Category Archives: Accidental Philosophy

On Mindfulness and Depression (or, a Superpower You Didn’t Know You Had)


So here’s a dirty little secret: I’m off my meds, and have been for several weeks now. I didn’t go off lightly, and I didn’t go off without a plan, but from the moment I started taking meds I planned to go off them. And though I accept that I may, in fact, need the brain pills for the rest of my life, I don’t want to need them, and want to give myself a chance at being normal without them. Which is to say that going off them is a thing I view as an experiment, more than a man-I’m-glad-that’s-over step into a new chapter.

Several weeks in, though, I’ve met my first challenge: last night, for whatever reason, I felt the chasm yawning open beneath my feet, felt the old familiar monster beckoning me into the dark. True to form, I couldn’t point to what was causing it; I was fine one moment and overcome the next, the way a shadow slips, without notice, into existence when the clouds part and the sun shines down. Maybe it was the novel work I’d failed to get done over the last few days (even though my days of late have been extremely productive). Maybe it was the episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale we’ve been watching, poisoning my thoughts and my outlook. (Good TV, but man is it bleak.) Who knows.

Point is, the anxiety / depression / spiritual dread was there, unmistakably so, and I felt its pull. Walked right up to the edge, peered down into the dark, saw it there. Not terrifying, not menacing, just dark and vast and empty, like the ocean at night. And the messed up thing? I wanted to dive in.

Here’s where I need a detour.

One of my fascinations (I know, I know, add it to the list) of the last couple of years has been mindfulness. And it’s one of those fascinations where, like, I admire it at a distance, the way you admired your first crush from across the lunchroom but never actually had any plan for approaching them, let alone speaking to them. I haven’t done any real reading on mindfulness specifically, in other words, only brushed up against it in passing, thought “wow, that looks awesome, I should learn more about it,” and moved on knowing just enough to get me into trouble (as I do with so many other things in this life).

What I know about it is this: mindfulness is a superpower. And I say that not to exaggerate and overstate but to communicate how powerful it actually seems to be.

To fully explain THAT, I need another detour.

A fact of this life is: we’re ruled by our emotions. Mark Manson’s Everything is F*cked details this a lot better than I can, but essentially we have two brains: the rational brain and the emotional brain. We like to think that the rational brain drives the bus, but it doesn’t. Our emotional side drives, and it sometimes allows itself to be influenced by the rational side.

Think about the last time you were angry, and said or did something offhanded or rude to somebody you care about. Was that you doing or saying the awful thing? Well, yes, but it certainly wasn’t a rational, clearly thinking you. The rational, clearly thinking part of you knows that the things you do have consequences, and it will keep you from doing those things that have unfortunate consequences. Like shouting at your loved one. You wouldn’t do that normally, but you were angry, and it just came out. The Pixar film Inside Out represents this pretty clearly, come to think of it. The little girl’s emotions take turns behind the steering wheel, and when Anger or Sadness is driving, well, she acts accordingly. (For that matter, Intellect and Rationality are characters not appearing in Inside Out. Pixar is cleverer than we even realized.)

Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling in Inside Out (2015)
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that these characters are property of Pixar, not of me.

Detour within detour over, let’s circle back to mindfulness-as-superpower. Mindfulness, as I understand it (and let me fully disclaim once again that I’m not an expert and don’t fully understand it), is simply the ongoing practice of examining what’s in your own head. Not trying to “fix” what’s in there, just noticing it. Moment to moment, turn a magnifying glass inward, see what’s in there.

Consider: A Jerk cuts you off in traffic, your blood pressure rises, maybe you pound the steering wheel or wave your hands at said jerk in socially unacceptable gestures, probably a few words come out of your mouth that wouldn’t come out in front of, say, your grandmother. Mindfulness says, pause, examine. That’s anger, your thinking brain will tell you. Anger is currently driving your bus.

Or: You’re at work, plugging away at a project you’re behind on, and a friend pops in, invites you to lunch. “I don’t have time,” you snap, probably more forcefully than you should, and the friend skulks away, and maybe you feel worse. If you can force yourself to be mindful in this moment, you do the pause and examine thing. That’s frustration, you realize. You’re snapping at your friend because you’re frustrated about work. Frustration is driving your bus.

Needless to say, the practice is difficult, especially when you need it most. But here’s why it’s worth practicing it (and why I am practicing it — in fits and starts and with various levels of success, but still, that’s why they call it “practice”): because emotions are no more material than fog, than a shadow, than the stinky aroma of last night’s leftovers that you forgot to put in the refrigerator. (Let’s just stick with the shadow metaphor.) The moment you turn a light on a shadow, it disappears. It simply evaporates; it cannot exist where there is light. Emotions do the same thing when faced with the harsh light of rationality.

