Recovering From Life pt. 3

…cont’d from pt. 2

So, what does all of this mean?  It means that we all have a tremendous amount to overcome in our day to day lives before we even get out the door.  Our pre-programmed, but outdated, survival behavior is interfering with our ultimate desire for “happiness” and “peace.”  Throw in modern stressors that our evolutionary mechanisms are not equipped to address, and we begin to work at full capacity just to make it to the end of the day.  It’s as if we’re being asked to program a computer with a hatchet.  A hatchet is a useful tool that served our ancestors for thousands of years.  But it isn’t useful for programming computers.

When I was struggling to get sober in the early 2000s, people kept telling me that if I could learn to live in the “now” as often as possible, most of my problems would begin to take care of themselves…including my drinking.  I genuinely didn’t know what that meant.  Most of the time I was obsessively worrying about what was going to happen, or regretting what had already happened.  If there was a “now,” it was, “Now I’m drinking.”

Over time, it became clear that I couldn’t think my way out of the problem.  A neuroscientist or psychologist can probably explain this more articulately than I can, but our very existence is defined by paradoxes.  If we try to stop thinking about something, we will only think about it more.  If we “try” to sleep when we’re having trouble falling asleep, we are doomed to stay awake.  Broccoli doesn’t taste like doughnuts.  Sitting on the couch feels better than exercise.

Another paradox that I find truly baffling:  With most things in life we instinctively know exactly what to do.  We know it intellectually, but there’s a little monster inside that keeps steering us in the wrong direction.  I knew that a 12 step program could help me get sober, but instead I switched from vodka to beer.  I knew that if I changed my eating habits I could probably win the battle with chronic acid reflux, but instead I just took more medication.  Again, this is probably something on which a psychologist could enlighten me, but for now it’s merely a puzzling observation.  I do, however, believe it is somehow tied into the conflict between modernity and our outmoded survival mechanisms.

We know from experience that if we actively focus on spending our conscious time in the moment we are actually in, rather than in some moment in the past or future, things generally go more smoothly.  Much less anxiety or pangs of regret.  But it feels so tempting to nurse an old resentment or drive the possibilities for disaster right off of a cliff.  Those thought patterns are always harmful.  Yet we persist.

How exactly do we go about staying in the now?  It is pretty simple really.  Despite the immense complications associated with human evolution, and the aspects of our minds that we do not yet understand, it is possible to override the discordant noise that constantly hums in the background (or foreground depending on the kind of day you’re having).  There is nothing new or groundbreaking here.  But as our lives are dominated by paradoxes, most of us do not take advantage of these tools.  We don’t make time for them because we are overwhelmed by everything else that we know we must do.  But here’s another paradox…the more time we spend using these tools, the more time they produce.  It becomes self generating.

Time is in many ways an illusion.  Many theoretical physicists have debated the concept of time as a purely human construct.  I’m not going to delve into this debate here, but there is no question that our perception of time is impacted by our quality of mind in any given situation.  “Time flies when you’re having fun!”  Conversely, many of my personal training clients insist that I am lying to them when I say that they’ve been holding a plank for only 30 seconds.

Twenty four hours is twenty four hours.  But the rate at which those hours seem to pass are largely determined by how present we are throughout the day.  If we spend our time at work dreading a difficult conversation at home, it will feel like we can’t get anything done.  If we spend time with our kids dreading all of the work we have to do on Monday, it will feel like we aren’t in our children’s lives.  However, with a few simple tools we can shift our perception in such a way that time seems to expand.  But we have to make time for these things first.  If we only get to them once we’ve worn ourselves out with all of the other “stuff” we have to do, we will never get to them, and we’re right back to where we started — out of time.

There is no shortage of scientific information available that explains the “how” and “why” pertaining to these tools.  I am just going to share my own personal experience with them.  These tools help me stay sober all the time, and at peace most of the time:

1 — Daily meditation using the Headspace app.  I am fairly new to this.  Maybe 3 months in.  Focus has sharpened.  General demeanor has softened.  I find that I am able to apply the principles while driving and literally experience nothing but the act of driving.  It is a very new and foreign feeling.  Traffic frustration has just about vanished.

2 — Martial arts, or any other complex high-skill sport.  It is nearly impossible to get lost in distracting thoughts while performing a highly technical movement.  Exercise alone is certainly beneficial to the mind as well as the body, but it is the intense concentration associated with a highly technical physical activity that brings the perception of time into “right now.”

