Let me start this article with an extended caveat:
Last weekend, I took too much MDMA, and I spent the rest of the week coming down.
Now, it’s easy in these situations to get dragged into whatever story our mind latches onto to explain our new, emotionally decrepit state.
One of the mind’s principle functions of course is as a kind of post-hoc rationalising machine. We discover that we are feeling low and so the mind, in its endless quest to understand, gropes around in the dark for an explanation.
(The mind says: oh Lord if I can only understand my pain, then I will be able to bear anything!, when perhaps we should rather wish: Lord, let me bear any pain, and maybe then I shall understand).
More than an explanation though, the mind wants a story. Because story is the DNA of the ego itself. The ego is the narrative of narratives, the arc which binds the various stories of our historic moods together. And the mind, so long as it is in its service, will seek more stories, which buttress and reify the ego’s sense of self: I am a story, made up of smaller stories, unfolding through time.
Because of this, it’s not enough for the mind simply to recognise I’m feeling chemically depleted because I took too much MDMA. That’s not a story. That’s something more like scientific fact. And that isn’t interesting or nourishing to the ego.
Where’s the plotline, the dramatic tension, the twist?
The ego wants instead to entrammel us in its story, so that we continue to be too lost and confused to recognise that a story is all it is.
BUT HAVING SAID ALL THAT!
It is said that the journey towards enlightenment is simply the telling of better stories that are more conducive to human wellbeing and flourishing and the shedding of less effective ones.
This is another way of saying that, although stories are artificial constructs we overlay life with - because life, being the totality of all things, cannot be limited within anything remotely resembling a linear structure progressing forward through time such as a story - they are and will remain the mode via which we as human beings understand the world.
(Whether enlightenment itself is a state of mind beyond story or just one in which the stories that we tell ourselves and engage in are of the highest beauty and meaning I cannot tell you).
And it is in this sense that it is useful to pay attention to the stories we tell when in states of chemical and emotional depletion. Because while those stories may not be true, they do point to some of the underlying narratives which dictate how we are living our lives.
We, as complex, contradictory, many-faceted beings, can have multiple stories running at once: the story that we are all divine beings inherently deserving of love can run alongside another story where the world is a hostile and competitive hierarchy where the only semblance of safety I can achieve is through proving my superiority through outward displays of strength and power. (If you’ve ever tried to practice loving-kindness meditation, you’ll notice the conflict between these two or similar stories occurring within your mind, as you wish someone well you are in some kind of conflict with for example.)
When we are feeling low, the more pernicious of the stories we are telling ourselves become apparent to us. These stories are always running somewhere in the background, muddying the other, better, more affirmative stories, sapping their energy, creating cognitive and emotional dissonance.
It is a gift therefore to be made aware of them, as this becomes an opportunity to listen to them and to begin to retell better stories. To subsume them more seamlessly into the greater narrative that you want your life to be and communicate.
Coming down, the story that I encountered in myself was this:
All of the things that I do, especially the things that I create, come from a desire to prove my worth to other people, as opposed to emerging from a place of spontaneous and joyful creative overflow.
This realisation hit me like a sack of shit.
My whole choice of life course was a lie, it seemed to say. Masquerading as authenticity, my decision to commit myself to creative expression was in fact a deep and insidious form of conformity and disingenuousness.
With all the maudlin existential conviction that anyone familiar with the post-MDMA experience will know ever so well, the grim but apparently totally necessary and unavoidable decision to immediately cease creating any and all writing and music announced itself in my heart, and I genuinely pondered retreating to some far-flung monastery in India to contemplate the tawdry superficiality of my being.
Now, fortunately, throughout the days of sitting with this insight, I was able to maintain enough mindfulness to keep a little distance from it, to recognise that despite its persuasiveness, and despite even the obvious truth in it, it was still a story, still a thought, and therefore only ever a partial version of the truth. Moreover, it was a story being told on a comedown. A pinch of salt, followed by plenty of electrolytes and probably a banana and some chilli-ramen was definitely in order.
As the comedown has lessened and something like homeostasis has been returned to, I can see the realisation with more of a balanced mind:
It is not that I create only to prove my worthiness. But this desire and unmet need is often there, clouding the pure expression of my creativity.
What is required therefore, is not the immediate cessation of all creative output. But rather a re-examination of what the motives behind what I make and put out are. It means asking questions like:
- Did what I write come primarily from the heart or head?
- Who or what is it written in service to? Is it written in service to anyone at all?
- Is my own opinion on the quality and worthiness of the piece tied inseparably to how it is received, or do I have an internal sense of this?
These questions, I have realised, do not only pertain to our “creative” expressions. They pertain to anything we put out into the world.
We are social beings, with a need for connection and cooperation, which slips imperceptibly into a need for validation.
As far as I understand it though, it is each of us who must find this validation towards and within ourselves first. Only then can we actually engage with and feel the connection that is already there.
There is nothing to prove. Because there is nothing I can prove. My worth is an inherent fact. It is a sacred contract held within my heart, which I myself must re-sign and re-witness each day.
It is something I re-affirm each morning when I tell myself:
- It's okay to be imperfect
- I am capable of contributing to the lives of others
- I deserve to be happy
- I love myself
- I deserve love and compassion
- It's okay to be average
When I proceed from this basis, when I do what I can to fill my own cup, I no longer so desperately need the affirmations of others. Because what I produce becomes an offering, rather than a veiled demand. It is then for you to accept or ignore this offering. All I can do is offer it.
And so I am thankful for the revelation of this story. Which showed me another facet of my self-centredness, reminding me as so many times before:
Do whatever it is that you feel called to do, so long as you remember that this act is a service, not a right, for the benefaction of the world and not yourself.
As we all know, when we approach life this way, the irony is that we end up with greater rewards than we could ever have set out deliberately in pursuit of.
Perhaps, in the end, there really are no true stories. Perhaps they are all just another attempt to manufacture meaning.
But what is beautiful about the story which says service, and not validation, is what I need, is that it takes me out of story and brings me into life.
We tell stories because we need to understand. We need to understand because we are afraid. We are afraid because we cling onto this fragile house of bones we call the self and pray it will not perish.
But the story of service reminds us this house is not our own, but is only borrowed, as everything is borrowed. It reminds us we will have to give everything and everyone we have ever known back some day, and so why not give it now.
I’ll leave you with the words of Khalil Gibran who, as ever, says it better than anyone else could:
“And is there aught you would withhold?
All you have shall some day be given;
Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’”
Ronan is a writer, musician and coach, committed to seeking truth, beauty and deepening human connection and community. His mission is to help people come alive to realise their deepest gifts.