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Calm • Perspective

Five Questions to Ask Yourself Every Evening

Our minds are some of the busiest places in the known universe. It is estimated that, under a deceptively calm exterior, some 70,000 separate thoughts hurry through consciousness from the moment we wake up to the time we slip into sleep – some of these elaborate and sequential, many more fragmentary and sensory by nature.

What these many thoughts have in common is that we seldom do them any kind of justice. The river of ideas and feelings is relentless, turbulent and chaotic. In a typical minute, we might briefly register that we are annoyed with a friend, then our minds are directed to a worry about a tax return, which is then quickly supplanted by the sighting of a raven, which makes us think of our grandmother, who evokes a trip we once took to Greece, which ushers in thoughts of some lip balm we need to purchase, which is then supplanted by a registering of a pain in our left knee, which is succeeded by a memory of a friend we lost touch with after university, which cedes to a recurring reflection on what kind of lamp we might invest in for the living room. And we might here still only be at the thirty second mark of what we casually call ‘thinking’ or just ‘gazing out of the window’…

The result of this sensory overload is an immense difficulty processing what we actually experience. We don’t have time to feel the anger we are beset by; we don’t have the wherewithal to give room to the sadness that nags at us. We can’t unpick the promising project that enlivens our ideas of the future. We can’t – on too many occasions – properly think our own thoughts or feel our own feelings.

Painting of two men in black silhoutted against a sunset over low mountains.
Caspar David Friedrich, Evening Landscape with Two Men, 1830-5

Instead, our mental material is cast into the penumbra of the unconscious. It is within us, but outside of our awareness. We are exiled from our own rage, joy, nostalgia, sympathy and ambition.

This loss is not merely theoretical. We pay a high price for the build up of unknown experiences inside us. Our feelings and thoughts are in the habit of needing to be understood – and will protest more or less actively when they are not. We are all equipped with what we might call an emotional conscience that demands that we properly notice what flowed through us – or else makes us suffer for our ignorance. Anger that hasn’t been given its due will emerge as irritability, grief that hasn’t been honoured will metastasize into aimlessness and despair, envy that hasn’t been unpacked will give birth to bitterness. What we call mental illnesses are usually the outcome of periods of our lives that we haven’t had the strength or opportunity to understand or mourn.

What can appease our troubles is self-exploration. We grow at peace the more we can finally allow ourselves to know who we are; the more we can feel the lives we actually have. 

This underscores the importance of regular periods of mental processing; occasions when we set out to deliberately rescue from unconsciousness some of the mental material we did not properly fathom when it first manifested itself.

Frustratingly, the required ratio of lived time to processing time is heavily stacked against us. Five minutes of ordinary life might – if we really did it justice – require twenty minutes to unpack. If we wanted to fully ‘know’ and keep in our sights what had ‘happened’ in a typical day, we might need to reflect for two weeks. The real story of our lives might necessitate a thousand volumes.

But we shouldn’t let these sort of figures undermine more modest and steady effort. There is enormous validity still in simply carving out a few minutes every day to rescuing some of what we have been through. Even knowing we have a responsibility to process is an advance on normal functioning.

Here are five questions that we might all cycle through during a session of examination, five questions carefully picked to direct our minds to areas which we tend to neglect, and from where trouble can most intensely arise when we do so. 

To go through them in turn:

1. What am I really worried about?

This question recognises something rather unusual about how we operate: we frequently do not stop to ask ourselves what we are truly worried about. This sounds odd. Surely if we are worried, we would be expected to pause rather quickly – and explore why. But our minds seem not to work in this supremely logical-sounding way: they feel anxious long before they are ever motivated to ask themselves why they might be so. They can carry on for months, even years, under the fog of diffuse concern before setting themselves the challenge of zeroing in on what is really at stake. So the question bids us to stop running and to turn around and look at what might actually be ailing us.

