This has been a long week–a long two weeks, actually. I edit financial news releases, and we’re in the second busiest quarter of the year. This means working overtime, which is physically exhausting, but more than that, it means hectic, frenetic days in which the phone never stops ringing, deadlines are tight, and the mood is tense. I’ve found myself feeling guilty when it’s time to take my lunch break and realizing that entire hours sometimes elapse between having the initial thought that I need to use the restroom and actually leaving my desk to take that 30 second walk.
In a way, I don’t mind all of this *too* much–the days are long, but they’re absorbing and go by quickly; there’s a certain stress in the air, but it’s shared among all the editors, and the basic comradery that I’ve come to appreciate in my co-workers remains. What has been a bit harder has actually been managing my expectations once I’m finally leaving the office. It feels as though I throw myself into the day’s work, all the while looking forward to going home at the end of the day to relax and decompress, but once I’m actually inhabiting those precious hours I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. After reading all day, picking up the novel I was so engrossed in a few weeks ago doesn’t have the same appeal; after a twelve-hour work day, the idea of taking a run feels out of the question. Watching a movie or mindless television show usually wins out, but once it’s over and I realize that it’s (already) time to go to bed so I can get up and do it all over again, I’m left feeling hollowed out, numb, and as though I’m renting a small space in my life to live in and too exhausted to enjoy it.
And in the midst of the physical and existential weariness, I do know that I am lucky: I don’t feel this way *most* of the time, and I have a good job in an economy where good jobs are not easy to come by. Looking around at the same tired passengers on my daily commute, I can see that what is a notably long day for me is the norm for many, and I think with shame that I’ve really no right to complain. Everyone is dealing with his own dissatisfactions in life, managing them as best she can.
From a Buddhist point of view, getting caught up in my own hardships is 99% of the suffering I’m experiencing, and it’s true that waking up to the shared burden with my fellow human beings does lighten the load. However, it strikes me as I’m writing that this realization that, if we stop there, we run the risk of slipping into an almost apathetic, pessimistic (in the philosophical sense) attitude of, well, I guess this is just how life is, which I’m not ready to accept. So I suppose my challenge this week is to use the shared dissatisfaction as point of departure rather than a conclusion.
We are all tired, all doing our best to avoid pain and experience joy. How can I use this knowledge to think beyond my own narrow circumstances, to take my own discomforts less seriously? But also, how can I think more deeply about this dissatisfaction that, when I look around, is clearly shared in one manifestation or other with everyone I encounter?
The other night I was streaming an episode of the show American Odyssey when an intimate scene between two characters struck me in such a lovely way. For those of you who don’t know the show, it has a “network television series” feel to it and the main plot centers around a female soldier in the middle east who’s presumed dead but continues to survive. She discovered some secrets about the U.S. government over in the middle east and various U.S. officials want her dead. There are a lot of different characters in the movie who are directly involved with her and indirectly related to her situation back in the States. Several journalists in the U.S. are working to investigate her situation and story. One of the journalists becomes friendly with a woman and this leads to a romantic moment between the two of them. When they become intimate for the first time, she starts to move very fast and peel off her clothes. He stops her for a second and says, “Stay with me.” It was this moment that really spoke to me, but not because it was something new.
As a psychotherapist, a Buddhist and just another human being, I pay attention to my experiences throughout the day and naturally look for reminders of what’s truly important. One of the most important things, so I’ve found, is that staying with each other, when we’re with each other, truly adds a great deal of meaning to our lives. So often we’re caught in the trap of our own mind and by the habitual storylines that it gives us. We learn and are told how to “act” in certain situations and when a similar moment arises, the script in our mind starts to run. What’s sad about us becoming the script is that we are, indeed, faking our presence in the moment and totally out of touch with how we can connect with the other person. We’re not really connected with what’s going on in the moment because our mind is making so many assumptions about what’s happening, what things mean, who the person is in front of us, and all of this ruins the rawness and freshness of the moment. This happens in any and all of our interactions throughout the day, not just in intimate situations. The meat of life, the juicy parts that are so meaningful to us, can only be savored when we truly stay with each other. To do this, we need to have the courage to be vulnerable, open, raw, and true in how we are as things happen. Of course, this is easier said than done for a lot of people.
So many of us don’t know what these words truly mean and how it feels to embody them. I’m not here to tell you the “5 Steps to Perfect Vulnerability” because part of life is to figure this out as we venture into the world. Yet, I would like to say that in my near 30 years of studying our human psychology and relationships, staying with each other and truly being with each other is vital to our individual and collective contentment, health and happiness. Sure, people come and go so they may not stay, but we should try to stay with each other when we’re with each other. Nearly all of us fantasize about this and deeply desire this type of connection. However, many of us often get in the way of making it happen. So many of our relationships and friendships start with this desire for deeper connection, but then they fade away as the scripts, insecurities and habits kick in. I hope, for all of you, that you can come to understand and experience what it’s like to stay with you, to stay with me, and to stay with all of us whenever we’re together. If you already know, very intimately, what I’m talking about then please continue to inspire others through genuine connections. As always and with an honest and open heart, I wish each of you well.
Every year around this time spring creeps up on me and takes me by surprise: I’m going along, living day-to-day, probably a bit caught up in the grind of work, and have basically accepted the winter chill as an immovable fact of life as I know it…when one day, I wake up and find myself opening windows, digging in my closet for tee-shirts, buying sunglasses to replace the ones I’ve long since lost from last year, and marveling at the inexplicably good mood I’m in for no reason whatsoever.
