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.

 

Round and Round – A Dance of Emotion and Memory

I come from a long line of ruminators, ponderers, brooders. (Or maybe I’m just this way, and I like to blame my family and ancestors.) In any case, I have a gift for excising an emotion from a memory, and then reliving and re-feeling that emotion over and again.

I’m not sure why I do this—I’m not even sure that I knew that I was doing this until recently—but there must be something in revisiting an emotion that helps me understand myself. That helps me remember. That helps me place myself in that scene, in that context, so that I won’t forget.

Part of this is no doubt my biological makeup, part of it is my writer self. Unfortunately, I often go well beyond simply revisiting an emotion.    

I’m reading Pema Chodron’s Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change as a means to tune up my mindfulness exercises. There is an excerpt here.

In this segment, Chodron cites Jill Bolte Taylor, who describes the physiological mechanism behind a given emotion as lasting a mere 90 seconds. If an emotion lasts longer than that minute and a half, it is not the emotion itself that is resonating within us, it is us giving that emotion energy that perpetuates it.

I had, well, an emotional response to that section of the book. Perhaps even a defensive reaction. Clearly there are some memory/emotion combinations that we revisit in order to re-stoke those emotional fires, to help us keep those memories alive. Easy one: the birth of each of my children. I don’t ever want to forget the emotions of those moments.

But, when I set aside my defensive posture and read Chodron’s statement as factual; that is, without assigning a value judgment on it, I can take the comment as more instructional. Perhaps the lesson is best phrased as a question:

Why am I giving this emotion my energy?

Sometimes we choose to keep emotions alive within us. Recognizing that this is an act of choice, of will, is both insightful and empowering, because that means there are some emotions I can choose to stop ruminating upon, emotions I can stop giving power to.

The thornier part of this lesson, though, lies in the emotions we can’t help but feel, the emotions that likely stem from the tragedies, the traumas, in our lives. No one who has ever been abused or violated or victimized is going to simply forget the emotions bundled in those memories. Nor should he or she.

Chodron is a savvy enough thinker and teacher to know not to simplify the importance or resonance of some of our emotions, and returning to the initial, factual message is helpful here, too. The brain exhibits an emotional reaction for a mere 90 seconds, beyond that, it is up to us what we do with the echoes of that emotion. Do we simply replay? Do we interpret? Do we act? Do we avoid?

Chodron’s overarching lesson is to sit with the discomfort, to not run away or stifle. If I don’t want to feel a specific emotion again, I’m adept at either pushing it aside or distracting myself. Often the pushing away or distracting compounds the emotion—gives it more strength—than if I had just taken the moment and allowed the emotion to well up and be.

Why am I giving this emotion my energy?

Asking this question of myself may well be enough to shake me out of my habit to ruminate, brood and ponder.  

The Rodent and the Shadow: The Groundhog Day-Like Curse of Parenting

Mid-week I had one of those parenting days that, with a surgeon’s-like slash of a scalpel, undid my fragile belief that I’m not the worst parent in the Universe.

It was the hottest day of the week, and I had just returned from work. My eldest son wanted to ride his bike with his friend, I reluctantly agreed to monitor, and then my son’s friend offered him a popsicle. We hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so I issued the unequivocal ‘No.’ Then came my kid’s rejoinder ‘But.’ Then came a repeat of my same answer. Then came the kid’s whining. Then came the third repeat of the same answer. Then came the kid’s freak-out complete with bike-tipping and helmet-throwing. Then came my decision to end outside play time because I was hot, I was irritated, and I was sick of saying the same negative thing multiple times.

Once our children evolve out of toddler-hood, the act of parenting consists mostly of scenarios like the above. In fact, what wears most of us beleaguered parents down is the sheer repetition of this same script amid its varied backdrops. It’s the same struggle—hence the comparison to the movie ‘Groundhog Day’—and I often fail: one or both of my kids does or says something that frustrates me and before I can check my immediate reaction to snap or yell I, well, snap or yell.

Among the many humbling lessons of parenting is that you usually do most or all of the things you promised yourself you wouldn’t do when you first became a mother or a father. And among the most difficult and painful rituals is the one where you learn to forgive yourself for being just as inept and fallible as everyone else who has been a parent.

Contrary to what you believe, (and contrary to appearances) no parent knows what he or she is doing.

Still and even so, my goal is to remember to recognize that while my child—this exhausting dervish of willful initiative—is often challenging my rules, he is not (necessarily) just trying to piss me off. His goal is to discover and push against the boundaries, in fact his development depends on this process. And yeah, at moments like now, I can recognize this dynamic just fine. In the heat of the moment, though, when I just want the children to listen and do what I want them to do, I bypass reason for authoritarian imperative.

Do it because I said so.

Parenting, like living, like writing, constantly reminds me that I have a go-to set of reactions that if left unchecked, lead me to the same unpleasant result. I want to change the way I parent, the way I live, the way I create, so I look for models on how to change this fundamental instinct. There is the briefest of moments when I can react in a different manner—when I can halt the impulse to snap or yell—but recognizing I’m in that moment is nearly impossible because that’s just my way. The best guide so far has been the work of Pema Chodrön and her explication of shenpa. Or what she translates for us as ‘getting stuck.’

When I have one of those oh so many parenting moments where I’m on the verge of losing my temper, inside it feels like when I’m shifting gears and there’s that briefest of pauses before the clutch disengages and the new gear locks in. It comes fast, and it comes of muscle-memory, and if I’m not paying attention (which is me 99% of the time) I can just keep on keeping on in the same way I always do. Then, in the hangover of it, I feel shitty for once again reacting in the same old way.

This morning, this moment, is another go at the same challenge – the kids have been bouncing all over the house for hours. And I get to practice again and again (and again). Will I react differently? Can I change? Or will I react in the same old way once again.

Maybe today I’ll get it right, and the groundhog will finally see its damned shadow.