Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Relaxation Response

Most people have heard of the Fight of Flight response, that body reaction we have in stressful times.  Most people know that our modern lives trigger it over and over again, every day, and that it aggravates many of the most medicated and deadly health problems we face today.

Relatively few people know that there is a symmetry in our physical and mental beings that counter-acts this response.  It's possible to "turn off" the fight or flight response, to induce a state which can repair the potential damage, and can even make you less likely to be harmed by stress in the future.

There is a state of mind and body in which blood chemistry changes, metabolic rate decreases, and in fact, every "bad" thing that comes from fight or flight is countered.  The really good news is that it is very, very easy to create and maintain this state.  It's probably the most beneficial thing you can do for your health, right now, with no special equipment and with very little skill.

It also feels good!

  • Find a quiet place.  Turn your cell phone OFF.
  • Sit with your hands in your lap and bring your attention to your breath and body.
  • As you breathe in say "in."
  • As you breathe out repeat a phrase to yourself in your head, something positive.
    • It can be one word, an inspiring phrase, a line from a song you like.  It doesn't matter.
  • When thoughts intrude, notice them and return to your phrase.
  • Keep going for ten minutes.
It's so simple you will think you're not doing it, and that it can't be working.  But it does.  This state has been massively studied in the last thirty years.

  • Sleep improves.
  • People who drink or use drugs use less.
  • Anxiety is reduced.
  • Blood pressure goes down (all the time, not just when you're doing it).
  • People report "feeling better" emotionally and physically.
For many, sitting quietly and repeating the phrase for ten or twenty mintues a day becomes a positive addiction.  Everything seems better when you do it, and the state itself is pleasurable.  In a way it's no surprise that nature would design an equal and opposite reaction to the fight or flight response.  But it is a delightful discovery.  So easy, and fun to do.

Dr. Benson's book has been through many printings, and it's still available.
"The Relaxation Response."

Monday, February 21, 2011


This morniing I wake in my little cabin to the sound of rushing water.  The creek down below is frantic, trying to carry away the rains of the last few days.  From my bed, I can see the forested hillside on the other side of Lorane highway, as always.  This morning, there is mist on the hillside, moving up, clinging to the trees, or so it seems.

This is a vision I’ve seen a thousand times in my life; mist in deep green trees, on steep hillsides.  I make tea, and stand in the doorway of my little place, looking out at the hills, hearing the rushing water.

And suddenly, seamlessly, I have traveled in time.  It’s twenty years ago, and I’m hiking the crest, on any one of a hundred trips through that high country.  It’s September, and I’m camped at the edge of an alpine meadow, right at the treeline.  There are low Jack Pine, and gnarled White Bark Pine here and there, but mostly, the country is open, populated by Bear Grass, Wild Strawberry, Lupine, and Huckleberry.

It’s cold, maybe twenty five degrees.  A shallow layer of mist hangs over the lake.  I am crouched over the tiny flame of a tiny stove, making oatmeal and tea.  My pack is assembled, mostly.  My breakfast done, the tea cup will go in last.  Map in the side pocket, compass in the shirt pocket, the lanyard around my neck for safe-keeping.  The day’s first bearings are taken; for now, I am found.

I walk to the edge of the lake, contemplating this day’s miles, and in a moment, I am consumed with a feeling of freedom that has me fighting back tears.  Shoulder pack, climb the ridge.  Soon, I’m above the ponderous clouds.  Now they are an ocean of white below me.  The sun is bright and cold, hard as diamonds.  Cold, cold wind  on my back, I turn until it’s in my face and start north, along a rocky ridge, high above the treeline.


Monday, February 14, 2011

The Butte

Sunday morning began foggy and morose here, and I felt somewhat the same way, after dealing with a defunct water heater all weekend.  I had cancelled my plans to climb the butte, but last minute I decided a good burn would clear my head.

