The Addiction No One Is Thinking About

columboWhen I was younger, one of my favorite activities was simply to think.

I remember laying on my back, on the floor in my room and gazing out the window, just thinking. I would think about my friends, about school, about books I had read…really anything. I imagined future scenarios, and reminisced about past ones. Lost in daydreams, I never would have thought that I was fostering an addiction.

I was a thinking addict.

Most of us are, in fact, addicted to our thoughts. Indeed, this is not an accident, but rather a result of neurological efficiency. Each thought, just like every action we take, corresponds to neurologic activity in our brains. And if there is one thing our brains are especially good at, it’s being efficient. This is ultimately the process of learning, although it may sound strange for me to tell you that you actually had to learn to think. But you did. What you learned to think about as a child and young adult is largely driving your thoughts today. Spend just five minutes observing your mind at work to find out for yourself. It’s an illuminating experience to catch our thoughts, and a forever life-changing one to start noticing our inner dialogue.

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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.

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.

Emotional release to prevent physical disease

file0001008296057When babies cry, they put everything they’ve got into it. They wail and moan, the shed huge alligator tears and it doesn’t matter what the situational context might be. They don’t care who hears them. They don’t care what they sound like or what their crying face looks like. When things aren’t right, they cry and hold nothing back.

The same thing is true when they laugh. We all know those contagious deep belly laughs babies are capable of. Babies never lower their heads when they laugh, or move to cover their mouths. They laugh with gusto, often squealing with delight.

What is it that occurs during the normal course of growing up, that so many of us start to hold back? As adults, it’s often rare to see each other sob with grief, unless it’s with a few close friends after a catastrophic event. I’m sure most of us have experienced embarrassment, not to mention tightening of our throats, when our efforts to stifle tears failed. We are more likely to laugh with each other than to cry, but again, where is the completely unabashed squeal of delight and deep guttural laughter? There are those of us who restrain ourselves in public places for fear of offending the ears of our one-eyebrow-raised disapproving neighbor. So many of us are self-conscious about expressing these very human emotions. This is unfortunate, because weeping and laughing offer important emotional releases that as adults, we must continue to experience if we want to experience optimal physical health.

Our emotions are an important link between our psychological selves and our physical selves. The paradigm for understanding physical illness is changing, and we now know that our emotional health (of which a big part is emotional expression) is closely linked to the physical illnesses we may tend towards. Gone are the days when you were doomed to get a disease because it was “in your genes”. Now, more than our genetic susceptibility to disease, understanding our emotional susceptibility to disease may provide the most life-changing information.

What does emotional susceptibility to disease mean? This means that when unhealthy emotional patterns are continually reinforced as we age, we began to effect physical alterations in the actual tissues of our bodies. These changes accumulate if we do not address the emotional cause, until a critical threshold is reached and a “disease” can develop. Emotions are well known to create physical change in the body, such as a the rise in heartbeat before speaking before a group of people, or the relaxation of our muscles when we are held by a loved one. There is no question that each one of us has felt the physical manifestations of our emotions; indeed, it is often how we identify the emotion being felt. What has been less well understood, is how chronic emotional patterns affect tissues over time, especially when those patterns become dysfunctional.

It is not a far stretch to suggest that different emotions can be felt in different parts of the body. We can feel anxiety in the gut, love or heartache in the chest, and rage in our head and neck. The more we feel certain emotions, the more our nervous system efficiently communicates to our cells how to behave. This process is all normal and part of the intimate interaction between our tissues and our feelings. The problem arises when we reinforce dysfunctional pathways between our emotions and our cells. For instance, if someone has been mistreated by another in the past, and felt anger at that mistreatment, the body will have actively changed to accommodate the anger. There will have been a tensing of muscles, a spike in heart rate, maybe even dilation of the pupils. If this emotion is not dealt with when it occurs, then each time this memory even flirts with the conscious mind, the body will react in the same way. And the more the body becomes used to reacting to certain emotions, the more “muscle memory” is developed, making it easier to react in similar ways in the future. It therefore becomes absolutely necessary to the health of the physical body (as well as the mental, spiritual and emotional body) to process the anger, learn whatever lesson there may be to learn in the broader context of life, and then move on. This will prevent a dysfunctional pattern from settling in.

