Monday, July 18, 2022

Filling in the Gaps: When the Brain Guesses about what Reality is.

We humans are instinctually wired to monitor our surroundings for survival.  It's what brings us right into the present moment and leads us to search for food and water as well as seek shelter and safety.  But we've also developed some amazing brains that tend to be very curious as well, and so we have discovered many things and have developed advanced knowledge and capability surrounding things within, and even outside of, our perception.

Recently the human race sent an extended "eye" out into space in the form of the James Webb Space Telescope and now the images that eye can see are being transmitted back to earth, allowing our species to see farther than we've ever seen before, and what a sight it is.  With all of this it's easy to feel like a speck in the immense state of things and yet the human brain continues to piece things together as best it can.

One thing we know about the brain is that it fills in gaps so that things at least feel like they make sense to us.  That's how we get through our days, our years and even our whole lives.  In this wonderful TED talk by Dan Dennett he gives a great example of how our brain fills in the gaps of perception (and knowledge) and allows us to (in a sense) "keep going", since we might otherwise get stuck wondering a lot of the time what is "real".  

In the talk and demo, Dennett explains why consciousness itself is not necessarily all that we have become convinced it is.  Instead, our human brain "fills in the gaps" where things make no sense.  We put in place-markers where understanding is missing and as Dennett puts it, "our brain just makes us think we know" something.  We insert many ideas, from religions to other metaphysical beliefs which we have used to fill in what some call the God of the gap, and in other areas we use the filling-in of spaces of perception and knowledge (that may not really be there) in order to have a whole picture.

Dennett explains that our brain might make a suggestion about what might be in gaps of missing knowledge or perception and that we either take the suggestion or we don't.  Our brains can take a suggestion that we then turn into a belief and then we decide that belief is fact.  In other words, and in Dennett's words, your brain just makes you "think" you have the truth, and believe me... you then believe it.

When it comes to beliefs, and especially with beliefs about anxiety, sometimes we have to question what the brain has used to fill in a gap where knowledge or perception is unclear.  When we feel uncertain, as many do these days regarding the pandemic and political upheaval around the world, our brains continue on doing what they do, (i.e., filling in the gaps about what we think is going to happen and what we should then do in order to plan for our safety and futures).

One way to address daily anxiety is to take a closer look at what "suggestion" your brain has been taking about your life, the world, and your future.  When it comes to safety, we are prone to listen to the brain's old instinct that it's a lion in the bushes, not a kitten.  It's danger and not "nothing".  It will be very bad and not bearable.  Your life will be threatened and not savable, and so on.  

Anxiety and depression are when we create stories and belief systems that can take us farther and farther from the truth, but that give us a filler for the gaps where the unknown and uncertainty linger.  Many times our anxiety is rooted in the fear of death, and there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that the human body will die one day.  What is a hinderance, is the creation of either a delusional belief system that suggests that your human life will not end even though evidence tells you it will, or the creating of meaninglessness and the convincing of oneself that the time between now and that end should not be fully lived.  These are falsely created fillers that the brain takes as a suggestion to convince you it's not worth living.

None of this should suggest that we not leave our mind open to more possibility, nor risk believing some of the other suggestions made by our amazing brains to fill in the gaps of life.  It simply means that we should watch carefully what it is we have taken as fact.  Our beliefs shape our reality.  How you see the images that the James Webb Space Telescope has sent back to the eye of human-kind... matters.  What the images suggest to your brain is significant because it will shape your entire definition of reality.  Your brain might make a thousand different suggestions about what the vastness of these images mean.  Which one you buy into deciphers how you see the painting of your life.

"Real magic - refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic".  ~Lee Siegel 

Monday, June 27, 2022

Walking in the Rain: A Mindfulness Practice

It's true there is a category of individuals that don't like the rain.  They find it depressing and oppressive, or perhaps believe it is something that is interfering with their sunshine, gardening, and blue-sky day.  But there is another group of people who find something very relaxing about rain.  They enjoy going out for walks on a rainy day, or just being lulled to sleep by the sound of rain.  And for them, the rain is a welcome arrival of comfort and peace.

