Choosing to stay chilled out

Image shows a cat lying on its back on an easy chair, with a t.v. remote lying on its belly
Image shows a cat lying on its back on an easy chair, with a t.v. remote lying on its belly

I’ve been uptight for way too long. I’ve been cranked up, worked up, stressed out, for as long as I can remember. In fact, I didn’t know how to relax until about 10 years ago, when I started deliberately practicing that.

I had no choice. My spouse was seriously ill. I was losing it. I had to figure out a way to get myself back from the edge… I was dangerously close to it, and my life was literally disintegrating around me, along with my sanity.

I got help. I found a neuropsych who could work with me.

I also learned how to do “progressive relaxation” — and I did it on a regular basis. It wasn’t just some fun thing I wanted to try out. It was life-and-death, and the balance of my life depended on it. I sat za-zen. I meditated each day before I did anything, and then again when I went to bed.

Over the years, I’ve lost touch with that old practice. I just didn’t feel like doing it anymore. And I’ve gotten increasingly cranked up and tied up in knots, as the months and years have progressed.

I’m back at that “choice point” again. Relaxation isn’t optional for me. It’s got to become a way of life. It’s not that I’m close to the edge. I’m just sick and tired of being stressed out about everything, and having nothing good come of it. Consider it a reality check on the ROI of being stressed. The return on the “investment” isn’t good.

That means, the time and energy spent is it’s not an investment. It’s a waste. I can’t get those hours and days and weeks back, that I lost to being stressed. They’re gone for good. And what do I have to show for them? A little, but not a lot.

So, I’m going to try something very different. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, but my plan is to keep my system in a prolonged state of relaxation. Just let my body relax. Just let my mind not worry about all that sh*t that everybody else is so worried about. I get too bent about crap I can’t control. It’s just kind of dumb. What the heck do I expect to happen as a result of my outrage, anyway? That it’s going to change anything? It doesn’t — except my internal state of mind. It just wrecks my peace. It doesn’t actually turn the speeding car in the right direction. If anything, it just pushes my internal accelerator to the floor.

And what do I have to show for it, after all those years of slamming the pedal to the metal? Not a whole lot, to be honest. I’ve spent a lot of time being angry, frustrated, outraged, confused, and not nearly as successful as I’d like to be. I’ve gotten in my own way, with all the frenzy. I’ve literally made myself sick, by letting my fight-flight response get the better (and worse) of me.

I know, I know, TBI has complicated matters for me. It’s at the root of much of my suffering, and not understanding it has made things so much worse. There’s no doubt of that. But I’ve also made things more difficult for myself by my choices to get bent out of shape, and stay that way — and also by not actively managing my issues. I have no excuse, now. I haven’t had an excuse for years. I know I’ve got sh*t going on with me, and it’s my responsibility to handle it, already.

But I’m getting tense again.

Let’s try to change that… No, don’t just try — DO.

To quote Yoda…

Do, or do not. There is no try.

It is possible to actively change your internal state from fight-flight to relaxation. I’ve known how to do it for years. But I haven’t consistently made a habit of it.

Till now. Till I got sick and tired of having nothing to show for my outrage, other than… outrage.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been deliberately relaxing when I felt myself tighten up. I tighten up — get tense — a lot. After being in a constantly tense state for most of my life, I know how to do that. It’s an immediate reflex. A knee-jerk response.

And when I consciously relax — just let it all go — things tend to clear up. Even if they don’t completely clear up, I feel better. And that’s something. I’m tired of feeling bad all the time, for no good reason. I’m old enough to know better, and I do. I’m also old enough to want to just enjoy myself, instead of chasing all sorts of distant goals that — if I’m honest — were never going to work out, in the first place.

Enough wasting the energy. Enough wasting time I’ll never get back.

Time to relax.

Choose to chill.

And enjoy my life.

Regardless.

Onward.

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Up early, time to breathe.

