Brain, Mindfulness, Things I Can

92. Things I Can Shift: The Focus

Trailhead Road

With respect to learning, the one law that is absolute is that in order to learn we have to attend to what we are learning.

I expected to spend my one free Saturday this month slogging around the greater metro area to test-drive used Civics. Instead, I am flying west towards the Shenandoah mountains with the pooch panting out the back window.

I pass two Mazdas — one a hatchback, one a little Mazda 3 coupe. The tires really are shallow, just like my mechanic said. A Sienna bears down on me so I move over, then a smaller Matrix passes behind. An Accord — probably an 04 or 05 — slides past followed by a late-model Elantra with its sleek body and moonroof, then a Lexus SUV.

I catalog vehicles for a good 15 minutes before I realize what I’m doing. It’s been a week since I signed the check. No need to look out there anymore. My little 2009 Corolla’s new tags are a perfect complement to its azure sheen. Continue reading “92. Things I Can Shift: The Focus”

Brain, Things I Can, Writing

87. Things I Can Exchange: Not for Is

Volunteers in the study were asked to hold a grip sensor as they heard a variety of verbs related to manual actions, like ‘throw’ or ‘scratch’, in different sentence structures. The researchers observed a significant increase in the strength of participants’ grip when words were presented in an affirmative sentence, but no such reaction when the same action words were presented in a negative context, such as ‘don’t throw’.

Writing advice from an unknown source: Replace any negative statement with an affirmative one.

“He does not go” becomes “he stays.”
“The delivery hasn’t shown up” becomes “the package has yet to arrive.”
“I haven’t showered” becomes “I need to shower” or “Let me clean up” or “I’m a fragrant mess.”

It seems simple enough. A game, really. It starts as play then becomes imperative. Then mission. Continue reading “87. Things I Can Exchange: Not for Is”

Love, Relationships

Flushed and Fleshed

Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.

– E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

So we stand in the low sun and try to flush out need with questions. As if need is the fat, slithering shush roiling the fallen leaves. As if words are the stick driving it to face us.

Smelling of mud and green apple candy, we lean against each other and try to flesh out need. As if our voices can give shape to something that may have just been a hiccup in the breeze.

I remember when love was a surging state. It had to rise up and flood the senses and then loving acts followed. Much like confidence. Like hope.

This was truth unexamined.

When does the possibility of bidirectional causation emerge? Is it when you grow up?

Or does seeing the relationship turn back on itself finally make you grow up?

Now I understand this: Act as if the capacity exists and you make it appear. You make it appear to be so, yes, and also to take shape, to arrive. Accumulate enough instances of contrived appreciation or optimism or boldness, and you become enamored. Hopeful. Brave.

Maybe like me, you don’t buy any of it. You’re sure you are fooling yourself and it might all come crashing down. Maybe you sort of wish you believed your choices are good ones and could possess the kind of conviction that clarifies each subsequent decision. Maybe you sort of envy the positive thinkers (upbeat or certain or — worse yet — both).

Like me, maybe you suspect the equanimity that must accompany conviction will never balm your fears. Indeed, doubt may itch at you until the day you die.

Face it. You are too far gone for faith. Or maybe too much here. You would never seal those doors lining the corridors of perception. A mind that knows (knows!) it is always missing something only needs a pinhole to chase light to its source. Your curiosity is the thrumming, silver string. It is one note that strikes at your key. You could no more still it than you could give up sight. Or sex. Or speech.

Like me, you want to move towards something. Like you, I want to stop moving and be.

We pause and hold the map between us. We start to draw along the contours. Instantly, the delineation becomes a perimeter. A boundary.

Even just tracing a route with our voices, we hedge.

Precision is folly. Orderly sequence is illusion.

Because the trail we choose forks. It always does. Yellow blazes then green and then maybe none at all. And here is a river, and here is a burl on a dying oak in the shape of a devil with a broken horn. Here is a sound like a creaking open door. Here is the shush, the movement at the edge of sight, the tunnel out from under the bounds (the bonds) we trusted held us to this place, and this place to the earth.

