Monthly Archives: January 2016

Talking to Myself, My Best Self

Lately, I’ve taken to talking to My Best Self (My BS) in meditation in the way that I imagine those who pray talk to their God (or Goddess or whatever they call their higher power).

Except, unlike God, My BS is neither abstract nor unseeable, and she’s definitely not a higher power. She’s not greater than me. She is me. My BS is the real me, the person I am underneath the layers of conforming, acquiring, avoiding discomfort, denying reality, being petty, shallow, impatient, rude, and mean. In other words, on very rare occasion and when the positive forces of the Universe align and I’m manifesting those character traits that I wish I manifested all the time, that’s when I’m My BS.

My BS isn’t hiding. I don’t have to “find” her. Nor am I “becoming” her. I already am her. It’s just that I frequently let certain unskillful visitors (judgment, boredom, impatience, etc.) get into my mind and distract me from My BS. And one of the goals of my meditation time is to develop greater awareness. This means learning to pause in every moment so I can (hopefully) access My BS instead of immediately letting the unskillful visitors in and allowing them to run rampant. It’s okay for them to visit me for a short time – they have their place – but they can’t take up permanent residence. My BS has permanent residence. I just have to remind myself of that.

Image courtesy of morguefile.com

Image courtesy of morguefile.com

So when I’m sitting quietly, after reading something uplifting and inspiring, after writing down my gratitude list, after thinking about my life values and how to live with integrity, I’ll end my meditation time by saying, “Best Self, help me (the regular old grumpy pants me) coax you out a little bit more. Reside here with a little more presence.”

Yes, I’m talking to myself, but I’m talking to My Best Self, and I think the more I talk to her, the more I hear her radiant, shining goodness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Wonky Brain, Part 2

Part 2 – Change is Possible

This is the second part is a series in which I discuss my wonky, depressed brain and weaning myself off my anti-depressants. You can read Part 1 here

 

 

Look, I didn’t just decide to go all rogue with this. I wasn’t like, “Fuck You, Depression. You don’t own me!”

I am, generally, a rule follower. I take my meds (religiously). I go see my psychiatrist/therapist (religiously). I read tons of self-help books (religiously), and I’m working on changing my negative behavior patterns. I do what I’m supposed to do.

My Wonky Brain on Depression - Notice there is a wick, because I can go down in flames.

My Wonky Brain on Depression

…..

There are three truths I considered when deciding to go off my medication for major depression.

  1. All manner of things (which I’ll collectively call “input”) affect the brain’s anatomy and physiology.
  2. The brain’s anatomy and physiology affect behavior (which I’ll call “output”).
  3. Both behavior (input and output) and brain anatomy and physiology can change.

But, don’t trust me (the depressed person going off her meds) that these are truths. Trust the science.

The brain is a dynamic organ. It is uniquely influenced by all kinds of things – diet, stress, endogenous and exogenous chemicals (e.g. hormones and drugs), disease and injury, and pre- and post-natal experiences. Numerous studies show that not only can neural circuits be altered by what we experience but so can neuroanatomy. Hubel and Wiesel won a Nobel Prize for their work showing just this. They sewed close the eyes of baby monkeys for a few months and found that upon removing the sutures, the monkeys were essentially blind in the eye that had been closed. In this case, the lack of visual stimulation rendered the neurons in the visual cortex (the part of the brain that “sees”) non-functional, even though all the neurons leading up to that part of the brain were active and even though the neurons of the visual cortex were not damaged per se.

Furthermore, during certain critical periods of development, the brain is more susceptible to adverse input, including negative affective interactions. It is now accepted that emotional attachments early in a child’s life influence the development of the limbic system (this is the emotional brain) circuitry. Have you heard of Harlow’s monkeys?  Okay, those were pretty horrible experiments, but they showed that the relationships a child has with its caregivers (or “Mother” figure in Harlow’s experiments) form the framework from which the child will develop his or her personality and psychosocial skill set. This is what’s known as Attachment Theory.

Input – in the examples I’ve given, visual stimulation and nurturing – affects the brain, but we have to remember that this is a two-way street, because the brain affects output, that is behavior, too. I mean, just think about this. If you want to pick up that cup of coffee (or wine or water), that action is totally dependent on a signal from your brain to muscles in your arm and hand. This is the problem with people who have Parkinson’s disease (PD). The degeneration of dopaminergic neurons in a specific part of their brains affects ability to move intentionally. So,  people with PD develop tremors, are slower to move, and have difficulty initiating movement. Simply put, their brains don’t allow them to do what is is they want to do; their brains don’t allow the behavior to happen. The change in their brains –the loss of dopaminergic neurons and signaling – directly impacts their output.

