How to start merging your efficiencies with your indulgences

naked dancingI 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!

fast and easy summer salad recipes 3

“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.

Why don't we tie it all together?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?

shower sexTake 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.

Is your ‘Secret Garden’ secretly killing you?

fat woman eatingSo many of us live double lives. I don’t just mean having a young filly or a well hung, obedient boy toy shacked up across town. I’m talking about your Secret Garden. You know, the private place you escape to when the world gets too loud and needy or we reach a Tetris tipping point. We all have our own version of ‘Me Time’, but often what begins as a safe sanctuary slowly de-evolves into a dangerous, even lethal, prison. One day you look up and the walls of your Secret Garden are too high to climb and you’re trapped as a slave to your glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls.

Feeling all high and mighty watching a Youtube obesity documentary while picking at a plate of asparagus on my lunch break, I was suddenly blindsided by an embarrassing parallel. The woman on screen had bustled her kids off to school, tidied up, put in a load of laundry, and then – efficiencies done – took a plastic grocery bag full of chocolate bars out of a hidden cupboard and proceeded to devour the entire gluttonous mess in a highly ritualized performance.

“This is ME-TIME,” she declared to the camera, almost as a threat. Woe-betide the fool who would dare try and rob her of this one true, loyal pleasure!

“Oh shit,” I said to myself, “do I really do the same freakin’ thing?!”

Of course, just like most of us, but my Secret Garden involved getting drunk and stoned watching old online episodes of Antiques Roadshow on a tiny netbook in my kichen while sitting on one of those horribly uncomfortable 1970s plywood stacking chairs. Grim. But how had this happened? I was in love, full of potential, with all joints as yet in working order. How had this sad, rather tragic scene become my be-all-end-all?

Genetics and circumstances dictate our unique set of personal glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls. These behaviours and externals are what we feel make our lives worth living. Some lucky bastards are coded to respond to running and quinoa, while others get off on fries or affairs. Stress, biochemistry, and trauma can make the brain more vulnerable to adopting extreme, often dangerous, glamours (eg: cutting and drugs) because these behaviours provide an immediate and seductively efficient neurotransmitter reaction. Tolerance develops over time and before you know it you’re either 500 pounds or base jumping!

Just like yours, my Secret Garden had been planted with all innocence – just like the one in Burnett’s classic children’s novel (a personal fave!). I made my own clothes and acted out heroic stories in the backyard – happy as a clam! Then life happened and somehow I ended up on that stupid hard-ass chair!

Be honest. What does your Secret Garden grow? Because whatever you think you want, whatever you think your dreams and goals may be… here’s the truth: your unconscious, primative mind is, at this very moment, concentrating all its energy and effort on the simple goal of getting you into that garden and keeping you there.

But we’re not children anymore. Once we acknowledge our current glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls, and accept them with unrelenting compassion, we can begin to pre-train new ones and eventually switch over more permanently. Click here to read about how the relationship between your efficiencies and indulgences can help reveal (and even begin training!) new personal glamours.

The horrifying truth about happiness

smiley face cartoonEver been wrong? I don’t mean “oops” wrong, but completely, horribly, soul scorchingly WRONG? If logic loops and paradoxes are sure signs of a stale paradigm, what happens when our current model for the understanding and pursuit of happiness stumbles headlong into both? Well, dear readers, as you’ll discover below, the answer is anything but pretty…

smiley face When you read any recent scientific article/paper/post about happiness, a common link shines through. Whether describing hedonistic (drugs, alcohol, the ingestion or wearing of whipped cream) or eudonic (volunteering, goal meeting, exercising talents) rewards, there’s always the same sentence squeezed in somewhere: “… causes certain chemicals to be released in the brain.” AHA! Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together. The conclusion is obvious: happiness is a function of neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, etc.). So logically, everything we do, from pouring ourselves a glass of wine after work, gunning for that promotion, taking SSRIs for depression, getting a pineal gland buzz from meditation, to tying ourselves up in faux-fur, is done in dedicated service to that one magical organ – the brain – and its darling little chemical messengers.

