Bouncing Back – A Preview of the Book
The title of the book I will spend the next year writing, Bouncing Back, comes from my brother Barry who, brought by multiple health problems to an early retirement in the depressed economy of semi-rural Michigan, knows something about resilience as “bouncing back from the terrible” on a daily basis.
The full title, Bouncing Back:; The Neuroscience of Recovering Resilience, indicates my passion for applying the tools of relational psychology and Buddhist mindfulness practice to help us recover the brain’s innate capacities to respond wisely, adaptively, to the hiccups and hurricanes of our lives, with enough neuroscience to explain how the tools and techniques of both paradigms work, and why their integration is essential.
The very morning I signed the contract with New World Library to deliver the finished manuscript by July 2012, my friend Joanna Intara-Zim gave me a copy of The Compassionate Brain: How Empathy Creates Intelligence. (see Resources below) The German neuroscientist Gerald Huther says: “Psychologists are no longer content to point out that early experiences play a decisive role in determining later basic behaviors and emotions [such as our default coping strategies]. They want to know how these experiences are anchored in the brain…and under what circumstances it might be possible to “overwrite” these engrams with new experiences. [I will suggest in Bouncing Back how to fully transform these coping strategies, often immediately, often permanently.]
[and] “If the structure, and thus also the functioning, of the brain depends in a very critical way on how we use it, then the critical question really becomes: for what purposes should we use the brain so that the potentialities built into it can be fully actualized?
[and] “For decades the presumption was that the neuronal pathways and synaptic connections established during the brain’s initial development were immutable. Today we know that the brain is capable throughout our lifetime of adaptively modifying and reorganizing the connective pathways that it has laid down, and that the development and consolidation of these pathways depends in quite a major way on how we use our brain and what for.
[and] “Until quite recently, it was held to be self-evident that human beings have a big brain to make it possible for them to think. However, the research results of the last years have made it clear that the structure and function of the human brain are especially optimized for tasks that we would subsume under the heading of “psychosocial competence.” [What a fancy term for resilience!] Our brain is thus much more a social organ than it is a thinking organ.”
[and] “The behaviors that promote the fullest development of the brain are those which balance intelligence with such qualities as sincerity, humility and love.”
My friend and close colleague, Rick Hanson, who wrote Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, and who will write the foreword of Bouncing Back, has the lovely phrase: “You can learn to use your mind to change your brain – and thus your life – for the better.” May these reflections, and eventually the full-on book, be helpful in evoking those changes for you and yours.
Reflections on Bouncing Back
Part One of Bouncing Back – Resilience and the Brain – introduces the problem of de-railed resilience and the proposed solutions for both re-wiring our brain’s circuitry and re-building the brain structures that would help us recover our innate capacities for resilience and thus move, most reliably, from reactivity, stuckness and misery to flexibility, adaptability, and well-being in the shortest amount of time.
Chapter One: How Did I Get Stuck in this Mess in the First Place? explores how any coping strategies get encoded in the neural circuitry of our brains in the first place, from the very beginning of brain development and from the bottom up. And how those early pathways of feeling, dealing, and relating become the templates for all future resilience – or not. How our earliest experiences even determine how well the brain structures we rely on for resilience fully mature and function – or not. Thus conditioning how able we are to find our footing again when we are thrown off center – or not. We learn how we can get stuck in “neural swamp” or “neural cement” when coping strategies, encoded in our brains from previously stressful or traumatizing events, don’t work so well any more, or prevent us from learning new strategies that would work better now.
Chapter Two: Harnessing Neuroplasticity to Recover Resilience outlines the conditions necessary for our brains to recover resilience – presence, intention, refuges and resources. The chapter teaches the reader the basics of mindfulness and empathy, practices that together then “hold” the protocols of brain change, or “self-directed neuroplasticity” taught in Part Two. (All credit given to Rick Hanson for that cogent phrase.)
It’s using the tools and techniques of Chapter Two to change our conditioning, from the level of our neurons up, that will help us strengthen the brain’s structures of resilience, even as we learn to re-wire deeply embedded patterns of response, even those that operate below the radar, below conscious awareness. It’s these protocols that will help us:
– see clearly what’s what and respond quickly and wisely;
– manage and move through the turbulent emotions that accompany change and/or threat;
– simultaneously engage with and differentiate from others in skillful dynamics of relating and communicating;
– develop a wise view of life that can recognize “bad things happened to good people” and find the courage and tenacity to commit one’s self completely to the human enterprise anyway;
– stay open to life events and stay on top.
