How to change your brain

brainIn my previous post, I introduced you to the concept of neuroplasticity. This means that your nervous system is “plastic”, it can change to form new, healthier neuronal connections and pathways to help you live the life you have always wanted. This idea alone can be a lot to take in for most people. It goes against what scientists have believed for decades, that essentially we are born with a fixed number of neurons, and once certain habits/pathways set in, (usually in childhood) they are very difficult to change. We have immense hope in the scientific discoveries that are showing that this just isn’t the case. We can literally change our brains, our thoughts, and our habits. We can harness this plasticity of our nervous system to change our lives for the better. But the big question is, how?

It might be a surprise to some of you, or no surprise at all to others, that the techniques to change our brains have been around for millennia. Many ancient eastern traditions have utilized tools such as mindfulness, meditation, and compassion to affect neuroplasticity. No matter what cultural terminology you would like to use, western neuroscience and eastern philosophy have come to the same conclusion. Through the conscious application of certain practices, we can begin to change our brains (and therefore our lives). What follows are a few steps that can help anyone benefit from the principles of neuroplasticity:

1. Begin a daily practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a term used in spiritual and non-spiritual circles alike that simply means “paying attention”. The act of paying attention is essentially just focused concentration. We consciously activate areas of our frontal lobe that are normally active when we are totally immersed in some activity. The easiest, and hardest, way to begin to practice mindfulness is through meditation. Sit for five minutes twice a day in stillness, actively concentrating on your breath as it travels in through your nose, deep into your chest, and out again through your nose. It might feel to you that you should really be paying attention to the thoughts that are flitting in and out of your mind. This is not what you want to focus on. Those thoughts are distractions. Focus on your breath instead.

2. Experience compassion. If you can do this daily, that is a plus. If not, find at least three times a week where you can sit in stillness, but rather than meditating as described above, focus on the feeling of compassion. When was a time you felt deep compassion for someone else? What was going on? What made you feel compassionate, and how did it make your body feel? End this exercise by feeling compassion for yourself. In what areas of your life do you most need compassion? How would you express compassion to yourself, if you were your own best friend?

3. Practice change. Pick one habit this week you do regularly, automatically, that you would like to change. Is it automatically reaching for your phone to check email, Facebook,  or texts several times a day? Is it binge eating after work, late in the evenings? Is it ruminating over some thought that is disturbing you? Once you identify the habit, sit quietly and imagine yourself doing it. Visualize clearly, as if you were watching yourself on a big movie screen, what you look like as you are engaging in this habit. What is your facial expression and body posture? What is going on around you? How much time elapses? Notice how it feels to be watched while you engage in this habit. Become aware of your body in the present moment, as it is responding to the mental images of yourself. Once you can identify how your body feels in this present moment, begin to change the image. Imagine that while in the midst of engaging in the habit, you become aware of what you are doing, and stop. You either put your phone away and focus on a task that needs completing, or you put down the bag of chips and go for a walk outdoors, or you snap yourself out of obsessive thoughts and move on to something else. See yourself on the movie screen stop the habit and move onto something more productive. Stay with this image long enough until you notice your body responding to this new image. What does it feel like, and how has it changed from before? Really notice any subtle shifts in your posture, tension or relaxation of muscles, and your overall energy levels. Stay with this awareness for as long as you would like, for as long as it takes to sink in. And make the conscious effort that at least once this week, when you find yourself engaging in the habit you chose to examine for this exercise, you will follow through with your visualization of changing that behavior.

There are more techniques that can be used, but for most people, these three will be enough and can offer rich rewards when engaged in regularly. The key to all of them is consistency. You want to begin making these practices a part of your daily, or at least weekly, routine so that you give your brain the stimulation it needs to change. It is quite normal to feel an effortless commitment to these new practices during the first two weeks, only to feel your motivation taper off afterward. But stick with it, and you will find that even fifteen minutes of these pracices a few times a week is enough to start seeing change.

The change that you are seeing outwardly in your life is only possible because inwardly your brain is actually starting to change its structure. Take that as reinforcement that your hard work is paying off. You are worth the investment.

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Your plastic brain

Your brain is plastic.

