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The War on Empathy

3 min read

An image of a handgun with the word Empathy engraved on it, painted in watercolor

I am sensitive to conflict. It's a topic that is on my mind a lot latey. Last September, I was affected by the anger on both sides of an online dispute. More recently, I felt the need to speak up in another community argument on Mastodon. The printing press was the beginning of a revolution, but the internet has brought humanity to an arms race. All the voices are shouting and no one is listening. Of course, that's my perspective of current events. I think I feel this way because I'm a microcosm of humanity.

Planet

Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro in Brazil, the tragedy in Syria, and the continued hate in Isreal are all complex issues. In general, it looks like xenophobia is taking over the world. Many hope this is the last gasp of conservative times and brighter days are ahead. People think events like this will galvanize others to fight against the unjust people in the world. This is what frustrated me in the blogs linked above. Fighting begets more fighting.

The willingness to be empathetic with a white supremacist may feel like a waste of time. People believe what they want to believe, right? It's true, some may not be open to empathetic communication, or offer you compassion in return. In fact, this is the play book of US conservatives these days, "Thanks for crossing the isle to try to negotiate, but no thanks." Look, I don't have a solution to bring world peace. I'm just saying searching for a solution has to be better than name-calling and threatening an eye for an eye.

Chris

I realized today the reason I'm so sensitive to all the conflict. Looking at the surface level, my mind tells me that I'm getting old. Sure, that's it. I've seen these things happen a few times in my lifetime. Still at the surface level, the world says I'm a white male and that means I'm threatened because I might lose power. Below the surface is something much more accurate. I am conflict.

I don't like myself. I write about mental health, in part, as therapy. I'm over here trying to convince myself that there's a better way. Yet, inside I loath who I am. When I am in a safe space like a therapist's or psychiatrist's office and I share something emotional, I often get the question, "How do you feel right now, after sharing that?" My first reaction is always, I said something stupid didn't I? This doctor thinks I am hopeless. Pathetic. It's the same when I share something here on the web. I judge myself and project it onto others if necessary.

I am the human writing these words about the value of compassion and empathy. I am also the human who hates that I am here writing this. I should not be so weak. I shouldn't have to keep writing the same thing over and over again. Why can't I learn? People must be so sick of my crap. Those are not empathetic thoughts. I am conflict.

I cannot unfriend myself. I cannot protest myself. I don't think it would be healthy to speak out against myself. After all, that's sort of what that critical voice is doing to me already. My options are limited. Like so many of the conflicts around us, the solution is not an easy one. Conflict resolution takes time. Compassion takes time. Wish me luck and maybe test drive empathy yourself. Hint, it has nothing to do with guns or weapons.

The Calendar, The Depression, And The Golem

6 min read

A self-portrait of myself reaching up from the water. I may be drowning.

Depression.

I penciled it in for the morning.

I would guess this happened because I was preparing for the psychiatry appointment I had scheduled in the middle of the day.

It was Monday. The world around me goes back to work to bring home the bacon, scramble for promotions, and attain status. I tried to make a go of it, dressing to take my partner to work and walk the dog. The winter bit at me while on the stroll. I had good company, though. The dog who was also unemployed. Once home, I tried to barricade myself from the depression with chocolate. Or, was that choice because of my mental health? It's never clear in the fog of self doubt.

Bojack Horseman was falling into a well worn pattern of denial on the television. His issue was apparent to me at the time, yet my own denial was miles away from my thoughts. The clock refused to slow and depression finally stepped aside.

I blocked time off in the afternoon for anxiety. I should leave soon, or I will miss my psychiatry appointment. I waited until the last possible moment to go out the door. Swimming in questions that the doctor may ask of me, I schedule some shame. Why can't I ask myself these questions? What is wrong with me? Now, I will be late.

The appointment is attended by someone else. He exists outside the fog. In the safe space of the doctor's office, he speaks of the challenges of living with me. I envy him. He tells the doctor that he thinks he might not be real. He fears his confidence and self-control is an illusion. As if I was smart enough to be a double agent and fool both him and the doctor. No, his abilities are real. Though, I fear he may just be a golem I constructed to protect me from further hurt.

The appointment behind us, I make time for escapism. The positive words from the doctor and my other are too difficult to digest. I head for some retail therapy. I feel like I'm part of the real world now. Which of these things can bring me status? Of course, I'm shopping in a surplus store and the liquidation outlet next door. It's a punishment of sorts. I am not really part of the working world. I don't deserve nice things.

Exhaustion.

It's not on the calendar.

The exhaustion has no right to be there. I don't work like others. How could I be tired from talking about, and ignoring, my emotions? Yet, it comes down on me like the gravity of a star. Ignoring the pull, I work on laundry and setup the new television antenna I purchased earlier.

