Daniel Smith: Monkey Mind

Recently I’ve become more interested in psychology due to chronic illness and my own challenges dealing with it. Buddha’s Brain was a fantastic read and purchased at the same wonderful bookshop (Buxton NC, great shop!) as Monkey Mind, Daniel Smith’s memoir to  anxiety.

Anxiety is a state of hyper-arousal and vigilance disproportionate to the threat posed, a “cognitive appraisal of imminent threat or danger.” We all have anxiety. If I’m in the woods on a hike and I start feeling like I’m a bit lost, I immediately start to get anxious. Being lost is not safe and the senses start kicking into overdrive. I’m highly attuned to everything around me, both for danger (a bear, a hole where I might break my ankle, signs that support the thought that I have no clue where I am) and to solving this problem. I check the map or my compass every two seconds. Each hill is compared to a possible contour line on the map. The mind wanders to worst case scenarios: is my compass broken? Did I walk straight over a trail and not notice? Subconsciously I’m thinking of dying of thirst or the humiliation of a mass search and rescue team bailing me out.  The fear guides me to safety and eventually I’m on a trail or clearly know where I am on my map. Game Over for anxiety.  Anxiety is my friend – it led me to safety.  I might feel intense relief or jubilation, a better feeling than if I hadn’t been temporarily stuck in that anxious state at all. I get a little high from extinguishing it.

But what if every mole hill is a mountain in your brain? Not just mortal threats, like a bus running you over, but the complex social interactions we rely on that involve subtle cues with loads of room for interpretation.  What if you’re highly attuned to making a horrible error at work, or alienating a friend, even when these things are entirely improbable? At this point of mental illness your brain is lost in the woods and everything is a bear attack or a slow death wandering in circles. There’s no relief, jubilation or high, because the attentive vigilance never stops. Not only do you never find your way back to safety, but the over-anxiousness is acknowledged as a problem in and of itself. The hyper vigilance turns its guns on itself, producing anxiety about anxiety.

Feeling stressed out yet? Me too. This book was a deep dive into one person’s unrelenting neurosis. It’s an awful place for Smith to have to live. He tries to lighten up his dungeon with accent pillows and a fresh paint job in the form of humour and with, but it’s still clearly a dungeon.

Smith is a gifted writer, though the style is effete and overwrought, in my humble opinion. The humour is 50-50 at hitting the mark.  The book is not a comprehensive review of anxiety as mental illness, it’s an exposition of Smith’s anxious life. As a memoir Smith’s life story is profoundly boring at any point where anxiety isn’t playing a lead role. I can’t imagine a highly anxious person taking many (if any) risks, so the most dramatic moment is Smith smoking some weed at a phish concert and losing his virginity to an older ugly woman.

Still, as with Confessions of a Sociopath, the weakest point of this book (in that case her endless bragging and lack of insight) is also a weird kind of strength.  The fact that a bumbling teenage sexual experience is the apex of Smith’s life, his weirdest and wildest Girls Gone Wild moment, an internal obsession, is annoying to the reader. It’s also a telling insight into his own mental illness. We might not like it as a conventional reader since it’s kinda dull, but how can you complain when you signed up for a trip into the mind of someone with crippling anxiety? It’s genuinely annoying, but that’s Smith’s life and he’s annoyed at it too. At least most of us get to put the book down or find our way out of the aforementioned woods. Smith doesn’t.

Steven Callahan: Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea

This book is Steven Callahan’s account of his time adrift in the Atlantic Ocean after the small sail boat he was racing from Europe to Antigua sank in the night in the middle of the Ocean, struck by an unknown force, perhaps a rogue wave or a whale.

I’ve read my fair share of books on survival/adventure, most recently the Little Prince author’s plane crash in the Sahara and the days he spent wandering and baking in the sun thereafter. These stories follow a pattern: risky activity, bad fortune, perseverance, good fortune, survival. There are always unknown questions gnawing at the minds of those in distress. Where am I? Where am I headed? What are potential rescuers doing? How much more can the human body take before it fails? How much pain, fear, regret and uncertainty can the mind take?

