Thursday, July 30, 2009

Live Long and Prosper .... How?

The medical prescription for a long and successful life is simple:
  • Listen better,
  • Judge less,
  • Forgive more, and
  • Love unconditionally.
How can this be? The fact is the quality of our connection to others is the #1 determinant of how long and how well we live. How do we know this? Through the people of Roseto, Pennsylvania, who scientists stumbled across back in the early 1960's. It's an amazing, inspiring story.
Forty years ago, medical researchers were drawn to Roseto, Pennsylvania by a bewildering statistic that defied medical logic. Rosetans were nearly immune to the primary stress-related disease that is the number one cause of death in America - heart disease. Over a seven year period, no Roseto men under 47 had died of a heart attack and the community had half the national death rate. This made no sense, given that most of the men smoked, drank heavily, eat a high fat diet, were poor and did back breaking work in the rock quarry.

The researchers could find not biological, genetic or environment reason for their happy prognosis. Then the researchers stumbled across social factors that illuminated something about the character of the people. First, they discovered that there was zero crime rate in Roseto and no one on public welfare, even though the community was poor.

The researchers also found that the people were unusually vivacious. "These people," the report stated, are "happy, boisterous and unpretentious. They are simple, warm and very hospitable." Most striking to the researchers was the genuinely positive regard they held for one another: "When the researchers took a closer look, they found that Rosetans took pride in taking care of their families. Nearly all the homes contained three generations and elders were held in high regard. Mealtimes were much more than a matter of eating. It was a time for the family to gather and to strengthen intergenerational ties. Community events were also common in Roseto. In warm weather, villagers took evening strolls and dropped in to visit one another.

As they became more affluent, children went off to college or moved away and the community lost its cohesion. In 1971, the village recorded its first death from coronary disease of a person under the age of 45. The traditional communal experience that enabled people to live longer, healthier lives had eroded. One of the young people who left the village for the big city stated, "I'm sorry we moved; everything is modern here and we have everything we need, except people.

Study after study in the last forty years has corroborated what the researchers found in Roseto. It is now a fact. We thrive or fail to thrive based on our quality of connection to others. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University relates a story about a boy who was severely abused, emotionally and physically. After he became a ward of the court it was discovered that he had zero growth hormone in his bloodstream. Chronic stress had completely shut down his growth system, threatening his life.

He was hospitalized, and over the next two months he developed a close relationship with the nurse at the hospital-undoubtedly the first normal relationship he had ever had. To everyone's amazement, his growth hormone levels zoomed back to normal. When his friend, the nurse, went on vacation the boy 's levels dropped back to zero, rising once more immediately after her return."

"Think about it," Sapolsky commented. "The rate at which this child was depositing calcium in his bones could be explained entirely by how safe and loved he was feeling in the world."

We are neurally constructed to connect with one another. The neural network most responsible for achieving our state of connectedness is the mirror neuron system. This mirroring is the neural mechanism by which we can read the minds of other people and empathize with them. "Mirror neurons suggest that we pretend to be in another person's mental shoes," stated Marco Iacoboni of UCLA School of Medicine. "In fact, with mirror neurons we do not have to pretend; we practically are in another person's mind.

Neurons track the emotional flow, body language, tone of voice, and even the intentions of the person we are with. It explains emotional contagion, instant rapport, instant dislike, and how we play off of one anther. It is why my hostility bumps up your blood pressure and your show of respect lowers mine. It is why biologically, friends are healing, enemies are toxic.

The Gallup Organization surveyed hundred of companies and found that seven factors determined sustainability; meaning how long a company would exist. Four of the seven factors related to interpersonal strength.

So, to repeat: Listen better, judge less, forgive more, and love unconditionally. You will live a long and successful life.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

This is the Story of How We Begin to Remember

I saw Jobie at the far end of the restaurant as I pushed through the crowd waiting to be seated. He was staring in my direction and I smiled and waved as I approached him. But he didn’t see me. His mind was somewhere else and from the look on his face, it appeared to be a desolate place. Jobie had suffered a series of difficult losses, all occurring in close proximity to one another. It involved a loss of money, the loss of his job, and foreclosure on his home. But the most painful for him was the end of his marriage

“You OK?” I asked when I reached the table. “No,” he replied absently.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked. “What for,” he replied. “What difference would talking make.” Then he laughed, at himself I suppose, and the absurdity of his situation. But the light the laughter brought to his face quickly faded into an expression that looked lost.

We sat there in silence until the waitress arrived to take our order. When she was gone, Jobie and I turned at the same time and looked at each other, neither of us shying away. The torment on his face was palpable and I felt I had to say something. So I took a full breath and ventured to address the pain I saw on his face, in a way that might make him feel hopeful.

