musings

Mental Quicksand

There’s Danger in These Here Parts

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It’s all too common, isn’t it? One moment you’re trouncing about, free of a care in the world, and the next you’re being sucked into the murky depths of a quicksand pit. Never happened, you say? Okay, so maybe you’re not Indiana Jones, swinging through the Amazon on a tireless pursuit of another shameless sequel.  Our minds, on the other hand, perpetually dwell in an ecosystem rife with treacherous obstacles, where the danger of slipping into the proverbial quicksand is all too real.  

“Hey guy, what the hell is proverbial quicksand? I’ve never seen that on Nat Geo…” 

I’m so glad you asked.

No specimen is immune to the plight of the dreaded  ‘bad day’. Much like the clouds, they seem to come and go of their own accord; we simply try to wring the most sunlight possible out of the circumstances the weather presents.  Cloudy days might start out overcast, but most days destined to become ‘bad days’ don’t start out that way.  Sure, a single piece of bad news is capable of bringing us to our knees.  Watching the hockey game on TV last night and saw your spouse in the front row spooning someone that wasn’t you? Sure. That’ll do it. 

In less sensational circumstances, the typical ‘bad day’ starts out as a series of minor frustrations, which begin to careen out of control as the day builds momentum, leaving us exasperated in its wake. When all of life’s irritations hit you at once, either your thetan levels are peaking– yes, that’s a scientology joke– or your mindset has begun to slip into the proverbial quicksand (told you we’d get back to it.)  Until we learn to register when this misstep has taken place, each successive obstacle throughout the day is doomed to provoke further vexation.  Like real quicksand, lacking the requisite knowledge to survive will end in certain death. (Okay, maybe not literally.)  Figuratively, then, there is a specific way to navigate the treacherous waters that ensures safe passage to the opposite shoreline.

Abandon all Hope, if Ye’ Wish to Survive

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Sinking, or the favorable alternative, swimming, is contingent upon your ability to balance between two extremes, both of which prove fatal in their unmitigated forms.  The greater of the two evils is simply deciding to ignore the problem.  This usually happens when we feel ourselves begin to sink into frustration, but, finding the sensation undesirable, choose to avoid the inevitable in the hopes that it will dissipate of its own volition.  This decision comes with a one-way ticket straight to the bottom of the pit, as one final air bubble rises melodramatically to the surface.  The other extreme, only slightly more favorable, is beginning to flail wildly the moment you realize you’re in trouble.  On happier days, or in a regular swimmin’ hole, this desperate tactic might allow you to stay afloat, despite being inefficient and rather silly to behold.  But this is no happy day or shallow pond; it’s a ‘bad day’, and it’s getting worse– you’re caught in the clutches of the despicable quicksands of frustration.  

As cliche as it may sound, the only way out is to surrender to the quicksand; even Michael Phelps isn’t skilled enough to escape the vacuous mouth of a sandpit free of supplication.  Removing the fear of impending death, this really isn’t such a difficult endeavor.  Quicksand is more buoyant than regular water, allowing a calm swimmer to navigate the surface easily.  The stroke, however, must be far more deliberate, and relegated to a far more modest pace.  Little is needed to accomplish this task aside from self-restraint, yet this desirable attribute is usually most elusive in situations where its presence is deemed most necessary.  In other words, the worst moment to panic is always the exact moment we panic.  Here’s why.

Human minds and bodies are constantly engaged in a feedback loop; when stress and anxiety begin to overcome the mind, it starts transmitting signals to the body forcing it to act out in frenzied desperation.  Behaviors such as this can be seen as the observable result of hectic emotional states.  When the body informs the mind it is experiencing a sinking feeling, it responds with a crude, “OH SHIT!”, and then immediately activates the frantic protocol entitled Try not to Drown.  There is an inherent problem with this protocol– it is merely an exercise in improvisation.  Instead of carrying out a single course of action with diligence and composure, protocol Try not to Drown instructs us to flounder recklessly, directing limbs to twist and turn in a harrowing dance, but void of any precise exit strategy from the pit.  

Just like we will never be rid of the occasional ‘bad day’, our minds will never gain definite freedom from that ‘sinking feeling’, which we recognize as present in our daily lives when we start experiencing thoughts such as, “Why me?”, or “You’ve got to be F-ing kidding me. Again?”  Luckily, it is purely within our control to change how we react when we feel the water rising around our necks.  With some practice, and discipline, we can get rid of protocol Try not to Drown for good, replacing it with the far superior Operation 4C: (Calm, Composed, and Cool as a Cucumber).

Operation 4C

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Concentration is a limited resource, forcing our brain to make momentary decisions on which tasks deserve the greatest share of our attention. Emotionally charged thoughts usually receive priority, so if the brain has to decide between harping on something that pissed you off a few moments ago, and focusing on the current task of pouring a cup of coffee neatly, there’s a good chance you’re ending up drenched in brown sludge.  We’re hopeless to control our thoughts; anyone who claims otherwise is a charlatan, I say!  Thoughts and emotions originate on a sub-conscious level, far below the regions of the mind we exert deliberate control over, but modifying how we react to these thoughts is definitely achievable.

