Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Cooking Outdoors (and in the rain) on a Rocket Stove



John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Let's Get John Into That Minivan



John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

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A Lesson From My Heart Attack



John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

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Four Life Lessons I Learned on the Road



John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

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Life Finds a Way



John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Mindfulness - Because We're Thinking Blind Without It


Continuing from my previous blog on mindfulness, from a book I'm working on about bipolar recovery ...

How powerful is mindfulness? Several years ago, on the dentist’s chair, I mindfully observed myself in a state of sheer panic. An assistant placed a suction tube into my mouth while a very understanding dentist fired up her drill and bored into my tooth. Gripping my armrests, I willed myself to remain seated as I heard the terrifying high-pitched screech of whirring metal against enamel. I felt water droplets and microscopic particles of tooth against the insides of my cheeks. She’s going to strike a nerve! I know it!

In the state I was in, there was no way I could fight that thought. The trick - and this is where the rubber meets the road - was for me not to attach myself to that thought. I was in a state of high panic. But what prevented me from giving into that panic was that part of me that seemingly hovered from above, dispassionately observing what was going on below, as if I were watching the grass grow or the paint dry. I’m guessing my panic scared the dentist and her assistant every bit as much as it did me. Somehow, we all got through it.

Attachment and non-attachment are recurring themes in Buddhism. Attachment - to our fears and desires - lies at the root of our suffering. Conversely, non-attachment is the key to happiness. Random thoughts have a way of sticking to us like fuzzy objects to Velcro. If we allow them to gain traction, they take over and pull in every unwanted emotion. That relationship break-up that happened five years ago? Suddenly out of the blue, totally unconnected to what’s going on around you right now, you’re feeling both longing and anger. Here we go again, your brain has been hijacked. The elephant has stampeded. All you can do is hold on for dear life.

A lot of us, if given the choice, would opt to simply wipe our memory clean, along with other events in our lives. But it’s not the events that are doing us in, it’s the thoughts of the events. Big distinction. While we can never undo the event, we are capable of forming a better relationship with our thoughts. Instead of fighting them, we can bring them out into the open where they lose some of their force. This is psychiatry 101. 

But in the context of our discussion, the focus is a bit different, directed at our erroneous thinking. Like driving in traffic, we catch ourselves making a wrong cognitive turn and make an immediate course correction. At first, the mental effort is all white-knuckles. Damn! A false equivalence cut into my lane. Bastard! Watch where you’re going! Shit! Confirmation bias barreling down on me. Son of a bitch!

But with practice, as we begin to spot the hazards much earlier, we make the appropriate adjustments with far less drama, to the point where we’re almost driving on autopilot. It’s as if the brain actually knows where it’s going. Hallelujah!

But this is the ideal. Are you willing to settle for much less? Say a ten percent improvement? Let’s think like a statistician: A world-class sprinter who improves his time in the hundred meters by ten percent is going to beat Usain Bolt by ten meters. A politician who gains ten percent on her opponent is going to win in a landslide. In our own lives, that ten percent could make the difference between keeping your job and losing it, of staying in a relationship or finding yourself on your own, of thinking with greater clarity or losing your words.

Worth it, then? Of course it is. The catch is getting started. Meditating for say ten minutes a day is a good way to begin, but when you’re depressed, who wants to meditate? Even when we’re doing well, meditation is a big chore. You can go to mindfulness classes and tune into mindfulness videos and audios, but this is a major commitment. Your best bet, then, might be to purchase a mindfulness app. We’re so tethered to our phones anyway that setting aside a little time for mindfulness won’t be too much of an imposition.


Some of these apps are aimed at quieting the mind or guiding one into a meditative space. What we’re looking for here, though, is one that assists us in sharpening our thinking. Some of these come with monthly subscriptions, but a good many have free options. I cannot personally vouch for any of these apps or for mindfulness apps in general. What I can vouch for is mindfulness as a way of life. I am as far away from being a master at it as I am from being a concert pianist, but the little bit I’ve learned to apply to my life has made it one worth living. Please, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Three words: You are worth it.



John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.


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Mindfulness: An Introduction


I know, I know,  mindfulness has been overdone, but I've been writing and advocating on this powerful practice since back in the days when it was underdone. From a book I'm working on about bipolar recovery ...

