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).
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. It could be one of the more strategic decisions you make these days.
So are there any spiritual vaccinations to bring protection and healing to the spiritual diseases we can fall victim to described in my last blog (10 Spiritually Transmitted Diseases)? Let me suggest several. David R. Hawkins (MD, PhD) for the last several decades has been on the leading edge of the science of behavioral kinesiology which is the study of the relationship between thoughts-feelings and muscle strength. Research repeatedly shows that our consciousness has a powerful impact on our bodies - some thoughts and feelings make our bodies go strong, others make us go weak.
If you haven't already, you can experiment with yourself and a partner. You stand erect, your right arm relaxed at your side, your left arm held out parallel to the floor with the elbow straight and both hands open. Your tester faces you and places his left hand on your right shoulder to steady you. He then puts his right hand on your extended arm just above the wrist. Now, he tells you that he is going to try to push your arm down as you resists. He quickly and firmly pushes down on the arm, just hard enough to test the spring and bounce in the arm, but not so hard that the muscle becomes fatigued. This is simply to test your basic resistance level with a neutral stimulus.
The testing continues with you holding a negative thought about yourself in your mind - what is a limited belief about yourself that you tell yourself from time to time? Think about it and the negative feelings associated with it, hold it in your mind as your partner tests your muscle strength. Repeat the testing with a positive statement about yourself that you hold in your mind. Compare the results.
The point is, our thoughts and feelings do make a powerful difference with the way our bodies respond.
Dr. Hawkins, from his extensive research, has developed what he calls a "map of consciousness" - it charts the progression of the states of thoughts/feelings from the weakest to the strongest, along with accompanying worldviews, picture of God, primary emotions, and life processes for each state.. The results are quite profound. If you click on the following Map (c), you'll see a bigger, clearer image of it.
Notice that the weakest state of thinking and feeling is shame (3rd row from the left, bottom), followed closely by guilt, apathy, grief, and on up the chart. Courage is the tipping point toward everything strong. Everything below Courage tests weak. Courage and everything above test strong.
So what does all this mean? Contemporary science is confirming what ancient science has been saying all along. Notice these ancient observations:
"Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life." (Proverbs 4:23)
"As a man thinks in his heart, so is he." (Proverbs 23:7)
All of this science is suggesting a hugely significant spiritual reality - what we think impacts our life experience. And Dr. Hawkins has mapped out the strongest kind of thoughts and feelings - courage, trust, willingness, acceptance/forgiveness, reason/understanding, love, joy, peace, enlightenment. This list, describing the attributes of a strong life, are mirrored in another piece of ancient wisdom which describes the attributes of the divine life. Notice the parallels:
"So what does living the divine life look like? God brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others (love), exuberance about life (joy), serenity (peace). We develop a willingness to stick with things (patience), a sense of compassion in the heart (kindness), and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people (goodness). We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments (faithfulness), not needing to force our way in life (gentleness), able to marshal and direct our energies wisely (self-control)." (Galatians 5:22-23)
According to both contemporary and ancient science, the process of life transformation involves choosing to reflect upon, contemplate, think about these powerful, divine-like traits and qualities. The very act of spending time thinking about them brings about spiritual growth and change. This is one of the primary vaccinations against the spiritually transmitted diseases I talked about in my last post.
Here's the way another piece of ancient wisdom describes this spiritual vaccination:
"Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on the divine life. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize this divine reality, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you." (Romans 12:2)
Vaccination one is to make the choice to fix our attention on the strongest qualities and attributes and thoughts and feelings in life possible. Look at that list often. Repeat it to yourself often. The very process of doing that, says Dr. Hawkins and scripture, begins to transform our thinking and feeling which in turn makes our bodies strong.
One of the ways I've done this lately is to repeat these attributes of the divine life in my prayers, going over and over each quality in my mind and heart, asking for the divine spirit to grow that "fruit" in my life. It's kind of a targeted prayer and meditation that helps to keep me focused, to fix my attention on the strength and power of the divine life. You and I can exercise our ability to choose, our willingness to experience transformation by how we direct our thoughts and feelings.
Dr. Hawkins describes the dilemma of the human struggle as well as the antidote to it in this statement: “The world of the ego is like a house of mirrors through which the ego wanders, lost and confused, as it chases the images in one mirror after another. Human life is characterized by endless trials and errors to escape the maze. At times, for many people, and possibly for most, the world of mirrors becomes a house of horrors that gets worse and worse. The only way out of the circuitous wanderings is through the pursuit of spiritual truth … At first, spiritual purification seems difficult, but eventually, it becomes natural. To consistently choose love, peace, or forgiveness leads one out of the house of mirrors. The joy of God is so exquisite that any sacrifice is worth the effort and seeming pain."
