fear

“I’d spent my life believing that people were, at heart, kind and good. This is what the world had shown me. But I couldn’t find anything good about my captors. If humans could be this monstrous, maybe I’d had everything wrong. If this was the world, I didn’t want to live in it. That was the scariest and most disabling thought of all.”

– Amanda Lindhout, A House in the Sky.

You asked me what I was afraid of
I said I didn’t know
because I was afraid of answering

afraid of feeling my own fear
because I am scared, and that scares me

I’m so scared that everything I hold to be real isn’t true. I’m scared that people aren’t fundamentally good. I’m scared that we have no purpose and no importance. I’m scared that it’s all an illusion created by chemical pathways and it will mean nothing at the end. I’m scared of being alone and having nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one. I’m scared that nothing I do really matters. I’m scared that I’m not special, that nothing I feel is real or unique or important, it’s all just evolution and flawed perception. I’m scared that I’m not good enough. That none of it matters, not even love.

All of my beliefs are made to counteract my fear. I tell myself that these fears aren’t real, that love is, because I think maybe, even if it’s not true, it can help to get me through. Because the only fact of the matter is I’m alive.

So I’ve built up these complex logical systems, optimistic justifications for every doubt I think about 
created so many little reasons why we do matter, why good is real, how reality is whatever I choose to believe.

The thing is, if I really believed it, maybe I wouldn’t have to convince myself 

Caffeinism

We’ve all seen the crazed look in the eyes, the disheveled hair and yellowed teeth of the chronically dependent, as they shuffle towards their saving grace first thing in the morning. A long line of McGill students, praying to the altar of Tim Horton’s during their most trying time. Starving artists shelling out $4.00 a pop at independent coffee shops in Mile End, praying to Kaffeina (the Roman goddess of coffee) that the brown elixir served by the hip baristas will hold a cure for their existential angst. Have you ever wondered what is responsible for the rush Starbucks provides, or been curious about the active ingredient in the morning drink our culture so adamantly reveres?

The answer: caffeine. This simple 24-atom molecule is the most widely-used drug in the world. The two most popular beverages worldwide (not including water) are tea and coffee, in that order. Coffee contains twice the amount of caffeine as tea per serving (100 mg to 50 mg, to be exact). Many soft drinks, including both Coke and Pepsi, also feature this intoxicating molecule, not to mention the multitude of energy drinks students and truck drivers alike rely on to get them through many a long night.

Caffeine is widely renowned for its association with enhanced thinking abilities. Its perceived effects include improved efficacy, feelings of awakeness, and increased creativity. These attributes have rendered it the chosen substance for sleep-deprived thinkers for centuries. What is it about this simple substance that lends it the ability to increase concentration?

To learn how caffeine keeps us alert, we first need to understand how we get tired on a neural level. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry messages between neurons, the cells that compose your brain. Adenosine is produced in every neuron throughout the day, as a by-product of cellular processes that consume energy (in the form of ATP). Adenosine binds to A1 receptors in your nerve cells, telling the neuron to stop releasing excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate, serotonin, and dopamine. Since there’s no excitatory signal in transmission, the resulting message is one of inhibition: adenosine basically tells the brain to chill out. This is what induces feelings of tiredness at the end of the day!

The structure of caffeine is similar to that of adenosine, similar enough to bind to the same A1 receptors. However, caffeine is structurally different enough that instead of activating these receptors and transmitting the “tiredness” message, it actually blocks the signal and results in a lack of fatigue, acting as an antagonist for the A1 receptor. Since adenosine can’t bind, there are more of the excitatory neurotransmitters floating around the brain, because their production isn’t down-regulated. Increased levels of glutamate, serotonin, and dopamine lead to more neurons firing: in other words, more of the brain is active, which could lead to an improved ability to focus.

Despite its association with locations of business rather than pleasure, caffeine is a recreational drug with similar effects to other less socially acceptable substances. Like any psychoactive drug, increased intake of caffeine causes the body to develop tolerance: more A1 receptors are created when you drink coffee consistently, so you have to drink more to feel the same “rush”. As a result, foregoing regular caffeine use renders it more effective. However, this isn’t easy to do, because in addition to tolerance, caffeine can cause chemical dependence. Caffeine withdrawal can occur 12 to 24 hours after most recent use, with symptoms that include headache, depression, and fatigue. This is one reason why most people choose to intake first thing in the morning – to stave off withdrawal.

