuvenated afterwards, but not the same sense of satisfaction after reading a good book or lying in bed quietly for 20 minutes. It’s much more akin to running for just long enough to briefly enjoy it, but being glad when it’s finally over.
I’ve heard (and seen) people stating, and then echoing, the sentiment that phones make it easier to avoid stillness. I certainly can relate. Up until this summer, my family had complained of how I was practically attached to my phone. However, something snapped this summer for me.2 I went from answering every message I received promptly and conversationally, to ignoring messages from even my best friends for hours on end. When they were asking me simple questions (are you free for dinner tn? can I call u?) I’d respond quickly, but anything more abstract I’d just refuse to respond to until I felt so guilty that I’d finally respond.
I used to text while walking, while eating, while in class, while getting ready in the morning. But suddenly all of that was gone. I still scrolled through Facebook, regularly checked Pitchfork and The New York Times, but I stopped being social of every minute of every day. It’s been liberating, not feeling like I’m tied by an invisible thread to everyone in my contacts list. But I think it was a symptom of a larger problem.
I was exhausted. I was tired of being me all the time. I struggled to articulate this more clearly, but couldn’t seem to do it without quoting T.S. Eliot, so I’ve just cut out the middleman. In the “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, Eliot wrote
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
In plainer words, Eliot describes the process of engaging with other people as a violent, arduous task. While I don’t always feel this way, I’ve had days and weeks where mustering the energy to be my normal self over the phone has just been too much. I’ve had these moments for most of my life, but when I came to college there was so much “fun” to be had, so many interesting conversations to engage with that I think I just stopped letting myself ever breathe until recently, when I’ve had to.
Tenzin asked us to consider why we crave stimulation, why we (purposefully or inadvertently) avoid stillness. I’ve spent weeks thinking about this. I’m not entirely sure if I’ll be able to even begin to answer the question by the end of the course. Because I don’t think I crave stimulation or entertainment anymore. I’ve been doing rote tasks instead of going out, walking home from classes in silence, working on problem sets. There’s not this hunger to be doing something all the time.
However, there’s this worry driving me towards engaging with people and life as much as I ever have. MIT has been an amazing place for me to go to school. I love the opportunities, the community, the knowledge, the fact that I walk out of my room every morning and pass by people that know more than I can ever hope to in my lifetime. But I think I might of driven myself into the ground emotionally, by not letting myself slow down, by trying to grab every opportunity that passes my way.
And so, what can I do? I don’t know whether or not I want to slow down more than I have to. I believe that reflection is important and quiet is important, and maybe I should take more time for that. But I only have 2 and some semesters left of undergrad and I don’t want to miss any of it. In the meantime while I try to figure it out, I think I’ll just deal with the exhaustion when it hits me.
(Tenzin asked us on Tuesday, “Do you have any relationships in your life that are not transactional?” My immediate answer was “No, I don’t.” But since Tenzin seems to place huge stock on thinking about things for longer than a moment, I decided to think. And think I did.3 )
I thought about how I made one of my friends laugh during one of his grumpy days earlier this week, and about the hugs I got from him last night when I was stressed. I thought about going out to dinner with my parents when they were in town this past weekend. I thought about swiping my best friend into dining a week ago and how listened to me talk about something I was (perhaps) irrationally worried about yesterday.
(These relationships are transactional; there’s a balance sheet somewhere. The hugs, kindness, support, honesty, humor all add up, with each person giving and taking in about equal measure. But if one of my friends were to start ignoring me or treating me cruelly, or if my relationship with one of my family members took an unimaginable turn for the worse, I would re-evaluate how much I valued those people.)
I thought about the people that I’ve stopped being friends with: the ones I’ve fought with and the ones I’ve simply drifted from. I thought about the friendships that hurt, the ones that you lose and it gets under your skin that they’re gone. I thought, most of all, about inequity in exchanges of friendship.
(We talked in class about the you-it and you-I paradigm, where sometimes we view other people more as objects than being like ourselves. I rarely understand philosophy or theology as deeply as I’d like to, but I think I got this. It makes sense with what I’ve seen of people. I’ve had peers that oscillate between cruelty and exceptional kindness, just based on whether they can relate to, or want to be able relate to, the people they’re interacting with.)
I thought about the times that I’ve had to tell a friend that they were hurting me, that I didn’t feel cared about. I thought about the times that I’ve had friends tell me the same. I thought about the times that the other person hasn’t seemed to actually truly care that I was hurt, about the times that I only pretended to care that the other person was hurting. I thought about the times where I walked away from such conversations feeling like something had been ripped out of me.
