“If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.”
4/12/18 Sahara Desert, Stumbling into Darkness
I began writing this beneath the red tone of my headlamp while hiding from the wind and sand.
I rode from Marrakech over the white peaks of the High Atlas Mountains, through the Dades Valley, and to the edge of the Sahara Desert. There, I joined a caravan of camels and road into the dunes where, hidden beneath a slope of sand far from the world, sat a circle of tents made of leather. Men dressed in blue and white robes with scarves over their heads sat around a fire speaking a language unlike any I had ever heard.
I had encountered one of the Berber tribes. It may be a total coincidence, but the root of my name is Berber. This seemed to buy me a sense kinship as I introduced myself by pointing at my chest and annunciating my surname.
The Berber people are ancient. They were here before the Romans and fought the Egyptians during their rule. I sat there pondering this while eating chunks of lamb and listening to the sounds of the people who may or may not have been my distant relatives.
My white skin wasn’t doing me any favors.
The gibberish faded into rhythm as one picked up a drum and the others followed in suit. They chanted at the fire that now cast our silhouettes against the sand.
I could see stars climbing above the sand and curiosity took me. I left the circle of drums into the darkness. Headlamp on, I wandered over the dunes for about 20 minutes until the light emanating from the fire no longer filled my periphery.
There, I turned off my lamp and stumbled into an endless sea of black sand and stars.
It’s funny. Sitting in bed back home, that same headlamp illuminating the pages of a book, you imagine that you’ll think profound thoughts when staring into the expanse of the unknown. For me, it’s never really been this way.
Usually, my insights are interrupted by the grunts of an angry tourist gesturing for a GoPro selfie so that he too can capture his vast expanse moment.
Sometimes, only when you feel that there is no safety harness, no one within screaming distance, and no cell phone service, you’ll feel what I’ve come to believe is the most common human sensation alone on the edge of the abyss — haunting silence.
It’s quite difficult to characterize your thoughts, emotions, and sensations amidst the silence.
What do astronauts feel when they turn away from our blue dot, floating there in nothingness, to see an incomprehensible infinity?
At first, there is immediate discomfort. Our ears ache for sound. When we have none, all we can hear is an imagined hum, a ringing in the back of our minds as we scan our surroundings looking for something to fill the void. Then fear sets in, but it is unlike any other type of fear. Usually one fears danger, the threatening of life, but there is nothing out here to be afraid of — no animals, no people, no supernatural figments — just silence. This fear is deeper than a fear of danger.
It is the fear of insignificance. No, the complete absence of belonging. No.
It is the fear of total annihilation.
From here, we feel a deep loneliness, a hunger for human connection as strong as our hunger for food when we are starving.
We live in a world where the self is no longer just flesh and blood. The imprint of our existence extends beyond atoms, beyond nations, and into the virtual realm. We are the most frequent visitors to our own Instagram, Linkedin and Tinder profiles. Maybe this is vanity. Maybe it’s the deep desire to feel known, to check-in on a virtual self whose existence is made apparent by likes and profile views.
Our virtual identity is treading on an endless river of information. If we do not “like,” others will not like us. If we do not post, our existence will fade to the bottom of an endless newstream where we will be forgotten.
In the modern world, we are no longer just afraid for our flesh and blood. We are afraid to not be known, to wake up one day where the little red circle with white numbers on the upper right corner of our apps is empty.
I know…real first world shit.
Pause…check your phone, refresh the page, repeat.
I believe this virtual identity is perpetuating a great illusion, that our very existence not only depends on our continued contribution to the social network — it is the social network. This is by no means new. It’s only made more apparent by the extensive network that is now at our fingertips rather than the smaller one in the room next door or at the dinner table.
I am my country. I am my family. I am my friends. I am where I belong.
To say this is a problem would be as hypocritical as me writing a Medium blogpost about it only to spend the following days and weeks convulsing over read-statistics like Golem over his precious ring.
So maybe it’s more nuanced than this. Maybe our true identities lie somewhere distinct from the the social network in the unique attributes that we bring to the table — our quirks, oddities, or talents.
You go on a first date with someone and one of the first things that comes up is, “so tell me about yourself.”
