Did you know that every day we experience approximately 20,000 moments (according to Nobel-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman)? A moment is defined as a few seconds in which our brain records an experience. So, as Dr. Kahneman discovered, the quality of our days is determined by how our brains recognize and categorize our moments — either as positive, negative or just neutral (although rarely do we remember neutral moments).
Have you noticed that most of our new year's resolutions center around stated behaviors, action steps, goals? It certainly makes some sense - after all, we're trying to engage in actions that are important to us. But often times, we don't ask the next set of questions. What is it we're hoping those actions will help us feel? What do we truly want to feel as we go through our lives this year?
Stop and think about it. What you're really wanting when you set a goal is a certain way of feeling. Right?
We choose to engage in certain actions and behaviors (we establish goals and intentions) because we really want to feel something specific and good. Underneath every goal is a desired feeling.
For example, one of my goals is to increase my public speaking engagements this year. Why? Just to do more speaking? I do get a lot of joy and fulfillment from public speaking! But there's a deeper issue. Because I want to feel significant. I want to feel enthralled (which comes from using my strengths in a broader setting that puts me in my "zone," my wheelhouse of abilities). I want to feel like I'm making an increasingly bigger difference in the world, in people's lives.
And as it turns out, it's our feelings that are actually the most powerful drivers behind our aspirations.
The Neuroscience Behind Feelings
Here's how: the brain pathways for emotions make their way directly to the areas that generate attention (and vice versa). In other words, the way we feel - and our choices to feel certain emotions - can powerfully direct our attention. And where we direct our attention produces that outcome - our brains automatically begin developing a map ("motor maps/action plans") for how to make that happen. Attention is what brings to life our intentions.
For example, people who are anxious are more prone to identifying anxiety-provoking or fearful things than people who are not. What's the outcome?
"What I often tell people is that when they spend their lives in dread, they are writing an invitation to the feared outcome rather than preventing it." (Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear, p. 55, by Dr. Srinivasan S. Pillay, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and executive coach)
The point is, the reverse holds equally true. When you choose to focus on positive feelings, you activate your attention which in turn activates your intention. Feelings are the most powerful drivers behind our aspirations.
My Practice of Focusing on Feeling Words
So here's what I've been doing the last few years:
Step one: I look at a list of feeling words and allow any of those words to jump out at me. Which ones are speaking to me right now? Which ones seem to be calling out to me - feelings that I'm wanting to feel more deeply than others this year? I make a list of 3-5 feeling words. If your list is longer, go through that list and keep narrowing it down until you reach 3-5.
Here's the list I use: Feeling Words
Step two: I write a one-two sentence definition of each word. By specifying a definition, I'm bringing greater clarity to why this feeling word is really resonating with me. And the more clarity I have, the more targeted and powerful my attention is and therefore the more possible my intention becomes.
Questions to ask: What does this word really mean to me? What does the word feel like? What are examples of this feeling word? Why is it valuable to me? Why do I want to feel this way this year? What is it about this word that is calling out to me?
Step three: I make a list of 3-5 accomplishments (intentions) for each feeling word that I believe if I engage in them will help me feel that way. And I like to break those intentions down like this (thanks to blogger Danielle LaPorte for this idea):
Three things I will do today to generate these feelings; Three things I will do this week to generate these feelings; Three things I will do this quarter to generate these feelings.
Step four: I share my list with several trusted people a) so I can stay focused - sharing deepens impact, and b) so I can have accountability with my process as the year goes by.
What I Want to Feel More Of in 2014
Here's the way my list turned out for 2014 (in case some of this might stimulate your creativity): MY 2014 FEELING WORDS
Every time I read my list of words, my inner spirit jumps up, I feel real positive energy inside, and hope increases as I anticipate the year. It's keeping me focused on what's most important to me. And I can already tell these feelings, and my attention on them, are driving forward my intentions.
I challenge you to do this process, too. And let me know what your feeling words are for 2014.
Looking for a Speaker or Coach?
If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for a keynote speaker or workshop teacher for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it. And interested in strengths coaching? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I read an insightful article in the Harvard Business Review last year by Kare Anderson, co-founder of the Say It Better Center and a best-selling author. The title was "What Captures Your Attention Controls Your Life." She makes this statement:
“Whatever we focus upon actually wires our neurons. For example, pessimistic people see setbacks and unhappy events as Personal (It's worst for me), Pervasive (Everything is now worse) and Permanent (It will always be this way) according to Learned Optimism author Marty Seligman. Yet, with practice, he found that we can learn to focus more attention on the positive possibilities in situations to then craft a redemptive narrative of our life story. Consciously changing what you pay attention to can rewire your brain from a negative orientation to a positive one. 'Attention shapes the brain,' as Rick Hanson says in Buddha's Brain.”
