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.


There’s a well-traveled teaching story that many of you have heard, I’m sure. It goes like this:

A storm descends on a small town, and the downpour soon turns into a flood. As the waters rise, the local preacher kneels in prayer on the church porch, surrounded by water. By and by, one of the townsfolk comes up the street in a canoe.

“Better get in, preacher. The water’s rising fast.”Image result for rising flood waters

“No,” says the preacher. “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.”

Still the waters rise. Now the preacher is up on the balcony, wringing his hands in supplication, when another guy zips up in a motorboat.

“Come on, preacher. We need to get you out of here. The levee’s gonna break any minute.”

Once again, the preacher is unmoved. “I shall remain. The Lord will see me through.”

After a while the levee breaks, and the flood rushes over the church until only the steeple remains above water. The preacher is up there, clinging to the cross, when a helicopter descends out of the clouds, and a rescue worker calls down to him through a megaphone.

“Grab the ladder, preacher. This is your last chance.”

Once again, the preacher insists the Lord will deliver him.

And, predictably, the waters continue to rise and he drowns.

A pious man, the preacher goes to heaven. After a while he gets an interview with God, and he asks the Almighty, “Lord, I had unwavering faith in you. Why didn’t you deliver me from that flood?”

God shakes his head. “What do you want from me? I sent you one boat, then another, and then a helicopter.”

Clearly, this God is not trauma-informed. S/he doesn’t know jack about Polyvagal Theory. When flood waters are rising, stress hormones can rise to levels that literally immobilize human beings – dorsal vagal shutdown (I can’t tell you how much of my life has been spent in this numb, helpless state, often without me ever realizing it, even today. It used to be called “learned helplessness”). Dissociation, blind faith and magical thinking can often take over. State drives story. We don’t need a God head-shaking because the humans s/he supposedly created come with neurobiological structural and developmental vulnerabilities. We need a God who sends help that wears neon jackets that broadcast “Red Cross,” “God Squad,” or “Divine Interventionist” if that’s what it’s going to take to trust and be able to accept the help that shows up when we most need it. We don’t need paradox, nuance or teachable moments when our brain and body functioning has been compromised by stress hormones. This little crocheted finger puppet does a better job of answering The Big Brain Question in a trauma-informed way than the Gods of many contemporary religions.

Stress Bell Curve

Getting God to Listen

So, how can we each contribute to informing God about trauma? We can start by becoming well-informed ourselves. We can work to become Adrenal Ninjas. We might begin by being more than a little curious about our own neurobiology. We can begin to pay increasingly granular attention to what various levels of stress hormones feel like in our body and brain. With practice we may begin to notice the exact moment our stress levels jump the hump in the bell curve illustration above.

Any number of things can work to elevate stress hormones and catapult us over the top and out of the green Goldilocks Zone of human functioning – an unkind word, thought or deed delivered by ourselves or someone else; a negative judgment, spoken or unspoken, coming from inside or out; an unexpected financial expense; flashing lights in our rearview mirror. Each of these can serve as fruit for the juicer for a personal stress hormone metabolization practice. Metabolization is a biotransformation process by which some substances are broken down to yield energy for vitality, while other substances necessary for life, are  synthesized. Any number of things can serve as such a personal metabolization practice. Tune in next time to learn a dozen ways metabolization can be skillfully facilitated.

This is our brain on health (Salutogenesis). Its neural networks have evolved to allow us to skillfully process the energy and information of our daily lives. For most of us, much of the time, more network capacity is better than less network capacity.

Purple Network A

This is our brain responding to kindness, compassion and connection.

Purple Network C

This is our brain reacting to the toxic stress of being a despot, a criminal or corrupt politician. Compare it and call it Neurokarma.

Purple Network B

Any questions?

In Russian folklore there is a word describing a wise or Holy Fool. It’s yurodivy. In Russian culture the yurodivy is a social misfit, primarily because he has direct access to truth with a capital T, and he has little concern about protecting people from hearing or experiencing it.


Adrenal Glands

Because he or she holds “outcast status,” the Holy Fool could care less about what other people think about them. In other words, he or she is … an Adrenal Ninja. Neither their bones nor their adrenal glands nor their neural threat detection circuitry get activated much in the presence of other people’s opinions, judgments or condemnations. This makes a yurodivy free to blurt out inconvenient truths or question social conventions. The child who declares the Emperor is walking around naked has the sensibilities of the Holy Fool. Many children do, in fact. Just ask parents embarrassed to no end by their small children in polite company.

