I’ve been uptight for way too long. I’ve been cranked up, worked up, stressed out, for as long as I can remember. In fact, I didn’t know how to relax until about 10 years ago, when I started deliberately practicing that.
I had no choice. My spouse was seriously ill. I was losing it. I had to figure out a way to get myself back from the edge… I was dangerously close to it, and my life was literally disintegrating around me, along with my sanity.
I got help. I found a neuropsych who could work with me.
I also learned how to do “progressive relaxation” — and I did it on a regular basis. It wasn’t just some fun thing I wanted to try out. It was life-and-death, and the balance of my life depended on it. I sat za-zen. I meditated each day before I did anything, and then again when I went to bed.
Over the years, I’ve lost touch with that old practice. I just didn’t feel like doing it anymore. And I’ve gotten increasingly cranked up and tied up in knots, as the months and years have progressed.
I’m back at that “choice point” again. Relaxation isn’t optional for me. It’s got to become a way of life. It’s not that I’m close to the edge. I’m just sick and tired of being stressed out about everything, and having nothing good come of it. Consider it a reality check on the ROI of being stressed. The return on the “investment” isn’t good.
That means, the time and energy spent is it’s not an investment. It’s a waste. I can’t get those hours and days and weeks back, that I lost to being stressed. They’re gone for good. And what do I have to show for them? A little, but not a lot.
So, I’m going to try something very different. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, but my plan is to keep my system in a prolonged state of relaxation. Just let my body relax. Just let my mind not worry about all that sh*t that everybody else is so worried about. I get too bent about crap I can’t control. It’s just kind of dumb. What the heck do I expect to happen as a result of my outrage, anyway? That it’s going to change anything? It doesn’t — except my internal state of mind. It just wrecks my peace. It doesn’t actually turn the speeding car in the right direction. If anything, it just pushes my internal accelerator to the floor.
And what do I have to show for it, after all those years of slamming the pedal to the metal? Not a whole lot, to be honest. I’ve spent a lot of time being angry, frustrated, outraged, confused, and not nearly as successful as I’d like to be. I’ve gotten in my own way, with all the frenzy. I’ve literally made myself sick, by letting my fight-flight response get the better (and worse) of me.
I know, I know, TBI has complicated matters for me. It’s at the root of much of my suffering, and not understanding it has made things so much worse. There’s no doubt of that. But I’ve also made things more difficult for myself by my choices to get bent out of shape, and stay that way — and also by not actively managing my issues. I have no excuse, now. I haven’t had an excuse for years. I know I’ve got sh*t going on with me, and it’s my responsibility to handle it, already.
But I’m getting tense again.
Let’s try to change that… No, don’t just try — DO.
To quote Yoda…
It is possible to actively change your internal state from fight-flight to relaxation. I’ve known how to do it for years. But I haven’t consistently made a habit of it.
Till now. Till I got sick and tired of having nothing to show for my outrage, other than… outrage.
For the past couple of days, I’ve been deliberately relaxing when I felt myself tighten up. I tighten up — get tense — a lot. After being in a constantly tense state for most of my life, I know how to do that. It’s an immediate reflex. A knee-jerk response.
And when I consciously relax — just let it all go — things tend to clear up. Even if they don’t completely clear up, I feel better. And that’s something. I’m tired of feeling bad all the time, for no good reason. I’m old enough to know better, and I do. I’m also old enough to want to just enjoy myself, instead of chasing all sorts of distant goals that — if I’m honest — were never going to work out, in the first place.
Enough wasting the energy. Enough wasting time I’ll never get back.
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.
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:
I’m rationing my Facebook time and staying OFF it, first thing in the morning, as well as last thing at night.
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:
It is keeping my system from becoming drugged by biochemical / neurocognitive overload.
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.
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.
What I want to write about right now, is how what I call “the breath of life” can help overcome TBI.
Now, I understand that a lot of people think of “the breath of life” in religious terms, and maybe I do, too. But I don’t align it with any particular religion, rather the really meaningful aspects of the everyday — and they in themselves could be considered “holy”… but that’s another discussion for another day, I suppose.
What I mean when I say “the breath of life” is breathing intentionally, as though your life depends on it (which it does). It’s about breathing consciously and steadily, with a focus on the full breath — in and out — in a way that calms you down and stabilizes your whole system.
