Category Archives: personal growth

Finally! A non-inertial frame of reference

photo_7658_20081010Hello! You may not remember me. It’s been almost a year since my last post on 31 December 2014. For the past few years, I’ve been foundering and floundering, stuck in an inertial frame of reference—the bad, a-body-at-rest-tends-to-stay-at-rest kind. But I’m starting to realize some energy for writing (not sure exactly where it’s coming from but I’m not going to complain) and my intention is to get back to this blog with renewed interest and determination.

Whence stems my foundering and floundering?

That’s the question I’ve been pondering of late. My inclination has been to equate my f[l]oundering with depression and plop all the blame there. This (seemingly) allows me to vindicate myself of all responsibility and I can sit back, maintaining my (non-moving) inertial frame of reference, and wait for the drugs to kick in, or for the universe to step in, or for some other outside agency to strap some booster rockets to my ass and magically restore my former energy. All in all, a very easy, safe, plausibly deniable state of being.

I have also considered the effects long-term depression has on the brain, brain structure, the limbic system, and the body as a whole. Depression, as does chronic physical pain, rewires the brain and effectively changes who I am. How do I fight this automatic brain reorganization? Surely, I cannot be held responsible for my fate! Again, easy, safe, and plausibly deniable.

But then the thought crosses several synapses in my brain that, perhaps, just maybe, I’m nothing more than a lazy sack of possum turds. Perhaps it really is in my power to overcome my inertia and fire my own booster rockets, accelerating myself and throwing myself into the non-simplicity of a non-inertial frame of reference. I just need some self-motivtion and self-discipline, along with several other obscene words I shan’t write aloud and which trigger all manner of complexes in my psyche.

But this is definitely a positive feeling—which is quite a foreign feeling to me, of late. A few quanta of energy, a small fraction of the total energy currently locked away in the unconscious, are oozing out from under the basement door and making themselves available to me, initiating the restlessness I’m feeling. I’m still not writing every day and, when I do write, it’s for a short period of time but my excitement stems from the fact that I’m writing something!

As (not) seen on TV

Beating the Cloth DrumI recently subscribed to “Zen Quotes” from Shambhala.com. I’m leery of “quote services” because most of the time what I receive is banal and overly sanguine. However, I am very pleased with the quotes I have received so far. I was hoping that Shambhala would break out of the mold; they did.

Here is the one from last week:

There is no getting around it: for achieving the initial entrance into satori [the experience of awakening], nothing can excel a direct and expeditious assault fired by intense, vigorous, urgent desire. People who engage in practice a little bit at a time when the thought occurs to them will not achieve kensho [self-realization] even if they continue doing it for thirty or forty years. As time passes, their efforts physically exhaust them, drain them of the necessary spirit and strength they need to subdue the illusory, passion-ridden thoughts that crowd into their minds. In the end, they are reduced to fingering rosaries and tearfully reciting Nembutsu, a pastime that brings them no more relief than one of those ready-made toothache medicines sold in the streets.

Life is hard work. We live in a society that wants a pill to fix everything. We want 10-minute Zen. We want to be mindful while at work getting things done so we don’t have to take time out to really meditate. We think that, for some reason, enlightenment should be easier for us because we are more … “something”–not sure what that “something” is. Even religion is less demanding. I went to church twice on Sundays and Wednesday night. Without fail. Every week. How many do that today?

Now, before you start lambasting me (FWIW, I prefer a mild sauce), I’m not suggesting that we must return to that “old time religion.” I realize that more is not always better. But is it reasonable –or even sane–to think that everything is easier now just because we can get email on our phones, travel to anywhere in the world in a matter of hours, and order pizza while playing video games?

The Buddha, the apostle Paul, Mohammed, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, the Zen masters, Rumi, and many others did not get where they got with 10-minute Zen and church once a quarter and 60 hour work weeks and month long vacations and summers in the Hamptons. No. They worked their asses off meditating and praying and giving up things and studying. But we’re led to believe today that there is a short cut.

Mindfulness at work is not enough. Reading Zen quotes once a week is not enough. Saying “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual” without a daily practice that takes more than 10 minutes IS NOT ENOUGH.

I’m yelling at myself as much as you, the reader. I want to be a writer but I don’t write for hours every day. I want to be an artist but I don’t paint/draw/sketch for hours every day. I want to be thinner/stronger/leaner but I watch TV instead of being active for hours every day.

Life requires strong desire and strong desire requires effort and effort requires time and time requires sacrifice. Read what Jesus (not Paul) says. Read what the Buddha says. Read The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Read The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich. Read I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj.