As children, school vacations mark transitions between seasons and give us built in fresh starts, but for most of us, the adult world does not provide these little reminders, and it’s very possible for the months to simply pass in a blur. So, for me, the little nudge of warmth that enters the air, the first awareness of the lengthening of the days, the freedom from my heavy winter coat have become precious markers. The optimism and excitement that they breed is almost Pavlovian, such that before I can say to myself, “Laura, this happens every year–you always feels this way when spring first arrives,” I’m humming to myself, finding renewed energy, feeling invigorated by fresh hope.
One of the things that first attracted me to the Shambhala Buddhist tradition as opposed to other lineages was the “not too tight, not too loose” approach. I remember one of my first teachers pointing me to Chögyam Trungpa’s discussion of the beauty of “fresh start” as a way to to help me emerge from the exhausting, well-worn cycles of over-thinking to which I am prone. Sometimes, even with one’s meditation practice, you need to shift your awareness from the object of your focus to drink in the sensory world, gain some perspective, and remind yourself of the aliveness of the present moment. It can be transformative…when I remember to do it.
That’s the magic of spring, though: the change that comes over me around this time every year comes whether I remember it’s coming or not. I suddeny feel as though I am airing out the stale patterns of thinking I’ve slipped into without even realizing it, as though I’m rediscovering what it means to be alive. That the same thing can happen and feel very different each time reminds me that this actually true of all things, all days, all moments. Too often I stop myself from delving into the mystery of my existence by picking up on familiar threads of feeling, scanning my memory for when I’ve felt similarly, and then labeling it as an already known quantity–“Oh, this happened last time I did…”
But this has never happened before. I have no idea what the next moment will feel like. And if I can stay with the moment I’m in, investigate it, I’ll get a breath of fresh air, even in the middle of winter.
For those of you contemplating dropping carbs and processed foods to give the Ketogenic Diet a crack, I thought I’d offer my experiences. To give you a back drop, I’ve been on a few different diets through the years. Generally, my goal has been to try out a new way of eating to see if it helped me lose weight and if it was something that I could adopt as a lifestyle. In fact, adopting it as a lifestyle was my biggest hope. I’ve tried Atkins, South Beach, the 6-Day Body Make Over, and now the Ketogenic Diet. Atkins and the 6-Day Body Make Over were initially used to quickly drop weight, but I wanted to see if the core principles could be combined with other diets. This is the longest stretch that I’ve ever gone with one of these diets, and I’m starting to think about how and when I might move toward a diet that includes carbs.
Ketogenic Diet Basics
Fat…this is your main source of energy. Protein is next, and then carbs. The goal is to to keep the total number of net carbs (carbs that are not fiber or sugar-alcohols) no more than 20-30 grams a day. This way your body burns through all of its sugar stores. Your sugar stores consist of blood sugar and glycogen stores (often in water weight). Once your body has burned through these, it switches gears. This is when your liver starts converting fat (consumed fat and body fat) into energy. Thus, it produces ketones that your body uses for energy (ketosis). However, because your brain needs a tiny bit of glucose each day, your body will convert a small amount of protein (your muscle or protein you consume) into a replacement carb. Regardless, it’s much easier to lose fat on this diet because you’re constantly burning fat. If you keep your caloric intake slightly below your daily allowance, losing weight is pretty easy and consistent. At first, your weight loss is water loss, but after a week of 20g of carbs or less a day, you should be in ketosis and the fat starts to get used.
Learning to Eat Differently
It wasn’t too bad in the beginning because I was very motivated, but I had to watch everything I ate like a hawk because I wasn’t used to eating in this limited way. Most diets involve a great deal of carbs so it can be a bit tough, but doable. As time went on, it became easier because everything became a habit. Sure, there were tendencies to go toward carbs, but my high motivation made it easier to stay away. If your motivation is lower, it’ll be tougher. After a while, I quickly knew what I need to stay away from or limit. As with any diet that is contrary to the mainstream diet, it requires us to cook a lot for ourselves, and that’s what I’ve needed to do. To make it easier on myself, I focused on how to cook on the weekend and use left overs for much of the week (dinners and lunches). Fatty meats, cheeses, oils, butter, cream in my coffee, and lots of carefully chosen veggies are typically found in my meals. However, if you’re not a meat eater, this diet may pose some additional challenges for you. If you’re vegan, well, I have a hard time seeing this diet working for you. Regardless, it is possible to adjust to, but you’ll need to cook.
Feeling Hungry is Different
When I get hungry…I’m just hungry. There isn’t a madness the comes up in me where I have to get food. And when I’ve become really hungry and eat, I don’t eat much more than I normally would. I used to go overboard when I ate carbs, but I don’t now. Also, it seems to take a little bit longer before my hunger goes away. My guess (this is totally a guess) is that it takes my body longer to process what I’m eating. Therefore, I’m thinking that there might be a delay between eating and the nutrients getting into my system. So, the hunger can linger a bit but it does go down quickly. Also, my emotional eating has really gone way down, which is awesome.
Emotional Eating and Our Brain
When we eat, especially higher carb meals, our brain gets much higher doses of dopamine and serotonin. Both of these neurotransmitters are “feel good” chemicals. I think the real reason that Americans are so overweight is because our mental health is poorer. Anxiety, depression, and too much stress bring our “feel good” chemicals down. As a result, food becomes a natural anti-depressant…but then we feel depressed again as we gain weight. This is a very sick cycle and one to be cautious of. Now, I’m definitely an emotional eater and so I’ve been known to binge, which I’ve loved and hated, but with this diet I have never binged. I have emotionally eaten a little, but I don’t get the same neurological benefit (increases in serotonin and dopamine) as I used to. Consequently, eating doesn’t reinforce feeling better. Instead, eating is to eat, and then I’m done. I really love this diet for this reason because I was really tired of the intense ups and downs.
