Sleep is good

Go for a while, then rest

Holy moly, I actually slept in till about 9 a.m. today. That’s a record for my recent “jag” of 5-6 hours a night. I took a long nap yesterday afternoon, and I ended up staying up till midnight last night. But I knew when it was time to turn in, and I did — without too much drama, which is progress for me.

I think getting clear about my job situation has helped a lot. I’ve gotten to a place where I can see positive aspects in just about all my options. I know that long-term I don’t intend to stay where I am, and being more clear about why that is, and what I actually want to do with myself in my work life, has taken a lot of the pressure off. I finally have some peace – not least because I’m taking action.

And the action is starting to pay off. When I first started getting calls from recruiters, the week after I updated my resume online, I wasn’t really clear about what exactly I wanted to do — no, that’s not accurate. I wasn’t clear about whether or not what I wanted to do, was going to get any attention from people. The role I have is a relatively new one, having emerged just in the past few years, so this is new territory for recruiters, as well as employers. Recruiters are going to go with the “low-hanging fruit” of positions that have been around for many years — developer, programmer, designer. But what I do is a combination of those things, so the positions that involve that are still emerging… and few recruiters actually understand what that entails.

But now I’ve gotten some good leads, and it’s looking really positive for me. I know better than to jump at the first nibble. Of course, if the first nibble is an exact fit for what I’m looking for, then that makes a difference. But I’m not taking any old job because it’s up for grabs.

In a way, this process is as much about learning to hold off, as it is in moving forward. It’s the next step in my evolution post-active-recovery… actually spending the time on researching the companies I’m going to talk to… and coming to them with a more realistic, informed point of view, than in past years when all I really cared about was the ability to make money and have a job, period.

It’s an extended exercise in employment mindfulness, I guess. It’s an exercise in keeping my system chilled out and not getting all revved over every little thing. And taking time to just settle in and focus on what’s in front of me, rather than what’s off in the distance — either past or future.

Being stuck in the past-or-future whirlwind is a great way for me to wear myself out, but that’s exactly where I’ve been. I think part of the problem has been that I’ve been beating myself up for being so oblivious to the downsides of this move. How could I not have seen this coming? How could I have not suspected it would end up like this — badly?

I guess I gave everyone the benefit of the doubt, when I should have been smarter and put 2 and 2 together. But I honestly had no idea they would make this big a mess of it. It seemed highly unlikely… and yet here we are, hundreds of people very unhappy in that space, doing our best to make the best of it, but really struggling under the working conditions, which are not helpful at all.

I should have listened to Albert Einstein, who said: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

But I didn’t. In my infinite belief in at least some redeeming qualities to every debacle, I decided to hold firm in my optimism, and this disillusionment is my reward. Yet it makes no sense for me to keep questioning my cognitive abilities for having given the Overlords the benefit of the doubt. I was just being human, being a team player, being and doing what I thought I needed to be and do, in order to weather the changes. Now I see that no matter how hard I try to accommodate the Overlords, there will never be any reciprocity from them. They are looking out only for themselves, and in this situation, I need to do the same — until I can find a work situation that is less rapacious, exploitive, and downright bull-headed.

One of the other things I’ve learned is that the true compensation of my prior situation was much more about my lifestyle, than it was about money. It was about having a shorter commute, so I could spend more time getting my work done. It was about spending less money on gas, so I could spend more on paying my bills. It was about having a work space that made it possible to have personal conversations with my colleagues on a moment’s notice, so we could work things out in an amicable fashion. Now all those things are gone, baby, gone, and in their place, I have fewer useful hours in my day, less rest, more commuting costs, less productive discussions with my co-workers, and a whole lot more fatigue and frustration… which elevates the stress hormones in my system, which in turn reduces my inherent ability to actually think through complex issues… and ultimately reduces my productivity and my job satisfaction.

Congratulations Overlords. You’ve done it again — totally screwed up a village that needed a few tweaks to make it better, not being bulldozed and paved over and adorned with a mini-mall.

D’oh.

Well, anyway, all my ranting aside, I’m actually getting more sleep these days. I guess getting really sick did the trick. It leveled me to the point where I literally can’t function unless I relax and rest.  Geez, I can’t even walk across a room without it spinning wildly out of control, and that’s no good. So, the only thing to do is just settle in, chill out, and get as much sleep as I can, when I can.

‘Cause truth to tell, as much as I like the idea of having more hours awake during the day, if I’m only at 65% during those hours, there’s not much point, is there? I’d rather have 4 really good hours at 90% than 7 so-so hours at 65%, and that’s about how it all breaks down with me. With each additional hour I push myself to “perform” I drastically decrease my ability to function — like some reverse Golden Mean — like this (green areas being the amount of energy available to use):

The fatigue golden mean of diminishing returns -- 4 hours...5...6...7...8... and so on

I can try to buck the system, but the simple physics of it override my resolution every time. Fortunately, my head is starting to get acclimated to the idea and understand it on almost a cellular level — I’m getting to the place of transcending logic around this, and going with the most obvious and most efficient source of information about how I’m doing — the actual feeling in my body that doesn’t lie.

So, this is good. Part of me wishes I could say I’ve isolated a single factor that will make the difference between good choices and bad, in terms of rest. But the fact of the matter is, it’s more complicated than that, it’s more complex, and there are a lot more “moving pieces” that come into play. So, I have to just keep going, keep watching how I’m doing, keep paying attention (mindfully) to my life as it unfolds, and constantly learn about how to make the most of what I have, without getting bent out of shape about what I haven’t got.

It’s all a process, of course, which I hate hearing myself say. But it’s true. It’s very, very true.

Beyond the tired body, frantic mind, tired brain cycle

Ugh... How to get out of this?

This is becoming more and more obvious to me, with every passing day — the more physically tired I am, the more active my mind gets, and then the more tired my brain gets… which then feeds into a perpetual loop of problems, including having trouble figuring out what the problems really are, and not being able to figure out how to fix them.

Experts would probably call this “fatigue-based inhibitory effects on problem-solving capabilities”, but I call it just not being able to think straight.

