Your Brain Believes Everything That You Say

In recent years, we have become more aware of the neuroplasticity of our brains and how our thoughts and feelings are affected by not only what we are taught, but also, by everything we are exposed to during a day.  In other words, learning is occurring all the time.  The brain never shuts off.  Whatever we are exposing it to, it is processing.  Much of what we are processing we are not even aware of.  Think of it like a movie camera.  It is constantly taking pictures of what it sees, and recording what it hears, and all of that information is not only stored, but also organized, helping to create our thoughts and beliefs.  This information creates networks or “roads,” which are then available to communicate this data.  This film that your brain is recording is the unconscious lesson that we constantly receive.  How aware are you of exactly what kind of film you are creating every day?  For instance, what did your brain learn today?  I was just wondering………………….

Of course, we all know that we are educated in our schools and we are also taught lessons by our families.  Our culture is also a major influence of our beliefs and values.  We learn this not from books and not necessarily through instruction, but by viewing what our neighbors do, how they behave, how they dress, and how they think about things in general.  If we are never really exposed to another culture, then we will most likely remain unchanged.  However, the more we expose ourselves to, the more this information is synthesized in our brains and we become fuller than we were and different from the people with whom we grew up.

We also learn from the media we watch and listen to and our opinions get formed this way.  Our brains create a neural pathway for these thoughts and beliefs. The stronger the belief, the more deeply entrenched is the neural pathway.  Divergent thoughts become difficult to hold onto because the neural network is heavily influenced by what information goes into it.  It becomes slanted by the information to which we expose ourselves. This is why it is so difficult for us to see things from another viewpoint.  It is also the reason that once we have formed an opinion of another person, it is very difficult for us to view them in a different way when contradictory information is received.

Fears are developed when we tell ourselves over and over again that we are afraid of something.  Every time we are faced with the feared object, we reinforce it with our thought system.  This eventually creates a really intensely rutted “road,” one which we are unable to escape.  The good news is that fears can be overcome with self- talk.   I did this experiment on myself years ago to overcome my fear of flying.  Filled with fear, I booked a flight four months in advance.  Then, every time I drove somewhere, I talked to myself about how I loved flying, how everyone else likes it, that if all these other people can do it, I can do it and so on. I talked about looking out the window, enjoying the take-off and landing and every aspect of the trip I could imagine.   Also, I made a point of doing this orally in order to overcome any lingering fearful thoughts that might try to creep into my head.  When you are speaking, you whole brain has to focus on the words you are saying.  The morning of my flight I remember feeling somewhat zombie-like.  There was no fear.  I just got on to the plane and enjoyed the trip.  My fear of flying for 29 years was overcome through self-talk!  Through my own self talk effort, my brain listened and created a new neural pathway that loved, instead of feared flying!

Because your brain is listening and recording all of the time, it is really important to try to become more consciously aware of those “drifting” thoughts.  Try to do a periodic check-in to determine what’s really going into your brain.  What are you thinking about?  Is it a healthy thought?  Is it productive for you?  Are you terrorizing yourself?  Are you making yourself depressed or anxious by obsessing over something in the past or in the future?  Learn to change the movie channel if your thoughts are unhelpful.  Avoid negative thinking so that your brain will not create neural pathways that will be difficult to overcome.

Instead, practice affirmations and positive self talk.  It will never harm you to think positively, but it could harm you if you continue to let negative thinking persist.  Stress caused by negative and worrisome thoughts is the progenitor of illness.  That’s right!  Thinking bad thoughts can actually make you ill!  Your self talk may also be a determining factor of your success.  Remember, your computer brain is actually uploading your self-talk data and will create your belief system about yourself.  If you are already lacking confidence, then use verbal affirmations to begin to overcome it by creating a new neural pathway for success.  If you want to better understand your moods, then just listen to your self-talk.  Make sure that your brain is being fed information that is nourishing for your mind and soul.  Are you willing to make the effort to improve your thinking?  I was just wondering…………………………………

 

 

 

When Opportunity Knocks

Recently a new friend I met at my yoga class invited me to attend a tango dance class with her and her husband.  I thanked her but felt I would decline.  While I love to dance, I didn’t really feel that tango would be my thing.  Also, I did not have a partner to accompany me and I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Besides, it was cold out, and it would be dark and even colder that evening when the class was scheduled.  I put it out of my mind and went about my business for the day.  As the hour for the class approached, I thought more about reconsidering.  After all, I’d swung across the Costa Rican jungle on a zip line; I swam with sharks, giant turtles, and stingrays in Bora Bora; and I braved the mosquito and snake infested Amazon.  What could be so challenging about a little tango? When opportunity knocks, I usually open the door.  What do you do?  Do you fear what is on the other side?  I was just wondering………………

