Archive for 2012

Book Review: The Science of Yoga

“The Science of Yoga: The Risk and Rewards” by William J. Broad

At around 220 pages, The Science of Yoga is not a very long book, but it is a very demanding one—if only because it contradicts so many mistaken beliefs. William J. Broad attempts to bring perspective to this ancient practice, not to disprove it, but to make it better.

Broad takes Yoga seriously. He's benefited personally from it (having practiced for thirty years), but has also been injured while practicing. He is not so naïve to ignore the inherent dangers: that some poses can cause chronic damage to nerves and tissue, and even cause fatal blood clots.

Yoga can save, but it can also destroy. It can kill.

Due to Broad's past injury, I question his objectivity at times, as he appears to have an ax to grind with the Yoga community, which flaunts Yoga's benefits while hiding its dangers; but to any reader who can read objectively, there's enough of the good and bad to see both sides. And Broad doesn't blame as much as he explains why modern Yoga is the way it is today—for better or for worse.

In The Science of Yoga William J. Broad discusses “yoga myths,” statements about Yoga's ability to increase metabolism and oxygen. He finds these myths to be false when science explores Yoga through its rigorous analysis. In fact, science has found that Yogic breathing decreases metabolism significantly, and though Yoga has been found to be uplifting and relaxing, this is due to increased carbon dioxide, not oxygen.

Broad attacks the myth that Yoga is sufficient for exercise. Though Yoga fails to meet cardiovascular standards, he asserts that Yoga's ability to increase flexibility and boost mood should not be ignored. But, he warns, Yoga is for cross-trainers, for those already in shape, and not for the weekend warrior who only exercises once or twice a week.

He discusses the history of Yoga (my favorite part). I learned that much of what we practice today as Yoga is not necessarily thousands of years old, but was perfected in the twentieth century by Indians, and brought to America where it has undergone even further evolution.

The Science of Yoga won't explain poses or breathing, but it'll give the reader a deeper understanding of Yoga's origins and not only its risks and rewards, but why the risks and rewards are what they are, and Broad sources most of what he has to say.

Unfortunately, the first half of the book was more interesting than the second half. Chapter five, on healing, seemed to unravel as he went back to the topic of the previous chapter, “The Risk of Injury,” attacking the Yoga community (and rightly so) for attempting to act as physical therapists without the required education. The final two chapters, on sexuality (with more warnings) and creativity, were anticlimactic compared to the book's eventful and knowledgeable beginning.

I didn't like at all his images of “Yoga in a century or two” in his epilogue. In the first he sees a Yoga that is even more splintered and disorganized than it is now, with more hucksters and misguided information. In the second he dreams of Yoga being accepted as medicine, with Yoga teachers as rigorously educated and qualified as doctors are today. I found both extreme, but especially his idea of “colleges of yoga medicine.”

Should Yoga, a spiritual practice, be put into the hands of government or other powerful institutions? Would that even be legal? It would, seemingly overnight, remove the upstarts and hucksters from the Yoga community, but at the cost of Yoga being open to everyone. Yoga would become as expensive as medicine, if teachers had to be trained as if they were practicing medicine. Though Yoga is in its Wild West stage now, it is inexpensive and overwhelmingly beneficial, even if some yogis do get hurt—while athletes get hurt in every sport, no one is rushing out to regulate weight lifting or running.

As Broad states earlier in his book, the general Yoga community is in no hurry to change its practices or its image. Yoga, for now, will be up to each individual practitioner to manage for him- or herself.

So buyer beware.

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Book Review: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

A very short preface: This is book review #1. Since I'm now living in a larger city, the public library has much more to offer. I was there a week ago and checked out several books, and in the course of reading I decided that for any book that I enjoyed (any book that I actually finished), I would review it. As if the subject of my first review is a foreshadowing of my goals for this series, I want to state now that I have no goal, no intention. I'm simply going to write these for the experience itself. It may turn out to be a bit like homework, it may help me hone my critiquing skills, it may draw a larger audience to my blog, as my anxiety series did, or it may simply give me something to do while I give most of my creative attention to my novel. I'm fine with all of these, more, and nothing at all.

And at the risk of contradicting myself, I hope you enjoy what follows.


~*~


“Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki

I was thankful for having the opportunity to read Shunryu Suzuki's famous book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. It's almost silly to write a book review on it. It's just 133 pages long, and it is quite repetitive in his simple, yet effective style. And perhaps because it is simple, it is difficult for me to explain in words the text itself. It's much easier explaining what it is not...as is often the case with Eastern philosophy.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is not your typical self-help book, or even your typical religious/philosophy book. It doesn't explain to you what you need to do to achieve a goal, but tells the Zen practitioner that he must have faith that he has already reached the goal—just by practicing.

It is not, as is Alan Watts' book “The Way of Zen,” an explanation of Zen Buddhism. It gives very little history, and that is anecdotal. It doesn't explain terminology, and in fact, Suzuki emphasizes that the philosophy behind Buddhism, though helpful, is far from the point of actually practicing Zen. In the end it can be helpful, but is not necessary. The most important thing is to sit, and to breathe.

It is one of the best books I've read on the topic of Buddhism. I have in the past shied away from Buddhism because articles and books I read tend to be very concept-heavy, and so rather dogmatic. The Buddha himself wrote nothing of his enlightenment, and what little he gave to his students would have been given by a notable silence, or a simple analogy. Yet volumes have been written on the nature and practice of Buddhism in the last 2,000 years. Suzuki cuts immediately back to the original idea behind Buddhism, ignoring the “truths” and the logic and the philosophy in order to emphasize the practice.

The book is repetitive, but this is no disadvantage to the reader. Suzuki repeats only a few concepts, or themes, but from different angles of inquiry. He is not explaining a broad subject which requires many ideas, but a very narrow one, and if he uses many ideas it is only to help the simplicity of it sink in. It's clear that his purpose isn't to give an outline of Zen, as so many others have done, but to give instead a very detailed exposition of its heart. He very nearly puts the heart of Zen Buddhism in the reader's hands.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is not a book that you will be satisfied reading just once, then put on a shelf or return to the library. I read it in two sittings and knew by the time I was done I was missing a great deal of what Suzuki was saying. I came out of that first reading with only a couple favorite chapters, words that spoke to me on a deep level. In recent days I've gone back to cherry pick various chapters, taking the time to study them, and have found that with fresh eyes passages that I had initially thought nothing of now seem profound.

There is a wealth of information in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, and because it is presented the way it is, different people, at different stages of their practice, or of life, will likely find different chapters enlightening. That is the advantage of Suzuki's repetition, offering a variety of flavors of the same fruit. There is even a chapter on repetition, where he asks the reader not to lose the spirit of repetition. This theme is a perfect analogy for what Zen actually is.

