In the land of mindfulness-oriented behavioral health providers, how is it that the concept of Beginner’s Mind gets lost?
I’m specifically talking about my own experience with behavioral health folks, including friends who are psychotherapists, counselors I’ve seen, as well as my neuropsychologist. In all my years of seeking out help for my issues, I have but rarely encountered individuals who were really able to suspend judgment and not get stuck in the trap of continually seeking out ways to reconfirm their own world views.
And how many times have I sat across from someone who was professionally trained to help me, watching them not listen to me for what I was saying, rather for confirmation of what they believed…?
I think it’s wonderful that there are professional tracks for people to go down, to learn how to help others. At the same time, though, people also need to not get stuck in thinking they have it all figured out.
Because the behavioral health landscape is changing dramatically, especially compared to where it was just 10 years ago. We know so much more about the brain and its mechanisms than ever before. Yet we have just only begun to scratch the surface. So, let’s not get all hoity-toity about how much we know and how clued-in we are, thanks to our specialized skills and whatnot.
To me, orthodoxy (being convinced that you’ve got THE SECRET to how things work) and rigidity (never, ever changing your world view) are even worse liabilities than a brain injury. They make it extremely hard to adapt — which is precisely what we need to do as TBI / concussion survivors. We may be changing and growing and whatnot, while our providers are still stuck in their own versions of reality — which may or may not be useful to us.
It really is a problem. But I’m not the one to run around telling people that they’re too stuck in their ways. They have to see and realize it for themselves, and let go of their pride, arrogance, hubris. I’m sure it can be very, very difficult, dealing with brain-injured folks and their families/loved-ones, not to mention the healthcare system. It can put you into a state of perpetual fight-flight, which makes you even more susceptible to egotistical tendencies, arrogance, and prideful blindness.
I think especially for those folks who have been on the leading edge for many years, who were ridiculed and marginalized and made to feel “less than” because of their forward-looking stance. When you’re continually attacked and thwarted, it can do a number on you. I know how that is, and it’s no fun.
So, that cannot help but affect you. It cannot help but color your world view and make you biochemically and neurologically inclined to behave in ways that are defensive and self-supporting. Especially if you’ve had to shore up your own self-confidence and self-image and professional reputation, lo these many years, that can train you to be a certain way… a way which is intent on finding proof that you’re right, that you were right all along, and “they” were all wrong to doubt and thwart you.
Yes, I get how that shapes and conditions you.
At the same time, the higher purpose (of being of genuine help to others) needs to trump the hunger of your ego.
In the end, isn’t it more fulfilling to continue to learn and grow, rather than being someone whose main purpose is to ease the pain of the daily stresses of life and prove their “rightness” to themself and others?
I’m not a behavioral health provider, but personally I think I’d rather be learning and growing than constantly being on the defensive about my own convictions.
In the end, it can much more interesting to find out you’re wrong… and expand your concept of what’s right. There is so much more to discover about the human systems, the brain, and how they all interact.
Learning lessons as I go… it’s no good for me to start early-early at work, where there are people around who want to talk about this, that, and the other thing. It’s better if I start my workday at home, and prepare for the day here. If I have to make early morning calls with people, it’s best that I do it from home, rather than the office. That way I’m not distracted, and I can think.
It’s hard to think at the office.
And that really threw me off on Monday, which made it a terrible day I had to recover from. I also had a blowup with my spouse on Monday night, which could have turned out badly. When I’m in a bad space, they love to goad me and push me and keep firing questions at me and demand that I pay attention to them. It’s like they can sense when I’m vulnerable and struggling, and they want to see how far they can stretch me. They just push and push and push, needling and goading and provoking me, because something in them just craves that intensity at the end of the day.
It wakes them up. It’s familiar to them, because of their childhood family history. No evening is complete without a heated argument, when they’re feeling dull and out of it. I know they love the fight for the fight’s sake, because the minute I stop dealing with them and just walk away, they stop what they’re doing. They stop the provocation, they stop the needling, they stop the questions, the pushing, the prodding. And they start bargaining to get me to come back and sit down, have some nice dinner, etc.
