The Samsung exhibition at this year’s IFA convention made the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 seem horrifyingly closer than ever before. iPhones make me gag, not only because of how attached and dependent their users become, but because of all the people I know who stop mid sentence to look down and text something while mouth breathing, most are iPhone users. I am generally averse to technology, but I make a big exception for my new Amazon Kindle. In addition to saving space, it also spares me from “Bookshelf Shame,” allowing me to discreetly store the dozens of esoteric and self-help titles I’ve read over the past few years. “Shame” is probably the wrong word (I’ve borrowed it from its musical equivalent, shuffle shame. If you’ve ever had Ricky Martin’s “The Cup of Life” sneak its way onto a hipstery-folk iTunes playlist, you know what I mean.) I’m actually quite happy about my desire to learn and make positive changes.
If someone were to see these particular tomes lying around my apartment, however, they might assume that I’m facing a severe psychological crisis. I really want to spare myself those conversations.
A few weeks ago, I decluttered my apartment. This is not especially impressive, given that I’ve only lived in these 35 square meters for six months and my real trove of garbage still lurks in my father’s house. Nonetheless, it was an incredibly freeing experience, and without the distraction of so many unnecessary objects, I’ve had even MORE time for my favorite hobby: analyzing my life! Decluttering was so energizing that I’m hooked now, and I have to move on to the next frontier:
It’s time to clear out my brain.
“But Holly,” you may ask, “why would you clear out your brain, filled as it is with so much wisdom and humor and sunshine?”
But behind all of that humor and wisdom and sunshine are fears, doubts, worries, annoyances, and grudges: mental clutter that is far more nefarious than its physical counterpart. Both are useless things that take up valuable space, but instead of resembling abandoned socks, superfluous cosmetics, or expired food – unpleasant, but inert – the mental clutter is like a house full of cats. Not cute cats or winsome little kittens, either: big, mean motherfuckers who pee in hard-to-reach places. Some of them are even worse: possums. They got in through the air conditioning duct, and I decided to feed them because, you know, why not? It’s time for them to go before they do any more damage.
Just as when a writer’s train of thought is derailed when a feline decides to lie down on the keyboard, my best thoughts about how thankful I am or how much I’m enjoying an activity dissolve upon contact with thoughts like these:
“This is a really cool store. It’s a shame I’m not skinny enough to enjoy it.”
“Stop enjoying yourself. You didn’t do [TASK]. You can’t enjoy yourself until you finish [TASK]. Oh, by the way, there’s a ZILLION TASKS.”
“That girl is tore up from the floor up. MERCY. Put on a cardigan and act like a grown up.*”
“Why did I eat that?”
“Why didn’t I eat that?”
“Why is he eating that?”
“I HATE Instagram.”
“Am I supposed to know how to code?”
“If I went to Asia, people would make fun of my phone.”
“If I were in The Walking Dead, I would [commence hours of makeshift weaponry, tree climbing, urban gardening, and badass dialogue].”
The last thought is arguably useful: some of the urban gardening and tree climbing techniques could be very interesting if I ever put them into practice. Still, in my average day, which includes public transportation, Excel worksheets, and readily available produce, they don’t serve me. As for the other thoughts, they are garbage. Let it be known that a dystopian future in which zombies roam the streets and emerge from around every corner is far more likely than a reality in which my body mass index actually determines whether or not I am allowed to find the REI in Lincoln Park, Chicago aesthetically pleasing. I’m not even fat.
In spite of its tendency to interrupt my joy, I do still love my brain dearly. It functions miraculously well. I need to give it what it needs, free it from what it doesn’t, and be patient. If you want a plant to grow, you have to give it sunshine and water. You can’t give it diet orange soda.
My brain’s intention is to help me, to solve problems and resolve conflicts. But what if there is no present conflict? My brain is a tireless worker: when I am safe and well, it goes out of its way to find distant or imaginary problems so that it can practice.
Is that necessarily bad? So many skills in life require consistent practice for maintenance and performance – foreign languages, knife throwing – so this should be a good thing, right?
The issue is that my default problem-solving “skills” are not at all good or efficient, and many of the “practice problems” will never actually come up in my life. I’ve dedicated countless hours to problems that never existed: screenplay-worthy responses to a partner’s imaginary infidelity, airtight excuses for mistakes that I may never have to excuse, epic retorts to insults never delivered. I am rehearsing for tiny plays that I will never perform.
I know what I want to replace these habits with:
Compassion that dissolves harsh judgment towards myself or other people.
Honesty that doesn’t concoct excuses and little white lies when things don’t go as planned.
Openness that allows me to just go with things instead of assuming that there’s only one good outcome in every situation.
Trust that frees me from the need to “practice.”
Instead of judging other people’s appearances or the reactions of imaginary Asian strangers to my off-brand smartphone, I want to keep enjoying myself. I want to keep feeling grateful. I want to just be.
Instead of violently over-brushing my teeth while crafting a fine-grained excuse to give should my boss just-so-happen to ask about this one thing that I didn’t get to yet, I want to rinse and spit. If my boss does just-so-happen to ask about this one thing, I will tell her why it’s not done. If that creates a problem, I will be open and committed to solving it.
The excuse might make me sound honest, but the truth will make me be honest. Trying to keep up a flawless facade by fibbing and covering my tracks is the mental equivalent of buying heaps of paper plates and plastic utensils because I’m too lazy wash the dishes. Working authentically, admitting my mistakes and taking realistic steps to overcome them, is pulling on rubber gloves and grabbing the scrub brush. Either way, I eat off of something that is not the floor or a frisbee, but only one method is sustainable in the long run.
I’m not exactly sure how to replace my judgment and anxiety with this trust and compassion. It is tempting to imagine myself in hypothetical scenarios where I’m just so trusting in my own wisdom and have the most compassionate things to say to the people who confront me, but that would leave me running in circles. I do know that it will be easier to let better thoughts and habits take root by clearing out the old ones. The clarity and awareness that come with a meditation practice seem like an ideal place to start.
It’s also a great excuse to go to TOWN on the Amazon Kindle store.
I am open to all kinds of recommendations.