Cissy Brady-Rogers
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Last week I talked with my friend Scott about prayer. Three months ago he began a contemplative prayer practice and it’s changed his life.

It reminded me of an awakening I experienced over a decade ago when I began practicing centering prayer. In my journal I wrote: “My experience of myself is more clear, consistent, settled, than ever before. I remember my brief sojourn on Zoloft in the late 1990’s, feeling a similar shift in my experience initially, gradually dissipating over time…I wonder if immersion in meditation and community practice is altering my brain chemistry. I wonder what neural pathways in my brain are shifting to affect this new level of consciousness and presence with myself, this sense of well being, of mental quiet, of emotional stability and unity?”

The longer I practice contemplative forms of prayer (yoga, centering prayer, mindfulness of various expressions) the less interested I am in what I’ve begun to call “ego supportive prayer.”

Ego supportive prayer is about the circumstances of life. We give thanks for the blessings and praise God for them. We ask for help with those things that burden, worry, trouble us. It’s a way of engaging with the Divine that anchors our present realities in the Reality of all reality. We pour out our hearts to the Creator in hope that the Creator will meet us in these things and bolster us with strength and courage to face them. And we thank God for helping us, even in advance for the help that will come.

Ego focused prayer uses words to strengthen our relationship with God, to secure our sense of self through our attachment to God. In my experience, it’s mostly about talking to God about my life–either silently or out loud. I talk to God as Father/Mother/Creator, to God as Jesus, the son, my brother, my friend and companion who walks with me through the days of my life. Unless it’s informed by a more contemplatively informed expression of ego supportive prayer, like the Ignatian stream of Christian devotion, there’s little emphasis on listening.

For those of us with insecure attachment patterns, myself included, ego supportive prayer can be a powerful healing and stabilizing force for a fragile ego. Knowing Jesus as friend and companion saved me during chaotic years of my life. My daily quiet times, reading the Bible, praying aloud, keeping lists of my prayer requests and answers to prayer were essential elements of healing the wounds of my childhood. It helped integrate and stabilize my ego. Like a therapeutic relationship, the empathetic, loving presence of another is the key to integration of the brain. When we’ve not had that steady support in early development, a Loving God can become a therapeutic presence that does for us what wasn’t done in our childhoods.

In recent years I’ve engaged both ego supportive and contemplative forms of prayer. I’ve found them both necessary and helpful. In seasons where I focused exclusively on centering prayer and let go of verbal, conversational forms, I missed the companioning aspects of ego supportive prayer.

Last year I spent nine months with Ignatius’ spiritual exercises–a compilation of readings, prayers and practices Ignatius developed to help people deepen our connection to God. It was powerful ego supportive medicine that grounded my ego realities in my Center in God’s Love that I’d discovered through centering prayer.

For me, the Center is the wordless place of contemplation. It’s the place within my inner awareness where I am still and silent and know God beyond words.

In recent conversational community prayer times, I’ve found myself bored with myself. I’m bored with hearing myself say the same things each week about my needs: Dave needs a job, I need more clients, we need clear guidance about helping his parent’s navigate the challenges of their senior years.

It’s all important, but what is the value of telling God, over and over and over again what I need?

If God is God, does God need to be reminded of what I need?

Or is that more about me and my ego’s need to reinforce that God is God and I am not God? 

I remember the parable Jesus taught that is commonly called the persistent widow. It’s introduced with the commentary: “Then Jesus told them a parable about how they should always pray and not give up.” This parable is often used as a rationale for repetitive prayer practices. The unjust judge says “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come back and attack me.” I still don’t get the parable. And suppose I could spend some time with it.

Does “always pray and not give up” have to be about verbally asking God, like the widow asking the unjust judge, to intervene?

Are words required?

For me, the non-verbal anchoring in my Belovedness, in the Center of knowing God is God and I am not, is the foundation for the efficacy of my verbalized prayers. The talking and verbalizing of ego supportive prayer pulls me out of my Center. When I’m resting in the surrendered state of the Center, I’m not worried or anxious about the things I’d normally need to tell God about in order to soothe my ego.

So my prayer work these days is Centering.

I need less talking and more Anchoring.