The most essential point to this end?  Negative thoughts, or that ‘sinking feeling,’ don’t always merit a reaction.  Our thoughts will graze whatever pastures they desire, with or without our guidance.  Every time their meandering leads us astray, focus must be redirected to the task at hand, without indulging their vagaries in one direction or the other.  Don’t ignore the beasts, but for god sakes’s don’t feed them either; simply acknowledge them for the capricious creatures they are.  In this way, the successive blunders that usually accumulate into the typical ‘bad day’ will be repulsed back into the forest.  

Danger Has Many Faces

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Quicksand comes in two main varieties.  First, there’s the gritty type, which licks at our heels when things don’t go the way they’re supposed to.  Humans create rigid ideas of how given endeavors should unfold, and when some inconvenience occurs that violates our preconceptions, we become aggravated.  As this aggravation multiplies, we begin to cling more desperately to these idealistic notions, even a small deviation from the aforementioned sending us into meltdown mode. 

Sensing the quicksand rising, we must refrain from abiding by any preset expectations, either good or bad.  If the last hour has been a train wreck, our perception may persuade us to preemptively brace for more carnage, yet this achieves little more than entrenching us within a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Even forced optimism, mobilized to perpetuate the belief that everything is going to turn around in the next moment, can be dangerous.  This type of behavior establishes unreasonable expectations, leaving no room for deviation from perfection. Then, dejection becomes a near inevitably, condemning us to return to a cycle of helplessness.  Letting go, and letting things unfold as they will, is truly our best shot at survival.  Find comfort in knowing that both a day of triumph, or of abject failure,  resolve shortly after sunset.

Type Two

Another variety of quicksand, the sticky kind, is more selective in its choice of victims. Sticky quicksand latches onto us during those times when an inordinate amount of problems demand our immediate attention.  In these instances, the crippling issue isn’t that things aren’t going the specific way we demand, but that fixing our mistakes, and coping with our impaired state of mind, take copious amounts of time already reserved for meeting all of life’s demands.  This type of quicksand may well be the most treacherous, because, as we know, proper technique depends on focused, deliberate action.  Even the simplest tasks must be performed slowly, for in these moments, they demand far more patience than is typically necessary.  Of course, as tasks pile up, our minds become pre-occupied with moving ever more hastily, and pretty soon, we find ourselves gasping for air.  

There is no shortcut to relaxation.  If an unstable mindset has sufficiently burrowed its way into your psyche, dislodging it is going to take time.  And the less time you have, the more you fight it, the deeper it plunges into your cerebellum.  The only way to salvage your day, when this happens, is to start relegating the least important items from the checklist.  It may feel like a luxury time isn’t affording you, or else that it’s some sort of weakness to allow emotions to limit your success.  Be careful if you’re commonly susceptible to thoughts such as this; they may reveal an underlying impetuousness that rarely pays dividends in the long haul.

Any masochist can push themselves through states of physical weakness or emotional turmoil, convincing themselves it forges resilience.  In reality, these people are adding excessive frustration to their lives that will keep them operating at a sub-optimal state for longer, all the while performing tasks haphazardly and half-assedly.  True strength, and long-term success, come from ‘knowing yourself’, in the truest sense of the hackneyed phrase.  This involves the ability to recognize circumstantial limitations as they arise within the body or mind, and the adaptability to approach goals in a way more suited to the current reality.  After all, being the most adaptable species is what allowed humans to reach the top of the food chain– not being the most obstinate.  Allow yourself some slack, and plan around the irritation, instead of trying to march right through it.  It may be frustrating to allot extra time to mundane activities when you’re already behind, but it’s better to reach the other side of the pond slowly, than to sink just a few precious feet from safety.

Go Forth and Conquer!!!

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The landscape is treacherous my friends– harbor no illusions to this end.  Success and failure, happiness and rejection, lie on either side of a tightrope.  The human constitution is fragile.  A few momentary lapses in attention, combined with a bit of old-fashioned bad luck, can have dire consequences for our happiness in the immediate future.  Quicksand is everywhere, camouflaged perfectly, waiting for its chance to lure us in and swallow us whole.  

But you’re no weekend explorer.  Adventure is your life, conquering new lands your vocation, and you’ve trained to handle every situation with absolute composure.  If danger rears its ugly head, it’s within your abilities to act in a reasoned, intentional way.  Attention is a limited resource you’ve learned not to squander, either fighting negative feelings as they arise, or succumbing to them and fanning the inferno.  A true expert understands that no reaction is often the best course of action. Conquerers take nothing for granted, rid of expectations, thereby prepared for anything that may come.  Most importantly, an explorer trusts his abilities, but retains the wisdom, as well as the discipline, to steer clear of unnecessary risks or insurmountable odds. Encountering these moments, never give in, but take the time to chart a more practical trail to blaze. So live, damn you, live!  But keep an eye peeled for the proverbial quicksand.

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