“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” – Anne Lamott
Back in my twenties, I had this idea of living life like an adventure story. My guiding principle was to say yes to everything.
So I did. I said yes to every party and every weird opportunity, from installing neon signs in San Francisco to studying sperm whales in the Caribbean to digging for peyote in the desert of central Mexico. I lived all over the world, worked every kind of job, and had every kind of romance and peak experience. Also every kind of physical injury (I was never a particularly coordinated adventurer).
At a certain point, I realized the ratio of fun to struggle was moving in the wrong direction. The fun was getting briefer and more desperate; the challenges were getting longer and more all-encompassing.
My problem was that I had set no limits on my nervous system. My mind thought I could do anything, but my body knew differently. My body also needed routine and structure. It needed rest as well as stimulation.
Actually, what I needed to learn was self-regulation. And now, at 51, I’m needing to learn it in a whole new way. It turns out to be more of a group effort than I ever imagined.
Over the past few months, all my structures of self-regulation have fallen apart. In preparation for the birth of our second child, I’d been working longer and longer hours, and doing the heavy lifting of toddler care (literally, since my very pregnant wife could no longer carry our little guy). I got more and more run down, too tired to do anything beyond what seemed crucial. First my social life disappeared. Then my exercise and nature routines. And finally my meditation practice – poof!
Without these supports, my emotions got more volatile, and my behaviours more reactive. My usual sense of excitement about life got replaced by an edgy low-level grudge. I felt like a twisted late-winter Grinch, scowling and bickering with everyone around me.
It got really bad when I stopped sleeping. All night long I imagined I could hear my toddler crying, startling me awake. Soon my bipolar woke up too – “Hiya Jeff, let’s go to Hell!” My crack up was sudden – like stepping over a threshold into a scary new world. From one moment to the next, I experienced a complete inability to regulate my emotions. Crying-laughing-yelling-pleading-despairing in the same thirty seconds, the energy in my body bolting and surging, my thoughts even more incoherent than usual.
Try parenting in this state. Try anything.
It wasn’t like I didn’t notice any of this – I did. Informal “mindfulness-in-action” was still operating fine. I could observe my thoughts and emotions until the cows came home. It wasn’t enough. One of my big take-aways from the past few months, somehow forgotten in my busyness, is how mindfulness-in-action is more effective when accompanied by the baseline stability and calm of a formal sitting practice.
Putting myself back together meant putting the structures of self-regulation back in place.
How to do this?
Let’s divide self-regulation into two categories: “maintenance” and “transformation.” Both are important.
“Maintenance” are all the common-sense things we do to temporarily change conditions to be more manageable. Getting sleep and exercise. Eating healthy. Spending time with friends, hanging out in nature, etc. It’s your job as custodian of your mind and body to figure out your go-to activities, and your particular maintenance schedule. Our guardians are supposed to help us with this when we’re kids, then it’s up to us.
It’s not like you can do some activity once, and then you’re good. Maintenance is maintenance – it requires continual effort and prioritization.
I’ve often resented this. I’d have preferred to just be born and coast. But mental health doesn’t work like that any more than physical health does. Due diligence and care are required. Also awareness about what will help keep you stable and functional, and about what dysregulation looks like for you. What are your early warning signs? They’re a bit different for everyone, and they change over our lifetime. Often we end up ignoring them, and then all of a sudden our demons are piling into us like a Jackie Chan fight scene.
That’s what happened to me. Sometimes it takes a crisis to wake us up. Then we have no choice but to get help.
So: step one is admitting that things are not working. Step two is running down the street screaming “Oh God somebody please save me!” Or a more dignified version of this.
For me this meant getting in-person support from other humans. I did not like this. Admitting to friends and family that you don’t have it together feels very raw. Who was I without my everything-is-awesome meditation teacher armour?
It turns out I’m someone more real. And when you show who you really are – when you’re vulnerable in this way – it can bring out the best in people. My partner, my sister, my parents and friends all rallied around. They helped me put in new systems of support, from weekly babysitting to a part-time nanny. They also helped me start to address some of my parenting challenges, like the lack of boundaries with my toddler.
This is another big lesson for me: the role community can play in helping to regulate us. The implicit belief that we somehow need to do life alone is part of what gets us into these situations in the first place.
Once I had some of these supports in place, I could begin to build space back into my schedule.
The essence of self-regulation is … taking breaks. It’s about interrupting the cumulative flow of stress and work with clear demarcated time-outs.
If we wait for these moments to happen by themselves, they won’t. We have to treat them as part of our job, the “insulin” our metabolisms need in order to function properly.
It doesn’t even need to be some special self-care activity. Just breaking up the day with a mindless chore – grocery shopping, the dishes – can help. Any kind of grounded activity where you’re not spinning away inside your problems (or your smartphone) is a form of self-regulation.
Most of us don’t want to face the brutal truth that the damage we do by not taking time off – damage to our relationships, to our work, to our own selves – can neutralize the good we do by sticking around. Self-regulation isn’t some indulgent luxury add-on. It’s part of being a responsible member of family and society.
Meditation can play a key role. Meditation is both practical and aspirational. It aims, ultimately, to go beyond just managing conditions. It is part of a second category of self-regulation that seeks to transform the self to be OK in any condition. It’s the horizon line we aim for, the long-term training.
Although my recent experience shows I still have a long way to go, meditation has unquestionably been a transformation for me. In the bad old days, I’d be dysregulated for months. I catch it earlier now. I have more resilience and perspective in more kinds of situations. And my hard emotions move through me more quickly.
It’s important to be reminded of the liberating promise of meditation and spiritual practice, if only to keep us motivated. However impossible – and impossibly distant – it may seem, a great many human beings have directly realized that the difficulties of the separate self are actually not happening to a separate self at all.
This understanding, more than any single regulating activity, can transform the way we experience our challenges. It turns out the ultimate self-regulation is a kind of de-regulation; a letting go of rules and limits that most of us never imagined could be let go of in the first place. This process isn’t a binary on / off switch. For most of us, it’s a gradual widening that happens through a lifetime of insight and surrender.
In the meantime, I’m back on my regular maintenance schedule. Swimming every other day. Movement class once a week. (Gaga dance!) Reaching out to friends. Regular visits with a therapist or body worker or some other healer guru weirdo who can help sort out my deranged nervous system. And my daily meditation sit, either solo, or – more often – over Zoom with friends. Because – I’ll say it again – a huge amount of “self”-regulation actually depends on other people.
Thus concludes my magnum opus on the subject of falling apart and community reassembly.
PS – Here’s photo of Sasha Saul Barmak Warren – born April 21, 2022 – and his tired old Dad. Welcome to life, little dude. Let’s help regulate each other!
PPS – Thank you to my incredible wife Sarah, who does all the actual work of baby co-regulation. I love you.