The use of the word ‘really’ is strategic. We often use one worry to shield us from another; we worry about an upcoming interview to protect us from worrying about the state of our relationship. We worry about money in order not to worry about death. So it can be helpful to keep a supplementary enquiry in mind: what worry might lie behind the worry that is currently obsessing me?

2. What am I presently sad about?

We can make a generalisation: we go around being far braver than is good for us. Because we need to get on with the practicalities of the day, we frequently push to the side all the slights, hurts, disappointments and griefs that flow through our river of consciousness. We chose not to notice how vulnerable we are for fear that we cannot afford our own sensitivity.

But stoicism and strength carry their own dangers. With the help of this question, we should give time to noticing that – despite our competent and strong exteriors – lots of smaller and larger things managed to hurt us today, like every day: perhaps someone didn’t laugh when we told a joke, our partner has been a little distant of late, a friend didn’t call, a senior figure at work was less than completely impressed…

We don’t need to mock ourselves. We aren’t weaklings for being fragile. In fact, there is no clearer evidence of our maturity than our capacity to explore the ways in which we, like everyone else on the planet, are as sensitive and easily bruised as a child.

3. Who has annoyed me and how?

We want to be polite. We’re attached to the norms of civilisation. It upsets us to think we might be upset. Nevertheless, here too we need to have the courage of our actual sensitivity. No day goes by without someone annoying us in some rather fundamental way – usually without them in any way meaning to. Our spirits will be lighter if we can bring ourselves to spell out the injury. What happened? How did it make us feel? What might we tell ourselves to refind equilibrium? If we were lucky, we used to do this with a kindly parent when we returned home from school. Now, as careful guardians to ourselves, we can internalise the process and use our inner adult to soothe the always easily flustered but also easily calmed inner child.

4. What does my body want?

Much of what we feel but don’t process has a habit of ending up in our bodies. That’s why we develop backache, tense shoulders, knotted stomachs and fluttery hearts. In order to live more easily around our bodies, we should regularly drain them of the emotions that they have unfairly been burdened with. We should mentally scan our bodies from top to toe and ask ourselves what each organ might require: what do my shoulders want to tell me? What would my stomach want to say? What does my back need? What do my legs crave? The questions may sound strange; what is surprising is that we are likely to have some very concrete answers just waiting for us when we ask.

5. What is still lovely?

Despite so much that is difficult, every day brings us up against a range of things that still delight and enchant us. Often, these elements are small: the light on the kitchen wall in the morning; a child holding its parent hand at the bus stop; a fig we had at lunch time. They might not sound like things we should bother to register – but summoned up in their full richness and held in our attention for a few moments, they can help to fortify us against the voices of despair. We tend to assume that if something is lovely, it will strike our minds as being so with full force without us needing to do anything supplementary. The reality is stranger: we need to make a conscious effort to squeeze joy out of beneficial elements that might otherwise be forgotten without notice. Our lives have some lovely aspects to them – but we may, surprisingly, regularly and rather clumsily have to make a list of them in order to realise that they exist.

To ask ourselves these questions can feel artificial, we recognise. Surely if they were so necessary, nature would have found a way of getting us to rehearse them automatically. But that is to miss how much that is crucial requires us to submit ourselves to artificial rules. We won’t be healthy in our bodies without tediously walking a certain number of steps every day and consuming a given amount of fruit – and just as annoyingly, our minds won’t be in a good place without just as artificially forcing ourselves to undertake a set of mental exercises to clear up the backlog of unprocessed experiences.

When Socrates, apparently the wisest man of antiquity, was asked to define our highest purpose as humans, he offered a still-legendary answer: ‘To know ourselves.’ We should aspire to be people who never cease to try to make sense of themselves at the close of every day. We should devote ourselves to constantly trying to shrink the scale of the darkness within us; bringing what was once in shadow closer to the light of interpretation, so that we stand a chance of being slightly less frantic and rather more joyful, creative and calm. 

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