A recent addition to The Dogs of University Lake, now conveniently linked on the sidebar. More photos will be added to the album as I acquire them.

Decent light for 1:00 PM on November 29th in south central Alaska. A bit nippy though; couldn’t have been more than 7° out. On a day like this a lot of the short-haired doggos will have coats on. I like the deer-in-the-headlights look on the cattle dog’s face, with that black photo bomb rising up behind him.

In the background: Snowshine spread across the accessible peaks of the Chugach Mountains.

Our neighbor texted recently to say he’d received a large gift box of produce he’d like to share with us, including fentanyl! In addition to cursing auto-correct, the very next text from him included: meant fennel 😆 Haha. Yet it set me to wonder how substituting fentanyl for fennel in the soup base might actually be received by our holiday dinner guests. 🤔 Not funny? Probably right, sorry.

I am inclined to over analyze things. It’s the way nature made me. In mixed company, sometimes, this is a bug; yet for me, usually, it’s a feature. I mean a person would have to be afflicted with a disorder of self-loathing to be annoyed by his own ways. This is why normal people are not repelled by their own farts, for instance.

I also tend to think out loud, especially when working through something I don’t quite understand (at least to my satisfaction). When combined with the inclination to over analysis, I can be a little tedious in mixed company, sometimes a real buzzkill. Other times, at the very least, a dialectical oddity. I tend to be drawn to people like me, not surprising I suppose, as in chemistry like dissolves like.

When I am alone and feeling self-assured I’m prone to ruminate, a kind of psychoanalysis where I am both patient and analyst. More than one person I’m sure has passed by me and Black Dog out for a walk on an Anchorage trail, cast me a furtive look and wondered if I might be talking to myself. Although nowadays, with the ubiquity of earbuds and headphones, most of them probably assume I’m on a call. Sometimes they’d be right – I do occasionally wear BT earbuds and take calls while out walking, although more often than not I’m consuming a podcast. When I’m out cycling I’m rockn’ to music. Which I know comes with the caveat that I’m less likely to hear the angry bear (or moose) charge me while mountain biking, or the errant driver behind me when road biking. But I wonder if being unaware of impending doom might be a good thing. Like not wanting to know if you carry the gene for some deadly disease. We must acknowledge fate, yes, we cannot avoid it, yes, but I’m not sure I want advance notice the reaper has arrived.

Rumination and self-loathing are different afflictions, but both are treatable. The former through mindful meditation; for the latter, see a psychiatrist. Meditation as therapy has the nice feature of being free. I mean you can buy the apps or read the books or attend the week-long retreats, and while I’m sure all of those may help the average ruminater heal, for many others a quiet place and a cushion will do just fine. I prefer the quiet comfort of our guest bedroom, with two goose down pillows placed beneath crossed legs for support (I am not sufficiently flexible to achieve the full lotus position), and ethereal music streaming on noise cancelling headphones (optional). Then, through the simple act of focusing the mind on the breath, slow and steady, it is truly amazing the feeling of stillness and equanimity one experiences. And this feeling comes immediately. You don’t need years of meditation practice to achieve this experience.

One thing I’ve found that does take practice to achieve is quieting the mind (where mind means nothing more than brain activity – what the brain is doing). Like certain other organs in the body (e.g. heart, liver, kidneys) the brain cannot be willed to action. Hearts pump, livers metabolize, kidneys filter – all on their own. Lookup autonomic nervous system to learn more. Similarly, one is not the author of one’s own thoughts. You cannot turn brain activity on and off through the force of will. Anymore than you can modulate the beating of your heart through a sheer force of will. By using drugs, yes, but that’s not what I’m talking about. You can modulate the activity of respiration (lungs) with the force of will (this is what focused breathing achieves), but even there, there are limits. You cannot, for instance, through the sheer force of will indefinitely stop your lungs from respiring oxygen, eventually the brain would override the willful attempt to suffocate yourself. People have been known to intentionally drown themselves, or by other methods commit suicide, but again, that’s not what I’m talking about. And I don’t recommend you prove any of this to yourself. I can will my limbs to action – I can walk, run, pedal, jump and wave my arms about – or at least it seems to me I may cause these actions of my own free will (which itself is a controversial topic, but we’ll leave that for another post), but most of your internal organs operate automatically, and while I agree it’s weird to think about it in this way, so does the brain. It’s what people really mean when they say, for instance, “let me sleep on it.” They mean it will take time for the brain to work through some new information about the real world it recently became aware of. It’s common, though not specifically correct, for someone to say I need time to work through it. It’s the brain (the actual organ) that’s doing the work, not the I (you). As arguers against free will like to say, there is no homunculus in the brain directing one’s thoughts. The brain itself is doing the work directly, automatically, independent of any ghost in the machine. Just like the heart, liver, kidneys, etc. – no direction from you is required.

Heresy you say? Not at all. These are biological facts, nothing the least bit controversial about them, so far as basic biology and physiology are concerned. If you conduct an autopsy of a human being you’d see what I mean. Nothing in there but blood, bones, and other gooey wet tissues. And it’s not because after we die the spirit (ghost) has left the machine. No such thing was ever there in the first place.

What’s this got to do with meditation? Well, you can focus on the breath all you want, but try as you might you will never be able to silence disruptive brain activity entirely. Just as you can’t silence heart activity by thinking about it real hard. Expert practitioners of mindful meditation will be quick to assure you that this is not possible. Instead, the best practice guidance is to “note” these thoughts when they pop into your head, acknowledge and accept that the brain will continue its activity even while you meditate, then return to your breath. Rinse and repeat. Over time, as the brain is re-trained to quiet itself during meditative practice, activity will lessen and fewer and fewer disruptive thoughts will interfere with your practice. Try it sometime, you’ll see what I mean. Remember: the overarching goal of mindful meditation is to achieve a lasting sense of peace, equanimity, the tendency to respond rather than react to others, a meaningful life in the present, freed from the hamster wheel of rumination and/or fretting over what lies ahead. In other words, Be In The Present.

Wait, shouldn’t we learn from our past? Of course, good idea. But once you have, let it go. The events and circumstances of the past are not coming back, ever. There is no do over. Get off the hamster wheel of “What-ifs.” All of this is destructive of mental health. Not all in one fell swoop, of course, not saying that. But a steady dose of rumination, day after day, over the years it will add up to no good. And if you’re already prone to over analyze things as I am, rumination may be especially destructive of overall mental health.