Everyday Courage

Courage is a big word.  It brings to mind fierce determination, or fighting against all odds.   But today I’m thinking about a more subtle kind of bravery, one that requires no less strength, in my opinion.  I walked my son to the bus stop this morning for the first day of middle school.  He is my oldest, so no one in our family has made this transition before.  He looked at me and said “Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to be the first one to do new things.”  He wasn’t anxious in an outward way, but his comment showed the small worries that must have been on his mind.  He got on the bus and rode off to a totally new school anyway, ready to move forward despite any qualms he may have had.  He wasn’t riding off into battle, but this morning certainly required him to be courageous.

Each day there are many small situations that require us to make a courageous choice.  It takes bravery to strike up a conversation with a stranger, to present a new idea at work or to try a new class at the health club. When you really think about it, it takes a leap of faith to even leave the house each day. We are courageous and bold when we choose to live our lives in spite of the things that may go wrong.  Every one of us has that strength inside, so imagine if we could connect with it whenever we need a greater level of courage.

A hot topic in neuroscience these days is neuroplasticity.  This is the ability of the brain to create new connections and pathways, even as a full-grown adult.  The great thing is, we can directly affect this process with practices like psychotherapy and meditation.  We create new pathways by using different parts of the brain together.  In the meditation practice that follows, we will connect with courage while we are in a relaxed state.  With repeated practice, these two states of being can become connected, leading to a sense of calm even in situations that require us to be brave.

Meditation:  Inner Strength of Courage

Find a quiet spot where you’re unlikely to be disturbed.  Sit comfortably, but with an upright, alert posture.  Gently close your eyes and breathe normally, in and out through the nose.  Begin to focus your attention on the sensation of your breath, noticing the temperature of the air as it flows through your nostrils.  Allow this mindful practice to calm your body and mind, releasing any thoughts that arise without judgment, returning again and again to the breath.

When you feel ready, allow the Inner Strength of courage to emerge into awareness.  Recall a time in your life when you experienced courage, perhaps bringing to mind a memory or image that evokes this more fully into your body.  Notice any associated sensations, emotions or images that arise in your body and mind.  Experience courage in this moment right now: fully embody it.  Now release any thoughts or memories and stay with the felt sense of courage in your body.  Let go of thinking, simply feeling the strength of courage throughout your body.  Breathe into this sensation, and recognize how this strength is always present, there in the background of your experience.  Sense how your inner courage is always present in your awareness.

Now return to the sensation of your breath, coming back into your body.  Sit quietly with a soft focus on your inhale and exhale.  When you feel ready, return your awareness to the room around you, noticing any sounds and sensing the space around your body.  Allow your eyes to open, taking in your surroundings and returning fully to the present, ready to take on whatever comes with a sense of strength and courage.


Follow Your Gut

Have you ever had a gut reaction?  You might know it as that physical feeling in your body trying to tell you something.  Maybe it’s offering guidance about a choice you need to make, or whether or not to trust someone, or a warning that something is very wrong.  Often, this knowledge comes without a sense of how we came to a conclusion.  We just know.  It’s also usually accompanied by a feeling in the body, maybe a hollow sensation or butterflies in the stomach, hence the expression “listen to your gut.”  It means your intuition is at work.

Interestingly, scientists have discovered that the human gut (or stomach through large intestine) has its own nervous system.  It is influenced by the same neurotransmitters at work in the brain, such as serotonin.  Whether this means the gut can think in some capacity is unclear, but it’s well established that the gut is influenced by emotional states.  For example, many gastrointestinal illnesses, such as irritable bowel syndrome or chronic constipation, are exacerbated by stress.  When we feel anxious or upset, there is definitely a corresponding sensation in the abdomen.  Sometimes those sensations appear before we are even aware that we are in distress.  Imagine if you could regularly tune into that innate knowledge, using both the brain and the intuition to influence your choices.

Research shows that we can increase self-awareness through mindfulness and other forms of meditation.  With regular practice, we can more easily recognize right decisions, and also know when something doesn’t align with our personal values.  This knowledge may come from the rational, thinking brain, or a recognition of that gut sense in the body showing us the way.

Build your sense of intuition by establishing a daily meditation practice, or try this exercise to directly strengthen awareness of your gut sense.  Start by sitting comfortably and focusing on the breath for a few minutes.  Then bring to mind a situation from your life when you know you made a right choice.  Remember the details of the event, and the feeling you had when things worked out perfectly.  Observe the sensations in the body associated with this choice.

