WHEN “MAKE ME FEEL-BETTER” IS NOT ENOUGH…..
I have just got back from a wonderful long holiday break when, for most of May, my husband and I undertook a trip in the South-west of the USA visiting many new and wonderful places in our travels. We got back a few days ago and I woke this morning with a feeling of “ugghhh” – a feeling I have experienced before when I have returned from holiday and am back to “reality”, or as some might put it, “the same-old same-old”.
The Big Sur, California
So I took some time to just sit with this “ugghhh” and noticed first it had various qualities – of being stuck, of being boring and yet perversely also stressed; and that this was coming from my body being hyper-aroused and the stuck boring bit was a sense of in some way being closed down . So I decided to use the combination of two body-based approaches I have been experimenting with, whilst away travelling, to go deeper into what my body was trying to tell me.
The two approaches are those of using tapping as described by Jessica Ortner (1) and cultivating my ability to listen to my IGS, or Inner Guidance System a process of connecting with one’s life purpose identified by Zen DeBrucke (2)
So this morning I first acknowledged (using Zen DeBrucke’s IGS approach) that something in me was closed - I could so feel this in my body which felt flat, stuck and somehow shut down place. And following Zen’s protocol I was able to recognise that in myself that I was believing something that was not true for me.
At this point I had no idea what this was but I knew my body was stuck in hyper –arousal – that condition where one’s body feels stressed, there is muscle tension in the jaw, neck and shoulders etc. I also find that when I am stuck in hyper-arousal my thinking is often going fast but also stuck – I call this hamster-wheel thinking. This is exactly where I was at and I knew thinking would not get this place to shift as it is a sub-cortical brain process what was needed was a way to help my body shift out of this place of tension.
So I then started using the tapping protocol of Jessica Ortner; this uses a series of using your fingers to tap on certain acupressure/meridian points in the body and at the same time focusing on a phrase that clearly states how I was feeling. So I started by working with the initial statement that “I feel stuck, shutdown, bored and stressed – and I love and accept myself”, as I worked through a series of tapping rounds, I found, as in previous tapping experiences, that my body was able to calm down and start to relax.
As the hyperarousal in my body diminished I found that the statement was spontaneously changing (as I had discovered whilst away) and what came was an awareness of yearning for something new, exciting and different, a real craving for the excitement of novelty… and then an ah-ha moment. I recalled reading something, a few weeks ago, about the brain’s constant seeking for the new and novel – an evolutionary adaptation which led has man to constantly explore and make new discoveries.
Hedonism is all about pleasure and the enjoyable – that first wonderful taste of a melt-in-the-mouth dessert, the wow of an unexpected gift that is just what one wanted. What gives us the “I love this …gimme more” is the dopamine that is released in the brain. And then I realised that I had had a lot of dopamine experiences on my travelling.
One experience, in particular, stood out for me from our trip, and it was the moment I looked out of my hotel window situated plum in the middle of Monument Valley Colorado and saw this:
It was so amazing it literally took my breath away and I felt tears come to my eyes – it was truly awesome. It is a moment I will never forget, a memory I will always hold. And yet, here is the thing – within a few hours it no longer had the same impact, I looked out the window at this amazing natural phenomenon and still found it very beautiful but that initial “wow” in me had gone. It was no longer novel and new, if was familiar. And that’s how hedonism is – very transitory. So you buy this perfect brand new car or new top you have so wanted and yet within a short time it is no longer “special” and the pull for another dopamine-hit is back…
My work as a wellbeing practitioner is about teaching people how to connect with and cultivate a body-based feel-good supportive inner resource and what I realised this morning, as I sat with my new awareness of dopamine and the “gimme more” syndrome was that, to me, the gimme more feeling is not the same thing as the “feel-good” I aim to help my clients discover within themselves. Rather to me the “gimme more” feeling is actually more a quick-fix to make me “feel better”, often a way of blocking more uncomfortable feelings that something in me does not want to face. And a dopamine-hit experience can do this - in that moment of biting into that piece of chocolate I can feel so much better: but as soon as the chocolate is swallowed and its sensory impact is fading, the pull for more can kick in, as the unwanted feelings start to resurface, and this is the down-side. “Feel-better” based on a dopamine hit is very transitory affair and we are so often left just wanting more and more….
Additionally I realised that over the course of our driving trip we had covered over 2600 miles and that this had been a series of dopamine moments – of new places and novel experiences and that my brain was now suffering a little from dopamine withdrawal as there is little new or novel about doing the post-holiday laundry, particularly when you have been away for over 3 weeks…
Once I had been able to recognise this dopamine withdrawal effect in me I then was able to connect with the useful learning I have gained from the Positive Psychology movement to find a way to let go of the “ugghhh” place I had been in and to replace it with a much more positive inner state of enjoyment and contentment.
Positive psychology recognises the important role of making life enjoyable that hedonistic pleasures can give us and they are an important part of engaging with life positively. However there are two other ways we can cultivate positivity and feel-good in our lives that are less transient and have a deeper more long-term positive impact on us. They describe these two ways as a eudaimonic experience in which one achieves that a contented state of being happy and healthy and prosperous in a gentler and more internal way than that which we get from hedonistic pleasures.
