Thursday, April 25, 2019

Me, My Self-Consciousness, and I

The other night while my husband and I were out for a walk, holding hands, I experienced a few seconds of not being self-conscious. It wasn't until I was briefly free of this self-consciousness that I realized how constant and pervasive it is. We live in Orem, Utah, where more than 93% of the population belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches that same-sex marriage is a "serious transgression" and that pretty much everything else about our relationship is just plain sinful, and I have a hard time not focusing on this while out with my husband. As each car passes, I wonder whether the people in the car are bothered by our hand-holding, and when we pass other pedestrians I watch their faces for signs of annoyance, anger, disgust, or judgment. We've made a conscious choice not to let our public behavior be determined by rules that would not also apply to straight couples, and I feel pretty strongly that's the right decision for us, but at the same time I do not like making people uncomfortable, because I typically feel their discomfort as strongly as if it were my own.

Self-consciousness is a funny thing. On the one hand, it forces me out of my own head, making me experience life through the imagined perspectives of those around me. It's like my mental camera is floating somewhere out there, looking back at me, not on the inside looking out. Rather than just being me, I'm performing for an audience, with each choice a decision to cater to their preferences or not. Instead of holding my husband's hand when I want to, I'm either not holding his hand because I'm worried about offending someone, or I'm holding his hand in spite of my concerns about that imagined offense.

On the other hand, self-consciousness keeps me locked within my own head because I'm not really responding to the people around me, but rather responding to the versions of those people that exist in my imagination. People around here are polite to an extreme, so any judgments they make of us are silent. Hypothetically, it's possible that not a single person is judging us at all, if I'm to base my interpretation on actual words exchanged. I suspect the reality is somewhere between this hypothetical scenario (no one is judging me) and my imagination (everyone is judging me), but at the end of the day I'm better off reacting to the reality I can observe than reacting to a reality that exists only in my head.

This is Judgy Joe. He lives in my head and judges me. Stop judging me, Judgy Joe!

It's healthy, of course, to be aware of one's place in the world and one's impact on others. But the healthy version is self-awareness, not self-consciousness. Self-awareness puts the camera back in my own head, focused outward on the observable reality around me. Self-awareness recognizes signs of discomfort in those around me and feels compassion, but does not take personal responsibility for discomfort in others caused by their own belief systems and unrealistic expectations. Self-awareness recognizes that to most people, I'm just a stranger passing by, spending no more time in their consciousness than I do in their field of vision. If that's not the case, then it's because of unhealthy thought patterns on their end, and there's nothing I can do about that. I can only fix my own brain.

It would be nice if, having made this realization, I could now declare my self-consciousness defeated, never to plague me again. For better or worse, that's not how brains work. But recognizing an unhealthy thought pattern is a good start. Next time my husband and I are out in public and I notice myself fixating on the imagined discomfort of those around us, I'll remind myself that those thoughts do me no good and try to focus on something else--for instance, how much I enjoy holding my husband's hand. The next time after that, I'll remind myself again. And the next time, and the next time. Eventually, my brain will get the message.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Meditating the Anxiety Away

I don't remember for sure why I started meditating in July or August of last year. I know at one point I read somewhere about people who claim to achieve psychedelic states through meditation, without drugs, and that intrigued me. I also know that I spent much of last year trying to conquer my lifelong struggle with poor sleep, and some of my first forays into meditation were guided meditations meant to help you fall asleep and sleep deeply (I've had moderate success with these). I also know that not long after I started meditating somewhat regularly, my friend MJ started offering free meditation classes that covered fascinating neuroscience topics (one of my obsessions this past year) and introduced me to several different meditation techniques.

One of the things I realized early on, now that I was paying more attention to what my brain was doing, was that I was in a near-constant state of anxiety. My brain was perpetually yapping at me about all the things I could possibly worry about--that thing I'd said wrong yesterday, that thing I might do wrong tomorrow, that horrible thing that almost happened to me this morning but didn't (but what if?!), that hypothetical argument I might have with someone next year, that time I embarrassed myself in second grade. I found myself latching onto these real and imagined fears, then circling around them over and over long past the point that horse was beaten and dead and then beaten some more. This happened to coincide with some health issues that made me realize just how much my constant state of stress was affecting my body. The more I saw how this neverending internal monologue was interfering with my ability to enjoy life, the more I just wanted my brain to shut up.

Luckily for me, getting your brain to shut up is one of the goals of meditation, which by this point I was already doing on a daily basis. More specifically, meditation has been shown, in numerous studies, to be an effective treatment for anxiety. It was nice to recognize that I had a problem and discover almost simultaneously that I was already implementing a potential solution to the problem.

Image result for meditation

I should point out that I've never been diagnosed with anxiety by a mental health professional; this is purely a self-diagnosis. I also know that my anxiety is not as bad as some friends for whom anxiety is crippling--I've never found myself unable to get out of bed, to do the things I needed to do, or otherwise live my life because of anxiety. So I don't pretend to compare my problems to those who have it much worse, or to claim that meditation is the solution for everyone. Nor would I discourage anyone suffering with anxiety from seeking help from a mental health professional. I've seen therapists for various reasons in the past, but never discussed anxiety because until a few months ago I didn't realize that what my brain was doing was unhealthy--it was all I knew. And like I said, it's never prevented me from doing the things.

