Archive for the 'Mental health' Category

Patience

Jackie and I are enrolled in a Mussar class. It’s a Jewish spiritual practice that focuses on living a meaningful life.

Human traits like humility and patience are studied to see how we stack up. We get tools that include readings, meditation, journaling, and instruction, all designed to challenge and improve ourselves. Or at least understand what might be standing in our way. Accompanying humility and patience in this parade of traits are the usual ones, gratitude, silence, and generosity. Others are a bit more obtuse, like order and equanimity.

Mussar was developed in Lithuania as a group enterprise in the 1800’s. Many of the writings included come from the pens of Rabbis living then and earlier. Adopting Mussar means a lifetime of study leading to awareness, wisdom, and transformation.

In my case, I’ll be lucky to get through the next six weeks.

Our Mussar classmates number 10, nearly all are members of our temple. We meet via Zoom every two weeks and spend two hours discussing this week’s trait. The alternate weeks are devoted to private study and meetings with our team partner. My teammate is Jackie.

It can be administratively complex, and I spend way too much time trying to keep my traits straight. For example, we could be knee-deep in humility while prepping for patience. Or was it the other way around?

In one of the exercises, I pick a point on a scale that identifies how I rate myself on a given trait. For example, regarding humility, am I humble or more like Vladimir Putin? But am I so humble that I’m apathetic, or do I hog the limelight like Donald Trump?

Patience has two faces. It can mean how long you’ll wait for a bus on an ice-cold morning on a Chicago street corner before throwing yourself into oncoming traffic. Or it can mean how well you accept an irreversible outcome without liking it, like the trip to the hospital after you’ve been hit by that silent Tesla.

I’ve always thought of myself as a patient person. At least on the outside. I sit in library foundation board meetings, hoping for the end of time. I remain respectful but occasionally find myself muttering silently while others happily contribute their thoughts to the festivities. Age probably has something to do with it. Like my irreversibly thinning skin that belies my 82 years, my tolerance has its limits.

My eyes scan the room and I often wonder what others are thinking; are they as impatient as I am? Why doesn’t some colleague say, “Ok, that’s enough. We shouldn’t even be discussing this trivial item, much less interfering with my TV schedule. Let’s move on.” And then I think, why am I not saying this? Is it an overabundance of patience? Am I alone in my reverie? Or am I just a wuss?

I watch the meeting room wall clock move so slowly that I think an evil deity has made it run backwards. I calculate the time remaining before the meeting’s scheduled conclusion and worry that there is too much to cover in the remaining minutes. As we get closer to closure, I begin to congratulate myself for lasting this long without saying anything disruptive. I maintain my composure…and then, having reached my biblical limit, I react by saying something that I will regret immediately after I’ve said it.

One of Mussar’s tactics in dealing with a lack of patience, and the spewing of regretful thoughts, is to widen the space between anticipating your upcoming impatience and the actual act itself. This time-out provides a theoretical buffer zone in which one can reconsider doing something stupid. This tactic, however, also requires patience. It can lead to years of rabbinic study in a quest to solve this conundrum. The product of that study then leads to more study and consequentially an increase in required rabbinic patience.

But we are not all Rabbis. I demonstrated this fact last Sunday as Jackie and I worked on our taxes. Until our marriage, Jackie used a local bookkeeping service to record her monthly transactions and complete her tax returns. I had originally thought, “How much work can that be? My stuff surely is more voluminous and certainly more complex.”

I was wrong on both counts. Multiple employers, renting her house, and singlehandedly raising the GNP with the purchase of a myriad of personal care products and services, proved challenging.

I had lots of questions. I began to feel the pressure of meeting the IRS filing deadline. I used my new Mussar patience tactic and widened the space between anticipation and action. I silently analyzed my situation and quietly began with, “Sweetheart, I hate to interrupt your cell phone conversation about your girlfriend’s marital woes, but could you please tell me what this charge is for? I would be ever so grateful.”

As the call droned on and the unanswered questions mounted, my patience buffer zone grew smaller. Like the library clock on the wall, I had reached my allotted patience time. And I said, “If you would only stop yakking with your neurotic girlfriend, I could finish this inquisition and get back to playing my ukulele. I’ve got a life too, ya know.”

Wrong. Definitely not in the Mussar playbook. Like the speed of light, I instantly regretted what I had said. Especially the “ya know.”

