Choosing to stay chilled out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I’m getting tense again.

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

To quote Yoda…

Do, or do not. There is no try.

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

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

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

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

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

Time to relax.

Choose to chill.

And enjoy my life.

Regardless.

Onward.

The useful discipline of simple things

What holds you back can teach you a lot
What holds you back can teach you a lot

The last five weeks have been a whirlwind tour.

It’s taking a lot out of me, as you may be able to tell from the slow-down in postings on this blog.

I just don’t have the energy I had in the past – not yet, anyway. And I need to find a new cadence to work by. I’ve been very sensitive to perceptions about my performance – especially when I arrive and when I leave for the day. It’s a small thing, I know, but it makes an impression.

Fortunately, my new boss does not micro-manage how I use my time. So long as the results are good… that’s what matters.

I can’t let myself get too tied up in sticking to a timetable. Yes, I do need to show up at work “on time”. But that can range anywhere from 7:30 a.m. to 9:15 am.

In any case, today’s a light day, as most folks are disappearing from the office around 1:00. For me, that’s like Christmas, because it means everyone will be gone, and I will have some uninterrupted time to focus and really concentrate on my work. My boss encouraged me to work from home, but I actually prefer to work at the office. I have two computer monitors at work, and I have all the water and light I can ask for. There’s nobody asking me to do anything that they can actually do themselves. And I can be in my own world.

That’s good.

Moving into this new job, I have been forced to make some significant choices. I can no longer spend hours and hours on my other creative projects. I have to pick and choose. I just don’t have the time or the energy to follow up on everything I used to work on. Whatever I do, I have to make it count – like living a haiku life.

I have constraints — not as much time, not as much energy, not as much inspiration, but lots of constraints. It’s probably a little like living in Japan — all those very busy people doing very BIG things on relatively small islands with limited resources. It forces you to make choices. And the results are not necessarily worse.

It’s all about economy, now. Focus. Getting things done in a very brief amount of useable time.

This is useful discipline. It pushes me to do more with less, which is a very good thing. No more excess and largesse… no more taking things for granted. Do one thing at a time, and do that thing to the absolute best of my ability.

And rest.

Get plenty of rest.

And move.

Get plenty of movement.

I think in TBI recovery — or really any recovery where you have less after the incident, than before — this is a useful mindset to cultivate. Going easy. Keeping focus. Holding to a simple pattern, and getting as much out of that as humanly possible. It teaches you much.

And that’s good.

Magic rest – it must be there somewhere

I’ve got to put all my notes in order. After just a few days of talking to people, I have a bunch of notes that I wrote on scrap paper, and I now need to sort through them and put them into my regular notebook.

I need to do this soon. It’s tiring me out, keeping everything sorted just in my brain, and halfway through Week 2, I’m getting fatigued and a bit turned around. My schedule is different, now, and I’m a heck of a lot more active than I have been in a long, long time.

So, yes indeedy doo – my system is pretty taxed, right now.

Not that I’d want it any other way. Doing things piecemeal — don’t fill up your schedule till you get accustomed to getting up 2 hours earlier each day… don’t start exercising till you settle in at work… — that doesn’t work for me. I need to test myself all at once, right from the get-go, because all the changes are consistent with each other, and I want my system to acclimate all at the same time.

And of course there is the danger. There is always the danger of getting too tired, or getting too overwhelmed, or pushing too hard. But I’m at a good place, right now, with everything happening at once. I’m not over-doing it. I’m just doing a lot. And it’s pretty awesome.

Now, for sleep. It’s important. For years, I thought, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” but that actually just makes me feel like I’m already dead. And it doesn’t help me function.

My head was spinning last night, and I couldn’t get to sleep when I intended to. My mind was filled with all the ideas from work, all the opportunity, all the excitement, and me getting home late after having to work around my grocery store losing power and not being able to sell me half the things I wanted because they were perishable. And then there were the storms that wreaked havoc in the towns around us, but somehow passed us by. And then there’s Facebook. I spent 15 minutes checking people’s posts, and that woke me up even more. Bad choice. No more tablet in my bedroom. That’s enough.

