After escaping the snowstorm and the threat of being trapped in the mountains, we headed west. The snow followed us for some time. Eventually we passed an unseen barrier and the familiar hue of the desert greeted us once more.
My wife and I looked at each other alongside the edge of an anomaly it seems in this part of the world, a river. Flowing slowly, we could not help but notice the contrast of this dark and rather blueish water against the barren and orange tinged desert. We had chosen this town, Green River, Utah, as a respite before the second half of our trip and the spot where we would make our turn back towards the desert and ultimately to the conclusion of our honeymoon.
Standing next to this unassuming river, I couldn’t help but imagine what the early explorers of this region felt. Could they sense the depth and magnitude of what this river ultimately turns into many miles away from this bucolic and ebbing trickle of water? Could they know about the challenges and rewards this small river would lead to? Like the chapters that lay before us, my wife and I can sense the potential of the life that waits for us. A life together that we both turned towards, decided to create together.
It is hard to imagine that the Grand Canyon is what lies at the end of this small pathway of water. John Wesley Powell, one of the chief explorers of the Grand Canyon, passed this spot in his first expedition in 1869. I could see the silhouette of a one-armed man drifting past as I thought about the journey he underwent.
I could not help but think about the challenge of Powell’s first expedition and its comparison to the challenge and adventure of marriage. Powell’s first expedition was challenging and dangerous. The team experienced numerous cases of near drownings in places like Disaster Falls and Desolation Canyon not far from where we stood. Despite the challenges, they continued because of their goal; to explore the blank spaces on the map. Even after all they had already endured, near the end of their journey some of the team opted to go no further. These team members eventually parted ways at Separation Canyon never to be seen again. Despite these losses and the challenges, Powell’s expedition continued after Separation Canyon and ultimately made history a few days later.
The road ahead looks challenging but it is an adventure we chose together and without fully committing we may not reach our goal. We must continue forward together despite the risks and we turn back at our own peril.
I looked around as I thought all this and I realized I had been standing in reverie for sometime. My wife had already returned to the car and the fisherman to my left looked uneasy. I waved and returned to the safety of the air conditioning.
Author: May, Katherine
Category: Rest, Recovery, Mental Health, Depression, Nature
It is a lie to ignore Winter and not to recognize it as a natural season in Nature and in our lives. Modern day disorders like depression or anxiety, even the sequelae of burnout following hustle culture, likely are related to an unnatural resistance to this season. In Wintering, Katherine May presents the argument for the importance of Winter as she lives through a Winter of her own. May paints a beautiful picture of how, even in the low points of the year or even in life, rest and retreat, although uncomfortable to allow, are nourishing and formative. May’s story confronts the denial and dissonance that culture has created around Winter and encourages us to accept these seasons and learn what lessons we can from them.
What is Winter?
Winter is a natural season in Nature and in our lives. When things don’t go as planned – you lose your job, a relationship ends, etc; Winter is the season you find yourself in. In nature, Winter is that natural period that follows growth. The trees shed their leaves, animals hunker down, and the weak die. Without it, there could be no Spring. The same is true in our own lives. Modern culture has sold us on the message that we should strive to always be happy and we should always be working. That we can be and do all of these things. May says that we have been educated to ignore the cyclical nature of life; “…Instead we are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear, a long march from birth to death in which we mass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is brutal untruth.” She reminds us that “Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.”
We risk living outside of the natural seasons and chapters of life. Ignoring these cycles, blunts our experience of the world. Feeding into the cultural myth that we can accomplish everything, that we can work forever, is at the expense of robbing the true essence of life – one colored by both ups and downs. Living in this manner is akin to denying death. At worst, it will delude you into thinking you have lived well when you arrive at the inevitable conclusion we all will meet.