Luckily, for me, as far as I know, there is no neurodegeneration happening in depression. As a result of my condition, I may have altered levels of certain neurotransmitters and, as a result, altered neurocircuits and signaling. But, given everything I’ve written here, just because I suffer from depression and just because it’s a diagnosed illness, doesn’t mean that (1) taking my anti-depressant every day (at maximum dose) will “cure me” (clearly that has yet to happen) or that (2) going off my anti-depressants is a recipe for disaster. If the input can modify my brain, and the brain can change and modify the output, then, I think there is reason to believe I can improve (or get worse – it goes both ways) without medication.

I have to trust in neuroscience (and I do).

Yes, this may be (very) wishful thinking, but my desire to “treat” my depression without medication implies that I have some control over the manifestation of my illness (just like a diabetic has some control over the manifestation of his or her illness, depending on what she eats). And I intend to exert that control and change my behavior so that I change my brain so that my behavior is changed.

It’s kind of circular, but you get what I mean, right?

…..

So here’s where I am. I’m about 9 months into this. I’ve been weaning myself off Cymbalta since last spring. First, I switched from a dose of 60mg to a dose of 30mg, and I kept at that dosage for several months. Then I switched from taking a pill every day to taking one every other day (which I did for 3 months) to taking one every third day (which I did for 2 months). Currently, I take a pill every fourth day, and, in the next month, I will switch to taking a pill once a week. And then…I’m off meds altogether.

Oh, I still have times when I’m sad and when I struggle, but who doesn’t? But now, during times, I call on my mental and emotional reserves to get me through. The truth is that sometimes I’m successful, and other times I’m a work in progress. But, I now acknowledge that life is hard, that bad stuff happens. Yet, I know it will change. It won’t stay bad forever. And, I acknowledge that it isn’t just me to whom bad stuff happens. It happens to everyone. It took forty odd years, but I got that. Finally.

So, here I am, not exactly going rogue, but going off my meds all the same.

 

Here’s where you can learn more about what the science behind this.

https://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/cd/12_1/Kolb.cfm

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0531513105013403

http://allanschore.com/pdf/SchoreIMHJAttachment.pdf

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2228409/

 

Here’s some other books if you are interested.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Oliver Sacks)

Phantoms in the Brain (V.S. Ramachandran)

 

Love the Whole Package

I have to learn to love the whole package - me, you, us - and all our messy humanity.

I have to learn to love the whole package – me, you, us, and all our messy humanity.

I recently picked up a book I keep on my meditation table, If the Buddha Got Married by psychotherapist Charlotte Kasl and opened it to a random page, which happened to be Chapter 59, titled “Remember, Our Task is to Expand Our Love – Not to Change Others.”

The few pages that make up this chapter are a message that, when it comes to our partners, we ought to love the whole package, not just the best parts. This message struck me profoundly. Mostly because I am so guilty of not doing this.

My husband is a wonderful person. He’s kind, loving, and easy going. But…he has his days. And on those days, the traits I love most are hard to find (maybe even absent). Yet, instead of expanding my love for him, I expect him to be his best self – that moment and every moment. And when he’s not, I find that I close my heart a little. I withhold my own compassion and kindness, in effect refusing to be my best self.

(SIgh. Oh, Silkie.)

But the truth is this. He is human. I am human. We are all human, and that means being flawed, imperfect, and not always our best selves.

Instead of trying to change him (“Be sweeter!”) or continuing to have unrealistic expectations of him (that he always be wonderful), I need to accept him. As he is. And I need to expand my heart to love the whole package. All the time.

This task – to expand our love – shouldn’t be limited to our partners. It should, in fact, start with ourselves and then grow outward.

Remember last week? I had my cry about vanity? Well, after that, I veered down an old, familiar, and unhealthy path (hello, Bottles of Wine! Surely you’ll make me feel better). The next day (or days, honestly, because I was so hung-over), I was disgusted with myself, even though I hadn’t had that much to drink in a long, long time. I spent every waking moment mentally berating myself, ‘Why did I do that? Why do I always screw up? Why can’t I get it right? When will I learn?’

As if I don’t already have enough issues, I focused all my energy on hating myself. Hating myself for being human – flawed and imperfect and not always my best self.

And, what of the rest of the people in this world? The ones we frown upon because they don’t look like us. The ones we vilify because they weren’t born in our country but want to come here. The heathens and infidels who believe in a different god. Is it possible to expand our love to them, too? Beyond our small worlds, beyond our own families and neighbors and countrymen?

