Thinking Outside the Box

Thinking Outside the Box

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.
– Albert Einstein

The impacts of global warming and a failing global economy require our leaders – and us – to learn to “think outside the box.” That requires learning to harness the neural plasticity of our brains to create new neural pathways that support new views that allow us to re-vision the ways we’ve always seen and done things before.

Whether you’re re-organizing your finances, organizing a neighborhood re-cycling program, or re-defining a life balance of work-family-play, this month’s e-newsletter offers practical tools to create the conditions that will support the brain re-wiring that supports life re-visioning. And one stellar example of thinking outside the box under Books and Websites. May you and yours find them immediately useful.

Reflections on Thinking Outside the Box

Every new experience causes neurons in our brains to fire. The more new experiences, the more neuronal firing. Enough new experiences, enough neurons fire together to wire together. This is how our brains “learn.” Learning re-wires the brain. We create new pathways and circuits in our brains that allow new ways of seeing and doing things in our lives that didn’t exist before.

This process of re-wiring our brains isn’t just to hold new knowledge or even more wholesome knowledge. It’s to so radically shift the lens through which we see old and new knowledge that we create an entirely new view. If the new view is large enough and is shared by large enough numbers of people, it becomes a new paradigm, a new framework to organize and use the knowledge we already have. A new paradigm allows us to act from radically more creative minds and more compassionate hearts in radically new behaviors that will actually change our collective future.

What we need is what the ancient Israelites called hochma – the science of the heart – the capacity to see, feel and then to act as if the future depended on you. Believe me, it does.
– Bill Moyers

Intentionally Creating New Experiences – to Create New Lenses – to Create New Neural Pathways – to Create New Paradigms

Psychology professor Dacher Keltner, PhD, researches the high end of human development at his Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley, which also sponsors a seminar series on The Science of a Meaningful Life. (www.greatergoodmag.org)

At the Compassion, Mindfulness and Well-Being seminar last weekend, he proposed that compassion is a master emotion, biologically rooted deep in our brains by the imperatives of evolution. That because human infants require such a prolonged period of caregiving to mature into adults, homo sapiens evolved to become ultra-social and ultra-cooperative. The early communities of individuals who could communicate, collaborate, resolve conflicts without having to move into separate territories, were the ones to pass on their genes – the sine qua non of evolution.

The new lens of neuroscience is validating a new view of evolution – that the empathic caregiving that drove the development of the higher cortex of the human brain was shaped by the most potent of pressures we have evolved to adapt to – the need to care for the vulnerable. Dr. Keltner suggests that that new view is shaping a new paradigm, shifting us from “survival of the fittest” to “survival of the kindest.” (Or, as Louis Cozolino writes in The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain: we are the “survival of the nurtured.”)

Compassion as a master emotion is the platform for many other pro-social emotions and behaviors – empathy, gratitude, good will, altruism, forgiveness, cooperation, social responsibility, social well-being. A consistent focus on compassion in a meditation practice activates the left frontal lobe of the cortex. This “left shift “inclines us to approach people and life situations rather than avoid them; it also assigns a positive emotional valence to experience rather than a negative one, which helps down-regulate stress.

We can set own intentions to cultivate the pro-social emotions and behaviors that will generate the new experiences that will eventually shift the paradigm we are living from.

– Take a moment to focus on good will before turning the key in the car ignition.

– Take a moment to ask “How can people feel better about themselves after talking with me” before entering a room full of people.

– Cultivate an awareness that catches a moment of harsh criticism as it’s about to fly out of our mouth, perhaps it already did, and say the word compassion to instantly break the reactivity and begin to send the brain in another direction.

– Take five minutes at the end of the day to consider: What made me laugh today? Who inspired me today? Was there any moment of surprise and delight today?

– Take a moment to remember any learning, any new view today. Congratulate yourself on growing new neurons, shifting from a state of the brain to a trait of the brain to a new way of being.

