The Unbearable Lightness of Being
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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

And now? Now that the crushing tide of work has abated briefly, just long enough to take small sips of life again. Now friend, what do you find? Being still floods me with a gentle anxiety, a deep sense of being alone in a vast universe, yet intricately, inexplicably connected to others through gossamer threads and entangled roots like trees breathing deep beneath the earth. I can still hear the pulse and taste the ache of every brave soul that walked into my life in one way or another this year. I feel raw but alive.
Grateful.
As a gift to you, my motely crew, those few who land on these pages looking to catch a glimpse of yourselves, I offer a few pearls from Alain De Botton’s gratitude list.
Love and Courage
J

– Most of the 78 organs in our bodies have performed pretty reliably since the day we were born.
– We don’t need to be afraid of starving – or even of being very cold.
– Every year, if we just stay in one spot, there are at least two weeks of perfect weather. – We are never too far from a very hot bath.
– We’ve sometimes been surprised by how things turned out.
– We can with complete impunity fantasise about the people we can’t have.
– We’ve come a long way since the early shyness, incompetence and fear.
– Everyone messes up their life quite a bit.
– Of course we couldn’t have known.
– Compared with what we feared in the rockiest patches, this is almost OK.
– We’re still here.
– There were no outright catastrophes today.
– A few times, we really experienced what love felt like.
– A few times, we really felt understood.
– Many of the people we love are still alive.
– There’s always music.
– Without asking anyone, we could go into many shops and buy a treat.
– We could disappear for a bit.
– We’re no longer trapped, like children are.
– We still have quite a lot of time left.
– Children of three or four are, intermittently, reliably sweet.
– There hasn’t been a war here for a while.
– You can turn on the tap and clean water comes out for almost nothing.
– We can leave the places we were born and raised.
– There’s always someone suffering just in the way we are.
– Everyone is weird, we just don’t have access to their inner minds.
– The silent majesty of a clear night sky.
– We’re very normal in the number of idiocies we’ve committed.
– We don’t have to take ourselves seriously.
– We can feel heroic about the ordinary.
– We have managed to learn a few things down the years.
– There are lots of beautiful people we can take pleasure in looking at.
– There are people who have loved us, even though we didn’t totally deserve their affection or devotion.
– A few bits of our body are really rather beautiful.
– Our parents met and managed to make love successfully. And their parents did too. We so nearly didn’t even exist.
– People who didn’t absolutely have to took a serious and benign interest in our education and development.
– Things really do look better when we have slept.
– Many of the world’s most interesting people have written down their thoughts and ideas.
– Other people are usually shyer, sweeter and kinder than we’d anticipated.
– We’ve perhaps found one good friend.
– We can write everything we feel down on paper.
– We can, without too much effort, order a bowl of French fries.
– We once really turned someone else on.
– Others forget the stupid things we’ve done faster than we do.
– Sincere apologies tend to be gladly accepted.
– We can reinvent ourselves – a bit.
– We didn’t turn 18 in 1939.
– Parents keep on loving us even if we largely ignore them for a few years.
– Children continue to love us even if they say they don’t; and even if we were not always perfect parents.
– By the time we are forty, nothing we did or thought at the age of twenty will seem very important.
– No-one can stop us having our own thoughts.
– We can get to hear the jokes and stories of the funniest people on the planet.
– In the middle of the night, and in the early morning, we have the world to ourselves.
– It isn’t what happened to us that counts; but how we choose to tell the story.
– We do not know what will happen in the future.

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Striving towards Life
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Striving towards Life

Today’s selection — from When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.
In May 2013, at 36, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. At first, Paul prepared for death, then, he and his wife Lucy decided to have a child.

” Flush in the face of mortality, many decisions became compressed, urgent and unreceding. Foremost among them for us: Should Lucy and I have a child? Even if our marriage had been strained toward the end of my resi­dency, we had always remained very much in love. Our relationship was still deep in meaning, a shared and evolving vocabulary about what mattered. If human re­lationality formed the bedrock of meaning, it seemed to us that rearing children added another dimension to that meaning. It had been something we’d always wanted, and we were both impelled by the instinct to do it still, to add another chair to our family’s table.

“Both of us yearning to be parents, we each thought of the other. Lucy hoped I had years left, but understand­ing my prognosis, she felt that the choice — whether to spend my remaining time as a father — should be mine.

” ‘What are you most afraid or sad about?’ she asked me one night as we were lying in bed.

” ‘Leaving you,’ I told her.

“I knew a child would bring joy to the whole family, and I couldn’t bear to picture Lucy husbandless and childless after I died, but I was adamant that the decision ultimately be hers: she would likely have to raise the child on her own, after all, and to care for both of us as my illness progressed.

” ‘Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more pain­ful?’

” ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

“Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteris­tic of the organism is striving. Describing life otherwise was like painting a tiger without stripes. After so many years of living with death, I’d come to understand that the easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best. We talked it over. Our families gave their blessing. We decided to have a child. We would carry on living, instead of dying.”

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A Loving Equation
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A Loving Equation

It’s been a tough couple of months.
Love and I have had some fierce skirmishes.
I’ve retreated from the field, confused, battered.
Now is time to examine my strategy, courageously, honestly.

“Love is the hospital for our old wounds”- Hollis wrote.
Love changes us, as it works on our painful personal histories (loss, abandonment, betrayal, jealousy etc), it also elevates us towards our highest human potentials, at times of synergy, the sum of its parts are greater than the individual. It allows us to break from our solitude and then, if we are skilled, to be finally transformed into something firmer.

Anais Nin wrote-
“Where the myth fails, human love begins”, “then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws”.
It appears that the more we mythologize and idealize the person we love, the more disillusioned we grow as we come to know their imperfect humanity.

My need to cut and run under extreme emotional duress, was gestated and nourished by a difficult childhood, it is both my saviour and the single most self-destructive defense with regards to perceived abandonment. It’s not on a hair-trigger, but it always waits in the wings to rush to my aid when it senses danger, much like my beloved dog (Peabody) who would jump into the pool when I swam as a child in an effort to rescue me. I’d often end up fighting for my life as the dog’s misguided attempts at rescue drove me further beneath the water, scratching my flesh, leaving us thrashing, exhausted and ultimately in my dragging his well intentioned, heaving, heavy body to the shallow end.

My experience of long term intimate relationship tends to support the theory that closeness and familiarity can bring with them a shadow of growing disrespect and thin layers of contempt which collect in the corners of unspoken words.
How to hold a relationship stable, while tending it with mindful attunement, deep listening, loving speech, acts of service and creative spontaneity, all the while preserving respect for one’s self AND the other seems to have eluded me in spite of my best efforts. The difficult dance between intimacy and independence seems to have many scalps on its belt.
And yet, after spending most of my adult life in pursuit of this elusive quarry, I have learnt a lot about its movements, it’s promises, it’s mirages and deluded ravings.

I am not ready to retire permenantly from the search, I will continue to learn the painful lessons that are offered to its followers, I will endeavor to not blame the other for my own injuries but instead will watch as love moves as a sea between the shores of our souls.

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On feeling depressed…
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On feeling depressed…

We’re not talking about the extreme, most paralysing, regions of despair – where external medical help is vital. Our target is rather the times when we feel – as indicated by Henry David Thoreau’s phrase – mired in moods of ‘quiet desperation’: a large, grey hinterland in which beneath an outward surface of endurance, we feel exhausted, close to tears, beyond the sympathetic understanding of others, easily irritated and daunted by the simplest tasks. There will probably have been certain triggers for our melancholy: an intimate rejection; a humiliation around work; the growing realisation that the ambitious plans of earlier years have come to very little…

Unfortunately, sadness feels very taboo. Societies tend slyly to insist on cheerfulness. We end up not only struggling, but humiliated that we are in such difficulties. Yet, in truth, there is nothing more natural or routine than grief. We have so much to feel morose about: simply by virtue of being alive, we will inevitably so often feel badly misunderstood, unfairly criticised, overlooked and rejected. We will be struck by our own stupidity and appalled by our inner ugliness and cowardice. We will make some shockingly poor decisions, we will let others down – and will witness those we love suffer and die before ourselves having to give up the keys to life. The reasons for feeling low and demoralised touch more or less every one. It is the universality – the normality – of suffering that makes the sight of small happy children so poignant; we know, as they cannot yet, how much they are going to suffer – we don’t know the precise details but we know that in some way or another a distinctive range of horrors will, in time, befall them.

