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Learning To Dance In Survival Mode – Part Two – Recognition and Roots

So, when you know that you are in survival mode – what the hell do you do now?

If you are just joining in on the journey, check out the backstory post here.

In the backstory, I shared how I ended up in survival mode, not once, but twice. I hope that some of the patterns and stories in there will help others understand what it means to be in survival mode and to help us recognize when we are in it.  The costs to our mental health are common, but often go unrecognized for long periods of time.

It’s all well-and-good to recognize that we are in survival mode, and as significant as that step is – there is a lot of work to be done to get back to a feeling of wellness. First though, take a moment to applaud yourself or your loved one for having taken the time required to realize that they are here.

Knowing is half the battle they say. Many people never make it to this point. So pour a glass of water, brew your favourite tea – and appreciate that you’ve taken the first, and most, necessary step.

Lets set some expectations.

via GIPHY

From my experience, you’ll spend as much time getting back up out of survival mode, as you have spent being knocked down into it. There is a time scale at play here. For example, if you’ve been struggling for the last year, plan for six months to a year to feel like you are back on your feet and thriving. It’s not by any means that it isn’t possible that you’ll get back up quicker, but more often than not, it takes a good deal of time.

If you are some unicorn-like figure that has caught this modality one month in – then yay! – You’re a unicorn, and you’ll have a shorter trip back out. It’s a rarity, so you should unquestionably take a moment to celebrate.

Regaining a sense of well being takes time.

You’ve developed habits along the way that are no longer going to serve you. You are going to have to reset your frame of mind. No matter what anyone tells you – this is not going to happen overnight. It takes patience, practice, and gentleness.

If you can accept that it will take time at the beginning of the journey, your likelihood of success, in the end, is going to go up dramatically. The longer you’ve been working on cementing a habit, the longer it is going to take to overwrite what is there.

Now, this isn’t to say, if there is something that you’ve been doing for 25+ years that it will take you another quarter century to overcome it. I’d wager you are still looking at around a year to have your new habits and modes built with strong foundations.

Ok – enough with the downer realism, yeah?

You’ll need to acknowledge how imperfect the journey is. Your mental health will thank you.

Ok, I fibbed a little. We are not entirely done setting expectations here. Look, life isn’t all sunshine and roses…but you know that already.

It’s been a long-held frustration for me that articles, people, and resources will hit on a few things that you can do to improve your mental health, to get out of survival mode – but they completely gloss over the fact that it is going to take ongoing work. You won’t read one listicle and cease to suffer. Shame on them for suggesting that it works that way. 

You are not going to read this and then magically feel better. I’m tired of people and articles and self-helpery perpetuating this bullshit notion that there are magic cures.

I’m sorry folks, there isn’t. Things can definitely get better – and if you work on it, they will. They key though….you have to work on it. 

Things can get better.

You will have good days and bad days. Good hours and bad hours. This is completely OK. One should expect it isn’t going to be a straight line out – it wasn’t a straight line into it. If you look at the bad days with the right perspective, they’ll even make the good days that much better! The contrast is a large part of what makes the journey meaningful.

My intention is just to help you feel equipped to start– for now. To understand, realistically, what the journey ahead is going to look like.  How does the saying go…”If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Recognize, reset, reframe.

via GIPHY

If you spent a month combing the internet for the path out of survival mode, you’d see a million variations of the same few concepts. (I’ve looked). Since my first journey over a decade ago, I’ve been amassing information, tools, books, and first-hand hand experience using every one of them.

It’s the details around the tools you would use that change from one approach to the other – but the core concepts stay the same. They also have a logical order, one building off the other.

1. Recognize.

Recognizing that both my positive & negative emotions may be dangerous if they are not controlled and guided to desirable ends, I will submit all my desires, aims and purposes to my faculties of reason, and I will be guided by it in giving expression to these.

Bruce Lee – via Brain Pickings

It’s a hard step at first. Recognize means to practice and cultivate an awareness of how you are feeling. If you genuinely want to be able to change the state you are in, first, you need to become fully aware of how your state is impacting you. How the inputs in your life affect that state as well. Honing your observational skills can take some time and concentrated effort.

