A Tale Of Three Minds

He came in the office vibrating with excitement. The uncharacteristic slash of August sunlight struck his face as he sat across from me. It was a record-setting summer in Bellingham, Washington.  Our thermometer regularly danced above 90.

“Hey Doc I got a question. How do you make up your mind?”

I responded, “It’s not important. What is important is how you make up your mind.”

“Hmm,” he said. “Basically I think it through and if it feels good I go for it.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

He looked up at me in shock. “Sounds good? My life is a mess. A complete catastrophe. Sounds good?”

“I don’t want to seem rude to you,” I said. “But here is what has happened five, no, six times this week. People have told me they are not happy with their weight and would like to lose some.”

“Ok, that sounds good. This is a clinic. What’s the matter?”

“In all cases but one, before I even stopped talking, they made excuses why my advice would not work. And they are paying for that advice.”

“Oh, that’s depressing.”

“No. Not for me. I’m always looking to see how to reach people. Gives me something to work on.”

“OK. I got it. Listen. Don’t say no before I have even heard what you have to say. I can do that. So how do you make up your mind?”

“What’s on your mind?”

“I can’t figure out if I should take a job in another city.”

“Oh that’s a tough one. The way I see it is we have our intellectual mind. The one that calculates the salary, cost of living, quality of living, etc. That one’s pretty easy to figure out. What’s that one telling you?”

“Definitely take the job.”

“The harder one is the emotional mind. That’s the one that tells us to do things when we know they are not the right thing. Or they tell us to help out even when it doesn’t make sense. The tricky thing about navigating the emotional mind is we don’t give it much time unless our back is against the wall. When things happen most people don’t process what’s going on. It builds up as stress in the body and mind. The body suffers and breaks down.”

“Yeah, that does sound familiar. Emotionally I don’t know how I’m feeling. It would be great to stay here where my family and girlfriend are. But checking out new places is cool too.”

“Are you thinking or feeling that answer?”

“There’s a difference?”

“For sure. The problem is it’s not common to have a high degree of emotional intelligence. We don’t exercise that part of our self. To make things worse, we then expect emotions to carry their weight during the heavy lifting. Ever hear the phrase, my emotions betrayed me? How can they betray you? You feel something and the mind doesn’t like it. It’s just as right to say the mind betrayed how we felt.”

“Okay. Okay, this is getting complicated.”

“Well, let’s have some fun. A third mind exists. It’s the intuitive mind. This one is really, really misunderstood and poorly used.”

“So you mean a gut feeling?”

“No. Not exactly. Intuition means you have mastered a certain skill set and then you make a leap, based upon the knowledge. Where you end up after that leap is someplace your old way of thinking could not have conceived, let alone make happen.”

“So it’s not listening to my gut?”

“It’s listening to your gut after a prolonged course of study. Basically you exhaust the intellect and then the creative side of you breaks through the ice you find new knowledge. You make things fit that didn’t work before. It’s growth. It’s exactly what I love about being alive.”

“Hmm. So what does all of this mean for me?”

“It means you have a lot of work to do for yourself. Nobody can figure out these tough decisions. It’s funny really, when you think about it. As a culture we think of ourselves as so independent. But when our heroes are in a corner they seek out the guidance of an oracle. Someone to give them the answers they are seeking.”

“That’s what I’m looking for!”

“You can try Siri. No? Okay. Well in Asia, which is supposed to be a society of followers, when the hero is backed into the corner, they go into the mountains and find a hermit. He’s usually a Daoist – they follow the path of nature instead of culture. The job of the hermit is not to give answers, but provide more questions.”

“More questions. How does that help?”

“The right questions expand your field of inquiry. They give us new intellectual terrain to ponder. These are the questions that matter the most. For example this new job. Is it the same field?”

“Yes.”

“The same field you have been looking to get out of? The same field which has proven to be very unstable and as you said, causes a lot of stress?”

“Yes it would be that same field.”

“Oh I get it now.”

“You do?”

“Yes, taking that job would only put off the greater question that’s been gnawing at you. The one that keeps you up at night.”

“Oh,” he said visibly deflating. “The one I asked you last month: I hate my job, what should I do with my life.”

“That’s a good place to start.”

Photo courtesy of Pinterest: 13 Ways of Looking At Black Birds

Bad Advice and Great Birthdays

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Snow cut through the mountains with high winds. I was woefully prepared for the climb. I had my trusty red fleece on and a pair of shorts. My ears hurt. I stuck my head out of the protection of the rock I was burrowed under. Wind stung my eyes.

I let out a big, ah whatever, and made my way up to the top of the mountain. A few minutes in my knees began to ache seemingly from the inside out.

