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As a seeker, I have gone down many roads. One thing I’ve decided traveling all those roads is that it is you are primarily responsible for what you get in life.

I have found that certain mottoes or mantras or whatever you want to call them talk about this idea. I have found this in religions and self-help books. It’s a wide range.

I don’t advocate the  idea that you can  visualize what you want from life, though that certainly will be an appealing way to attract followers. I’m also don’t buy into the law of attraction.

So many of these approaches involve thinking positively, and having a positive attitude is certainly better than having a negative one. The more scientific (or psychological) version of this is something I encountered when I was “in therapy.” That is cognitive restructuring. Right off, let me say that this helped me, but it was not enough on its own. It was a tool in the toolbox.

I have also seen this called cognitive reframing. I don’t have the degrees to explain all this properly but this technique is part of cognitive therapy. My doctor wanted me to identify and then change thought patterns and beliefs that were causing stress and/or depression.

When I was depressed, I found everything meaningless. I had a very difficult time naming any things – food, places, activities – that I enjoyed or that I felt were really were important. At the time, that did not seem odd. Now, it seems very odd – and sad.

The doctor wanted me to keep a journal, which is easy for me because I have been doing it most of life. I agree that writing our thoughts down is one way to take control of them. I do it currently with food as part of a diet I am following.

From my journal entries, the doctor observed that a lot of my anxiety seemed to come out of my imagined scenarios of situations that were really quite unlikely to happen. This observation made sense to me, but controlling or training my mind to think constructively and positively was difficult. It wasn’t working and I just could not believe that I could change things in my life by thinking differently about them.

I looked back at my journal from that period and found an entry that had the line “Reframe Your Negative Thoughts and Beliefs” written at the top.

Therapists like to turn your comments into questions. It is some kind of reflection technique. I was unhappy with my work life at that time.
“Why are you unhappy with your job,” he asked.
Well, for one thing, I’m making less money than my previous job.
“Do you equate happiness with financial status?”
No, but it would be nice to be paid what I think I am worth, and it would be great to get things I want and not worry about bills.

Then we would talk about what I might do to get a raise in salary or a promotion or even apply for other jobs that could give me what I was seeking. Of course, it was really about not just the money but feeling like my work was not valued in non-monetary ways too.

I had read back then that we have somewhere 10 and 20,000 thoughts per hour. This statistic freaked me out. Too too much thinking. In my insomniac nights (of which there were many in that period), I just could not turn off thoughts. Despite years of meditation training and practice, nothing worked.

This was a time before smartphones and early in the Internet days, but the therapist wanted me to tune out the news on TV and radio. (Probably more important today to do some tuning out, especially if you are anxious or depressed.) He suggested that I return to some print novels that I had loved earlier in life. But since most of us are online a lot (and you are online now reading this), and not everyone can afford or is willing to go into therapy, you can find websites with names like TheEmotionMachine.com and VeryWellMind.com that might get you started.

I can’t say that it did not help me, but I can’t say it was the action that pulled me out of that negative state. There were drugs, which I was opposed to at first, but seemed to help too. There were other changes in my life – some made by me, some made to my life by others.

Have you had any experience with this approach to making your life better?  Comments welcome.

There are some serious and some pop philosophies that extol “living in the moment.”  It makes sense to live in the now. In a very unenlightened sense, you have no choice since that is where we are. But many people cannot easily get over their past. They cannot leave behind events or people. Is this harmful?

I have always liked collecting quotations.  Here are two about this – serious: “The past has no power over the present moment.” – Eckhart Tolle; and pop: – “Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today” – Will Rogers.

Eckhart Tolle has written about this in The Power of Now and says that the natural enemy to enlightenment is the mind. He feels that we are our own creator of pain and the cure is living fully in the present.

The past is important. It is clearly part of you and it is what formed the person we are in the now.  It shouldn’t be forgotten. Sometimes, it can’t be forgotten, though we may want to forget parts of it.

But sometimes letting go of the past is necessary to move on with our life. Obviously, we cannot change the past, even if it has changed our present.

Can you be selective in when and how you access your past? Being a product of the past is not the same as being a prisoner of the past.

I think of some of this mental time traveling as harmless. I tend to still listen to the music of my youth. Serendipitously, I heard the song “Living in the Past” by Jethro Tull yesterday which was recorded when I was in high school. Harmless nostalgia, right? Well, it does trouble me that I have almost no interest in new music. I was so involved in pop music at one time. That is gone. Is that bad?

