Of the many spiritual traditions, Tibetan Buddhists seem to have the greatest, long-standing interest in death. Perhaps this is the case because our mortality seems to be one issue that causes us the greatest conscious and unconscious concern. It’s also a subject that few of us seem able to think and speak about with grace and ease.

Atisha Dipamkara

Atisha Dipamkara

Atisha Dipamkara was an Indian spiritual teacher who introduced Buddhism to Tibet. Much like the Buddha himself, Atisha renounced the wealth to which he was born and instead devoted his life to spreading wisdom teachings designed to help alleviate human suffering. Anxieties, fears and concerns about death headed the list of topics spiritual searchers of his day struggled most to come to grips with.

Neuroscientists too, are concerned about death, mostly about how to help the brain become better organized in order to put it off as long as possible. Some consider such pursuits sheer folly. But how many of them are facing imminent demise? They might have a change of heart when the end-of-life trajectory actually begins counting down their days. That said, here are Atisha’s teachings about death filtered through the lens of a social neuroscientist (me):

Death is happening outside all around us.

Even apart from terrorists using bombs and guns, and climate change using hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes to perpetrate aggravated assaults with extreme prejudice, death is going on all over the place all the time. A handful of the one million! spiders that live out here on our country acre are currently spinning their last web. Dying rhododendron blossoms are littering the ground all over the front yard. A junco fledgling, eating at the bird feeder outside my office, launches the wrong way into the window and breaks his neck. All it takes is an unflinching willingness to open our data ports (the five senses) and we will see, hear, taste, touch and smell life ending all around us all the time.

Death is happening all the time inside us.

Millions of brain and body cells die inside us every day. Some die by the natural process of apoptosis – programmed cell death. Others die by insult and injury leading to necrosis. Eventually, all of us – all our cells – will die one way or another. Best not to put up too much resistance, since, as many of us already know … resistance is futile.

Life energy is finite.

The average lifespan for someone my current age is 88.5 years. That works out to roughly 46 million, 515 thousand, 600 total life minutes. More of those minutes of my life have been spent than currently remain. The question is: how might I make the most of the little more than 10 million minutes I have left? Feel free to offer creative suggestions.

Our time of death is uncertain.

A HaymakerBecause my remaining time is a general average, it’s best for me to make hay while the sun shines. I might only have 5 million minutes left. Or only one. Or it could be 20 million. Ideally, I’m able to spend each minute with as much intentional awareness as I can, doing generative things for myself and others that light up the pleasure centers and the hayfields of my heart and brain.

How we will die is also uncertain.

Right now I’m accompanying several friends whose life partners are in the midst of their end-of-life trajectories. We ourselves might be on such a trajectory as well and simply not realize it. We might want to honor that possibility by signing up a physicist to speak at our funeral. Or at least complete an Advanced Directive (q.v.)

The material world is of little use during the dying trajectory.

Good luck continuing to One-Click for all those consumer goods on Amazon.com.

Loved ones cannot keep us safe from death.

Many would if they could. The news is: they can’t. Is that news good or bad?

The amount of pain we experience while dying can be addressed.

Might the best time of life to become a drug addict be as the end-of-life trajectory begins to unfurl? Some think yes, some think no.

Embracing death can lead to living well.

In his book, The Undefeated Mind, professor of medicine Alex Lickerman writes:

“By willfully and directly confronting our fear of death we can increase our determination to live well; a finely honed awareness of death can help us avoid wasting time on pursuits for which we are ill-suited or in which we have no real interest but in which we participate out of a sense of obligation or guilt; that keeping our life’s end firmly in mind can help us focus on those things that the wise know will most likely bring happiness: our relationships and helping others….Though death itself may destroy us, the idea of death may save us.” (pg. 233)

Death will come whether we’re prepared or not.

Best is to be prepared, don’t you think? You’d make detailed preparations in advance of a trip to San Pedro Sula in Honduras, wouldn’t you? And a good thing, too, since it’s the most deadly city on earth. Some people prepare by learning about the most common regrets dying people have and working to insure they don’t repeat those scenarios. Your brain will appreciate any death work you elect to take on.