There is no magic pill, folks. No “as seen on TV” product that gets you where you want to be in 30 days or your money back. It’s discouraging in today’s fast paced, always going, take a pill and you’re fine world. But there are some things that technology and science and medicine just can’t change. We are human just like we’ve always been and the outside world isn’t as influential on the inside as we’d like to think.

I’ll leave you with the summary from the back cover of my copy of Bonhoeffer’s book:

This is the book by which the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German theologian who was martyred by the Nazis in 1945, became widely known in both Europe and America. In it he examines the serious implications of believing in Christ, the intensity of the struggle between the world and God in man’s deepest self whenever he takes upon himself true discipleship.

“This whole book is a powerful attack on ‘easy Christianity’ and a warning that in a world such as Bonhoeffer could see coming, faith was not easily attained. … Bonhoeffer is a teacher a thinker whose truths were tested in a time of trouble and whose life and death certified to the strength and depth of his desire to follow Christ.” – Samuel H. Miller, Dean, Harvard Divinity School.

Growing Old: My Father and I

Growing Old: My Father and IMy post yesterday reminded me of a short essay I wrote about 5 years ago. It was a real revelation when these thoughts came to me. My view and opinion of my father was drastically and permanently changed.

Growing Old

by Ken Buch

I am beginning to think that the purpose in getting older is exactly the thing that irks me the most—seeing my father reflected back at me as I stare into the mirror or catching myself mimicking some unconscious, nervous thing that my father does or hearing some too-often used cliché of his come tumbling out of my mouth. But the purpose is not to make me lament that I have turned or am turning into my father for nothing could be further from the truth. The purpose is the occasional recollection of my father in these trivial things with the hope that the remembering will extend to the painful things. The hope that when I am impatient with my daughter that I will remember my father’s impatience with me; when I am hurtful through neglect or forgetfulness that I will remember my father’s hurtfulness; when I am selfish or irrational or obstinate or mean that I will remember my father’s selfishness, irrationality, obstinateness, and meanness not with the aim of self pity or condemnation but rather to comprehend just how fallible—how human—we both are despite our immense differences. I have “reasons” for acting as I do and while, in hindsight, they may seem poor indeed, they were, nonetheless, extremely compelling in the moment and may not justify but certainly explain my attitude and actions. And it is the similarity of those irrational reasons which I and my father share—reasons unknown and unknowable to all, even, sometimes, ourselves, but reasons nonetheless which exonerate us, to some extent, from the never ending blame piled on us by our progeny. My father is, just as I am, a mere mortal trying to get through each day with all the associated complications and preconceptions and limiting biases with which he attached himself to his world and is, therefore, no more worthy of resentment than I.

Growing old

CryingDid two things yesterday I haven’t done in a long time.

  1. I listened to Incomudro: Hymn to the Atman by Kansas
  2. I had a good, hard, loud cry.

This song is amazing—one of the best songs ever written. It has a great percussion solo (which, I think, rivals those by Neal Peart although it’s not as long as some of Peart’s) and the lyrics are incredible. This is how I listen to this song:

  1. I sit in a chair facing the speakers
  2. Turn the volume up to +10
  3. Put a piece of masking tape over the “0” and write a “1” on it so the volume goes “up to eleven”
  4. Sit back and feel like I’m in that old Maxell commercial (yes, I’m really old enough to remember it)

Maxell Tapes

This is a powerful song with a powerful message. It describes a feeling of peace and wholeness that I very much lack these days and so it’s easy to let myself cry listening to it. And today was a very good cry. Very cathartic. A screaming, agonizing, visceral cry.

Perhaps the strong effect the song had on me today was due to the other music I listened to. My goal was to do some cleaning and I decided to go against my usual modus operandi and listen to upbeat music. It worked quite well for a while. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies are quite good bands to clean to. (Hmmm, I wonder if my father complex is showing just a bit?) But then I tried some bands that didn’t work so well because they reminded me of days gone by when my wife and I were very happy. (Note to self: I need to learn how to compartmentalize my feelings more effectively.) Then I spotted “Kansas” while flipping through my playlists and went for it.

Part of the “attraction” was the whole motif of “growing old.” Earlier today, I got upset at an inanimate object and kicked it wearing flip-flops so my right big toe hurts like the dickens and I now have a severe limp. My right arm aches with tendonitis. My eyes are getting worse. And so on. Combined with the cumulative effects of chronic stress, including muscle weakness and depression, I’m feeling quite ancient these days. I sometimes lament my aging body. My daughter (just turned 7) and I joke about it a lot—”My hip! My hip!” we whine as we limp around. (Although it is very nice to let the young’ins do the heavy lifting.)

But this is all part of growing old. And growing old is not just something to mourn. It’s also a celebration! For one, I’m getting closer to the end of my pain and suffering. For another, I’m really very glad that I don’t act quite as stupid as I did when I was younger.