The Rarity That Proves the Rule

Statistical research says that, relative to the larger population, liars, crooks and con men are rare. A yurodivy sees them everywhere. Most currently, evidence of yurodivys operating has shown up in the person of whistleblowers in the U.S. intelligence community reporting on the president making deals with foreign governments that are not in America’s or democracy’s best interests. In terms of the stress and disruption to their lives, you can assume that these political Holy Fools are going to initially pay a steep price. Hopefully, time and history will be much kinder to them.

Those of us not born with the ability to stresslessly operate in the world with inherent wisdom, would do well to develop practices of mind, body, brain and spirit to help us become Holy Fools, I suspect. The freedom to think, speak and act freely has creative, liberating elements to it. From the few times I’ve experienced it (in a chemically altered state, I confess) the freedom which that neurobiological state engendered did indeed feel ecstatic.

Practice Makes Pluperfect

What might such practices look like? From my own research and personal experience, I suggest such practices first have to change our neurophysiology. We need to prune and inhibit Image result for osteocalcin functionthreat-detection circuitry that all too often becomes activated and reacts to threats that are not real in terms of actual harm they can deliver to us – negative criticism on social media, our partner’s momentary expression of anger, our children revealing embarrassing personal quirks about us. Our threat-detection circuitry, our body’s cells, our adrenal glands and our bones all work to flood us with stress hormones in response to far too many contemporary false positives. They respond as if many things are potentially life-threatening that really are not.

Live Wired to Connect

After we give the threat-detection circuitry a good trimming, next we’ll need to develop practices that can increase the connectivity up from there to our prefrontal areas, the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) for one. This is the home where Executive Function 101 mostly establishes its base of operations. Increasing that connectivity primarily means that every time our threat-detection circuitry runs wild generating false positives, we catch it quickly and are immediately able to lower our stress hormone levels. One practice I have that has been working well for me in recent years is to ask many times throughout my day, “What’s operating here – wisdom or ignorance?” Invariably, as soon as the question arises, I already know the answer.

Image result for jester's hatContemplative practices come in many flavors. Asking about wisdom or ignorance in response to many of my daily challenges works for me. But anything we truly love to do can be turned into a contemplative practice that can change up our neurobiology for the better. Violinists, for example, massively grow the connectivity area in the brain that activates the fret-fingering hand. Were they simultaneously to place violin-playing into service as a contemplative practice, that connectivity would almost certainly generalize to other parts of the neural network. 

Another contemplative practice might be juggling. Juggling takes concentration and repetition and cultivates connectivity in the brain while at the same time increasing critical white matter. All you need is a quad-partitioned jester’s hat and your persona is complete.

May your journey towards Holy Foolery be filled with wisdom.


I have a friend who has studied financial markets for more than 50 years and become extremely financially successful as a result. For the last three years he’s been informally offering me the benefit of his wisdom and experience.

Last year I researched and found a company that seemed to fit his investing criteria – low priced with the possibility of one or more catalysts to drive the share price higher. Arcadia Research (RKDA) is an agricultural biotech firm born out of the well-regarded agricultural research department at UC Davis outside Sacramento, CA. Three products (of several) they have engineered are high-fiber, starch resistant wheat (Good Wheat), tomatoes that can be allowed to ripen on the vine and not be damaged during shipment, and drought-tolerant soybeans that can continue to be grown in areas of the world that have been adversely affected by global warming. All positive, pro-social endeavors to my mind.


The stock first came to my attention when it shot up from $5 to $66 in March of 2018. I’ve learned the hard way NOT to buy on parabolic price spikes like that, but rather to wait until it sells off and the price stabilizes. I bought my first shares in April at $26. By June the stock had fallen to $7 after they issued more stock that diluted the value of company shares for existing shareholders. By December RKDA was selling for $2.60 after they made the surprise announcement they lost a patent-infringement lawsuit they initiated against an Australian cereal company who had hired away one of their key employees. Needless to say, in 2018 I lost a significant amount of money on this investment.

There’s Money to Be Made

Cut to 2019. In February RKDA shows up on my friend’s radar and he opened a small position after they announced they were going to be genetically modifying hemp. The stock price jumped to over $7. I followed suit, even with my history of losing money with the company. I started buying at $5. The price promptly dropped down to $3, after the company announced another dilutive share offering, ostensibly to raise money to buy a Hawaiian pot/hemp farm (which I didn’t understand, since the company is within an hour’s drive of Humboldt County – the greatest pot-growing locale on the planet). Not understanding this reasoning, and assuming they were just joining the pot-growing craze, I sold a significant portion of my shares at another loss. My friend bought more. He realized that what they’re actually modifying and expecting to increase is the commercial production of hemp, not pot.