No doubt this is why so many relaxation recordings and videos have been made that include rain, and why there is an entire industry that designs and sells water fountains, water sound machines, and landscaping developments that have water fountains and elements of water built into them.  But specifically going out and walking in the rain can be an entire form of meditation all in itself, and is an exercise in mindfulness practice because it includes all of the senses.  

When going for a stroll out in the rain, you will eventually feel it at some point on your skin, but there is also a smell to rain as well, as it hits the pavement, wood, and foliage all around you.  And the sound itself is a relaxing one because it has a steady ongoing rhythm that tends to be consistent like a running stream.  

Out in the element of rain the other senses are also activated and the atmosphere can range from foggy and overcast to partly cloudy and rainbow images in the sky, but typically the visual image is much softer on the eyes so you don't have to squint or strain to protect them from bright light.  A cleansing feeling is common when walking out in the rain as the dust, pollen, and maybe even ruminating thoughts are all washed away.

Add fog to the mix and many people have described a walk in the rain like being wrapped in a warm blanket.  In fact, as clouds move in and even lower, sound becomes more muffled and much softer so any conversation has a gentle feel to it that is soft and relaxed.  

The next time it rains, consider a nice meditative walk out in the elements.  Grab your umbrella and rain coat and use the event as a way to practice your relaxation and mindfulness skills.  Stay as present as you can and focus on the senses.  Instead of just closing the rain out or distracting yourself until it is done, try not to miss the chance to fully experience the rain in this lifetime.

"You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you can feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day."   ~Helen Keller

Thanks to Y'amal for the great photo, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Using Kindness to Reduce Stress: Coping with Another Sad Mass Shooting.

As I write this blog entry, I'm also just hearing of yet another mass shooting.  This time at an elementary school in Uvalde Texas, which follows a prior mass shooting just over one week earlier at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo New York.  All of which has raised the stress level of the country once again, especially when thinking of the young and innocent victims, as well as injured and deceased adults from both shootings.

As I've written in prior entries about other mass shootings, it's important to hear the news, absorb the story, but then limit exposure to repeated broadcasting of the same information for prolonged periods of time.  Take the information and allow yourself some time to process it, feel it, and move through your feelings about these events.  But in the end, we each must work to find a way in our lives to take positive (not violent) action.

It is not helpful to fall into the trap of believing you are helpless to these events.  There are already some who are stepping forward to donate blood, send condolences, assist the families and law enforcement workers, and donate or provide money and items needed that might be helpful.  And if you are in a different state or miles from the event, spend some time contemplating how you can make a difference in your own community when it comes to these sorts of events.  It doesn't have to be impressive.  

In addition, don't let these kinds of events blind you to the good that others are doing out there in the world.  There are many kind and good people who care very much about others and especially about children, teachers, and black lives.  And kindness is the key.  Teaching it and practicing it will help create human beings who can react properly to internal anger and rage, and kindness is what helps a community heal when an individual does not choose kindness.

Stress levels can be eased by choosing kindness in your behavior.  You don't have to save the world, and you can't.  Instead, you have to look closer to home and see what you can do in your own state, town, community and sometimes just your own neighborhood.  What can you do to make your local schools safer?  What can you do to make your community safer?  Is it a vote?  Writing an article?  Making a donation?  Talking to your local leaders?  The error comes in believing it's always others who will solve the problem, whatever it is.

So we can't turn our eyes away.  We do have to hear the story, but do not have to listen to it repeatedly for hours on end.  With the information gathered, the next step is to process our feelings.  We might need a good cry, especially over the loss of young innocent children, but equally over the lives of people of color!  We might need to journal, go running or to work out.  We might process things by taking a mental health day, or going for a walk or trip or vacation that allows us to process what we feel about this news.  Maybe we need to talk it out with another person.  But in the end, we have to get busy seeing that we have the ability to  act in some non-violent way, and in a way that is within reach.  In other words, it's not an unrealistic expectation placed on ourselves which can never be reached.  But instead, is something we can actually do.  Taking non-violent action can help ease your pain and stress, and kindness is the key.

