How Humanism Helps With Depression — Except When It Doesn’t

What’s it like being a humanist with depression?

I’m going to preface this right off the bat by saying: I am not a doctor. I’m not a therapist. I’m not a mental healthcare professional, or indeed a healthcare professional of any kind. I’m just talking about myself here, and my own experiences. I freaking hate it when people give me unsolicited, amateur medical advice about my mental health, so I’m very careful not to do that with other people. If you have depression, your mileage may vary from mine. Take what you need from this and leave the rest. (And if you’re not already doing it, get professional help if you possibly can.)

So, with caveats in order, what’s it like for me to be a humanist with depression?

As regular readers may know, I’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression. My form of it is chronic and episodic: I’m not depressed all the time, I’m not even depressed most of the time, but I’ve had episodes of serious depression intermittently throughout my adult life. I had a very bad bout of it starting about a year and a half ago. I’m pulling out of it now, but my mental health is still somewhat fragile, I still have to be extra careful with my self-care routines, and I still have relapses into fairly bad episodes now and then. And I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be a humanist with depression, and how these experiences intertwine.

For the most part, my humanism helps. For one thing, I don’t experience any religious guilt—or religious anger—over my depression. I don’t have any sense that I’m letting down my god, that I’m doing something horrible to him by feeling glum and crappy about this wonderful gift of life he’s given me. I don’t have any sense that my god is letting me down. I don’t think my depression is divine punishment or some sort of obscure lesson, and I’m not racking my brains trying to figure out what I did to deserve this. I accept that my depression is a medical condition, and I have it because of genetics, early environmental influences, and other causes and effects in the physical universe.


humanist coverThus begins my latest Fierce Humanism column for The Humanist magazine, How Humanism Helps With Depression — Except When It Doesn’t. To read more about some of the ways that humanism affects depression — mostly for the better, but in some ways not so much — read the rest of the piece.

On The Ethics of Vampire Slaying in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

Buffy with bloody knifeSpoiler alert, for people who haven’t watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” but plan to.

I was recently re-watching ““Becoming, Parts 1 and 2,” those Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes where geeky witch Willow does a spell to give the vampire Angel his soul back. And suddenly I had a burning ethical question.

Why don’t they just keep doing the re-ensoulment spell — on all vampires? Or at least, on all the vampires that they can?

Yes, it’s a somewhat difficult spell — although given that Willow could do it when she was a fairly inexperienced witch, it clearly can’t be that difficult. And yes, it’s very likely (although I’m not sure they specify this) that the spell can only be done one vampire at a time, and that you need to know which particular vampire you’re re-ensouling. But given what a scourge vampires are on humanity, wouldn’t it be worth doing, as much as possible? At least from a harm-reduction perspective, even if they could only re-ensoul a couple/few vampires a week, wouldn’t that be worth it?


Thus begins my new piece for io9, On The Ethics of Vampire Slaying in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To read more about this burning issue of the day (well, this burning issue of 2003), read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

What Party Would You Be Guaranteed to Go To?

I’m going to be away from the blog doing family stuff for the next few days, so let’s play a silly game.

communityI was watching an episode of Community, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” in which Troy and Abed ensure that Jeff Winger will have the evening free for their housewarming party — by sending him a fake invitation for the same night for a party they know for sure he’d want to attend. That party, for Jeff: the opening of the Single Malt Platinum Boobs and Billiards Club.

So my brain being what it is, I immediately started thinking: If my friends were to pull that trick on me, what would the party be? I think for me, it would be the Feminist Atheist Quiet Intense Conversation Punctuated With Absurdist Humor Locavore Baked Goods and Chocolate Tasting Sexy Fashion Show. (Okay, now I need to throw that party…)

What would it be for you? What party invitation would almost absolutely guarantee your attendance?

Depression, and Mental Health as a Balance Beam Over a Pit

Content note: Depression. Obviously. (Also note that this post has a somewhat different comment policy than usual: it’s at the end of the post.)

There’s this analogy I’ve been using lately to think about my depression and my mental health care. I’m finding it useful, so I thought I’d share it with the rest of the class.

I’m not the first person to describe depression as feeling like being in a pit. And as my depression has been getting better (in the classic “two steps forward, one step back” fits and starts), I’m not the first person to describe that process as feeling like clawing my way out of the pit. But there’s another stage of mental health recovery, the stage I’m in now, that feels somewhat different.

feet on balance beamI feel like I’m out of the pit. But I feel like the ground I’m standing on is very narrow. I feel like I’m walking on a balance beam that’s suspended over the pit.

For some months now, I’ve felt more or less okay most of the time. But that okayness has felt somewhat shaky. Easily disturbed. Fairly small things make me feel bad out of all proportion to the badness; large things, or even medium-to-large things, can trigger a recurrence of the depression, or of some of the depressive symptoms.

