But no, I suffer from depression—it’s a great way to start off a set, I know. Sorry to go blue right away, but it’s true. I’ve had it my whole life. You know, so like a lot of times I’ll feel sad for no reason. But then I’ll remember some of the reasons. Like, this actually makes a lot of sense.
Welcome to AWAKEN, a podcast presented by the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. That was the voice of Aparna Nancherla. And I am your host, Laurie Anderson.
In this 10-part series, we explore the dynamic path to enlightenment and what it means to wake up. We’ll hear from authors, artists, wisdom-bearers and Buddhist teachers, people who have experienced a shift in their perspectives on life throughout their personal journey. This podcast is inspired by the exhibition, Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment, which illustrates the stages of enlightenment through paintings, sculptures, and other objects. We use these artworks as a jumping off point to better understand the paths our guests have been on and where they are going.
Many of us seek a path to awakening because we’re coming from a place of chaos. Emotions and inner chatter rattle through us like a subway car unsure where to stop. Life itself, as we know, is chaotic; and enlightenment promises freedom from all that noise.
In this episode, we consider what it means to face chaos in our lives. We speak with comedian Aparna Nancherla. Aparna looks for the humor in the darkness, revealing that chaos can also be quite funny and can offer glimpses of clarity. She shares what it was like growing up as a child of immigrants, her journey to recovery from an eating disorder, and how her struggle with anxiety and depression found its way into her stand-up routine.
But first, Aparna engages with a contemporary painting by Tsherin Sherpa titled Luxation 1. This multi-panel painting is the artist’s response to the devastating earthquake that shook Nepal in 2015. Its title, Luxation, means dislocation or displacement. And it references the cultural dislocation felt by the artist.
I immediately feel, yeah, like my eyes are sort of darting all over it because there are so many elements of it that sort of catch the eye, and it’s just so bright and colorful. And it looks like because it’s several different panels, it’s like kind of forming one bigger image, but I almost can’t make complete sense of what that is. And I wonder if that was sort of intentional that the artist who made this just wanted you to kind of be overwhelmed a bit by what you’re looking at at first.
I think also the feeling of dislocation that comes up when I look at it is also because it’s these different fragments, and I think our brains naturally want to be able to make sense of larger pieces coming together. Like we find comfort in having that control and the fact that you can’t really make a coherent image with what you’re looking at here, definitely adds to that sense of overwhelm.
I’ve been trying to do a daily meditation practice and lately, because I’ve been having trouble just focusing my mind more, I try to do like a guided meditation, but even then I frequently feel like just this same idea of fragmentation, where I just have all these thoughts racing around and I’m just trying to get to that centered feeling. And sometimes it eludes me in the same way that I think this, this work of art, maybe eludes the viewer from having one coherent image to take in.
We were raised Hindu, and my parents still practice. I don’t really practice as traditionally as I did growing up. Yeah. I’ve sort of let go of like strict religious observance and sort of a, more of the buffet style, you know, pick what you want, leave the rest. And I have found myself actually, funnily enough, gravitating towards a lot of the principles of Buddhism and finding it very comforting, in confronting often the just onslaught of life and just the way you kind of can get thrown around by the various ups and downs. And I find that the principles of Buddhism are just very grounding.
The big one is just that life is suffering. Like suffering is like an inherent quality of life. And I liked that Buddhism just kind of names that very frankly, and doesn’t kind of try to gloss over it, because I do think there’s this tendency in American culture to like put on a happy face or just, you know, always find the silver lining in everything, which is, you know, definitely something that is a good skill to have and something that helps you keep things in perspective.
But I think it’s also important to remember there is pain, and pain is very much a part of life, and learning to handle yours and sit with it and acknowledge it feels more useful than just trying to, you know, avoid it or repress it or, yeah, just find ways to pretend it’s not there.