Everybody who’s alive breathes. Yet many of us don’t realize what an important part steady, regular breathing plays in our lives. It’s common, I understand, for people to hyperventilate — to breathe faster than their body actually needs them to. Or to breath more shallowly (is that a word?) than they could. On the other hand, a lot of people take deep, deep breaths, thinking that will calm them down… when in fact inhalation actually revs you up and stimulates your fight-flight sympathetic nervous system.
What does this have to do with overcoming TBI? A whole lot. Because TBI is traumatic, from the beginning, and on through the years. The initial injury is just the start of ongoing trauma you’ll experience on a daily basis. After TBI you’re often unable to do the things you used to do, and you go through a serious personal crisis… and that’s traumatic.
And you often have to really push yourself to get things done the way you like… and that gets your sympathetic nervous system all fired up, and that can ultimately lead to diminished cognitive capacity, in and of itself, which then compounds the trauma of TBI difficulties.
And after TBI, you can often find yourself totally screwing up things that “should” be easy for you, that used to come easy to you, and that everybody else thinks should be easy for you. Screwing up, time and time again, is traumatic — especially if the mistakes take you by surprise, and you have to work double-time to make right what went wrong.
So, the trauma that takes place isn’t just with the injury. It’s with your whole life, after the injury. Maybe things clear up and get better, maybe they don’t. But they’re different from how they were before. YOU’RE different from how you were before.
So, what that means is your autonomic nervous system — the wiring and chemistry that regulates your digestion, your sex drive, sleep, your immune system… all those systems that you don’t consciously control in your body — gets stuck on permanent ON status. And if you can’t manage to disengage the sympathetic fight-flight in favor of the parasympathetic rest-digest, you can eventually find your body breaking down in hidden ways. You can get colds and flu more often. Your digestion can get screwed up. You can lose your sex drive. You have trouble sleeping, or you sleep too much. And more. It’s like you’re running your car’s engine on 15,000 rpm, day in and day out, and you never change your oil.
We know what happens to cars when that happens. Imagine what’s happening to your own nervous system.
So, this is where the breathing comes in — the breath of life.
It’s basically sitting quietly, either cross-legged on a cushion or sitting up in a chair, or even lying down, if you can’t sit comfortably, and breathing slow and steady from the belly. Just focus on the breathing, as though your life depends on it, without thinking about a lot of other things. I find that when I sit still for a while, my mind automatically starts taking advantage of the downtime to think about a lot of stuff. It can’t be helped, but I can get my attention back to my breathing just by reminding myself that I’m not fixing things right now, I’m just sitting and breathing.This can — and will — balance out the autonomic nervous system, strengthening the parasympathetic, which is so critical for making up for the wild activity of the sympathetic. You can’t have one work optimally without the other, so strengthening the parasympathetic strengthens the sympathetic, so when I DO have to go into fight-flight mode, I am stronger and have more stamina, which is helpful.
The other thing this helps with is attention. I’ve got serious attention issues, and I get really distractable when I’m tired. The breath of life helps in several ways — it helps me balance out the ANS so I rest and sleep better, and consequently the fatigue doesn’t eat into my attention as much. And focusing on my breathing and the sense of just sitting also trains my attention to stay on one thing longer. So it prepares me for when I’m not sitting anymore. This is two kinds of practice in one — for body and for mind.
This really works for me (and it’s a variation on what has worked for lots of people in meditation and zen for many generations). It’s literally helping me get my life back – so it is the breath of life for me. Yesterday my neuropsych was remarking at the huge difference this breathing practice has made in my quality of life and outlook and attitudes, since the New Year, and it’s totally true. It may work for others (and I suspect it will), but everybody’s different, so you may find it doesn’t work for you. But it would be good if you tried it.
Give it a whirl — you may find it can help you overcome TBI (or other problems, too).
I woke up this morning at the usual time — 6:30, which is regular, even for weekends — and the first thing I did was sit. Sit and breathe. Just to get myself balanced as best I could before launching into the day. I sat for twice my “usual” time — 100 breaths or so — then I stretched my legs and realized that now that I was more relaxed, I was also really friggin’ tired.
So, I lay back down and went back to sleep.
