How to stop sweating the small stuff… once you’ve already started

angry womanTragedy, 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.

Introduction to pragmatic system state theory

systems theory philosophy diagramPragmatic system state theory is a conceptual model of the human experience that integrates general systems theory and pragmatism to produce a framework for practical therapeutic application…

wait…WAIT! I can’t do this. I can’t write this. There’s too much pressure. How the hell am I supposed to fit years worth of thought experiments into a single blog post? But I can’t weasel out… not when I’ve promised a paradigm shift. You’ll begin to feel it as I’ve felt it… or I’ll fail… epically. No escape. Prefrontal cortex shutting down… everything is panic…torture to think… losing my words… mind paralyzed, body fidgety, sweating, fighting to flee this one awful clawing question of how do I write this when words only tell us what we already know?

An idea. Not new, but seen through a different lens and a different language. I am alone, yet I am everything and everyone. I am the least and the most important expression of our universe. My time is infinite, yet quantized to the space of a single breath. In… Out… Each cycle a life lived in full.

Concept One: Our universe is expressed through time as a system – a set of elements that form a whole – whose boundary can be drawn at any expansion beyond a single point. From micro to macro, our nested human system can be subdivided by our human consciousness from single cell all the way out to the edge of our individual viable worlds. Common patterns, energy transformations, and feedback loops can be observed as consistencies throughout the whole.

Concept Two: Regardless of where our own system boundary is drawn by our consciousness, each enclosed element can be conceptualized as having equal, infinite importance to the definition of the human experience during a single quantization of time. All outside elements become environmental concerns. Since all possible boundary descriptions coexist through time, all system elements within our universe possess, concurrently, both infinite and insignificant value to the human experience.

Concept Three: When this conscious system boundary positioning is exercised to increase its flexibility, the brain (mind/personality) trades in its seat as master to become equal in importance to all other system elements in the human experience. If we value our own unique existence, the conceptual conclusion of this equality is unrelenting compassion for all elements forming the total universal system.

Concept Four: Accepting this equality of value allows an individual human to consciously engage with his/her system elements (including the brain’s concept of self) with unrelenting compassion and the freedom to assign importance/influence, ranging from infinite to insignificant, according to the choice of system boundary position. This concept eliminates the cognitive dissonance arising from the conflict between our yearning for universal unity (bliss) and our need to assert our individual importance (ego). What was once a struggle becomes a conscious dance between equally valuable expressions of the human experience.

Concept Five: Pragmatic system state theory is concerned with the development of practical exercises and tools for increasing our system boundary flexibility and negotiating our personal system states – where system state is defined as the communal interactions of a set of equally valued elements within a described boundary during a specific quantization of time.

As with any branch of pragmatism, ‘the proof is in the pudding’. Words are just words until they change the way engage with our humanity. A selection of Blank Canvas Living’s upcoming posts will highlight the remarkable therapeutic possibilities of pragmatic system state theory (taking full advantage of current neuroscience and neuroplasticity) in the fields of addiction, mood disorders, relationships, weight loss, productivity… and that’s just the beginning. But for now, perhaps the best argument for this conceptual model is how quickly and efficiently it helped me shift my own system state so I could get my shit together and write this blog post!

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.

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?

Viable Worlds Theory – Why philosophy is more than mental masturbation

socrates greek philosopher cartoonThe successful survival of our species has always depended on pattern prediction. We model our brains and our behaviours on the patterns we experience and adopt as truth. We then fit new information into these existing structures that dictate our interpretations and attentions. The following three basic patterns found throughout nature easily illustrate this precept:

1) Sequences – From ’rounding the bases’ while dating to predicting the sequence of seasons/weather for agriculture
2) Branched Hierarchies – From attention priority scales (eg: run from wasp – run screaming from bee) to societal/job roles
3) Networks – From understanding our interaction within ecosystems to Richard Branson’s business success

Countless patterns, many coded within our own bodies, can be translated from micro through to macro: torus energy fields, gravity, the golden mean, crystallography… etc. How many humans have devoted their lives to finding the ‘one governing pattern behind everything’? Although this one-ring-to-rule-them-all search is undoubtedly a noble, and most exquisitely human, cause (and who am I to say it can’t be done!), I propose we lay out on the grass with Socrates and take a bit of a breather.

Socrates had the balls to confess his truth, that “all I know is that I know nothing.” In his classical world, full of proportions and ethical theorizing, this was a tantalizingly provocative admission. But in our globalized, overly connected, overly rationalized, universe, we can’t all just wander around in loosely draped robes getting into philosophical debates with handsome younger, and powerful older, men – although I’ve pretty much just described my idea of heaven. We have to be a tad more, dare I say, pragmatic about things. Yes, James and Kierkegaard were on the right track, but I propose we push their philosophies even further…

The Viable Worlds Theory

First of all, we need the scientific method to adapt to the 21st century. It was all fine and good for the Enlightenment, and even for Kant’s obsessive categorizing. But truisms are so, like, pre-Edwardian. Wake up people! Even fashion’s gone individual! We need to drop the attention directing ‘hypothesis’, and demand ‘conclusion statements’ that include multiple interpretations of the data set. Let’s pass our results around to different faculties, post them on social media for public interpretation, and get correlation perspectives from a wide variety of personal paradigms.