Every day, almost without noticing it, we have to fight off a range of incoming powerful reasons not to despair. We rely on an internal engine or muscle of hope to pump out consoling thoughts. Then one day the task seems too much; the muscle can’t take it any more. At such times, we need to keep a few ideas in mind: For a start, that sorrow is not an individual failing; that it is a basic reality for our entire species. We are extremely sensitive, fragile constructions, constantly exposed to danger; for the most part blind, hopeful without regard to reality and with unquenchable needs for love and sympathy. Our tribulations are a symptom of being human, never just a curse attached to our sliver of existence.
Others, who might seem successful, buoyant and composed will travel, at moments they shield us from, to the same places of despair we have been exiled to. We live so close to ourselves, we know so much about our private failings, we miss that our flaws are general: present even in the outwardly placid, the beautiful, the rich, and the people next door. If only we could see into the minds of strangers, we would feel so much less alone. We are, it’s true, sometimes hard to be around. We’re easy to caricature as grumpy and a pain. But in truth, we’re sad rather than mean, anxious rather than bad. It’s hard to make our despair sound charming, to present ourselves in the way that would win us the compassion we so require. Yet we’re being harder on ourselves than we would be on a friend. We should – at the least – accord ourselves the same degree of forgiveness we wouldn’t hesitate to direct to an acquaintance. In the end, however tempting it is, we can’t just abandon our lives. There are too many people who rely on us (even if their presence doesn’t feel real right now). Above all, we don’t know the future. It’s the other side of our dependence on chance. Things can get slightly better for reasons it’s hard to foresee. Just as pleasures fade and can seem meaningless in retrospect, so pains (at least sometimes) can pass or soften. Things we thought we’d never be able to get over gradually become bearable; we adjust our mental posture, we stoop to accommodate a new reality. Being miserable does not exclude us from the human community. It’s a sure sign that we are very normal – and that life is progressing, in its own dark way, more or less exactly to plan.

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Insomnia- searching for the sandman.
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Insomnia- searching for the sandman.

Things have been crap lately and I’ve spent hundreds of hours awake in the thin hours of morning. During that time, I stumbled across this article on insomnia which I found useful, enjoy.

In 1914, The Lancet reported on a clergyman who was found dead in a pool; he had left behind this suicide note: “Another sleepless night, no real sleep for weeks. Oh, my poor brain, I cannot bear the lengthy, dark hours of the night. Author Pagan Kennedy writes in The New York Times: “I came across that passage with a shock of recognition.

“Many people think that the worst part of insomnia is the daytime grogginess. But like that pastor, I suffered most in the dark hours after midnight, when my desire for sleep, my raging thirst for it, would drive me into temporary insanity. On the worst nights, my mind would turn into a mad dog that snapped and gnawed itself.

“Though one in 10 American adults suffer from chronic insomnia, we have yet to answer the most fundamental questions about the affliction. Scientists are still arguing about the mechanisms of sleep and the reasons it fails in seemingly healthy people. There are few – if any – reliable treatments for insomnia. At the same time, medical journals warn that bad sleep can fester into diseases like cancer and diabetes. Deep in the night, those warnings scuttle around my mind like rats.

“About 18 months ago, during a particularly gruelling period, I felt so desperate that I consulted yet another doctor – but all he did was suggest the same drugs that had failed me in the past. I was thrown back once again on my own ways of coping.

“As a child, I had invented mental games to distract myself. For instance, I would compile a list of things and people that made me happy, starting with words that began with A and moving through the alphabet.