But that is not as serious as a person who more generally finds it difficult to accept new experiences and are more likely to recreate past experiences in more important ways than music you listen to.

I found a series of articles online about this approach. In Psychology Today, I found both ideas about living in the past and also the idea that “No one lives in the past. The past is the past. It’s gone. You don’t ever have to put the past behind you. It’s always behind you.”

When living is the past goes beyond nostalgic time traveling, it is associated with the fear of making changes, complaining more about the current situation, and isolation.

You can find those who will say that those who don’t remember or learn from the past will be forced to repeat it. But sometimes those who focus on the past, unconsciously, end up repeating similar, and not positive, situations.

This living in the present approach can start to sound like a song from the movie Frozen that was so annoyingly popular a few years ago and became a meme for other kinds of letting go of your past.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free
Let it go, let it go

Living in the past also nurtures regrets for things done or undone that cannot be changed.

In my most serious period of Buddhist studies, I fully embraced the now.

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past;
If you are anxious, you are living in the future;
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
–  Lao Tzu

But I still found myself depressed and anxious in the present. A teacher would tell me that was because I was not really in the present.

Fears are normal. Phobias are not. When visiting the past becomes living in the past, there is cause for concern.

Still, living in the now is not easy. People who are depressed are often fearful of the future. Their negative and anxious expectations encourage them to go back and letting go of the past is very difficult.

It is hard to see some negative past experiences as ones that ultimately make us wiser or put us on a better path. And some negative experiences don’t do us any good. They hurt and scar us.

Finally, the most frightening form of this seems to me to be something a friend is still going through after the death of their child. They don’t feel they can control the present. And that means they certainly can’t have any power over their future. She sees this as not only her problem, but a problem that “all of us” are dealing with in the current state of “the world.”

Sorry – no solutions here. Just acknowledgement of something I am observing.

 

Shouldn’t relaxing be easy? But it’s not.

We live in stressful times, but I imagine that times have always been stressful. It could not have been relaxing to have lived in an age when you spent most of your waking day gathering food and trying to survive.

I  have written here a number of times about things that would fall under mental health or relaxation techniques, such as meditation. But I haven’t written about several of the ways I have tried to manage stress or even relax in order to sleep.

This was all inspired by watching a yoga class and seeing the people go into the Savasana or Corpse Pose. It is one that looks to be incredibly easy and yet is sometimes called the most difficult of the asanas. It is “simply” lying on the floor.

How easy is it for you to turn off stress and the world around you and just say, “I’m going to relax now” when you mind is racing with thoughts and your body is tense?

I know that some nights when I am trying to go to sleep and can’t, it seems like trying to relax is actually making me more stressed out.

Some people would tell you that relaxation can be zoning out in front of the TV. But brain research always shows that watching TV actually activates parts of the brain and doesn’t help the areas that control things like sleep. Of course, I will admit to falling asleep while watching TV, but it seems it is not so much the programs that are putting me into sleep mode.

Some relaxation techniques are not at all “New Age” thinking but the result of scientific research. The Mayo Clinic recommends some relaxation techniques.  One of those techniques is one I actually did first learn in a yoga class. The medical term would be progressive muscle relaxation. In this relaxation technique, you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. I was taught that lying in that corpse pose, I should begin by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes. You then progressively work your way up your body – the calf muscles, knees, thighs, buttocks, fingertips, arm, shoulder, chest, neck and finally even the parts of your face. I was taught to tense muscles for a count of five seconds and then relax them completely before moving up the body.

Doing this while lying on a soft mat after a yoga workout made me want to take a nap. Though I no longer practice any true yoga, I do still use this technique when I want to fall asleep – both for a nap or a night’s sleep. It doesn’t work all the time, but it has about a 50% success rate for me.

Stimulating breath (sometimes called “bellows breath”) is often a yogic breathing techniques designed to raise energy and increase alertness rather than relax you.

Breathing should be easy. We do it all day without even thinking about it. Anyone who has taken a meditation class knows that thinking about breathing is something that is really emphasized. Though I never became convinced that counting my breath was helping me, several breathing exercises have stuck with me as practices.

Most of us breathe quite shallowly. Taking a deep breath is something out of the ordinary.  Sometimes we sigh a deep breath. the doctor asks us to take a few in our checkup. We suck in a big breath after exerting yourself physically. But it is extraordinary rather than ordinary.

Think about how someone who is hyperventilating is told to breathe into a paper bag. Though most of us take shallow breaths and deeper breaths is probably a good practice, hyperventilating is “overbreathing” and in that case it is not a good practice.