(I think I have finally figured out what had been taken.
All of my relationships are transactional. However, my close friendships are you-I, not you-it. But sometimes I haven’t been able to tell when that’s been one sided, when the other person has only seen me as a you-it, not you-me. It’s not until I ask for the other person to treat me, really to see me, as someone worth caring about as they cared about themselves, that I realized that they wouldn’t.
I had lost the illusion that they saw me as a person).
I thought about what love isn’t. I thought about the definition of conditioning.4 I thought about how unconditional love seemed unappealing now. I thought about how on some level, I believe the probabilistic space of love should be the same size as the one which is conditioned on mutual caring.
I thought about what love is. I thought about my roommate holding my hand when I was sick last spring. I thought about my sister spending an hour with me over Skype helping me online shop for summer clothes I don’t need. I thought about my grandmother’s excitement every time I call her. I thought about my parents, so happy to have time to be empty nesters and still in love almost 30 years after they met.
But most of all, I thought about transactions. About how those transactions, those tiny things left done or undone will, in sum, be the biggest impact I leave on the world. And that I probably should spend more time thinking about them if that’s the case.
Before I begin, a disclaimer: Looking at my exploration into mindfulness as a scientific experiment, this is a pretty terrible set up. I have no good “control” for the experience. Previous semesters have been more hectic, my friendships are at an all time high for stability, my extracurriculars are going well. Most importantly, all of my classes (rather than just one or two) challenge and excite me. However, I do truly think this class is having an impact.
I’ve stopped worrying about things this past month. Obviously, I’ll get nervous (that midterm last week, for example) but I don’t obsess over what to do or think about the same problems over and over again. I’ve reached some equilibrium. It’s been really nice, a sort of retreat from carrying the weight of everything that upsets and concerns me.
But, I’ve found I haven’t been thinking about things as much as I want to think about them. No longer perseverating on my life means that I’ve been leaving things unexamined. I’ve found that I’ve needed to make myself examine my emotions and experiences in order to make sure I’m catching all the same nuances that I am accustomed to seeing.
Should I be trying to catch everything though, understanding everything? In the interest of actually doing the other work that I have today and also trying to keep these entries more brief, I am going to leave that question unexplored for today.
(The theme of our last meeting was our emotions, and secondarily, our subconscious. Specifically, we talked about how if we see our mind as a deep dark pool, we grow the small fears and desires into monsters that rule us, that by refusing to engage with our emotional state is what gives it such immense power. Tenzin asked us to consider how our emotions, values, drives make us who we are.
I was stuck writing this entry for almost a week, because I kept thinking about these three components as matrices in a linear algebra equation.5 So, I decided to tackle just emotions instead, and the entire answer spilled out of the water and ecosystem metaphors from class. This is a long, perhaps unacceptably long, piece. I tried to split it up, get rid of parts, but once I got started, it all flowed in a path that I couldn’t divert.)
I really liked the National Aquarium in Baltimore when I was younger. It’s a multilevel extravaganza of Chesapeake wildlife, coral reefs, shark tanks, dolphins, and even (to my confusion) non-aquatic birds. There’s this central design, where you’ll take an escalator all the way to the top and walk your way down on spiraling ramps, past tank after tank of fish. But, the aquarium I’m talking about now is not actually the National Aquarium.
It’s empty of people, except for me and is also eerily quiet, This is not so much a physical place, it is much more the setting for a particularly vivid dream.
(We start with the sources of joy in my life. It’s my enthusiasm and my curiosity. It’s what makes me bounce in my seat when psetting and something finally makes sense. It’s what takes over when I’m at the parties that are my best memories, the running around talking and dancing with my friends. It’s what makes me ask too many questions in a recitation when I just want to know more. It’s the force behind my love of frivolous gossip about people I barely know. In short, we start with the emotions that make me have fun.)
In this aquarium, the first exhibit is the the macaroni penguins. There are hundreds of them, all practically on top of each other, jumping into the water, fighting over the food I throw to them. They’re cute, dirty, and have rich internal lives of their own. In the process of feeding one, I let it out of the exhibit. It seems even cuter on the outside, jumping on the rails and squawking at me. But suddenly it starts coughing up the fish I just fed it all over the floor. I grab it and throw it back into the glass. The mess was bad, but I grabbed a power washer and cleaned it up, only leaving the smell of regurgitated fish.
