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Zen SamuraiThe old monk sat by the side of the road, with his eyes closed, his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap in deep meditation.

Suddenly his tranquility was interrupted by the harsh and demanding voice of a samurai warrior standing before him. “Old man! Teach me about heaven and hell!”

At first, as though he had not heard, there was no perceptible response from the monk. But slowly he began to open his eyes, the faintest hint of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth as the samurai stood there, waiting impatiently, growing more and more agitated with each passing moment.

“You wish to know the secrets of heaven and hell?” replied the monk at last. “You who are so unkempt, whose hands and feet are covered with dirt. You whose hair is uncombed, whose breath is foul, whose sword is rusty and neglected. You would ask me of heaven and hell?”

The samurai uttered a vile curse. He drew his sword and raised it high above his head. His face turned crimson and the veins on his neck stood out pulsing wildly as he prepared to sever the monk’s head from his shoulders.

“That,” said the old monk gently, just as the sword began its descent, “is hell.” In that fraction of a second, the samurai was overcome with amazement, awe, compassion and love for this gentle being who had dared risk his very life to give him such a teaching. He stopped his sword in mid-descent and his eyes filled with grateful tears.

“And that,” said the monk, “is heaven.”

One question we are left with might be: “What allowed this monk to manage the stress hormones his adrenal glands most likely would have been flooding his brain and body with under threat of death?”

 

Last week, a friend and I were on a Walk-n-Talk in one of South Whidbey’s many public parks – Trustland Trails (wonderfully well-named). We had my Bernese Mountain Dog, Emmy with us off-leash so she could wander around and explore the myriad unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells she so loves to discover. My friend and I were on the trail deep in discussion about a co-presentation we were planning – The Neurobiology of Creative Wisdom: The Anais Nin Chapter Image result for bernese mountain dog– when suddenly we came upon a young mom and her 15-month-old toddler walking slowly on the path up ahead of us. Emmy immediately took note of the toddler – Jack – as we approached. At first, surprised, Jack’s eyes got wide and he immediately moved behind his mother’s leg for protection.

Even though Emmy loves kids and is ever-gentle, I immediately put the leash on her and we approached Jack and his mom very slowly. From behind his mother’s leg Jack began to point at Emmy and make a sound that I suppose was his version of “dog.” His mother, meanwhile, had crouched down and put one hand on his back and the other on Jack’s belly. She would then take her hand off and point at Emmy, and in her reassuring motherese voice, declare, “good dog” to Jack several times.

I could visibly see Jack’s body begin to relax as we continued our cautious approach. I reassured the mom and Jack that Emmy was indeed friendly (her tail was wagging like crazy) and that there was no cause for concern. As we got closer, Jack’s mother stood up and he came out from behind her leg. Clearly curious, when Emmy was close enough, Jack put his hand out and touched Emmy’s cold, wet nose. More to regulate my own nervous system than his at this point, I pulled Emmy away and we then moved slowly around Jack and his mom and continued on down the trail, waving goodbye as we passed.

Threat Detection on Display

Through that brief encounter I could readily imagine the threat-detection circuitry in Jack’s little brain signaling his adrenal glands to generate sympathetic stress hormones to put him safely into self-protection mode.

Fortunately, Jack had his mother with him, willing and able to answer The Big Brain Question for him with a skillful, resounding,”Yes.” She was fully there for Jack in deed, word and action. Her own nervous system quickly recovered after being surprised by two strangers and a dog suddenly coming up behind her. And at that point, all of her energy and attention was in Ventral Vagal, social-engagement mode and could be solely focused on soothing and calming Jack. By the time we managed to walk slowly around Jack and his mom, Jack was back in Ventral Vagal social engagement mode himself, fully ready to play with Emmy his new-found friend. Later, as my friend and I continued our discussions out in the parking lot, mom and Jack re-appeared. In his hand Jack had a fist-sized pine cone. He immediately ran over and offered it as a present for Emmy!

Neurobiological Beings R Us

What’s interesting about this experience is that all of us are walking around with the same nervous system, the same threat-detection circuitry, the same adrenal glands as Jack. The only difference is that any variety of life challenges – other than encountering two strangers and a dog on a park trail – could be the triggers that set our danger circuitry ablaze. For many people currently, it’s the unfolding Coronavirus Pandemic. Point of fact: unless and until you actually acquire the illness, there’s no real threat present in your life. What the circuitry and the adrenal glands are being activated by are the mental machinations that project and imagine all kinds of frightening outcomes. Which doesn’t mean we don’t become informed and take intelligent compassionate action to care for ourselves and others. We simply don’t do it motivated by fear.

But it doesn’t have to be a daily media blitz screaming, “Danger, Danger, Danger”  wildly activating our threat-detection circuitry. Most often what triggers it are the run-of-the mill thoughts that our neurobiology regularly secretes on an ongoing basis:Image result for lost car keys “I wonder if my wife has overdrawn our checking account again?” “Where are my car keys; I swear I’m losing my mind,” “Is there anyone currently in my life that I really CAN count on?” All day long conceptual mind generates thought after thought after thought, and every single one of those thoughts raises or lowers the levels of stress hormones running through our brain and body. As they do, we are afforded pretty much a single choice: become increasingly more refined in our awareness of how such metabolic processes actually feel inside us, and then develop our own unique personal practice(s) that allow us to determine whose most capable of being in charge of our nervous system – our wisdom selves or our adrenal glands? May you gracefully become the boss of you, as you increasingly find creative ways to answer The Big Brain Question “Yes” for yourself and others. All your living systems will thank you as you do.

Image result for molecule of moreGreetings. It’s been awhile since I’ve put up an Enchanted Loom illustrated book review. This first one is a book we all know intimately without even having to read it. Daniel Lieberman’s and Michael Long’s collaboration on The Molecule of More is basically a deep dive into how one particular neurotransmitter more often than not, drives our daily lives in both healthy and unhealthy ways – mostly the latter. What to do about such matters. The authors offer a host of possibilities, none of them easy. They also suggest that what we collectively actually end up doing very likely leaves the human race hanging in the balance. As dramatic as I know that sounds, I think they are actually holding a reasonably plausible view.

This second Enchanted Loom review is for a book written by the young philosopher, Ryan Holiday. His assertion that … Stillness Is the Key may not make sense for many of us living immersed as we are in this digital age. It’s difficult for most of the people I know to simply carve out enough time for sleep, let alone time to be awake and do nothing but sit still. Image result for stillness is the keyAnd it will continue to be difficult until we actually find a way to make the time to experience stillness fully. And therein lies the rub. Without doing the work and encountering the benefits directly, it’s difficult to imagine that such an activity could be worth doing at all, especially since, it’s by no means easy to do in the first place. Nevertheless, Holiday makes some convincing arguments and presents some compelling anecdotal accounts that do indeed suggest the pursuit of stillness is a worthwhile activity – or more accurately, a worthwhile inactivity.

P.S. I have room in my calendar for two people who may be interested in doing a deep dive into The Neurobiology of Sacred Relationship with me. If one of them is you, feel free to email me at: FloweringBrain@gmail.com

Contrary to what some people may think “Explosive Percolation” has absolutely nothing to do with explosive diarrhea, although I can understand why some people might think the two connected. Both can contribute to a significant “phase” or “state change.” Pray for the former, as opposed to the latter.

Explosive Percolation describes a process by which viruses and complex networks can exponentially expand to rapidly take things viral, for good or bad. In any finite network, whether it’s the internet with all its hubs and connections, or it’s the molecules in a cup of coffee, connections don’t get made uniformly. They get made in small collectives that scatter throughout a medium. When enough small, connected collectives reach critical mass, all it takes is a few unique, strategic connections to accomplish a “phase change.” A common example: water into a solid – ice; or into a gas – steam.

Rich Clubs

Related imageOur brains are essentially finite networks. Neurons connect to other neurons which connect to organs and muscles, which connect wirelessly to other neural networks taking up residence in other people’s brains and bodies. You might conceive of humanity as one massively complex, finite neural network.

In each of our brains, large neuronal collectives have been assembled in twelve distinct areas, six in each hemisphere. These Grand Central Stations in the brain are called Rich Club Networks and they’ve been identified in the Superior Frontal and Parietal areas, the Putamen, the Precuneus, the Hippocampus and the Thalamus. Much more of the energy and information of our daily lives passes through these 12 areas than through any other parts of our brains. Since new connections are being generated, established and maintained in every waking moment of our lives, it stands to reason that some connections are going to be of higher energy-and-information-processing value than others – specifically connections made between Rich Club hubs.

