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.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Workplace We All Hate

Most of us are stressed and stress costs us and our organization at every level that matters. Research shows that:
A brain under stress is incapable of sustaining peak performance.
Chronic stress also renders an employee neurologically incapable of maintaining positive affect, high morale, cooperation or interpersonal strength.

There are a million Americans absent from work everyday due to stress and even more missing due to presenteeism. Stress accounts for nearly half of turnover, and the long list of stress-related diseases is driving-up the cost of health benefits. Stress is identified as the #1 problem for 90% of senior executives. The price tag is somewhere around a trillion dollars. It's a mess and few companies know what to do to solve it. Most would tell you there is no solution. There is.

The neurological opposite of stress is peace. It may surprise you to learn that peace is a highly dynamic neurological state. It is a core condition that expands the physical brain structure to increase analytic, practical and creative intelligence. It is also the core condition that promotes a mindset for emotional and social intelligence, optimal health and psychological resilience.
Breakthroughs in neuroscience over the last ten years make it clear that the prescription for peak performance is to shift our attitude -- from stress to peace. This shift in attitude involves a simple set of processes anyone can learn. These simple processes physically rewire the brain to produce a highly creative, emotionally balanced, and increasingly healthy employee. These outcomes are a direct effect of the resulting healthy neural networks.

Stress hormones are toxic to these networks. Stress, as defined by science, is the perception that external demands exceed our inner resources to meet them. This causes a neurological reaction and releases stress hormones into the bloodstream.

A dynamic state of peace represents a shift in perception that allows us to relate to demands without fear. A simple but consistent practice that shifts anxious, stress-provoking attitudes at the point of inception has been shown to generate:

Higher gamma wave activity, indicating the brain is linking and processing information from all of its parts faster and in a more organized manner. Gamma waves are associated with high levels of intelligence, higher cognitive processes, and peak performance.

Higher levels of activity in the left prefrontal cortex, indicating that a positive perspective has become the emotional default, producing a calm, clear, optimistic, and emotionally resilient way of being.
Greater activity in the center of the brain (caudate and right insula,) indicating a higher level of interpersonal resonance and social intelligence.

This change is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means that a change of attitude which changes our experience, physically changes our brain. As we shift our attitude from fear to peace, our brains rewire. This resolves chronic stress by quieting the primitive neuro-circuits of fear and amplifying higher brain function.
In this new environment, companies generate a neuro-competitive advantage. The emotional climate shifts from negative to positive, from survival mode to the joy of excelling. Challenges stretch people in positive ways, instead of taxing them. Work becomes an intrinsically rewarding experience that energizes people instead of rendering them drained and dissatisfied.

The ROI for making this shift is enormous.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Mountain Was My Greatest Teacher Of Peace

Ironically, my greatest teacher on the sheer power of peace was a dangerous mountain called Mt. Shasta, which is the second highest mountain in the continental United States. Shasta is glacial and classified as a technical climb, meaning you need crampons, an ice ax, a hard hat, special clothing and boots, a subzero sleeping bag, and a long list of other essentials to undertake the journey. You also need to be in excellent physical condition.

As in life, externals are not unimportant. The mountain is unforgiving of those who neglect even small details in preparing to make the climb. It can seem very complicated and daunting, but climbing Mount Shasta demands more than being tactically prepared. It requires an attitude of absolute simplicity and humility. This attitude can be absent in people who come to the mountain with the primary goal of “bagging” her. Hubris is lethal in mountain climbing. However, to a humble heart that surrenders to Mis Misa, the name native people have given her, the mountain becomes a guiding hand. In the beginning, my mind was preoccupied with reaching my destination, which was the summit. After a few hours, this goal became blurred in weariness, and my focus shifted to more immediate locations. I began to fixate on small plateaus or crevices just ahead that promised a place of rest. These positions almost always turned out to be a mirage of shadow and light, which was discouraging.

The higher I climbed, the harder it got, and for the first couple hours, my mind complained incessantly about the hardship, undermining the positive attitude it takes to reach the top. It badgered me with: What have I gotten myself into? What was I thinking when I decided to do this? It’s crazy to go on. I can’t make it. This mountain is going to kill me. Eventually, I realized that my mind was making me miserable, depleting my physical and emotional energy. I realized I had to let go of reaching any destination at all. I had to stop thinking and begin disciplining myself to focus on the step I was taking, to be fully present in the moment and alive in the experience. It is as Eckhart Tolle stated in his book The Power of Now: The moment you completely accept your nonpeace, your nonpeace becomes transmuted into peace.

