How To Reset (Part 1)

We all have our backs to the wall. Stress builds up in the system compressing our decisions into knee-jerk reactions.

Who was the person talking trash about the neighbor and their screaming kids? Could it be? No. Certainly not me. Or, after a crappy work day, what could be worse than reliving it at home? I have an answer: reliving that same complaint in different forms for weeks and years at a time.

When you reach this point it’s time to reset. It’s also time to make a promise to yourself. At 60% fed up level you will get off the track and reset.

By waiting until there are pressure cracks in the nervous system it’s harder to come back to a still point. Hard but not impossible. Burnout is simply the failure to recognize when stress is too high for too long. The paralysis that follows is the outcome, not the problem.

What’s the way out?

Each and every one of us has a personal way to reset. I want you to think very hard about a flash reset protocol for yourself.

In fact, I want to give you a TH3RD FORCE Challenge. In 15 years clinical practice I have never met the person who has told me they are too rested, too peaceful and too at ease. So that makes us all eligible for the challenge.

If the daily grind has clear-cut your feeling of grace in this world, what do you have to lose?

The rules for this challenge are simple:

  • You are leaving home for 48 hours. Any of us can do this in a weekend.
  • You are traveling solo.
  • No flights (they only add to stress).
  • Cut the cord (leave that cell phone on the table, plugged in of course).
  • Go outside, not a requirement, but this will pay off. Bonus points for camping – sure this is my personal bias but being outside has done wonders from Thoreau to Peter Matthiessen.
  • Bring books, journals and pens.
  • Feed yourself well. You can easily stock a cooler for 48 hours of great food.
  • Drink well – whether your taste is beer, wine, bourbon, green tea, or coffee. Bring what you like.
  • Proper gear: make sure you have it all. I recommend renting, if you don’t own, top-quality gear. You don’t want to be uncomfortable out there.
  • Fire wood. Matches.
  • A chair to sit on.

Pick a favorite place or a new place, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do it this weekend or next. A sense of urgency completes tasks. Putting this on the bucket list is a clear invitation to never complete it.

While you are out there, a few questions to ponder. These are the same questions I ask myself.

Years ago my head was always spinning. I was fed up with Zen, couldn’t stand the thought of parasitic infections in India and still couldn’t come to terms with the whole thing of being born into a human body. How did it all fit together?

What to do? When I can’t help myself, why not make things worse by blundering into other people’s problems?

I went to a workshop on healing trauma. The teacher was Daoist. He was unflinching in his approach. About halfway through the class on the first day he said, “It’s obvious folks that you are not listening. You are not listening because what attracted you to this course is your own trauma in life. Half of you think you can save the world. The other half can’t even begin to think about anything else but themselves. How many of you have asked yourselves the basic questions any person needs to ponder? How do you save yourself? If you don’t have this one figured out you are worthless to the rest of the world. Everything you touch will be marked by your seed. Your seed of self-destruction.”

We looked at each other mutely. A few of us even put down our phones and stopped texting: Hey lets meet for dinner – it must be beer 30 somewhere. Or face booking: At another boring seminar – at least the kids aren’t here.

The three questions, he went on, that we need to ask ourselves are as follows:

Who am I?

Why am I here?

What am I doing about it?

With that, dear readers, I bid you fare well on your quest. Please write in with what you experienced.

Next week I will write about my own reset and would love to add some of your own adventures to the mix.

Mind Your Thoughts

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A very wise man once said, we hire banks who hire guards to protect our money. But our mind we leave open to anyone passing by.

There’s a lot to be learned from this wisdom. Each day I see people come into the clinic, their head so full of the wrong information. Their lives so full of chaos.

What if they started to guard the information they entertained?

A patient came in the other day. She was a non-stop whirlwind of negativity. Everything coming out of her mouth was what was wrong with the world. The stitching holding all of these stories together was victimhood. In each and every instance she was somehow the victim of powerful forces, wrong turns and what have you.

After she was done speaking I asked her a simple question.

“How’s your day?”

“I just told you,” she replied.

“No. You told me a lot about yourself but I don’t think you have told me about your day.”

“What do you mean?,” she said.

“I mean to say the stories you have told me I have heard before. We have known each other for months. When you went away on vacation what did you complain about? The traffic. Guess what our focus was today?”

She kind of smiled at me. I smiled back.

“I am wondering what happened today that was new?”

She stared at me for a while, the smile fading like a traffic light in the rear view mirror. The glance said what she did not – is this guy for real?

“Look, I said, all you have told me about are the same things on different days. Tuesday is I can’t get here on time because of the idiots on the road day. Thursday is I’m stressed because the fools at work screwed up my workload day.”

We both laughed, even though the recent humidity was making everyone uncomfortable. I could survive the East Coast summers and humidity precisely because there was pizza. Out here, in the sodden dampness of the Pacific Northwest, there is no pizza to get me through. Sigh.

“It’s not that bad,” she said recoiling as she remembered herself. I could see the armor being put back into place. To myself, I thought, Tuesday is not have a laugh with her crazy acupuncturist day.

This is where it’s interesting, right? She went through all the effort to tell me how bad the day was. Having been called on it, suddenly it’s not that bad.

Which one is it?

This is deep-seated thinking. This is a one way ticket to never having an enjoyable week or year. This kind of thinking seeps in when the guards are specifically not looking after the mind.

In life there is no shortage of pain, but we don’t have to hold onto it.

“Think of it this way,” I said. “Everything you have told me about is negative. Why carry these experiences with you once they are done?”

