Broken Record Syndrome

record_player_03

It is a bit surreal that I am writing about records on a blog — and hopefully most of you know what a record is or if not can imagine what one might be — because the last time I played a record I had no vision for sharing stories on the Internet. Writing was a more contemplative, intimate process as it was assumed that much of what I wrote would not make it any further than the pages of one of my notebooks.

Now I feel a sense of responsibility to share what I write, at least those thoughts that are somewhat comprehensible and complete, if it might help someone else in some small way. To deprive the world of my writing, and the insights contained therein, when it can be so easily shared would be cruel and unfair. My audience of one has grown to a nebulous group of unknown proportions.

This has changed the tenor of my writing. It has forced me to step outside of myself and look more broadly at my feelings, circumstances, and experiences as I describe and seek to understand them. I have evolved, progressed, and transformed in response to a rapidly changing world. And I, as well as others, I hope, have benefitted.

But in many other areas of my life, I have not so easily and gracefully progressed. I have become stuck like a broken record, caught up in a fractured groove that plays over and over again. These grooves represent both thoughts and behaviors (or lack thereof). And the symphony of simultaneously repeating tracks is poorly orchestrated, resulting in an agitating undertone of dreary reputation with no end in sight. Despite my best efforts, I — like millions of others — suffer from broken record syndrome from time to time.

Broken record syndrome occurs when we have recurring thoughts or exhibit repeated behaviors without intention or purpose. Over time, these automatic repetitions become background noise; we become accustomed to their presence and accept them as normal. They become our ingrained biases and our habits. They greatly impact our lives; yet, we are largely unaware that they even exist. And when they do float in and out of our field of awareness, we forget that we have the power to transform them into something more useful and more importantly, more beautiful.

So the first step, then, is to be open to noticing the little snippets of thought and behavior which we experience so frequently, and with such subtlety, that they typically escape our attention. And once we have discovered them, and realized the nuisance and monotony of their perpetuation, we can begin to understand the purpose they have served in our lives. They have protected us, and made us feel safe, in an uncertain world. They have given us something upon which we can rely when everything else seems to slip through our fingers. But it is not enough use these incessant beasts as a crutch, and we deserve better.

We can, instead, offer ourselves freedom from reliance on things that are actually hurting us, by leaning instead on something stronger. Something more meaningful. Something transformative. Something of our choosing and our design. We can replace the cracks which cause us to trip over ourselves again and again with ideas and actions that more deeply resonate with our heart of hearts. We form new habits and develop new ways of seeing the world. And these continually evolve, in response to our changing world and our own self-growth. And through this process we discover more happiness, fulfillment, and peace.

Heartfulness

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The concept of mindfulness has become popularized in recent years as a result of the work of many teachers, writers, and practitioners. And I am very grateful! Being more aware of who we are and what we do, living in the moment, and being intentional about our thoughts and actions are all integral to leading a meaningful and purposeful life.

But it isn’t enough. Without a full and open heart to center and connect our mind to something greater than ourselves, whether it be communal or spiritual or both, the practice of mindfulness can become esoteric, and sometimes egocentric.

I don’t think many mindfulness practitioners would disagree with me. At least I hope not. Indeed, the way mindfulness is typically taught and practiced, at least in my experience, promotes the fluid integration of mind, body, and spirit.

But something about the term mindfulness seems deficient to me. It begs for a companion to demonstrate that the mind alone does not fully represent our human experience.

Heartfulness is a complementary concept that builds on the idea of mindfulness. It focuses not on the thinking and feeling of mindfulness, but on being and doing instead. It is a process through which we can create resilient hearts, leading to more peace and love in the world. Heartful means to be full of curiosity, acceptance, understanding, responsiveness, forgiveness, and hope. It is to be our most beautiful selves despite the challenges and turmoil we face. When we practice heartfulness, we don’t need to think about being intentional because we consistently connect with and express the pure love in our hearts. It is to be who we are meant to be, a continual expression of our deepest desires and dreams.

