Snowfall

View on Fronalpstock mountain in Switzerland in winter

Think of your mind as a large, snow covered hill. Now think of your thoughts as small individual sleds that go sliding down the hill. As each sled makes its way, it leaves a trace –a memory of sorts. But there’s not just a memory of having taken that path before; there’s also a certain inclination to take that path again when given the same starting point atop the hill.

When we are young, the snow is fresh. When given a concept to ponder and a model to build, we take many different paths down the hill. We strive to discover which ones lead  somewhere worth going. We are uncertain about our trajectories, yet we are open and curious to new directions as they emerge. Sometimes we forge new troughs, other times, we take the routes we know.

As time wears on and we grow older, the troughs become trenches. Now, we seldom go down the hill without falling into an old, predictable pathway. And in many ways, predictable is good. Predictable is comfortable. Predictable is safe.

When you consider your philosophies, your spiritual subscriptions, your family values–you want to be sure about what you know. After all, these are the cultural tenants of the human condition. It is out of these things that your self-concept–and, if you’re lucky–your self-confidence–is born.

At some point, though, the path becomes the prison. And despite a felt sense of agency–a visceral feeling that we could do differently than what we do, we could take paths we haven’t–we do not. We do precisely what we have done. We go precisely where we’ve gone. And this is where the rubber meets the road, or perhaps, where the sled meets the snow.

If the paths you forge lead to a sense of kindness, gratitude and openness, then maybe they’re worth travelling. But if instead they lead to cynicism, craving and disconnection, then maybe they’re not. Being captive in paradise may be perfectly desirable but being captive in hell requires serious action.

But what if it snows? What if the paths are covered with a fresh layer of powder? Even if the runs are the same, the paths are erased. Now we have the option to forge new trails down familiar territory. It’s a kind-of rebirth if you will. This is the utility of the psychedelic ‘trip’ or a commitment to contemplative practices like yogic meditation.

Ultimately, however, you must remember: you are neither the path nor the snow. You are the hill beneath. You are unchanged by the forging of new paths, nor the elimination of new ones. The contents of your experience may change, but you are not the contents of experience, you are experience itself. You are the space in which those contents emerge.

 

 

 

 

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Fatigue Resistance

Yesterday was my first day on Methylphenidate, otherwise known as Concerta–a prescription stimulant. I had a hard time sleeping the night before knowing my first trial was impending.

As my doctor wrote the prescription and put the paper in my hands I had a feeling that this single moment could have the power to change everything. A lot has changed already over the recent past–including meeting a great girl, locking down a big career opportunity and moving out of home.

But although much of my external world has been obscured, my felt experience moment-to-moment has not changed much at all. I still fight the same demons day in day out as I manifest what I believe in my mind’s eye will bring me states of equanimity.

For the most part, however, I spin in my tracks. Even when there are outward signs of progress, I still itch on the inside. It’s always disheartening to realize that even a bugged up operating system can produce some decent outputs without those outputs having any bearing on the health of the system as a whole. Scribble the pages long enough and at some point you’ll produce something worth reading.

But that’s where the medication comes in. I’m happy with what I am able to accomplish, but I’m unhappy with the perpetual subjective struggle to stay focused and engaged. The rituals I have formed in order to get basic things done leave me in a selfish and inflexible position relative to those I truly care about. I don’t have any time for you, because I feel in my bones that I don’t have enough time for me. It’s an illusion, of course, but it’s also the sickness.

Day one is only interesting in retrospect. I took the 18 mg pill at quarter to 8, just before I started work. There were no acute effects–no “come-up”–to speak of. I just started flowing through my morning. My job was to skim out a textured ceiling with drywall compound to make it smooth and flat. However when I arrived I realized the team had forgotten to patch two small holes in the ceiling where the electrician doubled back on his lighting placement. I happily altered my plans and took care of that task first.

Somewhere around 11 I realized that I feel decently aware and energetic for having had such a poor sleep the night before. That’s not much of a metric to judge by, however, because one’s perceived sense of sleep is hardly an accurate measure at all. Also, when starting a new psychoactive medication, one is certainly likely to search for the effects. So I’ll have to take this with a grain of salt.

The day wore on and I did what I needed to do. The morale was high with the team so the day progressed under its own momentum. I did very little procrastinating and felt a welcomed mental flow, albeit identified in retrospect.