So, I did the only thing I could do.

I humbled myself. A lot.

Dream away…

in my dreams I imagine the same things that lunatics imagine when awake…Rene Descartes 

I’m a big dreamer. It happens every night, usually a few hours before I wake for the last time.

I say last time because I fall asleep easily, enjoy five hours of bliss, and wake around 3am. I make a trip to the bathroom and return to bed feeling like I can go right back to sleep. Wishful thinking.

The next three hours of relative sleeplessness include meditative breathing. I take a few deep breaths, then return to normal while focusing on my breath. It often works and I fall back to sleep, except it doesn’t last. But I’ll take what I can get.

Thinking about an enjoyable experience often does the trick. I’m on a fly-fishing trip with my son David. I’m wearing waders and casting a surface fly. I see the flow of the water in the stream, the weightless fly resting on the surface, and the over-sized trout grabbing it. I see the line peel from the reel as the fish runs. He stops and gives up. I see the fish in the net and David cradling it. I see him remove the microscopic fly from the trout’s mouth. I see the fish swim away. I smile. It works, sometimes.

I like sleeping on my right side. Second place goes to my left. I hardly ever fall asleep on my back although I occasionally find myself there when I wake. It feels good as I lay on my side, but the comfort doesn’t last as I feel the mattress inevitably resist. I shift my position and hope I can sleep before I need to do it again.

Time seems to move quickly in the dark. I stare at the overbright clock by the bedside. It’s 3am and then, in what seems like a few minutes, it’s 4am. I think it’s because I don’t realize that I really am asleep. Not a deep sleep. More of a muddled sleep. One where I think about things. Things that trouble me. Things that seem more troubling than they will be when I fully wake. Stupid things about which I will scold myself and promise never to do it again. But, of course, I do.

It’s in those few hours before dawn that my dreams happen. Dreams that have people who are unknown to me, and others that are too well known. People who are kind, and some who are not.

Dreams that are happy and sometimes sexy. Others that cause me to wake in a sweat, toss the covers from my overheated body, breathe hard, and be glad that it was just a dream.

Dreams that I can only vaguely recall, and others that stay with me most of the day.

Dreams that others have too. I didn’t study for the test. Can’t find my way home.

Dreams I can’t decipher. Others that are far too meaningful.

Jackie says most of my unpleasant dreams display my anxiety. In the extreme, feelings of fear, dread, and uneasiness. Anxiety caused by repeating the past, or uncertainty about the future.

A single night can bring two dreams without a commercial break.

No two dreams are precisely the same, but many share the same message.

Rare ones, doled out miserly over the years, have me flying about twenty feet off the ground, admiring the landscape. It is so real that when I wake, I wonder if it was. Or maybe I was Tinkerbell.

It’s the bad ones that make me wish I was more like Ila, who claimed she never had dreams. As M.C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist, said, “I don’t use drugs. My dreams are frightening enough.”

We dream several times every night; it’s a normal part of healthy sleep. It’s shown to be connected to better cognitive function and emotional health. It’s also reputed to produce more effective thinking and better memory retention. Sometimes, dreams make a lot of sense while others do not.

Last night I was a voyeur. It was like watching a movie at the Century 10 in Ventura; the only thing missing was popcorn. There was a grassy field with a hole in the ground, maybe an abandoned well. A man was stuck about twenty feet from the surface. His arms were at his side, and he could not move them. People stood around the hole and yelled encouragement. As though on cue, I joined the scene entering from from stage-left. I suggested we drill another hole next to the first one. Someone could descend to the same level as the stuck man, dig horizontally and pull the unlucky man into the new hole. And then my dream ended.

I did not feel rested, nor did my cognitive functions improve.

But I did wonder if the man ever made it out of the hole.

Starvation Palace…part 2

“Eat. Don’t lose any more weight. You skinny bones.”

Those harsh but loving words came from Jackie’s sweet lips to my floppy ears as we prepared for our nearly four-hour trip to the Optimum Health Institute.

Fifteen minutes from the heart of San Diego, OHI is the last bastion of greenery in a god-forsaken hodge-podge of garbage trucks, big box outlets, and 99 Cents stores. The single-family homes on Central Avenue verge on extinction, yet command stratospheric prices in this overheated real estate market.

Once caring for mental patients, the buildings on the OHI campus have been converted to housing those who seek rest, a spiritual mantra, the elimination of poor dietary habits, and a cleansing of every crack and crevice in your body, abetted by daily colonics.