“Yeah.” she said, getting excited, “like that old monk story you told me about. He drops the lady off and they get into a big fight later on.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s close but there are some details worth mentioning.” It’s also worth noting that there are virtually hundreds of versions of this story. Why not tell ours?

In monasteries there is a custom of pairing both the high functioning monks and those that needed additional help. The idea is based on mirroring. The one struggling would see and benefit from being with someone with greater skill. And let me tell you, all those years being teamed up with the senior monk now look differently to me. I thought it was birds of a feather. Management had a different idea. Something more like, please help this fool.

Back to the story. Two monks were walking toward the village. When they came to it, the streets were a mess. Rain had made a mud bath of the poor roads.

Seeing a lady in distress the senior monk walked over to her and offered a piggy back across the street. The lady accepted and thanked him on the other side. Turning around, the monk headed to the mercantile to pick up supplies.

The struggling monk was beside himself. Brother do you know that you picked up a prostitute?

I picked up a woman who needed help, he replied kindly.

We are forbidden to talk to women, let alone have them ride us like animals. And, he said, jumping up and down, she was a prostitute. As they walked back to the temple he could not wait to share with the other monks what happened.

Finally, he thought, they would see my worth. And this do-gooder would be the scorn of the hall.

After a silent dinner back at the monastery, the abbot asked the hall of assembled monks if they had anything to share.

The struggling monk jumped right up and said, “Abbot when we went to town brother carried a prostitute across the muddied street.”

The abbot glanced at the senior student, who only nodded in agreement.

“I see. It seems that brother put her down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

After I finished speaking she looked at me and it sunk in. The weight she was carrying was her day. I could see her making the connections.

“Ahh. Well how was my day,?” she said giggling. “Well I met this strange man that told me to take a load off!”

We both laughed. Each of us reminded of that simple wisdom.

Each day before leaving work and entering my home I think of all the things that upset me. All of the slights, the insults, the failures, etc.

And then I very carefully take a deep breath. Getting out of my truck I simply place these memories of events outside my door.

When I go home I try to share one great thing that happened. I already have my story.

What will yours say?

Thunder Strikes the Sky

As of this writing there are, more than 60-strike that, now 190-active fires in British Columbia. My own town Bellingham, WA has three fires raging across our Northwestern skyline.

One of them is three miles from my home. Air quality was listed as Red Zone on Monday. A dark scar the color of burning ash covered much of Northern Washington and Southern British Columbia.

Driving to my home last night I saw smoke billowing through the trees as I climbed Barkley Hill.

The town was in a panic.

The clinic was full of people with respiratory issues. Breathing is hard when you are asthmatic. Breathing with burning particulate in the air, compounded by seasonal allergies is a whole new level of discomfort.

Smoke is coming in my window now as I type.

I’m not panicking. Highways going North and South are open. And as the great Joe Strummer sang in London, calling: I live by the river, or in this case, the bay. 

As I listen to the general sense of panic, I am reminded of a chapter in the Yi Ching, a Chinese book of philosophy.

When thunder rips the air, the fool drops his wine cup. The wise ones, raise their glass to heaven and say, Cheers!

It must look strange from up there – me down here waving a laptop at the heavens. But I’m sure the point is well taken – cheers it is.

If you stepped back in your life right now, which one would you be? Stressed about imagined danger or content to enjoy the quiet moments between emergency situations?

***

A patient of mine says every year at his hardware store they sell snow shovels starting in October. Every year, he says, we don’t sell any until the first snow. Then we sell out and have to re-order. It takes weeks. We have many complaints from people.

He went on to say, another example is air conditioning units. We have them in stock all year. Once the temperature goes above 80 we sell out. It takes a long time, in the summer, to get more in. Again, we get lots of complaints.

I said, why don’t you order more of each ahead of time? Oh, he said, some years we don’t get snow or heat that goes above 80. I can’t bet thousands on what the weather is going to do.

How is that different from your customers?

You are not in retail. You don’t know how it works.

With that we moved on to other areas of conversation: forest fires, Greece and all its woes, border waits, Costco lines, etc.

After he left I got to thinking about the whole conversation. I do run a business and he has bought herbs from me for years. He knows we have in stock one of the largest Chinese Pharmacies in the country.

So what made him give than knee jerk reaction? Where did this sense of reactivity come from?

***

Years ago I was looking for clues as to how we ended up on the reactivity side of things. I dug into historical texts and found some interesting answers.

I would say the first time we hit a nearly universal panic reaction button was in the 1300’s. Europe was hit by the bubonic plague. This disease took one out of three lives.

Medicine, prior to this time, was based on the Greek practices of health utilizing the four humors. It sounds exciting until you cross reference the average life span was only 30 years old. About the only time somebody went to see the doctor in the Middle Ages was about that 30-year mark.

Their life was ending and they wanted the dying to stop.

After the plague hit, Western medicine dropped all pretense towards health and started focusing on disease. It makes sense, right? One out of three taken.

Time to figure out what was doing the taking.

For all of our advances in Western medicine not a lot has changed in regards to our health. When is the last time you heard someone say, you know I’m only at about 90% of my potential. Think I’ll check into the hospital and get that last 10%.

Or, don’t fix it if it isn’t broken. That’s a great slogan for winding up in an emergency situation.

We can do better than that. It’s time to break the cycle. We know the past and how we got here. We don’t have to repeat it. Put out the fires and do some looking of your own.

What areas of your life can you see ahead of you that could use some planning?

The Point Of Vacation Is To Be Relaxed Enough To Enjoy It

 

It’s kind of funny, what we do to ourselves on vacation. Some kind of demented off-balancing act: too much food, drink and not enough exercise and forget about the sleep – booze destroys the last half of the sleep cycle.

