The void is being in love with two men, two stories, two promises. One glows with the promised flush of that first hot thrust. Immediate gratification. The other tantalizes with the promise of a full to bursting future, but it’s a happily ever after that pulls further away with every desperate reach from within the void. Because while your brain chemistry adjusts to reward a new set of attentions, and you progress towards real change, there is no way to ignore that first lover’s little whisper in your ear… “I swear,” it teases, titillates, “this will be the last time.” Continue reading
STOP whatever you’re doing and SMELL where you are… take a long, slow, lazy sniff of this moment and watch its molecular landscape paint itself across your brain. Now draw a few shorter more urgent breaths and pay close attention to new layers and nuances that add texture, peaks and valleys to this internal mapping. Continue reading
If you have to write, if your coding demands it, you may as well swallow your pride and learn how to WANT to write. Otherwise, in this age of infinite, cheapened words, what’s the bloody point? Continue reading
Introvert or extrovert? We humans are so eager to integrate b/w labels into the complex construction of our self-concepts. Personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator draw us in with delicious promises of ‘the big reveal’ – as if by comfortably categorizing ourselves we can gain some sense of control over this mad world. Bullshit! This left brain lunacy closes us off to the real magic of our beings, that we are everything, the entire universe, all at once. But when these Jungian divisions feel so intuitive, how can they not be real?
Introvert or extrovert? These two paradigm dependent words come loaded with data (neural linking to other words/ideas) involving energy exchange, information gathering/processing, and social habits. But let’s take Jung out of the picture. Are there two other, paradigm independent, words that conceptualize these intuitive system state differences with more organic accuracy?
Let’s try protection and connection.
Now let’s play. Our self-concepts are, by their nature, self-reporting and frighteningly subjective. Myers-Briggs (and in my opinion most, if not all, psychoanalysis… but don’t get me started!) really tests for who we think we are. Key word here, ‘think’ – a disturbingly limited, decidedly prefrontal activity of the brain. Our thoughts, born, yes, of true emotion, lead to our actions, which are reflected back to us by our viable worlds. This process is an extremely fluid back and forth, with change and influence happening concurrently in both directions. Anyone else see the loophole here?
Hypothetically, one’s proclivity for protection could be influenced by multiple factors and still be then categorized into a biological – and incredibly self-limiting – introversion. Dear readers, I sit before you as a case in point. For seven years now I have been rolling paper. This is my job. The perk? Downtime. All I’ve ever wanted is to be left alone to learn, explore, and create. And when the universe gives you exactly what you fully believe you desire, and you find yourself itching, rasping, flailing, at some point you’ve got to sit yourself down and ask yourself WTF!? It’s time to do some double feedback loop learning and challenge our assumptions.
What if I’m not such an introvert after all? What if the very concept of introversion is actually a layered blockage of our innate human drive to connect? Like any argument, the key here is evidence – tracking back through history, science, and critical thinking to build a new case. Key to Jungian introversion is the dependence on an internal world, a re-storied reality to stand in for a truly shared viable world (guilty!!). This essentially prefrontal cortex construct already requires huge amounts of energy to sustain. Why do introverts feel so drained after social interaction? Couldn’t it be because they’re ‘thinking’ through the interaction (guilty!!), about self, about eye contact, about appropriateness? Mirror neurons automatically mimic our conversation partners. Couldn’t social appropriateness/rules be equally neurologically automatic for some people, requiring less processing and therefore minimal energy requirements? With an introvert’s dependency on the part of the brain responsible for self-awareness and advanced pattern detection/creation, doesn’t it make so much sense that less energy is expended when the pattern is more predictable and/or pre-wired, such as interacting with intimate family and friends, and one-on-one vs crowds? And what happens when we look at what shuts down this prefrontal middleman between us and ‘them’? It’s no coincidence that alcohol is know as the ‘social drug’.
Early social trauma could lead to another layer of cognitive protection. I grew up with two highly creative, top-of-their-field, yet highly isolationist parents, a social pattern I’ve found myself copying – which can put incredible pressure on one’s partner. We moved homes and/or schools almost every year of my early childhood. At one school I literally had zero friends. No one would talk to me, nobody, and I played the most pathetic solo-hopscotch at lunchtime (single tear). My daydreams, and my family’s love (I’ve been incredibly fortunate), were my only true consistencies growing up. Sure, my genes come from my parents, d’uh. But epigenetics is finding that which genes get turned on/off is highly dependent on experience.
Speaking of genes, let’s look at a common introvert combination which I like to call “the nerd cluster” (guilty!!), a phenotype combo expressed as proficient pattern recognition/processing (why we get off on math), extreme sensitivity to both emotional and environmental (allergies/asthma/eczema) factors, and compromised eyesight. Recognizing facial expressions is hard enough, but try spending a portion (before glasses) of your childhood spent in a blurred world. Note: my full, impassioned, sympathies to anyone on the Asperger’s/Autism spectrum! All of these factors facilitate and/or encourage a protective prefrontal where interpersonal connection is concerned.
