Did you run today….?

Or perhaps garden.  Or read a good book.  Or try a  new recipe.  What did you do today for your mind?  What did you choose to do today that would allow your mind to become focused, non-judgmental, calm?

There are two ways to reduce your stress level.  The first is the most obvious but probably the least utilized: reduce the number of stressors in your life.  Now, that’s not easily done.  After all, you can’t put your teenaged child up for adoption!  And you probably can’t quit your job or your post in the Home and School Association or tell your sister-in-law to never speak again.  But if you can eliminate a stressor or two, do it.

The other way to reduce the stress in your life is to reduce the stress in your body.  For me, it’s take a good, long run.  Or schedule an afternoon or evening alone, brew a good cup of Earl Grey or Green tea, curl up with a good book and enjoy the quiet.  Or work in the yard.  Or paint a room (yes, I find painting to be VERY relaxing).  What each of these activities have in common is that each is conducive to mindfulness.  Being present, not judging, staying focused.  Hit the meditation cushion, immerse yourself in prayerful silence, whatever it takes to get outside of your self and allow your mind to get into flow.

So, when I’m getting a bit kerfuffled I have to ask myself this question: Did I run today?  And if I didn’t, or get mindful in some other way, then I will have to pay a stress-based consequence, and wait until tomorrow to hit the trail.  But let today’s stress be a wake up call, or even a warning: get mindful again!

Peace,

Jim

Meditation and Preoccupation with the Self

Special thanks to Scott Caplan for sending this link:

Meditation and the Self

The opening of the article about changes in brain function is very interesting, but be sure to read the text below.  A regular meditation practice changes the brain’s “default” mode.  Makes us less “self-centered” and more “other-centered.”  Not a bad way to live!

Peace,

Jim

Ego Strength and Mindfulness

Any meditator will tell you to be very cautious about putting the words “ego” and “mindfulness” in the same sentence, unless there’s a negation wedged between them!  So it is with great caution that I proceed, acknowledging the spiritual contradiction of working to enhance ego strength while supporting and deepening a mindful spirit.

What does it mean to have “ego strength”?  It’s a tricky idea, in my opinion, because of rampant narcissism.  To have a “strong ego” may imply that somehow my needs are more important than yours.  We see this in many ways, some ridiculous (think the recent Kardashian wedding), some mind-boggling (think of athlete’s salaries), and some tragic (think “Penn State football”).  But having a strong ego in the narcissistic sense is really a rather weak way to live.  The narcissist can only see his/her own situation, has little if any perspective taking skills, and cannot form a true and meaningful relationship.  What a way to suffer.

Ego strength, on the other hand, refers to being resilient.  The resilient person says “I can bend but I won’t break.”  The brittle ego is rigid and snaps under pressure; the resilient ego is flexible and adjusts to the ebb and flow of demands.  Resilience is a state (“I get it together again after a rough day”) and a trait (“I stay calm, cool, and collected even when things get really rough”).  The resilient person bounces back with skill after losing equilibrium (i.e. goes easily from ego depletion to ego replenishment) AND, at times, does not lose equilibrium even in the face of great adversity (i.e. able to sustain ego strength).

Here’s a video from ABC news that makes a great case for meditation as a way to build ego-resilience:

ABC News Report on Meditation

I love the little boy in the video who says that his sister is screaming, mom is cussing, and he’s meditating!  But what’s truly impressive is that with even a little practice, the meditative brain functions differently, in ways that strongly suggest that the mind comes to a state of comfort and ease more readily, even in difficult situations.

I hope this series on ego-depletion, ego-replenishment, and ego-resilience has been helpful.  I’ve enjoyed going back and reading this literature again, and have taken away several “lessons learned” for myself.  First, I’m going to run out of “mental” gas sometimes; accept it, it’s natural.  Second, if I can recognize when I’ve run out of gas AND accept it, then I can mindfully decide to “cease and desist” in further activity, and give my mind the rest that it needs.  And if resting in that moment isn’t possible, at least I can be mindful in guarding against a total meltdown that might offend or hurt someone I love.  Third, I know the antidotes: rest, nutrition, and fun.  Fourth, I have a great tool to build up that “mental muscle” so that ego-depletion is minimized.  Any activity that allows me to practice self-regulation, no matter how trivial, builds up my strength.  Finally, my meditation practice gives me the insight to be aware, accepting, and able to act to replenish and strengthen.  And the more I meditate the more my brain is readied to be aware and accepting.

The spiritual paradox in this practice of mindful ego-strengthening is that with this resilience comes the realization that what I conceptualize as my “self” is very transient.  There’s an abiding “sense of self” but the actual activity of a “self” comes and goes, and changes so easily.  As I let go of clinging to this “self” I find something that lasts within, something that is hard to define, but is there through each moment.  I don’t know what to call it.  I suppose “sense of self” will have to do for now.  Perhaps that “sense of self” is transient also; I don’t know.  But there’s strength and peace in the realization that I don’t have to cling to an ego that demands that life conform to my perceived needs in this moment.  This painful ego state has happened before and will happen again, but it’s not permanent.  It has flowed; it will ebb.  In that moment I can have clarity that my “sense of self” remains untouched; this painful ego state is not about “me,” whoever or whatever that is.

