Feeds:
Posts
Comments

My friend Kathleen died last month just in the nick of time. It came as a complete surprise to me. She and I taught together in one of the very first MOOCs before MOOCs were a thing. It was 1998 and Barnes & Noble was experimenting with a new way to sell books online. They would pay authors an honorarium to teach using computer mediated communication. The course would be free to students who bought the required textbook. In this case, the book was Kathleen’s, The Grace in Dying.

Kathleen-Dowling-Singh-1

Dr. Kathleen Dowling Singh

I had hand-written Kathleen a note in care of HarperSanFrancisco, her publisher. I told her of my avid interest and deep appreciation of her work. She was gracious enough to respond. We developed a corre-spondence and I ended up meeting with her at a course she was teaching at IONS to support the book. I chauffeured her to SFO and en route she extended me the invitation to co-teach with her and split the honorarium. Graciously. Kathleen was all about grace. In many ways she felt like the wise, big sister I lost when I was nine years old.

Fittingly, Kathleen died last month just two days before the publication of her last and latest book, Unbinding: The Grace Beyond Self. Clearly her work here on earth was complete.

An Uncommon Commoner

Among a number of things we shared in common, Kathleen and I were both born and raised in New England. We had a Yankee sensibility rooted in economy, practicality and simplicity. I tried and failed to transplant myself with those qualities to California; Kathleen successfully transplanted her expression of them to Sarasota, Florida, where for many years she was an active member of a small Buddhist sangha. That membership informs all four of her “Grace” books.

Something else that informs Kathleen’s Grace books is the notion that a spiritual life requires us to do the work necessary to cultivate space in our daily lives – physical, psychological and spiritual. Space requires pruning and forsaking – an unsubscribing from so many of the “half-loves” that clutter our lives. Unsubscribing is necessary to allow for something other than our ongoing self-concerns and daily incessant dialogue to dominate the inner landscape. Unsubscribing might then allow for something else to emerge. Kathleen repeatedly refers to it as Grace.

While I’ve read and reread and made extensive notes in each of Kathleen’s books, and even reviewed a previous one for The Enchanted Loom, it’s only been recently that I’ve deepened my appreciation and experiential understanding of what Kathleen was truly pointing toward. Reading Kathleen’s books awakens and stirs the possibility of Grace in me. The direct experience of Grace though, is considerably different than the experience of reading about it in her books. Kathleen knew that and said as much in our exchanges many times. Grace, like many expressions of depth and wisdom, seems to require ongoing daily practice. Or perhaps more accurately, ongoing daily course-correction keeping us aimed at Grace.

Gapping the Narrative

Many contemplative traditions and practices seem to have built into them an invitation to strengthen our capacity to attend to our discursive (rambling) thought processes. One reason for that seems to be that mental mind chatter removes us from direct, present-moment experience of the world around us. We miss much sensory life happening right in front of us. Words overlay our senses. Many contemplative practices train us to bring attention to something other than words – our breath, a candle flame, senseless syllables. Much of it is designed to hew a gap in the narrative, to carve out space in the mind that words don’t immediately rush in to fill.

stroke.jpgIt turns out there’s a quick way to shortcut practices intended to quiet the mind and gap the narrative – have an artery rupture in your brain and produce a golf ball size blood clot that puts sufficient pressure on your language networks to cause them to cease functioning. That’s essentially what happened to brain researcher, Jill Bolte Taylor.

While the many different elements that resulted in her recovery are enormously interesting and instructive and well worth studying in depth, what’s even more interesting to me is Jill’s description of how she experienced the world without language interfering. Here is a short paragraph describing only a small part of Jill’s language-gapped experience:

My mind was no longer preoccupied with the billions of details that my brain routinely used to define and conduct my life in the external world …. Those little voices, that brain chatter that customarily kept me abreast of myself in relation to the world outside of me, were delightfully silent. And in their absence, my memories of the past and my dreams of the future evaporated…. I was aware that I could no longer clearly discern where I began and where I ended. I sensed the composition of my being as that of a fluid rather than that of a solid. I no longer perceived myself as a whole object separate from everything. Instead, I now blended with the space and flow around me.

My friend Kathleen would call Jill’s stroke … Grace. And I like to think that’s very likely how she experienced her own dying as well.

