The Myth of Responsibility

I have this discussion a lot. Usually it’s with people who have little or no understanding of how the brain works. I contend that in every moment each of us is doing the very best we can as a consequence of the way our neural networks are operating at any given point in time. Image result for personal responsibilityMuch of that operation is automatic and unconscious. But that does not mean we can’t learn, train and practice being and doing better in the very next moment in time. It’s called “response flexibility,” and we can each learn and work to expand it through awareness and dedicated practice.

My Son Was the Columbine Killer

A really powerful talk by Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan, one of the very first school shooters at Columbine High School in Colorado, back in 1999. Not only did that tragedy affect the families of the kids who were wounded and killed, but it traumatically impacted lives of the shooters immediate and extended families, and continues to to this day. I applaud this mother’s courage in coming forward and sharing the truth of her own profoundly painful struggle.

Do Zealots Have Brain Damage?

It took me a long time to fully accept that I might have some damage to my brain. Nothing anyone would notice, like from a stroke or a tumor. More like the ways in which I saw other people’s brains easily operating that mine didn’t. For example, they could remain truly calm in the midst of my emotional reactivity. They could make creative cognitive leaps that I struggled with. They could effortlessly keep their desks well-organized, be on time for appointments, manage their diets – all things I struggle with. Well, the good news is: it’s not my fault. I’m simply prefrontally-challenged. The bad news is: I have a LOT more work to do on myself than those people do.

American Life Is Traumatizing Americans

am life.pngJust to be clear, I’m not a fan of gross generalizations. Nevertheless, in this article media lab director and “Ranked Thinker,” Umair Haque makes a credible case that the way a great number of we Americans currently live our lives is truly traumatizing us. The only question really up for debate is how many of us are being traumatized and to what degree. One takeaway from Umair’s argument: you can assess your own degree of trauma pretty much by the disquieting feelings of self-protection you walk through each day feeling.

How Unprocessed Grief Can Inhibit Business Success

In this episode of the TV show, The Profit, we see how the death of two young children has caused a couple to pour their energy into their business, to some degree of success. Since my perspective is “healing’s always trying to happen,” I’m not surprised when the death of these children surfaces as a key obstacle for the business going forward.


Your Brain on Friendship

Friendship and Soul-Making

~ Thomas Moore, Ageless Soul, pg. 222

Let me list some of the advantages of friendship as I see them:

1. It’s easy to remain an individual even though you’re involved in a close relationship.

2. It’s based on opening your soul to someone rather than making him or her your partner. A Friends

3. The emotional side is usually tame compared to family and romantic relationships.

4. You can more easily weave a friendship into your life than have family members and love interests close at hand..

5. A friendship doesn’t change as often as other kinds of relationships do.

6. A friendship is close but has enough distance for a good balance of individuality and mutuality.

7. Friends may not see one another often, and so the closeness doesn’t feel a burden.

8. Friendship has longevity, such that those that are formed early may well last a lifetime.

9. The structure of friendship is flexible, so it doesn’t have to go through difficult public changes like divorce or adoption. 10. In friendship you can love without smothering or controlling.

And if you’re interested in seeing how friendship surprisingly plays out in The Science of Social Safety (Polyvagal Theory), simply click HERE. It’s still safe and you’re under no obligation.

I’ve been studying Polyvagal Theory long before it was a thing. If I’d been smart, I would have waited for this book to be published instead of spending hours wading through tons of professional papers filled with academic jargon Pocket Guide Polyvagalrequiring me to read them with a medical dictionary open on my desk. This little handbook makes it as simple as an academic subject can be, given that any leading-edge field of research is going to be loaded with specialized terms (like polyvagal). Such language is necessary to accurately convey the research findings to other researchers. In this Enchanted Loom review of The Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory, click HERE to see how much simpler I’ve made things even still!

The second Enchanted Loom offering is also a book that I wish had been written ten years ago. It is by Deb Dana, a clinical 41liM5epExL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgsocial worker who has spent many years working with clients and applying what she’s learned about Polyvagal Theory in service to their healing. Had Deb written The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy ten years ago, she would have saved me additional hours of struggle trying to get people – who didn’t really understand the theory – to explain it to me, as I also tried to understand its importance and application on my own. At last I feel like I finally DO understand it, thanks in part to this book and the previous one. You can find my review of Deb’s book HERE.

And if you’re one of a handful of bold souls on the fence about taking a personal deep dive into The Science of Social Safety (Polyvagal Theory), simply click HERE. It’s still safe and you’re under no obligation.

CHet Powers

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Polyvagal Daily Fluctuation Single Slide

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Nice sentiments all, right? Easy for them to sing and say, but what about for the rest of us? Those of us who haven’t had the time or place or resources or genetic heritage or fellow spiritual travelers to help each other become enlightened lovers?

Turns out our work might actually be easier than there’s was. Why? Because we know more about brain structure and body functioning than they did (although their writings suggest they were all accomplished neurocardiologists – knowledge essentially acquired through deep self-and-other observation).