The main thing I can report from day one is a sort of fatigue resistance. Probably the single most salient effect of the drug was the ease with which it allowed me to reengage with my work after taking a break at lunch. Not only did I not feel sluggish after a big meal, but I didn’t feel indecisive upon resuming my tasks–like I always do. And that’s definitely worth something.

The fatigue resistance also manifested in my workout immediately following the work day. Often times I push myself into the gym because I know I need it for my mental health. I go through the motions and collect on whatever rewards are available that day. A lot of times there aren’t any. But with the Concerta, every rep of every set felt rewarded in and of itself. I wondered if some of the fit girls that live on the StairMasters might have a prescription to Adderall.

I arrived in bed knowing I got done what I needed and that the rest can wait. I felt my nervous system slow down and a sense of peace came over me. I slept through the night.

Methylphenidate

Today my doctor prescribed me Concerta. I have mixed feelings about taking prescription stimulants but I think I might stand to benefit. To be fair, I think most people could stand to benefit. I just don’t know where I reside on the spectrum of people who, on one end, need speed to function normally, and on the other, want speed to function optimally.

I guess that’s my call ultimately.

After all, ADHD medications are prescribed based on patient self-report. There is no blood test for such a diagnosis, and it turns out you might not even need to fill out a questionnaire–because I didn’t. To be fair, I do have a prevalence of the disorder in my immediate family so perhaps this, along with the symptoms I presented with, prompted the decision to prescribe.

Regardless of the context, it still seemed pretty easy to obtain. And maybe that’s okay. The dark reality is that drugs are often synthesized first, then ascribed to treat an illness later. Products need markets in order to sell, and if there isn’t one already, why not manufacture it? Or so the operations of Big Pharma would suggest.

How many people honestly have Restless Leg Syndrome?

But drugs are ultimately tools, and life is ultimately subjective. If I have an impoverished set of executive functioning skills despite a healthy diet, a serious commitment to exercise, a subscription to yogic practices and a solid social orientation, then you bet your bottom dollar I’m seeking further agents of change.

Whether I “need” this drug or “want” this drug is a question of personal semantics. I get to have it and I feel grateful for the option. I think everybody deserves that option. We should have the right to steward our consciousness in precisely the way we please with all other laws of civilization intact. If you are responsible and mindful, do adequate research and assume all risks, chances are you’ll find the tools to serve you.

Will Concerta serve me?

We’re about to find out.

The Cost of Cognitive Dissonance

I know I’m in trouble when I start staring into midspace. When the contradictions in my mind halt me in the physical environment. Like when I was making my lunch this morning, contemplating why I am the way I am. My tuna sandwich sat flopped open and half made as I gazed into the countertop, not looking, but searching for existential answers.

On some level, I know there are none to be found, especially when one goes looking. But intuitively it’s my only hope at restoring equinimity. There’s a tantalizing prototruth balancing on the next string of logic if I could only trace the thread–or so my desperate efforts would imply.

But in order to find answers the question must be clear. Why am I the way I am is not only a vague proposition, but also a risky concept to unpack. Articulating such a thing may be a mere exercise in confabulation and the resulting story will bear the odor of my present mood. I’m not sure how that aids my orientation, but I press on anyways.

Ultimately, I wish there was no intention to query such things. And I think it’s no coincidence that I mostly do this when the cold tendrils of depression bind me in place: when the darkness seeps in and challenges my core values and the careful narratives that instantiate them.

It’s true that the question why am I the way I am can be rewritten as why do I feel the way I feel without losing a scrap of its lustre. And although it poses a new angle from which to contemplate, it does not narrow the search by any margin at all.

The dark irony is this: the closer one is to questions like these, the further one is from answering them. In fact, the mere intention to state such abstractions is a symptom of the problem one endeavors to solve. Here salvation is reductive. Its semblance evades the moment and can only be realized in retrospect once one has acted well enough for long enough. Yet despite these metacognitive meditations, here I stand, entranced by the countertop.

In these moments of eternity, there is no place to go. The mind keeps sputtering but the system has stalled. The beloved stories that explain my existence lay in pieces before me. Worse still is that their disassembly claimed every scrap of willpower I had. Now I’m less with less to work with.

Where to go from here?

A wise man once said: it’s easier to act your way to better thinking than think your way to better acting. At times like these it seems acting is all I have left. A silent acceptance for what I do next is the only path to unity, and to the death of dissonance. Until, of course, I draft new narratives and forge new virtues on the basis of those actions to appease the ego that drives me. And so the cycle begins again.

