DC PRESENTS THIS TOO SHALL PASS, A SHORT DOCUMENTARY ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH IN THE SKATEBOARD COMMUNITY.
John Gardner is on a mission to shine a light on suicide and mental health awareness within the skate community. So, when we sat down to talk about his new pro skate collection, he wanted to do something special. For starters, John designed an eco-friendly collection to raise awareness and funds for the Navajo Nation’s Diné Skate Garden Project in New Mexico. John will be donating all of his royalties to help complete the skatepark build, and DC will be matching his contribution. With suicide rates on the Najavo Reservation being sadly higher than the national averages, a state-of-the-art skatepark in this underserved area will be particularly valuable.
In addition to the collection, we’re also excited to share THIS TOO SHALL PASS, a short documentary about mental health issues in skateboarding. In it, John opens up about his own mental health struggles and experiencing suicidal thoughts. John talks about how he uses meditation, breathing and skateboarding to help deal with depression. The documentary also features Andrew Huberman, Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine (and skateboarder!), also provides some amazing insight into how we can help ourselves and each other on a daily basis.
John also curated a limited zine that includes facts about mental health, selfcare tips, breathing techniques and other tools that could be useful for anyone suffering from depression. You can view or download the zine here for free! (Hit fullscreen for optimal viewing.)
Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University, Andrew Huberman is first and foremost a skateboarder. Andrew’s lab studies stress, understanding how it impacts the brain and organs of the body while providing tools to help combat that stress. He is on a mission to help people gain access to scientific tools and incorporate them into everyday life. Did I mention this man is a skateboarder??
JG:When did you start skateboarding?
AH: I started skateboarding in the 7th grade, so I was about 12 or 13th. I pretty much dropped all other sports at that time. Skateboarding was pretty much all I did, until I was about 17. I was fortunate enough to get into it in the late 80’s early 90’s, spending a lot of time at Embarcadero. I’ve always considered skateboarding my first community. Science is my primary professional community, but skateboarding has always felt like home. I feel very much at home and at ease with skateboarding.
JG: What did skateboarding give you that you were able to take into your career as a scientist?
AH: I can really point to skateboarding as giving me the resilience to move through science. I mean, science is hard. You fail a lot more often than you succeed. It's like failure, failure, failure, then success every once in a while. You can't really predict when those successes will come. And that's a lot like skateboarding. The ability to throw yourself down something over and over again and then make it, that's the model I took from skateboarding and transplanted it into my science career.
JG: What was it like for you as a kid and what knowledge do you wish you had then that you know now as a scientist?
AH: I think I had a naturally higher level of fear and anxiety than people. I thought, then maybe there isn't a place for me in this, which looking back was foolish, right? I just needed time. I needed to figure out ways that I could overcome those fears. And now, my lab studies fear and we have developed ways to overcome fear and be able to approach it in a in a more head on fashion. I certainly wish I had that then. But also looking back to part of what was really important for me about skateboarding was that I did it on my own or I could do with other people. That taught me something really important, which is that it's really essential to be able to move through anxiety and to push yourself with and without community around you. I wish I had also known that it was important to have ways to adjust one's level of anxiety and lift oneself out of dark places through interaction with other people, but also by myself.
JG: What are some ways we can better approach mental health?
AH: I think one of the major issues with mental health is that many of us rely too much on the lift of a community in order to feel okay. And that's very important. Community is super important. Social connection is super important, but it's also important to be able to move through tough spaces when you're on your own. I can recall a lot of times just feeling very lost and very alone. And when I was with my friends, I was good, but then when they weren't around I felt kind of helpless and in despair. There are tools that one can use using purely mechanical aspects of the body. We talk about these things like breathing, even how you view the world with your vision, that can allow you to adjust your anxiety and your fear level down.
JG: How best can we adjust our fear level and anxiety down?
AH: When your mind isn't where you want it to be, it's very important to look to the body and use your body to alter your state of mind. The first place to look is your respiration or breathing. It's absolutely the case that how you feel changes how you breathe, but how you breathe also changes how you feel, and not in trivial ways, in profound, major ways. I believe everybody should have at least two tools in their breathing kit. One is a real time tool that will allow you to adjust down, reduce stress and anxiety in real time very fast. That tool is called the “physiological sigh.” Physiological sighs were discovered in the nineties, so we've known about them for a long time, and we actually do these when we are in sleep or when we are in state of panic. The physiological sigh is simply two inhales followed by an extended exhale. If you watch a dog sleeping every once in a while, you'll see this double inhale and this long exhale. You'll become much calmer, much faster than you would if you took a deep breath. When we tell people, hey, take a deep breath. That's actually the worst advice you can give them.
