Mid-November, bring on the SAD

A personal interlude. My energy was subdued today, and at 8 PM it feels like it’s been dark for hours. My appetite has been gravitating toward comfort eating and I’m wanting to sleep more. My mental concentration has turned fuzzy. I used to joke that I must be part bear, as I like to hibernate. The reality is that I’ve been afflicted with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) most of my adult life.

You can google SAD to see the symptoms – the Mayo Clinic page is the first one that comes up for me and it’s pretty accurate. Fortunately, the worst of the mood symptoms can be treated with medication. I still find it hard, though, to rally my energy and concentration during the low-sunlight months.

This raises an interesting question, one first explored by Peter Kramer in his book Listening to Prozac: what does it mean to “feel like oneself?” Dr. Kramer was a practicing psychiatrist when SSRIs such as Prozac first hit the market, and he was struck by how many of his patients would claim “I feel more like myself than I have in such a long time.” Having a bit of a philosophical disposition, he explored this aspect of identity and the possibility of “cosmetic psychopharmacology” in his seminal work.

If my “self” has a baseline of cognitively sharp, personally friendly, generally upbeat, and energetic, then SAD makes me not feel like myself. This leaves me with a couple of choices. I can use medication, light-box therapy, force myself to exercise when it’s the last thing I want to do… basically push myself to do things that once came easily in terms of self care, in the hopes of minimizing the effects of SAD.  Or, I can just accept SAD like the change of seasons.

Again, the fact that I can even consider letting SAD run its course has to do with good medication. I’m not suffering the worst aspects of depression, that crippling soul-pain coupled with spiraling, obsessive thoughts. Given that I’m clinically in a safe place, what about the other symptoms? Increased lethargy, increased need for sleep, decreased enthusiasm for just about anything… None of them are killers. In fact, they’re not even that painful. The problem is, they’re not “me.”

The Buddhists talk about the parable of the two darts. The normal slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are like getting struck by a dart – it’s painful. But when we start bemoaning the fact we were struck by a dart, worrying about what it all means, seeking solace in sensual pleasure… that’s all suffering. It’s like getting hit by a second dart.  So with practice and awareness we can avoid the second dart – we can alter our response to the normal ups and downs of life. Reduce if not eliminate suffering.

I feel like I’m in exactly that position at the moment – how to orient my attitude and actions around the inescapable fact that my neurodynamics change with the seasons. I can reduce the pain of the immediate problem, just as one would dress and bind a dart wound. But to the degree that I struggle with “not feeling like myself” in these times, of pushing myself to do all sorts of things that I would normally want to do, but don’t want to do now… am I just causing suffering? I think the distinction has to do with those actions that will likely result in better health (and to be clear, I don’t consider my current state “different” than usual, but truly “worse.” This isn’t just an equally desirable alternative to “normal.”). If getting my butt in the saddle 2 or 3 times a week is going to alleviate the symptoms, that’s probably a good idea. Kicking myself for not reading as much, or “slacking off” on my guitar project, is not a good idea – that’s true suffering.

Surprisingly, I’ve enjoyed the discipline of pushing myself to write something every day of NaBloPoMo – it reminds me to look inward and see what my mind has been ruminating on today, and expressing that brings a sense of peace, if not resolution.


Metaphors of effort

We have a small meditation group at work that meets Monday and Friday over lunch, and somebody usually sends around a quote to ponder as we sit.  This week the quote (attributed to Buddha) was

Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.

*nods head* Seems simple enough. Discovering my world – both inner and outer – that’s what meditation/therapy/research/exploration is all about, so I get that, I think.  Then there’s the call to action:  “with all your heart give yourself to it.”  That one stopped me in my tracks, when I realized that I had no idea how to do that.

During the post-meditation discussion I brought this point up.  I know how to apply myself to some goals.  Improve my time riding up Old La Honda? A combination of good preparation (training) and knowing when to “kick it” and when to back off cruising up the hills. I know what it feels like to “pour on the effort.”  But how does one “pour it on” when giving oneself to the world?