Part Two: Recovering Resilience from the Bottom-Up
Many self-help/personal growth books and many modalities of coaching/therapy presume the level of resilient brain functioning that comes from optimal conditioning; the five chapters of Part Two recover and re-build that platform of resilience.
Chapter Three: Recovering Resilience through Resonant Relationships
The roots of resilience are to be found in the felt sense of existing in the heart and mind of an empathic, attuned, self-possessed other.
– Diana Fosha, PhD
Because the human brain is a social brain, developing not only optimally but actually only in interactions with other human brains, Chapter Three begins re-wiring the brain from the bottom-up through conscious, empathic relationships, within ourselves and with others.
Whether we learned previously that other people, or parts of ourselves, were trustworthy or toxic, we use the protocols of Bouncing Back to:
– create new experiences of self-awareness and self-acceptance;
– re-wire old encoded patterns of attachment-resilience to become more secure-adaptive;
– recover a felt sense of inner safety and trust that is a psychological fulcrum of resilience;
– learn skills of relational intelligence to deepen the conscious, compassionate connection and belonging so fundamental to resilience and well-being;
– capitalize on the “social” nature of the brain itself to strengthen the functioning of the pre-frontal cortex – the neural seat of all resilience.
Chapter Four: Recovering Resilience through the Body
Because coping with life from within our “window of tolerance” – that zone in our body-brain of relaxed alertness that allows us to be calmly present while engaged with the startles of our life or our psyche – is essential to a mature resilience, we learn tools and techniques to
– regulate both the revving up and the shutting down of the nervous system in response to danger/threat (fight-flight or freeze-collapse);
– activate the release of oxytocin, the hormone of “calm and connect,” the immediate and direct antidote to the stress hormone cortisol;
– cultivate the Buddhist practice of equanimity, a state of awareness and acceptance which correlates closely with the baseline physiology of the window of tolerance;
all of which re-build the somatic pre-requisites of resilience, allowing us to cross a viscerally felt threshold from survival responses to thriving.
Chapter Five – Recovering Resilience through our Feelings
Modern neuroscience has contributed much to the re-framing of emotions as signals from our senses to “Pay attention! Something important is happening!”
There’s no such thing as a bad emotion, only an unprocessed one.”
– Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
In this chapter we learn to work with our emotions as unparalleled pathways of human connection and powerful agents of brain change. We learn to:
– recognize and name the endless waves of emotions coming from the bottom-up to be regulated top-down by strengthening the structures of the brain that can do precisely that;
– cultivate the pro-social emotions – gratitude, kindness, generosity – to clear the “negativity bias” of the right hemisphere;
– activate networks of positive memories to re-source ourselves, then re-pair and re-wire negative memories, especially trauma memories stored in implicit-only awareness.
Chapter Six – Recovering Resilience through the Mind
The greatest revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.
– William James
As the mindfulness and compassion practices of the Buddhist tradition are being increasingly validated by modern brain science as powerful agents of brain change, they are rapidly becoming integrated into contemporary psychotherapies that use reflective awareness and empathic acceptance as tools of healing and self-transformation.
In this chapter, we learn to:
– become present and aware – disengaging from any flooding or hijacking, re-engaging from any numbing out or dissociation;
– notice and name patterns as patterns, contents as contents, processes as processes, states of mind as states of mind;
– shift states when problematic, shifting perspectives, especially from a victim “me” to an empowered “I,” to create more options;
– strengthen the response flexibility – the brain’s fulcrum of resilience – that allows us to discern the wholesome from the unwholesome and make wise choices.
Chapter Seven: The Resilience of Simply Being
The March 2011 e-newsletter on Presence – Simply Being and Being With – Heals Trauma previews much of this chapter.
We learn to cultivate a sense of presence – of simply being and being with – that allows us to:
– safely dissolve the self in the sacred and experience first-hand the differences in brain functioning between a sense of “self” and “non-self”;
– create a neural receptivity to the subjective experiences of groundedness, authenticity, true nature, and wholeness;
– skillfully use the naturally expanded states of consciousness to generate new insight, new wisdom.
Part Three: What Does Resilience Now Make Possible?
The learning from new experiences in the five realms of the body-brain we explore in Part Two becomes neuronally integrated through the CEO of resilience in the brain – the prefrontal cortex, called by many neuroscientists “an evolutionary masterpiece.” Part Three explores what manner of creativity, complexity, authentic self-expression and compassionate action now become possible as the mind/heart/soul re-organizes itself and matures from a platform of recovered resilience.