– Evoke an image of someone you can naturally feel compassion for – your child or a pet. Evoke the feeling of compassion in your heart, usually described as a radiating warmth. Keep the physical sensation going as you substitute an image of someone more challenging to feel compassion for – a toxic boss or a hostile neighbor. Continue to feel the compassion for another human being for one minute, even if they’ve been a jerk.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
– Plato

Can We Even See the Boxes We’re In? Compassionate Inquiry

“Everything old looks different because it is now seen in a new light – an awarenss that is no longer confined by the conventional dimensionality and mind set. And the journey toward health and sanity is nothing less than an invitation to wake up to the fullness of our lives as if they actually mattered.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to our Senses

Jon Kabat-Zinn was the guest speaker at Dr. Keltner’s Compassion, Mindfulness and Well-Being seminar last weekend. For 30 years, his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs have been quietly revolutionizing medical care in this country. MBSR teaches people to pay attention, on purpose, to experience in the present moment, without judgment. Research in Richie Davidson’s Laboratory of Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin has demonstrated that even just 8 weeks of MBSR training can improve immune function and change brain structure – especially the structures we use to focus attention and to integrate feelings and thoughts.

Mindfulness has been the foundation of compassionate inquiry into the boxes (patterns of neural firing) we so carefully construct in our minds and hang on to for dear life for the last 2500 years in the East. As mindful awareness practices come to the West, thanks to pioneers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, practitioners are learning how to train their minds to change their brains to support liberating choices in personal realms as well as realms of social responsibility.

Meditation creates the conditions for revelation.
– Sylvia Boorstein

Mindfulness practice is not casual navel-gazing. Mindfulness supports a rigorous Wise Effort, learning to let go of the unwholesome – hostility, envy, indifference – and cultivate the wholesome – generosity, patience, equanimity, thereby setting in motion a new cycle of new experiences – new lenses – new neural pathways – new paradigms of behavior.

Seeing the Box from Different Angles – Coaching

More and more people are turning to life coaches to help them approach old problems or stuck places from new angles and perspectives. Because coaching uses so many experiential tools, people have an opportunity to re-wire their brains in practically every session. Coaching helps people re-vision their lives and/or relationships and/or careers, then identify action steps to fulfill those goals.

One of the most powerful tools along the way is Shifting Perspectives because it also identifies old ways of thinking (inner saboteurs) that block the new neural pathways and thus the new actions from emerging. [See Exercises to Practice below for instructions in Shifting Perspectives.]

Re-Organizing Your House Re-Organizes Your Mind

One of the most important lessons about learning to think outside the box is to learn that we can. And one of the places we can feel most boxed in to habitual thinking – or non-thinking – is in our home. Walking past the piles of books, papers, financial records, cultural events calendars stacked in piles all around the house; the piles of toys, gadgets and paint supplies we’ve stored in the garage; the family photos we hung in the hallway seven years ago. We walk past but don’t even “see” them anymore.

Last fall, I finally admitted my own overwhelm in coping with clutter and surrendered to the higher power of an organizer, someone who could hold my hand as I sorted-donated-recycled 30 shelves of books, and 35 paper bags of old magazines, event flyers, notes for graduate school classes, vacation itineraries from ten years ago, manuals for equipment I no longer owned.

Re-organizing is more than clearing out of our homes what is no longer needed. Re-organizing is more than a metaphor for clearing out of our minds and lives what is no longer needed, though there is that.

Abundance is not in my things but in the space between my things.
– Stephanie Barbic

Bottom line: re-organizing is re-perceiving. I cleaned out three dresser drawers and re-perceived the trajectory of my adult life, more professional than bicyclist and backpacker now. I donated 14 boxes of books, the archaeological record of my non-profit-political organizing-wilderness travel days, and could “see” myself as the clinician-coach-consultant-trainer-writer I have become.

At times I could sense my brain re-organizing itself, kind of woozy and underwater, as I stared at boxes of CD’s on the floor until my brain popped opened a new channel that could figure out what to do with them. After several months of re-perceiving things, my mind began to re-perceive processes, capturing articles and podcasts as they came over the internet. Creating a calendar that actually allows me to build in down-time amidst the careening around time. I remember spontaneously dancing around the kitchen after clearing out seven cupboards, perceiving a far more efficient way to organize the re-cycling. “My brain is growing new neurons! My brain is growing new neurons!”

Ultimately, re-organizing a house does re-organize the brain. We’re creating the experiences that push our brains to re-perceive our possessions and our relationships to them, thus our relationships to ourselves and our values. And then we really perceive that if we can re-perceive one thing, we can re-perceive anything. That’s the new paradigm.

Helping Your Brain Work Better – Neurofeedback

The cover story for the March 2009 issue of Ode magazine was “Re-wired and Inspired: How neurofeedback can train your brain to help reduce stress, enhance creativity and improve mental health.”

Neurofeedback is an emerging technology, similar to biofeedback, that teaches people to bring their brain waves into a state of focused attention and relaxed concentration, which helps reduce stress and enhance positive emotions. The technology involves electrodes affixed to the scalp to pick up the brain’s electrical signals. An amplifier processes those signal and sends them to a laptop where they’re represented graphically on a screen in an easy-to-read feedback display. Though not yet validated for treating specific disorders (data on impacts on ADHD are the most promising so far), neurofeedback does train people to produce brainwaves firing at appropriate frequencies to provide the concentration and calm needed to deal with underlying life issues.

My own experience of neurofeedback was through Low Energy Neurofeedback Systems (LENS) that I found through referrals from a network of local psychotherapists. LENS is different from the training system described in Ode magazine. The LENS practitioner stimulated 19 different points on my scalp to create a compute “map’ of where my brain was under-firing or over-firing. Then she used very low energy stimulation to down-regulate or up-regulate the firing. The very first session, with only a few points stimulated, I felt as calm and focused as if I had just completed a two week silent mediation retreat. Over several months various processes in my brain re-organized themselves and my brain simply worked better. I could get into the “flow” of a project more easily and maintain the focus for longer; my memory improved; my sleep improved; my ability to synthesize several ideas together or rotate the angle I was seeing a problem from improved. After a dozen sessions or so, the effects of the neurofeedback sustained for longer and longer periods, now indefinitely.

Poetry and Quotes to Inspire

In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned find themselves equipped to live in a world which no longer exists.”
– Eric Hoffer

* * * * * *

Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.
– Anais Nin

* * * * * *

The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
– Marcel Proust

* * * * * *

Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimension.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes

* * * * * *

You’re closer to your glory leaping an abyss than re-upholstering a rut.
– James Broughton

Stories to Learn From

“Beyond Belief” is Beth Murphy’s paradigm-shifting documentary about two American women widowed by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and their “outside the box” efforts to channel their anguish into raising funds to empower hundreds of thousands of Afghani women widowed by the American war on terrorism, the Russian invasion, the Taliban occupation, decades worth.

Patti Quigley and Susan Retik were “ordinary” suburban Boston housewives, both pregnant, when the planes their husbands were on were flown into the World Trade Center in 2001. In interviews, both Patti and Susan stressed how important it was to them to “respond out of love rather than hate.” They organized a three-day bike ride from ground-zero in Manhattan to Boston, raising $140,000 that was distributed to economic development projects for Afghani women through Care International. Three years after 9/11, they traveled to Afghanistan to meet with some of the women who had started their own businesses through Patti and Susan’s funding, choosing to make their own personal statement of international reconciliation that continues to ripple still. [www.netflix.com]

Exercises to Practice Thinking Outside the Box

1. 100 Ways to Use a Brick

I remember this exercise from a creativity workshop; it’s more fun if you do it with a group of people. Choose an object to brainstorm creative uses for. Ours was a brick, but it could be a wooden spoon, a bucket, a pillow. Everyone throws out unconventional ideas of how to use the brick; the ideas can get wackier and wackier. (Maybe using bricks to take up volume in a toilet tank during a drought came out of a session like this.) The point of brainstorming is to spin creative ideas off each other with no judgment or evaluation. By the time you get to the 99th use of a brick (weight training when you’re stranded until the tow truck comes) you’ve either gotten out of the box or pushed the envelope of the box quite a bit; which trains our brains to do it with even more substantial issues like creating a school tutoring project or reducing the costs of health care.