Why do people ‘get off’ on different things? Depending on our genetics and environment, we learn to respond to (and thereby pursue) a unique set of glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls. Innate personal activation energy thresholds and social/cultural vulnerabilities help determine whether we end up junkies, or well-coiffed queens of the PTA. Simple enough… or so it seemed until I, young, naive, and as intellectually masochistic as Newton probing behind his own eyeball, decided to test this theory on myself.

Logic loop: If happiness is a modulation of our neurotransmitter levels, and the brain is wired for efficiency, why are all these idiots jogging when they can be…

Within a surprisingly short amount of time I found myself too fat for anything but my Viking man’s track pants, lying spread-eagle with a bad back on a candy wrapper covered carpet, watching reality TV reruns while doped up on a nauseating (not to mention dangerous!) cocktail of alcohol, muscle relaxants, Gravol, painkillers, and – just for good measure – marijuana. Happy? Not so much. Solution? I figured all I had to do was switch my primary goal to longevity, rather than happiness, and train myself on a compatible new set of glamours and insatiables. Since I was already living in a Viable World without heroin (I had to draw the line somewhere!), couldn’t I just exclude my problem glamours from my viable world?

Paradox 1: If food is one of my insatiables, and there can be no viable world without food, how do I escape the efficiency logic loop that led directly to the track pants?

Paradox 2: In a world where there are people who fear public speaking more than death, how can a prefrontal cortex goal of longevity overcome eons of limbic evolution and enforce the pursuit of less than maximum-by-the-moment happiness?

What’s the horrifying truth about happiness? It’s that so many of us have gotten it all WRONG! Solution? Full mind/body/spirit paradigm change. F*ck neurotransmitters! Let’s explore how to live with the brain, not for the brain! Curious? Let me introduce you to systems theory’s naughty little kid sister: Pragmatic System State Theory.

Have we all gone mad?

Healthy choice general tso chicken steamerBefore every revolution there is a tipping point, a fine line in the sand that heralds the inevitability of a cultural paradigm shift. Fanatics are rebranded as leaders, and past leaders as fools. Today that line was crossed, not tiptoed over, but jumped across with both feet landing solid on the other side, no turning back.

‘General Tso’s Spicy Chicken Healthy Choice Gourmet Steamer’ – The name of today’s lunch provided more of a mouthful than the paltry 300 calorie, sodium loaded, mockery of sustenance contained inside. Now, I’m a woman habituated to a culinary culture that has us all walking around with salt-licks hanging around our necks. And I’ve been desensitized to the inhumanity of chemistry lab ingredient lists. I can overlook the fact that out of the 73 words appearing in this “Healthy Choice” ingredient list, 35 of those words – including all available forms of parentheses ([{}]) – are dedicated exclusively to “cooked seasoned chicken chunks.” Whatever.

As we become further removed from the growing and processing of food, we are also being increasingly separated by physical barriers. More layers to tear through and discard in the form of packaging. This is more than poetic metaphor – this is f*&^ing ridiculous!! The packaging on ‘General Tso’s Spicy Chicken Healthy Choice Gourmet Steamer’ has crossed over into the kind of cultural exaggeration on par with Marie Antoinette’s sky high wigs and WWE wrestling. Has the whole world gone mad! One use, 300 calories – cardboard box, thick plastic bowl, inner plastic steamer tray, plastic sealed top… is nobody else seeing the insanity here???

general tsoThe average human would have to eat a whopping 7 of these ‘Gourmet Steamers’ to meet their daily calorie requirements. Which, beyond cost and nearly doubling our daily sodium needs, would create a mountain of trash big enough to completely bury poor General Tso and stop him from ever objecting to this appalling (on so many levels) bastardization of his namesake.

