How to survive an adolescent, Act 1.
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How to survive an adolescent, Act 1.

“You just don’t get it! You’re so cruel! Why did you even have children if you can’t be a parent?! All my other friends parents would let them go [to the party]!”
My 13 year old daughter screams as she slams the door to her unkempt room, the house fills with the now all too familiar noxious yellow gas of parental defeat and crushed teenage dreams. In that moment, I hate being a parent, I hate adolescents, a heady blend of impotent rage and self pity mockingly swirl around my deactivated therapeutic skills. All those books I’ve read on consistent, attuned parenting are burning gloriously in the middle of my mind, where my daughter’s judgement smugly warms it’s hands. It’s different when it’s my child, I grumble to no one.
“You ungrateful little shit!” I scream at the impassive door, it takes every iota of self control to not go into her room and throw all of these toxic emotions at her in an effort to reclaim some sense of ego equilibrium, but I know that it’ll just make me feel worse, that I’ll bully her into submission and with that will come guilt, for which I’ll apologize thereby rendering any attempt at boundary setting totally ineffectual. So I try and suck it up, shaking with anger, I shout at the dog, collateral damage.

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How memory works.
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How memory works.

In today’s excerpt – from “Making Connections” by Anthony J. Greene. How memory works:

“Many people wish their memory worked like a video recording. How handy would that be? Finding your car keys would simply be a matter of zipping back to the last time you had them and hitting ‘play.’ You would never miss an appointment or forget to pay a bill. You would remember everyone’s birthday. You would ace every exam. Or so you might think. In fact, a memory like that would snare mostly useless data and mix them willy-nilly with the information you really needed. It would not let you prioritize or create the links between events that give them meaning. For the very few people who have true photographic recall — eidetic memory, in the parlance of the field — it is more burden than blessing.

“For most of us, memory is not like a video recording — or a notebook, a photograph, a hard drive or any of the other common storage devices to which it has been compared. It is much more like a web of connections between people and things. Indeed, recent research has shown that some people who lose their memory also lose the ability to connect things to each other in their mind. And it is the connections that let us understand cause and effect, learn from our mistakes and anticipate the future. …

“Learning and memory are not sequestered in their own storage banks, but are distributed across the entire cerebral cortex. … The significance of these findings is profound. It means that memory is dispersed, forming in the regions of the brain responsible for language, vision, hearing, emotion and other functions. It means that learning and memory arise from changes in neurons as they connect to and communicate with other neurons. And it means that a small reminder can reactivate a network of neurons wired together in the course of registering an event, allowing you to experience the event anew. Remembering is reliving. …
“The hippocampus [is] an essential mediator in [connecting neurons]. In a very small brain, every neuron might be connected to every other neuron. But a human brain that worked on this model would require that each of hundreds of billions of neurons be linked to every other neuron, an impossibly unwieldy configuration. The hippocampus solves this problem by serving as a kind of neural switchboard, connecting the distant cortical regions for language, vision and other abilities as synaptic networks take shape and create memories.

“[People with hippocampus damage] appear to have impairments that go well beyond the loss of memory creation. They also have severe difficulty imagining future events, living instead in a fragmented, disconnected reality. Recent studies show that imagining the future involves brain processes similar to, but distinct from, those involved in conjuring the past. We also tend to remember the people and events that resonate emotionally, which is why forgetting an anniversary is such an offense: it is fair evidence that the date is not as important as the ones we do remember. The discovery that memory is all about connections has revolutionary implications for education. It means that memory is integral to thought and that nothing we learn can stand in isolation; we sustain new learning only to the degree we can relate it to what we already know. …

“The connections across the brain also help us conceive the future, as recent imaging studies have shown. Functional magnetic resonance imaging … shows that a mosaic of brain areas similar to those involved in memory is active when participants imagine details of hypothetical or prospective events. …

“[This] can sometimes cause us problems by altering our memories instead of augmenting them. … Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus [has shown] how easy it is to create false memories of past events. In one study, participants watched a film of a car accident. Researchers asked some subjects how fast they thought the cars were going when they ‘smashed into’ each other and asked other subjects how fast the cars were going when they ‘hit’ each other. The subjects, who heard the word ‘smashed’ gave significantly higher estimates of the speed. In other experiments, subjects were fed incorrect information about an accident after watching the film; they might, for instance, be asked repeatedly whether a traffic light had turned yellow before the collision when in fact the light was green. Many then remembered a yellow light that never existed, which is why eyewitness testimony after police interrogation can be so unreliable.”