Lots of Veggies and Keeping Regular
One thing that I love about this diet is that I am forced to eat a lot more veggies. It’s pretty awesome. Roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, broccoli with some cheese, creamed spinach, etc. There’s so much you can do. Now, some veggies are higher in carbs, and this is where people who take this diet on have to watch their consumption and choices. Especially if your focus is to drop weight. And sadly, when you’re trying to keep the carbs super low, fruits are really an option, unless you have….maybe….one bite. But I tell ya, you can make stir-fries like crazy. What’s more, veggies help you stay super regular and this will help things move through your system and make you feel thinner. Some people have complained that this kind of diet isn’t good for your digestive tract, but I’m not so sure this is true. Mine feels great.
Better Energy and Water
When I was eating any and all carbs, my hunger would frequently spike and sugar cravings were intense and frequent (I can be a bit of an emotional eater, so that never helped). However, when I cut out sugars and ate only brown rice and quinoa, the spikes of hunger and cravings were less, but kinda still there. After a couple of weeks on this diet, my cravings totally tanked and my energy became level and enjoyable. I don’t have severe dips in my energy and I don’t need my afternoon caffeine to help me deal with my post-lunch hangover. Now I don’t feel supercharged, but my energy is very steady. When I exercise (which need to happen more frequently), it’s a little bit of an adjustment. However, I can’t give you a full report because I have yet to get to the gym on a regular basis and exercise like I used to. But if you do a search, I’m sure you’ll find others who report their experiences.
Also, my water intake is awesome and you need to keep the water flowing. This helps keep your energy higher, your blood cleansed so the ketones don’t build up too high (if you have extra ketones that are being used for energy), and as with any diet, water will help digestion. I’ve found that I can consume about 50-70 ounces a day and I’m good. I’ve consumed less, but don’t feel as good. I’ve consumed more and don’t feel any different compared to my 50-70 ounce average. Now, this doesn’t count the water that I get from my veggies or the coffee that I have in the morning.
Calories Still Count…They Always Do
Some people have been under the impression that this sort of diet gives us permission to be gluttons, but this is not the case. Calories still count and if you over eat, you’ll gain weight, but it’s a little harder. Too much protein will especially screw you up because the body will convert excess protein into a sugar and then use that for energy while storing (aka, gaining) fat. So be aware of your caloric intake and remember that the more weight you lose, the less your daily intake will be. If you exercise, then you can burn off a bit more and give yourself a little more leeway with your portions.
How Fast Do you Lose Weight?
I started this diet December 1 2015 and I was at 216 lbs (I’m 6′ tall by the way). Within the first month, I went down to 210. Over the course of the next four months, I lost 15 more pounds and am now at 195. My ultimate goal is to reach 180. I’m sure that I could have lost this weight quicker, but I was purposefully trying to make this a lifestyle change and as a result, I haven’t restricted my eating or caloric intake too much. I eat what I eat and when I’m hungry. So the weight loss has been gradually and there have been times when I’ve stalled with weight loss. There are a lot of different factors that go into losing weight so there isn’t a way for me to tell you how quickly you’ll lose it. Obviously, if you’re exercising the weight loss will go quicker. But if you haven’t been working out, you may see your weight loss stall because you’re gaining muscle while losing fat, and muscle is heavier than fat. If you’re in this situation, it’s better to go by how your clothes fit rather than what the scale says. However, I would recommend getting a scale that does a full body scan. This way you can see your fat and muscle percentages change. I’ve purposely not worked out because I wanted to see how my weight would change without gaining muscle. Now that I’m 5 months in, it’s time for me to start working out again…and this will help me reach my goal quicker.
Eat Earlier in the Day
One thing that I’ve found that really helps me drop weight again after stalling a bit is to make sure that I eat my last meal as early as I can. I generally wake up at 5:30am and am hope around 4:30 pm. I’ve made it a point to eat right when I get home so I have a solid 12 hours before consuming anything of consequence. When I’ve done this, it helps my body burn more fat because it has a longer period of time without food. If you try this, you’ll see a noticeable different in how slim you are the next day. This is because things have moved through your body and then it starts to chip away at your fat stores. When I wake up, I get some calories from cream in my coffee but I don’t have my morning snack until 7:45am. This means that my body has gone 12-14 hours without food. But what’s awesome is that I’m still not crazy hungry. Of course, I miss eating with my fiancee, but sometimes I’ll snack with her when she has dinner at 8pm. I don’t eat anything too big, mostly low calorie veggies. And having veggies so often, especially things like broccoli, helps the food move through. This also leads to us feeling thinner because we don’t have 2 days worth of food hanging out in our intestines.
Is the Keto Diet Hard on Your Liver?
First off, I haven’t conducted research or combed through various articles, so know that my thoughts are speculative, but I believe informed. When we’re eating processed carbs and sugars, our pancreas gets hammered because it has to produce so much insulin. At the extremes and over many years of abuse, diabetes sets in. With ketosis, our liver is doing all of the work. So, might the liver get a bit overwhelmed? Sure, it might but I’m not sure. If we approach this logically, then my guess is that it would after a while because it’s doing all of the work to process fat. The Keto Diet is the extreme opposite of a high carb diet. The ideal diet, which is my long-term goal, is to eat some carbs but to refrain from processed carbs (pasta, breads, etc.) and stick with brown rice, beans, and quinoa like carbs. I think this is the ideal balance and probably the healthiest for our bodies. Additionally, portions always need to remain balanced. Too much of anything taxes our system and will surely lead to problems over time.
What About Alcohol?
