This time of year my garden remembers the love I have shown it all season and showers me with so many gifts. This past Sunday I found myself with five pounds of tomatoes in need of a good recipe. I’m the kind of person who could eat a tomato sandwich for lunch every day in the summer, but since I also had a bushel of chilis I needed to use, I decided to make salsa.
We fired up the grill and I roasted my tomatoes, peppers and onions until their skins blackened and peeled back with a smoky char. I minced garlic and chopped cilantro and squeezed limes and pulsed all the ingredients together in my food processor. For dinner, we dipped salty chips into warm salsa over and over and that was enough. After all the tasting, I still had about six pints of salsa, so I dragged out my old pressure canner and started heating up some water.
Tomatoes are acidic enough that they don’t require pressure canning, so I closed the lid but left off the pressure regulator, allowing steam to release through the regulator valve as the water boiled. With my six pints of salsa soaking in the boiling water bath and the lid safely secured, I set a timer for fifteen minutes. I was anticipating the taste of fresh salsa deep into winter, but I didn’t anticipate a big mess. Without the pressure regulator on top of the valve, not only did steam escape, but the pot began to angrily spit out boiling water. Before I realized what was happening, the stove was covered in a puddle of water, which was soon dripping down onto the floor. When I discovered the mess, I quickly lowered the heat to calm the angry beast, but the pot continued to spit and hiss the entire fifteen minutes, necessitating periodic mop-ups.
As I stood back and surveyed my water-logged kitchen, it occurred to me: this is what happens when I leave off my pressure regulator too. If I don’t have the right tools to calm the roiling waters, I’m likely to spit and hiss and spew out harmful stuff, creating a big mess.
This week in our discussion of Dr. Rick Hanson’s book Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakeable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, we are talking about a third way to meet our needs: regulating thoughts, feelings, and actions. The psychological resources that contribute to self-regulation Dr. Hanson discusses are the ability to remain calm when faced with pain, the ability to motivate oneself when faced with challenges, and the ability to maintain a sense of self in our intimate relationships.
Dr. Hanson describes “calm” as “the mental resource that helps us stay in the green zone as we deal with pain or the threat of it.” We read about the red and green zones back in chapter two in our discussion of mindfulness. The green zone is what Hanson calls our “Responsive mode,” or our mind and body’s resting state. In this state, the body “conserves its resources, refuels and repairs itself, and recovers from stress.” In the green zone the mind experiences a “sense of peace, contentment, and love.” The red zone, on the other hand, is what Hanson calls the “Reactive mode.” When our needs are unmet, “The body and mind are agitated out of their resting state into the Reactive mode… . The body fires up in fight, flight, or freeze reactions, shaking up its immune, hormonal, cardiovascular, and digestive systems. In the mind, there is a sense of fear, frustration, and hurt …”
While occasional trips to the red zone are necessary to our safety, prolonged and repeated experiences in the Reactive mode are unhealthy for our minds and our bodies, depleting our energy sources and leading to chronic anxiety and stress. This is why the ability to maintain a sense of calm during stressful circumstances is crucial to our well-being.
Hanson’s discussion of the roles the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems play in our level of arousal was helpful and interesting. Basically, he tells us how the parasympathetic system, or our “rest-and-digest” mode, and the sympathetic system, our mobilizing force, are counter systems to either slow us down or rev us up. Both are necessary to our survival, but because of the way our brains evolved, we often experience unnecessary anxiety and stress when our sympathetic nervous system is engaged. Hanson calls this “paper tiger paranoia,” referring to our brain’s tendency to overestimate threats. Over time, this tendency has negative effects on our emotional and physical state. Dr. Hanson coaches us through some techniques to engage our parasympathetic nervous system on a regular basis to counter these negative effects and internalize a sense of calm. He stresses the importance and benefits of establishing a regular relaxation practice.
In addition to managing stress and recovering from loss, Dr. Hanson says, “People who are resilient are also able to pursue opportunities in the face of challenges.” This involves not only initiating beneficial habits and experiences, but also discontinuing harmful practices.
One way our motivation can trip up our resilience is when we move toward unhealthy desires. In his discussion of ways to enjoy pleasures without getting attached to them, Rick Hanson says, “The shift from liking to wanting marks the tipping point from the green zone to the red zone, from an underlying feeling of fullness and balance to a sense of something lacking, something wrong.” This chronic sense that something is missing keeps us from appreciating the present moment and stirs an underlying restlessness and dissatisfaction. Again, Hanson notes, our brains may have evolved this way due to the need for our ancestors to forage and remain vigilant for new opportunities to fulfill their needs, but in this day and age this chronic wanting all too often keeps us from finding contentment. Dr. Hanson coaches us through several cognitive techniques designed to help counter this natural tendency toward dissatisfaction and be mindful of the pleasures in simply liking things.
