Most of us walk around in this world in a trance with the delusional belief that we are only autonomous beings that are completely acting with free will. However, many scientists agree that we are interdependent with our environments and our brains are constantly making snap judgments based on internal and external cues. You have recall this quote by Albert Einstein: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” The notion of willpower, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, or manning up fails to take the psychological and scientific realities into mind. Alcoholics Anonymous has it right, if you're addicted to substances you need to get them out of the house and begin to change your relationships. This was certainly my experience with my own struggle with substances years ago. Considering the impact of our environments on our ability to be happy and make the changes we want to make, can drastically facilitate more adherence to whatever habits you're trying to break or create. Years ago, UC Berkeley Researcher Marian Diamond conducted a study where she randomly put mice in a few different cages. One had toys and playmates, one had playmates and one had neither. After a few weeks, they found that the brains of the mice that had toys and playmates had thicker cerebral cortices than the other two. This part of the brain is associated with higher order functions like cognitive processing. In fact, the one without toys and playmates showed the thinnest layer. This is just to say that our environments not only impact our behavior, but also impact our brains (which impact our behavior).
So what's the secret sauce?
The comic strip Calvin and Hobbes has been one of my all time favorites since I was a teen. The author and illustrator, Bill Watterson, really had a way with images and words. One of the strips I've enjoyed looking at, and reminds me of this work in mindfulness, is with Calvin and Hobbes walking together in the snow saying, "We're so busy watching out for what's just ahead of us that we don't take time to enjoy where we are." This is so simple, and the mere recognition of this as a practice in daily life could help us drastically reduce our stress levels (and help us be happier). I've had a lot going on recently in my life. As I was sitting next to a pool watching my kids play, my head was swimming with all the future endeavors coming up. In that moment, likely because of my mindfulness practice, I naturally took a deep breath and as I exhaled realized that in this moment I was safe. My kids were playing, and this was a beautiful moment. In the six-month program, A Course in Mindful Living, I introduce three statements that help deepen our "good moments," getting those neurons firing in a resilient direction. The next time you notice a good experience say:
There has been a growing amount of evidence that mindfulness can help us kick our bad habits. In a recent study, 63 participants who were addicted to stimulants received behavioral treatment for 12 weeks. Four weeks into the program they were randomly assigned to either one group received mindfulness training targeted at cravings and urges or another that received health education. At the end of 12 weeks, researchers measured changes in participants use of stimulants and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Eighty seven percent of the participants who had major depression were not using stimulants at the end of the 12 weeks versus 67% of the health education group. One month later 100% of the depressed patients were off of stimulants compared to 50% in the health education group. How could this be? Change happens through experience and community support, not as much through cognitive education. Mindfulness helps slow us down and creates space from the cravings (desires) and urges (feelings) that can control our attention and decision making. The reality is the greatest "bad habit" we have is our thinking. The snap judgment of whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, fair or unfair all happens faster than the blink of an eye and then leads to the behavioral bad habit. Mindfulness trains awareness of this and over time the actual craving or urge becomes a "wake-up call" in the moment to choose a different response. A healthier response. After we practice and repeat noticing the urges and cravings that span from cutting people off while they're talking, to stress eating, to more intense and destructive addictive behaviors, our awareness starts to be more automatic. Our awareness of our choices also grows and so we actually expand our "cognitive flexibility" which is correlated with well-being. On top of that, when we feel better, we also tend to be more resilient and so the spiral goes up!
A Breaking Bad Habit Exercise - 5 Steps
I haven't met many people who say they wouldn't enjoy feeling more relaxed or even being able to relax-on-demand. The good news is that according to a study published in the journal Nature, learning how to get better at relaxing, not only feels good, but increases our brain's ability to remember new information (including strengths of mindfulness, compassion and joy). The researchers in this study recruited eight epileptic volunteers who were shown 100 photos and then 30 minutes later were shown 50 of the same and 50 different photos. They then had to tell the researcher which photos they had seen before and which they had not. While the participants were using their memory, the researchers used electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes to record electrical activity in the area of the brain where memories are formed. The findings showed that recognition was highest when participants were in a relaxed state (referencing "theta waves"). Okay, it's not necessarily news that we learn better when we're more relaxed, so why does this matter? It matters because at this point in time, we happen to live in a petri dish of overstimulation and fractured partial attention on a daily basis. The way we're living right now stresses out our nervous systems making it really difficult for any new learning (mental or behavioral) to really stick. Some people think mindfulness meditation is the answer - a tool that is meant to actively relax us. But no, it's meant to help us cultivate awareness so we can make wise choices, which may be to
