Sunday, August 1, 2010

The 90-Second Window To Freedom

Do you want your brain at full power generating the creative and practical intelligence that not only succeeds but excels?

Do you want the emotional intelligence that makes you passionate about work, joyful about life, and cool, calm and collected in a crisis?

Do you want to dramatically increase your odds for a long and healthy life?

Who doesn’t? All of these outcomes are yours when you learn to master the 90-second window.

The 90-second window is all about the brain. There’s no denying that a big part of human experience is brain circuitry. We are thinking circuitry igniting emotional circuitry that triggers physiological circuitry. Most of what we view as stress is a bada bing, bada boom, bada BANG progression, escalating within this 90 second span of time.

• We think a thought such as I can’t do this.

• The thought turns into an emotional response, such as anger or fear.

• The emotional charge ignites a physiological reaction that sends the body into an uproar.

If we aren’t skillful at neutralizing the process, the 90 seconds turns into an endless looping process that beats us down. Our reactions amplify and more stress hormones flood the brain, debilitating higher brain function. After a while, the process of endless looping becomes automatic, meaning the brain is now wired for it. This, by definition, is chronic stress and chronic stress can become life threatening.

Not good. So here’s the good news and it couldn’t be better. You can gain full control over the 90-second window. When stress or anxiety begins to run the 90-second pattern, simply observe what is happening, emotionally and physically, without being pulled in deeper. Follow the bread crumbs back to the fearful, negative or stressful thinking that triggered the reaction in the first place. This is where choice comes in. Once you identify the negative thought, you choose not to believe it. You stand in the expanding mental space this choice will generate and watch your reaction disappear like smoke. If stress or anxiety raises their ugly head a moment later, simply repeat the process of finding the thought that re-stimulated the circuitry and discharge the thought.

It also helps to change the context for viewing stress or anxiety. Instead of saying: I am angry or I’m overwhelmed , you can say “Wow, the fear circuitry in my brain just switched on.” Then give your brain the 90 seconds or so to run its course while you practice being fully aware of all that is happening. The more you practice, the less time it will take for your system to reset. Eventually things won’t progress much farther than buda-bing, meaning your thoughts. You’ll be master of busting anxiety and stress at the point of inception, transcending a negative thought instead of getting hooked by it. That’s the power of peace, which is the key to emotional, creative and practical intelligence.

One last word, and this is critical: To master the 90-second window, you will need to practice being quiet on the inside and to practice it often. The research shows significant benefit in doing this at least every two hours. Step away from your desk and find a secure place where you can give your mind and brain a moment’s rest. Imagine that the quiet you seek is already there, waiting for you to arrive. All you need to do is show up and relax into it by following your breath and letting go of your mind.

Taking this time with frequency builds the awareness that opens to the mental spaciousness that makes you larger than a stressful thought, a stressed-out person or bad news. It gradually reshapes and remodels your brain because, in the absence of toxic stress hormones, higher order brain circuitry expands and integrates with other networks, making your brilliant.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Your Greatest Power

Thoughts are your greatest power. We are what we think we are. See for yourself. Spend the day tracking every anxious, fearful, stressful thought you think. Bring these thoughts into simple awareness. Observe the emotion each carries. Look at the picture it paints that becomes the world you see.

It’s the weight on your heart produced by the thought  I’m not going to make it that can suddenly diffuse into cold fear, immobilizing you completely. A moment later the fear can sink into depression that casts a shadow over your life. The world you will see through this thought-generated-lens will feel unsafe, unkind and seem as if it is hell bent on crushing your dreams.

The term we give this mind-made picture is “reality.” It is not some fixed reality. It is a representation of your own state of mind.

