Newsletter – April 2013

Bouncing Back Continues to Evolve

Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain For Maximum Resilience and Well-Being has arrived in bookstores; it’s more than amazing to hold my heart and soul in my hands. And to recommend that you avail yourself of almost 100 exercises to help you strengthen your brain’s capacities for the 5 C’s of coping: calm, clarity, connections to resources, competence, and courage.

The reflections and exercises below offer new perspectives, new exercises, evolved since I turned the manuscript in last July. May they prove useful to you and yours.

Reflections on the Evolution of Bouncing Back

1. The neuroscience in Bouncing Back is organized by various “intelligences:” relational, somatic, emotional, mindful, and simply being. A useful way to present the brain science in a coherent way that does move from the foundational to the more sophisticated. What’s most important is the fluid integration of these intelligences; that learning to rewire our brains to strengthen specific capacities also brings us more fully into our wholeness with ourselves and into more oneness with others.

2. The 5 C’s of coping now include a 6th: compassion, particularly self-compassion. I do offer some of the neuroscience about compassion in Bouncing Back (the “left shift” to the “approach” left hemisphere of the brain) and several exercises in cultivating self-compassion. But since then I’ve spent much more time talking with and learning from Kristin Neff (Self Compassion), Christopher Germer (The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion), and Paul Gilbert (The Compassionate Mind) about the power of self-compassion to antidote the inner critic and re-open the heart/mind to discerning-learning-responding to any stress or trauma, in the moment or hijacking us from the past.

I now place compassion firmly in the trajectory first described in the book: in any challenge or crisis, we first need to come to calm, our baseline equilibrium, to keep our pre-frontal cortex – the CEO of resilience on line; self-compassion is the most fundamental tool to do that. Then we can see clearly, remember to connect to our resources, use that support to rediscover our competence and courage in meeting any Kristin’s, Christopher’s, and Paul’s books and trainings I can recommend as heartily as my own. Self-Compassion

3. My friend Paul Basker told me, years ago when he was first starting therapy, that he felt like he had to clean out a port-a-potty with a toothbrush. I wish I had included that story in Chapter 5: Five Practices to Accelerate Brain Change, under the practice of Perseverance. Beginning any path to recover our resilience can feel daunting like that, and we practice perseverance to keep going, day after day, in our intention to re-wire deeply embedded, often unconscious, patterns of response to pain and suffering.

I’ve come to offer Paul Gilbert’s phrase, “Little and often” to clients embarking on the path of change and transformation. It doesn’t matter how big the effort as long as it’s sincere and in the right direction. James Baraz, in his Awakening Joy course, encourages participants: “Smidgeons count. Don’t ever underestimate the power of smidgeons.”

Poetry and Quotes to Inspire

There was a moment, on a meditation retreat 3 years ago, when I felt the presence of the Irish poet-philosopher John O’Donohue standing at my right shoulder, hearing his voice saying, “It’s time.” I began the more serious and ultimately productive focus on the book from that moment. This poem was my constant companion on the journey; “learn to find ease in risk” my new mantra.

For a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
– John O’Donohue
To Bless the Space Between Us

Stories to Learn From

I’ve included many exercises on practicing gratitude over the years, in Bouncing Back and on these posts, as recently last week – practicing gratitude while walking or running for the exercise that helps our brain grow new neurons. Two events recently have catalyzed for me practicing gratitude for the bad things that don’t happen.

As I was driving to the airport to fly to Washington, D.C. for the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium two weeks ago, an accident on the freeway, late at night, rain slicking the roads, stopped all traffic. I stopped, no problem, but then for what seemed at least three seconds I heard the screeching of brakes behind me. I was too scared to look until all was quiet again; then I saw a car had stopped just 6 feet from my car. No harm, but instantly remembering that several years ago a dear friend had been rear-ended on the freeway in a similar enough situation. The impact of that accident damaged the drive shaft of her car and severely injured her spine. Even with years of physical therapy, chiropractic, acupuncture, etc. this very active and radiant, otherwise very healthy human being is now on permanent disability. As traffic began moving again and I made my way to the airport, gratitude flooded through me for what could have happened in a nano-second, and didn’t.