“Grief takes it out of you, Jobie,” I began. “It’s like winter when everything dies and the days are gray. But a new love raises-up everything that grief buries. It’ll come around again for you, I’m sure of it.”

These were good words, I thought, but Jobie was far from impressed. It was naive of me to think words could soften his pain this soon into his calamity. He shot me the look of disgust a person in crisis gives someone for the temerity of offering advice about a pain they’ve never felt. It was unfair of him. I’d been down a hard road before and he knew it. But I managed to let go of feeling insulted and sat there through the long silence that ensued and loved him. It wasn’t comfortable. Seeing him suffer made me restless with wanting to help but he was right. There was nothing I could say to change what he was going through.

I didn’t see him again for more than a year. I should have called and checked-in but I got busy and maybe the disgusted look he shot me got under my skin more than I was aware. As the amount of lapsed time grew longer I became too embarrassed to call. Calling him began to feel awkward and even disingenuous because the impulse seemed more about ridding me of guilt than helping him. It was stupid since I really did care. Stupidity is what usually happens when guilt makes a nest in my mind.

Then one rainy day I literally bumped into him in front of the Museum of Modern Art. I was coming out of the building, spell-bound by the works of Marc Chagall, and ran right into Jobie. He laughed when he recognized it was me and this time his face was lit by a happier heart. He even apologized for not connecting with me sooner, which let me off the hook. We went back inside the museum, to the café. We had a glass of wine and he told me of how he “crossed the great water,” which is the way he put it.

“I tried everything,” he said. “I went to a therapist for a time … a good one, but it didn’t help. I used alcohol but it just turned me into a bigger victim. Two drinks and I’d spew arrogant and angry. For months I walked around with a dead heart and not a spark of inspiration; just this weak, hollow feeling in my gut that was like a hole that sucked the strength out of me.”

“I moved to Tahoe,” he said, “and got a job working for a shop that builds boats. Then one day something simple took hold of me. It was the beginning of fall and I came home from work, poured myself a beer and sat at the dining room table. There’s a big picture window there that looks out on the open field at the back of the place. I looked out the window at the stand of aspens and pines that a gentle breeze was blowing through. And the trees ... honest to God … they hypnotized me.”

“How,” I asked.

“Well,” he answered, “aspens have an oval shaped leaf and when the wind kicks up they quiver, catching the soft light at that time of day, making a silver shimmer of it. Every leaf on every tree starts shimmering together. It’s beautiful.”

“Wow,” I said, trying to imagine it. There are no aspens where I live.

“The pines are different,” Jobie said. “The wind catches the boughs and makes them sway in a graceful way. It was the swaying of the boughs and the shimmering of the leaves that carried me away. I sat there until dark, caught in the beauty of it. I was captured by the rustling sound of the leaves when the wind kicked up and by the stillness that followed. My whole being was one with the rhythm that the trees and wind made together. It was like the trees were a mother rocking me in her arms. And I could feel my grief, but without words, without the story. I could feel it without me or someone else being right or wrong; without me being angry. The grief in my heart hurt but it felt real. It didn’t negate me. I could feel my way through it.”

There was the sound of a sudden down pour and Jobie looked out the café window at the people on the street running for cover and he smiled peacefully. When he looked back at me, his smile broadened and he laughed. “It’s hard to explain,” he said.

You’re doing fine by me,” I responded. “So what came of it?”

“Well, I did that every day. Every day I came home and sat in that spot and looked out at the trees until the sun went down. I fell into the silver shimmering and the boughs swaying and every day it turned into the same reverie. Every day it was the same mother to me. It was the same space where I could heal the grief. After the sun went down, I would light a candle and ask for this wonderful space to be there the next day. And it was. It is the one thing that didn’t fail. Gradually my grief got quieter; it seemed able to take care of itself. About a month into it, grief stepped aside and peace began to take its place. After that I began to feel joy again.”

“How long did you do this, all together?” I asked.

“I’m still doing it,” he answered. “I can’t get along without peace anymore.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Peace On The Inside Makes Us Larger Than What's Happening Outside, Even In This Economy

A Dialogue between Don and "Joey"

Joey: You said in one of your blog posts that stress is mostly “fearful thinking that stirs up a perception of threat, often where no real threat exists.” Right?

Don Joseph Goewey: Right.

Joey: Well, that’s all fine and good, but I am barely making it in the world. I have lost my job and don't know if I will be able to keep my house. I don't even know in this economy if I will ever be able to find work. Isn't that a REAL threat, a REAL danger? And if so, then this book or work won't really help me. Right?

Don: The approach in the book can help you, especially with the situation you described. But first let me say that my heart goes out to you. I understand how you feel. I’ve been there. Years ago, I had a high powered job at Stanford Medical School. I had worked hard, climbing the career ladder and thought I was headed for even greater things. Then one day the world came crashing down on me. My boss 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 I had a high mortgage payment that unemployment insurance or disability couldn’t possibly cover.

