I’d been an ambitious intellectual snob
In my younger adulthood, I was a ruthlessly ambitious creative. My motto was, “If I can’t win, I won’t play.” The hyperfocus that comes with neurodiversity meant that I could be unexpectedly ruthless, too, which lost me more than a few friends over the decades.
In my family of origin, everything revolved around the needs of the person who was seen as “most important” (my father). I became conditioned to believe that the goal was to achieve, accomplish, publish, be noticed, and rise to the highest possible level in my field.
Like so many other writers, my bio at the time was filled with words like “award-winning” and as many names as I could drop. If you’ve seen The Good Place (NBC/Netflix), I was basically a nightmarish offspring of Chidi the overthinker and Tahani the privileged socialite—except without Chidi’s credentials or Tahani’s wealth.
For decades, I tried to make myself sound oh-so-impressive. I was a highly educated, Mensa-card-carrying intellectual snob, a trait I came by honestly because it was the primary currency in my family and culture of origin.
Ambition is irrelevant
On that April morning in 2010, the concept of ambition suddenly seemed ludicrous. Who cares if I ever publish a book? Who cares if I ever get married? Who cares where I went to school or what degrees I have? These might read like the statements of someone in deep depression, yet they were some of the lightest, most expansive feelings I’ve ever had. At the time, that felt like “bliss” because it was such a contrast to how I’d lived for the previous four decades.
I realized that the only thing that really matters is how I show up in the world. Boy, that is a much easier task than topping the New York Times bestseller list. (Though, ahem, I still wouldn’t mind if that happened…)
Today, that feeling of inner peace is fairly steady…well, most of the time. Like many people, I go through the cycle that Adya calls “I got it/I lost it.” As I’ve done more work to unpack my conditioning, release old trauma and be radically responsible for my actions, I feel an increasing amount of peace and fewer episodes of reactivity.
When ambition left, it was immediately replaced by a desire to help others find their own way to inner peace, to remember that each of us is already whole, and that passion has never waned. Experiencing connectedness, even briefly, makes any kind of oppression impossible, because it’s clear to me now that any harm towards another is also harm towards myself. Imagine how different our world could be if enough people viscerally experienced that. That’s why I began Living the Mess in 2014.
My experience doesn’t make me special
To be clear, there’s nothing special about me, or this event. I didn’t do anything to make this experience happen. In fact, I was a very unlikely candidate for such an experience. It’s not like I’d been studying Zen Buddhism (or any other tradition) for years. After briefly experimenting with Christianity in adolescence, I renounced religion in high school, though I maintained a strong felt sense that I am, and we all are, part of something bigger. Spontaneous experiences like these seem to be happening through an ever-growing number of humans, as Adyashanti discusses in his book The End of Your World, a book I only learned about six years after my experience.
On that April day, I suddenly saw beauty everywhere and in everyone. Granted, that part only lasted a few hours, but the ability to see beauty was in stark contrast to my previous identities (snarky, snide, cynical). Notably, it went into hiding as soon as I attempted to put the experience in words—only to re-emerge when my mind and voice were quiet.
In the years since, I’ve maintained different gratitude practices that, over time, have helped me integrate appreciation into my daily life. As the saying goes, “neurone that fire together wire together.” My neurons had created a formidable story-making machine in my mind, and changing that has been a long, dedicated (but oh-so-worth-it) process.
Retraining my mind for inner peace
I continued to have “downloads” for about six months—or maybe it took six months for me to get used to them, because they’ve never really stopped. I can only access them, though, when my mind is quiet. I believe anybody can access these insights, but most of us don’t because our minds are making so much noise, like a jackhammer drowning out a whisper.
I didn’t write much during that time, because I wanted to train my mind away from creating stories. My intellect had always been my prize trait, the one aspect of myself I was confident about. Being smart, I believed, was what gave me value in the eyes of the world. It was the only trait for which I was valued by my parents, so of course, that’s what I learned to believe.
Yet that same intellect, that story-making capacity, had also been my greatest tormentor. I had created all kinds of stories around situations in my life, and those had made me miserable, even as readers found them highly entertaining. As a personal essayist, I’d built endless stories around how hilarious or mortifying or devastating a given situation had been. I had never let a situation just…be what it was.
The dominant culture is filled with intellectual competition, starting in classrooms where we compete to see who can offer the cleverest retort. That’s, in part, why our minds are always so busy. That constant hypervigilance for cleverness is exhausting, but we can’t understand that unless we give ourselves a break from it. We’re like the proverbial fish in water; that competition is all we know.
The human intellect will never understand
A few months after the initial experience, I was listening to two different audiobooks that seemed contradictory. Eckhart Tolle said to stay in the moment without expectation, to “welcome each moment as if you’d planned it.” I took that to mean “even if the moment is unpleasant or challenging.”
On the other hand, a different teaching talked about the ease of creating whatever we could imagine. I struggled mightily, in part because I really, really wanted to create some money to pay for rent and cat food.
I was walking (of course), and I paused at a red light. As I waited to cross the street, I ‘heard’: “There is no contradiction, but the human intellect will never be able to understand.” That the magnificent human intellect could possibly not understand something about our day-to-day lives…that was revelatory to me. In the years since, I’ve experienced how that’s true in multiple ways.
(In my experience, manifestation is possible, but it’s not what most of us think. That will be another post, or better yet, check out this video mini-series by Eckhart Tolle).
When I changed, the world around me changed
Prior to that April morning, I’d had a neighbour who wasn’t very pleasant to me. If I didn’t mow the lawn on time, she’d call my landlords. She treated me with aggression, and I reacted to her with fear. She reminded me of many of the abusive women in my childhood.
After this experience—which she knew nothing about—this woman became not only kind towards me, but also a bit maternal. She brought me Thanksgiving dinner. She asked about my life. We actually had occasional conversations, and she became a friend.
Nothing had changed except my perception of people and the world. Which was kind of…everything.
What I now believe is that, on that morning, all my old trauma triggers were lifted, which meant I could see the world around me as it was, rather than as a cumulation of my projected fears. Those triggers would be returned to me, in one fell swoop, nine years later. That began a whole new round of healing. Still, my takeaway is this: Life without resistance is bliss.
This was a beginning, not a destination
This experience of bliss was not the be-all and end-all. It was an opening, the beginning of my journey to inner peace. I continued to experience extreme financial challenges, moments of intense anxiety and sometimes depression, too. At one point, I was technically homeless for eight months (though I did have a place to stay). Instead of running away from these challenges, though, my practice became investigating my reactions to them.
Every moment of my day became a practice—how can I learn to observe my thoughts? What are the stories I’m telling myself here? What is my conditioned response, and is it useful? How can I make space for this painful emotion to move through? How do I come to a place of acceptance? What about when things are SUPER-difficult? How can I learn to see and meet aspects of my ego that are keeping me attached to pain? Even having an MRI became a practice.
Today, as long as my survival needs are met and I’m not overstimulated, I feel mostly calm. (though as a neurodivergent person, even going to the grocery store can be overstimulating.) I don’t always feel happy, because it’s impossible to be happy 24/7. How would we recognize it if we didn’t also experience discomfort, grief and sadness?. In my experience, though, it is possible to feel calm and peaceful most of the time.
Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links. If you buy any of the books linked, I may receive a few cents’ commission.
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