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.