When we withhold our love, compassion, and kindness – whether it’s from ourselves, our partners, or some unknown other – we close ourselves off from being human, from humanity itself. We close our hearts, and we turn away from being our best selves.

Perhaps, instead of doing this, we should open ourselves up just a little more. We should let go of unrealistic expectations (my husband should always be sweet,  I should always choose the right action, others in the world should subscribe to my political and spiritual philosophies), and we should widen our circles. We should accept and love the whole package.

 

Weekly Musings

A summary of the week’s highs, lows, and in betweens…

 

Oy. I had a big cry this morning. This month, unbeknownst to all but a handful of you, I have been abstaining 100% from alcohol, eating well, and exercising a ton. So I get on the scale this morning, and I actually gained a half pound from last week. And my net weight loss, two weeks into this venture, is one measly pound. Friends, let me tell you. I cried. And my crying turned into ‘What’s the point? I might as well go back to having a bottle of wine and two bowls of pasta at night [which was my norm before]. I hate living here. I hate my apartment.’ Blah, blah, blah. All the stuff I’m not supposed to be saying, thinking, and doing during January is Appreciation Month! where I’m all grateful and awe-filled and focusing on the good. But…This is real life, and there is it. If nothing else, I’m honest with y’all.

And then my friend Firoozeh called me (and I was on the verge of tears). And she cheered me up and made me laugh and now I’m doing okay. By the way, she told me to throw out my scale.

Okay, enough of my sob story. On to what’s inspiring me this week.

 

WORDS (which, by the way, I love. In case you didn’t know.)

Lisa Nichols (motivational speaker)

“Serve from your overflow. Serve from the saucer, not the cup.”

Basically, Nichols argues that when you give, give to yourself first. Meet your needs first. Then, give to others. Otherwise, you will be depleted. Your giving will become a burden, because YOU suffer when your cup is half empty or, worse yet, bone dry and you gotta pour like four more cups.

I feel like as a woman, I am really guilty of serving from the cup. I put household chores, relationship needs, children needs, work demands (etc. etc. etc.) first and then, whatever is left, that scant, small, little itty bitty drop, that’s what I give to myself. This makes no sense.

Even though I only heard this quote this morning, the message has been a life mantra for me over the past year. I know I have to nourish myself first. I have to do the things that feed my soul (read, mediate, write, exercise, be with friends) before I can give to others and do so in a selfless and meaningful way.

Okay, so I’m gonna pour my cup. JUST FOR ME.

 

Sekou Andrews (poet and speaker)

I listened to an interview with Andrews on Good Life Project and then I visited his website where I found this gem.

“I am not perfect,

But I’m perfect as I am.

I’m not Beautiful like

I used to be,

I’m beautiful like I am.

Like the scar where a breast once was,

Like survival where

a death once was,

Like the better where

a best once was,

I AM AWESOME!”

I love this. I’ve written similar things on the blog. Remember my mantra, “I am awesomesauce!”? Say that to yourself every day. Remind yourself how wonderful you are, what a gift you are to this world.

And I love the concept of being perfectly imperfect, of accepting ourselves as we are, not as we wish we were or as we once were (this is so hard for an aging woman, too!!! Silkie: look at the beginning of this post, for fuck’s sake!). We work with what we’ve got, and what we’ve got is a beautiful mix of our life experiences, our successes and failures, our challenges, our loves and losses.

I AM AWESOME(sauce!).

 

BOOKS

Essential Zen Habits (Leo Babauta)

I’ve been reading Leo’s blog for a while now and I like how minimal it is and how simple his message is. The focus of his blog is habits – developing positive habits and changing negative habits. And he speaks from experience. Over a relatively short time period, Babauta radically changed his life – in every possible way. He quit smoking, ran a marathon, became a blogger (to pay the bills), moved to another country. I find his story inspirational and his posts meaningful.

So, I ordered his book on iTunes and, in general, this is what it’s about – how to change your habits. He advises to

  1. Fully commit to a single habit at a time, not a bunch.
  2. Start with creating a positive habit before you tackle giving up a negative habit.
  3. When giving up a negative habit, identify your triggers and get a support group (not necessarily a group like AA, maybe just a friend you can text or call when you are having a moment of weakness), which can also function to hold you accountable.
  4. Simplify your life.
  5. Be mindful of your life.

 

Religion for Atheists (Alain de Botton)

I heard de Botton speak on a Ted Radio Hour show and he referenced “religion without doctrine”. These words totally resonated with me, because I am an atheist with a fondness for certain aspects of my church years – the sense of community, the grounding in morality, the rituals. I love this stuff. This is the good stuff about religion (for me anyway), and the things that address my emotional needs. So why don’t I take those parts of religion I love (singing Christmas carols, reading the Prayers of the People from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, wishing people peace) and use them? That’s what this book is about.