"My religion is very simple.  My religion is kindness."     ~Dalai Lama

Thanks to R. Miller for the great photo, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

A Relaxation Room of Your Own: The Comfort of your Own Cozy Space

When we think of the kinds of home environments that encourage relaxation it's easy to identify key things that make up the surroundings.  Relaxing rooms are usually clutter free, with gentle soft colors and a sense of simplicity and comfort. The idea is to introduce to the environment things that produce a calming effect, including things that are familiar to nature such as moving water, green earthy hues and aromas that are inviting but not overpowering.

Rooms created for relaxation are typically inviting, in that they provide relaxing places to sit, lounge, or meditate, and generally make a person want to stay rather than leave.  So, comfort is the name of the game.  Comfortable furniture, comfortable colors that are gentle on the eyes, comfortable sounds and surroundings that make a person want to take a deep breath and relax.

Plants and artificial plants are very important in the making of a relaxation room.  The greenery and earthy colors take us back to our roots and remind us we are part of nature itself.  In addition, water fountains provide meditative sound and noninvasive visual stimulation for letting the mind go.  Some water fountains are a genuine work of art all in themselves.  A more costly addition would be a hot tub in your special place, but this is not always a luxury everyone can afford.  However, favorite sculptures and wall decor can personalize a room, as this is also important in bringing familiarity that lets you know it is home.

A special place you go to for relaxation, ritual, reading or meditation is something you can create as a part of your ongoing stress reduction plan.  In order to create a relaxation room for yourself you have to spend some time thinking about what things enhance relaxation for you personally.  What colors calm you?  What sounds tend to bring your blood pressure down?  What kind of environment pulls you in and makes you want to stay?

To begin your initial plans for a relaxation room, try focusing on the senses.  What you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel in this "to-be-created" room is going to be unique to you and those who will be utilizing it.  It will eventually be a gathering of all the things you know bring you relaxation.  Will it have a place to make and sit for tea?  Maybe a meditation cushion and blanket?  Will there be music or silence?  Does it have your favorite books?  Or will you do other things to relax the mind, such as artwork, journaling, or mindfulness practices?

Regardless of the outcome, creating a personalized, special place to go for relaxation is a great way to stay on top of your stress management.  In the end it only needs to slow you down, give the muscles and mind a break, and remind you it is always there for you to come back to again and again.

Thanks to F.D. Richards for the great photo
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Stress and trying to answer the unanswerable

Recently the wonderful Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh passed away.  He had been ill for some time after having a massive stroke in 2014.  He was a pretty remarkable person who wrote over 130 books, 100 of which were published in English.  He definitely left a lot of information for all of us to peruse for the rest of our lives.  One lesson taught, which was given by the Buddha and passed down through the centuries, was that we should not waste our time on metaphysical speculation.

If you are like me, this is a little upsetting because it is fun to contemplate the meaning of life and what else there could be besides just this one precious life.  But I don't think Thich Nhat Hanh or Buddha meant that you should not enjoy a good philosophical conversation.  What they meant was that the more time you spend chasing after "the answer" to things that can't be known, the more of this precious life you miss out on.

When we are faced with the question of life and death, it's very disturbing to imagine that this one precious life might be all there is.  Especially when there are threats of war, violence, death, and world destruction.  It's hard to  find our drive for creativity, our motivation to keep going, and our desire to put effort into life if we don't think there is "good reason".  We want there to be a reward at the end, like a heaven, or prize, or some kind of promise.   

It is taught that whenever the Buddha himself was asked about metaphysical questions, he remained silent.  Pretty good answer!  To answer is to get drawn into all kinds of mind games and the "What ifs" that lead to anxiety and suffering.  But the point of the lesson is that if you get distracted by these "What ifs", you lose all sight of the present moment, which is the only place where reality exits.  

