For those who have had a concussion, or any brain injury for that matter, it goes without mentioning that it is one of the most debilitating experiences. For those who have never experienced such a sorry state, some of the symptoms include brain fog, depression, fatigue, difficulty focusing and even suicidal thoughts. like most injuries, the brain cannot heal without cutting off all stimulus which in this case entails total isolation in a dark, silent room. Stubbornly pushing through and going to work with a concussion is the equivalent of trampolining with a torn ACL. In short, activity is not conducive to recovery. The length of time a concussion can linger varies from 3 months to a year which, for the sufferer, accumulates into a sense of hopelessness and drudgery. However, the death of the ‘intellectual self’, as I was to experience it, was not the cataclysmic scenario I first envisaged it to be. In fact, quite the contrary, it marked my entry into a new way of living, totally alien but quite beautiful.
Being unable to read, think clearly or hold a complex conversation without straining myself, I initially felt that my fate had been sealed to a lifetime of ordinary and mundane experiences devoid of any creation or free thought. However, overdramatic reaction aside, I soon saw that the burden of a concussion would force me into a new mode of living, one detached from my fast paced, goal orientated former life. No longer able to multi-task or complete numerous activities in a day, I knew that the mindset I had adopted for so long in my daily living to avoid feelings of purposelessness could not continue. My pragmatism gave way to a presence and a discarding of the future. In this way, I was able to understand how my far-sighted decisions were removing me from the present moment.
Alan Watts touches on this when talking of ‘purposelessness’. In this particular lecture he explores the idea that the world is not serious and that we are, mistakenly, looking for a grand meaning where there is none. True fulfillment, he suggests, can only be found in the meaningless pleasures of daily life, not deterministic ideals.
“In music, one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition.
If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest, and there would be composers who wrote only finales. People would go to concerts just to hear one crashing chord — because that’s the end!”
Here, Watts humorously mocks the human condition of ‘chasing the carrot’, always wanting to complete tasks and arrive at destinations without an appreciation for the process – an unsatisfying endeavour. It is, after all, quite curious that after achieving a long-term goal we feel at a loss, a perplexing emptiness which we promptly fill with another goal.
Alas, with my symptoms, I could no longer partake in this goal-driven, perpetual race for self-improvement. Whilst it was frustrating to go from the best shape of my life, both physically and mentally, to being unable to read or exercise at all, it was a liberation. A liberation from a prison I had built for myself. In this prison productivity played the warden, progress the guards, and the iron bars were made from the illusion of being too busy. Outside lay freedom, the simpler joys of daily living – the meaningful meaningless, if you like.
The Inner Creative.
With my highly prescriptive goals on hiatus, my ways of seeing the world were drastically reworked. No longer concerned about my own growth, I gained insight into the importance of nurturing personal relationships, something I did not always value, and found myself with an abundance of patience and compassion for my fellow man. I spent time with friends, family and co-workers with no intention other than to just be in their presence.
Interestingly, there were also some superpowers I gained during my brains chemical confabulation. One was a drastic improvement in my ability to draw whilst another, the capacity to see my world differently – the impetus for this post. I must stress that I was no artist prior to my concussion, nor am I one now, but my thought processes became palpably more creative, allowing me a new looking glass for viewing the world. I guess a chemical imbalance in the brain, whilst invariably negative, can produce some positive alterations.
Beyond my own experiences of reality, my concussion confirmed to me many things I was pondering prior to it. Science has increasingly been marking a difference between what we know as the physical brain and what we loosely call the mind. That is, the difference between what we use to interpret/process our world and that quiet awareness we vaguely recognise as our consciousness. I observed that despite not being myself, in the tangible sense, as my mannerisms and behaviours had altered, I was still undeniably ‘me’. Thus, perhaps ‘me’ does not reside in the physical brain at all, I can’t tell you where it does reside, but I must conclude that our true selves are far more than our environmentally learnt behaviours coupled with the firing of neurons. The ‘self’ then, is perhaps not susceptible to physiological damage. This leads me to postulate that it is separate from our physical biology.
Like Siddhartha in Hesse’s classic novel, I have learnt to take life as my greatest teacher. To allow each obstacle that crashes into my path to teach me a lesson of humility, peace and love before I thank it and allow it to pass. We may choose to ignore life’s lessons and feel victims of an unjust, uncontrollable world or trust that life will deliver obstacles and rewards periodically. A deciduous tree does not panic when it is left naked by the winter months, for she is fully aware of her plight and has faith that her leaves will grow once more. This notion of natures rebirth, from struggling to excelling, from abundance to dearth is what Taoism calls the ‘natural rhythm’. A universal concept that features in many of the worlds religions in one form or another, from Buddhism to Sufism to Christianity. In this manner, it is not meaningful to make a value judgement of unfavourable events, we must have the bad to know the good, disagreement to know understanding, man to know woman, and so on.
“Because life isn’t either prickles or goo, it’s either gooey prickles or prickly goo.”
This post is the product of 2 months worth of writing. Essentially, it maps out my road to recovery and I wish it to be read as such. As I type this concluding paragraph I still have some of my symptoms but can feel normality looming on the horizon. I hope my experience can be used as a source of strength for my fellow combat athletes, this is a pertinent hope in light of studies which show a three-fold risk increase of suicide among those with concussions. Fundamentally, I believe this was a necessary right of passage for me. Prior to my concussion, the thought of not training and competing brought an overwhelming sense of lost identity. However, I now fully understand what, UFC fighter, Dominick Cruz meant, after his 2 year absence due to injury, when he said:
“I realised that I don’t need to be a champion to be happy.”
A simple statement, with an easily overlooked deep meaning. Often we allow the things which we do, or the things we have, to define who we are. We become so consumed with our passions and goals that we begin to identify too strongly with them, feeling at a loss once we are forced to deviate from our envisaged path. I would argue that it is because of this enlightened realisation, that setbacks often hasten, that Cruz was able to take his recent loss so well. Like Cruz, I now see that my happiness is not dependent on achieving all of my dreams – although this won’t stop me pursuing them. One thing is clear, I do not need the things I do most often to define myself, quite the opposite, the things I do most need me.
Hardships may dishearten at first,
but every hardship passes away.
All despair is followed by hope;
all darkness is followed by sunshine.