Our wastefulness has officially crossed over into the obscene. We jack ourselves up on caffeine with single serving cups/lids/stirrers/sugars/creamers. And bottled water!! Buy a f*&%ing filter people!! Convenience, once a glamour, has become an insatiable. We guzzle energy with a gluttony that would make Caligula blush for shame. I live in Calgary, Canada’s pick-up truck capital, and am constantly dodging out of the path of these behemoths. They harness the power of hundreds of horses and thousands of pounds of metal/rubber/glass, but the only load I ever see them hauling is a few inches of penis and a couple of fleshy nuggets riding shotgun below. There certainly can’t be any brains on board!

I am no fanatic, but maybe I’m fool enough to believe that we can all be heralds to this cause. The madness has to stop. I pledge to forward this post to ConAgra Foods, the makers of ‘General Tso’s Spicy Chicken Healthy Choice Gourmet Steamer’, one week from today (Aug. 7th) along with the total number of Likes and Comments received on this blog post (and the same post on Blank Canvas Living’s Facebook page or Twitter). Let’s join hands and jump over that line together, and into the bright new paradigm beyond!

UPDATE (Aug. 7th): As promised, I’ve forwarded this post on to ConAgra Foods and will keep you posted as to their response. Thank you for all your likes and comments!

UPDATE (Aug. 15th): I’ve posted ConAgra’s response in the comment section below. In rebuttal: If the only available solution to a problem is one that has destructive consequences, in this case to the environment, I think we really need to ask ourselves if we have defined a problem worth solving. In this case the ‘problem’ was choosing a material for a one-use microwave safe steamer tray. Do we, as a society, really ‘need’ a one-use microwave safe steamer tray? And if we, as a society, decide that the answer is “yes,” then maybe the root problem lies within the very nature of that society. Which I believe, is the definition of a problem worth solving!

A new language for understanding addiction

addictionThe language we choose to use has incredible influence over our perception of reality. Every word is linked into an ever evolving neural network of associations, concepts, and emotions. Meaning is culled from these maps, which are culturally driven yet far more flexible than one might think. Addiction, habit, compulsion, rock bottom – these are dangerous, helpless words. There’s no way out of ‘compulsion’, and ‘rock bottom’ is a bleak, cold, lonely place. The idea that we have to reach it, the bottom of the well, before we regain our right to the word ‘choice’ means that we are forced to do real social and physical damage before admitting defeat and winning control. Brain chemistry is the author of these words. They feel so right, so real. That’s why we use them. Withhold satisfaction from an addict and their brain spirals into an unbearable chemical panic. This panic dictates its intentions to our prefrontal cortex, as to a willing, eminently obedient 1950s secretary. Our impatient limbic boss says, “You know what I want to say, Honey. Just put it into your own words and send it off.” Our words. Our choice. Glamours These are the things that make make life worth living. We ‘get off’ on them. Take them away and life dims to survival. We are genetically and culturally predisposed to our glamours: in how we are coded to metabolize nicotine, or the density of our D2 dopamine receptors, or what Disney taught us about love. These glamours, some innocent, even healthy, and some decidedly not, are then triggered by personal experience, be it the red lipstick of our favourite movie star or first hit of cocaine. Humanity needs its glamours. Biologically, desire drives our movement through time. Without it we, quite literally, will cease to breathe. Even the most hard-core guru will agree. Beyond our base appetites, our glamours are our sparkle and armor against the inevitability of suffering and death. But sometimes a glamour will slip past our conscious control to become… Insatiables Birth is not moderate. Death is not moderate. Life, therefore, is not a moderate act. By their very natures some of our glamours can biologically begin to stretch our appetites out of proportion, especially when we use them to cope with an immoderate world. Our dopamine baseline and receptor density can change. With food, the hormone leptin can throw things out of wack. Anything can become a pathological obsession: Diet Coke, cats, clutter, gin, sex, reality TV… anything. An insatiable is something we can’t get enough of and its pleasures begin to overshadow all others. We make choices that always somehow circle back to satisfy our cravings. Romantic love is an insatiable, but while it chemically evolves, some insatiables risk becoming… Be-all-end-alls This is the end-game. When an insatiable becomes a be-all-end-all, we live our life in service to its mastery. Nothing else matters. Take it away and life looses its last hint of luster. It is our all, and by its exclusion of all else, without intervention, will end all. Our brain wants only this, all the time, whatever the cost. It is the only appetite worth satisfying. Chemically, it owns our motivations and our reasoning. But it is not rock bottom. It is an honest moment with our soul, an acknowledgment of circumstances. It is the moment of choice – our destruction or the originating glamour’s destruction? One must end. Changing our language opens up a new neural network of more empowering associations, concepts, and emotions. And by doing so, it also opens up new paths of treatment. Choosing the right variables/symbols is always the first step towards balancing an equation. I promised my Blank Canvas Living Creative counselling client, who was brave enough to strip off her muumuu and reveal her insatiables, that I would show her a different path and guide her through change. Come join us on the journey. This is a Story Thread post – Click to read more…

