When more stuff falls apart

1923 broken down car with wheel off
Sometimes, a wheel just comes off

I’m back.

But you probably didn’t notice, because I’ve been only intermittently blogging here for the past months – maybe a year or so? Life got… interesting. Work has been a drain and a challenge. There are multiple illnesses in my family. And I need to help out.

So, I help out.

I’ve got a disabled sibling with a child who’s in and out of the hospital. I haven’t done a good job, at all, of keeping in touch and offering support. I’ve been trying to do more of that, lately, but it really takes a toll. And now that sibling’s partner is having health issues, as well. So, that’s yet more of a drama scene.

And now my parents are having problems. Serious, possible-surgery problems. I spent the past 4.5 days with them, helping them get sorted out with doctors, getting their paperwork together, talking them through their options, and talking to a friend who is helping a lot. It’s a whirlwind with them. My parents are high-energy, always-on-the-go types, who live a very active lifestyle with lots of friends and activities. It’s exhausting just talking to them, let along living with them for a few days.

But mission accomplished (for now). We got all their paperwork taken care of, got them set up with the medical portal so they can connect with doctors and see their test results, hooked them up with a new smartphone, so they can have a GPS, and also look things up when they need to. And just reassured them that I and my spouse will be there for them when they need us. They’re a 7-hour drive away, so it’s not exactly close by. And my spouse is having a lot of mobility issues, which slows everything down.

I slow things down, too. The fatigue is just crushing, at times, and when I  push myself, I can get cranky and perseverative. I’ll start to grouse and get stuck on a single angry thought and just hammer that proverbial nail, till the board around it splinters. We had a couple of instances where I lost it over what was really nothing much, got turned around and confused, took wrong turns, got combative… mainly because I was bone-tired and worried about my folks.

On the way down, we added 1/2 an hour to our trip, because I got turned around and missed my last exit. My spouse was talking to me about a number of different things that had nothing to do with the drive, and it distracted and annoyed me, at just the time when I was trying to figure out where I needed to turn. I was tired, which makes my brain work worse, and it was dark, which didn’t help. We were also in a part of the country that’s changed a lot in the past years — and we hadn’t been in that area for over two years, so I was even more disoriented. I missed my exit, couldn’t see where to go next, and my spouse was getting really upset at me for not offering anything constructive to the conversation — which had nothing to do with driving.

I appreciate the vote of confidence, that I can do more than one really critical thing at a time, but I wasn’t in any shape to do anything other than drive the car and get to my parents’ place, so as for conversation… yeah, it wasn’t happening.

We ended up having a blow-out fight over it, which often happens whenever we make that trip to see my parents. There’s a magic point around 7.5 hours of driving, when both of us hit our limit, and any discussion we have turns into a lot of yelling.

Fortunately, we did manage to get over it before too long, and we did get to my parents’ place 9 hours after we left the house. At least we were safe, which was the whole point. And we had a good 4.5 days ahead of us to just chill out and focus on my parents.

On the way back, I got turned around again. I was tired from the trip, and I was confused about pretty much everything. I hate when that happens. It’s a little difficult to maintain your dignity, when you’re bumbling around in a fog. I felt like I was swimming through a bowl of thick tapioca pudding with ankle weights on. My brain just was not sharp. I was foggy and fuzzy and my reaction time was really terrible. I’ve been in better shape, but we had to get home, and my spouse was in no shape to drive, either. Plus, they don’t know the area we were in. So, I had to suck it up and get on with driving. Focus – focus – focus. Pay attention. Watch my speed.

And sure enough, 7.5 hours into the drive, things started to devolve. We were trying to figure out where to buy some eggs and milk and bread before going home. We didn’t have anything fresh in the house, so we had to get some groceries. Driving along, I came to a major fork in the freeway and I had to choose between the left branch or the right, so I decided on the right side, then realized a few miles later, it was the wrong choice. My spouse was pretty pissed off, and yelling ensued. Again.

But I remembered what an ass I’d been on the way down, so I pulled over on the shoulder where it was safe, checked my smartphone, found a grocery store that was open till midnight, and used the GPS on my phone to get there. My spouse was pretty anxious and turned around, too, which made them even more combative. And that wasn’t any fun. But when I followed the instructions of the GPS (almost turning the wrong way onto a one-way street, in the process — it was dark, after all), I got to the store by 10:50, which gave me more than an hour to find and buy the 10 items on the list my spouse made for me. I was in and out in 15 minutes, which was good. Heading out again, I took another wrong turn (even with the GPS telling me what to do – ha!), but I turned around and found my way back.