And my mental health care has to be very carefully managed; my mental state rigorously monitored, my self-care precisely titrated. I need exactly the right amount of rest and sleep — not so much that I get torpid, not so little that I get exhausted. I need exactly the right amount of socializing — not so much that I get exhausted, not so little that I feel isolated. I need exactly the right amount of alone time — not so much that I feel isolated, not so little that I get overwhelmed. I need to spend exactly the right amount of time on work, exercise, meditation, pleasure, so I feel calm and engaged rather than overwhelmed, or aimless, or both. Small excesses in any direction have to be adjusted for immediately, or they can easily push me into the bad place.

This is not what I’m like most of the time. Of course I’m made happy or sad by external events; of course I try to keep work and pleasure and rest in a healthy balance. But when I’m not in the middle of (or recovering from) a serious depressive episode, I’m generally on a pretty even emotional keel. My basic outlook on life is not only steady, but is largely self-generated. And I can have stretches where my work and pleasure and rest, my time alone and my social time, are temporarily out of whack. I want them to balance out in the long run, but I can have longish stretches where I’m busting my ass to finish a project, or am running around being a social butterfly, or am lying around being lazy, without it risking my mental health.

It hasn’t felt like that lately. I feel like every step I take has to be small, and careful, and intensely conscious. And I feel like even if my steps are small and careful, I could easily be knocked off balance by a stiff breeze. I feel like I’m walking on a balance beam that’s suspended over the pit.

A few weeks ago, a couple of crises arose. (That’s generally what triggers a depressive episode: I can usually handle one bad thing in my life, but multiple serious stressors are what knock me into the pit.) So a few weeks ago, a couple of crises arose — and it felt like I’d been knocked off the balance beam. It didn’t feel like I’d fallen back into the pit, exactly. But it felt like I was clutching onto the balance beam with my fingertips, dangling over the pit, scrambling to pull myself back up. I got back on the beam again — but I felt wobbly, and my footing was shaky. And then another crisis came along, and I got knocked over again. I’m just now hoisting myself back up, and am trying to regain my footing.

catwalk FEMA_Mitigation_Team_Inspects_Raw_Water_Intake_TowerSo when it comes to mental health care, I feel like my job now… well, right now, today, my job is to hoist myself back onto the beam. But once I’m back on the beam, and my footing is steady and I’m not wobbling or flailing, I feel like my job is to widen the balance beam — so it’s more like a catwalk, or a bridge, or a platform. I’m doing carefully managed, rigorously monitored, precisely titrated self-care, partly because in the short run it keeps me on the balance beam, but also because in the long run it widens the balance beam, and makes it more stable.

I want to get to a place, not just where I don’t feel depressed, but where I can get bad news or have a bad day without it making me depressed. I want to get to a place where I’m not being knocked about by every gust of wind that comes along; where my mood isn’t totally shaped by whether the last thing I saw on Facebook was happy or sad. I want to get to a place where my mood is shaped by my fundamental optimism and empathy and high energy and general good nature, as much as (or more than) it is by the crisis of the week. I want to get to a place where I’m not constantly thinking, “What would be best for my depression now? Would it be better to finish that blog post? To go to the gym? To go to the cafe? To masturbate? To meditate?” I want to get to a place where I don’t have to drop everything and do self-care the moment I feel inspired to, because I don’t know when that window is going to open again.

The pit is always going to be there. That’s what it means to have chronic depression, even with infrequent episodes. I’ll never be able to ignore it entirely; I’ll always have to do some degree of mental health self-care to keep from falling into it. But I want to get back to a place where I don’t have to devote rigorous attention every waking minute to my mental health care, and can just get on with my life.

Comment policy for this post: It sucks that I should have to spell this out, but past experience has taught me that I do: Please do not give unsolicited amateur medical advice, to me or to anyone else with mental illness, in the comments. Or anywhere, for that matter. Talk about your own experiences until the cows come home; ask questions until you’re blue in the face (except for douchy passive-aggressive question like “Why don’t you understand that psych meds are poison?” or “Will you read this article explaining why psych meds are poison?”). If you need this spelled out in more detail, please read Why You Really, Seriously, No Fooling, Should Not Give Unsolicited Amateur Medical Advice to People with Mental Illness (Or to Anyone, Really), Episode 563,305. Thanks.

Related post:
On Being on Anti-Depressants Indefinitely, Very Likely for the Rest of My Life

“Planning to write is not writing”: Like Hell It Isn’t

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
-E. L. Doctorow

My friend and fellow writer Dana Fredsti posted this quotation on her Facebook page, and asked people — especially other writers — if they had thoughts about it.

Boy, do I ever.

I think Doctorow has his head so far up his ass it’s coming out the other side.