How to use brain priming to improve your productivity and quality of life

spring cleaningThis simple 3 step formula will allow you to design life strategies based on your own unique neural network of associations and experiences. Brain priming, where “exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus”, is essentially the firing of neurons that are linked in your brain. This happens automatically and below the level of conscious thought. For example, student subjects primed with words related to the elderly left the experiment walking slower than the control group.

But we can make brain priming an active, rather than just a passive, process. Self-priming before an activity and extending that stimulus throughout its duration can help us tackle difficult tasks with more energy and improved perspective by taking advantage of the brain’s existing network of linkages. And what task could be more difficult, more intimidating, more soul destroying, more ‘oh-gawd-why-me’ agonizing than… cleaning the house.

Brain Network MapStep 1: Identify the activity and hypothesis your initial linkages (concepts, associations, emotions). Try to be as honest and intuitive as you can. You can use the diagram above as a model. It shows a simplified network of what, in reality, is quite a messy bit of between-the-ears business. But I’m a sucker for symmetry, both in my men and in my visual aids.

Step 2: Identify the positive (encouraging links are in blue) and negative (paralyzing links are in red) connections/associations. The positive links are your Gateway Connections.

Step 3: Identify sensory and memory recall experiences that will stimulate these same positive attitude/energy bundles of neurons. Here’s where it gets fun! Get psyched to try a tough new recipe by Youtubing with some Anthony Bourdain… Wear a tie and watch ‘Report on Business’ TV before an economics exam… Give your partner a massage before asking them to do the dishes (maybe I should have tried that one)… Go ahead and get creative! Engage your network strategy and keep those areas lit for as long, and as intensely, as possible. In this example, cute underwear (just don’t ask about the ‘in control’) and Janis Joplin’s rockin’ blues link to my three positives about cleaning. Cleaning the bathroom Note: ‘setting the stage’ has an extra semantic bonus with Joplin. Joplin and panties also have their own web of interconnecting linkages (shown in green) to directly counteract the original red negatives, thereby overriding them.

And because any scientific strategy is best served with a completely gratuitous selfie, I offer you hard-core proof that this brain priming formula will make even the most intimidating task suddenly… dare I say… far more enticing.

So hard to pick a toothpaste when all patterns end in sex or death

trauma in the toothpaste aisle

We process the world through pattern. Our brains filter the sensory madness of our culture through ever narrowing channels of meaning and importance. But let’s be honest, whatever your program of associations, all patterns end in either sex or death. Sex extends our genetics through time and is the only motivator on par with avoidance of death – the eventual, inevitable endgame to all sequences of decisions.