“Making Connections”
Author: Anthony J. Greene
Publisher: Scientific American Mind
July/August 2010
Pages: 22-29

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The Demon Ship.
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The Demon Ship.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you are on a boat, I like to imagine something out of Mutiny on the Bounty. Your standing at the tiller in the middle of the ocean. Below decks are the most awfully terrifying demons, dementors and furies. They are made of your greatest fears. You have made a deal to placate them, to keep them below decks…the deal is that in order for them not to rend you limb from limb with their powerful jaws and sharp fangs, you have to drift aimlessly on this ocean, alone, forever.
Thing is that after a couple of months of this ‘drifting’, you’re becoming hungry, deep in your soul, you know there is more to life, that in order to evolve and live with meaning and purpose, you will need a clear direction.
As your hands grip the tiller, the demons are immediately present, howling all manner of horrors into your face, “you’re going to fail”, “no one will love you”, “you’re fat…too old! “, “pathetic!” On and on they howl until eventually you concede to the fears, convinced of their truth. And you continue to drift, to starve yourself of the nourishment you so desperately need.
Months pass, you become spiritually emaciated and intellectually stagnant, your moods darken and your heart grows weary. Slowly the realization dawns that unless you are going to make a concerted effort to plot a course and move towards something that will really enrich your quality of life, you will suffer a pale death, drifting aimlessly until your final breath.
Courageously you set course, determined to get out of your comfort zone, to apply for that new job or move towards a new relationship, to move actively towards change. On cue, the demons return, knowing that you are fueled by courage, they redouble their efforts to pull you off course, they fling shame, humiliation and despair into your eyes, but this time you white knuckle through their barrage. As you continue heading in a purposeful direction, you begin to notice that the demons are made of smoke and mirrors, old stories about yourself, ancient, worn fears whose teeth are worn smooth by the knashing of a weary mind. They become more and more insubstantial with each passing mile as you approach a new shore. Slowly as their volume fades, you become aware of the warmth of the sun on your face, the other ships in close proximity, you notice you are no longer white knuckling and are actually beginning to enjoy your journey…

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Is there anybody out there?
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Is there anybody out there?

I read a fascinating article the other day about a psychologist called Douglas Vakoch who is the Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). What a fascinating and rather odd job title.
Douglas has the difficult task of responding if beings from another planet sent a message to us through deep space…Think about that for a moment, how would one man respond to an interstellar collect call for seven billion humans?

Most often messages to extraterrestrial audiences have focused on human strengths. Take the Voyager spacecraft’s interstellar message – in over 100 pictures of life on Earth, with an emphasis on human presence, there were no depictions of war, poverty or disease.
Why not? Who determined what humanities ‘best side’ was? But perhaps it is precisely an emphasis on our vulnerabilities that may be of the most interest to extraterrestrials. No matter how narcissistic Humans are, we most certainly will not be the most intelligent beings in the galaxy, if we make contact. Humans have only had the capacity to communicate with radio for less than a century – a blip in the 13-billion-year history of our galaxy.

Perhaps it is not the beauty of our symphonies that will set us apart from extraterrestrials, nor our moral perfection – living true to our ideals of altruism.
If we wish to convey what it is about us that is distinctive, it may be our weakness…our fears…our unknowing – and yet a willingness to forge ahead to attempt contact in spite of this that truly reflects our unique contribution to a much greater whole.

The article got me thinking about the space that exists between people here on Earth. How every individual could be seen as Earth, separated from others by what can sometimes feel like infinite space. Struggling to communicate, or understand, believing that we are always essentially alone and unknown.
I see so many lonely people in therapy, good, caring, aware souls who truly believe there is no one out there that will understand or accept them for who they really are.
As Humans, we appear to be so invested in categorizing each ‘other’ in order to make sense of our personal worlds (think race, class, gender etc), that we think we’ve got the ‘other’ all figured out. We roll out our ‘best selves’ with a marching band (much like the images of Humanity carried by Voyager), showing our ‘shiny parts’ not only to others but also to ourselves in an effort to defend against our whole, beautiful, damaged selves being truly witnessed. Disconnected from other living beings through our resistance to sharing our vulnerabilities with one another we drift alone and unknown in a sea of possible connection.

Perhaps we will be the intelligent species that has the most exquisite balance of joy and sorrow of any civilisation in the Milky Way. And it is the fundamental facts of human existence such as these that might best be explained not only to other civilisations, but with great courage to each other in an effort to be truly seen and to finally realize that we are not alone.

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7 Ways to get people to like you.
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7 Ways to get people to like you.

I find that many of my patients really struggle to connect on an interpersonal level. There is little information out there about the basics that need to be in place for successful communication. So here is an article I found called “7 ways to make people like you”, courtesy of an FBI behavior expert. It’s a bit thin and poorly written in places but I learnt some interesting facts. Hope you enjoy.

Meeting new people can be awkward. What should you say? How can you make a good impression? How do you keep a conversation going?

Research shows relationships are vital to happiness and networking is the key to getting jobs and building a fulfilling career.

But what’s the best way to build rapport and create trust? Plain and simple, who can explain how to get people to like you?

Robin Dreeke can.

Robin was head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program and has studied interpersonal relations for over 27 years. He’s an expert on how to make people like you.

Robin is the author of the excellent book, It’s Not All About “Me”: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone.

The book covers the following topics.

1. The #1 secret to clicking with people.

2. How to put strangers at ease.

3. The thing you do that turns people off the most.

4. How to use body language like a pro.

5. Some great verbal jiu-jitsu to use on people who try to manipulate you.

And a lot more. Okay, let’s learn something.

1. The most important thing to do with anyone you meet.

Robin’s number one piece of advice: “Seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them.”

Ask questions. Listen. But don’t judge. Nobody — including you — likes to feel judged.

Here’s Robin:

The number one strategy I constantly keep in the forefront of my mind with everyone I talk to is non-judgmental validation. Seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them. People do not want to be judged in any thought or opinion that they have or in any action that they take.

