Cissy Brady-Rogers
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Archive for 'change your brain'

In a N.Y. Times opinion piece titled “Diagnosis: Human” ethicist Ted Gup points out how pharmaceutical companies and medical providers collude with our human tendency to look for quick fixes and easy answers to life’s messiness.

The author takes responsibility for his own culpability in the tragic death of his son: “I had unknowingly colluded with a system that devalues talking therapy and rushes to medicate, inadvertently sending a message that self-medication, too, is perfectly acceptable.”

He goes on to point out a number of the ways that human experiences–like the  “excessive” energy of little boys or the grief of a broken heart–get pathologized, then medicated, rather than worked through as expected parts of the developmental cycle.

In earlier times, spirituality was the remedy for troubled souls. Prayer, meditation, and other practices were the “medication” people used to regulate the dissonant energies of life. Today, with increasing interest in holistic approaches to healing, studies indicate that mediation can be as effective as medication for a number of mental and physical symptoms.

Certainly for some folks, like those I wrote about in my blog yesterday, medications are essential for stability and functioning. But for many, like the author’s son who died at 21 from abuse of alcohol and drugs, learned dependence on medications may do more harm than good.

Self-awareness and understanding are essential life skills. Without them, and even with them, we are prone to repeat the same unhelpful choices over and over again. In the recovery field, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Understanding ineffective or destructive habits and patterns through self-awareness is the beginning of making new choices.

A young woman with years of therapy, in-patient hospitalization and residential treatment for her eating disorder told me that what she’d really needed all along was someone to help her understand herself and “be happy being me!”

The biblical wisdom that anchored me during my own years of disordered living spoke to this core conflict: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Years of  therapy, self-reflection and spiritual practice, along with lots of loving community, have nurtured the self-understanding I needed to be happy being myself…at least most of the time!

Self-awareness is the foundation for self-understanding. Not knowing what you feel, think, sense, want, or need, makes for a reactive rather than a responsible life.

When you aren’t attuned to feelings, you’re prone to let hurts, stress, and frustration accumulate then blow up in anger, shut down in depression, get a tension headache, or eat and drink in attempts to self-soothe.

When you aren’t attuned to sensations in your body, you’re less able to discriminate between physical hunger in your stomach and emotional distress signals from the same region.

Listening to yourself–to the sensations, feelings and thoughts that are the raw material of mental processes–enables you to take responsibility for how you respond to your experience rather than just react to whatever arises.

One of my current goals is to increase my mindful awareness in every day life. Taking simple “mindfulness moments” throughout the day has helped me decrease reactive responses (answering a text immediately just because it calls my attention) and increase my responsible choices (paying attention to clock time and planning ahead for the contingencies that inevitably arise).

Awareness of sensations, feelings and thoughts enables me to more compassionately and effectively process the dissonance that arises when I realize that I’m running late, yet again, in spite of my valiant efforts to change. When I feel the tightening in my stomach and shoulders, I take a deep breath and release the tension. When self-critical thoughts and feelings arise, I acknowledge them as part of an old story that is no longer helpful, and choose to extend forgiveness and kindness to myself.

Regular practice of mindful awareness is relatively simple. You can practice it right now. After you read the rest of these instructions, stop and check in with yourself as described here:

1.) Close your eyes and take a few long deep breaths. Breath in fully, then slowly exhale through your mouth. This activates the calming system of your body, telling everything to slow down and relax, so you can listen more carefully to your experience.

2.) Take a moment to notice any sensations in your face, neck and shoulders. Just notice whatever is there. Don’t do anything to change it. Just acknowledge whatever arises and let it be.

3.) Take a moment to notice any feelings or thoughts you’re having, either in response to this blog, or otherwise. Again, just notice and acknowledge what is.

That’s it. You don’t practice mindful awareness in order to “get a result”. You practice so that over time you can build your mindfulness muscles so they are available when you need when being on time to your appointment is important so you finish your blog and get on with your day!

