I’m making good progress reading Mindsight by Daniel Siegel. I’ve been reading in the mornings while I ride the exercise bike, as well as sometimes in the evening. It feels good to be reading again — I’ve realized that the main thing that makes it so hard to read, is being constantly distracted by stray thoughts.
With all due respect to my association-driven brain and the tons of (sometimes useless) knowledge I’ve crammed into all those nooks and crannies — and there are a lot of them, if you ever examine a brain closely — the main challenge with my reading is having mind seize on an idea and think, “Hey – that reminds me of _______!” and runs off in a different direction, making connections with other ideas and information I have. And I get left in the dust, the book unread and what parts I’ve read not being fully grasped.
But the Mindsight reading is going well. And I’ve gotten some really great ideas from it. The main gist of the book, that I can tell, is that intently focusing the attention on something for extended periods of time helps to build connective fibers in the prefrontal cortex — the place where planning complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision making and moderating correct social behavior, originate and are managed. Mindful awareness can strengthen the physical structures that make these things possible, and add more skill to one’s practice of them. The activities of the prefrontal cortex are where I have huge issues:
It is responsible for the executive functions, which include mediating conflicting thoughts (uh-oh), making choices between right and wrong or good and bad (it’s not that I WANT to choose wrong, I just tend to have trouble distinguishing my choices), predicting future events (what will happen if I press this button?), and governing social control — such as suppressing emotional or sexual urges (sexual urges I can manage — it’s the emotional ones that get me). The prefrontal cortex is the brain center most strongly implicated in qualities like sentience, human general intelligence, and personality. (That could be why some people think I’m an idiot and treat me like one, or treat me like I’m not anyone at all. Or maybe they’re just assholes? That’s entirely possible.)
Anyway, I can really use some help with my prefrontal cortex, and I’m hoping Mindsight will do me some good.
In the book, Siegel talks about how practicing Mindsight helped that kid with the problems with outbursts — dysregulation, I believe folks call it. It helped him get a grip, handle himself better, and have an overall better view of himself in the process.
Another important piece of this kid’s treatment was exercise. He combined exercise with mindfulness work, and he used going for a run as a way to take the edge off his temper and issues. Sounds like a plan.
Hearing about this kid’s problems made me think there was more to his situation than just being a teenager. I latched onto the idea that this kid may have sustained some sort of head trauma when he was around 13. I know it’s all conjecture, but if there was some brain injury involved, then the fact that he could overcome his crying jags and his raging outbursts with this mindful awareness practice and exercise (and nutrition – let’s not forget that), then it really give me hope for myself. What’s more, it is also consistent with my own experience in the past few weeks.
I’ve been practicing Mindsight, myself, in hopes of strengthening the parts of myself that seem to be particularly challenged. In addition to doing my morning workouts, I have started doing breathing mindfulness practices each day. While I’m still in bed, I breathe deeply 45 times (the number of years I’ve been alive), really concentrating on the breath. It’s interesting how I tend to wander and “get lost” in the course of this practice. I also tend to get tense and hyperventilate, if I’m not careful. But I’m working on it, and it’s getting easier over time. And after doing this for the past 2 weeks, I’m starting to get the hang of it.
Perhaps most significant, it’s helping me get out of bed in the morning, since I do it before I get up. I had been having a terrible time just getting out of bed — I’d lie there for30… 45… 60 minutes (sometimes longer), before I actually got up. Doing this breathing work helps me wake up more quickly, and for some reason, I actually want to get up. Magic.
Anyway, over the course of the past week or so, I have been noticing how I don’t get as upset over “triggers” like I used to. It’s really wild. Things that used to just set me off into a freakish rage, sometimes now just happen. I notice them, but I don’t react to them immediately. They just occur. I don’t jump into judging them, or making them into bad things, or deciding that they demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m a total friggin’ loser. They just happen. And I have an extra few minutes to decide what I’m going to do in response.
Case in point:
This morning I woke up at 4:00 a.m. I had gotten to bed at 11:30 p.m. last night. Now, 4-1/2 hours is not my idea of a good night’s sleep, especially when I’m at a real deficit lately, and I was pretty upset about being awake. I lay in bed for half an hour, trying to get myself, to relax, getting more and more agitated and upset. And I started to worry about money. I start a new job on Monday that’s going to pay me less each paycheck (though the benefits and total value of the position is far greater than the job I just left), so I’m concerned about my money situation.
My head got hold of that, and it started to churn. I started to make up all these mental spreadsheets and calculations of how much money I was going to have each month, and how to stretch what I had. I tried to put a better light on things, telling myself this was something I needed to figure out, but I was getting really agitated and tweaked over it.
Then, all of a sudden, I realized what was happening — I was awake before I wanted to be, I was anxious about having left my last job, and I was not on the same schedule today that I normally am on Fridays. I was off-kilter, and that was making me anxious, and my energy was trying to find an outlet.
The moment I realized that, my agitation started to subside, and I felt myself looking at my behavior like I was at a distance from it. I could see that it was just my body getting wired and getting my brain in on the action. And I could see that I had choices about what I did with the energy.
I decided to make a different choice — to direct that wave of energy towards doing some deep breathing and progressive relaxation. I also realized that the windows were open in my bedroom, and the birds singing outside were really loud. So, I closed the windows, put in my earplugs, lay back down, and did my progressive relaxation, starting at my toes and working my way up to the top of my head. I hadn’t even gotten past mid-thigh when I was back to sleep.
And I slept through — up to 5 minutes before I was supposed to run out to my chiro appointment. I didn’t get a chance to work out and stretch and get myself woken up before I left for the chiro, but I was also able to navigate that, instead of getting all tweaked about it and flipping out with myself. I just got up, washed off, threw on some clothes, and went to my appointment. Then I came home did my workout, read my book, had my breakfast, and got on with the morning.
Simple enough, right? It sounds like it, but up until a few months ago, it was a real challenge for me. Up until a few weeks ago, even. This mindful awareness practice, this “mindsight” stuff actually seems to be working for me — and this after only a few weeks of doing it every day. I do make a point of doing it every day, just like my workouts/warmups. It’s become part of my daily routine, and it helps me get on with my life, not postpone it. That’s a good thing. It’s a really good thing.
So, even if that kid in the Mindsight book was just dealing with being a teenager (rather than having sustained a mild TBI), for me the practice is working. I feel a lot more chilled out, a lot more present, and a lot less driven by events that happen to me. I know it probably sounds implausible, for it to have an effect so soon, but I hear others have had the same experience.
The great thing is, I don’t have to go to an ashram or a retreat center or sign up for some special class to do this. I can read a book, watch/study videos of Dan Siegel talking about this on YouTube, and practice it myself. I know about the vagus nerve and how it helps with relaxation. I know about the parasympathetic nervous system and how it helps tone my overall nervous system, so I’m not so tweaked and fried and hair-trigger-happy over every little thing. I know some background neurology and psychology stuff, so that helps me get my head around this.
But the proof is really in the pudding. I can “know” all I like about this mindful awareness practice, but does it really work?
So far, for me, it does. I recommend others try it, too.