Act like the cat

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” said Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cheshire Cat.
“I don't much care where…”  said Alice.
“Then it doesn't matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

Some people have a roadmap for life. They know where they’re going and how long it will take to get there.

Most of us are, however, like Alice In Wonderland; we have no idea where we’re going and are surprised when we get to wherever we end up.

When we take the time to listen, to ignore the persistent chatter in our heads and the busyness of our lives, we remember who we are. If we don’t, or would like to change, we can decide who we want to be. Every moment we’re at a crossroads.

Every moment is the first moment of the rest of our life. If we go sideways at 10 a.m., we don’t have to wait until tomorrow to get back on track. We can do it this very moment.

It helps, however, to have a constant reminder of who we are because it’s easy to forget.

Near the end of the last millennium, corporate mission statements were the rage and every company with more than 1.5 employees had one mounted on the office wall, although it was often trite, ambiguous and didn’t reflect reality.

But a good mission statement can keep a company on track, if it’s realistic and has employee buy-in, and so can a personal one.

A mission statement can be our guiding star, our Polaris that can tell us, when we have been battered by the storms of life, where we are. Life, or life circumstances, will blow us off course, but if we remember where we’re going, it’ll be easier to get there.

Stephen Covey, a former university professor who leapt to fame with The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is a prophet for personal mission statements.

“The power of the transcendent vision is greater than the power of the scripting inside the human personality and it subordinates it, submerges it, until the whole personality is reorganized in the accomplishment of that vision,” he wrote in First Things First.

A well-crafted mission statement that sums up the essence of who we are can and has changed lives; it can re-program the tapes in our head and rewire our neural net.

Thinking destructive negative thoughts is a habit, a bad habit, one we can change. It takes about 30-40 days of constant vigilance to re-configure the net that produces the negative chatter in our heads – I’m not good enough, I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m stupid.

If telling ourselves we are perfect, we are wonderful, we are worthwhile sounds empty and trite at the beginning, we’ll just have to fake it till we make it. The 100 billion or so neurons in our brain process information and help us remember to drop off the kids and pick up milk or think self-destructive thoughts – or find a cure for the all too common cold.

Thinking the same thoughts creates a web that re-inforces the power of a thought. If we think it enough times, the thought become stronger and we think it more often with more intensity.

An example of a one-sentence mission statement could be: “to live life completely, honestly, and compassionately.”

When we aren’t living that way, we’ll know it.

Bob Boxall, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, credits a mission statement with changing his thinking patterns – and his life. Like the rest of us, he thought he had plenty of reasons to doubt himself and his worth, but after a lifetime of beating himself up, he knew there had to be a better way.

The mission statement was it.

“I realized that 98 per cent of the people in the world don’t have a mission in life and they’re willing to go through hell to get to where they’re going, but they don’t know where they’re going.”

When he has fearful or anxious thought, he imagines it’s a phone call. As he receives each thought, he says, “thank you, I’m going to put you on hold” and then repeats his mission statement.

“I use those thoughts as messengers not as the message. When that stuff comes into my brain, the message is, ‘Get back on mission, get back to the true you.’ I lived a life following my doubts, fears and anxieties and all that stuff fed to me by external sources for too many years and I was lost as a chameleon. Now, I know who I am and I remind myself of that every day.

“Over that initial 30-day period after I wrote my mission statement, I could see myself changing. I was a different person at the end of it. It was such an a-ha moment.”

Any time we stop at a red light, wait in a line, walk down the sidewalk, exercise, we can use that time to reflect on who we are and turn our mission statement into a jingle we can repeat a thousand plus times a day. If we’re patient and persistent, that neural net will change.

That might seem like a lot of trouble, but we think anyway. We have a choice: we can think our negative thoughts or we can re-engineer our life.


You have a right to be here

Even though we know better, we re-inforce and re-affirm what we don’t want.

The more we repeatedly think and act in a particular way, the more we become unconscious of how we behave.