The rooms are a cut above those found in a Dickens’ orphanage. A bed, dresser, small desk, and a comfy stuffed chair round out the opulent furnishings. Ventilation is provided by the Motel 6 variety of appliance, generating adequate cooling and heating if you can stand the noise.

Two sides of the complex are exposed to unending freeway noise. The other two sides provide entertainment for  maniacal Central Avenue hotrodders who were not paid enough attention to while in the reformatory, and the barking family dog who sounds like he wants to eat, preferably something human.

To maintain the pristine nature of the complex while Covid runs amuck, the institute frowns on anyone leaving the premises during confinement. Periodic spit tests assure the guests of the purity of the other campers. Gates keep people out but can be easily breeched upon entry if one can pass the famous ten questions beginning with “Have you…”. Forehead temperature is taken with a device that Fox News says may inject a microchip in your frontal lobe.

Hiking trails are foreign to this environment. Daily exercise may be had on campus, but Jackie prefers 24 Hour Fitness a mile from it. Not to miss the exhilaration of a daily hike, a brisk walk beginning on Central Avenue substitutes for the real thing. Alternating between cracked concrete, no concrete and asphalt in need of sealcoating, we parade in front of the homes and their blood-thirsty dogs, make a left on Massachusetts Avenue avoiding drivers who never heard of California’s pedestrian rights, and end the first leg of our trip at Walgreens.

 The presence of Walgreens, CVS and Rite-Aid only 500 feet apart attests to the power of the drug cartel and its influence on our daily lives. Chevron, Shell and a No-Name gas station wave flags announcing budget busting per-gallon prices that once were per-tank prices.  McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Chic Filet provide everything else needed for a happy, healthy existence.

We shade our eyes to avoid the temptation of El Pollo Loco and continue our loopy hike up Central Avenue. We arrive back at the OHI gates where Andrew dutifully takes our temperature to be sure we have not acquired the dreaded virus in the sixty minutes since our departure from the campus.

Food occupies much of our thoughts and our conversations with other deprived souls throughout the day. A detox diet that Mother Theresa would be proud of is designed to eliminate the nasties that have taken up residence in the dark shadows of our gut. Stimulants, fats, flour, sugar, and salt are banished for the duration of our visit. Oils are unseen except in the form of an occasional sliver of blessed avocado.

Raw vegetables are plentiful and plainly identifiable on our plate. Other raw vegetables are occasionally disguised as something else (like Kosher bacon) but always fail the taste test. Cooked foods are shunned as anything heated over 105 degrees is declared dead and of little use in delivering vital nutrients.

The affable kitchen staff enjoys a respite during the middle three days of our visit, as our nutrition is solely vegetable juice. Unfortunately, the variety of these juices is limited to green or red. Of course, you can mix the two and produce one that is sort of brown. I’m particularly fond of doing this since it reminds me of my mother who used to mix red and green Jello to produce an interesting dessert.

A cornucopia of spices is available to flavor our juice but except for cayenne powder seem to have little effect on taste. We can have as much juice as we want. A cucumber slice or one cherry tomato often garnishes each serving. Having several glasses can leave the impression that you’ve had a salad. I particularly like the cherry tomato option since it reminds me of the martini stuffed olives that I have sacrificed on the detox altar.

Being somewhat emaciated, I can’t afford to lose weight while prancing around OHI. As a result, I augment the detox regimen with bananas and organic peanut butter purchased clandestinely at the nearby Sprouts grocery. Without this dietary supplement, I’d soon look like Alec Guinness emerging from the Japanese confinement shed in The Bridge Over the River Kwai. I feel guilty doing this but my death from starvation at OHI would surely put a crimp in their public relations program.

When I’m not eating, I attend classes about eating as though this will fill my belly. I really like the one on fermented foods, like sauerkraut and dill pickles. It offers a glimpse of the world of microbes running wild in my gut. Living inside every person are trillions of microorganisms — bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other life forms. And eating sauerkraut keeps them carefree and happy as they munch their way through my colon.

And speaking of colons… OHI’s detox arsenal includes optional colonics. Those of us who were members of the Mickey Mouse Club and watched The $64,000 Question, probably remember that brown rubber bag and hose hanging on a hook on your parents’ bathroom door. That enema of old has been replaced by a more high-tech version with the same objective, complete with an infusion of wheat grass juice. What?

