On wisdom from old words and finding joy (two original poems)

I searched for jewels of joy (J. Andrew, McKee; July, 2014)

I combed my mental beach for years looking for rare shells.

One day, while looking for the witch variety with dark and fiery whorls, I found another – of grooves in the pocket and designs of drumming when I was seven years old, basking in Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones.

Where are your shells?

* * *

Pulled by old poems (J. Andrew McKee, July 2014)

The poems of long-dead men and women
call to me magnetically,
well above the din of pomp and responsibility,
washing away the tarnish
from lack-luster tending,
helping prepare for the varnish
that my time has levied
for those deep, often dark arts,
that I stir with one hand,
while reading Adonis and Venus,
twirling with Basho and Rumi,
or raising eyebrows with Tranströmer and Lao-Tzu,
then letting that fiery witch
take the reigns and play
with the Wild Man underneath,


then go on dancing, and that pause,
like the distance –  silence  – between tracks,
uninterrupted though by anticipation –
Kabir limitless wellspring, garden mind-blowing –


slow-cooks a resilient confidence
that after years is blooming in spicy,
intermingling aromas at the cusps of my nostrils,
and now flows cocked back like burst olfactory lava,
scorching and laying waste
the gray filmy detritus
that fell unconsciously onto
my way of living.

Scrub away, dear soul, to
see the un-seeable, moving gems
that glimmer just beyond
touching or knowing.

Unearthing anxiety: confessions and tools for reflection and relaxation

The real heavy lifting is with your mind, not your brawn

In school and then while working, I always prided myself on keeping my cool.  But deep down, I probably knew the truth:  I was ridden with anxiety.  To perform, to achieve, to succeed, to out-compete others.  And it all buzzed under some fake manly façade, while underneath my thoughts popped around like ping pong balls in 1980s televised lotteries, jumping into my awareness at random.  I tried to be someone who looked laid back about work, but who secretly worked late nights like a dog whose mind was invaded by humanity’s insanity to run itself in circles instead of knowing when to rest.

Then I found stage fright.  It took me two or three years to overcome when I was performing as a professional saxophonist.  At its worst, I would feel a tightness like a stranglehold around my neck that would leave me unable to inhale deeply enough to play more than two or three measures before I had to come up for air.  And then a friend invited me to join him at a yoga class and I felt embarrassed and humbled upon feeling a searing pain in my hamstrings and lower back when I tried to lean forward and touch my toes.

Over years of slow-motion self-discovery– as tried getting still by meditating regularly, practicing yoga in quiet studios, taking frequent nature walks, and camping at hike-in sites and in the back country – I began to notice the impact of stress on my thoughts and actions:  typing an email to a boss at work, sipping shallow breaths, and soon finding my shoulders rising up towards my ears with tension.  Trying to speak up at a business meeting, again breathing shallow and tense breaths, wondering and dodging at when to jump in, and when I finally said something, feeling like there were cough drops stuck in my throat and everyone was just waiting for me to shut up.  Finding myself daydreaming about the day’s remaining to-do’s and noticing my scalp muscles tingling with discomfort (the occipitofrontalis muscle is involved in raising the eyebrows – ah worry! – among other things).  Hearing that one of my business projects was not well received, that an executive had judged my work harshly, and suddenly feeling pressure and uneasiness in my gut – a mass eruption of butterflies from the anxiety cocoons my wits had been wildly weaving for weeks, perhaps.  Sending an email to a boss who I didn’t enjoy working with, only to see him reply three minutes later with negative feedback – and feeling (or imagining) my heart exporting nervousness to my head and limbs.

With all of these, I forgot about some simple remedies that could have helped, like taking a few joyously deep breaths or putting work down and just walking around.  But with some practice, I had come to learn that these anxious reactions were natural enough– practiced habits, in a sense, for years of my life of being too focused on achievement at the exclusion of other ways of being.  Finally, I had enough self-understanding to say, Hey man, these are natural.  They will pass.

I also noticed over time – and with some feedback from an ergonomics specialist – that I tended to hunch over small laptop screens, or sit with my legs crossed, or stoop over the beckoning rectangular glow of my iPhone.

* * *

In this article I wanted to share some ways that stress has manifested itself physiologically for me and some tools that you can use to become more aware of stress and its effects on your body.

It’s important to accept the mind-body connection – the idea that your state of mind can affect how you feel physically, and vice versa.  If your body is not relaxed, the same is likely for your mind.  For several decades, clinical studies have shown that interventions like relaxation, visualization, and meditation can improve various physical conditions like healing after a heart attack or battling insomnia (review article here).

