How to tackle life’s Tetris tipping points

kitchen before and afterWhat’s a Tetris tipping point? You’re in the zone, everything’s stacking up perfectly – eating healthy, bills paid, emails answered, legs shaved (and/or face and/or whatever else)… When suddenly, life hurls one of those stupid wonky 4 square zig-zags at you and you try to fit it in, but everything’s happening too fast and now there’s a gap. Still, you’re sure you can recover, but the 4 square vertical you were counting on never comes, and no matter how fast you try to anticipate and react, you can’t keep up. All you can do is watch helplessly as chaos closes in and… GAME OVER.

tetrisAs we move up the levels of life in age, career, and responsibility, new stressors come at us faster and faster – just like in Tetris. Sure, you can practice and plan, but inevitably, if you’re human (and if you’re not, well, I’m sure you have other issues) you’ll face that GAME OVER screen again and again. Your perfect plan will go straight out the window because life, just like love, is unpredictable and overwhelming. And we wouldn’t want it any other way!

So, how do we tackle life’s Tetris tipping points? With unrelenting compassion. I suck at housework, always have, and probably always will. I have other skills and talents that can be quite useful around the home (just ask my husband), but dirty dishes will always be my nemesis. I’ll stay on top of things for days (occasionally even weeks) at a time, but then, for any number of reasons, the stack gets past a certain height and I just can’t deal and it just keeps piling up and… GAME OVER.

I’ve laid prostrate on the kitchen floor weeping at my ineptitude. I’ve rocked out to hard-core blues in bra and panties. I’ve dressed up like an Eastern European slave girl. I’ve turned the task into an archeological dig and you can be sure I always try to pawn those dishes off on dear ol’ hubby. And yes, in times of utter desperation, I’ve even resorted to buying paper plates and plastic cutlery. I’ve also, as you can see by these links, apparently blogged about doing the dishes more often than actually doing them!

But something changed the day I accepted the beautifully human truth that I, Cymbria, am a woman utterly overwhelmed by doing the dishes. And that that’s OK. With unrelenting compassion, I released my guilt and shame – so often the source of our procrastination. It was a simple act, but one with profound and wonderful consequences.

Now when I face the scourge, I do it with humour, literally and figuratively. I crank up the comedy station on the radio, wear a scullery maid head scarf to get into character, and take my time. I still loath the task, but it no longer lurks as a constant ugly nag – threatening my self-worth – in the back of my mind. When I’m doing the dishes I’m doing the dishes, when I’m not, they’re simply not part of my Viable World.

If you’re facing a Tetris tipping point today, step back and take a breath. Maybe something happened and you couldn’t keep up… and that’s OK. You’ve been here before; you’ve failed, and you’ve survived. You might have to go back a few levels, but that’ll just give you more practice for the next round. You’re still you – and you’re still marvelously human.

Note: I let it slip in a cross-country conversation with my mother that I was posting a pic of my most recent kitchen nightmare. She was horrified. “Oh, you can’t do that!” she said. “You know how people label.” Well, dear readers, label away. All I can say is… my kingdom for a dishwasher!!   

The morning I walked to work on Mars

pink mars skyIt was one of those mornings… a five snooze alarm, sleep vs shower trade-off morning, when you dream you’ve woken up and left for work then wake up and have to do it all over again. It was one of those mornings when your bed is your entire world and any universe beyond is dark, cold, alien, and empty, and the warm comfort of your sheets weights your body with the gravity of a thousand suns. You know, one of those mornings.

I waited until the last possible second before getting up, savouring each ‘tick’ with the knowledge that these were the last precious moments of self before the blind suffering of routine would rip me out of my bliss and cast me, shivering and whimpering, out into the unholy frozen city. Ok, so maybe I’m getting a bit carried away, and of course I’m grateful for all my blessings and, quite frankly, even to have a job to wake up for. But our humanity is pretty raw at 6:30 in the morning, and the gloss of rational thinking is rarely available before lunch (if at all).

Trudging along the bikepath, I was still locked in hostility – towards the weather, towards all the bikers who ‘dinged’ at me, towards the little patches of ice that seemed just as hostile towards me, and, unforgivably, towards a woman I love who is suffering so much more than myself. I’ve been trying so hard to find solutions to her problems, to guide her towards relief, but she keeps slipping deeper.

