The Defining Moment
I began practicing Transcendental Meditation about seven months ago. Prior to that, I sporadically practiced other types, such as focused breath meditation and open awareness meditation.
Of all of the 100+ sessions I’ve had, there is a particular one that I still remember.
This session took place on May 27th, 2021. About 11 months ago.
I woke up at 7:30 AM, went through my morning routine on autopilot, and sat down facing the window for 20 minutes of peace.
A few minutes into my meditation, however, a negative thought bubbled up.
What if x doesn’t happen because of y? It’s unfair that I’m still stuck in this situation. What was the point of spending so much time on it?
But, before that thought acted as a shipwreck and dragged a stream of incoming thoughts down with it, a strong, confident voice emerged in my mind. It was a voice I was hearing for the first time.
Pooja, you’ve done what you can. Just look at how far you’ve come. If it doesn’t happen, it’ll be sad, but it’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. You’re amazing.
If you had been watching my face in those few moments, you would have seen me go from emotionless to worry to amusement to finally breaking into a huge smile.
In The Surrender Experiment, Michael Singer talks about his life-changing moment. But it doesn’t involve a car crash or a lightning bolt, rather simply paying attention to his thoughts just slightly more than normal one afternoon. He says,
“It was like when you stare at one of those posters that has a hidden picture inside. At first it appears to be just a circle with line patterns. Then, suddenly, you see an entire 3-D image emerge from what originally looked like chaos. Once you see it, you can’t imagine how you hadn’t seen it before. It was right there! Such was the shift that happened inside of me.”
Mine was similar. Once I noticed that positive voice speak up, I couldn’t un-noticed it anymore.
Back then, I had been paying close attention to my emotions and thoughts. And this moment from my meditation session proved a hypothesis I had been holding for a while:
I have truly moved from self-abuse to self-love.
The past 9 months only strengthened this.
And here’s my interpretation (and story) of how it happened.
Important Note: Please don’t construe this article as me telling you what you should do. Not at all. I neither have the authority nor the hubris to do that. Rather, think of this article as me sharing my journey to show you what you could do, should you resonate with my story.
Self-Abuse: What Does It Look Like?
Self-abuse can manifest in various ways. The most widely interpreted meaning of self-abuse is picturing someone physically harming themselves with a knife. But behind that picture runs an undercurrent of numerous other manifestations. For the rest of this article, when I say self-abuse, I’m referring to it the following way.
Self-abuse: Psychological harm that one brings upon themselves as a consequence of being uncompassionate, cynical, and bitter towards oneself.
Below are some phrases from my journal entries from 2020 to help you understand further.
[These are some very personal moments from my life. I hope you will read it and treat it with the gravity it deserves.]
11:31 PM on March 10th, 2020
“I feel like I’m so behind… I want to go back in time and kick the shit out of myself. […] How is it possible to feel like shit when you had such a good day.”
06:45 PM on July 17th, 2020
“I am not able to talk about [my struggles] with anyone. I just.. don’t feel like it. No words come out of my mouth. I cry for no reason. I cry at random…”
09:13 PM on September 2nd, 2020
“I might be at the lowest point of my year, or my life. I’m in such a useless and unproductive state that I wish something horrible would happen to me, either mentally or physically. I’m wishing something horrible would happen so there is a reason for me to feel this way.”
07:00 PM on October 18th, 2020
“[…] What separates me from breaking down can be a simple comment. There’s something very wrong if that is normal, isn’t it? Why can’t I simply be myself with someone and don’t read into what they say or do? Why can’t I stop giving a fuck about what others think and be myself? Why can’t I take the initiative, why doesn’t it come naturally?”
04:24 PM on November 26th, 2020
“I was feeling very sad yesterday night so I wrote a [private article]. But today, I realized how ungrateful I sounded in that. I am incredibly lucky and grateful for being alive and I sure as hell don’t want to waste it thinking, what if.”
You might wonder, why did she place that last entry here? That sounds like a good thing.
Realizing you’re grateful for what you have in life is a good thing.
But across all these entries, focus on the tone I use in talking to myself.
Imagine sitting in a coffee house and witnessing the following conversation between two people,
Person A: I did not feel like getting out of bed today. I had to drag myself out.
Person B: This is the third time in a row. What is wrong with you? Why are you so lethargic?
