Monkey Mind, Monkey Run

I’ve been thinking all week about external validation, beyond the likes and blog comments and more into  (what I used to believe was) my non-digital life. Most days I struggle to walk away from my keyboard. After all, that’s where my livelihood (such as it currently is) resides—writing, school, job applications. To counteract all of this screen time, I’ve been trying to push away and spend at least an hour each day running. I was on the massage table the other day, telling my massage therapist about my last blog, recounting for her how I thought that running so much these past two months had significantly calmed my annoying physical symptoms of the past year. I told her how good it was for me to spend that hour each day away from the computer screen and out of my head. Then I mentioned in that offhanded manner that so often carries the weight of truth that I run with my iPhone because my phone is where my Nike app lives along with my running music and my Fitbit app.

“So, you’re not really getting away from the external validation,” she noted.

“I don’t answer the phone and I don’t check my blog stats when I run,” I said, a little miffed, before adding, “Usually.” Slowly I began to see her point.

As I run through the miles, my iPhone via the Nike app, tells me how far I’ve run and at what pace.  My Fitbit vibrates when I hit 10,000 steps for the day (generally by the time I’m done with my daily run). I listen to a playlist of music and when Florence and the Machine comes on with Dog Days, I know that I’m nearing the two mile mark and that about 20 minutes—give or take half a minute—have gone by. I know then I have about 30 minutes left. I know the first of the Lady Gaga songs come on around mile four, and I know that if I’m still running when The Band starts playing that I’m closing in on mile five. I know if I’m running better than I did the day before. Hell, I even know if I’m running better (or worse) than the average of my last seven runs. On good days when I’ve finished running and before I stretch, I’ll even post my run results to Facebook with a comment along the lines of “nailed it bitches!”

“What would happen if you ran without your phone?” the massage therapist asked me and then answered her own question. “You’d be able to hear the birds.”

“I’d just hear myself huffing and wheezing,” I countered. “And I’d lose miles. My averages would plummet.” As soon as I uttered those words I knew I had a problem, or, in the parlance of the mindful and aware, I knew I had something I might want to pay attention to, something to look at.

She laughed when I said I’d lose miles. Absurd, right? Of course I wouldn’t be losing the miles—my body, my health would still benefit, clearly. But would I be able to tolerate not documenting my progress? Would I be able to derive the same pleasure from running if I couldn’t compare today’s run with yesterday’s?  And how would it be to run without music? Would I be faster or slower? Could I stand to listen to just my own heavy breathing? I’m not sure I can. I’m not even sure if I want to, but I’m interested in taking a closer look at the whys of the situation. I’m interested in noticing.

I’m interested in noticing because when I pay attention, I can begin to make more conscious choices about this one life I’ve been allotted. On the surface these choices seem trivial: whether I run with or without music, with or without digital feedback on my performance, with or without compiling and parsing each mile. But are they really insignificant or are they indicative of a larger problem? Even as I type this piece I can’t refrain from flipping back to the Internet, to Facebook, to my email. I cannot focus just on this bit of writing for any sustained period. I don’t know if my monkey mind is getting worse or I’m just noticing it more, but I’m beginning to worry that I’m not paying close enough attention in other areas of my life, that being easily distracted could be taking a toll on my relationship and my career (or lack thereof), on my desire to be a writer. Is this inability to focus on just one thing at a time without soliciting feedback and validation getting in my way?

For one of the psychology classes I’m taking this quarter, I had to read about and then write a page and a half paper on BF Skinner—I had to pick out my favorite theory of his, write a paragraph on said theory and then find a related online source to write about that had to do with my favorite Skinner theory. I started this exercise thinking I wasn’t a big fan of Skinner—I think (or used to think) that behaviorism was reductionist and limiting. After all, behavior modification techniques did not work at all when I tried to use them on my kids. My kids could give a flying fuck if they got a gold star on a refrigerator chart. I came out of my active parenting years with the firm belief that nature will always triumph over nurture. But, a funny thing happened on the way to writing my Skinner paper—I started connecting the dots. Duh. I remembered a book I had purchased but only partially read a few years ago, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I looked Mr. Carr up on youtube and listened to him read from and discuss his book at the Harvard University bookstore.

If Carr is correct (and I do believe he is), the Internet really is changing the way our brains work. My brain has been changed to actually need to push the levers at Twitter and Facebook, to peck away at my email icon. All of this screen time is rewiring my grey matter, new neural pathways are being formed based on Skinner’s Operant Conditioning theory. I have been trained to push the levers just like the lab rats. Nike and Fitbit, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Google are delivering enough random little doses of oxytocin to keep me coming back for more.