No, I told myself, right there on the path. I’ve do so much, all I can. I just need this one moment to be my own. No job, no worries, no obsessing. Let me ‘just be’ in the story of this landscape. I focused all my energy into my senses: the sharp cold smell of the Bow river, the crunch of the snow under my sneakers… I lifted my eyes up from the pavement and gasped in unabashed awe.

Calgary’s downtown skyline was on fire with a rapturous sunrise, all glowing hot pinks and soft peaches, fading high overhead into a delicate lavender border. Absolutely gorgeous, and huge! We’re ‘big sky’ country here in Alberta and this morning the colours reached far beyond their usual semi-circular modesty. This was an entirely new atmosphere, an entirely new backdrop to the city. And then it hit me. I was walking to work on Mars!

I angled the brim of my baseball cap to block out any earthly, pedestrian blue. My world was Mars and I played the story through in my mind. Only a thin yellow line separated me from the joggers and bikers on my home planet, journeying into an opposite sky. I was alone in this magical new vision. I changed the snow to dust and the buildings to alien constructions. It wasn’t hard. In the last quarter century Calgary has transformed into a hulking, though glittering, vision of past futures. But I felt a sudden gut pang of sadness. This Mars was so beautiful, yet all would be lost to time. Whatever its past may have held, our shared Mars has been blown back to red dust. But I would always have my Mars, even when the sky came back to Earth, and even when later I’d check Wikipedia and find out the dull truth about the real Martian sky.

But in that glowing pink moment of my own, I thought of the woman I love, and a new idea. Overwhelmed by the crushing enormity of making a change, she holds the first small step in her hand, but tells me she always puts it down because she thinks “it doesn’t matter.” As I stood delighting in my Mars, I realized I had crossed epic time and space by giving myself the simple permission to enjoy the moment as purely, unapologetically ‘me’ – because “I matter.” If I’ve brought back anything from my Mars, it isn’t a sample of gas or rock, it’s the gift of knowing that even when you feel like “it doesn’t matter,” you still do.

Negotiate your humanity using a limbic mascot

fun vice cartoonWe all have a Mitch-the-insatiable-itch. Yours may have a different name, or set of genitalia, but we all need a way to negotiate with our brain’s limbic system – our emotional selves. Science has found that our prefrontal cortex, our ‘rational’ brain, is second in command to our limbic system. Our conscious selves are gatekeepers ever struggling to hold back the dopamine wielding forces of our emotionally charged motivations and temptations. Brain scans can reveal a decision up to 7 seconds before you consciously decide! Of course, this shouldn’t come as any surprise to those of us who have ever sat down, rolled up our sleeves, and inhaled an entire pizza. Either we were so wasted we’d already locked out our prefrontals, or we were actually able to rationalize this act of symphonic gluttony. Scary thought either way! And for those of us who have never adopted a rigid set of internal regulations (hello anyone creative, oh, and anyone madly in love), we so often sabotage ourselves by being able to effortlessly ‘rationalize’ the most absurd glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When the Calgary Flames are down 5-1 in the third, and Harvey the Hound is still dancing manically in the stands, drumming up a rallying cry from the crowd… sometimes a mascot is our last best hope for survival. A limbic mascot is a visual thinking tool that can be used to help create a subtle separation, a space for negotiation, between our emotions and our intellectual reasoning. To ensure we stay faithful to our long term goals, we often (hourly unless you’re one of the lucky ones) need to challenge the urgency and importance of short term impulses that are demanding (and I do mean demanding) attention and satiation. A limbic mascot can serve as an entity of attribution that allows you to make these conscious intellectual challenges without directly attacking your ego.

Mitch-the-insatiable-itch is my limbic system middle-man. He’s ever-present in Blank Canvas Living’s sidebar, and he’s even snuck his way into one or two posts. The petulant little darling is all belly and cute pink package. Go ahead and read in a light dose of Freudian penis envy – but they really are such fun. He has a perpetual indignant frown and fingers for pointing at what he wants, but no real mouth. He leaves all the verbalization, rationalization, and justification to the prefrontal side of the equation. He’s a master of the ever-so-seductive myth of “this is the last time.” I love the little guy, even though his ear horns mean he’s rarely sitting on the angel side of my shoulder.

