Overwhelm

In modern life, most of the states of unease we generally call stress, fear, and anxiety can be attributed to one common factor: overwhelm.

Overwhelm is the despairing little gatekeeper’s voice inside of us that screams “No more!” when our to-dos, thoughts, ideas, possibilities, and running meta-commentary overshadow every possible inch of mental space. It seems like an inner enemy that must be conquered; but overwhelm is on our side, there to protect our existential well-being and sanity. It is the reason people finally give up drugs, end abusive relationships, and change unhealthy lifestyle habits. Overwhelm is not the problem; the problem is overwhelm’s tactics. For overwhelm uses a shotgun when a sniper rifle might suffice. Overwhelm will carpet bomb your problems, and encourage you to abandon everything the moment anything goes awry. So we must not give in to overwhelm’s whims, but we must listen to it and learn from it.

So how do we learn from overwhelm? It’s tricky, because overwhelm is a cloud that obscures and taints everything within it. From inside of overwhelm, it’s very hard to distinguish causes from effects. It’s like flying through the clouds and trying to spot individual birds. Clearly you can’t learn the sources of overwhelm from within overwhelm.

Another confounding factor is that overwhelm is implicitly linked to guilt and shame — those “shoulds” that haunt your life. Shame: You should be more successful by now. You should call back that old friend. You should spend more time with your family. And guilt: the pain that arises when you think about these “shoulds,” as well as the whispers of conscience that emerge when you try to “ignore” them. Those little voices never seem to go away, do they? All the meditation, yoga, and drugs in the world can’t seem to blot out the pain of shame and guilt. And this cloud of shame permeates every aspect of our lives, and leaves us on the cusp of overwhelm at all times; it’s always just a thought away.

If only we could somehow really forget, like in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” And scientists are actually working on this: cognitive light therapies that promise to identify and “erase” painful memories or mental patterns, so that you can emerge clean, pure, healed — a tabula rasa. But until that day comes, we have to suffer with the perpetual agony of shame and guilt — and this is why we can never seem to permanently escape from overwhelm. Because no matter how much or how little you have “to do” right now, the moment you cross something off your list you will become reminded of something else: something you should do, or should have done. There is no escaping the haunting clutches of memory.

How, then, do we escape overwhelm? Forgiveness. Forgiveness of ourselves, forgiveness of others, forgiveness of sins. All religions make forgiveness central to their teachings. But in our modern faux-atheist culture, we tend to assume that forgiveness, and its attendant freedom from shame and guilt, comes naturally. It doesn’t. Forgiveness is a mental process that must be cultivated, taught, and practiced. It is not intuitive; it is the product of thousands of years of human development, from genocidal cave dwellers to genocidal empire builders to (hopefully less-genocidal) explorers of inner and outer space. Christianity is literally founded on the notion of forgiveness. Buddhism, too, sees forgiveness as a sort of absolution — the Buddha’s ‘escape’ from Samsara is actually a full-on acceptance of its attendant sins, just as Jesus’s foreboding and eventual participation in his own crucifixion (he goes to it willingly) represents the embodiment of acceptance. So acceptance, then, in all of its messy glory, is the root of forgiveness, which itself is the root of ending overwhelm.

But how do we accept suffering, that of ourselves and others? How do we accept mistakes, failures, flaws? Most importantly, how do we accept and simultaneously yearn to be better in the future? Because acceptance must not be used as an excuse for inaction, but as a perpetual tool to free us from the shackles of the past so that we can continue to grow, improve, and conquer our overwhelm.

The key to acceptance seems to be found in modifying our beliefs about the past. We inherently believe that the past is fixed, and cannot be changed: hence, shame and guilt. But if we truly understood, psychologically and emotionally, that the past was just as dynamic as the future, we would be incapable of experiencing the haunting trauma of memory. We would still remember past events, and we could learn from them, but we would no longer experience existential suffering related to them.

The fundamental reason the past is ever-changing is that memory is dynamic. Every time we conjure a memory, whether consciously or subconsciously, that memory changes. It is not hard-coded, but soft-coded. Memory is messy. And brain MRIs confirm this: a cluster of similar neurons lights up when a certain memory is “experienced,” but that arrangement is ever-shifting, like the constellations in the night sky gradually morphing and changing shape as you stare at them. There is no “real memory” any more than there was a real “initial event”; both the original encoding, as well as each iterative recalling, is subjective and dynamic.

But even if we accept that our memories are subjective, we can still not seem to escape the illusion (or delusion) of continuity. We genuinely believe ourselves to be the same person we were an hour ago, a day ago, a year ago. Sure, we may have some more gray hair, but underneath the mask of our physical bodies we are somehow “the same.” This illusion of a static, unchanging, underlying identity (an everlasting “soul”) can neither be found by inner or outer investigation. Modern physics makes it clear that there are no fundamental forces or objects, and that anything that appears unchanging is an illusion. And meditative practices, like the exercises Buddhist mediators use to search for “inherent existence,” always come up empty. Why? Because there is a core paradox in looking for your “true self” within yourself: logically, anything that appears to you as static or unchanging must be entirely independent of you. But the very fact that you purport to be “perceiving” it makes it no longer independent. (This is similar to the “observer effect” in quantum physics — and why Zen monks say, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”) So which is it? Is the soul independent and imperceptible — and therefore non-findable? Or else, have you found it, and therefore it is not the thing you sought?

Embracing this paradox, accepting this lack of eternal “essence” or “soul,” gradually frees us from the shackles of memory. It allows us to forgive, not to forget. It allows us to embrace the complex dual notion that you are not the same person you used to be, yet it still appears to you that you are. You are changing, yet you believe you are the same.

If you can free yourself from the burden of believing in a fixed past, both cognitively and emotionally, you can begin to accept the paradox that what happened, happened, and yet did not happen to the same person who is remembering it now. You can begin the process of accepting the past as subjective and dynamic, your own identity as unfixed and fluid, and your own future as open and unbounded. Acceptance triggers the mechanism of forgiveness (after all, you are forgiving a different “version” of yourself and others, not the same ones as today), which melts away guilt, shame, and regret, and which eventually destroys overwhelm — in the same way that overwhelm, today, threatens to destroy you.

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