I finally managed to get to sleep by relaxing and breathing. Doing some muscle exercises that release the tension. I’m pretty sore from working out — today is a rest day — and my muscles are definitely adjusting.

But it’s good.

And today / tonight, sleep is a priority for me.

Today, relaxation is a priority for me. Keeping my inhale and exhale regular and the same count of 5 seconds each, is what I do to balance out my fight-flight adrenaline rush, and it really helps. Remembering where I am, and periodically remembering to stretch and relax and release… that’s so important in the course of each day. It keeps me going and it keeps me present.

Rest… relax… It’s not just about sleeping at night. It’s about how I go through my life. For so, so many years, I was wound tight as a spring. Never relaxing, never letting down my guard, always ON. It’s fine, if the situation calls for it, but I was wound way too tight for regular situations.

I think that’s why I gravitated towards tough jobs — the adrenaline and pressure calmed me down, and I actually felt normal. The stress made all the noise quiet down, and I could finally think, when I was solely focused on the One Single Thing I needed to accomplish.

But all that wound-up stuff takes a toll. For sure, it does. And I don’t have to do it, anymore. I have other ways of sharpening my attention and blocking out distractions. Single-minded focus.  Born of a my own brand of za-zen meditation — picked up from stories of old Samurai zen masters of years gone by. Somehow, I always seem to connect with old zen-typed warriors from all over the world who (either living or dead) talk about the exact same state of mind that I’m looking for — single-minded focus in the midst of chaos.

Without that focus, I’m toast.

And on that note, it’s time to get ready for work.

To rest while working… to relax while acting… and to get a good night’s sleep tonight… those are my goals.

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.

Back to za-zen

I’ve been wearing a little thin, lately. I’ve been blaming it on the holidays and the lack of money, but the real issue is that I haven’t been keeping my nervous system balanced, and I’m pretty much in fight-flight mode most of the time.

And that’s no good. I know it’s not. It’s obvious to everyone that it’s not. It’s making me pretty miserable, actually.

So, I need to do what I know helps — sit za-zen at least once a day, to get myself calmed down, get my nervous system balanced, and keep myself from being on edge, 24 hours a day.

Interestingly, I have been talking about doing this for the past months. I talk about it with other people, and I think about doing it, myself. But actually DOing it? That’s where things break down. For some reason, when I talk about it, the urgency to DO it, leaves me.

That’s actually expected, because somebody somewhere did a study that showed when you talk about things before you do them, you have less motivation to actually do them.

Actually, there have been a lot of people who did studies (since around 1933), and there are a number of papers written on this subject. See the link

So, enough talk. Just do it. Put my money where my mouth is, and go sit.

Sit it out. Sit it through. Just sit. No reacting. No responding to anything – not the itches, not the stray thoughts… none of it. Just sit.

And get my self-determination back. Because when I quit reacting to every little thing that happens around me, I stop being about who I am, and I start being about what I think I should be in response to other things / people / events.

That gets old quick.

So, I think I’ll go sit.

Calming it down, one breath at a time

When it’s all coming at you…

Got 8 hours of sleep last night — actually, I ran out of steam about 9:30 and lay down on the couch while my spouse was watching t.v., and slept till about 10:45. Then I woke up and watched a little t.v. … and went to bed at 11:30. Woke up at 6:30, so that gives me 7 continuous hours (not bad, compared to how I’ve been doing lately) plus a little over an hour, for 8 hours total.

I know I’m supposed to get 8 hours of continuous, restful sleep, but please. Life is just not the sort of experience right now that lends itself to total relaxation and restful sleep. I’ll be happy with what I can get, and try to not sabotage myself this weekend. I’ve got some travel going on this afternoon and evening, so it may be tough to get enough sleep, but I can always nap in the afternoon, I suppose. Maybe…

Anyway, I got up this morning and did my breathing exercises. When I first started doing this regularly, several months back, I tried to focus only on my breath — put everything else out of my mind, and just focus my full attention on the in-breath and out-breath. Okay, that’s good, but eventually I found my mind wandering and flitting about wherever it chose. I kept the breathing steady, but my mind was all over the place.