To be human is to be in relationship with difficult people. The reality is if all the difficult people in our lives felt deep kindness in their hearts, they would cease to be difficult people. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, "Peace in oneself, peace in the world." Aside from learning how to create a calm and stable mind, one of the months in my 6-month global online program A Course in Mindful Living (coming early October, 2016) is spent entirely on learning how to realize the power of compassion and connection in our lives formally and informally. This not only impacts us, but the people around us, and the emotional contagion of it can create immensely beneficial ripple effects. There's an informal practice that I’ve been doing for a while that is so simple and yet so impactful in working with difficult people and also bringing a sense of balance and perspective in the moment, it’s almost shocking to me. I live in Los Angeles, California which is well known as a city with one of the highest degrees of traffic. If we were to be able to peek into the average LA driver’s brain I think you’d see a hyperactive amygdala and most of the blood flow moving out of the prefrontal cortex. In other words, LA drivers can be a large group of difficult people with emotions and stress running high. One day while I was driving here I was cut off by some sports car who seemed to be speeding weaving in and out of the car lanes. My teeth locked together and my shoulders tensed and what went through my mind is only appropriate on HBO. In that moment I realized how tense I was and likely how out of control that driver was. It made me think of all the cars on the road and how many people were very likely tense in their cars. That simple recognition sparked the beginning of something important. My shoulders dropped a bit and the question arose, “What is it that I’m actually needing right now?” The word “ease” came to mind. So I said…
Lately I've had a lot of aggravation in my heart. Right now there seems to be so much turbulence and violence, verbal and physical, in the world. On top of that, because our brains' are wired with a negativity bias, we're automatically drawn to the fear, anger, and turbulence. The media knows this and so they keep updating their pages with new stories about negative things. The cycle is vicious, depressing and contagious, leading to more anger, fear and reactivity. It doesn't have to be this way. Our hearts don't need to be aggravated anymore, instead they need to be touched and soothed, acknowledging the pain and opening up to a vision of a brighter future. Here is a wonderful family's rendition of singer, songwriter Matisiyahu's song One Day.
We all want to be happy, undeniably. For some people happiness comes easier than others, but what we're starting to understand is that happiness -- that sense of connection and ease of appreciating the good moments and being more graceful and resilient during the difficult ones -- is a skill and strength that we can all build. Here are Five Simple Ways to Increase Happiness in Daily Life (Note: Set all judgments aside when you read this, practice these techniques for yourself, and let experience be your teacher.) Practice happiness for other people's happiness - When you see others doing good things for themselves such as exercising, laughing with a group of friends, or experiencing an accomplishment, practice being supportive to them in your mind. Say things like, "good for you for taking care of yourself" or "glad you're having a moment of joy." Smile in your mind at them or just say, "Yes!" Practice non-violent communication toward yourself - We've known for a long time we're our own worst critics, and the way we talk to ourselves has a major impact on how we feel. Being a little self-critical is okay, but most of us experience it all too regularly. That has to be nipped in the bud. See if you can label any of that self-judgment, and in that moment flip it to actively thinking about things you like about yourself.
There seems to be a whole lot of mind troubling and heart wrenching news in the world today. The world's current atmosphere can give our minds endless fuel to race, worry, and catastrophize. When you turn on the news these days, it's all disaster. These disasters are real, but the stories in our minds that the world is going to hell in a hand basket may not be. Our brains are designed to project into the future and attempt to predict the worst case scenarios so we can be prepared. It doesn't do us any good to continue in a state of auto-pilot with a hyperaroused nervous system, spreading worry, negativity and catastrophe throughout our social circle. Not only are our storylines a source of suffering, but spreading these catastrophic stories through our social networks creates an emotional contagious of emotional suffering. We already get enough of that through the news. The news knows that our eyeballs get fused to the screen at signs of danger and plays on it so it can sell more soap. It's a business and the bottom line is truly to make more money and it knows how to play on our concerns. This is the same for MSNBC, CNN, and Fox news - money has no party loyalty. The news isn't going to make a big fuss about the millions and millions of dollars going into mindfulness and compassion research globally, or about these police officers who paid the check of a
This will be a short piece because I know you're likely busy, but I promise it to be an important one. Recently, I was eating with my family at a hotel restaurant in Liberia, Costa Rica and next to us I catch this older man who was sitting by himself, coming over to a young couple and placing a hand on both of their shoulders. I overheard him saying, "I hope you don't mind an old man sharing some kind thoughts with you. It breaks my heart to see a couple together on vacation in a special place like this on their phones together. Please put your phones away and be with each other." They both smiled, put their phones away, and the young man reached out toward the woman across the table and they connected. I thought that was a pretty bold move on the older man's part (and I was cheering for him in my mind). The next morning I caught him at breakfast and thanked him for helping not only that couple, but also reminding me how precious the moments in life are.
In the United States we're heading into a potential turbulent political atmosphere that has the potential to be disrupting to even our closet relationships. You may remember from past elections, it's that moment we say something about some candidate or issue and as the last syllables leave our lips our brain has figured out that we have just ignited a fire that we won't be able to put out. The fact is, especially when something is emotionally charged, we often time don’t think before we speak. Our words become actions and actions become consequences. Unfortunately the consequences land us in relationship problems, a blown business deal, or just the general reinforcement of unhealthy mind traps. But there's a way to optimize the way we communicate in this political climate. Just consider, what would the days, weeks and months ahead look like if before we all spoke about politics we considered three questions: