More on panic and discomfort

Mark Z at ZhurnalyWiki paid me the great honor of referring to my panic post. He ended with this thought:

And of course there's my favorite strategy: try to identify what causes panic and avoid situations where it might arise.

Sensible (and I think a little tongue-in-cheek) advice, though I believe there is more to this issue and I fear I lack the articulateness and critical thought to tease out all the threads. Still, let's try.

I take banjo lessons and my teacher one day asked me why I was taking a particular song at such a slow speed. "It's the speed I'm most comfortable practicing at," I said.

His reply was a zen slap: "Your comfort is not our concern." He explained that if I continued practicing only at speeds that "felt good" then my improvement would proceed so slowly as to be invisible. Instead, it was better to crank up the metronome to faster-than-comfortable speeds, stress myself a little, and build up the muscles, resistance, experience, whatever, so that I could see improvement happen faster. Even if I go too fast and have to step back to a slower speed, I'd still be practicing at a more intense level than had I plodded along at "safe" speeds.

This is advice applicable to any activity where one may want to see progressive improvement: weight training, long-distance running (waves to Mark Z), scholastic work, leadership skills -- deliberately putting yourself in an uncomfortable place in measured doses so that one gains the skills to operate competently with a higher or more capacity. (One key, I think, is defining the "measured doses" -- you don't go from couch potato to marathoner in a day.)

But I should note that, on days when it's obvious that I'm feeling off or am easily irritated by my performance, my teacher backs off on that advice and will instead say, "Take it easy. Some days, you only need to go at speeds where you're comfortable. Don't beat yourself up." So the wisdom, I guess, is knowing the difference between challenging oneself and abusing oneself.

With banjo, I intentionally crank up the metronome past my comfort zone and stress myself to play faster so that I can encourage my mind to confront and solve the problems I'm facing with fingering and rhythms. I know why I am putting myself through this discomfort -- so I can play better. And when I practice a week later, the section that had previously given me so much trouble is now comfortably folded into my normal practice, causes less stress, and is now a building block to help me conquer more complicated material.

What's needed here is my own willingness to confront a shortcoming. With any sort of training of this nature, a teacher or mentor is helpful. They can provide methods or rituals or processes we can employ that, over time, help us break the challenging problem down into pieces that can be easily solved, thereby reducing the discomfort and anxiety to mere questions of technique and experience. For example, only tackle four bars of a new song at a time till you feel they're not unnatural under your fingers, then tackle the next four bars, then play all eight bars at a slow speed and then faster. Jog at an easy pace before you start sprinting. And so on. After a while, what seemed difficult or impossible is routine. One of the things my first coach noticed was that, once we get past a block or remove an unhelpful attitude or behavior, we find it hard to remember what our problem was to begin with or why we thought we had a problem at all. The new neural pathways that we've laid down bypass -- and maybe help us forget -- the pain we'd previously put ourselves through.

Now we edge from discomfort to panic. Deliberately putting oneself outside of one's comfort zone is one thing, but life often thrusts us without warning into situations over which we have no control. In my still-young life, for example, I've been dumped, laid off, endured and recovered from detached retinas (both eyes), and forced to confront my moral/emotional/intellectual/human shortcomings in many other ways. I read a quote (from Alanis Morrisette, of all people) that said we're all going to go through shit at one time or another, and we're all going to get through it, so it doesn't pay to worry about it. That's useful to keep in mind, I guess, but hard to pull from memory when you're in the throes of panic (particularly when you're in an emergency room). It's during the panic times -- particularly times of illness -- that I call on my meditation and yoga experiences to put my mind in a more helpful place that will help me endure what I'm going through, help channel my emotions so they don't fuel panic, help improve my resiliency. Many of these situations we cannot avoid, we can only face them as well as we can. If you have someone's hand to hold, even better.

But then, there is that class of panic that is irrational -- fear of bridges, fear of elevators, fear of your thesis advisor (!). It's not realistic to avoid bridges or elevators or your advisor all of the time. And it's at that point that you dip into the various books and stuff I pointed to in the panic post, or enlist a therapist or counselor who can help you confront that fear or help make it go away.

Looking back on my spring, my panic was alleviated by my being surrounded by very understanding people who were able to relive me of some responsibilities that were simply more than I could handle, provide needed advice and -- importantly -- perspective on the situation, and generally just let me jabber as I tried to make sense of this experience. (Actually, I think making sense of something comes with time and distance from the event; when I'm in the weeds, I just want to get through it and make the pain stop).

I could have stayed in the PhD program, well outside of my comfort zone, where I was experiencing myriad panics at all sorts of levels -- scholastically, logistically, with personal relationships -- told myself that I'm not supposed to be comfortable, reconciled myself to living with the frustration, and just gotten on with it. Several people I know did that. But there are problems with that mindset: I didn't know how to measure progress in any of these areas so I had no objective markers to show whether I was progressing or regressing. I didn't have any methods -- apart from brute application of time and energy -- to help me get through the different types of work I was called on to do. I felt stuck in the same place and didn't see my situation -- or myself in that situation -- improving.

But my biggest problem here was that I was never clear on why I was doing the PhD. And because I didn't know why I wanted the PhD, I couldn't understand why I had to suffer what I was suffering. If I had had a clear picture of the destination, I could have found a way to suffer through the journey.

Anyway -- some more jabbering on a topic that, were I to talk about it with everyone I know, would make even me bored. Best to talk about it here where I can get it out of my system and spare the ears of my dear friends.