A colleague reminded me that perhaps the metaphor of “leaning in” or “pouring on” wasn’t quite right. What if we adopted the practice of “opening up the heart?”  Ah!  That brought back memories. I’d started practicing Aikido when I first moved to California, and trained regularly for 4 or 5 years until I started graduate school. One of the basic principles – and one that has to be internalized to the core – is this dual idea of being grounded/centered and being open/receptive. Grounding/centering while being open/receptive allows immense energy (or “ki”) to flow – it’s a feeling of intense aliveness or vitality when one is “in the zone.”

I found this video on YouTube – someone testing for a 4th degree black belt going through the “randori” exercise (defending against a multiple person grappling attack, sort of like being pursued by zombies on speed).

As one can imagine, the energy gets intense when multiple people are coming at you. The examinee has to keep moving, using one attacker to block another, inserting himself decisively when there’s an opening, giving ground when needing to dissipate energy. But if you watch carefully, even on his knees he’s firmly centered, both allowing and controlling the action around him. This is an extreme example of “giving one’s heart to it” without “leaning into it”  (in fact, “leaning into it” is really bad form in Aikido, and is usually an aspect of an attack that’s most readily exploited).

So perhaps “giving one’s heart” isn’t about trying harder or applying oneself more diligently in the classic sense of putting one’s shoulder to the boulder. As I mentioned in the end of my last blog entry, Ecclesiastes suggests that most of the efforts of man are “vanity and chasing after wind.” I’m grateful to be reminded of an alternative way of being fully present and alive – to be centered, grounded, and open-hearted.  That too takes effort, but it’s a very different flavor of effort. For one, it’s non-directional, and non goal oriented.  As I continue to practice and observe perhaps I’ll find better ways to write about it. Personally, the memories of Aikido practice are the touchstone, but other people will have different experiences that resonate.

As for the “discover your world” part of the mission… I’m not sure that’s as obvious as I’d made it out to be, either. I’ll have to keep sitting with that one (which I think is part of the point).


Winning some, losing some, and non-attachment

Setting aside Sunday evenings for a blog update has one unforeseen (but in hindsight obvious) consequence – I may not always be in a blogging mood at the appointed hour. Or more precisely, I may be having feelings and thoughts that are not as pleasant and well-ordered as I would like when it’s time to put e-ink to e-paper. CS geeks recognize this as “event driven” vs. “clock driven” processing.

It’s been an eventful weekend. The bowl I worked on (at the top of this posting) was finished, but not without some hair-raising moments in the final cuts. Just as with one of the last bowls I attempted (using a similar design), I used too much force for what should have been patient light cuts, and the bowl went flying off the lathe into the wall. Instead of shattering into pieces, though, this one only suffered a crack, easily repairable with some CA glue. You can see the entire episode in the frame below (it only lasts 3 or 4 seconds).

I went to a party on Saturday night to give this bowl to a kind gentleman who had given me a trunk load of walnut about six months ago. He was very grateful and thankful, and other party-goers paid some very nice compliments. So that goes in the “win some” column.

At the same party, the host (my sweetie’s uncle) had asked if I’d be interested in playing my guitar, as there’d be other musicians there and I enjoy such informal gatherings, so I said “sure!”  As Lyle Lovett once noted in a song:   “it was then I knew I had made my first mistake.”  I hadn’t been practicing much, and still don’t have anything memorized.  No biggie, I thought – the NYE jam was low-key enough.

I’d forgotten that Unkie (as he’s affectionately known) is a bit more, um, structured in his event planning than the NYE crowd. Some of his friends are professional musicians (i.e., they make a living playing, composing, and teaching music), others are very serious amateurs, and these were the other folks he’d invited to play as well. This wasn’t just a bunch of people singing along to Simon & Garfunkel while a couple of us strummed guitar in the background – this was me sitting on a chair with a living room full of expectant audience members.  After some very good musicians had already played, some of them singing their own compositions.  Very gracious, kind, wonderful people, audience and players alike. That’s what saved this from being an unmitigated disaster.