Person A: What? No… I can’t help it. I feel a loss of motivation. I don’t know what to do.
Person B: You’re useless. You don’t deserve this life.
What would you feel witnessing such a conversation?
To take a guess, I’d say you would feel infuriated with the way Person B is responding at the least.
But, take a moment and ask yourself, have you ever spoken to yourself the way Person B does? have you ever had voices in your head tell you you don’t deserve something? That you just need to try harder?
The greatest pain one can experience is the pain they bring upon themselves, with the monologue inside their head.
My monologue in 2020, and possibly before, was not one of kindness, compassion, encouragement, and support. It was one of cynicism, hopelessness, anger, and bitterness.
And I didn’t even recognize it until early 2021 when I began looking back on my previous journal entries.
Because, why would I recognize something that’s happening inside my head, all the time?
Why would you?
Why would anyone?
It’s easy to recognize what is external to us. It’s almost impossible to do the same for the internal.
Well, almost impossible. 🙂
The (Painfully Slow) Journey
Alcoholics Anonymous is an international support group of people who help each other combat addiction to drinking. Since its inception in 1935, they have helped millions of people overcome their addiction to alcohol, and as of today, they have over 2 million members currently in the group.
They have a 12-step process to help you overcome your addiction. And the first step is this:
The first step to recovering from addiction is accepting you have a problem.
When it comes to self-abuse, even before accepting you have a problem, you first need to be aware of it.
Step 1: Becoming Aware of Your Internal Monologue
On September 30th, 2021, I had another epiphanic moment. This time, it happened before I began my meditation.
At this point in my life, I was living in an 8×8 ft cabin in the backyard of my intentional community. The room could barely fit a bunk bed and a tiny desk. I chose to live there for a few months as I didn’t feel the need for a lot of space and wanted to save money on rent.
So as I sat under my bunk bed to begin my morning meditation, I noticed something.
Dust particles. Oh, so many dust particles dancing playfully in the air.
As I wore my glasses, this only became more apparent as I could see a thousand more of them.
Except, I could only see them in the cylindrical section of the room illuminated by the morning sunlight streaming in through a tiny window. Nowhere else. I thought to myself,
Despite living in this room for 2 months, I’m only now noticing these particles.
Something clicked in that moment for me.
The dust particles were my negative self-talk.
The sunlight was the source that made me aware of my self-talk.
The glasses were my meditation and journaling practice that helped me pay close attention to it.
It took me years to find the sources of light that helped me become aware of my self-talk. But I am so grateful I did because none of the changes would have happened without it.
In my case, there were three primary sources that illuminated my internal monologue and helped me change.
Working with a life coach
In the second half of 2020, I worked with a life coach — Dr Rhonda Farrell — through a program at Salesforce, my previous company. For 6 months, I would meet Rhonda every week or every other week. She would ask me probing questions that I hadn’t sat down to think about in a while (or, ever): How would you describe your ideal self in 3 words? What does your life wheel look like? What is your vision for the end of 2021? What do you want the impact of your book to be?
It’s worth mentioning that Rhonda was a compassionate human being. Being around someone like that once a week, and hearing them tell you what a wonderful job you’re doing and cheer you on, is what helped me more than anything else in gaining self-confidence.
There was a particular meeting, on November 15th, 2020, when she saw that I was visibly dull. She asked me what was wrong. I expressed my frustration with myself as I’d been procrastinating the past week on my tasks both at and outside Salesforce. That’s when she said something I will never forget,
“Procrastination is not always a bad thing. You are currently undergoing major changes in your life. You just moved cities and houses, you are understanding more about yourself, and navigating some very difficult questions about your future. It’s understandable to procrastinate. Think of procrastination as a protective blanket that is asking you to slow down when you’re running too fast. It’s not a bad thing, Pooja.”
Opening up to a close friend
On December 16th, 2020, I had a 6-hour long call with one of my current best friends, who back then was a good friend. In fact, the call was so impactful for me back then that I wrote a short article about it.
What was supposed to be a work call turned into a therapy session where my friend held space for me to share some of the saddest moments from my past, which I had never fully processed. That was also when I realized that I had emotional blind spots.
Three hours into my sharing experiences from the past, he told me something I hadn’t heard before.
