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Category Archives: Buddhism

(Mental Health) How to Help Yourself

Myth 150If I could have readers leave the Desk at the end of the month with only one new piece of information, it’s that mental illnesses are actual, physical ailments in the brain. While the way we think and perceive has something to do with how the illnesses are expressed, the fact remains that most conditions come down to processes in the brain working in ways that cause significant suffering. For folks like me, these ailments are going to stick around for a while; that means one of the best things we can do for ourselves is develop coping mechanisms and routines that help us have as few bad days as possible. Now that I’ve talked at length about the conditions I have, I’d like to talk about a few of the things I’ve learned to do that help me most.

Before that, though, I do want to make a few disclaimers. First of all I’m not a licensed professional and none of the advice you find here should be taken as gospel; feel free to discard any or all of this if your psychiatrist or psychologist tells you different. Second, this shouldn’t be viewed as the equivalent of professional help. If you have (or think you have) a mental illness, the best course of action is seeking professional treatment if at all possible. Finally, taking these steps won’t guarantee that you’ll never have issues with your mental illness. I still have bad days and I still fall into depressive episodes myself. Hopefully, though, these can help shallow out the emotional valleys and make it easier to recover from them.

THE BORING STUFF

Sleep. Sleep has been the most important thing for me to get under control for my mental health. Back in college during my worst periods I had functionally no schedule for sleep; I would instead spend as much time as possible in my dorm’s computer labs seeking out some kind of human connection to make myself feel better. But the lack of consistent sleep made it so hard to regulate my emotions, pay attention in class, or absorb the day-to-day stresses that come with a full courseload.

While the exact function of sleep is not entirely understood, we do know that a number of important “brain maintenance” processes happen during rest. For those of us who have problems with brain function, a consistent sleep schedule is one of the easiest ways we can help our brain manage what it can. Our internal clocks are different, and for those of us working jobs with variable schedules or have some other function that doesn’t let us adopt a stable routine, it might not be possible to set a consistent bedtime for, say 10 PM – 6 AM. Do what you can, but do something; seven or eight hours of sleep a night are a must before just about anything else.

Diet. Again, I know that this is some loaded advice. There are so many folks who are simply unable to eat well because they can’t afford or find fresh produce, don’t have the time or will to cook for themselves, or have other legitimate reasons preventing them from making big changes to their diet. I get it; I’m not going to ask you to go vegan or only buy organic. But small changes to your diet that recenter focus on nutrients that help your body function better can be made. A good rule of thumb is the classic quote from food writer Michael Pollan: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.”

At minimum, I’d recommend eating less salt, sugar and processed foods; drinking fewer sodas and juices (even diet and sugar-free versions); eating more lean meats and whole grains; drinking more water and tea. Most carb-heavy processed foods tend to convert into sugars within our bodies (at least, to my understandings) and the simpler or more processed the carb, the faster that process tends to be. In the United States we’re all about our processed carbs, and breaking away from them can feel like swimming upstream. It’s hard, I know. But if you can have fruits, vegetables and lean meats — have as much of them as possible.

Exercise. Exerting ourselves can often trigger the body into releasing dopamine, endocannibanoids and other chemicals that lift our mood, and the best part about exercise is that there’s a near-limitless variety of things we can do to work ourselves out. There’s weight training, sure; but there’s also running, sports like basketball or soccer, yoga or tai chi, cleaning the house, or walking along a favorite trail. In addition to the benefits of regular exercise, getting outdoors also helps our bodies to make Vitamin D (which helps build our bones and protects against cancer) as well as serotonin (one of those neurotransmitters I’ve been talking about).

Personally, I love running, but the spirit might move you to try something different. I understand how hard it can be to make time for regular exercise — I still struggle with it myself. But taking even ten minutes a day to walk around the block during the day can help lift your mood and give yourself more energy.

Getting more sleep, eating better food, and developing a regular exercise routine are all suggestions that any of us who’ve gotten professional help for our mental illnesses have heard time and time and time again — but there’s a reason for that. Taking care of our most basic needs is incredibly important. Not only does it help our body develop the tools it needs to manage the imbalances in our brain, but it also encourages us to change our relationship with ourselves. I’ve found that making sure I eat, sleep and move well helps me to think of myself as someone worth caring for and also helps to make me more sensitive to those needs. I have a better gauge for when I’m hungry, or really need sleep.

LESS BORING STUFF

Meditation. There are a lot of misconceptions about what meditation is, and that might be because everyone who practices it has a slightly different concept of what it is. In popular culture, meditation is the emptying of mind and communion with everything around you in the present moment; it’s an act of peaceful enlightenment that you have to do perfectly the first time you do it or you just can’t.