It doesn’t mean you agree with someone. Validation is taking the time to understand what their needs, wants, dreams and aspirations are.

So what should you do when people start spouting crazy talk? Here’s Robin:

What I prefer to try to do is, as soon as I hear something that I don’t necessarily agree with or understand, instead of judging it my first reaction is, “Oh, that’s really fascinating. I never heard it in quite that way. Help me understand. How did you come up with that?”

You’re not judging, you’re showing interest. And that lets people calmly continue talking about their favorite subject: themselves.

Studies show people get more pleasure from talking about themselves than they do from food or money:

Talking about ourselves — whether in a personal conversation or through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter — triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money… [The Wall Street Journal]

(To learn how FBI hostage negotiators build rapport and trust, click here.)

So you’ve stopped being Judgy Judgerson and you’re happily validating. Oh, if it were only that easy… What’s the problem here? Your ego.

2. Suspend your ego to get people to like you.

Most of us are just dying to point out how other people are wrong. (Comment sections on the internet are fueled by this, aren’t they?)

And it kills rapport. Want to correct someone? Want to one-up them with your clever little story? Don’t do it.

Here’s Robin:

Ego suspension is putting your own needs, wants, and opinions aside. Consciously ignore your desire to be correct and to correct someone else. It’s not allowing yourself to get emotionally hijacked by a situation where you might not agree with someone’s thoughts, opinions, or actions.

Contradicting people doesn’t build relationships. Dale Carnegie said it many years ago — and modern neuroscience agrees.

When people hear things that contradict their beliefs, the logical part of their mind shuts down and their brain prepares to fight.

Via Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential:

So what happened in people’s brains when they saw information that contradicted their worldview in a charged political environment? As soon as they recognized the video clips as being in conflict with their worldview, the parts of the brain that handle reason and logic went dormant. And the parts of the brain that handle hostile attacks — the fight-or-flight response — lit up.

(For more on keeping a conversation fun, click here.)

So you’ve stopped trying to be clever. But how do you get a reputation as a great listener?

3. How to be a good listener.

We’ve all heard that listening skills are vital but nobody explains the right way to do it. What’s the secret?

Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next and focus on what they’re saying right now.

Be curious and ask to hear more about what interests you.

Here’s Robin:

Listening isn’t shutting up. Listening is having nothing to say. There’s a difference there. If you just shut up, it means you’re still thinking about what you wanted to say. You’re just not saying it. The second that I think about my response, I’m half listening to what you’re saying because I’m really waiting for the opportunity to tell you my story.

What you do is this: as soon as you have that story or thought that you want to share, toss it. Consciously tell yourself, “I am not going to say it.”

All you should be doing is asking yourself, “What idea or thought that they mentioned do I find fascinating and want to explore?”

Research shows just asking people to tell you more makes you more likable and gets them to want to help you.

The basics of active listening are pretty straightforward:

1. Listen to what they say. Don’t interrupt, disagree or “evaluate.”

2. Nod your head, and make brief acknowledging comments like “yes” and “uh-huh.”

3. Without being awkward, repeat back the gist of what they just said, from their frame of reference.

4. Inquire. Ask questions that show you’ve been paying attention and that move the discussion forward.

(To learn the listening techniques of FBI hostage negotiators, click here.)

I know, I know — some people are just boring. You’re not that interested in what they’re saying. So what questions do you ask then, smart guy?

4. The best question to ask people.

Life can be tough for everyone: rich or poor, old or young. Everyone.

We all face challenges and we like to talk about them. So that’s what to ask about.

Here’s Robin:

A great question I love is challenges. “What kind of challenges did you have at work this week? What kind of challenges do you have living in this part of the country? What kinds of challenges do you have raising teenagers?” Everyone has got challenges. It gets people to share what their priorities in life are at that point in time.

Questions are incredibly powerful. What’s one of the most potent ways to influence someone? Merely asking for advice.

Via Adam Grant’s excellent Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success:

Studies demonstrate that across the manufacturing, financial services, insurance, and pharmaceuticals industries, seeking advice is among the most effective ways to influence peers, superiors, and subordinates. Advice seeking tends to be significantly more persuasive than the taker’s preferred tactics of pressuring subordinates and ingratiating superiors. Advice seeking is also consistently more influential than the matcher’s default approach of trading favors.

Twisting your mustache thinking you can use this for nefarious purposes? Wrong, Snidely Whiplash. It only works when you’re sincere.

Via Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success:

In her research on advice seeking, Liljenquist finds that success “depends on the target perceiving it as a sincere and authentic gesture.” When she directly encouraged people to seek advice as an influence strategy, it fell flat.

(For a list of the questions that can create a strong bond in minutes, click here.)

But what if you have to approach someone cold? How do you get people who might not want to talk to you to willingly give you their attention?

5. How to make strangers feel at ease.

First thing: Tell them you only have a minute because you’re headed out the door.

Here’s Robin:

When people think you’re leaving soon, they relax. If you sit down next to someone at a bar and say, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” their shields go way up. It’s “Who are you, what do you want, and when are you leaving?” That “when are you leaving” is what you’ve got to answer in the first couple of seconds.

Research shows just asking people if now is a good time makes them more likely to comply with requests:

The results showed that compliance rates were higher when the requester inquired about respondents’ availability and waited for a response than when he pursued his set speech without waiting and inquiring about respondents’ availability.

