J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Tag: depression

5 Things You Can Eat to Improve Your Mood and Brain Function

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As part of my daily writing log I also track my mood and energy levels. Over the past few years I’ve noticed a trend — my mood and energy levels are consistently “good” or “very good.” This wasn’t always the case. Though I’ve never suffered from major depression, I know that I’m vulnerable to anxiety and mild depression, especially during times of stress (I wrote about one such time here).

When I’m not under stress my baseline mood is pretty good, but I’ve been wondering what’s going on with my increased resilience over the last few years — feeling steady and optimistic even in the face of big stressors (members of my extended family have weathered some serious illnesses — both physical and mental — during that same time period).

Could be I’m just older and wiser. But I’m not that old, or that wise. I suspect my nutrition and supplement regimen has the greatest effect. This post lists my “core five” substances for mental health and improved disposition.

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How To Trigger Super-Momentum

Super-momentum: life in the productivity fast lane

Super-momentum: life in the productivity fast lane

No more than a dozen times in my life, I have experienced a state of what I call “super-momentum.” For days, sometimes weeks at a time, I operated at a extremely high level of energy, excitement, and creativity. I became so absorbed in my work that becoming distracted wasn’t an issue; I was distraction proof. I slept less and ate less, but had more energy. At times ideas came so quickly that I struggled to capture them, getting up in the middle of the night or pulling over in traffic to write them down.

There’s a clinical word that describes aspects of this psychological state: hypomania. But whereas hypomania is often associated with distractibility and thrill-seeking behavior (gambling, shopping sprees, sexual promiscuity, etc.), I associate super-momentum with extreme focus in a single work area, and the application of 100% of the excess energy to the work in question.

There are multiple advantages to having a singular focus. With project immersion, the subconscious mind is always engaged with the material (though other life areas may suffer from lack of attention and processing power). Project progress increases because there is less “loading” time; since the mind is continually engaged, you don’t have to “remember where you were” when you start working. You already know! This also reduces initial resistance/willpower expenditure for starting each work session. Instead of knowing and dreading the mentally strenuous work of reviewing your work for half an hour (or longer) to “get back in the groove,” you just pick up right where you left off the night before. You’re already in the groove — you never left.

Super-momentum is similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, but I consider super-momentum to be more agitated, more based on heightened physiology (dopamine, sex hormones), and less reliably triggered. And while flow is characterized as “enjoyment in the process of the activity,” I would describe super-momentum as an ecstatic, near-frantic, inspired, completely focused work hustle.

It’s a great drug, and I’d like more of it. But it’s not something money can buy.

So, the questions:

  • Is super-momentum worth triggering? Does it actually result in value being created? Or is it just another high to be chased?
  • Is it possible to trigger super-momentum, and if so, how? What circumstances lead to this explosive burst of energy, enthusiasm, motivation, and productivity?
  • Are there negative effects of super-momentum, in terms of psychological strain, physical stress, and general wear-and-tear? Is the comedown painful? Is “project completion letdown” inevitable?

Is Super-Momentum Worth Triggering?

Absolutely yes. While not every period of super-momentum in my own life has paid off in every way, all have paid off in some way. To list just a few examples:

  • I spent weeks in a state of super-momentum writing an artificial life emulation program that took my programming skills to the next level. I still sometimes reference the source code of this application when solving similar problems.
  • For at least a full month I became complete absorbed in Minecraft, sleeping very little and thinking about the game constantly. My brain was so “activated” that I made major breakthroughs on completely unrelated problems (client work) during this period of time.
  • Momu and Grayarea collaborated during a very short window of opportunity. A sixteen-hour work session led to a week of very intense follow-up work, resulting in the track “One” which has generated thousands of dollars in royalty income.

In the long-run, these brief periods of super-momentum are mere blips when compared to productivity and results from consistent daily disciplined work. But still, these blips interest me. Not only are they fun when you’re in them, but many artists and writers I respect and admire seem to be able to consistently generate super-momentum, dramatically increasing their productivity during focused periods of being completely ON.

Is it Possible to Trigger Super-Momentum? If So, How?

Since flow is a possible subset of super-momentum, what have psychologists already determined are the prerequisites for the former?