“One night, I was in the Qs, trying to figure out what to add to quesadillas, queer theory and Questlove. Then, suddenly, the game infuriated me – why, why, why did I have to spend hours doing this? In the red glare of the digital clock, my brain rattled its cage. I prepared for a wave of lunacy. But instead of a meltdown, I had a wild idea: What if there was another, easier, way to drive the miserable thoughts from my mind?

“I began to fantasise about a machine that would do the thinking for me. I pictured it like another brain that would fit on top of my head. The next day, I cobbled together my first insomnia machine.

“Though millions of us struggle with chronic insomnia, we’re not a unified army fighting the same foe. Every one of us is grappling with a different mix of mental and physical dysfunctions. Dozens of medical conditions deprive people of sleep; these include apnoea, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, depression, brain injury, autism and restless legs syndrome.

“I suspect my own insomnia has a strong genetic component – as a child, awake in the middle of the night, I would listen as my mother roamed the house, searching for a spot where she could curl up with her detective novel and wait for the Seconal to kick in. Insomnia has affected other family members, too, and seems to be coiled somewhere in our DNA. Indeed, a 2015 study of twins found that wakefulness is significantly heritable, especially in women.

“My affliction certainly felt baked in, because it had resisted every intervention. I had done all the right things: I had consulted with a half-dozen doctors; I blocked blue light, ate carbs, avoided carbs, bought a special pillow and listened to meditation tapes. I’d done all the wrong things, too, like gobbling down drugs – from Ambien to Lunesta to lorazepam – but that hadn’t worked either.

“For a while I followed the rules of ‘sleep hygiene’ – a tough-love approach that includes dragging yourself out of bed during wakeful periods, and allowing yourself to crawl back under the covers only when you feel sleepy. But I never felt sleepy. And in our frigid New England house in winter, it was excruciating to be exiled from the wool blankets; I felt humiliated, like a bad dog, as I put one foot and then another down on the cold floor and slunk off to another room. Even the name of the therapy shamed me: The word ‘hygiene’ had an old-fashioned sting to it, an implication that the way I slept was filthy and needed to be scoured.

“So that’s why I – the dirty, disreputable insomniac – took matters into my own hands. I found a stretchy sock that was long enough to wrap around my head like a blindfold. Then I sewed the sock into a circle, from toe to topstitch, making sure it fit securely, so that it would stay in place no matter how I tossed and turned on the pillow.

“I cut two slits in the inner layer of fabric, sewing stitches to create button-hole-like openings. And then I found an old pair of earbuds, sewed foam around each bud, and threaded the foam-bumps into holes in the headgear. This way, the gizmo would hold the speakers near my ears, but not in them – more comfortable for sleeping. Once I had finished, I attached a cheap MP3 player (made by SanDisk) to the rig. Now I could roll my head around, doze, slumber or pad to the bathroom, all while listening to the new voice in my head.

“My boyfriend said that he felt as if he were sleeping next to a hostage. But weird as it looked, the device offered relief. I’d cue up an audiobook and a monologue would commence, blotting out my own thoughts. Instead of labouring to calm myself, I could just drift on the voice pumped into my head. I began to wear the machine all night long, floating in and out of sleep, comforted that whatever happened, the narrator would stay with me.

“After I’d built my headgear, I discovered companies were selling similar devices online – usually in the form of fleece headbands outfitted with flat earphones. I tried some out, but I found they weren’t snug enough to stay in place, so I still use my DIY gear.

“Of course, the insomnia machine is a humble hack. The real challenge lay in curating the audio: It took trial and error to find material that could tame my midnight mind.

“At first, I loaded the machine with the kind of dry disquisitions that, according to conventional wisdom, bring on sleep; I turned to books like ‘Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations’, an important jeremiad about soil quality that is not super-entertaining.

“But the drone in my ears didn’t keep my mind busy enough, so instead I began to pick out funny, engaging and friendly books. When I enjoyed those hours of wakefulness, I no longer tried to sleep, and when I stopped trying to sleep, I slept.

