Mindful Metropolis — November 2011
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Putting Self-Help Books To Work
Bob Mccray

I always wondered whether reading selfhelp books ever helped anybody. A friend told me they didn’t help him a bit. I can relate. It’s not that self-help books don’t off er cutting-edge advice—it’s that two days later, I can’t remember a thing I’ve read.

Remembrance of things past

I’ve asked people how they remember things. One friend suggested that to remember names, I should associate them with familiar objects. For example, I might associate “Mr. Applebaum” with “tree” and “B-52.”

So, when I met a new neighbor—Jack Tracolet— I associated his name. Two days later, walking to the train, I introduced him to a friend as “Mr. Chevrolet.”

Using the same technique, my aunt introduced a women’s-club speaker, whose name was Georgia Graham, as “Georgia Cracker.”

Another friend said that to remember someone’s name, I should repeat it five times when I first meet them. So, at a dance lesson, when I was introduced to two sisters, I repeated the name of one sister, Sally, five times: “Hi Sally. It’s nice to meet you, Sally. Sally, didn’t I see you on Dancing with the Stars…?” I said the other sister’s name only once.

A year later, I couldn’t get Sally out of my mind. I know when I meet her on the street she’ll say, “Hi Bob. It’s nice to see you, Bob.Didn’t I see you on America’s Best Dancers, Bob?” Meanwhile, I can’t remember whether her sister was Jody, Julie or Jacqueline Esmeralda.

The expression “Repetition is the mother of all learning” has worked for me. I can still recite my multiplication tables, the Pledge of Allegiance and the Empire Carpet phone number.

I’m intrigued by the Pimsleur languagelearning system of spaced repetition, which I’m using. I’m also intrigued by the research of Dr. John Eccles, who, years ago, suggested that through repetition you can grow new boutons on the ends of the brain’s axons and dendrites, which help electro-chemical messages jump the gaps between brain cells.Then, when you repeat something over and over, and grow new boutons, messages travel through your body like a bullet train, or “train of thought,” and you develop a habit.

While the neurology is beyond me; my goal nevertheless was to embed some selfhelp tips in my brain, and improve a few small lifestyle habits.

Ironic mnemonic

As a start, I recalled some memorable mnemonics I’ve encountered.

We once stayed in a Colorado ski condo with ceramic plaques in every room: “Please flush toilet after use;” “The top of the wood stove is hot.” One on the stove read, “Water boils fast at high altitudes.” We ignored it, and one night our spaghetti plastered the ceiling.Afterward, we took the plaques seriously.

As a teacher, I sometimes read to my students from their textbooks using bookmarks for reference. I also use bookmarks (my library overdue notices) when reading at night. Coincidentally, I wondered if a bookmark with self-help tips might work like those ceramic plaques, or the “affirmations” my friends tape to bathroom mirrors; or the banner “Remember” that Lakers Coach, Phil Jackson hung at his Montana home to help him remember the engaged life.

I thought reading my bookmarks 10 times a day—like the Biology 101 flashcards I used in college—might help me remember. So I wrote some words to live by in longhand on slips of paper, and used them as bookmarks for a month, the time psychologists say it takes to establish a habit.

The gift of time

Slowing down was my first lifestyle goal—to emulate the Spanish proverb, “How beautiful it is to do nothing and rest afterward.” “Velocitize,” a relatively new word, means “to cause a person to become used to fast speed,” referring to drivers who can’t slow down when they zoom off a tollway and hit a 25 mph speed limit. They’re velocitized.

The word exemplifies our hurry-up American lifestyle. Patience is a forgotten virtue. Our high-speed, autopilot, fast-food, instant-messaging, 4G “work-like-yourhair- is-on-fire” world is ingrained.

I mulled over how “rush” is a product of social conditioning—the hypnosis of velocitization.As kids we rushed to school. In high school and college, we rushed through exams.In college, I was even tested for a summer job in a department store. I was sequestered in a booth with a pegboard and a box of pegs and given a “package wrapper manual dexterity” test. After 30 seconds, a woman blew a whistle in my ear and shouted, “Time’s up!” I dropped all the pegs and failed the test.

