Substance Use

NARROWED THINKING

This week as I traveled about, visiting the lives of others along the way both online and in-person, I was struck by a few things I’d like to share with you. Specifically, I want to talk about narrowing thinking and how it lies at the crux of the best of human experience.

When I think of those times in my life when I was firing on all cylinders, it’s when I’ve been able to focus at such a deep level my total being was engaged in living in the moment. It’s when the distractions of my surroundings are inconsequential to what’s before me. It’s when time seems stands still.

I’m not sure if you know what I mean, but if you think back, you’ll quickly remember a scene from your history where you were so engrossed in what you were doing that all else didn’t matter. I wonder if you realize it’s at these moments when we are at our happiest.

Let me qualify that statement.  I surely don’t mean a form of bliss where we are like Snoopy just grooving to Schroeder’s piano. Though this is sometimes a part of it, it’s by no means the template against which we should judge our affective experience in these circumstances.

What I mean by happiest is more like we are blissfully unaware of feeling at all. At least, the tyranny of emotion is lost for the moment, and we leave behind all feelings of inadequacy. Our usual level of vigilance changes, but it’s not that we let our guard down. No. It’s because something else takes over.

That something is a feeling of almost limitless power, or better, power being expressed at the limits of our abilities. This is when we hit a zone, or our zone, and whether we hit it accidentally or on purpose doesn’t matter. What counts here is a condition which lies at the pinnacle of human expression. It’s as if we know it’s where we belong, a place where good things, sometimes great things, happen.

It’s a serious manifestation of our gifts coming together all at once, without being aware of limits or constraints which might cast doubt on our competence. It’s more than confidence because it’s a blend of the mental and the physical, a symbiosis, the meaningful whole of an action. It’s the Gestalt.

The quick and easy way to hit zones is to practice over and over so new competence is ingrained in the cerebellum, like never forgetting to ride a bike once learned. Being able to shut out distractions is next, narrowing down focus to what is before you, so time is lived second by second, or not noticed at all.

When the first two conditions are met, the longer you linger there, the more chance you have of hitting the heretofore impossible. That’s when you stretch, using your powers of concentration and emotional equilibrium to push the boundaries of your skills. It’s a time when we truly get out of our own way, allowing whatever talent we have to sing fully, to express itself at its peak and beyond.

I’d sometimes get like this after a few years of shooting snooker. In my best games, I wouldn’t even notice my surroundings except for how they were needed to play the game. It didn’t matter who was watching, or what my opponent did. My eyes were on the green table cloth and the balls. My whole body and mind was an extension of the cue and cue ball and I could make that ball do my bidding without regard to limits. I’d control the game in a way far above my normal play.

I say the zone is also when we feel most alive. The connection between our existence and the world around us blends seamlessly, acting as one, without boundaries and without fear or need to explain. We are poetry in motion. We are the poet.

It’s as if we are nodding to the Universe, acknowledging its wisdom in choosing us, in bestowing a chance at life to this very being. It’s when we are fulfilling our promise, the pact we have with life itself.

Sadly, I don’t think we get enough of it. And the peace and power derived from visiting our zone has such appeal that we often try to recreate its essence in other ways. Unfortunately, these are often maladaptive, poor substitutes for the real thing causing more harm than good. What lies at the heart of these coping mechanisms is the desire to narrow thinking, to thin out the complexities of life and simplify what occupies the mind.

Drink a few beers or haul on a joint and watch your thinking narrow accordingly. You’re in some kind of zone alright, but it’s not a celebration of your personal power. It’s a artificial hijacking of your sympathetic system, putting your physiology into a fear state to narrow your focus to escape danger. Whereas the real zone slows your heartbeat and focuses your power, this effect increases the heartrate and scatters your competence.

And it works—soon all your thinking of is pizza, or pussy, or fighting. Or you have slowed your body down, frozen, like a deer standing on the road staring at headlights. Or the rabbit you see on the neighbours lawn, immobilized, heart beating as fast as a snare drum, hoping it blends in.

For some, TV, food, porn, gambling, cigarettes, shopping all have the same capacity to narrow focus artificially, from an external view but without engaging the internal power and talent which exists in all of us. The suicidal try to do the same thing, narrowing their thinking down so effectively to escape the pain of life until, tragically, their options run out.