Quality AND Quantity

It also stands to reason that the sensory experiences – including conceptual thinking – producing those connections – what we continually encounter and engage our eyes, ears nose, skin and mouth with in our everyday world – are going to incrementally impact both the number of connections, their location and the quality of the content – the learning they represent. Image result for impoverished neuronsAs one example, let’s say our day’s activities fill our neural networks with greed, aversion and ignorance. Those experiences are going to produce one kind of internal personal neural network. And with each daily addition, they’re very likely going to “bubble and boil” until they produce a state or phase change. Such explosive percolations of this sort show up every day as headlines in the weekly tabloids. Recent cover pronouncements from The Star, for example, loudly proclaim: “Lori Loughlin’s 5 Years in Jail,” “Mila Kunis, Divorcing and Wasting Away,” and “Justin Bieber on Suicide Watch.”

Compare the activities of the people activating those Star-fodder neural networks to people with networks spent in contemplative practice; days spent performing community service without a court requiring us to, or years spent studying the offerings of wisdom teachers through the ages. Anything and everything we do in the service of kindness, wisdom and grace matters and makes a difference, even if we can’t see it, don’t believe it, and don’t register it consciously. Networks are continually moving in the direction of percolation, and when the time is necessary and sufficient, explosive percolation can happen. It’s inherent in the nature of their creation. What kind of phase change might this kind of constant percolation produce, individually and collectively? I’ll leave that to perc-test in your own creative imagination’s neural networks.

For the few of  you who may not know, The Darwin Awards are a tongue-in-cheek honor that originated in Usenet newsgroup discussions around 1985. Begun by Stanford neurobiologist Wendy Northcutt, they recognize individuals who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool via death or sterilization as a result of their own actions.

Image result for darwin awardExamples of recent Darwin Award winners include the gentleman who thought it was a good idea to try and take a selfie together with a bear in the wild. Or this young man who accidentally shot off his own sausage at the meat counter in an Arizona Walmart. Or these two guys who thought it would be a fun challenge to race up a drawbridge while it was opening in their little Chevy hybrid to see if they could fly on over to the other side. They succeeded in flying over to the “other side,” just not the one they were aiming for. R.I.P.

From a neuroscience perspective, all of these young men were doing their best thinking and taking the best actions the connections in their neural networks would allow in each of those moments. They were all doing their “situational best.” The unfortunate result for each of them turned out to be an “Oh Shit” moment. I’ve had a number of such moments myself over my seven-plus decades. Fortunately, none of them won me a Darwin Award. The primary reason? I believe I learned early on how chronic stress can literally unravel brain wiring.

Situational Best

To do your “situational best” means you realize that your brain contains 86 billion neurons making a thousand trillion (one quadrillion) constantly changing connections. The fact that such complexity is even a little bit manageable is something truly marvelous. Take into account all the out-of-your-control factors—the missed appointment, your partner’s whims, the oppressive humidity—and respond the best you can. In other words, all any of us can do at any time in our lives is our situational best.

Image result for stress

Stress Can Impact Brain Wiring

To do your situational best is to deploy something neurobiologists call response flexibility or fluid intelligence. It often means realizing that when – in the immortal words of “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski – “new shit has come to light,” we have the wherewithal to change our thinking and acting in response to changing conditions. This is essentially an Executive Function. Not all of us have access to it all the time. Robust Executive Function results when lots of wiring from all around the brain somehow manages to congregate and connect together in the PFC (Prefrontal Cortex). Some of us never grow that wiring, which can be profoundly adversely impacted by elevated stress hormones. And some of us are simply delayed in its development (There are activities we can engage in that research suggests can positively impact prefrontal connectivity. Email me at FloweringBrain@gmail.com and ask for the PFC Paradox pdf and I’ll be happy to send it to you). 

Your situational best means doing, to the best of your abilities based on what each given moment presents, whatever your in-the-moment neurobiology will allow. Recognizing the limitations of our brain wiring means that all of us are doing our situational best at all times in every instant. The good news is that in any subsequent instant, our situational best can be even better than the moment before. 

When Our Situational Best Would Have Us Do Nothing

A number of years ago I wrote a blog about a chimney fire at my house a few days before Christmas. My immediate situational best upon discovering the blaze was to simply freeze. In the next moment, though, at the prompting of a Good Samaritan, my situational best became “get a hose, climb up on the roof and spray water on the flames.” That Samaritan’s prompting dynamically changed my brain wiring connectivity in an instant.