But here in 2019 we know how the Vagus Nerve and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis (HPA) have operated through all evolution to insure our survival as a species. We’re also becoming increasingly aware of how often most of us move between self-protection and social engagement any number of times throughout our day. Also, how often we withdraw and shut down as a means of self-regulation (Whidbey Island is full of people who prefer solitude to social engagement. Many of them identify as artists). Not to mention how neuroplasticity works and how to effectively heal and resolve trauma.

Image result for artisteIn my mind, it’s the neurobiological structural and developmental limitations and vulnerabilites that being human invites us to work with if we are going to be moving in the direction the wisdom teachers above are suggesting for us. In order to do that, however, we’re going to have to develop our own unique, personally relevant operational practices that will move us in the direction of an expanding self-regulation network capacity capable of producing greater energy and information processing and integration. Which is a fancy way to say that in order to become more loving we have to practice being more loving. Whatever we practice, we tend to get better at, whether it’s the guitar, money management or social engagement. Particularly, heart-felt social engagement.

So, what might such a practice look like? Unique and different for each and every one of us, I would wager. Why? Well, when you consider your brain and mine contain 86 billion neurons making approximately one quadrillion connections (does anyone REALLY know how big a number one quadrillion actually is?), and each of us has had a whole host of life experiences that have shaped that circuitry, can our personal practice for becoming more loving possibly be anything other than unique and singular unto us? I don’t think so. That being said, start deliberately practicing. Begin with little steps and see where they take your heart.

And if you’re one of a handful of bold souls interested in taking a personal deep dive into The Science of Social Safety (Polyvagal Theory), i.e. discovering what creative possibilities might go into a personal practice, simply click HERE. It’s completely safe and you’re under no obligation.

I volunteer for our island zen hospice, Enso House, to pick up and deliver their recycling to the local center. One Saturday while I’m at the recycling center flattening boxes in front of the cardboard bin, I feel a tap on my shoulder.

ALGEBRA MATH WELDING HAT“That is the greatest HAT!” a young woman says to me. As I turn around, she’s beaming. I smile back.

“Would you like one?” I ask her.

“Yes. Where can I get one?”

“Come with me,” I lead her over to my truck and take one hat out in black and one in white and hand them to her (I keep a supply for just such occasions!).

“OMG. These are SO GREAT.” She beams. “I’m a physics professor at Monterrey College. These are PERFECT to wear to class.” She literally skips away as I finish the recycling.

Good Day Sunshine

I’m feeling light and joyful as I begin backing out of the parking lot. Altruism circuits are blazing glory. At the same time as I’m leaving a Chinese woman in a new Chevy is backing out as well. In my buoyant, happy mood, I smile and wave her to go ahead of me.

At the exit we’re both turning left, against the traffic. When the road is clear she starts across. I glance briefly left and then step on the gas, only to discover the woman in front of me has stopped her car FOR NO REASON!

I slam on the brakes, narrowly miss rear-ending her, and feel a HUGE rush of adrenaline flood my body. Almost immediately, of it’s own volition, a discursive thought comes careening through my mind: “F**king Asian drivers!” So, much for my peaceful, joyous, delightful morning.

And then I realize – there it is: State Driving Story.

State Drives Story

In perfect Polyvagal unfolding, my neurophysiology makes sh*t up in the moment almost totally outside of my control. Only now, with this realization, I burst out laughing.

I’ve caught my Inner Makeup Artist in the act, since the reality is … I’m perfectly fine. There was a brief moment of real danger, but my brake foot took care of it, and it passed in an instant. But my brain and body were reacting as if it hadn’t. They’re more than a little bit lagging in coming back to the safe, present moment in which there is now absolutely no danger whatsoever. So that’s one way brain and body try to kill us – the slow metabolism of stress hormones compromises our immediate ability to tend to the present moment, especially after an actual threatening incident.

But, in THIS moment, everything is all right.


The Enemy

Catching my Storycrafter in the act and laughing was all it took to restore me to my previous happy, connected, and now forgiving internal state. It’s easy to feel forgiving when your threat-detection circuitry is no longer defending itself against what Non-Violent Communicator Marshall Rosenberg called Enemy Images and imaginary dangers. It’s almost impossible to feel that way however, when stress hormones and threat-detection neurotransmitters are dropping me repeatedly into self-protection mode. That is a recipe for winning a Darwin Award.

So, that’s my recent Polyvagal Story and I’m sticking to it. Be on the lookout for your own to share. They are legion and make their way into our lives more times in a day than most of us realize or care to admit. I daresay, once you start paying close attention to the many times the binary “connect or protect” choices surface in any day, you’ll be astonished. And many of them can unwittingly result in “near-death” experiences.

And if you’re one of a handful of bold souls interested in taking a personal deep dive into The Science of Social Safety (Polyvagal Theory), simply click HERE. It’s completely safe and you’re under no obligation.