Analyzing Your Words, Phrases, and Thoughts
Have you ever spent some time analyzing what you focus your attention upon? It would be fairly enlightening to us, I'm sure, if we had someone follow us around all week long, taking notes of everything we said out loud. What would those notes say about our primary focus and orientation? Kind of a scary thought, isn't it!
Every once in a while, my wife Shasta will inform me that she hears me use certain phrases a lot, often on the negative side. One of them used to be, "This is overwhelming!"
As I thought about my use of that phrase, I could see that my focus typically was negative, pessimistic. Every time I used those words I was telling myself that my situation was beyond my capability to navigate well. I was a victim to my circumstances. It was beyond me to push through the obstacles. In effect, I was wiring my brain to see weakness and inability and scarcity. So because my brain was getting this message, it was sending that message to the rest of my body and I would always start feeling a physiological sag, too. Body follows spirit.
Whatever we focus upon does wire our neurons. Anderson's point is well made: Consciously changing what you pay attention to can rewire your brain for good. And that always impacts your whole body, as well.
Emphasizing Your Strengths Instead of Weaknesses
This is one of the reasons I love doing strengths coaching. The emphasis on strengths instead of weaknesses is very empowering.
The father of strengths psychology, Donald Clifton, began his ground-breaking work by choosing to change the question psychologists were asking about people. Instead of asking the question, "What's wrong with people?" he challenged that exclusive focus by asking, "What's right with people?" He said,
"What would happen if we focused not on pathology but on strengths, studying how people are strong, what do they do that makes them feel energized, in the zone, competent, and more fulfilled?"
With this focus, we don't ignore weaknesses. We don't pretend they don't exist. We acknowledge that every strength has a shadow side that must be brought into the light and managed. But our primary focus is on what makes us strong, our innately wired strengths and themes and talents. Focusing on that reality creates an almost limitless possibility for growth, powerful change, and life transformation.
As Anderson pointed out, attention shapes our brain. So choosing to be intentional about what we're focusing on in our lives will make a huge difference in the quality and outcomes of our lives.
Developing Your Conscious Competence
So take a few minutes to ask yourself these five questions and jot down some responses:
- What do my spoken words say about where I'm often placing my focus?
- How can I reframe my words/phrases to shape a more positive focus?
- What thoughts tend to captivate my internal attention? Are they primarily negative or positive?
- Am I a strength-oriented person or a weakness-focused person?
- Do I know what my top strengths are? And if so, how much focus do I put on them, how much intentionality in leveraging and using them more and more? What are specific ways I can step into those strengths more often and more deeply?
Answering questions like these develop what I call "conscious competence." The more aware and enlightened you are about how you're strong and what makes you strong, the greater your ability for competence and therefore for fulfillment and energy. You can't practice and develop what you don't know you have.
So next time I'm tempted to droop my shoulders in despair and sigh, "This is overwhelming!" I'm going to say instead, "This appears difficult, but I'm strong and I can find a way through!" It's a good place to begin. Followed by applying my strengths to finding a way through. That's a strong combination!
If you'd like some help going through this refocusing on strengths process, email me: email@example.com. It could be one of the more strategic decisions you make these days.
"What the country needs right now is a good hedgehog." So begins Wednesday's insightful editorial by Arianna Huffington ("Why America Is Deeply in Need of a Good Hedgehog"). Which begs the question: what is a hedgehog and why do we need one? Fox Or Hedgehog?
She references Isaiah Berlin, well-known British philosopher, who in 1953 laid out two opposing styles of leadership--foxes and hedgehogs--taking his cue from a line in an ancient Greek poem by Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
She notes: "According to Berlin, the fox will 'pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way.' In contrast, the hedgehog offers an 'unchanging, all embracing... unitary inner vision.'" The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
The Power of Focus
So why is this an important quality? There's something very powerful about focus. Recent brain science tells us that focus and attention on something you believe is possible actually prompt the brain to begin charting a path, called a motor map, toward the realization of that goal. The brain acts on the power of your focus and begins setting into place (creating) what you imagine. From your focus, it actually determines the best route that will take you to your goal.
