How Your Mind Defines Your Experience

I started writing this piece yesterday at Cool Beans Coffee Roasters, one of my favorite places, and examined my day. I must admit that, objectively, it was a good day. I woke up early, was productive at work, had a pleasant lunch with a coworker, and I even treated myself to a hazelnut frappe and an absurdly large chocolate chip cookie. Yet, I felt lost in negative thoughts.

Being mired in a pool of self-loathing is not new for me. On any given day I experience negative thoughts as ever-present as background radiation is in the universe. Some days those thoughts and feelings are just more pronounced than other days.

It is a peculiar form of cognitive dissonance. The mind loves symmetry and is constantly on the lookout for patterns. When daily experiences do not track with my thoughts, then my mind starts worrying - “What’s going on? Why aren’t things matching? Something has to be wrong!” What thing? Exactly!”

At about 10:30AM I had had enough. I went to a quiet stairwell at my office, pushed my bluetooth speakers into my ears, and looped some binaural beats at a high volume to drown out my thinking mind. My defenses held until about 1PM. Then everything I looked at turned ugly. Or, to be more precise, I turned each thing I looked at into the worst version of itself.

The course I was developing was utter drivel.

My tea tasted awful.

The ergonomic cushion that I sat upon, advertised to improve my seated posture, actively conspired to make me more uncomfortable!

Cranky as a vampire with a paper route (shout out to comedian Christopher Titus!), I left work a little after 3PM to get my mind right. Being in the visible sunshine helped, but my mood really improved the moment I said hello to my friends at The Zone, where I volunteer once a week to teach yoga.

The tea does not judge itself.

The Zone “is a safe haven of acceptance for anyone in any stage of recovery. It is a Recovery Community Organization (RCO) to support long-term recovery and re-entry.”

I term how I live with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, “permanent recovery”. While I do not have a substance addiction to overcome, my progress improved exponentially when I agreed that I was addicted to distorted patterns of thinking.

That agreement was my first stab at externalizing my depressive thoughts as something outside my mind. Shortly after that epiphany, I immediately fell into the pitfall of attempting to do all my recovering by myself.

Recovery need not be made synonymous with self-improvement.

Self-improvement is best done alone. Recovery is best done among friends. Self-recovery is an oxymoron. Do not expect yourself or someone you care about to overcome tragedy absent a connection with others. That expectation fights eons of mammalian evolution, and millennium of refinements in human social groups.

The necessity of other humans in boosting our mood is best made by quoting a story from my favorite author, Andrew Solomon:

I subsequently met someone in Paris who was a famous expert in this particular area and had worked on tribal ritual. He said that I was the only Westerner he had ever heard of who had undergone an Ndeup, but he confirmed that it is a classic ceremony and that there are variants of it over quite a wide area. I had an illuminating conversation with someone a few years later. I was doing research in Rwanda on another topic entirely, and I met someone there who worked in the mental hospital in Kigali. I told him about my experience, and he said,

We have some things that are not that similar, because that’s West Africa and this is East Africa, but they’re a little similar.” Then he said, “We had some trouble actually with foreign mental health workers who came here after the genocide, some of whom caused a lot of trouble.”

I asked, “What happened? What was the issue?”

He said, “Well, they came here and their practice didn’t have any of the strengths of the ritual you just described. They did not identify the illness as an invasive external thing. They did not get the entire village to come together and acknowledge it together and all participate in trying to support the person who was getting treated. Treatment was not out in the bright sunshine where you feel happy. There was no music or drumming to get the heart running as the heart should run. Instead, they took people one at a time into sort of dingy little rooms for an hour at a time and asked them to talk about the bad things that had happened to them. Which, of course, just made them feel much worse, almost suicidal. We had to put a stop to it.” So cultural relativism cuts both ways. [emphasis mine]

Finishing this piece with a nearly empty cup of coffee and a belly full of toast, I feel content this morning. I identified that my mind was not operating in my best interests yesterday, and I modified my behavior to improve my mindset. Today, I reap the rewards of a healthy dinner, an organized bedroom, a few chapters in a book, a deep sleep, and, most rewarding, freshly ironed pants.