POEM: Notes on Being an Introvert: or, Weird

Most people turn a spigot to control the flow of the informational self. Opening the valve at will, and adjusting the flow as the pipe diameter allows. I have a hammer and a dam. Slamming the hammer into the dam yeilds nothing the first knock, and only a few droplets seep through over next several frantic smashings. Then spews a deluge of stone and water. Fortunately (or unfortunately,) by the time the flood crests, everybody has found safe ground elsewhere — usually.

“One-track mind” is a pejorative label, a criticism of an obsession. But the best one can aspire to is a two-track mind. Track One is what you are aware of, and Track Two is being aware of what you’re aware of it — metacognition. [Some Buddhas may be able to mirror it out to a third level, but not me.] Sure, one can juggle things in and out of Track One like a spastic circus worker, but it’s still a one-track mind. And dialing in Track Two is like tuning into one of those cross-country super-stations back in the radio days. The ones that only came in clearly in the stillness of the dead of night, and, otherwise, tipped into static with the slightest provocation on this spinning, orbital world.

My point is that I require a track for actions that usually take place down below the waterline, in the engine room — i.e. eye contact, smiling, etc. So when my one-track mind is occupied with information flows, I’m staring off who knows where — looking like the person who peers over your shoulder at a clock or at the prettier person he wishes he was talking to — but without recovery, because I’m oblivious to what my eyes are taking in. Worse, sometimes I remember to juggle “make eye-contact and smile” into Track One, and then I realize after the fact that I stared down an interlocutor with a maniacal grin until he excused himself, worrying I might have been sizing him up to make a coat of his skin.

Lest you think me wallowing in the mire, there’s a sweet upside. Under the right conditions, I gobble up and manage information like one of those giant harvesters that chews through a 200 acre cornfield in a day — separating grain and chaff — and stowing it away neatly. And, putting my body in motion, I can dive a mile inside, losing my Self and becoming blissfully enamored with this electric life.

Then there’s that aspect of me that I used to feel a curse, but have come to embrace: my inability to give two fucks about things that drive “the normals” to frenetic lunacy, such as:

  • collecting and squirreling away bits of matter
  • sports teams (A digression: I’ve always found spectator sports to be like being invited to watch a party through the window from the outside. I see why the athletes are fervent about it, but can’t figure out why anyone else would care.)
  • the need to be loved by every single person I come into contact with — that must be exhausting
  • the need to feel that I understand the world (I love the chase, but I’m like a mutt chasing a Mack truck. Catching it would prove fatal. It might not crush my body, but it would crush my soul.)

I’ve been thought many things:

  • People-hating: Untrue. I see each person as a bright and splendid sun. Warming. Soothing. Invigorating. Burning. Scorching. Cancer causing. And, ultimately, fatal. “The poison is in the dose,” as they say. Catch me without sunscreen and I’ll flee. With it, we may know some time together. My wife seems to be the only one free of this harsh and curious radioactivity.
  • Arrogant: OK, it’s not wrong that I be thought arrogant, but it’s usually in ways and degrees that do not hold. I once heard Neil Gaiman say something to the effect that a writer must balance humility with the lunatic overconfidence of a seven-year-old schoolboy. To clean out the attic before it explodes out the windows and into the street requires an inexplicable degree of comfort with everybody seeing the skeletons, sex toys, and unused fitness equipment you’re putting to the curb.
  • Depressive: Perhaps, in the days I felt the need to be someone else, but more likely just drained from the time-release vampires.

5 Traits Confused for Introversion

There are a number of personality traits or temporary states of mind that may be wrongly attributed to introverts. One reason for this is that introverts aren’t the most expressive of individuals, and in the absence of information people write their own stories — and when writing their own story, they tend to put themselves at the center, even if it’s a story to explain another person’s behavior. So it is that, faced with a lack of verbal or nonverbal feedback, many individuals will assume that the introvert’s behavior has something to do with them. For example, the introvert — lost in thought — who doesn’t acknowledge another person’s entry into the room may be seen assumed to be miffed or irritate, when the truth is that they were just so deeply absorbed in thought that they didn’t notice said person.

 

5.) Arrogance: If the introvert has a high level of self-confidence in his or her abilities in a particular domain, they may be believed to be arrogant or narcissistic, generally. I, for one, am plenty arrogant in some regards, but that doesn’t mean I’m at all arrogant about what people have assumed me to be arrogant about.

