Thinking about the ways in which I’m constantly dying

It’s really strange to acknowledge this, but I’ve just finished my first month working at Duolingo. Before I started this job, it was hard for me to visualize what working would be like. The fact that it was going to be such a new environment, and even the idea of working full-time (with no definite stop date, for the first time in my life) actually made visualizing the transition impossible for me. When I tried to imagine what working would be like, my mind would literally just come up blank.

This has happened to me at other times too, basically whenever I’m anticipating something very new or foreign, for which I’ve had little context for. For instance, I could not imagine what the Dipabhāvan retreat would be like—I’d never had an experience that I felt like I could base my expectations of the retreat off of.

The strange thing (which I don’t actually think is too uncommon) is that whenever I’m in this kind of position, where I can’t visualize some aspect of my near future, I feel like I’m about to die. And I think it makes sense, because in those periods, the future me just doesn’t exist in my imagination.

I’ve been thinking about this feeling-like-I’m-about-to-die recently, not because I can’t imagine my future right now, but because I recently finished reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s In Love With the World: What a Buddhist Monk Can Teach You About Living from Nearly Dying. The book constantly reiterates the idea that the transition between life and death is not just something that happens at the end of your life. We’re constantly dying in small ways, as we shed various parts of our identities. In this way, I was right to perceive myself as about to die before I started working, or before the meditation retreat. The part of me that couldn’t fathom what those experiences would be like died, and transitioned into one that could.

For the past couple years, I’ve been focusing a lot on explicitly cultivating gratitude. Although some of the practices I used to do feel a bit forced to me now, I’ve inadvertently realized that thinking about the ways in which I’m constantly dying really allows me to see the blessings in difficult or uncomfortable situations. For instance, I’ve been feeling frustrated at how slowly I’m picking up the knowledge/skills I need for my job, but when I remind myself that nothing is permanent, and that my identity as a new employee is temporary, I actually feel appreciation for my current confused state. I just imagine that one day I might look back on this time with a lot of nostalgia. When I’ve “figured everything out,” I might miss the uncertainty and all the possibilities that accompanied it. A smaller and more everyday type of example is when I feel impatient while waiting for the bus or an appointment, I remind myself that my identity as someone who is waiting is going to die soon, which helps me to loosen my attachment to the future and future identities/states and brings me back to the present moment.

The only time you can live is the present!

How do we know who we are?

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the question of how much of what we think/”know” about ourselves is a consequence of what others have said about us, and how much of it is from first principles. I was surprised when two of my classes this week touched on this question.

In my Attitudes and Persuasion seminar, we were discussing the difference between explicit and implicit attitudes, and which one is one’s “real” attitude. There is actually no consensus in the field about whether or not explicit and implicit attitudes are even internally represented separately. Explicit attitudes are ones that can be measured using surveys, like Likert scales, and are known to us. Implicit attitudes are commonly measured using the implicit association test, and use responses that are automatic/out of our control in some way (like muscle activity in the face, heart rate, etc.). There was one study on racial attitudes that examined body language as well as implicit and explicit attitudes to see if there was a correlation. A question that was brought up in class was how reliable body language was—should we trust what a person’s body says or what they say more?

In my World Drama class, a similar question came up (but of course in a different context!) while we were discussing The Camp, which is an Argentinian play that deals with fascism and the questions of who is a victim? and how does one become a victim?, among many other things. We were talking about a particular character and to what extent we should view him as a victim, since his actions and his words present different sides of him. In this class, we’ve talked about the question of credibility a lot—you can’t take everything that is said in a play at face value, so is there a character whose perspective we’re supposed to trust? And if there is, what aspects should we trust?

No conclusions were made in either case, but since I had both of these in-class experiences, it made me reflect more on this question of how we can know who we are, since there might not even be one thing that is who we are, even in a small way (like your attitude towards a particular object). All in all, I feel pretty stuck on this question for the moment, and I also wonder, after visiting the VIS open studios yesterday, if the best way to work through this question is by making art.