Persistence and Gratitude

Thank you to everyone who called or emailed or messaged me or just wished good things for me regarding the operation (or operations) on my hand and wrist. The surgery seems to have gone well. At the literal last minute, the surgeon and I decided to only do two surgeries, not three. He did the carpal tunnel, which is not a big deal—and a proximal row carpectomy, which means taking out three of the eight bones in my wrist. He did not do the cubital tunnel surgery. Instead of general anesthesia, I asked the anesthesiologist to use a nerve block and just enough anesthesia to put me asleep. This led to fewer after-affects from the surgery.

 

The only complication was with pain medication. I am allergic or sensitive to many painkillers. And despite many conversations with the doctor about which painkillers to take home with me (I did the surgery in a surgicare facility, not a hospital, and did not stay overnight), I was given one we hadn’t discussed and soon had to stop taking it. Tylenol and Motrin are all I have taken since.

 

The fun part—aside from a short bout of feeling I never want to do this again— my mind has been fairly clear. Visualizations have been helpful with pain relief and meditation has been a great friend.

 

And I am so grateful for my doctor—and also for my health insurance, without which I probably could never have afforded the surgery. I know I pay a lot for insurance, but it’s comprehensive. If the Republicans have their way, such insurance plans will likely disappear for the middle class.

 

I can’t type well right now and have little tolerance for sitting at my computer, but have still written a few emails and made some phone calls about the denying health care to Americans act being considered by Republicans in the Senate. This bill is just too shameful to resist mentioning. It exposes two Republican agendas: redistributing money from the poor and middle class to the rich (also see President Obama on the issue). And making life so expensive for lower and middle class Americans, and politics so difficult, that we will not be able to persist in fighting against the denial or undermining of our rights and freedoms.

 

But persist we must. For example, according to the CBO analysis, the House Republican bill would lead to 23 million people losing their insurance. This would also be the case with the Senate version. But this includes, if I understand it, only those getting ACA government subsidies. It does not include all those, like seniors, who might lose coverage due to prohibitive increases in premiums. A CBO estimate of the House plan says that an average 64 year old earning $26, 500 would see their out of pocket costs for health care rise from $1700 to $14,600. The Senate plan has (as of this writing) not been analyzed yet. The increase in costs could wipe out savings and spending power for so many people. And remember: Medicaid covers millions, one fifth of Americans—those with disabilities, in nursing homes, the poor; 49% of births in this country are covered by Medicaid.

 

The exposure of Republicans possibly colluding with Russians to interfere in/manipulate the election, interfere in investigations, rip off tax money, etc. might lead us to think Mr. T and his cohorts will be inevitably dethroned, that our legal system will get him, or them. I certainly feel this yearning for dethronement, but nothing is inevitable (except…). How often has the legal system been compromised before by money and power?

 

Opposing the Republican plan to destroy democracy and undermine our rights, freedoms and economic power will take time and persistence, but I think it’s just something that needs to be done, even by those of us with casts on our arms.

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris.

Trouble Sleeping?

Did you ever have trouble falling asleep at night? Who doesn’t, at some time or other. It’s awful. And there can be so many causes, from physical or emotional pain, to having to pee, to disruption of life or sleep patterns, overindulging in technology, to having too many thoughts racing through your mind. Sometimes, you just can’t let yourself sleep.

 

Falling asleep is like a trust exercise. You let yourself go, relax, and let down your conscious guard. And if you feel anxious, for example, you are reluctant to do that. You fear what might occur. When you’re afraid, your body is gearing up for fight-flight-freeze. Your thinking is pushed to consider all the different ways an attack might happen, and your mind races. So preparing for a good night’s sleep happens also during the day, way before your head nudges the pillow.

 

When you respond to your own emotions with “I don’t want to feel this,” or “only weak people would feel this way,” you fight yourself. These thoughts are the way fight-flight appears in your body and mind. So whether it’s at night or during the day, when your thoughts race with negative self-judgments or fearful images of the future, treat the situation as an opportunity to learn what your mind is telling you and how your mind works. Study yourself and take note of your feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Treat your mind as if you were a loving parent to your mental state.

 

When you are aware of thoughts and feelings it gives you the power to change. Try different strategies, experiment. A fearful image might be telling you that a dangerous moment awaits you. Or it can be telling you that you are carrying unreasonable fear and it’s time to let it go.

 

By studying yourself, you shift your mind from fight-flight to neutral analysis or open welcoming. During the day, you could respond to a racing mind with mindfulness meditation, a walk in the woods, a massage, political action, or exercise in the gym. You can notice your own breath, how rapid, shallow, or deep it is. As the mind goes, so goes the breath. Even when you think you have no time, or maybe especially then, remember to take a moment now and then to close your eyes and calmly focus on one breath, then another.