I love wine, beer, creative cocktails, and liquor. The variety of flavors and experiences in all of these are awesome. However, if you’re going on the Keto Diet or plan to stick with it as a lifestyle, you have to make some pretty big adjustments. With wine, beer and cocktails, you’ll get sugar and this isn’t good. However, if you drink straight liquor (I’m a bourbon and rye whiskey kinda guy), you’ll fair much better. However, ketosis will be interrupted as your body and your liver process the alcohol. And alcohol does get used as energy first when you consume it. If you haven’t eaten recently and you go for a drink, your buzz will be stronger but your body will burn through it quicker. So, there are pros and cons to this. Just know that ketosis will be paused until the alcohol is gone.
Headaches and Including Carbs Again
Last but not least we need to talk about headaches. A few months into this I made a batch of cream cheese frosting for a coworker and as an avid cook, I try what I make to ensure that it’s good enough. I debated on what to do here…and I ended up deciding to take a small spoonful to taste the frosting. Wow was that a mistake. Within five minutes I experienced the worst headache in my life. My head was pounding like mad and my whole body felt completely off. So not only was I in pain, but I felt slightly lightheaded. What was really cool about this experience was that it helped me change my relationship to sugar. Before this, sugar and fat together was the most delicious thing ever. Now, it meant pain. Talk about reducing your desire for sweets! I also did a little test about a month ago where I tried some carbs, just to see how it felt. I had a few falafels while at work and felt a little light-headed within an hour. It wasn’t that bad but I did feel different. To be clear, I’m not saying that this was a bad thing. My purpose in trying the falafel was to see how my body would react and if I could jump to something like that when I start to incorporate carbs again.
What This Taught Me…
… is that reincorporating carbs needs to be a slow, deliberate, and a well thought out process. Especially if I don’t want to return to having big cravings. In fact, I think it’s important for everyone to pay more attention to how their body feels when they consume certain foods. And I strongly recommend that you pay attention to how you feel, regardless of what diet you try. And as always, check in with your doctor to make sure you’re not in danger of having some major problems. Chances are they won’t like the Keto Diet, but it can’t hurt to check in with them and use their knowledge as a resource.
Every evening and every morning I pop open the lovely Apple News app and scan through the latest news. One of them talked about sugar and it’s addictive properties. While I’m going to post something on the Ketogenic diet, which I’ve been on for about 5 months now, I wanted to add to the talk of sugar. Yet, I’d also like to speak briefly about those of us who are overweight, stressed, anxious, and depressed.
First off, eating anything results in an increase in levels of serotonin and dopamine. These are commonly known as the feel good neurotransmitters (aka, chemicals) in the brain. However, when we eat sugary and fatty foods (see the picture for this post), these levels go up even more. As a result, we feel great and man do we enjoy eating this stuff! Now some articles have likened sugar addiction to that of cocaine…well, I’ve never tried cocaine so i don’t know about this. Also, I don’t know the research so I can’t make direct comparisons. However, I concede the point that sugar is hard to kick. But is it hard to kick only because of the physical process? I don’t believe so.
In the U.S., most of us are overloaded with life. We have kids, work, multiple jobs, expectations from parents, a tough home life, the negative effects of Facebook and social media, etc. Most people that I’ve met suffer from at least mild forms of stress, anxiety or depression. Just like alcoholics can be “functioning,” so can those of us with milder forms of stress, anxiety and depression. And in a country where the majority have less and less, it would make sense that most or many are struggling. It’s for these people that sugar comes to the rescue as a nice, albeit crappy, kind of antidepressant.
So we eat, and eat, and eat…and then our portions get larger and larger. But then we start gaining weight and now we feel worse about ourselves. So let’s eat some more. And what’s especially sad about this situation is that nearly all of the foods out there have highly refined carbohydrates (sugars, flours, pastas, etc.). The more refined the carbs, the better we feel while we’re eating and for a short period after. In my opinion, this is the cycle. We feel a little or a lot crappy, we grab some food, it feels great, we feel bad again or worse, we eat again…and so on. The cycle really needs to stop.
Now I’m not going to tell you that you should do what I’m doing. In fact, if you make any dietary change it should, ideally, be a thoughtful one that’s planned out and based on some scientific knowledge. For example, if you try the Ketogenic diet and consistently cheat with regular carbs like pasta, your health can seriously get bad. So, please be cautious. Yet, I would encourage you to drop refined carbs for one week…just one week, and see how you feel. For me, not having carbs has resulted in decreased hunger, better and more even energy, and even better focus. In fact, my experience has been so good that I’m not sure that I ever want to have a cupcake ever again. The ups and downs are worth it, I crave food much more when I eat sugars and refined carbs, and now that I haven’t had sugar in 5 months, I get seriously painful headaches if I have even a spoonful of frosting.
My hope is that you’ll consider a diet change and not because I’m saying it, but because you want something better for yourself. A week can’t hurt you. Just stick with brown rice, quinoa, veggies, meats, and healthy fats and see how you feel. You might be a bit surprised. Regardless of what you do, I wish you the best.
“We spend all our energy and waste our lives trying to re-create these zones of safety, which are always falling apart. That’s the essence of samsara – the cycle of suffering that comes from continuing to seek happiness in all the wrong places.” ~ Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty
Yesterday morning, I sipped my coffee and stared out the window, allowing my mind to wander as I eased myself into the day, It was one of those rare moments of pure appreciation: I was so grateful to have the leisure of sitting there, for the silence, for the warm mug I held in my hand. From there, my mind shifted gears to focus on the more concrete, overarching points of gratitude: work, partner, friends. It occurred to me that I just don’t have to work as hard to be happy these days, that I feel perhaps the most settled and contented that I ever have in my life up to this point. And then, in a matter of seconds after having this thought, I found myself experiencing a wave of anxiety, a little pocket of panic, that seemed to come out of nowhere.
