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What the journey of healing and transformation is all about. Interview with Anson Whitmer, PhD in Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience and former head of data at Calm.
Welcome to Clues Dot Life, where I share information, wisdom, and tools that help you discover the clues to who you are and the life you want to live.
An essay on the journey of healing and personal transformation
I was recently asked by a friend that I love, who is in the thick of a profound transformation, "What is this all about!?" during a particularly challenging part of her own journey.
Admittedly, the process is painful at times and involves periods of immense confusion. I don't claim to be an expert, but I have walked the path myself, and here's what I know based on my experience.
When we are born, we are unique. We are one of one. In fact, a study I read from 2015 estimated the probability of two sperm or eggs being genetically identical as 10^15. That is 1 million times greater than the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, which has between 100 billion and 400 billion stars. In other words, the odds are effectively zero.
As we age, we begin to be conditioned by the world we live in. The adults around us tell us who to be, who NOT to be, and how to live. We accept their guidance because they have authority over us.
That begins the process of moving away from our uniqueness. We are told to become one of many. Dress like others. Think like others. Live like others. Act like others. In all dimensions of life, we are conditioned to conform to something else other than our individual nature.
In exchange for bowing to their guidance, we receive acceptance and connection. We are invited into the herd and become a part of it, slowly blending in, losing our distinguishable characteristics. And, for a meaningful portion of our lives, existing within the herd serves us well, so we further integrate ourselves into it.
Sometimes, major traumas occur that further separate us from ourselves. Our minds are rewired through blunt force, and the lens through which we see ourselves and the world changes. We become less of what we once were. The societal conditioning we accept from the herd is exacerbated by traumatic conditioning, and we slide further away from the uniqueness granted to us by the Creator.
Later in life, some of us may begin to feel a subtle awareness of an existential gnawing. Something doesn’t quite feel right. Despite our acceptance into society, it’s as if we feel out of place. Many others seem to be getting along just fine. Yet, for a few of us, a void grows within.
Our situation may worsen, becoming so dire that we can't imagine living like that anymore. The existential gnawing becomes an acute spiritual pain. We work jobs we don't like, mechanically associate with people who zap us of our life force, pay for things we don't need, and engage in behaviors destructive to ourselves and the world around us.
By this point, decades have passed since the conditioning of the world took over, and we haven't noticed what the conditioning has done to us. We lose ourselves along the way, enticed by the comfort of being accepted by others. We become the frog in the pot that's slowly boiled alive, unaware of the damage societal conditioning has done to us.
Yet a search begins to understand the palpable void. Turning to books, lectures, therapists, teachers, and gurus, we embark on a journey to discover the root of our suffering and rid ourselves of its life-draining influence.
Along the journey, we sometimes feel lost. Still, we continue forward and find moments where the light shines through the fog, leading us to the next step toward an uncertain destination. Something from beyond our intellect compels us ahead. So, we press on.
With each step, the light shines through a bit brighter. The path forward slowly reveals itself, and we become more clear. The original YOU we pushed aside earlier in life emerges from the existential void, guiding you through what seemed like a never-ending valley of confusion and uncertainty.
The individual YOU has been repressed for so long that we've forgotten about what we were like, what we desired, and who we were. Yet it beckons us from beyond the conscious mind to set YOU free. To return to what we once were before conditioning and trauma perverted our nature.
We learn to listen to that voice — to let it come through and guide us. It knows where to go, but we will only make it through if we allow it to speak, so we relax and soften, and the voice from within takes hold. And when it does, we begin to rediscover ourselves along the journey forward.
The process of healing and personal transformation is the journey toward realizing that who we have become is the result of what the world told us to be. And to answer the call to undertake the journey is to invest in stripping away the influence of the world on you.
When we begin stripping away the layers of worldly and traumatic influence, the YOU that has been subdued begins to come through. At first, it arises with a brief gasp for air. And then it gets drowned out again by your conditioning, and by the world around us. After all, we spent decades pushing it aside in a swap for acceptance and connection. It will take time to reemerge.