I didn’t care much.

I had already woke up with a headache. Apparently mixing high altitude and a few beers wasn’t a good idea. I was 20 years old, what did I know?

Up top nobody lingered. There really was no view. Only a small group of people catching their breath before heading back down. Between the snow, wind and clouds there wasn’t much to do up top but freeze.

I did a 360 turn noting that all of them did in fact have pants and proper gear. What can I say? I was a lowlander exploring the mountains of Colorado for the first time. I had no idea that in summer it could be too hot on the start of a climb and end up snowing.

I was hooked.

I can’t stand being too warm. Here was a place I could be happy, except my head, ears and knees were barking louder than the dog in front of me.

“He won’t bite. He’s friendly.”

I waved the dog off and sat down. The man made his way to where I was, warming up in the sun.

“Saw you up top. Never a good idea to be up here without gear. Where are you from?”

“I’m from upstate New York,” I explained, “but am going to school in Virginia.”

“Ah, nice. I’m a high school teacher. What are you studying?”

“Post-modern poetry with minor in Chinese philosophy,” I said.

We both looked at each other and laughed.

“That’s a new one to me. I teach history.”

We talked a while about the benefits of teaching: lots of time off, working with the kids, etc.

And the negatives: parents think they can do the job better than the teachers, being broke all the time.

We spent about 15 minutes together before the clouds started coming back in.

“I can tell you love it up here. Let me give you some advice. Do as much of this as you possibly can now. There’s no way the body can do this over a lifetime. My back hurts and my knees are shot. This trip is a kind of goodbye for me. After this I’m done with backpacking.”

With that he packed up his gear.

“So how old are you?”

“Oh,” he said stiffly walking away, “I’m 37.”

Hmm, I thought to myself. That sounds like a health plan I don’t want to follow. Over the years I have heard countless patients tell me why they can’t do what they used to do.

Here’s some wisdom I learned from a 3,800 year old scroll: the body ages from the legs up.

Keep active. Work each major joint in the body each day. Most important, don’t forget that the mind needs to be worked.

You can’t let information into your head that doesn’t belong there. You can’t let people impose limitations upon you. Even more to the point, you should not impose those limitations on yourself.

I turned 44 last week. You know how I celebrated? I hiked up Yellow Aster Butte. It starts out brutal, 2.5 miles and 2 thousand feet of elevation gain then flattens out and makes its way near several alpine lakes, glaciers and incredible views.

I made the climb and had some pizza I had cooked the night before. I saw plenty of people younger and older than me on that trial. Every person I met I told them to keep going. The view was worth it. The pain was simply a reminder to be out in nature more often. To take the time to keep the body healthy and the spirit free.

As I looked out over the Cascade Mountains I got a message from TH3RDFORCE cofounder, Bill Donnelly.

What, I thought to myself, just happened? How can I get a text out here this high up, over an hour away from cell service? Apparently, my computer lady told me, if you get high enough you can wing signals out of the towers.

In any case I answered that message and thought about that sage advice I was given over 20 years ago in Colorado: get outside now because your body will break down and you won’t have the energy to go anyway.

No thanks. I think I’ll follow my buddy Robert Frost up another path.

New But Not Improved

Patients come into the clinic sure that the reason they are unhappy has something to do with where they are in their life.

The names and faces change but the laundry list looks much the same. Some don’t like their job, their town, not having a relationship, having a relationship, etc.

The “solution” they dangle in front of themselves, is largely the same. They want to go somewhere new. Or do something new. It’s always something new.

I would wager that something new has a far greater chance of failure than simply doing what used to work. But somehow, along the way, we forget what works and slump into poor habits and choices. People who are unhappy or unsatisfied have learned the habit of not being who or what they want to be.

How does this happen?

We all start off doing what makes us feel good. We have a natural predisposition to seeking ease and comfort. I’m not talking about sloth, but the opposite. The feeling of the body after a very hard workout is a miracle in chemical homeostasis. The body is flooded with endorphins and we feel good for hours, even days, afterward.

In contrast, observe the body and mind after playing the junk-food game. We initially get a sugar rush and then the plane drops out of the sky, oxygen bags deployed. Boom we crash out either in mid spoonful with a wave of nausea of just wait for it, in about an hour it will arrive. Post-prandial sugar coma.

Our present day life is simply the sum of all of our personal habits. Everything we experience as a daily norm is something that we are working on maintaining.

Crazy isn’t it?

I had my own version of this cycle upon reaching college. I quit drinking my first semester (great idea) stopped dating to focus on writing (perhaps my worst idea to date), and started meditating and exercising regularly (really good ideas).