Image result for stock chart with lossesAt the end of July, the RKDA stock price suddenly dropped further for no apparent reason. I did some research and discovered the Australian cereal company Arcadia initiated the lawsuit against in 2018 – and lost – has now turned around and filed a lawsuit against them for theft of intellectual property. Company management made absolutely no mention of this fact. Now my trust in management is significantly eroded. I sold my remaining shares at under $2. My friend bought more. Experience has taught him that most corporate lawsuits eventually reach a compromise out of court.

Buy High, Sell Low

Days later, the company announces USDA approval for their drought-tolerant soybeans. The stock price shoots up to over $7. I own no shares, of course. I contact my friend, ask if he’s selling. He tells me he’s buying. So, I buy at $7. The price promptly drops to $5.50. So I sell. My friend tells me he’s buying more. The price immediately runs to $9! So I buy. The price then promptly falls back to $5.50. So I sell. My friend, of course, is buying. Three days later the price runs to over $10 when the CEO of the company resigns and is replaced by the CFO. I buy. My friend tells me he’s selling everything. It’s “tax loss selling season” and these kinds of parabolic moves rarely last more than 3 days.

Through this whole “learning adventure” I managed to lose a significant amount of money. My friend, on the other hand, made more money on this single trade than many people make over the course of their whole working lives. What might we point to that could account, at least in part, for the profound difference? Polyvagal Theory.

Feeling It In Our Bones

One of the central premises of Polyvagal Theory is that “state drives story.” Not only did I have a history of losing money with this stock, but I also have a lengthy history of losing Image result for feeling it in my bonesmoney in the stock market over many decades. When positions go against me, my threat-detection circuitry becomes hyper-active. Stress hormones, activated by adrenaline and cortisol from my adrenal glands, and osteocalcin proteins secreted from my bones, flood my nervous system. My investment now becomes “scared money.” Scared money almost always loses in the stock market.

My friend’s bones and neurobiology work very much in the reverse. When positions go against him, his cognitive capacities do not go offline. Rather, they sharpen significantly and allow him to accurately assess whether he’s being presented with the gift of a “buying opportunity” or not. They also allow him to hold a big picture in mind, unless and until something develops that definitively tells him it’s time to sell and take profits (or sometimes losses).

My work is to continue to do my best to grow similar bone and brain responses, not only to stock market stressors, but to life stressors in general. Wish me luck.

“Trauma not transformed will be trauma transmitted.”      ~ apologies to Richard Rohr

There are some people in the world whose courage in the face of life-threatening danger is breath-taking. Malala Yousafzai is one of them. Shot in the face in an assassination attempt by the Taliban for being an outspoken advocate for education for women in Pakistan, she continues to this day to champion the rights of women and girls to an education the world over.

Another courageous champion I’ve recently come across whom I long to be like (when my brain and body become sufficiently integrated in ways that don’t so easily allow my adrenal glands to be the boss of me) is Deeyah Kahn. Deeyah is a Muslin activist and filmmaker. Here’s something she said in a recent interview:

I’ve been an anti-racist campaigner pretty much most of my life, having experienced racism from childhood. It’s personal to me, and I’ve responded in all sorts of ways — being angry at racists, shouting at them, confronting them, protesting against them, self-righteously shunning them. I’ve done all that, and I’m not sure what difference it made.

So I wanted to do something I’ve never done before, which is try to see if I could sit down with people who hold views like that and see if it is possible for us to move somewhere from that point, from sitting face to face. Because it’s really, really easy for everybody involved to hate each other from afar, to judge each other from afar, but it’s much more difficult to hate up close and personal.

The Seduction of Abdication

When confronted with the ignorance and hatred in the world, my first impulse is to turn away – to abdicate, to leave the finding of solutions to such problems to others. “Not my current life karma.” “Others are better equipped for this battle than me. Let them fight it.” “You can’t fight ignorance with ignorance.” I have a million narratives that my brain can generate to make me feel okay about turning away. But abdication is not integration.

Image result for deeyah khan documentary netflix

Deeyah Khan

Deeyah Khan took a different turn. Instead of turning away, she became curious. She honestly wondered – What kinds of experiences go into the making of a white supremacist? What makes them think and act the way they do? Honoring that cultivated curiosity, she inserted herself into their organizations in the context (pretext?) of wanting to make a documentary film about them. White Right: Meeting the Enemy was the Emmy Award-winning result of that authentic inquiry.

Emergent Curiosity

Curiosity is something we’re all born with – provided early Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) don’t traumatize that impulse and inquisitiveness out of us. Growing up with caretakers who don’t condemn, who constructively channel our inquiring natures (you know – the toddler who constantly asks “Why?”, “Why?”, “Why?”), who are contingently available to soothe us and help us self-regulate when our adrenal glands flood us with stress hormones – that kind of early life experience will invariably work to keep our inherent curiosity alive. 