Cultural Habits Work Against Us
So with this built-in tool to help us, why is it so difficult? We live in a culture that demands our attention every time we turn around. And we've given it 24/7 access to us through our smartphones, computers, iPads, laptops, radio, TV. I notice that when I'm working on my computer, even though I'm deeply focused on the screen with what I'm doing, my eyes wander to the 20 other tabs I have open in my browser. And before I know it, I'm browsing the latest news in those tabs. Or I hear a text come to my iPhone so I immediately look at it. Focus gone. Attention lost. And when I return to my document, I have to read again what I've already written in order to get back into focus. Time lost.
Comparing Hedgehogs and Foxes
The power of the hedgehog is its focus on the one big thing important to it. It drills down without distraction or dilution. It focuses on what it knows it does best and does it again and again.
The fox is all over the place, going really fast here and there. It's very busy and active--it has a million different ideas, scampering from one to the other. It might look to an outside observer that it's sure getting 'er done and being really successful.
But busyness isn't synonymous with effectiveness. Activity, activating, don't necessarily mean productively purposeful or purposefully productive.
So whenever the fox wants to grab the hedgehog for its next meal, attempting its million different strategies for stealth attacks, the hedgehog simply rolls into a spiky ball. And the fox ends up the loser every time.
So what is that one big important thing to you? What do you live for? What do you work for? What are you in relationships for? Is there a common thread in those life areas that would help define your "one big important" thing? What are you truly focused on? What holds your attention? What do you know you're better at than anything else? What one thing do you wish you could do more than all others? Answering those questions will help to identify your hedgehog.
All spiritual traditions through the centuries have reminded us that effective spirituality is about developing focus and attention. You could call it Hedgehog Spirituality.
I'm reminded of one of the successful spiritual luminaries in the Bible who delivered a very hedgehog-like statement: "13 I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us." (Philippians 3)
St. Paul expresses a very hedgehogian perspective. "I focus on this one thing." Remember, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. And St. Paul is choosing to stay focused on his one thing.
And to do this hedgehog-like experience, notice what he has to include: forgetting the past, and pressing on to the end goal. That's the power of focus.
Brain scientists tells us that when we focus on one thing thing (especially inspirational, positive things like hope, allowing our imaginations to hold it and savor it), our brains immediately go to work establishing neural pathways that short circuit our tendency to fear which as St. Paul describes it can keep us anchored in the past. That positive focus engages our brain centers in charge of activating our behaviors to achieve that focus goal. As St. Paul said in another place, "By beholding, we become changed."
St. Paul's choice to focus and give powerful attention empowers him to stay pressing on, even when the going gets rough and tough and discouraging. Giving focus to our One Big Thing activates our brain to keep us pushing forward.
Runners all know that when you're running a fast race like the 100 yard dash you have to keep your face pointed forward. Otherwise, the moment you look around or sneak a glance sideways or backwards, your body loses speed, easing up even a tiny bit. And that tiny bit can cost you the win.
Notice the three runners in the picture at the right. Where are they focusing? Keep your focus forward.
St. Paul's Hedgehog
I'm inspired by St. Paul's One Big Thing--that which he kept his eyes upon, what he allowed his mind to savor and attend to. God through Jesus Christ. A few verses before this, Paul refers to the faithfulness of God. Paul is motivated, his life propelled forward, by his focus on a God revealed through Jesus who is faithful, who loves him without condition, who breathes life and soul into his spirit freely and abundantly, who has a prize waiting for him at the end of his race whether he comes in first or last. Faithfulness, compassion, relentless tenderness--the big L, Love.
Imagine living your entire life with your One Big Thing as Love, the divine kind of love. Imagine how that focus and attention would empower you to show up every where you go in Love--showing up at work in Love, showing up at home in Love, showing up at the grocery store in Love, showing up in your relationships in Love, showing up in your conflicts in Love, showing up in our world of need in Love.
What would it take to make Love your One Big Thing, your hedgehog, the one thing you do better than anything else, the one thing you are keeping your face forward focusing on, leaning into, savoring? And then imagine receiving that heavenly reward from the hands of a God who has been there beside you every step of the way.
What the world needs right now is a good hedgehog!
I came across a news story from Las Vegas, Nevada several weeks ago that was quite stunning and sobering. As husband Bill James told authorities this last month, he woke up from a nap back in April and couldn't find his wife anywhere. He assumed that she had wandered away. She had recently had a mini-stroke that left her disoriented, and he worried that she had suffered another. So authorities launched a massive hunt for the woman, using sniffer dogs and even helicopters equipped with infrared to search the desert. Husband Bill even set up a Facebook page to promote the search and offered a $10,000 reward. According to the report, four months later, on August 28 the search came to a terrifying macabre ending when the husband spotted her feet sticking out from the pile of junk that filled the room in their house from floor to ceiling. She had been buried beneath a mountain of garbage and clutter in her own home. The collected clothes, trash and knicknacks in this woman's house was so extensive that the police sniffer dogs had searched the home without finding her corpse.