What that means — and what I’ve experienced — is that the realization that emotion is in the driver’s seat kicks emotion out of the driver’s seat. The moment you can notice, when the jerk cuts you off in traffic, this is anger, you’re angry and that’s why you’re shouting and swearing, it suddenly feels very silly to continue shouting and swearing. Turn the floodlamp of mindfulness on the shadow of anger (or frustration, or disappointment, or whatever), and the shadow boils away. It may not fix the injustice — you still got cut off, after all — but it puts control back in your hands.

This is the superpower. If you don’t have to be ruled by your emotions in a world where everybody is ruled by their emotions, then you can act with a clarity that is denied to most people most of the time. You can literally change the way you feel just by noticing you’re feeling a way that you really rather wouldn’t.

For a bit more reference, Sam Harris also has a lot to say about this topic, though I couldn’t point you to any one particular clip or passage in particular. But this one looks good:

And here’s where we close the loop and I bring us all the way back (finally!) to myself, last night, standing on the edge of that cliff, feeling the pull of those depressive impulses, or if you like, feeling myself sliding down a crumbling dirt hillside toward the crevasse. Not thinking about the fact that I’m off my meds and that may be playing a role, not analyzing why I felt so crummy, just feeling bad and, perversely, thinking it was probably going to get worse, so why fight it?

Then: mindfulness.

This is depression, said the voice of rationality. For whatever reason, you’re feeling like sh*t. Depression is driving the bus right now. And, poof. I didn’t magically feel better, but the spiral stopped. I stepped back from the edge, I stopped sliding down the hillside. And I went to sleep thinking that was weird, I wonder what brought that on instead of thinking I feel sh*tty and everything is sh*tty and tomorrow’s probably gonna feel sh*tty too.

And I feel good this morning. Not great. I can still feel last night’s funk around the edges, but depression is not driving my bus. Restlessness is, a little bit, because I’d love to get out and do something but it’s too flipping hot. But so is contentedness, because I didn’t let myself fall into the abyss, and instead I’m writing (always a good thing) and my kids are on the sofa watching a movie together and being adorable, and I’m happy to let that feeling drive the bus for a while.

Mindfulness isn’t a cure-all. For depression especially, when you’re in the abyss, thinking isn’t gonna save you. But for the day-to-day struggles, when you feel yourself sliding? Mindfulness really is a superpower.

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Past baggage


We’re out of town and away from computers this week, but I can’t not share this, so I’m posting from my phone, of all things. Blasphemy! My typing speed is hamstrung, but that’s a testament to my shookenness.

I picked up a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living on the recommendation of Tim Ferriss (thanks to my previous post) and 5 pages in I can already tell this one is a keeper. I’m sharing with you, then, an excerpt from the opening pages.

A few months before he spoke at Yale, Sir William Osler had crossed the Atlantic on a great ocean liner where the captain, standing on the bridge, could press a button and -presto! – there was a clanging of machinery and various parts of the ship were immediately shut off from one another – shut off into watertight compartments.

“Now each one of you,” Dr. Osler said to those Yale students, “is a much more marvelous organization than the great liner, and bound on a longer voyage. What I urge is that you so learn to control the machinery as to live with day-tight compartments as the most certain way to ensure safety on the voyage. Get on the bridge, and see that at least the great bulkheads are in working order. Touch a button and hear, at every level of your life, the iron doors shutting on the Past – the dead yesterdays. Touch another and shut off, with a metal curtain, the Future – the unborn tomorrows. Then you are safe – safe for today! Shut off the past! Let the past bury its dead … shut out the yesterdays which have lighted fools the way to dusty death … the load of tomorrow, added to that of yesterday, carried today, makes the strongest falter. Shut off the future as tightly as the past … the future is today … there is no tomorrow. The day of man’s salvation is now.

Waste of energy, mental distress, nervous worries dog the steps of a man who is anxious about the future … shut close, then, the great fore and aft bulkheads, and prepare to cultivate the habit of a life of ‘day-tight compartments’.”

We – and by we I mean I – carry so much of the weight of yesterday and tomorrow that it gets in the way of today. But the fact is, yesterday is over – whatever will come of it is out of my hands. And tomorrow will come, or it won’t – and very little of that is within my compass either.

Worry over the past or the future, therefore, is worry picked up for its own sake. Maybe think twice before picking up all that baggage.

Put another way…


Productivity Porn Pays Off Sometimes


I made the mistake of listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast this morning.