What to do in Winter
You can arrive at Winter by recognizing the season and then living accordingly or Winter can surprise you and come on suddenly. When you are surprised by Winter, you ignore it at your own expense. To recognize Winter is to pause the unconscious cycle, to step back from living the story, to retreat. May reminds us to give Winter the respect it deserves and from her own experience we can deduce some simple principles to apply during Winter:
– Recognize when retreat is warranted and then approach that retreat by simplifying – cutting out the nonessential and focusing in on values that nourish you like Family, Community, and Service
– Return to Ritual and recognize it’s value
– No new projects or habits
– Choose activities and projects that have no tangible “outcome”
– Return to the land and spend time in Nature
– Go on long walks and swim in cold water
“We must get back into relation: vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos and the universe…We must once more practice the ritual of dawn and noon and sunset, the ritual of kindling fire and pouring water, the ritual of the first breath and the last”
“…If only life were so stable, happy, and predictable to produce ants instead of grasshoppers, year in, year out. The truth is that we all have ant years and grasshopper years-years in which we are able to prepare and save and years where we need a little extra help. Our true flaw lies not in failing to store up enough resources to cope with the grasshopper years, but in believing that each grasshopper year is an anomaly, visited only on us, due to our unique human failings”
“Winter is a time for libraries, the muffled quiet of Book stacks and the scent of old pages and dust. In winter, I can spend hours in silent pursuit of a half-understood concept or a detail of history. There is nowhere else to be, after all.”
“I would not, of course, seek to deny that we gradually grow older, but while doing so, we pass through phases of good health and ill, of optimism and deep doubt, of freedom and constraint. There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. To make that manageable, we just have to remember that our present will one day become a past, and our future will be our present. We know that because it’s happened before”
Similar Books/Further Reading:
The World Ending Fire By Wendell Berry
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
Title: The Practice of Groundedness
Author: Stulberg, Brad
Genre: Practical Nonfiction
Category: Fundamentals, Habits, Work Philosophy, Values, Organization
In the past, I have let myself get overwhelmed and paralyzed, in a sense, regarding habits and projects. Analysis Paralysis or the Paradox of Choice. I never had the vocabulary to describe and articulate these frenetic feelings I have had around work until I read The Practice of Groundedness. I always felt an urgency and a need to construct the perfect plan and then execute that plan. Inevitably these routines concluded with both an exasperation due to never being perfect and ultimately a track record of shallow results. Through the lens of values and a sustainable approach to growth, Stulberg presents a way to view the philosophy and failures of the “chronically behind” and rushed approach to growth. Stulberg’s perspective and the language which he uses to illustrate that perspective are refreshing and timely. A welcome lesson and mindshift in these times of hyper connectivity and ever present burnout.
Why do we feel so burnt out? Stulberg begins his book by describing the culture that exists today; a culture that springs from hyper connectivity, hustle culture, and a reinforced lifestyle of “always being on”. Some of these qualities are decidedly western but Stulberg argues that they are magnified by the technology that is ever present in our lives. Today’s culture has lead to a population of people that are exhausted, worried, and pursued by a background level of anxiety reminding them that they could be doing more at every spare moment. Stulberg defines this state and climate as Heroic Individualism; “…an ongoing game of one-upmanship, against both yourself and others, paired with limiting belief that measurable achievement is the only arbiter of success. Stulberg goes on to say that culture perpetuates this state by relentlessly saying “…you need to be better, feel better, think more positively, have more, and ‘optimize’ your life – only to offer shallow and superficial solutions that, at best, leave you wanting.”
Principles of Groundedness
Stulberg’s antidote to the pitfalls of Heroic Individualism is Groundedness. He describes Groundedness as “…an unwavering internal strength and self confidence that sustains you through ups and downs. It is a deep reservoir of integrity and fortitude, of wholeness, out of which lasting performance, well-being, and fulfillment emerge.” Contrasting with modern culture, Groundedness is an approach to life that springs from your innermost values and focuses on creating a meaningful life in the present moment. Rather than living with insatiable striving and ambition, Groundedness instead turns the focus to actions that are conducive to sustainable growth and fulfillment in the here and now. It combats the unfocused and frenetic lifestyle that characterizes modern culture and replaces it with a simpler way forward. Rather than a life of infinite opportunities that paralyzes you with ever better choices leaving you with a history of half baked results, etc – a life centered around Groundedness allows you to focus on what’s actually important; “Groundedness does not eliminate ambition, it situates and stabilizes these qualities, so that your striving and ambition become less frenetic and more focused, sustainable and fulfilling; less about achieving something out in front of you and more about living in alignment with your innermost values, pursuing your interests, and expressing your authentic self in the here and now, and in a manner you can be proud of.”
Where the Heroic Individualism path is characterized by a life of divided attention, urgency, and ultimately an ever growing to do list without any change to the time we are allocated; a Grounded life revolves around a bedrock of principles that continue to sustain the Grounded life; “…happiness, fulfillment, well-being, and sustainable performance arise when you concentrate on being present in the process of living instead of obsessing over outcomes, and above all when you’re finally Grounded wherever you are.”