Take a minute – stop reading – and think about ways you could cultivate an awareness. I’ll be here when you get back.

Chances are, whatever came to your mind, those are things that are most likely to work for you. Right now, at least.

Journaling and meditation are two of my favourite tools for sharpening this skill. Yup, they are referenced a lot in material like “How to have the best day ever.” Those absurdly lofty goals I have a hard time with. Improvement doesn’t have to sound like perfection folks.  – But these claims are created with good reason, even if the positioning is taking away from their effectiveness.

Julia Cameron popularized the concept of morning pages, where you set a timer or a length target and begin writing. You let your mind flow, the only goal is to keep the pen moving. It’s a stream of consciousness writing exercise that can be quite revealing.  In my love dialogue exercise – I used a variation of it and ended up learning quite a bit about my thought processes around love and how my mind approaches it.

Meditation is a gentle means of practicing and strengthening your observational skills. For many, it’s uncomfortable at first. For most, we expect sitting there with an empty, silent mind. A quiet mind is neither the goal nor the reality. It’s about learning to step into a position that allows you to examine your thoughts openly. We become the observer. As we learn to step back from our thoughts, we begin seeing and understanding our patterns. If you want to read more about my thoughts on mindfulness, you can read about it here.

There are other options too if you are finding yourself recoiling from the idea of journaling an meditation, I’ll provide a list in the next post. But after much trial and error, these are the two that have by far worked the best for me.

2. Reset.

Reset is tricky. There is a mental hurdle we must overcome first – and I’ve observed many people fall off here. Resetting first requires an understanding that we’ve chosen our perspectives. Many folks find this offensive at first.

“I feel how I feel, I’m not choosing to be miserable.” “I don’t choose my emotions.”

Except…yeah. You are choosing. Yes, you do pick them.

I say this, with a firm understanding that each time I’ve entered survival mode, or significant depression, or extended periods of being generally miserable – that yes, when we peel back the layers – I was, in fact, choosing to be that way. I hinted at this in the first post in the series.

It sucks to hear because it also implies that there is no one to blame but ourselves. From our prerogatives, it can’t be our fault. It was all that shit that happened to us. Further, if we are responsible for being here, that also means it’s on us to get out.

But it’s not the things that happen to us, friends – it’s the meaning we assign to them. The perspective through which we choose to look at it. No, it isn’t easy (especially at first) to accept this, let alone do anything about it. But this is precisely why this work is so damned important.

When we allow ourselves to take the responsibility and power that comes with being the authors of our meanings, there is nothing more completely liberating. It’s an ongoing responsibility.

When you own your perspective, you can change it. Nothing is good or bad; it is your perspective of it that is good or bad.

You are in control of your perspective.

Here’s a thought about perspective:

Picture this familiar scenario:

1.
You are driving down the highway, and the driver next to you swerves into your lane nearly causing an accident. You honk, yell, and become angry.

Now, often when we react this way, there is some combination of assumptions happening. “That asshole isn’t paying attention.” “Look at what they did to me.” “Is this person drunk? I can’t believe they are putting other people at risk like this.” “That prick is going to hurt someone, just cutting me off on the highway like they own the goddam road.”

You remain angry for a while, perhaps tailgating them, and likely fuming about this moment for the rest of your journey. Red-faced and blood pressure has risen, white-knuckled fists of rage gripping the steering wheel until you arrive at your destination.

Not a fun trip.

Now picture this:

2.
A couple of months later, you are driving down the highway after a long night of sitting at the hospital with a loved one in critical care. You haven’t slept, and you are nauseous with worry. Your phone rings and with a glance you see it’s the hospital calling, but in your sleepy state you drop the phone under your feet. As you reach for it, your car swerves. You don’t notice this, as you are consumed with the concern about the call might. Is your loved one ok? Off in the distance, you hear something like a honking horn, but barely take note while your mind races with all the horrid possible meanings of the phone call, and frantically trying to get your phone off the floor.

It’s understandable. Sure, maybe someone else should have drove, but that just isn’t always an option, is it?

The story looks different from the perspective of the second driver, yes?

So my point is twofold here.

