On Monday I had the honor of sharing some favorite meditation practices during a workshop on the Neuroscience of Resilience with an engaged group of job-seekers. When we are in times of transition or challenge, being able to engage our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body is key. We can bring a sense of equanimity and balance to decisions and actions we take.
The group was excellent. They participated readily, brought their perspectives into the room and asked great questions. I really enjoyed pulling together the presentation and materials for this session. I had in mind the struggle of being between jobs and careers, and I know this can be a place of uncertainty and stress. It can also be a place of discovery and growth, should we choose to embrace that side of the process.
It takes self-compassion to remain resilient in the face of challenges or struggles. Those of us who have harsh inner critics can feel as though we need to “reprogram” ourselves in a way. Self-criticism can be so habitual that it feels automatic. But when we access that higher self, that inner mentor, and allow ourselves some kindness, paradoxically we find it easier to take actions and move forward.
This group is able to tap the resources of Career Partners International, so they are fortunate to have support during their transition. I hope I was able to add to their toolkit of resources to help them along the journey. What a great privilege it is to be able to share on a topic I have studied for so many years for my own benefit, and on behalf of the teams I have led.
A potential client gave me a topic idea that I am exploring to create a workshop. I realized I have 10+ books on my bookshelf about the neuroscience of resilience. Kind of crazy when you get to create presentations on topics that you’ve been studying for years just out of your own personal interest!
So in readying myself to organize the outline I wanted to share a few thoughts here as I work on that. I am hoping to partner with a yoga teacher I know in order to create some practices that people can implement on the spot as part of the workshop.
As a person who has struggled with anxiety and depression in my past (and have come through a recent decade of robust mental health) I believe my experience can be helpful to others. I have read so many great books on this topic and will list some favorites here (this doubles as my bibliography for the session).
The Chemistry of Calm by Henry Emmons, M.D. (2010) – especially Chapter 3 on the Roots of Resilience. This whole book is a gem for anyone who has ever suffered anxiety.
This latter book was referred to me by a kind Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor for whom I am still grateful. He identified the hidden grief I was processing back in 2010. If it weren’t for him, I might have lost my job since I had been put on a performance improvement plan (giving only 90% at work instead of the 110% I customarily give).
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W. (2010) – especially Guideposts #2 and #3 on Cultivating Self-Compassion and Cultivating a Resilient Spirit.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. (2014) – this book again brought me to yoga in its explanations of the physical mechanisms that keep trauma “locked” in the body (both physical and mental).
Overworked and Overwhelmed: the mindfulness alternative by Scott Eblin (2014) – I heard the author speak at a leadership event for my company and I knew he had important messages for me. Scott tells a powerful journey of his diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis and the steps he takes to manage it. He actually became a yoga teacher in order to teach some of the things he was learning to take good care of his body. Another inspiration for me.
Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body by Daniel Goleman, PhD, and Richard J Davidson, PhD (2017). I knew meditation was starting to have an effect on me when I made a commitment to practice in February of 2017. This was the evidence I was looking for, that thoroughly reviewed the science behind how these practices change not only our current state but also our gene expression.
My premise is that human beings are (by nature) resilient. AND there are things we can do throughout our lifetimes to increase our own resilience in the face of difficult times.
I have many more. These are the ones that were top-of-mind as I scanned the shelves to work on my course outline. I will have WAY more than material than I can cover in a 2-hour session, but I can always hand out a reading list of suggested resources for those interested.
One of the discoveries most we make when we are learning new skills is that there is a BIG difference in learning new concepts versus practicing actual skills.
This became so clear to me when I began learning to meditate. There are an abundance of books resources and guided meditations out there. Really quite wonderful, actually. Check out Insight Timer if you want to start a meditation practice. I have used it for over 2 years and I love it.
But then there is the act and the art of practice. You do not learn new skills (like yoga or meditation) by reading about them. You must invest the time to practice, preferably daily, although 5 days a week would probably make a significant impact.
I like the cycle of learning as expressed in the four stages of competence model. Someone who knows nothing starts with unconscious incompetence. You do not know and you do not know WHAT you do not know.
Then you progress up through conscious incompetence. This is where I am now with teaching yoga. I KNOW what I do not know, but I must acquire the skills to act on my knowledge.
Eventually a learner passes through conscious competence, where they can practice the skill with their full and complete attention. I imagine this is where I will be by the end of my 6-month certification program. There are plenty of practice opportunities built into the curriculum, and I am happy for that!
The final stage is unconscious competence, when the learner has practiced so many times they can now execute their skill or practice with much less effort. Meditation is becoming like that for me, finally. I can drop in within a few minutes and feel fairly comfortable with it (which does not mean my mind is quiet) because I have practiced and primed my brain.
