Wherever I Go, There I am.

At the age of 28 I find I’ve lived the majority of my life trapped inside a head that never shuts up. I think and think, analyze and overanalyze. I create fifty different possibilities any hypothetical situation may or may not turn out like. My mind is habitually seeking. Seeking a distraction, a fairy tale, a source of inspiration, a radio station not playing commercials… anything really. I sought solace in the belief this overflow of thoughts meant I was intelligent, a thinker, an intellectual, even.

One day as I was going about my business lost in thought a rather interesting and new idea floated by; I wasn’t particularly in charge of which direction any of my thoughts were going. They came and went, jumping from one place to another like a monkey swinging from tree to tree. At a dinner party, my mind was on work. At work, on men. While talking to friends, I was making a list of bills to pay. While paying bills at my desk, my mind was on vacation. I could drive from point A to point B and upon parking realize that I had absolutely no recollection of the drive. Where the hell was I ?

As it turns out, sometimes I was simply living in the past. Rehashing an altercation, maybe reminiscing on a nice moment, wishing I would have done something differently or could experience a particularly lovely moment over again. Other times I’d slipped into a time machine and sped off into the future, which isn’t as great an adventure as one might imagine. Excitement, worry, impatience and dread… all my old companions waited patiently for me in my imagined future. My ‘thoughts’ were actually a compulsion to live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation. When I really dug deep I realized not only was I habitually thinking but also habitually recycling old thoughts. Rarely was there a new one! I felt betrayed.

One night, thinking little of it, I expressed to a close friend how incredibly active my mind was. He looked confused, paused, cocked his head to the side and with a slight look of pity inquired, “So your mind is never quiet? Never still? Never?” My first reaction was to think he was faking. Possibly just trying to be difficult and make me feel bad about myself. But quickly I recognized the look in his eyes as compassion, not judgment. He actually felt sorry for me. This only made it worse.

My friend went on to explain whenever he experienced an overflow of thoughts he simply visualized each one and then chose which thought, if any, was worthy of attention. He then gave his energy only to this particular thought.

The idea my unruly monkey mind could be tamed combined with the hope I wouldn’t spend my life racing around in a state of hyper productivity, detached from my surroundings, constantly projecting myself into the past or future, was beyond intriguing. I had absolutely no idea how to implement the idea of ‘mind control’ but in that moment I believed it was possible. I went to bed visualizing myself as a lion tamer, whip in hand swatting away the bad thoughts, pulling the good ones closer, and drifted off into dreamland… a place where from now on I would make a conscious effort to only go to when actually sleeping.

I’ll spare you the details of the hours spent in the Self-improvement, New Age and Inspiration sections of Barnes and Noble. You will also be spared the details of guided meditation classes, countless hours of yoga, internet scouring, solo road tripping and deep soul searching… all of which for the record produced insight, provided valuable information, and pointed the compass of my life in the right direction. I’ll dive directly into the things I now know and put into practice on a daily basis. And when I say practice I do mean practice. If I spend 20% of my day applying the things I’ve learned, being ‘aware’ and living in the present moment, it’s a good day. But every day it gets a little better.

“Be Here Now.” – Ram Dass

“Be Somewhere Else Later.” – Bumper Sticker Wisdom

What’s so good about focus, attention and being in the moment? Consider this: “Nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now.” (Eckhart Tolle, ‘The Power of Now’) So what I’m really saying is Now is all we’ve got, which really narrows things down.

Winifred Gallagher says in her insightful book, ‘Rapt,’ “If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life—what you’ve confidently called “reality”—has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to. You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different. Attention has created the experience and the self stored in your memory; looking ahead, what you focus on will create the life and person yet to be. Psychology has mostly examined our pasts to explain and improve our lives. If you think in terms of the present and future instead, you might encounter an intuition lurking in your mind, as it was in mine: If you could just stay focused on the right things, your life would stop feeling like a reaction to stuff that happens to you and become something that you create—not a series of accidents, but a work of art.”