“If you repeatedly internalize these experiences of satisfaction—even mild and passing experiences in daily life—they will gradually build up an unconditional feeling of contentment deep down inside you.”
Hanson also gives us a good discussion on how to maintain healthy passions and ways to be motivated in positive directions. This section helps us understand the basic neurological foundations behind motivation and ways to capitalize on our biology to boost our motivation for healthy pleasure.
“Intimacy rests on a foundation of personal autonomy, empathy, compassion and kindness, and unilateral virtue in relationships,” Rick Hanson tells us, and then proceeds to unpack these qualities. In this chapter he focuses on the benefits of mastering these qualities internally, rather than in intimacy with other people.
A healthy combination of autonomy and intimacy makes us more resilient. Some ways Hanson discusses to effectively strengthen sense of self includes staying grounded in your own experience and not letting others pull us into theirs, imagining a line drawn between you and others to maintain healthy boundaries, practicing asserting your autonomy in your mind, and imagining what people who care about you would say to you to help you stand up for yourself.
Empathy is another characteristic of intimacy that leads to resilience. Hanson emphasizes that “Increasing self-awareness…improves other-awareness.” He encourages us to pay close attention to our own sensations, emotions, thoughts, and desires as a doorway to growing empathy for others. Making a deliberate effort to step outside of our comfort zone, and increasing our cultural competence by learning about people who are different than us, are also ways to increase empathy.
Hanson also discusses how “warmheartedness” or being compassionate and kind can boost empathy. It’s important to recognize the suffering of others and focus on commonalities with others when seeking to grow these qualities.
A final quality that contributes to intimacy Hanson discusses is what he calls “unilateral virtue.” In unilateral virtue, “you draw on autonomy, empathy, compassion, and kindness to be honorable and responsible even when others aren’t.” Dr. Hanson urges us to have our own personal code of conduct and commit to living it, even though we may fall short sometimes. This will help reduce conflicts in your interpersonal life, increase the odds you will be treated fairly by others, and give you peace of mind that you are also being fair.
This is a meaty book that gives a lot of information and practical advice. I’m having trouble fitting all the goodness into my weekly posts.
1) Was there something I didn’t cover in my summary that you’d like to discuss? Share it in the comments.
2) Do you have any personal healthy “pressure regulators?” Do you have any unhealthy ones? (Sometimes I like to eat junky foods while binge-watching Netflix when I’m stressed out, but I wouldn’t recommend that on a regular basis.)
3) Pay attention to your “paper tiger paranoia” this week. If you’re comfortable, share with us about ways your brain exaggerates the dangers of anxiety-provoking experiences.
Here’s the book club schedule:
In September, Callie Feyen will take us to the theatre with Sonia Barkat for Winter Stars: Three 10-Minute Plays: From Tragedy to Fantasy to Comedy. These compact little plays carry deep truths we’ll explore together.
In the meantime, why not whip up a batch of your own salsa and indulge in some fresh goodness as a means of emotional regulation?
3 lbs roma tomatoes
2 jalapenos (or what you have on hand. I used serranos and Anaheim chilis)
1 (7 ounce) can chipotle chiles in adobo
1 large white onion (sliced ringwise)
7 teaspoons chopped garlic (use less if you don’t like a lot of garlic. I LOVE garlic)
1⁄2 bunch cilantro
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon lime juice
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cumin
1⁄2 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
Get your grill nice and hot. Ours fluctuated between 400-450 degrees. If you use a smoke box, this adds a nice smoky flavor to the veggies. If you don’t use a grill, you may also use the broiler in your oven. Just keep a close eye out so the veggies don’t burn too quickly.
Clean and prepare vegetables for grilling and place them in a single layer on a pan sprayed with cooking spray. When the grill is hot, place your pan with your veggies on the grill. Pile cilantro on top, so that it does not get too hot and dry out completely.
Close the lid to get maximum heat. Lightly blacken all the veggies on all sides, or as much as you desire. It should be about 10 to 15 minutes per side. Be careful not to burn yourself when turning the veggies! When you get the char you desire, remove the veggies from the heat and let cool a little before removing cilantro and jalapeno stems. For milder version remove jalapeno seeds.
Place jalapeno peppers, 1/2 of the chipotles and adobe sauce, tomatoes, onions and cilantro and pulse in a food processor until coarsely chopped.
Transfer to a bowl, add remaining ingredients and mix well. Enjoy!
Modified only slightly from this recipe. If you want to can your salsa, follow USDA recommended steps from the National Center for Home Food Preservation. And beware of spitting canners.
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