"For our dogs to go through that house and not find something should be indicative of the tremendous environmental challenges they faced," police spokesman Bill Cassell said.
Apparently, according to family friends, Billie Jean was a compulsive hoarder, with a passion for shopping for trinkets and clothes. One friend said that Billie Jean referred to the room where she was found as "her rabbit hole." Sari Connolly, a friend of' Billie Jean's, said she had become so obsessive in her hoarding that she kept people out of her home, even refusing to let them use the bathroom. The police spokeman told the Associated Press that the house had only small amounts of clear space so that people could get around, and that the home was filled with strong odors from animals, garbage and food. So who would think that her body would be decomposing right in her own home, a victim of her cluttered life.
Apparently, this isn't the first time this kind of terrifying story has taken place. This last May, an aging Chicago couple was trapped for two weeks after being buried in their belongings. When they were rescued, they were found to have rat bites on their bodies. In 1947, police found a body inside a Manhattan row house. Brothers Homer and Langley Collyer had filled the house with possessions, including a Model T chassis, 14 pianos and more than 25,000 books. Both brothers were found dead among the clutter.
Imagine dying underneath your own clutter - losing your life in every possible way, even before physical extinction.
I'm reminded how important it is to regularly evaluate our lives and de-clutter when necessary. Have you ever considered what kind of "clutter" you might have in your life, "junk" you might be hanging on to that is in reality extinguishing your life little by little?
Perhaps it's emotional clutter. Resentment. Guilt. Shame. Insecurity. Anxiety. Lack of confidence. Sense of failure. Anger. Addiction to conflict. The more I go through my own personal journey, and the more I work with people, the more I realize how easy it is for us to hang on to this clutter - to simply let ourselves live with these feelings or self-defeating thoughts and beliefs - to refuse to do the hard work of processing these emotions and resolving them in effective ways.
An assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, who commented on Billie Jean's tragic story, observed that people often hoard because they find it impossible to make decisions, organize themselves or focus on immediate tasks. In other words, they have the inability or lack of internal strength to address the current chaos in their lives. And ironically, all the things they end up accumulating provide a twisted kind of comfort while they're being gradually smothered to death by them.
By hanging on to our emotional clutter, we become "slaves" to our automatic reflexes, those brain functions involving conditioned feelings and thoughts (most of which, according to experts, revolve around fear, our instinctual response to perceived danger, our ego's sense of threat). And we all know that often our instinctual fear reactions are not based on reality - they're only ego survival tactics. Often when we choose to face our emotional fear, we end up discovering that there wasn't any basis to that fear or that we had the necessary strength to push through that fear-producing experience into the light of emotional freedom.
But many of us live our lives on auto-pilot, allowing these emotional clutterings to control us and corral us in self-defeating ways. And unless we de-clutter, we end up losing life bit by bit, suffocating under the load of our junk. And unfortunately, the gradual decomposition of our own lives emits a painful stench to those around us, too.
Decluttering Our Emotional Clutter
So what does it look like to declutter? What are proactive ways to declutter? Here are a few ways experts emphasize.
1. Identify your clutter. What are the negative emotions or thoughts or limiting beliefs that you are hanging on to? Are they serving you well? That is, are they helping you live a life of freedom, moving you forward toward the kind of person you want to be? Are your relationships filled with joy and hope and warmth as much as possible? Be honest with yourself. Is there a more healthy and effective way for you to live?
2. Harness your attention. According to brain experts, our natural, instinctual, first response to life tends to be fear. This is because our brains were designed to instantly activate under threat for our survival - the fight or flight response central to the amygdala, the small front part of the brain. But no longer having to live with the threat of extinction by dinosaurs or bears or lions, that instinctual brain response gets redirected toward less obvious threats - like threats to our ego survival, our sense of esteem and self-confidence - fear of being rejected or ridiculed or failure.
The problem is that we tend to allow our brains (by choosing to simply "float along") to keep stimulating our fear response when we don't need to, causing our whole physiological system to live in a high state of stress. And this constant distress damages both our minds and our bodies. No wonder it's simply easy hoarding stuff - keep everything external to distract us from our internal chaos.