Instead of sticking with something simple that I’d have a half-way chance of pulling off under pressure, I went with one of my favorite preludes by Villa Lobos (here’s a YouTube video of John Williams playing it). I knew right off the bat I’d have to modify it to skip the fast middle section, and I set the audience up by explaining I was just getting back into playing, and felt like a guitarist with Alzheimers — I’d be going down a familiar path, but all of a sudden would forget where I was or what came next. I managed to struggle through this with fingers shaking – it frankly sounded horrible, but like the dog walking on two legs, the miracle isn’t that he does it well but that he does it at all.

As Lyle Lovett continues “it was then I knew I had made my second mistake.”  I decided to try another favorite piece that I had once completely memorized – could play in my sleep:  Steve Howe’s Mood for a Day. I got about 35 seconds in and completely fell apart. My left hand just couldn’t remember where the notes were, and my right shoulder was trembling so badly I found myself taking blind stabs at hitting the right strings. So I just stopped, said I was going to have to stop as I clearly couldn’t remember the piece, and bowed out.  Again, the audience was very gracious, and the party went on.   This goes in the “losing some” column.

Today I had periodic bouts of post-traumatic stress flashbacks to how excruciatingly awful it felt to just blow up, publicly.  My friends who are into improvisational theatre tell me that’s an essential part of the practice: to “fail spectacularly” when things go awry. My sweetie (bless her for her support!) told me the Villa Lobos was well received and that I’d made a very graceful exit.

So as I sit reflecting on the weekend, I’m reminded of that central principle of “non attachment” the Buddhists practice. This becomes a profound “easy come, easy go” way of being in the world, not grasping at our “wins” nor regretting our “losses.”  I was happy to make Russ happy by making him a bowl I knew he’d like – my ego was for the most part not involved in that. But boy, I wish I had the same detachment over melting down in a musical performance. I’m having trouble letting go of that one just yet. It’s still painful to remember (which is why I hesitated to keep to my “clock driven” blog posting), but I know I need to sit and process that experience.

Some of the lessons learned are basic – I had no business trying to play for an audience unless a piece had been memorized to automaticity, or unless I had a *lot* of public playing experience.  As with everything else, practice is critical. It was also a good opportunity to experience the “energy” of a situation. When I used to practice Aikido, one of the points of the practice was to make threatening situations (e.g., someone grabbing your arm or collar) completely ordinary, so that one could learn to be present in the situation and respond accordingly. This was done through sheer repetition – thousands and thousands of grab-counter-throw episodes over a span of years. I realize now I should avail myself of more opportunities to play in groups (there’s a local Meetup group of SF classical guitarists who should fit the bill). I need to feel that adrenaline rush, be able to stop, take a deep breath, readjust my posture (I wasn’t sitting comfortably on Saturday, which didn’t help), even ask the group for help as I feel the panic set in.  (It was an uncanny loss of fine-motor control that did me in – it felt like playing a guitar in ski gloves). There’s no way to get better at this than to practice with good guidance and coaching.

Meanwhile, I try to stop beating myself up over this episode. It’s also an excellent opportunity to practice non-attachment and the suffering that accrues from dwelling on the past. My mind knows that’s what I “should” do, but there are some well-worn habits of shame and humiliation that can’t be broken with just a thought. As with all things, practice, practice, practice.

