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Best pathways, neural and other?– journal– Friday, July 17th, 2020

As you may see from yesterday’s post, for at least the time being, I’ve taken to a more focused and elaborate commitment to journaling, the most forceful and impactful inspiration being the neurologist Tara Swart and her book The Source.  (A book by the way that seems to me so crucial to read for its empowering flood of practical information about brain and mind optimization that I bought my mother a copy for her birthday and I have been talking about it all week when fortunate enough to slip through the cracks of “social distance” on line with wonderful people who have a few spare moments here and there; actually I got to catch up with a friend this week who may be moving from New Jersey to Texas who I hadn’t spoken to in a few months because each time one of us called the other we managed to miss the other person).

 It’s kind of funny because regarding journaling she suggests:  “Before bed tonight, spend a couple of minutes writing down some thoughts about your day in your journal. (page 200, HarperOne, Kindle Edition.) But then she offers such a useful list of ideas one can apply to one’s journaling, that if one appreciates the greater potential of journaling (beyond a mere five minute a night habit) by exploring each or most of her ideas, one may find it can become a rather practical and enlightening enterprise, endeavor, venture (I got “endeavor” and “venture” as synonyms from the Oxford English Dictionary when thinking about the word “enterprise” and whether or not that’s the word I might want to use).

Some of her suggestions include the following:

“note three positive actions you have made each day… these can be as small as you like—from strengthening your emotional intelligence by thinking about a problem from another person’s perspective to going for a mindful walk or reaching for a novel instead of your phone after dinner. You could also begin to note down things that make you feel either energized or distracted and depleted. Start to explore your thinking around some alternative strategies to your most common stumbling blocks, e.g., ‘The next time a relationship makes me feel bad about myself, or the next time I make a mistake at work, I will do x instead of what I have done in the past.’ You could also think about the micro “failures” that occurred in your day: things you left unsaid; un-kindnesses you allowed; distractions that have taken over. What might you do differently next time? Shake up your autopilot and question your default settings. Channel the ideal version of how you’d like things to go tomorrow.

“…to take a bolder stance on your home, work and commute. Ask yourself big questions: Should I move to a new house, or stop renting and buy my own place? Should I be planning to quit my job, work from home or move closer to work? As you move through the remaining steps and begin to visualize your ideal future, your answers to some of these questions will fall into place. Your journal will help you chart this journey, and explore the different possibilities for your life. Use it.” (pages 200 – 202).

The broader benefit rich implication seems to be this: gaining a more intimate and thorough examination of the stamps and brandings of one’s “neural path ways,” “subconscious”/unconscious reactions–

“Each neuron is extremely hard-working—it can transmit 1,000 nerve signals each second and make as many as 10,000 connections with other neurons. We now know that new and existing neurons can make more and more of these connections as we grow and change our brains in response to everything that we experience well into adulthood. All our thoughts are emergent from the chemical and electrical signals that pass across these synaptic gaps between our neurons…

“…As the pathways become stronger and more established over time and with repetition, these become the habits and behavior patterns that we may or may not be consciously aware of. Neuroplasticity means we can disrupt and refine these patterns well into adulthood ( Tara Swart,  The Source, page 71, HarperOne. Kindle Edition).

 That is to say, I want to understand, to the extent that the marks/imprints of “the chemical and electrical signals that pass across these synaptic gaps between our neurons”—aka, our THOUGHTS—suggest neural pathway caused habits/behavior patterns and determine where I may want to thus apply the fascinating property/quality/capacity of neuroplasticity towards improving how I think and act and in a liberal fashion. It’s not just about how I have a bad habit of insulting myself without even often realizing it or how I want to reduce my feelings of depression or anxiety. I want also to commune with life, the Earth, the universe—allow it to swim within the soul like flower fragrances do in the air or birds in the sky above…liberation by embrace?

There’s more to it than that, I grant you. This “mindfulness” is just an element. There’s concrete surroundings awareness to indulge in just as is there is knowledge, both of the more “theoretical” or intellectual or abstract as much as there is of the practical to find meaning in, apply as best suits one’s self.

And that really gets to the more concrete and situational catapulting of this journaling endeavor. It’s obvious to me that regardless of my fortunate fate over the last six years to excel by way of college GPA, and that I have been so blessed as to find my way into a Creative Writing MFA program there persists nonetheless certain ironies.

I should say, first of all, that the privilege of attending graduate school and riding up the escalator of knowledge a bit…this is INDEED a privilege. Graduate school is not a fundamental or inherent NEED. Plenty of occupational/career aspirations can take off with bachelors degrees, associate degrees, trade school degrees, and graduating high school in some cases too. None of which, by the way, do I think has anything large to say about one’s “character” or “socially comparative/ hierarchical value” or any such thing.

But when you do possess certain desires, it is the case that certain paths may facilitate the pursuit of those desires. (In terms of human action as much as in neural and cognitive/psychological “actions”—paths, pathways, neural pathways…).

I believe graduate school remains a benefit to me for several reasons, I think the greatest one being that those environments dedicated to…to serving as formal/ institutional knowledge preservation and advancement COMMUNITIES…given my personality, what other sort of environment would more so align with my personality?

Those who know me to some relatively intimate degree are aware that I play the Devil’s advocate with myself to such an extent that I am constantly trying “alternative” approaches, and sometimes very alternative paths to whatever I’d been previously engaged in before.

Last summer, between roughly May to August, having failed to win a graduate assistantship and then struggling to find a post- college job, feeling exceptionally beside myself and not yet in therapy, the most calming thing I could think to do was nix my graduate school aspirations and simply vlog and/or podcast my thoughts. (Prior to that, along with the hope of gaining an assistantship, I was planning to study fiction writing and write perhaps a book of “flash fiction.” And, as to further illustrate for you, the way I meandered from project to project, even prior to that flash fiction phase it had been my hope to study poetry writing. Before that, I think I swerved back and forth between a desire to study the personal essay and journalism, and so on).

 Each instance, to at least grant myself a positive way of framing it, I played the devil’s advocate to what I was previously doing. Even in the midst of the vlogging and podcasting, I kept changing from vlog to podcast to vlog and podcast.

And from there, noting that my project shared an affinity with the personal essay in terms of deep reflective introspection, I decided to delve more into myself as “personal essayist” and in fact pursue graduate school after all.

My devil’s advocating is so open ended at times. One of the least likely imagined career paths I considered even more recently was pornography acting. Ha… to be clear, I did not imagine this because I so deeply fancy my physical appearance or declare myself a “sex god” or anything like that. But sometimes when we imagine possibilities we ask “why?” and other times we may want to explore “why not?”

(Speaking of the amazing Tara Swart book I keep bringing up:

“In Chapter 9 we talked about having a ‘why’; here it is more a case of thinking ‘why not?’ Why not apply for that new job or go on that date your friends are suggesting? Why not take up that new hobby you have been putting off for years? That new project idea that pops into your head when you’re trying to focus on something else: write it down and return to it. Or you could try flipping a problem on its head to give it a new perspective. Try to catch yourself next time you’re self-editing and ask yourself whether the thought you’re pushing away could be a fruitful one. Remind yourself to think from a perspective of abundance rather than lack. (Tara Swart, The Source, page 183, HarperOne. Kindle Edition.)

So I did ask myself, “why not find a way to make money making love?” Permitting myself to look at it from different angles, one source of inspiration which really made the fantasy rather intriguing was my discovery of Paulita Pappel.

She works on two “pornography” or “erotic video” sites that actually revolutionized the way I think about “pornography” and sexuality. Before I explain that more fully, I should offer some context as to how it could be that my thoughts on sex might be at such a place so “fertile” for growth, change, reconsiderations, et cetera. (Mind you, this is just to scratch the surface really. One of my goals in therapy is to think about sex in a confident and healthy way as opposed to letting the topic bring about so much anxiety).

It’s like this: talking about sex with virtually anyone raises within me what I might term “near paranoia.” (I hesitate to label any of my psychological experiences as necessarily “paranoid” because I think paranoia is not something to discuss lightly. Some people experience paranoia to such an extent that they really think everyone is after them or something of that sort).

In a public context, such as here on this blog, every time I bring up ****S—-E—-X**** I am hoping very anxiously, god forbid a coworker or employer discovers it that they’re of a liberal mindset and embrace at least some degree of openness about discussing sexuality. This may seem silly or over dramatic or indeed slightly paranoid to some of you as, overall, at least “Western” culture has come to approach sexuality with significantly less stigmatizing.

I think one of the best examples is viewing scenes depicting people masturbating in shows that might be geared towards a teenage audience. One show on Netflix where is the case, and one of my favorite TV shows of all time without question, (maybe third place next to Frasier and Star Trek), Merli . Acknowledging that teenagers are not inherently prude because we perhaps hope they are as to preserve their “innocence” the show depicts male and female masturbation, exploration of polyamory, and threesomes. When I was a teenager scouring the television for sexual content one had to wait till roughly between 10 and 11 pm. Now, one can find it at the click of a button if one’s parents haven’t locked one from doing so.