Chapter Eight: Wise Effort Continues to Re-Wire the Personal Self
“Applied resilience” creates a mental-emotional-relational play space where we can learn to:
– radically let go of the unwholesome (stop repeating patterns of coping that simply don’t work so well any more) and pro-actively cultivate the wholesome (utilize the skillful means that actually create the life we want for ourselves and our loved ones);
– create neural pathways that foster genuine exploration, learning, play, creativity, contentment, altruism, etc.;
– re-organize the neural circuitry that constellates the sense of our personal self, revising the coherent narrative of our self as whole, resilient and capable;
– claim the deeper meanings and purposes of our time on this planet in this lifetime.
Chapter Nine: Moving Resilience Beyond the Personal Self
Because human beings are social beings, flourishing best in resonant relationships with others, and because our brains are social organs, flourishing best in resonant interactions with other brains, the crafting of a resilient and authentically fulfilling life doesn’t stop with crafting “more” for the personal self. As we become more resilient, we become more open-minded, more optimistic, more collaborative, more visionary. We dare to explore the boundless depths of the human heart and soul to connect and care.
When resilience is steady, we stop “small-i-fying” ourselves. (Thanks to my friend Daniel Ellenberg for that cogent phrase.) We re-engage the inevitable challenges and catastrophes of our common life and use our resilience (changing course, staying the course as needed) to fuel the compassionate action and generativity that can transform our world. Through wise speech, wise livelihood, wise action on a local or world stage, in family life, schools, government, business, environmental protection.
Chapter Ten: Resilient Rhythm of Ongoing Arriving…and Launching
Stronger integration of the brain’s circuitry and structures, more complex pathways of communication among various functions of the brain itself, means more “give” and “flex” in the entire body-mind system. The brain is now primed to respond flexibly; there’s now a resilience to the neural platform of resilience itself.
Bouncing Back will evolve as I continue to learn what is most effective in recovering our innate capacities for resilience. The book will be chock-a-block full of exercises, stories, poetry, and quotes to illuminate how the protocols work, to help all of these precepts and practices “gel” into a reliable safety net of resilience. Bouncing back then becomes the ongoing path of coping essential to our ongoing happiness and well-being.
Poetry and Quotes to Inspire
What we each learn to do ourselves…
Mastering the art of resilience does much more than restore you to who you once thought you were. Rather, you emerge from the experience transformed into a truer expression of who you were really meant to be.
– Carol Osborn
* * * * *
We all accept that no one controls the weather. Good sailors learn to read it carefully and respect its power. They will avoid storms if possible, but then caught in one, they know when to take down the sails, batten down the hatches, drop anchor and ride things out, controlling what is controllable and letting go of the rest. Training, practice, and a lot of firsthand experience in all sorts of weather are required to develop such skills so that they work for you when you need them. Developing skill in facing and effectively handling the various “weather conditions” in your life is what we mean by the art of conscious living.
– Jon Kabat-Zinn
* * * * *
I’m no longer afraid of storms, for I’ve learned to sail my ship.
– Louise May Alcott
* * * * *
Suffering alone cannot break the human spirit. Human sorrow is not a pathology; it is a poignant inheritance we share with all the family of the earth. In the face of whatever loss, illness, or harm we are given, we remain people of great courage, wisdom and healing.
* * * * *
Between a stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.
– Viktor Frankl
* * * * *
The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only is such moments, propelled by our
discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.
– M. Scott Peck
* * * * *
The Buddhist teachings are fabulous at simply working with what’s happening as your path of awakening, rather than treating your life experiences as some kind of deviation from what is supposed to be happening. The more difficulties you have, in fact, the greater opportunity there is to let them transform you. The difficult things provoke all your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface. And that becomes the moment of truth. You have the choice to launch into the lousy habitual patterns you already have, or to stay with the rawness and discomfort of the situation and let it transform you, on the spot.
– Pema Chodron
* * * * *
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.
– Charles Darwin
* * * * *
Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it’s not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.
– Barack Obama
* * * * *
Then…honoring the importance of love, friendship, community to foster resilience…
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29
* * * * *
Then…classic and timeless…
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master; If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to broken, And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run - Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!