Your usual response might be about your job. Given enough perceived engagement — a head tilt, a chin rub — maybe you’ll even talk about how you are so much more than your job. You are the character in the story that led to that job, an unfathomable combination of butterfly effects and random mutations that have all combined in an orchestra of you. Maybe you are the passion you keep outside of your job.
This feels much deeper. We feel vulnerable and more connected when we share our stories with others.
Somewhere along the line, however, it felt like sharing your story became commoditized.
Maybe this was once quite a unique and rare occurrence. We may have once only had a few people who we were willing and able to connect with on a deeper level. In my experience, it feels as though reciting the bullet points of our story over and over again is commonplace, expected. We must feel true connection in order to pass the cultural interview, connect with our coworkers, or move onto the second date.
Follow this to its extreme and you’ll find the manicured virtual self once again. We are unique because our profiles have the most interesting travel photos and insightful quotes that represent our story. If we are not unique enough, we go fill our lives with more unique attributes. You don’t have to post it publically for this to be true.
The challenge here is how do you know that those unique qualities or insights are yours? What I’m writing now is probably some combination of the last three books I read. My dreams are some alteration of the dreams in my immediate vicinity — wander abroad, be an entrepreneur. One could argue that you are the marginal deviations from these dreams. You are the combination of many disparate insights.
The silence in the desert is the discovery that you are none of these things.
You belong nowhere and to no one. Stripped of a reality where you are validated by the recognition of your unique attributes, you may find that these qualities are no more than grains of sand among rolling dunes. You are not your story nor are you your job.
You can observe the fear, but you are not the fear. You can observe that you feel of the sand, but you are not the sensation of dry grains on feet. You can observe the voice in your head, that endless chatter of a schizophrenic maniac who vocalizes everything you see or think about. He tells you that are you are afraid, comments that you should return to the group, argues back and forth with himself between returning and staying, and wonders if he is tired. You are not the voice in your head. It is merely a mechanism for compressing reality into a simplified model by vocalizing areas of importance. You can observe yourself thinking, but you are not your thoughts.
You are the one who observes these things. Nothing more. Nothing less.
When we encounter the one who observes, this ghost in the shell of our thoughts, bodies, and emotions, it is like discovering that there has always been a cohabitant in our minds. I can’t think of a more terrifying thought than this. This aware observer is all there is in the silence once our ears stop ringing, our fear dulls, and we have nothing left to vocalize.
You typically read about awareness in overly esoteric texts. They have layers of metaphor that always felt to me to be unnecessarily difficult to understand. Maybe I’m perpetuating this myself. Once you’ve managed to navigate all of this, you’re enlightened.
You are the silent observer that is capable of watching a drama of thoughts, sensations, and emotions play out. Normally, these take the reins, pulling us into ruminating patterns of thought or emotion. We get angry and fixate on anger. We become infatuated and that person never leaves our minds. We loop on what makes us anxious until we are anxious about being anxious. We become prisoners in our own minds.
The only way to escape is to take the stance of quiet observation, to surrender. Thinking about your anger will only make you more angry and fear only begets fear. If you can observe the fear, letting it run its course without allowing it to take the reins, you will come to know that you are not these emotions or their corresponding thoughts.
So what’s the point in all of this?
The point is not to seclude yourself and spend the rest of your days in silent solitude. It is to observe that we will do whatever we can to fill the silence.
We’ve completely forgotten that the silence is even there. We surround ourselves with people to fill a void of belonging. We listen to music on the train to stimulate our commute. We glance at our phones every minute and we argue with ourselves incessantly without ever realizing we’re doing it. We apply a narrative to our past and repeat this story to ourselves and others until we become the stories we tell.
Intentionally avoiding these behaviors is not the answer. To avoid them is to fixate and think about avoiding bad behavior. Our silence will then be filled with an angry voice that tries to maintain the silence like a pissed off neighbor who yells at you when you’ve partied too late. Knowing myself, this would only increase my anxiety.
These are completely human tendencies and there is nothing wrong with them.
Most of us go our whole lives on autopilot. The point is to become aware of the noise we create to fill the silence.
Alone, the cool sand beneath my feet and the vague outline of dunes on my horizon, I became aware of the noise.