Joey: Really?

Don: Yes. 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 has to ask “What?” a lot because he can’t hear that well. Especially, a guy who had just been fired. All the signs said “You and your family are doomed. You’re all headed for the poor house.”

To make matters worse, my marriage, which was already in trouble, was falling apart. All the stress and fear just widened the cracks that were already there. I have never felt more lost and more alone and more afraid and more stressed than at that time of my life.

Joey: So how did this thing you call Mystic Cool help?

Don: I had a kind of awakening. It was a moment of epiphany at that dark hour of my life. I described the event in my book. The short version is that I saw with clarity that the extreme stress I was experiencing had more to do with the way I was seeing things through fearful eyes than anything happening to me. It was like my eyes were wired back to some part of my brain that was locked into fight of flight. It made fearful eyes that saw a threatening world. And I felt the damage this way of seeing was doing to me: to my brain, my body, my career, my relationships -- to my entire existence.

Joey: I think I know what you mean. It's the trouble caused by a troubled mind.

Don: Yes, well put. I think it's how a troubled past and probably some bad genes wire the brain for fear. Because of it, I couldn't perform well, I couldn't see opportunities that were there or make the moves I should have been making, or even face the handwriting that was on the wall. I was too afraid to look. I felt lousy physically. I was fatigued and lackluster. I couldn't sleep. It seemed that when I wasn't angry, I was depressed. My relationships were strained because I was hard to be around. I felt like a victim and victims are not good company.

All these negatives were indications that stress and fear had taken control of my brain. Then, in the middle of a kind of breakdown, I saw it all with penetrating clarity. I saw that the cause of my stress and fear was internal not external. It was something that was happening in me, far more than something that was happening to me. As I said, I saw that the stress and fear I was experiencing was a choice.

Joey: How did seeing all that help you?

Don: Because I also saw with absolute clarity that peace was also a choice. It was the choice I was not making. I discovered that I could actually choose to be at peace even in the middle of all these hard circumstances. As I did, I discovered that peace made me powerful. It made me larger than what was happening to me. Peace gave me that "calm under siege." It also opened the door to that mystical zone that athletes, artists and scientists talk about, where we gained the clarity, insight and joy that enables us to excel. I saw that peace was the polar opposite of stress. Time disappears. Intelligence flows. It's like the dots connect themselves. Peace gave me that power, and I began to think that peace was powerful enough to change all the dire circumstances I faced.

Joey: Did you?

Don: Yes, it was the change that changed everything in my life. I was finding out, in real life terms, that what Plutarch said two thousand years ago was 100% correct: Plutrach said that what we achieve inwardly changes outer reality. The surgery was a huge success with none of the disability that was predicted. I got my job back or actually I was offered a better job in the medical school. My wife and I divorced but it was for the best. These outcomes were all related to my shift in attitude.

Joey: Do you think attitude makes a difference in what actually happens? I find that hard to believe.

Don: It's more than an opinion, Joey. Science has laid to rest any doubts about the power of attitude. The motivational posters are right: attitude is everything. In my book I lay out the research that supports that statement. Eventually, I left Stanford and started to work with people facing some of the most stressful situations any of us will ever face --- from people faced with life threatening illnesses, to parents who had lost children, to inmates at San Quentin, to refugees of the Bosnian War who had lost everything. Together, we taught each other how to transcend stress by letting go of fear and to live from the powerful heart and mind that builds a dynamic attitude. It’s the attitude all the saints and entrepreneurs tell us about … the attitude that can achieve the miraculous in this world, even in the face of dire circumstances.

Joey: Well, maybe you just got lucky.

Don: My experience tells me that looking at life through the fearless self-confidence of peace, instead of the stressful self-doubt of fear is what brings you “luck.” The great American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, said “Attitude is more important than facts.” Viktor Frankl, the father of Existential Psychology, is living proof of that. He was a Holocaust survivor. It doesn’t get worse than Auschwitz. He said it was attitude that often determined who survived that horror and who didn’t. “The last of human freedoms,” he said, “is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” Frankl said that attitude gives us the power to make a victory of difficult circumstances, turning life into an inner triumph. He said that even in the face of the Nazi's brutality and deprivation it was possible for one's spiritual life to deepen.

Frankl scolded people who viewed him and other Holocaust survivors as special. He wanted us to understand his life as a demonstration of what is potential in all of us. He understood that we're all capable of living an attitude that makes us larger than what’s happening to us.

Joey: Yes, but isn't it hard to be peaceful in the middle of things falling apart?

