Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #120 Microdosing Joy
About this episode

This week, Martha talks about new discoveries showing how drastically the arts can improve our health and our lives. Come learn how to microdose! (With a bonus group meditation at the end!)

Microdosing Joy

Martha Beck:

So I did not realize when I put on the title to today’s Gathering Room, Microdosing Joy, that microdosing refers specifically to psychedelics. I thought it was just anything you took in small doses, but I really like the concept of microdosing psychedelics. I’ve known people who’ve done it. I have not done it, but they seem to enjoy it very much, and I think it’s illegal, so don’t do it. But there is very promising research that that shows it might be helpful for us and it might be legalized in the future. So all of this led me to the phrase microdosing, but I read it in a book called Your Brain on Art, which is not about microdosing psychedelics at all, or is it? It’s by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross. It’s called Your Brain on Art, and it’s all about how both receiving and even better creating anything artistic changes your brain, changes your mood, changes your physical health, changes everything. Art is really good for you. This is my point.

And I wanted to combine that with another principle, which is how to change your own patterns. So I’m reading Your Brain on Art and it says that just 20 minutes a day, they call this microdosing aesthetics. So 20 minutes a day indulging in your favorite art will noticeably change your brain, and one assumes your whole life after that. So I like to draw and paint, talk about it all the time. I also love poetry, more reading than writing and different styles of creative writing, love songs. I’m sure there’s an art you enjoy, and if you just literally, they say if you just hum for 20 minutes, you’re going to see these really profound increases in your wellbeing. So 20 minutes a day, hum or doodle. You don’t have to keep it, you don’t have to show anyone, you just do something creative. I’ve been talking about this as an antidote to anxiety because they live in different parts of the brain, and I believe that enhancing your creativity helps you get over anxiety and the research in Your Brain on Art shows that this is certainly supported by evidence. So that’s good.

I thought let’s all do 20 minute microdosing on art. I’ve been doing that. I’ve been mega dosing, actually. I’ve been doing a lot of art and it makes me very, very happy in my heart and most of the time I just want to drift off into it. And I thought I’ve got to anchor it to something else because my thing is just I’m doing art for 20 minutes a day. Oh, now I’m doing art for 20 hours a day and I love it, but you can’t really keep your life going that way. So here’s a way that I decided I could keep my microdosing to a microdose and also have a really powerful impact on some of my own negative patterns. So we all have negative patterns.

One of the ones I’m seeing around me today in multiple loved ones as well as myself, is burning very, very hot and doing a lot and a lot of things until you completely burn out. And then you just lie there completely lifeless like roadkill, thinking, I’ve never gotten anything done and I never will and I can’t. And it’s not only do people do we sort of flagellate ourselves in that state, but there’s also a very strong fear that we’ll never feel better and never ever do anything useful again in our entire lives. So it’s not a yummy place to be and it’s a pattern that I go into over and over and over again.

I do think that our left brain dominated culture is so obsessed with productivity, objects, time measurements, deadlines, money, all these things that the left hemisphere loves. It says push, push, push, push. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon who is from time to time, the world’s richest man, it goes up and down. But he said in a letter to his shareholders once, “I tell all my employees to wake up terrified every day and to stay terrified all day because that’s the only way you’re going to really perform well.” That’s kind of a commentary on how hard our society is pushing us for what? Do we really want to wake up terrified so that we can have a whole bunch of money? Or more to the point, do we want to wake up terrified so that the few richest people in the world can have more money? Because a lot of the people he’s telling to wake up terrified, do not make a lot of money. They just wake up terrified for very little money.

Okay, my point here is that this is a very anxiety producing culture and that my pattern of falling into it is I can do that, I can do that, oh, I can’t do that. I can’t do anything. I’m just like roadkill, honey badger been bitten by a cobra. I will come back from it, but not right away. So how can I use microdosing aesthetics to stop this pattern? Well, one of the things that you can do when you have a very strong pattern, and this comes from my beloved Pema Chödrön, one of my favorite Tibetan Buddhist nuns, and I have multiple favorite Tibetan Buddhist nuns and that pleases me. One thing she says in one of her books is that when you have a pattern and you recognize it and you decide to break it, it’s very typical of people to want to do 100% right away forever. And that’s not very practical.