One surprisingly basic booster for your mental state is to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating healthful foods, and exercising regularly.  I know that when I’m sleep deprived, my back muscles tend to get tight, and the best therapy is a good night’s sleep.

Two related ways to loosen up are relaxation exercises and journaling about your stress.  The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, and Matthew McKay, is a great resource for these.  Pairs nicely with a daily journaling or reflection practice, which gives you a chance to trust and honor yourself every day, no matter how you’re feeling (good starts are Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way or Ira Progoff’s, At a Journal Workshop).

You may also find meditation can help you to become more aware of your inner feelings of anxiety and stress, as well as to calm those feelings.  Though I hesitate to strongly recommend meditation if you are just getting started on the path of self-awareness.  That’s because it can seem overwhelming, in terms of discipline, new mindsets, and self-knowledge that can sometimes be more than you’re ready for.  But like anything that could potentially help you, I’d encourage you to follow your curiosity.  I find Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation very helpful for getting still and peeling away the onion layers of habitual mind reactions.  Before committing to this practice (more to simplify than anything else), I also tried out Zen meditation and predominantly yoga-based approaches like those taught by the Self-Realization Fellowship and in books like Jonathan Novak’s How To Meditate.

What to do when you’re already stressed and just need some quick uppers?  Try these:

  1. Tennis ball massage: take off your shoe and roll a tennis ball slowly up and down the arch.  Use the level of pressure that feels right for you, noticing and focusing in on the tightest areas.  (hat tip, Tignum)
  2. Muscle relaxation exercises (great for bedtime or anytime).  Starting from your head down, pick groups of muscles to contract and hold tense for five or ten seconds, and then relax.  Let the area sag and hang into the floor or your bed – heavy, loose, relaxed – for at least a count to fifteen or twenty.  Repeat in as many groups as you like.  (hat tip, Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook)
  3. Ask someone with ergonomic experience to check out your workplace, or read up online about quick wins (here are two helpful articles from Penn State and Apple).
  4. Give your hands and arms gentle massages.  Just feel around for the tight parts — don’t push super hard at first — and enjoy working out some tension.
  5. Skim a book that elaborates more on strategies for improving how you work, such as Simplify Your Work Life by Elaine St. James.

Readers: let me hear from you (anonymously or not):  in what situations do you tend to get tense, and how does tension manifest?  What insights or practices have been most helpful for you to become more aware of stress or to deal with it?

Our time here, war, and health: an interview on the heavy with Patrick

Mount Tamalpais c.a. 1960, courtesy of the Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Library.


A few days ago, while hiking the foothills of Mount Tamalpais – a mountain that rises to 2,571 feet and has so many canyons and vistas that it seems like the trunk of a massive rain forest tree with buttress roots that the wind and rain have dulled and flattened over centuries – I met a 90-year old man I’ll call Patrick, from Lagunitas, CA, who was hiking up the Dipsea Trail. 

He was about six-foot two and was walking with a consistent rhythm – quarter notes, about eighty beats per minute – and breathing calmly, both achievements since we were already fifteen flights of steps above the town.  He told me he planned to hike to the summit and back.  He had alert and warm eyes that welcomed my presence even as he kept to the hike before him.  Silvery hair curled and spilled out from under a dark baseball cap, and the clear tube of a hearing aid wrapped over one helix and into the ear.  He wore the outfit of a serious day hiker – black Nylon wind pants, a backpack with a water bladder and hose, and black athletic shoes with yellow highlights still crisp – along with safety-conscious gear including a blazing neon yellow shirt and a circular black and gray device hanging on a necklace over his sternum that I believe was a MobileHelp neck pendant [overview of medical alert devices here]. 

* * *

God knows I am where I am because I’ve been doing good cardiovascular exercise.  All my life.  I was a track star – won a few major races in San Francisco in my day.  Never did run much on concrete – always on the grass on the inside of the track.  Just a few miles every day; every other day.  You do what you can.  But the key is sticking with it.  You can’t overdo it – I don’t understand all those people running marathons.  Our bodies weren’t made for it.

When I was four, I was out every day playing in the street – never did want to come in for dinner.  My running started early, maybe around then.  I went to bed with a football my arms instead of a teddy bear.  But when I saw what football was really about, I changed and got into track.  My specialties were the quarter-mile and half-mile.  Back before they converted everything to meters.  Nothing I’ve done was so grueling as the last hundred meters or so.  The lactic acid sets in and you just have to pump through it.

I’ve always done mountaineering, too.  The thing with mountaineering was, you have to pace yourself.  You can’t ever push too hard – always needed extra energy in case of an emergency.