All Zen is really is a practice of everyday living. It's a practice of finding joy in the ordinary and very repetitious (and often mundane) activities of our lives. It's doing the dishes for the sake of doing the dishes, with a smile, and with no mind for anything else.

“The most important things in our practice are our physical posture and our way of breathing. Instead of having a deep understanding of the teaching, we need a strong confidence in our teaching, which says originally we have Buddha nature. Our practice is based on this faith.” - Shunryu Suzuki

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Tao of Anxiety: The Right Foot Forward

I have moved. Where I was living in Iowa was a very small community, very far from the world at large. The nearest town with a Wal-Mart was 30 minutes away (which shows just how small and rural the area was).

When overcoming an anxiety disorder, only so much can be done in that type of community, and I was doing it. All it amounted to was internal alchemy: studying anxiety, learning coping statements and activities, changing the way I viewed the world, and using affirmations to boost my self-esteem. But internal maintenance can take a person only so far. We still have to get out and live, and that is most true of phobics.

While in Iowa I managed to overcome my fear of panic attacks without ever leaving home, and with that, the control panic attacks held over me. But where social anxiety is concerned, the pinnacle of treatment is en vivo exposure therapy, and I just couldn't get the most out of exposure where I was.

There were some very simple, easy things I could do and had long-since mastered, but there were no intermediate activities. The spectrum jumped immediately from “easy” to “hard.” I was stuck doing either the simplest, easiest tasks, which I had maxed out my growth on months or even years before, or doing something I had no confidence for. I couldn't make that sort of leap without a bridge to carry me there.

I am now in Southern Louisiana, surrounded by about 15,000 people, and perhaps another 100,000 around that, with New Orleans just an hour or so away. A community of this size brings everything close to hand, but is not so big that I'm frozen in place. There are no freeways here, as there were in Northeast Florida where I lived from 2005 until 2007.

I couldn't function at all in Florida because of the sheer amount of people in the stores and vehicles on the roads. Such a simple detail as there not being any freeways may make all the difference for me. I'm Goldilocks and this is my porridge. Not too hot and not too cold, but just what I need.

So where I'm at now means that I still feel like I'm in a small community, yet opportunities arise frequently. This gives me the “bridge” of intermediate activities I lacked in Iowa. There are many small though sometimes painfully frightening activities to tackle, each one a boon to my confidence, carrying me to my eventual goal of succeeding as an adult.

I am living with my mother. Having someone to push and motivate me to succeed, where the first thing I want to do is hide away, can be as painful as it is rewarding. I've discussed before how in years past I have lost opportunities by pushing the ones most able to help me away, because of my fears. This time around I hope I can allow myself to have an ally in my mother, who is still very willing to help me.

I have started a journal to keep track of my progress. Every day I plan on doing at least one exposure therapy to help myself grow. This had been my plan in Iowa, but the train jumped the tracks when I ran out of things to do—things that interested me, or weren't an hour away, or weren't so beyond my ability that I was helplessly intimidated.

For someone with a social phobia, I feel incredibly lighthearted and interested in life around me. I feel confident and excited for each day. It's been a couple of years since I felt that way, but I'll stay like this so long as I remain open to life as I am at this moment. Anything can happen, and I'm looking forward to what does.




Further Reading:

Tao of Anxiety: Series



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Trusting Knowledge

The history of psychology is filled with various experts attempting to reinvent the wheel (the model of human behavior), and as a result there has been a sharp increase in theories, concepts, and definitions, over-complicating a subject that can be explained in far simpler and straightforward terms than the average psychologist or layperson can explain it.

In other words, psychology is complicated more because of the vast volume of competing and often impractical concepts than because human behavior  is complex.

This is not to say that human behavior is not complex, but that Occam's Razor is not being applied: Among competing hypothesis, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected.

Personally, I believe the "why" is the easy part, but that the "how" requires much more study than we've done to this point. We may know why someone does something (he's been conditioned) but the how of it requires psychologists to look at genetics, society, mental conditions, and interpersonal relationships.

So psychology is both very simple, even elementary, and yet infinitely complex (as complex as nature itself, which all of science has yet to discover even a percentage of). What happens if people do not understand this? If they live completely on one end of the spectrum or the other, either believing that psychology is easy or that it is very hard?

I think then we end up with elitist academics who do not trust laypersons with the "complexities" of psychology, and laypersons who think they can master the human mind by reading a few pop-psychology books (coincidentally written by academics*), or by mimicking their doctors.

I don't know if either of these types are dangerous, or more dangerous than the other, but they're both fools studying only one color of a prism. Both become know-it-alls who refuse to believe the other has anything to add, and so dismiss each other.

Humans dismiss each other at their own peril!


*Studying a subject presents a great risk to any student: a false sense of security. The phrase "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" comes to mind. If people do not maintain a mindset that they do _not_ know everything, and so that they must tread with caution, what knowledge they have gained, whether by book or course, can naively be used in the wrong way: a well-meaning friend trying to help a potential suicide through depression, or a doctor who misdiagnoses a patient for failing to be thorough in his approach.

Often what we think we know is a blinder to what is real.

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Penguin-Random House Fusion


Independent authors are successful because they sell an inexpensive product in a creative way (using technology to circumvent the established publishing industry). People are simply more willing to take a risk on a $2.99 book than they are on a $14.99 book. That is the self-publishing advantage. That advantage is not dooming the publishing industry, but major book publishers must face two realities: A) their product is overpriced and B) their industry is inefficient and uncreative.

Perhaps because of this, or in spite of this, Penguin and Random House are merging.



They claim authors will benefit from this merger—that they'll get “better service.”

Can one 4-billion dollar corporation take care of authors better than two 2-billion dollar corporations can? Can the one do what the two couldn't?

This merger will take years. It won't be approved (if it is approved) until next year, and even then it'll take a while for everything to get sorted out, so what can we expect in the meantime?

1

As the articles suggest, this could be the first of two or more consolidations in the publishing industry. Several other large publishers could merge, especially if the new Penguin-Random House is immediately successful—they'll want to capture that lightning in a bottle, and continue to compete.

If having a “Big Six” was bad, having a “Big Three” or “Big Two” will be worse. The problems Penguin and Random House had with authors will grow worse after the merger. Royalties will go down, not up, and publishers will be even less willing to take on fresh talent. The bigger these companies get, the more they'll have to stick to old business practices, doing what worked for them before, which means selling the same bylines to the reading public.

2

As with any merger, they will cut where they can.

Employees (people to you and I) are going to lose their jobs in the background mechanics of either company. Penguin and Random House benefit financially by cutting salaries in places the companies overlap, and I'm sure a major publishing company, when properly motivated, can find a lot of unnecessary jetsom.

Efficiency demands this happen, but I do not imagine the extra savings will be thrown at authors. Instead of using the larger revenue and market share to take chances on unknown authors, it'll be used instead as an advantage in negotiations.

