Finding a Path to Honest Reflection

It is pretty easy and pleasant to talk about material things and processes in the journey to a more simple, deliberate, minimal, meaningful life. A decade ago when I was beginning my effort to downsize things, evaluate how green or how joyful my daily life was and could be, sharing was just as exciting as doing. 

I could write or talk at length about simplifying my personal care routine, improving the food I prepared for myself or served to my pets, or embracing the value of my own time. I got more quiet as the space I created for myself shifted my focus inward. 

In every mind there are plenty of dark spots that are hard enough to illuminate for ourselves without also opening up for others.

But that has been the aim of my current path – openness.  Openness to relationships, to experience, and to all the wisdom life holds, pleasant, endearing, or otherwise.
I’ve had many opportunities to be open and honest about my own story, and it’s been a hard walk to take. Our self-identity can be so fragile. 

I used to build my identity around the experience I was inhabiting. During my school years and in college, I was a “good student,” and letters and marks could strengthen my indentity as such, or break me down to nothing. I ran from subjects that had given me challenge, so that I could hold on to being the smart one. 

What makes us unique and interesting is not what we are doing or have done, not the geography we find ourselves in, and not the labels used to classify our actions and experiences for telling stories about ourselves. Each of us will have great moments and low moments, stories grounded in human experience. 
When my inner critic is being particulary harsh and effective, I will tell myself that there is nothing I can write that will be good enough or interesting enough to stand. I have to remind myself, that the way I meet my experiences is where my unique story lives. Each of us has the power to take a familiar theme and weave it into something special that can touch another person. 

How many stories and songs tell of heartbreak, yet the right one at the right moment can bring is to our knees, reach us and resonate.

We cannot get to that place without stripping away the protections and armor, facing our experience, our story, and our truth openly. Then sharing it.

The Mind as Process

After wading into the teachings Eastern traditions – Vedanta, Buddhism, Taoism – my Western construction of the mind has begun to shift.

I have long studied Western Psychology and its scientific search for biological causes or precursors to mental health conditions. I have followed the efforts to map the genome and image brain activity with a feeling of vindication, all the while holding onto ideas about my brain being broken.

We cannot help but see things differently when we change perspective. Mindfulness meditation, following the ever-bubbling streams of thought produced by the mind, has been that perspective shift for me. I recognize the mind as a process now, and do not identify those busy thoughts with my self, but see the brain as a sensory data analyzer, a brain-computer that informs the observer, the true self.

I recently became aware that William James had a similar shift in thinking (I need to read more of him). He recognized that those suffering mental disturbances clung to the idea that an external cause, apart from them and out of their control, was the cause of their distress. Biological determinism is comforting when we cannot muster the motivation or hope to see beyond our own dark clouds.

But James began to think of his own condition as being a response to the full reality of the world and able to be addressed by the working of his will. If depression is the result of our experience in a world that has both beautiful and disturbing truths, we can turn our mind and actions toward healing.

As someone who has tried various combinations of medication and talk therapy, I have seen the power of will in healing the mind, body, and soul. A drug will just as likely shut off access to the deep knowledge underlying the distress as provide relief from symptoms. Therapy is pointless if one half of the conversation is not fully present.

A lifetime of experiencing downshifts in mood and periodic depression, and suddenly my experience has changed. It is no easier facing the pain, but when the thoughts of emptiness and dispair fill my days, watching the thoughts pass and identifying them as a mind process and not my own core changes the game. I don’t have to believe the negative assessments and the hopeless outlook. I can instead explore the underlying issues and show myself compassion for the difficult experience I’m going through, knowing this is not me, this is not forever.

Defining Health in a Sick System

I imagine most people are guarded about the struggles they face in life, and more so with their own bodies. Association with a condition is very personal, intimate. It means acknowledging the things happening to us at the level of organs, treatment practices, side effects, limitations.

Mental disorder has a long history of stigma and misunderstanding. Care professionals discourage identification with diagnoses, some even withhold these labels to protect patients. Silence around mental disorders can add to the shame experienced by those struggling with symptoms.

A couple years back I remember seeing awareness campaigns about depression and other conditions. I had already started to play with transparency and test my family and friends with frank discussion of the years I have struggled with my own unquiet mind. Somehow, saying words out loud was an empowering relief, even if those words weren’t accepted or understood. 