 

I consider myself a relatively optimistic person, but sometimes the future can be a pretty daunting place. It’s full of uncontrollable factors and unknowns. Sure it might turn out great. But what if it doesn’t? What if I end up alone and miserable? What if all my choices were wrong? Am I going to end up homeless, living in a box? I cannot cope with something that is only a mind projection. I cannot cope with the future. But I can always cope with the present moment. I will keep my attention in the Now because the past is nothing but a story and the future is simply a figment of my imagination. My apologies if I’m starting to sound a bit like The Matrix but there is no spoon, Neo. (Kidding… sort of.)

There is something incredibly reassuring in the fact that in the present moment, real problems rarely exist. You are breathing. You are alive. You were given another day to live, and in doing so given the chance to be the person you have always wanted to be, say  the things you’ve been wanting to say, and live the life you’ve been wanting to live. Can you find any gratefulness, any peace, any joy in this simple fact?

Psychologist and philosopher William James describes attention as “taking possession of the mind, in a clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. It implies withdrawing from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” This makes perfect sense to me. Where is your attention most useful right now? Put it there, all of it! If you find it’s wandered astray, lovingly coax it back in the right direction.

Yet another affliction of the monkey mind is the great Delayed Happiness Disorder. It goes something like this, ‘I’ll be happy when I have this job, that relationship, X amount of money in the bank, when I’m on vacation, more successful, less pressured, accomplish fill-in-the-blank-goals.’ There are a million scenarios in which I could potentially find happiness, but if I can’t find the joy in this simple moment I won’t find any lasting joy in my perfect storm of happiness. Furthermore if I allow an external thing to ‘make me happy’ said thing also has the potential to make me sad. We gotta dig deep, people. We gotta go inside.

I began with this practice; anytime I notice my thoughts have wandered, that my attention has gone elsewhere, I shut my eyes and take in everything around me. Whether it’s the rustling trees or the sounds of traffic, raindrops or sunshine, gas fumes or salt air, I take it with total acceptance. Then I take a moment as they say in yoga, to ‘check in with myself’. It’s kind of amazing, but when I shut my eyes it makes it easier to feel what’s going on inside my body. Have you ever noticed when a doctor listens to your heart with their stethoscope, they tend to shut their eyes? I think it’s the same idea. With your eyes shut and your awareness spreads between your insides and you surroundings, you quickly realize you’re still here, breathing, in one piece, meaning you have everything you need in this moment. “The way to know if you’re fully aware of the moment is by the degree of peace you feel within.” – (Eckhart Tolle, ‘A New Earth’) You cannot always be happy, but you can almost always be focused, which is the next best thing. It’s all about baby steps.

The important thing, as stated in ‘Rapt’ is, “We must resist the temptation to drift along, reacting to whatever happens to us next, and deliberately select targets, from activities to relationships, that are worthy of our finite supplies of time and attention. It’s all too easy to spend much of your life in an unfocused, mixed-up condition, rushing toward the chimera of a better time and place to tune in and, well, be alive.”

We’re all aware good things takes practice, and practice makes perfect. Like a guitarist practicing scales or a basketball player doing layouts, giving your attention to the present moment requires discipline and training. Let’s choose our targets with care, whether making a sandwich or fighting a sickness, having a phone conversation with a friend or folding the laundry. Realize that today is the day to be fully alive, to embrace each joy and disappointment with equal openness. Give everything, take in everything and hold nothing back. Be aware of each passing moment. If all the big things seem to be going wrong focus on the little things gone right. The delicacy of a passing cloud, the enthusiastic greeting of your furry companion, finding a few onion rings mixed in with your fries… these are all pretty awesome things we can find potential joy in experiencing at any given moment. Be open to the mysterious, the unexpected, the subtle.

Realize that whatever you’re doing in this moment is your life’s work, whether curing cancer or sitting by the window. Choose to do it with attention, openness and a bit of grace and dignity… and choose to do it in this present moment.

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OpEd: From America First to World Police

In the course of less than fourteen days, President Trump launched a missile strike against Syria to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons, sent the USS Carl Vinson carrier battle group steaming into Korean waters to exert pressure on North Korea to rethink its nuclear program, and dropped a MOAB bomb on an underground tunnel network used by terrorists in Eastern Afghanistan.
As a student of policy and diplomacy, I understand the importance of coherence in foreign policy. For those struggling to understand what President Trump’s foreign policy might look like, it’s a bit like Trump himself; all over the map. Not only are the actions in Syria, the Korean Peninsula, and Afghanistan a complete departure from the “America First” platform President Trump campaigned on, but they are also misguided, impulsive, and dangerous. Here’s why.
The airstrike in Syria was largely ceremonial, serving mostly to satisfy our (Trump included) collective desire to do something — anything — to retaliate against an unspeakable atrocity. But as with most things Trumpian, the strike was more spectacle than substance. The airport was up and running the very next day. The administration is quick to point out that the purpose of the airstrike was not to “take out” the airport. But what the airstrike actually intended to do differs depending on who you ask, and on what day you ask them. A personal favorite is the answer given by the president’s son, Eric Trump, who claimed that the president’s decision to launch an airstrike was a reaction to seeing his daughter Ivanka cry as she beheld the images of the Syrian children killed in the attack. Of course no father likes to see his little girl cry, but only one has the ability to launch a literal boatload of tomahawk missiles to make it better.
While the strike did not destroy the airport, it did deliver a fatal blow to Trump’s only claim of policy coherence: the potential to successfully negotiate with Putin and come to a diplomatic solution in Syria. In press conferences following the airstrike, both President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described relations with Russia as “at an all time low.” Trump made a characteristically knee-jerk reaction and in doing so forfeited the one card he had to play.
With the crisis in Syria potentially on the verge of escalation, what better time to escalate the situation in North Korea than now? Many leading security analysts agree that the North Korea threat is real and must be death with, but it is difficult to believe that the Trump administration successfully formulated a winning strategy to combat the threat in its first 100 days. It seem the case is more likely that the decision to send “an armada” into Korean waters at this precise moment is more a reaction to positive media coverage of Trumps “decisiveness” responding to the chemical attack in Syria than the emergence of any grand North Korean strategy. Using foreign policy as a tool of domestic politics is a very dangerous game.
It’s no coincidence that as reports came in of an uptick in Trump’s approval ratings following the Syrian airstrike, the “Mother of All Bombs” was dropped in the Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. The 21,600 pound behemoth reportedly killed 94 ISIS fighters, roughly the same number of victims ISIS killed with a cargo truck in the streets of Nice on Bastille Day. If anything, this display of military might only highlighted the inadequacy of our far superior military to deal with many of todays threats. And it isn’t hard to imagine the ISIS recruitment machine coming to the same conclusion, and churning out propaganda accordingly.

All this, in less than 100 days in office. All this, from a man who ran an entire campaign on an “America First,” borderline isolationist platform. Our bombs and missiles may be strategically guided, but our President clearly is not. The Trump foreign policy agenda will be driven by the exact same factors the drive Trump himself; approval ratings, gut-reactions, and positive coverage on the nightly news.

Preventing Cancer in Our Furry Friends

I have two beautiful fur babies; Diggs, my proud, empathetic and cautious boxer, and Mo, my silly, sleepy Staffordshire terrier. I take my role as their guardian very seriously. When my pet Diggs was two years old, he was diagnosed with mast cell tumors, a form of cancer prevalent among boxers. I was devastated. I went through all the stages of grief. Denial; “Excuse me Mrs. Veterinarian, my dog has a small ‘bump’ on his side. Bump. Not lump. Lumps are scary. This is simply a ‘bump’.” Anger… directed more at God than anyone in particular. I lost Diggs’ brother much too early in life and found it cruel to be faced with another premature goodbye. Bargaining. Depression; full on who-needs-food and why-would-I-get-out-of-my-pajamas-or-leave-the-house-when-I-could-sit here-and-stare-at-my-beautiful-dog kind of depression. And finally Acceptance, and by acceptance I mean he’s alive today and he’ll be alive tomorrow SO THERE. Maybe the anger and denial are still sprinkled on top of the acceptance. I am far from alone in the sadness that accompanies a cancer diagnosis in a beloved pet. A shocking 20-25% of our furry four legged pets end up dying prematurely due to Cancer. (Perdue University Department of Veterinarian). Twenty to twenty-five percent! This isn’t normal and it certainly isn’t right. What are we doing wrong and what on God’s greenish earth can we do about it?