Principles of Groundedness
- Acceptance: Accept where you are to get where you want to go
- Presence: Be present so you can own your attention and energy
- Patience: Be patient and you’ll get there faster
- Vulnerability: Embrace Vulnerability to develop genuine strength and confidence
- Deep Community: Build Deep Community
- Movement: Move your body to ground your mind
Living a Grounded Life
The principles of a Grounded Life aren’t meant to be merely thought of, Stulberg reminds us that “You don’t become what you think. You become what you do. Living a grounded life starts with a mindset shift, but it continues as an ongoing practice.” Where I think this advice is most relevant is in regards to taking action and overcoming the “analysis paralysis” or other such impediment to action. When action is halted and you are so focused on your plan or your thoughts, dissonance follows. Dissonance is the discomfort that accompanies inconsistencies between your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and your actions. I think this hesitancy to action and ultimately the dissonance that follows stems from the Heroic Individualism and it’s emphasis on the outcome as the “only arbiter of success.” When you are so focused on the outcome, you limit your actions – whether to protect yourself from failure or to give yourself a way out if something better comes along. Ultimately you protect your ego. Stulberg’s approach to Groundedness emphasizes that living with Groundedness is an ongoing practice, one that revolves around the Being-Doing Cycle and practicing actions that revolve around principles. In response to the “analysis paralysis” and hesitation to action, the Being-Doing cycle reminds us that “…your inner way of being influences what you do, but what you do also influences your inner way of being.” When we are experiencing dissonance, it is likely that our Being-Doing is out of alignment. Moving forward and taking action will in turn give you the mood to keep going, or as Stulberg reminds us, “Mood follows Action”.
Moving forward with this new practice, one of the final thoughts Stulberg concludes with is to choose simplicity over complexity. In an age of high tech gadgets and pervasive attention to productivity, it is easy to allow yourself to get overwhelmed and spread thin across multiple to do lists, calendars, and projects. Stulberg simplifies the evolution here by describing it as: Simple to Complex to Simple. I have found this as a great synthesis to describe the productivity and self development evolution in my life. Early on in your development journey, you focus on certain habits and routines. Eventually you could grow to add the technology (wearables, electronic calendars, hacks, etc) to give you that extra edge in your development. This is where the complexity comes in and ultimately, perhaps, where we get off the path. When we are so hooked on tracking our habits or productivity for the sake of productivity, we get lost in the complexity. We choose productivity rather than productive activity. This is the bedrock of Heroic Individualism. Practicing Groundedness helps us pull ourselves through this complexity, returning to simplicity again, with new eyes; “…We often make things more complex than they need to be as a way to avoid the reality that what really matters for behavior change is consistently showing up and doing the work. Not dreaming about it. Not thinking about it. Not talking about it. Doing it”
“Life satisfaction is largely a by-product of transitioning from being a seeker, or someone who wants a certain lifestyle, to a practitioner, or someone who lives that lifestyle.”
“Do not worry about achieving a specific result. Focus on being where you are and applying the principles of Groundedness to the best of your ability right now. If you concentrate on the process the results you are hoping for tend to take care of themselves.”
“Bring intentionality to everything you do, keep coming back to the principles of Groundedness and your actions for living them out.”
“Do not compare yourself to others. Compare yourself to prior versions of yourself and judge yourself based on the effort you are exerting in the present moment.”
“Practice means approaching an endeavor deliberately, with care, and with intention to continually grow. It requires paying close attention to feedback you receive – both internal and from external sources you trust – and adjust accordingly.”
“When an activity becomes a practice, it shifts from something that you are doing at a point in time to an ongoing practice of becoming.”