The most unique aspect of Callahan’s experience is the extent to which he had to use his brain while attempting survival. Adrift on a rubber dinghy he had to constantly patch up holes, repair the solar still that made sea water drinkable and devise new tools to hunt for fish, all with only meager scraps he happened to have on hand. At one point he was barely able to move and near delirious, but was forced to conceptualize an intricate blueprint to attach a fork to rubber and twine to patch a hole in his sinking rubber raft. His imagined blueprint must work; he hadn’t the energy for trial and error.

Usually survival seems to be more a test of raw will, whether staggering back from a desert or crawling down a mountain. Take another step. Don’t fall asleep. Keep moving. Rarely is one also developing blueprints while physically spent. I’d like to think I could will myself onward, it seems like an extreme extension of demanding exercise, which I always seem to persist through. I’m far less certain I could think my way out simultaneously.

Thrust into this battle Callahan observes that his mind, emotions and body, which used to act as one in harmony disengage and “the distinction between the parts of myself continues to grow sharper as the two-edged sword of existence cuts one or another of them more deeply each day.” Later he notes that “my mind applauds my performance while my body boos.” Every action, decision or thought pits one part of him against the other.  The dorado fish that follows his raft become objects of intense jealousy, as they live a “simple, unmysterious, unapprehensive life.” Unlike humans there is “no plague of politics, ambition, or animosity.” His mind is saving him, but he recognizes it is also the source of his own torture.

On the TV show Alone, where people must survive by themselves for as long as they can, one of the contestants notes that you better be OK with yourself before you go out there. Your time will be spent in pain, not doing, just existing. When we stop progressing forward it seems all our mind can do is look backwards to our past. Some crack up, some have regrets and change and some are fine, exiting as they entered. Callahan fits in the second category. Reflecting on his life and his ex-wife he realizes his inflexible, unloving and cold nature were barriers to happiness, not strengths. He resolves to “embrace humanity despite its weaknesses and to forge new and meaningful relationships.” Humbled, he realizes that he is but a tiny part of the world and humanity and comes a bit closer to reaching the peaceful state of mind of the dorado, the simple-minded fish he looked at with such longing.

There is little regret expressed over the idea to sail solo across the Atlanic Ocean in a tiny boat. Life is defined by quality, not quantity. Callahan mentions that he does sail, but there’s no mention of traversing oceans or racing.  This past week Rich Piana, a roided up bodybuilder who was addicted to being absolutely massive, died from what he put his body through at the age of 46. He went into a coma, but unlike Callahan he never came back. He knew the risks, but he genuinely loved that life and the money, fame, hot young girlfriends etc. Was the risk worth the reward?

 

 

Robert Sutton: The No Asshole Rule

I’ve been buying used books lately and because they are cheap I often buy books I wouldn’t shell out $20 for. If they stink, no big loss. Also helps when they are short. Enter The No Asshole Rule.

This book is focused on the business world, but the same rules apply in any area of life. This management guru takes a Buddhist approach, arguing that not only does treating people well produce better results (for a business), but is also just the right thing to do since it makes people happier and improves the lives of them and those around them.

I think the biggest misconception that this book dispels is that being an asshole is necessary to produce results. It will often benefit someone short-term in moving up the corporate ladder, but it produces negative results for the organization. Employees quit, spend more time protecting themselves then doing a good job (they don’t report mistakes that can help improve efficiency), become disengaged (steal more, do poor work), it becomes harder to hire people or a “premium” is required (i.e. you have to pay people more) and managers and human resources spend time resolving conflict or even lawsuits.

The supposed superstar, who is a raging jerk, when you tally up the costs of them being an asshole is actually incompetent. A single salesperson, who was good at sales, was shown to have cost his company $160,000/year through being an asshole. His success was also inflated since he stole easy sales from other employees.