Emotoxins

toxin

Every day we ingest and absorb environmental toxins. They are unfortunately in the ground, in the air, and in the food we eat. They are also often in the clothes we wear, the cosmetics we apply, and the cleaning supplies we use. We have, as a society, created a world filled with unavoidable toxins.

These noxious chemicals contribute to a climate where toxicity is the norm. On any given day, we are exposed to many unnatural substances which can potentially cause us both immediate and long-term harm.

We sometimes also create inner worlds where toxicity is abundant. Our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and values can become tainted when our natural harmony becomes distorted. Fear, anger, sadness, and the other ‘negative emotions’ are not necessarily toxic; they only become so when they no longer contribute to a transformative process in our lives. This is a fine line which, in the midst of healing, can be difficult to concretely define.

There is an interactivity between external, material toxins and those that are internal and intangible. Certainly, exposure to unnaturally formulated and superimposed chemicals can impact our cognitive and emotive function. But we also, consciously and subconsciously, influence how these emotoxins form and take hold in our brains.

We can create natural barriers to prevent exotoxins from becoming a part of our systems. The first necessary barrier is an emotoxin radar. We need to be able to sense and recognize emotoxins before they creep in too close. Because emotoxins have their appeal — they create a false sense of security which makes us feel safe in the short run — we might feel tempted to let them in and try them out. If they do approach our protected personal space, we need to let them bounce off of us, fall away, and dissipate before any damage is done. Perhaps the best barrier is to create an emotional environment where emotoxins will fail to thrive. These natural barriers are strengthened through awareness, understanding, contemplation, and by actively choosing harmony over imbalance.

But sometimes these barriers fail to protect us from emotoxin invasion. When emotoxins throw off our internal balance, we can flush them out just as we drink water to remove chemical toxins from our bodies. Emotoxins can be flushed through cleansing and purification rituals, meditation, prayer, sharing and making sense of our feelings through constructive talking or writing, and exposing ourselves to sensual joys (I keep frankincense and bergamot oil nearby and use both to balance my mood accordingly).

Just as we aim to reduce our exposure to toxins in the environment, we can also minimize emotoxin pollution. And when emotoxins find their way into our minds and our hearts, we can open up to let them go, letting in more love, light, and inner peace.

Blasting Zones

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I had never been in a blasting zone before, nor had I even heard of them. But on a recent road trip through six states, I traveled through five blasting zones that were strikingly marked with orange warning signs.

The blasting zones are created to clear grass, trees, hills, and other earthly formations to make room for highway expansions. It is the process of permanently removing lush, lovely goodness to promote, in theory, movement, speed, and economic progress.

Similarly, we often blast away parts of ourselves to move forward in our lives. We suppress our feelings, we settle for less than we deserve, we overlook our values, and we try to transform our personalities. These little blasts, while not permanent like those by the roadside, cause long-lasting damage. While it might seem like we are removing roadblocks, we are actually creating superficial limits on who we are and our potential for fulfillment in all of its forms.

Intentionally letting go of feelings, activities, habits, rituals, thoughts, and things that no longer serve us or reflect our true nature can be a healthy practice. In order to grow, we need to make room. But when we remove, diminish, or hide our inner and outer beauty, we are instead creating a gap that will continue to suck out all of the love in our lives. Rather than discovering fulfillment, we will find ourselves empty and unsettled. Changed, but not for the better.

It is not always easy or simple to discern what should or should not remain a part of our lives. Whether or not we choose to remove the right things, the gentle process of letting go is far more forgiving and loving than that of blasting away with anger, frustration, or desperation. When we let go of things, they may float back to us — and we can then decide whether or not to welcome them back into our lives or to continue releasing our grip. When we blast away, the process of reintegration, should we choose this route, is far more difficult.