Advertisements

I published my very first WordPress blog on October 27, 2007. The title was: “The Brain Change Business.” I essentially made the argument that since everything we learn in life involves changes to our brain, we might be well-served to meta-learn a little bit about how that organ actually works. I’ve changed my own brain and learned a lot in the ensuing 10 years. Since that first Sunday, I’ve managed to put out a new effort every single week to date. Except for a few times when friends approached me with great ideas and offered to write – photodune-5195365-serenity-xs.jpgJeanne Denney wrote on Circumcision and The Ritual Tribal Abandonment of Mothers, and a good male psychotherapist friend wrote on The Dark Side of Highly Sensitive People under the female pen name Sally Mynew- skin – I have researched, written, edited and illustrated every single Sunday offering. I never dreamed when I started that ten years later I would still be keeping that weekly writing commitment.

The Components of Commitment

Here are a few things I can tell you about what it’s taken to keep that 10 year string going:

1. Engaged readers. Having people out in the world receiving and responding positively (for the most part) to the things I’ve researched and written about every week has been a prime motivator for the duration. Contingent communication makes the world go around and the public and private responses I’ve received week after week have been great fruit for the creative juicer.

2. Passion for the subject I’m researching and writing about. Without ever consciously intending to, I have turned into a brain geek. I used to be a jock and a construction dude. Now I’m a … transpersonal neurobiologist.

3. Having the subject frequently on my mind … and using it to frame many of the odd, interesting or disturbing things that I encounter week to week.

4. Having Google, Wikipedia, Pubmed, various journals and the wider Internet available to do ready research. If I had to go to a library and ask the librarian to find me books, journals or research articles every week to support and inspire the subjects I’ve written about, the only way these weekly pieces would have gotten written would have been as part of a paying job.

planet-earth-space-sun-light-life5. Having a larger purpose in mind. I truly believe that knowing how my brain works makes it work better. I even wrote this column offering 10 reasons why I believe that. I also believe knowing how my brain works allows me to be not only more understanding and compassionate with others, but much more importantly, with myself first. Being that way with myself first, then allows me to more easily be kind to others. It’s been especially important as I’ve found myself aging and have had to come face to face with the reality of declining physical, mental and neurobiological capacities.

6. Forsaking half-love after half-love in order to make the research and writing a priority. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t find myself drawn to one alluring distraction after another: an invitation to lunch with a good friend; a movie matinee in town at our ’50s retro movie house to see a movie high on my watch list; a well-paid job offer that would put me on a regular, structured daily schedule (ugh); a weekend workshop with a neuroscience thought-leader that I greatly respect, etc. etc. To all of them I have to frequently say “No” as part of my daily One Hard Thing Practice.

7. Developing a One Hard Thing Practice. One Hard Thing is different than One Scary Thing. One Scary Thing would too frequently activate my stress hormones and be likely to adversely elevate their baseline levels. One Hard Thing is simply something that I’ve been procrastinating about doing or been simply tolerating in my life. For example, culling clothes from my clothes closet and donating them to Good Cheer. Or adding an extra day of cardio to my week. Or, instead of avoiding the prospect of having to write yet another blog post, simply sitting down and writing a single sentence. And then one more.

8. Having a day job to pay the bills.

Those eight elements are good for starters. Especially the last one. I’m sure you will find many more you’ll need to identify and practice for things you want to make and commit to long-term. But ten years now brings me to a crossroads. It is sort of like “The Crossroads Between Should and Must.” What has emerged into awareness in recent weeks is that what originally began as a “must” – writing and posting every Sunday without fail – has now, at this decade-late date, turned into a “should.” I’m no longer feeling what I write has the meaning I want it to. In part that’s because of the “deadline” element attached to it. I don’t have time to research as deeply as I’d like to, or write and edit with as much compelling clarity as I feel I really can.

Change Is a Foot

4fc144aeb8e419023dce801754c3ae72.jpgSo, here’s what I’ve decided to do. Going forward, I’m only going to research and write about things that have “great heart and meaning” for me; subjects that I feel “whole-hearted” about. What that means is I may continue to post something every week, or – which is much more likely – I may end up taking breaks between pieces as I burrow deeply into a subject and do my best to connect dots that require me to pull from a wide variety of subject disciplines. So, “that’s my ruling.” Going forward, I hope and trust it will serve me and each of you in ways that continue to enhance your life.

