The Second Stage of Aging

Barbie Movie NightMy post on The Middle-Aged Athlete was inspired by James Hillman’s book on The Force of Character – author discussing his book below.

The book has nuggets throughout that offer a insight into the experience of “getting old.” The central premise is aging will make us more of what we are. “What we are” being Hillman’s definition of character.

So I asked myself, “What are my central traits?” and, more usefully, “What traits work against the life I’d like to live?

If you’re like me then, at least initially, you’ll come up with a shopping list of admirable traits – things you like about yourself. So far, I haven’t had the courage to verify this list with my wife!

More useful is to reflect on the traits that might lead one’s self into trouble. Quickly, I came up with two…

  • A preference for isolation
  • A tendency for internal over-reaction

Combine those two, magnify them, accept them for another 20, 30 or 40 years and you’ve got one heck of a cranky Old G.

I suffer disproportionately from my negative traits – particularly the internal reactions, hidden from most people. Fortunately, there’s a well-known fix for training one’s mind.

To the traits above, my wife advised that I “should watch my tendency to let myself go.” So true, my love, so true.

As things inevitably unwind, our personal truth comes to the foreground.

Moving Through A Depression

Tropic Coffee

You might have seen the Slomo video piece a few weeks ago. I shed a tear when I watched the documentary as it touches the sadness of middle age. 50 is coming and I can feel that I’m spending my ‘middle’ worrying about money and getting yelled at by my kids.

The challenging thing about depression, or any of my other irrational feelings, is my inability to shake them via conscious thought.

Sharing my fears and concerns helps put them into a more rational context but my cure is always based around actions, rather than more thinking.

I smile when I re-read the paragraph above because (of course) thinking about “thinking too much” doesn’t work!

What does work?

Most helpful was the realization that I needed to make my life more difficult, while not adding stress.

I did this by purchasing a light alarm clock and changing my life so I get up two hours before my kids, who are thankfully good sleepers. By pulling the two hours from the end, to the beginning, of my day – I was able to write, exercise and sit without disruption. Writing, silence and exercise are the best antidote to the despair that I feel around kid noise.

In the heart of winter I reached out for help and attended a parenting workshop. The workshop gave me insight on how fantastic my kids are – nothing like listening to other parents to make me grateful for my own kids! However, despite my kids being normal (and desirable), I find their noise debilitating and draining.

What about the noise?

Some families cope by having constant background noise (TV and radio). For instance, the best parent that I know wears a radio walkman while she works in her house.

Other families ‘cope’ by yelling at the kids and emotionally beating them down. Effective, but not me.

I’ve been wearing earplugs to take the edge of the most intense moments, which rarely add up to more than 90 minutes a day.

People that cope well with noise will tend to find my choice of earplugs rude. Their reality is incapable of understanding what kid noise does to my internal life. I ask them for forgiveness and share the story of the great parent with the walkman.

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My son goes to school with the child of a social worker, who shared that her professional training hits a wall when she meets the reality of her own children. Her advice: stay two-steps back from the breaking point.

In applying this advice, I dropped lunch time workouts and replaced them with working in an absolutely quiet environment. This change took a lot of fatigue out of the back-end of my day. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday – I was swimming so intensely that I’d be mentally flat in the afternoons and exhausted by the evenings. Swapping my swim training into an early morning forest jog does nothing for my athletic fitness but it makes a huge impact on my overall mood.

Not swimming is complicated (in my head) because my swim coach is my wife and not spending time with her triggers my fear that my marriage will end and it will be my fault!

So…

The other bit of stress release is to tell my spouse the whole truth with how I am feeling, especially my fears (spending concerns, that I’ll act when I feel despair, that she will leave me, that I’m not a good man).

I have persistent themes that build internal stress – these all get shared with her (and pretty much everyone through my blog).

Most of this is article is to remind myself what to do – I had a tough 48 hours and started writing at 5am in a quiet house!

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What makes a difference?

Do something physical and spend a bit of quiet time in advance of the most stressful times of your day. For me that means short, solo, moderate workouts in nature done early morning and late afternoon. Each workout is short enough that the endurance coach in me wants to repeat the entire thing. Physical release and balancing the noise of my home life with quiet periods in my work life.