So how can we test this theorizing and overcome introversion’s potential negative consequences: anxiety, isolation, addiction, and depression? Why bother becoming more social? Click to read the definitive, if extreme, argument. How do we journey from protection to connection? I’ve been testing this out lately, with surprisingly encouraging results. Or maybe not surprising at all considering the interconnectivity of our universe – our true natural system state. Connecting to self with unrelenting compassion is the first step – this is your grace, your strength, your training. Be fully present in your next interaction, not cognitively cupping your ego to protect it, but giving of your bare soul with wild generosity – eventually to the other person, but start with the moment. You can always trust time. I spent my twenties going out dancing, often by myself. My total abandon to the music, the present, was all the protection I ever needed. No more thinking, only being. I was free. I was the crowd. I was joy. Dance your next encounter and even if you stick your foot in your mouth and f*ck it all up, know that you’re nurturing a soul to come home to that will never never never let you play hopscotch alone again.
The coroner’s verdict is in: Peaches Geldof died of a heroin overdose. This tragedy has left two young sons without a mother and an entire extended family without the woman described by her father as “the wildest, funniest, cleverest, wittiest, and the most bonkers of all of us.”
And yet, at this very moment, there are morbidly obese workaholic smokers smirking at this latest bit of internet ‘gossip’, smug in their own judgement of a woman they never met, never even heard of until her death. “How could she chose heroin over her own children?” they troll, oblivious to the irony.
The only difference between smoking a cigarette and shooting up is how long it takes to devastate your system as a whole. All for what? A temporary neurotransmitter buzz? Ah, but that’s the trick of addiction. It feels like so much more.
Disease or choice? When there are reasonable rhetorical arguments on both sides of any debate, logic dictates that there is space for an alternative conceptual model. Let’s go back to Aristotle and identify an addict by what they repeatedly do. Time and time again, an addict will chose their insatiable over everything and everyone they have previously professed to love. And that’s OK, actually perfectly reasonable. From their cognitive paradigm, it’s inevitable. Admitting this plain, if painful, fact begins to relax the cognitive dissidence that so often traps an addict within their fantasy. Addiction, a complex sequence of neurobiological interactions through time, is actually refreshingly simple to explain.
While certain brains – impulsive, sensitive, creative, intelligent – are structurally more susceptible to addiction because of their innate flexibility (Bob Geldof’s quote about his daughter is quite telling), anyone can get hooked on a substance or behaviour, especially after physical/sexual/psychological trauma. Introduce a chemical or act that causes neurotransmitter bliss (or release from discomfort) and, provided the negative consequences don’t immediately trump the reward, your thinking begins to accommodate and adapt to this new working solution.
If you ever try (or do) something that triggers this specific thought: “This is the best feeling ever – I need to do whatever possible to keep this going for as long as possible.” Be VERY careful. This is why, for so many of us, foreplay is never enough. This is why one drink is too many for an alcoholic. Your logic skews to internalize this ‘truth’ and restructures your perception of reality to support these new priority permissions. Past traumas become more painful – the memories will actually alter. Physical pain becomes more pronounced. Even daily strife seems more apocalyptic. Eventually, the addiction gets tied into survival itself, deep in your limbic brain. Then you’re really screwed, because to dislodge it you’ve got to break that bond by pushing your insatiable to its be-all-end-all limit. Rock bottom isn’t a catch phrase; it’s a biological event.
Asking an addict to give up his/her insatiable of choice is asking them to live a life of less-than, of deliberate ‘missing out’, in a universe of mocking abundance. It’s counterintuitive and downright abusive. Because, as addiction alters the chemical landscape of the brain, what used to be enough… just isn’t. Not doing drugs, or even not wanting to do drugs isn’t the answer. An addict must be coached how to rehabilitate their brain until they actually, on all levels of cognition and emotion, want to want not to do drugs. How? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but stay tuned to upcoming posts for some innovative Blank Canvas Living ideas, techniques, and exercises.
I believe Peaches Geldof, an admitted perfectionist with a creative brain prone to obsessiveness (documented eating disorders and – well intentioned – attachment parenting), was looking for her Secret Garden. And in this society, aren’t we all? For Peaches, a lifetime of unhealthy observed and inherited brain patterns, exaggerated by addiction, kept leading her back to heroin – the universal good mother. It wasn’t supposed to kill her, just give her a break, a rest, an ugly-edged bliss in a viable world that must have left her feeling constantly on-edge, never good enough. I don’t blame her. Not because she had a disease, but because she never knew she could create a choice.
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.
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.