Now, the disciplined, go-go side of me that wanted to get up, do my morning routine, and get into the day with a full head of steam, was kind of disappointed in myself, for lying back down and sleeping for another hour. But the rest of me — the sensible, truthful part of me that’s a whole lot more pragmatic — won out over the self-chastisement, by reminding my go-go self that go-going without a full tank of fuel sorta kinda defeats the purpose of go-going in the first place.
First things first — rest when I can. Even if that means being a “wuss” and going back to bed after morning sitting.
In a way, it makes sense that I’d start getting all up in my stuff about going back to sleep. Because in the process of sitting and breathing, my fight-flight dogs of war had their influence balanced out by the parasympathetic rest-digest side of life, and the dogs of war weren’t happy about it. They want to run the show. They want to drive the action. They want to be THE MAIN EVENT, and screw everything else. Get on board, people. If you’re not with ’em you’re against ’em. Or something like that.
So, the barking dogs didn’t get to be the main attraction, and they got all pissy about it, gave me crap for taking care of myself, and they’re still growling, hours later — even after I did get up and do my morning exercise, and I did get out and run my errands, and I am in the process of packing back up and heading home again to do yet more errands… before going back to bed to sleep. Somehow, with the barking dogs of war, it’s never enough. There’s always some other thing I could do more of, or better, or less of, or smarter. It’s just never enough.
Thank the heavens for this sitting and breathing business. Sitting. Just sitting. Counting my breaths. Paying attention to… absolutely nothing. Giving my sympathetic nervous system a rest, and getting to that place where I’m suspended between mental and physical, flight and rest, maraud and digest… and letting myself just be, for 15-20 minutes, before I launch into my day.
Living on sympathetic overdrive is a little bit like driving through life in all seasons with studded snowtires on. It rips the crap out of the roads of my life, and although it may help me when the going gets rough and slick, and I can’t see where the hell I’m headed, it still tends to dig up the trail as I’m blazing it. So, even when I’m chill and have some measure of sanity in my life, the rugged terrain still persists somewhat. And the combination of depleted energy (from all the fighting and flighting) and complications introduced by my double-barrel “c’mon – I’ll take ya!” attitude, ends up ripping huge gaps in the otherwise level spaces in my life.
So, something’s gotta give. And I know how to make it give. By taking time out, the first thing as soon as I wake up, to sit and breathe and NOT get into all the upheaval, first thing in the morning. I count my breaths. I get my heart rate to slow down. I feel myself rooting into the ground (even though I’m on the second floor of the house), and I feel my bones become like an ancient tree that reaches deep into the earth and high into the sky. Okay, maybe not that deep, and maybe not that high, but you get the idea.
And I do it, no matter whether my brain is telling me gotta-go-gotta-go-gotta-go, or I’m feeling tired and worn down.
And what comes after it, totally depends on the day and what’s required of me. Today is Saturday. Screw rising and shining, if I’m completely tapped out. If I need to go back to bed to regain my humanity, then so be it. Of course, if I’m up for it, then yeah, I’m up — and more power to me. But sitting and letting everything balance out and get even across the board at least gives me the choice about which I’m going to do.
So long as I let myself make that choice. Today, I did. And another hour of sleep is exactly what I needed.
So, I was up at a decent hour this morning, and I took time to sit and breathe for about 20 minutes. Generally, I try to focus on my breath and counting how many times I breathe in and breathe out. It’s good for me. It gives my brain a rest. And it helps me start the day with good concentration.
Here’s the thing, though – when I am tired (which I am, today), my mind really wanders, and it takes a mammoth effort to bring me back to where I need to be — focused on counting my breaths. Suddenly, a ton of different things seem so critical that I can’t help but think about them. And I am convinced that I have to solve these problems right here and now.
So, there are a number of issues that I can address in this exercise:
Distractability – being prone to have things catch my attention and pull it off where I need it to be.
ImpulseControl – just “going with” the stuff that comes up, instead of consciously deciding that I’m not going to pay attention to those things until after I’m done sitting.
Weak Attention – if all these different thoughts are coming up, if my attention is strongly enough focused on what I’m doing, the two things above don’t need to bother me.
But they do. And that’s the thing. It’s a thing I need to address. And guess what – I can address it. Each morning, as well as at different times throughout the day.