I’m here to tell you that meditation is messy and disorganized. I’ve meditated (almost) every day for seven years or so now, and most days are still a struggle against “monkey mind”. Meditation is not the mechanism we use to force ourselves into mindfulness and peace; it’s the mechanism we use to watch and accept our own thoughts as they arise.

When I sit on the meditation bench, I replay past arguments I’ve had with people; I think about the many mistakes I’ve made; depressed and obsessive thoughts pop up all the time. That’s completely fine — that’s what I’m on the bench for. However, so many of us believe that the thoughts or feelings we have are inherently bad and meditation is the way we rid ourselves of these thoughts. That’s not the case: these thoughts and feelings are natural, and it’s OK to accept that we have them. Acceptance of these difficult emotions and the thoughts they’re associated with is the first step we need to take in order to make peace with them.

Meditation as a daily practice allows us to gain better insights into the deeper layers within our thought process. We might notice, for example, that the same kinds of situations trigger a specific memory or regret; or we might notice that there’s a common thread in the things that make us angry or sad. If we accept this, we can then explore these insights with a gentle and compassionate curiosity. Perhaps, in time, we can even resolve the things that cause us suffering.

That definitely takes work, persistence, and faith in the process. But it’s been worth it to me. Due to my meditation practice, I have a much better understanding of when I’m in a depression or particularly rough bit of anxiety; that allows me to handle myself better when I’m in those spaces so I’m not as likely to do something that I’d later regret. That alone makes the depressions easier to deal with.

Making a care packet. One of the things that I like to do for myself when I’m feeling fairly well is making a “care package” for a future version of myself struggling through a bad depression or anxiety day. This can include one package of my favorite candy, a story or novel that I love, a playlist that lets me “lean in” to that feeling of sadness and turn it into a cathartic experience, or a Snuggie, or a really sweet letter or gift from a friend. Your mileage may vary with this, of course, but now that I can somewhat anticipate when I’m hitting a downward spiral I can look into the small things I’ve left myself to feel better and use them.

Of course, the things in your care packet don’t have to be physical objects: it could be permission to cancel a social engagement without feeling guilty, or a day to binge-watch a show in your pajamas. The main idea is to accept that there will be moments where despite your best efforts you hit a rough patch, and to do little things in advance that will help your future self ride out those times. In addition to giving yourself presents, it also helps retrain your brain to treat yourself a bit more kindly and to recognize that these “flare-ups” aren’t your fault. Sometimes they happen, and it’s important to be kind to yourself when they do.

Engage and learn. For most of us with mental illnesses, it can feel like we’re the only people who have this messed up thing where our brains lie to us about how the world works every once in a while. The terrible thoughts, the embarrassing emotions, the situations that are surprisingly common for those of us with deep depressive episodes — all of these can make us feel alienated and broken beyond the possibility of repair. The stigma that surrounds these illnesses can make it hard to open up about them, to share experiences even with other people we know going through the same thing.

That’s why learning as much as we can about our conditions and engaging with others who are also coping with them can be so important. The messed up things we do or think at our worst might be a fairly common experience; or we might, through the course of consoling a fellow sufferer, learn how to be gentler with ourselves dealing with a similar problem. There are a large number of online resources for depression, anxiety, and ADHD — even grouped by location, background, or lifestyle. The Internet is a wonderful gift here, in that it’s given us the capability to share our struggles in ways we’ve never been able to before. It might help knowing more about what you’re going through, and that you’re not the only one going through it.

These are some of the things that have helped me build better coping strategies and resilience against my mental illness. I sincerely hope they help a few of you out there, as well.

 

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(Writing) A Writer’s May

Self Improvement 150The month of April was…not great for me as a writer. I didn’t make much progress on anything of note, though I *did* resume a long-dormant Pathfinder game that I’ll take as my big win. I could attribute the lack of writing to my day job, or family stress, or the general pressures of being an adult with obligations and such…but to be honest, the biggest reasons are fear and a lack of discipline. I didn’t write because writing has become this internal battle between my willpower and anxiety, and I’m just not mentally equipped to win that battle consistently.

It’s possible that I’m simply trying to do too much. In addition to an ultimate goal of three missives a week on this here Writing Desk, I’m trying to find a way to write consistently for my Patreon project, the Jackalope Serial Company; I’m working on a Pathfinder game that, at this point, is firmly mid-level and I’d like to take to level 20; I’m starting another Pathfinder game that aims to be more of a loose pick-up style campaign; I’m trying to write short stories for two anthologies that I’d love to be included in; I’ve been asked to contribute to other fandom projects and while I’ve said yes I have yet to take any concrete steps to do so. Then there’s the Udemy courses that aim to teach me more about blogging and tech, the Rosetta Stone course for French I’d like to get back to, SO MANY comics, books and short stories I want to read, the clarinet I want to practice, the cleaning and paring down of all my stuff I’d like to get to, the TV and movies I’d like to watch (and maybe review)…

I’m not sure that ADHD/anxiety is a big reason why I commit to so much and achieve so little, but it really can’t help. Because our executive function is compromised, it’s really difficult to set proper priorities and stick with them when we’ve been interrupted; splitting our attention just can’t happen, because we need to be rooted in one thing or else we go flying all over the place. That’s why off-loading your executive function to things like to-do lists and routines is so important; we have to find a way to make an instinctive internal process external and conscious.