According to a 2009 study of the American Psychological Association, three out of four of us are struggling with stress and anxiety. When stress and anxiety are chronic, the brain becomes fear conditioned and wires for fight or flight. We see life through the eyes of our primitive brain, leading us to believe that we are alone, lost and constantly pursued by predators. When this part of the brain takes charge, life becomes a nightmare. It all begins in thought. Robert Sapolsky, the stress researcher at Stanford University Medical School, states it aptly:

“We humans are smart enough to generate all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads. We can experience wildly strong emotions, provoking our bodies into an accompanying uproar, with all of it linked to mere thoughts.”
Thoughts cast us into hell, but they can also rewire our brain to support our mind in securing our fair share of heaven here on Earth. The process could not be simpler. Often, people begin by trying to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts or affirmations. A far more effective approach involves extinguishing thoughts that are false, so they no longer have an effect. We start with the assumption that the vast majority of fearful thoughts are false. This is exactly what Mark Twain was referring to when he said: "My life has been a series of terrible calamities, some of which actually happened."

Our laughter at Twain’s “drama queen” calamities is for our own. It indicates how often we travel in that direction. Who would you become if you extinguished fearful, stressful thinking before it paints you into a corner? How would the world look? Which of your problems might begin to reveal solutions? It is worth exploring through a simple practice that adds nothing to your to-do list.

Here’s all you have to do for a week:
  1. Be aware of anxious, stress-provoking thoughts whenever they occur. Notice the way these thoughts give rise to negative emotions that produce a perception of threat. Don’t try to change these thoughts or feelings. For now, simply observe them. If you criticize or condemn yourself for thinking or feeling this way, simply observe this as another stressful thought.
  2. Tell yourself: This thought, this feeling is in me, not in reality. I choose not to believe it. Let the thought disappear completely.
  3. In the spaciousness that opens, ask yourself: Who am I now, without this fear to limit me? Then go forward and be that person.
Don't be concerned with finding the thoughts that are true. Remove what is false and the truth will find you. You'll know it by its effect. It will arrive as a mind grounded in peace, inspired by joy and in love with life, turning to face the world with the fearless attitude that moves mountains.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Want Your Brain To Make You Brilliant? Give It A Vacation.

Many of us are not taking our vacation time. That's bad for the brain. Brains need time off to renew. A proper vacation can light up higher order brain function that a year of pernicious stress has dimmed and debilitated. The reward for the time you invest in a vacation is a brain humming with the creative intelligence that will sustain you at the top of your game for another year. Now that's a handsome return on investment.

So invest the time. Time-off, when done properly, guarantees recovery of the neurological, psychological and spiritual capacities that enable you to excel once again and in ways that are intrinsically rewarding.

Take this tool on vacation with you: There are a few very simple things you can do while away on vacation to rejuvenate the brain. Practice these steps every day, and when you return to work I promise your rested brain will deliver a powerhouse of renewed intelligence, enthusiasm and vision.

  • Put your Blackberry in a drawer. If you have to use it, be sure to return it to the drawer when you’re done.
  • Two or three or more times a day, practice the 4-step process below. It takes no more than 3-minutes to perform, although you may want to do it longer, once you discover how good it feels:
2. Tilt your chin slightly toward your heart and allow the next few breaths to soften your heart.
1. Sit quietly and relax your brain as you would a contracted muscle.
3. Now relax your body. Start at the feet and slowly move up the body, relaxing each part separately: the feet, the legs, then the torso, then the hands, and so on to the arms, hips, back, shoulders, neck and finally the face. Now, feel your whole body as you breathe and relax into it.
4. Conclude the process by slowly taking in a deep breath and as you
exhale, let the mind go completely.

  • Hold the intention to listen better, judge less, and forgive more. Tune into loved ones with genuine interest and listen to them with curiosity and openness. Rediscover them all over again.
  • Have the general intention to judge nothing that happens while on vacation. When unpleasant people or situations arise, forgive them. If you are the source of dissonance, forgive yourself and return to feeling happy and at peace.
  • End each day by writing down at least three things you appreciated about the day or your life in general.
  • Exercise moderately and restrict consumption of alcohol.
Each day of vacation spent in this way can return three days of recovery time. Click here or on the umbrella to download your Vacation Brain Tool.