I’m paralyzed in the toothpaste aisle. I feel my temperature rising, my palms getting sweaty. Why the hell does my amygdala have to get involved! It’s just f*&^king toothpaste! The eternal struggle: buy my ‘usual’ and save myself some cognitive calories, or engage in a complex multi-variable algorithm steeped in conflict between conscious and unconscious influences and motivations. Do I want short term gains like fresh breath and whitening? Both driven by the ever tempting promise of getting laid. Or do I go for long term investment with tartar control, enamel repair, and preventing gingivitis (the villain in so many bacteria-in-the-bloodstream early death horror stories!)? Then there are the ‘do it all have it all’ formulas, the ‘full-time working mothers’ of oral hygiene. But like Sheryl Sandberg, I’m suspicious there’s some unspoken compromise that just might result in a root canal somewhere down the line. I grew up using Colgate… its red is so soothingly familiar… but ProNamel’s packaging looks so reassuringly clinical… and Aquafresh has… Oh for heavens sake!!

Pavlov’s dogs were trained to salivate at the ringing of a bell, but his subjects would often begin to drool far earlier in the experimental sequence: approaching the experimental apparatus, when lab assistants entered the room, etc. Our own programming wakes with us in the morning and maps the day into expectations and associations. Our circuitry can be as rigid as rail lines, and neuroplasticity involves the same taxing bureaucratic nightmare of time, energy, and ego as engineering Calgary’s West LRT line. Change is hell. With sex or death being their axiomed ends, we must confront our patterns at their beginnings, especially ones as powerful as those involving ‘the paradox of choice’.

I should have visualized a game plan and anticipated my distress. It’s too late by the time I’m standing here feeling like an idiot for being so overwhelmed by freakin’ toothpaste! At this point, metacognition is my only hope. I calm my breathing and my head begins to clear. My prefrontal cortex takes charge. “What’s the worst case scenario,” I ask myself. It’s just toothpaste! And four magic words follow the analysis: “I can handle it.” I engage a new pattern and apply the retail version of my good-girl-bad-girl personal philosophy, and come home with two tubes – ProNamel and Aquafresh – and ‘spit’ my time between. What can I say? I’m now a proud personal hygiene polygamist (but hopefully not “till death do us part”)!

Sandwich to Salad Week Day 3: The ‘too healthy for its own good’ beany bread bonanza salad

bean and bread saladIndulging in this salad demands a certain smug hubris. Ha! You say as you look around at your coworkers with their sad little muffins and phallic shaped plastic bags marking them as slaves to Subway. You, like that perfectly groomed businessman on the elevator, can claim a well deserved self-righteousness, because halfway through this 5 day meal plan revolution you have found the secret, not to wealth, not to power, but to pleasure without consequence (provided your system can digest beans discreetly). For you have crawled out of the sensory deprivation chamber of so many celebrated celebrity diets of grilled chicken and steamed vegetables. You have created for yourself a flavourful multilayered orgasm of textural ecstasies. Yes Yes YES – so green, so nutrient packed, and so damn good.

The ‘too healthy for its own good’ beany bread bonanza salad
1 small whole wheat dinner roll
1/3 can assorted beans
2 tbsp pumpkin seeds
1 serrano pepper
3 large white mushrooms
1 medium tomato
1 handful spinach
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley

Tear roll into croutons. Thinly slice serrano pepper. Chop all other (large) ingredients into bite-size pieces. Top salad with beans, pumpkin seeds, and drizzle with day two’s ‘Punny Mustard Dressing’.

This is a Story Thread post – Click to read more…

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fast and easy summer salad recipes 3Day 1: The ham and cheese sandwich salad + Inspiration story
Day 2: The fresh off the ‘cobb’ salad that can’t be ‘beet’ + Punny mustard vinaigrette
Day 3: The ‘too healthy for its own good’ beany bread bonanza salad
Day 4: The solar powered spinach mushroom salad + *BONUS* The ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ salad
Day 5: The happy ham and egg weekend brunch anticipation salad