I need less words and more Presence.

When my ego is Centered in my Belovedness, Anchored in the Reality of all realities, Present to the Creator who holds all things together even when they seem to be falling apart around me, my peaceful presence becomes a prayer and words are not necessary.

 

 

We all know that walking is good for you. Just getting up from your desk to walk around the office or outside for a few minutes has plenty of health benefits. After all, sitting is the new smoking.

But a study by Gregory Bratman at Standford University found that when compared to an urban walk, a nature walk resulted in even more emotional and cognitive benefits than an urban walk. Moreover, it may even change the wiring of our brains!

Winter Day at Occidental College - All Brown Now

Winter Day at Occidental College – All Brown Now

I imagine the same results would apply to walking on a treadmill versus getting out under the trees on a dirt path.

I live 1/2 block away from a busy street in Los Angeles, California. Some days I have time to get away to a more scenic and natural place to walk. But on a busy work day, like today, that isn’t going to happen.

So, I’ll put on my walking shoes and make the best of the tree lined asphalt and concrete streets nearby. I might stroll through the urban oasis of nearby Occidental College where a small but sacred few acres of dirt paths wait to be trod upon.

Walking is good for your health. Walking in nature is even better!

Whatever you do today, urban or nature, make time for a walk. Your body and brain will thank you!

 

 

“To pray is not to hear oneself talk; it is rather to make oneself so still that God’s word can come through.” (Peter G. Van Breeman, SJ)

Stillness does not come naturally to me. Newton’s observation that an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless an external force is applied to it fits me to a tee. It’s equally applicable to my body and my mind. Once I start the day, my mental energy begins a steady climb, sometimes getting so amped up that by the end of my work day, I find it hard to stop. My body and executive self say “Enough.” But my too busy mind isn’t ready to downshift and let go.

I get so “full” of myself and what I think needs to be done that I can’t hear the still small voice of God, of goodness, love and kindness that tells me my value and worth aren’t measured by how much I produce.

Eight years ago I began a daily centering prayer practice that changed my life by changing my brain. There’s plenty of emerging research verifying the neurological changes evoked by meditative practices. I noticed changes within a few months.

Reflecting on my experience in my journal I wrote: “I wonder if immersion in meditation and spiritual practice in a community of support altered my brain chemistry? I wonder what neural pathways in my brain were shifted to affect this new level of consciousness and presence within myself, this sense of well being, of mental quiet, of emotional stability and unity?”

My experience verifies the research: when I practice daily, I’m less reactive, more focused and less distracted, and cope more effectively when things aren’t going according to my agenda!

Miss Liberty Belle - 8 weeks old

Miss Liberty Belle – 8 weeks old: a lovely disruption!

Our August trip to Ireland last year, followed by Miss Liberty Belle’s arrival in September, disrupted my rhythm. I have yet to get back to a daily 20 minute practice. And that’s exactly why I’m writing this blog – to remember and recommit to daily practice now that I’m not traveling and Liberty doesn’t need constant supervision.

In support of myself and participants in my mentor Joan’s PlantPlus Nutrition Webinar, I’m leading a free 15 minute mindful awareness conference call every Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. (PST). You are welcome to join us!  Contact me and I’ll send you the details for accessing our budding community of support.

I’m grateful to Joan, Jon Kabat-Zinn and other pioneers in the mind-body medicine field who valued the experiential data of their patients and persevered with their work in the 1980’s when the vast majority of the medical community discounted the power of ancient practices for bringing good health of body, mind and spirit!

If you’re suffering with stress-related physical or psychological symptoms (links to assessment tools on Joan’s website) meditation can help. And I’d love to support you in getting started.

I hope you’ll join us on Wednesday morning at 7 a.m.  I look forward to hearing from you.

(Photo of Miss Liberty Belle by Tracey Kuhlin Pet Photography)

This morning at my conditioning class one of the other students commented that for him exercise was a “necessary evil.” I immediately jumped into my cheerleader mode: “Just imagine how good you’ll feel afterwards.” He was friendly enough but clearly wasn’t buying into my attempt to re-frame of his view of reality.

