Signing off on 2022
I like reflecting; some might call it overthinking. But you know, the “unexamined life is not worth living” and all that.
Usually, only my journal and occasionally also my partner or a friend are privy to my reflections. This year I am sharing my reflections online. After all, I owe so much of my wonder-filled year to people I met (and experiences I had) here.
To friends here following my journey, you know who you are: thank you. I’m lucky to have you.
2021 was shambolic. It brought death, disarray and destruction to India, with the second wave of COVID-19. Haunted by constant ambulance sirens and alternating phone calls for Oxygen cylinders, bootlegged medicines, and news of another dearly departed soul, I entered 2022 with low expectations.
I was in the midst of many small and large work and personal projects. I was writing a book on a somewhat misunderstood and politically sensitive idea, I was researching an arcane but personally meaningful aspect of our political system, I was running, doing yoga, gardening, leading group coaching sessions, happily married, supported and loved.
I was practically living the dream of a younger Malavika. Ten years ago, I had left behind a prestigious partner-track job, and the free healthcare, first world mortgage and life in suits it came with. Life was short, and I’d wanted to be free. Having my right to live chained to a visa attached to being employed was not my idea of freedom. Nor was tying my vacations to bank holidays and firm leave policies. Most of all, I’d wanted to be free to do what set my heart on fire.
Yet, at the start of 2022, I was stuck. So I set myself one intention and one guiding thought for 2022.
The intention was “peace.” I didn’t want to run away from or suppress the bad and sad things I was wrestling with. I wanted to make peace with them.
The thought was “mood follows action.” This was a phrase I heard the ultra-endurance athlete, author and master podcaster Rich Roll say often. The idea is that only action can transform feelings, thoughts, and states of mind, because, as Dr. Andrew Huberman says, “… it’s very hard to control the mind with the mind.”
Here are some reflections on where I find myself as I set out into 2023:
A year of action to beat all the other years
Mood follows action, Rich said. So, act I did. The moods I wanted to experience were motivation, delight, and connection.
I did many things. Things that otherwise seemed just too big and hard for me.
I signed up to run a 10K; I was done believing sport was not for me.
I applied for a conference at Oxford; I had everything to learn and nothing to lose on the outside chance I did get selected.
I wrote my paper out in what felt like my own, authentic voice for the first time in my small life in academia; if I was not going to chase my unique obsessions in the thing I loved doing so much, who would?
I applied for a spot in Corey Wilks’ thoughtfully designed and executed cohort-based course, Intentional Life Design; I was desperate for direction and I yearned for a community that would help me look outside the limits of my imagination.
I dared to ask for support where the dream seemed too big to achieve on my own.
I wrote to my professors requesting them to mentor me on my research projects; any support was better than being convinced I was stuck in a far away corner of the world alone.
I asked for feedback on my research from strangers I met at conferences; whatever came out of that conversation would still be a step forward from the status-quo.
And I applied for financial support for both Intentional Life Design and David Perell and Will Mannon’s online writing school, Write of Passage; these courses were a far cry from my researcher’s income on a currency like the Indian Rupee.
I did more things in this one year than I had done in the last ten. Reflecting on this strange hustle mode in my anti-hustle life, I turned into a self-authored case-study of Rich’s mantra.
After writing and presenting my paper at Oxford, I had a freshly brewed optimism! I no longer believe international standards were beyond my reach with my Indian training and credentials.
After filling in for the absent-interlocutor on a panel in a conference in Lisbon at the last minute, and speaking to strangers on Zoom for weeks at Write of Passage, I was suddenly finding myself at ease and in flow. I no longer needed to plan and prepare the things I would say before I entered public (or other kinds of) speaking situations.
After asking and receiving support from strangers, I felt validated and energised to keep going. I learned that I need to let others in on my dreams – scary as it is to be so vulnerable – to have a shot at achieving them.