I say mistake because, as is often the case when I read or listen to something by Tim it tends to take over my brain, the way the moon drifting in front of the sun turns day into night for a few minutes. The difference is instead of lasting for minutes, the effect tends to last for days or weeks.

The problem with listening to Mr. Ferriss, or with any so-called “productivity porn”, is that it tends to create a feedback loop, a sort-of hyped up fugue state. You read this thing and you think “HELL YES, this thing is going to change my life” and your brain drowns in the dopamine flood caused by the visions of success, and while you’re high on that you notice that the thing you just read references this other thing and hey, you’ve got a few minutes before you have to get back to real life, so why not check that out while you’re at it, and wouldn’t you know it the new thing hits you with the “HELL YES” effect again and the cycle repeats. (Full disclosure: when I started writing this post I visited Tim’s site — for the first time in months, I might add, because I know what happens when I do it — and fell victim to the same cycle. I also signed up for his new newsletter. And may or may not have copy/pasted some material onto my desktop. Stop judging me.) Point is, you have to be judicious with this sort of thing, which is why I’m probably not going to dip my toes into Tim Ferriss land for several months again. Still, this morning, I think, was beneficial.

The material in question was a recent episode called Tea Time with Tim, which covers a lot of ground but left me with a couple of things clanking around in the ol’ noggin: something he calls “fear-setting” and a few quotes from ancient Greece.

First, fear-setting. You’ve heard of goal-setting, where you set down your goals, enumerate the steps to the achievement of said goals, and more or less plan your vision for success. Well and good, but for us anxious types, who dwell on fears perhaps more than we should, there’s a tendency to let those fears paralyze us to the point of inaction. (See for example my writing productivity over the past several months.) Fear-setting is designed to take the positive visualization of goal-setting and turn the full artillery of that framework on the anti-action fear center of the brain. In a (woefully inadequate) nutshell, fear-setting entails writing down all the things that could go wrong and enumerating the opportunity cost if all those things did go wrong, then weighing those costs against a (harshly conservative) estimation of the possible benefits if the things don’t go wrong. For the anxious sort like me, it seems like a good way to short-circuit the “thing is scary so maybe just pretend it doesn’t exist and it’ll go away” paralysis I tend to fall into over stuff.

Then, quotes from Greek guys. First, this one:

Which is one I’m going to share with my classes today, because my students tend to be sick with the germ of “well I want this thing really badly, and things tend to work out for me, so on performance day it’ll all just come together”. You and I, of course, know that kind of thinking is what makes starving artists waiting tables for their whole lives, or worse, a phalanx of creatives who never took up the dream at all because a single performance didn’t live up to the hype in their head. So I’m going to remind them, today, that their training, today, matters for the performance a month down the road, and, well, for most of ’em it’ll bounce right off but at least I’ll have done my part for the day.

It applies for me personally, too, of course. Suffice it to say I’m not particularly well trained-up at the moment in a number of domains, and, well, that needs some attention.

Then, this:

And, yeah, Seneca was Roman, not Greek, but the Romans were basically Greeks with better tech, so let’s not get too hung up on the details. I’ve actually seen the quote more often with the first clause as “we are often more frightened than hurt,” but I prefer this one with fears and dangers. The important part, at any rate, is the second part. The thing we’re afraid of is always worse in our minds and the reality is almost never as bad as we build it up to be. For evidence I offer the example from Louis C.K. (and yeah, quoting Louis C.K. is problematic these days but his personal faults don’t change the poignancy of his words) of the average description of a trip by airplane. The person is likely to complain about the length of delays or the slowness of service or the lack of wi-fi and less likely to dwell on the fact that they literally FLEW THROUGH THE AIR and crossed the country in a matter of hours. We make things out, in other words, a bit worse than they really are in the scheme of things.

So, yeah, my brain is basically on fire this morning.

I hope it doesn’t burn out.


Accidental Philosophy: Tie Up Your Camels


When I read books, the best quotes go in an ever-growing Evernote file. Sometimes I reach into that file and ruminate on a passage or two. The result is “Accidental Philosophy.”

I recently finished Dan Harris’s 10% Happier, which I’ve mentioned once or twice ’round these parts. It’s a bit of a strange bird: a book about meditation which is somehow riveting. A great skeptic’s look at a practice that, from the outside, seems to be dripping with woo. If you’re considering the practice of meditation, or just curious about it, it’s worth your time.