If you are thinking of skipping your vacation this year, I invite you to read on about the trouble you will not be protecting yourself against. If you absolutely cannot take vacation time, at least attend a weekend retreat somewhere. I am offering one in July in Marin. There are many good retreats that can help you renew. A weekend retreat in proximity to taking a vacation might even free the genius in your brain that stress has locked away.

So, here's the trouble: Instead of taking time to renew, the Harris Poll says most of us are working harder than ever, an average 49 hours a week. We are putting in 100-200 more hours per year than our parents. Those are averages; you might be working more than that. These extra hours are time away from our kids, friends, spouses, and even our bed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says we sleep less than our parents did; one to two hours less. Vacation is a time to recoup that lost time and revitalize our minds and hearts.

All work and no play is not what we want, at least according to surveys. In one study, people overwhelmingly preferred a 10% pay cut in return for a 10% reduction in hours. Only 47 percent of Americans say they are happy in their jobs, a sizable drop from the 61 percent who expressed satisfaction twenty years ago. Our over-worked life style is also evident in morbidity and mortality statistics. A hundred years ago, the #1 killer of Americans was bacterial and viral infections and childbirth for women. Stress-related disease now holds that dreadful distinction. One study showed that 80% of serious illness was preceded by high stress in the previous year. If we go about it correctly, a vacation can break the negative cycle and renew us in ways that can make the upcoming year less stressful.

But many of us are voluntarily skipping vacations in lieu of working more. More than one in three of us forfeit vacation time. We talk about vacations, plan them, dream about them and then fail to take one. As much as a half billion vacation days will go unused this year. That equates to nearly two million years of lost vacation. Some of us are not even taking a lunch break. The American Dietetic Association found that 35% of us eat lunch at our desk. While we're eating, we typically work on the computer, read, make and receive phone calls, write, do calculations or clean up our work space. If we go on vacation, we take work with us. "I rarely go on vacation," said Ellen Kapit, a real estate agent in Manhattan. "And when I do, I have my computer, my Palm, my e-mail and my phone with me at all times." Do you see yourself in this picture? A survey found that 92% of those away on vacation frequently check in with the office.

Why? Because we worry that the person next to us will get ahead while we're gone. Or we're afraid that the work piling up on our desk will put us so far behind that we'll never catch up. If we look deeper, we might see a mix of paranoia and obsessive-compulsivity behind these concerns, neurologically generated by stress. As our stress level spills over the top, which is usually a month before vacation time, it floods our brain with stress hormones. These hormones erode the higher brain function that sustains peak performance.

Stress hormones also hyper-activate the brain's fear center producing Type-A behavior and locking our brain into "threat mode." This neurotoxic brain state tends to interpret any uncertainty as a threat to our survival. When you think I can't afford to take time off, it's usually the brain's fear center thinking for you. It's the brain using you, instead of you using the brain. You need to reset the brain to peace, which is the neuroplastic state that rebuilds and restores higher brain function. Vacation is a good way to reset the brain to peace.

So use your brain and take a vacation. When you return to work, neurologically you will be ahead of the person you worried about the last time you took time off.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Who Is Most Likely To Succeed? The Profile Might Surprise You.

Every year at this time, the senior class votes for the person they think is most likely to succeed. Typically, it's high academic achievers who win the honor. The fact is, it's the boy or girl blessed with a dynamically peaceful and positive attitude who are more likely to succeed than someone headed for Harvard.

Why? A dynamically peaceful and vibrantly positive attitude immunizes us from stress, secures the mind–body connection for optimal health, lights up the neural networks that produce creative intelligence, and generates the brain structure and chemistry that can elevate talent to greatness. It's a special attitude that catches all these birds with one net.

Neurologically, this dynamically peaceful human being wired for meaningful success stands shoulder to shoulder with an inherently fearful human being, wired for stress, overwhelm and chronic fight-or-flight. Our brain is home to both. Ultimately, which one we become is up to us. We choose between the two. How much brain power we actualize deepens almost entirely on the conscious choice to be at peace, which means the capacity to live life without fear.