At the same time Socrates was challenging his students to think for themselves, over in India the Buddha was urging his followers to tame their runaway brains by using the mind to watch the mind. “Mind precedes its objects,” reads the first line of the Dhammapada, the best-known of the Buddhist scriptures. “They are mind-governed and mind-made. To speak or act with a defiled mind is to draw pain after oneself, like a wheel behind the feet of the animal drawing it.”

This is another way of saying if you are contemplating that shrimp dip in the fridge, it will be in your stomach faster than a two-year-old can dash out onto the street. We simply can’t help ourselves. 

It also helps illuminate that perplexing passage in Matthew where Jesus proclaims that lusting in your heart equates to the sin of adultery. Immediately after, Jesus preaches that if your right eye is causing you to sin, then pluck it out. That troublesome right hand, too. In striking parallel, in the Fire Sermon, the Buddha tells a thousand monks that every part of us, including the mind, is raging out of control. Accordingly, he advises, the noble disciple develops an aversion for the eye, the ear, the tongue, the mind, on and on. 

In so many words, 500 years and a continent apart, the two Wise Ones are reminding us how notoriously unreliable our brains are. We default to our fears and desires. Together, these thoughts obstruct our path to salvation and enlightenment, not to mention our basic happiness. Thus, if we think of lust as a version of obsession, the brain is fully locked and loaded - if the opportunity is there, night is sure to follow day. You’re best off not even thinking about it, but that’s far easier said than done. Is switching off our thoughts, or at least reining them in, even possible? Enter mindfulness.

Mindfulness, says Jon Kabat-Zinn, “is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are,” rather than as we want them to be. Paying attention on purpose is what we do when driving along an unfamiliar thoroughfare at night or being on your best behavior in a room full of strangers. You need to be on top of everything going on around you. Your mind cannot afford to wander. Maybe you call it concentrating on the task at hand. But in this heightened state of awareness, you are also practicing mindfulness.

Now take that same level of concentration and direct it inward. Try this simple experiment: Settle yourself in a comfortable position, take a few relaxing breaths, close your eyes, and focus your attention on the breath going in and out of your nose. See if you can keep it going for a couple of minutes. Congratulations! You have just observed, perhaps for the first time in your life, your mind in action. Not an encouraging sight, was it? There it was, your precious mind, wandering in a zillion different directions at once, all over the place, like Esmeralda Marcos in a shoe store. Every time you tried to bring it back to the task at hand, there it would go again, your thoughts scattering like feathers in a high wind - into the past, into the future, into different locations and dimensions.

Perhaps you were thinking about what you should have said to your co-worker two weeks ago (still bugging you, isn’t it?). Meanwhile, as that doobee-doobee-doobee-do passage in the Monkees’ tune, Last Train to Clarksville, keeps playing over and over in your head, your mind fast-forwarded to a week from now (”Maybe I should give him a call”), and into a different time zone (“I wonder what the Gobi Desert is like this time of year”), and into fantasy worlds (“Dragons are cool”), everywhere, in fact, but where it was supposed to be - in the here and now, breathing through your nose.

My God! It’s a three-ring circus in there! Not surprisingly, this is the first major realization most of us come to when we meditate for the first time. Various meditation and yoga and breathing exercises can help slow down the brain and bring a little peace and quiet into our lives. But here, we will focus on using our awareness to avoid becoming captive to the first random thought that enters our head.

It all comes down to our ability to recognize our erroneous thinking as it happens and make timely interventions, using every hack at our disposal. We catch ourselves, say, being overconfident or over-optimistic and act before those thoughts have a chance to gather momentum. Depending on the situation, we can simply allow the thought to float away or we can contest that thought with a good healthy dose of pessimism. (Or, if you insist, to replace that dreary pessimistic thought with a cheery optimistic one.)

In this context, think of mindfulness as that engineer’s app we’ve implanted in our brain, the one that goes off when we’re we’re about to screw up. Buddhist teachers compare this sense of heightened awareness - what they call guardian alertness - to the mahout, the driver on the elephant, ever ready, at the slightest indication, to apply a steel hook to the animal’s head or face. The mind watching and guiding the mind, this is the essence of mindfulness. Sorry about the poor elephant.

To be continued ...


