Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mindfulness and the Stress Proofed Brain

"Dream"  Collage by Lani and textures from FlyPaper
Continuing to work on the training of the elephant mind, and thinking about stress (you may remember the Stress and Krispy Kreme post?) and it's negative effects on our poor elephants,  I thought I would explore some of Rick Hanson's work.   It dove tails so well with what I've been learning from Kelly McGonigal and from Christine Carter's eCourse "Breaking the Habit Code."

In  Stress-Proof Your Brain Hanson explains our responses to stress.   We are biologically wired to respond to things we perceive as a challenge to our survival in certain predictable ways.  Hanson says that that we have developed three systems (approach, avoid, and affiliate or socialize) that have their own way of handling a perceived challenge to our survival.   The first system (approach) will become quite grasping when stressed.  It will feel that there's a scarcity of what ever it needs and grab as much as possible.  The second system (avoid) will create feelings of fear and anger, the desire to flee or fight.  The third system (affiliate) will react to stress by feeling loss and separation, feeling unloved, becoming very self-involved.  It tends to look for love "in all the wrong places" under these conditions.

Traditionally these responses were fine in stressful situations, because traditionally stress was produced by a single event of shortish duration, and we could depend on our various systems to get us through the event.   The trouble with this is that today, with our high speed, noisy, cluttered, over-crowded lives, stress is no longer an event of shortish duration, it is chronic, on-going, for ever and ever.  We get up in the morning, rushing to work, there's never enough time, traffic is always horrendous, and when we get to work there are always too many deadlines, we continually disappoint the boss who threatens to make us redundant, and of course there's the demands of the family when we get home at night.  We have a physical response to stress, our heart beats faster,  our breath gets shallow, blood pressure rises.  These physical sensations can lead to further self absorption, a heightened sensitivity about internal and external stimulus, and of course lots of negative emotions.

Chronic stress disturbs our digestion, suppresses our immune system, irritates the cardiovascular system, the endocrine system, and the nervous system.  Cortisol is produced, stimulates the amygdala which creates more cortisol, and weakens the hippocampus' ability to quiet the amygdala.  It's as if our inner alarm bells get louder and louder while our ability to handle everything, or to put everything in perspective gets weaker.  Our resilience strategies go out the window, we become fearful towards others, they respond and we are further stressed.  What a mess!

To tell you the truth, I had been thinking that when I get through this or that deadline, I'll be able to calm down, and then I will be able to be more mindful, meditate better and be more focused.  You get the sense of this, it's sort of "if only this or that" thinking.  I'm beginning to realize, though, that there is no way that this fast paced culture is going to change so that I can live more mindfully, lol.

Thankfully Hanson suggested a different approach.  He looked at the three systems (approach, avoid, and affiliate or socialize) in a state of well being.  The "approach" system, when in a state of well being, feels contentment, satisfaction, and a sense of "enoughness".  If the "avoid" system is in a state of well being we tend to have a feeling of safety.  We have compassion and restraint and the ability to fix what we perceive as "wrong".  If the "affiliate" system is in a state of well being then there is a feeling of already being connected to others and our actions will be of compassion and kindness towards all.

Clearly finding ways to boost our feelings of well being right now are in order (not tomorrow, or even the nebulous "if only")!  We can't really wait for that happy day when the culture changes, the world slows down, and our bosses stop creating deadlines.  If we want to live a long and happy life, train our elephants well, we need to protect our brains from chronic stress.  Hanson suggests we need to train our brains to respond to events from a place of well being instead of stress!  Yes!  He suggests mindfulness training is a wonderful route to developing that place of well being.  Of course being an art therapist, I would want to find ways to use art in my daily well-being practices.  What kinds of practices would you employ to stress proof your brain?

Want to read some research that backs up Hanson's ideas?  Phillippe R. Goldin has a whole page of papers on mindfulness here for the downloading, bless him!

Here's a great interview with Rick Hanson in which he goes into more detail about MRI's, our anterior (frontal) cingulate cortex, the insula, and dialing down negative states of mind while increasing positive states of mind.

Also, tangentially related, for those in education, here's an interesting video interview with Michael Posner, talking about cognitive neuroscience or the brain and education. 


