Art thinking, casual art, and following bread crumbs to deeper self discovery

Yesterday while listening to a Big Think podcast, they played a segment of an interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn where he talks about the results of MRI scans comparing people who meditate and who don’t, when asked to just sit and do nothing. Those who don’t meditate activate a ‘default’ mode part of the brain, thinking in linear time and about themselves, their reality. Those who do meditate activate an adjacent part the brain, where this is a sense of expansion, possibilities, energy, growth – beyond the self. In other words, the potential of what we can become. He says that we go through life with the brakes on, because of that default mode.

My experiences so far with art thinking (color thinking) makes me think that I’m tapping into that space. Art thinking and color thinking releases me from the usual ego-centered, me-centered, self talk and seems to be a gateway into a space that is rich with potential for new experiences and ways of thinking.

In recent months I’ve tried to flip from telling myself I have to follow a certain rigid path, because that’s what I’m supposed to do, to giving myself permission to discover a path, and listening for subtle signals I hadn’t paid attention to before in order to allow for a path to unfold.

Reading the book Mastery by Robert Greene set me up for this, to a certain extent. He talks through different paths people who become masters might take – whether through an apprenticeship, or doing deep into one topic, or moving from one topic to the next, making connections between them and basically discovering a new, untapped niche. At the core was this idea of letting this path organically evolve by letting yourself be drawn to whatever resonates. Get ride of assumptions, open yourself up to possibilities, allow yourself to be curious, and see where it takes you.

I went to the bookstore around that time and let books talk to me…and certain art books did, ones I hadn’t considered before. I look back now at the progression of my interest in art, and the ‘signals’ I feel, and what I’ve come to value. It’s quite different than what I was trying to force myself towards.

Originally I thought about art as a skill to perform, for an output that would be meaningful. I collected art supplies while in college with the intent to one day ‘do lots of art’, because I was drawn to it and wanted to. But I never did. I tried often, but it didn’t stick…because I was approaching it the wrong way. I bought many ‘how to’ books and started on the first lessons, but it wasn’t all that enjoyable, because I could never do it ‘right’. The books were very much focused on the outcome – the different techniques, and step by step process for producing certain outcomes.

That day at the book store the books I bought approached art very differently. Two books, Art Before Breakfast and The Zen Drawing Pack, focused not on the outcome, but the process, especially the state of mind – relaxed, open, free. They stressed that art wasn’t about producing artwork, but nurturing a creative state of mind.

The other book was a Zen Doodling. Adult coloring books are the rage right now, but they don’t appeal to me because you only color; it’s the drawing of new lines that I want to explore. But most art books are very heavy in that direction – it’s not about simple lines, it’s about entire projects and that tends to set me up for failure. Zen Doodling shows you tiny little steps you can take where you just start to draw, no pressure, no failure. Tiny little steps where you pick up a pen, and let it go on its journey, and start to create. With that aspect of ‘doing’, you begin to chip at that wall that holds you back from creativity, you begin, ever so slightly, to release that brake.

I spent several weeks with Zen Doodling, bought additional books, mostly by Carolyn Scrace, because she goes deeper into the creative process, past just basic doodling. The taps into nature, other art materials, other patterns and methods – gradually expanding the ‘casual art’ space, one small step at a time.

I then looked to other books that nurtured creativity through other gateways – not necessarily through learning one technique or trying to create a certain masterpiece. Another book I’ve enjoyed is Draw Paint Print like the great Artists, as it encourages art for the fun, free, creative experience it can be – not pressure to create a specific thing. It further helped me free my tight hold on expectations of what being artistic and creative should be.

Another stepping stone to elevate my doodling was 20 Ways to Draw a Tree, by Eloise Renouf. I’ve always been drawn to nature, and this provides a plethora of suggestions to work with, copy and modify creatively.

Along the way I came across Steal Like an Artist, where Auston Kleon encourages you to copy artists, copy what you love, it helps you discover you. And as you copy, you get glimpses into the minds of your heroes. And I strongly believe great artists are driving without the parking brake on! And that’s how I want to live as well.

And so I’m copying a lot – it makes ‘doing art’ far easier to do, because you have the idea and inspiration right there, and it allows you to easily practice and flex new muscles.

I’m ‘doing art’ with a ‘casual art’ attitude – it’s for the pleasure of doing, the nurturing of new a new mindspace, not for what the physical outcome is. It becomes peaceful and invigorating at the same time.

Finally, I’m doing casual art and art thinking for self-discovery. This is a big theme in Art as Therapy, by John Armstrong, one that I’m still exploring. But related, the new trend of art journaling is fascinating, on two levels.

One, I’m embracing art journaling for the new perspectives – the crossing of left and right brain, the different perspectives that arise when you include doodles and sketches with your words – entire new frameworks evolve, and deeper understanding.

Two, I believe it is a gate way to that living without the parking brake on, and I’m fascinated by art journal pages others have created. Pinterest has become a great resource, not only for doodle ideas and casual art ideas, but glimpses into other artists’ minds through their art journal pages. A few books have come out highlighting examples – such as A World of Artist Journal Pages. There is something so deep and intimate in these pages – artists, those very people living without the brake on – are sharing very personal visual stories that show vulnerability and authenticity I strive to nurture in my own life.

