Alkalizing Self. Or, Something.

I mean seriously. Look at him. Is this a picture of sanity?

First it was a gentle nudge.

She sends me an article. “You might check this out.”  I skim it.

“The Ice Man.”

“Ice baths.”

“Deep breathing”

“Inner fire meditation and how it alters body chemistry.”

“You can experience lightheadedness, as the arteries and veins to the brain and body close slightly in reaction to the alkalizing blood.”

“You are inducing voluntarily a short stress response which ultimately will lead to more resilience towards everyday stress, mentally and physiology and feeling more in control.”

Blah, blah, blah. Total Bullsh*t. Whack job.

A few days pass.

She comes at me again. [Read more…]

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

The simplest theory of human nature is that we work as hard as we can to avoid such experiences. We pursue pleasure and comfort; we hope to make it through life unscathed. Suffering and pain are, by their very nature, to be avoided. The tidying guru Marie Kondo became famous by telling people to throw away possessions that don’t “spark joy,” and many would see such purging as excellent life advice in general.

But this theory is incomplete. Under the right circumstances and in the right doses, physical pain and emotional pain, difficulty and failure and loss, are exactly what we are looking for.

Think about your own favorite type of negative experience. Maybe you go to movies that make you cry or scream or gag. Or you might listen to sad songs. You might poke at sores, eat spicy foods, immerse yourself in painfully hot baths. Or climb mountains, run marathons, get punched in the face in a gym or dojo. Psychologists have long known that unpleasant dreams are more frequent than pleasant ones, but even when we daydream—when we have control over where to focus our thoughts—we often turn toward the negative.

Some of this is compatible with a sophisticated version of hedonism, one that appreciates that pain is one route to pleasure. The right kind of negative experience can set the stage for greater pleasure later on; it’s a cost we pay for a greater future reward. Pain can distract us from our anxieties and help us transcend the self. Choosing to suffer can serve social goals; it can display how tough we are or serve as a cry for help. Emotions such as anger and sadness can provide certain moral satisfactions. And effort and struggle and difficulty can, in the right contexts, lead to the joys of mastery and flow.

But many of the negative experiences we pursue don’t provide pleasure at all. Consider now a different kind of chosen suffering. People, typically young men, sometimes choose to go to war, and while they don’t wish to be maimed or killed, they are hoping to experience challenge, fear and struggle—to be baptized by fire, to use the clichéd phrase. Some of us choose to have children, and usually we have some sense of how hard it will be. Maybe we even know of all the research showing that, moment by moment, the years with young children can be more stressful than any other time of life. (And those who don’t know this ahead of time will quickly find out.) And yet we rarely regret such choices. More generally, the projects that are most central to our lives involve suffering and sacrifice…

But chosen suffering is a different story. A life well lived is more than a life of pleasure and happiness. It involves, among other things, meaningful pursuits. And some forms of suffering, involving struggle and difficulty, are essential parts of achieving these higher goals, and for living a complete and fulfilling life.

Some people report more meaning in their lives than others. In a landmark 2013 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Roy Baumeister and colleagues asked hundreds of subjects how happy they were and how meaningful their lives were, and then asked other questions about their moods and activities. It turns out that some features of one’s life relate to both happiness and meaning—both are correlated with rich social connections and not being bored. They are also correlated with each other: People who report high levels of happiness tend to say the same about finding meaning in their lives, and vice versa. You can have both.

The more people report thinking about the future, the more meaning they say they have in their lives—and the less happy they are.

But there are also differences. Health, feeling good and making money are all related to happiness but have little or no relationship to meaning. Moreover, the more people report thinking about the future, the more meaning they say they have in their lives—and the less happy they are. The same goes for stress and worry—more meaning and less happiness.

All of this suggests that meaning and struggle are intertwined. In another study, done by the software company Payscale, more than 2 million people were asked what they did for a living and how much meaning they have in their lives. It turns out the most meaningful job is being a member of the clergy. Others at the top of the list include teachers, therapists, physicians and social workers. All of these jobs involve considerable difficulty and a lot of personal engagement.