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is very simple and can be done at almost any time. Some people recommend it as a stress break while seated, perhaps at your desk. I know someone who told me that if he tries to do it before he goes to sleep, he rarely gets past 6 repetitions before he falls asleep.

Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise.
Exhale, completely emptying your lungs through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth, inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely again for a count of eight.
This one breath will have an exhalation that is twice as long as inhalation.

I know that this ratio of 4-7-8 is always said to be important, but I find the counting distracting. I modify it to an untimed maximum lung capacity inhalation, hold for four, and then totally empty my lungs. I had my wife time it once and it came out to be about 5-6-8 for me without counting, which is pretty close. A friend told me that rather than counting she repeats a phrase that times out at about the 4-7-8 cycles.

The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that is the opposite of the stress response. When the relaxation response is activated, your heart rate slows, breathing becomes slower and deeper, and your blood pressure drops or stabilizes, your muscles relax and blood flow to the brain increases. It is definitely something to strive for in your day and night.

 

I was once criticized when I was much younger for being “too sensitive.”  The criticism made me wonder: Can you be too sensitive? I decided that you can be too sensitive about certain topics. I know people who seem to me to be too sensitive about politics, for example. But can you be too sensitive about the abuse of children, women or people in general?

What is the difference between highly sensitive people and people known as empaths? An article that popped up in my reading feed was by  Judith Orloff who has also written The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People.

“Empath” comes from empathy which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I don’t think anyone considers empathy to be a bad thing. But some people say that highly sensitive people can cause problems for themselves and others.

These people have a lower threshold for stimulation than most people. They have a need for alone time and an aversion to large groups. They can be physically more sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. Their ability to quickly make a transition from high stimulation to being quiet is slower. It will take them longer to unwind from work or stressful situations.

“Empath”is a term I actually associate more with science-fiction as a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual. You’ll find them in some of the writing and film versions of Philip K. Dick’s future worlds, such as Minority Report (with its “precogs”) and Blade Runner.

The two Blade Runner films ask us to empathize with artificial intelligence. That is a strange thing to ask in a time when we might question the lack of empathy many people seem to have for other people.

In HBO’s series Westworld, the ask is something very different. Set in an AI  amusement park for adults, the new series is quite different from the Michael Crichton original novel. In that book and film, the robots are clearly the bad guys and they take control of their intelligence and begin killing guests. The new version focuses much more on the growing sentience of the androids. The humans are the bad guys who wildly and gleefully mistreat the robots sexually and in the many violent scenarios.

The newest Blade Runner 2049 also brings the story into our time by making the protagonist, K (Ryan Gosling), be a replicant himself, but one charged with hunting down his own kind who break the laws that control them.

Steven Spielberg took on some of these issues in his film AI Artificial Intelligence. In this future, there are already robots called Mecha that are very advanced humanoids that are capable of thoughts and emotions. One Mecha, David, is like a human child and is programmed to love his owners, a couple who want a replacement for their real son who is in suspended animation waiting for a cure for his rare disease. What happens when human treat a robot as if it is real?

The TV series HUM∀NS also explores the psychological impact of  anthropomorphic robots (called “synths”) on their human owners, and the growing sentience of the robots.

This is not to say that we should connect sensitive people to AI robots. These questions go back to Enlightenment philosophers. The point is to examine how empathy may have changed in society.

Highly sensitive people and empaths are not mutually exclusive; you can be both. There is a kind of spectrum with empaths on the far end and highly sensitive people further down, and at the other end of the spectrum are narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths who have “empath-deficient disorders.”

In researching this area, I found books on a range of related topics, including dealing with being highly sensitive, as well as enhancing these qualities and making it part of your life’s work (counseling, teaching, mental health and healing).

I would never have guessed that a query on YouTube for “empaths” would turn up 179,000 results.

Take all this another step into New Age territory and you’ll find a kind of energy (called shakti or prana in Eastern healing traditions) that empaths can actually absorb from other people and from environments. This is far from just being highly sensitive and enters into spiritual and intuitive experiences .

Sensitivity and empathy are qualities we should respect and encourage, but we should be aware of what areas of relationships and society can be embraced and which ones can harm us.

death dream

This past week, I had two dreams about people I know dying. Though I have been a longtime observer of my own dreams and a reader of books about dreams, I don’t believe that dreams are premonitions. And yet, dreaming of someone’s death still gives me a really uncomfortable feeling.

In general, it is said that dreams about death often indicate “the symbolic ending of something, – whether that’s a phase, a job or a relationship.” A dream about death does not always mean death. Those dreams supposedly can also indicate attempts to resolve anxiety or anger directed toward the self.