Here's the way Dr. Pillay, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and brain expert, in his latest book Life Unlocked, describes the powerful way out:
"Fixing your attention stops the frontal cortex from randomly provoking the amygdala. The frontal cortex is like an electrode that can buzz the amygdala, but if we occupy it with other thoughts [positive, hopeful, honest thoughts], it will not randomly shoot current toward the amygdala. If your attention is scattered and chaotic, though, the frontal electrode will randomly activate the amygdala and cause fear. Harnessing attention allows the amygdala to react to other high-impact positive and negative emotions, and in the absence of fear, even negative emotions can feel less unpleasant. Similarly, fear can make even positive emotions feel overwrought or too activated, and we often come to regret these states of forced happiness. Thus attentional depth is critical to overcoming fear. One way to develop this depth is by using the power of intention." (p. 66)
What are you giving your attention to? Dr. Pillay is showing us that unless we intentionally direct our attention to dealing with our destructive emotions and limiting beliefs, and unless we work to resolve and let go of those feelings and thoughts, and then apply our attention to the positive outcomes and hoped for states of empowering feelings and being, we will continue to be overcome with fear. We will destroy ourselves from that fear. And we will then do whatever it takes to distract us from that debilitating fear - by hoarding or medicating or dying.
3. Choose to become a minimalist. Once you harness your attention on what needs to change and on what you want to change to, you can summon the courage to let the "clutter" go. And here's the power of it: decluttering inspires more decluttering.
Blogger Joshua Becker described the dynamics of his physical cluttering and decluttering this way:
"Clutter attracts clutter. It just takes one piece of junk mail, one article of clothing left on a chair, or one receipt not filed properly to get the clutter momentum started. What I have found over the last three weeks is that the opposite is also true. When a surface is left clean, that one piece of clutter seems out of place and calls you to put it away. Since I minimalized my office and removed all the clutter, I can’t stand the idea of leaving one piece of paper sitting on my desk – and so I put it away. Since I minimalized my wardrobe, I can’t stand the idea of leaving one shirt laying on the floor – and so I throw it down to the laundry. Since we minimalized the living room, I can’t stand the idea of leaving my shoes in the corner or a book on the table - and so I put them where they go right away."
The power of attention placed on both confronting and changing (decluttering) is exponential and transformative. Our higher brain centers are called into action and stimulated, the amygdala fear center is deactivated, and the nerve pathways toward powerful action are electrified. Positive motor skills kick in. And we begin to live the life of freedom, forward momentum, and transformation we want.
Ambrose Redmoon once wrote: "Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear."
Billie Jean, hoarding stuff in her house, never learned that truth. And finally succumbed to her clutter. A tragic lesson to the rest of us to declutter and learn how to really live life.
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This last Saturday at Second Wind we began a new series ("Applying Your Spirituality To This Week's Glocal Hot Spot") in which we're taking a very current event happening in the world and asking what the story tells us about the journey of spirituality. How does this event inform and shape our spirituality so that we develop a real-world kind of spirituality, a perspective on faith and the spiritual life that works in real life, that embraces contemporary life in a relevant way. Saturday we focused on the story unfolding in Chile with the 33 trapped miners which has already broken the record for the number of days miners have been imprisoned underground. Experts are predicting that it will be at least another 3 months before the men are able to be rescued, provided more collapses don't take place. A heartbreaking story, to say the least. Imagine if you were a family member or one of the miners. How would you be feeling? What would keep you alive and hanging on? Would you hope for a good ending, even if the possibility existed that it might not happen? Would you allow hope to set you up for a potential catastrophic disappointment? Does hope work?
The Washington Post last week reported about Jerry Linenger who was the only American on the Mir space station in 1997 when a small fire caused a crisis that left him isolated in space for four months with two Russian astronauts. Cut off from his family and facing a lot of stress, Linenger endured a period of uncertainty that provides a good parallel to what the 33 Chilean miners are facing.
The initial explosion terrified and galvanized the crew of six. After the fire, the connection between the two modules that made up the space station was cut, leaving Linenger alone with the Russians. Over the next months, the Mir lost its oxygen generator and had serious trouble with the carbon dioxide scrubber. The toilets malfunctioned, and communications broke down. But the worst aspect, Linenger said, was being led to expect something that failed to materialize.
"Expectations unmet are a horrible thing," Linenger recalled, "especially when you're already psychologically stressed. The biggest dips for me and the others is when we were told something would happen and it didn't."