The instructors were the real deal, all the way from Argentina! We spent about the first 20 minutes just listening to their explanation of the dance.  As I scoped out the room, I was surprised to see there were as many men in attendance as women and there seemed to be very few people paired up like my friends.  This was comforting, as I was not the only solo in the group.  Following the warm-up talk, we were told to find a partner and then we were instructed how to position our feet.  It seemed I was back in ballet class, except it wasn’t first, second, third, or fourth position, but duck feet position!  Yes, heels together and toes pointing out and away from one another, creating a V.  In this position, we had to practice “waddling” backwards.  At least that is what it felt like!  Waddling! Without falling, that is!  Seriously! After a little practice at this, we were told to get into hold with our partners, hands on shoulders of one another, and then together to move with our duck feet!  For the women, this meant being pushed backwards while the male “lead” had the more convenient forward duck walk position.  I can assure you I never envisioned tango as a duck walk! So, we did a bit of practice while switching partners several times.  Each partner was very polite, introduced himself, and appeared equally unsure of himself.  Then a man with icy blue eyes approached me, grabbed my shoulders, quickly took command and began rapidly and assuredly pushing me backwards.  I noticed he had an accent and I was going to ask where he was from, but he was all business.  No smile, no friendly handshake, no name! I began to sweat (something I almost NEVER do), as I stumbled backward, trying desperately to keep apace!  Then his mouth opened as he commanded me to stop wiggling my butt!  Next, he ordered me to stand very straight, like I was tied to a post!  Now with duck feet, I was being pushed backwards rapidly while pretending I was tied to a tree! OMG!  This was much more frightening than the zip line! And this guy was definitely not someone I wanted to meet in a back alley!  While he was quite good looking, those icy eyes and cold demeanor just had a way of turning me into jelly, and I don’t mean the lustful kind, but jelly like when you feel too helpless to save yourself!

When this practice period thankfully ended, I rushed back to my friend for comfort and to share with her my unsettling experience.  As I described the guy, her eyes widened and she gasped, “Oh, you mean the Russian!?”  Well that explained it!  He must still be mentally living in the “cold war” or else he just had to be a Russian spy!  My friend went on to explain that he has actually been an instructor as well.  He is definitely not one I would voluntarily sign up for!

So, back to the question at hand. As I previously stated, I generally respond when opportunities present themselves to me.  You are probably giving yourself ammunition not to answer that knock by assuming that I regret having opened this door, that I never should have gone, that it was a wasted, uncomfortable experience.  Wrong!  I welcome it all.  How do you ever learn if you don’t experience?  In fact, the very best education in life is experiential.  When you actually participate in something, you retain a fuller learning experience and you also tend not to forget it.  You also learn what you like and what you don’t like.  For instance, I like to dance, but tango is probably not my forte, but I would never really know that if I hadn’t tried it. I suspect that my tendency to wiggle may be more conducive to salsa. On the other hand, sometimes we reject things that we really don’t know enough about or understand, which, if given an opportunity to experience, may result in a different outcome.  Besides the experience itself that you may question, you will have the opportunity to meet new people, make new connections, and open the door for even more opportunities! Try things!  Experience life to the fullest! It is the only way you will really know what you like instead of imagining what you may or may not enjoy.  It is also the best way to make discoveries about yourself!

As for me, I not only learned first-hand about tango, I met a Russian with icy blue eyes, I met some other very pleasant people, and I learned I don’t really want to pursue more tango.  But best of all, I had an experience that is unforgettable, and now I have a funny story to tell!  I am glad I opened that door.  What about you?  What will you do the next time opportunity knocks?  Will you try something new or will you have a lot of excuses?  Will you overcome a fear?  Will you open that door?  I was just wondering…………….

Change

Just like the argument over nature versus nurture, a similar discussion often occurs over the concept of change, that is, people can change versus people don’t change.  The subject of change is a popular one in our culture, especially the mystery of exactly what creates change.  You will probably remember David Bowie’s famous song, “Changes,” both about his personal struggle of acceptance but also about the larger issues of how change occurs.  In the lyrics to this song, Bowie repeats over and over, “Time may change me but I can’t trace time.” He appears to view himself as a helpless bystander to how he is changed by time.  He is adrift within changes that go on within and about him and seems to keep trying to find some kind of balance and acceptance through it all.  Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus asserts that “A man cannot step in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”  This supports Bowie’s sense of lack of control over the movement of life/time that creates changes of which we are not fully aware as they are occurring.  While I will concede that there is an aspect of change related to the passage of time over which we have little control, I am thinking about other factors that might create change.  Do we have control over any of this?  I was just wondering…………………

Sometimes we change out of necessity.  When we are subjected to a crisis, for instance, such as a job loss, we are forced to look at things differently.  A crisis will often shake us out of our routine, thus offering us a new way of seeing things.  It is a mild form of receiving electric shock treatment! Our homeostasis is temporarily altered and as we regroup, we are sometimes exposed to new ways of operating.  A romantic breakup or even worse, the death of a significant other will cause the same type of response.  We are temporarily derailed, and during that time we are often exposed to a significantly altered way of managing our daily routines.  This exposure to new elements can create permanent change.  The type of change provoked from some sort of tragedy, however, is not planned and has not been considered before the upsetting event.  So, it is more of a shakeup, like throwing the IChing, and however it settles is how you will learn to create a new balance.

