It is easier to love the life you have than live a different one. This is not to say that loving one’s circumstances is always easy to do. It is also not to deny the importance of working toward goals and improvements. But in the process of imagining a better future, and building it, one is well advised to enjoy the present moment. Embracing what is gives one more energy to develop what might be.
By no means does this imply ignoring injustice, or cruelty, or the need to escape unhealthy relationships and lifestyles. But if we see or experience such things, they are our present reality. We can deplore them, and work to change them, but still do our best to love whatever is good in the present moment, and enjoy the simple fact of living. Maybe the best we can hope for is to appreciate a beautiful sunrise blossoming over a polluted city. But one will find greater happiness by relishing the exuberant and glorious colors, than by focusing only on what they imply.
Did you ever start a project with one goal, and fail at that intention only to see the work bear unexpected fruit of another sort?
As I write this, my location is a hotel room near Washington, DC. The purpose of this trip is my attendance at the second of three medical acupuncture training seminars. In a roundabout way, the obscure blog (willspirit.com) that I started in Spring 2009 has led me to this hotel. It brought me to my current plan of using acupuncture to treat psychic distress.
If something good happens, but it happens to someone else, is it still good? Of course! No one would argue out loud, but deep down we value our own happiness more than the happiness of others. This is natural, human, and not something to feel bad about.
At the same time, the temptation to prefer our own welfare over that of others needs to be resisted. It isn’t hard to live vicariously through the success and joy of loved ones. Good parents automatically promote their children’s progress at their own expense. It gets a little more challenging in the case of siblings (read: sibling rivalry), and can seem nearly impossible with strangers. How many of us would significantly deny ourselves in order to help a stranger?
You grew up with the happiest childhood imaginable. You did! You really did! Or at least you might have. And you know the bumper sticker that says, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood”? I’ve learned it speaks the truth, though not in the way I always thought.
A few months ago I devised for myself a new and helpful meditation. It probably isn’t my creation, but if I heard of it before I’m not sure where. Meditation may be too strong a word; visualization or fantasy might fit better. The basic technique involves imagining a better childhood and family life than I actually experienced.
Long ago, before fate taught me the value of humility, I placed a lot of stock in my analytical intelligence. It started half way through a rebellious high school career, when I took to heart what people outside my immediate family had said about me since toddlerhood: I had a good mind.
Emerging from an upbringing that gave me little reason to have much self esteem, I grabbed onto the only compliment that had ever consistently come my way, and began applying myself. This rescued my grade point average, and soon I found myself in college, where sharp thinking was highly regarded. It became clear that I had strong problem-solving abilities, which might have been inherited from my physicist father. Or perhaps growing up in a dangerous and chaotic family had trained me to scrutinize and scheme. Either way, thinking eventually earned me a rewarding career, financial security, and feelings of power.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, however, all that evaporated ten years ago.
I can’t quit worrying. I might forget what scares me.
Doesn’t the mind feel that way? We don’t realize it, but our rational, thinking minds feel extremely fragile. All kinds of odd and hidden anxieties follow. What’s to keep us from forgetting to be afraid? If we forget our problems, what will we think about? If we don’t think, will we cease to exist? “I think, therefore I am” might become, “I don’t think, therefore I am nothing.”
It sounds a bit silly, but our egos embrace such fear. What amounts to faulty reasoning becomes a deeply buried motivating principle. Egos won’t quit thinking, because they fear weakening their own defenses, opening the gates to the marauding armies of biology, passion, and fate. Hence the difficulty we all find in meditating. How many times, in a given attempt at meditation, does the mind wander into idle thought? And when we’re not actively coaxing the mind toward stillness, thinking often runs completely unchecked. All kinds of mental phantoms haunt us because of unexamined and unrestrained thinking.
Never listen to your mind on a bad day. The following post sounds acceptable now (I think), but in its early drafts you’d have seen my inner pessimist in all its complaining glory. I was not feeling well: the body achy and fatigued, the mind slightly dull and blue. Some humans are prone to such states, especially those with tendencies toward depressed or bipolar conditions. When unpleasant mental weather strikes, it is important to maintain the long view. Otherwise, it is easy to get badly buffeted by transient emotional storms.