Strong negative emotions are likely the ones that may be the hardest to release, but the most necessary to do so. Becoming comfortable with emotional expression requires a state of mind free from judgement, so that a full release is possible in whatever way feels natural. Releasing negative emotions is not the same as ignoring their existence; rather, it is a full respect and acknowledgement of them, allowing the emotion to take its course. These emotions need to be felt when they arise. Negative emotions themselves are not dysfunctional; it is the reinforcing of them at later times that creates the dysfunctional pattern. If they can be fully felt, processed and then released, there is less of a chance that the intensity of that emotion will continue to play out in the tissues.

As for positive emotions, in general, their effects are favorable on tissues so the idea here would be to feel them as much as possible. This doesn’t necessarily imply that their frequency should increase, although many of us would benefit from more positive emotional experiences. But we must be in a state of mindfulness to extract the richness from the moment to get the full benefit. In an era where multi-tasking and information overload has lead to an ADD culture, this can be difficult. If we can stay present and open our hearts fully to the experience, we can know a far greater degree of satisfaction than we have known up till now. Imagine that everything that gives you joy right now could be magnified ten-fold, just by paying closer attention. It is certainly worth it to put down our camera phones when we encounter something exciting we want to remember, and to fully immerse ourselves in that experience, as this is the only way we can absorb it fully.

Even though I use the words “negative” and “positive” to describe emotions, truly no emotion itself is negative or positive. It merely is. It is a movement of energy through us, enriching our lives and allowing our soul to communicate to us in a conscious manner. So the next time you feel the urge to cry, go ahead and open your throat, open your heart, and cry. Give it everything you have, and wail like you have never wailed before. And when you want to laugh at something silly, laugh your hardest, all the way down into your toes. Grab your belly, slap your knee, and laugh until cry. Allowing yourself to feel and express your emotions physically gives others permission to do so as well. And we could all benefit from a little more emotional freedom.

Is it natural to be negative?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving a negative mindset is something those of us committed to our well-being struggle to change. We have come to understand that “being negative” is not healthy, and yet we find ourselves in situations in which negative thoughts and feelings arise quite frequently. Some of us even take our negative feelings to be the source of disease and illness in our lives, and feel even more pressure to be positive. We try to muscle that negativity into something positive, to perpetually identify the silver lining, to the point that we sometimes feel like we are at war with ourselves.

It’s not natural to feel positive all the time. Negative thoughts and feelings are just as much a part of our experience as positive ones. And in fact, our conscious minds are primed to be slightly negative. Evolutionarily, being primed toward the negative meant that we could quickly identify dangers that threatened our survival. Thinking through all the bad things that can happen in a circumstance allows us to be prepared and potentially avoid them. The problem is, while this is a mechanism that was selected for because it enhanced survival, this mechanism was never meant to be activated as often as it is in modern times. Our perspective regarding threats has changed drastically, from infrequent, intermittent threats to near constant threats (as has our situational context for dealing with those threats, as I will discuss in a later post). Our perspective determines how negatively we assess a situation. Our predisposition determines our perspective. And ultimately, while a negative predisposition does lead to a heightened level of awareness that is more likely to identify a threat to our survival, it does have the potential to lead us down the path of disease, and to leave us unfulfilled.

The issue is not to force negative thoughts and feelings into being positive. Those of us who have tried this know how hard that actually can be. Telling yourself you should see the bright side of a dark situation is like expecting the sun to rise in the middle of the night. The negative thoughts and feelings need to be included in our overall experience, and embraced for what they are. They exist as a signal to us to pay attention, not to change them. It is our nonjudgmental awareness, not our forced positivity, that illuminates those negative states and allows them to become incorporated into our overall experience. And that truly is the only way to process those thoughts and feelings so that we can continue to make progress in our lives. Being stuck in a negative thought cycle is no different than being stuck in a false positive tornado. They both can be turbulent experiences that inhibit our growth.

The next time you feel or think something “negative”, become aware of your reaction. Are you embracing it, as a part of your life experience? Are you listening for any intuitive messages that are hidden underneath? Or do you get carried away toward being miserable, only to attempt to swim upstream back towards being happy? Both actions are exhausting. Let your awareness, which is neither negative or positive, be your safe haven. It will illuminate your darkest moments, and intensify your greatest joys.