And I was reminded that no matter how many times I hike the same trail, it's always a new trail.  There were different faces coming the other way, new dogs to greet, water flowing in new places, and plants volunteering all over the hillsides.  There were even some brilliant yellow crocuses, bravely breaking into the Februaruy warmth, barely and inch tall.  Old friends were there, too.  My favorite old-growth Douglas Fir, the one that is larger in diameter than my two outstretched arms, and the tall, spindly Madrone high on the butte's north side.

The hike turned into one of those magical walks in which you start out under clouds, walk up into a fog bank and then top out looking down at clouds beneath your feet.  Kevin and I used to call these hikes "cloud walks," and they've always made me feel like I'm far from my troubles, in a primordial world.  I took photos of a cloud bank gradually filling the valley on the east slope, then rising above the summit and disapating in the brittle sunlight.

Back in town, the very pleasant surprise was that I felt very much more able to connect with friends after my cloud walk.

I don't why that surprises me anymore.  It's been happening for 35 years.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Did I Expect?

Friday morning I awoke feeling more rested than I have in a long time.  I slept well, and woke eager to get to my climbing workout.  Imagine my disappointment when I wasn't able to climb much of anything.  I did some simple bouldering, on routes I already know, a short section of the 5.9 traverse, less than a hundred feet, and I was spent, falling off easy holds.

It was a disappointing day, but one that brought back a mindset I was in danger of losing.  I never really know, until I get on the wall, or the rock, if it's going to be a "good" day.  Maybe it was something I ate, maybe I'm fighting a cold... who knows?  It reminds me of the week before, when I warned my belay partner I was feeling pretty poor, probably not going to do much.  And then I flashed a 10 minus.

The mindset that is brought back to me concerns the proper place for expectations.  I expect that I will show up.  That I will make the time in my day, and week, for joyful activity.  After that, expectations are done, after that, it's time to just move and enjoy.

Expectations are for the long haul.  I expect that eating well and doing things I love to do will improve the oveall quality of my being, in the long run.  Over time, I expect to see more active days than sedentary ones.

I became an accomplished expert at this when I climbed with my young friend, Eli.  Eli was 12 when we started climbing together, and I was something of a parent to him.  I had many bad days back then, many days when really didn't feel like showing up and climbing.  But I did not want to disappoint Eli.  So, I'd show up, even on days when I felt very marginal.

The surprise was that on many of those marginal days, I climbed very well.  Years later, when I wasn't climbing regularly with Eli, I realized that if I went these lengths to avoid disappointg Eli, I owed myself nothing less.  On days when I felt bad, I would apply what I came to think of as the Eli standard: If Eli were coming today, would I show up?

This standard has served me well.  If I'm truly sick, it makes no sense to push on that.  Better to rest, let the body heal.  But otherwise...  The other standard I learned from Eli is that once you've pushed though, once you've shown up, now it's time to relax and have fun!  That's kinda the point, as Eli would put it.

So I show up.  For me.  And after that, I have fun.  And on the scale of months and years, I look back at the stretch of hills crossed, and it feels right.

(In photo:  Big blocky one in the middle is Everest (Chomolungma), pointy one to the right is Ama Dablam).

Where's the Kombucha?

I've been doing some remodelilng today.  If you're looking for the instructions for Kombucha tea, please see the page, "Really good things to eat."  It's still there, scroll all the way to the bottom.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Food Bartering 101

My friend and climbin buddy Meridy is about to go into the wild, to paddle a river for two months.  Last night I was telling her about how Kevin and I used to barter food around the campfire on our long hikes.  Being in the wild can be psychologically stressful, and food becomes a primary means of surviving and celebrating the emotional ups and downs.  The food helps, but the bartering is also a distracting game, and all in fun.  Usually..
So, Meridy, albeit somewhat tongue in cheek, this is for you:

Food Bartering 101
Or, How to Exploit Your Neighbor in the Wilderness

Before we delve into the details of specific foods, memorize the cardinal rule of food bartering:
Never, ever trade any food one for one.  This will be seen as weakness.  Someone else will always like what you have better.  It’s basic human psychology:  the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and the candy in the other guy’s pack is sweeter than yours.  You can, and must, use this to your advantage.
When bartering food sugar, in any form, is king.  Carry some, even if you personally don’t like it.  It doesn’t spoil, and most Americans are addicted.  Heh, heh….
Forms of sugar that travel especially well are: gum drops, jelly beans and gummy worms.  In short, anything that comes in small bites and involves gelatin will hold up well to the rigors of wilderness travel.
Chocolate gets special mention in the candy department.  Yeah it’s sweet, but it also contains caffeine and potent hormonal regulators.  As such, it is a powerful bartering option.  Any barter of sweets involving chocolate begins at three portions of the other stuff to one of chocolate.  Stand your ground.
Carrying chocolate in the wild is difficult.  Individually wrapped items like Almond Roca or Hershey’s kisses will do pretty well.  If it gets hot and melts, don’t unwrap it!  Put it in a zip-loc baggie and dunk it the cold water of a mountain stream for two hours.  Et Voila.  Make sure the bag is well sealed before you dunk it, or you will be very, very sorry.
Chocolate affects hormonal balances.  This is a family publication, so I won’t comment further on that.
Speaking of beer…  At the beginning of almost every alpine climb I ever did, I and my partner would stash one can of cold PBR each at the snow line.  We’d come down from the summit, sore, thirsty, dirty, exhausted.  Sit down on a rock, dig that can out of the snow and pop the top.  Ohhh, dear…
Be sure you hide it well.  Mostly, marmots can’t manage a pop-top, but mountain climbers are notorious pilferers.

Meat, Fat
As a long-time vegetarian, it is a moral challenge for me to include this category.  But many people crave meat, and the craving for fat is programmed into our genetic code.  As such, these substances are great for barter.
Hard, aged salami travels very well, and it fills both criteria, since it’s about 85% fat.  Hard salami can be used for other purposes as well.  If you’ve just beached a kayak, and cannot find a place to tie up, take a big stick and pound your salami into the sand.  Now you can tie up your boat.  Or, use the Salami to pound the stick into the sand.  Works either way.
Hard cheeses travel well too, but the flavors are not as widely liked, so it doesn’t barter as well.  Be careful! There’s nothing worse than sitting in a trading circle with a big ol’ batch of something that everybody else thinks is gross.
This powerful, psychoactive herb is a great barter item, because it doesn’t spoil, and doesn’t weigh much.  However, one must be extremely careful with coffee.  The addiction is powerful.  If people know you have coffee, and are holding out, they might hurt you to get it.
            Technically, things like potato chips and Doritos are not food, but they can be very good barter items, since they are full of the chemical additives so many of us are addicted to.  I’ve found that corn nuts travel very well in a backpack, and they don’t get crushed like Doritos, potato chips or cheezits.  Animals like ‘em too.  I remember coming up from the lake one afternoon to find a doe with her head buried all the way into my pack.  When she heard me, she lifted her head up, and a bag of corn nuts was stuck to her snout.  She spooked, ran away, and the corn nuts fell to the ground.  “At least I saved my corn nuts,” I thought.  But when I reached into the bag, I discovered they were no longer of any use to me.  They were completely coated with deer-drool.  Ick.
For the first week of a trip in the wild, hardly anyone’s going to be interested in a fresh vegetable.  Wait two weeks, bring out a wilted carrot at dinner time, and people will push each other into the fire trying to get to it.
How though? How can fresh food be kept in the wild for weeks?  It can be done, or at least approximated.  Carrots, beets and apples will keep for months if you wrap them individually in paper.  Don’t put ‘em in plastic.  Sure they’re heavy, but you don’t have to carry a lot.  Remember, it’s the taste you’re after in this situation, not necessarily the nutrition.  One tiny bite of fresh apple, carrot or beet after weeks of deprivation can have you fighting back tears…
Timing is everything.  Don’t bring it out too early.  But if the group’s been out for more than two weeks, a little bite of carrot can be bartered for someone’s ENTIRE remaining supply of coffee, sugar or chocolate.
These foods won’t spoil but they will wilt and begin to look pretty forlorn.  Once again, use the zip-loc trick on ‘em.  Two hours in very cold water, and they’ll look and taste good as new.
Most people don’t know they crave fresh food, because it’s so easily available in our current culture.  After two weeks of deprivation however, you can start to feel slightly deranged with the wanting of these things.  After a week in the wild, people dream about pizza.  After a month, they dream about salad bars.
Remember to be creative in your food bartering.  You don’t have to trade just food for food.  If you have kitchen duty tonight, but you have chocolate in your pack, you might be able to work a deal.
The power of food was brought home to me dramatically one cold September morning at Odell lake in central Oregon.  My hiking partner Kevin and I had re-supplied there on a month-long through hike.  We had met two other through-hikers, Kathy and Annie, coming the opposite direction, and we were enjoying trail talk with them, when a man dressed in camo’s, clearly a hunter, approached us.  This is the dialogue that ensued:

Hunter:  Any o’ you-all goin south?
Kathy:  I’m goin south.
Hunter:  You seen any elk in the high country, north of here?
Kathy:  Sure.  I’ve been following a huge herd for several days now.
Hunter:  Where are they?
Kathy:  What you got?
Hunter:  Huh?
Kathy:  Sir, I’ve been in the woods a long time, living on re-hydrated crap.  I like ice cream.
Hunter:  But we’re twenty miles from the nearest store!
Kathy:  Chocolate ice cream is my favorite.

Two hours later, the hunter appeared, with a half gallon of chocolate ice cream in a Styrofoam ice chest, perched on top a five-pound bag of ice.  Kathy pulled her map out of her pack, and a spoon.  Around gigantic bites of chocolate ice cream, she said,
“yesterday,  I spooked a herd of about twenty out of this lake basin right here…”
Happy trading.  But don’t be too hard nosed about it.  Desperate people can be dangerous.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Eat, Write, Succeed

A recent study from the University of Kentucky corroborates what many of us already know: writing is powerful magic.  This study shows that people who are trying to change their eating habits are much more likely to succeed if they write down what they eat every day.

This does not mean counting or recording calories.  That was not studied.  Only the journaling was measured and correlated with success.  This study supports the concept, from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, that in order to change behavior, you need frequent, concrete feedback.  By writing down what you eat, you are essentially giving yourself that feeback.  That is the theory anyway, and the researchers speculate that it might be one reason why Weight Watchers is much more successful than most other weight loss programs.

Whether you are trying to lose weight, or change your eating habits for other reasons, it might be worth a try.  I've been keeping a food journal, and I find that when I start to think I haven't been eating very well, and I look back over the last few days, it's always better than I thought it was.  I think this relates to a general tendency, also addressed in CBT, that we tend to imagine there's a pattern of negatives where in fact only one or two events have occurred. 

In building new habits, there is a threshold, between 4 and 8 weeks, when many people start to feel discouraged, start to think thoughts like "it's no use, it's not working."  The journal can show, with concrete evidence, that it is working.  With more accurate information, our thoughts and feelings come into agreement with how things really are, and we feel energized to keep going.

Since ancient times, it has been believed that writing things down is powerful magic.  Maybe it's been true all along.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Breafast at the Morning Glory

Yesterday we had breakfast at the Morning Glory cafe here in Eugene.  When I say "we," I mean I had invited a couple friends.  They  in turn invited a couple more, and we wound up with a lively and lovely group of six: me, George, Rob, Faliesha, Cheri and her daughter Brooklyn (there's gotta be story behind that name, I must remember to ask).

