May 4, 2016

How Are You Shaping Your Brain?

Human nature is interesting: we receive both praise and blame for the same action. If an idea becomes popular, there's often a backlash. Last fall, Adam Grant wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times: "Can We End the Meditation Madness?" [It's an interesting read, even for this mindfulness teacher.] Grant notes the lack of rigorous studies on meditation, quoting Richie Davidson—a leading neuroscientist and meditation researcher.

Just recently, I watched an interview with Davidson, where he responded to the NYT article. His response: "Here's what I can say with total confidence: our brains are constantly being shaped—wittingly or unwittingly. Most of the time, our brains are being shaped unwittingly." There you have it: most of the time, our brains are being shaped unwittingly

There's a sea of information in our culture. There's external cues: conversation, news, social media, magazines, entertainment, workplace activity, home environment, and the natural world. There's internal cues: physical sensations, emotions, ideas, judgments, opinions, and thoughts. We get to choose how this information impacts our minds.

I'll give two (extreme) examples of shaping our brains:
1. Get up; check Facebook; watch a few cat videos on YouTube; eat breakfast while reading the paper; say a cursory goodbye to family; drive to work while checking the phone at each red light; work all day, distracted by texts, FB updates, and thoughts of the past or future; get take-out on the way home; eat dinner, where the whole family is on devices; check email one more time; turn on the television and fall asleep on the couch.

2. Get up; meditate; eat breakfast in a non-rushed way, perhaps catching up with family members; drive to work in silence, no radio; work all day, motivated by the most important tasks; take a walk outside during the lunch hour, noticing sights and sounds; make a homemade, simple dinner; hug someone; while eating, share the ups and downs of the day; intentionally use social media; take another walk outside; choose an activity for the evening that fills instead of depletes; take quiet time before bed.

I'm not a neuroscientist, but the first scenario shapes the brain to be distracted, separated, and anxious. The second scenario shapes the brain to be aware, connected, and content. Most of us exist somewhere between these two examples. But it's helpful to ask: How am I shaping my brain in this moment? What seeds am I cultivating? 

Our brains are plastic. We can allow them to be shaped unconsciously or consciously. If we identify our core values—that which matters most to us—we can use this to shape our brains. Perhaps not constantly, but regularly. And small changes can have a big impact.

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April 25, 2016

Try Something New: Do Nothing

Meditation has taught me many things. One lesson: refrain. The most skillful action can be non-action; the wisest speech can be silence; the best “doing” can be being. To refrain implies self-control, which quickly morphs: improve yourself, do more, achieve. But that’s not my message. True refraining is open and wise. It’s an act of self-kindness. It’s a gift: pause, stay, and be. Do nothing. Look inward. Be kind.

What is enough? This moment is enough. I am enough. You are enough. We’ve arrived; we're at home in our lives. When can we stop? Right now. It’s an act of self-kindness.

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April 18, 2016

Morning Routine

Scenario 1: I wake up, make coffee, and while the coffee brews, I meditate. Post meditation, I prioritize my workflow. Then I put my full attention on the first task: I use my alert morning energy for an hour, focusing on what's most important; working from intention. After an hour, if I choose, I check email or social media, but I return to what's most important. And at the end of the day, I feel satisfaction and ease.

Scenario 2: I wake up, make coffee, and turn on the computer. I check email and look at social media. I'm distracted into an activity that may or may not be important; I put out a fire that probably isn't urgent; I lose touch with my intention. (Email can be a rabbit hole.) Later in the day, I meditate, and I notice I'm off track, lost in trance.

Morning routine sets a tone for the day. Our morning habits create conditions that either support or deplete our intentions. It's always possible to begin again (like when I enter through Scenario 2, realize I'm off track, and start anew), but it's most helpful when I meet the day with awareness and intention. This needn't be grandiose. It can be a 5-minute pause as the coffee brews, deciding what projects are most important. It can be a 3-breath pause as I sip my coffee, even in front of the computer. It can be a short walk around the block, noticing the sights and sounds of nature.

What do you most need in your life? Reflection, focus, ease, quiet, connection, or meaning? Try to bring that intention into your morning routine. Start small. Think of one small change you can make to your mornings. If you forget one day, try again the next. And know this: I'm right beside you in the practicetrying to remember to remember; trying to bring presence and mindfulness to more moments.

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April 13, 2016

Healing the Poverty Within

Last week, a friend shared this Mother Teresa quote: "Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat." Giving someone food is easy. Giving someone compassion and care is hard. When life gets busy, it's easier to write a check. It's harder to volunteer our time, compassion, and willingness to listen. But care and compassion are desperately needed. And small, kind actions make a big impact.

Today I see this quote through a different lens: Consider the unwanted, unloved, uncared-for parts of ourselves. Self-kindness is not our natural habit. But if we ignore our needs, push away difficulties, and speak harshly to ourselves, we create poverty inside our psyche. A poverty that cannot be helped with food or material goods. 

My new perspective on Mother Teresa came while driving.  After supporting a friend, I was overwhelmed by emotion. Sobbing, I stopped by the side of the road. I paused to feel. And what I felt was resistance. It was like a 5-year-old tantrum: I want this pain to stop! I want my grief to go away. Grief: the unwanted, uncared-for place in myself. So in the car, on the side of the road, I put my hand on my heart, and spoke aloud, "Oh, dear, sweet, Joy, this grief won't go away, and that's okay. Let's stay here as long as you need." 