Now, I know that meditation is supposedly good for your soul — it’s supposed to lead to enlightenment, and that’s why a lot of people pursue it. But enlightenment is not my main goal. I want something a whole lot less grand — I just want to be able to sustain my attention on a single fixed point for longer than a hummingbird focuses on drinking nectar from a flower.
Seriously. It’s just ridiculous, sometimes, what comes up in my mind for no apparent reason. Things like the current political debates, the task items I have to do for work by end of day Monday, my upcoming schedule this week, what I want to discuss with my neuropsych, repairs I need to make to the house, and of course the pain and discomfort I’ve been feeling in my left upper back, due to my body acclimating to the different movements I’ve been making when I work out in the morning.
It’s just this never-ending march of whatever-ness that just won’t quit. And there I sit, boldly attempting to hold my attention to the number of the breath I’m presently on.
I’ve read up on this a little bit, and apparently there are a number of different ways to spend your time while sitting in meditation. You can look at the end of your nose or your hand or a selected point out in front of you. You can count your breaths. You can recite mantras. You can can think about unsolvable puzzles in hopes of receiving a sudden flash of insight when your brain finally gives up trying to do what it isn’t designed to do.
I’m sure there are tons of people who have made good use of these practices, and for all those who sit in meditation in service to humanity waking up, I’d like to say “Thank you.”
For my purposes, however, the point of sitting is much more basic and far less grand. It’s just to get a handle on my head and extend my “attentional endurance” — to train myself to be able to focus on one single thing for longer than 15 seconds. Not being able to keep focused on one single thing for extended periods of time has serious repercussions for my work and my life. Just the other day, I misplaced some gift cards I’d received over the holidays, and now I can’t find them. Because I wasn’t paying attention when I put them away. I have no idea where they are. I’ve looked high and low. I’m sure at the time I thought was being clever, putting them somewhere “safe” — so safe, I can’t find them now.
This is just one example. At work, not being able to focus on things for longer than a few minutes at a time (partly because of constant interruption, but also because of poor practice), cuts into my productivity and keeps me from achieving what I set out to achieve. It makes everything that much harder to do, that much longer to finish, that much more of a chore.
In my personal life, too, not being able to attend to the people around me, not being able to focus exclusively on them while they are talking to me, not only makes them feel unimportant, but it also makes it really hard to have a conversation. I already have issues with working memory, so when I don’t pay attention and I don’t actively follow along in the conversation, I can lose pieces of what we are talking about, and then I sound like I’m talking gibberish.
And that’s no good.
So, that’s why I sit and count my breaths each morning. If enlightenment comes, that’s fine. 🙂 But I’ll (hopefully) be so focused on keeping my attention fixed on a certain point, that I won’t exactly notice. And that’s how I think I’d like it to be. The day when I can keep my attention fixed so intently on something as “insignificant” as a shoe lying on the floor in front of me, that I’m not distracted by something as profound as an evolutionary bump to the next level, is the day my attention is good to go.
So far, so good. I am still managing to get up and get into my day first with sitting and breathing, then with some exercise before breakfast.
The results have been pretty amazing. I knew it helped me before, when I would do my exercise, first thing, but I think the thing that was missing was the sitting piece — breathing regularly to balance out my autonomic nervous system, so that I’m neither exclusively in fight-flight mode nor in rest-digest mode, but I can move freely between the two.
In years past, I have found myself either all jazzed up when I got up — I’d leap out of bed and race into the day. Or I would be sluggish and cold and numb. Nowadays, even when I am tired, I am still relatively alert. And even when I am well-rested, I am still pretty calm and balanced.
That calm and balance is priceless to me. It eluded me for so many years — pretty much all my life, actually. Now, with some simple, relatively minor changes, I have a way to start out the day on that note. And that’s pretty encouraging.
In the past week or so, I have not woken up angry or pumped up. I have not started my day on sour notes. I have been able to keep steady and clear-headed, even when I was sick and was really very tired.
This is good. It’s very good.
Because the times when I have had the hardest time of all, has been when my fight-flight impulse was dialed up to a deafening level — when I was so jazzed, so charged up, that I couldn’t settle down. It was like I was stuck on ALWAYS-ON and couldn’t find a way to turn it down. I didn’t even want to turn it down, because it was familiar and I thought that was what worked for me.