It got me thinking about the destructive power of habituation and conditioning. We get stuck doing things the way we’ve always done them and  let our limited view of reality and ourselves create attitudes that undermine our efforts before we’ve even begun. We’ve all said things like: “That’s just the way I am…” or “I’m just not a person who…” or “I’ve never liked…” or “I’ve always…”  While there may be valid reasons for viewing exercise as a necessary evil, but it certainly isn’t contributing in a positive way to anyone’s life.

It also got me thinking about what emerging research reveals about identity. Historically Western philosophy, theology and psychology have tended toward a static view of the self: there is an “I” that I am becoming/finding/developing. Freud dubbed this the ego. But post-modern thinking and neuroscience studies on the brain and mind indicate that the “I” that I think I am is not as set in cement as many of us believe.

Circumstances change.

People change.

Change happens.

For many years I’ve struggle with getting things done in an orderly, systematic fashion. I tend to be random, intuitive, spontaneous, sometimes impulsive, and on a bad day tending toward chaotic movement in so many directions that I fall into an emotional tailspin which can end in an meltdown. And that is not a pretty sight. Just ask my poor husband!

Thanks be to God that the scenario has changed over the years. I’ve changed. Through mindful awareness, centering prayer, yoga and other mind-body practices I’m better able to regulate my energy and attention.  I rarely go into tailspins anymore and it’s been a very long time since I had a meltdown. I still tend toward randomness and spontaneity in accomplishing non-appointment related work. In fact this morning my calendar tells me I’m supposed to be clearing out my email in-boxes. But I had an inspiration to write and made an executive decision, spontaneous as seems to be part of my creative capacity, but not impulsive. I evaluated the decision in a mindful manner, aware that the in-box project remains to be tackled.

Consistently exercising the capacity to focus my attention and stay present through these practices has strengthened the connections between the executive brain (at the front of the head behind the forehead) and the emotional and survival centers in the middle and back of the brain. Neuroplasticity is the technical name for the brain’s capacity to develop these new neural pathways that are integral to our capacity for change.

It isn’t as much about my efforts to change as it is about opening to the Spirit of Grace that does for me what I can’t do for myself. It isn’t trying harder, but softening each time I fall short of my ideals and asking for help. Change happens when I am willing to be changed and engage in practices that make myself available to be changed.

Jesus asked a man who’d been an invalid for 38 years if he wanted to get well. The man responded with his static view of himself and his reality, reciting his scenario as to why change wasn’t possible. We all have our versions of this story: “It’s always been this way…”

In another story Jesus met a man whose son had suffered convulsions since childhood. His response to Jesus’ statement that everything is possible for one who believes is one of my favorite prayers: “I do believe, help my unbelief.”

Unbelief is the crack that opens us up to grace. God does for us what we can’t do for ourselves, not because we have 100% belief, but in the midst of our unbelief.

The first question to ask ourselves isn’t “Can I change?” but “Am I willing to be changed?”

Holding onto a static view of ourselves or reality not only is ineffective, it isn’t true! If you’re a person who “hates exercise…” or “doesn’t like to eat…” or “has always eaten…” or “never could imagine yourself….” then you’re in good company. Many of the people Jesus healed were in exactly the same position.

Will you choose to believe, in the midst of your unbelief?

Today I choose to move at a mindful pace in the unhurried rhythm of God’s grace. After posting this blog I’ll get back on schedule with gratitude that degree by degree I am being changed. And while one hoped for change is that I’ll continue to grow in getting things done in a systematic, orderly fashion, I trust that today’s version of that is good enough for today.

What version of who you think you are might you need to let go of in order to have the life your really want?

Are you willing to be changed?

Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing the stories of Kimberly, Brent, Richard and Michael from Pacific Clinic’s Anti-Stigma Speaker’s Group. Through courageously sharing their stories of struggle with chronic mental illness, they taught me and my marital and family therapy students far more than we could have ever learned from a book. And, they helped dispel some of the stigma often attached to bipolar disorder and other biochemically based diseases.

Brent said his spiritual program of recovery through Emotion’s Anonymous has taught him to look for the good amidst the challenges. He told us the benefit of breaking his ankle was that it slowed him down. As a person who experiences manic episodes, he chuckled and said that slowing down was a good thing for him to have some help with!