By that, I don’t mean that your brain is made of synthetic material that clogs up landfills. I mean that your brain is moldable. Its able to change, contrary to what most of us have thought for years. Conventional thought is that our brain is made up of more or less fixed neurons, that we can’t actually regenerate neurons and after childhood, changing our established neuronal patterns is extremely difficult. But none of these notions are actually true. Your brain is markedly fluid, it responds to its environment (your thoughts and behavior) and changes accordingly. Probably a better term is that it “adapts”. It is an organ that has evolved to respond to you and your thoughts, and this is the best possible news any of us could hope for. This means that we can literally change our brains.

You are probably wondering why you would want to change your brain. That’s a good question. The answer lies in looking at what you want to change in your life. Are you struggling with the same pattern in dysfunctional relationships? Are you overweight or dealing with a chronic illness you can’t seem to overcome? Are your finances a mess, with no way out of debt? These are all situations that can be improved by changing your brain. These are all situations that can respond to your conscious effort to change them.

Neuroplasticity is the emerging science that is showing us there is way more to our brains than what we previously thought. And, interestingly enough, it is re-affirming what ancient traditions have known for millennia. Practices such as meditation, compassion and mindfulness are the key to harnessing the plastic potential of our brains, ultimately leading to positive change and better life outcomes. Whether you choose to approach this issue from the neuroscience perspective, or from the eastern spirituality perspective, it truly doesn’t matter. What matters is that you harness the neuroplastic potential of your brain to benefit your life and achieve what you ultimately desire the most.

My guess is that the majority of us have more than one area we long to see improve, and yet we feel resistance or a block in how to accomplish that change. This is a normal experience, and while it can definitely be discouraging, there is so much to look forward to if we understand what tools we can use to help our brains change. Our brains are like radios that we have believed are fixed on one single station for our entire lives. We keep hearing the same static, chopped words or grating noise that maybe at one time in our lives sounded like music, but now keeps us feeling stuck and restless. Suddenly, someone comes by and shows us how to change the station, and not only can we change the station, but we can change it to anything we want. The only thing we have to do is pay attention to what we want to listen to the most, and change the station to that frequency. By making what seems like a small and minor adjustment, with total commitment, we can change our experience. We can begin to dance, our movements as fluid as they used to be, twirling and dipping ourselves into a new realm of health and fulfillment.

Take advantage of your glorious, plastic brain. Figure out what areas of your life you have been living in a stuck, dysfunctional pattern and start changing the radio station. Your brain is there to adapt to what you ultimately want from life, and as it changes, so will you.

Stay tuned for my next post, in which I describe exercises that will help you change your brain for the better.

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The one thing that will derail your New Year’s resolutions (and how to overcome it)

file4281249501933In January, most of us set some sort of resolution for what we hope to accomplish in the next twelve months. Resolutions are important, but more importantly, our intentions behind them speak volumes for who we dream of being. The difference between an intention and resolution is this: an intention reflects our deeper purpose in life, and our resolution is our decision to act upon it. The problem so many of us face when carrying out our resolutions is that we often lose the motivation or energy to stick with it, despite our intention. How is it that we can feel a deep desire and inner purpose to achieve some goal, and yet remain complacent in the status quo? I have written about the quality of grit, which is important to cultivate because it alone can make a huge difference in reaching our goals. But another piece of the puzzle is termed “resistance”, which will be the focus of this post.

In his book “The War of Art“, Steven Pressfield coins a term for that mysterious, invisible force that keeps us stuck where we are, especially when we pursue creative and self-improvement endeavors. He calls it “resistance”, and it can manifest as distraction, procrastination, anxiety or even as depression. Like gravity, resistance is a natural law. It represents the equal but opposite force in response to our efforts to elevate ourselves into higher levels of being. Said simply, resistance pulls us back when we try to push ourselves forward. It doesn’t matter what the activity is that we are engaging in either, just as long as it is something meaningful to us. It might be walking a few blocks around the neighborhood each evening, or sitting down to finish the next great American novel. Anything that we pursue in attempts to develop ourselves further than we currently are will be met with resistance. The more strongly you feel about pursuing a goal, the more you will feel resistance pulling you in the other direction.