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Working on a "Training the Elephant" eZine

Collage by Lani
I have had the best time with this "Training the Elephant" metaphor and all of the links and research  Christine Carter included in her eCourse "Breaking the Habit Code" (which you can read about here).  I initially took Christine's course to develop my morning routine, to fine tune it and make it more inspiring somehow.  Winter can get a bit bleak here in Nova Scotia, and it seems to go on a lot longer than it should, even with climate change.  Any way, I thought why not up the creativity quotient and ask my winter blahs or blues to exit ASAP.   What I found was that I did indeed fine tune my morning routine, I did discover loads more energy, and I started having way more fun with my  morning pages.  Not that I didn't have fun before, but I started posting them every morning on Facebook and Instagram, so these social networking sites became a part of my daily practice.  And of course these two sites have the possibility for positive feedback, which is something we humans (both the trainer mind and the elephant mind) really enjoy.

So it seems like an eZine with art directives and ideas for creating your own daily creativity practice might be just the thing.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

A Mindfulness Exercise

"A Way of Life"  Collage by Lani and textures from FlyPaper
One of the final reflections/meditations in The Neuroscience of Change is a very interesting writing assignment. 

McGonigal has us choose an inner experience that we tend to want to avoid, something unpleasant that we tend to have aversion towards(but not our biggest challenge).  It can be a thought, memory, or a physical sensation that we often wish to avoid.  Write it down.  What would the opposite of this thought, memory, or physical sensation be?  We want to bring this into our awareness in order to accept and perhaps transform the difficult inner experience.  (I know that aversion and suppression don't work, so trying something new sounds good to me!) There may be a few possibilities for this "opposite" sensation or thought.  Write them down. 

Then McGonigal suggests we bring ourselves into mindfulness, paying attention to this moment and our breath coming and going from our body, and once we are in a mindful, observant state, just observe things arise and fall away.  Now we can bring into mind the "opposite" experience or thought, memory, or sensation that we wrote down.  What word or image would help us bring this "opposite" experience to our mind and body.  What does this feel like?  What thoughts or emotions arise? 

Now we can come back to a mindful awareness of the breath.  Notice sensations and perceptions as they arise.  Bring to mind the avoided or aversive experience, the unpleasant one.  Is there a specific time or something that would trigger this feeling?  What does this feel like?  What thoughts or emotions arise? 

Now bring back to mind the "opposite" feeling in what ever way is easiest.  Notice the freedom we have to move between these states. We can now bring our awareness back to body and breath and then bring awareness to our environment.  We can write down anything that stands out for us about this process!  Wow!

I tried this and it seems like a very good writing experience to try after reading yesterday's blog about mindfulness and multiculturalism.  Instead of pushing away those embarrassing prejudices and stereotypes and fears, look for their opposites and try calling both to mind.  Try moving fluidly between these feelings. 

Yes, change is possible!

Monday, February 04, 2013

Mindfulness, Acceptance and Multiculturalism

"Exploring Elephant Mind" Collage by Lani and textures from FlyPaper
What I learned today from  The Neuroscience of Change is fun and a little counter-intuitive.  In the last segment of this program McGonigal describes some amazing research.   She said that there were two groups of students who were shown a photograph of a "skinhead" and asked to write an imaginative story about a day in his life.  One group was asked to suppress their stereotypes while they wrote their stories, while the other group was given more accepting type directives.  "You may notice that this photo will call up various feeling states because of past experience or because of values inherited from the dominant culture.  Don't worry, this is normal, just observe these feeling states as they arise."  The students who were given the "suppress prejudice and stereotypes" actually included more stereotypes in their writing that the students who were taught to be mindful and accepting of their feelings.  When both sets of students were given the opportunity to meet the individual that was in the photograph, the "suppressing" students wouldn't sit as close to the "skinhead" as the "mindfulness and acceptance" students. The "mindfulness and acceptance" students were also more willing to put themselves into situations where they were visible minorities.  Pretty interesting findings, right? 

Because this was on MP3's there were no references and because this research seemed pretty important for working in multicultural settings I persevered and found McGonigal's blog on Psychology Today in which she described the same research.  Her reference list is here:

Legault, L., Gutsell, J. N., and Inzlicht, M. (in press). Ironic effects of anti-prejudice messages: How motivational intervention reduces (but also increases) prejudice. Psychological Science.