Don: Sometimes it is. At times, life seems to go to hell in a hand basket. We can restore our peace of mind at those times with compassion for ourselves and maybe a little humor. It’s not about being perfect. Perfectionism is Type-A behavior after all. It can give you a heart attack. We need to keep remembering that a bad day doesn't change the fact that a dynamically peaceful attitude makes us powerful.
If we have a bad day we can remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He said this:

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. This day is all that is good and fair. It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on yesterdays.

If everyday things are a little better, a little more harmonious, a little more health giving and joyous; if each day we are expressing more life, we are going in the right direction. That's all we need to know.

Joey: You make it sound so simple.

Don: Mercifully, growing inner peace couldn't be simpler. We just got to want it enough to practice it enough to show us how sweet peace makes our life. Then the motivation to build on it grows exponentially. Nothing is more motivating than positive results and there is no more positive result than inner peace. It's pure power, we just don't get it. But we can. When you find that freedom, you become the most powerful person on Earth.

Joey: So that is what Mystic Cool delivers?

Don: Yes. It provides the proof that neurologically, biologically, psychologically and spiritually what’s in you is much larger than the problem that’s happening to you. The aim of my book is to give the reader a way to experience and then live from that powerful attitude.

Mystic Cool is about going through a difficult time without fear, without torturing yourself with fearful brain storms. It’s even downsizing your life if you have to, and still have peace in your heart and joy in your attitude. It’s learning, from experience, how peace lights up the brain to release the genius that only you possess so it can flow into the joy of excelling. When it does, you can move mountains. Mystic Cool is about bringing on that ordinary genius to serve you, not just now and then, but every day. Not just when times are good but also when times are tough.

Joey: And you think I'm capable of that.

Don: You are capable of that, Joey. Everyone is. No question about it, except when we're afraid and stressed.

Click on to return to the Mystic Cool website.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Love Is The Most Powerful Healing Force In The World / 1

Part 1: The Science Behind This Statement Is Extensive

Robert Sapolsky of Stanford relates a story about a boy from a psychologically abusive setting, who was hospitalized with zero growth hormones in his bloodstream. Chronic stress had completely shut down the body’s growth system, threatening his life. Over the next two months the boy developed a close relationship with the nurse at the hospital—undoubtedly the first normal relationship he had ever had—and soon, amazingly enough, his growth hormone level zoomed back to normal. However, when the nurse went on vacation, the boy’s blood level dropped again. Then, immediately on her return, his blood level bounced back to normal. “Think about it,” Sapolsky commented. “The rate at which this child was depositing calcium in his bones could be explained entirely by how safe and loved he was feeling in the world.”

The research of Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers into the biochemical, neurological, and social foundations of love has led her to conclude that love is not an emotion; it is a drive more powerful than the sex drive, emanating from the engine of the brain.

Mirror Neurons
The neural network most responsible for achieving our state of connectedness is the mirror neuron system. This cluster of nerve cells was discovered in 1996 in an experiment conducted on macaque monkeys. Researchers observed on brain scans that a specific cluster of brain cells fired in the frontal lobe of a monkey when it grabbed a peanut. The curious thing was that in another monkey, who was watching the first monkey grab the peanut, the same cluster of cells fired. The cells seemed to reflect the actions of the other monkey almost like a mirror reflects one’s image. As the researchers investigated further, it became easy for them to predict which specific neurons would fire based on the activity performed by one monkey and observed by another. The scientists dubbed this cluster of cells mirror neurons.

In humans, the mirror neuron system is highly developed. It provides the neural mechanism by which we are able to read each other and feel empathy. “With mirror neurons [we are] practically in another person’s mind,” states Dr. Marco Iacoboni of UCLA. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, writes, “Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, movement, and even intentions of the person we are with, and replicate this sensed state in our own brain by stirring in our brain the same areas active in the other person. Mirror neurons offer a neural mechanism that explains emotional contagion, the tendency of one person to catch the feelings of another, particularly if strongly expressed. This brain-to-brain link may also account for feelings of rapport, which research finds depend in part on extremely rapid synchronization of people’s posture, vocal pacing, and movements as they interact.” Goleman points out that mirror neurons work both ways. My hostility bumps up your blood pressure; your nurturing love lowers mine. Biologically, friends are healing, enemies are toxic. This explains why the research of Fred Luskin at Stanford has shown, over and over, that a willingness to forgive reduces serious health risks.

A Person-Centered Approach
The psychological approach that maps to the way mirror neurons achieve interpersonal resonance is the person-centered approach, formulated by Carl R. Rogers, Ph.D. Rogers’ approach is one of the most scientifically validated approaches in psychology, earning him a nomination for the Nobel Prize. The three essential conditions he estabilshed are now at the core of nearly every form of psychotherapy, communication, conflict resolution, community building, and education. I present these conditions in the blog below.

Click on to return to the Mystic Cool website.