Category Archives: Neuroscience

#39: Love & Anxiety-Contentment at Christmas?

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I have read lots of blogs, books and articles raving about the importance of mindfulness in order to live in a peaceful mind and body, and I agree 100%! But what I would love to read or hear more about is another “state” or attitude, that of Contentment.  Contentment is related to mindfulness but is not exactly a buzzword in our predominately self-focused popular culture.  I was with a friend recently who will remain nameless, so as not to embarrass her and her kids. She spent a small mortgage on her day off to take her sons and their friends to one of those “fun zone” places (where junk food, quarters and over-stimulation reign supreme.) Unfortunately, even after her hours of sacrifice, the only sound heard on the way home was the song of complaint. Complaints about what they didn’t get, and frustration about having to leave “so soon”. There was not one word of gratitude and certainly not a shred of Contentment found in that car.  Not in the kids, or in my friend.  A sense of entitlement and unrealistic expectations often walk hand-in-hand and both kill our ability to feel Contentment. Gratitude and Contentment are not the same concepts but are related, supply energy to each other, and are the Yin to the Yang of entitlement and unrealistic expectations.

Why is Contentment so hard to achieve in our daily existence? There are several reasons besides those noted above. One seems to be, at times humans can mistakenly equate Contentment to stagnation or lack of ambition. The reasoning goes, “if I am content with where I am in life and what I have, how will I grow and improve and get more out of life?” But  Contentment is a great word and a great state to spend time in, dictionary.com defines Contentment as: the state of being contented; satisfaction; ease of mind.  I like that phrase, ease of mind. The last blog was about human restlessness and how it negatively impacts our joy and increases our anxiety levels. Restlessness could be called unease of mind or even dis-ease of mind. Contentment then, is one of the antidotes for getting stuck in restlessness on a regular basis.

Contentment is not stagnation.  You can have goals, dreams, and desires but still live in Contentment on a regular basis. Because Contentment is not about specific outcomes but an overall ease of mind /attitude about life. Contented people usually have fairly realistic expectations (read appropriate) about  life, limits and their place therein. Contentment allows us to experience the overwhelming good that is our daily life without being tainted by seething restlessness or the frustration that comes from comparing our lives with the lives of others we believe are more fortunate.

Here is a fairly simple example. If at age 30 I take up the sport of football, there is very little possibility that I will be drafted by the NFL. I could become a great football player, if I am willing to put in hours of daily practice. But NFL level players usually have been playing football since childhood. If my expectations, or set goals, do not match reality, Contentment will be a hard state to attain. If I expect to be drafted I will be disappointed and discontented. However, If I expect to get really good and enjoy the sport, I have a much better chance of feeling Contentment with my choices and accomplishments.

Sometimes we paint unrealistic pictures in our heads about how life should play out, or even how we should feel on a regular basis. We can get the impression via reality TV, FB posts, movies, songs, etc. that life is one big happy adrenaline rush. We think we ought to feel immense love or excitement or joy 24/7.  Contentment is hard to find when living with those kind of unrealistic expectations.

Life was never intended to provide the same experiences all day long day after day. Let’s use art as an example to stand in for life and the various situations, moods, and sensations we all experience. A beautiful piece of art or a stunning photograph most often is comprised of various “objects”, shapes and colors. A green leaf is lovely, but in the fall when the leaves turn colors and become a  gorgeous palate of oranges, reds, yellows, and browns, that’s when tourists stream into New England to take in the art these multi-hued leaves provide. Very few people come to gawk in the summer when the leaves are only the color green.

Well, real Life is multi-hued as well. If you imagine feelings, events, and sensation as colors, there will be green moments and red moments, and purple moments. There are yellow feelings and pink feelings and black feelings, etc. Life is fluid and flows, it changes and morphs. When we realistically expect and accept there are green/red/blue/purple, etc, moments, we will not be thrown or upset when we don’t feel excitement or happiness all day long. We become more tolerant of the hues that we feel less fondness for but know that we can learn to be with, and learn from them. For example, we can allow ourselves to feel sad for a time which in turn allows us the awareness of how great it feels to experience happiness.

There is another great benefit to experiencing and enjoying life as multi-hued and morphing.  We become better able to sit and allow our own shifting internal states to BE whatever color they are without criticism and judgment. In so doing, we are more able to “tolerate” the shifting states of our friends, neighbors, and loved ones.

So friends the holiday season is upon us and it is easy to get caught in the busyness and the merchandise mucking about foisted upon us hourly via ads and TV networks. But I encourage you to settle inside yourself and find your own state of inner Contentment these next few weeks. Experience how Contentment may shift the energy of the Holiday Season and the family interactions during the many holiday themed events. As always, I would love to know how it goes for you so please let me know via comments.

GOING DEEPER:

1.) What is your knee-jerk reaction to the term Contentment? Is it positive or negative? What beliefs live inside your head and body about contentment? Do these block you from, or move you toward Contentment.