This week once again offers two Enchanted Loom graphic book reviews. The first review is the last “grace” book written by Kathleen Singh, a longtime friend and colleague, before her death late last year. 91S9ERT8rNL.jpgUnbinding feels like the culmination of a life’s work spent in earnest spiritual pursuits. Many of those years were devoted to acquiring wisdom and grace at the bedsides of dying people in her work as a hospice psychologist. In case you’ve forgotten them from my last post, you can find the Three Great Tasks and my review of Kathleen’s book HERE.

The second Enchanted Loom offering is a book by one of my favorite neuroscientists, Greg Berns. Iconoclast.jpgThe book is called Iconoclast. Greg is a professor at Emory University and he researches all kinds of interesting things neuroscience. Like how dogs’ brains work (he trains them to lie perfectly still in an fMRI scanner! You can see him training one here). In this book, Greg explores what has to happen in your brain and body in order for you to go against the so-called conventional wisdom and march to the beat of your own heart. It’s both harder and easier than you might think. You can find my review of Greg’s book HERE.

Before she died, my friend Kathleen would frequently remind me that my life had three great tasks: confronting my mortality, stilling my mind and opening my heart. Neuroscientists know that the brain is connected to the heart by way of cardiac nerves and vagus nerve bundles running back and forth between the two organs. But they don’t know much about opening either organ in the way Kathleen meant.

Most of the heart’s nerve fibers carry signals from the heart to the brain. While heartfelt sentiments really are heartfelt – they originate from and are experienced by back and forth blood flow and electro-chemical energy flow between the two organs – they are also “brainfelt” at the same time. And that flow is profoundly influenced by the people, places and things we fill our lives up with. Spend time with the right people, in the right place, doing the right things at the right time, and the three great tasks that Kathleen pointed to above, take on a momentum and direction of their own.

Out of Integrity

Much of that back-and-forth heart/brain flow is influenced by how “integrated” our neural networks are, i.e. how robust the number and connections our brain cells are able to make with each other. Image result for heartfeltHow might that robust complexity show up as a heartfelt sentiment? A recent example: Leonard, a senior friend of mine, recently told me a story about having some power tools stolen from a construction site he was on. Rather than feeling violated or exploited, his first thought when he noticed the tools were missing was, “I feel so bad for the person reduced to stealing from old people.” A truly heartfelt sentiment, right? I would posit that Leonard’s response is the result of a high degree of neural integration (Leonard’s been working on himself for decades!).

When people do things like steal from others or make appointments and promises and unilaterally decide not to keep them (or violate almost any spiritual directive for that matter), they are essentially out of integrity, literally. From a neuroscience point of view, integrity has to do with integration – the numbers and connections of cells throughout the brain and body all in contingent communication and working together. Generally speaking, the more robust, the more integrated we tend to be, and the more “heartfelt” expression we can muster to walk through the world with. Viewed through this neuroscientific frame, integration seems to be in short supply in much of the world these days. The more common response is to become emotionally hijacked and feel completely justified in pointing the finger at others (guilty as described!).

State Drives Story

Our brain receives transmissions from our heart and determines the state of our being. Elevated resting heart rates (over 90 beats per minute) e.g. tell us that something in our lives very likely needs attention and some kind of positive intervention.

Our brain also receives transmissions from all the other hollow organs in the body and they, too, contribute to the state of our being. Especially powerful are the transmissions we receive from our adrenal glands (or more precisely, the hormones and steroids they secrete). The signalling from the adrenal glands tells us a lot about our general feeling of safety in our world. It’s hard to get in touch with heartfelt sentiments when we’re feeling attacked or unsafe in the world. What our adrenals most often make available to us are varying degrees of connection or self-protection, with a bias towards to the latter.

Adrenal Mastery

The good news is that we can change the way our adrenals work and we can practice living in ways that move us in the direction of increasing neural integration. Related imageIn the recent documentary film, Free Solo, rock climber Alex Honnold has a brain scan that discloses his threat-detection circuitry is “under-active.” Hanging from his fingertips without a rope 2000 feet up on the side of a sheer rock face (El Capitan in Yosemite) simply doesn’t scare him. But of course, he’s done that climb with a rope over and over and over and over. My working hypothesis is that it’s the live practice, with proper safeguards, that have managed to change his brain in positive, fear-reducing ways.

I’ve done something similar with being uncomfortably self-disclosing with this brain science blog – there’s way more knowledge about the brain that I don’t know than I do. And some of the stuff I do know is simply wrong. Not to mention – embarrassing. But my intention has always been to help reduce suffering in the world, so I’m willing to put wrong and partially researched findings out there if I believe it serves that purpose.

What might you be willing to put into practice in the service of changing your brain, managing your adrenals, and strengthening the connections to your heart? Whatever it is, you’re most likely going to have to live with discomfort until integration happens.