I struggle with openness about my mental health. I fear that future employers or opportunities will close to me. I worry about how folks who have had more severe experiences will view my apparent high-functioning, that I need to prove my own pain. I still have doubts and frustration regarding diagnoses, treatments, and outcomes.

I have found some peace in hearing the stories of others. Talking to friends about seeing a therapist or taking a medication for depression, anxiety, and other issues is a start. Revelations that bridge the isolating experience of mental and behavioral disorders bring a sense of understanding and comfort to conditions that make us feel alone and apart from the world. 

I long for a society that does not condition us to reject our emotions, hiding them from others and associating them as negative. 

I wish employees and students had the support and resources to balance their inner and outer lives. Imagine a model of health that emphasized not just prevention of illness (or in most cases, reaction only after illness strikes), but tapped into our unique psyches in becoming actualized human beings.

Our mind, body, and spirit are interconnected systems that can support or degrade our health. As a Western culture, rationalism has been central to our model of health, ignoring all else. 

Psychology has made some advances in understanding human behavior, but we have not done enough to move past a focus on pathology. There is no equivalent to preventative medicine in psychology, widely embraced by Western society, no societal imperative to advance the potential of each of our citizens.

Embracing the Beginner: Releasing the Perfectionist 

I have a poor memory for things not in my immediate present. Rationally, I know everyone starts from somewhere, and aside from a few prodigies and lucky ones, we all generally start at the bottom. And yet I have struggled for many years with the need to be good at everything. This has prevented real growth and self-actualization.

Poor performance in some areas can’t be avoided. I’m pretty bad at finances and following through with ideas, so my chosen coping mechanism is avoidance when life demands addressing these things. Eventually though, I have to pay the bills, or do my taxes, or act on life decisions.
I started to realize I find doing something I am not immediately good at fell into my avoidance response.

I would try to make changes in my daily habits or pick up a new hobby, and before too long, it had slipped away into some forgotten corner of my mind where thoughts go to die.

This works okay when we stick to the same path, never changing, every day the same. But when I wanted to make changes and try something new, it became a massive internal battle with myself.

I have a few good examples of this, but writing is my deepest metaphorical cave. I love the process of writing and the feeling of satisfaction when I’ve completed a piece. I live for praise (which for a good bit of my life came in nice, neat presentations of capital A’s at the top of my papers). 

The unfamiliar is terrifying. I can write for a class, I can write for a job, but writing for myself and for the goal of eventually publishing or making a living from writing chills me. I have experienced the most severe creative blocks and internal avoidance when it comes time to sit down at the keyboard.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve found has been to allow myself to do something poorly. Growth and success comes from practice, and practice begins in doing something we are not good at. 

Sure, it feels really good to do something with mastery, but in the years it takes to reach mastery, we will repeat skills with less than perfect results. And that is okay. Imperfection is natural, part of the process, and beautiful. 

Stumbling through a task with openness and joy gives us the strength and motivation to come back again and again.

Armed with the advice of letting myself do something poorly, I still struggled to stop my inner avoider when it came to establishing a writing practice. 

So I used the advice to learn new skills in jewelry crafting, and that somehow worked. I could convince myself that it was okay that I couldn’t make perfect pieces like those I looked to for inspiration and instruction. I accepted that it could take years of making so-so pieces before anyone might call me a master craftsman. 

Somehow, instead of negativity and avoidance, I internalized the value of practice itself, and that in a few years, I would possess a valuable, creative skill. And so I keep making things and trying new methods.

I will keep trying to practice writing, because I know the time I’ve struggled against perfectionism is practice in itself, and someday, I will master my own inner resistance to just being, doing, and creating.

Breaking the Chains of the Mind

I have wanted to write since I was in grade school, submitting bad poetry about animals and short stories about unicorns to Young Author competitions. It was probably around that same time that I internalized fears of inadequacy, after getting feedback from a judge one year that my story was “unoriginal.”

Years later, when re-learning to tap into my own natural creativity, that would be one of the memories that would float to the surface. The label Unoriginal is both chilling to a young mind and false. The only thing original in this world, is the unique experience of more of the same that each of us carries. Everything else has been done or thought over and over during the thousands of years of human creativity. We all learn from and are influenced by others. The retelling of a familiar story with our own voice is no less powerful. Continue reading “Breaking the Chains of the Mind”