(Ambition and my other drives come up next. It’s what makes me want to strive and what makes me want to win. It’s what makes me want to have a perfect Instagram, a perfect GPA, and a perfect wardrobe. It’s what picks up the reigns when the enjoyment fades, when I still need to get out of bed for that 9 a.m. or do the uninteresting problem set or do that painful workout.)
The rays come next. They are in shallow, open tanks sitting at waist height and I wade into, carrying a bucket of feed. They’re beautiful, flowing around the tank at speeds I can’t match. Feeding them makes them more active and they practically fly in the water around me. I keep throwing food into the water, loving their speed and how close they are to me. They’re circling me, in a glorious display of power. Suddenly as one curls around me, rubbing against my legs to be fed more, it’s stinger brushes against me. I jump out of the tank and realize just how much bigger they’ve all become. What had at first seemed like small, tame rays, had become massive sting rays as I fed them. I wait, and as they go a little while without food, they shrink to normal sizes.
(My hopes are next. These aren’t my ambitions, they aren’t what I want to show to the world. They’re what I could have in a vacuum and still would be happy with. They’re what makes me yearn for friendship, security, and intellectual engagement. Hopes are not resilient. Having them tested too early can cause long term damage.)
I walk a little bit further down the ramp. The next tank is a coral reef and it’s massive. There are tiny fish everywhere, swimming in and out of brightly colored coral. I watch the fish grow and flourish. I sit here for hours, just watching. I see a gash in one of the coral reefs and wonder where it came from.
(Now we come to the hardest part: my fears. These are the things that cloud my judgement. Some fears are healthy, as they keep things like ambition and pleasure seeking in check when I’m not doing it consciously. But these are not what I’m talking about. I am talking about fears that rule me, the ones that stop me from doing what I would’ve done in the absence of fear, the ones that make me too risk-adverse or too risk-prone. The fear of being disliked, the fear of being hurt, the fear of being seen as stupid.)
I walk just a little bit past the coral reef into a darker part of the ramp. They’re sharks. It’s dark and their cages are barren. Some ram themselves against the chainlink parts of their cages. I remember seeing nurse sharks in the other exhibits, but they weren’t like these sharks. They coexisted with all the other animals. These are violent and terrifying. I don’t want to stay, but something makes me sit for a while.
(I hate examining, let alone confronting my fears. I used to just not do it.)
Suddenly, I remember being in this aquarium before many, many times before. I would always stop before reaching this exhibit. Once, I realized fish were missing from the coral reef, but thought nothing of it.
(No one ever tells you that anxiety can sneak up on you, that it starts eating away at everything even as you try to ignore it.)
On a subsequent visit, I saw the flash of a massive hammerhead shark in that same reef. I decided to cut my losses and to just stop looking in the coral reef. But just a few times later, there were less rays and that same shark was circling the tank. I began only looking at the penguins, coming to the aquarium less and less.
(Slowly, things start disappearing, slipping out of your fingers, out of your life. But still, the anxiety remains.)
But once I came back to the penguins and saw scattered amongst the rocks and big pools of water, the remains of over half of the penguins. Most of the ones left were missing wings, claws or tails. There were barely any rays left and the ones that were there were wounded and lying on the bottom of the tank, no longer whirling around their tank. I ran to the coral reef. It was destroyed, with almost no fish. The coral had been ripped apart, with teeth marks breaking it apart.
(Confronting it is terrifying, not because of what the fear itself is, but how much power it has over the rest of you.)
In the center of it all was the shark. It had grown far far larger than I had remembered. It was hunting the few unharmed tiny fish swimming through the wreckage. I grabbed a giant metal pole that had seemed to appear from nowhere. I slammed it against the glass over and over and over again. With a crack, then a rush of water, and the sound of shattering glass, the tank broke.
(And facing your fears is often violent in practice, destroying other things in your life in the process.)
The shark fell on the ground next to me, but without the water, it couldn’t move. I watched it die, stared at its unseeing eyes as it flopped around on the ground. I also saw the little fish from the coral reef die, for they had fallen out with the shark. They died faster.
(I have gotten better since my crippling brush with anxiety, better at checking in with myself, at making sure that my fears aren’t too strong. They’ve been at average, rather than alarming, levels for almost two years now though. But there are still moments of destructive urges that seem to come out of nowhere, of being trapped by indecisions, of closing myself off from the world.)
I am not the caretaker of this aquarium.