This experience of sliding between immense gratitude and paralyzing fear is a familiar one for me. I’ve noticed it especially this past year as quite a few loose ends have come together after years of struggle. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that the better I feel about life in general, the more little spikes of anxiety pop up. And even though I know they are feelings/thoughts, as fleeting and impermanent as any other, it’s hard not to read into them, to wonder if these are somehow foreshadowing some heartbreaking upset of fortune, if some part of me knows that tragedy is just around the corner.
I’ve tried to dismiss these panics as a habitual pattern, a conditioning to worry born of so many years of uncertainty. I often attempt to distract myself with work or physical activity, inpatient for the feeling to pass and pressuring myself to get back to “normal.” And sometimes it works: I come back from a run and wonder at how I could have ever let myself get so caught up in a bit of dark fantasy. And as time has passed, I’ve noticed that the strength of these attacks has weakened as I’ve begun to trust the good things that have come my way a bit more, little by little.
But yesterday morning, the potency of the anxiety took me by surprise. I felt it rise up in me so quickly that it almost felt as though it was too late to cope with it in any of my usual ways. And so I had no choice but to let it come, to feel myself eroded by a fear so intense that it felt like I was experiencing a grief for enormous losses that had not yet occurred. However, something interesting happened: when I surrendered, allowed myself to experience the grief without marshalling all my energy towards ignoring it or denying it or calling it names, a much broader spectrum of experience opened up for me. It was like sipping a drink of amazing complexity: up front and right away I tasted the fear–that I don’t deserve such good things, that they’ll be wrenched away from me any moment, tensing up for unimaginable pain; yet as I stayed with it, no one stab of fear took over, and gradually this fear softened into a recognition of the sweetness of that which I was so desperate to lose; this sweetness flowered into an appreciation for the substance of these blessings, a richness so often cut off from my day-to-day, surface level acknowledgment. It was here that the fear of loss and the appreciation for what I have merged into a kind of infinitely deeper gratitude that somehow fostered a comprehension of beauty which not only accommodated fear and pain and sadness but was dependent on these experiences.
There, sitting quietly by the window, letting my mind wander to its darkest places, I discovered that there is a space in between dwelling on the fear of impermanence and shutting down all at the first hint of change. It is possible to acknowledge these fears as imaginings of very real inevitabilities and to also harness this knowledge to see something much more complicated and enriching. I realized that, much more than even the absolute worst-case scenario, what I’m most afraid of is that I might live my entire life tensing up in expectation of the very pain which is an essential ingredient to a rich, complex human experience. And that would be such a shame.
Yesterday a dear friend whom I know from graduate school visited from London. Even though I adore her and have been excited about this visit for months, there was part of me that was undeniably anxious as the time to meet up with her drew near. Some of the anxiety was purely logistics–finding her when she doesn’t have a working cell phone in the States, coordinating with the other people who came to town in order to see her, worrying over entertaining her.
But as I meditated first thing yesterday morning, the ticker tape looping through my brain was less to do with logistics and more to do with a discomfort in my own skin. It had been five years since I saw my friend last, seven since we were in school together, and when I look back on both of those periods of my life, it doesn’t take long to summon the visceral feelings of insecurities which occupied so much of my psyche–that I didn’t deserve my admission to our prestigious university (seven years ago), that I had not kept up with my peers in life achievements (five years ago). A lot has changed for me since then: I’ve gained stability in my career and the love of an amazing partner; I’ve learned to laugh at how seriously I took myself in graduate school; I have compassion for the inferiority complex born of floundering with a liberal arts background in a struggling economy. And yet…it was almost as though I was afraid that I would somehow lose all the ground I’d covered, be infected by the ghosts of my former selves once I was surrounded by these people with such strong associations for me.
However, an interesting thing happened as my meditation session came to a close: as the sun came up, filling the room with the first hints of daylight, my attention was overtaken by the new day seeping into my awareness. It was just a moment, a flicker of absorption in something outside my own mind, but it was enough to remind me of the ease that comes with opening myself up to whatever is happening here, now. It occurred to me that, rather than being threatened by my own reaction to these people from my past, I could be curious to see what would come up as we all mingled our past and present selves together. That this could be just an extension of my practice, watching my mind go to darker places but also bubble up with joy as we reminisce, treating both extremes as familiar cycles of thoughts that would be here one moment and would be gone the next.
And it turns out, the less caught up I am in my own mind, the more present I can be with myself as I am, with others as they are now. The more curious I am about another person’s experience, the more opportunity I have to take a fresh look at my own. And maybe, just maybe, my former selves can be old friends, rather than heavy burdens.
This week I’ve been thinking back on the books I loved most when I was a little girl as I tried to decide on a gift for the son of a couple of dear friends. Stuart Little, Le Petit Prince, Rikki Tikki Tavi were some of the first that came to mind–stories of spirited adventures and courage, all of them fun and wise in their own ways. And then last night, with the nostalgia of childhood fantasy still swirling around in my brain, I dreamt of a favorite stuffed toy, “Bunny,” as I had imaginatively named him, which I had received along with a picture book when I was quite small.
Bunny had been my constant companion. I dragged him on road trips and to sleepovers, insisted he be at my side whether I was taking a bath or making mud pies. Poor bunny had to endure many cycles in the washing machine and was eventually left behind in a hotel room on a Disney vacation when I was four or five, causing possibly my first experience of grief.
While I do have vague memories of my mother reading me the book that had accompanied my favorite toy, “Bunny” has tended to overshadow much reflection on the actual story. But this morning, with hints of my dream still lingering, I found myself googling for plot points and illustrations, eventually stumbling on the following quote:
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Reading this excerpt, I felt the familiarity of the words so often experienced in childhood–rote memorization of the sounds and cadences largely empty of meaning–along with the subtle newness that comes when one discovers a way to articulate something felt but not often put into words.