Another stimulus for change is an epiphany.  This is also unplanned and unexpected.  It seems to come about when, for reasons we don’t fully understand, you suddenly see or experience something that has been usual and ordinary in a completely new way.  There is usually a triggering event, again often something very ordinary, but you may suddenly have an “Aha” experience.  Some prior experiences all on their own have suddenly coalesced to create a new and important meaning.  An epiphany may also occur from something emotional or something extraordinarily beautiful.  It is like a little seizure of sudden understanding where before there was none. It is a reconfiguring jolt to the brain which allows us to see something not before understood.

The argument about change seems mostly to arise when we want to change in some way that is ostensibly under our control but just doesn’t occur.  We may want to lose weight or overcome a fear but do nothing to change our behavior or thinking that would alter these wishes.  We may be unhappy in a relationship but continue to behave the same way within it.  We may wish to be kinder or more spiritual but do nothing to make that happen.  We are experts at wishing, but we are not so good at making our wishes come true.

Einstein suggests that “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself,” and he further suggests that “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” C. JoyBell C. avers, “The only way we can change is if we learn.  The only way we can learn is if we are exposed.  And the only way we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open.  Do it.  Throw yourself.” She further encourages, “We can’t be afraid of change.  You may feel very secure in the pond that you’re in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea.  Holding on to something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don’t have something better.”  Nietzsche suggests that “The snake which cannot cast its skin must die.  As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.” Roy T. Bennett says, “It is only after you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone that you begin to change, grow, and transform.” According to Libba Bray, “And that is how change happens.  One gesture.  One person.  One moment at a time.”

What actually makes the changes that you want to make?  WORK! You have to do the work.  And what is the work?  Just as the experts have suggested, venture out, expose yourself to new things, immerse yourself with people, books, all educational materials that represent successfully what you want to become.  Follow the behaviors of those whom have succeeded before you, practice, find a mentor, and ACT!  Do your homework and then put it into action! As a psychologist I have seen people do their work, come back, and change, and I have seen those who never take the suggestions offered, keep complaining, and continue to wait for the magic wand.  The magic wand is only for fairy tales. If you really want to change, then unless you experience a tragedy, crisis, or epiphany, you have to make the effort.  Are you willing to do that? Or as in Bowie’s song ”Changes,” are you willing to allow time to shape you while you remain adrift and helpless to its subtle influences?  I was just wondering………………

A Life Well Lived

My husband died.  Suddenly.  As I wrote his obituary, I was flooded with memories of the incredible journey that we shared.  But I was even more affected by the messages and condolence calls that I received from people who expressed their gratitude for the help that my husband provided for them.  His service to others was more widespread than I had realized.  It occurred to me that not only had he fulfilled his bucket list, but that he had experienced a life well lived.  The whole exercise of reviewing his life led me to the concept of my own life inventory, and then, the thought that a periodic life inventory of ourselves might be a really good idea.  As I considered this, I pondered what exactly makes a life well lived.  I was just wondering………………………………

If you were writing your own obituary, what would you want to say?  After notating a person’s birthdate, most obituaries discuss the individual’s achievements.  Have you obtained the education you want?  Don’t make excuses.  There are so many ways to manage the cost of college today.  I did it as a single parent with a full time job.  If I could do it, so can you.  Do you have satisfying work?  Are you in the field of work that you always hoped for, or do you need to re-evaluate to get where you want to be?  If it seems impossible, re-evaluate now, create a plan, and start working toward your goal.  Don’t let life actually pass you by before you have achieved your dreams.

What would you say about your relationships?  Do you have good friends and supports?  If not, start engaging in activities in order to correct this.  Are you satisfied with your family?  If family relationships pose problems, then see a therapist, read some helpful books, try to understand from a different point of view, or practice tolerance.  If the problem is in a marital or couple relationship, then please remember that the grass is not usually greener, and understand that it takes loyalty and commitment to make a long- term relationship work.  If you want a long -term relationship, you will have to face this fact.  Take off the rose-colored glasses, support one another, and scrub in!  You are a team and if you remember that you are on the same side, you can make it work!  If you know you are not in the relationship that is right for you, then stop wasting your time.  If you don’t know, then see a therapist.  Get your life right!

What about your health, physical, emotional, and daily activities?  Are you engaging in activities that are enhancing to your life?  Are you making sure to get some kind of exercise?  Do you take care to eat well?  Do you have a routine that ensures that your body is being nourished, both physically and emotionally? Have you incorporated mental stimulation as part of your self-care?  If you are thinking, “I always wanted to ski,” then do it.  Whatever is an unrealized dream, make it a reality.  Make sure it is on your obituary list, not an incomplete bucket list!

What have you contributed to the common good?  What are your talents and how can you make the world a better place?  What is special and unique about you that you have to offer to others?  If you don’t know, then take some time to think about it.  Ask you friends what special qualities they see in you and then apply them to realize your gifts!