The scheduled day is over. Anxiety about tomorrow sits down to read me a bed time story, but I'm too tired. Instead, I read some fiction because reading is perceived as an intelligent past time. I like reading as well. Both reasons can be valid, but I want to focus on the first to get another hit of shame. After closing the book, I drift nowhere in particular. I can't tell if the fog is lifting or if I am sinking.

My partner stirs. The Sandman is held hostage by the stress of her Monday. My guilt and anxiety leap into action to soothe her. To be fair, they nudged me awake and I genuinely enjoyed trying to help her rest by telling her a story.

It's midnight. She is asleep and I am now alone with shame and depression. She works so hard and what do I do? I saw the psychiatrist today. It's been a year. I'm still here. I'm still failing. What happened to my exhaustion is unclear.

The Fellow At The Appointment

He's here in the dark, watching me write this. The blackness of the night swallows his words as if he is underwater. He seems to want to remind me something said at the appointment. Was it him or the doctor? What did they say? I'm sorry, I don't understand. I'm tired. He is not so easily deterred. He reminds me that earlier in the evening my partner said she appreciates everything I do for her. She told me that every time work gets stressful she sees me step up to take care of her.

The memory surfaces. It was him. At the appointment, he said something about taking control. "I don't have to be a passenger or a victim. I can take some responsibility here. I can make change." We talked about art with the doctor. The perfectionist that once shared head space with us is now incredibly quiet when we create art. In fact, I think my golem stepped aside as I explained to the doctor that I enjoy the process of painting and creating. The end product, well it's not a product. The finished work is always a delightful surprise now that perfection is no longer calling the shots. The doctor calls this progress. I realize that I haven't been writing or painting lately because I've been punishing myself instead of enjoying my own company.

Strange, I switched to saying "we" in the above paragraph. Indeed, I didn't need my golem to protect me during the Monday appointment. There's a sense I am unfamiliar with in my chest. I may be slightly proud that progress can be seen. I'm cautious because I am more comfortable in the known world of disappointment and depression. It's predictable here in negativity. He murmurs under the water, "art." Immediately, I understand. Perhaps it is good to be cautious about progress because like art, my life is not about a final product. It's the journey. It's the process where I can find balance and maybe some happiness.

Curious. I thought my golem was a double agent working for my depression. "I'm good," he tells those around me. "No need to worry or continue discussing my emotions." However at 12:44am, he seems to be genuinely helpful.

Technically, it's now Tuesday. I'm too tired to schedule any more introspection. I will try to sleep again. Good night.

Am I Incompatible With Unconditional Love?

6 min read

a black and white watercolor self-portrait

When we think of our pets, we think of unconditional love. Your cat doesn't care if you cut that person off in traffic yesterday. Your dog isn't concerned with your employment, and your rabbit doesn't think you're a monster because you haven't talked to your mother in a week. I've written about my dog on an occasion, or two. I think she's been therapeutic, allowing me to observe things about myself. Today, I noticed just how much I dislike myself. I cannot love who I am and seeing that hurts incredibly.

Our reality is the one we make for ourselves. Recently, I heard some advice that went something like, "We see people how we want to see them, not how they want us to see them." If you see a quality in someone else that you wish you had. Perhaps you begin to feel bad because you're not more like that person. Guess what? You have that quality inside you. This message was one of hope when I heard it. (I suppose it still is.) Reality is our perception and if we want to see our pets as loving us unconditionally, that's what we see.

Truth is, we don't know what other animals are thinking. We can only speculate. Is your cat "kissing" you because she loves you, or is she licking you because you're dirty? Is your hamster curling into your lap in a loving embrace, or simply for warmth? We perceive what we want.

Self-disgust

Coco sat on the couch looking at me with an anxious excitement after I said the magic word, "walk." I was feeling low and asked if I could just cuddle her first. Immediately, I decided she was frustrated. After all, I had said the magic word, but now I'm smothering her. Note the word choice there, "smothering." As I hugged Coco, I thought of the burden I was. I'm not walking her. I am not hugging her, but smothering the little dog. Plus, I should have walked her sooner.

I had turned the unconditional love from my pet into something toxic. I had projected onto her serveral of my fears. I had decided Coco did not love me, because how could she? I sat up. For her part, Coco reached her paw up and asked gently if I would continue to pet her chest. A new reality was just created and I cried when I saw it.

