Down All the Days

For reference, last week’s blog post was a quickly cobbled together tribute to a high-school teacher whose actions changed my life. And as is often the case for me, my emotional reactions tend to follow later as the wave-like reverberations slow enough for me to track on them.

I’ve been down since hearing the news of my teacher’s passing more than a week ago now. Waking daily with a heaviness on chest and brain that happens when I experience a non-localized anxiety.

To summarize many, many thoughts on the matter, I’ve been contemplating my own mortality.

Hitting middle age does that I suppose, brings the end (or the generalized whereabouts of where you predict the end to be) into sharper focus.

I recognize the inherent selfishness of the response: I’m taking another person’s death—and another family’s pain—and making it about myself and my family. Recognizing the selfishness hasn’t told me how to dispel it, however.

I acknowledge that I have much work to do in this area.

Head In Space

I meditate. It’s odd to admit this publicly, a mix of vulnerability and confession follows. Perhaps because admitting to a meditation practice raises the question about why.

Surely there must be something wrong with me if I’m practicing meditation. A deficiency I’m making up for.

And, well, I suppose there is. Among my faults, I’m quick to anger and I live with a pervasive anxiety and at this mid-point of my life, meditation is a means for keeping myself centered. My life is enhanced, and the lives of those around me are improved, if I work on these more off-the-cuff reactions and maybe not always emote and respond from them without the intervention of conscious thought. 

For the past two months, I’ve been using the Headspace app.

Until I started with the app, I had worked through a regular meditation practice cobbled together mostly from my reading on the topic (Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron). This worked well enough; I had managed a workable daily practice, even if it is at times difficult to focus during my sessions.

What I’ve appreciated most about Headspace is the guided sessions, an aspect I was initially not keen on but have come to value. The gentle reminders to reign in my thoughts and to increase that gap between me and the thoughts themselves is essential work for me.

You can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Headspace, which I recommend. Following the initial 30-day trial, should you decide to continue, you can select several learning tracks, including Sports, Health, Relationships, and Performance. (I have been working my way through the Anxiety track in the Health section and found the sessions both effective and easy to practice in my life beyond the meditation pillow.)

Whether you’re drawn to meditation based on its more spiritual overtones or because of the scientific research that supports a practice (or both), Headspace provides you with one more useful tool to help you better understand yourself.

The Bait and the Hook

For several years now, I’ve been working on incorporating a mindfulness practice into my daily (hourly) life.

I began the practice to deal with anxiety; as any sufferer of anxiety will tell you, being in the present is the antithesis of fear and panic, which depend on a tacky combination of circuitous inner dialogue, self-denigrating thoughts and a repetitive regurgitation of previously-felt emotion.

There’s usually a bevy of compulsive behaviors that come bundled in there, behaviors that are meant to drive off the fear and panic.

One of my challenges is that the primary way of coping with anxiety—using deep breathing and other grounded senses to bring me back into the present moment—runs counter to the work necessary for being a writer.

For me, writing requires a deep dive into memory and imagination that often means plunging into that very quagmire of inner dialogue, destructive thoughts and stale emotion that typically trigger anxiety, panic attacks, etc.

Fun.

I discovered Pema Chodron’s work near the beginning of my mindfulness practice, and I’ve found tracking on the Tibetan concept of shenpa to be useful for navigating these seemingly contradictory states of being. Here’s an excellent break-down by Chodron herself.

I’ve written many times in this blog about how very much I suck at noticing that I’m hooked. That doesn’t negate the fact that my goal is to pay better attention, to feel those triggers and those urges and not bite. 

I will fail, of course. And that's why I must begin again.

 

All Those Smiling Buddhas

Although it is easy for me to forget, emotions don’t live solely in the nebulous and inner mindscape squirreled away behind my eyeballs. Emotions literally exist in my body; they manifest in tissue and viscera. There is an essential interplay between the physiological response to an event, and the feeling that generates from experiencing that event.

When I conceive of the mind/body/emotion connection, the ‘body’ component often defines itself as the movement of my limbs or the sensation of my deep breathing – you know, the typical practicing mindfulness stuff. Rarely, if ever, does the concept of ‘body’ translate specifically into the expressions that my facial muscles might make.

In Jonathan Kalb’s recent piece for The New Yorker, where he describes being afflicted with Ball’s palsy, a condition that paralyzes part of his face and prevents him from smiling, Kalb reminds us of the studies that charted how facial expressions feed our emotions. When the muscles in his face could no longer allow him to spontaneously form a smile, he states that he struggled to feel joy:

 “…emotions aren’t intangible phenomena traceable to an abstraction called the mind; rather they are responses rooted in physiology.”

In other words, if Kalb can’t smile, if his face can’t tell him what to feel in those blissful microseconds before his mind catches up and defines those feelings, then he has lost an essential aspect of the mind/body/emotion connection.