There is a region of our brain -- called the prefrontal cortex -- that is home to the better angels of our nature. It is the foundation for everything we think of as a fully integrated and fully functioning person. A healthy prefrontal cortex produces the kind of human being we all what to be. It’s the same human being we wanted for a parent, a spouse and a boss. It’s also the adult we hope our children will grow up to become. In The Mindful Brain, Daniel Siegel, M,D. of the Mindsight Institute at UCLA, describes these better angels. There are nine in all.

Inside The Prefrontal Cortex
1. Attuned communication is achieved, enabling us to tune into another’s state of mind to establish interpersonal resonance.

2. Emotional balance is maintained, permitting us to become aroused enough so life feels vibrant and meaningful, but not so aroused that we become manic, chaotic, or overwhelmed with emotion.

3. Body regulation is controlled, coordinating and balancing the sympathetic (the accelerator) and parasympathetic (the brakes) branches of the autonomic nervous system. This allows us to energetically engage or calmly disengage from situations in the most appropriate manner.

4. Response flexibility is reached, which is the opposite of a knee-jerk reaction. This capacity enables us to pause before acting. It inhibits rash impulses, giving us enough time before we act to remember our intention and use it to make the best possible response.

5. Empathy is invoked, allowing us to consider the mental perspective of another person: to see, feel, and understand a situation from someone else’s point of view.

6. Insight is acquired through input and output fibers to parts of the brain that produce representations of autobiographical memories with emotional texture, linking past, present, and future to produce the perspective we call wisdom.

7. Fear-related behavior is attenuated through the stimulation of inhibitory GABAA receptors, reversing the fear conditioning that drives chronic stress.

8. Intuition is generated through information from the neural networks surrounding our intestines and our heart, enabling a flow of information, intelligence, and creativity that becomes the joy of excelling.

9. Morality is established, fostering the capacity to transcend a limited self-interest and think for the larger good.

Each of these functions expresses an attribute of inner peace. The neural integration of all these functions translates into a highly successful, intrinscially rewarding life, at nearly every level that matters. These nine qualities are actually neurological domains that are part of the operating system we were born with. They do not need to be drilled into us. They can be trusted to emerge naturally as we remove the condition that blocks their full expression. That condition is fear. The stress hormones that fear produces are neurotoxic to the prefrontal cortex. How much brain power we actualize depends almost entirely on the conscious choice to be at peace, which, in the most fundamental sense, means to live our life without fear.

I have provided a number of tools in this blog site that help transcend fear and the stress it generates. Scan through the entries and find one that suits you. A little practice can produce a big result.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Power to Move Mountains

All of the great spiritual masters see the same enormous capacity in each and every one of us. The Buddha says that your mind is naturally illuminated. Jesus says you are the light of the world. Muhammad says heaven is nearer to any of you than the strap of your shoe.

All the sages tell us that if you read between the lines of the story that anxiety and stress script, you begin to discern the voice of sanity called peace, quieting, focusing and unifying your mind. They point to peace as the foundation from which a natural state of joy arises to express and extend the creative force in you that can achieve anything.

They say behind all the conditions of poor health, broken hearts and personal failure there is a power inside that can move mountains on the outside, regardless of circumstances,

So why isn't this our usual experience? What happened?

Fear is what happened.

"Our deepest fear," states Marianne Williamson in A Return to Love, "is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us."

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton echoes that sentiment: "Perhaps I am stronger than I think," he wrote. "Perhaps I am even afraid of my strength and turn it against myself, thus making myself weak. . . . Perhaps I am most afraid of the strength of God in me."

"Is a candle meant to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, and not to be set on a candlestick?" Jesus asked. Of course, we all know the answer. So what's the problem?

I think most of us would say that our inner candle is under a bushel. The question is: How do you return the candle of your powerful nature to the candlestick of your life on earth, so your light can shine on this ordinary day and transform it into something extraordinary?

Mercifully, it's simpler than you might imagine. Your powerful nature can come back on line in a heartbeat. It's rather miraculous that way. All you need to do is make peace the most important thing in the world. Choose peace until it flows into everything you do.

