Keeping Your Eyes on the Still Point

 

Giant Wheel, WindSeeker and Troika at Cedar Point

Cedar Point: Giant Wheel, WindSeeker, and Troika by Andrew Borgen, Flickr Creative Commons

It was an August day to rival the best of memories from my midwestern childhood: high clouds floating through an azure sky, bright sun, and a light breeze off Lake Erie that made standing outdoors in long lines of people at an amusement park a pleasant, rather than miserable, experience. That morning, Tad, a friend so important to me that I think of him not as a friend but as my chosen family, and I had driven four hours from his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. We had just boarded the WindSeeker, a giant swing mere steps from a sandy beach, and our first ride of the day. We were seated in a bright red, two-person chair suspended from a floor-less carousel ringed with identical seats. The ride started out slowly, lifting us off the ground and smoothly moving us straight up, our legs dangling in the air. Then as we reached our final height, a mere 301 feet above the ground, the carousel began to spin. We were arcing through the air in a wide, counter-clockwise circle that alternately swung us in the direction of the rest of the park and the shimmering water of one of the world’s largest lakes. I began to get dizzy. A memory of a particularly scary event years earlier involving the Mad Tea Party ride at Disney World with my four-year-old nephew who continuously commanded that I spin our tea cup faster flashed through my mind. I grabbed Tad’s hand where it rested on the restraining bar and demanded, “Where do I put my eyes?”

I survived that ride two years ago with no major vertigo, and Tad and I rode happily until the park closed at midnight.

A few weeks ago, I found myself experiencing a different kind of panic, a different kind of vertigo. As I was driving in my car thinking of who might be able to help me get my bearings, I heard myself implore the version of Tad that lives in my head for an answer to that exact same question: Where do I put my eyes?

Living in this world has been even more difficult than usual lately. I hardly need to enumerate the reasons: a renewed war in the Middle East; humanitarian crises in Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic, and Sudan; Ebola outbreaks in Africa; tensions between Ukraine and Russia; beheadings of journalists; and here in the U.S., a Congress that has done less than any other Congress in history; a record number of children risking their lives to arrive at our borders in hopes of seeking refuge from the violence in their own countries that is fueled, at least in part, by American demand for illegal drugs; and, clashes between the police and public after the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In my own state of North Carolina, the legislature lifted the moratorium on fracking, and, after promising that we would have the most stringent air and water safety standards in the country, our Mining and Energy Commission now offers us some of the weakest. This, when scientists are finding disparate evidence that climate change is happening at a pace much faster than anticipated – suggesting we need to implement alternatives to fossil fuels quickly and leave fossil fuels in the ground – and the U.S. is dealing with record droughts and an unending season of fires on the West Coast.

On top of all of that, Robin Williams, a man who lived to make the rest of us laugh hysterically and feel deeply, took his own life.

It was as if someone had written a new ending to The Dead Poets’ Society, one in which the world-wise teacher – Oh Captain, My Captain! – comes to see, too, the futility of striving to live a creative, self-directed, happy life in this world and follows his student’s example in committing suicide. What am I supposed to do with that?

Suicides scare most people, I’m sure. But, as someone who has lived with depression on-and-off at least since my teen years, I think it scares those of us who may have contemplated suicide in the past in a special way. Even if you’re currently feeling fine, some little voice way back in the depths says, “see, even brilliant, talented, well-loved people eventually come to see suicide as  the best – the only – solution….” You can almost hear the devilish laugh as some dark shape clicks a person-counter and celebrates another win for its “side.” And some tiny, or maybe not so tiny?, part of you begins to wonder about your own future and maybe even about whether you made the right decision in the past.