“You are too hard on yourself. You are taking too much responsibility for other people’s actions and not being compassionate enough to your past self.”
Such realizations cannot happen in a vacuum, sadly. I’m grateful I had someone willing enough to listen empathetically, without judgment, and point out my blind spots.
Shuffling through my journal entries
I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write it. — Joan Didian.
Working with Rhonda, and having this 6-hour call with my friend, made me want to look closer into my past self. Thankfully, I had been journaling (and still do!) pretty diligently, so all I had to go was go back to my previous journal entries.
What I discovered shocked — and saddened — me.
The journal entries you saw at the beginning of this article were a small proportion of many abusive ones in my logs, and even more that were undocumented. Once I saw the evidence first-hand, I could not ignore it anymore. I was engaging in self-abuse.
If what you read so far resonates with you, I implore you to explore further. This could be in the form of seeking help from a therapist, talking to a coach, opening up to a friend, or even just closely observing your thoughts.
The next time a negative thought bubbles up in your mind, or you get rejected by something or someone, or you don’t end up living up to an expectation you set for yourself, observe what happens in your mind.
It will never be easy in the beginning, and that’s okay.
Because once you become aware of your monologue, you’re already on a path to changing it.
Step 2: Cultivating A Positive Voice
I knew I was being self-abusive. Now what?
Where do I begin?
The answer is (from hindsight)… it does not matter. Just begin anywhere.
Just like with awareness, below is my speculation of what helped cultivate that positive voice.
People, communities, and perspectives
I met the most number of new people I’d ever met in 2021. This happened as a virtue of moving into an intentional community in San Francisco. For 10 months, I lived with 10 others, hosted dozens of events (some of which I organized), and met people from all walks of life. And I really mean, all walks.
I met people from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Israel, France, Canada, America, and India. I witnessed a new framework when it came to romantic relationships — one that was non-monogamous. I had transformative experiences experimenting with certain substances. I was around a lot of music and musicians. And, I observed so many different ways of living life, especially when I spent a month in Hawaii. All this had a compounding effect on expanding the realm of what was possible. It put things in perspective.
And, towards the end of the year, as I came down from the high of meeting scores of new people, I shifted from focusing on quantity to quality of experiences. I began spending more time with a much smaller set of people. I built a very small inner circle of people I love, a lot. And in 2022, my hope is to add more people to this inner circle and focus on optimizing for meaningful conversations over serendipitous ones.
REALLY working on self-care
You hear it everywhere. Self-care is important. You’ve probably already read a self-help book in your life. So let me not engage in any platitude. Rather, I will simply mention the experiments I tried to care more for myself: going to a therapist for 2 months, journaling every week at least for an hour, beginning to meditate in the mornings (and eventually exploring Transcendental Meditation), going to the gym every day, and being okay with procrastination.
If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m an avid experimenter. But none of my experiments were carefully crafted. Rather, I observed people I looked up to. I stayed curious. I began trying something new. And on a weekly basis, I asked myself, Is this helping me or hurting me?
Everything I tried helped cultivate a different part of my positive voice.
- Therapy helped me open up and cry in front of someone.
- Journaling helped me process what was happening in my life and exercise my skill as a writer.
- Meditation shone a brighter light into my mind and helped me detach from my thoughts.
- Going to the gym improved my physical health, and gave me one hour a day when I could completely shut off my mind.
Training an inner voice, very slowly
This happened in increments. The first time I noticed a positive voice vividly was during that meditation session on May 27th, 2021. Once I knew I had that voice, the next time I was aware of negative self-talk, I tried to call it. This is what it looked like.
Negative Voice: Why did I do this to myself? Why did I not think more clearly?
Positive Voice: Pooja, it’s over now. And you learned something from it. Let’s move on.
Negative Voice: Why can’t I have more clarity in what I want to do?
Positive Voice: Let’s take a step back. Look at everything you’ve accomplished and created so far. It’s okay to not have clarity for a while.
Negative Voice: I hate that person.
Positive Voice: Simply be indifferent towards them; there is no need for any malice. They’ve got enough going on.
Negative Voice: I was supposed to finish this yesterday. I can’t believe I fell through again. Damn it.
Positive Voice: There will always be a tomorrow. And if there isn’t, this wouldn’t matter anyway. This is not worth feeling bad over.