During those times when I feel down, something inside me concludes that the world fits my mood: it’s a depressing place, and always has been, and always will be.
But of course that’s not true. A day before I might very well have had some moments that felt delightful. My heart may have happily thrummed in the afterglow of a pleasant hike, lovemaking, or a good night’s sleep. But for obscure psychic reasons, whenever my mental weather gets a little dark and rainy, my heart and mind tend to generalize. They forget the good feelings of 24 hours earlier. They forget all the good feelings of my entire life. My psyche has a ‘depressed’ nest that it knows intimately, and it settles into that bleak chamber as if misery were its only home. This, I think, is what psychiatrists intend when they say depression can be a delusional disorder. My conclusion, at those times, that my world is pervasively and eternally sad is flawed and based on limited data. If I were open to the evidence of my whole life, I would have a broader perspective: life is often hard, but not always. With patience, and a longer view, I could ride out the emotional squall without drifting into full-blown unhappiness. Good times and good feelings would soon come again. It’s almost guaranteed.
So whenever darkness descends, it is vital to use the cognitive mind to counter the gravitational pull of pessimism. It is necessary to remember, repeatedly, that the gathering gloom is just a mood and that it will pass. One can resist depression’s tug with a trained …
When you think about it, breathing is a lot of trouble. In and out. In and out. Over and over it’s the same thing, all day and all night. But breathing is good for you. In particular, with a full, deep breath the body feels more grounded, the heart lighter, the mind quieter.
It’s so easy to forget. Many years ago, before my neck failed and my career imploded, I commuted from San Francisco to work as a surgeon in a town thirty minutes north. The commute was most picturesque, as it took me along the bluffs above the Pacific, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and through the rolling countryside of Marin County. The morning trips lifted my spirits, but after full days spent treating patients I often unconsciously held my breath during the return drives. Motoring along contemplating my life, I would ‘wake up’ to find my shoulders hunched, my muscles rigid, my jaw clenched, my lungs half-full and not moving. It was as if my repetitive and stressed-out thoughts were so interesting that I couldn’t be bothered with breathing. When I caught myself in the throes of such tension, I would deliberately take a few deep breaths and attempt to relax. But a few minutes later my body would lock up again.
Several months ago I quit my final psychiatric medication after a long, slow reduction in my regimen. In the bad old days with the psychiatrist who treated my moods between 2000 and 2006, I was over-medicated. At several points I was taking six different medications for my mental health. The side effects were dreadful and humiliating, and my depression hardly lifted. The only benefit was a generalized emotional numbing. I was free of intense anguish, because I had no strong feelings at all. This seemed like a good idea at first, but I soon recognized that life was passing by while I lingered in a medicated haze. My wife hated the zombie-like affect I presented, and it was impossible to accomplish anything while so sedated.
Since 2006, I’ve been tapering off the medications. I feel more sadness, but also more happiness. I can laugh and cry and think once again. My former passion and creativity have been restored. Coming off the drugs has been very good for me, although I am by no means suggesting it would be right for everyone.
And in fact it wasn’t completely right for me. During the few months on no medications, I struggled with darkness. Life had become briefly challenging every time I stepped down in number or dose of pills, but when I discontinued the final drug, I slowly spiraled into an exceptionally unpleasant space. To my great relief, I did not contemplate suicide, which shows how much progress I’ve made in accepting low moods. However, joy and interest drained from my psyche. I continued all my normal activities, but I enjoyed few of them. Worse, I became hypersensitive, irritable, and withdrawn.
After three months with no improvement, I decided to go back on a low dose of that final drug. Within two weeks, my days became dramatically easier. The lesson, I suppose, is that extreme positions are always suspect. I had decided that since six drugs were disastrous, the answer was to take none at all. That turns out to have been too drastic. It looks like I am better off taking a modest dose of one antidepressant, rather than trying to …
This blog would not exist if not for my friendship with Tom Wootton, who has his own PsychCentral blog and founded Bipolar Advantage, an organization that takes a refreshing and empowering look at bipolar conditions. Tom has taught me a lot, but one truth he showed me has been especially on my mind today. He once pointed out that no matter how hard you try, success is never guaranteed. If you give up, on the other hand, failure is certain.