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“It takes being radically misunderstood to really learn how to understand other people.” ~ Amanda Knox, Netflix Documentary

The email arriving in my Inbox at 4AM caught me by surprise. It was from someone I used to be good friends with, but who’d cut off all contact with me more than five years ago. She’d gotten upset with me about a blog post I’d written explaining how the brain often uses transference and projection to stir up and surface traumatic memories. how-to-remove-a-splinterThe brain does this I reasoned, for such memories to be neuro-somatically worked with and emotionally discharged and integrated – in an ideal world. It’s sort of like how the body will bring a sliver buried deep in the skin to the surface eventually, where both the sliver and the infection can be removed. While I understand that things I write (and often the way I write them; or illustrate them!) can sometimes upset a reader, I was surprised and saddened by my friend’s non-negotiable need to completely break off all contact. From my perspective (ironically), some negative transference and projection was going on.

Initially, upon seeing her name pop up in my inbox, as I said, I was surprised. While five years may seem like a long time needed to heal and integrate overwhelming experiences, I believe many of us go whole lifetimes without being able to do much real healing work at all.

The Nerve of Some People

Her note was brief. She wanted to let me know that she forgave me and suggested that I might want to forgive myself.

At first I thought it was kind and considerate of her to take the time to send that note – that it represented growth and healing for her. But as the day wore on I found myself growing increasingly irritated.

bear

The Bear

I’ve been paying attention for years now to how messages that show up on my computer screen affect me, and so, after taking a good long walk with Olliebear to help clear my head and soften my heart, I began to explore what it was about my estranged friend’s message that was so triggering.

Inherent in her message was a belief (one I’m sure is true in her experience, otherwise there’s no reason for us not to still be friends) that I’d done something dangerously wrong, something irredeemably bad. And I had (from her perspective). I’d said something (in writing) that had set her brain’s threat circuitry ablaze. What made me upset about her assumption though, was her belief – implied in her email – that I had done it deliberately, intentionally, thus I needed to be forgiven. I felt like I was implicitly being wrongfully accused all over again.

My Personal Innocence Project

Being wrongfully accused and afforded little or no opportunity to honestly explain our motivations, works in the brain and body very similar to how the freeze response works in the aftermath of many a trauma. It impairs and impedes movement, growth and learning – a prime, brain-body directive. It often sends us into an obsessive, downward, disorganized spiraling state of mental agitation. The brain-mind begins to generate all kinds of bedeviled thinking: “What if?” “How come?” “If only…” “Why can’t?” If it goes on long enough, we can begin to question our own motivations to the point where we start to feel like we’re going crazy. Without realizing it, we are often mirroring the interior, threat-generated mind state of the person(s) wrongfully accusing us (Watch the Amanda Knox documentary to see stunning examples of this … on the part of the accused and the accusers!). This is the reverse corollary of The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience. In this instance, disorganized brains can work powerfully to disorganize even the most well-organized brains. Other people really can drive us crazy!

3amFortunately, I have a sane wife and a wide network of brain- savvy friends who know me well and who know that what gets me up and out of bed at 3AM every morning is a desire to help put at least a small dent in the suffering in the world. They are well-trained listeners🙂, and because I rarely bring them my troubles and concerns, when I do they pay rapt attention. They help me restore mental peace and sane heart.

Reconnection Makes Things Flow-er

They also know that one of the values I hold is that, when possible, it’s important to repair ruptured relationships. Parents need to model it and do it with children; children need to do it with parents; friends need to do it with each other. Nations need to do it with other nations. In an ideal world.

So here’s the bottom line: I truly am sorry that what I wrote those many years ago turned out to be so upsetting to my friend. If I knew my words were going to be so provoking, I would have written them differently or not at all. I don’t believe in triggering trauma for the fun of it. So, for that I offer my sincere apology. But no forgiveness is necessary. From her, for her, or for me. One reason I suspect Deities suggest leaving the forgiving to them is that we’re all doing the best we can down here on earth with the brain and heart we have operating in any moment.

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This Enchanted Loom needs no apology. It’s a review of Bruce McEwen’s masterwork on how threat-detection brain circuitry too often handicaps our lives.

Last Call: If you’re interested in one of the few remaining spots for the Taking a Whole Heart Home exploration, click HERE.

