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neural pathways

A New Way to View Our Vices 1024 687 Thayer Fox

A New Way to View Our Vices

Do you have a vice? Many small ones? One massive one? What do you do habitually to release pressure when your system floods with emotion? Grab a bagel? Smoke a cigarette? Call a friend to “vent/gossip”? How long does relief last? Does self-loathing follow?

I define a vice as anything I use to detach from my experience of the present. Vices come in many shapes and sizes, some are innocuous; socially acceptable behaviors and others wreak havoc. They don’t have to take on extreme forms like alcoholism or an eating disorder to negatively impact your life. Most of us learn how to manage our vices by accessing quick relief without causing long term damage. Drinking, overeating, smoking, sex, TV watching, shopping, social media, gossiping- the list is long.

Emotions that trigger our vices are not necessarily negative. It all depends on the neural pathways carved out in childhood. Neural pathways regulate our feelings, reactions, and thoughts. Think of them as hiking trails carved into the gray matter that sits in your skull. Neural pathways explain why it’s easier for me to remember to brush my teeth in the morning than for my 8-year-old son.

Our history causes irrational relationships with present circumstances. When presented with a choice, our brain automatically chooses the path of least resistance. We are all wired up by the time we are twenty, our free will is an illusion.

It took me a long time to be happy without a sense of dread stealing the show. Due to my past, my brain kicks into high alert when the coast looks clear. Falling in love with my husband, without alcohol to calm my nerves, was a terrifying experience. It made sense why I drank heavily through past relationships, I was scared that everyone would leave me like my father did.

During the first six months of our courtship, I smoked and overate. Two packs a day was my average. I smoked first thing upon waking and right before bed. Sometimes I woke up with anxiety and smoked in the middle of the night. My fingers were stained yellow with nicotine. But smoking wasn’t enough, so I started binge eating. When I couldn’t sleep, I would sneak out of bed into my future husband’s kitchen and devour an entire box of cereal in the dark. I never felt full and wouldn’t stop until my distended stomach ached. These vices offered temporary relief by distracting me from the source of my discomfort. It was easier to obsess about my weight than get in touch with my belief that I was an unlovable and defective person.

It took time and rigorous work with my sponsor and therapist to identify the disturbance. Awareness is the first step. I learned that logic will not shift behavior, only action has that power.  A daily prayer practice finally gifted me the willingness to stop smoking. I’d never considered quitting, smoking was my best friend and first addiction. Even though I was skeptical, I knew I couldn’t do it alone. My desire to stop drinking had been lifted this way, so it was worth a try. Two months later, on a subway ride to work, I experienced a moment of grace. I threw out my cigarettes in a garbage can at the top of the subway stairs and went to a Duane Reade to buy Nicorette. I’ve never smoked again.

Binge eating was a gradual fade. After an injury forced me to abandon my punishing cardio routine, I followed a suggestion to experiment with other forms of exercise. Weight training and yoga planted me in my body. Respect developed as I grew stronger and I realized that my mind and body were partners. As my overall mood improved, I gave up caring about my reflection in the mirror. Working out to expand my mind and spirit changed the way I viewed exercise.

We can re-wire the neural pathways that regulate our mental state and emotional responses at any time. Living a Groundhog Day existence is a choice. There’s a lot of brambles to whack through in the beginning, so patience and compassion are essential. To grow, I must be honest with myself about any behaviors that stand in the way of my serenity.

Dealing with extreme vices requires courage. Removing the vice is not the hardest part of the process. Waking up in a life that you didn’t consciously create requires re-structuring. Many people return to their vice because the amount of work occurs as overwhelming. It’s a more comfortable short-term choice to stay numb, but the long-term cost to your soul is deadly.

So why bother looking at your vices if they don’t hurt anyone or you can manage them? Because if you’re schedule and conversations revolve around your TV programming, consider that you haven’t yet created a life you love. It’s waiting for you. As a recovering TV zombie, I can say this with certainty. Trading down vices is a significant first step, especially if you have a big one to confront. Watching TV for 4 hours a night was better than pounding two bottles of wine. Don’t get me wrong, Sunday at 9 you’ll find me glued to GOT but some nights I don’t even have time to turn on the TV because there are so many other things I want to do. A great show or meal becomes an additive after you face unprocessed emotions and fill your void with meaning.

The fewer vices I have, the more awake and open-hearted I feel. Acceptance of myself and others expands as my loathing self-talk dwindles. My creative energy has doubled. I feel more generous; nothing makes me happier than being of service to someone else. I sense the presence of something greater around me, inside me and I never feel alone. My capacity to be with upset has increased. I learn from painful experiences as they are unfolding. I don’t view lows as bad and want to rig my life to get more highs, I want it all. Above everything, I want to be free, and my freedom is dependent on my ability to identify and let go of mental states and vices that that block me from living in the sunlight of the spirit.


“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Mary Oliver



Gratitude: The Best Meal To Serve Your Hungry Ghost 640 480 Thayer Fox

Gratitude: The Best Meal To Serve Your Hungry Ghost

Gratitude is wishing for what you already have. For most of us, this doesn’t happen naturally. Good news is that our brains can be re-wired. Daily practice carves out neural pathways that will routinely lead us to fresh ways of thinking and experiencing the world. Grateful people are happy ones; there is nothing complicated about this equation.

