Category Archives: Meditation
Over the past year, I’ve worked with several ideas and tools to manage my issues of anxiety, depression and distraction brought on by my mTBIs. I’ve written about my bullet journal, my daily practice and the book that worked like a “key in a lock” for all of it. One of the most recent tools, and perhaps one of the more practical, was a simple sentence I heard from my wife.
We were discussing the ideas of mindfulness, staying in the present and battling anxiety. She brought up information she had been given in a leadership workshop and said, “Did you know there have been studies done which show the brain cannot contain thoughts of anxiety and gratitude at the same time?”
I immediately began chewing on this and coupling it with my current practice. I decided to put that statement to the test as soon as possible.
One of my biggest issues had been that shortly after settling into my breathing, my environment and the simple truth of the present moment, my heart would take off and wave upon wave of anxiety would hit me. Little panic attacks would shock through my system and I’d get hit with a flood of adrenaline. I’ve written about this previously and how it refused to stop. Though recently I had been able to work with the anxiety, it still arose occasionally.
I also had found that I could be in a quiet, relaxed state of mind and anxious thoughts would still skitter across my awareness, like mice scurrying in the corner of your eye. Occasionally, I would unwittingly latch on to one of those thoughts and found myself taken for a ride.
However, now I had been given a new tool! If anxiety and gratefulness basically had some sort of oil and water combination in the brain, I could use that to my advantage. Basically, the same as offering a chew toy to a dog that is chewing on your shoe. “No, no, bad brain. If you’re going to chew on something chew on this.”
The moment I began to become aware of my anxiety or a thought based more on depression, I would immediately find one or two things I was grateful for in that moment. If I could not find something immediate, I could easily find something from my life or my family. I would then focus on the grateful thought instead of the anxious one.
I coupled this with the information I read a few days later. You can retrain your brain based on how you respond to a situation. You have two choices, Love or Fear. Your brain will wire itself accordingly. If you have been wiring your brain with Fear based responses (which a good chunk of the population has been doing for decades) then it will continue along those neural pathways you have built.
However, thanks to recent research, the brain retains a plasticity and, if like me, you realize your mistakes you can begin to rewire things. Like your own personal brain garden you can begin retraining neural tendrils and vines that have grown closer together due to anxiety. You can redirect them to move apart and reconnect through gratitude, Love and optimism. Just like a garden, it won’t happen quickly. You will have rainy days, tangled roots and pests but it will happen.
And so I began applying all of this, joining it with my mindfulness practice, my meditations. Whenever I found myself thinking an anxious thought or letting myself rush to quickly towards the future, I’d drop back. I’d think about one thing I was grateful. If that didn’t replace the anxiety, I’d find something else. It didn’t have to be complicated. It could be as simple as feeling the wind on my face, being able to climb stairs, being able to read, having a comfortable work chair. Anything. I focused on my blessings.
In my bullet journal I created a gratitude journal where I listed the top two things every day that I was thankful for having. Some days I’ve written, “A warm bed,””Amazing sunset,” or “Time with family over a board game.” Other times it was, “Grateful for a safely built dishwasher that didn’t catch fire.”
Currently, my strategies are working. It’s been like the anxiety has had the rug pulled out from underneath it. It has no traction and slides away. It’s not perfect, of course. It still comes back. When it does I simply meet it with more gratitude. It slides away again. At work, I noticed my days moving faster. I’ve noticed things going smoothly, or, at least my reaction to them has changed.
I was retraining my brain.
I still have reactions that are the old way of thinking. Just yesterday, at work, I fell down the yucky rabbit hole of frustration, anxiety and anger. However, instead of sitting in it I did something else. I left my desk. I took a brief walk outside. I got back to the present. I didn’t scold myself for getting angry but instead started focusing on what I was the most grateful for in my life. I realized I was allowing myself to get too invested in my work. I sat and watched nature around me, watched the wind in the trees and repeated how grateful I was. Things calmed down quickly.
The difference between that and what might have been a year ago? Before, I would have allowed it to tank my day. I would have gone home exhausted and distraught. Now? The whole thing took 20 minutes and I was able to get back into my day, get things done and go home in a good mindset.