Until then.

Hello Darkness My New Friend

I’m becoming something different. I am mourning my ignorance and the blissful disposition born of it. I can no longer see good where no good exists. I can no longer write narratives about the monsters that stir around me. And within me. These hopeful stories lay in fragments at my feet. But the broken shards form something bigger and more profound.

I am beginning to see like I’ve never seen before. But it’s not just beauty and freedom beyond the veil of self–it’s fear and darkness and the master value that nests in it all: truth.

It’s ironic that truth is such a tricky beast. Not because it seeks to delude me, but rather quite the opposite. I have been living as though truth is something written, not something felt, or something known. It has never been so evident that truth is indeed reductive. It emerges when the desperate chatter of the mind is paralyzed in silence. I have awoken to a place I cannot understand, although it was my own desperate conscience that built it.

Who are these people beyond the stories I’ve been telling myself? Are they who they say they are? Are they who say they are? They are neither. They are merely who I know them to be, through a retrospective lens clearer and more genuine than any deluded ideal I have strained so long to uphold.

With a new frame of awareness comes a disorienting truth: I found my mind but I’m lost at home. The shadow self has gifted me truth, but also despair. Nothing will be quite as it was. No one will be quite as they were. Including me–whatever me even means. It seems the more I align, the less I am. But the more I know.

 

Unpacking “Mental Health”

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The term “mental health” is inherently misleading. And since it’s Bell Let’s Talk day, you’ve probably heard it a zillion times already. Although I fully support raising awareness on this topic, it’s important to unpack the keyword we use to steer attention to this matter. I do believe within it lays some fundamental fallacies we all must be aware of.

The term “mental” has a certain connotation in our culture. It basically means “in your head.” When we say something is “all mental,” it roughly translates to “you just have to want it bad enough.” So when you consider somebody with poor “mental health,” you might be tempted to equate them to somebody with poor discipline, resolve or general awareness of themselves.

The reality is, people suffering under this umbrella of disorders must exercise these higher cognitive skills to an even greater degree, as well as uphold a greater state of mindfulness as they go through day-to-day life. They must be aware of the changing climates of their mood, triggers that may spark an episode and environments that lend themselves to undue suffering. The stakes are high, so attention must be paid.

But beyond the basic connotation, and frankly more importantly, the term “mental health” also perpetuates a false dichotomy. It’s not like there’s physical health on one hand and mental health on the other. Mental health is nothing more than brain health. And brain health is physical health–or, to be generally accurate, health.

Packaging our cognitive and emotional well-being as “mental health” creates unnecessary confusion. It suggests there may be a component of control–that a person may will themselves out of their illness as if there’s some sort of choice involved. And maybe you believe there is a choice involved. But in here lies a basic–yet crucial–misunderstanding.

It’s like this: We all have a brain. And our brain’s state of functioning provides us with our first-person experience of the world–moment to moment. Some things are conscious, like lifting your cup of coffee, or deciding which Netflix show to watch. Other things are unconscious, like digesting food or recognizing somebody’s face. But whether an action is conscious or unconscious, it is still absolutely, undeniably, the product of a physical brain at work. Our awareness of our mind happens after the fact, as a matter of physiology. Choice never enters the equation.

Sure, it really does feel like we have the gift of choice. The experience of free-will is a powerful one, and it’s a concept that underpins our social, political and criminal institutions. But the reality is, your “choice” to grab your coffee was determined by the neurons in your head moments before you were aware of making a decision.

By extrapolating this fact, one can understand why someone with illness in their brain cannot “think better thoughts,” or “pull themselves out of it.” Chances are they have tried all that and more and remain prisoner to dysfunction. They simply cannot account for why, upon previous attempts, they were able to will themselves to salvation, but currently, their efforts work in vain.

Neuropathology and free will are incompatible concepts. And in order to address the former, the latter must go. It sounds ironic, but viewing each other as unraveling biology over time is actually the only way to feel true compassion for one another. We understand that everything happens in a context of factors we cannot control. We realize we are the subjects of our environment–inside and out. We see sickness as sickness, not as choice.

So next time you hear the term “mental health,” remember, no part of it is really mental. Our experience of free will cannot undermine the temporal march of physics and the mechanisms of biology. We have a script and an ever changing environment and an awareness of the interplay. If yours leaves you feeling happy and fulfilled, be grateful. For too many, such a state of being is too seldom realized–regardless of their efforts.