Finally, on the life side of the ledger, here’s an Enchanted Loom review of Louis Cozolino’s new book, Why Therapy Works, slated for official publication in 2016.

Once again, I thought I would change things up a bit on the blog.

Here’s a link to a short, fascinating, compelling Mind of a Murderer audio podcast:

Mind of a Murderer: Janene Patton

Janene_Patton-featuredImagine you’ve been selected to be a jury member in the Janene Patton murder trial. As a neuroscientist knowledgeable about trauma, bipolar disorder, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and attachment theory – all things we’ve explored together over the last 7 years – what perspectives might you offer your fellow jury members? What do you think of the interviewer?

Contribute responses of any length in the Comments box below…

“Out beyond left brain and right brain there is an integrated energy field called heart. I’ll meet you there.”

~ with apologies to Rumi

Once, when I was at one of my lowest life points – I’d just received divorce papers from my wife’s lawyer; the dream house I’d lovingly hand-built was being overrun by realtors with low-ball offers trying to take advantage; and I had no income-producing work – the single thing that kept hope alive was my growing understanding of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ongoing, ever-present process of reconfiguring its internal wiring, both by growing new connections, and more recently discovered, growing about 700 new hippocampal brain cells every day. All I had to do was look back at the astonishing network of events that had brought me to that moment to understand I had little clue and less control over the complexity of what I would encounter up the road from where I was. But little clue and less control is not NO clue and NO control. Growth and change happen, and to a some degree it can be directed.

Hippocampal Neurons

I didn’t know or call such potential for growth and change by the name neuroplasticity then – I was just ending a 25 year housebuilding career and had only just begun to morph into a neuroscientist (Definition: someone who reads between 10 and 20 evidence-based neuroscience papers every day!). The name I knew it by at that time was paideia (Definition: lifelong learning of “the beautiful and good” with special attention paid to the essence or spirit of things). PAIDEIA is both the name of my consulting/publishing business and the environmental license plate I have had in both California and Washington State for 30 years.

The Power of Expectant Non-Knowing

Healing, learning, growth and change seem to be the general direction life tends to take, often, as transpersonal psychologist Hillevi Ruumet has detailed, in the form of a forward-moving, recursive upward spiral. What goes around comes around. a recursive spiralEach time it does, we bring to it much of the healing, learning, growth and change we’ve picked up along the way on previous orbitings. For example, to best move through the divorce process with the least amount of pain and stress, experience had taught me, “Above all else, stay away from the lawyers.” And so I did, refusing to hire one, even though several of my lawyer friends were quick to point out to me all the ways I was being unfairly taken advantage of by my wife’s attorney. Why add one more person with legal training to take advantage? What I may have lost in money, I gained in reduced stress and peaceful sleep.

To Surrender or Abdicate, That Is the Question

Still, navigating the fine line between surrender and abdication is not an easy path to travel. Denial and rationalization can make for unhappy outcomes. How best to distinguish one from the other. To abdicate means to abandon or desert with a sense of resignation, often because circumstances are too painful or emotionally overwhelming to confront. I think of it as lacking heart when I’m being unkind to myself. More accurately, it results, I think from simply not having adequate neural fibers in the executive areas of the brain making sufficient connections to allow for clear thinking and easy emotional self-regulation. We’ve all been there. The fact of the matter is that there are some life circumstances our level of developmental maturity simply isn’t sufficient in the moment for us to skillfully meet. So, we’re forced to manage the best we can. Sometimes the best we can manage is abdication.

Surrender, on the other hand, is the opposite of turning away. Surrender is turning towards with hands raised, open to the possibility of outcomes we can’t quite imagine in the midst of the fray. Surrender involves expectant non-knowing. It is born of a recognition that there are complex forces in the world and their general direction is towards an ecological balance – a kind of “spiritual, energetic regression to the mean.” It’s similar to the way the body and brain continually work to bring itself back to homeostasis.

Serenity Now

SerenityThere’s great, life-guiding wisdom, I think, in The Serenity Prayer. One key though, is to remember that the difference-knowing wisdom that each of us possesses lives in a constant state of growing and changing neural inhibition, excitation and connection. Trust it.

On that closing note, here’s a trustable Enchanted Loom surprise for your viewing pleasure.

Resources to Support Practice

(Click poster once or twice to enlarge)

21 Listening Challenge Poster I Statements

Click HERE to view Resources to Support Practice

A number of years ago I got involved with an international nonprofit mission to end hunger in the world. Some of the smartest people on the planet had determined that the central challenge around hunger wasn’t that there wasn’t enough food. The central challenge was that there wasn’t sufficient awareness of the problem, there wasn’t sufficient political will to address it, and there wasn’t competent, organized distribution of the food that was already available.

Take One for the Team

signing-on-the-dotted-line-e1268164395891The plan to end hunger was a simple one – brilliantly conceived in my estimation – start by raising awareness of the issue. In order to do that, the job of every volunteer in the organization was simply to “enroll” people – sign them up to become a member of the organization. Each week I would receive a telephone call from a local “organizer” asking me to pledge a number of people I would promise to enroll the following week. Even though the objective was straightforward, I always hated those calls and invariably resisted offering up any enrollment number greater than One. I was quickly identified as someone who “wasn’t a team player.”

What I was, in my own eyes, was someone who actively disdained Groupthink, and would do whatever I thought necessary to raise awareness when I thought it might be operating to individual people’s detriment. Groupthink is bad for the brain, bad for the body.

Gathering Groupthink

I was living in New England at the time and one lovely autumn afternoon I got a call informing me that there would be a weekend area-wide gathering in Massachusetts and I was “invited.” Reluctantly, mostly out of curiosity, I agreed to attend. The first day close to a thousand of us recruits were all shown into a large auditorium and we were invited to “tell our stories” about the struggles and sacrifices people were making in order to meet the organization’s enrollment goals. One after another people stood up and told stories about how their primary relationships were filled with conflict, how their kids were being neglected and how their livelihoods were suffering as they devoted more and more time to the work of ending hunger in the world.

When the sharing part of the proceedings was deemed done, we were all invited to “acknowledge” the people and their suffering in service to the grand goal of “ending hunger in the world.”

First Bait, Then Switch

Soon, it became clear that this first part of the gathering was simply a setup for the second part – now people who were already suffering and sacrificing for this project were being required to “target out of control.” Whatever number of recruits you had previously committed to enrolling into the organization, now you had to promise to bring in a number that was far beyond anything you could possibly imagine.

People (shills?) began standing up and publicly proclaiming “100!” “150!” The applause and excitement began building. “200.” “250.” “500!” Now people are standing and stomping and cheering.

How to Create a Vacuum

And then it was my turn. Slowly I stood up and looked around the room. For the longest time I didn’t say anything. I simply made eye contact with as many people as I could get to look back at me. And then, very quietly, I said, “I’m only going to recruit one new person.”

BellJarWhoosh! The room turned into a Bell Jar. All the energy immediately got sucked out. Clearly, the spell had been broken. Then a woman over to my right stood up. “I’m only going to recruit one person, too. I’m already stretched past my breaking point.” A man stood up behind me, “I’m not going to recruit anyone else. I’ve already put in all the time and energy I can for this work.” A young woman directly in front of me stood up: “I’m a student, and I’m also working full-time. Both my job and my schoolwork are suffering from the time I devote to this project. Thank you,” she turned and said to me, “I’m only going to recruit one person, too.”

I didn’t stick around to find out how the rest of the weekend went. It became clear to me that my work and my involvement with the organization was finished. If hunger was going to be eliminated in the world, I had done all I wanted to do as part of this organization. I was going home and help harvest the vegetables in our local community garden.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Decades later, hunger still persists in the world for many of the same reasons that it did back then. The good news is that since that time world hunger has been reduced by 42%. Which is a good thing, I think.

