I went for an afternoon swim. Two kids were talking back and forth in the locker room. They were about ten or twelve years old from what I could gather. They were talking about their height in comparison with the rest of their respective class.
I hadn’t heard two monologues forming such a wide rift in a long time. Usually I see people who can’t seem to listen to each other and talk at the same time. This was different.
You see, they never asked each other questions. It went like this :
Bobby : I’m one year older than everyone and that’s why I’m taller. Timmy : I’m smaller than everyone in my class.
Bobby : I think it’s because I’m doing my fifth grade again. Timmy : I think I was the tallest of my class last year.
And so it went on like this until I left for the pool. Counting the number of Me’s and I’s, there must have been over a hundred spoken in about 5 minutes!
You could have listened to both kids separately and both of them would have a linear story with no ambiguity. It certainly makes you think, about how important our personal narrative is from a very young age. Some kids might be naturally more curious thanks to their environment, but usually what I see is who can impress the others the most.
At least they seemed to give themselves the space to talk without cutting in. It remains to be said, both of the kids learned very little about each other. If you want to expand your understanding of the world, by all means, ask questions. And this goes for me too. The kids tonight showed me how undermining long monologues can be. They are a real detriment to fostering relationships with people we love.
There’s something exciting that came out of neuroscience a while ago and that is the subject of neuroplasticity. Here is a definition :
Plasticity, or neuroplasticity, describes how experiences reorganize neural pathways in the brain. Long lasting functional changes in the brain occur when we learn new things or memorize new information. These changes in neural connections are what we call neuroplasticity. (src)
As we have found out, our brain is fundamentally changing all the time. Every new experience or unknown circumstance earns a reaction from the brain. That reaction affects the brain and physically changes the pathways or circuits which lay inside.
I am by no means an expert on the subject, but this top-level description does provide us with an important insight in the nature vs nurture debate. No matter what has happened to us, no matter how grave, if we train ourselves to act appropriately, we will affect our pathways and build new highways to effective living. Sure some of us had it easier, some of us were brought up into the world with pathways that didn’t need changing, but blaming our childhoods or our previous self is not an attitude that will get us where we want to be.
I started being very aware of small actions I was taking daily. Whenever I would go on Reddit to look at pictures I was re-enforcing that experience, making it stronger and stronger. In the same way, I noticed how I complained in the morning after waking up. It was a daily action I was taking. Here again, the pathways were reinforced.
Today I got rid of a bunch of habits that were invalidating me. Whenever I see myself doing something that will wake the judge in me at a later time I ask myself : “Do I want to reinforce that path?”. The answer is usually no.
That’s how I stopped playing videos game in my late teens. That’s also how I stopped procrastinating and indulging in mindless reddit/imgur/facebook browsing in college. None of these are bad, but if you personally want to get a habit out of your life, then pay attention to all those small actions that reinforce the habit and in turn, the brains pathways.
I was at a friends marriage today. The ceremony went smoothly amidst the heavy rain pouring outside. This forced the entire service to be held inside a big tent complex.
Naturally, conversations flowed like fine wine after a busy day at work. I don’t get to see my old friends that often anymore. It was foreseeable back in high school when we started choosing careers and it is even more flagrant now. We are slowly drifting away as we compound decision upon decision that forges our life paths.
I preferred not to contemplate this aspect of life because I wanted to maximize my attention during our reunion. So let’s leave this subject for another article.
We talked about everything and nothing. I was a bit irked by the way we talked about he and she, this guy and that girl, that couple, that group… It’s so easy to point fingers or to talk about other individuals.
I did my best to avoid criticism and judgment, but it could be compared to spending time outside trying not to breath in too much air. It was inevitable and so I mixed in eventually. The more we resist a temptation, the stronger it might lash back at us.
Thankfully I did not take myself too seriously in this experience, but it is important to note how easily influenced we are in a group setting by the big themes flowing around. That’s why a team that has drive and a vision full of possibilities is so good to work with. Everyone reinforces those feelings naturally, the same way we do when we are confronted with other social settings. It’s something were very good at. The same way someone acts differently alone as apposed to in a group.
What shook me up though, is how difficult it was to hold on to principles and higher forces. I cultivate this feeling daily, because I think that we stand no chance during the real thing if we lack practice in that department. This reminds me of Mike Tyson’s quote :
Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.