Human culture tends to wire most people's brains for stress and fear and these demons undermine your powerful nature. Thus the first step is to rewire your brain. How? Again, by practicing being at peace, every day, all day long. Peace is the key. We mistake peace for complacency but, in actual fact, peace is incredibly dynamic. Peace as an attitude is neuroplastic, meaning it can rewire your brain to transcend stress and anxiety and generate the sanity that knows how to reclaim and lead from your powerful nature.

A Five-Second Drill That Turns On The Light

Here is a five-second drill you can do a few times a day to get you started:
  • Let everything go: All your problems, all your needs, all your dissatisfaction.
  • Casually relax into the quiet of your mind, freed of worry and complaint, and allow a feeling of peace to gently emerge.
  • Now imagine your mind becoming one with a Higher Power that possesses perfect intelligence.
  • Imagine sensing that this Higher Power holds you in the highest regard.
  • Allow yourself to be with this experience for 5 seconds or more, if you like.
  • Feel this perfect intelligence quieting, focusing and illuminateing your mind. 
Close this exercise by valuing as golden whatever glimpse of illumination you received and allow the experience to encourage you to come back for more.

You can follow-up by practicing the four steps I have outline in Four Steps To the Good Life.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Perfect Storm of Stress And Then An Awakening

Twenty years ago Life challenged me to wake up to a fact of life. It was a time when circumstances converged with my bad attitude to create a perfect storm of stress. I had a high powered job at Stanford Medical School butting heads with world class egos, at the height of my career to that point, and one day the world came crashing down on me. The chairman of my department and I didn’t see eye to eye and I got fired. Nine days later I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I was married with four children and had a large mortgage payment that unemployment insurance couldn’t possibly cover.

The doctors told me to prepare for a paralyzed face, being half deaf, and using a walker to navigate across the room. I thought at that time: who is going to hire an executive who staggers into the interview on a walker, speaks out of a half frozen face that drools, and doesn’t hear well. All the signs said: You and your family are doomed. To make matters worse, my marriage, which was already in trouble, was falling apart. All the stress just widened the cracks that were already there.

Then, in the middle of it all, I had an epiphany. I describe it in the Prologue to my book, Mystic Cool.
  • I was trying to hold things together and over nothing my wife and I had an argument and said things that were demoralizing to both of us. I went out on the deck to get away from it all and my mind began to run away with me, imaging all the dire things that could happen. These fearful thoughts quickly eroded the fragile ledge of safety to which my sanity clung, dropping me into a hollow that spiraled down and down, into a dark cavern of the mind. The more I fell, the darker it got. The darker it got, the more frightened I became until I was lost in panic. It was a nightmare into my sanity disappeared.

  • Then, at some point, my conscious mind returned like the phoenix rising out of the ash, came back to life. I felt emptied and spacious, like the soft sky after a storm. For the first time in a very long time, I was at peace. I relaxed into it completely, the way we relax into the relief of pain. Gradually, my mind widened and, as it did, the future stretched out in front of me with wonderful possibility.

  • When I opened my eyes and looked around, the first conscious thought I had was that I was OK, followed by the recognition that I would always be so, if I could just be at peace. When my personality was back intact, I did a reality check. Do I have a brain tumor? The answer was yes. Is the prognosis still the same? Again, yes. Am I about to join the ranks of the unemployed? Yes. Is my marriage on the rocks? Yet I still felt I would be fine. I felt at peace inside, despite the difficult circumstances.

  • The experience stayed with me; the following week was peaceful. I did not think much or talk much, and I did not worry. My anxiety was gone. I went back to work. I had been offered a month’s extension to help transition the department, which initially I had turned down. Now I wanted to return to the office to put things in good order and leave with a good feeling. The usual stressors no longer bothered me. I worked right up to a few days before the surgery, and during that entire time, as I recall, I did not entertain one negative thought.
I think there are a lot of people facing real difficulties in this economy right now that could use a week spent like that. It may be hard to see at such times, but it's all ours for the choosing. regardless of circumstances.
In the week following my epiphany, I began to see that stress boiled down to one thing --- fear. I saw that my stress represented the way I was seeing things through fearful eyes, connecting back to a part of my brain that generated fight or flight. In the months leading up to being fired, I couldn't perform well because of stress. I couldn't see opportunities that were there or make moves I should have been making. I couldn’t face the handwriting-on-the-wall because I was too afraid to look. During those months, I felt lousy physically. I was fatigued. I couldn't sleep. When I wasn't angry, I was depressed. All these negatives are the neurological signs of stress, indicating fear has taken control of the brain.