The eyes see out, I like to say. So much of what we do is triggered by what the eyes can take in. Like all of our gifts, sometimes our qualities can become faults. Too often we see and respond without considering what we really seek. We all need to narrow our focus, to feel alive and celebrate our gifts in the moment. Too often we seek to do this by taking a pill of some kind, by relying on the environmental, the external solution to what really can only be solved internally.

You might expect I’ll speak now of finding more adaptive ways of narrowing thinking, of recognizing it’s draw as a fundamental expression, and encouraging you to make better choices. But here’s what I was taken with this week:

Turns out we don’t need 10,000 hours to become competent at something. See, the way I just wrote that represents the impression I took from reading MMalcom Gladwell’s famous missive about learning a new skill. It’s my own nonsense and represents the way I, along with most people I know, have misinterpreted the commitment he writes about. He’s talking about elite level mastery, world class level competence.

In a TedX talk I watched this week, Josh Kaufman talks about researching Gladwell’s misunderstood recommendation and finding it takes around 20 hours to learn a new skill adequately. Of course, I thought when I watched him, I’ve learned plenty of things in less than 10,000 hours! Kaufman breaks it down further, suggesting just 45 minutes a day for about a month will do the trick. This is a refreshing antidote to the Gladwellian notion that it takes 5 years of hard slogging to achieve respectable competence at something.

I have 20 hours. 10,000? Not so much.

In just under an hour per day for a month, you could learn a reasonable amount about something or get good enough at something to then decide if you wanted to learn more! Piano enough to play Fur Elise, a language well enough to visit a foreign country, how to weld so you can make… anything. It just goes on.

Well, there are twelve months in a year, and how many in a lifetime? If average lifespan is 80 and we take just 50 of those years as potential months of learning, that’s 600 months of opportunity. Or 600 new skills we could potentially get good enough at in our lifetime.

Oh my, where have all my excuses gone now?

I was thinking about this when one of the guys in my men’s group told us a family friend killed himself on Tuesday. Booze was a big contributing factor. These are always tragic. People will say the suicidal was selfishly passing their pain on to the living. It’s possible. Though suicidal people who have lived through attempts tell us they thought they were doing everyone a favour. There are no good answers.

Every day I run into folks who are affected by this scourge—attempting to narrow thinking by taking short cuts—using drugs and alcohol to kickstart adrenaline and cortisol in their system, not realizing that this IS their addiction. It’s not so much the booze or drugs, it’s these fear hormones which create an emotional state providing relief from the complexity of their existence.  While in fear, your focus is on survival, a much simpler scope, aimed at satisfying much baser needs.

And food and porn and gambling all do the same thing to a degree, using intermittent reinforcement to distract and narrow focus, attempting to gain a reward by way of a shortcut. Our eyes see out. But it’s here where the maladaptive breaks down: it’s like a dog chasing its tail. We never quite catch up.

And we don’t grow. Confidence wanes further for there is no competence in these.

There are no new skills to be found in that box of donuts, the next six pack of booze, the next shopping spree at the mall or the hardware store, the next pack of smokes or cannabis dispensary. You could argue there are skills to learn from the next porn clip you watch but that really depends how long you’ve been watching, doesn’t it?

What if we all realized this is what we were trying to do: narrow thinking. It’s our natural way of shutting out all the noise. Done right, it’s escapism with benefits. And it represents the only true way of meeting the need to live fully engrossed in the moment.

All sorts of things are like this. Watch any teenager who has mastered a video game at a high level. They get into a zone and if there wasn’t a clock on the screen and levels, they’d make time stand still. Look at their eyes, and they never leave the monitor. A friend of mine use to fly fish with such concentration that rather than go ashore to take a piss, he’d let it go in his neoprene waders and rinse them out later.

Neither of these extremes will kill you. Some of the other ways we narrow thinking can and will.  Yesterday I came home from a rather challenging week. Though I’m grateful to find myself alive every morning, I’m no more inured to the pain of life than anyone else.

Rather than go blow my mind with dope or booze, I instead sought ways to just calm myself and heal. Oh, I know there’s still pot kicking around here somewhere. And the beer store is a few blocks away. Heck, I could swallow a few Percocet, bumping up my occasional quarter tablet dosage to two or three full tabs and I’d be nodding in no time.