And we were home before midnight… without too much bloodshed, fortunately. I remembered how hard it had been for me when I lost my temper, while we were driving down. It was bad enough that I felt terrible, felt like a fool and an idiot, and my self-confidence was totally shot. But allowing myself to get angry and vent, to let things escalate with me and “defend myself” from my spouse’s “attacks” actually just made things worse. Even though I was totally justified in my response, it made everything harder for me to think, to process, and do the things that would build up my self-confidence, as well.

It’s all a learning experience, of course. So, I can’t be too hard on myself. It’s one thing, to make mistakes and mess up. It’s another thing to give in to the circumstances and let myself blow up… and never learn a thing in the process. I have to just keep my head on straight, study my situation, watch my reactions and behavior, and learn how to manage myself better. What other people do is one thing. But I need to pay attention to myself, to keep myself as functional as possible — based on the lessons I’ve learned from my past experiences.

It was an exhausting trip, and I’ll write more about that later. I’m still digesting the whole experience, and it’s clear I need to make some changes to how I deal with my parents. They need help — and they need the kind of help that only my spouse and I can offer. Everyone around them is pretty depressive, and some of their friends are distancing themselves from them, because they’re afraid of all the implications of a life-threatening condition that needs to be dealt with.

This is very hard for my folks, because they’re so social, and it’s hard for them to be ostracized, just because of illness.

It happens, of course. I could write a book about how that happens. It happened to me after my last TBI, when I couldn’t keep up with the social and work activities I’d done for years prior. People sensed a vulnerability in me, and it made them uncomfortable. They also sensed a change in me that made them uncomfortable. And since I wasn’t always up to the levels I’d been at, before, they drifted away. I talk about that in TBI S.O.S.Self Matters To Others. Who people know us to be, is also a big part of who they understand themselves to be. And when we change, a part of their world goes away. That’s not easy. But it happens. Not only with TBI, but with other injuries and illnesses, as well.

Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough in this post. I’m back from the visit with my parents, settling back into my regular routine, with some changes. I called my folks, first thing this morning to check in, see how they’re doing — and also pick them up a bit. I need to make this a regular routine, because that’s what works for them. Plus, it’s just nice to talk to them.

I also need to take care of myself, because this is even more demand being placed on my system. And it’s not going to get simpler, anytime soon. So, keeping myself in good shape, stepping up and being responsible about my issues… that’s a big part of what I need to do.

As I said, that’s enough talking for now. I’ll have plenty more to discuss, on down the line.

Sometimes the wheels come off. And you just have to figure out how to deal.

Onward.

II. Let it be thy earnest and incessant care as a human being…

solitude-image

… to do whatever you undertake with true and genuine gravity, natural affection, freedom, and justice.

As for all other cares, and imaginations, find a way to relieve your mind of them.

And that will happen, if you go about every action as if it were your last… free from all vanity, all passionate and wilful disregard of reason, and from all hypocrisy, and self-love, and dislike of those things, which for whatever reason have happened to you.

It doesn’t require much more than that, for you to build a prosperous and divine life.

– Marcus Aurelius – Book 2, Paragraph II (my version)

 

This is a good reminder for me to stay involved in my own life. To live my life to the fullest, no matter how “trivial” things may seem. To take myself and my well-being seriously, and do my best to be the best person possible, in any given situation.

I needed this reminder today. I hope it helps you, too.

No harm, no foul

You don't have to be a pushover to do no deliberate harm
You don’t have to be a pushover to do no deliberate harm

Okay, I’ve disconnected this blog from my Twitter account, so that makes things simpler. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… they all have their different rules for how to format your writing so that you can get visibility, and I just don’t have the time (or interest) for doing anything special, other than writing.

I have no desire to accommodate other “platforms”. I have no desire to use/create hashtags, so I can be in on the larger conversation. The larger conversation tends to not be a conversation at all — rather, a shouting match. Especially with all the events of the past week.

Count me out of that particular exchange.

