My child used to watch the animated series “The Last Airbender” over and over again. We would practice various “bending” skills together. I loved every minute of watching my kidlet play with the idea that you can use your mind to affect your reality. If you aren’t familiar with the show, it was about people who had powers that allowed them to “bend” various elements of nature to their will. I used to joke that I was an elbow bender. I thought it was hilarious. Then came the REAL powers… We were sitting at a stop light and I could tell it was about to turn green. I told the kidlet that I was going to make the light change with the power of my mind, and then scrunched up my face and made a trying noise…and voila! Green light – ta daaaaaa!!!!! From the back seat, I heard a delighted and somewhat incredulous: “Mommy…you’re a REALITY BENDER!!!!” From that point on, I milked that for everything it was worth. I’m pretty good at predicting outcomes, so it wasn’t hard to pretend I caused them!
We are all reality benders – we do it all the time. It happens to all of us by accident, but the real power comes in being able to shift our perceptions with purpose, awareness, and intention. The examples are endless and well documented, such as the different realities reported by witnesses to a crime. They are all reporting their own version, their own “truth”…their own reality. In that sense, we all have the power to shape reality. So if we know this to be true – then we can learn to use it to our advantage, including changing our current perceptions and ultimately our circumstances. We can even, quite literally, change our minds.
I was reminded of this again today while watching a TEDx talk about neuroplasticity. The concept that I can LITERALLY change my mind – change not just the habits of my thoughts but the very structure of my brain – is more exciting to me than almost anything I can think of, and makes me feel superhuman. I have POWER over how I feel, my own health, my own thoughts and thought habits – power over my own reality. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t use EVERY tool available – including good nutrition and medical intervention when needed. In other words, I am NOT suggesting that we can “think” our way out of all illness. I am merely suggesting that we can affect our day to day experience of life, and often we forget that part and focus ONLY on the external interventions. I think real power comes in using everything available to us, inside and out.
For the last 20 or so years, I have been suffering with worsening symptoms that are frequently associated with Major Depressive Disorder and a variety of anxiety disorders. I think these symptoms showed up in my teens and twenties, as well, but I was very BUSY during those times, so the symptoms didn’t have a chance to really take hold. Then I got pregnant and my already frucked up hormones emerged as the villain in the next stage of my journey. I fell victim to an evil spiral of poor physical health that exacerbated my depression and anxiety symptoms, until I was living a very small and defeated life. I stayed in my apartment for 90% of my time, living in constant pain and experiencing an ever present struggle just to exist. I walled myself in, ensuring that I was alone with my thoughts a HUGE percentage of that time, and only really engaging socially with my husband, my child, and a couple of distant friends on the internet.
During that time, I forgot to use the tools I had learned over the years to manage my mind and emotions. I forgot to remember that I can change my mind, my emotional state, and to a degree even how my body feels…at will. I forgot that although it can be an effort – real WORK for me sometimes – I can find ways to feel happier, and to manage my own circumstances. I literally fell victim to myself, and to the information I started ingesting about depression and mental illness and how it just IS and it’s not my fault and I should go on drugs. So, I went on drugs. I got a LOT worse – apparently drugs are not a good answer for me. I understand they are a wonderful solution for many people and I honestly envy that. I know that many people struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, and I know that many of them find relief and a new lease on life through the proper medication. It is simply unfortunate that this is not the case for me, personally.
Last year I stopped taking all of those drugs, and struggled for several months with the withdrawal and fall out from having been on them for so long. This was actually the second time I went off medication completely, and this time was as tough as the first time, maybe even worse. My pain levels escalated, my mental health got a lot worse before it got better, and I spent too many hours planning my own death, or fearing a painful death, or fearing a painful LIFE for another 20 or more years. Until about a month ago, when I remembered to start breathing again.
I remembered that I have “things I can do”. I remembered that my brain and body are not stagnant, unchangeable things. We are changing all of the time. Our brains rewire themselves, our cells die and new cells are born – by design! Our bodies can create illness, and heal illness. There are stories of what seem like miracles to us, spontaneous remission from illness and leaps in abilities such as the 4 minute mile (you know, that thing when everyone believed it was impossible for a human to run a mile in under 4 minutes until Roger Bannister broke that record in 1954, and then all of a sudden a bunch of other people could ALSO run a mile in 4 minutes or less…) These stories do not dictate a fundamental change in ability so much as they illustrate the power of perception in our daily lives.
Recent developments in neuroscience have even disproven previous theories about our brains, and their ability to grow and change as we age. Until fairly recently, science said that our brains stopped growing once we reached adulthood, and basically just degenerated from there. Now science says differently, and there are multiple studies proving that our brains do, in fact, continue to change and grow…as long as WE continue to change and grow. What will science say tomorrow? For now, we think we know that our brains encode what we practice throughout our lives, not just when we are young…and for a long time I had been practicing being sick, depressed, anxious, and feeling useless. I had been practicing being those things in a progressively more generalized and destructive way for the last 5 years at least…and more slowly but still effectively, for the 10 or so years prior to that.
When I went off all medications again, I had a few bad months. Recently, though, I have rediscovered my superpowers. I have started to feel more and more like myself, with more good days, less bad days, and the bad days are not as bad as they had been. Recently, I’ve picked up my old passion for self management and change, and power and self efficacy, and really OWNING my own life and helping other people own theirs. I get to be a reality bender again, which is a LOT more fun than being a victim. I can practice new thought habits, by choice and with intention.
I’m particularly excited about the fact that I can breathe in change. I can embrace the idea that nothing ever stays the same, and that sometimes things change in an instant, with or without our consent. Other times, things change over time with intention and vigilant effort. It doesn’t always happen how we want it, and we don’t always have control over it, but on a long enough timeline, everything changes…and from my current perspective, that is really, really good news. It means that how I feel today, what I can do today, what I can BE today…WILL change. I can nudge that change in a particular direction, I can dedicate time and energy to practicing different ways of thinking and being so that my brain, as it changes, builds different neural pathways that lead to different feelings and experiences. I have that power…and so do you. Are you practicing thought habits that help you? Consider the possibility that you could bend your own reality a bit, and with practice, enjoy your experience on this planet more and more.