The Laboratory of My Life

When I was a little girl, I had a chemistry kit. It was a hand me down from my sisters who are seven and 10 years older than me. The kit contained several different chemicals, all in neat little labeled jars, and some basic equipment such as a beaker, pipet, and test tubes with a rack.

test tubes

But the kit lacked an instruction book. Somewhere along the way over the years, it had become lost. So one day I decided to start experimenting with the chemicals based not on hypotheses, but purely on my intuition and most playful imagination. I had no experience working in a chemistry lab or with any of the individual chemicals, and I had no idea that mixing chemicals could be dangerous; the world was, to me, a safe and happy place.

And so with the help of an almost as mischievous as me friend, we began to experiment. And by experiment, I mean mixing chemicals together until we got a result — a small but not dangerous explosion.

You would think that I would have learned my lesson, but probably about five years later, when visiting a cousin who was my summer sister, we decided to bleach our jeans by mixing hydrogen peroxide and ammonia (obviously, it was the 1980s). My aunt arrived home as the jeans soaked in the tub and our innocent little lungs soaked up the noxious fumes. She clearly set us straight by shouting as she ran around the house opening all of the windows.

Never again have I ever mixed chemicals outside of a lab under the instruction of a professor. A professor at DeSales University to be exact, whose name I cannot remember but I recall he lived in Delaware and had a long commute every day.

Our lives are like ongoing experiments, one in which many, many resources are available. It may be a cliche, but it is true that life doesn’t come with an instruction book. We can play with these the resources — ideas, places, people, things, colors, sounds — by forming unique combinations, even when the results are unknown. While we have the benefit of being able to form hypotheses based on our life experience, we sometimes need to overlook these as our own life experience represents only a small range of human possibility. The most bold, and the most potentially transformational, hypotheses are those that integrate a piece of ourselves with something external that somehow comes into our field of consciousness.

For example, I might form a hypothesis that I am moody because I am bipolar. And I can collect a lot of evidence to support this educated guess! A whole lot, some of my friends and family might tell you. But this hypothesis could be transformed into a crutch upon which I lean when I discover evidence in my life and am too lazy and uncreative to explore other possible meanings. It can be used as an excuse for bad behavior, and that is not acceptable to me. Therefore, this hypothesis is faulty and should be eliminated from my life experiments. At least as it is written.

I could alternatively form a hypothesis that the social construct of bipolar disorder provides a lens through which a beautiful kaleidoscope of emotions swirls through my brain. It may not be a perfect representation of reality, or my interpretation thereof, but it is certainly more liberating than simply blaming my rapidly changing, complex moods on a medical condition. One which shapes them, no doubt, but not one that prohibits me from openly exploring other options.

In our life, we make hypotheses all the time without even being aware. These hypothesis limit our minds and our actions. I try to pay attention to the assumptions behind the hypotheses that I make, and eliminate those that do not promote emotional freedom and well-being. It isn’t always easy, because they are tricky little ideas that disguise themselves as protection, but I try nonetheless.

Creative Happiness

creativityI seem to only be truly happy when I am actively engaged in the process of creating something. Creativity gives my life focus and clarity, a goal around which I can organize my otherwise chaotic and sometimes self-destructive thoughts. In addition, creating something — whether it is tangible or intangible, permanent or temporary— brings with it a great deal of self-satisfaction, boosting both my self-efficacy and my sense of self-worth.

Creativity represents a healthy balance in-between two other extremes: restlessness and stagnation. Both restlessness and stagnation are linked to insecurity and detachment. I know when I am getting restless because I feel impatient, ungrateful, and agitated. Restlessness can lead to brooding, unthoughtful behavior, and sometimes devastating life consequences. When I start to stagnate, I feel bored, lazy, and hopeless; stagnation inevitably leads to psychic death. This is perhaps similar to the theory of bipolar disorder in which there are two extremes of mood: mania (restlessness) and depression (stagnation).