I last sought therapy for depression two years ago, having had my first session just days before the trip to Cedar Point. In fact, I was so desperate, in the beginning I saw two therapists in the hopes that at least one of them would be able to help me. Not only did I want to break free from the current tangle of overwhelm and sadness that ensnared me, but I wanted to learn the skills I needed to reduce the likelihood of the symptoms returning in the future. I was incredibly fortunate to have health insurance that gave me access to wonderful mental health professionals and that reduced the cost of treatment, as well as friends and family who understand the importance of taking depression seriously. While I got some relief almost immediately and was no longer depressed within a matter of weeks, I continued my sessions until June of this year, when my therapist left private practice, in an effort to bolster my “depression immunity” by building a healthy thought and habit foundation.

During that time, I also discovered the through-line that enables me to communicate how all of my myriad interests – especially writing, creativity, and nature – fit together. It is encapsulated in this tagline: Reconnecting People to the Planet Through Wonder. So, given that, how does a person who wants to be part of the solution, who wants to help find creative ways forward through some of the most challenging situations our species has ever encountered, and who wants to live in and inspire wonder stay positive in the face of all that is happening in the world? Surely, Mr. Williams asked himself a similar question, probably on many occasions: how does a person whose purpose in life is to make others laugh continue to find humor in the face of all of this turmoil? It would appear he couldn’t find an answer to that question the last time he asked. Contemplating all of this that day in my car, I could feel the darkness creep in around the edges. Vertigo. The beginnings of panic.

If I still had a therapist, I would have scheduled an emergency meeting. Instead, I began to run through the list of friends I could call. Immediately, I landed on Tad. Poor Tad, who has already been on the receiving end of too many sad, teary, or panicky conversations. And as soon as I heard myself ask, “where do I put my eyes?” I realized he had already given me an answer, albeit a somewhat oblique one.

He wrote it in this song, “Still Point,” which he debuted as part of his cantata Lightfall.

And he wrote it to me in an email:

“Remember your still point, dearest.  There is an essential good in you that does not depend on the state of your work, your body, or your relationships.  Enumerate those states if you must to establish a sense of balance in your temporal world, but that is not where your true existence or your true worth is based, and it is not from whence your true happiness derives.”

Right. Deep breath.

My instinct has always been to first look outside myself for reassurance that I’m okay, all the while ignoring the internal messages that my higher self might be sending me. And here was my “virtual Tad,” nudging me back to myself–and not myself. For while I am one with all who are suffering in the world and one with all who are causing the suffering, I am also something separate. I do carry a still place somewhere inside me that is not rocked by all the stories I tell myself or all of the stories being lived around me. I am of this time and of this place, and yet I am also something that is eternal and at home everywhere in the Universe. When I stop to breathe, to come back to my body, to fill myself up with love and light, I can almost see that being. Almost.

The craziness and injustice and cruelty and division in the world show no signs that they are going to disappear any time soon. I am choosing to be resilient. I am choosing to stay. I am choosing to bear witness. And I am choosing to continue to do all I can to immunize myself against the depression that whispers in dark corners.

As human beings who can easily be pulled into the swirl of chaos, we need to remember that, when we are searching for goodness and hope in the world and wondering where to look for encouragement, we need to find that still point–however we each define that and wherever we carry it–and remember that we are alive and that each of us, as with all life, is a miracle.

 

Advertisements

Shiny, Happy Person

jar of glassOn Monday, I posted about the first permaculture principle, Observe & Interact, and asked if you’d like to choose an area of your life to observe over the coming week. How’s that going? Are you having difficulty refraining from labeling what you observe as good or bad? Do you want to explain immediately why the thing you have observed happens? Do you have the urge to jump forward to a “solution” rather than just staying with the process of observation?

I consider myself to be a fairly self-aware person, but I know that if I am not clear with myself that I am only observing, I will be judging myself left and right and planning little changes (or, more likely, dramatic ones) at every opportunity.

Which is why it is helpful for me to have someone partnering with me in my observations, as well as in the behavioral experiments that will follow. At various times in my life, these partners have consisted of friends or my husband, but since August, my observation partner has been my therapist. And because depression was the main reason I had sought help, it only made sense that my first project be that of observing my depression – in the hopes of eventually diminishing it. It is true that once you start observing a phenomenon, the phenomenon shifts. The mere act of finding a therapist, taking an hour each week to focus on my well being, and being able to talk to someone about why I felt so sad and overwhelmed helped the depression begin to lift.

