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.

Doing It Wrong All of My Life - Mindfulness and the Creative Life

 

“I’ve Been Doing It Wrong All of My Life” – North and South of the River, U2

“Make use of the things around you” – Sunday Night, Raymond Carver

 

I was well into my thirties before I recognized that I had been living my life wrong.

It went something like this.

First off, writers must pay attention to our senses, to the world around us, and writers must disappear inside ourselves to mine our memories, our pains, our regrets. (We writers have a lot of regrets.)

Writers must be present, in the moment, right here with the people surrounding us, and writers must hide ourselves away physically, mentally, and unplug from friends and family so that we can bleed off the welled-up waters.

If these actions and states seem contradictory, they of course are.

A writer lives in at least two worlds – the imagination carnival touring its 24/7 rave inside our skulls, and the world at the tip of our noses, the one where the rest of humanity lives that is as close as a breath and yet as far away as drowned Atlantis.

 Navigating the separation between these two worlds is essential to our survival. Bridging the two even better.

I turned to practicing mindfulness after my first son proved to me how unprepared for fatherhood I was.  When it became clear how disconnected I was from the world. Sure, I was taking in details, feelings, snatches of dialogue – all writers have their senses attuned, their vulture-like ravaging of the present, active at all times for later use. But I wasn’t living in those moments. I wasn’t living at all.

And what is living? I believe it’s as simple as being present with whatever is happening to you right now (however pleasurable or painful).

If nothing else, an infant is going to grind your protesting face into the present no matter how much you fight it. The infant will win.

It’s a simple request – that a father should be present with his son. That my child should need me with him in the messy, loud, exhausted moment. But for someone who was used to paying half-attention to reality, someone who could spin in the thrall of his own imagination for days, my son may as well have been asking for me to pluck a star out of the sky and hang that raging ball of gas and heat on his ceiling. The toll was immediate, both on my relationship with my son and with my wife, and as with most things, it took reaching to a critical juncture—the marriage dismantling kind—before I acknowledged that I needed to change, get with the program, engage.

I turned to mindfulness.

I’m terrible at it. Really fucking awful. Even now, years into this ‘practice’ I have maybe a few minutes of every day where I am present in the, well, present. Being both artist and anxiety-sufferer, the RPM of my thoughts is always in the red. The effort to let those thoughts flow past without spinning down into a quagmire of memory-riddled emotion is herculean, and I often fail at it. But I am more aware of when I get snared by past or future thinking. I recognize better when I’m caught. That may not sound like much, but it is in fact huge.

There’s more.

Practicing mindfulness has made me a better artist. Being in the present moment has helped my ability to observe using all of my senses. I can better take in stimuli without judging or naming it. And when it’s writing time, when I’ve more constructively disengaged from my family, mindfulness practice helps me focus on making art. Less spinning, more producing.

Mindfulness also helps with the anxiety. When the discomfort—the shortness of breath, the drum-soloing heart—comes for me, embracing the fear rather than fleeing it relaxes me. Quite a bit, actually. To the point where I almost want my quivering fear beside me so that I can name it, know it, acknowledge it and then let it go on its way. Mindfulness isn’t a cure for anxiety, but it’s a worthy tool to have in your toolbox.

So if you’re interested, I offer this: The artist Jon J Muth has a wonderful children’s book called ‘The Three Questions’ which is a Zen-Inspired translation of Leo Tolstoy’s short story. (Yes, I think a children’s book is the perfect vehicle for a lesson in mindfulness.) When you find your thoughts racing, when the intoxicating song of your imagination calls you away from the present moment, ask yourself the three questions:

When is the best time to do things?

Who is the most important?

What is the right thing to do?

I’ll let you discover the answers on your own. But often just asking the questions is enough. 

The Drugs Don't Work - Anxiety's Coming Out Party

‘Anxiety is the Hand Maiden of Creativity’ – T.S. Eliot

 

Anxiety is America’s most common mental illness according to Scott Stossel’s excellent article in the Atlantic Monthly (excerpted from Stossel’s book ‘My Age of Anxiety’).

