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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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Accidental Philosophy: Staying in Bed


Just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist. — Sam Harris, Free Will

My wife asked me the other day why I keep getting up early.

It’s the summer, after all, the Sacred Time for all teachers, where we have basically two months to forget about life and work and students and classes and just be ordinary humans for a while. (Of course, being a teacher kind of ruins the concept of being an ordinary human in its own right, but that’s a discussion for another time.) It’s more or less expected that teachers are going to sleep in as much as possible over the summer. Why wouldn’t we? Sleep is awesome, and we lose out on it by the bargeload during the school year.

Still, I can’t sleep much past six. Seven, if I’m really sawing wood. Partially I know the kids are awake, or will be soon, and it feels like somebody should at least be conscious in the building to make sure they don’t start causing collateral damage immediately. And partly, I guess I’m just getting older, and my body more or less syncs up with the sun these days (if the sun is up, my brain seems to say, so should you be).

Maybe even a part of is is that plague of the young, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Some unconscious part of me wants to know what’s happening out there in the world, as soon as possible. So I have to get up and turn on the news, check Twitter, troll Facebook, etc. (Incidentally, my day doesn’t feel complete of late if I don’t spend a good hour or so hate-watching CNN. Which is a seriously messed up state of affairs.)

Also, of course, here in the South in the summer, the morning is really the only time of day you can reasonably Get Things Done. If you want to exercise or do yard work or, I dunno, wax your car or something (I guess people do that? Maybe?), you’d best get it done before the mercury climbs out of the top of the thermometer.

And then I think, too, about the people I know who do sleep in late. Family members and friends or friends of friends who, it seems, are always sleeping. Sometimes this is out of necessity: they work odd hours or nights and have to sleep during the day. Sometimes it’s chemical: they’re depressed or on a “down” cycle and they can’t summon the energy to get out of bed for more than a few hours. Sometimes it’s sheer laziness or obstinacy: they sleep in because it feels good, or because they’ve stayed up all night doing whatever it is people stay up all night to do. In any case, the person seems in a very real way to have vanished from the meaningful part of life for the rest of us. And I don’t want to be that, or even be perceived as that.

Suffice it to say that I not only do I find it difficult to stay in bed for very long after I wake up, but I have no desire to. I have better things to do (even if those things only include hate-watching CNN).

All of that is a little tangential to the quote above. For context, Harris is talking about a common argument against his position on free will (i.e. that we don’t have it, at least not in the way most people think we do). If we don’t have free will, the argument goes, everything must be pre-determined; if everything is pre-determined, what I do doesn’t matter. Therefore if I’m meant to become a millionaire or a famous novelist (or both!), I could just lay in bed all day and it will simply happen.

Which is ludicrous. Ergo Sam’s statement above, which I absolutely loved when I read it. Especially the idea of “increasingly heroic efforts to resist” getting out of bed.

For me, as it happens, it never seems to get that far. There is no such thing as a “heroic effort” to stay in bed; the sun comes in or I hear my kid in the hall, and I’m up.

Whether that’s a product of my free will or not, I can’t say I’m bothered by it.

Free Will, anyway, is a 100-page or so treatise by noted atheist and neurologist Sam Harris, and is a fascinating read worth your time regardless of your feelings on the subject. (Incidentally, I’m pretty convinced, as Harris is, that free will in the conventional sense is an illusion.)

 


Your Thoughts


I was listening to Sam Harris on a podcast this morning, and he said something that shook me: “You don’t think your thoughts. You are your thoughts.”

Which is empowering in that you-choose-the-way-you-view-the-world kind of way. Think positively and you’ll view the world positively; think negatively and negativity will seem to find you. I’m pretty sure I buy that.

But then I realized that this sentiment — you are your thoughts — is not a particularly pleasant one when I consider the kind of messed-up thoughts I have during the day.