I had projected my own flavor of self-disgust onto Coco. She was in the moment, no longer anxious for a walk, but lowering her eyes in quiet satisfaction as she got her chest pet. I started to cry because I felt so sad for myself. I dislike myself so much that I won't allow the unconditional love from a pet to enter my reality. I cried briefly because I was sad. Then, I continued because I was frustrated. I had once again engaged the self-loathing that I am so familiar with, to feel angry. I will never get better. What is wrong with me? Isolation and punishment feels like my reality.

What Is Love?

In the musing above on the unconditional love from pets, I don't really define what love is. The hamster seeking warmth in your lap may be biological or practical, but who is to say that is not love? Wanting a hug and to be held can be emotionally motivated, but we also do it for warmth. And, when we seek warmth in the form of a hug, we rarely ask from those that we do not trust. They say trust is earned. They say trust takes time. If love requires trust, then it also takes time.

Honestly, I'm struggling here to define love for fear of how it will affect those close to me. You know who I am closest too? Myself. I suppose that's the real fear. It's so much easier to write about the events leading to this post, than it is to allow those feelings inside again. It hurt like hell to look into the eyes of this tiny creature with no agenda and realize just how deep my self-hatred goes. To project my disappointment in me onto an animal that we can never truly know the thoughts of makes me feel sick. Why can't you love who you are, Chris?

Perception and Reality

"We see people how we want to see them, not how they want us to see them."

It sound so selfish, but it is no less true. When emotions are involved we disregard rational thought. When someone states a fact about a family member it can seem like an attack. When we look at Brexit or the Trump rise to power we can clearly see the arguments are completely emotional and devoid of facts. So, I see Trump as a scared, insecure man-boy motivated by greed while my uncle sees him as the best leader in the world. My past experience and present mental health and emotions are wrapped up in my opinion, as are my uncle's. We see people how we want to see them.

The statement I heard in an interview continued to state that if I can see those things within another person, they are present in me. I am insecure and have been motivated by greed. I am human. No, I was thinking about Coco again. How I saw her switch from anxious excitement for a walk to completely soothed and relaxed as I pet her. She was loving me for it. Perhaps, I have that within me somewhere. Maybe I am sick, but I see her love for me in this reality. I may have the potential to love me as well.

What are the steps to stop myself from feeling shame and self-loathing? I can't name those just as I cannot write a handy how-to article titled, "How To Fall In Love." Emotions are difficult to describe because they are constantly changing. We try our best to label them in order to better communicate with each other, but many cultures have a number of emotions you have never heard of. In fact, emotions that we often think of as bad, were once thought of as good. This short TED Talk covers both these points quite well. I don't know how to find love for myself at the moment. Yet, moments from now, I may not even have to look for it. Emotions travel at the speed of light. Perhaps, I don't need to go along for every ride. I see myself as I want to see me.

Morning Mantra Dos Check-in

4 min read

A drawing of my small dog on a leash looking at my morning mantra meditating guru dog.

This is the second month in my experiment and I want to share what I've learned so far.

Morning Mantra Dos features 3 goals around Acceptance.

1) Accepting myself as I am. This doesn't just mean "warts and all." That's a dangerous thought from my negative self. I need to learn to accept that even attempting to do morning mantras is a great thing. I often focus on those things I failed to accomplish on my to-do list, but what did I finish? I usually look past those things rather than accept that I am getting things done. I am getting better.

2) Accepting my life as it is in this moment. Right now, my mental health isn't great. That's okay. In this moment, I'm having some terrible side effects from the medication. I cannot make changes by complaining or denying these things are happening. The first step is acceptance. I'm overweight, my blood sugars are rising and that's the reality right now. The next day, moment, or week, things will be different. I will be different. Again, there are positive things that depression would have me ignore. Today, I was the best husband, son, friend, and dog daddy I could be. I have come a long way from a year ago. I have recognized many of the triggers for my suicidal ideation. It's not perfect, it just is. Things will continue to change, as will I.

3) May I be kind to myself, today. As I have emphasized above, I need to remind myself of the positive things that are happening. Furthermore, if I postpone my morning mantra to the evening, that's okay. It's a great opportunity to put myself down for "failing." However, I need to have some compassion for myself. Whether it's insomnia from the night before or a busy day, I need to respond to myself with kindness, not anger. It's okay to be upset too. Consoling myself rather than yelling at myself is a skill I am still learning.

Creating Space

One of the lessons that I will probably spin into the next Morning Mantra recording is that the preparations at the beginning are very important. I encourage myself and those of you participating to give yourself some space. We monitor our breath and begin the mantra as I would a meditation. Without this step, the mantra may become simply memorization.

I find myself doing the mantra as I walk my dog in the mornings. How cool, I've got it memorized! These words are now affixed to my brain, right? Well, no. I'm giving my dog commands. I'm watching the sidewalk for ice. I am wondering how much that 5th floor condo space over there costs. There's a lot going on when you're walking. It's really a good exercise to train yourself to be more mindful, but not great for my Morning Mantra practice.

