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Friday, April 25, 2014

cognitive assonance

"Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes such as attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity and thinking." - the Wikster

"i think you would really enjoy cognitive psychology." - Valerie Micu (Elwell)

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thinking about thinking is probably in my top 5 favourite introspective exercises. i've been doing it without deciding to do it ever since high-school and possibly before that, and i intend not only to continue, but also to increase the frequency at which i indulge in it. although it can be done wastefully, i find the returns on my mental self-investment generally quite substantial.


when i think about the way i think (cognitive psychology), good things usually happen. i plan to do it more and more.

"what kinds of good things?"

well, here's the deal: we humans fall into routines pretty easily. if our environment remain unchanged for several days in a row, we adapt to it, oftentimes without really thinking about the fact that we're doing so. examples abound: we know where the furniture in our house is without purposely memorizing anything, but stub our toes or bump our heads after a major rearrangement (or when moving to a new place). we type our passwords more quickly than many other words that get used less often. if we give up soda for Lent, going back to it again feels strange; maybe we don't like that sugary syrup taste anymore... even though soda hasn't changed at all during that time, nor have our tastebuds altered in composition. #cogpsychftw

downside, though: any pattern of thinking can become so normal for us that we don't know when it is hurting us. examples here are harder to find, until we start examining the people around us, rather than ourselves.

Ug often comes home from work with a contrary attitude. he finds some slight flaw in whatever anyone says about anything, gets verbally frustrated at any mundane just-got-home ritual that doesn't get executed to perfection, and will spend half an hour complaining about some five-second-long unpleasant interaction he had with someone earlier that day, picking it apart until i can't even remember what the whole looked like. 

all of this makes perfect sense to me, 1) because he has to deal with stupid junk at work almost every day, and 2) because he is not one to naturally critique his own thought processes on a regular basis. that latter is very important: if Ug were to think about this pattern, and how it affects his daily life, he would likely be inclined to change it.

(i don't mean to pick on my wonderful uncle. he is a wonderful uncle. but he's just such an easy target, and i'd rather spend most of my blogging energy on things other than ensuring that i'm being fair in my choice of he upon whom i pick.)

full disclosure: even as a naturally metacognitive person, i have many many unhealthy thinking patterns. unfortunately, i am unaware of most of them. fortunately, i am dead-set on hunting them down one by one, and dealing justly / strategically with them. doing so will greatly improve my overall health, via my mental & emotional health (which affect my physical health).

which brings me to the point i'd like to make, the thought that inspired this blog post: regular meditation is an awfully great idea.

*gasp* "but isaiah! you're a CHRISTIAN!! how could you?!?!"

i'm happy to say (and, i am always happy to say this): i can explain.

~     ~     ~

prayer is both duty & privilege for the Christian. it involves [allegedly] two-way communication between oneself and the mysterious Person responsible for our creation, and i myself have found the allegations of mutuality to be circumstantially true. furthermore, those circumstances are somewhat manipulable by those who seek to improve their prayer skills.

"isaiah, prayer isn't a skill. it's just talking to God."

you are incorrect, you dumb anonymous asker/commenter. prayer, which utilizes our cognitive abilities (among other things), very much involves our brains. most of us think when we pray. (i suppose you could pray without thinking, but i don't think that's the instruction we've been Given.)

and because it involves our brains, which develop patterns quite naturally (as designed), it can be described as a skill. maybe not every Christian wants or tries to be a better pray-er, but in this case it's simply a skill that doesn't improve. i very much want to improve my cognitive skills, and prayer will certainly benefit from my attempts to reach this brain-related goal.

i'm rambling. back on track:

i am talking about prayer because it includes that which i would now describe as meditation. i say "now" because i'm just recently learning about meditation on purpose. it has to do with shifting one's awareness, guiding one's attitude via either cooperation with or (more likely) wrestling against one's established thought patterns.

"once more, but differently, please."

i used to think meditation was about thinking certain things over and over again until something mystical happened. but now i think meditation is about choosing to think in a certain way for a chunk of time, with the goal of altering not only how one thinks but how one feels. additionally (and more importantly!), it is about changing how one thinks after the meditation is completed.

i believe meditation can be used to improve one's mental and emotional health. i believe it can guide our attitudes. and i believe that anyone who is not 'meditating' on purpose is doing it accidentally instead, and that accidental meditation is one of the top causes of mental distress in the world. 

