January 20, 2012

How To Be Emotionally Stable Without Getting Bored

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NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

Start as someone who loves with above-average intensity. Fall so in love with people and with things that you forget to eat and sleep. Stay up all night reading a certain book or listening to a certain song or gazing into a certain person’s eyes or just pacing back and forth thinking about whatever it is you can’t stop thinking. Know what it’s like to lose all control over the operation of your mind. See abyssal profundity where others see only surface. Experience moments in which the whole universe seems to close in around you and your head feels like an astrolabe and you feel the entire concentric cosmos click together into one unified image of perfect beauty and harmony and all you want to do is hold it in your mind forever and fall down on your knees and worship it.

Start to see this image more and more frequently, often at inopportune moments. Feel its beauty morph slowly but inexorably into terror. Start looking for ways to drown it out; settle on booze and drugs and deafening music. Go to bed every night drunk enough to pass out immediately, but then wake at 5am, feel it bearing down upon you once again, press your face into your pillow, and weep with fear.

Slide into the dark period you knew was coming. Go for months feeling okay only when you’re asleep. Open your eyes every morning just in time to feel the okay-ness seep out of you like blood from a stab-wound. Stop checking your email because you know it will just be your friends asking you if you’re okay, and you don’t want to admit that you really aren’t but know they won’t believe you if you lie and say you are. Stop showering because it seems like too much effort to undress. Step outside on the first beautiful day of spring and think absently about how it does nothing for you. Feel like everything is impossible; feel like doing anything at all would require a greater suspension of disbelief than you are capable of. Feel burning itches in places like the lining of your stomach and the backsides of your retinas.

Hit rock bottom. Lose your job; flunk out of school; drive your car into a tree. Wake up in a hospital bed and see your parents staring at you, weeping. Move back into the room you grew up in and spend weeks in your pajamas eating canned soup and staring at the ceiling. Feel as though you are lying on the ocean floor with seven miles of water pressing down on you. Let your mouth hang open because it seems like too much effort to raise your jaw. Feel nothing. Forget that you exist; forget that anything exists. Feel like you have passed into death.

See a psychiatrist; get on meds. Start feeling a bit better. Watch a sitcom with your parents and laugh a little. Go for a walk expecting it to do nothing for you and find that it does a little. Pull fresh air through your nostrils and feel something. Feel, after a few weeks, a vague sense of coming out of something; feel a certain presence, which you had taken for granted since before you can remember, start to pass out of you. See a bird flapping its wings on a telephone wire and laugh for no reason. Wonder if this is what people mean when they talk about happiness.

Start seeing a therapist. For the first time ever, see your entire life laid out in front of you all at once, like a dollhouse. Realize with a shock of recognition that you were depressed the whole time. Realize that, the whole time, you just assumed that life was this difficult for everyone, and that everyone else just had better self-discipline or better self-control or a better attitude than you did. Realize it wasn’t your fault and feel something inside you burst and dissipate. Talk about your life — family, friends, relationships, traumas — and realize that everything is connected to everything else, that every feeling you carry inside you has a history and a reason for existing. Start to figure out which of the feelings are yours and which are not; start to let go of the ones that aren’t.

Start to understand that feelings are much more than just the amorphous clouds of pain or pleasure that they feel like when you’re in them; start to see those clouds as mere surfaces, concealing complex and highly specific configurations of memories and obsolete assumptions and vestigial unfulfilled desires and lingering residues of people and things that you used to love, all hooked into one another and pulled taut like a cat’s cradle whose total shape sometimes flashes in your mind for a moment all at once. Notice that the experience of these moments of Gestalt illumination reminds you a little of what it used to feel like to fall in love, before love turned into terror and finally burnt itself out, except that now it’s not scary or overwhelming so much as gently rewarding, something like the feeling of solving a challenging but still low-key riddle.

Keep feeling out, little by little, the inner structures of the emotions that once ruled you. As you explore, start to feel them coalesce into something solid and unmoving. Start to understand that the solid and unmoving thing was there all along, waiting patiently for you to notice it. Realize you have already begun to think of it as home. Wonder if this is what people mean when they talk about emotional stability.

Realize one day in the shower that the unmoving thing you’ve arrived at and the cosmic image that once drove you mad are one and the same. Realize that it’s just you, that all along it was just you and nothing more. Laugh at how stupidly obvious that seems now. Feel the unmoving thing settle into you, and you into it, and notice, almost casually, that for the first time in your life you are completely without fear. Look at your reflection in the bathroom mirror and feel like you are seeing an old friend you haven’t seen in ages. Realize that after years of false hopes, you have finally arrived at something real, something that no one can ever take away from you.

Realize that this arrival, which is what people mean when they talk about “finding yourself,” is not an end but a beginning. You have nailed down the vital center; now for a lifetime of filling out the periphery. In living through, then recollecting, your own story, you have learned implicitly that there is a story coiled up inside of everyone and everything. Maybe you knew this all along. Maybe this was why you were so quick to fall in love with everything in sight; maybe you sensed instinctively the overflowing fullness of all things too soon, before you were ready to grasp their interior complexity. Maybe when you were in love with things, what you were really in love with was not the things themselves but rather something inside them that you could never quite get at, which was why you loved them with such annihilating desperation, as if throwing yourself over and over against a locked door. But now that you have found yourself, now that you have fought for and won your emotional stability, you will find that you have been granted a master key. As that unmoving thing was waiting all along for you to notice it, so too does the whole world now stretch out in all directions, patiently awaiting your discovering gaze; and so too does every thing hold its story trapped inside it like a spirit, waiting for you to utter the incantation that will release it. Don’t be overwhelmed by the abundance: your life has only just begun, and you have all the time in the world. TC mark

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