A Favor

Finally, if there’s been a post or two that you have found memorable and meaningful over the last 10 years, would you be so kind as to mention it in the comments below? Here’s a list of the ten years of topic titles. You can also enter Keywords in the search box on the right to find the actual title of the original posting. I will be most appreciative and forever in your debt.

As someone who has been painstaking in my desire to avoid labels and category classifications, since I believe they contribute to “the illusion of separation,” for professional reasons I have nevertheless decided to temporarily relent and come up with something to call myself. The moniker I have finally settled upon is: transpersonal neurobiologist. Turns out I’m the only such creature currently on planet earth. Do a Google search (You’ll have to disregard my colleague Jamal Granick if your search turns him up. When I contacted Jamal about the label, he had no idea he was one).

So what is a Transpersonal Neurobiologist? Very simply it’s someone who studies both Transpersonal Psychology and Neurobiology and tries to weave them together into some sort of coherent, meaningful, useful body of knowledge.

Transpersonal Psychology

Transpersonal Psychology, while first introduced in the early 1900s in a lecture by William James at Harvard, evolved mostly in the late 1960s as a natural progression of the research findings of Abraham Maslow, who was primarily interested in peak human experiences. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the field:

tumblr_m0v0012byM1qap9uuo1_500.gifTranspersonal psychology is a sub-field or “school” of psychology that integrates the spiritual and transcendent aspects of the human experience with the framework of modern psychology. It is also possible to define it as a “spiritual psychology.” The transpersonal is defined as “experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos.” It has also been defined as “development beyond conventional, personal or individual levels.”

Issues considered by transpersonal psychology include spiritual self-development, self beyond the ego, peak experiences, mystical experiences, systemic trance, spiritual crises, spiritual evolution, religious conversion, altered states of consciousness, spiritual practices, and other sublime and/or unusually expanded experiences of living (It also investigates aspects of dying and death). The discipline attempts to describe and integrate spiritual experience within modern psychological theory and to formulate new theory to encompass such experience.

Neurobiology

Neurobiology, on the other hand, is a pretty mainstream, rigorous science. Here’s how MIT scientists thinks about it:

neurobiology.jpgNeurobiology is geared towards understanding how the remarkable diversity in neuronal cell types and their connections are established and how changes in neurons and their connections underlie learning and thinking. A number of groups are identifying and characterizing genes involved in specifying neuronal cell fate in vertebrates and invertebrates. Others are analyzing molecules involved in guiding axons to their correct targets. Additionally, efforts are underway to understand the physiological and biochemical changes in neurons that are involved in learning and memory, and the changes underlying neuropathology.

When I put the two together, what I find myself most interested in is how structural and developmental vulnerabilities of the human body and brain operate in ways that prevent us from attaining our highest human potential. It’s kind of like left brain and right brain attempting to weave both study categories into some sort of a coherent whole. Out of this attempt will hopefully come insight into how the structural vulnerabilities of the body and brain end up contributing to much of the pain, suffering and chaos in the world. Few of us appear to be as fully “operational” as we might be and a transpersonal neurobiologist would argue that it’s not our fault – we’re not to blame. But we’re still on the hook for doing what we can to make things better for ourselves and everyone else. It’s called being an imperfect human being in an imperfect world. And it’s good to try and do our own work with as much kindness, understanding and compassion as we can muster.

Next time you hear the terms transpersonal neurobiologist think, “Oh, that’s someone who studies how structural and developmental vulnerabilities of the body and brain contribute to human suffering. And then tries to do something positive to address them.”

In that positive regard, here’s a new Enchanted Loom review of the recent book on creativity entitled, The Runaway Species. What to do when you find out we are one.

A number of years ago I read a research account by Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia investigating reincarnation. An esteemed psychiatrist and academic department chair, his explorations felt to me to be of the same caliber of courageous inquiry as those of University of Connecticut psychiatrist Raymond Moody. Moody collected and published the accounts of people who reportedly died and came back to life in his book, Life After Life. Not exactly the rigorous research favored to further a scientific career. Stevenson investigated and published more than 3000 children’s anecdotal accounts documenting details of lives purportedly lived in other times and other places. Some of the accounts are quite inexplicable and surprisingly compelling.