In addition to chemical dependence, caffeine has been found to enable some psychological addiction. It is the increase in the level of dopamine, the neurotransmitter most tightly linked to the reward pathway in the brain, that gives many drugs their “high,” and causes them to be addictive. By inhibiting its downregulation, caffeine increases the amount of dopamine floating around, and is slightly addictive as a result.

Caffeinism is the technical term for chronic addiction to caffeine. I think it sounds more like the name of a cult that worships caffeine, which, if anything, seems to be more prevalent in our culture. Faith in coffee is all fine and good, but it’s not magic bean water – it’s hot caffeine water, and science can tell us how it works!

Sources – all information taken from this book:

Braun, Stephen. Buzz: the Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Mountain Metaphor – 3

Life, as an attempt to scale the face of a mountain: 

    The path of the stable life I lived four months ago mostly consisted of choosing between a multitude of possible responsibilities that composed my strongholds to real life, allowing me to climb securely: friends, family, school. Each of these offered safety, security: a good future full of things I loved. But the sheer number of great possible holds overwhelmed me at times, and I found it difficult to climb quickly with a pack of expectations weighing down my back. 
    The life I’ve lived these past four months has allowed me to ascend untethered, light as a bird, with few holds grounding me to real life. And the vertigo I felt when a hold I once thought was stable fell out from under me was amplified to the extreme – I was sure I would fall, because I didn’t know what else I had to hold on to.
    But I’ve learned to create new holds. Chisel them in one-by-one, changing the shakiest ones into the strongest. I’ve learned I can drop my own expectations to lighten the load. 
     The most important thing for me to keep in mind is that it’s my route. I determine what’s important to me: where I get to go, what I get to carry, and what I have to hold on to.

Mountain Metaphor – 2

Mountain ranges are created when two continental plates of equal density come together. These two sturdily-built collections of earth fiercely challenge one another when they first come into contact, as they’re both trying to move in opposite directions. But since both plates are equally dense, neither can subduct – no matter how hard they fight, neither will naturally sacrifice its high ground to go under the other. Instead, they learn to work together, rising up over millions of years to create something far more impressive than either could have created alone. An incredible vista, visible from miles away. An inspiration to the whole entire world.


What would happen if, instead of pouring huge amounts of money, time, and energy into disagreements, strong-minded humans instead learned to work together to create something similarly unforgettable?

Mountain Metaphor – 1

From the top of a mountain, everything seems clear. It’s easy to see the paths that the rivers take as they wind through the surrounding valleys, the same rivers that we now know carved the very mountain you’re standing on. But what did our view of the world look like before we climbed the mountain and learned how everything worked, when the only world we knew was the valley?

Humans have five senses, two of which necessitate physical contact for perception. Of the remaining three, hearing and smell have weakened so immensely over time as to provide us with only the faintest information about our environment. Vision, our strongest sense, only perceives electromagnetic radiation in the visible light spectrum, about 0.0035% of the total electromagnetic spectrum. We are severely restricted by our ability to only be in one place at a time.
What allows us to change this vantage point? What is it that allows us to climb this towering metaphorical mountain?

Our drive to explore has given us access to incredible technology which allows us to scale the metaphorical ridge.

The creation of spoken language allowed us to communicate our experiences with one another, where before we were limited to vague physical signals. The advent of writing allowed us to hear someone’s story without needing them to be physically present at all. The wide availability of the written word enabled by the invention of the printing press allowed the general public to be educated on an enormous scale. The Internet has revolutionized the amount of information each person is exposed to to a previously unfathomable degree.

The world we inhabit now is vastly different from the one in which we evolved. And it’s all because of the tools we have invented to expand our perception. It is no longer our senses, but our technology that determines the extent of our awareness. It’s incredible to think that our own ingenuity, curiosity, and creativity have driven us to push our limits and explore unheard-of possibilities.

Over millennia, the analytical curiosity which forms the basis for the scientific method has enabled the understanding of the world which has led to the creation of new technologies, the closest thing we have to magic. Between self-driving cars, food-delivery services, and phones that can provide us with images of people across the world at the tap of a finger, it’s easy to forget that the world we live in isn’t the one we’ve always had, nor the world that all humans currently inhabit. Our current understanding of the universe is the equivalent of the summit of the highest mountain ever known on Earth, when a thousand years ago we stood in the valley. And the best part is that there’s so much more to discover!!