In situation 1 we made snap judgements and assigned meanings in the blink of an eye. The swerving car was the input, that part cannot be changed. The assumptions and meanings we chose after the input though, have a very obvious effect on the moments that follow. We assumed the driver was doing this with some degree of intentionality or neglect, we placed a tone of arrogance. We felt slighted by their disregard for us. We assumed the worst of them. We became angry.

What if instead of these assumptions, we assumed the driver that cut us off was living situation 2?

What if we took a moment to think about what that situation must be like?

Would we feel angry?  Would it ruin our day? Or would we feel concern, perhaps gentle forgiveness? Would we instead hope the best for them in their situation? Would we let it go faster if we thought – maybe this person needs support, rather than anger?

The meanings we assign to the things that happen are powerful.

The impact of these meanings ripple out into our day in ways we don’t wholly realize at that moment. The meanings that we assign to the input from the driver do in fact have a significant impact on how we proceed. The thing is, we can always choose what the meaning is. We don’t have to know the actual details; we are filling them in any way. You can though, practice selecting the meaning.

You can also, at any time find yourself on either side of this story. Drive long enough, and you will make a foolish mistake. People will cut you off. Leading with acceptance is the right action.

structure of experience - choosing reactions to inputs meaning emotion response
The lightbulb is where we get to have an impact.

It’s not about choosing the emotion – it’s about selecting the meaning that produces the emotion that is most beneficial to you. Changing emotions is borderline impossible, a brute force attack on the mind that most of us are not equipped to fight.

This is where so much advice in this vein goes wrong. It’s those moments before the emotion arises that you have incredible power.

To capture and impact that split second before the emotion comes up – you have to have cultivated the awareness of your thoughts. See how mindfulness is a powerful tool now? By practicing being the observer of the thought, rather than being the thought, we have handed ourselves a fantastic capability.

It’s a shortcut through the loop of experience. A way to put more control in our hands. To stand up and take action.

And it’s not about changing from “negative to positive” – let’s just start with useful and not useful. 

3. Reframe.

This is where the real heavy lifting comes in. The ongoing work. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. Just because it’s tricky though, doesn’t mean you can’t do it, or it isn’t worth it.

You my stubborn brat, are more than capable!

After you have cultivated the ability to recognize thought patterns and found your reset opportunities, the reframe work comes in to play. This is a muscle that is widely and massively under-developed in most people.

But, it is beautiful in its simplicity. 
You get to choose your perspective right now – so which one best serves you? Is it perhaps the more favourable story of the driver cutting you off, instead of the one that leads to anger?

Is it perhaps, that somehow, the pain you are experiencing is a gift, and you have the opportunity to extract some beautiful experiences and understanding from what you are going through?

You have permission to try things on. Experiment. There are no wrong answers. You get to decide the meaning you are placing on things, and through this, how events in your life will impact you. Often, it is helpful to work on this muscle outside of the heated moment. This is where things like affirmations can be helpful – and no, they don’t have to be absurd or fluffy. It’s just setting your intentions.

You get to practice. You get to play.

You get to learn to dance with the pain and frustrations that we all experience – 
And you get to learn to create art out of it.

Don’t worry if it doesn’t seem easy right now. It probably won’t be. Just take some time to enjoy the possibility. 

Stay tuned for part 3, where we’ll explore some of this in more depth, and start creating an action plan!

Let me know if this was helpful and how you are going to apply in the comments below 💙

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Learning To Dance In Survival Mode – Part One

Part one of three in a series on mental illness, the effects it has, and healing. Consider this the backstory.

To say that this has been difficult to write would be an understatement of proportions so epic, I can’t find a word or cliche to cover it. I have started and scrapped 31 drafts at this point. From pen and paper to seven different digital writing tools, even finding the right space even to string the words together has been a battle fit for a Tolkien novel.

But somewhere in the war of putting one word after another is a direct relationship to what you need to hear. Sometimes shit is hard. Sometimes we spin our wheels and feel completely overwhelmed. This needs to be ok. And we need to talk about it.

We have to allow ourselves to dance with this mess, to confront it, to accept it, and to see it for all that it is. We must get comfortable staring it down. The way out is always going to be through. There is no real avoidance, ultimately only delay tactics.

