Posts Tagged ‘neurobiology’

Thinking

Monday, February 5th, 2018

jennysletter

Perception pen and ink by Todd

Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” Which is the English translation of the French “Je pense, donc je suis.” Which is Descarte’s translation of the Latin, Cogito ergo sum.

I remember the first time I thought about my existence being a matter of thinking I existed, and feeling a bit confused. I was twelve. What if I stopped thinking I existed, would I stop existing?

Lately I’ve become convinced by reading books about neurobiology and being in therapy again after eons of not being in therapy that: I sometimes feel how I think I feel, and sometimes I feel fine because I’m not thinking; but I’m not sure I exist because I think I exist.

Several times in my life I’ve been rushed to hospital emergency rooms in cars and ambulances, and whilst en route and feeling my life force ebbing, I felt I existed because my body was alive and if my body stopped being alive I wouldn’t exist. I’m alive, therefore I’m alive.

About two years ago, due to a nasty run-in with some incompetent medical doctors, I began to experience panic attacks for the first time in my life. If you’ve never had a full-blown panic attack, trust me, you don’t want to have one, not even just to say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve had one of those.” I would describe a panic attack to you, but such a thing is beyond the power of words to describe. I might say: Imagine you are hurtling on a plank down a steep hill toward jagged rocks and your body is vibrating so tremendously you feel you may explode before you hit the jagged rocks, and that would not be the half of it.

The idea that: I think I’m having a panic attack, therefore I am having a panic attack, might be true, but doesn’t help much in the midst of a panic attack. Or maybe it does help. Or could help. Maybe if one could convince one’s self that the panic attack is merely a figment of thinking, and one could stop thinking in that way, then the panic would subside. That is how drugs made to quell panic attacks work. They interfere with the brain thinking we’re panicking, so we stop panicking.

Anyway, I’ve been having all sorts of helpful feelings and experiences and shifts in self-perception as a result of therapy, and I’ve actually gone some months without too much anxiety impinging on my life. So when visitations from the old anxiety tendrils began anew recently, I was not thrilled.

I wrote to my therapist: Last night, first time in a long time, my anxiety returned. Dreadful feeling, like the return of someone I really don’t like and hoped never to see again suddenly walking into my house. I was physically exhausted, so I knew that had something to do with my vulnerability to feelings of anxiety. At one point, I felt so angry about my ongoing anxiety, I shouted, “Get out of my life. Let me be happy. Just get out of my life.” And I was greatly relieved, a kind of mini-rage release. I couldn’t bring to mind parents or abusive people from my past. It was more a feeling of being victimized by the idea that for some reason it is not okay for me to have a happy healthy life.

My therapist wrote back, and I paraphrase: “This actually sounds very ‘normal’ (whatever that is!) to me and I want to say, “So, what’s the problem?” Yes, you have a habit or a propensity for anxiety.

“Stop narrating your mood. Feelings come and go like the tide. Let them move through you without judgment. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU! Perhaps you want the narrator to get out of your life?

“I understand it is not a pleasant feeling. Stop fighting with it, though, because that just gives it more power over you. Do you check the weather as much as you check your mood and feelings? Do you try to control the weather? Do you judge it? Your feelings are your own atmospheric experience. Let them be what they are and keep on living and Being!

“Who are you? What are you without the narrative? Who is aware of the anxiety? What is the experience of the experiencer? Put your awareness on itself and let everything else take care of itself. Make sense?”

I was reminded by those words from my therapist of a time twenty years ago when I was going through great physical difficulties, and I went to a body worker and she would be working on my shoulder or my hip, and the pain would be tremendous, and I would inform her of my pain, and she would say, “Stay with the pain. Go into it. Really try to experience everything that composes the pain. Really stay focused on that pain.”

And if I put my awareness on the pain, by golly, the pain would either go away or jump to another part of my body, which amazed me and made me wonder: what is pain?

Twenty years later, I regularly go to a superb acupressurist who invariably discovers blockages in my meridians and unblocks them so that for a few days at least I feel vastly improved compared to how I felt before she manipulated those points of interest.

The truth is, I would benefit greatly from a thorough massage every few days, weekly acupressure, weekly psychotherapy, and a sauna every day during the winter and twice weekly during the summer. Who wouldn’t benefit from that regimen of healing help? Who has that kind of money?

I remember during an anti-war demonstration long ago, a speaker reported calculations made by smart people at a renowned university that for the same amount of money the United States spent every year building weapons and waging needless wars, every person in America could afford a full-body massage every few days, weekly acupuncture treatments, weekly psychotherapy, free healthcare, free education from nursery school through graduate school, free food, and so much more. Every American. And if you don’t think creating a system providing such goodies for everyone would cure our social and economic and emotional ills, you and I would not be in agreement.

How’s this for a variation on the basic Descartes? I receive vast amounts of physical and emotional tenderness and approval and love, therefore I am happy and not at all anxious, and I want the same for everyone else.

Being Jewish

Monday, November 20th, 2017

Goody jpeg

Goody photo by Todd

“The writer of any work, and particularly a nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” Annie Dillard

My therapist asked me if I would be willing to let go of the concept of good and bad. I suppose good and bad might be two concepts, but since we can’t have one without the other, I’ll go with good and bad being a duality. I told my therapist I was certainly willing to try to let go of the concept of good and bad, and for the last week I have been hyper-conscious of my use of those two words, as well as my virtually reflexive good/bad judgments about events and things and people, including little old me.