Resistance’s purpose is to prevent you from changing. It comes from the ego, and is threatened by those things that connect you to your higher Self and calling. That is why the more you try to pursue those specific goals in the area of your gift and calling in the world, the stronger resistance will tug at you. It might seem unfair, but look at it this way: When you feel resistance, you know you are on the right track. When you start to recognize that it is becoming harder to push yourself towards your health goals or creative projects, you know without a doubt that you are on the brink of transformation. Resistance is your guide, and you will feel it more intensely the closer you get to the finish line.

Overcoming resistance is a matter of taking a strict approach with it. It requires setting a schedule, and sticking to it (there’s grit again). Pressfield writes that it’s about seeing yourself as a professional in whatever activity you are engaged in. You might pursue the activity out of love, but if it is important to you, then you must look at it like you would any other job. You show up, get the work done, and go home. It’s not a matter of doing it when you have time, or when you feel like it. It’s knowing that if you don’t do it, you aren’t living the life you truly want. You aren’t living. Ultimately, it’s a matter of life or death in the spiritual sense.

Be careful, because often resistance masks itself in perfectionism. You might feel that unless you do something perfectly, it isn’t worth doing at all. But this is what resistance wants you to believe. It knows that when you are tired, or having a bad day, that you’ll throw in the towel because you don’t feel like any effort you put forth is good enough. But it’s not about doing anything perfectly. Maybe you write a page of your book that you just end up throwing out. The goal isn’t to complete each task as you imagined you will on your absolute best day, but merely to look resistance straight in the face and get the work done anyway, even on your worst day.

Steven Pressfield doesn’t measure the day’s success by the work he accomplished. He measures it by the answer to this one question: How well did I overcome resistance? I’ve started posing this question to myself at the close of each day. The answer comes to me immediately and intuitively, and I find that keeping the concept of resistance in mind helps me stick to my creative and self-improvement endeavors the following day. If you want 2014 to be year of exponential growth, of achieving the goals you set forth in your New Year’s resolutions, become acquainted with resistance and how it shows up in your own life.

No matter what resolutions you have set for this year, the prerequisite to every one will be overcoming resistance. The way gravity pulls your foot back to the earth after each step, resistance wants to keep you standing still. Don’t let it.

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A meditation to keep your heart open to those who have hurt you

1402529_43662915One of the biggest challenges we face in a relationship with those we love is the occasional misunderstanding or conflict that results in an emotional wound. We are wired to seek connection with others, and it feels so good when we find it. When we feel the rift of disconnection separate us from those we love, even if it is just for a moment, we can find ourselves wanting to close our hearts and retreat into ourselves. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable means that we allow ourselves to get hurt. It seems like a paradox. On one hand, we work hard to treat ourselves well and expect the same from others; and yet, we know that by consciously allowing ourselves to be hurt by others, we often experience our greatest growth.

There is not a single person alive today who does not know what it is like to have their feelings hurt by someone who he or she loves. We all have various coping mechanisms when this happens, and some of us are better at moving forward than others. How we deal with it depends on the person who hurt us, the degree of hurt we feel, and the nature of the hurt. Often, our suffering comes mostly from our own minds and attachments to what we think another person’s intentions are. Our egos can use moments like this, when we feel vulnerable, to rise up and reinforce certain illusions like “I am not worthy”, “Why does everyone end up doing this to me”, or “I should have known better”. We then project intense feelings of bitterness or disappointment onto the person who has hurt us, often out of proportion to their true intention. It is so important to catch ourselves in these emotional states, because we can lash out or withdraw from the person we love to such an extent that we in turn hurt them.

So the question becomes, how do we keep our hearts open to someone we love, who has hurt our feelings?

For those of you who are regular readers of this blog, the answer will come as no surprise. It is to simply breathe. It’s a hard thing to remember when we are caught up in our emotions, but becoming aware of your breath when encountering hurtful situations will help you get through them. Taking even, deep breaths during these times might even feel like you are actually breathing in the hurt, and this is ok. In fact, allowing yourself to breathe in the hurt, to feel it fully in your whole being, is the first step in letting it go. Breathe your way through the conflict, and then when you can take some time to yourself, consider the following meditative practice.