Yet in this great escape there is no solace. What we do find are hangovers, bulging-waist lines, anxiety and more credit card debt.

Not exactly the recharge you were looking for, was it?

It makes sense though when you think of it. Ever hear of the American Syndrome? Researchers studied health and vitality of people on Friday and then asked the same questions to the same people on Monday.

Guess what they found?

People were worse on Monday. The weekend compounded unease and stress. People were in no way rejuvenated. They did not come to work ready to tackle new issues. They came back more tired from the weekend they had planned.

So what’s really going on here?

The annual vacation is simply a repetition of the cycle we replay all year. We train ourselves to misuse vacation time throughout the year by making poor choices each weekend.

Most of my patients have described to me the following scenario.

“Well Doc I got really stressed out before my vacation. Started working late so I would be caught up by the time I left.”

“Excuse me are you catching up or doing the work you would have had to do if you were here?”

“Both. So then I’m getting home later and eating later. Have a few extra beers to take the edge off. More tired in the morning and so I load up on the coffee. Working out? Yeah, right. No time for that. So my vacation starts”

At this point I interrupt and say, “Most people get sick before their week or two off. Did that happen to you?”

I’m surprised at how often, they say yes. It’s over 50% of the time. Working all year to have a week off and they are sick.

That’s sick.

Ok, let’s say they didn’t get sick. This is how it unfolds.

“So I spend the first two or three days unwinding. Sure, I’m drinking too much, just trying to come off the roller coaster. Resting. Trying to recover. I hit that sweet spot. The one where I can actually rest and recharge for a day and then it happens. It’s Thursday or Friday. I can actually feel my mind thinking about work on Monday. It’s awful. Like a black hole dampening out the light.”

Usually there is a prolonged silence. They do look like a black hole has sucked them out. Bags under the eyes. Shoulders slumped.

Well the math breaks down a little different. So they said, Wednesday maybe Thursday, those were the good days. So that’s not a week off. That’s two days, a weekend. So we are back where we started.

DON’T DO THIS TO YOURSELF.

So, can agree that this model is broken? It’s a complete failure and will break you the longer you try to play with it.

Agreed?

Let’s start by looking at our weekend. The single most important thing you can do for your mental health is have some down time. The human mind and soul thrives on quiet time.

What to do with this time?
Here’s a list, pick at least two this weekend:

1)   Meditate, 15 minutes in the morning and evening.

2)   Pray: 15 minutes in the morning and evening.

3)   Read: 30-60 minutes – it has to be something you love.

4)   Stretch: 30 minutes, no music, turn off the stimuli.

5)   Listen to music. See no problem, just don’t pretend to mulit-task. It doesn’t work.

6)   Cook. Make something spectacular. Eat something with purpose. Call up someone you love but haven’t seen recently. Or, just as good, reach out to somebody new. Open up those horizons.

7)   Take a walk, 30-60 minutes.

8)   Go Outdoors.

9)   Watch the sun rise.

10) Listen to running water, wind.

11) Sing.  

12) Write. 

13) Make a cup of tea and read poems or dig out one of those classics. Something that expands the confines of your mind’s eye. Wow yourself.

14) Knitting. Repetitive motion releases serotonin. 

15) Draw. Over the holiday break in December I drew my first picture since 10th grade art class. It was fun, nostalgic and a good way to bond with my daughter.

Reality dictates that stress will kill you over time. In his ground-breaking work, Hans Selye documented the effects of stress on health, the nervous system and our sense of well being.

Stress works on the body in a very peculiar way. Let’s say you get stressed out. Anxiety and tension are becoming your new best friends.

Stress levels range from 1-10.  When we get stressed out we start at 0, then go up to an 8.

Popular wisdom would say we get stressed out and go back to 0. That’s not true. What really happens is that stress did not return to 0. What happens is that instead of 0, our new set point moves up a notch, to 1.

And that is how it gets us. Over time what we have is an ascending relationship to stress. It takes only a few years in high-stress environments to turn that stress starting point up to 50% of it’s maximum.

That’s how people snap.

They run too long on too much stress and before we know what is happening, the train comes off the rails. It’s almost never the particular event that causes people to loose it. Right? It’s the build up and breakdown. Suddenly that person who cut you off did it on purpose. They woke up with you in mind and won’t be happy until you are run off the road. Right?

So do yourself and those that are around you a favor. Pick two of the activities today to do over next weekend. Do this for a few months and you will have begun building a foundation in which you rest during the weekends and actually have fun on vacation.

You have a great vacation the same way you do anything that shines. You practice until you get it right.

 

(This post was printed about a year ago on TH3RD FORCE and was reprinted due to popular demand)

To Teagle or Not

 

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There is almost nothing I can think of more important as making up your mind. And conversely, to me, the definition of hell is being caught in between two decisions.

Should I do this? Should I do that? A lifetime is easily spent skating between these two poles.

I’m always amazed at how many people describe themselves as decisive. They give me examples: when I go clothes shopping, I know exactly that I like this kind of shirt so I buy 5 at a time. Or, I don’t even think about ordering coffee. I know for me that I want that Americano.

Small decisions are easy game. However once we start getting to the meat of the matter, things change.

OK, how’s the job going?

Well, I kind of hate it but it pays the bills. Hmm, decidedly not decisive.

Home life? My partner is driving me crazy. They come home after work and we’re both tired and nothing is done. It makes me crazy. You know? So are you saying you are happy?

Meh!

How are the kids?

They’re great. Getting into a little trouble as they are aging. Wish they were behaving better.

***

You can see where this is going, can’t you? Making up the mind in simple decisions is easy. No problems there. But when it counts, oh man does it get dicey.