The brain can do it once or twice when you really have willpower and then you’re going to cave the first time you’re tired or fussy or just feeling disgruntled for some reason. And she gives the example of let’s say that you think you shouldn’t eat so many chocolate chip cookies and chocolate chip cookies are your bête noire, the thing that you’re most obsessed with and the thing you think you should get away from. And she said, “So swearing off chocolate cookies for the rest of your life is not a good idea. It’s extremist and it robs you of joy. Why would you want to?” But she says, “Suppose you are sitting in your room and a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies has been cooking downstairs and the scent of it wafts through your room and you really, really want it.”

She says, “You don’t swear off cookies for the rest of your life and go sit in the full lotus position until the smell goes away. And you also don’t have to leave whatever you were doing and rush downstairs and eat until you feel sick. You don’t have to do either of these things.” What you can do, and what she suggests is that you stop in the middle of the pattern just to watch the pattern. So here comes the craving. Okay, this is what it’s like for me to crave cookies. I’m not going to make any value judgements on it. I’m not going to try to control it. I’m just going to watch. I’m going to observe. This is what it feels like when I’m really craving something. And the same thing is true, I know the feeling when I’m starting to overwork and go into exhaustion and I keep working and I’ve done it a lot lately because frankly, I’m mega dosing on art and I can stay up all night doing it easily for three days and then it gets bad.

So this is what it feels like to be so addicted to the picture I’m working on that I get up and I’m mean to go away and I put away my tools and then I go back to it and start doing it again. Our little two year old, it’s so funny to watch two year olds because they have the best of intentions, but they literally haven’t grown in the part of the brain that has impulse control.

So today I was helping Lila cook some noodles, and we put the dry noodles in the container and put water on it and she ate a few dry noodles and she thought that was really good. And I said, “Well, it’s not as good as when they’re cooked.” She said, “No, it isn’t.” I said, “So let’s cook these.” And she said okay. And I went to take the pan away and she just, her hand on its own leapt into this panic, just grabbed as many noodles as she could. And she was literally like, “I don’t know why I’m doing this.” I thought, I know why you’re doing it. I do the same kind of thing all the time.

So cut yourself some slack. You’re really like a little kid and in this one area you think you should be really self controlled and you may not be. Just watch what that’s like. So instead of slapping her hand away or letting her eat an entire pan of dry noodles, we just watch, “Wow, that is a really strong desire to grab those noodles. Isn’t that interesting? You didn’t even mean to and you did it anyway.” So that’s how you pattern break. You watch the craving or you watch the impulse and then do whatever you want. It’s fine if you go and eat tons of chocolate chip cookies. The important thing in this paradigm is that you’ve stopped to watch it. And I know from experience that I’ve had a lot of sort of semi addictive patterns where if I stopped to watch the craving in the middle, the brain does change and the craving changes, and very often it goes away completely.

So what I’d like us all to try this week, because I am such a how-to [Japanese 00:09:57], oh my god, [Japanese 00:09:58] is Japanese for thing, and I used to just put it on the end of anything. Like [Japanese 00:10:04] is a thing you eat and kimono is a thing you wear. So I get to be a very cravy-mono. That’s what I do. I always give advice. I’m an advice-mono. I’m always telling people advice. So this is the advice for this week. And I apologize, I have a craving to give advice. Wait, wait, wait. Let me watch this. Oh yeah, that’s a strong anxiety. It’s right here in my chest. I want everybody to be happy and I want to be the one who makes it happen. Oh yeah, that’s never worked for 60 years, but I keep doing it.

All right, so here’s what I want to try this week, and I’d love you to try it with me. Look at yourself for negative patterns, automatic negative thoughts, self-shaming, pushing yourself too hard, anything that just makes you feel bad and isn’t really worthwhile. Shame is a big one. Let’s say you have some shame in your life and you know that this follows a pattern. So somebody says something and somehow you’ll connect it to some reason that you should have done something better or you should be better in some way. And you start to feel shame. At that moment when you notice it, and at first you’ll only notice it after it happens. Oh, I went into a shame spiral. Okay, how did that happen? And then you watch it.