This is better.
I’ve been reading Training the Samurai Mind: A Bushido Sourcebook, gleaning what I can from the online version. I’m short on cash, so I can’t afford to buy the book, and I can’t find it at the library, but I can read bits and pieces on Google Books, so I have been. (It’s better that way, too, because it forces me to read only portions of the book and focus on and them and digest them over time, rather than rushing through, willy-nilly, and not really digesting any of it.) I have long been an avid reader about Samurai and Bushido, and it makes sense to me — the life path of warriors who very likely sustained their share of TBIs in the course of battle… a life path which enabled them to restore their faculties and remain viable warriors… that is very useful to me, and I learn a lot from reading those kinds of books.
One thing that strikes me in Samurai-related literature is the focus on self-lessness. Getting rid of thoughts of the self. Focusing on an certain ethic, a certain way of life, to the exclusion of the self. And I have to say, I feel so much freer, when I get my mind off my SELF, than when I focus on my “own” self.
The difference I feel in myself when I read Samurai writings, compared to how I felt when I was seeing a therapist who was intent on getting me to think more and more about mySELF is remarkable. It’s amazing. And when I think back to when I was in therapy, I realized that although the therapist meant well, they were actually leading me down a path that was completely wrong for me. They wanted me to focus on mySELF more, but what I really needed to do, was focus on my “self” less.
It’s been several years since I was last in therapy, and it’s taken me this long to get back to a way that suits me much better than those SELF-absorbed conversations that used to plunge me into confusion and chaos on a weekly basis.
I have no words to describe the sense of calm I have, that comes from simply sitting and letting all the crap go… that comes from refusing to get caught up in the drama that churns inside my head… that comes from balancing my nervous system with steady focus on my in-breath and out-breath.
There is another way for me to find peace. There is a genuinely reliable way for me to chill. This is truly encouraging. It’s truly amazing.
I’m off to a good start, today. I woke up early and tried to get back to sleep, then realized after a while that I was pretty much *up* so it would make more sense for me to just get moving and get ahead of my day. I caught a nasty head cold over the holiday trip, and I wasn’t going to get much more sleep, thanks to my running nose and watering eyes.
So, I got up and did some mindful sitting, first thing. I started out with the intention of just going to 10 breaths. Then I went past that and went to 13… and beyond. I wasn’t feeling very settled at the start. My heart started racing, and my breathing was very tight. But after about 15 breaths, things started to settle in, and by the time I had counted to 25, I was feeling more settled, more stabilized. So, I breathed and counted to 47, a prime number that has more associated with it than most people would guess. I felt really good, by the time I got to 47, and I was tempted to keep going, but I had more plans that I wanted to follow up with, and I didn’t want to ruin a good thing by overdoing it.
So I got up, came downstairs, and got on my exercise bike for a15-minute ride. I listened to music as I rode, trying to keep my mind on the actual bicycling and not chafe too much at it. In past months, I have gotten away from riding the bike, first thing, because it started feeling forced and boring and same-old-same-old. This morning, however, I had motivation to ride, because I am sick with this cold, and I need to move the lymph through my system to help clear out this infection. The sludge won’t move itself out of my system, so I need to give it a little boost, which is what riding the bike will do for me. Plus, it warmed me up — it’s cold — winter, after all — and I hate feeling cold, first thing in the morning. So, having a brisk bike ride not only got me moving in a healthier direction, but it also got me warmed up. And that was great.
After my ride, I put the coffee water on to boil and did some stretching and moving. Then I poured my coffee and put the water on for my soft-boiled egg. While that was heating up, I did my old familiar free weights routine, where I go through a whole circuit of lifting for my legs and upper body. It actually felt really good to do it again, and I had to wonder why I haven’t done much of that at all, in the past several months. I guess I just got bored with it. Lost my motivation, for some reason. Just lost it… Probably due to all the anxiety over the changes at work and my fight-flight instincts getting tweaked all over the spectrum.
By the time the water had boiled and my egg was ready, I got in my quick free weights workout, as well as my balance work. The balance stuff is really important, because my ears are quite stopped up, and I’m off-kilter, these days. But doing the leg lifts without anything to stabilize me, got my balance “tuned up” a bit, and by the time my breakfast was ready, I’d gotten a full morning workout in.