“My voracious appetite for spoken-word audio led me to discover a treasure: the free audiobooks on LibriVox, a storehouse of public-domain literature narrated by volunteer readers. I began to spend my nights in the company of great authors, wandering around in the 19th century, an era no longer protected by copyright laws. Here I befriended the ‘lady explorer’ Isabella Bird, who scaled the Rocky Mountains and survived the winter in a cabin cooped up with frontiersmen.

“Charlotte Brontë whisked me to the fictional kingdom of Labassecour. And Mark Twain confided that a flirtatious shopgirl had persuaded him to buy a pair of kid gloves suitable for wearing to the opera – even though he preferred buckskin.

“The slow pace of 19th-century novels and memoirs is perfect for an insomnia machine: You fall asleep when the characters are having dinner, and when you wake up they’ve only reached the drawing room. It feels as if you’re surrounded by friends, dozing comfortably in a corner as life carries on.

“Literature did not cure my insomnia, but transformed it into a manageable condition, and so I feel enormously grateful to the internet and its crowd of volunteers for providing thousands of hours of literary medicine. I think of Jorge Luis Borges, who lamented that he had been put in charge of Argentina’s National Library after he’d gone blind and was unable to peruse a single page. Today we live in a splendor that Borges might have dreamed into existence, a library we can stumble through in the dark.

“In 1886, the author Franklin Harvey Head reported that his contemporaries regarded insomnia as a ‘modern and even an almost distinctively American disease”’ brought about by the hustle-bustle of the railroad and the telegraph. As wires spread across the country and incandescent bulbs burned away the stars, some warned about what would happen when electrification spread into rural towns. Surely, chickens would die of insomnia – and presumably the farmers, too.

“Whenever a new technology comes along, we inevitably blame it for ruining our sleep. Today, we believe that phones and laptops will scramble our sleep, even though the evidence of that is thin. Few studies have been done to find out whether digital media can set off insomnia in adults, and the findings of what research has been done tend to be contradictory. Nonetheless, many health professionals recommend that we banish all digital devices from our bedrooms.

“Of course, there are many ways to ruin your health with a laptop – like engaging in a flame war on Facebook at 4 in the morning. But used judiciously, the internet itself can become a therapy. Both Netflix and Amazon cater to insomniacs by offering ‘sleep-tainment’ options; you can watch videos of a window fan, a train ride through the mountains, knitters chatting in Norway, drizzle falling on leaves or rain tapping on the walls of a tent. This testifies to how many people like to drift off to the lullaby of digital media – and how idiosyncratic our tastes can be.

“Most important, the internet is becoming a place for insomniacs to gather together and figure out what works, to share insights and help one another. For instance, in 2013, Drew Ackerman created a podcast to lead listeners into slumberland. Now, three times a week, he climbs into a makeshift studio in the back of a closet and spins whimsical stories about matters of no importance. ‘Fasten your sleep-belts,’ he might murmur in a codeine drawl before jumping into a tale about the glug-glug-glug sound of a water cooler.

“Ackerman told me that he has designed his ‘Sleep With Me’ podcast to tame the vigilant, overactive ‘guardian’ in the brain that feels it must stay awake to worry. ‘I’m trying to trick the guardian,’ he said. ‘It hears my voice and decides: This guy is a goofball. He’s not a threat. That ‘frees up the rest of your brain to drift off.’

“Ackerman has no training as a sleep doctor or health professional – he too, found salvation from insomnia in audiobooks, specifically aboard the Pequod, squinting out at the 19th-century sea as he floated along on Melville’s words. That experience led him to wonder whether he could fine-tune audio as a therapy.

“Nowadays, about 70,000 listeners download each episode of his podcast, and reviewers attest to the power of this treatment. Ackerman treats insomnia as a disease of existential loneliness. ‘I hear from so many people who listen to the podcast while their partners are sound asleep,’ he said. ‘They might be in bed with somebody who loves them. But in that situation, it’s the deep dark night, and you’re all alone.’

