Be on the Mountain

Susan Cooke

My attempts at meditation have been spotty. I tried it on and off for some time, and even took a class at the Benson Institute in Boston where they try to help people with physical and/or emotional issues by teaching various forms of meditation, a little yoga, and a good deal of cognitive therapy (where they ask things like “Do you really think that person hates you or do you think maybe they were just having a very bad day?” which is certainly helpful to know about.)

It appears most of us can benefit from some of these practices, especially Americans in our chaotic cities, trying as we must to navigate the many days per year that are stressful for so many reasons. This post though is specifically about something I chanced upon while navigating my own super-stress not so long ago. I was fighting a terrible depression that arose from one of the usual suspects–a prolonged traumatic experience. My trauma was caused by a town tyrant bullying my family out of its few remaining funds as we tried to downsize and move from another city to our tiny new house in the new town. I was afraid through the weeks it continued that we’d end up homeless since our funds were draining fast as we tried to pay rent in the first town where we were living temporarily (and where I knew no one, which made me more vulnerable), and pay the mortgage on the very small house we’d built in the new town. My more resilient husband got some support from colleagues at his office, so luckily he got through the crisis in better shape. I won’t go into details here, but we finally in desperation hired a lawyer who within days he stopped the bully. But it was too late for me. A couple of weeks earlier, I fell one day–or my brain did–into a terrifying dark canyon. I could not eat, and could barely talk. This, I learned, was depression caused by extended traumatic stress. I thought I’d been depressed somewhat at times in the past, but I had no idea it could be like this.

I couldn’t physically tolerate the meds–they dried my eyes so severely I got corneal abrasions. We read books on depression and tried what we could to get me back to something like normal. I discovered after beginning to try meditation and finding it upsetting, that some experts believe it’s not always good to meditate when you’re deep in a depression, and better to wait till you’re climbing out a little. I did the other things they recommend: exercise, being out in sunlight, and being with people more (difficult since I didn’t work in an office and all the coffee shops’ music was so loud I couldn’t last in most more than two minutes). So I was more isolated than was healthy, and while I added more exercise in the sunlight because I knew it would help later, it didn’t feel like it was helping for a long time.

When I felt ready I tried CDs of guided meditation, other CDs that are supposed to help you sleep if that’s part of your problem (it was), and CDs of massage music since I knew some of that might be relaxing. Most didn’t help much, and some made me agitated. Finally I stumbled on some music that used combinations of sounds I found soothing–Native American and Asian flutes, some Eastern-sounding delicate cymbals, and crickets! It all seemed to transport me to a new place where there was a little relief. I’d read it’s helpful to have a restful place in our minds to help us feel calmer, especially when we’re upset, but had wrestled with figuring out what that was for me. This music made it easy to visualize such a place, and once I did I realized it was the only place where I could imagine this music being heard.

I didn’t think about the place much, other than when I imagined it during those few minutes on days when I tried to do something like meditation. But weeks later I noticed that sometimes when I couldn’t relax or felt depressed again, that I was telling myself something new:  “Be on the mountain.”  I realized the place the music had conjured up had become part of me. It was on a mountain, a wide mountain ledge in Nepal (why? I’ve never been to Nepal!)  It was spring or summer, twilight but late enough that stars had begun to appear. Below was a small town with cafes and lights, and a small harbor leading to the ocean. Little boats rocked gently in the harbor, moonlight shone on the waves, and there was a gentle, warm breeze. Behind me on the ledge was a beautiful garden filled with fragrant plants and trees, then more mountain above it. The music came from below, and was played every night so that everyone around–in the harbor, the town, and on the mountain, was at peace, with themselves and with everyone else. Next to me were several much-loved animals–my childhood collie, a horse I rode in the Colorado woods for two summers, two cats who adopted me, the fawn and the lamb I held in my arms both on the same day, and the goat with soulful eyes at a rescue zoo in Maine who never left my side for nearly an hour.

When I am on this mountain, I feel calmer on some nights than others, but the miracle is that I feel calm at all. For a constantly whirling mind this is a great gift. I’ve accepted that it’s okay that this isn’t any particular kind of meditation, as far as I know, and I don’t know if it’s helping my brain a lot or a little, but I’m much better off going there fairly often than I am never going at all. I didn’t think it was possible for this to happen to me, that is, I look forward to those few minutes, whether it’s 3 or 20 or more.