(If my emotions and drives are animals in the aquarium, then my values are whatever looks after the animals, even the sharks. Those values inform what fears, loves, joys, are allowed to grow and become bigger. If I don’t understand my values, how can I evaluate when something’s healthy or when something’s dangerous.)
I want to be the caretaker. I want to have a hand in making sure all the penguins, sharks, rays, and fish flourish and coexist.
(This is why I am taking this class. I want to know how to take care of my mental state, not just when it’s in crisis, but all the time.)
I want to know how to both maintain balance in the ecosystem, but more importantly, what balance looks like.
I am worried I am losing something that I don’t want to lose.
But first, an explanation. A little under a year ago, I had a rough weekend. Not world-shakingly bad, just the sort of weekend where everything in my life seemed to stop working all at once. But that Tuesday was the due date for a brutal final project. While my peers, were pulling all-nighter after all-nighter to get the project done, I was struggling to just keep myself thinking about the project. I did complete it, but after I handed it in, I could barely function. All of the thoughts that had piled up, shoved aside to build a virtual karaoke machine, were crashing over me.
This seems like the exact sort of situation that awareness and mindfulness can help. Being able to set aside all the noise in a practiced manner is important. College can be a pressure cooker in a zillion ways, and being able to set aside distractions and get work done is a great thing to have.
And the mindfulness has helped. These past few weeks I’ve been able to do so much more work, be so much more focused and present. I find myself working for hours, not even particularly needing a break because there aren’t many thoughts demanding to get airtime anymore.
Many of my peers would say this is a good thing for me. I’ve always been more cavalier about my grades, about my academics, more willing to go to bed, to take a break. Most would same some discipline is probably good for me. Most might even privately think that I spent too much of my time thinking about my life and books and my friend’s lives (some have said as much to me during arguments that got out of hand in the past).
I know that the sort of mindfulness we’ve learned about is more than just quieting the mind. But I’ve been practicing the silence more than I have the thinking recently, because I can shove them aside and continue my life. The thoughts aren’t intruding as much any more, and some just aren’t getting processed.
Over the past few years, as a result of being rattled so easily, I’ve learned how to process my own mind. Not as fast or as cleanly or as well as I’d like to of course, but compared to the people around me, I do a pretty damn good job. I don’t want to lose it. I’ve seen the damage people do when they don’t know their own minds, both to themselves and to each other.
These past two weeks have been busier than when I was completing that final project about a year ago. I’ve been really happy with my productivity, with what I’ve been able to do. I’ve stayed more focused than I ever have been before.
But, frankly, I don’t think that any of this work is important enough to sacrifice my higher level critical thinking. And I know that’s not what this class is meant to teach me to do, but I’m worried that if I’m not careful, that’s what I’m going to do.
(A disclaimer: I’m stressed, if you can’t tell. There’s like a 65% chance that I get through the next week and a half, go on spring break, come back and this just won’t be a concern anymore.)
I resolved this semester to trust myself more. I felt that I had been using other people’s opinions as a crutch, avoiding dealing with my gut. At the same time, I wanted to be more deliberate, instead of just blindly pursuing arbitrary goals. All in all, this means a lot more consideration of my own assumptions.
I had this image of myself, forging out alone, surveying the world as I saw it and proceeding. Maybe it would be more treacherous because I’d be going it without the moderating weight of my friends. But I assumed I’d know what to do more than I had before, since after all I wouldn’t have all the conflicting voices pouring in from around me.
Instead, I have gotten less certain. Not because I’m particularly conflicted about what the right thing is to do in any given situation, but even assessing the world around me has become almost unmanageable. Even if I knew where I wanted to go (which I don’t), I feel as if the landscape of the things I think I know shifts daily. I am not all of a piece, my mind argues with itself constantly. Coming to any agreement, especially about the things I consider important, is almost impossible.
My practice has given me space from my own mind. Every once in a while I involuntary take a step back and realize that I’d been wrongly assuming something or chasing something I didn’t want. However, what I thought would give me clarity has only obscured things even more, since what gave me my single-minded drive were the false assumptions.
Maybe this is all a less panicked way of saying what I wrote last entry: I need more time to take stock of what’s going on in my head and in the world around me. Hopefully spring break will help.
My practice is changing.
The moments of stillness are longer, come more smoothly than they did when I began. I am actually remembering to practice every day and am carving out the time to do it more easily. The quiet is becoming a part of my everyday life. However, as it has grown easier, I worry I may be growing more lax. I have been less frustrated when my mind wanders off. But, I cannot tell whether I am spending more or less time distracted now that the practice has gotten easier. All I know is that my strength of will has slipped away and all I have now is habit and the gentle sense that I should keep my head in silence.
