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Think About What You Are Thinking About

4 Apr

Let’s start with a juicy topic.  If you think about God, what do you think about?  Is your perception of God authoritarian or benevolent?

Research shows that those who embrace an authoritarian God tend to favor the death penalty, want to spend more money on the military, want to give the government more power to fight terrorism, and insist that prayer should be allowed in public schools.  Envisioning an authoritarian God will activate the limbic (emotional) brain that generates fear and anger. Thus, the brain is primed to fight.

Those who perceive a benevolent God activate a part of their brain that can envision love, compassionate images, faces or thoughts. When stimulated, it suppresses the impulse to get angry or frightened.  It also helps generate feelings of empathy towards other who are suffering or hurt.  This part of the brain is called the anterior cingulated and sits between the emotional brain and the thinking brain.

As far as the brain is concerned, if you give an experience a label (God) and saturate it with meaning (authoritarian or benevolent), you will perceive your experience as something that actually exists in the world. The personality you assign to God has direct neural patterns that correlate with your own emotional style of behavior.

Basically, we all have two brains – one selfish and suspicious, another that is open-minded and can be kind.  If you’re wondering which brain will win? It’s the one you feed!!  What you think about creates your reality.  Needless to say this extends beyond God, it plays into your perception of other people, situations, activities, beliefs and values.

You can change your perception of other people, situations or God by choosing what part of your brain you feed.

Based on research, you can rather easily develop neural circuits geared towards compassion and open-mindedness.  (Easy, as in, it doesn’t require a lot of training or resources, however, it does require consistency and intentionality!)  Here’s what you do, absorb yourself in thoughts associated with the feelings of kindness and love as you breath deeply and relax. Do this for at least 12 minutes per day for 6-8 weeks.  You will begin to build and strengthen new neural circuits of compassion.

In addition, if you consciously interrupt pessimistic thoughts and feelings with optimistic beliefs – even if they are based on fantasies rather than reality – you will stimulate your brain to create new circuits that decrease fear, anxiety, and irritability and increase your sense of peacefulness.

FYI, if you obsess on doubts and worries, your emotional brain will slow down your thinking brain which decreases your ability to be empathetic and feel pleasure.

When love goes up – fear goes down.  When anger goes up – compassion goes down.  If you focus on a benevolent God, the authoritarian God recedes. You can control non-conscious circuits in your brain when you choose what you think about. The choice is entirely yours!

Exercising Your Brain

20 Mar

Eight ways to enhance your physical, mental and spiritual health – according to breakthrough findings from leading neuroscientist.

#8  Smile! even if you don’t feel like it.  Smiling repetitively helps to interrupt a bad mood and strengthen your brain’s ability to maintain a positive outlook on life.  People will respond to you with more generosity and kindness, and smiles are contagious!

#7  Stay intellectually active.  Intellectual stimulation strengthens your ability to communicate, solve problems and make rational decisions.  By the way, a highly functioning frontal lobe also makes it easier to diet, exercise and avoid tempting activities that have health risks!

#6  Consciously relax.  Scan each part of your body to reduce muscle tension and fatigue, listen to pleasant music, repeat a simple meaningful activity or knit!  Relaxation lowers tension, stress and anxiety.  It also interrupts the brain’s release of harmful chemicals.

#5  Yawn!  This is my favorite!  Yawning quickly brings you into a heightened state of cognitive awareness – ridding you of sleepiness, helping you stay focused, giving you a sense of self and helping you become more introspective and self-aware.  Yawning will relax you and bring you into a state of alertness.  *how to do yawn therapy described at the end.

#4  Meditate.   Meditation or intensive prayer permanently strengthens neural functioning in the specific parts of the brain that are involved in lowering anxiety and depression and enhancing social awareness and empathy. Mediating for  10-15 minutes a day on a consistent basis has been shown to reduce smoking and binge-drinking behavior!

#3  Aerobic exercise.  All forms of exercise enhance brain performance (the more aerobic the better.)  Exercise improves academic performance, repairs and protects the effects of stress, boosts immune function, reduces anxiety, and can decrease depression.  It slows the loss of brain tissue as you age, protects you from Alzheimer’s disease and reduces vulnerability to chronic illness.  Need I say more!

#2  Dialog with others.  This is not monologues at another person, but actual social interaction (put the newspaper, phone and iPad down and converse!)  If we don’t use our language skills large portions of our brains will not effectively interconnect with other brain functions.  Isolation will damage important mechanisms in the brain leading to aggression, depression a social disorders.