What’s not a good thing is organizing efforts to address hunger that raise stress levels to the point of causing neural disorganization and significant suffering in people’s lives who generously and compassionately wish to help. When more suffering deliberately or inadvertently results from attempts to end suffering, your brain and my brain want us to make trouble. To not speak up in the face of real suffering is to promote more suffering. Enroll with that realization.

One way I make tame trouble these days is with … The Enchanted Loom. Click HERE to take a look at my graphic review of Bonnie Badenoch’s book, Being a Brain-Wise Therapist.

Except perhaps in addressing acute trauma, working briefly with people, or even over extended periods with little focus, rarely changes the brain in substantial ways. It almost always takes time to accomplish permanent, significant, positive, integrative neural reorganization. Earlier this year, in response to this realization, I decided to bust some of the folks in my circle out of their habitual routines a bit: I invited a small group of people interested in social neuroscience to work with me weekly online and over the phone for a year. I chose a brain topic that a great many people in the world – including me – struggle to be more skillful, mindful and organized with. That topic? Money.

AltruismTo start off with a strong “irrational commitment” from participants, I let people know upfront that they would be required to pay me a monthly money stipend … for life. Not my life, but their life. In other words, as long as they lived, they would be sending me or my estate that monthly tithe. In effect, what I’ve invited people to do is mindfully, charitably tithe work in the world they believed in and wished to support. Even though there is a growing body of research that shows how altruism improves brain function (not to mention, making you more attractive), to my surprise – with very little persuading on my part – everyone readily agreed to those terms. Each had individual reasons and expectations of their own. Mostly I think it is the realization that whatever the brain pays positive, ongoing, mindful attention to … tends to increase. I personally expect each participant to reap at least 10 times what they pay me every year. Will they? We’ll see.

Tied in Knots Over Tithing

Tithe is from the Middle English word tithen and the Old English teogothian, which meant “to take a tenth of.” Today it’s most commonly refers to personal income set aside as an offering to God for works of mercy, or in support of the church or clergy. In Buddhism, the word for a similar practice is dana. I think of this offering as “The Ministry Model” of receiving payment for services. This process of paying or contributing money to causes or work we believe in, especially money we don’t feel we have available to spare, can impact our neurophysiology for better or worse. Differently than ambitious altruism, our real life experiment offered up some of the worst first.

money-frog-surrounded-by-coins-symbol-of-wealth-and-fortuneBefore our sessions together began, I made it clear to the group that I fully expected this monthly tithe to turn out to be much more than only about the money. Money issues and concerns are rarely “just” about the money. And sure enough, it didn’t take long for the first fruit for the juicer to ripen: Half the group failed to pay their first promised monthly tithe. One great thing about this group is that they don’t necessarily need me to mirror back to them their own disorganization around money. A little Fierce Listening and they’re pretty quick to catch on to things on their own. One immediate “Aha” this “oversight” brought to consciousness for the group is how promises made and not kept unfailingly violate and undermine trust. Healthy money rarely flows where little trust lives. Trust is actually the firmament that underlies much of internet eCommerce. Without trust there’s no Amazon, eBay or Google.

Organization Overload

Another thing that quickly stood out in ready relief for our Money Brain Group is just how overloaded our lives are in terms of the cognitive and emotional requirements of daily living. Everyday reality is so full of constant, alluring distractions that maintaining a clear and steady focus on what we want our lives and work in the world to be centered around, regularly exceeds our capacity to easily sustain it.

A third thing has stood out early in this exploration as well. It is how constantly our brain makes up stories based upon little or no evidence, convinces us the stories are true, and then generates behavior based upon those “truths.” Here are a few of the less-than-sterling brain-generated storylines: “It doesn’t matter if I miss a payment. The world won’t come to an end.” “I can barely pay for necessities and this tithe isn’t one.” “I forgot.” “I’m keeping my promise, just not when I said I would.”

