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  • Out of My Mind

“My doctor is worried I’m depressed, but that’s not how I feel,” Allen told me.

A few years into retirement and pushing three quarters of a century, this generally upbeat fellow found himself flummoxed by odd feelings, a new development he shared with his family physician.

“Most of the time, I’m like I’ve always been. I’m not some clueless optimist, but I usually see the glass half full,” he explained.

What’s more, Allen enjoyed his family, remained active, was in overall good health, and lived most of the time in the moment, rather than ruminating about the past or future. All these capacities strongly correlate with higher life satisfaction. So, what happened?

“It comes out of nowhere. I’m just doing whatever and suddenly I get this bad feeling. I can’t put it into words. I’ve never felt anything quite like it,” he said.

For hours, or sometimes an entire day, Allen’s “bad feeling” co-opted his awareness, making it difficult for him to focus on anything else. It drained his energy, soured his mood, and left him mired in a mental and spiritual darkness that escaped his understanding.

“Let’s make this feeling tangible,” I suggested.

I followed with a series of questions. “Where is the feeling in your body?” His chest. “What color is it?” Black tinged with dark red. “Does it have a temperature?” Hot. “What shape?” Like a jagged lump of coal. “Static or moving?” Dead still. “Texture? Rough and sharp. “If it made a sound, what would that be?” A low moan.

This line of inquiry seemed to help, because he soon declared, “I think I know what it is . . . despair.”

Throughout his life, Allen never considered the big questions of the “What’s it all about?” variety, including musings about existence, death and meaning. So, when recent experience imposed on him a growing awareness of his impermanence and the capricious nature of events, he was unprepared. Previously blessed with few personal losses, the vagaries of our entropic universe simply hadn’t crossed his mind.

“Who died?” I asked, surmising that was a key trigger.

“My parents, last year. Both in a few weeks of each other. Dad had a coronary, and after that, Mom just didn’t want to live. Died in her sleep,” he said.

As one would expect, Allen experienced sadness and grief over these losses, but this eventually passed, and he didn’t become mired in depression. However, months later, without warning, his episodes of despair emerged.

“It leaves me wondering just what all this is for or whether it even matters,” he said, referring to life itself. “Everything ends, nothing lasts, and when I’m in this state of mind, it all seems pointless.”

There were significant differences between Allen’s nameless dread and standard issue depression. Most prominently, it was episodic, not persistent. When not in its grip, he regained his customary frame of mind, one affording him a measure of optimism, hopefulness and life satisfaction.

Together, we crafted a strategy for addressing his intermittent trepidation. This incorporated much more time in nature (he was an indoor sort), which assuages angst through its beauty, balance and life energy. Also, he began a gratitude journal, which focused his awareness on the goodness in his life, and limited his exposure to bad news via the media. Finally, he used carefully selected music to uplift his spirit.

There is no “cure” for the dread that visited Allen. The ephemeral nature of existence, populated as it often is with losses, suffering and decline, is one of those facts of life we can’t shoo away with denial and glib psychological nostrums.

But, in facing this universal challenge, we can remind ourselves of life’s goodness, which is, after all, as compelling and valid as its dark side.

  • Out of My Mind

It’s called “metacognition,” and it’s a topnotch mental skill to possess.

By definition, this means “awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.” Notice the term “processes,” which is central to this attribute.

Metacognition is more than the ability to recognize one’s thoughts. It includes the capacity to identify how one’s thinking operates in cognitive areas such as decision-making, creativity, emotional awareness and self-regulation, learning and comprehension. Simply stated, it is understanding how we know.

If our thoughts are like bits of data in a computer, then mental processes are the software making it all work. So, having the ability to recognize, reflect on and even tinker with these processes makes you a kind of super user of the mind. And that can make big differences in one’s life.

Consider Sheryl, a single career professional, hobbled with what she described as “a deep insecurity.” For instance, if she texted a friend or romantic interest without receiving a response quickly, she became anxious and felt compelled to repeat her message, often multiple times.

And then there was Jeb, a middle-aged dad and tradesman who struggled with his temper. If someone pushed one of his hot buttons, and he had many, he went from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in the blink of an idea.

Metacognition involves splitting into two mental personas, one doing the thinking and the other observing the entire cognitive dance. This psychological division of labor promotes self-regulation, the ability to respond emotionally without reacting in a knee-jerk fashion. Which is why young children, who lack metacognition, often struggle with managing their feelings and behaviors. This attribute leaves the thinking mind more in charge of one’s feelings, rather than the other way around.

“You might want to consider learning awareness-focused meditation,” I suggested to both of them.