What we need now, more than anything, is a lot less yelling, a lot less attacking, a lot less blowing people up over differences of opinion. Whether it’s literal or metaphorical, trying to destroy other people never, ever has the intended results. If anything, it just makes things worse and perpetuates the exact problems we’re grappling with, to begin with.

It’s just common sense that a living, breathing human being who is attacked, is going to strike back. So, why would we think that attacking our enemies — even with a superior show of strength — is going to settle the matter?  Those attacks can be with bombs or words or social policy, but in whatever form, they strike at the humanity of others and threaten their existence.

What do people do when you threaten them? What do they do when you humiliate them? What do they do when you blow them and their families up? They fight back. Of course they do. We do it, too. No self-respecting individual or culture is going to just roll over because someone overpowers them at one point in time. Things change. Power shifts. Someone takes control of an arsenal of weapons that used to belong to someone else, and the balance of power shifts against whoever was the aggressor, the last time.

Fantasizing that it’s anything different from that, is not helping, in the current “wartime” situation.

All our our intentions to “settle the matter once and for all” do nothing of the kind. What do we think? That others are just going to sit back and say, “Oh, you’re right – you’re much stronger than we are, so we’re not going to do anything to you anymore!  You’re the MAN!!” ….? Have we lost our minds? No self-respecting individual is going to do or say that — and mean it. They may pretend to surrender, they may retreat for a while, but they’ll be back later to try to hurt us again. And there will be someone out there who’s willing to sell them all the right weapons to do exactly that. That’s just human nature, and anybody who thinks that shock-and-awe force will “settle” any issue for all time, has not been paying attention to, oh… just a few millennia of human experience and history. Even looking at the past 20 years will show you that.

Of course, if you’re in the arms business, life is pretty sweet, right now. So, it’s not all bad — for some people, anyway. I’m sure there are plenty of mutual funds out there that are invested in arms manufacturing, which means all the retired school teachers and civil servants and countless folks drawing on their 401(k)s can avoid eating dog food and living in a cardboard box under an overpass for at least a few more years. It’s all interconnected, and we’re all complicit in this arrangement. As long as any (all) of us are benefiting from our perpetual state of war, there’s only so much we can say about it. Even if you move off the grid, you’re still probably going to be using things that were created, thanks to the system we all live in. So, none of us is without blame in creating this situation.

Of course, I’m never going to convince the People In Charge that running around blowing up your opponents is going to solve anything. Everybody who talks in these terms just looks like a bit of a passive, utopian twit on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or whatever social media outlet they prefer. In these days of escalation, anyone who talks about de-escalation seems soft and out-of-touch with the necessities of the situation. Blinded. We’re all blinded by trauma and passion, and even though I agree with the words posted about how to relieve conditions of war, all those pictures of East-Asian gods and goddesses and the Dhali Lama just make me angry.

As far as I’m concerned, the only thing for me to do is get out of my head. Get out of my fear and anxiety, to just get on with my life. Get active. Live my life. Live it fully. Don’t sit and stew. Get going and take positive action.

“No harm, no foul,” seems like a pretty good philosophy and life approach to me.

It’s about not letting myself be harmed by what others do. They will do what they please, and they won’t necessarily give a damn about how it affects me. It’s often up to me, to decide what I’ll do with the experience — if I’ll get carried away by insult and perceived hurt, or if I’ll let it slide and get on with my life. There are many, many things that are done “to” me, that I can either notice and turn into a terrible offense… or I can just ignore them as moments of stupidity that mindless people are doing because they don’t know any better. It’s my choice, what I do with all that.

Probably the best thing that anyone can do these days, is do no harm. That, and make a positive difference in the world. Pay close and considerate attention to what’s going on around you, so you can be strong from moment to moment. Be alert to opportunities to be a little better at what you do than you were, just a moment before. So many things are happening at a “macro” level that are beyond our influence and understanding. There is so much we do not know, so much we cannot control.  What we can control is how we relate to others… how we take care of ourselves… how we mind our own behavior and keep it as clean as possible.

There is only so much we can influence, on a day to day basis. But the things we can influence for the better, could make all the difference in someone’s life, or a troubling situation that has the possibility of escalating.

I have to admit that, for myself, I bear a lot of responsibility for having caused others harm. Many times in my life (usually shortly after a TBI, or later on because of brain injury and PTSD), I struck out and harmed others. I broke things. I attacked people. I did my share of damage, being deliberately hurtful — because I, myself, was in pain. For many, many years, this went on. Hurting people — family, friends, loved-ones… saying and doing the kinds of things that were intended to cause pain — to make sure I wasn’t the only one who was hurting.