I don’t dwell on them, of course. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally think the horribly morbid thought. “What if I just drove the car off the road right now? Right into that ditch? Or into oncoming traffic?” Every time somebody on a bicycle comes anywhere near me, I think of that scene from Indiana Jones where he jams a flagpole into a Nazi’s motorbike spokes and sends the guy pinwheeling through the air. Not that I actually want to hurt somebody, just that I could take a tiny action like that and seriously mess up somebody’s day.

Troubling. To say nothing of the dream I had this morning where my wife was holding a handful of baby snakes which subsequently started to eat each other from the inside out (don’t ask, it was a dream, who cares about logic), filling the room with a cloud of black flies. (Interpret that one for me, if you can.)

If you are your thoughts, then what do those thoughts make me?

Pardon me while I try to avoid thinking at all for the rest of the day.


Metaphor Monday — The Half-Life of a Tantrum


Are you listening to Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast?

If you aren’t, you should be. Sam is a prolific author, speaker, debater and philosopher, with his fingers in pies as varied as religion and its effects on society (generally bad), artificial intelligence (be afraid), and free will (nonexistent, but not for the reasons you might think). Not afraid to let the full bluntness of his ideas and criticisms strike the unsuspecting bystander soundly across the face, he nevertheless seems to me to be one of the most thoughtful and measured communicators in the public sphere these days. Add to that that he has a way with words which frankly makes me feel small on a regular basis.

His ruminations on such topics takes him often into the realms of morality and emotions, and the roles that these things play in our lives; if you can learn to master your emotions, you can more easily and completely tame your morality. How to best master your emotions? Harris advocates for meditation and mindfulness practice. I’m not quite enough of a tree-hugger to have done more than dunk my fingertips into the deep waters of meditation, but I’m a big fan of mindfulness, and that is an easy thing to do. In fact, it’s something I did fairly often before I knew anything about “mindfulness” being a thing: simply stop, now and then, and ask yourself — why am I doing this? how am I feeling right now? is this thing I’m doing a good use of my time and my energy? The point isn’t to change your behavior overnight, it’s simply to begin recognizing patterns. Behavioral patterns, like constellations in the night sky, become impossible to un-see once you’ve noticed them. Once noticed, you can begin to redirect yourself toward making decisions and choosing behaviors which more closely align with the life you would choose for yourself.

Which is where the emotion comes in. When emotion floods your system, it becomes harder and harder to make rational decisions. Take the guy who’s trying to drop a few pounds who, while at his parents’ house on a long weekend, decides to have a second piece of pie for dessert. This guy doesn’t usually avoids having dessert at all; desserts, after all, are somewhat antithetical to losing weight. But put him in his parents’ house, where through a strange alchemy of the brain, food equals love and eating everything his mother puts in front of him is a way of expressing that love, and gosh darn it the pie tastes so good, you know what, I think I will have another piece. (Did I mention that the guy in question was me? The guy in question was me.) Emotion short-circuits the rational brain.

One of Harris’s saws about emotion, though, is that it has a half-life. And that half-life is shorter than you might expect. Emotion, like an afternoon drizzle on a hot summer day, burns away quickly if you allow it to. Trouble is, most of us are happy (see what I did there?) to let emotion run us. Get caught behind the idiot paying for their groceries with a jarful of pennies or a fanny pack full of expired coupons, and we’re likely to keep coming back to that moment, reliving it, and getting enraged again for hours afterward. It can trash your productivity at work. It can distract you from a family outing. Case in point: just this afternoon, I went out with my family to lunch. On the television situated right behind my wife’s head, they were replaying this last year’s Super Bowl, wherein my beloved Atlanta Falcons performed the saddest, most public self-strangulation in sports history. And I couldn’t help it. I tried to ignore it, but my eyes kept darting up to the screen and that knot in my gut kept tightening, because I knew what was coming. It messed me up. I was physically getting angry.

And then, after about twenty minutes, I stopped and asked myself. Why are you watching it? You know what happens. You’ve gone through the heartbreak already. Your kids and your wife are right here with you in the here and now. Pay attention to themAnd I did. I’m not going to say I ignored the game entirely — the second half of that game was like a bad train wreck played out in slow motion, after all — but I did better. I noticed a bad pattern and I improved on it.