I’ve been getting a little turned around at work. I soldier on and keep up appearances, but I really feel like I’ve been struggling, lately. I’ve tried discussing it with my neuropsych, but they are really intent on keeping my moods elevated and maintaining a can-do attitude. That’s all very well and good, and it has it’s place, but there’s no denying — I have been extremely foggy, lately, I have not been sleeping well, and I have been doing really stupid things at work that I’ve had to scramble to keep on top of.

This is totally that loop of tired body, frantic mind, tired brain. It’s so obvious, it’s a little scary. What’s even more scary is the fact that I haven’t fully addressed it till the last few days. I’ve let myself get beyond tired, into dangerously tired quadrants of my existence. And I’ve let a bunch of things slide, to my detriment.

I probably sound like a broken record here, but sometimes it takes me a little while to have stuff sink in. Intellectually, I know that fatigue will get my system going — all the adrenaline pumps me up. And I know that the adrenaline gets my mind going. And I know that the more I go, the more tired I get… But realizing that from the “center of the storm” — when I’m pumped up and over-tired, to begin with — and realizing it from a distance where I’ve been observing myself with some detachment, is another. And actually doing something about it, when I’m in the thick of things? Fuggeddaboutit.

I’m happy to report, I have managed to get back to sleeping more than 5 hours a night, which is a big plus. I had 6-1/2 hours the other night, and last night I had 7+ hours. I’ve actually been getting to bed at a decent hour, not staying up till midnight (and beyond) like I had been. And I have been able to get back to sleep when I wake up at 3 a.m. I’m not perfect, but I have been doing better, and I can feel a real difference.

I have also been working more on my breathing exercises — taking time before I start each day to sit and concentrate on my breathing. I haven’t always done a good job of blocking out distractions, but these things take time and practice. There’s all sorts of interesting research that’s been emerging about the effects of meditation and mindfulness on cognitive capacity — like at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, which I happened upon when I Googled “meditation attention” and followed some links. They have some interesting papers about how meditation can help with inhibition control as well as attention and distractability. I haven’t had a chance to read them in depth, but I’ve checked out the abstracts, and the papers look pretty cool. So, I’ll have to read more…

But in the meantime, just from my own observations, I can say this — when I am tired and stressed, I am really susceptible to distraction. And that distraction feeds itself pretty intensely. It’s like the adrenaline is pumping, the epinephrine is flowing, and all my alert systems are on “high” without having much ability to discriminate between what matters, and what doesn’t. I notice everything, and something in my head tells me, it’s all important. So, I end up chasing everything, following it like it’s actually leading somewhere. But a lot of times, that gets me chasing my own tail, and I end up back where I was before, only more tired and more frustrated and more behind.

Which leads to more stress. And fogginess. And poor decisions. And crappy impulse control, which is a total killer.

So, I’ve got to change things up a little bit. I don’t have to do a massive, wholesale change to my entire life (as much as I’d like to), but I do need to make some incremental changes. Yesterday, I not only did my focused breathing in the morning, but I also did it in the afternoon, when I was starting to get really tired and stressed. I stepped away from my desk and found a quiet room with no windows, where I could sit down, turn off the lights, and just breathe. Counting my breaths… concentrating on relaxing… just getting my mind to let go of all the stuff it was hanging onto. (I had it all written down, anyway, so I didn’t have to keep it in my head.) After that, I felt a lot better, and I went back to work and got a lot done.

And before I went to bed, I spent a lot of time stretching and breathing, so my body could relax. It’s hard to believe how tense and tight I got from just working all day, but my body was in some serious need of limbering up. My back and neck and legs, especially. Oh, heck — my whole body, actually.

This morning I managed to sleep till about 6 a.m., which gave me almost 8 hours of sleep. And I feel better than I have in a long time. I feel like I’m actually coming back a bit. And it amazes me, because as deep as I was in the mire of fatigue and stress and some really inefficient practices at work and at home, I didn’t fully realize just how bad I felt… almost all the time.

That’s what the tired body, frantic mind, tired brain cycle does to me — it fools me into thinking that everything is fine – I’m fine – and I don’t need to do anything about it. all the while, I’m foggy and confused and thinking less and less clearly, but I think I’m okay. I think I’m good. Kind of like that old Pepsi commercial where all those guys got clunked on the head and said they were fine, afterwards.

I think I’m fine, but I’m anything but. And the cycle continues.

So, what gets me out of the cycle? I think it’s basic routine stuff — literally. When I’m in that head-space that says “I’m OK, I”m good” but I’m really struggling, having a regular practice of taking time out to concentrate on my breathing gets me out of that loop and into a different head-space that lets me see more clearly what’s going on. If I can develop a regular daily routine of just stepping away for 15 minutes to give my brain a rest and relax my body, it helps me think 100% better. And it feels absolutely amazing, too. The crazy thing is, I don’t even realize I need to do this, when I’m in the thick of everything. But if I just have a daily focused breathing routine to regulate my heart rate, loosen the tension in my body, and re-gain access to parts of my system that the stress hormones are shutting down — just like I have my morning breakfast routine — and if I can just stick with it, no matter what, then I have a fighting chance to get myself out of that cycle and come up with a different way of handling things, other than just getting more and more pumped up with adrenaline and junk food and driving myself towards the edge.

Taking a “brain/body break” not only gives my head a rest, but it also gives my body a rest, too. I just came across an endurance training blog post that mentions research about how Mental fatigue can affect physical endurance

BETHESDA, Md. (Feb. 24, 2009) − When participants performed a mentally fatiguing task prior to a difficult exercise test, they reached exhaustion more quickly than when they did the same exercise when mentally rested, a new study finds.

The study … found that mental fatigue did not cause the heart or muscles to perform any differently. Instead, our “perceived effort” determines when we reach exhaustion. The researchers said the next step is to look at the brain to find out exactly why people with mental fatigue perceive exercise to be more difficult.

Read the rest here >>

Riding a bicycle isn’t the only form of rigorous exercise. Sitting at a desk all day is tiring. So is driving long distances to and from work. And trying to stay “on” and present for every emerging problem is a total physical drain.