And this process leads to vaccination two. Here again contemporary and ancient science provide us with a profound and powerful transformation process.
In 1665 a Dutch Physicist and Scientist named Christian Huygens discovered what is now known in physics as the principle of entrainment. It was during his research with pendulum clocks that Huygens noted the new physics concept. He found that when he placed two of them on a wall near each other and swung the pendulums at different rates, they would eventually end up swinging at the exact same rate. They fell into rhythm with one another. He realized that this concept applied to not just pendulum clocks, but as a basic law of physics: the tendency for two oscillating bodies to lock into phase so that they vibrate in harmony. It's easier and takes less energy for systems to work in cooperation than in opposition. So the powerful rhythmic vibrations from one source will cause less powerful vibrations of another source to lock into the vibration of the first, stronger source.
Entrainment happens all around us, all the time. It's like Newton's Law of Gravity. It just is. It occurs biologically, such as when women who spend a lot of time together find their moon cycles synchronizing. It occurs sociologically such as when people in the same cliques or communities or social groups dress and think similarly. It happens mechanically, like all of the grandfather clock pendulums in a clock shop swinging together in unison after a few days, even if they started off unsynchronized. It can be found on emotional levels too, such as what happens when you walk into a room full of people who are laughing and light-hearted and your mood magically lifts to match theirs. Even our brain waves follow this physics principle. It happens when people are subjected to certain stimulus and their brain frequencies shift to calmer states.
Here's the power of this principle when it comes to our spiritual lives. An ancient scripture describes it this way:
"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all contemplate the attributes of the divine life, are being transformed into that likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3:16-18)
When we deliberately and intentionally place ourselves in the presence of the divine life, as well as in the presence of those qualities being lived out in others, when we acknowledge our connection to God and reflect on the divine life and spend time in environments that reflect those qualities, we the weaker of the two energy sources are drawn into greater and greater synch with the stronger Energy which is God. The result is increasing transformation into a likeness of the divine life. The principle of physics results in profound spiritual growth. The Spirit increases our freedom to become more and more of who are designed to be.
So how's your vaccination history? Time for some more healthy antidotes?
It's so easy for me to allow my thinking to get lazy and distracted - to make an almost automatic choice to allow negative and unhealthy thoughts take over - to let my limiting beliefs about myself and others be my default mode. But the good news is that life is like standing on the train station - our thoughts are the various trains set to leave the station to their destination. When a negative trigger happens in our lives, and our automatic response tends to be to get on that negative train thought, you and I have the choice whether or not to get on the train. We can actually let that train pull away from the platform without us. We can instead choose to get on another more healthy train. And when we make that significant choice, the ride ahead is much more enjoyable - for ourselves and for the others in our lives.
So here's to getting vaccinated! And here's to getting on a good train for a good ride into the divine life!
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We all read about it in the news last Monday. Many of us saw the video. Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, 31, a Guatemalan immigrant who went to New York City in order to help his family back home, made his living as a day laborer, and when the economy crumbled, so did his job prospects. He wound up homeless, first living in shelters and then finally on the streets. A grainy surveillance video trained on a street in Jamaica, Queens, on April 18 captured the final moments of Mr. Tale-Yax’s life: A couple argues, Mr. Tale-Yax comes to the woman’s aid, the man stabs him in the stomach and runs away.
The video has made headlines across the globe, not just for its brutality, but for the indifference it seems to convey. It shows Mr. Tale-Yax lying face down for more than an hour on a sidewalk on 144th Street, near 88th Road, his life slipping away on the pavement as dozens of people walk past him. Over an hour later, the paramedics arrive to find him lying in a pool of his blood. They pronounce him dead at the scene.
I would be curious to interview the 2 dozen or more people who walked past Hugo as he lay there on the street Monday evening. What did they notice? Anything unusual or just another New York City scene? If they did notice, what did they feel or think as they saw him? Did they immediately assume he was simply another drunk passed out on the street corner? Or they did see him as one of "those" illegal immigrants who shouldn't be here and doesn't deserve the City's help? Did they simply not know he was in any trouble? Did they perhaps naturally or even unconsciously ascribe the whole scene to a normal urban landscape - it's just the way it is here in the City? Did they notice something wrong but assume someone else would call it in to 911? Were they busily on their way to an appointment so they couldn't take the time to stop? Were they afraid to get involved (after all, here in the City even good samaritans get hurt - this story is a good example of that danger)?
Why would over 24 people walk by a hurt and dying man without even stopping? Makes you wonder, doesn't it. What might you have done?
