Who are you, when you can’t do the thing that you’ve defined yourself by? This is a very real situation for many of us who have spent our entire adult lives working in industries where our job is so much more than what we do for 40 hours a week to make money – it’s a passion and a lifestyle. The philosophies of both Yoga and Buddhism are pretty clear that this kind of identification is a major cause of human suffering – and as they both cropped up around 2500 years ago, this has obviously been going on for a while. (They also both offer a comprehensive methodology for setting ourselves free – obviously that’s beyond the scope of this blog, but if you put the effort into exploring either of them you’ll find both fast short-term and cumulative long-term benefits, such as a more peaceful head and less mental anguish. It’s worth doing, I promise. It does take time, but the time will pass anyway, so you might as well put the effort in and be happier in a few months or years than not.)
I’ve been immersing myself in meditation and yoga philosophy for around 13 years, and whilst I’ve known intellectually for a long time that I’m not my job, it’s ‘landed’ with me in a totally different way this year. It’s gone beyond book-knowledge to become personally experienced wisdom. When awareness of a truth deepens to the point at which it actually changes our outlook and behaviour, that’s called a realisation or an awakening. As lovely as that sounds, it’s been my experience that these kind of occurrences are preceded by a sizeable mental / spiritual shitstorm – the toughest times have the biggest lessons – and this one was no different. Back in about April / May, when my touring plans for the next twelve months were definitively cancelled, I hit the skids. I don’t publicly share about personal crises until I’m out the other side and have absorbed the lessons, so most people wouldn’t have had a clue there was anything going on with me, but it was a pretty dark and nihilistic time.
I want to share about it now though, after a popular post in which I discussed this identity issue. I received a lot of messages from people, largely in the live entertainment industry, saying things along the lines of ‘yes, I’m feeling this; this is exactly what I’m going through; you’re in my head’ and so on. I want to share about it because it properly sucked at the time, and yet a few months later I’m probably more at peace than I’ve ever been. If you’re in the eye of the shitstorm, I want to offer reassurance that a) there is a way out and b) it won’t last forever because nothing does. Everyone’s circumstances are different, obviously, and this is about more than paying the bills. This is about a very fundamental question of who we really are.
When I had my dark night (few weeks) of the soul, I was so deeply fucked off about seeing the thing I’ve spent my whole life working on disappear. I was so sad at the thought of not mixing shows. I missed my people – family, friends and road-tribe – exacerbated by the fact that a few years ago I moved to Australia but much of what matters to me is still based in the UK, and I couldn’t get there. I was frustrated at the feeling of being trapped (obviously there are far worse places to be trapped and I’m very fortunate. Still, I missed being free to travel at a moment’s notice). I was furious at whichever fuckwit decided to go eating bats and pangolins in the first place and start all this – this is what happens when us idiot humans run the joint then is it? I was ok for a bit financially but longer term, I make my living in non-essential industries, so there was that. I was bewildered at the realisation that all my beloved planning was just fiction; rigging on sky-hooks. Once other industries started to go back to normal, then I was really in freefall. I felt like we were ghosts. I was raging and nihilistic and disconnected, and for a few weeks I didn’t give much of a shit about anything because what was the point. I wanted to do all my touring days again, because I knew I must not have been present for all of it, and without it I felt like a huge part of me was missing. And that was the problem – I hadn’t truly realised how identified I was with what I did until it was taken away from me.
Something I wrote in the eye of the shitstorm:
There are days when you wear black;
When you resent the blue sky for its relentless cheer
And its Pollyanna perfection.
There are days when the music is loud;
Not to dance to
But to rage to.
There are days when the laughter of children
Is like a grinding saw
Tearing into your bones.
There are days when the power of your darkness
Your black hole sun
Is the only fuel you burn.
When light is nothing but an unwelcome visitor
To the cave where you dwell.
There are days when the yawning vastness of the Universe
And the nihilistic night
Are the voids where you relish your own insignificance
And you wouldn’t have it any other way.
There are days when you wear black.
I guarantee you, if you don’t open yourself up the idea that you’re more than what you do, you’re in for a rough ride. Maybe now, maybe when you can’t do it any more due to old age, but trust me – this is one idea about ourselves that, in the long run, only creates suffering. I thought I understood that, but it wasn’t until I went through all this that I actually got it and came out the other side.