So, the cycle of tired body and frantic mind and tired brain feeds on itself. When my brain is tired, it starts perceiving exertion as exhausting, and then it just adds to the whole load. My physical weariness clouds my head, and then my head gets tired, which in turn reduces my physical stamina, which in turn makes me depressed, and the whole downward spiral continues…

Until I can step away and take a break. Or a nap. Or find some other way to get out of my head for at least a little while.

At least, that’s how it sounds to me. I have to take my comprehension with a grain of salt, because I have been tired… and already today I feel like I need a break.

So, it’s time for a snack and a little brain/body break, to get my head together again. It’s Friday, I still have a full day’s work to do, I’ve got the full weekend ahead of me, and I’ve got some new reading to interest me. I’m feeling like I’m coming out of a bit of a fog. I’m still a little bleary, but I do feel a lot better than I have in a number of weeks.

Sleep is good. Rest is good. And just sitting and breathing on a regular basis is most excellent.

Finding Monday

Rise and shine...

I was up early this morning. I just woke up, as I often do. I tend to have early meetings on Mondays, so I have gotten in the habit of waking myself up early. That’s changing, though, and my Monday mornings are being pushed back a few hours, so there’s no need for me to be up before dawn.

This morning, as I lay in bed, looking at the still-dark window, my head was going a mile a minute. This is classic for when I’m tired. I had a pretty active weekend, and I wore myself out. Didn’t get as much rest as I needed, but I did have a great time. Now I’m paying for it — I’ve got some time blocked off later this afternoon to do my breathing and get some rest, so I’m not terribly worried about being able to keep up. But seeing the workings of my head going full-speed-ahead as the sky is just starting to get light… well, that’s classic fatigue-driven adrenaline-pumped gears churning.

With all this Occupy Wall Street stuff going on, I’ve been pondering lately what it is that we’re doing with ourselves…? Where is this country going, and how is it that there is such a disconnect between the protesters and the people who work in the buildings where they are demonstrating? Having worked in finance in the past, and having once been part of one of the big companies that people are so actively faulting and blaming, I wonder at the disconnect between the way “the bankers” are portrayed, and how they really are in real life. I’m not making apologies for anyone – as far as I’m concerned, it’s corporate policy and assumptions about what constitutes “good business” that are to blame, much more than individual people making such-and-such amount of money. But that’s another post for another time — probably never, actually.

Perhaps more pertinent to my own situation… What am I doing with myself? I have a job, I have a house, I’m pretty far behind in many respects, and I’m nowhere close being able to afford to do the repairs on the house that it needs. But I’m not about to go out and protest about what others have done “to” me with their policies and priorities. Maybe it’s just me, but in all my years of all my difficulties, I’ve never had trouble finding work. And I wonder about the people who do. I can’t speak for them, but I’ve always been prepared to do what needed to be done to put food on the table — and that involved a lot of really degrading “below my pay grade” work over the years… which I always parlayed into something else.

Now I look around me, and it seems like I’m sorta kinda running out of options. It’s not that I’m in danger of losing my job — I feel a little like I’m slotted into a position that doesn’t have a lot of room for advancement — or the advancement it offers isn’t something I truly want, or that I can even do. I work for a company that’s global, and the people who are rising, do a lot of traveling. I don’t have the funds — or the time — to be spending shuttling back and forth across the oceans. The company reimburses you everything, but I literally don’t have the $500 to front for hotel and taxi and other incidentals till I get reimbursed. That old adage, “You have to spend money to make money,” comes to mind. But I’m neither able to do that, nor in the mood to throw money around. I just don’t feel like it. Nor do I have the time to go flying around, getting jet-lagged, hob-nobbing, etc. I don’t feel like doing that, either. Seeing the world is all very well and good, but I’d rather do it on my own steam, on my own time, in my own way — not as part of a rushed business trip.

So, on a Monday morning, here I sit in the early morning light, pondering my fate. We’re moving offices in less than two weeks, to a place that’s twice as far from home as my current office. More time in the car. More gas expenses… I don’t feel like doing that, either. I just don’t. Part of me just wants to settle in to a simple life, plant and tend a garden, make things with my hands, watch the seasons come and go, and just be. Pursue a dedicated life of contemplation and service, with a nice daily ritual to keep me on track.

But when I think about it, maybe that’s what I have already. I am just so busy looking for what’s better, that I lose sight of the things around me that are immediate and real and have the very qualities I seek in my ideal life. I have valuable knowledge about what conscious breathing can do for me, and I have the ability to get to a state of peace, calm, and balance, by focusing on my steady breath for 5-10 minutes. For all my imagining about how much better it would be, if I could extract myself from my current work situation, the fact is that the things I think that would get me are actually available to me on a daily basis, regardless of my employer. That means that my job is NOT keeping me from whatever peace I desire. And although the money isn’t there to do things like travel for my job, it isn’t keeping me from interacting with my overseas counterparts on a regular basis. That’s what email and the phone are for.

So, what this morning really boils down to for me, is that it’s not the external situation that is keeping me from living my life — it’s how I relate to it — if I am engaged, if I am open to what it brings, if I am willing to put myself into it and do those things I think a “simpler” life would offer — service and contemplation. Nothing around me is preventing me from having those things right now — the only one stopping me… is me.

That all being said, I know what I need to do — find the Monday morning in my heart as well as my head, and get right with my life as it is — here and now. It’s pointless to run away from what’s waiting for me. It’s also pointless to think that a drastic change in how I live my life would really solve anything. My ways of doing things would follow me wherever I go, and knowing myself, even the simplest, most contemplative life would end up a complicated mess, if I let myself have free rein.

So, there we have it. It’s not Monday that’s the problem. It’s not my job or my employer or my office that’s the problem. It’s my attitude, my desire to perpetually kick back and do nothing at all. It’s my fantasies about how much better things would be… if only.

But time’s getting away from me. I need to prepare for a conference call. Life, if I take a close enough look at it from the right angle, is perfectly fine and good.

Monday is here. And so am I.

Ignoring the avalanche

Here it comes... again

Something interesting happened to me this past week – a mindfulness experience went completely wrong. And a renewed interest in Zen Buddhism felt like it had crashed and burned.

