Closer Than They Appear

“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” – Anais Nin

Our brain has thousands of filters, sifting through millions of momentary experiences presented throughout the day.

Our eyes are curators, sorting out what is important, interesting, worthy of memory.

Our ears are conductors, turning up certain sounds, relegating others to the background.

Our body is acutely aware of everything, yet certain experiences seem to escape our consciousness.

What if we could take control of the curators and conductors? Instead of letting them use filters embedded early in our lives, we could choose them carefully, designing perspectives like interchangeable lenses.

A lens of opportunity
A lens of love
A lens of connection
A lens of beauty

What would my day look like, if  my consciousness had a lens of beauty?

When I have a camera in my hand, I find myself more aware of my surroundings, ready for an opportunity. I am framing each scene, giving it attention. I could use this as a starting point. What if I imagined that I have a camera not just for beauty, but also for opportunity, love or connection? Holding this metaphor in my mind, I can heighten my awareness. I will be ready to capture the moment, committing it to memory, acting on it in my life.

Perhaps, if I look through all the lenses simultaneously, I can see everything at once, removing myself from the equation. For now, I will focus on one at a time. Too much escapes my notice with the lenses I have in place.

What lenses do you have? Which ones would you like to create?

 

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Letting Go of the Magical Answer

Imagine you believe that a fountain of youth actually exists. Wouldn’t you be tempted to forgo taking care of yourself physically in favor of searching for that fountain? All the obsessive time and effort would be worth it — if you find it. If not, with each passing day, your ability to age gracefully slips away. You’ll look back with regret at all the time wasted in your brief life.

For a long time, I believed in a similar fountain — one that was equally tempting and destructive. I believed that my depression was caused by certain problems in my life and that if I solved them, depression would never return.

But what I haven’t realized (up until now) is that it’s often the other way around. My depression skews my perspective and makes formerly manageable challenges seem impossible. The problem hasn’t changed, just my brain’s perception. It seems so obvious now.

So what does it look like if I give up the idea of  “the fountain?” The next time I feel depressed, instead of trying to immediately solve the problem (whatever I think it is), I will try some simple mindfulness exercises. Hopefully, these will create just enough of a shift to tilt my brain back to balance so I can see clearly. Then if there really is a problem, I can address it without depression clouding my judgment. It’s the millions of small decisions that ultimately make the difference — just like making healthy choices every day is better than searching for a fountain of youth.

I want to bring myself back to the present and create a sense of connection — to my body, others and the environment. This will take me out of my head, where thoughts about the past and future conspire to overwhelm me. Since it’s difficult to get motivated when I’m in the midst of depression, I will do easy things like stepping outside to the balcony, listening to a guided meditation, calling someone, taking a shower, walking in the park or playing with my cats.

I am consciously choosing to be mindful of my illness — not constantly chasing the dream of a life without depression. There is no magical answer that will solve all of my problems and cure my depression. I need to do the hard work every single day of staying aware and catching myself before I fall too far.

Redefining Strength in Each Moment

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.'” — Mary Anne Radmacher

I have chronic depression. There, I said it. I’m not just going through a difficult time, transition, stressful month, or whatever I’ve told myself. Of course, all these things are true at various times. But not for the last twenty years straight.

My denial story went something like this: If I get a meaningful job, pay off all my debt, get settled into a permanent place to live, lose weight, exercise and create the perfect relationship, I won’t have these episodes of depression. I can get off this medication, stop seeing a therapist and have a healthy routine to maintain my changes. It’s just a matter of taking action. Fantastic. I am GREAT at that. Let’s try to do all these things at the same time so I can get there as soon as possible. I’ve got a plan. I feel better already.

You can probably see where this is going.

A week later, I wake up feeling…different. Suddenly, everything is inexplicably more difficult. I feel foggy and tired. I don’t feel like working, cooking or seeing anyone. If I could stay in bed — that would be perfect. My plans dissolve slowly.

This has occurred over and over — sometimes the cycles are short, sometimes long. But it’s always the same. I begin with enthusiasm and optimism, with a sense of control. Yet that same belief in control is what fuels the harsh criticism when I fail. I realize with horror that there were no external factors that derailed my plan — just my state of mind. But wait, Cara can push through anything with enough effort, right? That’s what she does — everyone knows that.

This has always been my definition of strength — willpower in the face of anything, never veering from the plan. When depression blocked my path, I viewed myself as weak.

Last week, I finally took enough steps back to see my pattern in its totality — instead of coming up with the next great plan. I needed a metaphor to guide me to a solution that transcended the problem. Fortunately, I am in the midst of a wonderful set of meditation classes. I began to see a connection to my struggle.

I am not meditating with the expectation that if I practice consistently enough, I will reach a point where I have complete control over my thoughts.
I am not planning my life with the expectation that if I try hard enough, I will reach a point where I have complete control over my depression.

Meditation is not about the final outcome, it is about the act itself — the millions of internal nudges to redirect your focus back to the breath.
Mental health is not about the cure, it is about coping — looking at where you are and making the best decisions you can at that moment.

Meditation is best practiced in a quiet, comfortable environment.
Depression is best managed by surrounding myself with positive, supportive family and friends.

It is the aim of meditation to view thoughts without judgment and not get swept away.
It is the aim of mental health to view depression without judgment and not let shame and anger pull you further down.

Any amount or form of meditation has value. There is no shame in a shorter sitting or modifying your pose because of a physical issue. 
Any amount of positive action has value. There is no shame in doing less than planned or modifying your plan because your state of mind has changed.

This last point was especially hard to accept. I need to change my internal story. But damn it, I liked that one. It had a happy ending and I was the heroine. It will take time to let go.

I will continue to meditate and keep these parallels in mind. If depression gets in the way of meditation, I will do the best I can in the moment — that is my new definition of strength.

Jumping into the Present

There will always be something in my life environment that’s incomplete, imperfect, unsettling, or in progress — providing a great excuse to procrastinate, avoid, worry about, or sabotage personal aspirations. I have a tendency to discount the present, like many of us do, thinking that the future holds my “real life” — when the important stuff will begin, when I’ll get it together, have it all figured out. I’ll move from this unpleasant “limbo” directly into my future, like gracefully stepping into a Double Dutch game already underway. As soon as I get inside the ropes, I’ll be in perfect rhythm, responding to my environment with ease and agility. In my mind, it’s an immediate transition. That’s when my life begins.

However, it doesn’t work that way. In life, it isn’t possible to stand outside the game. You have to jump all the time, responding to the ropes whether you want to or not. If you stop, you get tangled up — but the ropes start right up again. I have to accept that I am in the game at this very moment — this is my life and this is my present environment. It won’t ever magically transform into the perfect setting for Zen Cara to suddenly emerge, jumping rope while juggling. But if I pay attention to the ropes, I can at least avoid skinned knees.

Maybe someday I will breakdance while doing Double Dutch. But this fantastic feat won’t arise until I jump — a lot — within ropes that go too slow, too fast, at an uneven pace, or maybe with frayed edges that trip me up. After a while, these conditions won’t matter as much because I’ve learned how to pay attention, anticipate and prepare. It will appear like the ropes are ideally suited for my amazing gymnastics, but truly, I’ve just worked with the ropes, as they were, and practiced. Never stopping, always jumping.