A huge amount of writing is thinking about writing. It’s absurd to say that it isn’t writing unless you’re typing out words that very second. I mean, even when I’m in the “typing out words” part of writing, I spend a fair amount of time staring at the wall or out the window thinking about what I’m going to write — or looking over what I’ve written and thinking about how and whether to revise it. Does that not count as writing, either? And if it does, why does it count ten seconds before I type words, or a minute before I type words, but not an hour or a day before? Why does the revising count ten seconds after I typed words, or a minute after, but not an hour or a day after?

Is there some sort of statute of limitations determining when “thinking about writing” no longer qualifies as writing?

Yes, there are some differences between the “typing out words” part of writing and the “thinking about what to write” part of writing. But in my experience, those are differences of degree, not of kind…. and the degree isn’t that great. And yes, it’s easy to procrastinate by telling yourself things like, “I’m writing in my head,” or by doing every possible thing even vaguely related to writing that isn’t the “typing out words” part. (It’s one of the things that’s so dangerous about Facebook and Twitter: if you’re a writer, going onto Facebook and Twitter do qualify as work, since it’s part of publicity and promotion.) At some point, you have to sit down and do the “typing out words” part of writing: if you never ever get to that, then no, all the planning and thinking in the world doesn’t really count as writing.

But if you do eventually sit down and do the “typing out words” part, then yes — all the planning and thinking and re-thinking totally counts.

Thoughts — from other writers, from other artists, from anyone else with ideas about this?

DIY Bath Scrubs

Okay, this has nothing to do with anything. But I’ve been having a somewhat rough time lately, and this is a cheap, easy pleasure that fairly reliably makes me happy, so I’m blogging about it.

Samode_Palace_bathroomI’ve been taking baths instead of showers lately: they turn a quotidian daily chore into a luxurious pleasure, and if I’m smart about when I take the time to fill the tub, they don’t take any more time. I’ve been enjoying bath scrubs in my baths: they’re an inexpensive way to make this luxurious pleasure even more luxurious and pleasurable. Plus it’s a pleasure that lasts beyond the actual bath itself: the scrubs make my skin all soft, and the scent lingers in my skin for a while afterwards.

But I wasn’t always able to find the exact bath scrub aroma that I wanted. In particular, I was distressed by my inability to find a cardamom bath scrub. So I did an online search, on the principle that Rule 34 often applies to things other than the usual (i.e., if you can imagine it, someone is probably selling it on the Internet). And I discovered that bath scrubs are ridiculously easy to make. They’re much, much cheaper to make at home than they are to buy in the store. And when you make them yourself, you can make them in pretty much any scent or scent combination you want.

By the way, this can be a fun activity to do with kids. When our niece and nephew visited us recently, we made a bunch of small batches together: they had a blast picking out the scent combinations they wanted, and it made bath-time seem like a silly, goofy game. (Messy, of course — we mixed them on the kitchen floor for easy clean-up.)

So here’s the deal.


Stuff that smells good

Mix salt and oil in a two-to-one ratio, two salt to one oil (by volume, not weight — i.e., a half cup of salt to a quarter cup of oil). Add stuff that smells good. Use in bath or shower: get yourself wet, rub the stuff gently on your body, rinse.

I told you it was easy.



Sea saltIt took me a little time to find the exact kind of salt I like, and I’m still tinkering and experimenting. The first sea salt I tried was way too coarse, it was like scrubbing myself with oily gravel. Kosher salt was okay, but a little too scratchy. I finally settled on a fairly fine-grained sea salt with a somewhat flaky texture that I like (Field Day Natural Meditteranean Sea Salt, Fine).

However, in my tinkering, I also discovered that in a pinch, regular old table salt works fine. It’s not quite as nice as the flaky sea salt, but it’s totally fine. I now use it when I’m experimenting with a new scent or scent combination: if it doesn’t work, I don’t feel as bad about the boring table salt going to waste. (FYI, if you do use table salt, you may need to add a skosh more oil, since it’s finer than sea salt and sucks up more oil.)

According to the Internet, some recipes for bath scrubs call for sugar instead of salt. This seems gross to me. I do not want to sit in a tub full of sugar water. Your mileage may vary, however: some people obviously enjoy this. Coffee is another alternative: again, I personally don’t want to sit in a tub full of warmish, dilute coffee, but if that seems neat to you, go for it.

I use a two-to-one ratio, by volume, of salt to oil: a half cup of salt to a quarter cup of oil. You can tinker with these proportions to fit your preference.


almondsI’ve been using almond oil. It’s pretty cheap, especially since you can buy it in bulk at Rainbow Grocery; it has a very light, almost non-existent scent; and it has a long history of use as a skin oil (lots of professional massage people use it). I’ve also read that you can use baby oil, or pretty much any inexpensive, low-scent oil you feel good about smearing on your body and soaking in.

Stuff That Smells Good

RosemaryFor my first batch of homemade bath scrub, I used fresh peppermint and fresh rosemary. It smelled amazing. Except that a few days later, it smelled slightly rancid, and I wound up pitching it.