It is so gracious to see this group of interested  and motivated people grow and gather momentum!  Books, ideas, websites and enthusiasm for good food were traded all around. Many of us were strangers to each other, but when we left, we were all "hugging terms."  Fantastic!

I followed it up with a hike up Spencer's Butte, very gratified to making this ascent in better time every time I go.  Also, there is something new to see every time.  There is old growth on this hill, one tree in particular is easily wider than both of my outstretched arms, which would make it more than 18 feet in circumference.  There is Madrone here too, and yesterday I spotted one that has to be forty feet tall.  So thin and stately, so rich in color with their deep red wood and dark green leaves.  At the top, clouds raced overhead only a thousand feet above the summit.  And bright beams of sunlight shone down into Eugene, moving across the neighborhoods, illuminating first West Eugene, Then Friendly Street, and then downtown.

I sat on the summit and watched the show, nibbled some lunch.  And then down the hill to have a beer with Rob and George at the 'Lope.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Intentional Eating

This morning I wake feeling hungry.  But before I decide what to eat, I check in briefly with the sensation of hunger, and ask two questions:

How hungry am I?  What am I hungry for?

These are the two main questions recommended in a practice called Intentional Eating.  It is essentially a minfullness practice connected to eating, and it is very powerful.  How hungry?  Rate it on a scale of 1 to 10.  That might feel silly at first, but stay with it.

Then run down the list of flavors and foods in your head.  What sounds good?  What foods or flavors seem to stand out in bold print in your mind?  Colorful, like fruit?  Savory?  Starchy?  Today, after consideration, I choose two slices of whole wheat toast, with some peanut butter, and it seems just right.

The process of asking the questions and waiting for the answers slows me down, and I enjoy every bite of my small meal, savoring.

Exercise: Ixnay, Redux

What a great day yesterday, back on real rock for the first time since the surgery!  Afterwards, I was charged, feeling so "high" emotionally and physically, for hours.  This morning, I reconsider the long hike I had scheduled for today.  I need a rest day.  So I wind up journaling and walking by the river, stopping every so often to juggle.  The day finds it's own rythm, a more contemplative day than I had planned.

Tomorrow, if it's nice out, I'll meet Mike at the columns.  I was so close on that one route, and there's another I really want to project on.  Now I've had a taste again, I can't get enough of real rock.  If it rains, I'll go for the hike I had planned instead, and I'll have the woods pretty much to myself.  Either way, it'll be a fun day.

And so the concept, the feel of it, is brought back to me again.  Even when I think there is, there is no schedule.  Body, mind and emotions set the schedule.  Of course, progress requires dedication, so it's a fine blance.  But the more I give in to just enjoying, the less it feels like work and the more it feels like play.

Alexander has crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a kayak, in record time.  He is 64.
Read the story

Friday, February 4, 2011

Exercise: Ixnay.

Friday is the first day of my weekend these days, because I work four long days Monday through Thursday.  Last night I went to bed feeling very worn out from work stress.  I was contemplating at least one do-nothing day before Monday rolls around.  But this morning I woke rested and refreshed.  There was a text from Zane and Meridy: "how 'bout we climb outside today?" 

Well, yeah.  The weather's been so nice it would be a shame to waste it.  We'll meet at the little sixty foot climbing cliff here in Eugene, called the columns.  I wanted to put the slackline up on Sunday, maybe invite some people out to the park.  But I'm also very excited to get another good long walk in, like last week.  There's a trail just east of Spencer's Butte I haven't tried yet.  The map shows switchbacks, so I know it's steep.  That will have to be Saturday.  I'll throw some weight in the pack, some water, maybe some bread and hummus and an apple, and make a day of it.

And suddenly my do-nothing weekend is full.  Full of fun that just kind of grew on it's own.  There will be sunshine, and good people, some thrills and some meditative, calming walking.  And there wil be not one bit of exercise in the whole scenario.