We are born with two ways of thinking about things. The first is governed by the heart. We know in our heart if things are right or wrong. No doubt. No worry.

The enemy of the heart is the mind. The mind makes its calculations. It spins data to be more palatable for us. The mind protects us by creating a false world that meets not only our expectations, but insulates us from pain.

A good example of this is seen when, for example, you show up late to an engagement. You were late, let’s say, because your baby sitter showed up late and you were not quite ready anyway.

You show up to your dinner party and the host is mad. You respond by saying, lighten up. I was a few minutes late anyway. In reality you were 30 minutes late and the evening got held up.

Your mind says, things happen. It’s their problem for getting upset. However, you were late because you didn’t take care of things correctly.

Nobody likes to hear that the fault stops with themselves.

The mind constantly takes information and uses it to protect and shield us from our own shortcomings.

In making decisions, it’s important to understand if you are divided, where the fault line lays.

In most cases we know what the right thing to do is. We just talk ourselves out of it. Notice I didn’t say, the right thing in society’s view. My meaning is that sometimes our right thing directly contradicts societal norms. Sometimes doing the right thing is in opposition to all known means of measurement.

Why do we do it then? Why do we get so caught up in the internal battle?

Because we are afraid to make a stand.

It takes guts to finally say to yourself, self, I really love getting that pay check but on a soul level I hate doing what I do. So I am not doing it anymore. I am going to make a careful plan (no winging it here) and execute it on schedule. Shortly I will be

Homework assignment, make a decision that scares and challenges you today.

This is where we grow. I’m not advocating you do anything crazy. I am telling you to do something that just may make you feel like you are on the edge. The edge of what? Something new.

And, before we depart let’s take a page from history. That picture gracing this post (up above) is of a teagle.

Haven’t heard of it?

Me neither until I went on State House in Boston, Massachusetts. The teagle is the result of a mind that could not make a decision. At the time of the creation of this clock there was a debate as to the USA’s national bird. I love you Ben Franklin, but not a fan of your choice, the turkey. The other side, of course, voted eagle.

The clock maker didn’t know who would win and didn’t want to cause either side to be angry. Turkey. Eagle. Turkey. Eagle. Between these two parents, was born a morphed turkey and an eagle.

Make up your mind. And don’t ever, ever, be a teagle.

Photo Credit: Paglia, Iphone.

Swimming Against The Current

When I was in my 20’s, I asked a monk what his spiritual practice was. He looked at me and smiled gently. I don’t like the term, he said. One day you will not either.

With that he moved on through his day. I was left with my racing thoughts. A few months later I asked him about his daily practice. Tricky, huh?

In essence, he said, there was no practice. Life. Just a life. It was impossible to differentiate the parts of his life that were not spent in meditation. In a word, he said, a successful life is one spent in attention.

He looked up from his work and turned to me. I wondered if he could see the ten thousand thoughts of mine spinning in orbit around myself.

There is no practice in this life. We simply pay attention to everything we do. It’s the same with your life, we only wear different clothes. He went back to work. My thoughts only spun faster.

I must have been told a thousand times when I was at the monastery to simply do what I was doing. My old friend Mongo would take a look at me and say, you not doing anything useful. You pretending to sit but you think about work? Food? What? When you are at work you pretend to work. What are you think about? Meditation.

He pierced me with a blood-shot gaze and took another drag off of his cigarette.

This problem, he says, comes across in all life. Married man? Hmmm. We know what you think when you drinky. Yes, what about her?

Mongo!, said his wife, Mrs. Park. Married women do not need to drink to think life would be better with another man. Hummph she said, shaking her finger at us. They need to drink once they find all men same same.

You two are trouble mans.

That was her name for me, trouble man. I had issues with so many things I never understood exactly why she and Mongo put up with me.

For that matter, I hardly understand even today why the people in my life put up with me. It’s not an easy road to love someone for who they are.

 It’s also not an easy road to pave a practice that will yield results. There is no set path either. You have to find for yourself not only what works, but what you will do consistently. Without routine practice that works you will make no headway.

A good starting point for a practice is to simply fill your heart and mind with so much natural beauty that there is no room for anything else. The sheer magnitude of beauty will force your attention. I do this as often as possible. When the mind is stupefied by natural beauty and wonder it’s hard for it to chatter uselessly about what we think is important in this life.

For all my years spent meditating and bugging monks in temples, one of the most significant spiritual experiences I have had was simply observing someone else communing with nature.

A few years back in Winthrop, Washington, my family and I were camping at Early Winters campground. There is a pool of water where the Early Winter creek emerges out of the mountain ice cold, fast and in this one location, deep enough to swim in.

My family and I pulled up some chairs. My girls jumped in the water. It was freezing cold. They screamed but stayed in. I like that about them. They are there to swim, doesn’t matter if the water is glacier fed and barely in its liquid form.

Another family came over after a while. The kids were much older – teenagers. Two couples sat a little way from us. It didn’t take long for me to pick out that one Dad was a little different. He spoke slowly. He didn’t speak a lot. When his kids asked him questions, they waited for him to respond. It took a minute sometimes for him to speak. I assumed head injury. It was obvious his wife held him in disdain. When he stumbled over his words, or took too long, his brother would speak over him.

After a while the man didn’t speak. He simply stared at the kids playing in the water. I could sense no emotion from him. Not content, not happy, not sad. Just a blank space, occupying a shadow by a clear pool on a 90 degree day.

My wife and I talked a bit about the family over dinner. My kids stayed up until they saw the first stars. It was very late by the time I joined my family in our little camper.