JG: How does taking a deep breath actually cause more panic?
AH: Because what it does is it draws more oxygen into the system and that doesn't necessarily offload a lot of carbon dioxide, so you just feel more alert and usually more stressed. The physiological side is an absolutely essential real time tool that gets rid of all that carbon dioxide so you will immediately feel more relaxed. Your lungs aren't just two big bags of air. They have millions of little sacks of air called the “alveoli” of the lungs. When you're stressed or anxious or in a state of fear, those little sacks start collapsing like deflated balloons, and a gas builds up in your bloodstream called carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide (CO2) makes you stressed and afraid. In fact, one of the ways in the laboratory that we can stress people out is we make them inhale a little bit of carbon dioxide, and it is almost an instant panic.
JG: What are some other science-based tools we can use to manage stress?
AH: There's another practice that you can do every once in a while. Just doing it maybe one to three times a week will raise your stress threshold. It will make your mind less likely to go into states of anxiety. It's very different than a physiological sigh. You don't want to do this anywhere near water, while driving, or while skateboarding. You want to get stationary. You don't have to lie down, but you're going to inhale deep through your nose, and then you're going to exhale through your mouth, letting the air fall out of your mouth. Then you repeat that 25 times. By the end of those 25 breaths, you're going to be feeling stressed. This is self-induced stress inoculation, because when you breathe this way, you release adrenaline from your adrenal glands, which sit right on top of your kidneys. Then you exhale all your air and you sit there calmly. What you're doing is you're teaching your brain and body to have a lot of adrenaline in your system, but not to be stressed. You get a similar effect from getting into an ice bath or taking a cold shower and learning to calm your mind. This technique is something you can do without any equipment. You'll notice you can hold your breath for a very long time. The reason is, the impulse to breathe comes from having high levels of carbon dioxide. That's actually the trigger to breathe. When you've done all that breathing in and out, you've dumped a lot of carbon dioxide. You'll notice that pretty soon you can sit holding your breath for like three or four minutes. Now, there's one cautionary note, which is if somebody is really prone to panic attacks, you just have to be aware that when you do this kind of hyperventilation, which is really what it is, you might feel agitated to the point where you want to get up and run, try and just stay - you're teaching yourself to stay put when you're in a state of stress. There's a published paper showing that this breathing technique can improve the status of your immune system and combat various bacteria and viruses of different sorts. It won't protect you from everything, but it's just a great all-around practice. Mike Blabac does it. So you should do it too.
JG:Your student Lindsey Salay, published an important paper in Nature (the Thrasher Magazine of science) showing forward motion suppresses the fear response in the brain. How can the average person use and apply this information?
AH: Yes one of the best ways to shift your state of mind has been shown to get into self generated forward motion. This is especially true for skateboarders and I'm not making this up. It's known that walking, running, cycling, skateboarding - anything that involves physically moving through space creates what's called “Optic Flow”. Things moving by us on our visual system, on our retinas, has actually been shown in many quality laboratory studies to reduce the activation of a brain area called, “ the amygdala”, which is an area that's involved in threat detection and fear. This is one of the reasons why, when we're stressed, it's so hard to sit still. One of the primary functions of stress is to make us want to get up and moving. That's why it feels agitating. It's not because Mother Nature is playing some evil trick on you. It's because stress was designed to mobilize you. So forward movement, skateboarding, that actually has the benefit of reducing the activity of these fear centers in the brain.
JG: What are some common warning signs you see with people who suffer from depression?
AH: At its deepest layer, depression is really a distortion of how we perceive time and how we perceive our relationship to time. One thing that you'll notice about people who are not in a state of depression, is that if something is difficult they realize, “this too shall pass.” Whereas, when people are in a state of dark depression, they seem to lose touch with the fact that this state will pass. It's as if that state of mind creates this perception that feeling is going to continue forever, or if it goes away, that it's going to come back without warning. One of the things that you see in suicidal depression and people with depression is that they have this narrative that things will just never get any better. If you're somebody who has a familial history of challenges with depression and mood, getting onto a regular circadian rhythm of sleep, viewing sunlight within an hour of waking up and later in the evening before the sun goes down, that is going to help stabilize all those systems in major ways. Bottom line, if you are somebody who has depression and you take on some tools that allow you to control your anxiety and stress, you are moving yourself in the right direction towards alleviating that depression.
JG: I know you are a not a Psychologist, so forgive me for asking, but at what point do you think someone should seek help?