Similarly, a few weeks ago another dear (and very healthy!) friend tripped on a piece of debris on the sidewalk and fell, breaking both bones in her left arm. Immediate care and casting in the ER, but the bones weren’t healing properly, so surgery two weeks ago to install a plate to hold the bones steady. About a week after my friend’s fall, I tripped and fell. I caught myself on both arms, but didn’t break or sprain anything. Again, instant awareness of what could have been, and deep gratitude that it wasn’t.

Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind is bearing me across the sky.
– Ojibwa saying

We can be so earnest in our efforts to stay healthy, stable, grounded in our lives, and we are so simultaneously vulnerable to the fragility and immediacy of disruptive change inherent in being human. (And, we practice resilience, as my two friends have done, in coping with the aftermath of that fragility and disruptive change.) Gratitude practice for what doesn’t happen (as well as gratitude for the gifts of learning and practice when things do go awry) is part of strengthening our resilience by appreciating the great life force that carries us moment by moment, every moment of our lives.

Exercises to Practice

I didn’t mention the power of physical exercise in Bouncing Back to create brain change, but I have posted exercises in the weekly resources ever since I learned from Kelly McGonigal at Stanford that aerobic exercise also stresses the brain in a way that causes it to release Brain-Derived-Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which forces the brain to create new brain cells, which we need for learning and memory. So the next time you’re out walking-running-swimming-bicycling-dancing – moving the body enough to break a sweat, know that besides strengthening the muscles of the heart so that it can pump oxygen to the brain more effectively and release endorphins in the brain so we feel better, more clear headed, you are actually growing new neurons, growing and rewiring your brain.

1) Walk or run 20 minutes a day three times a week. John Ratey in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, suggests one hour of exercise five times a week; certainly more exercise will produce more brain change; the important thing is to get started and to persevere. (Remember the power of smidgeons.)

I now have a practice of running 20 minutes in the morning, then meditating 20 minutes in my garden, and then creating a mind map for the day. That initial hour creates a powerful platform for creativity and productivity that expands the trajectory of the entire day.

[OK; we’re all too busy to do this. Then I learned from Jack Kornfield the other day that Gandhi, even in the midst of his incessant campaign to free India from the rule of the British raj, spent one day a week in silence to tap into the truth force that would motivate and inform the non-violent but revolutionary six other days of the week. Taking the time taps us into the timelessness that helps us use our time effectively.]

2) Walk or run with other folks. The simply physical presence of another boosts our confidence (let alone accountability) that we can persevere in creating a anew, healthy habit. The camaraderie that boosts oxytocin and endorphins creates more positivity and optimism, immediately and in the long run.

3) Walk or run in nature. Researchers have found that a 10 minute walk in a park rather than 10 minutes along city streets or in a mall improves people’s cognitive functioning and learning

4) From Lewis Richmond in Aging as a Spiritual Practice: as you walk or run in nature, with other folks, spend part of that time in a gratitude practice. Focusing on being thankful for the miracle of being alive and the gifts of your walk-run. You will counter the evolutionarily hard-wired negativity bias of the brain and shift your mood toward more openness and approach toward life’s experiences.

5) Walk or run for a good cause. A good friend recently trained for a half-marathon at age 52 to raise money for research in the chronic illness her son had been stricken with two years before. The rigorous training, the bonding with teammates in the region, the raising $2.5 million nationwide, the joy as she crossed the finish line placing third in her age group, all helped optimize her brain health, her mood, and her resilience.

Resources

In this section I usually refer readers to books, websites, and workshops. And I love doing that. There are so many bright, courageous, wise and kind people out there generating useful information, perspectives and tools for strengthening resilience and well-being. It truly takes a village. (At the Symposium, Ron Siegel said, as we get older, it takes a village to complete the end of the sentence. OMG, so true.)

This month, I’m encouraging you to follow the suggestions in the introduction to Bouncing Back, to experiment on your own with the tools in the book, with tools from any resource or path of practice and, as the Buddha taught, to not take anyone else’s word for it; to see for yourself.

Because every brain is conditioned differently, everyone’s experience using these exercises will be different. I suggest you do them at your own pace. It will be helpful to do the exercises in the order presented to progress steadily toward more complex skills. It will be useful to engage in these experiments with curiosity and openness rather than following fixed rules and expecting a guaranteed outcome. As you reflect on the learning your brain is encoding from each exercise, you will notice that you are rewiring your brain as you go along. As you learn to rewire your brain from the level of the neurons up, you will experience the joy of recovering a resilience that will last a lifetime.