Previously, on the Flowering Brain Blog … we explored the first six of 12 ways our brains work that don’t necessarily serve us very well. These are vulnerabilities that we often consign ourselves mentally and emotionally to hell for. Here are six more ways (of thousands) our brains can make us feel badly about ourselves.

Our brain is prone to making threat-based decisions – which often end up badly – Once stress “jumps the hump” from good stress (eustress) to bad (distress) – often without telling us it’s done so – it goes about the work of literally cutting any number of the ties that connect the emotional parts of the brain with the thinking parts of the brain. It does that by actually severing the adherence proteins that hold our neural networks together (see the illustration below for a clear picture of your brain unraveling under bad stress. Synapses are where brain neurons connect. Nectin-3 is the adherence protein keeping the network connections connected that distress severs. Severing adherence proteins produces the same effect that cutting an electrical cord does. No more juice). When stress severs our cognitive wiring, it often lets threat circuitry rule our mental roost. Fear and anxiety can end up running our lives.Nectin 3

Our brain thinks emotional disturbance means our soul is defective – Being emotionally disturbed has very little to do with the soul. It has much more to do with neurobiology involving structural, functional and molecular alterations in several key areas of the brain. The parts most vulnerable to disturbance are the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, lateral orbital prefrontal cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, ventral striatum, amygdala and the hippocampus. Knowing the names of the parts isn’t important. What’s important is to realize that balanced functioning in these areas is compromised – some circuitry becomes over-active, increasing our sensitivity to noise and/or pain, while other areas become under-active, producing lethargy, attention deficits and poor memory. None of these vulnerabilities say anything about the condition of our soul.

Our brain tricks us into thinking we are somebody Essentially the brain interacts with the people, places and objects in the environment and then makes up stories about the experiences we’ve had with those nouns. Then it enthusiastically goes about doing whatever it takes to make us believe those stories and convince us those stories are true so they can be woven into the fabric that becomes our personal history. Who we are is how we are, what we do, what we’ve done and how we’ve been. We rarely remember that our life unfolds in successive, dynamic moments of now, which are constantly replaced by new successive, dynamic moments of now. There’s no Me in the mix – only Me-now, Me-now, meow.😉

maxresdefaultOur brain stores our story – From before birth up until this moment, somewhere in our neural network every significant moment of every single day of our life is believed to be stored. Most of it is stored in memory matrices, outside ready recollection. Some amount of it is “misfiled,” combined and blended with other memories, experiences that we vividly fantasized, or things that actually happened to somebody else! Memory is notoriously unreliable. But whatever our story is, we’re not stuck with it. In fact, we can begin to methodically pay increasingly less attention to it. As we do, who we think we are – the sum total of who we’ve been until now – can instantly or gradually be extinguished or replaced. Anything becomes possible the moment we begin taking on the creative practice of no longer allowing our adrenal glands to be the boss of us. Truly a life’s work worth embracing.

Our brain listens to and believes the poop-thoughts it secretes – Here’s an everyday experience that happens over and over that the language/thought-generating modules in the brain hide from us in plain site: language mediates human experience. A true tragedy if you believe Nassim Taleb who asserts: “Half of life – the interesting half – we don’t have words for.”

jay-florida-scrub-mwannerRather than look closely at the vibrant, living creature actually feeding right now outside my office window, and noticing how the shades of blue and gray and white bend and blend all over it – looking as if for the first time – my brain announces: “That’s a scrub jay.” And off it sends me back to my oh-so-interesting computer screen.

In what I consider to be one of the great psycho-spiritual gifts of the last ten years, Jill Bolte Taylor describes what the world looks like when language is no longer dominating experience so powerfully, and also, how the process of acquiring language filters, shapes and directs experience once we acquire it. Way more of the world than we can easily grok gets surprisingly lost in translation. Which can make the world scary. But our everyday world is much safer than our brains (and mass media, and our adrenal glands) want us to believe it is. And … it’s still a good idea to tie our camel.