It took some time to master this orientation, but gradually I calmed down and eased into accepting whatever experience occupied a given moment, from dispiriting fatigue to expansive joy, from overwhelm to surrender. Then something I had not expected happened. My mind began to quiet, and as it quieted I suddenly woke up to the experience I was having. The beauty of the mountain lifted my heart and expanded my mind as I watched the shadows of billowy clouds race across the undulating contour, darkening its surface, and then restoring it to pure white as they sailed by. I became aware that I was literally walking in other people’s footprints, etched in the ice, making the way easier to find, and I was bolstered by the courage of those who had preceded me. My heart opened wide to the people I was climbing with. They became brothers and sisters to me. I was touched by the way we watched out for each other, slowed the pace at times to let someone catch up, and how we quietly celebrated each other’s courage to continue to venture higher.

Gradually, effort transformed into flow, and within this feeling of flow I was carried along by a force or presence of something greater than me. It was nothing less than miraculous. I had no sense of time or even a sense of self. The mountain and I were at peace and at one with each other, without a shred of ego or conflict to separate us. That year I made it to the summit, weathering fifty-mile-an-hour winds through the corridor leading to the top. I had reached what felt like the top of the world. I knew, though, it was not ice, altitude, forty-degree snowfields, and fifty-mile-an hour winds that I had conquered in reaching the summit. It was my mind I had conquered.

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Heaven and Hell of Brain Chemistry

A Japanese samurai warrior visited a Zen master, seeking answers to questions that had plagued him.

“What is it you want to know?” asked the Zen master.

“Tell me, sir, do heaven and hell exist?”

“Ha!” laughed the Zen master in a contemptuous tone. “What makes you think you could understand such things? You are only an educated, brutish soldier. Don’t waste my time with your ridiculous questions.”

The samurai warrior froze in shock. No one spoke to a samurai that way. It meant instant death. Increasing the tension, the Zen master went on, “Are you too stupid to understand what I just said? Stop wasting my time and get out of here!” he shouted.

The samurai exploded with rage. As quick as lightening, his hand grabbed the sword, sweeping it over his head to get ready for the kill. In the split second before the sword descended to cut off the Zen master’s head, the samurai heard him say, “This is the gate to hell.”

Again, the samurai froze in astonishment. He got the message. It was his own rage that brought hell to him. The Zen master–as is customary among the greatest of Zen teachers–risked his life to make that fact inescapably clear. Pausing and then breathing deeply, the samurai replaced his sword. He bowed humbly, filled with respect and even awe.

“And this,” smiled the Zen master, “is the gate to heaven.” (1)

Hell is chronic stress. Neurologically, chronic stress indicates a brain wired for fear. Genetics initially wires our brain to make survival mode a dominant feature. Past emotional traumas intensify this condition. That puts the primitive brain’s fear center (the amygdala) in charge of our experience, meaning that fight or flight takes over. When we were in the jungle we needed fight or flight, probably a hundred times a day. But most of the stress reactions modern people experience comes from fearful, worried thinking that exaggerates problems, generating a persistent perception of threat. It’s the condition Mark Twain described when he said: ”My life has been a series of terrible calamities, some of which actually happened.”

The core problem is this: The primitive brain can’t tell the difference between a real and imagined danger and sets off a stress reaction when either is present. As a result, stress hormones debilitate higher brain function. We don’t realize our full potential, our emotional meter defaults to negative, and our relationships suffer from all the reactivity stress generates. On top of that, stress is lethal. It is the #1 precipitant of life threatening disorders. Clearly, stress is hell.

We can change this predisposition to the hell stress produces by rewiring our brain to give higher brain function greater control. How: by being at peace. Peace and heaven are synonymous. In its most essential form, peace means we are not afraid of or in conflict with an external condition. The result, psychologically, is a shift from feeling overwhelmed by circumstances to a way of being that makes us larger than circumstances. That the power of attitude and the evidence is the more we practice peace the more our brain wires in ways that make this dynamic state of calm and clarity second-nature. The process of rewiring is called neuroplasticity and the change it generates happens relatively quickly, in a matter of weeks. Higher order neural networks expand and integrate, allowing creative intelligence, self-confidence and positive emotion to flow. That’s as close to heaven as it gets. Who, in their right mind doesn’t want that?
There is a tool that can start the rewiring process right away: It’s called the Clear Button. Click on the image above to download it.

