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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Mind the Bump – Mindfulness and how the brain works

Transformation: Benefits of mindfulness meditation for fellow head-injury survivors

Gold Mind Meditation Project or my life experience with TBI, for over thirty years now.

(Transformation: Benefits for fellow head-injury survivors) By Had Walmer

Brain-injury is an invisible disability, not easily noticed from the outside like a wheelchair or crutches. It’s a complex injury to the our brain and associated neurosensory systems. Known profoundly from inside each survivor experiences a unique array of symptoms. Gold Mind Meditation Project empowers you to transform your relationship with this changed condition and actually thrive in life through learning the Power of Mindfulness.

I speak from personal experience. Returning to college years ago, I was involved in a serious car accident. Jaws-Of-Life were required to free me from the vehicle. I got a skull fracture and was in coma for seven days. My brain swelled in my skull causing much secondary damage after the crash impact. When I came to I had severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), diplopia (double-vision) and amnesia. In an instant I was not who I used to be.

Since that time I’ve lived with continuing challenges of TBI. I struggled to complete my university degree and to get on with my life. I graduated from the university and then within a few years experienced frustrating failure in the loss of several jobs due to cognitive deficits:
weak learning and memory, poor boundaries and speech pathology. Often my perceptions were very cloudy – I was very unaware of what I could do or be. My friend who is an Occupational Therapist pointed out that this condition was the direct result of TBI, what TBI is, and that I can actually have a powerful say in the process and success of my rehabilitation.

TBI has often been misdiagnosed and thus poorly treated. In expensive and top-of-the-line rehabilitation programs I learned of my ‘cognitive-deficits’ and ‘compensatory coping-strategies’ for those deficits. These strategies are well-intended rehab but fell short of knowing and actually addressing the best possible well-being for me. I had to learn this inner transformation for myself. In my own explorations I have learned to sift gold (possibilities) from the gravel of my life experiences in order to find meaning, value and purpose for myself. Mindfulness Meditation is the key, learning to be brightly alive and awake in the present moment.

I’ve learned the meditation practice called Insight Meditation. Regular practice helps me be concentrated and focused, capable of sustained attention to chosen activities and to hold said purpose in mind. With Mindfulness practice we take a stand for our inner wellness, solidly at peace beyond the damages of our trauma and change. This is a path of being at peace with and authentic in your life, now. You can be ready to pick up whatever is next in your life path, with greater ease and joy, skillfully. You will get back benefits in proportion to the time that you put into the practice of mindfulness mediation, empowered to strongly face challenges.

Mindfulness practice can lead to brain healing (‘neuroplasticity’- the brain can heal itself). I am now choosing to live my life intentionally and more skillfully – making peace with this malady and finding the healing I need with present moment awareness. You can do this too. This is the start of a new path for you! Being calm and clear – activating your mind’s inherent strengths. Loving the life you live now.  Really!
Had C. Walmer hwalmer@gmail.com (503)332-3046

What went right today

Today was a pretty good day.

I woke up early – around 4 a.m., which is never good. But things got better after that. I listened to my relaxation MP3s and I managed to get 2 more hours of sleep, which was great. I was having weird dreams, though — something about walking around someone else’s house, and having my car stolen… and not being able to find my way back to where I was supposed to be.

I had some early meetings, then I had another meeting around noon. Then I had the afternoon to focus on getting some work done, and it was pretty productive.

I even had 20 minutes to step away and do my breathing/relaxation, which was good.

All in all, it was a good day. And I even got my weekly acupuncture in, as well.

One of the things that made today especially good, was that I fasted today. I did about a 22 hour fast — from 9:30 last night till 7:30 tonight. I felt good all day. I didn’t suffer terribly with hunger, the way I have in my previous two fasts (it was pretty rough at times). And even when I felt hungry, it wasn’t that panicked kind of voraciousness that made me feel like I was going to die, if I didn’t get something to eat.

This is good. I just realized I was hungry, and I got my mind off it. Did other things.

One of the nice things about fasting, is that it saves me time in the day. If I have a lot to do, it saves me at least 2-3 hours in the day, that I’d normally spend planning on eating, getting something to eat, and then eating. It also kept me more awake all day.

Plus, when I’m hungry, I know I can get difficult. So, I paid an extra amount of attention to my mood and my behavior, and I kept it together extremely well.

