What deals have you negotiated within yourself? What if it’s time to honour them? Leaning out over the abyss, I strain to find form beneath the morning mist. There’s a chill in this mountaintop air; my teacup is chattering in its saucer. Continue reading
If the world gave you exactly what you’ve always wanted, a chance, would you have the balls to follow through? Last Wednesday, after seven magical years rolling paper (don’t ask) in Calgary’s oil & gas downtown mecca, I was ‘temporarily’ laid off. Stress, panic, pain… the energy in this city is darkening. Continue reading
Tragedy, like blame and Brunelleschi, is so often a matter of perspective. Ever wonder why it’s so hard to be rational about stuck lids, traffic jams, and computer crashes? These paradigm dependent annoyances are essentially arbitrary; it’s the timeless universals triggered deep in our limbic brains that cause all the huffing and puffing. So how can we tame our reptilian responses and learn to follow Miranda Kerr’s (who better than a supermodel to guide us plebs) most recent life advice and stop sweating the small stuff?
Let’s take a classic example – wish it was hypothetical. Two days ago I turned on my office computer and discovered that an entire chapter of my work-in-progress novel had vanished into thin… into… if I knew where, even metaphorically, I’d be ahead of the game. Instantly, I felt my whole body reacting: sweaty palms, nausea, teeth gnashing rage… the works. My prefrontal cortex couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I knew my only hope of regaining perspective on this paradigm pitfall was to engage with my system as a whole.
Exercise in Engagement: How to stop sweating the small stuff… once you’ve already started
1) (Optional) Begin to loosen paradigm associations/restrictions by performing a quick sense scroll mindfulness meditation – preferably, but not necessarily, in paradigm neutral territory (aka nature).
2) Identify the universal human theme that has been triggered. Since I was already blasting my way through the 5 stages, it was easy to identify ‘loss’ as my emotional theme.
3) Since our brains already process our lives through story, it’s only logical to make use of storytelling as a practical psychological tool. Determine the historical/geographical/situational paradigm that best fits your body/brain’s current system state reaction. My reptilian brain tends to be a bit of drama queen, so my go-to paradigm for almost any piss-off is medieval London during the plague years – not exactly the swingin’ sixties. Story a situation that truly reflects your emotional state, thereby acknowledging your initial reaction with respect and permission. What are the sights, sounds, smells? Characters? Dialogues? Really push it.
4) Take your universal theme into an entirely different paradigm and a story that would warrant an emotional reaction on the opposite end of the spectrum. Play around. Journey your piss-off through time and space to find multiple comparables. Someone stepping on a clay pot I just made in a Roman pottery kiln. Losing my latest obsidian spear point… and finding it again. Change the ending. This is your story. The purpose is to flood your brain with conflicting sets of information to clear the stage for conscious re-framing of your initial circumstance.
5) Return to your own paradigm and decide how big of a deal this really is. I do mean decide. By respecting your initial reaction, and giving it the neural space to temper through alternative storytelling, your thinking will be directed towards a more neutral, rational objectiveness. Any novel necessitates rewrites, so this is just an inevitable part of the process – plus, I’ve still got the handwritten draft. Also, because you’ve loosened your associations, certain paradigm privileges will start to peek through. My office’s air conditioning for one!
This entire process can be performed in under 5 minutes and can save, not just your composure, but your whole day, not to mention more than a few marriages. By some sweet miracle of storytelling come to life, the next morning I found a hidden typed hard copy of my lost chapter in a place I swear I’d already double-checked. But something tells me I’ll be storying new troubles back to the ol’ Thames before the week is out. Must be a human or something… sigh.
I dressed up to flash the window washer this morning. Just another day at the office. Life is short – don’t make it short on fun! Just go for it! Play with your food, your clothes, and, in between snooze alarms… your wonderful self!
“Sure,” you say, “but I have to do such n’ such, then yada yada, then…” Bet you’ve got a mile long list of efficiencies that ‘need’ to taken care of before you can drift off into your indulgences and escape to your Secret Garden. Bullshit!