It’s almost like my spouse is not even there, when that happens. Something in their brain switches on, and the person they are switches off. It’s become worse, in the past years, and now (thanks to help I’m getting from a counselor and my neuropsych), I can see it for what it is — just some weird-ass neurochemical/biological impulse they have to FIGHT. If I step away or just stop the progression, it’s like magic. They turn into someone completely different.
It really does a number on me. In the aftermath of my meltdowns, my spouse is so calm. They almost seem like they just had a cigarette or a beer — they’re very relaxed. Meanwhile, I’m a friggin’ mess, I feel like crap, and I have to build back my self-confidence again. They get the upper hand. They get to recreate the dynamics of the past. And the old cycle is in place. I don’t even think they realize what they’re doing, so it’s up to me to stop it, myself.
And I stopped myself on Monday night before I got too bent out of shape. I could tell I was getting to the point where I wanted to throw something or hit something (or someone). So, I backed off. I just slammed on the brakes and walked away from the situation. When I walk away, my spouse starts to behave properly again.
So, I’ll have to start doing that, anytime I feel that “rise” starting to come up with me. I’m just walking away to let them calm down and stop provoking me.
Yesterday was better. I took my early calls at home, I got into the office after rush hour traffic, and I had a pretty productive day. It was like pulling teeth at the end of the day, but I got things done, exhaustion and all.
One thing that’s throwing me off is a new coworker who has really been annoying the crap out of me. I’m supposed to be their “buddy” and train them and bring them along in the organization, and they’re not making my job any easier. This individual has a ton of qualifications, certifications, and degrees. They were a teacher in the past, and they like to show off how much they know about ancient history and roleplaying games. They also like to get into a lot of heady discussions about intellectual things, but they don’t have a ton of depth, and some of the things I know a lot about, they’ve never even heard of.
Their overall affect is a little bit arrogant, and while they do know a lot about some things, they don’t know nearly enough to act like they own the place. Actually, their personality would be best suited to teaching middle school or high school, where they will always be ahead of their students. It’s the adults around them, they can’t keep up with.
I feel sorry for them, a little. The rest of the group is not exactly welcoming, which is what I came up against when I first started. But this individual is getting increasingly insecure and posing like they’re an expert, which is causing them to become increasingly annoying. They’re trying like crazy to show that they already know how to do everything, but they’ve only been on the job two weeks. Meanwhile, the rest of the group, who are not at all intellectuals (or don’t fancy themselves to be), are getting irritated at the apparent arrogance.
All that training, all those certifications. All the degrees… And this new person can’t deal with people. Adults, anyway.
On the other hand, seeing them in action has been a learning experience. It’s reinforced a few ideas with me.
First, that I am so glad I did not go into an academic line of work. It’s so annoyingto have to deal with people who are impressed with how smart they think they are. And all the pitter-patter about academic subjects that have nothing to do with anything current or applicable in everyday life… that’s annoying, too.
Second, despite my lack of certifications and qualifications, I can hold my own professionally. No problem. I’m the real deal, and I can get along with just about anybody, I can figure things out, make them right, and I can get the job done. And if I don’t know something, I come to it with beginner’s mind and start from the bottom-up. I tend to overstep and screw up — of course I do. That’s how I learn.
Third, if you want to succeed in life and work, you’ve got to be teachable. For the long run. In every conceivable situation. Not just in the classes you take, but in real life. Each and every day. Ask questions. Stay curious. Don’t get arrogant and think you have it all figured out, because every situation is different, and the people around you won’t appreciate your attitude.
Fourth, resilience matters. All the time. Under any and every circumstance. You’ve got to be able to bounce back — and that’s something I’ve learned how to do, time and time again. You always have another chance, if you give it to yourself.
So, those are the four lessons I’ve learned from dealing with this new person. It’s reinforced things I know about myself, and it’s actually making me feel better about my own abilities and skills. Even if they are a bit like a rock tied ’round my neck, and they’re slowing me down… and they may not last in the job, because our boss is getting irritated with them… at least I’m getting something out of it.
Let this be a lesson to me. Let it all be a lesson to me.
I’m taking another shot at cleaning up this hard drive on my “old” computer. I think there are still components that can be un-installed, to reclaim even more space, not to mention speed. The more programs you have running on your computer, the slower it tends to go — if, that is, you’re a “mortal” like me, with a serviceable but far-from-top-of-the-line model.