Since then, I’ve been using essential oils rather than fresh ingredients. Most of them are pretty cheap (although, ironically, cardamom is on the expensive side — maybe that’s why I couldn’t find a commercial cardamom bath scrub). Plus they make it easy to mix the exact scent and/or scent combination you want, in the exact strength you want. For each cup or so of scrub, you want just a few drops of essential oils: they are very freaking strong. (I got some small glass droppers for this operation, since not all the essential oils have droppers, and for the ones that do have them, they tend to be somewhat crappy.)

There are almost certainly some fresh scent ingredients that won’t go rancid from sitting in salty oil. Citrus zest, for instance, would probably be fine. But the essential oils work well, and they’re super easy. Also, it makes me feel a bit like a mad scientist to be titrating drops of intense liquids into my weird potions. I have yet to cackle maniacally when I do this, but it may come to that.

Be aware: Companies that sell essential oils tend to be bastions of woo. I spent some time searching for an essential oil source that didn’t try to sell me a stinking pile of aromatherapy bullshit about how blood orange was an aphrodisiac and rosemary enhanced mental clarity and other such nonsense. I failed. If anyone knows of one, please let me know. (I do think that pleasant sensory experiences such as pleasant smells probably help reduce stress in a general way, and of course people have pleasant or unpleasant memories and associations connected with particular smells — but other than that, aromatherapy seems to be total unsubstantiated quackery.)


Bathtub_at_Ananda_spaThese are commonly called “bath scrubs,” but you can use them in the bath or the shower. In the shower, I get myself wet, rub the bath scrub gently on my skin, rinse it off, then wash lightly with soap.

In the bath, I get in the bath; rub the bath scrub gently on my skin; luxuriantly soak in the salty, lightly oiled, lightly scented water, pretending that I’m Cleopatra or a Roman empress or something; then wash lightly with soap before I drain the tub.

The salt and oil and water would probably get me reasonably clean — if memory serves, this was one of the ways people used to get clean before the invention of soap. But I’ve absorbed my culture’s notions of what constitutes “clean enough,” and it bloody well involves soap. Also, if I don’t wash with soap, there’s too much lingering oil on my skin, and it feels sticky rather than soft and pleasant. I usually just do a light soapy rinse, though, since part of the point is to have a little of the oil left on my skin, for the softness and the scent.

Scents and scent combinations I’ve enjoyed so far:
Peppermint and rosemary
Lemon and peppermint
Lemon and rosemary
Basil and lime

Scents and scent combinations I’m planning to try:
Chai (cinnamon, clove, ginger, and cardamom)
Peppermint, rosemary, and lemon
Cardamom and tangerine
Bay and lime
Peppermint and tea tree
Fennel and orange
Fennel and mint

If you’ve ever made bath scrubs, and have suggestions for recipes that you like; or if you’ve never done this, but you still have suggestions for recipes that you think would be cool; or if you try this on my suggestion, and want to share your experiences and ideas — speak up in the comments!

(Samode Palace bathroom image by Dr. Blofeld, via Wikimedia Commons
Sea salt image by pinpin, via Wikimedia Commons
Rosemary image by Loadmaster, a.k.a. David R. Tribble, via Wikimedia Commons)

New Game: Social Justice Autocorrect!

I need a break from horribleness. Let’s play a game! Let’s play Social Justice Autocorrect!

Do you ever find that your assorted autocorrect thingies (phone, word processing, blogging software) don’t recognize social justice terminology? Do they come up with amusing autocorrect suggestions?

This came up during a Twitter conversation with Not All Misandrists (@artfulscientist). They were clearly attempting to ask someone to stop mansplaining, but it got turned into “plz stop mans plainsong.” I said that “mans plainsong” was my new favorite autocorrect — and they said that their autocorrect had also turned “dogwhistle” into “doge buster.” (To which I replied, of course, “Who ya gonna call? DOGE BUSTER!”)

So what are your favorite social justice terminology autocorrects? I’ll collect my favorites and repost them. Your time starts… now!

Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?

This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry magazine.

Here’s the conundrum. On the one hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to be rational, to the best of our ability.

On the other hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to accept reality, to the best of our ability. And the reality is that our brains are not rational. Our brains are a hot mess. Our brains are loaded with quirks and kluges and eighty kajillion cognitive biases, which are there for good evolutionary reasons but which can make for some seriously crummy thinking. And they always will be. I suppose it’s possible that humanity will eventually evolve to a state in which all our cognitive biases have vanished and we’ve become perfectly calibrated thinking machines — but I doubt it. And if that does happen, it won’t be while any of us are alive.