I did all of this and felt better. Not great but it was working. After college I spent months on the road, hardly eating and hiking each day.

This was a good beginning. It’s easy to confuse it with an end.

Soon enough I found a job at a newspaper. I started drinking coffee by the gallon, beer by the twelve pack. Stopped exercising and you can guess what happened to the meditation practice.

I hit bottom repeatedly. Finally one day I got so sick of myself I forced myself to start exercising and meditating again. It was a slow and painful process, but I got going again.

It’s a tough road, but there are signs on the way. About the time I was hitting bottom, again, I was talking to a good friend of mine. He was intense. Opinionated. Drank too much and had anger issues. Strange how much we liked each other’s company, huh?

I talked to him about meditation. He told me he had stopped. I asked, why? He said, from my cushion on the couch I saw that the entire world was a series of connections. I stopped meditating because I no longer needed it.

In my mind I did the math: doesn’t play well with others, can’t hold a job, angry all the time, confrontational and unhappy with himself. Not sure the lesson was learned.

 Later on in life I took up Qigong, or breathing exercises. I studied with a great teacher from Beijing. He was internationally known for his talents as both a practitioner and teacher. When we got to know each other I asked him how much he practiced. He confided in me that he didn’t need to practice anymore because he had metabolized the practice on a genetic level.

Really, I stammered, thinking about him being on his fourth marriage. His inability to handle changes in his teaching schedule. And the mean spirit he displayed when he thought someone was beneath him. My BS alarm rang at full alert. That was the last time we talked.

So what did I learn from them?

To stop doing what we all do. We lie to ourselves. We forget what used to work and start seeking the “new thing” that will somehow liberate us.

I decided not to do that anymore. And so can you.

***

Notice: No post next week as it’s family vacation time!

A Dance of Fire and Water

Friday

Woke up 545 a.m. had a phone meeting with 3F cofounder, Bill Donnelly. I was on the road by 6:30 a.m. No traffic. Open road and I was feeling good. Love talking to Bill. Love doing the work we do.

Arrived in Early Winters camp at 9:30 a.m. Only one site open and, hey, it’s one fronting the Early Winters Creek.

Life is good.

I unpacked my gear and set up my tent. Next I went down to the river’s edge and set up my sun umbrella – Winthrop, WA average summer day is 90-100  degrees plus.

Sitting by the river that sweet feeling of euphoria was slowly replaced by dread. Yes, I confirmed looking through my tent and truck, Captain Cool has forgotten his sleeping bag. Even after nearly 40 years camping I still manage to forget things. No worries, I thought, it won’t get that cold. Flash forward to three a.m same night. Our weary traveler is shivering and cursing in the dark. Waiting for it to get light enough to break camp. Let’s not do that, I think.

I drive into Mazama and check out sleeping bags. I’m shown a $600 sleeping bag. I stammer a no thanks and then am shown a $300 bag. The store owner has seen this look before. “I could always rent you one,” he says, “$30 for the weekend.” I choose option three and its back to the camp with me and my new friend.

By now it’s lunch time. I have a great selection of cured meats, cheeses, olives and crackers. I open a Freemont Summer ale and watch the storm clouds roll in.

After lunch I go for a hike. It’s an incredible trail following the river and mountains of the Methow Vally. A few scattered drops hit me as I make my way back to camp.

I look out at my neighbors. They are hiding under a rainfly. They look like college kids or 20-something olds. As I’m aging I can’t tell the difference any more.

The first real rain drops bounce off of my rain fly. I head into the tent and meditate until the sound of falling rain takes me to the other side of consciousness.

I wake up and it’s darker outside than it should be. I don’t mind it much. I come out of the tent and take a look around. The college kids are still under the rain tarp.  I hear thunder in the distance. It’s slowly getting louder. The rain is constant by now.

I grab some meat for a sandwich and instantly feel a slow, warm sense of peace wash all over me. I’m getting drowsy again.

Back into the tent, this time meditating for hours. I drift in and out of sleep the entire night. The thunder gradually becomes louder and then again, as the storm passes, it softens until it’s gone.

Saturday

I wake early enough to see the sky bloom with sunlight. I turn on my stove and make some coffee. I sit by the river and read and think and sometimes I do nothing at all.

By early afternoon I rise up out of my riparian post and head out for another hike. I repeat what I did yesterday. This time I’m walking slower, taking in each crag of rock. I listen to the wind sawing through tall grass. Eagles scream in the distance. I must be close to water. There it is now. A sliver of the afternoon sky snaking out across the land. I see them now, a couple of bald eagles playing in the updrafts. I sit by the side of the river and hear faintly the sound of rocks clunking into each other as they pass me by.