Like a bolt I woke up at 6 am.

Time for my own practice. I gathered up my clothes and book of Saint John of the Cross and headed outside. After making a cup of coffee I went back to that little pool. Nobody in the campground was up. I enjoyed the warmth of that coffee cup and the solitude.

I was reading a particularly challenging chapter in Saint John when I heard a voice so soft I wasn’t even sure it was there at all.

I looked up. It was the man from yesterday.

Sorry, he said again.

Oh, you are fine. Don’t worry about it.

I can come back, he said, backing up.

Please stay. It’s fine. I’m just reading. It’s public property. Just as much yours as mine.

He stood there for a few moments and then took off his shirt. He walked slowly into the water, much like my kids did. Moved forward an inch. Stopped. Teetered back and forth. Then dove under water. He surfaced and then headed to the roaring stream that fed the pool. He swam against the current until his body gave out and then floated back to the far edge.

He waited a few moments, gasping and then swam at the current. He did this over and over in the growing light of an July morning.

All at once he stopped swimming and sunk. He just hung out there for a while and then came back up. He walked out of the water, right to me, and sat down on a rock.

He talked slowly, not really looking at me. Rather he was staring at the water. His voice just a few decibels louder than the stream spreading in its alluvial fan.

All year I feel the stress building up in me. It’s like a poison. It gets in there everywhere. I try to hold on. I try to hold on so that I can be here. When I am in the water swimming I can think of nothing but being free like the water. I feel larger than I was before swimming.I come here as much as I can. I swim as hard as I can. When I can no longer swim the current takes me to the other side.

He stood up and looked at me.

I’m sorry for being in your alone time here.

No, I said, it was I who was the intruder.

Photo Credit : travelspirit333.com

A Lot Of Noise About Quiet

A friend and I were talking the other day. He was recently divorced in a most unpleasant way. He asked me, after a spell, how it felt to be quiet inside? I laughed. He looked offended for a minute. He said, you spend all that time meditating. Or doing whatever you are doing. Isn’t it quiet in there?

Then I said, quiet comes to those who court it. You have to chase it down, usually making a hell of a lot of noise in the process.

He looked up and started laughing.

Seriously, he said, what did you do? He continued, I’m a mess. My thoughts beat me. It hurts so much. What did you do? I’ve heard you tell stories about what a mess you were. You are not one now. What did you do?

I sat back in my chair for a few moments before answering. I told him, look, I wasn’t joking.

First off it’s not silence you are looking for.

It’s not? What the?

Think about it. Nothing in nature is silent. Why should you be?

Hmm. So what’s the point then?

The point is to have enough perspective so that you can recognize not only the thoughts but the person observing the thoughts.

The what?

The best you can do is not mistake the thoughts as yourself. We are too caught up in that web. I think this. I think that. None of that matters much.

It has to matter, he said. I believe in what’s right and wrong.

No. You believe now, what you think is right or wrong. It will change in time.

Again, the trouble is when you think you are right and wrong. That’s the hell of it all. That’s what creates pain. Your internal and stagnant view of the world clashes with the reality of this life. There is pain. There is suffering.

This is making me feel worse. I came here looking for help. Now I don’t even know what I am aiming for.

You don’t know? Really? I don’t think you believe that. If you did, there would be no emotional reaction. Would there?

Well, I guess not.

No there would not. My words would be meaningless. You would leave here and never think of them. But you are deeply thinking about this. Perhaps that’s the best way to look at it.

Which way?

You are reacting very strongly to me telling you something. You either believe I’m right or you may not care if I am right or wrong. What’s most important is that you believe you may be wrong.

Oh man. This is good. I’m fine for now, he said as he stood up. Just before opening the door he stopped.

OK, can we talk more next time?

Sure I said. Something to think about. The point in which you quit is the point that the image of the self feels most challenged. Quitting reinforces the dominion of the false self. Are you interested in looking over the edge or jumping?

He went back out into his day. Later that evening I did give some thought to how I came to one of many ceasefires with that fire burning in my head.
***
I had been hiking for days without food. I could feel the bones in my hip rubbing raw against the waist-belt of my backpack. Sunburned a while back. Peeling now. My feet were a mess – blistered, swollen and painful through the night.

The only time I didn’t think was when I was moving.

So I just put on the miles. One foot in front of the other. I had aimed at a series of peaks jutting out of the earth. No path to follow, just a visual reminder of distance.

A few weeks before this hike I had packed everything I owned into my little Jetta and headed cross country. I was 22. Nothing but a job I had turned down. No imminent prospects. No destination in mind. Just an unbearable need to move.

In the beginning driving put my mind at ease. That wore off in a few hundred miles. Even driving I began to get uneasy.

A few days into my trip I pulled off the highway. Drove down a dirt road and set up camp. I had almost no money. No hotels. Limited food. Enough gas to keep me moving for at least another month.

In the methodical rhythm of setting up camp I found stillness again. It was hot. I had plenty of water in the back seat. A couple cans of coke. Some jerky and granola bars. That was about it.

I was weary. Climbing in my tent I had some jerky, some water and then dozed for a few hours. I woke up to the sound of coyotes. Opening the zipper to my tent fly, I saw those peaks lit up in the moonlight.

Minutes later I was out there. Walking by moonlight to those hills. My mind quieted and I walked for days. I ran out of food (jerky and granola bars) and just drank water and walked.

I never reached those peaks. I simply figured out that I was without food and soon to be without water. I stopped walking. Looked at the mountains and thought, they were far away as I began.

So I went back.

Climbing back into the car after breaking camp I noticed my mind was a little quieter. The thoughts in my head were strangely less persistent. Not gone, but no longer yelling.