So I’m walking the talk, and sharing the messy details of my adventure into, and the journey out of this fight-and-flight mode of being. It has not been a perfect road, and this is why it needs to be shared.

For those unaware of what survival mode is, let us take a moment to examine it.

We all experience stress and struggle at different points in our lives, and many of us will also live through some level of depression. Survival mode is an amplification of the side effects of these things. Generally triggered by prolonged periods of stress and often accompanying depression, it is a mode where our instinctive minds turn everything into, well, a battle for survival.

Think of the sci-fi fantasy where the ship has taken on damage, and it diverts power to life support systems, which usually results in a lack of power for the engines or shields. The resources become focused on one system, to the detriment of others. Everything becomes an attack on your ability to maintain your life support systems.

The details and mileage will vary depending on the individual, but some classic characteristics are:

• Feelings of helplessness and powerlessness
• Everything feels like a crisis, or highly urgent
• Inability to put attention on the future, there is only getting through the day
• Pushing others away, due to a lack of energy to deal with them
• Isolation from people and things you used to enjoy
• Disturbed sleep and complete inattention to diet

• Stuck in a reactive mode (lacking proactivity)
• Repetitive thoughts of “why is this happening to me.”

There are a few subtle differences and some considerable similarities here to depression. Think of depression as survival mode’s apathetic cousin. They often join the party together, but survival mode turns the party into an anxiety-addled shit show. Though the effects are not always neon-sign obvious, the observant will see them happening in themselves or the folks around them.

Survival mode by definition inhibits our ability to thrive.

Not my first rodeo.

Feelings of shame and the desire to run when in survival mode is normal.

My familiarity with the reductive experience of survival mode is a point of shame for me. Pity that, as I ventured down into it again, I didn’t recognize that I was fighting for emotional survival sooner. Shame that I didn’t implement the things I’ve learned as well as I could have.

Shame that it keeps happening.

But also, a point of pride. Once I heard the call of experiences past, the ability to stand more resolute in who I needed to be, came naturally.

See, I’ve run the gauntlet of trauma before, and have journeyed up and out into healthy and fully expressed living previously.
Seventeen years ago a series of events kicked-off that would lead to a forfeiture of health, happiness, well-being, and empowerment. This particular chunk of the journey is not the point I want to make, but knowing about the perspective it brought is vital to the second act of this tale.

So in rapid-fire bullet form:

  • About halfway through my college program, I find out that the college fund I worked to contribute to was stolen from me. There is no more money for tuition. My step-father eventually pleads guilty to theft, to the tune of about $10,000. He leaves our family.
  • I end up marrying the man I’m with at the time, who I’ll eventually find out had been having an affair longer than our actual marriage.
  • Just before we marry, I have an ectopic pregnancy. I enter the hospital with the pain, not knowing I am pregnant. That the pregnancy is growing in my fallopian tube is missed on the first ultrasound is not seen, leading to a month-long stay in the hospital. I am pulled off of pain medication and labelled a drug seeker, and being switched through four different doctors while they try to figure out what is wrong with me. I am treated abusively and callously while I’m terrified and in incredible, focused pain. Eventually, I have emergency surgery to remove the pregnancy. (I’ll eventually have a second ectopic and am told I have little likely-hood of being able to carry a pregnancy to term in the future.)
  • I enter a significant and prolonged depression, as I’ve developed multiple health problems. Getting care and diagnosis proves to be a battle, and we believe it is due to the drug-seeker label form the pregnancy. The exhaustion from trying to get help leads to a suicide plan. The gift of self-awareness, a good friend, and a supportive mother result in checking myself into the hospital.
  • I am diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, a chronic widespread pain disorder that is very poorly understood.

I can’t tell you precisely when survival mode kicked in during all that, just that it unquestionably did. My world reduced to making it through the hour. I couldn’t see beyond the moment or the things that I was reacting to. I felt hopeless and confined beyond explanation. Happiness was something I was sure I would never experience again.