Which might sound simple, but it bears truth. To practice every situation in a controlled environment and to look honestly at the results is probably the only sensible way to acquire character traits that will resist external social pressures that naturally flow over us. The pressure will hit you in the fact and without proper preparation it will be quite difficult to stay authentic.
I was suffering from pressure to the forehead. Sometimes I could feel it on the sides or at the crown of the head. It began with meditation and mindfulness so I took it upon me to investigate the feeling.
Initially I considered the feeling to be interesting and being naturally curious I enjoyed it. Eventually it became too hot to handle so I tried to educate myself. Reading books and consulting online resources helped me get a better idea of what this was about. Some people talk about the pressure as being an opportunity to get deeper into the meditation practice. I did not immediately understand what that meant. Today, I can say that there is some truth in that idea, but it is incomplete as far as we remain uninformed of certain realities. Their was also talk about the opening of the third eye, but I tend to stay skeptical with these words. We tend to take words for cash instead of looking at what concept they point to. Finally, some guru said that the pressure was the consequence of meditating with the mind and not with the heart. I could see his point, but applying it was beyond me at the time.
I even went to a meditation center for an information session and asked the abbot and the local priests what they thought of this physical sensation that slowly started feeling like an affliction since I could feel it while doing normal activities on my own such as doing the groceries or walking around the park.
I wasn’t impressed with their answers. Some of them outright told me they have never felt that feeling and so I thought that their answers were pretty shallow. Were told not to have judgments, but hey, I’m a human being and I felt like an automaton. Were quick to fire labels based on our first impressions, I just learn to accept it and laugh it off ironically as being a funny trait we humans possess. So I said it, fuck them I gotta figure this one out on my own.
After acquiring a decent amount of knowledge on the subject I logically moved on to self-exploration. I understood basic concepts that were brought fort from Buddhism, psychology and psychotherapy so I felt confident in my self-assessment.
I came to consider that my meditation practice was much to focused on the mind and not on the other parts of the body. I also concluded that any kind of pressure is similar to muscle pressure. The same kind of pressure we get after reaching our physical limit doing push ups. I also knew that the more I would try to suppress it, the more the feeling would retaliate. So I gave up on that and started laughing at my pathetic case.
I started meditating with a focus on my heart too. That helped me because I stopped giving so much attention to all the mind-stuff that was going on in my head. Always looking after the mind can be considered neurosis. Or like a mother who tries too hard to control her children. It feels like were out of air to breath as the kids.
I remember a phrase from Takuan Soho which went like this :
“Make the whole body the mind. Only by unflagging striving can one attain this.”
I don’t know what my possibilities are to reach a state of using the body as one complete organ of senses, but it does make a clear point that focusing attention in one place should not become an obsession.
Today my pressure has subsided. Whenever it comes back I treat it like the weather. I can’t do a thing to stop it so I might as well watch and enjoy the show. A little bit of humor goes a long way too. I will crack a smile in helpless situations and feel like it was exactly what life expected of me at that precise moment.
I recently read an account from a psychotherapist which mentioned that patients sometimes take an objective view on what is happening to them in extreme situations. They do so as an automatic withdrawal mechanism which helps them cope with the situation.
So far so good.
Then he talks about this behavior being an eventual invitation to dulling the reception of feelings. This leads to a form of apathy. In accounts of concentration camp survivors this went as far as making people unconcerned with torture, death and most other atrocities that they happened to witness.
And who wouldn’t develop symptoms of emotional withdrawal in such extreme circumstances? But this made me think. Some people feel like they are literally being lived. They are disconnected and barely react to what is happening around them. Signs of apathy are even worse than those who worry about their daily struggles. When we worry we still exhibit reflexes that show some humanity. When we display apathy we are virtually dead.
Total withdrawal is something different. Perhaps not so different, but it does represent a transposition in the way we deal with our thoughts. It surely involves a broken relationship with our thoughts. Mindfulness is about watching the thoughts without labeling them. In some cases we have a hard time giving up control and are hurt in this process as we now not only have thoughts we dislike, but we also have the thought that we dislike our thoughts. This leads to an overload in our brain.
That’s why I think that it is worth questioning the use of mindfulness at times. There’s nothing like going into the back-country for a few days with your family, your dog, your friends or your lover and just realize that we are already it.