#1  Faith.  In this case, faith is equivalent with hope, optimism and the belief that a positive future awaits us. Being optimistic and having faith decreases stress, helps you resist catching the common cold, reduces your risk of coronary artery disease, increases longevity and improves copying skills during hardship.

Your choice today is to try the yawning exercise – it works!!  I did this with a group of people in one of my training session, hilarious and helpful!  It was 2:00 in the afternoon, the sleepies had set in, I asked if they were up for a yawning exercise and they said yes.  Here are the steps to yawn therapy.

  1. Stand up.  (If possible) find a quite place where you won’t be disturbed  (needless to say I broke rule number one – most people chose to face the wall).
  2. Take a very deep breath and then open your mouth wide.  Exhale with a sigh.  Start yawning, even if you have to fake the first few.
  3. Yawn 12 – 15 times; this should take no more than 2 minutes.  Your eyes will probably start watering and your nose might run (that did happen for most of the people in my class so have Kleenex handy!)

It was crazy!  Within 5-10 minutes after the exercise almost everyone in the room agreed that they felt refreshed, less sleepy and more alert.  So before tackling a difficult problem, before a sporting event or when you’re tired – yawn!

SPECT Scans, Book Report Part 2

4 Mar

From This is Your Brain on Joy by Dr. Earl Henslin

If you haven’t seen a SPECT scan of the brain, seriously – do it!!  So cool!!, you can see brains on meth, marijuana, AD/HD, etc.

Henslin, like many therapists and pastors, assumed that all brains are created equal, meaning everyone has the same capacity to choose and functions from the same level of free will.  Based on the brain’s inner workings, it is now evident that all brains are not equal and not everyone has the same power to choose.

If a brain isn’t working correctly, all the counseling, trying, discipline and theology will only work partially, at best.  (This does not take people off the hook for their anger, anxiety, depression or hyperactivity; however, understanding how their unique brain is wired can offer new insights and answers.)

Much of Henslin’s book is based on Dr. Amen’s area of expertise, SPECT scans (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) – a type of imaging that shows how blood flows through the brain. SPECT scans might be more sensitive to brain injury than either MRI or CT scanning because it can detect reduced blood flow to injured sites.   To read more about the scans:

The book examines common brain issues associated with ADD/ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, anger and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   SPECT scan can offer enormous insight into these issues.  For example it is quite common to find a person with rage issues has had damage done to their temporal lobe, causing reduced blood flow.  This is often correctable.

As cool as it would be to get a SPECT scan, not everyone can afford one. Even if you lived by one of the Amen Clinics, they reportedly cost $3,300 and health insurance probably isn’t going to help.

There is a no cost alternative that you might want to look at.  Dr. Amen has created a questionnaire, or a checklist, to help establish if there is an imbalance that might require medical assistance.  Here is a link to the questionnaire.   The ‘key’ for the checklist and instruction for taking the quiz are in the book report on page 5.

The choice I’d ask you to focus on today has to do with judgment.   We are often quick to judge those that behave in ways we do not appreciate.  We might assume they are not trying hard enough to change or aren’t disciplines enough or don’t have enough faith to be better.

Today’s point of choice, identify 3 people whose behaviors bug you enough to distract you.  Can you consider the possibility that they really are doing the best they can with the brain they are working with?  Can you cut them some slack?  If you are in a position to help them, will you help them?  Maybe you just start with the questionnaire.

Your Brain On Joy, A Book Report, Part 1

25 Feb

Through the miracle of modern science, we can actually see joy on the brain.  Studies have been done to better understand happiness, joy and well-being.  The studies centered on the meditation and prayer habits of Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns.

Not surprisingly, both groups experienced a sense of well-being, peace and joy during meditation.  The interesting part is that their feelings of serenity lasted throughout their day.  Their time of quieting the mind of typical worries allowed them to handle negative circumstances with grace and slowed down the automatic reactions of anger, frustration and fear.

In terms of the brain, the area of the brain that most lit up in our monks and nuns were the region associated with clarity and happiness.  Areas that were subdued were the area involved in fear memory.

Research by Andrew Newberg has found that spending just 12 minutes a day quieting your busy mind, getting centered on what really matters most in your life or connecting with God or your higher power significantly impacts your ability to have a calmer, more constructive day.

Hands in the air – how many of you are SHOCKED by this information?

I’m guessing not many are surprised.  In the 1950’s Norman Vincent Peale wrote in The Power of Positive Thinking, “A primary method of gaining a mind full of peace is to practice emptying the mind…I recommend a mind-emptying at least twice a day… especially of fears, hates, insecurities, regrets and guilt feelings.”  (Love this!)