In continuing on this journey, following signals, taking small steps, exploring new paths, copying others, and applying art thinking, I stay close to that path of self-discovery that I’ve come to enjoy so much, and now feels much easier than it ever has.

My failures are improving

I’m noticing significant changes in my perspectives and patterns – I am thriving more consistently than I ever have in the past. I am still failing often, but those failures are becoming easier to recover from, easier to manage, and of greater value as I pay more attention to them.

What do I call failure? I’m pretty hard on myself, so there is a lot I call ‘failure’ that many people might not. It’s not about wanting to be a perfectionist by any means, but it is about being consistently happy. And I don’t mean massive happiness, but contentment -feeling at peace, feeling connected, feeling like you are of value and are loved, feeling accomplished, etc. Whatever it might be for an individual or for that moment, but to feel good.

My personal ‘failures’ are when I’m not in that space of feeling good, and I’m doing things that undermine feeling good in the near future. I’m a jerk to others, I am a jerk to myself, I shut down and retreat, become antisocial, depressed, start to binge or worse. It can get ugly. There are, of course, big failures and small failures, but in my mind, they all feel really shitty.

In the past even a small failure – something as simple as not exercising one day, when it was on my to-do list – can snowball and result in a dismal personal state. I am wicked hard on myself, but that’s not something I can easily turn off.

That’s where systems thinking has become so important to me – coming to understand connections and network effects, and non-reductionist thinking. For any ‘bad behavior’ there are a number of drivers and causes, and a number of approaches to modify the system that results in that behavior. For example, it’s not just missing exercise one afternoon that causes a depressed state. Other things may have caused it, and not exercising might be a consequence, not a cause. On the other hand, exercise is so fundamental for the ‘me’ system to feel good, that missing it one day can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The main point is that taking the lens that you should simply ‘stop’ a bad behavior is the complete bass-ackward approach to take. Making the decision to stop and telling yourself to stop is an important step, but it is never that simple. Pretending otherwise sets you up for failure. To say ‘just quit smoking’, or ‘just start exercising’, or ‘just stop snacking after 7’ by itself doesn’t work. For success, there are big and small system changes you need to make before and during. And for real success, those changes are unique to every individual and their situation – they need to be discovered with experimentation.

For example, recent system changes I’ve made – small things, but that impact bigger systems – and that I continue to experiment with:

  1. Gradual diet changes – reducing sugar and gluten intake, drinking more water, eating more protein and fat.
  2. Creative exercise routines – mixing and matching different exercises, for different opportunities and moods, making it easier to be physically active in some way, every day
  3. Nurturing rituals – starting simple, and modifying to where it fits me, not a ritual that someone else is doing for themselves. Rituals in the morning help me get out of bed and into a better mood very quickly, and set me up for a better day. I am working on an evening ritual that promotes healthy sleeping and not late night snacking.
  4. Casual art – this has been huge, finding a comfortable path toward more creative, artistic behaviors and mindsets, flexing that muscle that taps into a deeper creative energy that has been dormant for too long. This has been tough, but very rewarding
  5. Pacing – creating buffers, allowing more time, being thoughtful of what I’m doing when, how different tasks cost energy or add energy, and being thoughtful of how I combine or stagger them can improve the system as a whole; listening to my body, hearing what it needs
  6. Defining goals and priorities – this, too, is a work in progress…but it adds important focus.

These are all just examples, but together, they are making a big difference.  I am thriving more, aching less. I am happy and content more often than battling depression.

The ‘failures’ are happening less often, and I am able to recover more quickly because I am building resilience and creating more ‘rescue’ tools through rituals and new habits and opportunities.

More importantly, I am actively learning from them. Failures used to be just that – failure, and validation that I truly do suck, and just seem to be pretty good at hiding that fact from everyone. Now, failures are becoming signals. They are clear announcements that something isn’t right and I should take a closer look. I can backtrack from failures and look at patterns, discover new connections and understand more deeply how I tick and what I need. Failures allow for that deeper understanding and this informs changes I can make to allow myself to thrive more deeply.

So now I work towards several goals:

  1. Set myself up to thrive more, fail less.
  2. Build up resilience and capabilities so when there is failure, it’s easier to bounce back.
  3. Practice awareness around failure to learn more (to support 1 and 2)
  4. Nurture the sensitivity to feel the ‘failure’ signals sooner

One of my hobbies is martial arts and MMA (for fun). With practice, I am learning to read the signals from my opponent and anticipate punches sooner. The better I get at this, the more I can ‘see’ into the future. That’s what I’d like to do with the failure signal – become more aware and more sensitive to my feelings, thoughts, and actions, so that I can sense my ‘crash’ sooner, and learn and act accordingly to adjust course.

Works in progress. For now, my failures are improving, and that makes me happy.

 

Feelings, Emotions, ANTs, and Control

I’m on this track of getting to the basics of my FEEL GOOD mantra. In the moment, what does it take and how can I make it easy and natural to get myself to a place where I feel good.

