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EASING OUT OF COMPULSION, EASING IN TO CHOICE

brainThere are lots of ways in which we as human beings can get caught under the vast net of stress in our lives. We oftentimes find ourselves feeling trapped by difficult circumstances and the attending feelings and thoughts that arise from them. All of this can create a sense of being overwhelmed and life at times can appear unmanageable. We then struggle and we suffer. Often times the root cause no longer exists but our coping strategies themselves have become problematic.

For instance, we may initially have found some short term relief in the pleasure of eating, in particular rich comfort food laden with simple carbohydrates. These foods produce feel-good chemicals in our body and we get a quick surge. Unfortunately, and just as rapidly, we then get a marked drop in energy and mood. The same is true of addictions of all kinds, alcohol, cigarettes, too much TV, too much social media…the list is endless. And it can be an endless loop unless we step out of the ring.

Beginning and maintaining a mindfulness practice has shown to bring healthful and lasting relief to the stress in our lives that is simply part of daily living and relief from the compulsions and bad habits that are largely maladaptive coping strategies.

women meditatingIn an original research article published in Frontiers in Psychology (2015), short term meditation was shown to significantly enhance cerebral blood flow in areas of the brain critical for self-regulation. These are the areas of the brain that support us in good decision making and in overcoming unhealthy habits and addictions of all kinds.

Collaborating researchers from the University of Oregon, University of Texas/Austin and the Institute of Neuroinformatics at Dalian University in China discovered changes in the anterior cingulate cortex and insula in the brains of those who had been only meditating for 5 days (30 minutes a day). These parts of the brain have also been reported to be associated with positive mood.

The study showed neuroplasticity (changes in the brain) demonstrated with fMri imaging and consistent mood improvement reported by participants as well.

These findings provides hopeful news that regulating our emotions and responses doesn’t have to be an arduous, protracted process but it does take discipline. The benefits reported are only maintained by continued practice.

And there are many mindfulness practices you can engage in. It can be helpful to begin with guided meditations. It can be a little tricky starting out on your own and a guide gives instruction and support. You can find several of them here on this website for free. There is no sign up or commitment involved, except a commitment to yourself to show up and practice and trusting in that.

Wherever you are on your journey, may you have compassion for yourself. May you healthy and happy.   IMG_0050

THE MUSE: MINDFULNESS WEARABLES

What about a headpiece to help you to train your brain? As mindfulness continues to gain acceptance as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, it too has become lucrative fodder for inventors and investors who see its potential amidst the big business wellness industry.

Like the Fitbit wristband that measures your movements towards the goal of physical fitness, the latest gadget to help you meditate and improve your focus is called the Muse. At a price tag of about $299, this headband uses electroencephalography sensors to measure the activity of your neurons to detect when your mind is focused and when it’s not.

muse

The piece sits behind your ears with a thin plastic band with the sensors stretching across your forehead.

With headphones on, the app begins to measure your brain activity as it coaches you through exercises to help you focus. For instance, as you begin the app prompts you to think about musical instruments or well-known celebrities. It then asks you to bring your attention to your breath. Counting your breath as sounds of nature play in the background; the sounds themselves can signify that your mind is starting to drift away from your point of attention.080322a8447 (1)

A session last several minutes and produce for you a line graph that details brain activity in percentages of active, neutral, and calm states. You earn points (little birdy icons) for the times you were calm.

The Muse creatively uses the latest in neuroscience to effectively engage the firing of neurons in our brain. This is good! It is fun. We all like fun. Another real positive is that this latest cool shiny object may actually be the catalyst to entice you to sit down and experiment with meditating. Its carrot approach that provides “rewards” for when you reach some moments of calm focus may keep you coming back and practicing. If you continue to work with it and see some noticeable benefits, (initial reviewers who are new to meditation have found it helpful), you may become interested in sitting and meditating without it or learning more.

In other words, it could lead to fully experiencing and working with mindfulness and its ability to transform, inspire and engender compassion.

Conversely, the nature of novelties is that they tend to peak quickly in popularity and fall from favor in the same fashion (most of my friends that ran out and bought a Fitbit are no longer wearing them or even know where they put them)! It will be interesting to follow up with Muse wearers in a year and see if they are still wearing them daily.

The marketplace eagerly responds to our perennial search for the magic bullet, the quick and easy fix. AND as anyone who practices mindfulness will tell you, instant gratification leaves you grasping for more and more in order to satisfy.

What neuroscientists have also discovered is that when you stop, the brain returns to its wandering mind. It’s our default mode network. Just like our muscles atrophy when we stop lifting weights or exercising.

To learn to be become focused, present, and calm is a process and a daily discipline, just as eating healthfully and getting physical exercise is a lifelong journey. Time and effort are required to build consistent concentration and equanimity.

If you understand that the Muse or any similar device, can be useful if employed as part of a larger program, and you can afford it, give it a try.

I would love to hear from you 365 days from date of purchase.