His brother Roland refused to watch the video when he was first told a tape existed, but found he could not avoid it on the local news. He was in shock, he said, that nobody helped his brother.
"Any animal that is hurt on the street, the city or anybody walking by goes to rescue it. But in this case, he saved this woman's life, and where was the conscience of the people around him?" Rolando Tale-Yax said. "They have to realize that it could be a member of their family who is the next victim. … I just hope it doesn't happen again."
Perhaps this sad and tragic story provides some insight as to significant steps you and I can take to act more compassionately as a general life style.
One, change indifference. Contrary to popular opinion that indifference is simply at the core of who we are as humans - it's evidence of our fallen nature - original sin - so we'll sometimes say, "Oh well, it's just the way we are - we're wired for indifference" - recent research shows otherwise.
In reality, there is actually a biological basis for compassion. There is a specific part of our brain that is wired for a compassion response. Experiments with both mothers with their babies and people presented with images of victims of suffering showed similar neurological reactions. The region of the brain associated with positive emotions literally lit up. "This consistency strongly suggests that compassion isn't simply a fickle or irrational emotion, but rather an innate human response embedded into the folds of our brains," writes Dacher Keltner, PhD , a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
The good news is that an attitude of indifference can therefore be radically changed. It's not in fact who we are as humans. We don't have to shrug our shoulders in a spirit of resignation. We can do something about it.
Two, practice compassion. Recent neuroscience studies suggest that positive emotions are less heritable—that is, less determined by our DNA—than the negative emotions. Other studies indicate that the brain structures involved in positive emotions like compassion are more "plastic"—subject to changes brought about by environmental input. So, as Dr. Keltner observes, "we might think about compassion as a biologically based skill or virtue, but not one that we either have or don't have. Instead, it's a trait that we can develop in an appropriate context."
This is why all of the major religious traditions in the world see compassion as a spiritual practice. And each tradition has developed ways to practice this trait. And here again, the latest neurobiological research shows that our bodies have a built in system to facilitate this practice.
For example, helping others triggers activity in the portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. Every compassionate act causes a pleasurable physiological response. In addition, behaviors associated with compassionate love—warm smiles, friendly hand gestures, affirmative forward leans—actually produce more oxytocin in the body which is the hormone that promotes feelings of warmth and connection to others. This suggests compassion may be self-perpetuating: being compassionate causes a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate. So the more we practice acts of kindness and compassion to others, the more we are rewarded for it and the easier the skill becomes. Transformational spirituality is a practice, a discipline, a developing of ourselves into who we were designed to become.
Three, develop mindfulness. As Mr. Tale-Yax's tragic story indicates, people are often so caught up in their own lives (for whatever reasons) that they don't notice or pay attention. I've seen this in myself at times: I'm walking along the city streets often caught up in my own internal world of thoughts, planning, projections, inner conversations, trying to get some place in a hurry, that I really am missing most of what's around me. If someone would suddenly stop me and quiz me about what I had seen in the last 10 minutes, I would stutter and stammer somewhat incoherently (except about the details of my inner conversations).
One of the key spiritual practices that so many traditions suggest is mindfulness - the ability to step into the present moment - to be truly aware and conscious right now. This, too, is a skill that needs to be cultivated. Try walking somewhere and paying attention to what's around you - what do you hear, see, smell, feel? Try more meditation at home - spend time sitting and becoming more aware of your self, your heart, your body. Widen that attention to what's around you. Really notice.
Four, use empathy. Hugo's brother Roland made the painful observation that if people would simply recognize that the suffering person could be a member of their own family, they would probably respond differently - be more proactive with their compassion. He's describing the use of empathy. The power of empathy is the choice to put ourselves in other people's shoes, to enter their space for a moment, in order to try to understand what they're going through. It's often begins by asking ourselves the simple question, How would I feel - what would I want - if I were in that situation right now? But then it always goes beyond to the next question, What is that person feeling or really wanting or needing? Though our personal responses might differ from that suffering person's, research indicates that the choice to enter into empathy actually helps to motivate altruistic behavior.
Four tangible and siumple ways to overcoming indifference and stepping into compassion. I'm not completely sure how I would have responded last Monday evening had I been walking along the sidewalk where Huge Alfredo Tale-Yux lay dying. I would hope I would've at least stopped to see if he was alright. I really hope I would've also gone beyond that simple step and gotten whatever help I could for him to save his life. Imagine living in a world where people practiced compassion so often that they became really adept at it - a world where indifference was an anomaly rather than the rule. It's time to unleash the powerful biology of our lives and let our true wiring go wild. For the Hugo Alfredo's of the world.