But today’s words aren’t about the book, they’re about a single passage within it. Which is actually a quote of something else. So I’m quoting a quote about another quote. Anyway:

The Sufi Muslims say, “Praise Allah, but also tie your camel to the post.” In other words, it’s good to take a transcendent view of the world, but don’t be a chump. (201)

camel-3540678_1280

Let the record show, then: good ideas can come from religion!

I love this quote, and here’s why: we rely too much on faith. Even those of us who are decidedly not people of faith lean too much on faith at the expense of our common sense.

Faith in our own abilities. Faith in other people. Faith in society. And, yeah, for those who swing that way, faith in higher powers.

And that’s not, in and of itself, a problem, or even a mistake. Sometimes we do estimate our own abilities appropriately. Sometimes other people do live up to the hope we hold for them. Sometimes societies do the right thing.

But certainly more often than “rarely” those things don’t happen. You overestimate yourself and get in over your head. A person you trust lets you down. Society disappoints you. (Oh lord, how society has disappointed me these past two years.)

This quote, then, is a little reminder, a little prick in the pocket, to stay skeptical. To not rely too much on faith. To hold nothing so sacred that you give no thought to the consequences if it doesn’t deliver.

In other words, tie up your camels. Tie ’em right up.

And then keep your distance. I hear they spit.

llama eating GIF

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


Accidental Philosophy: The Futility of “Should”


“Should” is a useless word. 

-Delilah S. Dawson, Hit

There’s something that’s been bugging me for a while now. I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I couldn’t name it, so it just sort of floated around in the back of my brain like a dragon fly, darting this way and that, sometimes getting right up in your face, then skittering away whenever you swat at it or grab for it.

It’s about people, and the way we talk to each other, and the way we talk about the world. Specifically, it’s about certain kinds of people and the way they want the world to be. You know these people. They talk about the way the world ought to be, saying things like “wouldn’t it be better if …” or “things would be perfect if only …”

And some of these people even find their way into office in this country. And they start making laws and enacting statutes and directing policy to bend things to the way they say they “ought to be”. Trouble is, things are what they are, and changing them around isn’t so easy as that. Especially when the things are people.

Before I get too carried away, let me wander back to the point. My leisure reading the last two weeks was Delilah S. Dawson’s Hit, a YA dystopian thriller about a future where banks have seized control of the country and are forcing children to become debt-collecting hitmen.

(Why kids? Because it’s too diabolical to be believed, and who’s gonna point a gun at a kid coming to their door? And also, because YA. Pretty wild, but who cares, it was a fun read.)

Anyway, about a third of the way into the book, one of the characters is lamenting their situation and moaning about how “things shouldn’t be this way” and the protagonist snaps back, “should is a useless word.”

I read that. And all of a sudden, that dragonfly in my brain stopped skittering, landed on a lonely dendrite, and took root.

“Should” is a useless word. Yet it’s one we use all the time.

“I should have gotten up earlier.” Yeah, I should have, but I didn’t — so what am I going to do about it?

“People shouldn’t steal.” Yeah, they shouldn’t, but they do — so what are we going to do about it?

“He shouldn’t have even been there.” Yeah, but he was — so what are you going to do about it?

See what happens there? Any time somebody says “so-and-so should …” there’s an automatic “but” followed by a “so what” that comes in response.

“Should” seems more and more to me like the refuge of the coward. It says, “I don’t like this situation, so instead I’m going to talk about what I would rather it had been (yikes, grammar is hard when you get rid of “should”) without doing anything about it.” And yeah, sometimes the “should” statement is followed by action, but a lot of times, it isn’t. A lot of the time, we just say “well, it should be this other way” and we leave it at that.

For that matter, a lot of what people go around “shoulding” about has nothing to do with them. “Gay people shouldn’t get married.” “Women shouldn’t be in those jobs.” “He should take better care of himself.” None of which has anything to do with the person saying it. We have a rule in my house and in my classroom. Rule #1. MYOB. Mind Your Own Business.

The fact is, people use “should” to hide from things they don’t like, from things that make them uncomfortable, from things that scare them. They use “should” to build a fantasy world in their heads. A make-believe universe where things are perfect, unoffensive, unscary. “Should” represents a fundamental failure (or, worse, refusal) to see the world as it is in favor of how we expect it to be.

But the “shoulding” doesn’t do a damn thing. Things are what they are, and all the shoulds in the world won’t change them.

What changes things is action.

And guess what?

You can take action without griping about how things “should” be first. Address things as they are, recognize that there is no such thing as “perfect” (because the world we live in is messy and filled with other people who don’t automatically agree with you) and work to make things better.

Don’t waste your time moaning about the way things “should” be.

Get to work on fixing what’s wrong.

 


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