We lean against each other, word as breath drawing need.

Drawing it out. Filling it in.

We decide it is in fact a snake. With nothing more to go on than a single word from me, you step into the now-still leaves. I sense it. You name it. We add it to a collection that includes a single yellow butterfly and five slender minnows darting from their shade.

Today’s choice is the only one.

To you, I hold.

Like you to me.


Greater Good

Your brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. Therefore, a foundation for happiness is to deliberately weave positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.  – Dr. Rick Hanson

The brain does not know the difference between chilling on the beach and imagining chilling on the beach. It also cannot differentiate between real and perceived peril. Fretting about being late while stuck in traffic stresses the physiology as much as the actual pink slip, eviction notice, or other phantom disaster that rarely materializes.
Why is it that anxiety about indistinct threats consumes us when positive outcomes are just as likely to occur and pleasure is just as easy to achieve?
Surely, a few mesozoic critters kicked back by the water’s edge, munching on berries and belching, “take it easy, man.” It would be nice to think we inherited a few of their relaxed tendencies, but the odds are against it. The Cheech Marins of prehistory likely ended up as dino snacks. The skittish ones, the ones who were a drag a parties because they mistook every passing cloud for a pterodactyl, survived long enough to present us with the Trojan horse of their genetic code. Without them, we would not be here. Neither would our well-honed ability to obsess over worst-case scenarios.
A bias towards danger served our ancestors well. Humans are very good at keeping the attention alert for threats of every flavor. The pace of life on an overcrowded planet gives us plenty to worry about, what with the European debt crisis and the melting ice caps. The mind and body are quite adept at remaining in a state of hyper-vigilance, no matter how high the cost. The cost just happens to be higher than we can afford if we are going to keep on living as long as we do.  Short-term survival has a tendency to trump long-term well-being, as the insomniacs among us understand all too well.
Prepare the body for a fight, and it complies every time. Even if rest or serenity would be better for the system’s overall health, the perceived need to stay alert to danger keeps an overtaxed system awake and awash in glucocorticoids. The human body, as well designed as it is to respond quickly and intensely to threats, did not adapt to rebound quite as swiftly from an overstimulated stress response. Scientific literature and popular media alike have documented ad nauseum the cumulative effects of stress. As you might expect, access to information does not appear to correlate to behavior change.  Hypertension, obesity, depression, memory loss, and bone thinning top a list that grows longer with every new study, providing an unfortunate counterbalance to stories of ever-increasing longevity.
(For more on this, give Robert Sapolsky a whirl. He manages to turn the biology of stress into a kind of free-wheeling science road trip in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)
The good news in all of this is that the brain is resilient, even if our stress responses are not. “Neuroplasticity” has been buzz-word around positive psychology circles for a few years. You can score a few extra points at your next cocktail party if you toss out  “self-directed neuroplasticity” while sipping your gin gimlet. The suggestion is that humans have the capacity to sensitize the brain to positive experiences. We can actually train the brain away from its compulsion to collect negative information. Through the practice of attending to what is going well, so the theory goes, we can begin to re-wire the synaptic framework inside the skull and make the old gray matter a lean, not-so-mean, happiness machine.

What flows through the mind sculpts your brain. Immaterial experience leaves material traces behind. – Dr. Rick Hanson

In a practice Hanson calls “Taking in the Good,” three practical steps can begin weaving a new neural network one thread at a time. This exercise requires just a few moments of focused attention. Once a day, once a week, whatever gets you on the bus. The best practice, so they say, is the one that a person actually does.  During the keynote presentation at a recent conference on resilience, Hanson led 350 attendees through these simple steps. It took less time than the wait at the average stoplight.  This would be a far more productive way to spend those idle, grumbling moments.

