Determination, Mindfulness, Music

Grows All Around

And the dirt was in the hole
And the hole was in the ground
And the green grass grows all around, all around
And the green grass grows all around.

Trouble comes around. It always does. The ol’ noggin is not a very reliable companion when the bad things kick your feet out from under you. The imagination flees. Instead of heading for the safety of open light, it usually panics and takes you further down the rabbit hole. You know the one I’m talking about. The walls crumble and you lose your grip. Nests of dark things gather at the edges. Through the tunnel, wrong voices howl.
Up and is an open field, low sun and a place on this earth where you belong exactly as you are. You have to plunge your hands in. Grab the root of something bigger than you. Climb.
This is how I feel my way back up towards that tiny circle of light. Because it is dark down there, I memorized the steps. One for each finger of each hand (or for each toe when the hands won’t still themselves) Five things by mid-day. Five more before nightfall. This mnemonic map gets me there every time, one inch at a time. It helps me seek purchase. Catch my breath. Return to the vast sanctuary of the living.

Giggle. Doesn’t matter how. Bad stand up comedy, a goofball friend, or potty humor. Force a laugh up through that body and cast the demons out.

Rest. Find it again. Work naps in. Create order in the night: no screen time before bedtime, ease down the lights, arrange a nest of pillows. No talking allowed. No thinking either. For that, move on to the next step:

Exit. Literally: Go outside. Find air, art, body. Move over the skin of the earth. Figuratively: Every time your thoughts return to Trouble, picture turning your back and walking away. Every time. Even the 472nd time in an hour. Notice that you have looped back. Smile and say goodbye again. Turn around and leave it behind.

Eyes Up. Ten degree above the horizon. Notice something, anything, up and out of yourself. Take in the streak of the light across the roofs. Learn the name of one single tree. List all the synonyms you can think of for “free” and “flight.”

Nourish. Find the luscious, immerse in the extraordinary. Treat each one of your five senses to a decadence that you rarely allow. Take a bath in water scented with tea and chocolate. Press your cheek to the flank of a horse then get up and ride. Sit near a window and eat a heap of jewels – beets and rare greens and shavings of ginger – as you track the setting sun.

Give. Find someone or something needing care. Provide it. Offer a gift. Your time, your strong back, your cookies, your hug. Your well is not empty. Fill someone else’s and you will replenish your own.

Reach. Keep on giving shape to the life you want. Name it, scratch a blueprint of it into the walls, build the scaffolding from old take-out chopsticks and unpaid bills. Work the flesh over it one patch at a time until it is whole. You have more than enough lung capacity to breathe it to life.

Assemble. Troops, allies, cheerleaders. Find your friends and loved ones. Don’t be afraid that you have been too absent to draw them back in. The ones who will help you heal will show up, and others you have not met yet will join your army.

Sweat. Don’t wait until you feel like it. Don’t give yourself one second to think. Get up and get moving. Right there on the living room floor if necessary. Move. Jump. Run. Let your endorphins do the work all the self-talk can’t.

Sing. Out loud, in the shower, on the street. Push the volume past 10. Flood your ears with music. Rumi offers this:

And if one of our instruments breaks,
it does not matter.
We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.

Let it penetrate every crack in your shattered being. Let song knit you back together.

And in that dirt
There was some roots,
The prettiest little roots
That you ever did see.
Oh, the roots was in the dirt and the dirt was in the hole
and the hole was in the ground,

And the green grass grows all around, all around
And the green grass grows all around.


Here, See Louis Jordan and the Tympany 5 do a jump-blues version sometime in the 1940’s:
See Coleman Barks’ interpretation of Rumi’s poem, “Everything is Music,” here.

Growing Up

Happy 100 Days: 15

Dear One,
The mist was thick on the garden this morning. I could barely see the blackbirds except for the occasional crimson flash like a splash of blood on the tall grass. The rabbits have come back this year. They are impossible to miss. Some mama decided to keep her babies here and also to invite all her sisters to move in with their broods. I have seen the small brown one at the foot of the bending oak. I can’t imagine it is very comfortable there on its young feet. The roots are knotting up through the packed soil. The acorn tops are tiny daggers hidden among stone.
I hope you make it for a visit. The house has been quiet since the little ones left. They aren’t so little, I suppose, but I can’t think of them any other way. I have yet to put away the stack of games in the living room or to arrange the sheet music in the piano bench. The clutter is a welcome noise. It makes the transition to their absence less abrupt. After a few hours of writing at my desk, it is a nice thing to come down to traces of the children.
Today, a new soup is simmering on the stove. Those dried field beans the neighbor brought by finally made it into circulation. It was fun to touch them, to soak them, and to know they grew in a little patch of soil right here. I like to think of her hands pulling the from the vines. We may not have acres, but what we have, we use well.
The thyme and rosemary are drying, hung from twine at the ceiling in the kitchen. I gave her some of the herbs last summer and so she brought the beans. Come to think of it, this might be a good winter to come up with a more contained system for the garlic and herbs. Green dust and bits of paper skin perpetually swirl on the kitchen floor. I like the aroma, though. I can’t bear to seal all this in jars just yet even if it would make a clean path. It is so nice just to reach up for a sprig of this or that and to toss it in the pan. I still love (love!) that smell of olive oil when it is heating over the flame and calling for me to begin.
I hope to share some of this with you when you come.
Know I am here and waiting for you, sweet love. You are always welcome.
With my heart,
Your Future Self


Happy 100 Days: We the Undersigned

in 100 days we will say good
night to this year. We will rise in the dark
January morning to a new
I do not remember
my resolution when this year began. I probably did not
find the courage to make one.
This morning,
the cool light of the equinox
returned it to me.
This is my contract
With Joy.
The agreement is made and takes effect on September 23, 2012 between myself, hereafter known as “first party” and the creative juice of the universe, hereafter known as “second party.”
The provisions of this agreement are as follows:
During her tenure, the first party will
Stay alive
stay awake
trust her gut.
Greet her sadness
before letting it blow past,
shake hands with anger
then release her grip.
The first party commits
to noticing one beautiful thing
for every one that brings her sorrow,
watching her step
for quicksand
and seeking a way
Her service requires
when her face has forgotten how
glancing at the moon
when she would rather stay blind
speaking gently to herself
as if she already is the woman
she is becoming.
The term of this agreement is 100 days and shall be open for re-negotiation on January 1, 2013.
During the aforementioned term, the first party commits to choosing a minimum of 100 moments of happiness.
Each one, a pause:
She will submit a record of one each day
in writing
and when possible, speak
her gratitude for it.
For services rendered by the first party,
the second party,
maker of joy, will take care of the quality
of the goods
and the timing
of the deliverables.
The second party provides non-payroll benefits in the form of insurance
against despair.
Documentation of service will take the form
of punching the clock and ticking
the box.
One glimpse of beauty each day, a promise
small yet signed in a scratch
of autumn light at this, the first of the last of the year
in which two parties give
to a single promise
of renewal.


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