Chemical Lessons

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My body reminded me of something important today. Due to unusual circumstances I ended up drinking two cups of coffee (double stovetop Moka Pot and a large mug of French Press) this morning. Today is a busy day – I’m traveling on business, and will be in the air for much of the day. I was trying to get as much done between 0700 and 0900. Within 20 minutes of the second cup I was in a near panic – dealing with things that are routine for me in the course of my work. What the hell was going on?

Sitting at my (home) work desk, I tried my three minute mindfulness meditation. It did centre me mentally, but I could feel the panic in my limbs – a scary sense of detachment very similar to being severely drugged – when your body does not feel the way your mind expects it to. I managed to get out of the house and to my cab with that lingering sense of dread. I did more breath meditating in the taxi – then it struck me. Caffeine. The jumbo overdose of caffeine.

Sitting here in the boarding lounge, it all came together. I recalled a period of three months last year when I went off all stimulants. This had been an intensely painful time for me, as I was dealing with a devastating life event. Life at that time was just work, exercise, yoga, and meditation. No sugar, no alcohol, and no coffee. The daily meditation kept me centred and functional – important when a desperate sadness is hanging over your entire life like a dark cloud. The sugar free diet kept my energy levels constant throughout the day – nice when you’re living a high-stress consulting industry lifestyle. The yoga and exercise gave me killer fucking abs.

So now I think back – perhaps that is a good way to be. Minus the chemical stimulants, perhaps I’ll be more focused and thus able to vanquish the distractions that mock my plans to study and write. There is the social impact of not drinking alcohol and coffee – but as with that time, people get used to it rapidly.

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A Mindful Approach To Emotional Pain

Every one of us nurses some sort of emotional trauma. It could be disappointment related failure, grief at the loss of a loved one, perhaps the agony of a broken relationship or even the numbing melancholy of loneliness. Such pain takes long to disappear, if ever, and often comes right back, triggered by the faintest memory.

Mindfulness, derived from Buddhist meditation practices, is a system that teaches practitioners to focus on sensations and emotions as they occur in the present moment, purely as what they are, by suspending judgment and self-criticism. In the book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide To Finding Peace In A Frantic World, Mark Williams suggests that emotions and sensations are like seasons that pass, and that enduring sorrow and unease is a result of self-criticism and a preoccupation with what is long gone.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a European psychiatrist who claimed to have worked widely with PTSD sufferers. Drawn in by the prospect of obtaining free medical advice, I began to talk to him about some of the unpleasant incidents that I had experienced in my past – that I felt controlled my life, even at that point. Moving our conversation to a more private location, he asked me to get specific, to recall events and emotions.

The exercise was extremely painful, and left me in tears. While I was composing myself, he called for a dozen notepads. When these arrived, he told me to write down my account in as much detail as possible. When I was done, he laid it face-down on a coffee table and asked me to do so again. I did this perhaps ten times while he proceeded to drain the hotel room’s rather varied mini-bar. This took around six hours.

When the coffee table was covered with notepads (or more likely, the bar was empty), he asked me to pick up and read aloud the first account that I had written. When I was done, he asked me to pick up the last one and read it aloud too. It was incredible. In the course of that one evening my recollection of the emotions surrounding those events had changed substantially. I realized that perhaps my mind superimposed emotion on those memories each time I recalled them.

Williams discusses this in his book. He talks about how we exist on two planes – thinking, and doing – and how, while these are states that are essential to human existence and individual growth, their overuse or unnecessary application yields negative results. Williams goes on to describe a third state – being – when one exists in a state of acute awareness of sensations and emotions that one is experiencing at that present moment. This is the state that Mindfulness meditation strives for.

Nowadays, whenever a negative emotion strikes, I look at it objectively, and try to establish if the pain is just because I am being judgmental of myself. While it is normal to experience sadness, anger, and despair in the course of life, a vicious cycle of self-loathing is perhaps at the root of chronic unhappiness and myriad addictions.

Mindfulness has been a useful tool for me to find balance. Never being a meditating person myself, I found it extremely hard when I first began. Now, I long for those fifteen minutes of quiet each day. It has changed the way I think and react.

References: Mindfulness: A Practical Guide To Finding Peace In A Frantic World

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