It brings up the question of feelings and emotions, and what is the difference? Feelings – fleeting, instant, a rapid reaction that is visceral, that the body and mind then interprets to decide what to do with. They become ingredients that are part of a bigger process.

When a decision is made, consciously or unconsciously, feelings becomes emotion. Emotion- energy and motion someone said on a podcast recently – it’s the feeling plus history (past experiences, past feelings and connections the body/mind has made) and now it gets sticky and has potential to make an impact.

Emotions, negative ones at least, stick and create thoughts, negative thoughts, because your mind needs a story as to why you feel a certain way. It will take clues and put together a story and come to believe it, creating grooves in your brain so that it becomes your reality. This creates ANTs, automatic negative thoughts. Now, when you just experience the feeling, no matter how brief, the ANTs kick in, pretty soon without even needing the emotion. But ANTs will drive stronger negative emotions.

Without awareness and action, ANTs and emotions will drive – they can impact how we see the world, interpret the world, and how we act in the world. And without awareness, we could be seeing, thinking and doing things that actually aren’t the right things at all do see, think or do.

Without awareness, we just react and often those reactions make situations worse, creating more bad feelings and stronger bad emotions. With awareness, we can create a space to assess the emotions and even the feelings, try to understand them and possibly even leverage them. Emotions are, in fact, very important signals that can inform a much deeper understanding of ourselves, and offer guideposts for new directions and better alignment to our true self of thought and action. But, this takes both awareness and a lot of work.

For now, I want to focus on short term FEEL GOOD.

  1. Awareness of emotions (and feelings), just plain awareness (no judgment or action needed) can create space, a buffer, that disconnects, even for just a moment, from the drama. Stepping back and becoming an observer untangles the emotion from our deeper selves and eases the intensity and pain. But simple awareness takes practice, it’s a muscle to flex. Here I find meditation helpful, and pausing throughout the day to assess my emotions. Breathing exercises help, going for a walk, smiling, connecting with a friend; any kind of small, easy and steps. Over time it gets easier, and remarkably powerful.
  2. With improved awareness comes the opportunity to take actions. I’ll explore this more soon, as there are different actions to take, depending on the emotions, the history, the situation, your state of mind and health in the moment. That alone is important to realize – there is no one answer or one solution. There are usually several and by applying several together, it is more effective.
  3. Taking proactive steps for when awareness isn’t all there yet, and understanding is not there at all. This is something to do before you ever even feel bad, knowing that at some point during the day you are going to run out of good energy and hit a wall; so let’s plan ahead. This was one of my biggest takeaways from The Desire Map by Danielle LaPorte. She recommends a daily ritual of choosing your core desired feelings every morning and burning those into your mind so you influence thoughts and behaviors throughout the day that actually promote those desired feelings. What a concept – rather than wait and hope you’ll feel a certain way, decide ahead of time how you want to feel, an inevitably, unconsciously, you’ll steer your body and mind toward that direction. It works, I’ve done it.
  4. This is related to point 3 – in addition to making a decision in the morning of how you want to feel, you can also do this throughout the day, on the hour, before meetings, whenever you take the elevator or step into the bathroom (environmental triggers are recommended – then this becomes habit). No matter how you feel, make a decision in that moment how you WANT to feel. You may not get there 100%, but this mental decision does make an impact. Take a few deep breaths with it, and make a statement. “I feel calm. I feel confident.” Anything you want. This idea of thinking it and thereby making it a reality has a lot of truth to it. Try it, trust it. The more you believe it, the more it is able to manifest. Statements like this disrupt ANTs and ultimately whittle away at their power. But it takes practice – daily, frequently.

FEEL GOOD. “I feel good.”

 

Simplify simplify simplify

It’s about simplifying – distilling things down to the essentials – and making it really easy to act upon.

I’m continuing on the topic of ‘Feel Good’ – the first action step of my mantra. Ultimately that is the goal, right? Feeling good can mean different things to all of us, can mean different things to me at different times, but that’s a topic for another time.

Right now I’m using it as a mantra to remind myself that this is my goal, that I can and need to take ownership and responsibility for that goal, and that I have control – I can impact that goal, both short and long term. But it takes intentional action (not reaction), and intentional action requires a decision, and that decision requires thought and deliberation. But to start all that, we need awareness.

But awareness of what? Mindfulness is a hot topic and I believe very important – it encourages ongoing awareness at a deeper level, expanding to different aspects of ourselves and our environment. What I’ve struggled with is the ‘so what’. What exactly do I need to be aware of and why, what will I do with that? I can’t be aware of everything – there needs to be a purpose behind it.

This ‘Feel Good’ mantra assumes you are feeling bad and we want to change this. Three options:

  1. Ignore the cause and do something unrelated that makes you feel better (good for short term, but not long term)
  2. Pay attention the cause, start working on that AND do something unrelated that makes you feel better in the moment (good for short and long term)
  3. Ignore the cause and just keep beating yourself for feeling bad (no good short or long term)

Another discussion for another time are the options for short term ‘feel good’ actions – there are good ones and not so good ones. Where this is headed is that we can make good short terms decisions easier to do and more effective (and make the bad ones easier to disregard). But this needs a strong set-up to help recognize what are the causes, what feelings should be ignored, what feelings can we do something about, and what is the best course of action.

There is no one thing that causes that state of feeling really shitty. Or rather, if there is only one thing, that’s great – it’s usually easier to work with. Normally, it’s a number of things – and some causes are single events, others have a history, some are simple and easy to identify, others are more complex, some are easier to do something about, others just aren’t.

But the number one thing to realize is, there is usually no one cause, and more importantly, there is no one fix. The only one fix I know of for sure is to ignore the feeling and numb yourself to where you just don’t feel it anymore, whether food, drugs, drink, sleep, sex, whatever. But unfortunately, that only makes things worse – well, sleep doesn’t, but the other stuff does.

To get at the nuggets of how to FEEL GOOD, whether in the moment or long term, I see three critical components:

  1. Build resilience
  2. Become aware of the triggers
  3. Develop a game plan

All three steps need ongoing awareness of what is happening, why it’s happening, and what to do about it – but this can be done in a gentle way. And with this I come to understand and appreciate mindfulness. I now know what to be more aware of and why.

I will dig into each of these because they have short and long term components, as well as easy and difficult steps. The goal is to make it much easier to  avoid feeling bad, recognize signals sooner if it is happening anyway, and make taking the right action much easier to ultimately FEEL GOOD more of the time.

Gotta make this FEELING GOOD thing really simple for all of us.

 

Some synthesis and narrowing

My intention with this blog is to write about the things I think about, with the goal of eventually synthesizing into meaningful frameworks to simplify things and actionable insights to that are usable. Ultimately I want output that I can do something with – rather than just collecting all this info as I read, listen to podcasts, contemplate and mull over. I’ve been doing that for years. It’s got to come together for something meaningful.

I’m coming off 5 days of being sick. It turns out I really was sick – there was a health reason for derailing, although I still could have managed it better than getting so down on myself.

Bottom line, I was feeling really, really bad and I was so disappointed and frustrated. It feels like I do so much to manage my depression, my moods, my sporadic moments of darkness and apathy, and yet it returns again and again, and I feel like a failure.

Fail, fail again, fail smarter. Accept failure as part of experimentation. Experimentation is about learning.

I stepped back and first thought about what goes into that bad feeling – what are the causes. Only then can I think about experimenting with new strategies to manage.

What triggers these bouts of intense negative states, where I fall into the habits of talking such crap about myself?

  • Depression
  • Monthly hormone cycles
  • Personality factors (perfectionist, self-critical, over-achiever)
  • Karma
  • External pressures (work, family, extended family, car, dogs, life)
  • Physical health
  • Sleep
  • Diet (gluten, high glycemic foods)
  • External noise (barrage of information and technology)
  • Time (time of day, seasonality)
  • Self-talk and ANTs (automatic negative thoughts)

One or two at a time might not make an impact, but pile a bunch together and suddenly I’m down a rat hole, feeling like there is no way out. I become immobilized – a common reaction for ENFP types.

Because I crash hard and fast I decided to focus on a few key principles to (1) help me get more resilient in the first place and (2) help me pull myself out faster. Something I can memorize, recite like a mantra, and act on without hesitation.

My initial rev on this is the following:

  1. First, FEEL GOOD
  2. Second, NURTURE RELATIONSHIP
  3. Third, LIVE CREATIVELY

The first one requires some unpacking. Yes, it’s oversimplified. If things were really so easy, that I could just tell myself to feel good, I probably wouldn’t be getting so damn depressed in the first place. On the other hand, sometimes it is that easy – sometimes it is as simple as smacking yourself in the head and reminder you that you have more control than you think.

Usually, though, it’s more complicated. But, it can be broken down into manageable steps and it’s a muscle that can be flexed so that it can become easy.

Let’s focus on the first step – FEEL GOOD. This can be broken into 3 steps:

  1. OFFLOAD
  2. RESET
  3. CHANGE COURSE (if needed)

The first of these is most important – OFFLOAD. Evaluate the negative energy, that negative emotion and negative self talk and ask yourself a few questions.

  1. Is this noise or a meaningful signal?
  2. What’s the source?
  3. Is this worth my attention?
  4. Is this what I choose to spend my energy on?

Use the answers to these questions to make important decisions. If it’s noise, call it noise and ignore it, especially if it’s from an internal source. Too much energy is wasted with negative self-talk and negative chatter about other people or things around you. Ask yourself if it adds any value at all and if not, shut it off. Channeling energy towards negativity costs more than just the loss of that energy – the negativity impacts your health, motivation and creativity, and that’s just the impact on you personally. This effect expands beyond you, to your loved ones and co-workers.

But some negative energy is a signal, and it’s important to recognize and process it, or it will keep coming back and bite you in the ass. Often it’s a sign that your body and/or mind is overloaded and you need to reset, refuel or change course. Notice this and address it early. Ignore it and that negative energy will become a monster and you’ll react poorly, turning to typical bad habits like food or alcohol. Catch it early, read the signal, and redirect the energy or flip it. More on that later.