That flow always strikes me as intuitively wrong, that my smile or frown or grimace can tell me what to feel, but the studies Kalb cites in his article draw that exact conclusion – not only does my mind generate an emotion, my face can generate an emotion, too.

Kalb’s piece reminded me that I had actually been exposed to the science behind this idea more than a decade before. Where or how I read about the studies at the time is lost to the ether, but I remember conducting my own experiments. My first wife had left me, and although I wasn’t depressed in the clinical sense (my understanding of depression is a numbness, a lack of feeling, and I was feeling all kinds of emotions) I was definitely defeated, embarrassed, ashamed. As those who’ve divorced know, the public spectacle of a break-up is one thing, but the official nature of a marriage’s demise is profound – even if the divorce is the best thing for both people.

Anyway, while feeling generally unworthy, I decided to smile while I walked around town even when I wasn’t feeling the energy behind that smile. Doing this necessarily altered my normally slouching posture and forced me to move differently – more upright and with a more energetic step. Yes, I’m sure it was creepy for those who passed by the automaton with the forced grin, but the experiment did have an impact. Several, actually.

I paid closer attention to the expressions my face was making, and I discovered that most of the time if left to my usual inattentiveness, I was maintaining a furrowed, worried expression. Anxious lines were carving themselves into my brow and forehead. I hadn’t noticed that before. How often had that expression caused me to feel uncertain and afraid? How often had an anxious countenance told my emotion engine that I should feel, well, anxious?

Often, I suspect.

While smiling in times when I wouldn’t normally do so didn’t exactly translate to feeling happy, it did lighten my mood and it provided me with a steady sense of well being. In more recent years, as I’ve studied mindfulness meditation, several practitioners have recommended maintaining a slight smile while we breathe, while we allow our thoughts to flow past.

You know, like those many statues of smiling Buddhas.

I, for one, have focused much of my mindfulness practice on understanding how my thoughts distract and undermine me. Until reading Kalb’s piece, I had all but forgotten that the conduit flows not down but around; that my thoughts can be shaped by the responses in my body and, specifically, in my face - as much as by memory or preoccupation. It may be time to try that smiling experiment again. 

Creation Anxiety

As you know, I follow the One You Feed podcast. An emerging concept from the multiple guests and discussions over the past few months is the impact that Depression has on project-related work.

Specifically: Depression causes paralysis.

For those of us who willingly or unwillingly partake of project work (and I’m not just discussing creative project work here), paralysis—by which I mean just the idea of performing project-related tasks stuns us into non-activity or distracting behavior—is terminal.

We procrastinate, we crank our mental cogs, we keep ourselves awake at night, all because the idea of doing the work is a fifteen story tall, one hundred acre wide monolith that we can’t see over or around.

So we don’t do anything.

For me, being exquisitely hardwired for anxiety, I vamp on the above a little differently. When I bloody my nose against that immense project monolith, I don’t go into paralysis mode; I go into worry mode. The specific next tasks for the project—be they researching, drafting, holding meetings, or just getting my ass in a chair—blur into a fog of self-doubt and ceaseless self-talk about how I can’t possibly ever get what needs doing done.

The solution that Eric Zimmer recommends in several One You Feed podcasts is to break up the many tasks into smaller, easier-to-complete items. This gibes completely with the discipline of Project Management, whereby the Project Manager creates a Work Breakdown Structure and starts chipping that monolith into 8 hour increments.

8 hour increments function well for us in the work world, but 8 hour increments don’t (necessarily) lend themselves to our creative endeavors where many of us who are creating in-between our other life commitments are lucky to get any time at all.

So piggy-backing on Zimmer’s advice, find a time increment that works for your schedule and fill that time doing something/anything for your project. (In my case, the time increment is somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour) Even if it’s ‘draft Chapter one’ or ‘write two stanzas’ or ‘read about pudding wrestling.’ Make a plan; execute the plan.

Much of project work is giving yourself a sense of control. The way to gain control is to take action. Not action for the sake of action, but directive action. It is amazing how my anxiety level drops at least by half once I figure out the next few project steps, and I get even one of those steps completed.

There are aspects you won’t be able control, of course. I recently had a character emerge in the draft of my WIP who has upended my entire—MY ENTIRE—novel plot outline. Strangely, that’s not the part of the project work that’s frightening or paralyzing. I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t want the work to transport me to places I didn't expect.

No, what causes me anxiety is all the spinning I do before I type one word. My anxiety begets more anxiety.

Every project has its own challenges; every project has its own lessons. There will be mistakes, there will be pain (hell, there will be blood!), but if we examine our fears or our collective paralysis, if we really look at it, we recognize that future suffering isn’t why we haven’t started. The reason we haven’t started is because we haven’t started.

So, even if it’s messy, even if it’s awful, even if it’s (especially if it’s) imperfect, let’s get started.