I start my vacation today. Just two days off, before the onslaught at work begins. I have a ton of stuff to do, and in the past I would have declined to take time off, because I take a lot of pride in my productivity, and I don’t want to leave my co-workers hanging. It’s a terrible spot to be in, and Lord knows I have pulled out all the stops for them in the past, so they wouldn’t be left hanging.
But you know what? The Company is doing a lot of things that say loud and clear, “We don’t really care about your productivity and your team, and you better do what we tell you – or else.” They’ve pushed this agenda for the past 2 years, and I hate to admit it, but it’s worn me down. Also, my co-workers are just a little shy of insane, with their go-go-go mindless reactivity that dashes madly from one task to the next, without ever actually finishing anything. They’ve worn me down with their multi-tasking mediocrity.
Now, in the back of my head I have been thinking that I don’t want to trash my reputation with poor performance. I don’t want to alienate people who could do recommendations for me. But the people whose recommendation I care about have either left the company already, or they are on their way out, and all of us are going to say super nice things about each other, because it’s a small world, and we know that if we do good for others, there’s a chance it will come back to us. The people who are staying, who are invested in me super-performing for them and The Company, aren’t the sort of people I need recommendations from. So, I don’t feel like my long-term prospects have been that jeopardized by this environment and this organization. It’s all good. And anyway, I’m going to go back to contracting, once I’m done here. There’s a lot less pointless drama for me, when I’m not “permanent full-time”.
So, I’m not getting concerned, and I’m not letting myself worry. Today and tomorrow is “me time”, and I’m looking forward to just kicking back and enjoying things. Running a few errands this morning… taking a trip to a museum I’ve been wanting to visit… heading out into nature to just relax. They’re calling for rain tomorrow, which could put a damper on things, but my spouse and I are fine with that. We’ve got rain gear. We also are taking books to read, and if we spend the day sitting in the car reading and resting…. away from the hustle and bustle, that’s just fine with us.
The point is getting away.
It’s funny, though… for me, getting away is less of a necessity than it is for a lot of people. Yes, it is good to take a break from it all, and yes, it does help me “reset” my mind and give me a different perspective on things. But I don’t crave it like some people. I think it’s because each day literally seems like a whole new one to me. Every morning when I get up, things feel new. Hopeful. Like there’s something else out there to discover and learn. Sometimes I wake up with a terrible sense of dread, but that’s usually due to fatigue or a physical feeling. When I’m feeling sick and foggy, and I’m in pain, I really do get depressed. But when I’m well-rested, not much can get me down.
In this respect, I think my crappy short-term working memory actually helps me. Because I forget so much, and I lose my place so often, I have had to learn how to keep an open mind and perspective, and watch for clues and opportunities. When much of your daily experience that’s more than 20 minutes old seems to evaporate behind you as you walk through your days, you learn to keep going and keep your eyes open for clues about where to go next.
Literally. I mean, my memory for how things were and what I was doing, just an hour ago, tends to be pretty vague. I have to think hard to recall what I did just half an hour ago. And who has the time and energy for all that work and thinking, every minute of every day? If I focus too strongly on the past, I lose sight of my present and where I’m going in the future. So, I have to keep going, keep moving, keep growing and improving.
Some people would get pretty upset, if this happened to them and that’s how their life turned out. For me, I can’t remember anything different. I just never realized that this was unusual, until I did my neuropsych testing and learned that I have the short-term working memory of a chipmunk. Things get lost for me after a surprisingly short period of time. They start to dissolve and disappear on me, leaving big gaps in what I think I remember about what just happened.
That was an eye-opener for me, and it threw me for a loop. But then I realized that it wasn’t all that catastrophic — I’ve managed to put together a pretty excellent life, despite all that “disability”, and frankly, a lot of stuff that people insist on remembering simply isn’t worth hanging onto. I have several really good friends who are ultra-invested in nursing grudges and remembering every single slight and hurt that’s ever been done to them. I can honestly say that thatkind of mentality does NOT make you a happier person, than someone like me who has no “storage space” for that sort of stuff. I mean, I couldn’t remember it, if I tried, but why bother trying? It’s much better, in my opinion, to start fresh each day.
