The Equanimous fishbowl

“All pain is private and intensely personal..Meaningful definition is impossible”Bill Bryson

First, a disclaimer. The following are some words that describe my own subjective experience. Nothing here is instructional, particularly important or even useful to anyone reading. However, if you’ve ever been curious about things like ‘the Self’, consciousness, anxiety, happiness, mindfulness, reality, feel free to read on.

If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. – Marcus Auerlius

Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaarmmmmh. A large truck lurches to a stop a few meters away from me. I’m lost in thought, as usual, riding home from work. The noise jolts me to my senses. I stare at the truck, the driver. I can feel my heart pumping a bit louder. Sweaty palms. But something is missing. I just don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I relax. I start mulling this thought over in my mind and the good feeling it seems to give me. This is it. This is life. It doesn’t matter. This feeling continues for a few more hours before disappearing into a storm of worry, regret and other very important concerns like if I have enough coffee at home.

“It is better for the thinker to control the thoughts than for the thoughts to control the thinker.” – Tenzin Wangyal

This blanket of calmness was still hugging me days later when I turned up for cycling training at the Hawthorn Velodrome. It’s 6am, I feel light and energised and with a curiously blank mind I spend more time staring at the concrete and sun filtering through the trees like maple syrup than the other riders screaming around in circles. I’m lucky I didn’t cause a crash, but I can’t say I would have been too concerned at that point. When we finish, I notice my car has been blocked in by construction workers. I feel a surge of panic, but by remaining calm-ish, I stroll over and maneuver around a forklift like I’m on a magic carpet. Weird.

“Feel, what I feel, when I feel, what I feel, When I’m feelin’, in the sunshine” – Roy Ayers

I would consider myself someone introspective enough to not allow an experience like this pass by without some interrogation. It’s too different and objectively improved to ignore. What’s going on? I feel present. I feel calm. I feel less reactive. I feel like I’m judging less. Judgements and thoughts and reactions still roll through my head but they make a little less sense. What about this tram/supermarket/attractive woman/email is ‘good’ or bad’ exactly? I keep coming back to a phrase: “Nothing matters, but in a good way”, which seems to ring true with what I’m seeing, hearing and feeling.

“For 25 yearsshivering , hysterical crying, dying sensations or half-faint. Nervousness when Emma leaves me.” – Charles Darwin. Is he a wimp or experiencing something worse than a WW1 soldier stuck in a trench and out of ammo?

My parasympathetic nervous system kicked in, arresting the firing rate of the hyperactive neurons in my turbocharged amygdala.” – Age of Anxiety

Goosebumps/Some interesting flavor of ‘feeling crap’

These moments pass quickly, and I find myself in a checkout line at a grocery store feeling particularly on edge. I don’t believe my anxiety is strong or debilitating, but it can rear up in the most mundane scenarios. Riding along with negative thoughts, I feel a throbbing in my arm that I’d never noticed. I’m able to focus on that sensation and talk myself out of it. Weird. Walking home, with the feeling dissipating, I start thinking. It’s likely that I rarely notice my bodily sensations of anxiety, or maybe even most emotions. Even something like a racing heart can be ignored easily enough. By noticing that sensation, I was in a better place to calm down. I apply this thinking over the next few days to everything from taking an uber to serving out a game.

Why people fall off the wagon so often is because their mind is a cluttered fucking garage – David Goggins

Jessie’s wooden box – Breaking Bad

Nowhere you can go is more peaceful, more free of interruptions than your own soul – Marcus Aurelius

I jump into the swimming pool. It’s 6pm, golden hour and swim practice is about to begin. Again, I feel calm, at ease, and have relatively few thoughts in my head. I turn my attention closely to what I’m actually seeing. The lane rope, the feet in front of me, the bubbles, the sensation on my finger tips when I touch the other end. My head feels like a fishbowl, for lack of better words. Over a couple of hours I make a few testable observations. I still have thoughts. I’m still Josh. I feel at peace with my place in the world in a way that I haven’t probably felt since I was 10 years old. The present moment is streaming into my eyes second by second, like it’s the most tricked out gamer computer ever built. It looks great, but in an indescribable way. Eventually, I start stressing that people will notice that I’m just a fleshy robot and not ‘Josh’ and the experience fades away.

If you sit with your mind for an hour and it’s all over the place, that’s your mind.Yuval Noah Harari

About a month later, I sign myself up for a 10 day silent meditation retreat. I can’t say exactly how I found myself sitting still for 12 hours a day, but it was something on my bucket list. For days on end, my one job was to observe the thoughts and sensations that are relentlessly and automatically streaming into my body 24/7 (I got to sleep for a couple of hours). I approached these things with the patient, detached, calmness of a bored judge who’s seen it all, but wants to be fair. Thought: ‘This is the least productive thing I could be doing with my time, I’m a complete failure.’ Response: Perhaps. Or maybe not. It doesn’t matter that much though does it. Calm down? Let’s eat an apple instead. Every negative or positive fantasy was answered with a shrug.

The secret to surviving air travel – Die Hard (1988)

On day 6 or 7, I find myself standing at the back of the property, in the woods. I’m looking clearly at a row of Tea Trees swaying in the wind and a family of Kookaburras laughing above me. With no thoughts and a clear objective vision, I may as well be witnessing a very realistic VR game. It’s clear that I’m not in control, and I have no idea who the player is. My sense of self completely evaporates. Clang.

“Consciousness at its core is interpretable.” – Sam Harris, wondering if he really did get raped by a Jaguar after taking 5mg of psilocybin

A liberating homecoming

It’s hard to say how my experience at the Vipassana retreat would have gone if I hadn’t had these curious, introspective moments in the few months leading up. Or if my view of the world didn’t have such a negative character (although I’m not at all unique in this regard). I must be a very physical learner, because I had to look at this from about 15 different angles before it clicked. I stand in awe (and fear) of the constant, automatic, habitual, unconscious, believable and impermanent nature of ‘my’ thoughts.

“I just get up at 5am because I decided that was important to me.. and so I did it.” – Alan Thrall

Not to say I have that much more clarity. Because I still think, don’t I? My experience in the retreat came with a very high degree of confusion, anxiety and tinge of complete madness. Do I still have a personality? Can I still like or dislike things? Is emotion bad? Am I bad? Have I erased all emotion and feeling? These all turn out to be perfectly reasonable questions, and like with most things, the simplest answer is usually the right one. Unconscious and habitual reactions toward emotions aren’t a bad thing. It’s very human and normal. We would never have evolved past a drooling swamp slime if we were unable to react. But since our thinking is unconscious and habitual it deserves shining a light on from time to time. Like the dirt stuck in the sole of your shoe, or that old yogurt in the back of your fridge, it’s neither bad or good, it simply deserves noticing.


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