It seems that as I age, the polar opposites become clearer and more pronounced. Aging gracefully is definitely a crash course in learning equanimity (or, at least, having equanimity shoved down your throat). Unless, of course, you want to fight it tooth and nail.

Anyway, it was really good to “let it all out” as they say. I will probably be doing that again, soon. In the meantime, I’m going to work on “holding the tension of the opposites” and building my equanimity.

Wish me luck!

 

Effects of meditation

effects of meditationMeditation comes in a lot of different flavors: guided, transcendental, zen, vipassana, insight, just to name a few. I’ve practiced off and on for about 7 years and I’ve tried several different methods. I’ve meditated alone and with others. I’ve focused on my breath, worked to control my breath, recited things like The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, and focused on solving visual math problems like how to construct polygons with just a compass and straightedge (I actually did figure it out, in my head, for a hexagon). But what does mediation do for you? What are the physical, psychological, and physiological effects of meditation?

The reason I recited the sutras of Patañjali is because these aphorisms are an ancient answer to our question — what does mediation do? According to the sutras, meditation:

  • allows us to attain habitual inward-mindedness and overcome sickness, languor, doubt, heedlessness, sloth, dissipation, false vision, pain, and depression
  • gives us a state of utmost lucidity and clarity of the inner-being
  • results in our acquisition of great vitality, gladness, unexcelled joy, perfection of the body, contact with the deity, the relaxation of tension, and the fitness of the mind for concentration

In Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom Rick Hanson describes what meditation does in terms of brain structure and neuroscience. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the gateway into all the other major systems of your body — endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, gastrointestinal, and nervous. Mental activity can directly influence the ANS to a greater degree than any other system. And the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is a part of the ANS. Stimulating the PNS calms, soothes, and heals your body, brain, and mind. From a physiological and psychological point of view, meditation has the following affects on the body:

  • increases gray matter in the brain and improves attention, compassion, and empathy
  • lifts mood to offset depression
  • strengthens the immune system
  • helps physical ailments including cardiovascular disease, asthma, type II diabetes, PMS, and chronic pain
  • helps psychological conditions including insomnia, anxiety, phobias, and eating disorders

Of course, these benefits are not quickly realized. Meditation is by no means a “quick fix.” The sutras, themselves, state that the meditation practice must be “cultivated properly and for a long time uninterruptedly.” But you must agree that the benefits are worthy of our time and effort. Like eating right and exercising, I don’t know why I can’t always find the time to meditate. It’s not always easy to calm my mind but when I can, even a little, the feeling is amazing. Perhaps that’s part of the “problem.” I love being in the meditative state so much that I don’t want to come out of it and get back to the external world.

But, like exercise, meditation is one of those things that needs to be done even when nothing seems to be gained by it. It’s the long-term practice that pays. The benefits far outweigh the inconvenience and make up many times over the time spent. Let’s get some time “on the cushion” and reap the rewards, shall we?

Mental therapy

Hell, Coppo di MarcovaidoI think dealing with depression is like physical therapy — a long, agonizing, tortuous journey through Dante’s 9 circles of Hell with no Beatrice in sight. You have to get in there and do the exercises even when you don’t see any improvement. You have to do what is supposed to help even when it doesn’t help. Because, you have to believe that it will help. Somehow. Sometime. Even if it seems to make you worse now.

Exercise is like that for me. It’s supposed to get the endorphins pumping and elevate mood. But 30 minutes on the cross-trainer and I’m ready for a 2-hour nap. An afternoon stroll with my daughter and I’m toast.

Dieting, too. I tried the Paleo diet. My brother-in-law said it cured all his aches and pains, lowered his cholesterol, and reduced his blood pressure. My trainer (ex-trainer, that is) said the weight just dropped off without his changing any other aspect of his life. For me, it did nothing except make me miserable and crave mashed potatoes more than usual.

But this is the catch-22 that comes with depression. Depression affects the limbic system which is central to motivation. The basal ganglia, which is involved with rewards and stimulation seeking, is part of the limbic system. I need motivation to get my ass off the couch and do something but my mental state is one of “it’s not going to make a difference so wtf!”

It’s difficult for me to be motivated by the future outcome of current actions. This means that all kinds of things slip through the cracks and don’t get done. The truly scary thing is the thought that this affect is not temporary. I can’t simply wait until the meds kick in and I’ll be back to “normal.” This is the current state of my brain. This is ME!

That’s why mental therapy is necessary. Brain retraining is required. It’s not an easy fix by any stretch of the imagination. But where do I find the internal fortitude and resolution to tackle this? How do I get started?