Vulnerability

April 10, 2016, instagram post from my high school bedroom:

Radical softness (n): unapologetic vulnerability. In a society that prioritizes fierce self-reliance, it is seen as weak to be emotional, to want support. It takes a different kind of strength to share your emotions openly with other people, to refuse to feel sorry for how you feel.

// January 25-27, 2018; Granada, Nicaragua

For the purpose of this article, vulnerability is defined as the ability to experience one’s emotions as they are, and in doing so, fully embrace the life one is living right now, in its entirety.

Vulnerability is the most rebellious form of self-love that exists in American culture. In an attempt to sell the American Dream, advertising companies and mainstream media moguls have created a culture that idolizes “happiness”, an effortless sense of satisfaction one can achieve simply by working hard and/or looking good. As a result, there is this expectation that to be seen as likeable, one has to seem happy. In conforming to this expectation, I have often felt pressure to exude an unconditionally positive outlook, to radiate a joy I don’t always authentically possess.

To maintain this illusion of happiness, there were emotions I would refuse to let myself feel. I was determined negativity deserved no space in my life, so I wouldbecome otherwise occupied to avoid feeling angry, sad, or scared. Despite my best efforts, my “busyness” tactic never really worked – no matter what activity I convinced myself I was immersed in, the shame was always there, whispering sweet “you’re nothing”s in my ear. The pressure to maintain the illusion of the person I thought I should be would build in the back of my mind, until I couldn’t take it anymore – I would shatter, my soul sharpening words into shards that would surround me. I would use these to shield myself from a version of me I didn’t want to see, but more than anything, the make-believe stalactites cut me off from the person I wanted to be. Sometimes they would turn outwards, on the people I loved the most, for coming too close, for fear of them seeing me in a way I couldn’t bear to see myself.Furthermore, by not allowing myself to feel how upset I was, I wouldn’t learn from the mistakes that caused me pain in the first place. The whole point of our brain’s negative feedback loop is to alert the organism in question that its current environment is not safe anymore, and something needs to change. But how on Earth can I learn to change my actions when I’m so busy pretending everything is fine?

Maintaining this facade of perfection was not only inauthentic, it was exhausting – by cutting myself off from emotions I perceived as negative, I was not experiencing my life to its fullest extent. This was a significant blockage in my relationship with myself that rippled outward to affect my relationship with others, leading me to stay in places I was uncomfortable far longer than I should have.

I realized in my teacher training was that there is nothing intrinsically bad about these so-called “negative” emotions – it’s okay to be hurt, angry, and sad. It means I cared about something enough to get attached to it, and it’s unfortunate that it didn’t work out. But these feelings don’t define me – it’s what I decide to do with these emotions that determine who I am and how my life will continue.

I let myself cry now. I allow myself to write & think about the things that make me unhappy, without immediately trying to find a solution. Quick fixes never worked, and it’s much less painful to address the underlying problem a single time than treat the symptoms every month or so. Who I really am and what I really feel is valuable; what’s crazy is how long it has taken me to understand this. Unhappiness is a necessary part of life, and the breaking is beautiful in its own way. Accessing these emotions has brought me so much closer to reality, to who I am and who I want to be.

Which brings me to my second point: Vulnerability is the fundamental building block for authentic communication of personal experience that creates connection with another human being. It’s the single most important trait for any meaningful relationship.

I am more connected to others, too – I can call friends & family members now when I’m upset, talk to loved ones about my less positive feelings in the relationship in the hopes of ameliorating it.  No one around me has been put off by these real emotions, either; on the contrary, it has made me so much more relatable when I am able to talk about things I am having difficulty with. It makes me a real person, someone others can really connect to; no longer an unattainable golden girl.

I’ve realized vulnerability is what I crave in communication. I would rather have someone cry to me about the shitty breakup they’re going through five times over than deliver a distant anecdote about what they had for lunch. Similarly, the music that resonates with me usually addresses themes of love, pain, sadness, and anger in relationships. These feel authentic, especially when they’re pertinent to my own life.