Each day I would drive and then stop. I spent the next morning hiking for at least a couple of hours. Mostly though, I hiked for days at a time.

Each time getting back into the car I felt a little less chaotic. A little quieter. I felt exactly as a kid, waking up in the depths of winter in upstate New York to find everyone asleep and outside my front window a perfectly pure and unbroken field of freshly fallen snow. The sense of wonder forming a bridge between my selves.

By the time I got to Colorado I was skimming the surface like a “normal person.” I didn’t have to figure out if there was a God. If there was a God did God live in me? Was there any point to this? Why was there always the sound of someone crying in my head?

In this way I made my way across the country. In this way, the miles slowly halted that shrieking train wreck of a mind.
***

There is no path already written for you. If you are looking for more inner peace and silence you will have to experiment and see what works best. Notice I didn’t say, what feels best. That’s a trap. Observe what works best. For me it was putting hundreds of miles on a backpack. The amount of exhaustion and hunger gave my mind just enough of a pause so that the meditation practice I had could sink in.

Before hiking I thought of my meditation practice in much the same way as throwing a stone against the wall. It was entertaining, for a while, and every so often a rock I threw at the wall came directly back at me.

After hiking I had enough space in my head to allow for the possibility of grace.

Photo Credit: www.freeroamingphotography.com

So Who Are You?

 

I have a confession to make.

After 15 years of clinical experience I have a controversial viewpoint on the whole intro/extrovert dilemma.

I don’t believe in it.

Specifically, I don’t believe a healthy nervous system may be lumped into only two choices.

We are not binary equations. We are life taking place now – an infinity of variables dancing in the wake of each decision we make.

The healthier the nervous system, the more comfort you have in either mode – introvert or extrovert.

First off, I have to admit. I used to be somewhat of a personality-test junky. I loved those things. Depending on my mood I would take one and have a complete analysis of myself. I felt great for the next day or week and then I would think. Maybe I didn’t get it right. Maybe I should take that thing again and come up with an analysis I like better. Sure, I’ll take it again.

Here’s an example of how this typing of yourself works in the real world.

Last week a patient came in. She told me she loves being around people. But she feels exhausted by the end of the day and needs to shut down.

I asked, what’s the problem?

The problem, she said, is that I am an extrovert. If I am not getting energy from the people I meet it’s because I am doing the wrong things. I hate my job.

Oh, I said. What is your employment history like?

What do you mean?

How many times have you found yourself in jobs like this?

Well, not very often (4 jobs in 2 years). I guess I’m really a driven person and if I feel like I am the only one doing anything it really pisses me off. I need my down time too. You know the hardest thing about being a type A? It’s dealing with the morons. Makes me crazy.

Oh, I said. So now you’re an extroverted person who needs alone time and a Type A person that doesn’t really want to work all that much?

Well, not exactly.

She got quiet for a moment. I could see her thinking. She then looked directly at me. Her anger flared in her defense.

What are you trying to say?

All I’m saying is that maybe these descriptions don’t serve you anymore.

What?

You are putting these labels on yourself. In the beginning they operate for introspection. They give us a pre-set guide. Something to hang our psychological hat on. As time goes by, we retreat into these definitions as excuses.

Sorry, can’t do that talk. I’m an introvert don’t you know. Sorry, can’t finish that project by myself. As an extrovert I need people to talk to and interact.

I run through the same issues in my personal life. Last weekend my wife and her friends rented out a party room at the yacht club. It’s a close knit group of friends that has known each other for many years. My wife is the newbie in the group.

We showed up and I headed for the side porch. Nobody was out there. It was a beautiful afternoon. The sun was shining. I couldn’t be happier out there, beer in hand, shining amber in the sun.

Looking at me, you would think, there’s an introvert for you. Happy by himself. Taking some down time away from the party.

But it doesn’t fit.

Flash forward an hour and I’m riffing with a guy about every taboo subject you can name: save the whales, sue your neighbors (the battle cry of self-absorbed Pacific North Westerners), politics: for every degree you are on the left or right, subtract and IQ point or 50.

Pretty soon I had the whole table revved up and ready to go.

Walking around the party gave me ample opportunity to socialize and forge stronger friendships with some interesting new people.

Only thing was, I wasn’t interested in firing up the forge. I was done. I left the party happy to be away from it all but glad I went. My wife caught a ride home with some other friends – by now they had taken over the dance floor. And I, found myself at home with a nice Kung Fu movie to end the night.

When the body is capable of handling stress and discharging anxiety the terms introvert and extrovert mean less and less. What matters more, is that we respond to our environment in the best way we can without sacrificing our store-bought idea about ourselves.

How do we get a healthy nervous system?

Meditate or pray.

It’s easy enough to look into. If you prefer prayer, set a timer for 15 minutes and just recite your favorite prayer. When your mind wanders, which it will, just get back on track with your recitation. This form of prayer has been done in monasteries for thousands of years.

If you want to meditate, pick a word. Any word will do. How about sun? Set a timer for 15 minutes and repeat the word, sun, incessantly. Your mind will wander. Not a big deal. Simply get back to it.

Do this practice, twice a day: once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

Research across the board verifies meditation and prayer’s ability to help relieve not only stress, but many stress related health issues.

***

Research:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-it/201309/20-scientific-reasons-start-meditating-today

http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/

 

Image Credit: wildhairmedia.com

Fighting Against The Tide

IMG_1438

Jim Bochsler (left) and Scott Paglia (right) wearing insect antennae (as requested by my daughters) seconds before the beginning of the canoe leg, Ski to Sea 2015

 

 

Funny how cultural norms change. The old maxim used to be, never give up. The punk movement took it a step further: never give up, or in. And now we have the millennials. They are a different sort altogether.