According to yoga philosophy there are five afflictions of mind which cause our mental suffering:
1 – Misunderstanding of who we are. A lack of awareness that we’re not our thoughts or the labels we put on ourselves, but the presence behind all of that. You know that feeling when you’re staring at the ocean or totally absorbed in the moment and the brain chatter stops and time is irrelevant? That’s what I mean by presence. That’s who you really are. Not understanding that is our major problem. I believe it’s an extra large problem for those of us in live music production, because we often have that feeling when we’re totally immersed in the show, so that becomes our access point to our real selves. The show can become a kind of spiritual portal. Same reason a lot of us like things like skiing, deep sea diving, climbing, racing cars and so on – you have to be present or there’s a very high likelihood you’ll die. The good news is, there are other ways into that state.
2 – Identifying with ideas about ourselves such as jobs, lifestyles, societal roles, possessions, education and so on. Kind of like the clothes that the Invisible Man wears, they don’t actually mean diddly squat in the big scheme of things. A builder is only a builder when they are actually building; a dancer is only a dancer when they are actually dancing. You are not defined by – or limited to – what you do for a living, where you live, how much money you make, what you drive, where you come from, what you know, how old you are, who you have in your friend and family circle, or anything else. All that stuff that we’d typically come up with if someone said ‘tell me about yourself’, and specifically anything that starts with the words ‘I am a…’ is only a mental construct. Personally I find it helpful to think of that label-based version of me as a kind of avatar, rather than who I really am inside.
3 – Excessive attachments. Preferences are normal and natural; the trouble starts when things don’t go how we want. We suffer when things don’t go our way because we’re attached to our expectations. We suffer when we don’t get what we want because we’re attached to an idea of how having that thing will be. We suffer when we do get what we want, because then we fear losing it. If you’re keen on something but can say goodbye to it without major upset, that’s fine. None of it’s a problem until it causes suffering when we can’t get what we want. When we become addicted to things being a certain way, getting what we want, the good times never changing – that’s when we get into trouble, because that’s just not how life is.
4 – Excessive aversions, revulsion, dislike; anything we keenly want to avoid. When we’re entangled in this, we become intolerant of any person and situation not meeting our expectations. We require everything to be ‘just so’, and resist the way that things actually are, getting ourselves into a futile battle of swimming upstream against life rather than deftly working with whatever appears. The answer to this is acceptance – not in the sense that you just give up, but that you fully accept the reality of what you’re dealing with, and move forward from there. To quote Buddhist master Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche: ‘This is very bad, this is not what I wanted, this brings many attendant problems. But what am I going to do with it? What can I learn from it? How can I make use of it? These are the questions to ask, and answering them is entirely up to you. Furthermore, you can answer them; you do have the strength.’
5 – Fear and insecurity. We’re all dealing with a great deal of insecurity right now, but here’s the thing – we always were. The idea that we ever had any control over the big picture was a total illusion; it’s just that the current situation has rudely shoved that uncomfortable little fact in our faces. We can’t control what doesn’t exist (which is exactly what we’re trying to do when we’re in a state of anxiety and fear about the future), because the future does not exist. Only now exists. When the future comes it will also be now. Now is the only time that has ever existed. Naturally we use clock-time for the functioning of everyday life; but much like we get into trouble when we start believing that the description of our avatar is who we really are, we come unstuck when we believe that clock-time is a solid thing. Clock time is a useful, hypothetical tool. But the past is gone and the future does not exist, the only real time is right now. And you can handle the right now. Life come at us in a series of single right nows, and so with practice we can use clock-time to plan, but stay totally awake in the present moment. If you’re worrying, you’re imagining. You’ve drifted off to dreamland. Come back to right now and you just deal with each thing as it arises, with no worry, just presence.
Here are some things that got me to the other side of the dark night and made the penny drop.
Start observing your own mental chat. It’s actually pretty alarming when you realise how much of it is absolute fictional repetitive nonsense (or that could just be me). I’ve found it’s also pretty helpful to reflect on which of these five afflictions of mind I tend most towards in different situations.
Reflect on the idea that you are only a ‘whatever’ when you are actively engaged in that activity. Other times, you’re something else. Not doing anything? You’re just you. A human, being. When you do anything, pay full attention. Right now, you are the do-er of that thing. Nothing else. What you’ve done is only what you’ve done; it’s not you. What you know is only what you know; it’s not you.
Get fully involved with right now. As soon as you realise that your mind has escaped, fully engage your senses and check in with what you can see, hear, feel, smell, and taste right now. Feel your feet on the ground and the movement of your breathing. You are the presence behind the doing, and this is just another stage in your journey. You don’t know where it’s going, so wake up and pay attention. Be here now. Don’t miss out on your own life, however unfamilar it might look right now. What if all the things that are being thrown at you are just tools for your own learning and growth?
Some resources that have been a huge support to me are:
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
The Untethered Soul by Michael A.Singer