Falling in Love with my Blind Barracuda Mind

You are the sea, everything else is just fish
photo courtesy of NOAA

Fun facts for the day: Barracudas swim up to 36 mph, weigh up to 100 pounds, have incredible vision, and use their face full of sharp chompers to consume hundreds, nay, thousands of unsuspecting, sparkly fishies. These fierce predators hunt  along the coastline, in tropical waters, where chubby, glittery, vampire-skinned tourists swim lazily along. 

 Did I just put a huge brake on your Polynesian vacay fantasizing?

Not to worry, my friend, your literal chances of being eaten by a barracuda are….wait for it…. none. Yes, yes, I know, you were scarred by Nemo’s mom being eaten by a barracuda, but according to the world-wide interwebs, Nemo’s dad just quickly shifted genders and became DadMom. So no worries.

Yes, I know, barracudas have those terrifying sets of endless teeth.  Yep, they’ve evolved over 500 million years. Yep, Nancy Wilson of the rock band Heart compared ruthless record producers to this ugly fish. Just that predatory!

Truly, truly, dear one, if your nervous system is getting kicked up right now what with all the countless scary things out there in the world, including (insert drumbeat from mega rock hit Barracuda right here) predatory fish, I’m here to remind you, it’s just bath water.

Guess what else is badass, minus the endless teeth? The human brain and nervous system.

Guess what can crunch to oblivion any sparkly hope, blossoming resilience, and fragile self-compassion? Also your nervous system. Let me explain. 

Our automatic survival brain; the ancient animal brain, is designed for survival. That is it’s sole function. It was not designed for the constant tech input and stress of living with 7 billion other humans. So, on high alert most of the time, these interconnected neural pathways cause overwhelm, triggering depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, constant irritation, feelings of “stuck-ness” and a host of chronic health conditions. What I didn’t realize, and maybe you either, is that we are reacting from our survival autonomic response most of the time, it drives our decisions, keeping us in patterned thinking. Causes us to second guess our creative impulses, make excuses, or get judgey and irritated. Or buy that cute outfit in three colors.

To this ancient part of our nervous system, patterns are survival, better to know the demon in the room, than wonder about possibilities outside. This drives our needs/addictive patterns, because even though we know that clinging to pleasure and avoiding pain isn’t sustainable, our nervous system clings to patterns. That is all it knows. Just a blind system. 

Disclaimer, I am not a brain doctor, but I have played one on TV.  JK! I do, however,  have carried a pretty destructive pattern of beliefs, addictions, and mental suffering stretching way back, oh, about a half a century. Also, a pretty recent vow to fall deeply, madly in love with my blind barracuda mind. 

How about you?

I wish we were in a coffee shop right now, you and I,  so I could send you a little wave of positive ju-ju, a little compassionate care from my eyes to yours, feeling the interconnection of  all our broken, bent, and bothered hearts. So, may these words find their way to softly blanket your gentle soul. Did you just breathe deep? I did.

Back to the Blind Barracuda. Mine’s name is Bernice, by the way.

The Buddha had a name for his predator mind too- he called this demon Mara, the Destroyer. Buddha wrote, to our dismay, that Mara was ever present— particularly the self-doubt demon face, to the end of his illustrious life. Mara is the personification of everything that prevents enlightenment. All the causes of suffering. The root of this Sanskrit word means to cause death, wielding the weapons of lust, doubt, rage, and fear. As if one demon dude wasn’t bad enough, Mara had five barracuda-ish daughters with names like: Aversion, Avarice, Delusion, Pride/Ego, and Fear. What a lovely bunch.

Mara might have joined the Hindu narratives centuries ago, but still sticks around. At EuroDisney, on the Indiana Jones ride, Mara attempts to kill all those that look into his eyes. To look into his eyes is to believe his lying words and be destroyed. But what happens when we engage and focus, with calm, so Mara will look at us? We say, as Buddha did, “I see you, Mara. Swim away.”

 I wondered what a blind barracuda would be like, in its most likely very short life. Reactive, maybe? Angry? Enraged? Blaming everyone and everything including itself?

 Leaping to conclusions, assuming the worst, catastrophizing at every turn, grasping at addictive paths on an endless hunger for soothing. And, metaphorically speaking, chomping on anything in its path; even innocent, chubby tourists. That is anyone in the barracuda mind path: Loved ones, partners, parents, children, school teachers, customer service reps, the guy that swerved into this lane.