So how do we deal with this? As rationalists, the most obvious way to deal with our cognitive biases is to learn about them, understand them, learn to recognize them, and do our best to counterbalance them or set them aside. That’s usually what we advocate, and what we strive for. Including me. But can it ever be more rational to just accept our irrationality, and work around it or with it, and even use it to our advantage?

dumb-bellLet me give a couple of examples. When it comes to exercise, the rational thing for me would be to exercise at home. My gym membership costs money, and it takes time to get to the gym and back — time and money that I’d love to spend elsewhere. I have exercise equipment at home: it’s not quite as good as what I get at the gym, but it’s fine, I can get a perfectly good workout with it. But I don’t. I almost never work out at home. And when I do, I don’t keep it up for very long. When I’m at home, it’s too easy to be distracted and enticed by a dozen other things — including the sofa. When I go to the gym, on the other hand, I do actually work out. The only real willpower involved is getting myself there in the first place. Once I’m there… what else am I going to do? After all, I’ve already spent the time getting myself to the gym, I’m not about to turn around and go home again. It’s the “sunk cost fallacy” in action. And once I start working out at the gym, it’s easier to stay in a groove and just keep working out until I’m done. It’s not like there’s anything else to do at the gym: there’s no kittens, no snacks, no Internet, not even any TV except the TVs that you can only watch when you’re on the exercise equipment. A typical home workout for me lasts fifteen minutes at best: at the gym, I typically spend at least an hour.

This is entirely irrational.

So the question is: Do I say to myself, “My gym membership is irrational, so I’m going to cancel it and just make myself work out at home somehow”? Or do I accept the reality that, as irrational as it is, as costly of time and money as it is, my gym membership keeps me exercising? Do I accept the fact that my brain is easily distracted, and choose to exercise in a place that keeps me focused? Do I not only accept the fact that my brain is wired with the sunk cost fallacy, but actually use this fallacy to my advantage?

Which is the rational choice?

Another example. There’s a computer app that lets you voluntarily block your own access to the Internet. At the cost of $10, this app will let you pre-set a stretch of time during which you won’t be able to get on the Internet — so you won’t be lured by the essentially infinite distractions the Internet has to offer, and can get some work done. (In a branding effort so ironic it’s almost Orwellian, the app is named “Freedom.”) And if you’re thinking, “But I need access to the Internet to do my work!” — there’s another app, “Anti-Social,” that only blocks access to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, in case you need the Internet for research and just want to cut off the more temptingly distracting regions of it.

And if Freedom’s creators are to be believed, it has over 400,000 users.

ten_dollar_billTotally irrational. Why pay a company ten bucks for the privilege of not going on the Internet? Why not just, you know, not go on the Internet? But I’m buying the apps right now, even as I write this. Both of them. Because I know myself. I know that I am easily distracted. I know that I can easily spend hours on Facebook and Twitter — and as a writer, I can easily rationalize this time as work. (“I’m not wasting time, I’m doing publicity/ networking/ self-promotion!”) And I know that my willpower is not an infinite resource. I know about decision fatigue. I know that making one decision, once in a day, to not go on the Internet for the next (say) four hours will be a whole lot easier and less fatiguing to my brain than having to make that decision ten times a day, a hundred times a day, every single time I think “Oo, Facebook!” and have to force myself to stay away.

So which is the rational choice? Is it rational to try to make myself be more rational… or is it rational to accept the reality of my irrationality, and work around it and even with it?

I think this is a trickier question than at first it seems. On the one hand… obviously, if some mental workaround gets me exercising or working more efficiently, what’s the harm? But I don’t think this way about any and all consciously chosen irrationalities. I didn’t (for instance) keep taking glucosamine for my bad knee once I found out that it definitely didn’t work. A part of me wanted to, even tried to rationalize doing so, on the grounds that it probably didn’t do any harm and pretending I was doing something to heal my knee made me feel all empowered and stuff. But I couldn’t do it and live with myself as a skeptic. And when people say things like, “I know that my belief in God isn’t rational, but it makes me happy, so what’s the harm?”, it drives me up a tree. I do think we have a moral obligation to be rational. When we’re not rational, when we let ourselves think wrong things just because we want to, we can do harm to ourselves and others — because we have a faulty understanding of how cause and effect actually works in the world. (Look at parents who let their sick children suffer or die, because they believe that medical treatment will anger their god.) And I think rationality is a discipline, one which requires a certain amount of practice. I don’t think it’s so easy to be rational in some areas of our lives, while consciously letting ourselves be irrational in others. I think if we do that, we’re likely to engage in self-delusion at the very times when we most need to be on our toes.

So how do we parse that difference? How do we decide when the rational choice is to practice that discipline and make ourselves not act irrationally — and when the rational choice is to acknowledge the reality of our own irrationality, and accept it, and work with it? What standards might we apply to answering that question?

I’m kind of thinking out loud here, and I don’t really have an answer. (If others have ideas about this, I’d love to hear them!) But I can tell you one of the ideas I’m leaning toward:

There’s a difference between irrationality that denies reality, and irrationality that doesn’t.