In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihalyi lays out the following three conditions:

  1. Goals are clear
  2. Feedback is immediate
  3. A balance between opportunity and capacity (the task is sufficiently challenging but not overwhelmingly difficult)

On most days I can enter a flow state (as characterized here) for at least a few hours. But I don’t know if I can consistently generate the heightened physiological state I associate with super-momentum. As a start, in terms of reverse-engineering, here are the factors (in addition to the above) that I associate with super-momentum:

  • a great idea
  • competition (personal, not abstract)
  • a crush/a muse
  • hunger for success and recognition
  • decent tools and working environment
  • an inflexible deadline
  • powerful collaborators or helpers
  • creating something that will really help or inspire other people
  • breaking new ground (in terms of knowledge, style, or genre)
  • some drugs (modafinil, bromocriptine, caffeine, etc.)
  • being in good physical shape and generally healthy
  • incremental success (power-ups)
  • emotional intensity (including heartbreak, joy, grief, love)
  • working hard, playing hard
  • terrible consequences if I don’t succeed
  • a big payoff if I do succeed
  • getting “amped” because of excitement around an activity or an upcoming event or release (anticipation)
  • extended hyperfocus (for example videogame immersion)
  • an extended period of quiet solitude or near-solitude, time and space to completely relax, decompress, reflect, and even become bored

I have personal experience with all of these factors except for modafinil (which I am curious about, but wary of). Some of these factors are within personal control, but just as many aren’t. Part of super-momentum might simply be utilizing the enormous energy that comes with momentous life events (births, deaths, falling in love, getting dumped, etc.).

Drugs are within one’s personal control, but to me that seems a dangerous route (for example, I could imagine quickly and efficiently writing an absolutely worthless one-thousand page novel under the influence of modafinal).  I once tried bromocriptine (which increases dopamine levels) as an experiment, and  once was enough. I consume a moderate amount of caffeine from dark roast coffee, but medium roasts leave me dehydrated and jittery — I’m not interested in increasing my caffeine intake.

What other factors are controllable?

  •  Setting an ambitious but achievable goal
  • Agreeing to a tight, inflexible deadline, such that other people are depending on you to deliver
  • Choosing subject matter than can potentially have a real impact or break new ground
  • Maintaining and optimizing your infrastructure and work environment so that when inspiration and energy do strike, you are not slowed down with mundane “fixit” tasks and distractions
  • Underscheduling and undercommitting, so that you end up with “empty space” in your life (and not filling that space with distractions like television — get bored enough so that your mind starts racing for its own entertainment — see Oates tweet above)
  • Engaging in a rich social life (ideally centered on or related to your work area) so that you increase your potential exposure to mentors, muses/crushes, rivals, and collaborators, all who can dramatically spur your motivation and amp up your nervous system.

This is the first time I’ve thought about this analytically. I’m surprised by how many super-momentum associated factors are potentially controllable. Maybe super-momentum can be engineered.

Can you Create Your Own Motivation and Excitement?

According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, yes.

“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

– Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response on Reddit when asked “What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?”

What Tyson doesn’t explain is how. How do you go from sitting on the couch feeling blah to firing on all cylinders?

Well first, get off the couch. As Tony Robbins likes to say, “emotion is created by motion.” [Tony Robbins “Ultimate Edge — Hour of Power” mp3, link borrowed from this Tim Ferriss post]

Exercise generally stimulates dopaminergic systems, which generally increases motivation (though the neuroscience is complex; higher dopamine in some brain areas increases motivation, while higher dopamine in other brain areas increases awareness of the costs of certain behaviors).

So daily exercise is a must if you want to boost your “get up and go,” with the caveat being that you don’t want to overdo it and end up in a state of chronic inflammation. Lifting heavy weights or going on long runs every day will just exhaust most people. Walking or bicycling or yoga everyday plus short bursts of more intense exercise (sprints, weights) is probably a good balance.

But brisk walks won’t get you to super-momentum. You need to be excited about your work.

Well, what if you aren’t excited? Can this be changed?

Author Rachel Aaron has a good perspective on this. In this blog post she describes how she went from writing 2000 words a day to 10,000 words a day. She breaks her approach into three core requirements:

  1. Time (track productivity and evaluate)
  2. Knowledge (know what you’re writing before you write it)
  3. Enthusiasm (get excited about what you’re writing)

She has valuable insight into all three areas. I’d recommend her post to all writers. But for the more general purposes of this post, her insights into generating enthusiasm are the most relevant. From Aaron’s post:

The answer was head-slappingly obvious. Those days I broke 10k were the days I was writing scenes I’d been dying to write since I planned the book. They were the candy bar scenes, the scenes I wrote all that other stuff to get to. By contrast, my slow days (days where I was struggling to break 5k) corresponded to the scenes I wasn’t that crazy about.