"what the eff is accidental meditation?"

call it what you will, but i call it that because it happens without us choosing it and it affects our thought patterns in a similar way to purposeful meditation. here are some examples. i'll use 'me' in each, for readability's sake. they may or may not be things that actually apply to me. 
  • calling myself stupid every time i do something stupid
  • thinking anxiously about work tasks that are scheduled for the next week, especially without making any plan for how to deal with them
  • contemplating what a failure my life is, and therefore what a failure i am
  • dwelling on wrongs done to me (dwelling: indulging in the feeling of pain, when i could choose not to)
  • getting (and especially staying) annoyed at Brittany leaving her ginormous brush on my side of the bathroom sink again
  • attempting to sort through my entire day's experiences as i am also 'trying' to fall asleep
that last one is particularly stupid. it's like in those rom-coms where the guy tries to be on a date with two different girls in the same restaurant. we laugh, but we do that all the time, people.

"do not!"

do too. if you examine your life, or if you had the advantage of watching yourself on DVD, you would notice that you sometimes attempt to do mutually exclusive things, simultaneously. it's madness.

the cure is meditation.


shut up. here's isaiah's official definition (subject to future improvements) of meditation: time set aside exclusively for the purpose of ongoing improvement in one's thoughts, feelings, and attitudes, especially in preparation for those processes as they occur outside of meditation time.

"and this relates to prayer how?"

i believe prayer's first purpose is to change the one doing the praying, rather than to change the [other] things about which one is praying. in this way i believe prayer and meditation [should] have significant overlap.

"but God is the one Who changes Christians."

yes. and one of the ways He does so is by inviting them to pray, because prayer changes people, and would do so even if the One to Whom they were praying was not listening.


i've been called worse.

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prayer changes people because it encourages them to graciously consider their own hearts and minds. this was never the biblical description of prayer, but i think that if you were to interview everyone in the world who prays (to anyOne, not just to God), you'd find this common denominator: it's calming. it's 'centering.' it's healthful. it's like reorganizing your bedroom, or office, or office bedroom: things feel clean and simple. less clutter.

i want less mental clutter. i want to be less frustrated, and frustrated less often. i want to be at peace inside. i think we all want that at some points in our lives. i want it at this point, for the rest of my life. so i'll start practicing, on purpose, to change the way i inwardly live. i will pray, and i will meditate, and i will do both.

as i was preparing to type all of this out (you know that excited feeling when ideas are bursting forth), i thought about all the times i've tried to meditate, without realizing at the time that i was trying to meditate. most of those times did not involve prayer. i went to the backyard and worked on my necklace, listened to music, smoked cigars (see? it's good for me!), lit up the firepit (aesthetics are important for meditation!)... even doing the dishes can be meditative for me. 

this guy, one of my most favourite bloggers, calls it mindfulness. he even agrees with me about the dishes! (or... i agree with him. whatevs.) check it out: http://www.raptitude.com/2010/03/how-to-make-mindfulness-a-habit-with-only-a-tiny-commitment/

not sure what my meditation routine will be. but i know that meditation and its benefits will be in the back of my mind every time i sense an opportunity.

i wanna mention one more meditationy thing that i do, because it's such a simple cognitive improvement that i think many others would appreciate. when my mind is going a million mph, while i'm supposed to be falling asleep, i have basically three options: 1) do what i used to do, which is attempt to order all of those thoughts and steer them in a productive direction; 2) try to think nothing at all; or 3) a special kind of meditation that's miraculously effective (for me).

the first is lame. it frustrates me even more, and pushes sleep away. the second is impossible for more than 2 seconds. the third is an idea that struck me suddenly a few years ago, when i became so frustrated with method #uno that i angrily, immaturely told my brain: "fine, you SOB. think whatever you want, and may it be the least productive thinking time ever. i don't even care anymore."

and then i let my brain jump from thought to thought at will. it would get to about 7% completion of any given thought before dumping it and moving on to the next random synaptic arc. i describe it too wordily (??); it would take less than a second to touch on fifty different things.

during my day, this kind of thinking would drive me crazy. i would probably be worried for myself and take some strong medication (possibly from my favourite island; you know, the really long one).