Now that I have this awareness, what am I to do? Initially, I’ve decided to just be aware, to simply notice (is it obvious yet that I’m taking a mindfulness class?). When do I press the levers? What distracts me? Do I feel better or worse if I stop writing and check an empty inbox? What do those Facebook likes and new Twitter followers mean to me? Does my self worth rise and fall with my stats? Why? And maybe most importantly, am I engaged in meaningful and purposeful relationships outside of these places? Am I moving forward, toward my goals for the next year, the next five years?

This afternoon I thought briefly about leaving my phone and earbuds behind when I headed out for my run. After all, I knew the run from my front door to Boulevard Park and back again is just over five miles. I don’t need iTunes to mark my distance. But, I do know that I seem to be in a running groove right now that works for me. I am aware enough to know I don’t want to fix something that’s not broken. I’m getting fit. My pants are getting looser. My body feels great. I LIKE having Macklemore, JayZ, and Rhianna in my head. Screw the birds–S & M motivates me. Today I chose to run with the technology in place. Tomorrow I may decide differently. Tonight I will decide if I want to read a book or spend my time before sleep anxiously checking online stats. I’m leaning toward the book. I’ll let you know what actually happens.

My Drug and My Vice

Feedback hits my veins
Smack for my ego, mainlined
I close my eyes, sigh

I wrote this haiku over the weekend, fueled as I was then by a steady stream of positive feedback for my writing and after a really great response to the Whatcom Writes reading on Sunday. But like any good addict knows, that euphoric feeling fades fast without a continual infusion.

I managed to ride the wave for most of the week, getting by on a steady stream of Facebook likes and occasional comments, but on Friday I hit bottom.  Two months ago I sent out some queries to a handful of agents and within days one agent requested I send sample chapters of my memoir. This is it, I thought. I’m golden. I worked feverishly for a week to put some high polish on a few of the better chapters and sent them off into the ether. I tried hard to stay in the moment but really, who among us writers doesn’t live at least part of the time on that fantasy book tour? On the bestseller list in our own heads? I’m a legend, if only in my own little monkey mind.

Things came crashing back to earth for me on Friday when the agent got back to me with a kind and generous email indicating that perhaps my pages aren’t quite ready for primetime. Honestly, I can’t say that I wasn’t expecting this—I know the odds. We all do, when we sit down and dare to think we have a hope of seeing our words in print. The statistics are depressing, but still, we dream.

This crash, this bursting of my ego and the view from down here at the bottom set me to thinking about how fortunate we are now, though, as writers. We have an audience if we want one. We don’t have to toil in obscurity—relative obscurity, maybe, but not completely. We have communities that welcome our imperfect work, places where we can get our hits and fixes, venues even if they are of our own making.

I started wondering, though. What was it like as a writer to wait months and months for feedback on a piece of writing? Or to not get any at all? Imagine—writing something, spending a few hours, or weeks, months, years, on a piece and then just . . . doing what with it, exactly? Sending it to an agent or publisher and then waiting for a single letter to come by post. No instant gratification. No thumbs up or down within minutes. I suppose after a week or so trips to the mailbox might become something like obsessively checking Facebook within a few minutes of posting a particularly witty comment or status update. The worn path to the mailbox might have been a little like the iPhone-shaped silhouette on my back pocket—there because I want easy access to my inbox, the ability to quickly check my blog stats. My self-esteem rises and falls with the number of hits I get.

All of which leads me to ponder just how healthy it is, this continual trickle of sporadic feedback and my incessant need to check in on it. On the one hand, when the stream dries up a bit, we can just post something new. On the other hand, why? What’s my motivation? To continue the high or to hone my craft? I’ve been reading about B.F. Skinner and the behaviorists, operant conditioning—the key to operant conditioning is the immediate reinforcement of a response. Suffice it to say, I’ve been thoroughly conditioned by variable reinforcement. I feel a bit like a used lab rat, and the unpredictable rewards are messing with my monkey mind.  One day there might be these beautiful little gifts waiting when I press that lever, other days there’s nothing. Does the nothing keep me from pressing the lever? No it does not. The nothing makes me press the lever even more—there must be some mistake! Where’s my feedback? My next hit? I need my fix!

So. I enroll in a mindfulness class. I employ hypnotherapy and guided imagery. I run. I run and run and run. They say the endorphins produce a natural high. It doesn’t really compare, but there are 30, 40, 50 minutes a day where I’m away from the lever at least. And I’m getting healthier as a side benefit. I’m not sure I want to give up the drug, the high, the next hit long term, but I’m trying to get better at living in the moment and focusing on writing just because.