Heading back to the camp, again, the sky darkens.

The college crowd is back under their tarp. They look miserable. They are arguing now a little. It’s hard to hear them against the backdrop of the river but I’ve been here before. Specifically I’ve been them before.

I climb back in my tent and meditate. A few hours later I come back out. In the back of my mind I had a plan to ride my mountain bike the 8 miles to Kelly’s pub and get some dinner. The rain clouds blacken as if to say, yeah, buddy why don’t you try it?

I hop in my truck, avoiding the dark looks my bike is giving me.

Passing the college crowd I stop, unroll my window, and say, “It’s going to pour tonight. Why don’t you guys head into town?” One of them replies, “we’re camping. We will stay here.” A few somber and damp heads nod in agreement. They are to a person darker than any cloud I can see in the sky.

I arrive at Kelly’s Pub. The owner Steven, never remembers me. I’ve been coming to this restaurant since he was the co-owner of its former incarnation, a Spanish Tapas restaurant. We talk a bit. It’s obvious I know him. He’s used to not remembering people. He can however, read the social cues. He invites me to sit up in the front section of the restaurant and watch the rugby match. He’s not happy that only one of the world’s top ten players is from his home country, Ireland. He asks me about it several times. I smile and say, you know as well as I do Ireland never gets its due. He smiles, possibly remembering that I lived in Cork for a beautiful spell. Then that flash of recognition is gone.

I have never watched a rugby game in my life. I now do so and am yelling with him at the television. He brings me a margarita. The sky turns from dark grey to black.

I’m happy to see the rain. Last year fire’s ravaged much of the Methow Valley. This year we are at less than 10% annual snow pack. It’s been a warm summer. The entire valley is suffering a group Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Everyone is waiting for the first fires to take their homes. Last year, people lost land by the thousands of acres and homes by the dozens.

Steven is obviously agitated. I ask him what’s the matter? He told me with all the fires last year business was slow. Last night’s rain also brought lightning which set to blaze three different fires. “So now I got two worries,” he says, “rain keeping everyone away.” He leaves me with an Icicle Creek Indian Pale Ale beer. He also doesn’t even say the name of his other worry, fire.

As the sky cracks open it starts to rain, hard. Two people make their way from their car to the restaurant. They are seated a few tables down from me, in the main dining room. Their conversation is tense, muted. Nobody is laughing. The television went silent a few minutes ago. I order, improbably enough, posole, which is a traditional authentic Mexican dish made with dried corn, chilis and meat.

“Steven,” I say, “How in the hell does an Irishman end up with posole on his menu.”

“That, my brother,” he says, “Is soul food. It has no nationality.”

“Count me in, I reply.”

The rain is really coming down now. It’s raining harder than I have ever seen rain fall. As the rain strikes the ground it’s bouncing back several feet skyward.

All around me the rain pounds the old metal roof. Another car pulls up. A man and a woman get out of the car and head for the front part of the restaurant, the one with outside seating.

They hug each other in the rain. The rain keeps coming. Now they are dancing. It’s a soft and slow dance. They take their time. Everyone in the restaurant is looking outside at them. There isn’t a sound in the place except for that chorus of rain drops falling. They hold onto each other like it matters. They hold onto each other in a way that reminds me why we risk everything for love.

Their dance finishes and they walk into the side door of the restaurant. They are soaking wet. The couple that had come earlier are already standing, waiting for them.

The woman who was dancing grabs the other lady in a fierce hug. Her face buried deep into the neck of her friend. There is a slow sound. It builds up in layers through the restaurant. She’s crying now. The sound mirroring the rain. Layer upon layer of sound cascading through the restaurant and out into the world. Her knees give out. The men circle the two of them, supporting each other, suspended between this world and another.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she says not looking at us at all. “But that fire that started last night was making a run for our house. This rain today put it out. I don’t have to worry about where we will sleep this year. I don’t have to. . .”

The rain impossibly so, increases in volume, drowning out the rest of what she is saying. I turn away from the dining room and look back out into the world. It’s gone liquid at this point. The line between us breaks apart like broken glass.

I come back to myself a few minutes later. Steven is looking at me. His eyes are wet too.

“Now it’s about time we got to that dinner service. Proper like.”

I nod my head and head back to my campsite. I pass the kids under the tarp. They look more miserable than I can deal with at the moment.

I go directly into my tent. As the rain beats against the fly I am reminded of a dance I saw. A dance of fire and water.

 

Photo courtesy of favim.com

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