Recently a young woman spoke about her vision of how she’d be in her life if she were really listening to and trusting herself. She said she’d feel more clear headed, confident, and decisive. She said she wouldn’t be afraid to speak her mind even when she anticipated significant others would disagree. She said that she’d be able to listen to others compassionately without feeling compelled to compromise her own values for the sake of pleasing them.

As she spoke she drew her hand to her heart and said, “I’d be making decisions from here and not getting lost in all the noise constantly playing different scenarios over and over again in my head.”

Amen! She’s invested a huge amount of time and energy learning to listen herself and live from her heart. At the end of our conversation she said “It’s a lot of work because it’s new. But I feel so much lighter and calmer that it’s worth the effort.”

Unbeknownst to many of us, even positive change is stressful. The necessary stress of change can be a major obstacle in moving forward in our lives. Just because you choose it and know it is in your best interest doesn’t mean you won’t feel stressed as you find more life-giving ways of living your life.

Conscious breathing is an excellent way to self-soothe when facing the stress of positive change. My friend and mentor Joan Borysenko offers a wonderful little two-minute video on how to use your breath to cope with the positive stress that comes when you’re making changes in alignment with your vision of a more abundant life.

Brother Lawrence, a French Carmelite brother who lived in the seventeenth century is best known for his practicing the presence of God–a version of mindful awareness with God at the center. He said that it wasn’t necessary to go to church to be with God. He wrote that we can make our own hearts a place of worship. But he also said that in order to do that we must empty our heart of all other things. Mindfulness is a way to empty our hearts and minds of all other things and make space to listen for the voice of God.

Mindful awareness practices can be done anywhere. Brother Lawrence was famous for practicing presence while doing his kitchen duties. For me the critical piece isn’t where I am or what I am doing, but whether or not I’m paying attention to my immediate experience.

My mind is especially prone to wander when alone–walking down the street, cooking a meal, driving to work. Each time I catch my mind drifting from the present moment and bring attention back, I strengthen the mindfulness muscles in my brain.

Each moment of “failing” to practice mindfulness becomes an opportunity to grow in gracious awareness–another important spiritual skill. No judgement, no condemnation. Just come back to the present moment. Like the Apostle Paul who wrote that God’s power is made perfect in our weaknesses, so mindfulness is strengthened each time we come back to the present moment after having drifted elsewhere.

A short mindful awareness practice I often use when I catch myself  judging myself for failing–whether in mindfulness or something else–is the Jesus prayer: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.” It’s a way I practice gracious awareness with myself. It’s a way to empty my heart of inner dissonance and make space for God.

Lent is a season of listening more closely to my life, listening for God and the voice of Love in my life.  Mindful awareness of the presence of life, beauty, goodness in people, creation, creativity–even technology–deepens my capacity to love God and my neighbor as self.

Henri Nouwen says that prayer is “first and foremost listening to Jesus, who dwells in the very depths of your heart.”  Not somewhere out in eternity, but right here, in me, in you.  In order to listen to God, we need listen to ourselves.

Many of the women I work with were socialized not to listen to themselves, but to others.  They were taught that priests, pastors, doctors, teachers, parents, police officers, and other authorities “knew best”.  They were taught to be good girls, do what they were told, and everything would be fine.

And then they developed an eating disorder, or an addiction, or depression, or anxiety.  And had to learn to listen to their own lives, to their own hearts, to their bodies.

Mindful awareness practices teach us to pay attention to our own experience, to listen to our own lives.  Over time, with practice, it actually changes our brains, thickening the muscles of focus, attention, choice, empathy, compassion, while decreasing reactivity, self-judgment and other unhelpful patterns.

Practice is necessary because we live in a noisy world where people, cell phones, computers, customers, clients, bosses, co-workers, loved ones, and all manner of things demand our attention leaving little time and space to listen within.

Listening for God begins with learning to listen to your own experience.