I live and die by my Bullet Journal, though that has to be supplemented by other things like Todoist and Google Calendar to make sure I have an eye on deadlines. If I don’t make sure I have some place to put specific information, it’s pretty much gone — but even then, I can write down, say, a submission deadline for an anthology, but unless I take the time to break down the steps I need to take to actually GET to that submission AND make time for it in my schedule it’ll just sneak up on me and then I’m scrambling to meet a deadline. That kind of surprise triggers my anxiety disorder, which makes it more likely for me to just freeze up and watch the deadline go by.

Good project management practice can help with that, but building a project schedule can only do so much when you’re trying to juggle multiple projects at once. When it’s time to put pen to paper (or paws to keyboard in this case), it’s really hard to make productive use of my time. I know that my time with this project is limited, and my goal is…to just get it done. Not to have fun with it, not to engage with what I’m doing — if I’m being honest, most of the time I already have one eye out on the next thing I need to do. That ain’t no way to write.

So this month I’ll have to pull things back a bit and focus on fewer things that I can root myself well in. I have four big goals for this month — write for The Writing Desk consistently; resume regular updates for the Jackalope Serial Company; finish short stories for “The Rabbit Dies First” anthology as well as one other anthology.

Here at The Writing Desk, I’ll be focusing on Mental Health Awareness Month with posts about depression, anxiety and ADHD from my personal experience as well as the things that have helped me deal with them, or the things that I still need to work out. For the Jackalope Serial Company, I’ll be writing four “first issues” of various possible serials to see what folks take to, then continue on the most popular serial through June. With the short stories, I’ll devote as much time as I can to both of them once I’ve made sure the blog and Patreon are squared away.

I’ll also be working through my sky-high book stack as much as possible this month. I’ve got quite a lot of time off this month and I’ll be doing some international travel, so I’m fairly sure there’s a lot that I can knock out. Hopefully I’ll finish “Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke; “Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse; “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach; and “The Upward Spiral” by Alex Korb. If I can manage that, there should be a few good bits of reflection out of them.

So what’s your plan for May, writers? What’re you hoping to have finished by the time June rolls around?

 

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(Politics) Mindful Resistance

Politics 150Ever since Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, MO I don’t think I’ve been able to reflect on our political situation without a mix of anger, horror or despair. It’s been tough to know what to do with these very difficult emotions even at the best of times; when the news cycle seems designed to draw them out of you multiple times every day, it can be almost impossible. Progressives in America have been emotionally and ideologically battered by the storm of Trumpism, and I think a lot of us have become unmoored from our principles and ability to cope with the constant thundering of awfulness. However, in order to effectively brace against the gusts of bigotry and hypocrisy, we have to be anchored to our core beliefs and values. It’s more important than ever to be considerate, deliberate, and careful in the ways we engage the big problems of the day.

Having compassion for the people we engage with, especially online, centers us in a place of empathy. There are so many corners of the Internet where perpetual outrage has become the norm, and we’re encouraged to think of the people who disagree with us as a faceless, perhaps inhuman ‘enemy’ undeserving of consideration. As we grow more estranged from folks with different perspectives, the criteria for being spared our wrath becomes smaller and smaller. Over time, we might find ourselves having knock-down, drag-out fights with close friends we’ve known for years over relatively small disagreements. We might cut ourselves off from people who might only need patience, understanding, and connection.

I notice these days that my temper is a lot shorter than it used to be, and I’m not saying there aren’t good reasons for that. It can be exhausting advocating for your right to equal protection and consideration, especially to people who refuse to acknowledge there’s inequality in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with being angry about this; anger is an indication that my sense of order in the world has been disrupted, that there’s an injustice that needs to be rectified.

It’s what we do with that anger that causes issues. Anger can be a great motivator for real change in the world. Protests and movements that have forced power to reckon with the abuses it has perpetuated gain momentum because of our anger, given direction and a purpose. But far too often our anger is simply expelled towards the closest targets, and far too often those closest targets are our friends. Even if our anger at something a friend says or does is justified, it’s worth holding that anger mindfully to consider how it can best be expressed.

Anger can be balanced with compassion for our fellow human beings. So many people we know have grown up in a racist society, unaware of their privilege or the fact that they benefit from it. It’s hard to see that for what it is, and harder still to reconcile that with the story we’ve told ourselves about our lives. Hardest of all is knowing exactly what to do about it; there are so many white progressives painfully aware of their privilege but with no idea how to make peace with it, or how to use it to erase the structures that have provided them with it. When we ask people with privilege to recognize it, we’re not just asking them to admit the existence of an institutional injustice. We’re asking them to admit their personal history is a lie; that they benefit from something they never asked for.