What about day-to-day experiences? In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2019, Sean C. Murphy and Brock Bastian asked people to think back on their most significant experiences, to describe each one in a paragraph and to rank them for how meaningful they were. Participants were also asked to indicate the extent to which the experiences were pleasurable or painful. It turned out that the most meaningful events tended to be on the extremes—those that were very pleasant or very painful. These are the ones that matter, that leave a mark…

Few of us voluntarily surrender our appendages in the pursuit of a good life, but we often do seek out more minor negative experiences, in part for their transformative effect but also because we might simply want to possess these experiences later. We want to store them in memory and consume them in the future. As the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca put it, “Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.” They are part of what we see as a meaningful life…

Perhaps the self-conscious pursuit of happiness makes you think a lot about how happy you are, and this gets in the way of being happy, in the same way that worrying about how good you are at kissing probably gets in the way of being good at kissing.

But another explanation is that the happiness-pursuers often focus on the wrong things. A meta-analysis by Helga Dittmar and her colleagues, published in 2014 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, summed up more than 200 studies and found that “respondents report less happiness and life satisfaction, lower levels of vitality and self-actualization, and more depression, anxiety, and general psychopathology to the extent that they believe that the acquisition of money and possessions is important and key to happiness and success in life.”

Consider the work of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust. In his early years practicing in Vienna, in the 1930s, Frankl studied depression and suicide. During that period the Nazis rose to power, and they took over Austria in 1938. Not willing to abandon his patients or his elderly parents, Frankl chose to stay, and he was one of the millions of Jews who ended up in a concentration camp—first at Auschwitz, then Dachau. Ever the scholar, Frankl studied his fellow prisoners, wondering about what distinguishes those who maintain a positive attitude from those who cannot bear it, losing all motivation and often killing themselves.

He concluded that the answer is meaning. Those who had the best chance of survival were those whose lives had broader purpose, who had some goal or project or relationship, some reason to live. As he later wrote (paraphrasing Nietzsche), “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’

The good news is that we don’t have to choose between meaning and pleasure.

The good news is that we don’t have to choose between meaning and pleasure. We know from the work of Baumeister and others that a meaningful life can also be a happy one. There are plenty of people who have lives of both great joy and great struggle.

Human motivation is a lot richer than many people, including many psychologists, believe. The point was nicely made by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel “Brave New World.” He described a society of stability, control and drug-induced happiness—a society that sacrificed everything else for the goal of maximizing pleasure. Near the end of the book, there is a conversation between Mustapha Mond, the representative of the establishment, and John, who has rebelled against the system. Mond argues heatedly for the value of pleasure. He goes on about the neurological interventions being developed to maximize human pleasure, how convenient and easy it all is, and he concludes by saying, “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

And John responds, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” There is no better summary of human nature.

[Read more…]

Walking. With Billy Summers.

67° F. Cove Island Park.  Morning walk. 459 consecutive days. Like in a row.

Sun, all on its own, decides there’s no damn point getting up this early, is rising later, 5:55 a.m. per Dark Sky app.  And yet I’m struggling to make adjustments. So here we are. 3:38 a.m. Sciatica screaming the moment I stir with Jung’s fear of the journey to Hades having arrived. What if this Sciatica thing is with me the rest of the go? 

I ease out bed, try to shake that ugly thought from my head, and head for the scale.

Disgusting result.

Admit it, you’re looking for a full status report on the Refined Sugar Elimination Project. Not goin’ to get it. Nope.

