Building resilience through a sustainable self

In between the time that goes into working on my experimental ideas, I spend an extraordinary amount of focus, effort and energy into experimenting on myself. This is the first time ever, because I was never in a place where I considered myself important enough or understood why it was the fundamental building block to everything else in my life.

Previously, I would go into vicious cycles of overworking myself, burning out, taking a painfully long time to recover, rinse and repeat:

I am experimenting with routines, habits and lifestyle choices that will enable a more sustainable cycle:

It took me a long time and a lot of pain to learn that:

  • A sustainable self leads to sustainable work and decisions, and that in turns contribute to a sustainable world.
  • There is no output without input, and as an extension, what goes into the input impacts the output.
  • The brain needs time to do background processing.
  • It is impossible to expect 99% uptime for a human being without dire, potentially irreversible consequences.

It doesn’t matter how many years of experimentation I can give myself if I don’t learn to use the time in an efficient, yet compassionate, loving manner. Whatever I produce is going to be terrible if I am constantly anxious, stressed, tired and sick. Or worse, getting to a state where I am simply incapable of functioning.

So, in the spirit of sharing the ups, downs and the in-betweens, I am documenting what I am doing and why.


The objective

To facilitate healing for my burnout, to learn to love my body, and to keep my mind in the most optimum state possible.

Food

There are a ton of research on how sugar impacts our body and mind. I practice intermittent fasting and carbohydrate restriction as much as possible, with the exception of my mom’s cooking or when I’m out with friends. This is a good balance for me because extreme restriction inevitably leads to bingeing for me — food is a major source of emotion-numbing for me — as the brain quickly runs out of willpower, causing an irrepressible glucose craving.

Swimming

I suffered a lot from circulatory or inflammatory issues and after years of denial, it became painfully clear to me that nothing is going to get better if I don’t put in the discipline to oxygenate my system effectively. I started just swimming 10 laps once every few days, to 20 laps everyday, no matter how grouchy or tired I am. I am at the point now where I can feel how tense my body feels without it, and I no longer need conscious motivation, because I look forward to being in that relaxed state.

The stillness that I experience while underwater is surreal, and it gives me a calming, meditative effect, shutting the noise in my mind up. I started having a whole train of ideas bubble up during my swims, so now I bring a notepad along with me.

Reading

I read after every swim, for at least ten minutes, which is adequate time for a typical chapter. It is not how much I read, but the consistency I am reading, and how much new information I am inhaling everyday.

Reading heals me, because it helps me make sense of the world in relation to my inner-world.

Journaling

I picked up a daily 750words habit again. Dumping my thoughts every morning really helps me to clear my mind, realign my focus and more importantly, create space for myself.

During the rest of the day I note down important moments of insights into Day One. I get a lot of those while in transit.

Introspection

I pick apart every single thought process and decision. Why am I feeling a particular emotion, why do I want something, why am I avoiding something, what are my motivations for anything. There are spate of days when I feel particularly down, and I take the time to examine myself.

It is also easy to numb my emotions by being “busy”, so giving myself time to sit with my own pain and discomfort helps me to dive deeper into my issues instead of letting work bury them into the deep recesses of my psyche.

The space to be and wander

I intentionally create space in my schedule to simply wander, to observe the beauty of ordinary moments, to take in the expansiveness of the universe. Apart from just learning to appreciate the wonderment of the world, it is also giving my subconscious time to do some background processing.

Self cognitive therapy

It is also very easy to feel alone to attempt something either potentially audacious or just plain delusional. I used to struggle with low self-esteem, and having a chronically depressed mind doesn’t help either, so it is a consistent effort to remind myself why I am doing what I am doing or I’ll be in a long extended panic attack. It all boils down to understanding my mortality, that life is both long and short. I want to look back at my life and know I have tried my best to be alive. To do what I believe in, even if I am alone in believing it. Sometimes I tell myself dramatic stories of Galileo or Van Gogh to push the point across to myself, yet cognizant that it is not a particular outcome that I am pursuing, but the fullest expression of myself.

People

It is critical to have:

  • the right role models: both alive and dead, I can’t explain how comforting it feels to know I am not alone throughout history,
  • peers walking on similar paths: I am glad I am definitely not the only person who gave up financial stability and promise to search for more,
  • friends who celebrate my quirks and people who somehow love me even though I don’t believe I deserve it: if I left it up to myself to evaluate myself I wouldn’t be alive today.

I actually have a list of them in a document I remind myself with because my brain doesn’t remember the good.

I was too used to facing my struggles alone, so it took effort to learn how to reach out, and let people reach in. It is not only about the light and strength I have derived from them, but their presence reminds me of the light and strength I have within myself. So, I am deliberately making a lot more effort to be present with my people. Being with them is one of the greater joys I have, and I had never really known that because I was always too busy, depressed and tired.

There is also a deliberate effort to make new connections, because every single person brings an intricate story, and that never fails to fascinate me.

Presence

This is also new. It was seeded years ago when I read that managing energy, not time is the key to living a productive life, but Maria Popova sums it up better:

Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity.

I have found that to be true for myself, people and work. Everything above contributes to my capacity to be more present in all aspects of my life. When I work on something these days I am fully engaged with it, because my mind is clearer and my energy is calmer. I am experience immersion in my work, and that brings me great joy.

Sleep

This has been so wired into me now that I almost left it out. I keep a relatively strict schedule of sleeping at 11pm everyday and allow myself to wake up naturally to light. Sleep repairs and regenerates.


Where it all connects

Food, exercise and sleep impact our body chemistry, and apart from the obvious implication to our immune system, it affects the way we think and feel. Journaling, introspection and wandering create space for me to work through the chaos in my mind. Having strength and stability gives me the cognitive capacity to make optimal decisions — to be capable of thinking through long-term repercussions instead of getting seduced by short-term gratification.

All in, they create an inner ecosystem that ripples and cascades into every major area of my life:

The intricate relationships between input and output

It is part of pushing boundaries — both in life and self — and in particular experimental work, to experience failures, uncertainty, self-doubt, and borderline insanity because there is a lot of leaping into the unknown. There is no framework for coping with that sort of existential loneliness in trying to forge a self-directed path. Resilience is not about preventing all of that, but the capacity to endure, observe, and learn from them, without losing the courage and spirit to keep on trying.


Early results

I am terrified of jinxing myself and I also believe my brain is fooling me all the time — a consequence of reading too much neuroscience and psychology. Just two months ago I thought I was going to live with chronically inflamed eyes and lifelong anxiety, after suffering a spate of terrible health for most of this year.

Somehow just through consistent momentum and giving myself a lot of compassionate space to heal, I have found myself observing strings of moments when I am experiencing a sense of love, gratitude and wonder, followed by stretches where I get lost in a space where I have no sense of time or the desire to disengage.

Is this what it feels like to be alive?


This is part of a year-long experiment with my life. Follow “The experimental year” for updates and additional context.