Happy Thanksgiving!  I hope that you’re able to experience deep gratitude this week and throughout the coming holiday season.

Jim

Motivational Interviewing Audio Samples for Addictions Counseling

These audio samples are intended to demonstrate Motivational Interviewing skills.  The individuals in each interview include the author (Dr. Jim Walsh) and three students, who are role-playing the part of a young woman recently diagnosed with Alcohol Dependence With Physiological Dependence.  In the vignette she was treated in a detox unit and then experienced a 28 day residential treatment.

In the first interview the patient is being seen for a first visit in an Intensive Outpatient (IO) facility.  Here’s the audio track:

MI First Recording

In the second interview the patient is being seen for a second visit at the IOP.  Here’s the audio track:

MI Second Recording

In the third interview the patient is being seen for a third visit at the IOP.  Here’s the audio track:

MI Third Recording

One final note, I’ve used the first names of the students playing the role in each interview, but the intention is to illustrate working with a single patient in order to demonstrate therapeutic progress in motivational factors.  So don’t be thrown off by the different first names used in each interview; it was simply easier to keep in the role by doing so.

My thanks to the three students, Nan, Monica, and Megan, who gave generously by immersing themselves into this role playing exercise.

Ego Resilience II

Life is challenging.  Is it just me, or have you noticed that too?  Things go really smooth for a while, then things fall apart.  Just when you think “I’ve got it all figured out,” the banana peel of life slips under your foot and you find yourself flat on your “you know what.”  The only antidote to life’s inevitable pratfalls is persistence.

In June of 2006 Zina and I travelled with our friends Andi and Keith to beautiful Santa Fe, NM.  Serene, artistic and ancient (by American standards), set between the majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains to the east and the Jemez mountains to the west, Santa Fe is a desert sitting at 7000 feet above sea level.  The awe one feels surrounded by cascades of burnt color with a backdrop of Alpine forests co-mingles with shortness of breath in that rarified atmosphere.  And those mountains?  Another 5000 feet above Santa Fe they loom, calling for these aging legs to make the climb.

And climb we did, or at least tried.  Confident in my lungs, accustomed to running long distances (but at sea level!), Keith and I began a 2000 foot ascent with the certainty of two rather ignorant fools!  Two hours later, gasping for air and parched with thirst (yes, we didn’t even bring hydration for a desert hike!), we came to our senses and descended quickly.  Five days later we were successful, having acclimatized to the altitude, starting the climb very early in the day, bringing sufficient energy bars and, yes, a good supply of water.  Here we are at the top of a 9200 foot summit, tired, sore, but VERY happy:

We flew home a day later and embellished the accomplishment with skill and delight.  The story became more bold and intrepid with each telling, but anyone who knows us just laughed, rolled their eyes, and humored us.  Such is the fate of men married to women who know them all too well!

Now, the main reason we traveled to Santa Fe was to visit our son Phil, who was completing a Masters degree in Eastern Classic Studies at St. Johns College in Santa Fe.  Unlike his elders, Phil kept himself in great shape and had done much biking and climbing during his year at this altitude.  His graduation was coming up just 6 weeks after our visit and I decided to go, solo, to his commencement exercise.  Before we left from our June visit Phil suggested that on my return we climb Deception Peak, starting from the parking lot of the Santa Fe ski basin (elevation approximately 10,000 feet) and ascending to about 12,200 feet.  I decided to do it, and began preparing as soon as we returned to Delaware.

For the next 6 weeks I ran daily on the David English Trail in White Clay Creek State Park.  It’s only about 2.5 miles long, but it ascends sharply, about 160 foot, in less than a mile.  Day after day, two laps, three laps at a time, up and down that steep hill.  Twice a day sometimes.  Taking care to hydrate regularly (this was during July and August), eating a diet rich in protein to help build muscle mass, replacing lost electrolytes and carbs, until I could cover that distance comfortably.  Off to Santa Fe in mid August; joyfully watching my son receive his degree; then rising early to climb.

We made it to the top of that peak!  Phil and and his best friend Doug had hardly a change in their breathing.  This old man?  Breathing hard, but making it all the same.  Stronger from the persistence of practice.  Experiencing the felt sense of resilience.

Resilience.  To be able to endure, to bend, to sustain.  Ego resilience, not losing our sense of self in the midst of intense challenge.  How can we build this resilience?  It’s simple, but it’s difficult.

If we are to build ego resilience we must choose tasks that require persistence.  We must organize those tasks, set schedules, understand limits, but endeavor to exceed those limits.  Persistence is a virtue, a gift that we can cultivate through disciplined inquiry, commitment, and action.  Every act of persistence forms a deeper and firmer foundation of ego strength.  It doesn’t matter if the persistence is physical, as in exercise, intellectual, as in education, emotional, as in extending compassion to another’s suffering, or behavioral, as in establishing or breaking a habit.  ANY act of persistence builds ego strength, and enables us to bring greater endurance to future events that challenge.