Dismantling our self-image is a process, and it’s different for everyone. It took me years to understand and accept transgender ideas, and longer still to come to terms with my privilege as a cisgender male. There are still issues that I need to deal with, still things that I get wrong all the time. To be honest, it’s frightening and exhausting wading into all of that; there’s so much to untangle, much of it a fundamental understanding of sex and gender expression, and the punishment for doing or saying the wrong thing is so high.

I think we all have our blind spots. Some of us are blissfully unaware of the immense amount of human suffering beyond the borders of our own country, while others struggle with recognizing the need for deeper consideration of our environment. Some of us are tone-deaf when it comes to racial justice; others don’t take into account how difficult it is to deal with poverty at an early age, or hidden disabilities, or even the difficulties of being a woman. Knowing our own difficulties in the journey towards undoing the damage of the bigotry we’ve been taught can help us understand how hard it is to do, and have greater empathy for those who may not be malicious — just ignorant.

That kind of consideration can also allow us to pick our battles. The Trump Administration and the forces that have given rise to his particularly odious brand of politics presents us with an overwhelming multi-front assault daily. Environmental regulations are being stripped; scientific expertise is being devalued; criminal justice issues are becoming worse as police forces are emboldened by the empty ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric coming from the Attorney General; people of color are being systematically targeted through countless initiatives; our privacy rights have been severely compromised; reproductive rights are being challenged at every level; cultural enrichment initiatives are being threatened and defunded; corruption, hypocrisy and sophist arguments have made reasonable debate about this in the public square all but impossible.

We now know that bad-faith actors online exploit our desires to try to bridge the gulf between ideologies, forcing us to provide evidence for minute details and batting them away when they’re delivered. We know that the thundering waterfall of awesomeness is designed to wear down our ability to resist. We know that the people who want to enable Trump’s agenda are counting on our eventual burn-out; once the heat dies down, they move forward after we’re too spent and discouraged.

We have to know our limits. We have to understand that our energy to resist is a finite resource, and that it’s important to give ourselves the space we need to recharge. If we’re incensed at every new scandal, or sound the alarm over every new development, we not only exhaust ourselves — we exhaust our allies and others who might come to our aid. Sometimes, taking a moment to understand what’s happening and what still needs to happen for terrible consequences to come due can help us prioritize the issues and decide where and how we fight. We’ve done an amazing job fighting so much bullshit from the administration, but there are three more years before removing them from office is a viable option. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are ready for battle, but maybe we haven’t considered how to be ready for war.

It’s simply impossible to resist everything Trump is throwing at us. Sure, it’s awful that the President of the United States is getting into a Twitter war with athletes and rappers, entertainment figures and journalists, but we know that dignity is a foreign concept to him already. Will getting angry about it change anything? How much does that matter compared to, say, making sure that voting restriction laws aren’t rammed through various state legislatures or that our immigrant friends and neighbors have what they need to find a legal path to remaining here?

I don’t mean to advocate for letting important stuff fall off the radar. But it’s better to devote our limited time and energy to a few causes that are really important to us than try to do everything at once and extinguish the fire that keeps us going before we can see our actions produce results.

We have to be careful about our resistance. It’s great that so many of us have become so passionate about the direction of our country and committed ourselves to turning it around. But we must also be the changes we want to see in the world around us, and that can’t happen if we’re buffeted by the political currents day in and day out, unable to remain rooted to our principles and see things clearly. We sacrifice our mental health, our relationships, our ability to create true and lasting change by acting without thinking. We have to take a long look at our core values, what it means to live those values on a personal and societal level, and how we can take our communities from where we are to where we know they can be.

This can’t be done by the expression of anger or the rejection of the people who make us angry. Careful thought is needed, and planning, and eventual solutions to our biggest problems. How can we curb greenhouse gas emissions in this country before we incur the worst effects of climate change? How can we encourage big, multi-national corporations to keep their headquarters in the country while paying their fair share of taxes and their workers a living wage? What does a society that has dismantled the institutions of racism and bigotry within government and culture look like? What does justice look like for the corrupt, the racist, the hateful at all levels of society? Is there a way back for people like Chris Christie, or Louis CK, or that friend from high school who fell into the clutches of the alt-right? What does that path towards reconciliation look like?