I really love how Buddhism makes it so even though there are parts of life that are harder to sit with, it’s all kind of part of this one circle that it’s not like, you know, pain and pleasure, these separate things, but it’s all kind of on this one continuum and one can exist with the other and it’s not, it’s not so binary. And the fact that things are often far more complex than that is really important to remember.
My parents were both immigrants. They came over from India in, like, the late seventies, Southern India, Hyderabad. And I would say, yeah, pretty traditional household in that they were, you know, recent arrivals here, and I think frequently with immigrant families or immigrant children, especially like first-generation, there is this feeling maybe of not knowing quite where you fit in. I learned this term recently called third, “third culture children,” which is like, you don’t quite belong here because your roots are recently from somewhere else. But then at the same time, if you tried to move back to that origin country, you wouldn’t quite fit in there either, because they’d be like, well, you weren’t born here or you weren’t, you know, you didn’t grow up here. So you don’t quite fit in here either. So you then exist in this kind of purgatory state of not quite knowing where you belong a lot of the time.
I think I grew up as a pretty guarded kid, and I think I kind of found early on that I preferred to avoid conflict, because when I saw people, like, in confrontation or like having arguments, it made me really uncomfortable. So I was always like, well, I’ll just, you know, I’ll withhold my anger. Like I’ll just kind of try to be easy to deal with and agreeable, and I found, like, as I’ve gotten older, that it sort of hurt me in a way. Because you would think being agreeable would make it easier overall to get through life. But I think not making space for your own anger and allowing yourself to be like the full range of what it is to be a human. It ends up hurting you where you’re not allowing yourself to fully express your range of emotions. And so I think in that sense, anger is a big one where I’ve only now later in life, been learning to kind of recognize mine and make space for it. And that doesn’t always mean like, you know, blowing up at people or anything, but just internally saying, “Oh, I have a right to be angry.” Like I don’t always have to defer to the other person, feels like a big step for me because otherwise it is like, you’re not giving yourself as much space as other people in the world, which is inherently a sort of way to make yourself smaller.
I deal with a lot of anxiety and depression, and anxiety was a trickier one for me, because I think sometimes with anxiety, people think of a certain image of like a neurotic person or just like a very outwardly nervous person. And because mine doesn’t really present that way, I think people have had trouble being like, “Oh, you also deal with anxiety,” because it’s so internal for me. But yeah, when I was a kid, I think I did deal with a lot of anxiety, but I didn’t know that that’s what it was. So when I found out that multiple people in my family dealt with it, it really was pretty big, in that . . . Well, one, it makes you feel less alone, but two, it just gives you a context for so many things you’ve been feeling. Before, like, I thought everyone has these, you know, thoughts of like, what’s the point of being here. And I think everyone does to some extent, but not where it’s kind of interfering with your ability to just go through life.
In college, I struggled with an eating disorder, and I think at first I think it was unusual in that I sort of realized that I was struggling with it. Like I noticed some health inconsistency. So I went to like the clinic at my college, and they were like, “Oh, you’ve, you know, lost a lot of weight very quickly. Like has something changed in your habits or your health?” And then we sort of . . . me and the nurse practitioner there sort of pieced together that it seemed like my eating habits had kind of gotten a little bit out of control, and I then kind of took it upon myself to get better.
I had just finished my first year of college, and I thought, I think like a lot of kids, I thought that like, oh, I have all these unresolved issues in high school where I don’t feel like I fit in socially, exactly. And I don’t quite know what I want to do with my life, and I’ll go to college and I’ll figure it all out. And then I think after my first year of college, I realized I hadn’t really figured any of it out. And if anything, I had more questions. So I think that was kind of the first impetus for the depression, because it was sort of like, well, if this is all there is to life, then I think I’m kind of screwed, because I still haven’t figured anything out and I don’t feel any closer to doing that.