What about your Bucket List?  If you don’t have one, then create it. Travel.  See the world because it will help you to understand it better.  Start realizing your dreams before you no longer can.  Don’t postpone!  Have adventures!  Love!  Help others! Enjoy yourself!

But finally, it comes down to one very important issue.  Most of us go through life on robotic mode.  But when you reach the end of the road, you want to be pleased with the journey.  In order to be pleased with the journey and to achieve a life well lived, you must make an ongoing effort to improve yourself and to raise your self-awareness.  Remember the Jimmy Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life?  His guardian angel appeared and showed him the impact he had on his community.  We are each leaving a piece of our own personal legacy every day of our lives.  This is about your spiritual journey.  Whether it is through church, spiritual groups or readings, never stop trying to become better.  We have a lot of garbage input in our brains.  We need to work on awareness of our automatic behaviors, if they have purpose, and if we want to change our destructive thought patterns and reactions.  My husband did this throughout his life.  He had his demons, and while he did not overcome all of them, he made a very concerted effort to become a better person.  And he did.  He made a very positive difference in the lives of many people.  I am proud of him.  I hope I will feel the same about myself at the end of my journey.  How about you?  Are you satisfied with your obituary inventory?  I was just wondering………………..

 

 

 

Dancing in the Grocery Aisles

I’m not a big fan of the grocery store.  I like to go in, get what is on the list, and be done with it!  My husband, on the other hand, is enamored.  He loves to go there, spend some quality time, smell the melons, squeeze the tomatoes, carefully check the color on the bananas, sort through the fresh corn, look over the muffin choices, check out the desserts, ponder over the ice cream flavors, check out the nut choices, and finish in the candy aisle.  As you can see, he has a predilection for lots of bad stuff he shouldn’t be eating, but that’s another story.  Me, I grab the list, get my stuff, and I dance in the aisles while I wait for him to check out.  It’s not that I especially like grocery store music, but if I am standing, and music is playing, my body simply begins to move with it.  I can’t help it!  Sometimes I can be caught doing the yoga tree pose or even yoga airplane if I have a wide aisle.  Hey, it helps my balance, and I have nothing else to do while I am waiting.  I especially practice this while in the checkout line.  It really helps not to get irritated with waiting!  This true confession may leave you thinking I might be a little crazy. What’s wrong with that, I ask?  Can you consider adding a little bit of craziness to your life?  The organic crazy, not the drug induced kind.

 

So, let’s go with I may be a little crazy.  If you really think this is a bit crazy, you may be way too inhibited!  If you are constantly worrying about what other people are thinking of you, this also suggests you are probably too inhibited!  If you think people are staring at you or judging you, again, you are perhaps too inhibited.  And even worse, you are undoubtedly not having much fun throughout your day.  Instead you are too busy worrying rather than being able to focus on the moment and enjoy the “now.”  And strangely enough, those people you are worrying about judging you are actually way too busy worrying about themselves to really even notice you!  Eckhart Tolle, who wrote The Power of Now, advises, “Life isn’t as serious as the mind makes it out to be.”  We need to unshackle ourselves, and stop taking ourselves so seriously.

Have you ever seriously considered why alcohol and other recreational drugs are so popular?  The reason is that they give us the high that frees us up to be ourselves and enjoy ourselves.  Did you realize that you can actually achieve this state without ingesting one mood altering substance?  I want you to ask yourself why it is ok to be uninhibited if you are ingesting a drug, but not if you are sober?  What is the difference?  We must wonder about the message that our culture given us about spontaneity that makes us fear it.  Can you only set yourself free if you are high?  Many years ago, I used to sing Paul Simon’s famous tune, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” to encourage myself to end a relationship.  These lyrics can be useful to encourage us to slip out of our protective gear and get our SELVES free!  It is wonderfully relieving to remove that defensive protective armor.   It is so much more fun than sitting in a bar, drinking alcohol. Instead, as Paul Simon suggests, “Just get yourself free!”

There are actually many positive reasons for becoming less inhibited.  As we allow ourselves to be more spontaneous, we become more creative.  Our brains become more flexible and our neural connections are enhanced in new ways.  Because we are less blocked, we can become more aware, more sensorily awakened.  Because we are not so blocked, we may see and hear things in an entirely different way. We may also feel more energetic because the freedom will allow us to be less stifled by our natural defensive armoring.  We will also feel happier, because a little dose of disinhibition will create a natural high through the release of our own endorphins and enkephalins. This happiness can be contagious and may infect those around you, compounding the spontaneous feelings of well-being.  This sense of well-being will also include the benefit of stress reduction, and stress reduction is the very best preventive medicine from illness. For those interested in the effects of stress on overall health, I highly recommend The Stress of Life and Stress and Distress by Hans Selye.