Meditation, which is a scientifically validated tool for promoting well-being, incorporates several potential areas of focus. One centers on growing one’s compassion for others and one’s self. Another addresses concentration and the capacity to stay in the present moment. But, the one I recommended to Sheryl and Jeb focuses on growing metacognition by observing one’s thought processes.

Now, many folks hear the word “meditation” and think of turbaned ascetics sitting in the lotus position. But, the modern secular version is far less intimidating.

There is growing evidence that as little as ten minutes a day of this type of meditation is sufficient to grow metacognition. The discernible effects arrive around six to eight weeks into this daily discipline and amplify as one’s practice elongates, which is what both Sheryl and Jeb discovered.

“I still get those insecure thoughts, but I don’t feel nearly as anxious and can put them aside pretty easily,” she said three months into her practice.

Jeb reported that, “When something ticks me off, I can actually pause and look at what’s happening in my head. Usually, that cuts it off at the pass.”

Through this meditative approach, both of them recognized how their thoughts followed a predictable line of thinking, and the ways this inner dialogue triggered their emotional reactions, which then instigated unwanted behavioral responses. The whole cognitive dance became visible. And, often, what we can see, we can modify.

Without metacognition, we are far more emotionally reactive, harbor many mental blind spots, lack self-awareness and pretty much fly blind from a psychological perspective. Some folks seem pre-loaded for this capacity, but others, like Sheryl and Jeb, have to work at it.

The good news is that, except in some narrow circumstances, metacognition is a learnable capacity. And while meditation is not the only contemplative way to incorporate this attribute (journaling is another, for example), it is proving to be highly effective and easy to incorporate into one’s life, even a busy one.

Without metacognition, we remain oblivious to how the mind operates.

As Einstein said, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

  • Out of My Mind

Rich handed me a decades old photograph showing him swinging over a lake on a rope tethered to an overhanging tree. His face bore a look of utter glee.

“Today, nobody would believe that I once knew how to play,” he told me. “I’d have to show them pictures like this to prove it.”

A successful businessman with his hunk of the American Dream, Rich said he’d “forgotten how to play,” that he could no longer find that part of himself that dropped joyfully into the water that day in his 20’s. And that’s a lot to lose. Until it evaporates, many of us don’t fully appreciate how vital playfulness is for easing our worries, unburdening our heavy hearts and making life more worthwhile.

Psychology tells us there are two primary modes of play. First is “active play,” and involves using one’s body, senses and mind to playfully interact with the environment, materials or other animals, including people. The other we call “adventurous play.” Here, we explore new experiences and roles. “Make believe” and “dress up”, as we called them in my youth, are examples.

Given a safe and sensory rich environment, children learn to play spontaneously. It is the primary means through which they learn, particularly in areas related to social and interpersonal functioning (playing with others), and sensory-motor skills. Because the world is new to them, there is much to learn and explore. Play expedites this process.

In adults, play can serve similar functions. Humans learn primarily from experiences, not information, and when those experiences are playful, these learnings imprint on the brain. Research shows that in school or other venues of learning, if we have fun, we absorb more and retain it longer.

If we remain playful as we age, we continue learning, acquiring new behaviors, and enriching our lives. The phrase “young at heart” usually refers to someone older who still knows how to play. However, like almost two-thirds of adults, Rich spent most of his leisure time watching television, and that ain’t play.

Meaning he lived an experientially impoverished existence. He stopped learning, letting go, taking risks and laughing. His life became a joyless forced marched through existence.

“When was the last time you had fun?” I asked him.

“I think it was at one of those water parks with my kids when they were pretty young. Best I can remember.”

“What changed?” I pressed.

“I guess I did. Everything at work got intense and my youngest was diagnosed with diabetes and the dog . . . well, a lot of bad stuff came my way, it seemed like all at once.”

The psychological weight of personal losses and challenges can crush a person’s capacity for play. Emotional states like depression, anxiety, obsessive worry and burnout often do the same.

“How do I learn to play again?” Rich asked.

“Play with your grandchildren, but be sure to do it the right way,” I replied.

That right way means learning from the kids. They know how to play. He didn’t, and he needed them to teach him and role model the necessary behaviors and attitude.

“Follow their lead,” I told him. “If you start taking charge or try to manage the whole thing, forget about it.”

So, he did, resulting in plenty of sandbox time, plying monkey bars, swinging, playing house and imaginary tea parties. Before long, this morphed into playing video games with his teenage son, Scrabble with his collegiate daughters and, eventually, swinging on a rope into the water once again.

When immersed in true play, we are happy, and in those interludes, it feels like we’ll never be unhappy again.

That’s the magic in play. And, when life gets gnarly, we can all use a little magic.

© 2014 by Philip Chard