Did you know that compassion, the act of recognizing someone else’s suffering with the inclination to want to support them, creates important activity shifts in the brain that are associated with resiliency and well-being?
I recently attended a talk at a fundraiser where the presenter, Amy McLaren, had conveyed her story of going to Kenya with her husband and making a deal with a child there that if he shares his report card with them at the end of the month, they would pay for a month of his schooling.
They didn’t expect him to follow through, but after they returned back to Canada, a month later they received a letter with a picture of this boy holding up his report card.
He followed through and so did they.
Every month he would send his report card and every month they would pay for another month of school. Years later this boy is now in business school and has developed
For years now I’ve been studying about what helps create more resilience and happiness within us. I’ve looked to my own life, the life of my clients and students and toward the psychological and neuroscience research. What I’ve found is that within each and every one of us are a core set of natural anti-depressants that when we intentionally tap into shifts our brain activity in ways that can lend itself to an anti-depressant brain. One of the natural anti-depressants that I’ve come to find that helps break a bad mood and create positive neural activity is Play!
In Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion I describe play as “a flexible state of mind in which you are presently engaged in some freely chosen and potentially purposeless activity that you find interesting, enjoyable, and satisfying.”
Here’s a great video that shows adults playing and the results. Take a look and see what you notice.
Note: There are plenty more, but I thought these top the charts.
Myth #1: Mindfulness if for taking a time-out from life, quieting the mind and reducing stress.
Truth: I think this is the #1 myth out there because it’s my experience that this is how people initially experience the practice. One of the greatest entry points to mindfulness in the West is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This is a fantastic program with wonderful science behind it, but the name is just for marketing. The ultimate goal isn’t meant to be stress reduction. The goal of mindfulness and MBSR is to wake up to the inner workings of our mental, emotional and physical processes, recognize the connectedness between people and operate in the world with greater self-compassion and compassion.
However, the initial practices can often give people sense of relief from a busy mind and can then be equated with a mental break. While there’s nothing wrong with using it this way, it also minimizes the power of mindfulness.
The paradox here is when we’re able to do just be present to our minds, emotions and bodies, the stressful relationship tends to quiet down, but when we try and quiet the mind down, we often add fuel to the fire.
Myth #2: You need to carve out plenty of time in a serene “mindful” space.
We all experience resistance everyday when we’re trying to do something that matters. Whether you want to sit and meditate, work on a new project, get out and exercise, whatever it is that is in the direction of growth, resistance comes
alive. In my next book Uncovering Happiness (can’t wait to share it with you – January, 2015), I explore some of the neuroscience behind what keeps us stuck in a depressive loop and how to get unstuck and even find our natural anti-depressants and thrive. While resistance lies within a depressive spiral, you don’t have to have had experienced depression in the past to know resistance, it’s a universal daily experience for all of us.
But the deeper question is, where does it reside in the brain and how do we overcome it?
I don’t believe anyone has conducted and brain scan specifically on resistance, but one thing we do know is that the right side of the prefrontal region that lies behind your forehead lights up when we’re trying to avoid something. This same region also lights up with negative emotions.
One thing we’re wanting to do is intentionally practice and repeat shifting the activity to the left prefrontal region that is more associated with approaching things in life and with resiliency.
The fact is resistance is relentless, it’s a deeply ingrained wiring that we all have to move away from what the brain anticipates to be uncomfortable and stay with what’s comfortable. Not only is this hardwired into most of us, but we’ve practiced is so often that it’s strengthened the default. The brain has such a lock on us, that we’re not even aware of it.
This is why procrastination is so common.
So what do we do about it?
The best way to get the brain to change it seems is through engaging novelty. Kids are doing it like crazy, everything is new. I remember when my oldest was born and we’d walk around the neighborhood. I’d grab a leaf on a tree and say, “See this, this is a leaf. Look closely at the shape and see how it has veins.” In the process I was interacting with life as if for the first time and it inspired wonder and joy within me. I tapped into something important and I knew it.
In the now famous book Tuesdays with Morrie, Morrie points us in the direction of happiness:
“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
One of the wonderful surprises of being a therapist all these years is how big the gift of being of service can be. I have the privilege of knowing people intimately and supporting them in opening their hearts and uncovering happiness. When I sit with that, it gives me an immense sense of purpose. Herein lies life’s beautiful paradox: The more love you give away, the more love you have. The ripple effects give me immense joy.
Through this experience I’ve realized at times it’s important to relay back what I’ve learned.
1. Essential Books to Have at Your Bedside
Aside from Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion (debut: January, 2015) - wink! – I’m a big fan of books that keep it simple. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk who writes simply and elegantly and I am a fan of many of his works. Taming the Tiger Within and The Miracle of Mindfulness are some of my favorites.
2. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
That there’s an end goal.
I don’t mean that people need to be in therapy for an indefinite time, but there’s a faulty notion of achieving some end state. This focus makes therapy more difficult as the mind is cluttered with an expectation instead of focusing on learning. Even if insurance only covers 10 sessions and wants a definitive end goal, we have to always keep in mind that therapy is a vehicle for learning and while we can begin to master certain ways of being, growing and learning about ourselves in life never ends.
3. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
Take two minutes to read this blog post; it may truly be the thing today that can save your life.
First before we begin, watch this surprising video below (runtime 1:47).
The National Safety Council says there are currently 1.6 million accidents per year for texting while driving.
How could it not be true that the way many of us engage with Smartphones while in the car is not responsible for a rising amount of death tolls and injuries?
To some extent, it’s important to understand how the brain science may be working in the case of driving with the phone.
Scientists John Gaspar and John McDonald from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia have recently discovered that we have an anti-distraction mode in our brain (See an overview here or the actual study here). This means that focusing on what matters moment-to-moment is not only about intentionally paying attention to something, like reading this blog post or listening to a friend, but also about suppressing all of the distractions in the background.
Why is this important to us and what can we do about it?
From time to time I’ll bring you a leader in the field of Mindfulness who I believe has something to really teach us. Linda Graham, MFT is the author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, where she does an excellent job showing us how mindfulness can help to rewire our brain for greater resilience. Linda has a wealth of experience as a seasoned clinician and also as a mindfulness teacher and practitioner.
Today she’ll talk to us about what parts of the brain to bolster for resiliency, a practice to help us do just that and the critical roles of compassion and equanimity.
Elisha: What makes someone resilient has been one of the foremost questions of our time. Are there parts of the brain we want to pay attention to when thinking of resiliency?
Have you ever thought about what your thoughts really are?
Consider for a moment even as you’re reading this the voices and images that are naturally appearing in your mind as your brain processes this sentence.
Close your eyes for 10 seconds. Imagine you’re in a dark movie theatre and just watch these mental events forming and unforming. Some are voices questioning what you’re doing, others are telling you what you should pay attention to, or yet others are just a string of different images shifting and changing (You can also be guided through this practice).
Even after looking at them are hearing them in your mind right now, are you any closer to understanding what thoughts are?
The truth is not a single scientist can tell you for certain what a thought is, but somehow we become highly identified with them.
We say, “I am a teacher,” or “I am a good person” or “I am a failure” or “I make the best chocolate chip cookies” or “I am an addict” or “I am a depressed person” or “I am unworthy, unlovable and defective.” The stories go on and on.
From the time we are born we collect these stories to define who we are and what we can achieve in this life. When the thoughts are judgments, can we say for certainty that they’re true? The answer is almost always, no. But the thoughts lead to feelings or the reinforcement of feelings that were already there. Inevitably they feel true.
What it comes down to is we are not our thoughts, not even the ones that say we are.
How do I know this?