Back in 2008 I organized my life around building physical resilience for a difficult challenge.  When I returned in mid August it was to a world in which my father was living his final 6 weeks.  The work I had done preparing for that climb turned out to have also strengthened my spiritual and emotional resilience.  With the loving support of my wife, my children, my family and friends (especially my fellow meditators), I sustained and endured.

What projects can you take on that will build ego resilience?  Any endeavor that requires persistence will do.  Here’s an easy one to start with: sitting meditation.  Committing yourself to 10 minutes, and when the wandering mind says “enough,” redirect your attention again to breath, to living, and persist mindfully to the end.  Here’s another: listen.  The next time someone natters on and on and you don’t think you can remain present and patient, redirect your attention to that person, and persist mindfully to the end.  Every day of every person’s life presents opportunities to direct our attention in a way that demands persistence, and each act of persistence “strengthens the muscle” of ego resilience.

Well, just going this far reading this material about ego-depletion, replenishment, and resilience is an act of persistence!  See, it’s that easy!  There’s one more point to make about building resilience, and that will come in a few days.  I hope these reflections have been helpful.  I know that re-learning this material has helped me tremendously, and I wish the same help for you.

Peace,

Jim

Ego Resilience I

As implied by the Roman numeral in the title, this will be the first installment to considering this idea.

So far, we’ve taken a look at the conditions that lead to “ego depletion.”  It’s really very simple: throughout the course of a typical day we have to self regulate our feelings and our thoughts.  You can’t act on every intention or desire that arises.  You have to do something with each impulse that doesn’t seem reasonable at any given time.  That takes effort.  When you have a day with too much need for self regulation, you get tired.  But not just physically tired, you get mentally tired.  That’s ego depletion.  It feels like a bit of brain glue.  You’ve reached your limit.  It’s time to shut down for the day.

Which leads us to “ego replenishment.”  How do we retrieve our energy and our clear-mindedness?  It’s not that complicated.  First, if we can recognize the ego depletion, then we can recalculate our involvement in our activities and prevent a worsening of the mental and physical situation.  Then replenishment can start.  And it’s really quite simple: rest, a good meal, and some positive affect.  When we’ve been worn down, stop doing.  Enjoy a warm, nutritious meal.  Share some laughs, or some smiles.  Prepare your body for sleep.  Take a nap if you can.  Natural processes are restorative; let your body heal, it knows how.

Which leads to “ego resilience.”  If we’re comparing ego strength to a muscle, then how do we exercise that muscle?  It’s a good analogy.  When the muscle is overused (too much self regulation) we get tired (ego depletion).  Rest the muscle and it’s ready to go again.  Exercise the muscle regularly and it gets stronger.  I’ll start off today with one approach to building ego resilience, with more to follow.

Every year I teach an “Addictions Counseling” class to our Masters degree candidates at Wilmington University (MS Counseling program).  And every year, for the duration (4 – 5 weeks) of the course every student must give something up.  And it has to be something that they enjoy, something that  brings them some modicum of pleasure.  The usual suspects are donuts, sweets, coffee, cigarettes (the more adventurous students), even getting on Facebook.  It has to be something that they enjoy AND that they do daily.  If I was doing this exercise (and I’m not!  I’ve had to do this before!) I’d give up my morning cup of Earl Grey tea.  Every year the students curse me out a bit (and not always under their breath) but by the end of the period of abstinence they pretty much have all learned some important lessons about what it takes to “give up.”  They have to go to a 12 Step meeting also, to begin to understand the universality of this “giving up” process.

But perhaps the most interesting outcome from this annual experiment is that students report they become more self controlled in other areas of their lives.  The simple act of restricting themselves from a simple pleasure seems to make their “willpower,” the colloquial name for “self regulation,” stronger in most if not all areas of their lives.  This is consistent with the research done by Roy Baumeister, the American psychologist I’ve cited previously.

So, if you want to build up your ego resilience, your ego strength, practice self discipline in some simple area that is pleasurable for you, but not entirely necessary.  Try going a day without eating anything sweet.  Pour a bowl of plain Cheerios instead of Honey Nut Cheerios.  Or  a glass of water or unsweetened coffee/tea instead of a latte or a soda (including diet sodas; no sugar, but plenty sweet!).  Turn away from those donuts near the coffee machine at work; have a light snack instead.  Don’t eliminate fruit, though; just avoid the hyper-sweetened foods that the food industry foists on us.

Try something simple like this on a day that you know will be a typical day, not the day that you will be facing a lot of difficult demands.  Consider it a little exercise for that ego muscle.  You’ll be delighted with the results but remember that it takes a steady dose of exercise to build up a muscle’s endurance.  And more is coming in Ego Resilience II: break out the exercise equipment!

Peace,

Jim

PS Your ego strengthening results will be enhanced by mindful acceptance of the impulse to eat the sweet.  And mindful noticing of the impulse’s emergence and decline.  Yes, increasing self regulation strength can be a spiritual exercise!