The Buddhist meditation called ‘tonglen‘ focuses on breathing in your suffering, and breathing out your happiness and blessings to others. This might feel counterintuitive at first, but it is a way of connecting yourself to anyone and everyone who might be feeling just as you are in the moment. And I can assure you, there is no hurt that you have ever felt where you have been alone. Someone, somewhere out in the world, has felt the exact same thing. In the depths of any suffering you might be experiencing, you are not alone. Ultimately, the situations that hurt us the most with others are the ones that make us feel suddenly severed from them, cut off from the warmth of their understanding and love. Whether this occurs in a new friendship, or with a spouse of fifty years, the nature of the hurt is the same. It is rooted in disconnection. While their words or actions might legitimately have caused us pain, it’s the feeling of disconnect that comes from it that creates the emotional wound. Practicing tonglen during these times is difficult, but reminds us we are not alone. We are never truly disconnected from anyone; we only perceive that we are.

Below are the steps you can use to keep your heart open during times of conflict with a loved one:

1. When you feel the familiar sting of emotional pain, acknowledge its presence.
2. Identity where you feel the pain in your body, and then take a deep breath in.
3. Breathe in the pain, deeply, visualizing it entering your heart.
4. Breathe out from your heart your blessings to everyone feeling as you are right now.
5. Allow any emotions to arise, and any physical reaction you might have to them, such as crying.
6. After several breaths, give thanks for yourself and the courage you showed in allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

As you work towards staying vulnerable and open, especially when you want to close yourself off and retreat from the world, be kind to yourself. It’s important not to judge yourself and your reactions, but to merely observe them. By practicing vulnerability in the face of emotional wounds, you are actually opening yourself up to feeling deeper levels of joy and love. This is ultimately the gift in our pain – it is the key that unlocks the hidden rooms deep in our hearts that have been empty and gathering dust, simply because we didn’t know they were there. Keeping yourself open to those who have hurt you will allow you to consciously inhabit your own heart.

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The challenge of moving forward

Curved country roadEven though we know that life is continuously moving us forward, our experience of time can be more that it is stagnant rather than fluid. Especially when we find ourselves in the same jobs, same relationships, same locations etc…the lack of change almost makes it seem like time stands still, until that day we look in the mirror at a face being reflected back to us which we no longer recognize. At some point, we encounter situations that force us to change and propel us in forward moving directions that we might not have pursued on our own. How can we harness the energy of the impending change in order to guide us into life’s next phase?

The first challenge is accepting that change brings with it uncertainty that is often uncomfortable. We place so much importance on the sensory information received by our five physical senses, that we forget to listen to the inner sixth sense about our lives. Because we are looking at our immediate surroundings, whether it be within the home, job or relationship, we fail to see beyond at what might be possible. Or when we do, we think of all the obstacles and pitfalls that await us. There is no mystery why we think this way – our minds have evolved to identify threats to ensure our survival. This has been of great benefit to us, but at a cost. The single hardest thing about embracing change is our fear of what is yet to come. That even if we try to get our dream job, either it won’t work out or we’ll show up and realize it wasn’t what we really wanted. It’s the classic choice between the devil you know, and the devil you don’t.

This is a challenge that reaps huge rewards if we accept it. If we can calm our nervous system enough from the fear of change, we might benefit from looking back at our individual histories and noting when uncertainty brought us the greatest treasures in our lives. Not knowing exactly what is to come is probably life’s greatest gift to us, for it allows anything to be possible beyond our wildest dreams.

When moving forward in any endeavor that brings with it uncertainty, it is helpful to connect to those core things about ourselves we can still be certain of. For instance, no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can be sure that we will always try to be kind to others. Or no matter how alone we feel living in a new town, we can be sure that we will get involved in the community and see what happens. In the midst of uncertainty, we can always be sure that we are worthy of love and belonging. These things, that do not change, are really all we need to feel grounded in life. Everything else that does change, just allows our wings to open so that we can take flight.