I wasn’t fully aware of what I was doing, when I was doing it. And while I was doing the damage, I believed I was entitled to do it, because, well, I was hurting. And I needed some relief. Hurting others was the only way I knew how to relieve that pain, that hurt. It was the only way I could figure out how to not be the only one in the room in excruciating  discomfort.

And it took a toll. It trashed so many friendships, so many relationships that have not been able to recover in many, many years — even after I got my act together. There is little to no trust between myself and some of my siblings. There are old, once-close friends I have not spoken to in 25 years. There were family members who had to turn their backs on me, for their own sake, and who died before I could make amends. My past is littered with broken relationships and fractured trust. I am still paying for it, and some debts I will never get to repay.

Which is why I now feel like the best thing I can do, really, is be kind. Be gentle. Be generous. Be strong. Be fierce, when it’s called for, but don’t let that be my default mode. There’s a difference between being a pushover, and standing your ground firmly  with a disarming smile on your face. The people who can do the latter are the true bad-asses of the world.

And that’s what I strive for: To stand firmly, but to not let others get the better of me because I’m an easy mark. Also, to not be a mindless jerk who unconsciously messes with other people. Being aware of my surroundings and responding as who I am, rather than what the situation turns me into, is a true martial art. Being able to absorb the hits of the world, and not fall to pieces… not take it out on others… that’s my ideal. When I can do that — just let the world be its crazy place, deflect its blows,and keep going with my life, calm and collected — there need not be any blood, there need not be any foul.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

It just means that I don’t hurt others, as a result of my own pain.

It’s a goal, anyway.

Onward….

Body practice for brain improvement

I’ve added a new piece to my morning/evening routines — when I am about to brush my teeth, I pull my toothbrush out of the holder and toss it from hand to hand. Sometimes I flip it around and try to catch it. Sometimes I can, sometimes I miss… drop it, and have to wash it thoroughly before I brush my teeth.

But I have noticed my hand-eye coordination improving. And my response times improve, as well. Also, I have noticed that I have been able to catch things that I start to drop more easily than ever before.

Like silverware falling out of my hands and headed for the floor — I have caught them several times.

Like a travel mug full of coffee that tipped over, and I was able to right before it spilled all over the place.

There have been a number of situations where my eye-hand coordination is definitely better than I can remember it being for a while – perhaps if ever. I was very active as a kid and played a lot of ball games, but I was a little spastic and had trouble coordinating my movements.

And I was convinced I could not juggle, because I was so “dorky”. I was convinced I was a lot of things (not all of them flattering) because of my coordination problems. My issues were probably a lot less than I believed they were, but because they didn’t match what I was expecting, I considered them terrible.

And I kept myself from doing a lot of things, because I figured, “Well, that’s just how I am, and I have to live with less as a result.”

Sad – pretty much of a waste.

Now things are different. Now I’m not convinced that anything I believe about myself is actually true. I’m questioning it. Trying new things. And discovering more things about myself than I ever did before.

Juggling helps me. Even just tossing around a pen is beneficial.  How?

  1. It improves my eye-hand coordination. I am getting better at catching things I toss from one hand to another. And when I spin the thing(s) I toss, it challenges me. I have dropped a lot of things, but I am getting better.
  2. It improves my self-control. When I drop things, I typically get very upset and start to blow up (inside mostly, sometimes outside). This is very disruptive. Knowing that I am practicing keeps it chilled out for me. Tossing a non-essential object, dropping it, and then practicing self-control and not flying off the handle, is helping me in my everyday life, when things go wrong unexpectedly.
  3. It improves my sustained attention. I can focus for longer and longer periods of time. I notice that I drop things when my attention wanders. Focusing on the object I’m tossing from hand to hand for a few minutes… then a few more minutes… then a few more minutes… is helping me to stay focused longer.
  4. It teaches me to block out distractions.  This is different from sustaining my attention. It’s one thing to lengthen the amount of time I can focus single-mindedly on something. It’s another thing to know how to block out sudden distractions that pop up into my field of view, or come to mind. Most of my distractions actually come from inside my head. I’ll start thinking about something else… and then I’m toast. I drop what I’m trying to catch. Or I toss something in the wrong direction. Practicing tossing things from one side to another — and most of all practicing not getting my attention pulled away — has actually helped me a great deal.