Our brain is fearful of the mystical sublime – Years ago I read a paper by psychosynthesis pioneer Frank Haronian entitled, “The Repression of the Sublime.” That article is memorable even to this day for encouraging me to “reclaim my projections,” both positive and negative. “If you spot it, you’ve got it” speaks to this aspect of the Talmudic decree, “We don’t see the world as it is; we see the world as we are.” One place our brain makes us most vulnerable in this regard is that it constantly assigns Buddhist, Christ-like and Muhammad-like qualities to Buddha, Christ and Muhammad, rather than realizing that we can do our own work necessary to obtain access and reclamation from within. Buddha didn’t practice Buddhism; Christ didn’t practice Christianity; and Muhammad didn’t practice Islam. They each followed their own path in search of the mystical sublime. So must we; repression be damned.

As mind-blowingly marvelous as the human brain is, it is still a product kluged together through ongoing evolutionary experimentation. As Cardiff University neuroscience professor (and standup comedian) Dean Burnett tells us, what we basically have is … an Idiot Brain. Here are the first six of 12 ways brain operations negatively impact us, often without us ever realizing it.

Our brain is often adversely impacted by childhood – Few of us escape childhood unscathed. As children we start out pretty helpless. We need others to clothe, feed, and emotionally regulate us. We get little direct instruction in learning to deal with parents whom we frequently make very nervous. Two of the words we hear a lot as children are “No” and “Stop.” Combine that with the fact that we really can’t do very much very skillfully – a lot of our early brain training is in … learned helplessness. Some of us spend a lifetime (or many?) doing our best to outgrow this early-acquired brain vulnerability. Some of us grow old before we ever do. In addition, because our brain networks are immature in their development, they suck at allowing us to easily self-regulate – we are daily being cast into states of hyper-arousal, leaving us vulnerable to all kinds of other maladies down the road.

Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert

Our brain can’t easily sustain passion for very longOne of the great benefits writer Elizabeth Gilbert claims she obtained by growing up on a farm is being trained to perform long bouts of boring work for extended periods. That early training prepared her to show up at her desk day after day doing the work of being a writer – which many successful writers will tell you is mostly boring work. Recognizing this, Gilbert prefers curiosity to passion. Passion is the rapid burst-firing of a few hundred million happy cells in the brain. But when the neural fireworks have subsided, it’s good to have something more substantial as a guiding principle. That’s a useful realization to carry into romantic relationships as well.

Our brain too easily learns self-hatred -Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg tells a story of the Dalai Lama’s great consternation when she asked him at a retreat to speak about how Buddhists work skillfully with self-hatred. He had to suspend activities for several hours in order to have his translators explain what Sharon was talking about. It made no sense to him – it was a completely foreign concept – wholly absent from his more than half a century of living.

Again, it comes back to childhood learning, with much self-hatred learned in creativity-destroying schools and in all the ways we fail to live up to standards imposed by adults with little understanding of how unique and vulnerable each and every one of our developing child-brains really is (to network-altering childhood hypertension, for one example). An enlightened education culture would be tailored to fit so we would come to love and prize our uniqueness rather than learn to hate ourselves for failing to meet some global, Pygmalion set of “learning objectives.” What choice do many of us have but to hate ourselves for all the ways our brains and bodies fail to measure up?

Image result for einstein and marilyn monroe illusionOur brain trains us to foolishly trust our senses – We generally process less than two percent of the outside world consciously; 98% is unconsciously processed. For a simple example of how our senses deceive us, take a look at the picture on the right. Up close it looks like one person. Step back from the screen and it will morph into another person. And yet, the picture on the screen hasn’t changed at all. What happens when we begin to become curious about the vast amount of sensory experience our brains are processing behind our backs? What might you be currently looking at that could benefit from a change in perspective?

Our brain prefers pleasure over pain – Dopamine will be the death of me. All the things in my life that trigger my mesolimbic pathways (my neural super-highways of addictive, dopaminergic nerve bundles) turn out, in one way or another, in the amounts I crave, to be bad for me. For example, sex, drugs, and Goetze’s caramel cremes. (An enlightened society would force processed sugar onto the Black Market where it belongs with sex and drugs).Image result for goetze's caramel creamsImage result for goetze's caramel creamsImage result for goetze's caramel creams

This neurological orientation turns out to be one of the Eight Worldly Preoccupations which stand in the way of increasing neurophysiological integration, also known as Brilliant Sanity. I wrote about the Preoccupations two weeks ago.