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Grit will get you through

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI write a lot about our thoughts and emotions and how they affect our health. I have written about embracing our dark side, about negative experiences, and how important it is to feel and release our emotions. The truth is, sometimes life is just a struggle and it’s hard enough to get through our day without keeping all these things in mind. The same is true for me as it is for all of you. Some of my most difficult times are when I feel overwhelmed with work obligations, or am suffering with a bad cold, or just feel down in the dumps for whatever reason. During those times, following my own helpful advice just doesn’t seem to work to help me feel balanced again, which just adds to my frustration. These are my “feel good” practices, but if it seems they aren’t working during these times, why continue them?

I continue them because that’s just what I do. Sometimes, it’s not about feeling good. It’s about feeling grit.

Grit is the quality of sticking with something uncomfortable in order to get where we are going. It’s not the pretty, photoshopped quotes and phrases out there (which do have their place at times). It can often feel like no matter what we do, we aren’t making progress, but this is not the reality. The reality is that when you stick to anything that means anything to you, you are always moving forward. No matter what. Even when today’s scenery hasn’t changed from yesterday.

Grit has been shown in studies to be a better predictor of success when compared to IQ, attractiveness, upbringing and talent. It can reliably predict which kids will graduate from inner city schools to which adults will be successful in their chosen careers. It stands alone in studies as one of the most important (if not the most important) quality to cultivate to achieve success in our desired goals. If you want to reach your goal weight in one year? It’s going to take grit. If you want to work your way up the professional ladder? It’s going to take grit. If you want to maintain happy relationships? There’s grit again. Grit will get you through.

The next time you find yourself struggling with any goal, think about grit. Reflect on the times you have shown grit, and times when you haven’t. Although I am not aware of research regarding how to cultivate grit, it does seem that grittier individuals don’t believe in failure as a permanent state of being. They view it as a temporary learning experience, a condition necessary for growth. I believe that grit, like all habits, can be reinforced through practice. My coach training also tells me that keeping ourselves connected to our deep values and motivations can strengthen grit. The brain learns and adapts with our every action and thought, and cultivating grit is likely similar to cultivating gratitude. It’s not something you either feel or don’t – it’s something you choose to do.

As a self-discovery exercise, come up with a subjective “grit score” for yourself, where 1 is giving up on a task the instant it becomes difficult, and 10 is following through no matter how many times you feel like you have failed. Where would you rate yourself in general? Where would you rate yourself for specific goals you have set in your life? Whatever scores you come up with, ask yourself why the scores aren’t lower than they are. Why aren’t they higher?

If you like, you can also ask your friends and family who know you well what their honest impression of your grittiness is. Often, others have a more accurate view of our behavior than we do. How does their score compare with yours?

Once you feel like you know where you fall on the gritty spectrum, spend a few minutes in the following meditation:

Take three deep breaths. Visualize yourself struggling with some task that has become monotonous, a task at which you have failed before. How do you feel? Where in your body do you feel it? Visualize yourself persisting in the task despite your feelings of discouragement or failure. Notice how your tenacity feels in your body. Breathe deeply, allowing that feeling to travel on your breath deep into your chest and down into your toes. Visualize yourself committing to the task, despite obstacles setting you back. Accept the experience without judgement. See yourself clearly as you are right now, persisting. Become comfortable with how this feels. It may not feel “good”, but slowly find yourself easing into your commitment to see the task through. Take three deep breaths.

If you are interested in cultivating grit, I believe this meditation is an excellent way to prepare your brain for your practice. Like with any visualization practice, neuronal connections are being formed that lay the foundation for your actions. You will be more likely to persevere by visualizing yourself persevere.

Be gritty about practicing grit. It’s the best tool you could have on your road to success.

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Why I stand at work (and have a bigger butt because of it)

file9271337413144Being a pathologist in private practice means a lot of long days at the microscope. Most of us have jobs that require prolonged sitting, and that takes a toll on our bodies. I’m not just talking about our waistlines, but the effects of prolonged sitting are so detrimental, that it can result in excessive lumbar curvature (lordosis), low back and hip pain, and gluteal atrophy.