John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

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More on Thinking Hacks


The following is an edited version from a book I am working on about recovery in bipolar. One section of the book lays considerable emphasis on using critical thinking in our recovery. Thus, in previous posts, we  showed how philosophy teaches us to take nothing for granted, then had a hard look at the cognitive traps we all fall into, how Sherlock Holmes and Charles Darwin serve as models of observation and reasoning, and how improving our word power can save the day. Then, in two posts, we had a look at the thinking hacks used by lawyers and engineers and historians. In this post, we continue with some short takes on the hacks used in a number of other professions ...

Statistics 

On the eve the 2016 US Presidential election, the celebrity statistician Nate Silver calculated that Donald Trump had but a one in four chance of winning. But one in four, he noted, is hardly the near-certainty we are led to believe. Conduct four computer simulations with those same odds, three turn up heads, one tail. In this case, three will be Clinton, one Trump. This turned out to be Trump’s lucky day. 

Another way, of looking at it, if you were told upon getting into your car that you had a one in four chance of getting into an accident (meaning a three in four chance of safely arriving at your destination), you would choose another means of transport. On the other hand, the same odds might look encouraging when considering a surgical procedure to correct a life-threatening medical condition.

Nothing is certain. Our lives play out in probabilities. Statistics offers us options more reliable than making wild guesses. As such, it may be the most powerful thinking hack in the box. Our choices may come up wrong, but we can take comfort in having made informed ones. Odds are you will thank yourself.

Science

Let’s get real - reality doesn’t give a crap what any of us think. If science has the effrontery to contest a cherished opinion of yours, then at least have the courtesy to listen. If still not satisfied, summon the discipline to put in the work and frame a coherent and respectful rebuttal, together with the humility to acknowledge that its practitioners were the ones who scored 1600 on their SATs, not you. In the poisonous political climate we’re living in, science is enduring its greatest attack since the Dark Ages. Research budgets are being slashed, government scientists are being censored, and legitimate findings being ridiculed. But at the end of the day, no matter what, reality will go on, impervious to our conceits, ever ready to make fools of us all. 

Psychology/Psychiatry

Don’t count on anyone behaving rationally. This includes yourself. This insight was Freud’s gift to the world. Thinking with our emotions is the wild card in the behavioral deck and we have to account for all 52 of them.

Economics/Accounting/Finance

Three words, “follow the money.” If it’s flowing away from you, you may need to take responsibility and change your habits. Another possibility is you’re being hoodwinked. Since 1981, the money has been inexorably trickling up (and away from us), and - being the irrational beings we are - we keep voting in those responsible. Economics has been used in support of the con game, but it also provides the means to see through it. Do your homework, and vote wisely.

The Arts

Our unpredictable lives call for creative solutions. The creative brain has a logic of its own, and the artist is smart enough to follow wherever it may lead. But the product of his or her imagination emerges from a highly disciplined mind, no short-cuts, no cutting corners. Muses don’t exactly appear to those watching TV. Let that be an inspiration.

Mysticism 

Seeking a reality beyond our apparent reality has always been a legitimate enterprise. Plato imagined his world of ideal forms, Pythagoras sought the mysteries of the universe in terms of the numerical and harmonic proportions. At times, the musings of theoretical physicists are indistinguishable from those of mystics. Dare to imagine another reality. That is the job of every inquiring mind.

Wrapping it up

Think like a lawyer - pessimism has its purpose. So does getting to the point and arriving at agreements. Think like an engineer - we can’t just make up our own rules. Think like a statistician - probability beats uncertainty, informed choices beat wild guesses. Think like a historian - otherwise the present makes no sense. Think like a scientist - because reality is boss. Think like a psychologist - irrationality is the norm. Think like an economist - follow the money. Think like an artist - that’s how ideas happen. Think like a mystic - our mind has no limits.

Above all: Fidelity to the facts. I know, I know - facts get in the way of a really good misconception, but in the long run you will thank yourself. Thinking, in short, is good for you, especially when we get it right.

John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

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Monday, April 8, 2019

Applying Your Thinking Hacks


The following is from a draft of a book on bipolar recovery. Enjoy ...