 

At night, once in bed, focus on breathing calmly to provide a transition to sleep and letting go of images from your day. Close your eyes and picture yourself calmly asleep. You could also try one of a number of practices, like progressive relaxation, or taking a mental journey. In progressive relaxation, you could start at your feet and work your way gradually up to your face, or vice versa. If you start with your face, imagine breathing into your cheeks or the area around your eyes. Feel the area expand as you breathe in, and let go, relax, settle down as you breathe out. Then move to the area around your mouth. Then the jaw, shoulders, etc.

 

To take an imaginative walk or visualized journey, after you close your eyes, take three calm, slow breaths. Then allow an image of a path in the woods to come to mind, a tree, a beach, or a waterfall. The important consideration is that it’s a place you love, or welcome, and find relaxing or uplifting. As you walk in your mind, study the details, the flowers, the stones, shells on the beach or the bark of a tree. End by allowing yourself to sit and relax and just take it all in.

 

You could combine the two. If you like beaches, after closing your eyes and focusing on the breath, imagine yourself on the beach, lying down on your back. The temperature is warm but not too hot. As you breathe into your shoulders, feel your body expand as you inhale, and settle down, relax and feel warm as you exhale. You feel the sand mold to your body, accept, protect, and cuddle you.

 

Remember to commit to your own comfort and sleep. When you get in bed, turn off your phone or other device. When thoughts come to you, instead of recording them on your phone or indulging them in your mind, imagine they are like drops of water falling in a waterfall, and notice them as they disappear.

 

Your body and mind operates rhythmically, in different cycles, just like the natural environment around you. There is the circadian (around the day) rhythm, the 24 hour sleep-awake cycle. And there is the ultradian (within or beyond the day) rhythm, a 90-120 minute cycle controlling things like dreams and which hemisphere of the brain is dominant. If you go to sleep at a relatively set time, it is easier to stay in tune with your cycles and fall asleep. If you wake up during the night, try to return to sleep as soon as comfortable to do so. If you have difficulty, use the above practices.

 

Progressive relaxation and taking a mental journey allows your mind to get close to dreaming and relax. It helps you notice that you can trust at least some aspects of the world. It is especially important, when the headlines are filled with threat and danger, that you find the ability to love and trust elements of your life and world.

An Open Mind

 

I was recently meditating, at home, in the early afternoon. Outside, intense snow squalls alternated with a few minutes of sunshine. Schools started two hours late that morning because of the weather, and before meditating I had wondered if the after-school class that I was supposed to teach would be cancelled. I concentrated on my breath and soon became calm and focused and lost all sense of school and snow. Then the phone rang. My wife picked it up somewhere in the house. I couldn’t hear the conversation but knew it was the school calling about the class and I began to wonder, again, if it would be cancelled. I tried to return my focus to the breath, but couldn’t do it by increasing my concentration. So, I tried another strategy. I made my response and interest in the call the object of awareness. I simply noticed what was there, in me, without judging it. That did it. My mind calmed.

 

By shifting attention to what was there in my own mind and body, and being open to it, my mind became the state of openness. The result was both calm and insight.

 

Why do I have this drive to have an answer? To know is to hold information in mind and be able to use that information, to comprehend and own in myself. Even more, it is a drive for a concept to fit reality into, or this is one way to understand it. In the past, I thought that the drive for answers was a common and primal human drive. It was part of learning and growing up; humans were naturally driven to better understand the world and themselves—unless it was educated out of them. And putting what you knew into words to form a worldview was part of developing an identity.

 

You create explanations and stories to order your life. Having an explanation of any sort is often more important than its accuracy. Thus, you feel uncomfortable when you don’t-know. You take it as something missing, a lack, a hole in your universe. You then hate not-knowing, as it leads you to worry or feel anxious. Part of the joy of solving puzzles or watching a mystery movie is that, for a moment, you feel the anxiety of not-knowing, but in a controlled way. You prove to yourself that this situation can be faced and overcome. It is like an inoculation against fear. The puzzle creates just enough anxiety that by solving the puzzle you demonstrate your control over not-knowing.

 

But this day, I realized this explanation was not enough. I dislike not-knowing only to the degree that I am wedded to an outcome or idea, only to the degree that I cling to one answer, fear another, or think I am only capable of handling certain types of situations.

 

It is easy to cling to ideas, and think knowing is only about putting experiences into words. You value the memory over the “thing” or experience itself, the story about your trip to Africa in the past over the experience of a moment of your life right now. And by focusing so much on the words and explanations, you easily lose perspective on the important role not-knowing plays in your life.