(1) The Zen parable is from “Eastern Wisdom for Western Minds,” by Victor M. Parachin

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Whole of You (That Transcends The Fragment)

One of the four qualities of Mystic Cool is wholeness. Wholeness is the enduring sense of who and what you are that transcends the fragments.

How do you transcend the fragmentation that the demands the world can make of you? Or the blocks that fear creates, causing you to perceive a threatening world that never lets you rest or feel safe? Or the critical voice that harps on your faults and mistakes and says you're never good enough?

How do you overcome all that to feel whole? The answer is simple. It is so simple it often eludes us completely.

The experience of being whole comes from loving yourself exactly as you are. It is loving life just the way it is, even if you think life sucks at the moment.

Wholeness is the total acceptance of everything in you and around exactly as it is, right here, right now.

It is the affirmation and acceptance of the man or woman you are and are becoming, encompassing the whole of you -- your blunders and successes, your strengths and weaknesses, your joys and sorrows, your brilliance and your absurdities, your integrity and your contradictions.

Wholeness is not a destination; it is the journey. It is the sense of perfection emerging from all the imperfections. It is a true blue moment in which the authentic person that is you is felt by you, opens wide in you, and is welcomed into the heart of all that is. A few seconds of standing in that heart can change a life entirely.

The place where the whole of you resides could not be closer. It is accessed through your openness to your immediate experience, whatever that experience may be.

Some time ago my family went through something catastrophic. The fear and inadequacy it triggered initially was unbearable for all of us. Then I remembered this quality of wholeness and began to open to my experience. I allowed myself to feel the heartache along with the hope, the shadows along with the light. I disciplined myself to refrain from letting my emotions turn into the thinking that scripts a frightful outcome. I allowed myself to feel my way through the experience without getting locked into fear. It was like finding the eye of the storm. It enabled me to see more in a clearer light and to be gentler and more compassionate with my family.

How Do I Make Myself Whole?
Take a moment right now and love yourself just the way you are. Give it a try. If it makes you feel silly initially, then be open to that. Love the brilliant part along with the flawed, but love the flawed part too. Love your life just the way it is and where it is. See who you become when you open to yourself in this simple manner.

If we judge, reject, or feel conflict with our present experience, the sense of wholeness will instantly fragment. This, unfortunately, is the way it tends go for most of us. We end up feeling discouraged and separate and develop a slavish concern for the evaluations of others. It can reach the point where we have no genuine sense of who we really are.

Most of us are skillful at judging ourselves but not very adept at loving ourselves. So, today I invite you to heal this condition by giving this new approach a try. Dedicate this week to loving yourself exactly the way you are. Love your life exactly as it is, where it is. And see what happens to your experience of life.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Your Brain Can Work 12 Hours Every Day And Not Burnout

You can actually work long hours, day in, day out, and experience little or no stress. How? By cultivating an attitude of peace. This is not a sermon or even an opinion. It is the finding of a mounting body of brain research over the last ten years.

An attitude of peace gained through a simple but consistent practice lights up the higher order brain function that sustains peak performance.

It lights up the networks that make you happy and great at relationships.

A peaceful attitude also helps in building resistance to a long list of diseases that plague modern human beings, including heart disease, immunodeficiency, diabetes, depression, dementia, and even Alzheimer's.
Most of us do not see peace as a dynamic state. To the contrary, it is often seen as a rather complacent way of being that has no power in the "real world;" good on a Christmas card, but not for maintaining your "edge." Others even believe that the opposite of peace -- which is stress and fear -- is what drives success.

It's not so.
Science now knows that peace, as a way of being and relating to life's challenges, generates the brain structure and chemsitry that achieves what Aristotle called The Good Life, which he defined as the full use of one's strength along lines of excellence.
Stress renders the brain incapable of sustaining the level of performance that reaches excellence.
Stress causes regions of the brain associated with creativity, executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors to shrink;

While causing regions of the brain involved in generating anxiety and habitual, unconscious behavior to expand, locking the brain into obsessive, compulsive action.
We become neurologically predisposed to doing the same dead end things over and over, rather than creatively seeking a new approach for a better result.