I turn to the morning papers. Headline catches my attention. “Escaping the Efficiency Trap—and Finding Some Peace of MindThe more productive we are, the more pressure we feel. It’s time to break the busyness cycle.” “...the problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important is that you definitely never will. The reason isn’t that you haven’t yet discovered the right time management tricks or applied sufficient effort, or that you need to start getting up earlier, or that you’re generally useless. It’s that the underlying assumption is unwarranted: There’s no reason to believe you’ll ever feel “on top of things,” or make time for everything that matters, simply by getting more done. That’s because if you succeed in fitting more in, you’ll find the goal posts start to shift: More things will begin to seem important, meaningful or obligatory. Acquire a reputation for doing your work at amazing speed, and you’ll be given more of it. … The general principle in operation here is what we might call the “efficiency trap.” Rendering yourself more efficient—either by implementing various productivity techniques or by driving yourself harder—won’t generally result in the feeling of having “enough time,” because, all else being equal, the demands will increase to offset any benefits. Far from getting things done, you’ll be creating new things to do. For most of us, most of the time, it isn’t feasible to avoid the efficiency trap altogether. But the choice you can make is to stop believing you’ll ever solve the challenge of busyness by cramming more in, because that just makes matters worse. And once you stop investing in the idea that you might one day achieve peace of mind that way, it becomes easier to find peace of mind in the present, in the midst of overwhelming demands, because you’re no longer making your peace of mind dependent on dealing with all the demands. Once you stop believing that it might somehow be possible to avoid hard choices about time, it gets easier to make better ones….And so, like the dutiful and efficient worker I was, I’d put my energy into clearing the decks, cranking through the smaller stuff to get it out of the way—only to discover that doing so took the whole day, that the decks filled up again overnight anyway and that the moment for responding to the New Delhi email never arrived. One can waste years this way, systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most. What’s needed instead in such situations, I gradually came to understand, is a kind of anti-skill: not the counterproductive strategy of trying to make yourself more efficient but rather a willingness to resist such urges—to learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in..”

Burkeman goes on, and on. My eyes scan the words, one line, the next and the next. Heaviness sets in… a sinkin’ feeling. He’s in my head. You DK. This is You. [Read more…]

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

…In the 25 years since I graduated from college, such demands have relentlessly ratcheted up. The quantity and complexity of the mental work expected of successful students and professionals have mounted; we’ve responded by pushing ever harder on that lump of gray matter in our heads.

The result has not been a gratifying bulking up of our neural “muscle.” On the contrary, all the mental effort we’ve mustered over the past year has left many of us feeling depleted and distracted, unequal to the tasks that never stop arriving in our inboxes. When the work we’re putting in doesn’t produce the advertised rewards, we’re inclined to find fault with ourselves. Maybe we’re insufficiently gritty; maybe, we think, we’re just not smart enough. But this interpretation is incorrect. What we’re coming up against are universal limits, constraints on the biological brain that are shared by every human on the planet. Despite the hype, our mental endowment is not boundlessly powerful or endlessly plastic. The brain has firm limits — on its ability to remember, its capacity to pay attention, its facility with abstract and nonintuitive concepts — and the culture we have created for ourselves now regularly exceeds these limits.

The escalating mental demands of the past quarter-century represent the latest stage of a trend that has been picking up speed for more than 100 years. Starting in the early decades of the 20th century, school, work and even the routines of daily life became more cognitively complex: less grounded in the concrete and more bound up in the theoretical and abstract. For a time, humanity was able to with this development, resourcefully finding ways to use the brain better. As their everyday environments grew more intellectually demanding, people responded by upping their cognitive game. Continual engagement with the mental rigors of modern life coincided in many parts of the world with improving nutrition, rising living conditions and reduced exposure to pathogens. These factors produced a century-long climb in average I.Q. scores — a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect, after James Flynn, the political philosopher who identified it.

But this upward trajectory is now leveling off. In recent years, I.Q. scores have stopped rising or have even begun to drop…Some researchers suggest that we have pushed our mental equipment as far as it can go. It may be that “our brains are already working at near-optimal capacity,” write the neuroscientist Peter Reiner and his student Nicholas Fitz in the journal Nature. Efforts to wrest more intelligence from this organ, they add, “bump up against the hard limits of neurobiology.” This collision point — where the urgent imperatives of contemporary life confront the stubbornly intractable limits of the brain — is the place where we live at the moment, and rather unhappily. Our determination to drive the brain ever harder is the source of the agitation we feel as we attempt the impossible each day.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. It entails inducing the brain to play a different role: less workhorse, more orchestra conductor. Instead of doing so much in our heads, we can seek out ways to shift mental work onto the world around us and to supplement our limited neural resources with extraneural ones. These platforms for offloading, these resources for supplementation, are readily available and close at hand…

We, too, extend our minds, but not as well as we could. We do it haphazardly, without much intention or skill — and it’s no wonder this is the case. Our efforts at education and training, as well as management and leadership, are aimed principally at promoting brain-bound thinking. Beginning in elementary school, we are taught to sit still, work quietly, think hard — a model for mental activity that will dominate during the years that follow, through high school and college and into the workplace. The skills we develop and the techniques we are taught are mostly those that involve using our individual, unaided brains: committing information.