Yes, you heard me right. Gluteal atrophy, or as I like to call it, vanishing butt syndrome. Unless you have a Kim Kardashian butt, my guess is you don’t want to lose whatever nice curves you’ve got back there. But if you are sitting down for hours at a time every day, most likely some of your butt cells are starting to wither away. And if there is one thing I know well, it’s cells. (You thought I was going to say butts, didn’t you?)

Not only does your butt slowly atrophy from prolonged sitting, but other muscles are affected too. The mechanism by which this occurs is pretty well known in exercise science. Prolonged sitting causes a tightening of your hip flexors, which in turn anteriorly rotates your pelvis causing the low back to curve unnaturally. This position of the pelvis also results in the hamstrings being lengthened, which by autonomic inhibition, results in decreased firing of the nerves to the muscle fibers to prevent injury. Basically, your whole lower body becomes unbalanced. If you have ever done leg extensions and hamstring curls in the gym, you’ll notice quite a difference in how strong the front and back of your legs are as a result of prolonged sitting and muscle imbalance.

In the sitting position, your gluteal muscles are completely inactive. Muscular inactivity has a whole host of negative effects, from the obvious atrophy and cosmetic appearance, to metabolic derangements that lead to a high likelihood of developing chronic illness. Combine prolonged sitting with the typical work stress most of us face, and sitting becomes downright dangerous to our health.

So what is the solution? Luckily, there are several. The one I adopted, and which I would recommend, is to create a standing workstation. While there are companies that manufacture specialized standing workstations (as well as treadmill desks), it might be difficult to get this approved by your boss. I ended up buying fifteen dollar wooden shoe racks that I assembled myself, and placed these on top of my already existing desk to create a comfortable workspace.

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If that doesn’t seem plausible in your situation, then just make sure you are getting up and walking around frequently, at least every hour. You want to activate those glutes, get your blood flowing, and break up the monotony of prolonged sitting. Better yet, run some stairs, do some pushups or get a round of squats in. The more movement you incorporate on an hourly basis, the better. Studies show that even regular exercise in off-work hours is still not enough to counteract the effects of prolonged sitting.

Butt health is an extremely important topic. If there is one muscle group you want to keep firm and strong throughout your life, focus on your derriere. Your return on investment will not only ensure you never fall prey to vanishing butt syndrome, but that you also enjoy better health overall.

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How the most radical change of your life can be as quiet as a whisper

file0001363797321When you think about making changes in your life, what do you think of? Is it a flash forward to yourself twenty pounds thinner, or twenty grand richer? Do you picture yourself living on the beach, maybe with a new partner, or finally living the dream you long ago laid to rest?

Often, when we imagine great changes in our lives that reflect our deepest values and dreams, images like those above are conjured in our minds. We generally think of how the situations around us would be different, even seeing the future “us” as an entirely different person from who we are now. Living the life of our dreams can seem so out of reach from this perspective. Not only that, when we do make attempts to get ‘there”, we often experience setbacks and failures, further discouraging us so that we stay stuck where we are, as we are, with feelings of general discontent. It is an ongoing challenge to balance wanting to make positive changes for a better future, while also appreciating what life brings us in each moment.

Detailed visions are very important to construct because it helps our neurons fire and wire together in ways that help us change. I like to consider these visions as “sensory visions”; I encourage my clients to use their five senses when describing their vision to begin laying down new neuronal circuitry that will facilitate change. This is an important step because it prepares the brain for what comes next…which is essentially a series of incredibly small changes that my clients never really factored into their grand vision in the first place. It is not unusual during the coaching process for these small changes to take a client by surprise, especially when they occur after a client thinks he or she has “failed” at some task. I love when that happens. As is the case in life, when we don’t get what we asked for, we often get something better.

For example, by working toward a healthy weight for your body, you find you have somehow developed the deep capacity to love yourself unconditionally. By committing to a daily 30 minute walk, you renew your connection with the natural world and express gratitude for its beauty. Or by deciding to improve communications with your partner regarding your health efforts, you infuse your relationship with vitality that it hasn’t seen since you first got together.