And y’all know I am about taking what works for you and leaving the rest behind.

 

Those are my musings. What about you?

  • What did you listen to or experience this week that inspired you, motivated you, or helped you on your path?
  • What mental state do you inhabit that brings you happiness and purpose?
  • [New question but equally important] What isn’t working? What made you mad or sad or say, “Life sucks!!”?

Thank you, for being my sounding board. This week, today, I really needed you.

This is for Firoozeh. Thanks for being my friend.

How To Cultivate Appreciation

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” ~Thornton Wilder

“Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.” ~Alphonse Karr

“…a wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy.” ~Abraham Maslow

When I made my “January Is Appreciation Month!” proclamation earlier this week, I wrote that I would be thinking, reading, and writing about appreciation on a daily basis in an effort to help me grow this quality in my own life. I made an actionable goal for each of the 3 definitions of appreciation (being grateful, understanding worth, being aware), and I put these goals out into the Universe (that is, I posted them on the blog) so that you all can hold me accountable.

Now it’s time to do the work. So, I made a virtual visit to the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley and got referred to this interesting article by Rutgers psychologist Nancy Fagley who found that being appreciative predicts life satisfaction more than being grateful or being an agreeable, open-to-new-experiences, conscientious kind of person. While you can read the entire paper here, I was particularly struck by a table in the paper, which listed eight aspects of appreciation.

[Note: One of the eight aspects I didn’t care for. It was comparing your situation to others to help you be thankful about your own status. Since I pick and choose what works for me and what doesn’t, I declined to include this aspect of appreciation here. The thought of saying, “Well at least I’m not in Somalia where 97% of the female population is being circumcised,” does not make me appreciate my (non-genitally mutilated) life more. It actually makes me feel pretty horribly about all those girls in Somalia. So, I’m not including this, “There but for the grace of God go I” aspect. Okay, back to the other seven.]

Here’s my modified list of Dr. Fagley’s Aspects of Appreciation, or, as I refer to them, tips for  cultivating appreciation in your life.

Get Awe struck. Looking over the Grand Canyon or sitting beneath a star filled sky. Listening to a Bach concerto or kneeling in a pew at Notre Dame. Whatever it is that makes you say, “Wow, this is something beautiful and infinite that I am experiencing,” whatever it is that makes you feel a small part of something so vast and mysterious that you cannot explain its wonder, whatever it is that makes you cry tears of joy and laugh out loud at the same time because it’s so moving. That, friends, is something awesome. Be in awe!

Connect with others. Take stock of the meaningful relationships in your life. Let the people who matter most know it. Tell them you love them. Tell them what their presence means to you. I did something like this before Xmas. It was scary as hell in the moment, but I sent a handwritten letter to my former boss thanking him for the professional opportunities and support he gave and continues to give to me. For all the bitching I do about him, he has been one of my biggest supporters and my career path changed direction when he hired me, and it’s been 100% better as a result. I’d never told him how much I appreciated all that. But then I did and happened to be at his office a week or so later. I saw he’d put up my letter like a Christmas card!

Focus on the good. Use your energy to note what you have (rather than what you don’t have). You perpetuate your challenges (take it from me!) if that’s all you think about and talk about. So, focus on the good stuff not the bad stuff. Here’s an example. Last year my sister created a 100 Days of Gratitude FB page for posting something we were grateful for every day for 100 days. One day, after she’d been to the doctor and found out she was allergic to cold (yes, you read that right – allergic to cold), she searched for something to be grateful for. She ended up writing, “Well, if I hadn’t gone to the doctor and found out I had this allergy then I could have died taking my daughter into the pool. So I’m grateful that I know I have this allergy. ” She made some lemonade from that lemon, for sure.

Practice Gratitude. Recognize and acknowledge the good things in your life. Say thank you to people who extend kindnesses to you. Be cognizant of the blessings in your life. Heart transplant recipient and college professor Elizabeth Bartlett calls this doing thanks (I love that phrase!). Bartlett says, “Give thanks. Give things. Give thoughts. Give love. So gratitude becomes the gift, creating a cycle of giving and receiving, the endless waterfall. Filling up and spilling over…perhaps not even to the giver but to someone else, to whoever crosses one’s path. It is the simple passing on of the gift.”