Over a couple of years, and with some fortunate help, I was able to shift into a positive, learning and growing mode. I began to search for possibility and embrace it. Instead of letting my conditions put me on disability, I went to work in a restaurant kitchen.
I learned that it is not that the things that happen to us, but what we do with them that matters. We get to choose. I turned the things that had happened to me into a source of strength.

No, I would not be defined by this.

The second wave is shattering my worldview, allowing me to rebuild it.

When you are looking after your mental health it becomes clear that the only way out is through.

While I had gained the ability to stand tall with my struggles, it would take another wave of “I can’t believe this is happening” for me to learn the faults in the ways I learned to cope.

During the last three years, I have been watching my twelve-years-younger brother enter his own dance with mental illness. A dark and twisted tango. It started out harmless enough, many of the standard pieces of coming-of-age that we all expect. Drinking, drugs, poor decision making. Growing distance from his longtime friends, and from his family.

But the decent would be faster and more profound than any of us could have imagined. In what would typically be considered three short years, but in reality were the longest of my life, we watched helplessly as his life blew apart at the seams. He’s now in prison.

I’m fighting the urge to lay the entire story bare here and now, but this format doesn’t lend well to the detail that is required to do it justice – but that story is coming soon. For now, let your imagination fill in the gaps – it’s probably not far off. You can check out a short non-fiction story I wrote here in the middle of this journey.

Over the course of his battle, my mother and I would wrestle and come face-to-face with powerlessness and a life-consuming worry. It goes far beyond a squandering of potential or worrying that someone is drinking too much. The point where we were forced to see how bad it had honestly gotten came about two years ago.
It was the first severe mental break we witnessed. There may have been others, though on a smaller scale – the warning signs were everywhere. It needs to be said – there is precious little you can do to stop a spiral for someone else. A lesson we were not prepared to learn.

He and his partner had a young child, just a couple months old – when something snapped in him. This was well into the pattern of drug abuse, lying, and all that comes with it. There was some sort of fight that triggered it. He chugged a half dozen beer and went to the house his partner and child were at, in the middle of a psychotic break. He was trying to fight his way into the house, where there was also a group of people, to say goodbye to the mother and child. Our mother was there, witnessing part of this unfold. Some people at the house fought him off, and he left to find a knife. He frantically sliced up his arms and wrists, and through a stroke an incredible fortune, the blade he was able to find wouldn’t be able to accomplish the task he wanted. With bloodied arms, he would return to the house. My mother would call the police, trying desperately to find a way to stop this scene from happening. He’s screaming at everyone and everything. He’d leave the house, and mom would follow along behind him, still on the phone with dispatch.

She would end up watching him get taken down by three officers while screaming for them to “just kill me, I want to die.” They’ll hold him for a couple of hours and take him to the hospital.

I end up there next to him in the hospital, waiting for him to be seen. He refuses to talk to our mother, due to her having just called the cops on him. I watch him cycle through completely mania, terrifying anger, and utter despair every two to three minutes for hours. After a 20 minute conversation with a psychologist, and bandaging his arms, they release him that night. I even plead with the doctor in front of my brother to keep him there, at least for a couple of days – but he refuses.

So he comes to stay with me. That night we talk a bit, but he’s exhausted. The next evening, he sneaks away from the house. For a couple of hours, I’m panic ridden that he’s tried to return to the mother and child. I mean, he hasn’t gotten any help, and has had one dose of medication – how can this be even remotely stabilized?

In the end, it was true, he had gone to see her. She lied about him having been there until she was sure that I knew. They both had been lying to us for so long it came as no shock that it was happening still, but this time it became terrifying.

In what must have been incredible clairvoyance, just a week earlier there had been a series of small events that made us confident that things were going to get worse. The safety of the child was and had been obviously at risk. My mother and I spent a nine-hour day going to every social office available. To mental health and through their departments. We spoke to the police. We called every number on the hand out cards, trying everything we could to get them, and the child help. Desperate to avoid the action that ultimately had to be made. We ended up calling social services and reporting the stories that each of them were telling us. We discussed with the caseworker that they both had been lying to us, and we genuinely had no way of know what the truth was. We filed the report with child protective services.