There’s a fine line between being truly kind and gentle with ourselves around money and letting ourselves get away with thoughts and deeds that don’t really serve us in becoming truly financially organized and integrated. Shame and mental abuse involving money are pretty common. So is squirrelly avoidance and denial. In a future installment, we’ll begin to explore some of the positive benefits that are beginning to accrue to our Pecuniary Practitioners as the result of our money mindfulness journey.

To be continued …

There’s a really interesting experiment that has been carried out over and over in child development labs all over the world. It was designed by Ed Tronick at the University of Massachusetts more than 30 years ago.

The experiment works like this: a mother and a baby interact face to face in the laboratory. Mom talks motherese, coos and smiles and winks. Baby responds animatedly with similar behaviors. Then, at a signal from the experimenter, mom’s face goes still. She doesn’t blink. She doesn’t move a single one of the 42 muscles in her face.

Within seconds, baby is in distress. Here’s how Ed Tronick describes it:

Stone faceWhat’s really striking about the still face experiment is that the infants don’t stop trying to get the parents’ attention back. They’ll go through repeated cycles where they try to elicit attention, fail, turn away, sad and disengaged, then they turn back and try again.

When it goes on long enough, you see infants lose postural control and actually collapse in the car seat. Or they’ll start self-soothing behaviors, sucking the back of their hand or their thumbs. Then they really disengage from the parent and don’t look back.

Some infants, however, become so distressed that that they’re unable to console themselves. This neglect leads to increases in the heart rate, a flush of the stress hormone cortisol and to cell death in key regions of the brain.

What Tronick and his colleagues are demonstrating is both our need for, and the extraordinary power of serve-and-return communication (known as contingent communication in the research literature).

I’m sure many of you have noticed that … there is little contingent communication involved with TED Talks. Which is ironic, since TED Talks are intended to produce “knowledge in dangerously addictive short doses.” In other words, learning. In the last decade we’ve discovered a treasure trove of information about the science of learning. What neuroscience teaches us is that the most powerful learning – learning that we can use to ultimately change our neural networks such that we can actually apply it in the world – works powerfully as the result of feedback loops. Feedback loops make learning happen. They also increase the probability of inspiring us to do what’s needed next: take affirmative action in the world.

The Three Magic Ingredients

I’ve written about contingent communication before, just not in the context of TED Talks. But I think it’s so important for lifelong healthy brain development that I’m writing about it here once again.

Feedback LoopThere are three important components that have to be present for feedback loops to be effective. The first is that the TED Talk audience has to be paying attention. They have to know something about both the subject matter the speaker is presenting on and know the definitions of the words she is using. They also have to be attending to the process – the body language and emotional tone of the speaker and any number of other meta-elements present – prosody, cadence, tone, pace, etc. Also, at some level, what’s NOT being said.

Next, they have to translate what they are hearing and seeing into a meaningful message. Messages mostly become meaningful when they emotionally and intellectually impact my life in some way. For example, that a technology or a design innovation has the capacity to expand and deepen how I engage with and process the world around me.

Finally, in order for the feedback loop to come full circle, I need to respond to the speaker – and here’s the piece missing in so much of the way Technology, Education and Design currently impact our lives – in a timely and effective manner. Let me repeat here – I need to respond in a timely and effective manner.

Timely and Effective Engagement

Thinking back to the Still Face Experiment, what’s clearly missing is mom’s timely and effective response to baby expressing needs for contact and engagement. That is also precisely what is missing from TED Talks. It’s also precisely what’s missing from all too many technological innovations. It’s also a significant piece of what’s missing from … blog writing. At most, a few people might offer a comment or two, to which I will respond, and that will be the end of it. What’s missing? A lot. What can you identify? What can we DO about it?

Oh, and then there’s this Enchanted Loom review of Daniel Levitin’s book, The Organized Mind. How many ways can you imagine creating feedback loops out of it?


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