  1. Look for positive facts. Notice something that is going well. In the absence of right-now positive detail, calling up pleasant memory is a handy shortcut.
  2. Savor the positive experience. Allow the facts from step 1 to become an experience. Sustain it by keeping the mind trained on it for 10-20-30 seconds. Count out the time, and just stay immersed in the details. Allow the facts or recollection to expand during these seconds. Feel the experience in your body and in your emotions. Try to sense it. If possible, intensify it.
  3. Sense and intend that the positive experience is soaking into your brain and body. Register it deeply in your emotional memory.

It is interesting that Hanson refers to this emotional landscape as “memory.” It does seem to function like cognitive recall. As we all learned in Psych 101, items move in and out of short term memory, skimming the surface like dandelion fluff on an easy breeze. All around, all the time, stimuli alight on the senses. Only a small portion of what is sensed actually settles in and lays down a root system within long-term memory.
In order for an item to move down into the deeper storehouse of the brain, a person has to engage with it in some way. The stimulus must connect to a larger collection of experience, and click into alignment with what is already in place. In this way, random bits of information go through a metamorphosis to emerge as knowledge. Have you ever noticed how you can still call up TV jingles for products that have been off the market since before you were old enough to buy them? An item embedded in long-term memory becomes as hard to dislodge as garden weeds.
If a person wants to learn Swahili, she seeks it out. She buys the CDs,  makes friends with Kenyans, and plans a trip to Nairobi with a homestay family.  She immerses herself in the language so that it twists its new threads around and between her known cognitive pathways. In order to call up Swahili phrases when she needs them, she will need to hear them. Through practice and repetition, she can weave loose strands into something thick and strong.  Most of us on the opposite side of the globe might encounter a Bantu construction and not even recognize it as language. We hear beautiful gobbledy-gook. It is the engagement with a bit of drifting data that pulls it down into a person’s foundation. The overlooked items float on away like those feathered seeds. The brain only knows what a person chooses to hold. In this way, it is true that we become what we pay attention to.
It makes intuitive sense to see emotional experience functioning like memory. Life bombards us with experiences of all kinds. The vast majority of what occurs to us and around us does not stay with us. It is only what we attend to, what we really grab onto and get acquainted with, that builds our emotional vocabulary.
This is what it means to self-direct the neuroplasticity. It is as true for learning happiness as it is for learning any foreign tongue. If the brain does not know the difference between a beach vacation and daydreaming about one, why not take one right now? Three simple steps can carry you to the lip of the sea. Attend to the positive facts, savor the experience, and draw that lifting sensation into the brain and body. In this way, the mind learns to speak the language of hope.