And after running ten whole kilometers, I found courage. I now think of myself as a runner even though I’m no athlete. :)
The meaning-shaped hole in my heart and other maladies
Yet, every “success” felt as empty in 2022 as in years past. I often went back to this clip from the Graham Norton show in which Matt Damon talks of the emptiness of winning an Oscar young.
I had a meaning-shaped hole in my heart. No book deal (or other conventional “accomplishment” for my generation of young Indian) or 10K finisher-medal (or other self-designed metric of achievement) was about to fill it.
I watched relentless folks like Ali Abdaal and wondered where they got their sense of meaning from. Were they really into this hustle? Was the journey really so enjoyable for them? Were they at peace?
With no answers forthcoming to those questions, I got onto the next hype-train. I became obsessed with setting up the right systems. (Thanks, James Clear!) I spent a ton of time that I’m never getting back watching productivity YouTubers. Unsurprisingly, Youtube-watching decimated any productivity I had.
I found myself getting to the finish-line but losing steam and motivation just short of it. I didn’t finish my papers for a couple of the conferences; I didn’t follow up with the professors who didn’t respond to my emails; I almost gave up on my book-contract after having written a whole manuscript.
Perhaps I was copping out in the last leg because I was feeling depleted. But copping out depleted me even more.
I was also constantly afraid of the abyss - a dark place I had fallen into five years ago, when I was specialising as a trapeze-artist, swinging constantly between fight and flight. I had crawled out of it painstakingly over the years, paying careful attention to my mind-body health.
Yet, I was teetering on the edge of a different kind of abyss, born of a crisis of meaning, and something else that was very core to me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Slowly, I began to neglect my garden, I nearly stopped running, I gave up on my yoga practice, and I was sad, irritable and uncommunicative.
Finding connection, first with my “self”
The turning point in my year came when the brilliant, no BS, therapist-turned-coach for human flourishing, Corey Wilks, generously waived my fee for a place on “Intentional Life Design.” The framework Corey created has a simple foundation: a life with meaning is a life lived in alignment with one’s “core-values.”
Two elements of his coaching pushed me out of my funk.
The first - finding my “core value.” Corey defines a “core-value” as the “... one underlying value that unites everything you stand for.” I seemed to have no idea what this was for me, because I had no idea who I was! I had been trying to get to know myself for years, on the advice of everyone from good ol’ Socrates to sage Ramana Maharshi. But nobody ever told us how, especially when we don’t know what we don’t know in ourselves! Until Corey came by. (Someone, give him his cape already!?)
I used Corey’s tools over and over and over, and found that my core-value was “autonomy.” Autonomy sounds a lot like freedom, but in my eyes they were a world apart. To me, autonomy was a yearning to find my power to use my freedom. And something in me was making me feel powerless.
The second - to live a life aligned with my core value, I needed to remove the obstacles in my way. There were many things about me that I would have readily believed were in my way. But Corey made me see the unlikeliest: the fear of success. I had never conceived of this possibility. As Corey says, “...how could we be afraid of achieving the very thing we say we want?” I couldn’t fully make sense of this, but I knew in my bones that this felt true.
Unpacking these insights with my therapist, I discovered parts of me that I was not conscious to. (I’ll be damned if there isn’t a Stutz-esque documentary made about her some day — she’s been a game-changer.) Like the part of me that lived to serve and to please, and the part of me that self-sabotaged. These parts of me seemed tied to a deep belief that ‘I am unworthy unless I am needed’. (A story for another day about the *stuff* that happens to us as children that we never fully process.)
This childhood *stuff* cast a long shadow into my adult life. I would overextend myself for work, friends, and even at home. Many of my choices - from pro-bono lawyering to coaching to other kinds of care-work - appeared to be born of seeking worthiness by being needed. Otherwise, I felt unworthy of everything. Right from something tiny like a gift to myself to something life-sized like nurturing big ambitions for myself. Whenever I was on the verge of of achieving something nice for myself, I would promptly give up.