It was only days later that the whole terrifying scene happened. But it wouldn’t be the bottom. Far from it. It wouldn’t be the end of the lies. Far from it. But this would be the beginning of my shift into survival mode again.

I felt trapped.

You don’t have to be trapped in survival mode, you can start taking little steps to get out.

The effects of his battle had ripple effects that people just don’t talk about. That house I mentioned him fighting his way into? That was a meeting place for my social circle. I play in a band, and they regularly have bands play there. His partner? – The sister of a once close friend. This epically messed up scene was happening in the middle of my social life. The shame, powerlessness, the frustration, and isolation, the illness that affected him – made me feel incredibly disconnected from the social safety net we should have in times like these.

I had just started a new career and needed to focus on getting up to speed and contributing. But things just refused to happen outside of 9-5. Phone calls and emergencies would happen, literally pulling me away from work.
It strained my relationship with my partner. Every time things seemed to calm down for a while, some other bizarrely dramatic thing would happen. It twisted the relationship with my mother. She was angry, and worst of all powerless to help her baby boy. I guarantee you, no mother deals well with this.

There was no corner of my life outside of reach. This is where the contraction began. I felt suffocated by circumstances I couldn’t control, and the occasional, “why is this happening to me” became consuming. I started shutting down and lashing out. I was angry. I couldn’t write anymore. Writing would mean confronting this head on and working through it, but all I seemed to have the strength to do was spin my wheels in self-pity and utter confusion that things had gotten this bad. My brother and I had been very close his whole life. I began blaming myself for how bad things had gotten for him. Let me tell you – that shit is dangerous.

There were good weeks and bad weeks. I was able to bring back some of the tools I had learned from my first dance with this devil. In the periods where I was able to get the hell out of my own head, I’d set up a morning routine. A few minutes of meditation, a few minutes of yoga and stretching. A gratitude practice. When I’d keep this up, I was doing quite well. Rather than being the thriving mechanisms, they ought to be though, they were survival mechanisms.

Things with my brother continued to worsen but in a quieter way. Quite literally because he had stopped speaking to us, they both had. With the quiet, I delved deeper into the tools, doing the work and trying to get back on my feet. I was still in pain, consumed by worry – replaying each event over and over in my head, and feeling isolated, part by choice, and part by consequence of that social overlap. I call in multiple safety checks on him and gain a comfort calling police dispatch no one should really have. Every homeless person on the street and the vast majority of television become trigger points for me.

The spiral wasn’t over, but the way out would become clear.

Then I got a message from an old friend I rarely speak with. She’d heard that my brother had been arrested. Let me assure you, to say my stomach dropped is the understatement of the damned century. Remember I said he’s in prison?
#Metoo is at a fever pitch, and my brother has been charged with assault and sexual assault. At the time of the attack, his arm was in a cast. His cast is to try and save the tendons he had severed in his wrist, and no, not from the incident I detailed above. All aspects and consequences of what I’ve explained, worsened. My dance with survival mode intensified.

Somewhere in here too, I have acute and severe pelvic pain that has developed, I’m regularly seeing doctors trying to figure out what is going on – I’m incredibly low on energy to cope. I’ll make yet another trip through physiotherapy to bring the pain levels down to something manageable. As I’m writing this, I’m on the list to get a hysterectomy. Three to four months from now, I’ll officially be sterile.

But last fall, just after a tonsillectomy, and smack in the middle of the 19 months between the charges and my brother being taken into custody, when I’m just utterly unable to speak, a friend grabs me by the shoulder while staring me intently in the eyes and asks, “what is the gift this experience is giving you?”

Without hesitation, my first thought is something along the lines of, you have to be f$%#@ing kidding me. I’m relatively sure I reacted with resistance. But I knew it to be entirely correct. There was a gift, there was something to be gained, I would be better for the experience – if only I’d look up. If I’d just get the hell out of my own head, and stop pitying myself.

It was a siren call to everything I’ve learned. I’ve been here before, I know how to get out. I know how to thrive, to stand tall – not in spite of everything I’ve experienced, but because of it. The gifts of it all abound. No, they are not all pretty and perfect, and the road out is far from a straight line.

I’m here to tell you that the journey is beautiful because it is imperfect.

