I recently suffered the most severe injuries of my life — I experienced a retinal tear and detachment which led to multiple surgeries. Those surgeries themselves have permanently damaged my vision and physically deformed my right eye. While I was recovering, I was unable to read, use a computer, or watch video. Oh. And I was in California, on business. The surgeries prevented me from flying so I was unable to go home to India or home-home to Canada. When one is confronted with such restrictions, a strategy is required.
The strategy recommended by everyone I spoke to was familiar: distraction. “You can't read? You should watch movies!” “You can't even watch TV? You should definitely get some audiobooks.” The familiar imagery of a sick child surrounded by books, video games, and constant television stood in stark contrast to the time I spent trapped in a Marriott. I meditated. I bathed. I ate. I thought.
Thus far, I have been on 4 silent meditation “retreats”. Being entirely alone with one's self is difficult, even when life feels perfectly balanced and content. To attempt such a “retreat” on my own in the midst of my first medical trauma was to oscillate on an emotional sling. This mental and emotional cha-cha danced over both habit and interpretation. In pondering the latter, I arrived at some conclusions which rang truer the more I pondered them.
Habit and emotion was the first constant struggle I encountered. It took a surprising amount of patience to acknowledge, even for a moment, that the accident leading to my retinal tear was entirely my fault. If I fixated on any of the factors leading up to the surgery, I'd find myself externalizing blame for hours. My reptile brain was furious and anxious to pin the blame on the optometrists who refused to sell me contact lenses, the distractions I had encountered riding home that night, and even my friends.
Acknowledging and accepting that the accident was entirely my fault turned out to be only half the battle. Yes, I had decided to ride a bicycle after drinking with friends, with glasses on, late at night, in the dark. Yes. “I” had made these choices. But who was “I”? Was the me of a month prior so much worse a person than I was in the moment of remembering? Was the me of the past worthy of my anger and disappointment? Day by day, I came to see externalizing blame and time-shifting blame to be quite similar. The past is undeniably immutable and yet we humans seem prone to lament and regret the decisions and experiences which created the immediate world we now live in.
Whenever I became obsessed with externalizing the causes of my feelings, I found the only real emotion I would ever hold on to for an extended period of time was anger. Feeling sad? Find a reason to be angry about the thing that “made me sad”. Feeling anxious? Don't worry! That emotion is easily stomped on by a good bout of rage. Feeling fear? Humanity has long since proven the best solution to sources of fear are to destroy them. And if we're powerless to destroy mosquitoes buzzing in our ears, the very least we can do it sit around and hate them passionately. As weeks passed, my eye stopped bleeding and eventually lost its sensitivity to the light so I could go outside. But while trapped inside I was vexed by a world of violence, a temporary home in a country with a savage healthcare system, topical police brutality, an ignorant march of Atheists creating A New Religion, global warming, and -my god!- my hotel room didn't have recycling!
The other end of the emotional sling was more productive and the sling did reach this productive end on occasion. While trapped alone with my damaged eyeball, anger was most often a thin veil for fear. My Aunt had sent me an email (read to me by a friend, since I couldn't read it) describing neurological research which placed fear and gratefulness on two ends of an emotional spectrum which could not be tied up simultaneously, thanks to limitations of the human brain. It appeared she was right. While it was easier to fantasize about changing the world into a more beautiful, more scientific, more peaceful place it was not all that difficult to be thankful for the world I was presently experiencing. Similarly, while it was easier to fantasize about having my sight back it was not impossible to be thankful for what sight I still had. With every moment of gratefulness came another. Meditating on gratefulness for a few hours a day, constantly returning to feelings of gratefulness when I was distracted by fear, the moments began to snowball. Soon, full days were spent distancing myself from feelings of fear and anger, even while I was in very intense pain. The distance wasn't rejecting emotion or burying it, however. It was a genuine disinterest in indulging those hateful fantasies I had in prior days.
What I found interesting about gratitude was that it left me surveying where I was, what I was doing, and how I viewed the exciting opportunities which lay ahead. Where anger became narrowing and obsessive, gratitude appeared to grow boundlessly and open new doors to thought and creativity as it went. I had shifted my focus from emotion to interpretation.
I began to ponder my ideals, my philosophy, and my “spirituality” (for lack of a better term). Having recently watched Carl Sagan's original “Cosmos” series, the notion of the Cosmic Calendar, in which the existence of the universe spans one calendar year and the existence of homo sapiens sapiens spans eight full minutes, I began to linger on the idea of human progress viewed under a 200,000 year lens. Previous visualizations of the scientifically observable universe (such as scaleofuniverse.com) always left me feeling utterly insignificant, as though the time scale of the universe were so large as to exist beyond comprehension. The scale of the Cosmic Calendar was comfortingly familiar: I had experienced one year and knew what it felt like. I had experienced milliseconds and knew what they felt like. The scale presented me with a foundation for the consideration of my own actions which did not reduce me (and everyone else) to the infinitesimally small.
I've spent much of my life in search of moments where I felt relevant: scoring a goal, making someone laugh, getting a raise, making a new friend, convincing others of my opinions, demonstrating my intelligence or strength or stamina. Structured as events, every success is ephemeral. Structured as events, my relevance is fleeting. Structured as participating in a continuum, my relevance is not only constant but does not require my superiority over another person in any way. While exploring this idea, it became apparent that the difference between perceived relevance as an aggregation of events and perceived relevance as participation in a continuum was the role of the individual, the self. In the former case, individualism mirrors my fears. The goals and accomplishments of the past are increasingly narrowing of what defines success in the future; my next accomplishment must outstrip my last. In the latter case, individualism is a paradox and mirrors the joy and gratefulness attached to the opposing end of the emotional spectrum. On a 100,000-year timescale, our efforts are collective, cooperative and our “selves” are limitations of perception provided for us to overcome. Within this paradox, the limitations of my “self” are yet one more thing to be grateful for: I get to overcome my self-perception. While held in these moments of intense gratitude, self-reflection could be identified in no other way. On a superficial level, where in the past I've believed myself to observe argument objectively, such joy found in the concept of self-destruction appears nihilistic. I am convinced it is not but to state otherwise without evidence is to ask the reader to indulge in faith or to admit defeat in my ability to dissect what I've observed. Without taking either of those two roads, I hope to unravel that paradox in future essays.
“Where am I? What am I doing?” is a common reflective question for anyone, but particularly for women and men who work in technology. We love to change jobs every year or three, and in my experience a grass-is-always-greener (giag) approach rarely fails. The grass often is greener. Persistent gratefulness changes the answer to this question, though. Where giag says “jump ship!", gratitude says “try steering this ship first.”
As a partner of an employee-owned technology cooperative, I get to help steer the ship. I can see that the experiments we run and the conclusions we draw directly influence our collective understanding of what we are building together. Everything we build together lives on a continuum of progress: the entirety of our business, a significant part of our individual lives, and a tiny (but not inconsequential) part of humanity. As I found in quiet moments alone in a darkened room of a Marriott, the consequence of gratitude is to find another source of gratitude. I am very fortunate to be where I am and I'm increasingly thankful for the opportunity to see what's next.
Essay originally published on Hungry, Horny, Sleepy, Curious. (2014).