I wish everyone could be on this mountain at least occasionally, feel what I feel there, then take it into their stressed out crazy lives and let it change them a little. In my imagination there is no place or need on the mountain for frantic speed, vast wealth, hatred, violence, gun protection, or cruelty. People are terribly considerate, and love and protect animals and each other. They find ways to live in the modern world that don’t cut them off but are the most peaceful possible, so everyone is soothed by nature every day  (without leaf-blowers and with many fewer aircraft overhead, or at least quiet aircraft which I hear is becoming possible!)  Relieving suffering and creating ways to live a peaceful, healthy life are  also priorities on this mountain. No one goes hungry because there are fruit and vegetable farms everywhere. There are no gas-powered machines of any kind–they’re all electric and quiet–so you can hear the wind in the leaves, and if it’s nighttime focus on the beauty of the stars. The lack of fumes means you can smell the jasmine, lilies, and roses in the gardens.

That’s not so impossible, not so very far from where we are if we put some group effort into getting there, is it? The human body isn’t designed to hear loud motors and smell fumes most of every day–it’s just too stressful, even if you think you’re used to it. Nor are our brains immune to the chronic stress caused by seeing or just knowing that others are suffering. We’ll all be happier and healthier if we live where nature without noise is available to us most of the time, and where we know all who suffer are getting help. For example we need to know our city, state, and country are helping the homeless and hungry right now, all day and every day—that wellbeing is a priority for all leaders. In my ideal place there is just no room left for selfish, narcissistic, or non-caring leaders.

I know I sound naive to many, but I can’t help believing these things are possible because we are as close to being there as we are to being in a much worse place. So why not go for the best one? So I wish for us all that soon we’ll have only caring people in power. I wish for you that soon you find your own mountain (or forest or seashore) and spend some time there.

The CD:

World Flute Lullabies, Native American & Asian Flutes for Sleep Therapy, by Lullaby Tribe (“ioda” seems to be the brand.). Not every cut is perfect, but on the whole it’s the best collection for me, and the third one is about 20 minutes long and one of my favorites. That one is good also if you’re looking for one meditation period about that long. I had to buy 2 copies because the first would not play. I took it off my ipod and use a cd player now for it because it took up too much room (80 minutes) but you could pick the cuts that do the most for you (if this turns out to be the right album for you) and just buy those. This group has made some other albums as well.

 

Stressed Americans not so Happy

Susan Cooke

Why aren’t we Americans higher on lists of countries in which people are the happiest and healthiest? This is in essence what much of my book is about, but let’s just look at a few things for now.

One problem common to many of us is cascading stress and worry that can begin at any time, but often occurs because we haven’t slept enough. Among other bad things this does to us it usually means we’re late for work which just adds to the stress load. Stress and worry often are the reasons why we couldn’t sleep, so if they’re still bothering us on the way to work, we add even more to our stress load.

Maybe we were worrying because we felt we had to finish something for work that seemed an emergency so we didn’t  go to bed near on time. Or we went to bed but woke up at 2 am worrying about the work or the job itself, or about how to get a less stressful job that might pay less but would at least pay the bills (but what would people say?) or worried about our kid(s), spouse, friend, or a conflict we had with someone. Or we might be in physical pain and the pain keeps us up but we don’t want to take too many painkillers, or we desperately need a vacation or some kind of downtime and how can we possibly get it or afford to go much of anywhere even if we do get it, or how can we get the neighbors to stop using leaf-blowers so much so we can enjoy our own yard more and not be so constantly desperate to get away to someplace quiet, etc.

Once we’ve made it to work we have to hurry to get in gear and produce even though we’re tired from so little sleep. We have to be sure not to snap at someone just because we’re worried and exhausted.  We wish we had a job that didn’t take so much out of us or a boss who believed in a less arduous schedule, but who has time to find one and would our commute be even worse than it is now?

For many of us in our country, this is daily life. It probably is similar in other countries in which people live our lifestyle or try to. Many of these issues feel even worse in our chaotic, loud, crazy cities than they might in more rural areas, though those not in cities go through a lot of this too.

One thing my research has revealed to me is that it’s much harder to slow this whole process of living at high speed and often near-panic when many people around us are living at the same pace. Yet if we don’t slow down our levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are likely to remain high, making a slew of illnesses more possible for us due to the inflammation caused by stress. (You probably know this already, but inflammation seems to be the source of many of our illnesses.)