This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.

Fortunately, the solution turned out to be, yet again, stupidly simple. Every day, while I was writing out my little description of what I was going to write for the knowledge component of the triangle, I would play the scene through in my mind and try to get excited about it. I’d look for all the cool little hooks, the parts that interested me most, and focus on those since they were obviously what made the scene cool. If I couldn’t find anything to get excited over, then I would change the scene, or get rid of it entirely. I decided then and there that, no matter how useful a scene might be for my plot, boring scenes had no place in my novels.

This applies to all creative/innovative pursuits — not just fiction writing. If it’s boring, why are you working on it? Skip ahead to the good part or the interesting part.

You may need to come back to the “boring bits” of the project later, but if you’re already in a state of super-momentum, you’ll blast through them effortlessly.

Are There Negative Effects of Super-Momentum?

Obviously, being amped up physically and mentally for an extended period of time (even if drug free) is going to take its toll. More free radicals, more stress hormones, and accelerated aging are probably inevitable to some extent.

Super-momentum is not the fountain of youth. It’s burning the candle at both ends. Even if the high is natural, all highs are followed by a low.

In addition to physical and mental stress, focusing all your energy and attention on a single life area means that other parts of your life (household, relationships, children, eating well, sleeping well, other work areas) are going to be temporarily neglected.

In addition, when you come down (and you will eventually come down), you won’t have the energy to energetically deal with these neglected areas. You’ll be drained. After expending an enormous amount of energy and delivering or otherwise completing your project (or possibly abandoning it), you’ll experience letdown. While life coaches and therapists might distinguish physiological depression from post-project depletion, they feel about the same.

The advantage of going through the latter is that you know why (you just pushed yourself like a maniac, and now you’re out of gas), and you know that with rest and recuperation, you’ll bounce back and regain that life spark.

So pursue super-momentum at your own risk. There will be downsides. A near constant state of super-momentum without corresponding periods of rest and recuperation might lead to gigantic leaps in terms of career success, but long-term health life effects might include:

  • obesity, from sleep deprivation and circadian disruption
  • insulin resistance, see above
  • chronic inflammation, manifesting in joint pain, back pain
  • chronic depression
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • damage to personal relationships, from neglect and/or volatile emotions
  • self-doubt, loss of sense of purpose, “Why am I doing this?”

To these risks you might say “So what?” In the famous words of a super-momentum enthusiast:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

– Hunter S. Thompson

He was a man true to his word.

On the other hand, there are equal or even greater risks to not pushing yourself, to eating and resting too much, to not discovering and stoking your inner fire. These risks are both physical and psychological. Chronic stress is terrible for health, but acute stress is necessary. A sedentary life devoid of all challenges is a fast track to obesity, heart disease, cancer, and dementia. Consider:

Work “sprints” (via super-momentum) are not necessarily bad for your health as long as you take some downtime to recover. Here are some basic life and health precautions to take if you are chasing the dragon of super-momentum:

  • stay super-hydrated
  • get at least five hours of sleep a night
  • eat at least one healthy meal a day
  • don’t use stimulants stronger than tea or coffee
  • rely on “natural” sources of motivation (see above) instead of drugs (including all so-called “smart drugs”)
  • start with “money in the bank” (literally, but also in terms of relationships, core infrastructure, etc.)
  • take extra care to be polite, patient, respectful, and considerate to your loved ones (your agitated, hypersensitive, hyperactive state will make you prone to snapping and snap judgements)
  • when its time to come down, come down gracefully (sleep more, eat well, decompress, pamper yourself, recuperate, thank everybody who supported you during your sprint, return the favor)

This cautionary tale from author-turned-cocaine-and-videogame-addict Tom Bissell is worth reading. It’s possible to amp yourself up into a state of hypomania and hyperfocus that feels like super-momentum, but moves your life backwards instead of forwards. While I’ve never gotten into recreational drugs, I can relate to the lure of videogames. These days I have a simple rule of “no entertainment during the workday” (including web browsing) that keeps me from falling into false “feeling productive while doing nothing productive” traps.