Today was a very good day. After the past week or so, I’m due 🙂

 

 

Found something to help me sleep

Check this out – click here to find it on Amazon (no, I don’t get a cut from your purchase – I just want you to have this)

Okay, so I’ve been functioning on an average of 6 hours of sleep a night — my acupuncturist says that this should be enough for me. I’m getting older, and as you age, you tend to need less sleep.

My neuropsychologist, on the other hand, knows full well that it’s no good for me to get 5-1/2 hours of sleep one night, then 6-1/2 hours the next, and 6 hours the next, and then (if I’m lucky) 7 hours of sleep. They know what havoc it can wreak with me, and there’s none of that fanciful “6-7 hours is more than enough” stuff coming out of their mouth.

I know, myself, that 6-7 hours is nowhere near enough. I’ve been struggling along with about that much sleep, each night, for quite some time now. Months. If not years. I function better on at least 8 hours a night — but I’ve been struggling to get even 7 hours at a shot.

Last night I got about 8-1/2 hours. Woo. Hoo. I went to bed early at 9:30, and I woke up around 6. I woke up actually feeling like I’d gotten some sleep. Pretty amazing. And I’m ready for whatever the day brings, which is a handful of errands, followed by a get-together with friends (and some strangers) to celebrate someone’s pending nuptials.

So, what worked? What helped me get to sleep by 9:30? Well, a couple things:

  • I was actually tired last night – I could feel it in my bones. This is different from how things usually are with me, because I’m usually so tired that I cannot even feel how exhausted I am. I’m wired, pushing through on adrenaline, and nothing can stop me or even slow me down. It’s a terrible way to live, and going to bed is a real chore and a struggle when I’m that exhausted. But last night, I could feel how tired I was. I was yawning like crazy before, during, and after dinner, and I couldn’t even keep my attention on the television, so I turned it off, did the dishes, wrote a little bit, and went to bed. When I got in bed, it felt so amazing to be horizontal and just be able to sink into the mattress and let it all go. How did I manage to let myself feel tired? Here’s how:
  • I had a nap yesterday afternoon. I managed to step away from my work for 45 minutes, and go to my car, which I parked in a remote dark corner of the parking garage. I lay a jacket over my body and face, and after I few minutes of getting comfortable, I slept. I’ve had a hell of a time being able to relax at work. I’ve tried stepping away to sit and meditate, and that does help me at times. But nothing helps like just getting 20 minutes of sleep. That’s the only thing that actually keeps me going. The only problem is, I haven’t been able to come close to feeling sleepy at work. I know I’m wired. I know I’m beat. I know I need to catch some zzzz’s. But I haven’t been able to get myself there. Till yesterday. How did I manage to sleep? Here’s how:
  • I put on my “Stress Hardiness Optimization” (S-H-O) relaxation CD, and I just let it all go. I originally intended to just do the relaxation, but I often end up sleeping when I do that, so that tells me I really needed to sleep That’s what happened yesterday. I got a little turned around with the settings on my phone, and I had to fiddle with that a little bit before I got the tracks to play properly, but I did figure it out eventually, and that was good. I had a some trouble just relaxing at first — which is to be expected. But after a little while, I was able to just relax and let it go… and then I got some sleep. I only slept for 20 minutes or so, which is all I needed. And then I was up and ready to go back into the fray — which is what it is.

I’ve missed listening to those MP3s and I realize that they’re really an important part of my continued recovery and functionality. I have been listening to Belleruth Naparstek, now, for about 7 years. You should really check her out, if you get a chance. I believe she’s got MP3s up on iTunes, and you can get her CDs off amazon.com. I can’t recommend S-H-O enough – it’s literally a life-saver. She’s got a bunch of different recordings — for sleep, overcoming trauma, anger… you name it, she probably has a CD to help with it. Even dealing with dying (if that’s happening in your life, these days). And it helps. The science is sound, and my experience is even better evidence for me.

My experience is really all I need, to be truthful. It tells me, this works.

I found out about Belleruth from a friend who was dealing with PTSD, ’round about the time when I was figuring out my TBI issues, and I went to see her when she spoke, a few hours away from where I live. I was skeptical, at first, because it seemed like so much woo-woo flowery touchy-feely “wellness” stuff, that it turned me off.

But I tried to keep an open mind, and when I heard her talk, and I overheard others at the conference talking about her — and not only frilly psychotherapists, but tough guys who taught inner city public school — I was warming up to her work. And when I read her “Invisible Heroes” book and read about the physiological science behind PTSD and recovery and the role that guided meditations can play in recovery, I was well convinced.