But if you get good at this, you can feel the shame beginning, you can feel yourself starting to go into it and you can say, okay, this is the pattern, and I can go into the shame if I want to. But first I’m going to microdose on aesthetics. I’m going to not only hold this in my body, but I am going to draw a picture, or find a song, or play some music, or write a poem, or read a poem, or do something artistic that breaks the pattern and watches the pattern and turns it into … Brings it into a kind of collision course with aesthetics, because that is where I think a lot of great art happens. And I think a lot of the greatest art that has inspired me in my life has come from that state of being where somebody’s in a really bad place and they reach out with some kind of art.

And it’s like Hafez, the Persian poet who says, “Trouble, then stay with me for I am not.” And the poem goes on later, “Even from the distance of 1,000 years, I can lean the flame of love into your heart and kindle a light.” He knew what it was like to be in the dark. He didn’t write that just because he felt good all the time. He wrote it because he knew what it was to be troubled and to need someone to say, “Then stay with me for I am not.” So do some aesthetic microdosing when you’re in the middle of a pattern and then go right ahead with the pattern. But be forewarned, this will change your brain. And as you go further into the right hemisphere, I’m going to quote Oliver Sachs, the great neurologist whose books you may have read, he said, “With neurology, if you go far enough with it and you keep going, you end up getting weird. And if you go a little further, you end up in spirit.”

And this is what I believe happens. And it does seem to be born out by the neurology, that if you go far enough into the creative process and into the aesthetic microdosing, you may change your brain bit by bit by bit until you’re starting to go into spirit. It may look a little weird to other people because we don’t live in a culture that really digs on that, but it can make us so much happier and it can also produce some really wonderful things for the rest of the world to take in as their own aesthetic microdose. A rising tide lifts all boats here, folks. So now let’s take some questions.

Sue says, “Is there a difference between making art alone and working together with another person or group?” Yeah, there is a difference. And either one is fine. It’s interesting, they’ve done studies where they ask people, speaking of uncooked noodles, to make towers out of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti. And they get these groups together and they’ve taken groups of engineers, groups of CEOs, artists, architects, all these different people, and they all get about the same, it takes them about the same amount of time to make a tower of a certain height. And the idea is you make the highest tower you can. All those groups were about the same. The group that made the highest towers by far were five year olds. And that is because they weren’t worried about the social aspects of collaboration. So the adults were like, “Oh, can I say that? Oh, she said that. Oh, Paul, he thinks, oh no, well, he’s in charge. I don’t know. I don’t like him.”

Whatever it is, there’s all these social dynamics that get in the way of the simple creation of the art. So I would say just be aware of that and know that you’re taking on a much bigger task when you’re working with another person because there’s all this social nuance to be sort of navigated as well. But yeah, I mean, I love making art podcasts with my partner Rowe. Our podcast Bewildered, not this podcast.

Marsha says, although Rowe does help me with this podcast too. Marsha doesn’t say that. Marsha says this, “How about coloring a page daily from my coloring daily? Is good as well.” Yes, I think I know what you’re getting at. You have a coloring book and you color a page a day. And that has been shown to be absolutely one of the things that can shift the brain in this delicious manner. Furthermore, some of them, I’ve seen coloring books of mandalas, I’ve made mandalas myself. Those have an even more powerful effect on the brain than a picture of a bunny rabbit or whatever. So if you’re interested, get a coloring book of mandalas or instructions on how to make one. And it has a very powerful effect on the brain, interestingly enough.

Okay, Donna says, “What if you’re too overwhelmed to microdose aesthetics or joy? When I’m in a pattern of anxious fear, I can’t even imagine drawing, which I love to do. Or music, which I also love.” Well, you stop and you observe that you feel overwhelmed even though you love music and you love art. Now, there is a point where you can say, just keep your hand moving. There’s a writing teacher, I think it was the one who wrote Writing Down the Bones. Who was that? When people would say, “How do I write when I don’t feel like writing?” And she would just do this, like this. And certainly when I get up in the morning to write, I write first thing, it is not an inspired time and I feel overwhelmed and tired a lot of the time, and I just start typing. And then the brain shifts over to the right and you don’t feel as much anxiety.

And if you can’t make that happen, watch that you can’t make that happen. And see if you can edge toward a doodle for five minutes. Just give it a whirl. Put on a song. Even if you’re scared, you can put on a song, it’s good for you.