I was feeling sort of bad about that, thinking I was failing at this, not being able to keep my mind focused… but then it occurred to me that it’s actually pretty useful for all this “stuff” to be coming to mind while I’m doing my breathing.

See, here’s the thing — this steady, deep breathing calms me down physically. It slows my heart rate and really helps tone down the stress that’s going on with me. It also fills me – when I get to the zone – with a sense of well-being and calm that I can’t get anywhere else in my life.

So, when all this “stuff” starts getting riled up in me, when I think about it, I can feel my breathing speed up and my heart rate too. But when that happens, I can consciously slow my breathing, and get my heart rate down, and I can change my stress level while I’m thinking about this stuff, to something that’s way less than it is, when I’m just thinking/spinning about it and not doing anything about the quality of my experience.

When I start to “spin” and get all riled, consciously changing my breathing and my feelings about it, actually helps me get it under control — well, not control, per se, but rather it helps me to have a different way of thinking about it and a different way of approaching the problems.

So it’s actually good that all that stuff comes up when I’m sitting and breathing. It’s my chance to turn it around, to change it, to make it into something other than something that just drives me, day in and day out.

Maybe that’s what people are doing when they sit za-zen for long periods of time. Or maybe it’s not what they are doing, but what they could be doing. I don’t know. I’ve always wondered what the attraction is for sitting still all day and all night… I guess it takes all kinds.

In my case, I think it makes more sense to sit for shorter periods of time to get a handle on my experience each day. I’ve done it at work, a few times, and it seems to have helped. But the times when I did step away, I wasn’t actually “working on” any particular experience or feeling. I was just sitting for the sake of sitting and breathing.

Hm. I’ll have to try that intermittent stopping-and-breathing when I have specific problems I need to address. I think that can help me. Logically, I know that reducing stress levels around problems helps with problem-solving activities. And I know that sitting and breathing reduces stress levels. And I know that sitting and breathing with specific problems helps me feel differently about them. So, sitting and breathing on a regular basis during the day — or whenever a real problem comes up that I am getting stuck on — can be a valuable practice and tool for me. Anytime, anywhere. If I can manage to take just 2 minutes between my tasks to slow down my breathing, to settle down and just sit… it can be incredibly helpful to me, I’m sure. (So long as I don’t end up getting stuck in that sitting and breathing, and end up never getting anything done – which is also a possibility with this brain.)

It’s simple. And it’s free. And all it takes is some awareness that I need to do it.

That awareness is the challenge, actually. Just realizing that my breathing is getting fast and I’m getting tense is often difficult, if not impossible. It’s like I get so absorbed in the problems that I can’t see past them. I can’t see myself. I can’t feel myself. I get lost in it all, and I lose my ability to cope really well.

But that doesn’t have to stay that way. On the contrary. I’ve just spent the last 20 minutes writing about how I can handle this, so it’s time to do it — time to put it into action. This is good and useful, so now it’s time to use it.

Onward.

Truly encouraging. Truly amazing.

chill

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.

Untrue.

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.

Remembering to level out

Just chill...

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.

Doing really well

At the risk of jynxing myself, I’m going to say “out loud” that I’m doing really well. I’ve been doing my breathing and sitting, first thing in the morning, and sticking with my morning routine. I have also started exercising in the morning again, riding the bike for 15 minutes and working up a sweat (so I can move some of the autumn cold gunk out of my system), and then taking time to have my breakfast.

It’s feeling really good. Really solid. And it’s wild, because I feel more stable now than I have in a long time. I really think it has to do with my breathing — balancing out my whole system before I get into my day.

It’s working. There have been a lot of big changes happening, and I have been a lot more stable and a lot less susceptible to my moods, since I started doing this breathing regularly.

I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to maintain this consistently, but the benefits are amazing enough, that I’ve got plenty of reason to do just that.

So, it’s on with the day… This is good.