Gene Knudsen Hoffman

Gene Knudsen Hoffman

When we can be curious and feel safe, we can often go into novel situations without an excessive flooding of stress hormones. We have access to fluid intelligence to allow us to creatively construct circumstances and contexts within which our curiosity can safely operate. For Deeyah, embedding herself inside a group of white supremacists became possible in the context of making a documentary film about them with a team around her. There is “safety in numbers.” With no other agenda but to find out what makes white supremacists tick, the simple act of being fully present to various actors in the movement allowed a number of them to expand their thinking and eventually move off their polarizing positions. 

Gene Knudsen Hoffman was a Quaker activist, mystic and “compassion junkie.” She is probably best known for her observation that, “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” In the simple, non-judgmental hearing of an “enemy’s” story, new brain wiring has the space to grow, blossom and make unexpected connections. It can happen in an instant. Or over a lifetime. When it does, it looks and feels like magic has taken place – persuasive curiosity! By Deeyah Khan simply being genuinely curious about what makes a person hate Muslim people whom they don’t even know, she “persuaded” them to take a closer look at how so much of their early Adverse Childhood Experiences – their early traumatic conditioning – was driving their current circumscribed life perspectives, and being transmitted to the world around them.

P.S. If you’re tired of Google ruling internet search, you might try Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees. It’s not the same as confronting white supremacists, but its intention is to reduce suffering.

After 17 years of marriage, one day it became apparent that the mere sight of my daughter’s mother would send my adrenal glands into hyper-overdrive. The main way I was able to regulate those organs was mostly to avoid her – to go missing in action. My avoidance/abandonment would then do the same thing to her adrenal glands. And round and round we’d go. Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars worth of psychotherapy had failed to help. The idea of actually being able to work with and repair the networks holding stored traumatic memories in each others’ brain and body was a completely foreign concept to therapists at the time (and for many, still is). Consequently, no therapist ever taught us anything useful about our neurobiology or offered regular practices to help manage the childhood-conditioned, threat-detection neural circuitry we were each triggering in the other. The only workable solution seemed to be for us to separate.

Image result for couples separating

How best to accomplish this separation in a way that would cause the least amount of harm for the three of us? For me it was a sincere dilemma. The larger culture didn’t offer many models to look to. I thought we might simply separate emotionally while continuing to physically live together in the same house. It was large enough for each of us to have our own bedroom and work spaces.

Before I could broach that possibility however, my daughter’s mother informed me that she had taken a family loan and gone out and bought another house and would be moving her and my daughter into it. Less than a week later I came home from work to find both of them gone and a realtor’s For Sale sign in front of our house. I immediately broke it into bits and tossed it in the trash. 

The Jesuit Perspective

Malcolm Gladwell recently offered up a three-part Revisionist History podcast on “Thinking Like a Jesuit.” Essentially, Jesuits practice casuistry. As Gladwell defines it, casuistry means: “resolving specific cases of conscience, duty, or conduct through interpretation of ethical principles or religious doctrine.” Image result for jesuitsThe Jesuits begin with broad ethical principles and religious doctrine, but then morph and adapt it to fit particular cases. Gladwell presents a compelling case of how the Jesuits applied casuistry to convince the Church to accept birth control. It was ultimately accepted as a means of reducing Catholic suffering that comes from birthing too many children into the world that two parents alone can’t sufficiently care for.

Minimizing suffering in the wake of my marriage dissolution was also high on my list of ethical, spiritual and neurobiological principles. One day while out walking the trail around Crystal Springs Reservoir in Hillsborough, California I was delivered a message by vox divina. Two older men were walking towards me on the trail and when they got within earshot, I heard one say to the other, “No matter what else you do, by all means, avoid the lawyers.”

If my intent was to reduce suffering in THIS particular instance, avoiding lawyers sounded like divine instruction to me. And so I did. Rather than pay a lawyer, I could contribute those fees to my daughter’s support. My ex-wife hired a high profile, Silicon Valley lawyer, however, who charged her a small fortune. In the end she pretty much ended up with what she would have gotten had we both hired a mediator. In the wake of the separation – with suffering-reduction as my overriding concern – I agreed to co-sign for the mortgage on her new house; I installed a skylight and new dishwasher in her kitchen; and I mounted a brass nameplate on the door to her home office. Through it all we each had the well-being of our daughter paramount as our concerns, and to this day we are on amiable speaking terms where Amanda is concerned. 

Ultimately, in my estimation, there is only one good reason to cultivate Jesuit Brain or any other kind of brain, for that matter – in order to do what we can to reduce human suffering. Out of that cultivation we very often surprisingly find ourselves able to take human suffering … to heart.