Feeling unworthy, unless I was needed, had robbed me of my inner power.
So I got to work. I began to understand these parts of me that stemmed from my unworthiness. I have started to release them from their centre-stage role in my life. They were obscuring my centered, calm, true self.
In turn, I have started to connect with my true self.
I believe that in my true self lies the power and autonomy I yearn for. And in my true self will be the end of my quest for meaning.
Solving for connection; as within, so without
I am starting to honour myself just for who I am, in little and big ways. I have resumed my yoga practice, been reading, writing, bird-playing and delighting in life’s small wonders again. I repotted my abandoned plants, gave them new soil, many sprightly earthworms, manure and love. In the last week of December, I applied for a book-fellowship to complete my book. Two weeks ago, I bought myself a new purple dress.
This marks a milestone for me. After years of only managing the symptoms of poor mind-body health, I am now experiencing healing and mind-body wellness.
But of course, no healing is linear.
I enlisted the support of the usual suspects - my partner, sibling, parents, a gang of goons I’m lucky to call friends and my world-class therapist. I am because they are. My connection with these people is not fungible. Yet, very soon, I saw that there’s only so much a finite number of isolated people can draw energy out from within themselves, for the sake of others.
I yearned for meaningful connection that was spiritually or spatially elsewhere. The unlikeliest source of that connection was Write of Passage, where I was thrilled to get a spot on scholarship.
Writing became the new running - a private, secret ritual between me and myself. It helped me connect with myself in a way I didn’t know I needed.
Every time I wrote, I found a window into who I am in my true self. The more I wrote about my journey with healing, the more healed I felt in my nervous-system. Each time I was read, edited or encouraged by others in the cohort, I found a new opening within my embodied self. Friendships that blossomed in break-out rooms helped me build a relationship with the craft, as well as with other parts of me. The weekly session and writing schedule protected me against my self-sabotaging patterns.
For the first time in years, I learned what it feels like to be embodied for a sustained time. I was centred in my outlook towards many things that would typically evoke extreme reactions in me. I was seeing beyond binaries. I was able to really observe myself and others as I went through life. It felt almost like letting out a giant exhale many years after I inhaled. It was breathtaking, quite literally!
Having a bunch of strangers with eclectic curiosities and wildly different lives flood mine with their warmth, energy, and care, was the connection I could not have found sitting here in India on my own. But the secret sauce it turned out was something else. I was connecting better with others, because I was connecting better with myself.
Signing off on 2022, a.k.a.
finding creating peace
So here we are, still writing, not people-pleasing or self-sabotaging, chasing all the lost embodied-living.
Through all the sad and bad feelings of being stuck, I did not “find” the peace I was looking for. But I did learn to create the conditions for the peace I needed.
For 2023, I have one guiding thought and two intentions.
The thought is “ease even in effort”. The idea is from the yoga sutras: the yoga asana - as with life - is a state of ease even when the mind-body is in effort.
The intentions are “autonomy” and “curiosity.” I want to find and connect with my power, and honour myself with pockets of autonomy in my days. And I want to be curious to experiences inside and outside of me, when I find myself not acting autonomously.
I still have low expectations of 2023, if only because I know the ways of life: we can only guarantee effort; we are not guaranteed its fruits.
But I have higher standards for how I will carry myself. For, I am worthy.
Thank you for reading this long "annual review" essay. If you made it to the end, I would love to hear your thoughts.
Feedback is the greatest love language. Thank you CansaFis Foote (at ), Sandra (at ) and (at ) for reading this draft when it was a mere puddle in the mud.
Loved this piece, Malavika. Thank you for sharing.
"I still have low expectations of 2023, if only because I know the ways of life: we can only guarantee effort; we are not guaranteed its fruits.
But I have higher standards for how I will carry myself. For, I am worthy."
Yessss, I love how you circled back and then ended on your worthiness. So powerful!! :)