Nobody wants to feel trapped talking to some weirdo. People are more likely to help you than you think, but they need to feel safe and in control.

(For more on how to make friends easily, click here.)

Even if you get all of the above right you can still come off like a shady used car salesman. And that fear stops you from meeting new awesome people.

Robin says one of the key reasons people come off as untrustworthy is because their words and their body language are misaligned. Let’s fix that.

6. The best body language for building rapport

You words should be positive, free of ego and judgment — and your body language (“non-verbals”) needs to match.

Here are the things Robin recommends:

1. “The number one thing is you’ve gotta smile. You absolutely have to smile. A smile is a great way to engender trust.”

2. “Keep that chin angle down so it doesn’t appear like you’re looking down your nose at anyone. And if you can show a little bit of a head tilt, that’s always wonderful.”

3. “You don’t want to give a full frontal, full body display. That could be very offensive to someone. Give a little bit of an angle.”

4. “Keep your palms up as you’re talking, as opposed to palms down. That says, “I’m hearing what you’re saying. I’m open to what your ideas are.”

5. “So I always want to make sure that I’m showing good, open, comfortable non-verbals. I just try to use high eyebrow elevations. Basically, anything going up and elevating is very open and comforting. Anything that is compressing: lip compression, eyebrow compression, where you’re squishing down, that’s conveying stress.”

Research backs him up. From Dale Carnegie to peer-reviewed studies, everyone says smiles matter. (In fact, to increase their power, smile slower.)

It makes us happier too. Neuroscience research shows smiling gives the brain as much pleasure as 2000 bars of chocolate — or $25,000.

Via Smile: The Astonishing Powers of a Simple Act:

Depending on whose smile you see, the researchers found that one smile can be as pleasurable and stimulating as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate! …it took up to 16,000 pounds sterling in cash to generate the same level of brain stimulation as one smile! This is equivalent to about $25,000 per smile…

(To learn how to decode body language and read people like a book, click here.)

So now you come off as the pleasant person you are, not as a scheming taker. But what do you do when the other person is a scheming taker?

7. How to deal with someone you don’t trust.

The name of my blog is not “Helpful Tools For Sociopaths.” I’m not trying to teach you to manipulate others.

But what should do you do when you feel someone is using these methods to try and manipulate you?

Don’t be hostile but be direct: ask them what they want. What are their goals in this interaction?

Here’s Robin:

The first thing I try to do is clarify goals. I’ll stop and say, “You’re throwing a lot of good words at me. Obviously you’re very skilled at what you’re doing. But what I’m really curious about… What’s your goal? What are you trying to achieve? I’m here with my goals, but obviously you have to achieve your goals. So if you can just tell me what your objectives are, we can start from there and see if we can mutually take care of them. If not, that’s fine too.”

I watch for validation. If someone is trying to validate me and my thoughts and opinions, I am alert to it. I love doing that as well. So now I’m looking for intent. Are you there for me or are you there for you? If you are there strictly for your own gain and you’re not talking in terms of my priorities ever, that’s when I’m seeing someone is there to manipulate me.

Want to build a connection with someone? Focus on trust, not tricks. That’s how you earn respect. Trust is fragile. And mistrust is self-fulfilling.

When you ask people what the most important character trait is, what do they say? Trustworthiness.

Participants in three studies considered various characteristics for ideal members of interdependent groups (e.g., work teams, athletic teams) and relationships (e.g., family members, employees). Across different measures of trait importance and different groups and relationships, trustworthiness was considered extremely important for all interdependent others…

(To learn how to detect lies, click here.)

That’s a lot more to digest than “Just be yourself” but far more effective. Let’s round it up and make it something you can start using today.

Sum up

Here are Robin’s tips:

1. The single most important thing is non-judgmental validation. Seek someone else’s thoughts and opinions without judging them.

2. Suspend your ego. Focus on them.

3. Really listen, don’t just wait to talk. Ask them questions; don’t try to come up with stories to impress.

4. Ask people about what’s been challenging them.

5. Establishing a time constraint early in the conversation can put strangers at ease.

6. Smile, chin down, blade your body, palms up, open and upward non-verbals.

7. If you think someone is trying to manipulate you, clarify goals. Don’t be hostile or aggressive, but ask them to be straight about what they want.

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Learning to Ride the Stallion
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Learning to Ride the Stallion

The thing about those we love, is that at times, they can really piss us off. I’m not sure whether Mercury is in retrograde yet again, but my ability to communicate appears to have curdled somewhat. I feel misunderstood, my irritability is high and my tolerance low.

I’ve been here at different times in my life. This week though, was unique because it actually felt as if I was having two distinct experiences: one, the experience of the Jamie who has spent the last thirteen years tuning my empathy and sensitivity as a therapist, father and partner and developing tools to remain centered in a place of self-love and innate goodness; and the second from the perspective of my ego, which is, apparently, still most comfortable dealing with these situations much the way I did when I was five — like a little boy who takes his toys and storms out of the sandbox when he doesn’t get his way. What resulted was an internal sensation that felt a bit like having my large intestine pulled apart in a giant tug of war.