And when I started using her CDs myself, I was converted 100%.

I have listened to her stress hardiness exercises intermittently over the years, and they really helped me, at the start of my recovery. But I got away from it because it started to get boring. And when they upgraded my phone at work, I lost the MP3s I had on my old phone, and I didn’t get around to putting them on my new phone. Yesterday, I had some time in the morning before I went to the office, so I put the MP3s back on my phone, and I’m really glad I did.

I think the thing that works for me — that makes the S-H-O work for me, is that I can turn off my head and listen to someone else do the talking for me. And there’s music that sets a slower pace… and the whole thing is engineered to calm down your system and strengthen you. It’s actually designed for military and first responder personnel, as well as people in intense work situations — the last of which applies to me. I am in an intense work situation, and I need the extra help. Removing stress from my life is not an option — it’s there, and it’s going to be there, and as long as I’m dealing with my TBI stuff (which is all the time), there is continuous stress in my life. So, I have to find a way to optimize my system for it, rather than running from it or trying to get rid of it.

So, I got my sleep last night — 8-1/2 hours worth. Woo. Hoo. This is seriously good news. And now I need to pace myself for my morning and give myself time later this morning after my errands, to listen to S-H-O again and do my relaxation. Maybe even get some sleep. Because the one thing that helps me sleep through the night, is getting a little nap during the day.

It just makes everything more workable. It totally saves my ass. And for power naps and stress hardiness optimization CDs, I am eternally grateful.

Onward…

Letting things just be

You gotta know what’s what – for real

I had a long weekend, with a lot of work of all kinds. I did some work for my day-job, and I also worked with my spouse to help them with a business trip on Saturday. Then I spent most of Sunday with a house guest, who stayed until 5 p.m.

I typically prefer to have time to myself on the weekends – to be alone and undisturbed by others. I had a lot to do, and interacting with other people takes time. It takes a lot of time. And energy. And attention I’d rather put somewhere else.

One of the things that makes interacting with other people difficult for me, is that I really expend a lot of energy when I’m interacting with them. I really make an effort to see their points of view and to just let them be who and what they are. It’s a fair amount of work for me, because most of the things I see and hear and watch people doing, saying, choosing, really conflicts with what I would do, say, or choose.

But it’s their choice and it’s their life. Even if I can see that their deeds, words, and choices are going to lead them down an unfortunate path, I have to stand back and let them do it. It’s not up to me, to save them. Or even to give them a clue about what’s ahead. That’s for them to find out. If I didn’t care so much about the sufferings of others, my life might be considerably easier.

But I do care. And it is extremely hard to watch people do the things they do.

Who am I to take them to task, though? Who am I to step in and draw their attention to things? We all have to walk our own paths, and we all have to make our own mistakes.

I just don’t much care for being pulled into the foolishness that they propagate. When the people doing the ill-advised things are in charge, and they are affecting the lives of countless others on a very large scale, well, that’s a problem. Especially if one of those people is me.

So, in that case, standing by and doing nothing, saying nothing, never speaking out and never raising any questions, is negligent on my part. We all have responsibility for certain things that happen around us. The real puzzle is knowing which of those things we are complicit with, and choosing the right path to take.

For me, the right path is (ultimately) off into the sunset — toward the horizon — and away from the situation where I now am. There is so much more that I can be doing with my skills and abilities, and nobody I work with is actually mature and experienced enough to recognize that. So, I’m limited by their lack of vision and experience.

It really does boil down to experience. And there’s not a damn’ thing I can do about that.

So, in the spirit of picking my battles, I’m working on stepping back and letting things be. I need to observe them and figure out which things I want to dive into, and which things I want to leave alone. A whole lot of drama can be alleviated by just being still and letting it settle down. Then the drama dissipates. The swirling mud sinks to the bottom of the pool, and we can get clear again.

The main thing is to just remain calm and allow it to be. Just be.

And in those times when I let things get the better of me, and all the dust and muck gets kicked up and swirled into a muddy mess, I need to just step back, step away, and let myself settle down… so I can stop stirring the pot, myself.

