“Cheryl feels anxious all the time. And by all the time, I mean, all the time.”
That was dated 15 Oct in my diary entry.
We’ve all been stressed out at several points of our lives. But in the process of transiting to the workplace and adulthood, I soon found out that stress manifests itself in a different manner.
In university, there were examinations weeks when anxiety is at an all-time high. And once that’s over, it’s over for a good one month during winter breaks and three months during summer breaks. Sure, some may find new things to stress out about – internships, external activities and all, but the stress levels would rarely hit the same intensity as they were during examination seasons.
Close to six months into the workplace, I noticed that while there were peak and lull seasons as well, anxiety is like a drone that constantly lurked at the background. There are four main reasons for that. First, it comes from the realization that work is a continuous flow, which meant that anything could crop up at any point of time. For instance, even during lull periods, someone might find an issue with a past project. Second, stakes of work are way higher, so the consequences of messing up are much more severe. Instead of simply getting a bad grade, someone might get sued, lose his or her job. In the worst-case scenario, someone’s mistake might even cost the life of another.
Third, in school, students get to change their classes every semester. That means new professors and new course mates. In the workplace, your colleagues and bosses are bound to be the same for a sustained period of time. That means that your reputation is an accumulation of all that you’ve done during your time at the particular organisation. Second chances are never guaranteed. I’m not sure about other people, but that thought sure keeps me on my toes 24/7. Lastly, as a newcomer in a relatively foreign environment, there is constant pressure to prove your worth, or risk feeling like a mere imposter.
As a result, every single project I took on at work led me on intense emotional rides. Panic, fear of failure, fear of disappointment, self-doubt, insomnia etc. would haunt me from the start till the very end of the project. When the project has concluded however, I would feel an intense sense of achievement, happiness and relief, but even then, I’m always anticipating what else can go wrong, because technically, all projects never “end”.
This cycle would repeat itself again and again. Then there came several points of time when I started to find this cycle absolutely intolerable. I thought to myself, surely there must be a healthier way to work, especially if work is going to last you a lifetime. I craved a deeper sense of inner peace.
I bought myself Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” with my first paycheque, and I must have guessed that that’s the one book I need to shift my frame of mind. I do not necessarily agree with all the points the book has made, but I’ll focus on the fresh insights I’ve learnt this time.
- Watch your mind
The book constantly emphasized the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness. I’ve always considered myself an extremely self-aware person. I’m always attuned to my emotions and opinions on matters. But the point is to not just know what you’re thinking, but proceed to the next level and think about what you’re thinking.
Such frames of thinking are not new, but they are also not the most common or intuitive. I still catch myself hurling negative thoughts at myself when my mind is left unchecked. Following Tolle’s analogy, we should be like “a cat watching a mouse hole” to be fully present.
- Relinquish psychological time
Tolle distinguished between clock time and psychological time. Clock time is the use of time for practical and useful purposes. On the other hand, psychological time is the perception we hold when we implicate our past or imagined future into the present moment. He identifies psychological time as the source of pain.
This concept appears simple, but there is so much truth in it. A lot of fear and anxiety either stems from lingering emotions from the past, or expectations of a doomed future. But we often forget that both our past and future are out of our control, so harping on them constantly would only make us miserable.
When you relinquish psychological time, all you’re left with is the “now”, in which life pans out. Tolle writes, “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.” And is it not true that while we cannot cope with what’s to happen, we can almost always handle the work that is immediately in front of us?
I’m going to quote my favourite analogy from him on how the concept of “now” relates to our past and future, and brings us clarity of mind:
“You are walking along a path at night, surrounded by a thick fog. But you have a powerful flashlight that cuts through the fog and creates a narrow, clear space in front of you. The fog is your life situation, which includes past and future; the flashlight is your conscious presence; the clear space is the Now.”
- You are not your mind
This was a huge lesson for me. First, as mentioned before, I was used to thinking that my reputation, and consequently, identity, is an accumulation of all that I’ve done before. If we subscribe to psychological time, that would mean that we’d have to carry the burden of our past with us wherever we go.
So imagine the relief when I reminded myself that I am neither my past nor my future. I am who I am at this very instant. This means that the self is perceived as ever-changing. This aligns with the concept of a growth mindset. Coincidentally, I can also see its affinity with my favourite quote of all time, “Our greatest glory lies not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fall,” which suggests that one’s identity is defined less by the failure of a moment, and more by the reaction of the now.
The more we are able to separate our sense of self with our thoughts, the less judgmental we are with others and ourselves. This, I found so refreshing. I’m one of the most self-critical people I know. I rarely admit this, but I can be as judgmental of others as I am of myself, which can spell disasters for relationships of all kinds.
Second, the reason why people identify with their minds is because it brings about a certain form of pleasure. I found this to be absolutely true. One of my friends once commented that I often write songs that express how “I’m just not good enough” in work, relationships or life in general. The same can be said of my diary entries, right from those that I’ve written in my secondary school days.
Obviously, these thoughts and emotions were true as of the moments I’ve written them. But when these internal “dramas” are written over and over, it’s difficult to shake them out of one’s identity. This aligns with a fixed mindset. I’d say there’s even some comfort in reinforcing that “I’m not good enough.” Because then it acts like an excuse – a form of getting away because I expected myself not to perform well anyway. As a result, effort is always put in to “become better”, but strangely nothing really changes in substance.
- It is what it is // Surrender
Tolle suggests that when we focus on the “now”, we focus on the is-ness of everything. This means that nothing can be judged as good or bad, just a situation.
At first glance, this defies my sociological understanding of how life is “interpretive”. It is impossible for anyone to not cast judgments based on our past or projected-future, or not interpret every situation as positive or negative.
While it’s debatable if there is an objective external reality out there, I accede that there is much peace to be gained from realizing the impermanence of matters and situations, which meant that something good can be bad and vice versa. If we simply see situations “as they are”, then we are invulnerable to all situations that life can throw at us.
Tolle used the term “surrender” to life situation quite often. At first I was quite resistant to that term as it suggests a lack of agency to change one’s life. But here’s what I understand from him. Surrender does not equate to inaction. To surrender means to accept one’s present situation fully, acknowledge all that you think and feel in this moment, then detach the situation from your sense of self and emotions. Only then can action be derived from an enlightened state of clarity, and not from reactive emotions.
Today, I actually made one of the largest mistakes I’ve made thus far in my workplace. It was terrifying, but I’d like to think that I quickly learnt what I could, and then moved on from it. I had a final chapter of the book to bring me through the ordeal though.
One aspect I loved about the book was how Tolle indicated right from the start that this book is not meant to “salvage” anyone, because of seed of enlightenment is already rooted in everyone, and he is merely trying to bring out this aspect in his readers.
So here’s hoping that I can bring on this sense of inner peace to the next year. May you find peace and pure joy from this season to the next 🙂