3

Amazon keeps things cheap, benefiting readers, by basically ripping off publishers—at least from a publisher's point of view. Self-published authors have a way around this, because they don't have the overhead of a publishing house (paying all those employees), and so can afford to give Amazon a 30% cut. 30% for a giant corporation is a bitter pill to swallow. But now, with 40% market share, this new Penguin-Random House behemoth can have a little room to work.

Amazon still has the advantage, of course, especially as they begin to soak up more self-published authors (they're practically their own publishing house). No matter how big any one publisher gets, Amazon is still the leading distributor in the world. Amazon will be hurt less by losing a publisher's business, than a publisher will be hurt by losing Amazon's.

4

Penguin-Random House will find more success bargaining with authors. They can force authors to take a lower royalty in exchange for a broader audience. The logic is that authors will have higher sales, and thus more money, but let's be honest: it's hard selling books, and any promise of this nature is wishful thinking.

Unlike Amazon, individual authors and agents won't have a choice in the matter. They'll have to take the lower royalty or walk away to another, smaller publisher, less able to market the same book; or self-publish with Amazon, and lose the glam that comes with a major imprint.

~*~

What publishers need is more freedom to take risks, but size won't help them do this if they're unwilling to change their culture. More money doesn't mean greater flexibility, it means more pressure to succeed.

And so Penguin-Random House will squeeze a little more money out of the system now, but at the risk of sacrificing future market share to Amazon and self-published authors.

Are Penguin and Random House merging because they don't think they can continue on as things stand—that they must unite to do battle against the self-publishing industry and Amazon? That's open for debate. They could just see an opportunity to make more money while they can make it, or they're hedging their bets. Whether this is a tactic of war, borne of necessity, or an act of convenience, it means a big change for authors expecting to get a slice of the published pie, and even for authors who choose to go it their own way.

We've seen a lot of change in the publishing industry in the last few years, and now we're seeing the first inklings of the changes to come. The largest publishers in New York are finally reacting. It's their move now, and they're starting to make it.

When the dust clears, self-publishers and Amazon (as well as Smashwords and other e-publishers) will have their turn again, but don't count on them waiting to make their move. The smartest ones will already be jockeying for positions in this new world order.

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Challenging Death


I'd like to challenge the assumption that life is “good” and death is “bad.”

Taking a minimalist view of death I define it as “non-being.” Death is the Void we came out of when we are born and which we will go into after we have lived.

If we are able to know a thing only by its contrasting opposite—what it is not—then how can human beings know life if we haven't experienced death?

This is simple if death is “non-being.”

I lack perspective if all I'm aware of is life and being. I must taste death—emptiness—before I can say for sure if dying is the tragedy humans expect it to be, or if it is something else entirely.

An emptiness so deep that it is not unlike death can be experienced in at least three ways: in dreamless sleep, during deep meditation, or in the zone where I lose myself in an activity. None of these states would be considered “negative” in an emotional sense. In fact, they are very productive in their rejuvenating qualities. Who has not experienced increased energy, focus, or motivation after a good night's sleep or a break from activity?

If these states can be comparable to death, death may be the most misunderstood facet of reality. Like the dreamless sleep and deep meditation that works as a defragmentation of the mind, helping individual humans organize unconscious emotions, death may be a reboot for reality itself, a way to reorganize and prepare for a next round. On a Cosmic level the vacuum of space is not the “nothingness” we think of in Western culture, but is, though it resembles matter not at all, the source of life as we know it.

Just as a piece of art starts upon a blank canvas, life, and all of material existence, began from an empty Cosmos. From nothing sprung everything we know as reality. That all of reality will once again return to nothing is not a loss but a hope. It is not a division from life: we must realize finally that life and death are one and the same. We were in a way dead in life, and in death, will live forever.

The human body is not just its conscience. It is trillions of atoms that compose myriad organizations of material. Germs, organs, bone, brain, and the chemical reactions that create thoughts and emotions. When death comes, these atoms are reorganized into other patterns, into soil, trees, small plants and animals, and even eventually into other humans. At this level, life and death stop existing, and we see clearly that reality is made of patterns. Patterns shift, decomposing to compose in new forms. This has been going on from the beginning of time when matter first cooled into recognizable atoms.

What this means is that in reality we are the Universe itself. We are It. From this perspective there is no you or I to live or die. There is nothing but the Universe. It doesn't go anywhere, and neither do we.

In death there is nothing to fear. It is safe because it is infinite. It is the “balance” spiritual people seek, where no ups and downs exist anywhere. When someone says “I need peace of mind,” offer them death. There is no time in death, no space, no matter, no concepts of any kind, no mind—only a peaceful non-being, deeper than any sleep or meditation, so no risk of having to wake up.

Likewise, there is nothing to fear in life, though life is fettered with its ups and downs, its inconsistencies, its outrages constantly bombarding joy, because life is impermanent. “This too shall pass.” I can count on it: no matter how bad things get, it will end. I don't have to put up with life forever, and death is nothing to put up with.

Life and death are both beautiful states. In death I gain (or am) peace, and in life I have activity. Though death is an eternity, it is timeless, and so I won't be aware of it in human terms, just as I am not aware of how long I have slept. In life I have the impermanence that clothes joy and sorrow in perspective. Impermanence gives life a flavor, and life gives death meaning.

I am emptiness: death. I am awareness: life.  

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Awareness and Emptiness: The Real Me


I recently asked myself the question “What am I?”

The answer I came up with was two-fold. When I get down to the barest of possibilities I am Awareness and Emptiness. They are a sort of binary reality but the code is merely a representation of two sides of the same coin. They are the same.

Void manifested as Matter (physics may show this through theories such as the Big Bang and virtual particles forming spontaneously in a vacuum), and matter manifested as awareness (as can be seen by human consciousness arising naturally in nature), and awareness has the ability to manifest as emptiness (that state of meditation that leaves us empty of our preconceptions). Through emptiness humans are able to see their true nature, that they are Matter, and that Matter is Void.

Void = Matter = Awareness = Emptiness = Matter = Void

Each of these terms is one way of defining the others. We know what Matter is by the contrast of knowing what Void is and vice versa. Awareness and Emptiness are just two other terms for Matter and Void, for to be Aware is to be aware of Matter and to be Empty is to become like Void.

~*~

I am awareness.

I am an awareness of events, not my attempt to define or interpret events, which happen after and only to memories. I am no label, no preconception, no concept, no other identity. I am not my thoughts, nor am I others' thoughts about me.

When I push aside everything that is not absolutely necessary to my nature, all that I have left is my awareness, my consciousness.

Awareness does not exist where I have already mapped out what I intend the world to be. When I'm not really looking at a tree but thinking of my idea of what a tree should be.

Awareness can only exist in the present moment, and though it is always present, I may not be. I must empty myself first.

It is necessary for me to be Empty in order to be Aware, as Awareness flourishes when preconceptions don't exist, when I am free to observe without judging good and bad.