The Buddhist nun Ani Pema Chödrön has a quote about moments like these. It goes like this: Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves,

“Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?”

My ego, as egos are programmed to do, chose to answer that question with a resounding cry of WAR! The experience was really no different from the many times I’ve confronted similar experiences, which I’m sure is similar to the way your ego reacts too. I took one look at what had occurred between me and my partner and decided right then and there … on the spot … that it was insulting, disrespectful, and tantamount to a slap in the face. I stepped up on my soap box, pulled out my mental resume, and began to recite all of my exceptional emotional qualities of my nothing less than illustrious life that justified the deep indignation I was feeling. Before long my ego, like Mel Gibson’s character in Braveheart, had mounted its high horse and, with blue war paint smeared all over its face, prepared to ride off to do battle with someone I love.

The other voice — the one that sounds a bit more like Ani, the one I begin to listen to as my old way of coping with conflict lies dying in my arms, the voice that’s been honed by the compassion of my teachers, clients, children and partners, the one I’ve grown to trust through hours and hours of silent meditation, the one that always chooses peace — that voice leaned into my ego, gave it a knowing wink and a patient “I know … I know … shhh … it’s all going be okay …” The voice then took my ego, Mel Gibson, and me to the meditation cushion to, as Guru Singh likes to say, ” bolt your butt to the cushion and ride the stallion” — not to battle, but to peace.

There’s a tendency to believe (or perhaps hope) that meditation and yoga turn us into floating saints that never have bull-in-china-shop moments. But it’s not true, at least not in my experience. The truth, I’ve discovered, is a much more vulnerable and honest reality: that is, that we are all human. Inside we are all facing the same fears and insecurities. We all want to be loved, and valued … and we want to feel safe. When someone in the course of a negotiation — or during one of the many normal, everyday interactions we have with others — says or does something that threatens our sense of well-being, our egos pop out to defend us. This is a normal and natural response. In spiritual study and practice we aren’t learning how to turn off our emotions: that’s not real. Instead we’re learning the skills to be okay while we feel them. Meditation and yoga aren’t some magic potion that we take to make every situation perfect, they’re tools that help us to feel okay amidst the difficult situations that come up in life. We’re not learning how to eliminate the ego, just to keep it from destroying all the expensive china when it shows up. That’s why it’s riding the stallion. Because any true sense of well-being must be inclusive of all of life’s experiences, every thought, fear, insecurity, hope, and dream. The practice is to be okay with it all. We are learning to embrace life by riding the stallion, by feeling it all, and in the process we develop the skills of peace and calm so we can have them at our disposal when challenging situations arise.

For much of my life I lacked the skills to achieve what I said I wanted. I talked about ideals like fulfillment, happiness, peace, and love but I rarely practiced them. Instead my days were spent working hard, feeling exhausted and (often) wishing I was somewhere I wasn’t. Those activities became my habits … my routine, my practice, and I developed tools to support them. Soon it was all I knew how to do. When something arrived in life that required a little patience, serenity, or presence, I would turn to my toolbox but all I could find were tools of struggle, fighting, and wishing it wasn’t so. This is true for most of us: lacking the proper tools, we often make things worse for ourselves and others.

That day, as I sat on the meditation cushion listening to the two voices of my indignant ego and my compassionate heart, I experienced something different. I opened my toolbox and looked inside to see what might help. I began with a series of deep, controlled breaths to calm the sensations of fight or flight I was experiencing and open the door for a third option — patience. When the physical sensations had calmed a bit, I grabbed a new tool and began a loving-kindness meditation. First for myself:

May I be loved, may I be safe, may I be understood.

After a few minutes of self-soothing words, I shared the same desire with the person I had been fighting with: may they be loved, may they be safe, may they be understood. Before long the lines between us began to blur. As I experienced more balance and calm, I released my thoughts and just sat there quietly. With the stallion safely resting, my heart opened and I felt a sense of deep well-being. I breathed and allowed myself to experience the innate peace and inner joy that is our birthright.

This week I invite you to open some doors in your life by opening your heart to the voice beyond your ego. Have compassion for your ego while taking the time to listen to the message of your heart. Discover the beauty of connecting around the human desires for love, safety, and comprehension in yourself and in those you encounter in work and life. Explore your toolbox, see what’s in there, be grateful for what you’ve developed, and begin a practice of developing the tools you find are lacking. View the many moments of your day as an invitation to practice choosing:
peace over war,
love over fear,
and understanding over delusion.

May you be loved, may you be safe, may you be understood.

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Meditation and Science are becoming firm friends
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Meditation and Science are becoming firm friends

Brain imaging shows that when we master a task such as playing an instrument or the advanced performance in a sport, specific parts of the brain are transformed — certain neural pathways grow and strengthen. Neuroscientists have now shown that the same is true for mastery of meditation with direct benefits for improving focus, overcoming depression, dealing with pain and cultivating emotional well-being:

“A comparison of the brain scans of meditators with tens of thousands of hours of practice with those of neophytes and nonmeditators has started to explain why this set of techniques for training the mind holds great potential for supplying cognitive and emotional benefits. …