Evaluate the meaningful signals and prioritize based on urgency and lotus of control. If it’s urgent and you have immediate control, then act. Act soon to get it over with – too much negative energy builds up worrying about something you are procrastinating on. There are better ways to spend that energy.

No matter urgency, there are some things you cannot fix right away, but should start addressing so the fix starts happening – such as health, sleep and diet. Managing personality quirks and karma fall under this too, but take longer to adjust. Still, these need ongoing attention to drive change for the better – otherwise you continue to set yourself up for failure.

Recognize the differences in the various ingredients that create negative energy and that sense of burden and feeling overwhelmed. Deconstruct that negative space enough to parse this out. Bucket and prioritize – offload what’s possible and make decisions with what is left, being very thoughtful of what you want to keep and pay attention to. Make deliberate choices as the decision impacts not only the moment, but your future state.

OFFLOAD

 

 

What to do when it all derails…

I don’t handle failure well. But, failure is exactly something that needs to be embraced on this Design Thinking, Experimenting approach to improving one’s life journey.

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
Henry Ford

I don’t handle it well because I feel very responsible for getting everything right the first time. It’s not necessarily about being a perfectionist, but rather having very high and specific expectations (which can include imperfections, but maybe not unexpected imperfections). Joel Mark Witt’s article about ENFP Personality Types (which is what I am) calls this out – the need to have things in order. That need makes it difficult to embrace experimentation – cause experimentation and design thinking is basically about testing whether that ‘order’ is right, and chances are, it isn’t, else why would you be experimenting in the first place?

I also don’t handle failure well because I feel ashamed. When I feel sick, I feel guilty. I can’t just let myself be sick – rather, I constantly ask myself, am I really sick? Or am I just being weak and pathetic? I think this is related to my experience with depression and how I’ve managed it. I’ve regarded it as a weakness and a flaw, so when I feel weak because of fatigue or illness, I am quick to question the root cause.

I ‘failed’ these last couple of days – because I didn’t stick these great habits and routines I was developing, because I wasn’t making any progress on my big goals and to-do lists, because I fell back into a number of shitty habits I’m not proud of and that don’t do me any good. And, that all got compounded by the fact that I kept beating myself up over all the failures! Which only made it worse.

Finally, I curled up in bed, with food and a cheese audiobook, and spent most of the next 36 hours there.

The next day I had a sore throat and I was like, hey! I really am sick! Ok, that totally changes things – I thought I was just weak and pathetic because of depression.

Sigh.

So, yeah, things derailed. And guess what, they derail a LOT, and they’re going to derail again and again and again, and I’ll have to start again and again and again. I need embrace the idea of starting again and again. But, with every derailment, there is an opportunity to learn something and try something new.

How do you embrace failure? It might be hard to do when in the moment of failure, but maybe even that perspective is a muscle to flex? There is definitely opportunity to use hindsight differently, less about critical eye on the failure itself, and more of a critical eye on making moments less hurtful. Moments. Not necessarily making everything better, but managing moments better, and not with the lens of trying to avoid failure next time, but just not being so hard on myself when I ‘fail’.

  • There are signals I can learn to read sooner and react to differently
  • There are reactions I have that I could change: thoughts, feelings, behaviors. But it may not be about changing them all, rather making some decisions along the way so I feel safer and feel okay.
  • There are certainly perspectives I have along the way as I step back and ‘evaluate’ myself – and they aren’t exactly very nice.

On the other hand – my reactions work. I’m not necessarily proud of them, but clearly I needed them, or at least needed the outcome.

Still, there are opportunities to fail more gracefully…and more creatively.

Take-away thought to ponder – failing gracefully, what does this mean? Accepting that there are things that cannot be changed? Or just accepting that there always will be failure? Maybe that’s another reason to own our stories; we can look for patterns in failure: are there signals that we should stop trying to change something, or to stop treating failures so painfully like failures?

Accept your imperfections and embrace them as things that make you who you are. No one is perfect, we all know that, so offering up grace to yourself and allowing yourself peace is important. Being hard on yourself is okay, but realizing you are human is also necessary. – Megan Gilger

Facing Depression – and what that story can tell me

This begins the experiment of telling my story and letting my story guide the next chapter. To use Shawn Phelp‘s phases, this is about Act 1, the Setting, and, I suppose  also Act 2, the Turning Points, all in service to discover Act 3 – the Character Arc, where will my story take me.

What if I were to accept the fact that depression has been a significant part of my life, instead of regard it as a flaw or weakness?

What if I were to accept the fact that depression has been a significant part of my life, instead of regard it as a flaw or weakness? What if I share my experiences with it, instead of hiding them, and being ashamed? It has defined me, and brought me where I am now, and underscores many of the concepts and ideas I eagerly explore now. What if, instead of regarding is at a flaw, I embrace it as a super power and reflect on what it gave me, rather than how it made me suffer?