Among the many examples he could point to, the one that remains raw after 13 years is when he was told he would be able to speak with his pregnant wife at a time when potentially life-threatening problems had begun to mount. "They said I could talk to her for a short time as we passed over a ground antenna near Moscow," he remembered, "and I prepared for a week. I wrote down what I would say and then crossed things off and added new ones. I was so excited. But the time came, they said she was on the line, and all I got was static. And then another emergency started and we were cut off entirely. After that, I expected nothing and was psychologically more healthy."
What do you make of Linenger's conclusion? Is it healthier to simply not hope, to not have expectations, in order to prevent disappointment?
Though I can appreciate the need to try to minimize emotional pain from loss and grief (I've gone through this many times myself), the truth is that according to recent neuroscience about brain formation and function, hope is one of the most significant brain functions to not only taking away fear but also to producing profound life transformation.
As we know, our brains were originally wired for fear responses - it was to protect humans from being gobbled up by predators - it's the basis for the fight or flight response. And according to recent research, fear is so wired into our brains that the brain actually "senses" fear-producing stimuli even at an unconscious level (before we recognize it). When something dangerous occurs outside of awareness, the conscious brain reacts to it. In other words, as experts are telling us, your brain prepares you to respond to danger faster than it does to other tasks, and it starts to respond to frightening things before you even realize they are frightening.
And unless this wiring tendency is proactively dealt with, fear always trumps everything. And when we live in fear, our stress levels stay heightened, causing us to live on increased cortisol which keeps our physical and emotional systems over-stimulated and thereby more susceptible to disease and deterioration.
I'm reading a book right now written by Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the former director of the Outpatient Anxiety Disorders Program and the Panic Disorders Research Program in the Brain Imaging Center at McLean Hospital. Dr. Pillay is writing about the recent neuroscience findings about the brain and fear and how to overcome the tendency to be paralyzed from from fear: Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear.
He says that hope is the choice to make the assumption that something is possible. Instead of allowing the facts to justify fear, we use hope to reveal new facts and remove the fears. This is precisely what people like former South African president Nelson Mandella, world-class athlete and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, and countless others have done every day. Rather than wait for their fears to disappear or for facts to back up their hope, they used hope to create new facts and reach their goals.
According to brain science discoveries, hope and fear both wander around in the unconscious parts of our brains. They both require amygdala activation, and whichever one is stronger will win the amygdala for its own use (the amgydala is the almond-shaped part of the brain, a mass of nerve cell bodies, designed to be the danger alert system, "the guard dog of the human brain." "It's so powerful and efficient that it alerts us to danger in our environment within tens of milliseconds of detecting it.").
Dr. Pillay's point is this: "To be processed by the amygdala, emotions have to stand in a queue, with their order determined by their strength - the strongest soldier gets to the front of the line. If fear is strongest, then it will grab the amygdala's power and dominate all the other soldiers in the line. If hope is stronger, then it will be preferentially processed over fear ... So we have to develop a strategy to help hope 'bulk up' and have an intelligence that supersedes the intelligence of fear. This isn't easy because, as we've learned, our brains are structured so that the amygdala processes fear first in order to protect us from danger." (p. 52-3)
This certainly explains why it's easier for us to give in to the impulse of fear instead of building hope. But it also explains why it's so important for us to choose hope, to give intentional attention to hope and what it is we're hoping for. Regularly imagining the state of life that hope is directed to. Those specific activities build up our hope response. And when we hope, says Dr. Pillay, we stimulate out brain center (amygdala) to use its mass of nerve pathways to empower our bodies to act in harmony with that hope instead of short-circuiting it with fear.
Hope isn't a naive, feel-good fantasy approach to life. It's central to using our brain structure to facilitate positive, profound life transformation. We do need fear, too. We need to feel fear to keep us from dangerous situations - we need the fight or flight response for survival. But we can't live there - we end up destroying our systems if we do. So we must "bulk up" hope. We must choose to imagine what we truly want our lives to become. We must spend time directing our attention to that picture. We must allow our emotional, rational, physiological systems to mobilize us toward that preferred future.
No wonder many of the sacred scriptures of the great faith traditions talk about hope and setting our minds and hearts on the object of our hope. "Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see." (Hebrews 11:1) Confidence. Assurance. And the rest of that chapter describes how those qualities lead to dramatic and transforming action. Maintaining that kind of hope is what empowers us to take necessary steps to bring it into reality.