– Rudyard Kipling
Stories to Learn From
Stories to illustrate bouncing back fall into the genre of “triumph over adversity,” whether in history, literature, mythology, fairy tales, film or You-tube. We all have our favorites: The King’s Speech, Billy Elliot, Still Here by Ram Dass, The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
Integral to any story of bouncing back are the many decision points along the way – to change the course, to stay the course. I’m offering the film Made in Dagenham (2010) as this month’s Story to Learn From precisely because of the many decision points to change the course, to stay the course, and how emerging resilience changed history.
In May 1968, 187 working class women machinists walked out of sewing seat covers for the Ford Motor Company plant near Dagenham, England. Their unprecedented strike launched the “equal pay for equal work” movement that swept through the industrialized world in the years immediately following and changed employment practices world-wide, forever.
The film portrays a composite spokesperson, Rita O’Grady, who simply says “bollix” to the union reps about to sell the women down the river of relentless procrastination and undying male chauvinism, and rallies the women to walk out. Rita finds an unexpected ally in Lisa Hopkins, educated at Cambridge but frustratingly unfulfilled as the (house)wife or a Ford Motor Company executive; Lisa lead her own campaign to get fired the schoolteacher who is bullying and physically abusing both their sons. Rita finds another unexpected ally in Britain’s newly appointed Secretary of State, Barbara Castle, who becomes increasingly impatient with Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s sacrificing the cause of the workers who had elected him to mollify the corporate interests who were keeping Britain afloat financially.
These women experience many moments of discouragement and betrayal. Many men – husbands, boyfriends, other union members thrown out of work by the strike’s closing down the plant, have to face their own and their culture’s deeply rooted sexism as they choose and revise their courses, ultimately to support the strike.
The film doesn’t explore Rita’s family background or education or religious beliefs or any of the conditioning that might have fostered capacities of resilience in her brain or encouraged her to become such a force in her character. But the film does offer an inspiring model of how resilience emerges over time as people deepen their awareness and compassion in community.
Exercises to Practice Recovering Resilience
Many of the exercises I have shared in this e-newsletter over the last 3 ½ years will find their way into Bouncing Back. Examples:
In Chapter One of Bouncing Back, we learn about the well-documented negativity bias in the right hemisphere of the brain that leaves us vulnerable to anxiety, shame, loneliness, depression, thus undermining our capacities to be resilient.
In Chapter Three, we deliberately cultivate new experiences of relational resonance – the capacities to deeply attune to and feel felt by another human being – to re-wire our brain’s responses to life events. Even if we have felt hurt, de-valued, exploited in some – many! – of our earlier relationships, it remains irrefutably true that positive interactions with other people – our social brains interacting in wholesome ways with other social brains – remains one of the most powerful and enduring agents of change we have to recover and deepen our resilience.
In this exercise, we learn to cultivate gratitude, one of the most accessible of the pro-social emotions that promote the “left shift,” processing our experience in the more optimistic and approach-oriented left hemisphere of the brain, to strengthen our capacities to be resilient.
[Note: I often suggest doing this exercise in a group of friends because the social engagement in a trustworthy setting is itself transformative. You can easily do this exercise on your own as well, with great benefit. You can do this exercise just once and experience some of the “left shift” toward optimism and self-acceptance.]
Take 5-10 minutes to pause from the ongoing demands of your life, and begin to think of some of the many people that are helping you keep your life going in this moment: someone who helped you find your car keys when you were distracted by rushing on to the next thing; a friend who sent a supportive e-mail when you were going through a hard time; the grocery clerk who promptly swept up the jelly jars your exuberant 3-year old knocked off the shelf; the nurse who brought you a glass of cool water when you were too ill and weak to speak. Take a moment to focus on any gratitude these memories evoke; notice the sensations of gratitude as you let them resonate in your body.
Expand the circle of your awareness to gratitude for the people staffing your local hospital right now, in case you slip on a rug on the way to the bathroom, break a bone in your foot or wrist, and have to be rushed to the emergency room. People staffing airports, drug stores, fire stations, gas stations, testing water quality at the municipal reservoir so that when you turn on the kitchen faucet you have drinkable water to drink. (For years my brother was on call in his home town to drive the snow plow at 3am so folks could get to work at 7am. I know how deeply he appreciated being appreciated for that humble service.) Practice gratitude for the people growing our food and recycling our garbage, for the entire web of life that keeps our life going, moment to moment to moment.