Trying to explain this transition makes me realize the limitations of language. I wish you can jump into the sea of my inner thoughts to understand what I truly mean. Maybe someday. But I hope you get the idea.
Buddhism has a phrase,
“Your pain is real; but not true.”
Let me say that again.
Your. pain. is. real. but. not. true.
Your reality is your own. When you’re in pain and suffering, what you’re feeling is very real. Because you’re living it.
Except, it is simply not true, because you are not your emotions. You can stop your suffering. You are capable of that.
Tara Brach, an American psychologist, and author explains this phrase as follows:
“What this means is that, while thoughts are really happening and there is real biochemistry that accompanies them, they are only representations in our mind. They are not the experience of this living moment. We can begin to identify and challenge limiting beliefs by starting with the simple question: What am I believing right now? And then: Is this true? Is it possible that this is real but not true? Our beliefs fuel our sense of separateness. Uninvestigated, they are a veil between us and reality; they actually prevent us from seeing the truth.”
Except for a few moments when I noticed my internal progress, it was hard to feel that I was making progress on a daily basis. But, as look back, the compounding progress seems monumental.
So as you begin experimenting with ways to cultivate your inner voice, look back from time to time to acknowledge how far you’ve come at least as much as you look ahead at how much more there is to go.
Step 3: Nurturing Your Positive Voice
Once you’ve become aware of your internal monologue and begun to cultivate a positive voice, don’t forget the following.
Your positive voice is akin to a seedling that needs consistent nurturing.
Just like a seedling that needs to be watered and bathed in sunlight, your new voice needs you to feed it with energy every day.
I’m currently working on this phase in my journey through the following.
Daily meditation and metta practice
Metta is a word from the Pali language spoken in Northern India. It means benevolence and kindness towards those around us. I call it compassion meditation. Every day, my meditation routine is as follows:
- Sit down to practice transcendental meditation for 20 minutes.
- After 20 minutes, take a moment to utter the following words: Thank you for giving me one more day in my life. I’m so grateful for this day. I will be myself as much as I can. I am a compassionate, confident, and curious human being. I balance compassion inward and outward; I speak my mind, and I am always in pursuit of knowledge.
- Finally, end with Metta: This is where I think about 4 people in my life: someone I love, someone I recently met and want to know more about, someone who I had negative feelings towards recently, and myself. For every person, I picture them being happy, healthy, safe, loved, and cared for.
Optimizing for meaningful conversations
2021 was a year of serendipitous people and conversations that helped me expand my worldview. I want 2022 to be focused more on meaningful interactions. There are two things I practice to reach this goal:
- First, I make it a point to consistently keep in touch with the people in my inner circle.
- Second, at the end of each week, as I go over my reflection and planning routine, one of the questions I ask myself is, Who all did I interact with the past week? I look at all the interactions I had on my calendar and think about which ones energized me vs which ones drained me. Reflecting on this helps me understand who I should be investing more time into, and who deserves less of it.
Living a balanced life
I exhausted myself in 2020 by juggling a full-time job, publishing a book, moving cities (and houses thrice!), and drowning in negative self-talk. Balance was completely out the window. Thankfully, having gone through that phase, I know better now. I learned it the hard way. Since the beginning of 2021, I began focusing more on the idea of balance and what that looks like for me. Now, I ensure that every week I spend time on all the important verticals of my life, and not just my career. This means dedicating time to going rock climbing, playing the guitar, catching up with a friend, meditating, journaling, and more. I do this through a framework I came up with called The Life Garden.
I wrote a long essay on how to implement this which you can access here.
Now, when I have that abusive voice occasionally pop up to say something, I respond back with a very strong positive voice so that the abusive voice has acquiesced.
I don’t know if the abusive voice will ever go away. But that’s okay. To me, it’s not about removing it from my mental monologue.
It’s about letting the abusive voice speak, without letting it influence.
A few weeks ago, something happened that saddened me deeply.
And I cried, a lot. I cried until I felt some catharsis.
Once I was done crying, I told myself,
“Pooja, what happens to you is not in your control. But how you react is. I’m glad you cried to feel the emotion. Let it out, and once you’re done, move on because there are many wonderful things to look forward to.”
Two years ago, I would have moved on feeling a sense of hopelessness.
Today, I move on feeling a sense of total peace.
And that makes all the difference.