2.) Is my analogy normalizing life as multi-hued art, and not a single state of being, helpful to you? If not, come up with your own analogy or metaphor of life with its various permutations. Which colors/sensations/feelings are you most comfortable living with, and which are uncomfortable to you? Share your answers with your friends and loved ones if you dare.

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Blog 38: Love & Anxiety-Inner Restlessness

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Do you ever have one of THOSE days? You know, the ones where you feel antsy and so restless? You feel like you are missing out on some goodness, like you should be somewhere else but you don’t know where. You just feel off and full of angst. I had one of those days this past month. I have noticed, these kind of days are more likely to follow a season of big events or experiences, such as after a successful Attachment training weekend, or an important presentation. Right after I have felt “up” and excited about life and my place in it, if a restless day is going to roll in like a storm front, it tends to follow on the backside of the wake caused by  big “high” feeling. And, just like the wake from a big speedboat, those days tend to throw me off balance.

This sensation of restlessness I am convinced is a part of being human, especially now, in our way too stimulating, technologically advanced culture. For me, the restlessness manifests as a gripping tension in my belly and that unsettled feeling that keeps me from resting and settling, even if I sit and try to meditate. The “message” this sensation gives my body is that I am running out of time and that life is passing me by, that others are experiencing the good I am missing. Getting on FaceBook does not help. Since people post experiences of joy and triumph and not losses or failures, it can seem that everyone else is having the time of their lives. Can anyone else relate to this restlessness?

I will out myself and share an example of how restless sensations can distort beauty and reality. I was cycling alone up the bike path on the Strand a few weeks ago. I had been feeling restless all morning but during the ride I settled and became more awake and aware. I began to really be present to the experience. Suddenly, I had such a strong sense that we are all connected, humans, nature, even the caterpillars crawling across the path I was carefully avoiding to so as not to run over them. The sensation was so sweet. I decided to stop, look at the bay, and be open to anymore insights or epiphanies. Less then two minutes later, another cyclist, stopped at the same place and came up behind me and began to engage me in conversation. Instead of connecting, my old nemesis, restlessness, kicked in and I lost presence. I quickly felt antsy and frustrated that this person was “ruining” my experience of sitting with the Oneness and the sense of Divinity in that wonderful sensation I had just lost. I felt like the interruption “cost” me the good of this experience. I know, it’s very funny if you pay attention to life’s invitations, but I was not!  I was paying attention to the restlessness and the sense that I was losing this great experience. I know, crazy town! Here I was presented with an opportunity to deepen the sense of oneness with an actual person, but I totally missed it because I was in my own little world in my head letting the restlessness dictate how I thought things should go. (In case you were wondering, it took about 10 minutes for me to wake back up and notice my ridiculousness.)

This experience highlights one reason I try to not live in the restlessness for a minute longer after I become aware of it. The “inner voice” of the restlessness is so narrowing and self-focused. It tells me I am missing out and that if things would just go differently I would feel better. This will cause me to miss the gift or joy available right in the present moment. Luckily, I have lived long enough to have lots of practice catching the sensation and I know that sometimes you just have to ride out uncomfortable feelings and false beliefs. Sometimes, you have to hold onto your true knowing and just sit until they pass, which they do. This can be especially difficult because restlessness almost always brings along its Significant Other, a big dose of Anxiety!

One of my “cures” for the restlessness is to drop into silence and Being. To slow everything down internally and ask myself some questions. “What is really going on? Is there really any tangible thing I am lacking in this moment”? Usually the answer is no. I realize that silence may be easier for us Introverts. Extraverts can find silence frightening or annoying. So if you are more extraverted maybe your silence is a concentrated short time where you focus on connecting with your own being and the goodness therein. The gift of riding out the restlessness by sitting until it leaves, is a deepening sense of peace and calmness.

Another “antidote” for restlessness is love & connection with my beloved friends. Those wonderful beings who see me clearly and adore me anyway! Thank you to all of you, you know who you are. When the restless sensation hits your body, you could use it as an impetus to reach out and connect personally with someone you love and that loves you. In-person, or at least voice-to-voice, is more physiologically helpful than an email or text. Although any kind of connection is helpful to our body and nervous systems. The process of reaching out and experiencing the synchrony between you and your beloved, opens the door internally for positivity resonance to permeate and “wash” out the unpleasantness of the restless, anxious sensations. Barbara Fredrickson in her stunning book, “Love 2.0” speaks of Love and its “positivity resonance” and how it improves our mood, outlook, physical health and our ANS/physiology.  She speaks of Love as not just what you experience with lovers, friends, and family members, but also as little tiny moments of connection and mirror neuron resonance that can occur all day long. We are not “screwed” in the love lottery if we live alone and have no family living nearby. According to her research, you can experience all the physiologically and health benefits of love all day long in your short encounters with other kind and helpful humans. This can include a stranger on the street, an uber driver, your local barista, etc. I encourage you to check out her book, it’s a revelation and based upon research and neuroscience.

