Finding peace in my chaos

At this moment, it’s hard to imagine that a month ago I was huddled over a textbook in the stacks of my university’s library, frantically trying to learn whatever the hell a Poisson distribution is into my head before a final econometrics exam.

Why does that feel so strange? Because at this moment, I’m sitting on the rocky shores of the Promenade Beach in Pondicherry, India, where the concept of fast-paced living literally doesn’t exist.

Pondicherry (or as it’s officially known, Puducherry) is a quirky city of a little over a half-million people a couple hours south of Chennai. It’s famous for a variety of reasons — it’s featured in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, it has the cheapest alcohol in South India, and it’s home to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. While these three things seem entirely unrelated, they all reflect Pondicherry’s motto: “Give time a break.” Of course, heavy drinking and meditative yoga are two very different ways of giving time a break, but nonetheless, Pondicherry prides itself as a place where life’s worries just don’t have to exist.

I came to Pondicherry to intern with an organization called PlanetRead, which uses the concept of Same-Language-Subtitling (SLS) on Bollywood films and songs to improve reading skills in India’s neo-literate population (check ’em out at planetread.org). The minute I got here, I was ready to jump into work. The cogs in my brain were still spinning in overdrive — I wanted to work long hours, get as much work done as possible, and have an amazing addition to my LinkedIn profile by the end of the summer.

My first day in the office, I realized I had come in with a mindset that didn’t fly here. Here in Pondy, things are never urgent, schedules don’t exist, and my plan to have an incredibly productive summer seemed to be slowly going down the drain.

Being surrounded by so many people who seem to just be peaceful made me wonder: what if I was doing all this wrong? People around me seemed perfectly happy living their lives without the chaos that seemed to define mine. In the daytime, they found their happiness in meditation and quiet reflection. In the night, they found their happiness in vodka and wine. They played in parks, took walks along the beach, and were totally content. I seem like I’m generalizing, but this is actually an accurate description of every single person I’ve met in the past few weeks.

Observing all these people around me made me think that I needed to try this. I needed to give time a break. My life in the United States is a never-ending cycle of stress about grades, activities, achievements, accomplishments, and awards. I’m a perfectionist — I take on a disproportionate amount of responsibility in everything I do because I can’t stand the thought of submitting something less than perfect. I thrive on competition. I surround myself by people I consider “successful,” and I try to figure out how to incorporate their best characteristics into myself. I’m very externally motivated — the number of awards I win and what people think of me are integral to how I determine my self-worth. The first time I wrote all this down in my summer journal, I winced. I was disgusted by myself. I sounded…well, crazy.

I decided enough was enough. I set up a website blocker on my computer and blocked LinkedIn, scholarship websites, and everything related to college that wasn’t absolutely imperative. Maybe this is unsustainable in the school year, but I wanted to try out the Pondicherry lifestyle in the summer.

The Matrimandir in Auroville (near Pondicherry, India)

I went to a meditation session at the Matrimandir, the beautiful building in the photo above. The Matrimandir is associated with Auroville, the city built as a haven for followers of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy. The silent meditation thing didn’t really work out for me (look out for another article soon in which I explain my thoughts on this!) but it was an experience that allowed me to realize that people who have a meditative process actually seem much happier and at peace with themselves.

What I did find to be extremely calming was singing on the beach. There’s a small area on the beach near my office that’s a bit out of the way, so there’s never anyone there. I go there every day during my breaks, take out the portable tanpura (simplest description: Indian pitch-keeping instrument) on my phone, and just sing to the waves. Sometimes I sing classical Hindustani ragas, sometimes I sing Bollywood songs, sometimes I sing Western pop, sometimes I sing random rhymes I remember from music classes in elementary school. It doesn’t really matter what it is. In the moments I’m there, the music is all that matters, and I feel like I’m on a different spiritual plane. Singing has always been incredibly calming for me, but I’ve never taken the time to just do it for myself with absolutely no other motive.

Of course, finding a way to meditate is only one of many steps to getting my life together. This isn’t a process I can encompass in one article, so I’m not bothering to try. Eliminating all my stress is probably not going to happen, but there are steps I can take to live a healthier life. The whole shebang really comes down to a mindset, I think. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to find the traditional definition of “success.” I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong by working hard in school and equipping myself with the best skill-set I can to make a difference in the world. The problem is in measuring my self-worth based on how impressive my resume is. The realization that I never prioritized singing despite its clear positive effect on my mental health because it had no tangible benefits was a tough one to come to. But it’s true.

So that’s where I am. I’ve just taken the first step to understanding and attempting to practice “giving time a break” in a way that I can handle. I wouldn’t be able to drop everything and meditate all day, and to be perfectly honest, that doesn’t sound remotely appealing to me. But I do want to be calmer, more peaceful, and happier. And I think I’m starting to figure out how to get there.

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