If we’re in a hurry, we hunch ourselves up, fold over our own heart, clench our teeth and the steering wheel while muttering we won’t make it. And if our worst fears are realized, we take perverse delight in claiming we knew it would happen like this.

Our thoughts are repetitive and negative; what ifs taken to absurd conclusions, thoughts that zero in on what we can’t do, about lack, fear and resentment, habitual responses that happen if we’re unaware or unwilling to negate the negativity.

Whenever we’re depressed, we project that feeling into the future, believing it will cloud our lives like the dismal February sky. We must enjoy the despair or we wouldn’t choose it so often.

Thoughts do leap, often unbidden, from the unconscious, but we have the power to choose another thought.

Yet, when we’re as expansive as a sunny, July day when life is humming along like our favourite song, we fear it won’t last, and cling to the pleasure like an over-protective mother with a wayward child. Both are destructive and push away what is held dear.

 “But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings; Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here,” Max Ehrmann wrote in Desiderata.

Indeed we do. We have our beliefs about why we’re here, some consider it a blessing, others a curse and some scamper between the two like a bipolar hamster. But we were invited here by the Universe and nothing was preordained.

Life is not something that happens to us, we create it with our thoughts, with the way we think. If we persist in thinking negative, dark thoughts, life mirrors those thoughts.

If we are adamant that good things only happen to other people, but never to us, guess what happens? And if the Universe should shower us with blessings, we soon fritter then away because we don’t believe it will last — and, consequently, they don’t.

“We control the frequency of our energy through our thoughts, feelings and beliefs,” it says on The Secret calendar. “If we are predominantly positive and feeling good, we are attracting like positive energy in every area of our lives. If we are in fear, powerless ness, blame, or any negative emotion, we are attracting like negative energy into our lives.

“As every single thing is energy, positive energy draws positive people circumstances, and events into our lives. Negative energy attracts negative energy, which we will experience through negative people, circumstances, and events.”

Our refusal to dance with life, our desire to ignore its music, create tension, which we don’t notice because it is so much a part of us. But it does make us anxious about life: about what we get, what we don’t and whether we’ll lose what we have. It shows up as a pain in the head, an ache in the stomach, or something much worse.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus put it this way:

“Therefore, I say to you, Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than food, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by anxious care can add one cubit to his stature? And why are ye anxious for raiment?

“Consider the lilies of the field how they grow? They toil not, neither do they spin? And yet I say to you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clotheth the grass of the field, which to-day is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?”

Until we shed light on the cause of our fear, anxiety, and anger, we deal only with the symptoms. We don’t acknowledge the emotional stress, or if we do, blame someone or something for our perceived problems. We push it away, resist it, pretend we’re not feeling it.

We get pulled into a whirlpool of dark thoughts like the event horizon of a dark hole; if we’re not careful, gravity will suck us in.

 “If we are confused, it’s absurd to deal with the confusion; we have to decipher what is causing the confusion?” said Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the spiritual greats of the last century.

A wise teacher does not tell us how to live, but asks the right questions so we can illuminate our own path. We are our own best teachers; we all have the answers to our questions. We can each be the high priest(ess) of our own truth, our own resolve, our own good intentions.

And the more we look into ourselves, the luckier we become, understanding at last what the Roman philosopher Seneca meant when he said luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

“Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment,” Eckhart Tolle, one of the spiritual greats of this century, writes in A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.

Solving the mystery of you

As we tell, and re-tell, ourselves our stories, what genre do we use: drama, romance, comedy, tragedy, farce?

At times, we use every method, but one worth considering is the mystery.

Check out any bookstore. No matter what they have, or don’t, there will be mystery novels — cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys, who did what to whom.

In our mystery, we already know who dunnit — us — but we have to figure out why and how and to do that, we need to be detectives.

The great mystery at the centre of who we are is the same mystery at the heart of the universe.