“The discovery of meditation’s benefits coincides with recent neuroscientific findings showing that the adult brain can still be deeply transformed through experience. These studies show that when we learn how to juggle or play a musical instrument, the brain undergoes changes through a process called neuroplasticity. A brain region that controls the movement of a violinist’s fingers becomes progressively larger with mastery of the instrument. A similar process appears to happen when we meditate. Nothing changes in the surrounding environment, but the meditator regulates mental states to achieve a form of inner enrichment, an experience that affects brain functioning and its physical structure. The evidence amassed from this research has begun to show that meditation can rewire brain circuits to produce salutary effects not just on the mind and the brain but on the entire body. …

“Neuroscientists have now begun to probe what happens inside the brain during the various types of meditation. Wendy Hasenkamp, then at Emory University, and her colleagues used brain imaging to identify the neural networks activated by focused- attention meditation. … Advanced meditators appear to acquire a level of skill that enables them to achieve a focused state of mind with less effort. These effects resemble the skill of expert musicians and athletes capable of immersing themselves in the ‘flow’ of their performances with a minimal sense of effortful control. …

“In our Wisconsin lab, we have studied experienced practitioners while they performed an advanced form of mindfulness meditation called open presence. In open presence, sometimes called pure awareness, the mind is calm and relaxed, not focused on anything in particular yet vividly clear, free from excitation or dullness. The meditator observes and is open to experience without making any attempt to interpret, change, reject or ignore painful sensation. We found that the intensity of the pain was not reduced in meditators, but it bothered them less than it did members of a control group. Compared with novices, expert meditators’ brain activity diminished in anxiety-related regions — the insular cortex and the amygdala — in the period preceding the painful stimulus. The meditators’ brain response in pain-related regions became accustomed to the stimulus more quickly than that of novices after repeated exposures to it. Other tests in our lab have shown that meditation training increases one’s ability to better control and buffer basic physiological responses — inflammation or levels of a stress hormone — to a socially stressful task such as giving a public speech or doing mental arithmetic in front of a harsh jury.

“Several studies have documented the benefits of mindfulness on symptoms of anxiety and depression and its ability to improve sleep patterns. By deliberately monitoring and observing their thoughts and emotions when they feel sad or worried, depressed patients can use meditation to manage negative thoughts and feelings as they arise spontaneously and so lessen rumination. Clinical psychologists John Teasdale, then at the University of Cambridge, and Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto showed in 2000 that for patients who had previously suffered at least three episodes of depression, six months of mindfulness practice, along with cognitive therapy, reduced the risk of relapse by nearly 40 percent in the year following the onset of a severe depression. More recently, Segal demonstrated that the intervention is superior to a placebo and has a protective effect against relapse comparable to standard maintenance antidepressant therapy. …

“About 15 years of research have done more than show that meditation produces significant changes in both the function and structure of the brains of experienced practitioners. These studies are now starting to demonstrate that contemplative practices may have a substantive impact on biological processes critical for physical health.”

From: “Mind of the Meditator”
Author: Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J. Davidson

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Everything Doesn’t Happen For A Reason- Tim Lawrence
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Everything Doesn’t Happen For A Reason- Tim Lawrence

By Tim Lawrence

I emerge from this conversation dumbfounded. I’ve seen this a million times before, but it still gets me every time.

I’m listening to a man tell a story. A woman he knows was in a devastating car accident; her life shattered in an instant. She now lives in a state of near-permanent pain; a paraplegic; many of her hopes stolen.

He tells of how she had been a mess before the accident, but that the tragedy had engendered positive changes in her life. That she was, as a result of this devastation, living a wonderful life.

And then he utters the words. The words that are responsible for nothing less than emotional, spiritual and psychological violence:

Everything happens for a reason. That this was something that had to happen in order for her to grow.

That’s the kind of bullshit that destroys lives. And it is categorically untrue.

It is amazing to me that so many of these myths persist—and that is why I share actionable tools and strategies to work with your pain in my free newsletter. These myths are nothing more than platitudes cloaked as sophistication, and they preclude us from doing the one and only thing we must do when our lives are turned upside down: grieve.

You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve heard these countless times. You’ve probably even uttered them a few times yourself. And every single one of them needs to be annihilated.

Let me be crystal clear: if you’ve faced a tragedy and someone tells you in any way, shape or form that your tragedy was meant to be, that it happened for a reason, that it will make you a better person, or that taking responsibility for it will fix it, you have every right to remove them from your life.

Grief is brutally painful. Grief does not only occur when someone dies. When relationships fall apart, you grieve. When opportunities are shattered, you grieve. When dreams die, you grieve. When illnesses wreck you, you grieve.

So I’m going to repeat a few words I’ve uttered countless times; words so powerful and honest they tear at the hubris of every jackass who participates in the debasing of the grieving:

Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.

These words come from my dear friend Megan Devine, one of the only writers in the field of loss and trauma I endorse. These words are so poignant because they aim right at the pathetic platitudes our culture has come to embody on a increasingly hopeless level. Losing a child cannot be fixed. Being diagnosed with a debilitating illness cannot be fixed. Facing the betrayal of your closest confidante cannot be fixed.

They can only be carried.

I hate to break it to you, but although devastation can lead to growth, it often doesn’t. The reality is that it often destroys lives. And the real calamity is that this happens precisely because we’ve replaced grieving with advice. With platitudes. With our absence.

