What happens at the upper limit?

On the last day of my March monthlong meditation retreat one of the teachers who used to be a biologist mentioned that “The retreat is only halfway done. The next month is a ‘transition zone’ where life on retreat will meet everyday life. Ecologically,” he said, “Transition zones are the most diverse ecosystems because they contain the dynamics and nutrients of two different environments. Internally, these environments will tend toward homeostasis. But at the transition zone where they bump up against each other, you will find some strange and wonderful creatures.”

This morning I woke up grumpy. I opened my eyes to light, brighter than usual, seeping through the window and blind behind my bed. I looked at my phone to check my Whoop recovery score: 40%, ugh. Yet I had slept an hour later than my usual wake time. I felt the two drinks that I had last night as a dull ache behind my eyes. A sense of dread weighed on me, a feeling that no matter what I did today, it was already ruined.

Even in the depths of grump, this felt bizarre, like mental whiplash. When I went to bed last night I had a strong sense that my day—and my life as a whole—was very rich, full of good things. I remember lying in bed, feeling the soft of pillow and mattress, remembering the bright smile of my girlfriend, a warm hug from an old friend who I had caught up with at last night’s dinner party and, strongest of all, the satisfaction I experienced looking back at the natural, unplanned balance in my day. It had felt like a perfect blend of cooking, sunshine, social connection and—most surprising of all— spontaneous work on a new business that had seemed to take care of itself and come to a natural close after a few hours.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly was unusual about this feeling I had yesterday. It wasn’t just good mood versus bad mood. Or if it was, the good mood was of an unusual, particularly nutritious flavor. I’ve had quite a few good days over the last nearly four years of not working—probably more than in my previous two decades put together. But these good days felt like escape, like I was cheating the real world out of paying my dues, sticking it to the Man. Satisfying, yes, but I also had the feeling that my life was unsustainable. I can’t play hooky from school forever, can I?

Alongside the feeling of escape, even on good days I often experience a lot of fear about my future. Will I ever have the energy and desire to work again? Has the fire that got lit inside me when life took a wrecking ball to family’s finances and home life on my fifteenth birthday gone out for good? Who am I without that fire of determination? For two decades after my family was evicted from our home and dependent on handouts, not ending up back there again was all the direction I ever needed.

But yesterday and during the past two weeks, I have felt neither like I’m grinding it out in the real world, nor that I’m escaping it. Instead, I feel like I’m living right in the middle of my life!

By the time I finished breakfast this morning, the familiar part of my mind that is accustomed to reclassifying positive, pleasant experiences as untrustworthy because of the trauma I underwent at fifteen had broken like a weather front receding into the distance. Enough of the nutrients from my month on retreat were washing around my psyche that I could feel and experience the interaction between my everyday, habitual mind while also seeing that this was what Gay Hendricks terms an upper limit problem: my nervous system was trying to accommodate an enlargement to its previous horizon.

Between discipline and escape, other states exist. As my cofounder Dhruv used to say, “mind = blown.”

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