Our brain operates with a built-in negativity bias and 187 others – The brain is charged with keeping us alert and in motion in order to keep us alive. The small window of attention it’s able to exercise, historically has been well-utilized by attending to real and potential threats present in the world. This is the Negativity Bias. Here’s now neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes it:

Imagine living in Africa a million years ago in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (especially yours) have children of their own; these are big carrots on the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you; these are significant sticks.

But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

To combat the brain’s tendency for pleasure to operate like teflon and pain to work like velcro, Elizabeth Gilbert does a daily backward day review (rückschau) and then makes a Joy Repository – a designated jar or bowl where she writes down a single moment of joy she finds every day and tosses it into the bowl. 365 days later she has A Bowl-Year of Living Joyfully. It’s probably a good idea for our brain to mindfully mark life-moments of joy. Whatever it pays skillful attention to … tends to increase.

For a useful, organized graphic depicting the 187 other cognitive biases, click here.

Finally, for a good laugh at your brain’s expense, check out this Enchanted Loom review of Dean Burnett’s book, Idiot Brain.

Words frazzle me. They make me nervous. The things people say, when and how they say them, the stories my brain makes up in response to the words people say, all have an impact on my adrenal glands – I am constantly on a homeostatic roller coaster as I interact with other word-using beings on the planet. When the products secreted by my adrenal glands – stress hormones – flood my brain and body, they raise my inflammation levels. Raised inflammation levels are associated with all kinds of nasty life experiences from hyperthyroidism to flatulence. Especially nerve-wracking, all too often, are the words my own brain generates.

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My Internal Stock Market Maven

Bad News Triggers My HPA Circuitry

Recently an investment I have in a drug company’s stock received the good news I was anticipating. The news came after the market closed. My brain and I spent a good part of the night generating happy words in anticipation of the riches I would be reaping come morning. However, when morning came, the price of the stock actually opened lower! Apparently all the good news was already baked in. I could feel the anger, disappointment and frustration building. The internal word-generation did a complete one-eighty. Many of those words were not saying kind things to me about me. Time to take the dogs for a walk in order to discharge those stress hormones triggered by my Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis 😦

(One of the great things about dogs is they rarely use words that dysregulate me; the main communications I receive from our dogs are: 1. It’s time to eat; 2. I have to go to the bathroom; 3. It’s time to go to the dog park!; and 4. I’m SOOO happy you’re home!! These are all communications my nervous system has very little difficulty managing).

Simply Experimenting

In the Neurobiology class on addiction I recently taught at Bastyr University, we did a simple experiment with words and how they affect the nervous system. I invited people to pay attention to how their bodies responded to first one and then another word I said aloud to them. The first word I announced boldly and authoritatively. That word was “NO!” The next word I said more softly and with kindness in my voice – “Yes!”

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As you might expect, there were noticeable differences in how each word made people’s body musculature react. No caused constriction in the throat and tightening in the belly for some people, along with a holding of their breath. Yes allowed them to soften their belly, relax their muscles and breathe much easier. From this simple experiment it becomes easy to see that words have neuroceptive effects. That is, depending upon a whole host of factors such as context, voice tone, intention of the speaker, etc, words can frequently show up in threatening ways and affect our nervous system adversely without us even realizing it. For an unmistakable experience of this ability for spoken language to adversely affect us, watch any of the Hannibal Lecter movies. Notice how you feel whenever Anthony Hopkins speaks to any other character on the screen. Hello, Clarice. Creepy, right?

Learning Nonresponsiveness

As young children, because parents are human and have limitations and difficulty managing their own adrenal glands, we are many times more likely to hear the words No! and Stop! repeatedly. As you might expect, this (and any multitude of other things) works to shape our developing nervous system. In fact, it’s an infant’s recognition of “not us,” often implicitly and unconsciously communicated by a parent’s stress response to other races, that rascism – a fearful response to other races – begins in the cradle.

gauge-nedle-dragging_thumb_142ad167All the words we use daily in our interactions with other people (and with ourselves) are constantly affecting the amount and speed of stress hormone secretion throughout the day. What I find generally is that artists, who rely upon one or more of their senses being wide open in the pursuit of their art, are often much more sensitive to the impacts that words have on their nervous system. As a result, many of them elect to spend a disproportionate amount of time in voluntary seclusion or hanging out with a small circle of friends who can be counted on to not adversely hyper-arouse them. Here on Whidbey Island – with a preponderance of painters, writers, musicians and poets – which makes it “off the charts in arts vitality” – this propensity seems to show up in spades.