I now live an extraordinary life. I’ve been deeply blessed by the opportunities I’ve had and the radically unconventional life I’ve built for myself. Yet even with that said, I’m hardly being facetious when I say that loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in many ways it’s hardened me.

While so much loss has made me acutely aware and empathetic of the pains of others, it has made me more insular and predisposed to hide. I have a more cynical view of human nature, and a greater impatience with those who are unfamiliar with what loss does to people.

Above all, I’ve been left with a pervasive survivor’s guilt that has haunted me all my life. This guilt is really the genesis of my hiding, self-sabotage and brokenness.

In short, my pain has never been eradicated, I’ve just learned to channel it into my work with others. I consider it a great privilege to work with others in pain, but to say that my losses somehow had to happen in order for my gifts to grow would be to trample on the memories of all those I lost too young; all those who suffered needlessly, and all those who faced the same trials I did early in life, but who did not make it.

I’m simply not going to do that. I’m not going to construct some delusional narrative fallacy for myself so that I can feel better about being alive. I’m not going to assume that God ordained me for life instead of all the others so that I could do what I do now. And I’m certainly not going to pretend that I’ve made it through simply because I was strong enough; that I became “successful” because I “took responsibility.”

There’s a lot of “take responsibility” platitudes in the personal development space, and they are largely nonsense. People tell others to take responsibility when they don’t want to understand.

Because understanding is harder than posturing. Telling someone to “take responsibility” for their loss is a form of benevolent masturbation. It’s the inverse of inspirational porn: it’s sanctimonious porn.

Personal responsibility implies that there’s something to take responsibility for. You don’t take responsibility for being raped or losing your child. You take responsibility for how you choose to live in the wake of the horrors that confront you, but you don’t choose whether you grieve. We’re not that smart or powerful. When hell visits us, we don’t get to escape grieving.

This is why all the platitudes and fixes and posturing are so dangerous: in unleashing them upon those we claim to love, we deny them the right to grieve.

In so doing, we deny them the right to be human. We steal a bit of their freedom precisely when they’re standing at the intersection of their greatest fragility and despair.

No one—and I mean no one—has that authority. Though we claim it all the time.

The irony is that the only thing that even can be “responsible” amidst loss is grieving.

So if anyone tells you some form of get over it, move on, or rise above, you can let them go.

If anyone avoids you amidst loss, or pretends like it didn’t happen, or disappears from your life, you can let them go.

If anyone tells you that all is not lost, that it happened for a reason, that you’ll become better as a result of your grief, you can let them go.

Let me reiterate: all of those platitudes are bullshit.

You are not responsible to those who try to shove them down your throat. You can let them go.

I’m not saying you should. That is up to you, and only up to you. It isn’t an easy decision to make and should be made carefully. But I want you to understand that you can.

I’ve grieved many times in my life. I’ve been overwhelmed with shame and self-hatred so strong it’s nearly killed me.

The ones who helped—the only ones who helped—were those who were there. And said nothing.

In that nothingness, they did everything.

I am here—I have lived—because they chose to love me. They loved me in their silence, in their willingness to suffer with me, alongside me, and through me. They loved me in their desire to be as uncomfortable, as destroyed, as I was, if only for a week, an hour, even just a few minutes.

Most people have no idea how utterly powerful this is.

Are there ways to find “healing” amidst devastation? Yes. Can one be “transformed” by the hell life thrusts upon them? Absolutely. But it does not happen if one is not permitted to grieve. Because grief itself is not an obstacle.

The obstacles come later. The choices as to how to live; how to carry what we have lost; how to weave a new mosaic for ourselves? Those come in the wake of grief. It cannot be any other way.

Grief is woven into the fabric of the human experience. If it is not permitted to occur, its absence pillages everything that remains: the fragile, vulnerable shell you might become in the face of catastrophe.

Yet our culture has treated grief as a problem to be solved, an illness to be healed, or both. In the process, we’ve done everything we can to avoid, ignore, or transform grief. As a result, when you’re faced with tragedy you usually find that you’re no longer surrounded by people, you’re surrounded by platitudes.

What to Offer Instead

When a person is devastated by grief, the last thing they need is advice. Their world has been shattered. This means that the act of inviting someone—anyone—into their world is an act of great risk. To try and fix or rationalize or wash away their pain only deepens their terror.

Instead, the most powerful thing you can do is acknowledge. Literally say the words:

I acknowledge your pain. I am here with you.

Note that I said with you, not for you. For implies that you’re going to do something. That is not for you to enact. But to stand with your loved one, to suffer with them, to listen to them, to do everything but something is incredibly powerful.

There is no greater act than acknowledgment. And acknowledgment requires no training, no special skills, no expertise. It only requires the willingness to be present with a wounded soul, and to stay present, as long as is necessary.

Be there. Only be there. Do not leave when you feel uncomfortable or when you feel like you’re not doing anything. In fact, it is when you feel uncomfortable and like you’re not doing anything that you must stay.

Because it is in those places—in the shadows of horror we rarely allow ourselves to enter—where the beginnings of healing are found. This healing is found when we have others who are willing to enter that space alongside us. Every grieving person on earth needs these people.

Thus I beg you, I plead with you, to be one of these people.

You are more needed than you will ever know.

And when you find yourself in need of those people, find them. I guarantee they are there.