So Who Wins, The Tortoise or the Hare?

Well, we all know that slow and steady wins the race. There is no substitute for establishing rock-solid daily habits that inch you closer to your goals, day by day.

But there is a place for sprints, for extremes. Especially to reach the heights of artistic or innovative greatness, these sprints might be required.

So the tortoise wins the horizontal race, but the hare gets more air.

Or maybe, once in awhile, the tortoise bursts into a sprint.

You Are Responsible For Your Own Brain Chemistry

Even cats like yogurt.

Even cats like yogurt.

Recently Kia was stressed out, and griping about some first-world-problem (I forget what it was; something along the lines of “my clients want me to do stuff,” or “the internet is too slow”). I gripe equally as much about such faux-problems, but at that moment I was feeling impatient. So I said “Go drink some kefir.”

Now why would I say that?

Most kefir contains live active cultures of lactobacillus rhamnosus, a strain of probiotic bacteria shown to reduce anxiety and increase resilient behavior in mice (and people too). Somehow, this particular bacterium communicates with the brain via the vagus nerve, stimulating GABA neurotransmitter receptors, and blunting the effects of chronic cortisol release. Which can bring a person down a notch.

Kia, who has a particular genius for neatly encapsulating complex ideas into catch phrases, drank some kefir, and came back with the following: “We’re all responsible for our own brain chemistry, aren’t we?”

I had never thought about it that way exactly.

Insisting on responsibility, I think, is different than blaming the victim. We are not all blessed with naturally buoyant mood, high motivation, or even the ability to distinguish our own thoughts from reality. Some people are less able to cope with the stressful, sometimes horrible events that make up day to day life. One person I know is prone to realistic, terrifying hallucinations if he does not take large amounts of antipsychotic medications on a daily basis.

But still, my friend is responsible for his own brain chemistry. Because who else can be?

Friends, family, and society should provide assistance and support for the mentally ill (the Mental Health Parity Act is a huge step in the right direction, and will protect thousands of middle-class families from medical bankruptcy). But in terms of personal responsibility, there is only one person involved. The person who owns the brain.

The principle is the same for serious mental illness or garden-variety blues and anxiety. The workings of the brain, factors that influence mood and motivation, are no longer mysterious. What works for most people?

  • reasonable amounts of exercise
  • adequate, regular undisturbed sleep
  • turmeric (yellow curry) [anti-inflammatory, increase BDNF]
  • probiotics that stimulate GABA
  • adequate dietary omega-3 (fish oil, wild salmon)
  • avoiding foods that wreak havoc with blood sugar, or disrupt/mimic neurotransmitter function (artificial colors, MSG, etc.)
  • limiting (or abstaining from) alcohol and recreational drug use
  • freedom from tyrants/oppressive personalities, or any situation that causes constant, chronic stress (periodic acute stress isn’t a problem)
  • slightly more social contact than you think you need
  • membership in a group that meets regularly
  • spiritual factors (clear conscience, clear life purpose, etc.)

On the other hand an austere life of strict discipline is probably unnecessary for most people (in terms of maximizing mental health). Exercising to exhaustion every day won’t make me happy if I’m socially isolated. A good night’s sleep won’t help if I have to get up and work for an evil sociopath boss (luckily I’ve never had to, but I hear they’re out there).

Chasing happiness and running away from suffering isn’t the point. But I do want to be firing on cylinders, awake and aware and relatively comfortable in my own skin, so that I can attempt to live a rich and meaningful life, with moments of joy and love and passion.

I’m sure I missed something … but you get the point. At this point we should all know what works (if not from clinical research, then from trial and error in our own lives). The trick is doing it day to day; turning knowledge into habits.

So here’s to better living through chemistry (in the healthful sense).

Update Oct. 2015:
Previously on this blog I’ve mentioned the importance of vitamin D in terms of reducing asthma symptoms and improving sleep, but I should also include it on the list of mood regulators in light of Rhonda Patrick’s research.

Rock Bottom May Be Too Late — Do Something!

Photo by lunamom58 (Creative Commons License)

Photo by lunamom58 (Creative Commons License)

A commonly heard phrase is that you have to let someone hit “rock bottom” before they will be willing to accept help, seek help for themselves, or make positive life changes.