What sounds like logic in our own heads is really dressed up fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. Couple that with memory and our stuffed down emotional shit, our unhealed trauma, and we have what drives our behavior and thinking 90% of our waking hours. Or maybe 99%.  We feel stressed out. Need to lay on the couch and binge watch anything. Or maybe joke about breakfast wine. Heart or comment on a meme, pretending that might heal something. Acting on a need to complain on that neighborhood app about dog shit. Again. Getting riled up about what might happen. We all have tendencies toward addictive patterns, even healthy things, right? Anything I attach the word or feeling, “need” to, is probably Mara/Blind Barracuda Bernice mind.

So, I see you. I see you. 

True rest from all this chaotic and destructive energy is breathing with focused intention, sleeping deeply. Breathing, with focus, Walking in nature. Eating healthy food and water mindfully. Snuggling with loved ones. Moving; maybe yoga, qi gong, swimming, dancing, running. Sounds simple, but takes effort.

I learned, to my dismay, that just buying an app doesn’t mean I am really healing.

Bummer. What I truly require, is not only to identify my patterns of suffering, I want to see their purpose, intention, and give gratitude. This is my mind, my patterns, and only I can do this deep work. You know, the work that isn’t in an app or on a screen.

So I practice, breath by breath. Step by step. Getting support as I go. And if all that lovely healthy stuff gets interrupted by another swarm of blind barracudas— hello, Monday—then what?

Do as the Buddha did.  He didn’t say it was easy, he said we begin again, and we begin again, and again. 

So there is hope! Buddha, and me too– you too! We can be experts on facing our destructive, blind patterns. We can all look with curiosity and compassion and said, “I see you, Mara.” Turns out, identifying forces of destruction in our nervous system without calling up a narrative is powerful.

Not only that, but it is the first step to love. Yes, I said it, we all need love, even our blind barracuda mind. When I learned that these patterns aren’t me, just automatic ancient but blind response systems, then I began to wonder about my own inner essence; my true self, beyond my patterns– the part that can say, with curiosity and calm, “I see you, Mara.” 

Then with breathing, really feeling the breath, getting in touch with my body experience, I experience healing. I build resilience, focus, calm, breath by breath.

No phone app needed, just the mind, resting on the breath, on the feelings in our limbs and in our hearts. 

Then, identifying what lies beneath; that desire we share, to live, to thrive, to feel, to love; all this embodies healing, opens our eyes, peels away the teeth and scales and we see our true natures. We see that we are loveable, that we can love, even the icky stuff. We can look up, look around with gratitude and friendliness. Then, we know: the barracuda is just a fish, and the terrifying sea; just bath water, and we are all together, swimming, swimming, making our way home. 

Loving the yuck

No disrespect to the many who are suffering now, but it is time for me to stop spinning in fear and worry and take a minute to find my feet. I am so damned tired.

It is easy to dismiss the idea that ‘oh just be grateful for what you have’ as a silly panacea that does nothing to make the world better. Standing around 6 ft. apart, definitely not holding hands singing Kumbaya with our face masks in place right?

Gratitude is my superpower

Hang on a sec, give me just a minute. Google the ‘transformative power of gratitude’ and you will find that  when we pause and bring our overworked minds to sensation- like noticing the pressure of the feet on the floor, then noticing the breath travel through the body, maybe sighing out the exhale, we literally can’t be thinking about our fears and worries at the same time. Try it. Think about whatever is on your worry radar right now, just one, pick one, now bring your brain awareness— your inner eye —to the sensation of your feet on the floor. Really feel your feet, no judgement, stories or reactions, just let your mind rest on your feet fully; the toes, ball and heel. Try it, I will be right here when you get back.

If you were able to fully be with the sensation of pressure on the floor, your thinking mind was taking a rest. Maybe just a nano-second, but a rest, and that is exactly what our overworked minds need. A rest.

Even just doing that is terrific for the health of a nervous system, but I can kick it up a notch in the moment I am noticing my feet, by bringing to mind  something in the last day or two that I am really grateful for. Anything, can be as simple as remembering enjoying the coffee my sweet hubby brought me. Bringing the same curious, open, non-judgey, non- storytelling mind to that moment, really trying to remember the feelings around that moment, maybe even visualizing it, if I can. Seeing my husband’s smiling eyes, the warm cup in my hand, that first whiff of coffee, chocolate and cinnamon. (Yes, my morning latte is the bomb) Bringing my awareness back to the pressure of my feel on the floor, feeling gratitude for that moment, my nervous system is getting a double pump of serotonin and dopamine, not only resting, but feeling happy and healthy too. 

Dr. Randy Kamen writes, “Research shows that recording experiences for which one is grateful for only two consecutive weeks has lasting positive effects sustained for up to six months.” My brain will go back to doing what my brain does, but if I can find small moments throughout my day to feel, notice, remember with gratitude and breathe, I am building resilience and health, one moment at a time.