I write a great deal about the staggering effects of stress on people, and I find that Americans seem to have a unique brand of stressful lifestyle and approach to life that’s extra tricky and tough to battle. Not that we all willingly choose to live this way. Many of us are simply infused with a work ethic that seems oriented toward acquiring fame or power or at least being near the top of the competition most of the time (in addition to more money, that while up to a certain number of dollars is helpful, may in fact be unnecessary in larger amounts for us to be happy. Yet we’re not necessarily aware, or maybe we forget sometimes, of how trapped in this vortex we can become. We’re too busy just trying to get through it all.

The need for fame or wealth beyond what’s practical or pretty okay may come partly from a completely understandable craving to matter in this world, to be known as someone who walked this earth and made something happen that was good or useful. But there are many ways to be good and useful without shortening our lives from stress in the process. It helps to accept that not every one of us can be high-profile. Certainly most of us can’t be super-wealthy. So if we turn out to be one of the majority who are not going to be famous or wealthy, we can reduce our stress and our constant speeding through life to get wherever we’re trying so hard to go by accepting that and getting on with the business of living a meaningful life that makes us and a few others happy. I absolutely believe this is possible, though it would help us all if we got a little support from government and businesses. They can help by learning about what helps people become happy and healthy, and a big part of what I try to do is show them the research on this. It can help them help us to thrive.

Here are not all, but a few things, most suggested by research, that can help us and help our leaders help us:

Access to nature close to home most days (without industrial noise)–so more quiet local parks and gardens not filled with traffic noise and fumes

Access to safe places to move and exercise outside in bright light, away from traffic & other industrial noise & fumes

Access to many easy places to meet and socialize with those living near us, places such as coffee shops and cafes, ideally including outdoor seating, and ideally away from traffic, near home so we can walk to them

Noise and fume laws that are well enforced, so that wellbeing doesn’t continue to plummet due to bullying by thousands of leaf-blowers and other loud, unhealthy lawn equipment (leaf-blower fumes especially are truly dangerous to our health due to their particulates highly suspected to cause cancer, and leaf-blower noise is extremely bad for mental health, causing misery for millions around the world)

Access to abundant healthy organic plant food for all in even the poorest neighborhoods, through stores, farmers’ markets, and community gardens

Highest quality efficient transportation services so we can get where we need to go without added cascades of stress hormones

Higher minimum wage, and more time off for everyone; Americans are absurdly and dangerously overworked, and many are absurdly and dangerously underpaid. These are both recipes for extreme stress and shortened lives.

Homes for every single person. There are many exciting and innovative ways to do this. It can be done and we must do it. No more homelessness is necessary.  Look at Los Angeles for starters.

Drastic reduction of firearms across the country. The U.S. gun prevalence is absurd, barbaric, cruel, and beneath the dignity of a supposedly advanced country considered (at one time) to lead the world

Good health care for everyone including the homeless (who we’re going to house ASAP, right?)

Tax breaks and other aids and incentives for everyone to have a garden, large or tiny

Education (especially for the President and EPA) and directions for all in taking immediate steps to stop pollution and global warming, using gardens, green roofs, conservation in general, solar panels in more places (with more help in paying for them), more parks, more trees (again more nature also does wonders for our wellbeing, too, but it must be away from industrial noise and fumes to work the most magic, and we need to drastically reduce all such fumes to help global warming anyway)

Kindness and respect for others’ desperate need for quiet and nature. Caring for others’ peace of mind–why they need some quiet–includes such thoughtful acts as not turning on speaker phones or shouting into phones so everyone in the cafe or park must listen to only that person and is forced by them to stop their own conversation, reading, or thinking. In other words not invading each others’ sound space which we do throughout our current society indoors and out to a degree that everyone’s stress hormones must surely be at way above normal levels most of the day. We cannot close our ears the way we close our eyes, and most of us can’t carry around noise-cancelling headphones, nor should we feel forced to wear them just to keep our own stress levels down. Public service announcements would help a lot with this problem since so many people seem unaware of the damage they’re doing to fellow citizens.

I’ll write more on noise later–it’s a huge problem–but it helps to make sure our government leaders know the World Health Organization (WHO) considers loud industrial noise to be so damaging that it calls it a worldwide health emergency.