The as-above-so-below concept applies here.

The universe we see is supposedly one of many, a multiverse, and who can even imagine what lies beyond that seeming infinity. If we turn from the telescope to the microscope and look inward, we find that we are universes that sustain as much life, comparatively, as Mother Earth.

“Your body is a planet,” proclaims Discover magazine. “Of the 100 trillion cells inside each of us, only 10 per cent are actually human.

"The rest belong to aliens: bacteria, fungi, and other microbes. We may not realize it, but each one of us is a walking ecosystem.”

Just as we can destroy Earth, our mini-universe can be destroyed by the life it fosters; the big difference is, we initiate the causes that let the viruses and cancers multiply.

As long as we balance the eco-system, the universe runs smoothly, but when we disrupt the homeostasis with what we eat and drink, by what and how we think, we free our inhabitants to run amok.

If our physical or mental balance is off, our job, as detectives, is to find out why, to delve into the central mystery and in the process of enlarging our awareness, the harmful things we do seem to stop of their own accord. Harmony re-establishes itself.

“One might mischievously argue that God was, in fact, the first detective when he solved the mystery of who bit into the apple before moving on to more serious business in his second case, when Cain and Abel had a somewhat fatal argument,” Maxim Jakubowski wrote in 100 Great Detectives.

One great detective we could use as a model is Phillip Marlowe, the quintessential sleuth, a 20th century knight-errant created by Raymond Chandler.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” Chandler wrote.

“The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”

In other words, a (wo)man who knows himself and exposes himself and his beliefs to unwavering scrutiny, an often painful yet necessary process.

“Before you can ever think seriously of writing creatively, for your own sake, you must establish, as much as humanly possible, the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of yourself,” Gregory McDonald, author of the Fletch series, wrote in the introduction to Writing Mysteries.

“You are the only source of your originality, and the only person who can develop the skill to make that originality of interest or value to others.

“The mystery is perhaps the most explicit of all plots. As with any writing, you pose the question in the beginning, as quickly as possible, and by the end have answered the question as satisfactorily as possible.

The question posed in the mystery form is right on the surface of the work, impossible to miss, Who done what?”

That indeed is a mystery, one that some feel compelled to investigate, to get out a metaphorical magnifying glass and peer into the unknown.

In this case, we are the unknown and in our detecting we will likely encounter the watcher that observes our antics with the bemused detachment of a grandfather watching a two-year-old having a temper tantrum.

Many have no idea what makes us tick, indeed don’t want to know what we believe, what our values are, what our purpose is, and why we do what we do beyond the obvious. It’s easier to perceive ourselves as victims of things beyond our control.

“Many of the brain’s remaining mysteries need for solution mere wiring diagrams, yet a metaphysical halo lingers about the mystery of self-consciousness,” said writer John Updike.

“But within the human, there is a watcher who always recedes, and who answers every question with another question?”

Upon investigation, we discover that when we flow with life, when we don’t resist what happens, the stress and the fear dissipate. It’s a question of mind over matter: when you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. Life, like the traffic we find ourselves in so often, flows along; lights are usually green and there’s a parking spot when we need it.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe nothing has changed except our perceptions and it just seems the world is different because we’re not constantly in a hurry, fighting traffic and life.

If the light is red, we can take the time to appreciate the mystery of the case we’re working on.

The universe would not give us a case we can’t solve. We have the skill, but do we have the will, the desire, and the persistence?

And the solution, once we uncover it, will seem so obvious.

Take another road home

Life thrives on chaos, but we want order and dulling routine. We prefer the safety of habit to the unpredictability of the new and unexpected.

Our ancestors adapted or died. It wasn’t a corporate slogan. The brain evolved to handle the challenges and complexity that the environment posed.

All the senses were needed all the time; there was no mundane or routine.

There is a theory that we use the right hemisphere of our brain to learn and then the left side takes over.