The problem with “rock bottom” is that for many people, “rock bottom” is death (or in some cases, irreparable harm to health, relationships, and career). Substance abuse, remaining in abusive relationships, mental illness, dementia, gambling addiction, untreated chronic health conditions, and many other life circumstances can lead to a grisly end and premature death. In many cases, an early intervention by family, friends, and/or the state can preserve and improve quality of life for a person for many years.

The “rock bottom” trope is a convenient rationalization for friends and family members who (for many valid reasons) do not want to jump headfirst into the messy, unpredictable, time-consuming, expensive, grueling, no-results-guaranteed process of trying to help someone whose life is going off the rails. I have personally made good use of this rationalization at several points in my life.

I’m in the process of helping out someone I’m close to, who is not in a good way. I’m part of a team helping this person. It’s not the first time. It’s stressful, it takes up time, there are serious opportunity costs, but it’s worth it.

It’s almost always worth it. When you don’t help, when you turn away and cut someone off entirely, you’re killing part of yourself (and not always a small part). This post is about how you can help effectively, and protect (and possibly even enhance) your sanity in the process.

Summary: For friends and family suffering from illness or addiction issues, “rock bottom” can mean death or irreparable harm. It’s better to do something to help, rather than taking a “hands off” approach.

Some General Observations

After struggling for many years with the question of “when, and how much, should I help?”, I’ve come to some of the following conclusions:

  • Some (but not all) forms of “helping” are counterproductive. While it can be an act of kindness to bail out a friend or family member and protect them from harsh consequences, doing so over and over again enables the behavior that is getting them into trouble. This cycle is called codependence. The other extreme is total disengagement: cutting someone off entirely. Some “in-between” alternative are offering support, being part of a support team, and in some cases being part of an intervention.
  • You can’t control other people, and trying to do so leads to anxiety and despair, or abuse/coercion. What you can do is try to persuade them to get help and/or change their behavior, using both soft and hard tactics (intervention).
  • Helping someone has real, tangible costs (time, money, emotional strain), and if you overextend yourself you risk losing your own health, sanity, means of supporting yourself, and important relationships.
  • You may put in a great deal of effort, at great personal cost, and still not succeed in helping someone.
  • Helping someone also has real, tangible benefits (the person might get better, you may feel like you are doing the right/moral thing, other people may consider you to be a good person, or even heroic).
  • You might feel resentful if you overextend yourself. You might feel guilty if you don’t help enough. You might feel both emotions; regardless of how much you help you offer.
  • You have to decide for yourself if you want to get involved, and how much. You may be negatively judged (and even suffer tangible consequences) for your decision to help or not help, depending on the social norms and values of your peers and family. There is no “right” decision; you have to figure it out for yourself.

Nobody is exempt from these decisions. At some point every person will have to make a decision about helping a family member or close friend who is in very poor shape. This is a choice 100% of us face, at some point in our lives.

Summary: There are benefits and costs to helping someone. There is no “right” decision in terms of how much you should help.

Do Something!

There is almost always something you can do to help a person in trouble. Some of the items below may seem “small,” but never underestimate the possible impact of making a “small” gesture to help someone. They may remember the act of kindness for the rest of their lives, and what seems “small” to you might actually be a huge turning point for the person you are helping.

  • Learn about the condition, so you’re not flying blind.
  • Tell the person that you love them and care about them (frequently).
  • Acknowledge that the problem they are facing is difficult, and commend them on any positive steps they take (no matter how small).
  • Research social services and programs that might be available to help the person in question.
  • Let the person know about social services that are available to help them (support groups, treatment programs, healthcare, assisted living, etc.)
  • Encourage the person to take advantage of any support resources that are available.
  • If the person is resistant to accepting help or seeking treatment, keep suggesting it (but don’t threaten or cajole or bully; it needs to be their decision). You might get stonewalled at the first suggestion, and by the fifth they are happy to go along with whatever you suggest.
  • Offer temporary assistance in the form of basic necessities (food, paying utilities, rides, etc.). This kind of helping is not necessarily codependent, especially if the person is in the process of trying to get better. Don’t offer more than you can afford (see below).

Summary: There is always something you can do to help that is within your means and abilities.