Everyone else can go.

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Brain Candy
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Brain Candy

Today’s selection — from The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin. The human brain consumes more energy than any other part of the body…

“The entire brain weighs three pounds (1.4 kg) and so is only a small percentage of an adult’s total body weight, typically 2%. But it consumes 20% of all the energy the body uses. Why? The perhaps oversimplified answer is that time is energy.

“Neural communication is very rapid — it has to be — reaching speeds of over 300 miles per hour and with neurons communicating with one another hundreds of times per second. The voltage output of a single resting neuron is 70 millivolts, about the same as the line output of an iPod. If you could hook up a neuron to a pair of earbuds, you could actually hear its rhythmic output as a series of clicks. …

“Neurochemicals that control communication between neurons are manufactured in the brain itself. These include some relatively well-known ones such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and epinephrine, as well as acetylcholine, GABA, glutamate, and endocannabinoids. Chemicals are released in very specific locations and they act on specific synapses to change the flow of information in the brain. Manufacturing these chemicals, and dispersing them to regulate and modulate brain activity, requires energy — neurons are living cells with a metabolism, and they get that energy from glucose. No other tissue in the body relies solely on glucose for energy except the testes. (This is why men occasionally experience a battle for resources between their brains and their glands.)

“A number of studies have shown that eating or drinking glucose improves performance on mentally demanding tasks. For example, experimental participants are given a difficult problem to solve, and half of them are given a sugary treat and half of them are not. The ones who get the sugary treat perform better and more quickly because they are supplying the body with glucose that goes right to the brain to help feed the neural circuits that are doing the problem solving. This doesn’t mean you should rush out and buy armloads of candy — for one thing, the brain can draw on vast reserves of glucose already held in the body when it needs them. For another, chronic ingestion of sugars — these experiments looked only at short-term ingestion — can damage other systems and lead to diabetes and sugar crash, the sudden exhaustion that many people feel later when the sugar high wears off.

“But regardless of where it comes from, the brain burns glucose, as a car burns gasoline, to fuel mental operations. Just how much energy does the brain use? In an hour of relaxing or daydreaming, it uses eleven calories or fifteen watts — about the same as one of those new energy-efficient light-bulbs. Using the central executive for reading for an hour takes about forty-two calories. Sitting in class, by comparison, takes sixty-five calories — not from fidgeting in your seat (that’s not factored in) but from the additional mental energy of absorbing new information. Most brain energy is used in synaptic transmission, that is, in connecting neurons to one another and, in turn, connecting thoughts and ideas to one another.”

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

Author: Daniel J. Levitin
Publisher: Dutton a division of Penguin Group
Copyright 2014 by Daniel J. Levitin

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Adventures in Going Nowhere
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Adventures in Going Nowhere

Today’s selection — from The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer. Leonard Cohen, legendary singer-songwriter, musician, poet, and novelist perhaps best known for his song “Hallelujah,” has more recently had occasion to explore a more monastic life:

“I’d come up here in order to write about [Leonard Cohen’s] near-silent, anonymous life on the mountain, but for the moment I lost all sense of where I was. I could hardly believe that this rabbinical-seeming gentleman in wire-rimmed glasses and wool cap was in truth the singer and poet who’d been renowned for thirty years as an international heartthrob, a constant traveler, and an Armani-clad man of the world.

“Leonard Cohen had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life — an art — out of stillness. And he was working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection. The week I was visiting, he was essentially spending seven days and nights in a bare meditation hall, sitting stock-still. His name in the monastery, Jikan, referred to the silence between two thoughts. …

“Sitting still, he said with unexpected passion, was ‘the real deep entertainment’ he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. ‘Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.’ …

‘What else would I be doing?’ he asked. ‘Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.’

“Typically lofty and pitiless words; living on such close terms with silence clearly hadn’t diminished his gift for golden sentences. But the words carried weight when coming from one who seemed to have tasted all the pleasures that the world has to offer.

“Being in this remote place of stillness had nothing to do with piety or purity, he assured me; it was simply the most practical way he’d found of working through the confusion and terror that had long been his bedfellows. …

“‘Nothing touches it,’ Cohen said, as the light came into the cabin, of sitting still. Then he remembered himself, perhaps, and gave me a crinkly, crooked smile. ‘Except if you’re courtin’,’ he added. ‘If you’re young, the hormonal thrust has its own excitement.’

“Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.

“Sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it; I’d seldom thought of it like that. Going nowhere as a way of cutting through the noise and finding fresh time and energy to share with others; I’d sometimes moved toward the idea, but it had never come home to me so powerfully as in the example of this man who seemed to have everything, yet found his happiness, his freedom, in giving everything up. …

“The idea has been around as long as humans have been, of course; the poets of East Asia, the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, regularly made stillness the center of their lives. But has the need for being in one place ever been as vital as it is right now? After a thirty-year study of time diaries, two sociologists found that Americans were actually working fewer hours than we did in the 1960s, but we feel as if we’re working more. We have the sense, too often, of running at top speed and never being able to catch up.

“With machines coming to seem part of our nervous systems, while increasing their speed every season, we’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk. …

“Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize. Stillness is not just an indulgence for those with enough resources — it’s a necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources. Going nowhere, as Cohen had shown me, is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses.”

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