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.
For those of us whose minds and mouths seem so much more adept at forming questions than answers… For those of us who swing wide on the flexibilities of our viable worlds… For those of us who can never stop exploring… Is it possible to overdose on philosophy? If there is one solid answer in this world, it is to this question. And three days ago it smacked me upside the head… YES!
It was the last dream before the morning. In the boundless, though tremulous reality of my dream’s gestalted storyline, I am teaching a small toddling self to play catch under a purple sky.
“OK, here we go,” I said. “I’ll throw you the ball, then you catch it and throw it back to me.”
My mini mirror caught my light toss with expert ease. But then she hesitated, looked up at me and asked, with blue eyes wide and questioning…
You know you want it… the tastes, the smells, the mouthfeel (oh man, I love that word). Go ahead and indulge. You’re worth it. You’ve earned it. Life is short. Woah… wait a second. Are we talking about sex or salads here? Can the prerequisite platitudes we use to defend anything from hair colouring to having affairs apply equally to vegetables? Life is short – here, have a carrot. Nope. Didn’t think so.
So if life is so short why bother eating healthy? Because it’ll be a hell of a lot shorter if we don’t? Like that argument ever works – not! How about another tempting equation: eat salad = get skinny = get laid? Logical. But just ask the next whiny wisp of a woman how sexy she feels tucking into her sprouts n’ lentils. Now, I can sit here and wax on about supporting one’s optimal system state with a custom care diet that’s high in fiber/nutrients and low in calories/sugar. But why bother when the straight-up skinny is…
Pure unadulterated pleasure.
Forget parched packaged veggies and Subway blasphemies. The key is to go right back to your hunter gatherer roots and get primal about your lunch. The grocery store becomes your ranging territory rather than an overwhelming warehouse. Follow your senses! Hunt for the colours and textures that stand out (most likely to be in season) from the others and get creative. Jumble a load of random deliciousness into your basket – veggies, fresh/dried fruits, cheeses, kippers, etc. And don’t forget about novelty dressing ingredients. Listen to your mood, to the weather, and pay attention to whatever items stimulate and/or excite a reaction or craving.
Chop/roast/mix your foragings and store them in containers (I’ve taken over our office fridge’s bottom drawer) for easy custom salad recipes, made according to the tastes of the day. Basically, you’re trying to create easy access to a sensory orgy of nutrient rich unprocessed foods while giving you a sense of control over your system state without sacrificing novelty, risk, or surprise.
Can a salad set-up sex up your summer? Hell ya! When we invest time and energy into supporting our optimal system state – however counterintuitive the specifics may feel at first – we gain a new sense of ownership and appreciation for our bodies. Rather than feeding a desperate amygdala with sugars and fats, a healthy system gives us space to indulge a far greater range of pleasures – gastronomic and otherwise. An attitude of curiousity and honest indulgence about food (+ all that zinc) keeps our brains alert for other… um… indulgences. And obviously, getting in primo shagging shape is an extra bonus.
You desired. You ate. You were satisfied. Is there anything more exquisitely human? More worthy of celebration? But at the same time… so shackling? Sure, you can go full-on Buddhist and meditate to cognitively cancel out the dualities – been there bought the T-shirt – but enlightenment is an unnervingly unipolar, and surprisingly uncreative state of being. I prefer to grind brilliantly through life – but how do we honour our glamours, insatiables, and be-all-end-alls, without becoming their slave?
Your conscious mind is only one small poignancy in your body’s comprehensive system state. Any arguments it puts forth should (ideally) be vetted against the needs of the entire system – wherever you’ve placed your flexible system state boundary. Test your ‘logic’ to see if it supports the three features of a successful system: its ability to adapt, accommodate, and regenerate. But here’s the thing. We project human designed systems into our society as reflections of our own internal biology. But our projections, in the forms of municipal governments, transportation systems, or even current weight loss programs, are invariably filtered through our left brain world of categorization and quantization. We find ourselves craving rules, numbers (BMI, calories), and all the social bell curve bullshit that add up to turn something as gloriously human as satisfaction into a moral issue of right/wrong and good/bad rather than how it supports the system as a whole.
Pragmatic system state theory asks the question: what is the true system cost of being fat? Now, I’ve always been attracted to bigger boys – in so many more ways than one – and I even recently found myself reconceptualizing my own “before picture” into a secretly indulgent celebration. But the hard (or rather soft) truth of the matter is that excessive fat prevents the body’s systems from effectively adapting, accommodating, and regenerating. Everyone’s optimal body set-point is different (due to genetics/hormones/stress) but when you tune into your most intimate biology you really get a sense for what keeps you humming along at your best. Leave your social and rational mind out of this! Your brain is only too eager to bullshit you back to the buffet! I have held tight to the truth for four years. But now, risking the wrath of big-bliss trolls, I feel brave enough to share it with you…
Body Worlds Exhibit Calgary 2010: A middle-aged obese man comes face to face with a plasticized slice of himself. I watch in rapt, almost gleeful, horror, as he is forced to acknowledge his own suffocating internal geography: intestines twisted and squeezed, skin stretched and distorted, liver puckered with yellowed lard… This is not fat as a cuddly blanket, a warm protection, but an invasive, merciless systems takeover by leaching grey/white masses of gelatinous flab. It took me five full blocks of my walk home to come up with a description of the man’s expression… “stern indignance.” I can still see his face.
