Saturday, September 17, 2016

Letting Go

Fall represents a change in pace. Children go back to school and, historically, food gets ready for harvest. Indeed, in the Jewish calendar the New Year is celebrated with both sweetness on Rosh
Hashanah and solemnity on Yom Kippur. In general, Fall is a pivotal time of letting go. We let go of easy days in lieu of a more hectic pace just as the trees lest go of their leaves. And, for myself, I've learned more about the art of letting go in the months leading up to Fall through yoga.

In Just Do It, I referenced difficult emotions which can arise when we let our muscles relax. It's a little like opening a closet which you formerly packed in a hasty manner... when objects tumble out, it can be a shock but it's better to face the clutter so that we can feel peace in organization rather than ignore a closet which can otherwise serve as an important form of storage. It's a little similar with our emotions. As Freud once stated, "life is hard." And the decisions we don't wish make or the events we don't know how to handle can sometimes be shelved in the mind's closet or unconscious where it's out of conscious sight but never really out of mind. 

As Freud said, "life is hard."

I remember once reading in the New York Times that, from an anthropological perspective, when societies become more stratified economically, the inequality between men and women goes up. Indeed, the article looked at wives in Upper East Side addresses whose husbands possess comparative wealth but not much room in the lives of their families. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule and the article took a clearly academic as opposed to judgmental stance (you can read it here). Yet one other characteristic of this strange community seems to be its ubiquitous presence of social norms. People of a particular socioeconomic status may attend charm school. There are a million utensils to use and you have to know how to use them. And as this current election cycle has taught us, what you talk about and how you talk about it (i.e. political correctness) differs with one's education and station. The point is, a lot has changed since the time of hunting and gathering when we as a species tended to work less and enjoy greater equality among the sexes. Yet, while we may no longer feel the threat of facing a lion in the hunt, life still presents its stresses no matter how technologically advanced we become. And so though we've changed our surroundings, our stress response has remained the same. 

Stress comes to us in many forms. Although we no longer face the pressures of the hunt, we often face the pressures of traffic. While hunter-gatherer societies were often close knit and provided resources for the entire tribe, we are now faced with more independent economic arrangements which are sometimes stretched and as unpredictable as the environmental droughts faced by our ancestors. And even though we've developed a host of social norms and rules to accompany our ever emerging technologies, our fear of falling "out of the tribe" is just as strong as it was when we actually lived in one. Indeed, we define strength in numbers as, "the hypothesis that, by being part of a large physical group... an individual is less likely to be the victim of a mishap, accident, attack or other bad event." So, we have more rules to abide yet the same fear of breaking them as well as general stresses which may not be life-threatening but activate our bodies in a way which can still be detrimental to our health.

When we come up against a stressful situation, be it an impulse from our unconscious or the unexpected sound of a siren, the body often initiates a fight-or-flight response. According to Harvard Health Publications, when the sympathetic nervous system activates this process, the heart rate goes up, the muscles tense and a cacophony of hormones are released preparing us for battle. However, when this response is repeatedly activated, as it often is in today, it can wreak havoc on our systems.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there is a scene which always makes me feel uncomfortable in which Johnny Depp (playing Walter S. Thompson) consumes pure adrenaline and goes on a crazy trip. I'm not sure if there's any truth to the scene but adrenaline (or epinephrine) which is released during the fight-or-flight process helps us run from a lion but can really mess with us if released consistently. Indeed, the effects of prolonged stress, according to Harvard Health Publications includes an increase in blood pressure, issues with obesity, brain damage which can cause anxiety and a whole host of other issues. So what can we do to help ourselves when faced with the perils of modern stress? The answer may be surprisingly simple.

When I was in college, I had a roommate whose parents collected modern art. So she never really wanted to go to a museum. "I grew up around art," she would say. "I really don't want to go out and look at it." And while I remember confusing conversations about "artists" who spent all day sending shocks through sheet metal, I had a difficult time understanding why she couldn't appreciate the art as much as people who didn't grow up around it. However, while Eastern Religion and meditation has seemed to have swept the nation as of late, I really hold off on trying it because... I've grown up with it.

While I've had to sit through many conversations on meditation, boring as it sounds, there's a group of people who inspire me to try it - vets returning from home from war. The battle field is one of the places left in modern society where fight-or-flight scenarios may emerge on a regular basis. Being exposed to unspeakable horrors, many vets return with confusion (for lack of a better term) as to how and acclimate back into "normal" life. After returning from WWII, my grandfather could not watch the fireworks on the Forth of July because the loud noises brought back painful memories. When woken from a bad dream by my grandmother, she said his first response would be to reach under his pillow where he kept his gun while he slept on active duty. Of course, nothing was there in the states. For most of us inexperienced in battle it's difficult to imagine what it might be like. But that doesn't mean we can't help where needed. And one person attempting such an endeavor is psychologist Emma Seppala. 

Breathing Happiness

So, as you can see from the video above, the simple act of watching one's breath can have profound implications for our health. Indeed, according to WebMD, several benefits of daily meditation include a reduction in stress and/or an improvement of psoriasis to name a few. And, while meditation fundamentally is a simple process, I'm certainly not schooled to teach anyone its key steps. So, in my first attempt to learn about the process, I picked up a book by Jon Kabat Zinn entitled, Wherever You Go There You Are. Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Kabat Zinn is also the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine and the Stress Reduction Clinic as well as the author of various tomes. Below, he shares steps for beginning the process of meditation. Enjoy!

Jon Kabat Zinn, ya'll.

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