A parent of mine (I’ve had four—two biological and two step parents) who we shall call Parent Z, once, when I was maybe 11 years old,  heard me utter the word “sexual” and took me aside and said “don’t you ever say that again.” By the way, contrast this with who we shall call Parent Y who not only embraced sexuality but flaunted pornography consumption, blared Howard Stern on the radio, et cetera, thus causing within  my young mind what we can literally describe as “conflicted” teachings about how to think and feel about sexuality. Don’t you dare even mouth the word or proclaim your love publicly, as Parent Y did, “I’m a trisexual because I’ll try anything.”  Y declared this at a restaurant once at lunch. On another occasion at a restaurant Y began telling the story of purchasing a movie called “Daddy’s dirty videos.”

True to my raising, as a teenager I really went back and forth about my feelings on sex. I liked to have cyber and phone sex and I liked to write erotic stories and express myself as freely as possible and yet when it came to the actual act of feeling the pleasure of sexual attraction as such, lust, I would feel shame, and begin fearing, most of all, that I would be “one of those guys”—you know, a “fuckboy.”

(By the way, when did the term “fuckboy” first make its way into our lexicon? I only heard the word for the first time back in the fall of 2019. V—was saying something about “fuckboys” and I said “what’s a fuck boy.” )

I do actually go to battle a lot with feelings of shame regarding my intensity of fondness for sex and the aesthetic beauty of the act, pornography, et cetera. The source does seem highly “social.” As I mentioned, I worry about an employer of a conservative leaning taking issue to it.

On the other hand, William Paterson University professor and poet Timothy Liu is encouragingly liberated in his verbalized expression of sexual thought and feeling. From his poem “On Marriage Equality”:

                                        “faithfully

                                 meeting their mutually agreed upon

                                        weekly coitus quota…

                                        …They enroll in “positive” Tantric sex workshops

                                        And swing with other couples

                                        …put tally marks on a white-erase board

                                        for the number of times they’ve come

                                        each week…

                                        …is his cock really big enough?

                                        (page 3, Let It Ride)

So, I think to myself, even if I don’t match professor Liu’s literary and publishing and teaching success, at least I can look to him and say, he’s in academia, with what seems to me like an appealing job, and he does not hold back his sexual thoughts or permit shame to inhibit him. It really is inspiring. Like Paulita Pappel!

Getting back then to my entertaining the imagined scenario of being a porn actor and asking one’s self “why not?” one of the thoughts I had was that one major factor “why not” would be that it would make interacting with my family feel very awkward. Would they dislike me? Disown me? Until the career paid enough to lead my current career would I be able to stay in my current career without the stigma interfering? For the most part these are in my opinion insufficient to count as reasons “why not.” Speaking of family, there exists within me almost an amusing fantasy as pure experiment to see what sorts of reactions it would bring if I were to announce that I’d gained employment as a pornography actor. I imagine Parent Y would embrace it. Parent Y took pictures of nude women and for all I know went beyond that but didn’t showcase it the way the general nudes were showcased. My grandmother, may she rest in piece, she might not have minded. She used to tell me she advocated strongly for the legalization of prostitution, empathizing with men she said “might get lonely.” Beyond that I don’t have anything to go on for speculation.

There’s also other considerations: how comfortable one might be practicing non-monogamy, how much fortitude the man has with his capacity to recharge his erection post orgasm (have you seen the movie Boogie Nights? I remember once seeing a reality sex show for either Xhamster or Youporn where people competed to see who could impress professional porn stars the most with their “performances” and one guy could not maintain his erection. I felt for him because I have been there and done that), also…it’s often the case that being kept from an academic environment or time for reading and writing being taken away leads me to feeling most irritable and impatient.

One of my least favorite things about cashiering was the tedium and mind-numbing “activity” of greeting customers, some of whom don’t care to greet you back and who rush you and vent all of their frustrations upon you, et cetera…   

….Anyway… all of this is to bring substance and context to the much broader topic of thoughts and feelings about CARREER.

Since my major and foremost goal at this time in life is to cultivate a self esteem, a crucial element of that is how I think and feel about my career-occupational life. And indeed, to entertain the Devil’s advocate and ask myself, am I pursuing the path that is most appealing to me and most helpful to my soul?

By Sean O'Connor

Hi, I'm Sean O'Connor, a poet and writer pursuing my MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at William Paterson University, where I also work as a learning generalist and where I received my BA in Liberal Studies.

Currently. I also work as a writing tutor at Raritan Valley Community College and Mercer County Community College.

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