According to a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, the “exam nightmare” is one of the most common dreams in the U.S. Time stress can also be bad for your health.

Of course, spirituality, meditation, tai chi and yoga are among recommended remedies for a hurry-up lifestyle. But I was looking for a 30-day solution.

I do have a few speed-management techniques.Wood carving, for example—where carving one duck feather takes 90 strokes —as well as learning classical guitar, both teach patience.

I’ve also learned to eat slowly—after I heard a story about a neighbor’s grandchildren, who always giggle at dinner time. Granddad chews each bite 32 times, and they count, silently. When he reaches 32, they giggle to themselves. The Japanese Health Ministry has also recommended chewing food more than 30 times for good health. And, a study from Harbin Medical University recently mentioned in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that chewing 40 times caused participants to eat nearly 12 percent fewer calories.

I’m also a patient driver. When a truck is riding my bumper and flashing his lights, I pull over, and I don’t beep at drivers talking on their cell phones when the light changes.

But other times, the boss in my head is a fistpounding tyrant, constantly deadlining me so I have more than my share of close calls. I bored a half-inch drill into the palm of my hand once, rushing to roof a birdhouse. Another time, I sawed off the tip of my index finger with a hacksaw, hurrying to cut a pipe for a lamp.

St. Francis de Sales said, “Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself.”

The Japanese expression for taking life in small, patient steps is “kaizen.” But to de-velocitize, I needed my own lifestyle watchwords—some showstoppers. So when I overheard a friend, who was a woodcarver, say, “I’ve been chipping away,” I picked “Chippin’ Away” for my bookmark.

Nurture the inquiring mind

According to statistics, girls are the best learners. For guys, learning takes longer, because we don’t ask questions. It’s a sign of weakness. For example, we don’t ask directions, “Hey hombre, we don’t need no stinking GPS.” A personal example: driving home from skiing in Wilmot, Wisconsin, I took the back roads for the country charm, driving by “feel,” and expecting to eventually connect with the tollway. But, when the clouds parted, I’d driven two hours into the sun—toward California.

Also, guys don’t read directions. Over the years, the shortcuts I’ve used to put our kid’s toys together—“Insert metal tab A in metal slot D…”—and have cut my fingers to ribbons.

These “guy” traits are exacerbated by new technology. As one media pundit said, “Technology advancements for consumers mean a confusing array of products that need to be replaced soon after you buy them.“

Sadly, new tech products come with directions.And in our digital world—where you press “start” to turn off your computer, and error messages dissolve before you can read them—these “guy” traits are passé.

Meanwhile, according to my self-help books, learning new things grows new brain cells.

In fact, when I swallowed my pride and started asking directions—and reading directions, it was exciting: I learned to use a chainsaw without almost cutting my foot off, to talk to my computer with voice recognition, to download free library books on our e-reader and even how to open the dreaded squeezeand- twist top of the toilet-bowl cleaner.

However, I often lapsed, and needed action words to encourage doping out the fine print instructions. I chose a mentor’s words: “Get High on Learning.”

All hands on deck—the uninterrupted mind

When I played golf with my father, he’d say, “Keep your eye on the ball.” But I was always looking down the fairway, expecting the ball to roll 300 yards.

Lately, that’s been a metaphor for my life— not focusing on what’s happening now, answering the siren call of the digital age. Multitasking (a.k.a. the 12-screen-TV mindset) has made “concentration” an anachronism.

Deepak Chopra estimated we have around 65,000 thoughts a day. Most of my “streaming- live” thoughts are uninvited guests.

I’m not alone. When I’m talking to my students, they’re checking e-mail and Facebook, texting, Tweeting and nodding their heads to their earbuds. We used to call that “scatterbrained.”

My fourth lifestyle change was to lead a conscious life, tethering the wandering mind.

At times, consumed with an activity, I do pay attention. When I’m teaching, I can’t afford one little mistake. During “risky business”— working with power tools, whitewater kayaking or driving—I’m hyper-focused.I’m also riveted reading James Thurber, Jean Shepherd and Agatha Christie.