When I have grown empty, removing the excess me, I become aware of my ideas for what they are—chemical phenomenon. I still have thoughts, but I do not cling to them or judge them. I observe them as I observe external stimuli. I understand that memories are happening right now, not in the past. I am no longer identified with them, but let them go as quickly as they come or as soon as they wish to depart. The habit of thinking is gone, replaced by consciousness.

When I am empty, I am aware; when I am aware, I am empty.

~*~

My “self” is essentially “Emptiness” (also called Void, or Nothingness) and “Awareness” (or consciousness). They are Yin and Yang. The Universe itself can be viewed as Material and Vacuous. There is no in between, no “not Matter and not Void,” yet we shouldn't assume that Matter and Void are opposites. They are in fact One. Matter is a manifestation of Void. Awareness is a manifestation of Emptiness.

And so the way to get to Awareness, to be “me,” is to reduce conceptual thinking. I must empty myself of labels, concepts, expectations, and preconceptions in order to be “Empty” and “Aware.” Achieving this is as simple as breathing deeply from the abdomen.

In this Awareness I and the world cease to exist as an idea, but exist as a reality. I am not fixed to ideas, and so I am free. I am not influenced by external experiences because I am not judging or defining the world around me. This may go on for a split second, five minutes, weeks, or a lifetime. It depends on my level of focus on the simplest human activity, breath, no matter what other activity I am participating in.

This is being alive.

This is Satori.

Knowing this, can I waste a moment of my time on anything but awareness? When Awareness is all I am materially, and spiritually I am Emptiness, should I spend thoughts and emotions on things that I am not?

The labels I give myself, the labels society gives me, the labels family, friends, and coworkers give me, the judgments I cast on others—none of these concepts are worth a single moment. If I trade even a second of life for an “idea” of how the world is, in-lieu of what life actually is, naked, free, infinite, I am only a fool being hoodwinked by a robber.

The robber is me, but not the real me.

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Tao of Anxiety: Taoism and Anxiety


There was a time in my life when I was content to be “normal.” I worked, I socialized, and for the most part I lived in an unconscious vacuum. I did things out of habit, lived without thinking. If ignorance is bliss, I was happy. Except that I was wearing myself down. I noticed and ignored little things at first: small stresses.

At this time I experienced tension headaches and severe sciatica. It was harder to wake up in the mornings and to stay awake in the afternoons. I was always agitated. Instead of slowing up, I worked harder. I wore myself down. 

I thought my problems would go away, then the dam broke and my stress was finally too much to ignore. My panic attacks from earlier in life returned as I found myself in new and uncertain circumstances (having moved to another state), and for months I reeled from my phobias and anxiety.

I was forced to look into myself to figure out what was wrong, because nothing on the outside was helping. To me, this meant venturing on a spiritual path.

When I was 18 I stumbled upon Taoism. I lived in Florida by that time, was in counseling, but living in a cocoon. I had always had an inclination toward the spiritual, but my attempts at studying major religions like Buddhism and Hinduism were coming up short. Nothing I read—mostly commentary from modern practitioners—made sense to me or seemed practical at the time.

I needed to go to a source and I finally found it in a short book of poetry called the Tao Te Ching (the Way and its Power, written by Lao Tzu around 500 B.C.E.), the preeminent book of Taoism. Taoism was not a major religion—it has just 30,000 followers in North America, and only a couple of million throughout the world—but it was just what I needed at the time and what I continue to use today.

Taoism is a philosophy/psychology of ancient China brought to a small prominence in the West during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by scholars like Alan Watts, Huston Smith, and James Legge—the first translator of many Chinese works into English.

What immediately drew me to Taoism wasn't necessarily what the Tao Te Ching said, for I didn't understand much of what it was saying the first time I read it, but the sense of quiet peace that I fell into as I read it. This relaxed state was something I had never felt before, as if years of tension were released all at once and I was calm for the first time. Today, I can still pick up a copy of the Tao Te Ching and read it and experience this peace.

It was an easy jump from there to deciding to take up Taoism on a deeper level. Anything that made me feel calm, when finding calm was like finding the fountain of youth, must have been worth more than a cursory glance.

This put me on a journey to using Taoism as a way to cope with my panic and generalized anxiety disorders. In the coming years I have completely overcome generalized anxiety, something that was a great burden throughout my teenage years, and though I still have occasional panic attacks, I can shrug them off like so many dried leaves from a warm coat.

If the Tao Te Ching contains a theme, it is simply that the world is what the world is, and that instead of fighting against what happens to me, I should flow with it (this was new to me, as I had always fought against everything, making life a constant struggle). It took me years to verbalize this theme, but at the time I understood it intuitively.

The Tao, the way of the world, is often compared to or symbolized by water for water's ability to overcome hard objects by seeming passivity—though in reality water's virtue is that it does not give up or turn back, but seeks the easiest path against difficulties, never forcing its way through rock, but overcoming it in time to form great canyons.

As someone in a state of constant worry, this new worldview was enlivening. As I searched deeper into Taoism, studying Chuang Tzu (a near-contemporary of Lao Tzu) and Alan Watts (a twentieth century philosopher), I found more meaning and deeper explanations of what I was reading in the Tao Te Ching.

There were many stories and parables explaining what it was like to simply be. Chuang Tzu expresses the idea that we can live without outside influences effecting our emotional state of mind. This is not unlike Western cognitive psychology—except 2,000 years older. Reading and listening to Alan Watts, I learned to find unity with the world.

I realized that as a teenager I lived closed off from “others.” That I was living in a vacuum, where I could not connect and feel like I was part of anything. This lead eventually to my phobias, exacerbating my anxiety symptoms. What I found in Taoism was a way of life that desired unity—that went a step further and showed why unity was not only possible, but was the way of the world.

~*~

It's difficult to put it into words exactly how Taoism effects anxiety, because I “live” it more than I “think” it. It's a feeling, an intuition, and the right words are seldom there for me to describe the experience. But it has worked for me and continues to work for me today. I'm no longer a worry-wart, my anxiety attacks have all but vanished, and I hope that some day this will help me overcome my phobias.

But perhaps Taoism's advantage is not what it has given me itself, but how it has worked in tandem with cognitive psychology. It fits everything behavioral psychologists have to say about anxiety. As a tool alongside cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) Taoism is an excellent gift.

Each has given the other a different, fascinating perspective. I feel that, in light of Taoism, I understand CBT better; how it works, why it works, what it can accomplish for me. And in light of CBT I understand Taoism better; why the ancient Chinese latched onto it, and that it is an accurate and practical way of thought and life.




Further Reading:

Tao of Anxiety: Series



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Update and Second Novel

November 1 is getting closer and that was the date I had set to start working on the second novel of the Czar Chronicles. I really burned myself out writing the first novel in only a few months. Writing, rewriting, editing, and publishing it wore me out and it's taken a long time to recover, if I am recovered.

