It’s said that the number one fear is death. It’s also said to be uncertainty. I say it’s both, for different but equal reasons, and there’s a way around them if you can bring them together.
Like pretty much everything in this natural world, there are two extremes, two sides to every story, two ends of a spectrum. Up / down, hot / cold, crest / trough, yes / no, etc. When it comes to people and understanding our fears, we can view ourselves in a seemingly endless number of spectrums: introverted / extroverted, laid back / uptight, mental / physical, etc. But ultimately what these come down to is the internal conflict caused by the difference between how our physical bodies work and how our minds work thereafter.
“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everbody’s nobody.” -Rustin Cole
In the above wonderful quote from HBO’s True Detective, Matthew McConaughy’s character Rustin Cole explains the effect our own self-awareness has on ourselves and the world around us. Indeed, it is our mentalities that drive both our need for self-esteem and our fears of uncertainty, motivating us in ways much unlike any other creature on this planet. Our actions also fall on a spectrum of two extremes: selfish and selfless. And it’s precisely this spectrum that defines what we call “the human condition.” Basically it’s that while we can accomplish amazing feats as individuals, we all live among and need other people and have, built-in, a part of us somewhere that will make us want to sacrifice ourselves for their sake. That’s pretty much the opposite of evolution’s survival instinct. Finding the right balance is tricky because it’s subjective to each person, based on an infinite number of “decisions” made in your life because of your environment mixed with your sensations mixed with your perceptions. You don’t want to give yourself away to others because you will inevitably be taken advantage of, yet you don’t want to be too selfish or else you’ll hurt other people and ultimately be alone. The happy medium ultimately just comes down to your own self love, and life is a matter of learning where that point is.
The mind is powerful, but it’s mostly unaware. It evolved to protect and control the body, to see the bigger picture and solve problems. But though its potential is massive (and throughout history we’ve heard dozens of stories illustrating as such), it doesn’t start out knowing things, most importantly itself. It has to be taught how to understand itself and look within. Until it does, it’s likely to be afraid when it comes to personal matters. While the body’s ultimate fear is a lack in safety, and thus believably “death,” the mind’s is in uncertainty, in doubt. We never quite know if what we perceive to be reality is in fact reality or just our imagination. And if that uncertainty is directed inward on ourselves, it can be extremely difficult for our bodies to feel safe.
The trick to overcoming this formidable mental obstacle is to question yourself and learn to understand your mind, how it works and how it perceives things into those fears. It’s as though you must step back and develop a meta awareness: an awareness of your own awareness. If the mind takes care of the body, then the meta spirit must take care of the mind. If you can find it, the part of you that can see yourself both mentally and physically in your environment, it is far easier to come to love yourself for having those fears and simply acknowledge them as a part of you. There’s a reason why storytelling and character development have resonated with us in everything we’ve seen and read; when we can look at something from one level out and see its surrounding context, it is more likely that we will understand, empathize and accept.
Suddenly, when you know the reasons why you do what you do, everything feels more certain, you feel more connected to the world around you, and you find yourself constantly reminded that you’re part of something bigger, a remix of everything and everyone else. Loving yourself is not overconfidence or arrogance; it’s elegant, just enough to know and feel that you’re worthwhile, if even just to enjoy the basic yet essential existence of breathing.
Oh, breathing. I don’t do it enough and it’s likely you don’t either. I’m cerebral; I have a very fast mind. I think fast, work fast, play piano fast, finish assignments fast, solve problems fast, talk fast, write code fast, travel fast, etc. I’m probably the most impatient person I know. When I was younger before my lung collapsed, I could run decently fast too, despite my allergies and asthma. In fact, growing up with that, I was never even able to breathe that well in the first place. After the lung trauma, however, I lost of a lot of my connection to my body. In its place, my mind took over. Now I hunch over and double cross my legs to write and draw on a tiny, glowing screen for hours a time. While breathing helps us re-center, calm ourselves, be present, a fast mind doesn’t want to be present. Always onto the next thing, that becomes its reality. As such, I’ve perceived slowing down as uncertain, unsafe, and scary. So of course breathing for me is not preferred, nor is running, eating and drinking (which I lovingly refer to collectively as “BREAD”). In fact, all of the things which keep our bodies healthy have just seemed too darn slow to me. And so I’ve avoided them, in favor of running fast in my mind.
We all find ways to avoid the parts of ourselves that seem scary or uncertain, for the same reasons we avoid other things in life. What if? What if? Our imagination is strong. It’s our ability to essentially create our own “safe” realities in our minds, down to the detail, and then to feel it and believe it. Evolutionarily, this is a useful ability: if two people are walking through the forest, both hear a rustling in the bushes, but one perceives it to be a tiger and the other doesn’t, which one lives if it is? Ah, but if it isn’t, which one is happier?