3 — A skilled hobby.  Like exercise, hobbies of any kind are terrific on any level.  But I’m referring to hobbies that take a great deal of practice in order to master the activity.  Woodworking or learning a musical instrument are good examples.  Again, we’re trying to bring the mind down into the thing we are doing, rather than letting it carry us up into the clouds.  The more technical the hobby, the more anchored the mind becomes.

4 — Keeping a journal.  This can be about anything.  There is something liberating about writing thoughts down.  Things that spin in our minds throughout the day tend to stop spinning once written down.  It’s as if we’ve moved them from our mind into a separate storage facility.

5 — Once per day, take contrary action.  It can be completely random.  If you order coffee every day, pick tea one day.  If you turn on the news first thing in the morning, turn on some music one day.  This may seem silly and arbitrary at first.  But I find that when I get into the habit of mixing up mundane things for no reason, it feels much more natural to find another option when it really matters.  For instance, when I’m having a bad day and I want to take it out on my family.  Or someone cut me off on the freeway and I want to pay them back.  This is a “wax on, wax off” approach that works when our instincts are getting pushed around by stress.

This is not an exhaustive list, and I’d love to hear any tools that you use to keep you “in the present.”

 

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Recovering From Life pt. 2

…cont’d from pt. 1

Two proposals, for me, have clarified just about everything we struggle through in our day to day psychological lives, and they have to do with formerly necessary survival instincts outliving their usefulness.  They have become a liability in that they cause stress that is pre-programmed and unavoidable.  However, it is manageable when we can come to terms with the reality of what these stressors are, and catch ourselves before we stumble into an instant gratification sinkhole in an attempt to escape them.  We can, on occasion, learn to stay in the present.  But it takes practice, and it doesn’t always go smoothly.

I am paraphrasing these proposals in order to apply them to my own understanding of the stressors to which I am referring.

#1 — Historian Yuval Noah Harari indicates in “Sapiens” that nature’s great predators are majestic and confident — all the time.  Tigers are a great example.  They embody the essence of a successful predator.  One doesn’t look at a tiger and think, “Gosh, he really looks worried about his day.”  Prey animals, however, display a very different energy.  Our neighborhood is full of rabbits, so I’ll use them as an example.  Everything about these rabbits exudes anxiety.  “Is that gonna eat me?  What about that?  Where are my kids?  Are they being eaten?  CAR!!!”  The best analogy I can think of is when you’re playing chess or tennis with someone who is significantly better than you.  You will constantly be on defense, and never have the opportunity to mount an offense.  That is the rabbit.  Always reacting, never plotting.  Harari’s proposal is that humans very rapidly transitioned from primates who were both predator and prey, into the ultimate predator.  The transition happened so quickly that we were never able to fully evolve out of the anxiety and mistrust that defines the rabbit’s existence.  Harari argues that this makes us extremely dangerous — The predator instincts of a tiger in direct conflict with the prey instincts of a rabbit.  One doesn’t have to think for very long to recognize that this can be a horrifying combination.  An extreme case would be Hitler, for example.

#2 — In an interview with NPR, evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright discussed our ceaseless general dissatisfaction…with everything.  For instance, “This house is too small.  I need a bigger house.  Now this bigger house is too small.  I need a bigger house…and so on…”  Wright explains that this drive is what kept us from becoming extinct.  If we stuff our bellies at Thanksgiving, and our brains tell us we’re full for 6 months, we will starve.  If we have sexual intercourse one time, and decide that it was so satisfying that we never need to do it again, we will simply vanish as a species.  One can see how these things can run haywire in a society that is not only marked, but plagued, by abundance.  We are biologically programmed to eat until we are as full as possible, and as a result we see obesity and type 2 diabetes becoming epidemics.  I am not making any specific moral value judgments about pornography, as that is not the purpose of this discussion, but it is clear to me that the required survival instinct for existence occasionally (if not often) becomes a self-destructive obsession when pornography is available 24/7 for free.