So, please reply and let me know that I am not the only one who experiences restlessness. Please let me know how yours manifests and what you do about it. Have a great week.

GOING DEEPER:

1.) How many of you laughed at my ridiculousness on the bike path? But do you ever have the experience of totally missing what is in the moment in front of you? How do you come back from numbness or lack of presence, or living in dialogue with the to-do-list in you head?

2.) Do you ever experience these restless sensations? If so, how do they manifest in your body? What are the messages they whisper to your mind? How do you ride them out, or what tools do you use that help you recover your equilibrium?

Blog 28: Love & Anxiety, New Associations. Part 1

This past week I got to experience a unique event, a “paddle out” for wonderful Lorton Mitchell. A man in his prime, taken from his family by cancer while he was still so young. For those trapped in the ocean-less midwest, a paddle out is a surfing tradition from Hawaii. When a surfer dies, the community gathers together, jumps on surfboards and paddles out to beyond the breaking waves. There a ceremony is held, one of remembrance and celebration. It’s a solemn ritual and yet some joy leaks in the cracks. Perhaps it’s the magic of ocean water, or the laughter of children, or the safety of being surrounded by loved ones and 100’s of members of the community.

The last blog was about the need to make new associations with old sensations. But making new associations can also occur in conjunction with old belief systems or world views. We can make a new association with the way that we live our lives. Lorton was larger-than-life figure, and the way he lived his life, full of vigor and joy provides an excellent example to emulate as the subject of today’s blog. I want to suggest that those of us who are stuck in busyness, or achievement pandering, or over-scheduled living, need to make a change. We who are stuck in a life dedicated to duty, can make a new choice, a new association. We can to deliberately shift our primary driving force in life from one of Duty to that of JOY.

Imagine with me two large doors in front of you. One is labeled Duty and one is labeled Joy. If I was to offer you a choice of which door’s attitude will most characterize daily life, most of you will pick the Joy door! But if we are really honest about how we live our lives, most of us are unconsciously choosing duty over joy most of the time. One reason why our culture is so full of heart disease, a flood of medications, addictions, obesity and the many other curses of our over-stressed, way too busy modern life.

Ask yourself this question, how much joy to do you experience on a daily basis? Would your family, children, lover, etc., list joyful as one of your predominate traits? Or, are you more focused on what must get done, on checking off lists, keeping ducks in a row, (why ducks, why not cats, they are even harder to control?)

As children, most of us did not struggle through the misery of puberty in order to grow up and turn into a distracted, busy adult who has little or no time for fun. We hoped to grow up and do whatever pleased us, to have fun and to enjoy life. But life’s responsibilities, pressure and stress conspire to turn us into the duty bound creatures that many of us have become. I am not suggesting that life is not challenging, nor that we should throw up our hands and toss responsibility to the wind. There are things that must get done, it is good to be a “high functioning, well-behaved member of society” sometimes, I think? But if our primary focus is on our duty and getting things done, we miss most of the joy that this busy, complicated life has to offer.

Joy is an all body sensation, a vitality affect, and one of the best antidotes to stress and trauma that can be found. If you recall a previous blog where I talked about the two sides of the coin in our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), this blog might make more sense. Joy is the other side of the coin! It is the opposite of stressed and busy, and anxious and traumatized. If you doubt the power and intensity of joy, watch some Youtube videos of babies laughing, or children and puppies (any baby animal really). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L49VXZwfup8 try this one for even just one minute and notice the shift your body experiences inside.Healthy pleasure is a great way to begin to experience more joy in your life. If you have not engaged in self-care or healthy pleasure on a regular basis, it will be hard to live in joy regularly.

While joy and laughter are not the same physiological event, they are related and very connected. The research demonstrates repeatedly that people who laugh often, are happier, and physically healthier and have a more positive outlook on life. Well-parented children laugh much more often than children with lower functioning parents.

This week try to notice your primary outlook on life in terms of duty vs. joy. Which attitude prevails most often in your life? If it is duty, try your best to begin to include choices and situations that bring joy to you. When you feel joy, really notice how it lightens and brightens and enervates your entire body. Let me know how it goes.

Joy, Uganda style.
Joy, Uganda style.

Going deeper:

1;) What is your association with joy? Is it a common experience for you or something you rarely encounter? Who do you know that is often really joyful? If possible, spend more time with them and see how it impacts you. We become most like those with whom we spend the most time.

2.) What is your attitude to duty? If you are one who feels stuck in this place, ask yourself where you learned this? What were your parents’ primary attitudes toward joy and healthy pleasure, another close relative of joy? Are your attitudes similar to your parents or different? Most importantly, are they what you would like them to be?

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