And the first thing when I got back to my desk? I sat down and took a moment to be grateful for having a job that allowed me to go for a brief walk. I have had more than a few where that could not have been an option.
And today? Today I simply start all over again.
Just me and my brain garden.
Here are some other links that have helpful information:
What follows is a lengthy response to the question, “Why do I bullet journal?” When I started this post I was assuming it would be about 200 words; nice and neat. As it sometimes happens when you journal it turned into something a bit more. It became about my journey and about where I am now.
If you really don’t want to hear about the details, I’ll give you the quick version and you can keep moving. Ready?
I bullet journal to keep my damaged brain working the way I want it to work.
There ya go. Nothing more to read here! Move along..
If you’d like to hear more then the path lies directly ahead. 😀
When I find myself worn at the end of the day and still looking an hour long workout in the face, a blank word processing screen or maybe just frustrated with the job and or ignorance and hatred around me, I like to watch short motivational interviews. While watching one a week or so ago, I heard a quote from motivational speaker, Les Brown.
“Oh no, there is no guarantee you will show up tomorrow. There are a lot of people who were here yesterday, but they’re not here today. There are a lot of opportunities that were around yesterday; they’re not here today.”
When I heard those words they stuck with me. Maybe it was because of my own recent experience. My mind rolled it around and around and then I came up with a slight variation. It’s my mantra. I try to carry it with me into and through every workout, every day going into work, every time I sit down to write, every night as I go to sleep. Sometimes I forget but, lately, it seems to have a memory of it’s own, popping into my head like a helpful genie. It goes like this.
“There were people around yesterday that wanted to be here today. They’re not here. You might be the one that doesn’t show up tomorrow. You have today. You have right now. “
I’ve said it to myself so much it’s not really the words anymore. It’s the essence behind them. The key is taking the time to really sink into the concept that, really, you may not be here tomorrow. What does that look like? How does it feel? What immaterial things disappear? What dreams for the day come to the fore?
I’m no stranger to history and philosophy and I was struck with the similarity it carried with all manner of ancient thought regarding the concept of Death and “Not being here tomorrow.” There is a massive amount of literature and internet links out there on the concept of carrying Death with you. It’s not my intent to go deeply into all of them. However, I did want to present some of what I found.
First, I thought it was very similar to the Hagakure, the 18th century treatise on the Samurai code. That simple idea that by acknowledging Death daily you fully experience Life. I did a bit of digging and found this little gem written by Daidoji Yuzan, an Edo samurai.
“One who is a samurai must before all things keep constantly in mind…the fact that he has to die. If he is always mindful of this, he will be able to live in accordance with the paths of loyalty and filial duty, will avoid myriads of evils and adversities, keep himself free of disease and calamity and moreover enjoy a long life.”
And the unstated, “If things don’t go well and you accidentally step in front of a bus, at least you were at peace with your impermanence!”
I also found a reference that I was unable to validate to an original source. I have no idea which “masters of old” he is referring. Regardless, I thought it was pretty good. It came from Philip Kapleau and “The Zen of Living and Dying”
“Masters of old advise, ‘Stick the word Death on your forehead and keep it there.”
Finally, while bouncing around the web, I found a great piece by the Dali Lama. If you want a more in-depth read I highly recommend it. I’ll leave you with this part of it.
“Our present lives, however, are not forever. But to think: “Death is the enemy” is totally wrong. Death is part of our lives. Of course, from the Buddhist viewpoint, this body is in some sense an enemy. In order to develop genuine desire for moksha – liberation – then we do need that kind of attitude: that this very birth, this body, its very nature is suffering and so we want to cease that. But this attitude can create a lot of problems. If you consider death is the enemy, then this body is also the enemy, and life as a whole is the enemy. That’s going a little bit too far.”
I’m far from any kind of guru or samurai and I think sticking Death on your forehead would make for a very weird tattoo. It would probably, depending on the job, cut down on job interviews. Would maybe a post-it note work? It would probably fall off a lot. I think it might also get you a visit from your office Human Resources.
Joking aside, I’ve simply found a nugget of old wisdom, a phrase that works for me and which, oddly enough, brings me peace with a daily thought process and routine. I feel blessed to have stumbled upon it. It’s a helpful reminder and it brings me focus about what is important. I share it in hopes it helps someone else down the road.