These two other experiences are those of achieving “flow“ and, secondly, being able to find meaning and purpose for one’s self from an experience or activity. And so, knowing this, I was able to recognise that actually what I was needing was not yet more new and novel experiences, giving me yet another transient dopamine hit, but something else entirely: to find a way to create flow and also a deeper meaning for myself out of my travelling experiences.
Flow is that state we can find ourselves in when we are really absorbed in doing something we enjoy such as gardening, painting, sailing etc and, for me, one way of being in flow is engaging in creative writing – so putting this blog together very much offers me a chance to derive a deeper level of positivity from my recent travel experiences. Flow is a place which has a very subtle emotional quality – to me this is a deep sense of contentment and expansion – very different to the “hit” of the dopamine-inducing hedonistic pleasure. I find it has a far longer impact on me – a sense of real satisfaction and fulfilment afterwards that I can reconnect with often years later as I recall the experience.
So as I engaged in the tapping protocol I found that my thinking shifted and expanded to be far more open and creative as my body moved out of hyperarousal into a far more relaxed state and my thinking was no longer blinkered and negative, as I had experienced earlier when stuck in “ugghhh” mode.. As my body calmed I was able to recognise that what I really needed was not another dopamine-hit but an experience of flow and ideally also that of creating a deeper sense of meaning from my travel experiences. In recognising I would benefit from finding an activity that felt positive and which would absorb me I immediately knew I would like to create this post. And putting it together has indeed achieved a positive shift in my internal experiencing.
I also recognised that some of what I had seen and experienced on my travelling also could offer me an opportunity to explore, at a deeper level, an archetypal meaning to be found in the amazing power and tenacity of Nature that is pertinent both to myself and other living creatures but also about the universe to which we all belong.
During our travelling we spent quite a bit of time in the desert areas of SW USA and one of the things that really struck me about the desert, which is particularly arid at the moment due to this region suffering a major drought for several years, is just how determined Mother Nature is to find a way to create growth where ever possible. Even in the most dry and desiccated places where one would not have thought any life form could survive at all I could see tiny little plants thrusting through the rocks and sand.. There is a determination and persistence about those scrubby plants of the desert which, I found, very beautiful and they offer a symbol of how, even in the most inhospitable of terrains, it is possible find the nutrients to grow if we seek them out as these plants do.
On our last full day in the USA we were staying in Austin, Texas and we went to the Botanical gardens. Here I discovered a beautiful Japanese garden, full of Acers – a tree I really love but then I discovered something especially poignant – this garden had been created by one man, a Mr Taniguchi. His story and how he came to make this garden touched me deeply and to end this blog I would like to share it.
The Austin History Center tells his story:
“Isamu Taniguchi was born in Osaka, Japan .He migrated to Stockton, California in 1915 where he continued to farm for many years during which time he returned to Japan only once--to marry his childhood sweetheart. During World War II, he and his family were placed in a detainment camp for Japanese Americans. After the war he moved his family to the Rio Grande Valley where he continued to raise vegetables and cotton, but always made room for some flowers. He sent his two sons, Alan and Isumu, to the University of Texas at Austin. It was Alan who convinced his father to move to Austin upon his retirement in 1967.
Taniguchi wanted to give the city of Austin a gift of an oriental garden. It would be his gesture of gratitude to the city that had provided an education for his two sons. The Parks and Recreation Department in conjunction with the Austin Area Garden Council agreed that such a generous gift could not be ignored. There was no contract, no design, and no blueprints of any kind because--as Taniguchi explains--gardens are not created by such methods. Instead, the plans for the Oriental Gardens existed only in Taniguchi's mind, in his soul and in his heart. He died in 1992.”
But for me the most poignant part of this garden was the teahouse, constructed of bamboo and cedar, and it bears a plaque inscribed with an essay written by Taniguchi--"The Spirit of the Garden"--which describes the garden and the man who created it:
"When a man, with such pure appreciation in his peaceful mind, tries to compose with stones, grass, and water in order to create one unified beauty--the formation is called a 'garden'. In this context, the garden is the embodiment of the peaceful coexistence of all the elements of nature.
It has been my wish that through the construction of this visible garden, I might provide a symbol of universal peace. By observing the genuine peaceful nature of the garden, I believe that we should be able to knock on the door of our conscience, which once was obliged to be the slave of the animal nature in man rather than of the humanity which resides on the other side of his heart. It is my desire for the peace of mankind which has endowed this man of old age the physical health and stamina to pile stone upon stone without a day's absence from the work for the last 18 months. It is my desire for peace of mankind which encouraged me in my voluntary labor to complete this long-dreamed gift for the city of Austin--this 'Oriental Garden'. It is my wish that you have pleasant communion with the spirit of the garden."
For me, Mr Taniguchi exemplifies wellbeing – there is an enormous sense of flow about the garden and the plaque clearly describes how he found a way to create positive meaning to the suffering he and his family experienced due to being Japanese living the USA during WW2. But Mr Taniguchi also created a space which offers many sensory delights – dopamine hits as we all need our dopamine moments of pleasure too.
1. “The Tapping Solution for Weight Loss and Body Confidence: A Woman's Guide to Stressing Less, Weighing Less and Loving More” Jessica Ortner http://jessica-ortner.com/
2. Zen DeBrucke
3. Russell Poldrack -