This week we have heard endless stories about war and the invasion of Ukraine.  The images are terrible to see and the stories are heart breaking.  But it's very easy to get caught up as well into the terrible "What ifs" that leave us paralyzed and unable to find hope about the future.  In the process, we miss out on what is really happening "right now".  The more important question is , "How will you live your life right now", and that includes full awareness and response to this moment and the events happening in it.  

There is a popular Zen story about a man who was shot in the chest with an arrow.  Everyone tried to assist him in getting that arrow out, but he insisted on knowing all sorts of unanswerable details about the shooting of the arrow before he would let anyone try to save his life.  Meanwhile he was dying from the wound.  Of course, that is my shortened version of the parable, but maybe you get the point that spending all of our time trying to find answers to things we cannot know, is a waste of the one precious life we are living.  It is a powerful lesson driven home by the Zen master Seung Sahn who made it the foundation of his teaching.  One of his students later put together a book of his lessons and letters entitled, Only Don't Know

When it comes to anxiety we can get ourselves stressed out about things that can't be known.  Will I get in an auto accident?  Will I get shot by an arrow?  Will I have a job next week?  Is there a divine entity?  Will someone push the nuclear button?  

A Zen master was asked by a student, "Is there life after death?"  The Zen master replied, "How should I know?  I've never died before!"  

"Understanding means throwing away your knowledge."

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Less is More: Reducing Stress by Simplifying Life

If you find yourself feeling like you want to simplify life--clear the clutter and downsize to less "stuff", less spending, less accumulation, desire and want--, part of the battle will be to define what simplicity means to you, personally.  For some it can look pretty complex when compared to what simplicity might mean to others.  If you think owning twenty pairs of shoes is simpler than the fifty you have had for years, someone else might find the thought of owning twenty pairs of shoes a challenge in finding storage space.  If shopping just once a week is a nice reduction from your usual daily spending, someone else might find that shopping on a weekly basis would be a treat compared to the monthly time they permit themselves to go a little bit beyond what the budget allows.

There are several different ways to look at the concept of "simple".  It is frequently just thought of as "natural", meaning that nothing artificial or complicated has been added.  But then we'd have to get complicated already and define for each individual what "natural" is, and this starts getting away from the idea of simple real fast.  So let's just take one of the most common descriptions of simple, and that is that simple has "few added parts".  Or we could just simplify that even more to say that simple means "fewer".

When we say that "less is more" we mean that having less brings you more of something else.  You gain more peace of mind.  When life is less complex it's like lessening the load of a heavy backpack you've been carrying for too long.  And that pack can be lightened of more than just the material weight of items not needed anymore.  It can be lightened of worry, excessive stress, ruminating thoughts, traumatic memories, bad habits,  and even wasted time, like surfing the net or watching TV.

So what will be defined as simple or natural to you is going to be unique to you, and you might continue to expand your definition over the years.  For some it can eventually mean a remote existence in the deep forest, and for others it could mean a downsized city life with the least number of complications and needs allowable.  The main task will be deciding for yourself where you feel your life is too complex in the first place.  Is it in your work?  Your home?  Perhaps your finances or your relationships?  Or maybe the biggie for most of us...and that is in our thinking styles.

Simple doesn't have to mean dull and lifeless.  We can look at the beauty of Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, to see that simple can be deeply beautiful and full of life and color.  A place where less is more.  

So here are some ideas for simplifying your life.  Keep in mind that this is very individualized and your concept of "fewer" is going to be different when compared to what others see as "less" in their lives.  Be self compassionate and give yourself permission to know what feels right for you.  What can you do with less of?  In what areas of your life would "fewer" work?