As I learned from years of Saturday morning cartoons, knowledge is power and knowing is half the battle, so we need to start with the facts. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), in the first study of its kind, found American pets are polluted with even higher levels of many of the same synthetic industrial chemicals that researchers have found in humans. In fact, this same study found that when tested for a panel of 70 chemicals, 11 being known carcinogens, 48 different types were found in the dogs and cats tested. An astounding 43 were found at levels anywhere from 2-23 times higher than those typically found in humans. Our pets and their unique, adorable behaviors make them especially susceptible to ingesting toxins. They live close to the ground. They chew on domestic objects (much to our dismay). Licking and self-grooming are daily rituals. Combined with their condensed life spans and shortened latency periods for the development of life-threatening diseases, such as cancer, our guardians, companions and best friends are left uniquely vulnerable.
Unfortunately, it gets worse from there. In addition to the pollutants our pets are exposed to daily which we have little control over, their toys contain plastic softening agents; known toxins. The beds we purchase for them to curl up on at night are covered in flame retardants; known carcinogens. The flea and tick baths we give our pets in attempt to offer our itchy buddies a little relief contain propoxur, a pesticide highly toxic to animals and humans. And who could forget the massive pet food recall in 2007 due to chemical contamination of over 5300 pet food products? That particular slip up caused as many as 3,600 pets to die prematurely of renal failure.

Who the heck is in charge around here? The answer, I’m sorry to say… is a bit scary. For starters, there is no requirement that pet food products have pre-market approval by the FDA. However, as stated on their official website, “the FDA ensures that the ingredients used in pet food are safe and have an appropriate function in the pet food.” Umm… ok. Thanks? Luckily, there are healthy alternatives out there that we can safely feed our pets. Better Pet Food, Healthier Pets, written by Jazmin Clark, details a variety of organic, grain-free, and holistic options.

What about all of the toys, beds, and balls that our pets enjoy on a daily basis? The Toxic Substance Control Act is the cornerstone in our system of health protections for industrial chemical exposures. Passed in 1976, it is the only major public health and environmental law in the U.S. that has never been updated and unfortunately, there are HUGE gaps in this system. These gaps allow most industrial chemicals to be sold at a store near you with NO mandatory safety testing. Please read that sentence again. Chemical companies do not have to prove products are safe before they are sold, or understand how much of their chemicals end up in people, let alone pets. Only one word comes to mind; Seriously? No really, seriously? The result of this weak law is a burden of industrial chemicals found in every member of every household in this country, pets and people alike. It’s no wonder the rate of cancer is so high. These factors, among others, leave our pets to play the involuntary role of sentinel of widespread chemical contamination affecting us all. Aging seven times faster than humans, is it possible that a look at our pet’s health now could foreshadow our own health in the future? It has to be considered.

So a call to arms…. or paws rather! I for one refuse to let my animal companions be sentinels of my health. Since it appears no one else has their back, it’s up to us to protect them from that which they cannot protect themselves. We must not only regulate what toys they play with, but the food they eat as well. When I jog at night, my dogs are my bodyguards. While I sleep, they’re my watchmen. When I make a quick run to the supermarket, they’re my car alarm. They would do anything for us, including putting themselves in harm’s way to protect us. We are solely responsible for their wellbeing. We do the best with the information we have available at the time. And now we have this. And we can do better.