2. Coaching – Shifting Perspectives

From the Coaches Training Institute: the purpose is to see a sticky problem from many different perspectives, identify the inner saboteurs that block change from each perspective, and then be able to choose the perspective it ultimately makes the most sense to solve the problem by.

Choose a problem, issue, sticky wicket to work on. (I learned to do this exercise moving to a different place in the room for each perspective, or imagining standing in a different slice of an imaginary pie on the ground. The movement helps change the “view.” Up to you.)

Move to your first perspective (say, the part of you that’s the most worried about the problem). Inhabit the perspective fully. How do you stand or sit or lie down in this perspective? What do you look at? How do you feel in your gut? What do you start to think when you feel that? Would you be dressed differently or be a different age in this perspective? Any negative thoughts, doubts, nagging, threats in this perspective? (The inner saboteurs.) Can you put those thoughts, doubts, nags, etc., safely someplace else for the time being? (If not, they may need to be worked with as their own different perspective.) What values seem most important from this perspective? Finally, as you complete your exploration of this perspective, give it a name to make it easy to come back to and re-inhabit again later. (Example: worry-wart.)

Move to another part of the room or the pie and shift into a different perspective. (Say, the part of you that would just as soon go to the beach and forget the whole thing.) Inhabit the perspective fully. How do you stand, etc.? Take your time with each perspective, exploring it fully, body, mind, gut, soul. Be sure to give each perspective a name (beach bum) as you complete your exploration to make it easy to come back to and re-inhabit later.

Take the time to generate 5-7 perspectives. (Inner saboteurs may become full-blown perspectives.) Include your Wiser Self or Wise Guide as one of the perspectives. Reviewing each of the perspectives in turn helps sort them out from each other, giving you very different views of the problem.

Then feel your way into which perspective it makes the most sense to make any decisions from. (It’s often the Wise Guide, especially if you’ve spent sufficient time in each of the other perspectives, but it doesn’t have to be, not at all.)

Making a decision from this chosen perspective should help it feel in alignment with your true values and priorities and help you express those values and priorities in the world.

3. Model of Learning

[Not so much an exercise as a helpful model of steps we go through as learning re-wires our brains. I credit my own life coach, Dan Clurman, with this model.]

Unconscious incompetence:

– we don’t know how to do something and we don’t even know that we don’t know. We’re innocent or clueless; the brain could be in homeostasis here

Conscious incompetence:

– uh oh, now we know we don’t know how to do something and we will need to learn. Implicit memories of embarrassment, shame, fear of failure are most likely to surface right here and need to be worked through or they will de-rail us and we won’t learn or change. We just won’t. We’ll stay stuck.

Conscious competence:

– through all of our new experiences, resources, instructions, role models, we are learning. Becoming masterful. And the brain is re-wiring. New patterns of neural firing are being stored in long-term memory. I first heard it takes 17 repetitions for our brains to learn something new, i.e., for the patterns of neural firing to become stable and over-riding previous patterns. Then I heard 58. Whatever – it takes more than once. We spend a lot of our lives here, of course. Learning requires the brain to re-organize itself, re-integrate itself, from time to time. Steep learning curves accelerate that need for integration. The more integration, the better our brains function. We become more masterful and resilient in our lives.

Unconscious competence:

– once we know how to do something well enough, it becomes unconscious programming in our brains; we don’t even have to think about it any more. Like riding a bicycle. Wonderful when thinking outside the box become an unconscious competence; we don’t have to make ourselves do it; it actually becomes fun to do it.

4. Consciousness raising groups

Gathering with other like-minded souls was how a lot of the “movement” got its momentum in the 1960’s (that dates me!). I’m still so passionate about real-time, person to person conversations to help us think outside the box, because our brains do change most readily in interactions with other brains. When we resonate with other folks in mind and heart, ideas are born and shared, creative sparks fly, and en-courage-ment is strengthened. I do bow to the incredible resources we have available to us now through technology to learn of other folks thinking outside the box: Bill Moyers Journal, Fresh Air, even You-Tube (where else can you watch someone teaching elephants to paint in Thailand, or someone in Australia giving out thousands of free hugs, or a lion released to the wild a year later recognizing the couple that raised him from a cub, or a cell phone salesman winning Britain’s top talent show singing opera?)