I would like to get to a place where I can genuinely help others with depression, rather than avoid them because of the fear I have of sliding over that precipice again, and not being able to come back. I know how much it hurts, I know just how intense the helplessness is, and I know just how difficult it is to come out the other side. But I also know it can be done, and I know that I’m stronger and better because of it.

I’m not sure how far to dive into this, though, because it actually still terrifies me. Am I strong enough to face it, rather than hide from it? Is there value in doing that? I’m scared of opening a box that is going to be very difficult to close. So maybe I’ll tread carefully with that for now, and focus less on the darkness, and more on the positive outcomes.

I realize the world has come a very long way in the 25 years since I first struggled with it. Thank goodness.

A few things in particular have made me give more thought to my experience with depression – things I’ve learned that help me understand more about it, how to manage it, and maybe how to help others who struggle with it. As I read more about it I realize the world has come a very long way in the 25 years since I first struggled with it. Thank goodness.

They tried to convince me my problem was repressed memories of my father doing inappropriate things – something I know never happened, but the doubts they raised were damaging enough.

I was first diagnosed while in college, although patterns began in high school. I isolated myself, disconnected from friends, and turned to binging, bulimia and self-cutting for coping. I eventually went on Prozac and was in therapy, but both with limited success. Therapy in college involved long silences where the therapist just sat there looking at me with sad eyes, waiting for me to talk, or the psychiatrist telling me my problem was I hadn’t accepted Christ in my life, or together them trying to convince me my problem was repressed memories of my father doing inappropriate things – something I know never happened, but the doubts they raised were damaging enough.

I eventually found better ways to cope, more natural ways, in particular with a adrenaline. I joined a Skydiving Club – that, honestly, did wonders. You can’t possibly depressed when you are 15,000 feet in the air, flying at 90 miles an hour. I began pursuing a degree in Counseling Psychology and met a number of great people – I thought if I can’t get help, I’ll help myself. That was the beginning, I suppose, of my focus on studying people, how we tick, how we can thrive instead of suffer. But it’s been a circuitous journey.

Over the years I dove deep into religious study and spirituality, trying to find ways to cope, read dozens and dozens of self-help books, sought treatment from a variety of caregivers, and went down a number of rat holes of self-destructive behaviors. But, I believe I can say I have overcome the worst of it. There have been very important people along the way who were essential to the process of healing, as were specific events and better management tools. And as I write about this, I realize how important it is and valuable it is to tell the story, to share my gratitude, to appreciate the struggles and celebrate the outcomes. There is joy in all of this – a lot of things to feel very, very good about.

It is so important to take a holistic view of depression, not only in the treatment, but what it can tell us about ourselves.

I jotted down a number of things related to depression, concepts I’ve come to understand as being essential to healthier management of depression, tools to help with thriving instead of surviving; all topics I want to explore as I go. It is so important to take a holistic view of depression, not only in the treatment, but what it can tell us about ourselves.

  1. The importance of telling, reflecting on and appreciating your life story, to celebrate growth, gain insight into your true self and trajectory, and acknowledge the goodness around you, in people, in the world, and in spirit.
  2. Taking a different lens on depression – rather than an illness, a signal of a lack of alignment between your ‘active’ self and your true self. This is a theme I’m following on the Personality Hacker Podcast and blog and I’m eager to learn more.
  3. Thinking more holistically and understanding the building blocks of Body, Mind, Heart and Spirit, and how depression manifest itself when these building blocks and their connections haven’t been optimized. For example, the importance of the right diet to include fats and Omega 3’s, promoting neurogenesis.
  4. Related, but a separate bucket – this theme that in terms of depression as reflection of energy misalignment, it problem is rooted in the heart, and not the brain or mind. I’ve always been so focused on the mind and ‘fixing it’, but learning that there are opportunities to care for the heart, core feelings and connections and relationships with people around me. This is certainly a theme that has been evolving with my energy work with Martin.
  5. The perspective of your personality, your quirks, your tendencies as your Super Powers, and not signs of weakness or being broken.
  6. Depression and difficult emotions as signs and signals, not hurdles or punishment; by listening, it gives us direction as to where we should be going, it can guide us to our true self.
  7. With awareness of our true self and acceptance, we thrive and become healthy members of a bigger community that is or at least significantly overlaps with the Creative Class. Discovering and identifying with the True Self is more important now than ever, not only for our personal health, but the health of our families, communities, even our world.

Discovering and identifying with the True Self is more important now than ever, not only for our personal health, but the health of our families, communities, even our world.

A lot of big stuff here. But it’s exciting, invigorating!

And I’m realizing that although I started this blog with the focus that this was for me more than anyone else (so as not to get hung up about what others thought), I do look forward to conversations. This isn’t a journey to take alone. The next step is to reach out and make more connections, and not be afraid.

 

Post principles and Shodo

As I started with this blog I focused on themes – a particular theme for each post. This was a good forcing mechanism to get myself to narrow on a meaningful message and not just ramble.

Last week I tried a different format – Bits and Pieces – because there were loose ends of things I wanted get on ‘paper’ before I forgot. They reflected meaningful moments – aha’s, little insights, big steps. I want to be able revisit these and unpack them, and explore new understanding.