Half the time, the pot doesn’t need to be stirred, anyway, and all the drama and kerfluffle has nothing to do with what’s actually going on at the moment. It has to do with everything else in the world that people are experiencing — the imaginary past, the elusive present, the anticipated future. And it has nothing to do with reality. At all. Things would be so much simpler, if we could just let them be, but no… people seem to be hard-wired to dive head-first into drama.

Of course, I know exactly how that works. For sure. It’s a mix of biochemistry, neurology, and the combination of fear, anxiety, fatigue, pressure, stress… that whole big mess o’ things that — for some reason — we seem to think life has to be.

It doesn’t. We’re just trained that way. Everything from our media to our interpersonal relationships, are marinated in drama. It wakes us up. It makes us feel alive. It makes us feel important, or right, or righteous, or powerful. It makes us feel as though we alone know “what’s what” in the world, and it’s comforting that way.

But ultimately, all that amounts to is drama. Biochemistry. Neurology. Habit.

It’s not real.

And that’s the thing I need to keep in mind and remember. I did an okay job of remembering it this weekend, when I started to get all OCD over my work situation and started to get all worked up over scenarios I was imagining. The imaginary scenarios were both historical (they had happened, and I’d decided what they were about and what they meant) as well as anticipated (they hadn’t yet happened, and I was pretty sure they would). And I was getting really worked up over them, while I was trying to fall asleep last night.

But I got a hold of it and remembered that I was frittering away precious time on what was basically an illusion — something I made up in my mind about what was happening/going to happen, and what it all meant — and there was not much reality to it, other than the sensations that were coursing through my veins and making my heart rate go nuts. It wasn’t serving any purpose and it wasn’t helping me at all.

So, I stopped. I just let it be. I reminded myself that the only thing that was giving any of it any reality, was me and my conviction that I knew what was what.

Silly.

Once I stopped, and I got myself calmed down, I went right to sleep. Which is what I was needing to begin with.

And that’s progress.

It’s also progress, that I’m seeing more and more clearly each day, just now made-up our world really is. We invent all these interpretations of how things are and what’s happening and what it means, and then we leap into action without checking it out first. We “jump on it” and make a mess of things, and then we run around like chickens with our heads cut off, trying to fix what we screwed up in the first place. It’s all very exciting, and it makes us feel like we’re making progress, but we’re doing the opposite — creating a lot of drama and suffering for ourselves and everyone around us.

So, in that spirit, I’m going to start my day. I’m working at home today, because I’m finally able to get a plumber in to fix a leak that has gotten progressively worse over the past two months. At last, I have the money to pay them, and I have the time for them to come to the house. Those two things have been sorely lacking in the past months.

Speaking of sorely lacking time, I think I’m going to take a day off, pretty soon. All this working, all this pushing, all the interactions with house guests and visitors and new co-workers has kicked the crap out of me, and I need a day to myself. I need some silence. Just silence.

So, I’ll look at my schedule and pick a day that works for me to just check out. Every now and then, I need a break. From everything.

But for now, it’s into the day for me.

Onward.

 

 

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.

Fasting day today

Every now and then, it’s really good to go without

So, now that I’m exercising again, I’ve had some time to read — while I’m riding the exercise bike, first thing, before lifting or doing resistance exercises. I’ve been combing the Web for material on the benefits of exercise for the brain, and I’m rediscovering a lot of pieces I read a few years back that slipped into the nether regions of my memory. Yes, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is stimulated by exercise. And intermittent fasting can be good for your brain.

I have an easy day today — I’m telecommuting, and my afternoon appointment will probably be cancelled — so I don’t have a lot of energy demands on me, and I can safely get through the day without being in danger from hypoglycemia or not having enough energy to get by. When I’m commuting and I’m on my regular schedule, I need to have all pistons firing, which means I need a steady flow of energy to my brain, so fasting is not possible.

Today, though, I’m good to fast. I’ll drink my water and tea, get some intermittent exercise, and probably take a nap later this afternoon. Pace myself, and let my body take a rest from eating. I won’t fast into the evening. I just need to be without food till about 8:00 tonight, which probably won’t be a problem. I usually don’t eat until after 8:00 anyway. I ate my last snack last night around 10:00 p.m., I think — a natural fruit popsicle. So, a 22 hour fast will do the trick.

I learned about intermittent short-term fasting at the blog Getting Stronger, which discusses hormesis, or making your system stronger by introducing small bits of stress that test your system and increase its capacity for performance. I have tried to fast in the past, but it went poorly — probably because I had issues with behavior and emotional regulation, and my diet was pretty crappy, so I was all set up for hypoglycemia that made me a bear. So, I never did much with fasting after a few little tries.

