Have you found your way out of today yet?
I was once a person of pure thought and memory.
I prided myself on getting good scores in exams. I simply liked learning and reciting fact after fact in the list of textbooks assigned by my school. Nothing could beat the sight of a report card with all A’s that came afterward. I guess you can say I enjoyed the feeling of acing whatever academic tasks I was being thrown at.
You can also say I have a rather comfortable early life on the surface, compared to other kids that got their asses spanked regularly by strict Asian parents. Being the smart nerd at school no doubt brought me a lot of nostalgic moments to ruminate over.
For a kid coming from a rather humble economic background, I got extra praise from my neighbors (because their kids couldn’t do the same). My peers would dub me the “God of studying”, “big boss” and so on. But this perk also came with an unexplainable empty feeling that my young self didn’t quite understand then.
Despite a few slip-ups from a temporary loss of interest in studying during a rebellious teen episode, I carried on tackling exams after exams through my university years. But it was around this time that I began to develop some self-doubt, not out of rage but of an itch for meaning.
If someone asks my then self what the grades and exams are all for, I would probably, on the surface, tell you that doing well in school has a positive correlation to my future career options, salary, and my parents’ happiness, that’s about it. But deep down, I would admit I barely knew what I was doing. (Coincidentally, it was also around this time that I started to raise my hand in class. Before I would just either listen or daydream.)
Have you had this realization questioning what you were doing before?
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Back then, although I loved to think and daydream, all I really “knew” of seemed to be math formulae, chemicals (in their electron cloud forms), and facts that exams would cover (e.g., each hemoglobin carries four oxygen molecules). For everything else, including life skills such as cooking and relationship-building, I cannot really claim I “knew” them since I had only vague ideas that I never attempted to dig further. Looking back, I was a person of pure memory with no practicality.
I do have desires and dreams outside my study, but the years of ego built up exclusively from excelling at studying have shunned them all. I shunned them because I have used the good feeling derived from good grades to build a comfort bubble. Inside this bubble, I’d never fail.
I was actually impressed when my friend made his first graphite drawing, won a decathlon race, and performed in a Chinese orchestra. I told myself maybe next time I would learn some new skills from them but right now I am comfortable just being good at studying.
When I got “interested” in agriculture, I aced my first-ever agriculture course without ever having grown one vegetable, and I told myself maybe one day I would own a garden.
When I had crushes I also wouldn’t talk to them. I convinced myself that it was out of my (nerdy) character, and I thought one day I will have a girlfriend thrown at me who simply appreciate my intelligence. Adding to that, it didn’t help at all that playing computer games (i.e., drowning in a virtual world) was my second most time-consuming hobby.
I wish somebody, like a mentor, would show me or even slap me early in life that there is more than just textbook and symbolic knowledge in this world. I wish I could break free of my comfort zone and take active control of my life earlier. Why tomorrow if I can earlier?
Although I love my parents, they utterly failed at this task. They let me roam completely free with no instructions (because they normally work and mind their own business most of the time) so I had to figure out pretty much everything on my own. But the young me was so limited and biased that I was bound to be trapped in dead-ends created by my ego. Thankfully, my best friend introduced me to football, taught me how to swim, and most importantly, took me on my first ever real mountain hike when I was already 20 years old i.e., I began to experience realities outside of my thought bubbles (now, put that in the context that I aspired to become an ecologist not long after).
I know I may sound a little bitter here but I am not one of those who think my life is either a massive pile of regrets or turned out just absolutely perfect (I think both are unhealthy mindsets). What’s important is that the lesson I learned from all these is clear.
. . .
Now that I look back, the emptiness I had is because as a young soul, I had many normal desires but none were satisfied by any of the textbook knowledge I had learned, and my pride on being a “smart” kid was not backed up by real, practical knowledge. Both are the direct result of not being proactive enough to take control and create my own paths (instead of having tasks thrown at me), to experience the world outside my comfort zone made of books and schools.
I have also learned from the philosopher Krishnamurti that our psychological (not physical) conception of time is a real bitch, which I wholly agree with (that is, relying on thoughts rather than clock as time). Our thoughts sort everything inside our familiar comfort zone as the immediate present, and everything else is something for tomorrow, something afar. Thus, this “time in thought” is a highly divisive construct that stops us from transforming into whoever we could be, it only accentuates a fixated ego (given that becoming the best version of oneself must be an unfamiliar path away from your current comfort zone).
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” — Nelson Mandela
The thought of tomorrow may shed an illusion of more time, choices, and freedom, but it really isn’t.
Your life with a limited lifetime is all you’ve ever got, regardless of whether you occupy your mind with all the upcoming tomorrows and what-ifs. Now let’s have a reverse thought experiment — imagine living today as your only existence. Forget about all the plans and pre-conceptions you have filled up in your mental calendar. Wouldn’t you then be able to experience wholly, observe and react with radical honesty, rather than indulging in the comfort bubble created by your smartphone and personal history?
My hypothesis is that a mind corrupted by excessive thoughts of “tomorrows” will always accomplish less, all it will do is pile up more and more un-attempted dreams in one’s physically finite lifetime. I call it a mind-body tradeoff — if one only lives in their thoughts and imagined realms, they lose sight of their deeds and actions in the living world — a person of pure thought and memory; In contrast, if one only acts impulsively, they lose control of their mind and desires conditioned by external stimuli — a reckless doer. (I am not radical enough to preach that we should give up our thoughts and imagination completely as some gurus do)
My emptiness feeling has faded since I began actively observing and investigating what is real and what is fabricated by my thoughts to evade uncomfortable truths. I started to become way more conscious of my actions and way more creative and honest than before.
One such creative endeavor is writing. Writing what I love and care about, and what I think is truthful. Writing is a potent activity that connects the mind and body, it let me observe my own thoughts and actions with more clarity.
I have since also started planting lovely flowers and vegetables on my small balcony (I don’t have a large garden space yet), and experimented with variations of seeding methods and cuttings. From this small endeavor, I have learned much more than any horticulture textbook or PowerPoint could offer me. I have also started talking to my “crushes” and building meaningful relationships. It keeps surprising me how a genuine and reciprocating relationship can push people forward.
Of course, I am not here to sell you the myth of “we can achieve anything we ever wanted” as the self-help gurus do. We won’t. Things don’t always go according to my (initial) wish — some articles turned out bad, some plants died, and some crushes ran away.
But it does not really matter.
I accept things don’t always go my way simply because my wishes cannot be always right (can you imagine how boring life would be if everything turns out exactly as I wished or planned?). I have also learned that the process of trying and experimenting, not the outcome really determines the biggest chunk of my life satisfaction. Failure and success are indistinguishable in this perspective, just as we should not distinguish today and tomorrow within our thoughts, thereby freeing us to live wholly without prejudice.
To close, I would like to pose this question to you again:
“If there is no conception of tomorrow, what would happen to your life today?”
Please share what you think in the comment!
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