AH: There's no human operating manual that tells us, look, if you don't feel good for two days, then you're off to the point where you really need to seek help. I don't know how terrible we need to feel in order to justify going to talk to somebody. I will say that when that element of time perception starts to drift, that should be a warning sign. When somebody starts talking in ways that makes it sound like the sadness they're experiencing is distorting their thinking to the point where it's not sounding like they know they can make it back. That should be a red flag. Now, is talking about it going to make it better? Maybe. But you should probably talk about it with somebody who really knows what to do with that information and can provide a better insight into whether or not you're doing okay. I think that depression is far more common than we hear about and think. And part of that is that no one really knows how to voice their depression. So, I'm not I'm not a mental health counselor. I'm a scientist. What I'm here to offer are tools that involve shifting one's physiology within the body as a way to shift the state of mind and in that way, getting control over your state of mind. I think that the most important thing for people to realize is that it is possible to build up your resilience to stress, anxiety, and depression. A lot of people think that there's some magic pill, that there's some magic formula that's going to immediately rewire the brain and frankly, that's not the case. Life provides pressures and your ability to handle those pressures in real time and come back again and again and deal with those pressures is what it is to be a functional human being. Part of being a resilient human being is being able to keep perspective over your thoughts. These things we call emotions and thoughts, they are literally just electrical signals in the brain. but if they happen too often, we can really start to get this distorted view of ourselves, that those thoughts can't be shifted, that they are us, and that they control us and that is absolutely not the case. You decide when you want something to be different and then you actually take the steps to make that process in your brain and body different. If you do these techniques now and again or often, eventually you will shift your neurology. It will happen. You won't need to do the physiological sighs as often because you'll be better at dealing with stress. You won't need to wonder, am I depressed? You'll know, hey, I'm off. It’s kind of like developing a more sensitive sense of taste or more sensitive sense of hearing. You can develop a more sensitive sense of yourself. It's a process we call “enteroception,” your ability to sense yourself, and it can be tuned up.
Thank you Andrew.
BROTHER DAI GAIC INTERVIEW
In 2018 I went on a solo backpacking trip through Europe, stopping in Germany first to visit a Buddhist monastery for a meditation retreat. This is where I met “The Skateboarding Monk”, Brother Dai Gaic as he is known. As fate would have it, we were paired together and formed a great friendship. We stayed in touch after my trip and I sent him a skateboard. The rest is history…
JG:There are a lot of words on this page. I know that can seem overwhelming to people, making them not want to read all the way through. If this statement is as far as they get, what would you like people to know?
BDG: Less is more. As monastics, we live a life of simplicity and togetherness - we stick together. I think we spend much time just offering our presence to each other. That creates a lot of joy and happiness. I think this is very important. I think that skateboarding and sports can be a part of it too and we do it together as a group. I think that is in the spirit of living, really being alive.
JG:When did you start skateboarding and what attracted you to it?
BDG: Maybe 13 or 14 or earlier. I think one big part is that I'm usually drawn to minority groups - people who are not the mainstream people. I found myself a lot in this kind of environment. That's a big part for me, I think skaters are special people. They are just not the common folks you see.
JG:When I started skateboarding, we didn't realize that we were turning to skateboarding for mental health. What is it about this magical wooden toy that is so calming and free?
BDG: Well, you can’t just stand on that wooden board without being really concentrated and mindful. Otherwise, you fall off and you hurt yourself. And that's a good lesson. Suffering is a good motivation for us to practice wanting to wake up and gain wisdom. What it does is it helps you to concentrate, and it helps you to be in contact with your body and with the environment. So it connects you. I think that is very crucial.
JG:When did you become a Monk?
BDG: I ordained in 2012, in January. So I have ten years of living in a monastic community.
JG:For those who don't know, what did you have to give up to be a monastic and is there anything that you miss from before?
BDG: We as monastics, we will not have a family life. In the sense of having a relationship with a partner and then having children. So that's something that we are leaving behind. But otherwise, I feel like I gained more than I lost. As I said, we live a simple life. We don't have these kind of fancy things anymore. But I think we are very modern monastics. I have a computer, I use technology, things like that. I have a skateboard.
JG: What advice do you have to the average person for decreasing their material possessions and living a more simply?
BDG: The best thing is to experience that is possible to be satisfied without many things. So, when you go for a retreat, for example, you leave everything behind, and you have a chance to be without all these things. Then you can come back to being together, listening to each other for example. Then you have a chance to experience that these things are not necessarily needed. That's the best way. Do I really need my cell phone, my computer, Internet, Facebook, social media, all this stuff? Do I really need it? Can I be happy without it? You have to try it out, that's the best way. I think when you see, like, oh, it works. The material thing is one thing. The other thing is the mental part in the mind. That's also very important to look into, to let off some things that we all accumulated.
JG: How has skateboarding changed for you now that you are a Monk?