I honestly don’t know how effective our resistance will be until we think about these questions and discuss the answers we come up with. I don’t think we can keep screaming at each other to make things better without thinking about how we can do that, all together. We have to be mindful with our anger, our calls for justice, ourselves, our friends and neighbors. Otherwise we’ll end up doing some of the very things we can’t abide seeing from the other side.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Politics

 

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(Personal) Hello, April

Self Improvement 150Floating in a sensory deprivation tank for an hour was long enough for me to realize that a great deal of my problem is overstimulation. It’s tough for someone sensitive to sensory input to live in a world like this, geared towards making sure something is grabbing your attention all the time. We live at a time where it’s seen as largely acceptable to pay for something with our focus instead of money; think about all of the services we use for ‘free’ in exchange for ads, or the data that companies can use to make ads that much more irresistible. Corporations have learned to use our attention as another potential revenue stream; it’s time we start thinking of it the same way we do our hard-earned money. That’s why this month, I’d like to focus on budgeting my attention and focus the same way I budget my money.

I admit it’s a harder thing to do. Money is a finite resource (just like our attention), but it’s a lot easier to quantify and measure. We know exactly how much money we get in our paychecks, and we can subtract our expenses from our income to know when we’re stepping outside of our means. With attention, it’s not so straightforward. We can’t wake up every day with the intention that we only ‘spend’ 2 hours’ worth of attention on social media, or that today is a ‘no advertisement’ day where we refuse to pay attention to any form of advertising. We can’t slice our focus into discrete chunks, and then decide what parts of our environment we give those chunks to.

But we can be more mindful about when and where something is asking for our attention, and what our reaction to that request might be. On our phones, what apps and games buzz to draw our focus back to the screen? When we’re browsing a website, what links do we click to stay engaged with it, and how do we end up following article after article? When we’re walking or driving outside, what things grab our eyes and hold them? When we watch TV, how many times do we notice ads — especially ones that work around our ability to fast-forward through them?

Any time you notice something using obnoxious or obvious means to attract your attention, think about the process that created the situation. Why would a company risk the ill will of a potential customer just to force us into having to engage with its advertisement? Why on Earth would so many websites auto-play videos when we visit pages? What’s to be gained by forcing us to engage with something?

There are some websites that we might feel are worth paying for with our attention. When they ask us to whitelist them from ad blocking programs, we might be inclined to do so. When Google or Facebook asks for our information in order to better serve ads to them, we might think it’s a fair trade for the useful and convenient services they offer. That’s fine. But it really should be our choice, and I think our modern experience online and in real life isn’t set up in the interest of offering us that choice. Everywhere we go, there is something trying to get us to engage with it; we don’t have the ‘right’ to choose where our attention is going when we enter a public space.

I’m really not sure how we can address this on any big level, but I do know that I will take better notice of things that try to force my attention away from what I’m doing — whether it’s YouTube offering me other videos to watch, IGN auto-playing videos, movies with egregious product placement, or ad ‘stunts’ tricking me into investing time or focus towards something. One of the biggest pet peeves I’ve developed recently is a company taking advantage of my fandom in order to sell me a pile of crap; the endless rebranding initiatives of Marvel Comics and the “mystery box/alternate reality” model of Bad Robot properties immediately comes to mind.

I know enough about myself to know that it’s easy for my attention to be drawn away, and it’s best if I cultivate an environment where I choose when and how to switch my focus from one thing to another. I’ve already disabled almost all notifications on my phone, and whenever a website offers me desktop notifications I decline and resolve to use that website less in the future. I use apps like Ghostery and AdBlock Plus to clean the pages of the sites I visit, and I whitelist only the ones that I use frequently and don’t have obnoxious intrusive ads that pop up, play sound, or ‘trick’ you into being redirected by shifting the close button or using intentionally misleading UI. When I finish one task, or an article or a video, I try to take a breath to recenter myself and make a mindful decision on what to do next. That’s not always successful, for sure, but I’m getting better at this the more I do it.

There are a few other things I’d like to do this month, too. In the interest of making sure I’m on a more solid foundation for life, I’d like to double back and refocus on the basics: meditating every day, reading and writing every day, eating well every day, exercising as often as possible. The very basic building blocks of self-care that give you the best possible shot at being emotionally resilient. So far, it’s…still a process, but failure is bundled into that of course. The trick is to not let failure discourage you; take the lessons you can from it, then move on with a better idea of how to succeed.

So that’s it; being very judicious about my attention and how I’m spending it, then putting that attention to where it will do the most good. How about you folks? What would you like to work on this month?

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Buddhism) We’re All Mad Here

Buddhism 150I’ve been thinking a lot about anger over the past month and a half. Ever since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO way back in 2014 I’ve been increasingly political with my online presence — and the candidacy and ultimate inauguration of Donald Trump has pushed that side of my digital identity much more to the forefront. Politics, and the anger it generates, has crept into every aspect of my existence here. Largely, this has been due to social media and the breakneck speed with which outrageous news is being circulated there. There have been entire days spent tweeting and retweeting about the latest controversy in the furry fandom, in sci-fi and fantasy publishing, in Washington; agreeing with or challenging comments from folks about them; trying to find just the right point to make that might win hearts and minds. But now, four years later, I’ve hit outrage exhaustion: what’s left in its wake is a weary, frightened resignation. This can’t continue the way it has. We need to seriously think about how our current Internet culture is encouraging, even normalizing, constant and unreasoning anger.