I recommend that you practice a little “naughtiness” every day.  Stretch your boundaries of impropriety, dare to be different, practice being authentic within your own skin.  Famous Humanistic Psychologist Carl Rogers said, “What is most personal is most general.”   We don’t have to fear being human in all of its expressions, as deep inside, we all know the same uncertainties.  Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind stated, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing!  If Helen Keller could experience life in this way then anyone can.  Throw off your shoes, be a little improper, find a way to enjoy every moment, and seek your adventure!  And the next time you go to the grocery store, if you see me dancing in the aisles, will you dance with me?  I was just wondering……..

Home

Many thoughts throughout history have been expressed about home.  Pliny the Elder suggested that “Home is where the heart is,” while Frank Baum in the Wizard of Oz opined, “There’s no place like home.”  Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home again,” while Robert Frost suggests that, “Home is  the place wheare, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Warsan Shire believes, “At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from.  Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before,” while Robin Hobb suggests, “Home is people. Not a place.  If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there anymore.” Sarah Dressen has a similar thought, that, “Home wasn’t a set house, or a single town on a map.  It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together.  Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go.” Jon Kabat-Zinn has a similar thought, which became the title of his famous book, Wherever You Go There You Are, suggesting you cannot get away from yourself.  Pascal Mercier has a different thought, that, “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” As we consider all these thoughts, what does home mean to you?  I was just wondering………………..

I have recently returned to my Cape Cod home permanently, and as I settle in, I have been inclined to wonder what has caused me to choose this now as my one and only home. Now, when I am no longer bound by employment considerations or family obligations.  I have just left a very beautiful sub-tropical coastal climate to endure a New England winter.  What has called me back?

I have been fortunate to experience homes in many countries.  I have shared meals in homes in Thailand, Germany, New Zealand, China, Morocco, Fiji, and Egypt.  In my travels I have been inside homes in Cambodia, the earthen huts of the Hill Tribes in Thailand, the stilted huts hugging the shore of the Amazon in Boca de Valeria, Brazil,  and huts on the isolated island of The Republic of Kirabati.  I have visited over 60 countries and I have spent time in all the continents except Antartica.  While I love the “laissez faire” of France, the colorful emotion of Italy, the primitive allure of the South Pacific, the pristine white beauty of the Greek Islands, and the exotic richness of Southeast Asia, I still choose to live in America.  In America I have visited all but 7 states and I have resided in Vermont, Ohio, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and New York.  So, what is home, why do I choose here, and how does here connect to my heart and soul?  What is it about “place” that calls any of us?  And is “place” where home is, or is it something else?

We just can’t escape being influenced by the culture in which we grew up.  So while I might be attracted to some of these other lands and cultures, they are still not where my ultimate comfort zone lies.  I love to visit, but I don’t choose to stay.  As I sway with my husband on the wooden swing in my yard on Cape Cod, I am surrounded by lush vegetation and flowering plants. Many ponds are within minutes of my home.  I love the quaint beauty and the unique New England style shuttered and shingled homes.  The droning engine of a biplane above tells me it is a beautiful day.  Each town and village on the Cape offers a peek into a different and unique experience.  Galleries and boutiques are in abundance.  Boston with all of its culture is a short drive.  The ocean is everywhere!  Feeling the ocean breeze brush playfully through my hair while the sun warms my soul is a perfect day for me!  There are so many secret coves and paths and beaches to discover.  Cape Cod is clam chowder, cranberry muffins, and lobster. It is art and street festivals and music at the Melody Tent.  It is Indie films at Cape Cinema and bountiful offerings at summer playhouses. It is visits to Ptown with its diverse culture and joyful street festivities. It is day trips on the ferry to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard or just watching the ferries coming and going, loading and unloading, from Hyannis Harbor. It is bike rides on the trails.  It is hotdogs and smores with family by a fire on the dunes at Sandy Neck at night, watching the sun set over the shimmering sea.  It is waiting in line while salivating over the zillions of flavors at Four Seas Ice Cream.  It is leisurely Sunday mornings sipping a cup of hot tea while perusing the Boston Globe.   It is the change of seasons, and the cozy pubs on a cold winter day. It is the winter holiday “Street Strolls” filled with festive carolers, hot chocolate, and Christmas treats!  It is the longing for spring, when it never seems to come, that makes its eventual arrival even that much more splendid! And it is NEVER tiring of the lush, serpentine beauty of route 6A!

It is all part of a place that I fell in love with many years ago.  My heart and soul remained connected even while I experienced other adventures around the world.  But my heart has called me back.  It is the place that most connects with who I am, the place that supports the very most of my being.  It is informal, carefree, bohemian, and inclusive.  The girl who grew up in Ohio and couldn’t wait to leave, after traveling the world, found that sense of place on Cape Cod.  I feel safe and loved and deeply connected with all that surrounds me. It is a sense of belonging.  It is home.  What and where is home for you?  I was just wondering……………………..