If we throw all of these anachronistic survival tools into the modernity pot and stir it up, it becomes rather obvious why our collective mental seam is splitting:

“Tom loves his wife Julia, but he can’t stop thinking about his secretary Heidi.  He isn’t in love with Heidi.  He just wants to have sex with her, one time.  But he knows that he must pretend to be in love with her in order for Heidi to consider any such proposal.  Tom hates himself for this.  He sits in church, ashamed.  He becomes more withdrawn from Julia because he doesn’t want to hurt her, but he can’t stop obsessing about Heidi.  Julia suspects that Tom no longer finds her attractive, but she’s too afraid to confront him about it.  She decides that it’s because she has gained too much weight.  So she goes on a diet, which fails.  Soon, she transitions into binging and purging.  Suddenly, she loses interest in her suspicions about Tom, because the binging and purging cycle has become her first priority.  She buys a gym membership, and starts working out 7 days per week.  A 20-something bond trader named Dan begins flirting with her on a regular basis…and so on, and so on.”

It has become crystal clear to me that this entire scenario is a direct result of the exponential rate at which the human mind adapts intellectually, while being simultaneously imprisoned by biological survival instincts which adapt and modify much more slowly.  The intellect and instinct go to war with one another, and both sides lose.  In my totally unscientifically tested opinion, this results in increased rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction.

I don’t want to get into an abyss about whether or not we have free will, but neuroscientist Sam Harris indicates that, for the most part, we do not.  For the purpose of this discussion, it is relevant in that, for me, it explains many of the paradoxes and neuroses associated with trying to resist our instincts in order to function in a modern, civil society.  I’ll use myself as an example.  “I won’t drink today, I won’t drink today, I won’t drink today.  Alright, fine, I won’t drink tomorrow.”  I spent so much time obsessively trying to fight the urge to drink, that all I could think about was drinking.  The misfiring instinct to fill myself up with something that I “needed” was fighting me back harder than my “will” could overcome it.  As far as I can tell, the instincts always triumph in a battle of pure will.  How many of us recognize that we are eating too much, and yet feel powerless to stop it?  In that case, we are losing the battle with our instinct to ingest as much energy as we can to ensure successful procreation.  It is like building a dam to block the water, but the water keeps rising infinitely.  We have to learn to dig a new channel for the water to move in a different direction.  It is a futile endeavor to try to restrict it entirely.

cont’d in pt. 3…

 

FINDING YOUR FINISH LINE

As I struggled for 5 minutes to remove my mud-caked compression socks after completing the Spartan Beast, I had to ask myself why I do this.  Most of my body hurts today, and a 7 year old groin injury has become a fresh wound once again.  I really had to spend time pondering what I’m getting out of it.  Ultimately I’m glad I signed up, but why?  I’ll never finish in first place.  It’s expensive.  Preparation takes a lot of time, which I don’t have.  The skin gets cut and mud is ground into the cuts.

It must be some kind of visceral reaction to all of the things I was incapable of at one time in my life, either due to inability, or fear.  I couldn’t run for 5 minutes without coughing up tar from the previous night’s cigarettes.  I couldn’t complete big projects out of fear that it might create expectations in other people.  I was always looking for the exit.  From everything — relationships, jobs, responsibility, life.  If I had any goal at all, it was to feel as empty as possible.  Negative thoughts were unbearable, and positive thoughts were fleeting and undeserved.

There is something symbolic about crossing a finish line…a kind of reset.  It is easy to get overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and doubt if a day isn’t going smoothly.  Things that I don’t normally care about become more prominent.  Not having a Lamborghini, for instance.  I don’t care about cars at all.  Never have.  But if I’m having a bad day and stop next to a Lamborghini at an intersection, a whole series of voices start chirping in the background.  “You would have one of those if you had made better choices.”  “You know he’s driving to a giant house that has a resort inside of a bowling alley inside of a movie theater.”  “The lady in the passenger seat thinks you are staring at her.  You should roll your window down. ‘I’m not staring at you, I’m staring at a reflection of my own insecurity!'”  HONK! from behind me.  Really?  Another Lamborghini?

A 14 mile hike through a western movie landscape isn’t conducive to that kind of wasteful self-flagellation.  At times it requires precision focus on the next step in front of you.  While we don’t always realize it, all of us are trying to get to a place in our minds that enables us to experience only what is happening right now.  It is, after all, the only thing that exists.  Meditation is the ultimate mind training to get to that place, but it isn’t always easy to get there.  At least for me.  These races achieve it by proxy.  That’s really what it is I guess.  Five hours of living in the “now.”