And so I think that eating disorder behavior, cause I was running for my school’s cross country and track teams at the time. So I think that there was this immediate thing of like, “Oh, I can just focus on improving my body and that will kind of consume all my attention.” And so I just, you know, started becoming hyper focused on what I was eating and kind of comparing my body to like my teammates and, and I think it just took up more and more space in my brain, which again it ultimately, it was a way to kind of avoid my own pain, and really with a lot of eating disorder behavior, really like since we . . . eating is one of the things we do most regularly as humans, or that, you know, it’s one of the basic needs. So if you’re hyper focused on it, it can really just crowd out everything else in your brain. Where I was, when I wasn’t thinking about what I was eating, I was thinking about, like, when I’d next eat or what I’d eaten before that I was concerned about. So it really, it can just become this all-consuming thing.
But it was kind of interesting cause I think with most people it’s like, you have to seek help outwardly, but I think I was like, oh, I’ll just handle this myself. And I don’t have to get other people involved and that did not work very well. And it, I think it just, it didn’t really get worse, but it sorta just stayed the same for a long time. And it wasn’t until I took time off of school and went to like a treatment center that I actually made a change and like helped me discover that the eating disorder was actually a mask for dealing with, you know, some more emotional stuff around depression and anxiety. And I think it wasn’t until I just put a pause on my life and like asked for help that I found I actually got out of my own way.
That was the first time I started therapy was when this like nurse and I figured out that my eating habits were kind of, had gotten out of control, and I started seeing a counselor at school, and that was like the first time I really talked to someone else openly about my problems. And I think that in and of itself was kind of revelatory to me because I had never considered that someone else would like want to talk through your problems with you in it in a deeper way where it’s not just like you’re having a bad week or something, but just like these bigger questions that you just don’t know how to resolve and that you feel pretty tormented by.
Knowing that, and also realizing in talking to the counselor that a lot of other girls at school were struggling with their eating, and realizing that I had looked at everyone else and thought that everyone else was doing great and I was the only one struggling was kind of like a wake up moment for me. Because I think that’s another strange thing with mental health sometimes where you’re so consumed by your own thoughts that you forget that other people might be having the exact same experience.
And I think this happens maybe with a lot of people, but it was like the first time I went on antidepressants and even just naming something that you’ve known to be true about yourself, but you haven’t been given a framework or a context for it is such a big thing. Like just even having it named—that was such a big thing because I always thought that was just how everyone’s brain was. And I just wasn’t able to cope as well as other people. And then being told that like, oh no, this is actually not how everyone else sees the world. And then going on antidepressants for the first time was so mind blowing, because it’s like putting on glasses for the first time, if you’ve always had, been near-sighted or something where the world was just suddenly experienced in this different frequency. And I think that was pretty illuminating for me.
I don’t know if it was necessarily that we weren’t allowed to talk about it, but it almost felt like at first there just wasn’t an openness around it. And I know, especially in some Eastern cultures, and I think this is true in the South Asian community in general, there’s kind of this idea of keeping up appearances and not wanting to air your dirty laundry. So I think it’s like, if you’re struggling with something you like, you want to keep it contained and like, don’t, don’t tell everyone else about it or don’t go talking to strangers about it. And so I think the idea of therapy sometimes conflicts with that, in that you’re telling a stranger about like all your problems, and because a lot of those, uh, problems can have originated in family dynamics. There’s this idea of like, oh, don’t dishonor your family, or don’t shame your family by telling this other person about all of our like internal conflict. So I think maybe college when I finally like took time off of school to get help for this eating disorder. And yeah, it was like the first time in my life that I had kind of broken from the plan of like, you know, go to school, get good grades, go to a good college, get a good job. Because I think I had always thought before, like, oh, you stick to this path because otherwise things will go very wrong, and realizing it’s all pretty arbitrary was a pretty big eye-opener for me.