I think I'm ready to try again, with a few adjustments. I have a good idea of what I can and should expect from myself, and that does not include pushing myself through a crucible of fire just to get a novel finished.

This time around I'm taking a slower approach...but not a slow one.

Rising, the second novel of the Czar Chronicles, will, with consistent effort, be done and published by June 1, 2013. Whether life events or writer's block gets in the way won't matter. I will not rush it. If I'm not done by December of next year, so be it, but I won't stress myself out about it. A novel every two years is still an excellent goal to strive for.

I'm going to keep myself on track with a few short-term goals.

1 chapter a day.
5 chapters a week.
15 chapters a month.

And then 1 draft every two months.

What do I expect of myself during this period?

The first and most important thing is focus. I got sidetracked by a few things over the last year that I don't want to get sidetracked by again. While I work on Sacrifice, I want to work only on Sacrifice. No other projects, but a dedicated focus to the project at hand.

I will blog, but the majority of my posts will be about my novel, or writing in general and marketing.

I will work harder to market both Sacrifice and Rising. Hopefully I will find some courage to do an interview or two or a guest post here and there. The marketing I had been doing earlier this year really fell off the table, and I can't imagine I've made many sales since then. I do not feel that I'm doing myself, the writing, or anyone who might like to read either book justice by not getting my work out there the best that I can.

So for the next 8 months I'll be wearing my writer's cap. I'll be in writing mode. I'll do my thing.

Good luck to me, huh?

And good luck to anyone else going down this road. It's a lot of fun to write, and it's a big challenge to publish, but rewarding.

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Tao of Anxiety: Spiritual Theory


Anxiety, like a “check engine” light on a car's dash, is the body and mind's way of saying “fix me!”

But what is broken? Is it the mind? The body? Something in the spirit?

Anxiety may not be an illness in and of itself, but a symptom of another disease: a steep cultural division between self and other and the related contradiction of expectations we have for society and which society has for us.

This is a spiritual illness for which anxiety is not the only warning sign. Depression, anger, addiction, and boredom may all be symptoms of the same existential conflict.

And in the same way that one does not fix the light on the dashboard, but the engine, one must not focus on the anxiety, but on the underlining disunity of spirit.

Anxiety, then, is not only a physical or a psychological phenomenon. Meaning it cannot be treated only by a trained psychologist with drugs or behavioral therapies. It is a symptom of a deeper problem that must also be dealt with on a spiritual level.

In this view anxiety is a consequence of an individual being out of sync with his or her culture. American culture specifically (and Western culture in general) contradicts the human experience in many important ways. Americans have largely failed to evolve with technology, and the struggle between human need and technological consequences has created a chaos of the heart.

(An example of this is the automobile, which has destroyed the small, structured community by allowing for convenient long-distance travel. Instead of buying groceries at the corner market, we are now able to drive into other communities and shop with people we will never see again, communicating with no one as we would with familiar, local faces. Or in the way instant text messaging and emails have revolutionized communication. A quick and potentially ill-conceived response is always a text away, and “sleeping on it” is little more than a quaint, out-of-date phrase. Both technologies offer incredible advantages to people, but few are able to take advantage of them.)

Anxiety, be it phobias, generalized uneasiness, or panic attacks, may be a direct symptom of individual attempts and failures to thrive in a culture not built for humans to thrive as individuals.

Society is set up to thrive economically and materialistically, not spiritually and individually. Society serves to protect us, and to do so society must limit us as individuals, limiting the decisions we can make by adding rules (don't walk on the grass), largely to stop us from hurting ourselves or each other, but also from affecting society with random or erratic human behavior. We hear “be yourself, be original” but in no way does society allow for originality and self. Nurturing people has never been society's role.

There is a clear split between the needs of one man or woman and the needs of the 7,000,000,000 people on planet Earth. It is difficult to live in this duality, trying to please both our individual needs and those of the society in which we were born and raised, and the sacrifices we make to do so may be too much to live with for some people, as it causes a subtle but severe malfunction in the human brain.

It is like riding the break and accelerator of an automobile at the same time. The car may not go anywhere, or if it does, travels slowly, and soon breaks down altogether. The engine wants to go forward and the tires want to stop. The human soul wants to experience something unique, and the collective demands everything be the same, because it's difficult for something so large and unwieldy to handle even small changes. And so the marching orders are “Do what others are doing at any cost.”

How does one be “human” in such an inhuman world?

~*~

Anxiety is inevitable in such a world.

And so now we have advanced classifications to define fear. We can name dozens of specific phobias and disorders. But these are not new to the human psyche. Men and women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were swamped with uncertainty. Even in ancient times the sages of exotic lands dealt with the problem of human anxiety.

What worked for the ancient Chinese and Indians still works today.

A clear understanding of who we are as human beings makes way for the mind to function without clinging or being trapped by the concepts of society. To know what the self is is to know that external forces cannot influence it.

In the words of Lao Tzu: “The value of yourself lies within and is not affected by what happens externally.”

It is oft-repeated advice. In modern self-help books, in ancient spiritual texts. Ancient Taoists said we had no need to worry over loss or gain, good luck or bad. Jesus said that God would take care of us just as He took care of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Modern behavioral psychologists with Ph.D.'s tell us to believe in ourselves.

In other words, to not worry about what others think, to not focus on uncomfortable projections of how the world ought to be, to not care about what we might do, but to instead do what we want and to do it well. To live in the moment and connect fully with who we are right now.

To do this it is necessary to accept a simple fact. What society wants is merely an illusion. It's not real and cannot address every person's individual needs. Ignore the illusion and find the real stuff which makes life. The self operates by the heart, by instinct and intuition. Society operates on assumptions. Trust that individually we know better than the “whole” knows. That a united One is always more powerful and capable than a divided Two.

~*~

We must judge ourselves by a constant, not by the concept of self given to us by the ever-changing labels of our society, or our own self-identification.

What we are does not depend on what happens to us or what we do in life, on our attachments or who we think we are relative to others. When we stop identifying with outside forces, or with what we expect of ourselves, and we come to reside in our true self—that which exists when every label and expectation has been stripped away—there's nothing left to fear. There's nothing left to lose. Worry ceases because there's no longer anything for it to dwell on. The mind is free by the virtue of being empty, of being nothing.

Then we begin to realize that all along we were afraid of outside things changing parts of us that were not really ourselves, but just more projections of outside things. We were using the unsteady yardstick of imagination to measure who we were, relative to yet more things that could not hold a form and remain steady. When we focused on these things they inevitably vanished, disintegrating like mirages.

Embracing a spiritual path (any spiritual path) that will take us to the real, true self, is a certain way of troubleshooting anxiety in all its forms, because once we understand what that real self is, and can reside inside of it, or allow it to manifest itself in our thoughts and actions, we can accept society for what it is and no longer fight against it. 