Yet with each new layer of conditioning you strip away, the real YOU comes up for longer breaths of air. It begins to fully emerge, year by year, as you continue the journey toward rediscovering who you are before the world transformed you into something else.
And if you stick to it long enough, turning over any rock along the way in search of the clues back to yourself, eventually, you'll arrive at the real YOU. And when you do, you'll experience freedom and wholeness only obtainable by answering the call to heal and transform. That’s when you’ll discover that the journey was never about heading to another destination outside of yourself. It was about returning to yourself, and then living the rest of your life in an unadulterated embodiment of your uniqueness.
The journey of healing and transformation is about giving yourself the gift of becoming YOU. Implicit in that is the emergence of a deep sense of self-love, accepting any and all parts of yourself and pointing them in the direction of the life YOU want to live.
The journey is challenging. Not all will answer the call to undertake it, and I can’t blame them. Mine involved losing and then rebuilding my friendships, where I live, leaving my career, challenging ALL my prior beliefs, reliving old traumas to release myself from them, and more. It's a launch into the void. It's the death of what I once was. It’s the death of the version of yourself that the world conditioned you to adopt.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
That's it. That's what I believe it to be. That's what it's all about.
Soon, I’ll be releasing a 7-part lecture series that explores personal transformation. I look forward to sharing that with you as it will be my first foray into a paid subscriber-only section of my newsletter.
Interview with Anson Whitmer, PhD in Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience and former head of data at Calm.
In this episode, I spoke with Anson Whitmer. He holds a Ph.D. in cognitive science and neuroscience and has worked in academia and the tech industry. Anson was the founding head of data at Calm and a very early employee. He left Calm to start his own company, Mental, which is focused on mental health for men. Their slogan says it all: “How dudes strengthen their mindset.” He can talk the talk, and walk the walk on all things cognitive science and mindset training.
[00:02:51] Lessons from studying the brain.
[00:03:43] Balancing Thinking and Distracting.
[00:09:10] Mind Wandering and Meditation.
[00:11:50] Silent meditation in the Himalayas.
[00:14:28] Suffering and pain resistance.
[00:18:07] Non-resistance and acceptance.
[00:24:23] Reframing threats as challenges.
[00:25:33] Taking risks for success.
[00:29:14] Idea selection in startups.
[00:33:03] Importance of picking the right thing.
[00:39:36] Work-life balance for entrepreneurs.
[00:41:39] The benefits of slowing down.
[00:44:13] Athletes' daily routine.
[00:48:00] Benefits of Cold Water.
[00:51:32] Mental well-being and sleep.
[00:55:11] Mindful retreats and self-discovery.
[00:59:04] The CEO's job: have fun.
Updates to Clues.Life
Clues.Life is my attempt at building a universal map that connects all topics related to mental health, personal transformation, and the art of living. I launched it less than two months ago, so it’s just a baby. However, I post a few updates to it each week, and I use this section of my newsletter to share those updates. If you’d like to support my work on Clues.Life you can donate here.
Since inception, I’ve published 78 unique pieces of content across topics, people and stories, book reviews, courses and lessons, and personal essays. I aim to produce thousands of pieces to assemble the full map of knowledge I envision in my head.
I created a profile page for Thich Nhat Hanh, the legendary Vietnamese Zen Buddhist. He worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and influenced his approach to non-violent protest. I also have a book review published for his book titled “How to Love”, which is a masterpiece on the art of developing compassionate love. I consider it recommended reading for anyone seeking to create better romantic relationships.
Along with that, I’ve published a topic page on Zen Buddhism. Relative to other schools of Buddhism, Zen places much less emphasis on scripture and formal religious practices. It places a much greater emphasis on “turning inward”, discovering one’s own answers through introspection, and direct observation of experiences to arrive at insights and truth.