This stuff isn’t new it’s just that we now have the technology to SEE it!

calming-mind-brain-wavesSo, why don’t we help ourselves have a calmer, more productive day by ‘emptying our brains of negative thoughts’, praying or meditating?  The number one answer is – time.  “I can’t make the time to learn to do this well.  Even if I knew how to do it well I don’t have the time to do it.”

OK, what is the time-cost associated with ANTS (automatic negative thoughts) which might send your day into a tailspin wasting precious time gossiping, fretting, fuming and stewing?  Does 12 minutes to help prevent ANTS seem like a worth while investment?

Here’s your point of choice for today.  For the next week, pay attention to how much time you spend being frustrated, wound-up, worrying and generally unproductive.  If it’s more than 12 minutes I’ve got an idea for you!

Back to the book report, Henslin’s book This is Your Brain on Joy was written to bring knowledge of how the brain works into the average Christian home, so there are a fair amount of Biblical references.  However, the real focus of the book is on Daniel Amen’s work with SPECT scans of the brain as it relates to behavioral challenges such as ADD/ADHD, OCD, anger, PSDT and depression.   If you know anyone that experiences these challenges, you might want to take a quick peek at the book report.

I’ll be honest, this isn’t my favorite brain book, but I felt it worth outlining because I love SPECT scans – more on that coming in my next blog!

Circle of Influence, Circle of Concern

27 Jan

Circle of Concern:  all things that affect my situation.

Circle of Influence:  things I can affect (not necessarily control, but affect.)images

Gap between circles:  things I must either make an effort to affect, or accept them.

This is pretty simple on the surface, lets dig a little.

Circle of Concern – all things that affect my situation. I travel for my job.  Airlines fly where they want, when they want, at a price they set.  Not all hotel rooms have a coffee maker, free WIIFI or a fresh scent, and the insides of rental car windows are seldom clean!!  All of these affect me.

Circle of Influence – what I can do.  I make suggestions and respond to surveys I think will help.  Mostly, I prudently assess my flight options, read the fine print about hotel amenities, bring air freshener and pack Kleenex to wipe the inside of the windows.

The Gap – I often need to be “accepting”.  When I enter the airport, I accept the fact that I’m in control of very little, I anticipate delays and craziness associated with human behavior.  If there is a major problem I go back to my circle of influence – I use all the knowledge and influence I have to create the best outcome that I can.  (Not getting frustrated or loosing control is a key option that I need to utilize. My brain is more creative and efficient when I’m not stressed.  If you need a refresher about your brain and stress revisit Feb. 13 blog )

Another example, maybe closer to home for you.

  •  “I hate my job!  My boss is… this department is… the culture here is!” (Concerns)
  • My response “Quit.”  (Exerting Influence)
  • “What?  I can’t quit.” (Fear, not accepting your range of choices)
  • “Yes, of course you can. You just don’t like the consequences of quitting. You’d prefer having an income that pays for your house and car and covers your healthcare.  But certainly we live in a country where you are allowed to quit your job.”  (Perspective)

This person sees the issues concerning them, but is not accepting or influencing to a degree where they can be at their best – they are victims.  I’ve coached numerous people in this situation.  The gap; have they truly done everything they can to influence this situation to make it better or more manageable?  Second, if they have done everything possible (which is seldom the case because their thinking is limited) it is time to quit, or accept the limitations of the situation in exchange for the paycheck and benefits.

I know this sounds harsh.  When our friends explain their unhappy situation we want to comfort them, but agreeing with their victimized thinking doesn’t help them.  Even more challenging is confronting our own thinking.

In my experience many people live with smaller circles of influence than is possible.  Either they are not exerting influence where they could or not influencing effectively.

Unhappy, discontent or disgruntled with a situation?  You might have a ‘gap’ that you might need to close or accept.  You Have Choice!

Your brain loves constructive questions – start asking some!

  1. What are the factors that concern you (good, bad and neutral)?
  2. What are you doing to influence or change the situation?
  3. What aren’t you doing (having tough conversations, owning your behaviors or decision, taking action vs. complaining, etc.)?
  4. What are the consequences of doing something new vs. doing nothing?
  5. If you can’t do anything more, don’t want to exert more effort or don’t want to live with the consequences – then it is time to accept the gap between concern and influence.  Come to peace with it.

When do people change?

When the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of the change!

Good luck! Let me know how it’s going!