  • Notice places in your environment where you have stocked up on several of the same item.  Determine how long it's been since you've actually needed all the "extras" and determine if keeping just one or two would actually work out just the same.
  • Take a scroll through your phone contacts and determine how many phone numbers you are scrolling through that don't need to be there anymore.  Maybe some you've hung onto for so long you haven't dialed in years.  Can some be deleted?
  • What clothing items hang in your closet or take up dresser space that have not been worn in over a year?  Or two years?  Or five years?  Do they really need to be there?
  • You may find that there are items in your kitchen that were outdated a year ago.  Maybe longer.  Check the back of the shelves and inside the drawers and see if you can rid of some things that can never be used again.
  • Carry items around before buying them.  Even in your electronic carts online.  Leave things there and come back to them later to see if you really still think you need or want them.  Sometimes we buy less by just sleeping on it.
  • Set a timer when surfing the net.  After 30 minutes, get up and go do something else.  Less is more when you can enjoy more of life and not spend all of your time on the computer.
  • Create less opportunity for others to interrupt your personal time by scheduling it for yourself and not letting anyone take it from you.  Having an appointment with yourself reduces the concept of FOMO (fear of missing out).
  • Set limits at your place of employment, even if you are your own boss.  Be firm about quitting time and stop letting work gobble up more and more of your precious time.
  • Use Mindfulness practices to interrupt unwanted or repetitive thinking and ruminations.  Joko Beck, in her book Everyday Zen, suggests noticing what you are thinking throughout the day and labeling the thoughts, or placing those thoughts into categories so you can raise your awareness that we each have a set of thought categories we return to repeatedly.  "I'm not doing enough" thoughts, or "Something bad will happen" thoughts.  Discover what your most frequent thought categories are.  Intentionally noticing them and categorizing them, according to Joko, helps them begin to dissolve.  This happens because we move from "generating" thoughts, to "observing" thoughts.

           It's a good thing to be satisfied with what one has."    ~Buddha

Thanks to crabchick  and terrance rengarasu for the great photos, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Self-Inspiration as a Way to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

It's interesting (especially during this time of COVID), that the definition of "inspire" is not only "to influence, motivate or produce a feeling", but also to "inhale" or "breathe in air".  And those who have experienced the harshest of the COVID virus know that "breathing in" is nothing to take for granted.  One survivor was quoted as saying that because our breathing comes so automatically and naturally, "It was quite alarming to have to actually think about each breath."  But the other definition of inspire has a very similar feel in that we can find our ability to inspire others so that it becomes automatic, or we might have to actually think about it and work at it until it becomes a natural part of who we are.  And then there is thinking even one more step beyond just inspiring others, that is...learning "self-inspiration".  In the same way many brave COVID survivors are learning to breath all over again on their own--the rest of us can also learn to become self-inspiring in the same way.  Those who can inspire others, can inspire themselves as well.

Inspire is a little different from just encouraging, although they are very similar.  Encouraging is to push someone to have courage or strength (nudging them along), while inspire is to "inhale" or "breathe in", or in other words, "take in or fill up".  If you were giving CPR you would literally be breathing air into another human being and so to psychologically inspire someone, you have to give something...breathe some passion or feeling into them, and if you are inspiring yourself, you have to breathe in or take something like that in for yourself.  Like a scuba diver who, while rescuing another diver, quickly takes a breath from the oxygen mouth-piece for themselves in order that they both make it back to the surface alive.  Taking psychological breaths for yourself is the way to bring stress and anxiety levels down and assure that you make it back to the surface of this game called life.

Here are some ideas for applying self-inspiration to your life:

  • Create daily affirmations that specifically apply to the things you are passionate about
  • Take time out to rest and re-energize when you feel your energy depleted
  • Look for rituals, mementos, quotes, books, movies, and other inspiring items that feed you
  • Set goals that reflect the things that matter most to you in life
  • Eat a well balanced diet that keeps your body at its best performance
  • Exercise your body in order to feel your best and stay in the game of life
  • Fill up your psychological and emotional tank on a regular basis
"We can make ourselves miserable,
or we can make ourselves strong. 
The amount of effort is the same."   
       ~Pema Chodron

Thanks to Guian Bolisay for the great photo