But there is something about brains engaging directly, inter-personally, with other brains, that creates new views, new wisdom, right in that moment, that simply can’t be replaced. I heard Dan Siegel ask a conference audience of about 500, “Why do we bother to come together when we could all stay home and read the books? Because our brains develop – stimulation and regulation – by engaging with other brains.”

I encourage you to find the professional and personal growth workshops that stimulate you to think outside the box. Gathering with other people provides half the learning and much of the joy.

5. Poetry readings

One of my favorite ways now to gather together with people to stimulate ourselves to think outside of the box is poetry readings. I’ve met 3-5 times a year with a group of friends for a Gourmet Poets Society for the last 8 years now. We gather around 6pm for a pot-luck supper and schmoozing; we start reading poetry about 7:30pm. People share favorite poets or read their own writing. The magic is how one poem sparks the idea for another and we collectively and spontaneously weave a theme for the evening – courage, frivolity, death, love and loss of love. We break for chocolate fondue around 9:00pm. Hearts open, sometimes with tears, often with laughter, spirits soar. We read a few more poems before heading off into our various lives again, grateful for the refuge and the inspiration, encouraged to live more outside the box on every realm.

The Lightest Touch

Good poetry begins with
the lightest touch,
a breeze arriving from nowhere,
a whispered healing arrival,
a word in your ear,
a settling into things,
then, like a hand in the dark,
it arrests the whole body,
steeling you for revelation.

In the silence that follows
a great line,
you can feel Lazarus,
deep inside
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.
– David Whyte
Everything is Waiting for You

Books and Websites

Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything by Daniel Goleman, Broadway Books, 2009


I’m recommending just one book and just one website this month to focus on one stellar example of thinking outside the box.

Dan Goleman created new lenses that created new paradigms when he wrote Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Now in Ecological Intelligence, he is proposing a radical transparency in how consumers “vote” for sustainable manufacturing, distribution and disposal of consumer goods. Literally knowing the hidden impacts of what we buy can change everything.

When Dan Goleman, speaking at a local university last week, asked how many of us re-cycle, nearly all 600 of us raised our hands. Dan then educated us about the process of life cycle assessment (LCA) for say a bar of soap or a tube of toothpaste. What are the actual costs of extracting materials from the earth, manufacturing products and by-products, transporting goods across continents to our store shelves, putting by-products back into the earth, air, and water of our planet, sometime across continents. What are the hidden health, environmental and social costs of a product; what is its actual ecological “footprint”.

95% of the life cycle impact of any product happens before we purchase it; consumers usually get to make conscious decisions only on the remaining 5% of the life cycle – recycling or throwing the product in the garbage/landfill. Until now.

Dan’s guest speaker was Dara O’Rourke who developed the concept and software technology behind www.goodguide.com

Good Guide crunches data from hundreds of complex LCA data bases for 70,000 toys, foods, personal care and household products. (Electronics and apparel are in the works.) Good Guide analyzes all the data of a product’s back story: carcinogens, carbon emissions in the supply chain, how the workers who made the product were treated. Then Good Guide assigns all products a bottom line 0-10 LCA rating of sustainability.

The genius of Good Guide is that it’s downloadable to an i-phone. You can be in your local grocery store debating which brand of detergent to buy, click on Good Guide and in about 15 seconds see the ecological footprint of each brand compared to other brands. You get to “vote” for sustainability for the other 95% of the life cycle.

It has been four days since I heard Dan’s lecture, Dara’s data, bought the book, and checked out the website. I don’t have an i-phone yet (another little box that went way outside the box) But each day since, when I’ve been at the store, I’ve realized I could be thinking and purchasing my multi-grain bread very, very differently, that tools are available now to send the messages to manufacturers with out “votes” for sustainability every time we buy a box of cereal or a carton of milk. And with those tools, I am more committed to do so.

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