This feeling of wanting to be known, to be “real” as the rocking horse says, while being simultaneously afraid of the cost is one that has been with me as long as I can remember. In Buddhist terms, we could talk about this feeling as the longing that is born from not recognizing the barriers we erect between ourselves and others . We cling to definite, solidified conceptions of ego to fiercely defend the line between ourselves and others. In so doing, it becomes necessary to focus on what makes us different, farther apart, from our fellow human beings, rather than what we share as equal inhabitants of the human condition. At times, I catch myself digging my heels in to defend myself against those whom I love the most, only to realize a few moments later that there was no need, that this person was not trying to invade and change me but, rather just extending a hand through an invisible barrier that only I can see to invite me outside of my narrow world out to play in the expanse of possibility.
In this expanse, I can no longer pretend that I have any control over whether I will be hurt, how I will be perceived, where my path will lead. It’s scary to think of giving up on this illusion of control–after all, I’ve planned, manipulated, and self-sabotaged throughout my entire life as a way of coping with the anxiety of a constantly changing existence in which pain, rejection, and the unknown is always just a heartbeat away. But of course, the other side to this coin is that so long as I try to micro-manage, to control what is outside my control, I forfeit the bliss of losing myself in the bliss of connection, of being generous of myself, not just to those dearest to me but also to the world itself.
“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby,” says the rocking horse. How terrifying, whispers a tiny voice as I breathe in. Oh, but what a relief, soothes a steadier, “real” voice as I breathe out.
“I’m already myself,” you say…but I’m not so sure. You might be and that’s great, but there’s a really good chance that you’re tricking yourself into believing this when it’s not true. Of course, I can’t sit here (nor will I) and tell you whether you doing this or not because I don’t know you. However, having studied the human condition for 25+ years, I know that there is a great deal that happens in each of us that remains outside of our awareness. So, I ask that you take a moment to sincerely, honestly, and openly question this for yourself.
Having ventured into and explored the notion of “being ourselves” (philosophically, psychologically, and personally), I’ve found that most of us are not ourselves most of the time. We make compromises constantly, hold back what we’re really thinking and feeling, and we refrain from doing things that feel natural. We’re all trained to do this because every culture teaches its people that certain ways of being and behaving are not acceptable. Therefore, we learn to repress and suppress what happens inside of us and to stifle our natural, authentic, and genuine impulses. As we get older and more mature, we become more aware of how and when we restrict ourselves, but again, there’s a great deal that we miss.
One of the most amazing things about psychotherapy is that it gives us the space to be ourselves and to dump our stuff out onto the floor so that you can step back and see it. This process of becoming more comfortable with letting it all hang out can be challenging at the start, but in the end, it’s extremely freeing. Not only do you learn how to see yourself and be with yourself, but you learn how to do this in front of someone…which is often the scariest and most powerful part. So if you’re one of the few people that really, really want to venture inside yourself to figure out whether you know and embody yourself authentically, this blog post and podcast may prove to be helpful.
How You’re Not You
“Good morning, how are you?” A question that we often hear and it comes from family, partners, kids, coworkers and strangers. But how often do we pause to answer this question honestly and openly? If you’re having a really shitty day, do you tell them, “Well, things are pretty hard right now. I’m feeling a bit depressed today because I’m really unhappy with my financial situation and I don’t know how to change it.” You probably avoid this, like we all do, and respond with the same bullshit and obligatory phrase, “good, how are you?” They respond with the same and you move on, right? “Well I wouldn’t tell just anyone my personal stuff,” you say. Of course not, but it IS a moment when you’re not authentic, when you’re not your genuine “self.”
What’s unfortunate is that the dominant culture in the U.S. encourages us to be fake and it punishes those, socially, who answer honestly. People who are honest are blamed for making the situation awkward or told that they have poor boundaries. Such statements communicate, “We’re uncomfortable with genuine interactions so keep everything on the surface so the rest of us don’t feel uncomfortable.” What this means is that we’re taught to sacrifice our genuine sense of self so that other people don’t have to deal with their own discomfort. Well, I think this is sad, unfortunate, and a crappy situation. This is why therapy and coaching can be so amazing because it offers a reprieve from this and for us to tap into who we truly are, deep down.
Now let’s say that we give ourselves a pass on the, “how are you,” situation and dumb it down to us using more words to convey the simple, “hello.” Well, we still have a problem because we’re so used to hiding ourselves in small ways that we’re not aware of how we do it in big ways. Our brain works with such speed, efficiency, and automation that a great deal of what we do (and why we do it) is out of our awareness (a.k.a., unconscious). In order to determine whether or not we’re being genuine, we have to amp up our self-awareness and dig around for repressive tendencies. If we’ve never done this, then we can safely assume that we have not been our genuine selves. Why? Because all societies impose a degree of conformity onto all of its members. Humans are just like this in groups.
Our Fundamental Conflict: Individuality vs. Togetherness
As social animals, we all value (though in different ways and to different degrees) our group identity and its members (a.k.a, togetherness). At the same time, we also value our individuality and separateness. When we’re in a group of people who are very similar to us, our comfort level often increases and we tend to experience more relaxed ways of interacting because we like the same things, appreciate the same social dynamics, and so on. Fundamentally, there’s less of a chance for friction, conflict, and the anxiety that can come with being with those who are different from us. By the same token, many of us have a desire to be uniquely appreciated and valued by others. We want to feel special and have something wonderful to offer the world that only we can provide. The bottom line is that we want to know that we’re loved, admired and seen as good people, worthy of good things. There’s value in both of these views but as you can see, the concepts and their natures are in total opposition to one another. So how do we deal with this? Well, most of us don’t handle this conflict very well or even consciously know that it’s going on. The natural result is that we’re not as genuine as we could be.