 

There is a second type of not-knowing, an experience of your world being fully there, alive, not lacking. Every moment begins with this not-knowing. If the present moment were known and put into words, it would already be past. Daniel Siegel and other neuroscientists describe stages in the formation of emotion. The first is an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized. You begin to feel. Only later is memory activated, energy directed, liking and disliking begun, emotion and meaning created. In this sense, not-knowing is a step you need to go through to learn and understand anything. It is your original contact with the world. It is a non-verbal or incommunicable sort of knowing, the taste, the touch, the joy and agony of a body twisting in space, the rush of concentrated attention. 

 

In Buddhism, not-knowing is to perceive without preconceived ideas. It is to hold what you know lightly, and to put observation and experience before concept. It is a silence of concept mind so you can hear the world more clearly.

 

In the first sense of knowing, where you emphasize knowing as conceptualizing, you can miss, not fully engage in, the only moment you ever live in, the present. Your life becomes a memory, a story or explanation, and is lived almost secondhand. It is something you read about in your own mind or listen for in the words of others, not what you live each moment.

 

When you understand yourself in this almost secondhand manner, you cling to ideas and it is easier to get into energetic disagreements about points of view. When you think you know and have the explanation of an event, you feel in control. When you threaten a person’s explanation, you threaten their world. And when people in power and in the headlines manipulate information, say one thing and mean something entirely different, and lie repeatedly, even obviously, they are attempting to take away your power by undermining your sense that there is a clear reality out there. They can create psychological and social chaos. The lie is not just a lie. It is an attempt to undermine your sense of control over your life. It is an attempt to get you to live as if your life were a memory. With a truth, you can have a two-way conversation; a lie is an attempt to make it one-way.

 

To not-know in the second way, you can’t be manipulated so easily because you welcome and are fully present in your immediate experience. Thus, to be open to whatever arises in your mind, body and the world around you, and to be able to utilize both forms of knowing and not-knowing, is a revolutionary act. To face your fear and anxiety is a form of resistance to the powerful. It is to return to where all action begins and all thought is born. And that is a very powerful state.

 

*Two Resources Relevant to This Post:

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self, by Rodney Smith

 

The Roots of What Distorts Our Thinking and Hurts Us: One Buddhist View of Evolution

Is it possible that the root of what distorts our thinking and what clarifies it, what hurts us and what might save us, are the same?

 

Over three million years ago a human-like species came down from the trees to live on African savannas. Anthropologists speculate the species was forced from the trees by environmental factors, but that is not clear. It is clear that they were relatively puny compared with the carnivores of the time and thus vulnerable. How did they survive? Maybe the ability to stand relatively upright and look off into the distance was extremely helpful. They learned the importance of cooperation, without which our species would have faltered or died out. They learned how to use their hands in new ways. They could hunt together, share food, and also signal to each other if good food or a threat was nearby. The engine of this complex cooperation was communication via language.

 

We physically evolved in ways to support these traits. For example, our hands reshaped into more delicate instruments capable of a precision grip. Our jaws became smaller, so we could speak a greater variety of sounds, but we needed tools to tear into some foods. Our brains grew in size and then complexity, neurons folding under and over each other, increasing the number of possible connections between brain cells. The bigger brain meant human babies had to be born before their brains were fully formed, which meant a longer period of dependency and vulnerability and a stronger need for care and loving attention. Yet, it also led to an increased ability to learn and adapt. The brain grew to be extremely social.

 

To be so social, the human brain developed a default position. When we’re not focused on a task, our brain switches into a social mode of thinking. This mode includes several abilities important to being human. For example, we can create simulations in our mind of other beings as individuals and what they think and feel. This also allows us to imagine all our memories and experiences as belonging to one distinct individual we call Me. We can distance ourselves from the present to inhabit other times and places. We can fly across continents in our imaginations, visualize implications of our actions or how to create things never seen before. We can imagine what might bring pleasure or pain, go wrong or right, how people might respond to what we say or do, or if they might like us.

 

But as James Kingsland, in Siddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment, (a great book, by the way) makes clear, we pay a price for this default mode of the brain. We can also see this in the violence of headline news. What we consider our greatest gifts can also be a source of our greatest destructiveness and suffering. The ability to leave the present, leave behind the reality of sense experience, can cause us to get lost in and obsess over our mental creations. We can spend a good part of our lives wandering in this default realm.

 

Our languages allow a great depth of detail to be added to our mental wandering and fantasies, making them enticing substitutions for reality. We can replace the real people standing before us with mental simulations not much different from characters created in a novel. Or we can do the same to ourselves, imagining we are awful people or monsters or that other people think us monsters. A delusion is the imagination turned up high and projected onto the reality before us. Paranoia is fear enhanced by distance and delusion. Creativity has always been the ability to imagine what doesn’t now exist so it could be made possible. Therefore, it can lead to wondrous visions and achievements, but also is never very far from mental illness.