Next, bring to mind an opposite situation.  One in which you made poor choices, either with bad consequences or simply the knowledge that you didn’t act in accordance with your values.  Recall the details, and observe the body sensations associated with this event.  Notice the difference in your thoughts, emotions and sensations when remembering these opposite situations.

Now take this awareness into real life.  Notice what is happening in your mind and body when you have to make difficult choices.  Recall the exercise and what you observed when you remembered past decisions, and use this experience to learn what your gut is telling you.  Intuition can be a powerful ally, and direct observation of our thoughts as well as our body sensations allows us to use all of our natural sources of knowledge.  When we operate from this place, we always know the correct response to any situation in life.  The knowledge is there, we just have to listen.


Tip the Balance Toward the Good

This time of year it can be hard to maintain a positive mood.  The weather alone offers us many reasons to complain!  It’s not our fault, though.   The human brain has evolved to preferentially focus on the negative.  This phenomenon is called The Negative Bias.  It ensures that we learn from the bad things that happen to us, so we don’t repeat mistakes that could have dire consequences.  This bias affects the way our experiences are stored in our memory, and the bad stuff is preferentially remembered over the good.  Negative experiences are also held longer in our consciousness than positive ones.  We don’t tend to ruminate on all the good things that happened during our day, after all!  So, a mildly bad experience may end up having a far greater impact on us than a really good one.

This doesn’t have to be the case.  Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is more like a muscle than was previously thought.  The parts we use get developed, those we don’t waste away.  If we allow this Negativity Bias to control us, we are actually increasing its power over time.  We can change this, though.  The field of Positive Psychology has shown that shifting attention to the good things in life can improve the mood.  Initially this takes effort.  We have to notice when the mind is going down a dark path and redirect it.  Every time.  But the more we practice, the more automatic it becomes.  Imagine having automatic good thoughts!

It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to increase the power of the positive.  Some simple practices involve giving more time and attention to the good things in our lives.  For example, spend some time each day cultivating an attitude of appreciation or awe.  Really look around you and be inspired by the complexity and beauty of an object, person or scene.  Allow yourself to be absorbed in it, feeling how this appreciation affects you, perhaps noting the sensations that arise in your heart center.  With practice, we actually develop new connections in the brain, making it easier each time to fall into this state of appreciation.  Over time, you may even catch yourself feeling more inspired throughout your day, not just during your time of contemplation.

Another short practice is to spend some time every day absorbing the good things that happened.  Take a comfortable seat and focus on your breath for a few moments.  Then choose one positive experience from your day, perhaps a compliment you received, or a kind gesture someone made toward you.  Allow this to be your point of concentration.  Bring to mind the experience and remember every detail.  Really embody it, feeling the sensations of pleasure, pride, happiness or joy with your entire body.  This practice of absorbing the good effectively moves these experiences up in the hierarchy of memories.  They deserve a higher place than the petty annoyances or irritations of life, don’t they?  We may have to work a little bit to counteract the natural tendency to focus on the negative, but over time we can tip the balance and spend more time dwelling in the good.

Please see the wonderful book Buddha’s Brain by Dr. Rick Hanson for more information on the negativity bias, and how to overcome it.

Start Over Again

December 31st is a time for New Year’s Resolutions.  The end of January is the time a lot of people abandon them.  Many factors may be involved: the goal was too broad, too unrealistic, or the time wasn’t right to make the change.  Sometimes, resolutions are abandoned because we didn’t stick with them, and starting over again feels like a failure.  Starting over forces us to admit that we didn’t follow through, for whatever reason, and now we are back at square one.  Bummer.

We can view having to start over again as evidence of our personal failings, but there are plenty of negative thoughts to go along with that mindset.  For example: “I couldn’t keep up;”  or “I just wasn’t motivated enough;” or “I wasn’t any good anyway.”  Negative thoughts lead to negative moods.  But what if we change our perspective?  We could think of starting over as a new opportunity, or a new beginning.  A chance to try again, using the knowledge we have gained.  This definition opens us to hope, and a willingness to move forward.  See the difference?

Meditation gives us a daily opportunity to practice starting over.  We actually expect the mind to wander and get distracted.  Then we get to let go of the thoughts, without judgment or negativity, and start over.  As many times as it takes.  You can see that meditation also allows us to view starting over with acceptance and neutrality.  Translated into real life, meditation helps us to view ourselves and others with those same qualities.  As Sharon Salzberg, one of my favorite meditation teachers, said: “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome.”  Luckily, life is full of new beginnings.  If your resolutions aren’t going the way you intended, view it as a great opportunity to start again.  As many times as it takes.