Maybe try this nervous system hack for yourself. You have the tools, no fancy app needed, just breathe, notice your feet, remember something you are grateful for, really feel it. Take a breath or two if you can, and notice how your nervous system is feeling. Maybe we can’t solve all the worlds problems, but we can get a clearer, maybe healthier brain, heart and body just by noticing our feet. Pointed in the right direction.

Emma ready for anything and then not so much.

May I?

Nowadays my games are called hiking in the North Cascades

Remember that kid’s game of Mother, May I?  A line of fidgeting kids stand across the field from ‘mother’, the game leader. ‘Mother’ calls out a direction, like ‘3 baby steps forward’, and if someone moves without asking , ‘mother may I?’  they are out and return to the line. The one who remembers to ask for permission with each direction and takes the longest steps to reach the line tags mother and gets to be the leader for the next game.

I spent a lot of my life at that line, sometimes waiting for permission to dash ahead, following rules, breaking rules, making my assumptions about what is required, needed, or wanted from others to get ahead, to win, to reach success. My head spun with anxiety as conflicting assumptions and stories about what others needed swirled in my tornado mind twirling with my own negative thoughts about myself. It’s exhausting being me.

I have tried for years to sit and meditate- which for me meant torturous silent mind moments. SO hard for me. My mind isn’t designed to just sit there, focused on the void. A few minutes maybe, but never the twenty or thirty minutes my counselor talks about. Sitting thinking about nothing for 30 minutes? Crazy impossible, and not gonna happen.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have repeated studies about the effects of mindful breathing, movement and meditation on PTSD, high blood pressure, dementia, depression and anxiety. The interesting thing is that regular mindfulness practice, in whatever form patients use makes a difference in the body and mind. The question researchers are asking now is how to use mindfulness or meditation as a prescribed therapy. How often? What types of mindful breath and/or movement are the most effective? Which have the longest lasting results?

One type of meditation or guided practice that they studied  had extraordinary results. It  has a long history in many cultures, and it begins with the words, “May I.” 

I was taught a version of this guided practice in my yoga teacher training, and I have seen it several times over the years in mindful practices. It is often called loving kindness meditation. I have a hard time with this one too, I tried to use it with the yoga classes I teach, but honestly it felt a little false and uncomfortable. I thought it was because it has Buddhist roots, and religion in any form is a bit uncomfortable for me. Then I realized that my discomfort comes from my own deeply imbedded belief that I am not loveable.  Oh, I am ok-ish. I have some good qualities, but seeing myself with all my bits as the beloved? 

Opening up honestly to genuinely loving myself as I am, as I was, and as I might be seems wrong, and felt just plain impossible. 

So, like I do with any practice, I try again, with a new focus. 

Can I truly ask myself permission to be loved?

I repeat the words of the guided practice and really focused on the words ‘may I’ which are repeated over and over, for myself and for others, ‘may I..”, ‘may you..”, ‘may we…” and I feel a softening with that word, ‘’may…”. May allows for..it makes gentle space..I feel my shoulders release a little.  Maybe I can give myself permission to open just a little more, find a little bit of judge-free mind. Maybe I am a little more lovable and loving  and loved than I have held in my head for so long. Maybe I can love this interesting, conflicting, confusing, creative person that I am, that I was, that I will be. And as I maybe add space for that, I open just a little more to love. Maybe. May I?

PS. There are so many versions out there of this guided practice, Tara Brach has a lovely one, Thich Nhat Hanh recorded and wrote about it nearly 50 years ago, and now in the Radical Self-Love Decade, loving kindness meditations can be found all over the internet. Here is my version.  May you open,  giving yourself the love you richly deserve. 

Resources for daily health and vitality

 Committing to our mental, physical and spiritual health as if our lives depended on it. Day by day, one loving action after another, we build flowing resilience to meet life as it comes 

Audio: Yoga Qi for Resilience practice 

FEATURED: Evening Flow to calm the nervous system and gently stretch

Search soundcloud.com: Yoga Me with TerraLea

Several tracks of morning, afternoon  and evening yoga flows and meditation

Spotify music playlists: https://spoti.fi/2Yq7IIQ

Here is some other stuff I love from respected practitioners…

Breathing Resources

James Nestor: How We Breathe podcast. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/james-nestor-on-how-we-breathe/id262033197?i=1000488075368

Insight Timer: Hundreds of breathing practices, many are free

Tapping, Emotional Freedom Technique

Nick Ortner, Tapping Solution   The Tapping Solution, free tapping meditations or subscription app.

Qi Gong Practices

Search YouTube: Qi Gong for Vitality for free qi gong practices, many designed for our present conditions. For grounding and calming the mind:  https://youtu.be/o-jrbymsyDM.  Dr. Jeff Chand’s website- with instruction, talks and videos: https://qigongforvitality.vhx.tv