But how do we function, let alone thrive, in a world of such unfathomable complexity? How can we have faith in faith when we accept the validity of all? Do we have to put ourselves through the strictest asceticism, like Gautama Buddha and Martin Luther, before we reach enlightenment? Or get all uppity like, and I type this with utmost respect, Muhammad and Confucius? Just relax, I’ve got good news for you. You’re already living in your own viable world.

Whether you define your core as your pineal gland, your sub or straight-up conscious mind, or the surface of your skin, your individual viable world (your personal paradigm) extends outwards through (as many as you believe exist) dimensions from this point all the way to the edge of the universe – wherever you understand that edge to be. This is your reality, and all your patterns, values, and decisions will be guided by this framework. As unromantic as it may sound, every human is essentially living in their own world. I believe we have an intuitive sense of this principle – just look at the language we use: “living in his own little world”, “welcome to my world”, “it was like stepping into another world.” I’m not going to go all Chomsky on you and insist that language is in itself a philosophical proof, but the lingo is undoubtedly interesting.

Just as so many genes in your DNA can be switched on or off, so to can you negotiate with your viable world. The success of any system, from skin cell to Wall Street, is directly proportional to its ability to regenerate, adapt, and accommodate. These three factors are your go-to checklist for evaluating the personalization of your own viable world. Slow healing/regeneration = change your diet. New boss at work = adapt your priority scale. Just married a writer = accommodate or die. Let’s not forget that we are a social and inherently ambitious species. By comparing our world with the worlds (as expressed and experienced) around us, we can alter our own to best serve our purposes and fulfill the full potential of our preciously unique genetic code.

People who are depressed live in a bleak, unforgiving world because their internal landscape has become bleak and unforgiving. People suffering from cleanliness OCD are, quite literally, living in a world with more germs than the rest of us. All the sufferer’s interpretations, actions, and attentions are in response to this paradigm. Psychopaths think we’re weak, inferior, and sacrificial – of course they do! In their world, wouldn’t you?

What about faith? In my world, my faith is the only truth, stretching from my core out to the edges of my universe. Interacting with people in parallel worlds of faith is a spiritual joy. Other faiths? Other worlds. All viable. All valid. I dare you to have the kind of balls that Socrates dared to parade through the streets of Athens. I dare you to really think about what the viable worlds theory could mean for our global economy/society.

Instead of asking yourself, “What kind of person do I want to be.”

Dare to ask, “What kind of world do I want to live in?”

The 7 habits of highly effective autodidacts

autodidact notebooksAre you a member of AA? We get no respect. No one understands us. We’re forced to sneak off alone to little shadowy (wi-fi equipped) corners to indulge our habits. We don’t get any sympathy, let alone accreditation, for our addictions. Don’t bother hiding your insatiables behind denial. Come on in and pull up a chair. Welcome to Autodidacts Anonymous.

Throughout history, self-directed learners have been responsible for many of our greatest leaps forward in math, science, literature, architecture… etc. I keep this impressive list of self-taught innovators in my back pocket to defend myself against everyone who has called me crazy for choosing to leave university one year into my degree, when I had a 4.0 (as in perfect) GPA and full scholarships for all four years. I know you’re reading this probably thinking, “Idiot!” Shock, disbelief, pure unadulterated horror – the reactions I got were akin to if I’d confessed to a habit of maiming puppies. Worse still, I followed up my news with, “…and I want to be a writer.” Oh the agonies on the faces of those I loved!

Ten years later and I’ve never regretted my choice. Ok, ok, maybe there were one or two brief moments near the beginning when I was on lumber cash at Home Depot dealing with splinters and grumpy contractors at 7:30 in the morning. Since then, I’ve loaded up this brain with a vast and varied cache of information across more fields than I can list, all by using the 7 habits of highly effective (title inspired by this classic tome) autodidacts listed below. How the hell I’m going to use it to make a living has yet to be determined, but I can say with confidence that I have a graduate level degree equivalent in what could best be described as ‘the evolution of ideas’. In school I could feel my brain closing, tightening up, and now I know why…

Standardized education isn’t just about encoding information, it’s about encoding it in pre-prescribed neural linkage maps. The patterns of association that have been formalized by academia dictate to the brain ‘what goes with what’, ‘what came before what’, ‘this is correlated with that’, etc. Oh sure, you can put together a novel thesis within these parameters, but stray too far into divergent thinking and your 1st year T.A. or PHD committee will give you a big fat fail. How did I achieve an A+ average? I wrote my lab reports and picked my projects according to the personality of who was going to be marking them. Talk about subjective!