I’m so curious, dear readers, what would your limbic system mascot look like?

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…

Whatever you are doing at this exact moment is exactly what you want to be doing

office cartoonI know you don’t believe me, especially if you’re tied to a computer when it’s a cartoon beautiful day outside or you’re just about to do the dishes. But think about it. Your brain is an incredibly efficient piece of equipment. Its network of neural linkages is structured according to genetics and interwoven according to experience. You think you have to go to work. You think you have to do the dishes. But if you didn’t want to, you wouldn’t do it. Plain and simple.

Our rational mind, our prefrontal cortex, is essentially in service to our limbic system. This reptilian, emotional center is the influencing force on the parameters of our logic and ensuing rational arguments. Brain scans show that a decision can be predicted up to 7 full seconds before our conscious minds become aware of the outcome. Consciousness is the gatekeeper, and final reasoning checkpoint before we act. Self is the entire system acting together.

Your alarm goes off… “Oh gawd I don’t want to go to work!” So why do you get up? You want to maintain and support your social relationships. You want to get your paycheck so you can keep your house and enjoy the security and pride of ownership. You want to keep your car so you have the freedom of travel and mobility (I happen to be a renter who takes the bus… sigh, but the same theory holds).

Addiction and trauma can skew the system, and if you find yourself saying “I don’t want to be doing this but I can’t stop,” what you can do is stop kidding yourself. If your dopamine/reward system is getting-off on a behaviour, well, that’s the very definition of ‘want’. OCD is another example. If your limbic fear control is overreacting, it will, ever so desperately, ‘want’ relief. Own that want. I know the word gets a bad rap in our culture, but there should be no shame in admitting the truth when it can give you the power you need to start making real changes in your life.

Admitting that your adopted value system and priority scale dictate your decisions, and not some external taskmaster forcing you to keep plodding away on some determinist treadmill, will help put your world back into your hands. Changing the language that traps us in our logic loops is the first step in the challenging process of changing those worlds.

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.

The exact moment I realize I’m wasting my life

Spinning with the Earth at 1675 km/h, we humans are always and only ‘falling through time’. We feign power and control over our most precious, non-renewable resource with an abuser’s vocabulary – using, taking, spending, wasting… killing. In contrast, the words associated with our time efficiencies and generosities have somewhat religious overtones – saving, making, creating, giving. We express love through the valuing and sharing of time. And if we love ourselves, deeply, truly, is killing time the ultimate betrayal?

Slow day at work… do I write my future or stall it through distraction? The word search is almost too easy to rationalize. The 60 words are 60 novelists, so I’m not killing time… I’m learning. Ya, that’s it! Schooling myself for writer street-cred name dropping with a two-birds-one-stone pleasant pastime, the very essence of intelligent efficiency.

endless wordsearchALCOT, AMIS, AUSTEN – there’s HEMINGWAY in the middle there – BAINBRIDGE… BUCHAN is taking some time, no matter, I’m leeearning. Oh, there’s ORWELL along the top, but where’s BUCHAN? I dedicate myself to BUCHAN with full intensity pattern recognition/scanning, picking out all the BU’s and CH’s. Minutes pass… I start to get the same sick feeling in my stomach I used to get after too many Saturday morning cartoons (and still get after too much celebrity gossip). Screw it, we’re going old school here, line by line…

I do this twice. There is no BUCHAN! WTF?? This is so wrong it hurts. But just as stubborn as Rihanna going back to Chris Brown (don’t get me started!), I deny the atrocity and jump right back in. Sometimes the universe sends you a message, and sometimes that message is ELIOT with one L in the list, but two in the grid!?? This is officially BULL! with two Ls anywhere you find it!

I sit staring at the word search in numb disbelief. This is against all the rules! The contract of trust is broken. How can I ever commit to a word search again? Maybe crosswords aren’t even sacred! Two more go-to distractions tainted. But this is a wake-up; I can feel it in my bones. I can’t waste any more time.

I do the only thing that’s ever made my stomach stop churning. I put the story into my own words.