Why This Works
Focusing our attention, as we do in any practice to cultivate pro-social emotions such as gratitude, kindness, generosity, or compassion, builds more cell volume in the anterior cingulate cortex – the brain structure we use to both focus attention and integrate our feelings (right hemisphere) with our thoughts (left hemisphere). The anterior cingulated cortex is structurally located very near and works closely with the pre-frontal cortex – the CEO of resilience.
So when we intentionally and continually evoke experiences of gratitude, acceptance, patience, equanimity, we are strengthening the parts of our brains that neurologically allow us to respond to life events with an open heart rather than a contracted one, with resilience and care rather than fear, with approach and acceptance (the left shift) rather than withdrawal and shutting down.
At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by the spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
– Albert Schweitzer
The Hand on the Heart exercise works in less than a minute to calm a startle or soothe an upset. You can do the first hand-on-the-heart part of the exercise 30 times a day if you need to: hearing bad news on the phone, about to open an envelope from the IRS, stopped in gridlocked traffic, realizing you just left your laptop on the bus, seeing the disappointment in your son’s face that you can’t take him to the baseball game tonight after all.
You can incorporate the second feeling-loved-and-cherished part of the exercise at least a dozen times a day: before you get out of bed in the morning, over the first cup of coffee, taking a moment before a serious conversation with a parent or a boss; re-grouping after a potential contract or a potential romance falls through.
When you repeatedly integrate the two parts together, you will begin to create a new, steadier, resilience in dealing with the ups and downs of the day, because the repetition of the practice actually does create new brain structure and strengthens the neural pathways of resilience.
1. Sit comfortably in your chair; allow your eyes to gently close. Focus your awareness on your breathing, gently in and out. When that’s steady, place your own hand on your own heart, feeling the warmth of the touch of your hand on your heart. Breathe gently and deeply into your heart center. Breathe into your heart center any sense of goodness, safety, trust, acceptance, ease, you can muster. You may elaborate this as you wish. Breathing in a sense of contentment, well-being, a sense of kindness for yourself, gratitude for others. Slowly, gently, breathe into your heart qualities of self acceptance and appreciation, even delight.
2. Once that’s steady, call to mind a moment of being with someone who loves you unconditionally, someone you feel completely safe with. This may be a moment with your beloved partner, or a beloved child, or parent, though the dynamics of those relationships can sometimes be complicated and the emotions mixed, so you may choose a moment of being with a dear friend, a trusted teacher, a close colleague or neighbor, a moment when you felt seen and accepted, loved and cherished. You may choose to remember your therapist, your grandmother, a third grade teacher. You may evoke the love of a spiritual figure like Jesus or the Dalai Lama. You may imagine being with a beloved pet. Pets a great, actually.
As you remember feeling safe and loved with this person or pet, see if you can feel the feelings and sensations that come up with that memory in your body. Take a small moment to really savor this feeling of warmth, safety, trust, love in your body. When that feeling is steady, let go of the image and simply bathe in the feeling for 30 seconds.
Why This Works
Breathing deeply and fully activates the calming branch of our autonomic nervous system – the parasympathetic branch. The parasympathetic re-balances the revving up of the body-brain’s fight-flight response when we feel threatened or agitated. Breathing or pranayama has been a core practice in yoga and meditation to relax the body and steady the mind for 3500 years. Breathing positive emotions into the heart center restores a calm equilibrium to our heart rate, according to the HeartMath Research Institute in Santa Cruz, CA. Resourcing the body through breathing returns us to our window of tolerance so we can remain present and engaged with what’s happening right now, right here.
Remembering moments of feeling safe and loved activates the release of oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is the naturally occurring hormone of safety and trust, bonding and attachment, of “calm and connect.” Oxytocin is the brain’s immediate and direct antidote to the stress hormone cortisol. When we again feel safe in our body and in our world, we can once again think clearly and respond wisely.
We can give our brains baths of oxytocin whenever we are with someone we love and who loves us – for real, not supposed to. Neuroscientists have demonstrated many times that even remembering or imagining someone we love, with whom we feel loved, is enough to release small but regular doses of oxytocin. As Dan Goleman says in Social Intelligence, “No wonder office cubicles are papered with photos of loved one.”
Integrating the two parts of the exercise together, the warm touch of the hand on the heart also helps release the oxytocin, resources the body, and calms down the stress response. There are neural cells embedded in the heart – why we can feel heartache or a breaking heart when we lose a connection with someone we’ve treasured. Those cells are why we can feel the soothing comfort of love and connection, too. Neural pathways from the heart to the brain signal the brain directly to release the oxytocin that evokes a sense of safe connection with others that immediately down-regulates our stress.