Okay, so [inaudible 00:17:44] says, that’s a beautiful name. I hope your parents called by your whole name when they called you to dinner [inaudible 00:17:53]. “Oh, can we do an open focus meditation this week?” I forgot. Of course we’re going to do one. We will do one at the end because I didn’t do it at the beginning. Oh, thank you [inaudible 00:18:03]. That is really, really helpful. Thanks. My ADD brain thanks you.

[inaudible 00:18:11] says, “Do you have some advice around how to shift into a creative act of some sort from a place of shutdown disassociated panic?” Same issue that Donna’s talking about. Remember I stumbled into this field because I was looking at anxiety, my own anxiety and the fact that anxiety is so freaking high. And the more research I do, the more I see how our culture has this unchecked self-reinforcing cycle of anxiety and we’re all caught in it like it’s a damn tornado. I mean, it really, really is bad. And I don’t want to minimize anyone’s experience of it. It’s horrific. And the way you shift is like this.

You sit down and you say, I am going to do a doodle. I’m going to do a zen tangle. Remember zen tangle. Go online. Google it. You put on your favorite musician, you listen to that Ani DiFranco. There’s a poet with music, or you put on Mozart or whatever it is. And really in the past, you would have to go to a symphony somewhere that you got to go to once in a blue moon when you were done milking the goats or whatever, and listen to a symphony orchestra play this thing once. Now you can just go, boop, hey Siri, play Mozart. Or a hey Siri, play Ani DiFranco. Boom. You can make this happen even in our horribly anxious time. It’s not hard to doodle or to put on a song or to Google poems to help when I’m feeling discouraged.

There was a time in my life when I was really having massive, massive anxiety and a lot of loneliness and everything, and I ended up secretly, I developed this secret habit of Googling stories about people’s encounters with angels. And a lot of them were just amazing and wonderful, and I totally believe they’re true. And then there were others that were really odd. There was an alligator lived down by my house, but I think he was an angel. And I’m like, all right, must have been a great alligator. I’m glad you had him. All of this just to say, you can find access to something that cheers you up or calms you down by just poking with a finger. You’re all on computers or phones right now. It’s in your hands. You can make this happen. And at the same time, the very culture that’s created this technology makes it more likely you will be overwhelmed by anxiety a lot of the time. There.

Anne says, “I can practice this under certain circumstances. However, when I feel blindsided by an intense emotion, I tend to shame spiral quickly.” So true. “Any pointers for these moments?” Well, as I said, any pattern, whether it’s shame or rage or addiction or anything is going to happen, bam, before you know it, that’s the nature of the way your amygdala is immediately grabbing for something to make it feel better. And it’s like my little girl grabbing the noodles. You can’t help it. But then once it’s gone on a while, there will come a point where you will say, this feels really crappy. Now what I would suggest is so many people are asking this kind of question. And because I am an advice giving mono, I would suggest you get an aesthetics microdosing buddy. Somebody either in the gathering room or someone in your life where you can say, when I really go into my dark place, I want you to come help me microdose on art.

Remind me of what I love about something creative. Remind me of a favorite book or a favorite painting or a favorite dance to watch online or to do in my bedroom or whatever. And let somebody else help guide you into it, because it sounds like a lot of y’all are very, very overwhelmed. Now, again, if you don’t have anyone, there will still come a time when you’re tired of the shame spiral or whatever it is, and you think, I really want to stop this now. And you will just have that ability to say, I’m going to doodle for a few minutes. I’m going to put on a song and doodle. That’s what I do. I put on audio books and paint. Oh, that’ll keep you busy three days in a row without sleep. Yeah, you have it, just the moment you get control enough to do it, microdose.

All right, Michelle and Magenta asks, “How does one get past the shame of doing art when one was raised in the way that taught you to get your work done first?” Well you do it the same exact way I’ve been describing about shame for any other thing. So I really noticed with, when I started doing a lot of art, which I’ve been doing a lot lately, I projected onto my family members judgment. I was like, they don’t want me to be drawing all day. They’re angry that I’m not doing other work. And they weren’t. Long story short, they actually weren’t. They’re super supportive. But man, there was a lot of shame. And I realized that for years and years and years, I had wanted to draw all day long and I stopped because I had to finish school and then I wanted to get a graduate degree, and then I had to write academic articles, and then I had babies and then really drawing pictures? I throw most of them away. This is not great art folks.