Are there new skills you are trying to learn this year? I find that this model gives me comfort, because the journey through these steps are naturally a progression that takes time. As our brain grows the neuronal connections it needs to make a practice seem “effortless” or at least smooth and well-practiced, we must stay committed along the way.
Three cheers for neuro-plasticity and our brain’s natural ability to grow, change and thrive when we give it the required nourishment along the way!
For those who have a.d.d. or struggle with an attention issue, getting a healthy diet and plenty of health fats every day is critical. I take fish oil supplements every day because these are helpful to balance brain chemistry. I also love avocados, olive oil and coconut oil, all healthy fats for our brains.
I realized about a year ago that powdered substances like flour, sugar were not serving me. I knew sugar was bad for me (don’t we all know that by now?!?) but I was surprised to find out that flour has almost an identical effect on our hormones. Flour, a ground up and powdered substance, basically causes us to release an unnatural amount of insulin and thus causes us to store fat. It also releases dopamine in the brain (as does sugar), making it very addictive.
For those of us who struggle with attention, some observation can show us that processed foods, typically laden with flour and sugar, is NOT good for our focus. In the short term, maybe the little shot of dopamine will feel good, and will help us focus for about 20-30 minutes.
The effect rapidly diminishes and we end up distracted and logy. Also, we have that post-insulin fat storage mode icky feeling to which almost everyone can relate, not just those with attention issues.
Is it any coincidence that cocaine is a similar powdered substance that people who are attention-deficit prone are also vulnerable. I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s biography More, Now, Again years ago when I was first diagnosed with a.d.d. She tells a compelling story and explains her addiction to cocaine and other substances to compensate for her a.d.d.
If you are a person who takes ANY kind of focus medication please please please, take it only as directed. Take it sparingly if you need it. Try to do everything you can to take care of yourself nutritionally as well. This will help your health, your weight, your sleep and your focus.
Your diagnosis can be an asset. You canuse your brain for creativity, flexibility and innovation. You switch direction easily. You perform well under stress, better than most people. If you manage it well, you can be successful in your life. If you become overwhelmed and over-committed, you may suffer from depression an anxiety.
What if everything you thought you knew was wrong?
What if you woke up tomorrow and you saw the world in a completely different way? For example, what if you learned that reality is in your imagination, that you generate your world. It is not some objective truth “out there” but rather constructed by your inner world, and projected outward.
Kind of a radical idea, no?
And yet, what cognitive scientists and linguists like George Lakoff tell us, human beings use mental frames to explain their reality. We can observe facts or circumstances in the world, and when they do not fit our frameworks, our way of explaining the world, we simply dismiss them as exceptions. We cling very strongly to our beliefs about how the world works, and this helps us to live and make decisions.
Sometimes our beliefs are actually wrong. Beliefs are really just thoughts we keep thinking over and over again. They may come from what we were taught growing up. They may be reinforced by societal programming. They begin to seem like reality because maybe everyone around us holds the same beliefs.
It can feel very threatening when we begin to question our beliefs. There is a biological reason for this. Our brains like to be efficient and avoid pain. So we develop neural pathways that serve as “shortcuts” that help us make choices and decisions about the world. This way we don’t have to evaluate all of our more automated activities, like driving to work, or walking down the hallway. These are automatic skills we develop and practice all the time.
It is a healthy to question our beliefs now and then, and it has radically changed my own life. When I realized that beliefs are a choice, and I can consciously choose new beliefs, my head kind of exploded.
First you have to be conscious of your beliefs. I will use food as an example, because it is easy to understand. I spent most of my adult life, until about 3 years ago in fact, believing that consuming fat in my diet would make me fat or keep me fat. It is easy to understand how I would form such a belief: nearly all the dietary guidelines recommend a low fat diet. The food industry has perpetuated the idea that sugar is fine for us, but we should consume “x” as part of a low-fat heart-healthy diet.
Imagine my amazement when instead of battling my body and brain’s natural inclination to consume fat, I began to add much more of it to my diet. I switched from skim milk to whole milk (gradually of course, going to 1%, 2% and then whole). I started using butter and olive oil liberally in my cooking. I went bananas for avocados (which I have always loved, but thought I should limit because of fat content).
As it turns out, over the past 18 months, I have lost 20 pounds on a high-fat diet. The loss has been sustainable and easy to maintain. At the same time, I cut way back on sugar and flour, because those powdered substances did not make my body feel good, when I started paying close attention. I defied all the conventional wisdom on eating three meals and several snacks a day to avoid low blood sugar.