“I won’t work out at home no matter how good my intentions are,” “I am easily distracted by shiny beads on the Internet” — these are subjective conclusions, conclusions about what is true for me. Ultimately, it boils down to a personal preference: I just like working out at the gym more. This preference may not be rational — okay, it’s definitely not rational — but it’s not a denial of reality. It’s actually a recognition of reality, and an acceptance of it.

God from Monty Python and the Holy GrailOn the other hand, “Glucosamine works” or “Glucosamine doesn’t work,” “God exists” or “God does not exist” — these are not subjective questions. These are assertions about what is and is not true in the non-subjective world, the world that doesn’t disappear when we’re not here to perceive it. To hold on to the idea that glucosamine works or that God exists, simply because you find the idea comforting and would like for it to be true… that is a denial of reality.

And I care about reality. I think we have a moral obligation to care about reality, and to understand it as best we can, and to prioritize it over wishful thinking.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being irrational in our personal, subjective choices: where we want to live, what work we want to do, what kind of art captivates us, who (if anyone) we want to marry. These choices might be wrong — if we abandon our partner and our family and run off to become the world’s greatest macaroni artist, that hurts people other than ourselves — but it’s the “hurting other people” part that makes those choices wrong, not the irrationality part. Silly, frivolous, irrational passions can be among the greatest joys in our lives.

But when it comes to questions of external, objective reality, I think we have an obligation to act rationally. I think we can accept our irrationality, use it to our advantage, even embrace it and love it. But I think this acceptance, this embrace, has to be part of our acceptance of reality — not a denial of it.

Humanist Performance Anxiety

This piece was originally published in The Humanist magazine.

Does anyone else do this?

jump for joyI have this set of humanist values, among which is the notion that since I only have one life, I want to live it to its fullest. Back when I had religious beliefs (mine were of the New Age variety, including reincarnation), I was often lazy about taking advantage of life’s opportunities, since I thought I could always pick them up on the next go-around. Now that I know that I only have one life, I feel intensely motivated to make that life matter: to create meaning and purpose, to make things better for myself and others, to be fully present in moments both large and small. Humanism 101. You know the drill.

But lately I’ve been noticing that, in moments when I’m not richly experiencing my life or taking full advantage of its opportunities, I feel this sense of guilt, and even panic. I’ve taken to calling this feeling “humanist performance anxiety.” And ironically (although pretty predictably), this performance anxiety actually interferes with my ability to enjoy my life and imbue it with meaning.

Here’s an example. Throughout my life, and more so in recent months, I’ve been working on being more present in my life: fully experiencing my life, and being conscious of it, and letting it sink in. But in stretches of my life when I’m not being fully present — when I’m just spacing out, watching bad TV or messing around on Facebook or simply staring out the window having little self-aggrandizing fantasies and letting my mind wander — I sometimes snap back into consciousness, almost in a panic. ACK! I’m not being present and mindful! I’m not living up to my humanist ideals! What am I doing? My very existence is a precious, fragile, wildly improbable flickering of a unique consciousness in the vastness of time and space! Why am I spending it watching “Top Chef”?

It’s not that I think every moment of my life has to be spent battling theocracy and helping the poor. But even in my small moments of pleasure and frivolity, shouldn’t I be fully present? If I’m going to spend an hour messing around on Facebook, shouldn’t I be richly conscious of that hour: savoring my deep sense of connection with friends and family and community, and marveling at the wondrous sprawling web that binds us with all of humanity?

I know that’s ridiculous. I know that my brain needs down time. I recently did a day-long secular meditation retreat, during which I worked to be as present and mindful as I could for as long as I could… and at the end of the day, I was exhausted. It was an extraordinary experience, but once it was over, my brain needed a break. I strongly suspect — although I’d have to ask the neuropsychologists about this — that semi-conscious spacing-out is essential for our brains to function, in much the way that sleep and dreaming are essential. It’s pretty clear to me that some sort of back-burner processing is going on during that down time.

And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that even the hamster-wheel in my head — the near-constant nattering of distracting worries and regrets, harsh self-judgment and harsher judgment of others, endless rounds of “if A then B, if C then D” strategizing for how to live the minutest details of my life, rehearsed conversations and imagined triumphs and worst-case scenarios, all the things that pull me away from experiencing the present moment — is also psychologically necessary. After all, if I lived with no worries or regrets, no plans for the future or lessons from the past, my life would be a hot mess. And if nothing else, I come up with some of my best writing ideas when the hamster wheel is spinning and trying to figure out the world.

But I still have performance anxiety about it. I get anxious that if I’m spending even a minute of my short, precious, fragile life on fretting or spacing out, I’m not being a good humanist.

gravestonesHere’s another example, a somewhat more serious one. In my humanist philosophy, mortality is something I accept. Of course I grieve when my loved ones die — I wouldn’t want not to, I can’t imagine what it would even mean to care deeply for someone and yet not be pained by their death — but I accept the reality and inevitability of death. I have a whole assortment of humanist philosophies that console me in the face of death and mortality, and that let me accept it with some degree of peace. I’m actually convinced that humanism is a better way of coping with death than religion — if for no other reason, it doesn’t demand cognitive dissonance and the denial of reality.