First, let me say that we have a lot to be angry about. The police brutality we’ve seen through Brown and a parade of other victims hasn’t abated. The Trump Administration has been openly corrupt, incompetent, and vicious in its attacks on marginalized populations of just about every stripe — and it’s been largely aided by the Republican Party. Our ability to solve problems with even bipartisan support has become impossible. Meanwhile, authoritarianism, xenophobia, anti-social and anti-environment behavior has spread through the United States and the rest of the world in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible even back four years ago. There are far too many people who think we’re going in the right direction — or, at least, that there aren’t actually any problems with what’s going down right now.

This is an incredibly scary time, and it can be incredibly frustrating to see just how many things are going wrong and how few people care. In light of what’s happening to our country and the world, I think anger is a completely acceptable response. We’re right to be angry. But we’re not doing the right things with our anger, and that’s the problem.

One of the best things I learned from my group class for Anxiety Disorder is thinking about emotions like the lights on your dashboard. We don’t chastise our cars for telling us that our oil is low, that we need a new battery, or that we need gas. Those alerts are telling us that we need to attend to something in order to keep our cars running smoothly. Emotions are the same way; they’re our mind’s way of telling us that something within us needs attending to. In my case, the ‘anxiety’ dashboard light is way too sensitive but that’s another story. If we shift our thinking about our emotions to this framework, categorizing them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ no longer makes sense. They’re simply calls for action.

Anger, in particular, can be a very difficult emotion to allow mostly because it’s so immediate and powerful. It drives us to do things at the moment we later regret, and I’m no different. Last year alone I can immediately think of three or four different occasions where my anger got the better of me and caused a difficult situation to become that much worse. When this happens again and again, we begin to mistrust that emotion. We see it as a problem, as something that we must ignore or excise in order to be healthy. But that’s just as damaging as flying off the handle.

It is important to allow yourself to be angry. It is important to understand that anger, like any other emotion, is a call to pay attention to something inside yourself. Exactly what that is might be different from person to person, but for me it’s a sign that one of my values has been offended or, as Tara Brach so wonderfully put it, a deep need is not being met. When we feel ourselves getting angry, if we sit with the feeling and follow it towards its source, we can learn surprising things about what we value and what we need. Once we’ve made that discovery, we can frame our reaction around that instead of making sure whoever angered us is ‘punished’. That impulse to punish is what happens when our desire to make the world a better place is carried through thoughtlessly.

I know that I have a problem with anger; it flares up fast but dies just as quickly. Over time, I’ve learned to wait out the emotion without taking action through it. Most of the time, whatever angered me won’t seem like such a big deal once I’ve calmed down. These past few years, though, I’ve been getting angry over things that are very much a big deal. These offenses to my values aren’t easy to get over, and when there are new offenses every day — sometimes multiple times in one day — it feels impossible to take a step back and calm down. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all seem to be designed for stoking that anger, keeping the coals hot, because we pay attention to the things that anger us. Algorithms designed to keep us on websites for longer have hijacked our focus and severely eroded our ability to deal with anger constructively.

It’s very important to take a beat when we find ourselves getting angry, if only to ask ourselves a few basic questions. Why does this make me so angry? Who benefits from my anger? What can I do to really address what’s causing this response? Tara Brach calls this “the u-turn”, a necessary and conscious choice to direct our attention inwards instead of outwards, to sit with our anger and learn what it’s asking us to attend to. Sometimes, before we can even do that, we have to forgive ourselves for being angry, or give ourselves permission, or just reckon with the unpleasant physical and mental sensations that come with it. Either way, none of that happens without taking a pause.

This can be very difficult on social media. Twitter moves so fast, and often taking a moment to consider our responses can mean that the conversation moves on without us. But this isn’t a bad thing; that can teach us that not every exchange or idea needs our input. Sometimes, it’s better for everyone involved to let the moment go.

Once we understand the mechanisms that trigger our anger, we can do better about expressing that anger in a way that fosters connection and collaboration. Tara Brach believes that anger, at its source, is about us — what we need, what we care about, how we express ourselves. I agree with that, but up to a point. While there are so many things in the world that should not be, we also have greater control over our personal experience than we think. Anger might be a completely justified response to an external stimulus, but how we handle our anger can be brought under our control. It’s not easy, and it’s not always possible to know the best way to express it, but with time, effort, practice and patience we can get better at it.