 

Kingsland imagines hooking the Buddha up to our newest technology in order to discover how his brain might have worked to turn off the Default Mode Network (DMN) and end the ruminations and suffering the network can cause. For example, he describes recent experiments which show how meditation practices that develop a deeply focused attention can switch the brain from the default mode and its concern for how everything relates to one’s self, to a more objective, selfless attention created by what’s called the Task Positive Network. When we feel the sense of flow or being “in the zone,” this network is fired up and the DMN is turned down. Those engaged in meditative practice report and demonstrate a greater clarity of perception, a sense of well-being and less delusion about others, than people not so engaged, especially those who spend a good deal of time wandering in the DMN. They can switch more readily and appropriately from one network to another.

 

You might think of evolution as “survival of the fittest,” change leading to an improved species—but scientists point out this improvement is in terms of being better fitted for a specific environment. Our physical and social environment has changed greatly over the last one hundred thousand or so years. We adapted to fit in with groups of maybe 150 individuals, surrounded not by human built structures, but raw nature and many other mammalian species. In a way, our social environment has changed more quickly than our physical bodies could adapt to it.

 

So, as Kingsland points out, it shouldn’t surprise us that evolution might have burdened us with so many ills. But it also provided potential solutions. We have the relaxation response, which can turn off the fight-flight-freeze response and allow us to relax once danger or a tense situation is over. We have other-oriented networks and deeply focused modes of attention to counter the Default Mode Network. Hopefully, more and more of us will begin to use meditative and other practices to learn how to switch more smoothly from one network to another. We can learn how to replace delusion with increased clarity, selfishness and complacency with love, hate and prejudice with compassion, and thus understand better what we need to do in any situation.

 

*I wrote and scheduled this post before all the deaths of last week. If I wrote this today, I would be much more emotional.

Did You Ever…

Did you ever walk into a bookstore, or any store, and there, on a display table, was exactly what you were looking for? You might not have even known what you were looking for until you found it. But there it was.  And you knew it. Or, you go into a bookstore and you have a question in the back of your mind. You open a book—and there, on that page, is the answer to your question. You can tell that I like bookstores.

 

Or, I wake up and know I have to work on writing my blog. And I pick up some essay or book that feels meaningful or appropriate to what I’m writing. I’ll read three of four pages—and suddenly I have an insight or idea to write about. Or I drive into town, thinking I need to ask someone a question or I worry about how someone is feeling. I park my car and walk a few blocks and there she is, coming right toward me. You know these experiences, right? They don’t happen often, but when they do, life seems just right.

 

Some people, like Carl Jung, have called these experiences “synchronicity” or an “acausal connection through meaning.” According to a book by physicist Victor Mansfield, synchronicity is a correlation between outer and inner events that is meaningful to the person (or persons) involved, but one event doesn’t cause the other. My thinking about the person doesn’t cause her to appear, yet there she is, and it feels meaningful and even mysterious to me.

 

Can a similar thing happen even in a conversation? You don’t know, at least not consciously, what it is you want to say to the other person. But suddenly, it’s there for you. Maybe you even know you had to say something to a friend and you couldn’t figure out how to say it. You fretted, worried, and imagined all sorts of negative results. But then, you are with this person. And your heart opens and you just say it and it’s perfect. Is this the same as what happened in the bookstore? The first examples are, apparently, a synchronicity between internal and external events. In the second, it seems to be all “internal.” Is it?

 

All I know is that sometimes my attention is awakened. I feel more alive and clear headed. And then I know what to say or do more than at other times. Does meditation assist this? Practicing compassion and empathy? I think so. Or is it just luck, whatever that is?

 

It’s valuable that teachers and parents talk with their students and children about how they experience their lives. This includes not only thoughts, emotions, and ethical quandaries, but more subtle experiences like synchronicity. Why? Because it happens, and it’s one of those moments to savor. There are so many inexplicable moments in life. Savor this and other mysteries might be revealed, other questions answered. And by doing so, teachers and parents communicate to children the value of their lives, the value of being aware of their experience, and the value of sharing and examining one’s own experiences with others.

Concentrate on the Quality of Mind

When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself. When you are concentrated on the quality of your being, you are prepared for the activity. Shunryu Suzuki

We need to teach ourselves and our students that if our quality of mind is good, what we do will be good. We feel more at ease with learning, more focused than confused, more peaceful than agitated, more energetic than lethargic, more open than resistant. The ultimate result I think most teachers look for is not the essay or test score or work of art our students produce: it is the emergence of a young adult. But, can we teach in this mindful manner and keep our teaching jobs? Yes. Students will be able to concentrate, score better on tests and learn more when they find the work meaningful, enjoyable, and connected to their lives. To enjoy learning students need to feel heard and be seen as people, not as test scores.

Continue reading…