Which brings us to The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience: “a more organized brain can help organize a less organized brain.” A corollary of the Golden Rule is that “all of us have the potential to be better and smarter than any one of us.” And any one of us can help any other one of us from ending up an unintended Darwin Award winner. Do your situational best! (As if we can do anything but).

Brain-Befriending Death

“Love and death are two great gifts in life. Mostly they are passed on unopened.”  ~ Rilke

If you ask 100 people on the street if they’re afraid of death, a great many will directly answer “No.” You might think there are no thanatophobes living among us. And yet, Terror Management Theory researchers know that, whether we consciously admit it or not, our brains and bodies wildly fear death and consistently do everything in our power to turn away from it.

In their book, The WImage result for new twin towersorm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski write, “Over the course of human history, the terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics and science. It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in New York.”

To protect us from the reality that our embodied time here on earth is finite – we all come with an expiration date – Terror Management Theory’s Stephen Cave, a Cambridge metaphysicist, has identified the four edited “immortality stories” below that we regularly tell ourselves and act out in our lives to help our brains and bodies keep our stress hormone levels at least a little bit manageable.

The Elixir Story 

The Elixir Story is the simplest. We want to avoid death, and the dream of doing that in this body in this world forever is the first and simplest kind of immortality story. It might sound implausible, but actually, almost every culture in human history has had some myth or legend of an elixir of life or a fountain of youth – something that promises to keep us going forever. Image result for magic elixirThroughout European history, we find them in the work of the alchemists, and of course we still believe this today, only we tell this story using the vocabulary of science. So 100 years ago, hormones had just been discovered, and people hoped that hormone treatments were going to cure aging and disease, and now instead we set our hopes on stem cells, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. But the idea that science can cure death is just one more chapter in the story of the magical elixir, a story that is as old as civilization. Betting everything on the idea of finding the elixir and staying alive forever is a risky strategy. When we look back through history at all those who have sought an elixir in the past, the one thing they now have in common is that they’re all dead. Listen up, Ray Kurzweil and your merry band of Transhumanists.

The Resurrection Story 

The Resurrection Story stays with the idea that I am this body, I am this physical organism. It accepts that I’m going to have to die but says, despite that, I can rise up and I can live again. In other words, I can do what Jesus did. Jesus died, he was three days dead, and then he rose up and lived again. And the idea that we can all be resurrected to live again is an orthodox belief, not just for Christians but also Jews and Muslims. But our desire to believe this story is so deeply embedded that we are reinventing it again for the scientific age, for example, with cryonics. That’s the idea that when you die, you can have yourself frozen, and then, at some point when technology has advanced enough, you can be thawed out and repaired and revived and so resurrected. And so some people believe an omnipotent god will resurrect them to live again, and other people believe an omnipotent scientist will do it.

Soul Immortality Story

The Soul or Spiritual Immortality Story embraces the idea that we can leave our body behind and live on as a soul. Image result for eternal soulNow, the majority of people on Earth believe they have a soul, and the idea is central to many religions. But even though, in its current form, in its traditional form, the idea of the soul is still hugely popular, nonetheless we are again reinventing it for the digital age, for example with the idea that you can leave your body behind by uploading your mind, your essence, the real you, onto a computer, and so live on as an avatar in the ether. Be prepared to accessorize around the color blue.

The Legacy Story

Related imageThe last immortality story is The Legacy Story, the idea that you can live on through the echo you leave in the world, like the great Greek warrior Achilles, who sacrificed his life fighting at Troy so that he might win immortal fame. And the pursuit of fame is as widespread and popular now as it ever was, and in our digital age, it’s even easier to achieve. You don’t need to be a great warrior like Achilles or a great king or hero. All you need is an Internet connection and a funny cat. But some people prefer to leave a more tangible, biological legacy — children, for example. Or they like, they hope, to live on as part of some greater whole, a nation or a family or a tribe, their gene pool. But again, there are skeptics who doubt whether legacy really is immortality. Woody Allen, for example, who said, “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.”

Implicit in each of these stories live our brains, bodies and minds. I’m currently putting together an online presentation that weaves my own learning over 50 years of death studies and teaching, together with my last 15 years of neuroscience study. The intention of the presentation is to help us make friends with death (or at least help us find ways to manage our neurophys- iology) and be able to perhaps turn a little bit toward the reality of our eventual transition. If you’re at all interested email: giftsofloveanddeath@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to notify you when the presentation is ready to explore together.