Happily, we can rewire the brain for peace and reverse the damage.

A small amount of time invested every day toward a practice of inner peace, a practice that virtually adds nothing to one's To-Do list, returns a huge dividend.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Question That Ends Stress

If you have been reading these blogs or attended one of my keynotes, it is now clear to you that stress and fear are biologically linked. Biologically, some form of fear must be present for the brain to fire off a stress reaction. Science has found that most of the stress reactions we modern human beings suffer from have little to do with a real and present danger, like a bear in a campground.

Stress is largely the result of perceptions or rather misperceptions of a threat that is generally not verifiably present. As Mark Twain once said, “My life has been a series of terrible calamities, some of which actually happened. We humans generate all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads. We can experience wildly strong emotions, provoking our bodies into an accompanying uproar, all of it linked to mere thought.

Thus, we can dissolve a stress reaction by penetrating the thoughts behind our stress reactions. We can do it by asking a simple question: What am I afraid of? I once conducted this exercise one-on-one with a prominent corporate lawyer who attended a training I presented. I’ll call him Andrew to protect his anonymity. Andrew was in litigation with another attorney representing a large corporation. He perceived his opponent as unethical, using words like crook and shyster to describe him. The opposing lawyer infuriated him, and Andrew was taking it home. He thought about it incessantly, lost sleep over it, and bored his wife with the base details at dinner. His wife was growing weary of hearing about it. As his stress level increased, Andrew began to lose his edge and make bad decisions. He came to the training desperate for techniques that could restore his power and allow him to pummel his adversary.

What Are You Afraid Of, Andrew?
I asked Andrew, “In this situation, what are you afraid of ?” Losing, was his answer. What are you afraid of if you lose the case? I asked. Looking like a fool, he said with affect. What’s the fear of looking like a fool? That I will lose my reputation. What’s the fear in losing your reputation? Losing my clients. What’s the fear in losing clients? Being asked to leave the firm. And what’s the fear under this? That I will end up pushing a shopping cart down Main Street.

We then delved into each of his fearful thoughts, asking if he knew 100% for certain that each thought was true and would become reality. It is not worth the debilitating effects of stress hormones on the body, mind and brain unless we are 100% sure we are in that much danger. Not one of his fearful thoughts passed the 100% test. They were all lies fear was telling him that his anxiety believed. Believing made these fearful thoughts appear as facts instead of emotionally charged thoughts producing an overreaction. Often, as I read back the fear statements to participants, they laugh. Some of the answers are hilarious. Of course, what is not funny is the brutal way this storyline operates unconsciously, behind the scenes. The flashes of fearful images and negative self-talk erode every ounce of confidence and optimism. You can perform this exercise yourself. Here’s how:Take out piece of paper and draw a line down the middle, dividing it into two columns.
  • Close your eyes and bring to mind a stressful situation that occurred recently.
  • Tune into this stressful situation. Experience it again. Make it real. As much as possible, make it as if it were happening all over again.
  • Now ask yourself: in this stressful situation, what am I afraid of?
    When you have your answer, write it down in the left column, keeping it to one sentence or a phrase.
  • Next, reference back to the previously stated fear, asking yourself: what am I afraid of if this happens? For example: say that your first fear is I am afraid that people are judging me unfairly. In that case, the next question would be phrased: if people judge me unfairly, what am I afraid of?
  • Write it down in one sentence or a phrase.
  • Repeat the process until you have identified five or more fears or until you feel complete.
The next step is to inquire if there is any real basis to these fears. Return to the first fear on your list. Ask yourself: Am I 100 percent certain that this thought is true? Not in part, but 100 percent? If not, refute it with a more realistic statement. One by one, inquire into each fear statement, until you have inquired into all of them.
Let’s take the example of Andrew again. Here is how his worksheet looked after inquiring into each fearful thought (clarification in italtics).
  • The fear of losing the case. Clarified: I have not lost the case yet. There is still a chance to win.
  • The fear of looking like a fool. Clarified: I am not a fool. I’m a competent lawyer who has served his clients well in the past.
  • The fear of losing my reputation. Clarified: I’ve made my bones. I am regarded as a respected litigator in this county.
  • The fear of being asked to leave the firm. Clarified: They are planning to make me a partner.
  • The fear that I will end up pushing a shopping cart down Main Street. Clarified: I have always made enough money.
I asked him which scenario was closer to the truth: the fearful one or the one that refuted his fears? He said the latter. And which one, I asked, feels positive and less stressful. The answer was obvious. I asked Andrew, which of these two scenarios did you choose to believe when stressed? This answer was obvious as well. What was not so obvious when Andrew was stressed was the fact that it was he, not the other lawyer, causing his stress.
Once you have refuted the fears on your list, ask yourself: who would I be without these fearful thoughts? Write down your answer on a separate piece of paper. Post what you write where you will see it periodically over the next week. This is what Andrew did, and he quickly got his mojo back.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Stress, Success and Your Attitude