Things fall apart…

No, not my furniture! (At least, not yet!) I’ve been going through some internal turmoil lately, and a deep emotional abscess burst open over the weekend. Somehow this poem came to mind by Yeats:

Slouching towards Bethlehem

W.B Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

OK, I’m not feeling so totally apocalyptic right now. 😉 The craziness in the Middle East does seem to apply to that poem’s imagery, though…

I had the good fortunate to go to a wedding at Green Gulch Farm (a branch of the San Francisco Zen Center) over the weekend. I’ve been attracted to Buddhist ethics and philosophy for some time now, but have never attended any ceremonies at a sangha. My sweetie has a friend who was marrying a monk (if that’s the right word?) from the Zen Center, and we were invited.

In short, it was a beautiful ceremony; I won’t go into details. But, as my own relatively short marriage ended recently, and this being the first wedding I’d gone to since our separation… suffice it to say I had a meltdown later on in the evening. 😦 Seeing that couple, promising to honor each other and uphold the virtues of Buddhist practice, the nagging thought “why can’t I have that?” kept looping through the back of my mind. It’s not a commentary on my relationship (which I’m quite grateful for!) but it did reveal a deep, untapped sense that something was profoundly wrong. Anyway, we had lots of long talks that evening, and I’m doing better now, but getting that “puss” out of my system helped me see that my life is not going as I planned not too many years ago. What’s the saying, “man plans, God laughs?” It was a wake up call to take stock of where I am and where I’d like to be going.

Meanwhile, practice conscious living… that includes being attentive to my furniture making as well as my statistical modeling, friendships, cooking, bicycle repair… I need to let go of worrying about some sort of specific plan, and get back to the “basics” of living.

Home sweet home

(photo: rough-cut back rails for chairs waiting to be sanded and finished)

Just got back from a business trip to Chicago. Business trips aren’t like vacation travel – I’m on someone else’s schedule and agenda, and often don’t have the budget to stay an extra day to sight see. Plus, I was really worried I’d get snowed in – my outbound flight was delayed nearly 2 hours. It’s good to be home!

I helped give a one day workshop on educational test design for researchers. Not the large-scale standardized stuff kids are subjected too – this was about the careful craftsmanship of focused assessments on particular topics. I also attended a few sessions (including another one I gave a paper at) where the general theme was “we all know No Child Left Behind-mandated tests as they currently exist aren’t measuring much that we care about… but what would it take to do better?” I’ve often believed (and stated) that we don’t assess what’s important, we assess what’s cheap and easy. Some of the empirical research is bearing that out – we don’t even assess our own state standards particularly well. Or rather, the state doesn’t assess these things well – teachers (more or less) are constantly assessing the on-going learning of students in order to guide instruction, and isn’t that what counts most? (OK, off my soap box for now…)

Funny, I never saw the parallel before – when I do get involved in assessment (or research) design it’s a lot like my woodworking. I like to be careful, artisitic, and take pride in the product… hmmm… something to sit with…

One good thing about getting away for a few days is gaining some perspective on things. I was reading The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron (an American Buddhist teacher) while on this trip. It’s hard to describe the experience on a blog, but essentially it was about cultivating equanimity and taming our demons and the “stories” we often overlay over our direct experiences. In one sense, it was like being constantly reminded of some essential Truths I knew deep down inside, but have habitually forgotten. In fact, I think it’s a little like going to Sunday church services – it’s not like the preacher says anything we haven’t heard a million times before, but it’s helpful to be reminded, and for that brief period of engagement to have our attention focused on these essential ideas.

And babies, babies everywhere! So many of my friends/colleagues are parents now! For roughly the past 10 years I’d envisioned a future without children (long story – started as a joint decision with a partner, and never really changed after that relationship ended). Now, in my (very) early 40’s, I wonder… I still come back to my baseline feeling: an absence of desire. Not an active aversion to having children, just an absence of strong desire. And I feel like you have to really want to be a parent / have a family; it’s not something that should just “happen” along the way. But it’s interesting being part of essentially the first generation of people who’ve grown up completely in control of their own fertility (between widespread availability of contraception and the right to terminate pregnancies). There isn’t a long cultural history that supports having children as an active choice rather than a matter of course. We’re charting our own course in relatively new waters.