Recently, a reader posted a comment:

I saw a documentary on the brain and neuroplasticity and heard that juggling tennis balls can improve executive function.
I think it worked:
It only took the (uninjured) guy in the movie one practice session to be able to juggle several tennis balls.
It took about 2 months for me to be able to consistently juggle one ball.
I could only do a few minutes once or twice a week because it used so much of my brain energy.
After a few weeks I noticed my thinking seemed faster and switching between tasks was easier. There was also a measurable jump in my typing and reading speeds.

Now aprox 3 months later; I still do a few minutes, two times a week, but can use 2 balls. I just tested my typing speed again and it is aprox. twice as fast it was when I started the juggling exercise.

It’s worth a try: low cost, no side effects. Be aware that it took lots of patience and really used up a lot of brain enery when I started (so plan accordingly), but it got easier.

This is WAY cool. As they said, it is low cost and has no side effects — other than improvement in important areas.

It also takes a lot of brain energy at the start — I can also attest to that, because when I started tossing my toothbrush from hand to hand, first thing in the morning, I dropped it a lot, and spent a lot of time rinsing it off. (Why did I used my toothbrush? Because tossing something important raised the stakes and forced me to pay close attention.) It was very challenging when I started, to tell the truth.

But bringing in a tennis ball has expanded this — and it’s something I can do just about anywhere, just about anytime. In fact, I sometimes take a break at work to go to a quiet room and toss a tennis ball around. I may just add another ball to it and practice juggling.

Now, it’s all very well and good to learn how to juggle. It’s fun. It aids neuroplasticity. And it will be an accomplishment, if I ever manage it.

But the real benefit is not the juggling ability alone. It’s the psychological, experiential, and behavioral benefit I get from it.

Having better eye-hand coordination can reduce the number of “clumsiness events” in my life that not only drive me crazy but make me feel stupid and dim.

Being able to catch a tipping cup of coffee — that I can’t afford to spill — is a huge boost to myself-confidence. And it also spares me the internal storms of anger, range, frustration, and self-recrimination. It’s also good for my self-image, which can use a lot of help.

Being in better contact with the world around me, and having a more fluid interaction with my physical environment can offset the effects of my dizziness and the times when I am “off” — for one reason or another. Developing my coordination, my muscle memory, my ability to skillfully adapt to sudden changes in my environment… it’s all good, and it only helps me.

Overall, the strangely wonderful side-effects of tossing objects from one hand to another are helping me feel better about myself, feel like less of a klutz, and make me more relaxed and at-ease with the world around me.

And that’s a good thing.

So, onward…

 

 

The foundation of TBI (or any?) recovery

I’ve been thinking about my next steps in my TBI recovery. Logistically, I have been pretty consumed with just keeping thing together on a day-to-day basis for the past 7 years.

So much that I really took for granted had gone away — jobs, money, credit score, friends, daily routines, level-headedness, technical skills, harmony in my marriage and so many other relationships… and the loss of those basic features of my life — my foundation — left me floudering.

So, I had to really focus on the basis for a number of years:

Finding a job that suited me and keeping it.

Developing good working relationships that doubled as “friendships” (because I didn’t have the time and energy, when all was said and done, to have more friends than that).

Getting my financial affairs in order, paying down massive amounts of debt, and not getting into any more trouble with spending.

It’s been a very rough seven years — especially the past four — but I’m out on the other side, with my debts settled, my mortgage current, my credit score pretty good — almost on the verge of being excellent — and a regular job under my belt to keep my bills paid.

And I am saving up for doing some long overdue repairs to one of the bathrooms. We can’t afford to do both, but the one needs to be done, so…

Anyway, the point of all this is, looking back and what I’ve accomplished, the main thing that has carried me through all these years, has been learning to keep an even keel and not get thrown by every little thing that comes along.

For somebody like me with TBI issues and a pretty volatile temper, this has not been easy. It has taken a huge amount of work, and learning to breathe and calm down my physical system has been the lion’s share of the task. But as I look at my life of the past years from a distance, I can see how just doing that — learning to keep my system stable and not (too) reactive — has made my recovery possible.

It’s very simple, really.