Mosaic_of_Justinian_I_-_Sant'Apoilinare_Nuovo_-_Ravenna_2016.pngFrequently, past lives show up as part of a religious tradition. Pre-Justinian Catholics apparently believed in reincarnation, and in the Quran, Allah says, “Everyone shall taste death. Then unto us you shall be returned.”(al-‘Ankaboot 29:57). Hinduism and Buddhism both put forth doctrines related to reincarnation, but Buddhism makes a more refined distinction in using the term rebirth. Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, is said to be the 14th successive reincarnation of a single spiritual leader in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition.

Brain-based Evidence

Neuroscience esearchers like Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin and Andrew Newberg at Penn have scanned the brains of dozens of people who have dedicated large parts of their lives to meditative practice, in this case, people involved in spiritual traditions. On fMRI brain scans, Buddhist monks’ and Franciscan nuns’ brains show up remarkably different than people with no history of such practice. Long-term meditators have increased amounts of neurons in the insula and the auditory and sensory cortices. They also have more neurons in the frontal cortex, which is critical to working memory and executive functions. Other areas as well show up differently. Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar documents these additional neuronal differences as well:

  • The primary differences, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self-relevance.
  • The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
  • The temporo-parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
  • An area of the brain stem called the pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
  • The amygdala, the fight-or-flight part of the brain, which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.
  • The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.

It’s All About the Network

If we think of the brain as essentially an energy and information-processing network, then the more nodes and connections between nodes there are in that network, the more energy and information that network will not only be able to generate and process, but also store and retain. Think of the brain’s network as a 3G smartphone with 16 gigabytes of memory subsequently upgraded to 5G with 64 gigabytes as the result of longtime meditation practice.

In a lovely Eulogy by a Physicist, Aaron Freeman uses The First Law of Thermodynamics to remind us that matter and energy are constants in the universe. The heat of who we are and the energy of who we are has nowhere to escape to after the body can no longer sustain it. Our heat and energy goes off into the universe where it becomes “just less orderly.”

Unless it doesn’t. Unless, the growth, connectivity and integration that turns our 3G-16 Gig energy and information-processing brain and body into a 5G-64 Gig energy and information-processing brain and body, somehow manages to keep significant portions of its liberated elements coherently connected. Possible? Possibly.

Featured-LifeReview.jpg

There’s an interesting teaching in Tibetan Buddhism called The Six Yogas of Naropa. They speak about what happens to our animating energy after the body can no longer sustain it …

The dying process culminates in the appearance of the radiant mind of clear light. For those individuals who had gained mastery of the bardo yogas in their lifetimes, the true nature of this fundamental radiance is immediately recognized, as the Tibetans say, like a child being returned to its mother’s lap. At that very moment of recognition, the dying practitioner is liberated from the cycle of birth and death. In most ordinary cases, however, the dying individual is generally unfamiliar with the mind of clear light, and is thus unable to recognize it. Consequently, he or she is propelled with little or no control into the bardo state of becoming, which leads eventually to rebirth in a new existence.

Might that “general unfamiliarity” be mitigated by extensive meditation practice or other integrative practices that transforms the nature of our living network’s energy and information-processing capacity? Might such transformation then allow for the simple recollection of having taken up residence in a former body at a previous time? It might be much like our ability to recall significant, memorable personal experiences in this body/brain’s lifetime. If the networks are compromised by dissociation, repression and denial circuitry keeping things under wraps, then we simply have little or no memory of such earlier experiences. But what happens if all those compromised networks are fully activated and radically integrated? What happens if “network optimization” results? Might we then have (re)built the capacity for recalling previous incarnations in subsequent births?

Here’s a recent podcast interview I really resonated with: Pain+Reflection = Growth. You’re going to have to actually click on the link to find out who’s interviewing and who’s being interviewed. Beyond pain and growth, however, there was a very compelling discussion about operating organizations as Idea Meritocracies.