The Reptile Within

As a part time resident of beautiful, swampy, low country on an island in South Carolina, I have frequent encounters with alligators.  During my daily dog walk I pass by two ponds inhabited by these creatures, and they are frequently found sunning themselves on the bank of the pond about 20 feet from me and my dog as I pass by on the leisure path.  Some days they are even closer, and for safety, I am forced to trod through the brush in order to maintain a safe distance.  Because of their nearby habitation, I have educated myself in alligator behavior. The most interesting aspect of alligators, however, is how we humans are like them.  Through evolution, the oldest portion of our human brain, the amygdala, has been passed down to us from our reptilian ancestors.  So the bottom line is, what is the effect of the amygdala?  How many people actually understand the influence of our reptilian brain?  I was just wondering………

Alligators enjoy a fairly uncomplicated existence.  They slip into a pond and swim around when they want to cool off, they bask in the sun on a bank when they want to warm up, they breed at a certain time of year, and they eat, with a plentiful food supply.  They do not think because they do not have consciousness.  They react.  They follow ritualistic patterns of behavior.  They are instinctive and they are neurologically wired to fight or to flee.  Because they are territorial, if another alligator comes into their space, they make a signal that shows the intruder that he is noticed.  If this does not effectively remove the intruder, then a hissing sound may emerge or the alligator may plump himself up in a menacing manner.  This is the brain that we have inherited.  And this part of our brain remains very active within us to this day.  The amygdala is the part of our brain that causes us to react without thinking.  It is the part that causes us to fight or to flee.  It is our amygdala that causes us to feel threatened and to feel the need to protect ourselves and what we perceive as our territory.  In short, while the amygdala does still serve a protective fight or flight purpose, it is the ancient part of the human brain that causes most of our problems today.

When we are faced with a true threat, such as a robbery, a fire, a tornado, or physical harm, our reptilian brains remain a useful asset.  But unfortunately, we have learned to become reactive about perceived emotional insults, and this sets in motion the same kind of reptilian responses, such as hissing, puffing up, and other threatening behaviors.  We have also taken the territorial protectiveness aspect to a new level, so that we react with hate crimes based on our differences. We have expanded the concept of threat to include things that are only emotional, not physical threats to our being.  When we react to emotional threats in the same way we would deal with a physical threat to our lives, we actually create problems.  We have learned to perceive a dirty look or a snub or a smart remark as an act of violence.  And then we respond with the same reptilian response as an alligator, with a fight!  Perhaps in a way they are smarter than we are. Their battles are limited to survival, while ours are often over insults!

So, what can we do about our amygdala brain?  How do we stop its control over our behavior?  The good news is, that unlike the alligator, we have consciousness!  Consciousness is the beautiful aspect of humanness that separates us from all other animals.  Consciousness allows us choices.  In fact, we do not have to react as the alligator.  When not under immediate threat, we can learn to pause to better assess our situation.  We can evaluate the various responses that may be available to us before we chose to react. We can actually decide whether or not a nasty remark is really worth doing battle over.  We can choose to ignore a snub.  We can honor and appreciate our cultural differences instead of fearing that someone different from us is encroaching on our territory to cause us harm.  We can rejoice in all of our glorious manifestations of humanity and learn from one another rather than to fear that which is different.

Our reptilian ancestors can teach is a great deal.  The scary alligator is a good lesson on how not to be scary humans.  Our consciousness allows us to appreciate the beauty of our world, while the alligator just goes through the motions, day after day after day.  Is that how you want to spend your life, going through the motions day after day after day, without thinking?  Without choosing how you really want to behave? Do you actually want to be human or are you content to be ruled by your reptilian brain, the amygdala?  I was just wondering………..

 

 

 

Harnessing The Brain’s Neuroplasticity

Until recently, we believed that the brain formed in early life and that its capacity to grow and learn began to decline thereafter.  Newer research has demonstrated that the brain has an amazing neuroplasticity capacity.  This means that we can learn new, even complicated things late into life.  Because of what we have learned about the brain’s plasticity, we also know that we can unlearn things that were earlier programmed, such as a fear, or even more debilitating, phobias.  It means that if we are right handed, that even as adults we can learn to write with our left hand.  It means that you can change beliefs if you practice reciting opposing ideas.  Think about the possibilities!  Because of what your brain learns from it, your daily environment is a tremendous influence on how you feel about your life.  What would you like to learn, change, or overcome?  I was just wondering……

Let’s start with the concept of fear.  When I was very young, before I went to graduate school, I worked for several years for an airline.  Because I had a fear of flying, { fear of being confined in that space from which I could not escape}, I worked in reservations, not as an attendant.  However, we did receive free trips and I would prep myself with alcohol before flying, one time at 7:00 am to catch an early flight to Miami.  After I left this job and got into the mental health field, I spent many years studying for my advanced degrees during which time I made sure all of my traveling was either by car or by train.  Twenty nine years passed and my husband said he wanted to travel somewhere outside of North America, so we drove to Florida to take our first cruise.  The next year my husband announced that he would meet me in Florida for the next cruise because he was not willing to drive there again.  My flying phobia had grown really severe in all of these years of avoidance, but I knew it was time to face my fear.  So with great trepidation, I made the airline reservations four months before the planned trip and then I began the work to create new cerebral neurons that loved flying.  Twice a week I had long drives for nursing home consulting, and I began each drive by talking out loud to myself about how I loved flying.  I would remind myself of my accomplishments, note that many people fly and enjoy it and if they can do it so can I.  I basically engaged in a pep talk to myself for about 20 minutes.  I am convinced the verbal component is crucial because it prevents the mind from thinking an opposite thought.  Fears become greater because we give them a lot of attention. Every time we remind ourselves we are afraid of something and list the reasons why, we are reinforcing that fear and that thought races over the neural connection already established for it so that it becomes a deep trench in the brain’s neural connections. My verbal practice created a new fear free neural connection in my brain resulting in a fear free flight four months later.  Since then I have flown all over the world without fear.