I think taking time off of school was the first time I even decided I could try standup because I honestly think it was probably the antidepressants that kind of boosted me up enough where I was like, “Oh, let me just try all these things I never considered before.” Because even now I feel like a little bit like how did I do that for the first time? It is pretty daunting. And I think it just kind of allowed me to try things outside of my comfort zone, because it was just this honeymoon period of experiencing life differently for the first time and discovering stand-up through going to an open mic near my house with some friends. That was the first time I was like, “Oh, I guess there is like a medium where I can kind of put this skill to use.”
So I went to this open mic with some friends. We were all home from college for this summer. We just started going to this open mic near my house, just for fun. Like it was a free thing to go watch. So we all decided to do that. And it was the bar of a Best Western, and it was right off the highway. One of the other friends and I, we’re both interested in stand-up, and we both decided before the end of the summer we would try to like go up and do a set one time. And so we both kind of started writing material on our own. And I remember I waited until the last week before I had to go back to college. So I really, you know, saved it till the last minute. A procrastinator in every element of my life. But I remember I, the, my first set, I went up on my birthday, and I had just written some jokes about like working different summer jobs and kind of living at home with my parents as a 20-year-old. And I think there was one joke where it was like walking . . .Uh, I think it was like walking into a public restroom stall, like have you ever walked into a public restroom stall? And then, and then looked, looked at the toilet and been like, there’s a story there. I feel like there was more to it, but I just remember that one line. It went well enough. Like I wasn’t expecting to get any laughs, and it went well enough the whole time that I think I was like, “Oh my gosh, I guess this is something I could actually maybe do more.”
And I think it really felt transformative, or like maybe transcendent is the right word. Part of the reason that stand-up for anxious people seems like it doesn’t make sense, but the reason I think it makes sense is like, I feel anxious a lot of the time just talking to people at a party or like ordering coffee from a barista and like not making a fool of myself. So the fact that stand-up is a very controlled conversation where it’s like, one way, you’re talking to a microphone, everyone has to listen to you. Like it’s so much more controlled in that sense. I mean, obviously people might not laugh. They might not like you, but in a lot of ways, you’re kind of dictating the terms of this transaction. Like that actually feels very comforting or just like more predictable in a sense of like, you’re going for this one specific reaction, you’re going to talk for this amount of time, and then you’ll be done. And then you don’t have to see those people ever again. Like there’s something weirdly nice about that. But yeah, it was that first set that was when the bug bit me.
Yeah, I relate to people who have self-doubt. I have a lot of anxiety. Don’t be mistaken by the sassy drag queen stage persona. I know, it’s confusing. But, yeah, I have a lot of anxiety. I don’t know, I feel like it’s weirder to not have anxiety than to have it ‘cause I feel like if you’re not scared you’re not paying attention. I feel like if you open a newspaper today, skim maybe three headlines, and you’re just like, seems cool. It’s like, what? Everything’s on fire. Even the newspaper’s on fire. What are you so chill about?
I don’t think it was premeditated to talk about mental health onstage, but I started talking about it more onstage just because of what I was dealing with at that point in my life, where I was struggling again with depression and sort of worsening anxiety. And it, it almost felt like creatively, I was blocked to be able to write about other stuff at the time, because these two things were consuming so much of my brain. So I really only started talking about them as a way to kind of let the air out. And I really wasn’t expecting people to relate to it or, or have it impact them in the way that it did. And I think it just created that sense of belonging and feeling seen. And if anything, I think I was like, oh, other people have talked about this already. Like, I don’t think people want to hear this from me. And then the fact that they responded to it and seemed to take it in a way where I felt like they were really getting it. That was kind of an “a-ha!” moment for me.
I guess when a set is going really well, you do feel kind of a lightness internally. And I think sometimes with like anxiety, I will feel good at the beginning of a set if it’s going well, but then I’ll suddenly get this anxious thought that like, “Oh, what if I suddenly lose them?” Like they don’t like a certain joke or something. It’s your first moment where you relax, because you’re feeling like the people you’re talking to understand you, because they are reacting to you in the way that you want them to. And I mean, really, I think it comes down to just feeling connected to them. Like you’re saying something that you wrote, and that is your point of view on the world. And they’re, they’re agreeing with you about, like, that it’s funny or odd or, you know, however you’re kind of painting it. You feel seen in that moment.