As an editor of my own work and the works of others, and as one who has endeavored to help many people with their writing, I would say the one word that writers use most profusely and to the detriment of their writing is it. Indeed, if you want to improve your writing in almost no time, take a recent page of something you’ve written and circle all the its and replace them with words the its are standing in for. I think you will be pleased by how much more interesting and informative your prose becomes.

I bring up it because, though I’ve long known and suggested to other writers that using words such as bad and good in our writing is almost always less effective than using more incisively descriptive words, I now realize that in my thinking and feeling and talking, I constantly use bad and good instead of saying and feeling and thinking what I more deeply feel and think.

So ever since my therapist asked me if I was willing to let go of the concept of good and bad, whenever the words bad and good come up in my speech and thoughts, I replace them with words that come closer to expressing the feelings I was trying to express with those more general words.

For instance, this morning I had an email from someone in Los Angeles who was curious to know why my book Buddha In A Teacup is not readily available in libraries in Los Angeles. I did some checking and found my correspondent was correct: Buddha In A Teacup is a non-presence in most Los Angeles libraries. I did some further checking and found that Buddha In A Teacup is only available in a few libraries scattered across America.

My initial reaction to this information was This is bad. But because I am retraining my brain/mind/spirit to replace bad with more incisively descriptive terms, I came up with, “The absence of Buddha In A Teacup in thousands of libraries across America made me sad for a moment, but the absence of the book in libraries isn’t bad or good. The absence of my book in libraries is in the nature of things at this moment in time.”

“There are two kinds of comedy. One involves putting people down, having fun at their expense. The other recognizes that each of our lives is equally absurd.” Donald Montwill

For reasons I can’t readily explain, letting go of the concept of good and bad seems to be making me more comfortable with being Jewish. As I explained in my last two articles, my recent return to therapy after a thirty-year hiatus has prompted me to delve into and accept that I am Jewish despite not knowing my mother and her ancestors were Jewish until I was twelve, and despite not knowing until I was forty that my mother’s lifelong pretense of not being Jewish profoundly shaped my self-identity.

This delving into being Jewish has prompted me to write articles about my discoveries and share those articles with you. Writing and posting these articles has been exciting and scary and funny and fascinating. I’ve had several responses from other people who did not learn they were Jewish until they were adults, and I’ve had responses from people who have always known they were Jewish who told me, in so many words, “So what else is new?”

And now that I am retraining my brain to replace good and bad with more specific descriptors, I have, on several occasions, found myself being Jewish, which is unlike any feeling I’ve ever had before. Being Jewish, in the way I’m being Jewish, is so deeply satisfying I’m tempted to say the experience is reminiscent of satisfying sex, but that would be misleading so I will resist the temptation.

What do I mean by finding myself being Jewish? Here’s a for instance. (By the way, the preceding sentence fragment feels ultra-Jewish to me, at least the way I hear myself saying Here’s a for instance.) I’m having a conversation with Marcia about the menu for our upcoming vegetarian Thanksgiving supper with Bill and Sally and Sal. As Marcia and I converse, I’m aware of a subtle shift in my accent and the enhanced ease with which words are coming out of my mouth. This shift is so subtle, I don’t think Marcia realizes, as I am realizing, that I am being Jewish. What’s more, I can feel that as I am being Jewish, I am wonderfully relaxed and, dare I say, more sure of myself. Yes, I dare say I hear a confidence, an ease of expression, and a different grammar defining my speech—a Jewish grammar accompanied by a slight Jewish accent and a full-body enjoyment of being Jewish.

What is Jewish grammar? You’re asking me?

Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist who is a pioneer in the field of neurobiology, frequently talks and writes about how the words we repeatedly use/think to describe ourselves to ourselves and to other people, create templates in our brains that dictate many of our subsequent thoughts and feelings and beliefs. In other words, if I tell myself “I’m a terrible singer” a hundred times a day for ten years, I will probably not pursue a singing career. Oh I might pursue such a career, but chances are better I will become an electrician or the owner of a hat shop.

Who knew that letting go of the concept of good and bad would result in my having several enjoyable experiences of being Jewish? Maybe my therapist knew.

Until now, I haven’t told anyone about these “Jewish moments” because part of the fun is feeling Jewish without making a big deal out of being who I am. Which reminds me of something numerous Buddhist teachers have said about meditation, and I will paraphrase what they said using what might be called Jewish paragraph construction, if there can possibly be such a thing.

So you meditate for twenty minutes every day for several years and you sometimes wonder, “Is this daily meditating doing me any good? Might my time be better spent reading cookbooks or vacuuming?” And then one day you’re at the grocery store and some schmuck shoulders you out of the way and snatches the magnificent zucchini you were just about to get, but instead of saying or thinking, “What a schmuck!” you are hardly bothered at all and you send loving thoughts to the schmuck as he hurries away with the zucchini you wanted, and then you return your focus to the remaining zucchinis, and there, partially obscured by a somewhat battered zucchini, you find a zucchini every bit as firm and beautifully shaped as the zucchini the schmuck stole from you. And you are struck by the realization that meditating every day has helped you become more accepting and tolerant and unattached to outcome, and the schmuck ceases to be a schmuck and becomes a human being with a character disorder.

Whether meditation is doing you any good is another question entirely because the concept of good is a tricky one, just as the concept of being Jewish is a tricky one. What’s so wrong with things being a little tricky? Isn’t life, after all, a little tricky? And isn’t Jewish paragraph construction, if there is such a thing, characterized by questions that are in themselves also answers?