The other example is a surgical team. The surgical team led by a tyrant has no reported errors. Was everything done perfectly? No, the errors just weren’t reported by underlings out of fear. The mistakes persisted. The surgical team lead by a non-asshole reported ten times as many surgical errors because no one feared the boss, allowing the team to fix the problems and becoming more efficient. The bottom line is that ruling through fear, on the whole, doesn’t work, especially in larger organizations.

The New Zealand All Blacks were the most talented rugby team in the early 2000s, but the results didn’t show it. They failed to win the rugby world cup repeatedly, despite having the best players. An assessment of the culture found that the players were talented, but were arrogant, self-absorbed and partied too much. A major culture change was instituted, culminating in the No Dickheads rule. The team requires an attitudinal change and they back this up with action. No matter how good you are they won’t select you if you have a poor attitude. I’m sure a few NFL coaches would have been happier with a no T.O. rule.

The result for the All Blacks has been unparalleled success, winning world cups and setting records for most wins. On the field they never bicker, argue with the ref and rarely have off field drama.  A star player recently got caught having sex in an airport, landing him on the bench for an extended period despite his talents.

The disturbing part of this book were studies showing that power causes most people to treat others beneath them poorly, the “kiss up, kick down” effect. This isn’t surprising to anyone that has worked in an office. I had a boss that was a disgusting sycophant with higher ups to the point where he literally would never disagree with them, even on a minor insignificant point. He’d agree to incorrect facts knowingly, which might have helped him, but caused great harm to the organization. Sadly he was promoted, but I recently heard he is now engaged in constant conflict. Not surprising.

The other point made in the book is that the jerks themselves inevitably suffer for their own arrogance. Michael Eisner of Disney was fired for being an asshole. Others accrue enemies who pounce when a moment of weakness is detected. Stephen Harper, the Canadian PM, governed like a dickhead. When he was weakened people didn’t hesitate to turn on him and he was trounced in the last election. In the extreme case of Steve Jobs he was so arrogant that he believed an all juice diet would defeat cancer. Many assholes think this trait gives them success, but that is usually just confirmation bias. They typically have the skills needed to succeed without acting that way. In the end they suffer for their behaviour.

My old rugby team had a few players that were self-declared assholes. They were rude to new players, insulted or ignored others and blamed everyone else. They managed to be key leaders, deciding things like who gets playing time. As a result of being dicks they had to spend a miserable season losing badly and playing a full 80 minutes every game. Other players had quit, new players didn’t join and nobody played hard.  Two don’t play anymore though they’d like to and one guy plays for another team where he has no status whatsoever. They tried to put together a team to play in a tournament, but found they didn’t have enough friends to field a decent side. Being an asshole may have been fun, but they didn’t benefit from it in the end.

Highly recommend for a short read, especially if you work in an office setting. Also, take the asshole test yourself to make sure you aren’t part of the problem: https://www.electricpulp.com/guykawasaki/arse/.

Rick Hanson : Buddha’s Brain

In a great podcast by Philosophize This the host Stephen West describes Buddhism as less a religion than the greatest self-help book ever written. Siddhartha Gautama left a pampered rich life for poverty as he realized that, even when you have everything most people aspire to, you are still unhappy.  If money or adoration don’t bring happiness, what does? The OG Buddha left wealth to try to find an answer. He sat alone under a tree where he could observe how his own mind works while also using that same mind to reshape his thinking to generate inner happiness. This was in about 500 BC.

Fast forward to 2017 and in the richest nation in the history of the planet, 1 in 10 people are on anti-depressants. A few days ago the lead singer of Linkin Park, a celebrity who is supposed to be the apex of our culture, took his own life, as did his friend Chris Cornell a few months earlier. South Korea, one of the world’s top 50 nations in wealth, has the 10th highest suicide rate, while Somalia, the absolute worst, is not even in the top 100.