Now, I’ve been pretty hard on myself, lately, about having slacked off on my exercise routine. I guess I just got sick and tired of it, doing the same thing every morning. I also lost sight of how important it is to do it regularly. I guess I started taking it for granted, and I started taking my physical well-being for granted. I did need a change of pace, actually, but thinking back, I think it was really a motivation void that sucker-punched me. The changes at work, which have all happened on a pretty extreme scale, got me thinking that I’m a helpless victim and I can’t do anything to help myself. The home office is overseas, and the people making the rules are far from any of us who are doing the everyday work. So, it’s a very different and much less invested sort of arrangement than before. And with all this going on, I guess I just felt, “What’s the use?” I succumbed to the feeling of being a victim, of being helpless, of being the subject/target of someone else’s ambitions, and unable to change any of it. And when I went out looking for other jobs, that helplessness came through, I’m not proud to say.
Now I’m back, though, and I’ve got a different perspective on things. I know what I need to do, to move on to the next level, and I’m setting about doing that — on my own terms and in my own way. My employer can do what they like, I’ve got my own agenda, and I fully intend to stick with it.
I also fully intend to stick with my exercise routine. Because I got a good look at what happens to people in my family when they don’t take care of themselves, and they just give in to the “inevitable” march of time. I got a close-up look at what happens when you don’t exercise, or when you don’t eat properly, or when you are in total denial about your state of mind and body. I got a good look, too, at what can happen when you take care of yourself — one of my relatives just turned 100 years old, this past year, and the contrast of their quality of life with the rest of my family is truly remarkable. That’s what I want — the 100+ years of decent self-maintenance and care — NOT the however-many-years of “inevitable” decline that has everyone wondering about how you’re going to take care of yourself when you get so badly off that you can’t even move or think or function.
Yeah, I’ll take a pass on the latter. The former — whole health for a long, long time — is what I want for my life.
And because of that, I did manage to get up this morning and do my sitting/breathing exercises. Because doing that balances out my nervous system, it calms my mind and it restores my ability to not only discern what is going on inside my head and heart, but it also restores my ability make independent choices about what to do with those things. When I sit and breathe and watch my thoughts and emotions come up without reacting to them, I become better at seeing what the hell is going on with me, as well as not letting it get the betrer of me.
I had actually started doing my sitting/breathing while I was on my trip. I started it again the day after Christmas, I think, and it really helped me keep calm and cool in the face of some pretty drastic upheavals and revelations. There were a couple of times that tempers got hot, and it could have boiled up and spilled over and gotten messy — and my meltdowns can get messy. But it didn’t. Things didn’t boil over. I was able to see and identify what was going on, and I was able to call attention to what was really going on, so we could have a bit of a laugh about it, and dispel the drama before it even got started.
And that’s a good thing.
It’s a really, really good thing.
And I’ve been thinking… a lot… about how much this breathing/sitting practice helps me with post-concussion issues… helps me with mTBI issues… helps me with life issues. It’s a bit uncanny, but at the same time, it makes perfect sense. And now that I understand the mechanics of it, it’s more valuable and sensible to me than ever before.
Sitting and breathing balances out my autonomic nervous system — the part of me that runs the fight-flight scene, and can send me downhill into a raging meltdown… or chase me into a fog of flight that has me avoiding any and all human contact or activities… ultimately wearing me out physically and making me feel like crap about myself. Just sitting still and counting my breaths gets my body back in balance, with my heart rate regulating and my attention focused on relaxing, which is key for me.
Sitting and breathing also strengthens my attention and focus. I’m far from perfect, of course, but just practicing regularly makes me better at sustained focus and resisting distraction. That’s so very important to my daily functioning – my levels of distractability can go way off the charts, so strengthening this ability has a direct and significant impact on my ability to be effective and capable in my daily life. And the fact that the sitting and breathing takes place in the privacy of my own home, makes it that much more comfortable for me. Sure, I can try to practice sitting quietly and breathing at work — either stepping away from my desk, or taking a moment at my desk. But there’s nothing like doing it in my own home, where the focus is on me and my well-being, rather in what needs to get done next.