By finding some uninterrupted space to do the Morning Mantra and focus on myself, I can let those 3 mantras listed above sink in. Just saying it to myself is not feeling it. Perhaps, we could even say that when I'm repeating the mantra during a dog walk, I'm not really accepting the words. Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Accept my cheesy joke! I have.

Duration and Fatigue

When choosing guided meditations, I always wanted variety. Yet, I also wanted to focus on certain topics, which is why I created the Morning Mantras. The problem with doing the same guided meditation on self-compassion over and over is that I start to distract myself. I know what's coming next, I know the script. So, I'm thinking of what's on my calendar for the day and the like instead of being in the meditation. I believe this is why I'm trying to walk the dog and do the Morning Mantra at the same time. It's part boredom because I know what's next and part anxiety.

I wanted to do each mantra for a month in hopes that would be a good number of times to absorb the changes I want to make. I wonder now if a month is too long because I'm not fully engaging, or maybe it's not enough? That is, do I do them 3 times a week for 2 months? Repetition and the duration of practice are surely important. I'm just not certain what the best practice is. I'd be glad to hear any of your thoughts. (Sorry I had to close comments because of spammers, but you can find me elsewhere.) I'd love to hear from you!

P.S.

If you add the following URL into your favorite podcast app, you should get the Morning Mantras directly to your device without the need to come here and download them.

https://savethis.space/content/audio/?_t=rss

What The Politics of Khashoggi's Death Say About Humanity

7 min read

Flag of saudia arabia

(I wrote this a few weeks ago, but it made me really emotional and I just couldn't finish it.)

In the past I've written about the privacy concerns of our surveillance world in an effort to illustrate the dangerous power we've given corporations and governments. To my horror, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has brought to light something more frightening than the loss of privacy, the failure of humanity.

Government assassinations are nothing new. Recently, Russia has come under fire from a number of countries for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. The CIA has been *suspected of removing (or plotting to assassinate) a number of leaders. In fact, in the 70s a Senate Select Committee investigated the CIA in regards to Patrice Lumumba, Ngo Dinh Diem, Rafael Trujillo, and Fidel Castro. Then there's Bin Laden, which there is no denying was killed by a U.S. strike team. What is new is that we live in a surveillance state.

Espionage is all about controlling data. Either protecting your own information, or obtaining confidential info from others, spying has always been about power. Using the information obtained, you can create a defense, plan an offensive, expose the truth or manipulate people. The information could be used to influence elections, for example. Extortion and blackmail are the types of things were often done behind closed doors. Exposing the information to the public is not as powerful as keeping secrets.

However, we now live in the world of Orwell's 1984. While many of us may not understand the technical wizardy around us, we accept the probability that a camera is watching. The cameras and microphones on our devices, plus other digital tracking systems used by Google, Facebook, Amazon, and our governments are also following the spies. Most likely, this is why so many people are ready to believe that Turkey has evidence of Khashoggi's death. Of course, they could have also bugged the building.

Power Over People, Not To The People

Turkey has chosen to use this information as leverage. This is the part I cannot stomach. I am appalled by this act. President Erdoğan keeps promising to reveal "the naked truth." The theory is that Turkey is releasing little bits of proof on a daily basis to strengthen it's relationships with the U.S. and other countries. Vice News reported:

A State Department official with extensive knowledge in the region told us that despite the rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Erdoğan had signaled that he would be willing to quash the release of incriminating evidence at the right price. The State Department's official added, 'Erdoğan is playing this masterfully.'

Khashoggi was a human being, not a bargaining chip. Most likely you're reading this because you know me and occasionally stop at my website. Perhaps you don't know me, but have read something else here or on my social networks that made you curious to read more. Now imagine that connection between you and I being severed by my murder. The killer took my life because they overheard me saying I don't like coffee. My body was cut into pieces after being tortured and I was erased from existence. The one witness to the crime won't come forward because the murderer is her mail carrier. If she calls the police, she fears she will not be able to send and receive mail. In fact, blackmailing my killer allows her to now send letters and package without postage. My imaginary, and not very creative story is a gross simplification of the matter and sounds utterly ridiculous and awful. Why? It's called the ethics of reciprocity or the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule is present in just about every religion on the planet, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's about compassion and avoiding suffering. Nobody wants to feel pain, ever. That's a natural human reaction. When we learn of serial killers or murderers that have taken lives unnecessarily it is unnerving. When our governments take lives during wars and conflicts, we focus on the end goal rather than dwelling on the casualties. When a government brutally murders a man and slices him up as an act of vengeance for words he's written, that is more than cause for alarm. When Turkey refuses to share the evidence of a human being's death in hopes to get a few more Easter eggs in its basket that is disgusting.

Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

Please don't lecture me on the minutia of foreign affairs and the economy. For too long we as people have looked the other way for some greater economic benefit. Well, we think you should treat your people better, enter country name here. So we've decided to issue you a stern warning. Now, if you could pass us those trade dollars. Thank you.

When is the government that represents its people going to start caring about humans?

Everywhere around the world we see decisions being made at the cost of human welfare. Trump's war against immigrants and their children, and the xenophobia in Europe is based on fear. People fearing other people! To answer my question above, governments will start caring about people when we do.

You and I need to set aside the past and forget about the future. We need to sit together, now. It's not about what kind of world you want for your children, but what sort of world do you want to live in? You and I can make those changes. I'm not talking about protesting Trump or shaming Turkey as my rambling post may appear. I believe we need to make changes at an individual level. Only by striking up a conversation with that person you fear, can you learn their story. That person is a fellow human. You can never truly experience the world as they have, but you surely have your own stories of happiness, sadness, and suffering.

Reconciliation between cultures doesn't happen in a meeting. It happens at an individual level and takes time. Rather than raising your protest sign to show support, extend your compassion to those in fear. Get to know their story of the suffering. If you're in fear, remember each of us is an individual. When I was younger, I was bitten by a dog. That event didn't make me steer clear of that dog in the future. No, I feared every dog for a long time. However, it was one individual dog, not her entire breed, not all white dogs, and not all big dogs. Fear does not have to be abolished, your lizard brain is trying to protect you. Understand that about those who are xenophobic.

Compassion is the way forward, not economic crumbs. The precious economy and the government overseeing it are made of people. Do unto others. If you have information that can end the suffering of Khashoggi's friends and family, why not offer it freely. Imagine, President Erdoğan, if you find success in this venture the precedent you set for your own life. Perhaps your game could backfire and MBS may offer a large, multi-year deal to the country of Turkey for you, dead or alive. Should we be bargaining with humans? I think not.

Never Enough and Getting Unstuck with Taryn Arnold

4 min read

a drawn pie graph with 8 sections about one's life

Questioning self-worth is a vibrant message in our culture today. Marketing tells us we have to go to this school, buy this phone, own that house, eat those foods, and wear trend styles or we aren't enough. So, it is easy to see how I could think that I'm not enough. I'm not putting blame on advertising, but simply illustrating one of the many reasons why it feels so natural to think I'm a terrible son, brother, friend, husband, and podcaster.

I met Taryn Arnold via Patreon Hangouts at a time when the site was just starting and Paul and I were exploring Patreon as an idea for our podcast. Pursuing those deep-seated feelings of not being enough, I was trying to drive our podcast into "bigger," and "better" things. I was after outside validation because I wasn't giving myself any. The problem with reaching for the sky was the fear of rejection. After all, I don't think highly of myself or what I do, so why would any "big" guest consider doing a podcast I was involved in? The definition of "big, bigger," and "better" in this paragraph is just about anyone and anything that I saw as above me. That is, everything.

Going after new guests was terrifying for me. There was the expectation that I had to do it to feel successful and get that outside validation from listeners and the fear of rejection. I was quite taken aback when Taryn agreed to be on our podcast. (We recorded for 2 hours and made Taryn Down Apple and Ceremonial Ace of Base which was a ton of fun.) As we discussed Patreon Taryn went to our page and became our first patron ever.

Today, I can see the whole thing as a positive experience, but at the time I assumed it was a fluke, or I got lucky. That never enough feeling was a part of my core beliefs about myself. To be honest, it's still there and I spend a great deal of time trying to correct it. My mental health is why I took a break from doing the podcast. I wanted to find myself in a space where I could enjoy doing the show for myself again. I didn't want to pursue download numbers, 'top podcast lists," and "big" guests.

Speaking of podcasts, Taryn has started on mental health. Stuck with Taryn Arnold is about getting unstuck in life. It's a personal journey for Taryn that she's sharing with listeners. The second episode is about finding those areas in life where we're struggling. My squiggly wheel above is an exercise I did with Taryn as I listened.

I'm very happy to join Taryn on this adventure. This has also put her on my growing list of potential guests for my new podcast on mental health. I've been working on this for a while as I try to fight off those familiar demons of not enough, download numbers, etc. "Fight" is the wrong word. I'm trying to recognize where those feelings come from and show compassion for myself. Anyway, I hope create a new documentary style show that will be part therapy for me and hopefully helpful for others. I've been talking about this project for over a year. In that time I have the beginnings of a forum created for a community, a network provider lined up for the show, and a swank new logo created by the talented artist of Be This.