First though, let’s get clear about what an Idea Meritocracy actually is. Here’s the formal definition:

An Idea Meritocracy is a decision-making system where the best ideas win out. To have a real Idea Meritocracy, people need to do three things:

1) Put their honest thoughts on the table for everyone to see;

Increase-innovativeness-By-shaping-managerial-perceptions-of-their-environments_knowledge_standard2) Have thoughtful disagree- ments in which there are reasonable back-and-forths in which people evolve their thinking to come up with better decisions than they could come up with individually; and

3) If disagreements remain, have agreed upon protocols that get people past them in idea-meritocratic ways.

While an Idea Meritocracy doesn’t have to operate exactly in any particular way, it does have to by and large follow those three steps.

The notion of an Idea Meritocracy sounds lovely and wonderful in principle, and has apparently worked well for some successful organizations in the world. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what might be going on in the underbrush?

Living into the Questions

I’d love for my brain and body to be able to operate within an Idea Meritocracy. But I have a lot of questions and concerns first. Like, what happens when people constantly dismiss or ignore my ordinary ideas and then my best ideas? What if it doesn’t feel safe to put my honest thoughts on the table because I have a history of being abused for telling truth to power? What happens if your “reasonable-back-and-forths” seems completely unreasonable to me? How does the tone of voice such ideas get communicated with distort my ability to accurately hear meritorious ideas? How does my trauma history also distort such ideas? In short, how does an Idea Meritocracy operate to regulate our own and other people’s adrenal glands and the 99% of the world our senses take in unconsciously?

Overriding Impulses

One thing neuroscience makes clear is that acute or chronic levels of stress hormones prevent us from doing our best thinking. They literally inhibit the prefrontal parts of the brain needed for complex thinking. We can’t do our best creative thinking when our livelihood might be hanging in the balance, or when a hurricane might be hurling palm trees past our office windows. Neuroception requires that our environment feel safe.

firefighter.jpgI recall once volunteering at a workshop for firefighters to do a posture demonstration. The leader instructed me to “plant your knees firmly.” Momentarily confused, I simply bent my knees, since the more common phrase is “plant your feet firmly.” “Stand with your knees straight,” the instructor corrected. Off to my right however, I heard one firefighter whisper to another, “And he has a PhD!”

That workshop environment immediately became unsafe.

No Idea Meritocracy would successfully flourish there. Not only because of the disrespectful whispers, but because there were no protocols in place for recognizing and addressing such behaviors, bringing them out into the open without shame or blame, and working them through to satisfactory resolution and integration. I’m sure the firefighter who whispered did so completely ignorant of the unsafe dynamic he was partly responsible for creating. I could have confronted the offender, but without an organizational structure and understanding that we have all agreed to address behaviors that undermine safety in the workplace, together with the leadership necessary to insure it happens, it is unlikely that doing so would have led to a healthy outcome.

Inside Job

Recognizing these kinds of organizational limitations, I am finally left to do my best to cultivate an Idea Meritocracy inside my own body, mind and brain. I can put my honest thoughts on the table by telling the truth – speaking to what disturbs me – to myself: “That snide comment was uncool. It hurt my feelings. I took a risk to volunteer and got ambushed as a result. I’ll be steering clear of that firefighter in the future.”

I can also challenge my disturbed reaction: “That really wasn’t a comment about me. It was an unskillful expression of his own lack of self-confidence and likely limited education. As a firefighter, he most likely has a good heart when he’s not feeling the need to attack other people out of his own insecurities.”

Finally, if I encounter that person elsewhere, under different circumstances, we might have a constructive conversation that could lead to apology, repair and a close connection. Ideally. In a world increasingly filled with working Idea Meritocracies.

Until then, how about an Enchanted Loom on The Neurobiology of Fair Play. Seems appropriate enough, doesn’t it?

Possibly. The CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase thinks so. I’ll tell you more about his perspective in just a bit.

I’ve been struggling the last few years, trying to wrap my brain around what Bitcoins actually are. For years now, all I’ve known is that they are alternative money, a “crypto-currency,” whatever that is. That, and the fact that wild swings in value periodically flash as news headlines across my computer screen (one Bitcoin has gone from being worth $4969 at the end of August to $3923 as I write this first draft. But one “coin” is projected to be worth $25,000! in five years. Or zero, if you believe James Mackintosh at the Wall Street Journal. Which makes it seem like a pretty unstable, unpredictable currency, crypto or otherwise).