When we untether ourselves from a set of behaviours and/or beliefs (however unhealthy) that have anchored us in this mad mad world, we must face the inevitable hell of ‘the void’. You’ve been there, when your brain chemistry is crashing hard and your whole universe turns in on itself and any semblance of hope dissolves into putrid stringy traces of vomit in your tortured throat – not to be too dramatic or anything. Welcome to the glamour of the void.
6:25AM – you’re sprawled on your bed in a frenzied state of wanton despair, with nothing to look forward to but the bland blind routine of daily responsibility – lucky you. No bullshitting, such purity of emotion is a rare and magical thing in our age of diffusion through screen and language. There’s something so fabulously indulgent about waking up to a viable world where everything good and beautiful exists only as a mockery of self.
We’re taught to fear the void, to stay in the arms of abusive lovers and abusive substances rather than embrace its grim romance. But no sense pining for bygone Byron days of poetic emotional abandon. Let’s get real. The void can be navigated and negotiated just like any other system state, provided, of course, you’ve got the balls.
5 tips to help you survive the void:
1) Accept the void with unrelenting compassion. Breathe. Feel the horror, the pain, and the misery as it is, as an eternity.
2) Go through the minimal motions of a day. Respect your system state and don’t pick a fight, do the dishes, or ask for a raise. And make sure to avoid news media!
3) Dress the part. Above is a 2014 collection of void-approved designs inspired by fashion design houses Chanel, Dior, and Alexander McQueen. But you don’t have to style your pain in haute couture. Even if it’s just apocalyptic back-of-the-drawer underwear, just be sure to carry a symbol of today’s truth. Note: Tragically, Lee Alexander McQueen didn’t make it through the void… a man gifted and cursed by a genius sensitivity.
4) Give yourself permission to force-feed your system: maximize your nutrients, drink lots of water, get some exercise, connect with your social support. Trust system state logic, it hasn’t failed you yet!
5) Don’t force hope. Today, there is none. And that’s perfectly OK. You may have the vague memory of being someone who had hope. Other people around you may provide precedent of hope. Whatever. That’s enough for today.
The void, just like a craving, is one of our most intimate human experiences. If we accept it for what it is, without panic, it can be an interim glamour in and of itself. There is no bridge. You must brave its black waters to get to the other side. Trust time and system state support to balance out your brain chemistry. But more importantly, trust the larger system to carry you up and along with it into the future. Reach your body into the current and let go… float, glassy eyed and screaming, into the glamour of the void.
Strip down and take a good long look in the mirror. Your reflection is the photo-physical manifestation of every decision you’ve ever made, your unique genetic relationship with time and externals, and your current system state. Which is to say… this is you, now. This image is the fullness of your humanity expressed in a single quantization of time. Reject it, and you reject the entirety of your existence. Accept it with unrelenting compassion, and you – maybe for the first time – discover love.
But what use is philosophical intellectualization when your whole body wilts with shame at the mortification of having allowed your dimensions to start sliding off the bell curve of culturally indoctrinated hotness? Actually, you’d be surprised. But you’ve got to get down and dirty if you’re going win over your limbic mascot (your emotional brain) and get your whole system on board for celebrating and loving ‘The Before’.
My hallway mirror and I had been ships in the mist all fall and winter, so it was quite a surprise, come spring, to discover I was a honkin’ 30lbs heavier than my bikini ideal. Philosophy’s fun, sure, but damn it I’m a girl! I hardly recognized my own body; I had become a ‘Before’!! No one else to blame. Sure I’d been dealing with grief, and a winter that dragged me along with it to its bitter slushy end, but I was also digging deep into my humanity in an exploration of… Ya, ya, truth is I lasciviously maxed out my glamours and insatiables in an unrestrained orgy of debauchery, mostly while wearing extremely unrestraining track pants – hence my surprise.
“Oh shit,” I said, looking down, “this is not good, not good at all.”
I happen to be one of those lucky bitches who gets off on broccoli and hiking, so losing weight wasn’t my biggest concern. But I really didn’t want to feel like shit for the next few months while I whittled myself back down to my ideal system state proportions. Solution? Push the boundaries of permission (introduced last post).