What most of us do to resolve this problem is to repress and suppress a degree of our individuality for the sake of whatever group. As a result, we become less and less genuine over time. Why less? Because we all start off, as infants and children, by being extremely genuine. It’s only through our developmental years and the process of socialization in our families and communities that we start to repress or suppress how we truly are. A child is, by default, more genuine than most any adult and this is why we love them so much! They also remind us (which may terrify us to the point of saying that we don’t like children) that our fundamental dispositions are that of needing love and acceptance.
Infants can be fussy, sure, and that’s because they’re attempting to get their needs met. But if we focus only on their most basic needs, we see that their focus is on obtaining physical safety, love and connection. They are genuine, simple, and they desire love and softness. But as they (and we) get older, they desire more independence, individuality, and see their natural separation from the world. And when we experience this conflict we tend to suppress or repress our individuality for the sake of continuing to meet our most basic needs. But this creates a great deal of tension within each of us because we desire, more than anything, to be genuine in who we are and to still be just as loved, accepted, and cared about as before. Fundamentally, it is this conflict that many cultures, in my opinion, don’t resolve very well. What I’m suggesting is that we strive for a new alternative by embracing both sides rather than trying to be loyal to one. But before we discuss the solution, we need to understand how our emotional reactivity fuels the conflict.
Reactivity: Fueling the Conflict
What is emotional reactivity or “reactivity?” Reactivity is our emotional response to any situation and it’s typically visible through body language and behaviors. Reactivity can been seen in very small ways, such as a look of disgust, that is barely noticeable, when we’re annoyed with someone. Other times it’s very noticeable. A good example of this is when when people riot in the streets in response to an unjust court ruling or storm out of the room during an argument. The way it plays out in this fundamental conflict occurs in two ways. The first way is seen when an individual represses or suppresses their individuality in response to group pressures. The second is when we push someone to suppress their individuality and adopt the group mentality. I encourage you to sit for a day with this fundamental conflict and to watch for how this process of reactivity and repression occurs in your day. Try to notice it happening to you and when you see it happen for others. I think you’ll be surprised by the number of times it it shows up.
The Solution: Individuality AND Togetherness
The solution of “Individuality AND Togetherness” seems simple enough, right? All we have to do is let go of our reactive responses and allow both to happen. Well, it’s not so easy. We need to shift our way of looking at the world in a deeper way. While the solution is simple, in its intellectual construction, it’s the practice that’s very, very difficult. In fact, it may be so uncomfortable for a lot of you (which means your reactivity is very high and sensitive) that you can’t even entertain the idea of trying for this new balance. However, if you’re up for the challenge and believe that the fight to be genuine is virtuous enough to commit to, then you can achieve a lot more contentment and join with others to enjoy more freedom, less reactivity, less fighting, and thrive on diversity in all areas. So let’s lay out a plan to help you shift your way of viewing your relationships and the world.
Step One: Why is difference so threatening? And is it really a threat?
Think about this. Is the fact that others are different from you threatening to our lives? To our safety? To our well-being? We all know the answer is “no,” but why do we react as though they are? What could possibly go wrong if we embraced, supported and even encouraged other to be true to themselves? What are we really afraid of?
It’s vital for us to reflect on these questions. The ultimate reality of the situation is that there isn’t anything that’s truly threatening. However, we’ve made meaning of things, such as traditions, code of conduct, and so on, that when others differ, our anxiety and anger come up. And when our anxiety and anger come up, we’re acting as though we’re having to fight for survival. What are we trying to survive?
Another question to ask yourself is, “Am I threatened by or afraid of my own individuality?” You might very well be because you’re afraid of how others might react to you, and there’s the reactivity again. Now, you might be afraid of individual choices for religious reasons, but what’s behind this push for everyone to belief the same thing? What would be so terribly wrong if others believed differently? If you’re concerned about their afterlife or immortal soul, I’d encourage you to see if you can let that go. Granted, you’re probably thinking, “absolutely not!” But let’s consider the fact that each religion acknowledges the truth that none of us can control another person’s will. So ask yourself, is it better to practice being at peace with others in the world or is it more helpful to fight them, suppress their individuality, and to fight a battle you can never win? The answer is pretty obvious and if you’re still stuck on this I suggest you pause here. It’s vital to figure out how you resolve this dilemma.
Step Two: Embrace Free Will…and Your Anxiety
As I Just mentioned, we can’t control another person’s will, ever. And this means that the world is not as predictable as our fear would like it to be. When we live under the unconscious assumption that we can control another person’s will and cater to our anxieties, we’re committing ourselves to a very difficult life and a fight we can never win. What’s really going on here is that you’re uncomfortable with difference and diversity. So your challenge is to gain some insight into how this came to be for you. You need this insight in order to let it go and to alter how you are in your relationships to others.
Now let’s say you’ve committed yourself to embracing your free will and that of others. Does that mean that chaos will happen? No. All humans want safety and security. We want good lives and to have our basic needs (the ones I’ve mentioned) met. This is our common bond, and something that we can count on. If we focus more on providing others with acceptance of their individuality and appreciation for their abilities, they’ll want to respond in kind (as they get used to this). This creates a positive cycle, rather than a negative one born out of anxiety and aggression. To do this, however, we have to be willing to face our anxiety.