Lillis, J., and Hayes, S. C. (2007). Applying acceptance, mindfulness, and values to the reduction of prejudice: A pilot study. Behavior Modification, 31(4), 389-411.

Macrae, C. N., Bodenhausen, G. V., Milne, A. B., and Jetten, J. (1994). Out of mind but back in sight: Stereotype on the rebound. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 808-817.

So in a way, this whole "learning to ride the elephant" metaphor has been a practice and study of mindfulness and acceptance.  Learning about the challenges of our genetics and evolution (our hard wiring to go for sugar, salt, and fats, for example) is all about accepting the urges of the elephant.  I know I have wasted a lot of energy in the past, arguing and trying to "suppress" the elephant's love of donuts or chocolate, and I can tell you first hand that suppression really doesn't work.

Try this: Get your elephant (or the craving brain) to not think about his or her favorite not-so-great habit.  It's pretty hard, maybe impossible.   Now try talking with the elephant or craving brain.  Tell it you want to learn as much as you can about these normal, hard-wired urges and you want to learn all about surfing them.  The elephant will feel much better, more understood, and we will have more success in training it rather than suppressing it.  Once again thank you Kelly McGonigal!  This feels so possible and hopeful!

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Ignite Change

"Ignite Change" Collage by Lani
To continue with The Willpower Instinct and The Neuroscience of Change and the nature of our two minds (the rider and the elephant) McGonigal points out that having an overarching reason for the changes you want to make is necessary.  We need really good, strong reasons to encourage the elephant to try new habits.  So she has 6 questions which I will play with here:
1. What is your most important goal?  This should be so true, so real that you might not want to say it out loud, something so true it might bring tears to your eyes to say it.   So my most important goal would be to be awake and aware of positive choices that are available as much as possible, and to make those choices, of course.
2.  What is your deepest motivation for realizing this goal?  I have met people who have embodied kindness and generosity.  There is something quite wonderful and simple about this.  I think my deepest motivation for looking for the positive choices that are available would be to help create more kindness and generosity in the world and to learn to be more like the folks I most admire.
3.  What specific action can I take to honor this motivation?  I think that creating new little habits (see BJ Fogg and his "3 Tiny Habits" website and eCourse) that are expressions of kindness and generosity would be a great start.  And if they were habits that I could build on and grow, all the better!
4.  When, where, and how are you willing to take action? Right here, right now, with my whole heart, I'm happy to take action.  Me and my elephant are ready!
5.  What is the biggest obstacle to taking this action?  There is no obstacle at the moment.  But  McGonigal reminds us that folks who are most successful with their goals are the ones who plan for set backs or obstacles and plan their way around them.  So I would have to say that loosing momentum or energy might be an obstacle, or getting stressed or annoyed about something could be bad news.  These could all get in the way of my best choices, or my best elephant/trainer cooperation.
6. What action will you take to prevent or overcome this action?  One of the best actions that I am taking is my daily art and yoga practice.  I know that some yogis dedicate their practice to someone or something.  Perhaps that might be an awesome idea, dedicating my daily practice to the continuing creation of kindness and generosity.  And if an obstacle emerges that needs to be overcome, I can look at my daily art making for the needed reminder of the direction in which the elephant and rider are heading.

PS - A very cool thing happened when I sent one of my elephant/rider collages to my sister.  She sent back a short message, "Oh, it's the Pu Hsien Bodhisattva."  So I looked Pu Hsien up, and indeed, she's wonderful.  She is the personification of love, sacred activity, virtue, diligent training and patience.  (How perfect is that?  But it gets better!)  She is usually found together with Kuan Yin (Compassion) and Wen-Shu (Wisdom) and these "Three Precious Bodhisattvas" represent the qualities that make up the Buddha's "Essence."

Pu Hsien Fusa is known for her limitless generosity as well as her Ten Great Vows, which are directed towards benefiting all sentient beings. They are:
1. To honor the Buddhas.
2. To praise the Tathagatas.
3. To make generous offerings.
4. To confess past sins (admitting when the elephant slips) and to reform (help the elephant come back to the path).
5. To rejoice in the virtues and happiness of others.
6. To request Buddha to teach the Dharma.
7. To request Buddha to stay in the world.
8. To study the Dharma in order to teach it.
9. To benefit all sentient beings.
10. To transfer all merit and virtue to all sentient beings.