This has all been brought up through a few different things. One, Tara Brach’s wonderful talk on “Anger: Responding, Not Reacting“; two, an episode of the “Where There’s Smoke” podcast that explores how social media has become a Skinner box for impulsive, expressive rage. I highly encourage you to take a listen to both of these whenever you have a chance — and let me know what you think. How can we express our anger more productively? How can we change our behavior on social media to tackle the things we find most important without contributing to the ‘noise’ of outrage culture?

 

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(Buddhism) Smile, Breathe and Go Slowly

Buddhism 150We’re living in a time where fear is a completely natural and understandable response. It feels like the world is perilously close to the edge of ruin — nuclear tensions between the world superpowers are higher than they’ve been since the Cold War; our governments are doing very little to deal with the environmental problems even as we’re seeing the effects that have long been promised; the fragile network of agreements that form our civilization seem to be breaking down. Many of us are living perilously close to the edge of personal ruin, too. I know personally that if I lose my job and don’t find another one immediately, things would get really bad really fast. I think the tone of our public discourse reflects how much fear has become entrenched in our lives. Anything and everything that makes us feel safe and in control is inviolate, no matter how flawed or dangerous it is. I’ve been swept up in the current myself, fearful of what happens if things get worse, angry that they’ve gotten this bad, ashamed I’m not doing more to fight against it.

This year I wanted to step back and rethink my approach to what’s happening in my personal, professional, and social life. So much of the way I react to things these days is instinctive; if something makes me angry, there isn’t enough of a pause to think about the best way to express that anger, for example. I need to do something different — the way things are right now is just making more anxious, which makes it more likely that I indulge in the mindless, easy behavior that relieves that anxiety, which makes it more likely I’m just transferring my suffering elsewhere instead of really dealing with it. How can I deal with my anxiety more responsibly? I keep coming back around to this idea from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, which has been quoted so often it’s become a bit of a cliche: “Smile, breathe, and go slowly.” What does that mean? What does it look like when it’s applied to how you move through life?

I’ve often thought of this idea as a simple mantra that can draw our attention back to the present moments, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing. Meditation, after all, trains us to view our breath as an anchor that ties us to our present experience. Whenever we catch ourselves getting caught up in our thoughts, or running away with some imaginings, we recognize what’s happened, allow the thought to be completed, and return to our breath. Going slowly forces us to pay attention to whatever we’re doing; that pace encourages us to really look at each part of our actions and perform them with care and consideration. Smiling, though, is often the part that I tend to ignore. I feel silly smiling to myself, and a lot of the time I just don’t think it makes that much of a difference, but it does.

One of the big reasons we become anxious and afraid is that we’re having trouble accepting what’s happening around us, or the possibility of what might happen to us in the future. This attachment — the attachment to safety, to certainty, to a knowable and controlled future — causes us great suffering all the time. In order to relieve that suffering, we have to ease the iron grip we have on our expectations that life will work out and that things will be OK. The less we hold on to that desire, the less power that small voice that goes “What if things will not be OK?” has over us. They key to weakening that desire is learning how to accept things as they are, even if they’re not the best they could possibly be.

We tend not to smile when we’re nervous or afraid. But we could, and it might help us to dislodge the pit in our stomachs when we think about a stressful situation. Smiling is a sign that we are content and happy, that things are well just as they are. Taking a moment to smile as you draw your attention to the present moment can serve as a primer, a way to think about what’s happening around you in the best possible light. Very often, especially in my most depressive states, my brain looks for a reason to feel sad and hopeless; if that sort of mechanism lets me attach meaning to those emotional states that arise for no reason, why not happiness as well? Smiling prompts our brain to look for a reason to be happy and content in the present moment, and after a while we actually get better at finding them.

Breathing, of course, takes our attention away from the internal chatter of our brains and places it with our physical experience. In meditation, we train ourselves to focus on the sensation of the breath: the way our stomach or chest rises with the inhale, how it feels for the air to be held within our lungs, what it’s like to push it back out through our nose and mouth. Sometimes, a single breath is all it takes for us to stop the train of our thoughts and check in with how we’re thinking and what effect that has on our mood. I like to think of my breath as a mental ‘door’; it’s a portal that I use to leave one ‘room’ (thought) and enter another.

Going slowly is probably the most difficult thing to do these days. We’re always so busy, dashing from place to place to get things done. Many of us feel like we don’t even have enough time to think about the tasks we’re doing as we’re doing them; we might be loading the dishwasher while thinking about an email we’ll have to write as soon as we’re done, or we might be dreading traffic while we’re standing in line at the store. But going slowly encourages us to really place ourselves with the tasks we’re presently doing. We might notice that the dish we’ve been wiping for the past few minutes is thoroughly clean, or that another checkout line has opened and the cashier has been trying to wave us over. Moving slower, paying more attention, can have the paradoxical effect of letting us do what we’re doing faster — by giving it our focus, we can be more efficient and make fewer mistakes.