Stress comes from anxiety which comes from worrying about the future, about what could be. When we talk about living presently, we’re trying to tell ourselves to stop thinking about the “what if” and start enjoying the here and now. But this proves all too hard for many people because their minds keep them worrying; they have not yet turned that process inward on themselves in order to feel love instead. So maybe we shouldn’t try to get out of our heads at all. Maybe we should just start asking harder questions, let our imaginations create unsafe realities and explore them. What then?
The mind’s job is to find patterns and draw conclusions. It’s capable of “seeing” much more than there is in front of you physically precisely because of its ability to pattern match. It takes external stimuli in pieces, puts them together to form something recognizable and connects them to memory and thus to feeling. Categorize, identify, define. Of course so many people talk about life as a “gray area:” we all have minds, and thus we all think on a much bigger picture by default. But looking very closely, as would a scientist, a designer, an architect, an engineer, it becomes clearer and clearer to discern the smaller and smaller pieces, each which are far more black and white the smaller you get.
Over time, as your awareness grows and you discover more of these black and white pieces, you’ll likely start seeing much more depth in yourself, more interest in things outside of you, and why so many of our societal clichés are, in fact, spot on. You’ll have more questions because the questions are fun, and every discovery you make about yourself and the word around you can excite you to no end. Ignorance is bliss, but so is full awareness, if you can manage it.
“When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live inside the world, trying not to bash in the walls too much, have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life, and it can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: that everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” - Steve Jobs
Our young minds first learn more about our surroundings than they do about us; they’re very impressionable. And in an environment which is heavily if not completely influenced by society, it’s easy for us to “learn” things that just really aren’t true. Because our perceptions can often be wrong, it’s that much more critical to understand exactly why we are perceiving something the way we are due to our own bias created by biological needs and our experiences getting those met. Only then can we effectively separate what’s fake from what’s real, certain and safe. It sure takes a lot of energy and effort, but it is possible.
By the summer of last year, 2013, after spending many cold months alone in a dark, empty apartment, not eating, not drinking, not moving, just thinking, I came to find the self love I was seeking. Through the use of marijuana, mental tools I learned from therapy and lots of note-taking and sketching, I was able to create reality entirely within my own head. Focused on thoughts or some architecture / design problem, I ceased to exist in my physical body other than to breathe. In some cases, I barely did even that. I could work for an entire day without eating or drinking anything. That’s a meditative state too, to be full mind and no body. And it was perhaps during my week at Burning Man amid all these new feelings that I hit on perhaps the most important epiphany of all the ones I’ve had in the last several years: that I can exist presently, I can feel connected to everything, and it’s okay to slow down and be fully in the body. When I understand myself, I’m no longer afraid of future bad things and how I will cope, for I know I have the tools (also known as confidence) to figure it out as long as I remember this love. In the meantime, slowing down won’t make the safety I feel from living in my mind go away; it’ll still be there whenever I go back to it.
Since truly understanding and feeling that truth, and most importantly since believing in it, I’ve finally been able to “make the switch” and start to slow down immensely and enjoy the here and now. I’m still far from where I’d like to be, but with even just the newfound awareness let alone action upon it, I know I’m lightyears ahead of where I was just over a year ago.
But I don’t like setting goals, and this isn’t one. It’s commonplace for us as individuals and as a society to define “goals” and “endpoints,” as though we’re running on straight lines from A to B. Yet we see all around us that nothing is actually linear, perhaps not even time. Why, even the flat surfaces on which we stand curve slowly in the distance, only to wrap around and eventually return to us. Were things to diverge endlessly, nothing would exist. It’s precisely the fact that everything comes back together again that makes everything what it is. So then, the very ideal of finding a straight line, of desiring an ending point, is physically flawed, for nothing in our universe has given us an indication that anything natural works this way. In fact, the only real “ending” points we have are just new starting points over and over again.
Being truly self-aware comes from recognizing this pattern of reconvergence in your life. The more you come to know and trust yourself, the more you will see similar things happening again and again, almost with no effort, and the more you will realize that certainty is everywhere, and there’s no need to fear. I would argue then that this goal of self-actualization doesn’t ever stabilize fully in the mind or fully in the body, nor even fully in both together. Instead, like everything else, it’s a waveform cyclical movement, a pendulum swinging back and forth between the mind and body. And, like an eager child on a swingset, we owe it to ourselves to pump and push and keep ourselves moving and expanding.
And why wouldn’t life be such a waveform? Anything living moves on its own in some way, shape or form. Perhaps even death isn’t a total standstill. As I’ve seen, living full mind is almost the death of the body. And living full body might be almost the death of the mind. Either way, both remove us from some kind of reality, giving rise to another kind. So after that, who even knows? Maybe “death” is actually just another reconvergence point, leading to birth and life all over again somewhere else in some other way.
No matter how much we glean from each other and the world around us, our real answers, solutions and truths lie within each of us. And so we must be clearer, more open, more honest and more disciplined with ourselves to understand who we are and why we are as we are to make any significant and sustainable progress as individuals and as a species.
We are all bound by constraints on how much we may come to understand, but it’s not these limits that define us. It’s how we look past them and love.