I'm going to be putting the finishing touches on the forum in the coming weeks and offer some invites to friends before I launch the podcast. At the same time, I'll continue making Morning Mantras. Please stay tuned, my friends. Also, please check out Stuck with Taryn Arnold.

Morning Mantra Uno Recap

3 min read

Purple sky with title of blog text

The first month of the experiment is over. How did we do?

1) Recognizing Physical Tension

This was chosen as my first mantra because I've spent a lifetime being stoic and untouched by emotion. I've idolized the STar Trek character of Spock for his ability to ignore emotion. Of course, this is a very difficult goal. Forty plus years in avoidance won't change overnight. However, I was concerned that meeting other mental health goals wouldn't be possible if I didn't let emotions in.

How did I do? Well after a month a positive is that I know the mantra by heart. I can repeat it in silence on transit or walking down the sidewalk now. Plus, I've been in touch with some fear and shame internally. I think I need to work on voicing this out in the open so I can get help from friends, family, and my doctors.

2) Accepting Feelings and Sensations

The first thing that happens when I engage my emotions is the transformation of them into shame, anger, and sadness. I am weak. I am stupid. I should not feel this! Sadness and anger are directed at myself and my current state. Thus, I wanted to practice accepting the feelings as they are in the moment.

How did I do? There have been a lot of moments where I allowed the feelings to stay with me. I felt them wash over me and tried to have compassion for myself just as I would a friend. Though, moments can be fleeting. I can easily go from "There, there, Chris it's going to be okay," to "You have to console yourself because you have no friends." Hey, baby steps. I'll get there.

A Perfect Human Response

I probably should have worded this better in the recording. My goal was to remind myself that I'm not alone. All humans experience sadness, fear, anger, disgust, etc. We all suffer. Acknowledging this not only helps me find compassion for myself, but compassion for those around me. Much of mental illness brings about self-comparison with others. I need to stop putting others on a pedestal and also lift myself up.

How did I do? More than anything this phrase in the mantra has really stuck with me. It has allowed me to catch myself getting angry about progressing so slowly. Remembering I am human helps me see when I've engaged that critical voice claiming I have no friends. I can do some reality testing instead of getting caught up in the story the self-critic has created for me.

Next up, Mantra Dos.

Patterns, Paths, and Pain

6 min read

Two paths, a sunny one and a dark, small one. Watercolor painting

I wanted some help with a project and I called on my friend German from The Modern Manhood Podcast. It was really great to bounce ideas off of him and he helped me focus on what was important. We had an enjoyable conversation over drinks and dinner and parted ways. Then, I was alone with my thoughts. The joy of the evening faded away.

I am a burden. I am pathetic. I am stupid. Obviously, I wasted German's time. He must think I'm an idiot. I imagine he's going home to tell his partner what a loser I am.

Walking home from the pub, I couldn't shake those thoughts. Despite the fact that we openly talked insecurities and mental health, my inner critic was carrying me away with anger, pain, and sadness after I left. These feelings are not based in reality, there's no evidence that German thinks any of these things.Yet, this is my perception when I look back on the evening. I am not alone, of course. We all look back at events with a cloud of apprehension or nostalgia. Dwelling in either area can be dangerous when depression is in the equation.

 

Introspection and Chocolate

There can't be such a thing as too much chocolate, right? Some, especially those who aren't into chocolate, may believe there is a limit. I wonder the same about examining my own thoughts and feelings. Is there such a thing as too much introspection? As someone who takes forever to make a decision, I can see the argument against examining one's self "too much." No matter how much I think about me, I still have to make the doughnuts, I have to go about my day and take care of my responsibilities. Whether German likes me as a person or not, the laundry needs to get done, food needs to be put on the table, and chocolate needs to be eaten. I believe this is stoicism, but that book is still on my reading list. Regardless of what I think, there's work to be done, so why bother being introspective?

On the flip side, chocolate is damn delicious. Some people use pumpkin pie as an excuse to eat an entire tub of whip cream. If you leave me alone with a pan of chocolate brownies, I hope you don't want the pan back because I'm liable to eat it as well. Being introspective is learning who I am. There are layers when I think about thinking. It can seem unnecessary from the surface level. The thoughts above about being a pathetic loser, for example, bring pain to me. Best to leave that alone, right? That's not going to get the housework done. Anyway... Yet, the next layer below is asking the question not of German, but of me. Why do I think I'm a loser? In my warped mind, if I ask German, he will never admit he doesn't like me. He'll want to spare my feelings, people are rarely honest, and so on. In other words, I'm going to believe what I want to believe. Time to ask why.

