This post is about self-care, and how we do (or don’t) keep it up.
On Saturday, I watched the film Aniara with my GF, a scifi horror piece about a marooned passenger ship. It’s a fabulous film, but one of the side effects of a film that is that good (and about what it is about) is that my mind started explosively and intrusively envisioning what 5.4 million years means.
I started writing Saturday’s blog post before watching and finished it afterward, which accounts for the tone the post took towards the end.
Processing the film made focusing on finishing the post orders of magnitude more difficult due to the topic overlap. A scifi film like Aniara uses time cuts; my mind by default wants to fill in all of the gaps, an out-of-control arborescence that is like trying control a wild horse. When this happens, my brain is emotionally exhausting. It splinters itself apart, and I have to spend way more energy than usual on driving forward with everything I have to do.
I constantly shove new information at my brain that is of a sufficient level of complexity that it is already working through something, one of the recommendations from Jeanne Siaud-Facchin’s Trop intelligent pour être heureux ? (while it focuses on gifted adults who make themselves miserable, I’m not gifted; we just share some of the same brain situations). This usually prevents such situations from happening, but apparently not this weekend.
For months now, I’ve also used religious exercises to blunt some of it — primarily when I engage with media (often films or shows) that lead to miasma. Months ago, we watched two Cults and Extreme Beliefs episodes in a row, and with the episodes’ content, it was more straightforward — I knew that I had to get a handle on myself. My mind needed steadiness after learning what those people had done to kids and to one another, the pollution like dirty oil in my head. I took 12 minutes out of my evening to pray to Dionysos, and the sensations dissipated because that’s what Dionysos does — le liberates our bonds, and le helps the mind come back from being scattered everywhere, and the prayer I do in these cases is a type of purification.
I did that again on Sunday after a sleepless night of images from Aniara flickering in and out of my head, many hours after we watched it. It helped a bit. I prayed to Apollôn, and between the two Gods, I was somewhat better. I realized that it would take me 2-5 days for the intrusive things to dissipate, so this was a waiting game.
While I’m OK mental-health-wise, when my brain is 70% committed to processing something like that, and when my ordinary load is 60-80%, what am I going to do with the excess 30-50%?
The excess 30% had me ragged by Tuesday. There’s something I read in the Yoga Sūtras about saṁskāras and how, while latent, many of them are never really gone. We still have the potential to lapse back into them, either due to things we choose or situations out of our control that knock us over. When the jar is empty, any pebbles cast into it just reverberate, and I got to the point where I was wondering if I was okay because a few warning-sign behaviors were returning.
I started to feel better over lunch when I read the endnotes in Athanassakis & Wolkow’s Orphic Hymns about Mnêmosynê and the Mousai. I was like, huh, being delighted reading about Gods I worship is making this bearable. Deep breaths. Back to work.
Then, on the way home, I listened to the podcast episode of Hidden Brain called “Tunnel Vision,” which is about how scarcity impacts the mind. One of the stories was about a woman in poverty, and the other was a medical professional who fell apart during her residency program. The medical resident’s story of how overwhelmed she was and how she coped reminded me of every self-care thing I had been forgetting to do. Since I know not many will listen/read, here’s a bit from the end of the transcript:
KATIE: When I first started, it was just, like, really busy. So I’d try to come home, and I felt like, you know, I just don’t have a lot of hours. So I need to make the most of them and was like, OK, I need to make sure I’m exercising, keeping my body healthy. And I need to read and stay on top of things. So I’d come home after a pretty long day, and I might go walking for half an hour. And then I’d read. And then I’d go to sleep.
But then, as the time went on, I decided to try to get in more exercise ’cause I’m like, I never know when I’ll get enough exercise in. So I started spending all my free daylight hours walking or running outside or going to the gym, up to three hours a day, plus, like, working 15-hour days and then trying to read and then go to sleep.
VEDANTAM: As she focused intensely on the things she believed were key to her professional success, Katie lost sight of things on the periphery. She didn’t know it, but she was entering the tunnel of scarcity. In her case, it was scarcity brought on by a lack of time.
[Summary of intermediary paragraphs: Her eating disorder returns after years of remission; she ends up in treatment and takes leave from residency; she has a positive recovery experience and learns to pace herself.]
KATIE: I’m kind of the type of person that just likes to study and then do after I’ve, like, mastered it from a study point of view. And so to just do something without instruction is — it feels very vulnerable to me. But it ended up kind of being my saving grace in my recovery. And I’ve actually created an art room in my house. I changed my office from a work room into an art room. And it has paints and watercolors and chalks and everything you can imagine. And I try to go in there once a week and just create something without any expectation, just for the purpose of creating it because I can.
VEDANTAM: Katie eventually returned to her residency program with a new outlook. She started doing something that Eldar and Sendhil recommend to all busy people. She actually pencils time into her schedule to do nothing.
Yesterday, I had been planning to sit down and work on things related to a paper I’m writing, but instead, that motivated me to stop fucking working or avoiding working and instead get deliberatively creative. I made myself some dinner, read a bit while cuddling with my cat, and started to work on a few poems — some drafts about the winter solstices of my childhood, but also a theogony I’m writing that’s related to my scifi worldbuilding.
It gave my brain a break. It was fun. It was restorative.
Sometimes, I acknowledge a God or Gods just by bowing slightly to an agalma outside of routine ritual. That night, I acknowledged Apollôn because he is in charge of poets. I felt a spark of happiness in my head and chest. When I looked at his images and thought about him as Mousêgetês, I realized that I was in a good space again.
True to form — and true to what that episode about tunnel vision was saying — we don’t necessarily think about the things that are good for us in the long term if we can only think about the pressing short term — a long to-do list is overwhelming even if it’s in a #bujo written in the most beautiful fountain pen ink. In the heat of the moment, wrestling with the problem I have had since I was seven of my brain modeling too-large expanses of time in ways that feel like freefalling from a cliff, I had forgotten that engaging in creative acts grounds me, that steadying myself in them was steadying my connection to my writing and the God I follow.
Looking back, of course reading about Mnêmosynê and the Mousai, writing poetry, and praying to Apollôn would make me feel better. Part of that is just who they are — purifying — and what poetry is — restorative.
Psychologically, it’s also that I know devotees of Gods have a positive emotional response to encountering things related to their Gods. Of course, I already know this and act on this knowledge not infrequently. Sometimes, if I suspect (but don’t really know) someone could use a pick-me-up, I will send lim things about or related to a God I know le loves. (Or, in the case of Apollôn devotees or people who worship Hermês, I might just be like HEY LOOK AT THIS WONDERFUL THING because I have an all-consuming need to share unless I force myself to settle down. That’s totally different. That’s being a weird extrovert trying to make friends by throwing books at people.) Even if it can’t do much, I know that small things like this have a positive impact.
The tunnel vision effect had made me forget about the impact of cutting back (a minimalist mainstay) and doing things for Gods (🌟). Now, though, I’m recalibrating and taking a pause.
This morning, I extended my daily prayer to Apollôn — a prayer bead count, bay laurel oil in the burner, a libation of tulsi tisane — and after I finished, I stood still for a few moments while the sunlight from outside danced on my eyelids and I breathed in and out. I rested, my mind an even knife’s edge, before continuing with the rest of my prayers and the remainder of my day.