There’s a teaching story in the Buddhist tradition that helps us learn how to deeply repair and heal emotional trauma that’s happening right now or that still hijacks us from the past.
If you take a teaspoon of salt, dissolve it in a glass of water, and then take a sip of the water – yuk! The water is too salty to drink. If you take a teaspoon of salt, dissolve it in a large freshwater pond, then dip the glass into the pond and sip that water, the salt has dissolved; there’s no taste of it at all. Scientists now understand the neural mechanisms in the brain that allow us to “dissolve” emotional trauma in our larger practices of mindfulness, empathy and positive emotions, so that the memories no longer have the power or charge they once had.
Wished for Outcome exercise
Sit quietly and comfortably, focusing your awareness on being here, now, in this body, noticing this breath. Call to mind a moment you have felt safe, loved, connected, cherished. Or call to mind a moment of ease, well-being, goodness, kindness, gratitude. Remember that moment in as much detail as you can, in as many levels of your body-brain as you can – a visual image, the feelings that the memory evokes, where you feel those feelings in our body, any thoughts, you have about yourself now as you remember the sweetness of that moment then. Let yourself savor this moment in a mindful and compassionate “holding” of the memory.
When that moment of feeling resourced in the positive memory is steady, call to mind a moment of experience when things went awry, however slight or terrible, a hiccup or a hurricane. Go back into the memory of that moment, imagine what was happening quite vividly, light up all the neural networks – visual images, body sensations, emotions, thoughts or beliefs at the time. You wish you could have done something differently at the time but didn’t.
Then in your imagination begin to visualize a wished for outcome. What you wish could have happened differently. What you would have done differently. What somebody else could have done differently, even if this never could have happened in real life. Perhaps you even wish none of this had happened at all. You can imagine what would have happened if this event hadn’t happened. Imagine the new scenario in as much detail as you can. Let the new story unfold as you would have wished. This technique does not change what did happen, but it does change our relationship to what happened. It doesn’t re-write history but it does re-wire the brain. Let your mind play out this new scenario, and then notice the felt sense of how you feel now in the new scenario, any emotions or thoughts or beliefs about yourself that come up now. If they are more positive, resilient, let them soak in now.
Why This Works
When we recall a memory, any memory, it activates the firing of the neural network of that memory for an instant, even if the memory has been held implicitly, outside of awareness, before. The neural network of the memory “lights up” for a fraction of a second. In that fraction of a second, the neural network of that memory falls apart and reconsolidates many times a second. This is how memories change naturally over time. With any activated memory, the synaptic connections between neurons that hold that memory pattern together deconsolidate and reconsolidate – it’s a natural process. We can use the deconsolidation-reconsolidation mechanism of our brains to pro-actively change our relationship to problematic emotional memories in the following way:
First, we consolidate the resource of positive memories as we did in the exercise. The neural networks of positive states are firing – falling apart and reconsolidating in the brain naturally, so quickly we don’t even notice the process. Then, in a state of mindful empathy, we bring to awareness the moment of memory we want to “dissolve”. Focusing our conscious awareness on the second memory “lights up” the neural networks of that memory also. Now the neural networks of both memories are lit up simultaneously, held in a dual awareness. (This does take practice; this re-pair is how the brain re-wires.)
As the paired memories are held in conscious awareness simultaneously, the networks fall apart and reconsolidate together. When the positive memory is strong enough (the “lake” of mindfulness, empathy and positive emotions large enough) the reconsolidation of the positive memory will trump the reconsolidation of the second more negative memory, re-wiring them together in a more wholesome way, often instantly, often permanently.
I have used this technique so many times with clients, with students. The response often is an astonished, “What was I so upset about?” The neuroscientists have been able to image the process in their scanners for the first time in the last 7-10 years, so now they can see what happens in the brain when we harness the process of de-consolidation re-consolidation. This is the basis of all trauma therapy. It is what allows a trauma experience to dissolve in our neural circuitry like the salt dissolves in the lake.