Intermittent short-term fasting, which is where you go without food for about 20 hours, every now and then (some people do it monthly), actually offers a lot of benefits, without the intense stress and strain of prolonged deprivation. I aspire one day to being able to fast longer than 22 hours, but that may actually never be necessary, as reduced calorie intake is also a proven way to help you be healthier.

Anyway, I have been looking for opportunities to fast, but I’ve either been pretty active, or I have completely forgotten (like over the week between Christmas and New Years) that fasting might be a good idea. So, now I am remembering it, and it looks like this is a really good day to do this thing. And I shall.

I know this may prove challenging later today, when I am looking for my lunch around 11:30 a.m. – that’s when I usually eat. And then there is the afternoon snack that I usually have around 2:30 or so… Doing without them, especially when I am working at home with lots of good, healthy food within easy reach, may be a challenge. But I have to keep in mind that I am doing this for a good reason — and it won’t be forever.

I’ll break my fast tonight, and that will be that.

The big challenge today will be keeping my mind on my work and not getting pulled in a bunch of different directions. I’ll spend some extra time today exercising or sitting and breathing, instead of eating. At times when I am usually having snacks or lunch, I will do a little stretching or sit and count my breaths. This could be a really good way to get that extra meditation time I’ve been wanting.

I’ve felt myself jumping quickly into a state of knee-jerk reactiveness, over the past months, and that has not been good. I can’t just snap over every little thing. I need to be more mindful and also better about managing how I behave with regard to my emotions. I know this is an issue for me. So, sitting and breathing and working on my self-restraint while not eating will be a great opportunity for me.

I just need to keep focused and remember why I am inconveniencing myself — and really celebrate at the end, when I get to eat again. It’s only 11 hours and 16 minutes away 😉

Each year better than the last – I hope

Looking back… looking ahead

Now that Christmas and Hanukkah and Winter Solstice have all passed, it’s time to start looking ahead to the New Year. Kwanzaa is still underway till January 1, and the Seven Principles that mark this time give me good food for thought, even though I don’t actually celebrate it formally. Yuletide is also underway till January 1 (or the 13th, depending what part of the world you live in), allowing everything to just slow down for time to reflect and look ahead to the new year.

I’m celebrating the spirit of Yuletide more than any other holiday this season. It’s been a quiet time, without a lot of travel, and minimal racing around to take care of presents and what-not. If anything, I’ve been pretty neglectful of others, this holiday season. But you know what? They’ve been totally neglectful of me, too, so we’re even. If anything, the past years have been about me and my spouse doing a hell of a lot more for them than they did for us — doing more travel, making more of an effort, going out of our way to keep everyone aligned and on track with coordinating our holiday activities. This year, we haven’t done all that — and guess what… nobody picked up the slack. So there you go — they must not care that much, so… what-ever.

It’s time to us to take care of ourselves for once.

And we’ve done just that. I’ve been in a pretty low-key frame of mind since before Christmas — all the excitement of work notwithstanding — so, it’s been a very “Yule-like” time. Things have slowed down. I’ve allowed them to slow down. I’ve taken time OFF from all the sense of obligation and duty and required activities, to just rest and relax and not race around like a chicken with my head cut off, as I did in prior years. I’ve done energizing things that are good for me, and I’ve been eating lots of new foods that support me and my brain, as well. I’ve cooked up some pretty excellent dishes lately, if I say so myself, and my spouse says I’m becoming quite the chef 🙂

Looking back on the past year, it’s odd — I can remember bits and pieces of it, but I don’t get an overall sense of how the year was. I know it’s been challenging, and I’ve been actively looking for a new job for much of that time — especially in the past three months. At home, things have stabilized somewhat — with less undercurrents of stress and strain, but some extreme meltdowns that have taken a toll on my marriage. I’ve been through a lot of intense challenges with my spouse, including issues with money and infidelity and physically unhealthy choices. All in all, though, I think we’re on the up-swing, and taking time out from all the travel to see family, as well as me getting my own “house” in order, has benefited us a great deal.

I feel stronger and more stable than I have in a long time. Perhaps ever. And yet, there’s a constant sense of confusion and disorientation that is always in the background. I am more functional than I can remember being in a good long while, and the circumstances of my life are leveling out and becoming more “structurally sound”, but at the same time, I’m in a fair amount of general pain much of the time, I have tremors and shakes, and my brain is definitely not firing on all pistons. I feel like I’m maybe at 65% on a regular basis. 85% if I’m lucky.