I mean, seriously. I went from reluctance to enthusiasm, to full-out collapse over minor bumps along the proverbial road of my life in the space of about a week. It’s happened to me before, but the intensity with which it happened this time really took me by surprise. It also freaked me out, because no way did I expect to be as whacked as I was over the little details I lost it over.

It requires further investigation. Here’s how it broke down (literally):

For several days, a little over a week ago, I was listening to some online audio talks by a famous Buddhist teacher who has a best-selling book out, and what they were saying was making sense to me. At first I had been wary about them, because their tone was so mellow and they talked very slowly, like their listeners were simple-minded idiots. But eventually I got over that, and I found that I actually liked what they were saying. It made sense to me, especially when it came to being mindful and present in the world.

As a result of listening to them, I became more attentive to my surroundings and more mindful of my daily life. I was getting in the habit of slowing down, watching my breath, being present with each moment. It felt pretty good.

But after a few days of that, I started to get more and more agitated and volatile, argumentative and manic… culminating in a full-blown melt-down on Thursday. I had a few potentially minor misunderstandings with my spouse which blew up into HUGE deals, involving some really nasty exchanges, including (bizarrely enough) some serious-sounding threats of divorce.

Wow. I’m still recovering from it — we both are, actually. They’ve taken off for the balance of the day to take a break from me – which they really need. It was not a small thing, that conflagration, which grew nauseatingly rapidly out of minor incidents.

How, pray tell, could such a thing happen? Isn’t Zen supposed to chill me out and help me find more peace? Isn’t it supposed to make me more patient and accepting and conscious, not less?

Well, yeah, supposedly. And at the start it did. But then this subtle change started to happen, and I started to pay closer attention to that… I started to notice things “coming up,” so I acknowledged them and moved on. Or so I thought. It was the weirdest thing. Here, I was doing the very thing that was supposed to bring me greater peace, greater involvement in my life, along with more rapport with my surroundings… and all the while I was getting more and more agitated, more and more uptight, more and more fatigued, to the point of tearing my spouse a new one — while standing out in public, yelling into my cell phone, no less.

Anyway, since last Thursday,I have been wondering a whole lot about why the hell Zen-based mindfulness turned me into a crazy person. Mindfulness supposedly makes the following possible:

  • more focus
  • less stress
  • communicating more effectively
  • bringing compassion to the world
  • feeling confident

Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t want that? I certainly do. But it was the exact opposite of what happened to me last week. Hm. Maybe I was doing something wrong…

“Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn

I’ve had a number of people tell me how I should do this mindfulness thing — I should focus on what I’m doing with single-mindedness… I should spend time paying attention to what’s going through my head, without reacting to it… just watching the thoughts come and go… not judging, but allowing… accepting what happens there… and letting them go, rather than following them, latching onto them, dwelling on them, etc. Just be aware of what’s going on with me at any given point in time, pay attention to my breath, to my body, any tension that might be building, any discomfort or constriction, etc. And “breathe into it” as it comes into my mind, and then departs.

Sounds good, right? Well, it was. At the start. Then something else started to happen. I kept doing it. I kept paying attention to what was going on inside my head. Not judging, just allowing, letting things be what they were… and to tell the truth, the experience was anything but mellowing.

Clearly, the person(s) who encouraged me to do this have no idea what all goes on inside my head in any 5-minute timeframe. Seriously. It’s like standing beside an 8-lane expressway between an airport and a marina during morning rush hour, as everyone is cooking down the road at 85… 90… 95 mph. All manner of vehicles fly by — cars, trucks, pickups towing boats, buses, coaches, 18-wheelers of many kinds… and let’s not forget the air traffic — planes of all sizes and shapes and kinds, helicopters and ultralights… all the while, with the marina in the background, yachts and sailboats and tugboats and skiffs bobbing around, with air horns going off at any and all times.

Truly, this is what it’s like inside my head, oh so frequently. So, recognizing all the thoughts, all the feelings, all the reactions — even if I’m just noticing them with detached interest — takes up WAY too much time and energy. And it can be exhausting, which is what I believe happened to me last week. I just got worn out and tired from simply noticing everything. It plumb tuckered me out. And when I get fatigued, it adds to my mental confusion and agitation, and my anger threshold drops like a rock. And things like my meltdown on Thursday happen.

I can’t say that I got “hooked” by any of my thoughts or emotions, but I didn’t have to. The weariness from noticing the sheer volume of buzzy-ness did a job on me. I tried to not let it get to me, but obviously that did not work. It did get to me. Zen. Mindfulness. Presence. The very things that shouldn’t.

Which leads me to believe that — like so many other things –TBI can really mess with “normal” reactions and add another consideration to any kind of meditation or mindfulness practice. I know that mindfulness is supposed to help people with brain injury, and I have communicated with TBI people who have been helped by it a great deal. That being said, I think that since TBI is very individual, it can cause changes to “standard” reactions to popularly available practices — especially ones that involve (re) training the brain, like these sorts of mindfulness practices. The recommendations of neurologically “intact” people to those of us who have been rewired a few times, may not be completely helpful.

Then again, the problem might actually not be with me. Reading the Wikipedia entry on “mindfulness” a little more closely, I found this passage:

Muho Noelke, the abbot of Antaiji, explains the pitfalls of consciously seeking mindfulness.

“We … have to forget things like “I should be mindful of this or that”. If you are  mindful, you are already creating a separation (“I – am – mindful – of – ….”). Don’t be mindful, please! When you walk, just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk (Dogen Zenji says: “When we open our mouths, it is filled with Dharma”). Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the work work. Let sleep sleep.”

And there we have it. That, my friends, is what applies especially to me. In trying to be “mindful” I was actually getting more and more disconnected from my life, turning it into a distancing exercise, pulling away from the experience, so that I could “safely” examine it from a distance. That’s no good. Not if I’m going to keep myself engaged in my own life and continue to grow and change in healthy ways, I need to Just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk. Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the work work. Let sleep sleep.