but at sleepytime, it's magical. like free-range chickens with their heads cut off, my many tiny thought processypoos scatter to the four winds. and i fall asleep in less than five minutes. in every case where, at bedtime, my cognitive overlord wants to terraform my boggy mindscapes into functional-yet-artistic bastions of urban efficiency... if i simply release the krakens (unless kraken is already plural??), i have no trouble whatsoever slipping into unconsciousness. every case. i repeat: this method has not yet failed me. in years.

meditation is not some new age mumbo-jumbo. it is a way to cooperate with oneself, so that things we'd normally try to force, instead happen quite naturally. i encourage you to try it, whether you do so at the kitchen sink, in your recliner, between the sheets, on a mountaintop, in a temple, at your office desk, in front of the fireplace, in a coffee shop while watching the rain, or in your vehicle while waiting for your inspector. #inabox #withafox

join me sometime next month for a monumental life makeover, in which i will change names, post shameless topless selfies, and dump whole bunches of friends at once.

Monday, April 14, 2014

leagues to infinite number

the night is perfect. total eclipse in an hour and a half. camera is ready. 24C and cricket concert and hammock. relational nourishment +3 and rising.

mark it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

the going itself

i wipe the sun from my eyes
bid farewell to the light
and slip through the gate
into shadows of oak and pine

home is a strange word
it writhes, and it coincides
with places i might never find

but if i get there
if i get there
will you be there to welcome me
or will fate twist and turn the tide?

home is a dancer, staying
two steps ahead of me and my
two left feet
home is a feather on the wind
it spins a tale that i
believed i could write myself into
i believed i could share a space on the pages with you

but if i get there
if i get there
who will be there to welcome me?
will fate stand between us
and draw us... or leave us?
- unfinished song, from a few years ago

~     ~     ~

i admitted to myself tonight, that i have no idea what is wrong with me.

okay so actually, i have many ideas... but that's only because there are many things wrong with me. what i mean is, i don't understand what is the root of my pain right now. i dig down and find one of those fibrous systems, and i get lost in that tangle, and it's dark (you know, because it's underground). and i keep digging but somehow i get turned around and end up back on the surface.

i can't even remember the last time something about me, eluded me this successfully. but after months of searching i think i have found one of the missing pieces. still can't see the big picture... but in the midst of so much failure, every tiny success is blogworthy.

the only plausible scenario that i can imagine, which eases this mysterious heartache, is scheduled for lunchtime on the 20th of june, this year. when i imagine it happening, then i feel like i belong.

this should scare me, i suppose, because there's quite a lot riding on that moment, and if i discover in the two weeks following that moment that i was mistaken (about belonging somewhere), then i will return to America for no fucking reason, other than to continue my existence. things will go back to the way they were, and my new home will be what we call Square 1. but, i don't really feel fear, almost ever, so maybe it's a fair trade-off: fearlessness, in exchange for a constant ache.

rambling should be against this blog's rules.

i've lost my purpose; or, underneath that, my feeling of purpose. of fulfillment. and as much as i want to remain true to my previous belief (that my purpose is found in serving the people nearby), i just don't feel it. it's very possible that i was deluding myself all those years, thinking that my cognitively chosen purpose was driving me. perhaps it was feelings all along. perhaps my feeling of fulfillment was really the thing keeping me going, even though i was convinced it was my spirituality, my religion, my decisions & discoveries about who i am. maybe, all that time, underneath all the mental constructs, i was motivated by emotions.

that theory fits pretty well, actually, since feelings are now definitely driving me overseas. maybe, at the core of me, i haven't changed at all. maybe i'm just now figuring myself out. if so, then i should probably enroll in one of those deals where using a credit card all the time somehow earns me traveling points.