I’m not great at this. I’m not even particularly good at this. But I want to be better.

You know who’s really good at this?

Kids.

Both of my kids are Jedi masters when it comes to letting their emotions decay: my five-year-old son and my three-year-old daughter, both of whom can be proper terrors when they don’t get their way. I can send my son to time-out for anything from taking an unsavory tone with me or his mother to whacking his kid sister across the skull with a decorative figurine. He goes to his room scowling and howling, slams the door and buries his face in his blankets. Ten minutes later, I check on him, and not only has he completely calmed down, but sometimes he’s totally forgotten why he got time out in the first place. Or my daughter — she can have a full-on tantrum in the grocery store over not being allowed to buy another bag of rainbow Goldfish (laid on the ground, kicking, screaming, tears streaming down her face), and after just a couple of minutes buried, sobbing, in an adult’s shoulder (usually my wife’s), she’s got a smile on her face as she runs up and down the cereal aisle.

On the one hand, this short memory can be infuriating (you don’t even remember why you’re in trouble?), but on the other, it’s instructive. You never talk to a toddler who’s really having a rotten day because they got cut off in traffic. They don’t even remember what happened to them ten minutes ago. They don’t hold onto stuff, good or bad.

There’s a lesson in that. I’m not even going to bother tying it to writing this week; it’s a lesson we all need, and the lesson is to make like Elsa and let it go. Kids somehow intuitively know how to let stuff go, and somewhere along the line, we stress them out and they start holding onto their insecurities and their frustrations and all the things that upset them. Somehow we have to embrace the half-life of the tantrum. It’s okay to get pissed off, to get angry and upset and down on yourself. That stuff happens, and there’s probably no stopping it. But when it’s five hours later and you’re still replaying the moment when the jerko hipster on his cell phone jumped in front of you in line at the Kroger, you have to ask yourself — why is this still in my brain? It isn’t benefiting you in there. And it certainly isn’t still bouncing around in the hipster’s head. It’s only there because you’re keeping it there.

And we don’t have to keep it there.

Tough day at work? You’re home now, and you get another day tomorrow.

Friend said something that upset you? Either tell them about it and clear the air, or forget it — they probably already have — and move on.

Stubbed your toe yesterday and it still hurts? Well, that’s a bummer — but you don’t have to take it out on your wife and kids.

Pay attention to the thoughts that are banging around in your head. Sometimes all it takes is opening the windows to let the bad air out to give you a clean perspective.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: What Are We Waiting For?


What are we waiting for?

Seriously, every one of us has something in their lives that they are putting off. (Apparently the previous sentence is now grammatically correct; thank you, singular-third-person-they.) Whether it’s fear or doubt or uncertainty or perceived lack of ability, we have numerous and convincing excuses for not doing this thing. Those excuses, with the rare exception, are bullshit.

(The above is an absolutely terrible music video for a pretty on-point song.)

Your new year’s resolutions are in all likelihood floating face down in the kiddie pool by now. Forget about that. What’s the thing you really want to do, but haven’t yet? The thing you’re waiting for the right time to do? The thing that, if you had a little more time in your day, you could fit it in? The thing that terrifies you and entices you at the same time?

Sam Harris is responsible for a relevant quote:

Don’t you know that there’s going to come a day when you’ll be sick, or someone close to you will die, and you will look back on the kinds of things that captured your attention, and you’ll think ‘What was I doing?’. You know this, and yet if you’re like most people, you’ll spend most of your time in life tacitly presuming you’ll live forever. Like, watching a bad movie for the fourth time, or bickering with your spouse. These things only make sense in light of eternity.

The fact — and we know it, of course, even if we pretend we don’t — is that we don’t get that much time. Yet we sit around, not doing the things that we won’t admit really matter to us.

So what are you waiting for?

(Stop waiting.)

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


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