I’m not kidding about down and dirty! OK, first up, permission to experience gratuitous joy in sensory context of body, connecting experience of body with ebullient brain state. Homework: new morning routine of dancing naked to fave tunes in celebration of being a woman who peaks her pleasures with total abandon. Hell ya! Next, take fun (strategically flattering!) ‘before’ pic that is a celebration in itself (see pic – pssst missing letter is M). Note: I know I look ironically, infuriatingly skinny in mine – one word people… ANGLES! Rework wardrobe to accept and accentuate new curves to improve aesthetic and social feedback. Done, and done.
But we’ve got to get our primitive brains primed if we want a true visceral change in perspective. I had to somehow seduce Mitch-the-insatiable-itch. Dressed as full-on Christina Hendricks from Mad Men sexy buxom secretary, I “took my new tits out on the town” – objectively ignoring anyone who was ignoring me and replaying any and all ogling to imprint it in my memory. I also made sure to engage in some very strategic boob-centric flirtations – figured hubby wouldn’t mind since it was all in the name of ‘research’ ~wink.
The internet will give you precedent of permission for almost anything. Thus, I discovered ‘gainers’ and the men who love them. Google if you dare! Defining the extremes can help you find your place in between. Nerd that I am, I made notes. I paid close attention to the specific language the women used when talking about their bodies and expressing their fantasies. I also made note of the luxurious, sometimes surprising, ways their men touched/fondled/caressed different areas.
Permission to celebrate ‘The Before’ must come from within, so once again I left my own man on the sidelines so I could take permission into um… er… my own hands. All for brain science! Now, without getting too TMI here, I can only say this: training a new glamour by incorporating the gainer language, visualizations, and tactile techniques into my own experience made for an… um… ‘transformative’ event – the first time, the second, the… But I’m afraid my brain training may have worked a little too well. I’m actually sitting here thrilling in my own cleavage. So why am I still bothering to lose the weight? Find out in an upcoming post!
As children, we sought it outside of ourselves, challenged its boundaries, and submitted our viable worlds to be ordered according to its precedent. What is it? Permission. But we’re not little kids any more. In Blank Canvas Living’s exploration of learning to live with the brain, not for the brain, personalizing our permissions is one of our most powerful cognitive conceptual tools.
What is permission? Permission is a biological event. Let’s think about the brain. Without getting too technical here, permission can be loosely defined as the activation of neural pathways through the release of neurotransmitters in response to a stimulus. OK, now that that’s out of the way…
Permissions build our physical, emotional, moral, and social realities. We learn the boundaries and expectations of our viable worlds through external permissions (verbal, non-verbal) which are internally translated into supporting circuitry. This is a lifelong process, but most concentrated during childhood, before the brain starts pruning back unnecessary conceptual flexibilities. Example: A mother patiently teaches her child that dogs are brown and grass is green while cozying up together over a colouring book. A darling scene, sure, but equally grotesque in its neurological ramifications – the loss of our virginity of perception. Shedding a little tear here… sniffle.
So how is permission a superpower? This is going to blow your mind… ZOOM POW SPLAT! A paralysed woman in a wheelchair in British Colombia scores highest on a national happiness survey. Everyday she wakes up with a brain flooded with neurotransmitters that colour her reality full of hope and possibility. Why? She has permission (remember the biology!). An Oxford philosophy honours student hangs herself after a bad breakup. Why? Her depression gave her neurological permission to live, and ultimately die, in a threatening and hopeless world. When used as a cognitive conceptual tool, permission can offer a glimpse into different realities. And once that door is open, you can step inside.
How to play with your permissions to personalize your viable world:
1- Evaluate your current permissions. This might surprise you. Example: You take a drink after work to relax. Yes, your brain is asking for an external, because that’s where it’s learned the Pavlov progression starts, but did you know you get a dopamine surge even before ingestion? Your brain is, essentially, already giving you full permission to enter a relaxed system state and live in a warm, fuzzy, blameless world. It’s only the mechanism (the glamour) for getting there that’s in question.
2- What world would best suit your genetic self? What permissions would that world give to someone living in it? What permissions would that person give themselves? What permissions would be damaging? Examples: Permission to be accountable to others in order to live in a world where others are accountable to us. Permission to indulge in loving, gentle self-talk in order to live in a world where we have value and safety.
3- Once you define a permission you’d like to adopt for yourself, you’ve got to ask the big question: what is the precedent for this permission? Are there people out there right now living with this permission? Are they successfully achieving their personal goals? Are they mentally healthy and happy? How do their viable worlds differ from my own? Example: Since the paralysed woman in the wheelchair has full permission to be happy, why the hell should your loaded inbox give you permission to be miserable? Seriously, think about it.
So before you light your next cigarette, accept that this is only the mechanism (the current glamour), and that your brain is already giving you permission to leave your desk and take 7 minutes of pure indulgent escape. F*ck the cigarette! Own those 7 minutes of bliss within your own body. Take a breath – clean, pure. Be fully, apologetically, your own permission.
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.
So 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.