Wipe Me Down With a Wet Noodle

Some words in the English language (and research suggests such words actually exist in every language) are so disturbing that they produce “a visceral experience of revulsion and discomfort.” According to Scientific American one such word is moist. Roughly 20% of Americans find the word moist to be the equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard! Go figure. Or better yet, stick your finger in your mouth. Whatever it takes to solidify the truth of the greater reality that, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” … but only after I gain practice in managing my neurophysiology skillfully.

A favorite saying that I repeat to myself so many times a week that it’s turning into a perpetual personal mantra is: “It’s not me, it’s my brain.” This is primarily me acknowledging one or another of the many ways that the basic organiza- tional and structural function of my brain is limited and quite vulnerable. For example, here’s some recent research from Texas A & M University that points out how we’re ALL susceptible to potentially becoming addicted to one or ano- ther person, place or thing. Researchers at the Salk Institute want to blame that vulnerability on patch and matrix neurons in your brain’s striatum! And this is only ONE vulnerability.

The Preoccupied Life

In Tibetan Buddhism there are concepts known as The Worldly Concerns or Worldly Preoccupations – four opposing pairs of life conditions that affect all of us. In no deliberate order they are:

  • insignificant_by_eye_crazyhope for happiness and fear of suffering
  • hope for fame and fear of insignificance
  • hope for praise and fear of blame
  • hope for gain and fear of loss

What’s interesting about each of these concerns is that the four hopes we are drawn to mostly involve the reward systems of the brain’s mesolimbic pathways. Happiness, fame, praise and gain get those dopamine neurotransmitters afiring. The fear side of the ledger operates quite differently – what they mostly activate are liberal amounts of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Just picturing my mother pointing a finger, or a thought of my wife blaming me for forgetting half the items on the grocery list (I occasionally get my wife and my mother mixed up) is enough to get those adrenal glands running wild.

Moderation Makes It Happen

The aim, both in Buddhism and in neurobiology is not to deny all hope for happiness, fame, praise or gain. Nor is it to avoid fearful feelings involving suffering, insignificance, blame or loss. Rather, the work is to find skillful ways to navigate amidst these life realities, to not be pulled too far to one side or the other. My mother, the Axiom Queen, used to remind my sisters and me constantly as children, “All things in moderation.”

MarshmallowModeration though, turns out to be more easily preached than practiced. We seem to need time and experience to grow the Self-Organizing Criticality (SOC) of a neural network possessing sufficient balance that we can pass The Stanford Marshmallow Test. The picture on the right shows how I most often manage the test.

Aspirations Are

What then, is a “network-deficient” aspirant to do? Assuming I don’t have the financial resources to hire a team of high-functioning monks, trainers or adults to re-parent me or turn me into a lifelong contemplative, here are three options (among tens of thousands, most likely) that I’m currently working with:

Patience Practice – remember, it’s not me, it’s my brain! I can be patient with the learning I struggle with. I can be forgiving when I make mistakes, learn super-slowly, fall off the wagon into the marshmallow vat (yet again). It doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for my short-comings and I don’t have to do what I can to address them. It just means I’m not to blame. Blame is an errant assignation that only retards progress by distracting me from thinking more deeply and creatively about possible alternative approaches to navigating the 8 concerns.

Minding My Environment – None of us lives our lives in a vacuum. Where we live and whom we live with matters. I currently spend a significant part of my week attempting to bring increasing order and beauty to my external environment, believing in the axiom – turned inside out – “As without, so within.” So far, 8 months in – I have daily managed to find one thing in the house that no longer brings me joy or I’ve simply outgrown, and deliver it to one of our local thrift stores. It turns out to be a much more challenging practice than I ever imagined. And that’s just one bit of care-taking the environment around me.

Contemplative Practice – I have a growing number of them. Every morning begins with Dog Walking Practice. I take our dog-park-banned-Berner, Olliebear, for a two-mile walk through the woods over an abandoned logging trail near our house. Spring, summer and fall mornings are a delight. Winter is when I really earn my stripes for this practice.