But lately, I’ve been noticing myself experiencing something that can best be described as “proto-grief.” When I look at someone I love or care about, I sometimes get gripped with a horrible sense of how I’m going to feel when they die. When I look at my wife, my friends, my family, even my cats, and I think about how intensely I love them, my mind sometimes gets sucked into imagining the moment of their death, thinking about saying goodbye to them, picturing my life without them… and I get overwhelmed with a despair that, in the moment that I’m feeling it, feels inconsolable.

Again… totally understandable. I went through something of a personal Armageddon a little over a year ago — my father died, and less than two weeks later I was diagnosed with uterine cancer (fully treated and recovered now, by the way) — and it’s not surprising that mortality and death would be in my face for a while. It’s not surprising that death, and fear of death, would be both more painful than usual, and harder to set aside.

But I still get mad at myself about it. I still scold myself: “Are you going to despair over life just because it’s temporary? Are you going to let these rare, delightful moments be destroyed because you can’t deal with the fact that they’re going to pass? Shame on you! Bad humanist! Bad!”

And you want to know the truly ironic thing about this humanist performance anxiety? It actually interferes with my ability to live up to my humanist ideals. Getting sucked into perfectionist self-criticism is not exactly the way to deeply experience my life and instill it with meaning and value. When I can let myself just feel my proto-grief, instead of judging myself for it — when I let myself accept the horrible suckage of death as much as I accept the reality of it — the suckage passes more readily. When I can accept my need for back-burner processing and down time, I can slip out of it, and slip into focused consciousness and presence, more easily and naturally. My anxiety about not living my life to its fullest is one of the things that distracts me from it. It’s as if, in order to see myself as a good humanist, I can’t let myself be human.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But I’m betting that I’m not the only one who does this. And recognizing this pattern is part of what’s helping me deal with it, and helping me let it go. So if anyone else is reading this and going, “Holy mackerel, I do that, too!”… maybe that moment of absurdist, “What fools we mortals be” self-recognition will ease the anxiety. After all, being a humanist means accepting reality — and part of reality is the reality of our own imperfection, our weaknesses and quirks and foibles. If we’re going to be humanist, we have to accept that we’re human.

Secular Meditation: How It Helps With My Depression

I’m going to preface this right off the bat by saying: I am not a doctor. I am not a therapist. I am not a mental health care professional, or indeed a health care professional of any kind. I’m just talking about myself here, and my own experiences. If these ideas resonate with you, and you’re thinking of trying this practice, talk with your mental health care provider. Also, while evidence does suggest that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can be an effective part of a treatment plan for depression, it is not a treatment all by itself, and it is not a substitute for therapy, medication, or other medical care.

Content note: Depression. Obviously. (Also note that this post has a somewhat different comment policy than usual: it’s at the end of the post.)

I was on Facebook a little while ago, and the subject of depression and mindfulness/ meditation came up. And someone (of course I now can’t remember who it was, or what their exact words were) said that they were baffled about how meditation could possibly help with depression. How, they wondered, could focusing their full awareness on their experience of the present moment do anything other than catapult them even deeper into the depression?

I can see that reaction. There is something counter-intuitive about this. Sure, there’s a reasonable amount of research suggesting that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction can be an effective part of treatment for depression — but I can see how some people might go, “But how on earth would that even work?” So I want to write a little about how, exactly, using meditation to help manage my depression works for me. There’s almost certainly neurological and neuro-psychological stuff going on that I don’t know about or understand — but this is what my subjective experience of it is like.

camera lens1) Practice in shifting focus. I’ve written before that meditation is a practice — not in a vague woo-ish sense, but in the most literal sense of the word. It’s like practicing a tennis stroke, or practicing the piano. I set aside time to practice certain skills, so I can get better at those skills and use them when I want them or need them.

And among those skills is the ability to shift my focus. Much of what I do when I meditate — in fact, the core of what I do — is to focus my awareness on something (my breath, a part of my body, an activity); notice when my awareness has drifted away; observe this without judgment; and gently return my awareness to its intended focus. So in my everyday life, if my awareness has drifted into something that tends to drop me into a cycle of depression (pessimistic thoughts, worst-case scenarios, terrible memories, etc.), it’s now easier to shift it into something else. I am, literally, more practiced at moving my focus to where I want it. I’m far from perfect at it, but I’m better than I was. And that helps with my depression enormously.

no judgment2) Acknowledging my experience without judgment. One of the central features of MBSR meditation isn’t just focusing awareness on one object or experience — it’s noticing when that awareness has drifted, observing this drift without judgment, and gently returning the focus. And when it comes to helping with my depression, the “observe without judgment” part is, I think, almost as important as the “focus” part.