Instead of avoiding the pain, I have to go into it. Why do I think I'm a loser? The immediate response is, "just stop thinking this." Do I need to rehash some ancient memory to move forward? I think understanding it can take the power away from my self-critic. No matter how much money a man has, you're not going to take investment advice from him if he says he bought Bitcoin because he only invests in things that start with the letter "b." What if a teacher told 7 year old me that I was the worst student she ever had in class on Tuesday, and in the following evening during parent-teacher conferences I heard her say I was one of her favorites? That may have created some trust issues. I can't very well base my worth on what a 7 year old with one bad experience thinks. So, understanding the past is a good thing.

 

The Mean Streets of the Brain

The 7 year old is not alone, unfortunately. Using his lens, I've grabbed other experiences through the years to reinforce this idea of mistrust. I must be terrible because +add negative events here. It's like letting the tobacco or sugar industry study the affects of their products. "The things we make are great! Keep buying! There's no problem here."

Things are literally reinforced in the brain. The favorite phrase that I've read over and over is "neurons that fire together, wire together." When two brain cells make a connection, or wire together, they fire information through the wire. If they do this over and over, you brain builds a highway here. "Ouch! I burned myself on the stove again." The brain cells need better communication between the idea of a stove and hot, let's remove the traffic lights and put in an 8 lane superhighway here.

Now, over the years I alone have perceived that I am not enough. I feel that I am a loser. Those two brain cells, the loser label and the Chris, are affixed together with the neural pathway equivalent of the Autobahn. Through my recent groups, therapy, friends, family, and introspection, I've been trying to connect Chris to the decent and lovable brain cells. At the moment it is only a rough two-track. Actually, it feels more like a Rock Crawling course.

So, it's no surprise that my older pattern of self-disgust kicked in after chatting with my friend German. It is frustrating that I am able to recognize the pattern, but still get dragged down by it. At least I'm noticing it, right? First step and all? At times I can see this, yes. However, seeing through the fog of depression can be difficult. The psychiatrist explained something to me once about emotional pain, it has no sense of time. The part of the brain that deals in emotions is not at all connected to the part that perceives time. When you think about the loss of a loved one, it affects you even if it happened years ago. Those feelings that I'm somehow less are painful, true or not. Time to dig into another layer perhaps. Meanwhile, construction continues on reinforcing the new neural pathway between Chris and compassion.

 

Surviving the Status Quo

5 min read

A watercolor painting of a pink, purple galaxy titled

The mind unconsciously loves problems because they give you an identity of sorts.” ― Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

When I set out to focus on my mental health I did so to find solutions. How do I stop these destructive patterns? Despite telling myself many times over, "There's no magic pill," my mind latches onto the idea of a future day when I'll be better. When I concentrate on each moment, practicing being present as Tolle suggests, I believe there's a danger of stagnating.

"Things are okay right now." Sometimes, that's a way to avoid problems. For example, the first Morning Mantra is asking me to explore my emotions. This idea feels terrifying. Why don't I just stay here, where it's "okay?" This is what I mean when I say the status quo. Staying in the now and avoiding discussions or thoughts about my future seems unhealthy. I'm betting Tolle, would propose that I am not being present at all. Perhaps fear from the past is driving the desire to not rock the boat.

My relationship can feel stuck in this status quo space as well. My mental health has had affected our marriage deeply. Often, my partner treads carefully around me, attempting to protect me from frustration and hurt. When she's open and I have an honest and painful emotional reaction, I see her disappointment in herself. Thus, I begin to dance on egg shells as well. When we are communicating and "things are okay," I think we're both afraid to push forward, talk of the future, or invite new adventures. We're here in the status quo.

Knowing and Learning

What is the difference between the quicksand of the status quo and Tolle's now? Honestly, I wonder if the real difference to shine a light on is the one between my patterns of old and the status quo. The pattern of avoidance ran me for all these years. It won't just disappear overnight. There is no magic pill. I think the status quo is something new. It is the layer in between being in the moment, and my avoidance. I am recognizing the stagnation or status quo, after all.

The real difficulty is not to get upset at myself for falling into the pattern again. Admittedly, I am not so great at this. "Damn, I'm avoiding. Here I go again! Will I never get through this? I'm such a disappointment!" So many times the act of recognizing has spun me right back to avoidance and self-loathing. Therefore, this limbo of status quo isn't so bad. At least, that's the initial thought.

The status quo state is like having a contract with the current government in power in an election year. It's like not asking that person you like out on a date for fear of rejection. Not knowing can be more painful than a rejection. The status quo is a permanent state of purgatory for me.