“First World Problem”

8 Jan

  • “Your new iPad is so much cooler than my old rickety one.”
  • “I can’t believe how slow the internet is here!”
  • “I’ll have to return this, what a hassle.”
  • “I always get red eye with this camera.”
  • “Their customer service is terrible!”

“FIRST WORLD PROBLEM!” said with a bit of attitude.

Over the holidays I hung-out with my 20-something nieces – very fun!  Aside from finally understanding hashtag and feeling pretty cool because I was already on Instagram (thank you Savannah) – I picked up a new phrase that I quite like.

Anytime one of us would whine about an everyday problem such as clothing options, temperature in the house, technical anything, or food choices the response “first world problem” could be expected.

I love the idea of a trendy social norm that provides a continuous reality check to our ridiculously privileged lives. Seriously, how many of our daily conversations, complaints and concerns are problems only because of the relative ease and abundance we live in?

Your choice for today?  Notice how much First World Whining is done in your little world.  Call it out!

Beware, it will boomerang back at you.

Outlier Trivia – A Book Report

23 Dec

If you’re tired of the same old stories at holiday parties a quick read through this book report, Outliers, will equip you with fun new trivia to share.

Malcolm Gladwell does a great job of using interesting research and stories to build a case. In the book Outliers, he builds the case that extraordinary success is not so much about hard work as it is time, location and heritage. He suggests people do not rise from nothing – they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages.

Here are a few topics…

The Matthew Effect – people that start out a little bit better than their peers get special treatment, training and advantages that lead to special opportunities. For example in sports, date of birth dramatically impacts likelihood of elite success. Seventy percent of elite Canadian hockey players are born in the first six months of the year (40% in the first three months.)

The 10,000-Hour Rule – apparently 10,000 hours of practice are required to achieve world-class mastery in almost any discipline; music, sports, writing, chess, etc. You only need 4,000 hours of practice to teach.

Bill Gates, while admittedly talented, smart and hard working, succeeded in part because he had unusual opportunities based on chance, and being born at the right time in history.

Wealth – of the 75 riches people in human history (starting with Cleopatra), 14 of the richest were American born within 9 years of each other in the mid 1800’s! How does one explain 20% of the richest people EVERY being clumped together like that? Opportunity – the railroad and Wall Street emerged.

IQ is good to a point (about 120), but does not translate into measurable real-world success. A study started in 1921 showed that the highest IQ kids in the class do not become Outliers or Nobel Prize winners.

Practical Intelligence is typically gotten from family. An extensive study examining a child’s ability to succeed in the world, based on economic factors, showed that children of poorer families were often better behaved, less whiny, more creative in making use of their own time and had a better sense of independence than kids from wealthier families. However, they are less able to advocate for themselves causing them to miss many opportunities.

Place and Time. There was a perfect birth date for New York Jewish lawyers – 1930. Based on the educational system at the time, the Depression, non-Jewish birth rates and Wall Street snobbishness, being born a poor Jewish immigrant in 1930 offered an opportunity that changed law firms forever.

Cultural Legacy. Feuds between families in Kentucky in the late 1800’s still affect well-educated, affluent descendents that never lived in the area,100 years later. In 1999 Korean Air nearly went out of business due to their inordinate number of plane crashes. The problem was not a lack of skill or equipment it was cultural norms. Apparently it was not OK to give the Captain negative feedback, which includes basic information.

Your only choice today is to expand your repartee of interesting facts and stories! If you like the book report, buy the book.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Judging or Evaluating?

13 Dec

Question… what’s the difference between judging and evaluating?  (Think about your answer before you read on.)

I’ve posed this question to numerous groups.  Typically answers include…

  • Evaluating is more data driven or factual
  • Judging is adding your opinion
  • Evaluation is objective
  • Judging is usually about personal perspective
  • Evaluating often includes input from the source
  • Judging includes added meaning  (extending what you know to what you think it means)
  • Evaluation is a process
  • Judging is drawing conclusions

FYI, I do think there is a difference between judging and using good judgment, for instance choosing to order a glass of water instead of a third glass of wine at happy hour might be considered good judgment if you are driving home anytime soon.

What I’m thinking about are all of the subtle, possibly unconscious, acts of judging we do in a typical day.   For example:

  • You see a person standing on a street corner with a sign indicating they’d like you to give them money.   What goes through your head?  Are your thoughts evaluative or have you added a degree of opinion, personal perspective and/or meaning (such as “this person looks perfectly capable of working – they should go find a job, by the size of that person I don’t think he/she is starving to death, etc.)
  • You see an adult with a couple of kids in public.  The kids are out of control and the adult isn’t doing anything about it, or they are screaming at the kids.  What are your thoughts?  Actions?
  • A person that you don’t particularly like is:  late, whispering with someone, not returning email as quickly as you think they should, dressed ‘like that’ or texting during a meeting. Do you assess them differently than people you like?  Are you adding personal bias?  Could there be a perfectly innocent, logical reason for their behavior?