So, I bet you’re wondering, “Why does he spend a week at OHI when he could be anywhere else?”

You might also ask why he’s done it six times.

Or why he’s thinking about doing it again?

And I’d say, “Good question.”

Scenic-less

Floyd and Dan were here for a few days installing a new window in our bedroom. The room is big, but it has a scarcity of glass. Entering this unappealing space seemed as though I was being committed to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in a cell that was both dimly lit and uninviting. My only companion, Edmond Dantes.

We considered installing skylights to perk up things. That plan met an early demise when we were told that the attic heating system would require movement to another planet. Serious rafter work would also be needed to accommodate the skylight shafts that would begin with a hole in the roof and end ten feet later in the ceiling. Visualizing an effort akin to construction of China’s Great Wall, we sadly abandoned the project.

Jackie was the catalyst for the new window. Lying in bed in the early morning hours often brings her to wistfully say, “I loved your old house on the hill. I’d wake up in the morning and look through the large windows where I could see the sunrise and the oak covered hills. Sometimes I never wanted to get out of bed.” An appealing picture, I thought.

The only view of the outdoors visible from our current bed was through a sliding glass door. Located in the corner of the room, the door permitted an unspectacular view of the underside of the patio cover. A miniscule glimpse of blue sky required a neck wrenching, shoulder lifting movement that often resulted in taking the fallback position of being satisfied with the patio cover. We regularly imagined what might lay beyond if we were only permitted to see it. Even then, a glimpse of the Edison utility pole and the backyard wooden fence would scarcely match the visual gifts we had enjoyed living up on the hill.

Views may seem like just a nice thing to have, however, professionals at the Warwick Business School in Coventry, England have concluded that views have a medical benefit as well…

Scientists have discovered that people feel healthier when they live and look out over scenic areas.

Yet don’t worry if you are a townie. Research shows the same theory is true for those living in suburban and even inner- city areas.

Even the amount of green you perceive across the landscape is not vital to get the scenic effect. Seeing browns, blues and greys across an urban view – perhaps a suggestion of mountains and lakes – also seems to have positive impacts.

The Warwick folks used an on-line computer game to query over a million Brits who viewed and rated 212,000 pictures of Britain. The ratings measured the “scenic-ness” of the pictures and confirmed the finding that people like scenic stuff more than views of shopping malls, skyscrapers, busses and slums. The cost of performing and analyzing the results is a closely held secret.

A highlight of the findings revealed that people felt better after viewing lakes, streams, valleys and rolling hills than they did when they saw rusted-out and abandoned rail yards, or the inside of auto junkyards.

I’m sure the principal Warwick researchers were, like most Englishmen, surprised by their findings. Into the night discussions over a pot of tea were intense; they might have even challenged their own amazing conclusions. Only after months of lengthy deliberations, and a detailed examination of each of the million findings, did they feel comfortable enough to reveal the results to the general public.

A near panic arose among citizens who were living in scenic-less abodes. Fearful that they were doomed to suffer unhappiness and ill-health, thousands besieged the business school and demanded an audience with the Warwick researchers. Picketing Warwick’s gates 24/7 went on for weeks. Shouting “scab” and worse, blameless employees were unable to get to work; their families went on the Dole.

Finally relenting, Warwick agreed to a personal confrontation with leaders of the scenic-less populace. An agreement was reached. Warwick would do a second study. It is currently in progress and a detailed report is promised in the not too distant future. The belligerent group, now formally named The Scenic-less, are watching and waiting.

Jackie and I discussed the Warwick findings at length. We once were surrounded by scenic splendor. Now, not so much. We agree that our healthy feelings are now less frequent. Tiredness is more the rule than the exception. We believe that changes in our lives may be attributable to the loss of the views that we once took for granted.

Symptoms of unhealthiness abound. My nose and ear hair grow faster. Her Botox-assisted wrinkles appear more resistant to intervention. An Acia bowl from Revel no longer raises our spirits. We attribute this diminishment of our fortunes to now being one of The Scenic-less.

In an effort to return to our former selves, we’ve placed ourselves in Floyd’s hands. He has started the road to our salvation by giving us a new bedroom window. He has other ideas that he promises to share with us when the time is right.

Meanwhile, I plan to claim a medical deduction for the cost of Floyd’s work.

 


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