Once you accept the simple truth that your brain will only let you do what you want to do and that there is no ‘have to’, you win back your freedom to play – anytime, anywhere. Our brains trick us into compartmentalization and hypervigilance. And, by natural extension, our culture promotes this fallacy. Our extended systems (community, culture) tend to reflect and exaggerate our internal functioning. Example: primal fear of starving has linked itself, full force, to the fear of not answering your boss’s email fast enough – connected in your brain to getting fired and not being able to afford food. But what might feel logical, even temptingly intuitive, can trap you in unrealistically stressful beliefs and encourage extreme compensations like addiction, cheating, and obesity.
Western culture’s ever widening gap between perceived efficiencies and indulgences has become crippling to our mental, physical, and spiritual health. But we don’t have to be slaves to outwardly imposed glamours. Let’s tie our wants and needs closer together! (in this case with a darling little bow) Trust your senses, not your preconceptions. Take your system boundary back down to the surface of your skin. What does commuting ‘feel’ like? Be honest. Probably just like sitting on the couch watching your fave program. Relax into it, why the hell not? We have choice. Don’t let so many millennia of evolution go to waste! We each have a prefrontal cortex that’s just begging to be allowed to reprogram our Viable Worlds.
Turn off CNN’s perma-coverage of flight 370 for a second. We are blessed to live in a glorious age of concealer and condoms, grocery stores and glasses. Big spoiler alert… You’re gonna die. So what? Really, so what. Depending on where you place your system boundary, this small detail can be of either infinite importance or infinite unimportance. Re-quantize your relationship with time (details in upcoming posts). I know, I know, the concept takes neuroplasticity and self-acceptance to their very limits, but if I can learn to do it anyone can! Slowly, after concentrated practice in attention control, every breath you take (in… out…) becomes a lifetime lived in full. Why not make each the most honest, complete life you possibly can?
Take inspiration from Japanese ryokans: “As my food is being prepared for me, I’m being prepared for my food.” – Anthony Bourdain. Use this sort of priming and splash yourself with cold water before stepping into the best shower of your life. Story your dishes… why not? Turn your salads into personalized sensory symphonies by following the example of Naples pizza makers: “Almost a poetry to it.” – Heston Blumenthal (because apparently I get all my wisdom from TV chefs lol). Shitty morning? Accept your emotion with unrelenting compassion and work it through your body with a snooze alarm interpretive dance that embraces the unabashed horror and agony of the moment. Just go for it!
Exercise in Engagement: Roll up a sleeve. Bury your nose in the warm, soft – possibly furry – inside of your elbow. Take a long deep breath of your scent. This is a new intimacy. This small area of skin is all your own. Give it a little lick. Its smell, taste, and texture are the physical manifestation of every decision you, your parents, your parents’ parents ever made. This is time. This is life. This is you. Love this moment and be transformed into your own, delightfully portable, indulgence.
Are two heads better than one? How about three? Or five hundred? Almost everything we touch, taste, see, hear, and even smell, is a product of multiple minds meeting in the middle. We live in a globalized culture of collaboration… a world of compromise. At all stages, from concept to marketplace, any new idea must survive countless negotiations and push backs. Logic and personality are our best weapons when battling for an innovation, but both are subjective and eat up substantial time and energy – along with team building, group brainstorming, meetings… meetings… AAAAAAAARG!
We can’t escape collaboration. Heck, conception is the ultimate collaboration and none of us would be here without that! But we’ve got to take a break from the office orgies! We’ve lost touch with the private, primitive urge to create independently – just for the hell of it. Social media and globalization have linked value to multiplicity – whether in ‘Likes’ received, dollars earned, or people converted. But stop. Just stop. Stop letting other people design your world.
With such an overwhelming breadth of new products and creative productions coming at us 24/7, we’re becoming desensitized to individual acts of self-expression, especially our own! But how do we resist the seductive fact that collaboration naturally produces idealized forms – Plato would be so pleased! We now need trainers, masseuses, uniform designers… to score a single hockey goal. A piece of clothing is nothing until it’s dressed up by models, makeup artists, photographers, and airbrushers. This progression to idealization is, of course, perfectly natural and predictable from a neurological standpoint. But why be a slave to your brain when it guts the value of your uniquely imperfect humanity?