Here’s what Wikipedia says Bitcoin is:

Bitcoin.jpgBitcoin is a worldwide crypto-currency and digital payment system called the first decentralized digital currency, since the system works without a central repository or single administrator. It was invented by an unknown programmer, or a group of programmers, under the name Satoshi Nakamoto and released as open-source software in 2009. The system is peer-to-peer, and transactions take place between users directly, without an intermediary. These transactions are verified by network nodes and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain.

Besides being created as a reward for mining, Bitcoin can be exchanged for other currencies, products, and services. As of February 2015, over 100,000 merchants and vendors accepted Bitcoin as payment. Bitcoin can also be held as an investment.

I’m not so sure crypto-currencies are going to end up being the blessing Nakamoto intended them to be. All inventions and interventions have unintended consequences. Look what smartphones are doing to our collective prefrontal cortices. As you might guess, it’s not good.

Public Money vs. Private Government

One challenge with Bitcoins is that governments don’t necessarily like to be disrupted out of the money game. And they have the power and resources to do something to and about people who try to edge them out. Take China, for example. They recently decided to shutdown all trading and exchanges in Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. That took a big bite out of the value of your Bitcoins overnight, and it didn’t matter whether you were Chinese, Japanese or Congolese. Large overnight devaluations of the money in your crypto-wallet are not good for the brain. Nor are extended wifi or electrical outages. There are many places on South Whidbey where we have no cell phone service, thus we would have no ability to exchange Bitcoins. And in the winter, power has been out for more than a week sometimes. You need the internet and the power grid working to exchange Bitcoins. Except as collector’s items, there are no real Bitcoins to exchange.

The brain and body experience such outages and loss of power as neuroceptive threats and raise our baseline stress levels. Raise them even more because we have no access to Bitcoins and stress levels will be elevated even more. Raised baseline stress levels generate enzymes like MMP-9 that degrades neural connections by severing adherence proteins that keep the network together. Rarely good to lose important connections on any level. When money’s involved, even less good.

Don’t Chop Down My Merkle Tree

merkel_tree_bitcoin_l

Merkle Tree

Bitcoin sits on a computer platform called a blockchain. Blockchains simply structure data as an ordered, linked list of transactions. The blockchain is often visualized as a vertical stack, with blocks sitting on top of each other. At some point the blocks branch off. As more and more stacks of data blocks branch off, they become a tree, like neural network assemblies in the brain. A summary of the data contained in each block in all those branches is called a Merkle Tree. Merkle Trees can never be “chopped down” because they are part of a distributed network. The complete data set is stored in various places all across the whole network. Who would ever chop down a Merkle Tree? Hackers is who. The people who stole all your Equifax data. And where there’s a will, there’s a way.

At some point in time (2140), bitcoins are scheduled to cease being “mined, minted or printed.” That’s a fascinating prospect. Will they even be in use in 2140? It’s a coin toss. While bitcoins might eventually end up in the dustbin of history, I seriously doubt that blockchain technology will.

Currencies are basically stores of value or measures of exchange. We need them to keep economies working. As a useful means of exchange, here’s a four-minute, day-in-the-life account by a reporter who tried to live on Bitcoins for 24 hours. It took a Herculean effort, but he did manage to make it through the day. Based on his experience, I don’t need the hassle or the stress. That may change, as Bitcoin becomes more stable and more familiar – new technologies necessarily take time to achieve widespread adoption – but it’s probably not a new tech quite yet ready for prime time. At least for my brain.

Not There for Me

Why? Because my biggest concern about Bitcoin right now is that it will turn into a “bit-con” and end up answering The Big Brain Question with a loud and profound, “No.” Which is essentially what J. P. Morgan’s CEO, Jamie Dimon thinks, not once, but twice: “One of the central selling points of crypto-currencies is negated when someone creates a brand new Bitcoin knock-off. That makes it so a coin’s creator can own the most with little effort, while everyone else scrambles for a decreasing slice of what’s left — a classic attribute of a pyramid scheme.”