Mindfulness is being present, in the moment, to the experience that is happening in the moment, reflecting on experience in the moment as the experience that is happening in this moment. With practice, we can notice any thought as a thought, any pattern of thoughts as a pattern. We can notice any feeling as a feeling, any cascade of feelings as a cascade. We can notice any state of mind, even multi-layered, richly complex (torturous) states of mind as a state of mind. We can notice any process of the brain – planning, organizing, evaluating – as a process of the brain. We can notice any story that we’ve told ourselves since we were five, or twelve, or since we got married, or since we got divorced, as a story. We can know that any view, no matter how forcefully compelling or stubbornly held in this moment, is not – does not have to be – true in all moments. We can see clearly that sometimes I think this way, sometimes I don’t. I’m thinking or feeling this way now, but I wasn’t ten minutes ago or yesterday. We can realize that what we’re seeing is not the ultimate truth but are tracings, or the entrenchment, of patterns of neural firing in the brain.
This exercise harnesses that capacity of mindfulness, to see any phenomena as phenomena, to help us identify any states of being that inform our perspectives and views as a state of being, a key step toward pro-actively choosing to shift those states of being and those perspectives – a necessary element in generating options that increases the response flexibility that is a key component of resilience.
Just as we can walk around any piece of furniture in our home and see it from different angles, we can walk around any phenomena or event in our life and see it from different angles, from different states of being that inform different perspectives. With practice, we can identify the perspectives we tend to filter our experience through most often, and then choose to respond to life events from the perspective(s) that is/are more flexible, more adaptive, more resilient.
The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
– Marcel Proust
Take 10-15 minutes to identify five different states of being that inform your views or perspectives on things. Examples: being lonely, discouraged, down; being friendly, warm-hearted, generous in spirit; being exuberant, energized, ready to tackle an army; being thoughtful, contemplative, in a reverie; being interested, curious, open-minded.
Sometimes it’s helpful to think of people who fully embody these states of being in order to evoke them in our awareness more clearly – people we know, literary characters, historical figures, creatures in film or fantasy, ourselves at different ages and stage of development. People who embody being cantankerous, grouchy, irritable; being playful, delighted, happy; being caring, compassionate, committed; being critical, judgmental, complaining; being focused, clear-headed, wise.
(When you brainstorm states of being with a friend, you can probably come up with at least 20, the relational resonance itself creating a mental play space between you to generate more ideas.) When you’ve identified at least five different states of being that could inform your views or perspectives, experiment with applying the different views or perspectives generated by different states of being to a particularly troubling event in your life; a child custody hearing, accidentally hitting the neighbor’s dog as it dashed in front of your car, your luggage being lost at the beginning of a two-week vacation in a foreign country, half of your life savings lost in a real estate deal gone sour, your son calling at 2:30am asking you to post bail for his second DUI.
You probably did cope with this life event from one state of being or another informing your views and thus your actions in response. You can reflect on the impact of that perspective applied to that particular event, good, bad or ugly. (Use the ABC’s of mindfulness – to be Aware, to Be with, with Compassion!)
As a result, you may be able to imagine other outcomes, other consequences, simply by shifting your view. Even if a different outcome couldn’t have happened at the time, or at all, ever, we are training our brains to shift perspectives and generate options, the only way we can create more choices in how we respond to the ups and downs of our lives.
Why This Works
When we become fully aware in the present moment of any phenomena – a feeling, a thought, a mental state, a pattern of behavior, a view, a belief, we light up the entire neural network of that phenomena – the entire constellation of body sensations and impulses, the emotional valence, the cognitions and beliefs. When we shift our full awareness of that integrated state to a full awareness of another integrated state, we are shifting the entire neural network of that state of being to another neural network from the bottom up, not just our conscious thoughts about it. The noticing and naming the various states of being, as well as noticing and naming the shifts among them, does help keep the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain online, so that we can step back and reflect on the states and the state shifts rather than being embedded in them or identified with them. When we’re not tangled in commentary, we can find a calm center, the eye of the hurricane.
Once we’ve experienced that we can “monitor and modify” our perspective, to use Dan Siegel’s phrase in The Mindful Brain, that we can intentionally shift the phenomena of an entire state of being, even once, we create the most significant phenomenological shift of all, from a helpless “poor me” to an empowered “I” that can generate options and choose among them wisely. We are training our minds to shift our states of being. We are learning that we can be flexible; response flexibility is the neurobiological fulcrum of resilience.
Between a stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lie our growth and our freedom. The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.
– Viktor Frankl
This exercise deepens our experience of simply being, helping us dissolve a sense of the personal self into the sacred, resting in a spacious, non-personal Being-ness that profoundly fosters resilience.