Giving up isn’t a problem. No, these days it’s called being true to yourself.

It’s tricky territory to navigate through all the norms. What position is right? The one we were raised with of course. But really, what works best for ourselves and our families?

We had this come up in the clinic the other week. A patient came in. He’s was in his 50’s. Nice guy, owns a local business. He was very stressed. I asked him, what’s the matter? He said, one of my employees didn’t like our logo. They complained about it incessantly. They even went so far as to request time to redo the logo, even though it wasn’t their job.

If it made them happy, he said, I was all for it.

So they went to work. Weeks went by. No sight of the logo. We had an event coming up and needed to print our logo on some banners. Another team member asked him for the logo.

Still not done.

So the day before it’s due they have a meeting. He says he will get it done. We all sat there and agreed upon the course of action.

As of this morning, it’s not done.

We went with the old logo because, to my eyes, it’s been fine for 10 years. One more event won’t matter.

During our staff meeting we went over what happened. My employee, who didn’t get the work done, gave this as his excuse: I had to be true to myself. I was tired when I got home. I’m feeling stressed and needed some personal space for myself. I had to honor that part of me that said take it easy. So that’s why I didn’t work all night on it.

He leaned forward in his chair, obviously distressed. The worst part, Scott, is I looked around and could see my office staff (all millennials) shaking their heads, if not agreeing, then understanding

Uh oh.

So I asked him. I said, let me get this straight. You said you would finish a job and then didn’t?

Yes.

You left your team mate hanging in the wind?

Well, I can see how you may think that. But really, it’s complicated. You don’t know how stressed I am.

He just went on and on. I felt like I was talking to a different species. But you know, that’s how young people think these days. Being true to themselves. It’s quite a work-family feud we have right now. I want them to feel supported. I want this to work out.

***

I sat back and watched it all play out. There really was two conflicting patterns to observe.

  • Be true to you lowest self, not your higher self. That higher part of us doesn’t mind self sacrifice. In fact the higher self is pretty much determined by the amount we are willing to sacrifice for the greater good. The part of you that doesn’t want to stress yourself out. The part of you that says, I am tired and need to slow down is not the true self.
  • The team-player ethic. Each of them depended on each other to help each other out. They had to depend on each other because they are a small business. There are no specialists.

What’s implied in the second issue is that people count on each other and it’s important to the modern workplace. The first issue says I will conditionally commit.

I told my patient, you have a family alright. A very dysfunctional one at that.

He looked up at me shocked.

What do you mean?

I said, well you competed in the Ski To Sea race as a company team. Yes, he replied. Let’s use that as an example.

The Ski To Sea Race (http://www.skitosea.com/) is one of the oldest multi-sport races in the world. It starts on Mt. Baker and finishes on the bay. The events are: Cross Country Ski, Uphill Run/Ski, Downhill Run, Bicycle, Canoe, Cyclo-Cross and Kayak.

This year we had a very strange winter. In prior years Mt. Baker set a world record for most snowfall. This last winter, hardly any fell. In fact, snow pack levels were at 10% of norms by season’s end.

This lack of snow created quite a problem for the first two legs of the race as there was no snow.

Did the race officials sit down with their inner selves and say it’s too hard? I just don’t have time to set up a new race.

No.

They changed it up. This year we started with an uphill run and finished with an extra leg, Mountain Biking.

The new legs caused quite a few teams to sit down with their personal selves and say, if it’s not the race I am used to, I am not going to compete.

There were far fewer competitors this year: 350. Last year there were 430 teams.

I checked with race officials.

Turns out there were far fewer recreational teams. The top competitors largely remained the same. They overcome the obstacle of the course to compete.

There is a fine lesson here.

The teams that traditionally did well did so again this year. The teams that never fared well, simply ceased to exist.

Athletes had to try out new legs of the race. Some (as in our team) became support crews for the race. Our cross country skier got up at 4 am on race day to help our bicyclist get warmed up and stay warmed up on the mountain. He could have easily said, no thanks, would rather just see you all at the party.

Perhaps the lesson here is that internal voice telling you to give in and give up is the only thing that will remain constant, as long as you listen to it.

Doesn’t matter if it’s a race or a project. Unless you set your heart and mind to it, it will dissolve.

In Chinese the character for Integrity means direct connection between the heart (feelings) and mind (thoughts) and our mouth.

He looked at me kind of stunned and smiled.

Do you get it?

Yeah, I do. I’ve been catering to the new culture instead of the right culture. So much for those workshops I took. Time to get back to basics.

***

For all of our loyal readers. This is how our team did.

Well we were named 8 Drunken Pirates and An Adjunct Harle (the guy who woke up early to be on support crew). Out of the 350 we placed 48th. Not bad for a team of actual friends who are all over the age of 40. How did the canoe team do? We placed 54th. Last year 100. The year before 116. Each year we refine our time, our equipment. This year we are focusing on technique. That and not flipping over in the middle of the lake and getting rescued!

Aluminum Foil and Sub-Arctic Sleeping Arrangements

 

In tenth grade I was a mess. I was very small and quite erratic: mentally, socially, physically and spiritually. I knew there was a god out there but after the suicide of my friend, I couldn’t understand the game plan. I stayed up most nights either wandering the lake my family lived on or driving my mountain bike over to Bill’s house.  

As you can imagine, I made a seemingly easy target for bullies.

I had made friends with a girl in my grade. I never made a move or asked her out. I was simply happy to have a friend.

Her boyfriend wasn’t so happy about it.