I’m sure I am not alone in feeling that dreaming of someone dying is a bad omen. It seems to me that though it may not be a premonition of the person dying in real life, it may signify an end to something like a relationship.

I had read years ago that you can’t die in your dreams. Some safety valve in your brain will wake you before that happens. But I learned more recently that you can die in your dreams.

I started reading about dream interpretation when I was in high school and read both popular books and things like Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Though a lot of Freud’s theories are out of favor now, the idea that our dreams were a way to get at secrets that we kept even from ourselves is still accepted.

If you dreamed of your spouse dying, it might mean you are afraid in real life of losing that person. But why? Are they ill? Are you having relationship issues that might lead to you losing them? Are you moving on in your career or in other ways? Is a phase of your relationship to this person ending, but perhaps moving forward in a good way?

Death dreams usually mean a change of some sort. In the symbolism of dreams, death signifies the end or a rebirth of something that you associate in some way with this person.

One person I dreamt had died is seriously ill. I probably had been thinking of him in the 48 hours prior to the dream, so the dream seems logical.

The other person I dreamt had died is someone I have not seen or communicated with for several years. I had not been thinking about her recently that I can recall. According to some dream interpretation guides, this may mean that if feel betrayed or abandoned by her in real life. Feeling sad about her death mirrors the sadness I feel in real life about how disconnected we now seem to be.

It is said that guilt feelings can lead to dreams about someone dying. As I think about that first dream, I wonder if it doesn’t stem from some guilt that I haven’t done enough to help him in real life. If I am not helping, then am I bringing him closer to death?

I also had a lucid dream recently. Unfortunately, everything about it vanished before I had time to recount it to my wife or write anything down. I have written about lucid dreaming here before and these dreams in which you know you are dreaming are very powerful.

The value in recording and trying to interpret your own dreams is in examining your life closely. I believe you can use the dream interpretation guides as a starting place, but you need to develop your own symbology for your dreams. What the ocean or  my father or standing at the edge of a cliff means to me is likely to not mean the same thing to you.

Still, those guides are if not totally accurate, interesting. One bizarre meaning for dreaming of someone dying that I read is that reports by women dreaming about seeing a person dying  seem to sometimes occur just before they got confirmation of their pregnancy. The two events seem far apart, unless you see it as a quite literal view of death as a kind of rebirth.

More

Man and His Symbols by Carl G. Jung

Dreamer’s Dictionary by Stearn Robinson

The Dream Interpretation Dictionary: Symbols, Signs, and Meanings by J.M. DeBord

 

A chapbook worth of years ago, I was taking instruction at a Zen Monastery. I had already tried Zen on my own and with some local groups. I was pretty well versed with the basics and thought it was time to get more serious with a residency.

On my first weekend retreat, we would wake up before dawn, eat a very quiet and basic breakfast before about 8 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent dinner in the zendo (oryoki) and some silent work practice.

When I the opportunity to talk 1:1 with the abbot, he asked me how my zazen was progressing. Za means “sitting.” Zen comes from the Sanskrit and means meditation. My early zazen was all about concentration and focusinf on following or counting my breath. But I thought I was ready to move to zazen as self-inquiry. That wasn’t going very well, I told him.

I explained that I could not seem to empty my mind  and though I could dismiss thoughts, another one soon replaced it.

“You have monkey mind,” he told me. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in the tree.”

It wasn’t an original observation. Monkey mind is a real thing. It is a phenomenon that is especially noticeable when you are trying hard to be still.

Being mindful and still is a good thing sometimes, but the monkey isn’t into it.

You need the monkey.  That brain lets you move from task to task and think fast. Pretty important in this fast-paced world. But you need to be able to turn off the monkey brain. Just like you need to turn off the TV news and music and conversations and life’s noise sometimes.

How do you do that? I have tried lots of “techniques” with limited success. One general approach is to give in to the monkey mind. That’s what I did at the monastery. I don’t mean that I stopped meditating. I gave the monkey some space.

When I’m writing, especially poetry,  I let the monkey take me other places.

When I want him to hop off the tree, I sometimes chant a little mantra. I sometimes meditate and focus on a point somewhere in the room. I especially like doing some walking meditation. That is kinhin which is often practiced between long periods of the sitting zazen meditation. I can walk and focus on something while the monkey follows me at a distance hopping from tree to tree beside and behind me.

 

Some people advise that you should tame the monkey. I’ve made peace with the monkey.

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