Personal development and complexes

I’m currently reading Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson. This is a wonderful book with practical information but also scientific details about how the brain works. I’m finding a lot of blog-worthy material that applies to depression. But for now, I want to draw a link between Hanson’s ideas and analytical psychology — the result of the ground breaking work of Carl Jung, the turn-of-the-century Swiss psychologist.

Hanson describes physical and mental discomforts as the “first darts” of existence. These are painful yet inevitable and arise simply because we are human with human emotions and human attachments. But where most of our suffering comes from are our reactions, the “second darts” we, ourselves, throw at ourselves. Second darts often trigger a chain reaction. We react to something and then react to our reaction! For example, we get angry and then feel guilty for getting angry. Or we react to a loved one who then reacts to our reaction and then we re-react and so on.

Jung would have called these second darts “complexes.” A complex is an emotionally charged group of ideas or images. A complex tends to form its own little personality. It has a physiological effect — it can upset the stomach, breathing, heart, &c. Whenever we “over react” we have, most likely, been hit by a “second dart” and “caught in a complex.”

Hanson describes four stages of personal development and growth through which we go as we work to tame our reactions to things and to throw our second darts less often and with less force.

Stage one — you’re caught in a second-dart reaction and don’t even realize it: your partner forgets to bring milk home and you complain angrily without seeing that your reaction is over the top.

Stage two — you realize you’ve been hijacked by greed or hatred (in the broadest sense), but cannot help yourself: internally you’re squirming, but you can’t stop grumbling bitterly about the milk.

Stage three — some aspect of the reaction arises, but you don’t act it out: you feel irritated but remind yourself that your partner does a lot for you already and getting cranky will just make things worse.

Stage four — the reaction doesn’t even come up, and sometimes you forget you ever had the issue: you understand that there’s no milk, and you calmly figure out what to do now with your partner.

I’m not sure I agree that stage four is actually attainable but the first three are spot on. Our complexes never go away completely. Our goal is to make them less “toxic.” In fact, Jung maintained that they shouldn’t go away because they are the drivers of all energy in our psyche.

One aspect of my father complex is “father is always right and is never questioned.” The most salient example for me is one day in junior high school I asked my dad to buy me some craft sticks (aka popsicle sticks) for a project. When he came home from work he told me the sticks were on the dining room table. I looked on the table and all I saw was a package of wooden clothes pins. I picked them up, walked into the kitchen where he was sitting, and thanked him profusely. He laughed and told me to look again. Sure enough, the craft sticks were there. Had he really bought me clothes pins, he would have been wrong — plain and simple. But I couldn’t bring myself to say that to him. Father knows best. Father is always right. Not because he is actually infallible but because he is beyond reproach.

Fast forward a few decades and I’ve become a student of Carl Jung. I look up to Jung as a father, an authority, someone I learn from. Because he is a father figure for me, criticism of him triggers my father complex. If someone says Jung is wrong, or mistaken, or should have done such and such, my father complex is triggered and I blindly, emphatically, and passionately defend him. Jung is beyond reproach, after all! I’m stuck in stage one.  I over react with neither knowledge nor understanding of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

As I grew and developed, learned what to look our for, and began to understand my father complex I began to catch my over reactions. I clearly remember one day during a reading group. Two women were commenting on Jung’s bias against women and expressing their unmet expectation that he should have been more progressive. I was instantly caught in stage one and began defending him as a “product of his times” and pointing out all his other very progressive ideas and going on about his not being a god but a man. I was quite animated. Suddenly, I switched into stage two. It was as if part of me was able to sit back and watch the other part of me over react. I couldn’t do anything about it at first but I was able to watch myself in the tirade and chuckle about how foolish I was being. “What an ass you are, Ken!” Slowly, I reigned myself in and quieted down and ceased my rant. Afterward, I apologized to the women and to the group and explained a little about my how my father complex “caught” me.

After that, I moved into stage three. I can quickly sense when my father complex is about to be triggered and I am able to keep my cool and react more appropriately. I still feel the irritation that Hanson describes but I remain in control. Sometimes I maintain silence and let the other person express their opinion without rebuttal. Other times I give a counter opinion but with a calm demeanor.

It feels really good to be in stage three with this particular aspect of my father complex. There are still other aspects that I’ve not quite tamed but I’ll get there. But now I have the advantage of being aware, of being able to monitor myself instead of flying off the handle. And this awareness extends into other areas of my life where my other complexes try to ambush me.

Hanson says that stage two is the hardest and the stage at which we most want to quit. I totally agree. It’s easy to over react without restraint. It’s easy to say, after the fact, “I don’t know what came over me” and go about my day without giving it another thought. It’s difficult to see myself as an ass but that’s what it takes. Stage two is extremely difficult, but, believe me, stage three feels really good. You’ll be happy and quite proud of yourself when you get there.