The preeminent stress researcher, Richard Lazarus of the University of California-Berkeley, divides "stress" into two parts: a stressor and stress. He defines a stressor as any kind of demand that life imposes. It can be another task that gets added to your to-do list, or a traffic jam or a difficult boss. Stressors are relative: The same stressor that ruins my day may not bother you at all, and vice-versa.

Lazarus defines stress as the appraisal that this demand is something that must be addressed, together with the perception that the demand overwhelms your resources.

Most people relate to the term “resources” as something external. It’s things like time, money, equipment or the support of other people. Add weather, war and the economy to this list and you have the elements of what can be defined as The World.  The World is everything in life you don’t completely control. Meaning there is always some problem with money, time, computers, the economy and especially people that mess with your perfect plan.

Evolution or the Universe or whatever you might call it gave you one resource over which you have absolute control in this world: your attitude. As it turns out, it was an enormous gift. The power of attitude can move the world in the direction you want to go.  Attitude is everything.  It is the essence of your spiritual nature and the sole means by which you control your destiny. Napolean Hill, the father of motivational psychology who mapped out the law of attraction more than 80 years ago, said if you "fail to direct your attitude you can be sure you will influence little else in this world." The great psychiatrist Karl Menninger, who founded the Menninger Institute, said “attitude is more important than facts.” Viktor Frankl asserted that it is the only thing that could make an inner triumph of something as horrible as Auschwitz. Neuroscience now defines attitude as “neuroplastic,” which means it can rewire your brain to lead with creative intelligence instead of fight, flight or freeze.

Fundamentally, stress represents you losing touch with your greatest resource: the power of attitude. The key to success in life is building the attitude that gives you the inner resources to deal with any kind of stressor, regardless of circumstances.

Neuroscience has discovered that the most powerful attitude we can mobilize is a dynamically peaceful attitude. It’s the attitude through which we face life’s challenges without fear. Some people think peace, especially in business or politics, means losing your edge or becoming complacent. Nothing could be further from the truth. Set aside a few moments to write down in one or two words phrases your experience when you are at the top of your game. Identify your internal experience when you’re in the flow, in the zone, running on all cylinders, making things happen.

The qualities that are present in you at such times are the same qualities attributed to peace. Peak performance is a mystical experience. I challenge you to spend the entire day choosing to be at peace, regardless of circumstances. See what happens to your mind, your brain function, your level of energy, to the way you relate to others and how you feel about yourself and what you achieved at the end of the day.

Here's a tool you can use to start to build this powerful attitude.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Slaying the Dragon: Creativity and the Critical Voice

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up." Thomas Edison

No one gets to the end of a creative process without slaying the dragon. The dragon is the critical voice in your head that says your work is no good. It says your effort is useless. It looks on a mistake and says you are worthless, devoid of brilliance.

If you cannot look that dragon straight in the eye, tell it to go to hell and proceed forward with the next step, the next sentence, the next brush stroke, your vision is lost. It will be swallowed hole. Nothing will come of the goal you once held with resolve and enthusiasm.

There is no getting around it. It takes courage to create. Success sometimes involves making a ton of mistakes and still coming back to try again. If one does that, then he or she will climb higher. It’s the law. Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time. The law is this: If you don’t give up you win. You reach the summit.

Slaying The Dragon
Below is a proven approach to slaying the dragon. Practice it and you’ll gradually rewire your brain to provide a neural pathway that circumvents the critical voice.