The limits of this approach have become painfully evident. The days when we could do it all in our heads are over. Our knowledge is too abundant, our expertise too specialized, our challenges too enormous. The best chance we have to thrive in the extraordinarily complex world we’ve created is to allow that world to assume some of our mental labor. Our brains can’t do it alone.

Annie Murphy Paul, from “How to Think Outside Your Brain (June 11, 2021)

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

Here are some key attributes of the voice in my head. I suspect they will sound familiar.

  • It’s often fixated on the past and future, at the expense of whatever is happening right now. The voice loves to plan, plot, and scheme. It’s always making lists or rehearsing arguments or drafting tweets. One moment it has you fantasizing about some halcyon past or Elysian future. Another moment you’re ruing old mistakes or catastrophizing about some not-yet-arrived events. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.”
  • The voice is insatiable. The default mental condition for too many human beings is dissatisfaction. Under the sway of the ego, nothing is good enough. We’re always on the hunt for the next dopamine hit. We hurl ourselves headlong from one cookie, one promotion, one party to the next, and yet a great many of us are never fully sated. How many meals, movies, and vacations have you enjoyed? And are you done yet? Of course not.
  • The voice is unrelievedly self-involved. We are all the stars of our own movies, whether we cast ourselves as hero, victim, black hat, or all three. True, we can get temporarily sucked into other people’s stories, but often as a means of comparing ourselves to them. Everything ultimately gets subordinated to the one plotline that matters: the Story of Me.

In short, the voice in my head—and perhaps also yours—can be an a**hole.

Dan Harris, from “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book


Notes:

  • Dan Harris Bio: Dan Harris is a co-anchor the weekend edition of Good Morning America on ABC News, as well as a correspondent for such broadcasts as Nightline and World News Tonight. He is also the author of 10% Happier, a #1 New York Times best-selling book about a fidgety, skeptical news anchor who stumbles upon meditation. Recently, Harris launched an app specifically designed to teach meditation to doubters and busy people. This ancient practice – too long associated exclusively with hippies and robed gurus – has been shown by modern science to boost resilience, focus, creativity, emotional intelligence, and overall mental and physical health. With meditation and mindfulness now being embraced by executives, athletes, educators and entertainers, Harris has become a leading voice for pushing for the practice into the mainstream, using plain English and dry humor.

Hmmmmm….

Neither season after season of extreme weather events nor the risk of extinction for a million animal species around the world could push environmental destruction to the top of our country’s list of concerns. And how sad, he said, to see so many among the most creative and best-educated classes, those from whom we might have hoped for inventive solutions, instead embracing personal therapies and pseudo-religious practices that promoted detachment, a focus on the moment, acceptance of one’s surroundings as they were, equanimity in the face of worldly cares. (This world is but a shadow, it is a carcass, it is nothing, this world is not real, do not mistake this hallucination for the real world.) Self-care, relieving one’s own everyday anxieties, avoiding stress: these had become some of our society’s highest goals, he said—higher, apparently, than the salvation of society itself. The mindfulness rage was just another distraction, he said. Of course we should be stressed, he said. We should be utterly consumed with dread. Mindful meditation might help a person face drowning with equanimity, but it would do absolutely nothing to right the Titanic, he said. It wasn’t individual efforts to achieve inner peace, it wasn’t a compassionate attitude toward others that might have led to timely preventative action, but rather a collective, fanatical, over-the-top obsession with impending doom.

Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through: A Novel (Riverhead Books, September 8, 2020)


Photo: Patty Maher, Light & Dark

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

Yes,

even when I don’t believe—

there is a place in me inaccessible to unbelief,

a patch of wild grace,

a stubborn preserve, impenetrable…

music that builds its nest in silence.

T.G.I.F.: It’s Been A Long Week

Look away, America. For your own good, look away. Everything will still be there when you come back. Even once the vote counting’s done, there’ll be the recounting, and the tag-along lawsuits.