Yikes! Just looked at the clock, but it’s still set to Chicago time. Phew! Nonetheless, time to get to bed.

Memorial Day 2006

A glorious weekend all around. I took last Friday off, so my weekend started with a workshop by Cheri Huber, an American Zen teacher. Her fundamental message is that we’re conditioned to self-hate, and in order to end suffering we need to deal with that. It was a fun workshop – she had some exercises to provide grist for some give-and-take discussion.

You’ve read about my mirror-cutting mishap in my last entry – tomorrow I’ll try to get the mirror cut down to proper size at the glass shop. I haven’t done a whole lot more in shop this weekend – I glued up some more double-thick wood stock for the table tonight. And I set up my pen turning station and turned a couple of bloodwood pens to get my chops back. I’m going to be building up an inventory for a craft sale in December.

The “lessons learned” (or lessons reinforced) came while hiking in Henry Cowell Park today. What started out as a planned day hike turned into a bit of a Bataan Death March as we literally hiked in circles and ran out of water. But it was a great time! We were both able to laugh at the situation and say “oh well, I guess we’re getting a better workout than we’d planned.” And I think I’ve made a new friend, always a plus!

Sense of humor is SO important! Particularly when you’re in a situation where getting angry or upset is not going to help you out of it one tiny bit. Why waste the energy venting? It only makes you feel crappy and sorry for yourself. In the end you’re still walking in circles.

I had a similar experience after Cheri’s workshop. I drove home to the East Bay only to find I didn’t have my house keys. They could be in 1 of 3 places – in my office at work, on the floor of the restaurant where we’d had dinner, or on the floor of the Zen center. All of those places involved driving back over the bridge, and it was already after 11. I started thinking through choices – I could bust a window in my living room and break into my own house. I could call an all-night locksmith to open the door for big $$$. I could drive back and look in my office (the only 1 of the 3 places I’d have access to that time of night). In the end I decided that 1) breaking a window was just going to ruin my weekend, and 2) given that I’d probably be able to find my keys the following morning, I didn’t want to pay for a locksmith. I called a friend and asked if I could crash on her couch, and good friend that she is, she started clearing a space for me. But I was going to track down the only option I had some control over, and that’s to go check my office. An angel was looking out for me – I got to my office, and there were my keys hanging out of my door, just where I’d left them. I called my friend and said “false alarm,” but was nonetheless grateful to have friends who would take a call near midnight asking for a place to sleep.

Had I not found my keys that night, I still think it was the right call to not just bust into my own house. I might have slept in my own bed, but the next day I’d either have to replace a window or I’d regret having spent probably $100 to have my door opened for me. But what I most recall, looking back, is that after an initial “oh, poop!” I just got into problem-solving mode, methodically checking off all my options for finding keys (leaving messages at the establishments, going to my office, etc.) I thought about – very briefly – the “what if I never find them” question, since I had some keys that’d be hard to replace or duplicate. But I realized that going down that path was only going to make me crazy – I’d have plenty of time to wallow in the self-pity of reconstructing my key ring after I’d resigned to them being truly lost.

I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, just recognize the opportunities I had to make myself feel a lot worse and spend a lot of emotional energy on worry and anxiety. Maybe Cheri’s workshop did something after all. 😉 And I have no idea how I got to this place where I can deal with a crisis without getting really upset, but I’m glad I’m here.

Getting slightly lost while hiking was pretty minor in comparison, but it was great to not have to worry about my hiking buddy getting upset, either. It was clear we were both thinking “oh well!” She did have the good sense to let me take over navigation at the end, however. 😉 And my lesson learned there – again – is to trust my gut. I thought we were not quite going in the right direction at times, but I deferred to her authority (it was my first time in the park), and my general easy-going nature kicked in a little too hard. But again, the stakes were low, and I got to spend more time with someone I like.

OK, good night for now! Glad to have a 4-day week coming up!