By understanding who we are, we no longer have to treat society's power over the individual as a threat, because in no way can society ever destroy or damage our true self. We can then work with society instead of fear it. We can bridge the duality, the gap between self and other, and gain a new perspective on reality.

Until then we must live with the dread of an infinite tomorrow.




Further Reading:

Tao of Anxiety: Series



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Tao of Anxiety: Lifestyle Factors, Part I


Certain lifestyle factors can aggravate anxiety, increasing the duration and intensity of panic attacks, and can even influence the way we think, increasing phobias and generalized anxiety.

For people with moderate anxiety, or occasional worry, implementing lifestyle changes may be all that is needed to live an anxiety- or worry-free life. For those who suffer from severe anxiety, who need professional counseling and drug therapy, these same lifestyle factors are not cures in and of themselves, but are no less helpful.

I will focus on negative lifestyle factors in Part I—on our bad habits which lead to increased stress. You may find that avoiding these factors are beneficial for people without anxiety as well, and for people with depression.

Stress

Stress is a general cause of anxiety and panic attacks. Each topic in this post is an example of a stressor, be it drugs, poor diet, the way we think about others and ourselves, conflict, or emotional and physical isolation.

Not dealing with stressful events as they occur leads to a buildup of stress over weeks, months, or years. This chronic stress causes illnesses, mood swings, and unpredictable behavior, further compounding life's troubles.

Though stress should not be (nor can it be) avoided at all costs, it's good to have a way of coping with the stress, and avoiding what stress we can do without. Being aware of stress's role in life can be a big first step. Knowing the difference between avoidable stress (having a disorganized schedule) and unavoidable stress (a death in the family) is important.

What follows deals with avoidable stress. Avoiding these things in our lives can go a long way to reducing or even curing anxiety.


Drugs

Drugs like alcohol and tobacco give people a false sense of security. The first drink or smoke can make us feel good, take away feelings of stress and apprehension, but the more someone self-medicates with drinking and smoking the more they play “catch up” as the body craves another drink or smoke.

Addiction is a see-saw between feeling a high and being in withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms are similar to panic and anxiety symptoms and so an alcoholic or smoker who is dealing with an anxiety disorder may not realize the difference.

The chemical compounds in alcohol and tobacco are also detrimental. Nicotine in cigarettes acts as a stimulant, much like the caffeine in coffee or chocolate. Alcohol can quickly dehydrate the body, causing hang-over symptoms which can feel like the pounding headache and churning stomach of a severe panic attack.


Unhealthy Diets

Poor diet negatively effects our moods and increase anxiety, especially foods high in sugar and chemical additives.

Sugar (and other processed carbohydrates) is digested quickly, and just as quickly used by the body, resulting in a quick high and an even quicker crash. Many people who consume large amounts of candy or soda are familiar with these mood swings. But instead of avoiding sugar, most people remedy the crash by eating again, and the cycle repeats itself.

Overeating can also mimic panic attack symptoms like uncomfortable bloating, upset stomachs, heartburn, and headaches. Some people have trigger foods like greasy pizza or milk. Chemicals like MSG in processed foods can cause migraines. Other food additives like artificial sugars can increase appetite, leading to even more sugar intake. An unhealthy diet can lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, creating even more instability and anxiety.

A majority of my own panic attacks have come during or shortly after a meal, and controlling my diet has been one of the most effective means of controlling my anxiety.


Sedentary Lifestyles

Exercise and anxiety medications have something in common. Serotonin. Serotonin makes us feel happy, but when we sit and watch TV all day, unless we're taking a healthy dose of drugs, we're probably lacking this one vital neurotransmitter.

Watching TV and playing video games has been linked to increased feelings of uneasiness, and when we sit for long periods of time we're also more likely to get bored and eat, or dwell on negativity. Sitting too much also depresses the immune system and a slew of other hormones and bodily activities.

A lack of activity also impacts self-esteem. Few people can gain confidence on a couch.


Pessimism

If life were a race, it would be smart of us to begin at the start/finish line with the rest of the runners.

Having a pessimistic outlook on life means starting a mile behind where we're supposed to. By the time we catch the other runners, assuming we even do, we've come farther than we had to, and worked harder than necessary, because we were holding ourselves back. And the other racers—life's challenges—have the edge on us.

With pessimism it's hard for us to overcome obstacles, or to even think clearly about life and what we're doing in it. How this effects those with anxiety disorders is simple: pessimism gives us every reason to give up and not finish what we've started or hope to one day accomplish—healing.


Conflict

Some conflict is unavoidable, like a project that must be finished immediately, or a major illness in the family. But much of the conflict we face in life comes in the form of drama. Life's drama is conflict that is not dependent on others or life circumstances. This is drama we create for ourselves.

People who gossip, treat others rudely, or lose their tempers and lash out at friends and loved ones only make their anxiety worse by creating unnecessary tension in all of their activities and social interactions. It is important to understand that when we are rude and harsh to others, we will not be treated well by them. But when we are kind to others, we can generally expect others to be kind in return.

It can be very difficult to know when the problem is us or someone else, but typically if it's happening a lot, across many relationships, we're likely the ones to blame—and the only ones who can fix us.

It is far easier to heal in a happy, relaxed atmosphere than in a chaotic and tense one. Building relationships based on kindness instead of treachery is vital.


Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a common cause of generalized anxiety and feelings of uneasiness. When it comes right down to it, what bothers many people most is a feeling of lack of control which contradicts a strong, inborn need to have things work out perfectly.

We want everything to go right on the first day of school or work, but there's an uncertainty that it won't, and so we worry. We worry when anything may turn out less than perfect. We fret over the cooking, over the kids, over neighbors and coworkers. We fret when life isn't perfectly in our control.

But life doesn't have to be perfect to be happy, fulfilling, and fun.


Isolation

The last item speaks specifically to those with Social Anxiety Disorder and Agoraphobia. In the face of phobias the first instinct is to hide, but isolating oneself is counterproductive. The intuitive feeling of running away from what we feel is harmful is wrong precisely because it is just a feeling.

In reality unfamiliar social situations (like driving a car, going to school or work, or talking on a telephone) may be nerve-racking, but they are not dangerous, and so do not require the same response as meeting a predator in the wild would require, which is to run and hide.

Because there is no real, valid threat, isolation not only fails, but often results in the exact opposite of what we need to cope with life. Isolation can lead to an increased phobia by entrenching us in our comfort zone. And when dealing with a phobia, or even worry, the best tactic is to grow, not collapse, even if growth happens slowly.




Further Reading:

Tao of Anxiety: Series



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The Road Less Traveled By


I have my shit together 99% of the time, so to speak. But there's always one day that seems to unravel all I've worked for. Months and sometimes years of effort is washed away by a bad decision, by an unlucky break, or by an unleashed coil of frustration.