Writing Practice is another daily contemplation. Every day I read, research and write something. Often it’s for this blog, but I also have two books and several talks and presentations that I’m actively working on.

yoga-weirdContemplative Collab- oration – Some part of every day I spend paying attention to the wild and woolly machinations of my social mind – the thoughts my brain secretes, often of its own accord – as I interact with the people who populate my world.

Each of these activities I place into service as a means for attempting to organize my life around moderation in all things. My mother would be proud.

She’d also enjoy this week’s Enchanted Loom. It’s a review of Timothy Wilson’s book, Strangers to Ourselves, exploring what else but … many of our brain’s hidden vulnerabilities.

One reason: We never learned contemplative collaboration. And here are four reasons why we never learned it:

1. No one ever told us it was a thing. It is: Contemplative Collaboration.

Many years ago, after an intoxicated Rodney King had to be chased at high speeds and forcibly subdued by the LAPD, in the wake of the unfolding drama that became the 1992 LA Riots, King issued a televised plea that went viral: “Can’t we all just get along?” he begged.

Well, the answer is no, no we can’t. French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre offered one reason, “L’enfer c’est les autres.” (Finally, my 7 years of grade school French gets put to use!). “Hell is other people,” Sartre proclaimed. He would get no argument from either Rodney King or the LAPD.

rodney-king

Rodney King

There are many other reasons why we can’t get along, but most of them are related and boil down to a single one – few of us have been trained to masterfully manage our own adrenal glands. Excessive stress hormones short-circuit the thinking brain and close the heart.

Mark Twain once reported: ““I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Twain’s life was much different than Rodney King’s, but essentially, he’s stating how poor he was with his own adrenal management practice. What makes troubles most troubling are the stress hormones they generate. And the majority of our most troubling troubles are the result of the thoughts our brain secretes about the past or the near or distant future. Those thoughts are often intended to head trouble off at the pass and keep us safe. But excessive stress hormones “close down the thinker.” They were needed in an earlier time, but much less so here in 21st century America. Unless you’re a police officer or someone fleeing from the police. In which case it would likely require saint-level adrenal management to keep things well-directed. Having a sufficient supply of the Corticotropin Releasing Factor, Urocortin-3 can be a help as well.

Contemplative collaboration practice holds the potential for such saintly management.

2. No one ever taught us what to practice.

It takes work to realize areas where we would be well-served to become more skillful. After that “Aha!”the next step is to realize that acquiring skill requires practice. If its piano or golf or kung fu, for starters we can study past masters and learn what they did. We can also find and invite current masters to mentor us, hopefully tailored to our own inherent proclivities. One main benefit mentors can provide is to serve in an external Executive Function capacity – helping us become increasingly disciplined in putting structured time in on the piano bench or the fairways or the mat. Without that internal or external discipliner, our sincere desires to become more skillful end up at the Best Intentions Recycling Center.

Contemplative collaboration practice holds the potential for increasing Executive Function.

3. No one ever taught us how to practice it purposefully.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

Purposeful Practice, or Deliberate Practice as it’s also known, emerged out of the research of CASBS Fellow, Anders Ericsson at Florida State University. He studied masters in a variety of different disciplines. His research has been popularized as “The 10000 Hour Rule,” but what his research really discovered is, not only did talented masters practice their craft diligently, but they primarily practiced with the intention to continually improve. In order to actually do that, they had to practice the parts they sucked at. Pianists, for example, had to practice extensively with their non-dominant hands. Golfers had to hit shot after shot out of the rough and the sand traps (Mark Twain once observed that “golf is a good walk spoiled.” This is taking that spoiling to a whole new level).

Contemplative collaboration practice holds the possibility of discovering the joy in purposeful practice.

4. No one ever told us why we might want to practice it.

When you tease the essence out of every authentic spiritual tradition and practice, you discover they are all mostly designed with one purpose in mind, similar to what I mentioned above: to keep your adrenals well-managed in order to keep your heart from becoming closed.

Gene Knudsen Hoffman, founder of The Compassionate Listening Project once observed that “An enemy is someone whose story we haven’t fully heard.” The main reason we haven’t fully heard our enemy’s stories, and why hell so often IS other people, is because we struggle to manage our stress hormones when we are confronted directly with their (and our own) soul-crushing pain and suffering and the unskillful ways they can act it out. No one has ever intimated to us that it’s possible to become a virtuoso in our capacity for being fully present to the pain of our own and each others’ broken hearts.