Deflating Balloons

 

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When was the last time your thoughts held you prisoner? Maybe you had a tough decision to make and struggled to choose a direction. Or perhaps you were trying to reconcile a string of poor behaviours with the larger concept of who you are. Or maybe–like is the case for so many falling victim to the captivation of rumination–there was hardly a reason at all.

The fact of the matter is: we all spend time lost in thought. It’s simply the degree to which we do this that sets the poles of function and dysfunction. After all, it is perfectly natural for the mind to spin itself into a rut through over analysis and the belief that the solution is just one good thought away. It’s what minds do.

Failing to recognize the shift from curious thinking to obsessive thinking, however, is the mechanism by which suffering is born.

I like to think of thoughts as balloons. They appear in one form, and by directing your attention to them, they get larger and larger, taking up more and more space until your whole mental arena is crowded by a single mass. With such little space to maneuver, your thinking becomes less and less flexible until you’re paralyzed by a single mental concept.

At this point, the intuition is to direct even more attention towards solving the problem. But of course doing this only further inflates the balloon, making us even less likely to appropriately deal with the (often times imagined) issue.

So how, then, does one deflate it?

Enter the concept of dis-identification. The reason why we are willing to invest so much energy into a single line of thinking is because we believe our identity is wrapped up in the problem. We see our thoughts as items we birth into the conscious space, instead of realizing that they are the felt experience of a brain at work. Ask yourself: do you know how a brain produces a thought? No? Me either.

This materialist view is paramount for deflating balloons before they obstruct your conscious peace. Saying you can think your way out of bad thinking is like saying you can sharpen a knife with another dull knife. You can’t use a problem to solve another problem; you need a solution. And the solution is to stop blowing into the damn balloon.

So next time you’re waste deep in a swamp of thought, remember, none of them are truly “yours.” You own a single thought no more than you own a meteor passing through the atmosphere. Ultimately, they’re both nothing more than momentary cosmic appearances.

 

 

The Empty Box

box

I have so many goals and partial processes.

Like opulent monuments in my mind.

A cast of characters awaiting the script.

But in reality a bunch of stick figures.

 

I can plan a play but cannot act.

Colour a room yet fail to furnish it.

In the theatre of mind, the stage is set.

And the audience is screaming.

Don’t Be the Best You Can Be

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I saw this quote on Instagram today:

You need to ignore what everyone else is doing and achieving. Your life is about breaking your own limits and outgrowing yourself to live YOUR best life. You are not in competition with anyone else; plan to outdo your past, not other people.

Aside from being cliche and kind of wordy, this advice seems pretty solid. There’s certainly a lot of suffering to be had by stacking your accomplishments against the people you admire. After all, we admire people largely for having qualities we don’t have. So a certain feeling of incompetence is inevitable so long as you’re judging your ability against another’s.

But ultimately I see no difference whatsoever between comparing yourself to other people vs. comparing yourself to your former self. Both of these mental constructs, birthed into existence by your own thinking mind, are equally obscure to the present frame of consciousness you find yourself inhabiting.

That’s a bit of a mouth-full, so allow me to unpack that idea.

I often fall victim to this comparison fallacy while I’m putting up numbers in the gym. I used to deadlift a lot more than this, I think to myself. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to get twice as strong as I once was.

But human beings do not exist in a vacuum. There’s a multitude of forces acting on us at all times that can affect any conceivable outcome we have the intention to measure. Your external reality is a chaos of causal factors acting on you from the outside in, while the same is true about your brain, working from the inside out. 

I like to think I built a strong deadlift by being disciplined, focused and reflective about what works regarding strength training, and what doesn’t. But speaking honestly, I have absolutely no idea why I was able to get so strong then, yet I’m struggling to improve now. That former self was acting in a sea of variables, many of which are completely different from the ones I’m acting in now. How can I have any conviction about what absolutely works and what absolutely doesn’t?

So whether I’m looking at how many plates are on the bar compared to the former me, or compared to the guy deadlifting beside me makes no difference whatsoever. Both of these “selves” are not this immediate moment, and this immediate moment happens to be the only thing I can truly know exists. It’s also the only thing I can identify with.

So what’s the alternative then? Give up on trying to improve yourself?

That’s exactly what I’m saying.