My mind is slipping. Not like madness. Merely slipping in the purest definition of the word.
(Last semester, I TA’d introductory physics, which among other things, covers traction. A primer on traction: A wheel on a car or wagon or whatever will either roll or slip. Rolling means that as the wheel turns, it is propelling itself across the surface. Slipping means that neither the wheel nor the surface moves, as the wheel fails to gain purchase.)
This is not a new feeling for me. It’s stronger now then it has been in a long time, but I lived like this for almost all of high school. I used to describe it as a glass wall between me and everyone else, where all the noise is muffled and most of the time people ignored me, and even when I gestured aggressively to get someone’s attention, I could never seem to get anyone to understand what I was trying to say to them.
But I’ve lived much more in the world the past few years and as a result the feeling has shifted. It’s one of the world moving by too quickly for my mind to get enough traction conversations to truly follow them and respond in a thoughtful manner, and just relying on instinct and habit to cope.
(On playgrounds there are these “telephones”, where a tube is connected to two horn shaped tubes, where you can communicate to the other person, but the sound is deeply distorted. The past few years, when the slipping has gotten bad, I’ve felt as if I am watching all the drama of a schoolyard argument on the other end of a telephone. Another version of me is listening on the other side and is trying to say what I’m telling them to say, but it’s always slightly wrong and too late.)
In recent years, I’ve fought this feeling. In weeks of slipping, I’ve gritted my teeth and forced myself to examine every word and every interaction and how to do them better until I got back into the swing of friendships and relationships and life in general. Most things that broke down in such moments can be revived with a little work (and the handful of things that haven’t have continued to haunt me when I remember them).
Much as I’ve felt my strength of will disappear in my practice, I’ve felt my compulsive need to regain traction whenever it is lost leave over the last two months.
Admittedly, not everything is slipping. My close friendships aren’t, new friendships continue to grow (although the former have been quieter and the latter have slowed, both on account of my exhaustion). The conversations that are slipping are the ones with the stale acquaintances from freshman year, the ones with guys with clear ulterior motives that talk to me at parties, the ones with classmates who are talking because there’s empty space to fill.
I wish I could say I was taking the change gracefully. In private moments I am frustrated with myself and increasingly envious of the people who seem to talk to everyone with ease. I’ve always wanted to be the sort of girl who can bounce from conversation to conversation without tiring.
And perhaps, the frustration but loss of will to do anything about it is me realizing that on some fundamental level, I just haven’t been wanting to talk to those people recently. Like at all.
This is an alarming realization as it leads to an avalanche of questions. Should I want to talk to those people? Should I pretend I want to talk to them when I don’t? Should I push friendships and conversations to places that I don’t particularly want them going just because I want to feel liked (which I suspect was the driving motivation in the past)? But alternatively, am I writing off people who could add something to my life if I merely figure out how to get to know them better?
These are important questions right now. Because as I gain more control over my mind, and therefore over how I engage with the world, I realize that I probably could almost completely stop the slipping. It would take work and energy that would need to come from somewhere6, but I think I could actually do it. The question is if it would be worth it.
“The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story…The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this” - Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Reductions are necessary.
Forget artificial intelligence, forget computer vision, just think about waking up in the morning. Your eyes, ears, skin and nose are all picking up signal after signal and then combinations of those signals are labeled. Imagine if every taste bud, every cone, every rod, every nerve, reported directly to your frontal lobe. You would be overwhelmed. True, unadulterated perception would overload everything. And so, in order to cope, reductions are a necessity.
There’s this network of machinery in our mind, for lack of a better word, that makes reductions based on various inputs. Starting at the most basic level, that machinery takes input from my senses and collects them into more coherent packages for me to process. More complex machinery can reduce those packages (some new, some stored in memory) into abstract concepts, into assumptions or abstractions that we can make complex decisions based on the reductions.
As I think about my practice, about how it’s pulling away the gauze that obscures some of the more complex machinery, I don’t think all the reductions I’ve discovered are bad.
The modern world is overstimulating. My everyday life is complex filled with subtext that requires more information than I have to parse completely. I could just ignore the subtleties of interpersonal interactions, but that would leave room for me to be clumsy with other people’s emotions and lives, which I find morally reprehensible. Instead, I am just trying to shut down the false reductions, the ones that don’t fit the data, the ones that are actively untrue.