It's significant that all the families of the 33 trapped Chilean miners are staying on the mining site in a tent village that they're calling Camp Hope. They are choosing to stay focused and to embrace hope. Like Elizabeth Segovia, the wife of one of the trapped miners (reported by CNN). The day before the tragic mine collapse, she received a piece of great news - she was pregnant with a girl - an ultrasound had confirmed it. The next day, her world collapsed. She cried and cried. As the weeks went by, she found herself talking to her baby girl inside her, "Daddy's okay? Daddy's okay! It's going to be alright!"
Last Thursday, Segovia got a handwritten letter from her husband Ticona proposing they name their daughter Esperanza Elizabeth -- esperanza is Spanish for hope. "First, because we never lost hope," she said, and "second, because it's the name of the camp where the families are living; and third, because the 33 miners never lost hope either."
With her daughter due to arrive in less than two weeks, and her husband due to arrive in perhaps four months, Segovia plans to make a video of the birth to ensure he doesn't miss it altogether. "We have to record the birth in great detail, as well as everything that happens to my baby day by day so we can show him," she said.
What do you need to hope for in your life? What is your preferred future? What do you need to hang on to in order to stimulate your brain center into powerful action? Where are you most fearful? Is your fear paralyzing you? Can renewed hope in you create new facts to bolster that hope and bring transformation? Esperanza. Hope. Best to hang on to it!
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[If you enjoy this blog, please SHARE it with your friends and others who might be interested. You can click in the column to the right and choose how you want to share this.] According to every spiritual tradition, we as humans, human nature, are divided – we are divided against ourselves (our truest Self), and we are divided against the Divine. This lack of unity is in fact more characteristic of our “normal” reality than our Essential unity.
Understanding this division in us is crucial to recovering our Essential Self and becoming the people we were made by God to be, where we experience the highest level of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. The process of spirituality is about recovering and reclaiming our true Self and re-connecting with God.
According to the experts, we all are seeking specific needs to be met (based upon our upbringing and subsequent woundings). And there are primary underlying feelings associated with each of those needs. This primary need with its underlying feeling is what tends to drive us and motivate us – it describes how our ego tends to manifest itself when it doesn’t get its need met. And therefore knowing this helps to give understanding about what we’re battling against and what we need to deal with in order to learn how to live out of our true Self.
OUR CHIEF EGO IMBALANCES AND DEFENSES
Let's look a bit more closely at this triangle of circles so we understand what it's describing. There are three basic needs that all of us tend to gravitate toward and seek more of: autonomy (the need to protect our "personal space," to be given our freedom, and maintain a felt sense of self), attention (the need to be validated in meaningful ways, to feel valued, to maintain a personal identity), and security (the need to find a sense of inner guidance and support, to be able to know the future clearly enough to survive and be cared for). Each circle then reveals the default response or defense mechanism that kicks in when that specific need isn't met adequately: no autonomy ... anger and aggression manifest either toward self or others; no attention ... feelings of being unvaluable, shame, a sense of being defective are manifested; and no security ... feelings of insecurity and fear emerge.
According to experts, we all experience all of these at various times, in various ways, and with varying intensities. But we tend to have a primary default - our most common, easy-to-go-to, natural defense mechanism when our primary need isn't met. These responses are the "artificial fillers" of our personality - imitations - ways we try to get our needs met that are not flowing from our Essential Self but rather from our wounded self. So rather than helping us, they actually hinder us from receiving what we really want and need. This causes the lack of internal and external unity all spiritual traditions describe human nature experiencing. So every tradition has developed various spiritual practices that help a person come to greater alignment and congruence with their True Self - tools to practice, disciplines to engage in that facilitate spiritual development toward becoming the people God designed for us to be. Spirituality, then, is the intentional process of becoming who you truly are (your Essential Self) rather than the imitation. Spirituality is about your true Self connecting with God and reaching your ultimate potential as a child of God.
APPLICATION: Circle the word in any of the three circles which you feel most protective of in your life right now, or most defensive of – your gut reaction. Which word describes what drives you the most – what you’re truly seeking and feeling as you go through life’s experiences these days.
A Contemporary Story
Let's notice how these dynamics are played out and experienced in the story Gran Torino which came out in 2008. The movie Gran Torino, starring Clint Eastwood, describes the weather-beaten yet poignant story of Walt Kowalski, an aging retired auto worker at Ford Motor Company in the now industrial graveyard of Detroit. In the beginning, the film has the feel of a requiem. Melancholy is etched in every long shot of Detroit’s decimated, emptied streets and in the faces of those who remain to still walk in them.