Consider me in this moment. I find myself standing over the barbell. What possible use do I have for thinking about the former me that used to stand over the same barbell with more weight on it? That self does not exist. For that matter, this self does not exist. All that stuff about focus and discipline and intelligent reflection–these are just concepts I attach to. So what really matters in this moment then? Well, I see a loaded bar, and I know what I do with that. Deadlift it.

What I mean to say is, instead of creating all these objects of comparison, just do the thing. Whatever that thing is. Realistically, you’ll naturally get better at whatever you focus on. But when the universe presents a snag, don’t let your mind take over, dividing your self into two: the one you were and the one you are now. It’s no less damaging than comparing yourself to others.

 

 

Dependent Origination

Last night I listened to a podcast that stirred up the depths of me. It was a forty-minute teaching from Buddhist Monk Ajahn Viradhammo recorded at a monastery outside of Ottawa.

The topic was on dependent origination. It’s this idea that everything that emerges in our experience is causally dependent on that which precedes it.

Blind to us at any time is a multitude of causal factors that push reality precisely in a particular direction. As conscious agents, however, we have this felt sense that we choose what to think, how to feel, and what to do–thereby manufacturing reality as we experience it. When something embarrassing happens–like last week when I spent the duration of my workout with chalk dust on my ass– we regret that we didn’t act differently. As if we could have acted differently.

But the reality is, causality would have it the same way infinity times over.

And that’s the essence of the teaching. We are every bit a part of the universe as a rock, flower or ham sandwich. After all, we are made of the same basic building blocks. Yet for some reason, we feel above the laws of causality. We feel the push of absolute agency as the supposed curators of a reality we know almost nothing about. 

What we can know, however, is that everything is dependently originated. On the level of the cosmos and on the level of your felt experience of the world.

Ajahn Viradhammo offers the following thought experiment.Imagine you’re on a vast grass expanse and you spot two deer fawns in the distance. They chase each other up and down the treeline, jumping and darting in a natural show of play. Unless you’re a psychopath, this is likely to bring delight. But this experience you’re having of delight–this being that comes to be, you as a delighted person–is an objective occurrence. With this, there is that. A human perceiving fawns at play creates a moment of delight. Choice never enters into the equation.

You begin walking towards the fawns to get a closer view when a deerfly bites you on the neck. This being that comes to be–you as an agitated person–again is an objective state of affairs. With this (sting on the neck), there is that (abrupt agitation).

These reactions are a fundamental truth about reality. Just as the thoughts are that arise in our heads. What we do once the truth is delivered, however, makes all the difference. A theologian may think the fawns are a gift from God. This way of construing the events puts the self on centre stage. The fawns are indirectly a result of a string of good choices he has made. He deserves them.

But what happens when the deerfly strikes? Why does God punish him in this way? Why this sudden dose of misfortune?

You might think such a take on events is supremely self centred and out of touch with how things are. But void of religious attribution,  we still fall victim to the same fallacy of thought. We constantly put ourselves at the center of the universe.

Your friend says she’ll pick you up at 8:30. Be ready, she insists, by the door with your bags. So come 8:25, there you are, packed at the door. Five minutes pass, and there’s no sign of your friend. Another ten pass and you begin to feel aggravated. You’re thinking: how could she tell me to be ready, then be late herself? She’s done this to me so many times. Doesn’t she know I’m just standing here waiting?

These thoughts may sound totally pedestrian–justified even. But take a moment to consider what a selfish string of thought this is. Moment after moment, you taint the facts with this sense of selfWe have this unskillful tendency to translate emotion into a self-serving narrative
But what’s really going on here? Are you standing at the door or are you engaging in a self indulgent narrative about why your worth has been slighted? It’s safe to say you’re doing both yet thi Was resentment inevitable or was it a product of our thinking mind–continually self-aggrandizing as the moments went on? It’s important to remember that this being that comes to be–annoyance, resentment–is not a self. It is merely an emotion, a physical manifestation, cued up by universal causality.

Ajahn Viradhammo reminds us: with this, there is that. With lateness, there is annoyance. It’s objective. There’s no need to introduce “self view” and remanufacture negative feelings on a moment to moment basis. Instead, we’re encouraged to feel the negative emotion as it arises–this being that comes to be–and treat it like the objective microcosm it is. This way, the feeling will naturally pass away much sooner, and with far less effort, than if we engaged it with stories about what happened.

After listening to the teaching, I’ve begun observing my experience. How often do I experience reality as it is? How much of it is misconstrued? Can I really change the cosmic dance or is agency an illusion?