Another way to empower the brain’s plasticity is to learn something new.  We all do this, of course, but often we allow our learning to decline after our school years and even more often after retirement.  But just like in childhood when we learn to walk, to talk, to ride a bike, etc., we can learn strange new things with practice.  While I was reading Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, I began writing the alphabet and one short sentence once a day for a month with my left hand.  As recommended in the book, I then stopped the practice and 4 months later when I attempted the same exercise, the writing was much improved!  The book explained that it takes some months for the new learning to coalesce and then the result is improvement.  When I broke my right wrist around this time, they handed me papers in the hospital and asked me to sign an X with my left hand.  I astonished the staff when I produced my signature with my left hand!  I highly recommend the Doidge book to anyone who is interested in learning and the brain.

At the same time we must realize that due to this plasticity, our brains are constantly learning from our environments.  Our belief system becomes structured by our surroundings.  Our brains learn not only from what we study and read, but also from what we watch on television and by the company we keep.  Even something as seemingly innocuous as a sitcom may teach us what we come to believe are acceptable norms.  Once our beliefs are formed, it is much harder to challenge them.  It is important to take a moment and try to think outside of the box and wonder about the learning environment of your brain.  Is it getting enough exposure to life enhancing information, or is its learning environment lacking in growth producing ideas and instead, its exposure is too narrow and one sided?  Does your living environment make you think or are you in a non-stimulating routine that does not promote enrichment? Are the people in your inner circle promoting growth and new ideas for you to explore or do they portray life as a struggle, every man for himself? Are they happy or complaining? Without your awareness, your brain is learning every single minute of your day.  You have control over that which you expose to your brain.  Think of your brain as a camera.  You can change its exposure.   Are you content with your daily education?  I was just wondering…………………

 

Look Again

As we welcome the New Year, many of us begin to agonize over the promise of our annual resolutions.  Because we so often fail at them or lose our commitment after a few months, I thought this year it might be fun to try something else.  Look again is a practice of quickly recreating reality.  It is fun, it is challenging, it is creative!  Are you willing to try something new?  I was just wondering…………………

Years ago, as physicists were attempting to perform a double screen experiment with light, trying to determine whether it was a wave or a particle, they became confused and frustrated.  The problem that occurred was that with each attempt to view the true nature of light, they became more confounded, as one time it appeared as a particle and the very next experiment demonstrated it to be a wave.  After a number of experiments, they finally concluded that it depended upon how you looked at it. Even more amazing, when a recorder was set up to observe the experiment, the electrons behaved in a particular way, different than when the recorder was not present.   This has awesome implications for the field of psychology and human behavior.  According to quantum mechanics, this means that consciousness defines how things behave.  So, the way we see the world is just that, the way we see the world, but not necessarily how the world is, because another consciousness (individual) sees it differently.  Also, the perspective and attitude of the viewer shapes the outcome!  We tend to think of reality as an ultimate truth, when in fact what you see is dependent upon how you look at it.  This is one of the reasons I love psychology so much.  There is no absolute reality.  When you have a disagreement with someone, from their perspective, they are right and from your perspective, you are right.  You are both right and you are both not right!  Quantum physics helps us to understand this dilemma, that is, it depends on how you look at it.

Since I first read about this concept I have remained fascinated by it.  I have tried to trace this in my own life.  I have thought myself fickle at times, because I like something, and then I don’t, but then I can see the other side and like it again for another reason.  Ultimately, I think this is a good thing because you become aware that you can always see it in a better way.  And we live by how we experience our lives.  We can be happy, we can be sad.  It depends on how we look at it.

For instance, how do you see your significant other?   I challenge you to look again.  Change your attitude and look once more.  You will learn to see the chameleon you create!  Think about it!  How much of who they are is real and how much is created by your attitude and baggage?

How about the other people in your life?  How do you treat them?  Are you really sure you are responding accurately?  Are you positive the people you don’t like are really as bad as you have concluded?  Can you look again and see them morph into something else?

Think about the things in your life you obsess over.  Do you really know why you are spending your time and energy doing this?  Knowing now more about this law of physics, can you see perhaps that things are not really the way you have been seeing them?  In order to confirm this possibility, all you have to do is to ask a few people what they think and you will get as many different answers as there are respondents!  Some will agree, sort of, wholeheartedly, a little, not at all, but they will be unlike your viewpoint.  Do you really need to hold on to these ideas that cause you distress and worry? Maybe things just aren’t exactly as you have perceived them!  Look for the hopeful and calming perspectives. As quantum physics would say, all the possibilities exist!  Chose a positive view!