And it occurs to me that I’m not the only person in my situation who could benefit from this. It occurs to me that plenty of other people who are struggling with TBI/concussion issues could do this, as well… Particularly in the days after a concussion or TBI. After a brain injury, they tell you you’re supposed to rest and do nothing. Well, how about doing the kind of “nothing” that actually helps your nervous system balance itself out, and also helps you regulate your moods, heart rate, and racing mind?
It’s an idea. And who knows? It might just be a missing piece in the puzzle that is concussion management and TBI recovery that helps people get back to their everyday lives — in whatever form — with greater presence of mind as well as a well-toned autonomic nervous system.
But speaking of management and recovery and action, it’s time I got myself in gear and started getting ready for work. I’m back from my week away, and I have one day left in 2011 to gather up some of the loose pieces of the past months and set the stage for next year.
I’ve already managed to get up at a pro-active time of day, get my much-needed exercise in, and figure some stuff out.
Not a bad way to start the day. Not a bad way to close out the year.
The week I’m spending away from the usual grind is turning out to be very well spent. Just not being able to work at all, not being able to get online, “not being able” to do anything other than drive in the car or sit down to a meal or hang out with family or sleep for an hour or so, has given me a much-needed break from the constant push.
The last weeks of the year have been so intensely focused on finishing up and finalizing the year and getting everything squared away and DONE, that I haven’t had — or taken — the time to settle in and chill myself out. I get so consumed with the year-end busy-ness, that I lose sight of the importance of sitting and breathing… exercising and stretching.
I have been doing some more stretching and sitting and breathing, taking regular breaks from the flurry of activity around me to let my system settle down again. It’s when I haven’t taken the time to settle down my fight-flight-fun side, and I’ve gotten pretty wired, that I’ve snapped and had to regroup, so I could get on with my day.
It would be nice to think that handling PCS symptoms were a simple matter of understanding what is going on with me and then actively managing it, so nothing ever goes wrong and I never “slip up” again. I certainly have enough information to do so. But information alone isn’t going to solve the whole situation. There’s also the issue of motivation, as well as strength and endurance.
Now, when I say strength and endurance, I’m actually talking about physical strength and endurance, as much as psychological strength and endurance. Because when I am physically weak and easily tired, my mood suffers, and my issues management suffers. When I’m weak and weary, I tend to slide down into a dark hole and let myself slide even more. It’s depressing for me, to feel heavy and slow. I was too much of an athlete when I was younger, to feel comfortable being in poor shape now.
In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the better I take care of my body, the better I can manage my mind. I’ve gotten away from that in the past weeks, focusing more on work and Christmas cookies and running errands, than keeping steady and keeping myself leveled out.
But this break is getting me back to some disciplines I was following before. I’m still not exercising as soon as I get up, but I have been spending time sitting and breathing, which helps — even when I only do it for a few minutes. It’s probably one of the most dramatically effective techniques I know to get myself chilled, to restore balance to my fluctuating moods, and to get myself back to a place where I have more of a say over how I react to the world around me.
And that is key. Because the single-most disruptive aspect of my life — which affects my work and my home life and all the relationships I have — is the hold that emotional volatility (some call it “lability”) gets on me, when I least expect it to. I’ve been increasingly volatile at work and at home, and that’s been a huge problem. It’s affecting me, and as much as I can say, “Oh, it’s just the holidays and year-end stress,” that doesn’t change the effects it has on my relationships.
So, leveling out that volatility and chilling myself out has huge benefits for me. And remembering to do that is the first step. Forgetting that I need to do this has been an increasing problem — I just forget to do it. Or I get so busy and so caught up in what I think I HAVE to do as soon as I wake up, that I just don’t do it.
So, I need to get back to just doing it regularly, as I had been each morning, until about a month back. I need to restore that regular practice and just do something. Part of my problem is that I get so focused on doing it a certain way — exactly x-number of breaths in exactly the same way each day — that when I can’t do it exactly like that, I decide I’ve failed, and I don’t bother.
But I can do something, even if I can’t do things exactly perfectly the way I think they should be done. I don’t have to do this rigid thinking thing — especially first thing in the morning. I can cut myself a break and at least do something that I know will help me. Even in small amounts… plus I sometimes find that when I start small, I find the means to continue on and go the distance on what I originally wanted to do.