Sort of like Walt’s life. A veteran of the Korea War of the 1950s, Walt has been watching his “world” drastically change through the years into something he hardly recognizes much less feels a kinship with. Everything to him is falling apart all around – the neighborhood has been taken over by “aliens,” foreigners – “Chinks-Gooks-Swamp Rats” he shamelessly calls all of them, no matter what country they’re from in Asia. In reality, his neighbors are Hmong, the hill tribe people in Laos who allied with the US troops during the Vietnam war and then had to flee when the North Vietnamese took over. Many of them fled to the US and settled in communities like Walt’s. But to him, they’re still the “enemy” who don’t belong here!
He has just buried his wife and he’s basically estranged from his two sons and their families who have come to “put up” with a father and grandfather who seems crude, gruff, and uncaring. So he pretty much lives his life alone with his dog Daisy.
And alone with the central metaphor of Walt’s life, his cherished pride – a pristine 1972 Ford Gran Torino. He has invested all of his desires in this car – it represents to him the best days – the past – when life was more predictable, more secure, more unified, more white, success was everywhere, everyone had a chance to make it if you just worked hard enough. The glory days. People were patriotic then! Like he has hanging on his porch, everyone flew the Stars and Stripes to show their pride in life and country. So he pours himself into keeping his Gran Torino in spotless, perfect condition. It’s his refuge from the painful, disorienting reality of this new world. And it’s his artificial filler, his imitation self.
Interestingly enough, the writers of this movie have portrayed Walt as the Everyman who represents all of us in some ways. His ego defenses are being threatened – he’s desperately seeking SECURITY (the safe and predictable and comfortable ways of the past). But the changes in his personal life (losing his wife, estranged from his kids, and isolated from his Ford company past) and the radical changes in his environment (the gangs terrorizing the neighborhoods, the foreigners with their strange and distasteful customs who have moved in next door and up and down HIS street) have all threatened this security. So he’s reacting in FEAR – inside he’s not sure how to really cope with FEAR – so he defaults to what he knows best: prejudice, resentment, portraying a gruff, swearing, beer-guzzling, smoking hardass to everyone (including his family).
He’s also desperately seeking AUTONOMY – just leave me alone and let me live my own life! Don’t try to tell me what to do or manipulate me or try to control my future (if you’re my kids and grandkids)! Don’t encroach on my space! Get out of my yard and my life!! So he threatens his neighbors away from his yard no matter what their acts of attempted kindness and neighborliness; he threatens the gangs by pointing his Korean War U.S. Army-issued rifle in their faces; he growls and scowls at his kids and refuses to engage; he berates and castigates the local Catholic priest who keeps coming by to check on him because of a promise he made to Walt’s wife before she died. His anger pushes him and empowers him to shove everyone away.
But in very poignant ways shown in the story, Walt also seeks ATTENTION – deep inside he doesn’t want to be alone, he simply doesn’t know how to go about connecting meaningfully. He’s being driven by SHAME, which is ultimately unveiled in the movie when he finally reveals his painful war-time past. The images of killing young enemy soldiers continues haunting him like ghosts from his past. And as he gets older, he begins to realize that he’s failed as a parent, too – he’s treated his kids poorly and now he’s reaping the consequences of estrangement. He’s a prisoner to his feelings of shame and doesn’t know how to get free. So the only way he knows how to get ATTENTION is by being gruff and difficult and downright mean at times.
Walt Kowalski has built some strong, powerful defenses to his ego. He’s really alone and in slavery to his misguided attempts to experience life – he’s caught up in the only way he knows how – and in a sense, he’s simply living out his life until he dies a very lonely and angry old man. Every once in a while, he breaks into a coughing fit and begins to see blood coughed up. After finally going to a clinic for blood tests, he informed he’s dying of lung cancer. With no one really around him anymore because he’s driven them all way, he’s having to face an isolated and painful ending.
Is there any hope for a man like Walt Kowalski? Is the Gran Torino all there is? Here-in lies the power of this contemporary story, especially in light of this Season's theme of death and resurrection.
APPLICATION: So go back to the word you circled in one of the three circles. Spend a few moments reflecting on why you chose that word. What examples in your life or in your experiences illustrate that word for you? How is that word manifesting for you? What’s the “Gran Torino” in your life that you’re using to protect your ego and that represents the “safe place” or default for you?
In my next blog post, we'll take a look at what it is that ultimately brings Walt Kowalski to a kind of personal transformation and how that applies to our lives, especially in our spiritual journey of alignment and development into who we were meant to be.