When I am worked up and bent out of shape, my brain does not function well. I have a harder time learning, I have a harder time thinking, and the connections I need to create in my brain to get me back on the good foot, are being made in all the wrong places — if they’re getting made at all.

But when I can stay calm and not get caught up in the storms of life, then my brain has the chance to make the right connections in the right way, and “re-learn” how it’s supposed to do things.

Of course, knowing this and doing it are two completely different things.

Yesterday morning, when my parents were here, I was starting to feel really down on myself, stupid, useless, and overwhelmed. Whenever I am around my parents, I feel that way, because both of them are very heady and intellectual, and in a lot of our conversations, I feel like I’m barely keeping up. They do try to be kind — nowadays… it wasn’t always the case — but I really feel stupid sometimes, when I am with them.

I started to cry because I felt so stupid and so bad. Broken. Displaced. Useless. But then I stopped myself from the downward spiral, and kept repeating to myself, “I am smart in other ways. I am smart in other ways.” I just kept telling myself that, over and over again, and before long, I wasn’t in that dark hole anymore, and I could think clearly again.

And I had another good couple of hours with them before they took off for home.

Being able to talk myself away from that edge, and getting my system calmed down, was the key. It usually is. And looking back on the past seven years, I can see how much it has cost me, when I was not keeping a good handle on my “internal state”.

So, there it is — the foundation of my recovery from TBI has been keeping in state of mind steady and learning how to not let things get hold of me and carry me away.

When I am stable and present and I am not being pushed about by every last wind, my brain has a chance to make good connections that give me a solid bedrock to build the rest of my life on. It takes time, of course, and there are times when I slide back and have to make up lost ground, but that’s how it is with everything. There is no such thing as a straight line in life, as well as brain injury recovery.

You just have to keep going. You just have to keep moving and learning, keeping a level head and not getting derailed by little things that come along.

Speaking of not getting derailed by little things that come along…. I’ve got to go off to work in a little bit, and I’ll be dealing with my boss again, who tends to be petty and divisive and plays all sorts of mind games. They’re not nearly as smart as they think they are, but I still have to keep my wits about me, when they are up to their tricks.

So, that being said, I’ll practice my steady breathing again today, hopefully get a break in the afternoon, and just keep keepin’ on.

Life is waiting. Onward.

 

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 🙂

 

 

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 😉

How 90-second clearing helps

Here’s a picture of before and after I realized just how much 90-second clearing helps me:

This is what would happen before I could stop the crazy rush of panic chemicals:

gray-no-zone
Before – when my panic would get hold of me

Gray Zone

  • Stress response to the thought of change – adrenaline, etc.
  • Reduction in cognitive resources, narrowing, sense of danger, alert
  • Escalation of stress response, based on sense of narrowing options, bad past experiences
  • Fear / anxiety / dread mixture runs the show
  • Chase back to how things are – get content, stay stuck

Before, I would escalate really quickly, thinking that I couldn’t manage, or that I was trapped. The stress response would trigger a physical reaction with me that would make me feel like I was blocked in and didn’t have a way out, and I would begin to panic. It didn’t matter if the change was something as basic as fixing a curtain rod that had come loose from the wall, or starting a new job. I would still feel it coming on and have the same catastrophic reaction. And because my own personal catastrophic reaction often involves involuntary crying, and I cannot stand to cry in front of people for no apparent reason, I avoided a lot of situations that I feared would get hold of me.

But now, I have a different way of handling things, and so far it’s working pretty well — when I remember to do it, of course 😉

This is what is possible now, when I stop the escalation of stress chemicals and use my breathing for a minute and a half to calm everything down:

yellow-yes-zone
After – When I spend a minute or so clearing out the stress response and stop things from escalating

Yellow Zone

  • Stress Inoculation Training, Stress Hardiness Optimization
  • Ability to shift the physical experience by breathing and other coping mechanisms
  • Clearing of stress response broadens options, opens thinking
  • From fear / anxiety / dread into anticipation / engagement / hope

Basically, the difference is like night and day. The old storms that would come up don’t have to anymore. I have a way to calm them down and think more clearly about what is in front of me. And most importantly, I don’t feel like I’m hemmed in, simply because of a physical response.

My nervous system is wired to be, well, wired. It’s automatic with me. I’ve been trained that way by life. Now I need to train myself to be another way.

And so I am.