Countless resources are available to help you learn to listen to yourself.  Dan Siegel is my go-to guy for all things related to mindfulness and the brain.  In addition to his books, his resources section offers free downloadable mp3 practices.  But tons of other options are available.

There is no right way to listen.  There is no quick fix.  The way begins with you. It begins with valuing yourself and taking time to listen to yourself.

What time and space will you create this Lent to listen to your life?

I wanted to cry as I left home this morning. I crossed the threshold of my front door on the way to my car and felt tears well up in my eyes. Physical therapy (PT) again?

i want to be here

If I didn’t love all sorts of recreational activities like I do, I wonder if I’d keep showing up for these appointments.   The arduous process of rehabilitating my shoulder is teaching me at a personal level what I’ve known theoretically for years: functional goals are most predictive of successful rehabilitation or training. I don’t like spending up to eight hours a week doing the repetitive, narrowly focused exercises of PT.  But a vision of myself meditatively swimming laps at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center or with the turtles in Hawaii keeps me inspired to show up even when it’s difficult.

PT is the most challenging exercise I’ve done in my life. The psychological and physical demands of recruiting nerves and muscle fibers to remember how to work is far more intense than training for the 100-mile bike ride of a Solvang century. I don’t breathe hard or sweat during physical therapy, but I do feel an intense straining of my brain as I try to extend my left arm in directions I used to take for granted.

Brain strain is also what people who’ve never enjoyed exercise experience when they attempt to begin a new fitness regime. It isn’t just the motor muscles that get activated in new ways. The brain must also lay down new neural pathways to support the movements and energy expenditure demanded by new modes of physical activity. Anyone who has struggled with exercise resistance knows that the key to rewiring our brains for new functions are more psychological than physical – requiring mental discipline, alongside physical effort.

choosing to show up again...and again...and again

When I strain to lift my arm a little higher or hold it in a difficult position a little longer, my mental focus is more important than the muscles doing the work. My mind must choose the effort demanded to lift higher and hold longer. If my mind isn’t on board, my muscles give up.

Neuroplasticity is the technical term for what occur when we use mental focus and discipline to learn new skills or develop new habits. As recently as the 1990’s neurologists were still being taught that adult brains were unable to change. But experimental and rehabilitative work with various conditions, especially stroke patients, has proved otherwise.

When my supraspinitus muscle sends “warning” signals to my mind in the form of pain, my brain is the conduit of communication. My mental challenge in that moment is to remember what I really want – a fully functioning shoulder. When I remember that this pain is therapeutic and stay with the discomfort, I’m reactivating old neural pathways that went to sleep during my months of inactivity. My mental vision of a fully functioning supraspinitus muscle strengthens the neural pathways of my brain designated for shoulder movement. The mental vision strengthens the brain muscles even when the shoulder muscles lag far behind.

Albert Einstein said that discipline is remembering what you really want. Whether you are awakening old neural pathways that have been offline for a while or building new pathways, keeping your focus on what you really want is essential.

I really want to fully rotate my left arm as I swim freestyle and backstroke this summer. One of my coaching clients really wants to walk the cobble stoned streets of old Italian cities without fear of stumbling or getting winded.

Exercising to lose weight or tone up in order to “look better” (whatever that is) in your swimsuit or wedding dress offers short-term, limited success. A functional goal of confidently swimming in the ocean with your children, nieces and nephews or grandchildren, or of effortlessly carrying your own suitcases up several flights of rickety stairs at an exotic island cottage on your honeymoon is more likely to produce long-term, sustainable behavioral changes.

What do you really want do be physically capable of?

What do you want to be able to do on your own power and strength in six months, one year, five, ten or twenty years?

What mental vision of yourself in motion do you hold as you face the brain strain necessary to strengthen your muscles and train your neural pathways?

What do you focus on as you face the therapeutic pain of your physical therapy or fitness training regime?

Remember what you really want and show up for your therapy or training appointments with yourself or a professional this week. You and those who want to enjoy an active life with you will be grateful that you did.