But I will say that, for me, meditation has been life-transforming. For the first few months I tried out several different types of guided meditation; my favorites were body scans and self-inquiry. I spent a month or two focusing on the teachings and techniques of Gary Weber, a guy who achieved a permanently egoless state after thousands of meditation hours and who teaches that lasting happiness comes with the complete dissolution of thought. After obsessing over that effort to rid myself of thoughts for a while, though, I realized that obsession with overcoming anxiety is kind of counter-productive, so I eased up. More recently, I reacquainted myself with Byron Katie, who emphasizes in her teachings that you can't make yourself stop thinking a thought, no matter how unhappy the thought makes you; instead, you simply question the thought, recognize how it's affecting you, and let your brain do the rest on its own time. For the past month or so I've left the guided meditations behind and have settled into a daily routine of silent meditation accompanied by an audio track of waves crashing on the beach. (The irony here is that when I was a child my mom had to bribe me to get me to the beach, but now apparently it's my happy place.)

It took a few months to really see the benefits of meditation, but I can definitely say I'm seeing them now. I've started waking up an hour early to meditate, and I look forward to it so much that getting out of bed is easy; my morning meditation hour, sitting quietly on the couch with blankets to keep me warm and cozy, is one of my favorite parts of the day. I spend more of my day noticing my surroundings and noticing what my brain is doing. When I find myself having non-productive, anxious thoughts, it's becoming easier and easier for me to gently return my focus to my breathing and forget about the pointless, stressful thought. More than anything, I find myself spending much more of my time in the present--with my mind quiet, the world around me becomes crystal clear, like I'm experiencing reality in 4K Ultra HD compared to the foggy low-res experienced through the filter of anxiety, and this sensation makes the most mundane, everyday moments feel glorious.

The funny thing is I have a pretty great life, and it's been that way for years. I think my brain learned throughout childhood and early adulthood that life is something to worry about rather than enjoy, and now it's just a matter of retraining it. The fact that daily meditation has had such a profound impact in such a short time makes me look forward to what it can do over the course of the coming years. But then I gently remind myself, it's not about what the future will bring; it's about where I'm at now. As for the supposed psychedelic effects? I'm not hallucinating melting rainbows or anything, but I'm experiencing life more fully, and I'll take that over hallucinations any day. (That said, I won't complain if the hallucinations show up later. Because melting rainbows would be amaze-balls.)

Friday, January 4, 2019

Goals, Shmoals

I've never been one for New Year's resolutions, e.g. "I resolve to stop doing X" or "I resolve to do better at Y," because I find resolutions to be too vague, too unrealistic, and too easy to give up on, but I have always been goal-driven, so just about every year since I was a child I've set specific goals for the year. When I was religious, these goals would often be spiritual in nature, e.g. "I will spend 15 minutes a day reading the scriptures this year." For many years I set fitness goals, e.g. "I will go to the gym at least 5 days a week this year," but a couple of years ago I realized that I'd developed enough of a gym habit that this was no longer necessary--I was going to work out regardless of any goals. For the past few years my goals have focused on writing, as I've renewed my dedication to become a published novelist.

Image result for goals

This year my goals were to write for at least 5 hours per week (i.e. 260 hours for the year), complete a rough draft of a new book, and then complete a final draft of the book (presumably after multiple revisions). End result: I completed about 200 hours of writing, I finished the rough draft in June, and I'm now about two-thirds of the way through my first revision. Do you want to know how bad I feel about not fully achieving my goals? I feel zero percent bad. I spent 200 hours doing something that gives me a sense of purpose, I wrote my first new book in years, and although the revision process is going slowly, it's going.

I made a conscious decision this summer to not worry about the 5-hours-per-week goal. I took a break from writing for a month because my obsessive drive to achieve goals was turning something I love into a chore. There would be evenings when I had a couple hours of free time but I was tired from a long day and all I wanted to do was lie down and read comics or watch TV, but I felt this moral obligation to write because I had to achieve the goal. When I didn't summon the willpower to force myself to write, I felt guilty for being lazy. Writing was no longer something I looked forward to, but rather a responsibility that I resented. That's when I realized, guess what? No one in the world but me is depending on me to meet this arbitrarily-determined writing quota. So I told taskmaster me to chill out and shut up. When I returned to writing after my month-long break, it was because I wanted to, not because I believed I had to. Over the second half of the year, there were some weeks when I spent much more than five hours writing, and other weeks when I didn't write at all. Choosing to be okay with that was the best thing I could have done for my mental health.

For the past four months I've been meditating every day--not because I set a goal, but because I decided it was something I wanted to do. Most of the time I search for a guided meditation on YouTube. This past Sunday night, the second-to-last night of 2018, I happened upon a meditation about finding one's ideal self. The meditation asks you to imagine your ideal self--the person you want to become--and then imagine a conversation with that hypothetical being. Except when I was told to imagine that perfect me, I couldn't think of a single way that he would be different from the me I am now. After a lifetime of setting goals in order to make myself into a better person, it shocked me to realize I didn't currently have a better me to aim for. It's not that I don't make mistakes--I do all the time, just like everyone else. It's not that there aren't things I want to learn or ways I can be a better husband, father, neighbor, or citizen--there are, and I'm confident I'll continue learning and growing in those ways. But I don't need to strive to become something other than what I already am. In the words of Kesha, "I know that I'm perfect, even though I'm fucked up." I have no doubt that I'll be a completely different person by the end of 2019--experience has taught me this--but that person will be no more or less perfect than I am now, and more importantly, I don't need to stress about becoming that person through resolutions or goals or strict self-discipline. Life is the best teacher there is, and life will happen regardless of what I try to make happen. 

With that in mind, I'm not setting any goals for 2019. I'll keep writing because I love writing. I'll keep going to the gym because it makes me feel good and because I want to be healthy when I'm a hundred years old. I'll keep meditating because it makes my brain happy. I'll keep reading because I love to learn. And I'll probably discover other ways that I can make my life better and start doing those things because that's just what I do. I'm not saying no one should set goals or even that I will never set another goal. I am saying that over the past thirty-nine years I've managed to turn goals into one more thing to obsess about, one more way to focus on what I should be instead of being happy with who I am. This year I choose to be happy with who I am.