Oh hell. No I’m not. If I were, I’d not be posting this damn blog.  Hit me baby. Just one more time.

My Life in 17 Syllables

**disclaimer:  I’ve spent the last two hours trying to format this freaking post. I give up. It is what it is**

At the beginning of January, I accepted an invitation to join a Facebook Group, the premise of which is that each member will write one haiku a day for the year. Since leaving my job in late summer, I’ve been struggling to put words to paper (or computer), so I joined this group with two thoughts: the accountability and peer pressure would be good for me (not that anything untoward would happen if I didn’t perform), and surely I could manage 17 syllables a day. If I couldn’t manage three lines, then maybe I needed to reconsider this whole writing gig.

So, January 1 being what it is, the first day of resolutions, I set out to meet two of mine: a haiku and healthier eating. The two goals collided into this:

First resolution 
Fails Rice Krispies taste icky
With coconut milk
Not deathless poesy, but good enough for a couple of LOLs in the comments section. At first I felt kind of bad because some of the haikus were awesome and heartfelt—I thought maybe I was playing a little too fast and loose with my allotted syllables. I persevered nonetheless, and as the days passed, I really started looking forward to not only posting my own creations but to reading other members’ haikus. Each day felt like a treasure hunt, each little poem, a gift, a bit of insight into lives I hardly knew, and some I didn’t know at all, reflections from around the world on death, politics, weather, climate, gardens, families, words (always on words), jobs, teaching, writing, and lots and lots of snow.

My own haikus began to reflect what was going on in my life, from the simple things like travel:

Pesky roundabouts
Gordian knots of travel
Complicate my drive

To the more complex emotions that I couldn’t otherwise articulate (and that make The Little Woman slightly crazy—because she truly wants to understand the creative, writer me and make me feel less anxious): 

The wanting, a bloom
Like ripples across the pond
Mysterious ache

I started doing body work, massage and acupuncture and physical therapy in search of ways to lessen my anxiety and annoying/mysterious physical symptoms I’ve been having since last spring, which led to haikus like these:

Poetry loosens
the tight place in my center
a deep word massage
Knead me with language
Releasing tightly coiled,
Naked emotions

(and this one, when my massage therapist returned from a trip to India):

Massage therapist
Returned from enlightenment
Lay your hands on me!

There have been haikus as a result of therapy and hypnotherapy sessions as I’ve struggled to come to grips with the new course my life seems to be taking—or as I’ve tried to take some control of my life as I contemplate changing careers:

Face my face. Reflect.
Self love trapped in the mirror.
Eyes see naked fear.
Trust Occam’s Razor
That’s right. The simple answer
Is likely correct.

Haikus as I’ve wrestled with self-doubt: 

Invisible girl
Becomes an opaque woman
Turn toward the light
Spinning syllables
Like so many sticky strands
snaring self esteem
Face down my deep fear 
breathe deeply, write word, word, word
sentence, paragraph

And more on writing:

words, flat black squiggles
unequal to the challenge
litter my pages
writing: like pulling
quarters from your ears or like
your head from your ass?
strings of syllables
strung across the abacus
clacking back and forth 

There are clusters of 17 syllables about family:

Visiting Mother
Our past. My future. Her womb.
Cord blood, still tethered
Freshly cut cedar
Takes me back to childhood
Dad mom brother me

And then there are those that I can’t explain—the ones that come as I’m deep in thought pondering images and metaphors and playing with words. Some of these are my favorites, though if pressed to explain them, I don’t think I could, and that’s what I love about this process—I don’t know what is going to show up day to day, but every day I get something:

Words like locks tumbling
Falling into place just so
Speak the key to me
This rucksack’s stuffed with
IOUs and promises—
words, my currency
Play me for a fool
Or like a Spanish guitar
My heart strings, your song

And everyday, I am excited to see what others in the Haiku Room have posted—to read, 17 syllables at a time, what we are all making of this journey:

 Sunday morning mass
in the haiku room, poems
our catechism

This is a place I can worship. Like one of the group members commented when I posted the haiku above:

Oh, this filled my heart with joy! And it reminded me of one of my favorite Hafiz quote: “The great religions are the ships. Poets the life boats. Every sane person I know has jumped overboard.”

Posted By Blogger to Putting on My Big Girl Panties at 2/04/2014 11:41:00 PM