Thursday, 5 September 2013

Candid Conversations With Oneself

Two friends posted similar items on Facebook within a few hours of each other, which was a surprising coincidence.

At first glance, these items didn't seem too similar, apart from the common theme of unhappy mental conditions. One is an article on loneliness; the other is a TED talk on schizophrenia. However, I felt similarly about both of them, because they relate to an important skill I learnt over the years - the ability to talk honestly to myself.

The TED talk is by far the more dramatic. It's the journey of a courageous woman who had an abused childhood, and whose trauma began to manifest itself later as voices in her head. After being diagnosed as a schizophrenic and suffering for many years through what passed for "therapy", she finally learnt to look upon those voices not as threatening or menacing, but as her own subconscious feelings about things. Once she opened her mind to what those voices were actually saying, she gained a window into her own mind, and that set her on the path to healing. Today, she teaches other schizophrenia sufferers not to fear their condition but to learn to connect with themselves.

Eleanor Longden's inspiring tale

In some ways, her experience reminds me of the movie "The Sixth Sense". Partway through watching it, I realised that it was not a scary movie. It was a sad movie. I suddenly realised that the ghosts in the movie were not dangerous. They were in need of help. All of them had suffered, and they needed someone to help them move on. I could relate to her talk when she spoke about the voices in her head representing parts of herself that were hurt.

I have never had an extreme experience like hearing voices in my head. But I have experienced analogous incidents when my subconscious mind tried to communicate with my conscious mind.

I used to remember songs.

That sounds downright silly. Doesn't everyone remember songs? Well, I can't speak for other people, but there was a period when specific snatches of songs played in my head at specific times, and I learnt to figure out what they meant.

The very first time I became aware of this was when I found the same song starting up in my head at the same time every day. I was a student at the time, and I was doing a project that required me to book a time slot in the card punch room (it was always the same time every day) and spend an hour punching cards. (Computers needed to be fed with punched cards in those days. Yes, I'm that old.)

The room was air conditioned and freezing cold. After a few days, I realised that the same song started playing in my head within a few minutes of my starting my work. The song was "Valentina Way" by Al Stewart. Why was this particular song playing every time I entered the card punch room? I paid closer attention to the lyrics. Sure enough, the snatch of the song that was playing was this

[...] the atmosphere's too cold in here [to attract a butterfly like that]

Of course! That's what my subconscious mind was trying to tell me - the atmosphere's too cold in here!

After that epiphany, I began to pay closer attention to songs that came into my head. If they popped up for no reason at all, there was usually a reason!

They say men are much less in touch with their own feelings and emotions than women are, and this is probably true. I might have remained completely ignorant about my own emotions if not for this entirely fortuitous discovery of the musical channel that my subconscious was using to tell me what I was feeling.

Sometime after I discovered the significance of songs that popped into my head unbidden, I ran into a girl on whom I'd had a crush in my teenage years. I was by then in my mid-twenties and hadn't seen her for many years. We had a platonic chat and I was congratulating myself on my composure and level-headedness. I had clearly gotten over my teenage crush. As I left, an old Hindi song began playing in my head.

sau saal pehle...mujhe tumse pyaar tha...mujhe tumse pyaar tha...aaj bhi hai...aur kal bhi rahega

(Loosely translated: A long time ago... I was in love with you...I was in love with you...I still am...and will always be)

I realised with a shock what my subconscious mind was telling me - in spite of my outward calm, I still had feelings for her!

The incident was a shock to me in more ways than one. It wasn't just that one instance of an emotion I was unaware of. It was the possibility of a whole seething mass of emotions writhing under the surface that I was probably not aware of. The thought disturbed me profoundly.

Ultimately, I came to a level of comfort and peace with myself. I began to accept that pure and honest emotions like love were nothing to be ashamed of. They in fact enriched one's existence and made one a complete human being. It was confirmed by something I read to the effect that emotions that touch the heart are pure and wholesome. Once I accepted and embraced that side of myself, I found myself feeling more "whole" and more positive about myself. To this day, I continue to have fond feelings for all the girls I ever had a crush on (although I have no desire to do anything stupid!) I'm still good friends with those that I remain in touch with. And I'm not ashamed in any way of my past feelings. They were pure and honest and nothing to be ashamed of. When I look at myself in the mirror, not only can I look myself in the eye, I actually approve of the guy on the other side.

When I was a young and single man, a lot of the songs that played spontaneously in my head were love songs, and this was no coincidence. By this time, I was a practised hand at analysing the songs playing in my head to understand what I was feeling! It was a strange window that I had into my own mind, but I used it without questioning.

As another example, I used to catch the bus to work on my first job, and there was a girl who caught the bus at a stop after mine and got down before I did. I never spoke to her or even found out her name, but it gave me pleasure to see her get into the bus every day. One day, she failed to appear at her usual stop. As the bus pulled away, I heard Stevie Wonder's song "Whereabouts" in my head:

Where is the missing one? The missing one?

It was uncanny. I developed a profound respect for the DJ inside my head. The guy knew exactly what song to play and when.

Over a period of time, as I learnt to be more honest with myself and acknowledged every emotion that I was feeling, without denial or shame, the songs gradually stopped. I had developed a more direct communication line with myself, and there was no longer any need for my subconscious mind to send me coded messages.

And this brings me to the article on loneliness that I talked about at the beginning.

There was a time when I felt socially awkward and paradoxically lonely when in a crowd, such as at a party where everyone seemed to be having fun. I used to think everyone else was part of a well-integrated and happy crowd and I was the odd one out, with no friends and feeling lonely and miserable. But thankfully, I read somewhere, not long after, that everyone feels lonely at parties! I learnt with relief that the paradox of feeling lonely at a lively party with lots of laughter and merrymaking was a paradox not only for me, but for virtually everyone.

That turned out to be a wonderfully liberating piece of information. After that, I have never felt lonely at a party ever again, because I know that in spite of their cheerful and boisterous appearance, almost everyone there is actually feeling lonely, vulnerable and insecure! I don't bother to strike up awkward conversations with people anymore or even wear a stiff smile. I go straight for the eats and stay comfortably by myself, just observing everyone else. When I've had enough, I leave. If I meet someone I know and genuinely like, I talk to them. But I don't push myself to be something I'm not. And so parties hold no more terrors for me. I now see them as places where poor, lonely folk gather to suffer their individual and private misery together. But there's also food there, and that's the one thing that makes the event worthwhile, so I tuck in shamelessly.

I realised then another truth about loneliness. It only strikes you if you can't live with yourself. If you're comfortable with whoever you are and accept yourself, you won't be lonely. A lonely person isn't craving a connection with other people. They're craving a connection with themselves.

And that reminds me of something I read a long time ago.

The day a boy realises that all adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent.
When he forgives them, he becomes an adult.
When he forgives himself, he becomes wise.

I make no claims to wisdom, but I do forgive myself (too easily, as my wife says in jest). All of us are human, and each of us must accept our own individual selves as human too. We must acknowledge our feelings and emotions without shame, with perfect honesty, and realise that virtually everyone around us is a vulnerable, insecure being. We are no different from anyone else, and we're all flawed beings who nevertheless deserve acceptance and love.

When we learn to have candid conversations with ourselves, many things in life become simple. One of the blessings of a simplified life is something I have enjoyed now for many years - I tend to fall asleep when my head touches the pillow.

[These are probably point-in-time truths. All emotion is caused by chemicals in the brain, and an imbalance at a later stage in my life could leave me feeling very differently about all of this. But this is my current state of mind.]
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