“And so Ackerman has created an alter ego named Dearest Scooter who hosts the show and acts as your ‘bore-friend’ – in the bunk bed of your mind, he’s the compassionate brother lying a few feet above you, a voice in the darkness promising he’ll talk until you drift off.

“He’s also the antithesis of the sleep-hygiene therapists. He doesn’t shame, he commiserates; he knows how horrible insomnia is, and he’s here for you. ‘People need to be validated,’ Ackerman said. ‘If I’m thirsty, I drink; if I’m hungry, I can eat. But when I want to sleep, that’s not under my control. And that’s why this is such a painful mystery.’

“So many of us are muddling along, finding relief where we can get it. At least we have one another. At 2 in the morning, with my insomnia machine strapped to my head, I listen to a volunteer reading George Meredith’s ‘The Egoist’ in a South Indian lilt. As every parent knows, there is magic in the human voice telling a story; this is the oldest and most primitive insomnia treatment. In the dark hours, when we’re wandering in the wilderness of thought, sometimes we just need to feel that someone, even a digital someone with a pre-recorded voice, is watching over us.”

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How to survive an adolescent, Act 1.
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How to survive an adolescent, Act 1.

“You just don’t get it! You’re so cruel! Why did you even have children if you can’t be a parent?! All my other friends parents would let them go [to the party]!”
My 13 year old daughter screams as she slams the door to her unkempt room, the house fills with the now all too familiar noxious yellow gas of parental defeat and crushed teenage dreams. In that moment, I hate being a parent, I hate adolescents, a heady blend of impotent rage and self pity mockingly swirl around my deactivated therapeutic skills. All those books I’ve read on consistent, attuned parenting are burning gloriously in the middle of my mind, where my daughter’s judgement smugly warms it’s hands. It’s different when it’s my child, I grumble to no one.
“You ungrateful little shit!” I scream at the impassive door, it takes every iota of self control to not go into her room and throw all of these toxic emotions at her in an effort to reclaim some sense of ego equilibrium, but I know that it’ll just make me feel worse, that I’ll bully her into submission and with that will come guilt, for which I’ll apologize thereby rendering any attempt at boundary setting totally ineffectual. So I try and suck it up, shaking with anger, I shout at the dog, collateral damage.

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How memory works.
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How memory works.

In today’s excerpt – from “Making Connections” by Anthony J. Greene. How memory works:

“Many people wish their memory worked like a video recording. How handy would that be? Finding your car keys would simply be a matter of zipping back to the last time you had them and hitting ‘play.’ You would never miss an appointment or forget to pay a bill. You would remember everyone’s birthday. You would ace every exam. Or so you might think. In fact, a memory like that would snare mostly useless data and mix them willy-nilly with the information you really needed. It would not let you prioritize or create the links between events that give them meaning. For the very few people who have true photographic recall — eidetic memory, in the parlance of the field — it is more burden than blessing.

“For most of us, memory is not like a video recording — or a notebook, a photograph, a hard drive or any of the other common storage devices to which it has been compared. It is much more like a web of connections between people and things. Indeed, recent research has shown that some people who lose their memory also lose the ability to connect things to each other in their mind. And it is the connections that let us understand cause and effect, learn from our mistakes and anticipate the future. …

“Learning and memory are not sequestered in their own storage banks, but are distributed across the entire cerebral cortex. … The significance of these findings is profound. It means that memory is dispersed, forming in the regions of the brain responsible for language, vision, hearing, emotion and other functions. It means that learning and memory arise from changes in neurons as they connect to and communicate with other neurons. And it means that a small reminder can reactivate a network of neurons wired together in the course of registering an event, allowing you to experience the event anew. Remembering is reliving. …
“The hippocampus [is] an essential mediator in [connecting neurons]. In a very small brain, every neuron might be connected to every other neuron. But a human brain that worked on this model would require that each of hundreds of billions of neurons be linked to every other neuron, an impossibly unwieldy configuration. The hippocampus solves this problem by serving as a kind of neural switchboard, connecting the distant cortical regions for language, vision and other abilities as synaptic networks take shape and create memories.