For me, a big part of what makes depression worse is judging myself for it. That can turn into a nasty feedback loop: I get down on myself for being unmotivated, torpid, self-destructive, etc…. and then that self-judgment makes me feel worse about myself, and adds to my depression… and then I get more unmotivated, torpid, self-destructive, etc…. and then I get down on myself for it… around and around and around. Depression can be very self-perpetuating, and a lot of what I’m looking for in depression treatments are ways to cut into these vicious circles.

And the “observe without judgment” part of meditation is one of those ways. When I notice that my awareness has drifted from my intended focus into feelings of torpor or pessimism or despair — and instead of hammering myself for that, I observe these feelings, acknowledge them without judgment, and return my focus to my breath or whatever — it’s extremely liberating. It doesn’t make the feelings of depression go away — but it makes them less all-encompassing. It makes the depression feel more like something I have, rather than something that has me, or that is me.

This even helps with the meta aspects of depression. If I notice that I’m getting down on myself for being depressed or for having a hard time keeping my focus where I want it… that’s also something I can observe, and acknowledge without judgment, before returning to my focus as best I can.

serenity-rock3) Letting my feelings be, instead of frantically trying to fix them. MBSR isn’t just about formal, set-aside meditation sessions. It’s also about being more present in everyday life. So in everyday life, if I’m having a moment where I’m feeling anxious or restless or sad for no reason, I’m now better able to just notice that, and acknowledge it, and let it be. I’m less likely to desperately search for the non-existent reasons behind my anxiety, restlessness, or sadness. And I’m less likely to immediately try to fix the feeling or distract myself from it.

I don’t know about any of you, but for me, the frantic search for things that make me feel better is often part of what makes me feel worse. (Especially since things that make me feel better in the short run — television, junk food, long stretches on Facebook — often make me feel worse in the long run, and even the medium run.) The frantic search to fix my feelings and perfect my life just makes me feel anxious. It makes me even more aware of all the ways that my life falls short of perfection. It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me, because I feel anxious or restless or sad for no reason, and because I can’t find a way to make myself feel better. And it makes it nearly impossible to really savor, and really experience, the parts of my life that are wonderful and satisfying. (Plus, it’s just fucking exhausting.)

Since I’ve started practicing mindfulness, I’m better able to just sit with the anxiety, the restlessness, the sadness. I’m better able to let myself simply… have it. I’m better able to say to myself, “I’m just sad right now. I don’t know why. My brain sometimes gets sad for no real reason. I don’t have to fix this feeling. I don’t have to figure out what’s wrong. There isn’t anything wrong, other than the fact that I feel sad for no reason.” This doesn’t make the sadness or restlessness or anxiety go away. But it does help keep me from throwing gasoline on the flames. It helps keep me from adding self-judgment to the mix, or anxious and exhausting and utterly pointless attempts to find the non-existent problem and fix it. And that makes it easier for the anxiety or restlessness or sadness to pass. It doesn’t make the emotions better, exactly, but it helps keep me from making them worse.

question mark sign4) I don’t know how or why it works — it just does. Apart from everything I’ve been talking about here, there seems to be something going on, on a deep neurological and neuro-psychological level, when I meditate. I don’t know what, and I don’t know why. I just know that when I meditate, I feel better. I feel both calmer and more energetic. (Very much the opposite of depression, which tends to make me feel both twitchy and torpid.) I feel more focused. I feel more at peace.

Meditation helps with my depression in the long run and the middle run, in the sense that when I meditate every day, I’m less likely to get depressed, and my depressive episodes tend to be shorter and less severe. But it also helps in the short run, in the sense that if I felt depressed when I started meditating, I almost always feel less depressed when I’m done. I don’t entirely know why it helps me. I just know that it does.

Again — your mileage may vary. I really am just talking about my own experiences here. And again, if any of this resonates with you and you think you might like to try it, do talk with your mental health care provider, and remember that this is not a treatment all by itself, and it is not a substitute for therapy, medication, or other medical care.

Other posts that might interest you:
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation: The Serenity to Accept What Could Be Changed, But Doesn’t Actually Need to Be
Secular Meditation: Formal and Everyday Practice

Comment policy for this post: It sucks that I should have to spell this out, but past experience has taught me that I do: Please do not give unsolicited amateur medical advice, to me or to anyone else with mental illness, in the comments. Or anywhere, for that matter. Talk about your own experiences until the cows come home; ask questions until you’re blue in the face (except for douchy passive-aggressive question like “Why don’t you understand that psych meds are poison?” or “Will you read this article explaining why psych meds are poison?”). If you need this spelled out in more detail, please read Why You Really, Seriously, No Fooling, Should Not Give Unsolicited Amateur Medical Advice to People with Mental Illness (Or to Anyone, Really), Episode 563,305. Thanks.