Gratitude is a trendy word today. The star of self-help books and Ted talks, like the beautiful one given by David Steindl-Rast, gratitude’s power is undeniable. Gratitude challenges are prevalent on social media, people post lists for a period and then stop. Schools discuss ways to instill gratitude in children. Gratitude journals are sold at toy stores near the Uno cards.

The mass effort to bring gratitude to the forefront of our collective thinking is a positive step. But when something becomes familiar, we stop noticing it. It’s the reason we forget to wish for what we already have. The concept of gratitude has reached the tipping point of overuse, and people feel like they are cultivating gratitude by attending a lecture at their children’s school or highlighting paragraphs in a book. Engaging in a practice and understanding a concept are worlds apart.

For the first thirty years of my life, I didn’t have an ounce of gratitude. Growing up in an environment that kept my fight and flight response activated, the hungry ghost was strong inside me. I craved and schemed to obtain what I wanted as quickly as I could get my hands on it. It was never enough. Entitlement is the opposite of gratitude. There is no appreciation or relief in the world owes me mindset.

So how did I transform from an entitled wretch to someone who feels deeply grateful for my life? Slowly.

Gratitude has been a focus in the rooms of AA long before it surfaced in the mainstream. Fourteen and half years ago, after not drinking for ninety days, my sponsor told me that my thinking was now the source of my misery. She suggested that I email her a gratitude list every morning containing three items. I asked her how she expected me to be grateful sitting amidst the rubble of my life? With few people left, no job, depressed and over-weight, making a gratitude list felt like a cruel request.

When I would call my sponsor to complain that I had nothing to put down on my list, she would calmly ask me, “Did you have a bed to sleep in last night? A warm meal for dinner? A roof over your head?” Annoyed that she would suggest these necessities for my list, I was desperate to feel differently, so I did what she said.

For the next few years, I made gratitude lists daily. The lists became effortless as my life grew. They still included simple things like a great yoga class, walks around the reservoir in Central Park, a delicious meal at City Bakery, and a job that paid my bills. On challenging days, I would put down the three items that my sponsor mentioned when I started the practice. I didn’t just scribble them down anymore, I sat with each one, finally understanding that they weren’t as elementary as I initially believed. They were and still are enormous blessings.

My baseline well-being shifted with my thinking. There is always something right in front of me to be grateful for, it just requires a shift in perspective. I no longer write lists, but I end my two daily meditations by saying thank you for whatever blessings I am present to at that moment. What I focus on is my choice and choosing to focus on the abundance in my life always improves my mindset.


Is Compromise Creating Expectations in Your Relationship? 640 366 Thayer Fox

Is Compromise Creating Expectations in Your Relationship?

How much do you compromise in your relationship? What expectations do you have for your partner? Do you communicate them clearly? Have you ever considered that compromise is creating expectations in your relationship?

Smiling, my husband says that my idea of a great date night is couples therapy and a shrimp tempura roll. He is not far off. Maybe throw in a workshop, attended separately for optimal discomfort and growth. During our thirteen years as a couple, the best marriage advice that we received is to stop compromising.

Many people still believe that something needs to be wrong to seek out the support of a therapist or coach. I see it like going to the gym, if you don’t work that muscle regularly, atrophy is guaranteed. By the time most people enter some form of work together, it’s too late, neural pathways are Grand Canyon deep. The disparity between the amount of work we put into other areas of our life and our primary relationship is illogical.

Around six years ago, sleep deprived navigating the world of young children, we started playing a relentless tit for tat game of ping pong. Anyone in a relationship knows how this plays out- I did this for you, even though I didn’t want to do it, so now I have an expectation that you owe me in return. Meanwhile, this dialogue is taking place in our heads and what’s communicated in agitated tones is entirely different. The majority of conflicts take place in the gaps of communication that open up endlessly between the most well-intentioned people.

After a particularly heated argument, I suggested we go see my old psychologist Chris Ford. During my twenty years of Woody Allen Manhattan shrink trialing, she was the only one who made a difference. My husband was resistant at first, and in a rare moment of quiet, I asked him from the bottom of my heart. Little did I know that the way I enrolled him to see Chris initially, was the recipe for future harmony between us.

We started meeting in Tribeca every Wednesday evening at Chris’s office. She immediately picked up on our ping-pong game and asked us to list all the things we did for each other that we didn’t want to be doing. Revealing minefields of resentment, the length of our lists scared us. Chris calmly explained that our expectations had worn out our goodwill towards each other and from here on out, they must be communicated clearly and agreed upon by both parties. It was a set-up to make assumptions in our heads and then feel disappointed every time they didn’t manifest in reality.

Chris said that compromise is a slow death for a relationship. She suggested that we try asking each other, as if we were asking a close friend for a favor, from the bottom of our hearts. If we couldn’t muster a degree of authentic emotion around a request, it’s probably not that important. The lesson of The Boy Who Cried Wolf also applies to this system- you can’t make soap opera requests every week; thinking it through carefully before speaking is a crucial factor in building trust and listening with your partner.

You must also be prepared for your partner to say no, that’s still an option available to them if they can’t muster a pure yes to your request. If you can’t shake a loving no, that means you are back in the world of expectation.

With these guidelines in place, our dynamic started shifting immediately, although, it took years to uproot all our buried expectations. We started practicing after our therapy sessions at the sushi restaurant around the corner. Now when my husband asks me for something, I listen carefully. In this way, he makes around five or so requests a year. I usually say yes because I know how sparingly he uses this tool and how much he respects my individual needs.

In this world we live in where everyone is expected to be a team player, I never fathomed that giving up compromise would make our love flourish.