I’ve found that placing a higher value on focus instead of productivity has helped me quite a bit with all of the things I’ve been trying to do. I enjoy what I do a lot more, and I’ve noticed that I can put more effort into it, which helps me to improve. I’m definitely not perfect with this, that’s for sure — this last year has taught me that more than anything. But when I remember to, taking a moment to accept my situation, clear my mind, and pay attention to where I am has consistently made my day better for just a little while.

So this week, when I’m on Twitter and see something that gets my blood hot; or when I’m stressing about all of the time-intensive stuff I’ve got to do and what I’ll need to push off in order to get it done; or when I’m well and truly frightened by a news headline or a Presidential tweet, I’ll try to remember to smile, breathe, and go slowly. It doesn’t change anything about the world that’s making me afraid, but it helps me figure out what to do about it with a clearer head.

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2018 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection, Uncategorized

 

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(Personal) Perpetual Tharn

Myth 150We’re three weeks in to 2018 — just long enough to settle into the new year and whatever new habits or goals we’ve set for ourselves. I wanted to push myself towards more mindful behavior this year, doing my best to really dive into right speech, action, and livelihood. While last year was definitely stressful, a lot of unresolved anger bubbled towards the surface in so many interactions. I didn’t like the way that made me behave, and I can’t help feeling that my relationships suffered because of that. I ended up retracting socially through a good bit of the year; while a lot of that was probably for the best, I have the feeling that I could be handling these difficult interactions with a lot more equanimity — but that’s way easier said than done.

My anxiety has been very hard to deal with over the past several months. The current state of our country, and the world, has elevated the level of ‘ambient’ anxiety I’m dealing with and that makes it a lot more difficult to take on additional stressors. Surprises or an increase in workload are harder to absorb, and recovering from those episodes of anxious lashing out or simply being overwhelmed takes longer.

So much of the time I feel like I’m in a state of perpetual tharn, so overwhelmed by anxiety that I freeze up and simply can’t do anything. Today, for example, my mind is racing with thoughts about the government shutdown and why it’s such a terrible thing. I’m worried that Republicans will successfully shift blame for this to Democrats, who are taking all the wrong lessons from this and seem to be allowing the public discourse to be pulled further to the right. I’m worried about what this means for all of us — especially those of us who are self-employed, need health insurance, or just happen to be federal employees.

I’m worried about our environment and the fact that the weather has been so obviously unusual over the past year or so. I’m worried about my finances and how I’ll be able to meet my obligations there. I’m worried about so many friends who are going through a difficult time and my diminished emotional capacity to help them. I worry about our ability to talk to one another in a way that connects us instead of dividing us. I worry about my family, who I avoid talking to because I simply can’t handle the possibility of more stress.

I worry about the promises and obligations I’ve made and my ability to keep them. I worry about trying to maintain a balance between being principled and being too rigid; I worry about standing up for myself in a way that doesn’t make other people feel bad. I worry about our apartment and keeping it clean. I worry about learning the technical skills I need in order to move to the next stage of my career. I worry about the people I know on Twitter, and can’t shake the feeling that most people only tolerate me because I’m so frustrating and weird and hesitant. I worry that I talk a good game but can’t deliver when push comes to shove. I worry that I’m just a fundamentally untrustworthy person.

This is what anxiety is like for me. Almost every action I take is connected to a worry that is never far away from taking over my thoughts. Am I talking too much about myself here? Is there a better way to communicate this? What kind of response am I after? Is this just for attention, or reassurance, or am I really just trying to help people understand how anxiety works so that others can deal with those of us who suffer from this better? What are my motivations? Are they corrupt and selfish?

Existing in this state of paralyzing doubt is exhausting, and it just doesn’t leave me with much energy for other things. It can be difficult when I’m struggling with anxiety to remember my promises, or keep my focus away from distractions, or not to simply bail and spend large chunks of time chasing idle happiness. It’s hard to put in the work because setbacks and obstacles are a lot harder to handle rationally.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be focusing on building and rebuilding the habits that help with anxiety. Taking care of the basics is essential, which means that I need to get good sleep, eat good food, and exercise regularly. On top of that, building a meditation, reading, and writing practice will help provide some measure of virtuous stability that always keeps mindfulness with me. This might mean that I’ll be quiet and withdrawn for a bit longer; I need time and mental energy to put these into practice, and that may mean less to deal with other people. So, apologies in advance if I’m a bit slower to respond to things, or have to decline requests for favors for a little while.

Ultimately I would like to be able to interact with people, help them wherever I can, and find ways to have difficult conversations without surrendering to anger and fear as drivers of behavior. But in order to do that, it’s clear that I need to get on a more stable emotional footing. That means mindfully withdrawing to renew the foundation of my practice and hopefully coming back in a better, more hopeful frame of mind.

 

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