If we look upon philosophy as the root of all critical thinking and natural science as its trunk, now we need to examine its various branches. These would include disciplines such as law, engineering, statistics, history, economics, science, the arts, and even mysticism. All of the above (there are many more) employ the tools of logic and natural science (which includes fidelity to the facts and not jumping to conclusions), not to mention virtuosity in words or numbers. In addition, they offer powerful variations of their own, what I call their trademark “thinking hacks.” You may never become, say, a lawyer, but picking up a trade secret or two is going to add clarity to your thinking and make your life a lot easier. In examining these various hacks, by necessity, I’m taking an idealized view of the professions. Let’s begin …

Law

We associate lawyers with adversarial combat, which makes it easy to forget that most of their work involves keeping us out of trouble.

Lawyers are trained to anticipate everything that can possibly go wrong. If you are depressive by nature, you are a natural attorney. Not surprisingly, the legal profession leads in those who suffer from depression. One major advantage to depression is that depressives make great realists (the term is “depressive realism”). If, for instance, you and your business associates come up with a scheme to set the world on fire, you can count on your lawyer to throw a wet blanket over it. Or maybe she will help you get the fire going without getting your fingers burnt. Either way, you will be grateful for her unbridled pessimism.

Lawyers are also adept in sorting out the relevant from the irrelevant. Instead of gathering facts, lawyers seem to specialize in throwing them out. Then they work with whatever is left. This is a gross exaggeration, mind you, but it points to a skill we all need practice in, which involves directing our focus to the matter at hand. If we want to know, for instance, whether it will be rainy or sunny tomorrow, we don’t need to hear the entire ten-day forecast. 

By the same token, if a fact is relevant, lawyers take a dim view of someone leaving it out. Take, for instance, the case of a home-owner shooting an intruder. The prosecutor is considering filing criminal charges. If you happened to have heard this story second-hand, hold your outrage - chances are your informant has left out the not insignificant detail that the intruder was shot in the back while fleeing.  

Lawyers also seek to establish that we’re all sharing the same assumptions. In our daily lives, particularly in our personal relationships, we demand straight answers. By the same token, we expect to be listened to in good faith. Quid pro quo: No equivocations from one party, no jumping to conclusions by the other.

On more rarefied levels, lawyers grapple with issues such as fairness and equity. When people feel cheated or exploited or lied to, the level of trust required in our personal and social and community relationships breaks down. Even the winners lose. 

So, time to think of how to care for your 90-year-old mom. Your three siblings are coming over tomorrow to discuss options. What could possibly go wrong? Already you’re thinking like a lawyer. Plan for the worst, set out the rules of engagement, and aim for everyone coming out happy. Hate the lawyer, if you must, love the reasoning.

Engineering

I’m including the medical profession in this category, as well as technicians and mechanics. Engineers bring practicality to science. On one hand they bend the rules of science to make things work. Here they are, ever resourceful, masters of the work-around, patron saints of the pocket knife, demons with duct tape. On another level, though, there is no margin of error. If they get it the least bit wrong, the airplane crashes, the bridge collapses, the patient dies.

Engineers live with a constant working awareness of reality, operating according to its many laws: Newton’s Law, Ohm’s Law, on and on. Positive wire in the positive terminal, closing tags to the html code, air pressure just right. If something goes beep or flashes red, you pay attention. If it needs maintenance, you tend to it. Solution matches problem: If something has a hole in it, you fix the goddamn hole.

Their logic is relentless: If this, proceed to that. Deviate just one bit from the logic - a this where a that should be - and you have a disaster, an Ikea table with one leg pointing to the ceiling - it’s almost that simple. 

If only we had that type of clarity in our personal lives. Instead, it’s a train wreck. We put the metaphorical wire in the wrong terminal, we neglect to apply the closing tag. When something goes beep, we either ignore it or over-react. If there’s a hole in it, we make a matching hole. And so we inflict endless pain on ourselves and those around us. 

You would think engineers would set an example, but no, outside of their profession they’re as incompetent as the rest of us. I recall some of my personal interactions with them and their medical and technician and mechanic cousins and can only cringe. What we really need is a savior engineer, of virgin birth to dwell amongst us and show us the way. Or perhaps a Moses engineer with ten precepts cast in silicon or a Buddha engineer with the Four Geek Truths.