Similar Books/Further Reading:
Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Cares
The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage by Kelly McGonigal
Fatherly by Seth Simons
Previous Commonplace Book Entries
Trail: Crowder’s Mountain via Tower Loop and Pinnacle Trail
– Pinnacles: 4.44 Miles
– Tower Loop: 3.24 Miles
Date: June and July 2021
Description: Both loops greet you with gradual elevation gain as you ascend 800ft to the top of what remains of an ancient mountain range in the area of the Appalachian Mountain foothills. At the top of both of these trails, you have a great vantage point for the surrounding countryside with Pinnacles giving you a far reaching view to the Blue Ridge mountains to the northwest and the Tower Loop giving you miles of tree canopies and a spotted landscape of farms to the southeast. The towers of Charlotte are clearly visible roughly 30 miles away. Both hikes reward you with a diversity of trees and variable stone indicative of the region as you travel various switchbacks and some scrambling if you seek it out. We did these hikes separately and both start at different trail heads on opposite side of the park. Ambitious hikers can loop these trails via the saddle between the peaks for a ~10 mile loop.
Crowder’s Mountain has an interesting history. The density of the stone means it has withstood the erosion of time, leveling other peaks in the area and making it a towering monolith comparatively. It is easy to see why it was used for a landmark to mark trading routes in the area and likely to distinguish Catawba and Cherokee Tribe hunting lands.
Author: Doidge, Norman
Category: Professional, Psychology, Neuroplasticity, Neuro Physical Therapy, Neuroscience, Neurorehab
How does a limb affected by a stroke return it’s function? Why can a blind man move around just as well as anyone else and even hear better? Why does an amputee continue to feel his amputated foot even months after surgery? Why can someone with a learning disability at birth improve?
The Brain is not as static as we might think. Contrasting with the static model of history, Doidge paints a beautiful picture of a brain that can adapt and grow. Through case studies that illustrate the brain’s resilience and ability to transform as well as an overview of the new science behind Neuroplasticity; the case is made for a new theory of the Brain.
A Primer on Neuroplasticity
To put it simply, the historical model of the brain is inaccurate. Old models describe a brain that is static and unchanging, where you are stuck with the faculties you are born with. Prognosis following an injury was poor and if you are born with a disability, you would probably need someone to take care of you or historically at the extreme’s you were committed to an asylum or other such facility. Thankfully, years of science and anecdotal evidence has given us a better understanding of the brain.
The Brain That Changes Itself illustrates our new understanding of Neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity as defined by Oxford Dictionary is “the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury”. Doidge illustrates the brain’s ability to reorganize itself or heal itself by describing stroke patient’s return of function in an affected limb, new abilities or heightened abilities following blindness or deafness, and even resetting compulsions like OCD related to hyperactive areas in the brain. The true power that comes from this new understanding is the fact that these changes happen without medication or surgery. The brain is constantly altering it’s maps, where old and existing areas can move into injured areas to replenish function. New connections can be made and old harmful pathways can be rerouted. The brain is a growth oriented organ, one that exists in potential and is constantly growing, reinforcing connections, and changing.
The Culturally Modified Brain
Which influences which, Culture or the Brain? The relationship between Culture and the Brain illustrates the uniqueness of the Human Brain and informs us of a new perspective on Neuroplasticity. Aside from return of function or any of the plastic changes discussed before, the influence of culture on the brain is a fascinating perspective. As mentioned before, the research has shown that plastic changes in the brain can occur from any sustained activity “…including physical activities, sensory activities, learning, thinking, and imagining”. Culture and Cultural ideas are no exception and also have a measurable impact on the brain. Thus, sustained cultural activities such as “…reading, studying music, or learning new languages” evolves and influences the growth of the brain. This influence of culture on the brain informs a new perspective on evolution through the lens of Neuroplasticity; “…A Neuroplastically informed view of culture and the brain implies a two-way street: the brain and genetics produce culture, but culture also shapes the brain”.
So what does this mean? Why are we not still hunter-gatherers? The research shows that we still share the original circuitry of our ancestors or modules. These modules or hardware in the brain are designed to do specific cultural tasks like language, mating, thinking. These modules in modern humans have adapted to the modern world. The same modules in our ancestors, those modules specific to recognizing faces for example, now have adapted to recognize cars and trucks – objects our ancestors would not normally have to process. Cognitive processing and thousands of years of Neuroplastic change bring us to the brain of today.
Along with modules specific to cultural tasks, our brains are also primed for those modules we consider more “animalistic” and instinctual. Why these “brutish animal instincts” are not pervasive in today’s modern human is a testament to the effect of culture and it’s neuroplastic effect on the brain. Through “sublimation”, ancestral human predatory and dominance instincts are civilized.