Creativity, then, is an outlet that brings together complex emotions in a positive, goal-oriented way. It bridges the novel brilliance of restlessness with the structure and stability of stagnation. When I feel restless, it is often because I want something new in my life; when I create, I make something new in my life. When I feel stagnant, I feel empty and as though my life is on hold; when I create, I initiate and sustain movement through which meaning and fulfillment emerge. Through the creative process, I am able to use and reconcile conflicting emotions in a complementary way that hopefully adds more beauty and peace to the world.

Brilliant, Beautiful, and Bipolar

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on 5/26/15.

I feel most comfortable in a classroom. Whether I am the instructor or sitting in a chair soaking up intellectually tantalizing ideas, I love to be surrounded by wisdom and to be immersed in the process of learning. I have received many compliments from teachers and other students about my academic contributions, and it is something that greatly contributes to my identity and sense of self-worth.

I have also been complimented about my appearance — from my natural endowments to my penchant for quirky, retro fashion with a modern twist. Due to both ingrained insecurity about my appearance and an almost neurotic vanity, I delight in these suggestions that I exhibit the type of physical beauty which would inspire such commentary.

Brilliant and beautiful are subjective terms. Both have been used to describe me on several occasions throughout my life, suggesting sufficient evidence for me to accept such claims. But I have also been called air-headed and ugly, among other unsavory things — and I have felt the full range of just about every characteristic in-between.

Perhaps to your surprise and to the dismay of many an objective psychologist, I also believe that bipolar is a subjective term. Bipolar disorder is a mental health diagnosis that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, affects nearly 4 percent of the U.S. adult population at some time in their lives. But as a person who has experienced this specific type of mental illness, I strongly feel that each of us — the more than 5 million Americans (Treatment Advocacy Center) who will struggle with bipolar disorder this year — experiences this emotional disease in our own way that defies simplistic definition.

Bipolar disorder was not my first diagnosis. I have been labeled using at least three very different diagnoses in the past 25 years, and with each came a new host of medication and other treatment. Like the social constructs of brilliant and beautiful, bipolar was attributed to me, or not, differently based on others’ perceptions of me at a particular time in my life. Yet my unique brain chemistry and wiring has not diverged quite to this extent.

Perhaps those perceptions were based on other factors, like my appearance and cognitive ability. The convergence of those attributes, along with my personality and demeanor, may have served as a disguise that masked my true nature. In fact, people are often surprised to learn that I have a diagnosis — and I suspect this is because it hides behind what people immediately recognize and subsequently identify with me. It is also likely due to the fact that I have, intentionally or not, used my strengths to create a specific type of public perception as a survival mechanism to fit in and move forward in my career.

All of this makes getting the right kind of help very difficult. Mental illness still carries with it a huge stigma, and even though I am publishing this to a broad audience I do so with the fear that it might hinder my future professional prospects. Mental illness and professionalism are seen as discrete variables; this is just one manifestation of society’s silly insistence that mental illness is akin to a deficit in character or will — and the fear that it will no doubt lead to unethical or even criminal behavior if it hasn’t already. It is wonderful that bipolar disorder is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but employers, colleagues, and others can easily find another excuse to exclude in order to protect themselves from the potential manifestations to which those fears allude. Even when we finally find the courage to stand up and say, “Here I am, this is me, I need help,” this only invites the judgment of others, who even with the best of intentions may say or do something that is more harmful than helpful. And when we have obvious strengths, when we are “making it,” when we don’t fit those social expectations for a person who is experiencing mental illness, it is difficult to convey how much we are truly suffering, and how much others’ compassion and understanding would mean to us.

It is no wonder that less than half of Americans who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder are receiving treatment (National Institute of Mental Health). There are other challenges, such as expense and accessibility, which are far too complex to fully address here. But a good first step to creating a culture of emotional wellness in our country would be to cast aside our preconceptions and open up to the depth and range of experience and needs that we all have.