Sometimes there is a reason for what happens, sometimes there isn't. There's always a lesson involved, yet the learning experiences come and go and never stave off that next awful day.

Sometimes it's an illness or an injury. Other times it's the loss of a friendship. The death of a loved one. Or it's our inability to get out of our own way, to stop and think before we act.

At moments like these it feels as if all's for naught. Hopelessness sets in, reality turns dark gray. Why go on? Why work hard or do what is right when one bad day can ruin everything?

These are watershed moments. When live diverges, when we have a choice to make. To not care, or to grow. I have certainly had my moments when I caved, when I didn't care enough to try to go forward. Nothing was ever won, and I never tasted satisfaction. My life has turned out okay despite that, but I will always wonder what could have been.

For some things I refuse to wonder. I must know.

I'm getting older. I'm growing more aware. When faced with these watershed moments I no longer wish to not care. I want to stand up and take the challenge.

If it means I have to grow emotionally, I'll do it. I'll stretch my comfort zones like matter in the early Universe stretched space.

I don't have to give up. I can push through. I know what I want, and I know what I have to make myself do to get it.

But all before me is uncertainty. What am I to do with that? Uncertainty is inevitable when a single road diverges. We can be on a path for so long that it's grown quite comfortable. To turn either left or right is to drive away from the known.

Sometimes two people carry along together on that path and find they need to go in separate directions.

One path may be quite ordinary, and yet to go that way is to lose a traveling partner.

The other path may require the loss of the self.

In the end the decision hinges on a question. Who is more important? Self? Other?

Will we stay on the road we know will be most safe to the self? (Sheltered, protected, hidden away.)

Or will we venture the other way, risking self for someone else? (Risk, vulnerability.)

I have spent 25 years of my life living for myself, living scared, close to the vest, conservatively. It's had its advantages and has contained some hidden treasures, but I've outgrown its usefulness.

It's time for me to step outside of myself and live for someone else for a change. To be aware of others as I have always been aware of myself.

Spiritually this means something very straight-forward, if not simple. To realize the Cosmos' oneness isn't to see others as self, but to see self as others.

I do not believe that it matters then that we choose the path that requires the loss of self. Self can always be redefined. It's not possible to go back in time and live life over.

Don't be afraid to sacrifice something of who you are to lift up the person or people you love. Be something bigger than you. Be another.

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Tao of Anxiety: Search for Acceptance


In this post I'm shifting back into a personal perspective. I wish to shed light on something I face as I deal with social anxiety disorder, and at the same time justify myself as a person.

I can cope with panic attacks. I can work through uncomfortable situations. What I've largely failed to deal with is the guilt I feel because I cannot do what others can, and the question of whether or not friends and family will help me up if I fall too far behind.

If I can't hold a job or go to college, will my family give up on me? Will my friends abandon me? Will my girlfriend of six years leave me?

This isn't a confidence issue. I feel that I am a worthwhile human being, that I can add value to others' lives, that I can pull my own weight and not be a burden to others even if I can't do certain things. Yet my own expectations don't fit the cue card society has given me. I also feel a nagging sensation that others are expecting more from me—more than I can possibly give at this time.

Holding a job and going to school, driving, flying, talking on a phone, all of these activities and more are not only doable for most people, but are required. These are things that I can't do without weeks or months of preparation, or more. Not because I'm lazy, but because I freeze before I can start. My mind literally shuts off because I am phobic. It's the only way my brain can deal with an overwhelming situation.

I want to be me without the controversy. I don't want this contradiction between my nature and others' expectations for me, yet it's there, and I can't escape it anymore than I can escape panic attacks. I don't want to be unable to speak on a phone because I get tongue-tied, but I also don't want to be looked down upon because I can't be “normal,” or like everyone else.

I've begged, and I've pleaded, but I feel that I've failed to convince people that even if I am a phobic toward most things social, it's still worth having me around. At least I don't feel that I can rest on being accepted—that if I fail, I'll still be loved and wanted.

I imagine myself homeless in the years to come. Yet that's not even the worst case scenario. To me, doing what people expect of me is more difficult (at least in my mind) than losing everyone I know and love. That seems to be the decision I face.

As a phobic, I cling to the comfort zones I've built for myself. It's easier to have anxiety than it is to face the world. It's easier to be alone than shove my way through a crowd. It's easier to have nothing than it is to take risks to get more than what I need.

I know other people can relate to this. One doesn't need to have a phobia or even an anxiety disorder to understand what it's like to fear success and failure. I'm preaching to the choir when I say that leaving our comfort zones can be one of the toughest decisions we can make.

Something that helps me through some of these feelings is my spiritual practices. Listening to Alan Watts and Ram Dass, studying the writings of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and Hsin Hsin Ming, among other sages. I'm slowly working toward a worldview that encompasses all things as one thing. A connection, not a division between myself and others. Because of this practice, I have grown more comfortable with myself in social settings—less self-conscious.

Yet there is a paradox involved with this that I understand, but feel others won't want to understand. Despite my enlightened realizations, which “should” get rid of my anxiety completely, I also realize that my panic attacks and phobias are also part of this oneness. As Ram Dass would put it, my social anxiety disorder is the melodrama I'm living. I have to accept it, or live in constant conflict with myself.

I know this to be true, because when I say to myself “Okay, I have an anxiety disorder, that's all right,” much of my fear, self-doubt, and self-consciousness evaporates. It's like going into the center of a fire to escape the heat of the flames. Yet it doesn't dissolve my phobias. It makes them more manageable, yes, especially as I am thinking of this, but once I stop thinking and go on with my life, I slip back into my accustomed habits and fear. It really seems as though this is who I am and it's not changeable.

I feel like I can and have accepted that, but will others? Am I going to have to continue to contradict society to be myself, push against others constantly? “I can't do this, I can't do that, but accept me for who I am?”

Acceptance is such a large part of social phobias and panic disorders. Speaking with people with anxiety, I get the feeling that the root cause is an existential split between self and other, and self and self. Anxiety is, at its core (at least on a philosophical level, if not psychologically), an attempt to escape oneself, a denial of one's nature, an attempt to swim against the current. It's a constant war against life as it is, a craving for a life how it's viewed by a distorted ego. And because our expectations never pan out, we with anxiety must continuously face failed expectations. It's tough.

This is why merely accepting myself and my anxiety helps so much. But this doesn't seem to help the split between self and other. The extreme self-consciousness that puts us at odds against all the people we meet. Add distorted thoughts to the mix, and we must always be on guard. “Will they laugh at us? What if I mess this up? I really am not as good as others, so I shouldn't even try. What if I get sick, get lost, or get hurt? What if I screw up and hurt someone else?”

The failure of others to accept me as I am plays right into the hands of this self doubt. It seems to prove all of my worst fears. And yet all of this is nothing more than a mind game, a game which I wish to drop as soon as I can figure out how to.

