Have you ever wondered why salmon die after battling their way upstream to spawn? It’s because their adrenal glands can’t turn off, so they die from an excess of stimulation. If their adrenal glands are removed right after they spawn, they can live for another year.
Something similar happens to human beings who live in a continual state of “doing.” Like the salmon swimming upstream, we get caught up in doing, and the more we do, the more difficult it becomes for us to stop doing. I know, I was one of the “doers.” I did myself right into chronic fatigue and depression. Just like those salmon, my adrenal glands were on overdrive.
Fortunately for me, I lived with a very wise cat. As you may have noticed, most cats are not really into doing all that much. You don’t catch them beating their brains out swimming upstream with a zillion other cats. They would much rather take a nap in the sun, or sprawl out on the bed with their belly up.
So when I got sick and continued my pattern by “doing” research to find out how I could get well, my wise cat just slept on my desk, or curled up on the back of the couch next to my shoulder, or sat in his meditative Buddha pose with his paws tucked under his chest.
The problem with my “doing” approach to getting well was that the more I tried to do, the dumber I got. There is scientific evidence to this effect. When we get stressed, our sympathetic nervous system triggers our adrenal glands to send out cortisol hormones to our brain. Our heart rate goes up, we breathe faster, our blood pressure goes up. Watch Out! Something really bad and scary is attacking us! Problem is, that bad and scary thing only has to be a thought, not even a reality.
As we maintain our revved up state, the continued production of cortisol is actually injuring and killing our brain cells, the ones that affect memory and learning. Sure, this can be okay for a little while. We kick into hyper mode, kill the tiger, then relax in the hot tub.
But what if there is no tiger? What if there is constant, ongoing stress, both real and imagined? Then the parasympathetic nervous system can’t perform its balancing act by sending out relaxation hormones, so we remain in an ongoing state of internal imbalance.
If we keep “doing” at this stage, it becomes impossible to regain our balance. We are revving up over and over again, like a hamster in a wheel. Running faster, panting, frantic, oblivious to any other options, like maybe just getting off the darn wheel. Watching a hamster do this makes me really sad for the hamster. Exercise is one thing, but when the wheel is running the hamster, that’s not exercise.
So let’s go back to my wise cat – what does he do? He purrs. Hmmm, self soothing mechanism perhaps? And he sits. For really long periods of time. He probably isn’t ruminating over and over again about stressful, scary thoughts. And he doesn’t watch the nightly news.
Meanwhile, I am getting dumber and dumber – my chronic stress is killing the neurons in my brain that affect learning and memory, and my hippocampus is atrophying as I spiral down into depression. The depression continues to produce more atrophy, the atrophy produces more depression – well, you get where this is going.
This is the state I was in when I turned to my Feline Zen Master to ask him about the idea of “being”. I had been reading the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and came across the concept of the difference between one’s ordinary mind (my stressed out, brain dead mind) and one’s Buddha nature (open and limitless – the birthright of every living being).
I asked Poohbear Degoonacoon, the Feline Zen Master of whom I speak, if he thought this Buddha nature business could be my answer. After all, if this Buddha nature had been with me all along, why was I struggling so? Why was I considering suicide as my only way off the wheel?
Pay careful attention to what he said. He told me that I was thinking this way because I was stuck in ordinary mind. This ignorance was deluding my thinking and clouding my comprehension of what was real. He said that if I was willing to let go of certainty and allow myself to be confused, he could help me find my Buddha nature.
Being as I was at the end of my rope I had nothing to lose, and so Poohbear and I set out on a journey that is chronicled in Choosing to Be: Lessons in Living from a Feline Zen Master. I regained my connection with my Buddha nature, learned how to meditate and deal with the stressful thoughts and feelings that were hindering my ability to just be, and ultimately gained a degree of wisdom about this delicate balancing act of being human and spirit at the same time.
Back when I was a little girl growing in Kodiak, Alaska, I watched as my dad and other members of the Civilian Conservation Corps built fish ladders to help the salmon get upstream. They did this so more of the salmon could make it up the river to spawn, and produce more salmon. I thought this was pretty cool, but I didn’t understand that the purpose was not to save their lives. The ladders just made them more effective at “doing” till they died.
Instead of fish ladders, we have cell phones and Blackberries and laptops and ipods and many other new technologies to help us “do” and produce more – but more of what? Are we getting smarter? Or are we engaging in “survival” behavior that overrides true problem-solving, remembering, pattern detection, and other rational processes? Are we helping our parasympathetic nervous systems produce relaxation hormones? Or are we like that hamster in the wheel, getting dumber with every revolution, and atrophying our brain cells faster than ever?
But we argue, we can’t just stop — we must keep doing. Let me suggest that this is our ordinary mind talking. What we need to do is get, really get at a soul level, that “being” is really “doing” of a higher order. We must set aside time to stop doing — to just sit with our paws tucked under our chests, taking delicious long slow breaths, listening to the sounds around us, sounds that are affecting us without our even being aware of them. We will feel our muscles relax. We will watch the velvety darkness behind our eyelids and see our thoughts pass by like waves. We will allow our parasympathetic nervous system a chance to catch up and provide the “relaxation response” that Herbert Benson wrote about way back in 1975.
And if we are truly fortunate, we will figure out a way to sit for a time with a wise cat. The Japanese understand the importance of this. Relaxation is a huge industry there, worth about $30 billion a year. A growing part of the industry in Tokyo includes an animal-therapy center where customers pay $8 to enter a model house full of cats, and more than a dozen “cat cafes” where patrons pay $8-$12 an hour to sip tea with Japanese Feline Zen Masters.
Choosing to Be: Lessons in Living from a Feline Zen Master, 2008
Signed copies available at www.choosingtobe.com
Resources for this article:
The Relaxation Response, Herbert Benson, 1975.
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky, 1994
“Tokyo’s cat cafes offer serenity in the city,” Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 2008