Augustine said, "our hearts are restless until they find rest in You." if he was right, then You must be one of those always-on-the-go types, because i don't think i will ever find my permanent home in one place. ← my love for long drives agrees with that statement.

it could be premature, but i'll say it anyway because this blog [now] is all about being honest without regard for the consequences: the past several chapters have been all about giving to others, especially at my own considerable expense, particularly my emotional expense. maybe the next leg of the journey needs to be about me. maybe there's something i need to give myself, that can't come from anyone else (even if others are intrinsically involved in the process). maybe the next episode will show me finally shifting gears completely, away from self-sacrifice and toward self-nourishment (which, many would argue, is something that should have been present from the start).

it nauseates me a little to say this, but maybe you are right: maybe i need to start thinking about what i want, about what i might even need. even if it takes something from others. maybe this is why i am becoming so strongly convinced that it doesn't matter if i stay or go.

i will still serve others no matter where i go. mister aeropress will not be left behind, nor will i keep my photography entirely to myself, nor will i sing only where no one can hear me. but, the going itself: that will be for me. i can enjoy helping people along the way; but the way will be mine.

just writing this post has already half-convinced me of its veracity. and i can feel the way this new perspective fills in certain gaps, explains certain new behaviours... i can even see how it has changed what i wear, how i speak, how i spend my money.

thank you for this. i will try my best to repay you.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

ministries, over hard, side of heartburn

"INFJs are rarely at complete peace with themselves - there's always something else they should be doing to improve themselves and the world around them. They believe in constant growth, and don't often take time to revel in their accomplishments. They have strong value systems, and need to live their lives in accordance with what they feel is right. ... They don't believe in compromising their ideals." - the internet

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i once believed full-time vocational ministry inevitable for me. to what other end would i devote so much time & energy? what else could be worth it? (not that my own time or effort were particularly valuable, but they certainly shouldn't be used simply to accumulate and enjoy personal financial success.)

i later discovered, decided or both, that i was not cut out for such a thing. though i take my ministry very seriously, it is also an extremely personal activity that permeates many areas of my life rather than consuming only one portion of it (career).

i now have this additional realization: that running from my ministerial responsibilities would probably yield results similar to those experienced by Jonah. i find this unnerving at a spiritual level, because it means that, despite [my fervent belief in] free will, i am not actually 'free' in the naive sense of the word (which once was my only sense of the word). i am trapped by who i am at my core. i am beholden to me, tethered, even directly affixed in a rather permanent matter.

going against who i am would require destroying myself, sort of like a cerberus if the heads decided to go left, right, and straight (respectively).

this realization by itself, even before any decisions are made, leaves me wallowing quite pitifully in a place of internal conflict that is threatening to rob me of everything i enjoy if i do not address it directly and soon. i therefore resent myself, and find that i am willing to apportion some of my new-found bitterness to fuel the seemingly endless self-battle i've fought since high-school.

all of this writing merely approximates some of the many opponents with whom i wrestle, and yields no solution nor any clues pointing in the direction of any solution. but writing is one way to be true to mine own self, and so i am obligated (by way of my need to survive) to treasure and nurture it.

not only that, writing is one of the few passions in which i feel free to indulge. this and my voice, in song, ensure that pressure is released... enough to prevent catastrophic failure.

speaking of passions: i call ministry a responsibility, which it certainly is. but, it is also exactly what i tell my ministees: a privilege. an honor. undeserved. humbling. a blessing. i am fulfilled in my tiny act of homage to kenosis-- perhaps not emotionally, not every time anyway, but certainly spiritually. more and more i see how every Christian act can flow into and from any other Christian act: to pray for a sister is worship, and to worship is a request to be shaped by Spirit. speaking the Word aloud to others is both teaching and learning it, and learning the Word makes us more like It, and becoming like the Word is both worship and ministry.

tonight i prayed for someone at length, someone who needed it. and the selfish part of me was dismayed to find that i needed it also. wretched man that i am, no amount of internal conflict or selfishness trumps the commitment i've made in my heart to my Father, Whose voice and words have not changed in the time i've known Him: "follow Me."

i don't know where i am supposed to go, but in my fallen state i begin to wonder if there is any way to escape this emptying-and-filling, this burning-and-rebuilding, breaking-and-setting, spending-and-redeeming. i begin to wonder whether i should try or not. i wonder why God might still be inviting such a destitute, weakling creature to do anything more than crawl from one disaster to the next. what is He thinking? Who does He think He is?!

more relevant to this post: who does He think i am?
and more poignantly (since it's less Christianesey): who do i believe i am?

i must answer that last question if i this blog is to ever see another post with an overall positive tone. i must also go to sleep now, or else heap petty things like headaches and lethargy onto my plateful of inner conflict.