And these would have left me hung over this morning, feeling dissonance for having compromised my pact with nature, knowing I was ungrateful for the life I have been lucky enough to win. These would have eroded my confidence, which in turn, would affect my competence. This is the truth.

And that’s what meditation is for. No wonder it’s so popular. Even if you’re not a meditator, a walk will narrow thinking just as well. Perhaps I’m at an advantage because I have a slew of cognitive behavioural strategies I can implement to narrow my thinking. Well these have come with practice. I also slept very well last night.

Come to think of it, I had to learn to drink in a dysfunctional way too. In fact, I worked hard at it over time, just as I did with the rest of it, from dope smoking to heroin use. Geez, it took me years just to learn how to roll a joint. Cocaine definitely took some getting used to—fed my paranoia. I puked my guts out first time I did heroin.  All of these things took concentration and trial and error before I could successfully use them to… narrow focus. When measured up against all these, it’s actually easier to learn to narrow thinking internally, by far.

So try to think of those times when you entered into a zone of competence, and remember how good that felt.

These days, when things get to me and I feel like I need a break, knowing the secret, the real impetus of my condition, that what really begs my attention is just to narrow my focus, I have other choices.

And in a month, looks like I might just have one more.

You could too.

CHRISTOPHER K. WALLACE

Advisor to Men, Counsellor at Large
at ckwallace.com

©2018, all rights reserved

Kaufman’s TedX talk:

 

A Question of Spirit

an essay by Christopher K Wallace

We don’t often talk of spirit when discussing substance use. Go big or go home seems to be the order of the day: all-in belief or nothing. I suppose this might be due to our physiology. After all, our eyes see out. We should be forgiven for seeking answers to big questions out there somewhere. As if looking to the heavens will reflect some perfect truth we can use to guide our actions. There’s merit to this: it often does.

But first, let me ask you something: Have you ever been afraid? Where you momentarily had the wits scared out of you? What happens? 

Your breathing shallows, your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises and thinking narrows as you focus on escape or resolution. We all know these symptoms as classic fight or flight. Now, think of what happens after you drink a couple of beers or smoke a joint or take any other mood-altering chemical. Sure enough, it’s the same thing: breathing shallows, heart rate goes up, blood pressure rises, and most importantly, thinking narrows. Using these substances puts your physiology into a fight or flight state.

The body doesn’t distinguish between medicines; moreover, it has no idea it’s “just a joint,” or “just a couple of beers,” or “doctor prescribed.” It’s all the same, considered as a threat to your system from foreign poisons, where your body is put off-balance, out of something called homeostasis. And once in this state, the body counters by doing everything it can to restore itself back to normal, including engaging the sympathetic nervous system to help.

Perspiration, breath, heart rate, liver and kidneys are all put on overtime use. Adrenaline and cortisol course through your veins in preparation for fight or flight—or freeze or feint, the other two Fs of the 4Fs, and often overlooked when your being is under attack. Meantime, the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine provides cover for the habituated user, making them think the buzz means everything’s OK. It’s not.


Let me give you some examples.

If you think of your first experiences with any of these substances, you may recall how your body and mind reacted with fear. It could be dizziness or vomiting from alcohol use; or an intense fear from using cannabis. Some people say they don’t get off on pot the first time they try it, that’s how good your body is at countering its effects. People stick with it and adapt; eventually, they feel it. Cocaine is another one which induces intense fear. And for some people, first LSD use is the scariest thing ever, resulting in a “bad trip.”

Remember in high school being over at that one friend’s house with the cool parents, where a garage or basement became a drug zone after school or on weekends? Maybe you passed the bong around until you were all pretty much unable to speak. Oh sure, maybe someone says, “Hey dude, do you think your cat’s stoned? Do you think it knows we’re high, man?” We all thought we were buzzed; when in truth, we were immobilized by fear.

Nietzsche said, “All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth comes only from the senses.”

The brain relies on what comes in from touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight to log onto our world. Experience is derived from the senses; therefore, undermined sensory inputs means compromised experience. Alcohol and drugs create a fear response in the body while using dopamine to trigger your reward centers, keeping awareness of fear symptoms at bay. Beneath the surface, a tug of war is going on while you sit and get high.