And when I read this stuff about how it calms your brain, I thought, well, this isn’t me indulging in a hobby. This is my medicine. This is my medicine. And it really was validating when my older two, well my first and third child were talking and I heard them on a Zoom call together, and they were saying something about how as long as we could get her drawing, everything was great. I was like, really? I thought I was being such a bad mom when I would stop focusing on them and draw a picture or paint a picture. They didn’t experience it that way. And by the way, they’re both excellent artists.

Anyway, yeah, the culture does shame you and tell you that you should be waking up terrified and working all day so that the richest people in the world can get even richer. That’s the story. Are you going to stick to it or are you going to take your medicine, which is 20 minutes of an Ani DiFranco and dancing in your bathroom and watching pandas online? Pandas are good to watch. It’s not exactly art is it?

But this is good. All right, so one of the things that Magsamen, I don’t know how to say her last name, and Ross, one of the things they found in Your Brain on Art book is that if you do this, you start making things and collecting things that constitute an enriched environment. You have more things that are interesting, and the most enriched environment is nature. So if you can have any connection to nature, and we’re going to do the open focus meditation in a minute, and that is a connection to nature because stillness, space, and silence are all bedrock characteristics of the universe, the physical nature of the universe. So yeah, you can defy the culture and take your medicine and see how much better you feel than when you do everything the culture tells you to do.

Okay, Mary Janice says, “Do you schedule your art time or just do it when the spirit moves you?” I do schedule it. And that made a huge difference when I said, I’m going to let myself really experiment with art for a month because of the book I’m writing, made all the difference in the world. And now it sneaks into the cracks of my day, but I still put it on my calendar and everybody knows I’m doing it. And that’s very helpful. The woman who wrote the hand thing is Natalie Goldberg in her book, Writing Down the Bones. Thank you Rowe for that reference.

And finally, before our open focus meditation, SJ Kramer says, “I tried to quit the continuous tension in my body. When I do this, I start [inaudible 00:27:03] teeth in a fast-paced together, does interruption with art help? I feel I have to do this until someday it stops.” Okay, so this is probably an anxiety reaction. It’s part of the brain trying to hold in anxiety. So yeah, if you notice it, any pattern you have folks, any pattern you have that you don’t want to keep, when it starts, this is the prescription for this week. When you notice the pattern, and this will probably be after it’s been going for a while, at least at first. Don’t try to stop the pattern, just watch it for a while and do a microdose of your favorite aesthetic thing. And you can read the same poem every single time or draw the same doodle figure every time. It’s a very, very low demand thing, and you don’t ever have to perform for anyone, and the pattern will continue but more weakly, you’ll find that it weakens and it weakens and it weakens.

And then as the pattern begins, you go, oh, I’m going to watch this. That’s what it feels like. My teeth are chattering. I’m shaking. That’s what that’s like. I’m going to listen to a song. Do that, do it for 20 minutes if you really want to be healthy. And then the next time it comes up, watch how much easier it is. It actually works. This really, really, really actually works. It’s super pragmatic. I hope some of you will try it for real, because the research is good. My experience is good. I really believe this works.

All right, so let’s do an open focus meditation. This is one of the ways we can connect with the enriched environment of nature no matter where we are. In a busy airport or on a plane, you can still access nature by going into your own body and finding within yourself the empty space in the atoms, the silence beneath all the noise and the absolute stillness in which every action is taking place.

So just picture this kind of three-dimensional lattice work of space, illness and silence. Everything is suspended in it, everything comes out of it and returns to it. And then you can try that very useful strange little question. Can I imagine the distance between my eyes? Can I imagine the space inside my chest? Can I imagine the stillness in which my heart is beating? Now, listen for the silence beneath all the sounds you can hear. And boy, wow, we really are in the gathering room when that happens, because there’s no barrier between you and me and all of us in space, stillness and silence. We come together as one thing, we have always been one thing, we are temporarily separate and we’re all going to be back as one thing soon enough. So try this little prescription, microdose some aesthetics. Let me know what your favorite art is and let’s see where this takes us. Have a wonderful, wonderful week and I’ll see you again very soon here in The Gathering Room. Bye.

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