“[People with hippocampus damage] appear to have impairments that go well beyond the loss of memory creation. They also have severe difficulty imagining future events, living instead in a fragmented, disconnected reality. Recent studies show that imagining the future involves brain processes similar to, but distinct from, those involved in conjuring the past. We also tend to remember the people and events that resonate emotionally, which is why forgetting an anniversary is such an offense: it is fair evidence that the date is not as important as the ones we do remember. The discovery that memory is all about connections has revolutionary implications for education. It means that memory is integral to thought and that nothing we learn can stand in isolation; we sustain new learning only to the degree we can relate it to what we already know. …

“The connections across the brain also help us conceive the future, as recent imaging studies have shown. Functional magnetic resonance imaging … shows that a mosaic of brain areas similar to those involved in memory is active when participants imagine details of hypothetical or prospective events. …

“[This] can sometimes cause us problems by altering our memories instead of augmenting them. … Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus [has shown] how easy it is to create false memories of past events. In one study, participants watched a film of a car accident. Researchers asked some subjects how fast they thought the cars were going when they ‘smashed into’ each other and asked other subjects how fast the cars were going when they ‘hit’ each other. The subjects, who heard the word ‘smashed’ gave significantly higher estimates of the speed. In other experiments, subjects were fed incorrect information about an accident after watching the film; they might, for instance, be asked repeatedly whether a traffic light had turned yellow before the collision when in fact the light was green. Many then remembered a yellow light that never existed, which is why eyewitness testimony after police interrogation can be so unreliable.”

“Making Connections”
Author: Anthony J. Greene
Publisher: Scientific American Mind
July/August 2010
Pages: 22-29

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One breath at a time.
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One breath at a time.

My mind has been agitated lately. A series of skirmishes with life has left me feeling quite anxious. Reading anything but a brief news feed becomes difficult and my internal monologue is repetitive and stale. I am currently acutely aware of the correlation between my agitated mind and a shallow mood. So what to do? Interestingly enough, many shrinks I know are on some form of antidepressant medication, or are self medicating low mood through the common strategies such as compulsive series watching, alcohol, smoking pot, pornography etc. I’ve had a brush with one or more of these dark little friends over the years, I’ve also tried multiple workshops and retreats offering masculinity, miracles, holotropic breathing, medicinal plants, lucid dreaming, conscious coupling, conscious uncoupling, yoga, mindfulness, a dizzying array of self help literature, blogs, lectures, the list goes on- and where has it all led my curious, sometimes ferocious often anxious mind? Back to the mat, back to my little cushion with a picture of a chihuahua on it. Perhaps that’s all this self important mind is in the mirror, a yapping little chihuahua who doesn’t know when to keep his little trap shut. So, this morning, at 4:37a.m. I dragged the yapping little shit to my cushion, lit a candle and made it sit. Boy was it hard. Yap, yap…on and on it went, parading an endless stream of mind confetti. I kept returning to my breath as I had been shown…again and again, my mind strained at its breath-leash, unaccustomed to not being able to have its way. Puppy training classes. I wasn’t cruel as I tugged on the leash, bringing my mind back to the breath again and again and again, I was patient, prepared to sit for as long as it would take. Slowly, ever so slowly it began to sit with me, seconds initially, then a minute or two, then off it would dash. I can see that it’s going to take some time, but that’s ok. I’m clear that making the time to sit with my mind and let it know , through the breath, that it is safe, that it can come to rest, will bring a sense of calm that I am aching for as weather pulls through my life, one breath at a time.