Here's an equation: pain x resistance = suffering. Here's a different equation: pain x self-compassion = healing. It's possible to develop self-compassion. It's a practice, which needs patience and commitment, but it really works. And it doesn't require scads of time. Too often we're driven by scarcity of time. ("I don't have time to take care of myself.") Time is a big deal in our culture. So many wholesome practices we don't have time for; so many meaningless activities we make time for. But this is just resistance, and resistance can change. (I didn't always say, "Oh, dear, sweet, Joy" in moments of difficulty. This came gradually, with practice.)

You can start exactly where you are. You can start in this moment. Six minutes to begin a practice of self-compassion. With my whole heart, I invite you to try:

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April 8, 2016

Not Knowing

Poet Jeanne Lohmann writes: "Two more words to let go: never and always, and through the space they leave I look out on possibility where categories become boulders beside the trail." What if the trail was covered in possibility and not knowing?

There's so much I assume I know: the way a person (always) acts, how a situation "should" be, or the conditions I need for happiness. But these aren't the truth, they're just expectations. And when I expect things to be a certain way, I invite disappointment.

Though it challenges me daily, I'm trying to not know; to allow for possibility. Because people change, surprises happen, and curiosity opens my heart. After years in academia trying to analyze, understand, and know, I open to the mystery of this moment: Who knows what might happen? This question makes space for possibility, surprise, and wonder. It softens my heart and opens my mind.

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March 20, 2016

The Power of Kindness

A story from my last year in academia: It's the first week of term, students wrangling to get into my over-enrolled classes. After a long day, I receive a phone call from my sister: "Dad's in the hospital. They think he had a stroke." I start sobbing. Jackie quickly replies, "Joy, he's okay. The doctors are doing more tests, but it's probably a mini-stroke. He's okay." The rest of the evening, I process and wait. Before bed, I talk to Dad for a long while. He tells me he's fine, answers my questions, and even sounds happy. I feel reassured though still shaken. (Later, we learn it was bell's-palsy of the 7th optic nerve, not a stroke. How quickly things change. A reminder of the preciousness of life.)

The next morning, I'm exhausted and raw. There's a light knock on my office door. I feel irritable, anticipating yet another student who must get into my class. The student enters and I feel armor encompassing me. She asks if there's space in my course. I firmly say "no." She lingers. I begrudgingly ask about her situation, which she explains in detail. I maintain that the class is full. Then something shifts: I really look at her. I see her as a person, and I see the protection around my heart. I know my class is the best choice for her, and though I feel over-burdened, this isn't her fault. So I invite her in. As she fills out a note card about herself, I take a bathroom break.

In the bathroom stall, I quietly cry. I'm tender and vulnerable, but this armor around my heart isn't helpful. It separates me from myself and others. And it separates me from kindness. So I return to my office and apologize to the student. I tell her about my night. I tell her I'm tired and not my best self. She smiles and says, "It's okay. I really appreciate you letting me in the class." 

This was an awakening moment: I saw the importance of kindness. First I saw how kindness gets lost when I armor my heart; how it gets lost in busyness and urgency. Then I saw my path back in: pause, notice, open, and be real. My act of kindness didn't just help this student, it helped me. It helped me return to myself and what I most value.

Now I regularly use kindness to shift my mood or maintain good spirits. These acts needn't be grand. They can be quite ordinary: holding the door for another, giving a genuine compliment, getting coffee for a colleague, smiling at a stranger, or sending well-wishes via postal mail. When I move from a place of kindness, I feel better. I feel more open and connected. And I'm available to accept kindness—to see the good in others.

I think kindness is powerful—more powerful than greed and anger. Whether we give or receive kindness, we benefit. Kindness flows in both directions; it connects us. When we feel overwhelmed, not sure how to navigate this uncertain life, we can take one small step: Be kind. Be kind to ourselves, friends, and strangers. Because kindness changes the world in small yet powerful ways.

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March 13, 2016

Return to Childhood

There are different types of laughter. Some aren't pleasant: forced laughter in a social situation or unkind laughter at another's expense. But then there's genuine, gleeful laughter that awakens and heals us. The kind of laughter that takes us by surprise; that allows us to open our hearts and let go.

We often protect the childlike parts of us: awe, silliness, wonder, and play. We don't want to seem naive or unintelligent; we don't want to appear Pollyanna-ish. Our habits—and our culture—tell us to get the job done, gain respect, look smart, be serious. All of this is appropriate in measured doses. But it's not how I want to spend this one precious life. Right now, I feel weighty issues. My mom died six months ago. My close friend has incurable Stage 4 cancer. This is serious business. And still, I need to let myself laugh; to let myself be surprised and grateful.

So my radical suggestion is this: return to childhood. Color with crayons. Be amazed. Giggle for no good reason. Ask questions. Do cartwheels or somersaults. Get curious about the natural world. Be honest. Laugh and cry, whenever you need to. Keep your heart wide open.

These childlike qualities are what give me hope for this crazy and beautiful world. Because they allow us to see in new ways. They allow us to be fully present. They allow us to move through life with honest and open hearts.
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