Getting Unstuck

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“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

When I was 12, I learned how to sail at a YMCA camp on the Chesapeake Bay. We learned in these little boats called Sunfish designed for 1 or 2 people. After a week or so, I took a boat out for the first time without a counselor. It didn’t go that well.

It was a windy day and the water was a bit choppy. About 10 minutes into the short trip, I stopped moving. What happened was that the boat was caught “in irons.” This means the boat was headed into the wind, the sail was not catching any air, and the water stopped flowing over the rudder making steering impossible. Two options are available in this situation: wait for the wind to change direction, or push the sail and the rudder perpendicular to the wind.

The previous week I watched someone get popped in the head by a sail swinging across the boat. This is called tacking or coming about. So I did what any emotionally compromised kid with lack of confidence might do: nothing. Then I started to complain about being stuck as if the boat and the wind would apologize for hurting my feelings. I expected my experience to change just because I desired change. But I was unwilling to try something to change it. Eventually an instructor in a motorboat pulled up and hopped in my boat. He pushed the sail and the rudder, caught that magnificent breeze, and we flew across the water.

What I needed to learn that day, but wouldn’t apply it until decades later, was that nothing in my experience of life will change unless I do something different. I can’t feel or think my way into a different life in any way that is something more authentic than a really lucid delusion. I need to act differently in order to have a different life. The alternative is to be stuck, waiting for things to change all the while building a resentment that they are staying the same.

If we want things in life, we need to solve problems and do things in order to get them. Some methods work better than others. If we could each do one thing differently than the day before in order to change one aspect of our lives we want to improve, change is absolutely inevitable. If it doesn’t work, do something else. The one way to be stuck and stay stuck is to do nothing. A belief that the wind will catch your sail won’t get you moving. But moving the sail yourself will.

Rules for a Happy Life (And How to Shop for Self-Help)

good habitsLast year I began a life re-boot. I had been through a lot of changes in the past few years. Some of these were for the better, and some just sucked. I had quit drinking, been to therapy, was faithfully taking three psychotropic meds to balance my brain chemistry, and found a group of friends to help me make useful changes. But I was stagnating and sluggish. So I had a choice. Give in to what I was feeling, or do something to change it. I went with the latter. I weaned myself off the meds slowly and started to feel better, but I knew I needed to take other action so I would not end up where I was when I literally fell apart several years before. (If you are on meds, don’t just go off them. Talk to your doc before you change anything. Your life depends on that talk.)

No fan of self-help books, I took a dip in that area of the bookstore anyway. The thing with self-help books is that most people will peruse them and read them only to be told that whatever they are feeling is perfectly normal and ok and that all they need to do is think positive and great things will happen. While it’s true that positive thinking can help, just feeding yourself saccharine affirmations when you feel like shit is putting a band-aid on a festering boil. To make a real change you need to lance that thing, pour some alcohol over it, get your stitches, and work on the thing that caused it so it doesn’t happen again. Better to have a few hours of pain and a scar than a wound that will never go away and will likely only get worse when things get rough again. I was through wallowing in my problems.

But I found a book that actually helped. I knew it was more or less the real deal because it met my criteria:

  1. It needs to be based in accredited clinical research. This can get rid of most of the bullshit people are trying to sell you. (For example, there is no science to support the claim that so-called “cleansing diets” actually cleanse anything at all. And I love juicing, too.) Accredited means that the body sponsoring the research has someone watching them to ensure the process is ethical and reliable. The best spot where that happens is through research universities.
  2. If it presents the proposed solutions as “easy” or “simple,” it is lying. Change is hard. Changing one’s habits takes discipline, time, and practice. Living well is like learning to play a musical instrument. I don’t care what your natural predispositions are to be an awesome guitarist, you have got to practice. More than that, you have to practice the right way by working on specific techniques and skills to make you a better player. Being happy is no different than this. You can’t expect to be happy. You need to learn specific skills that work for you and then you need to practice them every day and in situations that make you uncomfortable.
  3. It has to be simple. Don’t confuse simple with easy. E=mc 2 is simple. But it is not easy. If you have heard of Occam’s Razor in science, that’s what I am think about with simple. Great theories are concise and simple, but they explain a lot of phenomena and can do so in very complex ways. And most importantly, they are testable. If I can’t work through this self-help program and test the results empirically, it’s useless.

+-+643487111_140The book I found was You Are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding. They are researchers at UCLA and have used this method with success in OCD patients. The concept is called self-directed neuroplasticity. The basic premise is that you can not only control your thinking, but by controlling that thinking you can change how your thinking works. One example is to label as false all of those nasty messages we tend to tell ourselves and automatically accept as true. The task is to figure out why those messages might be there, under what conditions they are most likely to pop up, and then how to change our response when they do come up. The four steps are to relabel, reframe, refocus, and revalue. So if I have a nasty thought like “God you’re an idiot,” what I will do is say “That’s not true” (relabel); then say, “Shut the fuck up you bastard,” to myself (reframe); I will respond by doing something like going for a walk or even focusing on the activity that I am avoiding that is sending me that message (refocus); and finally accept that my thoughts were never really a big deal (revalue). This is mindfulness training with a systematic process that works.

Through my practice of these steps I started running and changed my habits with just about everything including what, when, and how much I eat  and sleep. My thinking is healthier and I now see depressive or self-loathing thoughts as this little alien in my brain that has no business living there. Very liberating. But it took practice and hard work. And it still takes practice and hard work.

Out of this experience, I have started coming up with little rules that have helped me and continue to help me on a daily basis if I practice them.

  1. Lean-in to what’s uncomfortable. When I don’t want to do it and start procrastinating, do it any way. The hardest part is the first 10 seconds. You gotta focus and punch through that wall.
  2. When my mind starts to wander, I need to move my body. The brain basically runs on sugar. If you are focused on something for a long time, you use up the brain’s fuel and get sluggish. That’s normal. If I am bored or anxious I see that as energy in my system that has nowhere to go. Either way, moving my body gives my brain a break and restores its energy load while expending excess energy the rest of my body is jacking up my system with.
  3. Eat fewer calories. This keeps me from being sluggish, keeps my gut happy, and keeps off the pounds. Energy and self-image both improve.
  4. Exercise every day. This is about heart rate. I feel better if I get my heart rate up over 70% of maximum for at least a sustained 30 minutes. This changes my body and changes how well my brain works.
  5. Sleep. At least 7 solid hours a night. If I am using my body that much, it needs to heal. Sleep does that.

Over the next few posts I am going to take each of these rules and explain how I do it and how I got started. I don’t know what will work for you, but these sure as hell work for me. These steps have proven to be better for my mental health than any combination of prescriptions or therapy than I have ever tried.

If you are interested in what self-directed neuroplasticity is all about, do watch Jeffrey Schwartz’s presentation on the science behind the practice.

My Education: The 1 Thing I Must Do

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. – Søren Kierkegaard

Most of what I think I need in life is rather inconsequential. Most of what I have – data plan, TV, clothing, furniture, computer, food in the cabinet, job, etc. – I don’t actually need. These are musts in life that I have convinced myself I must have to be happy.

Perhaps what we believe to make us the happiest is the greatest delusion in our society.

I need food, water, and shelter to supply my basic needs for living. But I also need love and a sense of belonging to a wider human community. These are hard-wired into my DNA as a human being. But even a dog requires these things to be happy.

So what makes me a human?

Purpose. What is it that gives me the greatest amount of contentment around the idea that I am doing what it is I ought to do with myself aside from meeting my basic needs?

I find this identity in the honor of being a father to my two sons. I find that in helping others to feel that in spite of the challenges of the world, I can find a way to be content. I find it in the ability to communicate what I know only to be helpful. That is to say, if I am not doing something each day to help someone in the ways that I am most fit, I am not content with my own life.

I cannot fix a car, offer much in the way of financial gifts, offer home repair services, and the like. So what is it that I can do?

I communicate, listen, and offer what I know. 

This is what I do best. This is why I write. This is why I work. This is my idea. This, I believe, is why I am within the frame of human history.

In research and project management the first step is actually the last step: determine what you want the outcome to be. The rest is finding out how to get there.

Perhaps the great test in living a meaningful and content life is to imagine your funeral. What will people say about you? Who will be there? Who will weep at the thought of your absence? With your sound, touch, smell, ideas, and presence vanished, what will people say about you?

I recall the final story in the film Big Fish. The son carried on his father’s legacy by telling the greatest story of all – about his father the way his father would tell it. Not only the fact that his son told the story, but that the story was about how deeply his father is loved, revealed just how deeply his father affected others and changed lives for the better.

When our stories live on in our absence, perhaps how they are told and who continues to tell them is the greatest evidence that we have indeed found that truth that is for each of us the idea for which we are willing to live and die.

Our obligation, what we truly must do, is to do it well and commit our lives to improving it each day.

3 Things I Said I Would Do, But Haven’t

Age of Ultron and Trillium

How I Started Reading Again

The term “bucket list” has become popular. These are things we want to do before we die. Sometimes these are really challenging ideas like base-jumping or climbing Mt. Everest. Others might simpler like following the Grateful Dead on a tour (too late for that) or reading all of the works of Dostoevsky.

We all have different dreams and thresholds for what we are willing to do. If you have a fear of heights, try zip-lining. I did. I am still a little nervous up high, but much less so.

My 3 Things are more what I have started, but never finished.

Maybe it is a lack of confidence or even sheer laziness that prevents me from just doing these things. Time isn’t an issue. If I want to do these things I merely have to sacrifice some time and dedicate myself to meeting the goal.

I have fallen into a vicious little cycle. Lack of confidence leads to laziness, which leads to more lack of confidence, which leads to eventual rationalization that doing such and such is a “waste of time and energy” anyway. Then I feel guilty or bummed out about it. Then I start up something completely different to feel better thus starting the cycle over.

So here they are. I thought I could do them this year, but I have not even scratched the surface.

Read 25 Books in a Year

Many people will read 50-100 in a year and might not understand why this is such a hard goal to achieve. I can’t remember if I have ever read this many books in a year! Part of that is because I have never kept count. I had to have at least in school.

If I can point to a reason it is burnout. I think I did not let myself recover from the stress of finishing a dissertation and defense in 4 months time. I simply could not bear to pick up another book. I had all the intentions of reading something I really wanted to read but could not, but each was a 50 pound weight my fingers could not handle.

I have started up my reading habit once more. You know what got me back into it? Comic books. I found my inner geek once again and started reading comics. It is the perfect medium of text and images which helped wean me off of movies. Netflix and Redbox have been getting business from me this year. Time to hit that unread library which is…extensive.

Write a Book

If I can’t get myself to read, how can I get myself to write? The issue is confidence. When I think I have a good idea, somehow my mind goes into panic mode and recoils. The negative self-talk starts into a crescendo, “You are not interesting enough,” “Who would care about what you have to say,” “You don’t have any good ideas anyway.” The voices go on and on.

This blog may be my comic book for writing. If I get some feedback and start a conversation, maybe there is an idea that will work.

My goal with writing anything is to find something helpful to someone else. I also over-think. I don’t want to impose what I think is helpful on others. What if I am writing for a selfish purpose? Is this all about me? Is that ok if it is?

See what I mean? Over-thinking. Paralysis by analysis. I can rationalize myself into thinking a bear trap is fluffy and soft.

I have about 6 starts to different ideas, but I just don’t think any of them are good. That, my friends, is called a writer’s block!

Help a Struggling Student Achieve

School was rough for me for at least grade K – 7. My family situation was less than ideal, and I had what I call emotional constipation. With trauma packed into my brain, there was no room for anything else. Social skills never came easy. Meeting new people was, and still is, not a natural skill of mine. I had the potential, but it was all so difficult.

I eventually got help and made it. In fact, I more than made it. I was on the honor roll for 4 grading periods my junior year of high school, graduated with a 3.0 from undergrad, a 3.5 from my M.Div, a 3.7 from my Th.M. where I won a fellowship and a scholarship, and a 4.0 from my Ph.D. I went from special ed student to doctorate. Pretty solid.

But I needed help to get all the way there. Family stepped in big time. That is where I am fortunate. I have a very supportive and loving family. There are kids who are out there, alone, and with no presence to protect them. I know what that feels like. Most just need one champion. I know I could be a champion for some kid who has no hope today. My kids will have me and their mom who will be there to push, hold accountable, and love them. Some minds with a ton of potential just don’t have that support.

I started the Big Brother’s and Sister’s program this year. I did not have enough time or energy for it. Maybe some other time.

So I start and then stop projects I really enjoy. I have a tendency to sabotage myself that way.

This blog, taking up cycling, and reading comic books have been my baby steps.

What are your near-accomplishments that you might be struggling to complete?

Long Weekend Blahs

Today I woke up with the blahs.

Ok, it might be more significant that having the “blahs.” It was more weighty. Some morning I wake up with a certain gravity that pulls me down. I am heavy metal and the bed is my electro-magnet.

It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining, there was not a cloud in the sky, and the air was fresh with potential. I finally had enough escape velocity to get in the shower and get ready to go. I walked the dog, ate a banana, and was off to the office on my bike. This was on 7 hours of sleep. I even got paid!

I have a three-day weekend, fun stuff with the boys planned, and there is nothing that seems wrong.

I did everything correctly to feel good. But I did not feel right with the world then, and I have not since. I am productive at work today, but even that may not help the shadow over my head.

Sometimes I just wake up that way and stay that way until the next morning. I just have to move through the day as if nothing is wrong.

Maybe I should have known I would wake up in a funk when this song was the most awesome thing I heard yesterday.

Naw… That’s not it at all. That song just rocks!

Buy a F**cking Bike Lock

If you are in a college town or near one, you may have noticed many cyclers round and about.

That goes for most urban areas, and especially in European towns. With more bikes there is naturally more theft.

Apparently it leads to more stupidity. Take this story of a guy who stole a bike and put it on Craig’s List. The original owner then stole the thing back after responding to the perp’s ad. They arranged the time and place for the sale.

When she arrived at the meeting, she wasn’t certain exactly what she would do. She asked if she could take the bike for a spin and the seller had just one request. “Don’t ride away,” he said.

Of course, she rode away with her bike. The seller got suspicious. Then he ran off!

Dumbass.

This happened to me about the same time last year. My bike was cheap, very heavy, and the exact opposite of what I feel comfortable riding. If it’s not a road bike, I like a hybrid with as thin of rims as I can get and a smaller gear cassette in the back – I like to go fast. This sucker was just a hog mountain bike kind of mutt that was a bear up climbs. So I did not ride it very much.

One day it was gone! Poof. My reaction was simple: “Well, I hope the kid gets more use out of it than me.”

One day the thing magically reappeared. Was I getting rewarded by Jesus because I prayed for it? No Mr. Dollar, I did was not. My bike had a little note on it. Unlike the woman in Vancouver who had to steal her bike back, my thief returned mine – with a little tune-up, even.

The moral: Don’t judge a thief by their theft. And buy a fucking bike lock!

Stolen Bike Note

 

H/T to Kristi Colleen for the link via Twitter