Snacks really are an emotional event, they are not required for survival. They are not necessary for people in places where food is abundant and obesity runs rampant. Our bodies are well-adapted to periods without food, and our ancestors fasted regularly. Once we add back natural fats to our diet and ditch the foods that give us unnatural insulin spikes (flour, sugar and processed foods) we actually start becoming fat-adapted. Our bodies use ketosis to burn fat stores for energy, rather than just blood sugars.
Imagine my amazement, and my anger, when I realized there is a belief perpetuated that keeps so many people struggling with their weight. Sadly, there are public policies that perpetuate this incorrect belief and help perpetuate obesity and illness in our population. It is not about calories in and out, it is about insulin resistance.
But back to beliefs: what if I had not questioned this conventional wisdom, and had just accepted it as truth? The belief did not serve me. It actually was causing harm to my body and brain health. When I listened to my body, and paid attention to what made me feel more vital and energetic, I began to understand.
So lately I have been exploring other beliefs: what if money is not hard to earn? What if I am capable of certain things I never imagined? What if the ideas I learned by example in my culture were just plain misguided? Do these beliefs serve me? What if I adopted a new belief on that particular front?
Wow. It nearly makes my head explode, to consider about the possibilities. I am working right now on questioning my beliefs about money. I am sure to share what I learn in future posts.
But I challenge you also: What do you accept as true in your life that may not be serving you? Are there some beliefs that need cleaning out in your life? Consider the possibilities. I dare you.
A friend of mine recently posted a very personal story of his pain at the discovery of his own implicit bias despite having married a woman of color. The Implicit Bias Test is something you can take if you want to explore bias in yourself. I was touched by his admission but it made me realize that people still have a lot of unnecessary guilt about bias. I wanted to write about it because I realize so many probably suffer shame on this front.
Dr. Heidi Grant, a psychologist who presented to our Women’s Leadership annual conference last August, explained to us that bias is human. It is a part of our brains that is wired for us to be able to make decisions quickly and have shortcuts to protect our safety. So to feel guilty about it not necessary. Neuroscience has showed that there is a biological basis for bias.
So the idea that we can somehow get rid of bias is not practical. What we need to do is develop awareness of the biases that we have, so we can take action making decisions more fairly. One method that worked for orchestras, that traditionally hired men due to implicit bias, was to put up a screen so that the performer could not be seen during the audition. This played a role in getting many more women into competitive orchestras.
As a manager, one way to reduce bias is in hiring from a pool of candidates, and have only one candidate of a diverse origin, and say three other candidates you are interviewing, you are very unlikely to hire the diverse candidate. If you have just one other person of that minority (be in gender, race, etc) the likelihood that you will give everyone a fair shot increases substantially. Another way to reduce bias is to have a structured list of questions, and to ask the same questions to all candidates.
A number of studies have shown us how diversity drives innovation. And innovation is what drives economic growth. From a perspective of someone who has lost their job due to increased automation, that may not provide much comfort. Indeed, part of our problem is that our “free market” rewards the innovators much more than workers. That unfortunately leads to further polarization of resources, and exacerbates the distance between “haves” and have-nots” in our country.
While there is a systemic good arising from a more diverse society, recognized at many levels of corporate and government leadership (though not by the U.S. President, unfortunately), there are challenges as well. In order to address these challenges, we are required to evolve our own consciousness, as humans, to be able to fully use all the talents and capabilities we have. This is no easy task.
I often worry if the behavior in this country will degrade substantially while we have rhetoric that devalues whole categories or nations of people. We have seen some evidence that this may be true. But it also forces us to have some honest discussions about our future, and about what kind of society we want to build. I am reminded that a majority of the country does not agree with the President, and is working for positive change.
I am reminded that those of us who have privilege in this very digital economy need to pay attention to the people who have been left out since the 1980’s when the gap in the middle class began to widen substantially. We have many examples in history when this has led to disaster. This has led to scapegoating and devaluation of human life at many points in human history.
This awareness and consciousness of bias and privilege must be at the forefront of our thinking about solutions to this “great divide.” We can no longer ignore the suffering of so many people, and build ourselves into little cul-de-sacs of isolated individuals and families. Our well-being depends on a social fabric which must hold us together.
We must talk with people with whom we do not agree, learn from them, strive to understand their perspectives. I believe this is the only way to repair the rifts that have grown in our political life. We cannot afford to remain in our little echo chambers, in dialogue only with people with whom we agree.
I am beginning to look for those opportunities to engage with people that may hold different opinions from mine. Not just online, but in person and face to face. They are not easy to find, but I am fairly certain our survival as a species on this earth depends on realizing we are in this together.