Don’t forget the Hard Times. We all know that life can be difficult from time to time, but that doesn’t mean when things are going well you should forget what you experienced, pretending like it didn’t happen. Instead, when you start to feel habituated to your good life (that is, taking things for granted), take a moment, take a long pause, and reflect on those tough times. They will ground you and remind you of what is good in your life right now.

Stay in the Present Moment. Buddhists say that the past is gone and the future is not yet here. The only moment you have to live in is right now. In other words, stop thinking about the sucky things that happened yesterday (or last month or last year). Don’t worry about mistakes you made in the past. Let go of your anger about how someone treated you rudely, and don’t fret about what might happen in the future. What good does it do to put your energy into things you can’t change right now? Get out of those mental machinations and plant yourself in the present. What is working for you right now? What is good in your life right now?

Create an appreciative Ritual. Start each day listing the blessings in your life. Every day, take time to recognize and acknowledge someone who would otherwise go unnoticed – the doorman, the delivery guy, the homeless person you never make eye contact with. Give thanks for your food before you eat. End each day thinking of the best thing that happened to you that day. Make appreciation a habit, and you will become more appreciative.

If you start incorporating these aspects of appreciation into your daily life, you will experience greater subjective well being. That’s actually what Dr. Fagley found in her study. Appreciation breeds feelings of joy and fulfillment. I’m totally down with that.

January is Appreciation Month!

 

Want to cultivate appreciation in your life? Here are some tips.

Want to cultivate appreciation? Here are some tips for doing it.

Reference

Fagley NS (2012). Appreciation uniquely predicts life satisfaction, above demographics, the Big 5 personality factors, and gratitude. Pers Individ Diff 53:59-63.

January is Appreciation Month!

I’ve decided I’m going all Gretchen Rubin Happiness Project this year, although I’m not going to work on happiness. Nope. Over the course of a year, each month, I am going to focus on a topic that I want to develop in myself. And during that month, I’ll read about, write about, think about, and put that topic into practice. For January, I’m all about APPRECIATION.

The truth is, I’m not terrible at being appreciative. I’ve definitely gotten much better over the last 15 months that I’ve been working on myself, but I am still way, way far behind on living with appreciation on a daily basis.

And what exactly does that mean to live with appreciation?

 

Appreciation (definition by Merriam Webster; italics by me)

  • A feeling of being grateful for something
  • An ability to understand the worth, quality, or importance of something
  • Full awareness or understanding of something

 

Being grateful – I’ve written about gratitude plenty on the blog but it’s still something I need to work on, to make more of an ingrained behavior not an occasional nice thing to do. Here’s how I’m going to tackle becoming more grateful in January. I’m going to begin every morning meditation with a gratitude list. Throughout the week, I’m going to express gratitude to the people in my life (Thank you, honey, for taking over the garbage/recycling duty!). And I’m going to work on seeing every experience (but especially the bad ones) as an opportunity to be grateful. Rather than focusing on how shitty something is/was, I’m going to try to focus on how it can help teach me resilience or patience or whatever it is I can be taught. The teacher in me knows that every experience is a chance to learn and change for the better. So, I’m not going to waste those crappy experiences.

Understanding the worth of something – You know that Joni Mitchell song lyric, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”? Well, this month, I’m going to think about what I have and quit bitching about what I don’t have. I’ve complained a lot about living in Europe (I don’t have any friends here. I don’t have any family here. I have a ridiculously small kitchen with literally 1 square foot of counter space. I do have one single closet or storage area in my entire apartment). When this is my mindset, it’s obviously a recipe for becoming a grumpy bitch. So I’m going to focus on what I DO HAVE and not what I DON’T. And I”m going to be freaking grateful about it. Example: I live in Europe. I get to travel easily to great places. My daughter is bilingual. I have a large, 3 bedroom apartment in the center of an historic city. Now, that wasn’t so hard.

Being fully aware –  One of my core values is awareness. But what does that even mean – to be fully aware? I think Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it best. Awareness is “living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.” Practically speaking, this means I’m going to try to be focused on whatever it is that I’m doing – and nothing else – while I’m doing it. No more Words With Friends on my phone if I’m eating. No more planning my grocery list in my head while my husband is talking to me. No more reading my book when I’m at the park with my daughter. Being fully aware means living consciously, not on autopilot, not multi-tasking, not distracted.

Gretchen Rubin advises that to achieve your goal, you should make concrete and manageable resolutions and hold yourself accountable. So here it goes – I will write down a gratitude list every day. I will express appreciation to others. I will quit my bitching, and I will not multi-task. To hold myself accountable, in addition to putting this out into cyberspace for the entire world to see, I’ll post regularly on my Twitter and Facebook pages about my progress.

Here we go, January, time to show appreciation!

Appreciation