This weekend I started Week Three on my journey of intensive training. (It was actually week 5 as I had started doing workouts two weeks prior.) I plowed through my running day with no problems and felt great afterwards. Sunday was my calisthenic and strength day. According to the workout plan, sets and exercises were amped up one small step towards reps. My energy was down a bit but I was ready. I could do this. I was excited for no other reason than the simple fact I would be putting those Bear Walk Holds to good use and actually doing some Bear Walking. I was also going to start doing Crab Walks. How exciting!
I opted after warm-up to do it outside. The sun was out and it was warm. It was also humid and because I had decided on a lazy Sunday morning, it was about mid-day. That laziness choice would bite me in the butt and teach me a solid lesson later.
My set rotation is push-ups, plank holds, squats, lunges, side lunges and then bear and crab walks. Today, I was to do 4 sets. A pretty tight and efficient workout. Right after my first plank I knew I was in trouble. It seemed like all my energy went into holding that plank and as I went into squats I was sweating and tired. The heat quickly went from mild to oppressive over the course of the set. (I’d not looked at the temperature before going out and found out later the heat index had been up near 90. Smart move!)
I took my break eagerly and then hit Set Two. After Set Two I was a mess. My Pandora music station wasn’t working for me. My form had been bad throughout and it felt like the wheels were coming off. Not only that but mentally things had started to crumble. I started having variations on the following thought, “This sucks. Maybe I should just repeat Week 2?” or, “You’ve not done that much and look at you. You’re no spring chicken. Take it easy. Just stop here and you can reset to Week Two.” And, my favorite, “The air conditioning feels so good back at home…”
I almost bought into it. I was gasping for air, my shoulders were on fire and I was pretty miserable. It just seemed like I had nothing in my tank! On top of that my monkey mind was chattering about how uncomfortable it was. I took a knee after that second set and decided to take a longer break to get everything back under control. So, with my knee pressing into the concrete, sweat rolling off my nose and chin, I stayed there until I could get my breathing back. I did some mindfulness meditation around my breath and went inward.
Did I want to tap out? No. Did I want to reset to Week Two? No but maybe I should… And that’s when something clicked. Wait a minute. Should? Should?!?! It was time to look at that word a bit more closely. I was told several years ago to be careful about “shoulding” on myself and how the word itself should (ha!) be avoided. I realized this was a defining moment for me.
In the past I would have opted for the reset to Week 2. The “should” would not have come up. I would have mumbled some excuses to myself and taken the reset. Make no mistake, I was miserable in that moment. Yet, somehow, I latched onto that one word and while I focused on my breathing and on the moment, everything fell into place. It was not just a simple choice at this moment. It was a big choice. It was a defining choice.
Thinking back on it I wonder what it looked like on the outside? I like to tuck myself away, back in an out of the way corner near my apartment’s workout building. I doubt no one saw me in this moment. If they had, it would have been a simple sight. An exhausted middle-aged guy, on one knee, recovering and getting his breath back. “Gee, he looks tired.” That’s it. No sign whatsoever of the inner battle, struggle and decisions going on. How turbulent it was internally! How often do we see athletes like this and we just think, “Oh, they’re just getting their breath back,” and have no concept of the battle being waged on the inside.
I made a decision. I was going to finish this damn thing. I would take breaks if necessary but I was not resetting to Week 2. I was finishing this damn workout. As I stood up it was as if the Pandora Gods were looking out for me because what happened to play next? Battle without Honor or Humanity from Kill Bill, Vol. #1. It was perfect.
Make no mistake, it wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t nice. It wasn’t smooth, sure movements. It was a battle with myself with no honor and I’m real glad I was alone in that secluded corner because I was spitting, cussing and growling my way through every rep. Either I went down or it did. It was more than the “breaking through” I posted earlier. It was a fight with deep self-esteem based beliefs and habits that had made a little rat’s nest inside of me. When the fourth set and my past habits lay broken and bleeding on the concrete behind me I was exhausted. I stumbled home and had to use both hands to lift my water bottle because my arms were shot. The rest of the day was a downward spiral towards sleep and I crashed out at around 7:30 or 8 PM.