This isn’t exactly what I’ve got at work… but my own space isn’t bad at all

I woke up early today and have had some time to catch up with myself. I gave a friend some feedback on their resume (which someone had prepared for them — and very badly, too). I hope it helps – they are not in a good position at work, and they haven’t been challenged for quite some time. They need to make a move, but they can’t do it with a resume like the one they got from the “consultant” they hired.

Augh! Frustrating!

Anyway, I’ve had an hour and a half to just take care of some things, which feels good. I had hoped to start Monday out on a steady note, but my plans got hijacked. Yesterday turned into a whirlwind tour. I had no meetings till 9:30, but I had to run some errands before work, and I barely made it to my meeting on time. And my cube move got all mixed up. I was supposed to have everything in place by 8:30 yesterday, but the facilities folks didn’t even have me on their schedule – until they checked again, which I asked them to do. It took till early afternoon, and then I had to retrieve some extra cables from my old space, because the person who just moved out, took theirs with them.

By the end of the day, everything was settled, and that’s fine.

So yes. I got my new cubicle at work – it has a window, and it’s in a quiet spot. I feel like I hit the jackpot. Now I can set up my workspace as a little sanctuary at the office. In the past, I have not valued my workspace enough, and I just used it as a “holding pen” for my stuff.

Now I see things quite differently, because it is, after all, where I spend most of my waking hours. And I’m starting out on the right foot, putting a lot of thought into the space and how I want it to be. How I want it to feel.

I’ve got some plants I had at my other job(s), and I’m going to get more. It needs some life and light. I’m also going to get some pictures I used to have up. I’ve already got a cool laptop wallpaper of a place I’ve traveled to before, so that’s good. I need a side chair. Maybe I can order one.

I know it’s not forever, and I may be moving at some point on down the line, but for now, I want the space to really be somewhere I want to be, each day.

The great thing is, I’ve had time to think about it, today. I didn’t go to the chiropractor yesterday after work. I just went for a swim. It’s so much better. When I see the chiro – or acupuncturist or massage therapist or even my neuropsych – I feel a bit off-balance for a day or two afterwards. It’s helpful at times, but other times I just need to take a break from all the WORK.

I’m going to back off on my appointments each week. I think I need to discontinue with the chiro, because it’s so time-consuming and the benefit doesn’t offset the cost the way it used to.

It’s just so nice to… relax…

 

Training my brain to choose

I talked before about how sitting za-zen helps me to physically wake up. I can’t sit for very long before I go to sleep, because it wakes me up too much. So, I sit in the mornings – and I’m going to try to sit in the afternoons, when I have a few minutes. I just set up a reminder on my calendar to do it every day at 3 p.m., and we’ll see how that goes.

Now, waking myself up is fine. But in fact, for me, sitting za-zen is about more than that. It’s actually about training myself to choose what kind of experience I want to have — if I want to give in to fatigue and frustration, or if I want to dig down and find the resources to deal better with my situation. I am actually able to change my frame of mind in different circumstances — that’s what I do when I interact with certain types of people. I suffer from terrible dread in so many situations, but I “buck up” and decide I’m going to have a different experience that being full of dread and anxiety, and when I do that, it actually works. I forget about my fears and dive in… and almost always, the result is a good one

Sitting za-zen has given this to me. That’s what it’s about for me — choosing the experiences that I want to have.

It’s very much about learning to choose my reactions to situations… training myself to wake myself up as needed, or to calm myself down if necessary. Sitting with focus demands that I pay close, sustained attention to some very simple things — my breathing and my posture. It trains me to pay attention to how I’m feeling in my body, so my posture is always good. It also trains my attention on my breathing, as I count my breaths and make sure I am breathing at a constant rate. It trains me to note any ideas and thoughts that are flit-flitting through my head, which are taking my focus away from my breathing and my posture.

And it’s hard. It’s quite demanding. It’s so demanding, that it’s rare that I can count 17 full cycles of breath without some interference from thoughts and distractions. I do my best, but it is incredibly difficult at times, to just keep my attention trained on my posture and breathing. My posture is not typically za-zen — I can’t sit cross-legged, because it is too painful and I have back and knee problems, so I generally sit up in a chair. My breathing is steady and balanced — five slow breaths in, a slight pause, then five slow breaths out, followed by another slight pause. Many’s the time when I get to 7 full breath cycles, and then my mind starts to wander.