The Mistake: Think of the last time you made a mistake or were challenged by bad news for which you felt somehow responsible. Write it down a piece of paper.

The Criticism: Now write down what your critical voice said to you. (How could you have let this happen? I can’t believe you did that. You’ve ruined things).

The Belief: Next, look at the beliefs behind the criticism and write these down (Example: I’m a loser. I’m not good enough. I’m irresponsible):

The Consequence: What does your critical voice think this mistake means for your future?

Look at what the critical is voice saying that is distorted or factually incorrect. These negative statements about you, your character, and your ability are far from true. Don’t believe them. Write down a realistic statement about your character and ability. If there is some factual truth in what the critical voice states, acknowledge it without condemning yourself.

Perhaps you made a mistake but it is likely you also succeeded in another way, or you succeeded in this situation at another time. Become your own character witness. Identify things you did that were positive.

Negative self-talk puts all the blame on you. Name one contributing factors that might have caused the problem.

Negative self-talk is often fixed on worse case scenarios, exaggerating consequences. How likely is it that this imagined calamity will happen?

Recall your initial intention in this situation. Write it down? Does it still matter? If so, how do you feel when you make your intention count? If your hopes were realized what would the outcome be?

Look back on this situation. Think of one positive, true quality you see in yourself that can turn the situation in a positive direction. Write it down. How would it feel to dedicate the day to remembering this about yourself?

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Monday, January 4, 2010

The Biggest Brain Myth Of All:

The One That Says We Lose Brain Power As We Grow Older

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” Pablo Picasso

There is a myth about the brain that needs busting (Baby Boomers, take note).  The myth says we lose brain power as we get older.  It's not true. In the last 10 years science has discovered a property of the brain called neuroplasticity, which is the way new stimuli and learning experiences reshape, reorganize, reintegrate and revitalize higher order brain function to tap more of your innate creative potential, no matter how old you are.

Your brain retains this neuroplastic quality throughout your life span. In short, brain power actually increases as you use it to stretch yourself in creative ways. Using a long neglected talent lights-up the neural networks in which it is embedded. The more you use it the more the brain expands these networks, integrating them with other networks to generate the related skill set that can produce something meaningful.

Many scientists consider neuroplasticity to be the most important discovery in medical science in the last 100 years. Neuroplasticity has expanded science's view of human potential. When it comes to our potential for growth it appears that the sky is the limit.

What does this mean for Baby Boomers (or any one) who once dreamed of writing, painting, playing a musical instrument, flying a plane or learning a foreign language? It means they can pick up where they left off and, from there, develop their talent and skill. It's never too late.
Studies of the careers and life cycles of impressionist and modern French and American painters consistently found that some artists bloom early (Picasso, Monet and Matisse) while others bloom later, producing exceptional art late in their life cycle (Grandma Moses, Cezanne, Van Gough and Rousseau).

L. Frank Braum didn't write much fiction until mid-life and ended up creatingone of the most popular books in children's literature, The Wizard of Oz.

It is true in business as well. Late blooming entrepreneurs such as Mary Kay Ash, Colonel Sanders, and Sam Walton achieved their enormous success late in life.

Science found one essential trait that is common to both early and late bloomers. It is "innovative behavior." This simply means you are willing to stretch an innate ability in new ways.

You can be 80-years-old and still rewire your brain to release a new flow of creativity. To repeat, the only condition neuroplasticity requires is the willingness to stretch yourself in new ways. Novelty is one of the qualities that grows a powerful brain. Excite brain cells with new learning and the brain literally rewires, making new connections that light-up and integrate a multitude of neural networks. The effect is holographic. Creative intelligence, psychological insight and practical skill combine to produce a meaningful result.

Neuroplasticity even applies where a difficult life and faulty genetics wired you for anxiety, belligerence, and pessimism. You can rewire your brain to make you more relaxed, happier and loving.

Exciting the brain with new learning could not be simpler. It is so simple that people often don’t believe such simple processes could generate such a major result. It can and does.

A Set Of Tools
Click here for a set of tools that can help you form these new brain connections. The tools that work couldn't be simpler. You don't have to try everything listed, just something from each of the four categories. Use this list as a framework for constructing your own approach to revitalizing your brain.

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