States of Despair

When you think about the idea of progress as a people and as a nation, one factor that is always looked to is mortality rates. An increase in average life expectancy is an indication that a nation is doing something very right. In the United States, we have come to expect it. For the past century, thanks to things like modern medicine, antibiotics, sanitation, and improved hygiene, average lifespans in developed countries more than doubled. The mortality rates for African-American’s have continued to fall (although they are still the highest), and hispanics have the best mortality rate of all (meaning that the are living he longest out of everyone in the United States). But in an unexpected turn of events, beginning in the 1990s, mortality rates for non-Hispanic white Americans began to move in the wrong direction. Two researchers from Princeton University, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, wanted to find out why this was so. What they found, was that this is a phenomenon unique to the United States, and unique to non-Hispanic whites. It is affecting both men and women at the same rate, and it is true for both city and rural areas all across 47 out of 50 states (New York, New Jersey, and California are the only exceptions). So what exactly is driving this trend? For non-Hispanic whites, each successive birth cohort, meaning each successive decade of births, are experiencing higher mortality rates due to what is being called “deaths of despair.” Deaths of despair is a term used to describe deaths by drugs, alcohol, or suicide. This, combined with a slowdown in progress against mortality from heart disease and cancer, which are the two largest killers of middle aged people, means that for the first time in a century, young white non-Hispanic individuals are expected to live shorter lives than their parents. One final caveat to this phenomenon, is that the trend is most pronounced among those non-Hispanic whites with less than a college degree.

Interestingly, when you look county by county at the fraction of people who voted for Trump, and the fraction of people dying from deaths of despair, those two variables are very, very highly correlated. This calls into question the assumption that the vast majority of liberals make when discussing the Trump movement; that it is a movement driven mainly by racism. For instance, historian Carol Anderson argued in a 2016 interview with Politico that for whites, “if you’ve always been privileged, equality begins to look like oppression.” I am not arguing that the average Trump supporter is not more racist than a non-Trump supporter, but I do think the argument that the Trump movement is by and large driven by racism is missing the much bigger issue. Perceived oppression isn’t what is driving up mortality rates and a general sense of hopelessness among non-Hispanic whites with less than a bachelors degree. Among this population exists a pessimism, and sense of hopelessness about the future, and for good reason. Where as it used to be the case, that one did not need a college education to make a decent living and support a family, it is not the case today. Deaton illustrates this point;

“In the past, people with low levels of education could get a job in a factory and work their way up the chain of command. You could graduate high school, work at Bethlehem Steel, get more money every year as you get more experienced, and turn yourself into one of the famed blue-collar aristocrats of the 1970s. Now, there’s a feeling that life has gone, and remainders of that life are getting less and less for each generation.”

But it’s not just about decreasing income. Researchers think that adding to a decreasing income, is a decreasing expectation that one’s life is going to be better than that of their parents. In the post-WWII ear, in addition to a booming economy, the federal government made a healthy and thriving middle class possible with GI bills, which meant the average white American could get both a mortgage and an education — both of which appear out of reach for a large swath of working Americans today.

This somewhat explains why we don’t see the same increase in mortality rates among blacks and hispanics. To put it bluntly, minorities have not historically had the same high expectations as whites; the expectation of a decent paying job with or without a college education, the expectation of owning a nice home in a good neighborhood, the expectation of good schools for your children, the expectation of upward mobility. Yet today for many minority groups, prospects for the future are hopeful, and the new expectation is that they are likely to do better than their parents. Wage growth has been better in the last 15 to 20 years for African americans and Hispanics. Don’t get me wrong. This growth still does not equal equality. In reality, the prospects and opportunities for non-Hispanic whites are still better on average than that of minorities. Racism is still very much an issue, and the average white person still makes more money for doing the same job as the average minority. But again, amongst many minority populations there is a general expectation that prospects and economic opportunities are improving. Amongst these populations, there is still hope of progress, in multiple senses of the word, and this is just not the case for non-Hispanic whites without college degrees.