Welcome What Arises

Thoughts affect our emotions, of that there is no doubt.  Many therapeutic interventions are based on this premise.  In cognitive therapy, we are trained to monitor our thoughts and evaluate their validity.  Then we deliberately question the negative or toxic thinking that can lead to a low mood.  Positive psychology asks that we focus our attention on the good things, trying to remain more optimistic and grateful.  These techniques are powerful and effective.  But we are still going to have negative thoughts and sometimes we are still going to feel bad.

We can choose what thoughts get our attention, but we can’t choose what thoughts pop into our minds.  Sometimes negative, judgmental and mean thoughts will arise.  We also can’t control everything that happens in life.  Sometimes bad stuff will happen to us or someone we love, and we will feel bad.  These things are beyond our control.  Even though most of us understand these facts on a rational level, we may still desperately wish things were different.  We push and shove against reality, trying to control our experience.  Or we hide, stuffing down the thoughts and emotions that we have decided are bad.  Neither approach changes the circumstances, but both will eventually create problems for us.

What if we took a different approach?  Mindfulness and iRest Yoga Nidra teach us that the present moment is all there is.  What if we just accept whatever arises during this moment?  Feeling sad?  Welcome the sadness.  Sit with it and feel it.  Ask it why it’s present in this moment, and what it needs you to do.  In this way, the feeling is acknowledged.  We can learn from and eventually move past it.   A regular meditation practice reveals that thoughts are transient.  They come into the mind, and if we don’t attach to them or hide from them, they will eventually move on.  The same is true with feelings and emotions.  They aren’t fixed states, and they don’t define or control us.  When we have received their message, eventually they will also move on.  What a revelation! There is no longer a need to sort out and decide what is acceptable.  Simply welcome it all into this moment, and know that it will pass.  But by then we will be busy living in that moment, welcoming and learning what it has to offer before it passes.  Life is a series of moments.  Welcome each one.



Stay Focused

Attention and focus are big problems for a lot of us.  I can’t tell you how many patients I’ve seen that at some point say “I swear I think I’m ADHD.”  Most of the time, they’re only sort of kidding.  ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a condition that presents in childhood.  Sometimes people aren’t diagnosed until they are adults, but they will usually be able to look back and see that the condition was always there.  So what about people who notice a significant decline in focus as an adult?  Poor concentration is a common symptom.  It can occur as part of a mood or anxiety disorder, or a physical condition like sleep apnea.  With any major change in concentration or memory, it’s important to rule out these types of serious causes.  Most of the time, however, it’s a symptom of a stressful lifestyle.  Yes, good old stress, showing us yet another reason why we need to learn to manage its effects on our lives!

Stress affects focus and concentration in a number of ways.  Physically, it can affect our sleep, causing daytime fatigue.  We can’t focus on writing a detailed report at work if our mind is spending all its energy trying to stay awake.  Stress also causes the release of hormones that trigger the fight or flight response.  Physiologically, we are being primed to run or turn and fight our attacker.  Our brains are scanning for threats and escape routes, and literally can’t stay focused on one task when that is going on.  Obviously, we will need to relax in order to improve our concentration!

Distraction is another reason for poor focus.  We lead busy lives, and are often trying to multi-task in order to accomplish everything.  This can increase stress, but it also ensures that we aren’t fully attended to any one thing at a time.  Multi-tasking can also create an over-stimulating environment, as we watch TV while trying to read an article and wonder why we can’t remember anything we’ve read.  I also see a common problem with procrastination.  If you’ve ever put off an important assignment, then worried about it in the back of your mind all day long, you know how distracting it can be!

So, based on the reasons for lack of focus listed above, here are some ways to improve concentration:

1. Reduce stress.  Since stress is the most common reason we can’t concentrate, this goes without saying!

2. Get enough sleep.  And if you’re tired and losing focus, try taking a short break.  Take a walk, call a friend, or just have a cold drink.  Your alertness may improve, and your focus along with it.

3. Single-task.  Do one thing at a time, and don’t put things off.  You are much more likely to stay on task and accomplish everything on schedule.

4. Meditate.  I know, this is my answer for everything, but hear me out.  iRest, Mindfulness Meditation, and Transcendental Meditation have all been shown to have profound relaxation effects on the body  (see number 1).  They have also been found to improve concentration, separate from their impact on stress.  Meditation actually trains your brain to stay focused on one thing.  So, we meditate to relax the body while we strengthen our attention at the same time.  Beautiful!

Lack of focus is common, and there are often many reasons for it.  Sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture of the stress and demands on our lives to truly discover why we can’t concentrate.  The treatment should fit the cause, and therefore my prescriptions most often include the lifestyle changes listed above.  It may take some work to accomplish, but the benefits will extend into your whole life.