I knew from experience (observation!) that focusing on the behaviors I wanted to change was not the most effective way for me to make change. A strategy that seemed more useful to me would be to focus on filling my life up with the things that make me happy rather than trying to rid my life of the things that made me unhappy. The hope was that the happy things would slowly squeeze out the unhappy, depressing things and the balance would tip.

So then began the process of observing which things, people, activities, and ideas in my life already brought me some happiness. It turned out that despite my longstanding night-owl nature, getting a full night’s sleep actually made my life easier and happier. It also turned out that eating a vegan diet with recipes from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine 21-Day Vegan Challenge brought me both pleasure and satisfaction. The recipes were quick and easy and always, to my surprise, really flavorful. I already knew that yoga made me happy, so I began doing it three nights a week with my husband in our living room and found the practice even more rewarding. It was one more thing I could share with my husband and the gentle moves and deep breathing helped me release stress at the end of my work day. Similarly, I knew that exercise, writing, spending time with my family, being outdoors, and cuddling with my dog all made me happy.

So next came the process of implementing these things in my life in small doses to determine how much of each thing is enough to make me happy, how much lands me in overwhelm, and what is the right balance of all of these things so that I feel I’m hitting all the right notes and recharging my energy instead of draining it.

This is where I still am and probably will be for many months. Things are definitely moving in the right direction, but there is still much experimentation and skills-building to be done.

Of course, the easy, and maybe even advisable, strategy would have been to begin taking an antidepressant immediately. I went so far as to obtain a prescription from my doctor, but I couldn’t bring myself to begin this course of treatment. Research has shown that 30 minutes of exercise is as effective at reducing depression as medication, and since I needed the exercise anyway, it made the most sense to me to try to figure out a mechanism that would help me get to the gym on a regular basis. So, I hired a personal trainer and have worked with her for the past six weeks. She has helped me get stronger and stay focused on improving my physical health. There have definitely been days when I would have stayed in bed if I didn’t have her waiting to meet me at 6:30 a.m. One day I hope to have such a strong exercise habit that her assistance is no longer needed, but for now, I’m still building the systems I need to help me self-regulate and I am happy to pay her for her service.

Even though I have moved on to the “interact” portion of this permaculture principle, it only works if I also continue to observe my feelings and thoughts throughout the process. It’s fun to think of my life as a series of little experiments and it reduces my anxiety level because if something doesn’t cause the desired effect, it is not the end of the world; I can just try something else.

Shiny, Happy PersonOne last tip I would like to offer, if you are observing something in your own life and want to experiment with behavior change, is to make sure that even the ways in which you are tracking your observations and data make you happy. I found that creating a check list of every activity and behavior I wanted to participate in caused me anxiety and focused my thoughts on all the things that I didn’t accomplish on any given day. Counting calories and fat and carbs was too complicated to keep up with and made me feel deprived. So instead I found a tall, pretty juice bottle and a bunch of glass beads in various colors that I had bought for an art project that I never started, and began using them to track the behaviors that made me happy. For example, if I ate a vegan meal, I dropped a blue bead in the jar. If I went to the gym, I dropped in a green one. The small pink beads were for writing sessions and the large clear ones were for tackling an activity that scared me. This is fairly simple to keep up with (I played around with much more elaborate schemes, like trying to use the beads to make an image but knew, again from experience, that they would end in failure) and it’s shiny and colorful and makes me happy when I see it. Plus, dropping one of the glass beads into the jar makes a satisfying “plink” that is reminiscent of how good it felt to put a quarter in my piggy bank when I was a child.

I hope your observation experiment is going well, and I would love to hear about your process! Please leave me a note below, and I’ll be back on Monday – provided I survive tomorrow’s Camp NaNoWriMo novel-writing marathon! (Wish me luck!)