(I know I’ve been silent on here for a while. I didn’t actually notice until two days ago. I guess I just haven’t had much to say. Or I’ve had too much to say. I can’t tell which.)
I’ve been thinking about water a lot. My initial impulse was that the thoughts have come from listening to Nainoa talk in class the other week, and on some level it probably is. He spoke eloquently about nature and life in general, but his words about water were what struck the deepest cord for me.
I’ve been thinking about water for a long time. I’ve personified the struggle to control what I say and think7 into a fight to turn the dark pool of my subconscious into something more akin to a koi pond. I’ve visualized my mind as an aquarium this semester. On some more fundamental level, I’ve insisted on being able to see the river from my room the past two years. And even before that, sometimes the only way I felt peace in high school was on the water, when I was rowing.
The past few months, I’ve felt like I’ve been trying to navigate somewhere, but not knowing where I am or where I even want to go. I talked earlier of the land shifting underneath me, as I try to make decisions and think about my life. I was navigating solely by following what felt right and avoiding what felt wrong. But I think it wasn’t land that was shifting under me, but miles upon miles of open ocean, because I landed somewhere this past week.
(I decided this week I want to go to graduate school, at least a Masters and maybe, just maybe, a Ph.D. [I had assumed the former was impossible until 4 months ago and the latter was just unthinkable until about a week ago]. I realized that I had well exceeded my own goals for myself on the race car team this year and that maybe, I shouldn’t have been so consumed by stress about it. Socially, things have shifted into a much more familiar space, out of the somewhat pleasant but bizarrely paralyzed space I was occupying before.)
I don’t know exactly where I’ve landed, but the lack of center, the sense of being deeply deeply lost has disappeared, almost without a trace.
My world has shrunk, as I now am less concerned with finding my way and instead, of just exploring the new space I’m in. I don’t need to imagine what could be over every cresting wave. The slipping is receding, as I grow more comfortable with making decisions as I know where I am and where I want to go.
But I can’t lose what I found out there in the ocean. I realized I want to be kinder, or more compassionate, or something and I thought about my morals, rather than just what I wanted. I need to keep up with the quiet and reflectiveness that comes from the silence from not having any answers. And most of all, I don’t want to get so caught up in living as I used to.
The truth slips out of me sometimes.
In order to explain what I mean, some context. I’ve spent years trying to puzzle through the people around me, understanding how they work and how they function. It was often a process of excavation for each individual, of carving away layers of artifice and assumptions. On a broader level, I built models of how the world worked, slowly realizing that most of my priors were just wrong. It was an active, deliberate process.
But something has changed.
(I read Hamlet in senior year of high school. I found it profoundly disturbing, the ‘To Be or Not To Be’ scene most of all. Hamlet gives one of the most insightful speeches in the English languages, then in just a few lines verbally tears his former lover to shreds. My English teacher, and mentor, told me that I had more in common with Hamlet than I wanted to admit to myself. I didn’t think she was right then. I think she might be right now)
I have been saying things, things that after being said I realize are probably true, without ever having actively thought them. I said that someone I knew was too stupid to be a true elitist. In a casual conversation, I started ripping apart a friend’s life choices without even realizing that I was doing. After a miscommunication with an acquaintance, a succinct, and certainly cruel, description of what exactly makes him mess things up so often floated through my mind and if I had been more upset, I probably would have said it.
I do not know where this is coming from. Maybe I just need a better filter. (But how can I filter, if I don’t even realize I’m saying something until the words come out) In the aftermath of the second incident, the friend told me that my standards for everyone were too high. And there is a part of me that wonders if I was less uncompromising, if I was less of a perfectionist, would this would go away? But I don’t think it’s my standards, at least directly, that’s causing this.
I am reaching some level of implicit, rather than just explicit, understanding of the people around me. I don’t process all of the thoughts I have about people, quite honestly because I don’t like confronting the less kind things I think about the people around me. But instead of staying unprocessed, in moments of distraction or anger or hurt, I can process what I think of people’s less good, more morally ambiguous sides unbelievably quickly.
It’s a defense mechanism of sorts, I think. I only say these things when someone who I saw as a you-me suddenly becomes a you-it for me. In the gap between the two states, both of which I know what to deal with, I can let my understanding of the people I care about shift into clinical diagnosis of problems.
