the relaxation response

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.“The Litany Against Fear,” Frank Herbert, Dune

This is a good week to return to the subject of fear. Sure, things look grim. The apocalypse is nigh and they’re all out of face masks at CVS. Remember back in the day, last month or so, when we were optimistic enough to worry about Trump 2024, let alone a climate catastrophe decades away? Good times.

We’re in a tight spot. It’s heavy stuff. I’m feeling the emotional weight of our collective circumstances and I’m not even on social media. Facebook and Twitter must be particularly toxic dumpster fires right now. It can feel like too much to bear. But…can I ask you one question?

When was the last time you listened to smooth jazz?

Scoff all you like. That’s just your adrenaline talking. Fear makes us close-minded. Don’t be a hater and have an open mind. Believe it or not, a little smooth jazz will settle those jangled nerves down right away. In fact, that’s exactly what smooth jazz is for. Look, if you are infected—spoiler alert: we’re probably all infected by now—think of this album as the lime in your coronavirus. Take a listen, preferably in a candlelit bubble bath.

That’s better, isn’t it? And this is important to writers because it’s useless trying to write scared. Don’t even bother. I sat down to write this newsletter in a mild panic, not only because of climate change, pandemics, and the election, but also because of a mountain of work looming ahead. Guess how far I got? It’s absolutely paralyzing to be in fear. I wasn’t able to get any words down until I turned to my good friend Grover Washington, Jr., and his magnificent soprano sax. And here we are: words. My best words? Maybe not, but any words always beats none words.

At the New Yorker, read the story of how the Canadian physicist Louis Slotin accidentally irradiated himself with the exposed plutonium core of a nuclear bomb. Slotin’s screwdriver slipped while demonstrating a technique known as “tickling the dragon’s tail,” and the plutonium briefly went critical, emitting a burst a millionth the intensity of the Hiroshima bomb. (That’s still a lot.)

After a blue flash and a wave of heat, Slotin knew he was in trouble, but not how much:

Slotin made a sketch of where everyone had been standing when the slip occurred. He then tried to use a radiation detector on various items that were near the core—a bristle brush, an empty Coca-Cola bottle, a hammer, a measuring tape. But it proved difficult to get an accurate reading, because the detector itself had been heavily contaminated. Slotin instructed one of his colleagues to lay radioactivity-detecting film badges around the area, which required the scientist to go dangerously close to the still overheated core. The errand resulted in no useful data, and was mentioned in a later report as evidence that, after an exposure of this magnitude, human beings “are in no condition for rational behavior.”

This is what it’s like trying to write when you’re scared. You just get busy making things worse. The stress hormone cascade is handy when pulling a car off a trapped child or outrunning a cheetah, but for higher brain function, you’ve got to shut all that down. Otherwise, you’re going to rush back into the radioactive room to confirm to yourself just how radioactive it really is. Turn off the emergency klaxons, dim the flashing red lights, and get yourself back to equilibrium. Then, and only then, return to the keyboard.

Maybe smooth jazz isn’t an ideal trigger for the relaxation response. Apparently, and I find this very hard to believe, some people find this genre other than perfectly enchanting. A rare few even fail to appreciate the dulcet tones of the soprano saxophone, the instrument St. Peter himself jams on outside the Pearly Gates, just so you know you’ve arrived. That’s OK. Find your own road to repose. The routine I follow when I sit down to write in the morning has become its own relaxation trigger. (That’s why it’s so hard for me to settle down and get in the zone when that routine is disrupted.) With time and repetition, I’ve taught my brain a cue for de-escalation.

According to the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, we suffer because we keep scrambling for solid ground. Sure, we might have problems now, but once we solve them, we believe, we’ll be safe and settled. But that’s just an illusion. In fact, it’s the illusion. When this particular epidemiological threat blows over, there’ll be another problem, and another, and another one after that—a really ugly one, in fact. In the Buddhist view, we don’t suffer because of our problems, we suffer because we believe that security lies just beyond them. We’re like Elsa reaching for the Grail. There is no solid ground. There never was. There never will be.

Once I hit this deadline, I’ll start hurtling toward the next one. Once I finish this book, I’ll have to face another first page. Chödrön tells us to make friends with groundlessness. It feels good to surrender to impermanence and change, to accept your very limited locus of control which, for a writer, amounts to the next sentence, and the next, and the next. You’re tickling the dragon’s tail. You might as well enjoy it.

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