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.