Especially important is how you are seeing yourself.  Look again.  Make a list of positives if needed.  Read it every day to remind yourself that these traits exist and then look at yourself again.  Watch yourself improve as you sculpt yourself through your evolving perspective.  As the observer of yourself, you are the creator of the outcome!  That is an incredibly powerful concept!

As you begin to digest your newfound powers to create a more satisfying world by the way you are looking at it, never forget the profound authority you have over your life.  If you are not happy with what you are seeing, remind yourself of the kaleidoscope in your brain, and just shift the contents to create a new vision.  If you don’t like what you see, then shift again.  There is always another view.  Can you see it? I was just wondering……………………

 

 

Thankfulness

As I walked my dogs past Spring Lake recently, I encountered a wheel chair bound fellow basking in the sun, fishing.  I greeted him with a question, “Catch anything?”  He responded with a big smile and said “No,” without any regret, and then he laughed while he added, “It’s a good thing my wife went to the store.”  We began to chat and he informed me that he used to be a coal miner and that is where his accident occurred.  He told me he was 53, but the fact that he was paraplegic didn’t seem to disturb him at all, at least it certainly did not interfere with his ability to enjoy life.  I silently felt sorry for him, that he was unable to walk around the lake like me, that he missed out on so much that I can do that he cannot.  But I slowly began to realize that he may have a secret that I and others could learn from.  He clearly knew how to be thankful!  He was focused on what he could do, and he was definitely enjoying it! So how does a person make this transition from despair to contentment?  I was just wondering……..

During this season of Thanksgiving, this man offers us a wonderful lesson.  As I write this blog, I think of several people I know right now who are suffering deeply.  One lost a son to a tragic accident over a year ago and another lost a sister to suicide a few months ago.  These are both horrendous tragedies that even with the best efforts take time for healing.  But the most effective way to heal is always to focus away from oneself, by helping others and by being thankful for WHAT IS.

It is so easy for us to obsess about everything that is wrong with our lives. I have been guilty of that at times myself!  No one’s life is perfect!  Just remember that!  But we all have some perfection in our lives, and while we are bemoaning our sorry lot in life, all the good stuff is just waltzing on by, and  we are not even seeing it.  Just think of the happy movie going on right around us while we are lost in negative thoughts.  Perhaps we look at but don’t see the beauty of the sunset.  Maybe we miss the flower that bloomed.  Perhaps we don’t see the love offered to us because we are so enveloped in our sorrow.  Imagine that we miss the possibilities and opportunities that might make us feel better because we just can’t see beyond the sad movies we continue to view in our heads!

My favorite teaching from the Rhonda Byrne book The Secret is, “What you think about, you bring about.”  Just consider this for a moment.  Really take some time to think about how this has actually transpired in your life!  If you keep yourself into negative and unhappy thoughts, that is just where you stay.  If you begin to monitor your thoughts and change them to positive ones, then you suddenly begin to notice those beautiful and wonderful people, things, events that have always surrounded you but you simply overlooked!  Life is not about one event, one circumstance, one person.

Thanksgiving is our yearly lesson in thankfulness.  But this time I encourage you to make it a daily practice, so that you can enjoy Thanksgiving every day of your life and thereby reap the benefits of being daily nourished by the Thanksgiving message.  Every time you catch yourself being sorry, sad, depressed, discouraged, dissatisfied, angry, irritated, think immediately of something wonderful in your life. It is there!  I promise!  And you probably won’t have to look too far.

An exercise I often use to help people be thankful is to write down 20 things you like to do.  The list is a starting point to help you get focused on what makes you happy and thankful.  My list included even small things like drinking a hot cup of tea on a rainy day, watching my dogs play and roll around on the floor, feeling the breeze blow my hair while riding my bike or while walking the beach, or just spending time with good friends.  Sometimes the simplest things are the most meaningful.  Next, start doing them!

Helping someone else is another powerful way to overcome your own despair.  This will quickly focus you away from yourself and help to create concern and thankfulness.  But the best trick of all is to go to the nearest mirror, and instead of asking like the wicked witch, “Who is most beautiful?” just smile at the image before you and your troubles will magically begin to melt away as your own reflection connects to you empathically and knowingly and with forgiveness as you realize how you hurt you own soul. Celebrate your life this Thanksgiving by being grateful for it by making the very best use of it every day. Remember those who are gone by making them present in how you choose to lead your life and show your thanks to the living by being a gracious and inspiring light.

Can you make a promise to be thankful for yourself?  Can you promise to make the most of your life like the fisherman in the wheelchair, and make it a joyful encounter?  Will you treat yourself with love, caring, compassion by focusing on what it good and what you have to be thankful for rather than using your thought energy on things that can’t be changed or that you can’t have?  I was just wondering…..