My hope is that others can drop the game as soon as I do. Maybe they are not playing the game that I am playing, and all of this is in my head? Maybe when I learn to loosen up and relax, it'll rub off on them? Maybe I'll finally find a way to explain this to them? Maybe it won't matter anymore, because I'll be cured of my phobias and all will be moot?

Or maybe I will be a phobic for the rest of my life. Can I be a happy phobic? Can I live a semi-normal life? Can I be married, have kids, and be a productive member of society despite not working or having any sort of education? Do I even deserve these things if I can't pull the same weight others pull?

It's a real mess, and it doesn't make anxiety easier—it makes things infinitely more difficult. And I have no answers for these feelings.

I have nothing but to move forward and hope things work out for the best. To accept the one truth of life, that it is an uncertainty.




Further Reading:

Tao of Anxiety: Series



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Taoism and Football


My beloved but sucky Dolphins lost on Sunday. I wasn't surprised by that, because I knew Houston has our number, but I was disappointed by the catastrophe that was the end of the second quarter. I was hoping for a more competitive game.

But I've been thinking about the loss, bad teams, and sports in general.

Houston fans are pretty stoked after Sunday. Their team played great—doing what they needed to do to win—and the fans get to celebrate for a week.

Sports is entertainment. Objective fans hope for nothing more than a competitive game. I am not a fan of Denver or Pittsburgh (though I love Peyton Manning), but I was very happy after Sunday night's game between these two teams because it was a close, exciting game. I got what, as a fan, I hoped for.

And I can relate to Steelers' fans. My team lost, too. There is no upside to losing. It hurts. Period.

Yet I realized something interesting. In order for one team to win, the other team obviously has to lose, but teams that lose play a vital role in sports. The Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns, perennial losers, are just as important to the game of football as the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, perennial winners.

Enter Taoism.

To have a positive, you must have a negative that coincides with it for contrast, or you really have no way of knowing what you're seeing. Alan Watts described this phenomenon well by comparing a hand placed against a white, blank background. The background gives birth to the hand because it is different from it, and vice versa. Another great analogy for this is the magnet. It has a positive and negative, but neither is better than the other, and for a magnet to exist at all it must contain both charges. 

Positive and negative, up and down, good and bad, and winners and losers are neutral ideas until humans start tossing expectations around. “People should be good. My team should have won that game.”

In football, we root for the winners, but if we didn't have the losers, there would be no game!

And so I contented myself this week knowing that my team at least made a good portion of Texas happy. At least someone is happy.

To lose is a virtue. It means that we've given someone else an opportunity to win, and with that comes celebration and elation.

No one remembers the losers, but they're at least as much a part of the game as the winners are. They are bonded. Inseparable.

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Tao of Anxiety: Healing Phobias, Part II


Even as there are effective treatments for phobias, some treatments fail, slow recovery, or even hold sufferers back.

Not committing to CBT or exposure therapy consistently is counterproductive, making it difficult to capitalize on the gains made during each session. Practicing exposure therapy once a month simply won't be efficient to desensitize most people from their phobia. Two or three or more times a week is recommended. The more often CBT is practiced, the more results we can expect.

Negative environments (not having supportive family and friends, or having critical or abusive family and friends) are extremely detrimental to the recovery process. Some people are very strong and can plow through the negativity and recover despite it, but most people will find that this negativity slows them down, stops their progress completely, or is actually making their anxiety worse—or is its cause.

Though finding new friends or leaving home can be very difficult, for those who have this option it's important for more than their emotional well-being to do so. We are the company we keep, and if we choose to keep good company instead of bad company, we clear many obstacles that once blocked our life goals. Positive people wear off on us, help us grow, and make life much more bearable. Likewise, we pick up the habits of negative people and become negative.

~*~

The next two deal with the treatment of phobias, and is a warning to those who may not want to take a whole approach to healing. Each of these is beneficial when paired with CBT, but as separate tools, rarely stand up by themselves.

Talk Therapy

For years I was involved in talk therapy, the most common therapy for depression and anxiety. It never helped me, and often confused me more as it brought up a lot of difficult emotions that my short sessions or switching doctors never resolved.

Looking back I see how futile this method was. Discussing why I had anxiety, or why I was depressed didn't help me because it was focused on what had already happened, whereas the depression and anxiety were happening right now. Talk therapy was great for knowing why I was the way I was, which was useful later on when I started CBT, but I missed out on the most effective coping strategies during my talk sessions.

There is no way of measuring talk therapy's effectiveness—if it is effective at all. With CBT, especially when exposure therapy is used, because I was actually doing something, learning and practicing coping mechanisms, I could write down and observe my progress in relation to the activities I performed. I could then set goals for myself, and observe what was working and what wasn't. But using only talk therapy I had no way of setting individual and short-term goals, and no way of tracking my daily or weekly progress.

If it doesn't work, why is talk therapy still so popular? Because it is convenient. It allows patients, if they wish, to talk about their feelings openly without fear of criticism. Many talk therapists do not challenge their patients, and so there relationship becomes non-confrontational. For those who just want to be heard, this is perfect.

Medication

I was medicated for most of my teens. I took Paxil and Zoloft for years, yet neither medication helped me overcome my phobias—some of my phobias grew significantly worse.

Medication does one thing: it relaxes us enough so that we may feel comfortable. Stronger medications like Xanax and Valium are more effective, but are also highly addictive and potentially dangerous. What medications do not do is give us the motivation we need to take advantage of these relaxed states.

Relying on medication alone failed to cure my phobias because it could not give me the motivation or confidence a good therapist using an effective CBT program could. Yet coupled with CBT, medication can get sufferers through difficult situations, helping to build confidence and motivation. But eventually for the sufferer to test his or her progress, it will be necessary to taper off meds and go through exposure therapy without this aid.

I chose to stop medication and live pill free because I wasn't comfortable with their side effects, and I knew that to be fully healed I would have to do the things I wanted to do without their help. For people who are comfortable taking pills, medication can make a profound difference in their recovery, but even then medications should not be relied on completely, or be treated as a cure-all.

Just like with talk therapy, taking medications is convenient. Drug companies tout their medications, but it's rarely ever mentioned that pills work best when coupled with CBT. And in our world of instant gratification, people hoping for a quick recovery can easily be swayed by the belief that meds alone can cure us, though this is rarely true.

~*~

In the end phobias are complicated events, but getting over them can be as simple or as complicated as a sufferer wants to make it. With a little motivation one can begin taking slow and planned steps to recovery, building confidence with each small achievement. Though talk therapy and medication are not cures in and of themselves, they can, when part of a CBT and exposure therapy program, help bring understanding and relaxation to the process, further bolstering confidence.

Recovery does not need to be overnight. All that is necessary is moving by inches, until finally the sufferer looks back and sees miles have gone between.




Further Reading:

Tao of Anxiety: Series



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