I also saw with clarity that when I was at peace I was powerful; powerful enough to change my dire circumstances. Prior to my wake-up, I had not really value peace or relate to it as personal power. Rather, I saw it as a complacent state that dulled my edge. The perfect storm of stress helped me understand that peace is a highly dynamic state. It is an engaging attitude that faces life without being afraid. It is the zone athletes find, the threshold to excelling entrepreneurs call “the top of your game,” and the “effortless effort” mystics cultivate. I even began to believe that a dynamically peaceful attitude could achieve the miraculous, which I clearly needed. It did that too. The surgery was a huge success with none of the disability that was predicted. Today, medical science would credit my state of mind, explaining that it established the mind-body connection that increases the odds for healing. Being at peace also got me my job back. I think my state of mind made me far more attractive than had the fearful attitude that got me fired.

Peace is power, which is why I wish all of us a peaceful day, every day, all day long. The blogs on this site are about how to tap this power.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Attitude That Takes A Brain Wired For Stress And Rewires It For Joy

A large body of research reveals that small steps such as these are powerfully neuroplastic, meaning the positive change in attitude they generate actually expands higher order brain structure to change our experience of life. In my book, Mystic Cool, I present the body of research that proves it.

I invite you to practice these steps for two weeks and see if they gift you with a better brain for a better life.

1. In the morning, when you come into the kitchen to make coffee or tea, while it is brewing sit in a chair and quietly take in the morning. Be present, here and now. Relax your mind, and open your heart. Before getting up to pour yourself a cup, tell yourself, I have another precious day of human life. I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to be more enlightened for the benefit of everyone.

2. During the day, when you are stressed, ask yourself: What am I afraid of? Biologically, it takes some form of fear to trigger a stress reaction. Thus, the operative question to ask whenever you feel stressed is -- what am I afraid of? Look at the fearful thoughts you are thinking at the moment. Don't edit anything. Most if not all of these thoughts will be exaggerations, multiplying simple problems into catastrophes or turning fiction into facts. Ask yourself, who would I be without these fearful thoughts, and then go be that person.

3. Be aware of your negative thinking. Don't judge it or even try to change it. Simply be aware of the negativity that the unconscious brain generates when you are fearful. Simple awareness slows the neural firing and these thoughts start losing their power. Soon you will find yourself in touch with the power to choose the experience you want to have, instead of tolerating the experience the unconscious forces on you. Two weeks of practicing in this way and you will start to feel more peace and joy.

4. Take a one to two minute break -- often. Simply looking out the window and being present with the day outside can be quite rejuvenating. Let go of work for a moment and notice the quality of light, or the wind blowing through a tree, or what's happening in the sky. After lunch, take a 5 minute walk around the building. During your walk, let go of future concerns and be fully present. You are seldom stressed when you are fully present.

5. Start work in a relaxed state of mind. There is an experience science calls flow, which research has established as the optimal state for creativity. Flow is “the zone” athletes seek. It is the experience entrepreneurs call “the top of your game.” It is the “effortless effort” mystics cultivate. So take your nose off the grindstone. The joy of excelling begins with a relaxed state of mind.

6. Listen better, judge less and forgive more. The reward is authentic relationships that resonate with the sense of connection. The strength of our connection with others is the #1 factor in determining how long we live. So hold others with positive regard and be kind, empathic, and interested.

7. Practice loving yourself just the way you are. Practice loving life just the way it is this very moment. As you do, you will begin to notice something tight inside you loosen.

8. Now and then, stand in the longest line at the store and practice being at peace. Drive home in the slow lane and listen to classical music instead of the news.