 

1. Get the sleep your body needs.

Sleep needs are different for each of us. I once heard the wisdom teacher, J. Krishnamurti proclaim that he needed no sleep whatsoever (if he wasn’t lying, I assumed that he somehow learned to process while awake what most of us need sleep to process and integrate). Timing, length and quality of sleep all influence cortisol levels. Image result for garbage collectionInsomnia causes high cortisol levels for up to 24 hours. Interruptions to sleep, even if brief, can also increase your levels and disrupt daily hormone patterns. During sleep is when the brain takes out the neurotrash. We literally get brainwashed. Lack of sufficient sleep is similar to an extended garbage strike in Chicago, San Francisco or New York. You wouldn’t want to live there for very long.

7. Learn About Adrenal Function

A Impoverished Neurons

Stress Withers Brain Cells

The adrenal glands secrete varying amounts of stress hormones all through the day. Intense exercise, for example, increases cortisol secretion. During sleep secretion decreases. Increased secretion during the day helps coordinate body function to meet life challenges. 

Problems begin when daily stress becomes elevated and chronic with few opportunities for cortisol and other stress hormones to become fully metabolized. Over time, elevated levels of stress hormones can become neurotoxins and compromise brain function. And compromised brain function can then adversely impact immune function and compromise our health and well-being.

8. Cultivate Healthy Relationships

Friends and family are a source of great happiness in life, as well as great stress. These dynamics are played out in our cortisol levels. Cortisol is incorporated in tiny amounts into your hair. The amounts of cortisol along the length of a hair even correspond to cortisol levels at the time that part of the hair was growing. This allows researchers to estimate stress levels over time. Studies of cortisol in hair show that children with a stable and warm family life have lower levels than children from homes with high levels of conflict.

Within couples, conflict results in a short-term elevation in cortisol, followed by return to normal levels. A study of conflict styles in 88 couples found nonjudgmental mindfulness or empathy led to a more rapid return of cortisol to normal levels following an argument.

9. Care for a pet.

Relationships with animal companions can also reduce stress hormones. In one study, interactions with a therapy dog reduced distress and resulting cortisol changes during a minor medical procedure in children.

Another study of 48 adults showed that contact with a dog was better than support from a friend during a socially stressful situation.

A third study tested the cortisol-reducing effect of canine companionship in pet owners compared to non-pet-owners. Non-pet-owners experienced a greater drop in cortisol when they were given canine companions, likely because pet owners had already benefited from the friendship of their animals at the beginning of the study. Interestingly, pets experience similar benefits following positive interactions, suggesting animal companionship is mutually beneficial.

10. Recognize and replace stressful thinking.

State drives story. Stressful thoughts are an important signal for cortisol release.

A study of 122 adults found that writing about past stressful experiences increased cortisol over one month compared to writing about positive life experiences or plans for the day.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a strategy that involves becoming more self-aware of stress-provoking thoughts and replacing worrying or anxiety with a focus on acknowledging and understanding stressful thoughts and emotions. One caveat: be sure your MBSR instructor is trauma-informed. Training yourself to be aware of your thoughts, breathing, heart rate and other signs of tension helps you recognize stress when it begins.

By focusing on awareness of your mental and physical state, you can become an objective observer of your stressful thoughts, instead of a victim of them. Recognizing stressful thoughts allows you to formulate a conscious and deliberate reaction to them. A study of 43 women in a mindfulness-based program showed the ability to describe and articulate stress was linked to a lower cortisol response.

11. Spend time with a spiritual community.

If you consider yourself spiritual, developing your faith can also help improve cortisol. Studies show that adults who expressed spiritual faith experienced lower cortisol levels in the face of life stressors such as illness. This was true even after studies took into account the potential cortisol-lowering effects of social support from faith-based groups. Prayer is also associated with reduced anxiety and depression.

12. Practice Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is a way of reading that few of us were ever taught to do in school. Translated from the Latin, it means: divine reading. Historically, it refers to a way of reading religious scripture or other wisdom teachings. It’s also how many people learn to read poetry. Lectio Divina is not about acquiring information or learning what experts have to say. In the words of Cynthia Bourgeault, “Lectio Divina is about allowing the text to break open and resonate in the authority of your own heart.” I currently have two books I’m in my fifth and seventh readings of in this manner. Email me and ask and I’ll tell you what books they are.