It takes immense strength to reveal the parts of myself I have always been told are “weak” and “childish”. But I’m finding immeasurable power in accepting what is. True weakness is hiding who I really am from myself and those I love, out of fear of being rejected for not being enough. True immaturity is found in an inability to learn from past mistakes, stemming from a refusal to feel – a lack of vulnerability

Artists are some of the bravest and most open people in our society – they have to be to do their job, which is to create connection, the manifestation of art. That’s what I’m trying to create now, too. Open communication, connection, vulnerable authenticity. Growing into becoming a person who experiences & express herself fully, accepting all aspects of her life.

// How to?

I am by no means an expert on anything, but here are a few tips I’ve found useful in my own personal journey:

– Reach out. I try to open up to people when I’m feeling upset. Sometimes I disregard my own emotions as dumb or unnecessary, but talking to a loved one helps validate them. In addition, articulating my feelings often allows me to understand what I’m really struggling with

– Something really key for my journey in vulnerability that my personal development teacher impressed upon me was to always speak from” I”. Often, in an attempt to distance myself from being vulnerable, I would speak in vague generalities, saying things like “sometimes this happens” or “people do this”. Even using second person & first person plural, “you should / we feel” connotes an element of separation from self. The way to overcome this distance and really connect? Speak from I. After all, the only things I can ever really know are those I experience, so it’s all I can talk about with any certainty.

// Additional resources:

Brene Brown has done some incredible research on the importance of vulnerability in relationship and life satisfaction – I highly recommend any of her works if you want to learn about the concrete effect of vulnerability.

Golden (and grey)

Fog burns away
Hills come out for the day

One year after 1848
Everyone moved out to the Golden State

Golden hearts
Chasing dreams,
The sea reflected glimmers, gleams
Remnants of the golden rush,
King Midas’ golden touch

Not a single cloud in the sky
Because the air is so damn dry
There’s mountains and valleys, sea and sky
Deserts and cities, open and high
Fresh and hip and new and cool
Full of the hipsters who dropped out of school
The next big thing around the bend
Everyone’s a fucking Godsend

So many people, we can’t breathe
Can’t move or speak,
Can’t feel the wreath
Tied around our necks
The price of beauty
Plastic surgery in purgatory

//

Born in 1998
now I’m here at the golden gates
Sixteen, on my own
Don’t have to wait
Make it alone, despite the hate

Golden sunlight, golden hills
Dead grass & thrown away pills

Golden skin, golden girls,
Sun-bleached salt-drenched golden curls,
Golden sand and golden sea
Golden streetlights, electricity

I’ve never seen a sky so big
Never seen a sunset so beautiful as over the pacific

Open roads and open sky
In the parks, people getting high
Sixteen, in the passenger seat
Sunsets and streetlights viewed through the heat
Reflected in the rearview mirrors
Late nights, golden lights, fallen tears

After the sun sets
The sky turns black
The brilliance fades
the grey comes back

colder than anywhere else
to my bones
California in the summer
No one’s at home

I’ve never felt colder in Canada
than I did in California

//

but there’s vignettes of the idyllic halcyon days
the golden feelings that go away
the golden boys who stole my heart
but who now live a world apart

I don’t belong, don’t feel at home
At the end of the day, I still feel alone

Reality is Perception

“Life’s what you make it, so let’s make it rock!” – Hannah Montana, 2007.

Our nervous system is what allows us to think, to plan, to make decisions and take action based on our perception of the world. Our brains are able to process massive amounts of data from the universe we inhabit, and the combination of chemical signals and electric potentials allows us to interpret the environment in which we live. Despite the large amount of data we are able to process, we are not directly connected to the universe the way single-celled organisms are, through a simple membrane. Instead, all of our sensory input is organized and processed by specialized areas of our nervous system. There is an absurd amount of information incoming all the time, so a significant portion of our brains are devoted to determining what’s worth processing. We are only consciously aware of the input we attend to. Subsequently, our world view is determined by the input we attend to, which form our observations of the world. The decisions we make are based on our respective interpretations of the world. The images we remember are conjured by our brain, not accurate reproductions of the universe. Since unattended sensory input is not remembered, it cannot factor into our perception of the world, and it therefore cannot have any impact on our decision-making process. Awareness is key because it determines our outlook which determines the actions we take which impact our environment are based on the decisions we make.

The only objective truth we can know is that all we know is what we experience. Everything we know about the world is from induction – we assume it’s true because our experience is all we have. We make assumptions and, if our experience never contradicts these assumptions, we accept these assumptions on lack of counterevidence. This is possible because all the information our consciousness is exposed to is interpreted by our brain.