Speaking of going the distance, I need to get the car packed and head on up the road again to more relatives. For more visiting. More eating. More relaxing. And not a bit of work in sight.
Well, I’m tired. Really, really tired. But the project got launched yesterday, and with it another big deadline moves into my rear-view mirror. And now the way looks clear ahead.
We still have a few things to clean up, but the lion’s share of the work is done. And I can move on.
In spite of the stress and fatigue and the pain I’ve been having lately, I feel great. I feel like I’m all in one piece, like my life is finally together. And even the leftover pieces that are a little out of whack, don’t crush me like they often do. I am in pretty tough straits, financially. I barely have enough money to make ends meet, and I don’t live extravagantly. I am having trouble getting my projects done at work. And my commute is about to double (and with it, my travel costs). I haven’t been sleeping well, and I’ve been having more and more pain. I’m also gaining weight, which doesn’t feel healthy. But at the same time, I’m really feeling good. All these situations, I can see, are temporary. And they don’t define who I am or what I’m worth. I have this underlying foundation of … well, wholeness, that gives me strength to go on.
Some of my friends who are very religious will tell me it’s God working my life. That could be. I don’t count that possibility out. Others of my friends who are more secular would say I’m “in the zone”. And that applies as well. Others would say I’ve reached a highly desirable state of equanimity. I say, I just feel really good. Solid. Like I’ve finally gotten myself on an even keel.
I think a key to this new development has been a regular routine, and also practicing my breathing. I’m actively developing a routine I can follow each day — I’ve followed a morning routine for some time, now, which has helped me to start my days much better. And now I feel even more strongly that a routine is useful for me. It helps me get my mind off the little details of everyday stuff, that I can just do rote, and it leaves me time to rest my brain and also think about things that are more interesting than what order to eat my breakfast in.
I’ve also been taking time to sit and do my coherent breathing in the mornings and again at night. I don’t always succeed at clearing my mind of distractions, but some days I do really well. I’m sure that there are people out there who have lots of input and ideas about what happens to our minds, hearts, and spirits, when we sit silently and breathe. I am very interested in what happens to the body — as the starting point for so much of what happens in my mind, heart, and spirit.
I’ve noticed that when I sit a certain way — as has been suggested — holding my back straight, with my chin a little lowered (reaching the top of my head towards the sky), with my hands resting comfortably in front of me, I get this really cool tingling sensation in my face and arms and hands. A friend of mine who had a stroke several years ago gets very spooked by any sensation of tingling in their hands or body. It means — to them — that they’re in trouble. But for me, it means that my spine is in alignment and my brain and spine are communicating more freely with the rest of my body, which can’t be bad, right?
I also find that when I am sitting, I often lean forward a little bit. I can’t even tell that I”m doing that, unless I pay close attention to my posture. All of a sudden, I’ll notice that I’m leaning forward, and I’ll have to consciously get myself to sit up straight.
I’ve also noticed that if I pay attention to the tingling sensations, I can tell when I’m out of alignment. So, I can sit up straighter and get back in alignment. That gives me something to focus on, that gets my mind off the coming day — or the day just now behind me.
I don’t sit for a long-long time. Just about 10 minutes. Sometimes longer, sometimes less. But the important thing is, I sit. And breathe. And it gets me off to a good start.
I think I really need to do better about keeping my mind quiet, while I’m doing this. Today was pretty difficult. I think all the excitement of the all-day launch yesterday had an effect. And I’m tired, too. When I’m tired, it’s hard for me to focus — even on the breath. I think that’s the neurologically induced constant restlessness I’ve been told about — my brain is fatigued, so it just keeps racing and racing and racing. I do think that I can do something about this and learn to calm down my brain activity so I can not be so out of whack. I just need to keep that mission in mind, when I sit down.
Mission… yes. It’s a mission, for sure. To chill and learn to master the craziness that can run me, at times. Starting small, with working with my breath and the behavior of my mind, is a start.
The nice thing is, by the time all is said and done, even if I haven’t been that good at keeping focused and chill during my sitting and breathing time, I still get up feeling great. What an awesome way to start the day. And even if there’s nothing else that I gain from this practice, that alone is enough.