If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come.
– Chinese Proverb


Exorcise Plan

I love to cook. Aside from slapping turkey pepperoni and low-fat cheese on wheat bread and telling Bug it is “pizza,” I do not cook anymore. I love to garden, but I planted nothing more than one patch of shriveled beans last year. I love to read, knit, camp in the mountains, write meandering letters to friends, wander through museums, and learn the names of the trees. Nevertheless, for two years, I have barely brushed the edges of any of these pleasures.
With bittersweet relief, I have watched dozens of activities recede into the horizon. By bidding them farewell, I am able to welcome the simple joys of the few pursuits proven to sustain me. Long walks, dancing, writing, and a smattering of friends fill the scarce pockets of time around the duties of work and home. The things I do for fun are easy. They require little planning and even less effort.
My objective is to wean myself from stress.
This may not sound revolutionary. The same repeating loop of advice comes at all of us from multiple fronts every day: sleep more, eat less, take the stairs, reduce stress. The last one is the toughest for me. I have lived on a steady diet of drive and self-improvement for my entire adult life. It is hard to imagine what a more serene existence might look like. The first thought is “dull.” I have equated minimal stress with laziness and low motivation for so long that I do not know how to disentangle these concepts from one another.
The knot is beginning to fall loose. The ghost hunters have helped.
Over the years, lovers of the paranormal have explored the high incidence of hauntings in Victorian homes during the turn of the century. Entire families would descend into a kind of eerie madness, hearing noises and seeing poltergeists. For the skeptics among us, it is easy to assume the family members shared a tendency towards suggestibility or psychosis. Strangely enough, though, visitors to the homes would begin to report frightening, other-worldy sensations after a few nights. This tended to happen during the dark winter months, and it was common enough to catch our attention more than a century later.
Was it a mass insanity? The power of suggestion? Opium?
Tightly sealed homes, fireplaces, gas light, and an overactive imagination can brew into a deadly cocktail. Curious historians and scientists are now beginning to zero in on carbon monoxide. We all absorb a dusting of CO along with the oft-maligned mercury, arsenic and lead as we plod along the surface of the earth. In miniscule doses, these naturally occurring chemicals are harmless. It takes a barely measurable increase in any of these to initiate bizarre neurological effects. A flood is not necessary to tip the balance into madness. A steady, overabundant trickle will do the trick.
It is called poisoning.
I consider stress equally malicious. Stress, or more accurately, cortisol, seeps into the body when the panicking brain activates a fight-or-flight response. Cortisol is useful when you turn the corner and see a saber-toothed tiger. That burst of energy taps instincts and helps prepare you to respond. After that initial surge, however, the ongoing flow becomes problematic. Besides the delightful health effects of overdosing on cortisol (high blood pressure, weight gain, brittle bones, weak immunity), cognitive function deteriorates. The mind suffers.
Cortisol’s effect on sleep is only marginally understood, but I can tell you from personal experience that stress-saturated dreams can look like a joint project between Salvador Dali and Edward Gorey. In waking hours, paranoia becomes a constant companion. Hypersensitivity crashes the party, dragging along self-destructive thoughts, flashes of rage and sorrow, and distorted social perception. A person can get lost in the funhouse, walking at angles, conversing with ghosts.
This joy ride is the result of a primal mechanism whose purpose is to protect us from becoming tiger kibble. I suppose it makes sense. The ones who outran the big cats are the ones who passed on this genetic legacy. As with so many other instincts, this does not serve us well in an industrial society full of self-imposed “threats.” The brain cannot differentiate between a predator and rush hour traffic. It responds to both as if survival is at stake. A few too many hours or years of low-level panic, and some of us begin to fray at the edges.
While my bone-rattling descent into single motherhood is a significant factor in my cortisol dependence, neither parents nor divorcees have a corner on the stress market. Most anyone works, pays bills, or lands in the checkout line behind the dude with the bad credit card knows the upending power of stress. However, too many of us walk around bathed in cortisol from sunup to sundown. Some continue to marinate in it all through the night.
I, for one, have reached my quota. I quit. If that Victorian mama found out that her family had been breathing deadly doses of an invisible toxin for two years, you can bet she would have called a time out, opened the windows, and gotten her charges to a soft place to recover.
It may be impossible to control pressures at work and with the kiddo, but I can make a determined effort to regulate my responses to them. Another thing I can do is turn the pencil over and start erasing. Remove that extra class from the calendar. Say “no” to the next invitation, no matter how much I like the friend making the offer. Forget about the bin of yarn under the bed, the library of cookbooks on my kitchen shelf, and the next round of birthdays. My only job now is to handle the few things required of me with grace, and release my grip on the rest.
As for those few precious hours I call my own? I may head to Glen Echo then leave before the second dance. I may decide to sleep in until noon then rise at dawn to for a quiet run. I may draw a bath then drain it so I can eat strawberries on the back porch. Anything I do in the next few months will be because it feels good. I have never tried this radical approach before. I figure it beats spiraling further into an epic battle with phantoms.
To heal from any overdose, the only option is to purify the system. Stretch out beneath the cleansing breeze and let it chase the demons from the blood. The air has been there all along. The only thing left is the choice to breathe it.