Obviously. I mean – compare… I cannot retain much of anything, and I bounce out of bed on many days with a great sense of expectation and anticipation. While they remember each and every instance of insult, slights, hurt, inconsideration, offense… you name it… and they literally can’t get out of bed a lot of days. They don’t want to live their lives, they’re afraid of living their lives. They expect bad things to happen to them at every turn, and a lot of times, that’s exactly what happens. But the bad things happening is not the problem. They get stuck in those bad things and cannot work through them, so they get stuck. Because their minds are stuck in that place. They’ve fallen, and they can’t get up.
I’m sure a lot of it is neurological. One of these friends was routinely knocked out on a regular basis by abusive adults their parents hung out with. There’s also the one-time drug abuse that left its mark, long past their last drink or drug. It’s also biochemical — one of the most hard-up friends I have simply refuses to eat responsibly. They live on coffee and chocolate and rarely eat a real meal. Small wonder they’re screwed up. They just won’t take care of themself. It’s heart-breaking to watch, but that’s their choice, and no matter how I try to reason with them, they just can’t seem to get it.
The thing that keeps these friends of mine going is drama and stress and adrenaline. They’re always getting themselves into some sort of mess — probably because it makes them feel alert and alive. I know for a fact that a lot of them have “tonic arousal” issues, as a result of brain injuries. But they can’t hear me talk about it. They just can’t get their head around the whole TBI thing, which is a shame, because they could really be helped if they would just admit that that’s the issue. But they’re more interested in proving that the problems come from outside them, not inside their head. There’s a whole mindset there that just kills. And it’s a shame.
But enough about them. For me, beginner’s mind is the only way to live. I start fresh each day, mostly because I have to. It’s way too much work to try to remember everything — that’s where my lists come in. Most of all, it’s way too much work to try to remember all the emotional and mental experiences I’ve had lately — even if those experiences were uplifting and encouraging. When I think about it, I realize that I’m constantly orienting myself to the present and to “what’s next” — not so much to the past, because that is dim and fragmented for me. And when I interact with people, I really follow their lead when I socialize and take cues from them, and I rely on them for reminders of what I’m supposed to remember and think about.
It’s a good thing that all of this happens inside my head, because if people new just how reliant I am on the people around me for even the most basic conversation topics and direction, they’d think I was a complete idiot.
On the other hand, when I look around at people who supposedly “know” how things were or what happened once upon a time, I see a lot of people who have very different perspectives about exactly the same thing, and who have completely different recollections and interpretations of “reality”. It’s like they’re all living in their own worlds (I guess most of us are), and they believe with all their hearts that their version is the right version. And they’re willing to defend that interpretation with their very lives — as a result, we’ve got wars and conflicts and political parties.
So, maybe having a “good” memory isn’t so great after all.
And maybe it’s actually better for me, that my past becomes just that — a faded, fragmented, distant past, about so much of which I’m uncertain. Maybe it’s better that I don’t remember all that much from my childhood, aside from shadowy memories and a bunch of brightly shining times when I knew I was okay, and new everything was going to turn out alright. Maybe it’s a blessing, that I can’t retain all the kinds of crap that my friends are so adept at remembering.
Maybe beginner’s mind is exactly the right thing for me.
I know it’s what a lot of people strive for. They actively seek to put themselves in that frame of mind. But I’m there by default, thanks to at least nine mild traumatic brain injuries that had progressively negative impacts on me. Each time I got clocked, a little more of my brain changed. And now here I am… beginner’s mind. Some people would (and do) pay tons of money to learn how to get there, but I learned for free.
NOT that I’m advocating repeat concussion as a route to enlightenment. Far from it. The thing is, for all that I’ve lost as a result of mild TBI, life hasn’t turned out to be a total waste. I’ve been forced to acquire new skills and adapt — or else. And all the hard work has been worth it. If I ever get concussed again, I’m not sure what will become of me. Maybe my memory will be completely erased.
Who knows? All I know is, right here and right now, I’m feeling pretty good. I have a few days off — a four-day weekend, which I’m looking forward to. I am practicing relaxing and getting back to my “happy place”, and the world looks pretty promising to me — despite all the international upheaval and what-not.