Let me ask you this, are you helping the other person be the best they can be?  Are you loving them unconditionally?  At the end of the day, are you proud of your behavior?  Funny thing about judging, it often boomerangs’ back at you.

Starting with a more objective, evaluative posture, might increase your willingness to gather objective information, see more options and offer the benefit of doubt.

Today’s point of choice:

  1. Stop!
  2. Think about what you are thinking about.
  3. Ask yourself, “Am I evaluating or judging?”
  4. Ask yourself, “Is this in line with who I want to be?”

Thankfulness and Stuff

25 Nov

I recently heard this question posed, “What would your life look like if you only got to keep today – what you thanked God for yesterday?”

I have to admit my devious mind thought – whaoo, great way to get rid of a few extra pounds, annoying people, car problem or a crummy project.

Quickly, however, I realized those problems would only be an issue if I had remembered to be thankful for: all the food I have to eat and a healthy body to absorb those calories, my job, family and community that contain those annoying people, the car I have that needs fixing and my house, work or yard that are associated with the crummy project.

Seriously, what would your life look like today if your daily level of thankfulness dictated what stuff, situations and relationships you got to keep?

You may not think being grateful for your shampoo, hot water, clean water, clean underwear, carrots, kids, computer, health, family, schools, electricity or phone is important – everyday – but ask someone who doesn’t have access to those items and see how grateful they’d be to have yours.

A little science to support the sappy sentiment.  Based on how the brain works… experiencing a true sense of gratitude or appreciation releases chemicals into your body that repairs your immune system and put you into a state of well-being.  On the flip-side, thinking negative or fear based thoughts (anxiety, stress, worst case scenarios, panic) pour different chemicals into your body that attack your immune system, dumb you down and wears you out.

(If you didn’t read the book report, Who Switched Off My Brain” the last time I posted it, check it out now!)

Even if nothing physically disappears due to your lack of thankfulness– you might be missing the overwhelming wealth, abundance and blessing you are living in.

You have choice about what you think about.  Today:  choose to be thankfulness for all of the beauty, people, stuff, health and blessings surrounding you.  Say it out loud!  List things you’d like to have tomorrow, one at a time! It is your choice!

Choiceful Living

5 Nov

As many of you that read this blog already know, a very close friend of mine was killed in an accident three weeks ago. It seems impossible for me to pick up blogging without acknowledging this.  So that task of figuring out what to say.

I’m sure my observation are not shocking or even particularly insightful, but as I’ve ventured through the past three weeks with friends and the family I’ve noticed a few things. As you might imagine, everyone is devastated for his wife, son and parents. People truly want to help, to be of service and somehow make it better.  I also noticed that many people, even those that didn’t know him, experienced a reality check about their own mortality – a momentary awakening of how fragile and uncertain life can be.

As I’ve thought about my own reactions, and those of others, I have once again circled around to the notion that “we have choice.”

The question is often asked “if you only had X amount of time to live, what would you do?”  This got me thinking.  How is today or tomorrow any more-or-less precious if you have 1 week, 6 months or 50 years left to live?

It’s strikes me as odd, maybe sad or even ridiculous, that we’d be okay making bad choices for today if we had 30 more years to live, but if we only had 30 more days to live, then being stupid today would be a tragedy.  How do 30 years -109,500 days- of bad choices add up?  Or is it the assumption that we don’t have patterns of how we do life – “surely next week I’ll make better choices!”  Do we notice when another year of bad days have accumulated?

When I say bad choices I mean things like…spinning in our tiny little world of mostly self-made problems, harshly judging ourselves or others, stewing about things we can not control, not controlling the things we can, answering our cell phone when we’re talking to someone or missing the opportunity to connect with someone because we have projects, papers or emails piled in front of us?

Seriously, I’m not trying to point a finger at anyone – but the idea that “you have choice” is about choosing every day, every moment.  What do your thoughts and actions say about you today?

Everyday we have the choice to declare a ‘reality check’ about what matters, we have the opportunity to help others, to be of service, to try and make it better.  We have the choice to live in gratitude, appreciation and relationship or busyness, chaos and self-absorption.

A choice to consider… start a gratitude/appreciation habit today – continue it for the next 109,500 days.  Let me know how it goes!