Stay Sane

When someone you love is in bad shape, you’re going to have a bad time. There’s no way around it. But there are ways to mitigate the bad feelings, to manage your stress, to preserve your sanity, and to protect your life and well-being. Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t go it alone. Build (or join) a support team, focused on help the person in trouble. If the people you ask first aren’t willing or able to provide much help, keep expanding the circle until you feel like “we’re in it together.”
  • Don’t put your life on hold. Keep doing the things you love, keep meeting your responsibilities. Never go “all in” trying to help someone; you’ll just quickly deplete yourself and end up needing help yourself.
  • Don’t put yourself in physical danger. Leave dangerous and highly volatile situations to the police. If you feel physically threatened, get out.
  • Don’t expect a quick fix or resolution. The healing (or dying) process can take years. Provide support at a level that you can sustain, and think long-term.
  • Experience and constructively express your own emotions. Don’t bottle it up; talk about it. At the same time, don’t fixate on emotions, or endlessly process your feelings with everyone you encounter to the extent that you become tedious and a downer.
  • Understand and use your stress. Stress is a physical response to 1) provide energy to deal with a situation (adrenaline) and 2) seek emotional support (oxytocin). Acute stress does not have negative health consequences, especially when that stress leads to constructive action. Watch the video below for more information (there are some “association vs. causation” issues, but valuable information nonetheless).

Summary: You’re no use to anyone unless you maintain your own sanity and well-being. It’s not selfish to continue living and enjoying your own life; it’s common sense. Also — stress isn’t necessarily bad for your health.

A Final Thought

Helping someone is not an all-or-nothing question. There is always something you can do to be helpful, something that is within your means and abilities. When someone you love is in trouble, figure out what that thing is, and do it (and keep doing it).

Please feel free to share your own perspectives and experiences below.

Brain Renewal Protocol

Winston Churchill’s nicknamed depression “his black dog.”

A week ago I woke up in a black mood. Instead of feeling excited about my day, I saw a series of dreary tasks ahead of me. Looking into the future, I felt despair instead of hopefulness. Things that usually bring me great pleasure (making music, time with my family and friends, drinking coffee) seemed a little less bright.

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Quality of Consciousness

It’s about the quality.

Three personal values, or metaprograms:

  1. Maintain a high quality of consciousness.
  2. Take radical responsibility for every aspect of your life.
  3. Design and implement a system of functional vitality.

The three are interdependent and intertwined, but this post focuses on the first.

Everything we do, we do to alter our state of mind. The motivation behind every external gain (both selfish and altruistic) is the feeling we expect to get from the result. We do things because we expect the result to be happiness, satisfaction, cessation of pain, euphoria, contentment, peace, or some other desirable sensation, emotion, or state of mind.

I call this the psychedelic realization. It’s what Timothy Leary was getting at when he said “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” You don’t have to follow society’s implicit and explicit “live this way” rules (ie. the “rat race”) in order to receive the feel-good rewards of high-status, wealth, etc. Instead, you can engage your neural circuitry more directly. In Leary’s own words (from Flashbacks):

‘Turn on’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. ‘Tune in’ meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. ‘Drop out’ suggested an elective, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. ‘Drop Out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean ‘Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity’.

So how do we maintain a high quality of consciousness? How do we feel good (and fully awake, aware, and alive), directly and immediately?

Like Leary, I don’t think that taking consciousness as the primary consideration necessarily leads to navel-gazing, inactivity, self-obsession, substance abuse, or disengagement. If we really take our own state of mind seriously, then the more likely result is proactive behavior, including getting stuff done, taking charge of our lives, planning, being more engaged with the world, being conscious in our relationships, and generally being more real, alive, intelligent, aware, and powerful.

In regards to mind-altering substances, there’s a fine line between better-living-through-chemistry, and numbing out. If we’re experiencing negative fall-out (hangovers, sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, etc.) from any chemicals we’re using, then what we’re getting is crappy-living-through-chemistry. I like my coffee, but I don’t want to be the caffeine spider.

Web spinning – no drugs vs. caffeine.

For what it’s worth, here my own list of how to maintain a high quality of consciousness. Despite my total atheism, this list cribs heavily from religious texts and teachings (mostly Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism — the three traditions I’m somewhat familiar with). None of the concepts are complicated or secretive, but they’re all difficult to implement consistently. That’s why I have a list in the first place.

1. Open Heart

What does it mean to keep your heart open? It means that you’re vulnerable to pain and hurt, as well and pleasure and joy. Opening your heart means increasing your emotional bandwidth. You can’t have a symphony of feeling if only one note is available to you.