One day in gym class I was running down the field and he took me out. I ended up a tangled mess of elbows, knees and rage.

The gym teacher saw what happened and looked the other way. He disliked me chiefly because I was not likable at that age. The guy that took me out was one of the football players. He was one of the “good kids.” My claim to fame was that I had quit the wrestling team and had many social/ societal/authority issues.

In other words I was an outsider.

I picked myself up and headed inside. In the locker room this guy, let’s call him Football Head (FB), said he was going to kick my ass.

Later that afternoon I ended up at Bill’s house, as usual. I was talking to him about what to do.  FB was bigger than both of us and was kind of friends with Bill – they were both on sports teams together.

Our friend Michael Marsh overhead this conversation. He asked who we were talking about.  I told him the story and didn’t think much about it after that.

I was ready in school the next day for FB when he came up to me. I had been here before. We moved a lot growing up. Bullies always take their time to start a fight.

It’s best to hit first.

As FB walked up to me I clenched my fist, gritted my teeth and sunk lower in my stance.

He reached out with his hand for me to shake. It just hung there like an unopened letter.

I looked at the hand, suspended in air. Not making a move.

I’m sorry he blurted out grabbing my hand. The look on his face was nothing but fear. He shook my hand and said, I don’t want any trouble. I’m sorry.

He left me in the locker room stunned.

Later that day, back at Bill’s, I told him the story. Bill just shrugged his shoulders. We went over to Marshy’s house to see what he was up to. I told him what happened.

Marshy said, of course, Guito (that’s what he called me). I told him he was on the list.

The list?

Yeah, I have a list of people that do bad things. And I’m going to pay every one of those people back.

But I thought you guys were friends?

Friends? Not really. Besides, he shouldn’t be picking on you, he’s much bigger. I hate that. I hate when people make you feel this way. Yep. I told him I moved him up to number one.

And that was that. I never had trouble from FB again.

I guess a couple words of explanation are due?

Marshy grew up on Fair Street in Otego, New York. He was an outlier. He was on the fringe. He was also a little too smart. After scoring very high on the SAT’s he was courted by universities and the military.

Instead of accepting these offers, he decided to live underground, literally for two years.

Along the way, he lived outside in negative 30 degree winters in upstate New York. Decided to flatten out the back lawn because the angles of solar reflection were interfering with his thoughts. There was the time he tied a loaf of bread onto the frame of his bike and pedaled from Cape Cod back to upstate New York because, as he joked, it was all downhill.

Marshy had a long and complicated personal and family history with mental illness. So when he said you are on the list, there was no doubt that there was an actual list. Marshy’s story also makes his decision to help me all the more meaningful. Basically, every kid wants to fit in. Every kid wants and needs people to like them. By helping me, a complete outsider, Marshy jeopardized what little he had in common with the more popular kids. And that sort of uncommon courage sums up Marshy, himself.

Years ago when my first mentor died (http://th3rdforce.com/?p=384) I went back to upstate and stayed at Bill’s family home. We knocked on Marshy’s door. To be honest I was apprehensive. I had never called to check in. I knew he wasn’t doing well. When he opened the door he came outside and told me about his latest project – putting aluminum foil on all of his plants and taking massive quantities of rare mineral salts. He joined us for dinner later that evening.

What I remembered about that evening was that instead of making me feel uncomfortable, he complimented me on how good I looked. He was deeply interested in how my life had worked out. He asked me a lot of questions about being married. Having kids. At the end of our talk, he looked pleased. He told me, I’m glad you are OK because you really see things. I knew what he meant, outlier to outlier.

These stories about Marshy I shared with you all are part of the glue that binds that group of friends I grew up with. We share these stories with each other when we visit. We don’t talk about characters in TV shows or movies. We share the real-life stories of our friends because in reality, these heroes are the only people worth keeping company with.

Another thing that Marshy did for me was again give me a different perspective on life. A few months ago he was diagnosed with cancer. I called the hospital room but could not get to him. He blocked all calls.

Bill and his father went to visit Marshy. The visit didn’t go well. Marshy had lost what little traction he had with this reality. Mr. Donnelly left the room and Bill told me it took maybe 20 minutes to get through the anger, frustration and paranoia.

The demons had taken over.

In the end though, Marshy made his last appearance. He came back for a few moments before losing himself against the tide.

That final lesson?

Well there was no doubt Marshy was in pain and was suffering terribly from his cancer and his inner demons.

We all know that light is the only way to dispel darkness. And for me, pain is simply the darkness we choose to share with ourselves, by ourselves.

Marshy not only asked Mr. Donnelly to leave, but eventually refused further contact with Bill after a few more weeks.

He ended his life as he wished to. Alone in a room by himself on April 18, 2015.

But you see it didn’t work. He closed that door but we were still there, talking about him and sending him good thoughts.

I thought, driving to work the other day, in what way am I closing doors on the ones that could ease my pain? In what ways are my own decisions leading to more pain?

Bill and I will continue to share these stories. We will continue to keep the memory of our friend alive, in real time.

This morning I told a very cleaned up version of the story of “the list” to my kids. My youngest got quiet for a minute. I looked over at her. Hon, I said, what are you thinking about?

Her eyes were hooded and she was lost in thought. She smiled. A list poppa! Your friend was so lucky he had a whole list of people close to his heart. I can’t wait to hear him.

Hear him?

Yeah, when he tells god to look after you because he’s not here anymore, I’ll hear it.

With that, all 8 years of her walked up the stairs and got ready for her school day.

Goodbye my brother. You will be missed, but more importantly, you will live on.

Photo  Credit: www.deviantart.com