Cooling Down: Lessons from the Desert
Hot, arid and vast. I was basically looking at the backdrop of Looney Tunes cartoons I’d watch as a kid. The expansive desert stretched out a long way in front of me, just doing its own thing.
What surprised me was how cool it was getting while the sun set over Joshua Tree National Park, California. I’d forgotten that deserts hit colds as extreme as their hottest points. Just like those steam-headed cartoon characters (see our pal Yosemite Sam), they get real hot! But they always cool down after.
Last time I wrote about tolerating life’s heated moments. Great! Let’s challenge ourselves. But just like how muscles grow during rest outside of the gym, we require cooling periods to stay healthy. Hot and cold! Learning healthy balance of the two is a big part of what’s called nervous system regulation and getting good at it makes life a lot easier and a lot more fun.
It’s also not as complicated as it might seem. In fact, our bodies and the desert happen to be very similar. Instead of solarthermically, however, our bodies get hot (the nervous system activates) when it’s time to get up, go to work, have a hard conversation, play hockey, perform in a play, have sex, etc… And they cool down when it’s time to rest, recover, reflect, integrate, center, connect and heal.
Too Long In The Sun
Has your sleep suffered? Are emotions big and overbearing? Is liquor your go-to tool for relaxing? These are all signs of spending too long in the hotzone, putting you at risk for the effects of chronic stress.Since society loves to glamorize doing and achieving, it’s no surprise people have forgotten how to do just the opposite. That is, spending time between doing things. I’ve always liked how Taoism describes the incredible power of non-action (Wu Wei) as syncing up with the effortless flow of life (in other words quit being so damn try-hard!).
How do we shift from the scalding stress of sun to the cool desert night? This one is so obvious that we refuse to believe it. We buy books and products to restore our calm, often agitating ourselves even more in the pursuit of relaxation. We complicate situations by talking, thinking and acting more. Neurophysiologically, however, this makes about as much sense as shaking a snowglobe to try and see Santa better (and he’s getting pretty nauseous in there).
The core skill in cooling yourself down has two basic steps:
1. Notice That You’re Overheating
To intentionally calm down, you need to actually notice that you’re not calm first. We’re sooo used to go-mode that body stress feels normal a lot of the time. To track stress, check what’s up with your body! Is your breathing shallow? Are your muscles tense? What’s your heart rate doing? Are your movements jerky and stilted like a nervous pigeon? Are your thoughts jumping from one to the next, looking to solve all of life’s problems?
These are all good indicators that you’re in the hotzone. Remind yourself that chilling out isn’t a waste of time, but a way of being better at things and enjoying them more. You’re now ready to practice actively grounding yourself.
2. Crank Up The AC
The main thing you need to do isn’t that complicated: Just stop. Stop doing things that get you going (activated). Put your phone in airplane mode. Sit in a room quietly. Go for a walk and look at the things around you. Cook food while focusing on each task. Brush your teeth and pay attention to what it feels like. Listen to a guided meditation.
Make it even easier by breathing deeply while you do these things. Don’t complicate this! 4 seconds in, hold for 4 seconds, out for 4 seconds. You might notice the outbreath is the most relaxing part; it tends to calm us down the most and if you want you can make your exhale even looooonger.
If you really want to calm down, you can also learn to watch your mental dialogue. Often what keeps us stirred up are challenging thoughts. “You need to do this,” “You really screwed that one up,” “Did you see how he looked at you?” etc. How are you supposed to chill out when your brain is saying stuff like that? A funny thing happens when you notice these mental words though: They disappear. The more you practice noticing them, the more automatic it becomes and the quicker they’ll vanish before they can crank up the heat.
Therapy Is For The Hot Spots
Sometimes, despite getting good at taking time to relax, practicing breathing and noticing your thoughts, there are triggering life events and memories that send us from 0 to 100 real quick. When someone tells you to breathe this away you’ll probably have some colourful words for them (e.g., @#%$ off).
Psychotherapy has a role when internal triggers and unresolved painful memories agitate our system too quickly to keep it calm. Meditation practice is often limited here because the parts of your brain that hold these painful memories fire extremely fast and wire through the nervous system of your whole body activating neural regions associated with physical pain. We need to iron these out so we’re not on high alert, breaking a sweat when our boss reminds us of a critical or abusive parent, or when dating activates memories of being shamed in front of others.I use an approach called Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy that I find very helpful at undoing aloneness and leaving the past in the past where it belongs.
As my time in the desert continued, I wondered if Carlos Castenda had seen what I was seeing right then. There were no shamanistic rituals or mystical visitations, but there was the tremendous peace of resting in the backdrop to all the action-scenes of daily life. There was a lesson from the desert on how to more fully live life and appreciate everything around me. There was the quiet urging that I remind others of these very lessons that I suspect we already understand fully… Somewhere beneath the noise and clutter of life in the city.
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