Today I am somewhere in the middle and it’s making me think about principles around posts.

  1. I don’t want to ramble and lack focus/meaning.
  2. But I don’t want to worry so much about having it just right that I don’t write at all.
  3. I want to be excited about writing, not feel like it is a chore.
  4. I’m hoping for patterns, but rather have them emerge and not be forced.
  5. And so as not to stress myself out, focus on writing, for me – in order to encourage conversations with me about things that fascinate me, and if others join in, that’s definitely a bonus!

I have moments in the day where I’m really excited about a topic and am eager to write, but then face the reality of a full day at work, an evening at home with family and dogs and house work and me work, and that energy and enthusiasm dwindles.

Putting all that together, what’s a good strategy? What will set me up to write with enthusiasm and meaning? This brings me to my experimentation of the moment – bits and pieces, but with an emerging theme. Or the other way around – an emerging theme, but with lots of bits and pieces

One particular moment of pleasure stands out for today, which almost prompts a theme: coming home to a package from Amazon and seeing it was a particular book I ordered yesterday and started reading online shortly after. It was meaningful because of a number of connections to past ideas and events – and I thought for a moment, which connection do I follow as part of the blog? I can’t write about all of them at once.

My mind wandered into several directions and I felt overwhelmed and uncertain where to start – I wanted to get that spark down, but now had so much else I wanted to tackle.

I stepped back and did a quick mind map sketch, starting with the pleasure of that package and how it connected to a number of other important topics. And that mind map offers a quick glimpse into how I tick – the many things I think about and connections I make at any given moment. All of which I want to write about, because as I do, I have more clarity, both into the topics themselves as well as what they mean as they connect with each other and connect with me. And taking time to understand them, reflect on why they fascinate me, and draw deeper connections between them and what they teach me will ultimately make me a better person.

Here is the mind map sketch. For this post, I’ll focus only on what triggered the most enthusiasm and why – but eventually, I’ll follow up on other topics (some I already have).

Shodo inspired mind map
Shodo inspired mind map

The book is Shodo, the Quiet Art of Japanese Zen Calligraphy. I was in the Barnes and Nobles a few days ago and it spoke to me; I looked at it, wanted to buy it, but already had 2 other books in hand. Lately I’ve spent more time in bookstores, ‘listening’ to the books, perusing the shelves and letting them speak to me. Maybe people do that all the time? I don’t – I usually go in with a specific intent, to buy one particular book, instead of just wandering and exploring. But I’ve been on this kick of trying to get at my purpose and will work with any signal I can get. Some months ago I forced myself to be quiet and listen, and let books grab me, and boy did a lot grab me! More on that another time.

Something about this book struck me deeply; I could stare at the pages for hours, but I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s because it looks familiar? Years ago I dabbled in Sumi-e painting, . I think it’s more than that, though. I think what fascinates me is that on the surface it looks so simple, but underneath are so many complexities. You can’t easily replicate any one of the zengo. It takes rigor, practice and structure, yet in the end, to really make a true zengo, you must let go. And there is so much mystery, spirit and emotion in a small package, in one simple looking ideogram.

It’s the depth and complexity, combined with something visually so simple that resonates. And there is the emotional element, and the energy element it reflects. The first chapter describes a fascinating study done many years ago, where it looked at true shodo masterpieces against forgeries under an electron microscope and found alignment of carbon particles on the true works, and chaos in the particles on the forgery. This alignment is a result of the energy that comes together as the artist sets his body, mind and spirit together towards this one activity, and brings his energy, his ki, into the preparation and into the artwork. The books also discusses how this art form requires time, patience, practice, depth…did I mention time? How important it is to take the time to do things well…

Shodo, art, books about art, art thinking, energy, emotion, trying something new, experimenting, signals into true self, time, patience, mindfulness, stillness, meditation….all connected.

Week 1 Bits & Pieces

A collection of tips I liked

  • Where do you start? You just start. If you want to do something, do something. – from The Spark & The Art (Creativity Podcast). It resonates a common sense truth that is easily said, but hard to do. But he added something – you keep starting, and maybe it takes a few months. That’s ok.
  • Anything worth doing takes yearsa post on Medium by Jon Wenstenberg. How incredibly refreshing! Just the space this gives you to thoughtfully create, experiment, fail and refine! And with that lens, the realization that you better pick something you enjoy doing.
  • Do something new every day – a principle I’m applying to my life to promote creativity, neurogenesis, surprise. Doesn’t have to be big, but it needs to be new.