The brain and body are not separate entities. In fact, your whole physical being is the universal address of your existence. As such, feelings live as equally in the body as they do in the brain through the tenth cranial nerve. Known as the Vagus Complex, it connects your brain stem to most of your internal organs, including the heart and gut.

Feelings come from experience. Think of what kinds of feelings a baby has compared to an adult. As the baby matures, it’s capable of a variety of emotions in increasing complexity as its experience grows. And, feelings are predictive, not reactive as we often think. Much of the brain works this way. Let me explain.

Your brain predicts your sleep and wake cycle and builds up levels of melatonin to prepare you for slumber. It predicts the eventual need for food by signaling with the hormone ghrelin well in advance of meal-times.  Even your visual cortex receives inputs from the eye, but also has neurons running the other way, from the cortex, which carry predictions affecting what you see. At any moment, beneath awareness the brain predicts what state is required and scans your bank of previous experiences for matching emotions in preparation for what’s ahead.

In this way, science tells us we live emotionally and use our thinking brain to explain things after the fact. Emotions rule because they occur milliseconds faster than we can think, acting as our early warning system. The line between reality and imagination blurs during substance use, while the body tallies the score. The brain’s memory doesn’t discern between stoned or drunk and straight. It’s all just input.

After decades of smoking hashish, the last ten or more years as a nightcap to my day, the way others use a glass of wine to unwind, I noticed (and for the first time really took stock of) my physical symptoms. Then I asked myself this question: “Can you be afraid and confident at the same time?” Most people’s gut answer to this is to say: no, it’s one or the other as the feelings are mutually exclusive. If you are in fear, you may still be in action, but it is unlikely to be with much confidence. It’s more likely you are going through the motions, rather than giving things your best.

Moreover, if emotions rule my actions, without me even realizing it through my databank of recalled events, I had to ask myself what compounding effect substance use was having on my confidence?  I’m talking about real confidence here, the kind gained from trial and error. Sometimes, it comes from taking a great leap of faith. Other times, it arises from a series of small victories adding up to a quiet competence. Either way, it’s always hard-earned.

Math is like that, so is spelling or writing. Even riding a bicycle results in a lasting physical confidence, whereas doing something like public speaking for the first time can vault a person into a new sense of self. Think of the first time you climbed high into a tree or jumped off the high diving board at the local pool. So much of our progress in life is because of these quests to add to our personal repertoire of skills and emotional durability. Life usually gets better when we get better at life.

The times on weekends where I’d drink a half-dozen beers on a Friday or Saturday night, or both, I’d find not much got done during the day. I would also fail to connect with my wife and children in a meaningful way. The things I’d planned to do on my days off were often put off or started but never finished. Once, I built half of a fair-sized shed, became unsure of my plans, so just dismantled it. I stacked the wood behind my house, and never returned to the task. Confidence.

And small things, ordinary demands a man rises to meet during life, were not being handled with any urgency. It didn’t take much to put me off my game. I came to realize with every beer I drank, what I was really doing was sipping on fear and pissing out confidence. Every haul on a joint meant inhaling more fear and exhaling a critical part of my power.

Who needs this confidence thing anyway? Turns out, we all do. I’ve heard it said confidence is the stuff we use to turn thoughts into actions. This has wider implications. Let me ask you, “How then, do you live confidently when you regularly subject your body to a fear state which cannot be resolved with action?” In my case, when I was honest with myself, I had to admit I could not.

I’d work hard at gaining confidence, and yet, doubt would creep back into my life. It meant I didn’t invest in all the technological wonders that have arisen in my lifetime and which I could have easily participated in. It meant I took jobs which kept me safe. It also resulted in me not standing up for myself when I should have. Overall, it kept me playing small. It was two steps forward, and one step back. Sometimes, admittedly, it was just one step back. Though, I had all the trappings of the middle class, I was living a charade.

I’m not talking about occasional substance use. I’m referring to habitual use, from more than once per week to daily consumption. Under the fear-load this engenders in the body, assuredly, confidence wanes. In time, this steady assault on confidence can become something called “learned helplessness.”

That’s when you tell yourself a story about confidence. You may realize it’s for other people, something off in the distance, far from your existence. Or, more likely, it’s something we don’t talk about at all because it means we have given up aspiring to becoming something more. In a measure, we abandon our dreams.