We’re a competitive species, for resources, mates, and ego actualization. But how do we compete, head to head, with 7 billion people! Go back 30 000 years… one man… a dozen shells… one necklace. His personal tribal contribution was sacred and precious. Every moment he spent on the task reinforced his own value to himself and to his tribe. Does working a shit job to afford a Louis Vuitton purse really provide the same validation? Why do you think one is never enough? Look how fast our purchases become our insatiables. This is what happens when we lose connection with our individual ability to express our humanity as tangible sensory creations. But there’s hope. Let’s collaborate across time, not in time. Take the gift of the tools (farming, technology, etc.) designed by minds who have come before us, and start small…
Exercise in Engagement: Bring the system boundary back down to the surface of your skin, breathe, then stretch it out to the volume of your kitchen – nothing and no one else exists. You must be your own validation in this moment. Forage for ingredients and dare to build the most personal sandwich possible with what you find. Doesn’t have to be perfect, healthy, or follow any Food Network rules. Screw Plato! Explore the experience of this sandwich with each one of your senses, one at a time, then all together in a moment of total engagement. This sandwich is you because you made it without compromise or negotiation and because (not to be too graphic here) it will literally become you in a matter of hours. Now go forth and conquer!
Our brains process reality through a filter of attentions and associations (eg. chair, building, tree, etc.). These filters, developed over time through culture, coding, and experience, can limit our freedom to explore and evolve our internal/external lives. Sense scrolling is a insight mindfulness meditation designed to loosen immediate associations, heighten senses, and give our filters the flexibility to deepen/change the way we experience our world. This insight mindfulness meditation can be performed in under 3 minutes, anywhere you can be still with your eyes closed.
Step 1 – Smell: Close your eyes (for steps 1 – 4) and focus on your breathing. Take 5 deep nose breaths and concentrate on the smell and temperature of the air. Your entire world is limited to that smell. Define it’s layers and overall character.
Step 2 – Taste: Focus only on taste. Explore your mouth with your tongue and define the current balance of salty/sweet/sour/bitter. This taste is your world – hopefully a minty one. (note: this step, combined with step 4, can also be performed during any meal to focus and enhance the experience)
Step 3 – Hearing: Your world is only the surrounding air vibrations. Try to differentiate all distinct areas of sound and pinpoint their locations, moving clockwise from back left to center front to back right. Separate the layers of sound from low frequency to higher pitched vibrations. You’ll be shocked by your acuity!
Step 4 – Touch: Your body becomes your world. Is there any air flowing across your skin? What is it’s temperature? What is your temperature? Pick 2 or 3 parts of your body and focus on them one at a time. What are the internal/external sensations. Are your toes touching the end of your shoe? Are strands of hair blowing across your face? Are you putting more of your weight on one knee?
Step 5 – Sight: Starting with only a dark empty world, open one eye. Concentrate on colour contrasts (yellow leaves against a blue sky), shapes (single leaf), highlight/shadow, and repeating patterns (building windows). Now open the other eye to experience the wonder of full depth of field. Look for motion patterns and perspective distances. Now add your other senses. This is your world – and it’s magical!
Note: Over time, besides giving you greater freedom of perspective and attentions, sense scrolling mindfulness meditation will actively heighten your senses and give you the ability to focus acutely on any of the five in almost any situation. You’ll be able to walk familiar route as a soundscape, smellscape, coulourscape, rather than just a landscape. Trying a new food will become a fully engaging adventure. And sex… well, let’s not even go there~wink.
I once witnessed a car accident while driving with my sister-in-law. At impact, the red minivan two cars ahead of us lifted up and spiraled like a football into the ditch. Mercifully, there were only minor injuries. After attending with water (and chocolate) until the paramedics arrived, we were asked to write witness statements. Upon reading each other’s, my sister-in-law and I were surprised to find that what we’d paid attention to was wildly different. Our attentions can be inherent to our coded personalities, cultural, or based on personal experience. But here’s the secret: retraining your attentions will give you incredible freedom of action.
Now let’s go to the grocery store. If you noted and evaluated every single one of the tens of thousands of products sold at your average grocery store… well, quite simply, your brain would shut down. In reality, we each walk into a markedly different store, depending on our tastes and habits. Like those big green signs on the highway, our attentions allow the rest of the landscape to blur into the background. A few weeks ago, I was standing in the salad dressing aisle with a bottle of Miracle Whip in my hand – not only Easy Squeeze, but on sale too! See that fellow on my shoulder in the illustration above? That’s Mitch – my insatiable human itch. When you give something an identity (Mitch’s origins will be explained in an upcoming post), you give yourself the freedom to open a dialogue. NOTE: This isn’t any sort of talking-to-yourself or actually seeing the little guy weirdness, just a fun philosophical allegory, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Virgil’s guides in Dante’s Inferno (although I don’t suppose either of those two examples could be called particularly ‘fun’).