But after working with this for many years — on and off — I am doing much better about not losing track of the number of breaths, and I’m not as “absent” as I used to get, when I would sit and breathe.

It turns out that this kind of practice is incredibly good for the brain — it decreases the activity which is associated with falling asleep and actually wakes you up. So, contrary to a lot of beliefs that meditation is all about relaxing and chilling out, according to the Awakening Is Not A Metaphor study:

“… the result (of meditation) is not a calming in the direction of relaxation/sleep, but rather a move in the opposite direction: toward an increased alertness and vigilance that counteracts mental laxity and sleepiness.” (p. 6 of 18 in the pdf of the study)

The study talks in depth about it, listing a number of examples where meditation training of one kind or another improved alertness, reduced fatigue, and had positive after-effects for months after a single training session. From personal experience, I can testify that when I sit za-zen regularly, I feel better, I act better, and I’m able to handle what life throws at me, even in very challenging circumstances. I’m training myself to decide — for myself — what my reactions to life are going to be, and I’m reducing my overall reactivity. I’m teaching my brain to not just run in every different direction, following whatever shiny object it might find, and I’m training my mind to not chase after my brain when it starts acting like a monkey running off into the forest with my car keys.

This is such an important part of my TBI recovery — it really supports and strengthens my ability to choose for myself how I will behave, how I will think, how I will react. That choice can mean the difference between saying and doing things to others I will regret and not be able to take back, and keeping my relationships neutral and healthy. It can mean the difference between getting into hot water with the cops and getting let go with a warning, or getting sent to jail. It can mean the difference between becoming angry and letting it go, or letting the rage take hold of me to the point where I break something or hurt someone.

It literally can make all the difference between a temporary upheaval — a speed bump in the road of my life — and a semi-permanent deep-sh*t situation that I have to then manage and smooth over and fix, taking tons of time out of my regular life to fix what I’ve broken.

So, sitting za-zen is more than just a way to pass the time. It’s an important part of my everyday life, that helps me not only feel better, but also helps me act and overall function better. It wakes me up. Because I’m training my brain to wake up. And I’m teaching my mind to react the way IT wants to, not the way others expect or try to force it to.

Less Facebook, more za-zen

Keeping it simple

So, I’ve had a crazy busy week, and I’ve taken a few steps to make my life simpler and less hectic.

The first thing I did, was unfriend a person who has become a tremendous pain in my ass. I work with them, and our relationship has really altered over the past months, with them climbing to the top of the corporate ladder, and me holding back and not diving into all the politics and drama for a number of reasons. First, I’m not at all impressed with the opportunities available to me at work. Second, I’ve already done the ladder-climbing thing, and while it was exciting for a while, back about 15 years ago, I saw the dark side of it and opted out. Third, I’m not big on games. Fourth, in their heady rise to the top, they compete intensely and step on people to get there, and I’m not interested in being someone they compete against. That sh*t just depresses me.

So, while this onetime friend of mine has been maneuvering and operating all over the place (and trying to pull me into their activities), I’ve really cooled to them. And I unfriended them on FB. Which kind of freaked them out and made them feel rejected (which they were, if you think about it). But it simplifies my life, because now I don’t have to worry about getting miffed over something they post — or some comment they make to one of my posts.

FB has gotten way too intrusive for me.

The other thing I did was remove FB from my mobile phone. It was just getting too enticing for me, and I was spending way too much time on pretty much nothing. I mean — like so many others — I would start looking at posts, pictures, movies… and before I knew it, an hour had passed me by.

Which is never good. Especially when I have so little time for the things I truly want to be doing.

So, I made it harder for myself to go on FB, and I removed it from my phone for a few days. And it did simplify my life. (Turns out, I had to reinstall it last night, because my internet connection died, and my smartphone was the only way I could reschedule a meet-up I arranged for today) Just not having access to FB for a few days gave me additional time to focus on projects that are late-late-late, and just calm the heck down.