When you’re doing well onstage, there’s no better feeling, and you feel really connected and in the zone and in that flow state, that is a part of creativity. And so the highs are really high, but then the lows are really the opposite extreme of, you don’t feel like you’re connecting to people, you’re putting yourself out there and making yourself vulnerable and people are pretty openly rejecting it when you’re bombing. And it’s really hard not to take personally. That can kind of echo some of the lows of real life where you really feel misunderstood or that you just like don’t know what your place is. That really can be a microcosm of some of the bumps and turns of just being a human in the world.
I’m trying to think what a good analogy is. I mean, I don’t know if this is okay to say, but I have done mushrooms a handful of times in my life. And the last time I did it, I really did have this experience of feeling very connected to other people. And one way I think I realized that was because there was like a baby crying nearby in the park. And normally when a baby cries, I’m like immediately irritated, even though I know it’s not the baby’s fault. I know it’s not the parent’s fault. Like, nobody wants the baby to be crying, even the baby, but I just felt like so much compassion for the baby and for the situation. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m definitely in an altered state right now.”
When a set is going really well, you just feel very, again, like hyper-focused, but in the sense of like, you’re just kind of in that flow state of trying to feed off the crowd’s energy and just like give them your best, because they’re giving you their best. And it sort of becomes almost like a dance between you of just enjoying each other’s energy.
And like if you don’t have anxiety, the way I would describe it is like there’s an edgy improv group in your brain, and it just needs, like a one-word suggestion to spin like countless scenarios that no one is comfortable with. And the whole time you’re like, “When will this show be over? I just came to be supportive.”
Before we come to a close, Aparna shares a practice with us, guiding us through her process of preparing right before a stand-up show.
When I’m getting on stage, like just in the few seconds before I open my mouth to talk to the audience, I think I just try a few like thoughts just to myself of like, “You, you can do this. You’ve been here before, and I’ll see you on the other side of it.” But just kind of a reminder to myself that this is not new, and like, I know what I’m doing and I like deserve to be there.
Special thanks to Aparna Nancherla for sharing her experience with us. We hope you enjoyed it.
For more information about our guests and to see images of the artwork in this episode, visit AWAKEN podcast. If you’re hungry to continue the conversation, join us on Instagram at @RubinMuseum. And if you’re enjoying this podcast, leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Leaving us a review is one of the best ways to help this podcast reach more listeners like you.
AWAKEN is produced by the Rubin Museum of Art in collaboration with Sound Made Public, and I’m your host, Laurie Anderson. This podcast is supported by Barbara Bowman, the Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation, The Prospect Hill Foundation, Bob and Lois Baylis, and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Awaken is sponsored by Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a print and digital magazine dedicated to making Buddhist teachings broadly available. Music for Awaken was created by Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, Tendinite, and Siddhartha Corthus.
Don’t forget to join us next time as we explore our divine nature with internationally acclaimed, gender nonconforming writer, performer, and public speaker Alok-Vaid Menon.
Thank you so much for listening.
For more information about our guests and to see images of the artwork in this episode, visit AWAKEN Podcast. If you’re hungry to continue the conversation, join us on Instagram at @rubinmuseum. And if you’re enjoying this podcast, leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Leaving us a review is one of the best ways to help this podcast reach more listeners like you.
Awaken is produced by the Rubin Museum of Art in collaboration with Sound Made Public, and I’m your host, Laurie Anderson. This podcast is supported by Barbara Bowman, the Ellen Bayard Weedon Foundation, The Prospect Hill Foundation, Bob and Lois Baylis, and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Awaken is sponsored by Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a print and digital magazine dedicated to making Buddhist teachings broadly available. Music for Awaken was created by Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, Tendinite, and Siddhartha Corthus.