Can you live this way and survive? Sure. You can get by. But even now you’ll realize it’s not what Mother Nature or God had in mind when you defied the odds by beating all those other sperm to the egg, when you won the race of life. Damn it. This was not supposed to be our destiny. The Universe wants more from you, from me, and confidence is key to allowing our spirit to fly, to soar with the eagles in full view of the sun.


But here’s what happens. Twenty years may go by. If you’re lucky, one day you’ll have an epiphany like I did.  You may realize you have not lived those twenty years at all. Instead, what you have really done is lived one year…twenty times. 

Let that sink in a bit. I had to soak in it for a while.

 

Why did I need this jolt of fear everyday? When I searched a little deeper, it dawned on me. I’d been creating fear like this since I was a kid. I figured out my family of origin likely set me on this path through its uneven attachments and unpredictable violence. Paradoxically, I was a fear seeker. Early on, fight or flight had carried the day for me and I survived, thereby searing its red-hot brand upon my soul. I lived by it. It meant life or death to me. If there was no fear in my life, I’d seek it out, create it out of thin air if needed. As I recalled the decades gone by, I could see a significant part of my time was spent re-enacting a deep need for fear. Imprisoned this way as a little boy, I carried these emotional shackles into adulthood.

Fact is, I meet fear at an entirely different level than most people. I have been strangely attracted to it, mostly beneath my awareness. It’s as if my body survived it before and needed to prove it could survive it again. I was stuck in a loop. Perhaps it’s why I stand up to bullies. My first question when encountering people is to unflinchingly think or say, “How can I help you.” It’s why I act best when I’m protecting my tribe, a brother’s keeper. My self-concept silently commands: “Stand aside, this is for men.” It’s because I can, capably, fearlessly.

Yet, this was the gift I’d allowed to wane over time. The difference between how I saw myself and how I really acted, caused me untold dissonance. Once I understood why I continued to use drugs and alcohol, and how this diminished my confidence, the allure soon faded. I must live true and free. I have a destiny to fulfill, a pact with the universe: to let loose my spirit as a guardian to others. When honourable men use their power for good, in service of themselves and those around them, life becomes meaningful.

This, then, is the key to our freedom.

More questions I asked myself: How much of your confidence are you willing to sacrifice to keep a fear habit for another year? How much more of your spirit can you compromise? We think we have time: we don’t.

And so, it was for me. I had been using drugs and alcohol to narrow my focus. Instead of finding my personal tract, where my spirit could expand and answer the universe’s calling, I was running from it.  Narrowing my focus was a good objective, but not this way. I have experienced the zone before: it’s a place where a mighty congruence of my ability and drive and concentration allow me to feel as if I am forcing time to stand still. It’s a place of command, where my spirit lets loose and flies high. And there, fully aware now, filled with meaning from serving myself and others and connected by purpose, I am set free: powerful once more.

It was Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. who once said, “Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”I say to you then: let this be one of those times.

Stretch, my brothers and sisters, and we will find each other up there.

CKWallace, Advisor to Men @ckwallace.com
©2018 all rights reserved

References:

Alcohol, aging and the stress response,  See Spencer and Hutchison (1999) Alcohol Research Health 23 (4) 272-83
And Allostatic Load, Bruce McEwen, PhD in Neuropsychopharmacology, Nature.com

(Nietzsche quote, “All credibility…”: Basic Writings of Nietzsche (2011 edition), Modern Library – ISBN: 9780307786791. Also, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886, p. 134)

(Emotions live equally in the body and brain: See Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory, 2011, Norton Books ISBN 978-0-393-70700-7)

(Emotions are predictive: See Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions are Made, 2017, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 978-0-544-12996-2.

And The brain is predictive: Diane Kwan writing in the March Scientific American issue, Self-Taught Robots, has a nice graphic about the predictive brain citing How Evolution May Work through Curiousity-Driven Development Process, Pierre Yves Oudeyer, Linda Smith is Topics in Cognitive Science, 2016)

(Holmes quote, “When a man…”, See Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Autocrat at the Breakfast-Table, essay series appearing in Atlantic Monthly (1857) and book (1858))

 

Christopher K Wallace, B.S.T., C.H.

Advisor to Men

© 2017 and 2018 ckwallace.com