UBUNTU

Ubuntu is an African term that says, “I am because you are, you are because I am.”  It is an age-old African philosophy of compassion and being in harmony with all of creation.  This idea of harmony can be a helpful construct when learning to live at peace with yourself and others.  It allows for flexibility and individuality, and a mutuality of purpose. It clears for us a vision of shared humanity.

Musically speaking, harmonizing is essential.  An orchestra may all be playing the same piece but the various instruments are stressing minor and major chords and their own particular sound to enhance the piece.  Without each of the players in harmony, the finished work would be different, less, or just plain awful.

This can be applied to our personal and professional lives as well.  Do you harmonize with other people or do you expect them to harmonize with you?  When someone says no to something, do you find yourself ready to argue?  If you ever feel like you are forcing a situation with a little too much self-will, what would happen if you just said, Okay?

If we can bend a little or are willing to see something from another’s point of view, we can find resolution’s not seen when we are trying to force our hand.  We find compatibility, when at first all were seeing is discord.  We can remember Ubuntu, “I am because you are, you are because I am”.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  If we really aren’t compatible with certain situations, it may be time to leave.  In addition, there are moments when we do need to stand up for ourselves. There are also times when it’s fun to say or do things to deliberately challenge or provoke others.  A good banter now and again has its pleasures.

However, we (myself included) self-reliant types would do well to practice a wee bit of nonresistance.  We do NOT lose our identity when CHOOSING to harmonize. Wouldn’t our energy poured out in harmony, instead of attempting to overpower someone or to resist for resistance’s sake, be cleaner and more efficient?!

Ubuntu is not just saying live and let live.  It’s living together.  It involves enough self-awareness to be ourselves, and enough adaptability to fit that self into different situations.  We can be ourselves and still be part of a couple, team, environment, or group.   Interdependence really does provide for the healthiest and most creative solutions for our relationships and our world.

When you begin to practice Ubuntu, friends, lovers, and colleagues will most likely notice a change in your interactions with them, and ask what’s up.  You can simply say, “Ubuntu.”

THE FIERCE SWORD OF COMPASSION

Today’s post is about compassion, what it is and what it isn’t. The title for the post comes from Jack Kornfield, world renown Buddhist teacher and guide, from a book I can not recommend highly enough entitled The Wise Heart. Citing from Kornfield’s introduction of what Buddhism is and isn’t provides a helpful backdrop to the universal application of compassion. It is a principle that is a cornerstone of every life well lived, whether one adheres to a particular faith or not:

“In approaching this dialogue, I’d like to underscore a point the Dalai Lama has made repeatedly: “Buddhist teachings are not a religion, they are a science of mind.”  This does not deny the fact that for many people around the world Buddhism has also come to function as a religion.  Like most religions, it offers its followers a rich tradition of devotional practices, communal rituals, and sacred stories. But this is not the origin of Buddhism or its core.  The Buddha was a human being, not a god, and what he offered his followers were experiential teachings and practices, a revolutionary way to understand and release suffering.” 

In fact, an Italian scientist named Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues discovered a class of brain cells called “mirror neurons.”  Their research showed that through our mirror neurons we actually feel the emotions, movements, and intentions of others. It is part of our social brain, “a neural circuitry that connects us.” 

Linguistically, the word compassion has its roots in Latin and Old French.  From the Latin compassionem, com (with), pati (to suffer), ion (state of, act of), it means “the act of suffering together.”  When we feel another’s sorrow:  at a friend’s husband’s funeral, with a mother whose child is undergoing chemotherapy, we often weep with them and for them. On another level, we feel the anguish also for ourselves.  We too are not immune, we all have experienced or will experience pain and death, of one kind or another.  There is much healthy connection in feeling sympathy for another’s pain.  If we have experienced similar tragedies, we may have something insightful to contribute to alleviate the suffering.  Yet, even if we have never had that experience, as humans we contain the urge and strong desire to end their suffering. Our willingness and openness to become a vehicle for healing can, in and of itself, bring comfort. 

That healthy connection means that I will stand with you in your pain and you will stand with me in mine; and we will bear it together.  We CAN bear it.  It is the opposite of fearful aversion that does not want to look, that feels like it can’t look.  This keeps us tucked away in our separateness, holding on for dear life with the delusion that such and such could never happen to me. This paradigm contains the seeds of suffering for everyone.

So what is meant then by the fierce sword of compassion? It is the “no” of compassion.  We can know and serve others, but we are not going to save the world.

 Again, Kornfield:  “Compassion is not foolish.  It doesn’t just go along with what others want so they don’t feel bad.  There is a yes in compassion, and there is also a no, said with the same courage of heart.  No to abuse, no to violence, both personal and worldwide.  The no is said not out of hate but out of unwavering care.  It is the powerful no of leaving a destructive family, the agonizing no of allowing an addict to experience the consequences of his acts.”

It is the learning to finding the harmony between holding on and letting go…in love.  May you find courage in the yes and no of your compassion.