“The plastic brain solves the riddle of sublimation. Areas that evolved to perform hunter-gatherer tasks such as stalking prey can, because they are plastic, be sublimated into competitive games, since our brains evolved to link different neuronal groups and modules in novel ways. There is no reason why neurons from the instinctual parts of our brains cannot be linked to our more cognitive-cerebral ones and to our pleasure centers, so that they literally get wired together to form new wholes”.
An example that illustrates the neuroplastic and civilized effect of culture on our instincts or instinctual modules is the game of chess. The hallmark of sublimation being that the animal instinct is combined with a higher order cerebral task therefore it can continue to be expressed but in a more civilized fashion.
“When an instinct, such as stalking prey, is linked up to a civilized society, such as cornering the opponent’s king on the chessboard, and the neuronal networks for the instinct and the intellectual activity are also linked, the two activities temper each other – playing chess is no longer about bloodthirsty stalking, though it still has some of the exciting emotions of the hunt. The dichotomy between ‘low’ instinctual and ‘high’ cerebral begins to disappear. Whenever the low and high transform each other to create a new whole, we can call it a sublimation.”
What happens when civilization fails to rewire the hunter-gatherer brain? These early and more animalistic modules exist. They are not dormant but rather civilization gives them new functions. That relationship is certainly tenuous however and is evident when civilization breaks down. “…the sad proof that civilization is a composite of the higher and lower brain functions is seen when civilization breaks down in civil wars, and brutal instincts emerge full force, and theft, rape, destruction, and murder become commonplace.”
Today we are still humans with hunter-gatherer brains. Centuries of civilization and cultural modification has allowed for neuroplastic change to these original structures. Without culture, “…a regression to barbarism is always possible”. Doidge continues with this cultural lens on Neuroplasticity and illustrates how different cultures beget populations with different brains influencing people’s perception and giving evidence to support why cultures conflict with each other and differ in perspective.
**This perspective on Neuroplasticity and highlight on culture is incredibly fascinating and complements my professional relationship with Neuroplasticity being focused on return of function, etc.
Neuroplasticity and a Growth Mindset
This final lens on Neuroplasticity that is highlighted is the relationship between Neuroplasticity, Psychotherapy, and the Growth Mindset. Doidge introduces the work of Eric Kandel a psychiatrist and researcher at Columbia University. Kandel was the first to illustrate neuroplastic changes related to learning and ultimately how neurons alter their structure and reinforce their connections in response to learning. Doidge suggests that historically, psychotherapy, or the “talking cure” treatment for psychiatric symptoms, character problems, or behavior, was not well respected. To truly treat these problems, it was thought that psychoanalysis and psychotherapy were not efficacious and ‘serious’ treatments required a pharmaceutical approach. Kandel was one of the first researchers to put a scientist’s eye on what’s really happening in the psychotherapeutic approach and his research showed that psychotherapy created neuroplastic changes in the patient’s brain.
“…it presumably does so through learning, by producing changes in gene expression that alter the strength of synaptic connections, and structural changes that alter the anatomical pattern of interconnections between nerve cells of the brain.”
This insight and evidence into neuroplastic changes via this psychotherapy or talking route supports how much mindset can shape our perception and in turn perhaps alter our actions. Pyschotherapy and learning ultimately alters the structures of neuronal networks in the brain and this evidence supports that anatomical changes occur when we practice and reinforce certain mindsets. Real change is happening when we reinforce certain thoughts or practice certain habits and Doidge’s research and evidence gives real weight to the importance of being cognizant of these practices.
“Because the plastic brain can always allow brain functions that it has brought together to separate, a regression to barbarism is always possible, and civilization will always be a tenuous affair that must be taught in each generation and is always, at most, one generation deep”
“We must be learning if we are to feel fully alive, and when life, or love, becomes too predictable and it seems like there is little left to learn, we become restless – a protest, perhaps, of the plastic brain when it can no longer perform its essential task”
“Understanding this tortoise-and-hare effect can help us understand what we must do to truly master new skills. After a brief period of practice, as when we cram for a test, it is relatively easy to improve because we are likely strengthening existing synaptic connections. But we quickly forget what we’ve crammed – because these are easy come, easy go neuronal connections and are rapidly reversed. Maintaining improvement and making a skill permanent require the slow steady work that probably forms new connections.”
Similar Books/Further Reading
Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck
Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V.S. Ramachandran
The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norma Doidge
Previous Commonplace Book Entries