Getting your mental health back on track is a two-way street.

It is a truth I know in the core of my being. The key is simple, so simple that it seems impossibly complicated.

It’s a choice. We choose our perspectives, whether actively or passively. We decide whether we are happy. We determine whether we grow. We choose the impact things will have on us. When we’ve entered into something like depression or survival mode, to hear these things sound like the most offensive words. Because in a sense, they are.

When we think of the inspiring stories from terminal cancer patients or quadriplegics thriving in their lives and circumstances, it imbues us with a hope that we too may have the strength to hold their perspectives – but we gloss over the part where all they are doing is making a choice. They are choosing to move beyond the constriction that comes with the struggle they face, they choose to stand tall, to be “brave,” to be everything that they are – often with a beautiful, reckless abandon. Life has provided them with enough resistance, that the choice of happiness and love seems the most obvious. It has put things into perspective for them.

So yes. It is a choice.

When I mentioned using tools like meditation, yoga and gratitude journalling – the word tool was very deliberate. They are not what cures the ailments, they are means to access a different way of thinking. They are subtle means to make small choices, leading to the big one that seems overwhelming.

It is a choice that has to be made many, if not hundreds, of times a day. Every moment that arises, every sequence of nows. That’s all anything really is. Now, and now, and now. It’s not the stories we tell ourselves about what has happened, or what might happen. It’s right now.

It’s what you choose to do with now.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to start trying. Keep trying.

Be strong. Stay tuned. The best is yet to come.

Edit:  Part 2 is now available, you can read it here!

On Pickles And Kindness

Kindness isn’t always natural.

In my little corner of reality, it has been a get knocked down, get back up rollercoaster this year. Such is life though, ebbs and flows of successes & failures, joys & pains, happiness & sorrows. In truth, it wouldn’t be as much fun if it weren’t.  T’is the season. ( A little heads up, I started writing this in the fall, and somehow life just happened. Now it’s March.  Screw it – the thought remains. )

a little kindness grows the best fruit

Ideas are brewing

Fall can be an excellent time of year. The foliage does its final dance of fire before blanketing the ground. Harvest is in full swing, and vegetables are the best prices of the year. The high tempo of summer slows down. It’s also when I tend to be the most introspective and reflective. The awareness that hibernation season is upon us always leads to reflection on how the year has gone – what went well, what I could improve upon, and my general sense of the world. Perhaps it is because I have a fall birthday this is amplified, my real new year if you will.

It’s the season that makes me think of my grandmother the most.

But then she was on my mind a lot this year. There were qualities of hers that I thought of often over the months and during my rollercoaster sessions.

She was the embodiment of many contradictions, on the surface. Once a victim of polio, she had a relatively frail body. To lift one of her arms, she would have to push it up with the other. She slept with a respirator – the humming sound and beeps as she would move are still something I hear when I think of her. But good lord, she was tough. Resilience, I believe, is something I learned from her first. She was always working on something – usually keeping the lot of us fed. Harvest season was preserve season, which meant very long days in the kitchen and the garden. The only real break time was if someone stopped by for tea (she always had a pot on).

She also very rarely expressed anger. Quite possibly, she had a capacity for forgiveness that far outweighs the sum of all others I’ve ever known. She was a soldier of loving kindness.

Freefall into pickles.

This fall, nearly without realizing it, as my roller-coaster-called-life was going into a freefall of rapid-fire struggles – I found myself searching for a coping mechanism. I spent a day in near silence with my journal, reflecting, assessing, and searching for a meaning I could assign to the events. The events themselves don’t matter as much as the recognized need to create the space required to foster understanding and significance.

Somewhere in the back of my mind sat the image of my grandmother, though I don’t think I realized it at the time. The resolution to persevere kicked in, and then seemingly without conscious thought, I found myself at a local vegetable stand purchasing a trunk load of top quality candidates for pickling.

sterilized jars on counter

My kitchen is a time warp.

A quick search to find a couple of recipes that sounded close to grandmother’s, and I set off chopping.