Not Now

My purgatory lies between two indistinct fictions. One is the future where I am better. The other is my past experience that I relive and think of as endless suffering. I have never really defined better for myself. I can appear introspective and tell you that I know that this is a journey and there is no magic cure or pill. How, I feel is not the same as these rational thoughts. Furthermore, my definition of "endless suffering" is almost completely emotional. Each time I reach into my feelings as I've instructed myself to do in the Morning Mantra, it hurts. I hurt so very much.

Not only am I at odds with my emotional and rational brain, but I am ignoring Tolle's Now as well. My pain is in the past. As my psychiatrist recently told me, the emotional part of my brain is not the same section that understands the passage of time. Those emotions I felt this morning as I did the mantra were just as strong as they were 35 years ago when a teacher said he was disappointed in me. It's up to me to make that connection between the rational timekeeper section of my brain and the emotional portion. I've been working to remind myself that I'm still here. Early on, I was afraid to feel that intense emotional pain because I thought it would incapacitate me. I imagined myself in the fetal position on the floor of the psychiatrist's office. I figured they would lock me up if I tapped into my gooey candy bar center of emotions. That hasn't happened. I must keep reminding myself that, and continue with my work.

By not defining what better means to me, I am fixating on the future instead of being with myself now. Even above, my fears of being incapacitated by emotions is a state I imagined for my future. Avoiding my present moment, I dream of a healthy me or a institutionalized me. Thinking of being better is not about the things I would do, but I focus on the things I cannot do now. That is, I don't have specific thoughts of the ways I will be a better partner in my relationship. I am reminded of those things I lack now. There's a difference between thinking about the future and intention-setting.

“A belief may be comforting. Only through your own experience, however, does it become liberating.” ― Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

Maybe I'm not in the now when I am in this status quo state, but my intention is to break free from my patterns. Each time I fail, it is a reminder that there is no permanent solution. It is an opportunity, an experience. Things aren't okay, and that's okay. Each time I get to my nougat emotional center, it gets easier. I'm still here.

Much💜

Morning Mantra Uno Check-in

3 min read

watercolor painting of olive green and gray background with brown dog bone in the middle

When I sat down to make a list of the things that I wanted to work on I made an effort to arrange them in a logical order. The First Morning Mantra is all about recognizing emotions and I thought this would be an important first step. Wow, is it difficult. Did I make a mistake, or is this my depression trying to keep me down?

Recognizing my emotions in my body is not the hard part, sitting with them, accepting the feelings is. So much of what I'm dealing with seems to be repressed emotions. It seems like I shouldn't feel overwhelming fear after hearing someone comment, "I was told you spoil your dog." Yet, that was my experience recently. As I was rewarding Coco for listening to my "leave it" request on her walk, I replayed the comment in my head. I started asking myself, am I doing this wrong? Are people laughing at me? Fear swelled into my chest. I was angry with myself in an instant.

Feeling unwanted, unloved, or made fun of is the crux of my repressed emotions. Am I like a cliché Hollywood movie character, I have abandonment issues? So much of our emotional lives are shaped in our early years. I don't remember anything before Kindergarten, really. Note how I shared the age of which I have spotty memories. I remember school. This is the place where you're rewarded for being "right." This is a place full of your peers. This is where you spend most of your youth.

Am I doing this wrong? Are people laughing at me?

Two questions I asked myself when I felt that "spoiling" my dog was bad. Of course, I'm not blaming education for my mental health. Perhaps there's a reason I cannot remember anything before Kindergarten. My mother left my biological father while I was a toddler or younger. She was a single mom trying to do it on her own. I may have not understood her challenge fully and been confused about the loss of a father. By the time she remarried, my kindergarten year, I may have already formed a the emotional pattern I have now. I loved my new father dearly, but we didn't have that baby bond that is discussed in the attachment theory.

Keep Going

At this point, I have to trust myself and continue with Morning Mantra Uno. The emotions that flood in when I take the time to follow the mantra can be very overwhelming. Yet, it has to happen some time, right? I've been living with this for years. Logic tells me it might not be best to break down crying as I walk the dog, or get incredibly upset with myself for accepting a gift. All I can do is my best. I'm the one in control. I picked this mantra because I knew I needed the work here. There are some guided meditations that I would sometimes use to work on all the repressed stuff, but it was hard. We don't like pain, so I probably didn't do them enough. This Morning Mantra is reminding me to be more proactive. I'll have to get back to those guided meditations. I just have to "keep going," as I say in the recording.

Those of you interested in the guided meditations I spoke of, search for R.A.I.N. meditations. I use Insight Timer on my phone, but you'll probably find some on Youtube or elsewhere. The acronym stand for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Non-identification.