And that makes me sad.

But I think perhaps I am acclimating to the instability. I’ve decided I’m going to just get on with my life, even though I can’t seem to get rid of the memory problems, the sleep difficulties, the constant sense of fatigue, confusion, distractability, getting things turned around, and getting lost and not knowing where I am for a few minutes at a time… and more.

My solution is to just keep going and not get sidetracked and depressed by what’s going on inside my head. If I can just keep going, keep working at things, and do my best to learn from my lessons and try again, this all doesn’t need to hold me back permanently. It might slow me down, but it’s not going to stop me.

I’m also coming to terms with the idea of not being Alpha in every situation at work — and beyond. At work, I have been long accustomed to being Alpha and being in a leadership position of some kind. But now that things are shifting and changing at work, I’m not sure if this is going to last. There are so many people at work who are a hell of a lot more possessed by the demons of blind ambition and greed, and I just can’t see competing with them around the clock. There’s all sorts of politicking — and if it takes politicking to get ahead, then I’m going to step back and not engage with that, and allow myself to simply be happy in the position where I am.

Now, I don’t for a minute expect that I’ll stay in that subordinate position for long, if I get the attention of the right people who recognize what I’ve got to offer. I do want to get ahead. I need a raise. I need a promotion. I need to really put what I know and have learned into action. But I need to be smart about it and not just charge forward into the gap, without understanding what’s ahead of me. If a promotion means I’m going to have to travel all over the world and not be home more than two weeks out of every month, then I’ll pass. There is that possibility. But who can say? Who can say…

Anyway, I can’t invest too much time and effort in thinking about what may be… inventing all sorts of dramatic stories about what that will mean for me. Who knows what will happen? I need to conserve my energy, because I continue to have some limiting difficulties — the headaches and the joint pain which suck a lot of energy from me… the confusion and disorientation that keep me guessing and demand even more energy from me to keep up and do my part… the vertigo and tinnitus that are just so damned distracting… and the attentional and distraction issues that interrupt what I’m doing with a regular dose of screw-ups.

I need to keep going, and in order to do that, I need to take good care of myself and also practice things that will keep me sharp and make me sharper, while not using up a lot of time.

  • Ride the exercise bike or move and stretch, first thing in the morning to get my blood pumping and clear out some of the sludge that’s built up. (10 minutes a day)
  • Practicing juggling one thing at a time, tossing it into the air, and then catching it.  I do this with my toothbrush each morning, to improve my eye-hand coordination and also my focus and attention. (1-2 minutes a day)
  • Working on my balance and leg mobility with exercises on a daily basis. (5 minutes a day)
  • Doing my measured breathing that regulates my heart rate and keeps me calm. (5-10 minutes a day)
  • Allowing myself to really, truly relax on a regular basis — just letting myself collapse into bed or on the couch, and letting the fatigue just wash over me. (The first few minutes when I go to bed)
  • Increase my dopamine levels by eating more foods with L-Tyrosine and also taking the supplement… and also taking Oil of Oregano, to keep my body from breaking down the dopamine and seratonin in my system. (In the regular course of my day.)
  • Drinking plenty of water to flush out the sludge.
  • Studying anatomy and physiology, to help me better understand the inner workings of my physical life — and how to improve my health.

All these things are really good for me — and I can work them into my daily routine. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to do them as a regular part of my life, without up-ending my routine. That is totally do-able, because I can find time when my breakfast is cooking, and I’d just be sitting around anyway.  I just need to do it. And I need to not just take things for granted, because I’ve been doing them a while and it feels like I don’t need to do them anymore.

That’s probably the biggest threat to my well-being in the new year — getting complacent and just assuming that “I’m good” and I don’t need to keep up my routines and activities. That state of “good” can rapidly decline, as I’ve learned time and time again.

So, as I look forward to the new year, I’m thinking about the basics. Focusing on that, and not making myself crazy with a whole lot of dramatic schemes and Big Plans, like I have in the past. I’m settling in, in a way, and it feels pretty good. I just can’t get complacent. Gotta keep working at it. Each day.

Well, speaking of working at things, I need to get a move on and get my ass in gear. I have some errands I need to run before everything closes for the day.

Onward.