When change is hard

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAEven though we may have a broad goal like losing weight, being healthier, living happier etc, we are in different phases of change and acceptance for the sub-components that make up those goals. For instance, losing weight requires changes in several different areas, from what we eat, to how we work out, to how much sleep we are getting and what our stress is like at work. It might be impacted by things like social situations and alcohol, or binge eating. We may accept that some of these areas will require change more readily than others; and yet, in certain areas we are still very resistant to change. Sometimes the biggest challenge is not in powering through those areas we feel resistant about, but rather learning how to acknowledge, accept and empathize with the resistance as a part of our current experience.

Most of our dissatisfaction with our current situation arises from comparing where we are in the present moment to where we were in the past, or where we want to be in the future. This is a natural way of thinking for the mind. It sacrifices present moment awareness in order to re-evaluate the past, or try and predict the future. The thing is, there is no such thing as the past or future. These are just linear constructs we use to understand the relevance of our current position in space and time. But while our current situation in some ways depended on our past to get us here, in actuality, it was just millions of tiny present moments strung together. The only thing that got you to where you are now, is where you are now. The only thing getting you to where you want to go, is where you are now. The only “you” that ever has been in existence, is the you that exists in the present moment.

Learning to accept our entire experience for where we are in the present moment, as it relates to larger goals we have set for ourselves, is the biggest challenge. Its easy to set a lofty outcome goal, and then fail because we don’t understand the process to get there. It’s even easier to fail when we don’t allow for resistance or ambivalence as a natural part of the process. When you feel a part of yourself push back against a change you want to make, gently observe with empathy and love. Understand that the resistance is related to underlying feelings and needs that are begging to be addressed. Start exploring the deeper issues without needing any particular outcome of the exploration. What you learn might be the exact missing link you needed to taking that giant leap forward towards your goals.

The real purpose of insecurity

When we feel insecure, it seems like we have to change that thing we are insecure about. It might be our weight, our skin, overall appearance or other attributes. The thing is, an insecure feeling is a pretty significant feeling that can arise rapidly in a single moment especially when associated with a well established trigger. The changes that we think we need to make in order to feel secure again cannot be made in a single moment, which means that our insecurity has the potential to fully overwhelm us and fill us with anxiety, that no motivation to change can compete with. Feelings of insecurity, therefore, do not exist in order to alert us to fix the insecurity, but rather as challenges to us to fully embrace and accept the insecurity itself. By acknowledging the insecurity first, and then allowing it to exist with full acceptance, we manifest true courage to be our authentic selves.

Use those feelings of insecurity as a tool to become more mindful. As soon as you are able to become conscious after being hit with a wave of insecurity, ask what the deeper message is of that insecurity. Allow it to simply be, and recognize that it comes from a part of yourself that is calling out for love. Learn to sit with it, holding its hand intimately until the feeling relaxes. Slowly, you will become a healing balm not only to yourself, but to everyone around you.

I am not insecure so that I change anything about myself, I am insecure so that I learn to embrace it.

Insecurity is like the darkness, and acceptance is like the light. There is no way that the darkness can persist when the light is brought in.

How to be who you are

The big secret is that you don’t have to do anything. There is no list of prerequisites to accomplish, before which you can truly be who you are. The image you have of yourself sometime in the future when you finally lose the weight, graduate, get married, get divorced, have the baby, send the youngest off to college [insert whatever else here] is not actually who you really are. That person doesn’t even exist. They are most likely a character in the novel of your own mind, that you keep rooting for because you know their whole story and you know it must end happily at some point, right? But the thing is, you can’t ever get to the place of being who you truly are if you aren’t being who you are in this very moment. And the whole process beings with recognizing that in this moment, you are enough, as you are, perceived imperfections and all. That’s who you are. Not a person who has it all together at some point in the future, but the person who can embrace themselves in the current moment with compassion and understanding.

The only way to be who you are, is to turn off any expectation of yourself that prevents you from loving the current you. This is the only way to melt into the moment, to expand your soul a little bit, like swollen feet that finally get to relax after being crammed in tight shoes all night. Release those expectations, and what you will find is that there is some aspect of yourself right now that is the expression of everything you wish yourself to be. It could be your sense of humor, your faith in God, your relationships, or anything else. But there is something within you right now that feels like the truest part of yourself, its the part of yourself that you could recognize in the dark if you had to.

Who you truly are is who you are right now. If you don’t like who you are right now, then dig deeper a few layers to what lies underneath. Connect to that inner self hidden away. Allow this part of you to breathe easily, knowing that it is seen. When you can become comfortable in this place, you will find that the only barrier to being who you are, is not taking the time to realize who you have always been.