BDG: That's a good question. I don't try to achieve anything anymore. I also have to say that I'm just cruising. I'm not doing tricks anymore. That’s because also, I just don't have the energy. I'm not trained to bring up a lot of energy. I think I really feel like dwelling in the sensation of flowing and sensing the air and being fully in contact with the body and not trying to use too much effort. When people see me, they feel quite joyous. They are so happy to see monks on the skateboard.
JG: Skateboarding takes place throughout cities across the world. How do we find peace in the midst of the chaos?
BDG: Well, through skating, no? If you skate, you don't feel anything around. Everything is gone in a way. You have one pointed focus. That's one way. Then I think that it’s very important to bring in the skaters that you're with, creating a group energy dynamic, which forms a kind of protection and shield for you to take refuge in, like a little Sangha. It's not easy. There are ways to protect our senses. That's what we are doing in the monastery. We try to protect our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. You can do that with training. Being as a group and feeling part of it and strengthening each other is a very powerful way to do that. And, of course, the skating itself will generate these qualities. One thing is very important, I think all the desires or emotions that are coming in, like competition, restlessness, or whatever it is, I think these things will prevent you from really present.
JG:Recently I got injured and I’m not able to skate so I feel a little restless.To keep my spirits high, I've been writing five things that I'm grateful for each day and then sending it to my family. What do you know about gratitude and how can it increase our well-being?
BDG: Gratitude is amazing. I think it’s helped me through many, many things. Gratitude can be very simple like that. Even though we are injured and can’t skate, we have some sort of health, right? We don't have a constant pain like toothache. So we can recognize that and be grateful that we are not having a toothache or just the fact that we have something to eat and we are not rejected. It’s much about, where do you put your attention and your awareness? So that we have gratitude for things that you may not see. That helps a lot. We cannot change certain things, but at that moment maybe we have things that we can be grateful for. And it's a human tendency to forget what we have.
JG:I have read that Buddhists believe suffering is essential for life. Could you explain?
BDG: I’d like to distinguish between suffering and pain. Pain is something we cannot avoid, right? It is part of a life. I think that is also very important for us to grow and to find joy and happiness, it somehow goes together. Suffering is something that has much to do with our attitude and our thinking and our relationship to life. I believe we can transform that. We should transform. We should overcome, but we cannot avoid pain. This is a part of life. The suffering comes because we have a wrong way of living. There's a path that leads to suffering and that path has to be understood to find the path that leads to well-being.
JG: I think a lot of people picture the life of a monk as an endless state of bliss and peace. It sounds like you all experience the ups and downs of life as well.
BDG: Yes, the ups and downs are less strong though. I see that there is no difference between the average life and the monastic life in that sense. We all experience the same thing, but the conditions are very supportive here so the healing part happens quicker.
JG: When you and I met you talked about the importance of seeing that the happiness and suffering from others is not separate from our own happiness and suffering. What does this mean and how can we look deeply to see it?
BDG: It means everything because we are one family and indirectly everything influences each other. You can see it like this… If you have everything and you're happy, then you don't want to look at those who are not happy and don’t have all that you have. We must look. We have to get in contact and then we can see that, how can we be free and feel happy if others are struggling and suffering? The thing is that we don't see it, that's often the problem. We don't get in touch with each other. In our community, we really try to include and invite people who have difficulties. We need to get in touch with suffering, to come back to gratitude and remember it. And it's clear that if you have more peace, joy, and serenity than others around you will benefit from that.
JG: What could you say to somebody who may be struggling, feeling like they can't go on anymore?
BDG: Simply take away the weight. It has to be removed. The only way we can counter the challenge of darkness in the world is by generating light. Of course, when we become stronger, we are able to bear more weight and hold things. Without us being solid and stable and strong, we will not succeed. If we keep looking at the darkness in the world, we become the darkness. To change everything is maybe not the purpose. It's more about, can you change yourself? When you are strong enough, then you look again to that part in you which is dark. Then you can transform the negativity. It's not easy. I also have a tendency for depression more than others. I know when I was in that state, it's very hard to believe that everything is not dark. I think gratitude is a very good bridge to wanting to be alive being joyful.
JG:I appreciate your time, Brother Dai Gaic. Where can people learn more about what you practice?
BDG: Our teacher always said, the best way is to practice with us. Meet us in a retreat and practice together. I think that is the best way, but because of the situation we have with the pandemic many people cannot come to us so we have a strong internet presence. You can go on YouTube or go on plumvillage.org. We also have a free app that you can use. There are lots of material for you to enjoy. All different practices as well as online retreats. The best thing is to come and stay with us for a week or two, but if you can’t there are other ways to be with us.