Maybe the solution is to confront what I dislike about the people around me earlier, in the safety of my own head, rather than the open air. In order to do that, however, I would need to figure out how to deal with people not living up to my expectations. And in order to do that, I think I have to learn how to deal with not living up to my own expectations first.
(This is an entry in two discrete parts, because they are different ideas and have different purposes. However, one leads to the other, so I am writing them in the same day.)
The way the world sees me has changed. More accurately, the way that individuals around me perceive me has changed.
Quantitatively, over the past few months, I’ve had more people try to befriend me, more professors and TAs that know me by name, and more people make romantic or other overtures. Initially I thought it was a context change, or that I was just trying harder or something. But I started to tally up the differences, tried to explain away things all the things happening with much more frequency than before.
I asked a few thoughtful friends of mine, ones that don’t know me crazy well, if the way I seemed to them had changed from when I had met them. One of them bounced in her seat and said “I haven’t thought about it, but you’re right! The way you make eye contact is totally different now than it used to be. When I first met you, you read like a weird kid, like someone that was just a little off.”
The other one, who’s known me for over 3 years, said to me, when I asked, “Definitely. You seemed… intense. Honestly, I didn’t really want to be your friend when I met you. I’m not surprised that people are treating you differently.”
When I’ve looked in an internal mirror, the one where you imagine how the people around you saw you, I still see myself as the awkward freshman who just wants to make friends and party. But something’s slowly shifted over the past few years, and it’s changing faster than ever before. and I can’t explain it away anymore.
It means that my world is different. Concretely, random people (friends of friends, people in my classes, hall mates, security guards, cashiers) talk to me more and they all want me to respond to them. In short, the world seems to expect more from me than before.
The slipping has stopped, however, there are still all of these people now wanting to engage with me more. I could just brush them off by looking around at the rest of the room, by barely saying more than a couple words to them, and quite frankly, that’s what I’ve been doing. But, watching people slowly start to think I’m weird or antisocial, or worse, think they’re messing up, is unpleasant.
Maybe I could try caring less, which might be a good idea, but also, there are useful side effects when people think you’re friendly. You get invited to more things, get into dining for free when you just want a yogurt, you can get homework help from people you don’t know as well. But even more importantly, I like having wide circles of friends and making people happy, if it’s not too taxing, is nice to do.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make people feel heard and happy when they start talking to me. I’ve thought about how to be better at small talk with people I barely know, how to make myself not scan the room when I’m bored in a conversation. Mainly, I just want to stop being frustrated by the widening gap between how people perceive me when they first meet me and when they finally start talking to me.
(I wrote a couple weeks ago about feeling like I had washed ashore, landed somewhere. The feeling has continued, strengthened in the few weeks since. I am no longer semi-paralyzed by everyday interactions and am no longer just confining myself to my close friends. I’ve been confronting how my mind, work ethic, and practice have changed as a result. However, what’s compelled me to write this entry, when I have a problem set I desperately need to finish, is how I’ve been thinking about the changes, not necessarily the changes themselves.)
I used to live almost entirely in books and in my own head. For most of middle and high school, I desperately wanted my life to be interesting and/or fulfilling enough that I didn’t feel like I needed the escapism of fantasy novels. Rowing was an escape from the escapism. It was painful and difficult and god was I bad at it at first, but at least it was in the real world. Academics were interesting, (literature, history and computer science especially, as they all filled some components of what rowing wasn’t), but they weren’t visceral. I wanted excitement, intrigue, and most of all, real friendship. I wanted not only people who I could talk to and be amiable with beyond my family that I adored, but friends who were funny and fun and kind like those I read about.
Something my senior year of high school began to shift, and once I got to college, switched into overdrive. Suddenly, books were not the world I was living in. I was living in my life. I was consumed by the concerns of friendships and relationships and everything in between. I slowly stopped reading science fiction and fantasy, switching into classic American literature. I was no longer trying to hide from the real world, but looking for something that explained the confusing and loud life I was leading.
Sometime in 2018, maybe in March, maybe in July, maybe in September, I got claustrophobic. The noise was becoming too much, the life I was living was just too full, and most importantly, I had neglected one part of me that had gotten me to MIT in the first place, the diligent student. My goals had been almost entirely personal, rather than academic or professional. Making matters even worse, I wasn’t even sure that the goals I had been trying to achieve were ones that I should’ve been pursuing.
Starting this class, I was amazed at how quiet I could make my mind. Silence was coming easier and easier, the concerns about my personal life that used to consume most of the airwaves had just dissipated. I got an unbelievable amount of work done. I found myself needing to remind myself to worry about situations that could turn out badly, instead of compulsively thinking about them.