Things I’m coming to really understand

  • Creativity, whether drawing, writing, sketching, singing, should be about what YOU want to do, not what you think you have to produce for anyone else. Writing this blog is about writing what I want to write, what I want to learn about, what sparks a fire in me. It’s the conversations I want to have, the things I want to learn. If someone joins in the conversation, that’s awesome. If not, that’s okay too, because I’m still really enjoying the conversation.
  • Flexing new muscles is what builds new skills, opens up new spaces, both practically and perceptually, and you should start with really small, easily repeatable steps. I’ve always wanted to sketch regularly, but struggled with starting and having it come easily. So I started with zentangles – doodles with intent and guidance. Easy to start, easy to repeat, and it gave me satisfaction. Now I’m doodling, sketching, and painting frequently, simply for pleasure

New books I’ve gathered

  • 20 Ways to Draw a Tree: a beautifully simple way to prompt doodles and sketches with different media and styles; a great way to play and explore with your own artistic creativity, no matter the skill.
  • The Neurogenesis Diet & Lifestyle: Recently featured on a  Bulletproof Radio Podcast episode, I had to follow up. Two points in the podcast alone had me hooked: (1) “serotonin deficiency” theory behind depression has been debunked and (2) the mouse experiment demonstrated it wasn’t just one thing that had a big positive impact, but a combination of several things. Both points support a systems thinking lens to better health, not an oversimplified problem-solution lens. This is right in line with Dr. Hyman’s system thinking approach to health with functional medicine. Kudos!
  • Art as Therapy: Appreciating art for how it can tap into your emotions, deliver more meaning, reveal deeper truths.
  • A World of Artist Journal Pages: glimpses into the role art has played in the inner lives of others; both thoughtful and inspirational.

Experiments I’m running

  • Color thinking / art thinking (see blog)
  • New approach to my evening rituals (see blog)
  • Daily blogging – for me. Not to be selfish – but that way I enjoy it, even if no one else stops by. I want it to be a blog that I’d be interested in reading every day.
  • Letting art lead me – to still write about…
  • Letting my story guide me – to be kicked off….

Where things are headed

  • Continue compiling topics that fascinate
  • See what structure and patterns organically evolve and feel good
  • Gradually get to some more unpacking and connecting, eventually to support my Design Your Journey Line project.

Setting up for success – Goal setting

In the realm of health and weight loss one of my biggest problem areas is night team snacking…which can very quickly evolve into night time binging. ‘Simple’ solution – just don’t eat after 7 pm.

I’ve tried that and can go about a week with noticeable results, but too soon I fail…and fail…and fail again. If this were an experiment, which, really, it is, I’d conclude there was something wrong with the proposed intervention.

That’s why this idea of mental energy fascinated me and the implications of the studies showing low mental energy undermines willpower and smart decision making. It gave me this idea that rather than focus all the attention on the singular event of eating after 7, what could I do to set myself up for success so I’d be less likely to oversnack during that time?

There is a ‘simple’ approach to this as well – look at the drivers, the causes that make you snack or overeat late in the evening and remove them. Most directly – remove the food. E.g. throw out tempting food, don’t go in the kitchen after 7, find a path from living room to bedroom that doesn’t go through the kitchen. A couple of flaws with this – you need to eat and avoiding all food is just plain cumbersome and complicated. But, for some, this could work. It didn’t for me.

Plan B – understand the subconscious reasons behind late snacking; your subconscious is ridiculously powerful and drives most of what you think and do, even if we do like to pretend we have control of it. We are actually better off listening to it, and collaborating, than trying to push it under – but that’s a conversation for another day.

In all likelihood, the underlying cause is some form of stress – either from work, from self, from relationships, etc.; there are many layers there. This, too, is very important and doing this can solve the bigger problem for many. Again, not me. It helped – but didn’t resolve things completely.

I’m on to Plan C – what if I tackle this as a challenging, complex problem, and approach it how I might approach a more complex project or problem at work? In other words, rather than thinking a simple solution might work, and all I have to do is implement it, what if I recognize it’s not that simple and I might need several steps to get there. What if I treat it as a bigger problem that could be managed more effectively if I break it down into smaller, manageable steps?

Luckily, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel – I can use existing frameworks, ones often used for possibly the most common complex problem millions of people struggle with, namely implementing and maintaining a new health plan, including diet and fitness.

This is when I happened to come across Dr. Mercola’s Guide to Optimal Fitness. He includes a section in his magazine (Spring, 2016) on exactly this topic – how to set yourself up for success – and the steps he lists could effectively be applied to any complex challenge.

I’m modifying it slightly for my personal experiment. Here are the steps I will take and why:

  1. Develop the DESIRE – “Our actions are usually based on fear or desire.” Focus on and build on the desire; depending on fear will lead to failure.
  2. Believe you can succeed – This is both a mindset, but also requires thoughtful consideration of the goal and the steps.
  3. Write down the goals, in 2 forms: (1) one form in a lot of detail, something to read for added visceral motivation and (2) one form short, one sentence, that can become your mantra
  4. Make a list of all the benefits of achieving the goal and “Get Emotional” – get at the WHY, not the WHAT. This will pump up that desire component and that belief component.
  5. Analyze your starting point – and be honest. What is the current situation and what are the components that come together to cause or promote the undesired behavior, or prevent the desired behaviors?
  6. Set a deadline
  7. Make a list of the people who’s support an cooperation you need.
  8. Write out a plan with the specific steps – both what and when.
  9. Use visualization.
  10. Make the decision in advance that you will never give up.
  11. Keep going – recognize it’s a journey, and little failures along the way are signals on how to refine and correct.

Next step – map this out for myself….coming soon.