Because of his age, and because I recently watched Ken Burns’ documentary, The War , I asked him if he served in World War II.

Sure I served in The War.  B-17 pilot [I think he said tours of duty over England and Europe but now I can’t recall].  You didn’t miss much.  That’s something I never want to do again.  Just had to do with when I was born.  I was twenty.  I was drafted, my number came up, and that was it.

There was The War, maybe the Korean War – of course the American Revolution and the Civil War – those were justified wars.  But since the Korean War?   I don’t think so.

Afghanistan?  (shakes his head and looks at his feet).  That’s the longest war we’ve ever been in.  [Wikipedia article on length of US participation in major wars and 2010 news story]  And for what?   At least the casualties are way less.  Don’t come close to The War.

I told him how old I was and the roles my grandfathers played in the US Steel industry and Hungarian cavalry during World War II.

Now, I’m ninety years old.  When I was nine, I’d have given anything to get to ten.  Just to get to two digits!  Then I was restless at twelve – couldn’t wait to get to thirteen and become a teenager.  But then, when I got to be thirty-five or so – the train started moving a lot faster.

The train? I asked.

Life.  Time.  It feels like it’s all leaving you so much faster.  Certainly sped up around when I was fifty or sixty.  And then here I am, 90 years old, and life is flying by.  So keep your health, and keep working on you career, and you’ll be fine.

* * *

Readers, let me ask you – what do you think about America’s military activity right now and the ongoing war in Afghanistan?  In terms of time, how has your sense of time in your life evolved?  Do you ever have the sense that it’s passing you by, that there are choices you might have taken but missed?

If so, maybe now is a time to reflect about what you would like to do, and brainstorm out some practical options of getting there.  Maybe talk about it with a supportive friend or loved one.  Or check out a book on the topic like Finding Your Element by Sir Ken Robinson.

For instance, if you always wanted to direct movies, and you have no experience right now, then consider taking a class at a local college.  Start studying and taking notes about your favorite films, the ones that really moved you.  What did they do that was so compelling?  Then you can move on from there – testing your interest further and developing it (maybe it is directing that calls you.  Or maybe it’s not – but cinematography or scoring does.).  You’ll find that as you go more towards what your heart is calling you to do, other opportunities will present themselves, and people will be willing to help you in surprising ways.

And you’ll need these positive experiences to counter the increased chance that you’ll fail at the new thing when you get started.  Simply because it’s new for you – new skills, new wisdom, new experience, new relationships.  So it’s important to set small and achievable goals until you build up a momentum.  The goals can generally be in line with a bigger vision you may have, though not everyone needs a clear vision in order to make changes now.  If instead you set goals that are too wild and high, you may suffer a string of setbacks and even send your dreams into hibernation.  Better to trust yourself that a change is being born from within you.  And even if you fail, it’s helpful to chalk them up as learnings.  The whole idea of calling a series of events and memories a “success” or “failure” is limiting, too.

It’s also important to be wary of the grass-is-greener tendency to imagine that something would be much better than what you’re doing now.  If so, it’s worth testing how it would be different – interview some folks or find a way to pilot the new endeavor for weeks or months.  Though at other times in life, you may just need to act and figure it out later, especially if something feels wrong or really uncomfortable in your current situation.

I’m reminded of a book I heard about last year entitled, The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.  It was written by Bronnie Ware, a former palliative nurse who has also worked in a wide variety of other professions.   I haven’t read it yet — only articles about it and interviews of the author.  So I’m regurgitating the list of regrets from this Huffington Post article.  It makes me want to ask you all again:  what regrets are you harboring?  (you can write them down, don’t have to share)  What would it feel like to transform them into self-insight so that you can move on?

Please note, the collection of regrets below may be comprehensive but does not represent a scientific study as far as I can tell.  I searched the scientific literature (aka, Google Scholar) and did not find any studies that appear to interview tens or hundreds of patients, collect their testimonies, and categorize them into the most common themes.  So the list may not be representative.  Not to mention I wish there was a book called, “The Top 5 Things People Feel Great About At The End of Life” – something positive would be refreshing, too.  As always, please teach me something new in the comments if you know of scientific studies that have looked into this topic.

Last point before the list:  it is helpful to think of regret in two ways – there is the nagging and hurtful regret that gets us stuck too much in the past.  But there is also healthy regret.  This kind is when you review how you felt about something, explore why you felt that way, and what impact your actions had on others in the situation.  You can learn a lot about yourself and how to act more skillfully the next time.  Maybe there’s still a chance, for instance, to say you’re sorry or write someone a letter (even if you never send it).

Here’s the list:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.”