After my mindful walk yesterday, where I experienced gratitude for my feet, I had a special appreciation for his story.

Beginning and ending the day with gratitude, and focusing on the blessings instead of the problems of daily life is good for both psychological and physical health.

What are you grateful for today?

Barbara Fredrickson’s Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we feel, think, do and become paves the way for more scientific exploration of what Jesus taught 2000 years ago. He said that all the  commands of the old covenant were summed up in two: Love God & love your neighbor as yourself. He said that the entire law of the torah is summed up in love.

Love the Supreme Emotion

It’s about time scientists got with the program!

I’m half-way through Love 2.0. While the concept of a power greater than ourselves, God, or a Divine Source of Love has not shown up in the book so far, it confirms what my personal and professional experience has told me is true–that loving and being loved is our core need. When satisfied we thrive. When our love need is unmet, we struggle.

Fredrickson’s research indicates that just reflecting on our positive, loving engagements with others in an intentional way activates positive psychological and physical changes.

Last night after a day filled with positive social encounters with others–including playing with the pre-schoolers at church who always remind me of the power of living in an open hearted way–I went to sleep holding those memories in mind. I slept better than I have in a week and woke up in a positive state of mind.

I’m excited to finish the book, but even more excited that someone is invested in researching the supreme importance of love in human flourishing. I pray for blessings on her work and that the body of research and literature on this essential area will expand.

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?

Jesus taught 2000 years ago what research is confirming today:

Love is good for your health.

“Love your enemies” – because holding resentments and grudges can harden your spiritual heart and feed mind-body stress that complicates many physiological processes including blood pressure and digestion.

Research indicates that the positive states associated with love are good for your brain, your heart and your whole body.

promoting good health with Legend & Skye

It’s good for your brain because it increases your “happy chemicals”: endorphins, endogenous cannabinoids, endogenous morphine, dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin and nitrous oxide.  These chemicals play a variety of roles in reducing stress signals, suppressing pain and balancing mood.

Love is good for your heart since it decreases anxiety and depression.

And it’s good for your body because it boosts immunity, decreases blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and muscle tension.

Beyond sustaining positive energy in all systems of your body-mind-spirit self, love also induces and sustains the body’s self-healing capacities.

English poet, novelist and mystic Evelyn Underhill intuited this when she wrote in the early 20th century that “the redemption of the world in Christ defeats the evil infection by the health-giving power of love.”

I’ve discovered that love is an inside job. When I’m not in loving relationship with myself, the love I extend to others is inauthentic and unsustainable. Often, I’m my own worst enemy and the “enemy” I need to forgive is me.

When I do that, I open my heart and am able to genuinely receive and give love to others.

Daniel Landinsky tells the story of a young woman asking the Sufi poet Hafiz “What is the sign of someone who knows God?”  Hafiz replied, “My dear, they have dropped the knife, the have dropped the cruel knife they so often use upon their tender self and others.”

Whether you have a human “Valentine” or not, consider giving yourself some love today by forgiving whatever grudges, angers or resentments you’re holding.  Drop the knife. It will be good for your health.

Change is afoot in the food industry.  In addition to other sweeping changes in healthcare services and employee wellness programs, the Obama administration’s health care act requires chain restaurants to list nutritional values on menus.

This addition can severely complicate eating out for those whose eating disorder includes obsessing about fat grams and calories.  But, for the majority of us, increased awareness of what’s in our food empowers us to make more conscious choices.

The food industry has been on alert since the publication of The End of Overeating by David Kessler in 2009.  The former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration exposed the dark side of major chain restaurant’s fat, sodium and sugar loading of menu items to increase customer appetites and their profits.

Now, they are being called out on their greedy ways and can’t keep customers in the dark any longer.

It’s about time.

I’m very aware that for a small portion of the population, this is not helpful.  And, ultimately, I advocate making food choices by listening to your body, not reading numbers on menus or scales.  But the growing number of people with chronic diseases indicates that, as a nation, we are  severely disconnected from our bodies, not tuning in to God given signals of poor nutritional choices.

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.