That degree of engagement, more than any other practice, is what brings me into the present moment. Not standing back and being intellectually “aware” of it like it’s some specimen on a slab for me to be curious about. This is my LIFE. It’s not a specimen, not an exemplar, not some “thing” to be catalogued, examined and puzzled over. Hell, just living can be puzzle enough. And taking my eye off the ball, so I can contemplate the stitching on the hide, the trajectory of the throw, and the arc of the pitcher’s arm, can get me clunked in the noggin, sure enough.

And this brings me back, once again, to my main topic — ignoring the avalanche of thoughts and feelings and impressions that race through me like water through a fire hose. I swear, people who have the time to even notice everything that’s coming through their minds must not have much going on at all. Either there’s not much happening inside them, or there’s not a hell of a lot happening outside them. Are they even fully alive? Not to judge, but … I wonder. Or if they are, do they even realize they are? That’s for them only to decide. It’s a mystery to me.

As for me, with my emotional volatility, the intense sensitivities I’ve got going on, not to mention the constant roiling ocean of biochemical (hyper)responsiveness that goes on with me… stopping to contemplate all the things that fly through my head is like standing on the edge of an ice field, watching an avalanche fly by. If I take my concentration off the ice where I’m standing, I can go down real quick — and in fact get swept into the liquid mountain of cement-like powder that’s roaring down into the valley below.

Emotional lability, remember that? Physical sensitivities, remember those? Quick anger — lest we forget…? Hair-trigger reactions that are way out of proportion to the situation — all of the above is a constant presence in my life. They all come up with startling frequency, and they go just as quickly. And in the midst of this constant ebb and flow – unless the situation is escalating pretty badly with serious consequences on the horizon – the worst thing I can do is spend a lot of time paying attention to the little inklings of them. Paying any sort of attention just feeds them. And if they’re these transient easy-come-easy-go kinds of thoughts/emotions/whatnot, we don’t want that. When they are rumbling around and kicking up their heels, they are usually best simply ignored and left to run their course, like tsunami waves breaking up over a coral reef.

To me, my regular life is the coral reef, which interrupts the power of these waves which can be so destructive. And when I am fully involved in what is going on around me, what is happening in my life at that point in time, and I am responding to it in that very moment – for better or for worse – and then I pay attention to the outcome and modify my behavior accordingly, things have a way of coming together. Maybe not right away, but eventually. With practice.

In fact, when I disregard the constant babble going on in my head, I find I can better turn my attention to taking action and getting involved in my life to the best of my ability.  Of course, it’s helpful to not let the things that are happening in the back of my mind run the show — to keep “the crazies” from taking the reins and let the horses stampede. And it is helpful to recognize when I’m being foolish or ridiculous or out of order. But devoting my life to moment-by-moment attention to what’s going on with me… that’s NOT the way I want to live.

It’s not the way I can live.

Life is waiting. Never mind the bullocks.

Everyday focus, everyday samadhi

Source: nmazca.com : fractalism

An interesting thing happens when I focus on my breath. I get distracted. Seriously. I count my breaths, and I get to about 14 or so, then all of a sudden, my brain “changes the channel” like it’s handling a big old remote control in my head, and before I realize it, I’m off thinking about something that has nothing to do with counting my breaths.

Sometimes it has nothing to do with anything in my present life at all.

And it can take a few minutes before I even realize I’ve wandered off.

Very interesting…

I’ve been reading some writing about zen and zazen, with a special focus on learning techniques for helping my mind better manage my brain. It’s been tremendously helpful to me over the years. I first started actively practicing silent meditation decades ago, and I started getting more into zen back in the early 1990’s.  I credit it with helping me get back on track, after a number of years of confusion and frustration after my car accident in the fall of 1987. Learning about zen and zazen from someone who practiced it regularly and showed me how it was anything but a dull, dreary way to fritter away the hours, and I learned a lot from sitting in silence regularly.

I also credit it with helping me after my car accident in 1996. I had a regular practice by that time, and I was able to get very deep and very quiet. I think the zazen really helped me get back on my feet. Between changing jobs to something that had me interacting more with stoic computer screens, and having an active zazen sitting meditation practice… and practicing intentional, mindful observation (instead of off-the-handle knee-jerk reactions) at work, it truly helped me handle the intense changes that were going on with me.

Alas, my fall in 2004 totally hosed my practice in a really severe way. I had been getting more into the “samadhi zone” (where you experience oneness with everything, and you’re in a place where no time and no space exists, there is only now), and it was  good. But then I fell down those stairs, and within a few weeks, I was swearing off the “fru-fru” meditation routine, journaling, or doing anything other than just living in a very reactionary way, taking cues only from outside me, not inside.

It was truly weird. I couldn’t figure out why, all of a sudden, I wasn’t at all interested in sitting in silence. It was the last thing I wanted. Very uncharacteristic for me, actually. And the sudden lack of ability to focus on things intentionally, along with the inability to just get started with what was in front of me, not only hosed my zazen practice, but also screwed the rest of my life in general.

Now I’m back at sitting zazen, after being convinced I had to give it up for good. I had been thinking for the longest time that there’s no way I can get back to my practice – my brain is too jumbled up, and I can’t manage to sit still for longer than 5 minutes. But then I dug up one of my old zen books (the only modern zen book that has much meaning for me, actually), and I started reading it, and I started thinking about my practice in terms of the Samurais of yesteryear, and something clicked.

TBI doesn’t make me less suited for zazen and that sort of focused practice. It makes me more suited for it.

Eureka.

So, now I’m back at it. I am realizing that I probably have to spend a lot of time building myself back to where I was before, but these things take time. I’m also reading more about how the kind of belly breathing that you use when you’re sitting zazen is extremely helpful for balancing and stabilizing the autonomic nervous system. It actually helps get heart rate variability under control and synch up circulation with your respiration. It works on all levels, and in Eastern and Western contexts. There have even been western medicine studies about how slow, controlled exhalation helps to balance out the autonomic nervous system, bringing the sympathetic (fight-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-digest) into good balance. Not too little of each, as that produces what one person calls a “puny” and weakly constitution, but more of each — in balance with one another — so that you can live your life in a good way. With balance.