But, you know what?
I walked away from that spot knowing I had won, that I had surpassed anything I had ever done in my past. And that feeling? That sense of completion, attainment and courageously breaking new ground?
It was, and still is, amazing.
(However, next time, I won’t be waiting to do my workout at Noon in the middle of July!)
Post edit – Looking back over my workout schedule I saw that I was not required to do 4 Sets at all. This week only required 3. *headdesk* 😀 But I did it anyway, right? RIGHT?
As I kick off this blog-restart, I want to write about one particular subject that changed things for me. It will be referenced in future posts but I promise I’ll try to keep the volume down a bit. I don’t want to sound like I am proselytizing. I just want to put it all in one place so it’s understandable to the audience when I reference it down the road. I want to give credit where credit is due before moving forward.
Back in the later months of last year I was having a pretty rough time. I was super stressed, not sleeping well and my anxiety was out of control. I had breakfast with a dear friend and they said to me, “You gotta get out of your head. Your mind has completely taken you over.” I brushed it off at first but he persisted, “Tell you what, have you ever heard of a guy named Eckhart Tolle?” He then went on about him, his ideas and his books, encouraged me to watch some youtube videos.
I’m not going to go much further than that because I think you see where this is headed. The next day I started to read a PDF copy of his book, “The Power of Now.” It immediately had my attention. Two days later, I owned a hardback copy and, to this day, I still carry it with me. I read the book in a week and then, in a funny set of circumstances, my wife stumbled across of a copy of “A New Earth” for a few bucks at a used book store. I devoured it as well.
Tolle’s main point in his work is that nothing in this world is more powerful than mindfulness in the present moment, the Now. Here is a saying that helps to sum up Tolle’s theme.
“If you are depressed you are living in the past, If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
~~ Lao Tzu ~~
It was perfect timing from the Universe at large. When I read the first book, it was like being handed the final piece of a puzzle. A puzzle I had been fussing over most of my adult life. I began to practice the simple things the book suggested. Over the course of a month wonderful things began to happen. I began to change internally and, because of this, the world began to change around me. I began to have energy again. I began to sleep again. A clarity began to emerge. I was laughing more. In the physical world, a new, less stressful and better paying job appeared out of nowhere.
I am not going to lie. The first month of November and the following holidays were hard. Tolle’s ideas are that our Ego, both a personal Ego and the overall Ego of humanity is out of control. In a Buddhist sense, we are letting the dark monkey lead the elephant. By taking on daily practice of awareness and mindfulness I was directly challenging the Ego. Needless to say, the Ego, who had been running the show for the past 40+ years, was not happy. The first few weeks I would literally have physical pain in my chest when I began to go into deep meditation. Random panic attacks would spring up over the silliest of things.
However, as Tolle recommended, I kept at it. I kept it simple and non-judgmental. Heck, I’m STILL working at it. I always will be. Yet, as the days and weeks and months went by I noticed improvements. My chest pain faded and in it’s place I started to feel a warmth. (I started calling it “hitting the groove.’) Then, I started to practice all day and I started to realize that I was, for the first time, having long periods of happiness. More importantly, I started to notice how many other people were not happy. I think that was, and is, the most painful part for me.
In March/April, I went through a pretty difficult life event. The lack of sleep arose like a returning demon. The tightness in my chest returned as I worked through the event. I was reminded of one of the most powerful phrases, “This too shall pass…” I used all the tools I had been given, floated onward and through the other side about as gracefully as I could have hoped. It was at that point, in late April, that I felt something deep down click, like tumblers in a lock, and I realized I had found something I can only call “my Way” again.
Yes, Eckhart Tolle changed my life. I owe quite a bit to him and I will never forget how I felt halfway through the “Power of Now“, how I consumed that book like a starving man at his first big meal. He, himself, states that all he is has done is take the great wisdom, from Buddhism, Christianity, Sufism, Hinduism, Gnosticism, Taoism and many others and simply re-state it for modern consumption. In the end, it works and, for me, it’s powerful stuff.
So, as I move forward, I do so with these concepts in mind and I have no doubt it will leak through onto the pages of this blog. I will try to contain my excitement over them.