So what gives? If wealth, success or adoration don’t make you happy, what does? The Buddha arguably deduced this in 500 BC and came up with a cure.  Remarkably, as Buddha’s Brain outlines, modern neuroscience is allowing us to see how the brain works and it matches the Buddha.  To use a car analogy it’s like driving a car, thinking very hard about it, and then drawing up a perfect diagram of what’s under the hood. Crazy.

The main point made in the book is that our brain was not developed to create happiness – it was developed for survival. We are naturally fearful and anxious. The brain remembers negative events, but not positive ones. If we gave 100 great presentations and a single poor one, the bad one is remembered.  Our brain also plays out mini simulations almost constantly, some conscious, some not, even when we are asleep. These simulations are usually negative, imagining what others think about us or bad things that could occur but are unlikely. The phrase “bad dream” is common, but there’s no “good dream” equivalent. We do have nice dreams, but not as often and when we do, we tend to forget them quickly.

From an evolutionary standpoint all of the above makes sense. It stopped us from being eaten by lions or drinking from a toxic watering hole. It paid to be neurotic, anxious and afraid. Unlike animals though, who also possess a fearful “monkey mind,” we are also able to reflect on pain that we’ve suffered and have secondary reactions to it.

For example, if someone cuts off of in traffic the actual impact is insignificant. It delays you a few seconds. If they gave you the finger you’d probably be more angry, but that has no actual tangible impact whatsoever. It’s only our secondary reactions that cause us to stew and to suffer: anger, self-doubt, fear, worthlessness etc. The author refers to these as secondary darts and most of us are a tangled mess of pain from the accumulation of all these darts. Animals don’t have these. A dog doesn’t stew over the fact that the other dog cut him off. No wonder they always seem so happy.

The Buddha and this book offer a way out from evolutionary impulses that cause so much suffering. If we use that same brain and other evolutionary traits (empathy, for example, as our brains are wired to be empathetic since our children take very long to reach adulthood) we can rewire ourselves to relax, focus attention on what’s important and reduce the simulations and secondary ruminations that cause us pain.

When people think of Buddhism they think of meditation. Meditation is, in part, the method to achieving this. Meditation involves intense focus on (basically) nothing, which eliminates the simulations and the secondary darts from our minds. Without these we become mindful, which is just to say that our attention is free from anxiety and can be concentrated on what we find to be truly important.

The book explains all of this in scientific terms (i.e. brain scans, chemicals etc.) and through modern psychology. The great news is that this works! I’ve attended the local Buddhist center and meditated regularly for a period of time. It produced a calm feeling and a sense of purpose and concentration I’d never had. I was doing things that would actually make me happy in the long-term, like eating a carrot instead of a cookie, or going to bed on time instead of watching a TV show that could wait, and this didn’t require restraining myself from impulse. It was legitimately what I wanted to do. The bad news is that rolling back thousands of years of evolution is extremely hard work, requiring regular meditation (which is HARD) and constant attention to your own thoughts and actions.

I don’t have any big insights except to say that I hope I can become more mindful and get back to meditating regularly. It would benefit both myself and others around me. This type of Buddhist philosophy or practice is becoming more accepted in the West, particularly in medicine. It’s my hope that it gains more and more traction and others can benefit. Over time hopefully society sees a value in meditation, which is at odds with our consumerist culture as it produces no tangible result and doesn’t make for an interesting Instagram update.

When I think of the ideal end-state it’s Roger Federer. He always seems relaxed, entirely focused, doesn’t react angrily and is quick to praise others and be empathetic.  Watch this video of his acceptance speech at Wimbledon. If that’s not zen he’s doing a great imitation!

I’d highly recommend this book even if you have no intention of meditating or practicing mindfulness as it will at least allow you to understand how your brain works and what might make you happier over the long-term.