That’s really what I’m seeking. Balance. Stability. Oneness of samadhi. And an even-keeled autonomic nervous system. I’ve had some pretty severe blow-ups in the past week or two, and when I look back on them, I can see very clearly the physiological sources of them — it wasn’t just emotional or mental — it was physical issues I was having. Too little sleep. Not enough rest. Letting my system get all revved over good things… only to have it get revved in the opposite direction and blow less-good things all out of proportion.

Molehills into mountains — and then I fall (and push everyone else) off the mountain.

Ugh.

So, I need to focus in. Spend the time in zazen and focus on my breath. Take care of my body, my physical vehicle, and stay present in the moment. My system is accustomed to fight-flight dramas and being fueled by the  biochemical cascade of stress hormones — so it naturally seeks a place where I’m in such a state of alarm and distress that I’m blocking out all “extraneous” stimuli that feel like they’re too much to handle. And if I can’t find that… I’ll actually create it. Because that’s what’s familiar and comfortable and useful to my system, which tends to get low and irritable without it.

But that unconscious biochemical “strategy” is a recipe for a nervous breakdown. I need an alternative — and I have it. I can create that 100% total-focus state in my mind in a positive, non-self-destructive way by deliberately focusing on my breath and counting… counting… counting… and making sure I don’t lose track around 14… and then 27…. and then 38… It’s really, really hard. It takes all my strength and focus to do it. And the deeper I go into it, the more I can replicate that present-only state which typically comes with a dramatic emergency. This way is cleaner, smoother, and it actually strengthens me instead of wiping me out. Granted, it is not as extreme and it’s not like the quick sugar-high of instant drama alert. But the high is more thorough and it lasts longer. And in the past I found that the more I worked at it, the easier it became.

So, I need to resume that practice, be patient with myself, and just breathe intentionally. Intention especially involves focusing more on exhalation than inhalation. That focus stimulates and puts the emphasis on the parasympathetic nervous system, which I can use, as I’m skewed towards the sympathetic.

Well, it’s all good, it’s all fascinating, and it’s all an excellent opportunity to learn.

Now, what is the most present task at hand? To get on with my day. Focus in. Let’s go. Onward.

So I went to a zen meditation group last night…

Strangely enough, they wouldn’t be quiet.

Either it was chanting liturgy or “discussing” some heady facet of zen/buddhism.

yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada-yada
We sat in silence for 25 minutes, which was good.

But other than that, it was a very noisy evening.

Odd…

I hadn’t expected that at all.

Knowing your warrior nature

Four Samurai - Source: wikimedia commons

Something came together for me over the weekend — it’s something that has been in my mind for a number of years, now, but suddenly it has a whole new meaning. It seems to explain pretty well some of the things that have puzzled me over the course of my life.

It’s the idea that the injuries I’ve sustained are a warrior’s injuries. And to address those injuries, I need to do so as a warrior, using a warrior’s tools. My main tool of choice is Zen. Za-zen. Sitting with the intention of overcoming the limitations of my unruly mind.

As a bit of background, I have been fascinated by warrior codes and cultures for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was practically obsessed by King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. Something about the stories of the knights really captured my imagination, and I spent many an hour as a child studying heraldry, swords, draft horses, and castles.

To this day, I’m still fascinated by stories of chivalry and the exploits of knights errant. Something in me really relates to them.

In the course of my travels, I have had the good fortune of having encountered a handful of people who have been Zen practitioners. The ones I related to most strongly were solitary practitioners. They sat za-zen in the morning outside — in all seasons of the year, no matter what the weather –before they did anything else, they traveled around and had adventures, they wrangled with family and community problems, and through it all they had a sparkle in their eye (even a wicked gleam) and their most common response to anything unexpected was, “Isn’t that fascinating!”

I sat and listened to their stories of what they encountered along the way in their lives, and I was amazed by the courage they showed in the face of tremendous adversity. But to them, it wasn’t a question of courage, it was a question of simply being with the situation and responding the the way that seemed most appropriate.

I guess it rubbed off on me, because I felt myself drawn to zen — particularly za-zen, the act of sitting motionless for some time, focusing on the breath and just letting the attention disperse. Not following any of the thoughts that come up, but noticing them and then letting them go. I practiced this for some time, myself, years back. I didn’t attend any formal sitting sessions at zendos or meditation centers. I was a solitary and I liked it that way. Plus, I was very nervous about being around other people who knew how to do something I was new at. I was so accustomed to new people taking issue with the way I did things and/or finding fault with me and/or making a public example of me doing things “wrong” that I just couldn’t bring myself to spend any time with people who did this sort of thing.

I thought about it many times. But I could never bring myself to move forward.

Then I fell in 2004, and my practice fell apart. It just disintegrated. I couldn’t be bothered with sitting in silence. I couldn’t be bothered with intentional breathing and paying attention to what was rattling ’round in my brain, for the sake of letting it go. I couldn’t be bothered with any of that silence stuff. I was too agitated, too restless, and I was too injured to realize that something was amiss.

Over the past 5 years or so, however, I’ve been drawn back to zen. I can’t be bothered with a lot of the doctrine that gets tossed about – all those words and pontifications about something that is essentially about just being. Maybe I’m just a contrarian, but many of the people who purport to practice zen annoy the crap out of me. But in place of the people, there are the writings of practitioners and students from years gone by, and I’ve been digging into them a bit — one of the pieces I’ve found that I’m enjoying is The Religion of the Samurai, which is a free download at Project Gutenberg.

I have been reading a few places where scholars have wondered aloud why Zen (which may or may not be part of Buddhism, depending whom you talk to), would have been adopted by the Samurai, a warring class, as their “religion”. Buddhism, from what people say, is a practice that honors all life and warns away from killing other living creatures. How could Zen end up the practice of a warrior class specifically dedicated to being highly effective “killing machines”?

The answer, I think, lies in the effect of Zen on the autonomic nervous system. It’s been my experience that Zen is extremely effective at teaching you how to modulate your fight-flight responses, as well as training you to ignore the pointless chatter of an overactive mind. In my own experience, it seems to specifically condition your mind and your body to do as you choose, not simply race from one stimulus to the next, in a never-ending and ultimately futile attempt to assuage every fear, satisfy every appetite, and overcome every perceived foe. Za-zen practice (in my own experience) trains you to “hold your sh*t”, if you’ll excuse the expression, and keep your act together, even in the face of truly daunting odds.