So take a walk, take a breath, take a break from the election drama unspooling at a pace better suited to a garden slug than an advanced nation’s sophisticated vote-counting system. So, psychologists say, maybe you should get off the smartphone, get back to work, and get some perspective…

“One of the things that happens with uncertainty is we often don’t think realistically about the outcome, and we tend to think catastrophically. So, you’re already thinking that if your candidate loses it’s going to be awful, it’s going to be unbearable, it’ll be disastrous,” said psychologist Shelley Carson. “We overestimate how this event — or any event — is going to affect our happiness in the future.” …

The year “2020 has been filled with many things, and uncertainty has been a major one,” said Sperling, who is also director of training and research at McLean Hospital’s Anxiety Mastery Program. “To have ongoing uncertainty with this election on top of all the uncertainty we’ve already had this year, I can imagine that being particularly trying. People are eager for results, some certainty, some knowledge of what’s going to happen.”

Sperling said worries about the unknown trigger the body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls our fight-or-flight response and recruits internal resources such as the stress hormone cortisol. Under normal circumstances, this heightened response lasts only until the uncertainty is resolved, and the body returns to normal. During prolonged periods of uncertainty, however, the stress can wear us down…

“These are unprecedented times where there is a lot more at stake now,” Sperling said. “That may make this election feel bigger than they may have felt in the past. … There are so many big decisions that people may feel there’s a lot that’s important to them that’s at stake.”

Sperling suggested counteracting uncertainty by carving out times in our day for activities that are personally meaningful and that we control, whether it’s going for a walk, having a cup of coffee without interruption, or connecting with people who are supportive of us.

Carson said going for a walk not only breaks one’s focus on national events, it provides an exercise boost. She suggested deep breathing for two minutes, which has been shown to calm the autonomic nervous system. We can also try meditation or listing things for which we feel grateful, because anxiety and gratitude are incompatible, she said.

“The thing to do is step back from it. You have to quit hitting ‘refresh,’ ” Carson said. “You can distract yourself. … Go do something different. If you can put the phone down, that’s wonderful.”

—  Alvin Powell, from “Feeling election stress? Stop hitting ‘refresh’ in The Harvard Gazette (Nov 4, 2020)

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

“One way or another, we’re all white-knuckling our way toward Tuesday. I’ve probably made too many impulse donations to candidates I believe in, but I regret none of them. My husband, son, and I have written letters and held signs. In our small town, we’ll don our masks and vote in person. Beyond that, my approach during these last days has been to stay outdoors as much as possible. I can’t control the outcome of anything that matters, but I can keep the birdfeeders full. I can sweep out the shed, rake up the leaves, and pull out the petunias. I can stay grounded in the simple, necessary tasks of my own life. And I can look at the sky, at the now bare maple tree, at the snow that covers the ground this morning in a frosting of white, and trust in the forces at work in the world that are far beyond my own limited seeing and my own narrow understanding. One day last week, I rounded the corner of the house pushing the wheelbarrow and was stopped in my tracks by the sight of fifty or sixty robins hopping about in the front yard, a gathering as uplifting to me as the determined crowd of citizens who have showed up downtown every Saturday all through the fall to stand in silent solidarity with Black Lives Matter, voting rights, and democracy. When we looked up from breakfast a few days ago to see a herd of deer just outside the window, they seemed almost like silent messengers sent to remind us that we share this time, this place, with others and that we’re all connected, for better and for worse.”

Katrina Kenison, from “Our Time” (October 31, 2020)


Notes: Image from Mennyfox

Good Morning, Monster

Making psychological changes also provokes anxiety. It’s very hard to break a habit, especially when you’ve adapted yourself to a particular pattern that, however maladaptive, has kept you alive. The unconscious is powerful, and it will fight to the death to keep an old pattern in place.

Catherine Gildiner, Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery (St. Martin’s Press, September 22, 2020)


Notes:

  • Highly recommended.  Gripping stories…
  • Amazon Best Book of September 2020
  • CBC.radio: “Catherine Gildiner is an American-born and Toronto-based memoirist, novelist and former psychologist. In her latest book Good Morning, Monster, she focuses on five patients who overcame their personal trauma, a process Gildiner defines as being heroic.  ‘These five people that I write about always came back to me — out of the hundreds of people that I had seen.’ — Catherine Gildiner.
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