Sometimes, the changes that have the most radical impact on our lives are like gentle whispers in our ear. We make an almost imperceptible shift in our behavior, that is in line with our higher values, and see the effects echoing loudly in other areas of our lives. While the coaching process is about setting and attaining realistic goals, the biggest growth occurs when we realize important things about ourselves we were previously unaware of. These are the little insights, the “Aha!” moments, that connect us deeply to ourselves and each other. Our vision is a dream, that we can only work toward by becoming awake.

Dream your wildest vision for yourself, and then when you are done, wake up to the life you have. Wake up to who you are. Commit to small changes you can stick with, as if you were listening to a lover whisper in your ear. I promise you, these whispers will change your life.

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Why your cards are stacked against feeling good (and how to reshuffle the deck)

file0001393493040In my previous post, “Is it natural to be negative“, I introduced you to the concept that the mind is primed toward a negative reality as a survival advantage to us. Basically, we can’t slow down and smell the roses if we are dead. So the ability of our minds to predict, identify and warn us of threats, even those that aren’t real, is an evolutionary advantage despite coming at what is supposed to be a short-term cost. The cards are stacked against noticing the pleasant in favor of the threat.

The problem with this mechanism today is that we are much more likely to act based upon our fears, than on love. In particular, our perception of suffering or loss is more strongly motivating than our perception of joy or gain. Studies show that when it comes to losing money, we view the loss of a certain sum as 2.5 times greater than if we gained that exact sum. Other studies have shown that when it comes to relationships, counteracting a single negative interaction with a person requires an average of five positive interactions following it. No wonder it stings so much when we find we overspent for some product, or feel let down by a loved one. We might even rationalize that the situation isn’t as bad as we think, yet we still feel the way we feel.

Said another way, comparable negative and positive experiences don’t carry the same weight in our minds. This means we suffer far more than what it seems we logically should. Not only do we not attribute the same degree of meaning to positive experiences as we do to negative ones, but we also are less likely to even notice the positive experiences happening in our every day lives. Even though we have evolved reward mechanisms to prompt us towards positive situations that also enhance survival (the flood of dopamine when we bite into a sweet apple, for example), our minds view the need to identify, and avoid, negative threats as more important. Basically, we notice negative experiences more frequently than positive ones, and negative experiences carry more weight than positive ones do. The end result is a stressed out, unhappy, unfulfilling life that leads to disease of the mind and body until the sweet release of death.

Okay, that is probably too dramatic, but it is certainly how some people feel. And it is how many live their lives, whether they realize it or not. But where do we go from here, knowing this information about how our minds work? How can we use it to our advantage?

It takes practice, but it is possible to gradually shift your reality from a negative to a positive one. The first step is cultivating mindfulness. This means paying attention in a non-judgmental manner to what is happening around you. You know that you will automatically seek out the negative during your day, because this is what your mind is skilled at. By being mindful, you will also notice more positive, providing a balance. When you do encounter an experience in your day you would call positive, focus on it! The second step is to express gratitude in that moment, whether it is for the first snow of the season, a tasty and healthy lunch, or catching up with an old friend. By experiencing the good mindfully, you experience the good more. This will help offset the natural negative tendencies of your mind. Need a reminder to feel grateful? Then try setting one! Leave yourself post-it notes, or set an alarm on your phone that will prompt you to take a few minutes out of your day to be appreciative.

A third step is to come up with a list of activities you enjoy, and rate them on a scale of 1-10 in terms of how fun they are. The number is the “fun quotient” for each activity. Since it’s easier to feel grateful when we are enjoying ourselves, pick at least three days this next week to do something that has a fun quotient of 7 or higher. (Be careful that you aren’t picking “numbing” behaviors, as explained here.) Engaging in an activity you enjoy will help calm the threat sensors in your brain, allowing your viewpoint to shift, even if just for a few minutes or hours.

Knowing that negative experiences carry more weight in your mind, you have your work cut out for you. For every one thing that disappoints you, you might have to find four or five things that you feel grateful for. You might even have to have fun more often! But if you start, from today, with just noticing one more positive experience and really feeling it, you will be well on your way to changing your reality. Ultimately, your reality is a subjective experience, as is mine. So why not design it so that each day is filled with hope, love and blessings? I can assure you that you will never lose the survival mechanisms that have so successfully gotten us where we are today. But you will make the switch from surviving life, to truly living it.

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