But the wandering mind is always lurking.My wife and I walk along the lake evenings.We’re both talking, but I’m not listening— sometimes for 40 minutes.

Jon Kabat-Zinn in Full Catastrophe Living advises readers to practice being “in the moment” by starting small; for example, while taking a shower or washing dishes. I chose weightlifting because I injured my rotator cuff looking out the window. My watchwords came from my fourth grade teacher: “Pay attention, Robert!”

The demisemiquaver response

Since Hans Selye’s work on stress in the 1950s, the studies on the topic could circle the globe. (For some interesting studies, articles, and self-tests on stress check nim.nih.gov/medlineplus/stress.html).

I heard a psychologist on the radio say the average person experiences 29 stressful events every day—not major stressors like losing a job or serious illness, but smaller, unexpected ones that James Thurber called “the perils of daily living.” Dylan Thomas said, “We live and die on little things.”

I tried counting my stressful events one day.It was too stressful. But I can remember them: dropping my glasses in the cat litter, putting my fountain pen upside down in my shirt pocket with the cap off so it made a Rorschach test and losing my glasses in the bedroom while rushing to work. I thought, “Sit down and relax. If you don’t panic, your glasses will turn up.” They did. When I sat down, I sat on my glasses. They got lost in the pattern of the bedspread. The frames were bent beyond recognition— and we had run out of duct tape.

The radio psychologist advised his listeners to learn to become aware of stressful events as they’re happening. He said that observing the “emotional takeover” before it “occupies” reduces stress. Then, you assess and respond appropriately.

I’ve tried it. It works, but requires a lightning response. Otherwise, I lapse into my old Army vocabulary.

I needed action words for a “swift” response. Thomas Jefferson’s “If angry count to 10. If very angry, count to 100” and “Nip it in the bud” were non-starters. I chose, “Finesse”—elegant dexterity—because time is of the essence.

Go from grumpy to grateful

The physical and psychological benefits of positivity are well documented.As Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” Numerous studies suggest longevity, quicker recovery from surgery and less illness are associated with optimism.

Dr. Laura Kubzansky, a Harvard researcher, found that optimism was protective against heart disease.

A 30-year Mayo Clinic study of 447 people found that the optimists had half the risk of early death compared to those classified as pessimists or mixed. (Tips for learning positive thinking for stress management can be found on Mayoclinic.com)

Dr. Martin Seligman, Ph.D., Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Authentic Happiness and Flourish (2011), has suggested that with practice, optimism can be learned.

One of his recommendations is to keep a gratitude journal. Another is to determine your signature strengths from a list 24 and regularly practice their use in new ways, such as overcoming challenges.

During my college and Army years, along with my peers, I was a devotee of put-down humor—Murphy’s Law, snarky TV comedians (roasts), and dogface, nothing-works GI humor (“Catch 22” and “If it moves, salute it; If it doesn’t, paint it”). This perspective, coupled with a daily dose of news—conflict and misery—tends to darken a person’s rose-colored glasses. Ironically, in 2010 the U.S. Army introduced Seligman’s positive psychology resilience training (optimism) to 1.1 million soldiers.

I’ve kept a What’s Gone Well journal for some time after I heard about it on Oprah. I’m inspired rereading peak moments and am working on building a portfolio of positivity in my brain.

I took Seligman’s Values in Action Signature Strengths Test in Flourish, and discovered a few strengths I learned the hard way.Teachers need to practice “creativity” to keep students awake, and “curiosity” is a journalist’s trademark. However, my “optimism” scores were in the red zone.

For a more “thumbs-up” lifestyle, I needed watchwords. Coincidentally, when I asked an Argentinian friend, “How’s life treating you?” he said, “Cada vez mejor,” which means, “Each time better.” They became the magic words.

Thirty-day results

In 30 days, “Chippin’ Away” and “Get High on Learning” were an instant success. “Finesse” and “Cada Vez Mejor” are doing well. “Pay Attention” needs work.

Still, if someone asks me if self-help books help, I can say, “You bet.” I’m on my second bookmark.