Working in the kitchen is a form of active meditation for me. Just occupied enough to let my mind wander and observe the thoughts that come up. Like a steam engine getting up to speed, I start slowly, then overlap the tasks enough that I’m entirely maxed out. I love it here in this state of flow.

It feels like mere minutes have passed, but 7 hours later, liters of pickled beets, tomato sauce and cucumbers brining for mustard pickles are filling the counters, and my mind is now resolute. The path forward is clear.

cucumbers in brine in front of espresso machine

Brining cucumbers for mustard pickles

The temptation to hate.

When we feel attacked, slighted, hurt, betrayed – the temptations and instincts are to lash out, to be angry, to get even. Something important to us is challenged, and our animal minds rise to this aggressively. Someone does something that we perceive to be wrong, and we shun or shame them. These days, it seems incredibly rare to take a deep breath and step back. Look at the situation and triggers with our “selves” removed. Step into the third-person view.

Hurt people, hurt people. Have you ever seen a happy, glowing, healthy person lash out and cause someone else pain? If you think you have, I suggest you look a little deeper. Beneath the surface, I’m willing to guarantee; something is happening. This person is lashing out to cause the pain that they are feeling. They inflict the pain and further deepen their situations, often leaving themselves outcast and secluded, even if temporarily. It is a shit, broken coping mechanism.

So, the original hurt person starts a chain reaction. They cause you pain. You reciprocate. You lash out again because you too are now hurting.

Stop the fucking cycle.

Precisely because it is not the easy thing to do – choose to stop perpetuating these actions. The easy way hasn’t been working has it? The easy way is how we end up with world leaders in pissing contests and child-like insult hurling. I feel like mentioning a particular president’s Twitter feed, but I don’t want to distract from the point. Isn’t it vaguely ironic that we don’t accept, “but he was mean to me,” dialogue from children, yet we do it on an automatic level as adults? How arrogantly hypocritical of us.

So here we are in the face of anger and hurt, what to do?

Respond to hurt with kindness. Take as many deep breaths as you need, and open your heart.

Start with baby steps, cause it’s a big leap from old habits. First, try remembering that whatever you are facing – it has way less to do with you than you think. Whether it’s the guy yelling at you in traffic cause you aren’t moving fast enough, your partner angrily throwing insults about how you’ve failed to clean up again, all the way down into the darkest depths of assault and tragedy…that shit isn’t about YOU. It’s about them and how they perceive their world at that moment. It’s a choice that they are making not you, and probably the best one they can make at that exact moment. As impossible as it may seem, it is imperative that we choose the believe that those around us are doing the best they can at any given moment. It is the pinnacle of arrogance to assume that you would react any differently if you were living that person’s experience, and dealing with their interpretation of the inputs.

Sure, you can see other ways to behave — you are not in the map of reality they are drowning in.

It is an act of profound love and kindness to be forgiving with the transgressions of others. To lay down the torch and choose empathy.

So what the hell do pickles and kindness have to do with each other?

Pickles – sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, sometimes mild, sometimes intense. Paired well, they add a depth and brightness to any dish – enhancing the qualities of everything around it. They are the punctuation mark that makes everything so sweet.

Kindness – that something extra that doesn’t always come naturally. Without it, things turn sour – moods, relationships, thoughts, stories. But it is so powerful, over time it can turn even the most acidic things sweet. It adds incredible depth to both our internal and external lives. It enhances everything that it touches. And when it is the most challenging choice and is still chosen – it makes everything around it brighter.

Perhaps it is best summed up by a thought relayed to me by one of the most inspirational people I know:

It’s frustrating to me, that people think that things are meaningless. We look at the scope of the universe and then decide things don’t matter.  But there’s this man, walking down the street, he’s sad, he’s dirty, he’s scowling. Person after person walks by him, sometimes crossing the street to avoid him, none of them make eye contact. But you see him, and lock eyes, maybe you offer him a cigarette – a little gesture of kindness. And then as he continues to walk, there’s a little light in his eyes, a little more of a smile. Then people aren’t crossing the street to avoid him. That little gesture ripples out, has a butterfly effecti – until he’s met with more kindness.

That’s far from insignificant. All the little things matter.

 

kindness pickles and choice choosing kindness even when it isn't easy.

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