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My alabaster jewel of fire,
your prismatic blades of light
cut into my hands
as I carry you into the desert
where your pedestal awaits,
unique amidst countless others.
Worry not, my jewel,
I am not leaving you.
One day I will return,
when the winds and sands
have softened your searing gleam.
I think most people are going to come at this from a mental and spiritual perspective (which is important), but since that part is going to be covered better than anything I can say, I'll chime in with something completely different.
Let's talk neuroscience. How do we keep the brain young?
The brain has this feature called plasticity, which is the degree to which it changes in response to external stimuli. While this plasticity tends to decrease with age, with a major synaptic pruning occurring during the early twenties, it is never lost. From the moment you are born until the moment you die, your brain is growing new cells, forming new synapses, and laying down new myelin sheaths.
Your brain's degree of plasticity determines how quickly you learn.
So the question becomes, is there any way to increase this?
First: exercise. Cardio. Lots of it. Thirty minutes a day five days a week at 85% of your maximum heart rate.
Wait. How does that make sense?
I can tell you a few things.
After people hit their thirties or so, they start losing around 1% of their brain volume every year. Regular cardio completely offsets this effect.
Cardio increases expression of a protein called brain derived neurotrophic growth factor, or BDNF. This stuff is basically fertilizer for the brain. It increases the likelihood that new synapses will form, it encourages myelin formation, and it increases the rate of new brain cell birth.
Running outdoors, if you're up to it, is a cognitively demanding task. Regular runners demonstrate visible growth in brain areas involved in self-monitoring, strategic decision making, emotional regulation, and planning.
There is no more powerful way of keeping the brain physically young than regular cardiovascular exercise.
You are not a mind in a jar. Chronic inflammation from a poor diet and lack of sleep will dramatically impair brain health in invisible but very real ways. The brain needs protein, healthy fats, stable blood sugar levels, and a variety of vitamins. If you eat a healthy diet, you're probably replete with most of what you need, but the majority of folks who eat a great diet are still mildly deficient in magnesium and Vitamin D, both of which are very important for cognitive functioning. Iron deficiency is also common, and you need iron to form myelin and make dopamine. The brain also needs DHA and EPA, which are Omega 3 fatty acids predominantly found in seafood and generally lacking in the typical Western diet.
Sleep is incredibly critical, and a lot of people don't get enough of it.
Effortful learning increases BDNF. Combined with exercise, it's a combo punch. Meditation helps. Doing something like learning a new language or going through a textbook is great mental exercise.
Perhaps it is a sign of my precarious mental health, but when I do my best to conceive of nonexistence, I feel a sense of relief.
You ARE observing what your mind is doing, and that IS the practice.
This is helpful feedback. You're right. Through meditation, I have become more familiar with the machinery of my own mind, and more intimately familiar with the realization that it is just that: machinery. Intellectually I believed this, but to believe and to see are two different things entirely.
This has helped me deal with unpleasant mind states. Throughout my life I have spiraled into depression, struggled with paranoid thoughts, obsessive compulsive tendencies... you name it, I've been there. The first tool I learned to use in order to counter these mind states was logic and intellect, and thus these are my most developed faculties. "Your intellect is your sword," a psychologist noted to me.
Afraid of flying? Learn everything in the world about planes.
Panic attacks that feel like a heart attack? Become a walking textbook on human physiology.
Depression? Time to become an armchair neuroscientist.
My vocabulary and writing style has become kind of strange because I spend so much of my time reading PubMed. I'm losing my fluidity with metaphor and simile because I'm feeding myself technical literature and little else.
Yet I find myself now in a stage of life where I have dealt with most of my acute problems and challenges and find myself lacking interest, ambition, motivation, and hope. Life is comfortable but meaningless. This is not a problem that I can solve with intellect or willpower. I am utterly consumed by philosophical questions relating to the meaning of life. I recognize this as the mind's machinery trying to solve the problem of a sense of aimlessness and meaninglessness, and I know that it will turn and turn and ultimately fail.
If I can just get out of my head for even a few moments, if I can step outside the realm of information, logic, thought, and cognition... I know that the answers are inside of me. I can sense the wholeness that lies within. I remember what it was like when I was a child. As a child, I had not yet built up layers and layers of false identity and layers and layers of preconceptions. When I looked at a flower, I saw it. Something so simple as naked observation... that is what I yearn for.
As for a teacher... I am not ready for that. The thought evokes a sense of a door slamming firmly shut, and unlike many doors inside, this one will not easily budge. This is not a manifestation of arrogance suggesting that I know best... it is something else. Something related to emotional wounds, a fragile sense of self. Let's call it a firewall. I don't know it yet for exactly what it is, but I recognize it as a defense mechanism.
This response ended up being far longer than I intended. I just started writing and the words came flowing out. For whatever reason, I can never seem to write journal entries, but I can write a response to a forum with no difficulty at all. I've tried pretending that I'm writing to someone else when I open the journal, but it feels hollow. Perhaps the mental image isn't strong enough, or perhaps I am so married to "truth" that I am losing my ability to pretend. Hmm.
Well, in any case, if anyone ended up reading all of this, sorry that I ended up journaling at you. Maybe I should start an online journal or blog.
All of this feedback has been immensely helpful, and I am grateful for all the comments.
What I have taken away most from this discussion is a renewed sense of patience, of less forceful effort, and of less resistance. I am seeing thoughts as they arise as thirsty plants in the garden demanding a bit of attention, and so when I observe that a particular thought has arisen multiple times, I see that it needs attention. When I give it the attention it craves, even if it is only an acknowledgement, it ceases or lessens its demands.
Of particular use, I think, would be a daily or weekly journal.
Thank you again.