Contemplative collaboration practice holds the potential to learn how to keep our heart open in a hell populated with other people.

Here are 3 central elements of my own discipline: Contemplative Collaboration Trilogy. I invite you to practice.

I was 55 years old before I realized I was someone who suffered from panic attacks. I thought the feelings they periodically generated were simply part of who I was. It was while attending my daughter’s college graduation ceremony that I began to wake up to this signal I was receiving. Sitting in the audience, suddenly I was overcome with a powerful urge to flee the scene. I didn’t realize it then, but the familiar discomfort I was feeling was the way we feel when our body/brain floods itself with stress hormones in response to an acute, immediate threat. In reality, there was no one in the processional or the audience representing any such threat, but for some reason my body/brain decided there was. And so I fled the scene. And skipped the after-party. And felt much better. But also sad that I couldn’t fully participate in this milestone celebration. I have had to flee many such seemingly harmless social events over the years.

I’ve Heard About People Like Me

Coincidentally, I was taking a post-graduate class in trauma at the time, and it was in there that the light bulb fully lit up. The description the professor offered of panic attacks perfectly described what happened to me at my daughter’s graduation: Panic.jpg

  • Pounding heart
  • Intense feeling of dread
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sweating

There are other symptoms as well that I didn’t have, but essentially it came down to my brain generating a flight or fight response when nothing truly represented any threat at all. (Interestingly, just last week I could feel my brain doing something similar again at a much lower intensity when I began the familiar, easy job of changing the oil in my truck! Only here I could identify the trigger: thoughts my brain spontaneously generated of the truck falling off the ramps it was raised up on and crushing me). This is my brain doing its best to look out for me. Very often unnecessarily.

Fruit for the Juicer

It is these kinds of stress-hormone-generated activations that seem to continually point the way for my personal growth and development. These afflictive emotions provide the fruit for my neurological juicer. Local Seattle author Mary O’Malley writes about the benefit of paying close attention to such disturbances in her recent book, What’s In the Way Is the Way. One primary challenge though is that what’s in the way usually doesn’t feel all that great. Combine that with my brain’s and body’s preference for feeling good and we have a perfect recipe for aversion, for turning away from pain and suffering – both my own and other people’s. What’s the problem with that? Only one thing: abnegation is not integration.

Integration means “to combine things together to produce increasingly greater wholes.” Where the brain is concerned (and as we’re learning, on many levels, the heart as well), integration benefits its operations in several ways. University of Washington neuroscientist William Calvin argues that Albert Einstein’s brain was integrated in ways that made it appear that structurally he had two right hemispheres. Where most of us have a deep groove (Sylvian Fissure) separating our left temporal and parietal lobes, that fissure on Einstein’s left hemisphere was completely filled in with brain tissue – integrated!

Sylvian FissureNature Versus Nootropism

Whether he was born that way or he grew it that way, I would argue for a little bit of both. For more than seven years Einstein reviewed innovative patent drawings and applications for the Swiss Patent Office. But here’s a part I think may have played a significant role in Einstein’s brain integration: every day he would walk to and from work accompanied by a colleague. During those daily walks they would fantasize and regale each other with accounts of the innovations they had reviewed during the work day. Why is this walk-and-talk important? Well, since almost 90% of the neurons in the brain are employed in moving the body, and every single one of them eventually traces a route that terminates at a muscle, walking may turn out to be a massively facilitating integrative mechanism. Steve Jobs, among many luminaries, thought it was pretty important.

Integration Makes It Happen

There are other ways to place life challenges into the service of neural integration as well. Any number of these somatic therapeutic modalities can and do work for many people (more than half of them have worked for me).

Another is to simply begin a concerted study of how your own brain works. Here’s a list of some considerable benefits that can be obtained.

Finally, simply observing and realizing that all of us – individually and collectively – are on a journey of wholeness and increasing mind-body integration (even though sometimes it doesn’t seem like it – for example, during political season in America), that realization can serve as a reason to begin to consider the possibility of using life’s difficulties as directional signals.