4.) People-hating: Introverts burn energy quickly in interactive, or highly stimulating, situations. That means that they aren’t going to jump on every invitation. An introvert has to manage energy with respect to activities and events where he or she has to interact with others. Choosing to stay home alone rather than go to a given party doesn’t equal hating people.

3.) Shyness: Introverts can be shy, i.e. have anxiety about being in social situations. However, the two don’t necessarily go together.  Shyness, or social anxiety, is also much less stable a condition. In other words, people can overcome social anxiety just like they overcome fear of spiders or heights. However, introversion isn’t conditioned away, generally speaking. One needs to think in terms of managing introversion rather than extinguishing it.

2.) Unintelligence: As Susan Cain discusses in her book “Quiet” this isn’t a global tendency, but it’s common enough in the Western world and America, specifically. In Taoism, it’s famously said that “He who speaks does not know, and he who knows does not speak.” But in the West, if you don’t broadcast your ideas loudly its assumed that you don’t have ideas, and — alternatively — if you are loud enough people may begin to assume you know what you’re talking about. [Which, needless to say, need not be true.]

1.) Hostility / Passive Aggressiveness / Anger: An introvert may be assumed to be giving others the “silent treatment” when — in fact — there’s no “treatment” just a love of silence.

5 Tips for Traveling Introverts

I’m living proof that introversion and love of travel are not at odds. That said, introversion is all about managing stimulating situations before they red-line to stimulation overload, and travel is packed with novel sensory experiences. There’s an art and science to getting the most out of travel as an introvert. Here are a few tips.

5.) Exploit the quiet spaces: No matter how clamorous the city one is visiting, there are  always little zones of solitude, including: places of worship as well as parks and gardens. In travel beast mode, our minds are often focused on getting photos, seeing everything there is to see, and planning our move to the next site, and one can miss opportunities to recharge.

One might not feel comfortable taking up a meditative / reflective stance at a place of worship of some sect not your own. However, if you can shed worries about being seen as a poseur-gone-native, the nice thing is that people everywhere tend to be respectful of your quietude in such places. Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said about parks and gardens, which may require scouting for a hidden enclave. In some countries, sitting on a bench in the park is taken as an invitation to engage in conversation — mostly in places that don’t see many foreigners. [Which can be great, unless one is specifically trying to turn inward for a few moments.]

4.) Meals aren’t just about nourishment: For a long time, I thought I had a pretty harsh tendency to go hypoglycemic. But I’ve come to notice that if it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I haven’t eaten since breakfast and I’m hiking the Annapurna sanctuary in Nepal, I’m hungry and will let you know it, but it’s still possible to stand being around me. However, if it’s 3pm and I’ve been walking around New Delhi all day, I’m probably on the verge of going full-Hulk at the slightest provocation. [The other evidence that it’s the lack of peace and not the lack of glucose causing my problem is that a granola bar seldom makes a dent.]

Of course, a peaceful place to take a meal break isn’t always sitting right in front of one — even in big cities. It sometimes requires some thought before one is on the verge of a melt-down.

3.) Know thyself: If you are the kind who absolutely must see every site in the guidebook, you need to allow yourself extra time in a given city or village above and beyond just what is required to move from place to place. You need to factor in quiet time. In some travel destinations, solitude is built in by virtue of the locale, but in other places, it can be elusive.

Alternatively, if you are the kind who doesn’t mind missing temples 8 through 12 on the “best of” list, the whole issue becomes a bit easier.

2.) Vary your cycles: In practice this can be a challenge because of where sites are relative to other sites. However, if you can have a mix of more and less stimulating locations within a day, and then again over the course of the week, that will help a great deal.

Also, if you are a morning person and can hit the more intense sites when you have that burst of energy, that’s for the best. Alternatively, if you’re a night-owl, match your high energy periods with your high stimulation happenings.

1.) Recognize the upside: Don’t believe the hype that being an introvert is all downside with respect to travel. Most discussions of this subject would focus on how helpful introversion can be in the planning process, and in anticipating problems that might derail your travel itinerary. However, let me mention another advantage that you may not have been as likely to consider. I have found that a lifetime of feeling myself an outsider has desensitized me to instances in which I am really, truly, and vastly outside my culture. So to me, sitting with ex-head hunters in Nagaland isn’t particularly more awkward than attending a party in my hometown.