Information comes in through our five sensory organs: touch, smell, taste, hearing, and seeing. Each is experienced in the sensory cells, then the information is transmitted to nerve cells in the brain. All of the sensory imagery except smell is then processed in the thalamus, a specialized part of the brain. In the cortex of the brain, there are many different areas that process and organize sensory imagery, especially visual and auditory imagery. Our brains alter the incoming information, organizing it to form a worldview. Our belief systems compose our worldview – we see what we think we are going to see. This is why outlook is critical. We process information based on what we attend to.
There are many interesting related psychological phenomena – inattentional blindness is a process whereby people don’t notice something, often something obvious, in their environment because they are busy attending to something else (demonstrated in this video).

Life, which is composed of your personal experience, really is what you make it to be. This is the single most important lesson I’ve learned over the past year, over and over again. I still forget sometimes, but my life is always better when I’m able to remember that I have the power to create the world I inhabit.

Love & Fear

I think every meaningful human action can be traced to an either love or fear-based motivational drive. Every decision we make, every word we say and thing we do comes from a place of either love or fear.

1. Love

All good things come from & return to love. Joy, faith, compassion, connection – love is the link that connects us to one another, what motivates us to create. Acceptance is found through love, because when you love something unconditionally, there is no need to change it. I think all positive changes in the world come about as a result of a love-based underlying belief paradigm, e.g. wanting to help people because you love them or make the world a better place for the love of it. When  you are immersed in an activity, whether it be a conversation or a drawing, this is where you find love (I expand on love as connection and creation in Lust for Life).

I have found that all the perceived negative aspects of love (especially in the context of relationships) are solely those that do not come from a place of love, but fear. Relationships built on conditional love are not built on love at all, but fear of being alone. There’s a huge difference between being with someone because you love them, and being with someone because you’re scared of being on your own. The latter is a fear-based behavior.

2. Fear

Fear is a mechanism that allows us to recognize that we are uncomfortable with a situation and challenges us to change (see Expectations vs. Reality for information on how to change to make it better). We’re not able to change for the better unless it’s through love.

Fear evolved as a motivational mechanism to make us aware of threats that mostly don’t plague civilization today. The overwhelmingly strong fear response successfully kept us alive and out of danger for the majority of our time on this earth. However, we simply do not have the same threats we used to. As a result, the majority of fear we experience is psychological, not legitimate threats for our safety. Because of this, the negatives often outweigh the benefits of fear. This is one of the reasons clinical psychopaths, who don’t experience fear the same way regular people do, are so successful in places like business – it’s more advantageous to take a risk when it comes to things like investments. We don’t have as much to be scared of as we perceive. Our reality is usually more optimistic than we perceive it to be.

A lot of people in our society are driven by fear, so we normalize it. But we can change this. We can defeat the fear through awareness, through acceptance, because that’s the only way to bring about positive change. Fear is a manifestation of unconsciousness – it tears us away from one another.

Fear IS important for who we are as humans – it’s what allows us to change our world and keeps us alive, part of what has made us so successful as a species. Despite this, it’s blatantly counterproductive for happiness and inner peace. Fear doesn’t make you stronger, it tells you where you’re weak. Don’t believe your mind when it tells you not to be vulnerable or real – this is where we find real love and connection. Bravery is one of the virtues I hold in highest stead, because it’s the ability to love in face of adversity. It’s what allows us to overcome fear.

3. Conclusion/Personal thoughts

Something I personally struggle with is having a want to do stuff vs. being scared of not doing something. Here, my self-worth is contingent on the activities I engage in. The goal: having all that is be enough, but still be able to enact positive change through a want to make the world better, through love.

I know I can make the best difference when I’m the best me. This is me when I’m coming from a place of love, not of fear. So I try to forgive myself and others and believe the world is enough as it is. Because it’s the only world we have, because I’m the only me there’s ever going to be, because it’s all the time I’m given. Because ultimately, it’s not the time that matters, it’s what I do with it. And I could be fearful about it, put pressure on myself to do things as if being were not enough. Or I could love ,and be grateful that I’m able to be alive in the first place, not to mention do great things on top of that!! I choose love.

Some additional references:

Daring Greatly – Brené Brown (love her)