Not only does self-directed autodidact learning let you maximize your efficiency by engaging your interest and letting your moods and energy levels personalize your self-teaching schedule, it also builds a uniquely uninhibited neural linkage map that will free your brain to make new exciting connections, interpretations, and value assignments. This map grows organically according to your research through time and allows your brain structure and the pattern/chronology of input to directly influence its design. Read on to discover the 7 habits of highly effective autodidacts…
schoolgirlHabit One: Autodidact mission statement
Are you a generalist or a specialist? Are you tackling a specific topic in order to build a new skill set? What is the purpose of your learning? Pure pleasure? Potential profit? An autodidact mission statement will keep you focused on your learning goals and prevent you from getting sidetracked. As a writer and generalist, my learning mission has been to build a knowledge foundation to provide the broadest possible source material for metaphors, plot, settings, and characters – with a focus on cultural paradigm shifts throughout history. What’s yours?

Habit Two: Vary your sources
We live in an autodidact paradise. This article gives a great list of learning tips, resources, and websites. But don’t forget about books, conversations, and tactile explorations. Always approach a topic from multiple perspectives by using multiple sources, especially when using the internet. And if you start watching TED talks, be warned, they are extremely addictive!

Habit Three: Develop a personalized learning system
Are you a visual, auditory, or tactile learner? Develop your learning system to maximize memory encoding efficiency. Highlighting and once-over reading are bullshit. Unless of course, you’re one of those lucky buggers with a photographic memory. I’ve designed my own handwriting font and symbol set for maximum speed and readability. Writing down quotes and important facts gets more of the body/brain involved in the process and turns auditory information into visual and tactile. Taking notes also gives you a record of your autodidacticism. Source memory is easily corrupted, therefore, personally, I don’t bother too much with noting sources. I also recommend drawing pictures and diagrams to maximize your interaction with the topic and get your right brain involved. The more you can load up your associations for a concept, the more the circuitry is strengthened.

Habit Four: Test through application and socialization
Test your knowledge by commenting on related blogs, searching out conversations with people in the field, or by problem solving within your topic. Use the skills you’ve read about in real-world situations. Quiz yourself. Identify patterns across subjects. These patterns will also help in organizing how these topics are encoded in your brain.

Habit Five: Risk the knowledge path less traveled
Yes, the more passionate you are about a topic, the easier it will be to learn. But don’t wuss out and stick to old favourites. Sometimes you will need to hunker down and tackle what I call Bridge Topics. These are the connecting links between topics that don’t immediately engage your attention but will expand your understanding of your favourites (eg. study loom history and not just haute couture). Randomize!! Take advantage of the suggestion list on Youtube. Follow seemingly unrelated topic strings concurrently. Switching it up is a great way to find new patterns and linkages. Tackle Newton for an hour then take on Victorian kitchen gardens!

Habit Six: Respect the importance of words
We encode through interpretation rather than actual word for word. Knowing this, get fierce about the specific words used by your sources, especially quotes. Otherwise, you’ll be learning through a shallow, stagnant perspective and will miss out on the true depth of your study topics. Identify words that repeat across topics. Also, this skill will help you start to pay attention to the actual words used in conversation – especially handy when ‘negotiating’ with your spouse.

Habit Seven: Revisit and review
Periodically revisit and review source material from early in your topic study. Has your perspective changed? Do more layers appear? Does the information seem more nuanced? In terms of perceived importance, which facts stick out as ‘loud’, which are ‘quiet’? Ideally, this pattern will have changed since your first encounter, as your understanding will have evolved. Have you developed your own theses about the topic? Do these challenge the original source but hold up to argument? If so, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve learned something. Which, I believe, is the whole point.

Inside the process of how story and math change our world

historical geniusesHeisenberg’s uncertainty principle applies equally to particles, parabolas, and prose. To describe – which is the common goal of any story or mathematical formula – is to influence the object of observation. Our reflection of reality becomes our measure of the world. isaac newton caricatureBut while Heisenberg’s electrons were thrown off course by photons, the change in our reality is essentially rooted in perception. And because perception is our brain’s only way of interacting with the universe, a change in perception equals a change in our world.

Truth is variable according to our experiences. Our experience of ideas, concepts, and proofs come together to pattern our perception of the truth of our reality. ernest hemingway caricatureWhen not individualized through direct sensory exposure, this ‘experience’ is communicated to our neural networks through a language of symbol: story through words, math through numbers. Both math and literature humanize a universe fraught with chaos by translating it into patterns of information compatible with the structure and function of our brains.

The only difference between story and math is the path of emotional access. Both words and numbers are symbols loaded with meaning and expectation of pattern of connection (eg. sentence structure/ B.E.D.M.A.S.). albert einstein caricatureHowever, words have broader associations and are linked with emotions that, when activated, open and extend our logic parameters to create new suspended realities. We can choose to incorporate these new worlds into our own (The Globe and Mail, religion, this post) or simple abandon them when we get to the last page (fiction, Calgary Sun). Mathematical symbols have a much stricter pattern of expectation that, upon entering the brain, must first be vetted by the logic system in our prefrontal cortex before giving us an emotional response/release in the form of soothing contentment (eg. simple beauty of E=mc2), or that sick feeling you get in your stomach when a formula turns out to be bullshit (eg. string theory… don’t get me started!).

virginia woolf caricatureInterchangeable except for path of emotional access, every story and mathematical formula use a shared humanized language of symbol to communicate novel patterns of perception that, if adopted as truth, change our world.