That, I believe, is why Zen (especially za-zen) became such an important part of Samurai culture. It trained and toned their minds and their systems to be masters of their own unruly passions, and put them in the driver’s seat of their own lives.

That’s a mighty powerful thing. And the clearer I get — each month seems to bring a little more clarity (though I do have set-backs) — the more drawn I am to the practice of Zen… za-zen… sitting with my breath and taming my unruly mind.

Because in a classical sense, I have a warrior’s injuries. I’ve been attacked. I’ve been hurt in accidents when people ran into my car. I’ve fallen from heights while attempting some exploit. And my last injury in 2004 came from me being over-tired, pushing myself to “so my job” and not paying attention to my posture and position when I was in the midst of an important task. I was literally  injured in the line of duty.

What’s more, the types of injuries I’ve sustained are the kinds of injuries warriors sustained, back before there were guns and cannons and laser beams. Back in the day, warriors fought hand-to-hand. Think Braveheart. Think Lakota raiding parties. Think Maginificent Seven. Once upon a time, when you went into battle, you had a sword and/or a spear and/or a shield. And you did what you could with what you had. Sure, there were often archers, but on the ground, you went up against a live person. And you got hit on the head a lot.

Think about it — when you’re going for the kill in a spot that’s the least protected, what’s often the easiest target? The head. The body has arms and legs and usually some sort of clothing or armor to protect it. But the head can be difficult to protect — you almost have to have it unprotected, so you can see and hear and smell and taste your way through the heat of battle. A lot of people take swings at your head, and maybe you duck and miss some, but you can also get clunked on the head by a glancing blow or a direct hit, and you have to keep going. You still have to keep standing, keep fighting, keep swinging.

When I think about it, that’s one of the things that TBI-induced stubbornness is good for — staying in the fight. The very thing that works against athletes when they’re concussed — that determination to get back in and keep going — is precisely the kind of quality a fighter needs in times of war. You can’t just sideline yourself, when you’re injured. Not if you’re in the thick of battle and you have no escape route at all. What are you supposed to do? Lie down and play dead?  Meanwhile, your comrades in arms are battling on around you, possibly dying themselves, because you’re lying there taking a breather.

From where I’m sitting, TBI is a warrior’s injury. It’s not just a recent “signature wound” from the recent Iraq/Afghan wars. It’s been that way since the beginning of time.  We probably lost sight of that with the advent of firearms and cannons and long-distance warfare, with soldiers sitting at consoles pressing buttons instead of grabbing a jagged knife and wading into the fray. But think back and imagine, if you will, how wars used to be fought. Take a trip to the library, if you’re unclear on the images. You’ll see what I mean.

Now, I’m sure there are folks who will say, “Having a car accident isn’t the same thing.” Or, “Getting clunked on the head by a piece of falling tile isn’t the same as getting knocked out in an IED blast in Kandahar Province.”

True enough. But keep in mind, the after-effects can be quite similar — and maddeningly so, because that car accident or the thing with the falling tile hardly seems significant enough to produce the kinds of complications that come afterwards — lost jobs, lost relationships, lost money, lost homes, lost self.

That being said, I believe that to effectively treat TBI and restore the aspects of our lives which have been disrupted/trashed, we need to treat the injury as a wound of our warrior lives. Maybe we were Type A personalities who were always on to go, who never took no for an answer, and managed to overcome any obstacle in our path… before the accident/attack. Maybe we were innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the car full of thugs pulled up and attacked us. Maybe we were just a little too tired and a little too distracted while we did something that demanded more than we had to offer. Whatever the disparate source(s) of our injury, the aftermath of each person (though every brain is different) shares so much in common with others, in terms of the quality of disruption and difficulty, it would be silly to overlook ways that other peoples and other cultures (especially in the past) developed to not only rehabilitate their injured, but also get them back in the game and let them rise in the world to positions of considerable wealth and power.

Like the  Samurai.

Now, I’m not saying that wealth and power should be our exclusive goals. But the same approach that made excellence of the political sort possible in Japan, those many years ago, can be used to make excellence of any kind we choose possible in this time, in our present lives.  Once upon a time, warriors got head-injured regularly. And some of them found a way to recover successfully and continue on in illustrious careers. They were the lords and barons and kings of the Western world. They were the Samurai of Japan. They were the warlords of countless lands in between. And many, if not all of them, had probably sustained multiple traumatic brain injuries over the course of their lives.

If that holds true (though I may certainly be mistaken in some respects, human as I am), and if we can find the path they followed to restore themselves to functionality, and there are vestiges of their codes and their disciplines still in place today, why can’t we use those same principles to effect the same sort of positive change in our lives?

Why indeed?

Recovery from TBI is possible. People have been doing it for eons. Since the beginning of time. For me, they key is to know my warrior nature, and to respect it as such — and treat my wounds as I would treat any injury from battle: with discipline and focus and the determination to get back out there into the fray again… next time with more insight, more experience, and yes, more success.

Know thyself.

If it WAS a TBI, then this is good news

A visualization of the number of times the words "hope" and "crisis" were used in the New York Times. Click the image to see more details. Very cool.

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.

Sigh

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.

The vital care for small things

One thing at a time… piece by piece, bit by bit…

I notice small things, here and there, which need to change. And in changing those small things, I see large effects.

Like email, for example. Steering clear of it for days on end, and then only looking at the messages from people I recognize and care about.

And the bruises that have been showing up on my arms and legs for no apparent reason. I don’t recall banging into things… Then I check online and find that fish oil is a blood thinner, and too much of it can lead to increased bruising. I’ve been taking double my usual amount — two big capsules instead of just one. I thought I was doing myself a favor. Turns out, I may have been making myself bruise more easily.

And my finances. Creating a spreadsheet of my monthly income and expenses, so I can see where I can reasonably expect to be over the coming weeks and months… and plan accordingly.