The calming down is the important part. Because even when the things I see on FB are good, they are still energizing and invigorating, and they get my blood pumping. There are jokes, there are observations, there are rants. And they always get me thinking and reacting. They jump-start my system as few other things can.

Now, that’s fine, if I actually do need a boost to wake me up. But all that uproar, all the time? It’s not necessary. And even if I am dragging a little bit, the neurocognitive / biochemical jolt of Facebook is usually a lot more than I really need, to get going. Going on FB for me, when I am a little “off” is like drinking a couple cans of Red Bull when I’m feeling a little distracted. It’s way too much for me, and no matter how good it feels to get that Facebook “rush”, it’s still putting a strain on my system that ultimately wears me out.

So, now I’m repairing the damage I’ve done, and I’m doing several things:

  1. I’m rationing my Facebook time and staying OFF it, first thing in the morning, as well as last thing at night.
  2. I’m back to doing za-zen, or sitting silently and focusing on my breath and my posture for set periods of time.

This is accomplishing several things:

  1. It is keeping my system from becoming drugged by biochemical / neurocognitive overload.
  2. It is re-training my system to develop its own ability to wake — or rest — at will.

Za-zen — my own version, which is simpler than thinking about koans, but more focused than Shikantaza (which is just sitting) — is for me about simply sitting, being wakeful and mindful about what is going on in my body and mind, but not “taking the hooks” of thoughts that “want” me to follow them, like monkeys running off into the woods with my car keys.

Some say that meditation is for relaxation, to relieve stress, but I have long believed — and I recently came across a study that echoes my belief. That study, “Awakening is not a metaphor: the effects of Buddhist meditation practices on basic wakefulness” talks about how sitting meditation can actually heighten wakefulness in long-term practitioners. It’s not necessarily about relaxation — it’s actually about waking up.

I have noticed, over the past years of sitting za-zen (which I have done for over 20 years, since I first learned about it), that I have actually learned how to wake myself up, even when I am incredibly tired. Sitting — just sitting — focusing on my breath and keeping myself alert to my posture, the sensations in my body, and whatever thoughts might be rattling ’round in my head, doesn’t relax me. In fact, it does the opposite. So much so, that I cannot sit za-zen right before I go to bed, because it wakes me up too much.

I sit in the mornings, instead. And I’m considering starting to sit in the afternoons when I start to get cravings for sweets. When I’m feeling low and groggy, I tend to reach for the trail mix, which is a far better option than a Snickers bar or some other kind of sugar. But I often end up eating too much sugar in the course of a busy afternoon, so I need another option.

The more I think about it, the more za-zen seems like a good option for me. Sitting with silent focus, even for just a few minutes, does wonders for me. And if I can incorporate it into my daily life — not only stepping away to sit in silence, but also having that attitude of za-zen when I am in meetings at work, or I’m trying to better focus on what’s in front of me… well, so much the better.

I used to actually do that, years ago before my last TBI. And it helped me so much. It “leveled out” the upheavals that had long been with me, because of all my previous TBIs. But when I fell in 2004, that completely threw me, and I became just a shadow of myself. I stopped sitting. I stopped meditating. I stopped thinking about anything except the daily business of just getting from Point A to Point B, and not falling victim to the demons that seemed to rage in me.

Now much has evened out with me, and I’m in a place where I can actually put my focus back on za-zen. I’ve done this before, so it’s not new to me. And the Awakening study confirms that people with past meditation experience can have greater increases in “tonic alertness” which is where you can become more alert in unexpected situations.

That’s what I’m striving for, these days — more alertness, more engagement in my daily life, less reactivity, and more skill at handling sudden and unexpected situations. And it turns out that I have the past experience and the present tools to help make that happen.

When I just sit and breathe and count and focus on my posture, even for just a few minutes, everything gets better. And that’s what I want. Better.

I’ve got another full day ahead of me, so it’s time to get going. On it goes.

Onward.