Almost as if to prove his point, within the same week Stossel was interviewed on Fresh AirKat Kinsman’s heart-touching and heart-breaking piece appeared on CNN.com.

The condition of Anxiety is going public, and anxiety-sufferers are kicking loose that closet door.

What’s taken so long?

The answer is as simple as it is frustrating: anxiety-sufferers are ashamed to admit that we are, in essence, afraid. We’re afraid of specific objects or activities—cheese, flying, speaking in public—and we’re afraid of forces nebulous and mysterious that we only know by the dread that shimmies in our guts and awakens us at three in the morning.

Culturally we industrious Americans are trained to face our fears, to buck up and confront, to prove that we are better than the shadows dancing behind our eyes. To admit that we’re afraid is to open ourselves up to derision. We fear that our fear will make people fall out of love with us, that it will cost us our jobs, that we are in fact the weak simpering cowards we know ourselves to be.

The comedian Sarah Silverman told an illustrative story about how she had a full-blown panic attack while bombing on stage early in her career. What kept her from returning to the stage for a time (it may have been a year or longer) was her fear that she’d have another panic attack. In her words, she feared the fear.

And if I had only one phrase to sum up what the condition of Anxiety is, it is that: fearing the fear.

The symptoms of Anxiety and panic are so uncomfortable, so rife with the perceived potential to cause chaos and turmoil (although Anxiety rarely actually causes these things) that most of us would do anything to not be afraid. We construct whole schemas of neurotic behavior in order to stave of what at best is an array of distracting physical symptoms and at worst is a full-blown panic attack.

So here’s the punch-line of Stossel’s article: the drugs don’t work.

To be more precise, the drugs that many anxiety-sufferers take in order to ease symptoms and to cope do help in some circumstances or for a period of time, but they don’t cure the malady. One of the distressing and frustrating aspects of Anxiety is that it appears in force at times of relative calm.  

An example: My wife was forced into bed rest 20 weeks into her pregnancy with our second child. This resulted in me taking care of her and our 3 year old while working a full-time job. At the same time my wife focused on keeping herself sane and maintaining a positive frame of mind, I was having side-line conversations with our doctor about what a premature birth at 25 weeks might look like. 26 weeks. 27.  The money we had saved to use after the child was born burned itself up weeks before his birth. And then there was the exhausting recovery my wife could expect in the years after delivering.

When did I start having panic attacks? Not during the bed rest or even in the weeks after my son was born (at 31 weeks). I was too busy, too focused. But about a year afterward, the Anxiety I had believed vanquished in my early 30s came roaring back with a tsunami-like force.

I was disappointed in myself. Defeated is a better word for it.

Over these years, as our second child has thrived and my wife has slowly recovered from the effects of bed rest and delivery, I’ve consciously enforced a regimen of meditation, therapy and, yes, drugs. At certain times, I use beta-blockers to ease the symptoms. And, agreeing with Stossel here, no one of these strategies is effective as a ‘cure.’ Certainly not the drugs. They help, but they don’t stop the thoughts, and the fearful thoughts are what ultimately get you.

The fear is out there. Always. Ever-ready to attack and make any ‘normal’ situation a disaster.

Lest you think I’m trending negative here, I’m not. I see such hope in the coming out of anxiety-sufferers. Understating here - Stossel and Kinsman are courageous to put their professional selves on the line in order to put Anxiety into the public discourse and expose it for what it is – a condition, an illness, that many of us endure in desperation and solitude. But no longer, right?

 For me, I accept that physiologically I’m wired for anxiety. Anxiety is my go-to. Fear is going to be my life-long companion. Knowing I’m not alone in this struggle eases much. But knowing that there is no cure is also strangely comforting. This condition isn’t a failing. It’s an aspect of myself that makes some events in my life difficult, but my fear also fuels my creativity, my artistic life. If I hadn’t suffered anxiety throughout my childhood and adolescence, I wouldn’t have written anything.

I don’t want to be any other way.

But I do want to know that when I feel the fear, when the Anxiety is tearing into me, I have others around me who understand. Stossel and Kinsman have gone a long way into making sure I know I’m not alone in this.