Sit comfortably. Allow your eyes to gently close. Focus your awareness on your breathing, gently in and out. Focus your awareness on your breathing, and then notice your own awareness of your breathing. Awareness allowing you to know you are breathing. When that awareness of your breathing is steady, begin to notice the breathing of the people around you, no need to do anything, just noticing other people breathing as you are breathing. And noticing your awareness of that.
Expand your awareness a bit to know that all the people in this room are breathing; become aware of everyone here breathing together, and become aware of your awareness. Expand your awareness more to include people you know, who are not in this room; you know they are breathing in this moment, too. Notice your awareness of your awareness of everyone breathing.
Expand your awareness to include people you don’t know, outside this room, beyond this building, beyond this neighborhood, beyond this city; become aware of all kinds of people breathing, breathing together. Notice your awareness of your awareness.
Expand your awareness to include people all over the country, all over the planet, all breathing. Expand your awareness to include all living creatures, breathing, breathing in the parks, the forests, underground, in the lakes and rivers, in the oceans, the sky. All sentient beings breathing, breathing together. And notice your awareness of your awareness of the breathing. Expand your awareness to include all forms of existence, some breathing, some not. Expand your awareness beyond our planet to all forms of existence, and the space between the planets and stars. Expand your awareness out as far as you can imagine; and notice your awareness of your awareness expanding. Rest in the spacious awareness of Awareness; your awareness of simply being.
When you are ready, bring your awareness back to being aware of sitting in this room, in this moment, breathing.
Why This Works
Neuroscientists are beginning to map two entirely different modes of processing experience in the brain. According to the research of Norman Farb in Attending to the Present and Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, our brains can process experience from two distinct (though integrated) neural networks. A medial (midline) network in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain allows focused processing, especially on future and past events, is evaluative, goal-directed and purposeful. The medial network is what helps us constellate the narrative of the personal self (thank goodness!) and allows us to attend to all the necessary tasks of verbalizing and “selfing.” Lateral networks, especially in the right pre-frontal cortex, allow processing that is more now-focused, more sensory-based than thought-based, more experiential than narrative, more panoramic and impersonal, less verbal, less judgmental. The lateral network is what brings us into a state of mindful presence. (Even deeper thank goodness!)
It’s the brain’s capacity to access the lateralized state of mindful presence, get the big picture, be comfortable with the unknown, the uncertain, and shift back and forth between lateral and medial processing, between presence and the drama of the story, that creates the healing moments in all trauma treatments, that creates the resilient dancing with all moments of life in general, with awareness, acceptance, and emergent wisdom.
If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
– Toni Morrison
The books below are among my favorites of all time; the giants whose shoulders I’m standing on as I attempt to apply tools of relational psychology, Buddhist mindfulness practice, and modern brain science to increasing our capacities for resilience.
The Compassionate Brain: How Empathy Creates Intelligence by Gerald Huther, PhD. Shambala Publications, 2006.
A humorous and engaging (not technical!) user’s manual that explains clearly how the brain works, how behavior directly changes the circuitry of the brain, and how behaviors that promote the fullest development of the brain are those which balance emotions and intellect, dependence and autonomy, openness and focus, and emphasize heart qualities such as sincerity, humility and love.
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom by Rick Hanson, PhD, with Richard Mendius, M.D. New Harbinger Publications, 2009
Buddha’s Brain skillfully leads the reader through the neuroscience of brain change, applying specific practices from Western cognitive psychology and the Buddhist contemplative tradition to “learn to use the mind to change your brain – and thus your life – for the better.” A national best-seller; deservedly so.
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. Bantam Books, 2010.
A brilliant distillation of cognitive neuroscience applied to the mindful awareness of our inner landscape and the inner landscape of others, and to cultivating the relational resonance and empathy essential for brain change.
Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships by Daniel Goleman, PhD. (Bantam, 2006)
Dr. Goleman uses the latest discoveries from modern brain science to describe clearly what goes on in our brains when we relate to other people – the biological mechanisms of our interacting skillfully with others. Dr. Goleman delineates eight specific capacities of this “social intelligence” and reveals how our history of interactions with others determines whether or not the neural structures and circuits that support these capacities fully mature in our brains. Dr. Goleman vividly illustrates the positive benefits of social intelligence on our lives and the disastrous impacts the lack of it has on our relationships, our health, in business, and in government.
Born To Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner. W.W. Norton, 2009.
Dr. Keltner weaves together insights from the new studies of positive emotions in neuroscience, evolution, and philosophy. Includes highly readable accouonts of his own research into laughter, compassion, touch, awe, morality, etc.