mental freefall

Fouad Matin

Fouad Matin on Jun 16, 2023

8 min read––– views


Despite what the name might suggest, mental freefall is actually a good thing.

In the uncharted labyrinth of the mind, amidst the fog of war surrounding everyday life, you can land yourself in an unnerving shift and feel a sense of mental freefall. During freefall, as you approach terminal velocity, you are unencumbered by the axiomatic beliefs disguised as truths that weigh us down.

It's a state of mind where you feel like you're falling through the air, with no sense of direction or control. You're not sure where you're going to land, or if you'll land at all.

In difficult moments, we tend to refer to it as "spiraling" but that disregards the concomitant positivity born out of the laborious journey.

Amidst the dizzying whirl, the mind is stretched, pried open, and unburdened from the constraints of pre-existing beliefs and perspectives. As this process unfolds, the fog of uncertainty begins to dissipate, and the mind begins to orient itself, forging new pathways and perspectives. It's a process of discovery. It's how we grow.

It can be painful to confront and dissect our deepest-held beliefs while tumbling into the catacombs of our mind, into a cacophony of errant thoughts and contradictory emotions.

first freefall

My first day of middle school opened on a warm, enigmatic Monday morning in September in the confines of the algebra classroom of my public school in Virginia.

Our algebra teacher, a reserved sage amidst a chattering brood of newly-fledged 7th graders, stepped into the realm of their anticipation with the quiet determination of a farmer preparing his field for a new season. The prevailing clamor hushed before his stoic attention.

He stood in front of the class meeting the perturbed silence with a restful smile as he proceeded to walk around the room and speak:

“A lot of you have probably lived your lives up until this point thinking you are the star of your own little TV show and everyone around you is just a supporting character to you as the main character, but in fact, we've all felt that way.

Don't think you are any more special than the person next to you. You are just exactly as special as everyone else.

You're not the center of the universe, you're just a part of it, and the sooner you recognize that, the more incredible it all becomes.

... OK, now who's ready to learn Algebra?

He seemed to relish the unsettled quietude that his words had instilled, watching as a sea of youthful faces grappled with this revelation. He continued to speak, but I was lost in my own thoughts, trying to make sense of what he had just said.

"Well, obviously I know I'm not the center of the universe," I thought to myself. "I'm not so self-centered to think that." As I looked around the class, the variety of reactions to this idea painted on the students' faces as if we were an ensemble on a baroque canvas.

Some impatiently awaiting the syllabus for the year, some mocking this aspiring philosophy professor, some staring at him with blank expressions, and some attempting to reflect on this supposed epiphany.

Our teacher ventured past the existential turmoil he ignited across the class, radiating in a beam of sunlight as if were a spotlight cast from heaven to reveal the path of enlightenment.

Reaching his dais, the chalkboard, he outlined an unsolved math problem abridged into a format that we could reasonably understand:

“Now, this is an unsolved problem. Many of you have never dealt with an unsolved problem before. You've been taught to add two numbers together or memorize multiplication tables.

The rest of your life will be different; there are no multiplication tables to memorize. You will be given problems that no one knows the answer to, and you will have to figure out how to solve them.

That's what we're going to learn in this class. How to solve problems that we, and others, might not currently know the answer to.

Later that day as the animated herd of students converged on their buses to go home, I parted ways with my friends and, in that moment, realized I hadn't considered what the rest of the day for everyone else in my class was going to be like.

I lived my life fixated on my immediate surroundings, a level of unabated presence that I aspire to as an adult. I had not thought deeply about the bus routes of my friends or their afterschool experience.

Except in the "crossover episodes" where we would quite literally imagine, script, and act our own variety TV show — our hopeful rendition of The Amanda Show.

What started as a simple thought experiment, quickly spiraled into a full-blown existential crisis. No longer the star of my own TV show, but rather a supporting character in everyone else's. No longer the center of the universe, but rather a part of it.

It was freeing — except for the unrelenting re-evaluation of everything I thought I believed about myself. While I was so certain that I was not self-centered, I realized that I had only perceived life through a first-person lens up to that point and hadn't compelled myself to view situations from other perspectives as they unfolded.

My mind was in freefall, tumbling through the air, unsuccessfully trying to reorient myself. Each morning for the next three days, I would wake up and change my mind about at least 10 things before breakfast and another 10 before lunch.

On Thursday, I felt a sense of calm as I woke up from what felt like a cognitive hibernation. The elusive clarity that evaded me for the past three days had finally arrived — at long last, I knew what I thought.

friendly freefall

It was years until I reflected on that experience again. I was talking to a friend about moments we felt perceptible shifts in our thinking. She asked, "What was the most memorable shift you experienced?"

That was the first time I shared the sibylline chronicle of that day in the algebra classroom. I asked if she'd experienced a similar moment, but she had to think and try to remember a similarly profound, formative external stimulus.

It occurred to me that the insight came from within, and the external stimulus was merely a catalyst. The most relatable analogy I could think of was if you were dropped out of a plane and couldn't tell up from down.

“It's kinda like... mental freefall.”

The new framing reminded her of a seemingly innocuous annual tradition: watching fireworks with her family and friends on July 4th as a child.

In past years, once the fireworks started she was completely captivated by their magnificent pageantry. Starting with an expectant stillness that blankets the world.

Then, with an audacious suddenness, the sky is pierced by a tumultuous burst of color - an eruption of incomprehensible brilliance. The sublime orchestra of human ingenuity against the backdrop of the cosmos. Each firework was a brief yet triumphant testament to man's audacity against the stoic, unchanging night.

But that night, she and her family arrived early to get "good seats", and for the first time, she could see the people launching the fireworks.

She realized there were people all these years; behind the scenes, orchestrating the show, and emblazoning the sky into the spectacular movie she had been watching. She kept thinking about it for days and came to the realization:

“I want to be the person launching the fireworks.”

stages of freefall

To understand and make the most of mental freefall, we must first accept, embrace, and appreciate the experience. A hyperfixation that starts and ends with the mind on itself.

The initial stage of freefall is similar to the feeling as a wave crashes into you; a brutal chaos of uncertainty and doubt that pulls you beneath the surface. As we plunge deeper, we enter a stage of exploration - a feverish dance with our own unruly thoughts and effervescent feelings.

It is crucial here to not resist the dance but rather to become a willing partner, moving with the rhythm, and understanding its nuances. This introspective dance eventually brings us to the final stage - the doubtful serenity as we wash ashore - where clarity dawns and certainty takes root as we find solid footing.

We emerge anew, freshly absolved from our once-quixotic beliefs, to forge ahead unafraid to reveal the contractions we currently hold dear, waiting to be unearthed.