And breathing. In traffic. When something comes up that flips that switch that gets me going. At work. In meetings. At home. Whenever I feel myself tensing up and becoming cramped and anxious. Breathing. Counting breaths. Feeling the sensation of my breath in my nostrils, filling my lungs… sensing the expansion of my chest, the rise of my shoulders… Breathing.

Little things, made large. Small things take care of, as the essential elements of life they are.

I look up from my desk and look for stars in the night-time sky beyond my study window.

What conscious breathing changes

I have been consciously working with my breath for about a week, now, and I have to say, the changes I’m noticing are remarkable. These are changes for the better. Changes to patterns and aspects of my life that have been entrenched for a pretty long time. In fact, the patterns and aspects of my life that I feel shifting are ones that I had actually been resigned to having to deal with, for the rest of my born days.

I had thought that I would just always have to deal with things like constant agitation, anxiety, fear, and avoiding the things that freak me out. I had thought that I would just have to get used to restlessness running my life, a perpetual undercurrent of manic-ness flowing in the background of my life, 24 hours a day. I had thought that relaxation was something that other people could do, but not me. I had even thought that conscious breathing was not something I’d ever  be able to practice fully.

Turns out, I may have been wrong. All the stuff that I’ve been battling against, for as long as I can remember — especially the behavioral things, and the hidden, underground state of anxiety, despair, and agitation that stokes them — may not be as unmoveable as I had thought. And a very important piece of this puzzle, perhaps the one missing number in the combination that would unlock this mystery that is my life, has turned out to be mindful breath.

In just the past week of doing just a few minutes of conscious breathing a day — and I’m not joking about the “just a few minutes” because I am at this point unable to focus exclusively on my breath for more than about 3-5 minutes — this amazing change has taken place. I’m actually relaxed. Loosened up. Not nearly as rigid as I had been. I’m so relaxed, in fact, that it’s taking some doing, for me to get moving in my current daily work. And looking closely at that pattern and examining why that is, I am realizing more and more each day that it’s not because there’s something wrong with (only) me — I’m just not in a good job. The position is not a good match for me. And I need to change that.

So, I’m revising my resume and I’m reaching out to talk to recruiters. And you know what? The whole way I’m doing that, is changing, too. I have been more present, more confident, more secure in my dealings with recruiters, than I’ve ever been in my life — and I’ve been dealing with headhunters for over 20 years. I’m actually clear and relaxed and centered, and I’m not on constant guard all the time.

This is amazing. Nothing short of phenomenal. During one of my job interview discussions last week, when I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me, I didn’t just sail on past it and assume I would figure it out later. I actually stopped the conversation, made sure I understood what they were asking/saying, and then I responded to the actual question they asked. In the past, I would have just rushed it and fudged it. And I would have ended up either looking a little “off” or getting into a job that I had no business getting into. I’ve done that more times than I can count, but this time I didn’t do that. I actually held my own, and I participated fully in the conversation.

That, because I was calm and centered and focused. I was consciously working with my breath.

Which amazes me, because for years, I’ve been confounded by people who tell me “Just breathe…” in response to traumatic situations. It’s so friggin’ annoying, being told to “Just breathe” when all hell is breaking loose. Seriously. It seems like such a slap in the face, such an over-simplistic, dense, “dumbed down” (if you’ll pardon the expression) response to what can be complex and mind-boggling situations in life.

I mean, honestly…  I’m in extreme existential crisis, and you expect me to “just breathe”?! Come on – gimme a break.

But taking a closer look at it, thinking about what mindfulness can do for the physical system*, and thinking about the breath in terms of what it does for the parasympathetic nervous system (the “PNS”) (I wrote an extended post about the importance of the PNS here), I had to reconsider my attitudes towards conscious breathing, and give it a try.

And it’s paying off. In a very big way. Whether it’s the stimulation of the vagus nerve by the expansion of my lungs against the inside of my chest cavity, or it’s bringing my full attention to the act of breathing and blocking out everything else, or it’s the delivery of more oxygen (prana, according to some of my friends) to my physical system — including my brain… it’s working. I could tell something was different, almost from the start. Literally. Within a few days of doing a “piddly” little bit of conscious breathing, I was noticeably more relaxed in my mind and spirit and body, and people around me could tell there was something different.

On Friday night, a long-time friend of mine told me it was good to see me “back” to my old self again. “You’ve been so serious for such a long time,” they said. And others around us agreed.

Yes, it’s good to be back.

And all over the breath. The missing piece of my recovery process. Something I do, every single minute of every single day. It sounds almost too simple to my complexity-hungry mind. But maybe it is.

Anyway, I’m not bothering to doubt the importance of this. These changes are very similar in nature the improvements I’m experiencing as a result of regular (daily) exercise. But they’re happening a whole lot more quickly. I’m quite certain that several things have helped with this — they’ve laid the foundation:

  1. I see a chiropractor regularly, and they have been really helping me get my central nervous system in shape.
  2. I exercise each morning 99.99% of the time without fail.
  3. I am intent on changing my life for the better and I am determined to overcome the obstacles that get in my way.
  4. I eat the right things and stay away from lots of junk food, including drugs and alcohol and cigarettes.
  5. I have help from a great neuropsych.
  6. I have the support of people who love and care about me, who want the best for me.

There are more factors, of course, but these are really the foundations for my own improvement, and my own experience of the breath. I suspect that if I didn’t have these, I might not have the kind of success I’m experiencing. But the fact is, I do have them, and I am experiencing a radical shift for the better in my life, as a result of conscious, intentional breath.

Amazing. Truly amazing.

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In a . . .  study, Montreal University researchers from the lab of Pierre Rainville, PhD showed that meditators experienced an 18% reduction in pain sensitivity compared to their non-meditating counterparts.

Building on this earlier study, researchers have found that Zen meditation can decrease sensitivity to pain by thickening brain matter.

In an earlier study, Montreal University researchers from the lab of Pierre Rainville, PhD showed that meditators experienced an 18% reduction in pain sensitivity compared to their non-meditating counterparts.

Building on this earlier study, researchers have found that Zen meditation can decrease sensitivity to pain by thickening brain matter. (Source: NICABM Website at http://www.nicabm.com/nicabmblog/?p=751)