Step Three: The Courage to Perpetuate the Positive Cycle of Giving
As I’ve mentioned, our social dynamics strongly influence what we do and how we live. If we don’t believe that our basic needs are getting met, we strive to get them met in a variety of ways. Most times, the way that we try to get them met is by taking and demanding from others. The problem with this is that it inspires others to take and demand from us. I’ve worked with many clients where they and their family members are deeply unhappy because they’re stuck in this cycle. The paradox is that if we give, then others are more and more likely to give to us. The result, a deeply enjoyable dynamic where we love giving to them and they love giving to us. Over time, we form a very accepting relationship that allows us to be who we are and to live an authentic life, without sacrificing the acceptance and acknowledgements that we all want and need.
Sure, it’s cliché to say, “celebrate our differences.” However, the cliché is true. By appreciating differences and accepting others, as they are, they’ll be more likely to want to do right by us. The more that all of us can do this, our lives will become easier, safer, and more fulfilling. Though, you might wonder about how to do this in the face of others who are aggressive, anxious, and demand that you fall in line. So let’s end by addressing this last issue, which is a significant obstacle.
Step Four: Working with Others Who Perpetuate the Negative Cycle
The hardest part of adopting this new way of living and viewing the world is figuring out what to do when you’re faced with situations when people are, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetuating the negative cycle. In these circumstances, your reactivity will come right back and you’ll move to suppress the other person’s will and individuality. And even though you’re working to perpetuate the positive cycle, your impulse is to get them to fall in line too. So what do you do? Do you just let them do whatever they want? Do you let them turn things to crap? No. What you do is crank up your focus on your own choices and actions.
You have your own limits, your own choices, and your areas of control. This is where all of us need to focus when we bump up against an unhealthy dynamic. If you’re someone’s manager at work or a parent, think about what you’re willing to accept, what is not acceptable, and how you’re going to respond to the other person when they act. For example, if an employee is making constant excuses for why they’re late but they aren’t changing their behavior, use your power to determine what you’re willing to accept. If they continue to be late and this is an issue, you can (and should) write them up or fire them. Let them know your limits and then follow through, but you can do this with compassion and acceptance. What they do is their choice and it’s their life. The best thing you can do is provide them with an opportunity to deal with how the world is rather than enable the negative cycle of behavior. It’s up to them whether they choose to improve themselves or to remain stuck in the negative cycle. I encourage the parents that I work with to use this approach with their kids. Set limits and expectations, communicate them, enforce them consistently, and allow kids to make their own choices. Life is all about learning, so be sure not to withdraw your caring or adoration from them. If you’ve adequately planned ahead for them to make an unhealthy choice, your response should be simple in practice and less emotionally charged. If it is, you’ll need to continue to rework your belief about these types of situations.
Making this shift takes time and it can be quite frustrating. Be sure to allow yourself space to grow and to express your frustrations with people who can be supportive. This might be a friend, partner, family member and/or your therapist. I’m not advocating, nor would I ever, for you to suppress or repress your emotions. So be sure to have some outlets where you can express yourself freely without hurting your relationships. A therapist or coach might be the best choice for this because they don’t have a role in your daily life. This relationship allows you total freedom to say whatever you want and to express all of your anxiety and anger without any social consequences. This can be helpful as you continue to change. Over time, your way of being will change and your emotional reactivity will also change. Just know that your reactivity and emotions change second. I once had a therapist say to me, “when we change our behaviors, our emotions take a while to catch up.” He was exactly right, and so I pass this wisdom on to you.
If you take up this worthwhile challenge, be sure to keep in touch and post your progress and your questions. I’ll respond to as many of your questions as I can and I wish you all the best.
Something I’ve long puzzled over is the balance between allowing myself to accept undesirable states of mind–fractious moods, low spirits, unmotivated inertia–while also not getting so wrapped up in these states such that I wallow in them. Well, I say I’ve “long” puzzled over this, but really, it’s only been in the last five years or so. Before that, there was no question of balance: it was simply unacceptable to admit to myself I was feeling grumpy or sad or lazy. These feelings were noted only long enough to cue an inner reprimand of, “snap out of it.” However, what this really meant was that I turned all of my energy towards not appearing grumpy or sad or lazy.
Of course, not admitting you feel a certain way doesn’t take away the uneasiness of the feeling; it just buries it under layers of insulation so you don’t have to look at it. And as the layers grow thicker and thicker, the uneasiness gets further and further removed from its original source. This is fine, in a way–it makes it possible to keep up the operations of day-to-day living without stopping to fall apart with every little shift in mood; it protects us from the immediate experience of sometimes overwhelming pain; it keeps life feeling manageable. More and more, I’m in awe of our capacity for self-preservation.
However, there is also a way in which this elegant coping mechanism can act as an inaccurate filter to my experience. With this filter in place, I carry a vague sense of “I’m wrong…somehow,” or “something is missing.” In the last few years, as I’ve attempted to live a more examined life , I’ve found that these feelings of vague uneasiness not only leave me feeling less connected to myself but also to others. At times, I’ve thought to myself, “I know that I am loved, but I can’t feel it”; I’ve had the sense that the person loved is not really me but, rather, the person I’ve represented myself to be, someone who’s pleasant and joyful and hard-working–if they could see what a mess I actually am, they’d see I don’t deserve their love.
It’s only recently that I’ve made the connection between this painful distance I feel from others and the distance I’ve put between myself and the feelings I can’t accept in myself. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to watch these deeply ingrained habits dig deeper ruts. It can be painful, being able to see the little tricks my mind plays more clearly–sometimes I feel as though I can see just clearly enough to watch myself run in circles without being able to intervene. However, another thing the past few years have taught me is that realizations are only the very first steps of a long, winding progression towards perceptible, lived changes. Habits that I’ve spent my entire life perfecting will take some time to chip away at and then break. And just as I can now more clearly see the mess underneath all the layers of politeness and artificial smiles and industrious activity, every once in a while, I can also see little gaps between how I feel and what is laid out before me.