Any dedicated reader of my journal will know that I had serious reservations about a month ago about the path I was going down with my practice. I felt like I was cutting out a part of myself as I was working like a machine, without anything happening beneath the surface. For the most part those concerns have left, not because they weren’t valid, but because I came back from spring break and silence was no longer consuming me.
I will explore what this has done to my practice, at another time, but the experience has been one of becoming aware as class ends after a vivid daydream in a boring lecture. So much of what has consumed my thoughts (race car, classes, exams, jobs, my future) these past few months have felt very real, but just not visceral.
But suddenly, as I start thinking about the summer ahead and graduate school, as I hang out with more people than just my immediate circle, the highs and lows of everyday life are returning. I don’t really know how I feel about it. On the one hand, it feels nice to feel more like my old self and to feel more like what I imagine a real person to feel like. But on the other hand, I don’t like how much more painful failure is when you have concrete goals and actual needs, which maybe if we’re being honest is part of what made me take a step back before from having broader academic, professional, and personal goals the past year or so.
The vacation from my reality hasn’t been for naught. I’ve confronted some things that needed to be confronted (the amount of effort classes, cultivating my immediate social sphere, thinking about how I had changed since the madness started my senior year of high school). But there’s something to be said about being in a new state. I’m just not sure what exactly there is to say.
“They ain't real, I thought as I walked down the hall, nary one. But I knew they were. You come into a strange place, into a town like Mason City, and they don’t seem real, but you know they are. You know they went wading in the creek when they were kids, and when they were bigger they used to go out about sunset and lean on the back fence and look across the country at the sky and not know what was happening inside them or whether they were happy or sad…Oh, they are real, all right, and it may be the reason they don’t seem real to you is that you aren’t very real yourself.” Robert Penn Warren, All The King’s Men
I have struggled for a long time with what I owe to the people around me.
I can be perceptive (frankly, a function of occasionally having the temperament of a frightened doe) and as a result, often realize what’s going on around me before other people do. Sometimes, it feels like watching a slow car crash where everyone else at the intersection is blindfolded.
(A younger friend had done something that worried me this past weekend, and didn’t even think she realized what she had done. I felt some level of responsibility to try to talk to her about it, to at least let her know what I had seen, what I thought. But I was afraid. I valued my friendship with her too much and didn’t want to overreact or to get into a fight.)
But, what to do when you see the way that something is going? Jumping in between the cars won’t do anything, since the drivers can’t even see each other, you’ll just end up crushed. Running away is the act of a coward, one who can’t bear to watch the sorrow of others, instead of trying to help.
(Worrying about this, and other similar situations, led me to ask Tenzin for advice, specifically what he believed our moral obligation is to try to fix something wrong when we see it.)
No matter what I do, if the cars still crash, I regret it. When I scream my head off, I wish I had screamed louder. If I just resign myself and watch, thinking that whatever’s going to happen is inevitable at that point, I wonder if yelling for them stop would've worked after all. Concretely, I feel that when bad things happen around me, I should’ve done more to stop them, even when rationally, I know I couldn’t have done more.
(Tenzin’s reply was something along the lines of that he didn’t like the baggage that comes with morals or with responsibilities. That all you can do is try to nudge the world into being a better place and to not be too invested in the outcome.)
I opened this entry with the Warren quote about struggling to remember people are real, because that’s how I felt for a long time. I’ve tried to remind myself about everyone that I meet and know that no matter how much you know about them and about where they’ve come from and where they are and where they’re going, they are complex beings with needs and wants and desires. I’ve gotten better since high school, and am pretty good at the whole treating everyone with some level of human decency.
(I talked to my friend today. She pushed back for a little, as I worried she would. But at a certain point it dawned on her what I was trying to say, and she understood. There was no massive fight, but she didn’t promise she was going to change either. But I had told her my piece.)
But there is some holdover. I feel a massive amount of responsibility in any situation where I have more information than the other people. I have a hard time remembering that other people have agency, that I cannot hold myself responsible for the mistakes of others if I do the best I can to share the information I have.
In short, I struggle with remembering that I do not have to fix everyone’s problems for them and should not try. Especially at MIT, I’ve learned that I have the immense privilege of being able to read context and remember the world outside problem sets. However, while that privilege exists, I don’t think I should be responsible for fixing the problems I can see, especially when they are, in fact, not my problems.