The least they could do for us is develop an app, one we could implant in the brain that sends a 240-volt current through us every time we’re about to do something wrong, together with a written warning that flashes across our retinal screens. You know: “This is no time to show your spouse who is boss. Shut up and breathe through your nose.” Or …

“That syllogism is a bit shaky, but it’ll do in a pinch.” Or …

“Look at the expression on her face, you moron. For crying out loud, give her a hug.” Or …

“No! No! Optimism bias. You’ll be lucky to break even. Tell your friend to come up with a better offer.” Or …

“Idiot! Use your brain. Remember what happened last time you left the cap off the toothpaste?” Or …

“No! No! That’s how your Uncle Shithead would respond. That’s the last thing we want, don’t you agree? Now slowly count to ten, then repeat after me: “I hear you.” Last but not least …

“Slowly now. Be calm, stick the fork into your potato salad like every thing’s normal. Wait ten seconds for further instructions.”

In the meantime, we’re stuck with the brain we were born with. Work it like an engineer and watch out for that live wire.


John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

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History - Because We're Lost Without It


The following is from a book I'm working on on bipolar recovery. This is a continuation from my previous post, Applying Your Thinking Hacks ...

I’m forever indebted to my fifth grade teacher, Mrs Clancy, who opened my mind to reading and history. Unfortunately, the study of history, along with the arts and humanities, has fallen victim to our misplaced enthusiasm for the STEM curriculum. In our quest to turn our youth into human calculating machines serving the global economy, we are committing no less than cultural genocide upon ourselves. Without history, we’re like a dementia patient staring blankly into an open refrigerator, with no idea how we got there or what we’re going to do next.

With no memory, there is no identity, no sense of “I.” Think about it. With your personal memories, you are a four-year-old kid, you are the rebellious teen, the young adult with dreams, the 40-something, and so on. You are not just the age you are now. You are a composite of all those earlier versions of who got you to where you are now, from birth canal to the refrigerator door. Only this time looking in, you recall that four-year old who has sneaked down to the kitchen to fix himself a bowl of cereal. Just like you’re doing right now. Somehow, that feels reassuring.

Likewise, we’re Socrates and Shakespeare and Eleanor Roosevelt. We were there at the Battle of Hastings. We sat on the steps of the Parthenon, suffered on the Trail of Tears, spewed up phlegm in the hold of a coffin ship, felt the wind in our face at Kittyhawk. 

Or did we? If there is no history, no Mrs Clancy to mentor us, where are our cultural memories going to come from? Where is our identity as a people, where are our reassuring anchors, our informational touchstones?

It is no accident that each book in my Bipolar Expert Series has a strong historical component, and by now I trust you see the wisdom in that approach. By necessity, any enquiry into who we are right now - as individuals and as a people - needs to take the long view. Otherwise, we’re reduced to staring with blank looks into metaphorical refrigerators.

In the first year of my road journey, in 2017, living out of my car, I covered 30 states and 13,000 miles. Heading east into Arizona, I climbed up onto a ledge and held the palm of my hand against ancient Indian petroglyphs. Later, on the other side of the country, I stood on the spot where Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address. Further north, I planted my feet at the Concord Bridge, where a group of stubborn farmers had the guts to stand up to authority. Heading west, my path paralleled that of settlers venturing out of New England for the rich soil of Ohio. From an old fire look-out tower in the middle of New York State, I gazed over rolling countryside where the Five Nations once reigned supreme. 

Further west, my path would cross with Lewis and Clark. On the bluffs overlooking the Missouri, where their Corps of Discovery ventured into the unknown, I unexpectedly came upon a newly erected 60-foot tall stainless steel statue of a Plains Indian woman, striding like a ghost among the trees. Further down the road, I walked in the greasy grass, where the Lakota and Cheyenne faced Custer in what would be their last stand.

In Washington State, I had the honor of observing Dusty, a member of the Jamestown S’klallam Coast Salish, carving a totem pole. Unlike most tribes, the Jamestown S’klallam succeeded in resisting attempts by the white man to herd them onto a distant reservation. The white man retaliated by depriving them of their Indian status. Now, with their Indian status restored and a secure economic foundation, the tribe is reclaiming its history. How important is history? Talk to anyone who has had it taken it from them.

And here we are, in our ignorance and stupidity, doing it to ourselves. 

John McManamy is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder and is the publisher of the Bipolar Expert Series, available on Amazon.

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