When you can dialogue with your primal human drives, habits, and interpretations (dare I say subconscious), you can begin to challenge your reflexive attentions, thoughts, and actions. In this case, choice of salad dressing. Don’t let a touch of natural, biological anxiety hold you back from trying something new. Our neurotransmitters are calibrated to keep our patterns stable in this so often unstable world… just push through (practice makes it easier). I’ve always thought about trying to make my own dressing, so told Mitch to shove off, and through the subsequent catecholamine haze, went hunting for apple cider vinegar, canola oil, and a good novelty mustard.
This shift in attentions began to change my experience of the store. New products came into focus, new flavour combinations, textures, and possibilities for combination. I was essentially shopping a different store, not literally, but a new menu for selection had opened up on familiar shelves. In lieu of an allegory brush off, you can also try this…
Practical Exercise For Retraining Attentions: Next time you’re in the grocery store, arbitrarily pick a 2′ by 2′ area of shelving. For every product within that square, imagine being served a sample at a dinner party. How does it taste? Smell? Look? What is it being served with? What are people talking about while eating? Build a story around it. Then pick one of these products (one you’ve never picked before) and have the balls, yes I said it, balls, to put it in your cart. You can stop here, or if you’ve really got kahoonas, build a dish around this product and see how your story plays out when you serve it to your family.
Historically, samplers began as a way to record and collect needlework stitches and patterns for future use and adaptation. When a needlewoman saw a new or intriguing piece of stitching, she would quickly sew a copy onto a piece of cloth. These samplers evolved organically over a lifetime, the patterns spreading outwards with the deceptive randomization of fractals, as the needlewoman’s collection grew in variation, texture, and complexity.
After borders and alphabets were added in the 17th century, along with religious and moral verses, samplers became more deliberate, organized, and methodical. No longer a collection of tactile experiences, samplers became a showcase for skill and were taught to young girls as a “sign of virtue, achievement, and industry”.
Sound familiar? Our 21st century culture celebrates those who channel their energies into ‘profitable communication’. Everything we do has become a demonstration of skill, rather than a collection of knowledge and experience. But humans are not efficient, or perfect. Our stitches are brushstrokes, not pixels. When we allow our hands to record our world, a new honesty surfaces in our observations. The Blank Canvas Sampler is a collection of true life images and people, overheard tidbits and cultural commentary. Let’s bring the sampler, and our lives, back to their root humanity.
Note: This matching winter morning couple made last Friday’s walk to work feel a little less like a walk to work
Last week’s pantless adventure has had a curious effect. I’m seeing the world differently, and I love it! I feel my cognitive paradigm shifting; the world around me is suddenly bursting with possibilities. I recognize this freedom from childhood, but I am very much an adult, and by definition must commit to an internal framework or risk losing whatever I try to build – only by knowing the tides can one place one’s castle with confidence. Sigh…beaches, even metaphorical ones, seem a long way off on this icy January night.
A slip of moon shimmers above the frosted sidewalk. Standing at the bus stop, I rate my little path of footprints. I feel a bit ashamed, they’re duck toed and should be straighter. Ms J would be incensed! And according to an article I read who-knows-where, my steps are too far apart. I wonder if my stride is consistent? I know how to test it. I walk the same stretch while matching up the toes. Sure enough, it’s the same.
The cold air catches in my throat – a pattern is emerging in the frost. The sidewalk becomes an oscilloscope, and I can’t resist filling in the waveform. I don’t care if I look silly. This is fun! My duck toed shame disappears; I am alone with my own individual waveform. It is unique, personal – any judgment is gone. I’ve mapped a key feature of my body system, and seeing it exposed on the sidewalk gives me a private thrill. I don’t want to give up this new freedom of perception, of creation, but am I brave enough to take the next step? Can I really commit to Blank Canvas Living as my internal framework?