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The Demon Ship.
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The Demon Ship.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you are on a boat, I like to imagine something out of Mutiny on the Bounty. Your standing at the tiller in the middle of the ocean. Below decks are the most awfully terrifying demons, dementors and furies. They are made of your greatest fears. You have made a deal to placate them, to keep them below decks…the deal is that in order for them not to rend you limb from limb with their powerful jaws and sharp fangs, you have to drift aimlessly on this ocean, alone, forever.
Thing is that after a couple of months of this ‘drifting’, you’re becoming hungry, deep in your soul, you know there is more to life, that in order to evolve and live with meaning and purpose, you will need a clear direction.
As your hands grip the tiller, the demons are immediately present, howling all manner of horrors into your face, “you’re going to fail”, “no one will love you”, “you’re fat…too old! “, “pathetic!” On and on they howl until eventually you concede to the fears, convinced of their truth. And you continue to drift, to starve yourself of the nourishment you so desperately need.
Months pass, you become spiritually emaciated and intellectually stagnant, your moods darken and your heart grows weary. Slowly the realization dawns that unless you are going to make a concerted effort to plot a course and move towards something that will really enrich your quality of life, you will suffer a pale death, drifting aimlessly until your final breath.
Courageously you set course, determined to get out of your comfort zone, to apply for that new job or move towards a new relationship, to move actively towards change. On cue, the demons return, knowing that you are fueled by courage, they redouble their efforts to pull you off course, they fling shame, humiliation and despair into your eyes, but this time you white knuckle through their barrage. As you continue heading in a purposeful direction, you begin to notice that the demons are made of smoke and mirrors, old stories about yourself, ancient, worn fears whose teeth are worn smooth by the knashing of a weary mind. They become more and more insubstantial with each passing mile as you approach a new shore. Slowly as their volume fades, you become aware of the warmth of the sun on your face, the other ships in close proximity, you notice you are no longer white knuckling and are actually beginning to enjoy your journey…

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Is there anybody out there?
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Is there anybody out there?

I read a fascinating article the other day about a psychologist called Douglas Vakoch who is the Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). What a fascinating and rather odd job title.
Douglas has the difficult task of responding if beings from another planet sent a message to us through deep space…Think about that for a moment, how would one man respond to an interstellar collect call for seven billion humans?

Most often messages to extraterrestrial audiences have focused on human strengths. Take the Voyager spacecraft’s interstellar message – in over 100 pictures of life on Earth, with an emphasis on human presence, there were no depictions of war, poverty or disease.
Why not? Who determined what humanities ‘best side’ was? But perhaps it is precisely an emphasis on our vulnerabilities that may be of the most interest to extraterrestrials. No matter how narcissistic Humans are, we most certainly will not be the most intelligent beings in the galaxy, if we make contact. Humans have only had the capacity to communicate with radio for less than a century – a blip in the 13-billion-year history of our galaxy.

Perhaps it is not the beauty of our symphonies that will set us apart from extraterrestrials, nor our moral perfection – living true to our ideals of altruism.
If we wish to convey what it is about us that is distinctive, it may be our weakness…our fears…our unknowing – and yet a willingness to forge ahead to attempt contact in spite of this that truly reflects our unique contribution to a much greater whole.

The article got me thinking about the space that exists between people here on Earth. How every individual could be seen as Earth, separated from others by what can sometimes feel like infinite space. Struggling to communicate, or understand, believing that we are always essentially alone and unknown.
I see so many lonely people in therapy, good, caring, aware souls who truly believe there is no one out there that will understand or accept them for who they really are.
As Humans, we appear to be so invested in categorizing each ‘other’ in order to make sense of our personal worlds (think race, class, gender etc), that we think we’ve got the ‘other’ all figured out. We roll out our ‘best selves’ with a marching band (much like the images of Humanity carried by Voyager), showing our ‘shiny parts’ not only to others but also to ourselves in an effort to defend against our whole, beautiful, damaged selves being truly witnessed. Disconnected from other living beings through our resistance to sharing our vulnerabilities with one another we drift alone and unknown in a sea of possible connection.

Perhaps we will be the intelligent species that has the most exquisite balance of joy and sorrow of any civilisation in the Milky Way. And it is the fundamental facts of human existence such as these that might best be explained not only to other civilisations, but with great courage to each other in an effort to be truly seen and to finally realize that we are not alone.

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