photo via James VaughanBy Crabby McSlacker
Being a self-absorbed nutball, I've embarked on boatloads of psychological self-improvement projects throughout the years. And while there's still a ton of stuff left to improve on, I gotta say, it's kinda working: I'm now way less of a worrywart party-pooper than I used to be.
So with all this introspection and reading and listening and practicing, I've come to learn some interesting things that my crazypants brain can do, if I have the patience to give it some room to play. And some of it is proving helpful and/or amusing, even if it's a little hard to explain.
But, you may wonder, is any of this relevant to your fine brain?
But what the hell. That's what a blog is for, right? To bore random strangers with all your psychological quirks and the minutia of your dietary challenges and your exercise gripes and all the tedious details of your mundane life and your petty first world problems?
Wait, that's not what a blog is for? Whoops!
Anyway, there have been two prongs to this earnest and possibly self-deluded quest to be less of a crankbucket whiner, which I can roughly conceptualize as:
1. Working with the thinky part of the brain. This is the aspect of self-improvement that involves words and logic (often faulty) and analysis and stuff like that. It's the conscious part of my experience; it's the voice in my head that rarely ever shuts up. The goal in working with this part is to root out the most dysfunctional crap in there: thoughts that take bad situations and make them worse, or that take neutral or even wonderful circumstances and piss all over them with worry and grouchiness and doubt. I've blogged before about getting rid of negative emotions by changing unhelpful thoughts, and it's been the aspect of personal growth I've spent the most time getting better at.
Scram, diabolical dysfunctional thoughts!
image via james vaughan
However, as other self-improvement junkies may have noticed, in recent years the whole mindfulness, east-meets-west thing has been incredibly influential in the field of psychology.
When the scientists got sneaky and started using terms like "research-based mindfulness stress reduction," instead of "Buddhism," and got a boatload of funding for meditation research, more tools became available for tweaking psychological growth. Of course most of the techniques they're talking about have been in use for thousands of years, but many of us westerners kinda blew it all off until there was research backing it up and it got all trendy.
So anyway, using mindfulness or meditation doesn't rule out working with thoughts. A compassion meditation, for example, is all about thoughts. And Rick Hanson's awesome Foundations of Well-Being Program blends both cognitive and mindfulness skills together. (And you can still sign up btw, there's a free trial and it's cheaper now! Full disclosure: I'm an affiliate, even though I'm kind of a shitty one and can't even find my login info to put up a nice graphic or anything.)
But generally, most mindfulness practice tends to emphasize the more experiential, less cognitively driven sort of subjective experience. In other words:
2. Working with the non-thinky part of the brain.
cc licensed by agsandrew
Body Awareness as a Gateway to Weird:
There are plenty of other gateways too, like hypnosis or drugs or exercise. But let's look at the mindfulness/body awareness method.
Basically, the technique I use starts off simply enough: just become aware of what your body is feeling.
Seriously, that's all you need to do. Just keep coming back to it even when distracting thoughts keep coming up. They will, you can't stop 'em, so just be content to keep putting them in the background as you keep checking in with your physical sensations.
You can do this by diligently scanning your body, part by part. Or, you can see where your body awareness naturally flows. You can just focus on parts that are relaxed and see if it spreads, you can check in with places that are in pain, you can spend a long time on one small area you're curious about. You can do it when you're sitting, when lying down in bed before you go to sleep, or out for a walk--it's all good.
At first, it's kinda boring, like all meditation can be, but over time, it gets more interesting.
Go With the Flow
What you may start to notice, is that rather than just distinct body parts or muscle groups, awareness tends to create areas of flow. These ripples feel like fields of energy moving through your cells, and their patterns can be pretty fascinating.
Your Mileage May Vary.
I'm not familiar enough with concepts like chakras or prana or chi to know if my little force fields map with any of that stuff. I fear that if I investigate too closely, I'll start subconsciously start trying to make my own funky little energy zones line up with the "official" ones, and somehow, that doesn't seem right.
Feeling Groovy. (Or Not).
photo: paul townsend
So here's where it starts to get interesting: as you play with your ripples (and note: that's an "r," not an "n," for any of you nearsighted people with dirty minds), you may discover they can be interacted with. A light breeze, music playing, the purposeful gentle movement of your own body--these can all swirl in with your body awareness flow.
And even more powerfully: your emotions are part of this too, and can be explored and manipulated by playing with body awareness.
Because what is an emotion, really, aside from a sequence of thoughts interacting with bodily sensations?
What if you disregard the thought part of your emotions for once? Forget "I am angry because..." and all the blah blah blah self-righteous justification that ensues. Just feel the anger as a physical sensation. Or you can explore what or "apprehension" or "guilt" or "discouragement" or "boredom" or, more pleasantly, "contentment" and "joy" and "love" and "gratitude" actually do in your body. Feel where they like to hang out and how they travel and what their borders are and how long they last. You can also notice if they have colors or textures.
Once you get skilled at this, you've discovered an amazing tool to increase your ability to recognize and regulate your emotions.
Letting Go: By taking the cognitive "sting" out of a negative emotion, it's far easier to interact with the physical bodily sensations with curiosity. When dealing with an upset or aggrieved emotional sensation, curiosity and acceptance and patience are far more useful mindsets than either resistance/denial or self-pity. Just feel the feelings as physical sensations; you can do the thinky part later, when your brain is better able to function more logically. Be fascinated by the way your body works, and let the physical sensations swirl and peak and die down naturally. And for goodness sake, do NOT be a bonehead and keep stoking negative emotions with provocative unhelpful thoughts. If you take the "meaning" part away, the physical sensations themselves aren't painful and can actually be interesting to explore.
Emotional Manipulation: Over time, I've discovered some (possibly imaginary, but whatever) physical pathways where "contentment" and "joy" seem to live. And I've learned how to tickle these pathways a little with my conscious attention, to pump them up, and to nurture any tentative sprouts popping up and help them bloom. Sometimes I can even conjure up happiness out of thin air, and paint a superficial coat of it over a shitty mood. It looks a lot like pink buttercream frosting, actually, and feels tingly and delicious. I focus on the happy frosting, and see how much I can spread around, and gradually feel the shitty mood begin to dissipate.
Discovery: As I'm learning to locate the awareness-field (for lack of a better word) where emotional energy hangs out, I'm finding there is all kind of activity happening there that I'd never tuned into before! These swirls don't necessarily correspond to emotions that have names, and they often don't seem to be recognizably positive or negative. But they are something, and since they are still vague and pliable, they often can be worked with to steer them into a positive place. Or I'll just observe them as a more entertaining form of meditation that feeling my freakin' breath go in and out and in and out and really, it's only been 45 seconds, could you please just shoot me now? (I have always SUCKED at traditional breath-following meditations).
A quick little optical illusion, if you've got a minute to play with it: this strobe hallucination-generator .
And What About You Guys? Since these monthly posts are really just an excuse to find out what you're all up to... do you ever play with your "inner space," or am I just a fruitcake? And what else is going on in your lives, got any plans or goals or triumphs or frustrations to share?