Unfortunately, our society is left-brain dominant and doesn’t pay much attention to the right hemisphere. While our ancestors lived with all the senses saturated, from the right side, we constrict life so it dribbles instead of flows.

Since we don’t have to run from a sabre-toothed tiger or chase a gazelle, we exercise for health. Walking up a flight of stairs without breathing heavily, or being able to tie our shoes without sitting down improves the quality of life.

Just as aerobics is good for the body, neurobics is good for the brain, especially the aging brain. A few mental pushups, sit-ups and jumping jacks keep the grey matter wrinkled and elastic and the white matter as shiny as though it were scrubbed with Ajax.

“Neurobics requires you to do two simple things you may have neglected in your lifestyle,” Lawrence C. Katz, a former professor of neurobiology, writes in Keep Your Brain Alive.

“Experience the unexpected and enlist the aid of all your senses in the course of the day.”

We’re uncomfortable with change. We dress the same way, have the same thing for breakfast, drive the same way to work, line up at the same coffee shop, eat at the same restaurant and return home exactly the same way.

Numbing routine acts like a sleeping pill on the brain, which is why we can drive home and have no idea where we spent the last 25 minutes. The body was in the car, but the mind was elsewhere.

Unfortunately, if we’re not careful, it isn’t the drive home we miss, but life itself.

When we repeat the same predictable, routine and thoughtless actions, habits and behaviour, our brains stagnate. We stay in the same groove, the same lifelong rut.

We used to believe we couldn’t change, that the adult brain was set. But we don’t have that excuse any more because science has shown our brain is plastic.

We can mould, shape, sculpt it by doing things differently, learning and having new experiences, just as we did when we were young. The brain does not have to fossilize with age.

Up for a game? After work, before getting into the car, let’s close our eyes, toss the keys around a few times, find the right one, unlock the door, feel around for the ignition and start the motor.

Drive home by a different route, but with eyes open, watching and hearing everything — with the car radio and the cellphone off. When we get home, do the same thing with our house keys. Walk around the home with eyes closes – and see it again for the first time.

When we can’t see, we use touch, smell, hearing and spatial memory to find our way around out house — and around the furniture, the dog and the cat. Different actions create new and different patterns of neuronal activity in the brain.

“If you would know the truth, close your eyes and walk in the dark,” St. John of the Cross wrote a few hundred years ago.

Michael Merzenich isn’t a saint, although as one of the leading researcher on brain plasticity, he has almost god-like status in the science world. The professor emeritus neuroscientist at the University of California at San Francisco notes that neurons form a network only when we pay attention to the stimulus.

“In response to the right stimuli, neural connections can be rewired and refined, the brain’s gray matter can thicken, and new neurons can be produced.

“In general, the brain needs to learn, to reason, to act. Without it, it deteriorates. I assume that we brain scientists understand this with increasing clarity, and whatever else the information explosion contributes to humankind, we'll understand, with increasing clarity, what the average individual has to do to maintain lifelong brain fitness.”

That means if we don’t use it, we lose it. The dendrites, branches at the end of the nerve cells that receive and process information, atrophy, retarding the brain’s ability to create new memories and find old ones.

Learning is forming new neuronal relationship and remembering is keeping the relationship alive.

By not living by rote, but doing things differently, we force the brain to use more neurons to learn new things. If we brush our teeth with our left hand, put a different leg than usual into our pants first and button our shirt from the bottom instead of the top — with eyes closed — it forces us to pay attention.

Even taking a cold shower brings us shivering into the present instead of day dreaming or worrying about how the day will unfold.

“When we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing, the brain activates a host of other synaptic networks, and we don’t learn,” wrote Anders Ericsson, psychology professor at Florida State University, and an expert on expertise.

“With the exception of the influence of height and body size in some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body has been shown to constrain an individual from reaching an expert level.”

If we pay attention and practise, we can become what we daydream about. The road to greatness starts with taking a different route home.

More Transitions articles

About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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