For the parents that deal with commutes and live in crowded cities – I don’t know how you do it. I’d be at risk for heavy self-medication and persistent deep sadness.

If you’re in that position then wait it out and don’t act on despair.

If I take responsibility for doing what I know works then I always move through a depression. When I’m really beat down it means that I’m very close to things improving.

See the beauty in the good moments.

Coffee Break

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Serious athletes might find value in an article I wrote about athletic depression and training mania.

Learning To Sit

When Lex turned three, we got to the point where we started asking ourselves when would be an appropriate time to start beating her. Of course we didn’t say it that way… but the nature of the conversation was clear to me.

I didn’t want to teach my daughter to accept physical intimidation from men – so I needed to find another way.

I’m glad I looked around.

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Today’s conversation was with a physician that deals with life and death, daily.

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The best book I’ve read on meditation is The Miracle of Mindfulness:

High performers will tend to overthink it – what works for me is sit comfortably and breathe – when I need to get centered then I count breaths… here’s the mantra…

1 breathing in, 1 breathing out

2 breathing in, 2 breathing out

3 breathing in, 3 breathing out

10 breathing in, 10 breathing out

I don’t go past 10 in one set. Then I chill a bit. Then I repeat another set of 10 breaths. It can be surprisingly difficult to get to 10 breaths without being distracted! That’s OK – start again.

The first step is learning to settle. That one aspect of mediation is enough. They tell me that there is more. I might get there, I might not.

Resist the urge to progress or go longer (this is very difficult).

After a few months of daily practice, you might find that you have the ability to focus on a topic and see more clearly. I’m only at this stage occasionally. What I’m mostly doing is learning not to hold onto situations, or seek to impose my desired outcome on a situation, or person.

If you are dealing with death, pain, anger, trauma… the first phase will help you release that, rather than retaining it inside to be released into your family. 

In addition to your service as a physician, you do a great service to your community by releasing the suffering around you without transmitting it to others. I think that’s what eastern philosophy means when they refer to “burning karma.” Strong emotions have to be released, or we will transmit them as part of our legacy.

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This book explains meditation through the eyes of an athlete

I read the first part when I started meditating and read the second part when I felt that I had a basic understanding of Phase One. I haven’t finished the book as I don’t think I know enough about meditation, yet, to understand part three and beyond.

Ten minutes a day, as many days as you can. Commit to 30 days. You’ll notice a difference. After the 30 days, you’ll notice a clear difference in mood if you skip a few days. I’ve started AM/PM sessions and it’s helping. Of course, dropping most sources of news (other than The Onion) might also be helping to clear my mind.

Mediation gave me an awareness that I was filling myself with noise that had nothing to do with the key decisions of my life.

 

Running and Meditation

One of the benefits of shifting my life away from chasing race results, and money, has been increased time for reading great books. The three themes I’ve been enjoying are biography, philosophy (Old Path White Clouds; Beyond Religion) and behavioral psychology (Thinking, Fast and Slow).

When I attended the class on contemplative parenting, the teacher mentioned a book on running and meditation. I’ve often felt that exercise is the closest that I get to prayer – so I bought a copy of the book to see what I could learn.

The book makes an interesting observation that exercise doesn’t settle the mind; it merely exhausts the mind. Specifically, the author notes that exercise is episodic in the nature of the assistance it provides, while meditation is cumulative in the benefits it provides (each session building upon previous work). All the explanations, tips and stories are shared in the context of athletic training, which made it easy for me to relate.

I’ve noticed that my daughter tends to copy me and, at three, the #1 issue she’s facing is learning to direct her energy into feelings other than anxiety. When she gets excited, she is frequently overwhelmed. Given that she likes to copy me, and is educated by folks that meditate daily, I figured that learning about mediation might benefit us both. At a minimum, meditation could become a useful back-up plan in case circumstances limit my ability to exhaust my mind!

I’m approaching it like I was coaching myself to my first ever 10K; daily short-duration sessions with very modest expectations.

If you’re an athlete searching for serenity then the book (Running with the Mind of Meditation) may interest.