In case you weren’t sure, pyramid schemes are the exact antithesis of a “Yes” answer to The Big Brain Question. And they’re particularly damaging because they exploit one of our brain’s most structural vulnerabilities: the need to be genuinely, authentically and heartfeltedly supported and cared for. Don’t count on Bitcoins to keep you warm on a cold winter night.

 

 

In his book Destructive Emotions, Daniel Goleman reports the existence of – get this – 34,000 emotions of various shadings and subtleties. I believe many of the afflictive varieties come into existence as a consequence of the movement of stress and threat-detection glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids and other substances secreted by the adrenal glands. The main reason I believe this is through direct experience, and of course, a little bit of evidence-based research. Those adrenal secretions often dictate how much energy and information the network assemblies in my brain can fully process at any one time. In my own case – under significant stress – it’s not very much.

Unless I train and practice; unless I learn to recognize and identify many of the shades and subtleties of my emotional life – a language spoken by every sentient being on planet earth, even trees and roses. It’s a language we would all do well to become profoundly conversant with. UK neuroscientist Susan Greenfield considers emotions to be “the most basic form of consciousness.”

Practice Makes Pluperfect

If I were to make two simple suggestions for where to begin improving every area of my life, first obviously would be to learn the language of emotion. Unfortunately, there’s no App for that. We have to interact with real people and pay attention to them and ourselves and attentively monitor how we feel. Here is a list to start with that places emotions into three categories: soft, moody and intense. See if you can begin to imagine what and where you might primarily feel them in your brain and body. Not easy, right? Feelings truly are a foreign language for many of us. But imagine if we had been deliberately trained in this language from before birth? Imagine how intense and rich our lives would be as a consequence of being able to deeply feel and experience so much more of the world around us than the less-than-one-percent most of us currently only experience.

AdrenalThe second suggestion would be to become a master at AMP … Adrenal Management Practice. Or as my daughter once explained to me, “You can’t let your adrenal glands make you their bitch!”

If you’re like me, I rarely have any idea how high or low the levels of stress hormones are in my body during any part of any day. Unless something is really surprising or overtly threatening, my awareness of stress hormone levels is either high or “off” (In actuality, they’re never truly fully off until we’re dead).

The Central Challenge

Of course, in the pursuit of learning the language of emotions and practicing skillful adrenal management, we will necessarily come face to face with yet another structural vulnerability of the brain. The brain loves pleasure and hates pain. If Patrick Henry were alive today, he might well have declared, “Give me a DOSE or give me death!” DOSE, in this instance refers to Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins. But the constant pursuit of pleasure those secretions produce and the determined avoidance of pain results in many of us becoming seriously out of balance, since many of those 34,000 emotional states operate on the painful side of the feeling ledger. And when we’re out of emotional balance, we’re untrustworthy. What to do?

Hurricane House.jpgThe answer: titration. Little steps for little feet. Little openings into Big Heart. An occasional toe-dip into the world of suffering, pain and loss. For example, we might watch short news clips of people having to move to temporary shelters after Hurricane Maria has blown their house to bits. We might wonder what it would feel like to be them. We might read a Huffington Post or NY Times account of people burdened with unexpected tragedy or loss and see if we can connect with empathic states inside ourselves that might emerge if we were in similar difficulties. We don’t have to spend large amounts of time in such states, just brief intentional excursions in the service of expanding our emotional “vocabulary.”

Retreat to the Street

Buddhist Teacher and Zen Peacemaker, Bernie Glassman invites his students to do Street Retreats where “trained leaders support you in living on the streets for one, two or more days and nights, experiencing first-hand interdependence through practicing Not-Knowing, Bearing Witness and Taking Action. While having nothing, you will witness the bounty that is available and the unexpected ways it appears. Always with your group, you will meditate together, share in council, go on begging rounds, walk across town, checking in at a local soup kitchen etc.” As someone who has lived on the streets at different times in my life, if you take up a similar exploration for yourself, I have little doubt you are sure to come away with considerably expanded emotional bandwidth – a deep, rich, colorful, new emotional life awareness. But also, some real pain.

Finally, this blog wouldn’t be complete without a relevant Enchanted Loom. Here it is – Susan Greenfield’s, A Day in the Life of the Brain.

*I was kidding about no App for that. Here’s one now: Universe of Emotions.