Living with an open heart is an emotional force multiplier. By practicing compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, and courage, we remove roadblocks to our own energy, vitality, motivation, love of life, and power.

Living with an open heart also means we’re more vulnerable emotionally. When we increase the bandwidth, we also let in anger, fear, disappointment, loss, grief, shame, envy, and all the “bad stuff.”

These “negative” emotions are debugging tools for our brain. If we don’t let them in, we have no idea what’s wrong inside. It’s better to fully experience and process your emotions than to be numb. Numbness (narrow bandwidth) results in a dull affect, no joy, and inertia when it comes to action. Emotional repression can also lead to muscle pain (John Sarno’s theory is that repressed emotions leads to chronic muscle tension which leads to reduced blood flow which leads to chronic pain — I’ve personally experienced major pain relief from simply allowing myself to feel my own feelings).

Emotional processing can mean talking it out, doing therapy, journal writing, and the like, but it can also mean taking action in the world. How can you fight injustice if you can’t experience anger? How can you be a better person if you can’t allow yourself to feel shame for your past wrongs?

2. Mind Like Water

Having a tranquil mind doesn’t mean being sleepy or spaced out. It means effectively controlling your attention, keeping your conscience clear, managing distractions, and processing information effectively.

David Lynch compares meditation to tooth-brushing. If I’m willing to dedicate a few minutes each day to keeping my teeth clean, why not do the same thing for my mind? Mental hygiene.

Another part of “mind like water” is having and consistently using an organizational system that fits your personality. There’s no one-size-fits-all, but David Allen’s Getting Things Done is a great starting point.

Reams have been written about managing distractions. Some are people are capable of truly simultaneous multi-tasking, but most of us are just deluding ourselves. In practice, for myself, managing distractions means 1) picking just a few priority items to get done each each day, 2) thinking ahead in terms of childcare and other family obligations, and 3) using LeechBlock to make sure I don’t fall down the social media sinkhole.

Is my conscience clear? Never perfectly. There’s always some crappy thing I’ve done, some way I could have treated someone better. But for the most part I try to be decent to other people, and to apologize and make it right when I do mess up. When my conscience is mostly clear is when I’m most effective and focused.

What else? Non-attachment. My peace of mind shouldn’t depend on external conditions or outcomes. I can’t control everything (nor would I want to — a single agent game would be boring). I can’t totally control other people’s perceptions, feelings, or actions (unless I use coercion, which is too costly in almost all cases). So in some cases I surrender to things I can’t control. This isn’t passivity or fatalism — it’s just realism and picking my battles. We aren’t gods and puppet-masters, we are limited agents with limited powers. To attempt total control is pathological.

3. Empowerment

Most people vastly underestimate their own capacity to determine their own lives and to change the world. Most of us are eager to give up our power to others. This is reasonable. It requires tremendous effort to actually visualize a better life for yourself, and a better world. There are too many variables. It hurts the brain. Inertia is much easier!

Still, empowerment is a crucial part of quality of consciousness. Even if our striving comes to nothing, the neurogenesis is worth it.

You could call it radical self reliance. You could call it living your best possible life. Not settling for what others are willing to give you, but instead creating exactly what you think is worth creating. Not coasting through with what you already know, but straining to learn (and use) new knowledge and new skills. It takes enormous effort, it involves multiple failures, and there’s no guarantee of any success whatsoever.

Is self-empowerment worth it? Is it too much bother?

It’s worth it because it keeps your brain fresh. It’s worth it because it gives you something to push against, and to know you’re there in the world.

Take Away

I don’t think just deciding to be happy works very well. We might just end up with forced cheeriness, which is creepy. And if we’re depressed, meditation or a to-do list system isn’t going to instantly snap us out of it (there are many effective approaches to treating depression — personally I like the “become more paleolithic” method).

But I do think we can decide to prioritize quality of consciousness, and take both internal and external actions to do so. It’s not necessarily the path to happiness (that has more to do with friendships, community, and marriage — in other words happiness is almost entirely about social interaction [TED talk]). But if we focus on quality of consciousness, our relationships (both personal and community) will improve, quickly and radically.

Unrelated News

In other news, my group Momu has a new album out. It’s only available on Beatport at the moment, which is a little pricey. If you like the music but can’t afford the Beatport price, the general release date is August 15. The iTunes version will be cheaper, and it will be available on Spotify as well (free).

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